Nicolaus Copernicus

Long ago I lost count of the number of times I have heard and read that we are now, in the present, living in a pivotal moment in history, that we are, in a sense, at the center of history, and that the present is a privileged moment in time. The idea that one is present at a pivotal moment in history, and that one’s actions in relation to the unfolding of events in the present will play a decisive role in the world that is eventually to emerge from accelerated apocalypticism, may be regarded as the Ptolemaic equivalent of historiography, i.e., an anti-Copernican idea.

Ptolemaic historiography, if there were such a thing, would insist upon the centrality of ourselves and our perspective in the history of the world, holding that we have a privileged perspective on history as a consequence of our position in time. There is a more conventional way to understand this kind of claim. In the introduction to his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel made a tripartite distinction between original history, reflective history, and philosophical history. The first of these three, original history, is characterized by histories written by individuals who have witnessed the events they are recounting, or who have heard about them first-hand. Such histories are witnesses to history in two senses: firstly in having directly observed history, and secondly in being a witness to the spirit of the time, which entails sharing the Weltanschauung of the participants in contemporaneous history. Ptolemaic history, then, is a form of original history, because it is predicated upon the centrality of contemporaneous historical actors within their own perspective of history.

Copernican historiography, on the other hand, would apply the Copernican principle in time as the Copernican principle already has been applied to space. We have a parallel to this in the cosmological principle and that Fred Hoyle called the perfect cosmological principle: the cosmological principle simpliciter was concerned with the spatial isotropy of the universe, and Hoyle’s perfect cosmological principle extended this isotropy to time as well. The “perfect cosmological principle” proposed by Hoyle, Bondi and Gold as a supplement to the cosmological principle as conventionally understood, intended to justify a steady-state model of the universe, has, like the familiar cosmological principle, been given many expositions, no two of which are precisely the same. For example, here is the formulation from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

“…the universe on average is not only homogeneous and isotropic in space but also constant in time…”

“Fred Hoyle” article in the Encyclopedia Britannica

…here is a formulation in a paper from 2015…

“…the universe should appear essentially the same to all observers in all places at all times.”

“A new perspective on steady-state cosmology: from Einstein to Hoyle” by Cormac O’Raifeartaigh and Simon Mitton

…and here is a formulation from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“…a homogeneous distribution of matter in an infinite space and throughout an infinite time.”

“Cosmology” article in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1998

Hoyle’s perfect cosmological principle was not widely accepted. The stock answer as to why Hoyle’s perfect cosmological principle was rejected has been to refer to the observational pillars of the big bang cosmology (cf. The Four Pillars of the Standard Cosmology), and most especially the discovery of the CMBR as a confirmation of big bang cosmology. But big bang cosmology ought to be understood in this context as a natural history of the universe. The confirmation of any theory that postulates that the universe has a natural history would have been sufficient to overthrow the steady-state model of the universe. The big bang model of cosmological evolution is one among a class of possible natural histories for the universe.

If we must reject the perfect cosmological principle because the universe is evolving, and therefore appears differently at different times, must we also reject the possibility of Copernican historiography as a rejection of Ptolemaic historiography? I will come back to this, but I will first consider some formulations of the Copernican principle.

Like the many versions of the perfect cosmological principle cited above, there are many formulations of the Copernican principle. For example:

Principle 1.3 (The strong Copernican principle). There are no privileged observers in the universe.”

Hans Ringström, On the Topology and Future Stability of the Universe, Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 6

The generality of this formulation is equally applicable to space and time, unless “the universe” is construed to mean the universe only in its spatial extension and not its temporal extension.

…and another formulation…

“The Copernican principle has been a fundamental tenet of modern science since the 16th century and is also a cornerstone of modern cosmology. It states that we should not live in a special region of the universe.”

“Confirmation of the Copernican principle at Gpc radial scale and above from the kinetic Sunyaev Zel’dovich effect power spectrum” Pengjie Zhang and Albert Stebbins

The implicit distinction between privileged observers and privileged spatial locations appears in formulations of both the cosmological principle and the Copernican principle. An interesting distinction might be explicitly formulated on this basis, such that a privileged spatial region might exist, but that if no observer existed at this location then no privileged observations could be made, but we will set this possibility to one side for the nonce, except to say that a universe without an observer located at a privileged region of space is only a step away from a universe with no observers at all; on the possibility of unobserved universes, and the problems that follow from this idea, cf. my recent post, The Two Senses of “Observable Universe.”

The idea of a perfect cosmological principle and the idea of a Copernican principle, when taken together, imply the possibility of a perfect Copernican principle, generalizing the conventional Copernican principle so that it applies to time as well as to space. A perfect Copernican principle would assert that we do not (or, if you prefer, and in accordance with the formulation in the Zhang and Stebbins paper, we should not) live in a special region or era of the universe.

Given that the Copernican principle follows deductively from the cosmological principle — if the universe is spatially homogeneous and isotropic, it follows that there are no privileged observers, because there are no privileged positions in the universe from which an observer might observe — the perfect Copernican principle would follow from a perfect cosmological principle, and, given material implication, the falsification of any perfect cosmological principle could not entail the truth of a perfect Copernican principle following deductively from a perfect cosmological principle.

History undertaken in the Copernican spirit, i.e., Copernican historiography, would be history written with the perfect Copernican principle as a regulative principle. If the task of history is to write cosmological history, or human history set in the context of cosmological history (as is the case with big history), we cannot do this and remain true to the perfect Copernican principle. A history of the cosmos from from a human perspective (which is the only kind of cosmological history that we, as human beings, can write), is an anthropocentric history, and views the universe entire from the privileged moment in time occupied by human beings, which is a small slice of the evolutionary history of life on Earth, which is, in turn, a small slice in the evolutionary history of the Stelliferous Era, which is, in turn, a small slice in the history of the universe entire.

Big history, then, cannot be Copernican historiography, though one could plausibly argue that big history is the eventual result of viewing the world from a Copernican perspective. I think that this is case, and perhaps I will try to argue another day for a tension within the Copernican principle that leads, on the one hand, to big history, while on the other hand not being theoretically compatible with a strict interpretation of Copernicanism. It seems that not only does the universe evolve, and that human beings evolve, but also the perspective that human beings have of the universe they inhabit also evolves, and it evolves as the interface between human life and the universe.

On a human scale of history, however, I think that the perfect Copernican principle can be applicable. That is to say, if we restrict the scope of history to the human tenure on Earth, then something like the perfect Copernican principle obtains, as no one period of history can be judged to be privileged over any other era of history, and certainly not in terms of a perspective from within history to write history. Each era has the opportunity to write what Hegel called the “original history” of itself, and each era has the opportunity to write reflective histories of its own times taken together with all previous history. In this respect, later eras survey a greater portion of the human past, and so are “privileged” in respect to having more empirical content of human history at their disposal. However, on a purely theoretical level, the expanding empirical content of human history is irrelevant.

No doubt this assertion I have just made — that the expanding empirical content of human history is irrelevant — must sound very strange to the reader (except for those who have read me very closely, and these are few and far between). Let me try to explain. Copernican historiography is integral with what I have called history in an extended sense, i.e., extending distinctively historical modes of thought beyond a exclusive engagement with the past. History in an extended sense comprises both past and future, which are formally indistinguishable (or, better, formally complementary), however radically different they are empirically. I also made this point this in my paper A Manifesto for the Study of Civilization in which I first employed the phrase history in an extended sense:

“One form that the transcendence of an exclusively historical study of civilization can take is that of extrapolating historical modes of thought so that these modes of thought apply to the future as well as to the past (and this could be called history in an extended sense).”

In order to understand history from the perspective of the perfect Copernican principle (which is a little like understanding history sub specie aeternitatis), and thus to “de-provincialize” one’s conception of history (I take the word “de-provincialize” from Carl Sagan), it is sufficient to see that unprecedented events are always occurring, always have occurred, and will continue to occur for as long as any events whatsoever continue to occur and thus continue to supply a natural history to the universe. If our presence, or our location in time (regardless of our presence), were singularly unprecedented, we would be justified in asserting that we live at a special time in history, but even a casual survey of history will show that there is always something occurring that has never before happened in the history of the universe.

Unprecedented events occur with predictable regularity. At a temporal microscale, it could be argued that each and every new moment of time is unprecedented, as the structure of the universe in no way guarantees to us that time will continue to produce new moments. On the other hand, each new moment of time is a moment among moments, one of a class of moments, the totality of which makes up the totality of time, so that each new moment may be as unique as each snowflake, but all moments are alike in the way that all snowflakes are alike. Whether or not we see moments of time or snowflakes as unique or as all the same depends upon how fine-grained an account of identity we bring to the analysis. Thus, to fully develop the idea of a Copernican historiography it will be necessary (at some point, though not today) to analyze the conception of identity one brings to history, and the scope of history we are considering at any one time. This is already implicit above when I noted that restricting our scope from cosmological history to human history may yield a valid application of the perfect Copernican principle.

An extremely fine-grained account of history will yield the absolute novelty of every moment; a less detailed overview of history would perhaps eventually yield absolute repetition, as represented by Ecclesiastes’ famous line, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Or maybe not; this is something on which I will have to think further. Ecclesiastes’ principle implies a cyclical conception of history, which I reject, but more on this another time.

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Ecclesiates’ explicit denial of novelty in the world: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

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16 June 2017


Salvador Dali, ‘Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man’

In the Salvador Dali painting “Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man” (1943) we see a prophetic figure (sometimes identified as the old world) indicating to the Geopoliticus Child the emergence of a new order, represented by the New Man. Here the Earth is an egg, from which new life emerges, and the Geopoliticus Child, already itself new life, watches from safety the struggle of the New Man to be born. If one could place oneself in this archetypal context (perhaps, as a thought experiment, inhabiting the person of the Geopoliticus Child), there are at least three possibilities as to how one might respond:

one might passively observe the birth of a New Man while taking no action
one might actively seek to facilitate the birth of the New Man
one might actively seek to prevent the New Man from being born

The second of these possibilities represents what I will here term “accelerationism,” which is the conscious and purposeful effort to expedite an historical process so that the process in question will be more rapidly brought to its end or fulfillment.

