27 November 2013
Immanuel Kant, in an often-quoted passage, spoke of, “…the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Kant might have with equal justification spoken of the formal law within and the starry heavens above. There is a sense in which the formal laws of thought are the moral laws of the mind — in logic, a good thought is a rigorous thought — so that given sufficient latitude of translation, we can interpret Kant in this way — except that we know (as Nietzsche put it) that Kant was a moral fanatic à la Rousseau.
However we choose to interpret Kant, I would like to quote more fully from the passage in the Critique of Practical Reason where Kant invokes the starry heavens above and the moral law within:
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within. I have not to search for them and conjecture them as though they were veiled in darkness or were in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them directly with the consciousness of my existence. The former begins from the place I occupy in the external world of sense, and enlarges my connection therein to an unbounded extent with worlds upon worlds and systems of systems, and moreover into limitless times of their periodic motion, its beginning and continuance. The second begins from my invisible self, my personality, and exhibits me in a world which has true infinity, but which is traceable only by the understanding, and with which I discern that I am not in a merely contingent but in a universal and necessary connection, as I am also thereby with all those visible worlds. The former view of a countless multitude of worlds annihilates as it were my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital power, one knows not how, must again give back the matter of which it was formed to the planet it inhabits (a mere speck in the universe). The second, on the contrary, infinitely elevates my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world, at least so far as may be inferred from the destination assigned to my existence by this law, a destination not restricted to conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.”
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 1788, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, Part 2, Conclusion
This passage is striking for many reasons, not least among them them degree to which Kant has assimilated the Copernican revolution, acknowledging Earth as a mere speck in the universe. Also particularly interesting is Kant’s implicit appeal to objectivity and realism, notwithstanding the fact that Kant himself established the tradition of transcendental idealism. Kant in this passage invokes the starry heavens above and the moral law within because they are independent of the individual …
Moreover, Kant identifies both the starry heavens above and the moral law within not only as objective and independent realities, but also as infinitistic. Just as Kant the idealist looks to the stars and the moral law in a realistic spirit, so Kant the proto-constructivist invokes the “…unbounded extent with worlds upon worlds” of the starry heavens and the moral law as, “…reaching into the infinite.” I have earlier and elsewhere observed how Kant’s proto-constructivism nevertheless involves spectacularly non-constructive arguments. In the passage quoted above both Kant’s proto-constructivism and his non-constructive moments are retained in lines such as, “exhibits me in a world which has true infinity,” which by invoking exhibition in intuition toes the constructivist line, while invoking true infinity allows a legitimate role for the non-constructive.
When it comes to constructivism, we can see that Kant is conflicted. He’s not the only one. One might call Aristotle the first constructivist (or, at least, the first proto-constructivist) as the originator of the idea of the potential infinite, and here (i.e., in the context of the above discussion of Kant’s use of the infinite) Aristotelian permissive finitism is particularly relevant. (Aristotle would likely not have had much sympathy for intuitionistic constructivism, which its rejection of tertium non datur.)
The Greek intellectual attitude to the infinite was complex and conflicted. I have written about this previously in Reason in Moderation and Salto Mortale. The Greek quest for harmony, order, and proportion rejected the infinite as something that transgresses the boundaries of good taste and propriety (dismissing the infinite as apeiron, in contradistinction to peras). Nevertheless, Greek philosophers routinely argued from the infinity and eternity of the world.
Here is a famous passage from Democritus, who was perhaps best known among the Greek philosophers in arguing for the infinity of the world, making the doctrine a virtual tenet among ancient atomists:
“Worlds are unlimited and of different sizes. In some worlds there is no Sun and Moon, in others, they are larger than in our world, and in others more numerous. … Intervals between worlds are unequal. In some parts there are more worlds, in others fewer; some are increasing, some at their height, some decreasing; in some parts they are arising, in others failing… There are some worlds devoid of living creatures or plants or any moisture.”
…and Epicurus on the same theme of the infinity of the world…
“…there is an infinite number of worlds, some like this world, others unlike it. For the atoms being infinite in number, as has just been proved, are borne ever further in their course. For the atoms out of which a world might arise, or by which a world might be formed, have not all been expended on one world or a finite number of worlds, whether like or unlike this one. Hence there will be nothing to hinder an infinity of worlds.”
Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus
There were also poetic invocations of the idea of the infinity of the world, which demonstrates the extent to which the idea had penetrated popular consciousness in classical antiquity:
“When Alexander heard from Anaxarchus of the infinite number of worlds, he wept, and when his friends asked him what was the matter, he replied, ‘Is it not a matter for tears that, when the number of worlds is infinite, I have not conquered one?’”
Plutarch, PLUTARCH’S MORALS, ETHICAL ESSAYS TRANSLATED WITH NOTES AND INDEX BY ARTHUR RICHARD SHILLETO, M.A., Sometime Scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, Translator of Pausanias, LONDON: GEORGE BELL AND SONS, 1898, “On Contentedness of Mind,” section IV
Like poetry, history had particular prestige in the ancient world, and here the theme of the infinity of the world also occurs:
“…Constantius, elated by this extravagant passion for flattery, and confidently believing that from now on he would be free from every mortal ill, swerved swiftly aside from just conduct so immoderately that sometimes in dictation he signed himself ‘My Eternity,’ and in writing with his own hand called himself lord of the whole world — an expression which, if used by others, ought to have been received with just indignation by one who, as he often asserted, laboured with extreme care to model his life and character in rivalry with those of the constitutional emperors. For even if he ruled the infinity of worlds postulated by Democritus, of which Alexander the Great dreamed under the stimulus of Anaxarchus, yet from reading or hearsay he should have considered that (as the astronomers unanimously teach) the circuit of whole earth, which to us seems endless, compared with the greatness of the universe has the likeness of a mere tiny point.
Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman Antiquities, Book XV, section 1
Like the quote from Kant quoted above, this passage is remarkable for its Copernican outlook, which shows that the ancients were not only capable of thinking in infinitistic terms, but also in more-or-less Copernican terms.
Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus, and gave one of the more detailed arguments for the infinity of the world to be found in ancient philosophy:
It matters nothing where thou post thyself,
In whatsoever regions of the same;
Even any place a man has set him down
Still leaves about him the unbounded all
Outward in all directions; or, supposing
moment the all of space finite to be,
If some one farthest traveller runs forth
Unto the extreme coasts and throws ahead
A flying spear, is’t then thy wish to think
It goes, hurled off amain, to where ’twas sent
And shoots afar, or that some object there
Can thwart and stop it? For the one or other
Thou must admit; and take. Either of which
Shuts off escape for thee, and does compel
That thou concede the all spreads everywhere,
Owning no confines. Since whether there be
Aught that may block and check it so it comes
Not where ’twas sent, nor lodges in its goal,
Or whether borne along, in either view
‘Thas started not from any end. And so
I’ll follow on, and whereso’er thou set
The extreme coasts, I’ll query, “what becomes
Thereafter of thy spear?” ‘Twill come to pass
That nowhere can a world’s-end be, and that
The chance for further flight prolongs forever
The flight itself. Besides, were all the space
Of the totality and sum shut in
With fixed coasts, and bounded everywhere,
Then would the abundance of world’s matter flow
Together by solid weight from everywhere
Still downward to the bottom of the world,
Nor aught could happen under cope of sky,
Nor could there be a sky at all or sun-
Indeed, where matter all one heap would lie,
By having settled during infinite time.
Lucretius, De rerum natura
The above argument is one that is still likely to be heard today, in various forms. If you go to the edge of the universe and throw a spear, either it is stopped by the boundary of the universe, or it continues on, and, as Lucretius says, For the one or other, Thou must admit. If the spear is stopped, what stopped it? And if it continues on, into what does it continue?
The contemporary relativistic cosmology has a novel answer to this ancient idea: the universe is finite and unbounded, so that space is wrapped back around on itself. What this means for the spear-thrower at the edge of the universe is that if he throws the spear with enough force, it may travel around the cosmos and return to pierce him in the back. There is nothing to stop the spear, because the universe is unbounded, but since the universe is also finite the spear will eventually cross its own path if it continues to travel. I do not myself think that the universe is finite and unbounded in precisely the way the many modern cosmologists argue, but I am not going to go into this interesting problem at the present time.
