Thursday, 20 December 2012

Stepping into Rivers

To say that everything changes would hardly be an original comment. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (circa 535-475 BC) supposedly said, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ He also said much the same thing in another way: ‘Everything flows, nothing stands still.’

One of the biggest concerns and controversies of our time is the issue of climate change. As I understand it, there is an almost universal concensus among scientists (in the relevant fields) that climate change is happening and that it is caused by human activity – the burning of fossel fuels to bring much needed energy to our modern human societies is leading to massive environmental destruction brought about by ‘global warming’.

There are, of course, those who deny this, those who simply do not believe what the majority of climate change scientists tell us. Many of these people are willing to accept that climate change is indeed taking place, but they deny that it has a human cause. After all, some of them say, our planet has a history of climate change dating back long before human beings walked the earth.

I started this piece by quoting a philosopher, and I’m very tempted to carry on in a philosophical vein by talking about a branch of philosophy called ‘epistemology’ (that’s a good word to slip into any conversation!). Epistemology is to do with the theory of knowledge. It asks, How do we know what we know? For those of us who are convinced that climate change is indeed caused by human beings, the obvious question is, How do we know? The same question applies to those of us who are just as convinced that climate change does not have a human cause. How do we know?

If you are a scientist who specialises in climage change, you can make careful observations, compare them, and then try to develop a theory. You can then test that theory by making further observations to see if there’s anything happening that might prove it wrong. But if you continue to observe the same patterns repeatedly with no exceptions (if you establish an ‘empirical regularity’), then you can be pretty sure that your theory is right.

But, there is a problem. Did you do all this work on your own? Did you conduct all the observations yourself? Did you do all the analysis of these observations yourself? Or did you have to rely to some extent on work undertaken by other scientists or technicians, work that you weren’t in a position to supervise personally? If it’s the latter, then you only know what you know because you are convinced by the work of other people. And that is the same for all of us. In most cases, we only know what we know because we are convinced by what other people have told us. We are not always (or even usually) able to test things out for ourselves.

For what it’s worth, I am convinced that the changes currently taking place in the world’s climate are indeed a reality and that human behaviour is responsible. But how do I know? That fact is, I don’t know, I’m just sufficiently persuaded to accept what a particular kind of authoritative figure tells me. (I also think it’s not worth taking a chance over something so potentially catastrophic.) For someone who denies climate change, the situation is pretty much the same. The denier doesn’t actually know that climate change is false, he or she just happens to be persuaded by the arguments of a different kind of authoritative figure.

But, as Hereclitus said, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ Hereclitus knew this (I assume) because he had experienced or observed it (or something similar) for himself. ‘And this I knew experimentally,’ said the seventeenth century figure George Fox. He was speaking of personal religious ‘revelation’ (not the sort of thing you can prove to anyone else), and he knew what he knew ‘experimentally’. Like Hereclitus (so I assume), Fox was convinced by something because he had experienced or observed it for himself; he was not convinced because someone else had told him what to believe.

In fact, we all know about change ‘experimentally’ (or so I’m told!). We may not know very much about climate change – apart from seasonal variations – but we do know about change in general. Change happens. It’s reliable. We know this experimentally.

Given the often difficult subject matter I try to address in my writing, I find it very encouraging that the one thing that we can all rely on is change: some things may deteriorate and get worse, but there are many things that can develop and improve.

Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press
ISBN 978-1-906628-21-5

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