21 May 2013
The Human Future after Geopolitics:
The Large Scale Structure of Political Societies
Some time ago in The Fundamental Theorem of Geopolitical Thought I formulated just such a theorem as follows: Human agency is constrained by geography. While geopolitics must remain central to understanding contemporaneous political thought, this will not always be so. The time will come when we will, of necessity, pass beyond geopolitics.
In many posts in which I have discussed the extraterrestrialization of terrestrial civilization (cf. e.g., Addendum on Extraterrestrialization and The Farther Reaches of Civilization) and the advent of Copernican civilization (cf. e.g., Civilization and the Technium and Earth Science, Planetary Science, Space Science) I have clearly implied that, as civilization expands off the surface of the earth, the political life of man will be forced to change in order to keep pace with these events, much as human societies have been forced to change rapidly as a result of the industrial revolution and its consequences. It does not matter how desperately those heavily-invested in the present global order will resist this change: the change will come if industrial-technological civilization continues its trajectory and does not succumb to existential risks.
If the political structure of extraterrestrialized civilization will be described by a future science of astropolitics, the fundamental theorem of astropolitics can be formulated as concisely as my fundamental theorem of geopolitics, and it would be formulated thus:
Human agency is constrained by the structure of space.
This is a straightforward generalization of my fundamental theorem of geopolitics, and as that theorem can be summarized as geography matters, the fundamental theorem of astropolitics can be similarly summarized as space matters.
The generalization of the scope of human agency from geography to the structure of space itself suggests that we also ought to generalize beyond the human, since by the time earth-originating civilization is an extraterrestrial civilization human beings will have become transhuman or post-human, and in the fullness of time homo sapiens will be followed by successor species. Thus…
Human and human-successor agency is constrained by the structure of space.
However, since this formulation of the fundamental theorem of astropolitics would hold for any peer civilization, there is no reason to limit the formulation to human beings, human successors, or earth-originating life. Thus…
Any conscious agency is constrained by the structure of space.
It is even superfluous to mention the qualification of “conscious” agency, since any naturalistic agency whatsoever is and will be constrained by the structure of space (supernatural agencies as comprehended in eschatological conceptions of history would presumably not be constrained by space). However, since our concern at present is to understand the large scale structure of political societies, we are concerned with those agents that represent peer industrial-technological civilizations that might establish (or have already established) a (peer) civilization beyond the surface of their homeworld.
Despite the many different formulations that might be given to the fundamental theorem of astropolitics, depending on the degree of generalization to be embodied in the formulation, all of these generalizations are intuitively continuous with the fundamental theorem of geopolitics, as well they ought to be. The geographical and topographical features that are central to geopolitical thought are the local structures of space corresponding to the human epistemic and perceptual order of magnitude. When the growth of civilization forces the parallel expansion of human epistemic and perceptual orders of magnitude, the structure of space itself will concern us more than the local mountain ranges, rivers, and deserts that now shape our terrestrial strategic thought.
The structural similarity between the fundamental theorem of geopolitics and the fundamental theorem of astropolitics masks the profound transformation of human political life that will come about in the event that human civilization expands to the degree that astropolitical thought will better describe strategic agency than geopolitical thought. A robust, self-sustaining human presence off the surface of the earth will impact human political societies so dramatically that it will eventually mean the end of the nation-state system. Such a change in human political thought will develop over more than a century, and will probably require two or three centuries to be fully assimilated throughout human civilization.
In my Political Economy of Globalization I attempted to describe the peculiar form of dishonesty that is employed in political thought that is to be found when our political ideas do not keep up with actual political developments:
…not every political entity that has a seat at the table at the United Nations conforms to the paradigm of the nation-state; some are more state, others more nation, yet others falling under neither category. Feudal monarchies rub elbows with republics and city-states, none of them representing any genuine national aspirations of a people or peoples for self-determination.
If the United Nations had existed in the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire would have been a member; if the United Nations had existed in the nineteenth century the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have been a member state. These empires are long since dissolved, but we can easily imagine that had the UN been in existence at the time of their dissolution these events would have been characterized in apocalyptic terms and attended with much hand wringing.
And if the dissolution of individual nation-states causes the level of distress one sees in the international system, it should be apparent that the end of the nation-state system itself will be viewed by some as a catastrophe of unparalleled proportions. However, it will take some time for the change to be noticed, which I also noted in my Political Economy of Globalization:
In the distant future, there will be, of course, political entities that will be called states. But the modern nation-state, eponymously defined in terms of nationhood, but in fact defined in terms of territorial sovereignty, cannot survive in its present form to be among the political entities of the future. Perhaps the new political entities will be called nation-states, as a holdover from our own time, but they will not have the character of nation-states any more than the Ottoman Empire had the character of a nation-state. While the latter was an identifiable state, to be sure, it was not a nation-state.
Conventional contemporary political and social science scarcely ever questions the role of the nation-state in human affairs (as though it were a permanent feature of civilization, which it is not), but we are under no obligation to allow these conventional limitations upon political imagination constrain our own formulations. It is enough to be constrained by the structure of space; there is no need to voluntarily burden oneself with additional constraints.
But we must unquestionably begin with the nation-state as the source of our present political situation, because all that follows in the future from the present situation will follow from the familiar nation-state system and the political thought of our time that privileges the nation-state system. The human, all-too-human scale of the nation-state system is the political parallel of the human, all-too-human scale of the geographical and topographical obstacles that are the present boundaries to human agency.
There is story I can’t resist repeating here about practical geopolitics, which is what military operations in the age of the nation-state represent. It is, in fact, a story within a story, as related by Hermann von Kuhl of Alfred von Schlieffen:
“He lived exclusively for his work and his great tasks. I remember how we once travelled through the night from Berlin to Insterburg, where the great staff ride was to begin. General Schheffen travelled with his aide-de-camp. In the morning the train left Königsberg and entered the Pregel valley, which was basking prettily in the rays of the rising sun. Up to then not a word had been spoken on the journey. Daringly the A.D.C. tried to open a conversation and pointed to the pleasant scene. ‘An insignificant obstacle,’ said the Graf — and conversational demands until Insterburg were therewith met.”
THE SCHLIEFFEN PLAN: Critique of a Myth, GERHARD RITTER, Foreword by B. H. LIDDELL HART, OSWALD WOLFF (PUBLISHERS) LIMITED, London, W.i, 1958, p. 99
Schlieffen’s single-minded focus on geographical features as exclusively representing opportunities or obstacles for campaigning — features that for others might represent aesthetics objects, or any kind of object significant in human experience — demonstrates geopolitical thought as at once practical and abstract. It is possible for geopolitics to be practical and abstract at the same time because the abstractions it considers are features like “insignficant obstacle,” while it takes no account of features such as “pleasant scene.” Astropolitics will be practical and abstract in the same way, although its objects will not be objects of ordinary human experience such as “insignificant obstacle” or “pleasant scene.”