Other than the response to Lucretius in terms of relativistic cosmology, with its curved spacetime — a material response to the Lucretian argument for the infinity of the world — there is another response, that of intuitionistic constructivism, which denies the law of the excluded middle (tertium non datur) — i.e, a formal response to Lucretius. Lucretius asserted that, For the one or other, Thou must admit, and this is exactly what the intuitionist does not admit. As with the relativistic response to Lucretius, I do not myself agree with the intuitionist response to Lucretius. Consequently, I believe that Lucretius argument is still valid in spirit, though it must be reformulated in order to be applicable to the world as revealed to us by contemporary science. Consequently, I take it as demonstrable that the universe is infinite, taking the view of ancient natural philosophers.
Within the overall context of Greek thought, within its contending finitist and infinitistic strains, Greek cosmology was non-constructive, and the Greeks asserted (and argued for) the infinity of the world on the basis of non-constructive argument. Perhaps it would even be fair to say that the Greeks assumed the universe to be infinite in extent, and they at times sought to justify this assumption by philosophical argument, while at other times they confined themselves to the sphere of the peras.
Much of contemporary science is constructivist in spirit, though this constructivism is rarely made explicit, except among logicians and mathematicians. By this I mean that the general drift of science ever since the scientific revolution has been toward bottom-up constructions on the basis of quantifiable evidence and away from top-down argument. I made this point previously in Advanced Thinking and A Non-Constructive World, as well as other posts, though I haven’t yet given a detailed formulation of this idea. Yet the emergence of a “quantum logic” in quantum theory that does away with the principle of the excluded middle is a clear expression of the increasing constructivism of science.
In A Non-Constructive World I also made the point that the world appears to have both constructive and non-constructive features. In several posts about constructivism (e.g., P or not-P) I have argued that constructivism and non-constructivism are complementary perspectives on formal thought, and that each needs the other for an adequate account of the world.
In so far as contemporary science is essentially constructive, it lacks a non-constructive perspective on the phenomena it investigates. This is, I believe, intrinsic to science, and to the kind of civilization that emerges from the application of science to the economy (viz. industrial-technological civilization). By the constructive methods of science we can attain ever larger and ever more comprehensive conceptions of the universe — such as I described in my previous post, The Size of the World — but these constructive methods will never reach the infinite universe contemplated by the ancient Greeks.
How could the logical framework employed by a scientist have any effect over what they see in the heavens? Well, constructive science is logically incapable of formulating the idea of an infinite universe in any sense other than an Aristotelian potential infinite. No one can observe the infinite (in the philosophy of mathematics we say that the infinite is “unsurveyable”). And if you cannot produce observational evidence of the infinite, then you cannot formulate a falsifiable theory of an infinite universe. Thus the infinity of the world is, in effect, ruled out by our methods.
No one should be surprised at the direct impact the ethos of formal thought has a upon the natural sciences; one of the fundamental trends of the scientific revolution has been the mathematization of natural science, and one of the fundamental trends of mathematical rigor since the late nineteenth century has been the arithmetization of analysis, which has been taken as far as the logicization of mathematics. Logic and mathematics have been “finitized” and these finite formal methods have been employed in the rational reconstruction of the sciences.
I look forward to the day when the precision and rigor of formal methods employed in the natural sciences again includes infinitistic methods, and it once again becomes possible to formulate the thesis of the infinity of the world in science — and possible once again to see the world as infinite.
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24 November 2013
The world, we are learning every day, is a very large place. Or perhaps I should say that the universe is a very large place. It is also a very complex and strange place. J. B. S. Haldane famously said that, “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” (Possible Worlds and Other Papers, 1927, p. 286) In other words, human beings, no matter how valiantly they attempt to understand the universe, may not be cognitively equipped to understand it; our minds may not be the kind of minds that can understand the kind of place that the world is.
This idea of our inability to understand the world in which we find ourselves (an admirably humble Copernican insight that we might call metaphysical modesty, and which stands in contrast to epistemic hubris) has received many glosses since Haldane’s time. Most notable (notable, at least, from my perspective) are the evolutionary gloss, the quantum physics gloss, and the philosophical gloss. I will consider each of these in turn.
In terms of evolution, there is no reason to suppose that descent with modification in a context of a struggle for vital resources on the plains of Africa (the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, or EEA) is going to produce minds capable of understanding higher dimensional spatial manifolds or quantum physics at microscopic scales that differ radically from the macroscopic scales of ordinary human perception. Alvin Plantinga (about whom I wrote some time ago in A Note on Plantinga, inter alia) has used this argument for theological purposes. However, there is no intrinsic reason that a mind born in the mud and the muck cannot raise itself above its origins and come to contemplate the world in Copernican terms. The evolutionary argument cuts both ways, and since we have ourselves as the evidence of an organism that can raise itself from strictly survival behavior to forms of thought that have nothing to do with survival, from the perspective of the weak anthropic principle this is proof enough that natural selection can result in such a mind.
In terms of quantum theory, we are all familiar with famous quotes from the leading lights of quantum theory as to the essentially incomprehensibility of that theory. For example, Richard Feynman said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” However, I have observed (in The limits of my language are the limits of my world and elsewhere) that recent research is making strides in working around the epistemic limitations of quantum theory, revealing its uncertainties to be not absolute and categorical, but rather subject to careful and painstaking narrowing that renders the uncertainty a little less uncertain. I anticipate two developments that will emerge from the further elaborate of quantum theory: 1) the finding of ways to gradually and incrementally chip away at an absolutist conception of uncertainty (as just mentioned), and 2) the formulation of more adequate intuitions to make quantum theory more palatable to the human mind.
In terms of philosophy, Colin McGinn’s book Problems in philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry formulates a position which he calls Transcendental Naturalism:
“Philosophy is an attempt to get outside the constitutive structure of our minds. Reality itself is everywhere flatly natural, but because of our cognitive limits we are unable to make good on this general ontological principle. Our epistemic architecture obstructs knowledge of the real nature of the objective world. I shall call this thesis transcendental naturalism, TN for short.” (pp. 2-3)
I have previously written about McGinn’s work in Transcendental Non-Naturalism and Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology, inter alia. Our ability to get outside the constitutive structure of our minds is severely limited at best, and so our ability to understand the world as it is is limited at best.
While our cognitive abilities are admittedly limited (for all the reasons discussed above, as well as other reasons not discussed), these limits are not absolute, but rather admit of revision. McGinn’s position as stated above implies a false dichotomy between staying within the constitutive structure of our minds and getting outside it. This is a classic case of facing the sheer cliff of Mount Improbable: while it is impossible to get outside our cognitive architecture in one fell swoop, we can little by little transgress the boundaries of our cognitive architecture, each time ever-so-slightly expanding our capacities. Incrementally over time we improve our ability to stand outside those limits that once marked the boundaries of our cognitive architecture. Thus in an ironic twist of intellectual history, the evolutionary argument, rather than demonstrating metaphysical modesty, is rather the key to limiting the limitations on the human mind.
All of this is related to one of the central problems in the philosophy of science of our time — the whole Kuhnian legacy that is the framework of so much contemporary philosophy of science. Copernican revelations and revolutions, which formerly disturbed our anthropocentric bias every few hundred years, now occur with alarming frequency. The difference today, of course, is that science is much more advanced than it was with past Copernican revelations and revolutions — it has much more advanced instrumentation available to it (as a result of the STEM cycle), and we have a much better idea of what to look for in the cosmos.
It was a shock to almost everyone to have it scientifically demonstrated that the universe is not static and eternal, but dynamic and changing. It was a shock when quantum theory demonstrated the world to be fundamentally indeterministic. This is by now a very familiar narrative. In fact, it is so familiar that it has been expropriated (dare I say exapted?) by obscurantists and irrationalists of our time, who point at continual changes at scientific knowledge as “proof” that science doesn’t give us any “truth” because it changes. The assumption here is that change in scientific knowledge demonstrates the weakness of science; in fact, change in scientific knowledge is the strength of science. Scientific knowledge is what I have elsewhere called an intelligent institution in so far as it is institutionalized knowledge, but that institution is formulated with internal mechanisms that facilitate the re-shaping of the institution itself over time. That mechanism is the scientific method.
It is important to see that the overturning of familiar conceptions of the world — some of which are ancient and some of which are not — is not arbitrary. Less comprehensive conceptions are being replaced by more comprehensive conceptions. The more comprehensive our perspective on the world, the greater the number of anomalies we must face, and the greater the number of anomalies we face the more likely it is that our theories will be overturned, or at least partially falsified. But it is the wrong debate to ask whether theory change is rational or irrational. It is misleading, because what ought to concern us is how well our theories account for the ever-larger world that is revealed to us through our ever-more comprehensive methods of science, and not how well our theories conform to our presuppositions about rationality. The more we get the science right, reason will follow, shaping new intuitions and formulating new theories.
