3 May 2013
Fourth in a Series on Existential Risk
“The human race’s prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenceless against tigers than they are today, when we have become defenceless against ourselves.” Arnold Toynbee, “Man and Hunger” (Speech to the World Food Congress, 04 January 1963, quoted on the Anthropocene Blog)
Readers, I trust, will be aware of existential risks (as well as global catastrophic risks) since I’ve recently written several recent posts on this topic, including Research Questions on Existential Risk, Six Theses on Existential Risk, Existential Risk Reminder, Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk, Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty, and Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty. The idea of the “Death Event” is likely to be much less familiar, so I will try to sketch out the idea itself and its relationship to existential risk.
The idea of the “death event” is due to philosopher Edith Wyschogrod, and given exposition in her book Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death. Wyschogrod took the title of her book from an aphorism of Wittgenstein’s from 1930: “I once said, perhaps rightly: The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.”
In defining the scope of the “death event” Wyschogrod wrote:
“I shall define the scope of the event to include three characteristic expressions: recent wars which deploy weapons in the interest of maximum destruction of persons, annihilation of persons, through techniques designed for this purpose (for example, famine, scorched earth, deportation), after the aims of war have been achieved or without reference to war, and the creation of death-worlds, a new and unique form of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life simulating imagined conditions of death, conferring upon their inhabitants the status of the living dead.”
Edith Wyschogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985, p. 15.
Wyschogrod’s conception of the “death world,” also given exposition in the text, is introduced in conscious contradistinction to the late Husserlian conception of the “Lifeworld” (Lebenswelt). (Cf. Chapter 1, Kingdoms of Death) I cannot do justice to Wyschogrod’s excellent book in a few quotes, so I will simply encourage the reader to look up the book for himself, but I will give a couple more quotes to locate the “death event” in relation to the larger picture of our civilization. Wyschogrod sees a relation between the “death event” and the peculiar character of industrial-technological civilization:
“The procedures and instruments of death which depend upon the quantification of the qualitied world are innovations deriving from technological society and, to that extent, extend its point of view.”
Op. cit., p. 25
“…the world of the camps is both distinct from and tied to technological society, so too the nuclear void is embedded in the matrix of technological society but not related to it in simple cause and effect fashion.”
Op. cit., p. 29
Perhaps at some future time I will consider Wyschogrod’s “death event” thesis in relation to what I have called Agriculture and the Macabre, which is the particular relationship between agricultural civilization and death, but whether or not the reader agrees with me or not (or with Wyschogrod, for that matter) I will acknowledge without hesitation that the character of the macabre in agricultural civilization is very different from the place of the death event and the death world in industrial-technological civilization.
Wyschogrod focuses on death camps and industrialized warfare, but of course what shocked the world more than anything were the nuclear bombs that ended the war. A considerable bibliography could be devoted to the books exclusively devoted to the anguished reflection that followed the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of them written by and about the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and made the bomb possible. Many of the most eminent philosophers of the time immediately began to think about the consequences — both contemporaneously and for the longer term human future — of human beings being in possession of nuclear weapons.
Bertrand Russell wrote two books on the possibility of nuclear war, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959) and Has Man a Future? (1961) Recently in Bertrand Russell as Futurist I discussed Russell’s views on the need for world government in order to prevent the annihilation of human life due to nuclear weapons — a view shared by Albert Einstein.
In 1958 Karl Jaspers published Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen, later translated into English as The Future of Mankind. What all of these works have in common is struggling with what Jaspers called “the new fact.” Of this new fact Jaspers wrote:
“The atom bomb of today is a fact novel in essence, for it leads mankind to the brink of self-destruction.”
Karl Jaspers, The Future of Mankind, Chap. I, p. 1
“the atom bomb is today the greatest of all menaces to the future of mankind… The possible reality which we must henceforth reckon with — and reckon with, at the increasing pace of developments, in the near future — is no longer a fictitious end of the world. It is no world’s end at all, but the extinction of life on the surface of the planet.”
Op. cit., p. 4
The fact that fear of nuclear Armageddon was felt viscerally as an all-too-real possibility for our world points to the fact that this was not merely the appearance of a new idea in human history — new ideas appear every day — but a fundamental shift in feeling. When the awful reality of the Second World War, which saw man-made mass death on an unprecedented scale, received its finale in the form of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we had acquired a new object for our instinctual fear of annihilation.
The larger meaning of the “death event” — testified not only in Edith Wyschogrod’s explicit formulation, but also in the work of Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, and a hundred others — is that of formal, reflexive consciousness of anthropogenic existential risk. We not only know that we are vulnerable to existential risk, we also know that we know. It is this formal, reflexive self-consciousness of existential risk that is the differentia between human history before the “death event” and human history after the “death event.” The “death event” was a crystallizing event, a particular moment in history that was a watershed for human suffering that placed that suffering in the naturalistic context.
Earlier catastrophes in human experience did not have this character — or, if they did have this character for a few individuals who realized the larger meaning of events, this formal, reflexive consciousness of human vulnerability did not achieve general recognition. Partly this was a consequence of the non-naturalistic and teleological assumptions that were integral with the outlook of earlier epochs of human civilization, before science made a naturalistic conception of the world entire conceivable. If one believes that a supernatural force will intervene to continue to maintain human beings in existence, there is no reason to be concerned with the possibility of human extinction.
Prior to industrial-technological civilization (made possible by the scientific revolution, which is particularly relevant in this context), the “end of the world” could only be understood in eschatological terms because eschatologies derived from theological cosmogonies were the only “big picture” accounts of the cosmos that had been formulated and which had achieved any degree of currency. (There have always been non-theological philosophical cosmogonies, but these have remained marginal throughout human history.)
