Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The nuclear complex: an obstacle to serious inquiry

[Expanded version of a talk at an OPDR Hyderabad meeting 9 Aug 1998; submitted for publication, but receipt not yet acknowledged by the editor, as of 25 May 2011; comments welcome; please email comments to me, do not post comments here, it amuses me to leave the blog comment space to spammers with hieroglyphic names and sometimes hieroglyphic messages]


I shall argue that the societies in which we live suffer from a pathology that may usefully be called the nuclear complex. This complex obscures the relations between various types of knowledge, encouraging fallacies in public debate and making serious research difficult or impossible in most fields of inquiry, including the sciences. The nuclear complex is manifested most acutely, of course, in nations that directly undertake a small or large-scale nuclear adventure. But it is a pathology you find everywhere in varying degrees, like patriarchy and environmental pollution, and needs to be targeted by a global struggle. To be sure, not all countries have exploded nuclear devices or gone in for weaponization. But there is no room for complacency in those countries either. India was not free from the nuclear complex before Pokhran II, or even before Pokhran I. The 1998 explosions simply change the terms of the problem for us. They do not create it.

In this presentation, I take as a point of departure an observation made in 1985 by plant scientist H.Y. Mohanram (personal communication), which I will call Mohanram’s Observation for ready reference. He notes that most currently dominant perspectives, both in and outside the sciences, have been shaped by the typical image of action as a one-hit affair – the image of a physical action of narrowly delimitable impact and generating specifiable effects. He went on to observe that the life sciences tend to put us in touch more often with actions initiated from one series of cycles and intervening in another such series. Both the content of the action and its effects involve long-term repeated acts and inspections or responses over many cycles. Once this model becomes widely available to thinking people, and once we wean ourselves from the typical image of a one-shot physical impact, Mohanram argues, the average adult’s general idea of processes and actions will become more mature. So, he argues, will the overall health of public debate in general and scientific research in particular. In other words:

(Mohanram’s Observation)
Conventional thinking postulates single actions with pointed impact on a surface where it produces specific effects. As the contributions of life science come to be appreciated, thinking people will postulate one living experience slowly acting, over several cycles, on another living experience, as the typical form of action – not a single impact, but repeated, cyclical interventions, interweaving effects with causes. This revision of perspective will change both patterns of inquiry and patterns of action.

On the basis of this starting point, I offer a two-stage argument. My first approximation assumes that the nation-state can be a useful unit for maximizing rational decisions. At that stage I use Mohanram’s Observation to argue that a capital city making up its mind rationally should stop in its nuclear tracks; it should begin to revise its game plan away from weapon-focused militarism and towards the economic realities that weapons are a code for. This part of my presentation is about public issues in the nuclear domain. It speaks to friends who take the image of rational nation-states to be a normal basis for discussion, and who believe that the nuclear debate is best couched in terms of credible national defence strategies.

The second approximation, which drives the cognitive part of my argument, drops the oversimple assumption that maximizing rationality is best done at the level of the nation-state or other centralizations. At that second stage, I turn to issues of research in the pure and applied sciences and related domains. I begin at the interface where the public issues involved meet the apparent privacy of research priorities; I argue that accountability requires not just the physical act of disarmament, but the intellectual dismantling of the nuclear complex in the systems of academic inquiry. I then turn to issues at the interface between pure and applied science, and the very different stand-off between the hard sciences and the so-called soft fields like the social sciences and the humanities. I propose that the life science mediation can resolve this stand-off in a way that does not just resist the nuclear complex, but makes it possible to address problems long believed to be intractable. Such an initiative redirects the energies of serious inquirers towards a more sustainable approach to research priorities and to relations between disciplines.

Finally, putting the two tracks of the argument together, I argue for a frank cultivation of ego health so that ego considerations do not have to hide underground and express themselves in terms of violent conflict or the explicit threat of such action – this candour is desirable at all levels, I argue, regardless of whether the ego games are being played between nations, or between disciplines, or between communities or other partners in any interactive dyad. I argue that the mandatory habits of self-deprecation in discourse may only seem to serve the cause of peace. They are not really gentle behaviour, but amount to gestures of a fake politeness that may in fact contribute to a violent atmosphere in which people feel like violating the rights of others.

