The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

26 May 2011

Unity is our essence

At the same time, however, the relationship to the world that ... modern science fostered and shaped now appears to have exhausted its potential. It is increasingly clear that, strangely, the relationship is missing something. It fails to connect with the most intrinsic nature of reality and with natural human experience. It is now more of a source of disintegration and doubt than a source of integration and meaning. It produces what amounts to a state of schizophrenia: Man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being.—Vaclav Havel

It is becoming clear to almost anyone who thinks critically about it that science as we have long understood it is no longer equipped to address the challenges of the future. This is not to say that researchers and innovators in laboratories around the world may never come up with a carbon-neutral replacement for gasoline or a safe way to dispose of nuclear waste, or that the age of medical breakthroughs is behind us. But the notion of traditional science as the dynamo of something called "progress" feels pretty much used up. Utopian visions of societies operating justly and efficiently on the ball bearings of technology are artifacts of the past, and there isn't a school child alive who doesn't see that the old mechanistic ideas of scientific thought are as responsible for our current crises, human and environmental, as they were useful in eradicating the pestilences of old.

We are in the midst of an unmistakable evolution of consciousness toward higher orders of compassion, cooperation, and love. This statement may seem willfully foolish given the intractable woe that exists everywhere, be it warfare, displacement, human trafficking, state-sanctioned rape, mass poverty, or any of the other countless horrors around the globe. Yet life is governed by laws of polarity, and the more monstrous humanity behaves, the more urgent becomes its need and response. The rise in a collective movement toward compassion is inspired in part by the crises of sustainability we as a race and a planet face. As populations grow and the biosphere depletes, as resources dwindle and distorted power structures appear to exploit them, people in every part of the world are waking up to the failure of the old systems and the imperative for a new way based on different values.

In this regard, the age of science as both ideology and faith must give way to something more humanistic and humane. Science as a model for how to engage and steward life has proven fatally flawed. Instead of empiricism's simplistic cosmology of predictable and controllable cause and effect, we live in a world of chaos, collateral damage, and unintended consequences. There are those who still believe human intellect, with the aid of supercomputers and nuclear microscopes, can think its way out of the labyrinth of life's ever-creative repertoire of complexity. Beside them, however, is an ever-growing movement turning instead to the intelligence of the heart, our remarkable fist-sized blood pump which is also the seat of our courage, kindness, and boundless power of love.

None of what I have written is in any way a repudiation of science per se, nor a turning away from its core value of discovery. Nor are the sentiments of Vaclav Havel, in the address quoted at the top of this post. This extraordinary speech, given in Philadelphia on Independence Day, July 4, 1994, was a prescient early expression of the awareness that has grown in the seventeen years since he spoke. I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended," Havel said that day. "Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out, and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were rising from the rubble.”

The thing "rising from the rubble" is a greater understanding of the connection between observation and being, scientific law and human integrity, existence and love. "Inspiration for the renewal of [our] lost integrity," Havel said, "can once again be found in science, in a science that is new—let us say postmodern—a science producing ideas that in a certain sense allow it to transcend its own limits."

The idea that such a science is at hand forms the foundation for Tom Shadyac's documentary I Am. The film chronicles Shadyac's exploration of the new paradigm, conducted through interviews with leading intellectuals, scientists, and writers. By the end, the director discovers that, indeed, the world's great wisdom traditions had it right—we are all connected, and our connectedness is at the heart of our humanity. He sets his course not by religion or philosophy, however, but by conclusions gained from quantum physics, neuropsychology, evolutionary biology, environmental studies, and noetic science, the emerging study of the interface of consciousness and matter.

Shadyac begins by going back to Darwin, whose concepts of natural selection were popularized to assert the influence of competition  over caring, a claim that was quickly extended into the spurious realm of "social Darwinism." Darwin made no such cultural claims himself, and many after him have observed that successful mutual aid among animals and humans is as much a definition of "fitness" as individual dominion. The idea that humans are wired as much to cooperate as compete has been bolstered by the discovery of mirror neurons, tiny brain receptors that make empathy possible, and the action of the vagus nerve (actually a pair of nerves) which, when we witness an act of kindness, releases oxytocin, a hormone related to nurturing and orgasm.

Shadyac ups the ante when he visits the Institute of HeartMath, a research organization that has, through controlled experiments, amassed evidence that the heart truly is one of the body's centers of intelligence. One of the film's memorable moments comes when the director's negative emotions apparently cause a dish of yogurt to emit its own negative feedback. It's the humorous illustration of a serious point, that emotions are physiological as well as psychological, and that kind thoughts alone can impact the behavior of others. I Am evokes the notion of quantum entanglement—the fact that atoms at an infinite distance react to certain stimuli simultaneously—to demonstrate the level at which all living stuff is quite literally connected. There is no separation, not of distance or time; in tracking the inert element argon, a part of earth's atmosphere, scientists have even concluded that we all breath the same air, and have since time out of mind. 

The conclusion is inescapable: unity is our essence. This idea is supported by a growing weight of fact, and to believe it is no longer the stance of the dreamer, but of the enlightened thinker. This is Shadyac's conclusion and his film's manifesto. The movie ends by asking how we can change society; the answer: through a change in consciousness. Knowledge is transformational. Shifts in awareness produce changes in attitude. The process is natural and inevitable.

Here is where the artist becomes key. Artists, with their ability to express the subtlest and most complex truths, are called now to the forefront of the new consciousness, called to clarify, to illuminate, and to express. What is "art for art's sake" beside this vocation? The Dalai Lama, asked to name the most important meditation of our age, answered, "critical thinking followed by action." More persuasive than propaganda, this is how art will change the world. 

Michelangelo, Phaeton, British Museum
Vaclav Havel, c. 1990, Council of Europe


Antares Cryptos said...

The problem isn't "modern science". The problem is caused by modern ideologies that are using science based on how profitable it is rather than how beneficial.

Havel was in a unique position as writer and politician.

susan t. landry said...

timothy, this is such a strong statement, your beautifully thought out and articulated reaction to what sounds like a powerful fim.
i agree, that it is via art and artists...and i interpret that broadly... that we may hope to find a collaborative and redemptive center.

great to read a new post by you--and with such provocative ideas.

all best,


PS: i did have to giggle [forgive me; i am an editor, so...] at your perhaps subconscious misspelling: giving a spin of artful surreality to the good man of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, twirling his moustache in meditation, ala Dali!

Timothy Cahill said...

Dear AC, Thanks for your comment. If we accept Havel's definition of a "modern" age that has passed, I'm not sure we can separate the scientific method from the scientism that defined "modern science." The first wave of modern science was borne on the back of the Industrial Revolution; questions of profit are in its blood, if not its DNA.

Timothy Cahill said...

Hi Susan, I don't write reviews anymore, but if I did I'd highly recommend I AM to anyone. I interpret art and artists both narrowly and broadly, to honor those who truly merit the designation, and include the rest whose contributions are of no less interest or value.

I wish I could claim some interesting subconscious agenda for my misspelling of the Dalai Lama, but it was just one of those lapses one blogs with at his own peril. Thanks for the poke.

Marylinn Kelly said...

As the muted voices of our hearts become stronger, as we become, through our intuition and simple knowing, wiser and far more flexible, I see hope for us. Science for profit is no different than any other commercial venture...perhaps what I love most about life is the mystery...and that not all science, as not all art, has any other purpose than to look, to be, asking questions which may or may not have answers.

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