23 October 2013
Prediction in Science
One of the distinguishing features of science as a system of thought is that it makes testable predictions. The fact that scientific predictions are testable suggests a methodology of testing, and we call the scientific methodology of testing experiment. Hypothesis formation, prediction, experimentation, and resultant modification of the hypothesis (confirmation, disconfirmation, or revision) are all essential elements of the scientific method, which constitutes an escalating spiral of knowledge as the scientific method systematically exposes predictions to experiment and modifies its hypotheses in the light of experimental results, which leads in turn to new predictions.
The escalating spiral of knowledge that science cultivates naturally pushes that knowledge into the future. Sometimes scientific prediction is even formulated in reference to “new facts” or “temporal asymmetries” in order to emphasize that predictions refer to future events that have not yet occurred. In constructing an experiment, we create a few set of facts in the world, and then interpret these facts in the light of our hypothesis. It is this testing of hypotheses by experiment that establishes the concrete relationship of science to the world, and this is also a source of limitation, for experiments are typically designed in order to focus on a single variable and to that end an attempt is made to control for the other variables. (A system of thought that is not limited by the world is not science.)
Alfred North Whitehead captured this artificial feature of scientific experimentation in a clever line that points to the difference between scientific predictions and predictions of a more general character:
“…experiment is nothing else than a mode of cooking the facts for the sake of exemplifying the law. Unfortunately the facts of history, even those of private individual history, are on too large a scale. They surge forward beyond control.”
Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, New York: The Free Press, 1967, Chapter VI, “Foresight,” p. 88
There are limits to prediction, and not only those pointed out by Whitehead. The limits to prediction have been called the prediction wall. Beyond the prediction wall we cannot penetrate.
The Prediction Wall
John Smart has formulated the idea of a prediction wall in his essay, “Considering the Singularity,” as follows:
With increasing anxiety, many of our best thinkers have seen a looming “Prediction Wall” emerge in recent decades. There is a growing inability of human minds to credibly imagine our onrushing future, a future that must apparently include greater-than-human technological sophistication and intelligence. At the same time, we now admit to living in a present populated by growing numbers of interconnected technological systems that no one human being understands. We have awakened to find ourselves in a world of complex and yet amazingly stable technological systems, erected like vast beehives, systems tended to by large swarms of only partially aware human beings, each of which has only a very limited conceptualization of the new technological environment that we have constructed.
Business leaders face the prediction wall acutely in technologically dependent fields (and what enterprise isn’t technologically dependent these days?), where the ten-year business plans of the 1950′s have been replaced with ten-week (quarterly) plans of the 2000′s, and where planning beyond two years in some fields may often be unwise speculation. But perhaps most astonishingly, we are coming to realize that even our traditional seers, the authors of speculative fiction, have failed us in recent decades. In “Science Fiction Without the Future,” 2001, Judith Berman notes that the vast majority of current efforts in this genre have abandoned both foresighted technological critique and any realistic attempt to portray the hyper-accelerated technological world of fifty years hence. It’s as if many of our best minds are giving up and turning to nostalgia as they see the wall of their own conceptualizing limitations rising before them.
Considering the Singularity: A Coming World of Autonomous Intelligence (A.I.) © 2003 by John Smart (This article may be reproduced for noncommercial purposes if it is copied in its entirety, including this notice.)
I would to suggest that there are at least two prediction walls: synchronic and diachronic. The prediction wall formulated above by John Smart is a diachronic prediction wall: it is the onward-rushing pace of events, one following the other, that eventually defeats our ability to see any recognizable order or structure of the future. The kind of prediction wall to which Whitehead alludes is a synchronic prediction wall, in which it is the outward eddies of events in the complexity of the world’s interactions that make it impossible for us to give a complete account of the consequences of any one action. (Cf. Axes of Historiography)
Retrodiction and the Historical Sciences
Science does not live by prediction alone. While some philosophers of science have questioned the scientificity of the historical sciences because they could not make testable (and therefore falsifiable) predictions about the future, it is now widely recognized that the historical sciences don’t make predictions, but they do make retrodictions. A retrodiction is a prediction about the past.
The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy by Simon Blackburn (p. 330) defines retrodiction thusly:
retrodiction The hypothesis that some event happened in the past, as opposed to the prediction that an event will happen in the future. A successful retrodiction could confirm a theory as much as a successful prediction.
As with predictions, there is also a limit to retrodiction, and this is the retrodiction wall. Beyond the retrodiction wall we cannot penetrate.
I haven’t been thinking about this idea for long enough to fully understand the ramifications of a retrodiction wall, so I’m not yet clear about whether we can distinction diachronic retrodiction and synchronic retrodiction. Or, rather, it would be better to say that the distinction can certainly be made, but that I cannot think of good contrasting examples of the two at the present time.
We can define a span of accessible history that extends from the retrodiction wall in the past to the prediction wall in the future as what I will call effective history (by analogy with effective computability). Effective history can be defined in a way that is closely parallel to effectively computable functions, because all of effective history can be “reached” from the present by means of finite, recursive historical methods of inquiry.
Effective history is not fixed for all time, but expands and contracts as a function of our knowledge. At present, the retrodiction wall is the Big Bang singularity. If anything preceded the Big Bang singularity we are unable to observe it, because the Big Bang itself effectively obliterates any observable signs of any events prior to itself. (Testable theories have been proposed that suggest the possibility of some observable remnant of events prior to the Big Bang, as in conformal cyclic cosmology, but this must at present be regarded as only an early attempt at such a theory.)
Prior to the advent of scientific historiography as we know it today, the retrodiction wall was fixed at the beginning of the historical period narrowly construed as written history, and at times the retrodiction wall has been quite close to the present. When history experiences one of its periodic dark ages that cuts it off from his historical past, little or nothing may be known of a past that once familiar to everyone in a given society.
The emergence of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization effectively obliterated human history before itself, in a manner parallel to the Big Bang. We know that there were caves that prehistorical peoples visited generation after generation for time out of mind, over tens of thousands of years — much longer than the entire history of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and yet all of this was forgotten as though it had never happened. This long period of prehistory was entirely lost to human memory, and was not recovered again until scientific historiography discovered it through scientific method and empirical evidence, and not through the preservation of human memory, from which prehistory had been eradicated. And this did not occur until after agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization had lapsed and entirely given way to industrial-technological civilization.
We cannot define the limits of the prediction wall as readily as we can define the limits of the retrodiction wall. Predicting the future in terms of overall history has been more problematic than retrodicting the past, and equally subject to ideological and eschatological distortion. The advent of modern science compartmentalized scientific predictions and made them accurate and dependable — but at the cost of largely severing them from overall history, i.e., human history and the events that shape our lives in meaningful ways. We can make predictions about the carbon cycle and plate tectonics, and we are working hard to be able to make accurate predictions about weather and climate, but, for the most part, our accurate predictions about the future dispositions of the continents do not shape our lives in the near- to mid-term future.
I have previously quoted a famous line from Einstein: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” We might paraphrase this Einstein line in regard to the relation of mathematics to the world, and say that as far as scientific laws of nature predict events, these events are irrelevant to human history, and in so far as predicted events are relevant to human beings, scientific laws of nature cannot predict them.
Singularities Past and Future
As the term “singularity” is presently employed — as in the technological singularity — the recognition of a retrodiction wall in the past complementary to the prediction wall in the future provides a literal connection between the historiographical use of “singularity” and the use of the term “singularity” in cosmology and astrophysics.
