Scepticism and Freedom of Thought

We begin to breathe at the end of Storm Ciara, a particularly vast and nasty one that has caused a considerable amount of damage in the British Isles and northern Europe. My house just suffered a loose tile that I was able to put back without doing anything dangerous. High winds and rattling roof tiles cause anxiety, and the natural reaction, when possible, is to get into bed and somewhere warm. I remember such storms as a child in the 1960’s in the north of England, with the Victorian sash windows rattling away with each gust. The Atlantic storm coming in with the Gulf Stream is nothing new, but it is worrying when it happens, and a challenge to our illusions of human omnipotence. We can be thankful here in Europe that we don’t get tornadoes and hurricanes like in America, because they bring total destruction to homes, human property – and lives.

I will not mention any names, but I was surprised yesterday by the accusations of being a climate change denier by someone close to me. I was like a “heretic” facing an “inquisition” enforcing a new orthodoxy – one taught by Extinction Rebellion and the secretive political and business-motivated forces sponsoring Greta Thunberg. I spent a considerable amount of time last night learning about Green New Deal and the European variants that various far-left political parties try to propagate. I try to be open-minded.

I wrote an e-mail to the person expressing my shock in the face of such accusations coming from a radicalised mind. To be fair, we English-speakers talk of denial rather than scepticism as the French prefer in regard to us “enemies of the people”. The “dogma”I am expected to accept and profess is that the temperature of earth’s atmosphere will be so high by 2050 (sometimes 2030) that human life would become extinct, and therefore protest groups like Extinction Rebellion are justified in their demonstration to force the USA, the European Union and national governments to eliminate all carbon emissions within ten years. I know that such radical action would be impossible, and that such a radical position is by now largely discredited. The Right has won in England, and Trump has shaken off an attempt to impeach him. The Democrats must now be in tatters! I am of the mind to believe that if global warming is as they say, then there is nothing humanity can do about it.

I was yelled at yesterday for being “sceptical”, and I replied that I am indeed sceptical in that I suspend my judgement on the subject not being in possession of scientific data that I could trust is not influenced by political ideology. In postmodern French political culture, scepticism means denial, but I prefer to use words according to their etymology and conventional meanings. Sceptical philosophy, founded by Pyrrho of Elis (Πύρρων), is about suspending judgement whilst seeking for truth (or the nearest we can get to it). Scepticism calls us to act according to our limited state of knowledge of things.

When reason confronts fanatical certitude, the only answer is silence. However, I find myself with the duty of finding out what I can about solar activity (we seem to have a minimum presently), the movements of sea currents, content measured in ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and other factors. I am quite curious, since sailing caused me to take some interest in meteorology, learning to read the weather. It is extremely unpleasant to find myself confronted with the beast of totalitarianism, thought control and everything else Orwell wrote in his dystopian novel.

Where can we find information that is not influenced either by “green totalitarianism” or Trump’s triumphalist capitalism? I do find it reasonable to believe that humanity puts a lot of carbon dioxide and toxic gases into the atmosphere, then decimates the forests of South America and other parts of the world, disturbing the natural regulation of carbon dioxide by vegetation that needs it. Industry is still tipping vast quantities of plastic into the oceans. Indeed, there is a dramatic ecological crisis. I have a lot of respect for those who invent special ships for recovering as much of that plastic as possible, a lot more than for stupid people gluing themselves to roads and railings in central London to cause the maximum amount of disruption and bitterness. Our world is in trouble, and I am all for efforts to clean up industry, reduce pollution of the air and sea, reduce intensive farming and air travel. We all need to go from a consumer paradigm to being a responsible citizen of the world.

In some ways, I could be tempted to want to go back to an eighteenth-century lifestyle, but that would be the end of my blog, e-mail and my computer. It would be worse for me than someone like Novalis in the 1790’s, because he never had the experience of what we have now. The thought is actually terrifying. I would have to learn to handle horses and have grazing space for them (my garden is on the small side). Goodbye, antibiotics, and we would have to be ready to die of diseases like tuberculosis and other bacterial infections. Most people survive coronavirus, but I’m not sure I would, given the hard time I have recovering from common colds! Goodbye, electricity, but I would (like everybody else) still have to send smoke into the air by burning wood to keep warm and lighting candles indoors. So, I don’t think Miss Greta’s ideas are so practical. Maybe the idea she has in her mind is something along the lines of Logan’s Run, a 1970’s American re-run of Huxley’s Brave New World. She and her minders, of course, would have the pots of money and status to live in some nice country mansion away from the glass-domed cities of οἱ πολλοί. Please excuse my sarcasm. No, we need to look for a moderate way of thinking about this problem without getting emotional or hysterical.

After my experience of radical Catholic traditionalism and things like sedevacantism, I have come to apply the principles of scepticism to the notion of truth itself. Truth exists, indeed, but is for the most part beyond us. Pilate asked What is truth? He doubted whether truth existed apart from the pragmatism of the moment. Jesus responded that he was the truth, the transcendent to whom we all aspire and yearn. We have to seek it and be humble as it brings out of us the sense of wonder. Following the Idealists and Romantics, I now know that we cannot possess the truth or impose a caricature of truth on others. The freedom of thought and expression (within the limits imposed by other people’s rights) is inalienable. I apply the same scepticism to right-wing agendas as well as left-wing ones. Environmental hysteria is political and is concerned for controlling people and taking freedom away in the name of collectivism and the sacrifice of the human person to the state or whatever.

