In Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes identifies three important Philosophical motifs: (1) the nature of methodical doubt (What is doubt); (2) the Substance of methodical doubt, i.e., what can be called into doubt and when (When and what to doubt); and (3) how to doubt.
Descartes, in his first Meditation, establishes the nature of doubt as a means to epistemic certainty, whereby some reasoner maybe given “to establish…stable” and enduring knowledge (para 18). To this end, Descartes further informs that doubt assumes nothing is true that is “not completely certain and indubitable” (para 18);
The substance of doubt concerns that which may or may not be doubted. For instance, Descartes asserts there must “at least be some reason for doubt”, and thus conflates the applicability of doubt to matters that are uncertain and yet to be reasonably demonstrated. To this regard, sensory information– gathered through sensory perception, e.g., sight or the eyes; scent or the nose, sound hearing through the ears, touch–may be reasonably called into doubt simply because the senses are unreliable: “ Whatever I have accepted until now as most true has come to me through my senses. But occasionally I have found that they have deceived me, and it is unwise to trust completely those who have deceived us even once” (para 18). In this way, Descartes makes important a priori/priori distinctions, such that a priori or deductive propositions are largely outside of the bounds of rational doubt simply because a priori propositions do not rely on sensory observation to be asserted or proved. To further illustrate this point, Descartes asserts that “arithmetic, geometry, and other studies of the simplest and most general things” notwithstanding actuality, are “certain and indubitable” and thus beyond reasonable doubt (para 18).
Descartes’s method for doubt is seemingly simple. In explicating how one should doubt, Descartes first narrows the scope of what is doubtable. For example, Descartes says it would be improbable to show that “all beliefs are false…,” alternatively, the Cartesian method of doubt, rather than examine every possible belief, “withhold[s] assent from propositions that are obviously false,” instead focuses only on those underlying foundational (general) principles of the information being so doubted (para 19). In other words, “once the foundations of a building have been undermined, the rest collapses of its own accord” (para 18). And thus, the Cartesian method for doubt supposes the object of reasonable doubt is assumed to be “utterly false and imaginary” until reasonably justified (para 20).
These three motifs: what doubt is, what and when to doubt, and how to doubt said thing, have implications concerning contemporary beliefs like climate change and climate change denial. Descartes, in assuming nothing is true, seemingly rejects the whole of man’s knowledge, and seems superficially, in agreement with contemporary climate change deniers, who maintain that anthropogenic climate change cannot be asserted as scientific fact.
II. Contemporary Implications of Cartesian Doubt
In our own time, contemporary skeptics have taken notions of Cartesian doubt far beyond their original scope as presented in the Meditations; using skepticism as a means to obfuscate and derail, rather than to elucidate and reinforce the certainty and credibility of modern science.
Before we can consider further the Cartesian implications of doubt in the contemporary debate about climate change, it may first be helpful to define the terms and concepts central to the discussion thereof. As such, throughout this paper, doubt/skepticism will refer to that method established by Descartes in the Meditations, whereby our knowledge of the truth of what we know, is assumed to be false, then assiduously demonstrated as true (Descartes, para 12). Furthermore, climate change, in this instance, refers to human caused (anthropogenic) heating of the planet through an excessive accumulation of greenhouse gases in earth’s atmosphere. Climate change denial, then, is the intentional misrepresentation of scientific fact or “climate change.”
A. Important Distinctions:
Catriona McKinnon, in the article “Should We Tolerate Climate Change Denial,” assists in making important distinctions pursuant to the issue of doubt and climate change. McKinnon’s analysis is conducive for making nuanced distinctions between healthy skepticism and what is termed “climate denial.” Concerning the former, McKinnon informs that the “aspects of climate science that lie within the range of normal and healthy disciplinary disagreement” are indicative of healthy scientific discourse (McKinnon 205); whereas climate denial refers to “the deliberate and deceptive misrepresentation of the scientific realities of climate change, such as the fact that climate change is happening, its anthropogenic causes, and its damaging impacts” (205). In this way, climate change denial exceeds the bounds of Cartesian doubt. For, if the aim and intent of Cartesian doubt resolves to bolster, rather that erode certainty and credibility regarding human knowledge, by, in Descartes’ words in Meditations “…making it impossible for us to doubt any further those things that we later discover to be true”, climate denial, then, by virtue of the denial, rather than the confirmation of truth, is impertinent to the goals of Cartesian doubt (Descartes para 12).
