Mid-Day Philosophy: Science and Boundaries

I'm an old-fashioned leftist in that I'm a fan of science. I hate it when TIKKUN magazine blames half the world's ills on "scientism." I share in my parents' and my grandparents' humanistic sense of science as a Promethean, as opposed to Frankensteinish, enterprise. As I wrote in Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist:

"Our parents' scientist was a world citizen, a messenger of prosperity and household ease, a crusader for truth against superstition, and a conqueror of hunger, disease and fascism." By contrast, to my own generation of progressives, "the scientist appears to be a corporate citizen, an idolater tampering with the very forces of creation for petty purposes, an amoral technician, and, in anthropologist Loren Eiseley's words, an 'extreme reductionist . . . so busy stripping things apart that the tremendous mystery has been reduced to a trifle . . .'"

Science has always represented, to me, the glory of humanism. Look at what we can do!

Two recent developments, however, have had me up in arms about the dangers of science unrestrained by anything but corporate managers and the military-industrial complex. The first was a New York Times discussion a week ago about atom-smashing, and whether it is conceivable or not that one of these experiments in subatomic physics might create a black hole in the laboratory that could suck us all to kingdom come. The article dealt with the "impending startup of the Large Hadron Collider” near Geneva, which "starts smashing protons together this summer . . . in hopes of grabbing a piece of the primordial fire, forces and particles that may have existed a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang."

The odds of a catastrophic outcome are a gazillion-to-one (or a bazillion to one or a foofatillion to one, depending on which physicist is estimating) — still, I was arrested by this article into thinking: Who gives them the right? ESPECIALLY since it seems to me that their research is so purely theoretical (string theory, etc.) that it will take decades to have practical application (teleportation, who knows what?) — and then the question arises, who determines the value of those practical applications? The General Electric Company? The Pentagon? There is a glaring lack of vital centers for discussion about the ethics of decision-making in our world, a glaring lack of discussion about not only what we can do but what we should do! Even scientists themselves — whose knowledge base is increasingly exclusive and privileged, and whose powers to manipulate reality seem increasingly magical to the rest of us — are in no position to claim a leadership role on questions about the social or ethical impact of their achievements. But without those kind of "vital centers" in our globalized world, decisions are left in the hands of corporate managers, politicians and others among whom the scoundrel quotient is terribly high!

The second alarm was sounded on the question of nuclear power, which is being debated within the Workmen's Circle as I write. Increasingly I hear from progressive-minded people that because of global warming, nuclear power must be considered a viable, clean-energy source. Rutgers professor Norman Levitt has written (in Prometheus Bedeviled) that nukes are opposed only because of "factors that go far beyond scientific skepticism," including its "mere association with nuclear weapons" and "a widespread feeling that atom splitting in its own right constitutes a primordial crime against the natural order." Yet my own earnest opposition to nuclear power is based far less on technophobia than on the half-life of plutonium and other nuclear fission byproducts, which persist in the environment for tens of thousands of years — an eternity, as far as human society is concerned.

Yes, the very fact that fission produces such powerful poisons gives me pause and makes my sense of taboo tingle — but even if I don't permit myself to make a metaphor out of "unnatural" plutonium, the idea that we, in the 21st century, shold feel entitled to do anything that will burden thousands of future generations with large amounts of poison seems morally unconscionable to me. However assured the arrogant scientist may be of his or her capacity to safeguard these substances technologically, the sheer span of time involved makes all predictions about the maintenance of that technology ridiculously hubristic. What knows what tens of thousands of years might produce in terms of war, political and environmental change, and social stability? At least, therefore, we should do EVERYTHING within our powers to reduce our energy consumption and find alternative ways to slow global warming before we resort to atom-splitting! No nukes as long as there are SUV's on the road!!

Does this make me religious? I certainly do think about the Biblical injunction about blessings and curses when I think about nuclear power — that we, like the Biblical God, should "extend kindness to the thousandth generation" while visiting "the iniquity of parents" only "upon children and children's children, upon the third and fourth generation" (Exodus 34: 7). Even as a staunch humanist and a fan of science, in other words, I do feel over the limits of where human beings should permit themselves to trespass when it comes to atom smashing.

By the way, for a really interesting discussion of the difference between building a golem and building a Frankenstein monster, I recommend Byron Sherwin's Golems Among Us. Fabulous and fascinating book, which I reviewed a couple of years back in Jewish Currents. I'll do some blogging about it in the near future.


Blogger Lao Qiao said...

When a medicine is discovered that can cure a horrible disease, it frequently has negative side effects. When a scientific discovery brings benefits to the world, it too may have negative side effects. To deal with the problems created by science, we need more science. Side effects can be overcome through research, just as disease can be—a step at a time.

Science, which means thinking, disagreeing, and exploring, is inherently moral, just like the Talmud, and just like democracy.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Reb Yudel said...

I'd say that worrying about the effect of your actions isn't "religious"; rather, it's moral and ethical.

What would be religious is a claim that if all decisions are made on the basis of quarterly profit, the results would be best for humanity. That's how corporate citizens (not a contradiction - the 19th c. Supreme Court extended the Bill of Rights to corporations) have to operate.

11:40 PM  
Blogger londonbernie said...

I actually think you have identified the correct problem with nuclear power, namely the intergenerational implications of the waste, but that there is a way through it. Indeed, this is an opportunity for society. Too often we leave problems like this to government, and don't very much like what they come up with. Or to 'the scientific community'. Neither works in this situation. Rather, this is a problem we can all understand and discuss. It is something on which we need to work as a society to develop a consensus, a broad and well informed consensus, as to how we should proceed. Should we bury the waste? Where? How deep? Can it be transported through my city? etc. If we as a society could discuss these issues and come to agreement, through some process, then we would emerge with something very powerful. And we would have gained the confidence to deal with other difficult decisions in the same way. Perhaps this is a bit of applying what lao qiao said about our need for thinking, disagreeing and exploing, just like study, and essentially democracy.

5:05 PM  

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