Wednesday


Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility is not only a classic of English literature, but also a classic of moral psychology, investigating the contrast in temperaments between sense (in the person of Elinor Dashwood) and sensibility (in the person of Marianne Dashwood). This was one of the internal tensions of the Enlightenment, and Austen personalizes this tension in the lives of her memorable characters. The proneness to emotion (or, we might even say, emotionalism) represented by sensibility in the character of Marianne Dashwood was given philosophical expression in the the life and work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who pioneered the valorization of feeling even in the midst of the Enlightenment and its rationalism.

The more sober side of life, as represented by the self-sacrificing prudence of Elinor Dashwood, is a perennial tradition in western thought, most famously and anciently represented by Stoicism. The Enlightenment thinkers who distanced themselves from Rousseau’s emotionalism didn’t call themselves Stoics, but they were, after a fashion, Stoics by another name, and they were able to draw upon a deep philosophical well, including the great Stoic philosophers of classical antiquity. For example, Marcus Aurelius.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius introduced what we would today call a thought experiment — a thought experiment that has subsequently come to be known as, “the view from above.” Here is the locus classicus from the Meditations:

Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.

This is a fine saying of Plato: That he who is discoursing about men should look also at earthly things as if he viewed them from some higher place; should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labours, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets, a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries.

Consider the past; such great changes of political supremacies. Thou mayest foresee also the things which will be. For they will certainly be of like form, and it is not possible that they should deviate from the order of the things which take place now: accordingly to have contemplated human life for forty years is the same as to have contemplated it for ten thousand years. For what more wilt thou see?

That which has grown from the earth to the earth, But that which has sprung from heavenly seed, Back to the heavenly realms returns. This is either a dissolution of the mutual involution of the atoms, or a similar dispersion of the unsentient elements.

Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, translated by George Long, Book Seven

This idea was taken over by Antony, Earl of Shaftesbury, who rendered the same idea in the more flowery English prose of his time:

“View the heavens. See the vast design, the mighty revolutions that are performed. Think, in the midst of this ocean of being, what the earth and a little part of its surface is; and what a few animals are, which there have being. Embrace, as it were, with thy imagination all those spacious orbs, and place thyself in the midst of the Divine architecture. Consider other orders of beings, other schemes, other designs, other executions, other faces of things, other respects, other proportions and harmony. Be deep in this imagination and feeling, so as to enter into what is done, so as to admire that grace and majesty of things so great and noble, and so as to accompany with thy mind that order, and those concurrent interests of things glorious and immense. For here, surely, if anywhere, there is majesty, beauty and glory. Bring thyself as oft as thou canst into this sense and apprehension; not like the children, admiring only what belongs to their play; but considering and admiring what is chiefly beautiful, splendid and great in things. And now, in this disposition, and in this situation of mind, see if for a cut-finger, or what is all one, for the distemper and ails of a few animals, thou canst accuse the universe.” 8

Antony Ashley-Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), The Philosophical Regimen, “Diety”

Here we have the Enlightenment mirror of a classic Stoic idea. I find it fascinating that this Stoic thought experiment is intended to communicate what is essentially a Copernican lesson — the smallness of human beings and their concerns in the “ocean of being” that is the universe. The view from above is a moral thought experiment rather than a cosmological or metaphysical thought experiment, and it draws upon Stoic cosmology and metaphysics in order to underline the central moral lesson. As a moral thought experiment, the view from above is to be compared to more familiar thought experiments of our time, the most obvious being the ability to imaginatively place oneself in the circumstances of another, and thereby by gain a visceral appreciation of the other’s moral experience. This latter idea is not only familiar to us in our ordinary day-to-day moral thought, but also forms the basis of John Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” thought experiment intended to define a just society.

The contemporary moral thought experiment that is so familiar to us places us in the midst of the ocean of being; its ontological parallel might be taken to be an object-oriented ontology that insists upon a “democracy of objects.” The Stoic thought experiment is profoundly anti-modern in so far as it places us above the ocean of being, putting the thought experimenter not in the shoes of another, but transcending the other, and transcending everything of this world. (Nietzsche — the modernist’s anti-modernist — has several similar passages, especially when he writes about hyperboreanism.) The ontological parallel to the Stoic thought experiment may be taken to be the Great Chain of Being, which is a hierarchical conception — an aristocratic ontology, if you will. While Stoic moral thought may be considered a perennial touchstone in western philosophy, its tenets, as we have seen, are in many respects radically alien to the modern mind. The “view from above” is intended to inculcate an noble attitude to the world, but the idea of nobility as a virtue has almost disappeared from a world in which aristocracy (presumably the social class with the greatest nobility) is considered at best irrelevant and at worst an evil to be extirpated.

From space we have achieved the Stoic ‘view from above,’ but we don’t interpret it as the Stoics would have interpreted it.

The nobility of the “view from above” is, at the same time, an invocation of what we today call the overview effect, though an overview effect conceived before an actual visual overview of our homeworld was technically possible and, perhaps more importantly, conceptualized in terms of Stoic reserve and moral distance. Since the Greek scientists of classical antiquity proved that the Earth is a sphere, and that it is indeed a world among worlds (an idea that the ancients called the infinity of worlds), there has always been the possibility of conceptualizing the overview effect, though it was only with twentieth century industrial technology that it became possible to see the sphere of the Earth and its place in the cosmos with the same eyes that had, until then, only seen Earth from its surface.

