2 March 2014
Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript is an impassioned paean to subjectivity, which follows logically (if Kierkegaard will forgive me for saying so) from Kierkegaard’s focus on the individual. The individual experiences subjectivity, and, as far as we know, nothing else in the world experiences subjectivity, so that if the individual is the central ontological category of one’s thought, then the subjectivity that is unique to the individual will be uniquely central to one’s thought, as it is to Kierkegaard’s thought.
Another way to express Kierkegaard’s interest in the individual is to identify his thought as consistently ideographic, to the point of ignoring the nomothetic (on the ideographic and the nomothetic cf. Axes of Historiography). Kierkegaard’s account of the individual and his subjectivity as an individual falls within an overall ontology of individuals, therefore a continuum of contingency. Thus, in a sense, Kierkegaard represents a kind of object-oriented historiography (as a particular expression of an object-oriented ontology). From this point of view, once can easily see Kierkegaard’s resistance to Hegel’s lawlike, i.e., nomothetic, account of history, in which individuals are mere pawns at the mercy of the cunning of Reason.
At the present time, however, I will not discuss the implications of Kierkegaard’s implicit historiography, but rather his implicit futurism, though the two — historiography and futurism — are mirror images of each other, and I have elsewhere quoted Friedrich von Schlegel that, “The historian is a prophet facing backwards.” The same concern for the individual and his subjectivity is present in Kierkegaard’s implicit futurism as in his implicit historiography.
In Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, written under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, we find the following way to distinguish the objective approach from the subjective approach:
The objective accent falls on WHAT is said, the subjective accent on HOW it is said.
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Translated from the Danish by David F. Swenson, completed after his death and provided with Introduction and Notes by Walter Lowrie, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 181
A few pages prior to this in the text, Kierkegaard tells us a story about the importance of the subjective accent upon how something is said:
The objective truth as such, is by no means adequate to determine that whoever utters it is sane; on the contrary, it may even betray the fact that he is mad, although what he says may be entirely true, and especially objectively true. I shall here permit myself to tell a story, which without any sort of adaptation on my part comes direct from an asylum. A patient in such an institution seeks to escape, and actually succeeds in effecting his purpose by leaping out of a window, and prepares to start on the road to freedom, when the thought strikes him (shall I say sanely enough or madly enough?): “When you come to town you will be recognized, and you will at once be brought back here again; hence you need to prepare yourself fully to convince everyone by the objective truth of what you say, that all is in order as far as your sanity is concerned.” As he walks along and thinks about this, he sees a ball lying on the ground, picks it up, and puts it into the tail pocket of his coat. Every step he takes the ball strikes him, politely speaking, on his hinder parts, and every time it thus strikes him he says: “Bang, the earth is round.” He comes to the city, and at once calls on one of his friends; he wants to convince him that he is not crazy, and therefore walks back and forth, saying continually: “Bang, the earth is round!” But is not the earth round? Does the asylum still crave yet another sacrifice for this opinion, as in the time when all men believed it to be flat as a pancake? Or is a man who hopes to prove that he is sane, by uttering a generally accepted and generally respected objective truth, insane? And yet it was clear to the physician that the patient was not yet cured; though it is not to be thought that the cure would consist in getting him to accept the opinion that the earth is flat. But all men are not physicians, and what the age demands seems to have a considerable influence upon the question of what madness is.
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Translated from the Danish by David F. Swenson, completed after his death and provided with Introduction and Notes by Walter Lowrie, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 174
These themes of individuality and subjectivity occur throughout Kierkegaard’s work, always expressed with humor and imagination — Kierkegaard’s writing itself is a testament to the individuality he so valued — as especially illustrated in the passage above. Kierkegaard engages in philosophy by telling a joke; would that more philosophy were written with similar panache.
From Kierkegaard we can learn that how the future is presented can mean the difference between a vision that inspires the individual and a vision that sounds like madness — and this is important. Implicit Kierkegaardian futurism forces us to see the importance of the individual in a schematic conception of the future that is often impersonal and without a role for the individual that the individual would care to assume. Worse yet, there are often aspects of futurism that seem to militate against the individual.
One of the great failings of the communist vision of the future — which inspired many in the twentieth century, and was a paradigm of European manifest destiny such as I described in The Idea and Destiny of Europe — was its open contempt for the individual, which is a feature of most collectivist thought. Not only is it true that, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” but one might also say that without a personal vision, the people perish.
One of the ways in which futurism has been presented in such a manner that almost seems contrived to deny and belittle the role of the individual is the example of the “twin paradox” in relativity theory. I have discussed this elsewhere (cf. Stepping Stones Across the Cosmos) because I find it so interesting. The twin paradox is used to explain of the oddities of general relativity, such that an accelerated clock moves more slowly relative to a clock that remains stationary.
In the twin paradox, it is postulated that, of two twins on Earth, the two say their goodbyes and one remains on Earth while another travels a great distance (perhaps to another star) at relativistic velocities. When the traveling twin returns to Earth, he finds that his twin has aged beyond recognition and the two scarcely know each other. This already poignant story can be made all the more poignant by postulating an even longer journey in which an individual leaves Earth and returns to find everyone he knew long dead, and perhaps even the places, the cities, and the monuments once familiar to him now long vanished.
The twin paradox, as it is commonly told, is a story, and, moreover, is a parable of cosmic loneliness. We would probably question the sanity of any individual who undertook a journey of space exploration under these conditions, and rightly so. If we imagine this story set within a larger story, the only kind of character who would undertake such a journey would be the villain of the piece, or an outcast, like a crazed scientist maddened by his lack of human contact and obsessed exclusively with his work (a familiar character from fiction).
The twin paradox was formulated to relate the objective truth of our universe, but it sounds more like Kierkegaard’s story of a madman reciting an obvious truth: no one is fooled by the madman. As long as a human future in space is presented in such terms, it will sound like madness to most. What we need in order to present existential risk mitigation to the public are stories of space exploration that touch the heart in a way that anyone can understand. We need new stories of the far future and of the individual’s role in the future in order to bring home such matters in a way that makes the individual respond on a personal level.
A subjective experience is always presented in a personal context. This personal context is important to the individual. Indeed, we know this from many perspectives on human life, whether it be the call to heroic personal self-sacrifice for the good of the community that is found collectivist thought, or the celebration of enlightened self-interest found in individualistic thought. Just as it is possible to paint either approach as a form of selfishness rooted in a personal context, it is possible to paint either as heroic for the same reason. In so far as a conception of history can be made real to the individual, and incorporates a personal context suggestive of subjective experiences, that conception of history will animate effective social action far more readily than even the most seductive vision of a sleek and streamlined future which nevertheless has no obvious place for the individual and his subjective experience.
The ultimate lesson here — and it is a profoundly paradoxical lesson, worthy of the perversity of human nature — is this: the individual life serves as the “big picture” context by which the individual, the individual’s isolated experiences, derive their value.
When we think of “big picture” conceptions of history, humanity, and civilization, we typically think in impersonal terms. This is a mistake. The big picture can be equally formulated in personal or impersonal terms, and it is the vision that is formulated in personal terms that speaks to the individual. In so far as the individual accepts this personal vision of the big picture, the vision informs the individual’s subjective experiences.
The narratives of existential risk would do well to learn this lesson.
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25 February 2014
Even as the eyes of the world were fixed on Sochi for the Winter Olympics, events in Ukraine eclipsed the closing ceremony and the world turned its attention instead to the tumult in Kiev as protesters battled with police and (now former) President Viktor Yanukovich fled the capital, leaving behind a palatial home with a private zoo (shades of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who, like other autocrats, also had a private zoo). I met a friend of mine in Starbucks on Sunday, and as we talked about the situation in Ukraine and some of its likely outcomes, I had occasion to explain the term “Finlandization.”
As it turns out, I was not the only one to have Finlandization on my mind. Writing in the Financial Times (Monday 24 February 2014), Zbigniew Brzezinski explicitly endorsed the Finlandization of Ukraine, in his opinion piece, “Russia needs a ‘Finland option’ for Ukraine,” as a prerequisite for Ukraine making a peaceful (or relatively peaceful) transition to the European fold:
“The US could and should convey clearly to Mr Putin that it is prepared to use its influence to make certain a truly independent and territorially undivided Ukraine will pursue policies towards Russia similar to those so effectively practised by Finland: mutually respectful neighbours with wide-ranging economic relations with Russia and the EU; no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself but expanding its European connectivity.”
This Finlandization of Ukraine would be necessary because…
“…Russia can still plunge Ukraine into a destructive and internationally dangerous civil war. It can prompt and then support the secession of Crimea and some of the industrial eastern portions of the country.”
Brzezinski is correct that Russia could still cause great problems for Ukraine, and evidently a Finlandized Ukraine seems to Brzezinski a reasonable price to pay to avoid potential chaos. Ukraine is a deeply divided country, with ethnic and cultural loyalties pulling toward Russia in the East and the Crimea, and toward Europe in the western part of the country. Given these social conditions as the background, it would be a relatively easy matter for Russia to stir the pot in Ukraine for decades to come.
During the Cold War, “Finlandization” came to mean subordinating a nation’s priorities to a foreign policy designed to appease the Soviet Union, without actually surrendering sovereignty, and certainly without becoming merely another absorbed “republic” among the Soviet Social Republics. Here is one definition of Finlandization:
“Behaviour of a country whose foreign policy and domestic policies are strongly conditioned by a conscious desire to mollify and maintain friendly relations with Moscow, at the expense if need be of close ties with formal allies and traditional friends or of its own sovereignty.”
George Ginsburgs and Alvin Rubinstein, eds. Soviet Foreign Policy toward Western Europe, New York: Praeger, 1978, p. 5.
It sounds a lot less menacing to call this a “good neighbor policy,” which is what Finland’s policies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union were sometimes called, and truly enough the Finns successfully negotiated a very tricky tightrope between Europe and Russia. It must be said that the Finns were also successful in retaining their sovereignty and independence. Finland is among the wealthiest countries in Europe, and it does not resemble in the least those former Soviet republics (like Ukraine) still struggling today to free themselves from the influence of the Kremlin. Thus if Finland made any existential compromises during its Cold War Finlandization, it does not seem to be suffering from them today.
Can Ukraine pursue the “Finland Option” and can they do so successfully? The example of Cold War Finland seems to suggest that, yes, Ukraine can move toward Europe while placating Russia. The question then becomes, “Is Ukraine different from Finland?” Obviously, yes, Ukraine differs from Finland in thousands of ways. Really, then, the question is, “Does Ukraine differ from Finland in any essential respect that would prevent it from being able to pursue a policy of Finlandization?”
George Friedman of Stratfor has argued repeated that Ukraine is, indeed, different, though I don’t recall if he has explicitly compared Ukraine to Finland. In Ukraine: On the Edge of Empires (from November 2010) Friedman presented Russia’s strategic dependence upon Ukraine in the strongest terms:
“Ukraine is as important to Russian national security as Scotland is to England or Texas is to the United States. In the hands of an enemy, these places would pose an existential threat to all three countries. Therefore, rumors to the contrary, neither Scotland nor Texas is going anywhere. Nor is Ukraine, if Russia has anything to do with it. And this reality shapes the core of Ukrainian life. In a fundamental sense, geography has imposed limits on Ukrainian national sovereignty and therefore on the lives of Ukrainians.”