The terms “accelerationism” and “accelerationist” are sometimes employed to discuss accelerating technological change, especially exponentially accelerating technological change (which is sometimes called “exponentialism”). That is not how I will use the term in this context. In the present discussion, I will use “accelerationism” to refer to the view that certain events or processes could or should “speed up” the collapse of existing political institutions, which can be understood as a good thing if one believes that the ground must be cleared in order to frame new institutions de novo.

Accelerationism in the sense of accelerating the collapse of a decaying and doomed social order is a species of contemporary apocalypticism. I have touched on apocalypticism in several posts, most recently in Vernacular Declensionism focusing on contemporary “preppers” (who were formerly called “survivalists”). There is both a vernacular apocalypticism (such as I wrote about in my “vernacular declensionism” post), which appears to be independent of political orientation, and a high-culture apocalypticism expressed in academic and scholarly terms. It has been my intention for some years to write more generally about apocalypticism, since it has become so widespread, and is rarely challenged on principle. This is a project that still remains in the offing.

It is of some interest to me that contemporary apocalypticism has become prevalent on both the left and the right, including being prevalent among the emerging political permutations that go beyond traditional left and right, and these are the social justice ideologues as the transfiguration of the left, and the alt-right and neo-reaction as the transfiguration of the right. (The most famous neoreactionary is Curtis Yarvin, blogging as Mencius Moldbug; the neoreactionary whose work I follow is Youtube vlogger Reactionary Expat, who has touched on accelerationism in some of his posts.) As I noted in my post on Vernacular Declensionism, this form of apocalypticism has mostly represented the political right, and the idea of the collapse of modern civilization easily plays into the narrative of a return to traditional forms of society. Obviously, a traditionalism predicated upon the destruction of existing social institutions is a radical form of traditionalism, but if the intention is to restore traditionalism by eliminating modernity, sooner rather than later (in virtue of accelerationism), then I guess this still counts as some form of traditionalism.

In recent years, the left has joined in vernacular apocalypticism with gusto, especially with scenarios of environmental apocalypse, to which a growing literature of popular fiction is devoted. However, there is little sign of accelerationism on the left; the hints I have glimpsed of accelerationism have been almost exclusively concerned with hastening the demise of corrupt modern society. There is, however, an important exception: anarchism. This will be discussed below. But, more importantly, accelerationism is apocalypticism with a purpose, and not apocalypticism for its own sake.

Accelerationism is not apocalypticism simpliciter, but rather it is a tactical apocalypticism, i.e., an apocalypticism only for the sake of that which will follow after the apocalypse; in other words, the means of social denudation will be justified by the end of the social order that replaces the existing social order of the present. What social order will replace the existing social order that is to be accelerated in its trajectory of self-destruction? Here there is a clear bifurcation of the visions of the future held by left and right.

It is possible that the surviving vestiges of the past will hamper the emergence of a truly new order to supplant the old order, and this could be an argument for a complete and total extirpation of the old order so that a new order can arise in its place. I am not advocating this argument, but I can see how the argument could be made. Many twentieth century communist regimes attempted to follow this line of reasoning, attempting to utterly obliterate traces of the pre-communist past (the entire Cultural Revolution in China could be framed in these terms). These efforts could be understood as an example of leftist accelerationism, attempting to more rapidly bring into being the communist utopia of a classless society.

Anarchic utopians have long held that the realization of a better social order is just around the corner if only we will take the radically appropriate action of extirpating traditional institutions that have held us back from realizing our human potential. This is an idea that goes back at least to Rousseau (for purposes of Enlightenment thought), and probably is much older. I will not, at present, attempt to elucidate a more thorough history of this idea. While utopians who project a peaceful anarchic society in the near future tend to identify with the political left, we cannot fully assimilate them to the traditional left, in the same way that we cannot fully assimilate social justice ideologues to the traditional left. I cannot, however, think of any anarchists on the right, as the right tends to believe in human fallibility (original sin), and so are distrustful of human nature released into the wild, as it were. The Rousseauvian dream is, for the right, a Hobbesian nightmare. And so we usually find the radical right looking not to anarchy, but to a reaffirmation of order, and of the symbols of order. The apocalypticism of the right thus plays into accelerationism; the two go together as tactic and strategy.

Implicit in the accelerationist view is that there are historical changes occurring anyway, albeit gradual and incremental change, and while this change must be accepted, it is nevertheless amenable to being managed. The accelerationist, then, understands that history transcends itself when an old order is replaced by a new order, so that the accelerationist may be characterized as facilitating historical transcendence, and that, moreover, the historical process must be brought to its fulfillment. In true Hegelian form, we cannot skip a step in the historical process, but not skipping a step in historical evolution does not preclude the possibility of accelerating a step so as to reduce the amount of time spent in a suboptimal form of civilization and therefore to maximize the amount of time spent in a preferred mode of civilization.

Accelerationism on the right, which I believe to be the more common form of accelerationism, understands the preferred mode of civilization to be a society dominated by traditional institutions. How are traditional institutions to be brought into being in the wake of accelerated apocalypticism? This, I think, is the nub of the problem, as the traditionalist favoring accelerationism as a means to realizing a traditional society must either hope for new traditionalist institutions to emerge, or for the reconstitution of defunct institutions. Both of these horns of the dilemma are a problem.

Part of Burke’s criticism of the French revolution was the folly of attempting to craft de novo institutions on the basis of abstract and theoretical propositions about human beings and human society, especially in the light of existing institutions that apparently are adequate to their institutional role, and which are, in some sense, the preserved wisdom of our ancestors. (The attempt to frame new institutions de novo was the source of Goya’s famous etching, “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” which was a symbolic response to the terror that followed the superficial rationalism of the French revolution; more simply, we can call this an instance of the law of unintended consequences.) Burke wrote before an evolutionary understanding of human beings and human society had been formulated, but in the light of evolutionary psychology and the slow evolution of human society we could easily reframe Burke’s critique so that any nebulous invocation of the wisdom of ancestors can be replaced by traditional institutions being the cumulative result of natural selection. This is far more satisfying from a scientific point of view.

The argument can be made that if an episode of social denudation stripped away existing social institutions, surviving human societies would revert to a model of social organization that is naturally emergent from the kind of beings that we are, that is to say, a social order predicated upon our particular cognitive endowments and cognitive biases (as well as that which I have called less than cognitive biases, which might be called “breaking human”). The traditionalist assumes, or would assume, that these naturally emergent institutions would be traditionalist institutions. In this view there is a hint of a venerable pre-modern idea, that truth lies at the source of things, so that if only we can return to the source of being, the source of our being, we will find the authentic truth that has been hidden from us by the overgrowth of thousands of years of extraneous developments that have led us far from our origins. This view stands in stark contrast to the idea that truth is a distant goal to which we aspire, and which we always approximate more closely, but which we never fully possess.

If, instead of seeking to frame traditionalist institutions de novo (which may be a contradictory idea anyway), the accelerationist seeks the reconstitution of defunct traditional institutions, I am skeptical that this effort would fare any better. There have been many times when regimes have attempted to turn back the clock on developments that did not seem to favor their vision of how things ought to be, but I cannot think of any of these attempts that were successful. Old or traditional institutions transplanted into new circumstances will neither function as these traditional institutions functioned, nor will they remain true to the tradition from which they are drawn. The same logic is to be found in arguments over the historically informed performance (HIP) movement in music: can we ever truly make our instruments and performances sound like those of the past, or must our contemporaneous recreations always be performed with modern instruments in a modern setting? This is an interesting debate, and many books of musicology have been devoted to the HIP controversy. Perhaps the discussion of the accelerationist reconstitution of defunct traditionalist institutions could learn something from this discussion.

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Plate 43 of Goya’s Los Caprichos series of etchings: ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.’

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From ‘Big Bang Discovery Opens Doors to the ‘Multiverse”

The observable/observed distinction

We can make a distinction between observable universes that are, in fact, observed, and observable universes that, while observable in principle, are not actually observed in fact. Thus, the set of all observable universes may be larger than the set of all universes actually observed, just as the set of all habitable planets is almost certainly larger than the set of all planets that are actually inhabited.

There are many parallels between the observable/observed and inhabitable/inhabited distinctions, and this is because this is, in each case, a modal distinction between potentiality and actuality. For a universe to be observable is for it to be potentially an object of perception, and for a universe to be observed is for it to be actually an object of perception. If “observation” is taken to include not only perception (which might be unknowing and unreflective, i.e., not self-aware) but also conception, we can revise these formulations so that some universe is potentially or actually both an object of perception and an object of thought.

But the observable/observed and inhabitable/inhabited distinctions are even more closely related than both being particular cases of potentiality vs. actuality; an observable universe is a habitable universe, and an observed universe is an inhabited universe. The universe (or a universe), then, is a generalization of a planet, so that in studying the habitable/inhabited distinction where it concerns planets, we are studying the question of observable/observed universes in miniature.

In the case of habitability (i.e., the habitable/inhabited distinction), we know the confusion that this routinely causes. With the increasing number of announcements of exoplanet discoveries, there have been an increasing number of confused accounts which imply that a planet of the right size found within a habitable zone is not just potentially habitable (arguably this formulation is redundant, and it should be sufficient to say “habitable”), but that it is, or must be, inhabited. Exoplanet scientists and astrobiologists are not guilty of this conflation, but accounts of their work in the legacy media make this conflation with regularity.

