Letter: Is Scientific Work Motivated Primarily by a Desire to Improve Humanity?

Translated from Spanish at Naturaleza Indomita. Note: Because the letter was originally written in English, but I currently only have access to the Spanish translation, this retranslation will not be a faithful representation of the original letter. Those who have access to the original English-language copy are free to email me.


You, in your comments on paragraphs 87-92 of Industrial Society and Its Future, write:

“The Motives of the Scientists. This section is especially weak…

“A long explanation of why Mr. Teller is a Bad Man. Which is right. But when we think of physicists, most of us think of Einstein before Teller, an Einstein is a paradigmatic example of someone who completely contradicts that statement — but by no means the only one. [What statement? The assertion that scientific work is not motivated primarily by a desire to benefit humanity?] …

“[Kaczynski] essentially denies that scientists have moral concerns…

“Speaking on people that I think have worked on what I consider to be genuinely negative research fields — weapons design at Lawrence Livermore, for example —, I have found that those who direct and are actively involved in that work, are because they believe that they are doing the right thing for the country, even with all the risks that their work entails, and that by doing the right thing for the country, they are doing the right thing for the world. These people are aware of the moral implications of the decisions they actively make — in a direction I would not take.

“People who do not seem to want to do that [do not want to do what?] are brilliant people who, rather than directing work, only maintain it. They see employment in that field as something ethically neutral, merely as legal work, and they do not like to think about the costs and benefits of their work.”

First of all, let us keep this in mind: it should have been clear that, in paragraphs 87-89 of Industrial Society and Its Future, I was commenting on the usual or typical motives of scientists; I was not considering occasional exceptions. Therefore, even if you could prove that 1% or even 5% of scientists are really motivated by a desire to do good to humanity, they would not seriously affect my argument. It should also have been evident that, when asking about the motives of scientists, I was writing about their motives for carrying out scientific work, not for their motives when acting in other fields. I have never said that most scientists do not care about moral issues. It is one thing to say a scientist is concerned about moral issues and quite another to say that his main motive for scientific research is the desire to good for humanity. (Anyway, you can find many examples of amorality among scientists, as I will point out below).

Therefore, the argument that scientists (with some exceptions) are not motivated primarily by a desire to benefit humanity does not deny that scientists have moral concerns — outside the laboratory. You mention Einstein. Einstein works assiduously for world peace, and his motives for doing so undoubtedly were deeply moral. But that has nothing to do with his reasons for doing research in the field of physics.

What you are claiming is that scientists are currently acting as moral agents when carrying out their work. Back in 2002, I mentioned this theory to two psychologists of this prison, competent men, in my opinion, who consider themselves to be “recalicitrant rationalists” and disdain dubious theories such as Freudianism. I am quoting part of my notes dated April 9, 2002:

“Since I am planning to answer a letter I received some time ago from a PB, when doctors Watterson and Morrison went through my cell today, I asked them … if they had chosen the field of psychology to meet their own personal needs or … to do good to the human race. Both replied that they had become psychologists to meet their own personal needs. Then I asked them if they thought that most psychologists chose that profession to … do good to the human race, or to satisfy their own personal needs. Both Dr. Watterson and Dr. Morrison said that most psychologists chose that profession to meet their own personal needs (especially the needs of the ego, said Watterson) and not to do good to the human race. They will say that they became psychologists to help people, but that is not their real motive. I commented to Watterson and Morrison PB’s opinion that scientists felt ‘concern for moral issues.’ Watterson and Morrison seemed to find this funny. Morrison suggested, half-jokingly, that I should write to PB … [and] give the following short answer: ‘Wise up!’.”

In order to support your argument, you say that you have “discovered” that the people who “direct and are actively involved in the design of military weapons” think that they are “doing the right thing for the world and that they are” taking into account the moral implications of the decisions they actively take.” But how did you “discover” that? For the mere fact that they themselves hold them? Your ingenuity is amazing. If those people thought that their work is harmful, do you think they would recognize it in front of you? If a man is scrupulous enough to do harmful work in order to satisfy his personal needs, surely he is equally scrupulous as to lie about his motivations.

