Monday, March 28, 2011

Our technical limits are human

In a comment on the nuclear calamity in Fukushima, Japan, the German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski states that this event shows that we have reached the limits of what we can make. After Harrisburg and Chernobyl, we see that nuclear power cannot be controlled. We behave like the sorcerer’s apprentice who did not know how to stop the forces that he had evoked. This means that we have to learn what we can and what we cannot do, so Safranski (
On the face of it, it seems that not much needs to be added to this comment and that it clearly words what went wrong and how we can prevent such mistakes in future. Safranski says that the Fukushima calamity and other catastrophes of this kind show that the human capacity to discover and control the secrets of nature has its limits. Therefore it is better to stop with this kind of energy production and to look for other approaches. In my words: we can never grasp and control the technique of nuclear energy production.
I think that Safranski is right; there is a fundamental technical problem here. However, I think that the problem of controlling nuclear energy would also happen when we would be able to build a 100% safe nuclear power plant. For in my opinion the actual problem is not in our technical possibilities but it is elsewhere: the real problem is intrinsically human. This becomes clear, for instance, when we look at the history of the Fukushima power plant. As it has come out, this major calamity has been preceded through the years by some 200 minor calamities and technical problems. Most of them have been kept secret for a long time, and, what is important here, most of them have been caused because the safety rules had not been observed. So, the real cause of calamities of the Fukushima type is not that we do not know our technical limits but that we do not know our human limits. Men are not like robots: you program them and they do what you want them to do. Instead men are individuals who have their own reasons to act and not to follow safety rules. Men are also beings who continuously unintentionally fail to follow safety rules simply by human mistakes. In this sense man is not a reliable being. Moreover, human problems do not exist only on this individual level, but they are also social. As social beings men cooperate with other men, but within this cooperation process they develop their personal interests, which not always correspond with the common interest, whatever this may be. Or there are conflicting common interests and there is not enough money and man power or technical capacity to solve them all. A choice has to be made or the fulfilment of some interests has to be temporarily postponed. In case of lack of money it can be decided, for instance, to postpone the maintenance of a nuclear power plant, for is it really necessary that it needs to take place now and not next year? In short, our most fundamental problem in this nuclear age is not that we need to know our technical limits, but it is that we need to realize that man is a human and that we are as human as humans are. Our most fundamental limits are human and as long as we do not bear this in mind, calamities of the Fukushima type will happen.

Monday, March 21, 2011

How to enjoy my bike rides

Last week I made my first bike tour after the winter. The winter had been long and also the week before the ride had been quite cold. But in the end the temperature rose, the night frosts went away, and the weather forecast promised nice weather for the days to come. So time to start a new bike season. On my first ride I was relaxed, I did not overstrain myself on the hills, and back home after a bit more than an hour, I could be satisfied with my average speed, thanks to my winter training on my bike trainer and by running in the wood. The average speed is always important for me and when it fits with how I felt during the ride, it is even better. By why should it be so important for me?
The Belgian philosopher Marc Van den Bossche has recently published a book about sport as a way of living. Van den Bossche is an academic philosopher and also a very active sportsman. Like me he is a runner and a cyclist, his distances are often double of what I do, if not more, and it is not exceptional that he trains twice a day, which I never do. Just as for me, times and records are important for him. However, somewhere in his book he writes: “I’d stake a few pints that after having run a half or a whole marathon or after having climbed the entire Mont Ventoux [on your bike], you’ll get this question: ‘In what time did you do it?’ It will be very exceptional when someone will ask you in a first reaction what your subjective experiences were, a question you could answer by saying: ‘Man, I have enjoyed it sooo much. It wasn’t sex but you can compare it with it”. What Van den Bossche questions here is whether times for a sportsman not training for competition (so one like me) are really important. Why needs our joy to have a measure? Isn’t our subjective feeling by far more important than an objective measure? So Van den Bossche says, although he likes to improve his results as much as I do.
When reading Van den Bossche’s arguments and explanations, in my heart I feel he is right. What’s the worth of all this competing with yourself, when you know that the real reason that you do sports is different? That you do sports simply because you want to run or make a ride, that it is a way for you to be in the wood, and that as such it is a pleasure to feel fit? That you would do it despite the measurable results? That at your age you run behind the facts, because you have passed your top already long ago and that fundamentally every next run and ride will be a bit slower than the last one, just because at a certain age you can only go backwards? Yes, Van den Bossche is right! I must stop measuring and I must enjoy my efforts as they are. It is not that it is not pleasant to measure my results, but for me it has no sense to make a fetish of them.
Actually, I had decided already to practice this new way of enjoying my runs and rides before I read the book. And yet, when I’ll take my bike tomorrow, I know that I’ll check my bike computer when I am back home, and I’ll be satisfied if my average speed was a good one.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The hero in your mind