Perhaps because we see our near neighbors Venus and Mars, both smallish rocky planets like Earth, and both more-or-less in the habitable zone, we can easily understand that a planet that has the right conditions for life does not necessarily host life: these planets are habitable but not inhabited. We can bring the habitable/inhabited distinction home and understand it in human terms, but the observable/observed distinction, especially when applied to the universe entire, is likely to elude us. Moreover, the idea of an empty universe, that is to say, an entire universe without intelligent observers (observers who can both perceive the world and form a conception of what they perceive), is likely to strike many as a bit bizarre, if not absurd.

The Anthropic Cosmological Principle

Sometimes the idea that an empty universe is absurd is made explicit, or nearly so. John Wheeler is credited with saying, “A universe without an observer is not a universe at all.” In fact, Wheeler didn’t write these exact words, but the idea is pervasively present in his exposition of the anthropic cosmological principle. To give a sense of this, here is a comment on the weak anthropic principle (WAP) from Barrow and Tipler’s classic work (with a forward provided by John Wheeler):

“According to WAP, it is possible to contemplate the existence of many possible universes, each possessing different defining parameters and properties. Observers like ourselves obviously can exist only in that subset containing universes consistent with the evolution of carbon-based life.”

The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 19

Three interpretations are given of the strong anthropic principle:

(A) There exists one possible Universe ‘designed’ with the goal of generating and sustaining ‘observers’.

(B) Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being.

(C) An ensemble of other different universes is necessary for the existence of our Universe.

Ibid., p. 22

As these ideas are given an extensive exposition in the text, I will not attempt to flesh them out, but I quote them here only for purposes of exhibition. It would be a considerably involved enterprise to give an exposition of the various formulations of the weak, strong, participatory, and final anthropic principles propounded by Barrow, Tipler, and Wheeler, and then to present them in comparison and contrast with what I have written here about empty universes, but I am not going to attempt that here. Some of these ideas are consistent with a range of universes, some of them empty, and some are not.

Empty, unobserved universes and scientific realism

There can only be two senses of “observable universe” if one is willing to countenance the possibility of empty, unobserved universes, which suggests a strongly realist position, and this interpretation takes to the limit of extrapolation the idea that something exists whether or not we see it (or anyone sees it). If we assume that the back side of the head of the person we are talking to continues to exist even when we do not see it (and if there is no one else looking at it), then we are assuming some degree of realism.

In the case of the person, it could be argued that the person in question is always viscerally conscious of their bodily integrity, and on this basis the back side of their head continues to be perceived, and hence continues to exist without the posit of realism. However, this argument cannot be made with inanimate objects without positing panpsychism. We assume that the back sides of houses, the insides of closets, and the contents of empty rooms continue to exist even when we are not looking at them. I can see no reason this intuitive realism should not be scaled up to entire universes that exist without being observed. This is, at least, consistent with scientific realism, even if it is not entailed by scientific realism.

The Principle of Plenitude

This kind of distinction I am making here between observable universes and observed universes immediately puts us in mind of the principle of plenitude (on which I previously wrote in Cosmology is the Principle of Plenitude Teaching by Example and Parsimony and Plenitude in Cosmology). The most obvious interpretation of the principle of plenitude in this context is that a universe that was habitable would eventually realize the potential of this habitability and would become inhabited. Perhaps this is why some advocates of the strong anthropic principle say that a universe that does not produce observers is a “failed” universe (not the kind of claim I would ever make, but one can understand something of this by saying that such a universe has failed to realize its potential). If we acknowledge the possibility of “failed” universes in this sense, then we would have empty, uninhabited universes, only we would attach a (negative) valuation to them (and presumably we would attach a positive valuation to successful universes that realize their potential and produce observers).

There is, however, another way to interpret the principle of plenitude in this context, and that is to argue that the principle of plenitude entails the realization of every possible kind of universe, and that the existence of an empty universe without observers is a potential that will eventually be realized, if it has not already been realized. Moreover, every kind of universe that can be observed by an observer that evolves within that universe constitutes another kind of universe that could exist in which the potential of such an observer is not realized. Thus if there are a plurality of observed universes, then this interpretation of the principle of plenitude suggests that there will be a plurality of observable but unobserved universes.

The Principle of Parsimony

The principle of plenitude as applied to worlds or to universes would imply densely inhabited worlds and intensively observed universes — what Frank Drake and Dava Sobel called, “an infinitely populated universe.” The principle of parsimony (often invoked as a counter to the principle of plenitude) as applied to worlds or the universe would limit us almost in a constructivistic sense to the world we inhabit — there is at least one observable universe that is, in fact, observed — though before or after the existence of this one known instance of an observer the universe would be empty and unobserved.

The intersection of the principle of plenitude and the principle of parsimony would yield at least one such-and-such (plenitude) and at most one such-and-such (parsimony), that is to say, this intersection would yield uniqueness, one and only one such-and-such — but whether this uniqueness should apply to each and every universe, or whether the universe itself ought to be considered unique, is another question.

A final reflection

It seems to me that the idea of an uninhabited planet, that is unobserved because it it uninhabited, has become a familiar and even a conventional idea of contemporary cosmology and astrobiology — it is, I think, widely assumed that we will eventually find other life in the universe, sprung from other origin of life events, but that intelligent life, and thus an observer that knows itself to be observing, is likely to be quite rare. This consensus view — if it is a consensus — encounters problems when it is extrapolated from habitable/inhabited planets to habitable/inhabited universes. Why this idea appears to transcend science (in the narrow sense) when extrapolated to the whole of the universe I am not yet prepared to say, but I will continue to think about this.

I began this post with the intention to make a simple and straight-forward distinction between observable universes and observed universes (my first draft was only three paragraphs), but as I worked on this I got myself entangled in a number of difficult questions that ended up entailing all-too-brief discussions of difficult ideas like the principle of plenitude and the principle of parsimony. This is admittedly unsatisfying, and I know that I have not done these ideas justice, but at some point I have to bring this to a close.

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The “West Asian Cluster” is a term that I use to identify the several early civilizations that emerged in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia (cf. my remarks on the west Asian cluster in The Seriation of Western Civilization and The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State). Whereas civlization emerged independently in geographically isolated regions scattered across the planet, in the case of the west Asian cluster, these civilizations seem to have arisen in concert and to have been in contact with each other throughout their development.

A nomadic or pastoral people, accustomed to walking, would readily have traveled between the regions of the west Asian cluster. Moreover, we know that long-distance trade routes that preceded civilization ran through the area. Distinctive forms of obsidian were traded over long distance, and examples can be traced back to their source. These trade routes likely remained in place as civilization developed in the region, probably expanding as more manufactured goods became available for trade, and these trade routes could have served as vectors for idea diffusion throughout the region.

Thus I assume that continuous idea diffusion within the region meant that whenever a civilized innovation emerged in one location within the cluster, that it was picked up relatively rapidly by other locations in the cluster. In this way, civilization in the region likely developed in a kind of reticulate pattern, rather than in a unitary and linear manner, so that, if we were in possession of all the evidence, we might find a series of developments took place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating in a single civilization. Developments were likely distributed across the several different civilizations, and disseminated by idea diffusion until they reached all the others. This could be called a seriation of distributed development.

As these civilizations rose in concert, it seems that they also fell in concert, in an event that is sometimes called the Late Bronze Age (LBA) collapse. Previously in Epistemic Collapse I mentioned Eric H. Cline’s book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which deals with this period of history. Near the end of the book Cline wrote:

“…for more than three hundred years during the Late Bronze Age — from about the time of Hatshepsut’s reign beginning about 1500 BC until the time that everything collapsed after 1200 BC — the Mediterranean region played host to a complex international world in which Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mitannians, Canaanites, Cypriots, and Egyptians all interacted, creating a cosmopolitan and globalized world system such as has only rarely been seen before the current day. It may have been this very internationalism that contributed to the apocalyptic disaster that ended the Bronze Age. The cultures of the Near East, Egypt, and Greece seem to have been so intertwined and interdependent by 1177 BC that the fall of one ultimately brought down the others, as, one after another, the flourishing civilizations were destroyed by acts of man or nature, or a lethal combination of both.”

Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 171

If, as I suggested above, the development of these intertwined civilizations was reticulate, one would not be surprised that their collapse was also reticulate, distributed throughout the region, following from multiple causes and cascading into multiple consequences — a seriation of distributed collapse. If we think of this as an ecosystem of civilizations, it is easy to think of the LBA collapse as a mass extinction of civilizations. Species, like civilizations, arise in concert, embedded in coevolutionary contexts, not only evolving along with other species, but also with the inorganic environment. When a food web catastrophically collapses, it brings down many species because of their interdependence, and the same may be true of civilizations within their coevolutionary context.

What exactly is a mass extinction? Here is a discussion of definitions of mass extinctions:

“[Sepkoski] defines mass extinction as any substantial increase in the amount of extinction (that is, lineage termination) suffered by more than one geographically widespread higher taxon during a relatively short interval of geological time, resulting in at least temporary decline in their standing diversity. This is a general definition purposefully designed to be somewhat vague. An equally vague but more concise one offered here is that a mass extinction is an extinction of a significant proportion of the world’s biota in a geologically insignificant period of time. The vagueness about extinctions can be dealt with fairly satisfactorily in particular cases by giving percentages of taxa, but the vagueness about time is more difficult to deal with. A significant question about mass extinctions is how catastrophic they were, so we also require a definition of catastrophe in this context. According to Knoll (1984), it is a biospheric perturbation that appears instantaneous when viewed at the level of resolution provided by the geological record.”

