Lately I’ve been listening to a podcast by Australian comedian Wil Anderson called Wilosophy. A key feature of this podcast is he asks other comedians and well-known people if they have a philosophy that guides them, where they got it, and how it guides their choices/life. It’s great.
Here are some examples. The John Safran episode is wonderful and he shared his core life philosophy that “the sky doesn’t fall in”. TV personality and advertising executive Todd Sampson’s talked about many philosophies such as “the path you plan is the path you won’t follow” which suggests life to him is more about the unexpected and is radically contingent, rather than a planned, linear journey. Australian comedian Charlie Pickering’s philosophy is “never be intimidated by anyone”, which he says is a blessing and a curse. Adam Spencer offered “we should all play more chess” which referred to his love of chess, the benefits of having pursuits you can strive to improve at throughout your life, and the life lessons he argued you can draw from playing chess. Australian icon Dr Karl Kruszelnicki said his philosophy is “to liberate people from what holds them back”, which he developed when he started practicing medicine and then took into his science communication work.
Naturally it got me thinking about my own philosophies. Actually, I’ve had many varying philosophies over the years as my thinking has evolved. Nonetheless I do have guiding “philosophies” – here are some of the high-level principles or guiding ideas which currently inform my thinking/action:
Your beliefs shouldn’t be determined by your tribe(s)
I believe that it is often important to resist the tendency to take partisan positions on complex issues, e.g. the view/position that ‘people like me’ have on this issue/topic. Two reasons are that such positions are frequently based on partial or simplistic understandings and it can encourage partisan wars which are often an impediment to substantive social action. This philosophy is also based on sociological insights into the power that our social life has over the way we think and act. It is truly difficult – perhaps impossible – to be an independent thinker, but it’s often worth striving for.
Over the past decade I’ve also reflected more on the views that environmentalists or sustainability folk commonly hold. Over the years I’ve seen social pressures (or strong expectations) to hold particular views on everything from genetic engineering (against this, especially of food crops); peak oil (commonly seen as about to occur and heralding civilisational collapse); nuclear power (against this); organic food / farming (widely seen as an unmitigated good); 3D/additive printing technologies (typically for this, seeing it as a positive “revolution”); geoengineering techniques (strongly against); through to the current geological era which some term the “Anthropocene” (widely seen as a mostly bleak prospect). In some cases I see good grounds for holding these views; in others, the case for such views is much shakier (e.g. the evidence is mixed, or there are reasonable grounds for taking a different view).
This principle, or philosophy, is informed by related experiences. For example, in the climate change space I’ve encountered groups convinced that green capitalism is either the answer (to the problem), or that see capitalism as the main cause of the problem; and I’ve encountered other groups that are convinced that technical substitutes are all that’s needed to effectively address the problem, or that are convinced that a technology-centric approach is the wrong approach. I think these views are simplistic stories that are either partially or totally incorrect, but I see too little critical reflection.
I’ve also become more immersed in sociological research and theory which, for example, emphasises the ways in which humans are not autonomous beings. Social structures form contexts in which individuals think and act and often significantly shape thought and action in unconscious ways.
At a minimum this philosophy demands a commitment to critically evaluating the beliefs you pick up over-time (from friends, networks, groups, etc). Julia Galef calls this “epistemic spring cleaning”.
Be intellectually and morally consistent
Something that I find problematic is the way that environmentalists invoke scientific consensus and scientific authorities in one context and often ignore them in others. For example, the scientific consensus on global warming is emphasised (on this point I’m with them) but the strong scientific consensus on the safety of food produced by genetically modified organisms is largely ignored. I believe we should be intellectually consistent and give equal regard to both consensuses.
I also believe moral consistency is important. For example, it we see climate change as a significant problem then we ought to equally prioritise reducing emissions from energy production and use along with the greenhouse gas emissions generated by food production (e.g. beef production). Globally, emissions generated by agriculture are roughly the same as those from transport (e.g. road transport, air travel). However, the focus of protests tends to be on the opening of coal mines or ‘big oil’ and not on the opening of new cattle farms. This seems to me to be morally inconsistent. However, I also struggle with this, given that I still eat some dairy (dairy farms are a source of greenhouse gas emissions).
