Book Challenge: The Crime of Reason by Robert B. Laughlin

What’s the cliche, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing?

This is exactly Robert Laughlin’s point, though, not in the way expected. He sees a domino-like trend, starting in the ’40’s, of knowledge ‘sequestration:’ a proscribed censorship of learning. It is this acknowledged and subtly pervasive limitation on knowledge that this book attempts to combat.

His view is simple, seemingly forthright –

Right before our eyes, the Age of Reason is being pushed out of its ecological niche by the Knowledge Economy – a delightfully ironic term for a time of increasing knowledge scarcity.

Thus, Laughlin perceives all knowledge as neither good nor evil. In fact, though he at times acknowledges the ‘unscrupulous’ nature or worldly awareness of others,

Their professional ethic of clarity and forthrightness prevented them from seeing opportunities sadly obvious to their more worldly colleagues

he carefully avoids the depths in terms of the ethics or responsibility associated with discovery of new knowledge. Rather, knowledge is capital and by this very nature becomes the source of the problem faced.

Our ambivalence toward criminalization of learning thus betrays a profound unresolved conflict, in our minds and in our societies, between economic stability and security on the one hand and human rights on the other.

Learning anything and everything being the most basic of human rights…

The unarticulated concern that reason itself might be unethical accounts for the extreme reaction many people have had to research on…

stem cells, nuclear energy, cloning, genetics, anything under the sun. This extreme reaction is emotionally based, i.e., illogical in his presentation. Laughlin exhibits the paradox of many scientists, I think. He looks to the past of the Renaissance as a source of inspiration and comparison of what learning and sharing and knowledge can accomplish, but is truly a product of the Enlightenment and the segregation of emotion from learning and the context of knowledge and pursuits of understanding. [author’s note: a friend shared an article with me recently that summarizes much of my trouble with Laughlin’s argument as one of different views, not summarily wrong for disagreement.]
The question of whether you should do something just because you can do something is not invalid, or less valid in science; it’s a cornerstone of ethics. Ignoring this very question is what leads to the devaluation of people and nature, permitting individuals to rationalize their actions in the name of learning. Let my ambivalence become clear, though, the limitations on what we can do and cannot do, is becoming increasingly, incrementally limited by ideas we understand shallowly and fail to apply to their logical ends.

This is not a book for light reading, nor is it head-thumpingly obfuscating in its arguments. It is a book to ponder and decide, if the divide exists as described, on what side would you want to err on?


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