“From a purely strategic standpoint, Ukraine is Russia’s soft underbelly. Dominated by Russia, Ukraine anchors Russian power in the Carpathians. These mountains are not impossible to penetrate, but they can’t be penetrated easily. If Ukraine is under the influence or control of a Western power, Russia’s (and Belarus’) southern flank is wide open along an arc running from the Polish border east almost to Volgograd then south to the Sea of Azov, a distance of more than 1,000 miles, more than 700 of which lie along Russia proper. There are few natural barriers.”
While I haven’t been reading Friedman lately, so I don’t know his take on the recent Ukrainian crisis, he has repeated this reasoning in several pieces, and I don’t think that Friedman would assert that Finland is crucial to Russian national security, or that it anchors Russian power in Fenno-Scandia.
One fly in the ointment of this analysis, and one that points toward larger and more interesting questions, is that, at the time of this writing, one of Friedman’s examples — Scotland — is considering succeeding from the UK. And this, as I said, points further afield.
One of the constants we find in the discussion of the present crisis in Ukraine is the dire warnings that Ukraine might split apart, notwithstanding the fact that the geographical region we now call Ukraine has been split up in many different ways in the past. One of the most obvious solutions to the present crisis would be to partition the country, allow those who wish to be part of the idea and destiny of Europe to join Europe as West Ukraine, and allow those who desire to have closer relations with Moscow to do so and become East Ukraine.
Zbigniew Brzezinski makes a point of emphasizing, “national unification and political moderation.” Many others have gingerly touched the question of the possibility of a rupture of Ukraine’s national “unity” only to recoil in horror. (Cf. Ukraine crisis: Turchynov warns of ‘separatism’ risk and Ukraine revolution: Where on Earth is Viktor Yanukovych? stated that, “Mr Putin has not yet spoken publicly about Mr Yanukovych’s ousting, but in a phone conversation with German chancellor Angela Merkel he agreed that the ‘territorial integrity’ of Ukraine must be maintained, suggesting Russia may not intervene.”) Truly enough, if it came to a fight, a civil war would be disastrous and bloody. But it need not be fought over. We know from the example of Czechoslovakia that a “Velvet Divorce” is possible if both parties want the same thing. West Ukraine would not want to give up the industries in the east of the country or the ports and coastline, and East Ukraine would not want to give up the capital, Kiev, but there is much to be said for partition in the case of Ukraine.
Why is Finlandization considered a more palatable alternative than partition? If Ukraine were partitioned, West Ukraine would join Europe, and its people would enjoy greater freedom and economic opportunity. The economy would grow after an initial shrinkage due to the split, but from there, under the umbrella of the European Union, West Ukraine would experience a better future than anything in its past should give it a right to expect. East Ukraine, on the contrary, would slip into an economic twilight, and under Russian influence the country would stagnate (except for a few economic centers) and the quality of life of the people would likely decline.
In time — perhaps in several decades — East Ukraine might also be ready to join Europe when they see their former compatriots doing rather better than they are doing. Is there any reason to hold back West Ukraine when its people are ready to forge ahead on a path different from that chosen for them by Russia? Foreign policy “realists” like Brzezinski and Friedman will say that it shouldn’t be done or it can’t be done, but history shows us otherwise. No matter how ossified the international system of nation-states, some do splinter, and it is rarely a pretty sight. But a peaceful partition is yet possible, and better than many other options. If mutually policed by Russian, EU, and UN forces, it could work better than the other alternatives.
The borders of a partitioned Ukraine have already been drawn by the unambiguous results of the 2004 election (see the map of the poll results above). While it is true that the example of Finland shows us that Finlandization can work, so too the example of Czechoslovakia shows us that a Velvet Divorce can work. Czechoslovakia is also Exhibit A for failed appeasement, and it could be argued that Ukraine has tried Russian appeasement unsuccessfully since the Orange Revolution. Finlandization, as we have seen it to date in Ukraine, has not served the people of Ukraine well, and perhaps it has failed due to the essential differences between Finland and Ukraine mentioned above. Another solution is needed.
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24 February 2014
In my previous post, Akhand Bharat and Ghazwa-e-hind: Conflicting Destinies in South Asia, I discussed the differing manifest destinies of Pakistan and India in South Asia. I also placed this discussion in the context of Europe’s wars of the twentieth century and the Cold War. The conflicting destinies imagined by ideological extremists in Pakistan and India is more closely parallel to European wars in the twentieth century than to the Cold War, because while Europe’s wars escalated into a global conflagrations, it was, at heart, conflicting manifest destinies in Europe that brought about these wars.
A manifest destiny is a vision for a people, that is to say, an imagined future, perhaps inevitable, for a particular ethnic or national community. Thus manifest destinies are produced by visionaries, or communities of visionaries. The latter, communities of visionaries, typically include religious organizations, political parties, professional protesters and political agitators, inter alia. We have become too accustomed to assuming that “visionary” is a good thing, but vision, like attempted utopias, goes wrong much more frequently than it goes well.
Perhaps that last visionary historical project to turn out well was that of the United States, which is essentially en Enlightenment-era thought experiment translated into the real world — supposing we could rule ourselves without kings, starting de novo, how would be do it? — and of course there would be many to argue that the US did not turn out well at all, and that whatever sociopolitical gains that have been realized as a result of the implementation of popular sovereignty, the price has been too high. Whatever narrative one employs to understand the US, and however one values this political experiment, the US is like an alternative history of Europe that Europe itself did not explore, i.e., the US is the result of one of many European ideas that had a brief period of influence in Europe but which was supplanted by later ideas.
Utopians are not nice people who wish only to ameliorate the human condition; utopians are the individuals and movements who place their vision above the needs, and even the lives, of ordinary human beings engaged in the ordinary business of life. Utopians are idealists, who wish to see an ideal put into practice — at any cost. The great utopian movements of the twentieth century were identical to the greatest horrors of the twentieth century: Soviet communism, Nazi Germany, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and the attempt by the Khmer Rouge to create an agrarian communist society in Cambodia. It was one of the Khmer Rouge slogans that, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”
The Second World War — that is to say, the most destructive conflict in human history — was a direct consequence of the Nazi vision for a utopian Europe. The ideals of a Nazi utopia are not widely shared today, but this is how the Nazis themselves understood their attempt to bring about a Judenrein slave empire in the East, which Nazi overlords ruling illiterate Slav peasants. Nazism is one of the purest exemplars in human history of the attempt to place the value of a principle above the value of individual lives. It would also be said that the Morganthau plan for post-war Germany (which I discussed in The Stalin Doctrine) was almost as visionary as the Nazi vision itself, though certainly less brutal and not requiring any genocide to be put into practice. Visionary adversaries sometimes inspire visionary responses, although the Morganthau plan was not ultimately adopted.
In the wake of the unprecedented destruction of the Second World War, the destiny of Europe has been widely understood to lie in European integration and unity. The attempt to unify Europe in our time — the European Union — is predicated upon an implicit idea of Europe, which is again predicated upon an implicit shared vision of the future. What is this shared vision of the future? I could maliciously characterize the contemporary European vision of the future as Fukuyama’s “end of history,” in which, “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands,” constitute the only remaining social vision, and, “The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism,” have long since disappeared. …
After the horrors of the twentieth century, such a future might not sound too bad, and while it may constitute a kind of progress, this can no longer be understood as a manifest destiny; no one imagines that a unified Europe is one people with one vision; unified Europe is, rather, a conglomerate, and its vision is no more coherent or moving than the typical mission statement of a conglomerate. Indeed, we must view it as an open question as to whether a truly democratic society can generate or sustain a manifest destiny — and Europe today is, if anything, a truly democratic society. There are, of course the examples of Athens at the head of the Delian League and the United States in the nineteenth century. I invite the reader to consider whether these societies were as thoroughly democratic as Europe today, and I leave the question open for the moment.
But Europe did not come to its democratic present easily or quickly. Europe has represented both manifest destinies and conflicting manifest destinies throughout its long history. Europe’s unusual productivity of ideas has given the world countless ideologies that other peoples have adopted as their own, even as the Europeans took them up for a time, only to later cast them aside. Europe for much of its history represented Christendom, that is to say, Christian civilization. In its role as Christian civilization, Europe resisted the Vikings, the Mongols, Russian Orthodox civilization after the Great Schism, Islam during the Crusades, later the Turk, another manifestation of Islam, and eventually Europeans fell on each other and during the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation, with Catholics and Protestants representing conflicting manifest destinies that tore Europe apart with an unprecedented savagery and bloodthirstiness.
After Europe exhausted itself with fratricidal war inspired by conflicting manifest destinies, Europe came to represent science, and progress, and modernity, and this came to be a powerful force in the world. But modernity has more than one face, and by the time Europe entered the twentieth century, Europe hosted two mortal enemies that held out radically different visions of the future, the truly modern manifest destinies of fascism and communism. Europe again exhausted itself in fratricidal conflict, and it was left to the New World to sort out the peace and to provide the competing vision to the surviving communist vision that emerged from the mortal conflict in Europe. Now communism, too, has ceded its place as a vision for the future and a manifest destiny, leaving Russia again as the representative of Orthodox civilization, and Europe as the representative of democracy.
On the European periphery, Russia continues to exercise an influence in a direction distinct from that of the idea of Europe embodied in the European Union. Even as I write this, protesters and police are battling in Ukraine, primarily as a result of Russian pressure on the leaders of Ukraine not to more closely associate itself with Europe (cf. Europe’s Crisis in Ukraine by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt). Ukraine is significant in this connection, because it is a nation-state split between a western portion that shares the European idea and wants to be a part of Europe, and an eastern part that looks to Russia.
What does a nation-state on the European periphery look toward when it looks toward Russia? Does Russia represent an ideology or a destiny, if only on the European periphery and not properly European? As the leading representative of Orthodox civilization, Russia should represent some kind of vision, but what vision exactly? As I have attempted to explain previously in The Principle of Autocracy and Spheres of Influence, I remain puzzled by autocracy and forms of authoritarianism, and I don’t see that Russia has anything to offer other than a kinder, gentler form of autocracy than that what the Tsars offered in earlier centuries.
Previously in The Evolution of Europe I wrote that, “The idea of Europe will not go away,” and, “The saga of Europe is far from over.” I would still say the same now, but I would qualify these claims. The idea of Europe remains strong for the Europeans, but it represents little in the way of a global vision, and while many seek to join Europe, as barbarians sought join the Roman Empire, Europe represents a manifest destiny as little as the later Roman Empire represented anything. But Europe displaced into the New World, where its Enlightenment prodigy, the United States continues its political experiment, still represented something, however tainted the vision.
The idea of Europe remains in Europe, but the destiny of Europe lies in the Western Hemisphere.
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18 February 2014
0. Introduction: Narcissism of Minor Differences
One of the socio-political mechanisms that join civilization and war in a coevolutionary spiral is the ethno-sectarian realization of what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences, which not only accounts for ongoing disputes between neighbors, but can explain how such ongoing disputes can turn into morbid fascinations and neurotic obsessions that come to exclude rational calculation of interests, which in the strategic sphere is the operative form of rationality.
In Europe, narcissism of minor differences repeatedly set neighbors at each others' throats -- Jonathan Meades called this "neighborly murderousness down through the centuries." While we might first think of the Balkans in this connection -- Churchill made black humor of this European fratricide by saying that the Balkans produced more history than they could consume -- perhaps the central rivalry of Europe has been the rivalry of France and Germany, which led to the two most destructive wars in history. Many commentators have opined that the ulterior motive of postwar European efforts at economic integration were to bind France and Germany so tightly together than there would never be a repeat of the first and second world wars.