A. Hallam and P. B. Wignall, Mass Extinctions and their Aftermath, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 1

The last of these definitions could be adapted to the mass extinction of civilizations: a social perturbation that appears instantaneous when viewed at the level of resolution provided by the historical record. This isn’t exactly right, as we know that it takes time for civilizations to collapse, but if we soften the “instantaneous” to “rapidly” it works, after a fashion. And the authors of this passage openly recognize the ambiguity of time in the definition.

Have there been other mass extinctions of civilizations in history? If we think of the interconnected Mediterranean Basin in Late Antiquity, the collapse of Roman power in the west would constitute a mass extinction of civilizations of the region, though if we count this as a single Hellenistic civilization stretching across Europe into North Africa and West Asia, then it is only a singular collapse. Similarly, if we think of all the civilizations subsumed under Islamic rule during the greatest reach of Islamic civilization, its collapse might also be characterized as a mass extinction of civilizations.

Could a mass extinction of civilizations happen again? We face similar definitional challenges. Are we to consider the whole of planetary civilization as one civilization, or as several civilizations merged and subsumed? A catastrophic institutional collapse of planetary civilization today might be counted either as the collapse of one worldwide civilization or as several tightly-coupled civilizations, as interdependent as the civilizations of West Asia during the Late Bronze Age.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The March for Science

22 April 2017


Science has a political problem, but science as an institution is not prepared to face up to its political problem. Worse, institutionalized science is prepared to dig itself in deeper into its political problem with the March for Science today, which will present scientists to the public as activists.

Science is an institution of western civilization — I would argue the central institution of contemporary western civilization — which latter is, in turn, a macro-institution made up of many other institutions. Big science means institutionalized science; institutionalized science means, in turn, an institution integrated with other institutions, including political institutions. So, as many of the backers of the March for Science have insisted, science cannot avoid being political. But not being able to avoid political entanglements is quite a different matter from consciously and purposefully promoting, in the mind of the public, science as a form of activism and the scientist as an activist.

Lawrence M. Krauss touched on part of the problem in an article for Scientific American, March for Science or March for Reality? Hostility toward the former is troublesome, but hostility toward the latter is the underlying issue, in which he wrote, “The March for Science could then appear as a self-serving political lobbying effort by the scientific community to increase its funding base.” But it is not only the problem of appearing to be self-serving, but the appearance of serving an ideology, that is the problem.

Krauss cited Richard Feynman to the effect that, for a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled, and Philip K. Dick to the effect that, Reality is that which continues to exist even when you stop believing in it. Krauss does not cite the also applicable quote from Ayn Rand: “We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” This oversight is understandable; Ayn Rand is quite clearly not the kind of figure that the organizers or supporters of the March for Science would want to invoke. The whole populist movement and its isolationist orientation is far too redolent of Rand’s character John Galt. The fact that Ayn Rand doesn’t fit the March for Science narrative tells us something important about the implicit politics of the March for Science.

Though the organizers of the March for Science have made a point to emphasize the non-partisan nature of the march, this claim in disingenuous, and, indeed, those marchers who insist that science cannot avoid being political are explicitly recognizing the political nature of the march.

Inevitably, the March for Science has become political, despite protestations to the contrary, and it has become political in ways that the organizers would prefer not to recognize. You can read about this in Why the ‘March for Science’ Is in Turmoil: A departure from leadership is highlighting diversity issues less than a week before the march by Tanya Basu, which discusses the departure from the organizers of Jacquelyn Gill, who posted a series of remarks on Twitter explaining the reasons for her departure.

Although institutionalized science has bent over backward to accommodate the hypersensitive contemporary university climate and its sometimes bizarre, sometimes petty, demands that it places upon scholars and researchers, the complaint is that the march has been insufficiently solicitous of those who would play the victim card (and of those who claim to be the representatives of the oppressed and the downtrodden) and whose demands for activism on the part of institutionalized science have not been met to their satisfaction. (Note: these demands cannot be met, and are not intended to be met, but are rather intended to be used as a cudgel against those in positions of power.)

There was an article in Nature (one of the world’s leading science journals), How the March for Science splits researchers: Nature asked members of the scientific community whether or not they plan to march on 22 April — and why by Erin Ross, which included a quote from Nathan Gardner, who put his finger on the problem:

“I am not going to the March for Science, because people in America view science as leftist. Maybe it’s because [former US vice-president] Al Gore launched ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. I’ve seen articles from right-wing outlets that are framing the march as focusing on gender equality and identity politics. I think it could easily politicize science because, even though the march’s mission statement isn’t anti-Trump, the marchers seem anti-Trump.”

This, in a nutshell, is science’s political problem, the problem it does not want to acknowledge, and the problem it is not prepared to address, because to address it head-on would be too painful. There has been a lot of talk about respecting the evidence and the need for a frank recognition of what science tells us, but this commitment is exercised lopsidedly. If you want to talk about hostility to reality, as Krauss would have it, consider the institutional response to scientists who have dared to research “no go” areas of knowledge that contradict the dominant social narrative of our time.

In recent decades, science has largely respected the “no go” areas of the left, and has sometimes enthusiastically embraced the ideological agenda of the left. (Jonathan Haidt and his Heterodox Academy have been particularly effective in pointing out the lack of diversity of opinion in academic science.) While the left has had its “no go” areas largely respected, the “no go” areas of the right and of traditionalists have not been respected, and it is not at all unusual to see their failures gleefully pointed out in the spirit of iconoclasm. Certainly, there was a time in the past when academic institutions slavishly respected the “no go” areas of the traditionalists, but these days are long behind us. And I am certainly not suggesting that anyone’s “no go” areas should be respected. Ideally, scientific research would take place without respect to anyone’s feelings or ideologies, but it is dishonest to carefully avoid offending one side while poking and prodding the other side.

While I think that the March for Science will do more harm than good, it is not likely to have much of an impact, so if it makes people feel good about themselves to go marching and waving signs and chanting call-and-response rituals, it probably doesn’t matter much. The loss to science will be only incremental. But if it is followed by more incremental politicization of science, then our entire civilization will be threatened by the death of a thousand cuts to the ideal of an objective, disinterested, and dispassionate science that tells us as much as we are capable of understanding at present, whether we want to hear it or not. There is no tonic for the soul quite like an unwelcome truth, and science has been masterful at administering these draughts in the past. I hope that science does not lose this talent.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Mathis Gothart, Isenheim Altarpiece, Resurrection panel (1512–1516)

Easter is one of the central religious holidays of the Christian calendar — if not the central religious holiday of Christianity — and thus one of the central symbols of Christian civilization. In the period of a single week we pass from Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his betrayal, trial, execution, entombment, and eventual resurrection, which, by any measure, must be something of an emotional roller-coaster for those who celebrate the holiday in a participatory spirit, that is to say, for those who engage in the prescribed rituals as a means of participating in the myth, as when pilgrims travel to Jerusalem and walk the Via Dolorosa, commemorating the Stations of the Cross.

I have often cited Joseph Campbell to the effect that a ritual is the opportunity to participate in a myth, so that all rituals are, in a sense, participatory forms of faith. Rituals are also what J. L. Austin called performatives, i.e., that very act of ritual participation is a religious observance; religious value is inherent in the act of participation.

For the Christian, the ultimate performative is to follow in Christ’s footsteps, a practice that in medieval Christendom was called imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ. In the hope of resurrection and the life everlasting the individual Christian also hopes to extend the imitatio Christi to the next world; the resurrection of Christ is the model for the resurrection of the believer in Christ. The Christian believer, too, can experience resurrection, and this destiny of the individual soul is understood to be a function of salvation.

Recently I have been thinking about the relationship between soteriology and eschatology in the Christian tradition. It strikes me that soteriology and eschatology are tightly-coupled in Christianity — more tightly-coupled than in the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, and much more tightly-coupled that the non-Abrahamic faiths. The events and the symbolism of Easter embody this tightly-coupled Christian tradition of soteriology and eschatology. Though tightly-coupled, there is, however, an asymmetry: soteriology is voluntaristic, but eschatology is not; we will all be judged, but we will not all be saved.

In Christianity, salvation is salvation from death, and the substitution of a life eternal in Christ for a worldly fate of dissolution and personal extinction. Compare this, for example, to the Hindu tradition, in which the transmigration of souls is a central doctrine. Superficially, the eternal life of the transmigrating soul can be compared to the eternal soul of the Christian tradition, but this is misleading. The transmigrating soul casts off bodies like a snake casting off its skin, while the resurrection guarantees the believing Christian not only an eternal life in Christ, but even the possession of the body that the soul seems to cast off upon death.

If soteriology and eschatology are tightly-coupled in the Christian tradition and loosely-coupled in other religious traditions, what are the limits on the possible relations between the two? To what extent are soteriology and eschatology ideally separable from each other? Is it possible to have soteriology in isolation from eschatology, and eschatology in isolation from soteriology? It is arguable that the practical faiths that have focused on human actions in this world, with little or no reference to a life beyond death or a world beyond this world, are soteriological in essence without a significant eschatological element. Judaism is like this to a certain extent, and Confucianism to a much greater extent. When asked by a disciple about life after death, Confucius was supposed to have said, “We have not yet learned to know life. How can we know death?” That the question was asked points to the human preoccupation with death, and that it was dismissed in the way that it was dismissed, points to the distinctive Confucian response to the human condition.

There is another possibility. I can’t think of any existing religious tradition that embodies this approach, but it is equally possible that a system of belief might focus on a grand scheme of cosmological eschatology and be more or less indifferent to soteriology. Indeed, if contemporary science were a religion, or even a religious surrogate (some would argue that it is the latter; I would not so argue), it would perfectly fit the bill in this respect. The Copernican principle is frequently invoked as a punishment of human pride, demonstrating our insignificance before the universe. Human salvation here is unimportant, and so left unaddressed. Positivists, in general, are satisfied with this state-of-affairs, but most human beings are not. One cause for anti-scientific sentiment among the general public is precisely this scientific indifference to the human condition.

