Recently, there was some media interest in statements by scientist Stephen Hawking arguing that humanity would need to colonize space for its long-term survival, essentially due to the supposed inability of our species to regulate itself within the bounds of our planet. In somewhat condensed form here is what he had to say:

'I see great danger for the human race. There have been a number of times in the past when survival has been a question of touch and go. The Cuban missile crisis in 1963 is one of these. The frequency of such occasions is likely to increase in the future. We shall need great care and judgment to negotiate them all successfully. But I am an optimist. If we can avoid disaster for the next two centuries our species should be safe as we spread into space. Our population and use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially along with our technical ability to change the environment for good and ill. But our genetic code carries selfish and aggressive instincts that were a survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next 100 years let alone the next thousand or a million. Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain on planet Earth but to spread into space. We have made remarkable progress in the last 100 years but if we want to continue beyond the next 100 years our future is in space.

This concern for man's potential self-made destruction is relatively common-place, and reminds of a quote from the psychologist Carl Jung:

"Indeed, it is becoming ever more obvious that it is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes, not cancer but man himself who is man’s greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes. The supreme danger which threatens individuals as well as whole nations is a psychic danger. Reason has proved itself completely powerless, precisely because its arguments have an effect only on the conscious mind and not on the unconscious. The greatest danger of all comes from the masses, in whom the effects of the unconscious pile up cumulatively and the reasonableness of the conscious mind is stifled. Every mass organization is a latent danger just as much as a heap of dynamite is. It lets loose effects which no man wants and no man can stop. It is therefore in the highest degree desirable that a knowledge of psychology should spread so that men can understand the source of the supreme dangers that threaten them. Not by arming to the teeth, each for itself, can the nations defend themselves in the long run from the frightful catastrophes of modern war. The heaping up of arms is itself a call to war. Rather must they recognize those psychic conditions under which the unconscious bursts the dykes of consciousness and overwhelms it." The Symbolic Life, CW 18, par. 1358

And elaborated his position to say

"Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is also in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow, he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved problems of our day." Psychology and Religion: East and West, CW 11, par. 140

Although these analyses of the state of affairs are very similar, these two positions are relative extremes as to the appropriate response required. Perhaps this just reflects the basic premise of the underlying duality in organizing knowledge as 'science' and 'humanities': the outward journey into space, and the inward journey into the soul. One argues that 'Man' and existence is a problem that cannot be solved culturally/psychologically, the other that 'Man' and existence cannot be solved technologically (permitting the short-hand 'problem to be solved' and an exaggeration of the polarization to illustrate my argument).

This dualism, in many ways a heritage from Greek philosophy processed through the Renaissance period onward, remains a powerful dialectic force and it might be argued that it is exactly a fuller synthesis of these which would ameliorate the existential situation with which we are grappling. Thereby, appealing/aligning to one or the other arguably only serves to reinforce this division.

To examine possible syntheses, let's look at Hawking's position. A flaw in his analysis could be due to the fundamental attribution error: the biased attribution of behaviour to personal traits. This is a well-known and established effect in psychology: not discounting the possibility of deeply hereditary behavioural traits, the environmental circumstances in which a person finds themselves are generally much more predictive of behaviour than is typically assumed. Given this fact, it is the prerogative of humans to influence their circumstances to achieve behaviour more in line with what would be desirable/sustainable, instead of blaming "personality" or "genetics". Trying then to bring the two viewpoints together, we might propose this as a middle ground: finding ways of creating and using technology to engender and harmonize with culture, in contrast to primarily fixing isolated problems once they appear. On a deeper level, this would also mean finding ways of restructuring knowledge and academic work in this spirit. A start might be for basic science to seriously and widely address ethical questions instead of proclaiming the sanctity of research/understanding/knowledge, and for humanistic disciplines to address the similarly absolutist relativism that pervades some fields.

We live in an age of information and fragmented relativized knowledge. The challenge proposed here is how to sustainably transform this into wisdom at an individual and collective level. Some are already researching such issues!

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