More than two years ago I wrote a blog titled “The devil in your mind”. I explained there that Hannah Arendt attributed the evil done by people like Eichmann to their thoughtlessness and not to a diabolic attitude within them. This is in keeping with studies by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo insofar as they have shown that in most cases behaviour that causes harm to other people (which can go as far as torture) is not the consequence of a certain evil trait in the perpetrator but that basically everybody is able to do it. Most people are simply lucky that the devil doesn’t come out. But what is it then that makes that the devil comes out?
Some fifty years ago Zimbardo organized a prison experiment for which he selected about twenty test subjects. All of them had the same background characteristics. Zimbardo assigned them at random to two groups, one group being the prisoners, the other group being the prison warders. Although there was no initial fundamental difference between the test subjects in both groups, after one-two days both the prisoners and the prison warders acted very differently in a way that went beyond their particular roles. After already such a short time the warders begun to torture the prisoners, psychologically as well as physically (within limits, for outright physical violence was not allowed). For this reason Zimbardo had to break off the experiment after six days, although it had been planned to last two weeks. Since the differences between the test subjects were negligible and since all of them were psychologically healthy, Zimbardo concluded after a thorough analysis that it are not psychological dispositions that make people behave in an evil way but that it is the situation that brings people that far. Only very few people are able to resist the pressure of the situation that “leads” them into a certain direction and also only very few display evil behaviour because of a disposition.
However, Zimbardo’s conclusion has two sides, for it is not only true for the evil we do. In the same degree it is true for the good we do as well. Most people do good because, by way of speaking, the situation they happen to be in “forces” them to do so. There is not only a “banality of evil” (Arendt) but also a “banality of heroism” (Zimbardo). People are not inherently, genetically, bad or good (with the exception of the few who are apparently mental ill). Most people can do well and can do bad, and what they’ll do depends on the situation they are in and on the pressure exerted there on them that makes that they cannot stay passive but have to act (here I have paraphrased Zimbardo; see his The Lucifer Effect ch. 16). Admittedly, it is not only the circumstances that make who you are and what you do. Zimbardo doesn’t say that, but at least they have an important influence on how you think and act. They can make you both a devil and a hero. And isn’t it this what we see now in the Middle East where so many people have behaved and behave like heroes despite themselves? Who of them would have thought before that s/he had a hero in the mind?

Monday, March 07, 2011

Ethics and nonviolence

There are a lot of surprising developments taking place in the Middle East these days. People rise and protest against their suppression and dictators cannot sit down safely in their seats any longer. Several rulers have already fallen or are about to fall, others try to secure their position by doing concessions, but whether that will be enough is not sure. Who would have predicted that only two months ago?
These uprisings look spontaneous. What many people do not know is that there is much organization and thinking behind them, at least in a number of cases. Already for several years Egyptian activists had been preparing nonviolent action against Mubarak. They used Facebook and Twitter but also the handbooks by Gene Sharp, an American researcher of nonviolence. Moreover they asked advice from Otpor, the Serbian student movement that toppled president Milosevic in 2000.
Since already more than 30 years Gene Sharp is one of my favourite authors. He is famous for his list of 198 nonviolent action methods and he wrote also a guide with directions how to bring down a dictator. He wrote quite a bit of other books and articles as well. In all his work he has an important point of departure: all action and resistance must be nonviolent. When hearing the word “nonviolence” many people think of something soft, vague and not very practical. Or they think of high moral principles that are actually far-away from reality. Sharp’s idea of nonviolence has nothing to do with that. Sharp talks never about ethics but only about application. His idea is: conflicts cannot be avoided but in order to prevent that they are solved in a violent way, one has to look for nonviolent alternatives with the same functions as violence. And that’s what he has done during his whole life: Looking for alternatives for violence and looking for ways to put them into practice. And he found them by analyzing historical and contemporary cases, by making use of sociological theories and by employing organizational principles. What he did not incorporate in his work were ethical and moral principles. Sharp does have his reasons for advocating nonviolence, but you do not find them back in his writings. Only the practical applicability of nonviolence counts there, not moral reasons why it has to applied, as long as it works. And it does work. Insiders know that already since many years. They have seen the fall of Milosevic, as said; the people’s movements in Georgia (2003) and in the Ukraine (2004); and they have seen lots of other cases, often successful and, indeed, sometimes also not successful. Now it works also in the Middle East and the world has discovered it, for since a recent interview with Gene Sharp in the New York Times, he doesn’t have a quiet moment any longer. For thanks to him the world knows that nonviolence works also when it is not fundamentally based on ethical and moral principles but simply on well-thought-out practice and organization.