17 November 2013
Inefficiency in the STEM cycle
In my previous post, The Open Loop of Industrial-Technological Civilization, I ended on the apparently pessimistic note of the existential risks posed to industrial-technological civilization by friction and inefficiency in the STEM cycle that drives our civilization headlong into the future. Much that is produced by the feedback loop of science, technology, and engineering is dissipated in science that does not result in technologies, technologies that are not engineered in to industries, and industries that do not produce new scientific instruments. However, just enough science feeds into technology, technology into engineering, and engineering into science to keep the STEM cycle going.
These “inefficiencies” should not be seen as a “bad” thing, since much pure science that is valuable as an intellectual contribution to civilization has few if any practical consequences. The “inefficient” science that does not contribute directly to the STEM cycle is some of the best science that does humanity credit. Indeed, G. H. Hardy was famously emphatic that all practical mathematics was “ugly” and only pure mathematics, untainted by practical application, was truly beautiful — and Hardy made it clear that beautiful mathematics was ultimately the only thing that mattered. Thus these “inefficiencies” that appear to weaken the STEM cycle and hence pose an existential risk to our industrial-technological civilization, are at the same time existential opportunities — as always, risk and opportunity are one and the same.
Opportunities of the STEM cycle
The apparently pessimistic formulation of my previous took this form:
“It is entirely possible that a shift in social, economic, cultural, or other factors that influence or are influenced by the STEM cycle could increase the amount of epiphenomenal science, technology, and engineering, thus decreasing the efficiency of the STEM cycle.”
Such a formulation must be balanced by an appropriate and parallel formulation to the effect that it is entirely possible that a shift in social, economic, cultural, or other factors that influence or are influenced by the STEM cycle could decrease the amount of epiphenomenal science, technology, and engineering, thus increasing the efficiency of the STEM cycle.
However, making the STEM cycle more “efficient” might well be catastrophic, or nearly catastrophic, for civilization, as it would imply a narrowing of human life to the parameters defined by the STEM cycle. This might lead to a realization of the existential risks of permanent stagnation (i.e., the stagnation of all aspects of civilization other than those that advance industrial-technological civilization, which could prove frightening) or flawed realization, in which an acceleration or consolidation of the STEM cycle leads to the sort of civilization no one would find desirable or welcome.
There is no reason one could not, however, both strengthen the STEM cycle, making industrial-technological civilization more robust and more productive of advanced science, technology, and engineering, while at the same time also producing more pure science, more marginal technologies, and more engineering curiosities that don’t feed directly into the STEM cycle. The bigger the pie, the bigger each piece of the pie and the more to go around for everyone. Also, pure science and practical science exist in a cycle of mutual escalation of their own, in which pure science inspires practical science and practical science inspires more pure science. Perhaps the same is true also of marginal and practical technologies and the engineering of curiosities and the engineering of mass industries.
Scaling the STEM cycle
The dissipation of excess productions of the STEM cycle mean that unexpected sectors of the economy (as well as unexpected sectors of society) are occasionally the recipients of disproportional inputs. These disproportional inputs, like the inefficiencies discussed above, might be understood as either risks or opportunities. Some socioeconomic sectors might be catastrophically stressed by a disproportionate input, while others might unexpected flourish with a flourishing input. To control the possibilities of catastrophic failure or flourishing success, we must consider the possibility scaling the STEM cycle.
To what degree can the STEM cycle be scaled? By this question I mean that, once we are explicitly and consciously aware that it is the STEM cycle that drives industrial-technological civilization (or, minimally, that it is among the drivers of industrial-technological civilization), if we want to further drive that civilization forward (as I would like to see it driven until earth-originating life has established extraterrestrial redundancy in the interest of existential risk mitigation) can we consciously do so? To what extent can the STEM cycle be controlled, or can its scaling be controlled? Can we consciously direct the STEM cycle so that more science begets more technology, more technology begets more engineering, and more engineering begets more science? I think that we can. But, as with the matters discussed above, we must always be aware of the risk/opportunity trade-off. Focusing too much of the STEM cycle may have disadvantages.
Once we understand an underlying mechanism of civilization, like the STEM cycle, we can consciously cultivate this mechanism if we wish to see more of this kind of civilization, or we can attempt to dampen this mechanism if we want to see less of this civilization. These attempts to cultivate or dampen a mechanism of civilization can take microscopic or macroscopic forms. Macroscopically, we are concerned with the total picture of civilization; microscopically we may discern the smallest manifestations of the mechanism, as when the STEM cycle is purposefully pursued by the R&D division of a business, which funds a certain kind of science with an eye toward creating certain technologies that can be engineered into specific industries — all in the interest of making a profit for the shareholders.
This last example is a very conscious exemplification of the STEM cycle, that might conceivably be reduced the work of a single individual, working in turn as scientist, technologist, and engineer. The very narrowness of this process which is likely to produce specific and quantifiable results is also likely to produce very little in terms of epiphenomenal manifestations of the STEM cycle, and thus may contribute little or nothing to the more edifying dimensions of civilization. But this is not necessarily the case. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were working as scientists trying to solve a practical problem for Bell Labs when they discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation.
Reason for Hope
We have at least as much reason to hope for the future as to despair of the future, if not more reason to hope. The longer civilization persists, the more robust it becomes, and the more robust civilization becomes, the more internal diversity and experimentation civilization can tolerate (i.e., greater social differentiation, as Siggi Becker has recently pointed out to me). The extreme social measures taken in the past to enforce conformity within society have been softened in Western civilization, and individuals have a great deal of latitude that was unthinkable even in the recent past.
Perhaps more significantly from the perspective of civilization, the more robust and tolerant our civilization, the more latitude there is for like-minded individuals to cooperate in the founding and advancement of innovative social movements which, if they prove to be effective and to meet a need, can result in real change to the overall structure of society, and this sort of bottom-up social change was precisely the kind of change that agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization was structured to frustrate, resist, and suppress. In this respect, if in no other, we have seen social progress in the development of civilization that is distinct from the technological and economic progress that characterizes the STEM cycle.
As I wrote in my recent Centauri Dreams post, SETI, METI, and Existential Risk, to exist is to be subject to existential risk. Given the relation of risk and opportunity, it is also the case that to exist is to choose among existential opportunities. This is why we fight so desperately to stay alive, and struggle so insistently to improve our condition once we have secured the essentials of existence. To be alive is to have countless existential opportunities within reach; once we die, all of this is lost to us. And to improve one’s condition is to increase the actionable existential opportunities within one’s grasp.
The development of civilization, for all its faults and deficiencies, is tending toward increasing the range of existential opportunities available as “live options” (as William James would say) for both individuals and communities. That this increased range of existential opportunities also comes with an increased variety of existential risks should not be employed as an excuse to attempt to reverse the real social gains bequeathed by industrial-technological civilization.
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14 November 2013
In my post The Industrial-Technological Thesis I proposed that our industrial-technological civilization is uniquely characterized by an escalating feedback loop in which scientific discoveries lead to new technologies, technologies are engineered into industries, and industries produce new instruments for science, which results in further scientific discoveries. I have elaborated this view in several posts, most recently in The Growth of Historical Consciousness, in which latter I noted that I would call this cyclical feedback loop the “STEM cycle,” given that “STEM” has become a common acronym for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” and these are the elements involved in the escalating spiral of industrial-technological civilization.
