Saturday


The French Revolutionary Assembly provided the template for later ideological conflict, with conservative and reactionary elements on the right side and radical and revolutionary elements on the left side.

Introduction to Left/Right Ideological Conflict

It was the thesis of Samuel Huntington that ideologically-based conflict would be displaced by civilization-based conflicts. This is the “clash of civilizations” thesis, which remains controversial still after Huntington’s passing, and will likely remain controversial for some time yet. While there are signs one can point to that suggest the emergence of conflict between civilizations, ideologically-based conflict continues to animate human beings and their political formations. If Huntington’s thesis is true, one would of course expect to see a transitional period, and this transitional period could endure over civilizational scales of time, i.e., for hundreds of years. But one would expect to see over this transitional period the gradual decline of ideologically-based conflict in parallel with the gradual expansion of civilizational conflict. However, the distinction between these two forms of conflict is by no means clear, or clearly defined, so that this movement of history could be occurring even while it was obscured by the complexity of the human terrain.

I have also suggested the decline of ideologically-based conflict, though I would hesitate to go so far as to assert that ideologically-based conflict is giving way to civilization-based conflict. In a blog post titled Ideas That Will Shape the Future from October 2013 I wrote about the decline of left/right politics. This is what I said four years ago:

“The political landscape as we know it today continues to be shaped by the left/right dialectic that emerged in the wake of the French Revolution, as some sought to continue the revolution, others to reverse it, and others yet to expand and extend it. But the traditional governing coalitions based on left/right politics have been increasingly confronted with new political problems that cannot be easily analyzed along a left/right axis. As the most advanced industrialized nation-states converge on political gridlock, innovative solutions are increasingly likely to emerge from non-traditional political sources, marginalizing the left/right dichotomy and possibly giving life to new political movements that cannot be reduced to a left/right division. Moreover, structural changes within society such as increasing urbanization (q.v.), globalization (q.v.), technological unemployment (q.v.), exponentialism (q.v.) albeit selective, bitter conflicts over the life sciences (q.v.) that divide people across previously established coalitions expose mass populations to new forces that shape these populations and their opinions in new ways.”

While I can still endorse the idea behind this, I have been having second thoughts about what it implies: the inevitability and perhaps also the near-term end of left/right politics. The left/right dichotomy has been with us at least since the French revolution, and I would argue that it taps into a deep tendency to bifurcation in human nature (rooted in evolutionary psychology). But even if this is not true, even if human beings were not primed by their nature to split down a left/right division, the two hundred years or so of the left/right dichotomy has not been a sufficient period of time to exhaust the distinction. Political ideas can endure for hundreds of years, or even thousands of years. When the master history of humanity is recorded some day (after the end of the human era), the era of the left/right dichotomy may be seen as enduring for five hundred years, or for a thousand years, so that we are still entirely in the midst of this dialectic and can no more escape it than we can escape the times into which we are born.

In our own time, in recent history, we have seen both left and right repeatedly transform under selection pressures. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the counter-culture left opposed the establishment right; in the 1980s and 1990s, the winding down of the Cold War gave us a left and right no longer represented by great geopolitical blocs with the world split between them; more recently yet, both left and right took a populist turn with the Occupy protests and the Tea Party movement; now, today, we have movements even further afield from establishment left and right, with social justice ideologues and “anti-fascist” (antifa) splitting away from establishment liberalism and the Alt-Right splitting off from establishment conservatism. These mutations of the left and right are not merely quantitative changes in the relative extremism or moderation of the political platform espoused, but also involve qualitative changes in the movements. These qualitative changes result in mutual misunderstandings, because each side tends to reduce the contemporary representative to its historical antecedents, rather than seeing them as a qualitatively novel expressions of a perennial human tendency.

