Nicholas Maxwell

The World Crisis - and what to do about it

2020/21 Keele Royal Institute of Philosophy Lecture

Two great problems of learning confront humanity: learning about the universe, and about ourselves and other living things as a part of the universe; and learning how to create a good, civilized, enlightened, wise world.  We have solved the first great problem of learning – we did that when we created modern science and technology in the 17th century.  But we have not yet solved the second one.  That combination of solving the first problem, failing to solve the second one, is very, very, dangerous.  Almost all our current global problems have arisen as a result.  Modern science and technology immensely increase our powers to act (for some of us), but not our power to act wisely.  Modern science and technology lead to modern industry, modern agriculture, travel, medicine, hygiene and armaments, and these in turn lead to much that is of benefit, but also to all our current global problems: population growth, habitat destruction, loss of wild life, mass extinction of species, lethal modern war, the menace of nuclear weapons, pollution of earth, sea and air, antibiotic resistance, degradation of democracy facilitated by the internet and, most serious of all, the climate crisis.  Now that we have modern science and technology, wisdom has become, not a private luxury, but a public necessity.  But how is it to be achieved?  Here is the solution.  We can learn from the solution to the first great problem of learning how to solve the second one.  That was the basic idea of the 18th century Enlightenment, but in implementing it, the philosophes of the Enlightenment blundered.  They got the progress-achieving methods of science wrong; they failed to generalize them properly; and they applied them, not to social life but to creating social science.  Their mistakes are still built into academia today.  In order to learn how to create a civilized, enlightened world, the key thing we need to do is to cure academia of the structural blunders we have inherited from the Enlightenment.  We need to bring about a revolution in science, and in academia more broadly so that the basic aim becomes wisdom, and not just knowledge – wisdom being the capacity, active endeavour and desire to realize what is of value in life for oneself and others, wisdom thus including knowledge and technological know-how, but much else besides.  The outcome of the revolution we need would be universities radically transformed, so that they become rationally and actively devoted to helping people solve problems of living, including global problems, thus making progress to as good, civilized, enlightened a world as possible.
About the speaker:
Nicholas Maxwell has devoted much of his working life to arguing that we need to bring about a revolution in universities so that they come to seek and promote wisdom, and do not just acquire knowledge.  He has published fourteen books on this theme, and numerous papers and chapters in books on more or less closely related philosophical and scientific problems.  For thirty years he taught Philosophy of Science at University College London, where he is now Emeritus Reader.  His last book, published in the Spring of 2020, is called Our Fundamental Problem: A Revolutionary Approach to Philosophy (McGill-Queen’s University Press), and his next, to be published in the Spring of 2021, is called The World Crisis – And What To Do About It (World Scientific).
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