There are people whose opinions about scientists involved in military projects are very different from yours. In his self-incriminating postwar memoirs, Hitler’s Minister of Armament wrote:

“I exploited the phenomenon of dedication, often blind, of technicians to their task. Because of what appears to be the moral neutrality of technology, these people lacked any scruples about their activities. The more technical the world imposed on us by war, the more dangerous was the indifference of technicians to the consequences of their anonymous activities.” [1]

Do you think any of these technicians would openly admit to strangers that he was indifferent to the consequences of his work? It is very unlikely. A case in point is that of Wernher von Braun. As you probably know, von Braun was the chief scientist dedicated to developing rockets under Hitler and led the creation of the V-2 rocket, which killed numerous civilians in London and other cities. [2] Von Braun claimed after the war that his motives had been “patriotic.” [3] But while he was working for Hitler, von Braun must have known that the Jews were being exterminated, since this was an “open secret in Germany at least since the end of 1942,” according to the most recent studies. [4] What kind of patriotism would lead a man to build weapons for a regime that exterminates entire ethnic groups out of hatred? It is sufficiently clear that “patriotism” was a mere excuse for von Braun, and that what he really wanted was to build rockets just for the sake of building them. “When the Second World War came to an end, in early 1945, Braun and many of his partners decided to surrender to the United States, where they believed they would find support for their research on rockets…” [5]

What is important here is not whether building weapons for Hitler is morally equivalent to building weapons for a presumably democratic regime like that of the United States. The important thing is that scientists usually attribute to themselves seemingly noble motivations, such as “patriotism,” which have nothing to do with their real motivations.

And, no, this way of acting is not limited to those who build weapons for dictatorial regimes. As you probably already know, J. Robert Oppenheimer led the development of the first atomic bomb in the United States. In a speech delivered on November 2, 1945, before the scientists who had participated in the bomb project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, [6] Oppenheimer noted: “You always have to worry that what people say about your motivations is not appropriate.” Then, Oppenheimer exposed the usual excuses that scientists gave to work on the bomb: the Nazis could have gotten the bomb first; there is no other place in the world where the development of atomic weapons would have been less likely to lead to disaster than in the United States; the real importance of atomic energy was not in the arms but in the benefits that such energy could bring to humanity; etc. Oppenheimer pointed out that all those justifications were more or less valid, but insisted that the real reason why the scientists had developed the bomb was that, for them, their work was a personal need, an “organic need.” …

The implications of Oppenheimer’s speech are obvious, although Oppenheimer did not clearly state them: scientists do not work for the good of humanity, but to satisfy their own needs. Although Oppenheimer probably believed that, in general, science benefited humanity, he recognized that justifying science by saying that it benefits humanity was essentially an excuse that did not represent the real motives of scientists.

It is significant that the printed version of the speech found among Oppenheimer’s papers had the following note: “This material should not be made public. Probably, a revised version will soon appear in a scientific journal.” [7] But, in fact, it seems that the speech was not published, either in a “revised” form or in any other way, before Smith and Weiner included it in their book. [8]

Apparently, Oppenheimer was not very comfortable with what he himself said about the motives of scientists. But some scientists have stated their motives more openly than Oppenheimer and without showing any signs of disgust.

Werner von Siemens was a nineteenth-century electrical engineer who invented the self-extinguishing generator and made other important discoveries in the field of electricity. [9] In a letter dated December 25, 1887, Siemens explains his reasons:

“Certainly, I have sought to obtain wealth and economic benefits, but not primarily to enjoy them; rather to obtain the means for the execution of other plans and projects, and, through my success, to achieve the recognition of the appropriateness of my procedures and the usefulness of my work. Therefore, from my youth, I have longed to establish an international company like the Fugger, which would guarantee, not only to me but also to my successors, power and esteem throughout the world, as well as the means to raise the standard of living of my sisters and other of my close relatives…

“I consider our business only secondarily as a source of wealth; for me it is more a kingdom that I have founded and I hope to leave my successors intact so that they continue to develop a creative work.” [10] (The italics are mine.)

Not a word about the good of humanity. But notice the importance that Siemens gives, by itself, to the execution of “plans,” “projects” and “creative work.” That is, to surrogate activities. See Industrial Society and Its Future, paragraphs 38-41, 84, 87-89.

However, surely scientists working in fields whose purpose is obviously humanitarian, such as finding treatments for diseases, are motivated by the desire to good to humanity, right? In certain cases, maybe. But, in general, I think not. The bacteriologist Hans Zinsser wrote:

“Having never had any close relationship with those who work in the field of infectious diseases, he shared the false belief that such peculiar people were moved by noble motives. And, not understanding too much how someone could act driven by noble motives, he asked us: ‘How does someone decide to be a bacteriologist?’ … Actually, men choose this branch of research for various reasons, of which the conscious desire to do good is the least important. What matters is that it is one of the few remaining challenges for those individuals who feel the need to experience a certain degree of emotion. The fight against infectious diseases is one of the few genuine adventures that remain in the world … Almost the only authentic challenge that remains after the tireless domestication of the, on their day off, human species is the war against those small and ferocious creatures.” [11]

