Western civilisation is founded on the premise that education and information are the keys to growth and development. That has served us well over many years. Ignorance is a scourge and the source of many evils, and knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, has brought us untold and unimagined wealth – material and otherwise. The history of medical science is littered with examples of ignorance dispelled by scientific discovery – the development of the germ theory just 150 years ago is one of the best.
Today, the onward progress of knowledge, understanding and discovery continues apace, particularly in the field of technology, where the digital age is really only just beginning. We can communicate instantly with anyone in the world (and beyond), we can land fridge-sized spacecraft on distant comets, 300 million miles away, with a precision no one could have imagined just a few decades ago. Medical and scientific technologies are bringing extraordinary possibilities for the human race, and more are promised.
Some of the most intractable challenges and problems seem to continue with a stubbornness that leaves us frustrated and confused – in spite of all the above. They seem to deride and mock us, daring us to deal with them just as we did with all those infectious diseases and public health catastrophes of yesteryear.
But they are not primarily physical, material matters, easily amenable to physical, material remedies. They include such issues as global crime, corruption and exploitation; global warming (caused by the very technologies that brought us the advances of modern civilisation); regional conflicts rooted in both ancient and recent prejudices, seemingly intractable to resolution; societal fractures and frustrations, including loss of community and purpose; a sense of anomie, meaningless and loss of direction; right down to interpersonal and intrapersonal issues such as relational conflicts and the epidemics of loneliness, anxiety, stress and depression. The list goes on and on….
What do these evils have in common? Well, they are not at root material matters at all, although they certainly have material consequences. Their commonality seems to be to do with the human person, human choices, attitudes and actions. We seem to be able to control and manipulate the material world much better than the human world, that is, human society and relationships. That’s where so much of our conflict, confusion and pain arise. And all the recent wellbeing research indicates that lasting and profound happiness and satisfaction emerge more from relational health and a sense of meaning and purpose than all the material wealth our societies can afford.
So what’s the answer? Where do we find it? Through more data, more information? Yes, of course. We need to know and understand what makes us tick. More education? Yes again – we need to help each other grasp the issues. More technology? Hmm, maybe, but can machines and other aids lead us into the realms of wisdom and character that we need to tackle the pressing human problems? More money? Well, that’s a mixed blessing. It’s a great servant, but a very poor master. And the drivers here surely need to be human again, not ‘economic’, or ‘the market’, whatever that may mean (and they are driven by people after all!).
I mentioned wisdom and character just now. I would suggest that these, more than information and technology will be better guides for us over the coming years, in the human domain. Knowledge is not wisdom, and technology and skills are not character. We can know everything there is to know about disease, addiction, medical science, anthropology, sociology and psychology – but none of these will of themselves take us through. People need to practice other disciplines, like self-awareness, self-mastery, empathy and wisdom in order to grow healthy relationships and find meaningful lives. Where is that to be found? In science? Yes, perhaps. In technology? Not really. But there are other sources of wisdom in this world.
So where do you get your wisdom and character from? What kind of wisdom and character is it, and is there anyone you could go to, to find some more?