6 October 2013
What is astrobiology?
I suppose that “astrobiology” could be called one of those “ten dollar” words, but despite being a long word of six syllables and a dozen letters, it can be defined quite simply.
Astrobiology has been called, “The study of life in space” (Mix, Life in Space: Astrobiology for Everyone, 2009) and that, “Astrobiology… removes the distinction between life on our planet and life elsewhere.” (Plaxco and Gross, Astrobiology: A Brief Introduction, 2006). Taking these sententious formulations of astrobiology as the study of life in space, which removes the distinction between life on our planet and life elsewhere, together gives us a new perspective with which to view life on Earth (and beyond).
There are, of course, longer and more detailed definitions of astrobiology. There are two in particular that I have cited in previous posts:
“The study of the living universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of life in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of gravity in living systems, and (3) the study of the Earth’s atmospheres and ecosystems.”
from the NASA strategic plan of 1996, quoted in Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick, The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, 2005
“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”
from the NASA astrobiology website
I cited these two definitions of astrobiology from NASA in Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro- and other posts in which I used parallel formulations to define astrocivilization.
Learning to take the astrobiological point of view
Astrobiology is island biogeography writ large.
This is one of the few “tweets” I’ve written that was “re-tweeted” multiple times (I’m not very popular on Twitter.) After I wrote this I began a more extensive blog post on this theme, but didn’t finish it; the topic rapidly became too large and started to look like a book rather than a post. Then last month I posted this on Twitter:
In the same way that Darwin provided a new perspective on life, astrobiology provides a novel perspective that allows us to see life anew.
Recently I’ve also been referring to astrobiology with increasing frequency in my blog posts, and I referenced astrobiology in my 2012 presentation at the 100YSS symposium in Houston and just last month in my presentation at the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress in Dallas.
It will be apparent to the reader, then, then the idea of astrobiology has been slowly growing on me for the past few years, and the more I think about it, the more I come to realize the fundamentally new perspective that astrobiology offers on life and its evolution. Moreover, astrobiology also is suggestive for the future of life, and what we will discover about life the more we explore the cosmos.
Astrobiology: the Fourth Revolution in the Life Sciences
The more I think about astrobiology, the more I realize that, like earlier revolutions in the life sciences, the astrobiological point of view gives a novel perspective on familiar facts, and in so doing it potentially orients science in a new direction. For this reason I now see astrobiology as the fourth of four revolutions that instantiated the life sciences in their present form and continue to shape the way that we think about biology and the living world.
Here is my list of the four major revolutions in biological thought that have shaped the life sciences:
● Natural selection Independently discovered by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, natural selection gave sharpness of focus to many vague evolutionary ideas that were being circulated in the nineteenth century. With natural selection, biology had a theory by which to work, that could unify biological thought in a way that had not previously been possible. Of the Darwinian revolution Harald Brüssow wrote, “How can biologists cope conceptually and technically with this enormous species number? A deep sigh of relief came for biologists already in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s book ‘On the Origin of Species’. Suddenly, biologists had a unifying theory for their branch of science. One could even argue that the holy grail of a great unifying theory was achieved by Darwin and Wallace at a time when Maxwell was unifying physics, the older sister of biology, at the level of the electromagnetic field theory.” (“The not so universal tree of life or the place of viruses in the living world” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 2009, 364, 2263–2274)
● Genetics After Darwin and Wallace came Gregor Mengel, who solved fundamental problems in the theory of inheritance and so greatly strengthened the Darwinian theory of descent with modification. As Darwin had provided the mechanism for the overall structure of life, Mendel provided the mechanism that made natural selection possible. Mendel’s work, contemporaneous with Darwin, was forgotten and not rediscovered until the early twentieth century. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that Crick and Watson were able to delineate the structure of DNA, which made it possible to describe Mendelian genetics on a molecular level, thus making possible molecular biology.
● Evo-devo Evo-devo, which is a contraction of evolutionary developmental biology, once again went back to the roots of biology (as Darwin had done by formulating a fundamental theory, and as Mendel had done by his careful study of inheritance in pea plants), and returned the study of embryology to the center of attention of evolutionary biology. Studying the embryology of organisms with the tools of molecular biology gave (and continues to give) new insights into the fine structure of life’s evolution. Before evo-devo, few if any suspected that the homology that Darwin and others notes on a macro-biological scale (the structural similarity of the hand of a man, the wing of a bat, and the flipper of a dolphin) would be reducible to homology on a genetic level, but evo-devo has demonstrated this in remarkable ways, and in so doing has further underlined the unity of all terrestrial life.
● Astrobiology Astrobiology now lifts life out of its exclusively terrestrial context and studies life in its cosmological context. We have known for some time that climate is a major driver of evolution, and that climatology is in turn largely driven by the vicissitudes of the Earth as the Earth orbits the sun, exchanges material with other bodies in our solar system, and the solar system entire bobs up and down in the plane of the Milky Way galaxy. Of understanding of life gains immensely by being placed in the cosmological context, which forces us both to think big, in terms of the place of life in the universe, as well as to think small, in terms of the details of origins of life on Earth and its potential relation to life elsewhere in the universe.
This is obviously a list of revolutions in biological thought compiled by an outsider, i.e., by someone who is not a biologist. Others might well compile different lists. For example, I can easily imagine someone putting the Woesean revolution on a short list of revolutions in biological thought. Woese was largely responsible for replacing the tripartite division of animals, plants, and fungi with the tripartite division of the biological domains of Bacteria, Archaea and Eukarya. (There remains the question of where viruses fit in to this scheme, as discussed in the Brüssow paper cited above.)
Since I have included molecular phylogeny among the developments of evo-devo (in the graphic at the bottom of this post), I have implicitly place Woese’s work within the evo-devo revolution, since it was the method of molecular phylogeny that made it possible to demonstrate that plants, animals and fungi are all closely related biologically, while the truly fundamental division in terrestrial life is between the eukarya (which includes plants, animals, and fungi, which are all multicellular organisms), bacteria, and archaea. If any biologists happen to read this, I hope you will be a bit indulgent toward my efforts, though I certainly encourage you to leave a comment if I have made any particularly egregious errors.
Toward a Radical Biology
Darwin mentioned the origins of life only briefly and in passing. There is the famous reference to, “some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, — light, heat, electricity &c. present” in his letter to Joseph Hooker, and there is the famous passage at the end of his Origin of Species which I discussed in Darwin’s Cosmology:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Darwin, of course, had nothing to go on at this point. Trying to understand or explain the origins of life without molecular biology would be like trying to explain the nature of water without the atomic and molecular theory of matter: the conceptual infrastructure to circumscribe the most basic elements of life did not yet exist. (The example of trying to define water without the atomic theory of matter is employed by Robert M. Hazen in his lectures on the Origins of Life.)
Just as Darwin pressed biology beyond the collecting and comparison of beetles in the backyard, and opened up deep time to biology (and, vice versa, biology to deep time), so astrobiology presses forward with the project of evolutionary biology, pursuing the natural origins of life to its chemical antecedents. Astrobiology is a radical biology in the same way that Darwin was radical biology in his time: both go to the root to the matter to the extent possible given the theoretical, scientific, and technological parameters of thought. It is in the radical sense that astrobiology is integral with origins of life research; it is in this sense in which the two are one.
The humble origins of radical ideas
The radical biology of Darwin did not start out as such. In his early life, Darwin considered becoming a country parson, and when Darwin left on his voyage on the Beagle as Captain Fitzroy’s gentleman companion, he held mostly conventional views. It is easy to imagine an alternative history in which Darwin retained his conventional views, went on to become a country parson, and gave Sunday sermons that were mostly moral homilies punctuated by the occasional quote from scripture the illustrate the moral lesson with a story from the tradition he nominally represented. Such a Darwin from an alternative history would have continued to collect beetles during the week and would have maintained his interest in natural history.