Whatever problems there are with the environment, I am not sure that man’s responsibility goes beyond a few percent, even with all the smoke belching out of factories mostly in China, Russia and America, and out of the exhaust pipes of millions of cars and freight vehicles. It seems to me that Extinction Rebellion has done a lot of harm through its totalitarian ambitions. I am just as careful about conspiracy theories like those saying that we would all be forced to live in glass-domed cities, given artificial food (we already eat enough junk food!) and forbidden from going into the re-wilded countryside. I have a nagging doubt, but I don’t believe anything earthly as absolute truth, especially when there is a hidden political agenda behind it.

As I live in this ugly time of history, I am taken back to the time of the early Industrial Revolution, William Blake, children working in factories with dangerous machines. My own reaction is as angry and revolutionary as that of Shelley as he wrote in Prometheus Unbound, championing free will, goodness, hope and idealism in the face of oppression.

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

Everything seems to be closing around us, with Brexit, other similar tendencies in Europe. It is quite dramatic here in France, with people not so concerned with half-baked solutions for the environment, but with their livelihood. There doesn’t seem to be much of an alternative to President Macron, who got where he wanted by exposing all the petty corruptions of all the mainstream candidates. Now, the only alternative is Le Pen. Perhaps that might not be a bad thing pour mettre les pendules à l’heure. After all the right-wing that has seduced the working classes got its victory in the UK. It seems to be the future.

The future seems to be authoritarianism, the end of thought, beauty, truth and goodness, the end of art and literature as man’s spirit gives way in obedience to the “new orthodoxy” and its “inquisition”. Some of us will resist and survive. Others will give their lives in seemingly futile gestures.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.
In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery,
And their going from us to be utter destruction: but they are in peace.
For though they be punished in the sight of men, yet is their hope full of immortality.
And having been a little chastised, they shall be greatly rewarded: for God proved them, and found them worthy for himself.
As gold in the furnace hath he tried them, and received them as a burnt offering. – Wisdom 3, i-xix.

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5 Responses to Scepticism and Freedom of Thought

  1. D R Marriott says:

    Father,

    You say that ‘The Right has won in England’, but I have to wonder just how much time their ‘victory’ not so much of the ‘right’ but of a nationalist group within that ‘right’, might endure! Recent statements of this ‘hard line’ of thought from this government’s ministers, notably Mr. Gove, would indicate that the possibility of a chaotic supply situation might still ensue at the end of this year, with predicted shortages of perishable foods, delayed at the border or port of entry and widespread disruption to the manufacturing base are still possible, at a time when the alternatives to the present government are in disarray, with some predicting the break up of the Union.

    Consider the recent Irish election results, and the impact these could well have on both Eire and Northern Ireland: this all contributes to the uncertainty, compounding the lack of clarity which we have noted in the climate change arguments, where, as you say, evidence which can be verified is often lacking.

    Provincial Insurance for my car advised me some years ago that my car had emitted two tons of carbon over the previous year: but there was no reference to any paper which might assist in my understanding of what this means! I do recall just how much coal was piled up in the coal shed at my parents’ house when the coalman had made his delivery. I had to shovel it!

    • I make that statement about the right winning in an ironic way, because there was no effective or credible opposition. Like many others, I am quite burned out with English politics. I see trouble ahead. The main point of my posting is to be critical of both left and right, and the influence of political ideology on science. There are plenty of people who criticise Christianity for being a “belief system”, yet they believe in ideologies that will enable them to have totalitarian control over others. Thank you for your reflections.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for this!

    Looking for useful stuff about dialectical pronunciation in Shakespeare’s Henry V just now, I found the Mysterious YouTube Algorithm recommending an academic lecture on the People of the Sea, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, on the channel NCASVideo – that of the National Capital Area Skeptics. I don’t yet have a sense of what(-all) they mean by Skeptics, or whether they have lamentable totalitarian ideological presuppositions, but this is not the only lecture they’ve loaded which looks potentially interesting… Perhaps they share – or include – your sensible use of the word!

    Your quotation has got me wanting to reread C.S. Lewis’s November 1938 essay, Shelley, Dryden, and Mr Eliot, which I remember (though alas, too vaguely) as warmly and thoughtfully appreciative of Shelley, and not least Prometheus Unbound.

    • I have just ordered C.S. Lewis’ Selected Literary Essays containing the one you are seeking to read. The more I read of this author, the more I appreciate his thought as a Romantic and as a Christian.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Excellent! That is a rich and varied collection, thoughtful and thought-provoking, and (I think) succeeding in making often unfamiliar things enjoyable to read about – like “What Chaucer really did to Il Filostrato”, when I had little more than heard the names of Chaucer and Boccaccio. (Have I read every essay in it ? – I’m not sure – I should find out by trying!)

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