Archive for June, 2021

My words may have meaning, your parrot’s may too.

Monday, June 7th, 2021

A recent essay by Stephen Law in Psyche Ideas, entitled My words have meaning, your parrot’s do not. Wittgenstein explains, is forcing me into yet another diatribe in my ongoing love-hate relationship with “philosophy”.

A slogan often associated with the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is ‘meaning is use’. Here’s what Wittgenstein actually says:

For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’ – though not for all – this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

In order to appreciate the philosophical significance of this remark, let’s begin by looking at one of the key things that Wittgenstein is warning us against.

Suppose I say: ‘It’s hot today.’ So does a parrot. Saying the words is a process; for example, it can be done quickly or slowly.

However, unlike the parrot, I don’t just say something: I mean something.

OK. First I would say that the most important “philosophical significance” of W’s remark is not its content but its qualification “though not for all”. Would that philosophers were all so careful!

But by what right does Law say that the parrot’s utterance has no meaning?

And in that sentence, what is the meaning of “meaning”?

Suppose a parrot has been trained to squawk something that sounds vaguely like “It’s hot today” whenever the temperature exceeds 30C and “It’s cold today” when the temperature goes below 15C. Who is to say that the parrot doesn’t have some mental state which corresponds to a sensation of the temperature and prompts the appropriate response?

But even if it doesn’t – or if the parrot is replaced by a thermostat which triggers play of a recording of the appropriate sentence – the words still convey meaning to the listener.

Of course although the thermostat means something to me when it says “It’s hot today”, I think we can safely presume that it doesn’t mean something to itself. So if we interpret “I mean something” as meaning I have the intention of conveying information to another conscious entity, then perhaps when the parrot’s squawks “It’s hot today” it can be said to have no more meaning than when I make the same exclamation to myself when suffering the heat alone. But there is definitely a sense in which I do “mean” something by such an exclamation.

And with regard to the parrot’s capacity for “intent” I would suggest something like the following experiment:

Assuming that parrots are fearful of both cats and snakes but have different ways of responding to them, train a group of parrots to see a human associate the appropriate word with each kind of threat and then separately to copy a human saying the words “cat” and “snake”,  and then observe whether or not a parrot will imitate the human word in order to alert its mate or friend.

It may not work. But I can see no “philosophical” argument why it must be impossible.

Unless, of course, the parrot is dead.

Plastic Peril

Saturday, June 5th, 2021

From strangled seabirds to trapped turtles to the giant floating island and the discovery of nano-particles in the flesh of the fish we eat, we are all aware of the horrors of widely distributed plastic waste, and so it is only right that we refrain from the use of plastic bags and wrappings – at least so long as there is not an effective system of collection and consolidation of such waste. But I take issue with some of the ways this is interpreted.

As I learned from the latest (May 30) issue of The Village Green, an Australian group called the Minderoo Foundation has produced a report which names and shames the companies responsible for plastic pollution. But I am surprised by their emphasis on “the base of the supply chain that make ‘polymers’ – the building blocks of all plastics – almost exclusively from fossil fuels.”

The GHG emissions attributed to plastics by Zheng&Suh in a letter at Nature Climate Change(cited as a reference by Mindaroo) are mostly from the energy used in their production, and from the assumption that they will end life in incinerators (which are the same for all kinds of polymer source, since plant based polymers could otherwise serve as a Carbon sink if not used for plastics and then burned).

But a proper energy transition (which is essential in any case) should resolve the former, and the current practice of burning waste is certainly not what I would recommend as the most climate-friendly alternative. In fact, collecting and burying plastic waste seems to me to be a potentially significant means of carbon sequestration. So, contrary to many who expound on this topic, I would suggest that what we need to do is not reduce our use of plastics but rather increase it – with the proviso that all plastic waste be separated and stored in a secure burial place (such as may be provided, for example, by fossil carbon extraction – eg old coal mines and oil wells).

Please let me know if you see anything wrong in the above analysis.

The Village Green

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

My friend John Butler is back in fine form churning out issues of his wonderful newsletter on a regular basis.

His latest issue is a blockbuster – full of interesting, and sometimes challenging, content.

It starts with an account of local efforts to encourage pollinators in the Grey-Bruce area, but the ideas are relevant anywhere.

Next is news of a petition by the Ontario Clean Air Alliance calling for an end to gas-fired power plants in the province.