Given that the left/right dichotomy may have several hundred years to run, and that in the coming centuries of its ongoing development this dichotomy may be pushed to new and unprecedented extremes (as well as passing through periods of relative quietude when the extremes are at an ebb), it is natural to ask what kinds of left/right ideological conflict we have yet to see. Was the Cold War the peak of institutionalized left/right confrontation, or may we yet witness forms of left/right confrontation that surpass (perhaps not in all respects, but in some respects) Cold War confrontation? I doubt that we will again see entire nation-states embodying left or right political orientations engaged in global peer-to-peer conflict, or armed with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, but we could still see violet and even vicious conflict, societies torn apart by this conflict, and old political regimes ended while new political regimes are born.

With left and right once again battling in the streets of the US, this is a timely inquiry. It was my plan to write one long blog post attempting to lay out one global catastrophic risk scenario based on ideological conflict, but I have assembled a lot of material — too much for one post — so I will attempt to write a series of posts on the contemporary left/right dichotomy and its prospects for the near- to mid-term future. I also want to examine possible responses and reactions to left/right ideological conflict. I think it is insufficiently appreciated today the extent to which contemporary political culture is a response to and a reaction against some central Cold War themes. Further left/right ideological confrontation will, in the next stage of history, involve a further backlash against this confrontation, which represents an even larger social dialectic playing out over an even longer period of time.

To use the language of Braudel, left/right confrontations play out on the level of the conjuncture, while ideological extremism vs. a backlash again extremism plays out on the level of the longue durée. Indeed, we can easily see that the era of left/right conflict may someday constitute a longue durée periodization for planetary civilization. Examining the particular developments within this longue durée is an exercise in the synchronic study of this period as a whole.

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Sunday


Wilhelm Dilthey (19 November 1833 to 01 October 1911)

Every so often a term from philosophy — and by “philosophy” in this context I mean the kind of philosophy that is generally not read by the wider public, and which is therefore sometimes called “technical” or “professional” — finds its way into the wild, as it were, and begins to appear in non-philosophical contexts. This happened with Thomas Kuhn’s use of “paradigm shift” and with Derrida’s use of “deconstruction.” To a lesser extent, it is also true of “phenomenology” since Husserl’s use of the term. Another philosophical term that has come into general currency is “lived experience.” (There are also variations on the theme of “lived experience,” such as “felt experience,” which I found in Barry Mazur’s 2008 paper “Mathematical Platonism and its Opposites,” in which the author refers to, “…the passionate felt experience that makes it so wonderful to think mathematics.”) Recently I saw “lived experience” used in the title of a non-philosophical book, Nubia in the New Kingdom: Lived Experience, Pharaonic Control and Indigenous Traditions, edited by N. Spencer, A. Stevens, and M. Binder. A description of the book on the publishers website says that the approach of the volume provides, “…a more nuanced understanding of what it was like to live in colonial Kush during the later second millennium BC.”

This, I think, is the takeaway of “lived experience” for non-philosophers — that of “what it was like to live” in some particular social or historical context. One could easily imagine, “what it was really like to live” becoming a slogan on a par with Leopold von Ranke’s, “to show what actually happened” (“wie es eigentlich gewesen”). Both could be taken as historiographical principles, and indeed the two might be taken to imply each other: arguably, one can’t know what it was like to live without knowing what actually happened, and, again arguably, one can’t show what actually happened without knowing what it was like to live. Actually, I think that the two are distinguishable, but I only wanted to make the point of how closely related these ideas are.

I believe, though I cannot say for sure, that the philosophical use of “lived experience” originates in the work of Wilhelm Dilthey. If Dilthey did not originate the philosophical use of “lived experience,” he did write extensively about it earlier than most other philosophers who took up the term. (If anyone knows otherwise, please set me straight.) Since I am planning on making use of the idea of lived experience, I have been reading Dilthey recently, especially his Selected Works, Volume III: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences (which corresponds to the German language Gesammelte Schriften, Volume 7: Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften), which has a lot of material on lived experience.

