3 December 2016
Last month, November 2016, marked the eight year anniversary for this blog. My first post, Opening Reflection, was dated 05 November 2008. Since then I have continued to post, although less frequently of late. I have become much less interested in tossing off a post about current events, and more interested in more comprehensive and detailed analyses, though blog posts are rarely associated with comprehensivity or detail. But that’s how I roll.
It is interesting that we have two distinct and even antithetical metaphors to identify non-trivial modes of thought. I am thinking of “dig deep” or “drill down” on the one hand, and, on the other hand, “overview” or “big picture.” The two metaphors are not identical, but each implies a particular approach to non-triviality, with the former implying an immersion in a fine-grained account of anything, while the latter implies taking anything in its widest signification.
Ideally, one would like to be both detailed and comprehensive at the same time — formulating an account of anything that is, at once, both fine-grained and which takes the object of one’s thought in its widest signification. In most cases, this is not possible. Or, rather, we find this kind of scholarship only in the most massive works, like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or Mario Bunge’s Treatise on Basic Philosophy. Over the past hundred years or so, scholarship has been going in exactly the opposite direction. Scholars focus on a particular area of thought, and then produce papers, each one of which focuses even more narrowly on one carefully defined and delimited topic within a particular area of thought. There is, thus, a great deal of very detailed scholarship, and less comprehensive scholarship.
Previously in Is it possible to specialize in the big picture? I considered whether it is even possible to have a scholarly discipline that focuses on the big picture. This question is posed in light of the implied dichotomy above: comprehensivity usually comes at the cost of detail, and detail usually comes at the cost of comprehensivity.
Another formulation of this dichotomy that brings out other aspects of the dilemma would to ask if it is possible to be rigorous about the big picture, or whether it is possible to be give a detailed account of the big picture — a fine-grained overview, as it were? I guess this is one way to formulate my ideal: a fine-grained overview — thinking rigorously about the big picture.
While there is some satisfaction in being able to give a concise formulation of my intellectual ideal — a fine-grained overview — I cannot yet say if this is possible, or if the ambition is chimerical. And if the ambition for a fine-grained overview is chimerical, is it chimerical because finite and flawed human beings cannot rise to this level of cognitive achievement, or is it chimerical because it is an ontological impossibility?
While an overview may necessarily lack the detail of a close and careful account of anything, so that the two — overview and detail — are opposite ends of a continuum, implying the ontological impossibility of their union, I do know, on the other hand, that clear and rigorous thinking is always possible, even if it lacks detail. Clarity and rigor — or, if one prefers the canonical Cartesian formulation, clear and distinct ideas — is a function of disciplined thinking, and one can think in a disciplined way about a comprehensive overview. If one allows that a fine-grained overview can be finely grained in virtue of the fine-grained conceptual infrastructure that one employs in the exposition of that overview, then, certainly, comprehensive detail is possible in this respect (even if in no other).
I could, then, re-state my ambition as formulated in my opening reflection such that, “my intention in this forum to view geopolitics through the prism of ideas,” now becomes my intention to formulate a fine-grained overview of geopolitics through the prism of ideas. But, obviously, I now seldom post on geopolitics, and am out to bag bigger game. This is, I think, implicit in the remit of a comprehensive overview of geopolitics. F. H. Bradley famously said, “Short of the Absolute God cannot stop, and, having reached that goal, He is lost, and religion with Him.” We might similarly say, short of big history geopolitics cannot stop, and, having reached that goal, it is lost, and political economy with it.
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10 November 2016
The parallels between the US presidential election and the recent Brexit vote are so numerous and so telling and it is difficult to discuss one without the other. In both cases, almost every mainstream social institution declared itself for the status quo, the polls seemed to point to the maintenance of the status quo, the narrative of the media was a relentless drumbeat for the status quo that made the alternative not so much something to be avoided as something unthinkable, and yet the status quo was upended by a popular vote. The aftermath of the Brexit vote is still unfolding, and there are sectors of the media that, even today, months later, continue the drumbeat, which indicates that they are not yet reconciled to the accepting the result of the vote. Those who voted against the status quo did so in the face of overwhelmingly negative portrayals of such a vote, and of any voters who would so vote.
And make no mistake that this was a vote against the status quo. This was not a vote of left vs. right, or liberal vs. conservative, or even Democrat vs. Republican. This was a vote of insider vs. outsider, establishment vs. non-establishment, status quo vs. change (or even the media haves vs. the media have-nots). It is true that Trump ran as a Republican, but he did so in the face of many if not most of the party leadership explicitly in opposition to him. Indeed, the Republican leadership was every bit as bitter in its condemnation of Trump hijacking their party for his purposes as the Democratic leadership was bitter in denouncing Trump.
