My Calc III professor once told me that mathematics would one day solve all humanity’s problems. “Scientific or social, clean energy to drug addiction – one day their equations will be found and they will be solved.”

Angela Cesere

He was serious. Although seldom stated so bluntly, this attitude underlies the thinking of many scientists and laypeople alike. And while it’s tempting to dismiss this notion as scientific imperialism, it has profound and dangerous results in the real world.

When Iran terrifies the world with its nuclear program, it’s benefiting from a Cold War-era weapons policy that would’ve made my calculus professor proud. Iran’s chief ally in the United Nations is Russia – they have lots of nuclear material they want to sell. And Russia, like the United States, has this nuclear material partly because of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

During the Cold War, a group of scientists at a defense firm called the RAND corporation devised a mathematical game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the game, if one prisoner informs on the other, his sentence is reduced to one year and the other’s is increased to five. If neither informs, their sentences both stay at two years. If they both inform, their sentences are increased to three years apiece. Neither can know what the other will do in advance.

Now say the two “prisoners” are the United States and Russia, and the “increased sentence” they can inflict on each other is an atomic holocaust. The mathematically ideal solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma is for both prisoners to rat on each other. In Cold War parlance, this was called Mutually Assured Destruction: Make sure the United States has enough nukes to annihilate the entire planet, Russia will do the same, and then they’re both screwed if they attack.

In military circles of the time, this “minimax solution” was taken to demonstrate that the constant threat of thermonuclear armageddon was preferable to peaceful disarmament. Unfortunately for our generation, a few important variables were left out. The Prisoner’s Dilemma assumes both prisoners are rational agents out for their own self-preservation. It doesn’t cover fanatics who believe they glorify God by killing their enemies and go to Paradise if they themselves die. For the religious nihilists of Iran, Israel and American Christendom, the Apocalypse is actually an incentive.

That massive permanent arms industry that made the bombs? It’s a mathematical necessity. While the policy of “massive retaliation” was already in place before the work at RAND, it’s probably safe to say the military-industrial complex built to serve this policy felt reassured by the idea that there was a scientific basis for their livelihoods. Public opinion in the 1960s, uneducated as it was, tended not to regard the atomic extermination of the entire human race as a legitimate strategic option.

Such rationalized insanity is the exact sort of nightmare we can expect in a world of quantities divorced from values. This is the same System the 1960s fought and the Machine the postmodern 1990s raged against. Such a “virtual morality” barely disguises its darker underlying drives of power and arrogance.

In Eliot’s brilliant phrase, to the extent we consider science an appropriate substitute for ethics, we’re guilty of believing in “systems so perfect that no one will have to be good.” Like my calculus professor, we may still hold out hope for technological salvation – a literal deus ex machina – but the Second Law of Thermodynamics still makes a pretty poor substitute for the Golden Rule.

At the University, such lopsided logic is particularly influential within two professional schools: Engineering and Business. Although mainstream student organizations and professionalism courses pay lip service to ethics, students are generally encouraged to believe technological and economic progress work just fine, if not better, without such mushy feel-good concerns. There are excellent student organizations like Net Impact or BLUElab that students can use to apply their education to world problems, but they must fight against the prevailing winds in their colleges.

The promise of scientific progress is one of the true gifts from Western civilization to the world. Hunger, renewable energy, AIDS – all of these can be mitigated by reason, research and intelligence. But science itself will never solve these problems without the will that morality alone can provide.

Albert Einstein was more eloquent than I: “The ancients knew something we seem to have forgotten. All means prove but a blunt instrument if they have not behind them a living spirit. But if the longing for the achievement of the goal is powerfully alive within us, then we shall not lack the strength to find the means for reaching the goal and for translating it into deeds.”

Toby Mitchell can be reached at tojami@umich.edu.

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