Today we celebrate the 540th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus. The great astronomer was born 19 February 1473 in Toruń, now part of Poland. The name of Copernicus belongs with the short list of thinkers who not only changed the direction of civilization, but also the nature and character of Western civilization. Copernicus as the distinction of having a cosmology named in his honor.

We would do well to recall how radically our understanding of the world has changed in relatively recent years. Up until the advent of modern science, several ancient traditions of Western civilization had come together in a comfortingly stable picture of the world in which all of Western society was deeply invested. The Aristotelian systematization of Christian theology carried out by Thomas Aquinas was especially influential. Questioning this framework was not welcome. But science was an idea whose time had come, and, as we all know, nothing can stop the progress of an idea whose time had come.

Copernicus began questioning this cosmology by putting the sun in the center of the universe; Galileo pointed his telescope into the heavens and showed that the sun has spots, the moon has mountains, and that Jupiter had moons of its own, the center of its own miniature planetary system. Others took up the mantle and went even farther: Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and eventually Newton and then Einstein.

Copernicus was a polymath, but essentially a theoretician. One must wonder if Copernicus ever read William of Ockham, since it was Ockham along with Copernicus who initiated the unraveling of the scholastic synthesis, out of which the modern world would rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of the medieval world. Ockham provided the theoretical justification for the sweeping simplification of cosmology that Copernicus effected; it is not outside the realm of possibility that the later theoretician read the work of the earlier.

Today, when our knowledge of cosmology is expanding at breathtaking speed, Copernicus is more relevant than ever. We find ourselves forced to consider and to reconsider the central Copernican idea from every possible angle. The Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter force us to seek new insights into Copernicanism. I quite literally think about Copernicanism every day, making Copernicus a living influence on my thought.

As our civilization grows in sophistication, the question “Are we alone?” becomes more and more pressing. Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” This insight is profound in its simplicity. Thus we search for peer civilizations and peer life in the universe. That is to say, we look for other civilizations like ours, and for life that resembles us.

SETI must be considered a process of elimination, which I take to already have eliminated “near by” exocivilizations, although we cannot rule out the possibility that we currency find ourselves within the “halo” of a vanished cosmological civilization.

A peer civilization only slightly advanced over our own (say 100-500 years more industrial development), if it is in fact a peer and not incomprehensibly alien, would also be asking themselves “Are we alone?” They, too, would be equally terrified at being alone in the cosmos or at having another peer civilization present. Because we know that we exist as an industrial-technological civilization, and we know the extent to which we can eliminate peer civilizations in the immediate neighborhood of our own star, we can assume that a more advanced peer civilization would have an even more extensive sphere of SETI elimination. They would home in on us as incredibly interesting, as an exception to the rule of the eerie silence, in the same way that we seek out others like ourselves. That is to say, they would have found us, not least because they would be actively seeking us. So this may be considered an alternative formulation of the Fermi paradox.

Despite the growing tally of planets discovered in the habitable zones of stars, including nearby examples at Tau Ceti which lies within our SETI exclusion zone (which excludes only civilizations producing EM spectrum signals), there is no evidence that there are other peer civilizations, and advanced peer civilizations would already have found us — and they would be as excited by discovering us as we would be excited in discovering a peer civilization. There are none close, which we know from the SETI zone of exclusion; we must look further afield. Other peer civilizations would also likely have to look further afield. In looking further afield they would find us.

I don’t believe that any of this contradicts the Copernican principle in spirit. I think it is just a matter of random chance that our civilization happens to be the first industrial-technological civilization to emerge in the Milky Way, and possibly also the first in the local cluster of galaxies. We are, after all, an accidental world. However, it will take considerable refinement of this idea to show exactly how the uniqueness of human civilization (if it is in fact locally unique) is consistent with Copernicanism — and this keeps Copernicus in my thoughts.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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These galaxies would certainly gain the mythological attention of any sentient beings living in full view of such spectacular displays.

When a future science of civilizations begins to take shape, it will need to distinguish broad categories or families of civilizations, or, if you will, species of civilizations. In so far as civilizations are out outgrowth of biological species, they are an extension of biology, and it is appropriate to use the terminology of species to characterize civilizations.