Perhaps the most telling headline I noticed was this: World media shock and dismay at Trump win. The media was not impartial in this presidential fight; they had a stake in the outcome, and, when the outcome failed to confirm their narrative, there was indeed shock and dismay. There was also this from the New York Times, indicating the first signs of soul searching on the part of the media: How Did the Media — How Did We — Get This Wrong? by Michael Barbaro. A surprisingly candid BBC piece from Rod Dreher, Senior editor of The American Conservative, US election 2016: America’s front-porch revolt, acknowledged that he, too, had been drawn into the media narrative — though, as I noted above, the presidential election was not about liberal vs. conservatives, so the conservative élites were just as likely to misread the election as were liberal élites.
In the wake of the surprise result, it will widely said that the polls cannot be trusted, and this will be used to imply that polling methodology is fatally flawed. But it is not the polls, but the pollsters, that cannot be trusted. Pollsters, like the media, have come to constitute their own political class — or, rather, pollsters belong to the same political class as journalists and pundits, and, sharing the assumptions of this class, they shared the idea that anything other than a Clinton victory was unthinkable. They formulated their polls on this basis, and so their methods dutifully repeated back to them the only message they were capable of hearing. There is a name for this in the study of cognitive bias: availability cascade.
It certainly isn’t rocket science to understand why the polls failed. Many people told me privately that they planned to vote for Trump, but no one who told me privately that they would vote for Trump said publicly that they would do so. (Yes, I understand that this is merely anecdotal evidence, but when statistical evidence has been compromised by statisticians in the grip of an availability cascade, telling personal anecdotes can provide a window into events that has been missed by the statistics.) Why was this the case? Why would individuals privately discuss their vote, but not discuss their vote publicly? Because to publicly state your support for Trump prior to the election was to be subject to a torrent of abuse (cf. the experience of Peter Thiel, alone among Silicon Valley notables supporting Trump, and who found his business interests threatened by this support). Not surprisingly, individuals do not wish to be subject to a torrent of abuse, so they simply choose to remain silent. I would not be at all surprised if Trump supporters intentionally misled pollsters, not out of any sense of malice, but simply knowing that they were talking to someone who had completely bought into the availability cascade of a Clinton victory, they may have found it easier to tell the pollsters what the pollsters expected to hear. This kind of thing cannot even be captured in the language of the questions of the poll: it may be the tone of voice or the attitude of the pollster that communicated the message.
The issue of subjecting those who differ from the establishment narrative to personal abuse and denigration is more important than is usually recognized. The phenomenon has been evolving in American political life since the tumult of the 1960s, first with the Civil Rights movement, and then with Vietnam war protests. With these issues it was widely felt that the establishment was not acting upon moral imperatives viewed as central at the time. Because no results were being had by traditional means of political participation, a culture of organized civil disobedience came into being. Traditional politicians told young people during their messianic stage (also known as youthful idealism) that the proper way to express themselves politically was to vote. But voting was not felt to be sufficient to address the evil at hand, so protest became an additional avenue of political participation.
The rise of protest as a form of political participation — and the observed efficacy of well-staged protests — resulted in what I will call the dialectic of activism and electoral politics. Activism has been so effective as a political tactic that some political pressure groups have entirely abandoned electoral politics (i.e., seeking a vote on an issue) in favor of activism. Activists do not need an electoral majority in order to realize their political ends; they merely need to be effective activists. The emergence of activist politics changed the political landscape of the US, allowing small minorities to advance their agenda in a way that electoral politics would not have allowed. One might say that it is the business of successful activism to create an availability cascade and so give the appearance that their cause represents the electoral consensus. But the success of activist politics that serves minority viewpoints means that electoral politics then becomes the opposite swing of the pendulum, and society is moved back and forth between votes that express an actual majority of the electorate, and activism that expresses the views of the most motivated and most effective activists.
With the Brexit vote and the US presidential election, the élites of their respective societies — political élites, policy élites, journalist élites, celebrity élites, business and financial élites, and even activist élites — not only created an availability cascade that was at odds with the electoral majority, they moreover believed the narrative that they themselves had created. Thus the shock at the electoral correction. And this dialectic of electoral and activist politics should be expected to continue. The most motivated and passionate activists will continue to press for political change unrelated to electoral politics, and electoral politics will repeatedly place politicians in office unrelated to the political demands of activists.
It is often noted that the US political system is gridlocked and incapable of functioning effectively (I wrote about this in Checks, Balances, and Gridlock, and a recent Harvard study, Problems Unsolved & A Nation Divided by Michael E. Porter, Jan W. Rivkin, and Mihir A. Desai, with Manjari Raman, focused on political paralysis; also cf. an article on this study at Geopolitical Monitor by Oscar Silva-Valladares, American Decline and the Limits of Academic Thinking). On the one hand, activism is a response to political paralysis, since it promises results outside the usual mechanisms of political influence, but, on the other hand, the dialectic of activism and electoral politics is itself a source of gridlock and stagnation. In order for democracy and popular sovereignty to have a future in the twenty-first century, it may be necessary to find a way around the traditional mechanisms of electoral politics that is nevertheless responsive to the electorate. Consider this a research question in the future of democracy.
