April 26, 2008
Accepting the PremisesBy Larrey Anderson
Have you seen it? Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi on TV to demand federal sponsorship of new forms of "clean" energy to combat what Gingrich calls, during the ad, "climate change." Notice, when you view the ad that Newt does not use the words "global warming." Does this mean that Gingrich will claim, at a later date, that his effort was actually some kind of clever PR ploy to snatch the issue away from the left?
Reality check for Speaker Gingrich: President Bush and Carl Rove have already tried it ... and failed. Their effort began with an EPA report to the UN that stated:
The report was issued in 2002-six years ago. So far, the President's brilliant plan ("brilliant" is meant sarcastically) to persuade the rest of the world to give up the Kyoto Protocol and replace it with voluntary emission standards has impressed no one but members of the Bush administration.
Rush Limbaugh has pointed out that the problem with the Bush and Gingrich approach (an approach shared by John McCain) is that political leaders on the right have accepted the premises of the global warming argument and then have tried to mollify or modify the conclusion drawn from those premises. Limbaugh is not a philosopher so he may or may not be aware of just how accurate and profound his understanding of this issue really is. In this article I want to explain what it means to "accept the premises" of the global warming argument (or, for that matter, to accept the premises of any argument). I will show that, to date, "accepting the premises" of global warming has had next to nothing to do with ameliorating the possible future effects of global warming and very little to do ... with logic.
In logic, the premises of an argument are a set of propositions, assumed to be true, from which the conclusion of the argument is drawn. (1) All men are mortal. (2) Socrates is a man. (3) Therefore, Socrates is mortal. (1) and (2) are the premises. (3) is the conclusion. If we assume that all men are mortal is true and if we assume that Socrates is a man is true, then it follows that Socrates is mortal is true.[i] Accepting the premises of an argument is different from accepting the conclusion of an argument. If I agree with assumptions (1) and (2) then I must agree with conclusion (3) -- or I contradict myself and look like a fool.
There is more. In his 1891 work, Philosophie der Arithmetik, Edmund Husserl became the first philosopher to fully articulate what, in hindsight, seems to be an obvious truth about the premises and the conclusion of any argument. The premises and conclusion of an argument are not related by cause and effect. Neither the premises, nor the conclusion, of an argument "happens" in space and time. The conclusion follows logically from its premises if the premises are true and if the premises and the conclusion are pertinent. The conclusion does not follow from the premises empirically. Here is (an overly) simple example of Husserl's point: every proficient baker knows that the temperature and length of time for baking a cake is affected by altitude and humidity, yet the recipe states, "Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes."
In short, we can say whatever we like about the world and the way it works. Our premises about how the world works might be true and they might be false. But the world will keep on working the way it really works in spite of what we, or politicians, or scientists, say about it.
Thus far we have learned (1) that premises are the assumptions from which we draw the conclusion of an argument, and (2) that the premises and the conclusion of an argument are not, empirically speaking, cause and effect. Let us now examine the premises, and the appropriate conclusion from those premises, that we can logically reach about global warming.
There are two major arguments about the nature of global warming; these arguments are often confused. There is an argument I will call the we did it argument and there is an argument I will call the let's fix it argument. The Bush administration's EPA report to the UN is an example of the we did it argument.
The we did it argument is much like the "Socrates is mortal" argument we saw above. (a) Greenhouse gases are accumulating in the earth's atmosphere. (b) Human activities put them there. (c) Therefore, global mean surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures are rising.
Is this true? Well, if (a) and (b) are both true then (c) is true. That's the way this thing called logic works. Are (a) and (b) true? They are not obviously true like "all men are mortal" and "Socrates is a man" are obviously true.[ii] But, let's go ahead and accept the premises that greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere and that we put them there and, thus, reach the conclusion: the world is getting warmer. The rational response to the we did it argument is not "My God! The world is about to end!" The rational response is "Now what?"
The EPA's statement about greenhouse gases could be absolutely true and it could also be true that the situation expressed by this statement is a good thing for humanity. Why do we assume that a warmer planet is a bad place for human beings to live? Melting ice? Even the most dramatic estimates put the sea level at no more than one foot higher than it is today.[iii]
The bulk of the land mass on this planet is closer to the north pole than it is to the equator-and much of that land is permafrost. Common sense might tell some one who took a close look at a globe that the earth could use a few degrees of warming up.
We keep hearing that the debate that the planet is warming up has now ended. Maybe so. But the debate that concludes that this warming up is unequivocally a bad thing has, to my knowledge, never occurred.
Here is the let's fix it argument: (x) Humanity has put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. (y) These gases have and will cause the temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans to rise. (z) Therefore, all industrial countries should be forced to drastically reduce their greenhouse emissions by radically reducing their use of carbon based energies and all emerging countries should either establish industries based on "clean" energies or purchase carbon offsets from industrialized countries.
The we did it argument is used as the premises (x and y) of the let's fix it argument. Let's fix it pushes for a specific response to the "crisis" of global warming. More important, we did it is presented as a physical cause that necessitates a very specific economic and political response to global warming. In fact, this specific let's fix it response is actually a fairly strange solution unless one assumes that the industrialized nations are responsible or "guilty" for causing global warming and should be economically punished in the effort to fix the problem.[iv]
The let's fix it approach is not so much an argument about global warming as it is an indictment of capitalism and the Western tradition of technical achievement and economic progress. The politicians who endorse the let's fix it argument as a solution to the warming of the earth have something other than "climate change" on their minds. They are really talking about redefining Western economics and culture. It is surprising that this philosophical truth about the logic behind global warming is rarely mentioned ... rarely mentioned except by that great American philosopher Rush Limbaugh who knows a fallacy in thinking based on the dyadic-relational theory of judgment when he sees it.
Larrey Anderson is a philosopher and writer living in Idaho. He can be reached at ldandersonbooks.com
[i] Philosophers do not know exactly what the words "then it follows" in that last phrase mean. The best guess is that "then it follows" means "we somehow know intuitively." The best discussion of this best guess is in Stanley Rosen's, The Elusiveness of the Ordinary, (Yale University Press, 2002), chapters 7 and 8.
[ii] The second premise, that human activities have contributed to the accumulation of greenhouse gases, is a question of magnitude. The magnitude of our (human) contribution to greenhouse gases is close to negligible and the amount of CO2 has been ten times higher, in days long gone, than it is today. Many species and naturally occurring phenomena release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than we do. But facts have never counted for much in the global warming debate, so I need not rehearse them here.
[iii] No respectable scientist believes Al Gore's estimates that put near future sea levels twenty feet higher than the present levels.
[iv] Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg has demonstrated how costly and misguided the let's fix it argument is in his new book Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming and Marc Sheppard has pointed out some of the political and economic fallout for America here at American Thinker.