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Science and the New Story

By Michael N. Nagler

#Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, #Enough: millions of new activists are taking to the streets, in a hopeful rising of what nonviolence scholars call the “effervescence of the crowd.” These manifestations are more hopeful than most in that some activists, including the young, are aware that demonstrations and protests need to be developed into long-term, sustained campaigns. It’s only natural at times like these that people would want to “stop the worst of the damage,” as environmental activist and Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy would say, But that may cause us to neglect the big picture, and see where we need to go long term. It’s the long term, however, where nonviolence really shines, and history shows that nonviolence is the approach we need. As Gandhi noted, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were “able to show the immediate effectiveness of violence… But the efforts of Buddha's nonviolent action persist and are likely to grow with age.” And he reassures us that despite appearances, nonviolence is actually the fastest way to bring about lasting changes that sometimes appear miraculous, but “All miracles are due to the silent and effective working of invisible force. Nonviolence is the most invisible and the most effective.”

It’s time, then, to step back and look at the big picture. For some decades now, we have been going through a “spiritual crisis,” as I argued elsewhere, and that crisis can be seen as a struggle for the core narrative of our culture. The real “culture war” is not between one society's culture and another but between between the “old story” that tells us we live in a random universe made of physical particles and an emerging story, being in part recovered from a long (and often forgotten) tradition of human wisdom that says, No! We live in a meaningful universe pervaded by consciousness. We are deeply interconnected with one another and the planet we live on.

Activists or not, we should be aware of this underlying struggle, for it underlies virtually every issue we’re facing. The shift to a new story, which a small community of people have been working out for many years, would resolve most of those issues almost automatically. People who are aware that they are deeply connected with others will know that violence is intolerable, and totally unnecessary. The fact that American servicemen and women are committing suicide at the rate of more than 20 a day shows that a dim awareness is growing that inflicting suffering on others inflicts oneself with Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), or more familiarly, “moral injury.” People who are aware of their inner resources, aware that their deepest needs are to seek relationships of mutual aid and service, will themselves shrink from damaging the environment. We won’t need to exhort them.

Perhaps the most serious fiction of the old story is that we are helpless, determined by our genes, hormones, inherited “instincts,” and outside forces — all of which science is rapidly debunking, giving us back agency. When Gandhi says, “we are the makers of our common destiny,” he is no longer a voice in the intellectual wilderness. Quantum physicist Henry Stapp, for example, wrote in a 1989 paper, “Quantum Physics and Human Values,” that “man (or woman) can no longer be seen as a deterministically controlled cog in a machine.” (p.11) And he goes on (p.13), “The quantum conception of man resembles, in certain limited respects, the image set forth in various religious systems. Hence it may be able to tap the powerful resonances evoked in humans by such beliefs…. The assimilation of this quantum conception of man into the cultural environment of the 21st century must inevitably produce a shift in values conducive to human survival.” He added more recently, “Perceiving oneself to be an integral part of the mental whole tends to elicit a feeling of connectivity, community, and compassion with fellow sentient beings, whereas the materialist message of survival of the fittest tends to lead to selfish, and even hateful, actions” (Benevolent Universe, p.27). Ever since cell biologist Barbara McClintock began showing in the 1950s that genes are not unchangeable packets of information that control the host organism but are themselves controlled by other elements, scientists have steadily liberated us from the limitations of our biological inheritance until, in our generation, biologists can trace the exact pathways by which our beliefs and attitudes affect the expression and even the lifespan of our cells (see this not uncontroversial talk by Bruce Lipton).

At the Metta Center, we have been excited about the cultural, and therefore the political potential of “new science,” as it’s called, to facilitate the paradigm shift we need to bring about the conversion of modern societies to peace and justice. We now can offer, in a beta version, a resource to help activists familiarize themselves with the most helpful findings in this new science. We welcome your feedback!

To be clear, we are not recommending that anyone should drop their other activities on whatever issue. Nor are we of the belief that promoting the science, or even the science and the wisdom tradition parallels, will bring about the great shift by itself. People are far too invested in the status quo today to be moved by mere arguments and evidence. As Gandhi famously said, “Things of fundamental importance to the people must be purchased with their suffering. You must be able to appeal not only to reason, but to the heart also.” Which is exactly what nonviolence does. But you must have a vision of the world you want — we all really want — to inspire people to seek it. As Gandhi says, we must appeal “to the heart also,” along with reason.

In addition to being a sine qua non for desired change, knowing and promoting the new story has two strategic advantages:

  1. It can be non-confrontational, what I call a “stealth” strategy: Tell people to give up their guns or stop making war and you get violent resistance; tell them they’re not separate fragments in a meaningless universe and they’re likely to believe you, little realizing at first that they’re on track to give up guns and war of their own accord.
  2. It can pull us together, without having to abandon the particular projects (no longer “silos”) we’re working on. Like Gandhi’s charkha (spinning wheel), it’s something everyone can do, symbolizing the essential unity of our efforts.

The old story of a random, material universe was demoralizing, it was dead wrong, but it was internally consistent. It built up from a physics of material particles to the competitive evolution of the early Darwin (never mind that he repudiated it later) and the dismal, alienated self-image that is today retarding human progress. This appearance of consistency made it look the more plausible and has helped it hold sway to the present day — even though it violates our deepest intuitions of who we are and what we want to become. And that may be its worst effect. “Contemplate your true nature,” warned the great Bengali mystic Anandamayi Ma, “or else there will be want, wrong action, helplessness, distress, and death."

The emerging, or “new” story is just as consistent. It builds up from a physics of unity and consciousness to the biology of cooperation and the psychology and neuroscience of the empathic human being as a meaningful part of a great unity, capable of crafting her or his own destiny and capable of offering nonviolence and responding to it when offered. I entirely agree with Joanna Macy that we have to “stop the worst of the damage,” but has there been anything more damaging than the demoralizing image of ourselves held up by the old story? And after all, quite apart from its political usefulness, the new story is a powerful way to overcome our own demoralization and burnout, as you’ll see from the talking points we’ve offered here. Knowing it should be part of our toolkit; sharing it with whoever will listen would be a critical complement to our work to usher in a world of justice, sustainability, and peace on which the human experiment can continue.

A version of this article appeared in Waging Nonviolence.

Michael N. Nagler is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley, where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, and the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

His book, The Search for a Nonviolent Future: A Promise of Peace for Ourselves, Our Families, and Our World, was winner of the 2002 American Book Award.

His most recent book, The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action, advocates nonviolence as the most effective approach to bringing about social change, not simply the most ethical.


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This article appears in:
2018 Catalyst, Issue 9: Diversity

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