TECHNOLOGY AND THE FUTURE; Physicist C. V. von Weizsacker

Few men in our time are as prepared to understand our technological present, past and future as physicist-philosopher Carl-Friedrich von Weizsacker. He has wrestled with the human implications of scientific research from the days he rubbed elbows with Germany's first atom-splitters in the 1930's to his last 10 years directing the Max Planck Institute on the Preconditions of Human Life in the Technological-Scientific World (Starnberg, Germany). A distinguished astrophysicist, author and philosopher, he is one of the discoverers of the nuclear changes responsible for the enormous energies radiated by the sun. Professor Weizsacker has also been politically active since World War II, advised various Bonn governments, and was a driving force behind the Gottingen Declaration of German physicists opposing construction of a West German nuclear bomb. His perspective on technological civilization comes into still sharper focus through culture-bridging researches into the religious wisdom of Eastern civilizations, although he remains a frank adherent to Christianity.

Unassuming, cautious, shyly cordial and warmly philosophical, the ruddy, white-haired German gazes out the window of a visitor's office in a medieval tower at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. -- deflating technological dragons with jousts of humanitarian concern. "You can't kiss a computer," he says, smiling back at worries that machines are taking over the functions of humankind. Though relishing the world of scientific enterprise, invention and discovery, he reflects with no less relish on standing back from technology's imprint on civilization, retreating to the tiny cabin he owns in the Austrian Alps with no telephone, electric lights or TV.

But as Dr. Weizsacker looks to the 80's, he foresees a crisis of Western technological culture that he sums up in the words of an Indian sage, "We have just been able to tame the lower demons, not yet the higher ones." He reflected on the problems and the answers with Richard Harley.

Have we reached a point at which technology has outrun our ability to control it?

I don't think so. But we are pressed to reach a new maturity about inhabiting this technological age. We have developed an immense ability to build all kinds of machines, but we have not acquired an immense ability to understand how such things are reacting on society and our mentality.

Some environmentalists would define such maturity as cutting way back on technology itself because of its destructiveness to nature.

That's not the answer. First, I believe a technology that destroys nature is immature technology, not really technical in the true sense. Likewise, one who says "Do everything that can be done technologically" is a bad technician. We need to achieve a maturity that effectively prevents damage to nature. And we individually must watch that we don't blindly accept everything that is done technologically. I'm not saying technology is all bad, or even neutral. It needs to be seen as ambivalent in the human context.

This ambivalence seems to confront us more and more in daily life -- not just at times of dramatic crises, but in more subtle ways.

Even with television there is a danger of disrupting the natural connection between our perception of the world and our sense of responsibility to participate in it. For example, we can begin to think that the pictures television brings -- say, of human need -- are just things to be looked at in an armchair. More generally, we have invented a civilization which tempts us all the time to use technology to satisfy instincts, even when there is no need for that. It's a problem long faced by ruling classes with access to technological advantages. But today's broader distribution of wealth makes the whole of Western society potentially involved.

Perhaps nothing made clearer the social impact of the natural scientific enterprise than Otto Hahn's splitting of the atom in 1938. You were the first to hear from Hahn of this discovery. Did this change you as a scientist?

Ys, from that moment my life was different. Eight years earlier I had become a physicst as a hobby -- deciding to participate so long as I could delve into the laws of nature without being interfered with by the world. But when Hahn called, I realized my "hobby" already had changed the world, since the implications of his work would be known in a few weeks to at least 200 people. The bomb was possible; it was only a matter of whether it would be made. And looking at the world then, there was little doubt that it wouldm be made. So I was suddenly connected with something which, quite opposite to my original idea, would change the world to a degree which -- even to this day -- nobody has been able to measure. We can no longer afford an attitude among scientists, "Now I will retire from the rest of the world and do my research."

What does this overwhelming event tell us about the age and culture in which we live?

Well, I can imagine a culture in which such a discovery would be made without anyone planning to use it for a bomb. This would be a high culture. But making a bomb was an idea all too natural in Western culture in which technological superiority was so integral to subduing other world cultures.