If a naturalistic soteriology could be joined to the naturalistic eschatology of the scientific worldview, this would be a powerful combination. It might even be possible to advance toward a civilization with science as a central project, or some central project derived from science, such as the exploration of the cosmos, if some soteriology were emergent from science. But I cannot think of any ideas derived from science that could adequately serve this function. There is the idea of humanity as one — the ultimate unity of the species — and the idea of mere humanity — a quasi-religious sense of human exceptionalism — or even humanity’s responsibility for itself as a moral imperative. However, I don’t see any of these as effective substitutes for soteriology.

The distinctive characteristic of Axial Age belief systems is the discovery of a universal human nature, the definition of the human condition in terms of this human nature, and the identification of a particular destiny for humanity in virtue of human nature and the human condition. The tribal gods, appropriate to tribal chiefdoms but falling short of the needs of large-scale social organization, were content to be worshiped as a god among gods, and made no special claim to a privileged knowledge of the human heart. The gods of the Axial Age surpassed these tribal gods, and they demanded more in turn. It wasn’t enough simply to build a civilization, to erect great monuments, to foster bustling cities and their commerce, to conquer the cities of rival powers, in other words, the ordinary business of life was not enough. Something more was called for. This something more turned out to be a sacrifice demanded in exchange for salvation.

Christianity could be said to belong to the second generation of Axial Age faiths, descended with modification from the Axial Age innovations of Mesopotamia, if we distinguish a sequence of the original Axial Age faiths, the second generation of faiths that grew out of the original Axial Age faiths, and the third generation of faiths that grew from the earlier two. Each later generation of Axial Age faiths evolved under the selection pressure of the earlier generation of Axial Age faiths, and of the societies that these earlier Axial Age faiths shaped. Part of this evolution became the individual taking personal responsibility for their salvation, but also being the beneficiary of personal salvation. The earlier Axial Age faiths had focused much more on the social whole, but Christianity raised the stakes and introduced a dialectic between the individual and the community. The individual was given new importance, but was also expected to act on behalf of the brotherhood of mankind, selflessly if necessary.

The the survival of early civilizations was at stake in religiously-constructed communal identities, as I noted in All Believers are Brothers, where I wrote:

“Religion facilitates the construction of indefinitely expandable kin networks far more extensive than any exclusively biological kin network. A society that originates as a biological kin network can transcend the natural limitation that checks the growth of a biological kin network through displacing its biological culture into a religious framework. There is, then, no absolute distinction between kin selection and group selection among human beings, because what begins as kin selection can be extended to group selection through an in-group identity rooted in biological origins but later extended to individuals not within the immediate (biological) kin network.”

This principled conflation of differences was the foundation of an identity that made large-scale civilizations, and so already looked beyond the regional civilizations of the Axial Age, in a way not unlike how the regional civilizations looked beyond the tribal chiefdoms they supplanted. This is an example of the continual self-transcendence of civilization that I have remarked on elsewhere. The particular Christian solution to the problem of communal identity was to have tightly-coupled eschatology and soteriology, and it is at least arguable that this tightly-coupled sense of destiny and salvation persists in a secularized form today. But the secularized form is a bastardized theology, and we would do better, for the future of our civilization, if we could find a scientific soteriology to couple with our scientific eschatology, rather to than to continue play out the limited options of a theology that no longer knows itself to be such. The survival of our civilization is no less at stake today than it was during the Axial Age.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Epistemic Collapse

13 April 2017


Not long ago in Snowstorm Reflections on Collapse and Recovery I discussed some of the experiences likely to be related to a local and limited collapse of social institutions, as a way to consider broader and deeper scenarios of social collapse. In this connection I quoted the following from Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

“Collapse, as viewed in the present work, is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a society must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The demise of the Carolingian Empire, thus, is not a case of collapse — merely an unsuccessful attempt at empire building. The collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of sociopolitical structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of weakness and decline.”

Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 4

For Tainter, collapse is sociopolitical collapse, but we need not be limited by this stipulation. There are potentially many different meanings of “collapse” and I would like to particularly focus on what I will call epistemic collapse, which has played at least as prominent a role as social collapse in the extinction of civilizations.

A definition of epistemic collapse, that is to say, a catastrophic loss of knowledge, can closely parallel Tainter’s definition of social collapse, like this:

A society has epistemically collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of knowledge (epistemic complexity). The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a body of knowledge must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The epistemic collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of epistemic structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of epistemic weakness and decline.”

Tainter emphasizes that a “collapse” implies a previous level of attainment and stability (continuity); I agree with Tainter that this is an important qualification to make. It should also be pointed out that collapse implies a subsequent stability of the lower level of complexity and attainment, perhaps for a generation or two. In other words, a collapse — whether social, epistemic, or otherwise — means that stability and continuity at a higher level of complexity and integration is rapidly replaced by stability and continuity at a lower level of complexity and integration.

We know that one of the reasons the European “Dark Ages” were dark was the loss of the accumulated knowledge of classical antiquity, or, if not the loss (in an absolute sense), its restricted access due to loss of educational institutions, reduction in the publication, copying, and distribution of books, reduction in literacy, and so forth. During this period of reduced access to knowledge, some knowledge was lost in an absolute sense. Some books deteriorated or were destroyed before they were copied, and so have been lost to history. Much of the tradition of educational institutions was lost, as the educational institutions of classical antiquity went extinct or were extirpated (Justinian ordered the closing of the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD) and were subsequently replaced by educational institutions attached to the Catholic Church.

To reach further back into the past, around 1200 BC there was a generalized collapse that led to the extinction of several Bronze Age civilizations (this story is recounted in Eric Cline’s book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed). This severe blow to civilization led to a significant epistemic collapse characterized by widespread loss of literacy throughout the ancient world. Homer, we recall, was recounting an “ancient” time of heroes and heroic deeds, and it has been speculated that the Homeric corpus was the translation into written form of oral poetry that survived from this dark age of more warfare and less reading as compared to the age that preceded it.

In the kind of generalized collapse resulting in the extinction of civilizations that characterized the Late Bronze Age, there was both social and epistemic collapse, but to what extent are these two modalities of collapse separable? Even if not instantiated in human history, is it possible for a civilization to remain socially stable while experiencing epistemic collapse, or to remain epistemically stable while experiencing social collapse? I think that counterfactuals could be constructed to illustrate the possibility of isolated social or epistemic collapse, but these would not be very convincing without some historical parallel to make the point. A possible example could be the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, which was not tightly-coupled to a social collapse, but which entailed a significant epistemic loss, or the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258, which, again, was not tightly-coupled to social collapse (except for the collapse of Baghdad itself) but was a disaster for learning and certainly issued in permanently lower levels of epistemic attainment in the region. For an illustration of the opposite isolation, it is arguable that Byzantium preserved the epistemic record of Roman civilization even as all Roman social institutions collapsed and were replaced.

The above considerations suggest that a distinction should be made between collapse (of some particular kind) and the extinction of a civilization. Only the most generalized collapse over several classes of human endeavor result in the extinction of civilization, and we can obtain a more finely-grained appreciation of how societies ultimately fail and civilizations go extinct (or resist extinction) by separating social, financial, legal, religious, and epistemic collapse, inter alia.

Multiple collapses result in the extinction of civilization. Civilization is itself a complex institution that is comprised of many sub-institutions; that is to say, civilization is an institution of institutions. We can classify the institutions that go on to make up a civilization as social institutions, economic institutions, legal institutions, epistemic institutions, and so on. All of these institutions are intertwined in civilization, but it sometimes happens that even an integrated institution within civilization will collapse without the civilization of which it is a part collapsing. The many intertwined institutions that together constitute civilization mutually support each other and can bring a civilization through a difficult time if enough of these institutions persist despite the failure of other institutions.

If our nascent scientific civilization were to experience an epistemic collapse, but the social institutions of our civilization retained a significant measure of continuity, our civilization could enter into a state of permanent stagnation (something I noted as the greatest existential risk of our time in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?). If, on the other hand, we provide a robust backup of our knowledge, so thorough that a social collapse is not also an epistemic bottleneck, we could see the social institutions we know disappear even while our knowledge was largely intact and propagated into the future. Thus the human future itself admits of possible isolated social or epistemic collapse. Something like our civilization would survive on the other side of this collapse, after the recovery or replacement of the failed institutions, but that civilization would be fundamentally altered by the process.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Looking down on Earth from above may not only make us reevaluate out relationship to the planet, but may also help us to understand the planet better.

Science is a way to better understand the world, but science itself is not always easy to understand, and we often find that, after clarifying some problem through science, we must then clarify the science so that the science makes sense to us. Some call this science communication; I call it the pursuit of intuitive tractability.

While it is not part of science proper to seek intuitively tractable formulations, it is part of human nature to seek intuitively tractable formulations, as we are more satisfied with science formulated in intuitively tractable forms than with science that is not intuitively tractable. For example, there is, as yet, no intuitively tractable formulation of quantum theory, and this may be why Einstein famously wrote in a letter to Max Born that, “Quantum Mechanics is very impressive. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing.”

When the concept of zero was introduced into mathematics, it was thought to be an advanced and difficult idea, but we now teach a number system starting with zero to children in primary school. In a similar way, the Hindu-Arabic system of numbers has displaced almost every other system of numbers because it is what I would paradoxically call an intuitive formalism, i.e., it is a formalization of the number concept that is both adequate to mathematics and closely follows our intuitive conception of number. Mathematics is easier with Hindu-Arabic numerals than other numbering systems because this numbering system is intuitively tractable. There are other formalisms for number that are equally valid and equally correct, but not as intuitively tractable.