Elsewhere, in Industrial-Technological Disruption, I considered some of the distinctive ways in which the STEM cycle stalls or fails. In that post I wrote, in part:
Science falters when model drift gives way to model crisis and normal science begins to give way to revolutionary science… Technology falters when its exponential growth tapers off and its attains a mature plateau, after which time it changes little and becomes a stalled technology. Engineering falters when industries experience the inevitable industrial accidents, intrinsic to the very fabric of industrialized society, or even experience the catastrophic failures to which complex systems are vulnerable.
The last of the above items — failures of engineering and industrial accidents — I have further elaborated more recently in How industrial accidents shape industrial-technological civilization.
This is not at all to say that these are the only ways in which the STEM cycle falters or fails. As I noted in Complex Systems and Complex Failure, complex systems fail in complex ways, and industrial-technological civilization is by far the most complex system on the planet. (Biological systems are extremely complex, but industrial-technological civilization supervenes upon biological complexity, and therefore, in the most comprehensive sense, includes biological complexity in its own complexity.)
In several of my posts on what I now call the STEM cycle I have called this cycle driving industrial-technological civilization a “closed loop.” I now realize that the STEM cycle is only a closed loop under certain “ideal” conditions (I will try to explain below why I put “ideal” in scare quotes). The messiness and imprecision of the real world means that most structures that we impose upon the world in order to understand it are simplified and schematic, and my description of the STEM cycle has been simplistic and schematic in this way. The actual function of science, technology, and engineering under contemporary socioeconomic conditions is far more complex, and that means that the STEM cycle is not a closed loop, but rather an unclosed loop, or an open feedback loop in which extrinsic forces at times enter into the STEM cycle while much of the productive energy of the STEM cycle is dissipated into extrinsic channels that contribute little or nothing to the furtherance of the STEM cycle.
Not every scientific discovery leads to technologies; not every technology can be engineered into an industry; not every industry produces new scientific instrumentation that can be employed in further scientific discoveries. Industrial-technological civilization produces epiphenomenal scientific knowledge, epiphenomenal technologies, and epiphenomenal engineering and industry — but enough science, technology and engineering participate in the STEM cycle to keep the processes of industrial-technological civilization moving forward for the time being.
I noted above that the STEM cycle is a closed loop only under “ideal” conditions, and these “ideal” conditions for the STEM cycle are not necessarily the “ideal” conditions for anything else — including the development of the features we value most highly in civilization. Pure science often results in little or no technology, and only rarely does it produce technologies in the near term. Many if not most technological innovations emerge from a long process of technological development that has scientific research only as a distant ancestor. The purest of the pure sciences — mathematics — has recently shown itself to have important applications in computer science, which has a direct impact on the economy, but it would be easy to cite numerous branches of mathematics which seem to have little or no relation to any technology, now or in the future.
Many perfectly viable technologies remain as mere curiosities. The history of technology is filled with such “hopeful monsters” that never caught on with the public or never found an application that would have justified their mass production. An interesting example of this would be the Einstein-Szilárd refrigerator, designed by Albert Einstein and Leo Szilárd. Both were to have much more “commercial” success with the atomic bomb, though I suspect both would have rather been successful with their refrigerator.
A great many industries, perhaps most industries, fulfill and respond to consumer demands that have little or no relationship to producing new scientific instruments that will lead to new scientific discoveries. And when industries do change science, it is often unintentional. The mass production of personal computers has profoundly affected the way that science is pursued, and has greatly stimulated scientific discovery (as has the internet), but little of this was the direct result of attempting to produce new and better scientific instruments.
It is entirely possible that a shift in social, economic, cultural, or other factors that influence or are influenced by the STEM cycle could increase the amount of epiphenomenal science, technology, and engineering, thus decreasing the efficiency of the STEM cycle. A permanent or semi-permanent change in social conditions (i.e., the social context in which the STEM cycle is played out) could introduce sufficient friction and inefficiency into the STEM cycle to retard or cease development and thereby to induce permanent stagnation (one of the categories of existential risk) into industrial-technological civilization.
There are, today, no end of prophecies of civilizational doom and stagnation, and it is not my intention merely to add one to their number, but it is an occupational hazard of the study of existential risk to consider such scenarios. The particular scenario I contemplate here is based on a particular mechanism that I believe uniquely characterizes industrial-technological civilization, and therefore demands our attention as it directly bears upon our viability as a civilization.
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8 September 2013
The Life of Civilization
Tenth in a Series on Existential Risk
What makes a civilization viable? What makes a species viable? What makes an individual viable? To put the question in its most general form, what makes a given existent viable?
These are the questions that we must ask in the pursuit of the mitigation of existential risk. The most general question — what makes an existent viable? — is the most abstract and theoretical question, and as soon as I posed this question to myself in these terms, I realized that I had attempted to answer this earlier, prior to the present series on existential risk.
In January 2009 I wrote, generalizing from a particular existential crisis in our political system:
“If we fail to do what is necessary to perpetuate the human species and thus precipitate the end of the world indirectly by failing to do what was necessary to prevent the event, and if some alien species should examine the remains of our ill-fated species and their archaeologists reconstruct our history, they will no doubt focus on the problem of when we turned the corner from viability to non-viability. That is to say, they would want to try to understand the moment, and hence possibly also the nature, of the suicide of our species. Perhaps we have already turned that corner and do not recognize the fact; indeed, it is likely impossible that we could recognize the fact from within our history that might be obvious to an observer outside our history.”
This poses the viability of civilization in stark terms, and I can now see in retrospect that I was feeling my way toward a conception of existential risk and its moral imperatives before I was fully conscious of doing so.
From the beginning of this blog I started writing about civilizations — why they rise, why they fall, and why some remain viable for longer than others. My first attempt to formulate the above stark dilemma facing civilization in the form of a principle, in Today’s Thought on Civilization, was as follows:
a civilization fails when it fails to change when the world changes
This formulation in terms of the failure of civilization immediately suggests a formulation in terms of the success (or viability) of a civilization, which I did not formulate at that time:
A civilization is viable when it successfully changes when the world changes.
I also stated in the same post cited above that the evolution of civilization has scarcely begun, which continues to be my point of view and informs my ongoing efforts to formulate a theory of civilization on the basis of humanity’s relatively short experience of civilized life.
In any case, in the initial formulation given above I have, like Toynbee, taken the civilization as the basic unit of historical study. I continued in this vein, writing a series of posts about civilization, The Phenomenon of Civilization, The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited, Revisiting Civilization Revisited, Historical Continuity and Discontinuity, Two Conceptions of Civilization, A Note on Quantitative Civilization, inter alia.
I moved beyond civilization-specific formulations of what I would come to call the principle of historical viability in a later post:
…the general principle enunciated above has clear implications for historical entities less comprehensive than civilizations. We can both achieve a greater generality for the principle, as well as to make it applicable to particular circumstances, by turning it into the following schema: “an x fails when it fails to change when the world changes” where the schematic letter “x” is a variable for which we can substitute different historical entities ceteris paribus (as the philosophers say). So we can say, “A city fails when it fails to change…” or “A union fails when it fails to change…” or (more to the point at present), “A political party fails when it fails to change when the world changes.”
And in Challenge and Response I elaborated on this further development of what it means to be historically viable:
…my above enunciated principle ought to be amended to read, “An x fails when it fails to change as the world changes” (instead of “…when the world changes”). In other words, the kind of change an historical entity must undergo in order to remain historically viable must be in consonance with the change occurring in the world. This is, obviously, or rather would be, a very difficult matter to nail down in quantitative terms. My schema remains highly abstract and general, and thus glides over any number of difficulties vis-à-vis the real world. But the point here is that it is not so much a matter of merely changing in parallel with the changing world, but changing how the world changes, changing in the way that the world changes.