Theorists of the singularity hypothesis place a “singularity” in the future which constitutes an absolute prediction wall beyond which history is so transformed that nothing beyond it is recognizable to us. This future singularity is not the singularity of astrophysics.
If we recognize the actual Big Bang singularity in the past as the retrodiction wall for cosmology — and hence, by extension, for Big History — then an actual singularity of astrophysics is also at the same time an historical singularity.
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I have continued my thoughts on the retrodiction wall in Addendum on the Retrodiction Wall.
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25 September 2013
Hegel is not remembered as the clearest of philosophical writers, and certainly not the shortest, but among his massive, literally encyclopedic volumes Hegel also left us one very short gem of an essay, “Who Thinks Abstractly?” that communicates one of the most interesting ideas from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. The idea is simple but counter-intuitive: we assume that knowledgeable individuals employ more abstractions, while the common run of men content themselves with simple, concrete ideas and statements. Hegel makes that point that the simplest ideas and terms that tend to be used by the least knowledgeable among us also tend to be the most abstract, and that as a person gains knowledge of some aspect of the world the abstraction of a terms like “tree” or “chair” or “cat” take on concrete immediacy, previous generalities are replaced by details and specificity, and one’s perspective becomes less abstract. (I wrote about this previously in Spots Upon the Sun.)
We can go beyond Hegel himself by asking a perfectly Hegelian question: who thinks abstractly about history? The equally obvious Hegelian response would be that the historian speaks the most concretely about history, and it must be those who are least knowledgeable about history who speak and think the most abstractly about history.
“…it is difficult to imagine that any of the sciences could treat time as a mere abstraction. Yet, for a great number of those who, for their own purposes, chop it up into arbitrary homogenous segments, time is nothing more than a measurement. In contrast, historical time is a concrete and living reality with an irreversible onward rush… this real time is, in essence, a continuum. It is also perpetual change. The great problems of historical inquiry derive from the antithesis of these two attributes. There is one problem especially, which raises the very raison d’être of our studies. Let us assume two consecutive periods taken out of the uninterrupted sequence of the ages. To what extent does the connection which the flow of time sets between them predominate, or fail to predominate, over the differences born out of the same flow?”
Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, translated by Peter Putnam, New York: Vintage, 1953, Chapter I, sec. 3, “Historical Time,” pp. 27-29
The abstraction of historical thought implicit in Hegel and explicit in Marc Bloch is, I think, more of a problem that we commonly realize. Once we look at the problem through Hegelian spectacles, it becomes obvious that most of us think abstractly about history without realizing how abstract our historical thought is. We talk in general terms about history and historical events because we lack the knowledge to speak in detail about exactly what happened.
Why should it be any kind of problem at all that we think abstractly about history? People say that the past is dead, and that it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. Why not forget about history and get on with the business of the present? All of this sounds superficially reasonable, but it is dangerously misleading.
Abstract thinking about history creates the conditions under which the events of contemporary history — that is to say, current events — are conceived abstractly despite our manifold opportunities for concrete and immediate experience of the present. This is precisely Hegel’s point in “Who Thinks Abstractly?” when he invites the reader to consider the humanity of the condemned man who is easily dismissed as a murderer, a criminal, or a miscreant. But we not only think in such abstract terms of local events, but also if not especially in regard to distant events, and large events that we cannot experience personally, so that massacres and famines and atrocities are mere massacres, mere famines, and mere atrocities because they are never truly real for us.
There is an important exception to all this abstraction, and it is the exception that shapes us: one always experiences the events of one’s own life with concrete immediacy, and it is the concreteness of personal experience contrasted to the abstractness of everything else not immediately experienced that is behind much (if not all) egocentrism and solipsism.
Thus while it is entirely possible to view the sorrows and reversals of others as abstractions, it is almost impossible to view one’s own sorrows and reversals in life as abstractions, and as a result of the contrast between our own vividly experienced pain and the abstract idea of pain in the life of another we have a very different idea of all that takes place in the world outside our experience as compared to the small slice of life we experience personally. This observation has been made in another context by Elaine Scarry, who in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World rightly observed that one’s own pain is a paradigm of certain knowledge, while the pain of another is a paradigm of doubt.
Well, this is exactly why we need to make the effort to see the big picture, because the small picture of one’s own life distorts the world so severely. But given our bias in perception, and the unavoidable point of view that our own embodied experience gives to us, is this even possible? Hegel tried to arrive at the big picture by seeing history whole. In my post The Epistemic Overview Effect I called this the “overview effect in time” (without referencing Hegel).
Another way to rise above one’s anthropic and individualist bias is the overview effect itself: seeing the planet whole. Frank White, who literally wrote the book on the overview effect, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, commented on my post in which I discussed the overview effect in time and suggested that I look up his other book, The Ice Chronicles, which discusses the overview effect in time.
I have since obtained a copy of this book, and here are some representative passages that touch on the overview effect in relation to planetary science and especially glaciology:
“In the past thirty-five years, we have grown increasingly fascinated with our home planet, the Earth. What once was ‘the world’ has been revealed to us as a small planet, a finite sphere floating in a vast, perhaps infinite, universe. This new spatial consciousness emerged with the initial trips into Low Earth Orbit…, and to the moon. After the Apollo lunar missions, humans began to understand that the Earth is an interconnected unity, where all things are related to one another, and there what happens on one part of the planet affects the whole system. We also saw that the Earth is a kind of oasis, a place hospitable to life in a cosmos that may not support living systems, as we know them, anywhere else. This is the experience that has come to be called ‘The Overview Effect’.”
Paul Andrew Mayewski and Frank White, The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change, University Press of New England: Hanover and London, 2002, p. 15
“The view of the whole Earth serves as a natural symbol for the environmental movement. it leaves us unable to ignore the reality that we are living on a finite ‘planet,’ and not a limitless ‘world.’ That planet is, in the words of another astronaut, a lifeboat in a hostile space, and all living things are riding in it together. This realization formed the essential foundation of an emerging environmental awareness. The renewed attention on the Earth that grew out of these early space flights also contributed to an intensified interest in both weather and climate.”
Paul Andrew Mayewski and Frank White, The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change, University Press of New England: Hanover and London, 2002, p. 20
“Making the right choices transcends the short-term perspectives produced by human political and economic considerations; the long-term habitability of our home planet is at stake. In the end, we return to the insights brought to us by our astronauts and cosmonauts as the took humanity’s first steps in the universe: We live in a small, beautiful oasis floating through a vast and mysterious cosmos. We are the stewards of this ‘good Earth,’ and it is up to us to learn how to take good care of her.”
Paul Andrew Mayewski and Frank White, The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change, University Press of New England: Hanover and London, 2002, p. 214
It is interesting to note in this connection that glaciology yielded one of the earliest forms of scientific dating techniques, which is varve chronology, originating in Sweden in the nineteenth century. Varve chronology dates sedimentary layers by the annual layers of alternating coarse and fine sediments from glacial runoff — making it something like dendrochronology, except for ice instead of trees.
Scientific historiography can give us a taste of the overview effect, though considerable effort is required to acquire the knowledge, and it is not likely to have the visceral impact of seeing the overview effect with your own eyes. Even an idealistic philosophy like that of Hegel, as profoundly different as this is from the empiricism of scientific historiography, can give a taste of the overview effect by making the effort to see history whole and therefore to see ourselves within history, as a part of an ongoing process. Probably the scientists of classical antiquity would have been delighted by the overview effect, if only they had had the opportunity to experience it. Certainly they had an inkling of it when they proved that the Earth is spherical.