The magnification of the scale of human concerns in astropolitics will not merely involve a larger canvas for human ambition, but will also introduce complexities not represented at the geopolitical scale. On the level of ordinary human experience time and space can be treated in isolation from each other, so that we have history and geography as abstract conceptions; at the higher energy levels, greater distances, higher speeds, and greater gravitational influences of a much-expanded spacefaring civilization, space and time will of necessity be treated together as space-time.
After I first formulated my fundamental theorem on geopolitical thought I followed it with two additional principles, the second law of geopolitics…
The scope of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human agency is marginal.
Human agency is essentially a temporal agency.
As I had summarized the fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought as geography matters, I summarized the third law of geopolitical thought as history matters. As we have seen above, the large scale structure of the universe must be understood in terms of space-time, meaning that we cannot isolate cosmological geography from cosmological history. History and geography on a cosmological scale are even more intimately bound up in each other than they are on the human, all-too-human scale of terrestrial politics.
This suggests a further generalization of the fundamental theorem of astropolitics:
Human agency (or any conscious agency) is constrained by space-time.
History and geography have always been intimately tied together, and his, of course, is one of the great lessons of geopolitics, that geography shapes history. It is also true, has been true, that history shapes geography, but the forces by which the history of life on earth have shaped geography have occurred on a timescale that is not apparent to human perception.
In a future political science of astropolitics, we will have a history that reflects the large scale structure of the cosmos, and a large scale structure of the cosmos that reflects the history of the universe. While human agency (or other conscious agents) has not yet acted on a scale to have shaped the initial 13.7 billion years of cosmic history, if our civilization or its successor institutions should endure, its history could well shape the large scale structure of space-time.
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8 April 2013
To make the trip from Punta del Este to San Pedro de Timote is to cross a bridge between worlds. Punta del Este is a chic and sophisticated beach resort known to the world, with sandy beaches stretching for as far as the eye can see. San Pedro de Timote is a remote, rural estancia, a world unto itself, with rolling countryside and livestock for as far as the eye can see.
With its monumental ranch buildings, elegant interior spaces with high ceilings, and its isolated situation, San Pedro de Timote naturally dominates its surroundings, and one can readily see it as the economic focus of the area, if not the region, with its own institutions, its own power structures, its own client-patron networks. A community unto itself, an enclosed world unto itself, that functions all the more efficiently for being dependent exclusively upon its own resources and requiring nothing from the outside world, such a place exudes a feeling of completeness not to be found elsewhere. There is both an aesthetic and an intellectual satisfaction to be found in this.
We see here a perfect exemplification of a civilized countryside, and of the distinctive civilization that it produced — much more like the manorial system of feudal Europe than the commercial civilization that followed later and displaced the manorial system. The manorial system lived on in rural South America long after it disappeared from the European continent where it achieved its most distinctive expression.
From the air, upon arrival, Uruguay presents the aspect of regular quadrangles of orderly agricultural land dominating the countryside — no less regular than urban regularity, but realized in a different medium, and to a different purpose. The aerial view reveals the large scale structure of a civilization in its greatest generality, as I attempted to show in Epistemic Orders of Magnitude (and, a little differently, in relation to constructivism, in P or not-P) in relation to industrialized cities, but which is equally as truly revealed in the landscape of rural agriculture, whether the regular quadrangles of Uruguay, or the terraces of the Andes or of the terraced rice farming in southeast Asia.
While the cities have taken over the role as the economic centers of industrial-technological civilization, as this civilization relentlessly expands its scope, here in San Pedro de Timote it is still possible to believe that the estate itself remains the center of life. And indeed, if the industrial-technological civilization that overlaid itself upon the landscape were to suddenly vanish tomorrow, life would go on here as always, essentially unchanged and undisturbed by the coming and going of an alien form of civilization with which is shares little and coincides on only a few points of contact.
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5 April 2013
Previously I have written about The Cognitive Value of Horseback Riding and The Cognitive Value of Walking, and as I both rode and walked today at the Estancia Tierra Santa I was in a position to appreciate this sentiment again.
One of the fundamental differences that divides Occidental and Oriental civilization is the attitude to enlightenment: in the west, enlightenment comes from engagement with the world; in the east, enlightenment come from disengagement with the world and turning inward to what Augustine called the “inner man” — except this latter phrase is too personal, too individual, and altogether too western to describe (much less explain) the eastern attitude to enlightenment.
As a westerner, even when I am thinking I want to be actively engaged in some activity, like riding or walking or canoeing or evening simply listening to music. Nietzsche, whom I have quoted previously on this topic, said that only thoughts reached by walking have any value. I read somewhere that Seymour Cray, the designer of Cray supercomputers, dug tunnels in his backyard. This may sound eccentric, but anyone who has ever immersed themselves in their work until they reach a point that psychologists call a “flow state,” which is essentially meditative in character, knows what this is like. And it is paradigmatically western.
The eastern tradition is very different. In Yoga, for instance, the idea of meditation is that, if only one can perfectly still the mind, then the truth will appear out of the depths of that stillness. The westerner, by contrast, does not seek stillness, but activity and agitation.
Here is how one westerner, Will Durant, saw the tradition of India:
“Here and there, constituting one-fifth of the land, the primitive jungle remains, a breeding-place of tigers, leopards, wolves and snakes. In the southern third, or Deccan, the heat is drier, or is tempered with breezes from the sea. But from Delhi to Ceylon the dominating fact in India is heat: heat that has weakened the physique, shortened the youth, and affected the quietist religion and philosophy of the inhabitants. The only relief from this heat is to sit still, to do nothing, to desire nothing; or in the summer months the monsoon wind may bring cooling moisture and fertilizing rain from the sea. When the monsoon fails to blow, India starves, and dreams of Nirvana.”
The very act of placing Indian religious philosophy in its biological and climatological context reveals Durant as a westerner, but it is far better to try to understand the east as a westerner than to pretend that one understands as a native a tradition to which one has not been born.
At the extremes of the world, we find the extreme exemplifications of western extroversion and eastern introversion. In Japan, at the far east of the eastern world, we have the tradition of Zazen, or sitting meditation, in which monks sit virtually motionless for hours in meditation. In North America, at the far west of the western world, we have the idealization of unreflective activity. And while meditation can descend into ineffectual quietism, unreflective activity can descend into frantic nihilism.
Because of the western focus on activity and worldly engagement, philosophy has always been a marginal activity in the west, and while Plato dreamed of a Philosopher-King, philosophers never had the social status or communal approbation of scholars and wise men in the east; they were persecuted more often than they were praised.
At the same time, I think that the case can be made that it was the western tendency to seek active engagement with the world that was the essential source of modern science. Science in its modern form is almost entirely a production of western civilization, and this in itself has been a source of tension between western civilization, which in the form of industrial-technological civilization is driven by science, and the civilizations of the eastern, which have adopted science pragmatically, but for which it is not a natural expression of the greatest intellects native to the tradition.