You mention Einstein as an example of someone whose scientific work was motivated by a desire to do good for humanity, but I think you are wrong. According to Gordon A. Craig, Einstein once said: “All our praised technological progress, and civilization in general, could be compared to an ax in the hand of a pathological criminal.” [12] Craig does not mention the source of his quotation, so I have no way of checking his accuracy. But, if the words quoted reflect Einstein’s vision of technology, then it is difficult to imagine any altruistic motive for Einstein’s scientific work. Einstein continued with his work in theoretical physics until a very old age. [13] He must have been aware that any advances in physics would surely have practical applications and, therefore, would reinforce that technology he compared to “an ax in the hand of a pathological criminal.” So, why did he continue with his work? Maybe it was a kind of compulsion. Towards the end of his life, Einstein wrote: “I cannot stay away from my work. It has me inextricably trapped.” [14]

Whether it was a compulsion or not, Einstein’s scientific work had nothing to do with any desire to do good for the human race. In an autobiography [15] he wrote at the age of 67, Einstein described his reasons for engaging in science. Even as a young child he felt oppressed by the feeling that having hope and striving to achieve things was “empty” or “meaningless” (Nichtigkeit). This suggested a depressive and defeatist mentality. Moreover, it seems that Einstein was a child too delicate to face the day to day of the world, since he discovered at an early age what he called the “cruelty” of having to dedicate efforts (Treiben) to earn a living. At first he tried to escape from those painful feelings by becoming deeply religious, but at the age of twelve he lost faith as a result of reading scientific books that refuted the stories of the Bible. Then, he sought solace in science itself, which provided him with a “paradise” that replaced the religious paradise he had lost. [16]

Therefore, it seems that, in the case of Einstein, scientific work was not only a surrogate activity, but also a way of escaping from a world that he found too hard. In any case, the truth is that Einstein devoted himself to science only to satisfy his personal needs; nowhere in his autobiography did he suggest that his research could improve the situation of the human race in any way.

I suppose that for every scientist that I can quote whose declared motivation is to satisfy their personal needs, you can cite many who claim to have altruistic motives. Certainly, altruistic motives are not impossible. For example, I suppose that the majority of those who carry out field studies in botany and zoology are partly moved by a genuine love for plants and wild animals. Anyway, to the declarations of altruistic motives — or, to put it more exactly, the reasons that are considered admirable according to the norms of the current society — it is necessary to grant them, in general, very little value. Whereas a scientist who admits that his motives are selfish risks degrading his standing in the eyes of people around him, one that claims to have a “noble” motive satisfies the expectations of the rest of the people and ensures the approval of the latter, if not their admiration. It is an obvious fact that most people, most of the time, will say what they think will grant them the approval of others. Undoubtedly, this sometimes implies a lack of conscious honesty, as was the case of von Braun when he claimed that his motives were “patriotic.” However, I believe that, more often, scientists create their own excuses. Science has its own self-serving ideology, and one of the functions of ideology is to justify the believer to himself. As the sociologist Monnerot explains, ideology “offers a different version of the relation between the motive and what it motivates. The materials that make up an ideology, and which it organizes, can see the light of day, so to speak. Not only are they permissible, but honorable, and they constantly try to affirm their relationship with recognized social values … The aspirations of [the believer] are passed on to ethical and social terms by ideology … ” [17]

But the ideology that presents science as a humanitarian enterprise is belied by the everyday conversations and behavior of scientists. In my eleven years as a student and teacher of mathematics, during which I also attended a few courses in physics and physical anthropology, I never heard any teacher or student mention the effect scientific or mathematical work had on society, or the benefit that said work allegedly provided to humanity. You refer to my “isolation even … on the academic level,” so I am forced to explain that the statements made by the media about me have often been exaggerated to the point of caricature and beyond, if not completely false. It’s true that I was a loner, but not so much so as not to be able to listen or have many conversations with other students and teachers of mathematics. Teachers and students talked about what was happening in various fields of mathematics, about what types of research were carried out and who carried them out and about the acts and personality of certain mathematicians, but I never [18] heard anyone express any interest in what benefits their work could provide to the human race.