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30 October 2016
An Explanatory Mechanism for Aggressively Expanding Civilizations
Any emergent complexity that adds itself to the ultimate furniture of the universe can be, on the one hand, the basis of further emergent complexities, while on the other hand it can function as a selection pressure upon the other furniture of the universe, including earlier and later iterations of emergent complexity. Now, that sounds very abstract — indeed, I could express this idea even more abstractly in the language of ontology — so let me attempt to provide some illustrative examples. When biology emerged from the geochemical complexity of Earth, biology eventually gave rise to further emergent complexities (consciousness, technology, civilization), but biology also began to shape the geochemical context of its own emergence. Biochemistry emerged from geochemistry, thus biochemistry has always been, ab initio, in coevolution with the geochemistry upon which it supervenes.
Life, then, coevolved with geology, as life now coevolves with later emergent complexities, which means that, in the case of human beings, human life coevolves with the habitat it has made for itself — Earth of the anthropocene and our civilization (cf. Intellectual Niche Construction). This point has been made by Wilson and Lumsden:
“[The] high level of human mental activity creates culture, which has achieved a life of its own beyond the ordinary limits of biology. The principal habitat of the human mind is the very culture that it creates.”
Edward O. Wilson and Charles J. Lumsden, Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1983, p.
We might distinguish between relationships of tightly-coupled coevolution and loosely-coupled coevolution, with the familiar instances of coevolution — such as pollinating bees and flowers — qualifying as tightly-coupled, while those evolutionary relationships not usually recognized as coevolutionary qualify as loosely-coupled — for example, geochemistry and biochemistry, although the scale at which we make our comparison will be crucial to determining whether the coupling is tight or loose. “Coevolution” is another way of saying that each party to the coevolutionary relationship acts as a selection pressure on the other, so we make the distinction between tightly-coupled coevolution and loosely-coupled coevolution in order to differentiate between selection pressures, some of which are immediate and enduring (tightly-coupled), and some of which are distant and only sporadically influential (loosely-coupled).
Now that civilization has established itself as an emergent complexity on Earth, civilization may serve as the springboard for further emergent complexities, but it also has emerged as a new selection pressure upon the life that gave rise to civilization, while the geology of Earth and the terrestrial biosphere are, in turn, a selection pressure on civilization. Terrestrial (planetary) civilization may come to act as a selection pressure upon other emergent complexities yet to appear, which will also act as a selection pressure on terrestrial civilization, and these emergent complexities are likely to be emergent from civilization. A spacefaring civilization that encompasses (at first) multiple worlds of a planetary system, multiple planetary systems of multiple stars, or multiple galaxies, would be one form of emergent complexity that could arise from planetary civilization.
Among the immediate and enduring selection pressures on spacefaring civilizations will be the distribution of exploitable resources in space, as well as the other spacefaring civilizations with which such a civilization is in competition for these resources (these other spacefaring civilization themselves being an emergent complexity originating from other planetary civilizations derived from other biospheres). There may also be selection pressures from emergent complexities that we do not yet understand, and which we have not yet identified. These two selection pressures — distribution of resources and competition with other spacefaring civilizations — will shape (perhaps have shaped) the origins, evolution, distribution, and fate of spacefaring civilizations. Spacefaring civilizations will be in a tightly-coupled coevolutionary relationship with the cosmological distribution of resources (matter and energy) and the efforts of other spacefaring civilizations to also dominate these resources. Let us consider this more carefully.
When I wrote my post on Social Stratification and the Dominance Hierarchy I included a diagram (reproduced above; also see Group Dynamics) illustrating the selection pressures that lead to a dominance hierarchy in social animals. The diagram distinguished among scarce, limited, and abundant resources. Scarce resources lead to cooperation; sufficiently abundant resources can eliminate competition. In the case of limited resources, these resources can be scattered or concentrated. Scattered resources lead to competition in speed, while concentrated resources lead to competition in aggressiveness, and thence to a dominance hierarchy. The dominance hierarchy among human beings, which in civilization we call social stratification, implies that the resources significant to human beings have been scarce and concentrated.
If we confine our interest in human access to resources only to Earth, we can readily distinguish between regions where resources are sufficiently concentrated that they can be defended, and regions where resources are scattered, cannot be defended, and are therefore the object of competition in speed rather than aggressiveness. (We can also distinguish different social systems that have arisen shaped by the differential distribution of resources.) If we pull back from this geographical scale and consider the question from the perspective of a spacefaring civilization, the whole of Earth, our homeworld, is a concentrated and defensible locus of resources, but the cosmos on the whole represents an extreme scattering, over interstellar and intergalactic distances, of limited or scarce resources. This scattering of limited resources, in contradistinction to the concentrated and defensible resources of the homeworld of any intelligence species, ought to have the result of spacefaring civilizations defending their homeworld while competing for resources with other spacefaring civilizations, not through competition in aggressiveness, but through competition in speed.
