Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Philosophy

The Ignorance of Certainty: Science’s failure to sell Global Warming

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.

Balance and Progress: The Philosophy of Avatar

I’d previously ignored all the hype and pre-story about Avatar, however one piece I had seen was Miranda Devine’s claim that the ingenious blue humanoid Na’vis philosophy of balance (as against the company’s push for change & development) makes it a lefty film. Watching the movie this weekend I came away finding myself both often rooting for the Company against the Na’vi and of the view that if any political philosophy is to be found within it, Avatar is a deeply conservative movie. To illustrate this, I want to replace the usual left/right divide and propose a slightly more pejorative version: Up, Balance, Down. See the chart on the right (Apologies I only have MS Paint to hand)

The Up Agenda:
Taking Darwin’s Origin of Species as a guiding light, Upward political philosophies see nature as inherently amoral and hostile, with relief only possible through development, change and progress. This means a certain willingness to deliberately shape both human and natural environments as an aid to larger goals. Economic theories which have political currency take this path given their focus on increased prosperity, either in an opportunity sense (capitalism) or an outcome sense (communism). Liberalism, with its strong views of what an ideal society ought to look like, regularly strives for progressive change, as does a nationalistic platform which sees future prestige/power for the nation (like building up a big army & using it).
Reaching its height in the Enlightenment and the triumph of reason, these political philosophies argue that deliberate action can shape naturally found environments for the better. Of course not all paths are equal, liberals reject communist reasoning and aims and vice versa. None of these philosophies would justify the abuse suffered either here on earth by the environment/native populations or the deliberate destruction of the Na’vi’s homeland, but finding themselves in an environment which is far far less welcoming that found on Pandora (more on that later) the only true means of survival of the species is development. Comparing current living standards to previous ages seems to emphatically support the case, such as our increased ability to withstand natural disasters, disease, and have enough resources to ensure re-population and growth. Of course there are always unintended consequences, of which global warming is as good an example as possible. And this, the Balance agenda would charge is the problem with Up philosophies.

The Balance Agenda
At the heart of the Na’vis world view in Avatar is a belief of all things in balance. Cameron cheats here, by making the spiritual link with nature of indigenous earth bound human populations a biological reality, via the tendrils at the end of their hair, and shown most directly in the attempt to switch humans into the bodies of the Navi at the Spirit Tree. Man and nature are one. At heart of a balance philosophy the view that nature (both environmental and human) automatically produces a stable and sustainable environment, so long as we don’t interfere too greatly. A belief in god is often important here as a deliberate balancing agent(either as creator or tweaker), however it is not necessary.
Devine and co-charge this represents a green left agenda, seeking to maintain the environment, but it is also a deeply conservative agenda too. Both environmentally (as UK Tory leader David Cameron and blogger Andrew Sullivan endorse, and Tony Abbott seemed to claim in his recent speech) and socially as a defence of the status quo. Of course sometimes positive action needs to be taken to maintain the strength of pre-existing institutions and social structures. Social Democrats often take this line, arguing that only with a decent welfare system and adding legislation to protect and stabilise during difficult periods (ie minimum wage/maternity leave), we can achieve a better equilibrium. Having effectively achieved that mix by the mid-20th century, their focus has been balance ever since. Conservatism is at times embued with a spirit of progress, such as its embrace if not recent subservience to capitalism, just as the green left are often socially liberal in a way social democrats are not. But overall, none of these political theories seek radical social-restructure, rather action to protect the critical elements of the status quo in both nature and the environment. Even facing a threat like Global Warming, the Green Left still largely seeks to maintain society as is, just made side changes (like switching depleting fuel sources for sustainable ones). Even their railing against capitalism and growth (see as Clive Hamiltons work) is to seek a better stability across society.

The Down Agenda
Rarely seen, some political philosophies do in fact advocate a regressive turn. The best recent example is the Taliban in Afghanistan who steadily returned women into the home, reduced the role of education, science and tools of entertainment (even so far as banning kites), all in the name of seeking an idealised former past (whose historical existence is often doubtful). As Karen Armgstrong shows in ‘The Battle for God’, this is a common move of rebels within all three of the major monotheistic religions, but it need not necessarily be religiously driven. It combines both a belief in an earlier balanced time period, with a reason/religious drive to re-shape the environment to the ideal.

Fascism, such as the Nazis of Germany is also driven by views of a mytholigised past of Aryan domination. Hence they sought to re-take the ‘homeland’ of old, change social mores, and remove those parts of the population which challenged that stability (intellectuals, gypsies, gays, jews etc). It was this idea of a regressive return to ancient village life which seems to have most enticed the philosopher martin Heidegger, though ironically, the Nazi’s combined this with the most modern technology of warfare and industrialization as the tools for implementation.

