The Franchise Problem

13 December 2017

Wednesday


‘Chairing the Member’ from William Hogarth’s series ‘Humours of an Election.’

Is an inclusive franchise a bug or a feature of democracy?

One of the unquestioned political values (if not ideals) of our time is not only that of liberal democracy, but, even more-so, liberal democracy with the broadest possible franchise. Many today regard the expansion of the franchise as one of the most important accomplishments of contemporary civil society and civil rights. Indeed, the limited franchise of democracies prior to the twentieth century expansion of the voting franchise is today regarded as a terrible moral stain on earlier societies. But what if a limited franchise were not a bug but rather a feature of early democracies? Can democracy even function with a universal franchise? We don’t know. Political societies in their contemporary form of a nearly universal franchise are historically very young, and we cannot yet say whether or not these political experiments will be successful.

Even to suggest a restriction on the franchise after a century of expansion is political heresy in the western world, but we may be forced into accepting some limitation on voting rights in order to salvage our societies, which seem bent on self-destruction. It is likely that the most we can do at this point in the history of western civilization is to salvage what can be salvaged from the Enlightenment project; more radically, western civilization may need to sever its relationship to the Enlightenment project and adopt some other ideological formation as its central project, and this would likely be a process as fraught as the Thirty Years’ War, which was one of the causes of the formation of the Enlightenment project. I think it would be preferable to experiment with different implementations of the Enlightenment project though different franchise regimes, when seen in comparison to the chaos that would ensue from entirely dispensing with the Enlightenment project. Thus, I am well aware that the present discussion lies outside the configuration of the Overton window as it functions in contemporary western societies, but I think that this discussion can be conducted in a rational way, and that it may suggest political experiments that have never yet been tried in the history of humanity.

Even before the age of the nearly universal franchise, democracy was believed to be unworkable. Plato and Aristotle had nothing good to say about democracy — after all, it had been democratic Athens that had condemned Socrates to death. In modern times there is a well-known quote from Alexander Fraser Tytler, often mis-attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, suggesting that democracy is fatally flawed:

“A Democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the results that Democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a dictatorship.”

While this was written before the nearly universal franchise of contemporary democracies, it points to a structural problem in democracies that is only made worse by the expanding scope of the franchise. The practical consequence of a nearly universal franchise is that voting rights have been given to an even greater number individuals who are not stakeholders in society except in so far as their “stake” in society is the value that they extract from the others in that society that produce value. Very few individuals are productive members of society — most consume more than they contribute to the common weal. It sounds cruel to say it, but this is a case in which we must eventually be cruel to be kind. The dependent members of a society will suffer more in the long run from the collapse of that society than they would suffer from being excluded from the franchise.

A democracy with a limited franchise has as its goal a franchise that is restricted to productive stakeholders in society. Limiting the vote to property owners was one way to accomplish this, and moreover this retained a connection to the feudal past, in which the lords of feudal estates were a law unto themselves in the decentralized power structure of feudalism. Nevertheless, democracy has deep roots in western society, and many of these feudal societies had democratic aspects that we fail to recognize as democratic today because of the severely restricted franchise. For example, when the aldermen of a town gathered to make a decision, this was an essentially democratic institution. Many such institutions existed on a local level, and they reached up all the way to the election of the Holy Roman Emperor, where the franchise was limited to prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire electoral college. The Vatican retains a system like this to the present day, in which the College of Cardinals elects the Pope, not a mass ballot among Roman Catholics.

In past democratic societies, voting rights were restricted across categories of age, sex, and race, and these are precisely the categories that became the focus of identity politics in our own time. Since these past categories of franchise limitation have proved to be so divisive, the obvious political experiment is to attempt franchise limitations based on other categories (though it is easy to predict that any condition placed on voting would rapidly become stigmatized as a method employed by the powerful to shut out powerless sectors of society from ever gaining political power). Above the idea of limiting the franchise to property owners has been noted. Another idea that regularly recurs, and which is found in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, is the limitation of the franchise to veterans. It would also be possible to limit the franchise to net taxpayers (those who pay more taxes to the government than the value they derive in government services, though this calculation would of course be controversial).

A thought experiment that may help us to think our way through the franchise problem is to consider the remaining restrictions on the expansion of the franchise. Most nation-states that hold elections have a minimum age limit for voting, and most restrict voting rights to citizens. What would it be like to remove these remaining restrictions on voting rights? What would a truly universal franchise be like? Suppose anyone from anywhere in the world could come to your nation-state and vote in your election, and further suppose that children of any age could vote. This would obviously run into serious problems. A toddler could not meaningfully vote, but a toddler’s parents could take a toddler into a voting booth and record the child’s vote.

The problem of children voting points to two very interesting questions:

1) If beings who cannot meaningfully vote were included in a universal franchise, why should we limit the franchise to human beings? A dog may not be able to meaningfully vote in an election (or stand for office), but a dog’s owner could register a dog’s vote, just as a parent could register a child’s vote before that child became old enough to resist having their vote taken by their parent. If this is a problem, why exactly is it a problem? Presumably it is a problem because kennel owners would breed themselves into a position of power in society, and we think this is more likely than parents producing so many children as to capture the vote in an election. However, a very rich individual could adopt a large number of children and thereby control a disproportionate voting bloc. Is this a bad thing? If there were requirements to assure the well being of the children (as there are), this could be to the benefit of orphans. However, if children were relevant to voting, there would be far fewer orphans because children would be more politically valuable than they are today.

2) If the votes of very young children would necessarily be mediated by their parents, the child’s vote could simply be legally conferred upon the parent or guardian until that child reaches a certain age. This points to possible alternatives to contemporary franchise conventions: an individual (or a couple) could have as many votes as they have dependent children, for example. This could be administered in many different ways. Each adult might have a vote, and then one parent (or both) might have an additional number of votes corresponding to their number of dependent children. In a more radically natalist regime, the only votes could be the votes that parents exercise on behalf of their dependent children, and no adult automatically has a vote simply in virtue of being an adult. Individuals would have an opportunity to vote only when they could prove themselves to be a parent presently caring for a dependent child, which would achieve the end of having the only voters being those who are stakeholders in the future of the society in question. Additionally, this would incentivize child-rearing at a time of declining fertility rates. (Full disclosure: I have no children, so I would not be eligible to vote under such a franchise regime.)

I do not think it is likely that any contemporary political regime would adopt any of the franchise experiments suggested above in regard to parents exercising a vote on behalf on their children, but it is an interesting idea, and it points to other political experiments that could be made.

A political entity might actively manage the scope of its franchise throughout its history, changing voter qualifications as conditions change, and circumstances appear to warrant a different composition of the electorate. For example, if the age distribution of a society becomes too weighted toward the elderly, as is projected to occur in most if not all industrialized nation-states in the near future, a nation-state may choose to implement not only a lower age limit to voting, but also an upper age limit for voting. An active management of the franchise might be continual changes in both lower and upper age limits to voting eligibility.

Given the generous supply of political data, it would not be difficult for data scientists to comb through well-documented elections and to determine, ex post facto, what the result of a given election would have been if the franchise regime had been altered. If general rules could be derived from this kind of research, an analysis of the contemporary political landscape would determine the ideal composition of the electorate required to obtain a certain result. However, this meta-electoral process would itself be undemocratic. Some managerial body (or some individual) would have to determine the desired result and, on the basis of the desired result, then stipulate the constitution of the electorate, and it is difficult to imagine how such a regime could come about under contemporary social conditions.

The important exception to the above observation on the difficulty of managing an electorate under contemporary conditions is the European Union, which has de facto pursued a course like this. The political elites have made a determination of the desired end, and votes are held until the desired result is achieved. While it could be argued that this procedure has produced an unprecedented unification of Europe, it has also produced a backlash, most obviously manifested by the Brexit vote for Britain to leave the EU. The political class of Britain is staunchly opposed to this, and seem to be going about Brexit negotiations in a disingenuous fashion, while the “Remainers” continue to agitate for another vote, on the hope that this will reverse the first vote, and then we would have a return to EU business as usual, when votes are simply held until the desired result is obtained. This system does not involve tailoring the electorate in order to achieve the desired result; instead, the wording of the measures to be decided (clear or confusing as necessitated by circumstance), the date selected for the vote (convenient or inconvenient), the campaign for the vote, and threats of disaster should the vote not go according to plan, have been the methods employed to shape a putatively democratic society along non-democratic lines.