Just as Darwin came out of the context of English natural history (which, before Darwin, gave us those classic works of teleology, Paley’s Natural Theology and Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation — a work that the young Darwin greatly admired), so too astrobiology comes out of the context of a later development of natural history — the scientific search for the origins of life and for extraterrestrial life. While the search for extraterrestrial life is “big science” of an order of magnitude only possible by an institution like NASA, in this respect it stands in the humble tradition of natural history, since we must send robots of Mars and the other planets until we can go there ourselves with a shovel and rock hammer. From such humble beginnings sometimes emerge radical consequences.
I think we are already beginning to see the potentially radical character of astrobiology, and that this development in biology promises a paradigm shift almost of the scope and magnitude of natural selection. Indeed, both natural selection and astrobiology can be understood as further (and radical) contextualizations of the theme of man’s place in nature. When Darwin wrote, he contextualized human history in the most comprehensive conception of nature then possible; today astrobiology must contextualize not only human history but also the totality of life on Earth in a much more comprehensive cosmological context.
As our knowledge of the world (which was once very small, and very parochial) steadily expands, we are eventually forced to extend and refine our concepts in order to adequately account for the world that we now know. Natural selection and astrobiology are steps in the extension and refinement of our conception of life, and of the place of life in the world. Life simpliciter is, after all, a “folk” concept. Indeed, “life” is folk biology and “world” is folk cosmology. Astrobiology brings together these folk concepts and attempts to bring scientific rigor to them.
The biology of the future
Astrobiology is laying the foundations for the biology of the future. Here and now on earth, without having surveyed life on other worlds, astrobiologists are attempting for formulate concepts adequate to understanding life at the largest and the smallest scales. Once we take these conceptions along with us when we eventually explore alien worlds — including alien worlds close to home, such as Mars and the ocean beneath the ice of Europa — it is to be expected that further revolutions in the life sciences will come about as a result of attempting to understand what we eventually find in the light of the concepts we have preemptively developed in order to understand biology beyond the surface of the Earth.
Future revolutions in biology will likely have the same radical character as natural selection, genetics, evo-devo, and astrobiology. Future naturalists will do what naturalists do best: they will spend their time in the field finding new specimens and describing them for science, and in the process of the slow and incremental accumulation of scientific knowledge new ideas will suggest themselves. Perhaps someone laid low by some alien fever, like Wallace tossing and turning as he suffered from a fever in the Indonesian archipelago, will, in a moment of insight, rise from their sick bed long enough to dash off a revolutionary paper, sending it off to another naturalist, now settled and meditating over his own experiences of new and unfamiliar forms of life.
The naturalists of alien forms of life will not necessarily have the same point of view as that of astrobiologists — and that is all to the good. Science thrives when it is enriched by new perspectives. At present, the revolutionary new perspective is astrobiology, but that will not likely remain true indefinitely.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
7 May 2013
The Transcendental Aesthetic and the Finding of
Other Minds in Other Species
An extrapolation of the “problem of other minds” to other species
What philosophers call “the problem of other minds” is closely related to what philosophers call the “mind-body problem” (both fall within philosophy of mind), and both are paradigmatic metaphysical questions that have been with philosophy from the beginning. Lately I’ve written a good deal about the mind-body problem on my other blog (e.g., in Naturalism and the Mind, Of Distinctions Weak and Strong, Of Distinctions, Principled and Otherwise, Cartesian Formalism, etc.), and this has got me to thinking about the problem of other minds.
I have never found the idea of other minds in other species to be in the least problematic. When you look into the eyes of another living being, whether human being or other being, you are well aware of the moment of mutual recognition, and you are equally well aware at that moment of mutual recognition that you are sharing that moment with another consciousness (that is to say, you experience a social temporality).
In The Eye of the Other I wrote:
It is when we look into the eye of the other that we recognize the consciousness of the other. Even if we feel that the reality of other minds is beyond philosophical demonstration, even if we are skeptics of other minds, it would be extraordinarily difficult to look into the eyes of another and not experience that immediate reaction of recognition of another mind. When we look not only into the eyes of another being but also into the eyes of another species, there is simultaneously the recognition of the awareness of the other and of the alien nature of that awareness.
Some people feel obliged to deny this inter-species recognition of common consciousness on ideological grounds, although few ever think of speciesism as a ideology. As I have recently observed in relationship to geopolitics, which I characterized as an ideology that does not know itself to be an ideology, so too with speciesism: for many it is simply an unexamined presupposition and is never formalized as an explicit article of belief.
While I myself don’t find anything in the least problematic about consciousness in other species, and I think that anyone that takes a naturalistic point of view would be hard-pressed to deny it, I cannot deny that there are some persons who feel a real sense of moral horror in recognizing the consciousness of other species. I am fully aware of this moral horror, and I am utterly unsympathetic to it. To paraphrase Freud on the “oceanic” feeling, I am unable to discover this moral horror in myself.
Some of those who are uncomfortable with the ascription of consciousness to other species simply don’t like animals, and some of those similarly disposed are just completely uninterested in animals and find it peculiar that some human beings seem to be closer to their dogs and cats than they are to other human beings. Such persons sometimes become visibly discomfited at any mention of Johnson’s Hodge or Greyfriars Bobby or Hachikō, all memorialized by statues. I have personally heard individuals of this particular temperament indignantly lecture others (myself included) on the dangers of anthropomorphizing our companion animals. If I were to be so lectured today, I would lecture right back on anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind, which is utterly out of place and unbecoming of a philosopher (which in this instance includes anyone who makes, or who implies, philosophical assertions about mind, specifically, denying mind to certain classes of existents).
Such persons often live in an exclusively human world, and to them the animal world seems inexplicably alien. This in itself is an implicit recognition of an animal world, that is to say, a world constituted by animal consciousness. But, of course, not all who deny consciousness to other species can be so pigeon-holed. Some who have completely succumbed to anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind are in no sense living in an exclusively human world, and certainly when the dogma of human exceptionalism in consciousness gained currency, long before our industrial-technological civilization freed us from animal muscle power as the motive force of civilization, almost everyone lived intimately with animals.
In this latter context, prior to industrialization, there was always a theological overlay to the denial of consciousness to other species. Indeed, it is very likely that, if the terms of the philosophical problem of other minds were carefully explained, those with a theological world view might well without hesitation grant consciousness of other species, and simply deny they other species possess a “soul,” which is simply a theologically-legitimized devalorization. In practice, it comes to much the same as the denial of consciousness to other species and a sedulous distinction between the human and the animal realms.
I observed in The Origins of Physicalism that Cartesianism was the original “mechanical philosophy,” and while Cartesianism in the time of Descartes and immediately afterward incorporated human exceptionalism into the philosophy (i.e., it institutionalized anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind), the logical extrapolation of the theory was evident, and what the Cartesians practised upon other species later philosophers in the mechanistic tradition came to practise also upon human beings: the denial of consciousness.
Today we have a school of thought that is not exactly the denial of consciousness but rather the revaluation, or, better, the devaluation of consciousness, which latter is called a “user illusion” — at least, in techno-philosophy the denial of consciousness is called the “user illusion.” In traditional philosophy, the denial of the existence of consciousness is called “eliminativism,” since instead of seeking to reduce consciousness to something else that is not consciousness (and thereby exemplifying reductivism), eliminativism cuts the Gordian Knot and simply denies that there is any such thing as consciousness — meaning that there is nothing to be “explained away.” I am sure that I am not the only one who finds this to be a thoroughly unsatisfying “solution” to a perennial philosophical problem.
How then are we to understand the minds of other species, i.e., the problem of other minds as generalized to include non-human species? What philosophical framework exists that can provide a conceptual infrastructure for such an understanding? There are many possibilities, but today I would like to consider a Kantian approach.
If we take as the lesson of Kant’s transcendental aesthetic that the mind is being continually bombarded by a riot of sensations from all the various bodily sensory organs, and that the mind then constitutes a kind of conceptual sieve that shapes, channels and directs the mass of sensory experience into something coherent upon which an organism can act, we can recognize that much the same process occurs in other species. All mammals have more or less similar bodies and similar sensory endowments, so that all living mammals are constantly being bombarded by a riot of sensations which each creature must sort into coherent experience. The fact that we can play fetch with a dog, and both successfully interact in one and the same world, simultaneously recognizing the stick at the center of the game as an object that passes between two or more organism involved in a game of fetch, suggests that we and the dog constitute and cognize the world in a remarkably similar fashion.