It was also in this post that I first called this the principle of historical viability.
I now realize that what I then called historical viability might better be called existential viability — at least, by reformulating by principle of historical viability again and calling it the principle of existential viability, I can assimilate these ideas to my recent formulations of existential risk. Seeing historical viability through the lens of existential risk and existential viability allows us to formulate the following relationship between the latter two:
Existential viability is the condition that follows from the successful mitigation of existential risk.
Thus the achievement of existential risk mitigation is existential viability. So when we ask, “What makes an existent viable?” we can answer, “The successful mitigation of risks to that existent.” This gives us a formal framework for understanding existential viability as a successful mitigation of existential risk, but it tells us nothing about the material conditions that contribute to existential viability. Determining the material conditions of existential viability will be a matter both of empirical study and the formulation of a theoretical infrastructure adequate to the conditions that bear upon civilization. Neither of these exist yet, but we can make some rough observations about the material conditions of existential viability.
Different qualities in different places at different times have contributed to the viability of existents. This is one of the great lessons of natural selection: evolution is not about a ladder of progress, but about what organism is best adapted to the particular conditions of a particular area at a particular time. When the “organism” in question is civilization, the lesson of natural selection remains valid: civilizations do not describe a ladder of progress, but those civilizations that have survived have been those best adapted to the particular conditions of a particular region at a particular time. Existential risk mitigation is about making civilization part of evolution, i.e., part of the long term history of the universe.
To acknowledge the position of civilization in the long term history of the universe is to recognize that a change has come about in civilization as we know it, and this change is primarily the consequence of the advent of industrial-technological civilization: civilization is now global, populations across the planet, once isolated by geographical barriers, now communicate instantaneously and trade and travel nearly instantaneously. A global civilization means that civilization is no longer selected on the basis of local conditions at a particular place at a particular time — which was true of past civilizations. Civilization is now selected globally, and this means placing the earth that is the bearer of global civilization in a cosmological context of selection.
What selects a planet for the long term viability of the civilization that it bears? This is essentially a question of astrobiology, which is a point that I recently attempted to make in my recent presentation at the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress and my post on Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams, Existential Risk and Far Future Civilization.
An astrobiological context suggests what we might call an astroecological context, and I have many times pointed out the relevance of ecology to questions of civilization. Pursuing the idea of existential viability may offer a new perspective for the application methods developed for the study of the complex systems of ecology to the complex systems of civilization. And civilizations are complex systems if they are anything.
There is a growing branch of mathematical ecology called viability theory, with obvious application to the viability of the complex systems of civilization. We can immediately see this applicability and relevance in the following passage:
“Agent-based complex systems such as economics, ecosystems, or societies, consist of autonomous agents such as organisms, humans, companies, or institutions that pursue their own objectives and interact with each other an their environment (Grimm et al. 2005). Fundamental questions about such systems address their stability properties: How long will these systems exist? How much do their characteristic features vary over time? Are they sensitive to disturbances? If so, will they recover to their original state, and if so, why, from what set of states, and how fast?”
Viability and Resilience of Complex Systems: Concepts, Methods and Case Studies from Ecology and Society (Understanding Complex Systems), edited by Guillaume Deffuant and Nigel Gilbert, p. 3
Civilization itself is an agent-based complex system like, “economics, ecosystems, or societies.” Another innovative approach to complex systems and their viability is to be found in the work of Hartmut Bossel. Here is an extract from the Abstract of his paper “Assessing Viability and Sustainability: a Systems-based Approach for Deriving Comprehensive Indicator Sets”:
Performance assessment in holistic approaches such as integrated natural resource management has to deal with a complex set of interacting and self-organizing natural and human systems and agents, all pursuing their own “interests” while also contributing to the development of the total system. Performance indicators must therefore reflect the viability of essential component systems as well as their contributions to the viability and performance of other component systems and the total system under study. A systems-based derivation of a comprehensive set of performance indicators first requires the identification of essential component systems, their mutual (often hierarchical or reciprocal) relationships, and their contributions to the performance of other component systems and the total system. The second step consists of identifying the indicators that represent the viability states of the component systems and the contributions of these component systems to the performance of the total system. The search for performance indicators is guided by the realization that essential interests (orientations or orientors) of systems and actors are shaped by both their characteristic functions and the fundamental and general properties of their system environments (e.g., normal environmental state, scarcity of resources, variety, variability, change, other coexisting systems). To be viable, a system must devote an essential minimum amount of attention to satisfying the “basic orientors” that respond to the properties of its environment. This fact can be used to define comprehensive and system-specific sets of performance indicators that reflect all important concerns.
…and in more detail from the text of his paper…
● Obtaining a conceptual understanding of the total system. We cannot hope to find indicators that represent the viability of systems and their component systems unless we have at least a crude, but essentially realistic, understanding of the total system and its essential component systems. This requires a conceptual understanding in the form of at least a good mental model.
● Identifying representative indicators. We have to select a small number of representative indicators from a vast number of potential candidates in the system and its component systems. This means concentrating on the variables of those component systems that are essential to the viability and performance of the total system.
● Assessing performance based on indicator states. We must find measures that express the viability and performance of component systems and the total system. This requires translating indicator information into appropriate viability and performance measures.
● Developing a participative process. The previous three steps require a large number of choices that necessarily reflect the knowledge and values of those who make them. In holistic management, it is therefore essential to bring in a wide spectrum of knowledge, experience, mental models, and social and environmental concerns to ensure that a comprehensive indicator set and proper performance measures are found.
“Assessing Viability and Sustainability: a Systems-based Approach for Deriving Comprehensive Indicator Sets,” Hartmut Bossel, Ecology and Society, Vol. 5, No. 2, Art. 12, 2001
Another dimension can be added to this applicability and relevance by the work of Xabier E. Barandiaran and Matthew D. Egber on the role of norms in complex systems involving agents. Here is an extract from the abstract of their paper:
“One of the fundamental aspects that distinguishes acts from mere events is that actions are subject to a normative dimension that is absent from other types of interaction: natural agents behave according to intrinsic norms that determine their adaptive or maladaptive nature. We briefly review current and historical attempts to naturalize normativity from an organism-centred perspective that conceives of living systems as defining their own norms in a continuous process of self-maintenance of their individuality. We identify and propose solutions for two problems of contemporary modelling approaches to viability and normative behaviour in this tradition: 1) How to define the topology of the viability space beyond establishing normatively-rigid boundaries, so as to include a sense of gradation that permits reversible failure; and 2) How to relate, in models of natural agency, both the processes
that establish norms and those that result in norm-following behaviour.”
The author’s definition of a viability space in the same paper is of particular interest:
Viability space: the space defined by the relationship between: a) the set of essential variables representing the components, processes or relationships that determine the system’s organization and, b) the set of external parameters representing the environmental conditions that are necessary for the system’s self-maintenance
“Norm-establishing and norm-following in autonomous agency,” Xabier E. Barandiaran, IAS-Research Centre for Life, Mind, and Society, Dept. of Logic and Philosophy of Science, UPV/EHU University of the Basque Country, Spain, email@example.com, and Matthew D. Egbert, Center for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics, University of Sussex, Brighton, U.K.
Clearly, an adequate account of the existential viability of civilization would want to address the “essential variables representing the components, processes or relationships that determine” the civilization’s structure, as well as the “external parameters representing the environmental conditions that are necessary” for the civilization’s self-maintenance.
