Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D
www.igc.org/gadfly


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JOTTINGS

(Formerly "The Gadfly's Blog")

2009
 

2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010,
 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004

Before 2004

I offer below, random musings, reflections, correspondence, scraps of work-in-progress, and other such miscellany, perchance worth sharing but not ready for the prime time of formal publication.  

Much of this material  has been adapted from personal e-mail correspondence. While I am perfectly free to use, revise and expand on my side of these exchanges, use of the "incoming" correspondence is problematic. I have neither the right nor the inclination to include the words of my correspondents if they can be identified either by name or description.

If I am confident that the correspondents can not be identified and if their part of the exchange is essential to the exchange, then I might quote them directly. Otherwise, their ideas will be briefly paraphrased, only to supply context to my part of these conversations. In no case will I identify the correspondents by name.

On the other hand, signed letters to The Crisis Papers and The Online Gadfly are fair game as are other comments published in the internet. They were submitted with the clear understanding that they, and their signatories, might be made public.

Incoming correspondence will be identified by italics. My contributions will be in plain text.


 


October 1, 2009

.Philosophical Reflections


On the Foundations of Ethics
Are There Philosophical Truths?
On the Foundations of Empirical Knowledge
On Climate Change and the Argument from Authority


After a hiatus of several decades, I recently resumed a correspondence with an old friend from my undergraduate days.

Now, as then, he is deeply engrossed in philosophical study and speculation, and I am grateful to him for getting my philosophical juices flowing again. We have some profound disagreements, which have provoked some extended and carefully argued exchanges.

I would like to share some of this output with Gadfly readers, but therein lies a conundrum: how to do this without violating the privacy of my friend and the integrity of his ideas. I have not asked him, and thus he has not consented, to allow me to quote or paraphrase his positions, and any attempt to do so would result in an unfair distortion of his views.

And yet, I have pages and pages of my side of the exchange that I would like to share with the Gadfly's circle.

The solution must, above all, pass "the golden rule test:" Whatever I decide must be such that I would approve, were the situation reversed and he chose to post his side of this exchange on his website.

So here is my solution: I will frame my discourse as a reply to a sequence of questions.  Some questions may be those posed, explicitly or implicitly, by my friend, and other questions will be of my own devising.  I will never quote his side of the correspondence directly. The questions will be general:  familiar and significant to philosophers and, in many cases, readily recognizable and interesting to the educated public. As questions, these will not commit the (semi-hypothetical) questioner to any particular philosophical position.

A final word: The following will exhibit a variable amount of technicality. Some will be readily accessible to any educated reader, while other parts will be comprehensible only to those who are acquainted with current philosophical issues, literature, and vocabulary. I will try to give you all fair warning.

 

ON THE FOUNDATIONS OF ETHICS.

We begin with one of the most fundamental and enduring of philosophical issues: "Does ethics have a rational foundation?"
 

Many modern philosophers, most notably the "logical positivists" of the thirties and forties, have argued that there is no rational foundation to ethics, and thus that ethical statements reduce to expressions of emotion. Courage? "Hooray!." Cruelty? "Boo!"  When you, or say, John Rawls, present a "Theory of Justice," all that you are saying is that this is how you would like people to behave. Ayn Rand has another view of how she would prefer that people behave. But there is not, in principle, any rational means for adjudicating this dispute. Rawls and Rand simply "feel differently." Period! How would you answer this?
 

The question poses the challenge of what philosophers call "non-cognitivism." I will readily admit that I am a cognitivist. I affirm that ethics has a rational foundation. Furthermore, I contend that ethics is grounded approximately as solidly in reality as is physical science.

I start with the long-established acknowledgement that a system of ideas must be grounded on "hard" premises that are both unprovable (qua "grounded") and intuitively compelling. (A traditional term for this is "self-evident," though I've always been uncomfortable with that term).

Physical science and ordinary common-sense empirical beliefs are based on three such premises: (a) there is an external physical world, independent of my mind, (b) there are other minds, and (c) facts about the physical world and other minds can be reliably ascertained through induction. These are epistemological "bedrock:" presupposed by all empirical knowledge, but, qua "bedrock," unsupported by still more basic assumptions.

