‘Why?’ and the Global Warming Debate

Allan HavinlingEnvironment, Leaving Truth, Politics3 Comments

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.
Related:

I 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.

3 Comments on “‘Why?’ and the Global Warming Debate”

  1. Bert Bigelow

    Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes. Are they manifestations of the earth’s impatience with our deliberations? Is she (Mother Earth) angry with us for our stupidity and greed that is threatening her with a runaway fever?
    Gaia was the personification of the earth in Greek mythology. Is that what you are proposing?
    I don’t buy it. I think the earth is a mechanical entity. Complex and not well-understood, to be sure, but still mechanical. It responds to our actions predictably, even if we are unable to predict its response.
    I think personification of inanimate objects (e.g., cups) is a very bad practice with children, even if it is done innocently to coerce their cooperation. It gives them a false sense of reality. They will later realize that it was fraudulent in most cases, but what if they do not?
    A bad question. That is the path to insanity.

  2. Allan Havinling

    The “Gaia” stuff was over-the-top, I agree. It was kind of a rabbit hole I went down trying to draw a literary link to my comments about Siri. But don’t let that detract from the main point of the post, which is that discounting the consequences of unskillful behavior with respect to nature is as (or more) dangerous that ignoring our human enemies.

    So you say that earth is mechanical. Are you not? And if you are not, do you believe that mechanical beings might one day be indistinguishable from us non-mechanical ones? I could go on, but I’m sure you see where this is going. You have described yourself as a “nuts and bolts” guy, so what are the nuts and bolts of this issue? To me, it’s that – for whatever reason – we are not taking global warming seriously enough to forestall a global die-back. My post proposes a reason for our collective lack of urgency, although I certainly could be wrong about it. The kicker is that the implied solution (regarding earth as a conscious being) might be EFFECTIVE, quite apart from whether or not it is RIGHT. Keith himself points to a time when to be WRONG was to be EFFECTIVE. (The word Keith uses is “adaptive”.) Keith argues that those days are behind us, but my post is toying with that assertion. (I do not claim to have had this in mind when I wrote it, but in retrospect it seems to be the case.)

    My post suggests (if not “asserts”) that global warming is more of a call-to-arms than global terrorism. Life under the IS will be Hell on earth, but enough people would be spared to mount a revolution someday. By no stretch of the imagination will it be in force 10,000 years from now. Not so global warming, where most people would perish, and once the carbon is in the air it will take 100 millennia to scrub out (by historical measures). But that isn’t even the worst of it. Considering the rates of ecosystem destruction in our oceans ALREADY UNDERWAY, we could be looking at millions of years before replacement species and ecosystems can evolve and Gaia be reborn. (sorry; couldn’t resist.)

  3. Doug Freyburger

    Allan Havinling wrote –

    “As I opined in Doug’s conversation, consciousness is not a scientifically observable phenomenon.”

    Consciousness currently falls under what I call testimony but not evidence. With the rapid advance of computer science maybe that will change, or maybe it will not. Time will tell.

    “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.”

    The hard part is figuring out communications. Because dogs are some familiar to us and with us we can usually figure out intent of dogs. Hive mind critters, not so much under current science.

    “I have had the pleasure of observing the budding awareness of my granddaughter, Avery.”

    It’s interesting to watch the cognitive development of humans. As toddlers we think of parents are deities who can perform miracles. Watch a toddler who has let go of the string of a helium balloon ask an adult to bring the balloon back.

    We know human cognition is flawed. We only had to evolve enough reason to dominate the planet.

    “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.”

    Yes and it makes the distinction between things with intent and things mechanical an interesting one because intent is so drattedly hard to figure out with anything but humans. Not all that easy even with humans as we have intent and often don’t even realize we do.

    “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.”

    I have mentioned this is a cognitive flaw – Anyone who has read history knows the suggested plans lead to disaster. Since the response is wrong that means the claims of the theory are wrong. A lot of people make that error.

    “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.”

    Maybe. Note that the miltary is against other people. The military is a political instrument. AND the plans that deal with global warming are a political instrument. It could get easy to figure that global warming is people in that view. Which would also be a cognitive failure.

    “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.”

    We are evolved to think agency is involved. That panther did intent to carry off my mate and eat her. So why not have lightning have agency as well? Thus Zeus. Except that’s simplistic thinking as well. When lightning was explained Zeus didn’t disappear. He just stopped being the agency of lightning.

    “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.”

    Both wars of the next type. When we are always fighting wars of the previous type. These are hard earned lessons of history that initial responses are often wrong because they use the solution of the previous generation to solve the problem of the next generation. As Einstein said “A problem can not be solved by the same type of thinking that caused it”.

    “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.”

    Gaia. Sure. Because agency is very hard to detect. So we need to treat a system mechanically.

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