The dog, like us, is receiving sensory signals from his eyes, ears, nose, and so forth, as well as experiencing kinesthetic sensations from the movement of his body as he exerts himself in lunging after the stick. From all of this sensation the dog successfully distills a world, and that world is remarkably similar to our world.
A few years ago I had an interesting experience that bears directly on games of fetch and shared experience, when I had an opportunity to feel what it was like to be a dog among dogs. I was at a vacation house on a river, and had brought my wetsuit along so I could swim. The river is fed by snow melt from Mt. Hood and it is one of the coldest rivers in which I have ever been swimming. I put on my wetsuit and got into the water just as others were beginning to play fetch with a large black lab that they had brought along. They threw a stick into the frigid waters of the river, and the lab plunged into to fetch the stick. The next time the stick was thrown I started swimming toward it the same time that the lab started swimming toward it. The lab looked at me and instantly saw me as a competitor for the stick. He swam all the harder and made it to the stick before me with an obvious sense of triumphalism.
Of course, most people have had experiences like this in life, and some people will dismiss such experiences as readily as Descartes dismissed his correspondent’s stories attempting to prove that animals are not mere mechanisms. However we interpret such experiences, we share and interact in a common world. Although this is utterly contrary to the spirit of Kant, I have to observe that any animal that could not distill coherent experience of the world out of its mass of sensation would never survive. Evolution selects for those organisms that can best hunt or avoid being prey in the common world in which predator and prey interact. This is a naturalistic point of view, whereas Kant’s point of view was decidedly that of idealism.
Even if one rejects Kant’s idealism, as I do, there seems to me to be some residual value in the idea of the mind being involved in the constitution of experience. I think that Kant was right that we have certain a priori intuitions that order our experience, but I think that this was much more fluid and pluralistic than Kant’s exposition of the transcendental aesthetic allows. While I wrote above that mammals all have a relatively similarly experience of the world, a function of a similar sensory and cognitive endowments, I would allow that there is some important variation. Sight plays a very large role in how human beings cognize the world; smell plays a disproportionate role in how dogs cognize the world; sound plays a disproportionate role in how dolphins cognize the world.
All terrestrial critters of a given level of cognitive complexity have to distill coherent experience of one and the same world out of a mass of sensation, but that mass of sensation differs among different species. I suspect that this sensory difference means that different species also have different a priori conceptions that help them to organize their experience into a coherent whole, and that, just sensory experience differs from species to species, but admits of degrees of greater or less, so too the a priori ideas of distinct species different from species to species but also admit of greater or less similarity. That is to say, smell may shape the world of a dog far more than it shapes our world, but we probably share far more in terms of sensory experience and organizing ideas with a dog than with a marine mammal, and probably we share much more with a marine mammal than with an octopus or other cephalopod. This is a function and an illustration of a point I recently tried to make about the relationship between mind and embodiment.
I tried to make this point in my above referenced post, The Eye of the Other, since when I unexpectedly looked into the eyes of a sealion, a marine mammal, we immediately recognized each other, and in the same moment of recognition also recognized the profound differences between the two of us. Common mammalian minds, differently embodied and living in profoundly different environments, will involve different sensory stimulation, different kinesthetic sensations, and different a priori concepts for organizing experience. But not too different. A shark, with a mind very different from a mammalian mind, can predate marine mammals, so that both sharks and marine mammals interact in the same marine environment just as human beings and tigers interact in the same terrestrial environment.
I suspect that, at least in some senses, the tiger’s mind and the human mind share concepts derived from their common terrestrial environment, while the shark and the marine mammal share concepts derived from the common marine environment, so that a tiger’s mind is more like a human mind than a sea lion’s mind is like a human mind, and, vice versa, a sea lion’s mind is more like a shark’s mind than it is like a human mind. Nevertheless, the human mind and the sea lion mind will share some concepts due to their common mammalian constitution. To employ a Wittgensteinian turn of phrase, the different sensations, concepts, and minds of distinct species overlap and intersect.
The recognition of consciousness in other species is no marginal and recondite inquiry; if, in the fullness of time, we encounter other intelligent species in the universe of extraterrestrial origin, we will need a philosophical framework in which we can integrate the idea of consciousness among other organic species, and if research into artificial intelligence and machine consciousness ever issues in a self-aware mechanism, fashioned by human hands in the same way that we might build a car or a house, we will again require a philosophical framework in which we can integrate the idea of consciousness even more generally, comprehending both naturally-emergent consciousness from organic substrates and artificially emergent consciousness of non-organic substrates.
We need a robust philosophy of mind that does not stagnate in questions of whether there is mind or whether minds can be reduced to other phenomena or eliminated altogether. Such doctrines are — would be — utterly unhelpful in coming to understand what Husserl called the “structures of consciousness.” It is likely that the structures of consciousness vary incrementally among individuals of the same species, vary a little more across distinct species, and will vary even more among minds derived from different sources — different ecosystems and biospheres in the case of organically-originating extraterrestrial minds, and different mechanisms of implementation in the case of inorganically-originating minds of machine consciousness.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
3 May 2013
Fourth in a Series on Existential Risk
“The human race’s prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenceless against tigers than they are today, when we have become defenceless against ourselves.” Arnold Toynbee, “Man and Hunger” (Speech to the World Food Congress, 04 January 1963, quoted on the Anthropocene Blog)
Readers, I trust, will be aware of existential risks (as well as global catastrophic risks) since I’ve recently written several recent posts on this topic, including Research Questions on Existential Risk, Six Theses on Existential Risk, Existential Risk Reminder, Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk, Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty, and Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty. The idea of the “Death Event” is likely to be much less familiar, so I will try to sketch out the idea itself and its relationship to existential risk.
The idea of the “death event” is due to philosopher Edith Wyschogrod, and given exposition in her book Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death. Wyschogrod took the title of her book from an aphorism of Wittgenstein’s from 1930: “I once said, perhaps rightly: The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.”
In defining the scope of the “death event” Wyschogrod wrote:
“I shall define the scope of the event to include three characteristic expressions: recent wars which deploy weapons in the interest of maximum destruction of persons, annihilation of persons, through techniques designed for this purpose (for example, famine, scorched earth, deportation), after the aims of war have been achieved or without reference to war, and the creation of death-worlds, a new and unique form of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life simulating imagined conditions of death, conferring upon their inhabitants the status of the living dead.”
Edith Wyschogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985, p. 15.
Wyschogrod’s conception of the “death world,” also given exposition in the text, is introduced in conscious contradistinction to the late Husserlian conception of the “Lifeworld” (Lebenswelt). (Cf. Chapter 1, Kingdoms of Death) I cannot do justice to Wyschogrod’s excellent book in a few quotes, so I will simply encourage the reader to look up the book for himself, but I will give a couple more quotes to locate the “death event” in relation to the larger picture of our civilization. Wyschogrod sees a relation between the “death event” and the peculiar character of industrial-technological civilization:
“The procedures and instruments of death which depend upon the quantification of the qualitied world are innovations deriving from technological society and, to that extent, extend its point of view.”
Op. cit., p. 25
“…the world of the camps is both distinct from and tied to technological society, so too the nuclear void is embedded in the matrix of technological society but not related to it in simple cause and effect fashion.”
Op. cit., p. 29
Perhaps at some future time I will consider Wyschogrod’s “death event” thesis in relation to what I have called Agriculture and the Macabre, which is the particular relationship between agricultural civilization and death, but whether or not the reader agrees with me or not (or with Wyschogrod, for that matter) I will acknowledge without hesitation that the character of the macabre in agricultural civilization is very different from the place of the death event and the death world in industrial-technological civilization.
