Meeting Einstein’s Challenge: New Thinking about Nuclear Weapons

April 18, 2015

Robert R. Holt

In May 1946, The New York Times reported that Albert Einstein had sent a telegram appeal to several hundred prominent Americans, asking for contributions to a fund “to let the people know that a new type of thinking is essential” in the atomic age. Einstein wrote in his telegram: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

It is clear from other statements made by Einstein that the new thinking he called for was to abandon competition and the preparation for war, and to focus instead on cooperation and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Einstein added that, to be successful, such changes presupposed the eventual creation of a world government.

In Einstein’s view, “old thinking” included the belief that wars are inevitable; that the best defense is a good offense; that any military buildup by an enemy must be matched or exceeded; that wars can—indeed, must—be fought against hateful and dangerous concepts such as terrorism and communism; and that nuclear bombs are like conventional ones, just more powerful. In a pre-nuclear world, it may not have been so perilous to treat opposing nations like schoolboys in a fistfight—an approach that has the advantage of not being cognitively demanding, and thus easy for most people in every country to understand. But understanding and coping with nuclear weapons—which are millions of times more powerful, pound for pound, than conventional ones—calls for a higher level of cognitive development. Few people have reached that level yet.

The New World of Nuclear Weapons

On every side, people and governments are being confronted by more and more complexity. Meanwhile, public education in many of the most populous countries fails to equip the average citizen with the capacity to understand this sophisticated human environment. The depth and seriousness of the problem of pervasive “old thinking,” inadequate for handling complexity, grew enormously with the splitting of the atom, as Einstein noted. The world has since seen the further development of nuclear bombs, failed efforts at international control, and an extraordinary arms race.

As of mid-2014, there were approximately 16,300 nuclear weapons located in 14 countries. President Obama, who promised to work toward the abolition of these weapons, now proposes to do so by building new facilities to manufacture more sophisticated versions of the bombs and their delivery systems in greater numbers, with an eventual estimated cost of $1 trillion or more over 30 years.

It is evident that the thinking of the world’s leaders has not changed to keep up with the changes in reality. The “realistic” experts on political and military policy display all of the old thinking about weapons, wars, and the conflicts of nations—in which world peace is viewed as a naïve hope, world government an absurd and unattainable dream. It seems to be necessary to lay out the case, again, that nuclear weapons are so uniquely devastating that they require a new way of thinking to avert unthinkably awful consequences. Not only are such weapons far more powerful than any conventional ones, but they also produce light intense enough to cause blindness, heat capable of vaporizing most materials, massive firestorms, and harmful radioactive fallout. Current plans for nuclear war target civilian populations and call for launching weapons without public debate or a declaration of war.

Fairly early in the nuclear era, many world leaders recognized that a nuclear war could have no winner and should never be fought. Even Ronald Reagan grasped that point. But despite the explicit demands of treaties such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—and constant pressure from citizens’ groups, mainstream politicians, academic analysts, and retired military leaders—only limited progress toward the goal of abandoning nuclear weapons has been made.

The Mature Minority

What is needed to understand and cope constructively with complex and sophisticated systems such as nuclear weapons is, obviously, systems thinking—a holistic approach that examines relationships and patterns within and between systems, rather than focusing on specific elements. For example, fixating on how many nuclear weapons an enemy possesses may obscure potential alternatives to an arms race. In studies of adult moral and ego development, only the most mature persons studied were capable of systems thinking. In a paper that I published in 1984, “Can Psychology Meet Einstein’s Challenge?” I suggested 12 rules for effective systems thinking, plus a number of concrete examples.

Abandoning war as the ultimate decider of political conflicts, and embracing world government as a goal to strive for—these views are held only by people who have high levels of personality development. What data we have (all, unfortunately, from the United States) point strongly to the probability that only a small minority of the population attain such maturity.

Even the presidents, governors, and legislators of the most enlightened nations speak as if they do not understand the special nature of nuclear weapons, and the suicidal consequences of detonating them. If those in charge of national defense do “get it,” that has little visible influence on the policies they advocate.