The reader may interpret the above remarks as hostile to the European Union, but while I find aspects of the European Union to be problematic, I admire the Europeans for having undertaken their grand political experiment in the constitution of a European superstate at a time when few nation-states are willing to experiment politically. The Europeans are using the tools they have at their disposal in order to attempt a reform of liberal democracy. Though this experiment is imperfect, as are all political experiments, there is much that we can learn from it. It is this spirit of political experimentation that he needed to order to test alternative voting franchise regimes such as those suggested above, and to prevent a society from becoming so politically stagnant that change becomes inconceivable.

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Digging Up the Anthropocene

29 November 2017

Wednesday


Photograph by Ben Roberts.

A recent paper, The Working Group on the Anthropocene: Summary of evidence and interim recommendations, by Jan Zalasiewicz and twenty-four additional authors, considers the case for the formalization of the Anthropocene as a chronostratigraphic/geochronologic unit, i.e., a periodization of geological time. Since “Anthropocene” was proposed by Paul Crutzen in 2000 as a geological period marked by the impact of human beings upon the Earth, geologists have been attempting to determine if the geological record will someday bear the distinctive traces of human activity and whether (and this an interesting future contingent) geologists might someday be able to reliably locate and identify the Anthropocene boundary in the geological record. The emerging consensus is that there is, “…a clear synchronous signal of the transformative influence of humans on key physical, chemical, and biological processes at the planetary scale.” These synchronous signals are described as follows:

“A range of potential proxy signals emerged as potentially important during the analysis, for instance the spherical carbonaceous particles of fly ash (Rose, 2015; Swindles et al., 2015), plastics (Zalasiewicz et al., 2016), other ‘technofossils’ (Zalasiewicz et al., 2014a, 2016) and artificial radionuclides (Waters et al., 2015), changes to carbon and nitrogen isotope patterns (Waters et al., 2016) and a variety of fossilizable biological remains (Barnosky, 2014; Wilkinson et al., 2014). Many of these signals will leave a permanent record in the Earth’s strata.”

The Working Group on the Anthropocene: Summary of evidence and interim recommendations, by Jan Zalasiewicz, et al., Anthropocene, Volume 19, September 2017, Pages 55-60.

Will paleontologists of the future someday dig up technofossils, and from these technofossils attempt to reconstruct an entire technological infrastructure, much as we today reconstruct an extinct species from a single preserved vertebra or rib, and around the resulting organism we seek to reconstruct the entire vanished ecosystem in which that extinct species made its home?

Recently I was prompted to think about the Anthropocene from a paleontological perspective by a Twitter post by Ben Roberts, which included images of automobiles being degraded by weathering (these photographs are included in this post). In response to these images I wrote that I would like to see what the fossils of these automobiles would look like in ten million years. This caused me to think about the possibility of the artifacts of human civilization that might be preserved over geological scales of time. The signals mentioned above in the paper quoted all constitute microfossils that would begin to appear in the geological record for the first time with the advent of the Anthropocene, but I also wonder if larger artifacts might be preserved in the geological record.

Photograph by Ben Roberts.

The tissues of organisms — sometimes even soft tissues — are preserved in the geological record through several different processes. While it is unlikely that human artifacts would be fossilized by replacement and recrystallization or by adpression, it seems possible that technological fossils could be formed through permineralization or through casts and molds. It is easy to imagine that the hulk of an automobile, a train, or even an entire industrial facility might fill with sediment, and though the steel would rust away, that rust would be preserved in situ more or less in its finished form by the sediment hardening into sedimentary rock around it. A careful paleontologist thus might be able to excavate an entire locomotive by means of rust encased in sedimentary rocks.

Of course, fossils are rare, and most artifacts will be eroded away rather than fossilized. Moreover, technofossils are likely to be even more rare than natural fossils. Given our interest in our own past, and our technological abilities to recover artifacts, human beings will continually recover our own remains from the historical period. The fossil record that remains to be discovered will depend upon whether civilization is merely transient or whether it will prove to be enduring. In the case of civilization being a transient historical phenomenon (note that civilization could endure for another 10, 20, or 30 thousand years or more and still be “transient” from the perspective of paleontology), the process of recovering artifacts that would otherwise be fossilized will come to be end. There likely will be a few cases at least of human artifacts in sedimentary basins that eventually are preserved by some process or another. Human artifacts will ultimately be preserved in ice, in snow, in a glaciers, covered in sand on beaches and deserts, covered by landslides on land, as well as being preserved in the oceans, in deep, cold anoxic waters, as well as underwater covered in mud. There is a good chance that many ancient ships lost at sea have been entirely covered over by sand, mud, and silt, and are not likely to be located within our own historical period, thereby saved for far future paleontologists specializing in the excavation of technofossils.

Photograph by Ben Roberts.

Human beings have been building structures and leaving artifacts for thousands of years, of course — sufficient time for many of these structures to be abandoned, covered over, forgotten, and subsequently revealed once again to the light of day by archaeology. The extensive remains of the Indus Valley civilization were forgotten in this way, only to be rediscovered in the twentieth century, and the knowledge of the Minoan civilization had been reduced to mere legend when its palaces were eventually excavated. These remains have been subject to weathering and degradation, but some are in a remarkable state of preservation, though they have not been buried for millions of years, or subjected to the temperatures and pressures that result from being contained in geological strata. An insufficient time has passed for there to be a fossil record of human civilization, even though there is an archaeological record of human civilization.

Up until the industrial revolution, human industry was mostly carried out on a modest scale and resulted in little impact on the environment. Most materials employed were biodegradable and have disappeared over scales of historical time. I have previously observed that traces of Roman lead production have been preserved in the ice of Antarctica, and I would not be surprised to learn that silver processing at Potosí in the early modern period also left detectable traces. One might understand these examples as very early anticipations of later industrial processes carried out on a far larger scale. With the advent of technologies made possible by the systematic application of science to industry, new and unprecedented materials were invented and employed in industrial-scale applications. Some of these are the materials cited in the paper quoted above as the distinctive signals of the Anthropocene. While the recent paper cited above singled out a spike of artificial radionuclides, an earlier paper specifically mentioned plastics:

“Plastics are already present in sufficient numbers to be considered as one of the most important types of ‘technofossil’ that will form a permanent record of human presence on Earth.”

“The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene,” by Jan Zalasiewicz, et al.

Contemporary industrial processes are sufficiently sophisticated to produce distinctively new technogenic materials (like Chernobylite) and on a scale to distribute the products of industry globally, and so to leave a planetary trace of human activity. It remains only for time, heat, and pressure to transform these distinctive traces into technofossils.

Photograph by Ben Roberts.

That the global deposition of a distinctive Anthropocene layer begins in earnest in the twentieth century (and specifically in the mid-twentieth century) is significant. The authors of the paper write:

“This mid-20th century level seems to serve best the prime requirement for a chronostratigraphic base of high-precision global synchroneity… Human activities only came to have an effect that was both large and synchronous, and thus leave a clear (chrono-) stratigraphic signal, in the mid-20th century. A wide range of evidence from this time indicates the rapid increase in scale and extent of global human impact on the planetary environment, also clearly recognizable from a wide range of synchronous stratigraphic indicators.”

The Working Group on the Anthropocene: Summary of evidence and interim recommendations, by Jan Zalasiewicz, et al.

It is interesting to note how this mid-20th century boundary (as geologists would call it; I might call it a “threshold”) corresponds to other boundaries (or thresholds) in human development. For example, in the Before Present (BP) time scale frequently employed in the sciences, the “present” for purposes of radiometric dating has been set as 01 January 1950, as radiometric dating became practical at about this time. A neat mid-century point of reference fit well with the actual date of the availability of the technologies of radiometric dating.

Recently in Radio Technology and Existential Risk I discussed what we may call “Sagan’s Thesis,” viz. that nuclear and radio technology are tightly-coupled, so that the invention of radio technology means both that the inventors of the technology can see and be seen in the cosmos, and that the inventors soon will be able to build nuclear weapons and so be enabled to destroy themselves. Radio, then, is both an existential risk and an existential opportunity, thus marking a threshold of technological maturity in the history of an intelligent species:

“Radio astronomy on Earth is a by-product of the Second World War, when there were strong military pressures for the development of radar. Serious radio astronomy emerged only in the 1950s, major radio telescopes only in the 1960s. If we define an advanced civilization as one able to engage in long-distance radio communication using large radio telescopes, there has been an advanced civilization on our planet for only about ten years. Therefore, any civilization ten years less advanced than we cannot talk to us at all.”

Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, Chap. 31

While radio astronomy sensu stricto is not likely to leave any trace in the fossil record (though the wreckage of radio telescopes might be found), it will leave a lasting mark on civilization, and may (under some circumstances) transform a civilization. A changed civilization that endures for geological scales of time will leave a transformed trace of itself in the geological record. And for humanity, this change began near the mid-20th century boundary — about the same time as we began to use nuclear weapons, which is consistent both with Sagan’s Thesis and with a mid-20th century boundary for the Anthropocene.

The consilience of these several factors — planetary-scale anthropogenic impacts, radio technology, and nuclear technology (which includes both nuclear weapons and radiometric dating) — distinctively manifesting themselves on a global scale in the middle of the twentieth century, constitute “synchronous signals” not only for stratigraphy, but also for civilization on historical scales of time. In other words, the Anthropocene marks not only a geological periodization, but also a new stage in the development of civilization.

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

In his original 1964 paper that introduced the idea of “types” of civilization, “Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations,” Kardashev defined a Type I civilization as a civilization at, “a technological level close to the level presently attained on the earth.” (Here I ask the reader to set aside imaginative characterizations of Type I civilizations that have been elaborated by individuals who have never bothered to read Kardashev’s paper.) As this paper was written in 1964, a mid-20th century boundary for the Anthropocene corresponds nicely with the level of technological development close to that attained by civilization at this time. We could, then, identify a Type I civilization with a civilization that produces an Anthropocene-like boundary on its homeworld (i.e., the equivalent of the Anthropocene for some other intelligent species but defined in an non-anthropocentric way).

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Thursday — Thanksgiving Day


Studies in Formal Thought:

Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955)

Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955)

Einstein’s Philosophy of Mathematics


For some time I have had it on my mind to return to a post I wrote about a line from Einstein’s writing, Unpacking an Einstein Aphorism. The “aphorism” in question is this sentence:

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

…which, in the original German, was…

“Insofern sich die Sätze der Mathematik auf die Wirklichkeit beziehen, sind sie nict sicher, und insofern sie sicher sind, beziehen sie sich nicht auf die Wirklichkeit.”

Although this sentence has been widely quoted out of context until it has achieved the de facto status of an aphorism, I was wrong to call it an aphorism. This sentence, and the idea it expresses, is entirely integral with the essay in which it appears, and should not be treated in isolation from that context. I can offer in mitigation that a full philosophical commentary on Einstein’s essay would run to the length of a volume, or several volumes, but this post will be something of a mea culpa and an effort toward mitigation of the incorrect impression I previously gave that Einstein formulated this idea as an aphorism.

The first few paragraphs of Einstein’s lecture, which includes the passage quoted above, constitute a preamble on the philosophy of mathematics. Einstein wrote this sententious survey of his philosophy of mathematics in order to give the listener (or reader) enough of a methodological background that they would be able to follow Einstein’s reasoning as he approaches the central idea he wanted to get across: Einstein’s lecture was an exercise in the cultivation of geometrical intuition. Unless one has some familiarity with formal thought — usually mathematics or logic — one is not likely to have an appreciation of the tension between intuition and formalization in formal thought, nor of how mathematicians use the term “intuition.” In ordinary language, “intuition” usually means arriving at a conclusion on some matter too subtle to be made fully explicit. For mathematicians, in contrast, intuition is a faculty of the mind that is analogous to perception. Indeed, Kant made this distinction, implying its underlying parallelism, by using the terms “sensible intuition” and “intellectual intuition” (which can also be called “outer” and “inner” intuition).

Intuition as employed in this formal sense has been, through most of the history of formal thought, understood sub specie aeternitatis, i.e., possessing many of the properties once reserved for divinity: eternity, immutability, impassibility, and so on. In the twentieth century this began to change, and the formal conception of intuition came to be more understood in naturalistic terms as a faculty of the human mind, and, as such, subject to change. Here is a passage from Gödel that I have quoted many times (e.g., in Transcendental Humors), in which Gödel delineates a dynamic and changing conception of intuition:

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

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

If geometrical intuition (or mathematical intuition more generally) is subject to change, it is also subject to improvement (or degradation). A logician like Gödel, acutely aware of the cognitive mechanisms by which he has come to grasp logic and mathematics, might devote himself to consciously developing intuitions, always refining and improving his conceptual framework, and straining toward developing new intuitions that would allow for the extension of mathematical rigor to regions of knowledge previously given over to Chaos and Old Night. Einstein did not make this as explicit as did Gödel, but he clearly had the same idea, and Einstein’s lecture was an attempt to demonstrate to his audience the cultivation of geometrical intuitions consistent with the cosmology of general relativity.

Einstein’s revolutionary work in physics represented at the time a new level of sophistication of the mathematical representation of physical phenomena. Mathematicized physics began with Galileo, and might be said to coincide with the advent of the scientific revolution, and the mathematization of physics reached a level of mature sophistication with Newton, who invented the calculus in order to be able to express his thought in mathematical form. The Newtonian paradigm in physics was elaborated as the “classical physics” of which Einstein and Infeld, like mathematical parallels of Edward Gibbon, recorded the decline and fall.

Between Einstein and Newton a philosophical revolution in mathematics occurred. The philosophy of mathematics formulated by Kant is taken by many philosophers to express the conception of mathematics to be found in Newton; I do not agree with this judgment, as much for historiographical reasons as for philosophical reasons. But perhaps if we scrape away the Kantian idealism and subjectivism there might well be a core of Newtonian philosophy of mathematics in Kant, or, if you prefer, a core of Kantian philosophy of mathematics intimated in Newton. For present purposes, this is neither here nor there.

The revolution that occurred between Newton and Einstein was the change to hypothetico-deductivism from that which preceded it. So what was it that preceded the hypothetico-deductive conception of formal systems in mathematics? I call this earlier form of mathematics, i.e., I call pre-hypothetico-deductive mathematics, categorico-deductive mathematics, because the principles or axioms now asserted hypothetically were once asserted categorically, in the belief that the truths of formal thought, i.e., of logic and mathematics, were eternal, immutable, unchanging truths, recognized by the mind’s eye as incontrovertible, indubitable, necessary truths as soon as they were glimpsed. It was often said (and is sometimes still today said), that to understand an axiom is ipso facto to see that it must be true; this is the categorico-deductive perspective.

In mathematics as it is pursued today, as an exercise in hypothetico-deductive reasoning, axioms are posited not because they are held to be necessarily true, or self-evidently true, or undeniably true; axioms need not be true at all. Axioms are posited because they are an economical point of origin for the fruitful derivation of consequences. This revolution in mathematical rigor transformed the landscape of mathematical thought so completely that Bertrand Russell, writing in the early twentieth century could write, “…mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.” Here formal, logical truth is entirely insulated from empirical, intuitive truth. It is at least arguable that the new formalisms made possible by the hypothetico-deductive method are at least partially responsible for Einstein’s innovations in physics. (I have earlier touched on Einstein’s conception of formalism in A Century of General Relativity and Constructive Moments within Non-Constructive Thought.)

If you are familiar with Einstein’s lecture, and especially with the opening summary of Einstein’s philosophy of mathematics, you will immediately recognize that Einstein formulates his position around the distinction between the categorico-deductive (which Einstein calls the “older interpretation” of axiomatics) and the hypothetico-deductive (which Einstein calls the “modern interpretation” of axiomatics). Drawing upon this distinction, Einstein gives us a somewhat subtler and more flexible formulation of the fundamental disconnect between the formal and the material than that which Russell paradoxically thrusts in our face. By formulating his distinction in terms of “as far as,” Einstein implies that there is a continuum of the dissociation between what Einstein called the “logical-formal” and “objective or intuitive content.”

Einstein then goes on to assert that a purely logical-formal account of mathematics joined together with the totality of physical laws allows us to say something, “about the behavior of real things.” The logical-formal alone can can say nothing about the real world; in its isolated formal purity it is perfectly rigorous and certain, but also impotent. This marvelous structure must be supplemented with empirical laws of nature, empirically discovered, empirically defined, empirically applied, and empirically tested, in order to further our knowledge of the world. Here we see Einstein making use of the hypothetico-deductive method, and supplementing it with contemporary physical theory; significantly, in order to establish a relationship between the formalisms of general relativity and the actual world he didn’t try to turn back the clock by returning to categorico-deductivism, but took up hypothetic-deductivism and ran with it.