The same narcissism of minor differences that animated the geographical, linguistic, and cultural divisions of the Germans and the French in twentieth century Europe have been playing out since the 1947 decolonialization and partition of the Indian subcontinent between the ethnic, cultural, and religious identities of Muslim Pakistan and (mostly) Hindu India. As France and Germany imagined different destinies for the European landmass they shared, so too Muslims and Hindus imagine different destinies for the South Asian landmass that they share.
1. Manifest Destinies
While we associate the phrase "manifest destiny" with a particular phase of US expansionism into and across western North America, there is a much more general meaning implicit in the idea of manifest destiny. I appealed to this generalization of manifest destiny in my post Manifest Destiny: Roman and American. The essential elements of manifest destiny have been present in other places and other times than the Roman and the American instantiations.
What happens when two distinct manifest destinies collide? What happens when distinct conceptions of civilization are forced to confront each other? What happens when peoples who see themselves are part of distinct traditions are forced by historical and geographical circumstances to live next to each other? Often this confrontation is understood by partisans on both sides as each side posing an existential threat to the other. Moreover, perception of mutual existential threat often means a war of extermination once the appropriate trigger erupts within an escalation and so allows events to pass beyond a critical threshold. Wherever one finds revachist or irredentist sentiment that looks toward a neighboring territory, one finds a ready audience for ideological justifications to covet thy neighbor's possessions.
Manifest destiny is, in a sense, a vision of the future of civilization, the unfolding of a destiny implicit in the life of a people -- it is a teleological conception of a people, and therefore often formulated in deterministic terms. The idea of "destiny" is of course a slippery term for geopolitics and geostrategy, given its eschatological and soteriological overtones, but it is precisely for this reason that the idea of destiny maintains a powerful hold over human minds -- a much more powerful hold than mere nationalism, for example, which does not usually extend its roots into the religious identity of a people in the same way that manifest destiny does. Any idea that moves masses in an age of popular sovereignty must be taken seriously by geopolitics and geostrategy, and destiny must be counted among these ideas. A destiny that grows organically out of the life of a particular people -- the destiny of a particular geographical, ethnic, social, political, or sectarian groups -- has a particular appeal to members of that group. Vague and ambiguous conceptions that appeal to a potent mix of powerfully felt yet ill-defined sentiments such as patriotism, ethnic and sectarian pride, ethnic and sectarian autonomy, and self-sacrifice for an ennobling and edifying cause still today have significant traction in the popular mind.
2. Geopolitics and Big History
Manifest destiny incorporates all of this and more as well, and for that reason it deserves our analytical attention. An analytical approach to a concept as elusive and protean as that of destiny demands that we place the lands and the peoples and the ideologies in a larger theoretical context, and the largest possible theoretical context for geopolitics is Big History.
Will Durant was my introduction to Big History. I suppose I owe this to Earl Fisher, as he was my impetus to read Durant's The Life of Greece while I was still in high school (by the way, thanks Mr. Fisher). At the same time I also read Burn's classic Western Civilization text (also at the behest of Mr. Fisher), but it was Durant that stuck with me. Burns was too much like a textbook. Long before I had read Pascal, I felt as he did: "When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man." After my school years, when I began my true self-education, I acquired Will and Ariel Durant's entire Story of Civilization series of books (purchased in a small used book store in Beaverton that no longer exists), which I still read and still admire as a synthesis of human history.
In the first book of the Durant's massive history, Our Oriental Heritage, Durant says this of the history of India and the Indian subcontinent:
"We must conceive it, then, not as a nation, like Egypt, Babylonia, or England, but as a continent as populous and polyglot as Europe, and almost as varied in climate and race, in literature, philosophy and art."
Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. I, Our Oriental Heritage, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954, Chapter XIV, p. 393
The first time I read this -- I was probably 16 or 17 years old -- it made an impression on me, and over the intervening years I have thought about this statement. For a Westerner like myself, European history is the standard of history, and I can recount, off the top of my head, the various movements and conflicts of peoples even in a small fragment of Europe -- for example, the English, Welsh, Scotch, and Irish peoples on the British Isles. On the continent, we know that Spain was only unified by granting special charters and traditional privileges to peoples within the Iberian peninsula, while Italy and Germany were only unified in the nineteenth century from a diverse patchwork of traditional political entities. To think that South Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, hosted a similar plurality and diversity of peoples, each with their own histories and traditions, was almost too much to take in. But I remembered it, and returned to think about this theme from time to time.
It is only in my maturity that I have begun to understand the truth of this quote from Durant, and to gain an inkling of the complexity of history as revealed in the synchronic "thickness" of a given geographical region (historians sometimes say they will give a "thick description" when they delve into details usually conflated by some overly-general yet convenient label).
In a previous post, Thoughts from Horseback, I quoted another passage from Durant that places India's religious traditions within its biological and climatological context, which again shows Durant as an authentic ancestor of Big History:
"Here and there, constituting one-fifth of the land, the primitive jungle remains, a breeding-place of tigers, leopards, wolves and snakes. In the southern third, or Deccan, the heat is drier, or is tempered with breezes from the sea. But from Delhi to Ceylon the dominating fact in India is heat: heat that has weakened the physique, shortened the youth, and affected the quietist religion and philosophy of the inhabitants. The only relief from this heat is to sit still, to do nothing, to desire nothing; or in the summer months the monsoon wind may bring cooling moisture and fertilizing rain from the sea. When the monsoon fails to blow, India starves, and dreams of Nirvana."
Robert D. Kaplan, in his recent book The Revenge of Geography, like Durant, sees South Asia as a geographical unity in spite of its contemporary political divisions, and for geopolitics, geographical unity can be more significant that passing political arrnagements:
"...the vast region that today encompasses northern India along with Pakistan and much of Afghanistan was commonly under a single polity, even as sovereignty over southern India was in doubt. Thus, for Indian elites, to think of not only Pakistan but Afghanistan, too, as part of India’s home turf is not only natural but historically justified. The tomb of Babur is in Kabul, not in Delhi. This does not mean that India has territorial designs on Afghanistan, but it does mean that New Delhi cares profoundly about who rules Afghanistan, and wishes to ensure that those who do rule there are friendly to India."
"This is a rich history that few in the West know of, while sections of the Indian elite know it in their bones. When Indians look at their maps of the subcontinent they see Afghanistan and Pakistan in the northwest, just as they see Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh in the northeast, as all part of India’s immediate sphere of influence, with Iran, the Persian Gulf, the former Soviet Central Asian republics, and Burma as critical shadow zones. Not to view these places as such, is, from the vantage point of New Delhi, to ignore the lessons of history and geography."
Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of geography: what the map tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate, New York: Random House, 2012, Chapter XII, "INDIA’S GEOGRAPHICAL DILEMMA"
Kaplan here more or less gives the Indian perspective -- his chapter, after all, is called "India's Geographical Dilemma," and one tends not to think of Pakistan as a geopolitical "power" due to its internal strife -- but it is a sanitized Indian perspective that fails to do justice to the fact that the geographical unity of India has only been approximated in the modern period under Muslim Mogul emperors and British colonialism.
3. Greater Pakistan and Greater India
Some Pakistanis harbor the idea of a "Greater Pakistan" which is expressed in the idea of "Ghazwa-e-hind" (or "Ghazwatulhind" depending on your transliteration; غزوة الهند). The literal translation of this is something like, "When the Prophet (PBUH) goes to war in the Indian subcontinent," however, over time the idea has come to signify something more like the Pakistani equivalent of Manifest Destiny. On the surface, this idea could be seen as overtly hostile to India, and in the some forums there are maps that show most of what we now know as India as part of a Greater Pakistan, as in this example:
Now, we all know that this is a fantasy, and that no iteration of contemporary Pakistan would be able to push across India like this, much less make it stick with boots on the ground. Such visions are eschatological dreams of true believers. But there are conceptions of a Greater Pakistan that are much more realistic. For example, there are many maps (check out the Pakistan Defense Forum) that show what is today Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single nation-state within one border, as in this example:
It is, of course, very unlikely that the global powers that be would allow anything like this Greater Pakistan to come into existence, but the important thing here is that this is something like a rational and realizable vision for extreme Pakistani nationalists, whereas the vision of a Greater Pakistan including most of India is not realistic. The deep penetration of Afghanistan by the Pakistani ISI, and the ability of the ISI to exercise influence and to shape events in the region, make the idea of a Greater Pakistan including large swathes of Afghanistan a believable manifest destiny for Pakistan, since de facto Pakistani control of parts of Afghanistan is already a reality in some regions.
But Afghanistan is far from being controlled outright by Pakistan, and other destinies may conflict with this western vision of Pakistan's future. Another quasi-eschatological vision of a "greater" political entity
is Greater Khorasan (or Khurassan, or Khurazzan), which, like the ideas of Greater Pakistan and Greater India, are based on idealized historical models of greatest territorial extent of past empires. The most ambitious maps of Greater Khorasan and Greater Pakistan overlap considerably, and while these represent (slightly) distinct political eschatologies, both are ideas that draw from the traditions of Islamic civilization and frequently cite the same sources, so that these visions are not necessarily mutually exclusive -- which does not mean that they are necessarily compatible.
More obviously mutually exclusive is the Indian political eschatology of a Greater India. This Indian parallel to this Pakistani vision of Ghazwa-e-hind or Greater Pakistan is Akhand Bharat (अखण्ड भारत, Akhaṇḍa Bhārata, literally Undivided India), which is a conception of Greater India based on the historical unity of India prior to the partition of 1947, but carefully skirting the issue of this unity being based on British colonialism or Indian imperialism under Muslim rulers.
In the above illustrations of Greater Pakistan, Greater Khorasan, and Greater India maps are employed as tools of political propaganda, with vast geographical areas identified by a single bold color as falling within some expanded political imperium. Given the record of expulsions and populations transfers that marked the violent partition of India and Pakistan, merely to contemplate grandiose schemes of Greater Pakistan or Greater India humbles one by the mere idea of the magnitude of human suffering that would attend any attempt to realize such a vision, much less the successful imposition of a political eschatology. (Colors on a map indicating territory, like lines on a map indicating borders, are easy to draw, but their realization comes at a high human cost.) And yet, this is the dream of those who dream big on the Indian subcontinent.
4. Manifest Destiny and Eschatological Wars
While dreams of political eschatology were once mere fantasies, and it is easy to consign them to a pre-modern past that lives today only in the dreams of deluded antiquaries, contemporary technology has given new impetus to the idea of eschatological wars (that is to say, cosmic wars); Pakistan and India are now both nuclear-armed nation-states, and the rational reconstruction of the traditional state on the basis of the nation-state model means that both powers meticulously plan for nuclear engagements. (Cf., e.g., Race to the End: Pakistan's terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea to develop battlefield nukes by Tom Hundley, 05 September 2012, and India 'unlikely' to deploy Cold Start against Pakistan)
Planning for doomsday was once the sole preserve of raving prophets; now it is the daily occupation of professionals. Together with a de facto tolerance for state-sponsored weaponization of eliminationism as long as it is kept below the threshold of atrocity, doomsday planning becomes the natural telos of escalating atrocities. If atrocities can be explained away as hostages to fortune, and doomsday as the technological implementation of manifest destiny, the lives of millions of human beings might be dismissed as being of little account compared to the cosmic forces in play.
