PROBLEM: WE'RE EVOLVING TECHNOLOGICALLY,
“What’s wrong with the world today?”
We could attack this question from multiple perspectives – the economic, the political, the cultural, the philosophical, and so on.
But one thing most of us can probably agree on:
We seem to be evolving technologically,
but devolving psychologically.
Or more simply:
Our technology is outpacing our wisdom.
Humanity has computers and smartphones, air-conditioning and central heating, dishwashers, and clothes dryers. We can fly across the world in hours, vacation in outer space, and watch televisions as big as minivans. We have faucets and water fountains that turn on and off without having to touch handles, squeezable ketchup bottles, and car doors that close themselves.
All of these are fine.
We have plenty of gadgets, devices, and tools.
We seem to be doing pretty well with technology.
But something much bigger seems seriously off.
We seem to be doing worse in areas that are infinitely more important.
It’s like a table full of condiments, but no main course.
Our focus over the past few centuries has been more on outer development than inner development.
This claim might be hard to measure objectively and scientifically. (In fact, the need “to measure, objectively and scientifically” itself – and the tendency to denigrate everything else that can’t be measured easily – might well be a symptom of the condition itself.)
But most of us sense it. Anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicide rates are up and have been going up for decades. Our politics today (2022) can seem like funhouse-mirror carnivals of insanity. We seem to be getting crazier, less civil, and more inclined to hate each other.
What’s going on?
One step in the right direction might lie in trying to state the problem clearly.
Some have described the basic problem like this:
Man’s rapidly increasing control over natural forces
holds out prospects of material achievements that are dazzling;
but unless this increased control of material power
can be matched by a great moral and spiritual advance,
it threatens the catastrophic breakdown of human civilization.
Consequently, the need was never so urgent as now
for a synthesis of the kind of understanding
to be gained through various ways
– scientific, philosophical, and religious
– of seeking truth.
- W. H. Thorpe and H. Diamond, Cambridge
The above was written around 1960.
We can only imagine what they’d say today.
We know a great deal about all things external, objective, and “scientific,” but seemingly less and less about ourselves.
T. S. Eliot said this back in 1934:
Where is the wisdom we’ve lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we’ve lost in information?
He seemed to be aware of the same basic predicament.
We seem to have an overabundance of something, but we’ve lost, or seem to be losing, something else.
What is that “something else”?
We might not be able to pin it down directly, but we can see indirect symptoms of it.
It could mean better special effects, but weaker stories. It could mean having more ways to say things, but less to say. It could mean faster ways to get places, but less enjoyment of wherever we are. It could mean an overload of “standing up for our beliefs,” but less understanding of what we actually believe or why we believe it. It could mean more cyborg robo-mates and one-way relationships with media personalities, but less of an ability to relate to other real human beings. We can access tons of information without knowing which information is worth accessing, what to do with it once we do. As Eliot described, we can have a flood of useless knowledge, but a scarcity of – to use an old-fashioned word – “wisdom.”
We could call it “The Dorian Gray Problem” after the Oscar Wilde story of the young man who stayed physically handsome and youthful on the outside, while – as depicted by his portrait – he disintegrated on the inside.
The movie Wall-E portrayed humans living in a technological utopia and psychological dystopia. It was a setting of highly advanced technology – technology that was created to serve only the most basic human appetites while ignoring our higher capacities, as if the point of life was mere creature comforts.
That might be the basic problem, in a nutshell.
If a dishwasher allows someone to spend time in a way that makes life richer and fuller, then the dishwasher is a good thing. But if the price for relief from the trouble of washing dishes is inner peace, then the cost is too high. It’s an unprofitable exchange. Compensation – the act of filling an existential void with the nearest physical equivalent – trades physical comfort for inner discomfort. Better to wash dishes happily than to avoid washing miserably. If the result is inner desolation, a creature comfort can be a sorry consolation prize.
The trick, it seems, isn’t to avoid dishwashers. It’s to avoid the temptation to make condiments into the main course. The mistake lies in playing the game of hide-and-seek with happiness, and being fooled into thinking that happiness is hiding just beyond the reach of mundane chores.
There’s something in us that can’t be satisfied with creature comforts. When we forget that, we thrust background extras into lead roles. We try to serve mustard as a main course. Everyone winds up simultaneously overfed but still hungry. We invite trouble when we ask things to perform jobs they’re thoroughly incapable of performing and were never meant to perform. A dishwasher was never meant to be the solution to the problem of happiness. A minor convenience isn’t the answer to life itself.
The real problem is human nature.
But we might imagine that human nature just constantly improves.
We sometimes assume that progress is inevitable in all areas, including even our personal lives.
