— Foreign Policy (@ForeignPolicy) September 28, 2014
1. Science is (as far as we currently know) a sub-routine demarcated and defined by the Earth-system.
2. Climate science is, effectively, the science of the entire Earth-system.
3. Therefore, climate science is the science of the system that itself constitutes the very possibility of science. Climate science is science science.
I’m not a climate-change sceptic. But I am, to some extent, a science-sceptic.
This position, strange though it may be, allows me to ask: What, among all other factors, has persistently weakened the climate change case over the last 20-30 years, giving fuel and comfort to dyed-in-the-wool C-C deniers?
Two things, it seems to me:
(1) The compulsive invocation of scientific authority as a means of epistemic silencing. As in “the science is settled”–a remark that always seems to imply, in Bill Maher fashion, a silently-added “you moron.” The problem is that the climate-change science has been “settled,” over and over again, for decades now, and always with the same public performance of scientific authority within our culture. Doubters, who are supposed to be silenced once-and-for-all by each performance, are precisely empowered when it has to be reiterated. “You shut us up 10/15/20 years ago,” they can, correctly, say; “and in exactly the same terms. If the science wasn’t really settled then, why should we believe it’s settled now?” The epistemological serenity of climate-change science ends up looking like its ideological stupidity.
(2) The rush to apocalypse as an interpretative trope for the data. The story is never just “system x has undergone alteration y.” It is, rather, “system x is heading for an inevitable conclusion of alteration y in total breakdown z.” And when? Always, “soon.” It seems that climate-change scientists cannot resist making predictions of this kind; the internet is littered with mocking lists of the ones that have failed to come true. I suspect that we are dealing here with a hermeneutic tendency of modern natural science that goes very deep–which is why practicing scientists, in their unreflexive innocence, helplessly follow it. When it gets them into trouble, all they can do is repeat the trope once more–and/or, fall back on repeated invocations of their cultural authority (see (1)).
It would be much better for climate-change policy, and thus, for the world, if we could get some clarity on the historical and phenomenogical reasons for both (1) and (2).
A good starting-place might be in early-modern Paracelsianism and Neoplatonism, and in the emergence of modern natural science precisely and explicitly as an end-times knowledge.
Hey, somebody should write a book about that. Might be timely. Helpful, even.
But probably before that can happen all the humanities departments will be writing-centres for climate-change students.
It must be admitted that the present book is a hybrid, and perhaps an ungainly one. It is part intellectual history, part phenomenology, part philosophy of information, part (even) literary criticism. It is very likely that the resulting mash-up—as the kids were saying, recently, maybe—will tend to annoy people who are specialists in any of its elements. Even more likely, it will confuse people who are specialists in none of them. From both groups, I must ask forgiveness. Consider that hybridization, after all, has made all the running in the history of information technology. Who would have thought that cattle-ranching would have facilitated telephony, or that artillery fire would have produced IBM, or that your glasses would one day tell you the weather? More to the point, hybridization—synthesis—has at least since Kant made all the running in whatever it is we know about knowledge. In the end, the relationship between knowing and informing is what I want to talk about. I have trouble seeing, from my own confusion, where that talking stops.
Is anything not socially constructed?
If the answer is “yes,” then social-construction talk is revealed as a trivial foundationalism.
If the answer is “no,” then social-construction talk is revealed as just plain trivial.
So enough of that talk and all that longs to it.
(First paragraphs of my next book. I like them.)
In 2001, the American philosopher Hubert Dreyfus published On the Internet. The book continued the kind of work that Dreyfus had been doing throughout his career: debunking, from a pragmatic and phenomenological perspective, the hype surrounding emergent forms of information technology (IT). In this case, Dreyfus’s target was the chaotic organization, or rather disorganization, of what we then called the World Wide Web. It could be pretty frustrating, at the turn of the twenty-first century. As long as you knew what specific www you wanted, it worked fine (connection speeds aside). But if you only knew what general kind of site you wanted, the millenial internet was almost useless. An online search for information about tortoises, to use Dreyfus’s bookish but accurate example, might lead you to sites on pre-Socratic metaphysics (because a tortoise features prominently in Zeno’s famous Paradox). For Dreyfus, the failure of online search was predictable, rooted in the fundamental inability of computer networks, being merely syntactic (formal) engines, to capture the semantics (meanings) of the symbols they processed. A “tortoise” was a “tortoise” was a “tortoise” was a “tortoise” (…) as far as the web was concerned. What was worse, the amount of information available online was growing exponentially—into a wilderness of tortoises, within which it could only become harder and harder to find the specimen you wanted. The ineffectiveness of then-available search engines was an empirical matter, pegged even by their designers at about 30% precision. Dreyfus’s theoretical argument was to the effect that we had absolutely no reason to think that figure would improve. “One thing is sure,” Dreyfus concluded, grimly: “As the Web grows, Net users who leave their bodies behind and become dependent on syntactic Web crawlers and search engines will have to be resigned to picking through heaps of junk in the hope of sometimes finding the information they desire.”
In 2009, Dreyfus brought out a second edition of On the Internet. The revised first chapter draws a big red line through the original. For as Dreyfus freely and frankly acknowledges, his critique of less than a decade before was being undermined—in something like the etymological, fatal, sapper’s sense of that word—even as he was writing it. There was this computer scientist at Stanford called Terry Winograd, Dreyfus recalls; and he had a couple of bright graduate students (Larry and Sergei) working on the search problem. The young men realized that the meaningfulness of a given website for a specific search term could be quantified by clicks under that term. So, for example, if searches for “tortoise” yielded many clicks on a given zoological website (among those on the initial hitlist), that data counted as “votes” from the searching page for the clicked-on page. A page that received many such votes was “important” for the search term; the relative “importance” of the searching page could also be factored in; and the whole process would become stronger, in recursive (or self-reinforcing) fashion, every single time it was run. Out of these insights, the grad students built an algorithm. Around the algorithm, a program. Around the program, a search engine. And the rest, as they say, is now. The Dreyfus of 2009 makes no attempt to fold Google into any ongoing critique, reaching back to 2001. He just notes, baldly and a little glumly, that “pessimism has turned to optimism” in this area of computer science. He even gives Page and Brin, in the revised first chapter, the last word, to the effect that there is, after all, “a bright future for search.” The first chapter of On the Internet, 2nd edition, presents a rare instance of a brilliant, distinguished, and highly polemical scholar looking back over his own previous work—noting its falsification by the very forces he had attempted to critique—and finding that all he can say is: “Oh.”
“Because,” I should have said, “we aren’t just some things with intelligence in the world. We’re more like the world with intelligence in some things. You can no more abstract intelligence from the world than you can abstract existence from existents. What comes back from the abstraction, if anything, is something entirely different from what went into it.”
And he would have said: “Thanks, Dad.”
“I’m glad we had this talk. Now go read Being and Time.”