You've been deeply involved in European efforts to deal with the ambivalence of nuclear technology. I understand that you now feel the threat of nuclear warfare is greater than at any other period since World War II.

Perhaps the United States and Soviet Union will not start a war against each other, but there are other nuclear powers. Proliferation has not stopped. New varieties of limited-use weapons are available. There are many crises which we are less and less able to manage. The question is, will limited wars always remain limited geographically? Will they always stay limited with respect to the weapons used?

Is it totally naive in this day and age to hope that the nuclear threat can be tamed?

No, and we must never give up striving. But we may need to seek and respond to developments that haven't yet been charted. Suppose it were possible to achieve the optimistic alternative of preventing nuclear war. What would be the condition of that world? Chances are it would be quite different from the way we might imagine it now. An example from the past. Imagine yourself in Munich 500 years ago in 1380. Someone comes up to you and says the time will come when Munich will not have any more city walls. You might reply, "Certainly, after the Last Judgment. But before that, of course there will be walls. Walls are needed. How can Munich not have city walls?" But the building of city walls didm come to an end. Two totally unexpected developments brought it about. First, invention of artillery made walls obsolete because it would be so easy to destroy them. Then the establishment of territorial states brought cities under protection of police, military or rule of law. The result is that everyone of us today is accustomed to cities without walls. But before this change occurred , no person was able to imagine it clearly.

Of course, eliminating -- or even easing -- the threat of war is a far greater problem than eliminating the walling-in of cities.

It requires some kind of agreement involving the whole planet, some world order. Such an idea was considered when the United Nations was created, but never led to very practical consequences. It did not have enough authority. A single world order could still be the outcome of history, and it is important to have a philosophy of history which looks to this end and is realistic enough to have a chance to come into effect.

Wouldn't there have to be a fundamental loosening up of the dominant concept of national sovereignty that now divides nations?

Yes, but let's be clear about the difficulties. In Europe since World War II there's been better understanding of the need for supranational unity. But even here differences are so strong that agreement over reduced sovereignty is extremely hard to achieve. In the Third World the situation is even more difficult. In Africa, nation-building is itself an important process for overcoming the intertribal hostilities. So progress toward overcoming the unit we call the sovereign state in favor of a higher unit, if it emerges, is bound to be psychologically slow.

Setting aside for the moment the difficulties, how would you envision broad outlines of a one-world future that would reduce the nuclear threat?

Such a change would depend on many things, and I have not been able to think out the political structure of such a world order -- certainly not the cultural premises which must be fulfilled in order for it to be possible. But first I believe we must avoid an arms race escalation that would lead to war. The superpowers must realize that they won't be able to solve their internal or external problems by weapons -- rather through economic cooperation. One might imagine some kind of worldwide political unity sufficient to maintain peace and integrate economic relations, mindful of the fact that it could lead to dictatorship. A change in the political ethic is needed, a better understanding of people among each other -- something along the lines of the Sermon on the Mount. Without this force, I cannot imagine that world government could be a good thing.We also need thinking that transcends the loyalties of national sovereignty in the search for a higher unity. Many people already have moved in this direction -- scientists among them. They have a common language and can understand each other quite well all over the world.

What about a change in our views of nature itself? I'm thinking of the view of some historians of science who say modern science has disrupted the unity of nature -- led humankind to see themselves as separated from God and nature as organized matter to be objectified and exploited. Is there any sign of such exploitive materialism yielding?

Well, quantum physics has made us much more aware of the subjective aspect to what was often thought to be objective knowledge of natural things. The 17th and 18th century philosophers, while conceding that the quality of color depends on our perception of it, nevertheless saw shape as a primary quality of objects themselves. But quantum theory tells us that elementary particles of matter, as far as we know them, cannot correctly be described as little bodies in space. So we've abandoned the idea that shape is something independent of receptivity. We can only say that when we observe an electron with an instrument to determine its position, we'll find it somewhere.m Only in this sense will it have a position for us at the time of experiment. But we're no longer entitled to say the electron always has an "objective position." In this sense quantum theory has opened our understanding that everym element of our description of what we call the "objective" in nature refers to our ways of perceiving nature, to our own receptivity.