In working through the conception of existential risk in the series of posts I have written here I have come to realize how comprehensive the idea of existential risk is, which gives it a particular utility in discussing the big picture and the human future. In so far as existential viability is the condition that results from the successful mitigation of existential risk, then the idea of existential viability is at least as comprehensive as that of existential risk.
In formulating this initial exposition of existential viability I have been struck by the conceptual synchronicities that have have emerged: recent work in viability theory suggests the possibility of the mathematical modeling of civilization; the work of Barandiaran and Egbert on viability space has shown me the relevance of artificial life and artificial intelligence research; the key role of the concept of viability in ecology makes recent ecological studies (such as Assessing Viability and Sustainability cited above) relevant to existential viability and therefore also to existential risk; formulations of ecological viability and sustainability, and the recognition that ecological systems are complex systems demonstrates the relevance of complexity theory; ecological relevance to existential concerns points to the possibility of employing what I have written earlier about metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality to existential risk and existential viability, which in turn demonstrates the relevance of Bronfenbrenner’s work to this intellectual milieu. I dare say that the idea of existential viability has itself a kind of viability and resilience due to its many connections to many distinct disciplines.
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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival
10. Existential Risk and Existential Viability
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27 July 2013
Ninth in a Series on Existential Risk:
How we understand what exactly is at risk.
How we understand existential risk, then, affects what we understand to be a risk and what we understand to be a reward.
It is possible to clarify this claim, or at least to lay out in greater detail the conceptualization of existential risk, and it is worthwhile to pursue such a clarification.
We cannot identify risk-taking behavior or risk averse behavior unless we can identify instances of risk. Any given individual is likely to identify risks differently than any other individual, and the greater the difference between any two given individuals, the greater the difference is likely to be in their identification of risks. Similarly, a given community or society will be likely to identify risks differently than any other given community or society, and the greater the differences between two given communities, the greater the difference is likely to be between the existential risks identified by the two communities.
This difference in the assessment of risk can at least in part be put to the role of knowledge in determining the distinction between prediction, risk, and uncertainty, as discussed in Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty and Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty: distinct individuals, communities, societies, and indeed civilizations are in possession not only of distinct knowledge, but also of distinct kinds of knowledge. The distinct epistemic profiles of different societies results in distinct understandings of existential risk.
Consider, for example, the kind of knowledge that is widespread in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization in contradistinction to industrial-technological civilization: in the former, many people know the intimate details of farming, but few are literate; in the latter, many are literate, but few know how to farm. The macro-historical division of civilization in which a given population is to be found profoundly shapes the epistemic profile of the individuals and communities that fall within a given macro-historical division.
Moreover, knowledge is integral with ideological, religious and philosophical ideas and assumptions that provide the foundation of knowledge within a given macro-historical division of civilization. The intellectual foundations of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization (something I explicitly discussed in Addendum on the Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Thesis) differ profoundly from the intellectual foundations of industrial-technological civilization.
Differences in knowledge and differences in the conditions of the possibility of knowledge among distinct individuals and civilizations mean that the boundaries between prediction, risk, and uncertainty are differently constructed. In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, the religious ideology that lies at the foundation of all knowledge gives certainty (and therefore predictability) to things not seen, while consigning all of this world to an unpredictable (therefore uncertain) vale of tears in which any community might find itself facing starvation as the result of a bad harvest. The naturalistic philosophical foundations of knowledge in industrial-technological civilization have stripped away all certainty in regard to things not seen, but by systematically expanding knowledge has greatly reduced uncertainty in this world and converted many certainties into risks and some risks into certain predictions.
Differences in knowledge can also partly explain differences in risk perception among individuals: the greater one’s knowledge, the more one faces calculable risks rather than uncertainties, and predictable consequences rather than risks. Moreover, the kind of knowledge one possesses will govern the kind of risk one perceives and the kind of predictions that one can make with a degree of confidence in the outcome.
While there is much that can be explained between differences in knowledge, and differences between kinds of knowledge (a literary scholar will be certain of different epistemic claims than a biologist), there is also much that cannot be explained by knowledge, and these differences in risk perception are the most fraught and problematic, because they are due to moral and ethical differences between individuals, between communities, and between civilizations.
One might well ask — Who would possibly object to preventing human extinction? There are many interesting moral questions hidden within this apparently obvious question. Can we agree on what constitutes human viability in the long term? Can we agree on what is human? Would some successor species to humanity count as human, and therefore an extension of human viability, or must human viability be attached to a particular idea of the homo sapiens genome frozen in time in its present form? And we must also keep in mind that many today view human actions as being so egregious that the world would be better off without us, and such persons, even if in the minority, might well affirm that human extinction would be a good thing.
Let us consider, for a moment, a couple of Nick Bostrom’s formulations of existential risk:
An existential risk is one that threatens the premature
extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development.
…an existential risk is one that threatens to cause the extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic failure of that life to realise its potential for desirable development. In other words, an existential risk jeopardises the entire future of humankind.
Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority, Nick Bostrom, University of Oxford, Global Policy (2013) 4:1, 2013, University of Durham and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
What exactly would constitute the “drastic failure of that life to realise its potential for desirable development”? What exactly is permanent stagnation? Flawed realization? Subsequent ruination? What is human potential? Does it include transhumanism?
For some, the very idea of transhumanism is a moral horror, and a paradigm case of flawed realization. For others, transhumanism is a necessary condition of the full realization of human potential. Thus one might imagine an exciting human future of interstellar exploration and expanding knowledge of the world, and understand this to be an instance of permanent stagnation because human beings do not augment themselves and become something more or something different than we are today. And, honestly, such a scenario does involve an essentially stagnant conception of humanity. Another might imagine a future of continual human augmentation and experimentation, but more or less populated by beings — however advanced — who engage in essentially the same pursuits as those we pursue today, so that while the concept of humanity has not remained stagnant, the pursuits of humanity are essentially mired in permanent stagnation.
Similar considerations hold for civilization as hold for individuals: there are vastly different conceptions of what constitutes a viable civilization and of what constitutes the good for civilization. Future forms of civilization that depart too far from the Good may be characterized as instances of flawed realization, while future forms of civilization that don’t depart at all from contemporary civilization may be characterized as instances of permanent stagnation. The extinction of earth-originating intelligent life, or the subsequent ruination of our civilization, may seem more straight-forward, but what constitutes earth-originating intelligent life is vulnerable to the questions above about human successor species, and subsequent ruination may be judged by some to be preferable to the present trajectory of civilization continuing.
Sometimes these moral differences among peoples are exemplified in distinct civilizations. The kind of existential risks recognized within agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization are profoundly different from the kind of existential risks now being recognized by industrial-technological civilization. We can see earlier conceptions of existential risk as deviant, limited, or flawed as compared to those conceptions made possible by the role of science within our civilization, but we should also realize that, if we could revive representatives of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and give them a tour of our world today, they would certainly recognize features of our world of which we are most proud as instances of flawed realization (once we had explained to them what “flawed realization” means). For a further investigation of this idea I strongly recommend that the reader peruse Reinhart Koselleck’s Future’s Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time.
It would be well worth the effort to pursue possible quantitative measures of human extinction, permanent stagnation, flawed realization, and subsequent realization, but if we do so we must do so in the full knowledge that this is as much a moral and philosophical inquiry as it would be a scientific and theoretical inquiry; we cannot separate the desirability of future outcomes from the evaluative nature of our desires.
Like the sailors on the Pequod who each look into the gold doubloon nailed to the mast and see themselves and their personal concerns within, just so when we look into the mirror that is the future, we see our own hopes and fears, notwithstanding the fact that, when the future arrives, our concerns will be long washed away by the passage of time, replaced by the hopes and fears of future men and women (or the successors of men and women).