Just a few days ago in A Copernican Conception of Civilization I distinguished between eocivilization (i.e., terrestrial civilizations), exocivilization (extraterrestrial civilizations), and astrocivilization (an integrated conception of eo- and exocivilization taken together). This is a first step in identifying species of civilizations.

Given that astrocivilization follows directly from (one could say, supervenes upon) astrobiology, it is particular apt to extend the definition of astrobiology to astrocivilization, and so in A Copernican Conception of Civilization I paraphrased the NASA definition of astrobiology, mutatis mutandis, for civilization. Thus astrociviliation comprises…

…the study of the civilized universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of civilization in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of the structure of spacetime in civilizations, and (3) the study of the Earth’s civilizations in their terrestrial and cosmological context.

Some time ago in A First Image from the Herschel Telescope I made the suggestion that particular physical features of a galaxy might result in any and all civilizations arising within that galaxy to share a certain feature or features based upon the features of the containing galaxy. This is a point worth developing at greater length.

Of the images of the M51 galaxy I wrote:

If there are civilizations in that galaxy, they must have marvelous constellations defined by these presumably enormous stars, and that one star at the top of the image seems to be brighter than any other in that galaxy. It would have a special place in the mythologies of the peoples of that galaxy. And the peoples of that galaxy, even if they do not know of each other, would nevertheless have something in common in virtue of their relation to this enormous star. We could, in this context, speak of a “family” of civilizations in this galaxy all influenced by the most prominent stellar feature of the galaxy of which they are a part.

We can generalize about and extrapolate from this idea of a family of civilizations defined by the prominent stellar features of the galaxy in which they are found. If a galaxy has a sufficiently prominent physical feature that can witnessed by sentient beings, these features will have a place in the life of these sentient beings, and thus by extension a place in the civilizations of these sentient beings.

There is a sense in which it seems a little backward to start from the mythological commonalities of civilizations based upon their view of the cosmos, but it is only appropriate, because this is where cosmology began for human beings. If we remain true to the study of astrocivilization as including, “the search for evidence of the origins and early evolution of civilization on Earth,” the origins and early evolution of civilization on earth was at least in part derived from early observational cosmology. We began with myths of the stars, and it is to be expected that many if not most civilizations will begin with myths of the stars. Moreover, these myths will be at least in part a function of the locally observable cosmos.

The more expected progress of thought would be to start with how the physical features of a particular galaxy or group of galaxies would affect the physical chemistry of life within this galaxy or these galaxies, and how life so constituted would go on to constitute civilization. These are important perspectives that a future science of civilizations would also include.

Simply producing a taxonomy of civilizations based on mythological, physical, biological, sociological, and other factors would only be the first step of a scientific study of astrocivilization. As I have noted in Axioms and Postulates in Strategy, Carnap distinguished between classificatory, comparative, and quantitative scientific concepts. Carnap suggested that science begins with classificatory conceptions, i.e., with a taxonomy, but must in the interests of rigor and precision move on to the more sophisticated comparative and quantitative concepts of science. More recently, in From Scholasticism to Science, I suggested that these conceptual stages in the development of science may also demarcate historical stages in the development of human thought.

It will only be in the far future, when we have evidence of many different civilizations, that we will be able to formulate comparative concepts of civilization based on the actual study of astrocivilization, and it is only after we have graduated to comparative concepts in the science of astrocivilization that we will be able to formulate quantitative measures of civilization informed by the experience of many distinct civilizations.

At present, we know only the development of civilizations on the earth. This has not prevented several thinkers from drawing general conclusions about the nature of civilization, but it is not enough of a sample to say anything definitive about, “the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of civilization in the universe.” The civilizations of the earth represent a single species, or, at most, a single genera of civilization. We will need to study the independent origins and development of civilization in order to have a valid basis of comparison. We need to be able to see civilization as a part of cosmological evolution; until that time, we are limited to a quasi-Linnaean taxonomy of civilization, based on observable features in common; after we have a perspective of civilization as part of cosmological evolution, it will be possible to formulate a more Darwinian conception.