The Strategic Argument

I now turn to the actual argument I am trying to build. At stage one, where I address public issues in their standard political form, I make the assumption that the most readily available standpoint from which rationality maximization is feasible is that of the nation-state. Such a state gives technical advisors priority over democratic mechanisms. This in the limit encourages the scientific-industrial complex, mediated through a market-packaged economic rationality that formalizes the competition underlying the standard paradigm of scientific inquiry and industrial follow-through, to be openly allowed to replace democratic decision-making mechanisms. It is then assumed that in a healthy nation-state the democratically chosen legislators will always wisely defer to the imperatives of the systems mediated through the economist’s summaries of technical advice coming from the scientific-industrial system which innovates and makes the most of the best innovations.

In tune with these assumptions, the standard political rationality defines the primary functions of the state in terms of internal defence, through the legal and penal system, and external defence, working at the level of unchecked sovereignties always verging on a state of war, and opting for a state of diplomatic standoff at best. In both cases, it is assumed that offence is the best defence. This proactive mechanism can take the modified form of ‘peaceful initiatives’ winning wars beforehand without firing a shot. But the standard view relates this to the eternal basic question of defence and defensibility. At the first approximation, I accept this standard view as a base line. Even on these assumptions, questions arise about how nations can optimize and rationalize the way their proactive and reactive postures are supposed to work this logic out for a given nation at a given juncture.

I have a fairly simple argument here. Only the conventional physical image of an action as a one-shot job with an identifiable and containable fall-out can make the nuclear scenarios we toy with look even remotely rational, even in the context of war games and other simulations. Now, once you listen to and understand Mohanram’s Observation, you cannot sustain this posture. No nation can credibly imagine actually running through the course of a nuclear war and its aftermath. World War Two was not in this sense a nuclear war. In other words, the notion of nuclear deterrence is not a piece of military logic. It is evidently a mask for something else. What is it a mask for? What does a state that hoodwinks the public into believing a nuclear fairy tale really want to do? Is there a way to force the real game into the open? Is it less dangerous than the nuclear side-show that masks it?

Since deterrence is not technically credible, and must be a substitute for some other form of game playing, the simplest hypothesis – on the statist, marketist assumptions made at this stage of my argument – is that a nuclear-posturing state probably visualizes its pursuit of its best interests in terms of economic warfare. On such a reading of what is on offer, the nuclear diversion must be reread as an easy-to-sell tactic, perhaps accepted by domestic constituencies. Its real-life effect is that of forcing the partner in this game, the so-called enemy nation, to abandon the simpler, pre-nuclear form of economic warfare, and to divert resources and indulge in a conspicuous national consumption programme featuring such components as nuclear weapon stockpiling, the so-called peaceful nuclear energy option, and a so-called neutral scientific enterprise that accords priority to subatomic physics.

The basic move in this economic war game is to perform a crucial type of irrational action that compels the partner nation, standardly termed the enemy, to match unreason with unreason. The way the economics of this works, one might as well operate with some other “irrational” arena, such as sports or alcohol. And soldiers, come to think of it, really do enjoy both. I say this not to make a concrete suggestion about what could credibly replace nuclear scenarios, but to point up the need to question the types of rationality and unreason that are at work in this game.

If nations forcing each other to imagine nuclear war scenarios are really masking something else they are trying to do, such as divert the enemy’s resources into unproductive avenues so that ‘we’ can make a ‘killing’ on the business front, then we need to understand unproductive avenues more clearly so that we can find ways to persuade nations to divert these diversions from dangerous unproductive avenues to less dangerous but equally unproductive avenues.

The Cognitive Argument

In order to interrogate the types of reason and unreason involved, it is useful to move to the second approximation. So we now drop the assumption that it is at the nation-state level that rationality can be most effectively maximized. The inspiration for our second approximation comes from another life scientist, not H.Y. Mohanram, but Jacques Monod (1972:180), who wrote: “Where then shall we find the source of truth and the moral inspiration for a really s c i e n t i f i c socialist humanism, if not in the sources of science itself, in the ethic upon which knowledge is founded, and which by free choice makes knowledge the supreme value – the measure and warrant for all other values? An ethic which bases moral responsibility upon the very freedom of that axiomatic choice. Accepted as the foundation for social and political institutions, hence as the measure of their authenticity, their value, only the ethic of knowledge could lead to socialism. It prescribes institutions dedicated to the defence, the extension, the enrichment of the transcendent kingdom of ideas, of knowledge, and of creation – a kingdom which is within man, where progressively freed both from material constraints and from the deceitful servitudes of animism, he could at last live authentically, protected by institutions which, seeing in him the subject of the kingdom and at the same time its creator, could be designed to serve him in his unique and precious essence.”

