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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Einstein’s Letter

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
| Alexander Pope, An Essay On Criticism

Einstein's Letter

As the headlines each day confirm the increasingly damaging impact of climate change, only the most ignorant and complacent of us still refuse to acknowledge that the consequences of what passes for human civilization may be moving us toward the brink of global catastrophe, perhaps extinction. It is not the first time that we, as a species, have been summoned to confront what we have created. If Oppenheimer, Feynman, Szilard, Fermi, Bethe, and the others responsible for the development of the atom bomb at Los Alamos had considered the longterm consequences of what they were unleashing, the Manhattan Project might never have happened—and how different our world would be today. There was a context, of course, within which developing the bomb made sense. The Germans were already at work on enriching uranium. Einstein’s famous letter to Roosevelt made clear that the Allies could ill afford to let the Nazis gain the atomic advantage, and therefore that the United States had no choice but to inaugurate what would become the nuclear arms race. Wielding the awesome power of science recklessly, not even knowing what to expect, they opened Pandora’s Box, perhaps setting history on a road with no turns and sealing the fate of humankind and the planet.

It did not take long for them to realize the enormity of what they had done. On 16 July, 1945 at the Trinity test site, upon witnessing the detonation of the first nuclear bomb, which yielded a roughly 20 kiloton explosion and sent a mushroom cloud towering nearly eight miles into the sky, Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity test, said, “We’re all sons of bitches now.” Similarly appalled, Robert Oppenheimer, who had been chosen to head up the project, quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” and when this “foul and awesome display,” as Bainbridge later described it, was reprised over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer was stricken with a crisis of conscience that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Years later, Einstein, who had played no direct role in the Manhattan Project, said: “I made one great mistake in my life, when I signed the letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made.”

At the time that he signed what would become known as “Einstein’s Letter,” which Fermi actually had written, Einstein saw “no other way out.” The situation was clear: Either we get the bomb first, or they do. Such reasoning is guilty of the fallacy of “false dilemma” in presuming that there are only two options, in this case both based on the assumption that successful development of the atomic bomb was a fait accompli, which it was not. There were other courses of action open. Roosevelt could have ordered aggressive steps to disrupt the German effort rather than throwing open the door to the proliferation of weapons capable of such monstrously destructive power that the future of humanity would hang in an increasingly precarious balance. The same binary logic was used to justify dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ostensibly to “save lives,” and end the war—but was there really no “other way out?” Japan already had been defeated by a merciless campaign of incendiary bombing under the orders of Gen. Curtis LeMay that had reduced all of its cities capable of producing the machinery of war to smoldering ruins, immolating hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process.

When an overriding focus on technological capability is given unchecked license, it becomes possible to proceed with the unthinkable. But the fact that we can do something does not mean that we ought to do it. In these terms, the evolution of scientific knowledge and its technological spawn bears tragic witness to our corresponding failure to evolve socially, philosophically, and spiritually. Long before technology releases the vast power biding its time in the equations on the theorist’s blackboard, our wisdom or lack of it is setting the stage in ways that may have enormous consequences. For better or worse, the awesome power of science and technology rests in the hands of a species that time and time again has proven itself too rash, too shortsighted, too reactive, and too violent to be entrusted with it.

The development of weapons of mass destruction is not the only example of heedless science. Another coming out of the quantum camp, the so-called Simulation Hypothesis, views the universe, including ourselves, as the encoded information of an advanced computer program running on supercomputers somewhere in the distant future. Taken seriously, the claim might be existentially disturbing were it not riddled with circular reasoning, slanting, and other fallacies that render it impotent, but that is beside the point. Theorists often put forth ill-conceived hypotheses and interpretations with little or no consideration for their real-world consequences. In light of the juggernaut of video games involving first-person shooters bobbing across virtual landscapes as they blithely commit increasingly lifelike acts of virtual carnage, one shudders imagining what the impact might be of the Simulation Hypothesis on certain unstable individuals upon hearing the idea that the physical reality around them, including other people, are mere simulations. All too frequent news of mass shootings suggest that there are a growing number of such individuals with ready access to automatic weapons who already have a sociopathic inability to recognize let alone empathize with others. Entering a school or shopping mall or place of worship “locked and loaded” for mass murder somehow constitutes for them what William James calls a “live option” in a way that for most of us would be unthinkable. This is not to say that video games are either directly or solely the cause of such violence, or that the perpetrators of these shootings necessarily suffer from an inability to distinguish the real from the virtual. It is, however, to point out, that the suggestion that reality is a simulation is far more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution, because the simulated violence that sells video games has a desensitizing component over which developers do not appear to be losing much sleep.

The Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, taken seriously by about twenty percent of the world’s leading physicists, may similarly contribute, even if unwittingly, to a devaluing of life by claiming that all versions of reality exist. Apart from the contradictions and other logical problems with the interpretation and despite the fact that many of the assumptions made by its most vocal proponents are baseless, there are the ethical implications that such a model tends to overlook. Nor does it do to argue that quantum interpretation is a highly specialized field, and as such, far removed from the mainstream where the moral question can take on life-or-death significance. In the age of the Internet, even sophisticated scientific ideas have a way of seeping down into the soil of popular culture where those exposed to them as a rule do not have the safeguards against misunderstanding enjoyed by their authors. Beyond this, as we noted earlier, there is the question of the difference one interpretation may make over another in the technological advances to which it inevitably leads—advances that affect the life and future not only of those who endorse it, but potentially the whole of civilization, perhaps all life on Earth. David Mermin’s instruction to physicists to “shut up and calculate” is an ignorant and negligent mandate, because how we understand and interpret and explain reality, the universe, and ourselves may well save or destroy us.

Mermin’s “shut up and calculate” follows from the fact that virtually all current interpretations of quantum mechanics are consistent with the same predictions, a position that hubristically presumes that predictions are all that matter. This is a serious problem for science and for all of us. As the ancient Greeks warned, hubris before the gods is a fatal mistake. In modern terms, we might say that whether or not we survive as a species, whether or not life and the planet have a future, depends on whether or not we will finally grow up and acknowledge that however much scientific knowledge we may accumulate, there is always a great deal that we cannot see about the forces affecting us. We cannot see what lies in the shadows or around the next corner, indifferent to our preconceptions. Hiding in the atom was the power to obliterate entire populations literally in a flash, and who can say what irremediable horror, “its hour come round at last,” as Yeats puts it, lies waiting in the things we have yet to discover. Those who live and work at the leading edge of science and technology, who design and conduct experiments or interpret their results and certainly who apply those results to the development of new technologies have a far-reaching moral duty to look beyond the political exigencies of the moment, to think carefully before promoting views concerning the nature of reality, and to remember that we are engaging elements that we did not create and may not be able to manage, even when we think we can. If a little learning is a dangerous thing, a little humility that errs on the side of caution, in the end, may be the thing that saves us from ourselves.