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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival
9. Conceptualization of Existential Risk
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3 July 2013
Eighth in a Series on Existential Risk:
Every Risk is also an Opportunity
It is a commonplace that every risk is an opportunity, and every opportunity is a risk; risk and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. This can also be expressed by distinguishing negative risk (what we ordinarily call “risk” simpliciter) and positive risk (what we ordinarily call “opportunity”). What this means in terms of existential thought is that every existential risk is an existential opportunity, and existential opportunity is at the same time an existential risk.
If we understand by risk the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future loss, then by opportunity we should understand the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future gain. The relative probability of a loss is offset by the relative probability of a gain, and the relative probability of a gain is offset by the relative probability of a loss; both are calculable; both are, in principle, insurable. Thus these risks and opportunities represent the subset of uncertainties that present actionable mitigation strategies. Where uncertainty exceeds the possibility of actionable mitigation, we pass beyond insurable risk to uncertainty proper.
In existential risk scenarios, our very existence is at stake; in existential opportunity scenarios, again, our very existence is at stake. To formulate this parallel to the above, we can assert that existential risk is the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future loss of earth-originating life and civilization, while existential opportunity is the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future gain for earth-originating life and civilization. In formulating the existential condition of humanity, there is little that is risk sensu stricto, since much of the big picture of the human future is given over to uncertainty that lies beyond presently actionable risk. However, the calculus of risk and reward remains, even if we are not speaking strictly of risk that can be fully calculated and thus fully insured. In other words, the existential uncertainties facing humanity admit of a distinction between positive uncertainties and negative uncertainties. Any valuation of this kind, however, is intrinsically disputable and controversial.
Given that our very existence is at stake in existential opportunity no less than in existential risk, a future defined by the realization of an existential opportunity might be unrecognizable as a human future. Indeed, the realization of an existential opportunity might be every bit as unrecognizable as the realization of an existential threat, which means that the two futures might be indistinguishable, which means in turn that existential opportunity might be mistaken for existential risk, and vice versa.
Faced with a stark choice (i.e., faced with an existential choice), I think few would choose extinction, flawed realization, permanent stagnation, or subsequent ruination over species survival, flawless realization, permanent amelioration, or subsequent escalation. (If, in moments of decision in our life, we make our choice in fear and trembling, how must we fear and tremble in moments of decision for our species?) Any such choice, however, is not likely to be visited upon us in this form.
Much more likely that an explicit choice between an utopian future of astonishing wonders and a dystopian future of dismal oppression is an imperceptibly gradual process whereby a promising future suggests certain day-to-day decisions (seemingly seizing an opportunity) which lead incrementally to a future with unintended consequences that greatly outweigh the promises that prompted the daily decisions that led to the future in question. This is how history generally works: by degrees, and not by intention. (Notwithstanding the Will Durant quote — “The future never just happened, it was created.” — that I mentioned in Predicting the Human Future in Space.)
In so far as industrial-technological civilization continues its exponential growth of technology (growing incrementally and often imperceptibly by degrees, and not always by intention), and therefore also the growth of human agency in shaping our environment, the expanding scope of this civilization will mitigate certain existential risks even as it exposes humanity to new and unprecedented risks. That is to say, industrial-technological civilization itself is at once both a risk and an opportunity. Civilization centered on escalating industrial-technological development exposes us to escalating industrial accidents and unintended consequences of technology, unprecedented pollution from industrial processes, changes in our way of life, and indeed changes to our very being as a result of the technological transformation of humanity (i.e., transhumanism).
At the same time, escalating industrial-technological development offers the unprecedented possibility of a spacefaring civilization, which could establish earth-originating life off the surface of the earth and thereby secure the minimum redundancy necessary to the long-term survival of such life. The transition of the terrestrial economy to an economy fully integrated with the industrialization of space — a process that I have called extraterrestrialization — could not take place without the advent of industrial-technological civilization.
Yet the expansion of business operations and interests into extraterrestrial space is a paradigm of uncertainty — no such effort has been made on a large scale, and so the risks of such an enterprise are unknown and cannot be calculated, fully managed, or insured against. Space operations therefore exemplify uncertainty rather than risk, and for the same reason that such operations are uncertain, their execution is potentially beset with contingencies unknown to us today. This does not make such an enterprise is too risky to contemplate — this is the only imaginable contribution that industrial-technological civilization can make to the long-term survival of earth-originating life — but we must undertake such enterprises without illusions or the subsequent losses endured may become socially unsustainable leading to the end of the enterprise. Subsequent unforeseen losses resulting from the transition to a spacefaring civilization may even be interpreted as a form of subsequent ruination, and thereby conceived by many as an existential threat. How we understand existential risk, then, affects what we understand to be a risk and what we understand to be a reward.
In the larger context of industrial-technological civilization we can identify individual industries and technologies that represent in themselves both risks and opportunities. The most fantastic speculations of transhumanist utopias, like the most dismal speculations on transhumanist dystopias, constitute unprecedented opportunities (or risks) implied by the present trajectories of technology. One of the best examples of risk and opportunity in future technology are the possibilities of nano-scale robots. The development of nano-scale robots could, on the one hand, provide for unprecedented medical technologies — robots that could be injected like an inoculation which would treat medical conditions from the inside out, repairing the body on a microscopic scale and potentially greatly improving health and extending longevity. On the other hand, nano-scale robots loose in the biosphere could potentially cause great harm. if not havoc, perhaps even resulting in a gray goo scenario.
In so far as any proposed existential risk mitigation initiatives prioritize safety over opportunity, any concern for existential risk could itself become an existential risk by lending support for policies that address risk through calculated stagnation instituted as a risk-averse response to existential threats. The question then becomes how humanity can lower its exposure to existential risks without reducing its existential opportunities. The attempt to answer this question, even if it does not issue in clear, unambiguous imperatives, may at least provide a framework in which to conceptualize problematic scenarios for the human future that some may identify as desirable while others would identify the same as a moral horror — such as transhumanism.
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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival
8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity
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24 June 2013
Seventh in a Series on Existential Risk:
Infosec as a Guide to Existential Risk
Many of the simplest and seemingly most obvious ideas that we invoke almost every day of our lives are the most inscrutably difficult to formulate in any kind of rigorous way. This is true of time, for example. Saint Augustine famously asked in his Confessions:
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not: yet I say boldly that I know, that if nothing passed away, time past were not; and if nothing were coming, a time to come were not; and if nothing were, time present were not. (11.14.17)
quid est ergo tempus? si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio. fidenter tamen dico scire me quod, si nihil praeteriret, non esset praeteritum tempus, et si nihil adveniret, non esset futurum tempus, et si nihil esset, non esset praesens tempus.
Marx made a similar point in a slightly different way when he tried to define commodities at the beginning of Das Kapital:
“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”
“Eine Ware scheint auf den ersten Blick ein selbstverständliches, triviales Ding. Ihre Analyse ergibt, daß sie ein sehr vertracktes Ding ist, voll metaphysischer Spitzfindigkeit und theologischer Mücken.”
Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I. “The Process of Capitalist Production,” Book I, Part I, Chapter I, Section 4., “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”
Augustine on time and Marx on commodities are virtually interchangeable. Marx might have said, What then is a commodity? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not, while Augustine might have said, Time appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.
As with time and commodities, so too with risk: What is risk? If no one asks me, I know, but if someone asks me to explain, I can’t. Risk appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood; its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.