There are many paths to the overview effect; we need to widen these paths even as we blaze new trails, so that the understanding of the planet as a finite and vulnerable whole is not merely an abstract item of knowledge, but also an immediately experienced reality.
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27 May 2013
Addendum on a Future Astropolitics:
Civilization Shaped by Structures of the Universe
In my previous post on astropolitics, The Fundamental Theorem of Astropolitics, I gave a generalization of my earlier definition of geopolitics (which was, “geography constrains human agency”) as the following:
Human agency is constrained by the structure of space.
Upon reflection I have realized that, while this definition is good as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough. The primary defect of this formulation is that it is formulated exclusively in terms of constraints upon human agency, which is to say, it focuses on the ways in which human agency is limited or even negated.
In formulating either geopolitics or astropolitics in terms of the limitations on human agency, the ways in which geography or the structure of space facilitates human agency gets lost, and this function of facilitation is no less significant than the function of limitation that follows from the lay of the land or the structure of space.
Another weakness in formulating geopolitics or astropolitics in terms of constraint and limitation is that it implies that, were it only not for the limitations placed upon human agency by outside forces, that this agency would be boundless and infinite. In other words, focusing on limitation and constraint suggests, in a very subtle way, what I have called the political conception of history, i.e., history understood primarily in terms of human agency. While this is an empowering way of viewing history, it cannot be considered any more or less accurate than other other conceptions of history I have outlined — the cataclysmic, eschatological, and naturalistic conceptions (for a review of these conceptions cf. The Naturalistic Conception of History) — and it is likely to be misleading.
When I spoke at the 2012 100YSS event one of the central ideas of my talk was the ways in which the structure of spacetime will govern the expansion of civilization on an interstellar scale, and even beyond this the ways in which human beings (or any other finite being exploring the cosmos) can use the apparent limitations imposed upon us by relativity, the finite velocity of light, and the structure of space itself to facilitate the growth of civilization. (I called my talk, “The Large Scale Structure of Spacefaring Civilization.”)
We have come to see the velocity of light as a barrier to human/organic exploration of the cosmos, but this is a profound misconception. In response to this misconception, those contemplating the possibility of interstellar civilization either are looking for ways to avoid relativistic effects, such as the use of the Alcubierre drive (if only it can be made to work), and those who think that interstellar travel is simply impossible or can only be accomplished at very slow rates of expansion, such as the rates of speed at which the Voyager spacecraft are slowly making their way outside our local solar system (i.e., by way of generational ships and long term human preservation or reconstitution).
What I want to suggest is that relativity is our friend. The finite velocity of light and the phenomenon of time dilation can and will be used by human beings to facilitate interstellar travel. Anyone who has studied these matters carefully will know what I am talking about here, but the popular misconceptions are so prevalent that one must pause to mention them. It is often stated that if we sent out an interstellar mission traveling at a rate that involved relativistic effects, that we could only hope for our distant descendents to arrive; that no one would live to see another solar system. In fact, time would continue to pass on Earth, but the closer a starship can approximate the speed of light, even while never reaching that limiting velocity, the slower time passes on board, so that even very long interstellar voyages can be accomplished within life spans typical by contemporary standards.
Carl Sagan discussed this at some length in his book and television series Cosmos, in which he talked about a starship that could accelerate at one gravity. We can think of the 1G starship as the breakthrough technology that will open up our galaxy to exploration and settlement. Already we can accelerate a spaceship at well more than 1G, although we cannot maintain this acceleration for extended periods of time, so I regard attaining this acceleration for extended periods of time to be a merely technical problem, and not an insuperable “physics” problem. (Some people will disagree with me on this point.) Sagan pointed out that with the humble technology of a 1G starship we could circumnavigate the known universe in a typical human life span. By the time we finished this journey, however, billions of years would have passed.
It is easy to lose sight of this possibility when discussing space flight, and our limited capabilities today, but looking at the ability of industrial-technological civilization to continue delivering exponential technological development, we should not consider this technology to be long out of our reach. That is why I call it a “humble” technology. It doesn’t require breaking the known laws of physics, and it doesn’t require an engineering breakthrough on the level of the Alcubierre drive (though I should mention that I still hold out hope for the development of the Alcubierre drive).
Once we allow ourselves to think in these terms, and to imagine as a real possibility human exploration of the cosmos, even limited to contemporary life spans (which are likely to be lengthened considerably in the coming century), what one comes to realize is not the unattainability of the velocity of light, but really how slow the speed of light is in relation to the size of the cosmos. Light is almost pokey in its progress, since it would take light about 93 billion years to traverse the known universe. The age of the universe seems incomprehensibly ancient, but really, when you think about it in cosmological terms, 13.7 billion years isn’t all that much. We’re only really getting started here on this universe bit. And the size the universe? Again, it seems incomprehensible vast, but if we adjust our perspective, it is well within the limits of human comprehension if we will only take the time and the trouble to systematically expand and extend out understanding.
We can spend our time contemplating the littleness of man in the cosmos, or we can work to attain a perspective commensurate with the universe. It is true that we are indeed very small at present, and it has been the tradition of human thought to meditate upon our insignificance, our smallness before the universe, our manifold weaknesses, our miserably short existence, and the sorrows of the human condition — in short, it has been the tradition to meditate on what Hume called the “monkish virtues.” While we do not think of modern thought in this way, once we pause to put matters in context, we see the degree to which this tradition still retains its power over our minds.
Here is how Hume formulated the “monkish virtues”:
Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, Section IX, Conclusion, Part I
To Hume’s litany of the reasons to reject the monkish virtues we might also add that this is no way to go about building a civilization. This is to think in terms of constraints. But we must also think in terms of possibilities, and if we are ever to construct the spacefaring civilization that we can now clearly conceptualize, we will have to think more in terms of possibilities and less in terms of limitations. As central to the creation of a spacefaring civilization as the technological developments is the conceptual revolution that needs to be sustained, and as ambitious and as megalomaniac as this sounds, we must formulate and inculcate a human perspective that takes the human role in the cosmos for granted. We must learn to think on a cosmological scale.
For those who wonder at the hubris of what I am saying, the punishment of our pride will come about in due course, for no grand enterprise (and there is no grander enterprise than the expansion of civilization) is without reversals, but we cannot begin this enterprise by thinking only in terms of what we cannot do. We would never get off the ground — literally, we would never pass beyond planet-bound civilization to transplanetary civilization — if we thought only in terms of the meagerness of our abilities.
While some limitations are unambiguously limiting, others can be seen as a constraint or an opportunity depending upon one’s perspective. This is true of the structure of the universe and time dilation, which is built into relativistic physics. Future civilization will not try to defy this structure of spacetime (by trying to do something impossible according to physics), but will exploit this structure of spacetime in order to expand civilization in unexpected and unprecedented ways.
Astrophysics will shape interstellar civilization. The development of civilization will follow the availability of matter and energy; both matter and energy are found in and around the vicinity of stars, stars are collected in galaxies, and galaxies are found in clusters. Civilization will follow this same structure, from stars to galaxies to clusters, and civilization will do so because this is where the matter and energy at to be found.
Matter shapes the structure of spacetime; in seeking the resources of matter and energy, civilization will find itself in those regions of the universe shaped by the presence of matter. Matter, moreover, is convertible with energy, and vice versa. Civilization seeks matter in part in order to convert it into energy in order to power the industries of industrial-technological civilization. At some future time civilization may also seek energy in order to convert it into matter.
