The Search for the Right Questions Can Be Very Difficult, Indeed

[This is in response to a post at WUWT by Willis Eschenbach on Feb 8th, entitled Slow Drift in Thermoregulated Emergent Systems.  In it Willis talks about forcings (causes) in climate and how maybe they are not the governing factors, that maybe there is an inborn regulatory thermostat in climate that is mostly independent of the inputs (causes/forcings), and maybe it is a series of multi-factorial thermostats, with many backups/redundancies.  — My paraphrasing may not do Willis’ idea justice…]

Yes, Willis. Asking the right questions is the first step toward getting the right answers. Everyone here at WUWT is, in one way or another, aware that the wrong questions have been asked by those controlling the dialog on climate. And we others haven’t quite seen those right questions, either.

In simple systems it is easy to find the right questions. The more complex the system the more difficult it is to find those questions. And when questions are asked that have (seeming) non-answers or when they keep on not affecting the answers, it is time to ask, “Are we asking the right questions?”

The existing paradigm controls/dictates the questions. If the paradigm is wrong, the right questions will never get asked.

Thinking outside the box of a current paradigm that is getting us nowhere is the only way to break out of the box and get to where the right questions can be asked. It isn’t that all of a sudden we will see that the questions asked are better. When we are barely out of the box – the current paradigm – our questions are still being affected by our “in the box thinking.” When we are looking outside the box of the current paradigm we need to TRY to get way outside the paradigm, to ask, “What if <fill in the blank> is the real case? What then?”  Of course, in the full process anything inside or outside the paradigm still has to then be falsifiable and pass.

To ask such questions as “What would a sea spray droplet do?” or “What if the system is acting like an intelligence of its own?” IS a way of breaking out.

Good questions lead to answers – but that can happen only if we can recognize when the answers are worth a damn.

– – –
The Reductionist approach to science has worked for some time now, so we can’t really blame the climate guys for thinking that forcings. Reductionist, bottom-up, always looks for forcings, because in Reductionism the whole is always the sum of the parts. “When you do A, then B follows” thinking means that they are thinking that “If B, then there must be an A causing it.”

But can Reductionist thinking even work when addressing chaotic systems? When everything affects everything else, where is the bottom? What are the starting points? What are the pieces of which the whole is made, when A flows into B flows into C flows into D, . . . into A, and it all happens in blendings, not discrete steps? And which is the first?

As an engineer I know that even in the very discrete cause-and-effect world of machines the questions can be hard to find, and when working with the wrong question(s) the right answer is not going to show up.

So, yes, what should be happening is not a Reductionist approach (which is getting no one much of anywhere) but a Brainstorming Session, where all questions are on the table, where no judgments are made. New questions may not in themselves be the right questions, but they can lead to the right questions.  (It does depend on the inquirers’ flexibility.  Reductionism does not allow for much in the way of flexibility.  Sometimes that is a strength.  So far in the complex world of climate one might argue that )

Look at all the areas in which questions have been asked – tree rings, ice cores, corals, SST, AMO, PDO, ENSO, Laurentian ice sheet melting, UHI, cosmic rays, . .  on and on. Right questions are NOT that easy to come by.

Without the right questions, the right answers are impossible.

At this point, who knows what the right questions are? It is clear that continuing to ask the same ones and expecting them to inform us properly is insanity.

With such an enormous chaotic system, we are – so far – in over our heads. Finding the right paradigm which will dictate better questions is the way to go. Maybe we can’t find that better paradigm until some of the right questions fall out of the sky on us.

Go, Willis. Keep asking. If nothing else, you are brainstorming and you might lead someone else to ask the right first question.

Maybe you already have. Maybe the system itself acts like an intelligent, self-regulating being. If we rule that out, we may be ruling out ever understanding it. I’ve seen so many times where researchers say that we just don’t have the computing power, that the complexity is too much for our computers. Our computers, however, are built on the Reductionist principle. Maybe that in itself is the roadblock.

If the system is in itself intelligent (in a way we can’t fathom or accept now), by accepting that as a possibility, we might find that first right question that opens up the floodgates.

How do stem cells know what type cells to become? DNA is a Reductionist fundamental. But stem cells are directed by something to become one type of cell in one part of the body and another in another part of the body, and can be ANY type of cell. The directing of which to be – is that Reductionist? Does it come from protrusions on neighboring cells that trigger the stem cell? Or does the gestalt of the body act in a coordinated way, informing organs when to do what and stem cells to become whatever? In fact, what IS the thing we call the autonomic nervous system, or the subconscious, too? Are they intelligences, regulating and informing?

Is climate the same?

Are there intelligences existing that Reductionism doesn’t allow for, and which are beyond it?

Are these too metaphysical of questions to be asking? In a Reductionist world like science is now, certainly. But is Reductionism holding back science in this case? The scientists – deep in the Reductionist paradigm – may be the wrong ones to ask. Metaphysicians are not the ones to ask, either, because they don’t have their feet on the ground enough.

Willis, you are posting an entirely new start here. Let’s hope you are triggering a bit of a revolution. New sciences may be possible out of it, maybe new maths. You may be opening Pandora’s Box. But until it is opened, no sense can be made of chaos or chaotic systems. The science is inadequate at present. The math is, too. The modelling programs cannot be written without adequate math and paradigms. Some day the models WILL exist. But not till the underlying system intelligence is found – WAY outside the present (non-Pandora’s) box.

Steve Garcia


2 responses to “The Search for the Right Questions Can Be Very Difficult, Indeed

  1. Hi Steve,

    Noticed your comment on WUWT. I’m not sure if I’ve come here to troll you or not. I hope not. Trying to listen with an open mind and pay attention to the possibility that I’m wrong. Naturally, I come to the table from the perspective you describe.