In so far as industrial-technological civilization has demonstrated that it is capable of preempting other forms of civilization, there wouldn’t seem to be much of a future for other forms of civilization, and this would seem to spell the ultimate doom of eastern civilizations. One could easily suppose the the habit of science, adopted pragmatically, may eventually displace ancient culture traditions and come to be as intuitive and instinctive for the peoples of the east as it is for the west.
It is, however, equally as much a possibility that some entirely new kind of civilization will emerge from the collision of western science and eastern introspection, just as a new form of civilization emerged in the western hemisphere from the collision of European civilization and the native traditions of the Americas. The civilizations of the New World were annihilated by the collision, but many of the attitudes, intuitions, instincts, perspectives, and the overall intellectual orientation were not annihilated, and continue to shape the world to the present day, although in a much less direct fashion than western civilization shapes the world at present.
I do not think that this is the only possibility for the future of civilization, i.e., that the melding of western science and eastern introspection is the sole source of future civilization. I also think that the peculiar traditions of western civilization will continue their development in the western hemisphere, even as European civilization fades into the past in the eastern hemisphere. And from the continued development of science from western engagement and activity in the world will come a science that is so sophisticated and subtle that it will demand an account of its own foundations, and this will force westerners into a more reflective appreciation of the world that science has revealed to us.
In each case, something essential will be retained of the fundamental division between eastern and western approaches to enlightenment, and the character of enlightenment too, being, ultimately, human, all-too-human, will change — a moving target defined by the changing human condition.
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17 March 2013
Since posting Automation and the Human Future a few days ago, a reader has directed by attention to Technological Unemployment Amidst Stagnation at All Systems Need A Little Disorder by Ashwin Parameswaran. I have previously mentioned Ashwin Parameswaran’s blog, Macroeconomic Resilience, in my post Self-Dissimilarity.
While my last post credited the fear of technogenic unemployment primarily to recession-induced pessimism, Parameswaran takes technogenic unemployment very seriously, and anticipates “Transitioning To The Near-Automated Economy,” even considering the changes that must come about in education as this transition is made. What Parameswaran writes is so wonderfully sane and reasonable, and I agree with so much of it (indeed, it warmed my heart to see him refer to our economy today as “neo-feudal” as this is a point that I have made many times), that I hesitate to differ with him, and I don’t need to differ with Parameswaran too much if we adjust our expectations to la longue durée and make it clear that we are not talking about what is going to happen within 25 years or so.
I am certainly not beyond speculating on the possibility of very different employement structures. In my post Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution, I suggested the possibility of an industrial revolution of a different sort — an industrial revolution resulting in a society in which the supply and the demand for labor were not nearly so close to being in equilibrium as they are today. For despite the problems of unemployment that plague advanced industrialized societies, the astonishing thing about it is not that there is unemployment, but rather that supply and demand of labor are so nearly identical. In a different kind of society, a different kind of industrial civilization, this approximation of employment demand to employment supply might not obtain.
As long as we take a sufficiently long time-horizon I am willing to agree that we will be eventually transitioning to a near-automated economy. In a comment made on the Los Angeles Times article L.A. 2013 — about an article from 03 April 1988 (from the Los Angeles Times Magazine), seeking to predict a quarter century into the future to 2013, Yves Rubin wrote…
“In general, such futuristic articles should multiply time spans by at least 10. Downtown Los Angeles “may” look like in this article’s cover photo in 250 years!”
I largely agree with this. In 25 years we see little change, but in 250 years we are likely to see significant change. Think back to the world 250 years before the present — the world of 1763, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Seven Years’ War — and if we compare that world, without electricity, without the internal combustion engine, before the industrial revolution, and before the United States existed, with our world today, we can see how radical the changes to the familiar world can be in a future an order of magnitude beyond the modest 25 years of the 1988 article about LA.
I am willing to admit without hesitation that, 250 years from now, we may well have realized a near-automated economy, and that this automation of the economy will have truly profound and far-reaching socioeconomic consequences. However, the original problem then becomes a different problem, because so many other things, unanticipated and unprecedented things, have changed in the intervening years that the problem of labor and employment is likely to look completely different at this future date. If the near-automated economy becomes a reality in 250 years — a scenario that I will not dispute — I don’t think that this will be much of a problem, because we will need machines producing the goods we need to expand the human presence in the Milky Way. Seven billion people is a lot on the surface of the Earth — and there will be even more people by that time — but when spread out in the galaxy, seven billion human beings isn’t even enough to scratch the surface, as it were.
The transition to a near-automated economy (contemplated in isolation from parallel synchronous changes) would require adjustments so radical that it would be an open question, once these changes were in place and the near-automated economy is up and running, whether we would still be living in the same old industrial-technological civilization we have come to know and love, or whether this historical discontinuity was sufficient to cause a rupture that results in the constitution an an entirely new civilization — perhaps even constituting a preemption event that ends industrial-technological civilization by replacing it with whatever comes next. Over time, these adjustments will happen more or less naturally, but contemplated in one fell swoop the necessary adjustments seem incomprehensibly radical.
In the article Real Robot Talk in The Economist that I quoted in my last post, Automation and the Human Future, the author wrote that, “modern economies continue to use wages as the primary means by which purchasing power is distributed.” What mechanism other than wages can be employed as a means for the distribution of purchasing power? How could goods and services be allocated within an economy without the quantification that wages effect? (The problem is similar to that of allocating capital and resources within a socialist economy: how is capital to be allocated to enterprises without a pricing mechanism?)
This is another example of thinking in conventional terms about a time in the future when conventional assumptions will no longer hold. By the time the automated economy will seriously alter social relationships, so many other things will have happened, and will be happening, that terms like “labor” and “capital” and “goods” and “services” will have come to take on such different meanings that to formulate things in the old way would be nothing but an anachronism.
It is to be expected that measures will be taken in the attempt to preserve the present structure of civilization as long as possible (and in so doing to preserve the familiar meanings of familiar terms), and some of these measures may seem quite drastic in their attempts to preserve certain institutions. For example, we may see mass mobility of labor across nation-state boundaries allowing technogenically superfluous labor to seek opportunities for work in regions of the world not yet transformed by the technologies of automated production. As entrenched as the nation-state is in our contemporary thought, it is not as entrenched as our idea of civilization, and we would sooner compromise the nation-state and the international order based upon the nation-state than we would allow our civilization to lapse.
Yet, in the fullness of time, not only will our nation-states lapse, but our distinctive form of civilization will lapse also, and it will be replaced by another form of civilization, as yet unknown to us.
It is one of the distinctive features of civilization that the problems intrinsic to a given form of civilization emerge simultaneously with the civilization and disappear with the disappearance of that civilization; that is to say, for the most past, the problems of a particular form of civilization are not passed along to new forms of civilization, which have their own problems. I take this to be one of the most fascinating features of civilization, and I don’t think that it receives sufficient attention in the study of civilization. What it implies is that, like an artist’s work, a civilization’s problems are never resolved, only abandoned.