Put another way, as George Berkeley (1765-1853) pointed out, all that any of us know directly is our own states of mind. All else is conjecture and inference. And as David Hume (1710-1776) further indicated, even the concept of "my mind" is an abstraction. Still worse, Hume correctly argued that induction itself is based on the fallacy of petitio principii (circularity): induction assumes the "uniformity of nature" which, in turn, is "proven" by induction.

Berkeley tried to convince us that from this "egocentric predicament" we could surmise the ontological truth that all that existed were minds and ideas. But of course, the statement "all that I know is my own states of mind" is a mere tautology (following from the meaning of "know"), an "analytical truth" from which no ontological truth can be inferred.

Remember how one of our undergraduate professors used to say, repeatedly, that the essential problem of epistemology is "how do we escape solipsism"? (Solipsism: The belief that all that exists is my mind and its ideas -- there is no external physical world and no other minds). I thought at the time that he was a tad obsessive about solipsism, but with time I've come to believe that he had it about right.

If a philosopher argues for solipsism, he is being provocative and clever. But if he really believes it, he is certifiably bonkers. Nobody outside of a padded cell believes that his mind is all there is, and that nothing can be learned from induction. These "unproven" assumptions are the foundation of all science and common sense. (My late friend, Ed Abbey, once wrote: "if someone tells you he is a solipsist, throw a rock at his head. If he ducks, he is a liar").

End of History of Philosophy lesson. On to ethics.

Ethics, like empirical knowledge of facts, is grounded in a very few "self-evident" but strictly unprovable truths. Possibly just two: (a) pleasure is intrinsically good; (b) pain is intrinsically bad. These affirmations do not deny that pleasure can be instrumentally bad (if it causes pain in others, or later in oneself), or that pain can be instrumentally good ("no gain without pain"). Tell me that "good" and "bad" reduce, respectively, to "emotive" affirmation and aversion, and I might not complain vociferously, provided you spare me the use of the diminutive word "mere," and grant an expansive interpretation of "emotion" (i.e., as "affect"). Otherwise, the term "emotive" can trivialize these foundational concepts of pleasure and pain -- conditions that are built into our evolved genomes and which, in fact, were instrumental in the evolution of our (and all animate) species. Their status as ethical foundations can be demonstrated by G. E. Moore's "open question argument:" It simply makes no sense to ask, "why is intrinsic pleasure good?" and "why is intrinsic pain bad"? This is moral "bedrock."

However, when I suggest that "good" and "bad" might be grounded in pain and pleasure, the same cannot be said for "right" and "wrong," which are moral categories.  More about this shortly. 

From this foundation we move up one step to some crucial implications. First, (c) is that human beings can better maximize their "goods" and minimize their "bads" collectively, than they can egoistically. Not in every case, to be sure, but in many significant and unavoidable cases. (d) Many personal "ends" can best be achieved cooperatively under a system of rules, and some systems accomplish this achievement more effectively than others.  Which systems?  Enter moral and political philosophy. Unlike premises (a) and (b), I believe that (c) and (d) can be supported both empirically (observing group behavior) and formally (through game theory -- see Chapter Five, Conscience of a Progressive). John Rawls articulates these essential points supremely well, early in A Theory of Justice:

Let us assume, to fix ideas, that a society is a more or less self-sufficient association of persons who in their relations to one another recognize certain rules of conduct as binding and who for the most part act in accordance with them. Suppose further that these rules specify a system of cooperation designed to advance the good of those taking part in it. Then, although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests. There is an identity of interests since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts. There is a conflict of interests since persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger to a lesser share. A set of principles is required for choosing among the various social arrangements which determine this division of advantages and for underwriting an agreement on the proper distributive shares. These principles are the principles of social justice: they provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. (p. 4)

Continuing:

(e) The individual's prospects for a satisfying life (pleasures up, pains down) are better in a community of individuals motivated by the Humean "moral sentiments" of benevolence and empathy which, in turn, give rise to other virtues. Again, this assertion can be tested empirically. Exhibit A: Colin Turnbull's study of the Ik tribe (The Mountain People)

(f) The optimum rules of personal conduct and social organizations (principles of justice) are best ascertained from "the moral point of view" -- i.e., the perspective of the "ideal observer" of the society, rather than the perspective of a single member thereof. (I argue this point in Chapter Six of Conscience... and so need not repeat it here).

