(continuing our Thanksgiving focus) Food for Thought

Maybe you’ve heard of William Thomson (1824-1907). One of the most renowned physicists of his time, Thomson is also known to us today as Lord Kelvin. [He was the first UK physicist to be elevated to the House of Lords.] Today, we think of Kelvin as a classical physicist. Late in his career, he claimed that physics was essentially a solved problem. He saw only “two small clouds on the horizon:” the Michelson-Morley experiment, and the observed spectrum of so-called blackbody radiation.

Well, at least he picked the right small clouds!

During the same period Kelvin was espousing these views, a young patent clerk by the name of Albert Einstein was formulating his theory of relativity, explaining the Michelson and Morley’s results, and the photoelectric effect, which helped usher in quantum mechanics and proper explanations of radiation. To complete Kelvin’s metaphor, those two small clouds grew into major tempests that rocked all of 20st century physics. Check that! The physics was so profound that it shaped the world of today. Without this science, we’d enjoy no understanding of how the sun and the stars work. No nuclear weapons. No information technology, dependent as it is on semiconductor physics. And so on.

What are the small clouds out there today that will ultimately grow and come to define the 21st century? We don’t and can’t know, but we can search, contemplate, reflect, surmise.

Yesterday’s news? Full of the European financial crisis. The predictable meltdown of the Congressional Supercommittee’s deliberations. Struggles across northern Africa and the Middle East. The ascendancy of Newt Gingrich in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

But here are two small clouds for your consideration.

The first, an article appearing in the New York Times by Yan Xuetong: How China can defeat America. Really a rather remarkable article, and quite different from much of yesterday’s news fare. The full article is worth reading, but few excerpts give the tenor:

“With China’s growing influence over the global economy, and its increasing ability to project military power, competition between the United States and China is inevitable. Leaders of both countries assert optimistically that the competition can be managed without clashes that threaten the global order.

Most academic analysts are not so sanguine. If history is any guide, China’s rise does indeed pose a challenge to America. Rising powers seek to gain more authority in the global system, and declining powers rarely go down without a fight. And given the differences between the Chinese and American political systems, pessimists might believe that there is an even higher likelihood of war…”

[In the pre-Qin period, before China was unified, scholars thought] “…The key to international influence was political power, and the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership. Rulers who acted in accordance with moral norms whenever possible tended to win the race for leadership over the long term…”

“…According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, there were three types of leadership: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny. Humane authority won the hearts and minds of the people at home and abroad. Tyranny — based on military force — inevitably created enemies. Hegemonic powers lay in between: they did not cheat the people at home or cheat allies abroad. But they were frequently indifferent to moral concerns and often used violence against non-allies. The philosophers generally agreed that humane authority would win in any competition with hegemony or tyranny…”

“…China’s quest to enhance its world leadership status and America’s effort to maintain its present position is a zero-sum game. It is the battle for people’s hearts and minds that will determine who eventually prevails. And, as China’s ancient philosophers predicted, the country that displays more humane authority will win.”

How do you read this? [And it’s best to read the article in its entirety – rather than settle for these snippets.] Do you agree with the premise? That the United States and China are engaged in a great competition? That military conflict though not inevitable is a possibility? That whatever competition goes on will go in favor of the most humane? If this is true, why is it true? If you do believe the thesis and the conclusion, does that make you favor the chances of one nation and one set of ideals over the other? Which? Why?

One point that looms large over this landscape…the author says that the winner of the competition is the nation that displays the more humane authority will win. Is that the same as fake it? Or does the humane authority have to be genuine? Hopefully we can all agree on the latter.

Well, then, what is the source of humane authority? Where does it come from? How can we develop more of it?

This brings us to the second article, this one by Tony Blair, posted by the Washington Post last week, entitled Why the world needs faith. He begins: There will be no peace in our world without an understanding of the place of religion within it. The past decade has seen many convenient myths which disguised the importance of religion, stripped away. Many thought: as society progressed, religion would decline. It hasn’t happened…”

“…On every side, in every quarter, wherever we look and analyze, religion is a powerful, motivating, determining force shaping the world around us…”

“…For some, this is final proof of the iniquity of religious faith. The answer they say is to abandon it. But for millions of people, faith is not measured in prejudice, intolerance or violence; but in love, compassion, a desire for and a striving for a more just and humane [boldface added—there’s that word again] world…”

As with the earlier article, Blair’s thoughts are worth reading in their entirety. He particularly stresses the challenge to religious and political leaders to accommodate a fully diverse range of views, including those contrary to their own.

Got a little extra time? Interested in what it might mean to be humane in the 21st century? You might go back to earlier posts on Living on the Real World, under the heading of a Marshall Plan [for the 21st century]. Those posts argue that in a real world of scarce resources, environmental degradation, and natural hazards, it is humane to give seven billion people Earth observations, science, and services with which to cope. You can find a sampling here.

What does it mean to be humane in the 21st century? And what will it take to be humane? Can we achieve it in our own power? Questions like these deserve our attention in this national time of Thanksgiving.

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