If the civilization of classical antiquity had not faltered, but had remained more-or-less intact until it had produced a technology capable of achieving Earth orbit, the overview effect as experienced by individuals of that civilization would doubtless have been taken as scientific confirmation of Stoic moral ideals. This is not, today, how the overview effect has been received. While a perennial form of moral psychology, the particular form of ancient Stoicism was an intellectual expression of a particular era of human experience; the selection pressures that shaped Stoicism, while partly reflective of perennial features of the human condition, have nevertheless qualitatively changed since classical antiquity.

The overview effect would have had an impact upon any conscious being, and especially upon a reflexively self-conscious being, regardless of the social milieu of any such being. Had it been possible for our Paleolithic ancestors to experience the overview effect, or for the Greeks in the time of Pericles, or the Mongols in the time of Genghis Khan, or for the Victorians to experience the overview effect, that effect would have been profound, but, in each case, interpreted and understood within the context of the conceptual framework of the conscious being who attains a homeworld overview. I have here used examples from different times and places of terrestrial history, but the idea can be generalized to the experience of any conscious being and its conceptual framework. As we have all learned from recent philosophy of science, all observations are theory-laden, and so too with the overview effect: all experiences of the overview effect are theory-laden, and the theory with which they are informally laden is the conceptional framework of the society from which the observer is derived.

A gold doubloon from Quito was nailed to the mast of the Pequod in Moby Dick.

Long before it was asserted that all observation is theory-laden, Kant put it like this: “Concepts without percepts are empty, percepts without concepts are blind.” (“Gedanken ohne Inhalt sind leer, Anschauungen ohne Begriff sind blind” in the section “Von der Logik Überhaupt” KdRV) This, too, is a perennial idea of western civilization — i.e., the idea that our perceptions are shaped by our conceptions; that we are blind without our conceptual framework — and we find it in a famous passage from Moby Dick, in which Melville describes the response of the crew of the Pequod to the golden doubloon from Quito nailed to the mast:

Now those noble golden coins of South America are as medals of the sun and tropic token-pieces. Here palms, alpacas, and volcanoes; sun’s disks and stars, ecliptics, horns-of-plenty, and rich banners waving, are in luxuriant profusion stamped; so that the precious gold seems almost to derive an added preciousness and enhancing glories, by passing through those fancy mints, so Spanishly poetic.

It so chanced that the doubloon of the Pequod was a most wealthy example of these things. On its round border it bore the letters, REPUBLICA DEL ECUADOR: QUITO. So this bright coin came from a country planted in the middle of the world, and beneath the great equator, and named after it; and it had been cast midway up the Andes, in the unwaning clime that knows no autumn. Zoned by those letters you saw the likeness of three Andes’ summits; from one a flame; a tower on another; on the third a crowing cock; while arching over all was a segment of the partitioned zodiac, the signs all marked with their usual cabalistics, and the keystone sun entering the equinoctial point at Libra.

Before this equatorial coin, Ahab, not unobserved by others, was now pausing.

“There’s something ever egotistical in mountain-tops and towers, and all other grand and lofty things; look here, — three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self. Great pains, small gains for those who ask the world to solve them; it cannot solve itself. Methinks now this coined sun wears a ruddy face; but see! aye, he enters the sign of storms, the equinox! and but six months before he wheeled out of a former equinox at Aries! From storm to storm! So be it, then. Born in throes, ‘t is fit that man should live in pains and die in pangs! So be it, then! Here’s stout stuff for woe to work on. So be it, then.”

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Chapter 99 — The Doubloon

After Ahab’s “not unobserved” soliloquy on the Quito doubloon, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, Manxman, and then Queequeg look into the doubloon and gave their own account of it, each distinctive of the man, thus confirming Ahab’s judgment of the doubloon as a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. Melville’s account, then, of how perceptions are shaped by conceptions is based on the differences among individual men, but there are also differences based on particular peoples from different times and different regions of the world. Indeed, all of the harpooners of the Pequod — Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo, and Fedallah — are representatives of distinct civilizations, though all have, by chance, been brought together on the Pequod. Each has his distinctive conceptual framework that overlaps and intersects with that of his crew mates, but which perfectly coincides with none of the others.

We too, today, have our peculiar conceptual framework, and it pervasively shapes our view of the world. It needs to be understood that our peculiar conceptual framework determines how we experience the world, and, in the case of the overview effect, “the world” means the planet entire. The overview effect appeared at a particular moment in human history, and, as a consequence, the overview effect was and has been primarily interpreted in terms of human experience in the twentieth, and now the twenty-first, century. That the overview effect appeared at the historical moment in which it did appear — relatively early in the development of a technological civilization, and immediately upon the advent of spacefaring capacity — is significant.

We are closer in time to Marianne Dashwood than to Candide, or indeed closer to Werther in his blue coat and yellow breeches than to Rameau’s Nephew. That is to say, our worldview is more akin to romanticism than to the Enlightenment, owes more the Rousseau than to Locke, though romanticism, too, has passed into history and into dust, and has been replaced by newer ideas and ideologies. Nevertheless, the romantic ideal remains stamped on western civilization and the experience of individuals within that civilization (moreover, romanticism, like Stoicism, is a perennial expression of the human condition), and it is the romantic response of primarily an emotional character that marks responses to the overview effect. This may not be obvious at first, but it becomes more obvious in comparison to the Stoic idea of the overview effect in the view from above thought experiment.