Our ability to discover (and to understand) ever greater scales of the universe is contingent upon our growing intellectual capabilities, which are cumulative. Just as in the STEM cycle science begets technologies that beget industries that create better scientific instruments, so too on a purely intellectual level the intellectual capabilities of one generation are the formative context of the intellectual capabilities of the next generation, which allows the later generation to exceed the earlier generation. Concepts are the tools of the mind, and we use our familiar concepts to create the next generation of concepts, which latter are both more refined and more powerful than the former, in the same way as we use each generation of tools to build the next generation of tools, which makes each generation of tools better than the last (except for computer software — but I expect that this degradation in the practicability of computer software is simply the software equivalent of planned obsolescence).
Our current generation of tools — both conceptual and technological — are daily revealing to us the inadequacy of our past conceptions of the world. Several recent discoveries have in particular called into question our understanding of the size of the world, especially in so far as the world is defined in terms of its origins in the Big Bang. For example, the discovery of hyperclusters suggest physical structures of the universe that are larger than the upper limit set to physical structures by contemporary cosmologies theories (cf. ‘Hyperclusters’ of the Universe — “Something is Behaving Very Strangely”).
In a similar vein, writing of the recent discovery of a “large quasar group” (LQG) as much as four billion light years across, the article The Largest Discovered Structure in the Universe Contradicts Big-Bang Theory Cosmology states:
“This LQG challenges the Cosmological Principle, the assumption that the universe, when viewed at a sufficiently large scale, looks the same no matter where you are observing it from. The modern theory of cosmology is based on the work of Albert Einstein, and depends on the assumption of the Cosmological Principle. The principle is assumed, but has never been demonstrated observationally ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.”
This formulation gets the order of theory and observation wrong. The cosmological principle is not a principle that can be proved or disproved by evidence; it is a theoretical idea that is used to give structure and meaning to observations, to organize observations into a theoretical whole. The cosmological principle belongs to theoretical cosmology; recent discoveries such as hyperclusters and large quasar groups belong to observational cosmology. While the two — i.e., theoretical and observational — cannot be separated in the practice of science, it is also true that they are not identical. Theoretical methods are distinct from observational methods, and vice versa.
Thus the cosmological principle may be helpful or unhelpful in organizing our knowledge of the cosmos, but it is not the kind of thing that can be falsified in the same way that, for example, a theory of planetary formation can be falsified. That is to say, the cosmological principle might be opposed to (falsified by) another principle that negates the cosmological principle, but this anti-cosmological principle will similarly belong to an order not falsifiable by empirical observations.
The discoveries of hyperclusters and LQGs are particularly problematic because they question some of the fundamental assumptions and conclusions of Big Bang cosmology, which is, essentially, the only large scale cosmological model in contemporary science. Big Bang cosmology is the explanation for the structure of the cosmos that was formulated in response to the discovery of the red shift, which implies that, on the largest observable scales, the universe is expanding. It is important to add the qualification, “on the largest observable scales” because stars within a given galaxy are circulating around the galaxy, and while a given star may be moving away from another given star, it is also likely to be moving toward yet some other star. And, even at larger scales, not all galaxies are receding from each other. It is fairly well known that galaxies collide and commingle; the Helmi stream of our own Milky Way is the result of a long past galactic collision, and at some far time in the future the Milky Way itself will merge with the larger Andromeda galaxy, and be absorbed by it.
Cosmology during the period of the big bang theory (a period in which we still find ourselves today) is in some respects like biology before Darwin. Almost all biology before Darwin was essentially theological, but no one had a better idea so biology had to wait to become a science capable of methodologically naturalistic formulations until after Darwin. The big bang theory was, on the contrary, proposed as a scientific theory (not merely bequeathed to us by pre-scientific tradition), and most scientists working within the big bang tradition have formulated the Big Bang in meticulously naturalistic terms. Nevertheless, once the steady state theory was overthrown, no one really had an alternative to the big bang theory, so all cosmology centered on the Big Bang for lack of imagination of alternatives — but also due to the limitations of the scientific instruments, which at the time of the triumph of the big bang theory were much more modest than they are today.
As disconcerting as it was to discover that the cosmos did not embody an eternal order, that it is expanding and had a history of violent episodes, and that it was much larger than an “island universe” comprising only the Milky Way, the observations that we need to explain today are no less disconcerting in their own way.
Here is how Leonard Susskind describes our contemporary observations of the expanding universe:
“In every direction that we look, galaxies are passing the point at which they are moving away from us faster than light can travel. Each of us is surrounded by a cosmic horizon — a sphere where things are receding with the speed of light — and no signal can reach us from beyond that horizon. When a star passes the point of no return, it is gone forever. Far out, at about fifteen billion light years, our cosmic horizon is swallowing galaxies, stars, and probably even life. It is as if we all live in our own private inside-out black hole.”
Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, New York, Boston, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2008, pp. 437-438
This observation has not yet been sufficiently appreciated. What lies beyond Susskind’s cosmic horizon is unobservable, as anything that disappears beyond the event horizon of a black hole has become unobservable, and that places such matters beyond the reach of science understood in a narrow sense of observation. But as I have noted above, in the practice of science we cannot disentangle the theoretical and the observational, but the two are not the same. While our observations come to an end at the cosmic horizon, our principles encounter no such boundary. Thus it is that we naturally extrapolate our science beyond the boundaries of observation, but if we get our scientific principles wrong, anything beyond the boundary of observation will be wrong and will be incapable or correction by observation.
Science in the narrow sense must, then, come to an end with observation. But this does not satisfy the mind. One response is to deny the mind its satisfaction and refuse to pass beyond observation. Another response is to fill the void with mythology and fiction. Yet another response is to take up the principles on their own merits and consider them in the light of reason. This response is the philosophical response, and we see that it is a rational response to the world that is continuous with science even when it passes beyond science.
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9 June 2013
The Conceptual Problem of Earth-Originating
Biota, Intelligence, Civilization, and Institutions
There is a subtle conceptual problem involved in identifying earth-originating biota, intelligence, civilization, and institutions and their long-term, large-scale development. If industrial-technological civilization continues in its trajectory of development, we can expect our species and our civilization will spread throughout our solar system and eventually to other star systems. By now, this is an idea familiar to everyone. When earth-originating biota, intelligence, civilization, and institutions are found on other planets of our solar system, in built environments orbiting planets or the sun, or throughout other planetary systems of other stars, what will we call ourselves and our civilization?
That is just the beginning of the potential complexities. As earth-originating species and institutions spread across the galaxy, this cosmological expansion will constitute an adaptive radiation of an order of magnitude beyond any adaptive radiation that took place on Earth, when all earth-originating biota were confined to Earth. An adaptive radiation of such magnitude will likely mean changes of a proportional magnitude. This proportional magnitude will involve not only expansion in space but also expansion in time. Adaptive radiation may take advantage of the time-dilation properties of a relativistic universe, distributing organisms or institutions across both time and space. This latter form of adaptive radiation, when the institution concerned is civilization, I have called a temporally distributed civilization (cf. Spacetime Constraints and Possibilities). In the same spirit we might speak of temporally distributed species, intelligence, and institutions.
Earth-originating life and its corollaries (for intelligence, civilization, and institutions are corollaries of life), once established off the surface of the earth, i.e., once established extraterrestrially, becomes extraterrestrial life even though it is earth-originating. Moreover, given the spatiotemporal scale of the universe, earth-originating life that expands extraterrestrially will rapidly adapt itself to local conditions, undergoing adaptive radiation. As a consequence, this extraterrestrial earth-originating life (and its corollaries) will come to differ from the earth-originating biota that has remained on the earth, even as this life that has remained on the earth has itself continued to evolve and therefore differs both from extraterrestrial earth-originating life as well as the earth-originating life that was the common ancestor of both.
It is even possible that earth-originating life might expand in cosmological-scale adaptive radiation, some great catastrophe could subsequently befall life throughout our galaxy (such as a massive gamma ray burst from the supernova), sterilizing most of the living worlds, after which life would again expand into the galaxy from its remaining protected niches, perhaps even returning to a sterilized earth. Is this, then, terrestrial life, or extraterrestrial life? It is easy to see how we might dramatically multiply our terminology at this point. There will be Earth-originating biota (EOB), Earth-originating civilization (EOC), extraterrestrially-originating biota (ExOB), extraterrestrially-originating civilization (ExOC), and so forth. Is this helpful? Does it matter? Well, the particular label we use to describe life and its vicissitudes doesn’t matter, but what does matter is the natural history of life, and when life attains the capability of projecting itself over cosmological distances, the natural history of life will involve just such cosmological considerations as I have recounted here. Natural history will become cosmological history, and astrophysics will be as relevant to life and civilization as is geography to geocentric life and civilization.