Advanced Thinking

Most experts on cognitive psychology agree with Jean Piaget, famous for his insightful studies of how children advance in their thinking from infancy to early adulthood, that there are two basic aspects of thought: assimilation and accommodation. The first is what we do when we recognize something—grasp its similarity to something already known, and take it as a new instance of the familiar. The second is necessary to take in what is new about a perceptual encounter; more generally, it is our capacity to advance toward new ideas and to be creative. Faced with a challenge, we find it easier to assimilate, seeing in what ways this new thing is a variety of something familiar, than to understand the importance of what is new about it—to accommodate. Lazy or immature thinking tends to be too assimilative. Our ability to learn from unfamiliar experience depends on altering old categories or creating novel ones to fit a fresh reality.

In the 1950s, psychologists Philip S. Holzman and George S. Klein described a way of measuring two common styles of thinking, perceiving, and remembering—which they called “leveling” and “sharpening,” and which rely more than usual on assimilation or accommodation, respectively. Other evidence indicates that the difference between levelers and sharpeners is partly one of maturity of personality, sometimes called ego development. It is better to have society’s leaders be sharpeners rather than levelers, but there is nothing in our ways of choosing presidents and other leaders that guarantees the best results. Indeed, in a democracy, politically successful people usually understand that one gets elected not by a show of superior competence but by reassuring voters that one is a “regular guy” (or gal) like them. All too often, the popular choice is a person with a less-than-desirable level of cognitive development.

A pessimistic conclusion is that we cannot rely on our electoral process to provide us with leaders capable of rising to the demands of today’s reality: imminent climate change of disastrous proportions on the one hand, and on the other, stockpiles of genocidal nuclear weapons that are difficult to maintain and control. Some observers may conclude that our hope of survival depends on a rapid advance in the electorate’s level of cognitive development and practical wisdom—which is obviously not attainable quickly enough (if at all).

This may sound like intellectual elitism. Yet if we look back at other critical points in US history, such as the Civil War era and the Great Depression, ordinary people chose exemplary leaders who far outranked most voters in cognitive maturity and wisdom: for example, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Similarly, the untutored masses of India willingly voted for Gandhi, of whom Einstein said: “On the whole, I believe that Gandhi held the most enlightened views of all the political men in our time.” There is hope, then, that another such wise, fully grown-up leader will come forth in time, and that voters will recognize and support her or him. It is also encouraging that, in most surveyed countries, large majorities in public opinion polls endorse the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons.

A World of Diversity

Stanford Law School historian Lawrence Friedman is at work on a comprehensive survey of contemporary culture’s One World content, of which he finds an amount that would have warmed Einstein’s heart. In a personal communication, he assured me that we already have intellectual leaders who are quite capable of, and who eloquently demonstrate, the new thinking of which Einstein spoke. They talk of preventing war, rather than preparing for it, and of acknowledging the reality of human-caused global warming and taking appropriate action.

The saving aspect of content in today’s culture—its mass media, libraries, Internet, and other resources—is its extensive diversity. Anyone possessed of a desire for news, fiction, entertainment, intellectual stimulation, or ways to rise to today’s huge threats can find it, with increasing ease and at any level of complexity, in the maelstrom of information,.

Naturally, it seems desirable to aim for a world in which everyone can live up to his or her maximum potential. It is encouraging to report that the higher education provided by universities does produce measurable maturation of that kind. Even if such education were universally available without cost, however, there would still be considerable diversity. A good thing, too! Meanwhile, let us take comfort in the realization that it is quite possible to meet Einstein’s challenge with the demographic resources we already have.Φ

Robert R. Holt, a long-time student of the psychology of peace, is the retired founding director of the Research Center for Mental Health and of the Program on Peace and Global Policy Studies at New York University, where he was a professor of psychology from 1958 until his retirement in 1989.

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