Where do values come from? Culture? Life experience? Family traditions? Upbringing? Religion? How do we decide what is right and what is wrong, given that, in most situations, there are arguments for and against opposing viewpoints? Often, what is right for one person is wrong for another, and from these tensions conflict arises. We see this in our families, in our workplace, in religious conflicts, in political disputes. If, on the one hand, diversity of opinion is what enriches us as humans, on the other, it is what feeds the worse that we have to offer.
Given this familiar framework, how can we choose a path that leads to a better life, with more personal and social harmony?
It would be quite naïve to expect a life without conflict, naïve and boring. After all, as we struggle to find solutions, conflict leads to new ways of thinking. Nothing ever changes in a world without discord. We see this in our lives; we see this in science. In fact, in science crises are essential: Without them there is no innovation. A life lived in harmony can't be a life without conflict. It must be a life where conflict leads to growth. Harmony is not the absence of conflict. It is the state in which conflict leads to positive change. Harmony is dynamic, not static.
Innovation and growth challenge the status quo, shaking the very foundations where most base their values. Change only comes when we are ready to embrace it; change needs open minds. It's much easier to plant our feet in the traditional, the convenient, in what doesn't force us to reexamine our views. No one likes to be wrong. This is why great innovation comes with revolution, often bloody. The blood that is spilled is not always the one coursing through our veins: it is the blood of conviction, of prejudices, of deep-seated ideas that are abandoned by the inexorable force of reason.
We live in a world of rapid change. It's not just the Internet revolution, with its easy access to information and the democratization of opinion. It's how the Internet promotes conflict, good and bad. It's amusing how brave people become on the Internet as they hide behind a pseudonym; they attack with impunity, self-defined authorities in all topics, presenting their opinion as the only reasonable or plausible, even when part of an open discussion forum. (No doubt this will happen here, as it does in any open Internet forum.) As my son, who works for Google, once told me, the Internet shows the best and worst of humankind. The challenge is to make it into a force for constructive conflict. Perhaps the 13.7 community could set the example?
The Enlightenment used values from classical science to forge a new worldview, based on universal equality. As I wrote last week, we need a new Enlightenment for the 21st century. A good start would be to leave cynicism aside, as it goes nowhere. Discord is necessary, but it can't be purely destructive.
So, here we go: What are the values that would forge a new worldview? For one thing, they must be secular. The protection of all life forms and of the planet is a good start.
If we are rare molecular machines capable of self-reflection, we should act in enlightened ways. We are far from this goal. But, since the first step toward change is the awareness of the need for change, there is hope. What do you suggest?
Marcelo Gleiser's latest book is The Island Of Knowledge: The Limits Of Science And The Search For Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser