“Our whole being is nothing but a fight against the dark forces within ourselves. To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul. To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.”
When Hell Freezes Over
“During my participation in the Manhattan Project and subsequent research at Los Alamos, encompassing a period of fifteen years, I worked in the company of perhaps the greatest collection of scientific talent the world has ever known.”
Frederick Reines, physicist
“Technical sweetness” is a special term used by engineers and scientists when the solutions of a puzzle float to the surface, when all the pieces fit so beautifully and functionally together, when success finally presents itself in a neat package.
The year is 1945, people are living in an endless loop of anxiety to the sounds of war planes flying above, the coherent trudging of the soldiers’ marching feet, bullets and explosives shattering their eardrums. The people’s hopes are kept aflame as they religiously listen to the speeches of their leaders, telling them not to worry, when they have plenty of reasons to feel that the world is coming to an end. The loop only goes around and around, ad infinitum, as the war rages on.
Meanwhile, in the labs of Los Alamos, New Mexico, technical sweetness came about in part of the Manhattan Project — the creation of the atomic bomb.
In creating a weapon so deadly and mercilessly inhuman, the scientists at Los Alamos had to justify their cause somehow. They had to assure their conscience that it was an act of darkness that had to be done, that they were in fact, saviors.
They were in the driver’s seat of invention, and they needed to feel that they were serving the good of humanity.
They believed that their weapon would be the ending of all wars — that if the weapons were used to end the current war, only then would humanity appreciate how destructive such weapons are, and thus be motivated to end war permanently.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who led the research was once interviewed in his old age. “We knew the world would not be the same,” he said, “A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.”
As he witnessed the eruption of a thousand radiant suns in the testing grounds of the deserts of New Mexico, a passage from the Bhagavad-Gita flashed before his mind : “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Regretfully, he said, “I suppose we all thought that one way or another.”
He had seen a test of the atomic bomb and the destruction that it could potentially cause — He still had an opportunity to prevent the use of the bomb against the innocent people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki — But he did nothing.
And his failure to act continued to haunt him for the rest of his life.
Though Oppenheimer was very attracted to the philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita as he looked for ways to make sense of his actions, he could never really get round to embracing it.
The Bhagavad-Gita centers around the story of a warrior prince, Arjuna and his charioteer, the Lord Krishna. Facing an opposing army of relatives and friends, Arjuna becomes heartbroken. Krishna so teaches him about a higher philosophy that would enable him to carry his duties as a warrior, while placing aside his personal concerns.
The philosophy is that the soul is eternal, that death is not the end, and that the whole of creation is just a wonderful play. Krishna is persuading Arjuna that he should simply do his duties as a warrior and leave the rest of the matter into divine hands.
Arjuna is a soldier, and his duty is to fight. It is Krishna’s duty, not Arjuna’s, to determine who lives and who dies. Arjuna so shouldn’t mourn or rejoice over whatever fate has in store.
But on the other side, Oppenheimer could never achieve this peace.
For Arjuna, it may have been relatively easy for him to be indifferent to the horrors of war because he believed that the souls of his opponents would live on regardless. But Oppenheimer felt the consequences of the atomic bomb down to his very existence. He hadn’t had the confidence that the destruction, ultimately, was just an illusion, or that the soul is eternal.
He acknowledged that he had unleashed a force that could lead to the undoing of civilization. He famously rued, “The physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge they cannot lose.”
“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
Excuse me for opening this article with a cautionary tale up there, but everyone needs a reminder every now and then about going too deep into a creative cause.
The historian E.P. Thompson once said that history never happens as the actors imagine, instead history is the “record of unintended consequences.”
As Ryan Holiday observed in Conspiracy, “The assassination of Julius Caesar does not restore the Roman Republic, it leads to a brutal civil war, and, at the end, another emperor. The Allied powers destroy Hitler and Germany but empower Russia and Stalin and create a new Cold War to follow the conclusion of the hot one. There is always something you didn’t expect, always some second-or-third-order consequence.”
The butterfly effect.
Newton’s third law of motion.
Take whatever version of it that you want, and it tells you the same thing — Anything that we throw up in the sky has to land somewhere.
While new inventions in art and science are how we progress as human beings and as a civilization, being aware of the consequences of our actions and considering them before the creative process is just as important.
As much as we take ethics lightly or even forget them, they keep us from surpassing our limits. What more with the coming of technologies such as AI and genetic engineering — We’re getting closer and closer to playing God.
We can’t actually play God, we can never will — But we trick ourselves into thinking we can.
Several cultures around the world have warned their people against creative hubris.
Such as in Jewish folklore, a few great rabbis find their way in making clay animate. These clay creatures called “golems” come to closely resemble man, except that they’re mindlessly obedient — Hence all the destruction that they eventually cause to their creators and mankind.
In Greek mythology, there’s the story of Prometheus, the trickster Titan who steals fire (representing knowledge) and gives it to man. As his never-ending punishment, Zeus chains him and has his liver eaten alive by an eagle, only to be regenerated again and again.
In literature, there’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a tale of a scientist who attempts to create a human being and how it turns out to be a living hell for him.
But it’s really more than that, if you were to give it a deeper read.
To quote Elizabeth Bear, a critic of the novel, Frankenstein is “not about the dangers of a man’s quest for knowledge but about the ethics of his failure to attempt to anticipate and take responsibility for the results of that quest.”
In the story, Victor Frankenstein steals corpses from graves and tortures animals to create his monster. Terrified by how ugly it turns out to be, he leaves his creation unknowing of what good and evil are. As it escapes, it wreaks a murderous spree, and destroys the lives of people dear to Victor.
It’s not just about the responsibility that Victor has for the destruction caused by his creation, it’s also about the responsibility that he owes to him — Making sure that his creation knows good and does good — He was so blinded by his hubris that he clearly did not oversee that.
As Victor exhales his final breath on his death bed, he whispers his last words, which are, “Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition.”
Making a Dent in the Universe
“The beginnings of all things are small.”
All the things I’ve said sound like I’m discouraging you from being creative. But that’s not my point.
I’m only saying that you have to first domesticate any form of hubris that you might have before you embark on any creative pursuit.
After you’re done reading this, I urge you to reflect on two things.
Firstly, none of us actually own knowledge. Theories get named after the people who discover them, songwriters get songwriting credits. But that something you find or create isn’t truly yours.
When Victor Frankenstein was brimming with excitement in creating his monster, he thought to himself, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.”
Keep in mind that you’re “standing on the shoulders of giants” — In the fullest sense of the line — Because knowledge is shared and built upon. New discoveries are built and based on older discoveries. New genres and styles in art are derived from the artist’s influences. This will help you view things through a more humble lens.
Secondly, trace back on your intentions — What are you really doing it for? Is it worth the fight? Is the pursuit worth bearing the unintended consequences, and if so, what can you do to take responsibility for them?
Because putting a dent in the universe can also have a less positive lining to it.
Think of how Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther inspired a wave of lovestruck suicides among young men who tried to mimic the conclusion of the novel where Werther shot himself with a pistol after being left by a woman.
Or how Mark Zuckerberg believed in social media as a tool for good as he created Facebook in his Harvard dorm, failing to foresee that people’s private data can be manipulated and used for harm.
You may not be able to totally control the consequences that may arise from your inventions, and you aren’t in control of how people use your work, but you can always do something to direct your audience in using your work towards good ends.
The author Ryan Holiday has written on provocative subjects ranging from media manipulation to conspiracies — He doesn’t only expose how the world really works, he also teaches you to use those same strategies for your own benefit.
He writes about them because he believes that the world would be much darker if the common man stayed ignorant about its realities. But as he signs his books, as he concludes his writings, he would always leave a reminder saying, “Use it for good.”
And now as I conclude mine, let me sign off saying : Use this knowledge wisely.