The pursuit of intuitive tractability has also been evident in geometry, and especially the axiomatic exposition of geometry that begins with postulates accepted ab initio as self-evident, and which has been the model of rigorous mathematics ever since Euclid. Euclid’s fifth postulate, the famous parallel postulate, is difficult to understand and was a theoretical problem for geometry until its independence was proved, but whether or not the fifth postulate was demonstrably independent of the other postulates, Euclid’s opaque exposition did not help. Here is Euclid’s parallel axiom from the Elements:

“If a line segment intersects two straight lines forming two interior angles on the same side that sum to less than two right angles, then the two lines, if extended indefinitely, meet on that side on which the angles sum to less than two right angles.”

Almost two thousand years later, in 1846, John Playfair formulated what we now call “Playfair’s axiom,” which tells us everything that Euclid’s postulate sought to communicate, but in a far more intuitively tractable form: “In a plane, given a line and a point not on it, at most one line parallel to the given line can be drawn through the point.” Once this more intuitively tractable formulation of the parallel postulate was available, Euclid’s formulation was largely abandoned. There is, then, a process of cognitive selection, whereby the most intuitively tractable formulations are preserved and the less intuitively tractable formulations are abandoned.

Those concepts that are the most intuitively tractable are those concepts that are familiar to us all and which are seamlessly integrated into ordinary thought and language. I have called such concepts “folk concepts.” Folk concepts that have persisted from their origins in our earliest evolutionary psychology up into the present have been subjected to the cognitive equivalent of natural selection, so that we can reasonably speak of folk concepts as having been refined and elaborated by the experience of many generations.

In a series of posts — Folk Astrobiology, Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization, and Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress — I have considered the nature of “folk” concepts as they have been frequently invoked, and it is natural to ask, in the light of such an inquiry, whether there is a “folk Weltanschauung” that is constituted by a cluster of folk concepts that naturally hang together, and which inform the pre-scientific (or non-scientific) way of thinking about the world.

Arguably, the idea of a folk Weltanschauung is already familiar by a number of different terms that philosophers have employed to identify the concept (or something like the concept) — naïve realism or common sense realism, for example. What Husserl called “natürliche Einstellung” and which Boyce Gibson translated as “natural standpoint” and Fred Kersten translated as “natural attitude” could be said to approximate a folk Weltanschauung. Here is how Husserl describes the natürliche Einstellung:

“I am conscious of a world endlessly spread out in space, endlessly becoming and having endlessly become in time. I am conscious of it: that signifies, above all, that intuitively I find it immediately, that I experience it. By my seeing, touching, hearing, and so forth, and in the different modes of sensuous perception, corporeal physical things with some spatial distribution or other are simply there for me, ‘on hand’ in the literal or the figurative sense, whether or not I am particularly heedful of them and busied with them in my considering, thinking, feeling, or willing.”

Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy: First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology, translated by Fred Kersten, section 27

Husserl characterizes the natural attitude as a “thesis” — a thesis consisting of a series of posits of the unproblematic existence of ordinary objects — that can be suspended, set aside, as it were, by the phenomenological procedure of “bracketing.” These posits could be identified with folk concepts, making the thesis of the natural standpoint into a folk Weltanschauung, but I think this interpretation is a bit forced and not exactly what Husserl had in mind.

Perhaps closer to what I am getting at than the Husserlian natural attitude is what Wilfrid Sellars has called the manifest image of man-in-the-world, or simply the manifest image. Sellars’ thought is no easier to get a handle on than Husserl’s thought, so that one never quite knows if one has gotten it right, and one can easily imagine being lectured by a specialist in the inadequacies of one’s interpretation. Nevertheless, I think that Sellers’ manifest image is closer to what I am trying to get at than Husserl’s natürliche Einstellung. Closer, but still not the same.

Sellars develops the idea of the manifest image in contrast to the scientific image, and this distinction is especially given exposition in his essay Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man. After initially characterizing the philosophical quest such that, “[i]t is… the ‘eye on the whole’ which distinguishes the philosophical enterprise,” and distinguishing several different senses in which philosophy could be said to be a synoptic effort at understanding the world as a whole, Sellars introduces terms for contrasting two distinct ways of seeing the world whole:

“…the philosopher is confronted not by one complex many dimensional picture, the unity of which, such as it is, he must come to appreciate; but by two pictures of essentially the same order of complexity, each of which purports to be a complete picture of man-in-the-world, and which, after separate scrutiny, he must fuse into one vision. Let me refer to these two perspectives, respectively, as the manifest and the scientific images of man-in-the-world.”

Wilfrid Sellars, Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man, section 1

Sellars’ distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image has been quite influential. A special issue of the journal Humana Mente, Between Two Images: The Manifest and Scientific Conceptions of the Human Being, 50 Years On, focused on the two images. Bas C. van Fraassen in particular has written a lot about Sellars, devoting an entire book to one of the two images, The Scientific Image, and has also written several relevant papers, such as “On the Radical Incompleteness of the Manifest Image” (Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association,Vol. 1976, Volume Two: Symposia and Invited Papers 1976, pp. 335-343). All of this material is well worth reading.

Sellars is at pains to point out that his distinction between manifest image and scientific image is not intended to be a distinction between pre-scientific and scientific worldviews (“…what I mean by the manifest image is a refinement or sophistication of what might be called the ‘original’ image…”), though it is clear from this exposition that the manifest image, however refined and up-to-date, has its origins in a pre-scientific conception of the world. (“It is, first, the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world.”) The essence of this distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image is that the manifest image is correlational while the scientific image is postulational. What this means is that the manifest image “explains” the world (in so far as it could be said to explain the world at all) by correlations among observables, while the scientific image explains the world by positing unobservables that connect observables “under the surface” of things, as it were (involving, “…the postulation of imperceptible entities”). Sellars also maintains that the manifest image cannot postulate in this way, and therefore cannot be improved or refined by science, although it can improve on itself by its own correlational methods.

I do not yet understand Sellars well enough to say why he insists that the manifest image cannot incorporate insights from the scientific image, and this is a key point of divergence between Sellars’ manifest image and what I above called a folk Weltanschauung. If a folk Weltanschauung consists of a cluster of tightly-coupled folk concepts (and perhaps a wide penumbra of associated but loosely-coupled folk concepts), then the generation of refined scientific concepts can slowly, one-by-one, replace folk concepts, so that the folk Weltanschauung gradually evolves into a more scientific Weltanschauung, even if it is not entirely transformed under the influence of scientific concepts. Science, too, consists of a cluster of tightly-coupled concepts, and these two distinct clusters of concepts — the folk and the scientific — might well resist mixing for a time, but the human mind cannot keep such matters rigorously separate, and it is inevitable that each will bleed over into the other. Sometimes this “bleeding over” is intentional, as when science reaches for metaphors or non-scientific language as a way to make its findings understood to a wider audience. This is part of the pursuit of intuitively tractable formulations, but it can also go very wrong, as when scientists adopt theological language in an attempt at a popular exposition that will not be rejected out-of-hand by the Great Unwashed.

Despite my differences with Sellars, I am going to here adopt his terminology of the manifest image and the scientific image, and I will hope that I don’t make too much of a mess of it. I will have more to say on this use of Sellars’ concepts below (especially in relation to the postulational character of the scientific image). In the meantime, I want to use Sellars’ concepts in a exposition of intuitive tractability. Sellars’ uses the metaphor of “stereoscopic vision” as the proper way to understand how we must bring together the manifest image and the scientific image as a single way of understanding the world (“…the most appropriate analogy is stereoscopic vision, where two differing perspectives on a landscape are fused into one coherent experience”). I think, on the contrary, that intuitively tractable formulations of scientific concepts can make the manifest image and the scientific image coincide, so that they are one and the same, and not two distinct images fused together. A slightly weaker formulation of this is to assert that intuitively tractable formulations allow us to integrate the manifest image and the scientific image.

Now I want to illustrate this by reference to the overview effect, that is to say, the cognitive effect of seeing our planet whole — preferably from orbit, but, if not from orbit, in photographs and film that make the point as unmistakably as though one were there, in orbit, seeing it with one’s own eyes.

Before the overview effect, we saw our planet with the same eyes, but even after it is proved to us that the planet is (roughly) a sphere, hanging suspended in space, it is difficult to believe this. All manner of scientific proofs of the world as a spherical planet can be adduced, but the science lacks intuitive tractability and we have a difficult time bringing together our scientific concepts and our folk concepts of the world — or, if you will, we have difficulty reconciling the manifest image and the scientific image. The two are distinct. Until we achieve the overview effect, there is an apparent contradiction between what we experience of the world and our scientific knowledge of the world. Our senses tell us that the world is flat and solid and unmoving; scientific knowledge tells us that the world is round and moving and hanging in space.

Once we attain the overview effect, this changes, and the apparent contradiction is revealed as apparent. The overview effect shows how the manifest image and the scientific image coincide. The things we know about ordinary objects, which shapes the manifest image, now applies to Earth, which is seen as an object rather than as surrounding us as an environment with an horizon that we can never reach, and which therefore feels endless to us. Seen from orbit, this explains itself intuitively, and an explicit explanation now appears superfluous (as is ideally the case with an axiom — it is seen to be true as soon as it is understood). The overview effect makes the scientific knowledge of our planet as a planet intuitively tractable, transforming scientific truths into visceral truths. One might say that the overview effect is the lived experience of the scientific truth of our homeworld. In this particular case, we have replaced a folk concept with a scientific concept, and the scientific concept is correct even as intuition is satisfied.