Among these ‘institutions’ is education, which has to be radically denationalized if the redirection of energies desired by Monod is to be brought about. The serious pursuit of scientific knowledge – and of its serious application for human welfare – is evidently incompatible with a divided humanity. Excessively national educational institutions cannot be allowed to imprison the hearts and minds of scientists in the narrow chauvinistic spaces that the typical nation’s educational and cultural systems present to its children as the only spaces worth inhabiting. For science to be a truly global pursuit, children have to be educated as citizens of the planet. And such an education needs to rest on a sustainable conversation not only between nations – working towards a global order – but also between domains of inquiry, which have to work towards a mature interdisciplinary traffic of ideas.

Note that the need to dismantle divisive national apparatuses also cannot be used as a pretext for encouraging the hubris of scientific advisors to hijack society’s overall democratic process. The communities of scientists operate with their own internally democratic discussion system; but this system has to find ways to welcome and digest democratic criticism from non-scientific mortals. For even those of us who take no part in developing scientific knowledge are affected by the applications of science. Must we wait for a utopian global educational system to educate all children into planetary citizenship fifty years hence? Is there nothing that we badly educated adults can do here and now?

In my view, scientists need to start playing a more clearly articulated role in a truly public democratic discussion network. The sciences need to reform themselves to this end – which involves not just improving cross-disciplinary alignments within scientific work, but also not letting outside masters such as funding agencies hijack the priorities of scientific research.

The nuclear complex is built around claims about the fundamentality of particle physics. We all agree that particle physics has been the site of some of humankind’s greatest intellectual breakthroughs. Nonetheless, the social iconization of particle physics as the foundation of all scientific knowledge has been so timed and so managed that one of its functions has been to veil the complicity of some agenda-setting scientists with what Eisenhower famously dubbed ‘the military-industrial complex’.

The alleged fundamentality of particle physics is independent of the question of the unique excellence of particle physicists. Particle physics looks ‘fundamental’ only on an indefensible conception, once taken seriously by many, of the derivability of meso-domain results from micro-domain results. Persistent failure to make any breakthroughs in cross-disciplinary derivation enterprises should have convinced the votaries of that conception by now that it cannot be made to work.

What is fundamental is pattern, which comes in all shapes and sizes. The pursuit of pattern is what drives individual research disciplines. Cross-classification makes it impossible to arrange disciplines in a pyramid or a hierarchy. For instance, the chemistry of water, the geographical issues of water management, the impact of water availability levels on economic planning, and so on, do not add up to a conceptually coherent crystallization. In particular, they do not reduce to theorems derivable from an axiomatizable body of ‘water studies’ propositions. Derivations of theorems from fundamental assumptions – and correspondingly reductionist moves – are of course valid w i t h i n particular disciplines. My point is about cross-disciplinary reduction, the claim that, quite generally, conclusions in some disciplines must be derivable from premises in others.

To summarize, there is a strong case to be made for dropping the cross-disciplinary reductionist assumption that underlies the claim that particle physics is a fundamental discipline. Where does this take us?

Once we drop reductionism, we also drop the dogma of the separability of a ‘pure’ science research agenda from an ‘applied’ supplement, and the related dogma that has us regard ‘pure’ science as ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ work as ‘derivative’, as devoid of intrinsically valuable, creative, scientific ideas. The nuclear complex has led us to overvalue pure scientists, as unique holders of a claim to excellence, and to undervalue applied scientists, whose work we have been encouraged to regard as easy.

