Oppenheimer - authority and the bomb

I saw the movie "Oppenheimer" this week with my daughter, Star. The film left me pondering what Christopher Nolan was trying to say and how its messages might be relevant to our lives today.

One of the central themes in the movie is about authority and the question of where it lies. Authority represents the power to define what is important or "true". Authority can either be outside of us, imposed by external entities like the government or our parents or religion or "experts". Or it can be internal to us, stemming from our own values and beliefs. I call these two types of authority, "projected authority" and "native authority". The tension between them forms a core theme through the narrative of this movie.

The movie's ideas connect with the thoughts of American psychologist Robert Kegan, who came up with a way to understand how people grow and mature in their thinking. He identified five stages of cognitive development. In each stage, individuals shift from relying on external influences to shape their decisions, to finding their own "native authority" through which their values and beliefs can be expressed. According to Kegan, around 60% of adults are at stage 3, which he calls the "socialised mind", while about 35% are at stage 4, which he calls the "self authoring mind" (although I personally think Stage 4 representation is lower).

A core theme of the movie centres around Oppenheimer's complicated moral relationship with the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons. After the war he was public in his warnings of the long-term dangers of an arms race. This placed him in at odds with a group of somewhat paranoid "Stage 3" government and military men who sought to shut him up. They saw the world in simplistic black-and-white terms where all authority is external in values like patriotism, and the "truth" is simple and singular. Oppenheimer, in contrast, was a more psychologically sophisticated individual, largely at Stage 4.

As a person's relationship with authority matures their world becomes more complex. In Oppenheimer's case, the psychological tension arises not only from the conflict between institutional values and his own, but also from the internal clash between his personal values and beliefs. His values encompassed a wide range of considerations, such as ending the war, serving his country, promoting scientific progress, expressing his expertise, seeking recognition and validation, and caring for the well-being of others and humanity as a whole. This multitude of competing values reflects a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of the world.

One of the challenges of society lies in the fact that individuals at any stage cannot appreciate or comprehend the stage beyond. We can only see from where we are, but not from where we're heading to. This limitation contributes to misunderstanding and conflict between people at different cognitive stages, exemplified in all of the political and social conflicts of our day. For instance, during the height of the Covid pandemic in New Zealand, the conflict between Stage 3 and Stage 4 was evident when the Prime Minister claimed to be "the single source of truth". This is a classic Stage 3 statement.

The psychological development from Stage 3 to 4 and beyond is a key focus of IDOJO. This is because the status quo of society can't support psychological development because it can't see beyond the horizons of its own point of view. Facilitating this growth is essential for people and society to mature beyond its current limitations. This creates an opportunity to develop an orientation that fosters both greater respect of others and ourselves, as well as a deeper recognition of our individual and collective identity and potential.

In conclusion, the movie "Oppenheimer" raises thought-provoking questions about where the authority on various issues lies in our lives. Our degree of projected authority is a limit on our ability to realise what is genuinely important to us as individuals and to experience and participate in building a world with greater individual and collective well-being.