Is nuclear holocaust inevitable? Can we back away from the cliff we have been anxiously gazing over for 70 years – or in many cases, simply trying to ignore? Some say there’s no turning back. The German philosopher Günther Anders noted, after his visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1958: “Now that humanity is is capable of destroying itself, nothing will ever cause it to lose this ‘negative all-powerfulness,’ not even a total denuclearization of the world’s arsenals. Now that apocalypse has been inscribed in our future as fate, the best we can do is to indefinitely postpone the final moment. We are living under a suspended sentence, as it were, a stay of execution – a reprieve.”
Not everyone is so pessimistic. California Governor Jerry Brown joined Stanford historian David Holloway, who studies atomic energy during the Cold War years; Stanford cryptologist Martin Hellman, known for his risk analysis studies on nuclear threats; environmentalist and historian Jon Christensen, and Stanford philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who writes about the nexus of ethics and technology, for a conversation on “The Nuclear Menace” this week. Jean-Pierre was the principal reason I accepted the invitation to the event in Stanford Libraries’ Bender Room. He credited the man he called his mentor, René Girard, for some of his insights, which were also drawn from his recent book, The Mark of the Sacred, from Stanford University Press.
It was a dynamite panel all round, and Jerry Brown’s presence was enormously cheering. Why a California governor on a panel discussing nuclear deterrence? Brown reminded the group that, decades ago during his first stint as governor, he had been nicknamed “Governor Moonbeam” for his tendency to roam outside “the very narrow range of permissible topics. … The end of humanity ought to be a permissible topic.”
Back to the “Mark of the Sacred”: Jean-Pierre described how, in our world, “rationality appears to have relegated all remnants of the religious mind to the past” and yet is still greatly influenced by it. “The problem is not to reconcile reason and faith. It is to recognize the marks of the sacred in the most outstanding and the most terrifying achievements of the rational mind.”
Wait a minute. That’s where René Girard’s influence comes in. “The sacred” is a term that carries a lot of baggage, but it’s used here in a very precise Girardian way. “The sacred” is the way archaic societies bonded through rituals of sacrifice and violence. Jean-Pierre reminded us that the Latin root of sacred is sacer, which gives two faces to the sacred: a saint on one hand, the accursed on the other; the veneration on one, an abomination on the other. “One of the marks of the sacred is radical ambivalence. It is infinitely good, as it protects us from our own violence; it is infinitely evil, as it is intrinsically violent.” Elements of the archaic persist into our postmodern era for, as Hellman noted, we have powers that were once considered godlike. ”Only God could destroy a city; we can do that now,” he said – but would anyone consider the human race godlike in its maturity? he asked. Crickets.
Our attitude towards nuclear weapons matches this ancient pattern: “Their only usefulness today is said to be the fact that they protect us from others using them against us. In Biblical terms: Satan casts out Satan, and he is the only one capable of casting out Satan, that is, himself,” said Jean-Pierre.
While our nuclear arsenals are said to protect us against nuclear war, their absence would arguably be an even greater deterrent – a modern paradox. Dupuy cited military strategist Bernard Brodie: “one of the foremost factors making deterrence really work and work well is the lurking fear that in some massive confrontation crisis it may fail. Under these circumstances one does not tempt fate.” Jean-Pierre considered the interplay of accident and fate in our nuclear future – Oedipus’s fate required an “accident” at the crossroads for fulfilment, said Jean-Pierre. We are now dealing with “blind mechanisms, which make human passions, moral categories, intentions and strategic planning obsolete,” he said. In today’s world, “it may be rational to pretend to be irrational.” For example, Putin seems to prefer a chaotic, dangerous Ukraine rather than a democratic one that tilts towards European integration. “Putin’s behavior is a powerful generator of unpredictability. Strategic or not, this card may trump all the others.”
According to Dupuy, a nuclear holocaust could occur even without hatreds or passions. He reminded us of the dozens of times we were on the brink of nuclear war during the Cold War. Anders anticipated a “paradise inhabited by murderers without malice and victims without hatred. … No war in history will have been more devoid of hatred than the war by tele-murder that is to come … this absence of hatred will be the most inhuman absence of hatred that has ever existed; absence of hatred and absence of scruples will henceforth be one and the same.” (Sounds like warfare by drones, doesn’t it?)
A nuclear holocaust can occur even if no one wills it, given the automatic human tendency of escalation to extremes, as military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted, and as Girard elaborated in Battling to the End. The stakes that trigger such reactions can be ridiculously small – witness our entry into World War II, or the bickering between China and Japan over small islands in the Pacific. “All of this points to a new regime of violence in which human intentionality and human agency have become irrelevant.”
Dupuy noted,”Linking Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Hannah Arendt and Günther Anders probed the scandalous reality that immense harm may be caused by a complete absence of malignity; that a monstrous responsibility may go hand in hand with an utter absence of malice. Our moral categories, they discovered, are powerless to describe and judge evil when it exceeds the inconceivable.”
Philosopher David K. Lewis summarized the situation this way: “You don’t tangle with tigers – it’s that simple.” The “tigers” are our own violent tendencies. Luck, chance, fate, and the tiger “point to a world in which humanity itself has become irrelevant and miscalculation can carry the day.”
Another Girardian note during the question-and-answer period: Jean-Pierre suggested that not all nations, even belligerent ones, aim for the annihilation of the other – for example, Iran may not be nuking up to destroy Israel, but rather because, in mimetic fashion, nations imitate each other, and “to be taken seriously on the world scene, you have to be nuclear.” He recommended that we “sever the link between prestige and nuclear possession.”
Someone quoted Whole Earth Catalog’s Stewart Brand, who updated his comment from 40 years ago, “we are as gods, we might as well get good at it” to the more imperative ”what I’m saying now is we are as gods and have to get good at it.” Jerry Brown offered what might be considered an “action point” for the afternoon: “Techno-optimism is a view that leaves out the virtue of humility. Optimism can be as lethal as pessimism,” he said, recalling the Tower of Babel. “Humility is in short supply among scientists and politicians and others as well.” Well, that’s something we can start working on today.