Competition in aggressiveness for the resources of spacefaring civilization may be excluded by the scattering of these resources, so that we are not likely to see the emergence of a galactic empire, crushing under the boot heels of its storm troopers the aspirations to freedom, dignity, and equality of intelligent species throughout the galaxy. However, competition in speed for limited resources distributed on a cosmological scale may well be the primary selection pressure on spacefaring civilizations, and competition in speed ought to entail the rapid cosmological expansion of these civilizations.
Elsewhere I have mentioned the papers of S. Jay Olson (cf. Big Time, The Genesis Project as Central Project, and Second Addendum on the Genesis Project as Central Project: Invasive Species) concerning what Olson calls “aggressively expanding civilizations,” which embody rapid expansion on a cosmological scale. Here is Olson’s characterization of such as scenario:
“An ‘aggressive expansion scenario’ is a proposed cosmological phenomenon… whereby a subset of advanced life appears at random throughout the universe and expands in all directions, saturating galaxies and utilizing resources as they go… We also assume that all aggressive expanders will be of the same behaviour type, i.e. they all expand with the same velocity v in the local comoving frame, and the expanding spherical front of galaxy colonization leads to observable changes a fixed time T after the front has passed by.”
“Estimates for the number of visible galaxy-spanning civilizations and the cosmological expansion of life,” S. Jay Olson, International Journal of Astrobiology, Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp. 2-3, doi:10.1017/S1473550416000082
Competition in speed among spacefaring civilization would mean a focus on maximizing v for the expanding spherical front of galaxy colonization.
Citing Bostrom and Omohundro on the nature of superintelligent AI (presumptively the heir of our technological civilization, but see the final sentence below quoted from Olson, as he addresses this as well), Olson writes:
“From an independent field of study, it has been argued that resource acquisition is one of the ‘basic drives’ of a generic superintelligent AI. This means, in essence, that a sufficiently powerful AI will tend to use extreme expansion and resource acquisition as a means of maximizing its utility function, unless it is explicitly and carefully designed to avoid such behavior… even if advanced alien species tend to be monks who have forsaken all worldly gain, the accidents involving insufficiently careful design of an artificial superintelligence are potentially one of the largest observable phenomena in the universe, when they occur. The word ‘civilization’ is not really the best description of such a thing, but we will use it for the sake of historical continuity.”
We can see that competition in speed for limited resources provides an explanatory mechanism for the existence and expansion of aggressively expanding civilizations. Spacefaring civilizations that successfully compete for resources on a cosmological scale endure over cosmological scales of time, and perhaps leave a legacy in the form of a universe transformed sub specie civilizationis. Spacefaring civilizations that fail to expand go extinct, and leave no observable legacy. Whether there is room for more than one aggressively expanding civilization in any one universe, or whether this expansion takes place on scale of time sufficient to foreclose the opportunity of expansion to any rival civilizations, remains an open question. Once a universe is saturated with life, no other life, and no other civilization emergent from other life, would have an opportunity to appear, unless or until a cosmological scale extinction event created such an opportunity (which could be furnished by sufficiently violent gamma ray bursts).
The above considerations pose other interesting questions that could be taken up as research questions in the study of spacefaring civilization. How are we to distinguish between scarce and limited resources on a cosmological scale? Might the closely packed stars of globular clusters and galactic centers constitute limited resources, while diffuse spiral arms and the outer portions of elliptical galaxies constitute scarce resources? At what threshold of availability should we distinguish between matter and energy being scarce or limited? This may be a problem contingently decided by the technologies of spacefaring not yet known to us. That is to say, if technologically mature civilizations find interstellar travel (or intergalactic travel) somewhat routine, then we may regard cosmological resources as scattered and limited, and more concentrated areas such as mentioned (globular clusters and galactic centers) might pass over a threshold such that they would be considered concentrated — thus there would be the possibility of galactic empires competing on aggressiveness for defensible resources. If, on the other hand, interstellar (or intergalactic) travel is always difficult, then the universe presents, at best, limited resources, and perhaps scarce resources. In the case of scarce resources, there would be a window of opportunity for cooperation among spacefaring civilization for the effective and efficient exploitation of these resources.
