No Science Without Skepticism, Just Intolerance and Despotism

(a slightly different Italian version of the below has been published by Climate Monitor)

Skeptically-challenged AGWers are hardly the best examples of tolerance. Arguably, some among them don’t seem to be bothered with supporting dictatorships. If one talks to others, a barrage of insults will be fired back.

What if the underlying problem is exactly their rejection of the value of skeptical/ unorthodox / anti-dogmatic thinking?

And what if by that very rejection, they are actually revealing nasty undertones that risk placing AGW centuries against Science and against centuries of philosophical advances too, starting from the Enlightenment if not from the times of Ancient Greece?

That is one’s feeling having read an extraordinary page in Italy’s biggest business daily “Il Sole24Ore”, in particular in its separate Sunday section dedicated to cultural and scientific matters. In the Sunday, August 2 2009 edition, page 35 is an almost solid praise of skepticism, described as

  • a more reasonable approach to Knowledge (including “Scientific Knowledge” )
  • a defense shield against dogmatism and intolerance
  • an essential component to help one improve oneself from an ethical point of view.

That’s the skepticism that has reached us through the Enlightenment. Those that refuse skepticism in the realm of science then, and denigrate it, and recklessly rely on an “Unquestionable Authority“, they are ultimately placing themselves outside of Science itself, and outside of nearly four hundred years of philosophy if not more.

What is obvious is that the “skeptical attitude” of ancient and modern philosophers is antithetical to current fashionable AGW, where an incredibly dogmatic rigidity leads to cries of lese-majeste for example when anybody dares to doubt prophecis of upcoming catastrophes, or some of the conclusions of the latest IPCC report, or even the very dangers of anthropogenic climate change.

(All articles appear here in my own translation. Unfortunately they do not seem to be available on the internet)

Let’s start from Remo Bodei’s  “An Enlightenment to turn back on“. UCLA’s History of Philosophy Professor Bodei invites readers to rediscover some oft-forgotten aspects of the Enlightenment, such as being aware of the “limits of Reason“, and of the importance of a skeptical approach to Knowledge.

The Enlightenment has its firmest roots in modern skepticism represented by Bayle along the traditional lines of Pyrrhonism, Montaigne’s relativism, the achievements of Hobbes’s “New Science” and French libertinism. However, the Enlightenment emphasizes the “corrosive”and”destructive” nature of Reason, ready to doubt even of itself.

Bayle is Pierre Bayle, a famous-no-longer XIX-century French philosopher. Bayle considered knowledge as an endless process whose only “true source” is reality rather than formal logic. “General theories” are therefore impossible, and Bayle dedicates large swaths of his 1697 “Dictionnaire historique et critique” to sarcastically compare wisdom and stupidity in order to debunk seemingly unassailable “truths”. Because what is “true” today is almost certain to become “false” sometimes in the future.

As reported by Bodei, Pierre Bayle is also mentioned in the following diary entry by Italian maître-à-penser Giacomo Leopardi (“Zibaldone”, September 1, 1826):

Bayle’s argument that reason is an instrument of destruction rather than construction, applies very well. Indeed, it reminds me of what I have observed in other areas: that from the Renaissance onwards, and especially recently, the advances of the human spirit have consisted, and mostly consist, not in the discovery of positive truths, but of negative ones. In other words, progress has been achieved in knowing the falsehood of concepts in the recent or faraway past considered as solid truth, or in appreciating our ignorance of other concepts that we had presumed to know already […] And therefore the Ancients, in fields such as metaphysics, morality, and even in politics […] could be considered as more advanced than us, merely because they lived before certain “positive truth” claims and discoveries had been made, claims that we now try to shrug off slowly and with great effort […].

According to Leopardi, “to know” means “to discover which truth has now become false”, that is, “to learn more about our own ignorance”. And so as time progresses, we will know more and more, that is less and lesss, because each new “positive truth” will eventually join this paradoxical increase in the “knowledge of ignorance“.

It is customary at this stage to stop and wonder if all the above be an invitation to let go of Knowledge, since we will never be able to reach any “Truth“. But the answer can only be a resounding “No”. In fact, Bodei mentions “pyrrhonism“, the ideas of ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho, unwilling to choose between the existence (dogmatism) and the denial of existence (stoicism) of an Absolute Truth.

We can have opinions, but certainty and knowledge are impossible“, Pyrrho said. This would make it absurd to be offended by people having different opinions than ours. If anything, the skeptical invitation is to avoid all dogmatisms, even and perhaps especially those related to scientific discoveries, and to allow us instead the luxury of the possibility to change our mind.

It t all gets explained in Professor of Philosophy of Knowledge Nicla Vassallo’s “Who’s afraid of skepticism?

In ancient times skepticism was a practical, as well as theoretical attitude: doubt preserves us from the “dogmatic certainties” with which we conduct our lives, and provides us with greater happiness: the certainties crash as shipwrecks against rocks, whilst doubt allows us to suspend judgement, hence to lead a life sheltered from anxieties, and to reach a higher level of ethics through greater tolerance to different opinions.

Contemporary skepticism seems instead intent on something almost opposite, a purely theoretical concern against which only life can provide soothing… But is that really true? Even the theoretical application of modern / contemporary skepticism has relevant practical consequences: indeed, in order to be reasonable, we have take as legitimate only the “knowledge” that can pass the “skeptical challenge”. In other words, we can only defend what we say if we have the ability to reject the explanations of our beliefs that are compatible with their falsehoods.

For example, if we are not able to tell a rabbit from a hare, how can we claim to have seen a rabbit?

There is no sense, no legitimacy in claims that do not pass the obstacle represented by the virtuous “skeptical challenge”. So for example we can not take as incontrovertible dogma, or even as scientific knowledge, AGW claims that are compatible with everything and its opposite, able to explain the warming and then the cooling too, and any future heating and/or cooling.

That’s because if we are not able to tell a natural warming from an anthropogenic one, how can we then claim to have seen AGW?

Rigidity, dogmatism, the claim of possessing an absolute truth that no one may dare challenge, they all do not belong to the wise, the philosopher, the sensible person.

Neither can they be legitimate tools for the scientist.