Today marks 360 years since the death of Rene Descartes. Descartes is the first of the modern philosophers in that he represents the emergence of the scientific and thus modern mindset. Indeed that the man on the street largely sees himself in terms of mind and body is due to this philosopher. Descartes sought to bring certainty to knowledge, and sitting in an oven one day (he tells us it was cold) he realised the only thing he could be certain of was that he was a thinking thing. This is the origin of the famous cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”. Which has entranced & dismayed philosophers and undergraduates everywhere for hundreds of years. Yet while the quest for certainty is admirable, it is also deeply misleading and ultimately damaging. Both in what little benefit results from certainty and more practically in misleading us about the worth of knowledge we already have. Descartes project philosophically ended soon after his death, but in misunderstanding the value of knowledge, much of the scientific community is risking our very lives.
The love of certainty over the shifting and transitory is as old as philosophy itself. Plato’s entire project involved the repudiation of the empirical and political in favour of establishing certainty. Many philosophers have invoked God as a crutch to guarantee that the phenomena of life (colours, sounds, movement etc) is more than just sensory data within our own minds, but represents exactly something which is “out there”. It is the holy grail of all knowledge, that something is absolutely certain, and yet no 2nd step has ever been added to Descartes cogito (indeed many even doubt that). Even if Descartes is entirely correct, his knowledge gives us absolutely nothing of value (beyond entertainment). We may be thinking things but in vats manipulated by chemicals, we may even be thinking things in human form in a world identical to our perception of it, and yet we still hunger, thirst, lust, and sweat identically even with this knowledge. This is not to renounce the project of knowledge itself, but whether Descartes cogito ergo sum is certain knowledge or just knowledge makes no practical difference.
The far more malicious side of the quest for certainty is the way it shapes the worth we apply to knowledge we already have. Science in modern times has been deeply affected by this, for both its practitioners and in its image in the public mind. While science is not like religion, it shares a faith like belief in its own ability to deliver certainty, not through revealed truth, but through a method. The results may change, but the method is what proves the wisdom of the course. When attacked in our modern and increasingly partisan public sphere, science and its boosters have tended to retreat towards this comfort of certainty, allowing public knowledge to be subverted by those opposed. Nothing illustrates this better than the question of Global Warming. In many ways the evidence is simply overwhelming that the planet is heating, that its causes can be reasonably identified, and that man has had some significant effect on this situation. Yet in the last decade the scientific community has been left almost dumbstruck that so many politicians and people resisted accepting their viewpoint in the first place, and once it was largely accepted that a rising chorus of voices has been able to reverse the tide and in some cases (like Australia) reverse government legislation addressing it.
Like Plato, or religious fundamentalists, Scientists when attacked or hurt by society tended to retreat to their more pure and certain quest for knowledge as a way of insulating and protecting themselves. When critics of Global warming attack, the response inevitably is that the attackers themselves have no credibility because they don’t have peer-reviewed papers, they haven’t degrees in the field, they don’t know and havn’t used the scientific method in determining their views of global warming, and so therefore are automatically invalid. But the truth of the claims of global warming skeptics has no relation whatso ever to how often or little they have been published, what their degree is, or their motives. Science only has a way of assessing the likely truth of each claim through its method, not ownership of the entire field of what is true. This is an important distinction oftern forgotten by scientists and especially their boosters. This may be career threatening when involving a dispute within the field (ie the shift in various paradigms in physics or astronomy), however it is threatening to the authority of the entire discipline and perhaps even the well being of the species, an area it has formerly dominated (Capitalism may make us wealthier, but it is scientific advancement which has allowed us to live longer/better).
This treatment of scientific knowledge as quantitatively different from other forms of knowledge has also severely impeded the ability of the scientific community to communicate with the general public. It sets them up for nit-picking where it is assumed by the public that they ought to be infallible (such as the back down over the melting Himalayan glaciers, and perhaps some claims about ice levels), and discourages many scientists from seeking out either professional communicators to push their views, or entering the arena directly themselves. Like Plato 2400 years before them, to publicly advocate what is the latest scientific knowledge is all too often seen as a dirty, compromising, and pointless endeavour. And to do so arguing against people without even scientific degrees or who have never been published in the field… well!
Yet for the good of the scientific community, many many more scientists need to get over this absurd concern for purity and decend into the political arena. Politics and communication are not a dirty words, and it is only through an understanding if not mastery of the political sphere (and here i mean social, cultural relations as well as partisan debates) that the scientific community will be able to ensure the best reception and understanding of their work. People like Richard Dawkins and Tim Flannery are doing good work, but both suffer from an absolute arrogance of tone and only reasonable communication skills. Dawkins in particular could learn a lot from his friend Christopher Hitchens. Who is usually polite, and yet strident, willing to debate almost anyone at any time or location. It’s a rather thankless job, but it is needed. It is a job that takes knowledge as an abstract thing (number of particles in an atom, colours of a mexican flying beetle, function of white cells in the body) and makes it practical by educating, and inserting that knowledge into the culture and social environment.
We are firmly ensconsed in a hyper-partisan world. It may have always been thus, but many still have not caught up. Science can’t expect to be able to dictate claims about truth to the world without shedding its claimed authority as the nearest thing to certainty (which makes it more vunerable, not less publicly), and unless it is willing to engage the public sphere on its own terms and according to its own rules. Descartes for all his glory, is not the model the scientist currently operating needs to look up to. Instead, scientists should see themselves as more like explorers, venturing forth to obtain and then bring back pieces to the public. The dissemination and education of reality needs to be seen as just as important as the discovery, yet this is an aspect that has been scorned for far too long, due to pretensions to certainty and disdain for the impurity of public life and political participation. But that needs to change, not only for the well-being of the scientific discipline itself, but perhaps humanity as well. Global warming might make things uncomfortable, doubting whether a asteroid really is headed for earth might just kill us.