Civilization as we have known it has sought to expand itself in space, but time dilation will allow civilization also to expand in time. Given the breakthrough technology of a 1G starship, civilization will not only move outward in space, but also later in time. While time on Earth may be considered the baseline, a fleet of starships with enough capacity to carry a sufficient portion of terrestrial civilization to establish this civilization at a new center, will carry that civilization to a later time commensurate with the distance traveled outward. Because of time dilation, relatively little time will have passed on the voyage, even while a great deal of time will have passed on Earth.
In other words, while separated by years and lightyears, it will still be essentially the same civilization. From an omnipresent perspective — what might be called the “view from nowhere” (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Nagel) — we can see that these are temporally separated instances of one an the same civilization are. I call this a temporally distributed civilization. (This was one of the central points of my 2012 100YSS talk.) Given this structure of a temporally distributed civilization, there is quite literally no going home again. It would always be possible to migrate outward, and into later times (though essentially into the same civilization displaced later in time), but back would mean going into far future civilization that no longer resembled the civilization one had left behind.
Civilization conceived and executed on this cosmological scale, integral with the largest astrophysical processes, would leave observable traces. In Transcendent Man, the film about Ray Kurzweil, Kurzweil talks about looking up into the night sky and seeking signs of an alien technological singularity. Others have thought to search the skies for mega-engineering projects, looking for the astronomical markers of Dyson spheres or the use of a black hole as a source of energy.
Nothing definitive has yet been seen in the night sky. There does not appear to have been any civilization of cosmological scale that has preceded us — though there may be one out there, only now coming to maturity and not yet visible to us. Or maybe there is nothing out there. For many, the lack of evidence of a civilization of cosmological scale is proof (not definitive, deductive proof, but incremental, inductive proof, not leading to certainty, but to likelihood and probability) that there is no such civilization, nor can there be such a civilization.
Some dreamers who reject the possibility of interstellar travel but want to know something of the other inhabitants who might be out there in the Milky Way and beyond resign themselves to the quietism of SETI, sitting in a room monitoring instruments, hoping to catch a glimpse of alien intelligence from signals among the stars. This model of interstellar exchange is presented as practicable, and therefore something that a person might reasonably believe in, even if it departs from the Buck Rogers model of flying around and visiting other planets, all the while with a trusty sidearm on one’s hip.
I know that there are a great many people who maintain that there will never be any interstellar civilization, therefore no interaction between multiple interstellar civilizations, therefore no interstellar exchanges of any significance — whether for trade or war or culture or otherwise — because of the distances involved and the energy levels that would be required. I do not think that this is an insuperable problem, because in large measure the problem is our own perspective and the human tendency to sabotage our own efforts. Such habits of thought and action are valuable for a planet-bound civilization, but would be crippling for a transplanetary civilization.
I, on the other hand, view the large scale structure of interstellar civilization as an inevitable (or nearly inevitable) outcome of the continued expansion of industrial-technological civilization, in accordance with the Industrial-Technological Thesis that defines technological progress as intrinsic to this form of civilization. The only event that would derail the eventual realization of interstellar civilization is if civilization itself were to be derailed — hence my concern with existential risk.
A theoretical astropolitics would furnish the conceptual infrastructure for any future interstellar trade, interstellar war, or even interstellar “cultural exchanges” (as they were delicately called during the Cold War). And, as should be apparent from the foregoing, it seems clear that, as long as our industrial-technological civilization continues in its present trajectory of development, all of this will come to pass in the fullness of time.
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2 February 2013
In my last post, The Science of Time, I discussed the possibility of taking an absolutely general perspective on time and how this can be done in a way that denies time or in a way that affirms time, after the manner of big history.
David Christian, whose books on big history and his Teaching Company lectures on Big History have been seminal in the field, in the way of introduction to his final lectures, in which he switches from history to speculation on the future, relates that in his early big history courses his students felt as though they were cut off rather abruptly when he had brought them through 13.7 billion years of cosmic history only to drop them unceremoniously in the present without making any effort to discuss the future. It was this reaction that prompted him to continue beyond the present and to try to say something about what comes next.
Another way to understand this reaction of Christian’s students is that they wanted to see the whole of the history they have just been through placed in an even larger, more comprehensive context, and to do this requires going beyond history in the sense of an account of the past. To put the whole of history into a larger context means placing it within a cosmology that extends beyond our strict scientific knowledge of past and future — that which can be observed and demonstrated — and comprises a framework in the same scientific spirit but which looks beyond the immediate barriers to observation and demonstration.
Elsewhere in David Christian’s lectures (if my memory serves) he mentioned how some traditionalist historians, when they encounter the idea of big history, reject the very idea because history has always been about documents and eponymously confined to to the historical period when documents were kept after the advent of literacy. According to this reasoning, anything that happened prior to the invention of written language is, by definition, not history. I have myself encountered similar reasoning as, for example, when it is claimed that prehistory is not history at all because it happened prior to the existence of written records, which latter define history.
This a sadly limited view of history, but apparently it is a view with some currency because I have encountered it in many forms and in different contexts. One way to discredit any intellectual exercise is to define it so narrowly that it cannot benefit from the most recent scientific knowledge, and then to impugn it precisely for its narrowness while not allowing it to change and expand as human knowledge expands. The explosion in scientific knowledge in the last century has made possible a scientific historiography that simply did not exist previously; to deny that this is history on the basis of traditional humanistic history being based on written records means that we must then define some new discipline, with all the characteristics of traditional history, but expanded to include our new knowledge. This seems like a perverse attitude to me, but for some people the label of their discipline is important.
Call it what you will then — call it big history, or scientific historiography, or the study of human origins, or deny that it is history altogether, but don’t try to deny that our knowledge of the past has expanded exponentially since the scientific method has been applied to the past.
In this same spirit, we need to recognize that a greatly expanded conception of history needs to reach into the future, that a scientific futurism needs to be part of our expanded conception of the totality of time and history — or whatever it is that results when we apply Russell’s generalization imperative to time. Once again, it would be unwise to be overly concerned with what we call his emerging discipline, whether it be the totality of time or the whole of time or temporal infinitude or ecological temporality or what Husserl called omnitemporality or even absolute time.
Part of this grand (historical) effort will be a future science of civilizations, as the long term and big picture conception of civilization is of central human interest in this big picture of time and history. We not only want to know the naturalistic answers to traditional eschatological questions — Where did we come from? Where are we going? — but we also want to know the origins and destiny of what we have ourselves contributed to the universe — our institutions, our ideas, civilization, the technium, and all the artifacts of human endeavor.
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30 January 2013
F. H. Bradley in his classic treatise Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay, made this oft-quoted comment:
“If you identify the Absolute with God, that is not the God of religion. If again you separate them, God becomes a finite factor in the Whole. And the effort of religion is to put an end to, and break down, this relation — a relation which, none the less, it essentially presupposes. Hence, short of the Absolute, God cannot rest, and, having reached that goal, he is lost and religion with him. It is this difficulty which appears in the problem of the religious self-consciousness.”
I think many commentators have taken this passage as emblematic of what they believe to be Bradley’s religious sentimentalism, and in fact the yearning for religious belief (no longer possible for rational men) that characterized much of the school of thought that we now call “British Idealism.”
This is not my interpretation. I’ve read enough Bradley to know that he was no sentimentalist, and while his philosophy diverges radically from contemporary philosophy, he was committed to a philosophical, and not a religious, point of view.
