About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Who wants to maintain clocks?

by Greg Linster

I recently read Brian Hayes’ wonderful collection of mathematically oriented essays called Group Theory In The Bedroom, and Other Mathematical Diversions. Not surprisingly, the book contained plenty of philosophical musings too. In one of the essays, called “Clock of Ages,” Hayes describes the intricacies of clock building and he provides some interesting historical fodder.

For instance, we learn that in the sixteenth century Conrad Dasypodius, a Swiss mathematician, could have chosen to restore the old Clock of the Three Kings in Strasbourg Cathedral. Dasypodius, however, preferred to build a new clock of his own rather than maintain an old one. Over two centuries later, Jean-Baptiste Schwilgue was asked to repair the clock built by Dasypodius, but he decided to build a new and better clock which would last for 10,000 years.

Did you know that a large-scale project is underway to build another clock that will be able to run with minimal maintenance and interruption for ten millennia? It’s called The 10,000 Year Clock and its construction is sponsored by The Long Now Foundation. The 10,000 Year Clock is, however, being built for more than just its precision and durability. If the creators’ intentions are realized, then the clock will serve as a symbol to encourage long-term thinking about the needs and claims of future generations. Of course, if all goes to plan, our future descendants will be left to maintain it too. The interesting question is: will they want to?

If history is any indicator, then I think you know the answer. As Hayes puts it: “The fact is, winding and dusting and fixing somebody else’s old clock is boring. Building a brand-new clock of your own is much more fun, especially if you can pretend that it’s going to inspire awe and wonder for the ages to come. So why not have the fun now and let the future generations do the boring bit.” I think Hayes is right, it seems humans are, by nature, builders and not maintainers.

Projects like The 10,000 Year Clock are often undertaken with the noblest of environmental intentions, but the old proverb is relevant here: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What I find troubling, then, is that much of the environmental do-goodery in the world may actually be making things worse. It’s often nothing more than a form of conspicuous consumption, which is a term coined by the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen. When it pertains specifically to “green” purchases, I like to call it being conspicuously environmental. Let’s use cars as an example. Obviously it depends on how the calculations are processed, but in many instances keeping and maintaining an old clunker is more environmentally friendly than is buying a new hybrid. I can’t help but think that the same must be true of building new clocks.

In his book, The Conundrum, David Owen writes: “How appealing would ‘green’ seem if it meant less innovation and fewer cool gadgets — not more?” Not very, although I suppose that was meant to be a rhetorical question. I enjoy cool gadgets as much as the next person, but it’s delusional to believe that conspicuous consumption is somehow a gift to the environment.

Using insights from evolutionary psychology and signaling theory, I think there is also another issue at play here. Buying conspicuously environmental goods, like a Prius, sends a signal to others that one cares about the environment. But if it’s truly the environment (and not signaling) that one is worried about, then surely less consumption must be better than more. The homeless person ironically has a lesser environmental impact than your average yuppie, yet he is rarely recognized as an environmental hero. Using this logic I can’t help but conclude that killing yourself might just be the most environmentally friendly act of all time (if it wasn’t blatantly obvious, this is a joke). The lesson here is that we shouldn’t confuse smug signaling with actually helping.

The concern about conspicuous consumption, while entertaining, misses the larger epistemological issue though. If our climate does change significantly (and even if it changes from anthropomorphic causes), how do we know that this is a bad thing? To assert that the climate is changing because of humans, and that this is therefore bad, is simply begging the question.

According to many scientists, it’s a fact that the earth’s climate is changing from human influences. Let me bring your attention to another important fact though, i.e., the earth’s climate has also varied wildly historically, without human influence. So we shouldn’t worry about climate change per se, but about the sort of climate change that potentially poses an incredibly dangerous threat to our (and the planet's) wellbeing.

It’s also worth noting that human evolution has not magically stagnated. In their book, The 10,000 Year Explosion, University of Utah anthropologists Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending argue that human evolution “is now happening about 100 times faster than its long-term average over the six million years of our existence.” I’m not suggesting that we purposefully destroy our environment, but isn’t it possible that future generations of humans (or even trans-humans) will evolve and adapt to an earth with a changed climate? If we claim to know what kind of environment future generations want, I think we are guilty of a particularly egregious form of epistemic hubris.  Let’s let them build their own clocks.


