‘Mr President, I feel I have blood on my hands’
Reasonable men can dream monstrous dreams. It is the lesson of the 20th century: a lesson articulated from various perspectives since Adorno and Horkheimer wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment amid the wreckage of World War Two. Defenders of the Enlightenment can cogently argue (and many have) that Nazi science was a grotesque caricature, that the Holocaust was a betrayal of the Enlightenment rather than a fulfilment of its fatal dialectic. But it is harder to make that case with respect to the development of nuclear weapons. Indeed the subject seems designed to lay bare the contradictions at the core of Enlightenment culture by revealing them at work in the subculture of professional physicists bent to the needs of government power. Few social laboratories could more clearly reveal the tensions between chauvinist impulses and humanist aspirations, or between careerist plotting and disinterested service, or – perhaps most important – between the Enlightenment ideal of intellectual openness and the demands for secrecy made by the national security state.The history of nuclear weapons began in an atmosphere of creative ferment and international trade in ideas. This was the world of Knaben3physik (‘boy physics’) in the 1920s and 1930s, when young men who had not been shaving for more than a few years were excitedly reading one another’s papers and poring over the results of experiments in Cambridge, Göttingen, Copenhagen and (eventually) Berkeley. This was how Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and others created the foundations of quantum physics. Yet within less than a decade this moment had passed. Olympian conversations were drowned out by fascist chants. Jewish physicists, led by Einstein, fled to America; Heisenberg stayed in Germany; Bohr stayed out of sight in occupied Denmark. The concentration of research effort shifted westwards across the Atlantic. But it was research with a new, pragmatic mission: to build an atomic bomb before Hitler did. Theories conceived in open exchange were harnessed to secret purposes, and illuminating ideas were pressed into the service of mass death. No wonder some of the atomic scientists felt remorse, or at least ambivalence, about their achievement; no wonder some began to glimpse the darker dimensions of Enlightenment when the blinding flash of the first atomic explosion revealed their labours had not been in vain
Oh God, what have we done? by Jackson Lears [London Review of Books]
The campus I currently study at has a street named after J. Robert Oppenheimer,
Granted that alongside Ernest Orlando Lawrence he built the damn American school of physics on this campus, but I’ve always found it incredibly fascinating given the conflict presented in the text above.
I also love Hans Bethe’s quote that Oppenheimer ‘worked at physics mainly because he found physics the best way to do philosophy.’ And I think that many on this campus, and elsewhere, still believe this to be true of themselves because of figures like J. Robert Oppenheimer.
In the simplest version of the problem, many people still seem to believe that applied reason, as manifested in a move from Level I (solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors, whatever) to Level III (manipulating the climate in desired ways) is only a matter of doing the right thing, installing the right type of solar panel, buying organic produce, making virtuous choices. Indeed, this is the only place the Enlightenment can leave us. And here, so far, is the score: Nearly 20 years into the effort to impose a global governance regime on the climate, no progress has been made toward reducing global emissions. In fact, even by that excessively narrow definition the problem is growing worse. This empirically robust result is not attributable to “bad actors” such as the United States; rather, it is sadly unavoidable - predictable - consequence of category mistakes - of Level I and Level II thinking in a Level III world.
Wicked complexity just can’t be successfully managed using that favored child of the Enlightenment, applied reason.
Arguing the Enlightenment
Instead, the Democratic party is guilty of sinning against the holy Enlightenment just as the GOP. Enlightenment thinkers would not participate in this absurd “war” against modern food science. Good, rational, scientific minds would not espouse the need for “natural” medicines and foods because we recognize why we have industrial methods. In a planet with a rapidly growing population and finite resources, the answer is to mechanize and industrialize food production instead of reverting to medieval standards of production.
An “Enlightened” Democratic party would not wage war against individual decision making. Locke or Smith or Paine would roll in their graves at the insertion of collective force into people’s lives regarding their private actions. Just as Democrats assert that private and religious theory should not masquerade as science in public schools, I would offer up the left’s war on industrial agriculture and the modern animal sciences as well as their attacks on the individual choices of Americans regarding their diet. What would the scholars of the Enlightenment say to people of all political backgrounds rejecting modern medicine in favor of herbs (for the left) or prayer (for the right)?
Perhaps a better post from Politicalprof would have stated that Americans in general seem to be rejecting science that does not adhere to their worldviews and individual prejudices. *That* would be nothing new, yet it makes it much tougher to smear a collective group of people for being less advanced or smart than another.
PS If you’d like to get some snarky pleasure at the Anti-Enlightenment types out there, check out Michael Specter’s book “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens our Lives.”
- The Enlightenment isn’t roses and daisies, as Political Prof alluded to in his post.
- What do you mean by absurd “war” against modern food science?
- What do you mean by modern animal sciences?