Facts and values: On science, ethics and climate

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As someone who has greatly admired Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog at the New York Times, I very much enjoyed reading the story about his life’s journey in the world of journalism and science communication that was recently published in Issues in Science and Technology. However, I took issue with one of the claims he makes about science.

Revkin claims, as if it were self-evident, that a major hurdle in our response to climate change is that “science doesn’t tell you what to do”. He then invokes the “is-ought” problem coined by the 18th-century philosopher David Hume which states that no description about the way the world is (facts) can tell us what we ought to do (values). I would argue, however, that this separation between facts and values is a myth. Values are reducible to specific kinds of facts: facts related to the experience and well-being of conscious creatures. There are, in fact, scientific truths to be known about human values (a view defended most notably by the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values). Continue reading

Nature is Enough

The Chirp Heard Across the Universe” (editorial, Feb. 16), about the recent discovery of the gravitational waves that were predicted by Einstein a century ago, asks, “Does science, or knowledge, really need a justification?”

The answer, of course, is no. But in a culture that has become saturated with the idea that only commercial value matters, we’ve become afraid of expressing an impulse as natural and basic as this.

Much like literature, music, philosophy and art, enjoyment of the natural sciences — and of nature itself — has intrinsic value. No further justification is required. Curiosity, wonder and beauty are enough.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Mixing Islam and politics

Re “How Politics has poisoned Islam” (Opinion, Feb. 4): Blaming “politics” for the conflicts we see around the Middle East and beyond is far too vague, simplistic and insufficient. It fails to explain the true nature of jihadist violence. Its root cause is an ideology that is steeped in theology, knows no borders, and extends across the entire socioeconomic spectrum.

Beliefs matter. When jihadists and their supporters tell us that they are compelled to act based on their beliefs about the metaphysics of Paradise, martyrdom, apostasy, blasphemy and honor we should take them at their word.

Countering jihadist violence requires intellectual honesty. Secular and moderate Muslims need to reform the faith by first being honest about the very doctrines that are in need of reform. They need to stand up for liberal and pluralistic values, not by obfuscating Islamist ideology, but by publicly acknowledging the central role that it plays in the worldview of the jihadists and their supporters. Furthermore, my fellow secular liberals must not conflate criticism of specific ideas with bigotry against people.

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Note: This was published as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Can’t put a price on the wonder of nature

I share George Monbiot’s concern about attempts by some to “put a price on nature” by introducing financial tools such as “biodiversity offsetting” and by monetising ecosystem services (Nature Studies, 17 November). The term “ecosystem services” presumes that natural systems and processes can be quantified merely by the extent with which they provide a service to Homo sapiens.

These metrics can be useful in the proper context; but reducing the living world to its monetary value runs the risk of diminishing its intrinsic value, one that cannot be quantified. I think most people would agree that they aren’t moved to protect the living world because of what it will do to their bank account; they care about it because of love, wonder, and beauty.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The Independent.

A rocker’s roll

Re: Neil Young says political leadership ‘trashed’ Canada

I share Neil Young’s criticism of a political leadership that has been directly and indirectly responsible for diminishing our environment and neglecting good governance.

I also agree with David Suzuki’s comments about how absurd it is that the environment was not an integral part of the economic debate in the campaign.

The economy and ecology are intimately related, but it is the economy that is a subset of ecology – not the other way around.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The Globe & Mail.

The Roots of a Crisis

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The Witness”, by Paul Kingsnorth, was sheer brilliance. Not because it provided good answers but because it asked deep and important questions: What is the nature of nature? Who decided that the planet should remain in a state that only humans find conducive? Is this not a form of clinging to something that is not fixed?

Once we remove illusions and see things as they are, we come to understand that the nature of reality is change. All “things” are actually just processes with no real ground to stand on. Nature is not only in flux, it is flux. Everything—from wind to cabbage to humans to dinosaurs to entire continents—is impermanent, interrelated, and empty.  Continue reading