The problem of royal legitimacy, for example, scarcely exists today, and in so far as it exists at all it only exists as a holdover from an earlier form of civilization that no longer exists, as is the case with the constitutional monarchies of Europe. But the intense debates over the divine right of kings simply don’t exist any more. The problem was never “solved” but was intrinsic to the form of civilization in which royal authority was central, and once royal authority was no longer the central organizing principle of civilization, the “problem” of royal authority, its source and its legitimacy, simply disappears.
Of course, one of the ways in which one kind of civilization succeeds another is through a radical innovation that “solves” (in a sense) the problems of the earlier civilization, but in so “solving” the problem another kind of civilization is created, and so the solution does not obtain within the previous civilizational paradigm; it defines a new civilizational paradigm, within its own problems (to become manifest in the fullness of time) awaiting a solution that will initiate another civilizational paradigm.
Automated production issuing in maximized abundance and the demise of employment as we know it today would constitute a transition to a distinct form of civilization from the industrial-technological civilization that we know today, and the emergence of a future industrial-technological civilization in which maximized abundance becomes an established fact and human labor superfluous to the maximized abundance would also constitute a changed socioeconomic context that would interact will all other synchronous historical events transpiring in parallel and therefore in mutual relations of influence.
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6 March 2013
Frank Knight on risk and uncertainty
Early Chicago school economist Frank Knight was known for his work on risk, and especially for the distinction between risk and uncertainty, which is still taught in economics and business courses. Like Schumpeter, Knight was interested in the function of the entrepreneur in the modern commercial economy, and he employed his distinction between risk and uncertainty in order to illuminate the function of the entrepreneur.
Although it is easy to conflate risk and uncertainty, and to speak as though facing a risk were the same thing as facing uncertain or unknown circumstances, Knight doesn’t see it like this at all. A risk can be quantified and calculated, and because risks can be quantified and calculated, they can be controlled. This is the function of insurance: to quantify and price risk. If you have correctly factored risk into your calculation, it is no longer an uncertainty. You might not know the exact date or magnitude of losses, but you know statistically that there will be a certain number of losses of a certain magnitude. It is the job of actuaries to calculate this, and one buys insurance to control the risk to which one is exposed.
The ordinary business of life, and of business, according to Knight, involves risk management, but the unique function of the entrepreneur is to accept uncertainty that cannot be quantified, priced, or insured. The entrepreneur makes his profit not in spite of uncertainty, but because of uncertainty. No insurance can be bought for uncertainty, so that in taking on an uncertain situation the entrepreneur enters into a realm in which it is recognized that there are factors beyond control. If he is not destroyed financially by these uncontrollable factors, he may profit from them, and this profit is likely to exceed the profit made in ordinary business operations exposed to risk but not to uncertainty.
Here is how Knight formulated his distinction between risk and uncertainty:
To preserve the distinction which has been drawn in the last chapter between the measurable uncertainty and an unmeasurable one we may use the term “risk” to designate the former and the term “uncertainty” for the latter. The word “risk” is ordinarily used in a loose way to refer to any sort of uncertainty viewed from the standpoint of the unfavorable contingency and the term “uncertainty” similarly with reference to the favorable outcome; we speak of the “risk” of a loss, the “uncertainty” of a gain. But if our reasoning so far is at an correct, there is a fatal ambiguity in these terms which must be gotten rid of and the use of the term “risk” in connection with the measurable uncertainties or probabilities of insurance gives some justification for specializing the terms as just indicated. We can also employ the terms “objective” and “subjective” probability to designate the risk and uncertainty respectively, as these expressions are already in general use with a signification akin to that proposed.
Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, CHAPTER VIII, STRUCTURES AND METHODS FOR MEETING UNCERTAINTY
Knight went on to add…
The practical difference between the two categories, risk and uncertainty, is that in the former the distribution of the outcome in a group of instances is known (either through calculation a priori or from statistics of past experience), while in the case of uncertainty this is not true, the reason being in general that it is impossible to form a group of instances, because the situation dealt with is in a high degree unique.
Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, CHAPTER VIII, STRUCTURES AND METHODS FOR MEETING UNCERTAINTY
The growth of knowledge and experience can transform uncertainty into risk if it contextualizes a formerly unique situation in such a way as to demonstrate that it is not unique but belongs to a group of instances. Of the tremendous gains made in the space sciences during the last forty years, during our selective space age stagnation, it could be said that the function of this considerable gain in knowledge has been to transform uncertainty into risk. But this goes only so far.
Even if the boundary between risk and uncertainty can be pushed outward by the growth of knowledge, the same growth of civilization that attends the growth of knowledge and technology means that the boundaries of civilization itself will also be pushed further out, with the result being that we are likely to always encounter further uncertainties even as old uncertainties are transformed by knowledge into risk.
The evolution of the existential risk concept
In many recent posts I have been discussing the idea of existential risk. These posts include, but are not limited to, Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk, Research Questions on Existential Risk, and Six Theses on Existential Risk. The idea of existential risk is due to Nick Bostrom. (I first heard about this at the first 100YSS symposium in Orlando in 2011, when I was talking to Christian Weidemann.)
Nick Bostrom defined existential risk as follows:
Existential risk – One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.
An existential risk is one where humankind as a whole is imperiled. Existential disasters have major adverse consequences for the course of human civilization for all time to come.
“Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards,” Nick Bostrom, Professor, Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University, Published in the Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2002)
In his papers on existential risk and the book on Global Catastrophic Risks, Bostrom steadily expanded and refined the parameters of disasters that have (or would have) major adverse consequences for human beings and their civilization.
The table from an early existential risk paper above divides qualitative risks into six categories. the table below from the book Global Catastrophic Risks includes twelve qualitative risk categories and implies another eight; the table further below from a more recent paper includes fifteen qualitative risk categories and implies another nine. From a philosophical point of view, these further distinctions represent in advance in clarity, contextualizing both existential risks and global catastrophic risks in a matrix of related horrors.
The specific possible events that Bostrom describes range from the imperceptible loss of one hair to human extinction. Recently in Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk I tried to point out how further distinctions can be made within the variety of human extinction scenarios, and that some distinct outcomes might be morally preferable over other outcomes. For example, even if human beings were to become extinct, we might want some of our legacy to remain to potentially be discovered by alien species visiting our solar system. Given the presence of space probes throughout our solar system, it seems highly likely that these would survive any human extinction scenario, so that we have left some kind of mark on the cosmos — a cosmic equivalent of “Kilroy was here.”
Further distinction can be made, however, and the distinction that I would like to urge today is that of distinguishing existential risks from existential uncertainties.
The need to explicitly formulate existential uncertainty
Once the distinction is made between existential risks and existential uncertainties, we recognize that existential risks can be quantified and calculated. Ultimately, existential risks can also be insured. The industrial and financial infrastructure is not now in place to do this, although we can clearly see how to do this. And this much is obvious, because much of the discussion of existential risk focuses on potential mitigation efforts. Existential risk mitigation is insurance against extinction.
