Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen
As long as man has lived he has looked for an all-inclusive and generally valid principle and has manifested a desire to see the world as a whole. Eastern and Western mystics put this idea into words centuries ago. From time immemorial philosophers have pointed out the unity of all existence and the interconnections of all elements of nature, man and thought. But rarely have their ideas been echoed in politics or in peoples’ social behaviour.
When we look at the state the world is in today and realise how much we live in a world of interdependence, we become aware of the imperative need to create a unified model of the world and of existence based on a holistic view of life. The great virtue of our laureate is that he, prompted not so much by mysticism but by rational thought, shows us that ‘all the world is of a piece and that it is only the blindness of men that obscures the essential oneness of it’. For is it not a feature of our time that we are literally able for the first time to consider the world as a whole, as is apparent from the programme which each of you has received. Alexander King tells us that now the moment has come for a total reversal in our thinking and for a synthesised view of the world given the alarming problems facing contemporary civilisation, like – the uncertain financial state of the world in which accumulated national indebtedness is becoming more and more evident; – the deadlock in the North-South dialogue which is widening the gap between rich and poor countries; – the failure to curb the arms race and the enormous amounts that developing countries in particular spend on arms – although there would seem to be some improvement in the offing; – the depletion of some global resources; – the continuing deterioration in our environment, including desertification and deforestation, something which I am confronted with daily as Founder-President of the World Wildlife Fund ; – and finally the enormous growth in the world population. And the list is not complete. These problems are dominated by a growing magnitude of rapid change.
Moreover, our uncertainty becomes greater because of the complexity and we are increasingly coming to see how little politicians and institutions can do to cope with all these problems. You have often said that the machinery of government is singularly ill suited to tackle the current complexity, because government structures consist of a series of vertically organised departments. What is more, the official machinery is trained to safeguard stability and continuity, instead of preparing for change. This is why you never cease to remind politicians that we are dealing with a tangled complex of mutually interactive problems which cannot be tackled individually and in isolation because of their very interaction and before which the vertical sectional structures of government, however powerful they may be, are relatively impotent. Political actions alone are not sufficient, nor are the efforts of the economist, the engineer, the scientist or the sociologist in isolation. But a different approach of this kind is difficult to achieve in our present versions of the democratic system which rely on parliamentary or presidential cycles of five years or less, thus forcing both administrations and opposition to concentrate on short-term cosmetic measures at the expense of more fundamental but also more distant problems. Totalitarian regimes do not have the problem but instead have to cope with an immobile administrative machinery. You once wrote, ‘As a consequence, domestic policy-makers have a diminishing degree of freedom in facing up to their domestic problems and although the vessel of sovereignty is leaking, political leaders continue as if each nation was in complete control of its own’.
It is an illusion to think that new insights in the natural sciences or new technological developments can be confined by frontiers. This is why it was so important that you, as it were, forced the governments of the OECD states to pay systematic attention to science and technology to prepare their populations for all the changes which would inevitably be brought about. What we need is a simultaneous attack. And for that we need a new economic order, born of a deeper understanding and for which a new enlightened humanism is required, because the present problems transcend current ideologies. Erasmus, after whom this prize is named, would be gratified to hear that we need ‘to recover our humanity’ and do away with totalitarian tidings of salvation, social utopias or nationalistic feelings. With increasing energy and spurred on by your enthusiasm and immense realism, you have shown governments that more serious attention should be given to long-term and often more fundamental problems. And your energy does indeed know no bounds. Characteristic of you was your trip alone by bike to the North Cape and your canoe journey down the Danube – a short time later you led an expedition to the island of Jan Mayen. I understand that you have to leave early tomorrow morning to preside over a meeting in Atlanta. You make clear to us that the time is now ripe for the reassessment of the world order and the examination of alternative approaches which must be based on interdependence and self-reliance. We must shape our own destiny in good time before we destroy ourselves. Man, who now is responsible for his own evolution, will have to undergo a revolution the like of which history has never seen.