  1. I am not sure I agree with your final paragraph.

    The main point of fighting or trying to mitigate climate change is exactly the one of letting future generations "build their own clock", or decide in what kind of environment they want to live . If we wreck it now, they will not have much of a choice, other than cleaning up the mess.

    If the clockmaker builds a clock that slowly destroys the cathedral, he does not leave too much of a choice to future clock builders.

    1. Are you assuming that global warming is always bad? I can't really follow your argument unless you are assuming the answer to that question is "yes".

    2. Some of the consequences of global warming that are being predicted are certainly bad. I do not see how the increase in the sea level can be a good thing, given the millions of people that will be affected by it.

    3. You're focusing exclusively on the costs and ignoring the benefits though. If we assume that global warming is caused by economic activity we have to factor in the benefits that come from that economic activity too. While it may be making the earth warmer (and thus flood some places), the economic activity may also raise the living standard for people around the world.

      In the end, you might be right, the costs may outweigh the benefits. However, I think this is a very difficult calculation to make.

    4. On the other end you are focusing exclusively on the costs of fighting global warming and ignoring the benefits. Or is your position that developing an economy based on renewable energy won't have any benefit? I bet that it will produce much more wealth than the current economy based on fossil fuels.

      I do not know if you are old enough to remember it, but back in the seventies environmental regulations were set to destroy the economy. We were told that we could either have clean air and water or be rich, but we could not have both. Well, guess what, environmental regulations were put in place and the economy did quite well, thank you very much. Now you seem to tell me that we can either fight global warming or rise living standards around the world. Color me skeptical on that dichotomy.

    5. That is indeed a false dichotomy, albeit one that I'm not proposing.

      I think we actually agree that economic progress is the key to solving the problem. My point is basically that a lot can happen in 10,000 years. And we humans don't have a great record at predicting the future. Accordingly, we shouldn't worry about wasting massive resources to build "clocks" now so that future generations can maintain them. If things go well for the human race economically, they will be far more capable to build more environmentally friendly clocks than we will.

    6. I think I understand you point, but in my opinion you are missing a key part: what we are currently doing to the climate is indeed "building a clock that will last 10000 years". We are already doing it, and we better be aware and do something about it.

  2. Except that future civilizations will be unable to reverse certain aspects of climate change, in particular, those aspects that are deemed most damaging. It's not like future civilization will start off with a clean slate, or a climate machine with dials on it that they can use to adjust the environment to their liking.

    The problem of climate change is one of foresight and anticipation. If your message is "let's continue on here, business as usual, and give future generations whatever climate that begets. They can then take it or make the appropriate adjustments" then you gravely misunderstand the inertia of climate change, and take for granted that humankind has the ability to control, not merely change, earth's climate.

    1. How do you know that climate change is going to be damaging though? Damaging to what and damaging to whom?

      My message is that it looks like we humans are causing the earth to get a bit warmer. It seems like we should learn to cope and adapt to this reality. I'm not saying we should go out of our way to destroy anything or cause drastic changes, but I don't see anything wrong with responsibly using the earth's resources.

    2. The key word is "responsibly". Climate change might not be bad, or it might be very bad, or something in between. But why take the risk? I agree that some of the activism is silly, but business as usual is a very bad percentage play...

    3. chbieck, agreed. Whether or not we are being responsible presently is a different issue, but the conspicuous environmentalism that often passes as true environmentalism is hurting the cause.

    4. Hm, ok. "Let them build their own clock" didn't sound like advocating responsibility to me - but then I do have a European outlook on things. When I look around I don't see a lot of "conspicious green" consumption, but I do see a lot of people doing the little things (like us getting rid of the second car and walking to work). May not help a lot, but it is also a. not a big deal to do and b. helps the mindshift for the things that will make a bigger difference.

    5. Greg, if you are going to post disingenuous questions about climate change on public blogs, especially a blog ostenisbly dedicated to philosophical reasoning, you would do well to study a bit about climate change before you embarrass yourself. Too late for that.

      Open your eyes and look around. Go to real climate.org and skepticalscience.com and read about the damaging effects of climate change. Climate change has been causing damage for at least three decades, and the rate of change is increasing.

  3. Just a small point with regards to the building of new clocks. I think people on the cutting edge of any technology will generally prefer to advance the state of the art over preservation. Only once an invention becomes outmoded will others (of perhaps a more romantic temperament) enter the scene. How much effort goes into preserving old steam trains compared to designing a better steam engine?