We can clearly understand that we can guard against the existential risks posed by massive asteroid impacts by a system of observation of objects in space likely to cross the path of the Earth, and building spacecraft that could deflect or otherwise render harmless such threatening asteroids. It was once thought that the appearance of comets or “new stars” (novae) in the sky heralded the death of kings of the end of empires. No longer. This is the perfect example of a former uncertainty that has been transformed into a risk by the growth of knowledge (or, at very least, is in the process of being transformed from an uncertainty into a risk).
We can also clearly see that we could back up the Earth’s biosphere about a truly catastrophic global disaster by transplanting Earth-originating life elsewhere. Far in the future we can even understand the risk of the sun swelling into a red giant and consuming the Earth in its fires — unless by that time we have moved the Earth to an orbit where it remains safe, or perhaps even transported it to another star. All of these are existential risks where “risk” is used sensu stricto.
There are a great many existential risks and global catastrophic risks that have been proposed. When it comes to geological events — like massive vulcanization — or cosmological events — the death of our sun — the sciences of geology and cosmology are likely to mature to the point where these risks are quantifiable, and if industrial-technological civilization continues its path of exponential development, we should also someday have the technology to adequately “insure” against these existential risks.
The vagaries of history and civilization
When it comes to scenarios that involve events and processes not of the variety that contemporary natural science can formulate, we are clearly pushing the envelope of existential risks and verging on existential uncertainties. Such scenarios would include those predicated upon the development of human history and civilization. For example, scenarios of wars of an order of magnitude that far exceed the magnitude of the global wars of the twentieth century are on the outer edges of risk and, as they become more speculative in their formulation, verge onto uncertainty. Similarly, scenarios that involve the intervention of alien species in human history and human civilization — alien invasion, alien enslavement, alien visitation, etc. — verge onto being existential uncertainties.
The anthropogenic existential risks that are of primary concern to Nick Bostrom, Martin Rees, and others — risks from artificial intelligence, machine consciousness, unintended consequences of advanced technologies, and the “gray goo” problem potentially posed by nanotechnology — are similarly problematic as risks, and many must be accounted as uncertainties. In regard to the anthropogenic dimension of many existential uncertainties I am reminded of a passage from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos:
“Biology is more like history than it is like physics. You have to know the past to understand the present. And you have to know it in exquisite detail. There is as yet no predictive theory of biology, just as there is not yet a predictive theory of history. The reasons are the same: both subjects are still too complicated for us. But we can know ourselves better by understanding other cases. The study of a single instance of extraterrestrial life, no matter how humble, will deprovincialize biology. For the first time, the biologists will know what other kinds of life are possible. When we say the search for life elsewhere is important, we are not guaranteeing that it will be easy to find – only that it is very much worth seeking.
Carl Sagan, Cosmos, CHAPTER II, One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue
This strikes me as one of the most powerful and important passages in Cosmos. When Sagan writes that, “[t]here is as yet no predictive theory of biology, just as there is not yet a predictive theory of history,” while leaving open the possibility of a future predictive science of biology and history — he wrote as yet — he squarely recognized that neither biology nor human history (much of which derives more or less directly from biology) can be predicted or quantified or measured in a scientific way. If we had a science of history, such as Marx thought we had discovered, then the potential disasters of human history could be quantified, and we could insure against them.
Well, we can insure against some eventualities of history, though certainly not against all. This is a point that Machiavelli makes:
It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.
I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.
Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, CHAPTER XXV, “What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs, And How To Withstand Her”
What remains beyond the predictable storms of floods of history are the true uncertainties, the unknown unknowns, and these pose a danger we cannot predict, quantify, or insure. They are not, then, risks in the strict sense. They are existential uncertainties.
It could be argued that our inability to take specific, concrete, effective measures to mitigate the obvious uncertainties of life has resulted in religious responses to uncertainty that systematically avoid falsifiability and thereby secure the immunity of hopes to exterior circumstances. Whether or not this has been true in the past, merely the recognition of existential uncertainty is the first step toward rationally assessing them.
Existential risk suggests a clear course of mitigating action; existential uncertainty cannot, on the contrary, be the object of planning and preparation. The most that one can do to address existential uncertainty is to keep oneself open and flexible, ready to roll with the punches, and responsive to any challenge that might arise, meeting it at the height of one’s powers; any attempt to prepare specific measures will be fruitless, and quite possibly counter-productive because of the wasted effort.
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21 February 2013
When I returned from my recent trip to Tokyo my sister picked me up at the airport and on the drive she asked me about the weather. I said that it was cold and windy, but also very clear and sunny. How cold? I had to pause. I didn’t really know how cold it had been. I didn’t even know whether or not it had been below freezing. In a rural environment one would know immediately whether or not the temperature had dropped below freezing, but in the urban intensity of Tokyo there were no obvious (natural) signs of the temperature. One would only know that it was freezing if puddles in the street were frozen over; if there are no puddles, as when it is cold and clear, there are not obvious signs of the temperature. This made me think about the differences between urban and rural life, and ultimately rural and urban civilization.
In Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View the author introduces the idea of a civilized countryside, immediately after describing what he considered to be one of the high points of (urban) civilization in Urbino under Federigo and Guidobaldo Montefeltro:
“…there is such thing as civilized countryside. Looking at the Tuscan landscape with its terraces of vines and olives and the dark vertical accents of the cypresses, one has the impression of timeless order. There must have been a time when it was all forest and swamp — shapeless and formless; and to bring order out of chaos is a process of civilization. But of this ancient, rustic civilization we have no record beyond the farmhouses themselves, whose noble proportions seem to be the basis of Italian architecture; and when the men of the Renaissance looked at the countryside it was not as a place of ploughing and digging, but as a kind of earthly paradise.”
Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, pp. 112-113, I have selectively Americanized Clark’s irritatingly British orthography
There are several themes in this passage that touch on concerns to which Clark returned repeatedly in his survey of civilization: his mention of “timeless order” invokes his earlier emphasis on permanence and the ambition to engage in monumental, multi-generational projects. Yet it is a bit odd that Clark should mention the romanticization of the countryside during the renaissance as an earthly paradise, as this points to older models of the countryside as an Arcadian paradise, as in Virgil’s Pastorals, in which shepherds play the lyre and sing poetry to each other. This is an idyllic picture of the Golden Age in which the countryside is most definitely not civilized, but rather a retreat from the corruption of civilization.
It would be easy to dismiss the whole idea of a civilized countryside both for its internal contradictions and romantic idealization of country life that has little to do with the reality of life in the country — however. However. The civilization of the European Middle Ages, which was a pervasively agrarian civilization, and especially in so far as it approximated pure agriculturalism, was essentially a rural civilization. The great manors or feudal lords were located in the countryside because this is where the food production activity that was the basis of the medieval economy was centered. In other words, the economy was centered on the rural countryside, and not on cities.