(g) The individual's prospects for a satisfying life are further enhanced by a mutual acknowledgement of and respect for the autonomy and dignity of each individual. (Perhaps Kant's discourses on the innate dignity of rational beings have a place here).

I submit that once one accepts the foundational hedonic axioms ((a) and (b)), just as every sane person accepts external reality, other minds and induction, the subsequent assertions (c) -- (g)) can be demonstrated empirically and/or formally.

So what do we come up with? I believe that Kai Nielson, echoing Rawls, expressed the outcome of a rationalistic, cognitivistic morality better than I can:

Morality is ... a system of social control that functions primarily equitably to adjudicate conflicting wants, needs, and human aims in such a way so as not only to make social life possible and tolerable but also to diminish as much as possible human harm and suffering. [T]he very raison d'etre of morality is to adjudicate between the frequently conflicting and divergent desires and interests of people, in order to give everyone as much as possible of whatever it is that each one will want when he is being rational, when he would still want what he wants were he to reflect carefully, and when his efforts to satisfy his own wants are constrained by a willingness to treat the rational wants of other human beings in the same way. (Reason and Practice, Harper and Row, 1971, p. 304).

But do humans have the capacity to act conscientiously according to a system of rules of conduct?  If so, then how so? These are the essential questions of "moral psychology," which I deal with at length in Chapter Twelve of Conscience..., "How is Morality Possible?" No need, then, to repeat it here.

Now let's get back to (c) and (d) which, judging from our conversations, may be the crux of our disagreement.

Occasionally, when I explained "the tragedy of the commons" to my classes, and in particular how the addition of another sheep to the overstocked common pasture advantages the owner to the disadvantage of everyone else, a student replies (jokingly, I hope), "well, he just has to kill off some of the other sheepherders." Trouble is, the other sheepherders may be thinking the same thing.

What we are describing here, of course, is Thomas Hobbes' "state of nature" -- a "war of all against all," wherein the life of each is "solitary, mean, brutish and short." The solution, going way back far into pre-history, is a rule of law (or before law, of custom and mores) complete with sanctions against violators -- what Garrett Hardin called "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon." (Hobbes' diagnosis, I believe, was spot-on, but not his prescription: rule by an absolute sovereign). This solution, an imposition of constraints on each to the benefit of all, can be argued empirically, both in laboratory experiments and through a study of history. (My argument is in Chapter Five of Conscience..., "Good for Each, Bad for All"). Once again, Kai Nielsen states the point supremely well:

There are good Hobbesian reasons for rational and self-interested people to accept the moral point of view. A rational egoist will naturally desire the most extensive liberty compatible with his own self-interest, but he will also see that this is the most fully achievable in a context of community life where the moral point of view prevails. (p. 132)

This is why I believe that a radical egoism, such as that of Ayn Rand, fails at the get-go. The egoist's "neighbors" will simply have none of it.  The egoist, qua outlaw, is a menace to the community which has the means, collectively, to rein him in.  It's called "the rule of law."  A similar social atomism, libertarianism, has had a go at it on the national stage for the past two decades, at a terrible economic and moral cost. I suspect that the libertarians' come-uppance may be soon at hand.

In short, the fundamental error of the non-cognitivists -- "emotivists" such as the logical positivists, and the "volitionists" such as the existentialists -- is their failure to recognize that morality can not be located or founded in either the emotions or the "radical will" of individuals. The radical reductionism of these non-cognitivists systematically ignores the essential context of morality, namely the interactions of individuals -- i.e., in communities and society.

