We were sorry to hear that the world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking has died. We are not smart enough to have understood virtually any of his theories or findings. But we have always shared his concern about the possibility that advances in technology could lead to mankind’s extinction.
Of course, this was not a novel thought on his part. His contribution was to give it meaning at a time when the ways in which man might accomplish this scurrilous feat had expanded far beyond fear of “the bomb,” to include such things as artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation, human cloning, and man-made viruses. In any case, in honor of his memory, we thought we would add a few thoughts on the subject.
We will begin by noting that this theme has been a prominent factor in the myths, literature, and even the philosophical world, dating as far back as God’s warning to Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Indeed, the question of “forbidden knowledge” formed the foundation of countless stories integral in the history of our civilization, including: Hesiod’s account of Prometheus’s’ theft of fire and the resultant appearance of Pandora, that “beautiful evil;” God’s warning to Moses not to look upon his face; Dante’s trip into Hades; Ulysses’ restless curiosity; Pope’s advice to “know then thyself, presume not God to scan;” the King of Brobdingnag’s response to Gulliver’s description of gunpowder that “he would rather lose half his kingdom than be privy to such a secret;” Goethe’s Faust; and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Kant used the Latin phrase sapere aude – “Dare to Know,” – to endorse the enlightenment search for truth beyond that which is “received” in the form of scripture.
In his 1609 essay entitled “The Refutation of Philosophies,” Sir Francis Bacon raised the issue of and then dismissed it by welcoming the “discovery of a new intellectual world” and the possibility that someday science would be able to “imitate the thunderbolt.” This was a reference to a passage from the Aeneid, in which Salmoneus aspired to imitate the “not imitable thunderbolt” of Jupiter. Bacon put his defense of unlimited science this way:
The fate of Alexander will be ours. The conquests which his contemporaries thought marvelous and likely to surpass the belief of posterity, were described by later writers as nothing more than the natural successes of one who justly dared to despise imaginary perils. Even so our triumphs (for we shall triumph) will be lightly esteemed by those who come after us; justly when they compare our trifling gains with theirs; unjustly if they attribute our victory to audacity, rather than to humility and to freedom from that fatal human pride which has lost us everything and has hallowed the fluttering fancies of men (volucres meditations) in place of the imprint stamped upon things by the divine seal.
Of course, Bacon could not have foreseen that the eventual “imitation of a thunderbolt” would be of the nuclear kind. But he addressed the danger some years later in his classic utopian novel New Atlantis, concluding that the “thunderbolt” would be placed safely under the control of an order called Solomon’s House, made up of 36 wise men, a Priesthood of Science, who would be completely independent from the state and consult with each other as to “which of the inventions and experiences which we have discovered shall be published, and which not: and take all an oath of secrecy, for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret: though some of those we do reveal sometimes to the state and some not.”
Two centuries later, Madame de Staël, the “Empress of Mind” to Napoleon’s “Emperor of Matter,” was considerably less sanguine than Bacon about the dangers associated with advances in science when she made the following observation in De la Littérature in reaction to the sanguinary events that had been so much a part of the French Revolution.
I shall go further: Scientific progress makes moral progress a necessity; for if man’s power is increased, the checks that restrain him from abusing it must be strengthened.
Reflecting on the horrors of World War I, Winston Churchill echoed this this thought in 1931.
Certain it is that while men are gathering knowledge and power with ever-increasing and measureless speed, their virtues and their wisdom have not shown any notable improvements as the centuries have rolled. The brain of a modern man does not differ in essentials from that of the human beings who fought and lived here millions of years ago. The nature of man has remained hitherto practically unchanged as the centuries have rolled. Under sufficient stress-starvation, terror, warlike passion, or even cold intellectual frenzy - the modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds and his modern woman will back him up . . .
It is therefore above all things important that the moral philosophy and spiritual conceptions of men and nations should hold their own amid these formidable scientific evolutions . . . Without an equal growth of Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, Science herself may destroy all that makes human life majestic and tolerable. There never was a time when the inherent virtue of human beings required more strong and confident expression in daily life; there never was a time when the hope of immortality and the disdain of earthly power and achievement were more necessary for the safety of the children of men.
There are secrets too mysterious for man in his present state to know, secrets which, once penetrated, may be fatal to human happiness and glory. But the busy hands of the scientists are already fumbling with the keys of all the chambers hitherto forbidden to mankind. We have the spectacle of the powers and weapons of man far outstripping the march of his intelligence; we have the march of his intelligence proceeding far more rapidly than the development of his nobility. We may well find ourselves in the presence of the strength of civilization without its mercy.
And lo, less than a decade later, “we” did indeed find ourselves in the presence of “the strength of civilization without its mercy” when a demented Austrian corporal began what became known as a “total war;” that is, a war in which every citizen on each side of the battle, women and children included, was a potential target for the enemy. And before this war was over, “we” “imitated the thunderbolt.”
Needless to say, the moral progress that de Staël sought had failed to materialize. Nor had the moral philosophy and spiritual conceptions of men and nations held their own amid the formidable scientific evolutions as Churchill had hoped. Moreover, there was not a chance in hell of establishing a Solomon’s House, whether “necessary” or not.
In fact, the principle characters that President Truman chose to deal with this issue were so filled with pride that there was no room for virtue of any sort, much less wisdom. Not only did they not have the sense to “take all an oath of secrecy,” they were actively striving to provide the technology to their friend, a mass murderer named Joseph Stalin. Finally, “scientific restraint” was not even on the table. In fact, visions of vastly more powerful bombs were dancing like sugar plums in the heads of America’s scientists, engineers, and military brass, while university presidents, corporate moguls, and politicians were giddy over the prospects of a proliferation of federally financed research laboratories across the nations modeled on those that comprised the Manhattan Project, which built the bomb.
Thus, by default, Truman adopted the modern-day version of the Baconian position, which would be described in 1954 in Congressional testimony by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, of course, was the physicist who, as head of the so-called Manhattan Project, became known as “the father of the atomic bomb.” He put it this way:
When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.
And his brings us to Stephen Hawking’s concern that artificial intelligence will be the true perpetrator of the eventual demise of human beings. Or, as he put it, “The genie is out of the bottle. I fear that AI may replace humans altogether.”
Sleep well, friends.