I have worked on a variety of terms to try to accurately express the large scale structure of life in the cosmos, and most of my formulations to date have been unsatisfying. I have expressed the idea of the origin of life and civilization as eobiology (following Joshua Lederberg, the prefix “eo” means early, so “early biology” or the origins of life — cf. Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-) and eocivilization (by analogy with eobiology — also cf. The Terrestrial Eocivilization Thesis). I have expressed the idea of non-terrestrial civilizations as exocivilization (cf. The Law of Trichotomy for Exocivilizations). One way to express the idea of earth-originating biota, intelligence, civilization, and institutions would be with the term terragenic. While “terragenic” is not a particularly attractive word, it does communicate the meaning I would like to convey in an intuitively accessible fashion. Also, it immediately suggests its complementary term, which is a much more satisfying word: xenogenic.
Earth is the locus of all that we know of life, civilization, and technology in the cosmos. In other words, all known life is terragenic; all known civilization is terragenic; all known technology is terragenic. We could narrow the focus a bit more and note that all known civilization is anthropogenic and most known technology is anthropogenic (as I observed in The Genealogy of the Technium, there are instances of terragenic non-human technology in the form of non-human animal tool use), with the human beings responsible for these anthropogenic creations themselves being terragenic. All of this is true at this early point in the history of humanity and its civilization, but this will not always be the case. The adaptive radiation of life into the cosmos will mean that the terrestrial origins of life, intelligence, civilization, and institutions may become clouded in a distant and complex past in which life and its corollaries emerge, expand, adaptively radiate, are extirpated, and re-emerge and re-adapt from sources of life no longer terrestrial.
We are now in a position to make the necessarily distinctions between terragenic exocivilizations and xenogenic exocivilizations, or even terragenic astrocivilization and xenogenic astrocivilization. For example, a xenogenic terrestrial civilization would be the result of alien invasion and extirpation of human beings in order to build their own civilization on Earth. All of these terms might be useful and accurate, but until we have dramatic examples before our minds to fill in this schematically formulated concepts they will seem a bit empty and artificial. This is not real objection except for our intuition.
One way to express the earth-originating character of all known life and its corollaries and to project this on cosmological scales would be to adopt the word “local” as it is employed in cosmology. In astronomy and cosmology there is a use of the word “local” that is both revealing and instructive. “Local” is what includes us — like the local group of galaxies or the local cluster of galaxies — while that which is non-local does not include us. When astronomers mention the “local group,” the “local cluster,” or the “local supercluster,” they are talking about, respectively, the group of galaxies that include our Milky Way, the cluster of galaxies that includes our Milky Way galaxy, and the supercluster that includes our own Milky Way galaxy. By analogy and extension, we can easily understand “local life,” “local intelligence,” “local civilization,” and “local institutions.”
It is often said today that, “Galaxies are the building blocks of the Universe.” I’m certain that this has been repeated by many cosmologists; I don’t know who originated the line, but it can be found, for example, as the first sentence of Carlton Baugh’s review of The Road to Galaxy Formation by William C. Keel (Nature 421, 791-792, 20 February 2003). Our local galaxy may prove to be be source and origin of life, mind, intelligence, technology, civilization, and institutions for the cosmos at large, in which case the petty distinctions we will make as earth-originating life makes itself at home in our local galaxy will come to mean but little in the long term. In this case, the only sense of “local” that will really matter is that of our “local galaxy.” Thus the Milky Way become not merely a building block but the foundation stone of a universe of life and its corollaries.
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2 March 2013
Arthur C. Clarke is best remembered for this science fiction stories, but many of his dicta and aphorisms have become common currency and are quoted and repeated to the point that their connection to their source is sometimes lost. (Clarke’s thought ranged widely and, interestingly, Clarke identified himself as a logical positivist.) Recently I quoted one of Clarke’s well-known sayings in Happy Birthday Nicolaus Copernicus!, as follows:
“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
quoted in Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the Twenty-First Century (1999) by Michio Kaku, p. 295
In so saying, Clarke asserted a particular case of what is known as the logical law (or principle) of the excluded middle, which is also known as tertium non datur: the idea that, given a proposition and its negation, either one or the other of them must be true. This is also expressed in propositional logic as “P or not-P” (“P v ~P”). The principle of tertium non datur is not to be confused with the principle of non-contradiction, which can be formulated as “~(P & ~P).”
Even stating tertium non datur is controversial, because there are narrowly logical formulations as well as ontological formulations of potentially much greater breadth. This, of course, is what makes the principle fascinating and gives it its philosophical depth. Moreover, the principle of the excluded middle is subtly distinct from the principle of bivalence, though the two usually work in conjunction. Whereas the law of the excluded middle states that of a proposition and its negation, one of the other must be true, the principle of bivalence states that there are only two propositional truth values: true and false.
To get started, here is the principle of the excluded middle as formulated in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy edited by Robert Audi:
principle of excluded middle, the principle that the disjunction of any (significant) statement with its negation is always true; e.g., ‘Either there is a tree over 500 feet tall or it is not the case that there is such a tree’. The principle is often confused with the principle of bivalence.
THE CAMBRIDGE DICTIONARY OF PHILOSOPHY second edition, General Editor Robert Audi, 1999, p. 738
And to continue the Oxbridge axis, here is the formulation from Simon Blackburn’s The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy:
excluded middle, principle (or law) of The logical law asserting that either p or not-p. It excludes middle cases such as propositions being half correct or more or less right. The principle directly asserting that each proposition is either true or false is properly called the law of bivalence.
The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Simon Blackburn, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 129
For more partisan formulations, we turn to other sources. Mario Bunge formulated a narrowly syntactical conception of the law of the excluded middle in his Dictionary of Philosophy, which is intended to embody a scientistic approach to philosophy:
EXCLUDED MIDDLE A logical truth or tautology in ordinary (classical) logic: For every proposition p, p v ~p.
Dictionary of Philosophy, Mario Bunge, Prometheus Books, 1999, p. 89
By way of contrast, in D. Q. McInerny’s Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking we find a strikingly ontological formulation of the law of the excluded middle:
“Between being and nonbeing there is no middle state. Something either exists or it does not exist; there is no halfway point between the two.”
D. Q. McInerny, Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, Part Two, The Basic Principles of Logic, 1. First Principles, p. 26
What these diverse formulations bring out for us is the difficulty of separating logical laws of how formal systems are to be constructed from ontological laws about how the world is constructed, and in so bringing out this difficulty, they show us the relation between the law of the excluded middle and the principle of bivalence, since the logical intuition that there are only two possible truth values of any one proposition — true or false — is so closely tied to our logical intuition that, of these two values, one or the other (but not both, which qualification is the principle of non-contradiction) must hold for any given (meaningful) proposition.
The powerful thing about Clarke’s observation is that it appeals to this admixture of logical intuitions and empirical intuitions, and in so doing seems to say something very compelling. Indeed, since I am myself a realist, and I think it can be shown that there is a fact of the matter that makes propositions true or false, I think that Clarke not only said something powerful, he also said something true: either there are extraterrestrial intelligences or there are not. It is humbling to contemplate either possibility: ourselves utterly alone in a vast universe with no other intelligent species or civilizations, or some other alien intelligence out there somewhere, unknown to us at present, but waiting to be discovered — or to discover us.
Although these logical intuitions are powerful, and have shaped human thought from its earliest times to the present day, the law of the excluded middle has not gone unquestioned, and indeed Clarke’s formulation gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore the consequences of the difference between constructive and non-constructive reasoning in terms of a concrete example.
To formulate the existence or non-existence of extraterrestrials in the form of a logical law like the law of the excluded middle makes the implicit realism of Clarke’s formulation obvious as soon as we think of it in these terms. In imagining the possibilities of our cosmic isolation or an unknown alien presence our terror rests on our intuitive, visceral feeling of realism, which is as immediate to us as the intuitions rooted in our own experiences as bodies.
The constructivist (at least, most species of constructivist, but not necessarily all) must deny the validity of the teritum non datur formulation of the presence of extraterrestrials, and in so doing the constructivist must pretend that our visceral feelings of realism are misleading or false, or must simply deny that these feelings exist. None of these are encouraging strategies, especially if one is committed to understanding the world by getting to the bottom of things rather than denying that they exist. Not only I am a realist, but I also believe strongly in the attempt to do justice to our intuitions, something that I have described in two related posts, Doing Justice to Our Intuitions and How to Formulate a Philosophical Argument on Gut Instinct.