    We’re speculating about systems possessing intelligence that we normally wouldn’t remotely consider as candidates for having that capacity. This actually makes a certain amount of sense to me. Computers demonstrate that you don’t need a biological system to symbolically process information.

    STILL – at the end of the day, there’s a mechanism for intelligence. There’s storage media in my computer. There are flip flops (or the modern super miniaturized equivalent). There’s a CPU, with a clock and an ALU. There’s a data bus. Etc. What possible mechanisms could the climate use to symbolically store and manipulate information?

    PROCESSING information is particularly interesting in this context. It has been shown that anything you can do on any modern computer, you can in principle also do on what’s called a ‘turing machine’, which is a tape reading/writing processor with a few extremely simple operations. This following description isn’t a what a turing machine actually does as I understand it, but an easier form for me to follow personally is that a processor that can load, store, NAND, and branch can do anything any other processor can do, albeit much less efficiently. It wouldn’t necessarily surprise me then that symbolic information processing could in theory be performed by a system if only a handful of critical operations could in some way shape or form be implemented. But again, what would they be in the case of climate?

    Gotta run. My compliments on having the courage to think out of the box and talk about it publicly, although I think there’s quite a ways to go to try to put your speculation on anything resembling solid footing.


    Mark Bofill

    • Mark –

      Thanks for the input – the respectful input, I maybe should say.

      It’s ironic that I am just now finishing the Brad Pitt movie about Billy Beane, the General Manager for the Oakland A’s and his 2002 season where he had the courage to think outside the box and put it out there on the baseball field. His thing was to take baseball out of the “gut instinct” cave man era and use computers and numbers – to quantify baseball.

      That is, of course – on the surface – the opposite of what I am suggesting. But in one way it is not my idea. I was only expanding on what Willis was saying (at least the way I was reading Willis).

      But my thinking may, indeed, be different from Willis’. I think there is room out there for an organizing principle, one which is not the bottom up of Reductionism, which has ruled science since forever. There are only really vague hints out there in that direction, but there is much possibility in that direction. I don’t want to go out there too la-la land-ish, but there are two things, the holographic universe model and the morphic resonance which Rupert Sheldrake is giving a bad name to. Neither field has gotten enough attention, but I see potential in them. And there is also something called cymatics that has me wondering what it might some day contribute. All of those are somehow connected with resonance – of light, of sound, of shape. If they are to contribute anything to our inquiries into Nature, it will probably be long after I am dead and buried. But I see potential in them. All three may fail, but what the hey – people have bet on losing horses before.

      I am a retired mechanical design engineer who also worked 7 years in R&D, so I have at least one of my feet on the ground. But I also think science has serious drawbacks, academic conservatism being one of them and too much fear of looking in new directions. Also, the idea in science that all the big ideas have been settled troubles me. New ideas, right or wrong, should always be welcome.

      As to where the climate might store information, that wasn’t exactly what I was talking about, but Willis’ idea that high and low values might trigger some mechanism – does that take a storage system? Maybe yes, maybe no. As to several different mechanisms being thermostats, if one mechanism can have high and low triggers, then what limits the principle to that one and only that one? Speculative? Sure, but not impossible. Like Willis said, something keeps the climate within 0.1% for very long stretches of time. Based on more than one person’s input on WUWT (quite a while back), it appears that there is an upslope (Willis’ “drift”) coming out of the LIA upon which is superimposed a 60-year sine curve – and that we are currently on the downslope of the sine curve, for the third or fourth time since around 1800 or so.

      I later commented to Willis that maybe the PDO and AMO are not the longest term oscillations/cycles, and that perhaps the “drift” – as he calls it – is only the upslope of a longer oscillation, and that it only looks like a drift because the oscillation is a long one. I referred to the Heinrich Events of the Holocene and the Dansgaard-Oeschger events of the Pleistocene. Those certainly had some triggers that appear to bring on colder periods quite quickly. The cause of those events are all speculative, IMHO, even if there might be a consensus at present among those who study them. Isn’t a sudden change what happens with thermostats, what they are designed to do?

      As to the long term oscillations, the LIA was preceded by the MWP, and 1,000 years before that was the Roman Warm Period. At our millennium point, 1,000 years after the MWP, why couldn’t that be a sign of an oscillation – a max period from which the climate will automatically cool? And if so, we are due for a few hundred years of our overall warmer period (unconnected to CO2 or human activity), before a few hundred years of cool/cold. I would hate to find out later that we shortened our naturally occurring second “Holocene Climate Optimum” and extended the start of the cold regime.

      I do look at earth systems as systems with the potential to be storing some pre-set trigger levels, if not something more sophisticated. In thinking that, I might be anthropomorphizing in a way, but perhaps not. What memory/data storage we currently have in computers was inconceivable 40 years ago (or less), and we are so young in our sciences and especially computers (and have done so MUCH already) that I do not limit what possibilities might be out there, in both capacity and mechanisms. If it is one day before long found that organics can store information, I wouldn’t be the most surprised person on the planet. The brain, after all, is an organ. Will memory storage be limited to flesh and blood? How would I know?…LOL Organs all over our innards have multiple types of cells each with single functions and trigger values of some sort that make them produce such things as stomach acid and insulin, or prompt the creation of T-cells (white blood cells) or macrophages. If in our bodies, why NOT in our external environment? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t say it is impossible.

      Possibilities, possibilities, possibilities. . . I for one, will try to never say I know what is possible and impossible. Was it Einstein who said something like, “Anyone who says something is possible may be right, but anyone who says something is impossible is likely to be wrong.”

      I sure hope there are surprises ahead, in all fields of science. It seems like it might be pretty boring to actually know everything.


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