    The 10,000 Year Clock project has captured our imagination of reasons that owe rather little to the clock maker's art. I reckon that people will always be happy to preserve such a beautiful and (basically) useless object. But does that mean we might build something useful for posterity? I rather doubt it. Still, who knows what might grow out of the idea of thinking very long term?

  4. First off, Greg, let me say that I enjoy provocative argumentation such as this. I have no idea whether the climate change aspect represents your actual position on the matter, but you surely know that it is likely to receive pushback here. As I see it, the value in this for the pusher-backers is that doing so effectively requires them to solidify and refine their own views.

    To the arena, then....

    > I’m not suggesting that we purposefully destroy our environment, but isn’t it possible that future generations of humans (or even trans-humans) will evolve and adapt to an earth with a changed climate?

    The first thing that came to mind on reading this was, I wonder if Pacific Islanders will like the new climate better. Maybe some will adapt by growing gills, or by forming strategic partnerships with whales.

    But after I got that fit of snark out of my system, I think a major shortcoming of the argument is that it looks at the survival and adaptation of humanity as a whole, which subtly sidesteps the moral concerns of behavior that wipes out large segments of the extended human family due to their economic and geographical conditions.

    Another fault in my view is the inherently reactionary nature of doing what we want and letting adaptation happen in our wake. It's not that this couldn't happen, but if we're talking about adaptation either way, I find it ironic if not outright self-contradictory to espouse a vision that eschews thoughtful adaptation with foresight by invoking what is essentially a "because that's the way we've always done it" argument.

    In a nutshell, the argument seems most applicable to the use of rationality in its degenerate sense: to justify one's preconceived preferences instead of to evaluate the range of possibilities in an attempt to determine what is best.

    1. Perspicio, I'm glad to hear that you too find value in friendly argumentation :)

      Let's get back to the arena.

      In regards to your first point, I wonder if starving Pacific Islanders would prefer me to sell the computer I'm currently using in order to donate the money to them so that they can buy food. I have a hunch that they would indeed prefer that over me keeping it. Do I have a moral obligation to sell my computer and donate the money to them though? By not selling my computer, I am potentially causing direct harm to them, even though the indirect economic activity that went into creating my computer increased the larger economic pie for everyone. My point is that the activities that cause global warming may help humanity on the whole, but they may also cause harm to certain sections of the population. Do we have a moral obligation to cease progress for that reason alone?

      What you seem to be implying is that we have a moral obligation to avoid global warming because it might harm people on the other side of the world. What about the benefits of global warming though? What if, through economic progress, the activities that cause the global warming raise the standard of living for everyone too. The Pacific Islands might be destroyed (which is a cost), but we would have the wealth and resources to move those affected by it to other areas, thus reducing the amount of overall suffering in the world. Would you be willing to take this trade?

      As for your last point, I guess I'm not sure I know what is best, and I'm weary of people who think they know. What I do know is that there are a lot of people suffering in the world from lack of access to food and clean water and some people seem to think that we should preserve the environment at all costs. Economic progress seems to be the only thing that alleviates this problem. However, economic progress also seems to cause global warming and there are people who want to halt it because they think global warming is inherently bad.

      My main point is that I don't know if global warming is necessarily "bad". Perhaps, then, we should spend our time and energy on learning how to live on a planet that will be slightly warmer than we should about preserving something that was never meant to be preserved.

    2. > What you seem to be implying is that we have a moral obligation to avoid global warming because it might harm people on the other side of the world.

      Not at all. I have not taken a position other than that we should use our reasoning faculties to evaluate the likely results of our actions as responsibly as possible, without bias toward a preconceived, desired outcome.

      Incidentally, your phrasing in this instance is constructed in a way that implicitly diminishes the importance of people on the other side of the world. This may or may not have been intended, but I thought I would point it out as subtle cues like that can inform (or possibly misinform) your audience about your core views, since of course nobody is on the other side of the world when the scope of the discussion is the greater good of all of humanity, unless we are operating from a rather self-centered or closely derived coordinate system.

      > the activities that cause global warming may help humanity on the whole, but they may also cause harm to certain sections of the population. Do we have a moral obligation to cease progress for that reason alone?

      I would say that we have an a priori responsibility to each other and our descendants to evaluate the likely impacts of our actions insofar as we are able and try to maximize overall well-being. But let's examine the question more closely.

