Mind over body

In the last of his series on Descartes Richard Francks ponders the nature of objectivity

It seems to me that the big philosophical problem we all face today is that of Objectivity. Every day we run into situations where a clash of beliefs involves what is either literally or figuratively a clash of cultures, i.e. cases where what is at issue is not just the particular point we disagree about, but the standards we should apply for resolving it.

Moral cases are the obvious examples: those who are for and against abortion, or gay rights, or suicide bombings, seem so far apart that you have to ask yourself whether they have enough in common ever to come to an agreement. Is there such a thing as an objective answer to such disputes, or is each side trapped within its own little bubble of understanding which is impenetrable to anyone not brought up the right way, or who hasn’t seen the light?

But morality isn’t the only area where such disagreements occur. Questions like Intelligent Design, monetary policy, the Holocaust, alternative medicine, GM crops and the existence of God all seem on the surface to be straightforwardly factual disputes. But it soon becomes clear that the two sides disagree also about which facts are relevant, what counts as evidence, what constitutes a good reason, whose opinion is of value, and a thousand other things which leave you wondering whether we shouldn’t give up the idea that there is a correct answer, and just concentrate our energies on managing the battle in such a way as to minimise the damage it causes.

Descartes’ philosophical work was devoted to proving the possibility of an Objective answer to every question. Everybody has an innate ability to think clearly, and such clear thinking will always get to the truth. By such means we can see beyond the misleading appearances of the world to the reality that underlies them. Even in practical affairs, where the issues are complicated and the facts are few, we can achieve a detached, Objective view on which we can all agree.

Here too, Descartes’ view is the one that has filtered down to us through the ages. This is the faith of the Enlightenment, that a rational, scientific view is always available, and can in principle unite us all. That faith is still active in the world, and informs the way we think about these issues, and therefore about people who disagree with us.

For Descartes, though, the belief in Objectivity is essentially bound up with his views on the self, and on God. The Objective view is the view of the pure, immaterial mind, which can rise above the deceptive urgings of its physical embodiment and perceive the world through pure intellect. And the view of the intellect is guaranteed to be true, because by escaping in this way from the body, we can recapitulate in our own small way God’s own, non-sensory, understanding of his creation.

Most people now are unhappy with Descartes’ ‘dualistic’ account of the mind as essentially separate from the body it ‘inhabits’. And most people now would not accept his idea that through reason we can achieve quite literally a God’s-eye-view of the universe. The Big Question, then, is this: if you take away those metaphysical underpinnings, what remains of the idea of Objectivity?

It seems to me that the idea of an Objective point of view is a contradiction. Any intelligible opinion must make some assumptions, must operate by some standards – and those foundations will be challenged by people who don’t accept them. So if you think your standpoint is the correct one, you will need to defend it; and for that defence to be effective it had better start from something your opponent is prepared to concede. The alternative to a standpoint which can be challenged is not an Objective view, but no view at all.

Richard Francks retired last year as Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Philosophy at the University of Leeds. He has published translations of Leibniz (with Roger Woolhouse), his own Modern Philosophy (Routledge, 2003), and has just finished the manuscript of a Reader’s Guide to Descartes’ Meditations (Continuum, 2008).
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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