I’m reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. I really like the book so far. For example, I liked what he had to say in a chapter on what he calls the humanitarian revolution in human history, in which humans came to treat their conspecifics with less violence. He talks about two factors in the decline in “institutionalized superstitious killing, whether in human sacrifice, blood libel, or witch persecution”:

One is intellectual: the realization that some events, even those with profound personal significance, must be attributed to impersonal physical forces and raw chance rather than the designs of other conscious beings. A great principle of moral advancement, on a par with “Love thy neighbor” and “All men are created equal,” is the one on the bumper sticker: “Shit happens.”

(The other factor, incidentally, is “an increased valuation of human life and happiness”—including that of other people.)

3 Comments

  1. Isn’t that great…society was improved by accepting the scientific fact that your neighbor’s poor behavior did not cause the tornado that leveled your house. Now we are struggling to teach society that your neighbor’s poor behavior actually did contribute to the tornado that leveled your house, but it was nothing personal.

  2. I think actually what I’m hoping society will learn is that action from everyone is required to address the problem of climate change, and that some problems are big enough to require that kind of concerted effort (including strong government involvement at pretty much all levels). What I really like is the point that it’s a physical problem (too much carbon in the atmosphere, in this case) rather than that someone put a hex on you or is consorting with the devil. Burning the neighbor at the stake is not going to help anything.

  3. But that is precisely where science fails. You posit that global warming is caused by carbon in the atmosphere. You seem to imply that it is also caused by the failure of people or governments to regulate their own behavior.

    It’s pretty easy to see that the real cause is the industrial revolution, but that brings up a bunch of interestingly useless questions: Could we have had the industrial revolution without fossil fuels? Could we have had the enlightenment without leading to an industrial revolution? Could we have had the enlightenment without the rennaissance, or the rennaissance without the dark ages? Could we have had a rennaissance without the dark ages if we hadn’t had Catholicism?

    The answer to all of these questions is, of course, no. History can only happen the way it has already happened. If you insist on contemplating them regardless, then the question becomes one of theology.

    A complicated whole led us to pump carbon from the ground into the atmosphere. A complicated whole will eventually lead us to stop it. Isolated analyses are next to useless. Any government which attempts to solve the problem by well-intentioned rational fiat will have to be willing to take grossly violent actions, or it will simply not be effective.

    Analogy time: your car doesn’t run, because there isn’t enough pressure in one of the pistons. No, it’s because your car’s computer isn’t flexible enough to be able to adjust to one non-pressured piston (which is certainly physically possible). But maybe instead of re-inventing the control software to run in the degraded mode, we could more productively observe that the car is broken because an exhaust valve got mangled. Well, that might help us fix it in the immediate, but in the long-term I don’t think it got at the real cause of the problem. Actually the cause of the problem is that you red-line the engine before shifting up, and this over-revving has mangled the valve. So stop red-lining the engine! But even that is not even remotely complete — you also haven’t changed the oil in 50,000 miles.

    Here’s a well-understood physical system with an extraordinarily well-defined goal, and yet still there is a ton of philosophical ambiguity about “cause”, to such an extent that it can be practically difficult to figure out a reasonable resolution: stop driving so fast, change your oil sometimes, and listen to your car when it makes funny noises. Or maybe you should just switch to leasing, so when your car breaks you can just trade it in for another one.

    Our knowledge of climate change is at that point where we are saying, “I’ve got it! The pressure is low because the valve is stuck open,” but anything we can do that approaches a meaningful understanding of a humane solution to the problem introduces so many unknowns that the way we manage our unknowns (“faith”) completely drowns out any scientificly-acquired knowledge. We haven’t even got but the vaguest notion of what a “properly-functioning” post-industrial society would look like.

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