Wyschogrod focuses on death camps and industrialized warfare, but of course what shocked the world more than anything were the nuclear bombs that ended the war. A considerable bibliography could be devoted to the books exclusively devoted to the anguished reflection that followed the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of them written by and about the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and made the bomb possible. Many of the most eminent philosophers of the time immediately began to think about the consequences — both contemporaneously and for the longer term human future — of human beings being in possession of nuclear weapons.
Bertrand Russell wrote two books on the possibility of nuclear war, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959) and Has Man a Future? (1961) Recently in Bertrand Russell as Futurist I discussed Russell’s views on the need for world government in order to prevent the annihilation of human life due to nuclear weapons — a view shared by Albert Einstein.
In 1958 Karl Jaspers published Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen, later translated into English as The Future of Mankind. What all of these works have in common is struggling with what Jaspers called “the new fact.” Of this new fact Jaspers wrote:
“The atom bomb of today is a fact novel in essence, for it leads mankind to the brink of self-destruction.”
Karl Jaspers, The Future of Mankind, Chap. I, p. 1
“the atom bomb is today the greatest of all menaces to the future of mankind… The possible reality which we must henceforth reckon with — and reckon with, at the increasing pace of developments, in the near future — is no longer a fictitious end of the world. It is no world’s end at all, but the extinction of life on the surface of the planet.”
Op. cit., p. 4
The fact that fear of nuclear Armageddon was felt viscerally as an all-too-real possibility for our world points to the fact that this was not merely the appearance of a new idea in human history — new ideas appear every day — but a fundamental shift in feeling. When the awful reality of the Second World War, which saw man-made mass death on an unprecedented scale, received its finale in the form of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we had acquired a new object for our instinctual fear of annihilation.
The larger meaning of the “death event” — testified not only in Edith Wyschogrod’s explicit formulation, but also in the work of Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, and a hundred others — is that of formal, reflexive consciousness of anthropogenic existential risk. We not only know that we are vulnerable to existential risk, we also know that we know. It is this formal, reflexive self-consciousness of existential risk that is the differentia between human history before the “death event” and human history after the “death event.” The “death event” was a crystallizing event, a particular moment in history that was a watershed for human suffering that placed that suffering in the naturalistic context.
Earlier catastrophes in human experience did not have this character — or, if they did have this character for a few individuals who realized the larger meaning of events, this formal, reflexive consciousness of human vulnerability did not achieve general recognition. Partly this was a consequence of the non-naturalistic and teleological assumptions that were integral with the outlook of earlier epochs of human civilization, before science made a naturalistic conception of the world entire conceivable. If one believes that a supernatural force will intervene to continue to maintain human beings in existence, there is no reason to be concerned with the possibility of human extinction.
Prior to industrial-technological civilization (made possible by the scientific revolution, which is particularly relevant in this context), the “end of the world” could only be understood in eschatological terms because eschatologies derived from theological cosmogonies were the only “big picture” accounts of the cosmos that had been formulated and which had achieved any degree of currency. (There have always been non-theological philosophical cosmogonies, but these have remained marginal throughout human history.)
The situation in regard to “big picture” conceptions of the world is closely parallel to that of biology prior to Darwin’s theory of natural selection: there were no strictly biological theories of biology prior to Darwin, only theological theories that were employed to “explain” biological facts. With no alternative to a theological account of biology, it is to be expected that this sole point of view was the universal point of reference, just as where there is no alternative to the theological account of history, this theological account is the sole point of reference in history.
In regard to traditional eschatologies, it would be just as apposite to point out that a supernatural agent might intervene to bring about the end of civilization or the extinction of all human beings (in contradistinction to supernatural interventions intended to be to our benefit), regardless of all human efforts made to preserve themselves and their civilization in existence. The point here is that once we recognize the efficacy of supernatural agents in human history, human agency in shaping the human future cannot be assumed, and in fact the idea of “destiny” (especially in the form of predestination) may come to prevail over conceptions of the future that allow a greater scope to human agency. This is why, in my post The Naturalistic Conception of History, I defined naturalism as “non-human non-agency,” i.e., the absence of supernatural agency.
To formulate this from the opposite point of view, we could say that it was only the essentially naturalistic assumptions of our own time, assumptions built into the structure of industrial-technological civilization (because it is dependent upon science, and science cannot systematically expand in the way that science has expanded in recent history without the working philosophical presupposition of methodological naturalism), that made it possible for human beings to understand that no deus ex machina was going to emerge at the end of the human drama to save us in spite of our failure to secure our own future.
Once human beings realized with fearful clarity that they possessed the power to annihilate civilization and possibly also all human life, it is only a small step from this consciousness of human vulnerability to come to a similar consciousness of human vulnerability whether or not the existential threat is anthropogenic or non-anthropogenic. A sufficient number of ill-advised and irreversible choices (choices that result in action or inaction, as the case may be) could mean the extinction of human beings, or the reduction of human activity to a level of insignificance. That is what we now know to be the case, and it shifts a heavy burden of responsibility onto human beings for their own future — a burden that had once been carried on the shoulders of gods.
It is only in the past few decades of contemporary science that we have begun to look at the long antiquity of man with the thought of our existential vulnerability in mind, retrospectively placing our fingers at the nodal points of our past, for there have been many times when we might have all been extirpated before any of the many thresholds of development that have brought us to our present state at which we can adequately conceptualize our existential risk came about.
In this way, existential risk mitigation efforts not only provide a kind of clarity in conceptualizing the human future, especially in so far as we abide by the moral imperatives imposed by existential risk, but also by giving us a novel perspective on the human past.
One of the guiding principles of contemporary thought on existential risk is to focus on those risks that human beings have no record of surviving. In order to make good on this principle, we need to understand what existential risks human beings have survived in the past, and to this end we must acquire a better knowledge of human evolution in a cosmological context, which is, in a sense, the particular concern of astrobiology.
. . . . .
Grand Strategy and Existential Risk: A Series:
4. Existential Risk and the Death Event
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
27 April 2013
Fusion: nature got there first
Fusion came very early in the history of the universe, and consciousness came very late in the history of the universe — this pair of natural technologies come so early and so late, respectively, that one could say that they “bookend” cosmological history as the Alpha and Omega of cosmic evolution.
After an initial period of big bang nucleosynthesis in the first twenty minutes of the life of the cosmos, the universe did little in the way of producing more baryonic matter until gravity took over, and the baryonic matter condensed into early stars. Stars began to “light up” about 100 million years after the big bang, which in cosmological terms is not a terribly long time. This “lighting up” of the stars has been said to mark the advent of the stelliferous era.
In the almost 14 billion years of the universe’s history, stars have been shining for all but the first 100 million years — the vast majority of the age of the universe. What this means is that fusion has been around for the vast majority of the history of the universe. Nature innovated fusion technology early on, and fusion has continued to be central to the natural processes of the universe up to the present time and for the foreseeable future.
It has been said that human beings are a solar species. I wrote about this in my post Human Beings: A Solar Species. To say that human beings are a solar species is to say that we are a species dependent upon fusion. All life, and not only our species, is dependent upon the energy generated by fusion, so that fusion is responsible for all (or almost all) subsequent emergent complexity.
Fusion is a basic technology of the universe, a conditio sine qua non of cosmological order and its history. As such, fusion is a robust and durable technology proved over billions of years. Fusion as a natural source of energy is achieved through gravitational containment, and while human technology is not yet in a position to exploit the technology of gravitational containment, we have a very clear idea of its mechanism, as we have sophisticated physical theories to account for it. In other words, we have a good understanding of a technology that is one of the early building blocks of the universe.
Other technologies of nature
It is interesting, in this context, to consider other natural technologies and their place in cosmological natural history. We know, for example, from a 1972 discovery at Gabon, Africa, that fission, like fusion, is a natural technology. At Oklo in Gabon, about 1.7 billion years ago, just the right elements came together with a critical mass of fissionables to produce self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions.