In my writings to date on existential risk I have been developing existential risk in a theoretical context of what is called Knightian risk, because this conception of risk was given its initial exposition by Frank Knight. I quoted Knight’s book Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit at some length in several posts here in an effort to try to place existential risk within a context of Knightian risk. There are, however, alternative formulations of risk, and alternative formulations of risk point to alternative formulations of existential risk.
I happened to notice that a recent issue of Network World had a cover story on “Why don’t risk management programs work?”. The article is an exchange between Jack Jones and Alexander Hutton, information security (infosec) specialists who were struggling with just these foundational issues as to risk as I have noted above. Alexander Hutton sounds like he is quoting Augustine:
“…what is risk? What creates it and how is it measured? These things in and of themselves are evolving hypotheses.”
Both Hutton and Jones point to the weaknesses in the concept of risk that are due to insufficient care in formulations and theoretical models. Jones talks about the inconsistent use of terminology, and Hutton says the following about formal theoretical methods:
“Without strong data and formal methods that are widely identified as useful and successful, the Overconfidence Effect (a serious cognitive bias) is deep and strong. Combined with the stress of our thinning money and time resources, this Overconfidence Effect leads to a generally dismissive attitude toward formalism.”
Probably without knowing it, Jones and Hutton have echoed Kant, who in his little pamphlet On the Old Saw: ‘That May Be Right in Theory, But it Won’t Work in Practice’ argued that the the proper response to an inadequate theory is not less theory but more theory. Here is a short quote from that work of Kant’s to give a flavor of his exposition:
“…theory may be incomplete, and can perhaps be perfected only by future experiments and experiences from which the newly qualified doctor, agriculturalist or economist can and ought to abstract new rules for himself to complete his theory. It is therefore not the fault of the theory if it is of little practical use in such cases. The fault is that there is not enough theory; the person concerned ought to have learnt from experience.”
In the above-quoted article Jack Jones develops the (Kantian) theme of insufficient theoretical foundations, as well as that of multiple approaches to risk that risk clouding our understanding of risk by assigning distinct meanings to one and the same term:
“Risk management programs don’t work because our profession doesn’t, in large part, understand risk. And without understanding the problem we’re trying to manage, we’re pretty much guaranteed to fail… Some practitioners seem to think risk equates to outcome uncertainty (positive or negative), while others believe it’s about the frequency and magnitude of loss. Two fundamentally different views.”
Jones goes on to add:
“…although I’ve heard the arguments for risk = uncertainty, I have yet to see a practical application of the theory to information security. Besides, whenever I’ve spoken with the stakeholders who sign my paychecks, what they care about is the second definition. They don’t see the point in the first definition because in their world the ‘upside’ part of the equation is called ‘opportunity’ and not ‘positive risk’.”
Are these two concepts of risk — uncertainty vs. frequency and magnitude of loss — really fundamentally distinct paradigms for risk? Reading a little further into the literature of risk management in information technology I found that “frequency and magnitude of loss” is almost always prefaced by “probability of” or “likelihood of,” as in this definition of risk in Risk Management: The Open Group Guide, edited by Ian Dobson, Jim Hietala:
“Risk is the probable frequency and probable magnitude of future loss. With this as a starting point, the first two obvious components of risk are loss frequency and loss magnitude.” (section 5.2.1)
What does it mean to speak in terms of probable frequency or likely frequency? It means that the frequency and magnitude of a loss is uncertain, or known only within certain limits. In other words, uncertainty is a component of risk in the definition of risk in terms of frequency and magnitude of loss.
If you have some doubts about the formulation of probable frequency and magnitude of loss in terms of uncertainty, here is a definition of “risk” from Dictionary of Economics by Harold S. Sloan and Arnold J. Zurcher (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961), dating from well before information security was a major concern:
Risk. The possibility of loss. The term is commonly used to describe the possibility of loss from some particular hazard, as fire risk, war risk, credit risk, etc. It also describes the possibility of loss by an investor who, in popular speech, is often referred to as a risk bearer.
Possibility is just another way of thinking about uncertainty, so one could just as well define risk as the uncertainty of loss. Indeed, in the book cited above, Risk Management: The Open Group Guide, there are several formulations in terms of uncertainty, as, for example:
“A study and analysis of risk is a difficult task. Such an analysis involves a discussion of potential states, and it commonly involves using information that contains some level of uncertainty. And so, therefore, an analyst cannot exactly know the risk in past, current, or future state with absolute certainty.” (2.2.1)
We see, then, that uncertainty is a constitutive element of formulations of risk in terms of frequency and magnitude of loss, but it is also easy to see that in using terms such as “frequency” and “magnitude” which clearly imply quantitative measures, that we are dealing with uncertainties that can be measured and quantified (or, at least, ideally can be quantified), and this is nothing other than Knightian risk, though Knightian risk is usually formulated in terms of uncertainties against which we can be insured. Insuring a risk is made possible though its quantification; those uncertainties that lie beyond the reach of reasonably accurate quantitative predictions remain uncertainties and cannot be transformed into risks. I have suggested in my previous posts that it is the accumulation of knowledge that transforms uncertainties into risk, and I think you will find that this also holds good in infosec: as knowledge of information technologies improves, risk management will improve. Indeed, as much is implied in a couple of quotes from the infosec articled cited above. here is Jack Jones:
“We have the opportunity to break new ground — establish a new science, if you will. What could be more fun than that? There’s still so much to figure out!”
And here is Alexander Hutton making a similar point:
“…the key to success in security and risk for the foreseeable future is going to be data science.”
The development of data science would mean a systematic way of accumulating knowledge that would transform uncertainty into risk and thereby make uncertainties manageable. In other words, when we know more, we will know more about the frequency and magnitude of loss, and the more we know about it, the more we can insure against this loss.
The two conceptions of risk discussed above — risk as uncertainty and risk as probable frequency and magnitude of loss — are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary; uncertainty is employed (if implicitly) in formulations in terms of frequency and magnitude of loss, so that uncertainty is the more fundamental concept. In other words, Knightian risk and uncertainty are the theoretical foundations lacking in infosec formulations. At the same time, the elaboration of risk management in infosec formulations built upon implicit foundations of Knightian risk can be used to arrive at parallel formulations of existential risk.
Existential risk can be understood in terms of the probable frequency and probable magnitude of existential loss, with probably frequency decomposed into existential threat event frequency and existential vulnerability, and so on. Indeed, one of the great difficulties of existential risk consciousness raising stems from the fact that existential threat event frequency must be measured on a time scale that is almost inaccessible to human time consciousness. It is only with the advent of scientific historiography that we have become aware of how often we have dodged the bullet in the past — an observation that suggests that the great filter lies in the past (or perhaps in the present) and not in the future (or so we can hope). In other words, the systematic cultivation of knowledge transforms uncertainty into manageable risk. Thus we can immediately see the relevance of threat event frequency to existential risk mitigation.
Existential risk formulations can illuminate infosec formulations and vice versa. For example, in the book mentioned above, Risk Management: The Open Group Guide, we find this: “Unfortunately, Probable Loss Magnitude (PLM) is one of the toughest nuts to crack in analyzing risk.” Yet in existential risk formulations magnitude of loss has been a central concern, and is quantified by the scope parameter in Bostrom’s qualitative categories of risk.
There is an additional sense in which infosec is relevant to existential risk, and this is the fact that, as industrial-technological civilization incrementally migrates onto virtual platforms, industrial-technological civilization will come progressively closer to being identical to its virtual representation. More and more, the map will be indistinguishable from the territory. This process has already begun in our time, though this beginning is only the thinnest part of the thin edge of the wedge.