Certainly during the Middle Ages there were thriving and cosmopolitan cities engaged in sea-borne commerce with the known world, but these were at this time essentially centers of luxury commerce that touched the lives of only a very few persons. The vast majority of the population were peasants working the land; a few percent were landed nobility and a few percent were churchmen. This left only a very small fragment of bourgeoisie — people of the town, i.e., of the berg (bourg) — who were engaged in urban life year-round. This was important, but not central, to the medieval economy. What was central was agrarian production on great landed estates, which were the true measure of medieval wealth. Having money scarcely counted as “wealth.”
It is a bias of industrial-technological civilization to assume that cities are the center of civilization, because cities are the centers of industrial-technological civilization, and the industrial city is the center of industrial production. This early paradigm of industrial cities is already changing as industrial production facilities move to industrial parks on the outskirts of cities, and we tend to identify the great cities as centers of administration, education and research, the arts and cultural opportunities, and so on. But whatever the function of the city, whether producing articles of manufacture or producing prestige requirements, the city is central to the kind of civilization we have created since the end of the Middle Ages and the end of medieval agrarian civilization.
The life of the countryside has its own complexity, but this complexity is of a different order and of a different kind than the complexity of life in the city; in the city, one finds that the primary features of the intellectual landscape are the actions of other human beings whereas in the country the primary intellectual landscape is that of the natural order of things. These differing sources of complexity structure lives differently.
A certain kind of mind is cultivated by urban life in the same way that a certain kind of mind is cultivated by life in the country, which latter of course Marx dismissed as rural idiocy. The mind and life of the country, as opposed to the city, results in its own distinctive institutions. The kind of civilization that emerges in the countryside is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by life in the country, and, contrariwise, the kind of civilization that emerges in the city is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by urban life.
At least for the moment, the tradition of rural civilization has been lost to us. The great demographic development of our time is the movement of mass populations into urban areas — and the corollary of rural depopulation — as though by a spontaneous agreement the world’s peoples had decided to attempt to prove Doxiadis right about ecumenopolis as the telos of the city and of human life. This demographic trend shows every sign of smoothly extrapolating into the future, so that we can expect even more urban growth and rural depopulation over time.
Nevertheless, it remains possible to consider alternative futures in which this trend is reversed or replaced by a different trend — or even a different civilization. Global networking means that anyone can live anywhere and be in touch with the world’s rapidly changing knowledge. If you have a connection to the internet, you can live in a rural village not necessarily be subject to the idiocy of rural life that Marx bemoaned. However, this doesn’t seem to be enough right now to keep people in the countryside, especially when all the economic opportunities are to be found in the world’s growing cities.
But there is nothing inevitable about the relentless expansion or indefinite continuation of industrial-technological civilization. Agrarian civilization, like the European Middle Ages with which it is identified, is a completed part of our past, which stands like a whole, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this way we can fashion a narrative of agrarian civilization, but we cannot yet fashion a narrative of industrial-technological civilization, since this is today a going concern and not a completed whole. There is a sense in which we can treat scientific civilization — what I have called modernism without industrialism — as a completed whole, a finished era of history. Although I do not regard it as likely, it is possible that our civilization may join the ranks of finished civilizations that have run their course and added themselves to the archive of human history.
I have touched on these possibilities in several posts, as when I have considered Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios and in my argument for Viking Civilization, which constituted a very different kind of civilization — neither rural nor urban, but mobile, i.e., a nomadic civilization. This latter is the possibility that seems so apparently remote but which most fascinates me. Other kinds of civilizations have existed in the past; distinct forms remain possible today, however unlikely.
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19 February 2013
Today we celebrate the 540th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus. The great astronomer was born 19 February 1473 in Toruń, now part of Poland. The name of Copernicus belongs with the short list of thinkers who not only changed the direction of civilization, but also the nature and character of Western civilization. Copernicus as the distinction of having a cosmology named in his honor.
We would do well to recall how radically our understanding of the world has changed in relatively recent years. Up until the advent of modern science, several ancient traditions of Western civilization had come together in a comfortingly stable picture of the world in which all of Western society was deeply invested. The Aristotelian systematization of Christian theology carried out by Thomas Aquinas was especially influential. Questioning this framework was not welcome. But science was an idea whose time had come, and, as we all know, nothing can stop the progress of an idea whose time had come.
Copernicus began questioning this cosmology by putting the sun in the center of the universe; Galileo pointed his telescope into the heavens and showed that the sun has spots, the moon has mountains, and that Jupiter had moons of its own, the center of its own miniature planetary system. Others took up the mantle and went even farther: Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and eventually Newton and then Einstein.
Copernicus was a polymath, but essentially a theoretician. One must wonder if Copernicus ever read William of Ockham, since it was Ockham along with Copernicus who initiated the unraveling of the scholastic synthesis, out of which the modern world would rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of the medieval world. Ockham provided the theoretical justification for the sweeping simplification of cosmology that Copernicus effected; it is not outside the realm of possibility that the later theoretician read the work of the earlier.
Today, when our knowledge of cosmology is expanding at breathtaking speed, Copernicus is more relevant than ever. We find ourselves forced to consider and to reconsider the central Copernican idea from every possible angle. The Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter force us to seek new insights into Copernicanism. I quite literally think about Copernicanism every day, making Copernicus a living influence on my thought.
As our civilization grows in sophistication, the question “Are we alone?” becomes more and more pressing. Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” This insight is profound in its simplicity. Thus we search for peer civilizations and peer life in the universe. That is to say, we look for other civilizations like ours, and for life that resembles us.
SETI must be considered a process of elimination, which I take to already have eliminated “near by” exocivilizations, although we cannot rule out the possibility that we currency find ourselves within the “halo” of a vanished cosmological civilization.
A peer civilization only slightly advanced over our own (say 100-500 years more industrial development), if it is in fact a peer and not incomprehensibly alien, would also be asking themselves “Are we alone?” They, too, would be equally terrified at being alone in the cosmos or at having another peer civilization present. Because we know that we exist as an industrial-technological civilization, and we know the extent to which we can eliminate peer civilizations in the immediate neighborhood of our own star, we can assume that a more advanced peer civilization would have an even more extensive sphere of SETI elimination. They would home in on us as incredibly interesting, as an exception to the rule of the eerie silence, in the same way that we seek out others like ourselves. That is to say, they would have found us, not least because they would be actively seeking us. So this may be considered an alternative formulation of the Fermi paradox.
Despite the growing tally of planets discovered in the habitable zones of stars, including nearby examples at Tau Ceti which lies within our SETI exclusion zone (which excludes only civilizations producing EM spectrum signals), there is no evidence that there are other peer civilizations, and advanced peer civilizations would already have found us — and they would be as excited by discovering us as we would be excited in discovering a peer civilization. There are none close, which we know from the SETI zone of exclusion; we must look further afield. Other peer civilizations would also likely have to look further afield. In looking further afield they would find us.