After all, computers and phones seem to keep getting bigger, better, faster, stronger. Don’t people work the same way?
Doesn’t humanity evolve?
Aren’t we all heading toward a New Age, a utopia, a state of total enlightenment, an Age of Aquarius?
Evolution doesn’t just move in one simple, linear direction.
Biologists don’t describe evolution as having a straightforward, linear path. Like love, it seems to be a course that “never did run smooth.”
As they describe it, mutations are the engine of evolution.
But most mutations are selected for extinction. Most attempts at “progress” in evolution end in failure.
Technology “evolves,” clearly. But even technology is based on multiple experiments and trial-and-error, most of which ends in error and gets discarded. The classic example is Edison failing hundreds or thousands of times to invent a functional light bulb before finally solving it. Alfred Nobel said, “If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied.”
So, we might imagine every step we take in our own lives as “progress.” A stout and sturdy seed of hope seemed baked into our bones.
But if we’re walking in the wrong direction, we’re getting further from our goal. “Hope” works against us there. What we think is “progress” can be the opposite. What feels like progress might actually be regress.
When it comes to human nature, things seem able to go either way.
We don’t necessarily and automatically get wiser and better with age.
Humans seem to stand less on an escalator to heaven than at a crossroad.
When we’re young, we might see ourselves as a promising future star, headed for glory. Sometimes that works out. But other times, promising young future stars with a genuine potential for greatness start a heroin habit, or buy into some radical and senseless political ideology, or make a few terrible decisions. It’s possible to grow or devolve. We humans seem to have the potential to go either way. Human stories are both comedies and tragedies – Airplane, Caddyshack, and Monty Python or Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet. Each of us can live out a genre.
Our view here depends on our basic understanding of human nature itself.
We could describe the problem as “Hobbes versus Rousseau.”
Hobbes defined the most basic state of humanity as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” According to this model, hope lies in moving (“evolving”) away from that original state and toward something better in the future.
Rousseau, on the other hand, defined the humanity as a “noble savage.” We were originally pure, innocent, and happy – but then we lost it. Paradise, Eden, nirvana, the Golden Age was forgotten, lost, corrupted, or became a place we got ourselves banished from. The memory of this lingers, and haunts us. According to this model, hope lies in moving back toward that original state and recovering something profoundly valuable that vanished in the distant past.
So, which is it?
Is the right direction “forward” – or, if we’re heading in the wrong direction, “back”?
Is the solution to risk what we have now for the hope of progress, or to conserve the good we have now in the hope of not losing it?
This seems to be our plight. Our situation can be so dire that we can hardly even articulate the nature of the problem, much less agree on the solution to it. We can hardly seem to decide whether we should move “forward” or “backward.”
So, is there hope?
Sure there is.
Both the Hobbes and Rousseau models seem to agree that there is a problem, and a need to solve it. And the problem isn’t a lack of gadgets, pleasant distractions, or crazy ideologies. The problem seems to be human nature itself.
In this sense, the best way to frame the problem doesn’t seem to be regarding time. “The answer” doesn’t necessarily lie in “the future” or in “the past.” It’s not a matter of time. The problem – and the answer, it seems – is perennial.
Even recognizing and clarifying the problem is an important step.
OK, so then what?
To circle back to where we started, part of the problem was that we’d been focused on external progress while neglecting our inner progress.
The risk – if these dynamics would continue to play out to an extreme – would be a scene of advanced technology in the hands of simpletons. Images come to mind of cavemen with iPhones, teenagers playing with real-world military drones as if they’re video games, toddlers playing with blocks and also launching nuclear weapons. We could become so focused on artificial intelligence that we forget about non-artificial intelligence (otherwise known as just plain old “intelligence.”)
We could keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing and expecting different results. We could keep hoping that more technology, apps, gadgets, trips to Mars, and so on might finally be “IT”. We could even hope we’ll invent external, objective solutions that could somehow fix internal, subjective problems.
Or, we could move in a different direction.
So, if more technology isn’t the answer, what is?
If the problem is our outer development outpacing our inner development, the answer isn’t to slow down our work in technology.
It’s for the other side of the equation to catch up.
This means revving up our inner development.
But what would that even mean?
This lands us squarely at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, cognitive science, anthropology, religion, spirituality, and other fields.
These areas often seem to be ignored while the others get headlines and trumpets. Technology makes trillions, and uses those trillions to make more trillions, while the rest is barely scraping by.
That might make things seem bleak. If it’s correct, progress in our work in the direction of external, objective technology will just continue to thrive while progress in our work on our selves will continue to starve.
But things change.
After all, the major spiritual, religious, and philosophical traditions all agree that there is good reason for hope.