5. Tolerating Fanaticism through Facilitating Moderation
I have no doubt that there are a great many sophisticated and cosmopolitan Indians who understand that the future of India lies in greater integration with the global economy, improving living standards for its people, broadly-based recognition of the importance of democracy and human rights for long-term global stability and prosperity, all of which would be turned back by any attempt to act upon Akhand Bharat as a political ideology. And I have no doubt whatsoever that an equally proportional number of sophisticated and cosmopolitan Pakistanis understand precisely the same in relation to any attempt to act upon Ghazwa-e-hind as a political ideology. Such individuals as I have described would immediate recognize the appeal to any such retrograde ideologies that would result in socioeconomic retrogression as an opportunistic and probably purely cynical political gambit for power on the part of ambitious and unscrupulous elements.
However, it is not the sophisticated and cosmopolitan outlook of Indian and Pakistani elites that shapes the history of the subcontinent, but rather it is history and geography that shapes the elites. Even the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan members of society -- that elite segment of society from which political leaders are usually drawn -- remain captive to ideas of manifest destiny that are likely to be destructive of all the whatever gains have been realized through economic development. Why is this the case?
In my post Hearts and Minds I quoted Sam Harris on the relationship between religious moderates and religious extremists ...
"...people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused. One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance -- born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God -- is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss."
Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005
Implicit in Harris' formulation is a more general principle, as applicable to manifest destiny as to religious identity, which I stated as, "...ideological moderates of any kind, subscribing to any set of (vaguely held) beliefs, provide cover for ideological extremists who are willing to put their beliefs into practice in an uncompromising form. I will call this the principle of facilitating moderation, since, according to the principle, moderates facilitate the beliefs and actions of extremists."
The ideological moderates likely to be found among Indian and Pakistani elites facilitate the fanaticism and militarism of the masses -- much and Soviet and American elites during the Cold War had to play to the vulgar us-against-them dialectic of the masses. And while India and Pakistan find themselves sharing a border and coveting the same landmass for their manifest destiny, Soviet and American military planners reflected the global ambitions of the conflicting ideologies that defined the Cold War: each side in the conflict had a vision and a destiny for the planet entire.
6. Conclusion: A Problem of Civilization
Is respect for the unjustified beliefs of others pushing us toward the abyss in the Indian subcontinent? Yes and no. In the Darwinian struggle of ideas, science and technology are rapidly transforming our knowledge in unprecedented ways, and in the long term the sheer efficacy of science and technology triumphs over barbarism and superstition, which become marginalized as a result. Technologically implemented eschatological wars that seem to embody a long-imagined manifest destiny can only be successfully prosecuted by societies in possession of the scientific and industrial infrastructure necessary to the waging of industrial-technological warfare, and the unpleasant reality is that, whereas victory once lay with the larger battalions (as Napoleon observed), victory now lies with the higher technology.
But we aren't home free yet. There is no reason for smugness, and much reason to yet fear the danger. Industrial-technological warfare, as it grows in sophistication, presents an existential threat to civilization, and possibly also to all life on Earth. In so far as these means are placed at the disposal of those who still believe in cosmic wars, and who see modern technology as a means to realize an eschatological end, the advancement of science and technology only brings us closer to anthropogenic extinction.
Keynes famously said that the long term is a misleading measure because, in the long term, we are all dead. The danger here is that in the short term we also may all be dead. The prospect of industrial-technological warfare among societies still envisioning their destinies in agrarian-ecclesiastical terms means that we are at the present stage of history passing through a window in which the means to destroy ourselves are provided by novel developments that have not yet changed our societies, and our traditional societies provide the pretext for war on a scale not possible for agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.
Ultimately, then, this is a problem of civilization -- perhaps we could say a problem unique to civilization. Civilization changes our means more readily than it changes our ends, and that puts advanced means at the service of stagnant ends. The problem of civilization is, then, resolved by the need for more civilization. But how are we to expand civilization so that its ends are brought up to a level equal to its means? That must be a question for another time.
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8 February 2014
The Three Eras of Life on Earth
The Earth, it would seem, has been regularly reduced to biological penury throughout its long history, which has been punctuated by mass extinctions that have very nearly reduced biodiversity to zero. It is possible that, in the earliest history of life on Earth, when our planet was regularly bombarded by objects from space, and exposed to especially harsh conditions, life may have emerged multiple times, only to be wiped out again in short order. There would have been plenty of time for this to occur during the 550 million years prior to the emergence of the earliest life known to be continuous with our own.
The repeated denudation of the planet by mass extinctions constituted a kind of ecological succession on a grand scale. Each time life had to recover anew, and, in recovering, the surviving species (the “weeds” that were the most robust and which went on to colonize the denuded landscape and seascape) underwent dramatic periods of adaptive radiation until, in the global climax ecosystems prior to a mass extinction event, almost every niche for life has been filled — possibly several times over, leading to contested niches where multiple species compete for the same limited resources.
The history of life is such a reliable indicator of geological time that there is an entire discipline — biostratigraphy — given over to the dating of rocks by the fossils they contain. Once life becomes sufficiently complex to leave a record of itself in the rocks of our planet, the development of life is a sure guide to the age of the rocks that contain traces of this past life. Contemporary scientific geology largely got its start through biostratigraphy in the work of William Smith (called “strata Smith” by his contemporaries), whom I have previously mentioned in The Transplanetary Perspective.
Three of the major divisions of geological time are named for the eras of life that they comprise: Paleozoic (old life), Mesozoic (middle life), and Cenozoic (common, or recent, life). These divisions of geological time give a “big picture” view of the history of life on Earth. The mass extinction events at the end of the Permian and at the K-T boundary were so catastrophic that the Earth in the case of the end Permian extinction came perilously close to being sterilized, and while the K-T event (now known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene or K–Pg extinction event) was not as disastrous, it ended the dominion of the dinosaurs over most ecological niches and thereby gave mammals the opportunity to experience an explosive adaptive radiation.
Million Year Old Civilizations
We know that intelligent life on Earth arose in the late Cenozoic era, but how clement were these earlier eras of life on Earth to intelligent life? If intelligent life had arisen in the Paleozoic, founded a civilization, and survived to the present, that civilization would be in excess of 250 million years old. If, again, intelligent life had arisen in the Mesozoic, founded a civilization, and survived to the present, that civilization would be in excess of 65 million years old. However, both of these counterfactual civilizations that did not happen would have almost certainly have been destroyed by the catastrophic mass extinctions that separated these eras of terrestrial life (unless they had taken adequate measures to mitigate existential risk, which would seem to be a necessary condition for any truly long-lived civilization).
The idea of a civilization a million or more years old was a theme discussed by Carl Sagan on several occasions. Here is an explicit formulation of the million-year-old civilization theme from Chapter XII, “Encyclopedia Galacitca,” from Sagan’s book Cosmos:
“What does it mean for a civilization to be a million years old? We have had radio telescopes and spaceships for a few decades; our technical civilization is a few hundred years old, scientific ideas of a modern cast a few thousand, civilization in general a few tens of thousands of years; human beings evolved on this planet only a few million years ago. At anything like our present rate of technical progress, an advanced civilization millions of years old is as much beyond us as we are beyond a bush baby or a macaque. Would we even recognize its presence? Would a society a million years in advance of us be interested in colonization or interstellar spaceflight? People have a finite lifespan for a reason. Enormous progress in the biological and medical sciences might uncover that reason and lead to suitable remedies. Could it be that we are so interested in spaceflight because it is a way of perpetuating ourselves beyond our own lifetimes? Might a civilization composed of essentially immortal beings consider interstellar exploration fundamentally childish?”
Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XII, “Encyclopaedia Galactica”
Human civilization could be considered as being more than ten thousand years old if we date the advent of civilization to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. This is an atypical way to think about civilization, but I have seen it in a few sources (Jacob Bronowski, I think, takes this view, more or less), and it is how I myself think about civilization. A civilization ten thousand years old or more is nothing to dismiss; persisting for ten thousand years is a non-trivial accomplishment. Yet the history of terrestrial civilization may be compared to the history of terrestrial life: there is a long period that is nearly stagnant, with painfully slow innovations, and then an event occurs — the Cambrian explosion for life, the industrial revolution for civilization — and what it means to be “alive” or “civilized” is radically altered.
Dating to the Neolithic Agricultural revolution is consistent with my recent suggestion in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization that civilization could be minimally defined as a coevolutionary cohort of species. However, our industrial-technological civilization is barely more than two hundred years old. To consider the geologically insignificant period of time of one hundred years is to contemplate a period of time half again as long as the entire history of industrial-technological civilization. The kind of technological gains that industrial-technological civilization could experience over a period of a hundred years can be quite remarkable, as our experience of the past hundred years suggests.
This year, 2014, we experience the one hundred year anniversary of global industrialized warfare. Not long after, we will experience the hundred year anniversaries of digital computers, jet propulsion, rocketry, and nuclear technology. Some of these technologies have improved by orders of magnitude. Some have improved very little. If the coming century brings commensurate technological innovations (not to mention innovations in science that would drive these technological innovations), even if not all these developments experience exponential development, and many languish in a state of stagnation, our world and our understanding of the world will nevertheless be repeatedly revolutionized.
Given what we know about the rapidity of technological change — bequeathed to our industrial-technological civilization as a consequence of the STEM cycle — we ought to conclude that we can know almost nothing about what a million year civilization would be like, except in so far as we might be able to imagine only the most stagnant aspects of such a civilization. It would be beyond our ability to understand advanced technologies ten thousand years hence, just as our ancestors, only beginning to lay the foundations of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization ten thousand years ago, could have understood our advanced technologies today. Understanding across these orders of developmental magnitude lie beyond the human zone of proximal development.
I have written previously that there is an earliest bound in the history of our universe for life, for intelligent life, and for civilization. It would not be possible to produce an industrial-technological civilization as we know it (i.e., a peer civilization) without heavier metallic elements, so that the emergence of industrial-technological civilization must minimally wait for the formation of Population I stars and their planetary systems. That being said, many population I stars have been around for billions of years, and there have consequently been billions of years for industrial-technological civilizations to emerge and to attain great age.
Are there other constraints upon the emergence of life, intelligence, and civilization that move the boundary for the earliest possible emergence of these phenomena nearer to the present? Is there any reason to suppose, from our knowledge of the natural history of Earth and the complexity of the human brain, that intelligent life and civilization could not have arisen in earlier eras of life — Paleozoic intelligent life or Mesozoic intelligent life, which would, in turn, according to Civilization-Intelligence Covariance, give rise to Paleozoic civilization or Mesozoic civilization? Or, if not here on Earth, why not some other planet orbiting a population I star where life begins 550 million years after the formation of the planet?
Octopi, cuttlefish, and other cephalopods with large brains and highly sophisticated nervous systems — it takes a lot of raw neural processing power to do what some cephalopods do with their skin color — would seem to be ideal candidates for early terrestrial intelligent life. Octopi date back to the Devonian Period, more than 360 million years ago, during the Paleolithic Era, so that ancestors of this life form survived both the End Permian extinction and the K-T extinction (cf. Fossil Octopuses). Why didn’t cephalopods establish a counterfactual civilization during the Permian? There was certainly time enough to do so before the End Permian extinction.
Is a backbone, or something that can serve a similar function like an exoskeleton, a necessary condition for intelligence to issue in the production of civilization? Multicellular life forms without a backbone, or confined to an aquatic environment, might well develop intelligence, but would have a difficult time building a technological civilization — difficult, but not impossible. This is a question I considered previously in The Place of Bilaterial Symmetry in the History of Life and Counterfactuals Implicit in Naturalism.