      First off, human-made climate change may help humanity on the whole, but the evidence so far suggests otherwise; therefore, as far as I can tell the question of whether we have a moral obligation to cease activities that drive it in the interest of protecting certain sections of the population in light of this improbable scenario is not very germane to a serious evaluation of the best actions to take in light of the actual situation.

      In any case, it would be necessary to establish what constitutes the greater good prior to answering that question - a proposition that is tricky enough without artificially promoting lower-order possibilities to higher status in the hierarchy of considerations. I'll grant that the question may be interesting purely in terms of thought experiment, but I don't see any meaningful way to import an answer back to reality. It just seems like a terribly abstracted question for a practical discussion. However, I'll follow your line of thought a bit further.

      > What if, through economic progress, the activities that cause the global warming raise the standard of living for everyone too. The Pacific Islands might be destroyed (which is a cost), but we would have the wealth and resources to move those affected by it to other areas, thus reducing the amount of overall suffering in the world. Would you be willing to take this trade?

      This broad-stroke scenario demands far more credulity of me than I am able to supply. Supposing that the Pacific Islands became collateral damage in the march of human progress, but that in the process enough wealth were generated to make it possible for all 10 million Pacific Islanders to move to new locations and experience a raised standard of living,

      (a) Whose standard gets applied here? It had better be their own, or at least heavily weighted in that direction. My experience is that most people who are indigenous to a geographical area - that is, whose ancestral heritage and cultural identity is bound up with it - are neither able nor willing to put a pricetag on their way of life.

      (b) On what basis (historically evidenced, predicted by social or economic models, or otherwise) can you possibly advance the view that, even if all of the above could somehow be satisfactorily addressed, the wealth and resources generated would in any event be used to accomplish this massive migration? I think the whole of human history argues against your scenario. We don't proactively move endangered populations out of regions that through human activities have become hostile to them. Why would this be any different?

    3. > I guess I'm not sure I know what is best, and I'm weary of people who think they know.

      On this, we agree. But I'm not in favor of throwing our hands in the air and saying, "Well, whatever, it's too hard to figure out - let's just do what we want and hope it all works out!"

      Actually, I agree with your last two paragraphs almost completely. I just don't agree with the dichotomous premise of your overarching argument.

  5. "The homeless person ironically has a lesser environmental impact than your average yuppie, yet he is rarely recognized as an environmental hero."

    A hero is someone who makes a choice to do something heroic. If you put a gun to someones head and make them do it they are not a hero. A homeless person is not choosing (presumably) to have less environmental impact. So, they are not an "environmental hero".

    1. Chris, that's a fair point about the heroism. Even if the homeless person isn't a hero, they still have a lesser impact though. If having a lesser impact is truly the goal, then aspiring to live more like the homeless should be a noble aim.

      While the homeless person may not be a true hero at least he's not trying to fake anything. Some people try to look like heroes, while actually making things worse through their conspicuous consumption.

  6. "Of course, if all goes to plan, our future descendants will be left to maintain it too."

    As I understand the plan the clock is designed to keep time for 10,000 years without any maintenance. Certain features are designed to interact with people and to attract people, but the basic time keeping function is not supposed to require any maintenance. Of course, each of us can make our own assessment of how likely it is that everything will go according to plan.

  7. Have you ever heard of homeostasis? Trying not to change the climate is not about the ideal environment for future generations, but about trying not to upset an extremely delicate (i.e. unstable) balance about which we know next to nothing, except that in its current state we CAN survive.

    Any change at all is potentially fatal to us, as we have no idea where the balance tips to e.g. a change in the composition of the atmosphere. The tiniest change in the atmosphere can mean immediate extinction to us. Sure, climate has always changed, but for most of the planet's history the atmosphere has actually not been breathable. Do you really want to rely on our evolving to breathe a different gas?

    To me you sound like a small child who deliberately breaks his toys thinking Daddy will fix it. One day you'll find out that Daddy cannot bring back to life the kitten whose neck you've wrung. Many people believe science will fix it, you are apparently putting your faith in an accelerated evolution. (I'm not even going to start on that one. Yes you can breed domesticated foxes, that doesn't mean we can will our metabolism to evolve.)

    If change is caused by humans that does not make it bad, it does give us the power to stop causing it. Trying not to bring about the sudden extinction of all mammals seems a good enough reason to me.