That said, most of these areas – philosophy and spirituality and so on – have existed for centuries. To many, it seems that the conversation has gone stale. It might all seem like speculation or mere matters of taste – so in that sense, unlike technology, work in these areas doesn’t go anywhere.
Has there been any genuine “progress” in these areas?
Is there such a thing as “inner technology”?
Again, answers here are often all over the map. Much of this territory is unexplored.
That said, at least one thing is clear: we don’t have any choice. We have to figure it out.
Even the answer, “There is no answer!” is a form of answer.
But another thing is also clear.
We’re living in a time of great danger and great opportunity.
For the first time in history, the entirety of the world’s philosophical and spiritual traditions is now practically at our fingertips.
The challenge lies in making sense of it: seeking out the best nuggets of practical wisdom these have to offer, gathering them up, and making them accessible in ways that are practical and useful. The opportunity lies in making use of the best-of-the-best of these areas. The challenge lies in putting these insights to work in ways that can offer clarity and strength in ways that actually make a difference in our everyday lives.
But if we’re able to get a handle on this, the possibilities can be inspiring.
Right now, in many ways, the intersection of science and spirituality (the root of the word “psychology” is psyche and logos, or “science of the soul”) – is still in its infancy.
More than a few professionals argue that psychology, as it’s practiced today, is hardly scientific. (There’s plenty of psyche, but no logos.) Others insist that there’s nothing “spiritual” about it. (There’s plenty of logos, but no psyche.) The right mix of rigor with open-mindedness in areas as intimate and important as these doesn’t come easily. In this sense, it isn’t surprising that much of what has actually resulted from the field of psychology has been dehumanizing instead of life-enhancing. Even today, much of the money and research in the area seem to aim less toward understanding human nature than figuring out how to make people click certain buttons.
So, it might be quite a while before “the experts” sort it all out.
But life doesn’t seem interested in waiting for the experts to sort it all out first.
It’s “fired at us point-blank,” as Ortega y Gasset said.
So, in the meantime, we all have to make the best moves we can, expert or not.
In that spirit, it’s up to the rest of us.
It could be a “Dunkirk Approach” to psychological health (named after the WWII chapter), where non-professionals and non-experts need to step up to help remedy a dire situation.
This makes sense – because ultimately, it’s up to us anyway. No expert, no matter how expert that individual might be, can live for us.
So in that sense, we’re all working to make progress along these lines.
The aim is toward the development of our own hearts, minds, and souls.
The effort is to find the most efficient tools and methods to achieve this.
Here are just a few.
We could start with getting grounded, or building a solid foundation to work from.
If those seem overwhelming, a few tools can help.
Where we start is important. One basic idea in establishing a solid foundation means starting with our most basic assumptions. This can mean clarifying our “worldview” or “religion” or building what we might call a sturdy life philosophy. After all, we’re all philosophers, and we all have some sort of answer to the meaning of life. The trick is to clarify it, and possibly even strengthen it. This can help anchor and orient us with a solid, stable, sane, time-tested understanding of the world and how it actually works.
That includes our model of human nature.
A key piece of the puzzle in all this – which science often neglects – is for us to know ourselves. (Scientists often seem inclined to neglect the role of scientists in their thinking.)
Hopefully, this provides us with the basic tools we need – the basic map, compass, and canteen – to help us navigate through some dark existential woods.
With a solid foundation established, we can then climb higher.
The basic aim is to bring out the highest in human potential (while dodging the worst) – ideally resulting in more inner strength, sanity, a sense of meaning, and an ongoing taste of genuine happiness despite the normal amount of suffering we all experience.
In a practical sense, this often involves running a few spiritual experiments that eventually translate into some sort of contemplative practice, which leads to a form of experiential spirituality that’s invigorating but also no-nonsense. If it’s effective, this can become a kind of quest into the unknown, unconscious parts of ourselves that can uncover a spiritual component of human nature and make it conscious, resulting in a certain kind of inner awakening.
All of this tends to work together to become, in so many words, a way of life.
If enough people work along these lines, the result could be a kind of spiritual renaissance.
And that might be a good thing.
It might even be part of a way out of this mess.
To be clear, none of this easily solves “the problem” at a single stroke.
As others have said, there doesn’t seem to be any effortless, graceful, non-embarrassing way through these badlands. Part of the game seems to require us groping our way through and trying to figure it out as we go along.
The main thing is to take the next step.
There is hope, after all. And not just hope – because hope is always for something that happens later, in the future. This whole enterprise aims at making what we’re hoping for actual, now, real-ized.
That kind of progress might even be better than squeezable ketchup bottles or car doors that close themselves. If we’re lucky, it might even help set the world a little more right.