If, as on the surface of Earth (and relative to a planetary civilization), cosmological resources are distributed unevenly, then the distribution of civilizations will mirror the distribution of resources — not only in extent, but also in character, with concentrated regions producing civilizations competing on aggression, and diffuse regions producing civilizations competing on speed. On a sufficiently large scale, uneven distribution of cosmological resources would violate the cosmological principle, which is a cornerstone of contemporary cosmology. However, on the smaller scales (especially galactic scales) that would confront early spacefaring civilizations, the differential of resources between concentrated stellar regions and diffuse steller regions may be sufficient to differentiate regions of a galaxy given over to competition on speed for cosmological resources and regions of the same galaxy given over to competition on aggressiveness for cosmological resources. With the position of Earth in a spiral arm of the Milky Way, we inhabit a region of relatively diffuse distribution of stars, so that any nascent spacefaring civilizations with which we would be in competition would be competition in speed. It is therefore in our interest to reach the stars as soon as possible, or, by declining competition, reconcile ourselves to the existential risk of being shut out of the possibility of being a civilization relevant to the galaxy.
It may be that civilizations in regions of diffuse and therefore limited resources naturally understand their dilemma and consequently focus upon spacecraft speed (which has always been a preoccupation of those engaged in the speculative engineering of interstellar capable spacecraft), while civilizations in regions of more concentrated and therefore defensible resources intuit their relative ease of travel and focus instead on aggressive domination of their region of space, and the technology that would make such aggressive domination possible. Thus a civilization may already begin to be shaped by the selection pressures of its galactic neighborhood even as a nascent spacefaring civilization. An obvious instantiation of this phenomenon would be a single planetary system in which more than one planet produced life and civilization. These multiple civilizations expanding into a single planetary system would immediately be in conflict over the resources of that planetary system. In our exploration of our own planetary system, we have not had to compete with another civilization, and so our earliest spacecraft have gone into space without armor or armaments. We have a free hand in expanding into our planetary system; that may not be true for all nascent spacefaring civilizations, and it may not be true for us at spacefaring orders of magnitude beyond our planetary system.
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6 October 2016
A biological being among biological beings
A human being is a being among beings, and moreover a biological being among biological beings. We come to an awareness of ourselves, and of what we are, in a biological context. Biophilia, then, is a default consequence of being biological and finding oneself in a biological content; biophilia is a cognitive bias of biological beings. (Previously I considered the relationship between our biological nature and our biological bias in Biocentrism and Biophilia.) From both our biocentrism and our biophilia follows biocentric civilization, which I formulated in terms of the biocentric thesis, so it is natural that I would next attempt to formulate a technocentric thesis, as I have often contrasted biocentric and technocentric conceptions.
Until quite recently there was no possibility of pursing a non-biophilic bent, i.e., of pursuing a technocentric bent. Over the past several thousand years of human civilization, individual human beings had a limited opportunity to immerse themselves into the human world of civilization, and this civilization has been predominantly and pervasively biocentric. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, after which both agriculturalism and pastoralism became economically marginal, and the adoption of technology greatly increased, the ability to separate oneself from biocentric institutions has increased proportionately, but the individual has remained himself a biological being, tied to the biological world through existential needs for personal sustenance. Thus our being biological has repeatedly brought us back to our biological origins. If civilization were to fail, we could still return to an almost exclusively biocentric context and — at least for those who survived this traumatic transition — life would go on.
The emergence of a technological milieu following the industrial revolution suggests the possibility of a technocentric civilization that is the successor to biocentric civilization. Indeed, we may even understand the emergence of a fully technocentric civilization as the telos of industrialized civilization. We can formulate this in greater generality, as this process may hold for any civilization whatsoever that originates as a civilization of planetary endemism and makes the transition to a technological civilization.
Should the intelligent (biological) agents that build a civilization cease to be biological and become, for example, technological instead of biological, over time those intelligent agents could grow apart from their biocentric origins, and the social institutions in which these intelligent agents participate will become increasingly less biocentric. Biocentricity, then, is a function of biological origins, i.e., biocentrism is a consequence of being biological (as I put it in The Biocentric Thesis), and biophilia is an expression of biocentricity. As a technological civilization grows away from its biocentric origins, it is likely to become less biophiliac over time, which will in turn allow for greater expression of technophilia.
An explicit formulation of the technocentric thesis
Let us try to give these ideas a more explicit formulation:
The Technocentric Thesis
Any fully technocentric civilization has evolved from a previous biocentric civilization by descent with modification.
…which implies its corollary formulated in the negative…
No civilization originates as a technocentric civilization.
By a “biocentric civilization” I mean a civilization that exemplifies the biocentric thesis. I have formulated a strong biocentric thesis (all civilizations in our universe begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces) and a weak biocentric thesis (all civilizations during the Stelliferous Era begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces), each of which has a corollary formulated in the negative. The technocentric thesis could also be given strong and weak formulations, e.g., all technocentric civilizations in our universe evolve from biocentric civilizations (strong) and all technocentric civilizations during the Stelliferous Era evolve from biocentric civilizations (weak). The weaker formulation is in each case constrained by temporal parameter while the stronger formulation is unconstrained.