Difficulty, excellence and derivability are distinct issues. When we tease them apart, we begin to notice that in general it is applied scientists who have harder nuts to crack. As Palle Rama Rao pointed out to me on the basis of his experience as a coordinator of responses to the Latur earthquake (personal communication, 2001), applied scientists have to address problems that cannot be usefully approached from one discipline alone, and therefore find themselves compelled to work across discipline boundaries. In contrast, a pure scientist is typically working in a paradigm that has already been put in place and that makes it possible for researchers with monodisciplinary skills to come up with results that advance the subcommunity’s formal understanding of certain phenomena and therefore count as contributions. Thus, it becomes especially the applied scientist’s job to hold aloft Popper’s banner that says scientists ‘are students of problems, not disciplines’. Far more pure scientists than applied scientists are able to make do with decades of athletic exercise using the tools of just one discipline.

For us to reverse standard and deeply entrenched beliefs about the relative value of pure and applied research is not an isolated task pertaining to the natural sciences per se. What goes for applied research goes for teaching as well. In a more broad-based study, David Bleich (1988) points out that the academy – the system of journal publications, books, conferences, in which scholars express and criticize views – is valued more highly than the teaching system. He notes that this hierarchization overlooks the fact that pedagogy kindles knowledge afresh in millions of young minds – a context of renewal in which all knowledge is reinterrogated, often leading to the major modifications that then show up in journals and conferences. We are being wildly ungrateful to Richard Feynman when we value only his prize-winning work in particle physics and fail to notice that he went around learning languages to be able to give Portuguese medium physics lessons to students in Brazil, for instance. Feynman understood quite well the primary importance of physics teaching for the growth of science.

In a country such as India, we are particularly well placed to understand the need for such a revision of priorities. The ordinary achievements of most Indians (as distinctly from the spectacular achievements of a few Indians) are grossly undervalued in today’s world specifically because the areas in which we have been quiet and steady achievers – such as keeping a reasonable educational system going against incredible odds, connecting universal ideas to particular contexts in ingenious ways to serve local constituencies, successfully applying other people’s ‘pure’ research to our ‘impure’ realities without making a fuss about how much we are getting done – are areas that the entrenched priorities encourage everybody to undervalue. Reversing these priorities is something we independently need to do; that way we can appreciate better, and are motivated to keep cultivating, certain virtues that we do have. We notice these virtues far less often than we flagellate ourselves over our visible and certainly undeniable shortcomings. It is important, however, to not use this issue as a pretext for going to town about meraa Bhaarat mahaan. Large numbers of school-teachers in many developing nations have been working hard, under trying conditions. They too have been performing reasonably well, and the global public has been unwilling to cheer for them, in large part because of the distorted priorities that standard evaluations are based on.

This resetting of priorities within academia that I am asking for, a ‘science-internal’ process, is inseparable from the ‘external’ goal of getting academic workers in general and scientists in particular to participate more fully in the network of democratic discussions.

Egos and the Management of their Dis/contents

We now move from the pure a n d applied sciences and pedagogy to the humanities, which underwrite the pedagogic enterprise. What role can the modes of reasoning available in the humanities play in the revision of priorities I am advocating – in the struggle against the nuclear complex?

In the humanities, we learn how to take the form of a narrative seriously. Consider a case study by Krishna Kumar (2002). He demonstrates that school textbooks of history in India and Pakistan demonstrably stick to the facts, but manage to tell very different stories. These stories lead Pakistani schoolchildren to believe that partition was inevitable and desirable, and Indian schoolchildren to view the events as a tragedy that timely and thoughtful action could have prevented. As I see the problem we are discussing here, the humanities comes in as a laboratory where we can incubate narratives that can actually bring about such a revision of priorities, away from the nuclear complex. And the construction of new narratives is crucial to the optimal use of this laboratory.

My specific proposal is based on the recent history of identities. Once upon a time, ethnic and caste-type identities were viewed, especially by socialists, as minor problems that would be overcome through the growth of international processes and ideas. But we now view identities as an acceptable basis for politics. If i d e n t i t y has not remained a dirty word, it is slightly puzzling that so many of us are still willing to treat e g o as a dirty word. My proposal is that we should stop doing so. The social identities that people let each other flaunt now are a matter of names; so are individual egos; there is really no good reason why one should be able to flaunt a Dalit identity but feel abashed about saying ‘I am proud to be Selvakumar’.