In P or not-P (as well as in subsequent posts concerned with constructivism, What is the relationship between constructive and non-constructive mathematics? Intuitively Clear Slippery Concepts, and Kantian Non-constructivism) I surveyed constructivist and non-constructivist views of tertium non datur and suggested that constructivists and non-constructivists need each other, as each represents a distinct point of view on formal thought. Formal thought is enriched by these diverse perspectives.
But whereas non-constructive thought, which is largely comprised of classical realism, can accept both the constructivist and non-constructivist point of view, the many varieties of constructivism usually explicitly deny the validity of non-constructive methods and seek to systematically limit themselves to constructive methods and constructive principles. Most famously, L. E. J. Brouwer (whom I have previously discussed in Saying, Showing, Constructing and One Hundred Years of Intuitionism and Formalism) formulated the philosophy of mathematics we now know as intuitionism, which is predicated upon the explicit denial of the law of the excluded middle. Brouwer, and those following him such as Heyting, sought to formulate mathematical and logic reasoning without the use of tertium non datur.
Brouwer and the intuitionists (at least as I interpret them) were primarily concerned to combat the growing influence of Cantor and his set theory in mathematics, which seemed to them to license forms of mathematical reasoning that had gone off the rails. Cantor had gone too far, and the intuitionists wanted to reign him in. They were concerned about making judgments about infinite totalities (in this case, sets with an infinite number of members), which the law of the excluded middle, when applied to the infinite, allows one to do. This seems to give us the power to make deductions about matters we cannot either conceive or even (as it is sometimes said) survey. “Surveyability” became a buzz word in the philosophy of mathematics after Wittgenstein began using it in his posthumously published Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics. Although Wittgenstein was not himself an intuitionist sensu stricto, his work set the tone for constructivist philosophy of mathematics.
Given the intuitionist rejection of the law of the excluded middle, it is not correct to say that there either is intelligent alien life in the universe or there is not intelligent alien life in the universe; to meaningfully make this statement, one would need to actually observe (inspect, survey) all possible locations where such alien intelligence might reside, and only after seeing it for oneself can one legitimately claim that there is or is not alien intelligence in the universe. For am example closer to home, it has been said that an intuitionist will deny the truth of the statement “either it is raining or it is not raining” without looking out the window to check and see. This can strike one as merely perverse, but we must take the position seriously, as I will try to show with the next example.
Already in classical antiquity, Aristotle brought out a striking feature of the law of the excluded middle, in a puzzle sometimes known as the “sea battle tomorrow.” The idea is simple: either there will be a sea battle tomorrow, or there will not be a sea battle tomorrow. We may not know anything about this battle, and as of today we do not even know if it will take place, but we can nevertheless confidently assert that either it will take place or it will not take place. This is the law of the excluded middle as applied to future contingents.
One way to think of this odd consequence of the law of the excluded middle is that when it is projected beyond the immediate circumstances of our ability to ascertain its truth by observation it becomes problematic. This is why the intuitionists reject it. Aristotle extrapolated the law of the excluded middle to the future, but we could just as well extrapolate it into the past. Historians do this all the time (either Alexander cut the Gordian Knot or Alexander did not cut the Gordian Knot), but because of our strong intuitive sense of historical realism this does not feel as odd as asserting that something that hasn’t happened yet either will happen or will not happen.
In terms of Clarke’s dichotomy, we could reformulate Aristotle’s puzzle about the sea battle tomorrow in terms of the discovery of alien intelligence tomorrow: either we will receive an alien radio broadcast tomorrow, or we will not receive an alien broadcast tomorrow. There is no third possibility. One way or another, the realist says, one of these propositions is true, and one of them is false. We do not know, today, which one of them is true and which one of them is false, but that does not mean that they do no possess definite truth values. The intuitionist says that the assertion today that we will or will not receive an alien radio broadcast is meaningless until tomorrow comes and we turn on our radio receivers to listen.
The intuitionists thus have an answer to this puzzling paradox that remains a problem for the realist. This is definitely a philosophical virtue for intuitionism, but, like all virtues, it comes at a price. It is not a price I am willing to pay. This path can also lead us to determinism — assuming that all future contingents have a definite truth value implies that they are set in stone — but I am also not a determinist (as I discussed in The Denial of Freedom as a Philosophical Problem), and so this intersection of my realism with my libertarian free willist orientation leaves me with a problem that I am not yet prepared to resolve. But that’s what makes life interesting.
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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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10 December 2012
I have finally watched the whole of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Journey television series. I have in earlier posts expressed my admiration for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, which I have watched numerous times, but, until now, Sagan’s Cosmos had eluded me. (And I didn’t even include it in my post Documentaries Worth Watching — because I hadn’t yet watched it when I wrote that.)
While the Cosmos series is ostensibly a popular exposition of cosmology — and even, we could say, Big History before big history was known as such, since Sagan insistently places human beings in their cosmological context — the Cold War, strangely, is never far from the surface. Sagan had evidently felt so sharply the existential threat of nuclear war that he returns to this human, all-too-human theme in several places in his exposition of the grandeur of the essentially impersonal, and therefore inhuman, cosmos.
This concern for nuclear war reaches its zenith in the final episode, “Who Speaks for Earth,” when Sagan recounts the narrative of a dream of nuclear war ending our terrestrial civilization. This dream sequence does not appear in the book version of Cosmos — perhaps it was included in the television series in order to give human interest to such a difficult topic.
Sagan narrates a dream sequence of visiting a planet that is home to an alien civilization. Gazing down on the planet from space, he sees the lighted night side of the planet, but as he watches, the whole world goes dark. He checks the “Book of Worlds” — what in an earlier episode he called the Encyclopedia Galactica, which I wrote about in Cyberspace and Outer Space — and finds that the world was rated as having less than a one percent chance of survival for the next hundred years.
As the narration continues, Sagan comforts himself for this loss by listening to radio and television broadcasts from Earth. Most of the snippets of news in this aural montage feature stories of atomic weapons or political tension. As he is listening, the broadcasts from Earth are interrupted and fall silent. Disturbed by this, wondering why the broadcasts from Earth suddenly stopped, he looks up the entry for Earth in the Book of Worlds, and reviews it. He finds that Earth, too, was given a chance of survival of less than one percent over the next hundred years. “Not very good odds,” as Sagan observes. He sees that terrestrial civilization has been destroyed by a full nuclear exchange, and he then recites a melancholy litany of things that will be no more with the end of human civilization.
Sagan uses this device of his dream of terrestrial civilization extinguished by nuclear war to introduce his theme of the episode — who speaks for Earth? After the dream narrative, Sagan then describes nuclear war again, in less personal but still horrific terms, and then asks, “We know who speaks for the nations, but who speaks for the earth?” This, then, allows Sagan another summary of his history of science, this time noting the dark underside of science as a part of human civilization. Sagan returns to the Library of Alexandria, where some of the first moments of the series are set. Thus Sagan comes full circle, in a nice narrative closure.
Sagan’s final recap of the history of science in this last episode mirrors an earlier theme from episode seven, “The Backbone of Night,” in which he discussed two distinct traditions of ancient Greek civilization, one that he traces to Democritus and Aristarchus, that is about the sunny uplands of the human intellect as revealed by the best science of which human beings are capable, which is then followed by an almost malevolent account of a counter-tradition that he traces to Pythagoras and Plato, in which the pursuit of knowledge gets caught up in mysticism, obscurantism, and superstition. Even from the earliest beginnings of the Western tradition, it seems, we are dogged by the dialectic of eros and thanatos.
In episode eight, “Journeys in Space and Time,” Sagan offers us a counter-factual history in which the early beginnings of science in ancient Greek civilization develop continuously and are never interrupted and derailed by the Dark Ages. Sagan speculates that we might now be going to the stars, in spaceships emblazoned with Greek letters, if we had not experienced a thousand year hiatus in the development of science. This idea reappears in a subtle way in Sagan’s dream narrative: when describing the alien civilization that falls silent he suggests that they might have come through a similarly dark time, that they were survivors of past catastrophes, only to be later destroyed by forces they could not control — like us. For Sagan, industrial-technological civilization is its own worst enemy.
It is interesting and instructive to compare Sagan’s historical perspective to that of Kenneth Clark, who begins his Civilisation: A Personal View in the midst of the European dark ages in order to make the point that civilization made it through this period, as Clark says, by the skin of our teeth. Sagan clearly thought that we are now only making it through by the skin of our teeth. The ever-present threat of nuclear war could end our civilization at any time, and that would be it for all of us. Another way to formulate this would be to say that, for Clark, the “great filter” of human civilization was the dark ages, while for Sagan the great filter is now.
