By Andrew Quist
Psychic numbing, the inability to scale our affective thinking system in response to threats to large groups of people, prevents us from taking meaningful action to combat a number of global problems including climate change, famine, and mass atrocities. Another area where psychic numbing is highly relevant is nuclear weapons.
Two leading scientists in the 20th century, Albert Einstein and Albert Szent-Györgyi, recognized the danger of nuclear weapons and understood how deficiencies in our thinking processes prevent us from appreciating the magnitude of the weapons’ destructive power.
In 1946, Albert Einstein formed the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS), made up of leading nuclear physicists. The organization’s mission was to educate the public on the dangers of nuclear weapons and to build support for an international system of nuclear arms control. In a telegram he wrote to prominent Americans soliciting funds for ECAS, Einstein warned, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
In an interview in The New York Times Magazine (later reprinted by ECAS as a pamphlet titled “Only Then Shall We Find Courage”), Einstein discussed his views on nuclear weapons at length. He strongly believed people did not comprehend the risk of nuclear war, that the weapons should be eliminated, and that a world government organization with sovereignty to enforce nuclear treaties was needed to ensure humans did not destroy themselves. He told the interviewer, Michael Amrine:
“Today the atomic bomb has altered profoundly the nature of the world as we know it, and the human race consequently finds itself in a new habitat to which it must adapt its thinking. In the light of new knowledge, a world authority and an eventual world state are not just desirable in the name of brotherhood, they are necessary for survival. . . . Today we must abandon competition and secure cooperation. This must be the central fact in all our considerations of international affairs; otherwise we face certain disaster. Past thinking and methods did not prevent world wars. Future thinking must prevent wars.”
Einstein saw the threat from nuclear weapons as a moral problem. Discussing a proposal to eliminate nuclear weapons he said, “[I]t is a problem not of physics but of ethics. There has been too much emphasis on legalism and procedure; it is easier to denature plutonium than it is to denature the evil spirit of man.”
Albert Szent-Györgyi, another renowned scientist in the 20th century, also wrote about the dangers of nuclear weapons and our inability to comprehend their destructive power. Szent-Györgyi was a Nobel prize winning biochemist who is credited with isolating vitamin C and discovering the citric acid cycle, among other achievements. He often wrote about the danger of nuclear war. In an essay he wrote in 1964 titled “The Brain, Morals, and Politics,” Szent-Györgyi wrote, “For the first time in our history we could build a world without want. Instead, we are raising our atomic stockpiles higher and higher, allowing them to spread, gradually increasing the statistical probability of a catastrophe to 100 per cent, though we could already kill every Russian, and together with the Soviets we could kill every living individual, and it is difficult to kill anyone twice. A truely insane behavior, indeed.”
Like Einstein, Szent-Györgyi understood that deficiencies in the human mind prevent us from appreciating the magnitude of the danger nuclear weapons pose for humanity. In the same essay, he brilliantly described psychic numbing in the context of nuclear weapons: “Having been adapted to live within a small clan, I am still touched by any individual suffering and would even risk my life for a fellow man in trouble, but I cannot multiply individual suffering by a hundred million, and so I talk with a smile about the ‘pulverization’ of our big cities. This is where the really mortal danger of all this atomic business lies. These are no petty terrestrial forces which we have been made to handle. These are cosmic forces, shaping the universe, which we are clever enough to release but not clever enough to handle without destroying ourselves.”
Szent-Györgyi believed that in order to solve the problem of nuclear weapons we need to expand our in-group to include all of humanity. He wrote, “If it is our intelligence which led us into trouble it may be our intelligence which can lead us out of it. . . . If we are still cave men let us be cave men, but know that living in the same cave we can have but one moral code for our behavior, the one for life inside the group, there being no outside group any more. Meanwhile, the sign ‘Playing with atomic bombs in this cave is strictly forbidden’ must be strictly observed.”
The words of these scientists on the topic of nuclear weapons matter now more than they did during their lifetimes. Nine nations possess nuclear weapons, including India and Pakistan, two countries long hostile to one another, and North Korea, a rogue nation. The United States recently threatened to exit the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, destabilizing nuclear relations between NATO and Russia. Death cults like the Islamic State (IS) seek to terrorize citizens of the world by any destructive means they can. If IS or a similar terrorist network obtained a nuclear weapon, millions could die in one terrorist attack.
What can we do to address the danger of nuclear weapons? An international system of nuclear arms control is badly needed. We must overcome our cognitive biases, appreciate the gravity of the threat that nuclear weapons pose, and cooperate as global citizens to bring about the containment and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.