three peaks 3

This post is intended as a quick addendum to my post The Apotheosis of Emergent Complexity, in which I considered, in turn, the respective peaks of star formation, life, and civilization during the Stelliferous Era, as exemplifying significant forms of emergent complexity in the universe.

peak 5

The apotheosis of emergent complexity recognized in that earlier post — when stars, life, and civilization are all represented — can be further narrowed in scope beyond the parameters I previously set. With the sole examples of ourselves as representing life and civilization, we can acknowledge a minimal form of the apotheosis of emergent complexity already extant, and as long as our civilization endures and continues in development it retains the possibility of seeing further emergent complexities arise. Among the further emergent complexities that could arise from terrestrial life and civilization is the possibility of this life and civilization expanding to other worlds. A simple expansion would represent the spatial and temporal extension of emergent complexity, but life and civilization almost certainly will be changed by their adaptation to other worlds, and this adaptive radiation on a cosmological scale may involve the emergence of further emergent complexity (in which case a fourth peak would need to be defined beyond stars, life, and civilization).

peak 6

An expansion of terrestrial life and civilization into the universe that constitutes an adaptive radiation on a cosmological scale, is an event that I have called the Great Voluntaristic Divergence (in Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation) — “great” because it takes place on a cosmological scale that dwarfs known adaptive radiations on Earth by many orders of magnitude, “voluntaristic” because both the direction and the nature of the radiation and the adaptation will be a function of conscious and intelligent choice, and “divergence” because different choices will lead to the realization of diverse forms of life and civilization not existing, and not possible, on Earth alone. We can think of the Great Voluntaristic Divergence as a “forcing” event for the principle of plenitude. I have noted previously that cosmology is the principle of plenitude teaching by example. When the principle of plenitude works at the scale of the cosmos and at the level of complexity of civilization, further emergent complexity may yet transform the universe.

peak 7

If we take the peak of emergent complexity as beginning with the Great Voluntaristic Divergence, this peak of emergent complexity so conceived will end with the End Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event (which I first formulated in my Centauri Dreams post Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica?). Once star formation ceases, the remaining stars will burn out one by one, and, as they wink out, the planetary surfaces on which they have been incubating life and civilizations will go dark. Any life or civilization that survives the coming darkness of the Degenerate Era, the Black Hole Era, and the Dark Era, will have to derive its energy flows from some source other than stellar energy flux concentrated on planetary surfaces, which I noted in my previous post, Civilizations of Planetary Endemism, typify the origins of civilizations during the Stelliferous Era.

peak 8

If life and civilization endure for so long as to confront the end of the Stelliferous Era, there will be plenty of time to prepare for alternative methods of harnessing energy flows. Moreover, I strongly suspect that the developmental course of advanced civilizations — the only kind of civilizations that could so endure — will experience demographic changes that will bring populations into equilibrium with their energy environment, much as we have seen birth rates plummet in advanced industrialized civilizations where scientific medicine reduces infant mortality, lengthens life, and increases the costs of child-rearing. When the End Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event is visited upon our distant descendants and their successor institution to civilization, their horizons will already have been altered to accommodate the change.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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planetary surfaces

During the Stelliferous Era planetary surfaces are uniquely suited for emergent complexity such as life and civilization. Planetary surfaces are by their nature complex, being the interface between planet and planetary atmosphere. Planetary surfaces are moreover a “Goldilocks” zone for energy flows during the Stelliferous Era; energy flows on stars themselves are too great for life, while energy flows in space (in the clouds of gas and dust that surround a star) are too little for life. Planetary surfaces, then, provide “just right” energy flows at the interface of atmospheric gases and the minerals constituting the planet. If emergent complexity is going to arise during the Stelliferous, it is going arise here, hence civilizations begin on planets.

That civilizations begin on planets during the Stelliferous Era has certain consequences. Civilizations originate at the bottom of a gravity well, and if they are to expand beyond a planetary surface, they must reach a level of technological sophistication adequate to lift off from its homeworld a demographically significant proportion of its population of the intelligent organism upon which the civilization supervenes. This is the first and the most significant of the horizons of spacefaring civilization, and the spacefaring horizon that provides the initial overview effect of the civilization’s homeworld.

What this means is that there is thus a natural tendency to planetary endemism among civilizations of the Stelliferous Era. In my posts on planetary constraints I outlined the limitations imposed upon a civilization the development of which is limited to the surface of a planet. These constraints include: 1. the spatial constraint, 2. the temporal constraint, 3. the gravitational constraint, 4. the agrarian constraint, 5. the population constraint, 6. the energy constraint, 7. the material constraint, 8. the ontic constraint, and 9. the endemic constraint. These constraints define the scope of the civilizations of planetary endemism.

A planetary civilization is the limit (and, some might argue, the telos) of planetary endemism. Let us define a planetary civilization as a single civilization uniquely determined by the biosphere of a single planet, which means that, for planetary civilizations, there is a one-to-one correspondence between civilizations and their homeworlds. (Here “planet” is to be understood in the broadest possible sense, including dwarf planets, moons, and so on.) In my post Origins of Globalization I argued that terrestrial civilization today is a planetary civilization (and I further commented on this in Civilization and Uniformity).

In the particular case of terrestrial civilization, a single planetary civilization has emerged from the concrescence of multiple civilizations formerly geographically isolated. Once we think of civilization in this schematic and formal way, at least some alternatives to the particular pattern of terrestrial development become obvious. For example, civilization might begin at a single geographical locus on a planet, and spread outward from there, rather than originating independently on multiple occasions. Even given these alternative pathways to planetary civilization, from the most formal perspective these are variations on a theme of planetary civilization, and the big picture distinctions we can make, and which we can expect to be exemplified in the case of other civilizations (if there are other civilizations), can be narrowed to a few classes. If we think of planetary civilization as a classification in a developmental account of civilization, other classifications naturally grow out of this idea. For example:

● Nascent Civilization What I have also called proto-civilization, are cultures on the verge of producing civilization, i.e., intelligent species at a level of social organization immediately anterior to the threshold of civilization. The Human World of the Upper Paleolithic frequently approximated nascent civilization.

● Developing Sub-planetary Civilization Before a civilization or civilizations reach their planetary limit, they may be called sub-planetary. A sub-planetary civilization still undergoing development, and retaining the capability to expanding to its planetary limit, is a developing sub-planetary civilization. As noted above, developing sub-planetary civilizations may be one or many prior to converging upon a planetary civilization.

● Arrested Sub-planetary Civilization A less-than-planetary civilization that has ceased in its development and so no longer retains the capability of expanding to its planetary limit may be called an arrested sub-planetary civilization. Arrested sub-planetary civilizations, which constitute instances of suboptimal civilization, and will eventually become extinct when planetary conditions eventually change beyond the ability of the civilization to adapt. A sub-planetary civilization is, by definition, a geographically regional civilization, so it is a civilization predicated upon the ecological conditions of a particular region of a planet, and is probably limited to inhabiting one or two biomes of its homeworld. This makes an arrested sub-planetary civilization especially vulnerable to extinction, and, in fact, many local civilizations in terrestrial history have gone extinct leaving no successor civilization (e.g., Minoan civilization, Nazca civilization, etc.).

● Developing Planetary Civilization A civilization that has reached the limits of its homeworld, and yet continues in its development, is a planetary civilization on the cusp of making the transition to becoming a spacefaring civilization. While such development might be cut short by the realization of some existential risk, there is nevertheless a distinction to be made between a planetary civilization in possession of the resources (potentially) to make the transition to spacefaring civilization, and a civilization that happens to reach the limits of its homeworld, but which has no hope of making the transition to spacefaring civilization.

● Arrested Planetary Civilization Arrested planetary civilizations, like arrested sub-planetary civilizations, are also a species of suboptimal civilization, and are also subject to inevitable extinction. However, arrested planetary civilizations are somewhat less vulnerable and more robust than arrested sub-planetary civilizations, since the ability to establish a planetary civilization means that transportation and communication networks unify the homeworld and the civilization in possession of such an infrastructure can compensate for regional ecological changes that could mean the end for a geographically regional civilization. Thus, in general, it is to be expected that arrested planetary civilizations can endure for a longer period of time than arrested sub-planetary civilizations, though a planetary civilization is, in turn, likely to endure for a shorter period of time than a spacefaring civilization, which latter possesses access to far greater resources and can achieve redundancy on a scale than no planetary civilization can achieve.

It is interesting to observe that a sub-planetary civilization might seek existential risk mitigation through redundancy by “seeding” copies of itself in different regions of its homeworld. How would we distinguish between such a project and more familiar categories of civilizational expansion or colonization? I will not attempt to answer this question at present. However, I will make the further observation that this approach to redundancy is closed off to any planetary civilization, whether arrested or still in the process of development.

Several of the terms I have employed here are admittedly rather awkward; my point is to try to capture the most general, “big picture” features of a civilization as we might observe its development from outside. For if SETI, in any of its forms, is eventually successful, we will be scientists of civilization looking from the outside in, and if there are many civilizations to be discovered, they will be roughly sortable into a handful of varieties. The varieties of civilization outlined above are based on the root idea of a planetary civilization, which is in turn based on the idea of the planetary endemism of civilizations, which is likely to be a feature of the Stellierous Era.

The argument implied in the above classification is that this classification possesses a certain conceptual naturalness as a consequence of its being rooted in structural features of the universe in which we happen to find ourselves. A different universe, or a different kind of universe, or a universe with a different natural history, might demand a scheme for the classification of any civilizations it hosted which differed from the above, which is an artifact of particular conditions. Thus if we depart sufficiently from the Stellierous Era, a different taxonomy for the classification of civilization may be necessary. For example, in the case of Degenerate Era civilizations, which would probably consist of civilizations descended with modification from civilizations of the Stellierous Era, the above scheme of classification would not likely be very helpful.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Saturn with astronaut

Our first view of Earth was from its surface; every other planet human beings eventually visit will be first perceived by a human being at a great distance, then from orbit, and last of all from its surface. We will descend from orbit to visit a new world, rather than, as on Earth, emerging from the surface of that world and, only later, much later, seeing it from orbit, and then as a pale blue dot, from a great distance.

With our homeworld, the effect of looking up from the surface of our planet precedes the overview effect; with every other world, the overview effect precedes the surface standpoint. We might call this the homeworld effect, which is a consequence of what I now call planetary endemism (and which, when I was first exploring the concept, I called planetary constraint). We have already initiated this process when human beings visited the moon, and for the first time in human history descended to a new world, never before visited by human beings. With this first tentative experience of spacefaring, humanity knows one world from its surface (Earth) and one world from above (the moon). Every subsequent planetary visit will increase the relative proportion of the overview effect in contradistinction to the homeworld effect.