Clark’s decision to begin in the dark ages was an elegant solution to the problem of how to tell the story of Western civilization without spending all 13 episodes on the Greeks and the Romans — something I would be tempted to do. The solution was to avoid classical antiquity altogether, and to begin with the pitiful remnants of the dark ages and how these gradually grew into a new civilization. Sagan approached this differently, distributing expositions of past and possible dark ages throughout his narrative, so that it appears in the first and the last episode and several of the episodes in between — as I said above, the spirit and the existential angst of the Cold War is never far below the surface of Cosmos.
Is the history of ancient science any less essential to Western civilization than the history of ancient art? I don’t like to admit it, but I don’t think so. I think that ancient art and ancient science are equally essential and implicated in the world today — and for that reason, equally dispensable. Sagan, then, could have adopted the same “solution” as Clark: avoid classical antiquity altogether, and start with the rebuilding of Western civilization after its early medieval nadir. But Clark got the dark ages out of the way, and, once finished with them, did not return to the theme of the end of civilization. For Sagan, the potential end of civilization is an ever-present menace, so that it could not be taken up in the first episode and then forgotten.
Another theme that appears in a subtle way in several episodes of Sagan’s Cosmos is that of the social responsibility of scientists. Sagan does not pose this in a strong or an explicit way, but it does come up from time to time, entangled as it is with the development of science and technology. If we recall one of antiquity’s greatest scientists, Archimedes, we remember that Archimedes was known for constructing engines of war for the defense of Syracuse, and that Archimedes himself was a victim of war, struck down by a soldier because he refused to leave his mathematical work.
In episode seven, “The Backbone of Night,” mentioned above for its contrast between the traditions of Democritus on the one hand and Pythagoras on the other (i.e., the contrast between science and mysticism), Sagan discusses how many philosophers of antiquity — including the greatest among them, Plato and Aristotle — defended retrograde institutions like slavery, and how they served tyrants. (This is, in essence, a Marxist argument that Plato and Aristotle were creating an ideological superstructure to defend the economic infrastructure of the society of which they were a privileged part.) I assume that this reference to tyrants was an oblique reference to Plato’s brief foray into practical politics when he visited the tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse (yes, the same Syracuse) in the capacity of what we would today call a political adviser. Even Plato was insufficiently brilliant to transform the dissolute Dionysius II into a philosopher king.
This unsuccessful intervention in Syracuse is recounted in Plato’s seventh letter, and in the famous seventh letter Plato made in quite clear that he was doing exactly that he presented as the duty of the philosopher in his famous allegory of the cave in Book VII of Plato’s Republic: after the philosopher has, by his own effort, raised himself out of the cave of shadows and eventually come to look at the blinding form of The Good, he has an obligation to return to the cave of shadows to try to make those still chained below understand their bondage to mere appearances. Plato wrote that he did not want to be considered a mere man of words, and so he undertook his mission to Syracuse, although he was rebuffed and unsuccessful, as most philosophers who return to the cave of shadows are rebuffed by those they seek to enlighten.
Plato, then, took the responsibilities of the philosopher seriously — so seriously that he undertook a mission likely to fail. But who most needs our intervention? Should we preach to the choir, or should we attempt to pursue our intellectual ministry among the philosophical equivalents of prostitutes, beggars, and thieves? So Plato was no stranger to the social responsibility of the intellectual, and Plato’s mentor, Socrates, took the social responsibility of the intellectual so far as to die for it. Sagan has some harsh words for Plato, and perhaps some of them are deserved, but Plato lived in a dark time, after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian war, and all his efforts must be seen in this context. Could he have done more? Perhaps. Could Socrates have done more? I think not. Socrates gave all.
In the last episode of Cosmos, “Who speaks for Earth?” that includes the dream narrative recounted above, Sagan says that he really has no idea why ancient civilization failed and gave way to barbarism, but that he would make one observation: that no scientist working at the Library of Alexandria ever questioned the injustices of the society of which he was a part. This is a echo of his earlier criticisms of Plato and Aristotle for defending the institution slavery. And despite disowning knowledge of why Greek civilization failed, he adds another explanation, related to the previous: that ancient science was an elite undertaking that did not broadly involve the mass of the people of antiquity.
It was precisely Plato’s desire to initiate the masses into what he called the “dear delight” of philosophy that inspired Plato to write so beautifully in a popular style (he wrote in dialogue form), and to convey his ideas in parables and allegories that are as enchanting as stories as they are compelling as philosophical analysis. Plato did what he could, but in a society in which there was no broadly-based moral revulsion of slavery, and in which literacy was quite low compared to the level of contemporary expectations, it was inevitable that much of what Plato and Aristotle said fell on deaf ears. Bertrand Russell, in discussing Aristotle’s disproportionate influence over medieval scholasticism pointed out that this was not Aristotle’s fault, but the result of Aristotle having produced his comprehensive body of work at the end of an intellectually creative period.
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3 December 2012
What are the consequences from a cosmological point of view when an industrial-technological civilization comes to an end, whether destroying itself or succumbing to outside forces? What kind of trace will a vanished industrial-technological civilization leave in the universe?
An industrial-technological civilization that masters electromagnetic spectrum communications — i.e., ordinary radio and television signals — generates an expanding globe of EM signals as long as it is transmitting these signals. If an industrial-technological civilization that has been transmitting EM signals comes to an end, these signals cease to be generated, and the expanding globe of EM signals tapers off to silence at the interior of this globe, which means that there will be an expanding sphere of weakening EM signals. The thickness of this three-dimensional halo in light years will correspond to the age in years of the now-vanished industrial-technological civilization.
If precise measurements of the EM halo were possible, and its exact curvature could be determined, it would be possible to extrapolate the original source of the signal. Once the curvature of the halo has been determined, and therefore also the source, the measurement of the distance from the source to the inner boundary of the halo to the source in light years will yield the number of years that have elapsed since the end of the industrial-technological civilization in question.
While such signals would be very faint, and largely lost in the background radio noise of the universe, we cannot discount the possibility that advanced detection technology of the future might reveal such EM structures. The universe might contain these ghostly structures as a sequence of overlapping bubbles of EM radiation that describe the past structure of industrial-technological civilization in the universe.
It has been said that astronomy is a form of time travel, and the farther we look from Earth, the farther back we see in time. (This is called “look back time”). Thus we can think of astronomy as a kind of luminous archaeology. Another way to think of this is that the sky reveals a kind of luminous stratigraphy. The EM halos of vanished civilizations would also admit of a certain stratigraphy, since these halos would possess a definite structure.
The outermost stratigraphic layer of an EM halo would likely consist of the simplest kind of high energy radio signals without any kind of subtle modulation of the signal — like Morse code transmitted by radio, rather than vocal modulation. This would be followed, deeper within the EM halo, by analog radio modulation corresponding to spoken language. Next within the EM halo would be analogue television signals, and then digital television signals and data signals of the sort that would be transmitted by the radio link for the internet.
This, at least, is the approximate structure of Earth’s expanding EM halo, and if our civilization destroys itself (or is destroyed) in the near future, our EM halo would be approximately 100 light years thick. The longer we last, the thicker our EM halo.
An EM halo may drop off as an industrial-technological civilization makes the transition from openly radiated EM signals to the pervasive use of fiber optic cables, but if that civilization begins to expand within its solar system, and possesses numerous settlements in EM contact with each other (as I described in Cyberspace and Outer Space), then the halo will reflect these developments — this is further historical structure layered into the EM stratigraphy of the halo.
Given that the structure of a large EM halo would consist mostly of space empty of intelligent EM signals, much of the structure of these halos would be void. It is entirely possible that Earth at present lies within the void of an EM halo that both began and ceased to transmit prior to our ability to detect such signals.
In the event of human exploration of the cosmos, as we move outward within a possible void within a halo, it is possible that our first contact with a xenomorphic exocivilization will take the form of encountering the inner boundary of an EM halo, which as we pass through it, will reveal in reverse order the development of that civilization, beginning with its destruction and ending with its emergence.
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19 November 2012
An idea that has had a great influence despite being at very least misleading and more often completely wrong is that of recapitulation — also called embryological parallelism or the biogenetic law (the latter by Ernst Haeckel, who was also the originator of ecology). Recapitulation was most famously summed up in the phrase:
Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
The idea here is that the development of the individual organism recapitulates, or reproduces in miniature, the phylogenetic history of the species to which the individual belongs. The often mistaken idea of recapitulation as it has been applied to biology, however, did have fortunate although unintended benefits, because in looking for evidence of recapitulation biologists began seriously studying developmental processes. Early on this primarily took the form of experimental embryology, but later become more sophisticated. This developmental interest eventually led to the study of evolutionary developmental biology, which is now usually referred to as evo-devo.