Dilthey is not an easy author to read. I have heard it said many times that Husserl is a difficult author, but I find translations of Husserl to be much easier going than translations of Dilthey. Dilthey and Husserl knew each other, read each others’ works, and they corresponded. Dilthey’s exposition of lived experience contains numerous references to Husserl’s Logical Investigations (Husserl’s systematic works on phenomenology mostly appeared after Dilthey passed away, so it was only the Logical Investigations to which Dilthey had access). Most interestingly to me, Husserl wrote a semi-polemical article, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science,” in which Husserl discussed Dilthey in the section “Historicism and Weltanschauung Philosophy.” Dilthey did not agree with the characterization of his work by Husserl. It was Husserl’s article that was the occasion of their correspondence (translated in Husserl: Shorter Works), and it is a lesson in the unity German philosophy to read this exchange of letters. In their correspondence, Dilthey and Husserl were easily able to find common ground in a language rooted in 19th century German idealist philosophy.

While the apparent ground of their common outlook was expressed in the peculiar idiom of German philosophy, both were also reacting against that tradition. Both Dilthey and Husserl were centrally concerned with the experience of time. Husserl’s manuscripts on time consciousness run to hundreds of pages (cf. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893–1917)). Of Husserl’s efforts Dilthey wrote, “A true Plato, who first of all fixes in concept the things that become and flow, then puts beside the concept of the fixed a concept of flowing.” (cited by Quentin Lauer in The Triumph of Subjectivity from Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. V, p. cxii) Dilthey’s own exposition of time consciousness can be found in Vol. III of the selected works in English, Drafts for a Critique of Historical Reason, section 2, “Reflexive Awareness, Reality: Time” (pp. 214-218), where it is integral with his exposition of lived experience.

Of time and lived experience Dilthey wrote:

“Temporality is contained in life as its first categorical determination and the one that is fundamental for all others… Thus the lived experience of time determines the content of our lives in all directions.”

Wilhem Dilthey, Selected Works, Volume III: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, pp. 214-215.

I suspect that Husserl would have agreed with this, as for Husserl time consciousness was the foundation of the constituting consciousness. Dilthey also writes:

“That which forms a unity of presence in the flow of time because it has a unitary meaning is the smallest unit definable as a lived experience.” And, “A lived experience is a temporal sequence in which every state is a flux before it can become a distinct object.” And, “The course of life consists of parts, of lived experiences that are inwardly connected with each other. Each lived experience relates to a self of which it is a part.”

Op. cit., pp. 216-217

Here I have plucked out a few representative quotes by Dilthey on lived experience; this may give a flavor of his exposition, but I certainly don’t maintain that this is a fair way of coming to grips with Dilthey’s conception of lived experience. The only way to do that is by the lived experience of reading the text through and deriving from it a unitary meaning. I will not attempt to do that in the present context, as I only wanted here to give the reader an impression of Dilthey’s writing on lived experience.

Dilthey, as I noted, is not an easy author. Both Dilthey’s and Husserl’s discussions of time consciousness and lived experience are opaque at best. I keep at Dilthey despite the difficulty because I want to understand his exposition of lived experience. However, as I keep at it I cannot help but think that part of the difficulty of the discussion is the absence of a scientific understanding of consciousness. As I have mentioned many times, we simply have no idea, at the present stage of the development of our scientific knowledge, what consciousness is. Trying to give a detailed description of time consciousness and lived experience without any scientific foundation is almost crippling. I believe that the effort is worthwhile, but it is as instructive in how it fails as it is instructive in how it less often succeeds.

In this frame of mind I recalled a passage from Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic:

“Towards the middle of the eighteenth century, Pomme treated and cured a hysteric by making her take ‘baths, ten or twelve hours a day, for ten whole months.’ At the end of this treatment for the desiccation of the nervous system and the heat that sustained it, Pomme saw ‘membranous tissues like pieces of damp parchment … peel away with some slight discomfort, and these were passed daily with the urine; the right ureter also peeled away and came out whole in the same way.’ The same thing occurred with the intestines, which at another stage, ‘peeled off their internal tunics, which we saw emerge from the rectum. The oesophagus, the arterial trachea, and the tongue also peeled in due course; and the patient had rejected different pieces either by vomiting or by expectoration’.”

