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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27 April 2012
The thesis that epistemic space is primarily shaped and structured by geometrical intuition may be equated with Bergson’s exposition of the spatialization of the intellect. Bergson devoted much of his philosophical career to a critique of the same. Bergson’s exposition of spatialization is presented in terms of a sweeping generality as the spatialization of time, but a narrower conception of spatialization in terms of the spatialization of consciousness or of human thought follows from and constitutes a special case of spatialization.
One might well ask, in response to Bergson, how we might think of things in non-spatial terms, and the answer to this question is quite long indeed, and would take us quite far afield. Now, there is nothing wrong with going quite far afield, especially in philosophy, and much can be learned from the excursion. …
There is a famous passage in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus about “logical space,” at once penetrating and obscure (like much in the Tractatus), and much has been read into this by other philosophers (again, like much in the Tractatus). Here is section 1.13:
“The facts in logical space are the world.”
And here is section 3.42:
“Although a proposition may only determine one place in logical space, the whole logical space must already be given by it. (Otherwise denial, the logical sum, the logical product, etc., would always introduce new elements — in co-ordination.) (The logical scaffolding round the picture determines the logical space. The proposition reaches through the whole logical space.)”
I will not attempt an exposition of these passages; I quote them here only to give the reader of flavor of Wittgenstein’s . Clearly the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus approached the world synchronically, and a synchronic perspective easily yields itself to spatial expression, which Wittgenstein makes explicit in his formulations in terms of logical space. And here is one more quote from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, from section 2.013:
“Every thing is, as it were, in a space of possible atomic facts. I can think of this space as empty, but not of the thing without the space.”
I find this particularly interesting because it is, essentially, a Kantian argument. I discussed just this argument of Kant’s in Kantian Non-Constructivism. It was a vertiginous leap of non-constructive thought for the proto-constructivist Kant to argue that he could imagine empty space, but not spatial objects without the space, and it is equally non-constructive for Wittgenstein to make the same assertion. But it gives us some insight into Wittgenstein’s thinking.
Understanding the space of atomic facts as logical space, we can see that logical space is driven by logical necessity to relentlessly expand until it becomes a kind of Parmenidean sphere of logical totality. This vision of logical space realizes virtually every concern Bergson had for the falsification of experience given the spatialization of the intellect. The early Wittgenstein represents the logical intellect at its furthest reach, and Wittgenstein does not disappoint on this score.
While Wittgenstein abandoned this kind of static logical totality in this later thought, others were there to pick up the torch and carry it in their own directions. An interesting example of this is Donald Davidson’s exposition of logical geography:
“…I am happy to admit that much of the interest in logical form comes from an interest in logical geography: to give the logical form of a sentence is to give its logical location in the totality of sentences, to describe it in a way that explicitly determines what sentences it entails and what sentences it is entailed by. The location must be given relative to a specific deductive theory; so logical form itself is relative to a theory.”
Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events, pp. 139-140
In a more thorough exposition (someday, perhaps), I would also discuss Frege’s exposition of concepts in terms of spatial areas, and investigate the relationship between Frege and Wittgenstein in the light of their shared equation of logic and space. (I might even call this the principle of spatial-logical equivalence, which principle would be the key that would unlock the relationship between epistemic space and geometrical intuition.)
Certainly the language of spatiality is well-suited to an exposition of human thought — whether it is uniquely suited is an essentialist question. But we must ask at this point if human thought is specially suited to a spatial exposition, or if a spatial exposition is especially suited for an exposition of human thought. It is a question of priority — which came first, the amenability of spatiality to the mind, or the amenability of the mind to spatiality? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Is the mind essentially spatial, or is space essentially intellectual? (The latter position might be assimilated to Kantianism.)
From the perspective of natural history, recent thought on human origins has shifted from the idea of a “smart ape” to the idea of a “bipedal ape,” the latter with hands now free to grasp and to manipulate the environment. Before this, before human beings were human, our ancestors lived in trees where spatial depth perception was crucial to survival, hence our binocular vision from two eyes placed side by side in the front of the face. Color vision additional made it possible to identify the ripeness of fruit hanging in the trees. In other words, we are a visual species from way back, predating even our minds in their present form.
With this observation it becomes obvious that the human mind emerged and evolved under strongly visual selection pressure. Moreover, visual selection pressure means spatial selection pressure, so it is no wonder that the categories native to the human mind are intrinsically spatial. Those primates with the keenest ability to process spatial information in the form of visual stimuli would have had a differential survival and reproductive advantage. This is not accidental, but follows from our natural history.