In the fullness of time, our normative assumptions about originating on a plant and leaving it by ascending in to orbit will be displaced by a “new normal” of approaching worlds from a great distance, worlds perhaps first perceived as a pale blue dot, and then only later descending to familiarize ourselves with surface features. If we endure for a period of time sufficient for further human evolution under the selection pressure of spacefaring civilization, this new normal will eventually replace the instincts formed in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) when humanity as a species branched off from other primates. The EEA of our successor species will be spacefaring civilization and the many worlds to which we travel, and this experience will shape our minds as well, producing an evolutionary psychology adapted not to survival on the surface of a planet, but to survival on any planet whatever, or no planet at all.

The Copernican principle is the first hint we have of the mind of a species adapted to spacefaring. It is a characteristic of Copernicanism to call the perspective borne of planetary endemism, the homeworld effect, into question. We have learned that the Copernican principle continually unfolds, always offering more comprehensive perspectives that place humanity and our world in a context that subsumes our previous perspective. Similarly, the overview effect will unfold over the development of spacefaring civilization that takes human beings progressively farther into space, providing ever more distant overviews of our world, until that world becomes lost among countless other worlds.

In my Centauri Dreams post The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight, I discussed the possibility of further overview effects resulting from attaining ever more distant perspectives on our cosmic home — thus attaining an ever more rigorous Copernican perspective. For example, although it is far beyond contemporary technology, it is possible to imagine we might someday have the ability to go so far outside the Milky Way that we could see our own galaxy in overview, and point out the location of the sun in the Orion Spur of the Milky Way.

There is, however, another sense in which additional overview effects may manifest themselves in human experience, and this would be due less to greater technical abilities that would allow for further first person human perspectives on our homeworld and on our universe, and rather due more to cumulative human experience in space as a spacefaring civilization. With accumulated experience comes “know how,” expertise, practical skill, and intuitive mastery — perhaps what might be thought of as the physical equivalent of acculturation.

We achieve this physical acculturation to the world through our bodies, and we express it through a steadily improving facility in accomplishing practical tasks. One such practical task is the ability to estimate sizes, distances, and movements of other bodies in relation to our own body. An astronaut floating in space in orbit around a planet or a moon (i.e., on a spacewalk) would naturally (i.e., intuitively) compare himself as a body floating in space with the planet or moon, also a body floating in space. Frank White has pointed out to me that, in interviews with astronauts, the astronauts themselves have noted the difference between being inside a spacecraft and being outside on a spacewalk, when one is essentially a satellite of Earth, on a par with other satellites.

The human body is an imperfectly uniform, imperfectly “standard” standard ruler that we use to judge the comparative sizes of the objects around us. Despite its imperfection as a measuring instrument, the human body has the advantage of being more intimately familiar to us than any other measuring device, which makes it possible to achieve a visceral understanding of quantities measured in comparison to our own body. At first perceptions of comparative sizes of bodies in space would be highly inaccurate and subject to optical illusions and cognitive biases, but with time and accumulated experience an astronaut would develop a more-or-less accurate “feel” for the size of the planetary body about which he is orbiting. With accumulated experience one would gain an ability to judge distance in space by eye, estimate how rapidly one was orbiting the celestial body in question, and perhaps even familiarize oneself with minute differences in microgravity environments, perceptible only on an intuitive level below the threshold of explicit consciousness — like the reflexes one acquires in learning how to ride a bicycle.

This idea came to me recently as I was reading a NASA article about Saturn, Saturn the Mighty, and I was struck by the opening sentences:

“It is easy to forget just how large Saturn is, at around 10 times the diameter of Earth. And with a diameter of about 72,400 miles (116,500 kilometers), the planet simply dwarfs its retinue of moons.”

How large is Saturn? We can approach the question scientifically and familiarize ourselves with the facts of matter, expressed quantitatively, and we learn that Saturn has an equatorial radius of 60,268 ± 4 km (or 9.4492 Earths), a polar radius of 54,364 ± 10 km (or 8.5521 Earths), a flattening of 0.09796 ± 0.00018, a surface area of 4.27 × 1010 km2 (or 83.703 Earths), a volume of 8.2713 × 1014 km3 (or 763.59 Earths), and a mass of 5.6836 × 1026 kg (or 95.159 Earths) — all figures that I have taken from the Wikipedia entry on Saturn. We could follow up on this scientific knowledge by refining our measurements and by going more deeply in to planetary science, and this gives us a certain kind of knowledge of how large Saturn is.

Notice that the figures I have taken from Wikipedia for the size of Saturn notes Earth equivalents where relevant: this points to another way of “knowing” how large Saturn is: by way of comparative concepts, in contradistinction to quantitative concepts. When I read the sentence quoted above about Saturn I instantly imagined an astronaut floating above Saturn who had also floated above the Earth, feeling on a visceral level the enormous size of the planet below. In the same way, an astronaut floating above the moon or Mars would feel the smallness of both in comparison to Earth. This is significant because the comparative judgement is exactly what a photograph does not communicate. A picture of the Earth as “blue marble” may be presented to us in the same size format as a picture of Mars or Saturn, but the immediate experience of seeing these planets from orbit would be perceived very differently by an orbiting astronaut because the human body always has itself to compare to its ambient environment.

This is kind of experience could only come about once a spacefaring civilization had developed to the point that individuals could acquire diverse experiences of sufficient duration to build up a background knowledge that is distinct from the initial “Aha!” moment of first experiencing a new perspective, so one might think of the example I have given above as a “long term” overview effect, in contradistinction to the immediate impact of the overview effect for those who see Earth from orbit for the first time.

The overview effect over the longue durée, then, will continually transform our perceptions both by progressively greater overviews resulting from greater distances, and by cumulative experience as a spacefaring species that becomes accustomed to viewing worlds from an overview, and immediately grasps the salient features of worlds seen first from without and from above. In transforming our perceptions, our minds will also be transformed, and new forms of consciousness will become possible. This alone ought to be reason enough to justify human spaceflight.

The possibility of new forms of consciousness unprecedented in the history of terrestrial life poses an interesting question: suppose a species — for the sake of simplicity, let us say that this species is us, i.e., humanity — achieves forms of consciousness through the overview effect cultivated in the way I have described here, and that these forms of consciousness are unattainable prior to the broad and deep experience of the overview effect that would characterize a spacefaring civilization. Suppose also, for the sake of the argument, that the species that attains these forms of consciousness is sufficiently biologically continuous that there has been no speciation in the biological sense. There would be a gulf between earlier and later iterations of the same species, but could we call this gulf speciation? Another way to pose this question is to ask whether there can be cognitive speciation. Can a species at least partly defined in terms of its cognitive functions be said to speciate on a cognitive level, even when no strictly biological speciation has taken place?

I will not attempt to answer this question at present — I consider the question entirely open — but I would like to suggest that the idea of cognitive speciation, i.e., a form of speciation unique to conscious beings, is deserving of further inquiry, and should be of special interest to the field of cognitive astrobiology.

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The Overview Effect

The Epistemic Overview Effect

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Perspective Taking

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

The Human Overview

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

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

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Civilizations of Planetary Endemism

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Grand Strategy Annex

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David Christian and Stephen Jay Gould on Complexity

The development of the universe as we have been able to discern its course by means of science reveals a growth of emergent complexity against a background of virtually unchanging homogeneity. Some accounts of the universe emphasize the emergent complexity, while other accounts emphasize the virtually unchanging homogeneity. The school of historiography we now call Big History focuses on the emergent complexity. Indeed, Big Historians, most famously David Christian, employ a schematic hierarchy of emergent complexity for a periodization of the history of the universe entire.

David Christian, the best known figure in Big History, emphasizes emergent complexity over cosmological scales of time.

David Christian, the best known figure in Big History, emphasizes emergent complexity over cosmological scales of time.

In contradistinction to the narrative of emergent complexity, Stephen Jay Gould frequently emphasized the virtually unchanging homogeneity of the world. Gould argued that complexity is marginal, perhaps not even statistically significant. Life is dominated by the simplest forms of life, from its earliest emergence to the present day. Complexity has arisen as an inevitable byproduct of the fact that the only possible development away from the most rudimentary simplicity is toward greater complexity, but complexity in life remains marginal compared to the overwhelming rule of simplicity.

When we have the ability to pursue biology beyond Earth, to de-provincialize biology, as Carl Sagan put it, this judgment of Gould is likely to be affirmed and reaffirmed repeatedly, as we will likely find simple life to be relatively common in the universe, but complexity will be rare, and the more life we discover, the less that complex life will represent of the overall picture of life in the universe. And what Gould said of life we can generalize to all forms of emergent complexity; in a universe dominated by hydrogen and helium, as it was when it began with the big bang, the existence of stars, galaxies, and planets scarcely registers, and 13.7 billion years later the universe is still dominated by hydrogen and helium.

Stephen Jay Gould characterized emergent complexity as the 'long tail' of a right-skewed distribution that distracts us from the vast bulk of simple life.

Stephen Jay Gould characterized emergent complexity as the ‘long tail’ of a right-skewed distribution that distracts us from the vast bulk of simple life.

Here is how Gould characterized the place of biological complexity in Full House, his book devoted to an exposition of life shorn of any idea of a trend toward progress:

“I do not deny the phenomenon of increased complexity in life’s history — but I subject this conclusion to two restrictions that undermine its traditional hegemony as evolution’s defining feature. First, the phenomenon exists only in the pitifully limited and restricted sense of a few species extending the small right tail of a bell curve with an ever-constant mode at bacterial complexity — and not as a pervasive feature in the history of most lineages. Second, this restricted phenomenon arises as an incidental consequence — an ‘effect,’ in the terminology of Williams (1966) and Vrba (1980), rather than an intended result — of causes that include no mechanism for progress or increasing complexity in their main actions.”

Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, 1996, p. 197

And Gould further explained the different motivations and central ideas of two of his most influential books:

Wonderful Life asserts the unpredictability and contingency of any particular event in evolution and emphasizes that the origin of Homo sapiens must be viewed as such an unrepeatable particular, not an expected consequence. Full House presents the general argument for denying that progress defines the history of life or even exists as a general trend at all. Within such a view of life-as-a-whole, humans can occupy no preferred status as a pinnacle or culmination. Life has always been dominated by its bacterial mode.”

Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, 1996, p. 4

Gould’s work is through-and-through permeated by the Copernican principle, taken seriously and applied systematically to biology, paleontology, and anthropology. Gould not only denies the centrality of human beings to any narrative of life, he also denies any mechanism that would culminate in some future progress of complexity that would be definitive of life. Gould conceived a biological Copernicanism more radical than anything imagined by Copernicus or his successors in cosmology.

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Emergent Complexity during the Stelliferous Era

How are we to understand the cohort of emergent complexities of which we are a part and a representative, and therefore also possess a vested interest in magnifying the cosmic significance of this cohort? Our reflections on emergent complexity are reflexive (as we are, ourselves, an emergent complexity) and thus are non-constructive in the sense of being impredicative. Perhaps the question for us ought to be, how can we avoid misunderstanding emergent complexity? How are we to circumvent our cognitive biases, which, when projected on a cosmological scale, result in errors of a cosmological magnitude?

Emergent complexities represent the “middle ages” of the cosmos, which first comes out of great simplicity, and which will, in the fullness of time, return to great simplicity. In the meantime, the chaotic intermixing of the elements and parts of the universe can temporarily give rise to complexity. Emergent complexity does not appear in spite of entropy, but rather because of entropy. It is the entropic course of events that brings about the temporary admixture that is the world we know and love. And entropy will, in the same course of events, eventually bring about the dissolution of the temporary admixture that is emergent complexity. In this sense, and as against Gould, emergent complexity is a trend of cosmological history, but it is a trend that will be eventually reversed. Once reversed, once the universe enters well and truly upon its dissolution, emergent complexities will disappear one-by-one, and the trend will be toward simplicity.

We can't simply take the thresholds of emergent complexity recognized in Big History and reverse them in order to obtain the future history of the universe.

We can’t simply take the thresholds of emergent complexity recognized in Big History and reverse them in order to obtain the future history of the universe.

One could, on this basis, complete the sequence of emergent complexity employed in Big History by projecting its mirror image into the future, allowing for further emergent complexities prior to the onset of entropy-driven dissolution, except that the undoing of the world will not follow the same sequence of steps in reverse. If the evolution of the universe were phrased in sufficiently general terms, then certainly we could contrast the formation of matter in the past with the dissolution of matter in the future, but matter will not be undone by the reversal of stellar nucleosynthesis.

The Structure of Emergent Complexity

Among the emergent complexities are phenomena like the formation of stars and galaxies, and nucleosynthesis making chemical elements and minerals possible. But as human beings the emergent complexities that interest us the most, perhaps for purely anthropocentric reasons, are life and civilization. We are alive, and we have built a civilization for ourselves, and in life and civilization we see our origins and our end; they are the mirror of human life and ambition. If we were to find life and civilization elsewhere in the universe, we would find a mirror of ourselves which, no matter how alien, we could see some semblance of a reflection of our origins and our end.

Recognizable life would be life as we know it, as recognizable civilization would be civilization as we know it, presumably following from life as we know it. Life, i.e., life as we know it, is predicated upon planetary systems warmed by stars. Thus it might be tempting to say that the life-bearing period of the cosmos is entirely contained within the stelliferous, but that wouldn’t be exactly right. Even after star formation ceases entirely, planetary systems could continue to support life for billions of years yet. And, similarly, even after life has faded from the universe, civilization might continue for billions of years yet. But each development of a new level of emergent complexity must await the prior development of the emergent complexity upon which it is initially contingent, even if, once established in the universe, the later emergent complexity can outlive the specific conditions of its emergence. This results in the structure of emergent complexities not as a nested series wholly contained within more comprehensive conditions of possibility, but as overlapping peaks in which the conditio sine qua non of the later emergent may already be in decline when the next level of complexity appears.

The Ages of Cosmic History

In several posts — Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica? and A Brief History of the Stelliferous Era — I have adopted the periodization of cosmic history formulated by Adams and Greg Laughlin, which distinguishes between the Primordial Era, the Stelliferous Era, the Degenerate Era, the Black Hole Era, and the Dark Era. The scale of time involved in this periodization is so vast that the “eras” might be said to embody both emergent complexity and unchanging homogeneity, without favoring either one.

The Primordial Era is the period of time between the big bang and when the first stars light up; the Stelliferous Era is dominated by stars and galaxies; during the Degenerate Era it is the degenerate remains of stars that dominate; after even degenerate remains of stars have dissipated only massive black holes remain in the Black Hole Era; after even the black holes dissipate, it is the Dark Era, when the universe quietly converges upon heat death. All of these ages of the universe, except perhaps the last, exhibit emergent complexity, and embrace a range of astrophysical processes, but adopting such sweeping periodizations the homogeneity of each era is made clear.

Big History’s first threshold of emergent complexity corresponds to the Primordial Era, but the remainder of its periodizations of emergent complexity are all entirely contained within the Stelliferous Era. I am not aware of any big history periodization that projects the far future as embraced by Adams and Laughlin’s five ages periodization. Big history looks forward to the ninth threshold, which comprises some unnamed, unknown emergent complexity, but it usually does not look as far into the future as the heat death of the universe. (The idea of the “ninth threshold” is a non-constructive concept, I will note — the idea that there will be some threshold and some new emergent complexity, but even as we acknowledge this, we also acknowledge that we do not know what this threshold will be, nor do we known anything of the emergent complexity that will characterize it). Another periodization of comparable scale, Eric Chaisson’s decomposition of cosmic history into the Energy Era, the Matter Era, and the Life Era, cut across Adams and Laughlin’s five ages of the universe, with the distinction between the Energy Era and the Matter Era decomposing the early history of the universe a little differently than the distinction between the Primordial Era and the Stelliferous Era.

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Peak Stelliferous

The “peak Stelliferous Era,” understood as the period of peak star formation during the Stelliferous Era, has already passed. The universe as defined by stars and galaxies is already in decline — terminal decline that will end in new stars ceasing the form, and then the stars that have formed up to that time eventually burning out, one by one, until none are left. First the bright blue stars will burn out, then the sun-like stars, and the dwarf stars will outlast them all, slowly burning their fuel for billions of years to come. That is still a long time in the future for us, but the end of the peak stelliferous is already a long time in the past for us.

In the paper The Complete Star Formation History of the Universe, by Alan Heavens, Benjamin Panter, Raul Jimenez, and James Dunlop, the authors note that the stellar birthrate peaked between five and eight billion years ago (with the authors of the paper arguing for the more recent peak). Both dates are near to being half the age of the universe, and our star and planetary system were only getting their start after the peak stelliferous had passed. Since the peak, star formation has fallen by an order of magnitude.


The paper cited above was from 2004. Since then, a detailed study star formation rates was widely reported in 2012, which located the peak of stellar birthrates about 11 billion years ago, or 2.7 billion years after the big bang, in which case the greater part of the Stelliferous Era that has elapsed to date has been after the peak of star formation. An even more recent paper, Cosmic Star Formation History, by Piero Madau and Mark Dickinson, argues for peak star formation about 3.5 billion years after the big bang. What all of these studies have in common is finding peak stellar birthrates billions years in the past, placing the present universe well after the peak stelliferous.

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Peak Life

A recent paper that was widely noted and discussed, On The History and Future of Cosmic Planet Formation by Peter Behroozi and Molly Peeples, argued that, “…the Universe will form over 10 times more planets than currently exist.” (Also cf. Most Earth-Like Worlds Have Yet to Be Born, According to Theoretical Study) Thus even though we have passed the peak of the Stelliferous in terms of star formation, we may not yet have reached the peak of the formation of habitable planets, and population of habitable planets must peak before planets actually inhabited by life as we know it can peak, thereby achieving peak life in the universe.

The Behroozi ane Peeples paper states:

“…we note that only 8% of the currently available gas around galaxies (i.e., within dark matter haloes) had been converted into stars at the Earth’s formation time (Behroozi et al. 2013c). Even discounting any future gas accretion onto haloes, continued cooling of the existing gas would result in Earth having formed earlier than at least 92% of other similar planets. For giant planets, which are more frequent around more metal-rich stars, we note that galaxy metallicities rise with both increasing cosmic time and stellar mass (Maiolino et al. 2008), so that future galaxies’ star formation will always take place at higher metallicities than past galaxies’ star formation. As a result, Jupiter would also have formed earlier than at least ~90% of all past and future giant planets.”

We do not know the large scale structure of life in the cosmos, whether in terms of space or time, so that we are not at present in a position to measure or determine peak life, in the way that contemporary science can at least approach an estimate of peak stelliferous. However, we can at least formulate the scientific resources that would be necessary to such a determination. The ability to take spectroscopic readings of exoplanet atmospheres, in the way that we can now employ powerful telescopes to see stars throughout the universe, would probably be sufficient to make an estimate of life throughout the universe. This is a distant but still an entirely conceivable technology, so that an understanding of the large scale structure of life in space and time need not elude us perpetually.

Even if life exclusively originated on Earth, the technological agency of civilization may engineer a period of peak life that follows long after the possibility of continued life on Earth has passed. Life in possession of technological agency can spread itself throughout the worlds of our galaxy, and then through the galaxies of the universe. But peak life, in so far as we limit ourselves to life as we know it, must taper off and come to an end with the end of the Stelliferous Era. Life in some form may continue on, but peak life, in the sense of an abundance of populated worlds of high biodiversity, is a function of a large number of worlds warmed by countless stars throughout our universe. As these stars slowly use up their fuel and no new stars form, there will be fewer and fewer worlds warmed by these stars. As stars go cold, worlds will go cold, one by one, throughout the universe, and life, even if it survives in some other, altered form, will occupy fewer and fewer worlds until no “worlds” in this sense remain at all. This inevitable decline of life, however abundantly or sparingly distributed throughout the cosmos, eventually ending in the extinction of life as we know it, I have called the End Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event (ESMEE).

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Peak Civilization

If we do not know when our universe will arrive at a period of peak life, even less do we know the period of peak civilization — whether it has already happened, whether it is right now, right here (if we are the only civilization the universe, and all that will ever be, then civilization Earth right now represents peak civilization), or whether peak civilization is still to come. We can, however, set parameters on peak civilization as we can set parameters on peak star formation of the Stelliferous Era and peak life.

The origins of civilization as we know it are contingent upon life as we known it, and life as we known it, as we have seen, is a function of the Stelliferous Era cosmos. However, civilization may be defined (among many other possible definitions) as life in possession of technological agency, and once life possesses technological agency it need not remain contingent upon the conditions of its origins. Some time ago in Human Beings: A Solar Species I addressed the idea that humanity is a solar species. Descriptively this is true at present, but it would be a logical fallacy to conflate the “is” of this present descriptive reality with an “ought” that prescribes out dependence upon our star, or even upon the system of stars that is the Stelliferous Era.