If we should find life in the oceans below the icy surface of Europa, or any of the other moons in our solar system internally heated by gravitational forces, it would consist of life forms peculiarly constrained by their environment, i.e., possibly more constrained than terrestrial conditions, and therefore more likely to favor extremophiles. Oceanic lifeforms beneath a crust of ice many kilometers thick would not only have the technological disadvantage faced by any intelligent aquatic species, but would face the additional disadvantage of being cut off from the stars. Unable to physically see their place in the universe, such lifeforms might have an even more difficult time that we had in coming to understand the world. The mythology of such a life form would have to be very different from the mythologies created by early human societies, in which the stars typically played a prominent role. Any civilization that might be conjoined with such a mythology might constitute an extremophile civilization.
Inside the Charmed Circle
Many of the questions that I have posed above are variations on ancient themes of anthropocentrism, and from within the charmed circle of anthropocentrism it is difficult for us to see outside that circle. Our minds are quite literally defined by that circle, being the product of human biology, and our imagination is largely circumscribed by the limitations of our minds. But our minds are also capable, with effort, of passing beyond the charmed circle of anthropocentrism, identifying anthropic bias as such and transcending it.
For us, the third time life got a chance on Earth was the charm. Paleozoic life came and (largely) went without producing intelligence or civilization, as did Mesozoic life. It was not until Cenozoic life that intelligence and civilization emerged. But was this the result of mere contingency, or a function of some operative constraint — possibly even a constraint no one has even noticed because of its pervasive presence — that prevented intelligence and civilization from arising in earlier geological eras?
While there might be reason to believe that other forms of life will have something like a DNA structure, or that something like the transition from prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic cells will have taken place, but there is no particular reason to believe that the large scale structure of life on other worlds would have the terrestrial tripartite structure, since this big picture view of life on Earth was a result of particular mass extinction events that seem too contingent to characterize any possible emergence of life. However, there is reason to believe that there will be some mass extinction events afflicting life on other worlds, and at least some of these mass extinction events will result from large scale cosmological events. If solar systems form elsewhere in a process like the formation of our solar system, life elsewhere would also be exposed to asteroid impacts, comets, solar flares, and the like. This is one of the lessons of astrobiology.
That there will be constraints and contingencies that bear upon life we can be certain; but we cannot (yet) know exactly what these constraints and contingencies will be. This is a non-constructive observation: invoking the existence of constraints and contingencies without saying what they will be. What would a constructive approach to life’s constraints and contingencies look like? Is it necessary to adopt a non-constructive perspective where our knowledge is so lacking? As knowledge of the conditions of astrobiology and astrocivilization grows, may we yet adopt a constructive conception of them?
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1 February 2014
In my previous post, Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment in the Transportation Sector, I discussed some of the changes that are likely to come to the transportation industry as a result of autonomous vehicles, which may come to be a textbook case of technological unemployment, though I argued in that post that the transition will take many decades, which will allow for some degree of reallocation of the workforce over time. Economic incentives to freight haulers will drive the use of autonomous vehicles, because of their relatively low costs and ability to operate non-stop, but many people today are employed as transportation workers, and these workers, though today in high demand, may find themselves with greatly changed employment opportunities by the end of the twenty-first century. A whole class of workers who today earn a living wage without the necessity of extensive training and education, stands to be eliminated.
Today I want to go a little deeper into the structural problem of technological unemployment. In my previous post, Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment in the Transportation Sector, I mentioned the recent cover story on The Economist, Coming to an office near you… The argument in an article in this issue in The Economist, “The Onrushing Wave,” is that automation allows for capital to substitute for labor. I don’t disagree with this entirely, but there is no mention in The Economist of regressive taxation or decades of policies that have redistributed income upward.
The same article in The Economist mentions the upcoming book The Second Machine Age by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson; the authors of this book recently had an article on the Financial Times’ Comment page, “Robots stay in the back seat in the new machine age” (Wednesday 22 January 2014). The authors try to remain upbeat while grappling with the realities of technological unemployment. One answer to “resigning ourselves to an era of mass unemployment” proposed by the authors is educational reform, but we know that education, too (like employment), is undergoing a crisis. The same socioeconomic system that is making it possible for capital to substitute for labor through automation is the same socioeconomic system that has been driving young people to spend ever-larger amounts of borrowed money on education, which has lined the pockets of the universities, transformed them into credentialing mills, and has driven employers to escalate their educational requirements for routine jobs that could just as well be filled by someone without a credential.
Both The Economist article and the Financial Times article cite Keynes, who in a particularly prescient passage in an essay of 1930 both foresaw and largely dismissed the problem of technological unemployment:
“We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come — namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour. But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day. There would be nothing surprising in this even in the light of our present knowledge. It would not be foolish to contemplate the possibility of a far greater progress still.”
John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion, “ECONOMIC POSSIBILITIES FOR OUR GRANDCHILDREN” (1930)
It is remarkable that Keynes would so plainly acknowledge technological unemployment as a “new disease” and then go on to dismiss is as “…a temporary phase of maladjustment.” It was Keynes, after all, who penned one of the most famous lines in all economic writing about how misleading it is to appeal to the long run while dismissing the temporary problem:
“But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”
John Maynard Keynes, Monetary Reform, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1924, p. 88
Economists would indeed set themselves too easy, too useless a task if they dismiss technological unemployment as a temporary phase of maladjustment. But, to be fair, economists are not social engineers. It is not for economists, in their role as economists, to make social policy, or even to make economic or monetary policy. This is a political task. It is the role of the economist to understand economic policy and monetary policy, and it is to be hoped that this understanding can be the basis of sound practical recommendations that can be presented to policy makers and the public.
It is well worth reading the whole of Keynes’ essay on the economic possibilities for our grandchildren, in which he suggests that human beings have evolved to struggle for subsistence, but that the growth of technology and capital are going to bring an end to this struggle for subsistence, thus marking a permanent change in the human condition (which Keynes calls, “solving the economic problem”). In short, Keynes was a classic techno-optimist, and he thought it would take about a hundred years (from 1930, so 2030) to get to the point at which humanity has definitively solved the economic problem. He does add the caveat that population control, the avoidance of war, and the employment of science will be necessary in addition to economic effort to solve humanity’s economic problem, and presumably, if we fail to heed Keynes’ caveats — as we certainly have since he wrote his essay — we will likely hamper our progress and delay the solution of the economic problem.
What I find remarkable in Keynes, and in the techno-optimists of our own time, is their ability to speak of the coming age of maximized abundance as though it were all but achieved, and to neglect the whole struggle and negotiation that will get us to that point. Keynes effectively consigned a century to being a temporary phase of maladjustment, and recognized that this temporary phase may stretch out over more than a century if matters don’t proceed smoothly. But for Keynes that isn’t the real problem. Keynes feels that, “the economic problem is not — if we look into the future — the permanent problem of the human race.” He then goes on to blandly state:
“…there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.”
In other words, what bothers Keynes is the troubling prospect of leisure for the working classes. To Keynes and the techno-optimists, I say there is nothing to worry you; that the millennium has not yet arrived, nor are we prepared for it to arrive, since the masses of the people will continue to struggle for subsistence for the foreseeable future. In the contemporary economy, we see no measures put into place that would indicate a shift toward institutions that would ease us into the paradise of maximized abundance promised by automation. There are, of course, the traditional workplace protections put into place throughout the industrialized world in the early part of the twentieth century, which include benefits for the unemployed, protections for those injured on the job, and a minimal stipend for the elderly, i.e., the worker after retirement. None of these traditional protections, however, begins to go far enough to support the unemployed worker for extended periods of time, or eases him into our out of his unemployed condition into sometime sustainable for the indefinite future.
If you lose your job at the age of 50 and have another 15 years to go until retirement (assuming a retirement age, and therefore eligibility for retirement benefits, at age 65), the benefits available to unemployed workers are not going to pay your mortgage for 15 years. And if you sell your house and move into an apartment, those benefits are not going to pay your rent. There are food banks and clothing banks for the destitute, so that in an industrialized nation-state you are not likely to go without some minimal amount of food and clothing. Perhaps, by hook or by crook, you find a way to maintain yourself for 15 years without becoming homeless and ending up as an invisible statistic, begging for change on a street corner. At that time you might get the minimal stipend provided for the elderly, and this might sustain you until you die. But what kind of life is the survival that I have described? It is simply another form of the struggle for subsistence, which Keynes’ thought would be eliminated by the solution of humanity’s economic problem.
While the unfortunate scenario I have outlined above consigns an individual to a relentlessly marginal life, others who have managed to find a more fortunate niche for themselves in the changing economy will have a house or two, a car or two, dinners at nice restaurants, a good education for their children, vacations, and all the things that money can buy in a market economy. The kind of problems that Keynes imagines in his essay, and which techno-optimists ever since have been (implicitly) imagining — that is to say, the problem of what individuals will do with all the time hanging heavy on their hands when they no longer have work to do — would be a kind of situation in which material goods become so cheap that they are simply given away to people. But are we going to give away the kind of good life that the fortunate enjoy?
All you have to do is to drive (or walk) through any large city in the world, and in a recession you will see block after block of empty store fronts, and if you read the classified advertisements you will find countless empty apartments waiting to be rented even as there are homeless people living on the street. We know that the owners of the empty store fronts could rent them out if they were willing to drop their asking price, but there is a limit below which landlords will not drop their price, and they would rather hold on to their properties, paying property taxes and maintenance expenses while their property remains idle, in hopes that a tenant will appear who is willing to meet their price. This situation could be met by government income redistribution, if money collected as taxes were spent to subsidize rentals, to give storefronts to small businesses or to rent empty apartments outright in which the homeless might live. But we already know what government programs like this are like. Individuals have to jump through hoops — in other words, they must be ready to humiliate themselves and to grovel before a functionary — in order to receive the “benefit.” Many people will not do this (I wouldn’t do this), and would thus opt out of well-intentioned programs that would make housing available to the homeless — with strings attached.
Suppose, however, you’re willing to grovel and you get your government apartment. What then? You will still be trapped in an extremely marginal position. You won’t be getting a penthouse suite with a view, you won’t be given a Ferrari to drive, you won’t be given an Armani suit, and you won’t be given an all-expense-paid trip to the south of France to sample the food and wine of the region. Who gets the penthouses and the Ferraris and the Armani suits and the vacations in the Dordogne? In other words, how do we allocate luxury goods in an economy of maximized abundance? Ideally, there would be no limits to consumer goods; that’s what “maximized abundance” means, but we all know that we are not going to be living in a world in which everyone has a Ferrari and an Armani suit.
How far can abundance be stretched? Are we to understand maximized abundance (or what Adam Smith called universal opulence) in terms of equal access to luxuries for everyone, or in terms of freezing social arrangements in a particular configuration so that each level of society receives its traditional share of goods? In other words, are we going to understand society as an egalitarian paradise or a feudal hierarchy? History has many examples of feudal hierarchies, and no examples of egalitarian paradises. Those societies explicitly constituted with the goal of becoming egalitarian paradises — i.e., large scale communist societies of the twentieth century — turned out to be even more stultifyingly hierarchical than feudalism.
