See No Evil

GLENN McNATT

October 02, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

On July 16, 1945, moments after the first nuclear device detonated at the Trinity test site in Nevada, Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who had led the team that produced the atomic bomb, turned to a colleague and said, ''Now science has known evil.''

Oppenheimer's remark has gone down in history with Samuel F.B. Morse's ''What hath God wrought?'' and Alexander Graham Bell's ''Come here, Mr. Watson, I want to see you.'' And yet in a curious way, of the three men Oppenheimer probably knew least of which he spoke.

The astronomer, peering through his instrument into the depths of the cosmos, may at least be permitted to wonder, ''Who made all this?'' Even Einstein, when asked why he objected to the concepts of quantum theory, felt no compunction in replying, ''Because God does not play dice with the universe.'' But ''evil,'' in the sense that Oppenheimer used the term, simply does not exist as a category of scientific thought.

Certainly the question, ''What is evil?'' has been raised by countless ordinary people since time immemorial. But as a professional concern it has been a problem only to philosophers and theologians. Scientists do not and can not concern themselves with such questions in their professional lives if they expect to be taken seriously by their colleagues. The legendary status accorded Oppenheimer's chance comment is merely the exception that proves the rule.

Yet the 20th century provides ample evidence that the ancient ''problem of evil'' is one that we ignore at our peril. The rapid advancement of science and technology in this century, coupled with the unlimited organizational resources of the bureaucratic nation-state, have vastly expanded humanity's capacity to inflict punishment, misery and death upon itself. Ironically, this has occurred at precisely that moment in history when the secularization of modern life has rendered the concept of ''evil'' intellectually obsolete.

The social scientist Kurt Wolff noted this paradox in a little-known paper published in 1969, which he provocatively entitled ''For a Sociology of Evil.'' Mr. Wolff pointed out that the social scientist not only claims not to know what evil is, but considers his avoidance of the problem a positive virtue.

''We study what is called evil,'' he wrote, ''but as social scientists we do not and cannot commit ourselves to a conception of evil, because if we did we would by definition no longer be social scientists but precisely become philosophers or theologians.''

Mr. Wolff attributes the scientist's aversion to the problem of evil to the prevailing nominalism of the profession, the view that all universal or abstract terms are mere necessities of thought or conveniences of language and therefore exist as names only and have no general realities corresponding to them. This is the opposite of the ''realism'' of the theologian, for example, who considers evil to be an actual presence in the world that exists independently of our attempts to name it.

One result of the nominalist attitude is the peculiar schizophrenia of modern life through which we adapt ourselves to the most appalling horrors as if they were normal, even necessary conditions of our existence. We pile up thousands of nuclear warheads knowing that the use of even one against a similarly armed adversary must bring our own instant destruction. We insist on our right to own handguns even though their profusion spawns a frightening escalation of random violence that leaves us less secure than ever.

The destructiveness of modern weapons and their ubiquity make a rational understanding of evil essential to our survival as a species. But where the old philosophical and theological world views located evil in the individual, as evil deed, sin or vice (all of which, of course, exist), a modern, ''scientific'' approach must // locate it in society and in the individual's relation it. We need to look particularly at the pervasive alienation arising from such socially approved values as consumerism, materialism and instant gratification.

tTC The modern dilemma is that we are caught between two impossible worlds, one ordered by religious directives and moderations in which we no longer believe, the other characterized by the lack of such directives and moderations, which we can no longer bear. The sciences, especially the social sciences, are our best hope for finding a way out of this predicament.

Yet as far as I know, no one has taken up Mr. Wolff's challenge. That is a pity, because the problem of evil is simply too important to be left to philosophers and theologians.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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