Civilization need not suffer from the End Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event as life must inevitably and eventually suffer. It could be argued that civilization as we know it (and, moreover, as defined above as “life in possession of technological agency”) is as contingent upon the conditions of the Stelliferous Era as is life as we known it. If we focus on the technological agency rather than upon life as we known it, even the far future of the universe offers amazing opportunities for civilization. The energy that we now derive from our star and from fossil fuels (itself a form of stored solar energy) we can derive on a far greater scale from angular momentum of rotating black holes (not mention other exotic forms of energy available to supercivilizations), and black holes and their resources will be available to civilizations even beyond the Degenerate Era following the Stelliferous Era, throughout the Black Hole Era.

Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin's five ages of the universe.

Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin’s five ages of the universe.

In Addendum on Degenerate Era Civilization and Cosmology is the Principle of Plenitude teaching by Example I considered some of the interesting possibilities remaining for civilization during the Degenerate Era, and I pushed this perspective even further in my long Centauri Dreams post Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica?

It is not until the Dark Era that the universe leaves civilization with no extractable energy resources, so that, if we have not by that time found our way to another, younger universe, it is the end of the Black Hole Era, and not the end of the Stelliferous Era, that will spell the doom of civilization. As black holes fade into nothingness one by one, much like stars at the end of the Stelliferous Era, the civilizations dependent upon them will wink out of existence, and this will be the End Civilization Mass Extinction Event (ECMEE) — but only if there is a mass of civilizations at this time to go extinct. This would mark the end of the apotheosis of emergent complexity.

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The Apotheosis of Emergent Complexity

We can identify a period of time for our universe that we may call the apotheosis of emergent complexity, when stars are still forming, though on the decline, civilizations are only beginning to establish themselves in the cosmos, and life in the universe is at its peak. During this period, all of the forms of emergent complexity of which we are aware are simultaneously present, and the ecologies of galaxies, biospheres, and civilizations are all enmeshed each in the other.

It remains a possibility, perhaps even a likelihood, that further, unsuspected emergent complexities will grace the universe before its final dissolution in a heat death when the universe will be reduced to the thermodynamic equilibrium, which is the lowest common denominator of existence as we know it. Further forms of emergent complexity would require that we extend the framework I have suggested here, but, short of a robust and testable theory of the multiverse, which would extend the emergent complexity of stars, life, and civilizations to universes other than our own, the basic structure of the apotheosis of emergent complexity should remain as outlined above, even if extended by new forms.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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An official photograph of Kim Jong-un from a KCNA on 'WPK Central Committee Issues Order to Conduct First H-Bomb Test'

An official photograph of Kim Jong-un from a KCNA on ‘WPK Central Committee Issues Order to Conduct First H-Bomb Test’

An official announcement has been made that North Korea has successfully tested an H-Bomb; global response to this announcement has been both skeptical and critical. Here (in part) is the official announcement from the English language version of KCNA (Korean Central News Agency, run by the DPRK) from DPRK Proves Successful in H-bomb Test:

The first H-bomb test was successfully conducted in Juche Korea at 10:00 on Wednesday, Juche 105 (2016), pursuant to the strategic determination of the WPK. Through the test conducted with indigenous wisdom, technology and efforts the DPRK fully proved that the technological specifications of the newly developed H-bomb for the purpose of test were accurate and scientifically verified the power of smaller H-bomb. It was confirmed that the H-bomb test conducted in a safe and perfect manner had no adverse impact on the ecological environment. The test means a higher stage of the DPRK’s development of nuclear force.

It is thought unlikely that North Korea has the technological and engineering expertise to produce an H-bomb, but it is generally conceded that this is nevertheless possible, and, if the announcement is true, it is an unwelcome development that has already been officially denounced by the UN Security Council. Nation-states skeptical of the H-bomb claim made by North Korea have already moved to condemn the development, just in case it may be true.

There are good reasons for skepticism in the international community. Not only are the seismic signatures of the test smaller than would be expected from an H-bomb, but North Korea has a long history of bluster regarding its weapons systems. The DPRK relies as much on the bluster as on the weapons systems themselves for deterrent effect.

In How Scientists Know the North Korea Blast Probably Wasn’t an H-Bomb: It’s too similar to earlier explosions. we read regarding the DPRK nuclear weapon test:

“An actual hydrogen bomb has a seismic signature similar to an atomic weapon’s. But its explosive yield is in the much larger megaton range. It’s more likely North Korea ‘turbo-charged’ a normal atomic explosion by adding a small amount of tritium to the bomb’s core rather than inventing a miniature hydrogen bomb from scratch.”

There are several separable issues in this paragraph that should be distinguished. Miniaturization of a nuclear device is distinct from the capability of building the device, although the more progress a nation-state makes in miniaturization, the better the weaponization of a ballistic missile (another technology that North Korea has been pressing to develop). There is a first threshold of a nuclear device small enough to be delivered by an ICBM, and a second threshold of miniaturization when MIRVed ICBMs become possible. But presumably the reference to a “miniature” hydrogen bomb refers to the small size of the seismic signature and the DPRK’s own reference to the test being of a “smaller H-bomb.” A smaller fusion device is a greater technical and engineering challenge to build, but it does not require a distinct design (i.e., inventing from scratch). There have been several disputed nuclear tests (particularly those conducted by Pakistan) upon which nuclear scientists disagree whether the tests were “fizzles” or whether a more severe test was purposefully conducted in order to obtain a more rigorous result. Until actual test data are made publicly available (not likely for a hundred years or more) we cannot know the answer to this question, and we similarly cannot know the answer in relation to the DPRK tests.

In regard to what this article refers to as a “turbo-charged” fission device, boosted fission weapons are an important aspect of nuclear technology that any aspiring nuclear weapons power would want to master. It is entirely possible that North Korea’s most recent nuclear test is a boosted fission device that is more powerful than an unboosted fission device but less powerful than a “true” fusion device, and indeed there is a sense in which even “true” fusion devices are boosted fission bombs, as much of the yield even from a Teller-Ulam configuration device is from boosted fission, although the term “true” H-bomb is usually reserved for a fully scalable two-stage device.

As for inventing a hydrogen bomb from scratch, if Ulam and Sakharov could each independently converge upon essentially the same design sixty years ago, there is no reason that a North Korean nuclear scientist could not come up with essentially the same design again from “scratch” — except that is isn’t from scratch. Once the idea has had its proof of concept and everyone knows it can be built, it is only a question of whether a nation-state is going to invest the resources into building such a device.

The first Soviet fusion device was also controversial in its time: the US was skeptical that the Soviets had the technology and expertise to build a fusion device, and indeed the first Soviet fusion device was not a “true” fusion device like the Ivy Mike test of the US, but was rather Sakharov’s “sloika” or “layer cake” design — more powerful than a simple fission device, but less powerful than the first fusion device detonated by the US. But the Soviets rapidly closed the gap, and Sakharov eventually hit on the same design that Stanislaw Ulam had earlier and independently arrived at in the US.

The technology of an H-bomb is significantly more challenging than that of an A-bomb. To produce a simple fission weapon it is only necessary to possess a sufficient quantity of fissionable material and bring this material together into a critical mass. The basic idea is simple, though the engineering challenge is still difficult. While quite a few details of A-bomb design are available in open sources, exact details necessary to building a successful device are classified secrets of all nuclear weapons powers. A simple gun-type device achieves critical mass by using an explosive charge to rapidly drive together to sub-critical masses into a single critical mass (this is the design of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima). A more difficult design to master is an implosion device, in which critical mass is achieved by a symmetrical implosion of concentrically layered fissionables (this is the design of the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagisaki).

Constructing an H-bomb requires mastery of an implosion-type fission device that is used to trigger the more powerful fusion device. As with fission weapons, all the design ideas of fusion devices are available in open sources, and the only difficulty in constructing such a device is, firstly, obtaining the fissionables for the fission trigger, and, secondly, mastering the engineering details of compressing the fusion secondary by means of the fission trigger. We know that North Korea can produce a fission weapon, likely of an implosion type, so it is really only a matter of engineering before the North Koreans are able to employ their fission weapon technology to produce a fusion device. All of this requires time and effort and a dedicated work force, but there is nothing in principle secret about the production of an H-bomb.

In Weapons Systems in an Age of High Technology: Nothing is Hidden I emphasized, even in a time of escalating state security and the culture of the universal surveillance state, that there are no secrets in high technology weapons systems. High technology weapons systems are a function of advanced science and an industrial base that allows for the large scale application of scientific ideas in military technologies. Science itself functions through openness, so that the ideas behind even the most well-guarded weapons programs are developed out in the open, as it were.

Even if the largest and most powerful nation-states attempted to create a small cadre of scientists to develop new science in secret, this closed community would be out-paced in its scientific development by the open community of scientific researchers. It is almost impossible — not entirely impossible, but almost — to make high technology weaponry derived from “secret” scientific advances that cannot be bettered by weaponry designed and built on the principles of publicly available science. This is a reality of industrial-technological civilization that we cannot wish away. At a time when science was the province of isolated geniuses and no political entity in existence had a fully industrialized infrastructure, a secret weapon like Greek Fire could be maintained in secrecy for hundreds of years, but this is no longer the world that we live in.

The technology of the H-bomb is now more than sixty years old. If we consider the pace of technological change in other fields, sixty years is like ancient history, so we should not be surprised when sixty year old technology is developed by poor and backward nation-states. In the early and remarkably prescient anthology ONE WORLD or NONE: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb Oppenheimer’s contribution noted that one of the effects of nuclear weapons was to make destruction far cheaper than in the past:

“In this past war it cost the United States about $10 a pound to deliver explosive to an enemy target. Fifty thousand tons of explosive would thus cost a billion dollars to deliver. Although no precise estimates of the costs of making an atomic bomb equivalent to 50,000 tons of ordinary explosive in energy release can now be given, it seems certain that such costs might be several hundred times less, possibly a thousand times less. Ton for equivalent ton, atomic explosives are vastly cheaper than ordinary explosives. Before conclusions can be drawn from this fact, a number of points must be looked at. But it will turn out that the immediate conclusion is right: Atomic explosives vastly increase the power of destruction per dollar spent, per man-hour invested; they profoundly upset the precarious balance between the effort necessary to destroy and the extent of the destruction.”

ONE WORLD or NONE: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb, Edited by Dexter Masters and Katharine Way, 1946, “The New Weapon: The Turn of the Screw,” J. Robert Oppenheimer, p. 24

Oppenheimer’s observation remains true seventy years later, and what it means today is that even one of the most impoverished and mismanaged economies on the planet can afford to build nuclear weapons. Most nation-states do not build nuclear weapons because of the international pressure not to do so, but rogue states or pariahs of the international community are unconcerned about their standing among other nation-states, and pursue nuclear weapons programs in spite of sanctions and disapproval, valuing military power over international reputation.

