Guest essay by Leo Smith
I decided to pen this, not because I am a ‘philosopher of climate change’ like the esteemed Rupert Read, whose self styled ‘philosophy of climate change’ is really a thinly disguised justification for Green politics, but because it appears to me that very very few people in the climate change business, actually understand why they need to understand a little philosophy to enable them to judge the climate change phenomenon – the social phenomenon that is – in a suitable context.
I am not a trained philosopher. I am an engineer, by training, but that was just a job. I have always retained a curiosity about other things, and part of that curiosity led me to try and understand the issues of philosophy as a part of something else I was engaged in, which has no bearing here.
I was moved to write this, because a short post as an obituary to one of the greatest philosophers of science ever – Hilary Putnam – received essentially no comment at all. I realised that not only did no one actually know who he was, but no one even recognised the importance of what he did.
What the philosophy of science does, and its part of what I want to introduce today, is to define what science is, and particularly what it is not, and to clearly delineate its limits. Since Climate Change is variously described here in disparaging terms as ‘Climate Sceance’, and ‘Scientastic methodology’ , It’s clear that many people have a gut feeling that Climate science is not ‘proper’ science. Also, a few years ago I was also involved in some online arguments with Creationists who declared that Creationism and Intelligent Design was equally valid a science as say Physics.
Finally, this gem caught my eye from Judith Curry’s site:
“In our post-modern world, climate science is not powerful because it is true: it is true because it is powerful.”
All these examples show us that there is a problem: We feel that Science is being usurped by imposters, who are almost perpetrating a modern form of black magic with its tenets, and yet we can’t actually say why they are wrong…without which we can’t refute their arguments…and this is made worse by the conclusions of modern philosophers that actually, we don’t know and can’t know what is really real, because what we deal with is ‘Reality as a Social Construct’. This is taught to every good PPE. And a brief diversion into metaphysics is necessary at this point – a horribly crude one, but the attempt must be made – to outline what this actually means, and why it’s sort of true, but not the whole truth…
Reality as a Social Construct
I am going to assume everyone has seen the film The Matrix, about which I will say nothing beyond noting that it highlights a very real problem that has been at the basis of Metaphysical ponderings for millennia. Namely, how can we be sure that our perception and experience of the world, shows us what it really is, rather than some abstract model of it?
Or in fact, to go even further in the direction of what is called in Philosophy, Idealism. Throughout its history, Philosophy has veered from one extreme to the other, at times claiming that the material world, was merely a manifestation of Spirit, or Mind (Idealism), and at other times, claiming the exact opposite , that spirit and mind were merely what you get with physical beings as a property of what they are (Realism, especially Material Realism). If you like, Idealism said ‘what you see is what you (or God) create as a sort of illusion’ and the Realists said ‘what you see is what is really there, no need for all this god/spirit/consciousness rubbish. THAT is all an illusion…’. And no one could in fact decide which was which until the rise of Newtonian physics rather made it look like the Realists were onto something, and that by careful analysis of the material world, as it appeared to be, we could predict the future, in small but important ways.
And then Kant first, and then Schopenhauer put the spanner in the works by pointing out that the world, as it appeared to be, had to be at least partially a human construction. Now, two things are worth pointing out about that last sentence, and the first is that Kant and Schopenhauer and indeed their intellectual descendants were safely ignored by science, for the next 150 years or so, but their descendants were not ignored by more ‘social’ scientists. And the second is that all important qualifier – at least partially. Both Kant and Schopenhauer introduced the concept of (in Kant’s case) ‘Things in themselves’ – that is, what was ‘actually there’ beyond our mere perception of it, whilst Schopenhauer corrected that to ‘thing in itself’ claiming correctly that number and quantity were in fact part of the human construction, so we couldn’t say whether Reality consisted of one or many things!
Which is why today you will find social scientists glibly talking about reality as a social construct as if that were all it were, and scientists talking about reality being very nearly exactly what it seems to be, as if quantum physics had never been invented.
I personally grappled with these issues and came to a certain conclusion, and so I think did Hilary Putnam, before I even knew he existed, because neither model worked very well to describe the way science worked, especially quantum physics. And our resolution of the problem, expressed in as simple terms as it is possible to do, is basically this:
“We cannot know (lacking a Red Pill) whether we are in a Matrix, or not, and whether that Matrix is our own construction, someone else’s, or an aspect of what the world really is. So we cannot assume that our experience is ‘what is really there’ but on the other hand, to say that ‘all that is really there, is our own construction‘, implies that magic (control of Reality by Mind) ought to work, and it doesn’t. Therefore a model which says that there is something unknown and perhaps unknowable there, all right, but which we can only experience via self-constructed perceptions of it, seems to be the most efficient. And this is precisely what Kant and Schopenhauer said, and what quantum physics is revealing, and What Hilary Putnam said, and what I feel is worth trying to understand – namely that the world is in fact utterly weird and different from our experience of it, but all we have to work on is our mentally ‘socially constructed’ models of it. That is, we know our experience is limited, and less than the whole, and filtered by our own cultural prejudices, but that is all we have to go on”.