The situation in regard to “big picture” conceptions of the world is closely parallel to that of biology prior to Darwin’s theory of natural selection: there were no strictly biological theories of biology prior to Darwin, only theological theories that were employed to “explain” biological facts. With no alternative to a theological account of biology, it is to be expected that this sole point of view was the universal point of reference, just as where there is no alternative to the theological account of history, this theological account is the sole point of reference in history.
In regard to traditional eschatologies, it would be just as apposite to point out that a supernatural agent might intervene to bring about the end of civilization or the extinction of all human beings (in contradistinction to supernatural interventions intended to be to our benefit), regardless of all human efforts made to preserve themselves and their civilization in existence. The point here is that once we recognize the efficacy of supernatural agents in human history, human agency in shaping the human future cannot be assumed, and in fact the idea of “destiny” (especially in the form of predestination) may come to prevail over conceptions of the future that allow a greater scope to human agency. This is why, in my post The Naturalistic Conception of History, I defined naturalism as “non-human non-agency,” i.e., the absence of supernatural agency.
To formulate this from the opposite point of view, we could say that it was only the essentially naturalistic assumptions of our own time, assumptions built into the structure of industrial-technological civilization (because it is dependent upon science, and science cannot systematically expand in the way that science has expanded in recent history without the working philosophical presupposition of methodological naturalism), that made it possible for human beings to understand that no deus ex machina was going to emerge at the end of the human drama to save us in spite of our failure to secure our own future.
Once human beings realized with fearful clarity that they possessed the power to annihilate civilization and possibly also all human life, it is only a small step from this consciousness of human vulnerability to come to a similar consciousness of human vulnerability whether or not the existential threat is anthropogenic or non-anthropogenic. A sufficient number of ill-advised and irreversible choices (choices that result in action or inaction, as the case may be) could mean the extinction of human beings, or the reduction of human activity to a level of insignificance. That is what we now know to be the case, and it shifts a heavy burden of responsibility onto human beings for their own future — a burden that had once been carried on the shoulders of gods.
It is only in the past few decades of contemporary science that we have begun to look at the long antiquity of man with the thought of our existential vulnerability in mind, retrospectively placing our fingers at the nodal points of our past, for there have been many times when we might have all been extirpated before any of the many thresholds of development that have brought us to our present state at which we can adequately conceptualize our existential risk came about.
In this way, existential risk mitigation efforts not only provide a kind of clarity in conceptualizing the human future, especially in so far as we abide by the moral imperatives imposed by existential risk, but also by giving us a novel perspective on the human past.
One of the guiding principles of contemporary thought on existential risk is to focus on those risks that human beings have no record of surviving. In order to make good on this principle, we need to understand what existential risks human beings have survived in the past, and to this end we must acquire a better knowledge of human evolution in a cosmological context, which is, in a sense, the particular concern of astrobiology.
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Grand Strategy and Existential Risk: A Series:
4. Existential Risk and the Death Event
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27 April 2013
Fusion: nature got there first
Fusion came very early in the history of the universe, and consciousness came very late in the history of the universe — this pair of natural technologies come so early and so late, respectively, that one could say that they “bookend” cosmological history as the Alpha and Omega of cosmic evolution.
After an initial period of big bang nucleosynthesis in the first twenty minutes of the life of the cosmos, the universe did little in the way of producing more baryonic matter until gravity took over, and the baryonic matter condensed into early stars. Stars began to “light up” about 100 million years after the big bang, which in cosmological terms is not a terribly long time. This “lighting up” of the stars has been said to mark the advent of the stelliferous era.
In the almost 14 billion years of the universe’s history, stars have been shining for all but the first 100 million years — the vast majority of the age of the universe. What this means is that fusion has been around for the vast majority of the history of the universe. Nature innovated fusion technology early on, and fusion has continued to be central to the natural processes of the universe up to the present time and for the foreseeable future.
It has been said that human beings are a solar species. I wrote about this in my post Human Beings: A Solar Species. To say that human beings are a solar species is to say that we are a species dependent upon fusion. All life, and not only our species, is dependent upon the energy generated by fusion, so that fusion is responsible for all (or almost all) subsequent emergent complexity.
Fusion is a basic technology of the universe, a conditio sine qua non of cosmological order and its history. As such, fusion is a robust and durable technology proved over billions of years. Fusion as a natural source of energy is achieved through gravitational containment, and while human technology is not yet in a position to exploit the technology of gravitational containment, we have a very clear idea of its mechanism, as we have sophisticated physical theories to account for it. In other words, we have a good understanding of a technology that is one of the early building blocks of the universe.
Other technologies of nature
It is interesting, in this context, to consider other natural technologies and their place in cosmological natural history. We know, for example, from a 1972 discovery at Gabon, Africa, that fission, like fusion, is a natural technology. At Oklo in Gabon, about 1.7 billion years ago, just the right elements came together with a critical mass of fissionables to produce self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions.
Fissionables are relatively rare, and we know that these heavier elements are created by supernovae, so that natural fission reactors cannot come about until after (at very minimum) generation III stars have gone supernovae and flung their radioactive remnants into the universe. The date of the natural reactor at Gabon makes it quite old, but still not half as old as the earth itself, and nowhere nearly as old as fusion. It has been proposed that there was a “paleo-reactor” on Mars in the distant past, and it is interesting to speculate how widely spread, or how rare, fission technology is in the universe. We will not know until we explore in detail.
Another natural technology of note is life itself. Current biological thought suggests that life emerged on earth not long after the planet began to cool. The Earth is thought to be about 4.54 billion years old, and life may have arisen as much as 3.9 billion years ago. In other words, the Earth has hosted life for much longer than its initial sterility. The earth has, in turn, existed for almost a third as long as the entire universe, so that means that life (at very least on earth, if nowhere else) has been around for a quarter of the age of the known universe. That makes life a well-established and robust natural technology.
