Monday, January 12, 2015

Nuclear War: What are the Boundaries of the Real?

Last week I asked whether or not exoplanets are real. Sure, we can learn about it through a high-tech instrument up in space, and so know that, yes, it’s out there. But how real can it be if there’s little or no chance that we’ll ever go there? In the sense of “real” that interests me, the Moon became more real when Neil Armstrong set foot on it. And Mars became more real when we landed the first instruments on it, though not as real as the Moon, or real in the same way.

Tyler Cowen’s prompted me to have similar thoughts about nuclear war. He’s posted some remarks on Elaine Scarry’s book about thermonuclear weapons, and one of his commenters posted a link to a NYTimes review of that book by Richard Rhodes. The weapons are fully real in the sense I’m exploring. We’ve created them and we’ve tested them. We know that they work.

And we’ve used atomic weapons in war, two of them on Japan at the end of World War II. But that’s it, so far. During the so-called Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union built up huge stockpiles of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, but we never used them, though we may have come close at times (I’m thinking in particular of the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Why not? asks Richard Rhodes:
Why no one has dared, so far, is probably the crux of the matter, but that is not a story Scarry chooses to tell. Why we Americans collectively agree to tolerate concentrating world-destroying power in the hands of one fallible human being is another story Scarry bypasses, though it goes a long way toward explaining the peculiar logic or illogic of accumulating weapons so destructive that our only hope of surviving them has been to prepare to strike first and destroy an enemy’s weapons before he has time to launch them against us. Why our elected leaders continue to believe that such genocidal weapons are legitimate and moral in our hands, but illegitimate and immoral in the hands of our enemies, rather than eradicating them from the earth, as we did smallpox, is yet another mystery Scarry chooses not to investigate.
That somehow strikes me as in the same zone, broadly conceived, as my questions about the reality of planets we can know about, but cannot walk upon.

In his final paragraph Rhodes criticizes for Scarry missing the point in asserting that constitutional tools exist for controlling nuclear, albeit they are unused. Rhodes counters:
The difficulty isn’t that the kit of tools is missing the right wrench. The difficulty, despite several close calls, is that no one in authority believes the damned things will go off, and so everyone wants to play with them, like treasure hunters wallowing in a vault of golden coins laced with guardian scorpions, like children discovering the loaded gun their parents thoughtlessly neglected to lock away.
That strikes me as terribly on point. The people in authority don’t believe that nuclear war is real and so they want to play around with the weapons.

That marks one boundary of The Real in the sense that interests me. Being able to walk on a space body’s surface, or land instruments there, marks another boundaries. Perhaps climate denial/acceptance is another boundary.

Are their others?


  1. Suppose that my dog and I climb a mountain (well, maybe a really big hill) after breakfast. The Real, I submit, is partly that which enables us to say that there is a correlation between what the dog does and what I do (and, for that matter, what my intestinal fauna does). I am climbing a mountain with my dog. My dog is moving its legs (or however it thinks of them) so as to remain more or less in my vicinity, deal with the slope and the somewhat irregular terrain and to remain alert. My intestinal fauna are adjusting to whatever changes in my gut that exercise and altitude induce.I don't see how we can say that "climbing a mountain" or even just that "the mountain" is Real from each of those perspectives. I DO believe that Reality constrains what can be said of that stretch of time from each of those perspectives. So The Real enables correlation among perspectives and imposes constraints on how things interact with their environments. Neither environments nor perspectives are fixed, of course, and probably aren't finite. Creatures such as ourselves cannot specify The Real in any final sense but we are constrained and conjoined by It nonetheless. We may develop language with respect to The Real which permits us to interact with each other in new (maybe "better") ways but I don't think any of that is "more Real" or "closer to The Real" or that it enhances or detracts from the reality of this or that thing.
    (I apologize if any of this is either excessively naive or too nearly nihilistic.)

    1. "Creatures such as ourselves cannot specify The Real in any final sense but we are constrained and conjoined by It nonetheless."


      These thoughts are very much in flux. Which means that I don't know quite what I'm thinking. As near as I can tell, if I were to sum up reality in a sentence, it's up there at the top of the blog: "Reality is not perceived, it is enacted – in a universe of great, perhaps unbounded, complexity." But just what THAT means, I'm working on it.