Of course the above, itself, is in fact just another model! And so is not ‘true’. But this brings me to one of the most fundamental issues that the philosophy of science has emphasised, are we actually looking for Truth, at all, when we Do Science?
Truth, Science and Occam’s Razor
People talk glibly about ‘scientific truth’. But, is there such a thing? Most philosophers would say no, there isn’t. And the way science is done, shows us why. Science begins in a view of the world – a model if you like – that starts with some ad hoc assumptions (the Kantian a-prioris) that we cannot know to be true. Namely that the world of our experience as a collection of ‘things’ in a space time universe where ‘stuff happens ‘ to change the experience of it over a a period of time, cannot in any way be shown to be correct. Nor indeed a further assumption, that in fact these changes are brought about by timeless Eternal Rules, what we would call the laws of Nature, or Physics, operating mathematically and exactly to turn the present into the future, via Causality.
But in order to ‘do science’ we have to assume that they are true. Which is why they are referred to as ‘metaphysics’ and ‘a priori‘ because they are ‘beyond physics’ and ‘before the fact’ of science.
Science made a huge impact on the philosophy of its day, because in spite of these objections to it, which were quite well understood by the theologians and philosophers of the day, it worked, and worked spectacularly well. And is is that success that led its protagonists, from Galileo to Dawkins, to claim that must mean it was True. And to this day the ‘social sciences’ are trying to emulate its successes and claim some truth content thereby, by calling themselves sciences, a condition known as ‘physics envy’.
And from there, it was but a short step from observing that one didn’t need to ‘believe on God’ to ‘do science’ which worked, to thereby claim that therefore God did not exist. But that’s a whole new can of worms.
Let me state the position that I believe Philosophy of Science to be in. The fact that Science works, when operating on the ‘rational materialist’ model that it has to assume is the case, neither ‘proves’ that the inductive hypotheses that it posits are ‘true’ or that indeed the whole rational materialist edifice upon which it all rests, is in fact valid metaphysics at all!
And this is where the pseudo-scientists and religious fundamentalists step in to say ‘well it’s all just another belief system, innit?’, and claim that it’s therefore no better than ‘climate science’ or ‘creationism’. Or ‘my little Jihad’..
And in a limited sense they are right! But there is one thing that separates proper science from the rest, and that is that it works! Yes, behind all the formulae and the mumbo jumbo that it seems to be, if you take the rational materialist’s world view, and operate upon it scientifically, you get to predict the future, more or less. The ‘planets’ will be where you thought they would, experiment will more or less produce the predicted results, and science based technology will mostly just ‘work’ as evinced by the fact that I can type this, and you can read it.
And that in the end is the only defence Science has to offer. Not that it’s true, or has any ‘truth content’ at all – although some still claim that the fact that it works is ‘strong evidence’ that its ‘true’ more or less – but that it works. And when it stops working, that’s a sign that it’s no longer science, or is refuted science. A proposition that didn’t produce predictions that matched reality…
The acknowledgement of this utter inability to provide any sort of proof of being true, is what the widely quoted and usually totally misunderstood ‘Occam’s Razor’ is all about. What the monk William of Ockham actually said was roughly “apart from God and the Holy Scriptures, and things that are self-evidently True, we should not construct elaborate fancies to explain things when simple ones are just as good”. This is widely misunderstood to mean that the simple explanations are the true ones. That was never Occam’s point. His point was all about utility – not truth content.
And that really sums up the second part of this diversion into philosophy: Science isn’t true, it’s what works to predict the future, and if it fails to work, it’s not Science any more. Creationism, Intelligent Design, and My Little Jihad, don’t predict the future. In fact they don’t actually even set out to predict the future. They are therefore Not Science. And not on a par with science. Insofar as Climate Science does set out to predict the future, its failed, or refuted science, because it’s failed to predict it accurately or usefully, and, insofar as it never was really intended to predict the future, it’s just another metaphysical position entirely on a par with Creationism, Intelligent Design, and My Little Jihad.
