The Right Answer: “We Don’t Know”

The most powerful and certain argument against the “ends justify the means” argument is that we simply do not know the ends, all we know is the means. All we choose is the means. Prudence doesn’t mean we’ve got a crystal ball whereby we see past the means and choose only the ends. We cannot choose the end. Pretending that our choice of means is really a choice of ends is an arrogant, foolish lie.


“Nobody knows”. That was the answer Richard Feynman’s dad gave him, when, as a boy, he asked why, when you rolled a wagon with a ball in it, and stopped, the ball keeps going until it hits the front of the wagon.

Good question. Complete scientific ignorance might lead to the honest answer ‘I don’t know”. Ignorance of philosophy coupled with some science might lead to a complicated side-stepping,  into Newton’s Three laws of Motion.  The senior Mr. Feynman was astute enough to give the right answer: nobody knows.

The good question, the one young Richard asked, is not how, or according to what rules do we measure, or the history of the exploration of motion, but the simple ‘why’.  And, it turns out, to this day, nobody knows. The best answer within a scientific context: we call the general case of this thing you are seeing ‘momentum’, and it is evidently a fundamental feature of physical reality. Turns out the only way we can have an observable world (observable by us, at least) is if momentum is just such a fundamental feature exactly the way it is observed. Why it is such a fundamental feature is unknown – we can’t even begin to answer that question, except to say, were it not so, we wouldn’t be here to ask it.

“We don’t know” turns out to be the right answer to almost all of life’s interesting questions, if we’re talking about either the scientific approach or strict logic. While it is clearly true that we almost never know what’s going on now or what has just happened, it is triply true that we don’t know what is going to happen.Those things we can know, or are even  somewhat confident about, are precious and few.

Yet, if we sift a little, we can easily see how much of today’s social and political arguments are about predicting the future based on things we don’t even understand today. Two examples, one from science and one from morality.

The first is climate change. Years ago, when I was but a lad and had been completely won over by the idea that science can at least give us some things to be certain of (and – this is critical – gives us  a method by which we could challenge and verify any claims independent of authority), I would have probably argued for Drastic Steps, in light of the Irrefutable Evidence. But alas, when I hit my late teens and early 20s, Carl Sagan disabused me of my blind trust. It turns out that scientists are still people, with all the shortcomings that entails.

Carl was terrified of nuclear war – as were we all. He, however, took a pile of preliminary evidence and hypothetical math and extrapolated to a series of remarkably unlikely worse-case scenarios – If we had a significant  nuclear war, AND the detonations kicked up the maximum imaginable amount of dust, AND that dust reached the optimal height and spread to the maximum imaginable extent, AND reflected the maximum amount of sunlight, and so on, THEN we would have a nuclear winter.  But Carl, while embracing the Lab Coat of Scientific Authority,  set aside the golden rules of science – only go as far as the evidence supports, admit up front the limits of your data and theories, don’t be any more certain than those data and that theory allow – and, instead, because he believed so strongly in eliminating nuclear weapons, starting touting Nuclear Winter as the Inevitable Doom if nuclear war were ever to break out. He placed his political agenda ahead of science, which would be OK, PROVIDED he hung up the lab coat and spoke as a citizen. But he spoke as a scientist – in other words, he lied.  He did evil that good might come of it. And, not coincidentally, became famous and beloved, and not just by peace-niks – he also earned the ‘love’, such as it is, of those prowling the earth, seeking any means to expand their power.

I see something very similar happening with Climate Change. The major premise, one which will get little push-back, is that damaging or destroying our environment is bad. The next step is where it gets interesting, because what you want, logically, is to state that it has been scientifically determined that the CO2 produced by human activity is damaging or destroying our environment, therefore, etc. Unfortunately, you can’t really say that – what you can say is a series of much more nuanced and conditional findings lead many scientists to suspect that human activity is contributing to a warmer overall environment, and that, in a worse-case, perfect storm scenario, certain models predict enough warming that it’s possible catastrophic outcomes for many people in certain places may occur.

Is this something to be concerned about? Absolutely! Is it something to destroy the entire 1st world economy over, or to condemn poorer people to continued poverty over, or to establish a world government with sufficient authority to enforce a reduction in CO2 output (by definition, that’s totalitarian power) over? because those are precisely the steps being proposed.

I propose a big, fat, healthy dose of ‘We Don’t Know’. Let’s spend a few billion, which is a tiny fraction of the cost of any of the proposed remedial steps  – on data collection, particularly of ocean temperatures and solar output, but also on alternative theories and models, and, most importantly, on assessing how the predictions of the current model, which have now been running for almost 2 decades, match what actually has happened – because, you know, the current model doesn’t seem to be predicting very well.

While this is an extreme example, the tendency toward using Science to support political ends hardly stops there. It’s probably at its worst with economics. setting aside whether the claim that economics is even a science is defensible, it is clear that “We Don’t Know” is the right answer to most macro economic questions. Will the government spending another couple hundred billion dollars of borrowed money crate jobs? We don’t know. How about tax cuts for high wage earners? Don’t know that, either. Is the Wiemar Republic the best fiscal and monetary model to follow at this time – OK, I’ll go out on a limb and say: probably not. Which, in a round about way, does hint strongly at the answer the two preceding questions.  But I digress.

On a completely different tack, we tend to defend our  moral decisions based on what we “know” will happen. If a teenager gets pregnant, we “know” that she’s better off killing the baby, because we “know” that if she does otherwise, she is condemning herself and the baby to a life of misery. Really? We know that? Doesn’t the Steve Jobs story suggest otherwise? Don’t the stories of the millions of adopted kids who lead and have lead normal, happy lives say this ain’t necessarily  so?

(Aside: my daughter, bless her, was saying a rosary with some folks in front of the local PP when a woman started yelling at them about how none of them would be willing to adopt the babies they were telling the poor women they should have – and the entire group answered at once: of course we would! And she pushed, they all assured her that they absolutely would adopt. I’ll add my voice: we raised 5 kids, but, heck, I’m up for a few more! If that’s what it takes to spare the baby’s life, bring ’em on! Loving home, lots of siblings, good schooling, gourmet cooking, even springing for a college education if they want one – sign us up.)

And so on. Torture? We KNOW that, had we behaved like civilized human beings to our prisoners, they’d have blown us all up by now, right? Because, ticking time bombs, “24” scenarios, and the absolute truthfulness of people under torture are not to be questioned – we just know, dammit! I don’t know, but what I’d like to find out is what would happen, worldwide and over time, if we really lived like Christians, treated even our enemies like brothers, and – let’s get crazy – applied the rule of law to our own government’s behaviors. We Don’t Know what would happen, just like the only things we know in an abortion is that a baby dies, and in ‘enhanced interrogation’ that a man gets tortured – we don’t know it the mom lives happily ever after or if some catastrophe gets avoided.

The most powerful and certain argument against the “ends justify the means” argument is that we simply do not know the ends, all we know is the means. All we choose is the means. Prudence doesn’t mean we’ve got a crystal ball whereby we see past the means and choose only the ends.  We cannot choose the end. Pretending that our choice of means is really a choice of ends is an arrogant, foolish lie.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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