But now I have mentioned “natural history” again, and I pause. Temporal selection pressure has been no less prevasive than spatial selection pressure. All life is a race against time to survive as long as possible while producing as many viable offspring as possible. Here we come back to Bergson again. Why does the intellect spatialize, when time is as pervasive and as inescapable as space in human experience?
With this question ringing in our ears, and the notable examples of philosophical logical-spatial equivalence mentioned above, why should we not have (parallel to Wittgenstein’s exposition of logical space) logical time and (parallel to Davidson’s exposition of logical geography) logical history?
To think through the idea of logical history is so foreign that is sounds strange even to say it: logical time? Logical history? These are not phrases with intuitive self-evidence. At least, they have very little intuitive self-evidence for the spatializing intellect. But in fact a re-formulation of Davidson’s logical geography in temporal-historical terms works quite well:
…the logical form of a sentence is to give its logical position in the elapsed sequence of sentences, to describe it in a way that explicitly determines what are following sentences it entails and what previous sentences it is entailed by…
Perhaps I ought to make the effort to think things through temporally in the same way that I have previously described how I make the effort to think things through selectively when I catch myself thinking in teleological terms.
In the meantime, it seems that our geometrical intuition is a faculty of mind refined by the same forces that have selected us for our remarkable physical performance. And as with our physical performance, which is rendered instinctive, second nature, and unconscious simply through our ordinary interaction with the world (all the things we must do anyway in order to survive), our geometrical intuition is often so subtle and so unconsciously sophisticated that we do not even notice it until we are presented with some Gordian knot that forces us to think explicitly in spatial terms. Faced with such a problem, we create sciences like topology, but before we have created such a science we already have an intellect strangely suited to the formulation of such a science. And, as I have written elsewhere, 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.
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9 April 2012
Geopolitics and Geostrategy
as a formal sciences
In a couple of posts — Formal Strategy and Philosophical Logic: Work in Progress and Axioms and Postulates of Strategy — I have explicitly discussed the possibility of a formal approach to strategy. This has been a consistent theme of my writing over the past three years, even when it is not made explicit. The posts that I wrote on theoretical geopolitics can also be considered an effort in the direction of formal strategy.
There is a sense in which formal thought is antithetical to the tradition of geopolitics, which latter seeks to immerse itself in the empirical facts of how history gets made, in contradistinction to the formalist’s desire to define, categorize, and clarify the concepts employed in analysis. Yet in so far as geopolitics takes the actual topographical structure of the land as its point of analytical departure, this physical structure becomes the form upon which the geopolitician constructs the logic of his or her analysis. Geopolitical thought is formal in so far as the forms to which it conforms itself are physical, topographical forms.
Most geopoliticians, however, have no inkling of the formal dimension of their analyses, and so this formal dimension remains implicit. I have commented elsewhere that one of the most common fallacies is the conflation of the formal and the informal. In Cartesian Formalism I wrote:
One of the biggest and yet one of the least recognized blunders in philosophy (and certainly not only in philosophy) is to conflate the formal and the informal, whether we are concerned with formal and informal objects, formal and informal methods, or formal and informal ideas, etc. (I recently treated this topic on my other blog in relation to the conflation of formal and informal strategy.)
Geopolitics, geostrategy, and in fact many of the so-called “soft” sciences that do not involve extensive mathematization are among the worst offenders when it comes to the conflation of the formal and the informal, often because the practitioners of the “soft” sciences do not themselves understand the implicit principles of form to which they appeal in their theories. Instead of theoretical formalisms we get informal narratives, many of which are compelling in terms of their human interest, but are lacking when it comes to analytical clarity. These narratives are primarily derived from historical studies within the discipline, so that when this method is followed in geopolitics we get a more-or-less quantified account of topographical forms that shape action and agency, with an overlay of narrative history to string together the meaning of names, dates, and places.
There is a sense in which geography and history cannot be separated, but there is another sense in which the two are separated. Because the ecological temporality of human agency is primarily operational at the levels of micro-temporality and meso-temporality, this agency is often exercised without reference to the historical scales of the exo-temporality of larger social institutions (like societies and civilizations) and the macro-historical scales of geology and geomorphology. That is to say, human beings usually act without reference to plate tectonics, the uplift of mountains, or seafloor spreading, except when these events act over micro- and meso-time scales as in the case of earthquakes and tsunamis generated by geological events that otherwise act so slowly that we never notice them in the course of a lifetime — or even in the course of the life of a civilization.