The mechanism by which a technocentric civilization evolves from a biocentric civilization I call replacement, and replacement can be formulated as the replacement thesis:
The Replacement Thesis
All technocentric civilizations begin as biocentric civilizations and are transformed into technocentric civilizations through the replacement of biological constituents with technological constituents.
This in turn implies a negative formulation as its corollary:
Replacement Thesis Corollary
No technocentric civilization originates as a technocentric civilization, but emerges by replacement from a biocentric civilization of planetary endemism.
How far can replacement go? We can already see in our own industrialized civilization partial replacement, but can there be a complete replacement of biological constituents by technological constituents? For any civilizations originating in intelligent biological organisms, it is unlikely that living organisms could ever be completely eliminated, but they may be rendered superfluous for all practical purposes (i.e., superfluous to civilization).
The argument from consciousness
It would be possible to construct a scenario in which biology can never be completely eliminated as a constituent of civilization. Consider the following scenario, which I will call the argument from consciousness, based on the indispensability of consciousness to civilization and the unknown parameters of machine consciousness.
The Argument from Consciousness
I will assume that there is such a thing as consciousness, that human beings are conscious at least some of the time, and that this human consciousness plays a significant role in human existence and in the civilizations built by human beings. (It is necessary to make these rudimentary stipulations because it is not unusual to find consciousness dismissed, or called an “illusion,” or to see its role in the world minimized or marginalized.)
The view is prevalent, perhaps even dominant, in AI circles such that anything that can pass the Turing test must be called conscious. There is a degree of mutual reinforcement between this common view among AI researchers and the tacit positivism that continues to influence the development of contemporary science, which consigns consciousness of the sphere of metaphysics and thus rules out in principle any metaphysical entity that is consciousness. I will not here attempt to make a case for consciousness as a metaphysical entity, but I will assume, for the purposes of what follows, that a principled refusal to consider consciousness is a barrier to understanding human behavior, including the behavior of building civilizations.
Since we do not yet know what consciousness is, and we cannot produce a scientific account of consciousness, we do not know what the conditions of consciousness are. If we had a scientific theory of consciousness that allowed us to quantify consciousness by taking meaningful measures of consciousness, any putative consciousness, whether generated by a mechanism or by biology, natural or modified or fully synthetic, could be tested by such measures of consciousness and objectively determined to be conscious or not. We do not as yet possess any such science, nor can we take any such measurements.
Human and animal consciousness constitute existence proofs of the possibility of consciousness arising by natural means, and thus consciousness ought to be amenable to study by methodological naturalism, and also to replication. It is possible that consciousness can only be produced by biological means, i.e., it is possible that machine consciousness cannot be generated. The existence proof of consciousness provided by biological beings is not an existence proof of machine consciousness. Now, I personally think that machine consciousness will eventually come about, but we will not know that this is possible until it has been achieved.
Even if machine consciousness is impossible, it would still be possible to engineer consciousness by biological means, employing some variation on existing biological substrates of consciousness, or producing consciousness by way of synthetic or artificial biology. In this case, a civilization (or post-civilizational social institution) that preserves consciousness, or desires to preserve consciousness, will not be able to become purely technocentric in the sense of entirely eliminating biology, though the biology that is retained may be entirely subordinated to technical means and technical institutions. A civilization that retained consciousness through such biological means, but entirely within a technocentric context, could be called a technocentric civilization in which biology was ineradicable.
The argument from consciousness is merely an argument (and not a proof of anything), because the same absence of a science of consciousness that would allow us to take objective measures of consciousness is the absence of a science that would make it possible to prove either that consciousness can inhere in different kind of substrates (biological or mechanical, for example), or that consciousness can only be generated through biological means. Until we have a science of consciousness, we can advance this line of argumentation only through existence proofs, i.e., proofs of concept.
Even then, even given building a conscious machine, without a science of consciousness we would have no way to rigorously and objectively compare and contrast human consciousness with machine consciousness. One way to resolve this dilemma is the Turing test, as noted above, but no one who has any degree of scientific curiosity could be satisfied with cutting the Gordian knot of consciousness rather than unraveling it.
One of the virtues of explicitly formulating one’s ideas as theses (or as arguments), as in the above, is that one can then turn to the explicit criticism of these theses, especially to the task of unpacking the assumptions embedded in the theses. Another virtue of explicit formulations is that they can be explicitly falsified. The existence of a civilization not derived from biological complexity emergent on a planetary surface would falsify the biocentric thesis.
These explicit formulations, then, are not be taken as definitive formulations. I do not consider the biocentric thesis, the technocentric thesis, or the replacement thesis to be in any sense definitive, but rather to be a point of departure in an analysis of the nature of civilization taken in its broadest signification and extrapolated to a cosmological scale. Thus I hope to return to each of these theses in order to tease out their assumptions in order to analytically approach the intuitive conception of civilization with which I began.