We are, at present, far short of totality in the virtual representation of industrial-technological civilization, and perhaps further still from the indistinguishability of virtual and actual worlds. However, we are not at all far short of the indispensability of the virtual to the maintenance of actual industrial-technological civilization, so that the maintenance of the virtual infrastructure of industrial-technological civilization is close to being a conditio sine qua non of the viability of actual industrial-technological civilization. In this way, infosec plays a crucial role in existential risk mitigation.
As I described in The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Civilized Life, civilization is the vehicle and the instrument of earth-originating life and its correlates, so that civilizational risks such as flawed realization, permanent stagnation, and subsequent ruination must be accounted co-equal existential threats alongside extinction risks.
If the future of earth-originating life and its correlates is dependent upon industrial-technological civilization, and if industrial-technological civilization is dependent upon an indispensable virtual infrastructure, then the future of earth-originating life and its correlates is dependent upon the indispensable virtual infrastructure of industrial-technological civilization.
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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival
7. An Alternative Formulation of Existential Risk
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20 June 2013
The Classical Greek Intellectual Foundations
of Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Civilization
One of Voltaire’s most famous witticisms was that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Such contradictions abound history; as Barbara Tuchman noted, we should expect them rather than be offended by them: “Contradictions… are part of life, not merely a matter of conflicting evidence. I would ask the reader to expect contradictions, not uniformity.” (I just happened to notice today that Michael Shermer quotes this passage in a Youtube video.) In this spirit of historical contradiction it could be observed that the intellectual framework of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization was neither agrarian nor ecclesiastical, but rather reflected the high point of Greek civilization in classical antiquity.
The intellectual space of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — the paradigm if you prefer Kuhnian language, or the epistēmē if you prefer the terminology of Foucault — was the result of what we might call the “world-builders” of classical antiquity, of them I would like to call attention to three: Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy.
Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy were the architects of the “closed world” that Alexander Koyré famously contrasted to the infinite universe that was to emerge (slowly, gradually, and at times painfully, as Koyré would demonstrate in detail) from the scientific revolution as played out in the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and many others (the architects of the infinite universe):
The infinite cannot be traversed, argued Aristotle; now the stars turn around, therefore… But the stars do not turn around; they stand still, therefore… It is thus not surprising that in a rather short time after Copernicus some bold minds made the step that Copernicus refused to make, and asserted that the celestial sphere, that is the sphere of the fixed stars of Copernican astronomy, does not exist, and that the starry heavens, in which the stars are placed at different distances from the earth, “extendeth itself infinitely up.”
Alexander Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1957, p. 35
Aristotle was the comprehensive philosopher who not only had respect for empirical observation (something Plato consistently devalued) but also formulated a system of deductive logic that made it possible for him to connect empirical observations together into a theoretical structure with great explanatory power. Aristotle, then, did not deal with isolated facts, but with theories. Each new fact, each new observation, can in this way be fit within the overall structure of a theory which in Aristotle extends from the summum genus on top to the inferior species on the bottom. There is a place for everything and everything is in its place. The much later conception of a “great chain of being” — a central idea to later agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — has its origins in the Aristotelian construct.
Euclid and Ptolemy, while comprehensive each within their own disciplines, were nowhere near as comprehensive as Aristotle; it was Aristotle’s philosophy that was the system of the world to which Euclid and Ptolemy contributed. Even though Aristotle distinguished many sciences later recognized as independent intellectual disciplines, with only two exceptions none of these sciences came to be systematically developed in antiquity (except perhaps for Aristotle’s own research in biology). Mathematics and astronomy were the two sciences that were systematically developed in antiquity as sciences recognizable as such, and still recognizable today as sciences.
While later thought, especially medieval thought, made much of the theory of the syllogism found in Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, Aristotle’s theory of science in the Posterior Analytics received much less attention. It was, nevertheless, the theoretical basis of Euclid’s systematic exposition of geometry on the basis of first principles. Euclid brought Aristotle’s world-building and logical rigor into mathematics, and wrote a book on geometry that was used as a textbook well into the twentieth century. We can today read ancient Greek mathematicians as contemporaries, and we can learn something from them; we can similarly read Ptolemy’s treatise on astronomy, the Almagest, as a serious work of astronomy, though we would have less to learn from it than from ancient mathematics.
Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy date (roughly) from what Jaspers called the Axial Age; while peoples elsewhere in the world of maturing agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization were creating religions, the Greeks were creating philosophy of science, and this proved to be a lasting contribution. This was the axialization of Western civilization during the period of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.
Aristotle provided the philosophical foundations for the thought of later Western civilization up until the scientific revolution, and even after modern science began to change the world, Aristotle’s influence continued to echo in the work of later scientists. Even up into the early modern period, when we see the first signs of modern science taking shape in Galileo’s work on physics and cosmology, scientists were still writing their treatises in the Euclidean manner. Galileo’s early works on motion and mechanics are almost scholastic in tone, but are not as well remembered as his Sidereal Messenger or Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Even Newton’s Principia is laid out more geometrico.
The emergence of industrial-technological civilization from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization was a process that began with the scientific revolution and continues to this day as the consequences of the industrial revolution continue to unfold, continuing the change the world in which we live. The transitional periods between macro-historical periods — which I have called macro-historical revolutions — are themselves periods of hundreds of years in duration. In fact, the first such macro-historical revolution, which inaugurated the macro-historical division of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, may have been a transition measurable in thousands of years.
In my immediately previous post, The Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Thesis, I suggested that, given the counter-market, counter-developmental mechanisms institutionalized in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, that its failure is to allow a revolution to take place. The long history of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — which might be stretched to as much as 15,000 years, depending upon when we date the first domestication of crops and the first settled, quasi-urban villages enabled by domesticated agriculture — witnessed many revolutions, all of which failed except for the last, which issued in the catastrophic collapse of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and the emergence of industrial-technological civilization.
That I have called contemporary civilization “industrial-technological civlization” and the civilization the preceded it “agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization,” and given that the latter so closely conforms to the distinction between economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure, I am trying to make a point about the overall structure of civilizations, even civilizations that inhabit distinct macro-historical divisions?
The source of Marx’s distinction between economic infrastructure (or economic base) and ideological superstructure is to be found in his A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy. It is worth revisiting Marx’s formulation. The crucial passage is as follows:
In the social production which men carry on they enter Into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society — the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.
Marx, Karl, A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy, translated from the Second German Edition by N. I. Stone, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1911, Author’s Preface, pp. 11-12
Marx’s formulation is a straight-forward social implementation of a materialist theory of the relation of mind to body, so that we can say at least that Marx was a consistent materialist. Marx’s consistent materialism yields consistent results in the analysis of societies, which in some instances seems to be highly successful and offers us some insight. But not always. No schema can be quite true when stretched to fit every possible instance, and this is true of Marx’s consistent materialism. It collapses when confronted by societies in which there is no distinction between economics and ideology (each of these terms broadly construed).
It would be an interesting intellectual exercise to formulate a binomial nomenclature of civilizations characterizing each in terms of its economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure, but this is too schematic to the quite true. One point I have tried to argue several times (but for which I still lack a definitive formulation) is that distinct civilizations are not distinct implementations of one and the same idea of civilization, but rather distinct civilizations embody distinct ideas as to the nature and aims of civilization. So while “agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization” nicely fits the economic infrastructure/ideological superstructure model, “industrial-tecnnological civilization” does not fit as nicely. While there is a sense in which technology has become an ideology, it is in no sense an ideological superstructure in the same way that institutionalized religion served as the ideological superstructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.