There are some rather obvious answers to the rhetorical questions I have posed above, and none of them are particularly admirable. Luxury goods may go to those who are born into great wealth, or they may go to those who are particularly expert in some skill valued by society, or they may be reserved to reward government functionaries for loyal service. All of these arrangements have been realized in actual human societies of the past, and none of them constituted what Keynes called a solution to the economic problem for humanity.
Perhaps you think I am being trivial in my discussion of luxury goods, mentioning Ferraris and Armani suits, but I employ these as mere counters for the real luxuries that make life worth living. By these, I mean the experiences that we treasure and which are uniquely our own. The richness of a life is a function of the experiences that comprise the life in question. In market economies as they are administered today, if you have money, you can afford a wide variety of experiences. And if you are poor, your experiences are pretty much limited to staring at the four walls of your room, if you are lucky enough to avoid being homeless.
Believe me, I could easily elaborate a scenario that would stand with the best of the techno-optimists. I have observed elsewhere that, while seven billion human beings is a lot for the Earth, in the Milky Way it is virtually nothing. With the declining birth rates that characterize industrial-technological civilization, we will need every human being simply for the task of expanding our civilization into the Milky Way, leaving the machines to do the dead-end industrial jobs that once trapped human beings in unenviable circumstances.
There are endless interesting things yet to be done, and we will need every living human being freed from drudgery simply to begin the process of establishing a spacefaring civilization. This is a wonderful vision of considerable attraction to me personally. This is the world that I would like to see come about. The problem is, virtually nothing is being done to realize such a vision, or, for that matter, to realize any other techno-optimist vision. On the contrary, policies being implemented today seem formulated for the purpose of discouraging the kind of society that we need to begin building right now, today, if we are to defy the existential risks with which we are confronted as a species.
We could accurately speak of contemporary economic circumstances as “…a temporary phase of maladjustment…” if we were actively seeking to mitigate the maladjustment and to build an economy that would prepare us for the future. This is not being done. On the contrary, people who lose their jobs are viewed as failures or worse, and are condemned by economic reality to live a life of straightened circumstances. The struggle for subsistence continues, and is likely to continue indefinitely, because despite Keynes’ claim to the contrary, humanity has not yet solved its economic problem, although the economic problem is no longer a problem of production, but rather a problem of distribution and allocation.
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Technnological unemployment has been back in the news in a big way. There was a widely reported study, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne (cf. Half of jobs to be lost to computerisation?), and recently The Economist devoted a cover to the topic (Coming to an office near you…), with several stories inside the magazine considering technological unemployment from a variety of perspectives.
I have visited the question of technological unemployment several times, most particularly in the following posts:
Developments that touch upon technological unemployment — the actual automation technologies, our understanding of these technologies, and the conceptual infrastructure employed in attempting to make sense of economic and technological trends — evolve so rapidly that it is necessary to revisit the question on a regular basis, even while sedulously remaining focused on the big picture so that we do not mistake some passing and ephemeral trend for a development that will define a new era of history.
The big picture of technological unemployment is that it is part of the ongoing industrial revolution, which changed the relationship of human beings to each other and to the planet they occupy, and which continues to unfold with unprecedented developments. Some who write about the industrial revolution make a series of distinctions between the first, second, and nth industrial revolutions, but none of these finer distinctions have been universally recognized, so they only tend to create confusion. Indeed, when I was reading an article about technological unemployment last week the writer called technological employment the second industrial revolution, either unaware or unconcerned that others have already called previous developments (as, for example, electrification or assembly-line production) the second industrial revolution.
I prefer to think of the industrial revolution as one, long, unfinished process, beginning in England with the use of fossil fueled steam engines to power machinery and changing continuously up to the present day, as new technologies emerge from the previous generation of technologies. This technological innovation that began the industrial revolution and sustains it in our time I have called the STEM cycle. Because of the STEM cycle, the industrial revolution continues to revolutionize itself, always producing new technologies and new technological dislocations in the socioeconomic system, but it is the structure of technological change itself that defines the industrial revolution and the industrialized societies that have arisen in its wake.
The same conditions that held in the earliest automation of formerly manual tasks continue to hold today: some tasks are easier to automate than are other tasks, and some parts of a given task are easier to automate than other parts of the same task. The automated production process tends to break down tasks into their simplest constituents, automate the automatable tasks, and then stitch together the whole in an assembly-line production process in which the gaps between automated tasks are filled by human workers who continue to perform the tasks (and parts of tasks) that cannot be readily automated. Thus industrialization gives us the “job of the gaps” employment structure, and continuing technological innovations narrow these gaps, reducing employment.
However, even as entire classes of employment disappear, new classes of employment appear — as unprecedented as the technological innovations that spelled the end of previous forms of employment — and this has allowed industrialized economies to continue their balancing act of keeping the majority of their populations employed while enjoying the rising productivity that results from continuous technological improvement of the production process. However, there is no guarantee that this balancing act can be maintained indefinitely — or even that this would be a desirable state of affairs. Imagining a permanent future of dead-end industrial jobs is a kind of dystopian scenario that offers little hope. However, the utopian scenario of human beings freed from stultifying labor by technological unemployment seems too good to be true.
I will discuss some of the implications for technological unemployment in relation to the transportation industry, since I know something about the transportation industry, having earned by income in the industry for the past three decades. The rapidity of the development of self-driving cars (autonomous vehicles) is a testament to the rapid gains of technology and computerization as they bear upon transportation. When, in the past, people imagined an automated road transportation network (and this is a staple of futurist thought that has been imagined many times), it was assumed that radio transponders would have to be built into roads and infrastructure to guide a vehicle along. Instead, laser range finders and radars construct a local map of the terrain, which is then compared to high resolution maps of the actual environment, and the precision of GPS systems allows the vehicle to navigate through the map. (Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the abbreviated version.)
The development of autonomous vehicles is a potential boon to the transportation industry. One of the greatest challenges to the industry has been the ability of motor carriers to find a sufficient number of drivers to haul their loads, and recent hours of service (HOS) regulation changes have increased the limitations on the number of hours a driver can drive in a day and in a week. Autonomous commercial vehicles, when they become both practicable and legal, would potentially mean unlimited freight capacity and trucks operating twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Driver shortage would no longer be a problem for freight haulers.
While most driving is routine and could easily be handled by an autonomous vehicle, there is a significant portion of the driving day which is likely to elude automation for some time to come. Driving a tractor-trailer within a congested urban area is much more difficult that driving a passenger vehicle in the same conditions, and it will take longer to automate this process than the hours on the open highway between major urban centers. There is nothing in principle that cannot be automated, and when the technology is available it is likely that autonomous tractor-trailers will be safer in traffic than human drivers. However, a single severe collision involving injury or a fatality would likely be picked up by the media and one would expect a headline something like, “Killer Robot Trucks on our Highways!” This would likely to delay the development of the industry for years, if not decades. Due to the obvious liability issues, one would expect that the technology would not be rolled out until it is fully mature, and even then accidents will happen. (I have elsewhere argued that industrial accidents are intrinsic to and ineradicable features of industrial-technological civilization, and traffic accidents are among the most common of industrial accidents.)
Other than the complexities of driving in crowded urban conditions that put other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians at risk of life and limb, there are aspects of freight hauling that will not be easily automated. Another aspect of our industrial-technological civilization is that it runs clock around and year round. There is never a break. Freight moves every day of the year, and if the transportation infrastructure is slowed or stopped, store shelves are quickly bare. Other than unpredictable snow storms that shut down highways, there are predictable inclement weather conditions that occur on all roads at high elevations. In the continental US, thousands of trucks every day go through mountain passes, and it is not usual in the Rockies or the Cascade Range for drivers in mountainous areas to chain up their vehicles every day simply to be able to complete their trip. Tire chains are a nearly archaic technology, but they are effective, and nothing else will get a truck through snow and ice like chains. Believe me, I’ve been there. I know whereof I speak.
I think it will be a very long time before any robot or automated system will be able to chain up a tractor-trailer in inclement weather conditions. There are automatic chains available, but their use is limited, and they won’t get you through deep snow. Putting tire chains on a tractor-trailer is physically demanding and difficult to do well. No doubt there is a way to automate the process, but it won’t happen in a robust form any time soon — and here by “robust form” I mean a dependable way of getting a truck through a mountain pass on a daily basis.
I can foresee a day when tractor-trailers are automated for long stretches of highway in flat country, and dual-purpose vehicles are sometimes piloted autonomously and sometimes driven by human drivers. It might be possible to station drivers on the outskirts of cities, who would then get into autonomous vehicles and drive them within urban areas. Or drivers might be stationed at the bottom of mountain rangers, and get in the trucks to take them over the pass. But in a severe winter, the snows come down the side of the mountains, and the stationing of drivers to take over in inclement conditions might have to change daily. Under such conditions, it would be an open question as to whether it would be more cost effective to simply keep drivers in the trucks all day rather than attempt to constantly shuttle drivers to where they would need to be to take over autonomous vehicles where these vehicles could no longer safely operate. So truck drivers aren’t yet quite out of a job, even when autonomous tractor-trailers become a reality.
The process of automating commercial vehicles is likely to spread out over many decades, which will allow for realignment of employment within the industry over time. And driving, of course, is not the only job within the transportation industry. There is the warehousing and loading of freight, maintenance of vehicles, and many other functions. It will be a very long time before automated roadside service for breakdowns will be possible. Autonomous vehicles will be more technologically complex even than the trucks on the road today, and they will break down with some regularity (breakdowns, like industrial accidents, are an intrinsic part of industrial-technological civilization). Automated vehicles broken down on the shoulder of the road will have to be serviced by human technicians for many decades to come, and a stranded automated vehicle would also be a soft target for cargo theft, which creates a new kind of “opportunity” for human beings within an automated economy.
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20 January 2014
Studies in Formalism:
The Synoptic Perspective in Formal Thought
In my previous two posts on the overview effect — The Epistemic Overview Effect and The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking — I discussed how we can take insights gained from the “overview effect” — what astronauts and cosmonauts have experienced as a result of seeing our planet whole — and apply them to over areas of human experience and knowledge. Here I would like to try to apply these insights to formal thought.
The overview effect is, above all, a visceral experience, something that the individual feels as much as they experience, and you may wonder how I could possibly find a connection between a visceral experience and formal thinking. Part of the problem here is simply the impression that formal thought is distant from human concerns, that it is cold, impersonal, unfeeling, and, in a sense, inhuman. Yet for logicians and mathematicians (and now, increasingly, also for computer scientists) formal thought is a passionate, living, and intimate engagement with the world. Truly enough, this is not an engagement with the concrete artifacts of the world, which are all essentially accidents due to historical contingency, but rather an engagement with the principles implicit in all things. Aristotle, ironically, formalized the idea of formal thought being bereft of human feeling when he asserted that mathematics has no ethos. I don’t agree, and I have discussed this Aristotelian perspective in The Ethos of Formal Thought.
And yet. Although Aristotle, as the father of logic, had more to do with the origins of formal thought than any other human being who has ever lived, the Aristotelian denial of an ethos to formal thought does not do justice to our intuitive and even visceral engagement with formal ideas. To get a sense of this visceral and intuitive engagement with the formal, let us consider G. H. Hardy.
Late in his career, the great mathematician G. H. Hardy struggled to characterize what he called mathematically significant ideas, which is to say, what makes an idea significant in formal thought. Hardy insisted that “real” mathematics, which he distinguished from “trivial” mathematics, and which presumably engages with mathematically significant ideas, involves:
“…a very high degree of unexpectedness, combined with inevitability and economy.”