Fissionables are relatively rare, and we know that these heavier elements are created by supernovae, so that natural fission reactors cannot come about until after (at very minimum) generation III stars have gone supernovae and flung their radioactive remnants into the universe. The date of the natural reactor at Gabon makes it quite old, but still not half as old as the earth itself, and nowhere nearly as old as fusion. It has been proposed that there was a “paleo-reactor” on Mars in the distant past, and it is interesting to speculate how widely spread, or how rare, fission technology is in the universe. We will not know until we explore in detail.
Another natural technology of note is life itself. Current biological thought suggests that life emerged on earth not long after the planet began to cool. The Earth is thought to be about 4.54 billion years old, and life may have arisen as much as 3.9 billion years ago. In other words, the Earth has hosted life for much longer than its initial sterility. The earth has, in turn, existed for almost a third as long as the entire universe, so that means that life (at very least on earth, if nowhere else) has been around for a quarter of the age of the known universe. That makes life a well-established and robust natural technology.
A recent paper, Life Before Earth by Alexei A. Sharov and Richard Gordon, suggests that if the complexity of life is extrapolated backward in time we must posit an origin of life at about 9.7 billion years ago, which is almost twice as old as the earth, which suggests in turn that earth was “seeded” with life as soon as its was cool enough to support life, rather than independently arising on Earth. While this thesis is, in my judgment, rather tenuous, its cannot be dismissed out of hand, and if it is correct, it shows life to be an even longer-lived and more durable technology than we now suspect it to be.
Just as we are curious if there have been other naturally occurring fission reactors in the universe, we are intensely interested in the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe: the robust and durable technology of life on earth suggests that this technology may well be replicated elsewhere, as pervasive in the universe, where conditions are right, as fusion technology is pervasive in the universe. The existence of life elsewhere is the cosmos is one of the great scientific questions of our time.
Consciousness: nature got there first, too
In contradistinction to fusion, the technology of consciousness arrives late in the history of the universe. While there were likely rudimentary forms of consciousness prior to the particular forms of mammalian consciousness familiar to us both in ourselves and in the other mammals with whom we often share our lives, and mammalian consciousness is a robust natural technology about 160 million years old (interestingly, not so much more distant from the present as the lighting up of stars was distant from big bang), the intelligent, self-reflective consciousness of human beings seems to be even younger than the bodies of anatomically modern human beings.
The late emergence of consciousness in the history of the universe is interesting in so far as it demonstrates that the universe, even at its present advanced age, is still capable of technological innovation.
In regard to consciousness, we are closing in on the mechanisms of the brain that enable the emergence of consciousness from a material substrate, but, unlike the case with fusion, we have no idea whatsoever what consciousness is and have no theory to account for it. Of course I am aware that many will disagree with me on this — even, if not especially, those scientifically-oriented readers who found themselves nodding over what I wrote above about fusion, and who have convinced themselves of the truth of some reductivist or eliminativist theory of consciousness.
Hugo de Garis, who appeared in the film about Ray Kurzweil, Transcendent Man, said in an interview (Interview with Hugo de Garis: Approaches to AI, Neuroscience, Engineering, Intelligence Theory, Cyborgs interviewed, filmed and edited by Adam A. Ford) that, “…we have ourselves as the existence proof that nature has found a way to [build] a conscious, intelligent creature.” (We could, in the same spirit, say that stars are the existence proof of fusion energy.) This is a perfect evocation of the weak anthropic principle as applied to consciousness and intelligence: we’re here, and we’re conscious, therefore consciousness is possible and the universe is consistent with the emergence of conscious life.
The possibility of conscious knowledge of consciousness
These natural technologies are not just randomly jumbled together, but are in fact closely related. The fusion technology of stars enabled energy production that was exploited by life, which latter grew in complexity until it made possible the even more subtle and complex technology of conscious intelligence. The earliest of these technologies, fusion, we understand well; the latest of these technologies, not surprisingly, still eludes us.
And in saying that a full understanding of consciousness still eludes us, what we are saying is that consciousness so far understands the natural technologies that made itself possible, but it does not yet understand itself in the same way. We may yet attain the full measure of reflexive self-awareness of consciousness when consciousness knows itself in the same way that it understands fusion technology. This will take time, since, as we have noted, consciousness is a youthful technology of nature.
Consciousness may, too, someday become as pervasive in the universe as fusion. Indeed, the fact that we know, that we can see, that fusion is operating everywhere in the known universe, is the first precondition of life, and if life too has been made pervasive by pervasive fusion energy sources, the technology of life may, in the fullness of time, give rise to the technology of conscious intelligence. But consciousness is a late-comer in cosmological order, and has not yet shown itself to be a technology of nature as robust and as durable as fusion. Only the test of time can demonstrate this.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
22 February 2013
Much of what I write here, whether commenting on current affairs to delving into the depths of prehistory, could be classed under the general rubric of philosophy of history. One of my early posts to this forum was Of What Use is Philosophy of History in Our Time? (An echo of the title of Hans Meyerhoff’s widely available anthology Philosophy of History in Our Time.) It could be argued that my subsequent posts have been attempts to answer this question (that is to say, to answer the question what is the use of philosophy of history in our time), to demonstrate the usefulness of bringing a philosophical perspective to history, contemporary and otherwise. The reader is left to judge whether this attempt has been a success (partial or otherwise) or a failure (partial or otherwise).
In several recent posts — as, for example in The Science of Time, Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time, and Human Agency and the Exaptation of Selection, inter alia — I have been writing a lot about the philosophy of history from the perspective of big history, which is a contemporary historiographical school that comes to history from the perspective of the big picture and primarily proceeds according to scientific naturalism. This latter condition makes of big history a particular species of naturalism.
In many posts to this forum I have emphasized my own naturalistic perspective both in philosophy generally speaking as well as more specifically in the philosophy of history. For example, in posts such as Natural History and Human History, The Continuity of Civilization and Natural History, and An Existentialist Philosophy of History, I have emphasized the continuity of human history and natural history, especially making the attempt to place civilization in a natural historical context.
This emphasis on big history and naturalism has meant that I have spent very little time writing about alternatives to naturalistic historical thought — with a certain exception, which the reader may well not immediately recognize, so I will point it out explicitly. In several posts — The Ethos of Formal Thought, Foucault’s Formalism, Cartesian Formalism, and Formal Strategy and Philosophical Logic: Work in Progress among them — I have discussed the possibility of formal thought in relation to historical understanding, i.e., topics not usually discussed from a formal perspective (which is usually confined to logic, mathematics, and some branches of science). Formalism represents a certain kind of countervailing intellectual influence to naturalism, and it has probably served roughly that function in my thought.
I have previously mentioned Darren Staloff’s lectures on the philosophy of history, The Search for a Meaningful Past: Philosophies, Theories and Interpretations of Human History. One of the motifs running through Staloff’s lectures is a contrast between what he calls naturalism and idealism. He sums up this motif in the final lecture, in which he adopts the perspectives of naturalism and idealism in turn, trying give the listener a sense of the claims of each tradition. I found Staloff’s exposition of idealism less persuasive that his exposition of naturalism, and so I found the motif of a contrast between naturalism and idealism a bit strained, since it seemed to me that idealism really couldn’t carry its own weight in the way that it might have been able to in the past.
Recently I’ve encountered an approach to the philosophy of history that could be called “idealist” (at least in a certain sense), and this is much more persuasive to me that Staloff’s analytical representatives of the idealist tradition, like R. G. Collingwood. I have found this idealist perspective in the work of Ludwig Landgrebe, who was one of Husserl’s research assistants.
The casual reader of this blog might well have picked up on the amount of contemporary continental philosophy that I have read, but it unlikely to have realized the extent to which Edmund Husserl and phenomenology have been an influence on my thought. Nevertheless, that influence has been profound, to the point that many of Husserl’s expositors and commentators have also influenced my thinking. Recently I have been reading some essays by Ludwig Landgrebe, and this has started to give me another perspective on the philosophy of history.
