What could explain the particularly brutal symbolic celebrations of mortality salience I described in Agriculture and the Macabre (notwithstanding the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy)? In my previous explorations of this idea I advanced no causal mechanism or explanatory framework for the prominence of the macabre in agrarian civilization, but further thought on this question has suggested a possible explanation, or, rather, a cluster of related explanations that bear upon unique features of agrarian civilization that differentiate it from other modes of human life.
Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is differentiated from the hunter-gatherer nomadism that preceded it both in its economic basis and its ideological superstructure, or, as I prefer to name the two, both economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure. For obvious reasons, the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (or EEA) of our hunter-gatherer ancestors differs radically from the settled life of agricultural peoples, and this alone would be sufficient to introduce a biologically-based discomfiture of settled peoples, whose way of life is essentially at odds with their instincts, the latter refined over millions of years, while their farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species. There is, then, an existential mismatch between the economic infrastructure of the EEA and the economic infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.
There is also a mismatch between the intellectual superstructure of agrarian peoples and nomadic peoples. Joseph Campbell frequently made the point that the mythologies of hunter-gatherer peoples differs profoundly from that of agricultural peoples. A hunting people needs to reconcile itself with the daily practice of killing, while agricultural peoples often have myths of sacrifice, because the agricultural cycle demonstrates that life comes out of death, so that to make more life, it is necessary to make more death. The cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is a function of the agricultural mythos of sacrifice, which regards the individual as dispensable, and the intrinsic interest the individual has in his own existence. This sacrificial mythology of settled agricultural peoples is the ultimate affront to individualism, and no matter how much justification and rationalization is deployed, this affront would have been felt by every individual within an agricultural economy at some level.
It is often claimed today that individualism is a social construct of Western Civilization that is not present in other cultures, or, at least, not present to the extent that it shapes western thought. Now, it certainly could be argued that the particular conception and understanding of individualism as we know it today is a result of contingent factors arising from industrial-technological civilization that first emerged in Western Europe. One could readily identify points along the seriation of western civilization at which the individual took on a particular importance — Periclean Athens, the value of each individual soul in the Christian tradition, Florence under the Medici, the priesthood of all believers in Protestantism, the American Revolution, and the special place accorded to individual celebrity in today’s winner-take-all society. However, the idea of the individual, and the presence of individualism in the human condition, is not limited to the particular expression given to individualism since the advent of industrial-technological civilization, nor is it specific to western thought.
Individualism has a biological basis. In a famous paper, “What is it like to be bat?” (to which I previously referred in What is it like to be a serpent?), Thomas Nagel wrote that, “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” We might similarly observe that there is something that it is like to be an individual. The kind of organisms that we are makes our individual bodies a locus of sensation, consciousness, and action. Each individual body is such a locus, sensing on its own, feeling on its own, acting on its own, and conscious of itself as an individual and as a unity. The very idea that there is something that we call the “human condition” is a reflection of the ontological individualism of human being.
One of the features of the human condition that has shaped the human mind most profoundly has been the loneliness of our individual consciousness. The existential loneliness of the self is a function of its emergence from a single brain, which is in turn a function of the kind of individual organisms that evolved on our planet. One might suggest many possible counterfactuals in relation to this isolation of the human condition, but the possibility of alternative forms of consciousness does not alter the individuality of our consciousness. The individuality of human conscious has issued in individualism as a social principle, realized in many different ways across different cultures. Egalitarianism is the social expression of the recognition of the individual as a locus of consciousness and agency. The egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer bands that dominated the vast bulk of human history before the recent emergence of civilization was in part a reflection of this biologically-driven individualism.
There is another counterfactual that interests me more at present than the counterfactuals of other forms of consciousness. Above I wrote, “farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species,” and this is a statement that requires qualification. “Decisively” is the operative word in this context. Farming has undoubtedly shaped our species, but not yet decisively in the sense of resulting in speciation (keeping in mind that behavioral adaptation often precedes structural adaptation, so that the behavioral adaptation of farming might be expected, over a sufficiently long period of time, to give rise to structural adaptations). This suggests an interesting counterfactual, namely, an intelligent species that invents settled agriculturalism and maintains this way of life at a certain equilibrium (a high level equilibrium trap) for a biologically significant period of time, so that the species in question self-domesticates, and this domestication to settled agrarian life is reflected in changes in the genome — and perhaps also eventually in the phenotype.
