On this blog, I don’t like to write about either politics (but here is an example) or religion (example here), because one of the main attractions of Stoicism, for me, is precisely that it is a big tent in both those areas: one can be a virtuous conservative or progressive, and similarly one can be religious or atheist and still practice the four cardinal virtues. When I do talk about these topics, it is only from a broad Stoic perspective, and making a very conscious effort to respect other people’s opinions. That said, of course, to welcome a variety of opinions under the same tent does not mean that one doesn’t have one’s own opinion, nor does it mean that one thinks all points of view are equally valid. It is therefore with great reluctance that I take up the topic of climate change which, while technically a scientific issue, has in fact become a highly divisive ideological one. But a fellow Stoic asked me to weigh in, partly because I am a scientist and philosopher of science, and therefore more acquainted with the details than many. So here we go.
To begin with, I will actually not present any detailed technical argument in favor of the notion of anthropogenic climate change (which I must state for full disclosure, I accept). There are several reasons for it, including: i) there are very, very good and accessible treatments of the matter already out there; ii) even though I’m a scientist, I’m not an atmospheric physicist, so it isn’t clear why my opinion on the technical matter should carry particular weight; and iii) this is a blog about Stoicism, not science per se.
Nevertheless, how should a Stoic tackle the issue of climate change, for instance in terms of deciding how to vote in an election where some candidates accept the notion and would push for legislation to address it, while other candidates reject it and would therefore oppose any such legislation?
We need to go back to the basics, and specifically to the relationship among the three topoi of logic, physics, and ethics, and also reconsider the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism.
Let me start with the latter. As I explained previously, the second century Stoic Hierocles summarized the concept of cosmopolitanism (which the Stoics inherited from the Cynics) by saying:
“Each of us is, as it were, [is] circumscribed by many circles; some of which are less, but others larger, and some comprehend, but others are comprehended, according to the different and unequal habitudes with respect to each other. For the first, indeed, and most proximate circle is that which everyone describes about his own mind as a centre, in which circle the body, and whatever is assumed for the sake of the body, are comprehended … The second from this, and which is at a greater distance from the centre, but comprehends the first circle, is that in which parents, brothers, wife, and children are arranged. The third circle from the centre is that which contains uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, and the children of brothers and sisters … Next to this is that which contains the common people, then that which comprehends those of the same tribe, afterwards that which contains the citizens; and then two other circles follow, one being the circle of those that dwell in the vicinity of the city, and the other, of those of the same province. But the outermost and greatest circle, and which comprehends all the other circles, is that of the whole human race … it is the province of him who strives to conduct himself properly in each of these connections to collect, in a certain respect, the circles, as it were, to one centre, and always to endeavour earnestly to transfer himself from the comprehending circles to the several particulars which they comprehend.”
To put it simply: we ought to give a crap about everyone on earth, from our close kin and friends to complete strangers on the other side of the globe.
To me this clearly implies that if we have good reasons to believe that the earth’s climate is changing for the worst as a result of our own actions, then we have a moral duty to intervene. I hope that even those people who reject the premise would readily agree with the conditional itself.
But of course the crucial question is: do we have such reasons? How would a Stoic go about determining that? That’s where the interrelationship among logic, physics, and ethics comes into play.
It is for a very good reason that the Stoic curriculum included the three topoi, as Diogenes Laertius reminded us: “[the Stoics] liken Philosophy to a fertile field: Logic being the encircling fence, Ethics the crop, Physics the soil or the trees.” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book VII)
Logic was the study of sound reasoning, which was broader than the modern meaning of the word “logic,” as it included also epistemology (i.e., a theory of knowledge), what we would today call cognitive science, and even rhetoric (the art of persuading others to accept certain ideas). In terms of the topic at hand, then, we need to make sure that we are reasoning correctly, which means first and foremost to engage in a serious analysis of our own biases and potentially logically fallacious reasoning.
And speaking of logical fallacies, one thing that I have often seen come up in the context of discussions of climate change, is the frequent throwing around of accusations of engaging in so-called informal logical fallacies. For instance, someone who denies the notion of anthropogenic climate change may try to deflect the criticism that it is the oil and coal industries that are most vehemently opposed to it by charging their opponents of committing a genetic fallacy: dismissing an argument on the sole basis of the character or interests of whoever is advancing it. Just because the oil and coal industries have a vested interest in keeping things as they are, the argument goes, it doesn’t mean that their criticism of climate change research ought to be dismissed out of hand.
This is certainly true, as far as it goes, but the genetic fallacy — like almost all informal logical fallacies — may in some cases actually embody perfectly acceptable reasoning based on pragmatic heuristics. For instance, it is in general a good idea to at the least be skeptical of someone’s arguments if it turns out that that someone has a personal stake in the matter under debate. If you know that a person has something to gain financially, say, from a given transaction, you will be well served to be cautious before accepting his “disinterested” advice. So while invoking the genetic fallacy does serve the purpose of reminding one’s opponent that industry positions cannot be automatically ignored, it is also true that it is perfectly reasonable to be at the least somewhat suspicious of those positions.