A less childish version of scientific ideology presents science not as a humanitarian enterprise, but as something “morally neutral”: scientists simply put certain tools at the disposal of society and, if negative consequences result, it is the fault of the society for having “misused” them; the hands of the scientists are thus clean. One remembers the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 27:24: “… he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying: I am innocent …” (Pontius Pilate). The Encyclopaedia Britannica uses this argument of “neutrality” in its article about technology; [19] you, Dr. B., mention the same argument in the part of your letter that I quoted earlier; Albert Speer mentioned it when referring to the excuse given by the technicians who created weapons for Hitler (see above); von Braun, similarly, “stressed the intrinsic impartiality of scientific research, which in itself lacks moral dimensions until its products are used by the whole of society.” [20]

Of course, technology in the abstract is morally neutral. But von Braun was not developing rockets in the abstract terrain of Plato’s Ideal Forms. He was building rockets for Adolt Hitler and knew very well that these rockets would be used to defend a regime that was carrying out mass exterminations. No matter how neutral technology may be in the abstract, when someone develops a new technology or discovers a scientific principle that has technological applications, he is carrying out a concrete action that has a concrete effect on the society in which he lives. That person has no right to deny responsibility for that effect on the grounds that society could have used that technology in some other way — just as von Braun also had no right to deny his responsibility for the effects of his rockets on the grounds that Hitler could have used them only for space exploration and not as weapons. Von Braun was forced to wonder not just that Hitler could theoretically do with the rockets, but what he would do with them in practice. Similarly, when someone develops a new technology today, they are forced to consider not what society could do, in theory, with that technology, but how technology is likely to interact with society in practice.

Everything said in the previous paragraph is obvious and anyone intelligent enough to be a rocket expert, physicist, or molecular biologist can reach it in five minutes of honest reflection. The fact that so many scientists draw on the “moral neutrality” argument shows that they are either being dishonest with themselves or with others, or simply have never bothered to think seriously about the social and moral implications of their work. [21]

There are a few scientists who think seriously and sincerely about the consequences their work has on society. But their moral scruples do not interfere significantly with their research; they carry it out anyway and then reassure their consciences by lecturing about the “ethical” use of their science, imposing certain limitations on their research or avoiding those works that are specifically aimed at the development of weapons.

Of course, their sermons and scruples are completely useless. The way in which science is applied in practice is not determined by scientists but by the usefulness that science has for those who seek money or power.

Alfred Nobel was essentially a pacifist, but that did not prevent him from developing powerful explosives. He consoled himself with the hope “that the destructive powers of his inventions would help to end the wars.” [22] We already know how well this worked, right? As we have already seen, Einstein preached — ineffectively — about world peace, but he continued his research until practically the end of his life, despite his opinion about technology. The Manhattan Project scientists first developed the atomic bomb and then preached — again ineffectively — about the need for an international agency to control atomic energy. [23] In his book, Behavior Control [24], Perry London demonstrated to have thought seriously about the implications of the techniques that facilitated the manipulation of human behavior. He offered certain ethical ideas that he hoped would guide the use of such techniques, but his ethical ideas have had no practical effect. David Gelernter, in his book Mirror Worls [25] expressed serious concerns about the effect that information technology would have on society. However, Gelernter continued to promote technology, including computing, [26] and the concerns expressed in Mirror Worlds did nothing to mitigate the consequences of computer development.

An article in the New York Times [27] reports on a conference of the AAAI that took place on February 25, 2009. The conference dealt with the dangers posed by the development of artificial intelligence and, as possible remedies, participating scientists raised the “limits to research,” the confinement of some research in “high security laboratories” and a “commission” that should “shape the advances and help society to face the consequences” of artificial intelligence. It is difficult to discern to what extent this was an advertising maneuver and to what extent those scientists really believed in it, but, in any case, the proposals were completely naive.

It is clear that the “limits” posed by scientists were not aimed at stopping research in the field of artificial intelligence in general, but only in certain very specific areas that scientists thought were especially sensitive. These “limits” will not be maintained for long. If the Manhattan Project scientists had refused to work on weapons research, they would have delayed the appearance of nuclear weapons by only a few years since, once quantum theory had been developed and nuclear fission discovered, it was inevitable that someone, before or later, apply that knowledge to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Similarly, given that research in the field of artificial intelligence is going to continue, it is certain that someone, sooner or later (probably sooner), will apply the technical knowledge developed to invade areas that the AAAI hopes to declare “prohibited.”

The “high security laboratories” will not be controlled by you or by me, but by powerful organizations such as large companies or governments. Therefore, the confinement of certain investigations in high security laboratories will only increase the already excessive concentration of power in our society.

The “commission” that is supposed to “shape the advances and help society cope with the consequence” of artificial intelligence inspires fear and contempt, since the idea of what is good for human beings who have those individuals barely surpasses the level of a four-year-old child. I tremble just thinking about what kind of world they would create if they could.