Landgrebe wrote at least two papers on the philosophy of history, as well as one chapter of his book, Major Problems in Contemporary European Philosophy, from Dilthey to Heidegger. No doubt there is more material, but this is what I have found translated into English. (Landgrebe wrote an entire book on the phenomenological philosophy of history, Phänomenologie und Geschichte, but this has not been translated into English.) The two papers are “Phenomenology as Transcendental Theory of History” (which can be found in the collection of essays Husserl: Expositions and Appraisals, edited by Elliston and McCormick, University of Notre Dame Press, 1977. pp. 101-113) and “A Meditation on Husserl’s Statement: ‘History is the grand fact of absolute Being’” (The Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 5, Issue 3, Fall 1974, pp. 111-125).
It is well known that Husserl’s last work, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, assembled posthumously from his papers, is the work in which Husserl placed phenomenology in historical context (for all practical purposes, for the first time), and considered the emergence of Western scientific thought in historical context. As such, this has been the point of departure of much historically-oriented phenomenological research, and the Crisis (as it has come to be known) and its supplementary texts were clearly influential for Landgrebe.
Landgrebe, however, as Husserl’s research assistant, was more than conversant with Husserl’s logical thought also. Husserl’s Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic was a text assembled by Landgrebe from Husserl’s notes. Landgrebe consulted with Husserl throughout this project, and the original texts are all due to Husserl, but the structure of the book is entirely Landgrebe’s doing. Landgrebe brings the kind of rigor one learns in studying logic to his very compact essays on the philosophy of history. In this way, Landgrebe’s formulations have a formal character that makes them very congenial to me. Landgrebe’s approach is essentially that of a formal phenomenological theory of history, and this perspective allows me to assimilate Landgrebe’s insights both to idealistic historiography as well as my long-standing interest in formal thought.
If I were now to revise my speculative syllabus If I Lectured on the Philosophy of History (lecture 13 of which I had already assigned to phenomenology), I would definitely showcase Landgrebe’s philosophy of history as the most sophisticated phenomenological contribution to the philosophy of history.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
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.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
17 October 2012
It is ironic, though not particularly paradoxical, that the earth sciences as we known them today only came into being as the result of the emergence of space science, and space science was a consequence of the advent of the Space Age. We had to leave the Earth and travel into space in order to see the Earth for what it is. Why was this the case, and what do I mean by this?
It has often been commented that we had to go into space in order to discover the earth, which is to say, to understand that the earth is a blue oasis in the blackness of space. The early images of the space program had a profound effect on human self-understanding. Photographs (as much or more than any theory) provided the theoretical context that allowed us to have a unified perspective on the Earth as part of a system of worlds in space. Once we saw the Earth for what it was, What Carl Sagan called a “pale blue dot” in the blackness of space, drove home a new perspective on the human condition that could not be forgotten once it had been glimpsed.
To learn that our sun was a star among stars, and that the stars were suns in their own right, that the Earth is a planet among planets, and perhaps other planets are other Earths, has been a long epistemic struggle for humanity. That the Milky Way is a galaxy among galaxies, a point that has been particularly driven home by recent observational cosmology as with the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (UDF) image (and now the Hubble eXtreme-Deep Field (XDF) image), is an idea that we still today struggle to comprehend. The planethood of the Earth, the stellarhood of the sun, the galaxyhood of the Milky Way are all exercises in contextualizing our place in the universe, and therefore an exercise in Copernicanism.
But I am getting ahead of myself. I wanted to discuss the earth sciences, and to try to understand what they are and how they have become what they are. What are the Earth sciences? The Biology Online website has this brief and concise definition of the earth sciences:
The Earth Sciences, investigating the way our planet works and the mechanisms of nature that drive it.
Earth Science is the study of the Earth and its neighbors in space… Many different sciences are used to learn about the earth, however, the four basic areas of Earth science study are: geology, meteorology, oceanography and astronomy.
For a more detailed overview of the earth sciences, the Earth Science Literacy Initiative (ESLI), funded by the National Science Foundation, has formulated nine “big ideas” of earth science that it has published in its pamphlet Earth Science Literacy Principles. Here are the nine big ideas taken from their pamphlet:
1. Earth scientists use repeatable observations and testable ideas to understand and explain our planet.
2. Earth is 4.6 billion years old.
3. Earth is a complex system of interacting rock, water, air, and life.
4. Earth is continuously changing.
5. Earth is the water planet.
6. Life evolves on a dynamic Earth and continuously modifies Earth.
7. Humans depend on Earth for resources.
8. Natural hazards pose risks to humans.
9. Humans significantly alter the Earth.
Each of these “big ideas” is further elaborated in subheadings that frequently bring out the planethood of the Earth. For example, section 2.2 reads:
Our Solar System formed from a vast cloud of gas and dust 4.6 billion years ago. Some of this gas and dust was the remains of the supernova explosion of a previous star; our bodies are therefore made of “stardust.” This age of 4.6 billion years is well established from the decay rates of radioactive elements found in meteorites and rocks from the Moon.
Intuitively, we would say that the earth sciences are those sciences that study the Earth and its natural processes, but the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge has made us realize that the Earth is not a closed system that can be studied in isolation. The Earth is part of a system — the solar system, and beyond that a galactic system, etc. — and must be studied as part of this system. But we didn’t always know this, and this comprehensive conception of earth science is still in the process of formulation.
The realization that the processes of the Earth and the sciences that study these processes must ultimately be placed in a cosmological context means that contemporary earth science is now, like astrobiology, which seeks to place biology in a cosmological context, a fully Copernican science, though not perhaps quite as explicitly as in the case of astrobiology. The very idea of Earth science as it is understood today, like planetary science and space science, is essentially Copernican; Copernicanism is now the telos of all the sciences. Copernican civilization needs Copernican sciences. As I said in my presentation to this year’s 100YSS symposium, the scope of an industrial-technological civilization corresponds to the scope of the science that enables this civilization.
What this means is that the sciences that generations of Earth-bound scientists have labored to create in order to describe the planet upon which they have lived, which was the only planet that they could know prior to the advent of space science, are all planetary sciences in embryo — all potentially Copernican sciences that can be extended beyond the Earth that was their inspiration and origin. Before space science, all science was geocentric and therefore essentially Ptolemaic. Space science changed that, and now all the sciences are gradually becoming Copernican.
In the case of earth science, this is a powerful scientific model because the earth sciences have been, by definition, geocentric. That even geocentric sciences can become Copernican is a powerful lesson and provides a model for other sciences to follow. I have often quoted Foucault as saying that “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.” I think it can be honestly said that the geosciences recognize and accept their history as geocentric sciences and this in no way inhibits their ability to transcend their geocentric origins and become Copernican sciences no longer exclusively tied to the Earth. I find this rather hopeful for the future of science.
Another way to conceptualize earth science is to think of the earth sciences as those sciences that have come to recognize the planethood of the Earth. This places the Earth in its planetary context among other planets of our solar system, and it also places these planets (as well as the growing roster of exoplanets) in the context of planetary history that we have learned first-hand from the Earth.
To a certain extent, earth science and planetary science (or planetology) are convertible: each is increasingly formulated and refined in reference to the other. What is planetary science? Here is the Wikipedia definition of planetary science:
Planetary science (rarely planetology) is the scientific study of planets (including Earth), moons, and planetary systems, in particular those of the Solar System and the processes that form them. It studies objects ranging in size from micrometeoroids to gas giants, aiming to determine their composition, dynamics, formation, interrelations and history. It is a strongly interdisciplinary field, originally growing from astronomy and earth science, but which now incorporates many disciplines, including planetary astronomy, planetary geology (together with geochemistry and geophysics), atmospheric science, oceanography, hydrology, theoretical planetary science, glaciology, and the study of extrasolar planets. Allied disciplines include space physics, when concerned with the effects of the Sun on the bodies of the Solar System, and astrobiology.
The Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society doesn’t give us the convenience of a definition for planetary science, but in its offerings on A Planet Orbiting Two Suns, A Thousand New Planets, Buried Mars Carbonates, The Lunar Core, Propeller Moons of Saturn, A Six-Planet System, Carbon Dioxide Gullies on Mars, and many others, give us concrete examples of planetary science which examples may, in certain ways, be more helpful than an explicit definition.
