The Trouble with Cartesians
I listened to an interesting monologue from a Climate Change denier the other day. It was supposed to be a dialogue but I figured I had more to learn by listening and in any event, it soon became clear that he was not the sort to allow for interruptions.
The problem wasn’t the strength of his arguments, the depth of his knowledge or the veracity of his facts, indeed, from his perspective, he was right.
And that’s the problem: the perspective.
What do I mean by perspective? I mean “mindset” - the much vaunted, but little understood “ ecological paradigm shift” you maybe have heard about.
See, from the point of view of a Cartesian thinker, it’s all about numbers, statistics, verifiability, and unanimous agreement. “Proof beyond a shadow of a doubt”.
For those of us who grew up being taught to think like good reductionistic Cartesians, that makes perfect sense.
This fellow kept pointing out that there was such and such a discrepancy in the science, that there wasn’t unanimity in the scientific community and that in any event, because we were looking at a complex non-linear system, there was no way to ever get the kind of rock solid measurements that would allow for verifiability and unanimity in the first place, so the jig was up from the get-go.
The challenge of debating a Cartesian is that there is always a next level of defense towards any argument you give them. On the few occasions that I tried to counter his facts with an opposing fact, he would retort with “ Yes, but what is the methodology used to arrive at that conclusion?” Then, even if I could describe in detail the nature of the methodology , he would then reply with, “Yes but the man behind that methodology is a known ( fill in the blank) Alcoholic, womanizer, nut bar, eco-freak etc. and so there can be no validity to his findings as he is invalidated as a human being ergo your counter-argument is false”.
(Mind you, methodology and verifiability were no impediment to his making egregious staements like “if we de-carbonize the economy 3 billion people will die”.
“Where do you get a cockamamie number like that”
“Oh, it’s WELL KNOWN FACT”.)
As you can see, it’s a no-win situation
But there is another perspective that has been emerging for quite some time now and it is to see things from a Whole-Systems point of view - Holistically, if you will....
Let’s start with a practical example. When it comes to complex, non-linear systems, like the human body or the planet’s climate, my friend was right: It is very difficult if not impossible to establish LINEAR cause and effect (a pre-requisite to Scientific truth). That is why scientists agree that one should base their conclusions not on perfect unanimity and incontrovertible, final truth, but rather on a body of evidence.
A rigorous Cartesian will see scientific truth as a chain where if any ONE link can be disproven, the whole chain is thought to be corrupted and the argument invalidated.
A whole-systems thinker will instead see scientific enquiry as, say, a Mayan hammock where if any one or several threads are proven false ( for after all, such is the path of scientific advancement - Two steps forward, one step back), the BODY of evidence, the hammock, remains nevertheless strong enough to support the conclusion - In this case that Climate Change is real, immediate, anthropomorphic and way worse than previous models indicated.
Another example would be the Tobacco trials of the 70’s when Tobacco executives placed their hands on the bible and swore to tell the truth before the Supreme Court and were not guilty of perjury even though, one after another, they contended that “the link between tobacco use and cancer was not proven”.
They were right.
There were, and are, and always will remain gaps, holes and obstacles to proving “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that smoking causes cancer.
Nevertheless, in spite of the Tobacco industry’s big-budget and dirty tricks, we, as a society agreed that the body of evidence outweighed the doubts and contrary “evidence”. And indeed, did so again with the even harder to prove notion of “second-hand” smoke
Smoking cigarettes is bad for the body, smoking oil is bad for the planet and to a Whole-Systems Thinker, that much is clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt.....