In any case, in practice, the “commission” will not be more successful than the groups of scientists that formed after 1945 in order to try to regulate nuclear power “wisely” and used only for peaceful purposes. In the long term, the way in which artificial intelligence is developed and applied will be determined by the needs of people who have power and who are trying to increase it.


Therefore, whatever the ethical criteria that any scientist professes, those criteria have at most an insignificant effect on the development of science and technology as a whole. What I wrote in paragraph 92 of Industrial Society and Its Future was in essence correct: “science marches on blindly, without regard to the real welfare of the human race or to any other standard, obedient only to the psychological needs of the scientists and of the government officials and corporation executives who provide the funds for research.”

Notes

  1. Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich , translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Macmillan, New York, 1970, page 212.
  2. See The Week , March 6, 2009, page 39.
  3. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica , 15th edition, 2003, Vol. 2, article “Braun, Wernher von”, page 485.
  4. Benjamin Schwarz, “Co-Conspirators”, The Atlantic , May 2009, page 80.
  5. Encycl. Britannica , 2003, Vol. 19, article “Exploration”, page 47.
  6. The full text of the speech can be read in Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner (editors), Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections , Stanford University Press, California, 1995, pages 315-325.
  7. Ibid ., Pages 315 and 350, note 20.
  8. Ibid .
  9. See GA Zimmermann, Das Neunzehnte Jahrhundert , second half, part two, Milwakee, 1902, pages 439-442; Encycl. Britannica , 2003, Vol.10, article “Siemens, Werner von”, page 787.
  10. Friedrich Klemm, A History of Western Technology , translated by Dorothea Waley Singer, MIT Press, 1964/1978, page 353.
  11. Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice, and History , near the end of chapter I. I do not have the date of publication of this book, but it probably appeared in the 30s of the 20th century.
  12. “The End of the Golden Age”, The New York Review of Books , November 4, 1999, page 14.
  13. Encycl. Britannica , 2003, Vol. 18, article “Einstein”, page 157.
  14. Ibid .
  15. Paul Arthur Schilpp (editor), Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist , Open Court, La Salle, Illinois, Third Edition, 1970/1995, pages 1-94. This autobiography is printed in the original German with an English translation on alternative pages. I would advise the reader to read the German version if possible, since the English translation seems poor.
  16. For this whole paragraph see ibid ., Pages 2 and 4.
  17. Jules Monnerot, Sociology and Psychology of Communism , translated by Jane Degras and Richard Rees, Beacon Press, Boston, 1960, pages 136 and 140.
  18. With a trivial exception that is not relevant in this case.
  19. Encycl. Britannica , 2003, Vol. 28, article “Technology, The History of”, page 471.
  20. Ibid ., Vol. 2, article “Braun, Wernher von”, page 485.
  21. I have been told that in recent years some scientists or companies that serve them as public relations have been developing quite sophisticated arguments to try to justify the role of science in society; and I do not doubt that this is true. But everything relevant that I have seen in the mass media, until the summer of 2009, seems to indicate that most of the scientists’ thoughts about the social and moral implications of their work are still at a superficial level, or even childish. It would be very desirable and important to conduct a study of the propaganda of official science, especially of sophisticated propaganda aimed at an intelligent audience, but such a study would be very far from the scope of this letter; Y, What’s more, I do not have the necessary knowledge to do so. The arguments of sophisticated propagandists probably reflect as little of the thinking of the average scientist as, for example, the arguments of sophisticated political philosophers reflect the thinking of the common soldier who goes to the battlefield to fight for democracy, for fascism or for communism At most, ordinary scientists and soldiers can rethink the sophisticated arguments of propagandists to justify their actions to themselves or to others. The arguments of the sophisticated political philosophers reflect the thought of the common soldier who goes to the battlefield to fight for democracy, for fascism or for communism. At most, ordinary scientists and soldiers can rethink the sophisticated arguments of propagandists to justify their actions to themselves or to others. The arguments of the sophisticated political philosophers reflect the thought of the common soldier who goes to the battlefield to fight for democracy, for fascism or for communism. At most, ordinary scientists and soldiers can rethink the sophisticated arguments of propagandists to justify their actions to themselves or to others.
  22. Encycl. Britannica , 2003, vol. 8, article “Nobel, Alfred Bernhard”, page 738.
  23. Smith and Weiner, op. cit. , pages 303 and 310.
  24. Harper & Row, New York, 1969.
  25. Oxford University Press, New York, 1991, pages 213-225.
  26. See David Gelernter, “US faces technology crisis”, The Missoulian (newspaper of Missoula, Montana), February 24, 1992.
  27. John Markoff, “Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man”, The New York Times , July 26, 2009

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