THE IMITATION GAME
Alan Turing was a Cambridge trained mathematician, wonderfully portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) in the WWII bio-historical thriller, THE IMITATION GAME. The film directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore was screened at the 36th annual Mill Valley Film Festival 2014. It is an adaptation of a book by Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma
While a fellow at the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics in 1990, it was this writer's profound good luck to meet and spend time with the late Dr. Stephen Toulman, a British born physicist, mathematician, philosopher and communications expert. Also Cambridge educated, Stephen knew Alan Touring and his work. Dr. Toulman shared his 1984 New York Review of Books article 'The Fall of Genius,' a critique of the Hodges book, with a digestible explanation of the way that mathematicians minds work.
Moral relativism is used in arguments about defense of safety and security in times of war. War being defined as “a state of armed conflict between different nations or states or different groups within a nation or state”. In the loosie-goosie world of the noncombatant, war is often used as a metaphor. Dr. Toulman wanted to be sure of what we spoke. Most importantly he looked at the arguments which drive scientific exploration during war and their consequences.
The plot of THE IMITATION GAME supplies a protagonist who is focused on the work of his mind, to the exclusion of most social contact nearly on the Asperger's Syndrome spectrum. During this period, that work is construction of a machine ultimately able to decode Nazi strategic plans for attacks on allied forces during WWII. The machine historically is known as the Turing Machine and it’s inventor the father of distributed computing.
At its simplest, distributed computing allows the extraction of any single item from a group, for whatever purposes; defining the human genome or spying on citizens. The popular television show, PERSON OF INTEREST provides many fictional examples. THE IMITATION GAME raises important ethical conflicts which plague each of us in science and medicine and become more tense in the circumstance of war. Applied Science, as was the case of the Turing Machine, can be used for good, but in the process harm can also be done, the traditional “double effect” or duplicity of all things. Navigating such conflicts are the life’s blood of practical Bioethics.
In the case of THE IMITATION GAME, members of the British Intelligence Service who were endowed with mathematical sensibility, had to make a moral choices which cost the lives of Allied Soldiers. The choice was necessitated because the technology they built worked so well, they “had to,” let their comrades die.
“Had to,” is a phrase which always risks moral relativism. All moral frameworks are relative, except the one conveniently determine to be absolute at the moment. There is a plethora of popular television which justifies torture despite article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Immoral actions may be taken, but one shouldn’t fool one’s self with the idea they are the results of absolute moral choices.
Often in the case in War and triage, “the greater good” doctrine wins as the absolute morality model of the day. In the IMITATION GAME, each mathematician involved believes ending the war sooner, rather than later, is justifiable at the cost of many Allied lives. If they could not choose, they simply could follow the commander’s orders, sounding strikingly like the struck down morality of the Nuremberg defense. Justice, by weighing burdens and benefits is an intellectual as well as an emotional norm. Yet, in the film, though at least considered, the decision is portrayed primarily as emotional.
Hodges book was written thirty years after Turing died of cyanide poisoning and vicious immoral hormonal castration of his person, his homosexuality being odds with then vile British law and anti-gay bias. One cannot discount the role of “having to “let people die, playing in the psyche of depression and suicide. Those who care for Veterans of active combat dying in hospice, are aware of soldiers' attempts to reconcile moral injury from military obligations with their own humanity.
Mathematicians generally know the difference between correct and incorrect answers, valid and fallacious arguments. Math and philosophy are intrinsically linked by logic, among other things. It could be argued that the burden of the Turing Decoders inaction to protect Allied soldiers, in THE IMITATION GAME was higher than would be for others, because as mathematicians they could calculate the risks as they were creating them.
Further watching and reading:
The Imitation Game (35mm) directed by Morten Tyldum ( 2014) Black Bear Pictures ( UK) 114 mins
The Imitation Game trailer http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3398414105/imdb/embed?autoplay=false&width=480
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ accessed December 11, 2014
Toulman, S. The Fall of a Giant, Andrew Hodges, Alan Touring: The Enigma. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1984/apr/26/turing-the-system/accessed October 15, 2010
National Center for PTSD, Moral Injury in the context of War. http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/co-occurring/moral_injury_at_war.asp accessed November 11, 2014.
Miles, S.H. Oath Betrayed: Americ's Torture Doctors. University of California Press. 2009. 312p.
Beneath the Blind Fold (Digital Political Documentary) Directed by Ines Sommer and Kathy Berger Somers ( 2012) Sommer Film Works seehttp://beneaththeblindfold.com/about-the-film/
Person of Interest (2011-) TV Series. imdb.com/title/tt1839578/?ref_=ext_shr_tw_tt
H.T. King, Jr., The Legacy of Nuremberg, Case Western Journal of International Law, Vol. 34. (Fall 2002) https://litigation-essentials.lexisnexis.com/webcd/app?action=DocumentDisplay&crawlid=1&doctype=cite&docid=34+Case+W.+Res.+J.+Int%27l+L.+335&srctype=smi&srcid=3B15&key=db0b2e01ff75ee68ea576eec125e7c37 accessed December 11, 2014.
Is The Imitation Game middlebrow stuff as some have claimed? In a sense, yes, it probably is, but that doesn't prevent it being compelling entertainment.
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