In terms of international reputation, North Korea does not even scruple to offend its single ally and sponsor, China, and to do so at the expense of pet projects of the regime. The members of Moranbong Band, reportedly hand-picked by Kim Jong-un, canceled their first scheduled international concert in Beijing and returned to North Korea (North Korean pop band cancels Beijing concert, leaves for home) because the North Koreans would not remove images of North Korean missile launches from videos to be projected during their performance (cf. Kim Jong Un Spurns Xi’s Efforts to Bring Him in From the Cold by David Tweed), but probably also because North Korea knew that China would strongly object to their nuclear test.

Whether or not the North Koreans can build a “true” fusion device at present, whether or not they were lying about their nuclear test, is beside the point. What is relevant is that they have an active nuclear weapons research project and intend to continue with the development of nuclear weapons until they possess a credible nuclear deterrent as the ultimate expression of regime survivability. We can count on the DPRK continuing their development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and eventually even submarine-launched ballistic missiles. All of these are difficult and expensive yet decades old technologies that can eventually be mastered by a determined nation-state.

We know that the North Korean regime cannot survive indefinitely, because tyranny cannot endure, but we also know that tyranny always fails but democracy does not always prevail. While it is difficult to imagine that what follows the North Korean regime could be worse, China can easily imagine this: millions of North Koreans fleeing over the border and destabilizing parts of China, and eventually a unified Korea that is an ally of the US sharing a border with China. In this, the Chinese and the North Koreans can agree, as for both the “nightmare” scenario is regime collapse that destabilizes Chinese and ends in the removal of the ruling elite in North Korea. The “nightmare” scenario for Seoul and its allies is a North Korean nuclear strike against South Korea, Japan, or the US mainland.

Given the North Korean regime’s dedication to assuring its own survival through the possession of a nuclear deterrent (an imperative shared by the Communist Party elites in China), the interesting question is not the details of the present state of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, but whether the North Korean regime can persist for a period of time sufficient to produce a truly robust and viable strategic deterrence, complete with MIRVed SLBMs. If the North Koreans can attain this level of technologically sophisticated deterrence within the next few decades, even if the regime fails (as with the Soviet Union) the successor power will still retain a powerful bargaining chip, and can present itself as Putin’s Russia today presents itself: as a world power, even if a world power of questionable stability. The privileged political and military families that run the country today could then count on retaining at least a part of their privileges for their descendants. If, on the other hand, the DPRK collapses ignominiously before converging upon a viable strategic deterrence, South Korea will likely manage the transition, privileged families will lose all of their power, and South Korea will almost certainly completely dismantle the strategic defense programs of the North Korean regime. Nothing will remain of the DPRK, under this scenario, except for the stories of the horrors of its rule.

The generals running the country, who present themselves in public as dutifully taking notes while the “Dear Leader” dispenses his wisdom, are looking out for themselves and their heirs. In any transition, the ruling Kim family will lose its position. The excesses of a dictatorship, then, are borne as the opportunity cost of ensuring the ongoing power and privileges of a ruling elite regardless of the details of the transition of power when the North Korean regime inevitably fails and falls. The military and their cronies in business and government are prepared to hang on to power for the long term, as they have seen similarly entrenched elites hang on to power in nation-states like Egypt, which have passed through revolution and regime change with little underlying change.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Can long vanished civilizations be made to live again through recovery, reconstitution, or reconstruction?

Can long vanished civilizations be made to live again through recovery, reconstitution, or reconstruction?


As an addendum to my On the Longevity of Submerged Civilizations I am going to here lay out some terminological conventions that I will observe in future discussions of civilization, and especially in relation to submerged, suboptimal, lapsed, or otherwise failed civilizations. I am calling these “terminological conventions” because the science of civilization is yet in its nascent state, and not only will others use these terms differently, but the concepts for which the terms are here used are unfamiliar and will not be generally recognized.

In particular, I will try to describe the difference between the recovery of a civilization, the reconstitution of a civilization, and the reconstruction of a civilization. In the concluding remarks below we will see how these concepts are related to the existential status of a given civilization, and how each is related to the other by incremental gradations.

The recovery of a submerged civilization may take the form of an insurgency, or even a non-violent campaign, to end a colonial regime which has overlain its civilizational template over the endemic civilization.

The recovery of a submerged civilization may take the form of an insurgency, or even a non-violent campaign, to end a colonial regime which has overlain its civilizational template over the endemic civilization.


The term “recovery,” as in “recovered civilization,” I will use to describe the full restoration of a civilization that has been submerged or otherwise in abeyance for a period of time, but has never fully failed or been entirely extirpated, which upon its recovery returns the civilization to active participation in history in actual fact, and primarily for the peoples who were the original source of the civilization. (It might also be interesting to consider the possibility of the recovery of endemic civilizations for non-endemic populations.)

There are several problematic instances of recovery; it is difficult to point to an unambiguous example that captures the concept in its strongest form. I previously cited the partial recovery of Mayan civilization as the Mayan peoples of Mesoamerican, who have kept alive the spoken language and many of the cultural traditions of ancient Maya civilization, having now been given the written language and the history of Mayan civilization through the resources of scientific archaeology, as an instance of long-term submergence and recovery. The reader could formulate the objections to this as easily as I could. There is also the example of colonialized civilizations in Africa and Asia. One could argue that colonization isn’t a submergence as much as it is a temporary bureaucratic overlay of the colonizing civilization.

The re-assertion of the rights of indigenous peoples, once dismissed as savages possessing no civilization, could be understood as the first stages in the recovery of a range of traditional civilizations that nearly vanished under the unstoppable tide of modernism and industrialism. Industrialization occurred so rapidly in many parts of the world that traditional civilizations had no time to gradually fade, but appeared to be catastrophically swept away. In at least some cases, rather than being swept away these traditional civilizations were submerged, and some of these submerged civilizations may experience a limited recovery.

Purposeful reconstitution in the future is likely to make use of cryopreservation technologies.

Purposeful reconstitution in the future is likely to make use of cryopreservation technologies.


The term “reconstitution,” as in “reconstituted civilization,” I will use to describe the attempt to completely recreate in actual fact a vanished civilization of the past that has completely lapsed and no longer exists even in submerged form. In the case of reconstitution, a civilization has passed the point of possible recovery (in the sense used above) and must be counted as having failed decisively. A reconstituted civilization is a civilization brought back from the dead. Little reflection is needed to see that there are many interesting problems involved in this concept, first of all whether it is even possible.

I do not know of a single example of a reconstituted civilization, or even of a single thorough-going attempt to reconstitute any civilization. The idea is included here for the sake of completeness, and because I intend to develop this idea in much greater detail in the future. I have a lot of notes on the reconstitution of civilization that I hope to turn into a paper or into a long blog post. The idea is particularly relevant for the future of terrestrial life and civilization in the cosmos. Of the short list of possible strategies for interstellar expansion without spacecraft capable of relativistic speeds, along with robotic probes (“Bracewell probes”) and generation ships, there is the possibility of reconstitution. That is to say, a spacecraft could be sent to a distant world without any living beings other than frozen or otherwise preserved cells, and upon arrival at the destination terrestrial life would be reconstituted. The accounts of such missions usually fail to note that not only must human beings and their food sources be reconstituted, but their civilization must also be reconstituted.

If such a spacecraft took tens of thousands of years to reach its destination, the source civilization would almost certainly have lapsed, so that the reconstitution of the civilization would be a “classic” reconstitution scenario of a failed civilization. However, there are some very interesting insights that can be derived from treating this mission structure as a thought experiment. It would be entirely possible to reconstitute a civilization at a distance while the original civilization was still in existence. However, the reconstitution would be of an earlier stage of the civilization of source, so that the civilization of source will have presumably continued in its development, and perhaps it will even have evolved into some other kind of civilization, so that the reconstitution of an earlier state of that civilization still represents the reconstitution of a now-vanished civilization.

Another possible consequence is that a civilization that produces such a mission may have failed at its source, but is reconstituted at a new location, and in this sense lives again and is no longer a failed civilization. If this process is iterated, one can imagine a series of reconstituted civilizations, each reproducing the original civilization of source, and doing so ad infinitum, so that new iterations of this civilization are always appearing somewhere in the universe — perhaps even multiple representatives at any one time — so that this civilization continues to produce copies of itself. Of such a civilization, even if every individual instance ultimately and eventually fails, it could be said that the civilization on the whole could continue in this way indefinitely, and must then be accounted the most successful of civilizations, in so far as it never entirely goes extinct. It would be a reasonable question in this context to ask whether the mission was a method for the reconstitution of the civilization, or whether the civilization was a method for the reconstitution of the mission (and I hope that the reader will understand the relevance of this to Richard Dawkins’ conception of the “selfish gene”).

Historical reconstruction may take the form of experimental archaeology, as in this reconstruction of a medieval castle by authentic methods at Guédelon.

Historical reconstruction may take the form of experimental archaeology, as in this reconstruction of a medieval castle by authentic methods at Guédelon.


The term “reconstruction,” as in “reconstructed civilization,” I will use to describe the scientific delineation of a vanished civilization of the past, pursued for scientific purposes, i.e., pursued for the sake of scientific knowledge and understanding. As with reconstitution, reconstruction concerns failed civilizations that are beyond the possibility of recovery. However, instead of seeking to revivify a failed civilization, a reconstructed civilization is an intellectual exercise in understanding and does not, generally speaking, seek to bring back a failed civilization.

This is a fairly conventional sense of “reconstruction” as employed by historians and archaeologists in the study of past civilizations. Archaeologists do not concern themselves with the recovery of submerged civilizations or the reconstitution of failed civilizations; their concern is the assemble all available evidence concerning a civilization of the past and to bring that civilization alive again in the mind the scholar, and not in actual fact. However, there are extensions of historiography and archaeology that do involve a limited reconstruction in actual fact, as in experimental archaeology and historical reenactment, which will be considered further below in the concluding remarks.

Minoan civilization may have been brought to a sudden end by the Thera eruption, but most civilizations linger on in a twilight, during which it is difficult to judge whether that civilization is living or dead.

Minoan civilization may have been brought to a sudden end by the Thera eruption, but most civilizations linger on in a twilight, during which it is difficult to judge whether that civilization is living or dead.