According to the Alliance, greenhouse gas pollution from Ontario’s gas-fired power plants will
increase by more than 300% by 2030, and by 500% or more by 2040 as the province uses gas
to replace aging nuclear plants and to meet growing demand for electricity from population
growth and increased electrification for electric cars and home heating.

And, yes, the emphasis was added by me to highlight my own pet peeve with those who claim that CO2 reduction is our absolutely primary concern while ruling out a possible solution without any serious attempt to weigh the relative risks.

Among other news, the same issue includes a report about the efforts at Squamish in BC to use electricity to produce fuel. In this instance it is by CO2 capture and reformation to produce a traditional hydrocarbon fuel (with the same net zero overall GHG effect as production of pure Hydrogen, but perhaps quicker adoptability into existing engines and systems). If this becomes economic – as eventually it must if we are to stop burning mined fuels – then it will place a huge demand on our electricity generation capacity, making full use of anything we can generate from (dare I say?) Site C, as well as any other non GHG sources such as wind, solar, and (dare I say?) nuclear.

And the article on ‘Assisted Colonization’ opens a huge can of worms. Not to mention the question of how we are more likely to assist species we find cute rather than ugly (or otherwise undesirable – I can’t wait for the campaign to “save the killer bees” when they are found to be being forced northward by excess temperatures in their previous homeland).

But we’re not even halfway through John’s latest issue yet!

There’s also an interesting set of reports about environmental progress in the Roman Catholic hierarchy (despite some blowback) to implement ideas expressed in pope Francis’ 2015 Laudato Si encyclical; and some less encouraging news from the Amazon with the slightly reassuring caveat that, with a better political will, “Brazil and other countries could become green superpowers, harnessing the Amazon’s natural wealth to export everything from sustainably cultivated cocoa, açai and fish to promising new inputs for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals”.

An extended discussion of a recent report from the Minderoo Foundation on plastic waste is something (like the nukes issue) about which I may have a rather contrarian position – but I’ll address that in a separate post.

Next comes a warning about the cyber-vulnerability of “smart” electrical power networks – which is something that we have just recently seen also applies to “dumb” hydrocarbon pipelines (though it’s hard to take too much comfort in the fact that the old world is just as vulnerable on that score as the new).

There is also much more in depth info about the big recent climate victories against Exxon and Shell, and a summary of the new Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health.

And then at last we get to the deep stuff!

In an essay on THE BANALITY OF CLIMATE EVIL John reinvestigates the question “Where does evil lie?”

Referencing Hannah Arendt and quoting a recent essay from something called the Centre for Contemplation and Action he draws parallels between the Eichmann of the holocaust and the corporate boardrooms of today.

The C4C&A essay quote ends with “As both Thomas Aquinas and C. S. Lewis taught, for evil to succeed, it must disguise itself as good, which is apparently much easier to do than we imagine.” I can’t resist noting that there is a delicious irony created in my mind between that sentiment and the famous line from American theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate, Steven Weinberg who once said, “With or without religiongood people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.” But leaving that aside, we are left with the dilemma of whether to accuse those who resist CO2 reduction of personal evil, or just of the error of having been confounded by the illusion of a purportedly greater good.

John takes this on directly with the following paragraph:

I have no quarrel with climate activists who choose to see “correct-incorrect” rather than “good-evil.” I understand that narrow moralization can burn people at the stake, figuratively and literally. Yet I believe in the importance of bearing witness to evil. I also believe that a reluctance to see or point to evil can lead one to become an impotent bystander at the edge of the unspeakable. I believe we need to make the unspeakable spoken

But he acknowledges “the risk of becoming the cult of the climate righteous” and quotes John Wesley, who put it well as a warning in his 1749 ‘A Plain Account of the People called Methodists’, where he expressed fear of “a narrowness of spirit, a party-zeal, a being straitened in our own bowels; that miserable bigotry which makes many so unready to believe that there is any work of God but among themselves.”

In the end John finds wisdom in an updated version of the old precept “Hate the sin but love the sinner” while acknowledging how difficult this often is to do.

And there’s more!

Many inspiring and relevant quotes and a selection of poetry round out each issue. Often we get a sample of John’s own verse but this time it’s a classic haiku and Victoria Sackville-West’s poem ‘Moonlight’.

In case you didn’t click on the link above, here’s another chance to check it out.