Astronaut Edgar Mitchell has been the most forthcoming in describing his unique experiences while in space. Mitchell had a particularly compelling experience while returning from the moon during the Apollo 14 mission:

“Perhaps it was the disorienting, or reorienting, effect of a rotating environment, while the heavens and Earth tumbled alternately in and out of view in the small capsule window. Perhaps it was the air of safety and sanctuary after a two-day foray into an unforgiving environment. But I don’t think so. The sensation was altogether foreign. Somehow I felt tuned into something much larger than myself, something much larger than the planet in the window. Something incomprehensibly big…”

“Then, looking beyond the Earth itself to the magnificence of the larger scene, there was a startling recognition that the nature of the universe was not as I had been taught. My understanding of the separate distinctness and the relative independence of movement of those cosmic bodies was shattered. There was an upwelling of fresh insight coupled with a feeling of ubiquitous harmony—a sense of interconnectedness with the celestial bodies surrounding our spacecraft. Particular scientific facts about stellar evolution took on new significance.”

Edgar Mitchell, The Way of the Explorer, New York: Putnam, 1996, p. 57-58

Mitchell was driven by his experience to read widely about religious and mystical experiences, eventually commissioning a study on esoteric practices. Mitchell’s sponsored study converged upon the idea of savikalpa samadhi, as a traditional (at least, native to the Indian tradition of thought) expression of what he experienced as an astronaut.

Astronaut Russell L. Schweickart has also given a detailed account of his experiences in space. Frank White has cited Schweickart’s experiences in his exposition of the overview effect:

“The Earth is so small and so fragile and such a precious little spot in the universe that you can block it out with your thumb. And you realize on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you — all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you’ve changed, that there’s something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was.”

Frank White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Third Edition, Reston, VA: AIAA, 2014, pp. 36-37; Part III of The Overview Effect consists of statements by and interviews with astronauts and cosmonauts, all of which are relevant here. An account of Schweickert’s experiences also can be read in No Frames, No Boundaries: Connecting with the whole planet — from space by Russell Schweickart.

As Plato quoted by Marcus Aurelius gives a litany of the familiar things of this world — assemblies, armies, agricultural labours, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets — so, too, Schweickart gives a litany of the familiar things of this world — history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games — but the implied meaning and value of this terrestrial litany is different in each case. There is a difference between seeing these familiar things from a terrestrial perspective, and seeing them viewed from above, but what exactly is this difference?

Astronaut Ron Garan references the overview effect, but also formulated his experiences in space in terms of the “orbital perspective” and even “elevated empathy”:

“In addition to the overview effect, however, there is another element to the orbital perspective, which I call elevated empathy… For the fifty-plus years that humans have been flying in space, astronauts and cosmonauts have commented on how beautiful, tranquil, peaceful, and fragile our planet looks from space. These are not trite clichés; it truly is moving to see our planet from space. But looking down and seeing a border between India and Pakistan, recognizing the undeniable and sobering contradiction between the staggering beauty of our planet and the unfortunate realities of life on our planet for many of its inhabitants, also inspires empathy for the struggles that all people face.”

“This elevated empathy is an important aspect of the orbital perspective. Elevated empathy helps us realize that we are all riding through the universe together on this spaceship we call Earth, that we are all interconnected, that we are all one human family. This scar on the otherwise beautiful landscape was a compelling call to focus on the need for global collaboration to overcome the world’s problems, to recognize that, in spite of our disagreements, we should behave like a family, should communicate, support, stand by, and care for each other.”

Ronald J. Garan, Jr., The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of Seventy-One Million Miles, Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2015, pp. 64-65

All of these accounts are experiences of connectedness and of integration, not of establishing a distance from which the petty concerns of the world seem as nothing. The ordinary business of life on Earth — death and birth and love, tears, joy, games — takes on a greater significance; rather than being diminished by the experience of the overview effect, they are magnified by it.

The overview effect has changed and is changing human perception of our homeworld.

Let me return to one of the opening thoughts of Frank White’s The Overview Effect in order to refocus on the difference between the Stoic “view from above” and the overview effect as it has been experienced by human beings as a consequence of space travel. Here is a passage I have quoted many times previously:

“…mental processes and views of life cannot be separated from physical location. Our ‘worldview’ as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.”

Frank White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Third Edition, Reston, VA: AIAA, 2014, p. 1

As we have seen above, an observer not only has a physical location in space, but also observes from the point of view of a particular conceptual framework, which we might call the observer’s “location” in what Wittgenstein called logical space. While Wittgenstein did not develop his conception of logical space in any detail, Donald Davidson formulated a conception of logical geography that entails locatedness in logical space:

“…to give the logical form of a sentence is to give its logical location in the totality of sentences, to describe it in a way that explicitly determines what sentences it entails and what sentences it is entailed by.”

Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events, “Criticism, Comment, and Defence”, p. 140

Since we’re talking about the overview effect, “logical space” is more appropriate than the essentially terrestrial (if not geocentric — a conceptual geocentrism, i.e., geocentrism in an extended sense) idea of “logical geography,” but the terminology doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the idea of the relation of ideas to other ideas, which is a function of a conceptual framework. I would go further than Davidson and add to his account of logical geography the particular logic employed, because relations of entailment are relative to the logic used to derive what is entailed by what.

Davidson’s formulation is strongly linguistic, which may be understood as an artifact of the high-water mark of linguistic philosophy; the same point could be given a somewhat more traditional formulation by substituting “proposition” for “sentence.” In any case, an observer’s conceptual framework could be described as a location in logical space or logical geography, and this location involves the relationship of each idea within the conceptual framework to other ideas within the conceptual framework, as well as the relationship of the conceptual framework entire (in so far as it can be understood as a whole) to other conceptual frameworks or to ideas that lie outside the framework.