(This is obviously a rough and quibbable dissection. Capitalism after all is represented as a natural phenomena by its supporters, and hence best left to its own devices to seek equlibrium. However, that’s really only the case theoretically rather than practically, and even Adam Smith saw the need for a human hand at work to keep the mechanism functioning properly (such as the removal of monopolies and establishment of law and order). It is also subverted as countries endorse capitalism largely for its prosperity benefits rather than it’s potential for equilibrium or justice. I’m happy to hear any arguments about placings/other political philosophies I’ve left out in the comments)

When thinking about this during the movie, I found myself often quite sympathetic to the Company. Cameron has to venture into the realms of science fiction to make the Na’vi’s philosophy of balance/connection to nature a physical reality, careful never to show disease or suffering which they must in fact suffer far greater than any modern western citizen (notice that the oldest Na’vi is no more than about 50). Here on earth, I see no evidence that such balance is to be found. We may well be the only tiny rock in an unimaginably big universe which sustains life. Everywhere else, like Mars where it may once have survived, it’s now long dead.The planet earth as we know it was formed around 4.5 billion years ago. First life did not emerge in the broiling seas until at least a billion years later, with what we know as life, ie multi-cellular organisms over 3 billion years later. Human existence can be credibly stretched back to 200’000 years. Even today with all our development and knowledge, nature still daily tries to kill us. Haiti, China, Pakistan have all suffered recent earthquakes, The Pacific and South East Asia Tsunami’s, most of the world see’s floods regularly, with many area’s copping tornado’s & hurricanes too. Not to mention diseases, accidents, wild animals, droughts, storms, etc. As little as we know, asteroids the size of cities could be streaming directly towards this earth, certain to snuff out all life with them, they’ve hit before, and we wouldn’t know until too late, and with no sensible options for saving ourselves. What comforts we have gained (steady access to shelter & food) are because humans have changed the world to suit our needs. For every flourishing of nature in one area, another is too cold, too hot, too dry or too wet to sustain humanity. Hell over 70% of the planet is covered by seas which are largely lethal to us, and certainly cant be lived in (without significant developments such as building submarines, underwater structures).

As a progressive, I think the idea of balance is a myth. That doesn’t mean that life or the environment in all it’s myriad ways is worthless. In fact it makes it far far more worthy, because it is so rare and unique that any life has managed to survive. There is no way that the Company should be allowed to destroy such a resource as they do in the moview. But unlike the Na’vi, the green left, conservatives, I don’t believe that only careful management can ensure the survival of our species. It is either up or out. The Na’vi’s life is not a viable model of existence. Unlike the regressives, I don’t believe that humanities best days have already come and gone. I believe that with careful, humble reason, based on as careful a study and knowledge of nature in all its glories and threats, we can improve society, both human and natural and eek out a survival. Devine ought to take a second look at the movie, it’s got a very conservative philosophy at heart. Even Cameron has to cheat to achieve it.

Hitchens less than dangerous idea

In case you missed it, here is the speech by Christopher Hitchens at the recent Sydney ‘Dangerous Idea’s Festival. He speaks for about 40 minutes, with an hour or so of questions from a (slightly disappointing) Tony Jones. Jones claims to play devil’s advocate, but ends up with a lame ‘but the faithful do good works’ line of questioning. If he wanted to really be contrarian in Hitchens style, he’d ask if the idea ‘religion poison’s everything’ is even a dangerous idea as the festival name implies. Hitchen’s extended ovation was guaranteed before he spoke a word. Though in other parts of the world he would still be shot or run out of town for it. Likewise the most interesting stuff in the interview is right at the end when discussing the difference between agnostics and atheists (where I think Hitchen’s claims far more wiggle room than he is entitled to). Either way, what he has to say is still well worth saying, and none do it better. Enjoy:

The inspiration for this blog

Rather than just recounting the details of my “About” page, I thought i’d post an article I wrote a few years back that is the real inspiration for my blog and academic career:


150 years ago this year John Stuart Mill published ‘On Liberty’. To my mind, no finer work of english language has been written, not just for its clarity and force of language, but the importance of its cause.

The point and purpose of Mills classic essay ‘On Liberty’ is to advance one simple principle

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral is not a sufficient warrant.”

These words, when I first read them as a disillusioned 20-something rang out to me like no other piece of literature, film, philosophy or writing ever has. Mill in two short sentences lays out the absolute limits of societies hold over the individual, in a way that can be applied in each case and circumstance as calculatingly and rationally as Mills Utilitarian ethics demands.

But for me, whilst there is such great intellectual resonance in this phrase, and however quickly it formed a key principle on which I base my own political philosophy, it was not simply the intellectual, but the emotive which makes this work stand out for me above all else. 