But all of this is mere prologue. The question that Einstein wants to discuss in his lecture is the spatial extension of the universe, which Einstein distills to two alternatives:

1. The universe is spatially infinite. This is possible only if in the universe the average spatial density of matter, concentrated in the stars, vanishes, i.e., if the ratio of the total mass of the stars to the volume of the space through which they are scattered indefinitely approaches zero as greater and greater volumes are considered.

2. The universe is spatially finite. This must be so, if there exists an average density of the ponderable matter in the universe that is different from zero. The smaller that average density, the greater is the volume of the universe.

Albert Einstein, Geometry and Experience, Lecture before the Prussian Academy of Sciences, January 27, 1921. The last part appeared first in a reprint by Springer, Berlin, 1921

It is interesting to note, especially in light of the Kantian distinction noted above between sensible and intellectual intuition, that one of Kant’s four antinomies of pure reason was whether or not the universe was finite or infinite in extent. Einstein has taken this Kantian antimony of pure reason and has cast it in a light in which it is no longer exclusively the province of pure reason, and so may be answered by the methods of science. To this end, Einstein presents the distinction between a finite universe and an infinite universe in the context of the density of matter — “the ratio of the total mass of the stars to the volume of the space through which they are scattered” — which is a question that may be determined by science, whereas the purely abstract terms of the Kantian antimony allowed for no scientific contribution to the solution of the question. For Kant, pure reason could gain no traction on this paralogism of pure reason; Einstein gains traction by making the question less pure, and moves toward more engagement with reality and therefore less certainty.

It was the shift from categorico-deductivism to hypothetico-deductivism, followed by Einstein’s “completion” of geometry by the superaddition of empirical laws, that allows Einstein to adopt a methodology that is both rigorous and scientifically fruitful. (“We will call this completed geometry ‘practical geometry,’ and shall distinguish it in what follows from ‘purely axiomatic geometry’.”) Where the simplicity of Euclidean geometry allows for the straight-forward application of empirical laws to “practically-rigid bodies” then the simplest solution of Euclidean geometry is preferred, but where this fails, other geometries may be employed to resolve the apparent contradiction between mathematics and empirical laws. Ultimately, the latter is found to be the case — “the laws of disposition of rigid bodies do not correspond to the rules of Euclidean geometry on account of the Lorentz contraction” — and so it is Riemannian geometry rather than Euclidean geometry that is the mathematical setting of general relativity.

Einstein’s use of Riemannian geometry is significant. The philosophical shift from categorico-deductivism to hypothetico-deductivism could be reasonably attributed to (or, at least, to follow from) the nineteenth century discovery of non-Euclidean geometries, and this discovery is an interesting and complex story in itself. Gauss (sometimes called the “Prince of Mathematicians”) discovered non-Euclidean geometry, but published none of it in his lifetime. It was independently discovered by the Hungarian János Bolyai (the son of a colleague of Gauss) and the Russian Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky. Both Bolyai and Lobachevsky arrived at non-Euclidean geometry by adopting the axioms of Euclid but altering the axiom of parallels. The axioms of parallels had long been a sore spot in mathematics; generation after generation of mathematicians had sought to prove the axiom of parallels from the other axioms, to no avail. Bolyai and Lobachevsky found that they could replace the axiom of parallels with another axiom and derive perfectly consistent but strange and unfamiliar geometrical theorems. This was the beginning of the disconnect between the logical-formal and objective or intuitive content.

Riemann also independently arrived at non-Euclidean geometry, but by a different route than that taken by Bolyai and Lobachevsky. Whereas the latter employed the axiomatic method — hence its immediate relevance to the shift from the categorico-deductive to the hypothetico-deductive — Riemann employed a metrical method. That is to say, Riemann’s method involved measurements of line segments in space defined by the distance between two points. In Euclidean space, the distance between two points is given by a formula derived from the Pythagorean theorem — d = √(x2x1)2 + (y2y1)2 — so that in non-Euclidean space the distance between two points could be given by some different equation.

Whereas the approach of Bolyai and Lobachevsky could be characterized as variations on a theme of axiomatics, Riemann’s approach could be characterized as variations on a theme of analytical geometry. The applicability to general relativity becomes clear when we reflect how, already in antiquity, Eratosthenes was able to determine that the Earth is a sphere by taking measurements on the surface of the Earth. By the same token, although we are embedded in the spacetime continuum, if we take careful measurements we can determine the curvature of space, and perhaps also the overall geometry of the universe.

From a philosophical standpoint, it is interesting to ask if there is an essential relationship between the method of a non-Euclidean geometry and the geometrical intuitions engaged by these methods. Both Bolyai and Lobachevsky arrived at hyperbolic non-Euclidean geometry (an infinitude of parallel lines) whereas Riemann arrived at elliptic non-Euclidean geometry (no parallel lines). I will not attempt to analyze this question here, though I find it interesting and potentially relevant. The non-Euclidean structure of Einstein’s general relativity is more-or-less a three dimensional extrapolation of the elliptic two dimensional surface of a sphere. Our minds cannot conceive this (at least, my mind can’t conceive of it, but there may be mathematicians who, having spent their lives thinking in these terms, are able to visualize three dimensional spatial curvature), but we can formally work with the mathematics, and if the measurements we take of the universe match the mathematics of Riemannian elliptical space, then space is curved in a way such that most human beings cannot form any geometrical intuition of it.

Einstein’s lecture culminates in an attempt to gently herd his listeners toward achieving such an impossible geometrical intuition. After a short discussion of the apparent distribution of mass in the universe (in accord with Einstein’s formulation of the dichotomy between an infinite or a finite universe), Einstein suggests that these considerations point to a finite universe, and then explicitly asks in his lecture, “Can we visualize a three-dimensional universe which is finite, yet unbounded?” Einstein offers a visualization of this by showing how an infinite Euclidean plane can be mapped onto a finite surface of a sphere, and then suggesting an extrapolation from this mapping of an infinite two dimensional Euclidean space to a finite but unbounded two dimensional elliptic space as a mapping from an infinite three dimensional Euclidean space to a finite but unbounded three dimensional elliptic space. Einstein explicitly acknowledges that, “…this is the place where the reader’s imagination boggles.”

Given my own limitations when it comes to geometrical intuition, it is no surprise that I cannot achieve any facility in the use of Einstein’s intuitive method, though I have tried to perform it as a thought experiment many times. I have no doubt that Einstein was able to do this, and much more besides, and that it was, at least in part, his mastery of sophisticated forms of geometrical intuition that had much to do with his seminal discoveries in physics and cosmology. Einstein concluded his lecture by saying, “My only aim today has been to show that the human faculty of visualization is by no means bound to capitulate to non-Euclidean geometry.”

Above I said it would be an interesting question to pursue whether there is an essential relationship between formalisms and the intuitions engaged by them. This problem returns to us in a particularly compelling way when we think of Einstein’s effort in this lecture to guide his readers toward conceiving of the universe as finite and unbounded. When Einstein gave this lecture in 1922 he maintained a steady-state conception of the universe. About the same time the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann was formulating solutions to Einstein’s field equations that employed expanding and contracting universes, of which Einstein himself did not approve. It wasn’t until Einstein met with Georges Lemaître in 1927 that we know something about Einstein’s engagement with Lemaître’s cosmology, which would become the big bang hypothesis. (Cf. the interesting sketch of their relationship, Einstein and Lemaître: two friends, two cosmologies… by Dominique Lambert.)

Ten years after Einstein delivered his “Geometry and Experience” lecture he was hesitantly beginning to accept the expansion of the universe, though he still had reservations about the initial singularity in Lemaître’s cosmology. Nevertheless, Einstein’s long-standing defense of the counter-intuitive idea (which he attempted to make intuitively palatable) of a finite and unbounded universe would seem to have prepared his mind for Lemaître’s cosmology, as Einstein’s finite and unbounded universe is a natural fit with the big bang hypothesis: if the universe began from an initial singularity at a finite point of time in the past, then the universe derived from the initial singularity would still be finite any finite period of time after the initial singularity. Just as we find ourselves on the surface of the Earth (i.e., our planetary endemism), which is a finite and unbounded surface, so we seem to find ourselves within a finite and unbounded universe. Simply connected surfaces of these kinds possess a topological parsimony and hence would presumably be favored as an explanation for the structure of the world in which we find ourselves. Whether our formalisms (i.e., those formalisms accessible to the human mind, i.e., intuitively tractable formalisms) are conductive to this conception, however, is another question for another time.