Deep pragmatism is often the best approach
The term “deep pragmatism” was proposed was Joshua Greene in his book Moral Tribes in relation to utilitarianism. He argues that utilitarianism takes pragmatism down to the level of first principles – that is, “a core commitment to doing whatever works best, whatever that turns out to be, and even if it goes against one’s tribal instincts” (p. 153). The last bit is crucial (see above). Human beings also frequently hang on to cherished ideas even if the evidence for them doesn’t stack up.
As a moral philosophy utilitarianism, properly understood, actually has a lot going for it. However, the sense in which I embrace deep pragmatism is generally a little bit different.
Take the example of modern air travel, which is an increasing contributor to climate change. Should air travel be reduced or should flying even be rationed as part of efforts to mitigate climate change? Should our lives become more local again (along with more ‘virtual’ travel)? Or should we prioritise the development of alternative fuels and technologies to limit the impact of aviation on the climate? There are strong moral arguments for the latter given, for example, people increasingly have globally ‘distributed’ families and social groups for which virtual (online) contact is insufficient. Travel is also source of happiness for many people (this is important from a utilitarian perspective which Greene notes is “about valuing all of the things whose absence would diminish our happiness”). There are also purely pragmatic reasons for favouring the development of alternative fuels and/or new flight technologies. Implementation of reduced or rationed air travel is likely to be extremely difficult and will have enormous social consequences. Significant “pushback” to – and the subsequent withdrawal of – such measures is quite likely. Achieving the same desired outcome (reduced greenhouse gas emissions as part of mitigating climate change) is likely to be easier through new fuels/technologies.
Don’t look for the answer – or expect there to be one (a lot of the time)
Something which I think frequently prevents action on social problems is that people are looking for the answer to a problem and search long and hard for this – a master solution, a “silver bullet”, etc. This can be a barrier to change, such as due to “paralysis by analysis”, rather than trying stuff out, expecting there to many partial, possible, potential “solutions” which need to be explored.
The reason I put solutions in inverted commas in the previous paragraph is that history shows us that “solutions” frequently end up creating new unanticipated problems, or aren’t as long-lasting as people hoped. So the process necessarily continues…
Reading the book The Big Ratchet by Ruth DeFries, which reviews the history of humanity’s efforts to sustainably feed itself and feed a growing population, contributed to this philosophy. It charts in revealing detail the varying ‘solutions’ that have been adopted and experimented with throughout human history. Based on this history DeFries argues that “there’s no endpoint. Nature finds a way to ensure that no solution is permanent” (p. 183). This is relevant to many aspects of sustainability.
Help ensure the word science is reserved for what is truly scientific
There’s a lot of bullshit in the world. Seemingly there’s more everyday. Ideally, words like science (or medicine, etc) should mean something and signify that which has a robust basis in evidence, has been reliably tested, and for which there is an underlying knowledge base (e.g. the medical sciences are grounded in theories like the germ theory of disease and so on). E.g. “climate science” means something; it means we’ve developed a scientific understanding of the Earth’s climate systems.
When people want something to have more legitimacy they often claim that it is a science or add the word science to its name. For example, it is frequently claimed that strategy is a science and not an art (for a powerful critique of this claim see the book Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman) or that economics is a science. Another example, this time from healthcare, is that at some universities you can do a degree in “chiropractic science”. The trouble is there is no good evidence that chiropractic treatments are effective for many problems it is often claimed to treat. Ridiculous… Similarly, other fields or academic disciplines which claim to be a ‘science’ shouldn’t be called sciences.
I refuse to add to this problem. It’s essential to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.
“If you open your mind too much your brain will fall out”
I got this from Tim Minchin (see this song) – hence the quotation marks – who stole it from someone else. It’s basically about how openness to new ideas/concepts needs to be balanced with a degree of skepticism. The trouble with open-mindedness is there’s a vast array of people peddling questionable claims and questionable products/services. People who don’t skeptically examine claims often get exploited and taken for a ride, or generally buy into ideas for which there is little evidence…
I’ve also always been fascinated by the weird things that people believe and why they believe them (see Michael Shermer’s great book on this topic).
Those are some of my “philosophies” – if you’ve read this far it’d be great to hear your thoughts or even some of your philosophies, too.