Quine took up the theme of recapitulation in order to cleverly skewer metaphysics in the best tradition of Post-Positivist Thought, which he formulated as follows:
Ontology recapitulates philology.
In other words, ontology, in presuming to detail the structure of reality, just gives us back again the structure of language by which we have attempted to describe the world, however imperfectly. The implied corollary here is that different languages with different philologies will yield different ontologies (an idea better known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis).
So what has evo-devo and Quinean post-positivism to do with biology in relation to cosmology? We can understand the traditional recapitulation idea as a variation on another ancient human idea, that of the microcosm as a mirror of the macrocosm: the development of the individual as the microcosm mirrors the development of the species as the macrocosm. Similarly, terrestrial biology, as a complex ecological system on Earth, can be understood as the microcosm of the complex ecological system of cosmology, which here becomes the macrocosm. Thus as biology is the microcosm and cosmology the macrocosm, is it the case the biology recapitulates cosmology?
But do we even know, can be even say, what biology is or what cosmology is? Is it possible to make any generalization as sweeping as this without falling into incoherency? Generalizations are made, of course, but there is a question as to the legitimacy of any such generalization. The most common generalization about the whole of biology or cosmology is that they exhibit progress. Because this is one of the most common overall interpretations, it is only the interpretation that has been most refuted and has come under the heaviest attacks.
Stephen J. Gould has most memorably be associated with a consistent refusal to see progress in the history of life, and he expressed this forcefully in one of his later books, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, in which he returns time and again to the theme that life is overwhelmingly simple, and the human tendency (which we would now call anthropic bias, following Nick Bostrom) to see progress in this history of life is to distort the history of life by interpreting the whole of life in terms of a thin tail of complexity that emerges merely because life has a minimal bound of complexity. Since life cannot become less complex and still remain life, the essential variability of life will, with time, eventually blunder onto greater complexity because there is nowhere else for life to go. But that does not make greater complexity a trend, much less a driving force that results in ever more complex and sophisticated life forms.
“…I can marshal an impressive array of arguments, both theoretical (the nature of the Darwinian mechanism) and factual (the overwhelming predominance of bacteria among living creatures), for denying that progress characterizes the history of life as a whole, or even represents an orienting force in evolution at all…”
Stephen J. Gould, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin
Gould writes a bit like Darwin, who called his own Origin of Species “one long argument,” so it can be difficult to get just the right quote from Gould to illustrate his argument and his point of view, so the quote above should not be considered definitive. Thus the following quote also cannot be called definitive, but it does give a sense of Gould’s “big picture” conception of his work, and even suggests an approach to cosmology consistent with Gould’s ideas:
“…this book does have broader ambitions, for the central argument of Full House does make a claim about the nature of reality… I am making my plea by gentle example, rather than by tendentious frontal assault in the empyrean realm of philosophical abstraction (the usual way to attack the nature of reality, and to guarantee limited attention for want of anchoring). I am asking my readers finally and truly to cash out the deepest meaning of the Darwinian revolution and to view natural reality as composed of varying individuals in populations — that is, to understand variation itself as irreducible, as ‘real’ in the sense of ‘what the world is made of.’ To do this, we must abandon a habit of thought as old as Plato and recognize the central fallacy in our tendency to depict populations either as average values (usually conceived as ‘typical’ and therefore representing the abstract essence or type of the system) or as extreme examples…”
Stephen J. Gould, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin
Gould, as the great enemy of progressivism (and, as we see in the above passage, a passionate advocate of nominalism), may be contrasted with Kevin Kelly’s explicit defense of progress in his recent book What Technology Wants (which I have written about in Civilization and the Technium and The Genealogy of the Technium). In Chapter 5 of his book, “Deep Progress,” Kelly takes the bull by the horns and against much recent thought and much well-justified cynicism, argues that progress is real. Aware of the difficulties his argument faces, Kelly states up from the expected objections:
“Any claim for progressive change over time must be viewed against the realities of inequality for billions, deteriorating regional environments, local war, genocide, and poverty. Nor can any rational person ignore the steady stream of new ills bred by our inventions and activities, including new problems generated by our well-intentioned attempts to heal old problems. The steady destruction of good things and people seems relentless. And it is.”
Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, Chapter 5
Despite these difficulties, Kelly soldiers on finishes his chapter on progress as follows:
“…there will be problems tomorrow because progress is not Utopia. It is easy to mistake progressivism as utopianism because where else does increasing and everlasting improvement point to except Utopia? Sadly, that confuses a direction with a destination. The future as unsoiled technological perfection is unattainable; the future as a territory of continuously expanding possibilities is not only attainable but also exactly the road we are on now.”
Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, Chapter 5
It is admirable that Kelly makes a distinction between progress as a direction of development and progress as an end or aim. What Kelly is doing here is to posit non-teleological progress, and this is an idea that deserves attention. Non-teleological progress only partially blunts the force of Gould’s determined opposition to finding progress in history, because Gould often assumes without stating that progress implies a goal toward which a progress of development is developing, but whether or not it answers all of Gould’s objections, it deserves attention if for no other reason than that it confounds expectations and assumptions about historical thought.
Kelly, in arguing for increasing complexity against a tradition denying historical progress or trends as anthropocentric, is himself part of another emerging tradition, that is the growing discipline of Big History. In the works of David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Fred Spier, inter alia, the central theme of history conceived as a whole from the big bang to the present day is the theme of increasing complexity.
Does the universe, on the whole, exhibit increasing complexity? We could bring to cosmology essentially the same arguments that Gould used in biology, especially since Gould wrote that he had wider ambitions for his ideas. It would be easy to argue that the universe is overwhelmingly composed of hydrogen and helium, in the same way that life is overwhelmingly composed of bacteria. Just as life has a minimal bound of complexity, and only blunders into higher complexity because it has nowhere else to go, so too matter has a lower bound of complexity — ordinary baryonic matter composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons doesn’t get any simpler than hydrogen — and it could be said that it is only with accidental variation over time that complexity emerges in the universe because matter has nowhere else to go except in the direction of greater complexity.
Thus we can admit the existence of greater complexity in biology or cosmology, but it would be a mistake to argue that this complexity is the telos of the whole, or that it is a trend, or that it is even predominant. In fact, we know that bacteria predominate in life and that hydrogen predominates in cosmology. The later emergence of complexity does not alter the overwhelming predominance of the simple, and to judge of the whole by a long and very narrow tail of complexity is to allow the tail to wag the dog.
Between the inner intimacies of biology that transpire unnoticed within our bodies, and the distant and impersonal life cycles of stars and galaxies and the cosmos, unnoticed by us because it is too large and too slow to play a role in human perception, there lies the broad ground of human history. Even if biology and cosmology can be interpreted in terms of overwhelming simplicity and the absence of any trend or progress, does this have any relevance for human affairs?
It should be evident that human history, the macroscopic doings of human beings on a human scale of time, can be interpreted either according to the Gould model or according to the model of progress that one finds in Kevin Kelly and Big History.
I have mentioned in an earlier post, Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations, how I came to realize that history can be a powerful method of conveying an interpretation, and it is wrong to understand history in the sense of a list of names, dates, and places in the spirit of what might be called histoire vérité.
This is a sense of historiography most famously attributed to Leopold van Ranke, who wrote:
“History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and of instructing the account for the benefit of future ages. To show high offices the present work does not presume; it seeks only to show what actually happened [wie es eigentlich gewesen].”
Later historians have endlessly debated what exactly Ranke had in mind when he mentioned showing that actually happened; even if Ranke thought (as he is usually interpreted) that there is a single unique and correct account of history, there is no single and unique account of Ranke.
There is an Hegelian interpretation of Ranke’s much-discussed aside on showing what actually happened (“wie es eigentlich gewesen,” which has, of course, been translated in varying ways), according to which “gewesen” must be understood in an essentialist sense, so that to say what really happened is to give the essence of what happened — and this, I hope you will agree, can be very different from giving “the facts, just the facts.”
This Hegelian-essentialist interpretation of Ranke is illuminated by a famous aphorism of Hegel’s such that, “The real is the rational and the rational is the real.” When this is read through contemporary spectacles it doesn’t make any sense at all, because we tend to think of the “real” as that which really is or really happened, and we know very well that the world as it is has no end of irrationality in it, so that to say that for Hegel to say that the real is the rational makes Hegel look like a fool or worse. If, however, we understand the “real” to be the essentially true, or even the genuine — so that Hegel’s aphorism can be rendered, “The genuine is the rational and the rational is the genuine” — it suddenly becomes clear how the real and the rational might be systematically interrelated.