I don’t believe that any of this contradicts the Copernican principle in spirit. I think it is just a matter of random chance that our civilization happens to be the first industrial-technological civilization to emerge in the Milky Way, and possibly also the first in the local cluster of galaxies. We are, after all, an accidental world. However, it will take considerable refinement of this idea to show exactly how the uniqueness of human civilization (if it is in fact locally unique) is consistent with Copernicanism — and this keeps Copernicus in my thoughts.
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9 February 2013
In the antebellum American south, slavery was called the south’s “peculiar institution,” so it is perhaps unfair to use this particular phrase to describe anything other than antebellum slavery. Also, the word “peculiar” has taken on insulting connotations, so that its use is generally avoided. However, it would probably be worse to try to speak in terms of, for example, “autochthnous institutions” or “indigenous institutions” while “parochial institutions” or “provincial institutions” both definitely carry the wrong connotations. So I visited two peculiarly Japanese institutions, and they are definitely peculiar institutions — or indigenous, or autochthnous, or whatever other phrase you’d like to employ: the Japanese Sword Museum and the Meiji Jingū (the shrine to the Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken). Both are as narrowly conceived as the Tokyo National Museum is grandly and comprehensively conceived. Their great value lies precisely in this narrowness.
The ethical code of the Samurai has been given an explicit formulation in the form of Bushidō (武士道), a confluence of Shinto, Confucianism, and Zen Buddhism, although (as is the case with most explicitly formulated doctrines) Bushidō is only the late culmination of an ancient tradition that goes deep into the history of a people, intertwined and integral with a way of life. And the way of life is ultimately more fundamental that any particular expression of that way of life. Thus the meaning of Bushidō must ultimately be sought in the lifeways of the Japanese people and the traditions of Japanese civilization, rather than being understood as an exclusive expression of the elite class of a rigid feudal system (which it unquestionably was as well). The austerity of Bushidō, its aestheticized asceticism, must then be attributed to the wider culture in the same way that the Christian ideal of a medieval European knight is to be sought in the culture of medieval Christendom. And indeed a trip to the Japanese Sword Museum is an experience in keeping with the austere Zen ethic of the Samurai who wielded the swords, and one would be perhaps equally justified to speak of a Zen aesthetic as of a Zen ethic.
The Japanese Sword Museum consists of a single room constructed as a museum vault (like the Gold Museum in Peru) with a glass case running around the walls of the single room. Behind the glass are a series of blades. Only the blades. There are a few swords with grips and scabbards, but most of the swords are displayed as blades only. There is nothing here to distract from the austere purity of the sword blade presented in splendid isolation. The oldest blades on display from the 12th century looked nearly as new as the 19th century blades on display. Most of the blades were signed including many of the earliest blades. Even in the 12th century the sword makers were signing their work, like some of the most famous Greek potters in ancient Athens.
If you visit a European museum of armaments (and I have been to several, though I should mention that housed with the Gold Museum in Peru, mentioned above, there is also an armaments museum, so it isn’t just in Europe) you will be confronted with a bewildering display of every imaginable weapons design. There are swords (and guns) of every possible design and description. This is not what you will see in the Japanese sword museum. Here the swords are displayed as the blade only, and all these blades are to essentially the same design. This is not to say that there are no differences among the blades. Some are longer or shorter, more or less curved, and there are slight slight differences in tempering visible by the particular coloration of the blade. It is as though each individual blade were striving to approximate the ideal Platonic Form of a sword, and the individual, contingent details of each were mere mundane deviations from the ideal and perfect sword.
After the Japanese Sword Museum a walk through Yoyogi Park will bring you to the Torii Gate that marks the entrance to Meiji Jingū, an extensive shrine to the Meiji Emperor and Empress Shoken. Set in a large forested park, the Meiji Shrine is a wooden structure of noble proportions, by which I mean that it was large and elegant, but not overly large or excessively elegant. I read that the whole shrine had been destroyed in the Second World War and was subsequently rebuilt. It is structurally similar to many of the monumental wooden shrines in Kyoto (which was not bombed and burned in the Second World War). The whole architectural ensemble has a wonderful serenity that belies its relatively recent rebuilding; it would be easy to imagine that this shrine has stood here undisturbed for centuries.
If I understand what I saw and what I read, people come here to worship the spirit (kami) of the Meiji emperor. After washing at stations outside the shrine itself — first the left hand, then the right, the left again and finally one’s mouth — one approaches through a large gateway, passes through a spacious quadrangle and approaches another quadrangle that one does not enter. There is a box to collect coins that acts as a (closed) gate to this second quadrangle. The ritual appeared to involve tossing a 50 Yen coin into the collection box, clapping twice, bowing twice, and closing one’s eyes and bowing one’s head forward in prayer. These prayers lasted anywhere from a part of a second to several minutes in length. One suspects that the duration of prayer corresponds to detail and care with which the wish or desire has been formulated, like an exercise in creative visualization. Usually those who approached the shrine and made an offering and a prayer would give another small bow before walking away, a step or two backward first before turning around.
I have tried to describe the visitors to Meiji Jingū and their rituals as plainly as possible, since Western monotheistic distortions usually seriously misunderstand non-Western religious traditions, and especially those traditions of the far east of Asia — Buddhism and Confucianism — which are in no sense supernaturalistic, though both incorporate vaguely animist elements. To the Westerner unable to transcend his own traditions, praying to the spirit of a deceased emperor represents the worst kind of idolatry and superstition, but if you actually visit Meiji Jingū it doesn’t feel or appear the slightest idolatrous or superstitious. It is, on the contrary, supremely dignified.
At the Meiji Shrine I happened to be present for a procession of a traditional Shinto wedding, which was an impressive sight that got the attention of all the cameras in the immediate vicinity (mine included). Later I saw a second traditional Shinto wedding, and later still I saw an office that arranges weddings at the shrine, so it appears that traditional Shinto weddings are an industry for the Meiji Shrine.
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27 January 2013
My title today, Human Agency and the Exaptation of Selection, is perhaps not a very good title, but if anyone out there has read a representative selection of my posts they will be aware that all of these topics — human agency, exaptation, and natural selection — are matters to which I have returned time and again, and I feel like I beginning to see my way clear to a point at which I can systematically tie together these themes into something more comprehensive than occasional remarks and comments of the sort that are the usual fare of blog posts.
All macro-historical revolutions to date have simply happened to us; they were not planned or chosen or made to happen, they just happened. And before the emergence of human agency in history, all the great transitions of natural history — i.e., the natural equivalent of a macro-historical revolution — simply happened without design, purpose, or direction.
Human efforts (including individual choices) in constituting historical realities have, to date, been like the myriad accidents of natural history that together and cumulatively constitute natural history. Even though human consciousness gives meaning and value to these individual decisions, and at times we participate in collective meanings and values, none of this has yet risen to the level of consciously constituting an epoch of history on the basis of human meanings and values. We have given meaning and value to circumstances that we have (accidentally) brought about, but have not brought about a civilization or a way of life in response to a determination to realize particular meanings and values. This is the social equivalent of Schopenhauer’s assertion that, while we are free to do what we want, we are not free to want what we want.