Bradley was an elder contemporary of Bertrand Russell, and Bertrand Russell characterized Bradley as the grand old man of British idealism. This if from Russell’s Our Knowledge of the External World:
“The nature of the philosophy embodied in the classical tradition may be made clearer by taking a particular exponent as an illustration. For this purpose, let us consider for a moment the doctrines of Mr Bradley, who is probably the most distinguished living representative of this school. Mr Bradley’s Appearance and Reality is a book consisting of two parts, the first called Appearance, the second Reality. The first part examines and condemns almost all that makes up our everyday world: things and qualities, relations, space and time, change, causation, activity, the self. All these, though in some sense facts which qualify reality, are not real as they appear. What is real is one single, indivisible, timeless whole, called the Absolute, which is in some sense spiritual, but does not consist of souls, or of thought and will as we know them. And all this is established by abstract logical reasoning professing to find self-contradictions in the categories condemned as mere appearance, and to leave no tenable alternative to the kind of Absolute which is finally affirmed to be real.”
Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Chapter I, “Current Tendencies”
Although Russell rejected what he called the classical tradition, and distinguished himself in contributing to the origins of a new philosophical school that would come (in time) to be called analytical philosophy, the influence of figures like F. H. Bradley and J. M. E. McTaggart (whom Russell knew personally) can still be found in Russell’s philosophy.
In fact, the above quote from F. H. Bradley — especially the portion most quoted, short of the Absolute, God cannot rest, and, having reached that goal, he is lost and religion with him — is a perfect illustration of a principle found in Russell, and something on which I have quoted Russell many times, as it has been a significant influence on my own thinking.
I have come to refer to this principle as Russell’s generalization imperative. Russell didn’t call it this (the terminology is mine), and he didn’t in fact give any name at all to the principle, but he implicitly employs this principle throughout his philosophical method. Here is how Russell himself formulated the imperative (which I last quoted in The Genealogy of the Technium):
“It is a principle, in all formal reasoning, to generalize to the utmost, since we thereby secure that a given process of deduction shall have more widely applicable results…”
Bertrand Russell, An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, Chapter XVIII, “Mathematics and Logic”
One of the distinctive features that Russell identifies as constitutive of the classical tradition, and in fact one of the few explicit commonalities between the classical tradition and Russell’s own thought, was the denial of time. The British idealists denied the reality of time outright, in the best Platonic tradition; Russell did not deny the reality of time, but he was explicit about not taking time too seriously.
Despite Russell’s hostility to mysticism as expressed in his famous essay “Mysticism and Logic,” when it comes to the mystic’s denial of time, Russell softens a bit and shows his sympathy for this particular aspect of mysticism:
“Past and future must be acknowledged to be as real as the present, and a certain emancipation from slavery to time is essential to philosophic thought. The importance of time is rather practical than theoretical, rather in relation to our desires than in relation to truth. A truer image of the world, I think, is obtained by picturing things as entering into the stream of time from an eternal world outside, than from a view which regards time as the devouring tyrant of all that is. Both in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom.”
“…impartiality of contemplation is, in the intellectual sphere, that very same virtue of disinterestedness which, in the sphere of action, appears as justice and unselfishness. Whoever wishes to see the world truly, to rise in thought above the tyranny of practical desires, must learn to overcome the difference of attitude towards past and future, and to survey the whole stream of time in one comprehensive vision.”
Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, and Other Essays, Chapter I, “Mysticism and Logic”
While Russell and the classical tradition in philosophy both perpetuated the devalorization of time, this attitude is slowly disappearing from philosophy, and contemporary philosophers are more and more treating time as another reality to be given philosophical exposition rather than denying its reality. I regard this as a salutary development and a riposte to all who claim that philosophy makes no advances. Contemporary philosophy of time is quite sophisticated, and embodies a much more honest attitude to the world than the denial of time. (For those looking at philosophy from the outside, the denial of the reality of time simply sounds like a perverse waste of time, but I won’t go into that here.)
In any case, we can bring Russell’s generalization imperative to time and history even if Russell himself did not do so. That is to say, we ought to generalize to the utmost in our conception of time, and if we do so, we come to a
principle parallel to Bradley’s that I think both Russell and Bradley would have endorsed: short of the absolute time cannot rest, and, having reached that goal, time is lost and history with it.
Since I don’t agree with this, but it would be one logical extrapolation of Russell’s generalization imperative as applied to time, this suggests to be that there is more than one way to generalize about time. One way would be the kind of generalization that I formulated above, presumably consistent with Russell’s and Bradley’s devalorization of time. Time generalized in this way becomes a whole, a totality, that ceases to possess the distinctive properties of time as we experience it.
The other way to generalize time is, I think, in accord with the spirit of Big History: here Russell’s generalization imperative takes the form of embedding all times within larger, more comprehensive times, until we reach the time of the entire universe (or beyond). The science of time, as it is emerging today, demands that we almost seek the most comprehensive temporal perspective, placing human action in evolutionary context, placing evolution in biological context, placing biology is in geomorphological context, placing terrestrial geomorphology into a planetary context, and placing this planetary perspective into a cosmological context. This, too, is a kind of generalization, and a generalization that fully feels the imperative that to stop at any particular “level” of time (which I have elsewhere called ecological temporality) is arbitrary.
On my other blog I’ve written several posts related directly or obliquely to Big History as I try to define my own approach to this emerging school of historiography: The Place of Bilateral Symmetry in the History of Life, The Archaeology of Cosmology, and The Stars Down to Earth.
The more we pursue the rapidly growing body of knowledge revealed by scientific historiography, the more we find that we are part of the larger universe; our connections to the world expand as we pursue them outward in pursuit of Russell’s generalization imperative. I think it was Hans Blumenberg in his enormous book The Genesis of the Copernican World, who remarked on the significance of the fact that we can stand with our feet on the earth and look up at the stars. As I remarked in The Archaeology of Cosmology, we now find that by digging into the earth we can reveal past events of cosmological history. As a celestial counterpart to this digging in the earth (almost as though concretely embodying the contrast to which Blumenberg referred), we know that by looking up at the stars, we are also looking back in time, because the light that comes to us ages after it has been produced. Thus is astronomy a kind of luminous archaeology.
In Geometrical Intuition and Epistemic Space I wrote, “…we have no science of time. We have science-like measurements of time, and time as a concept in scientific theories, but no scientific theory of time as such.” Scientists have tried to think scientifically about time, but, as with the case of consciousness, a science of time eludes us as a science of consciousness eludes us. Here a philosophical perspective remains necessary because there are so many open questions and no clear indication of how these questions are to be answered in a clearly scientific spirit.
Therefore I think it is too early to say exactly what Big History is, because we aren’t logically or intellectually prepared to say exactly what the Russellian generalization imperative yields when applied to time and history. I think that we are approaching a point at which we can clarify our concepts of time and history, but we aren’t quite there yet, and a lot of conceptual work is necessary before we can produce a definitive formulation of time and history that will make of Big History the science and it aspires to be.
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3 November 2012
How do we orient ourselves within historiography? This may sound like an odd question; I will try to make it sound like a sensible question, and a question with relevance extending far beyond the bounds of historiography narrowly construed.
One way to orient oneself within historiography is to accept and elaborate upon a familiar schema of historical periodization. There are many from which to choose. For example, if one divides Western history into ancient, medieval and modern periods, and then goes on to describe the character of medieval civilization, this constitutes a kind of orientation within historiography. Others working on the medieval period will recognize your approach based on a received conception of periodization and will critique the effort accordingly.
While I often write about problematic issues in historical periodization, I am going to consider a very different orientation within historiography today, and this might be considered to be a methodological orientation, based on how one assesses and organizes the objects of historical knowledge.