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An illustration from Einstein’s lecture Geometry and Experience

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Studies in Formalism

1. The Ethos of Formal Thought

2. Epistemic Hubris

3. Parsimonious Formulations

4. Foucault’s Formalism

5. Cartesian Formalism

6. Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method

7. The Church-Turing Thesis and the Asymmetry of Intuition

8. Unpacking an Einstein Aphorism

9. The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

10. Einstein on Geometrical intuition

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Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was part of the efflourescence of formal thinking focused on logic and mathematics.

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was part of an early twentieth century efflorescence of formal thinking focused on logic and mathematics.

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The Three Revolutions

12 November 2017

Sunday


Three Revolutions that Shaped the Modern World

The world as we know it today, civilization as we know it today (because, for us, civilization is the world, our world, the world we have constructed for ourselves), is the result of three revolutions. What was civilization like before these revolutions? Humanity began with the development of an agricultural or pastoral economy subsequently given ritual expression in a religious central project that defined independently emergent civilizations. Though widely scattered across the planet, these early agricultural civilizations had important features in common, with most of the pristine civilizations beginning to emerge shortly after the Holocene warming period of the current Quaternary glaciation.

Although independently originating, these early civilizations had much in common — arguably, each had more in common with the others emergent about the same time than they have in common with contemporary industrialized civilization. How, then, did this very different industrialized civilization emerge from its agricultural civilization precursors? This was the function of the three revolutions: to revolutionize the conceptual framework, the political framework, and the economic framework from its previous traditional form into a changed modern form.

The institutions bequeathed to us by our agricultural past (the era of exclusively biocentric civilization) were either utterly destroyed and replaced with de novo institutions, or traditional institutions were transformed beyond recognition to serve the needs of a changed human world. There are, of course, subtle survivals from the ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, and historians love to point out some of the quirky traditions we continue to follow, though they make no sense in a modern context. But this is peripheral to the bulk of contemporary civilization, which is organized by the institutions changed or created by the three revolutions.

Copernicus stands at the beginning of the scientific revolution, and he stands virtually alone.

The Scientific Revolution

The scientific revolution begins as the earliest of the three revolutions, in the early modern period, and more specifically with Copernicus in the sixteenth century. The work of Copernicus was elaborated and built upon by Kepler, Galileo, Huygens, and a growing number of scientists in western Europe, who began with physics, astronomy, and cosmology, but, in framing a scientific method applicable to the pursuit of knowledge in any field of inquiry, created an epistemic tool that would be universally applied.

The application of the scientific method had the de facto consequence of stigmatizing pre-modern knowledge as superstition, and the attitude emerged that it was necessary to extirpate the superstitions of the past in order to build anew on solid foundations of the new epistemic order of science. This was perceived as an attack on traditional institutions, especially traditional cultural and social institutions. It was this process of the clearing away of old knowledge, dismissed as irrational superstition, and replacing it with new scientific knowledge, that gave us the conflict between science and religion that still simmers in contemporary civilization.

The scientific revolution is ongoing, and continues to revolutionize our conceptual framework. For example, four hundred years into the scientific revolution, in the twentieth century, the Earth sciences were revolutionized by plate tectonics and geomorphology, while cosmology was revolutionized by general relativity and physics was revolutionized by quantum theory. The world we understood at the end of the twentieth century was a radically different place from the world we understood at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is due to the iterative character of the scientific method, which we can continue to apply not only to bodies of knowledge not yet transformed by the scientific method, but also to earlier bodies of scientific knowledge that, while revolutionary in their time, were not fully comprehensive in their conception and formulation. Einstein recognized this character of scientific thought when he wrote that, “There could be no fairer destiny for any physical theory than that it should point the way to a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.”

Democracy in its modern form dates from 1776 and is therefore a comparatively young historical institution.

The Political Revolutions

The political revolutions that began in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, beginning with the American Revolution in 1776, followed by the French Revolution in 1789, and then a series of revolutions across South America that displaced Spain and the Spanish Empire from the continent and the western hemisphere (in a kind of revolutionary contagion), ushered in an age of representative government and popular sovereignty that remains the dominant paradigm of political organization today. The consequences of these political revolutions have been raised to the status of a dogma, so that it no longer considered socially acceptable to propose forms of government not based upon representative institutions and popular sovereignty, however dismally or frequently these institutions disappoint.

We are all aware of the experiment with democracy in classical antiquity in Athens, and spread (sometimes by force) by the Delian League under Athenian leadership until the defeat of Athens by the Spartans and their allies. The ancient experiment with democracy ended with the Peloponnesian War, but there were quasi-democratic institutions throughout the history of western civilization that fell short of perfectly representative institutions, and which especially fell short of the ideal of popular sovereignty implemented as universal franchise. Aristotle, after the Peloponnesian War, had already converged on the idea of a mixed constitution (a constitution neither purely aristocratic nor purely democratic) and the Roman political system over time incorporated institutions of popular participation, such as the Tribune of the People (Tribunus plebis).

Medieval Europe, which Kenneth Clark once called a, “conveniently loose political organization,” frequently involved self-determination through the devolution of political institutions to local control, which meant that free cities might be run in an essentially democratic way, even if there were no elections in the contemporary sense. Also, medieval Europe dispensed with slavery, which had been nearly universal in the ancient world, and in so doing was responsible for one of the great moral revolutions of human civilization.

The political revolutions that broke over Europe and the Americas with such force starting in the late eighteenth century, then, had had the way prepared for them by literally thousands of years of western political philosophy, which frequently formulated social ideals long before there was any possibility of putting them into practice. Like the scientific revolution, the political revolutions had deep roots in history, so that we should rightly see them as the inflection points of processes long operating in history, but almost imperceptible in their earliest expression.

Early industrialization often had an incongruous if not surreal character, as in this painting of traditional houses silhouetted again the Madeley Wood Furnaces at Coalbrookdale.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution began in England with the invention of James Watt’s steam engine, which was, in turn, an improvement upon the Newcomen atmospheric engine, which in turn built upon a long history of an improving industrial technology and industrial infrastructure such as was recorded in Adam Smith’s famous example of a pin factory, and which might be traced back in time to the British Agricultural Revolution, if not before. The industrial revolution rapidly crossed the English channel and was as successful in transforming the continent as it had transformed England. The Germans especially understood that it was the scientific method as applied to industry that drove the industrial revolution forward, as it still does today. It is science rather than the steam engine that truly drove the industrial revolution.

As the scientific revolution drove epistemic reorganization and the political revolutions drove sociopolitical reorganization, the industrial revolution drove economic reorganization. Today, we are all living with the consequences of that reorganization, with more human beings than ever before (both in terms of absolute numbers and in terms of rates) living in cities, earning a living through employment (whether compensated by wages or salary is indifferent; the invariant today is that of being an employee), and organizing our personal time on the basis of clock times that have little to do with the sun and the moon, and schedules that have little or no relationship to the agricultural calendar.

The emergence of these institutions that facilitated the concentration of labor (what Marx would have called “industrial armies”) where it was most needed for economic development indirectly meant the dissolution of multi-generational households, the dissolution of the feeling of being rooted in a particular landscape, the dissolution of the feeling of belonging to a local community, and the dissolution of the way of life that was embodied in these local communities of multi-generational households, bound to the soil and the climate and the particular mix of cultivars that were dietary staples. As science dismissed traditional beliefs as superstition, the industrial revolution dismissed traditional ways of life as impractical and even as unhealthy. Le Courbusier, a great prophet of the industrial city, possessed of revolutionary zeal, forcefully rejected pre-modern technologies of living, asserting, “We must fight against the old-world house, which made a bad use of space. We must look upon the house as a machine for living in or as a tool.”

Revolutionary Permutations

Terrestrial civilization as we know it today is the product of these three revolutions, but must these three revolutions occur, and must they occur in this specific order, for any civilization whatever that would constitute a peer technological civilization with which we might hope to engage in communication? That is to say, if there are other civilizations in the universe (or even in a counterfactual alternative history for terrestrial civilization), would they have to arrive at radio telescopes and spacecraft by this same sequence of revolutions in the same order, or would some other sequence (or some other revolutions) be equally productive of technological civilizations?