What, however, do I mean by bringing the ego out of the closet? Am I advocating a celebration of the ego trip, of the ‘me generation’, and so on? What would such a proposal have to do with the struggle against the nuclear complex?

I am not saying that just individual egos need to be brought out of the closet; they are a salient example. My proposal is that individual a n d collective egos, of various shapes and sizes, should be brought out of the closet, and become objects of frank and unashamed cultivation, as well as sites of mutual respect. In terms of rigorous work done in the humanities on the theory of narrative, egos are where you and I emerge as individual faces – or you and we emerge as collective micro- or macro-identities – in the narratives that we circulate. Egos are points on which the stories turn.

This proposal of mine rests on the belief, which I urge you to think about and criticize, that war is an irrational response to the legitimate (and, in our social order, irrationally repressed) need to enable a mutually assured cultivation of egos – and to put in place a social agenda that couples this cultivation with a certain taming of its shrewishness. Both the cultivation and the taming take the form of tweaking the narrative formats we have been using.

On my proposal, an intelligent ego-taming enterprise will need to carry out, more effectively, the work for which we have put codes of modesty and politeness in place. (For critical commentary on slightly earlier versions of the hypocritical codes we claim to live by, see Russell 1975.) What I am suggesting is an extension of the way critical and thoughtful persons have been dealing with potentially harmful substances or experiences in recent decades.

Let us take on board the standard view that cultivating one’s individual or social ego is a ‘vice’. A social agenda for taming a ‘vice’ becomes viable only if it is generally acknowledged that ‘vices’ are an excessive response to compelling human needs. Moderation becomes possible only when the needs are admitted, and when people go about seeking moderate ways to satisfy them.

This is not to say that candour is the only strategy to use in all contexts. Waging a long-term social struggle calls for prudent and discreet management of one’s strategies and resources. There are times when you have to be wily.

Consider the case of poor countries where you want to push for applied research and to attract some of the best minds to this sector. If this means pampering the egos of some ‘pure research leaders’ in the richer countries, can you do this in the mode of open trading of ego credits to make the prioritization of applied research for poor countries profitable for all players? In principle you could; but the extension of the ‘carbon credits’ notion to ‘ego credits’ is not something you are likely to accomplish in the short run. Initially, you will have to simply pamper the egos in the richer countries and the pure research niche institutions in the poorer countries, gradually steering this surreptitious enterprise towards the openness of ego credit trading.

I am making this tactical point in order to emphasize the need for strategies to be need-driven and flexible. The overall perspective has to do with the belief that the transition from a militaristic to a peaceful social order involves several distinguishable struggles, which will have to open many ‘fronts’. As we open these ‘fronts’, we will at the same time have to beat our swords into ploughshares, and to learn how to articulate this construction of peace as a specific and new form of labour, which requires methods and resources of its own. If we fail to do this, we ensure that politics remains a continuation of war by other means – and we remain trapped in the nuclear complex even if we strenuously dismantle our nuclear reactors and do research on alternate energy sources with all our might.

The question is how to tame our old sense of ‘might’ that was once coupled with attenuated versions of the view that might makes right; and how to handle the self-righteousness issues – the ego issues – that arise in the course of any struggle that seeks to reverse the might-right equation. My answer is that uninstalling the nuclear must mean carefully and prudently installing a candid but moderate cultivation of individual and collective egos, and recognizing that these enterprises are related to each other and to a reconfiguration of our intellectual and moral universe.

The enterprise of becoming sensitive inhabitants of a nuclearized planet is anything but straightforward, and cannot be pursued by conventional means.


Bleich, David. 1988. The Double Perspective: Language, Literacy, and Social Relations. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Kumar, Krishna. 2002. Prejudice and Pride: School Histories of the Freedom Struggle in India and Pakistan. Delhi: Penguin.

Monod, Jacques. Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology. Tr [from the 1970 French original Le hasard et la nécessité] by Austryn Wainhouse. New York: Vintage.

Russell, Bertrand. 1975. Mortals and Others: American Essays 1931-1935. Volume 1. Ed. by Harry Ruja. London: George Allen & Unwin.



At May 24, 2011 at 11:07 PM , Blogger Mukur said...

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