Volume 3 Number 11
Needed: More Science, New Ethics
01 December 1990

We must find ways to improve living standards in the Third World and to maintain those in the West, with as little as possible damage to the environment. This will require a growth in the environmental sciences.

During the last war I was asked to participate in the development of the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos. I accepted because of the imminent danger of Hitler procuring it first. I have spent over 40 years doing what I can, with other scientists, to fight the danger of nuclear war.

Ten years ago I would have said that we had been completely unsuccessful. But now the world has accepted that nuclear war will mean the end of civilization. I am tremendously encouraged by this - even though the threat of nuclear war is not yet completely eliminated. Today the problems of the environment have replaced nuclear war as the major threat to our survival.

The work of scientists is wonderfully described in a quotation from Ecclesiastes: `And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man.' But Ecclesiastes also says, `For in much wisdom is much grief and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.'

It is the German writer, Thomas Mann, who for me best describes the spirit in which we should attack our problems: `Astronomy... teaches us to consider the Earth as a companion of an insignificant star in the giant cosmic turmoil roving about at the periphery of our galaxy. This is no doubt scientifically correct. But... in the depth of my soul I believe... that this Earth has a central significance in the universe.... A great experiment was initiated whose failure, by human irresponsibility, would mean the failure of the act of creation itself - its very refutation. Maybe it is so, maybe it is not. It would be good if humanity behaved as if it were so.'

Thomas Mann speaks of human responsibility. The Judaeo-Christian tradition says that man was made in the image of God and has, therefore, the right to make use of nature. There is a certain arrogance in this idea - and it has brought about both good things and bad things. There is a danger in seeing ourselves as the `owners' of nature.

In general - although not always - scientific progress has engendered technology. In the biological field, the technology is medicine. Medical progress has given us `death control'. Without it, I would not be alive in my eighties. In my lifetime, as a result of medical progress, the number of human beings on this Earth has risen from two billion to five billion. This has led to tremendous problems: poverty, the overstraining of resources, damage to the environment. Medicine has disturbed the equilibrium which God established between nature and man. To balance death control, and to restore the equilibrium, we must encourage birth control.

Solving the problems of the environment - such as global warming, or the depletion of the ozone layer - is the task of technology. When industry started in Europe, the workers were exploited. Children and adults worked under a cruel regime, for ten or more hours a day, without old age insurance or health service. Then, during the second part of the 19th century and in the 20th century, a 'humanization' of industry began. Child labour was banned; insurance and pensions were introduced. New inventions eased the way. It cost more - but in the end it paid off in commercial as well as human terms because satisfied workers are more productive.

Today we need a second humanization of industry - in the realm of the environment. Twenty or 30 years ago, most of the inventiveness of technology was directed towards making daily life easier, and towards weaponry. Now this inventiveness must be largely redirected. We must find ways to improve living standards in the Third World and to maintain those in the West, with as little as possible damage to the environment. This will require a growth in the environmental sciences.

I was one of the first directors of CERN (the European Centre for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, which provided an international laboratory for fundamental physics. What we need today is an environmental CERN. Some say that because science gave birth to industry and industry has destroyed the environment, science should be discouraged. This is completely misguided. What we need is not less science, but more.

It is dangerous to suggest that science should go in one specific direction, because the sciences are connected to each other. We do not know when a discovery in one field will affect another. Nothing is further from the human environment than the physics we do at CERN, which concentrates on the innermost structure of matter. But this work has led to the invention of new instruments which have had extreme importance for biology. Pure science is important in itself - and it may also feed new ideas into applied science.

Science and technology, by themselves, are not a source of ethics and values. They can tell you what will happen if you do this or that - for instance, how many people might be killed by a nuclear bomb. But the decision on whether to develop the bomb cannot be a scientific decision. This can only be judged by something outside science - ethics.

The spiritual pollution which we face today may be as dangerous as material pollution. It manifests itself in what I have called the 'greeding of America' - and Europe - where people think only of money and wealth and their own personal shortterm well-being. And it can be seen in the weakening of the standard religions, the lack of an awareness of the sense and purpose of life.

We need a new ethics - and it must be many-sided. The belief that only one idea is true is tremendously dangerous. If you have only one way of looking at the world, you abuse it. Science and technology have been abused; religion has been abused. The new ethics must recognize that there are many ways out of the human predicament, which present different aspects of the same situation.

Only on the basis of such an ethical attitude can we solve the problems which threaten the world today - the destruction of the environment, drugs, AIDS, totalitarianism and the rise of narrow nationalisms. It is our duty to shape a better world for all of us here on Earth.

Victor Weisskopf has been Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1946 and is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He was the keynote speaker at a Dialogue on the Preservation of Creation in Caux, Switzerland, last August.