In the meantime, while we can understand theoretically the broad outlines of a study of astrocivilization, the actual content of such a science lies beyond our present zone of proximal development. And taking human knowledge in its largest possible context, we can see that our epistemic zone of proximal development supervenes on the maturity and extent of the civilization of which we are a part. This does not hold for more restricted forms of knowledge, but for forms of knowledge of which the study of astrocivilization is an example (i.e., human knowledge at its greatest extent) it becomes true. Not only individuals, but also whole societies and entire civilizations have zones of proximal development. A particular species of civilization facilitates a particular species of knowledge — but it also constrains other species of knowledge. This observation, too, would belong to an adequate conception of astrocivilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Elsewhere I have written that the Copernican Revolution still has much unfinished business. For practical men who suppose that the whole of life is dictated by drives and appetites and impulses it might sound like an extraordinary claim to say that the ordinary business of life is contingent less upon one’s responses to stimuli and more upon one’s idea of the world, but just as G.K. Chesterton said that “…for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy,” I would add that she should also know her tenant’s cosmology. Indeed, philosophies and cosmologies are likely to overlap, and in some cases they coincide.

In Eo-, Exo-, Astro- I wrote about Joshua Lederberg’s distinction between eobiology and exobiology, and how both of these have been absorbed into the more comprehensive science of astrobiology. Astrobiology can be considered an extrapolation and extension of terrestrial biology. This same schema of extrapolation and extension can be readily applied beyond biology to the other life sciences and earth sciences. Ultimately, the result of the systematic extension of our conceptions of science would yield a Copernican conception of science and knowledge in which the earth would no longer be the center, either literally or metaphorically.

A Copernican conception of the sciences, and the production of Copernican knowledge on the basis of a Copernican conception of the sciences, must ultimately move beyond the natural sciences and also embrace the social sciences. I would argue that the social sciences are in more acute need of the Copernican Revolution than the natural sciences, but that it is more difficult to effect a conceptual revolution within the social sciences given their less quantifiable procedures and the inherent ambiguity of observation and evidence in the social sciences. But the fullness of time must inevitably bring us a Copernican political science, a Copernican sociology, a Copernican cultural geography, a Copernican cultural anthropology, and so forth.

Beyond science, we can also seek to extend the Copernican Revolution throughout familiar conceptions of human knowledge that have unwittingly been based on Ptolemaic conceptions of the cosmos. Despite Ptolemaic cosmology now being a scientific museum piece, it continues to influence our thought because its terms and ideas are embedded in our knowledge. Just as we must make an extra effort in order to think in selective terms, according to an evolutionary paradigm — an effort that can be surprisingly difficult because it is so much easier to think in teleological terms, according to a theological paradigm — so too we must make an extra effort to think in non-earth-centered terms, according to a Copernican paradigm, instead of thinking in earth-centered terms, according to a Ptolemaic paradigm. Ultimately, pushing the familiar categories of our thought to the limit, we must formulate a Copernican conception of civilization.

All civilization as we have known it, has been eocivilization; this is terrestrial civilization confined to the surface of the earth. In so far as human beings are a natural product of the earth, and civilization is a natural product of human beings, civilization ought to be the ultimate object of study of a greatly extended conception of the earth sciences. Early in the history of this blog, in Life and Landscape (as well as in subsequent posts, like Art and Landscape), I attempted to show how the ideas by which we live are ultimately grounded in the landscape in which we have made our lives. This is a theme that I have occasionally worked to develop, but the definitive formulation of the idea continues to elude me, even as I continue to pursue it, coming at it from different angles, the better to catch it unaware, as it were. This present formulation here, of civilization as the ultimately object of the earth sciences, is a continuing part of my struggle to precisely delineate the connections between life and landscape.

Civilization as we might imagine it to be off the surface of the earth, either in the form of a greatly expanded human civilization of the future, or in the form of an extraterrestrial civilization not of human origin, would constitute exocivilization. A future science of civilizations would embrace the study both of eocivilization and exocivilization, and in the spirit of scientific objectivity the study of exocivilization ought to be quite indifferent to whether such exocivilization is derived from human civilization or not.

The larger and more comprehensive point of view would be that of astrocivilization, which would comprehend and include both eocivilziation and exocivilziation. The NASA definitions of astrobiology that I quoted in Eo-, Exo-, Astro- can be nicely reformulated (or, if you like, exapted) to express the idea of astrocivilization:

“Astrocivilization is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of civilization in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for civilized societies in our Solar System and civilized societies outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of the origins and early evolution of civilization on Earth, and studies of the potential for civilization to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”


“The study of the civilized universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of civilization in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of the structure of spacetime in civilizations, and (3) the study of the Earth’s civilizations in their terrestrial and cosmological context.”