The greatest temporal disconnect occurs between the smallest scales (micro-temporality) and the largest scales (macro-temporality), while there is less disconnect across immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality. I can employ a distinction that I recently made in a discussion of Descartes, that between strong distinctions and weak distinctions (cf. Of Distinctions Weak and Strong). Immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality are weakly distinct, while those not immediately adjacent are strongly distinct.
We have traditionally recognized the abstraction of macroscopic history that does not descend into details, but it has not been customary to recognize the abstractness of microscopic history, immersed in details, that does not also place these events in relation to a macroscopic context. In order to attain to a comprehensive perspective that can place these more limited perspectives into a coherent context, it is important to understand the limitations of our conventional conceptions of history (such as the failure to understand the abstract character of micro-history) — and, for that matter, the limitations of our conventional conceptions of geography. One of these limitations is the abstractness of either geography or history taken in isolation.
The degree of abstractness of an inquiry can be quantified by the ecological scope of that inquiry; any one division of ecological temporality (or any one division of metaphysical ecology) taken in isolation from other divisions is abstract. It is only the whole of ecology taken together that a truly concrete theory is possible. To take into account the whole of ecological temporality in a study of history is a highly concrete undertaking which is nevertheless informed by the abstract theories that constitute each individual level of ecological temporality.
Geopolitics, despite its focus on the empirical conditions of history, is a highly abstract inquiry precisely because of its nearly-exclusive focus on one kind of structure as determinative in history. As I have argued elsewhere, and repeatedly, abstract theories are valuable and have their place. Given the complexity of a concrete theory that seeks to comprehend the movements of human history around the globe, an abstract theory is a necessary condition of any understanding. Nevertheless, we need to rest in our efforts with an abstract theory based exclusively in the material conditions of history, which is the perspective of geopolitics (and, incidentally, the perspective of Marxism).
Geopolitics focuses on the seemingly obvious influences on history following from the material conditions of geography, but the “obvious” can be misleading, and it is often just as important to see what is not obvious as to explicitly take into account what is obvious. Bertrand Russell once observed, in a passage both witty and wise, that:
“It is not easy for the lay mind to realise the importance of symbolism in discussing the foundations of mathematics, and the explanation may perhaps seem strangely paradoxical. The fact is that symbolism is useful because it makes things difficult. (This is not true of the advanced parts of mathematics, but only of the beginnings.) What we wish to know is, what can be deduced from what. Now, in the beginnings, everything is self-evident; and it is very hard to see whether one self-evident proposition follows from another or not. Obviousness is always the enemy to correctness. Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious. Then we set up certain rules for operating on the symbols, and the whole thing becomes mechanical. In this way we find out what must be taken as premiss and what can be demonstrated or defined. For instance, the whole of Arithmetic and Algebra has been shown to require three indefinable notions and five indemonstrable propositions. But without a symbolism it would have been very hard to find this out. It is so obvious that two and two are four, that we can hardly make ourselves sufficiently sceptical to doubt whether it can be proved. And the same holds in other cases where self-evident things are to be proved.”
Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”
Russell here expresses himself in terms of symbolism, but I think it would better to formulate this in terms of formalism. When Russell writes that, “we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious,” the new and difficult symbolism he mentions is more than mere symbolism, it is a formal theory. Russell’s point, then, is that if we formalize a body of knowledge heretofore consisting of intuitively “obvious” truths, certain relationships between truths become obvious that were not obvious prior to formalization. Another way to formulate this is to say that formalization constitutes a shift in our intuition, so that truths once intuitively obvious become inobvious, while inobvious truths because intuitive. Thus formalization is the making intuitive of previously unintuitive (or even counter-intuitive) truths.
Russell devoted a substantial portion of his career to formalizing heretofore informal bodies of knowledge, and therefore had considerable experience with the process of formalization. Since Russell practiced formalization without often explaining exactly what he was doing (the passage quoted above is a rare exception), we must look to the example of his formal thought as a model, since Russell himself offered no systematic account of the formalization of any given body of knowledge. (Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica is a tour de force comprising the order of justification of its propositions, while remaining silent about the order of discovery.)
