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We 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.
October 1, 2009
On the Foundations of
Are There Philosophical
On the Foundations of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)
(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
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
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
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
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
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"
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),
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
. . . .
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
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
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
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.
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?