When America was first being settled by Europeans, the emerging identity of the new nation was characterized by a hopeful confidence in the future and a belief that freedom would lead ultimately to general prosperity and peace.
A new understanding of history had, in the words of political scientist and philosopher Michael Allen Gillespie, “opened up the possibility that human beings need not merely accommodate themselves to the natural world. Instead they could become masters of nature and reshape it to meet their needs through the methodological application of will and intelligence. This new understanding of the relation of man and nature had profound implications for man’s own understanding of his place in time.”
The “will to freedom” as conceived by philosophers and treasured by American settlers and colonists, thus became the dominant theme on a continent that seemed unlimited, but for the noble peoples it displaced.
We have not been willing to tolerate anything that stands in our way, including those once proud and independent indigenous American peoples who, despite heroic resistance, were forced to give ground to the relentless advance of western expansion.
The contradictions hidden in the vision of absolute freedom and unlimited prosperity have remained largely unconscious and unresolved, whether they be social, economic, or physical.
Forced by extraordinary circumstances, our attachment to illogical assumptions and inflexible absolutes is today pitching us into a confusion of emotionally charged philosophical and political conflicts.
Several related questions were raised in previous posts.
Do we still think we can make ourselves “master and possessor of nature” without regard for the coherent balance that physical life depends upon?
Is absolute freedom even possible, given the complexity and destructive potential that science and technology have introduced into our lives?
What do we expect of technology? What of the vulnerability of aging infrastructure we depend on for electricity and water every day, or the steadily growing impact of robotics on the economy and jobs, or swiftly advancing surveillance technologies that are capable of prying into every corner of our lives?
Finally, what do the changing realities we face today suggest about the practical meaning of freedom and responsibility – and the necessity for cooperative problem-solving? Can we collaborate with one another to address these questions and retake control of our destiny as wise, creative, and courageous people?
The historic questions have taken on a contemporary quality, but they are essentially the same questions. Earlier generations evaded these questions by exalting science and materialism above all else. Consequently, the denial of a rational God and the suppression of a religious perspective diverted attention from a logical contradiction that transcended philosophy and belief.
When the constraints and limitations imposed by belief in an all-knowing and all-powerful God were disposed of with the cry of “God is dead!” they were immediately replaced by constraints and limitations imposed by belief in a supposedly mechanical natural world.
It was, of course, assumed that science would soon master nature, human beings would succeed in perfecting rational governance, and humankind would realize absolute freedom.
But, nature proved to be far more complex and unpredictable than was expected. And, having rejected the God of traditional religion, humankind has found itself confronted with a severe discipline imposed by nature, and without the grace or guidance of a loving Teacher.
And “rational governance”? Well, we have certainly witnessed in graphic terms the manner in which self-appointed leaders of “rational thought” led us into the totalitarian nightmares of communism, fascism, and Nazism.
Please make no mistake: This past is not far behind us.
If we are to reconsider the cataclysms of the first half of the twentieth century and the horrific consequences of the many bungled attempts to control human destiny – politically, economically, and scientifically – we might start to see the future more clearly. Indeed, we might then avoid potential disasters before they befall us.
We cannot neatly sidestep such fundamental unresolved questions, which I would suggest have embedded themselves deeply in the American psyche.
Agreement concerning the details is not required, but taking responsibility for the practical consequences of our actions in the real world is of immense significance.
Next post: Transcending Our Limitations
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