A formal theory of time would have the same advantages for time as the theoretical virtues that Russell identified in the formalization of mathematics. In fact, Russell himself formulated a formal theory of time, in his paper “On Order in Time,” which is, in Russell’s characteristic way, reductionist and over-simplified. Since I aim to formulate a theory of time that is explicitly and consciously non-reductionist, I will make no use of Russell’s formal theory of time, though it is interesting at least to note Russell’s effort. The theory of ecological temporality that I have been formulating here is a fragment of a full formal theory of time, and as such it can offer certain insights into time that are lost in a reductionist account (as in Russell) or hidden in an informal account (as in geography and history).
As noted above, a formalized theory brings about a shift in our intuition, so that the formerly intuitive becomes unintuitive while the formerly unintuitive becomes intuitive. A shift in our intuitions about time (and history) means that a formal theory of time makes intuitive temporal relationships less obvious, while making temporal relationships that are hidden by the “buzzing, blooming world” more obvious, and therefore more amenable to analysis — perhaps for the first time.
Ecological temporality gives us a framework in which we can demonstrate the interconnectedness of strongly distinct temporalities, since the panarchy the holds between levels of an ecological system is the presumption that each level of an ecosystem impacts every other level of an ecosystem. Given the distinction between strong distinctions and weak distinctions, it would seem that adjacent ecological levels are weakly distinct and therefore have a greater impact on each other, while non-adjacent ecological levels are strongly distinct and therefore have less of an impact on each other. In an ecological theory of time, all of these principles hold in parallel, so that, for example, micro-temporality is only weakly distinct from meso-temporality, while being strongly distinct from exo-temporality. As a consequence, a disturbance in micro-temporality has a greater impact upon meso-temporality than upon exo-temporality (and vice versa), but less of an impact does not mean no impact at all.
Another virtue of formal theories, in addition to the shift in intuition that Russell identified, is that it forces us to be explicit about our assumptions and presuppositions. The implicit theory of time held by a geostrategist matters, because that geostrategist will interpret history in terms of the categories of his or her theory of time. But most geostrategists never bother to make their theory of time explicit, so that we do not know what assumptions they are making about the structure of time, hence also the structure of history.
Sometimes, in some cases, these assumptions will become so obvious that they cannot be ignored. This is especially the case with supernaturalistic and soteriological conceptions of metaphysical history that ultimately touch on everything else that an individual believes. This very obviousness makes it possible to easily identify eschatological and theological bias; what is much more insidious is the subtle assumption that is difficult to discern and which only can be elucidated with great effort.
If one comes to one’s analytical work presupposing that every moment of time possesses absolute novelty, one will likely make very different judgments than if one comes to the same work presupposing that there is nothing new under the sun. Temporal novelty means historical novelty: anything can happen; whereas, on the contrary, the essential identity of temporality over historical scales — identity for all practical purposes — means historical repetition: very little can happen.
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Note: Anglo-American political science implicitly takes geopolitics as its point of departure, but, as I have attempted to demonstrate in several posts, this tradition of mainstream geopolitics can be contrasted to a nascent movement of biopolitics. However, biopolitics too could be formulated in the manner of a theoretical biopolitics, and a theoretical biopolitics would be at risk of being as abstract as geopolitics and in need of supplementation by a more comprehensive ecological perspective.
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12 December 2011
“From the relation of the planets among themselves and to the signs of the zodiac. future events and the course of whole lives were inferred, and the most weighty decisions were taken in consequence. In many cases the line of action thus adopted at the suggestion of the stars may not have been more immoral than that which would otherwise have been followed. But too often the decision must have been made at the cost of honour and conscience. It is profoundly instructive to observe how powerless culture and enlightenment were against this delusion; since the latter had its support in the ardent imagination of the people, in the passionate wish to penetrate and determine the future. Antiquity, too, was on the side of astrology.”
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878, Part Six, MORALITY AND RELIGION, “Influence of Ancient Superstition”
A few days ago Neil Houghton read my post The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought and made the following comment on Twitter:
● Neil Houghton — I add prospective agency. RT @geopolicraticus The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought: human agency in time and history
I responded with a question, and a miniature dialogue developed (within the tightly constrained limits of Twitter):
● Nick Nielsen — How would you define prospective agency? Is this agency understood in terms of possibility and potentiality?