In the light of the above it is clear that in education and research basic reform and rearrangement of the existing sciences will be required if they are to be able to penetrate and interact sufficiently in the evolving totality of human knowledge. Even our universities and research institutes are mainly mono-disciplinary. In your important publication ‘Science and Policy’ of 1974 and in the Brooks report of 1971 on ‘Science, Growth and Society’ of which you were the initiator, you point out the importance of a national science policy for carrying out fundamental research and for promoting technological development within a social framework. It is increasingly becoming clear to us that science policy has now become an international concern. You discovered during the Second World War when you belonged to the ‘think tank’ set up by Churchill that science can be a major innovator rather than a servant of conventional technology. Already then the importance emerged of international research. The jet engine, the microwave radar, penicillin, DDT, and the concept of nuclear energy were developed on the basis of European fundamental research. Science and technology have become even more important, because the world, through all these new opportunities, is currently in the throes of a new technological revolution which is likely to have a greater impact on society than the industrial revolution in the last century. Developments in the field of biochemistry, your original field of study, microelectronics and new materials will determine our near future. From an industrial society we are shifting to a society essentially based on information. Our information society is emerging as a result of the interaction of scientific, technological, economic, social and cultural forces and is thus not purely the result of a technological development. Our society is recognising many parallels with what the biochemists are discovering in the genetic transmission of information with DNA which has proved to be a superb medium of information-transmission in nature. All this, too, will ultimately greatly increase the interdependence of individuals and nations because advances in science and technology do not stop at national frontiers. But let’s at least hope with you, Dr. King, that this will not serve to reinforce the bureaucratic and impersonal image of the services sector of today, but produce a qualitative rather than a quantitative growth and an encouragement of creative activities.
As I have just said your encouraging initiatives have also been in the field of new forms of education. Our universities need to encourage the maximum of creativity and innovation to make people aware of contemporary global trends and the complexity of the present and to allow them to find alternative options. You advocate in this regard an improvement of the status of the teacher at all levels because you want to give this profession the highest priority. I hope I have given some idea of how great your own imaginative thinking is and how visionary your conception of the world, to which you couple an indestructible confidence in the creativity of man, his ability to adapt, and the final triumph of Good.
Among the many organisations in which you have been involved, your greatest efforts have been devoted to the OECD, where you were director-general of science policy, the International Federation of Institutes of Advanced Study (IFIAS), of which you were chairman from 1974 to 1984 and the Club of Rome of which you have been president since 1984. As such you are an animator and a stimulator of ideas who is capable of presenting an overall approach to problems and seeing connections and lines which point to the future. Fifteen years ago we were still living in an age of analysis, and now we have reached the age of synthesis. Complexity used to confound us; the fact that we now have a better insight into this complexity is largely thanks to you. You have succeeded, within international organisations, in getting governments aligned and making a first step towards a change in attitude in the world. You indicated concrete ways of acting on the basis of philosophy and analysis. In this context it is gratifying to hear that Mr. Gorbachev invited you recently to discuss the global future. Because of your worldwide approach to problems you know how to bridge the gap between the two cultures: science and the humanities. To illustrate this I would like to close with a quote from the philosopher and former laureate, Karl Jaspers. The aims of philosophy he sets could not be more aptly applied than to you who was originally a chemist, and to your work. I quote: ‘Was soll die Philosophie? Sie lehrt wenigstens, sich nicht täuschen zu lassen. Keine Tatsache und keine Möglichkeit lässt sie beiseiteschieben. Sie lehrt dem wahrscheinlichen Unheil ins Angesicht zu blicken. Sie stört die Ruhe in der Welt. Aber sie verwehrt auch die Unbesonnenheit das Unheil fur unausweichlich zu halten. Dennoch liegt es auch an uns, was wird. Die Philosophie könnte, wenn sie in ihrem Denken kräftig, für Menschen überzeugend und durch Menschen, aus denen sie spricht, glaubwürdig würde, ein Faktor der Rettung sein. Sie allein ist es die die Denkungsart wandeln kann’. And with these words, Dr. King, I should like to present you with the 1987 Erasmus Prize.
(from Karl Jaspers, Kleine Schule des philosophischen Denkens, Vorlesungen, die Philosophie in der Welt, Serie Piper, 1974)