At the outset, I would like to define a collection of words that may not be “standard”, but suit my purposes, as follows:
consciousness – A sense of one’s own existence.
teleologic – Acting to achieve an end result. This may be contrasted with activity (like rolling downhill) that merely reacts to impersonal forces.
teleology – The capacity to act teleologically.
I perform many teleologic acts.
I have teleology.
thing or object – a division of reality we create by drawing a border around it and applying a label. Contrary to colloquial usage, I include animals and people as “things”. A better word would be “entity”, but that sounds too sci-fi.
agency – teleology
Contrary to colloquial usage, I am not festooning this word with any moral or ethical overtones. I mean only ‘the process of action from intent’.
agent – a thing which can act teleologically.
mechanical – operating by predictable reaction to non-intentional forces. Opposite of teleologic.
Central to Leaving Truth is the idea that the way we divide up reality, into this thing and that, is not given to us by reality itself but is instead our own creation. Put another way, we are presented with a reality and it’s up to us to carve it up. This is a slight digression as far as this essay is concerned, but will help with its understanding.
As I opined in Doug’s conversation, consciousness is not a scientifically observable phenomenon. Like God, it is not defined in a way that would make it so. If we change our standard from consciousness to teleology, then it becomes meaningful to ask what a thing wants, or if it is the kind of thing that has wants. Moreover, experiments may be carried out to answer these questions. More important for this discussion, we may observe how and when humans attribute teleology to other things.
I have had the pleasure of observing the budding awareness of my granddaughter, Avery. All of the observations I will recount are from when she was three (she is now 4).
One day we were down by the river just “hanging out” as the kids say. One of us tossed a piece of wood into the river. Waves from a passing boat drove the stick back to shore. She asked me, “Why does it want to come back?”, properly using the pronoun “it” but still attributing agency. I told her it was being pushed back by the waves. And if you’ve ever hung out with a 3-year-old, you know what’s next: “But why does it want to come back?” Impasse.
Another time, Avery wanted her red cup to take with her on an outing, but it was dirty. No amount of telling her the red cup was dirty would convince her. My wife, Kay, had given Avery a yellow cup. Kay finally came up with, “But the yellow cup will be sad if you don’t take it with us.” Resistance ceased. Fortunately Kay is able to come up with these little deceptions where I am not.
So if your child is persistently asking “Why?” it may be because you are giving mechanical answers to teleological questions. Humans seem wired to see and react to teleology. (“Why does the sun go down, Grandpa?” “Because it has to go to sleep too, sweetheart.”)
The flashlight says “hi”; the blanket wants to be in the washer. I’m not even sure if she knows it’s pretend. I never heard her say “pretend” prior to her 4th birthday, but she did know we had to make things talk (“Make Ducky talk, Grandpa.”). But if she knew it was all “make believe”, how do you explain the red cup incident?
My theory is that all this teleology attribution comes from one core assumption: That other things in her world are like her; not just other humans, but other things. If you think about it, this is the most logical default a priori assumption.
My theory is bolstered by the fact that Avery is more likely to attribute teleology more of the time to things that actually have the appearance of humans or animals (e.g. dolls). It is further bolstered by the fact that even adults will attribute teleology to things that have attributes of humans/animals, such as self-propulsion. For example, we get mad at the car when it doesn’t start, then walk around for a week saying “stupid car” to anyone who will listen. We may also get mad at a nail when we step on it, hurling a few well-chosen expletives at it, but then we get our tetanus shot and start looking for the SOB who left that board lying around. The car is deemed to have a teleology that the nail does not. And if it speaks full sentences and has a natural female voice like Siri, it is given that most honored status among English speakers: a gender. That’s one step below being eligible to serve on a jury!
So what does all this have to do with global warming? I’m glad you asked (or at least that you are still reading). There is a segment of the American body politic that eschews the global warming theory. The primary reason for this “denialism” appears to be rejection of what they imagine to be the consequences of acceptance, which is greater government regulation.
Apparently this should not be confused with support for a muscular and ever expanding military, as its proponents are often found among the denialists. What gives there? How can somebody be both a climate denialist (small government) and a military expansionist (big government)? I propose that the answer lies in teleology attribution, and how we address problem agents vs. problem non-agents.
Little girls and boys eventually grow up and are taught by our culture that only living creatures are teleological; everything else merely reacts to mechanical forces. It was not always thus. In Aristotelean physics, widely adopted by medieval philosophers, effects had both an “efficient cause” (what we now simply call “cause”), and a “final cause” (roughly what I have been calling “teleology”). I say this only to point out that it isn’t obvious that non-living things are mechanical; we believe they are because it is what we are taught. Of course many of us also believe that living things are mechanical, just so complicatedly so that the teleological explanations are a convenient shortcut.
Agents are always more scary than non-agents. Agents plot and plan. Agents lurk in the shadows, and strike when you least expect it. By contrast, non-agents seem more manageable. If a particular slope is prone to rock slides, then don’t walk too near that slope. The rocks aren’t going to jump off the mountain just to strike you. Wild animals – and especially other people – present a different kind of problem. This tendency of human thought is captured in this news article and applied to our political debates.
So the table is set. On the one hand a set of ideological agents that would enslave us, and on the other a set of non-agents that could kill most of us if we do not respond appropriately and soon. Which is the most deserving of our collective resources? We will not be served well by our tendency to consider ourselves apart from the natural world, and from that apartness conclude that only the intentional acts of humans are frightening enough to warrant government effort to fend off.
The earth grows impatient with our deliberations. She will not allow this debate to continue much longer. And while Siri’s gender did not yet qualify her for jury duty, the earth cannot avoid it. She will be seated in the jury box, and she will have the last word. Let us hope that she does not judge too harshly.