April 6 marked the 99th anniversary of a debate whose thematic echo resonates strongly to this day. The voices of its protagonists made it possible on a historic day at the Còllege de France: one was the most important scientist of the twentieth century and the other the most influential philosopher of those decades. The scientist was named Albert Einstein and the philosopher, Henri Bergson. The scientist, who was twenty years younger than his adversary, won the Nobel Prize in Physics the year before the debate; The philosopher, for his part, would win the Literature Award in 1927.
The central point of the controversy was the essential concept of time that both thinkers held in the context of the Boca-River of modernity: reason versus intuition. But the positions of Einstein and Bergson were not absolute and irreducible despite the verbal energy put into the debate. The scientist shared his interest in mathematics with the philosopher, who during his academic training had developed extensive knowledge of physics, especially in the area of mechanics.
Born in 1859, Bergson became a member of the French Academy, the highest body of the intelligentsia in 1914, at the beginning of the First World War. Of his own free will, he drew up a manifesto on the contest that was signed by all its members. “The fight started against Germany is the fight of civilization against barbarism”, he affirmed, prophesying the greatest tragedy of the 20th century that would occur between 1939 and 1945. Highlighting the social and political commitment that was imposed in those decisive hours for Europe, he expressed that “it is a simple scientific duty to point out a regression of Germany to the wild state in the brutality and cynicism, together with contempt for all justice and truth ”.
Regarding the confrontation between both fields of knowledge, Bergson estimated that Einstein’s discoveries, in addition to configuring an innovative form of rational thought, showed that the differences between science and philosophy were not absolute but would come to complement each other.
During the debate, Bergson pointed out to Einstein that even when he admitted the validity of the Theory of Relativity with respect to its physical nature, “everything does not end there” in the conception of the universe. Einstein had presented his theory in 1915 at the Prussian Academy, thus dethroning Isaac Newton’s reign for more than two centuries as dean of gravitational physical theory. The scientist born in Germany in 1879, and who years later would acquire Swiss and American nationality, categorically rejected his rival’s concept of time. “The time of the philosopher does not exist, it is only a psychological moment that differs from the physical one.” Throughout the debate, Einstein reaffirmed his cognitive realism, which was the opposite of Bergson’s irrational idealism.
Throughout his eighty-one years of life, the French philosopher read and reread the concept of time held by Saint Augustine many times. He was deeply identified with the affirmation sustained by him in Book XI of the Confessions. “It is in my mind, then, where I measure time. I must not allow my mind to insist that time is objective. When I measure time I am measuring something in the present of my mind. Either time is that, or I don’t know what it is ”. For Einstein, time existed outside the mind, beyond the consciousness that one had to perceive it.
For his part, the last Nobel Prize winner in Physics, the British scientist Roger Penrose, seems to support Bergson’s position on the existence of “something beyond” the boundaries of relativity, although a hypothesis that synthesizes them has not yet been systematized. In the words of the Cambridge scientist, “we have two great theories, quantum mechanics, which explains the behavior of nature at microscopic levels, and general relativity, which is a theory of gravitation and deals with large objects.” The future is open to a theory that transcends and synthesizes them.
The Second World War caused Einstein a philosophical dilemma around his scientific activity. Shortly after the start of the war, the father of relativity sent a letter to the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, informing him of the advanced development of research in atomic matters that the government of Adolf Hitler had been carrying out.
The letter sought that the Democratic administration begin to deepen the work articulated between the government and scientists investigating the possibility of developing nuclear weapons, in order to be prepared in the event that the Nazi regime achieves its objective of achieving in the short term. the creation of atomic weaponry. Following the devastating bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Einstein himself, a militant pacifist, along with many internationally renowned intellectuals raised one of the greatest ethical dilemmas of the last century that continues to this day.
THE DEBATE MOVED TO ENGLAND
The English Physicist and Novelist Charles P. Snow He could not imagine that, after finishing his lecture at the University of Cambridge, on May 7, 1959, at the age of 43, he would cause a rift in the academic universe between those intellectuals who gave greater prevalence to scientific knowledge over that of the humanities. The conference was titled “The Two Cultures” and due to the enormous impact it produced it was quickly published in a book entitled “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.”
Snow, whose training synthesized the subject matter presented at the conference, held important executive political positions in the British government between 1940 and 1966, and also had an outstanding performance in the House of Lords as a member of the Labor Party. His civic service and academic career earned him the Order of Commander of the British Empire.
This is how the English author summarized the confrontation between both poles of knowledge: “Scientists believe that literary intellectuals completely lack anticipatory vision, that they are in a deep sense anti-intellectual. When non-scientists hear of scientists who have never read an important work of literature, they giggle between derision and compassion. They dismiss them as ignorant specialists ”. He pointed out that it was as disturbing that a scientist had not read a Shakespearean play, as that some man of letters ignored the second principle of thermodynamics.
He believed that the poor communication between representatives of scientific culture and literary culture was primarily due to a matter of mutual prejudice. Lack of vision of progress and an obstacle to modernity in the opinion of scientists, lack of humanistic vision and of the gears that feed the evolution of history in the conception of men of letters.
Snow’s work found a harsh critic in the figure of Frank R. Leavis, English literary scholar who accused his colleague of overlapping his epistemological view of both cultures in favor of scientists and a supposed materialistic appetite. For Leavis, literature was self-sufficient as a totalizing and self-sufficient knowledge without which technological development could not advance.
THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE
The aforementioned debates translate today into the delicate ethical balance that should be achieved between the unstoppable advance of artificial intelligence (AI) and state regulation in the handling of the algorithms and data that feed it. In the words of the Swedish scientist Nick Bostrom, director of the Institute for the Future of Humanity and the Research Center for Artificial Intelligence Strategy at the University of Oxford, the great challenge today is that our information systems are transparent and at the same time allow us certain levels of privacy.
In April 2019 the Independent Group of Experts of the European Commission published on Artificial Intelligence published a 55-page report entitled “Ethical Guidelines for a Reliable AI”. In its first chapter the paper prepared by its 52 members, and reviewed by 500 specialists, it upholds the ethical principles and their related values that must be respected in the development, deployment and use of AI systems. It highlights a central warning: “Recognize and bear in mind that, although they provide substantial benefits to people and society, AI systems also carry certain risks and can have negative effects, some of which can be difficult to predict, identify or measure (for example, on democracy, the rule of law and distributive justice, or on the human mind itself ). Take appropriate measures to mitigate these risks where appropriate; said measures must be proportional to the magnitude of the risk ”.
Meanwhile, Chapter II of the report lists the requirements for a reliable AI in seven points: 1) human action and supervision, 2) technical soundness and security, 3) privacy and data management, 4) transparency, 5) diversity, non-discrimination and equity, 6) environmental and social well-being, and 7) accountability accounts. Finally, chapter III offers a concrete and non-exhaustive list for the evaluation of the reliability of AI, with the aim of putting into practice the requirements described in chapter II.
In this sense, the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility of Max Weber are called once again to become the arbiter of an unprecedented acceleration in the technological development of humanity.