“…Pomme, lacking any perceptual base, speaks to us in the language of fantasy. But by what fundamental experience can we establish such an obvious difference below the level of our certainties, in that region from which they emerge? How can we be sure that an eighteenth-century doctor did not see what he saw, but that it needed several decades before the fantastic figures were dissipated to reveal, in the space they vacated, the shapes of things as they really are?”

Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, New York: Vintage, 1975, pp. ix-x; Foucault cites Pomme, Traite des affections vaporeuses des deux sexes (4th edn., Lyons, 1769, vol. I, pp. 60-5)

Because of the theory-ladenness of perception, when the theory is absent or unclear, perception has little to go on and it is confused and unclear. We cannot describe with precision unless we can conceptualize with precision. The eventual development of an adequate science of consciousness — which may ultimately involve a revision to the nature of science itself — will issue in concepts of sufficient precision that they can be the basis of precise observations, and precise observations can further contribute to the precisification of the concepts — a virtuous circle of expanding knowledge.

I would not insist upon the theory-ladenness of perception to the point of excluding the possibility of any knowledge without an adequate theory to guide perception. In this spirit I have already acknowledged that there is some value in Dilthey’s attempt to clarify the idea of lived experience. If theory and observation are mutually implicated, and eventually can accelerate in a virtuous circle of mutual clarification, then the first, tentative ideas and observations on lived experience can be understood analogously to the stone tools used by our earliest ancestors. These stone tools are rough and rudimentary by present standards of precision machine tools, but we had to start somewhere. So too with our conceptual tools: we have to start somewhere.

Dilthey’s approach to lived experience is one such starting point, and from this point of departure we can revise, amend, and extend Dilthey’s conception until it becomes a more useful tool for us. One way to do this is by way of what has been called the knowledge argument, also known as the Mary’s room thought experiment. I have earlier discussed the knowledge argument in Colonia del Sacramento and the Knowledge Argument and Computational Omniscience.

Here is the locus classicus of the thought experiment:

“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red,’ ‘blue,’ and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue.’ […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?”

Frank Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia” (1982)

The historical parallel of the Mary’s room argument would be to ask, if Mary had exhaustively studied life in colonial Kush during the later second millennium BC, and then Mary was enabled to actually go back and live in colonial Kush during the later second millennium BC, would Mary learn anything by the latter method that she did not already know from the first method? If we answer that Mary learns nothing from living in Kush that she did not already know by exhaustively studying Kush, then we can assert the equivalence of what it was like to live and what actually happened. If, on the other hand, we answer that Mary does indeed learn something from living in Kush that she did not learn by exhaustively studying Kush, then we ought to deny the equivalence of what it was like to live and what actually happened.

While this exact thought experiment cannot be performed, there is a more mundane parallel that anyone can test: exhaustively educate yourself about somewhere you have never visited, and then go to see the place for yourself. Do you learn anything when you visit that you did not know from your prior exhaustive study? In other words, does the lived experience of the place add to the knowledge you had gained without lived experience?

While Dilthey does not use the term “ineffable,” many of his formulations of lived experience point to its ineffability and our inability to capture lived experience in any conceptual framework (as is implied by his criticism of Husserl, quoted above). If what one learns from what it was like to live is ineffable, then we could assert that, even when our conceptual framework was as adequate as we can make it, it is still inadequate and leaves out something of what what it was like to live, i.e., it leaves out the component of lived experience.