A recent paper, Life Before Earth by Alexei A. Sharov and Richard Gordon, suggests that if the complexity of life is extrapolated backward in time we must posit an origin of life at about 9.7 billion years ago, which is almost twice as old as the earth, which suggests in turn that earth was “seeded” with life as soon as its was cool enough to support life, rather than independently arising on Earth. While this thesis is, in my judgment, rather tenuous, its cannot be dismissed out of hand, and if it is correct, it shows life to be an even longer-lived and more durable technology than we now suspect it to be.
Just as we are curious if there have been other naturally occurring fission reactors in the universe, we are intensely interested in the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe: the robust and durable technology of life on earth suggests that this technology may well be replicated elsewhere, as pervasive in the universe, where conditions are right, as fusion technology is pervasive in the universe. The existence of life elsewhere is the cosmos is one of the great scientific questions of our time.
Consciousness: nature got there first, too
In contradistinction to fusion, the technology of consciousness arrives late in the history of the universe. While there were likely rudimentary forms of consciousness prior to the particular forms of mammalian consciousness familiar to us both in ourselves and in the other mammals with whom we often share our lives, and mammalian consciousness is a robust natural technology about 160 million years old (interestingly, not so much more distant from the present as the lighting up of stars was distant from big bang), the intelligent, self-reflective consciousness of human beings seems to be even younger than the bodies of anatomically modern human beings.
The late emergence of consciousness in the history of the universe is interesting in so far as it demonstrates that the universe, even at its present advanced age, is still capable of technological innovation.
In regard to consciousness, we are closing in on the mechanisms of the brain that enable the emergence of consciousness from a material substrate, but, unlike the case with fusion, we have no idea whatsoever what consciousness is and have no theory to account for it. Of course I am aware that many will disagree with me on this — even, if not especially, those scientifically-oriented readers who found themselves nodding over what I wrote above about fusion, and who have convinced themselves of the truth of some reductivist or eliminativist theory of consciousness.
Hugo de Garis, who appeared in the film about Ray Kurzweil, Transcendent Man, said in an interview (Interview with Hugo de Garis: Approaches to AI, Neuroscience, Engineering, Intelligence Theory, Cyborgs interviewed, filmed and edited by Adam A. Ford) that, “…we have ourselves as the existence proof that nature has found a way to [build] a conscious, intelligent creature.” (We could, in the same spirit, say that stars are the existence proof of fusion energy.) This is a perfect evocation of the weak anthropic principle as applied to consciousness and intelligence: we’re here, and we’re conscious, therefore consciousness is possible and the universe is consistent with the emergence of conscious life.
The possibility of conscious knowledge of consciousness
These natural technologies are not just randomly jumbled together, but are in fact closely related. The fusion technology of stars enabled energy production that was exploited by life, which latter grew in complexity until it made possible the even more subtle and complex technology of conscious intelligence. The earliest of these technologies, fusion, we understand well; the latest of these technologies, not surprisingly, still eludes us.
And in saying that a full understanding of consciousness still eludes us, what we are saying is that consciousness so far understands the natural technologies that made itself possible, but it does not yet understand itself in the same way. We may yet attain the full measure of reflexive self-awareness of consciousness when consciousness knows itself in the same way that it understands fusion technology. This will take time, since, as we have noted, consciousness is a youthful technology of nature.
Consciousness may, too, someday become as pervasive in the universe as fusion. Indeed, the fact that we know, that we can see, that fusion is operating everywhere in the known universe, is the first precondition of life, and if life too has been made pervasive by pervasive fusion energy sources, the technology of life may, in the fullness of time, give rise to the technology of conscious intelligence. But consciousness is a late-comer in cosmological order, and has not yet shown itself to be a technology of nature as robust and as durable as fusion. Only the test of time can demonstrate this.
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23 April 2013
In my post Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty I cited Frank Knight’s distinction between risk and certainty and attempted to apply this to the idea of existential risk. I suggested that discussions of existential risk ought to distinguish between existential risk (sensu stricto) and existential uncertainty.
In Knight’s now-classic work Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Frank Knight actually made a threefold distinction in the kinds of probabilities that face the entrepreneur:
1. A priori probability. Absolutely homogeneous classification of instances completely identical except for really indeterminate factors. This judgment of probability is on the same logical plane as the propositions of mathematics (which also may be viewed, and are viewed by the writer, as “ultimately” inductions from experience).
2. Statistical probability. Empirical evaluation of the frequency of association between predicates, not analyzable into varying combinations of equally probable alternatives. It must be emphasized that any high degree of confidence that the proportions found in the past will hold in the future is still based on an a priori judgment of indeterminateness. Two complications are to be kept separate: first, the impossibility of eliminating all factors not really indeterminate; and, second, the impossibility of enumerating the equally probable alternatives involved and determining their mode of combination so as to evaluate the probability by a priori calculation. The main distinguishing characteristic of this type is that it rests on an empirical classification of instances.
3. Estimates. The distinction here is that there is no valid basis of any kind for classifying instances. This form of probability is involved in the greatest logical difficulties of all, and no very satisfactory discussion of it can be given, but its distinction from the other types must be emphasized and some of its complicated relations indicated.
Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Chap. VII
At the end of the chapter Knight finally made his point fully explicit:
It is this third type of probability or uncertainty which has been neglected in economic theory, and which we propose to put in its rightful place. As we have repeatedly pointed out, an uncertainty which can by any method be reduced to an objective, quantitatively determinate probability, can be reduced to complete certainty by grouping cases. The business world has evolved several organization devices for effectuating this consolidation, with the result that when the technique of business organization is fairly developed, measurable uncertainties do not introduce into business any uncertainty whatever. Later in our study we shall glance hurriedly at some of these organization expedients, which are the only economic effect of uncertainty in the probability sense; but the present and more important task is to follow out the consequences of that higher form of uncertainty not susceptible to measurement and hence to elimination. It is this true uncertainty which by preventing the theoretically perfect outworking of the tendencies of competition gives the characteristic form of “enterprise” to economic organization as a whole and accounts for the peculiar income of the entrepreneur.
Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Chap. VII
Knight’s distinction between risk and uncertainty — between probabilities that can be calculated, managed, and insured against and probabilities that cannot be calculated and therefore cannot be managed or insured against — continues to be taught in business and economics today. (It is a distinction closely parallel to Rumsfeld’s distinction between known unknowns and unknown unknowns, though worked out in considerably greater detail and sophistication.) Knight’s slightly more subtle threefold distinction among probabilities might be characterized as a tripartite distinction between certainty, risk, and uncertainty.
Knight acknowledges, in his account of statistical probability, i.e., risk, that there are at least two complications:
1. that of eliminating all truly indeterminate features, and…
2. the impossibility of enumerating the equally probable alternatives involved
Knight’s hedged account of risk obliquely acknowledges the gray area that lies between risk and uncertainty — a gray area that can be enlarged in favor of risk as our knowledge improves, or which can be enlarged in favor of uncertainty as additional complicating favors enter into our calculation of risk and render our knowledge less effective and our uncertainty all the greater. That is to say, the line between risk and uncertainty is unclear, and it can move, which makes it doubly ambiguous.
These hedges are important qualifications to make, because we all know from real-life experience that additional complicating factors always enter into actual risks. We may try to insure ourselves, and therefore to secure our interests against risk, but fine print in the insurance contract may deny us a settlement, or we may have forgotten to pay our premiums, or a thousand other things might go wrong between our careful planning and the actual events of life that so often preempt our planning and force us to deal with the unexpected with insufficient preparation. As Bobby Burns put it, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!”
Such consideration span the entire universe from field mice to galaxies. A coldly rational assessment of risk can be made, and resources can be expended to mitigate risk to the extent calculated, but not only are the limits to our knowledge, but we don’t know where the limits to our knowledge lie. Indeterminate features can creep into our calculation and equally probable alternatives could be in play without our even being aware of the fact.
Some events that pose existential risks or global catastrophic risks can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy, and some cannot. Even about those risks that seem predictable to a high degree of accuracy — say, the life of the sun, which can be predicted on the basis of our knowledge of cosmology, and which thereby would seem to give us some knowledge of how long a time we have on earth to lay our schemes — admit of indeterminate elements and equally probably scenarios. The end of the earth seems a long way off, if the earth lasts almost as long as the sun, and putting our existential risk far in the future seems to diminish the threat.
There is a famous quote from Frank Ramsey (who died tragically young in a mountain climbing accident, as might happen to anyone, anytime) that is relevant here, both economically and philosophically:
My picture of the world is drawn in perspective and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as three-penny bits. I don’t really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long time off still and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing.
From a paper read to the Apostles, a Cambridge discussion society (1925). In ‘The Foundations of Mathematics’ (1925), collected in Frank Plumpton Ramsey and D. H. Mellor (ed.), Philosophical Papers (1990), Epilogue, 249
Despite Ramsey having referred (in another context) to the “Bolshevik menace” of Brouwer and Weyl, it has been said that Ramsey became a constructivist not long before he died. This conversion should not surprise us, given Ramsey’s Protagorean profession in his passage.
Protagoras famously said that Man is the measure of all things, of those things that are, that they are, and of those things that are not, that they are not. (πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἐστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν.) Protagoras may be counted as the earliest of proto-constructivists, of which company Kant and Poincaré may be considered the most famous.
In the passage quoted above, Ramsey is essentially saying in a modern idiom that man is the measure of all things, even of time and space — that man is the measure of the farthest reaches of time and space, and in so far as these distant prospects of human experience are inaccessible, they are irrelevant. Ramsey is important in his respect because of his consciously chosen anthropocentrism. In a post-Copernican age, this is significant. We are all, of course, familiar with the advocates of the anthropic cosmological principle, and their implicit anthropocentrism, but Ramsey gives us a slightly different perspective on anthropocentrism. Ramsey essentially brings constructivism to our moral life, and in so doing suggests that the moral imperatives posed by existential risk can be safely ignored for the time being.
What Ramsey is saying here is that we can make a definite calculation of the lives of the stars — and also the expected life of our sun — and that we can insure against this risk, but that the risk lies so far in the future that its present value is practically nil. In other words, the eventual burning out of the sun is a risk and not an uncertainty. On the contrary, it is not an uncertainty at all, but a certainty. Just as the finite amount of oil on Earth must eventually come to an end, the finite sun must also come to an end.
What our growing knowledge of cosmology is teaching us is that we are not isolated from the wider universe. Events on a cosmic scale have influenced the development of life on earth, and may well be responsible for our development as a species. If the earth had not been hit by an asteroid or comet about 65 million years ago, mammals may never have developed as they did, and we would not exist. And if our solar system did not bob up and down through the galactic plane of the Milky Way, resulting in geophysical rhythms from the the gravitational interaction with the rest of the galaxy, a distant asteroid of comet might not have been dislodged from its stable orbit and sent careening toward earth.
Given our connection with the wider universe, and our vulnerability to its convulsions, what we know about our local risks (which is not nearly enough, as recent unpredicted episodes have shown us) is not enough to make a calculation of our vulnerability. What appears superficially to be a calculable risk has uncertainty injected back into it by the cosmological context in which all astronomical events take place.
If the death of the sun were the only existential risk against which we needed to insure ourselves, we would not need to be in any hurry about existential risk mitigation, because we would have literally millions of years to build a spacefaring civilization and thus to insure ourselves against that predictable catastrophe. But in our violent universe (as Nigel Calder called it) scarcely a million years goes by without some cosmic catastrophe occurring, and we don’t know when then next one will arrive.
Carl Sagan rightly pointed out that an event that is unlikely to happen in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred millions years:
The Earth is a lovely and more or less placid place. Things change, but slowly. We can lead a full life and never personally encounter a natural disaster more violent than a storm. And so we become complacent, relaxed, unconcerned. But in the history of Nature, the record is clear. Worlds have been devastated. Even we humans have achieved the dubious technical distinction of being able to make our own disasters, both intentional and inadvertent. On the landscapes of other planets where the records of the past have been preserved, there is abundant evidence of major catastrophes. It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million.
Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter IV, “Heaven and Hell”
Perhaps in one of his most quoted lines, Sagan said that we are “star stuff,” and certainly this is true. However, the corollary of this inspiring thought is that our star stuff is subject to the natural forces that shape the destinies of stars, and in shaping the destiny of stars, shape the destiny of men who live on planets orbiting stars.
Understanding ourselves as “star stuff” entails understanding ourselves as living in a dangerous universe replete with devouring black holes, gamma ray bursts, supernovae, and other cataclysms almost beyond the capacity of human beings to conceive.
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21 April 2013
How long does a weapons system last?
Recently I had a comment on my post The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier which started me thinking about the life span of weapons system. This is a surprisingly interesting way to think about weapons systems, which contextualizes them within the civilizations that design and build weapons systems.
I have approached this contextualization of weapons systems previously in several posts, as in The Nature of Viking Power Projection and The Byzantine Superweapon. A great many technological innovations and ideological assumptions are built into sophisticated weapons systems, and the most sophisticated among them require an entire civilization to design, build, and field them.
Contextualization can be take diachronically of synchroncially. If we contextualize a weapons system diachronically, we understand it in terms of its historical ancestors and successors, thinking in terms of the evolution of the weapons system in parallel to the socioeconomic system that makes it possible. If we contextualize a weapons system synchronically, we understand it in terms of the infrastructure and institutions (the technological and doctrinal context) that jointly make that weapons system possible, and make it what it is when brought to bear in armed conflict.
The life span of a weapons system is thus a diachronic historical inquiry, but it is only through a synchronic understanding that we see how the elements of a contemporary weapons system stands in relation not only to military function it is supposed to serve, but also in relation to the wider society and designs, builds, and operates the weapons system in question. As in all historical inquiry, the diachronic and synchronic perspectives are bound up in each other. Moreover, there is a parallel synchronic inquiry that would concern itself with the scope of application of a weapons system. This is a crucial and often-overlooked question, which we find we must asked ourselves when a political entity possesses a weapons system that it does not use when engaged in armed conflict. This is another sense of the “lifespan” of a weapons system.
To clarify our terminology we need to indulge in a little informal philosophical logic, since in this context the generality of our assertions will make an important difference. We have to be able to distinguish not only between weapons systems but also the fine gradations in the generations of weapons systems. The F-16 block 60 fighter aircraft operated by the UAE are a more advanced fighter aircraft than the F-16 block 50/52 operated by most USAF squadrons, but we would only distinguish them in a very fine-grained account of weapons systems.
The various “block” upgrades I will count as the “same” weapons systems, even when they have different capabilities, while I will count fourth generation fighter aircraft and fifth generation fighter aircraft as distinct weapons systems. Therefore the F-16 and the F-22 will count as different weapons systems. However, at a higher level of generality, the F-16 and the F-22, as both being supersonic fighter jets are, in a sense, the “same” weapons system. At an even higher level of generality, all fighter aircraft, from the Sopwith Camel to the F-22 are essentially the same weapons system: an aircraft mounting missile weapons to be employed in air-to-air or air-to-ground combat.
All of these distinctions are useful, and we have to keep them in mind so that we avoid comparing apples to oranges and therefore avoid vitiating our point. Furthermore, we need to distinction between what I will call perennial weapons systems, sempiternal weapons systems, and properties of weapons systems.
● perennial weapons systems are weapons systems based on perennial technologies. A knife is a perennial weapons system. There will always be knives, pistols, and rifles. These are now perennial weapons systems. Similarly, there will always be missile weapons of some type, but this is already a move to a higher level of generality, since “missile weapons of some type” include pistols and rifles (and knives, too, when thrown). It is at least arguable that a perennial weapon is not really a weapons system, since perennial weapons in their stark simplicity may be found in isolation from a doctrinal or technological context, but in this case I don’t think that this distinction matters all that much, so I will allow myself the leeway to call perennial weapons “perennial weapons systems.” (Also note that the generalization of a the idea of a weapons system is distinct from the idea of perennial weapons systems.)
● sempiternal weapons systems are weapons systems that in their complexity transcend the simplicity and directness of perennial weapons systems. There is no clear dividing line between perennial weapons systems and sempiternal weapons systems, but I introduce the term “sempiternal” to imply that they are clearly invented at some point in time and, once invented, they are here to stay. It would be difficult to say at what time knives were invented, so knives are clearly perennial weapons systems — it is possible that a knife was the first stone tool produced by human ancestors. I count general categories of weapons systems (the highest level of generality mentioned above, that conflates the Sopwith Camel and the F-22) as sempiternal weapons systems: ships purpose-built for warfare, fixed wing fighter aircraft, helicopters, tanks, and so on. Once the idea of fighting from a flying platform was implemented, it is going to be with us as long as our civilization lasts. That makes such ideas and their implementations (which change radically over time) sempiternal.
● properties of weapons systems are distinct from general kinds of weapons systems, as in sempiternal weapons systems. Under a sufficiently general conception of a weapons system, Hittite chariot archers, Mongol horse archers, main battle tanks, aircraft carriers, and helicopter gunships all count as mobile fire weapons systems. Yet mobile fire is not itself a weapons system, but a property of some weapons system, a property that might be possessed to a greater or a lesser degree. An aircraft carrier is a mobile fire weapons system, but is much less mobile and much less maneuverable than a helicopter gunship. An arrow, a spear, and a knife when thrown are all examples of missile weapons; any of these missile weapons when employed from a mobile platform constitute mobile fire weapons systems, just as an Apache helicopter gunship constitutes a mobile fire weapons system, but all of these weapons systems are profoundly different each from the other.