To shape the future of history, to plan for the kind of civilization to come, and possibly even to create a kind of civilization consciously intended and brought into being, would be historically unprecedented on a scale beyond the unprecedented events of human history (such as I recently wrote about in Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios, i.e., how it would be unprecedented for an invariant of civilization to be overturned), because the trend of human history being shaped by non-human forces is far older than human history, and far older than our species.
Naturalism and its Others
It is at this point that the naturalistically inclined philosopher of history must obviously and unavoidably part company with those who retain theological conceptions of the world and its development. The idea of the world, up until the emergence of human intelligence from human consciousness, being utterly unplanned, undirected, and undesigned is a rigorously (and indeed rigidly) naturalistic conception that excludes even the most distant and unconcerned creator of deism.
Even the religiously and theologically inclined who make no attempt to defy what science tells us about the world must retain some minimal sense of purpose and direction — perhaps a quasi-Aristotelian final cause — since without this there remains nothing upon which to pun one’s beliefs that is not strictly a part of nature — no transcendent eschatology or soteriology.
It should be obvious from my other posts that I am writing from a rigorously naturalistic perspective, but sometimes one must be explicit about these things so as not to leave any wiggle room, so that one’s naturalistic formulations will either be interpreted naturalistically or rejected tout court because they are naturalistic. What I have written above about unprecedented historical developments simply makes no sense is one deviates from a strict naturalism, and that is why I make it explicit here.
The Threshold of Agency
The imposition of human will upon unthinking and uncomprehending nature began in the most rudimentary ways — the chipping of stone for tools and the gathering of sufficient sustenance such that this might last beyond the next meal. At this level of planning and provision for the future, the human mind is no different from other mammalian minds, since we know that other mammals make rudimentary tools and store food for the future.
To define the point at which human planning and provision for the future exceed this common mammalian standard, and thereby also exceed the possibility of being entirely the result of instinct refined by natural selection, genetically encoded in our biology (and the ultimate limit of evolutionary psychology), involves a sorites paradox (i.e., the paradox of the heap). While we need not define a particular point that human planning exceeds the mammalian norm, we can content ourselves with a span of time (viz. between the emergence of biologically modern homo sapiens and the advent of the historical period strictly speaking, i.e., a span of time encompassing human prehistory). In accordance with what I have called the Truncation Principle, we can in fact recognize an historical discontinuity, even if that discontinuity comes about gradually.
Over some period of time, then, human planning and provision exceeded the mammalian norm and became something historically unprecedented. We tend to magnify this transition, calling ourselves the “rational animal” and associating our reason with that which is uniquely human. One of the great themes of our time is that of human beings asserting their control over the planet, assuming de facto right over the disposition of the biosphere. In fact, we don’t even control our own history, much less the history of the planet. We affect our history and the natural history of our planet, but we do not control them.
We have risen to the level of micro-historical efficacy with the first rudimentary steps of tool making and food storage. We rose to the level of meso-historical efficacy in constituting human societies. These societies began as emergent accidents of human behavior, but I think that we can assert that, over time, we have consciously constituted at least a few limited examples of communities intentionally constituted to certain ends. We rose to the level of exo-historical efficacy in constituting the largest institutions and political entities that have dominated human history. Many of these institutions and political entities have also been accidents of history, but, again, I think that we can say that there are at least some explicit examples of the purposeful constitution of human institutions and political entities.
In other words, have passed at least three thresholds of agency defined in terms of ecological temporality. For human agency to rise to the level of macro-historical efficacy we would need to rise to the level of shaping entire eras of civilization and history. We aren’t there yet. As with the natural historical emergence of human communities and later larger institutions, which began with historical accidents and were only later rationalized, human macro-history remains at the level of our accidental participation. Millions upon millions of conscious human actions were required to create the industrial revolution, but no one consciously sought to create the industrial revolution; although it was, in a sense, made by us, in a more important sense it simply happened to us.
The Problem of Progress
In several posts — Civilization and the Technium, Biology Recapitulates Cosmology, and Progress, Stagnation, and Retrogression among them — I have mentioned Kevin Kelly’s explicit arguments for progress in his book What Technology Wants. I have mentioned this because, in terms of our current intellectual climate, he is an outlier, although among techno-philosophers he may represent something closer to a consensus. Among contemporary academic philosophers and historians, almost no one argues for progress — to do so is considered an unforgivable form of naïveté.
I mention this again here because the above treatment of human agency in terms of ecological temporality might provide a quantitative way to talk about human progress and the progress of human civilization that is not tied to the development of some particular technology. Any time anyone asserts that there has been progress because we now have airplanes and computers whereas once we did not, someone else responds by pointing to the moral horrors of the twentieth century, such as genocide, to demonstrate that technological progress cannot be conflated with moral progress. Moral progress requires an entirely separate argument, as does aesthetic progress. (So too, presumably religious, ideological, or eschatological progress, but I will not attempt to address any of these at present.)
The expanding scope of human agency through levels of ecological temporality can be interpreted as a kind of progress independent of any technological development. In so far as human agency is centrally implicated in human morality, the progress of human agency could even be interpreted as a form of moral progress. Now, this is an admittedly deceptive way to formulate it, because I do not here mean “moral” in the narrow sense of “ethical” but rather “moral” in the way we would use the term in a phrase like, “the moral lives of human beings.” Another way to formulate this would be to call it human progress, but this is probably no improvement at all. I mean progress in the form of asserting human agency over the peculiarly human aspects of our lives — emotions, relationships, interactions, evaluations, creations, and so forth.
A Darwinian conception of history
A Darwinian conception of history and of civilization is simply a conception of history and civilization fully in accord with Darwin’s thorough-doing naturalism, and especially the role of selection in the constitution of historical entities (like human history and human civilization). We can understand Darwinian conceptions of history and civilization as aspects of a Darwinian cosmology. The above formulations of the ecological temporal thresholds of human agency allow us to do this in an interesting way.
When human agency crosses a threshold from being subject to accidents, including its own cumulative accidents, to asserting control over the whole process of agency and its consequences — i.e., what it brings about — what is essentially happening is that human agency is taking over for natural selection; selection, or some part of selection, is transferred from nature to humanity. In other words, the expansion of human agency is the exaptation of selection. Selection that began as natural selection, taken over by the expanding agency of human beings, becomes human selection. This is exaptation not of organic structures, but of behavioral structures, i.e., exaptation on the order of the will.
To assert that the expansion of human agency is the exaptation of selection is to formulate a Darwinian conception of history and of civilization that does not need to declare the progress is impossible to account for in a selective paradigm, and also is not obligated to argue that progress is inherent in the very nature of things, which it is not.
One can understand the problematic idea of “progress” (which we may someday be able to take out of scare quotes) as the increasing human ability to impose human direction, purpose, and design upon history.
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