Here we encounter the deeper ontological substratum of these divergent interpretations of history, whether natural, human, or cosmological. The difference between the orientation of Gould and the orientation of Kelly and others is the difference between nominalism and essentialism. Nominalist historiography can give us all the facts, but ultimately cannot do anything more than sum up the facts. If you sum up the totality of life or the totality of matter in the universe, you are forced to acknowledge that life is overwhelmingly bacteriological in nature, and the universe is overwhelmingly composed of hydrogen and helium.
There is, for the nominalist, nothing to say beyond this. The essentialist, however, finds a narrative buried within the mountain of facts, but there are many essentialists, and they all have their own narratives. And essentialism is weakened by the one thing that can never touch nominalism: underdetermination. All essentialist accounts are underdetermined by the evidence. Nominalist accounts on principle never go beyond the evidence, and for that reason they are not underdetermined by the evidence, but they are also unable to say anything relevant about the meanings and values that constitute the daily bread and butter of human life. And so our strict conscience may suggest to us that we ought to stop with nominalism, but our less-than-strict human conscience suggests to us that there is something more than an undifferentiated mountain of facts.
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19 October 2012
How “visible” is any given industrial-technological civilization from the perspective of interstellar distances? In this context, “visible” means some technological sign that can be detected by technological means. Most obviously this includes any electromagnetic spectrum emissions, but might also include large scale engineering and industrial projects that could be discerned at interstellar distances.
SETI is based upon what we will here call the visibility presumption. SETI can’t really operate in any other way; if you’re going to conduct a search at the present, there are only so many things you can do with current technology at interstellar distances.
In the future (and not all that long from now — in the next ten to twenty years), as I have mentioned in other posts, we will be able to take the spectrum of the atmospheres of exoplanets and from this information we will be able to conduct a genuine Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life (SETL, presumably) by identifying biochemistry in exoplanet atmospheres. Such techniques might also reveal the activities of a civilization prior to the kind of electromechanical technologies that typify industrial-technological civilization and imply the mastery of electromagnetic spectrum emissions.
For the time being, such investigations are just beyond present technology and, as a result, extraterrestrial life that falls below the threshold of industrial-technological civilization with a mastery of electromagnetic technologies is “invisible” to us. In other words, such sub-technological civilizations, or life without civilization, lacks SETI visibility.
Many have commented that, in light of SETI visibility, what we call the search for extraterrestrial intelligence ought to be called something like the search for extraterrestrial technology or the search for advanced extraterrestrial civilizations — but we can keep the familiar SETI acronym by thinking of it as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Industrialization.
Employing our technology to search for signs of an alien technology is essentially to search for a peer civilization, i.e., another industrial-technological civilization: we are staring into the heavens and trying to find ourselves in the mirror. Not exactly ourselves, but something that would identifiable as life, as intelligence, as rationality, as civilization, and as technology. The visibility presumption implicitly incorporates all of these variables and assumes that the parameters of each variable will be just enough to challenge our assumptions without being so profoundly alien as to be unidentifiable by us as species of a familiar genus.
Recent thought concerning the emergence of a post-human future in the wake of a technological singularity has given a great impetus to the discussion of beings or institutions so changed by rapidly evolving technology that either we would not be able to recognize them, or they would not find us sufficiently interesting to communicate with us. In other words, the technological singularity could make xenocivilization invisible to us or make us essentially invisible (in the sense of being beneath notice) to a xenocivilization, thus posing a challenge to the assumptions of the visibility presumption that another industrial-technological civilization in the galaxy would be a peer civilization and visible to us.
Since I have posted quite a bit recently about the Fermi paradox, I have taken the trouble to look up one of the more thorough books on the topic, If the universe is teeming with aliens… where is everybody?: fifty solutions to the Fermi paradox and the problem of extraterrestrial life by Stephen Webb. The author divides up the solutions according to three broad categories, “They Are Here,” “They Exist But Have Not Yet Communicated,” and “They Do Not Exist.” The Wikipedia entry on the Fermi paradox also incorporates a long list of possible responses to the silentium universi.
Solution No. 28 in Webb’s book, and also mentioned on Wikipedia entry, is that xenocivilizations experience a technological singularity and therefore engage in the cosmic equivalent of Tune in, Turn on, Drop out. Here is what Webb writes:
“Vinge argues that if the Singularity is possible, then it will happen. It has something of the character of a universal law: it will occur whenever intelligent computers learn how to produce even more intelligent computers. If ETCs develop computers — since we routinely assume they will develop radio telescopes, we should assume they will develop computers — then the Singularity will happen to them, too. This, then, is Vinge’s explanation of the Fermi paradox: alien civilizations hit the Singularity and become super-intelligent, transcendent, unknowable beings.”
Stephen Webb, If the universe is teeming with aliens… where is everybody?: fifty solutions to the Fermi paradox and the problem of extraterrestrial life, New York: Praxis Publishing Ltd, 2002, p. 135
This is in itself a complex response to the Fermi paradox, because different people understand different things by the “technological singularity,” and it could just as plausibly be argued that a species experiencing a technological singularity would have its ability to communicate within the known universe exponentially increased and improved, which in turn poses the Fermi paradox in an even stronger form: if alien technological intelligence is so advanced, and has so many technological and intellectual resources at its command, why is it still unable to communicate across interstellar distances? (The protean character of the singularity thesis — anyone seems to be able to make of it what they will — is one reason that I have characterized it as a quasi-theological belief.)
Once the Fermi paradox is posed again in a stronger form, we must have recourse to other familiar responses, such as the singularity makes them lose interest in the outside world, or the technological singularity destroys the civilization in question, and so forth.
Does the idea of a technological singularity or a post-biological future (for ourselves or for some other xenobiological species) fundamentally challenge the visibility presumption?
Recently in Cyberspace and Outer Space I suggested that any civilization expanding beyond its native planet (or other naturally occurring celestial body that is the home of life elsewhere) would almost certainly have some kind of pervasively present radio or EM spectrum communication system — an internet for the solar system, which Heath Rezabek has called a solarnet — and such a network would be highly visible, and perhaps even unintentionally visible, even at interstellar distances.
This can be formulated in even a stronger form: because civilizations that remain exclusively based on their native planets are highly vulnerable to natural disasters, and therefore potentially vulnerable to natural disasters of sufficient scope and scale to result in extinction, such civilizations could be expected to have shorter lifespans and to therefore be less represented in the universe. In other words, exclusively planetary civilizations would be disproportionately selected for extinction.
What we would expect to find in our survey of the cosmos are those long-lived civilizations with the most robust survival mechanisms — redundancy, dispersion, diversity — and robust survival mechanisms of redundancy and dispersion will mean communication between dispersed centers of the civilization in question, and this communication would likely have a high visibility profile — although it could be argued that one survival mechanism would be to go to ground and remain silent so as not to be exterminated by hostile civilizations.
The same considerations of survivability would apply to any civilization that experienced a technological singularity and had subsequently made the transition to post-biological being. While it is fun to imagine mega-engineering projects like a matrioshka brain, a ringworld, an Alderson disk or a Dyson sphere, such massive projects would be very vulnerable, even for an advanced civilization. Horace said that you can drive out Nature with a pitchfork, but she keeps on coming back, and this remains true even at cosmological scales.
One of the arguments made for the Matrioshka brain scenario is that of keeping the whole structure of a massive super-intelligent entity compact in order to reduce communication times between its parts (the speed of light would be where the shoe pinches for a Matrioshka brain), but no super-intelligent entity, biological, post-biological, or non-biological, would put all its eggs in one basket unless its technological hubris had reached the point of considering itself invulnerable. Such hubris would eventually be punished and the brain would go extinct in one fell swoop. Natural selection does not and would not spare technological entities, though it would operate on a cosmological scale rather than at the familiar scale of planetary niches.
It would make much more sense to make the same effort to construct many different megastructures that remain structurally independent but in continuous communication with each other. Since electrical or fiber optic cables strung in space would be even more vulnerable than structures, these independent megastructures would be hard-pressed to find any more robust and survivable form of communication than good old EM spectrum communications, and if multiple megastructures employing massive energy levels were in continuously in communication with each other by way of EM spectrum communication, such a xenocivilization would have a very high visibility profile unless it made a conscious effort to suppress its visibility — which latter is a distinct response to the Fermi paradox.
The technological singularity or post-biological beings do not, in and of themselves, apart from distinct assumptions, argue against the visibility presumption.
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