But, as I said, Dilthey himself does not use the term “ineffable” in this context, and he may have avoided it for the best scientific reasons. Our inability to formulate the distinctiveness of lived experience in contradistinction to that which can be learned apart from lived experience may be simply due to the inadequacy of our conceptual framework. When we have improved our conceptual framework, we may possess the concepts necessary to render that which now appears ineffable as something that can be accounted for in our conceptual framework. We must admit in all honesty, however, that we aren’t there yet in relation to lived experience. This is not a reason to avoid the concept of lived experience, but, on the contrary, it is a reason to work all the more diligently at clarifying the concept of lived experience. Employing simple distinctions like that between what it was like to live and what actually happened is one way to test the boundaries of the concept and so to better understand its relationships to other related concepts.

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Pierre Pomme (1735 to 1812)

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Worlds of Convenience

24 August 2017

Thursday


Three Worlds, Three Civilizations

In August of this year I spoke at the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress 2017. One of the themes of the congress was “The Moon as a Stepping Stone to the Stars” so I attempted to speak directly to this theme with a presentation titled, “The Role of Lunar Civilization in Interstellar Buildout.” The intention was to bring together the possible development of the moon as part of the infrastructure of spacefaring civilization within our solar system with the role that the moon could play in the further buildout of spacefaring civilization toward an interstellar spacefaring capacity.

Most of our spacefaring infrastructure at present is in low Earth orbit.

In preparing my presentation I worked through a lot of ideas related to this theme, and even though Icarus Interstellar was very generous with the time they gave me to speak, I couldn’t develop all of the ideas that I had been working on. One of these ideas was that of the moon and Mars as worlds of convenience. By this I mean that the moon and Mars are small, rocky worlds that might be useful to human beings because of their constitution and their proximity to Earth.

Any agriculture on the moon will of necessity be confined to artificial conditions.

The moon, as the closest large celestial body to Earth, is a “world of convenience”: It is an island in space within easy reach of Earth, and might well play a role in terrestrial civilization not unlike the role of the Azores or the Canary Islands played in the history of western civilization, which, as it began to explore farther afield down the coast of Africa and into the Atlantic (and eventually to the new world), made use of the facilities offered by these island chains. Whether as a supply depot, a source of materials from mining operations, a place for R&R for crews, or as a hub of scientific activity, the moon could be a crucial component of spacefaring infrastructure in the solar system, and, as such, could serve to facilitate the growth and development of spacefaring civilization.

Because Mars is a bit more like Earth than the moon, conditions on Mars may be less artificial than on the moon.

Mars is also a world of convenience. While farther from Earth than the moon, it is still within our present technology to get to Mars — i.e., it is within the technological capability of a rudimentary spacefaring capacity to travel to a neighboring planet within the same planetary system — and Mars is more like Earth than is the moon. Mars has an atmosphere (albeit thin), because it has an atmosphere its temperatures are moderated, its day is similar to the terrestrial day, and its gravity is closer to that of Earth’s gravity than is the gravity on the moon. Mars, then, is close enough to Earth to be settled by human beings, and the conditions are friendlier to human beings than the closer and more convenient moon. These factors make Mars a potentially important center for the exploration of the outer solar system.

The further buildout of our spacefaring infrastructure will probably include both space-based assets and planetary assets, but it is on planets that we will feel at home.

We can easily imagine a future for humanity within our own solar system in which mature civilizations are found not only on Earth but also on the moon and Mars. Since the moon and Mars are both “worlds of convenience” for us — places unlike the Earth, but not so unlike the Earth that we could not make use of them in the buildout of human civilization as a spacefaring civilization — we would expect them to naturally be part of human plans for the future of the solar system. Because we are biological beings emergent from a biosphere associated with the surface of Earth (a condition I call planetary endemism), we are likely to favor other planetary surfaces even as human civilization expands into space; it is on planetary surfaces that we will feel familiar and comfortable as a legacy of our evolutionary psychology.

Our planetary endemism predisposes us to favor planetary surfaces for human habitation.