  8. You've made your rhetorical point that you can't assume climate change is bad. Back in the real world, however, you need to make the case that global warming of degrees Centigrade has benefits. You can't simply say it's logically possible to be beneficial.

    And about human evolution: 100 times faster than incredibly slow is still very very slow. There is no way the current human population could evolve a response (and what could that possibly be?) to the current trend of global warming.

  9. In the real world, you could make the case that $'s in economic output has increased, even though it's caused warming. The fundamental problem here is that it's near impossible to line up all of the benefits and costs correctly.

    As for your second point, you might be right, but there are a lot of assumptions baked into your statement that we would need to unpack.

  10. Sure, let them build their own clocks. While we leave them fewer parts to build them with. Meanwhile we can mine, drill, log, fish, and consume resources without care or concern either for future generations or for the fellow earthlings we share this awesome planet with.

  11. I agree with driving clunkers as long as possible. It saves money and resources. At some point though the old clunker will give up the ghost and will require replacement. I think the best choice environmentally and economically is to buy the most fuel efficient, smallest you can live with used car and keep it well into clunkerhood.

    The three most effective ways to minimize your environmental impact other than becoming homeless is 1)to adopt a vegetarian or mostly vegetarian diet, 2)don't have kids or adopt, and 3)live in a small house or apartment.

    1. Exactly. Fuel efficient cars are great, but many of the people who buy them prematurely justify it as a gift to the environment when they are really making things worse. That's what I have a problem with. When a clunker finally breaks down I think it's a positive thing to buy a fuel efficient car (preferably one that isn't a status symbol).

      I agree with your three ways to minimize environmental impact, albeit I find #1 problematic from a health standpoint. Nonetheless, consuming *less* meat can help an individual balance their concerns for the environment and their health.

  12. If I didn't know better, I would think that Massimo and Greg are using us as guinea pigs. They know that the regular readers of his blog will tend to be the type of people that is aware of the problems that global climate change is going to bring, and are also aware of the timing of them (i.e. much faster than most evolutionary processes).
    Therefore this article is here to provoke a Condorcetean dialogue (similar to the parapsychology article). While I like the discussion of the points, I may get tired of the gimmick if it continues to be applied in a "wink-wink" kind of way (Tricked you audience, you see, we all have cognitive biases and prejudices and stuff, you have to be more aware of them, etc). I feel it would be better if you just came out saying it out loud, although I understand that it would take out a lot of efficacy from it (it would convert the post into a "I'm going to troll you suckers" which is not as interesting as the current mechanism). As long as you don't do it too frequently, then it should be ok, but it won't be as fun.
    My only complaint is that I feel that this article is a lot less supported than the parapsychology one. Using the "gods of the gaps" argument as your sole argumentation is somewhat weak. Most of the times you can reductio it very nicely to absurdum (yeah, lets provoke a third world war. You don't know that is going to be bad. The scientific advances that it would bring could balance the bad of hundreds of thousands of people dying, and the world may end up even better! Yay!).
    I am sure there are some articles that may support better your arguments than your simple opinions. Mostly I would say that you are trying to resolve an empirical discussion with a philosophical answer, which doesn't work well (and as mentioned above, sadly for the fun of the argument, there is research about the problems that global warming would bring. Stupid scientist with their fun killing science.). The parapsychology article had the advantage that the author took into account that the readers were informed and fought the predictable points of contention before they were presented (which made for an awesome article, even if the premise was wrong).

    I wonder if Massimo is going to follow it up with an article about how liberals have their biases too (and use our comments as fodder), or how he doesn't agree with this article for x or y or z philosophical reason (like with the parapsychology one). Also there could be other options, which are more Machiavellian...but I don't want to give him any ideas in case he is reading.

    Therefore the tl;dr version
    Attempt for Condorcetean discussion. Nice, but don't do it too much.
    Rating 6-7/10
    --Nice selection of topic to tickle both general groups (hell yeah vs He wrote WHAT?, therefore ka-ching views!)
    --Need more empirical support. Gods of the gaps is not trendy since the 1800s.

  13. Oh. And I don't like coffee. Sorry.

  14. Once I learned the proposed carbon exchange was to function as a more chi chi version of the stock exchange but also make vast sums of money, the veil was lifted. I enjoyed every word of this piece because smug condescension towards anyone who asks a few pointed questions rules the day.


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