Morality can no more be found in the feelings and wills of individuals, than a Beethoven symphony can be found in the isolated component notes, or than "Hamlet" can be found in the isolated component words of the play.

Put another way, Robinson Crusoe's predicament on his island was practical, not moral, until Friday entered the picture. Then his dealings with Friday immediately acquired moral significance.
 


ARE THERE ANY PHILOSOPHICAL TRUTHS?

In his book, Language, Truth and Logic (1936), A. J. Ayer argued that there are basically two kinds of knowledge: empirical facts and logical systems  (i.e., mathematics and logic). This is essentially a refinement of David Hume's duality, "matters of fact" and "relations of ideas," and a distinction that continues to be significant in contemporary philosophy.  Ayer further argued that since empirical knowledge is the province of science, and logical systems are devoid of empirical content, there remains no residue of "philosophical truths." So the question: did Ayer's logical positivism, as he claimed, put philosophy out of business?
 

I emphatically affirm that there is such a thing a "philosophical knowledge," apart from science and logic. And while I agree that there is little if any truth to be found in metaphysics -- this much I will concede to the positivists -- there remains a great deal of useful work for us philosophers.

To put the matter simply and bluntly, mathematics, logic and empirical science are not the full scope of knowledge, past, present, and anticipated. Years ago, at UC Santa Barbara, I heard a nuclear engineer proclaim that "if you can't measure it, it isn't knowledge." I replied, "then I must pity you, for if you believe this, this means that you have never known love." And "love" is just a small part of a long list of "knowables" that logic and science don't deal with.

Yeah, yeah, I know: "science doesn't have all the answers" is the crowbar that pries open the door to all sorts of theological, political, and ideological garbage. Step Two in this process is the ad ignorantum argument: "prove me wrong -- and if you can't, then I must be right."

But bear with me: leaving metaphysics and theology aside, I think that we can identify numerous valid and worthy fields of inquiry from which the empirical sciences are systematically excluded.

First of all, what have we been doing in these exchanges if not philosophy? We've not been "doing logic" or "doing science," but rather have been reflecting on logic and science -- "metalogic" and "metascience." Useful exercises, both, about which libraries full of books and papers have been written. But none of it logic nor science. And as long as logic and science flourish, there will be useful "second-order" discourse to be written and discussed about it.

Seems to me that many positivists have a rather simple-minded notion of science. But what is science? A brick-by-brick accumulation of simple "facts" plus, perchance, some generalizations built upon those facts? But brute facts are scientifically uninteresting until they are combined into theoretical structures that knit together diverse empirical observations, explain past and present phenomena, and successfully predict (hypothetically/deductively) future confirming events. How does all this work? How does one identify and separate out "valid science" from "pseudo-science"? There is a serious academic discipline that poses such questions, and it is called "philosophy of science." Journeymen scientists are content to pile those fact-bricks, one upon another, and don't bother themselves with such questions. But if science is to advance, and in particular, if some positivists insist that the only valid source of knowledge is empirical science, then such questions must be asked. If so, then by whom if not philosophers of science?

You see, knowledge is not just empirical "facts." It is also (second-order) "facts about facts," and (third-order) "facts about facts about facts," etc. to the nth order. And facts are, of necessity, articulated through (eventually) natural languages, and language is an extraordinarily complex and mysterious phenomenon, arguably the foundation of thought (including science), which distorts and confounds while it communicates -- "through a glass, darkly." Unfortunately, many scientists, positivists, along with ordinary citizens, are appallingly ignorant of the role of language in both ordinary and specialized thought processes. Until recently, one could include many philosophers among the language-naive. But at last philosophers have wised-up and are now taking language seriously, and have thus taken on a task that will be with us long into the foreseeable future.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, having rid himself of logical atomism, articulated the "frame" of contemporary philosophy when he wrote: "philosophy is the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." There is an interesting ambiguity here, true in both interpretations: (a) as a "battle ... by means of language," and (b) as "bewitchment ... by means of language."

