Global Warming, Denialism, and Solipsism

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In his 1637 paper, “Discourse on Method”, Réne Descartes wrote “Je pense donc je suis.”  In 1644, he would translate that phrase into Latin for his famous Principles of Philosophy, writing it as “Cogito ergo sum.” “I am thinking, therefore I exist.”  When I was in high school, I became a big fan of Descartes.  I still hold that the cogito is one of the most brilliant things to come out of philosophy.  Descartes comes to the conclusion that because your senses themselves can be fooled, your memory is fallible, anything that you experience could simply be happening inside your head.  However, Descartes also comes to the realization that if you are thinking, there must be something which you are a part of that is existing.

The problem that Descartes faced after the cogito is that once you state that everything in existence could be a lie, except for the fact that there is something you are a part of which exists, there’s nowhere to go.  The bigger problem for Descartes was that there was a church around at the time that didn’t much like it when philosophers went around saying that God might not be there.  In the year 1600, the philosopher Giordano Bruno had his tongue tied and was burned at the stake on a pile of his own books, simply for saying that because infinity was all-encompassing, and God and the Universe were both infinite, than God must be the Universe.  Heresy was sort of a big deal.

But Descartes trapped himself in solipsism.  His mind was all he could prove.  He throws together some really shitty proofs of God’s existence and that God must be good, and from that concludes that his senses aren’t lying to him.  It doesn’t really work, and in my opinion, it puts an indelible stain onto the brilliant logic that concludes the cogito.

You may now be wondering what this has to do with the New York City Skeptics. There’s a story in the New York Times today that climate change is starting to be seen as a threat by the department of homeland security.  People out there who believe that the government is a sinister organization that uses lies and innuendo to misuse the populace may leap on this as further proof that global warming is a lie.  This will be the proof for them.  Government is not only trying to shut down coal and gas manufacturers, now they’re using global warming as an excuse to further weaponize.

The thing is, the global warming people used to be firmly in our camp.  Some of them still are.  And it brings up a question in my mind, when is it that skepticism becomes denialism?  As skeptics, we identify as people who doubt.  It is, I would argue, a very healthy thing to do.  We stand up as an organization and say “Prove it.”  And some of us take that very far.  I would say that those who doubt the existence of global warming are now doubting the work of almost the entire scientific community, that they are doubting governments, they have become skeptical of everyone.  I would also say that at this point, they have become denialists.

I guess that, from my point of view, it comes back to Descartes.  From a logical point of view, the cogito paints us into a box.  The only thing we can say after that is, “Well… screw it.”  Although our senses are fragile, and we can’t know with certainty that anything is actually real, we still appear to live in a world governed by certain natural laws, and at a certain point, if we actually want to figure out how those laws seem to work, we need to, at the very least, act as though they’re real.  Every day, we have to make the assumption that the car we see exists so that we can avoid being hit by it, we need to assume that the window is actually stopping air from being transferred from outside in so that we can regulate the temperature of our rooms, we have to make the assumption that the laws of cause and effect are still in place and that today, the world is still in the same relative shape as it was yesterday.

In the same way that we need to assume that the world exists, we have to assume that science works.  And this is the leap that the denialists do not take with us.  We need to assume that the consensus scientific opinion is going to be right almost always and that fringe that no one agrees with will most often be wrong.  When it comes to something like global warming, we are not all climatologists.  We don’t all have access to the cutting edge data, we don’t all have the training to understand what it means.  And even if you are a climatologist, if you see one thing and everyone else sees another, you have to open to the possibility that it is you who are wrong, and not everybody else.

That’s what we need to avoid the solipsistic trap.  We need openness.  We need to avoid hostility towards those with divergent viewpoints.  We need to be able to trust that the scientific process works.  Otherwise, all that we can know is that if we think, then there’s something which we are a part of that exists.

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3 Responses to “Global Warming, Denialism, and Solipsism”

  1. Lisa Bauer Says:

    I have seen this quote, part of the Barnes & Noble/Columbia “Train of Thought” series. I’ve had it on my mind lately, and your article I think properly and beautifully expounds on the idea.

    “To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the need for thought.”

    Poincare, Science and Hypothesis, 1905

    I really enjoyed this piece. Thank you.

  2. Mary Mary Says:

    Great website. Well done. I will check back soon.

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