We Need a New Cultural Enlightenment to Address the Greatest Challenges of Our Time

By Brandon Norgaard

We live in a world that is paradoxically both highly interconnected and deeply divided.  Far off in distant lands and right in our own cities and towns, we find immense and seemingly intractable problems – most notably warfare, poverty, corruption, oppression, disease, and environmental degradation.  Problems of these sorts have been haunting humanity since the dawn of civilization, but we can recognize that they don’t have to be as devastating as they often are.  If we look deeper into the root causes, we would find that each of these problems is either caused or made worse by people misunderstanding, fearing, and hating other people.  There is a tremendous amount of unnecessary conflict and suffering in this world, and there is a common root cause for much of it, which is that we lack mutual understanding, agreement, and cooperation.  

We can see the obvious effects of our collective shortcomings all around us.  For example, the failure of our global society to find the necessary cohesion and solidarity to adequately confront the covid pandemic likely caused many thousands more deaths than what might have otherwise been the case.  We have to figure that humanity will soon face even greater challenges that could even threaten life as we know it. 

As challenging as things are in our time, we can acknowledge that humanity has overcome enormous challenges before, and we can learn from past successes and failures to help us address our current crises.  Throughout most of human history, a large majority of people lived in chronic poverty, where food was difficult to attain, deadly diseases were rampant, and violence was the most common way of settling disputes.  We are very fortunate that our global society has developed to the point where these types of struggles have been dramatically reduced and where the average quality of life is far higher than it has been at any point in the past.  While acknowledging that there is still a lot of work to be done in our efforts to make the world truly free, fair, peaceful, and sustainable, we can celebrate the innovations that got humanity to this point.  For this, we can primarily point to the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, both of which gave us epistemological tools to understand nature, to develop technologies, and to improve public health and average human well-being.

The Age of Enlightenment provided an epistemology that is very useful and powerful.  Probably the greatest strength of the resulting modernist worldview is that we no longer have strict traditional power structures, nor are we forced to practice any specific religion.  Rather than merely relying on tradition or dogma or authority, we can now understand much about the basic structure of knowledge and the processes through which knowledge can be developed, including cognitive functions, sensemaking, and the foundation of science.  And so this is the epistemological framework that contemporary mainstream science has to work with, which means that it essentially serves as the basis for the most widely accepted physical, biological, psychological, and social sciences that are currently being practiced and that enjoy mainstream support within academia and the political establishment. 

But as the world rapidly changes due to advancing technology and an ever-growing global population, the limitations of the purely scientific and rational approach to problem solving and governance becomes more apparent.  The fact that governments are so often ineffective and dysfunctional and that there is an ever-growing gap between the very rich and the destitute poor in our global society has shown us that the epistemology that helped us build the modern world is no longer sufficient to lead us into the future.  Notably, this theory of knowledge assumes that everything is purely mechanistic, even the inner workings of our minds and, by extension, the working of our society.  This conception of human nature fails because it does not take into account our lived experiences, nor our thoughts and feelings, nor any meaning and purpose that any of us might find for life itself.

What this means is that in order to address the greatest challenges of our time, we need a new cultural enlightenment.  We need to embrace not only science and reason, but also the arts and humanities and we need to find novel ways of integrating these in order to bring about the wisdom that is desperately needed in our changing world.  We need to develop innovative forms of learning, understanding, and education to foster not only greater personal development, but also civic engagement so that people can feel a deeper connection with their community, their nation, and the Earth as a whole.  This new cultural enlightenment can encourage people to feel a sense of belonging with those around them and also a sense of responsibility and perhaps even a sense of global citizenship.

Toward this end, it is helpful to consider the meaning of the word “enlightenment”.  A simple answer is that it refers to the state of being enlightened.  But then what does “enlighten” mean?  We can go with a common dictionary definition, which might offer something like: “to give intellectual or spiritual light to; instruct; impart knowledge to”.  And so we can understand that enlightenment is dependent on intellectual development and knowledge.  But there is another component to this, which we can understand with the symbolic analogy to light that can be mentally attained.  Essentially, enlightenment is the degree to which one is able to attain satisfactory answers to important questions in life on the basis of observation and reason, and also to what extent such realizations might lead one to find inner and outer peace.  It is important to understand that this state of enlightenment is not something that you either have or don’t have.  It is not like a basic light switch, in which the light is either on or off, but more like a dimmer switch, where there are countless shades and degrees of light.

There are many great questions of life that can be brought to light through cultural enlightenment.  We can develop greater insights into our inner world, to the outer world that we share with others, and also to the inner world of the people with whom we share our planet.  We can integrate all of this through an embrace of science interwoven with the arts and with a deeper understanding of our shared human history.  The notion of bildung encompasses the various processes that will bring about this cultural enlightenment.  As shown in the Bildung Rose, these are the processes through which power is used across many avenues of life in order to bring about development at the personal, community, and national level with potential impacts all the way to the global level.  Bildung is essential to our efforts to address the greatest challenges of our changing world.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash 

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