Concluding Remarks

A civilization might be definitively and decisively brought to a sudden end by a catastrophe of sufficient magnitude, but civilization-ending catastrophes are uncommon (there is the possibility that Minoan civilization was brought to an end by the Thera eruption), while much more common are civilizations that yield slowly to the ravages of time — so slowly that it may be extremely difficult to choose even a symbolic date for the termination of a civilization. The lingering of decaying civilizations results in several ambiguities in the recovery, reconstitution, and reconstruction of civilizations.

In the definitions above of recovery, reconstitution, and reconstruction the distinction is made between civilizations living and dead, but this distinction, crucial to the definitions, is by no means absolute. As implied in my post on the longevity of submerged civilizations, a civilization might lie dormant in submergence only to be later brought out of dormancy. But how long can this dormant period in submergence go on? One can readily see that the longer a civilization is held in abeyance by adverse circumstances, the more is lost. At some point (and this involves a sorites paradox) a submerged civilization becomes unrecoverable. But it would be unlikely that this transition is a matter of a black-or-white distinction. There is probably an extended period of time during which a civilization is partially recoverable, so that the resultant civilization is part recovery and part reconstitution.

The incremental gradation between civilizations living and dead introduces an incremental gradation between recovery and reconstitution, which are distinguished by the attempt to return to life a submerged civilization and a lapsed civilization, respectively. There is also a gray area between reconstitution and reconstruction. Archaeological reconstructions of vanished civilizations of the past may involve experimental archaeology, which is, in effect, a strictly limited form of the reconstitution of a civilization. Open air museums, such as I described in The Technology of Living, sometimes have working farms with individuals living the historical roles (at least part-time) required for this kind of experimental archaeology. This is generally called historical reenactment, which is also used to describe the reenactment of particular historical battles, or even the reenactment of particular forms of combat, outside the context of a particular battle. The latter is the case with the reenactment of medieval combat, which I discussed in Falling in Love with Medieval Armed Combat.

The project of attempting to recover a submerged civilization may seek the resources of scientific historiography and archaeology in order to better understand those elements of a submerged civilization that have suffered the greatest degradation over time, so that even between recovery and reconstruction there are graded degrees of separation that may be more or less close or distant. A scientific reconstruction of a civilization may be undertaken in the purest expression of disinterested knowledge, or it may be undertaken with the ulterior motive of the reconstruction being useful to the recovery of a civilization understood as a political project. Politically motivated historiography and archaeology are relatively commonplace in a scientific civilization still captive to nationalism and ethnocentrism, which is the reality of the world we live in today.

What I have written here in regard to civilization may be equally well applied to any of that cohort of emergent complexity we know from Earth: geology, biology, intelligence, technology. The more we focus on the natural history end of this continuum the more difficult it may be to see the applicability of recovery, reconstitution, and reconstruction to geology, for example, though in the distant future we may possess the technological agency to reconstitute worlds in various stages of development. Indeed, one can imagine virtual reconstitutions in computer simulations as being nearly within our present technological ability. With human artifacts like technology it is a bit easier to imagine the parallels of technological recovery, technological reconstitution, and technological reconstruction.

Also, what I have written here in regard to vanished civilizations of the past may be extrapolated to nascent civilizations of the future. In Experimental Archaeology of the Future and Portraying the Future: ‘Historical Pre-Enactment’ I discussed displacing experimental archaeology and historical reenactment into the future. In so far as these are tools of reconstruction, and in so far as reconstruction in related to recovery (as a project of politicized science) and reconstitution (as also being concerned with definitively failed civilizations), there may be a way to formulate the above concepts in a way that is as relevant to the future of civilization as to the past of civilization. I have not yet attempted this formulation, but will save this as an inquiry for a future time.

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Toynbee imagined a counter-factual in which Christian worship was forced underground in a civilization dominated by Vikings. This illustration of the worship of the Idol of Storjunkar is from Johannes Gerhard Scheffer's Lapponia: The History of Lapland, 1673.

Toynbee imagined a counter-factual in which Christian worship was forced underground in a civilization dominated by Vikings. This illustration of the worship of the Idol of Storjunkar is from Johannes Gerhard Scheffer’s Lapponia: The History of Lapland, 1673.

How long can a civilization be submerged and still be recovered or reconstituted as a viable project? At what point do we pass beyond the possibility of the recovery or reconstitution of a submerged civilization and the attempt at recovery is rather a reconstruction that must inevitably involve the interpolation of novel elements that were no part of the original civilization?

What do I mean by a submerged civilization? When a smaller or less powerful civilization is overwhelmed by a larger or more powerful civilization and the former is entirely assimilated to the latter, one of two things can happen: 1) the assimilated civilization is lost for good, or 2) the assimilated civilization is “submerged,” that is to say, essential elements of the civilization are preserved but are forced underground, perhaps to be cultivated in secrecy and silence, or perhaps to be mostly forgotten until the appropriate opportunity arises, when conditions are right for the submerged civilization to reassert itself.

One might also assimilate civilizational dark ages to the submergence of a civilization, although in the case of dark ages a civilization has been submerged without some other civilization being the cause of this submergence but is, rather, submerged by non-civilization, or by a lower state of development of the submerged civilization itself. An account of submerged civilizations could be given in terms of submergent properties, which are an expression of negative organicism. Under conditions of submergence, those vital properties of a civilization are submerged while its essential properties may remain unchanged.

Toynbee, in the first volume of his A Study of History, gives us a fantastic depiction of counter-factual submerged civilization:

“If Christendom had succumbed to the Vikings — falling under their dominion and failing to convert them to its faith — we can imagine the Mass being celebrated mysteriously for centuries in the underworld of a new society in which the prevailing religion was the worship of Aesir. We can imagine this new society, as it grew to full stature, failing to find satisfaction in the religion of Scandinavian barbarians and seeking the bread of spiritual life in the soil on which the new society had come to rest. In such a spiritual famine the remnant of an older religion, instead of being stamped out as our Western society stamped out witchcraft when it caught the attention of the church, might have been rediscovered as a hidden treasure; and some religious genius might have met the needs of his age by an exotic combination of the submerged Christian rite with latter-day barbarian orgies derived from the Finns or the Magyars.”

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume I, I “Introduction,” C “The Comparative Study of Civilizations,” I “A Survey of Societies of the Species,” (b), p. 99

Toynbee’s choice for a submerged civilization is an interesting one, as in Toynbee’s scenario the agent of submergence is the civilization that was in fact submerged by western Christendom, viz. Viking civilization. (Of course, the early Christians did practise their religion in semi-secrecy during the persecutions, but this was a secret practice of a nascent movement building in strength, not a formerly powerful faith forced underground.)

Civilization in the western hemisphere is particularly rich in submerged civilizations because of the nature and the character of the Spanish (and Portuguese) conquest of Spanish America. Large numbers of native peoples were subjugated by a relatively small number of Spaniards, which meant that the practical details of administering the new Spanish empire in the Americas had to be delegated to native representatives. Moreover, the Spanish routinely took wives and concubines from the native populations and thus rapidly created a Mestizo population that inherited the culture both of their mothers and their fathers. In this cultural mix a civilization submerged by conquest might be readily kept alive just below the surface of daily life.

Implicit in the idea of a submerged civilization is the possibility of its re-emergence, when the submerged tradition is recovered and returned to the world as a living tradition. A paradigm case of a submerged civilization would involve its re-emergence from a continuous but hidden tradition, so that it is understood that the submerged civilization had gone into hiding during times of adverse conditions, but was sufficiently robust to return to the light of day when those conditions changed.

Implicit in the idea of a civilization re-emergent is the original question above, with which I began: how long can a civilization be submerged and still retain the essential identity of its traditions so that its recovery is not an ex post facto artificial reconstitution? This question in turn implies the question of how a distinction is to be made between the recovery of a civilization and the reconstitution of a civilization. There are several ways this distinction might be made, presumably contingent upon some continuous living tradition essential to that civilization, whether the language, come cultural practice, or the maintenance of some essential idea. Ideally, we ought to adduce examples of both recovered and reconstituted civilization for purposes of comparison.

Does terrestrial history provide a single example of the unambiguous recovery of civilization? Probably not. There are possible instances that might be cited, but all are ambiguous or problematic. It is arguable that Indian civilization was submerged during the colonial period, and reemerged following decolonization. Similar claims could be made for most of the colonized regions of the world. The Soviet Union during its expansionary phase imposed Soviet Civilization throughout geographically contiguous lands, submerging the endemic civilizations of these regions. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, these peoples rapidly threw off the remnants of Soviet Civilization and returned to their traditions as though the Soviet period had been a bad dream.

This suggests a general rule: wherever there is a failed civilization, there is the possibility of a predecessor civilization or civilizations being reasserted. This general rule suggests further possibilities. For example, a Suboptimal Civilizations would be an obvious candidate where a strong but submerged civilization might break through again to the surface (cf. also Addendum on Suboptimal Civilizations). Another example would be nascent civilizations not yet fully asserting their authority over subject populations, or a decrepit civilization near the end of its powers. The failure of the pagan civilization of classical antiquity, in the face of an emergent Christian tradition coming into the fullness of its powers, may be taken as an example of the latter.

Rather than “pure” forms of submergence and re-emergence, mostly what we have seen is descent with modification, and that modification has always been sufficient to constitute a new species of civilization, rather than a recovery or reconstitution of the old civilization. But if a new civilization has some continuity with a predecessor civilization, and carries this tradition forward under changed conditions, this may be the only circumstance in which a civilizational tradition experiences continuity.

Perhaps the closest we have to a concrete example of the long-term submergence of a civilization which was eventually re-asserted is that of Mayan civilization. When the Spanish arrived in the New World the Mayan civilization was already effectively over, with only a few remaining pockets still active, while the greatest Mayan centers had already been abandoned and reclaimed by the tropical rainforest of Mesoamerica — the common fate of Civilizations of the Tropical Rainforest Biome when they fail. Nevertheless, due in part to conditions cited above, Mayan culture and language remained strong among the Mayan people. In Mesoamerica, the majority population to this day remains predominantly native, which increases the likelihood of the survival of a submerged civilization. The (partial) reconstitution of Mayan civilization is happening in our own time, as the record of the Mayan civilization has been painstakingly reassembled by the methods of scientific archaeology, and subsequently re-introduced to the peoples who have retained in living memory the language and the culture. In the documentary Breaking the Maya Code, a fascinating account of deciphering the Mayan written language, there is a remarkable coda in which Mayan peoples are reintroduced to their history, read off from deciphered monuments. The Mayan peoples of Mesoamerica, with their language intact and their history rediscovered, are in a position to take their reconstituted tradition into the future and to give the Mayan civilization a second chance.