So philosophy, as analysis, has an enduring task before it, including: (a) looking "backward" to uncover the unacknowledged presuppositions of inquiry (science in particular), (b) examination and articulation of the methodology of inquiry, (c) explication of the language and essential concepts of inquiry, and (d) "looking forward" in an exploration of the implications of inquiry. Applying this to science, none of this is empirical science per se, and all of this is meta-science. This second-order inquiry is a search for authentic knowledge, though not the sort of "synthetic a posteriori" knowledge that the positivists have in mind. And this second-order knowledge is the province of the philosophers.

Nor is this new to philosophy. Concept analysis is as old as philosophy itself -- it is what Plato was doing in his Dialogues, though he didn't think of it as such.

So, I submit, a large, productive, and enduring function of philosophy is to be found in the second-order "Philosophies of..." -- art, politics, conduct, education, mind, medicine, law, environment, and most of all, of language and science.

Philosophers deal with a realm of inquiry that is systematically excluded from empirical science (or at least, physical science): the subjective. Yet the subjective -- the view of experience "from the inside" -- has as firm a claim of "knowledge" as any objective data (which, by the way, must of necessity be collected subjectively). I "know" when I have a headache. I "know" that I correctly recall a name, a citation, where I left my car keys -- I know this when I verify these things with a subjective experiences. Subjective experience (a pleonasm, please note -- all experience is subjective) has a self-contained vocabulary denoting emotions, sentiments, sensations, percepts, motives, etc., none of which can be reduced to "objective" physical brain-states.

True, subjective states can be correlated with physical brain-states, and ever more precisely as brain science advances. But this doesn't impress me one bit. Correlation is not identity. Coin heads correlate 100% with coin tails, but heads and tales are not identical. The genomes of identical twins correlate completely, but each twin is a distinct individual. Life correlates 100% with death, but life and death are opposites, not identicals.

So as long as science deals with the physical-chemical brain-state correlates of subjective mind-states, and fails to adopt the language and concepts of introspection (and how could it?), philosophy of mind will have a subject- matter, a "field of knowledge," to occupy it.

Finally, science is excluded, by its own rules, from dealing with values, which leaves aesthetics, politics, ethics, and metaethics to the philosopher.  But we discussed ethics above.

 

ON LOGICAL POSITIVISM AND THE FOUNDATIONS OF EMPIRICAL KNOWLEDGE:

(Jargon alert: rough road ahead!).

Now let's take a closer look at logical positivism, which has apparently recaptured your interest.

I believe that logical positivism fails on primarily two grounds: (a) a failure to acknowledge the limitations of natural languages, and (b) a failed attempt to ground empirical knowledge on indubitable "sense data" (Moritz Schlick, A. J. Ayer) -- or similarly, "acquaintance" (Russell), "protocol statements" (Carnap), etc.

Moritz Schlick (in "Meaning and Verification," Philosophical Review, 1936) clearly explicates his reliance upon "perfect languages" and "sense data":

The possibility of verification does not rest on any “experiential truth,” on the law of nature or any other true general proposition, but is determined solely by our definitions, by the rules which we which have been fixed in our language, or which we can pick arbitrarily at any moment. All these rules ultimately going to extensive [i.e., ostensive] definition... and through them verifiability is linked to [sense data] ... no rule of expression presupposes any law or regularity in the world ... but it does present both data and situations, to which names can be attached. The rules of language are rules of the application of language; so there must be something to which it can be applied. [Schlick 157. My italics. EP].

. . . .

The dividing line between logical possibility and impossibility of verification is absolutely sharp and distinct; there is no gradual transition between meaning and nonsense. For either you have given to grammatical rules for verification, or you have not...

Natural languages (by which I mean to exclude formal systems) are, by nature, irrevocably vague and ambiguous, and therefore never "absolutely sharp and distinct." And this fact of language is fatal to Schlick's scheme of meaning and verification -- or so I argue in my "Whatever Became of Logical Positivism" (c 1962), which I added to The Online Gadfly last month.

