The Biocentric Thesis

19 July 2016


The biocentric character of contemporary civilization is strikingly evident in aerial photographs.

The biocentric character of contemporary civilization is strikingly evident in aerial photographs.

The Centrality of Biology to Civilization

Beyond the formulation of the biological conception of civilization and the ecological conception of civilization, both of which employ concepts from biology, we can identify a particular thesis (or particular theses) addressing the centrality of biological relationships and biological entities to civilization (as we have known civilization to date). I have expressed the centrality of biology to civilization as the biocentric thesis.

Although I have not previously formulated the biocentric thesis explicitly (here I will attempt to do this) though I have used the idea many times. Previously I wrote about biocentric civilizations in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization, Addendum on the Stages of Civilization, and Another Way to Think about Civilization, inter alia, without attempting to clarify my use of “biocentric,” while in The Biological Conception of Civilization and The Ecological Conception of Civilization I considered biologically-derived conceptions of civilization.

Even our mythologies have involved the close association of human beings with fellow biological beings, as in this depiction of the earthly paradise. ('The garden of Eden with the fall of man,' Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1615)

Even our mythologies have involved the close association of human beings with fellow biological beings, as in this depiction of the earthly paradise. (‘The garden of Eden with the fall of man,’ Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1615)

On Being Biological

Let us begin with the basics: human beings, the progenitors of terrestrial civilization, are biological. Being ourselves biological entities, human life has been integral with the biological world from which it arose. We live by consuming other biological entities, and, when we die, our bodies decompose and their constituents are reintegrated with the biological world from which we sprang. When human beings began the civilizational project, we remained integral with the biological world, exapting it for our new-found purposes, which involved the tightly-coupled coevolutionary cohort of species that I employed as the biological conception of civilization. In western thought it as been traditional to oppose nature to culture, but, being biological, we understand our civilization by understanding ourselves, and we understand ourselves by understanding biology.

Biology is both an old and a young science. Plato had little use for biology, and in reading Plato’s dialogues one could be forgiven for supposing that the Greeks had ever lived in any condition other than a civilization in which nature is kept at a certain distance. Aristotle, on the contrary, was a careful observer of nature, thus we may say that biology as science goes back at least to Aristotle’s treatises The History of Animals, On the Parts of Animals, On the Motion of Animals, and On the Gait of Animals.

Biology in its contemporary form goes back to Darwin, from which time biology has rapidly advanced and is today a mature science, as sophisticated in its own way as particle physics. And while we do not usually think of the growing rigor and sophistication of a body of scientific knowledge as an exercise in introspection, in the case of biology we can think of it in this way — if only we have the hardihood to apply what we have learned from biology to ourselves and to our biologically-based civilization. Because we are biological beings, knowledge of biology is knowledge of ourselves.

In this photograph we not only see the human imprint on the landscape, but also the projection of human civilization into Earth orbit.

In this photograph we not only see the human imprint on the landscape, but also the projection of human civilization into Earth orbit.

Being Biological in an Astrobiological Context

Astrobiology is a very young science, but in so far as it takes up the torch of biology and extrapolates biological concepts to their ultimate cosmological context, astrobiology is simply a greatly expanded biology, and in this sense not a new science at all. In From an Astrobiological Point of View I characterized the emergence of astrobiology in this spirit of continuity as the fourth of four great revolutions in biology, the previous three revolutions being Darwinism, Mendelian genetics, and evolutionary developmental biology (better known as “evo-devo”).

In the context of astrobiology, understanding the conditions for life in the universe is a greatly expanded form of human introspection, in which an evolving body of scientific knowledge has the capability of demonstrating the cosmological context of human life. Once again, in understanding astrobiology we can better understand ourselves, if only we have the willingness to understand ourselves scientifically. Beyond understanding ourselves, astrobiology also holds the promise of better understanding our civilization. An astrobiological formulation of the biological conception of civilization would extrapolate this conception of civilization to a cosmological scope.

In Astrobiology is island biogeography writ large I suggested that spaceflight is to astrobiology as flight is to biogeography, which is an application of the principle that technology is the pursuit of biology by other means. Given technologically-enabled spaceflight (made possible by a technological civilization), terrestrial life can expand beyond Earth and beyond our planetary system to other worlds, just as the innovation of flight made it possible for terrestrial organisms (even those that do not fly) to establish themselves on distant, isolated islands — hence the analogy between biogeographical distribution patterns and astrobiological distribution patterns. This is still a biocentric paradigm, but extrapolated to cosmological scope.

Biocentric Theses

With these considerations of what it means to be a biological being in an astrobiological context, I will attempt an explicit formulation of weak and strong biocentric theses. All of these formulations involve what I have earlier called planetary endemism.

The Weak Biocentric Thesis

All civilizations during the Stelliferous Era begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces.

This thesis is “weak” because it addresses only civilizations during the Stelliferous Era. A corollary of the weak biocentric thesis excludes the possibility of any Stelliferous Era civilization that does not arise from biology, as follows:

Corollary of the Weak Biocentric Thesis

No civilizations during the Stelliferous Era existed prior to the advent of Stelliferous Era biota.

The weak biocentric thesis and its corollary implies a strong biocentric thesis, not limited to the Stelliferous Era:

The Strong Biocentric Thesis

All civilizations in our universe begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces.

The strong biocentric thesis also has a strong corollary:

Corollary of the Strong Biocentric Thesis

No civilizations existed in our universe prior to the biocentric civilizations of Stelliferous Era.

Both strong and weak biocentric theses and their corollaries entail that the emergent complexity of civilization arises from the previous emergent complexity of life, and, in their strongest formulations, that it could be no other way. This excludes the possibility that there exist forms of emergent complexity other than life — sufficiently distinct from life as we know it than any identification of this emergent complexity as life would be problematic — from which civilization might independently arise. This is a rather sweeping claim, and, though it is supported by our parochial knowledge of life and civilization on Earth, it would be quite a stretch to assert this for the universe entire. On the other hand, we would still want to entertain this possibility, as there may be universes in which the only emergent complexity upon which civilization can supervene is life, more or less as we know it.

If the Strong Biocentric Thesis and its corollary are true, then there are no pre-Stelliferous Era civilizations, and all post-Stelliferous Era civilizations are derived from Stelliferous Era civilizations having their origins in planetary endemism. Post-Stelliferous Era civilizations would include Degenerate Era civilizations, Black Hole Era civilizations, and Dark Era civilizations. This might be formulated as another thesis in turn.

According to this understanding of civilization, the Stelliferous Era is uniquely generative of civilizations. In so far as we understand civilizations to belong to a suite of emergent complexities, we might say instead that the Stelliferous Era is uniquely generative of emergent complexity. At least, we say that now, prior to the emergent complexities unique to the Degenerate Era. It seems likely, however, that at some point the universe will reach peak complexity, and after that point it will begin to decay, and emergent complexities will begin to disappear, one by one.


The Terrestrial Eocivilization Hypothesis and Darwin’s Thesis

The above is closely related to what I have previously called the Terrestrial Eocivilization Hypothesis, which I characterized as follows:

“I will call the terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis the position that identifies early civilization, i.e., eocivilization, with terrestrial civilization. In other words, our terrestrial civilization is the earliest civilization to emerge in the cosmos. Thus the terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis is the civilizational parallel to the rare earth hypothesis, which maintains, contrary to the Copernican principle, that life on earth is rare. I could call it the ‘rare civilization hypothesis’ but I prefer ‘terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis’.”

This might, more simply, be called the “priority thesis,” and is to be distinguished from the “uniqueness thesis,” i.e., that there is one and only one civilization in the universe, and that one is terrestrial civilization. Thinking over this again in retrospect, I realize that priority, uniqueness, and biocentricity can be distinguished. A civilization might be unique in virtue of being first (i.e., having priority), or by being the only civilization, or by being the last of all civilizations. Thus priority is only one form of uniqueness among others. And priority and uniqueness can both be distinguished from biocentricity: according the biocentric theses above, biocentric civilization has priority (at least during the Stelliferous Era) but it not necessarily unique in the universe, nor unique to Earth. Terrestrial civilization is a biocentric civilization, and it may also have priority and it may be unique.

The biocentric theses are also related to what I have called Darwin’s Thesis on the Origins of Civilization, according to which civilization emerges from non-civilization, much as naturalistic accounts of life hold that life emerges from non-life (sometimes called abiogenesis). Whereas the priority thesis (i.e., the terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis, that the earliest civilization is terrestrial civilization) is specific to Earth, Darwin’s thesis, like the biocentric theses above, can be applied universally without reference to the historical accidents of civilization on Earth (including its emergence, and whether this emergence was earlier than or later than any other emergence of civilization).

From a scientific standpoint, then, it is more important to determine the exact logical relationships between the biocentric theses and Darwin’s thesis, as the details of what happened on Earth belong to the accidents of cosmological history. As I said in my post on Darwin’s thesis, these ideas about civilization are rudimentary in the extreme, but since a science of civilization does not yet exist, we must begin with these simplest of concepts if we are ever to think clearly about civilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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grand strategy university

Introduction to the Scientific Study of Time

If I had an educational institution in which I could dictate the curriculum, I would have as requirements for the first year at least these two courses: “How to read a scientific paper” and “Understanding scales of time.” Of the former I will only say that, in our scientific civilization, every citizen needs to be able to read a scientific paper, so as not to rely exclusively on popularizations from journalists (perhaps I will write more on this later). The latter — understanding scales of time — is what concerns me at present. When I survey my own attempts to come to an understanding of the differing scales of time employed by the different sciences, I am struck by the slowness of my progress, but also by the importance of making progress. An organized and systematic attempt to give a unified exposition of the historical sciences and the time scales each entails would, I think, contribute significantly to making the various special sciences mutually intelligible and to encourage rigorous interdisciplinary research.

Just to finish the thought of a curriculum appropriate for the population of a scientific civilization, I might also consider not only a first year course in scientific method — many schools have required courses in statistics, which is a good step in this direction — but also a course in the philosophy of science and scientific methods, in order to give a comprehensive sense of the scientific enterprise and to engage students in thinking critically about the nature and limits of scientific knowledge. A scientific civilization that knows its own limits is less likely to fall victim to its own hubris than one in which these limits are not clearly understood.

