Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Objective science and its human consequences - IV

There was noticeable change in the intellectual climate since the October days in 1949 when the majority of the scientists who worked on the hydrogen bomb had declared themselves opposed to its construction.  From 1951 to 1955 the general attitude of atomic scientists was one of enthusiasm for the hydrogen bomb (1000 times more powerful than the first atomic bomb).  Jungk muses on this change of heart:
How is one to explain such macabre enthusiasm, which had swept away all the earlier scruples and objections to the Super monster? Oppenheimer himself provides a clue to the reason why scientists of today, despite occasional hesitations, in the end so often change their minds when the successful solution for a problem they had long wrestled with is at last in view, however disastrous its ultimate effects may be. In recalling the repudiation of the hydrogen bomb by the General Advisory Committee in October 1949 he said: 
I do not think we want to argue technical questions here and I do not think it is very meaningful for me to speculate as to how we would have responded had the technical picture at that time been more as it was later.  However, it is my judgment in these things that when you see something that is technically sweet you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb. I do not think anybody opposed making it; there were some debates about what to do with it after it was made. I cannot very well imagine if we had known in late 1949 what we got to know by early 1951 that the tone of our report would have been the same.
In this statement there is no longer any trace of the ethical doubts so forcibly expressed in the report of the General Advisory Committee. Oppenheimer here, whether intentionally or not, reveals a dangerous tendency in the modern research scientist. His remarkable admission perhaps explains why the twentieth-century Faust allows himself, in his obsession with success and despite occasional twinges of conscience, to be persuaded into signing the pact with the Devil that confronts him: What is 'technically sweet' he finds nothing less than irresistible.
The objective impersonal pursuit of knowledge about nature and society that science encourages produces  a psychological process called ‘isolation’. This is the dangerous ability of people to separate ideas from feelings and to pursue ideas without being burdened by feelings. It is a psychological defence mechanism that enables scientists to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their inventions. According to the psychologist Otto Fenichel ‘. . . the process of logical thinking . . . actually consists of the continued elimination of affective association in the interest of objectivity’. This quote is in Bonfire of Creeds by Ashis Nandy which also has an observation by Eric Fromm:
Logical thought is not rational if it is merely logical...(Paranoid thinking is characterized by the fact that it can be completely logical...Logic does not exclude madness.) On the other hand, not only thinking but also emotion can be rational...
Reason flows from the blending of rational thought and feeling. If the two functions are torn apart, thinking deteriorates into schizoid intellectual activity, and feeling deteriorates into neurotic life-damaging passions. 
The split between thought and affect leads to a sickness, to a low-grade schizophrenia from which the new man of the technocratic age begins to suffer...There are low-grade forms of psychosis which can be shared by millions of people.
One of Gandhi’s critiques of modernity is the reliance on rationality as the sole arbiter of truth which he thought was a false and pernicious doctrine. In some areas of human experience such as morality and politics, reason was inherently inadequate and needed to be guided by wisdom, tradition, conscience, intuition, and moral insight. Rationalism also valued only one form of knowledge, namely the scientific, and only one form of life, namely the secular, individualist, and competitive, based on the mastery of nature.

Further, for the rationalist, human life was transparent, fully knowable if not today then tomorrow, and whatever could not be scientifically known either did not exist or was not worth knowing. Rationalism therefore bred the arrogant and irrational belief that human beings could shape the world in whatever way they liked. For Gandhi, a watertight compartmentalization is not at all possible between the mind and heart, rationality and morality. In fact, an individual’s comprehensive personality depends on both rationality and intuition. Thus, we should not accept only one aspect as a whole, as that would be a partial perspective.