An observer, then, has a particular location in physical space as well as a particular location in logical space. These locations are not independent, but rather each informs the other: the observer’s location in physical space shapes his location in logical space, and his location in logical space shapes his location in physical space. The second part of this sentence may sound a bit odd. Think of it as a form of emergent complexity: the observer’s location in logical space does not physically create or physically shape the observer’s physical space, but it does transform this physical space through making it the space of an observer, and hence a vantage point from which to observe, describe, and understand the world. A standpoint comes into being, as it were, by being the vantage point of an observer; before that it is merely a coordinate in space, but it is not a standpoint, so that the existence of an observer brings a standpoint as a standpoint into existence. That is to say, a standpoint is an emergent complexity from space simpliciter.

When a Stoic assumes the standpoint of the view from above, he sees the world brought into existence by his standpoint, and when a contemporary astronaut sees the overview of the planet from space, he too sees the world brought into existence by his standpoint. From a purely formal point of view, these experiences are symmetrical. These standpoints are distinct in so far as they do not perfectly coincide (like the harpooners on the Pequod), but they overlap and intersect. The harpooners on the Pequod lived in close quarters and hunted whales together, so they had much in common. And we have much in common with them, as we do with the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius or the Stoic slave Epictetus, and more yet in common with the astronauts on the ISS. But there are aspects of experience that are narrower, and are thus shared by fewer individuals than the way in which all human beings share their experience of the human condition.

If humanity is able to project itself beyond its homeworld and to build a spacefaring civilization, the overview effect will be experienced from as many different standpoints as what was seen by the sailors of the Pequod when they looked into the Quito doubloon. Over time, the overview effect will be not one, but many. Our history has already supplied us with an example of this: if an astronaut came back from space and asserted that the overview effect made him wish to purge away the filth of the terrestrial life, this account would not be well received; it belongs to a different age and to a different conceptual framework. And if human beings use their advanced technology to change themselves (technology derived from the same industrial infrastructure that makes space travel possible), the human condition itself may change, and then the overlap of our experiences with those of our ancestors will be diminished. We will have less in common, and what we see when we look into the Quito doubloon will evolve over time, and humanity will be not one, but many.

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astronaut-above-earth

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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

Stoicism, Sensibility, and the Overview Effect

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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Monday


In my Centauri Dreams post Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? I noted that it has become a contemporary commonplace that the emergence of superintelligent artificial intelligence represents the greatest existential risk of our time and the near future. I do not share this view, but I understand why this view is common. Testimony to superintelligence as an existential risk is the book Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom, who has been instrumental both in the exposition of existential risks and in the exposition of superintelligence.

Bostrom prefaces his book on superintelligence with a fable, “The Unfinished Fable of the Sparrows.” In the fable, a flock of sparrows decides that they would benefit if they had an owl to help them. One member of the flock, Scronkfinkle, objects, saying, “Should we not give some thought to the art of owl-domestication and owl-taming first, before we bring such a creature into our midst?” The other sparrows disregard the warning, upon the premise that they will first obtain own owlet or an owl egg, and then concern themselves with the control of the owl. As the other sparrows leave to find an owl, the fable ends:

“Just two or three sparrows remained behind. Together they began to try to work out how owls might be tamed or domesticated. They soon realized that Pastus had been right: this was an exceedingly difficult challenge, especially in the absence of an actual owl to practice on. Nevertheless they pressed on as best they could, constantly fearing that the flock might return with an owl egg before a solution to the control problem had been found. It is not known how the story ends, but the author dedicates this book to Scronkfinkle and his followers.”

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford, 2016

Bostrom leaves the fable unfinished; I will provide one account of what happens next.

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The few sparrows who remained behind, despite their difficulties, settled on the plan that the best way to approach owl taming and domestication was by not allowing the owl to understand that he is an owl. They would raise any owl obtained by the sparrows to maturity as a sparrow, so that the owl would believe itself to be a sparrow, and so would naturally identify with the flock of sparrows, would desire use its greater strength to build better nests for the sparrows, would want to help with the care of both young and old sparrows, and would advise the sparrows even while protecting them from the cat. “This owl will be as sparrow-like as an owl can possibly be,” they asserted, and set about formulating a detailed plan to raise the owl as one of their own.

When the other sparrows returned with the enormous egg of a tawny owl, many times the size of a sparrow egg, the owl tamers were confident in their plan, and the returning sparrows with their owl egg rejoiced to know that the most advanced owl researchers had settled upon a plan that they were sure would work to the benefit of all sparrows. Several sparrows sat on the egg at the same time in order to evenly incubate the owl egg, and once the young owlet broke out of its shell, it immediately imprinted its sparrow mothers, who brought it seeds and small insects to eat. This was a challenge, as the large owlet ate much more than several sparrow chicks, and many sparrows had to be tasked in the feeding of their owlet.

The owlet grew, though it grew slowly, and certainly was not the most impressive specimen of a tawny owl, fed as it was an small seeds and small insects that were scarcely enough to satisfy its hunger. As the owlet grew, all the sparrows, overseen by the owl researchers, sought to teach the owl to be a good sparrow. Wanting to please his sparrow parents, the owlet tried to chirp cheerfully like a sparrow, to dust bathe with the other sparrows, and to hop around on the ground looking for seeds and insects to eat.

The plan appeared to exceed all expectations, and the owlet counted himself one of the flock of sparrows, never questioning his place among the sparrows, and already beginning to use this growing strength to aid his “fellow” sparrows. Until one day. The sparrows were together in a large flock looking for seeds when an enormous adult tawny owl suddenly descended upon them. The sparrows panicked and scattered, all of them flying off in different directions. Except for the owlet, for he, too, was a tawny owl, though he did not know it. He stood his ground as the great, magnificent tawny owl settled down, folded his feathers smoothly and seamlessly to his body, and looked quizzically at the little tawny owlet, who stood alone where moments before there had been hundreds of sparrows.