G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology, section 15
Hardy’s appeal to parsimony is unsurprising, yet the striking contrast of the unexpected and the inevitable is almost paradoxical. One is not surprised to hear an exposition of mathematics in deterministic terms, which is what inevitability is, but if mathematics is the working out of rigid formal rules of procedure (i.e., a mechanistic procedure), how could any part of it be unexpected? And yet it is. Moreover, as Hardy suggested, “deep” mathematical ideas (which we will explore below) are unexpected even when they appear inevitable and economical.
It would not be going too far to suggest that Hardy was trying his best to characterize mathematical beauty, or elegance, which is something that is uppermost in the mind of the pure mathematician. Well, uppermost at least in the minds of some pure mathematicians; Gödel, who was as pure a formal thinker as ever lived, said that “…after all, what interests the mathematician, in addition to drawing consequences from these assumptions, is what can be carried out” (Collected Works Volume III, Unpublished essays and lectures, Oxford, 1995, p. 377), which is an essentially pragmatic point of view, in which formal elegance would seem to play little part. Mathematical elegance has never been given a satisfactory formulation, and it is an irony of intellectual history that the most formal of disciplines relies crucially on an informal intuition of formal elegance. Beauty, it is often said, in the mind of the beholder. Is this true also for mathematical beauty? Yes and no.
If a mathematically significant idea is inevitable, we should be able to anticipate it; if unexpected, it ought to elude all inevitability, since the inevitable ought to be predictable. One way to try to capture the ineffable sense of mathematical elegance is through paradox — here, the paradox of the inevitable and the unexpected — in way not unlike the attempt to seek enlightenment through the contemplation of Zen koans. But Hardy was no mystic, so he persisted in his attempted explication of mathematically significant ideas in terms of discursive thought:
“There are two things at any rate which seem essential, a certain generality and a certain depth; but neither quality is easy to define at all precisely.
G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology, section 15
Although Hardy repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with his formulations of generality and depth, he nevertheless persisted in his attempts to clarify them. Of generality Hardy wrote:
“The idea should be one which is a constituent in many mathematical constructs, which is used in the proof of theorems of many different kinds. The theorem should be one which, even if stated originally (like Pythagoras’s theorem) in a quite special form, is capable of considerable extension and is typical of a whole class of theorems of its kind. The relations revealed by the proof should be such as to connect many different mathematical ideas.” (section 15)
And of mathematical depth Hardy hazarded:
“It seems that mathematical ideas are arranged somehow in strata, the ideas in each stratum being linked by a complex of relations both among themselves and with those above and below. The lower the stratum, the deeper (and in general more difficult) the idea.” (section 17)
This would account for the special difficulty of foundational ideas, of which the most renown example would be the idea of sets, though there are other candidates to be found in other foundational efforts, as in category theory or reverse mathematics.
Hardy’s metaphor of mathematical depth suggests foundations, or a foundational approach to mathematical ideas (an approach which reached its zenith in the early twentieth century in the tripartite struggle over the foundations of mathematics, but is a tradition which has since fallen into disfavor). Depth, however, suggests the antithesis of a synoptic overview, although both the foundational perspective and the overview perspective seek overarching unification, one from the bottom up, the other from the top down. These perspectives — bottom up and top down — are significant, as I have used these motifs elsewhere as an intuitive shorthand for constructive and non-constructive perspectives respectively.
Few mathematicians in Hardy’s time had a principled commitment to constructive methods, and most employed non-constructive methods will little hesitation. Intuitionism was only then getting its start, and the full flowering of constructivistic schools of thought would come later. It could be argued that there is a “constructive” sense to Zermelo’s axiomatization of set theory, but this is of the variety that Godel called “strictly nominalistic construtivism.” Here is Godel’s attempt to draw a distinction between nominalistic constructivism and the sense of constructivism that has since overtaken the nominalistic conception:
…the term “constructivistic” in this paper is used for a strictly nominalistic kind of constructivism, such that that embodied in Russell’s “no class theory.” Its meaning, therefore, if very different from that used in current discussions on the foundations of mathematics, i.e., from both “intuitionistically admissible” and “constructive” in the sense of the Hilbert School. Both these schools base their constructions on a mathematical intuition whose avoidance is exactly one of the principle aims of Russell’s constructivism… What, in Russell’s own opinion, can be obtained by his constructivism (which might better be called fictionalism) is the system of finite orders of the ramified hierarchy without the axiom of infinity for individuals…”
Kurt Gödel, Kurt Gödel: Collected Works: Volume II: Publications 1938-1974, Oxford et al.: Oxford University Press, 1990, “Russell’s Mathematical Logic (1944),” footnote, Author’s addition of 1964, expanded in 1972, p. 119
This profound ambiguity in the meaning of “constructivism” is a conceptual opportunity — there is more that lurks in this idea of formal construction than is apparent prima facie. That what Gödel calls a, “strictly nominalistic kind of constructivism” coincides with what we would today call non-constructive thought demonstrates the very different conceptions of what is has meant to mathematicians (and other formal thinkers) to “construct” an object.
Kant, who is often called a proto-constructivist (though I have identified non-constructive elements on Kant’s thought in Kantian Non-Constructivism), does not invoke construction when he discusses formal entities, but instead formulates his thoughts in terms of exhibition. I think that this is an important difference (indeed, I have a long unfinished manuscript devoted to this). What Kant called “exhibition” later philosophers of mathematics came to call “surveyability” (“Übersichtlichkeit“). This latter term is especially due to Wittgenstein; Wittgenstein also uses “perspicuous” (“Übersehbar“). Notice in both of the terms Wittgenstein employs for surveyability — Übersichtlichkeit and Übersehbar — we have “Über,” usually (or often, at least) translated as “over.” Sometimes “Über” is translated as “super” as when Nietzsche’s “Übermensch“ is translated as “superman” (although the term has also been translated as “over-man,” inter alia).
There is a difference between Kantian exhibition and Wittgensteinian surveyability — I don’t mean to conflate the two, or to suggest that Wittgenstein was simply following Kant, which he was not — but for the moment I want to focus on what they have in common, and what they have in common is the attempt to see matters whole, i.e., to take in the object of one’s thought in a single glance. In the actual practice of seeing matters whole it is a bit more complicated, especially since in English we commonly use “see” to mean “understand,” and there are a whole range of visual metaphors for understanding.
The range of possible meanings of “seeing” accounts for a great many of the different formulations of constructivism, which may distinguish between what is actually constructable in fact, that which it is feasible to construct (this use of “feasible” reminds me a bit of “not too large” in set theories based on the “limitation of size” principle, which is a purely conventional limitation), and that which can be constructed in theory, even if not constructable in fact, or if not feasible to construct. What is “surveyable” depends on our conception of what we can see — what might be called the modalities of seeing, or the modalities of surveyability.
There is an interesting paper on surveyability by Edwin Coleman, “The surveyability of long proofs,” (available in Foundations of Science, 14, 1-2, 2009) which I recommend to the reader. I’m not going to discuss the central themes of Coleman’s paper (this would take me too far afield), but I will quote a passage:
“…the problem is with memory: ‘our undertaking’ will only be knowledge if all of it is present before the mind’s eye together, which any reliance on memory prevents. It is certainly true that many long proofs don’t satisfy Descartes-surveyability — nobody can sweep through the calculations in the four color theorem in the requisite way. Nor can anyone do it with either of the proofs of the Enormous Theorem or Fermat’s Last Theorem. In fact most proofs in real mathematics fail this test. If real proofs require this Cartesian gaze, then long proofs are not real proofs.”
For Coleman, the received conception of surveyability is deceptive, but what I wanted to get across by quoting his paper was the connection to the Cartesian tradition, and to the role of memory in seeing matters whole.
The embodied facts of seeing, when seeing is understood as the biophysical process of perception, was a concern to Bertrand Russell in the construction of a mathematical logic adequate to the deduction of mathematics. In the Introduction to Principia Mathematica Russell wrote:
“The terseness of the symbolism enables a whole proposition to be represented to the eyesight as one whole, or at most in two or three parts divided where the natural breaks, represented in the symbolism, occur. This is a humble property, but is in fact very important in connection with the advantages enumerated under the heading.”
Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, Principia Mathematica, Volume I, second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963, p. 2
…and Russell elaborated…
“The adaptation of the rules of the symbolism to the processes of deduction aids the intuition in regions too abstract for the imagination readily to present to the mind the true relation between the ideas employed. For various collocations of symbols become familiar as representing important collocations of ideas; and in turn the possible relations — according to the rules of the symbolism — between these collocations of symbols become familiar, and these further collocations represent still more complicated relations between the abstract ideas. And thus the mind is finally led to construct trains of reasoning in regions of thought in which the imagination would be entirely unable to sustain itself without symbolic help.”
Thinking is difficult, and symbolization allows us to — mechanically — extend thinking into regions where thinking alone, without symbolic aid, would not be capable of penetrating. But that doesn’t mean symbolic thinking is easy. Elsewhere Russell develops another rationalization for symbolization:
“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.”
Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”
Russell formulated the difficulty of thinking even more strongly in a later passage:
“There is a good deal of importance to philosophy in the theory of symbolism, a good deal more than at one time I thought. I think the importance is almost entirely negative, i.e., the importance lies in the fact that unless you are fairly self conscious about symbols, unless you are fairly aware of the relation of the symbol to what it symbolizes, you will find yourself attributing to the thing properties which only belong to the symbol. That, of course, is especially likely in very abstract studies such as philosophical logic, because the subject-matter that you are supposed to be thinking of is so exceedingly difficult and elusive that any person who has ever tried to think about it knows you do not think about it except perhaps once in six months for half a minute. The rest of the time you think about the symbols, because they are tangible, but the thing you are supposed to be thinking about is fearfully difficult and one does not often manage to think about it. The really good philosopher is the one who does once in six months think about it for a minute. Bad philosophers never do.”
Bertrand Russell, Logic and Knowledge: Essays 1901-1950, 1956, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism,” I. “Facts and Propositions,” p. 185
Alfred North Whitehead, coauthor of Principia Mathematica, made a similar point more colorfully than Russell, which I recently in The Algorithmization of the World:
“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle: they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.”
Alfred North Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics, London: WILLIAMS & NORGATE, Chap. V, pp. 45-46
This quote from Whitehead follows a lesser known passage from the same work:
“…by the aid of symbolism, we can make transitions in reasoning almost mechanically by the eye, which otherwise would call into play the higher faculties of the brain.”
Alfred North Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics, London: WILLIAMS & NORGATE, Chap. V, pp. 45
In other words, the brain is saved effort by mechanizing as much reason as can be mechanized. Of course, not everyone is capable of these kinds of mechanical deductions made possible by mathematical logic, which is especially difficult.
Recent scholarship has only served to underscore the difficulty of thinking, and the steps we must take to facilitate our thinking. Daniel Kahneman in particular has focused on the physiology effort involved in thinking. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between two cognitive systems, which he calls System 1 and System 2, which are, respectively, that faculty of the mind that responds immediately, on an intuitive or instinctual level, and that faculty of the mind that proceeds more methodically, according to rules:
Why call them System 1 and System 2 rather than the more descriptive “automatic system” and “effortful system”? The reason is simple: “Automatic system” takes longer to say than “System 1” and therefore takes more space in your working memory. This matters, because anything that occupies your working memory reduces your ability to think. You should treat “System 1” and “System 2” as nicknames, like Bob and Joe, identifying characters that you will get to know over the course of this book. The fictitious systems make it easier for me to think about judgment and choice, and will make it easier for you to understand what I say.