And that brings me to the final point I want to try and make, as to how philosophy, and in particular the a priori model of the sort of metaphysics that I, and I believe Hilary Putnam, espoused, can make sense of the socio-political narratives of climate change alarmism. And indeed very much of the politics of what is generally termed the Left, which is inextricably linked to it, as well as the Religious Right.
Morality as a Social Construct – the Emotional Narrative.
When I described the function and purpose of what I consider to be Science, what is perhaps startling is that in the end, the only value judgement I applied, or indeed feel I can apply, to it, is that it just works.
And this brings me to a peculiar moral position. Morality, more than physical reality, is a social construct. Moreover its not based on anything beyond humanity. Does the Universe care if we live, love, die, or were never born?
Only if you believe in an Anthropic God.
Otherwise it is simply not possible to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, in any absolute sense. And yet our media is awash with narratives – emotional narratives – exhorting us to ‘Do the Right Thing’. But what actually is The Right Thing? Where can we find some objective yardstick for moral behaviour? Scriptures? The Democrat Party or the UK Labour Party? The Koran?
What light does the metaphysical model outlined earlier shed on the issues of right and wrong, good and bad?
Almost, but not completely, none. It has no concept of a morality in the traditional sense, it, like science, is totally amoral. But just as we arrive at a justification for Science in terms of its utility, we arrive at something like a moral position in terms of utility, too…
…It is conventional wisdom that Darwin’s theory of evolution leads to a sort of law called ‘survival of the fittest’ . However on closer inspection, that sort of Nietzschian perspective is shown to be false as well. What is actually the deductible corollary of the Theory of Evolution, is that it only leads to eradication of that which is so counter-survival, that the young of the species do not live long enough to reproduce themselves.
And that is why we still have appendices. They haven’t killed us. Yet. Mostly.
This basic principle, that ‘That which persists, is that which is not sufficiently dysfunctional to create its own downfall‘ is a very important point to note, because it explains in a way why this is the worst of all possible worlds. It simply only needs to be that good, to keep ticking over.
If we apply it to humans and their socially accepted ideas, not just about the nature of physical reality, but the nature of the sort of moral and social reality which is the sandpit of the Intellectual Left, and of course those involved in proselytising Religions, like Radical Islam (My Little Jihad) and Creationism, we can see that any sort of elaborate nonsense, provided it doesn’t lead to complete mass suicide, is as good as any other, especially in a socialist post-modern industrialist society with welfare, where frankly all you need to do to survive is work out how to game the system for the welfare, and walk to McDonalds. What you happen to believe – whether you are in fact God’s chosen ones, or the dregs of society – is a free choice at the functional level. As long as it doesn’t make you sufficiently depressed to kill yourself before Having Sex, and Making Babies, it’s cool!
And if you have a Vote, or a pocketful of Someone Else’s Money, given to you by a Compassionate Caring State (allegedly), why then, if someone wants that money or that vote, and are not particular about how they get it, they will tell you anything you want to hear, and basically what that means is they will tailor an emotional narrative to exactly make you feel as good about yourself as possible, and sell it to you. Or one to make you feel as bad about yourself as possible, and sell you the antidote!
c.f. Marxism as the classic example. You the mass of voters are miserable, because they, the few people who have a bit of cash, are oppressing you, and so by revolting against them, you will all be as rich as they were before you took all their money. Or the State did, on your behalf.
The problem with selling you a reality that makes you feel good about yourself – ‘God loves you: Chill!’ is that you can’t actually really sell a product based on that. All the best marketing comes from identifying, or if not creating basic needs that the product will satisfy. Over and over.
Until Colgate, no one brushed their teeth twice a day, let alone after every meal, and if they did, they used salt. The Genius of Colgate, ‘For people who can’t brush their teeth after every meal’ was the subtle implication of guilt if you didn’t do that (and who did?) and the instant catapulting of Colgate Toothpaste into the top brand arena…
Prior to the invention of Radio, then TV, of course there wasn’t much opportunity for all this. OK we had religion, and could sell ‘indulgences’ to free people from sin, and pieces of the One True Cross. And saint’s bones and the like, all of which were profitable, but there are only so many bits of The One True Cross that you can sell.
But with the invention of the Printing Press, the Radio, and the State Broadcast, all this stuff – previously the province of either priests chanting in the Churches, or hedge witches muttering curses under their breath, in the pagan arena, this became a billion dollar business, and the primary means by which nation states that didn’t want to actually start a real war, fought each other. As an offshoot of the Great Game, propaganda and marketing became the primary weapon of war of all power blocs, and parties with aspirations. Less a Game of Thrones and more a Game of Lies.
