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Oppenheimer and the Intersection of Science and Morality

Updated: Aug 21

Oppenheimer and the Intersection of Science and Morality

“Can” and “Should” in the Manhattan Project

Leo Szilard recognized the inherent danger of the Manhattan Project. He was born in Hungary but moved soon to Germany to further his intellectual pursuits, becoming friends with Albert Einstein. He fled Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, moving to England. By 1940, he was living in the United States and became an American citizen. As a physicist, he was busy especially with topics regarding nuclear fission, publishing a breakthrough paper at Columbia: “Divergent Chain Reactions in a System Composed of Uranium and Carbon.” With the advent of war, Szilard went to great lengths to avoid publishing on nuclear topics, wanting to avoid at all costs that a nuclear bomb could end up in Nazi hands. He was the author of the Einstein letter, letting Roosevelt know of the possibility of using nuclear weapons for national defense.

As the Manhattan Project progressed, he was increasingly uncomfortable with the moral implications of such a powerful bomb. Through his studies, Szilard was certain of the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction. He was asking himself more and more however, “what should we do with this technology?” He was a physicist, a scientist, but he was asking as well a philosophical question, regarding morality.

Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos Laboratory. He was much more concerned with the possibility of creating the technology capable of producing a nuclear bomb. He was present for the first successful test July 16, 1945. Within a month, two such bombs would obliterate the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

These two scientists and their attitude towards the research of the Manhattan project illustrate well the difference between “can” and “should.” Natural science is firmly in the camp of what “can” be done. What “should” be done is something that moral philosophy is tasked to study.

Progression of “experts” in the history of thought

It is interesting to trace the history of whom we consider as experts and to see what areas of knowledge have influenced most the various historical ages. Ancient Greece revered the philosophers for nearly a thousand years. Aristotle was able to gather stories on Protagoras, Parmenides, and Heraclitus. Problems of motion and change were studied in detail. The great Socrates had many disciples, among them Plato – the teacher of Aristotle. For even 800 years following the death of Aristotle, who drank poison as an Athenian punishment for his “corruption of the minds of the youth,” philosophers were looked up to as the true authorities of culture.

Philosophy would be key in interpreting the doctrine of a new world religion that began to appear and spread after the first century. Christianity was interpreted according to the doctrines of Plotinus, a neo-Platonian. His positing of the Demiurge would lead the priest Arius to propose that Jesus was not truly God, but lesser to him. The Arian heresy would find its stiffest opposition at the Council of Nicaea, a short century before the fall of Rome and a change of paradigm of thought in the West.

With the fall of secular Rome, the Church took up the mantle of wisdom in the West. Popes and scholars in Rome would be important, but for nearly one thousand years of what revisionist historians like to refer to as the “Dark Ages,” it was the monks in their monasteries who preserved the great deposit of knowledge in the West.

With the advent of the Renaissance, artists and scientists began to play a role on the world stage. Art would begin to develop quickly, as old classical canons were left behind and there was a push towards realism, although it would be increasingly understood as time would go on. Men of knowledge desired to know everything and turned their attention to the natural sciences, beginning to look beyond philosophy and theology as premiere areas of knowledge.

The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries gave new importance to the natural sciences, as well as to mathematics. Although Euclid had developed much of geometry in ancient times, the new mathematicians would develop the science far more quickly than had ever been thought possible.

The acceleration of human knowledge and development would increase and continue with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Engineering, mechanics, and chemistry became more important, as these were areas that were driving the Industrial Revolution taking place. Reflection on the morality of the various advances was made in secular society in treatises such as the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, and much more eloquently and powerfully in the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII. But what would cause more echo in the heart of society: the achievements of the World Fair or the words of an ailing pontiff?

The Modern era of the 20th century to present sees technology as the apex of human knowledge. It is hard to recognize the rapid achievements, developments and changes of the Industrial Revolution when we compare them with our own. It is worth reflecting on whether what we now call a “phone” is really even in continuity with the invention of Alexander Graham Bell. The concept of communicating over long distances is the same, but the technology is remarkably different.

Looking at our contemporary age, we have to admit that medical doctors, climate scientists, geneticists and artificial intelligence designers are widely regarded as the experts of our times. “Believe the science” is a mantra that is too ready on the lips of many.

Recent events have given us pause, thinking about the actual effectiveness of technological advances. But we are also called to reflect on the morality of the question. Just because we “can” do something, does that mean that we “should” do it? The answer is not always so clear.