A familiar distinction within historiography is that between the synchonic and the diachronic. I have written about this distinction in Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization and Synchronic and Diachronic Geopolitical Theories. “Synchrony” and “diachrony” sound like forbidding technical terms, but the concepts they attempt to capture are not at all difficult. Synchrony is the present construed broadly enough to admit of short term historical interaction, while diachrony typically takes a narrower view but a longer span of time. Sometimes this is expressed by saying that synchrony is across time while diachrony is through time.
Another distinction often made is that between the nomothetic and the ideographic. Again, these are intimidating technical terms, but the ideas are simple. Nomothetic (which comes from the Greek “nomos” for “law” or “norm”) approaches are concerned with law-like transitions in time: cause and effect. For example, you intentionally touch a stove not knowing that it is hot, you burn your finger, you withdraw your hand and give a shout of pain. Ideographic approaches do not quite constitute the negation of cause and effect, but they focus on all that is merely contigent, accidental, and unpredictable in life. For example, while looking at some distraction out of the corner of your eye, you trip, and in seeking to catch your fall you touch a hot stove and burn your finger.
When we put together these two historiographical distinctions — synchronic and diachronic, nomothetic and ideographic — we get four possible permutations of historiographical methodology, as follows:
● nomothetic synchrony
Law-like interaction of all elements within a broadly-defined present
● ideographic synchrony
Contingent interactions of all elements within a broadly-defined present
● nomothetic diachrony
Law-like succession of related events through historical time (especially “deep time”)
● ideographic diachrony
Contingent succession of related events through historical time
This schematic representation of historiographical methodologies is in no wise intended to be exhaustive; I’m sure if I continued to think about this, all kinds of conditions, qualifications, and additions would occur to me. For example, one obvious way to give this much more subtlety and sophistication would be to define each of the above methodological orientations for each division of what I have called ecological temporality, i.e., define each method for each level of time, from the micro-temporality of lived experience to the meta-temporality of the unfolding of ideas in history. I’m not going to attempt to do this at present, I just wanted to give a sense of the simplified schematism I am employing here, which I hope has some relevance despite its simplicity.
All of this sounds very abstract, but if just the right intuitive illustrations of each concept can be found, the concepts will gain in concreteness and depth, and their usefulness will be immediately understood. I can’t claim that I have yet assembled the perfect intuitive illustrations for all four of these methodologies, but I will give you what I have at present, and as I continue to think about this I will (hopefully) add some telling examples.
Nomothetic synchrony, as a method of highlighting the law-like interaction of all elements within a broadly-defined present, is perhaps the most difficult to intuitively illustrate. What “the present” includes is ambiguous, but I have said that the present is “broadly-defined,” so you will understand that the present is not here the punctiform present but something more like “current events.” Current events are continually feeding back on themselves by being repeated in the media and iterated throughout numerous cultural channels. Not all of this feedback, and not all of these iterations, are law-like, but some are. For example, procedural rationality — laws, rules, and regulations intended to bring order and system to the ordinary business of life — constitutes a highly complex set of law-like interactions in the present. In natural history, in contradistinction to human history, ecology is, in a sense, an instance of nomothetic synchrony, and that genre of writing/study once called “nature studies” which focuses on life cycles and predictable patterns within a defined and limited ecosystem, habitat, or niche. Anything, then, that we can describe in ecological terms can also be described in terms of nomothetic synchrony, and since I have taken the trouble to define metaphysical ecology, this category is potentially highly comprehensive. For example, if we call sociology the ecology of society, or we call cosmology galactic ecology, these disciplines could both be treated in terms of nomothetic synchrony.
Ideographic synchrony as constituted by all contingent interactions within a broadly-defined present might be summed up as William James famously summarized sensory perception for an infant: “The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing, confusion.” Ideographic synchrony is a blooming, buzzing confusion. Anarchic processes like financial markets and warfare might be good illustrations of ideographic synchrony. Of course, markets are supposed to behave according to procedural rationality, and wars are supposed to be fought according to a strategy — but we have all heard of the “fog of war” and of battlefield “friction” (both concepts due to Clausewitz), as we have all heard that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Similarly, no trading strategy survives exposure to the market.
Nomothetic diachrony, the law-like succession of related events through historical time, is the paradigmatic form of historical thought, but more often than not an elusive ideal. Many “laws of history” have been proposed, but none have been widely accepted. The only law of history that has survived is not from history, but from biology: natural selection. Evolution, while often apparently random and pervasively contingent, is a perfect illustration of law-like transitions through deep time. The “big history” movement is also a paradigm case of nomothetic diachrony, with the central theoretical narrative being that of increasing complexity.
Ideographic diachrony, the contingent succession of related events through historical time, can be illustrated in several imaginative ways. The biography of an individual primarily consists of a tight focus on a contingent sequence of events (events in the life of one individual) through a period of time not limited to the broadly-defined present. Many writers like to dwell on the role of the merely contingent and even the spectacularly accidental in history, as with Pascal’s several remarks about how if Cleopatra’s nose had had another shape, history would be different — a particular theme that has been since taken up by others (as in Daniel J. Boorstin’s book, Cleopatra’s Nose: Essays on the Unexpected). There is also the famous rhyme about how “for want of a nail a kingdom fell” which also focuses on the disproportionate historical influence of accidental contingencies. The “butterfly effect” is another illustration.
These four concepts — nomothetic synchrony, ideographic synchrony, nomothetic diachrony, and ideographic diachrony — provide a kind of methodological orientation in historiography. But it is more than merely methodological, since particular methods imply particular metaphysical orientations as well. Someone who holds the cataclysmic conception of history — based upon a denial of human agency — is likely to pursue an ideographic methodology rather than a nomothetic methodology. However, the four conceptions of history that I have defined don’t neatly map on the four methodologies defined above, so I can’t just connect these two quadripartite schemas straight across, showing that each conception of history has an associated methodology.
It’s more complicated than that. It usually is with history.
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29 October 2012
Parochialism, ironically, knows no bounds. Our habit of blinkering ourselves — what visionary poet William Blake called “mind-forged manacles” — is nearly universal. Sometimes even the most sophisticated minds miss the simple things that are staring them in the face. Usually, I think this is a function of the absence of a theoretical context that would make it possible to understand the simple truth staring us in the face.
I have elsewhere written that one of the things that makes Marx a truly visionary thinker is that he saw the industrial revolution for what it was — a revolution — even while many who lived through this profound series of events where unaware that they were living through a revolution. So even if one’s theoretical context is almost completely wrong, or seriously flawed, the mere fact of having the more comprehensive perspective bequeathed by a theoretical understanding of contemporary events can be enough to make it possible for one to see the forest for the trees.
Darwin wrote somewhere (I can’t recall where as I write this, but will add the reference later when I run across it) that from his conversations with biologists prior to publishing The Origin of Species he knew how few were willing to thing in terms of the mutability of species, but once he had made his theory public it was rapidly adopted as a research program by biologists, and Darwin suggested that countless facts familiar to biologists but hitherto not systematically incorporated into theory suddenly found a framework in which they could be expressed. Obviously, these are my words rather than Darwin’s, and when I can find the actual quote I will include it here, but I think I have remembered the gist of the passage to which I refer.
It would be comical, if it were not so pathetic, that one of the first responses to Darwin’s systematic exposition of evolution was for people to look around for “transitional” evolutionary forms, and, strange to say, they didn’t find any. This failure to find transitional forms was interpreted as a problem for evolution, and expeditions were mounted in order to search for the so-called “missing link.”