The “aims and scope” of the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters also give something of a sense of what planetary science is:
Earth and Planetary Science Letters (EPSL) is the journal for researchers, policymakers and practitioners from the broad Earth and planetary sciences community. It publishes concise, highly cited articles (“Letters”) focusing on physical, chemical and mechanical processes as well as general properties of the Earth and planets — from their deep interiors to their atmospheres. Extensive data sets are included as electronic supplements and contribute to the short publication times. EPSL also includes a Frontiers section, featuring high-profile synthesis articles by leading experts to bring cutting-edge topics to the broader community.
A recent (2006) controversy over the status of Pluto as a planet led to an attempt by The International Astronomical Union (IAU) to formulate a more precise definition of what a planet is. The definition upon which they settled demoted Pluto from being a planet to being a dwarf planet. While this decision does not have complete unanimity, it is gaining ground in the literature. Here is the IAU of planets, dwarf planets, and small solar system bodies:
(1) A planet is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.
(2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.
(3) All other objects, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar System Bodies.”
With this greater precision of definition than had previously been the case in regard to planets, we could easily define planetary science as the study of celestial bodies that (a) are in orbit around the Sun, (b) have sufficient mass for their self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that they assume a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) have cleared the neighbourhood around their orbits. Of course, this ultimately won’t do, because a comprehensive planetary science will want to study all three classes of celestial bodies detailed above, and will especially want to study the mechanisms of planet formation, dwarf planet formation, and small object formation for the light that each shines on the other. Like the Earth, that is part of a larger system, all the planets are also part of a larger system, and how they relate to that system will have much to teach us about solar system formation.
This more comprehensive perspective brings us to the space sciences. What is space science? The Wikipedia entry on space sciences characterizes them in this way:
The term space science may mean:
●The study of issues specifically related to space travel and space exploration, including space medicine.
●Science performed in outer space (see space research).
●The study of everything in outer space; this is sometimes called astronomy, but more recently astronomy can also be regarded as a division of broader space science, which has grown to include other related fields.
It is interesting that this definition of space science does not mention cosmology, which is more and more coming to assume the role of the master category of the sciences, since it is ultimately cosmology that is the context for everything else, but we could easily modify that last of the above three stipulations to read “cosmology” in place of “astronomy.” As the definition notes, the space sciences have grown to include other related fields, and in the future it may well be that the space sciences become the most comprehensive scientific category, providing the conceptual infrastructure in which all other scientific enterprises must be contextualized.
Since the Earth is a planet, and planets are to be found in space, one might readily assume that the Earth sciences, planetary sciences, and space sciences might be arranged in a nested hierarchy as follows:
Conceptually this is correct, but genetically, i.e., in terms of historical descent, it is obvious that the sciences that we have created to study our home planet are the sciences that, when generalized and applied beyond the surface of the Earth, are the sciences that become planetary science and space science.
Before space science and planetary science, there were of course the familiar sciences of geology (later geomorphology), atmospheric science or meteorology (later climatology), oceanography, paleontology, and so forth, but it was only when the emergence of space science and planetary science placed these terrestrial sciences into a cosmological context that we came to see that our sciences that study the planet that we call our home together constitute the Earth sciences in contrast to, and really in the context of, space science and planetary science. Great strides have been made in this direction, but further work remains to be done.
We know that the Earth and its solar system is about 4.6 billion years old, and most recent estimates for the age of the known universe put it at about 13.7 billion years. This means that the Earth has been around for almost exactly a third of age of the entire universe, which is not an inconsiderable length of time. Our sun and its solar system stands in relation to other stars of a similar age, and these stars and solar systems with significant traces of heavier elements stand in certain relationships to earlier populations of stars. The whole history of the universe is present in the rocks of the Earth, and we have to keep this in mind in the expanding knowledge base of the earth sciences.
While geological time scales are essentially geocentric, it would be possible to formulate an astrogeography and an astrogeographical time scale, extrapolating earth science to planetary science and thence to space science, that not only placed Earth’s geological history into cosmological context but also placed all planetary bodies and planetary systems and their geology in a cosmological context. For such an undertaking the generations of stars and planetary formation would be of central concern, and we could expect to see patterns across stars and solar systems of the same generations, and across planets within a given solar system.
This work has already begun, as can be seen in the above table laying out the geological histories of the Earth, the Moon, and Mars in parallel. Since one of the major theories for the formation of the Moon is that most of its substance was ripped out of the Earth by an enormous collision, the geological histories of the Earth and the Moon may ultimately be shown to coincide.
Stars and planets formed from the same dust and debris clouds filled with the remnants of the nucleosynthesis of earlier poulations of stars. This is now familiar to everyone. Galaxies, in turn, formed from stars, and thus also reflect a generational index reflecting a galaxy’s position in the natural history of the universe.
Since we now also believe that all or almost all spiral galaxies (and perhaps also other non-spiral or irregular galaxies) have a supermassive black hole at their centers, I have lately come of think of entire galaxies as the vast “solar systems” of supermassive black holes. In other words, a supermassive black hole is to a galaxy as a star is to a solar system. As planetary systems formed around newly born stars, galaxies formed around newly born black holes (if their gravity was sufficiently strong to form such a system). This way of thinking about galaxies introduces another parallelism between the microcosm of the solar system and the macrocosm of the universe at large, the structure of which is defined by galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and super clusters.
All of this falls within a single natural history of which we are a part.
Our history and the history of the universe are one and the same.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
26 September 2012
A Thesis in the Theory of Civilization
Not long ago in Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro- I discussed how Joshua Lederberg’s distinctions between eobiology, esobiology, and exobiology can be used as a model for the concepts of eocivilization, esocivilization, and exocivilization, all of which are anterior to the more comprehensive conception of astrocivilization (like the more comprehensive conception of astrobiology).
My post on Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro- was in part a correction to my earlier post Eo-, Eso-, Astro-, in which I had contrasted eobiology to exobiology, when I should have been contrasting esobiology to exobiology.
I had derived the contrast of eobiology and exobiology from Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick’s excellent book The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, in which they cite Lederberg’s contrast of these terms. I had initially drawn the wrong contrast between the two concepts. When I started to read Lederberg’s writings, I realized that Lederberg was making a dramatic contrast between the scientific study of origins and the scientific study of destiny, rather than the contrast I expected. However, the contrast I originally drew remains a valid schema for understanding the comprehensive conception of astrobiology — and, by extension, the comprehensive conception of astrocivilization.
Astrobiology may be understood as the integration of esobiology — our biology, terrestrial biology — and exobiology — biology not of the Earth — into a comprehensive whole that places life in a cosmological context. Parallel to this, I define astrocivilization as the integration of esocivilization — our civilization, terrestrial civilization — and exocivilization — civilization not of the Earth — into a comprehensive whole that places civilization in a cosmological context. These concepts are not merely parallel, but the parallel between concepts of biology and concepts of civilization follows from a naturalistic conception of civilization as an extension of biology.
Civilization can be understood as a greatly elaborated result of behavioral adaptation. Just as evolutionary gradualism takes us imperceptibly over countless generations from the simple origins of life to the complexity of life we know today, so too evolutionary gradualism in the development of civilization takes us imperceptibly over countless generations from the simplest behavioral adaptations to the complexity of behavioral adaptation that culminates in civilization — and which may well culminate in some further post-civilizational social institution. (We must add this last proviso so as not to be mistaken for advocating some kind of teleological conception of civilization, as one might expect, for example, from strong formulations of the anthropic cosmological principle.)
In reformulating my contrast of eocivilization and exocivilization as the contrast between esocivilization and exocivilization, the term “eocivilization” is freed up to assume its more etymologically accurate meaning, which properly should be “early civilization” (“eo-” coming from the Greek means “early”). This turns out to be a very useful concept, but it always points to an additional thesis in the theory of civilization.
