In the last post I outlined my concern at the fact that much of the debate relating to global warming tends to focus on very short-term factors; this is a problem because the factors which are of importance are long-term rather than short-term.
In this post I will delve into this subject a little deeper. Firstly, I will mention a recent study carried out in the US relating to how attitudes to global warming are formed. Secondly, I will put this into a broader theoretical context by proposing that the way that the human perceptual processes work almost makes it inevitable that, whatever the subject, there will be a tendency for humans to draw conclusions on the basis of the short-term at the expense of the long-term.
So, to the US study. A study (published in the journal Climatic Change) carried out at the
concluded that the local weather (particularly temperature) plays a major role in influencing public and media opinions on the reality of global warming. If there is a period of cold weather then there is a large increase in public and media scepticism towards global warming. Whereas, during a short-term hot spell there is much greater public and media concern about global warming. Prof. Simon Donner states that: University of British Columbia
"Our study demonstrates just how much local weather can influence people's opinions on global warming...We find that, unfortunately, a cold winter is enough to make some people, including many newspaper editors and opinion leaders, doubt the overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue."
People are clearly heavily influenced by the present when they form their opinions about the future. One can easily think: If it is very cold now, how can global warming be a problem in the future?!
This way of forming opinions about issues which are long-term is clearly hopeless. Long-term issues require a consideration of long-term factors and processes, not of transitory short-term fluctuations which pertain in the present!
Why does this tendency for conclusions to be so heavily influenced by short-term factors exist?
There are, I believe, good reasons for the seeming inability of the majority of humans to adequately account for the long-term in their thought processes. There are surely many factors which are of relevance here. I will concentrate on what I consider to be the two most important factors. Firstly, the human life-span is itself only very short-term. Secondly, the human perceptual apparatus operates in such a way as to reveal and highlight only very short-term movements (the movements which are of importance in the global warming debate are very long-term movements). The result of this is that human thought processes tend to concentrate on these very same short-term movements (in other words, humans typically think about what they perceive). For now, I will provide an excerpt from one of my books which addresses the subject of the temporally constrained nature of human perception:
An Evolutionary Perspective on the Relationship between Humans and their Surroundings: Geoengineering, the purpose of life & the nature of the universe
3.1.4 Inevitable Constraint 3: Temporal
The human perceptual apparatus is also inevitably constrained because it has in-built temporal constraints; it is only able to perceive movements from an exceptionally narrow temporal perspective. This is possibly a hard thing to envision; how is one to get a handle on this inevitable constraint? Let us start with the evolutionary perspective.
The universe has been evolving and moving in various ways for billions of years; in contrast, the average contemporary human will be lucky to reach the age of one hundred years. One can barely comprehend what it would be like to perceive a movement that spanned a thousand years or a million years – in contrast to the movements which our perceptual apparatus has evolved to perceive, such as the running of a wild animal towards one, which is a movement which lasts a matter of seconds – but such long-term movements clearly exist. The human perceptual apparatus has evolved to connect to short-term movements and is unable to connect to long-term movements.
How exactly does the exceptionally narrow temporal perspective from which humans are able to perceive movements in their surroundings inevitably constrain their perceptions? It is perhaps helpful to start by considering a relatively short-term movement which a human could, in principle, be able to perceive. So, there is no reason why one could not perceive the movement pattern that is the Earth taking 365 days to move around the Sun. If one was located in an appropriately positioned space station, and was able to continuously observe for 365 days, then one would be able to perceive this movement (of course nearly-all, if not all, humans alive at the moment would not be able to do this as they need to sleep roughly every 24 hours). Of course, when we start to consider slightly longer-term movement patterns, those that exceed the lifespan of a human, then it is obviously the case that it is impossible for a human to be able to observe these movement patterns (a human can only observe whilst they are alive!).
Why is this important? If a human only has perceptual access to a small temporal slice of a movement, then that human is not in a position to accurately judge the nature of the movement. The inability of humans to access long-term movements means that they are likely to conceive of much of their surroundings as mechanistic – this is because the small segments of movements that humans are able to access appear to them to be mechanistic. If humans had perceptual access over a longer temporal window then all of the movements which humans perceive in their surroundings might appear to them to be non-mechanistic. So, the inevitable temporal limits of the human perceptual apparatus can easily lead one to conceptualise the vast majority of one’s surroundings as mechanistic – as very different from humans.
I will use an example to clarify this point. Let us consider a series of very short-term movements such as all the movements of the players on the pitch in a 90 minute football match. If you perceived this series of movements over a 90 minute period you would, no doubt, conclude that they were non-mechanistic. However, if you only had perceptual access to the first second of the match what would you conclude? The movements which you were able to perceive within this temporal window would not be of long enough duration to enable you to conceive of them to be non-mechanistic. You would, no doubt, conclude that the movements were mechanistic. It is only if you had a longer time slice of perceptual data that you would be able to conclude that the movement which you previously conceived as mechanistic is actually part of a much longer duration movement pattern which you would now wish to assert is non-mechanistic.
I hope you can see this. The universe is the 90 minute football match. All of the perceptions that a human can have of the universe occupy the first second of the match. Humans form their conceptions of the universe based on this first second. But the universe isn’t the first second – the universe is the whole 90 minute match! The human perceptual apparatus is clearly inevitably temporally constrained.