Brzezinski's fundamental questions

The following remarks by political scientist and former United States national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski deal with themes that are emerging in the Monitor's current ``Agenda for the 21st century'' series (the second installment of which appears elsewhere in today's paper). The remarks are from a commencement address at Williams College last June. Mr. Brzezinski discussed world affairs and the revolution in natural science, ranging from the means for humanity's destruction to genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and the transplantation of human organs eventually including the brain. Then, in the concluding passages excerpted here, he went to some fundamental questions. . . . In your lifetime, questions that were formerly reserved for academic departments of philosophy will be posed for society at large. . . .

What are the uniquely defining characteristics of the individual? What is the interrelationship between the spiritual and the physical, and how is that interrelationship achieved and integrated within a single human being? We are entering thus an age of truly fundamental philosophical questioning. We have before us the potential for overcoming our physical weaknesses, for transcending the finite boundaries of our bodies. We increasingly can prolong life, and we soon may be able even to transplant it.

But as we overcome our physical limits, our society will be forced to refocus on some of the oldest concerns regarding the meaning of human life. The resulting debate will, most likely, reaffirm an established proposition while perhaps bringing to the forefront also an older verity. The first is that every major scientific discovery almost inevitably influences our perception of the world. And the second is that the scientific breakthroughs just ahead of us are likely to make central again the more spiritual concerns regarding the nature of our existence.

Let me refer you in connection with the first proposition -- that every major scientific discovery almost inevitably influences our perception of the world -- to Paul Johnson's thoughtful book ``Modern Times,'' where he speaks of ``the dual impact of great scientific innovators on mankind'': ``The emergence of Einstein as a world figure in 1919 is a striking illustration of the dual impact of great scientific innovators on mankind. They change our perception of the physical world and increase our mastery of it. But they also change our ideas. . . . The scientific genius impinges on humanity, for good or ill, far more than any statesman or warlord.'' He goes on to remind us that Galileo's empiricism created the ferment of natural philosophy in the 17th century which adumbrated the scientific and industrial revolutions; that Newtonian physics formed the framework of the 18th-century Enlightenment and so helped to bring modern nationalism and revolutionary politics to birth; that Darwin's notion of the survival of the fittest was a key element both in the Marxist concept of class warfare and of the racial philosophies which shaped Hitlerism. And he concludes, and I quote again: ``. . . the public response to relativity was one of the principal formative influences on the course of 20th-century history. It formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.''

Today, we may be on the eve of completing a full circle in the impact of science on our thinking. By confronting us with the ultimate question, science may be encouraging us to look beyond science for some of the answers. The resulting debate will inevitably thus give new vitality and new salience also to the spiritual dimension of our life, to the role of the spiritual in defining what we are. Because the emerging issue involves the mysterious relationship between the spiritual and the physical, it portends a new and deeper role for the religious dimensions in our society. That does not necessarily mean institutionalized and formal religion as we have known it, but it does pose the prospect of renewed appreciation for the ultimate mystery of life and thus for life even beyond the physical life that we think we know.

This prospect is seeded with political consequences. It is likely to reinforce a trend already much underway: the fading of dogmatic totalitarian systems. Such systems, by providing domatic answers to new questions before they have even been posed, are condemned to philosophic sterility. Indeed, their dogmatism is increasingly an obstacle on their own scientific development, making their regimes historically obsolete.

Only a truly democratic society -- one that is pluralistic, one that is not subordinated to a single doctrine -- can promote a fully creative, open-ended dialogue involving these two demensions, the spiritual and the scientific. Accoringly, the challenge that you confront contains in its very essence an optimistic message. It is a challenge to which an adequate response can only be made within a democracy, the most intellectually creative form of social organization for the human being. And of that democracy we, as Americans should be especially proud -- and protective. It is the ideal vessel for a society creatively searching for the deeper meaning of life in the context of a science that probes to unprecedented depths our ultimate mysteries.

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