Otto Neurath, W. V. O. Quine, Hans Reichenbach, and Imre Lakatos all used the idea of rational reconstruction.

Otto Neurath, W. V. O. Quine, Hans Reichenbach, and Imre Lakatos all used the idea of rational reconstruction.

The Idea of a Rational Reconstruction

The human experience of time originates in what Husserl called inner time consciousness, and human time as immediately experienced never extends beyond the lifetime of a single individual. Time consciousness, then, is severely constrained by human limitations. Human consciousness, however, not only consists in time consciousness, but also is the source of human reason, and human reason has sought to surmount the fleeting experience of time consciousness by extending time beyond the limitations of individual consciousness and the individual lifespan. This I will call the rational reconstruction of time.

Any duration of time beyond that of the human lifespan must be rationally reconstructed because it cannot be experienced directly. Extremely brief durations of time, such as are often involved in particle physics, also cannot be experienced directly, because they occur at a rate (or at such a microscopic scale) that cannot be distinguished by human sensory or cognitive faculties. These extremely brief durations of time also must be rationally reconstructed.

What is rational reconstruction? I won’t try to give a straight-forward definition, but instead I will try to give a sense of how philosophers have employed the idea of rational reconstruction. The idea originally came to prominence in the early twentieth century among logical positivists. Here is a passage from Otto Neurath that has become a point of reference in the origin of the idea of rational reconstruction:

“There is no way of taking conclusively established pure protocol sentences as the starting point of the sciences. No tabula rasa exists. We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials. Only the metaphysical elements can be allowed to vanish without trace.”

Otto Neurath, “Protocol sentences,” in Logical Positivism, edited by A.J. Ayer, Free Press, Glencoe, IL, 1959, pp. 199-208, there p. 201.

Neurath further developed his ship analogy in other essays:

“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

Otto Neurath, “Anti-Spengler,” in Empiricism and Sociology, edited by Marie Neurath and Robert S. Cohen, Dordrecht and Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1973, p. 199

Here the emphasis falls upon the exigency of keeping the ship afloat, which is not the central concern of the rational reconstruction of time, but it would be an interesting exercise to apply this idea to the cognitive framework we all employ, with the necessity being active and effective agency in the world.

Quine adopted the analogy of rebuilding a ship at sea from Neurath. In his Word and Object, Quine quoted Neurath’s ship passage as an epigraph to the book and develops the theme of reconstruction throughout, extending Neurath’s positivist-inspired analogy more generally to philosophy, giving the idea contemporary currency in analytical philosophy.

Hans Reichenbach made the idea of rational reconstruction fully explicit:

“When we call logic analysis of thought the expression should be interpreted so as to leave no doubt that it is not actual thought which we pretend to analyze. It is rather a substitute for thinking processes, their rational reconstruction, which constitutes the basis of logical analysis. Once a result of thinking is obtained, we can reorder our thoughts in a cogent way, constructing a chain of thoughts between point of departure and point of arrival; it is this rational reconstruction of thinking that is controlled by logic, and whose analysis reveals those rules which we call logical laws.”

Hans Reichenbach, Elements of Symbolic Logic, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948, p. 2

Reichenbach has a footnote to this passage saying that “rational reconstruction” was introduced by Carnap, and indeed Carnap has a typically technical exposition of rational reconstruction in his Pseudoproblems in Philosophy (a bit long to quote here). Carnap’s interest in rational reconstruction seems to be due to the great influence that Russell’s philosophy had on Carnap, and it would be an interesting investigation to compare Russell’s conception of logical construction (in the parsimonious sense that Russell uses this term) and Carnap’s conception of rational reconstruction.

Imre Lakatos made extensive use of the idea of rational reconstruction in a more comprehensive context than the more narrowly logical exposition of Reichenbach. Lakatos applied rational reconstruction to the history of science, which is essentially what I am suggesting here:

“The history of science is always richer than its rational reconstruction. But rational reconstruction or internal history is primary, external history only secondary, since the most important problems of external history are defined by internal history. External history either provides non-rational explanation of the speed, locality, selectiveness, etc. of historic events as interpreted in terms of internal history; or, when history differs from its rational reconstruction, it provides an empirical explanation of why it differs. But the rational aspect of scientific growth is fully accounted for by one’s logic of scientific discovery.”

Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers Volume I, Cambridge, 1989, “History of science and its rational reconstructions,” p. 118

A generalization of the point Lakatos makes in this passage would not be limited to the history of science: we can say that history simpliciter is always richer than its rational reconstruction, but the important problems for external history are set by the rational reconstruction of history. And, I think, we will find this to be the case; rational reconstructions of time point us to the most important problems for the historical sciences.

Cronus and Rhea, figures in one the central cosmogonic myths of classical antiquity.

Cronus and Rhea, figures in one the central cosmogonic myths of classical antiquity.

Mythology: the First Rational Reconstruction of Time

Mythology is the first “big history.” By placing human lives and human actions in a mythological context, human beings are immediately and personally related to a cosmos of enormous scope, far beyond anything to be encountered in the lives of most individuals. In order to achieve this scope, experiences had to be pooled, and a composite, richer experience draw from an inventory wider and deeper than the experiences of any one individual. This is the essence of the rational reconstruction of time, which was later taken to much greater lengths in subsequent human development.

In retrospect, mythological cosmologies are ethnocentric and parochial, usually bound to the biome of a given biocentric civilization, but in their time they constituted the uttermost and outermost reach of human reason, projecting human concerns into the heavens and beneath the Earth. Mythological cosmologies were as comprehensive as they could be at the time, given the limitations of human knowledge under which mythologies took shape.

While mythology is a rational reconstruction of the human condition, we can also can see the rational reconstruction of mythology itself when philosophically-minded later readers of mythology attempted to further bring the mythological cosmos into line with the increasingly rational order of human civilization. Plato famously wanted to ban all poets from his ideal republic, because the stories that poets tell about the gods are not always edifying, and Plato’s republic aspired to exercising absolute control over mythic narrative, to the point of inculcating a “noble lie” intended to reconcile each segment of the population with its social position. That is to say, mythology was to be employed as a tool of social control, which has always been a danger for historical thought.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the Father of History

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the Father of History

Classical History: the Second Rational Reconstruction of Time

The distinctive Greek gift for and contribution to rationality was expressed not only in philosophy and the earliest science, but also in works of art — the Parthenon is a monument to rationality, among other things — and literature. The Greeks invented the literary genre of history, and, once they invented history, disagreed on whether it was an art or a science. This was a perennial problem of classical historiography, but is no longer a burning question today, as the advent of scientific historiography has changed the terms of the debate in historiography.

It is at least arguable, however, that scientific historiography was always implicitly present from the origins of history in Herodotus and Thucydides, but no science existed in the time of the ancient Greeks that could realize this potential. The original Greek term used for the title of Herodotus’ The Historiesἱστορία — means inquiries, i.e., Herodotus conceived his work as an inquiry in the past, and so was part and parcel of the Greek imperative of rationality. Indeed, rationalism applied to the apparent sequence of historical accidents that is the past might well be considered the non plus ultra of rationalism. However, the method of Herodotus’ inquiries was not scientific (in the Greek sense) or logical, but rather narrative.

The extent to which history in this classical sense (one might say, in the Herodotean sense) truly is a rational reconstruction, and not a mere recounting of facts, i.e., a chronicle, is revealed by Arthur Danto’s study of the logic of narrative sentences in his Narration and Knowledge (and which logic of narrative I previously mentioned in Our Intimacy with the Past). Even the most complete account of events as they happen cannot express how the meanings of earlier events are changed by later events, which provide the context and perspective for interpreting earlier events. While Danto did not say so, the mirror image of this insight applies to the future, so that the present is given meaning in relation to its expected outcome, and expected outcomes are valued on the basis of present experience (and unexpected outcomes are also judged in terms of their divergence from expectation). This would be a theme that Big History would begin to explore, although not in these terms.

What we traditionally call history (i.e., Herodotean history) is simply that fragment of the whole of the temporal continuum narratively reconstructed from human records. We can understand this by a sensory analogy: we know from study of the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes are able to see only a small portion of the EM spectrum. Beyond the abilities of human eyes, pit vipers can sense the infrared beyond the red end of the visible EM spectrum, and insects can sense ultraviolet beyond the violet end of the visible EM spectrum. Beyond the capacity of naturally evolved eyes to sense EM radiation, we can employ technology to detect radio waves, x-rays, and the rest of the EM spectrum. What human beings have called history is like the small “visible” portion of the EM spectrum: it is the small portion of the temporal continuum “visible” to human beings. The narrative method of traditional historiography allows us to reconstruct just so much history in human terms and to make it understandable to us.

The study of ice cores is an important source of data for scientific historiography.

The study of ice cores is an important source of data for scientific historiography.

Scientific Historiography: the Third Rational Reconstruction of Time

Already in classical antiquity we can see the scientific spirit at work in Ptolemy’s Almagest. Ptolemy wrote as a scientist, and not, like Herodotus, as an historian. As his science is now archaic, it is read only for its historical interest today, but in Ptolemy we can glimpse, in embryo, as it were, the scientific method in its characteristic attempt to transcend human limitations and the constraints of the human condition. In the Almagest Ptolemy compares his observations with the best observations of earlier writers, especially Hipparchus, even noting the margin of error inherent in observations due to the construction and position of instruments (cf. especially Book Seven on the fixed stars). In his chapter on determining the length of the year (Book Three, I), Ptolemy is always trying to get the oldest observations to compare with his observations, noting that nearly 300 years had elapsed between Hipparchus’ observations and this own, and reaches further back into Egyptian sources for data 600 years prior.

There is a difference in degree, but not a difference in kind, between these observations of Ptolemy and Freeman Dyson’s discussion whether the laws of nature change over time in “Time without end: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe” (1979). Dyson discusses what has since come to be called the “Oklo Bound,” based on the radioactive byproducts of the naturally-occurring Oklo fission reactor in Gabon. Dyson wrote:

“The fact that the two binding energies remained in balance to an accuracy of two parts in 1011 over 2.109 yr indicates that the strength of nuclear and Coulomb forces cannot have varied by more than a few parts in 1018 per year. This is by far the most sensitive test that we have yet found of the constancy of the laws of physics. The fact that no evidence of change was found does not, of course, prove that the laws are strictly constant. In particular, it does not exclude the possibility of a variation in strength of gravitational forces with a time scale much shorter than 1018 yr. For the sake of simplicity, I assume that the laws are strictly constant. Any other assumption would be more complicated and would introduce additional arbitrary hypotheses.”