Important qualifications need to be made to the above. We know from the fact that the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium does not hold that evolution is always occurring, even at a small scale that is only incrementally recognizable at in the genotype and phenotype. This is micro-evolution, and only results in cladogenesis over very long periods of time (more or less Darwin’s original gradualist model); macro-evolution resulting in cladogenesis over shorter periods of time probably involves specific selection pressures. The disruption to human life patterns caused by the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism ought to be sufficient for the emergence of a new species, Homo agrariensis — not metaphorically, as we have so often come to speak of a “new breed” of man, but biologically — except that the developments of civilization continue to disrupt human life in new ways, so that no stabilizing selection occurs specifically driven by the agricultural mode of life.
Settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and even as our civilization today continues to ever so gradually replace the ideological infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastial civilization — like the planks replaced one-by-one in the ship of Theseus — much remains of the agricultural past (and even the agricultural macabre) in our institutions today. Industrialism is extremely recent in evolutionary terms.
While settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and one might assume that civilization simpliciter involves a radical departure from pre-civilized life that must entail compromises with the instinctual life (as was apparently Freud’s position in Civilization and its Discontents), this is not a necessary aspect of civilization. Other kinds of civilization have existed that did not entail the severe instinctual curbs of settled agriculturalism, and other forms of civilization may yet arise that are more in tune with human nature and the human condition.
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19 March 2015
At least four times in the history of our planet, civilization has independently emerged, and we possess a fairly detailed archaeological record of a complete series in each of these four cases of the development from the most rudimentary settled agriculturalism up to a fully developed and articulated agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. This is by no means an exhaustive account of terrestrial civilization. Civilization, like life itself, is a branching bush that, once started, repeatedly bifurcates and diverges in unprecedented ways from its root stock. There are other forms of civilization, and probably other instances of independent origin. I suspect, for example, that in the Western hemisphere that a complete and independent seriation of civilization occurred at least twice, and perhaps more than twice.
Today I will not consider the phenomenon of civilization taken whole, but I will rather consider the seriation of Western civilization in isolation. As a westerner myself (well, sort of a westerner, as my people are all Scandinavian, and Scandinavian civilization, i.e., Viking Civilization, was subsumed under an expanding Western Civilization), I am understandably most interested in Western Civilization, but Western Civilization should also be interesting to anyone who studies civilization as such, due to its many unique features. I have commented elsewhere that it is today considered in bad taste to compare civilizations; nevertheless, I must run the risk of doing so in order to freely and openly discuss the features that differentiate western civilization from other civilizations — and also those features that mirror other civilizations. What makes Western Civilization unique are those unprecedented historical mutations that did not occur in other civilizations — viz. the Age of Discovery, the scientific revolution, and the industrial revolution — and which we then compare with other civilizations as a baseline for reference.
To spell out a bit of my conceptual framework explicitly, a cluster (as I use the term) is a geographical region comprising several closely related civilizations that have been the result of idea diffusion from a common source (or originating more-or-less simultaneously). This is a synchronic conception. A cluster contains several series. A series is a sequence of civilizations in time, related through descent with modification, more or less laid end to end, and inhabiting more or less the same geographical region or geographical trajectory. Civilizations in a common series are related by inheritance. This is a diachronic conception. Civilizations in a cluster are synchronically related to each other; civilizations in a series are diachronically related to each other. Thus from the West Asian Cluster there emerges the series that becomes western civilization as it projects itself along a continual western trajectory out of Mesopotamia and the Levant.
Civilizational series admit of what archaeologists call seriation. In so saying I am using the term more comprehensively that is usual. Seriation has been defined as:
A relative dating technique in which artifacts or features are organized into a sequence according to changes over time in their attributes or frequency of appearance. The technique shows how these items have changed over time and it is a way to establish chronology. Archaeological material, such as assemblages of pottery or the grave goods deposited with burials is arranged into chronological order. The types that make up the assemblages to be ordered in this way must be from the same archaeological tradition and from a single region or locality. Once the variations in a particular object have been classified by typology, it can often be shown that they fall into a developmental series, sometimes in a single line, sometimes in branching lines more as in a family tree. The order produced is theoretically chronological, but needs archaeological assessment. Outside evidence, such as dating of two or more stages in the development, may be needed to determine which is the first and which the last member of the series.
