– Rant # 164 –  


Suppose the world came into being five minutes ago, precisely as it was five minutes ago, with all those pseudo-history books on those shelves and all those pseudo-memories in our heads where we now find them. Everything we observe, including what’s on those shelves and in our heads, is fully compatible with this Five Minute Hypothesis or FMH. So there’s nothing we observe – there’s nothing we could observe – that would show that it’s false. Of course this doesn’t show that it’s true, and I’ve never claimed that it is. I’ve claimed only that if it were true, then this and this and this would follow.

My colleagues are idiots for thinking I’m the idiot for trotting out the FMH whenever I think it might do us yeoman service in helping us clean up our thinking. For example, if the FMH were true, then the aggravated wrongness of sexual assault on a child couldn’t lie in the age of the victim, since we’re all the same age. But since the truth of the FMH wouldn’t diminish that aggravation by one iota, it behooves us to locate where that aggravation properly lies. To suppose otherwise is to say that the aggravation hangs entirely on the falseness of the FMH, which is – or certainly let’s hope it is – utterly absurd. So the FMH is useful, indeed indispensible, for correcting those myriad cases of metonymy error where time is taken to be a reliable stand-in for some other property when in fact it’s not.

Now let’s direct our attention to that colossal and unconscionable waste of time and energy that makes up – get ready for it – the anthropogenic global warming (or AGW) debate. And let’s see if what the FMH can show us is the import of asking not whether climate change has been anthropogenic, but whether changing it back again can be.

That is, let’s suppose we’re the ones who broke it. Does it follow that we can fix it? No. Let’s suppose we had nothing to do with breaking it. Does it follow we can’t fix it? No. So what difference does it make whether we did or didn’t break it? Surely all that matters is whether we can or can’t fix it!

Let’s take it as a res judicata that there’s a change in the weather not to our liking. And to avoid having to defend any suppressed moral premises, let’s just say that by this ‘we’ we mean those of us in the barnyard for whom this change is not to our liking. We can acknowledge that there may be other chickens in the barnyard for whom this change is quite welcomed. But who gives a shit about them?! As Thomas Hobbes put it, “When two [fowl] desire [opposite] things which nonetheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies, and to this end … endeavor to destroy or subdue one another.” So let’s not worry about how many losers and how few winners there’ll be from global warming. As has always been the case since we emerged from the cave, we’re not trying to save the human race. We’re trying to save members of our own tribe. To pretend otherwise is to import into the debate premises which will only serve to multiply the nodes of contention.

Now then, let’s grant that AGW is true. (The so-called denialist doesn’t want me to grant this, but I’m going to show him it doesn’t matter, so relax!) Of course if the FMH were true, then AGW would have to be false. (Well, except for whatever change we could have wrought in the last five minutes.) But of what relevance would it be that AGW would be false? What would we do differently from what we’re doing right now, given that we currently believe the FMH is false and AGW is true, if we were to believe instead that the FMH is true and AGW is false? I can’t think of a single thing. Can you?

Well, you might answer, if the FMH were true, then any talk of liability would make no sense. But we do want to talk about liability.

All right, let’s talk about liability. And I take it we’re talking about strict liability, by which is meant liability that does not require intent, since it’s doubtful that those most responsible for the current state of the atmosphere had any idea how delicate it would prove to be. We could only be talking full liability – the moral equivalent of criminal liability in the law – if we’re talking about the last thirty years or so.

That said, some people argue that since we in the North and West are the principal beneficiaries of the spent carbon thrown into the atmosphere by our grandparents, parents, and older siblings, we should take upon ourselves the lion’s share of the burden of repairing the consequences of the negative externalities imposed by their behavior. And yet most proponents of AGW reject this argument. Why? Well, obviously because they don’t want to take upon themselves the lion’s share of the burden of repairing the consequences of these negative externalities. That’s just a duh. But to be more charitable, they also reject the argument because of the number and contentiousness of the premises that would have to be added to make the argument fly.

Such as?

Well, such as the Lockean Proviso, without which the argument can’t even get off the ground. And they’re right to reject the argument. Let’s take a look at it, as famously (or infamously) advanced in the chapter “On Property” in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government:

1) In the beginning God owned the world.

2) He then gave the world to Adam and all his descendants, not in shares but in common.

3) Pursuant to the logic of such a bequest, no one of us can use any part of the world without deferring to everyone else for its use. And so

4) this bequest must have been accompanied by an exclusion-conferring principle, a principle so indelibly inscribed onto our minds as to be self-evident to all who would but consult it.

And what is that self-evident principle? That

5) one can appropriate from the commons for her exclusive use that to which her labor adds value, provided she leaves as good and as much for others.

Locke thinks he can get (2) out of the Book of Genesis. And (3) and (4) seem reasonable enough given (1) and (2). But each of (1) and (5) could only have been pulled out of Locke’s ass. And understandably enough, proponents of giving the developing world a pass on future emissions controls do not want to hang their case on a brief pulled out of someone’s ass. Besides, if we’re going to give Africans and Asians and South Americans a pass because they were passed over as beneficiaries, shouldn’t we be offering the same pass to American blacks and Canadian aboriginals?

Look. If we want to give the disadvantaged a leg up – for which I am totally in favor – we needn’t appeal to some injustice, real or imagined, that was meted out in the past. There are plenty of what Robert Nozick calls patterned theories of distributive justice on the market, theories that make no mention at all of the past, the current favorite being John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. And so neither need we be realists about the past. So with respect to liability, any dispute between the FMH’s proponents and detractors will be utterly inert.

All right, then what about this? In chess, how I got myself into this pickle is irrelevant to what I should do now. But how we got into our current environmental crisis offers causal information that may help us get out of it.

Fair enough. But then the question is not whether we caused the change in the weather we’re unhappy with. Rather it’s, If we did it how did we do it? Or, what amounts to the same question, If there had yet to be such a change, how would we go about affecting it? But here’s the point. Neither of these two formulations of the question needs to presuppose AGW.

Nor need they presuppose that the FMH is false. Whether the FMH is true or not, the information we need will be found in the chicken scratches on the pages in those books on those shelves. And you’re going to rely on that information no matter how long you think those chicken scratches have been there. Why? Because you have no choice.

Put the FMH aside for a moment. You’ve read your Hume. You know you have no reason to suppose the future will resemble the past. Have you decided to try to get along without induction? No? You’ve read Nelson Goodman’s “The New Riddle of Induction”. You know about the under-determination of rule by data. Do you regard Christmas trees as no more likely to be green than grue? No? So if you came to believe the FMH is true, would every history book suddenly become fiction in your mind, and every science book fantasy? Of course not. Why not? Because you have no choice but to treat pseudo-history and pseudo-science, and so-called real history and real science, exactly the same.

For the 313th time, I am not a participant in any of the first-order debates about global warming, vaccine safety, Creationism, or any of the issues my colleagues down the hall clutch Gollum-like as their “Precious”. But it seems to me that if global warming really is as dire and urgent as these piccoli polli say it is, they should stop worrying about who broke the sky and turn their attention to how to fix it.

Hey, I’m just sayin’!

Categories: Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

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