The use of the overview effect to illustrate the manifest and scientific images, and their possible coincidence in a single experience, is especially interesting in light of Sellars’ insistence that the scientific image is distinctive because it is postulational, and more particularly that it postulates unobservables as a way to explain observables. When, in a scientific context, someone speaks of unobservables or “imperceptible entities” the assumption is that we are talking about entities that are too small to see with the naked eye. The germ theory of disease and the atomic theory of matter both exemplify this idea of unobservables being observable because they are smaller than the resolution of unaided human vision. We can only observe these unobservables with instruments, and then this experience is mediated by complex instruments and an even more complex conceptual framework so that no one ever speaks of the “lived experience” of particle physics or microbiology.

In contrast to this, the Earth is unobservable to the human eye not because it is too small, but because it is too large. When shown scientific demonstrations that the world is round, we must posit an unobservable planet, and then identify this unobservable entity with the actual ground under our feet. This is difficult to do, intuitively speaking. We see the world at all times, but we do not see it as a planet. We do not see enough of the world at any one moment to see it as a planet. Enter the overview effect. Seeing the Earth whole from space reveals the entity that is planet Earth, and if one has the good fortune to lift off from Earth and experience the process of departing from its surface to then see the same from space, this makes a previously unobservable postulate into a concretely experienced entity.

We are in the same position now vis-à-vis our place within the Milky Way galaxy, and our place within the larger universe, as we were once in relation to the spherical Earth. Our accumulated scientific knowledge tells us where we are at in the universe, and where we are at in the Milky Way. We can even see a portion of the Milky Way when we look up into the night sky, but we cannot stand back and see the whole from a distance, taking in the Milky Way and pointing of the position of our solar system within one of the spiral arms of our galaxy. We know it, but we haven’t yet experienced it viscerally. We have to posit the Milky Way galaxy as a whole, the Virgo supercluster, and the filaments of galaxies that stretch through the cosmos, because they are too large for us to observe at present. They are partially observed, in the way we might say that an atom is partially observed when we look at a piece of ordinary material composed of atoms.

Our postulational scientific image of the universe in which we live is redeemed for intuition by experiences that put us in a position to view these entities with our own eyes, and so to see them in an intuitively tractable manner. Perhaps one of the reasons that quantum theory remains intuitively intractable is that the unobservables that it posits are so small that we have no hope of ever seeing them, even with an electron microscope.

Ultimately, intuitively tractable formulations of formerly difficult if not opaque scientific ideas is a function of the conceptual framework that we employ, and this is ultimately a philosophical concern. Sellars suggests that the manifest and scientific conceptual framework might be harmonized in stereoscopic vision, but he doesn’t hold out any hope that the manifest image can be integrated with the scientific image. I think that the example of the overview effect demonstrates that there are at least some cases when manifest image and scientific image can be shown to coincide, and therefore these two ways of grasping the world are not entirely alien from each other. Cosmology may be the point of contact at which the two images coincide and through which the two images can communicate.

The pursuit of intuitive tractability is, I submit, a central concern of scientific civilization. If there ever is to be a fully scientific civilization, in which scientific ways of knowing and scientific approaches to problems and their solutions are the pervasively held view, this scientific civilization will come about because we have been successful in our pursuit of intuitive tractability, and we are able to make advanced scientific concepts as familiar as the idea of zero is now familiar to us. Since the question of a conceptual framework in which rigorous science and intuitively tractable concepts can be brought together is not a scientific question, but a philosophical question, the contemporary contempt for philosophy in the special sciences is invidious to the effective pursuit of intuitive tractability. The fate of scientific civilization lies with philosophy.

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Overview Effects

The Epistemic Overview Effect

The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

A Further Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought, in the Way of Providing a Measure of Disambiguation in Regard to the Role of Temporality

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Planetary Endemism and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Intuitive Tractability

Homeworld Effects

The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung

The Martian Standpoint

Addendum on the Martian Standpoint

Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space

What will it be like to be a Martian?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The periodic table, color-coded by the source of the element in the solar system. By Jennifer Johnson.

Many years ago, reading a source I cannot now recall (and for which I searched unsuccessfully when I started writing this post), I came upon a passage that has stayed with me. The author was making the argument that no sciences were consistent except those that had been reduced to mere catalogs of facts, like geography and anatomy. I can’t recall the larger context in which this argument appeared, but the observation that sciences might only become fully consistent when they have matured to the point of being exhaustive but static and uninteresting catalogs of facts, implying that the field of research itself had been utterly exhausted, was something I remembered. This idea presents in miniature a developmental conception of the sciences, but I think that it is a developmental conception that is incomplete.

Thinking of this idea of an exhausted field of research, I am reminded of a discussion in Conversations on Mind, Matter, and Mathematics by Jean-Pierre Changeux and Alain Connes, in which mathematician Alain Connes distinguished between fully explored and as yet unexplored parts of mathematics:

“…the list of finite fields is relatively easy to grasp, and it’s a simple matter to prove that the list is complete. It is part of an almost completely explored mathematical reality, where few problems remain. Cultural and social circumstances clearly serve to indicate which directions need to be pursued on the fringe of current research — the conquest of the North Pole, to return again to my comparison, surely obeyed the same type of cultural and social motivations, at least for a certain time. But once exploration is finished, these cultural and social phenomena fade away, and all that’s left is a perfectly stable corpus, perfectly fitted to mathematical reality…”

Jean-Pierre Changeux and Alain Connes, Conversations on Mind, Matter, and Mathematics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 33-34

To illustrate a developmental conception of mathematics and the formal sciences would introduce additional complexities that follow from the not-yet-fully-understood relationship between the formal sciences and the empirical sciences, so I am going to focus on developmental conceptions of the empirical sciences, but I hope to return to the formal sciences in this connection.

The idea of the development of science as a two-stage process, with discovery followed by a consistent and exhaustive catalog, implies both that most sciences (and, if we decompose the individual special sciences into subdivisions, parts of most or all sciences) remain in the discovery phase, and that once the discovery phase has passed and we are in possession of an exhaustive and complete catalog of the facts discovered by a science, there is nothing more to be done in a given science. However, I can think of several historical examples in which a science seemed to be converging on a complete catalog, but this development was disrupted (one might say) by conceptual change within the field that forced the reorganization of the materials in a new way. My examples will not be perfect, and some additional scientific discovery always seems to have been involved, but I think that these examples will be at least suggestive.

Prior to the great discoveries of cosmology in the early twentieth century, after which astronomy became indissolubly connected to astrophysics, astronomy seemed to be converging slowly upon an exhaustive catalog of all stars, with the limitation on the research being simply the resolving power of the telescopes employed to view the stars. One could imagine a counterfactual world in which technological innovations in instrumentation supplied nothing more than new telescopes able to resolve more stars, and that the task of astronomy was merely to supply an exhaustive catalog of stars, listing their position in the sky, intrinsic brightness, and a few other facts about the points of light in the sky. But the cataloging of stars itself contributed to the revolution that would follow, particularly when the period-luminosity relationship in Cepheid variable stars was discovered by Henrietta Swan Leavitt (discovered in 1908 and published in 1912). The period-luminosity relationship provided a “standard candle” for astronomy, and this standard candle began the process of constructing the cosmological distance ladder, which in turn made it possible to identify Cepheid variables in the Andromeda galaxy and thus to prove that the Andromeda galaxy was two million light years away and not contained within the Milky Way.

Once astronomy became scientifically coupled to astrophysics, and the resources of physics (both relativistic and quantum) could be brought to bear upon understanding stars, a whole new cosmos opened up. Stars, galaxies, and the universe entire were transformed from something static that might be exhaustively cataloged, to a dynamic and changing reality with a natural history as well as a future. Astronomy went from being something that we might call a Platonic science, or even a Linnaean science, to being an historical science, like geology (after Hutton and Lyell), biology (after Darwin and Wallace), and Paleontology. This coupling of the study of the stars with the study of the matter that makes up the stars has since moved in both directions, with physics driving cosmology and cosmology driving physics. One result of this interaction between astronomy and physics is the illustration above (by Jennifer Johnson) of the periodic table of elements, which prominently exhibits the origins of the elements in cosmological processes. The periodic table once seemed, like a catalog of stars, to be something static to be memorized, and divorced from natural history. This conceptualization of matter in terms of its origins puts the periodic table in a dramatically different light.

As the cosmos was once conceived in Platonic terms as fixed and eternal, to be delineated in a Linnaean science of taxonomical classification, so too the Earth was conceived in Platonic terms as fixed and eternal, to be similarly delineated in a Linnaean science of classification. The first major disruption of this conception came with geology since Hutton and Lyell, followed by plate tectonics and geomorphology in the twentieth century. Now this process has been pushed further by the idea of mineral evolution. I have been listening through for the second time to Robert Hazen’s lectures The Origin and Evolution of Earth: From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence, which exposition closely follow the content of his book, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet, in which Hazen wrote:

“The ancient discipline of mineralogy, though absolutely central to everything we know about Earth and its storied past, has been curiously static and detached from the conceptual vagaries of time. For more than two hundred years, measurements of chemical composition, density, hardness, optical properties, and crystal structure have been the meat and potatoes of the mineralogist’s livelihood. Visit any natural history museum, and you’ll see what I mean: gorgeous crustal specimens arrayed in case after glass-fronted case, with labels showing name, chemical formula, crystal system, and locality. These most treasured fragments of Earth are rich in historical context, but you will likely search in vain for any clue as to their birth ages or subsequent geological transformations. The old way all but divorces minerals from their compelling life stories.”

Robert M. Hazen, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet, Viking Penguin, 2012, Introduction

This illustrates, from the perspective of mineralogy, much of what I said above in relation to star charts and catalogs: mineralogy was once about cataloging minerals, and this may have been a finite undertaking once all minerals had been isolated, identified, and cataloged. Now, however, we can understand mineralogy in the context of cosmological history, and this is as revolutionary for our understanding of Earth as the periodic table understood in terms of cosmological history. It could be argued, in addition, that compiling the “particle zoo” of contemporary particle physics is also a task of cataloging the entities studied by physics, but the cataloging of particles has been attended throughout with a theory of how these particles are generated and how they fit into the larger cosmological story — what Aristotle would have called their coming to be and passing away.