And what is this?” asked the large tawny owl, “An owl living with sparrows?” And then he gave a large, piercing hoot of the kind that tawny owls use as their call. The little owlet, a bit frightened but still standing his ground, replied with a subdued, “Chirp, chirp.” The large owl tilted his head to one side, perplexed with the little fellow, and also a bit put-out that one of his kind should behave in such a manner and be living with sparrows.

The large owl said to the little owlet, “I will show you your true nature,” so he picked up the owlet carefully but firmly in his powerful beak and flew the little owlet to a branch that hung low over a still pond. There he set the owlet down on the branch, and indicated for him to look down into the water. The still, smooth surface of the pond reflected the perfect likeness of the two tawny owls, one large, one small, so that as both looked down into the water they saw themselves, and for the first time the little owlet saw that he was an owl, and that he was not a sparrow. “You see now that you are like me,” said the large owl to the owlet, “Now be like me!”

Now,” said the large owl, “I will show you how an owl lives.” He took the owlet to his nest in the hollow of a tree as the sun was setting, and as the little owl flew behind the big owl he saw how beautiful the forest was in the low light of dusk. He perched at the edge of the hollow, and the large owl said, “Wait here,” then dived down into the growing darkness below. The little owlet realized that even in the dim light he could see the large owl swoop down and fly purposefully, but to some purpose the owlet did not yet understand.

Soon the large own returned, and he held in his claws a freshly killed bird, about the size of a sparrow (he had spared the owlet the agony of beginning with a sparrow). The little owlet felt sick to this stomach. He said to the big owl, “I’m hungry and I would like some seeds and insects please.” The large owl looked at him disdainfully. He held the dead bird down with one talon and ripped the body open with his beak. “This is owl food!” he said to the owlet as he gulped down a chunk of fresh meat. The big owl tears off another chunk of meat and says to the owlet, “Open your beak!” The little owlet shakes his head from side to side (finding that he can almost rotate his head all the way around when he does so) and tries to flatten himself against the wall of the tree behind him.

No, I want to eat seeds,” says the little owlet. The large owl will have none of it, and he forces the chunk of fresh meat down the maw of the little owl, who gags on the bloody feast (as all gag upon attempting to swallow an unwelcome truth) but eventually chokes it down. Gagging and frightened, the little owlet slowly begins to understand that he has now, for the first time in his life, encountered his true food, the food of owls, the only food that can nourish him and sustain him as an owl. For he has seen himself in the still water of the pond, and now knows himself to be an owl.

The little owlet attempts to hoot like a tawny owl, and though his first owl-utterance is a weak and sickly sort of hoot, it is the right kind of sound for an owl to make. The big owl looks down on him with growing satisfaction and says, “Today you are an owl. Now I will take you into the depths of the forest at night and we will hunt like owls and eat owl food.” While the little owl does not understand all that this means, he nods uncertainly and follows as the larger owl leaps into the darkness again.

What happens next in the Fable of the Sparrows has not been recorded, but one can conjecture that the owl researchers among the sparrows returned to their notes and their calculations, trying to understand where they had gone wrong, and attempting to form a new plan, now that their sparrow-like owl had been taken under the wing of a true owl.

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Readers familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell will immediately recognize that the myth I have here made use of is the Indian myth of the tiger and the goats from Campbell’s “The Occult in Myth and Literature” in The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987.

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Thursday


Like the street battles between communists and Freikorps in the Weimar Republic, now we have street battles between Antifa and the Alt-Right.

It is fascinating to observe when the most extreme and polarized political movements within a single society have basic attitudes in common, and we see this today in the industrialized world in the opposition of the far right and the far left. In both Europe and North America (where industrialized society has reached its furthest point of development), the far left (primarily represented by social justice ideologues) and the far right (primarily represented by the Alt-Right and neoreaction) are both explicitly identitarian movements. That is to say, the most polarized elements of our polarized political system are not antithetical movements, but rather are different responses to the same perceived social and political crises. And even these different responses have important elements in common, namely, the mobilization of identity as a political force.

Political scientists have probably underestimated the power of identity as a force in society, and by this I mean identity in the abstract. Nationalism is a particular case of an identitarian movement, and nationalism has long been a powerful political force. But once we understand that nationalism is but one form of identity among many other possible forms of identity, we begin to see that other identity movements can be equally as powerful. Human society came of age on the basis of tribal identity, so that the mechanisms of identity are bred into our evolutionary psychology. How human beings form tribes within the diversity of industrialized society is one of the central problems to which both the far right and the far left are responding.

It is also significant that the contemporary far right and the far left are quite recent incarnations of perennial political orientations. Both are not only reactions against perceived social and political crises, but moreover reactions against mainstream representatives of these perennial political orientations. The institutionalized right and the institutionalized left are both wealthy, powerful, and moribund. They possess capital in abundance — financial capital, political capital, and social capital — but they are no longer in touch with the masses who were once the rank-and-file of the Republican and Democratic political parties in the US. Richard Spencer of the Alt-Right calls the institutionalized right “Conservatism Inc.” He is right to say this. The same could be said of “Liberalism Inc.” Each is an institutional mirror of the other, just as the far right and far left are non-institutionalized reactions against the complacency of Conservatism Inc. and Liberalism Inc.