Given these distinctions, it should be obvious that perennial weapons systems, sempiternal weapons systems, and properties of weapons systems have no life span: once they are introduced, they are with us forever. If some treaty establishes their abolition, we will still have the idea that such a thing is possible, and if it becomes seen as militarily necessary, they will be built regardless of treaties or abolition.
This is not true, however, at lower levels of generality than that contemplated by the bare idea of sempiternal weapons systems. There will always be missile weapons, but this is a highly general concept of a weapons system. In the same way that there will always be missile weapons, there will always be ships and submersibles, and there will always be aircraft. While there will always be fighter aircraft, particular generations of fighter aircraft become obsolete. No one would build a Sopwith Camel today for combat, although they might build one as a project of historical reconstruction (i.e., as an exercise in experimental archaeology).
What applies to generations of fighter aircraft also applies to generations of naval technologies. To take one example, no more ships of the line are built for contemporary navies (except to train cadets). In other words, the ship of the line, with multiple decks and multiple masts, optimized to fire the greatest number of cannon as broadsides against other ships of the line, is obsolete, were it was once the state of the art in naval architecture. The ship of the line had a definite life span, and that life span came to an end more than a century ago.
This post began as a response to my post on The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier, in which I speculated on the lifespan of fixed wing aircraft carriers and explicitly stated that no weapons systems will last forever; the aircraft carrier will eventually go the way of the ship of the line, but not until something better comes along. A comment was recently made that aircraft carriers may last another hundred years on the earth’s oceans, and I do not dispute this. Nevertheless, it is still a matter of time.
With the above distinctions in mind, I will revise this a bit, and assert instead that the aircraft carrier simpliciter is a sempiternal weapons system, and I acknowledged this implicitly in my earlier post when I stated that there will be helicopter carriers in the future, which are a kind of aircraft carrier, but once fixed wing hypersonic aircraft become a reality, and it is cheaper and more effective to base fighter aircraft deep within the home territory of a nation-state, given that hypersonic aircraft could show up anywhere in the world in less than an hour, then fixed wing aircraft carriers will become obsolete. But helicopters will continued to be needed on the battlefield, and they cannot be made hypersonic, so there will be a need for helicopter carriers beyond the time when fixed wing aircraft carriers have become obsolete. Also, since I have predicted that helicopter gunships have not yet been fully exploited on the battlefield, the future of helicopter carriers is bright; helicopters will be needed more than ever on the future battlefield.
The fixed wing aircraft carrier is not the only high technology weapons system the obsolescence of which can be projected. It could be argued that the life span of the land-based ICBM is essentially expired, given that precision weapons system and guidance systems have effectively rendered ICBM silos vulnerable. Even if no nation-state has chosen to build nuclear-tipped hypersonic precision-guided cruise missiles with the intent of neutralizing a ground-based ICBM threat, this is nevertheless clearly a weapons system that is within the capability of the advanced industrialized nation-states to build at the present time. (We have the idea of such a weapons system, and the idea cannot be banned or “unthought.”) Effective obsolescence, then, may be distinguished from obsolescence in fact.
On a level of greater generality — greater even than the generalization of all weapons systems — and therefore of even greater potential theoretical interest, it may be that in our own time that symmetrical conflict between peer or near-peer military powers has become obsolete. I don’t assert this with any dogmatic degree of confidence, and the coming century may yet see a peer-to-peer conflict in the Pacific if China is able to tool its industrial plant to the point of producing a rival carrier fleet to that of the US. Nevertheless, it is at least possible that peer-to-peer conflict has disappeared from the world, to be replaced by chronic, low-level insurgency and asymmetrical operations.
If we rigorously limited ourselves to a single level of generality (again, avoiding the comparison and apples and oranges) we could probably calculate for a given weapons system an average lifespan. If we could do this (i.e., if someone took the time to do this in a rigorous way) I will make a prediction about the lifespan of weapons systems:
Prediction: even as perennial weapons systems endure in their usefulness, the lifespan of large, technologically sophisticated weapons systems will gradually shrink in length unless industrial-technological civilization reaches a (near-)permanent plateau of development, spelling the end of the technological innovation that drives weapons systems development.
The ship of the line arguably endured for centuries as a viable weapons system. The ICBM seems to have lasted only about 50 years as a viable weapons system. Some high technology weapons system seem to be obsolete as soon as they are designed and being prepared for actual use. The most notorious examples of this would include the XM2001 Crusader self-propelled howitzer and the M247 Sergeant York self-propelled anti-aircraft gun.
The same forces that drive industrial-technological civilization forward — science creating technology engineered into industries creating new tools for science — also drive industrialized warfare forward, and as technology improves exponentially, weapons systems must also improve exponentially. This means shorter lifespans for the most advanced technological weapons systems, even as perennial weapons systems retain their efficacy in ongoing asymmetrical conflicts in which the full force of industrialized warfare cannot be brought to bear in any meaningful way.
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16 April 2013
The Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China has just released a white paper on China’s military posture, which can be read in its entirety online: The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces. This document is remarkable not for its insights into Chinese strategic thinking or its application of Sun Tzu’s philosophy of war or even “strategy with Chinese characteristics” but only for its resemblance to military white papers from western nation-states, which idiom (and acronyms) it has thoroughly adopted.
This use of the idiom of contemporary western military professionalism is doubly interesting, since public statements of the Chinese government often continue to be jargon-laden pieces of communist theory — sometimes to the point of impenetrability. Some time ago in What is Strategic Trust? I mentioned an article in Foreign Policy by Isaac Stone Fish, Hu Jintao on China losing the culture wars, which very effectively poked fun at the irony of the Chinese leader’s formulaic use of communist nostrums in the attempt to urge his fellow Chinese to improve the quality of their cultural production.
