Now that the movie Oppenheimer is making the rounds, it seems opportune to repost a reflection I posted about the man back in 2020, when we were in a whirl not about bombs, but about viruses. Read on.
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I have been reading a famous speech of Robert A. Oppenheimer, given in 1945 to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists. Oppenheimer had played a central role in the development of nuclear weapons. His speech is one of the most tortuously reasoned documents of its kind that I have read. However, it is revealing.
According to Oppenheimer, to understand the “real impact” of the invention of the atomic bomb, “one has to look further back, look, I think, to the times when physical science was growing in the days of the renaissance, and when the threat that science offered was felt so deeply throughout the Christian world.”
There is some bad history here. Were it not for the vision of a universe ordered by Mind, a Mind that does not work capriciously but makes use of secondary causes, and that made human minds in its image so that they can inquire into its handiwork, it is doubtful whether science could have got started. Please don’t tell me about Galileo. The Church’s complaint against the poor man wasn’t that he contradicted the descriptions of the cosmos in Holy Scripture, which the Church knew to be figurative, but that he was doing what we now call “science by press release.” His theory turned out to be true, but the Church protested that he claimed it was proven before it really was. I don’t think the Church should have poked its nose into the matter at all, but even so, its complaint was scientific, not theological.
But never mind. I understand why Oppenheimer speaks as he does, because although Christianity doesn’t regard science per se as a threat, it does regard Oppenheimer’s notion of science as a threat.
What vision is that? Speaking of the development of the Bomb, Oppenheimer writes, “But when you come right down to it the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity. If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing. If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.”
Read carelessly, the passage thrills. Read carefully, it appalls. There are two contradictions: Between the desire for knowledge and the will to power, and between freedom and blind fatality. What thrills are the parts about freedom and desire for knowledge. What appalls are the parts about fatality and will to power.
As to the first contradiction, he starts with the idea of wanting to understand the world. But the reason for understanding it turns out to be merely controlling it, and controlling it not according to transcendent lights and values, but according to “its own” lights and values. That means “what we want.”
So. Science is finding out how to do as we desire.
As to the second contradiction, he speaks of the continual growth of the power to control the world as though it were a kind of liberation. And yet he insists that it is something the scientist cannot stop wanting, cannot stop gaining, and over which he has no control.
So. Science is the ungovernable obsession with finding out how to do as we desire.
By contrast, the vision of science that Oppenheimer opposes – the vision of the Church -- is seeking knowledge because it glorifies God and adorns the rational mind, with the chastening reminder that not everything is to be done and not everything is to be controlled.
Put this way, the two visions do threaten each other. I get that.