Positivists have tried from the get-go to ground empirical knowledge in "incorrigible" sense-data. A. J. Ayer's most noteworthy attempt was in his 1964 book, The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge. This enterprise is likewise fated to fail, because (a) if there are such things as "incorrigible sense data" (i.e. "green-patch-now"), they are pre-propositional and nothing can be built from them. In this regard, they are like the inert elements. Thus they can not be the foundations of empirical knowledge, which, of course, is propositional. Furthermore, (b) there are no "immaculate perceptions," i.e., blank, pre-suppositionless experiences, upon which empirical knowledge can be built, since all experience is coded and interpreted ("framed") by prior experience and linguistic categories. This too I have argued in an early student paper, now at The Online Gadfly, "The Quest for the Immaculate Perception."

Someone once asked a pragmatist (I believe it was either Peirce or Dewey), "where do we begin to study the nature of knowledge." The answer: "We begin where we are." This is contrary to the logical atomists, the logical positivists, and the phenomenologists, who choose to study knowledge "from the ground up" -- the "ground" being sense data (or whatnot) "up" along some sort of logical structure. But the pragmatists, good psychologists all, were fully aware that this is not how we come upon knowledge or, for that matter, how we validate it. There are, say the pragmatists, no simple, incorrigible "foundations of knowledge," much less a logical structure that leads from such foundations to complex and abstract propositional knowledge.

Knowledge is dynamic, emergent (distinct from component parts), contextual, and linguistic. Of this, a host of significant philosophers agree: Whitehead ("prehensions"), Heidegger ("Dasein"), late Wittgenstein ("forms of life" and "language games). And Peirce in particular, essentially undermined the foundationalist view with two papers in 1868, ("Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man" and "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities"), long before the emergence of the atomists and the positivists. Thoughts, said Peirce, can not meaningfully be isolated in time, for (a) "all thought presupposes prior thought" and (b) "all thought is is in the nature of a hypothesis." In other words, thought must be analyzed in a context looking both backward and forward in time. At face value, the first assertion appears absurd -- a paradox like "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" But the solution is the same for chickens and for thoughts: they evolved from simpler beginnings. (For more, including sources in Peirce, see my "Metaphysician, Heal Thyself," a paper I wrote for a University of Utah graduate Seminar in 1967).

As you can see by those recently uploaded papers in The Gadfly, I was deeply immersed in this stuff some forty years ago. But then, a couple of years later, my career took a sharp turn toward environmental ethics, and I left this analytical-epistemological Choctaw behind.

 

ON CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE ARGUMENT FROM AUTHORITY

I will concede that the available scientific evidence strongly indicates that the planet is warming. But I remain unconvinced that this warming is due to human activities. What say you?

You can count me among the anthropogenic climate change believers. The evidence is too compelling, and the implications are very grave. I am not at all inclined to doubt the conclusions of thousands of climate scientists (the vast majority), the IPCC, the AAAS, the NAS, the NSF, NOAA, etc.

Yet I know a few individuals who simply will not accept this evidence. Their views are usually tied up with economic interests and ideology. One individual in particular is a leading light among the libertarians, with whom I had running debates for almost thirty years. Yet we still remain friends, and invite each other to our various conferences. You might be interested in an essay that I wrote about this: "Climate Reality Bites the Libertarians."

Global warming deniers like to cite examples, here and there, of global cooling as refutation. They fail to appreciate that the earth is not like a house with a furnace and a thermostat, but rather that the earth's climate is a complex system whereby warming in one region (or many) can cause cooling elsewhere. For example: global warming has increased the melting of fresh water from the Greenland ice cap, and increased the flow from the Siberian rivers. This flow of fresh water into the North Atlantic might possibly shut down the "thermo-haline converter" which drives the Gulf Stream, which in turn would bring an ice age back to northern Europe.

But don't just take my word for it. Check out "How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic" which links to numerous other "authoritative" websites. Beyond that, there is a super-abundance of evidence online. (Google: "climate-change human-cause" and you will get 80 million hits, including some skeptical arguments but mostly affirmations of anthrpogenic causes). Also check out the websites of the aforementioned NAS, IPCC, AAAS, etc. The UC San Diego "Global Warming" site is a good place to start. (Follow the links at the left side of the page).

