PHILOSOPHY

I first became interested in philosophy when I was working on my PhD in the late 1990s. Before I embarked on my PhD studies, I didn't know much about philosophy. I certainly didn't know that I had a philosophical perspective or that the perspective I held was quite widespread and was responsible for a lot of bad stuff going on in the world.

The first thing I learned was that a philosophical perspective is the set of intellectual ideas that underly each person's way of understanding themselves in the world. Each persons's philosophical perspective molds their thoughts and informs their actions. Because I didn't know there are many different philosophical perspectives I didn't try to analyze them. I simply took my own underlying ideas for granted. I didn't realize that other people have different sets of ideas.

After a lot of reading and discussion, I concluded that my philosphical perspective was platonistic positivist. The platonic part was that I thought there were ideas and truths out there - beyond my mind. The positivist part was that I thought I could use science to find them. This was odd, given that I was trying to keep on being the Catholic my parents had raised me to be. But I didn't believe the Credo. I reconciled this problem by thinking that the Christian faith is really just a metaphor for something more true - a platonic truth that I might one day discover.

I eventually concluded that my platonic positivist philosophical perspective was not tenable. There are no platonic truths out there waiting for some positivist science to find them. Although these ideas were stuck fast in my mind fromh years of reinforcing them through my brain synapses, little synapses of doubt were crepping in.

My university was very progressive. What they called "postmodern philosophy" was all the rage. This term has since been replaced by the term "continental philosophy."

  • One of the key ideas of continental philosophy is that knowledge is constructed in our minds. Because we all live different lives, we all have our own truths. In other words truth is influenced by our perspective. There is no one pure truth.
  • A second key idea is that a good criteria for thinking something is "the truth" is that it will be useful. But in sharing our truths we may be able to construct something more complex and useful - more pragmatic.
  • A third key idea is that people in power decide which set of ideas are the truth. It is commonly said that knowldege gives powere - but it is even more insightful to say that those in power determine what knowledge is.

    I concluded that my philosophical perspective was pragmatic constructivism. Platonic positivists who think that true knowledge is out there waiting to be discovered by science are mistaken.

  • More than a decade later, pragmatic constructivism is still my philosophical perspective. When I look back on my life, I can see where platonic positivism and pragmatic constructivism diverged and brought us to the place we are today. For example, I still remember the days before Rachel Carson. Everyone thought DDT was a great advance because it helped farmers produce more food. WW2 had just ended and we needed more food. When I read Carson's "A Silent Spring" I was truly shocked and amazed. I thought it was whole new scientific truth. However, although DDT was banned and the environmental movement came into action, many people did not really get the whole idea. People we now call "conservatives" could not understand that knowldege is continutally constructed and that we need to put our minds together to come up with pragmatic solutions. They could not believe that humans can harm the very environment that sustains them simply by being comfort seeking. They thought that limitless economic growth is both possible and desirable and that any science that does not proclaim infallible truth is not worth listening to. Unfortunately they have a lot of the power.

    Now that I am a pragmatic constructivist, I'm firmly rooted in the progressive ecological view of the earth started by Rachel Carson. I "know" that everything is inter-connected. I "know" that we are at the beginning of a anthropogenic climate change event that is changing everything about our planet. I "know" that I must do something about it but I don't know what. I "know" that, if we could all put our minds together and get our of the climate change denier rut, we could construct solutions - not "true" solutions but workable ones.

    Not every progressive person thinks of themselves as a pragmatic constuctivist. In fact, most have no idea that they even have a philosophical perspective because they have not had the opportunity to think about it. But those who understand that scientific theories must be constantly constructed and refined and who understand why scientific knowledge is always uncertain are well on their way.

    The big problem, as identified by the continental philosophers, is power. Who has the power to claim that they have the "true" knowledge? Most progressives know that the most widely held scientific theories tell us to stop burning fossil fuels and thus stop pouring ancient CO2 back into the atmosphere and ocean. But powerful "conservative" platonic positivists don't understand this. They don't know what scientific "theory" means. They don't understand that science must always be uncertain and incomplete. If science were not uncertain, it would be dogma and it would never advance. They are platonic positivist climate change deniers and they can't think any other way.

    So what can we do? Democracy is our greatest achievement. If used well, democracy can share the power and allow new knowledge to shine out. A big election is coming up in Canada. Power can change hands. If we vote wisely we can start to base our policies on science. If we don't we will be stuck with seductive belief that fossil fuels will last forever, the weather will soon get back to normal, and God will either fix things or take the righteous conservatives up in the great rapture.