In the previous blog, we discussed the general need to embrace change and enable dialogue. This applies to the way we view the universe, and to the way science is practiced and how it evolves. It applies to societies -- local, regional and global -- and how they view themselves and each other. It also applies to belief systems. But first and foremost it must apply to the individual person, each and every one of us. Without change and dialogue at the individual level, all the other dialogues with others cannot take place on solid ground. Understanding this is crucial if humanity is to proceed to the next stage of evolution and survive.
Given that I already discussed change in the previous blog, some may wonder why I keep emphasizing it? After all, won't change occur anyway with the passage of time? And why now? And how do these questions apply to the individual?
Change and Communication for the Individual
There are a large number of cells in our bodies, tens of trillions of them or more, changing all the time and at different timescales. However, somehow the whole body structure is maintained in an integral way, allowing a human being to live tens of years, much longer than most cells. Never mind that the non-human microbial cells in our bodies outnumber our own by at least 20:1. Clearly these "alien" cells in our bodies are also changing but they are in a delicate balance of symbiosis with our own cells. We cannot live without them and they cannot live without us. Biologically speaking, the whole bunch of cells, both ours and not ours, must be in constant dialogue with each other. In fact, they must be in constant communication with everything else in our bodies. Otherwise the whole organism collapses into utter chaos and we quickly die.
The very cells in our bodies teach us the great lesson of change and the importance of dialogue or communication. Change and communication are indispensable to who we are. Physically speaking, they are indispensable to keeping us whole, functioning and alive.
Despite that, other things in us tend to remain stubbornly static. Our habits, viewpoints and belief systems are very hard to change. Many of us claim to be open-minded and ready to embrace change but are we really? Let's be honest about it: More often than not we are very resistant to changing our habits, our ways of living or our comfort zones. If change does occur it is often because of outside factors that force us to, such as an illness, a change in employment, or perhaps some unexpected family situation.
The greater the external forces, the more the opportunity for change appears in front of us. However, the unfortunate truth is that great outside changes often precipitate drastic changes in us at the risk of great catastrophe. The cosmic message becomes, "Change or die!" Wouldn't it be better if we embraced change and dialogue and willingly made them a part of our lives, rather than being forced to make changes due to outside forces?
The Time is Now
What we are doggedly resisting to change -- consciously or unconsciously -- is the way we view ourselves and the way we live our lives. In short, the way we view ourselves is the sum total of what we call our ego. The ego takes on many different meanings but, for our purposes here, it is the sense of our own illusion of separateness. This illusion of separateness is the root problem of everything that keeps humans apart and it threatens our very existence. It begins in the depths of our own being and is reinforced by society. The idea of "us vs. them" may work in order to give identity to a growing teenager or to band people together in groups, but, ultimately, it has to be looked at squarely for what it is. We have to look at where this is leading us collectively. The time to look at this sense of separateness is now. We will return to the ego in our next blog. For now, let's look at how nature and life work.
Cooperation and Competition
Our society glorifies competition and survival of the fittest. We value the rights of individuals and the advancement of individual aspirations. Competition has its purpose. Competition drives a youngster to seek goals in life, to excel and advance. However, if competition becomes blind to the exclusion of other factors, it can lead to disaster. In many advanced countries, blind competition to excel and the inordinate societal and familial pressures associated with it often drive young students to take their own lives.
The complementary pair of competition is cooperation. Biological evolution certainly uses competition and survival of the fittest. This is what classical Darwinism states. But now ecologists are pointing out that life evolves also by cooperation. The entire living ecosystem on our planet survives because at some point cooperation becomes the driving force. It allows competing species and individuals to co-exist while they are evolving and surviving. There are countless examples of individual species living together for the common good. This is also the lesson of the "foreign" cells in our bodies, the epitome of "symbiosis," which literally means to live together in Greek. This is what allows different species to live together. The term, when applied in a more general sense, allows disparate parts of a greater whole to be together, to cooperate and thrive and not turn against or annihilate each other.
Dialogue and Cooperation are Imperative
History abounds with concrete examples of how communication between disparate societies -in the form of commerce, cultural exchanges, sharing of spiritual truths -- made each society better and allowed common flourishing. Despite this, official history taught and propagated often seems to glorify conquerors and wars. However, humans who have really achieved a lasting memory are the ones who dedicated their lives, and often gave them up, for the betterment of humanity. Their central message and living example have always been respect and love among fellow humans. An integral part of respect and love is cooperation.
Conquerors, dictators and wars come and go. They may make good stories in books and movies but behind all that glorification, the ugly truth is that blood, suffering, hatred and destruction are the essence of their nature and their lasting legacy. The reason that democracy, with all its faults and imperfections, is still the ideal to follow is because its core values are cooperation, dialogue and respect for each other.
Spreading the message of dialogue and cooperation needs practical examples and concrete results. Dialogues and cooperation in a modern society can be most easily achieved in a thriving academic environment. Interdisciplinary programs that espouse dialogue across the disciplines are gaining ground and popularity at many universities. Science programs are becoming more interdisciplinary and reaching across to other fields in social sciences. By communicating with those in religion and the arts they are becoming trandisciplinary. But such programs require openness of mind, courage, and a willingness to tone down the often inflated egos of professors. Groups of scientists and spiritual practitioners, for example, can find the common roots of their disciplines.
In our modern societies, if we are to build a better future for our children and not drive ourselves to extinction, dialogue and cooperation are imperative. Mutual understanding and respect are imperative. As is understanding and embracing our own selves. Without knowing who we truly are and without a willingness to change, interacting with others will not go very far. Healthiness in communication begins within us.
Menas C. Kafatos, is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Computational Physics, at Chapman University. He is a quantum physicist, cosmologist, and climate change researcher and works extensively on consciousness. His doctoral thesis advisor was the famous M.I.T. professor Philip Morrison who studied under J. Robert Oppenheimer. He has authored nearly 300 articles, is author or editor of 14 books, including "The Conscious Universe" (Springer) with Robert Nadeau, and is co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, "Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles" (Harmony).