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18 June 2013
Ten Thousand Years of Civilization
From the Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution
I have adopted the term “industrial-technological civilization” to refer to the civilization that we now have, and I have argued that this civilization can be defined in terms of a unique thesis, the industrial-technological thesis, as well as its implied contrary, industrial-technological disruption, which disruption ensues when the mechanisms of industrial-technological civilization go awry.
Industrial-technological civilization was preceded by agricultural civilization. Like industrial-technological civilization, agricultural civilization is multifaceted and represents a robust macro-historical division between hunter-gather nomadism, which precedes it, and industrial-technological civilization, which follows it. Agricultural Civilization is the “middle ages” of macro-historical periodization, coming between the long epoch of hunter-gatherer nomadism (from the emergence of homo sapiens to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution) and the youthful energy of industrial-technological civilization (from the industrial revolution to the present day).
I have earlier attempted to characterize the nature of agricultural civilization in many posts, including the following:
Recently I have realized that as our civilization can be characterized as “industrial-technological” to bring out the main features of the age, we might similarly identify the agricultural civilization that preceded our civilization as “agrarian-ecclesiastical” civilization. This hyphenated form brings out the main features of the age: both the agriculturalism of the economic structure and the ecclesiastical form of society that maintained the agricultural economy in trans-generational equilibrium (that is to say, the ideological superstructure).
The distinctive differentia of agrarian civilization is institutionalized religion, just as the distinctive differentia of industrial civilization is technological change driven by science. This does not mean that technology is the religion of the industrial age, or that religion was the surrogate “technology” of agricultural civilization. What it means is that fundamentally distinct forms of civilization are based on fundamentally distinct ideas. This is an idea that I attempted to explore some time ago in The Incommensurability of Civilizations and Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations.
Institutionalized religion — from the worship of a living god in early agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization (as in Egyptian and Mayan civilization, for example) to the elaborately structured monotheistic religions of the late medieval and early modern period — is uniquely suited to the social demands of a risk-averse agrarian economy that was entirely innocent of growth and progress, but was exclusively concerned with stability and continuity. This focus on stability and continuity — eternal verities of society mirroring the eternal verities of the spiritual realities posited by institutionalized religion — meant an economy structured to provide sufficiency for a traditional way of life, but not sufficient for economic growth or social mobility. What was wanted was not incremental improvement in the way of life, but eternal perfection — heaven on earth.
Agrarian-Ecclesiastical civilization is predicated upon trans-generational equilibrium no less than industrial-technological civilization is predicated upon trans-generalization disequilibrium. To this end, social and economic structures embodied counter-market mechanisms — economic checks and balances that maintained the economic status quo to the greatest extent possible. Social change was also systematically hamstrung. Given this commitment of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to stability, continuity, and permanence, the catastrophic failure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is to allow a revolution to take place — any revolution, whether commercial, scientific, social, or economic. Peasant rebellions have occurred with some regularity in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations, but these rebellions have a ritualistic character that distinguishes from them the revolutions of industrial-technological civilization.
When the overall structure of the economy, despite its mechanism to slow and stifle unwelcome developments nevertheless resulted in change, there were uprisings from below, popular revolts that sought to slow and stifle these unwelcome developments. Almost all peasant rebellions in the European middle ages were conservative rebellions, in which the motivation was to restore the status quo ante. Marxist historians of the recent decades have reviewed the record of repeated peasant revolts in the middle ages — and there were many, most prominent among them being Wat Tyler’s Rebellion of 1381 and the Great Peasants’ Revolt of 1525 — and drawn conclusions about a nascent stirring of class consciousness among the agricultural proletariat, but these peasant rebellions never questioned the structure of authority. Indeed, peasant rebellions often appealed to the political trope of “good king, bad advisers,” and believed that if they could only get to the king to make their grievances known, that all would be put right.
In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization we find capitalism without a free market — carefully channeled within traditional guild structures that limited entry into the professions, limited competition, and maintained the professions and the trades as traditional modes of life no less than the traditional lifeways of peasants and nobility. The legal infrastructure of capitalism without markets, guilds and monopolies, constrain and restrict trade exclusively within ideologically-approved channels. We can compare this systematic limitative structuring of the economy with Erwin Panofsky’s famous thesis in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. In this famous study, Panofsky argued that the medieval mind expected to see its ideas explicitly manifested, as we see in the argumentative structure of scholastic philosophy and the physical structure of gothic architecture, with its ribbed vaults and flying buttresses. Panofsky’s thesis could be extended to the legal institutions of the economy which made social position similarly explicit through mechanisms such as sumptuary laws. The elaborate legal codes that enforced the commercial structures of guilds and monopolies can also be seen as exemplifying this thesis.
Later in the development of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, mercantilism was essentially finitistic capitalism, and as such represents the survival of the finitistic assumptions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization into nascent modernism — though modernism not yet far enough advanced to have crossed the threshold of industrialization and therefore falling short of the macro-historical revolution that defines the advent of industrial-technological civilization.
In an economic environment in which there is no steady expansion (and therefore no inflation built into market mechanisms) in the currency, in which currency (in so far as it was used, i.e., rarely) was tied to some commodity (gold or silver or real estate), and in which no systematic expansion of industry or exploitation of resources occurred, the finitistic, steady-state, zero sum assumptions of mercantilism were true, even if they are no longer true today, in the context of industrial-technological civilization.
Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations built on the presumption of non-development aimed not at progress but at perfection. Perfection is a finite good, a finite ideal; once realized, nothing remains to be done. Thus perfection as a social goal embodies something like Comte de Maistre’s finitistic political theory. Contemporary civilization, at least since the industrial revolution — i.e., industrial-technological civilization — has often been criticized for its faith in progress, but this is not quite the naïve belief that we have made it out to be. The cycle that drives industrial-technological civilization — science developing new technologies that are engineered into industries that provide improved instruments for the further development of science — is intrinsically infinitistic; as such, it is the negation of finitistic political theory. Progress, in contradistinction to perfection, is an infinitistic ideal; there is always the possibility of further progress.
Comte de Maistre’s Finitistic Political Theory was an expression of the finitistic, backward-looking assumptions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, transcendence is an exteriority, lying outside time; in industrial-technological civilization, transcendence is immanent, and nothing outside time exists. Perfection as a virtue and as an ideal no longer applies to expanding societies engaged in the continual process of self-transcendence. In infinitistic contexts, progress replaces perfection, although progress itself is as problematic an ideal as perfection.
Each macro-historical division of civilization — of which agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is one — embodies distinctive assumptions, has risks and opportunities peculiar to its socio-economic structure, and struggles with distinction problems, none of which may be found in other macro-historical divisions. Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, for example, was entirely free of large-scale industrial accidents, which are intrinsic to industrial-technological civilization, but was subject to permanent risk of famine, given the intensively local nature of the economy, in which economic units were isolated and people would starve if local crops failed.
Another example: in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization one of the most central social and political issues is the control of the institutionalized church within the boundaries of political control. In industrial-technological civilization, this imperative of ecclesiastical control virtually disappears. The most successful economy of industrial-technological civilization, that of the United States, is predicated upon separation of church and state, to the point that there is complete laissez-faire in matters of religion, which we have discovered is conducive to the smooth and seamless functioning of a market economy. But, as we have seen above, agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations tolerated only capitalism without markets, or highly restricted markets within traditional and legal parameters, so that for agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization the problem of how to contribute to the smooth and seamless growth of a market economy was a problem that literally did not even exist.
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