Global challenges

May 19, 2024

Conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine have brought the world closer to a nuclear Armageddon

Global challenges


he continuing genocide by Israel against Palestinians in Gaza and the use of artificial intelligence for killing whole families in their homes, bears testimony to the collapse of the basic principles of human civilisation. Many Western states, though not their citizens, are complicit in this crime against humanity, since they have been providing finance and weapons to Israel. It is apparent that the Western countries which in the modern period had constructed the ideological edifice of democratic governance based on human values, have demolished it in plain view.

Observers have noted the danger of a widening war in the Middle East which as the UN secretary general had pointed out earlier is one misjudgement away from world war. “One miscalculation, one miscommunication, one mistake, could lead to the unthinkable – a full-scale regional conflict that would be devastating for all involved – and for the rest of the world,” said António Guterres.

A second flashpoint that could lead to a global nuclear war is Ukraine. The US aim in supporting Ukraine with advanced weapons and money was to bring about a military setback for Russia and weaken its economy. As it turned out, Russia has strengthened its economy through closer economic and political links with China, while carefully calibrating a war of attrition against Ukraine that has brought its ground troops and air defence system to the verge of collapse.

If in the face of an imminent defeat of their proxy, the NATO and the US choose to escalate the war further, the nuclear threshold could be reached. French President Macron has declared earlier that they could not let Russia win and threatened to send troops to help defend Ukraine. More recently, the British foreign secretary has taken a further step up the escalation ladder by declaring that they would permit Ukraine to use its British supplied weapons on mainland Russia. In response, Russia has announced tactical nuclear weapons drills following “provocative” Western threats. Putin has pointed out the grim reality: “Everyone knows that (this conflict between Russia and the NATO), will be just one step away from full scale World War III.”

It is clear that the current contention for power between Russia and China on the one hand and the US, Europe and Israel on the other, carries a grave risk of a nuclear world war that could obliterate most of human society as we know it, and a large part of animal and plant life. Thus, at the pinnacle of technological “achievement,” the measure of human progress, man could bring about the destruction of life on earth. It is time to reflect upon how it is that human beings have brought themselves to such a pass.

What kind of mind has made this self-destruction a real possibility? How did it emerge? The dialectic of the Enlightenment in the 16th Century was that a wide range of misconceptions were laid to rest on the basis of observation and experiment. The new paradigm of knowledge created the possibility of overcoming scarcity and building a peaceful and humane society. But the great possibilities that modern science and technology opened up were accompanied by a mode of knowing the world that shifted the mental balance of the human community. The sense of compassion was suppressed while aggression was overdeveloped in the human psyche (Marcuse-Fromm). This laid the basis of the tendency of destructiveness in the modern Western mind.

As I have argued in my latest book, the new epistemology that defined post Enlightenment science, was propounded initially by Descartes and Galileo in different ways. It involved three main propositions. First, the only reality is the material world that can be comprehended through observation, which is measurable and wherein that which is being observed does not change in the act of observation. (The concept of objectivity or the divorce between subject and object). However, the idea of the subject-object divide has been disproved by quantum mechanics, which on the basis of experimental evidence has shown that everything is related to everything else, and indeed the subject changes the object as it is being observed. However the old view persists on the large scale.

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If in the face of an imminent defeat of their proxy, the NATO and the US choose to escalate the war further, the nuclear threshold could be reached. French President Macron earlier declared that they could not let Russia win and threatened to send his troops to help defend Ukraine.

Secondly, the only way of understanding reality is to breakdown matter into its component elements, understand each element in turn and then aggregate the information about the elements into a knowledge of the whole. This approach has been called reductive materialism. It systematically excludes the possibility of a knowledge of the whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. As Syed Hossein Nasr has pointed out, a flower is beautiful only in its wholeness. Half a flower is not a flower at all.

Thirdly, in the course of Western civilisation after the enlightenment, a conviction took root that through the materialist mode of knowing, we could understand everything. As Iain McGilchrist, the famous neuroscientist and philosopher, has observed, once we believe that we can understand everything, the chances of knowing anything at all are remote. A related belief that was to endanger the long-term existence of humans was that we could control the world. The idea of control began to feed the individual and national egos.

Despite the dominance of the materialist epistemology, the experiential mode of knowing the world remains, even if at the margins of our consciousness. There are fundamental creative insights, which most of us share and in terms of which we experience our humanness. We regard them to be real, or self-evident, even though within the materialist paradigm they are considered not real, for example, the experience of love, beauty, truth, goodness. Human beings have apprehended these transcendent experiences of the aesthetic or spiritual realm and expressed them throughout recorded history in art, literature, forms of social life and religious rituals.

I have suggested in my recent book that in the perennial wisdom tradition right up to the contemporary period, scholars (Iqbal, Nasr, Lings) and some scientists, (Sheldrake, Smith, McGilchrist) have argued that human beings have an inherent faculty of experiencing the transcendent. One way in which this faculty is manifested is what can be called heart knowledge (see chapter 12 of my book). The heart, as Dr Martin Lings observed, in both the Western and Eastern intellectual traditions is not just the organ by that name but the instrument of experiencing the transcendent. As Professor Hossein Nasr suggests, the heart is the space where the human and the divine meet. The term heart has been used synonymously with the word intellect, (Latin, intellectus), in the Medieval period.

McGilchrist, in his recent two-volume study The Matter with Things, has shown that the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of the human brain have quite different functions. The left hemisphere is analytical, and has a narrow beam focus. It is used in identifying the required object, in grabbing and getting. The right hemisphere by contrast, gives the bigger picture, an awareness of the whole. Both hemispheres need to operate in balance.

Global challenges

The right hemisphere apprehends the world as relationships. The relationships McGilchrist argues, are actually the reality that is prior to that which is being related. It can be argued, that the right hemisphere can enable the experience of the transcendent truths that lie beyond the material reality. Over the last four centuries or so, the left brain has been overdeveloped with the atomisation of society, and the aggressive, ego-driven impulse to accumulate commodities holding sway. At the same time, the right hemisphere has not been brought into play adequately, leading to an imbalance in the psyche. The aggressive, egoistic impulse has begun to dominate our consciousness while the impulse of compassion, the sense of relatedness which leads to human solidarity has been lying dormant.

If life is to be sustained, it is necessary that we restore a balance in our consciousness by accessing our capacity for compassion, a sense of responsibility towards others and to the natural world. Love and beauty should be re-experienced and the sense of relatedness that they enable ought to be made conscious. The root of the word education is, edu-cere which means bringing to the surface that which is dormant. For this, education should be re-organised to enable both the development of our analytical ability and inculcating a humane sensibility. Real education is important not merely to build a career, but also to survive and build a better world.

The writer is a Distinguished Professor at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Global challenges