And the reason is simple. Morality and emotion are in the end human constructs, and so are all the beliefs about rights and wrongs, good and bad, and so on, and have absolutely no objective Truth at all. When I talked about Idealism and Realism, it was with respect to the science of the material world, which I posited did at least represent something external, beyond human construction.
Where morality is concerned, however, there is nothing. Not if we are considering it as rational beings. We need to posit an external physical world in some sense, to make sense of everything, but there is no need whatsoever to posit an external moral standard. And that is the frightening and appalling truth that people find very hard to stomach, and why they find it easier to behave as if there were such a standard, and what we can say is that societies that have such cultural patterns, that behave as if there were some moral standard, are less dysfunctional than those that do not. If this is sounding a bit Nietzschian, and God forbid, Third Reich-ish, you are right. Societies bound by common beliefs that are strong, and beliefs not so fallacious as to ensure their destruction, are likely to trample all over societies that really can’t say any more what is right or wrong. My Little Jihad trumps Western Liberalism, Western Liberalism trumps careful scientific scepticism, because at a given level, they are simple clear and cohesive messages.
Not because they are true, or even morally right, but because they have a momentum and a quality that makes them successful.
And this is, I would aver, precisely where we are with Climate Change, the socio-political phenomenon. Most people do not know the truth of whether it’s science or not, or whether it is true or not, even if it is science. And, most tellingly, most people do not care. Because in the field of human behaviour, voting and spending power is deployed not according to what is true, but according to what people (want to) believe to be true, or can be manipulated to believe to be true, and those can be poles apart. And Climate Alarmists are simply acceding to this position, They either don’t know that they are lying, or they actually don’t care if they are lying, because lying actually gets them, personally, a better life, than the truth!
It’s only when we have to deal with the physical reality of the world, that the truth has any point to it.
False beliefs spin no turbines, but they can spin the economies and politics and religions of this world indefinitely. So long as they are not so dysfunctional as to result in “no sex and no propagation”.
And the wonderful post Christian compassionate Welfare States that we have built, with the best of intentions, have resulted in a population who can believe in almost anything, from Aromatherapy to Zoroastrianism, without it actually being a huge problem for their survival.
Until the wind drops, the turbines stop and Physical Reality kicks them in the pants.
Then the law of eradication of that which is counter-survival will happen, and billions will die.
Up till now, the questions have been:
Do you want to be:
(a) On the winning side?
(b) Morally right ?
(c) Scientifically correct?
And by choosing climate alarmism most people felt they made (a) and (b) and hoped that if (c) were true, (d) would result.
But a careful recourse to sceptical philosophy, shows that (c) is almost certainly wrong, and because it’s wrong, (d) becomes a real issue, and because (d) is a real issue, it’s not so clear that (a) accrues either. And who cares about being morally right, if you’re scientifically wrong, on the losing side, and dead?
The very great danger that we face, is that political propaganda, hearts and minds, and all that, has gone too far. Much too far. It’s one thing to sell toothpaste to guilty teeth-brushers, but to sell wind turbines and Carbon Credits to guilty Ecos, is pushing it. And if the total inanity and confusion with which the Left have flooded Western Society for the last two generations has resulted in a society that no longer knows what it believes in, or why, and where anything it feels is probably wrong in someone’s moral handbook, and is too polite and nice to say ‘so what?’, proves to have basically resulted in no ability to cohesively resist forces which will destroy it, well, so, it will be destroyed. There comes a point at which dysfunctionality will destroy a society that is full of crazy ideas and has no idea how to keep itself alive.
A simple message went out: “Climate change threatens our very existence, because it is true”.
We need to reverse that with a simple statement: “Climate change threatens our very existence, because it isn’t true”.
And if you want voting guidance, remember that all you are voting for is always going to be a pack of lies, no matter who is telling it. Just vote for the most amusing liars, and the ones that look too incompetent to wreck everything, and hope that someone somewhere has the intelligence to realise that it is in the end it is not in anyone’s best interest to destroy the world in pursuit of power and profit, no matter how much they tell you that that is in fact exactly what they are trying to prevent.
It has been interesting trying to compress a lifetime’s personal journey, into just a few pages, and focus the impact down to a very selective target audience. What I really hope to have done, is to show why and in what way some of the more interesting aspects of metaphysics are really important in terms of real-life/here-now issues.
