December 31, 2010

Is CO2 concentration and emergent property of Earth?

This post is an expansion of the core CO2 idea from my previous post...

I have been pondering the inexorable rise in the CO2 concentration of our planet’s atmosphere.  With the signing of the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, political leaders from around the globe agreed that we should take steps to stop the increase of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere.  Nearly 20 years later, despite many Conferences of the Parties and extensive public policy efforts, those gasses continue to accumulate.  And they continue to accumulate at roughly the same rate as when the FCCC was signed in Rio.

The usual response to this state of affairs is that we need to work harder at those approaches that have failed so far.  At some point I began wondering whether in fact our challenge is deeper: perhaps we have incorrectly diagnosed the nature of the problem.   What if the continuing emissions reflects some overarching intentionality of the Human System and hence is immune to direct public policy solutions?

A friend of mine agreed that we may have misdiagnosed, but he argued that I was giving humanity and public policy too much weight – what if increasing CO2 concentration is simply an emergent property of the Earth system?  That is, growing CO2 concentration is simply a property of the complex interactions that occur as a result of the evolution of the Earth System.

In this context, our policy efforts have been akin to a hammer looking for a nail.  If CO2 concentration is in fact an emergent property, then we will need to work at the scale of the Earth System as a whole if we are to manage GHG concentrations.  Perhaps more importantly, if this is the case, we should also be investing much more than we are in planning for life on our planet with CO2 concentrations in the 700ppm range.

December 25, 2010

Emergence and Empiricism

This one is too cerebral for Qualia (but I am going to rework it for them):

In the gray of a late '70s northern Ohio winter, Norman Care led me through Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy. At the time I really didn't get it, but as I have continued to ponder in the intervening decades, I have come to take Meditations as the origin of the mind / body split and extended that event to the separation of Humans and Nature.  Several centuries after Descartes, John Searle solved the mind / body problem to my satisfaction (to my pleasure even) in his Rediscovery of the Mind by essentially declaring that it is a red herring and asserting that consciousness is simply an emergent property of brains.

So what might be the analog to my extension of the mind / body problem to the Human / Nature problem?  It is an entertaining exercise to think of humans as neurons in an Earthly consciousness, but I usually stop short of taking that analogy too far; none-the-less, it does not seem too far fetched to imagine that there are properties of Earth that are observable, but that are not simple, linear causal / effect relationships.  There are all sorts of Gödelian knots in here, but putting those aside, consider the implications of mistaking an emergent property for a something simpler...

One of my candidates for this sort of thing is the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere.  Observations of that parameter clearly show unbroken increase despite decades of policy wrangling and hand wringing.  Is is unreasonable to think that greenhouse gas concentrations are simply an emergent property of human evolution?  And if this is the case, are linear policy approaches the only solutions we should consider?

I don't know the answers here, but I find the questions fascinating.

December 03, 2010

Trust and Transparency

My most recent Qualia post:

I have spent the last couple of days trying to decide what I think about the most recent Wikileaks dump.  On the one hand, I think that transparency and a free press are vital elements of functioning democracy.  On the other hand, I do not have much confidence in the ability or willingness of our media and other social institutions to be nuanced in their reactions to the material.

My deepest concern related to this latest episode is that it will unnecessarily erode hard won trust among diplomats and politicians whose job it is to make the our planet a safer place to live (this concern is nicely captured in a recent TNR article by James Rubin).  Climate science experienced its own analogous brouhaha with the release of emails among prominent modelers.  The subjects of that leak did not always come off as particularly nice folks, but who among us does not have moments of lesser discretion?  And while the climate science has been vindicated, it is less clear that relationship between the scientific community and others has come away unscathed.

I have reached the following conclusions so far:

  • each of us should all strive to be the best human that we can be, 
  • each of us is indeed human and with that comes a set of foibles and flaws which brings a need for nuance and forgiveness in our trust building, and finally,
  • well-deserved and robust trust enhances our ability to the create the communities we need in order to address the complex challenges that we face going forward.

December 01, 2010

On "Qualia"

Community is a topic in may of the circles I flow through and a big part of the conversations that I am part of have questions related to social media and other web-based technology at their heart.   Related questions include: "What does it mean to be part of a community in this day and age?"  "How do radical changes in communications and digital media affect our relationships with each other and with ideas?"

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has launched a new web site as part of their thinking on this front.  The MemberCentral site was created for AAAS members and includes blogs, profiles and other content designed to spur thought and interaction.  I have been writing for their Qualia blog and my most recent post reflected on the meaning of that blog's name.  That post is mirrored here...

As I write this, I am listening to Coltrane and drinking my morning coffee.  My mind is in an introspective state and I am experiencing all of the sounds and tastes in a certain and subjective way.  If you were here with me, you would be subjected to the same inputs, but it is far from clear that our subjective experiences would be the same.  These types of experiences are referred to as “qualia”  by philosophers.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say about “qualia”:

Philosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. In this standard, broad sense of the term, it is difficult to deny that there are qualia. Disagreement typically centers on which mental states have qualia, whether qualia are intrinsic qualities of their bearers, and how qualia relate to the physical world both inside and outside the head.

In simpler terms, qualia are things like the subjective experience of seeing red.

As I have thought about qualia and their relationship to the AAAS blog I have come to the conclusion that perhaps the intention of [Qualia] is to perturb our subjective experience and through that perturbation enrich our experience of Science.  Certainly that is my intention in reading and writing here.  Just as participants in the philosophical debates surrounding “qualia” are striving to advance our knowledge, vigorous discussions here will advance our understanding of the world and hopefully enrich our subjective experience of it.

Now on to Tom Waits.

Credit where credit is due: Sara Shopkow provide editorial assistance on this post that made the ideas much clearer and hopefully improved your subjective experience of it.