Another example would be that of a proponent of climate change who says something along the lines of “NASA accepts the notion, and that’s good enough for me.” He is opening himself to a charge of argument from authority. And it is certainly the case that, ideally, we shouldn’t accept something only because someone in position of authority (real or imagined) said it. But it is nonetheless true that NASA is a professional organization employing lots of people who understand atmospheric physics much better than you or I do, so it is rational to give their opinion more weight than our own or that of unqualified third parties. This isn’t earth shattering logic: it is precisely what you do when you bring your car to a mechanic, or entrust your teeth to a dentist. You assume, reasonably, that people who specialize in car mechanics or dentistry are a better — while certainly not infallible — choice than a random guy from the street.
(For interested readers, I co-wrote a paper on this kind of misuse of informal logical fallacies.)
Let’s move on to the relevance of studying Stoic physics. That term was, of course, much more comprehensive than it is today, including all the natural sciences as well as metaphysics. The Stoics thought that in order to know how to live a eudaimonic life (the object of study of their ethics) one has not only to make sure that one’s “ruling faculty” works properly (see logic), but also that one has the best possible understanding of the way the world works.
The problem, in the case of climate change, is that most people simply don’t have the necessary technical knowledge to truly follow the debate on a high level. Even so, at the very least, and regardless of whether you accept or reject the notion of climate change, if you wish to engage in discussions about it, you should try to do some reasonable amount of homework and get a grasp of the basic concepts of atmospheric science, the mechanics of the greenhouse effect, and the purported reasons why so many scientists think anthropogenic climate change is a reality. If you cannot clearly explain these concepts to someone else, then I suggest you do not have a sufficient command of the basic issues, and should therefore abstain from engaging in discussions — on one side or the other.
The latter situation will likely apply to most people. We conduct busy lives, and atmospheric physics isn’t exactly easy to assimilate. And even if we do assimilate an elementary version of it, that still doesn’t put us on a par with actual experts. Then what? To help out the presumably many people who find themselves in this situation, here is an excerpt from a paper soon to be published in the journal Theoria that I co-authored with Stefaan Blancke and Maarten Boudry, from the section entitled “Distinguishing experts from non-experts”:
“Alvin Goldman has argued that, even though novices or lay people do not have epistemic access to a particular domain of knowledge, they can rely on ﬁve sources of evidence to ﬁnd out which experts they can trust. Firstly, one can check the arguments that experts bring to the discussion. Lay people may not be able to grasp the arguments directly, but they can check for what Goldman calls ‘dialectical superiority.’ This does not simply mean that one looks for the best debater – although debating skills can certainly add to the impression that one is an expert – but that one keeps track of the extent to which an alleged expert is capable of debunking or rebutting the opponent’s claims. Secondly, a novice can check whether and to what extent other experts in that ﬁeld support a given (alleged) expert’s propositions. It will be more reasonable to follow an expert’s opinion if it is in line with the consensus. Thirdly, lay people can distinguish between experts on the basis of meta-expertise, in the form of credentials such as diplomas and work experience. For example, an expert with a PhD in a relevant ﬁeld can in general be considered to be more reliable – ceteris paribus – than an amateur. Fourthly, a novice can check for biases and interests that affect an expert’s judgement. If an expert has a stake in defending a particular position, it will raise the suspicion that he is not interested in providing correct information, which will undermine his credibility. Of course, nobody can be free of biases, which also counts for scientists. Hence, the question is not whether there is bias (there always is), but how much, where it comes from, and how one can become aware of and correct it. Fifthly, a novice can assess an expert’s past track record. The more an expert has been right in the past, the more he has demonstrated that he has indeed access to some expert domain. As such, he will probably be right again in the future.”
(A link to the full paper by Goldman is here.)
So to recap, here is what a good Stoic would do about the issue of climate change:
1. Logic: make sure you have a basic understanding of formal and informal logical reasoning, paying particular attention to the fact, explained above, that so-called informal logical fallacies sometimes are not fallacious at all, so that you can’t simply mindlessly invoke them to shut down those who disagree with you.
2. Physics: make sure you have a good technical understanding of the issue, if possible. If not, try to at the least work your way up to the level of a reasonably well-informed novice. Unless you are an expert, though, seriously consider implementing Goldman’s guide to the five sources of evidence for how to judge reliable expertise.
3. Ethics: reflect on the meaning of the virtue of justice, as well as on the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism and on the specific approach suggested by Hierocles. Use these tools to seriously ponder what the best thing to do would be for humanity at large.
4. Take a position in good conscience, based on the best reasoning and evidence that is available to you.