It is precisely this absurd communist jargon that is missing from the just released report The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces. Instead, the report indulges in the western parallel to this: the absurd jargon of western bureaucratic military jargon and acronyms. There is a pattern here of rigidly formulaic thinking. Of course, such patterns are to be found in the official documents of all nation-states, but the question is whether it is believed by those who use this language, or whether such language is used merely out of a misplaced sense of bureaucratic necessity.
It was interesting to note that the report mentions the “three evil forces” which have been a talking point for the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and I recall when I last wrote about this I remarked on how the press releases of the SCO read like those of any western military exercise. And while the report mentions the three evil forces of “terrorism, separatism and extremism,” Tibet and Xinjiang, where the Chinese are most likely to encounter these forces, are only mentioned peripherally in this report (in relation to rivers and schools in the section titled “Participating in National Development”), as the Diaoyu Islands (which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands) are mentioned only once.
At the same time that the Chinese were releasing their official version of China’s military posture, Focus Taiwan published a short piece, China yet to deploy 094 sub, JL-2 & DF-41 missiles: security head, mostly about China’s failures to fulfill its military ambitions for weapons systems commensurate with the technologically advanced weapons systems of western nation-states. The article was concerned with the trouble China continues to have with their latest submarines and ICBMs.
It is easy to focus on Chinese ambitions to join the club of nation-states operating aircraft carriers or fifth generation fighters, but it is also important to recall that China has had difficulty in tooling its industries to design and build world-class weapons systems. The Chinese have long had difficulty building missile boats (as with the above-noted difficulties with the 094 Jin-Class submarine and the JL-2 ballistic missile), for example.
The Chinese still buy the jet engines for the most sophisticated fighter jets from Russia, which despite its decrepit communist economy was able to create and sustain an industrial plant nearly equal to that of western powers during the Cold War (including supersonic jet turbines and missile boats). This came at a price for the Soviet Union, of course, and it would come at a price for China. So is it the case that the Chinese are unwilling to pay the price for a world-class defense industry, or that they would be willing be to pay the price, but are simply unable, as yet, to design and build the hardware? It would take a China specialist to give a definitive answer to this question, but it is a crucial question, because to answer this question would be to determine whether China’s military posture is voluntary or involuntary.
If China’s present military posture really is voluntary, that means that China’s leadership really does believe in their own “peaceful rise” and in “strategic trust.” If, however, China’s present military posture is involuntary, forced upon it by circumstances beyond the control of China’s leadership, then that means that “peaceful rise” and “strategic trust” really are the formulaic platitudes that they appear to be. We must be prepared to entertain either of these hypotheses, as, at present, they are empirically equivalent theories.
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13 April 2013
Now that I am home, and seated at my familiar desk, I would like to be able to make some broad and striking generalizations about Uruguay, having spent a week and day there, and visited some four locations. I would like to, but I feel so tired from the series of flights — notwithstanding that I slept on the plane, since it was “airplane seat sleep” and not the real thing — that it would be incautious and inadvisable for me to attempt such generalizations with a fatigued mind (especially in view of the role played by the embodiment of mind).
Take what follows, then, not as hasty and unsupportable generalizations about a country I hardly know, but as spontaneous comments regarding memorable impressions I have retained.
The Red Earth of Uruguay
Upon flying in to Montevideo, I immediately noticed that the unpaved roads were red. Much of the earth of Uruguay is red, as I saw later in the unpaved country lanes of the rural interior.
The red earth of Uruguay shows itself, too, in the Rio de la Plata, which is a coffee-colored sea stirred by the perpetual winds (see below), which presumably dredge up this red earth from the bottom of the river mouth.
The only thing that I can think to say against Uruguay is that the wind seems to blow often, and at times quite harshly. Our hosts at the Estancia Tierra Santa mentioned the wind, and it woke me up once in the night while I was there. Later, on the Montevideo waterfront, the wind whipped up the ocean into a brown, muddy color topped by whitecaps.
The people of Uruguay appear to be modestly healthy, wealthy, and happy. But it is more than that. No where else I have encountered a people who so exude a sense of well being and of living a life mostly free of stress.
At a time in history when we hear so much about “failed states” it is a pleasant surprise to see a nation-state that really works, and this is the overwhelming impression that I take away from Uruguay: this is a country that functions well.
The skeptical, or statisticians, could no doubt cite many findings to the contrary. Certainly in the US and Western Europe, people are wealthier; in some lands overall health may be better, while in other lands, happiness may be greater. Bhutan, famously, tries to measure its own gross national happiness. The amazing correspondence of Uruguay is to bring together all three of these in a modest and — I suspect precisely due to this modesty — in a sustainable way of life. I salute the Uruguayans for their admirably sane society.
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12 April 2013
For my last day in Montevideo I revisited several of the sights that I passed last night in my four hour after dark walking tour of the city center and the old town (cf. Montevideo by Night). When I first arrived in Montevideo I was surprised how empty the waterfront area was, and then when I was first here in the evening I found it packed with people. When I walked in the center and the historical city last night, the area was really dead, but now during the business day it is quite busy. Where you go in Montevideo at what time of day matters. Of course, that is true of all cities, but once has to learn where and when the locals turn out to make use of their infrastructure.
There is a lot of interesting street art in Montevideo. I posted some pictures of this on Tumblr. I noticed that the painting above repeats some themes of a sculpture by Carlos Páez Vilaró, which is at the artist’s museum at Casapueblo (and in the photograph below with my sister). It is not unusual to see powerful themes of “high art” (whatever that is) repeated in vernacular art. In fact, it’s not unusual to see any theme repeated in vernacular art, but one notices the appearance of more sophisticated themes in a popular medium.
I had my rental car with me during the day, since when I checked out of my hotel I had to take my car out of the garage. It is always daunting to drive in an unfamiliar city, but I mentioned in my first post about Montevideo that the city lacks the frantic character of many large cities. While driving here is no piece of cake, it wasn’t too bad over all. People were polite and helpful. I was worried about figuring out the proper procedure for paying for parking, but I was helped with this, so it was not a problem. Also, driving around the city gave me a different perspective that I usually get from seeing a city on foot.