Dyson, like Ptolemy, was employing the best scientific measurements and observations of his time in the attempt to transcend his time, though while Ptolemy’s rudimentary methods spanned a few hundred years, science can now comprehend a few billion years. The transcendence of immediately experienced human time by scientific scales of time is the rational reconstruction of time made possible by the historical sciences, and, by extension, for scientific historiography.

While the spirit of science is as old as classical antiquity, and it emerged from the same Greek world that gave us Herodotus and the Greek historians following Herodotus, scientific historiography did not begin to come into its own until the nineteenth century. Besides Ptolemy there were a few other notable intimations of scientific historiography to come, as in Nicholas Steno’s laws of superposition in geology. The historical sciences began to realize their potential in the geology and biology of the nineteenth century in the geology of Lyell and the biology of Darwin. Within a few years’ of the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Lyell Published Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, which reconceptualized humanity in the context of geological time. Later in the nineteenth century, scientific dating techniques such as varve chronology (varves are annual deposits left by melting glaciers) and dedrochronology (tracing overlapping tree rings backward in time) began to give exact dates for historical events long before human records. Scientific archaeology (as opposed to mere treasure hunting) began about the same time.

Scientific historiography reconstructs time employing the resources of the scientific method, which made the reconstruction of time systematic. As long as science continues to develop, and is not allowed to drift into stagnancy, scientific historiography can continue to add depth and detail to this historical record. Scientific historiography extended the narrative tradition of history beyond texts written by human beings to the text of nature itself; the whole of the world became the subject of historical inquiry in the form of the historical sciences, which reconstructed a narrative of Earth entire, and eventually also of the universe entire, which latter became the remit of Big History.

big history montage

Big History: the Fourth Rational Reconstruction of Time

Big history takes a step beyond the initial scope of scientific historiography, not merely narrating human history on the basis of what science can tell us where texts are silent, but in going beyond human history to a history of the universe entire, in which human history is contextualized. As I write this the 3rd IBHA conference is about to take place next weekend in Amsterdam, and I am a bit disappointed that I won’t be going, as I enjoyed the 2nd IBHA conference I attended a couple of years ago (cf. Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3).

The approach of big history did not come out of nowhere, but was building since the discovery of “deep time” in Steno’s laws of superposition, but especially the geology of James Hutton, then Charles Lyell, and later yet geological time scales brought to the study of life by Darwin. Science that dealt in millions of years and then billions of years slowly acclimated informed human minds of the possibilities for science completely freed of anthropocentric constraints. A hundred years ago, in the early twentieth century, we began to glimpse the size and the age of the universe entire, extending scientific scales of time beyond the Earth and the inherent geocentric constraints of human thought.

How can a human being, starting from the human experience of time, ever come to understand the life and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the largest and oldest structures of the cosmos? This grandest of historical reconstructions is possible because the universe is large and old and diverse. We cannot witness the formation of our own sun or our own planet, but we can look out into the universe and see stars in the process or formation and planetary systems in the process of formation (i.e., protoplanetary disks). If we are sufficiently diligent in surveying the cosmos, we can put together an entire sequence of the evolution of stars and planetary systems, drawn from different individual instances all today at different stages of development. While processes of stellar formation and planetary system development take place on a scale of time that human beings can never directly perceive, our reconstruction of these processes can be made comprehensible to us in this way. And when we are able to travel among the stars and to study life on many different worlds, we will be able engage in the astrobiological equivalent to this cosmological seriation, and similarly so with civilization and other forms of emergent complexity.

Big history provides a comprehensive context in which all of these scientific seriations of time scales beyond human perception can be concatenated in a single grand reconstruction of the whole of time as it is accessible to contemporary science. And, on the basis of contemporary science, Big History represents the culmination and non plus ultra of scientific historiography. Beyond the limits of empirical evidence methods other than science must be employed.

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Formal Historiography: the Fifth Rational Reconstruction of Time

The fifth rational reconstruction of time is a rational reconstruction that has not yet been constructed, but we can see, on the horizon, that this is the natural teleology of the development described above. As inductive empirical science matures and grows in sophistication, there is an increasing tendency both to rigor and to integration with other physical theories. Sometimes the imperative to greater rigor is not historically obvious, as an empirical science may remain static in terms of its formal development for a long time — sometimes for centuries. But the need for formal rigor is eventually felt, and some clever soul somewhere has an “A ha!” moment that shows the way to a formal surrogate for a previously intuitive approach. This will be true for historiography as well.

There is a contemporary school of thought — cliodynamics — attempting to transform history into an empirical, testable science, employing numerical methods and quantification. In the bigger picture, scientific historiography more generally speaking adopts the formal methods of the other empirical sciences, and this increases the rigor of historical thought over time, but these efforts remain within the paradigm of inductive empirical science. When history is eventually formalized, it will follow the trajectory of earlier empirical sciences. First the work of scientific historiography must come to maturity, and then we will be in a position to engage in a formal scrutiny of the assumptions made in scientific historiography. Some of these assumptions will be common to other empirical sciences (in the traditional Euclidean language, these will be common notions, or axioms, that are not specific to some particular subject matter) while other assumptions will be unique to scientific historiography and will thus constitute the differentia of historical thought (postulates in Euclid’s terminology).

Most working scientists in daily practice do not employ fully formalized reasoning because it is cumbersome and slow, and, in fact, inductive empirical science can continue in its traditional methodology almost untouched by formalization. There are axiomatizations of general relativity, for example (cf., e.g., “An Axiomatization of General Relativity,” Richard A. Mould, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 103, No. 3, Jun. 15, 1959, pp. 485-529), but this is not the way that most physics is done today. One might think of formalization as the highest level of emergent complexity yet attained within cognitive astrobiology, with mythology, narrative history, scientific historiography, and Big History all as earlier emergents in a sequence of emergents with the later supervening upon the earlier. All of these forms of human thought about time will continue to develop — they will not be replaced or superseded by formal historiography — but it will be formal historiography that moves the discipline of history forward into the terra incognita of time.

With the existence of hard limits to the historical sciences as represented by prediction walls and retrodiction walls, on what material will formal historical proceed? Let me attempt to give a sense of the kind of formal reasoning that can extend formal historiography beyond the constraints of observation and empiricism.

It has become commonplace for physicists to assert that, since time began with the big bang, that it is nonsensical to ask what preceded the big bang. This is, we must honestly admit, a rather tortured piece of reasoning (not to mention circular). While it is true that the big bang constitutes a retrodiction wall beyond which contemporary science cannot pass, and so is a boundary to empirical science, it is not an absolute boundary to human reason. To assert that there is nothing beyond or before the big bang is a perfect demonstration of the fact that human reason does not stop at empirical prediction walls. While it is a perfectly intellectually respectable claim to assert that there was nothing before the big bang, it is not a scientific claim, it is a philosophical claim. And, by the same token, it is a perfectly respectable claim to assert that there is something beyond the observable universe, including something before the big bang, but that this is inaccessible to contemporary science. Again, this is not a scientific claim, but a philosophical claim. In this sense, both of these claims are on the level, as it were.

There is no conceivable form of scientific research that could verify the existence of nothingness prior to the big bang. Philosophically, I would assert that producing evidence of nothingness is ipso facto impossible, and hence ruled out a priori, hence ruling out any scientific claim of nothing preceding the big bang. (Either that, or “nothingness” means something very different for the physicist as compared to the philosopher. And this is most likely the case: the two are talking — if indeed they ever talk — at cross-purposes.) The recognition of a nothingness outside or before the retrodiction wall presented by the big bang can be further illuminated by thought experiments proposed by Sydney Shoemaker and W. H. Newton-Smith that demonstrate the possibility of empty time (I will not attempt to give a summary of these thought experiments here; the reader is urged to consult these authors directly; cf. Newton-Smith’s The Structure of Time, II, 4, pp. 19-24).

These are the materials with which a formal historiography will grapple, along with the concerns of what I have called infinitistic historiography and infinitistic cosmology. In this way, formal historiography will transcend even the grand reconstruction of the whole of time accessible to contemporary science that I mentioned above in connection with Big History.

While the accidents of history might seem to be the last place that anyone would look for fertile ground for the formalization of knowledge, history, I think, will surprise us in this respect. And the surprising applicability of formal methods to history will constitute yet another rational reconstruction of time.

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Euclid as imagined by Jusepe de Ribera -- Euclid was instrumental in the origins of formal thought, which began with geometry, and has since been applied to many disciplines but has not yet transformed historiography.

Euclid as imagined by Jusepe de Ribera — Euclid was instrumental in the origins of formal thought, which began with geometry, and has since been applied to many disciplines but has not yet transformed historiography.

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Three Addenda

Addendum on Rational Reconstructions of Time

Placeholders for Null-Valued Time

An Alternative Formulation of Rational Reconstructions of Time

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rational reconstructions of time

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Charles Willson Peale's portrait of George Washington, 1776.

Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of George Washington, 1776.

The title of this post, “The Revolutionary Republic,” I have taken over from Ned Blackhawk from his lectures A History of Native America. No doubt others have used the phrase “revolutionary republic” earlier, but Blackhawk’s lectures were the context in which the idea of a revolutionary republic really struck me. Blackhawk contextualized the American revolution among other revolutionary republics, specifically the subsequent revolutions in France and Haiti. In his book, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West, Blackhawk has this to say about the Haitian Revolution:

“…in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, contests among New France, New Spain, British North America, and the United States redrew the imperial boundaries of North America in nearly every generation. In 1763, French Louisiana, for example, became part of New Spain. Reverting to France in 1801, it was sold to the United States for a song in 1803 after Haiti’s bloody revolution doomed Napoleon’s ambition to rebuild France’s once expansive American empire.”

Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 150

The backdrop of the geopolitical contest that Blackhawk mentions — the “Great Game” of the Enlightenment, as it were — was the Seven Years’ War (what we in the US sometimes call “The French and Indian War,” though this term can be reserved to refer exclusively to the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War), in which future first President of the United States, George Washington, fought as a major in the militia of the British Province of Virginia. The Seven Years’ War is sometimes called the first global war, as it was fought between a British-led coalition and a French-led coalition across the known world at the time.