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27 September 2016
Now that Elon Musk has delivered his highly anticipated talk “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species,” providing an overview of his plan for a Martian settlement sufficiently large to be self-sustaining (he mentioned a million persons moving to Mars in a fleet of 1,000 spacecraft leaving Earth en masse), the detailed analysis of this mission architecture can begin. Musk said in his talk that he thought it was a good idea that there should be many different approaches, so he clearly was not making any claim that his plan was the one and only workable mission architecture.
As both public space agencies and private space companies go beyond the talking phase and begin the design, testing, and construction of a Mars mission (or missions), these designs will embody assumptions about the best way to get to Mars with contemporary technology (there are many ways to do this). The assumptions, as usual, aren’t often explicitly discussed, because assumptions are foundational, and you have to have a community of individuals who share the same or similar assumptions even to begin designing something as complex as a human mission to Mars. Foundational assumptions may be challenged in initial “brainstorming” sessions, but once we get to sketches and calculations, the assumptions are already built into the design.
One of the most important assumptions about Mars mission design is whether that mission should be slow or fast. In this context. “slow” means following one of the well-established gravitational transfer trajectories (Hohmann Transfer Orbits) that many uncrewed missions to Mars have followed, which requires a minimum of fuel use and little or no braking upon arrival, but instead requires time.
A Hohmann transfer orbit to Mars would require many months (six months or more; cf. Flight to Mars: How Long? Along what Path?, which gives a figure of 8.5 months), the window to make the journey only occurs every 25 months, and during a long voyage such as this the crew would have to be maintained in good health, protected from radiation, and have enough space onboard to keep from going stir crazy. A Mars cycler configuration would involve travel times on the order of years. This is definitely a “slow” option, but also an option that minimizes propellant use.
The Mars Design Reference Mission (which I recently quoted in A Distinctive Signature of an Early Spacefaring Civilization), a design document produced by NASA in July 2009 (the full title is Human Exploration of Mars: Design Reference Architecture 5.0), characterizes their mission architecture as “fast” (the document repeatedly cites “fast transit trajectory”), but involves a one-way transit time of 6 to 7.5 months:
“…the flight crew would be injected on the appropriate fast-transit trajectory towards Mars. The length of this outbound transfer to Mars is dependent on the mission date, and ranges from 175 to 225 days.”
A “slow” mission to Mars such as this (which NASA calls a “fast” mission) ought to be designed about a large, rotating habitat that can simulate gravity (this has featured in films, such as The Martian). No one wants to spend six months in a “capsule.” An additional benefit of a large and slow Mars mission is that the rotating habitat sent to Mars could be maintained in Mars orbit as a Martian space station (such as I wrote about in A Martian Space Station and A Passage to Mars) and subsequent missions could add to this Martian space station.
Alternatively, instead of a large and comfortable habitat in which to travel, a slow mission to Mars might involve induced torpor in the crew (effectively, human hibernation), and while this would require far less food and water for the journey, this option, too, might be best achieved with simulated gravity. Human bodies evolved in a gravity field, and don’t do well outside that gravity field (cf. Hibernation for Long-term Manned Space Exploration by Shen Ge, which includes many links to resources on induced torpor).
A “fast” mission to Mars I will identify as anything faster that the six months or so required for a Hohmann transfer orbit. Fast journeys could be anything from a gentle ion thrust, using very little propellant and only cutting a little time off the trip, to powering half way to Mars (preferably at 1 g acceleration in order to again simulate gravity) and then decelerating for the second half of the trip. Musk’s mission design as presented in his IAC talk called for initial transfer times “as low as” 80 days (i.e., less than three months; his graphic for this section of the talk showed transit durations from 80-150 days), perhaps improving to as little as 30 days further in the future, but little detail was offered on this part of the mission architecture.
The quickest “fast” trips to Mars contemplated with contemporary technology would be about two weeks. A nuclear-powered ion engine might make the trip in three months, which is a lot better than six months, and might be considered “fast,” but Musk’s 30-80 day transit times are all designed around well-known chemical rocket technology, which makes the effort much closer to being practical in the near term. If you have enough rocket engines, big enough engines, and enough fuel, you can make the trip to Mars more quickly with chemical rockets than is usually contemplated, and that seems to be the SpaceX approach; much of the talk was taken up with concerns of propellant, fuel transfer in Earth orbit, and producing fuel on Mars.