As the sun was setting I drove to the airport to catch my evening flight from Montevideo to Miami, and eventually to home. While the day began overcast, by the time of sunset the sky was completely clear. I got some good views of the lights of Montevideo as the flight was leaving, but couldn’t get any good pictures.
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11 April 2013
After the remarkable blue skies and sunshine I’ve had so far in Uruguay I guess it was time for some less than perfect weather, and today in Montevideo it rained heavily much of the day. I spent the day alternately napping and writing, only really waking up as the sun was setting. Though it was still slightly misting, I went out for a walk in the neighborhood.
The humidity from the rain combined with the kind of warmth at night to which I am not accustomed meant that only after a short while I walking I became quite hot and was sweating. I returned to my room and showered and changed my clothes so I could set out on a longer walk in greater comfort.
My longer walk took four hours to complete, and left me tired and footsore, but with a lot of photographs of Montevideo by night, some of which I posted on Tumblr. By this time the rain had stopped and it became quite windy — which for me was a relief, since it cooled down the evening to a tolerable level.
Montevideo is like Venice, in so far as in both cities if you walk far enough in a straight line you will eventually come to water, yet, again like Venice, it is rather difficult to walk in a straight line. The grid of the city is crazily confusing, as the grids adapted to the geographical features of the city run into each other at irregular angles. Nevertheless, in my four hours of walking I never got lost.
I walked a straight line by way of a major through street (starting near my hotel where Bulevard España originates at the waterfront), taking this all the way through the city, and then when I emerged at the waterfront again, I took a very long walk along the waterfront promenade as it snakes between the city and the ocean. The walkway along the waterfront is as wide as the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. It was almost 1:00 am when I got back to my hotel. Many restaurants were still open, but the streets were quiet and the roads almost empty.
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10 April 2013
There is a poem by Keats that describes the experience of leaving the city for the countryside, which begins thusly:
To one who has been long in city pent,
‘Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven, — to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
How are we to describe the opposite experience, of someone who leaves the countryside for the city? It would be an appropriate occasion for a poem, but my powers are not equal to composition at the moment, so I will here only mention the poetic opportunity as a kind of literary placeholder. No doubt there is a substantial literature of which I am unaware regarding the urbanization experience, because it is the predominant human experience of our time, marked as it is by increasing urbanization.
Nevertheless, for all its familiarity to the millions who migrate from what Marx called “rural idiocy” to the opportunities of the city, after spending some time in rural Uruguay it was a bit of a shock to the system to arrive in Montevideo. I previously drove through Montevideo on the day I arrived (before noon) and again passed through Montevideo when I drove from Colonia del Sacramento to Punta del Este (in the afternoon) but arriving the in late afternoon the city revealed an entirely different aspect. The roads were crowded and busy. The main highway which parallels the oceanfront and therefore passes all the port facilities, was particularly jammed with both car and truck traffic going into and coming out of the port (probably coming from or going to Buenos Aires, just across the Rio de la Plata).
And it was not only the vehicular traffic. The wide and miles-long oceanfront promenade, which had looked strangely abandoned during the day, was alive with joggers, dog walkers, fitness enthusiasts using the exercise machines installed along the promenade (much as I saw on Lima’s Malecon), and street people pushing shopping carts — the whole panorama of Montevidean humanity out for a stroll after dark. There are also multiple sports facilities along the waterfront, with games I did not recognize being played under glaring artificial lights.
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9 April 2013
Earlier at Estancia Tierra Santa I felt that I was deep in the rural countryside of Uruguay; here at San Pedro de Timote I know that I am deep in the rural countryside of Uruguay. You will find San Pedro de Timote 14 kilometers on a dirt track from the nearest town, and arriving here the isolation is palpable.
And the reader will not be surprised to learn that rural Uruguay is horse country par excellence. Horses are in daily use for routine tasks here, and while Uruguay’s roads are modern and in excellent condition, it is not at all unusual to see a horse and cart driving along the shoulder moving a load of fire wood or something similar. In the countryside, even in the 21st century, horses are both useful and practical.
But not only useful and practical; if one does not spend time around horses on a regular basis one is likely to forget how beautiful they are. And they are beautiful — or, at least, to my mammalian eye, horses are beautiful in the same way that tigers are beautiful, with a musculature that is so perfectly adapted to a particular way of life one cannot but admire to see such a body functioning at its peak.
Both the utility and the beauty of horses is complicated by the fact that a horse has its own will, its own temperament, and even its own social milieu, just as each rider has his own will, his own temperament, and his own social milieu. When the chemistry between horse and rider “clicks” then all goes well; when the chemistry doesn’t “click,” it’s sort of like a bad date, which each pulling the opposite direction waiting only for the experience to be finished as soon as possible. One cannot simply “work” with horses as one works with a machine or a tool. Despite readily anthropomorphizing our machines and tools, crediting them with a mind of their own, the fact of a horse having a mind of its own becomes a central fact of working with horses; some of us are more suited than others to enter into the equine mind, and those who are most naturally talented at this will have the most effective rapport with horses; and, vice versa, some horses are more adept than others in entering into the human mind, and such horses have the most effective rapport with human beings.
The utility of a horse to its human handler is directly proportional to the individual’s ability to appreciate and understand the horse on its own terms, in which case the relationship is more one of cooperation than of “use” in the narrow sense, and this is the essence of domestication: we are as much an agent of the species we domesticate and bring within the structure of our civilization, as we are the representatives of our own interests narrowly construed. “Ownness” here is the ownness of the civilization we have in common. And however far we project that common civilization into the future, it will continue to be a common civilization, jointly the product of the several terrestrial species that constitute it, and the co-evolutionary development of these species (and their successor species) will continue to constitute that civilization that we have in common.
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