“Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity. Enlightenment’s program was the disenchantment of the world. It wanted to dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge” Dialectic of Enlightenment
Horkheimer and Adorno first published Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1944, prior to America’s first use of the atomic bomb, or public knowledge of the potential for nuclear energy. However, their prescient use of the word “radiant” in the quotation above has made it into something of a mantra for critics of the nuclear age. In many ways, nuclear weapons are the ultimate Enlightenment object. They represent the ultimate mastery of reason over nature. Through reason, humans attained the ability to control nuclear fission and fusion. As a result, they gained the ability to destroy nature itself. However, nuclear weapons also always confront Enlightenment thinkers with the limits of reason. They represent everything that is unknowable. Nuclear weapons are also the ultimate anti-Enlightenment object in that they are fearsome and terrible.
The discovery of tuna off the coast of California with increased levels of radioactive contamination, traceable to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, adds another layer of meaning to the phrase “radiant with triumphant disaster.”
(Radioactive Bluefin Tuna Reach U.S. Waters in Wake of Fukushima)
As with all things nuclear, what I take away from this news is less about what we know and more about what we don’t. Finding out that tuna are carrying the effects of a catastrophe so extreme that it was thought impossible only highlights the limits of our ability to know. The rational models that were used to assess the safety of a nuclear reactor didn’t warn us of the impending disaster. The tuna that we know are carrying radiation from Fukushima across the globe are a symptom of a much larger pollution problem, the full effects of which may always remain unknown. In fact, as my fellow nuclear philosophy contributor, John, explained recently to a packed conference room at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, we are still trying to assess the effects of Chernobyl and bumping up against the limits of figuring out what percentage of all the cancers, birth defects, and heart attacks are attributable to radiation from the nuclear meltdown.
Myth, religion, and poetry are tools that offer man comfort in the face of the terrible unknown. In Christian theology the concept of divine grace is what fills the void between what humans can control and the inevitability of failure through sin. It is not something that can be earned and is therefore not susceptible to instrumental means-ends calculations. God simply offers grace and it is up to Christians to accept it through faith.
So what’s the moral of the story? Although experts are assuring us that tuna is safe to eat, you still might want to say grace before eating that tekkamaki.