One of my monthly highlights is the meeting of Bridport’s Philosophy in Pubs group. We met last Wednesday to discuss the notion of identity – our personal identity and its relationship to our sense of self. I shall say nothing further about this particular discussion now (though, if interested, please feel free to track down the August of edition of Bridport Times and read my regular column), but instead comment on why I find these meetings so stimulating. Bertrand Russell expressed my love of philosophy well when he said that “Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves” (The Problems of Philosophy, ch. 14). Philosophy for me is about asking good questions, questions that open up problems and disturb certainty, questions that unsettle received opinion. It’s a creative and invigorating process.
But in many ways this challenging of certainty and the ‘common sense’ view sits on the opposite side of the table to the political aspect of my weekly activities. Whilst political theory can quite easily be studied and debated at an abstract level, without ever having to get your hands dirty, in reality politics is about finding solutions to problems that affect the lives of actual people, people who are not particularly interested in abstract arguments, people who just want to get on with their lives. And in many ways they are right. Decisions need to be taken, plans need to made and implemented, actions need to be taken. The problem is, however, that people crave certainty. Uncertainty unsettles us, and is usually portrayed as a sign of weakness. And this dilemma is perfectly illustrated by the issue that is dominating my political life at the moment – how should both Dorset Council and Bridport Town Council respond to their recently declared Climate Emergencies?
Life is inherently uncertain. Science, and particularly any science involving complex and dynamic systems like climate science, is inherently uncertain. This is just a fact. But as soon as you stand up and say this it’s immediately used as evidence that the science is therefore wrong and should be ignored, that the changes you are arguing for are unnecessary, and that we should take a far more relaxed approach to the impending crisis. The problem is, I think, that we are just not very good at making sense of probability. This is perfectly illustrated by the number of people who take part in lotteries and buy scratch cards. In terms of climate breakdown, a 90% certainty (for example) of something bad happening is serious – very serious. A politician who fails to respond to a 90% chance of something bad happening is guilty of gross negligence.
I have two important meetings this coming week concerning the Councils responses to the Climate Emergency. In one in particular I am anticipating a large degree of resistance to the action I consider necessary. And this is when I’m helped by philosophy. My approach has to be to start unravelling certain common sense, taken for granted perspectives – attitudes, for example, that prioritise the need continuous economic growth over all other factors. Following Russell, I will need to focus on raising good, well thought through questions, and point out that there are no definitive answers to either these questions or the emergency we face. Thank you philosophy. In a strange way it’s you that keeps me grounded in the political arena, not the other way round.