Friday, February 14, 2020

Objective science and its human consequences - V

The power and prestige of modern science is huge. One of its characteristics is its willingness to put itself at the service of the state. One reason for its power comes from its striking ability to perfect ever more deadly means of warfare. Many scientists take their job to be to dream up new weapons systems and persuade the state that the security of the country depends upon buying what they have dreamed up. The more consequential a decision is, the more difficult it is to take responsibility for it and the easier it is to persuade yourself that you did a good thing. ‘I did the best thing for the nation.’

The society has to take part of the blame for this. One of the middle class heroes in India is A. P. J. Abdul Kalaam. He was one of leading scientists involved in India acquiring nuclear weapons. One online poll rated him as the most important Indian since Gandhi.  Hannah Arendt says in The Human Condition, 'We are perhaps the first generation which has become fully aware of the murderous consequences inherent in a line of thought that forces one to admit that all means, provided that they are efficient, are permissible and justified to pursue something defined as an end.' Robert Jungk mentions the lament of a scientist he met at Los Alamos which exemplifies Gandhi's complaint against modern civilization - modern man is trapped by the institutions he creates:
What an extraordinary and incomprehensible thing! My whole youth was absolutely devoted to truth, freedom, and peace; and yet fate has seen fit to deposit me here where my freedom of movement is limited; the truth that I am trying to discover is locked behind massive gates; and the ultimate aim of my work has to be the construction of the most hideous weapons of war. Could fate have been more perverse?' 
Are scientists responsible for the potentially negative impacts of their work? You could say that Einstein was not responsible for the use of his E=mc2 equation to build an atomic bomb and its use in wartime. He said later  that if he had known that his discoveries would ultimately result in the making of an atom bomb, he would have preferred to be a watchmaker. But if it is readily foreseeable that such knowledge could be used for nefarious purposes, the scientists who introduce such new technological capacities are partially responsible for an attack that could ultimately cause millions of deaths.

The scientists at Los Alamos certainly were responsible for their creation. There was genuine fear in the beginning that Germany might make the bomb first. But the scientists continued to work feverishly on the bomb long after it was known that Germany was not in the race. They agreed to drop the bomb on Japan even when it was known that it it was only weeks away from being defeated. They also gave technical inputs for how the bombs should be dropped for maximum effectiveness.

Two different types of atomic bombs were dropped on Japan: one was plutonium, the other uranium. The plutonium bomb was tested in the U.S. at Alamogordo, and later dropped on Nagasaki as a weapon. But the uranium bomb was the first of its kind in history; it was tested out on the people of Hiroshima in the manner of a scientific experiment. It has been argued that Auschwitz and Hiroshima are not aberrations but the logical playing out of the idea of modern civilization in which scientists have had a starring role. In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt writes:
Giinther Anders, in an interesting essay on the atom bomb (Die Antiquiertheitdes Menschen [1956]), argues convincingly that the term "experiment" is no longer applicable to nuclear experiments involving explosions of the new bombs. For it was characteristic of experiments that the space where they took place was strictly limited and isolated against the surrounding world. The effects of the bombs are so enormous that "their laboratory becomes co-extensive with the globe".
When General Groves, overall military co-ordinator of the atom bomb, observed the initial retreat from the company town of Los Alamos back to the freedom of the university after the atom bomb project, he retorted that 'his little sheep would find their way back'. He was right. By 1947, the scientists' crusade against the hydrogen bomb had failed and they were trudging back to Los Alamos. Groves remarked later, 'What happened is what I expected, that after they had this extreme freedom for six months, their feet began to itch, and, as you know, almost everyone has come back to government research because it was just too exciting.’

Financial pressures make disinterested research difficult to sustain.  Big business provides funds for specific research, such as the invention of new products that will increase their profits irrespective of their social and environmental impact. National governments are governed by their defense policies,  budgets and profit which determine where research and development money goes. The military establishments spend substantial amounts on research projects of specific interest. For eg., they may push for development of polymers capable of withstanding the impact of bullets and explosives.

Scientists are trapped between their conscience and a need for funds that only the government can provide. But accepting funds from the government means your work is tied to defense research. Patriotism is perhaps the greatest temptation. As one scientist has recently pointed out: "While scientists see more clearly than can others the terrible consequences of the use of the weapons they are developing, they see with equal clarity also the possible consequences of their nation being left at the mercy of an enemy equipped with them". This is the real dilemma that faces us in our time.

It is easy to say 'our choices and actions reflect our understanding of good and evil'. or that 'we alone are responsible for our conduct'. This assumes an abstracted individual divorced from his social and institutional setting. To act in a morally upright fashion could invite penalties not only on the person involved but also on those dependent on him. Institutions with their structures of dominance and control constrain the choices of individuals and direct them towards certain pre-determined alternatives. Whistle-blowing requires a courage, and an indifference to personal consequences, that few people possess.

One of the difficulties that modernity has created in assuming responsibility is caused by a social phenomena called: diffusion of responsibility. Whenever a task is placed before a group of people, there's a strong tendency for each individual to assume someone else will take responsibility for it —  so no one does. These days scientists participate in large scale collective work and in this context it is very easy to avoid the question of responsibility.

The overwhelming majority of scientists would not be able to live up to Gandhi's idea of responsibility which places a heavy burden on the individual. In his view, responsibility has to be taken not only for what we do but also for  what we tolerate. Tolerating institutional actions even though they go against our deepest convictions means for him that we surrender our autonomy. When this happens, we look for actions that will please our superiors and this was not acceptable to Gandhi.