He argued that the relation between reason and violence is much closer than we realize. The over-reliance on reason makes it over-step what he takes to be its boundaries. For him, love, generosity, trust etc. do not flow from reason (for some rationalists, such feelings are unnecessary complications that spoil their beautiful equations). He knew that the opposite of these feelings is not always reason. Blindly following reason makes people think that knowledge without ethics is inferior knowledge. Gandhi would constantly critique faith to ascertain whether it was meaningful and reasonable in terms of basic human values. He demands of reason adherence to these values as well. He said in 1939 (quoted in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy by Ronald Terchek):
Rationalism is a hideous monster when it claims for itself omnipotence. Attribution of omnipotence to reason is as bad a piece of idolatry as is worship of rock and stone believing it to be God. I plead not for the suppression of reason but [an appreciation of its inherent limits].
Robert Jungk wrote Brighter than a 1000 Suns in 1955.  Over 60 years later – has anything changed? If anything, the ethical dilemmas would have lessened. One of the effects of modernity is to make its beneficiaries soft and unable to take any hardships (I am an example of this problem.). Scientists fall in this category since they are among its biggest beneficiaries and have much to lose if are non-conformist and refuse to toe the government line. C.V. Raman said that a scientist should starve rather than help make make nuclear weapons. How many scientists are willing to follow this line? Probably none.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Objective science and its human consequences - III

The leading spirit in the campaign against the hydrogen bomb was Bethe. He had said that its use would be a betrayal of all standards of morality and of Christian civilization.  He wrote an article in The Scientific American, dealing with the scientific, political, and moral aspects of the 'Super bomb'. (Several thousand copies of the issue were confiscated and pulped by government agents on the pretext that the article revealed secrets of importance to national defence.) In it, he wrote:
I believe the most important question is the moral one: can we, who have always insisted on morality and human decency between nations as well as inside our own country, introduce this weapon of total annihilation into the world? The usual argument . . .is that we are fighting against a country which denies all the human values we cherish and that any weapon, however terrible, must be used to prevent that country and its creed from dominating the world. 
It is argued that it would be better for us to lose our lives than our liberty; and this I personally agree with. But I believe that this is not the question; I believe that we would lose far more than our lives in a war fought with hydrogen bombs, that we would in fact lose all our liberties and human values at the same time, and so thoroughly that we would not recover them for an unforeseeably long time. 
The question that exercised scientists' minds at this time was the problem of their personal responsibility for the results of their work. This problem had been stated for the first time by the mathematician Norbert Wiener. He had been asked  whether he would let a weapons manufacturing firm have a copy of a report he had written. Wiener's reply included the passage:
The experience of the scientists who have worked on the atomic bomb has indicated that in any investigation of this kind the scientist ends by putting unlimited powers in the hands of the people whom he is least inclined to trust with their use. It is perfectly clear also that to disseminate information about a weapon in the present state of our civilization is to make it practically certain that that weapon will be used.   
If therefore I do not desire to participate in the bombing or poisoning of defenceless peoples - and I most certainly do not - 1 must take a serious responsibility as to those to whom I disclose my scientific ideas. I do not expect to publish any future work of mine which may do damage in the hands of irresponsible militarists. 
Wiener's radical attitude was repudiated by most American scientists. They relied mainly on the counter-argument of Louis N. Ridenour, in an answer to Wiener: 'No one can tell what the result of any given scientific Investigation may be. And it is absolutely certain that no one can prophesy the nature of any practical final product that may arise in consequence of such research. ...’

To this constantly repeated objection the English crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale has replied: 'The risk that one's work, though good in itself, may be misused must always be taken. But responsibility cannot be shirked if the known purpose is criminal or evil, however ordinary the work itself'. But only a few scientists have acted on this principle. On of these few was one of Max Born's young English assistants, Helen Smith. As soon as she heard of the atom bomb and its application, she decided to give up physics for jurisprudence.

In June 1950 the Korean War broke out. Soon, many scientists who had reservations about working with the arms industry returned to arms research considering it their patriotic duty. One of them was none other than Hans Bethe who played a decisive part in the ultimate production of the bomb. And as the supreme irony, he was entrusted with the task of writing its technical history. In 1954, however, he said: 'I am afraid my inner troubles stayed with me and are still with me and I have not resolved this problem. I still have the feeling that I have done the wrong thing. But I have done it.'