Mill’s own education and formative years are unlikely to be matched by anyone of contemporary eras, and nor should it be. He was reading Plato in the original Greek by the time he turned seven, Latin commentaries on the Roman Republic at eight, and devising his own logic systems in response to Aristotle at twelve. Mills education by his fathers hand was designed for the express purpose of turning him into the chief proponent of the system of Utilitarian ethics, summed up blandly as ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. 

Mill suffered for these trials, and by age 20 he experienced a mental breakdown and deep depression for over 6 months. This black spell only began to abate when he turned to literature and poetry and found in them the non-purely rational and intellectual demands and rigors as had been so harshly forced upon him by his father’s expectations. 

I first encountered JS Mill when I was of a similar age, though a very different background. I had cruised through school, convinced my schools name and status would entitle me to a place in university, and when I found myself only able to scrape into the local TAFE I had to wonder at my choices. I attempted to overcome this through my own program of study, beginning with the man to whom all western philosophy is mere footnotes, Plato. (Whitehead in Russell 2004)

But in Plato, however great my admiration for his thought, language and ability to challenge common dogma and encourage philosophical inquiry, I found a man whose totalitarian system of political organisation I began to loathe. Further pursuits into Philosophy, notably Hegel, Kant and Sartre seemed similarly torturous, either for their repulsive ideas or turgid language. 

I first read Mill sitting on the bus one evening on my way home, and when I first came across that passage ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’ I was dumfounded.
Mill for the first time in my education seemed someone who could not just write but express the very notions and principles that were beginning to form within my own conscious. I found in Mill not just a realization that participation within the great political and philosophical debates was possible, but that there were natural allies and reasonable, and sensible men involved in these to whom I could look for inspiration and agreement. Finally I could escape having to grit my teeth as I read Plato or Aristotle for the purpose of improving my mind, all the while detesting most of what they advocated.

Mill’s purpose in the essay is to stress the importance of individual liberty, not simply from the tyrannous king, but also from the majority when acting as a mob. In the face of those who argue we must censor thought or discussion, he recognizes that it is as wrong for one man to stop all humanity thinking or advocating a certain position, as it is for all humanity to stop just one man. Likewise, those who are possessed of the truth are as much robbed when discredited and heretical views are censored, -for they lose the ability to test and prove their own beliefs-, as those who actually holds such views are damaged by this censorship.

Mills individualism is a classical individualism. He does not see man, as Thomas Hobbes or John Locke might, once free and now in the chains of the state (to which all good liberals and individualists must seek to hold back its omnipresence), but rather his individualism, and liberalism is a search for development, and the pursuit of character.

Though I was only dimly aware of it at first, each time I re-read On Liberty, Mill’s declaration of the supreme sovereignty of the individual, what resonates is not just the demand for personal freedom as self-protection, but a clarion call for self-development.

Mill advocated the supreme liberty of the individual not according to some abstract ‘natural right’ handed down by god or nature, and never utters the words ‘human rights’ but instead seeks that we may use freedom to develop our utmost in character and virtue. This Mill argues is the true aim of human freedom and purpose.

As Mill writes in an often ignored passage in ‘On Liberty’ 

“the cultivation of an ideal nobleness of will and conduct, should be to human beings an end, to which the specific pursuit either of their own happiness or of that of others (except so far as included in that idea) should, in any case of conflict give way.”

Mill does not seek liberty simply for its own sake, but according to his utilitarian principles so that we may for our own sake become who we truly are. Mill does not seek to hector or demand we follow his moral or personal as a local priest might, but instead demands the state guarantee us the freedom to take real responsibility for our own passage in life and use of that freedom.

For a disillusioned young man, John Stuart Mill’s work ‘On Liberty’ spoke to me of three great themes. One was recognition that there were great and sensible philosophical minds I could honestly engage with, and find some common agreement. And If I could agree, I reasoned, I could surpass. I also found in Mills simple principle the most honest and forthright principle for the organisation of the states laws that has been before or since been presented. 

And finally, I found in the space and freedom he offers via his principle, an opportunity, and a calling to take responsibility for the use of that freedom. The slave is never answerable for his actions, only the free man is. That is the burden and the joy of freedom. And for Mill, it was the development of that character and virtue as would guide us in our choices to which individuals must turn their focus and thought. 

Mill’s work gave me reassurance I could understand and argue at this level, it gave me opportunity, it offered clarity and common sense, and perhaps most importantly it demanded I take responsibility for my choices from that moment forth. That I am where I am today, PhD student, Lecturer, blogger, is in large part due to the influence of John Stuart Mill and his essay ‘On Liberty’.

p.s – I chose the image for this post because it shows Harriet Mill, his beloved wife, and too whom ‘On Liberty’ is dedicated and is her proper memorial. Also because the more traditional image of Millas the dour faced victorian doesn’t do justice to the passion of the man in both his writing and life.