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Part I, Chap. 1
While such concerns do not appear to have explicitly concerned Russell, Russell’s concern for economy of thought implicitly embraced this idea. One’s ability to think must be facilitated in any way possible, including the shortening of names — in purely formal thought, symbolization dispenses with names altogether and contents itself with symbols only, usually introduced as letters.
Kahneman’s book, by the way, is a wonderful review of cognitive biases that cites many of the obvious but often unnoticed ways in which thought requires effort. For example, if you are walking along with someone and you ask them in mid-stride to solve a difficult mathematical problem — or, for that matter, any problem that taxes working memory — your companion is likely to come to a stop when focusing mental effort on the work of solving the problem. Probably everyone has had experiences like this, but Kahneman develops the consequences systematically, with very interesting results (creating what is now known as behavioral economics in the process).
Formal thought is among the most difficult forms of cognition ever pursued by human beings. How can we facilitate our ability to think within a framework of thought that taxes us so profoundly? It is the overview provided by the non-constuctive perspective that makes it possible to take a “big picture” view of formal knowledge and formal thought, which is usually understood to be a matter entirely immersed in theoretical details and the minutiae of deduction and derivation. We must take an “Über” perspective in order to see formal thought whole. We have become accustomed to thinking of “surveyability” in constructivist terms, but it is just as valid in non-constructivist terms.
In P or not-P (as well as in subsequent posts concerned with constructivism, What is the relationship between constructive and non-constructive mathematics? Intuitively Clear Slippery Concepts, and Kantian Non-constructivism) I surveyed constructivist and non-constructivist views of tertium non datur — the central logical principle at issue in the conflict between constructivism and non-constructiviem — and suggested that constructivists and non-constructivists need each other, as each represents a distinct point of view on formal thought.
In P or not-P, cited above, I quoted French mathematician Alain Connes:
“Constructivism may be compared to mountain climbers who proudly scale a peak with their bare hands, and formalists to climbers who permit themselves the luxury of hiring a helicopter to fly over the summit …the uncountable axiom of choice gives an aerial view of mathematical reality — inevitably, therefore, a simplified view.”
Conversations on Mind, Matter, and Mathematics, Changeux and Connes, Princeton, 1995, pp. 42-43
In several posts I have taken up this theme of Alain Connes and have spoken of the non-constructive perspective (which Connes calls “formalist”) as being top-down and the constructive perspective as being bottom-up. In particular, in The Epistemic Overview Effect I argued that in additional to the possibility of a spatial overview (the world entire seen from space) and a temporal overview (history seen entire, after the manner of Big History), there is an epistemic overview, that is to say, an overview of knowledge, perhaps even the totality of knowledge.
If we think of those mathematical equations that have become sufficiently famous that they have become known outside mathematics and physics — (as well as some that should be more widely known, but are not, like the generalized continuum hypothesis and the expression of epsilon zero) — they all have not only the succinct property that Russell noted in the quotes above in regard to symbolism, but also many of the qualities that G. H. Hardy ascribed to what he called mathematically significant ideas.
It is primarily non-constructive modes of thought that give us a formal overview and which make it possible for us to engage with mathematically significant ideas, and, more generally, with formally significant ideas.
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Studies in Formalism
9. The Overview Effect in Formal Thought
10. Methodological and Ontological Parsimony (in preparation)
11. Einstein’s Conception of Formalism (in preparation)
12. The Spirit of Formalism (in preparation)
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18 January 2014
In my previous post on The Finality Fallacy I discussed the fallacy of treating open matters as though closed, and quoted Hermann Weyl’s 1932 lectures The Open World as a countervailing point of view. If the world is an open world, an unfinished world, then there will always be unfinished business — no finality, no closure, no resolution, no end of anything — and no beginning either.
Bertrand Russell wonderfully described the ontology implicit in such a conception of the world:
“Academic philosophers, ever since the time of Parmenides, have believed that the world is a unity. This view has been taken over from them by clergymen and journalists, and its acceptance has been considered the touchstone of wisdom. The most fundamental of my intellectual beliefs is that this is rubbish. I think the universe is all spots and jumps, without unity, without continuity, without coherence or orderliness or any of the other properties that governesses love. Indeed, there is little but prejudice and habit to be said for the view that there is a world at all.”
Bertrand Russell, The Scientific Outlook, Part One, Chapter IV. Scientific Metaphysics
There is a subtle difference, of course, between finality and unity; the presumption of unity that Russell mocked could be finitistic or infinitistic in character, but, as I pointed out in my last post, I suspect that Russell and Weyl, whatever their differences, could have agreed that the world is open. Unity may not imply openness, but openness implies the possibility of revision, the possibility of revision implies the iteration of revision, the iteration of revision implies evolution, and evolution implies anti-realism, at least in the essentialist sense of “realism.” Anything that changes gradually over an indefinite period of time may be so transformed by its incremental and cumulative change that it can be transformed into something entirely other that what it once was. This, I have argued elsewhere, is the essence of existential viability.
By the same token, there is a subtle difference between finitude and contingency. I can imagine that someone might argue that finitude implies contingency and contingency implies finitude, but I would reject any such argument. The distinction is subtle but important, and I think that it marks that difference between a naturalistic philosophy, that is essentially a philosophy of contingency, and an anthropocentric point of view that reduces the infinitistic contingency of the world to a manageable finitude because human beings are comfortable with finitude. That is to say, I am suggesting that finitistic modes of thought constitute a cognitive bias. But let’s try to penetrate a little further into what self-described finitists have in mind, and let’s try to find an unambiguously finitistic perspective.
I remember running across the phrase “radical finitude” in some of my past reading, so I looked for the original source in which I had first encountered the term and was unable to find it, but I have found many other references to radical finitude. The name that comes up most often in relation to radical finitude is that of Martin Heidegger (on Heidegger cf. my Conduct Unbecoming a Philosopher and Ott on Heidegger). Heidegger is mentioned by Weyl as a representative of the “thesis of the categorical finiteness of man” in the quote from Weyl in my last post, The Finality Fallacy. Here, again, is an abbreviated portion of the section I previously quoted from Weyl, where Weyl singles out Heidegger:
“We reject the thesis of the categorical finiteness of man, both in the atheistic form of obdurate finiteness which is so alluringly represented today in Germany by the Freiburg philosopher Heidegger…”
Here, on the other hand, is a representative exposition of radical finitude that draws upon the Heideggerian tradition:
“Nonbeing as the principle of finitude is non-being understood in its relative and dialectical character through which it becomes a constitutive factor of human being or Dasein himself. Anxiety in its disclosure of nothingness thus brings man to an awareness of his radical finitude, and what ever else is to be said of existentialist philosophy, it must be said that existentialism is an emphatic philosophy of human finitude. The principle of finitude is central to all the existentialist thinkers, and it emerges with particular emphasis in the philosophy of Heidegger. Heidegger interprets this philosophy of human finitude to be, at least in part, a legacy of Kant’s critical philosophy. With his emphasis on the finite character of human reason and his insight into the negativities of moral striving, Kant paved the way for the development of fundamental ontology formulated in terms of finite structures.”
Calvin O. Schrag, Existence and Freedom: Towards an Ontology of Human Finitude, pp. 73-74
According to Schrag, then, it seems that existentialism can be defined in terms of Weyl’s thesis of the categorical finiteness of man. If this is so, and existentialism is, “an emphatic philosophy of human finitude,” as Schrag said it was, it might still be possible to define another philosophical position, entirely parallel to existentialism, but which would reject the thesis of the categorical finiteness of man. What would we call this logical complement of existentialism? It doesn’t really matter what we call it, but I’m sure there must be a clever moniker that eludes me at the moment.
Although it doesn’t really matter what we would call the infinitistic complement of existentialism, it does matter that such a philosophy would reject finitism (and its tendency to commit the finality fallacy). With a slight change to Schrag’s formulation, we could say that the complement of existentialism imagined above would be an emphatic philosophy of human contingency. This is a position that I could endorse, even while I would continue to reject a philosophy of human finitude. And this formulation in terms of contingency is not necessarily at odds with non-Heideggerian existentialism.
Sartre’s formulation of existentialism — existence precedes essence — is in no sense intrinsically finitistic. I can imagine that someone might argue that existence is intrinsically finite — that the existential is existential in virtue of being marked out by the boundaries that define its finitude — but I would reject that argument. That same argument could made for essence (i.e., that essence is intrinsically finite), and thus for the whole idealistic tradition that preceded Sartre, and which Sartre and others saw themselves as overturning. (Heidegger, it should be noted, categorically rejected Sartre’s categorical formulation of existentialism.) The existence that precedes essence may well be an infinitistic existence, just as the essence that precedes existence in the idealistic tradition may well be an infinitistic essence.
To return to one of the roots of existential thought, we find in Nietzsche that it is contingency rather than finitude that is at stake. In a note from 1873 Nietzsche wrote:
“That my life has no aim is evident even from the accidental nature of its origin; that I can posit an aim for myself is another matter.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Viking, p. 40
Recognition of the contingency of life, and especially (given the anthropocentrism of our human minds) the contingency of human life, is a touchstone of existential thought. Some, as I have noted above, frame contingency in finitistic terms, but as I see it contingency is the infinite context of all existents, stretching out into space and time without end. From this point of view, any finitude is an arbitrary division within the Heraclitean flux of the world, the concordia discors that precedes us, follows us, and surrounds us.
What is the relationship between Nietzschean contingency and Weyl’s openness? I would argue that the open world implies an open life. It was one of the central literary conceits of Plato’s Republic that it is easier to see justice in the large — i.e., in the just state — than to see justice in the small — i.e., in the just man — and this is how Socrates shifts the conversation to an investigation of the ideal state, which, once defined, will give us the image that we need in order to understand the ideally proportioned man. If Plato (and Socrates) are right this this, one might hold that Weyl’s open world can be a guide to the open life.
What would an open life look like? One vision of the open life is described in Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, from the mouth of Jacob Marley:
“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, “Marley’s Ghost”
This is the open life of the individual — to walk abroad, literally and metaphorically — and to share what can be shared. The open life of the species is again another question — a question mid-way between the open world and the individual open life — and one that might simply be answered by asserting that an open humanity is the sum total of open human lives, if one regards humanity as nothing in itself and reducible to its individual instances.
This is the point at which I may perhaps lose my reader, because what I would like to suggest is that the open life for humanity is another way to understand transhumanism. Transhumanism is the openness of humanity to revision, and openness to revision implies iterated revision, iterated revision implies evolution, and the evolution of humanity implies an essentially different humanity in the future than humanity today.
What I have come to realize since writing my last post is that human finitude is one manifestation of human contingency, and, like any contingency, it is subject to revision by future contingencies. Again, our finitude, so far as it extends, is a contingency, and therefore, like any contingency, is subject to change.
The critics of transhumanism who have tried to find ways to praise suffering and death, and who go out of their way to argue that human life only has meaning and value in virtue of its limitation, overlook the role of contingency in human life. They pretend that human life is final, and that its contingent features are essential to humanity, if not necessary to the definition of what it means to be human — which is to say, they commit the finality fallacy. For the prophets of wholesome loss, humanity is finished.
Human being is no more final than any other form of being. The openness of human being means that human viability is predicated upon contingency, and that we must evolve or perish.
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