Due to the split between institutionalized and reactionary ideologies, there is a great deal of confusion among those who do not understand who they are fighting. Because ideologically motivated individuals generally do not make an effort to understand the ideology to which they are opposed, the far right fails to understand the split between Liberalism Inc. and the the social justice ideologues, and the far left fails to understand the split between the Conservatism Inc. and the Alt-Right. There are exceptions on both sides, of course, but understanding The Other is rarely a priority when ideological factions are engaged in street battles. True believers in the institutions (in this case, party institutions, thus representatives of what I once called a third temperament) hope to co-opt the energy and enthusiasm of the recent reactionary ideologies, without fully understanding that these ideologies mean to replace them rather than to become a new generation of foot-soldiers.

In addition to being identitarian and reacting to institutional complacency, both far right and far left are what I will call “localist” movements. (I would say that both are “völkisch” movements, though that is a loaded term because of its association with Nazism.) What do I mean by “localism”? I mean a movement devoted to a focus on small local community groups and their activities. Both right and left come to their localist orientation by way of a long pedigree.

The localist left emerged from the “small is beautiful” idea of the early 1970s, which in turn had emerged from the Hippie movement and the largely unsuccessful movement to form communes as a social alternative to bourgeois life (few of these communes were viable, and most fell apart). The Hippie movement can, in turn, be traced to the Wandervogel, which is its common root with the localist right. While the localist left imagines small tightly-knit communities tending organic gardens and forgoing fossil fuels, the localist right also imagines small tightly-knit communities, but communities which derive their connection to a particular geographical region in virtue of history and ethnicity. Both far right and far left condemn globalization in the strongest terms, and this stems from the common interest in local community life.

How are identity, reaction against complacency, and localism — albeit interpreted in very different ways by right and left — indicative of the common perception of social and political crises of the contemporary world? The crises of the contemporary world are crises of transition as the ongoing industrial revolution forces social change upon societies that did not choose social change, but which had social change foisted upon them by their embrace of economic and technological change. As it happens, a society cannot fully embrace the economic growth and prosperity that follows from the cultivation of science, technology, and engineering without also experiencing collateral changes to their social fabric. Industrialization implies the emergence of an industrial society, that is to say, a society shaped by industrialization and which contributes to the continued growth of industrialization.

I have been writing about the social trends of industrialized society since the earliest days of this blog, beginning with Social Consensus in Industrialized Society. My emphasis upon the industrial revolution seems dated, but I don’t think that we can overemphasize the transformation the industrialization forces upon wider society. The anomie and lack of community in industrialized society has been discussed ad nauseam. It has become a commonplace, but it is commonplace for a good reason: it is true. When commonplace truths become tiresome there is sometimes a reaction against them, as those who study social trends would like to talk about something else, but changing the subject does not change the structure of society.

Many of those who write about society would prefer, it seems, to iterate the industrial revolution, attempting to establish periodizations of a second industrial revolution, a third industrial revolution, or even a fourth industrial revolution. I believe that this is short-sighted. The process of industrialization began less than 250 years ago. Macrohistorical changes on this scale take hundreds of years to play out. The most recent productions of our high technology industrial base should be seen as simply the latest evolution of the industrial revolution that began with steam engines in the late eighteenth century, and which will continue to evolve for another two or three hundred years.

We live not merely in a society in a state of transition, but in the midst of an entire civilization in transition. Industrialized civilization is new and unprecedented in history, and it is still taking shape. We do not yet know what its final form will be (if it has a final form — I have pointed out elsewhere that it may be preempted before it comes to maturity). These civilizational-scale changes drove the polarization of ideologies in the middle of the twentieth century, which resulted in a totalitarianism of the right and a totalitarianism of the left, and these same unresolved civilizational-scale changes are driving the polarization of contemporary ideologies, which seem to be headed toward an identitarianism of the right and an identitarianism of the left.

In my above-mentioned post, A Third Temperament, I made a distinction between social institutions that are biologically based and social institutions that are not biologically based. This framework could be employed to differentiate the identitarianism of the right and the left. Right identitarians ultimately defer to biologically based social institutions, especially the family and the ethno-state; left identitarians defer to non-biologically based social institutions, and so exemplify a voluntaristic conception of identity, and in exemplifying voluntaristic identity they also exemplify the idea of a “propositional nation” (cf. the work of Thomas Fleming) and the civic nationalism that would be associated with a propositional nation.

A more detailed analysis of human identity, its sources, and its significance, might help us to make sense of this identitarian conflict. At the present time, passions are running high, and it is difficult to be dispassionate and disengaged in this kind of social milieu. These passions, if not checked, may snowball as they did in the middle of the twentieth century, leading to conflict on a global scale, with its attendant death, destruction, and suffering on a global scale. I think that humanity would, as a species, be better off if we could avoid another such episode. For my part, I will continue to suggest lines of analysis and social compromises that might defuse the tension and allow the passions to cool off, even if only temporarily. If this can be done, there is a possibility that we can negotiate the outcome of this conflict without having the fight to determine the outcome. Neither of these options is optimal, but I think we are far beyond the point of an optimal solution to the social problems posed by the industrial revolution.

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Tuesday


In several posts I have argued that the structure of civilization consists of an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project, and that, moreover, the civilization extant today consists of an industrial economic infrastructure joined to a technical intellectual superstructure by the central project that we know as the Enlightenment project. Contemporary civilization as so defined dates back only to the 18th century, when the Enlightenment project emerged as a reaction to the carnage of the religious wars in Europe. The three pillars of modernity — the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and political revolutions — all burst the bounds of traditional feudal societies, and ever since the world has been trying to master the forces unleashed by these revolutions.

