Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Quest for Absolute Certainty

Even before the “settled science” of climate change became unsettled, the rhetoric gave it away.

Armed with little more than apocalyptic visions, politicians and pundits tried to force the American people to sign on to their reactionary environmentalist agenda. Second to no one in the realm of hysterical rhetoric, Paul Krugman screeched that anyone who doubted the science of climate change was committing treason against Mother Nature.

If the science was so certain, why rush to shut down discussion and debate? Wasn’t the climate change crowd indulging the worst in illiberal attitudes? All that was missing was the Inquisition.

As I reported in a post a few months ago, on the authority of no less a scientist than Richard Feynman, when it comes to science there is no absolute certainty.

Still, scientists who want to influence policy have gotten into the habit of saying that their opinion is settled science, and thus, that no one has a right to doubt it.

Things have gotten so bad that environmental scientist Daniel Botkin wrote: “I felt nostalgic for those times when even the greatest scientific minds admitted limits to what they knew. And when they recognized well that the key to the scientific method is
that it is a way of knowing in which you can never completely prove that something is absolutely true. Instead, the important idea about the method is that any statement, to be scientific, must be open to disproof, and a way of knowing how to disprove it exists.”

I have suggested that this obsession with absolute certainty feels like a quest to impose dogmatic truths.

A concept that becomes scientific fact must be subject, Botkin says, to proof. And it cannot be proven if it cannot be disproven.

He might be thinking of the global warmists who happily changed their dogma from global warming to climate change because they were afraid that people would believe that extremely cold weather cast doubt on their theories.

If you pretend that hot weather and cold weather are equally susceptible of confirming your hypothesis, then there is no such thing as a climatological occurrence that can disprove it. Thus, it is not science.

Here I am reminded of Karl Popper’s claim that psychoanalysis was not a science because it cannot be disproven.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes Popper’s reasoning: “…nothing could, even in principle, falsify psychoanalytic theories. These latter, Popper came to feel, have more in common with primitive myths than with genuine science. That is to say, he saw that what is apparently the chief source of strength of psychoanalysis, and the principal basis on which its claim to scientific status is grounded, viz. its capability to accommodate, and explain, every possible form of human behaviour, is in fact a critical weakness, for it entails that it is not, and could not be, genuinely predictive. Psychoanalytic theories by their nature are insufficiently precise to have negative implications, and so are immunised from experiential falsification.”

If no event or occurrence could ever prove a theory wrong, then it cannot be counted as scientific fact.

If you cannot set up an experiment which might have two different outcomes, one that proves your hypothesis and another that disproves it, the hypothesis cannot be scientific fact.

Given the strength of Popper’s argument, psychoanalysis should have gone the way of all pseudo-science.

For those who care about intellectual history, I will also point out that the concept of absolute certainty has a long and distinguished philosophical history.

Descartes established the groundwork for modern Idealism, especially the Franco-Germanic variety, when he set out in search of absolute certainty.

His quest was more epistemology than science. He wanted to find out what he could know with absolute certainty.

Descartes began by asking himself what he could doubt. He could doubt his perceptions and his sensations; he could doubt reality and experience. Eventually, he deduced that the only thing he could not doubt was that he doubted.

If he could doubt the his sensations, his perceptions, the real world, and human experience, he could not doubt that he was exercising his mental faculties in his doubtfest.

If he was doubting he was thinking, and he knew this to an absolute certainty. Descartes then made a bit of a leap of faith and declared that he himself was thinking and that, therefore, he was undoubtedly, a thinker. He famously concluded: I think, therefore I am.

I am not the most qualified to explain Cartesian philosophy to you today. I simply point out that anyone who wants to achieve absolute certainty will need to nullify personal experience and the real world.

Coming at the question from another angle, scientific fact cannot be known to an absolute certainty.

If you require absolute certainty you should forget about experience and experiments. Anything that is falsifiable is subject to doubt and you cannot gain absolute certainty if you allow a place for doubt.

Great Idealist philosophers never allow their deductions and ratiocinations to be disproven by mere facts. When they suggest policies, they never allow these policies to be judged by whether or not they work in the real world.

Unfortunately, later philosophers discovered that once you separate off the mind from reality, or, mind from body, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get back into the real world or the real body.

In philosophy, it’s called the mind/body problem.

This raises one more question: why would anyone want to arrive at a state of absolute certainty? Isn’t that the point at which you can banish dialogue, impose your will on other people, or, at least, shut them up?

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