The idea that the present consists entirely of life forms having attained a completed and perfected form, and that all previous natural history culminates in these finished forms of the present, therefore placing all transitional forms in the past, is a relic of teleological and equilibrium thinking. Once we dispense the unnecessary and mistaken idea that the present is the aim of the past and exemplifies a kind of equilibrium in the history of life that can henceforth be iterated to infinity, it becomes immediately obvious that every life form is a transitional form, including ourselves.
A few radical thinkers understood this. Nietzsche, for example, understood this all-too-clearly, and wrote that, “Man is a rope stretched between the beasts and the Superman — a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal..” But assertions as bold as that of Nietzsche were rare. Darwin himself didn’t even mention human evolution in The Origin of Species (though he later came back to human origins in The Descent of Man): Darwin first offered a modest formulation of a radical theory.
So what has all this in regard to Marx and Darwin to do with the great filter, mentioned in the title of this post? I have written many posts about the Fermi paradox recently without ever mentioning the great filter, which is an important part of the way that the Fermi paradox is formulated today. If we ask, if the universe is supposedly teaming with alien life, and possibly also with alien civilizations, why we haven’t met any of them, we have to draw that conclusion that, among all the contingencies that must hold in order for an industrial-technological civilization to arise within our cosmos, at least one of these contingencies has tripped up all previous advanced civilizations, or else they would be here already (and we would probably be their slaves).
The contingency that has prevented any other advanced civilization in the cosmos from beating us to the punch is called the great filter. Many who write on the Fermi paradox, then, ask whether the great filter is in our past or in our future. If it is in our past, we have good reason to hope that our civilization can be an ongoing concern. If it is in our future, we have a very real reason to be concerned, since if no other advanced civilization has made it through the great filter in their development, it would seem unlikely that we would prove the exception to that rule. So a neat way to divide the optimists and the pessimists in regard to the future of human civilization is whether someone places the great filter in the past (optimists) or in the future (pessimists).
Human beings are the only species (on the only biosphere known to us) known to have created industrial-technological civilization. This is our special claim to intelligence. But before us there were numerous precursor species, and many hominid species that have since gone extinct. Many of these hominids (who cannot all be called human “ancestors” since many of them were dead ends on the evolutionary tree) were tool users, and it is for this reason that I noted in Civilization and the Technium that the technium is older than civilization (and more widely distributed than civilization). But now we are only only remaining hominid species on the planet. So in the past, we can already see a filter that has narrowed down the human experience to a single sentient and intelligent species.
Writers on the technological singularity and on the post-human and even post-biological future have speculated on a wide variety of possible scenarios in which post-human beings, industrial-technological civilization, and the technium will expand throughout the cosmos. If these events come to past, the narrowing of the human experience to a single biological species will eventually be followed by a great blossoming of sentient and intelligent agents who may not be precisely human in the narrow sense, but in a wider sense will all be our descendants and our progeny. In this eventuality, the narrow bottleneck of humanity will expand exponentially from its present condition.
Looking at the present human condition from the perspective of multiple predecessor species and multiple future species, we see that the history of sentient and intelligent life on earth has narrowed in the present to a single hominid species. The natural history of intelligence on the Earth has all its eggs in one basket. Our existence as the sole sentient and intelligent species means that we are the great filter.
If we survive ourselves, we will have a right to be optimistic about the future of intelligent life in the universe — but not until then. Not until we have been superseded, not until the human era has ended, ought we to be optimistic.
Man is a narrow strand stretched between pre-human diversity and post-human diversity.
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25 August 2012
From the perspective of the phenomenon of civilization, i.e., civilization understood at its furthest reach of generality (which might also be called a meta-civilizational perspective), one would expect to find not only patterns of development of civilizations, as was Toynbee’s project to identify, but one would also expect to find patterns by which one civilization gives way to, or is transformed by or into, another civilization. In other words, a big picture perspective on civilization would reveal both intra-civilizational structures and inter-civilizational structures. Both of these are structures in time — ways in which things change.
Civilizations, like individuals, swim in the ocean of history, and we can say of civilization what Marx said of men, viz. that civilizations make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. Each civilization is heir to the history that preceded it, and is in turn the ancestor of each civilization and succeeds it.
In several posts I have discussed the work of Toynbee, not least because he is the most devoted to the idea of civilization as the proper object of study of historiographic inquiry. Toynbee’s focus on civilization means that, even when he gets things wrong, he usually has something interesting to say. Apart from the list of fully developed civilizations that Toynbee recognized, he also discussed abortive civilizations and arrested civilizations. Among the abortive civilizations he included the Celtic Fringe of early Christianity and the Viking world. Among arrested civilizations he included the Eskimo, Polynesians, and nomads of the Asiatic steppe.
In Why We Are All Eskimos I tried to show how Toynbee was wrong to call Eskimos an arrested civilization. Obviously, when Toynbee made this claim, he was thinking that civilizations began in temperate regions and spread from areas more friendly to the full development of civilization to regions less friendly to the development of fully developed civilizations. Toynbee did not know what we know now in terms of the detailed paleoclimatology of the Earth. Scientific historiography since Toynbee’s time has revealed to us new worlds of knowledge that are not derived from any text, unless we count the world itself as a text, and our genetic structure as well.
Toynbee had it exactly backward with the Eskimos: they are not an arrested side branch of the main stream of civilization; they are the robust channel flowing inexorably from past glaciations, as though swollen with the meltwater of an entire ice age. “Eskimos” broadly speaking are the ancestors of us all, because all human ancestors had to come through the test of the ice age in order for them to be present to found the civilizations that have flourished during the present interglacial period.
I am beginning to think that Toynbee also had modern Western civilization exactly backward also. Toynbee begins his examination of civilizations by taking as examples of civilization, “…twenty-one societies of the species to which our Western Society belongs.” (A Study of History, Vol. 1, I, C, III, a, p. 147) Toynbee is honest about the fact of beginning with his own civilization, but I think that there is a legitimate question here as to whether our civilization today is modern civilization in the strict and narrow sense, or whether our civilization is a successor civilization to that of modernity. Let me try to explain this.
There is a sense which modern civilization has triumphed, especially in its Western form, but there is another sense in which modernity proved to be abortive, and we can speak of an abortive modern civilization that never fulfilled its promise because it was overtaken by events. What I mean is that modern civilization taken in its strict and narrow sense was displaced by another kind of civilization while modernity was still in its developmental stage. What displaced modern civilization was industrial-technological civilization, which is sufficiently different from what was developing as modernity prior to industrialization that it may deserve to be considered another kind of civilization entirely.
Some time ago, when I wrote a few posts on early modern Europe, particular in reference to Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down, I received a comment from Christopher Thompson, who had been a student of Christopher Hill. Professor Thompson scolded me for suggesting that early modern English was not, “a ‘peasant society’ or even a predominantly peasant one.” He was right to call me on this. It is worthwhile to read in its entirety Professor Thompson’s comment on my post (follow the link above and go to the bottom of the page), since he summarized in a few sentences the complexity and diversity of early modern English society.
In a later post of mine, Modernism without Industrialism: Europe 1500-1800, I tried to sketch the peculiar civilization of Europe of the early modern period, which I have come more and more to see as a kind of civilization that was only just getting off the ground when it was overtaken by the violent transformation of society initiated by the Industrial Revolution.