These three inhabited worlds — Earth, the moon, and Mars — would each have a human civilization, but also a distinctive civilization different from the others, and each would stand in distinctive relationships to the other two. Earth and the moon are always going to be tightly bound, perhaps even bound by the same central project, because of their proximity. Mars will be a bit distant, but more Earth-like, and so more likely to give rise to an Earth-like civilization, but a civilization that will be built under selection pressures distinct from those on Earth. The moon will never have an Earth-like civilization because it will almost certainly never have an atmosphere, and it will never have a greater gravitational field, so Lunar civilization will depart from terrestrial civilization even while being tightly-coupled to Earth due to its proximity.

The moon will always be an ‘offshore balancer’ for Earth, but conditions on the moon are so different from those of Earth that any Lunar civilization would diverge from terrestrial civilization.

The presence of worlds of convenience within our solar system does not mean that we must or will forgo other opportunities for the development of spacefaring civilization. Just as Icarus Interstellar holds that there is no one way to the stars, so too there is no one buildout for the infrastructure of a spacefaring civilization. One of the themes of my presentation as delivered was the different possibilities for infrastructure buildout within the solar system, how these different infrastructures could interact, and how they would figure in future human projects like interstellar missions. Thus the three worlds and the three civilizations of Earth, the moon, and Mars may be joined by distinctive civilizations based on artificial habitats or on settlements based on asteroids or the more distant moons of the outer planets. But Earth, the moon, and Mars are likely to remain tightly-coupled in ongoing relationships of cooperation, competition, and conflict because of their status as worlds of convenience.

The worlds of convenience within our solar system may be joined by artificial habitats.

The possibility of multiple human civilizations within our solar system presents the possibility of what I call “distributed development” (cf. Mass Extinction in the West Asian Cluster and Emergent Complexity in Multi-Planetary Ecosystems). In the earliest history of human civilization distributed development could only extend as far as the technologies of transportation allowed. With transportation and communication limited to walking, shipping, horses, or chariots, the civilizations of west Asia could participate in mutual ideal diffusion, but the other centers of civilization at this time — in China, India, Peru, Mexico, and elsewhere — lay beyond the scope of easy communication by these means of transportation and communication. As the technologies of transportation and communication became more sophisticated, idea diffusion is now planetary, and this planetary-scale idea diffusion is converging upon a planetary civilization.

An interplanetary internet would facilitate idea diffusion between the worlds of our solar system.

Today, our planetary civilization has instantaneous communication and rapid transportation between any and all parts of the planet, and planetary scale idea diffusion is the rule. We enjoy this planetary scale idea diffusion because our technologies of communication and transportation — jets, high speed trains, fiber optic cables, the internet, satellites, and so on — allow for it. So fast forward to a solar system of three planetary civilizations — i.e., three distinct and independent civilizations, though coupled by relationships of trade and communication — and with an interplanetary network of communication and transportation that allows for idea diffusion on an interplanetary scale. The pattern of distributed development among multiple civilizations that characterized the west Asian cluster of civilization could be iterated at an interplanetary scale, driving these civilizations forward as they borrow from each other, and no one civilization must make every breakthrough in order for the others to enjoy the benefits of innovation.

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Wednesday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Overview Effects

The Epistemic Overview Effect

The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

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

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Planetary Endemism and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Intuitive Tractability

Stoicism, Sensibility, and the Overview Effect

Homeworld Effects

The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung

The Martian Standpoint

Addendum on the Martian Standpoint

Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space

What will it be like to be a Martian?

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Monday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy 4th of July!

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Friday


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

“…civilization in the region likely developed in a kind of reticulate pattern, rather than in a unitary and linear manner, so that, if we were in possession of all the evidence, we might find a series of developments took place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating in a single civilization. Developments were likely distributed across the several different civilizations, and disseminated by idea diffusion until they reached all the others. This could be called a seriation of distributed development.”

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

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

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

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

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

In More is Different I wrote…

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

…and in Yet Another Astrobiology Thought Experiment I wrote…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday


Nicolaus Copernicus

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

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

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

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

“Fred Hoyle” article in the Encyclopedia Britannica

…here is a formulation in a paper from 2015…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and another formulation…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Accelerationism

16 June 2017

Friday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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