Now the fact that science cannot show us things greater,
superior to ourselves is no proof in itself that there are such beings
but if such greater realities exist they’re not going to turn
up in the methods of laboratory science. Now, I hope this is making
clear how the the rise in modern science has been profoundly ambiguous.
It has helped us in enormous ways and caused a lot of dangers, too.
I am hopeful that we can steer clear of those shoals. But at the same
time it has lowered the shade on the window through which we look for
the big picture. It’s as though we were standing before a picture
window with a marvelous view of the Himalayans but the shades were pulled
down just below the human eye, so we can only see the inferior things.
For 300 years the human spirit
has been embattled. It has been embattled because the scientific
view of reality does not show the human spirit, much less higher
beings if those exist, and I do believe the wisdom traditions and
their belief that they do exist.
We have become in the modern world like split personalities.
Five days a week we’re taught in our schools that we’re
the more that have derived from the less, through amebas and intermediate
forms of life, and we are at the top of the heap. The remaining two
days of the week, we are told by our churches and our synagogues that
we are created with souls and therefore we are the less that have
derived from the more. These two images have left us very confused.
There is no coherent view of human nature in the modern world. We
have a lot of notions, but they don’t come together in any coherent
The exciting thing is that after 300 years we are
beginning to see what has happened and there have been momentous shifts
in human thought and society. But we’re in a position now where
we are realizing what science is and how it can see and what it can
do, while leaving room for the wisdom of the human race, what I like
to call the world’s wisdom traditions. I conceive of them as
data banks for human wisdom. Not everything in them is wise. Modern
science has retired their cosmology and on social relationships, master/slave,
gender relationships they pretty much picked up the morays of their
time. But when it comes to the big picture, the higher reaches of
existence, there is nothing in the last 500 years that has come into
the picture that rivals that. So my hope is that we winnow and factor
out the various components of human history and find where each is
good and where each needs to be supplemented by the other.
Fifty years ago in this building people gathered from all over the
world and drafted the United Nations charter.
I was here! I wasn’t part of the drafting, but I was a graduate
student in philosophy at the University of California and I got up
early that morning and so I was actually present at the celebration
of that historic event.
What happened then in the march towards the present?
The first concerted effort of nations to work cooperatively on the
world’s problems. A momentous step in the world’s idealism
and in its resolution, one might even say its courage. Now, of course
we know that dreams are not always fulfilled and we realize that many
of the hopes that we held out for that endeavor have not materialized.
Can you tell me what your experience was being here?
Oh it was thrilling! Edward Stettinius was Secretary of State and
so he represented the United States. He was not one of our more distinguished
Secretaries, in fact his term of office was very short. He was something
of a dandy. He always entered any event that he presided over 30 seconds
before the announced time and with a red carnation in his lapel. All
of this is trivia, and you wanted momentous things. It was truly thrilling
and I think that Yhudi Menuhin played the violin and he happens to
be my exact age. I felt a great affinity with him because I tried
to play the violin too and was a washout. It was a heartening day.
There was no BART then, so I took the bus back, but with a really
feeling good about humanity.
Stepping forward to try to get a perspective on this meeting, five
years ago Mikhail Gorbachev was the President of the Soviet Union.
What was going on in the world then?
We didn’t realize it, but we were right at the end of what had
been the most important social problem of our century. Let me back
up. In the 19th century the greatest social danger to the human venture
was nationalism. Wars, nations pitted against nations, arming, more
arming and so on. When we turned from the 19th century to the 20th
century, nationalism ceased to be the most important problem. The
greatest danger was replaced by ideology as the nations lined up on
both sides of the cold war and that dominated the 20th century. Five
years ago, Gorbachev almost single-handedly ended the ideological
confrontation and and thereby retired the greatest danger of the 20th
century—ideology. Now, alas, things move on. Ethnic conflict
looks like it’s going to be the major danger of the 21st century.
Five days ago, people were arriving at the Fairmont Hotel and now
we’ve had a five-day meeting. What’s been happening here?