I must admit that I rather like the sound of these, and they strike me as an edifying definition of a future science of civilizations.

Problems remain, and there would need to be further revisions of these formulations. We no longer hope to find other civilizations in our own solar system, while at one time this hope was once quite high. Percival Lowell’s poetic vision of a dying Martian civilization building canals to transport remaining water from the poles to the equatorial regions, and H. G. Wells’ darker take on this same vision, making it less poetic and less romantic, but perhaps also more believable, are testimony to the fact that exocivilizations (as well as their motivations and intentions) have been of interest on earth for some time.

More important from a scientific standpoint (since we ought to keep an open mind about other civilizations within our solar system) is the systematic ambiguity between formulating descriptive concepts of civilizations on the one hand, on the other hand and the scientific study of these civilizations. The same ambiguity persists in the term “history,” which can either mean the actual events of the past, or the study of the events of the past. Thus “astrocivilization” could mean the actual civilizations of the universe (which is intuitively quite clear) or the study of such civilizations (which is intuitively not quite as clear, partly because we don’t have an established vocabulary and terminology for the study of eocivilization — except the already-noted ambiguous term “history”).

Much work remains to be done on the study of civilization, just as much work remains to be done in completing the Copernican Revolution.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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How often does Palm Sunday fall on April Fools’ Day? It must happen with a certain (predictable) regularity, I would guess, since April Fools’ Day falls within what we might call the parameters of Easter. No doubt someone, somewhere, has made the calculation and can give a definite answer to the question. Since Easter is a moveable feast, and it carries all of Passiontide with it, including Palm Sunday and Good Friday, all these days move around the Gregorian calender like wanderers seeking a place to rest.

Easter must be calculated, since it falls on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere. And Easter is the still point in the turning world of moveable feasts in the Christian calendar, because all the other moveable feasts are calculated in number of days before or after Easter. The calculation of the date of Easter is an astronomical task that requires some expertise. Copernicus was among the few in early modern Europe who possessed the expertise to arrive at a better calculation.

The accumulating errors of the Julian calendar had, over the centuries, contributed to confusion and unnecessary complexity in the calculation of dates. It was possible to continue with the old system, but the whole process could be streamlined by a root-and-branch rethinking. This is what Copernicus provided. He did not limit himself to local and parochial concerns, but attempted to get the cosmology right so that it agreed with astronomical observations, and this in turn could bring the calendar into accord with both cosmology and astronomy.

Copernicus, like Darwin, long delayed the publication of his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium not least because he was, like Darwin, concerned about the reaction it would cause. The story is that Copernicus received a copy of the first printed edition of his book on his death bed, roused himself from a stroke-induced torpor long enough to recognize this life work, and then passed away. The fears of both men were justified.

Copernicus’ calendar reform had some unintended consequences. This is perhaps the ultimate April Fools’ joke. While it is true that Copernicus himself completed only the first step from geocentric cosmology to heliocentric cosmology, and that we have since gone far beyond heliocentric cosmology even to the point that today any center of the world at all is questionable, it is probably also true that Copernicus’ reform extended as far as cosmological knowledge extended in his time. In its context, the Copernican revolution was radical and complete.

Now we know that neither earth nor sun nor galaxy nor galactic cluster nor super cluster nor the universe itself is the center of anything. There is no center — or, rather, everywhere is the center, which amounts to the same thing, and this coincides with the perennial insights of mysticism and mythology.

The Copernican revolution is still unfolding. The slow, gradual, cumulative process of attaining Copernican conceptions continues today. It is worth noting that the revolution began at the rarefied intellectual level of cosmology, so that a Copernican conception of cosmology itself preceded a Copernican conception of any of the special sciences. Indeed, in Eo-, Exo-, Astro- I recently argued that we are only now able to formulate Copernican conceptions of the sciences, which have, to date, received mostly geocentric formulations.

The calculation of the date of Easter turned out to be one of the truly deconstructive episodes in Western history, when the unraveling of what had seemed to be a single intellectual thread eventually meant the unraveling of a world entire. Copernicus was the first deconstructionist.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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