The problem of recovered and reconstituted civilizations after a submergence event may be assimilated to the more general problem of the effacement of history that I began to address in History Effaced. Most historical effacement leaves an unrecognized absence that is passed over in silence; the Stalinist re-writing of history, in which individuals who had fallen out of favor were literally painted out of official pictures, aimed at this kind of historical effacement as an ideal. In order for us to understand that an effacement of history has taken place, we must be aware of the ellipsis, and this awareness is the first step toward recovery or reconstitution.

The problem of historical effacement is more general than the above problem of civilizational submergence, because effacement occurs throughout historically sedimented knowledge and is not confined to civilization. Nevertheless, these reflections on the submergence of civilization may have some relevance for the recovery and reconstitution of effaced history of all kinds. And vice versa. As the historical sciences explicitly seek a reconstruction of the lost past, so too a science of civilization might explicitly seek a reconstruction of lost civilizations, which suggests the possibility of giving a systematic account of the relations between recovery, reconstitution, and reconstruction. But that will be an inquiry for another time.

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Worship of an idol of Thor.

Worship of an idol of Thor.

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Origins of Globalization

20 December 2015



The politics of a word

It is unfortunate to have to use the word “globalization,” as it is a word that rapidly came into vogue and then passed out of vogue with equal rapidity, and as it passed out of vogue it had become spattered with a great many unpleasant associations. I had already noted this shift in meaning in my book Political Economy of Globalization.

In the earliest uses, “globalization” had a positive connotation; while “globalization” could be used in an entirely objective economic sense as a description of the planetary integration of industrialized economies, this idea almost always was delivered with a kind of boosterism. One cannot be surprised that the public rapidly tired of hearing about globalization, and it was perhaps the sub-prime mortgage crisis that delivered the coup de grâce.

In much recent use, “globalization” has taken on a negative connotation, with global trade integration and the sociopolitical disruption that this often causes blamed for every ill on the planet. Eventually the hysterical condemnation of globalization will go the way of boosterism, and future generations will wonder what everyone was talking about at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. But in the meantime the world will have been changed, and these future generations will not care about globalization only because process converged on its natural end.

Despite this history of unhelpful connotations, I must use the word, however, because if I did not use it, the relevance of what I am saying would probably be lost. Globalization is important, even if the word has been used in misleading ways; globalization is a civilizational-level transformation that leaves nothing untouched, because at culmination of the process of globalization lies a new kind of civilization, planetary civilization.

I suspect that the reaction to “planetary civilization” would be very different from the reactions evoked by “globalization,” though the two are related as process to outcome. Globalization is the process whereby parochial, geographically isolated civilizations are integrated into a single planetary civilization. The integration of planetary civilization is being consolidated in our time, but it has its origins about five hundred years ago, when two crucial events began the integration of our planet: the Copernican Revolution and the Columbian exchange.

Copernicus continues to shape not only how we see the universe, but also our understanding of our place within it.

Copernicus continues to shape not only how we see the universe, but also our understanding of our place within it.

The Copernican Revolution

The intellectual basis of of our world as a world, i.e., as a planet, and as one planet among other planets in a planetary system, is the result of the Copernican revolution. The Copernican revolution forces us to acknowledge that the Earth is one planet among planets. The principle has been extrapolated so that we eventually also acknowledged that the sun is one star among stars, our galaxy is one galaxy among galaxies, and eventually we will have to accept that the universe is but one universe among universes, though at the present level of the development of science the universe defines the limit of knowledge because it represents the possible limits of observation. When we will eventually transcend this limit, it will be due not to abandoning empirical evidence as the basis of science, but by extending empirical evidence beyond the limits observed today.

As one planet among many planets, the Earth loses its special status of being central in the universe, only to regain its special status as the domicile of an organism that can uniquely understand its status in the universe, overcoming the native egoism of any biological organism that survives first and asks questions later. Life that begins merely as self-replication and eventually adds capacities until it can feel and eventually reason is probably rare in the universe. The unique moral qualities of a being derived from such antecedents but able to transcend the exigencies of the moment is the moral legacy of the Copernican Revolution.

As the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, the Copernican Revolution is also part of a larger movement that would ultimately become the basis of a new civilization. Industrial-technological civilization is a species of scientific civilization; it is science that provides the intellectual infrastructure that ties together scientific civilization. Science is uniquely suited to its unifying role, as it constitutes the antithesis of the various ethnocentrisms that frequently define pre-modern forms of civilization, which thereby exclude even as they expand imperially.

Civilzation unified sub specie scientia is unified in a way that no ethnic, national, or religious community can be organized. Science is exempt from the Weberian process of defining group identity through social deviance, though this not well understood, and because not well understood, often misrepresented. The exclusion of non-science from the scope of science is often assimilated to Weberian social deviance, though it is something else entirely. Science is selective on the basis of empirical evidence, not social convention. While social convention is endlessly malleable, empirical evidence is unforgiving in the demarcation it makes between what falls within the scope of the confirmable or disconfirmable, and what falls outside this scope. Copernicus began the process of bringing the world entire within this scope, and in so doing changed our conception of the world.

An early encounter between the New World and the Old.

An early encounter between the New World and the Old.

The Columbian Exchange

While the Copernican Revolution provided the intellectual basis of the unification of the world as a planetary civilization, the Columbian Exchange provided the material and economic basis of the unification of the world as a planetary civilization. In the wake of the voyages of discovery of Columbus and Magellan, and many others that followed, the transatlantic trade immediately began to exchange goods between the Old World and the New World, which had been geographically isolated. The biological consequences of this exchange were profound, which meant that the impact on biocentric civilization was transformative.

We know the story of what happened — even if we do not know this story in detail — because it is the story that gave us the world that we know today. Human beings, plants, and animals crossed the Atlantic Ocean and changed the ways of life of people everywhere. New products like chocolate and tobacco became cash crops for export to Europe; old products like sugar cane thrived in the Caribbean Basin; invasive species moved in; indigenous species were pushed out or become extinct. Maize and potatoes rapidly spread to the Old World and became staple crops on every inhabited continent.

There is little in the economy of the world today that does not have its origins in the Columbian exchange, or was not prefigured in the Columbian exchange. Prior to the Columbian exchange, long distance trade was a trickle of luxuries that occurred between peoples who never met each other at the distant ends of a chain of middlemen that spanned the Eurasian continent. The world we know today, of enormous ships moving countless shipping containers around the world like so many chess pieces on a board, has its origins in the Age of Discovery and the great voyages that connected each part of the world to every other part.

earthlights - nasa picture from space

Defining planetary civilization

In my presentation “What kind of civilizations build starships?” (at the 2015 Starship Congress) I proposed that civilizations could be defined (and given a binomial nomenclature) by employing the Marxian distinction between intellectual superstructure and economic infrastructure. This is why I refer to civilizations in hyphenated form, like industrial-technological civilization or agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. The first term gives the economic infrastructure (what Marx also called the “base”) while the second term gives the intellectual superstructure (which Marx called the ideological superstructure).

In accord with this approach to specifying a civilization, the planetary civilization bequeathed to us by globalization may be defined in terms of its intellectual superstructure by the Copernican revolution and in terms of its economic infrastructure by the Columbian exchange. Thus terrestrial planetary civilization might be called Columbian-Copernican civilization (though I don’t intend to employ this name as it is not an attractive coinage).

Planetary civilization is the civilization that emerges when geographically isolated civilizations grow until all civilizations are contiguous with some other civilization or civiliations. It is interesting to note that this is the opposite of the idea of allopatric speciation; biological evolution cannot function in reverse in this way, reintegrating that which has branched off, but the evolution of mind and civilization can bring back together divergent branches of cultural evolution into a new synthesis.

globalization 1

Not the planetary civilization we expected

While the reader is likely to have a different reaction to “planetary civilization” than to “globalization,” both are likely to be misunderstood, though misunderstood in different ways and for different reasons. Discussing “planetary civilization” is likely to evoke utopian visions of our Earth not only intellectually and economically unified, but also morally and politically unified. The world today is in fact unified economically and, somewhat less so, intellectually (in industrialized economies science has become the universal means of communication, and mathematics is the universal language of science), but unification of the planet by trade and commerce has not led to political and moral unification. This is not the planetary civilization once imagined by futurists, and, like most futurisms, once the future arrives we do not recognize it for what it is.

There is a contradiction in the contemporary critique of globalization that abhors cultural homogenization on the one hand, while on the other hand bemoans the ongoing influence of ethnic, national, and religious regimes that stand in the way of the moral and political unification of humankind. It is not possible to have both. In so far as the utopian ideal of planetary civilization aims at the moral and political unification of the planet, it would by definition result in a cultural homogenization of the world far more destructive of traditional cultures than anything seen so far in human civilization. And in so far as the fait accompli of scientific and commercial unification of planetary civilization fails to develop into moral and political unification, it preserves cultural heterogeneity.

Incomplete globalization, incomplete planetary civilization

The process of globalization is not yet complete. China is nearing the status of a fully industrialized economy, and India is making the same transition, albeit more slowly and by another path. The beginnings of the industrialization of Africa are to be seen, but this process will not be completed for at least a hundred years, and maybe it will require two hundred years.

Imperfect though it is, we have today a planetary civilization (an incomplete planetary civilization) as the result of incomplete globalization, and that planetary civilization will continue to take shape as globalization runs its course. When the processes of globalization are exhausted, planetary civilization will be complete, in so far as it remains exclusively planetary, but if civilization makes the transition to spacefaring before the process of globalization is complete, our civilization will assume no final (or mature) form, but will continue to adapt to changed circumstances.

From these reflections we can extrapolate the possibility of distinct large-scale structures of civilizational development. Civilization might transition from parochial, to planetary, and then to spacefaring, not making the transition to the next stage until the previous stage is complete. That would mean completing the process of globalization and arriving at a mature planetary civilization without developing a demographically significant spacefaring capacity (this seems to be our present trajectory of development). Alternatively, civilizational development might be much more disorderly, with civilizations repeatedly preempted as unprecedented emergents derail orderly development.

