The creation of atomic and nuclear weapons and missiles capable of delivering them anywhere on earth in a matter of hours did more than change the nature of warfare. It also changed the nature of democracy by greatly strengthening the executive at the expense of the legislature: deliberation took too long. It also changed the nature of reason itself into rule-bound rationality. In the view of Cold War strategists, new weaponry technologies had intensified human capacities for destruction, while simultaneously accelerating the pace of decision-making beyond humans’ ability to reason effectively. Rationality potentially provided a way to think through the unthinkable — not just to render the unthinkable into a problem that can be solved through algorithmic processes but to voluntarily constrain our practices of reasoning. Under these circumstances, mindlessness could become a positive virtue.
Lorraine Daston is a director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. She has published on a wide range of topics in the history of science, including probability and statistics, evidence, wonder and curiosity, the moral authority of nature, anthropomorphism, and scientific images. Recent books include: Objectivity (with Peter Galison, 2007); Histories of Scientific Observation (co-edited with Elizabeth Lunbeck, 2011); and How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality (with Paul Erikson et al., 2014).