The Seven Years’ War was the final culmination of imperial conflict between France and the British Empire, and the defeat of the French ultimately led to the triumph of the British Empire and its worldwide extent and command of the seas in the nineteenth century. As an interesting counterfactual, we might consider a world in which the British has triumphed earlier over the French, and had established unquestioned supremacy by the time of the American Revolution. Under these changed circumstances, it would have been even more difficult than it was for the American colonists to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War, and as it was, it was a close-run thing. The colonial forces only won because they fought an ongoing guerrilla campaign against a distant power, which had to project force across the Atlantic Ocean in order to engage with the colonials.

Even at the disadvantage of having to send its soldiers overseas, the British won most of the battles of the Revolutionary War, and the colonials triumphed in the end because they wore down British willingness to invest blood and treasure in their erstwhile colony. When the colonials did win a battle, the Battle of Saratoga, the British made a political decision to cut their losses and focus on other lands of their global empire. From the British perspective, the loss of their American colonies was the price to be paid for empire — an empire must choose its battles, and not allow itself to get tied down in a quagmire among hostile natives — and it was the right decision at the time, as the British Empire was to continue to expand for another hundred years or more. With the French out of the way (defeated by the British in the Seven Years’ War, and then further crippled by the Haitian Revolution, as Blackhawk pointed out), and the American colonies abandoned, the British could move on to the real prizes: China and india.

The Seven Years’ War was the “big picture” geopolitical context of the American Revolution, and the American Revolution itself triggered the next “big picture” political context for what was to follow, which was the existence of revolutionary republics, and panic on the part of the ruling class of Europe that the revolutionary fervor would spread among their own peoples in a kind of revolutionary contagion. One cannot overemphasize the impact of the revolutionary spirit, which struck visceral fear into the hearts of Enlightenment-era constitutional monarchs much as the revolutionary spirit of communism struck fear into the hearts of enlightened democratic leaders a hundred years later. The revolutionary spirit of one generation became the reactionary spirit of the next generation. Applying this geopolitical rule of thumb to our own age, we would expect that the last revolutionary spirit became reactionary (as certainly did happen with communism), while the revolutionary spirit of the present will challenge the last revolutionary regimes in a de facto generational conflict (and this didn’t exactly happen).

The political principles of the revolutionary republics of the Enlightenment came to represent the next great political paradigm, which is today the unquestioned legitimacy of popular sovereignty. All the royal houses that were spooked by the revolutions in the British colonies, France, and Haiti were eventually either themselves deposed or eased into a graceful retirement as powerless constitutional monarchs. So they were right to be spooked, but the mechanisms by which their countries were transformed into democratic republics were many and various, so it was not revolution per se that these regimes needed to fear, but the implacable progress of an idea whose time had come.

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Happy 4th of July!

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Going “over the top” at the Somme.

Going “over the top” at the Somme.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme (also called the Somme Offensive), which began on 01 July 1916. The Somme has become symbolic in regard to the military mistakes of the First World War, especially in its wastefulness of human life. On the first day of the battle alone the British lost almost 20,000 killed in action out of a total of 57,470 casualties. This went on for months, with the total casualties for all armies numbering about a million on this one battlefield — the exact number will never be known.

When I first began reading about the First World War I can remember that I was confused about “battles” that went on for months at a time. Verdun, like the Somme, was another “battle” that went on for months. Earlier in history, a battle was a conflict that was usually decided in one day, between sunrise and sunset — a battle possessed the Aristotelian dramatic unities of space, time, and action — and at the most in a few days. The Battle of Gettysburg went on for four days. One can easily make the shift from single day battles of classical antiquity to multi-day battles of the nineteenth century, when the confrontation was more complex, not least because the societies upon which the battle supervened were larger and more complex. But from four days to four months is more of a stretch, and the Battle of the Somme went on for four and half months.

Today we would call military engagements like the Somme or Verdun operations rather than battles, as in The Somme Operation or Operation Verdun. Understanding the Somme (or Verdun) as operations rather than battles places these conflicts on the strategico-tactical continuum, i.e., operational thinking lies between tactical exigencies and strategic thinking, and different talents and a different kind of mind is required for operational planning in contradistinction to tactical action or strategic planning. The fact that we still call The Somme and Verdun “battles” — a usage preserved from the era of the conflict — shows how little these engagements were understood at the time.

As the First Global Industrialized War, World War One involved many new elements unprecedented in warfare, primarily technological innovations. How these technological innovations came together tactically, operationally, or strategically was not understood, and it was not understood for the simple reason that no one had any experience of these technologies on the battlefield. World War One provided this experience, while the interwar period provided time to reflect, and resulted in definitive treatises like Heinz Guderian‘s Achtung – Panzer! and Giulio Douhet‘s Il dominio dell’aria. With the advent of World War Two, military thinking had caught up with industrialized military technology, and the Second Global Industrialized War was very different from the first.

I am sure that memorials will be held on this hundredth anniversary, and speeches will be made. For the most part, the Somme has passed out of living memory and into historical memory. What is the historical memory of the Somme? Today we primarily remember the bloodletting — not any nobility of sacrifice or military glory, not any technological innovation or bold idea. What we remember is the human toll.

Recently I learned a term for the human toll of conflict, “hemoclysm,” used by Matthew White to describe the mass bloodletting that was characteristic of the twentieth century — “A violent and bloody conflict, a bloodbath; specifically (chiefly with capital initial), the period of the mid-twentieth century encompassing both world wars” — and which specially marks the Somme. Unfortunately, the Somme no longer stands out for its human toll. During the Second World War there were far higher casualty totals for single days, mostly civilians killed when entire cities were destroyed in a single day or a single night, which is something like a return to the paradigm of warfare according to the Aristotelian unities — although we can no longer call these slaughters “battles” in good conscience, so, in this sense, they diverge from the classical warfare paradigm, as they also diverge in primarily resulting in the deaths of civilians.

Total numbers of casualties increased until World War Two, after which they began to decline — something I identified in an early blog post as the “lethality peak.” However, this steady decline in lethality — partly a result of improving technology and precision weapons, but also partly a result of changing human attitudes to industrialized slaughter — took place against the backdrop of the Cold War, i.e., the possibility of nuclear war, with its ever-present possibility of a greater number of casualties in a shorter period of time than any possible conflict with conventional weapons. If humanity every fights a full scale nuclear war, the casualties will be orders of magnitude greater than our conventional wars.

We call nuclear weapons “strategic weapons” as a concession to their limited utility in actual warfighting. The few examples of tactical nuclear weapons that have been built were considered controversial, because they lowered the threshold for nuclear conflict — notwithstanding the fact that the first use of nuclear weapons was as just another weapon of war — the latest innovation from the conveyor belt of new technologies served up by wartime industries pushed to the limit of their capacity. The attempts to “think the unthinkable,” i.e., to think clearly about nuclear weapons, most famously made by Herman Kahn, were primarily strategic reflections. However, we know that NATO would not pledge “no first use” of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, as the last line of defense for a massive Warsaw Pact tank invasion of western Europe would have been the use of battlefield nuclear weapons, so some tactical doctrine for nuclear weapons would have been worked out, but it is not likely to come to light for some decades.

Nuclear weapons today, like machine guns and barbwire, airplanes and mobile armor a hundred years ago in 1916, remain a technology not yet assimilated to warfighting, and for good reason. The possibilities of nuclear weapons have lain fallow because the powers possessing nuclear weapons have recognized that their use must not be allowed while their escalation would result in our extinction as a species. In other words, our planetary endemism made nuclear war suicidal. This may change eventually.

If I am right that the native range of an intelligent species is not the single world of planetary endemism, but to be distributed across many worlds, the weapons systems that we can today imagine but choose not to build in the interest of our survival may be seen to have a military utility that they do not possess today. When we have a full tactical, operational, and strategic doctrine worked out for nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, we may see a conflict played out on a scale that dwarfs twentieth century world wars as twentieth century world wars dwarfed all previous conflicts.

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1914 to 2014

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

4. A Blank Check for Austria-Hungary

5. Serbia and Austria-Hungary Mobilize

6. Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

7. Ernst Jünger is Mobilized

8. The August Madness

9. The Battle of Coronel

10. The Somme after One Hundred Years

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twentieth century war collage

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Europe’s Options

24 June 2016


Headlines on the BBC

Headlines on the BBC

In the wake of the vote by the British to leave to the EU (i.e., “Brexit”), the UK and the EU both have many options on how to manage the transition, and the vote in and of itself is not enough to predict how exactly British exit from the EU will occur. We have to wait and watch if we are to understand, and to correctly interpret, the subtle clues and telling details in a political landscape defined by a lack of subtlety and a barrage of trivia no item of which is a telling detail. Whatever happens, and however it happens, we are seeing geopolitics played out on a grand scale.

As a divisive political confrontation, the immediate fallout of the “Leave” vote will be accusations and recriminations, short term market fluctuations, dramatic public statements being made, a painstakingly detailed analysis of the demographic breakdown of the vote, and so on. The press will focus on these immediate consequences, and as the press was enthusiastic in backing “Project Fear” it is more or less obligated to report the worst possible news that it can find in order to confirm the narrative that the world will come to an end in the event of a “Leave” vote. The immediate consequences are the “white noise” of political conflict, and must be set aside in order for a more rational assessment of short-term, mid-term, and long-term consequences.

From The Future and Accessibility, OZeWAI Conference 2011, Jacqui van Teulingen Director, Web Policy

From The Future and Accessibility, OZeWAI Conference 2011, Jacqui van Teulingen
Director, Web Policy

In a previous post on futurism I cited the “futures cone,” which depicts the arrow of time flaring outward into the future, with the probable future in the center, the plausible future just beyond the center, the possible future farther yet from the center, and the preposterous future at the outside edge of the futures cone (see above — I have adopted this language from Joseph Voros’ exposition of the futures cone). We can employ the futures cone to distinguish classes of outcomes from the Brexit vote.

Some of the most obvious outcomes neatly fall into the categories of the futures cone:

● Probable The UK negotiates a trade deal with the UN that allows both Britain and the EU to continue to employ the City of London as the de facto banking capital of western Europe, which is overwhelmingly in the interest of all concerned. Very little of substance changes. The press selectively reports on economic problems so that the sore loser “remain” faction can maintain plausible deniability that it was right all along, while the “leave” faction gets what it wants in changes to immigration policy.