Harmony of Faith and Reason

One objection that comes up frequently is a concern or belief that faith and reason cannot mix. Questions of “should” are disregarded as overly philosophical or moralistic. There is a general feeling that faith belongs to religion and must be kept separate from reason. The separation of Church and State proposed by the Constitution is applied to the areas of faith and reason as well. Pope John Paul II argued vigorously against this, particularly in his encyclical on faith and reason, Fides et Ratio.

Rather than accepting categories of “religious truth” and “scientific truth,” Pope John Paul II makes the epistemological assumption that truth is objective and beyond our determination, and that faith and reason are simply two avenues that are both meant to arrive at such truth.

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves. (Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 1)

This image is particularly poetic and helpful in understanding the relation between faith and reason. Pope John Paul II was somewhat known for this type of analogy. He spoke of the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches as two lungs – the East and the West. But you can still live with one lung. Pope Francis has the use of primarily one lung. For knowledge however, relying solely on faith or on reason is untenable. Even if it is not religious faith, we have to believe others to advance in science We have been made to know the truth. We want to discover the truth about the world and we want to discover the truth about ourselves. Faith and reason are both an avenue for this to happen. We discover more when we use them together.

In an age when Christian thinkers were rediscovering the treasures of ancient philosophy, and more particularly of Aristotle, Thomas had the great merit of giving pride of place to the harmony which exists between faith and reason. Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God, he argued; hence there can be no contradiction between them. (Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 43)


Throughout Church history, there has been the temptation of fideism. This philosophical theory posits that faith and belief are independent of reason and evidence. Soren Kierkegaard argued for jumping beyond reason to accept religious truths that cannot be grasped through rational arguments. This is one of the reasons why he is seen as the father of existentialism. William James proposed to adopt religious beliefs when evidence is inconclusive. These religious beliefs serve as a consolation for one’s personal and emotional needs.

It is interesting that fideism and scientism agree that faith and belief are divorced from reason and evidence. Fideism leans towards believing without evidence, while scientism leads to wanting to rely solely on evidence, even though it is self-defeating.

Existential Obligation of ethical inquiry

Oppenheimer was following the evidence, learning from observation and pursuing science. It was only later on that he began to wrestle with the moral consequences of his intellectual pursuit.

The development of science and technology, this splendid testimony of the human capacity for understanding and for perseverance, does not free humanity from the obligation to ask the ultimate religious questions. Rather, it spurs us on to face the most painful and decisive of struggles, those of the heart and of the moral conscience. (Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 1)

He would have been helped by a more ample ethical sphere to question himself as he advanced the technology of the bomb. There is a remarkable difference between the empirical and the ethical sciences. They differ particularly in three areas: subject matter, methods of inquiry, and types of question. To discuss whether one is greater or lesser than another is to miss the point. They have different purposes. Is it better to be able to change a tire or to write a book? We may be of the opinion that more spiritual endeavors are of a higher plane, but if you are stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire, that practical knowledge gains an entirely new value.

“Can questions” of the present

Looking at the different groups of people that have been classified as the “experts of the time” does not mean to criticize one group or another. Rather, it is an effort to show that just as now we value scientists so much, other ages have valued philosophers or theologians. What we should learn from the whole discussion is that we should look to different types of experts according to what type of problem we are trying to solve.

One great risk of contemporary culture is to pursue technology without making some of the vital moral inquiries. Elon Musk and other tech giants have warned against embracing artificial intelligence too quickly without weighing all of the possible consequences, particularly because there will surely be some consequences that are not foreseen.

In-vitro fertilization (IVF) is widely regarded as a normal fertility treatment. The technology has developed well over the last few decades and results are more predictable than ever before. It is something so commonplace that most people do not even question any moral consequences. But it is a complicated process and there are serious reasons why the Church condemns the practice. It is hard to imagine being pro-life and accepting IVF.

Surrogate pregnancy is another scientific advancement that is incredible from a technological standpoint. But are the proper moral questions being raised? It seems to be a significant departure from the natural order. What is it that justifies such a departure?


Oppenheimer and his team manning the Manhattan project forged ahead, developing marvelous, though terrible technology. Throughout the process, the dominant question was one of “can.” What can we accomplish? After the fact though, the question of “should” became much more present. Is the world better off because of the invention of the atomic bomb? Understanding the chain reaction and harnessing nuclear fission has led to a revolution of energy resources. It also lent a particularly sharp edge to the Cold War, where two superpowers faced off for decades, each with the firepower to obliterate the opponent.

Technology is a tremendous boon to civilization and science should be pursued for its own sake. At the same time, however, moral questions need to be asked and just because we can do something does not mean that we should. We need more Leo Szilards, not just Robert Oppenheimers.

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