Oh, wouldn’t we all like to know? It’s impossible, I think
for two reasons. There have been five major groups going on concomitantly
and nobody here has been to all, so they don’t have the data
for any summation. But there’s another problem: people are not
very good at understanding themselves at the time. They need a little
perspective, a little distance. That’s true with human vision
to. If you move too close to the mirror you don’t get a very
good sense of yourself. So I don’t think we’ll know the
full consequences of this meeting for a little while and it may be
quite a while. But I think there’s some very encouraging indices.
The organizers did well drawing upon people with both vision and experience.
Another good thing is the diversity—people from Africa, Eastern
Europe and so on, so it was a world forum in that sense. To a very
genuine degree it is a world forum. Then, to cut it another way. we
have industry, economics, global communication, Margaret Thatcher,
Mikhail Gorbachev, and President Bush.
I’ll be very personal. This whole State of
the World Forum—I laughed as I went back to Berkeley yesterday—I
think the whole purpose of it was to bring me into face-to-face confrontation
with Carl Sagan because in terms of the science-spirituality complex
we picked up that stick by different ends. You might say you could
search this planet for people who are more at opposite ends off the
spectrum than us and yet there we were in the same room and it was
wonderful. Of course, we disagreed and we hurled haughty compliments,
like knights jousting, but to provide a context where real differences,
and believe me there were real differences between Carl Sagan and
myself on these issues, but to be in the same room in an effort to
understand one another, I hold that up as a symbol of the kind of
thing that I sense was going on throughout the five days here. So, now to wrap it up, you asked what has happened here. It’s
going to take a little time for anybody to have a mature judgment
on that, but the indices, I think, are good.
I have one more question. In the book that was sent to us with Mr.
Gorbachev’s invitation, there was one phrase that stuck in my
mind when Mr. Gorbachev wrote that we now need a philosophy of synthesis. Can you give us any elements of that philosophy?
One the dangers of our time is that we are inundated with information.
We’re aware of a lot more things but it also has a danger. The
danger I think comes out clearly in T.S. Elliot’s couplet where
he wrote, “Where is the knowledge that is lost in information,
where is the wisdom that is lost in knowledge?” That says so
much. Fragmentation of information. We’re in danger of being
swamped, deluged by information, but how does it fit together? Synthesis,
that’s the question. Rebecca West, the greatest reporter of
the 20th century, was asked in her last television interview, “What
do you sense as the dominant mood of our time?” She became reflective
for a moment and then answered, “A desperate search for a pattern.”
That search is still in place because the fragmentation
and the deluge of information and the sound bites get shorter and
shorter so they to get more into the hour and the photo bites get
shorter and shorter until it becomes a kind of chaos. So the need
for synthesis, or a pattern, in Rebecca West’s words, is the dominant
issue of our time.
In closing, it strikes me there is a marvelous symmetry to the story
you’ve just told us. It began with our ancestors coming the
area of the Soviet Union and it ends with Mr. Gorbachev coming to
San Francisco. History repeats itself.
Oh, that is very true and very significant how that Aryan migration
in its Westward movement went to the very tip of the European land
mass in Ireland and then the Western world jumped an ocean into the
new world. You’re quite right, the circle is closed because
Gorbachev came to the West from exactly where this Aryan migration
began around 4,000 BC. That’s beautiful. That’s very nice.
We should end where we might have begun, by introducing ourselves
on camera. I’m Douglas Gillies.
And I’m Houston Smith.
And what do you do?
What do I do? Well, I don’t know that I’ve ever put it
to myself. I try to live. As far as the daily rounds go I’ve
been a professor my entire career. I’ve retired twice, but both
times why I’ve been called back into harness and I’m currently
teaching at the University of California in Berkeley. In addition
to that I’m a writer, I’m addicted to it and mainly because
I find it is the best way to get my ideas clear to myself. If I just
speak them, I can get away with a lot, but if I put them down in print
where I am accountable then the flaws turn up. So I would say that
insofar as I understand myself, and we all do that imperfectly, from
the beginning of the age of expression I’ve been always been
obsessed with the ultimate question: What is the nature of reality
and how can human beings best realize their human potential within
Thank you for taking the time for this conversation.
Great pleasure, thanks.