As in astrobiology, in which we study life on Earth as a clue to life in the cosmos, so too in astrocivilization we study civilization on Earth as a clue to civilization in the universe. Life on Earth is the only life that we know of, and civilization on the Earth is the only civilization that we know of, but in so far as we approach life and civilization from the scientific perspective of methodological naturalism, we do not assume that these are necessarily the only instances of life or of civilization in the cosmos. There may be other instances of life and civilization of which we simply know nothing.
In light of the possibility of life and civilization elsewhere in the universe, but our only knowledge of civilization being terrestrial civilization, I will call the terrestrial eocivilization thesis the position that identifies early civilization, i.e., eocivilization, with terrestrial civilization. In other words, our terrestrial civilization is the earliest civilization to emerge in the cosmos. Thus the terrestrial eocivilization thesis is the civilizational parallel to the rare earth hypothesis, which maintains, contrary to the Copernican principle, that life on earth is rare. I could call it the “rare civilization hypothesis” but I prefer “terrestrial eocivilization thesis.”
It is possible to further distinguish between the position that terrestrial civilization is the first and earliest civilization in the cosmos, and the position that terrestrial civilization is unique and the sole source of civilization in the cosmos. There may be exocivilizations that have and will emerge after terrestrial civilization, meaning that there are several sources of civilization in the cosmos, but that terrestrial civilization is the earliest to emerge. Thus the terrestrial eocivilization thesis can be distinguished from the uniqueness of terrestrial civilization. We might call the non-uniqueness of industrial-technological civilization on the Earth the “multi-regional hypothesis” in astrocivilization (to borrow a term from hominid evolutionary biology), but I would prefer to simply call it the “Non-Uniqueness Thesis.”
In the event that human civilization expands cosmologically and is ultimately the source of civilization on exoplanets that are part of other solar systems and perhaps even other galaxies, the terrestrial eocivilization thesis will have more substantive content than it does now at present, when (if the thesis is true) eocivilization is simply identical to all civilization in the cosmos. All we can say at present, however, is that terrestrial civilization is identical to all known civilization in the cosmos. To assert more than this is to assert the terrestrial eocivilization thesis, which is underdetermined and goes well beyond available evidence.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
7 September 2012
Some time ago in The Pleasures of Model Drift I discussed how contemporary cosmology is challenged by the accelerating expansion of the universe, and that there are no really good explanations of this yet in terms of the the received cosmological models. The resulting state of cosmological theories, then, is called model drift. This is a Kuhnian term. Almost exactly a year ago, when it was reported that some neutrinos may have traveled faster than light, it looked like we might also have had to face model drift in particle physics. Since these results haven’t been replicated, the standard model not only continues to stand, but has recently been fortified by the announcement of the discovery (sort of discovery) of the Higgs Boson.
But theoretical physics isn’t over yet. Some time ago in The limits of my language are the limits of my world I took up Wittgenstein’s famous aphorism from the perspective of recent work in particle physics that had “bent” the rules of quantum theory. Further work by at least of of the same scientific team at Centre for Quantum Information and Quantum Control and Institute for Optical Sciences, Department of Physics, University of Toronto, Aephraim M. Steinberg, has continued this line of research, which has been reported by the same BBC Science and technology reporter, Jason Palmer, who wrote up the earlier results (cf. Quantum test pricks uncertainty). This story covers research reported in Physical Review Letters, “Violation of Heisenberg’s Measurement-Disturbance Relationship by Weak Measurements.”
The abstract of this most recent research reads as follows:
While there is a rigorously proven relationship about uncertainties intrinsic to any quantum system, often referred to as “Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle,” Heisenberg originally formulated his ideas in terms of a relationship between the precision of a measurement and the disturbance it must create. Although this latter relationship is not rigorously proven, it is commonly believed (and taught) as an aspect of the broader uncertainty principle. Here, we experimentally observe a violation of Heisenberg’s “measurement-disturbance relationship”, using weak measurements to characterize a quantum system before and after it interacts with a measurement apparatus. Our experiment implements a 2010 proposal of Lund and Wiseman to confirm a revised measurement-disturbance relationship derived by Ozawa in 2003. Its results have broad implications for the foundations of quantum mechanics and for practical issues in quantum measurement.
Experimentalists are chipping away at Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. They aren’t presenting their research as something especially radical — one might even think of this recent work as an instantiation of radical theories, modest formulations — but this is theoretically and even philosophically quite important.
We recall that despite himself making crucial early contributions to quantum theory, Einstein eventually came reject quantum theory, offering searching and subtle critiques of the theory. In his time Einstein was isolated among physicists for coming to reject quantum theory at the very time of its greatest triumphs. Quantum theory has gone on to become one of the most verified theories — and verified to the most exacting standards — in the history of physics, notwithstanding Einstein’s criticisms. Einstein primarily fell out with quantum theory over the notion of quantum entanglement, though Einstein, himself a staunch determinism, was also greatly troubled by Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle. Many, perhaps including Einstein himself, conflated physical determinism with scientific realism, so that a denial of determinism came to be associated with a rejection of realism. Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle is Exhibit “A” when it comes to the denial of determinism. So I think that if Einstein had lived to see this most recent work, he would have been both fascinated and intrigued by its implications for the uncertainty principle, and indeed its philosophical implications for physics.
Einstein was a uniquely philosophical physicist — the very antithesis of what recent physics has become, and which I have called Fashionable Anti-Philosophy (and which I elaborated in Further Fasionable Anti-Philosophy). From his earliest years, Einstein carefully studied philosophical works. He is said to have read Kant’s three critiques in his early teens. And Einstein’s rejection of quantum theory, which he modestly and humorously characterized as saying that something in his little finger told him that it couldn’t be right, was a philosophical rejection of quantum theory.
The recent research into Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle is not couched in philosophical terms, but it is philosophically significant. The very fact that this research is going on suggests that others, not only Einstein, have been dissatisfied with the uncertainly principle as it is usually interpreted, and that scientists have continued to think critically about it even as the uncertainty principle has been taught for decades as orthodox physics. This is a perfect example of what I have called Science Behind the Scenes.
The uncertainty of quantum theory, given formal expression in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, came to be interpreted not only epistemically, as placing limits on what we can know, but it was also interpreted ontologically, as placing limits on the constituents of the world. In so far as Heisenberg encouraged an ontological interpretation of the uncertainty principle, which I believe to be the case, he was advancing an underdetermined theory, i.e., an ontological interpretation of the uncertainty principle goes beyond — I think it goes far beyond — the epistemic uncertainty that we must posit in order to do quantum theory.
It seems to me that it is pretty easy to interpret the recent research cited above as questioning the ontological interpretation of the uncertainty principle while leaving an epistemic interpretation untouched. The limits of human knowledge are often poignantly brought home to us in our daily lives in a thousand ways, but we need not make the unnecessary leap from limitations on human knowledge to limitations on the world. On the other hand, we also need not make any connection between realism and determinism. It is entirely consistent (even if it seems odd to some of us) that there should be an objective world existing apart from human experience of and knowledge of that world, and that that objective world should not be deterministic. It may well be that it is essentially random and only stochastically defined, when a given radioactive substance decays, but the radioactive substance and the event of decay are as real as Einstein’s little finger. If I could have a conversation with Einstein, I would try to convince him of precisely this.
Indeterminate realism is also an underdetermined theory, and it is to be expected that there are non-realistic theories that are empirically equivalent to indeterminate realism. It is for this reason that I believe there are other arguments, distinct from those above, that favor realism over anti-realism, or even realism over some of the more extravagant interpretations of quantum theory. But I won’t go into that now.
We aren’t about to return to classical theories and their assumptions of continuity such as we had prior to quantum theory, any more than we are about to give up relativistic physics and return to strictly Newtonian physics. That much is clear. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that we are not saddled with any one interpretation of relativity or quantum theory, and we are especially not limited to the philosophical theories formulated by those scientists who originally formulated these physical theories, even if the philosophical theories were part of the “original intent” (if you will forgive me) of the physical theory. Another way to put this is that we are not limited to the original model of a theory, hence model drift.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .