The ability to reason has given us computers and iPhones, roads and bridges, and footprints on the moon. Yet it has not enabled us to establish a just and peaceful world order in which everyone’s human rights are realized. Consilience, “the principle that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can ‘converge’ on strong conclusions,”1 holds out the promise that we can establish that world order. But we need to apply knowledge accumulated across all disciplines and our ability to reason to do so.
Here is the way E. O. Wilson put it in his book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge:
"The greatest enterprise of the mind has always been …the attempted linkage of the sciences and humanities…Consilience is the key to unification…William Wewell…was the first to speak of consilience…a “jumping together” of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines…The belief in the possibility of consilience beyond science…is a metaphysical world view…Most of the issues that vex humanity daily—ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environment, endemic poverty…cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural science with that of the social sciences and humanities.”2
It is with that thought in mind that the Kemper Human Rights Education Foundation sponsors its essay contests. The goal of the contests is to motivate students to use their intelligence, knowledge, and creativity in a quest to fashion the rules and enforcement mechanisms that will enable us to live together as peacefully and well as possible. All disciplines, all cultures, all countries, all high school students engaged in the effort to create a just and hence peaceful international order: that, in other words, is KHREF's goal.
OPPENHEIMER’S DEFENSE OF HUMANITY
By David Nirenberg, The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2023 David Nirenberg is the Leon Levy Professor and Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.
Oppenheimer believed the challenges of the future could only be met by bringing the technological and the human together.From the moment the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 until his death in 1967, J. Robert Oppenheimer was perhaps the most recognizable physicist on the planet. During World War II, Oppenheimer directed Los Alamos Laboratory, Site Y of the Manhattan Project, the successful American effort to build an atomic bomb. He went on to serve for almost 20 years as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., home to some of the world’s leading scientists, including Albert Einstein... After the successful test of the Gadget, as the first atomic bomb was called, he is said to have quoted the Bhagavad Gita: Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds…the world is once again worried that a new technology threatens the future of humanity. Advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, including the explosive success of ChatGPT, have provoked attention to questions that were once the province of science fiction…Oppenheimer sensed that humanity was at a technological turning point that might bring about its destruction…the most important part of Oppenheimer’s life isn’t his work on the atomic bomb but his less dramatic tenure running the Institute for Advanced Study…Einstein, a professor at the Institute from 1933 until his death in 1955, dedicated much of his final decade to the political and ethical questions raised by the new physics of fission and fusion. Another faculty member who merits a biopic is the Hungarian immigrant John von Neumann…Von Neumann, too, was deeply concerned about the inability of humanity to keep up with its own inventions…Oppenheimer, Einstein, von Neumann and other Institute faculty channeled much of their effort toward what AI researchers today call the “alignment” problem: how to make sure our discoveries serve us instead of destroying us. Their approaches to this increasingly pressing problem remain instructive. Von Neumann focused on applying the powers of mathematical logic, taking insights from games of strategy and applying them to economics and war planning. Today, descendants of his “game theory” running on von Neumann computing architecture are applied not only to our nuclear strategy, but also many parts of our political, economic and social lives. This is one approach to alignment: humanity survives technology through more technology, and it is the researcher’s role to maximize progress. Oppenheimer agreed that technological progress was critical..But he also thought that this approach was not enough. “What are we to make of a civilization,” he asked in 1959, a few years after von Neumann’s death, “which has always regarded ethics as an essential part of human life, and…which has not been able to talk about the prospect of killing almost everybody, except in prudential and game-theoretical terms?” He championed another approach. In their biography “American Prometheus,” which inspired Nolan’s film, Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird document Oppenheimer’s conviction that “the safety” of a nation or the world “cannot lie wholly or even primarily in its scientific or technical prowess.” If humanity wants to survive technology, he believed, it needs to pay attention not only to technology but also to ethics, religions, values, forms of political and social organization, and even feelings and emotions. Hence Oppenheimer set out to make the Institute for Advanced Study a place for thinking about humanistic subjects like Russian culture, medieval history, or ancient philosophy, as well as about mathematics and the theory of the atom. He hired scholars like George Kennan, the diplomat who designed the Cold War policy of Soviet “containment”; Harold Cherniss, whose work on the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle influenced many Institute colleagues; and the mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson. Traces of their conversations and collaborations are preserved not only in their letters and biographies, but also in their research, their policy recommendations, and in their ceaseless efforts to help the public understand the dangers and opportunities technology offers the world…to design a “fairness algorithm” we need to know what fairness is. Fairness is not a mathematical constant or even a variable. It is a human value, meaning that there are many often competing and even contradictory visions of it on offer in our societies. Preserving any human value worthy of the name will therefore require not only a computer scientist, but also a sociologist, psychologist, political scientist, philosopher, historian, theologian. Oppenheimer even brought the poet T.S. Eliot to the Institute, because he believed that the challenges of the future could only be met by bringing the technological and the human together. The technological challenges are growing, but the cultural abyss separating STEM from the arts, humanities, and social sciences has only grown wider. More than ever, we need institutions capable of helping them think together.
EDUCATIONThe education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men…” Albert Einstein
THE CASA DE VAMPIROS
By Paul CantorThe Casa de Vampiros in Managua, Nicaragua stood in the heart of the second poorest country in Latin America during the reign of the brutal dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Blood was drawn there — the blood of poor Nicaraguans. Then the plasma was separated out and sent to the United States. Not for nothing, of course. The recipient paid for the donor’s plasma. Fifteen dollars was the going fee. Somoza got $10. The donor received $5. That gave a professor of engineering an idea. The professor asked his students to design a pipeline to transport human blood from Nicaragua to the United States. The students began by discussing the optimal diameter for the pipe and methods for keeping the blood from coagulating. But the professor did not allow the discussion to continue for long before he demanded to know why not one of them had objected to the question. “This is a class in engineering not ethics,” was the answer he was given. José Ortega y Gasset would not have been surprised. In 1930 as the Nazis were rising to power in Germany the Spanish philosopher published The Revolt of the Masses in which he wrote “your modern-day specialist …is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter” because “in politics, in art, in social usages” and in other areas outside his field of expertise “he will adopt the attitude of primitive, ignorant man” and be capable of serving barbaric causes. Then, as Ortega y Gasset predicted, we had learned ignoramuses serving the causes of Adolph Hitler and Hideki Tojo. The goal of the Kemper Human Rights Education Foundation is to help eliminate learned ignoramuses by encouraging future scholars to address human rights issues as rigorously as they address issues in the hard sciences, engineering, and mathematics. Hence, this year (2023) it is offering prizes of $4000, $2000, and $1000 to high school students judged to have written the best answers to the question below. There are two contests and two sets of prizes: one for students in the U.S. and one for students who are citizens and residents of other countries.
THE UNIVERSITY'S ROLE IN HUMAN RIGHTS
Human rights work should not be imprisoned within different disciplines' boundaries but should often adopt an interdisciplinary approach…The study of economic development, gender issues, terrorism, religious teachings, or pandemics is increasingly informed by human rights norms…In underscoring the importance of interdisciplinary work, I refer to a university curriculum in human rights…ideally spread among several faculties and accessible by students registered in any of them. Within that curriculum, there will be room for many types of courses and scholarship…Consider some illustrations of how readily a human rights problem implicates large bodies of knowledge. Work on overcoming gender discrimination draws scholars and students into such fields as cultural studies, the sociology of gender, religious texts and practices, construction or reform of systems of education, the economics of discrimination, and grassroots strategies toward change. Research about genocide may include study of the ideologies of nationalism, the etiology of a given ethnic conflict, the individual and social psychology of hatred and violence, and the strategies toward reconciliation. Analysis of the right to political participation may implicate different theories and practices of democracy, as well as the literature on cultural obstacles to political change. Such interdisciplinary projects approach human rights contextually rather than abstractly, and hence must explore the relevant context in its own right. Students concerned with development and human rights, for example, had better know a great deal about development. A growing number of course titles underscores this trend: ethnic conflict and human rights, AIDS and human rights, democratization and human rights, sexual orientation and human rights-or in each case, in reverse order. Henry J. Steiner, Professor of Law emeritus, Harvard University. https://hrp.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/TheUniversityandHumanRights.pdf
This year Amina J. Mohammed the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations noted the world is facing the highest number of violent conflicts since the Second World War; the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin; and in September, Chileans will mark the 50th anniversary of the overthrow of their democratically elected government and the inauguration of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. Considering these and other matters, if you were asked to give a talk on December 10 marking the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what would you say about its effectiveness and its value going forward? Does it need to be revised to achieve its goals, or can it be effective in its current form? Please support your arguments with scholarly research.