The best contemporary example of a science still in its initial phases of discovery and cataloging is the relatively recent confirmation of exoplanets. On my Tumblr blog I recently posted On the Likely Existence of “Random” Planetary Systems, which tried to place our current Golden Age of Exoplanet Discovery in the context of a developing science. We find the planetary systems that we do in fact find partly as a consequence of observation selection effects, and it belongs to the later stages of the development of a science to attempt to correct for observation selection effects built into the original methods of discovery employed. The planetary science that is emerging from exoplanet discoveries, however, and like contemporary particle physics, is attended by theories of planet formation that take into account cosmological history. However, the discovery phase, in terms of exoplanets, is still underway and still very new, and we have a lot to learn. Moreover, once we learn more about the possibilities of planets in our universe, hopefully also we will learn about the varied possibilities of planetary biospheres, and given the continual interaction between biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere, which is a central motif of Hazen’s mineral evolution, we will be able to place planets and their biospheres into a large cosmological context (perhaps even reconstructing biosphere evolution). But first we must discover them, and then we must catalog them.

These observations, I think, have consequences not only for our understanding of the universe in which we find ourselves, but also for our understanding of science. Perhaps, instead of a two-stage process of discovery and taxonomy, science involves a three-stage process of discovery, taxonomy, and natural history, in which latter the objects and facts cataloged by one of the special sciences (earlier in their development) can take their place within cosmological history. If this is the case, then big history is the master category not only of history, but also of science, as big history is the ultimate framework for all knowledge that bears the lowly stamp of its origins. This conception of the task of science, once beyond the initial stages of discovery and classification, to integrate that which was discovered and classified into the framework of big history, suggests a concrete method by which to “cash out” in a meaningful way Wilfrid Sellars’ contention that, “…the specialist must have a sense of how not only his subject matter, but also the methods and principles of his thinking about it, fit into the intellectual landscape.” (cf. Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man) Big history is the intellectual landscape in which the sciences are located.

A developmental conception of science that recognized stages in the development of science beyond classification, taxonomy, and an exhaustive catalog (which is, in effect, the tombstone of what was a living and growing science), has consequences for the practice of science. Discovery may well be the paradigmatic form of scientific activity, but it is not the only form of scientific activity. The painstakingly detailed and disciplined work of cataloging stars or minerals is the kind of challenge that attracts a certain kind of mind with a particular interest, and the kind of individual who is attracted to this task of systematically cataloging entities and facts is distinct from the kind of individual who might be most attracted by scientific discovery, and also distinct from the kind of individual who might be attracted to fitting the discoveries of a special science into the overall story of the universe and its natural history. There may need to be a division of labor within the sciences, and this may entail an educational difference. Dividing sciences by discipline (and, now, by university departments), which involves inter-generational conflicts among sciences and the paradigm shifts that sometimes emerge as a result of these conflicts, may ultimately make less sense than dividing sciences according their stage of development. Perhaps universities, instead of having departments of chemistry, geology, and botany, should have departments of discovery, taxonomy, and epistemic integration.

Speaking from personal experience, I know that (long ago) when I was in school, I absolutely hated the cataloging approach to the sciences, and I was bored to tears by memorizing facts about minerals or stars. But the developmental science of evolution so intrigued me that I read extensively about evolution and anthropology outside and well beyond the school curriculum. If mineral evolution and the Earth sciences in their contemporary form had been known then, I might have had more of an interest in them.

What are the sciences developing into, or what are the sciences becoming? What is the end and aim of science? I previously touched on this question, a bit obliquely, in What is, or what ought to be, the relationship between science and society? though this line of inquiry is more like a thought experiment. It may be too early in the history of the sciences to say what they are becoming or what they will become. Perhaps an emergent complexity will arise out of knowledge itself, something that I first suggested in Scientific Historiography: Past, Present, and Future, in which I wrote in the final paragraph:

We cannot simply assume an unproblematic diachronic extrapolation of scientific knowledge — or, for that matter, historical knowledge — especially as big history places such great emphasis upon emergent complexity. The linear extrapolation of science eventually may trigger a qualitative change in knowledge. In other words, what will be the emergent form of scientific knowledge (the ninth threshold, perhaps?) and how will it shape our conception of scientific historiography as embodied in big history, not to mention the consequences for civilization itself? We may yet see a scientific historiography as different from big history as big history is different from Augustine’s City of God.

It is only a lack of imagination that would limit science to the three stages of development I have outlined above. There may be developments in science beyond those we can currently understand. Perhaps the qualitative emergent from the quantitative expansion of scientific knowledge will be a change in science itself — possibly a fourth stage in the development of science — that will open up to scientific knowledge aspects of experience and regions of nature currently inaccessible to science.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The large number of cities that formed the network of the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley nicely illustrates a concrete conception of civilization.

Some time ago in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being I discussed a famous passage in Plato that gives an explicit definition of being. The passage is as follows:

STRANGER: Let us push the question; for if they will admit that any, even the smallest particle of being, is incorporeal, it is enough; they must then say what that nature is which is common to both the corporeal and incorporeal, and which they have in their mind’s eye when they say of both of them that they ‘are.’ Perhaps they may be in a difficulty; and if this is the case, there is a possibility that they may accept a notion of ours respecting the nature of being, having nothing of their own to offer.

THEAETETUS: What is the notion? Tell me, and we shall soon see.

STRANGER: My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.

The Greek text of the Eleatic Stranger’s crucial formulation is as follows:

Ξένος: λέγω δὴ τὸ καὶ ὁποιανου̂ν [τινα] κεκτημένον δύναμιν [247e] εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ ποιει̂ν ἕτερον ὁτιου̂ν πεφυκὸς εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ παθει̂ν καὶ σμικρότατον ὑπὸ του̂ φαυλοτάτου, κἂν εἰ μόνον εἰς ἅπαξ, πα̂ν του̂το ὄντως εἰ̂ναι: τίθεμαι γὰρ ὅρον [ὁρίζειν] τὰ ὄντα ὡς ἔστιν οὐκ ἄλλο τι πλὴν δύναμις.

My extrapolation of Plato’s definition of being was to derive four permutations from this definition of beings, in this way:

1. Beings that act only and do not suffer

2. Beings that suffer only and do not act

3. Beings that both act and suffer

4. Beings that neither act nor suffer, which may be non-beings

Another way to extrapolate Plato’s definition of being would be the ability of some entity to act or to suffer in kind, that is, to engage in reciprocal relations with a peer, to interact with another entity of the same (or similar) kind in the same (or similar) way. With this extrapolation, the fourth permutation above — beings that neither act nor suffer — becomes meaningful, because a given entity might possess a minimal ontological status in regard to interactions of acting and suffering without the opportunity to engage in such relationships with a peer entity. Thus a contradictory, or at least problematic, permutation of Plato’s definition of being can be given meaning.

An entity might be analyzed in terms of the classes of relationships across which it interacts, and where a class of interactions is absent, the entity is a non-being in this respect even if it is clearly a being in other respects. For example, Robinson Crusoe, living alone as a castaway on a desert island, interacts with the island, its flora and fauna, but initially interacts with no other human beings. Crusoe has not been cast out of existence by being marooned on a desert island, but he has been deprived of human society; no human society exists on his island (at first). Crusoe has lost his status as a member of human society by being deprived of the kind of interactions that constitute human society, i.e., interactions with other human beings, even as he continues to interact with the world across broad categories of existence that have nothing to do with human society.

This example of Robinson Crusoe and his interaction with peers (or lack thereof) can be scaled up and applied to larger human societies. Human society at the level of organization of the hunter-gatherer band, such as characterized the human world of the upper Paleolithic, brought into being relationships between such bands, which relationships were almost certainly implicated in the human expansion across the entire surface of Earth. When, near the beginning of the Holocene, some bands settled down into agricultural villages, these villages would have interacted with each other, and when some of the villages expanded in size and complexity and became cities, these early cities would have interacted with each other. What I would like to suggest there is that interaction among cities as cities is what characterizes civilization.

Recently in Another Counterfactual: the Single City Civilization I discussed a couple of different definitions of civilization that I have been employing, particularly in my Centauri Dreams post Martian Civilization, one of these definitions abstract and the other concrete:

● Concrete — A network of cities engaged in relationships of cooperation and conflict.

● Abstract — A society with a central project that unifies its economic infrastructure and its intellectual superstructure.

My “concrete” definition of civilization interpreted in the light of Plato’s definition of being suggests that civilization comes into being when cities interact on the ontological level distinctive to cities, i.e., cities interacting on a civic level. Before this, isolated cities would not have had an opportunity to interact with ontological peers; a city would interact with the surrounding countryside, and perhaps also with hunter-gatherer bands that might pass by for raiding or trading, but these sub-urban interactions would not yet rise to the level of civilization.

The class of relationships that are distinctive of civilization come into being when multiple cities interact with each other as cities. Before this, individual cities may emerge and interact with their surroundings, but these relationships belong to another order of being.

This is, I think, a conception of civilization that is consistent with V. Gordon Childe and the “urban revolution” that I discussed in my Centauri Dreams post Martian Civilization, but also a definition that goes beyond Childe and fills in the gap between Childe’s formulations specifically concerned with the nature of cities but not yet with the nature of cities in mutual interaction.

This Platonic interpretation of my “concrete” definition of civilization transforms it into a theoretical definition that may yet point to implications that I have not yet fully realized.

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The large number of Mayan cities in Mesoamerica also illustrates a network of cities engaged in interaction.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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