Sunday, November 24, 2019

Objective science and its human consequences - I

Many scientists think of their work as purely mathematical and technical.  The human results of their research are none of their business.  Hence for von Neumann’s computer, the end of the world was only one more question to be answered by calculation. But the political neutrality of of scientists, their moral innocence and notion of ‘value-free’ science are not as scientists are wont to say. In Brighter Than A Thousand Suns, Robert Jungk relates the story of many of the scientists of the early days of atomic research, and through until 1954.  It is the story of the moral and political temptations of the first atomic  scientists like Rutherford, Bohr, Gamov, Dirac, Pauli, Oppenheimer, etc.

Jungk writes of a brilliant mathematician whom he saw walking along the street during his last visit to Los Alamos, where the atom bomb was developed, in 1956. The mathematician’s face was wreathed in a beautiful smile because he said that he was thinking about a mathematical problem whose solution was essential to the construction of a new type of H-bomb. To him, research for nuclear weapons was just pure higher mathematics, untrammelled by blood, poison, and destruction. All that, he said, was none of his business. This kind of thinking has been the norm ever since the scientific academies of the seventeenth century determined that no discussions of political, moral, or theological problems should be allowed at their meetings. The reasons for this ostrich-like policy were clearly analyzed by a scientist in 1947 when he told the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists:
It is a custom in science - and perhaps a principle - to select from the  infinite reservoir of unsolved problems only those simple ones the solution  of which seems possible in terms of available knowledge and skills. We are trained to subject our results to the most severe criticism. Adherence to these two principles results in our knowing very little, but on the other hand being very certain that we know this little. 
We scientists seem to be unable to apply these principles to the immensely complex problems of the political world and its social order. In general we are cautious and therefore tolerant and disinclined to accept total solutions. Our very objectivity prevents us from taking a strong stand in political differences, in which the right is never on one side. So we took the easiest way out and hid in our ivory tower. We felt that neither the good nor the evil applications were our responsibility. 
Jungk mentions a conversation between Niels Bohr and Winston Churchill which showed how closely connected science and politics are. Bohr hoped to use the internationalism of science to bridge the hostility between nations, particularly between the USA and USSR. Towards achieving this goal, he had a meeting with Churchill. Churchill listened to the physicist for half an hour in silence and then turned around to his scientific adviser and asked, ’What is he really talking about? Politics or physics?’

In the early 1940s, American nuclear scientists raced to construct the atom bomb because they feared that the Germans might get there first, an expectation that later turned out to be exaggerated. This was a turning point, a time when the scientists could have turned away from developing the bomb.  Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein, who both later fought against the bomb project, called on the USA to forward it, believing that USA would never actually use the bomb. It was also a turning point in that the more light-hearted, youthful co-operation of scientists gradually changed in America under the secretive and authoritarian regime  of Manhattan Project in 1942.

Colonel Leslie Groves was given the rank of General and put in charge of the project. He is described as "being obsessed by one intense fear, that the war would be finished before 'his' bomb could be". He was clearly determined at all costs to use this instrument, over which he had laboured so long, and his voice was an influential one in Government circles. Robert Oppenheimer, Director at Los Alamos, had a willingness to kow-tow to the military establishment (but for all that, he was charged with treason because he expressed concerns about the Hydrogen bomb project which was planned later). After the atom bomb had been developed but before it was used, it became clear that its use was not required to defeat Japan.

Szilard and Einstein now  wrote to President Roosevelt urging against the atomic bombing of Japanese cities. But Roosevelt died suddenly.  The new President Truman wasn’t interested – setting up scientific panels, and an ”Interim Committee” who would “play ball” with the military. The scientific panel was not called upon to decide whether the bomb should be used, but only how it should be used. In spite of seven of the scientists writing to the Secretary of War, opposing  use of the bomb, the Interim Committee (Oppenheimer, Fermi, Compton and Lawrence) recommended the bombing. Enrico Fermi commented “Don’t bother me with your conscientious scruples! After all, the thing is superb physics!”

The outcome of the discussion was a victory for General Groves. The Committee recommended that: 1, the bomb should be used against Japan; 2, it should be used on both military and civil targets; 3, it should be used "without prior warning of the nature of the weapon". When the news of these recommendations leaked out, a counter committee was formed at Chicago University to fight these proposals, and they issued a memorandum urging the Government merely to demonstrate the weapon on a barren island.

This appeal was forwarded to the scientific panel of the "Interim Committee" and once more they evaded their responsibilities. "We said", states Oppenheimer, "that we didn't think that being scientists especially qualified us as to how to answer this question of how the bombs should be used or not". Oppenheimer explained later that his  Interim Committee’s  recommendation was “a technical opinion”. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Aldous Huxley on loss of individuality