● Plausible Eurocrats in Brussels are vindictive and seek retaliation for their humiliation; the EU attempts to economically isolate and marginalize the UK, and both sides erect trade barriers that result in UK and EU growth turning negative. A long recession and a slow recovery ensues. This scenario could well be exacerbated by actions taken by the US, as both major political party candidates for the US presidential election are opposed to free trade.

● Possible The “Leave” vote is set aside (the EU has a long history of setting aside votes that fail to conform to its narrative); endless negotiations drag on for years while the EU and the UK are at best economically stagnant; or additional votes are taken until the desired result is obtained.

● Preposterous There is no end to the number of preposterous scenarios that can be constructed upon the “Leave” vote. For example, the unraveling EU might lead to widespread chaos and disorder, ultimately meaning the end of civilization in Europe. Or a royal coup might set aside the popular vote and reverse the decision by royal decree, suspending democratic process. Or the unraveling of the EU might be followed by the constitution of alternative trade zones, as I once suggested in several posts on a northern trade zone (which I called the “Hansazone”) around the Baltic.

In my previous posts on futurism and the futures cone I emphasized that it is a relatively easy matter to predict what tomorrow will be like, because there are definite limits on how different tomorrow can be from today. However, it is extraordinarily difficult to predict the long-term future, so that between the predictable short term and the unpredictable long term, it is in the mid-term that our predictions go wrong. With this in mind, to get a better sense of the foreign country that is the future (and in this sense like the past), we should attempt to construct plausible paths by which probable and plausible short-term actions issue in implausible mid-term and long-term consequences.

For example, in the short-term there will be conflicting motives, with the EU being torn between cutting a deal that is good for all, or seeking a vindictive settlement that will punish Britain. Why should Eurocrats want to punish the UK for going its own way? Because despite the constant drumbeat in the press of the economic risks to Britain to leave the EU, the EU is much more vulnerable than the UK, partly because it is much less resilient and robust in its institutional structure. The “Leave” vote shows this up, and has the symbolic meaning that is the EU, and not the UK, that is weak, and that states can choose to leave the EU and it is not the end of the world. The illusion of the inevitable triumphal expansion of the EU has been rudely shattered, and some will want the UK to suffer for this, regardless of the cost. Thus the negotiations on the EU departure of the EU will be fraught, and may be in equal parts conciliatory and vindictive.

The kind of sausage-making that will result from mixed motives in the EU departure negotiations could result in radically different outcomes in the mid-term. While I regard it as unlikely, it is nevertheless possible that the EU might drag out its negotiations with the UK while fast-tracking the accession of candidates for entry into the EU, meaning that the UK is stuck and stagnant while the EU is expanding. Under this scenario, the EU grows and thrives while the UK becomes a marginalized economic backwater.

Another example of a mid-term future veering away from the most probable future constrained by concerns for stability and vested interests, is that the departure of the UK does begin the process of the unraveling of the EU (meaning the end of “Eurozone civilization” as was the concern of Donald Tusk). Other nation-states may hold referendums and depart from the EU, which shrinks as more and more parts are lopped off. The EU might continue in name only, as a ghost of its former self, and be remembered as a grand but failed visionary political project, the last gasp of the spirit of Yalta and Bretton Woods.

Under this scenario, the EU becomes economically marginal (sort of like Mercosur in South America), but the unraveling need not stop there. One might see the UK break up also, with Scotland and Ireland holding their own referendums to leave, and possibly even trying to rejoin the EU as independent nation-states. Paradoxically, this degree of Balkanization in western Europe, while it would be met with horror by the chattering classes, would probably result in far more pluralism and democracy than the EU model for pluralism and democracy in Europe. Also, in this pluralistic context it would be relatively straight-forward to constitute new economic zones, and so my “preposterous” scenario above could become plausible in the fullness of time.

The “Leave” vote was just the beginning of a process, and the immediate fallout will simply be theatrics. Only time will tell what the process itself will actually be (the situation is unprecedented, as no nation-state has previously negotiated its departure from the EU), and what outcomes are likely to follow.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Eurozone Civilization

15 June 2016


Donald Tusk

Donald Tusk

How briefly can a socioeconomic state of affairs endure and still constitute a distinct and identifiable civilization? To phrase the question in another way, how finely can we parse the concept of civilization? Though this is a question of some theoretical interest, I ask this question now because of recent remarks by President of the European Council Donald Tusk. Tusk was interviewed by the German publication Bild on the topic of the pending referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union (which latter has been given the unfortunate name “Brexit”). Tusk said the following in this interview:

The leave campaign contains a very clear message: “Let us leave, nothing will change, everything will stay as before”. Well, it will not. Not only economic implications will be negative for the UK, but first and foremost geopolitical. Do you know why these consequences are so dangerous? Because in the long-term they are completely unpredictable. As a historian, I am afraid this could in fact be the start of the process of destruction of not only the EU but also of the Western political civilization.

Business Insider, TUSK: ‘This could in fact be the start of the process of destruction of not only the EU but also of the Western political civilization’

And in the original German…

„Die Kampagne für den Brexit hat eine sehr klare Botschaft: ,Lasst uns austreten. Nichts wird sich ändern, alles wird bleiben wie immer.’ Nun, das ist falsch. Nicht nur wirtschaftlich, sondern vor allem geopolitisch wäre es ein Rückschlag für Großbritannien. Warum ist das so gefährlich? Weil niemand die langfristigen Folgen vorhersehen kann. Als Historiker fürchte ich: Der Brexit könnte der Beginn der Zerstörung nicht nur der EU, sondern der gesamten politischen Zivilisation des Westens sein.“

Bild, Nikolaus Blome und Kai Diekmann, EU-Ratspräsident Donald Tusk über die Brexit-Gefahr „Unsere Feinde werden Champagner trinken

There are two interesting qualifications that Tusk makes to his sweeping pronouncement on the beginning of the end of European civilization: “as a historian” (“Als Historiker”) and “Western political civilization” (“politischen Zivilisation des Westens”). I assume that Tusk is making the qualification “as a historian” in order to emphasize that he is not speaking as a politician, or in some other capacity, in this context. (Indeed, Tusk studied history at the University of Gdańsk.) The other qualification — instead of simply invoking “western civilization” he specified “western political civilization” — is more difficult to interpret. One might speculate that he attaches the idea of politics to civilization as a hedge, suggesting that political civilization might unravel, but that is not necessarily the end of civilization simpliciter. However, one probably shouldn’t try to read too much into this qualification.

Can we speak of a Eurozone civilization, or has the Eurozone been too ephemeral in historical terms to qualify as a civilization? I would have no hesitation in referring to a Eurozone civilization, and, in so far as there is a Eurozone civilization, the unraveling of the Eurozone project that could follow from British withdrawal could well begin the unraveling of Eurozone civilization. But let us take a closer look at short-lived civilizations.

I have previously written about Soviet Civilization (cf. Addendum on Failed Civilizations and The Genocide of Homo Sovieticus), which only endured about seventy years, and unraveled when the Soviet Union fell apart. I think that one could, with equal validity, speak of a Nazi civilization, though this endured less than twenty years. In the case of very short-lived political entities like Nazism, it might be more accurate to speak in aspirational terms, i.e., in terms of what the nascent political entity hoped to achieve as a civilization.

In the case of both Soviet civilization and Nazi civilization, we have examples of failed civilizations due to failed central projects; when the central project of these respective civilizations failed, the civilizations failed. Thus if one defines a civilization in terms of a viable central project, the Soviet and Nazi experiments do not constitute civilizations, but rather failed attempts to found civilization de novo. However, this poses additional questions, such as whether a civilization founded on a central project that ultimately proves to be non-viable, but it takes hundreds of years for the civilization to well and truly fail, is a civilization. Should we deny that such failed civilizations constituted civilizations? I think there is a certain bias toward longevity that would make us hesitate to deny a long-lived failed civilization to be a civilization. So should we deny that short-lived failed civilizations are civilizations?

In my presentation “What kind of civilizations build starships?” (at the 2015 Starship Congress) I defined civilizations in terms of economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure: where we find both, we have a civilization. I would now amend this, and add that a civilization is an economic infrastructure and an intellectual superstructure joined by a central project. This definition of civilization does not take longevity into account, so it can equally well apply to short-lived or long-lived civilizations.

The Eurozone has all the elements of civilization as I define it. There is an economic infrastructure, which might be identified with Rhine Capitalism; there is an intellectual superstructure, as embodied in the legal and political institutions of the EU, as well as the older ideas of European civilization and western civilization that transcend the specific context of the Eurozone; and there is a central project, the idea of Europe itself, transformed into a political idea.

Superficially, Eurozone civilization would seem to be a highly stable and viable enterprise, as many of the economic institutions and intellectual institutions are mutually supporting. For example, the free movement of populations, now being tested as a central pillar of European integration, is both an economic doctrine and a doctrine of personal liberty. However, despite these apparent virtues of the Eurozone, the project seems doomed to failure in its current incarnation, which, of course, does not mean that the Europeans cannot try again. There have been many movements to unify and integrate Europe over its long history, and we can expect that, if the current template for unification and integration fails, there will be future attempts.

A final thought: Europe has long been unified and integrated as a cultural and intellectual entity, and even as an economic entity. In other words, the unity of Europe is the same as the unity of our planetary civilization: unity in all relevant senses expect political and legal unification. But this legal and political unity has become a kind of fetish, so that we seem to be unable to recognize planetary civilization for what it is simply because we lack a planetary political order (cf. Origins of Globalization). In the same way, Europe has made a fetish of legal and political unification, and this has obscured the extent to which Europe is already one, single European civilization. The transformation of the idea of Europe into a political project may be the essential problem with the Eurozone. The motivation of this project — to prevent any future conflicts on the scale of the world wars of the twentieth century — primarily addresses the Franco-German rivalry that has characterized Europe since the death of Charlemagne. In so far as Britain has always been the “offshore balancer” to this continental rivalry, it is no surprise that Britain is the first powerful nation-state to seriously pose the question of its exit from the EU.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Dresden as 'Florence on the Elbe' in a colorized photograph from about 1890.

Dresden as “Florence on the Elbe” in a colorized photograph from about 1890.