This may well sound like a strange question, perhaps an arbitrary question, but this is the sort of question that formal historiography asks. In several posts I have started to outline a conception of formal historiography in which our interest is not only in what has happened on Earth, or what might yet happen on Earth, but what can happen with any civilization whatsoever, whether on Earth or elsewhere (cf. Big History and Scientific Historiography, History in an Extended Sense, Rational Reconstructions of Time, An Alternative Formulation of Rational Reconstructions of Time, and Placeholders for Null-Valued Time). While this conception is not formulated for the express purpose of investigating questions like the Fermi paradox, I hope that the reader can see how such an investigation bears upon the Fermi paradox, the Drake equation, and other “big picture” conceptions that force us to think not in terms of terrestrial civilization, but rather in terms of any civilization whatever.

From a purely formal conception of social institutions, it could be argued that something like these revolutions would have to take place in something like the terrestrial order. The epistemic reorganization of society made it possible to think scientifically about politics, and thus to examine traditional political institutions rationally in a spirit of inquiry characteristic of the Enlightenment. Even if these early forays into political science fall short of contemporary standards of rigor in political science, traditional ideas like the divine right of kings appeared transparently as little better than political superstitions and were dismissed as such. The social reorganization following from the rational examination the political institutions utterly transformed the context in which industrial innovations occurred. If the steam engine or the power loom had been introduced in a time of rigid feudal institutions, no one would have known what to do with them. Consumer goods were not a function of production or general prosperity (as today), but rather were controlled by sumptuary laws, much as the right to engage in certain forms of commerce was granted as a royal favor. These feudal political institutions would not likely have presided over an industrial revolution, but once these institutions were either reformed or eliminated, the seeds of the industrial revolution could take root.

In this interpretation, the epistemic reorganization of the scientific revolution, the social reorganization of the political revolutions, and the economic reorganization of the industrial revolution are all tightly-coupled both synchronically (in terms of the structure of society) and diachronically (in terms of the historical succession of this sequence of events). I am, however, suspicious of this argument because of its implicit anthropocentrism as well as its teleological character. Rather than seeking to justify or to confirm the world we know, framing the historical problem in this formal way gives us a method for seeking variations on the theme of civilization as we know it; alternative sequences could be the basis of thought experiments that would point to different kinds of civilization. Even if we don’t insist that this sequence of revolutions is necessary in order to develop a technological civilization, we can see how each development fed into subsequent developments, acting as a social equivalent of directional selection. If the sequence were different, presumably the directional selection would be different, and the development of civilization taken in a different direction.

I will not here attempt a detailed analysis of the permutations of sequences laid out in the graphic above, though the reader may wish to think through some of the implications of civilizations differently structured by different revolutions at different times in their respective development. For example, many science fiction stories imagine technological civilizations with feudal institutions, whether these feudal institutions are retained unchanged from a distant agricultural past, or whether they were restored after some kind of political revolution analogous to those of terrestrial history, so one could say that, prima facie, political revolution might be entirely left out, i.e., that political reorganization is dispensable in the development of technological civilization. I would not myself make this argument, but I can see that the argument can be made. Such arguments could be the basis of thought experiments that would present civilization-as-we-do-not-know-it, but which nevertheless inhabit the same parameter space of civilization-as-we-know-it.

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Grand Strategy: Nine Years

8 November 2017

Wednesday


This month marks nine years of Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon. I started regularly posting in November 2008. Since then I have continuously maintained this blog, though my rate of posting has declined, especially over the past couple of years. My reduced rate of posting here is not due to my running out of ideas. On the contrary, I have more material than I can even write down. My posts have become more detailed and in-depth, which requires more research and more care in composition. This also means that I hesitate to post my more half-baked ideas. When I look back on some of my early posts I find things that I would never write today: it is no longer enough for me to suggest an idea; I want to develop the ideas that I present.

Already sensing my hesitation to post half-baked ideas some years ago, and knowing that the key to working out ideas is to maintain a continuous engagement with them (which is best done by writing about them every day), I started a blog on Tumblr, Grand Strategy Annex, where I post more spontaneously, just so that I can keep the ideas flowing without monitoring each word so closely that scholarly conscience prevents one from writing anything at all. I’m glad that I did this, even though it divides my efforts, because I often capture an idea in a quick Tumblr post fist, and later incorporate this in a longer post here, or on Medium, or on Centauri Dreams.

In addition to these online writings (and three Twitter accounts), I also keep numerous notebooks in which I write in longhand, and I work on dozens of different manuscripts on my computer. All this material, if collected together, would run to many thousands of pages. And over the past year or so I have discovered that I can accelerate my formulation of ideas even more by always carrying a digital recorder with me. I spend a lot of time each day driving around and running errands, and now I use that time listening to the ideas that I have recorded on previous days and then elaborating on them in further recordings. That means that I also have hundreds of spoken word notes that have not been transcribed. So, as I said above, I haven’t run out of ideas.

My approach to philosophy is what in the early modern period was called copia. (Erasmus wrote a short book On Copia of Words and Ideas.) I prioritize the generation of new ideas. I can imagine that, to someone who pursues the other strategy — that of confining oneself to a small number of ideas and spending a lifetime elaborating these in the most detailed and comprehensive manner possible — this sounds like a rather trivial way to think about things. However, I would suggest that one is statistically more likely to hit upon a significant idea by surveying many of them rather than focusing on a familiar few.

A blog is a good way to present the results of a copia strategy in philosophy, but I sometimes have misgivings about the time I put into writing blog posts. I could instead use this time to refine a manuscript. I worry that spending another ten years of writing blog posts may mean that I never produce anything more substantial. But I have already tried the book strategy. More than ten years ago I produced a couple of books that I self-published (Political Economy of Globalization and Variations on the Theme of Life). I thought (naïvely, as it turns out) that these two books would develop a readership over time, if only I could be patient. This has not happened. I changed my strategy and started writing blog posts instead of books as a compromise. While my blog readership is very small, at least these posts do occasionally get read, and when I post to Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams I have gotten as many as a hundred thoughtful comments on a single post. That is real engagement, and worth the effort to know that others have read carefully and have responded thoughtfully.

Part of my strategy of writing blog posts, then, follows from my native temperament; some of my strategy follows from my peculiar circumstances. Individuals in an academic or scholarly community, I assume, have others with whom they can have informal conversations in which they can float ideas that are not yet ready for systematic exposition. It is necessary to have a sympathetic ear for this sort of thing, as any tender, young, and inchoate idea can easily be torn apart. What is important is to try to discern within an idea if it has potential. Since I do my work in isolation, I float my ideas here. And what I post here is but a small fragment of the ideas I am working on at any given moment.

I won’t say that I have chosen the right strategy, and I certainly know that I haven’t chosen an optimal strategy, but I have chosen a strategy that is consonant with my own temperament. This consonance plays a role in the development of my ideas. Because I am doing what comes naturally to me, without any extrinsic prompting from any source outside myself, this is something that I can continue to do as long as I have life in me. It does not get old to me; the salt does not lose its savor.

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Saturday


Recently in The Space Age turns 60! I wrote, “We are still in the very early stages of the Space Age; the inflection point of this developmental sequence has not yet arrived, so we are today still in the same shallow end of the exponential growth curve that was initiated sixty years ago.” What do I mean by an inflection point, and what is (or what would be) the inflection point for spacefaring civilization?

In a curve, an inflection point (according to Wolfram Mathworld) is, “…a point on a curve at which the sign of the curvature (i.e., the concavity) changes.” In this technical sense, then, I have misused “inflection point,” but it has become commonplace to speak of the inflection point of an exponential (or sigmoid) curve as the point at which the transition occurs from the long, shallow part of the curve, only incrementally growing over time, to the exponential growth part of the curve. In this sense, the inflection point is the transition from slow (sometimes very slow), incremental development to rapid, exponential development.

We have some good examples of inflection points from human history. The industrial revolution is a nearly perfect example of an inflection point. Human beings have been developing technologies since long before civilization. Pre-human ancestors were using stone tools more than two million years ago. However, technological development began to accelerate with the industrial revolution, and continues to develop at an expanding and increasing rate. Technological growth — both in terms of technological complexity and large-scale industrial application — has been exponential since the industrial revolution. Is something like this possible with spacefaring?

In Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilization: the Preemption that Didn’t Happen and Stagnant Supercivilizations and Interstellar Travel I discussed one of my favorite themes, namely, that spacefaring civilization might have experienced its inflection point in the wake of the Apollo program, which latter demonstrated what was possible when significant resources are expended on a difficult goal. More recently, on The Unseen Podcast Episode We, Martians? I said that if we had gone to Mars as NASA once planned, building immediately following Apollo, it would have been a different mission than any mission to Mars undertaken at the present time. It would have been, in short, a mission much like the Apollo mission, meaning a transient presence on Mars sufficient to plant the flag of the sponsoring nation-state and to collect some samples to bring back to Earth. Paul Carr called this a “Flags and Footprints” mission, which is a good way to phrase this, and I subsequently heard this from others, so apparently it’s a thing.