● Neil Houghton — Great question… in one word, foresight… in more a transdisciplinary practice between, across and beyond orders of time
● Nick Nielsen — The whole problem is separating the wheat from the chaff: the wheat is the big picture; the chaff, trivial predictions.
● Neil Houghton — Yes. seeing gradience is an aspect of the problem; the difference between the big picture and trivial prediction is one such gradience.
● Nick Nielsen — Seeing the big picture in both space and time yields a different kind of foresight than the attempt to predict future events.
● Neil Houghton — Foresight as gradience between freedom and destiny (for example) … please say more of your different kind of foresight.
This brief exchange points to something that I consider to be important, so I will attempt to give an account of the distinction I proposed between seeing the big picture and attempting to make predictions.
The most familiar form of futurism consists in making a series of predictions. Like any prognosticator of the future, regardless of methodology, the futurist is caught in a bind. The more specific his predictions, the more likely he is to be caught out. Even if the general drift of a prediction is correct, supplying a lot of details means more ways of potentially being wrong. And the more vague a prediction, the less interesting they are likely to be.
Some futurists take pride in their detailed lists of predictions, and although detail is an opportunity to be wrong, it also provides a lot of fodder for utterly pointless debate. In The Law of Stalled Technologies I wrote the following about Ray Kurzweil’s specific predictions:
Kurweil’s futurism makes for some fun reading. Unfortunately, It will not age well, and will become merely humorous over time (this is not to be confused with his very real technological achievements, which may well develop into robust and durable technologies). I have a copy of Kurzweil’s book that preceded The Singularity is Near, namely The Age of Spiritual Machines (published ten years ago in 1999), which is already becoming humorous. Part III, Chapter Nine of The Age of Spiritual Machines, contains his prophecies for 2009, and now it seems that the future is upon us, because it is the year AD 2009 as I write this. Kurzweil predicted that “People typically have at least a dozen computers on and around their bodies.” It is true that many people do carry multiple gadgets with microprocessors, and some of these are linked together via Bluetooth, so this prophecy does not come off too badly. He also notes that “Cables are disappearing” and this is undeniably true.
Kurzweil goes a little off the rails, however, when it comes to matters that touch directly on human consciousness and its expressions such as language. He predicted that, “The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition”, and I think it is safe to say that this is not the case. I don’t want to parse all his predictions, but I need to be specific about a few particularly damning failures. Among the damning failures is the prediction that, “Translating Telephone technology … is commonly used for many language pairs.” Here we step over the line of the competence of technology and the limitations of even the most imaginative engineers. While machine translation is common today for text, everyone knows that it is a joke — quite literally so, as the results can be very funny though not terribly helpful.
Kurzweil gives a decade-by-decade running commentary of predictions. I once had somebody scold me about ridiculing Kurzweil’s predictions, because, I was told, the dates given were intended to indicate the initial dates of a ten year period, which gives him a ten year window to be right, thus kicking all his predictions another ten years down the road. This is the kind of ridiculous debate over pointless predictions that is an utter waste of breath. Predictions can be parsed like this until the end of time; this is precisely why people are always trying to show that Nostradamus predicted something. Add vagueness to ambiguity and you create the deconstructionists’ dream: anything can mean anything.
Just to unearth one more prediction, for 2019 Kurzweil predicted:
“Paper books or documents are rarely used and most learning is conducted through intelligent, simulated software-based teachers.”
Even if we give Kurzweil another ten years, I can guarantee you that, if I am still alive in 2029, that I will still have my personal library, it will probably be bigger than it is now, and I will consult it every day, as I do now. This does not, for me, constitute rarity of use. However, I will readily acknowledge that there is, already today, no need whatever to print textbooks, since knowledge is changing so rapidly and students usually don’t retain their textbooks after they have been used for a class. In situations such as this, it makes much more sense to make the material available on the internet. But even if we don’t bother with textbooks anymore, there will be a continuing role for books. At least, for me there will be a continuing role for books.
Whether you want to take pride in a list of specific predictions, having convinced yourself through a charitable hermeneutic that they have all come true, or whether you would rather it were all forgotten as a great embarrassment along with jetpacks, flying cars, and unisex jumpsuits, this model of futurism will always have a certain novelty value, so I will predict that “laundry list futurism” (like the poor) will always be with us.