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Peak Labor

16 December 2015


Boissard, Jean Jacques: Emblematum Liber (1593)

Jean Jacques Boissard, Emblematum Liber (1593)

I have often said that the most expensive commodity in an industrialized economy is human labor. While generally true, this is a claim that admits of many exceptions, and, as I have come to see, these exceptions are likely to increase over time until the exception becomes the rule and our perspective is transformed by changed circumstances. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I have also often said that a civilization can be defined (at least in part) by the particular set of problems that it engenders, and that once a civilization lapses, its problems disappear with in and new problems arise from the changed civilization that supplants the old civilization. Another way to express the same idea would be to say that civilization can be defined by its particular disconnects — i.e., the particular pattern of ellipses that persists in our thought, against all apparent reason — and this in turn suggests an even better formulation, by defining civilization in terms of both its unique set of “connects,” if you will, and its disconnects, i.e., the particular patterns of foci and ellipses that together constitute the conceptual infrastructure of a civilization (or, if you like, the logical geography that defines the epistemic space of a civilization; on logical geography cf. the quote from Donald Davidson in Epistemic Space).

In several posts I have examined some fundamental problems (which I have also called fundamental tensions) in our civilization, as well as major disconnects in our thought. In regard to fundamental tensions, in The Fundamental Tension of Scientific Civilization I wrote that science within scientific civilization will become politicized, but those scientific civilizations most likely to remain viable are those that are best able to resist this inevitable politicization, and I recently returned to this idea in Parsimony in Copernicus and Osiander and suggested that another fundamental tension is that between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism, i.e., scientific method exists in an uneasy partnership with scientific realism.

In regard to disconnects, in A Philosophical Disconnect I observed a disconnect between political philosophy and philosophy of law, which disciplines ought to be tightly integrated, since in our society law is the practical implementation of political ideals, and in Another Disconnect I observed a disconnect between accounting and economics, which again ought to be tightly integrated as accounting is the practical implementation of economics.

Another important disconnect has only just now occurred to me, and this is a disconnect that we see today in the conceptualization of the labor market. The disconnect is between the theoretical explanation of technological unemployment on the one hand, and on the other hand the increasing employment insecurity (therefore existential precarity in industrial-technological civilization) among many classes of workers today, and the failure to see that the two are linked. In other words, there is a disconnect between the theory and practice of technological unemployment.

In several posts, both on this blog and my other blog, I have examined the question of technological unemployment. These posts include (but are not limited to):

Automation and the Human Future

Addendum on Automation and the Human Future

“…a temporary phase of maladjustment…”

Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment in the Transportation Sector

Technological Unemployment and the Future of Humanity

Addendum on Technological Unemployment

It would be best, in a discussion of technological unemployment, to avoid the facile question of is-it-or-isn’t-it happening. There is no question that changing technology changes the economy, and changes in the economy result in changes in the labor market. The relevant question is whether technological changes create new jobs elsewhere. But even this is a relatively shallow perspective, that carries with it assumptions about the role of labor in social stability. But social stability is an illusion — an illusion sustained by our perspective on history, which is parochial and relative to the individual’s perception of time.

As every prospectus always says, “Past Performance is Not Necessarily Indicative of Future Results.” As with investments, so too with the labor market, which has changed radically over time, and, the larger the sample of time we take, the more radical the change. Because of our innate human biases we tend to think of anything persisting throughout our lifetime as permanent, but the contemporary institutions of the labor market did not even exist a hundred years ago, and it is at least arguable that no concept of “labor” as such existed a thousand years ago. Labor as a factor of production, along with land and capital, is a venerable formula, but the formula itself is younger than the industrial revolution.

Rather than be surprised that macroscopic change takes place over macroscopic historical scales, we should expect it, and our experience of industrialization — itself only about two hundred years old — and the ability of industrialization to continually revolutionize production, should suggest to us that we continue to live in the midst of a revolution in which change is the only constant. The labor market will not be exempted from this change. The truly interesting questions are how the labor market will change, and how these changes will interact with the larger social context in which labor occurs.

One macroscopic structure that we are likely to see in the labor market over historical time is something that I will call peak labor. As an industrialized economy develops through its initial stages that drives up the cost of labor that only human beings can perform, but then eventually passes a technological threshold allowing most forms of human labor to be replaced by machine labor, such an economy will pass through a stage of “Peak Labor,” that is to say, a period when human labor is the most expensive commodity in the economy, after which point labor begins to decrease in value. As machine equivalents to human labor tend to zero over the long term (the very long term), human labor as a factor of production will also tend to zero. Human beings will continue to engage in activities that could be called “labor” if we continue to use the term, but the sense of wage labor as a factor of production is a strictly limited historical phenomenon.

Having learned from past experience that, in making any prediction, the assumption will be that some transformation is “right around the corner,” and we had better not blink or we might miss it, I must hasten to add that we are not going to see the value of human labor in the labor market tend to zero tomorrow, next year, in ten years, or even in twenty years. But what we will see are subtle signs in the economy that labor is not what it used to be. We are already seeing this in the gradual phasing out of defined benefit retirement plans, the decrease in lifetime employment, and the increase of temporary employment.

As non-traditional and unconventional forms of labor very slowly grow in their representation in relation to the total labor market, traditional and conventional forms of labor will shrink in relative terms as constituents of the labor market. This process has already begun, but because this process is slow and gradual, and some individuals are not affected in the slightest, with many traditional forms of employment continuing for the foreseeable future, the process is not recognized for what it is. And this is a fundamental disconnect for our industrial-technological civilization, for which, as I have elsewhere observed on many occasions, the problem of employment is one of the central and integral tensions of economic activity.

When wage labor eventually entirely disappears, no one will notice and no one will mourn, because the problem of employment is linked to a particular kind of civilization, and when the problem of employment disappears this will mean that a different form of civilization will have supplanted that in which employment is a fundamental tension intrinsic to that particular form of social organization. The form of social organization that supplants industrialism will not be without fundamental tensions, but it will have different problems and tensions than those which concern us today.

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Transcendental Humors

4 December 2015


Portrait of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) by Daniel Dumonstier, around 1578.

Portrait of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) by Daniel Dumonstier, around 1578.

In the last of his essays, essay XIII of Book III, “Of Experience,” Montaigne wrote:

“The mind has not willingly other hours enough wherein to do its business, without disassociating itself from the body, in that little space it must have for its necessity. They would put themselves out of themselves, and escape from being men. It is folly; instead of transforming themselves into angels, they transform themselves into beasts; instead of elevating, they lay themselves lower. These transcendental humours affright me, like high and inaccessible places; and nothing is hard for me to digest in the life of Socrates but his ecstasies and communication with demons; nothing so human in Plato as that for which they say he was called divine; and of our sciences, those seem to be the most terrestrial and low that are highest mounted; and I find nothing so humble and mortal in the life of Alexander as his fancies about his immortalisation.”

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Essays, Book III, “Of Experience”

In writing of “transcendental humors” Montaigne has brilliantly co-opted the medieval physiology of “humors” and gone beyond it even while employing a language that his readers would have immediately recognized. In this passage Montaigne has managed to transcend his era even while employing the language and the concepts of his time.

In medieval western medicine it was believed that the body possessed four “vital humors” including blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. This was not only a medical idea, but also a psychological idea, as differences in temperament were ascribed to an excess or deficiency of a given humor. We retain traces of these ideas in our language, as when we describe an individual as “sanguine” or “phlegmatic.” These humors were human, all-too-human. This may sound a bit strange, but if the medieval imagination had comprised the possibility other beings on other worlds, it seems likely that such an imagination would have posited other, alien humors that would have determined both the physical constitution and mental temperament of these other beings, and speculation on the character of ETI would have taken the form of suggesting what other kinds of humors there might possibly be.

It is possible that we, too, may be able to transcend the limits of our time even while continuing to employ the familiar linguistic and conceptual infrastructure that is as deeply embedded in contemporary history as Montaigne’s linguistic and conceptual infrastructure was deeply embedded in the thought of his time. It is an uncommon insight, but not an impossible insight, that throws away the ladder after having climbed up the same.

Perhaps this passage from Montaigne so appeals to me because it is so similar to my own way of thought. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote (in section 572):

Biology of religion.–The more human, all-too-human a given phenomenon, the more certain it is to be called sacred or holy.

It almost sounds as though I am purposefully paraphrasing Montaigne, but when I wrote this I was not familiar with the passage from Montaigne quoted above.

One might well be accused of a “category error” to study religion in terms of biology, though in recent years this has become much more common, as quite a number of books on the evolutionary psychology of religion have appeared, though we can see above the idea is already present in Montaigne, and it occurs throughout Nietzsche, even if it is not as explicit there as we would hope, and Nietzsche lacked the detailed scientific background that would have made it possible for him to fully appreciate, and to fully develop, the idea.

We are now getting to the point at which such ideas can be formulated explicitly and given clear and unambiguous scientific content. But our linguistic and conceptual infrastructure, while it provides the basis of the possibility of our intellectual development and progress, remains limited, and moments of great insight are necessary to transcend the prejudices of our age and to begin to comprehend the ideas that, some hundreds of years from now, our descendants will be able to formulate in an explicit way.

Perhaps it is better for us at the present time that we cannot yet formulate our most elusive ideas explicitly. I am reminded of a passage from H. P. Lovecraft that I recently quoted in The Cosmos Primeval:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu,” first paragraph

Lovecraft was half right, but he (like many others) failed to see, or refused to acknowledge (perhaps in Lovecraft it follows from a matter of principle), the possibility of progress in knowledge. While it is true that some go mad and some flee, while others exist on the cusp and madness and sanity, still others are able to look squarely at terrifying vistas of reality and to stare into the face of Medusa without turning to stone.

We are always engaged in the business of slowly and painstakingly assembling dissociated bits of knowledge into a larger and more comprehensive scheme, even if we are not aware that our thirst for comprehension and clarity (which thirst must certainly be accounted among the transcendental humors) is pushing us toward a revelation for which we are not prepared. Most this occurs on an historical scale of time, so that the frightening outlines of the world to come is only discerned dimly by us, and, as Lovecraft implied, this may be a mercy. But every once in a while, under the influence of especially strong transcendental humors, we may find ourselves suddenly face-to-face with the Medusa, quite unexpectedly. Such moments are definitive.

I have often quoted a passage from Kurt Gödel (most recently in Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress) about the possibility of progress in knowledge:

“Turing… gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”

“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306.

Without any intention of belittling Gödel, it is perhaps worthwhile to note in this context that Gödel himself lived on the verge of madness, and that his mental health deteriorated to the point that he essentially starved himself to death, like some western equivalent of an Indian Yogi (or, if you prefer, a starving Buddha, representations of which always have the same haunted eyes that one sees in the photographs of the logician). One can imagine Montaigne transported into another place or time, writing essays on Gödel or a starving Buddha, neither of which he ever encountered, but each of which I think would have piqued his interest, as they represent those transcendental humors that have both plagued humanity with self-imposed ascetic rigors and which have equally advanced civilization in the most unexpected ways.

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godel and buddha

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