These counterfactuals did not occur, so that they represent a permanently lost opportunity for human civilization. The door has closed on this particular shape for human history, but the door remains open for different shapes for human history if spacefaring technologies are eventually adopted, and when they are adopted (if they are adopted), will decisively and definitively alter the shape of human history — or the history of any intelligent species able to build spacefaring technologies. To consider this a little more carefully I am going to delineate three generic scenarios for the breakout to spacefaring civilization that might be experienced by a civilization that develops spacefaring technology. These three scenarios are as follows:

● Early Inflection Point when spacefaring is pursued with exponential frequency immediately upon the technology being available.

● Middling Inflection Point when spacefaring is pursued with exponential frequency only after it has been available for a substantial period of time, but within the longue durée in which the technology became available.

● Late Inflection Point when spacefaring is pursued with exponential frequency after the technology has been available throughout a longue durée period of history.

No great store need be placed on the time frames I have implied above; sufficient to our purposes is that spacefaring may become routine immediately upon, sometime after, or long after the technology is available. Each of these spacefaring inflection points can be taken separately, since each represents a different civilization as defined by the relationship between the civilizations of planetary endemism and spacefaring civilization. Moreover, we can justify the significance of the position of the spacefaring inflection point in the overall history of civilization by reference to the infinitistic possibilities available to a spacefaring civilization

Early Inflection Point

On several occasions I have written about the possibility of a spacefaring civilization emerging immediately upon the technology of the Space Race being available, specifically in Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilization: the Preemption that Didn’t Happen. In this post I suggested that industrial-technological civilization as it has been known from the industrial revolution up to the advent of the Space Age might have been suddenly “preempted” by the emergence of a new kind of civilization — a spacefaring civilization — that changed the conditions of human life as radically as the industrial revolution changed the conditions of human life. This is what did, in fact, happen with the industrial revolution: as soon as the technology to drive machinery by fossil fuels became available, it was rapidly exploited, and western societies passed through a series of rapid social changes driven by industrialization.

While an early inflection point did not occur on Earth with the initial availability of spacefaring technology, we must consider the possibility that this is could occur with any civilization that passes the spacefaring technology threshold. I explored some of these possibilities in my Centauri Dreams post, Stagnant Supercivilizations and Interstellar Travel. In so far as an early spacefaring breakout would encourage a focus on spacefaring technologies (the relative neglect of other technologies being an opportunity cost of this alternative focus), the developmental trajectory of such a civilization might involve continual and rapid development of spacefaring technologies even while other technologies (say, for example, computing technologies) remain relatively undeveloped. Thus the technological profile of a given civilization is going to reflect the existential opportunities it has pursued, and when it pursues them.

We may also observe that, along with early-adoption spacefaring scenarios that did not occur with human civilization, it is also the case that a variety of counterfactual existential risk scenarios also did not occur. What I mean by this is that, once nuclear weapons were invented (shortly before the advent of the Space Age), human beings immediately realized that this gave us the power to destroy our own civilization. A number of novels were written and films were made in which human beings or human civilization went extinct shortly after the technology was available for this. These scenarios did not occur, just as the scenarios of early spacefaring adoption did not occur.

Middling Inflection Point

It has become a commonplace to speak of the recent development of space industries as “NewSpace.” If the technologies of NewSpace come to maturity in the coming decades and results in the following decades in a spacefaring breakout and the establishment of a truly spacefaring civilization, this would constitute an instance of a mediocre spacefaring inflection point. Given that the Space Age is now sixty years old, a few more decades of development would mean that spacefaring technologies will have been available for a century before they come to be fully exploited for a spacefaring breakout and a spacefaring civilization. In other words, the spacefaring inflection point did not occur immediately after spacefaring technology was available, but it also did not have to wait for an entirely new epoch of human history to come to pass for the spacefaring breakout to occur. (In terms of human civilization, we might identify a period of 100-300 years from advent to breakout as a mediocre spacefaring inflection point.)

As implied above, the current nominal spacefaring capacity of our civilization today is consistent with a middling spacefaring inflection point, if spacfaring expands rapidly in the wake of the maturity of NewSpace industries and technologies. Among these technologies we may count reusable spacecraft (Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser), including the booster stages of multi-stage rockets (SpaceX and Blue Origin), hybrid rocket engines (Reaction Engines LTD), and ion and plasma rockets (Ad Astra’s VASIMR), inter alia. These are the actual technologies of spacefaring; many industries that seek to exploit space for commercial and industrial uses are focused on technologies to be employed in space, but which are not necessarily technologies of spacefaring that will result in a spacefaring breakout.

Late Inflection Point

Say that the NewSpace technologies noted above come to maturity, but they prove to be impractical, or too expensive, or simply uninteresting to the better part of humanity. If this opportunity arises and then is passed over without a spacefaring breakout, like the initial existential opportunity presented by spacefaring technologies, the middling spacefaring inflection point will pass and humanity will remain with its nominal spacefaring capacity but no spacefaring breakout and no spacefaring civilization. In this case, if there is to be an eventual spacefaring breakout for human civilization, it will be a late spacefaring inflection point, and human civilization will change considerably in the period of time that passes between the initial availability of spacefaring technology and its eventual exploitation for a spacefaring breakout.

Just as in the meantime from initial availability of spacefaring technology to the present day, computer technology exponentially improved, a late spacefaring inflection point would mean that many technologies would emerge and come to maturity and industrial exploitation even as spacefaring technologies are neglected and experience little development (perhaps as an opportunity cost of the development of alternative technologies). Thus a late-adopter spacefaring civilization may develop a variety of fusion technologies, alternative energy technologies, genetic engineering technologies, quantum computing, human-machine interface technologies (or xenomorph-machine interface, as the case may be), artificial consciousness, and so on. Once a civilization possesses something akin to technological maturity on its homeworld, its historical experience will be radically different from the historical experience of a species that pursues an early spacefaring inflection point.

I can imagine a civilization that becomes so advanced that spacefaring technologies become cheap and easily available simply because the technological infrastructure of the civilization is so advanced. Thus even if there is no large-scale social interest in spacefaring, small groups of interested individuals can have spacefaring technologies for the asking, and these individuals and small groups will leave the planet one or two at a time, a dozen at a time, and so on. The homeworld civilization would be unaffected by this small scale spacefaring diaspora, since the technological and financial investment will have become so marginal as to be negligible, but these individuals and groups will take with them an advanced technology that will allow them to survive and prosper even at this small scale.

The worlds these small groups pioneer will grow slowly, but they will grow, regardless of whether the homeworld notices. Under these conditions, an ongoing nominal spacefaring capacity could develop over longer scales of time into a spacefaring capacity that is no longer nominal, though we would never be able to say exactly when this changeover occurred; this would be an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary transition. However, once these other worlds began to grow in population, eventually these populations would exceed the population of Earth, and at this point we could say with confidence that the late spacefaring inflection point had been reached, without spacefaring per se ever becoming a great civilizational-scale undertaking.

The Null Case

In addition to these three scenarios, there is also the null case, i.e., spacefaring technology is initially developed, but it is not further pursued, so that it is either forgotten or regarded with disinterest. A civilization that develops spacefaring technology and then either fails to pursue the development, or loses the capacity due to other factors (such as civilizational collapse), never achieves a spacefaring breakout and never becomes a spacefaring civilization. As I make a distinction between the nominal spacefaring capacity we now possess, and a spacefaring civilization proper, our contemporary civilization remains consistent with the null case scenario unless or until it experiences a spacefaring breakout.

The null case is the trajectory of a civilization toward permanent stagnation. Even if many technologies are developed and come to maturity and industrial exploitation, nothing essential will have changed in the human relationship to the cosmos (or the relation of any intelligent species that develops spacefaring technology but which does not exploit these technology for a spacefaring breakout). Spacefaring technologies, if exploited for a spacefaring breakout that results in a spacefaring civilization, would change the relationship of a species to the cosmos, as the species in question then has the opportunity to develop separately from its homeworld, and is therefore no longer tightly-coupled to the natural history of its homeworld. Without a spacefaring breakout, an intelligent species remains tightly-coupled to the natural history of its homeworld, and necessarily goes extinct when its homeworld biosphere is rendered uninhabitable.

