The New Aristotelians

Bear in mind that my ancient philosophy is deeply unreliable; I’m just using NA as a label for a trait I think I can see amongst the “skeptic” folk one sees at WUWT and the like: an inability to abstract.

Let me try to explain that by example, in case it isn’t clear. To many people nowadays, with the success of science so obvious, the idea of abstracting problems isn’t difficult. If you need to consider the motion of a ball on a surface, you begin with an abstract perfect sphere on a perfectly flat surface and ignore friction. You can then learn about Newton’s laws of motion, about momentum, – that the ball moves in a straight line unless deflected or stopped by some force, and so on. If you like, you can consider the ball to be moving on a rotating planet, and discover exciting things about the Coriolis effect. Once you’ve done all that, then you can add back in all the effects – friction, non-uniformity, whatever – that you would need to actually find the path of the ball, considered as an engineering problem in, say, accurately computing its path in the real world.

The ancients (and I’m using A as an example because well known, possibly unfairly) didn’t do that abstraction, or didn’t begin with that abstraction, or it wasn’t clear to them that they needed to shuffle detail out of the way in order to understand. They were still trying to understand the whole world as it was. Which was why it was “obvious” to them that the first and most obvious property of moving objects was that they stopped moving once you stopped pushing them. An ox-cart rumbling down some rutted muddy path stopped when the oxen stopped pulling it; that was obvious, and the study of such was so mired in the nitty-gritty reality of the world that precious little progress was made until Galileo abstracted (I know, I know, I simplify: Oresme etc worked on the problem too and got some of the way there; but again, only by picking on simpler examples).

A gorgeous example of this tendency is Crowdsourced Climate Complexity – Compiling the WUWT Potential Climatic Variables Reference Page. As you’ll see, it is a worthless mish-mash of text copied from elsewhere (almost all from wikipedia, amusingly; they even feel a need to apologise for that because wikipedia is well known to be part of the Giant Conspiracy Against the Truth). But that, from their point of view, is fine; because the main point of all of that is to To demonstrate that Earth’s climate system is a ridiculously complex, continually evolving and sometimes chaotic beast, with the plethora of variables, many interdependencies and an array of feedbacks, both positive and negative. On that particular page, they aren’t really interested in understanding things – they are more interested in not understanding them. But the basic failure to understand physical processes and instead wallow in irrelevant detail shows up whenever discussions of the Greenhouse effect come out (though for true wackiness you need to head off for the wilder shores); any attempt to understand radiation is instantly overwhelmed by digression into irrelevant detail.

There is far more closed-mindedness over in “skeptic”-land that just this; indeed, the majority aren’t even thinking enough to get this far. But the failure to abstract is, I think, what traps a fair number of those that would be able to think, if they had better guidance.