Metaphysics is, in itself, the study of the assumptions we have to make in order to be able to think and talk about the world at all, the concepts and ideas and prejudices that underpin our idea of ‘what the world consists of’. It has gone out of fashion because after millennia of argument, the modern philosophers decided that it wasn’t possible to decide what the One True Picture really was, and that argument was therefore pointless. If I read him aright, that’s probably where Wittgenstein left the matter. However as an engineer, I am not interested in the One True Picture, just a useful picture (or indeed pictures) that work, to solve the problems I encounter. And that is where I find value in metaphysics, in the construction of pragmatic metaphysical systems, that actually solve problems. These metaphysical systems are of course just models, and therefore can never be proven to be true, all one can hope for is that the insights they provide and the pictures they produce help to solve immediate problems.
Hilary Putnam was the philosopher who most seemed to be taking a similar approach. Unsurprisingly since he was working with physicists at the edge of quantum theory to try and make sense of the ‘facts’ of quantum physics and reconcile them with the ‘facts’ of ordinary common sense, a similar conflict led me to similar territory. Namely the hypothesis that the world we experience as individuals and indeed cultures, is a model, that is limited in scope, thoroughly and inevitably steeped in prejudice, and is an unknown and unknowable distance from ‘the Truth’. It is that dreaded Social Construct . And conflicts arise because we deny this. Once we acknowledge the terrifying truth that everybody lives in their own world, and that stuff which they will swear is Real and the Truth, is to other people, simply perplexing rubbish, because they are employing a different metaphysical set of assumptions about it, most of the conflicts disappear.
It is the humility needed to accept that science is not truth, on the one hand, but neither is the moral high ground of the ‘Liberal Arts’ crowd either. There is an apocryphal joke that sums it up:
“When I want to get somewhere, the last form of transport I would choose is a Harley Davidson”
“But when I am awn ma Hog, I am already exactly where I wanna be!”.
And there, in a nutshell we have it. In the absence of an external point of moral reference, we need the emotional narratives to somehow inform us at a personal level of where we want to be. But in terms of getting there, we have to throw out the left brain, and invoke the right brain, to arrive. The mistake of the adherents of the Left, is that they fail to do this. The mistake of the adherents of the Right, is that they don’t actually know where they want to go.
Perhaps Western technology came so fast that we were spoiled for choice as to where we should go, and that explains the rise and rise of the ’emotional’ side of ourselves, as we desperately looked for reasons why we should or shouldn’t deploy the technology in terms of creating a ‘better future’ without really knowing what that meant, until it arrived. And found that perhaps after all it wasn’t better. Just bigger. A telling point is, that as compared with say a generation ago, the biggest killer of young males is no longer road accidents, but suicide.
We have lost the emotional certainties of a cohesive religious culture, and thrown open the door to any and every kind of nonsense, all competing for space in our brains, and most of which is marketed to strip the individual of his vote or his cash, or both.
I have no solution, other than to reiterate what I answered in reply to “You claim to be an Atheist, or at least an Agnostic, yet seem to behave as a better Christian than most churchgoers. How come?”
“Because I think it’s a better way to live, to behave as if there were a God, as if there were some judgement over one’s life, and not only does it make me personally feel better, it creates a cohesive humble and co-operative and strong society. Why can’t we accept paying lip-service to a religion we don’t believe in, on the grounds that its simply a good thing for us, and society to do, for our own survival?”
Where metaphysics is concerned, we are compelled to behave as if the a priori assumptions we make about the world are in fact ‘true’.
In the end, my point is that we can’t prove that they are, and they may not be, so we should not prosecute our deductions from those assumptions with the zeal of certainty. But neither should we give up. They may not be the Truth, but they are, used correctly, nearer true than anything else we have to hand. And what is manifestly and demonstrably false is when we hypothesise a structure that claims to explain and predict some aspect of the metaphysical position we have already taken, when in fact it does nothing of the sort. AGW fails to actually pass the tests of a scientific theory.
There is no moral compass. But there is a pragmatic one. It is the one that gets us where we want to go, and its name is Science and Reason. It can’t help with deciding where we want to go, but it can once we have decided that, tell us how to get there efficiently. If applied correctly.
There is no way we can know absolute truth, but, inside of a set of metaphysical assumptions, we can tell if some hypotheses are less true than others, because they don’t actually work.
It’s a pretty lousy set of criteria on which to base the survival of a whole species, but friends, in the end, that is all we have got. Put your trust in what works. Not because [it is] true, but because [it] is not demonstrably false. Yet.
And hope that you have not simply found a temporarily advantageous metaphysics.
The one and only cautionary picture belongs here.
“How are you getting on with that Jumping Out of the Window and Not Hitting the Ground thing, Carruthers?”