Once again I find myself without an invitation and shut out of the Bilderberg conference. Today, Thursday 09 June 2016, the Bilderberg Group is beginning its 64th conference, this time held in Dresden, Germany. Dresden was once called “Florence on the Elbe” as it was once a cultural center and renowned for its beautiful architecture. Dresden remained intact throughout most of the Second World War, and many believed that there was a tacit quid pro quo according to which Dresden would be spared. The Dresdeners were disabused of this notion as the city was destroyed by one of the most devastating Allied air raids of the entire war, conducted a few days after the Yalta conference wrapped up (I previously wrote about the bombing of Dresden in Mass War and Mass Man, inter alia).

Dresden after the Allied air raid that destroyed the city.

Dresden after the Allied air raid that destroyed the city.

There is, then, something ironic about holding a Bilderberg conference in Dresden, though perhaps the intention was symbolic, to demonstrate that Dresden is once again a world-class city, reclaiming its place as a rebuilt “Florence on the Elbe,” with the reconstructed Frauenkirche and most of the rest of its historic center restored. The Atlanticism represented by the Bilderberg Group (cf. Bilderberg and Atlanticism) was predicated upon the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the defeat of Nazi Germany meant that the brutality of Nazism had to be countered by an even greater brutality. If there had been an internal uprising against the Nazis, the German people could have made the country ungovernable, but even after military defeat was certain the Germans continued to fight. The destruction of Dresden was collateral damage in this fight, and the reconstruction of Dresden has been, in a sense, a triumph of Atlanticism — the re-unification of Germany in the context of a peaceful and prosperous Europe.

Much of Dresden's historic center has been rebuilt.

Much of Dresden’s historic center has been rebuilt.

Recently in Counterfactuals in Planetary History I noted that the post-war social order collectively created by the victorious Allies of the Second World War has been unraveling since the end of the Cold War. This is no secret, and few would disagree. The disagreement emerges over the next form of the “new normal” that will follow the present period of drift. One unspoken assumption is that Western Civilization will continue on in more or less its present form, and will continue to be central to planetary civilization. In other words, the assumption is that the unraveling of the post-war social order is not the unraveling of Western Civilization. We may be concerned about the resurgence of Putin’s Russia and the rise of China as a technologically sophisticated world power, but we don’t seriously contemplate the end of Western Civilization itself, even if we see its relative decline.


The traditions of Russian civilization — what Samuel Huntington identified as Orthodox civilization — and Chinese civilization are in many cases openly hostile to many of the principles central to Western Civilization in their anti-individualism, non-transparency, and preference for despotism. A world in which the Chinese or the Russians held the central place in the international system that the US now holds would be a world in which almost all the ideas embodied in the Atlantic Charter were either ignored or actively subverted. This would not be a world safe for democracy. But two great wars were fought in order for the world to be made safe for democracy, and yet democracy finds itself embattled once again. How did this happen?

With the rise of the US to world power status, Western Civilization has been Atlantic civilization, represented by Europe on the one shore, and North America on the other. The civilization of Atlanticism constituted what the shared tradition of Western Civilization had become in the course of its seriation. The principles for which this civilization stood were embodied in the Atlantic Charter. The Atlantic Charter was, in turn, heavily influenced by Wilson’s 14 Points, which came before, and went on to influence the founding principles of the United Nations, hence the global social order. While Yalta was the conference on the post-war settlement that came near the end of the Second World War, the Atlantic Charter was the agreement on the post-war settlement that came near the beginning of the war, even before the US had officially entered the war, and thus constituted the explicitly stated principles in defense of which the US entered the war.

Atlanticism on both sides of the Atlantic is seriously threatened at present. Both of the presumptive presidential nominees of the two major political parties in the US are openly populist and protectionist, and both major parties are tearing themselves apart internally over the choice the nominee. No doubt matters will settle down in time, someone will be elected president, and things will go on as before. But even if this happens, and all the shouting was for naught, it is obvious that the political class in the US no longer believes in the principles it once fought to preserve. The élites of the western world have contributed to the unraveling of the social order implied by the principles enumerated in the Atlantic Charter and imperfectly embodied in practice by institutions such as the United Nations. Temporary political advantage seems a sufficient pretext to abandon even a pretense to the ideals of an open society.

In Europe, the great political project of the post-war era — the EU — faces increasing popular resistance as the initial promises of the EU to deliver economic growth have failed to bear fruit, while the non-democratic character of the institution has become increasingly obvious. In other posts I have noted that democracy does not come naturally to the Europeans, who even in an age of popular sovereignty have managed to erect the appearance of democracy without the substance of democracy (cf. Europe and its Radicals). The EU is one of the worst offenders in this respect. It is not merely non-democratic, but often openly anti-democratic. When any nation-state has voted against the agreements that implement the EU, these votes have been set aside or ignored, and the project has continued on. (Personally, I would like to see the vote for Britain to leave the EU to go against the EU, just to hand a resounding comeuppance to the pretensions of the EU — but this vote, too, would probably be ignored and it will be said that Britain “initially rejected” the EU, but then, after another vote, or two, or three, they wisely changed their minds.)

Europe and the EU is not the only offender against the ideals of democracy. The technocratic élites of western civilization so profoundly distrust the peoples they are supposed represent that they created a technological panopticon in which every detail of the lives of the public is laid open to the minutest observation, while the shadowy watchers reveal nothing of themselves, so that the ancient question — who watches the watchers? — must remain unanswered. This is the meaning of the universal surveillance state as revealed by Edward Snowden, who had to flee the US after making his revelations. This is not merely anti-democratic, but openly contemptuous of the spirit of democracy.

The point here is that singling out the non-transparency of the Bilderberg Group — one of the last remaining vestiges of authentic Atlanticism — is beside the point. The EU itself is non-transparent, and seems to be so by design. And the universal surveillance of the US is non-transparent, and has been made so by design. Focusing on the Bilderberg Group is to fail to see the forest for the trees.

The unraveling of the post-war political consensus, once held in place by the stable dyad of the Cold War, continues apace because the “leaders” of the nation-states putatively representing Western Civilization simply do not believe the platitudes and glittering generalities that they spout. Their contempt for the democracy they claim to espouse is a glaring hypocrisy lost on no one — least of all the Chinese and the Russians.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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An artificial habitat orbiting Mars.

An artificial habitat orbiting Mars.


There may be more justification, in the short term, for building an artificial habitat in Mars orbit rather than Earth orbit. Before I discuss the reasons for this, I will give some background on the near-term prospects for Mars missions.

Landing on Mars in the 1925 German film Wunder der Schöpfung. Mars has long been the stuff of dreams.

Landing on Mars in the 1925 German film Wunder der Schöpfung. Mars has long been the stuff of dreams.

The Mars Race

It is, once again, an exciting time in space exploration. After decades in the doldrums, we are on the cusp of private industry commercial space exploration. Both Blue Origin and Space X have landed rockets on their tails, just like in early science fiction films, and with increased re-usability comes lower costs. Many other technologies are in development that may further lower costs, but right now we are already seeing private space technology companies with capabilities not possessed by the space program of any nation-state. This is remarkable and unprecedented. Partly this is a result of the exponential improvements in technology in recent decades, especially computing technologies, which in turn improve the performance of other technologies. Partly this is also the result of the concentration of wealth at the top of the income pyramid. I previously mentioned this in The Social Context of SETI, where I noted Yuri Milner’s investment in Breakthrough Listen, a SETI project. Billionaires are now in a position to personally finance enterprises once the exclusive remit of nation-states. With the funding available, only the motivation is needed.

It looks increasingly like a human mission to Mars will be realized by private industry rather than by a government space program. For space exploration enthusiasts, Mars is such stuff as dreams are made on. Mars is another world almost within our grasp. For all practical purposes, we have the technology to get there, only the funding has been lacking. As technology improves, becomes cheaper, and great capital is concentrated into the hands of a few, it becomes possible to undertake what was not possible just a few years earlier. The most visible figure in this recent spate of space activity has been Elon Musk of Space X, who has been explicit about his intention to develop rockets capable of human missions to Mars. In a recently announced time table, Space X may be able to mount a Martian mission in 2024, i.e., within ten years (this announcement was made at Code Conference 2016 in Los Angeles; cf., e.g., Elon Musk Is Sending Humans To Mars In 2024 by Evan Gough, 03 June 2016).

Musk has also been explicit that his interest is in creating an ongoing settlement on Mars. NASA plans for human missions to Mars cover exploration but not settlement, and their timetable is further in the future than Musk’s. It will be interesting to see if the model of the Space Race will portend for Mars what happened on the moon — once one side got there, the other gave up trying — or whether we will see multiple human missions to Mars, some purely for scientific exploration, and others bringing settlers with a plan to stay.

Wernher von Braun's mission design for Mars involved re-configuring spacecraft in Mars orbit for descent to the surface.

Wernher von Braun’s mission design for Mars involved re-configuring spacecraft in Mars orbit for descent to the surface.

Martian Extraplanetary Infrastructure

With the possibility of multiple human missions to Mars, and with a population of settlers on Mars, the need and uses for Martian extraplanetary infrastructure becomes obvious. The crucial piece of the puzzle of Martian extraplanetary infrastructure would be a Martian space station. By a Martian space station I don’t mean something like the International Space Station (ISS) now orbiting Earth, though this would be better than nothing, to be sure; I mean an enormous Gerard K. O’Neill style space habitat, such as an O’Neill cylinder, a Stanford Torus, or a Bernal sphere. Such an artificial habitat could serve a variety of functions in Mars orbit.

We have all heard that any Martian settlers would be dead within a few months’ time from suffocation and “starvation, dehydration, or incineration in an oxygen-rich atmosphere” — cf. the widely discussed MIT study An independent assessment of the technical feasibility of the Mars One mission plan – Updated analysis, by Sydney Do, Andrew Owens, Koki Ho, Samuel Schreiner, and Olivier de Weck. The MIT analysis concludes that Mars settlers would not be self-sufficient and so their survival would require continual re-supply from Earth. Part of this analysis hinges on what technologies are “existing, validated and available.” Needless to say, technologies can advance rapidly given the necessary expenditure of resources upon them. The analysis does not address how quickly innovative technologies can be brought online, and it is important to understand that the MIT report does not argue that human self-sufficiency on Mars is impossible, only that there are problems with the Mars One mission architecture.