The American revolution was the first and the most successful of the political revolutions that swept aside traditionalism, feudalism, and aristocracy. (Sometimes I think of the American revolution as being, in this sense, like Augustus, who was the first of the Roman emperors, and arguably the best of the lot. After that, it was all downhill.) The unique confluence of circumstances that made the American revolution successful, both militarily and politically, included unlikely revolutionaries who were property owners, the pillars of colonial society, and also well-read, as Enlightenment gentlemen were expected to be.

There was nothing democratic about the mostly aristocratic founding fathers, other than their desire to found a new kind of political order drawing upon the best of ancient Greece (democracy) and the best of ancient Rome (republicanism). The founding of a new political order required a revolutionary war to separate the United States from the British Empire, but it also involved a profound intellectual challenge to conceptualize a new political order, and this challenge had already begun in Europe, where the Enlightenment originated.

The Enlightenment produced a large number of top-notch philosophers whom we still read today, and with profit: their insights have not yet been exhausted. Also, these Enlightenment philosophers were highly diverse. They disagreed sharply with one another, which is the western way. We disagree and we debate in order to analyze an idea, much as an alibi is dissected in a courtroom.

William Blake, who represents the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, wrote a poem criticizing Voltaire and Rousseau in the same breath:

MOCK on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Never mind that Voltaire and Rousseau quarreled and represented polar opposite ends of the Enlightenment. When Voltaire received a copy of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, he responded in a letter to Rousseau: “I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it.” But perhaps this was Blake’s intention to invoke opposite spirits of the Enlightenment, given his appreciation of antitheses as expressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — both Voltaire and Rousseau were to be condemned for their mockery of tradition.

If these quarreling Enlightenment thinkers were alive today, feuding bitterly with each other, the popular press would say that the Enlightenment was obviously burnt out and was now “tearing itself apart.” Soon, the pundits would presumably say, we could go back to the comforts of monarchy and a universal church as though nothing had happened, the whole episode of the Enlightenment having been something like the social equivalent of a bad dream.

Strangely enough, we find a view much like this on both the far left and the far right today. The far left, as represented by the philosophers of the Frankfurt school (the dread prophets of “cultural Marxism”), rejected the Enlightenment (cf. Theory from the ruins: The Frankfurt school argued that reason is dangerous, mass culture deadening, and the Enlightenment a disaster. Were they right? by Stuart Walton), just as neoreactionaries reject the Enlightenment by contrasting the 18th century Enlightenment with the “Dark Enlightenment,” the latter growing organically out of the counter-Enlightenment of J. G. Hamann, Joseph de Maistre, and others.

Like Blake’s dual condemnation of Voltaire and Rousseau, the dual condemnation of the Enlightenment by both left and right is a condemnation of two distinct faces of the Enlightenment. Partly this is a result of the ongoing debate over the proper scope and application of reason, but I think that the deeper issue is the failure of western civilization to overcome the chasm separating its twin ideals of freedom and equality, which are two faces of Enlightenment morality.

Naïvely we want these two ideals to be fully realized together within democratic institutions; when we grow out of our naïveté we usually see these ideals in conflict, and assume that any attempt to mediate between the two must ultimately take the form of a compromise in which we lose some freedom in exchange for equality or we lose some equality in exchange for freedom. But the nineteenth century, which produced the counter-Enlightenment, also produced Hegel, and Hegel would have pointed out that a dialectic, such as the dialectic between freedom and equality, will only be resolved when we transcend the antithesis by a synthesis that is more comprehensive than either ideal in isolation.

When we consider the absolutizing tendency of political rhetoric we would not be at all surprised to see Hegelian formulations like, “The absolute is freedom,” later to be countered by, “The absolute is equality.” Even if such things are not stated so explicitly, it is clear from the behavior of many who set themselves up as the arbiters of American values that they typically take the one or the other as an absolute ideal, and absolutization of one or the other prevents us from seeing the more comprehensive synthesis in which freedom and equality can not only coexist, but in which each can extend the other.

The problem of freedom and equality is the equivalent for social thought of the problem of general relativity and quantum theory for physics. Some are certain that the solution to their integration lies on one side or the other of the divide — there must be quantum gravity because all of physics is now formulated in quantum terms — but the truth is that, at our present stage of intellectual development, the solution eludes us because we have not yet achieved the intuitive breakthrough that will allow us to see the world as one and whole.

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Happy 4th of July!

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Friday


In my recent post Mass Extinction in the West Asian Cluster I discussed Eric H. Cline’s book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, and in that discussion I characterized the Late Bronze Age (LBA) simultaneous collapse of many civilized societies as a “mass extinction” of civilizations. In the exposition of my argument I first formulated the following idea:

“…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.”

This idea, as I now see, can be understood on its own as a distinctive process of complex adaptive systems, applicable not only to civilizations, but also to a range of emergent complexities like life, consciousness, and intelligence as well.

Now I’d like to apply this idea to life, and life under the special circumstances (not presently obtaining within our own planetary system, though that may have been the case in the past) of a multi-planet ecosystem. What, then, is a multi-planet ecosystem?

When the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system was discovered, with seven smallish, rocky planets tightly orbiting a small star, the possibilities for life here were of immediate interest to astrobiologists. It has long been thought that lithopanspermia (the transfer of life between planets on rocks) may have occurred within our solar system between Venus, Earth, and Mars — all smallish, rocky planets relatively close in to the sun, and which are known to have have exchanged ejecta from collisions. With an even greater number of small rocky planets in even closer proximity, the likelihood of lithopanspermia at TRAPPIST-1 (assuming life is present in some form) would seem to be higher than in our solar system.