Why should you, or I, or anyone, believe these citations of scientific papers and investigations -- these "arguments from authority"? Because refereed scientific papers, qua scientific and refereed, contain information that is public and replicable. As noted, errors appear from time to time in scientific literature, but it is the task of journal referees to spot them and cull them out prior to publication. Deliberate fraud in refereed scientific journals is extremely rare, not because of the moral probity of most scientists, but because the sanctions against fraud are extraordinarily severe: nothing less than disgrace and the termination of one's career.

My superficial layman's understanding is that the primary causes of global warming are increases in carbon dioxide and methane since the industrial revolution, both of which are based upon conclusive data. The "greenhouse" effect of both CO2 and CH4 "was discovered by Joseph Fourier in 1824, first reliably experimented on by John Tyndall in the year 1858 and first reported quantitatively by Svante Arrhenius in his 1896 paper." (Wikipedia)

For the past couple of years, I've been carrying on a correspondence with a libertarian friend who is a global warming denier. (This exchange prompted my piece, "Climate Reality Bites the Libertarians"). Quite frankly, I've often found his arguments to be pathetically weak. When I sent him satellite photos of the shrinking Arctic ice cap and asked why he refused to believe "his own lyin' eyes," he replied that he "had read somewhere" that the thickness of the ice cap was increasing. My request for a citation of that "somewhere" was met with silence. I have also asked him repeatedly what could possibly motivate the overwhelming majority of independent climate scientists to affirm global warming, or how they could all be deceived by the evidence of their researches. About the only reply I've heard is the familiar, "they are all competing for government funded research grants." Never mind that Exxon, Big Coal, and their front organizations (e.g., The Global Climate Coalition) are offering generous "research grants" to any "scientists" willing to "prove" the industries' pre-judged conclusions.

So yes, I believe that global warming is real, and that the primary causes are anthropogenic. Nothing would please me more than to find compelling evidence that I am wrong, and that the planet is not heading toward climate catastrophe. But I must, however reluctantly, follow the evidence as discovered by the body of competent scientists. Sadly, our politics is lagging far behind our science, and I am very pessimistic about humanity's ability to deal with the crisis that thoughtless technology has brought about.
 

But aren't you employing an argumentum ad vericundium ("appeal to authority"). Isn't this a fallacy?
 

Regarding the argument from authority. I've been accused of this quite often, and plead guilty. I believe things on others' say-so, not because I am weak-willed but because I live in a civilized country and have no other choice. 99+% of what I believe, I believe on others' say-so, and I daresay, so do you.

When do I, instead, accept direct knowledge? Let's see: When I "know" that it is cold outside. When I "know" that I'm hungry. When in "know" that my car needs to be washed. When I "know" that the car is almost out of gas. No wait! Strike that last one. I take it on someone else's "word" that the gas gauge is telling me that the tank is almost empty. I haven't the slightest idea how the information that the tank is empty is relayed to that gizmo on the dashboard.

Otherwise, 99% of the abstract knowledge that I have is via someone else's say-so. This is an inevitable consequence of specialization and the division of labor, which are pre-requisite to the civilized condition. Thus we rely, every day, on the "authoritative knowledge" of doctors, lawyers, mechanics, accountants, store clerks, and (if we are unduly gullible) the mass media.

Just try doing without "authoritative" knowledge for as long as an hour, and you will see what I mean. (Atop the Wikipedia entry on "argument from authority" is this note: "This article does not cite any references or sources. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources." I.e., a plea for authoritative sources).

Argumentum ad vericundiam is a fallacy when it cites sources that are irrelevant, incompetent and immaterial. "Critical thinking" consists, not in the total rejection of all second-, third-, and N-hand knowledge-claims, which is flatly impossible, but in the ability to competently assess such claims.

And one of the best sources of authoritative knowledge is information gathered and validated by the sciences.

Science is not a perfect source of knowledge: no human institution is perfect. But it is the best that we we have, and for reasons that can be clearly identified and explicated (as I have done in my essay, "Is Science Just Another Dogma?"  More about this shortly.