Many of the shortcomings of the Mars One mission architecture, or the shortcomings of any other proposed mission to Mars (Mars One is the most detailed proposal to date, so it has received the most detailed criticism), could be addressed by a large, self-sustaining artificial habitat in Mars orbit. We should expect that the settlement of a sterile and hostile environment will be a difficult undertaking, but we could make this difficult undertaking much less difficult with the resources that might be needed positioned nearby, in orbit of Mars.

With large enough mirrors to capture sunlight, the interior of an artificial habitat even at the far edge of the habitable zone in our solar system would be able to concentrate sufficient sunlight for electrical power generation, growing crops, and the maintenance of comfortable conditions for residents. In orbit around Mars, an artificial habitat could provide a steady source of food produced under controlled conditions (under perfect greenhouse conditions, and far more amenable to control that any environment initially set up on the surface of Mars), before large scale food production is possible on the surface of Mars itself. The industrial infrastructure and processes necessary to maintain the lives of early Martian settlers could probably be maintained in orbit more cheaply and more efficiently than on the surface.

Some other considerations for Martian extraplanetary infrastructure include:

● Martian dirt It would be cheaper and easier to lift Martian dirt off Mars than to lift dirt off Earth in order to begin large scale agricultural production in a large artificial habitat. Having an artificial habitat in orbit around Mars would make it relatively easy to transfer significant quantities of Martian soil into Mars orbit. Using Martian soil for farming under controlled conditions, moreover, would provide valuable experience in Martian agronomy.

● Gravity A large artificial habitat in orbit around Mars could provide simulated full Earth gravity. This could be very valuable for long term settlers on Mars, who may experience health problems due to the low surface gravity on Mars. Settlers could be rotated through an artificial habitat on a regular basis. This would also be an opportunity to study how rapidly the human body could recover any lost bone mass, etc., after living in lower than Earth gravity conditions. It might also be valuable to experiment with slightly more than Earth gravity to see if this can compensate for extended periods of time in lower gravity environments. On an artificial habitat, simulated gravity can be tailored to the specific needs of the crew by spinning the habitat faster or slower.

● Way Station A Martian space station would also be a stepping stone for human missions farther along into the outer solar system. With all the resources necessary to preserve the lives of Martian settlers, such a way station could also serve to preserve the lives of deep space travelers. This would also provide an opportunity for space travelers to experience time “planetside” before and after missions into the outer solar system or beyond. The first human mission to the stars might be launched not from Earth, but from Mars orbit, or from similar habitats even more distant in the outer solar system.

Martian extraplanetary infrastructure could prove to be one of the greatest investments in space exploration ever made. We will likely have the technology to build a space elevator between the Martian surface and Mars orbit before we can build a space elevator between Earth’s surface and Earth orbit. Linking the Martian surface directly with Martian extraplanetary infrastructure will make possible economic opportunities that will not yet be available on Earth when they are available on Mars, with consequent economic growth likely integral with growth in science and technology. This will drive forward the STEM cycle more rapidly, and it will happen first on Mars.

Another planet awaits us...

Another planet awaits us…

The Martian Future

The first stage of an interplanetary civilization will be a human civilization that spans both Earth and Mars. In going to Mars, we will learn a great deal about living and working both in space and on other words. This knowledge and experience is a necessary condition of establishing the redundancy that human beings, our civilization, and the terrestrial biosphere require in order to overcome existential risks that could mean our extinction if we remain an exclusively terrestrial species.

The human future on Mars, then, is an essential element in expanding human experience so that we are not indefinitely subject to the planetary constraints native to planetary endemism. We need to experience the Martian standpoint in order to develop both as a species and as a civilization, and then to go beyond Mars.

After interplanetary civilization will come interstellar civilization, and we will need to begin with the experience of Mars, our planetary neighbor, in order to take the next step on to more distant worlds. The way to ensure the initial success and eventual expansion of an interplanetary civilization within our planetary system is through the construction of an artificial habitat in Mars orbit. One such artificial habitat could mean the difference between the life and death of the earliest settlers, and, in the long term, the success of these earliest settlers on another world will mean the difference between life and death for our civilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

Since the end of the Cold War, the global political and economic order established at the end of the Second World War has been unraveling, sometimes slowly, sometimes with shocking rapidity, but unraveling steadily. After a quarter century of unraveling, the world has still not settled on a “new normal” of stability in international affairs, and, despite the complexity of the world situation, it is relatively easy to point out why the end of the Second World War brought about a relatively rapid settlement and a new normal, while today the world continues to drift: the Second World War ended with the victory of the Allied powers and the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers that left the Allies in a position to dictate the terms of the peace that followed. Because the war was global, the settlement also was global, and the peace, for what it was worth, was global. The Second World War consolidated the era of planetary history.

In a period of flux and instability, the world is rich in possibilities. When one set of possibilities is realized, the other sets of possibilities become counterfactuals, paths not taken — but at the moment of decision, these counterfactuals were as palpably real as the possibilities that were eventually realized in fact. I previously addressed some counterfactuals related to the Second World War in Counterfactual Weapons Systems, an exercise of sorts — a thought experiment, as it were — in the weapons systems that might have emerged from a longer war, given the tempo of technological development during the war. This was a rather narrow thought experiment, for the disruption in planetary history occasioned by the Second World War was unprecedented, and this unprecedented disruption meant unprecedented possibilities. These unprecedented possibilities, in turn, coagulated rather rapidly upon cessation of armed conflict, so that within a few years of the end of the war, the central facts of planetary history had been established. It is as though the unprecedented disruption led to unprecedented stability on an unprecedentedly short time scale.

The ground for the relatively rapid post-war settlement was prepared by several conferences organized by the Allies when it became apparent that they would eventually win the war, and that some plans must be made for the post-war settlement. There is, in particular, something poignant about the efforts of two dying men — Roosevelt presiding at Yalta and Keynes presiding over Bretton Woods — as both must have known that they would not live long enough to see the world whose foundations they laid.

Recently I have been listening to Yalta: The Price of Peace by S. M. Plokhy, which provides much food for thought both for counterfactuals as well as unlikely eventualities that were realized as the result of the Allied victory. One of the strangest outcomes of the Second World War was a zone of occupation for the French in Germany, despite the fact that the French military collapsed at the beginning of the Second World War and the French (i.e., the French government and military in exile, and the resistance within France) played only a very small and modest role in the eventual Allied victory. Thus in post-war Germany, French soldiers occupied German lands despite the fact that France had been defeated and occupied by Germany in the opening stages of the Second World War, and remained occupied throughout the war.

Plokhy’s book has some discussion of the Morgenthau Plan and other possibilities for dividing or otherwise managing Germany in the post-war period, and this material was of great interest to me. Previously in The Stalin Doctrine I discussed the Morgenthau Plan for post-war Germany, which would have involved not only the partition of Germany, but also its de-industrialization. Once Germany began to rebuild itself under the Marshall Plan, it no longer became possible to de-industrialize Germany along the lines of the Morgenthau Plan; this option, available at the end of the war, was foreclosed upon by subsequent events — the window of opportunity had closed. Instead of pastoralization there was Wirtschaftswunder. But, as we all know, Germany was partitioned, and this partition played a major role in the Cold War and European political conflicts in the second half of the twentieth century.

It is an interesting counterfactual to consider how the de-industrialization and pastorlization of Germany might have been enforced and administered in a post-war Germany of the Morgenthau Plan, i.e., if an explicit interpretation of the Morgenthau Plan had been put into effect. Part of the Morgenthau Plan was partition, and this partition would have included taking some of the most industrialized areas of Germany and either transferring them to France or Belgium, declaring them international zones, or making them small, independent states in their own right. With the most industrialized areas separated off, the remainder of Germany could have been systematically de-industrialized and kept in an enforced pastoral and agrarian condition. While the Morgenthau Plan was ultimately rejected, parts of it became de facto policy. The French Monnet Plan was partially adopted, with Saarland temporarily made a French protectorate, and the French also sought to detach the Ruhr from Germany. Under the justification of controlling coal and steel production, the International Authority for the Ruhr (IAR) presided over some limited dismantling of industry in the region. But when the US became concerned that the Germans might tilt toward the Russians, this policy ceased.

In speculating on a counterfactual history of Europe in which the Morgenthau Plan was put into effect, then, I don’t mean the half measures that were in fact pursued, and then abandoned. I mean, rather, a robust and ongoing enforcement of Germany as an agrarian preserve in the heart of Europe. We have one possible historical parallel, and that is the attempt by the Khmer Rouge to create a de-urbanized agrarian communist utopia in Cambodia — an adaptation and radicalization of Mao’s agrarian adaptation of Lenin’s industrial vision. This isn’t a very good parallel, because de-industrialization and de-urbanization administered by the victorious Allied powers would have been very different from the ideological vision of the Khmer Rouge. But radical questions are raised by the possibility. Would de-industrialization have also meant de-urbanization? Would schools and universities have been allowed to exist? What tools and resources would have been allowed for agricultural activities? How would limitations on industry have been policed and enforced?

Perhaps another historical parallel would be better: imagine the DMZ separating North Korea and South Korea, except that instead of being left in a wild state, a wide swath of territory was left semi-wild, but residents were allowed to farm within that territory. Now imagine a farmed DMZ as large as Germany. That gives a rather different idea of what a Morgenthau Plan Europe might have looked like. This vision of Europe is so radically different from what did in fact happen that it makes one wonder what consequences it would have entailed for the rest of Europe, and indeed for the Cold War. If de-industrialization had included de-urbanization, Berlin could have been depopulated and bulldozed, and it would then have never had the symbolic role that it did have as a divided city representing a world divided by Soviet and American power. There is an historical parallel for this, too, when the Romans triumphed over Carthage: the Romans not only destroyed the city, but plowed salt into the soil to ensure the sterility of the region. It was many centuries until Rome had another rival as powerful as Carthage.

One can even imagine this rural and agrarian Germany in the post-Cold War period, surviving under changed political and economic conditions. One can easily predict that the area would have become a major tourist draw because of its very different way of life, and once the restrictions on industrialization either became irrelevant or were gradually lifted, one could imagine many in the population wanting to keep the region rural and agricultural, partly because they had become familiar with the life, partly because of the tourist income from it, and partly because large industrial works are no longer the paradigm of economic development in the world at present. Whereas industries built on the scale of Stalinist gigantism were once the fetish of economic planners, this is no longer true. Cottage industries and craft traditions would have developed in a unique way in a Morgenthau Plan Germany, which might well have had a bright future in the 21st century.