Pressed to its limit, this suggests that consciousness itself relates far more closely to nature's structure than we might expect.

Surprisingly few scientists take the point really seriously. Most read about it, but somehow seem to forget it. The defense of the prejudices of modern science against these implications of quantum theory is what people usually call "realist philosophy."

Does our culture itself make it difficult for natural scientists to take these implications seriously?

To be sure, in our culture, technology has greatly influenced our concept of nature. Philosophical realism tends to speak about nature's operation much like an engineer would describe a machine. But in India it might be easier to compare nature to an organism or something spiritual. In some respects that might be even more useful to us than the machine comparison.

Your teacher and colleague, Werner Heisenberg, felt that the era of natural science itself would reach the limits of its mechanistic-materialistic exploration of nature. Was he right?

Heisenberg believed that different cultures could express themselves most clearly in different fields. He saw the age of Mozart as the age in which human culture reached its highest self-expression in music, while in this age he felt the highest things would be expressed in science. The interesting point about this philosophically is that Heisenberg did not believe that an age comes to an end from the outside, with someone deciding that there is nothing more to do there; but that a particular cultural form of expression peaks in a consummation , in the achievement of what can actually be achieved. Once you have climbed the highest mountain in the Alps, for example, you have achieved the highest in that range of mountains, and it is useless to think there is another higher mountain there to climb. Thus Heisenberg thought the achievements of the era of physics might come to an end with the achievement of a final theory on the physics of elementary particles -- and this is possible, I feel, in the next few decades. Of course Heisenberg also considered new steps to be possible for the future, as in spiritual matters, although Heisenberg's work was not so profoundly connected with this.

As a committed Christian, do you think ethics and religion will play a greater role in future scientific understanding of nature?

There are possibilities, but these are difficult to define precisely. My own approach is to first find out whether consciousness, as a precondition to experience, relates to or poroves the laws of physics. This for me is not so much a matter of Christianity but philosophy. But I do think it is important to solve the problem of the relation of religion and science, and not by simply limiting science. This has been attempted, but never very successfully. The great Sir Isaac Newton allowed some people to say he had found a new proof for the existence of God because the motion of the planets, though coinciding with the laws of mechanics, could not be explainedm by those laws themselves -- therefore God must have made them. This argument of a God existing "from without" was bound to fail. I favor rather an approach more like Kepler who felt the task is to understand God -- not just in areas of inquiry which science considered outside its domain, but also in those areas in its domain.

Do you expect ethics to be reconciled with science in a way that would resolve some of our moral dilemmas in coping with technology?

When considering ethics, in the frame of human evolution, you can say many things about how they emerged. But becausem they came about does not mean you have to accept them. Ethics taken seriously, as seriously as if you think the Sermon on the Mount expresses truth -- and that's what I think -- are not easy to fulfil. Historically, Christians have confessed this truth, but if honest, they must admit that they are not doing it, or understanding it, in its entirety. This is not the weakness of Christianity itself. It just means that Christianity contains an enormous capital that is not yet fully exploited in history.

Was it George Bernard Shaw who said the only trouble with Christianity is that it has never been tried? Perhaps the broader implication of your point is that Christianity's vast untapped capital holds out valuable resources in our search for a technology that is a true understanding of nature?

I fully agree. I think there is a connection between the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and a higher understanding of nature. However, it is hard to define, and I am not very much in favor of premature connections. I will say at least that a person and a society living according to this truth, which means a loving life, would certainly be able to love nature in a way in which we do not now love it. This refers not only to our fellow human beings, But also our fellow nonhuman creatures. In human relations we know that cognition may be made possible by love, that understanding another person is only possible if we are able to behave toward him in an attitude of symphaty or love, whereas without this we are bound to misunderstand each other. If this is true with respect of humans why should it not be true with respect to nature? But though I believe completely in the importance of finding a unity of spiritual ethics and nature, I must be careful to distinguish between what I have achieved and what I have not yet achieved. I do see a connecting line between the spiritual and the scientific search for an understanding of nature. But I still only see this line vaguely at a distance. To draw it clearly is a great task. I should be very happy if now, at the age of 68, I should jut proceed a little bit along this path.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.