Contributions to Self Clarity, Wholeness, & Health

Chapter 1: A New Understanding of Nature


We need a new way of understanding nature. The old ways, based on supernaturalism, are insupportable and no longer command belief. The way of modern science is powerful and wonderfully informative in some ways, but it is one-sidedly focused on material and mechanistic aspects of nature.

We need a new way of understanding nature, because our civilization based on supernaturalism and science is winding down. This civilization, which began about the time of Plato, some 2500 years ago, was born out of disillusionment with the polytheisms of the early city-states. In those religions the gods were not thought of as remote from human beings but as readily accessible and an available source of advice, mainly through dreams. But during the first millennium BCE, educated persons began to face the fact that the gods were not literally real. And if that were so, they were left without that source of advice.

This had the effect of throwing people on their own mental resources. This was not a comfortable position, since it is obvious that much of what we need to know is not available to us through ordinary means.

The effect of this was to pose a problem — how to know what to do, or how to know how to find out what we need to know in order to know what to do.
Thus, around 500 BCE new ideologies arose in China, India, Persia, Palestine, and Greece — problem-oriented ideologies centered on the general problem just stated. In the West this led to Western philosophy, theology, and science, all devoted to solving problems.

There is no doubt that this problem-oriented attitude has resulted in very great intellectual productivity and the actual solution of many problems. However, there is, we might say, a problem about the problem-oriented culture. A problem is a particular puzzle to be solved — a question. The custom of beginning with a question focuses attention on particular features of a situation, singled out from reality or experience in general. Solving the problem is answering the question about that particular combination of features and translating that answer into practice. Modern science and technology have made a fine art of this.

But the key to success in solving problems is the exclusion of other considerations from the puzzle. And that exclusion results in systematic ignorance as to the effects of implementing the solution other than those accounted for in the problem and the solution — the notorious side effects.

Thus we get the effect that has often been noted: solving a problem generates other problems. In recent times we have often seen that the conditions produced by the solutions to problems are more serious than the problems that were solved. And often they are of a sort that cannot readily be formulated as other problems. Consequently, we substitute for those unformulable “problems” more manageable problems of a more restricted and focused sort, thinking that in solving them we may “solve the problem”, that is, remove the harm that resulted from solving the first problem. This, however, is not a likely outcome for the same reason, namely that the side effects are unknown until they appear.

For these reasons I say that our culture of the last 2500 years has run its course and cannot continue much longer, is indeed crumbling bit by bit. When solving problems generates more problems than it solves, problem solving has become unworkable.

But is there any other way? The key to this question is the distinction between attitudes and policies. Policies are like problems: they are focused on particular features of reality or experience — do this under these conditions. And policies result from solving problems, whereas attitudes result from a way of understanding the world and particular situations.

Attitudes have more effect than policies. Policies are psychologically shallow — oriented to particular situations. Attitudes, at least those that result from a general conception of the world and of human life, are psychol¬ogically deep. They govern the broad character of behaviour. When deep attitud¬es are inconsistent with policies, the attitudes determine behaviour in ways that subvert the policies. Imagine a government that has a policy of encouraging and facilitating small business; but suppose that the politicians forming that government conceive their best personal interests as lying in associating with the rich and powerful. They may intend to facilitate small business, but their actual measures are likely to be such as to facilitate big business and make life more burdensome for small businesses.

Many people are concerned about the environment and mean to be acting so that they are not contributing to its unsustainability. But their desire for the luxurious life of the middle class in wealthy countries is greater than their desire for a sustainable environment; consequently, they continue to contribute to its unsustainabilitiy. Attitudes have more effect than policies.

What will replace our dying culture of the last 2500 years? What will the new phase of Western culture, or world culture, be? We must either build a new one or see governance deteriorate into the rule of warlords and brigands. I propose replacing the preoccupation with problems and their solutions with a preoccupation with cultivating the best attitudes. (This does not mean that we would never concern ourselves with solving problems, but that solving problems would not be the central preoccupation of the culture.)

And how are we to know what the best attitudes are? If attitudes result from an understanding of the world, the most adequate attitudes may be expected to result from the deepest and truest understanding of the world.

And that is why I say we need a new way of understanding nature.