All of this is now counterfactual speculation, but I think there is some value in considering the radically different paths that terrestrial history might have taken at this past juncture of historical disruption. The post-war situation in Europe was very fluid, but it congealed quickly due to historical circumstances at the moment. With the unraveling of the post-war world order, planetary history is again very fluid, and the circumstances of the moment have kept the situation fluid for almost thirty years. When some “new normal” eventually emerges and establishes itself, the wide range of possibilities we now face — possibilities both welcome and unwelcome — will then be narrowed to one preponderant actuality and a range of unrealized counterfactuals. But for us, now, in the moment, these future counterfactuals are all as palpably real as the future history that will become the central fact of planetary history.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot being held by Russia.

Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot until recently incarcerated in Russia.

The Defiance of Nadiya Savchenko

I don’t believe that I have ever seen a more complete or perfect expression of defiance than that on the face of Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot who was until quite recently imprisoned in Russia (and who was elected to the Ukrainian parliament during her imprisonment). This display of defiance is an appropriate opportunity to consider the nature of defiance as an emotion (specifically, a moral emotion) and its place within human life.

It is a natural human response to feel angry when confronted with obvious injustice. When that injustice is not merely observed, but involves ourselves personally, there is also a personal element to the anger. When an individual is angry for an injustice done to themselves, and is not yet defeated, but possesses the strength and the energy to persevere despite on ongoing injustice, that is defiance.

I am sure everyone reading this has had this experience to some degree; this is a universal that characterizes the human condition. This kind of defiance is a staple of classic literature; for example, we know defiance as the spirit of the protagonist of Jane Eyre:

“When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should — so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again… I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved.”

The young friend of Jane Eyre, Helen Burns, replies:

“Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine, but Christians and civilised nations disown it.”

When published Jane Eyre was considered something of a scandal, and Matthew Arnold (of “Sweetness and Light” fame) said of the novel, “…the writer’s mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion and rage and therefore that is all she can, in fact, put in her book.” Another Victorian critic wrote, “…the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.” (Elizabeth Rigby, The London Quarterly Review, No. CLXVII, December, 1848, pp. 82-99) Today we recognize ourselves in the protagonist without hesitation, for what comes naturally to the unbroken spirit of Jane Eyre comes naturally to all of us; it resonates with the human condition (except, perhaps, for the condition of Victorian literary critics). There is much more that could be said in regard to Victorian attitudes to defiance, especially among children, but I will save this for an addendum.

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Defiance as a Moral Emotion

Our conventional idea of an emotion as something that we passively experience — emotions were traditionally called passions because they are affects that we suffer, and not actions that we take — is utterly inadequate to account for an emotion like defiance, which is as much action as passion. At least part of the active nature of defiance is its integration with our moral life, which latter is about active engagements with the world. For this reason I would call defiance a moral emotion, and I will develop the idea of moral emotion in the context of emotive naturalism (see below).

Moral emotions are complex, and it scarcely does them justice to call them emotions. The spectrum of emotion ranges from primarily visceral feelings with little or no cognitive content, and indistinguishable from bodily states, to subtle states of mind with little or no visceral feelings associated with them. Some of our emotions are simple and remain simple, but many states of human consciousness that we carelessly write off as emotions are in fact extremely sophisticated human responses that involve the entire person. Robert C. Solomon’s lectures Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions do an excellent job of drawing out the complexities of how our emotional responses are tied up in a range of purely intellectual concerns on the one hand, and on the other hand almost purely visceral feelings.

Solomon discusses anger, fear, love, compassion, pride, shame, envy, jealousy, resentment, and grief, though he does not explicitly take up defiance. In several posts I have discussed fear (The Philosophy of Fear and Fear of Death), hope (The Structure of Hope and Very Short Treatise on Hope, Perfection, Utopia, and Progress), pride (Metaphysical Pride), modesty (Metaphysical Modesty), and ressentiment (Freedom and Ressentiment), though it could in no sense be said that I have done justice to any of these. The more complex moral emotions are all the more difficult to do justice to; specifically moral emotions such as defiance present a special problem for theoretical analysis.

The positivists of the early twentieth century propounded a moral theory that is known as the emotive theory of ethics, which explicitly sought a reduction of morality to emotion. This kind of reductionism is not as popular with philosophers today, and for good reason. While we would not want to reduce morality to emotion (as the positivists argued), nor to reduce emotions to corporeal sensations (a position sometimes identified with William James), in order to make sense of our emotional and moral lives it may be instructive to briefly consider the origins of emotion and morality in the natural history of human beings. This natural historical approach will help us to account for the relevant evidence without insisting upon reductionism.

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Emotive Naturalism

What emotions are natural for a human being to feel? What thoughts are natural for a human being to think? What moral obligations is it natural for a person to recognize? All of these are questions that we can reasonably ask about human beings, since we know that human beings feel, think, and behave in accordance with acknowledged obligations. I wrote above that it is natural for one to feel anger over injustice. If you, dear reader, have never experienced this, I would be surprised. No doubt there are individuals who do not, and who never have, experienced anger as a result of injustice, but this is not the typical human response. But the typical “human” response is descended with modification from the typical responses of our ancestors, extending into the past long before modern human beings evolved.

I have elsewhere quoted Darwin on the origins of morality, and I think the idea contained in the following passage cannot be too strongly emphasized:

“The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable — namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts… the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”


I would go further than Darwin. I would say that animals with intellectual powers less developed than those of humanity might acquire a moral sense, and that we see such a rudimentary moral sense in most social animals, which are forced by the circumstances of lives lived collectively to adopt some kind of pattern of behavior that makes it possible for group cohesion to continue.

There are many species of social animals that live in large groups that necessitate rules of social interaction. Indeed, we even know from paleontological evidence that some species of flying dinosaurs lived in crowded rookeries (there is fossil evidence for this at Loma del Pterodaustro in Argentina), so that we can derive the necessity of some form of social interaction among residents of the rookery. Many of these social animals have very little in the way of intellectual powers, such as in the case of social insects, but there are also many mammal species, all part of the same adaptive radiation of mammals that followed the extinction of the dinosaurs and of which we are a part, and constituting the sentience-rich biosphere that we have today. Social mammals add to the necessity of social rules for group interactions an overlay of emotive responses. Already in groups of social mammals, then, we begin to see a complex context of social interaction and emotional responses that cannot be isolated one from the other. With the emergence human intellectual capacity, another overlay makes this complex context of social interaction more tightly integrated and more subtle than in prior social species.

I call these deep evolutionary origins of human emotional responses to the world emotive naturalism, but I could just as well call it moral naturalism — or indeed, intellectual naturalism, because by the time human beings emerge in history emotions, morality, and cognition are all bound up in each other, and to isolate any one of these would be to falsify human experience.

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Being and Emotion

While the philosophy of emotion is usually discussed in terms of philosophy of mind or philosophical psychology, I usually view philosophical problems through the lens of metaphysics, and the active nature of defiance as a moral emotion gives us an especially interesting case for examining the nature of our emotional and moral being-in-the-world. This accords well with what Robert Solomon argued in the lectures cited above, which characterize emotions as engagements with the world. What is it to be engaged with the world?

My framework for thinking about metaphysics is a definition of being that goes back all the way to Plato, which I discussed in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being (and which I further elaborated in Agents and Sufferants). Plato held that being is the power to affect or to be affected, i.e., to act or to be acted upon. From this starting point we can extrapolate four forms be being, such that non-being is to neither act nor be acted upon, the fullness of being is to both act and be acted upon, while narrower forms of being involve acting only without being acted upon, or being acted upon only without acting. One may think of these four permutations of Plato’s definition of being as four modalities of engagement with the world.

An interesting example of metaphysical engagement with the world in terms of a moral emotion radically distinct from defiance is to be found with our engagements with the world mediated by love. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in Sermon 50 of his Sermons on the Song of Songs wrote, “Love can be a matter of doing or of feeling.” In other words, love can be active or passive, acting or being acted upon. St. Bernard goes on to give several illuminating examples that develop this theme.

How does the moral emotion of defiance specifically fit into this framework of engagements with the world? We typically employ the term “defiance” when an individual’s circumstances severely constrain their ability to respond, as was the case with Nadiya Savchenko, who was incarcerated and who therefore was prevented from the ordinary freedom of action enjoyed by those of us who are not incarcerated. Nevertheless, she was able to remain defiant even while in prison, and under such circumstances the emotion itself becomes a response. (The reader who is familiar with Sartre’s thought will immediately recognize the connection with Sartre’s theory of emotion; cf. The Emotions: Outline of a Theory) This may sound like a paltry form of “action,” but if it contributes to the differential survival of the individual, defiance has a selective advantage, as it almost certainly must. Defiant individuals have not given up, and they continue to fight despite constrained circumstances.

Nadiya Savchenko has now been freed from incarceration in Russia.

Nadiya Savchenko has now been freed from incarceration in Russia.

The Social Context of Defiance

The survival value of belief in one’s existential choices, which I discussed in Confirmation Bias and Evolutionary Psychology, is exemplified by defiance. Defiance, then, has the ultimate evolutionary sanction: it is a form of confirmation bias — belief in oneself, and in one’s own efficacy — that contributes to the individual’s differential survival. As such, defiance as a moral emotion is selected for and is likely disproportionately represented in human nature because of the selective advantage it possesses. As a feature of human nature, we must reckon with defiance as a socially significant emotion, i.e., an emotion that shapes not only individuals, but also societies.

While we do not often explicitly talk about the role of defiance in human motivation, I believe it is one of the primary springs to action in the human character. Looking back over a lifetime of conversations occurring in the ordinary business of life (for I am an old man now and I can speak in this idiom), I am struck by how often individuals express their displeasure at pressures being brought to bear upon them, and they usually respond by pushing back. This “pushing back” is defiance. Typically, the other side then pushes back in turn. This is the origin of tit-for-tat strategies. Individuals push back when pressured, as do social wholes and political entities. Those that push back most successfully, i.e., the most defiant among them, are those that are most likely to have descendants and to pass their defiance on to the next generation of individuals or social wholes.

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