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Addendum added Wednesday 25 October 2017: Further to the above discussion of early spacefaring inflection points, I happened upon Space That Never Was is one artist’s vision of a never-ending space race: Where else might we have gone? by Andrew Liptak, which led me to the work of Mac Rebisz, Space That Never Was, who writes of his artistic vision, “Imagine a world where Space Race has not ended. Where space agencies were funded a lot better than military. Where private space companies emerged and accelerated development of space industry. Where people never stopped dreaming big and aiming high.” Rebisz’s images might be understood as illustrations of early-adopter spacefaring civilization.

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The Space Age turns 60!

4 October 2017

Wednesday


Sixty years ago today, on 04 October 1957, Sputnik 1 (Спутник-1) became the first object of human manufacture to orbit the Earth. Thus began the Space Race, driven by Cold War competition, but transcending that Cold War competition and being transformed into a triumph of the human spirit (not to mention being a triumph of human engineering, but here engineering expresses the human spirit).

A few years ago, on 12 April 2011, I wrote A Half Century of Human Spaceflight to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight in orbit around the Earth; in just a few years, 2021, we will be able to celebrate sixty years of human spaceflight. The anniversaries of all the important dates for the technologies that have shaped the world today remind us how rapidly the world was transformed from thousands of years of settled agriculturalism, preceded by tens of thousands of years of hunter-gatherer nomadism, into the technological civilization of today. Progress has been dizzying, and the very institutions of civilization that brought us to this point have not yet caught up with the changes wrought by them; even now they labor under the strain of this forced social change.

We are still in the very early stages of the Space Age; the inflection point of this developmental sequence has not yet arrived, so we are today still in the same shallow end of the exponential growth curve that was initiated sixty years ago. In the earliest years of the Space Age (and the Space Race, since the two coincided at least until 1969, when the Space Race as “won”) it became commonplace to speak of the “conquest of space,” as though our first tentative, exploratory foray beyond the atmosphere of our homeworld were a triumphant affirmation of human power. Carl Sagan was nearer to the truth when he wrote in Cosmos that our first few decades of space exploration have been only an incremental step in an endless journey:

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return. These aspirations are not, I think, irreverent, although they may trouble whatever gods may be.”

It is likely that we will continue on in the shallow end of the space exploration curve for some time yet. Perched as we are on the edge of the cosmos, able to see far more than we can explore, like Stout Cortez, silent upon a peak in Darien, it is something akin to madness for those of us who wish to explore, but whose lives will remain Earthbound. We must learn patience, even if that is the least of our virtues. I may not live to see the inflection point, but I know that it is out there, and that the task for us is to keep civilization moving in that direction so that the inflection point will be reached, and that we do not fail before we have reached it. To take heart during this sometimes demoralizing struggle, we have the vision before us of what civilization can become when it is liberated from planetary endemism. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

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The Space Age began with Sputnik.

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How to Live on a Planet

27 September 2017

Wednesday


Humanity is learning, slowly, how to live on a planet. What does it mean to live on a planet? Why is this significant? How has our way of living on a planet changed over time? How exactly does an intelligent species capable of niche-construction on a planetary scale go about revising its approach to niche construction to make this process consistent with the natural history and biospheric evolution of its homeworld?

Once upon a time the Earth was unlimited and inexhaustible for human beings for all practical purposes. Obviously, Earth was was not actually unlimited and inexhaustible, but for a few tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of hunter-gatherers distributed across the planet in small bands, this was an ecosystem that they could not have exhausted even if they had sought to do so. Human influence over the planet at this time was imperceptible; our ancestors were simply one species among many species in the terrestrial biosphere. Even before civilization this began to change, as our ancestors have been implicated in the extinction of ice age megafauna. The evidence for this is still debated, but human populations had become sufficiently large and sufficiently organized by the upper Paleolithic that their hunting could plausibly have driven anthropogenic extinctions.

In this earliest (and longest) period of human history, we did not know that we lived on a planet. We did not know what a planet was, the relation of a planet to a star, and the place of stars in the galaxy. The Earth for us at this time was not a planet, but a world, and the world was effectively endless. Only with the advent of civilization and written language were we able to accumulate knowledge trans-generationally, slowly working out that we lived on a planet orbiting a star. This process required several thousand years, and for most of these thousands of years the size of our homeworld was so great that human efforts seemed to not even make a dent in the biosphere. It seemed the the forests could not be exhausted of trees or the oceans exhausted of fish. But all that has changed.

In the past few hundred years, the scope and scale of human activity, together with the size of the human population, has grown until we have found ourselves at the limits of Earth’s resources. We actively manage and limit the use of resources, because if we did not, the seven billion and growing human population would strip the planet clean and leave nothing. This process had already started in the Middle Ages, when many economies were forced to manage strategic resources like timber for shipbuilding, but the process has come to maturity in our time, as we are able to describe and explain scientifically the impact of the human population on our homeworld. We have, today, the conceptual framework necessary to understand that we live on a planet, so that we understand the limitations on our use of resources theoretically as well as practically. When earlier human activities resulted in localized extinctions and shortages, we could not put this in the context of the big picture; now we can.

Today we know what a planet is; we know what we are; we know the limitations dictated by a planet for the organisms constituting its ecosystems. This knowledge changes our relationship to our homeworld. Many definitions have been given for the Anthropocene. One way in which we could define the anthropocene in this context is that it is that period in terrestrial history when human beings learn to live on Earth as a planet. Generalized beyond this anthropocentric formulation, this becomes the period in the history of a life-bearing planet in which the dominant intelligent species (if there is one) learns to live on its planet as a planet.

In several posts I have written about the transition of the terrestrial energy grid from fossil fuels to renewable resources (cf. The Human Future in Space, The Conversion of the Terrestrial Power Grid, and Planetary Constraints 9). This process has already started, and it can be expected to play out over a period of time at least equal to the period of time we have been exploiting fossil fuels.

I recently happened upon the article How to Run the Economy on the Weather by Kris De Decker, which discusses in detail how economies and technologies prior to the industrial revolution were adapted to the intermittency of wind and water, and the adaptability of such habits to contemporary technologies. And I recall some years ago when I was in Greece, specially the island of Rhodes, every house had solar water heaters on the roof (and, of course, sunshine is plentiful in Greece), and everyone seemed to accept as a matter of course that you must shower while the sun is out. A combination of very basic behavioral changes supplemented by contemporary technology could facilitate the transition of the terrestrial power grid with little or no decline in standards of living. This is part of what it means to learn to live on a planet.

As we come to better understand biology, astrobiology, ecology, geology, and cosmology, and we thus come to better understand our homeworld and ourselves, we will learn more about how to live on a planet. But the expansion of our knowledge of exoplanets and astrobiology will be predicated upon our ability to travel to other worlds in order to study them, and if we are fortunate enough to endure for such a time and to achieve such things, then we will have to learn how to live in a universe.

The visible universe is finite. Though the visible universe may be part of an infinitistic cosmology (or even an infinitistic multiverse), the expansion of the universe has created a cosmological horizon beyond which we cannot see. I have previously quoted a passage from Leonard Susskind to this effect:

“In every direction that we look, galaxies are passing the point at which they are moving away from us faster than light can travel. Each of us is surrounded by a cosmic horizon — a sphere where things are receding with the speed of light — and no signal can reach us from beyond that horizon. When a star passes the point of no return, it is gone forever. Far out, at about fifteen billion light years, our cosmic horizon is swallowing galaxies, stars, and probably even life. It is as if we all live in our own private inside-out black hole.”

Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, New York, Boston, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2008, pp. 437-438

We know, then, scientifically, that the universe is effectively finite as our homeworld is finite, but the universe is so large in comparison to the scale of human activity, indeed, so large even in comparison to the aspirational scale of human activity, that the universe is endless for all practical purposes. Though we are already learning how to live on a planet, in relation to the universe at large we are like our hunter-gather ancestors dwarfed by a world that was, for them, effectively endless.

Only at the greatest reach of the scale of supercivilizations will we — if we last that long and achieve that scale of development — run into the limits of our home galaxy, and then into the limits of the universe, at which time we will have to learn how to live in a universe. I implied as much in an illustration that I created for my Centauri Dreams post, Stagnant Supercivilizations and Interstellar Travel (reproduced below), in which I showed a schematic representation of the carrying capacity of the universe. At this scale of activity we would be engaging in cosmological niche construction in order to make a home for ourselves in the universe, as we are now engaging in planetary-scale niche construction as we learn how to live on a planet.

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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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