Scientists have, of course, been wrong in the past, as, for example, in the case of the Piltdown Man hoax. But it is worth noting that all scientific errors, like the Piltdown hoax, are exposed and corrected by better science.

And scientific laws and facts, in their application, are proven every moment. If any of thousands of proven and applied scientific facts, laws, and equations were false, my computer would not boot up, my car would not start, and aircraft would never get off the ground.
 

Aren't you issuing a blank check to the so-called climate authorities? Why believe them, rather than the skeptics?
 

Yes, there are climate change "deniers." So why should I believe them instead of the consensus among most climate scientists? "Authority?" If not, then why not?

So does it come down to "authority vs. authority, now flip a coin"? Of course not! We then examine the credentials, the methodologies and the motivations of the putative "authorities." Having done so, we will not end up with absolute knowledge. As I pointed out at some length, aside from analytic assertions, which are empty of empirical content, there are no absolute truths in science. Scientific assertions are, in principle, fallible and falsifiable, albeit some (e.g., evolution, elementary physics, gross anatomy) are certain far beyond reasonable doubt.

"Motivation" can be a weak criterion of credibility, but it is not irrelevant. No "scientist" receiving funds from the Tobacco Industry Research Council ever came forth with evidence that smoking causes cancer. And to my knowledge, no "research" sponsored by the Global Climate Coalition or the American Enterprise Institute (both funded by the coal and petroleum industries) ever endorsed the conclusions of the IPCC. On the other hand, no one has ever provided me with a plausible explanation as to how the overwhelming majority of qualified scientific experts in the field of climate science could come to a "wrong" conclusion as to the fact and causes of global warming. If wrong, these thousands of independent "experts" are either lying of deluded. If lying, then what is their motive? If deluded, then how so? I've read a few attempts to explain this alleged mass delusion, and quite frankly they all strike me as pathetic special pleading. The methodology and discipline of the physical sciences has built-in mechanisms of verification and self-correction (i.e., replicability, theoretical consistency, empirical implications, etc.). Hence the fate of the Fleischman-Pons "discovery" of cold fusion (at the University of Utah, by the way).

I don't own a climate science lab or a global atmospheric modeling computer, and even if I did, I wouldn't have the foggiest idea how to use them. (However, for two years, 1983-5, while on an NSF research fellowship, I worked alongside world-class climate scientists at the University of Colorado and the National Center for Atmospheric Research at Boulder). So I have no choice but to provisionally accept the conclusions of qualified climate scientists, after casting a sharp critical eye on their credentials, methodologies and motivations. In other words, I am less than totally credulous of everything they say.

Given the simple fact that I am faced with conflicting "say-so-s" (arguments from authority), its the best that I (or any lay person) can do.

Incidentally, "cold fusion" has acquired something of a cult-like status, as I discovered a couple of years ago when I published a disparaging off-hand comment about the Fleischman-Pons experiment. This prompted an avalanche of angry rebuttals from cold-fusion true-believers. I then enlisted the help of an old U/U friend, now a professor emeritus of physics (Arizona State) -- a shameless "appeal to authority." You can find the exchange here.

To be sure, fossil fuel energy will never be cheap again. And good riddance, since it is the source of most of the excess atmospheric CO2. But it doesn't follow that energy will never again be cheap. Not unless Big Coal and Big Oil allows the gummint to launch a Manhattan Project R&D in alternative energy -- wind, solar, geo-thermal, and who knows, even cold fusion. I understand that, as average Americans, our household uses about four tons of coal per year to provide the electricity for our house. (Electricity generation, I am told, amounts to some 40% of the US coal consumption). I am told that I could produce all my household electrical energy from the sunlight that falls on my southern California roof. Not constantly, of course. On a bright, sunny day, the surplus would be sent to the grid and local storage, and on cloudy days and at night, electricity would be drawn from the grid and/or batteries and fuel cells. That kind of technology is now "on the shelf." Who knows what advancements might soon be available, once we collectively decide to invest in the requisite R&D?

 


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .