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Scientists and Life

In response to:

Odd Couple from the February 18, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

I thank Rudolf Peierls for pointing out in his review of my book, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death [NYR, February 18], that he took the snapshot of the quantum theorists and apologize for not having credited him.

Peierls complains of my “inclination to see connections between (von Neumann’s) abstract epistemological considerations and practical matters,” and my “tendency to seek motivations and connections between the mathematical concepts in Wiener’s work and his attitudes to other matters.” According to prevailing tradition the ideas in mathematics, physics, and philosophy are regarded as having no connection with the social circumstances or personal characteristics of their progenitors. Such a complete dichotomy between thoughts and the thinker, however tidy, seems to me artificial and naive. Indeed, one of my motives for writing the book was to address the paucity of literature exhibiting connections between a mathematician’s or theoretical physicist’s scientific style and social conditions, motivations, and personal themes. Technology and politics inevitably come into play in any case, but especially because of the symbolic meanings and political actions with which Wiener and von Neumann sought to come to terms with the nuclear arms race after World War II. Particular importance attaches to attempts to understand the forces propelling those, like von Neumann, who actively promoted or currently promote acceleration of the nuclear arms race. Peierls might wish to exempt von Neumann—the superior mathematician who lived so well—from scrutiny, but I see no reason to protect him more than other influential political figures whose actions control “the technologies of life and death.”

Typically the connections, in their complexity, more nearly resemble those among different facets of a face in a Cubist painting than directly causal ones. The dynamic may suggest synergisms to which the central themes in people’s lives contribute, but Peierls seems at times to have read into the story a narrower and simpler determinism than I believe is implied by my treatment.

One theoretical physicist, who had been von Neumann’s as well as Peierls’s colleague, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was convinced that “there are qualities in the doing of science that involve judgements of value, of style, of meaning, and of commitment just as there are in all other human activities; and it is important to know how much they have influenced, not what has been found, but what has been looked for….”* Already in 1959 he, like many others since then, had come to see the need for discussion and analysis of those qualities. “They have rather a normative or a thematic quality. They assert the connectedness…the relatedness…the priority of things. Without them there would be no science…no order in human life.”

The traditional practice of science typically entails a rhetorical and unquestioned faith in the notion that scientific knowledge, confined to the accepted methodology of science, has some kind of absolute character as “truth.” Peierls is wrong to regard me as “opposed to science in general” because I suggest that the tradition is merely one of several possible value contexts in which to practice science, and not immune to philosophical criticism. Someone opposed to science would hardly have devoted three chapters (chapters 3-5 and part of chapter 10) to a fond description for a lay audience of mathematical ideas and theories of Wiener and von Neumann. I recommend that the open-minded study of both (the social contexts and the value contexts of science) be taken as seriously as the practice of science itself, partly because it might help to resolve some major problems pertaining to science and society. Why are some scientists hypersensitive to the suggestion of serious open-minded studies of the contexts of science?

In a number of places Peierls distorts my meaning by oversimplifying it or quotes out of context to make a point. Perhaps a couple of illustrations will suffice: In reflecting on why it was that a disproportionately large number of highly capable intellectuals (especially scientists) had grown up as sons of the middle class in Budapest in the early part of the present century, I concluded that this phenomenon could not be primarily attributed to the schools, although I describe how von Neumann’s high school experience nevertheless contributed to his career. In his paraphrase Peierls omits the “primarily.” In another chapter I quote Walter Weisskopf describing two levels of meaning of the “scarcity principle,” but Peierls’s incomplete quotation of my quote recognizes only one level even though it is just the interplay of the two levels that is of interest.

Far more important, it is disappointing that Peierls seems to be more concerned with defending the memory of John von Neumann than with the intellectual and social issues I raise.

Steve J. Heims

Gloucester, Massachusetts

Rudolf Peierls replies:

No offense is taken at the lack of credit for my photograph, which appeared in a publication of the American Institute of Physics without attribution, since its origin was not known at the time. I mentioned it in my review only as an example of irrelevance, since Oppenheimer, Pauli, or Rabi had no obvious connection with von Neumann or Wiener.

I would not disagree with Oppenheimer about the interconnection between science and other human experiences, and it is certainly interesting to discuss these connections where they can be identified. But they are not easy to find, and I was complaining about the facile way in which Heims jumped to conclusions, some of which I found superficial or plain wrong, and some unintelligible. I do not know what is meant by the accepted methodology of science, unless this is the principle that every conclusion has to be argued, and if it cannot be proved must at least be made plausible.

The scientist claims that his results contain a measure of truth, but never the whole truth, inasmuch as science continues to develop and be refined, and there are certainly truths outside the field of science. But to deny that there is truth in science is surely one way of being opposed to science, not inconsistent with devoting a considerable amount of space to its description. I did not imply anywhere that von Neumann should be exempt from scrutiny—in fact I’m strongly opposed to his views on many questions—but I objected to scrutiny which seemed to me biased and unclear in its reasoning.

I cannot comment on every statement in Heims’s letter which invites comment, but I must respond to the charge of having committed the cardinal sin of quoting out of context. There are two such charges. One relates to the surprisingly large number of outstanding scientists coming from middle-class Jewish backgrounds in Budapest. It had been suggested that the teaching at a certain high school contributed to this. Heims disputes this because there were many schools of the same type elsewhere. My point was that one should look at the quality of the teacher or the principal, not the type of school. For this argument it is surely not relevant whether he denied that the school could be responsible or primarily responsible.

The other case is connected with the statement that von Neumann’s theory of economic behavior rests “on the traditional assumption of scarcity of resources.” I interpret this as implying that in Heims’s view there was no such scarcity of resources. From his letter I see that he distinguishes two views of the scarcity, a traditional one which is wrong, and another which is right. This is certainly consistent with the quotation from Weisskopf. Rereading this quotation, I am quite unable to see the distinction between the two views of scarcity or why the theory of von Neumann and Morgenstern demands one rather than the other.

  1. *

    J. Robert Oppenheimer, Some Reflections on Science and Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 1960, pp. 10-11).

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