Not all skepticism, as it regards anthropogenic climate change, is unreasonable. Consequently, pervading doubts about climate change, as Steven Dutch informs in “Climate Change Skeptics,” there are varying degrees of skepticism which may be described as legitimate and illegitimate; moreover, many scientists who accept the fact the anthropomorphic climate change is occurring, are nevertheless mistakenly “described in the media as skeptics…” when they “…are merely describing problems that are common in knowledge in the scientific community” (Dutch 1). For example, legitimate doubt might voice concerns about data and data interpretation, without doubting that climate change is occurring. These concerns may identify “features not adequately modeled by climate studies, or may, perhaps, doubt the “validity of computer climate modeling” or even “how to link recent quantitative measurements with older historical and prehistoric climate indicators”, are all examples of legitimate doubt within the bound of Cartesian Skepticism (Dutch 1). On the other hand, extreme skeptics doubt that anthropogenic climate change as a matter of fact. Subsequently, climate-deniers may question or “[claim] that the warming of the climate might actually be beneficial,” or “claims that the earth is actually cooling, or has begun to cool after a warming period,” or “claims that attempts to halt or even reverse climate change would impose unacceptable economic or political costs,” and are all indicative of extreme doubt, that lie outside of the Cartesian method.
B. The Greenhouse Effect:
Woods Hole Research Center informs that “understanding the greenhouse effect is the first step to understanding how climate change is affecting our planet” (2018). To this end, the greenhouse effect refers to the natural process of solar energy heating the earth through radiation. A portion of the incoming solar radiation is absorbed in earth’s atmosphere by gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, and other gases. In turn, the unabsorbed solar energy is reflected back into outer space. The absorption of solar energy by atmospheric gases allows the earth to sustain a temperate climate, by acting as “…a blanket around the planet, keeping the heat in,” thus, enabling the earth to support life (Woods Hole Research Center, 2018). While the greenhouse effect is necessary to sustain life on earth, “Too great a concentration of greenhouse gases can have dramatic effects on climate,” and subsequently, the increased presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere corresponds with an overall increase in atmospheric temperature.
C. Anthropogenic Climate Change
Consequently, anthropogenic climate change refers to changes in climate that are caused by human actions; furthermore, McKinnon informs that “97 percent of peer-reviewed articles published between 1991 and 2011 taking a position on climate change assert that it is happening and that it is anthropogenic” (McKinnon 206). Anthropogenic climate change, as a matter of fact, identifies human action as the cause of climate change, by exacerbating the greenhouse-effect through an increase in the saturation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Additionally, there are matters pursuant to anthropomorphic climate change that Dutch informs, are “settled beyond debate,” such as the fact that “the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased since the start of the Industrial Revolution (roughly since 1750)” (Dutch 2).
Instances as such suggest that outright climate change deniers are more interested in undermining the validity and credibility of scientific investigation, rather than offering pointed and valid critiques to make scientific inquiry more accurate and more certain.
Climate denial in contemporary society is largely at odds with the Cartesian programme for doubt. Evidence of this fact is clear when Descartes enlightens that permissible doubt arises out of “valid and considered reasons” rather than “of frivolity or lack of forethought” (Descartes papra 21), further coupled with the assertion that Descartes calls for the “rejection of all…opinions…,” rather than facts, suggests that the extreme forms of doubt, which culminate into an outright denial of anthropogenic climate change, are at best, ostensibly, at odds with the scope and method of Cartesian doubt (para 18).
Descartes, René, and Donald A. Cress. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First
Philosophy. Hackett Publ, 1998.
Dutch, Steven I. “Climate Change Skeptics.” Salem Press Encyclopedia of Science, 2013.
McKinnon, Catriona. “Should We Tolerate Climate Change Denial?.” Midwest Studies in
Philosophy, vol. 40, no. 1, Sept. 2016, pp. 205-216. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/misp.12056.
The Greenhouse Effect. Photo. http://whrc.org/publications-data/understanding-climate-change- a-primer/
Changes in Greenhouse Gases. https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/tssts-2-1-