There is, however, another kind of futurism, which we may not even want to call futurism, but which does incorporate a vision of the future. This other model of futurism is not about offering a laundry list of predictions, but rather about understanding the big picture, as I have said, both in space and time, i.e., geographically and historically. Here, “seeing the big picture” means having a theory of history that embraces the future as well as the past. This approach is about seeing patterns and understanding how the world works in general terms, and from an understanding of patterns and how the world works, having a general idea of what the future will be like, just as one may have a general idea of what they past was like, even if one cannot jump into a time machine and march with Alexander the Great or listen to Peter Abelard debate.
The big picture in space and time — and the biggest picture is what I have called metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history — is a theory, which if it is to be coherent, consistent, and universally applicable, must be applicable both to the past and the future. Ultimately, such a theory would be a science of time, although we aren’t quite there yet. I hope that, before I die, I can make a substantial contribution in this direction, but I recognize that this is a distant goal.
In the meantime, familiar sciences are engaged in precisely this enterprise, though on a less comprehensive scale. Let me try to explain how this is the case.
When we work in the historical sciences, the scale of time is so great that we must settle for retrodiction, because this is what can be done within one human lifespan, or within the lifespan of a community of researchers engaged in a common research program, but if we could afford to wait for thousands or millions or billions of years we could make predictions about the future. When, on the contrary, we work in the natural sciences as in physics, we must make predictions about the future, because we must create an elaborate apparatus to test our theories, and these did not exist in the past, so retrodiction is as closed to us as prediction is closed to the historical sciences. If we could go back in time with a superconducting supercollider, we could make retrodictions in physics, but at the present stage of technology this time travel would be more difficult than the experiment itself.
We accept the limitations of science that we are forced to accept, perhaps not gladly, but of necessity. What alternatives do we have? If we would have knowledge, we must have knowledge upon the conditions that the world will allow us knowledge, or refuse knowledge altogether. We are confident that our theories of physics apply equally well to the past, even if they cannot be tested in the past, and we are confident that our theories of paleontology would apply to the future if only we could wait long enough for the bones of the present to be fossilized.
In the fullness of time, if industrial-technological civilization continues in existence, the limits of science will be pushed back from the positions they presently occupy, but they will never be eliminated altogether. However, our strictly scientific knowledge can be extrapolated within a more comprehensive philosophical context, in which the resources of logical and linguistic analysis can be brought to bear upon the “problem” of history.
When I first began writing about what I began to call integral history, and which I now call metaphysical history, my aim at that time was to give an exposition of an extended conception of history that made use of the resources both of traditional humanistic narrative history and the emerging scientific historical disciplines, such as genomic resources which have taught us so much about the natural history of our species. I have subsequently continued to expand my expanded conception of history, and this is what I call metaphysical history, elaborated in the context of ecological temporality.
A further extension of the already extended conception of metaphysical history would be a conception of history that sees the big picture by seeing time whole, past, present, and future together as one structure that exhibits laws, regularities, patterns, and, of course, exceptions to all of the same.
This, then, was what I meant when I said that, “Seeing the big picture in both space and time yields a different kind of foresight than the attempt to predict future events.” The kind of foresight I have in mind is an understanding of historical events, both past and future, in a larger theoretical context. It is “foresight” only because it is, as the same time, hindsight. Both the past and the future are comprehended in an adequate theory of history.
I have no desire to produce a laundry list of predictions; I have no desire to say what I think the world will look like in 2019 or 2029 or 2039. I think that most of these predictions are irresponsible, though it may land a prophet on the front page of the National Enquirer. Not all such attempts at prediction, however, are irresponsible from my point of view. I have several times discussed George Friedman’s book The Next 100 Years, which strikes me as a responsible exercise in laundry list futurism. I have also discussed Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100.
Kaku’s book is particularly interesting to me in the present context, because Kaku has a very specific method for his futurism. He has interviewed scientists about the technologies that they are developing now, in the present, and which will become part of our lives in the foreseeable future. I realize now that Kaku’s methodology may be characterized as a constructive futurism: he is immersed in the details of technology, and extrapolating particular, incremental advances and applications. This is a bottom-up approach. What I am suggesting, on the contrary, is a profoundly non-constructive approach to the philosophy of history, a top-down understanding that looks for the largest structures of space and time and regards all details and particulars as fungible and incidental. That is my vision of a theory of history, and I think that such a theory would give a certain degree and kind of foresight into event in the future, but certainly not the same degree and kind of foresight that one might gain from the constructive methods of Kaku and Friedman.
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