It is important to point out that most of the technologies I have mentioned above — rotating spacecraft, induced torpor, nuclear rockets, and so on — have been the object of much study, but little practical experience. (An early version of the Nerva nuclear rocket was built and tested, but it wasn’t flown into space; cf. Secrecy and the STEM Cycle.) However, we have a pretty good grasp of the science involved in these technologies, so building actual spacecraft incorporating them is primarily an engineering challenge, not a science challenge (except in so far as there is a science of technology design and engineering application; cf. Testing Technology as a Scientific Research Program: A Practical Exercise in the Philosophy of Technology). In other words, we don’t need any scientific breakthroughs for a mission to Mars, but we need a lot of technological development and engineering solutions.
Hearing a presentation such as Elon Musk gave today is exciting, and definitely communicates that this project can be done, and even that it can be done on a grand scale. This is invigorating, and stokes what Keynes called our “animal spirits” for a voyage to Mars. If the momentum can be maintained, the development of a spacefaring civilization can be a practical reality within decades rather then centuries. Musk discussed the “forcing function” of having a settlement on Mars, and he is correct that this human outpost away from Earth would entail continual improvements in space transportation, and moreover it would extend human consciousness to include Mars as a human concern.
Once humanity begins to make itself a home on Mars, and human beings can call themselves “Martians” (perhaps even with a certain sense of pride) and adopt a genuinely Martian standpoint, humanity will be a multiplanetary species, a multiplanetary human civilization will begin to emerge, and this multiplanetary civilization will be distinct from our planetary civilization of today. Mars, in this scenario, would be a point of bifurcation, the origin of a new kind of civilization, localized in the same way that the industrial revolution can be localized to England.
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15 September 2016
A Century of Industrialized Warfare:
Mechanized Armor Enters the Fray
On 15 September 1916 one of the pivotal events of industrialized warfare occurred: the tank was used in battle for the first time in history. Mobile fire has been the crucial offensive weapon of warfare since the beginning of civilization and warfare, whether that mobile fire took the form of chariot archers, mounted horse archers, a ship of the line, or mechanized armor, as with the tank. Before industrialized warfare the heaviest armored unit was heavy cavalry (or possibly elephants, though elephants were never armored to the extent that cataphracti or medieval knights were armored), which was a shock weapon — mobile, but not mobile fire. The tank was able to combine mobile fire with heavy armor in a way that no non-mechanized force was capable, and this made it a distinctive feature of industrialized warfare.
The Battle of the Somme had started on 01 July 1916, and with two and half months into the “battle” it was obvious that the Somme would be like most WWI battlefields: largely static and dominated by defense: trenches, barbed wire, and machine gun nests, which had arrested the progress of any offensive and so had precluded decisive attainment of objectives. Up to this time, the technology of the industrial revolution had strengthened the defense, but with the introduction of the tank all that changed. Mechanized armor brought mobile fire into the age of industrialized warfare, and mechanized armor has remained, for a hundred years, the primary spearhead of offensive action.
Despite its initial effectiveness as a “terror weapon,” the pace of tank development was somewhat slow for wartime conditions. The Germans did not introduce their first tank until the A7V was deployed in March 1918, and the first battle between tanks took place during the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918. Early tanks were mechanically unreliable, and were fielded in smaller numbers than would have been necessary to fundamentally change the conditions of battle. In many ways, this paralleled the use of aircraft during the First World War: the technology was introduced, but not yet mastered.
It was not the introduction of the tank that ended the First World War. However, an adequate conceptualization of mechanized armor began to emerge during the interwar period, when tanks underwent extensive development and testing, and Heinz Guderian wrote his Achtung — Panzer! (much as Giulio Douhet wrote The Command of the Air during the interwar period). The tank truly came into its own during the Second World War, combined with close air support in a highly mobile form of maneuver warfare that came to be called Blitzkrieg. The largest tank battle in history took place during the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, almost thirty years after the tank was first used in combat.
In The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier I speculated that armored helicopters could take the place of tanks in a mechanized spearhead. Though helicopters will always be more vulnerable than a tank, because they can never be as heavily armored as tanks, they are today the premier weapon of mobile fire and could press forward the attack far faster than tanks. Helicopter gunships, however, have not yet been fully exploited for battlefield use, partly because they appeared on the scene at a point of time in history when peer-to-peer conflict among nation-states was already a declining paradigm, and so they have filled a very different combat role.
The paradigm of hybrid warfare that is emerging in our own time — a form of warfare probably more consistent with the existence of planetary civilization than the past paradigm of peer-to-peer conflict among nation-states — has no place for heavily armored mobile fire comparable to the place of the tank in twentieth century warfare. The forces now actually engaged in armed conflict (as opposed to appearing in military parades) tend to be lighter, faster, and stealthier. Despite the tendency of warfare to press forward the rapid development of technologies under conditions of existential threat, we have seen that it can take decades to fully assimilate a new technology into warfare, as was the case with the tank. It will probably take decades to get beyond doctrines of mechanized warfare established in the twentieth century and to adopt a doctrine more suitable for the forces employed today.
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A Century of Industrialized Warfare
11. The Tank after One Hundred Years
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