I already know of two papers on the possibilities of lithopanspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system, Enhanced interplanetary panspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system by Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb, and Fast litho-panspermia in the habitable zone of the TRAPPIST-1 system, by Sebastiaan Krijt, Timothy J. Bowling, Richard J. Lyons, and Fred J. Ciesla. There is also a paper about the possibilities for botany in the system, Comparative Climates of TRAPPIST-1 planetary system: results from a simple climate-vegetation model by Tommaso Alberti, Vincenzo Carbone, Fabio Lepreti, and Antonio Vecchio.

In a couple of Tumblr posts, More is Different and Yet Another Astrobiology Thought Experiment I discussed some of these possibilities of lithopanspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system. (And the same interesting TRAPPIST-1 system was also discussed on The Unseen Podcast Episode 69 — A Taste of TRAPPIST-1.)

In More is Different I wrote…

“It may well prove that more is different when it comes to planets, their biospheres, and ecosystems spanning multiple planets. Multi-planet ecologies (we can’t call them biospheres, because they would be constituted by multiple biospheres) may produce qualitatively distinct emergents based on the greater number of components of the ecosystem so constituted. Emergent complexities not possible in a planetary system like our own, with a single liquid-water world, may be possible where there are multiple such planets ecologically coupled through lithopanspermia, and perhaps through other vectors that we cannot now imagine.”

…and in Yet Another Astrobiology Thought Experiment I wrote…

“If life arose separately on several closely spaced planets, with slight biochemical differences between the distinct origin of life events on the several planets, and circumstances within that planetary system were conducive to lithopanspermia, this would mean that each of the planets would eventually have tinctures of life from the other planets, and if these varieties of life could live together without destroying each other, the mixed biospheres of multi-planetary habitable zones where there has been independent origins of life on multiple worlds would suggest a diversity of life not realized on Earth.”

If we combine the ideas of a multi-planetary ecosystem with the idea of reticulate distributed development (which I introduced in relation to civilizational development), we can immediately see the possibility of a multi-planetary ecosystem in which life remains in nearly continuous interaction across several different planets. In such a complex astrobiological context, the great macroevolutionary transitions would not necessarily need to occur all within a single biosphere. It would be sufficient that the macroevolutionary transition took place on at least one planet of the multi-planetary ecosystem, and was subsequently distributed to the other planets of the ecosystem by lithopanspermia. The result would be a seriation of distributed development, i.e., a series of developments taking place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating on a single planet, in a single biosphere. Is this even possible?

We know that microbial life is remarkably resilient, and could likely make the lithopanspermatic journey from one planet to another, but could anything more complex than microbial life make this journey? Recently Caleb A. Scharf in Complex Life: Wimpy or Tough? Complex life may be less resilient than microbial life by some measures, but it’s not necessarily cosmically delicate questions the received wisdom of assuming that eukaryotic multi-cellular life is too vulnerable and delicate to survive “hurdles of selection” — and certainly panspermia must be among the most vertiginous of such hurdles. What about, for example, if conditions were right to freeze complex cells into a still-liquid chamber within a rock, deep in a protected crevice, which then could travel to another planet with complex life intact? There must be similar vectors for panspermia of which we are unaware simply because our imagination fails us.

Obviously, such an occurrence would require many circumstances to occur in just the right order and in just the right way. When this happens for us, as human beings, we say that things are “just right,” and we invoke anthropic selection effects as an explanation, which in this case is simply a Kantian transcendental argument as applied to human beings. But conditions also might be “just right” for some other kind of life, and the antecedent circumstances for such life would be the transcendental conditions of that life — a selection effect of life as we do not know it. This wouldn’t be an “anthropic” explanation in the narrow sense, but if we formalized the concept of an anthropic explanation so that it applied to any being whatsoever, then what human beings call an anthropic explanation would be a special case among a class of explanations. And in this class of explanations would be the “just right” conditions that might lead to rapid and enhanced lithopanspermia among closely spaced planets, which allowed for the transfer to complex life among these planets.

The idea of panspermia has made us familiar with the possibility of life originating on one world and subsequently developing on another world. In case of enhanced and rapid lithopanspermia in an astrobiological context “just right” for such life, we might find life originating on one planet, achieving photosynthesis on another planet, becoming multi-cellular on a third planet, developing an endoskeleton on yet another planet, and so on, possibly continuing to develop into intelligent life. This is what I mean by a seriation of distributed evolutionary development.

If this is possible, if complex life can pass between planets in a multi-planetary ecosystem, I suspect that the rate of evolutionary change would be at least somewhat accelerated in this reticulate astrobiological context, much as the development of civilization was arguably accelerated in the west Asian cluster as a result of the continual interaction of the several civilizations of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, and the eastern Mediterranean.

And as life goes, so goes civilization predicated upon life. In a multi-planetary ecosystem, a civilization that grew up on one of these worlds would evolve in a unique astrobiological context that would shape its unique development. Darwin said that, “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” Civilizations, too, bear the lowly stamp of their biological origins. A biocentric civilization emergent within a multi-planetary ecosystem would be distinctively shaped by the selection pressures of this ecosystem, which would not be the same as the selection pressures of a single biosphere. And a technocentric civilization arising from a biocentric civilization would continue to carry the lowly stamp of its origins into the farthest reaches of its development.

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Saturday


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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Accelerationism

16 June 2017

Friday


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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Thursday


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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Sunday


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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The March for Science

22 April 2017

Saturday


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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