The obsession with efficiency has displaced other higher ideals. New technologies promise democratization but instead give rise to new monopolies that are more powerful and sophisticated than the ones before. The current phase of homogenization gives the illusion of personal control and personal liberty. Instead the algorithms of a few tech companies determine what we read, what we buy, what we see etc. The attitude of many big tech firms towards competition is that Competition is for Losers (pdf). Monopoly and homogenization are two sides of the same coin. In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley writes:
. . . modern technology has led to the concentration of economic and political power, and to the development of a society controlled (ruthlessly in the totalitarian states, politely and inconspicuously in the democracies) by Big Business and Big Government. But societies are composed of individuals and are good only insofar as they help individuals to realize their potentialities and to lead a happy and creative life. 
The wish to impose order upon confusion, to bring harmony out of dissonance and unity out of multiplicity is a kind of intellectual instinct, a primary and fundamental urge of the mind. Within the realms of science, art and philosophy the workings of what I may call this "Will to Order" are mainly beneficent. True, the Will to Order has produced many premature syntheses based upon insufficient evidence . . . But these errors, however regrettable, do not do much harm, at any rate directly -- though it sometimes happens that a bad philosophical system may do harm indirectly, by being used as a justification for senseless and inhuman actions. It is in the social sphere, in the realm of politics and economics, that the Will to Order becomes really dangerous. 
Here the theoretical reduction of unmanageable multiplicity to comprehensible unity becomes the practical reduction of human diversity to subhuman uniformity, of freedom to servitude. In politics the equivalent of a fully developed scientific theory or philosophical system is a totalitarian dictatorship. In economics, the equivalent of a beautifully composed work of art is the smoothly running factory in which the workers are perfectly adjusted to the machines. The Will to Order can make tyrants out of those who merely aspire to clear up a mess. The beauty of tidiness is used as a justification for despotism. 
Organization is indispensable; for liberty arises and has meaning only within a self-regulating community of freely cooperating individuals. But, though indispensable, organization can also be fatal. Too much organization transforms men and women into automata, suffocates the creative spirit and abolishes the very possibility of freedom. As usual, the only safe course is in the middle, between the extremes of laissez-faire at one end of the scale and of total control at the other. 
During the past century the successive advances in technology have been accompanied by corresponding advances in organization. Complicated machinery has had to be matched by complicated social arrangements, designed to work as smoothly and efficiently as the new instruments of production. In order to fit into these organizations, individuals have had to deindividualize themselves, have had to deny their native diversity and conform to a standard pattern, have had to do their best to become automata. 
Brave New World presents a fanciful and somewhat ribald picture of a society, in which the attempt to re­create human beings in the likeness of termites has been pushed almost to the limits of the possible. That we are being propelled in the direction of Brave New World is obvious. But no less obvious is the fact that we can, if we so desire, refuse to co-operate with the blind forces that are propelling us. For the moment, however, the wish to resist does not seem to be very strong or very widespread. 
As Mr. William Whyte has shown in his remarkable book, The Organization Man, a new Social Ethic is replacing our traditional ethical system -- the system in which the individual is primary. The key words in this Social Ethic are "adjustment," "adaptation," "socially orientated behavior," "belongingness," "acquisition of social skills," "team work," "group living," "group loyalty," "group dynamics," "group thinking," "group creativity." Its basic assumption is that the social whole has greater worth and significance than its individual parts, that inborn biological differences should be sac­rificed to cultural uniformity, that the rights of the collectivity take precedence over what the eighteenth century called the Rights of Man. 
According to the Social Ethic, Jesus was completely wrong in asserting that the Sabbath was made for man. On the contrary, man was made for the Sabbath, and must sacrifice his inherited idiosyncrasies and pretend to be the kind of standardized good mixer that organizers of group activity regard as ideal for their purposes. This ideal man is the man who displays "dynamic conformity" (delicious phrase!) and an intense loyalty to the group, an unflagging desire to subordinate himself, to belong. And the ideal man must have an ideal wife, highly gregarious, infinitely adaptable and not merely re­signed to the fact that her husband's first loyalty is to the Corporation, but actively loyal on her own account.  

The current Social Ethic, it is obvious, is merely a justification after the fact of the less desirable consequences of over-organization. It represents a pathetic attempt to make a virtue of necessity, to extract a positive value from an unpleasant datum. It is a very unrealistic, and therefore very dangerous, system of morality. The social whole, whose value is assumed to be greater than that of its component parts, is not an organism in the sense that a hive or a termitary may be thought of as an organism. It is merely an organization, a piece of social machinery. There can be no value except in relation to life and awareness. 
An organization is neither conscious nor alive. Its value is instrumental and derivative. It is not good in itself; it is good only to the extent that it promotes the good of the individuals who are the parts of the collective whole. To give organizations precedence over persons is to subordinate ends to means. What happens when ends are subordinated to means was clearly demonstrated by Hitler and Stalin. Under their hideous rule personal ends were subordinated to organizational means by a mixture of violence and propaganda, systematic terror and the systematic manipulation of minds. In the more efficient dictatorships of tomorrow there will probably be much less violence than under Hitler and Stalin. 
The future dictator's subjects will be painlessly regimented by a corps of highly trained social engineers.  . . .  To the question quis custodiet custodes -- Who will mount guard over our guardians, who will engineer the engineers? -- the answer is a bland denial that they need any supervision. There seems to be a touching belief among certain Ph.D.'s in sociology that Ph.D.'s in sociology will never be corrupted by power. Like Sir Galahad's, their strength is as the strength of ten because their heart is pure -- and their heart is pure because they are scientists and have taken six thousand hours of social studies. 

Alas, higher education is not necessarily a guarantee of higher virtue, or higher political wisdom.