This period of modernism without industrialism can be understood as an abortive form of modern civilization — a civilization cut short and which never attain maturity on its own terms. As Professor Thompson pointed out, this was not a predominantly peasant society; in other words, it was not a medieval society. Throughout the early modern period we see a very gradually increasing division of labor and the social differentiation that this implies. The elaborate feudal structures of carefully gradated hierarchy was being slowly replaced by another kind of social gradation not as explicitly hierarchical as that of the Middle Ages. The scientific revolution was making itself felt, literacy was becoming more widespread, and at the end of this period we have two great political revolutions — the American Revolution and the French Revolution — both of which can be understood in isolation from the first stirrings of industrialization, which were starting about the same time.
It is possible to imagine, as an exercise in counter-factual historiography, a world that might have followed from the combined effects of the scientific revolution and the American and French revolutions but without the industrial revolution. While we are at it, we can just as well attempt to imagine a world that might have followed from modernity, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution without the political revolutions or the industrial revolution. I think this would have been a civilization much more similar to that of the Roman Empire at its height — relatively wealthy, cosmopolitan, internationalist, essentially agrarian and rural despite the existence of a few very large cities — than what we now know as industrial-technological civilization.
If we can identify modernity as an abortive civilization, like the Christian Celtic Fringe and the Vikings (according to Toynbee), overtaken by industrial-technological civilization, we must acknowledge that the transition from one civilization to another was relatively seamless, despite the social upheavals that attended industrialization. There was no “dark age” between modernity and industrialization, and in this respect the transition from modernity to industrialization resembles the transition from medievalism to modernity. Again, there was no “dark age” between medieval and modern civilization, but there was a transition nevertheless.
It has often been remarked that the modern world is continuous with the medieval world in several important ways, even while there is little in history that has been as completely abandoned as medieval civilization and its institutions. I would like to suggest that, when one civilization more-or-less seamlessly gives way to another civilization, without an intervening dark age or similar massive disruption of institutions, what is happening is that the ordinary business of life, the accidents of life (in the Aristotelian sense of “accident”), go on uninterrupted — which is to say that they evolve gradually so that very little change is noticed from one generation to the next, but that these gradual changes in the ordinary business of life accumulate and eventually add up as significant social change. At the same time that the accidents of life are undergoing gradual change, the essence of a civilization is undergoing relatively rapid change, so that the more-or-less identical practices passed from one generation to the next have a very different meaning because they are now accidents of a different essential nature.
Given the continuity of the medieval and modern worlds, how do we know that one civilization gave way to another? Well, one indicator species of the climax civilizational ecosystem of medievalism was the cathedral. Monumental architecture often serves as an indicator species of climax civilizational ecosystems. What the pyramids were to the Egyptians, what temples and baths were to classical antiquity, and what the skyscraper is to industrial-technological civilization, the cathedral (and the palace) was to medieval civilization.
Once medieval European civilization reached a given level of stability and wealth, cathedrals went up rather quickly, sometimes in a single generation. Some magnificent palaces were erected on a time scale not at all unlike monumentral architecture in our time, say 5-10 years — easily within the lifetime of a single master builder. Some monumental projects stalled, however, and once stalled they tended to remain stalled, sometimes for hundreds of years. A good example of this would be the Cologne cathedral, which was an enormous undertaking, and when it was abandoned the civilization that began it essentially lost interest in it. Abandoned in its unfinished state, the construction crane on top of the south tower became iconic in its own right, appearing in depictions of Cologne throughout the intervening centuries.
Cologne cathedral was eventually completed, but it was not completed by medieval civilization. Medieval civilization was utterly extirpated by the time that the cathedral was completed by different men with a different agenda. During the nineteenth century there was a vogue for medievalism that is called “neo-gothic,” and during this time there were a few cities, Cologne among them, who dusted off the unfinished medieval plans to their cathedrals and decided to finish them. The Houses of Parliament in London date from the same period, and are a classic example of neo-gothic architecture. But the monumental rock-cut tombs of Lycia, along the Turkish coast, many of which were abandoned unfinished, were not completed by later civilizations that displaced the classical antiquity in which these monumental projects were initiated. Perhaps too much had changed, too much time had elapsed between the phases of surplus wealth of the dominant regional civilization, and probably also it was the non-continuous transition between civilizations.
Thus when we see industrial-technological civilization completing the work of modernism, we ought not to assume that this is one and the same civilization; if industrial-technological civilization is essentially different from that of modernity prior to with without industrialization, then the choice to continue and complete the monumental projects of modernity can be understood as an exercise in inter-generational piety — rather than worshiping our immediate ancestors, we continue and complete their projects, even if these projects mean something very different to us than the projects meant for them.
If we make the distinction between the essence and accident of civilized life as I have tried to do above, I think we come to a better appreciation both of the temporal structures of intra-civilizational change and the temporal structures of inter-civilizational change. Intra-civilizational change is marked by essential continuity and accidental discontinuity; inter-civilizational change is marked by essential discontinuity and accidental continuity.
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23 July 2012
Even if you know what to look for, it is quite difficult to pick out the Urnes stave church from across the fjord at Solvorn, where a small ferry departs each hour on the hour to take tourists and a few cars and bicycles across Sognefjord over to the Urnes side (also spelled “Ornes”). Once across, you walk up the hill to the top of the village, and there sits the Urnes stave church among trees and the cultivated hillsides, just as it has been sitting for more then 800 years. This is the second time I have been to Urnes, and I was unable to see the stave church from across the fjord; perhaps if I had had binoculars I would have seen it, but it melds into the landscape from which it came.
Looking back to Solvorn from the top of the hill at Urnes, standing next to this ancient wooden structure, little changed from when it was built — Urnes is thought to be the oldest of the surviving stave churches, with timbers dating from 1129-1130 (thanks to dedrochronology) — it is very easy to imagine the villagers are Solvorn getting into the wooden boats, rowing across the fjord, and walking up the hill to attend services in their ancient church. We often hear the phrase “time stands still” — at Urnes, you can stand still along with time for a few moments. Here, history has been paused.
In so saying that history is paused at Urnes I am reminded of a passage from Rembrandt and Spinoza by Leo Balet, which I quoted previously in Capturing the Moment:
“In those of his portraits where the portrayed is not acting, but just resting, pausing, we get the feeling that the resting continues, that it is a resting with duration, a resting, thus, in time; in those pictures we are closer to life than in the portraits where just the breaking off of the action makes us so vividly aware that his whole action was make-believe.”
Leo Balet, Rembrandt and Spinoza, p. 184
Balet here frames his thesis in terms of portraiture, but the same might be said of a photograph or a sculpture — or even of a place that changes but little over the years. Urnes is such a place, and, in fact, there are many such places in Norway. Yesterday in A Wittgensteinian Pilgrimage I noted how Wittgenstein’s correspondents in Skjolden often closed their letters with, “All is as before here” (“Her er det som før”). in Skjolden, too, time is paused.
Similarly, the busyness of the world appears to us as mere make-believe when seen from the perennial perspective of unchanging continuity in time. Our hurried and harassed lives seem mindless and perhaps a bit comical when compared to forms of life that endure — or, to put it otherwise, compared to modes of life that enjoy historical viability.
I have elsewhere defined historical viability as the ability of an existent to endure in existence by changing as the world changes; now I realize that the world changes in different ways at different times and places, so that historical viability is a local phenomenon that is subject to conditions closely similar to natural selection — existents are selected for historical viability not by being “better” or “higher” or “superior” or “perfect,” but by being the most suited to their environment. In the present context, “environment” should be understood as the temporal or historical environment of a historical existent — with this in mind, a more subtle form of the principle of historical viability begins to emerge.
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