Kipfer, Barbara Ann, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology, New York: Springer, 2000, p. 505
It is atypical to apply seriation to an entire civilization, and in fact it could be said that I am misusing the term, as the definition above cites “artifacts or features,” and a civilization is neither an artifact or a feature in the usual senses of these terms, but includes both of them and more and better besides. The power of seriation is that once you have an understanding of a developmental sequence, you can “connect the dots” when a people have moved location, identifying when a particular developmental stage terminates at one location and then picks up again at another location. Such a developmental trajectory moving ever westward characterizes the origins and development of western civilization.
In my post on The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State I noted that I called the many civilizations having their origins in Mesopotamia and the Levant the West Asian Cluster. Western civilization has its earliest origins in the West Asian Cluster, and in the earliest years of the rudimentary civilization that emerged here we find a network of family resemblances that overlap and intersect (to borrow a Wittgensteinian phrase). The earliest known site in the West Asian Cluster that has clear evidence of large scale social cooperation, and therefore can be considered a distant ancestor to civilization — proto-civilization, if you will — is Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Anatolia. Thought to be a ritual center predating even settled agriculture (specifically, Prepottery Neolithic A, or PPNA), the site has impressive megalithic architecture. Let us take this as the point of origin for civilization in the West Asian Cluster — it is our best scientific knowledge as of the present for the origins of our civilization.
Several hundred miles west of Göbekli Tepe is Çatal Hüyük, a famous Neolithic site often identified as the first urban settlement on our planet. (According to Google Maps it takes 138 hours to walk the 670 km from one site to the other. If one could walk 8 hours per day, it would take 17 days to make the journey. If you walked fast, you might make a round trip in one moon.) Çatal Hüyük has been extensively studied, though not fully excavated, and while the life of the people would have been extremely rudimentary by the measures of what we call civilization today, it nevertheless possesses all the essential elements of civilization: an urban settlement supported by agricultural suburbs, with division of labor, art and religion, and trade with neighboring peoples.
The next famous site on this westward trajectory is that of Pločnik in present-day Serbia. The settlement (perhaps town) of Pločnik represents what is called the First Temperate Neolithic. In other words, the techniques of farming in Mesopotamia and the Levant that characterized the agricultural revolution as it was first realized in this cluster were adapted for use in a temperate climate, and this both demanded and inspired further technological innovations. Pločnik may be the first site at which extractive metallurgy was practiced with the production of copper and bronze implements and decorative items.
If you look at the relationship of Çatal Hüyük and Pločnik on a map, you will see that the path takes you through Thrace and present-day Bulgaria. When I noticed this, I did some research to find out about Neolithic archaeology in Bulgaria, and, sure enough, there were remains of the right age located almost exactly between Çatal Hüyük and Pločnik, so that one can literally see in the archaeological remains of material culture the trajectory of peoples as they emerged from subtropical climate of Mesopotamia and passed through Anatolia on their way north and west.
As settled agriculture gained a foothold in the Balkan Peninsula, the region was a quiet backwater for thousands of years as spectacular civilizations still known for the monumental architecture rose and fell in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia. Little of note seemed to be happening as a result of the humble farming communities of the First Temperate Neolithic in the Balkans, until a new kind of civilization took shape in Greece. The Greeks, never shy to own their accomplishments, knew that they had created a new kind of civilization very different from the Persians on their border, whom they repeatedly and heroically resisted.
The cultural heritage of Greece, and especially the art, architecture, philosophy, and literature of Athens and Attica was projected back into West Asia by the conquests of Alexander the Great, but Alexander died young, and while the impress of Greek civilization can still be detected in West Asia where Alexander’s troops marched all the way to India, the tradition of Greek civilization was taken in another direction once again farther West, when Roman power emerged as the dominant political regime in the Mediterranean Basin. When Alexander’s unsustainable empire was divided after his death, Greece proper, with all its rich cultural traditions, was conquered by the Romans, who had a great enthusiasm for Greek civilization. It became a fashion among wealthy collectors to seek out the finest examples of Corinthian pottery, in a way that is precisely parallel to the tastes of antiquarians in our own time.
The Roman Empire represents the greatest spatial expansion and the longest temporal duration of the civilizations directly derived from the West Asian Cluster, with the possible exception of Islamic civilization, but in each of these cases there is a question as to what constitutes “direct” derivation from the West Asian source. Only with the collapse of Roman power in the west and the admixture of elements from the West Asia Cluster with indigenous European cultures do we see the emergence of a distinctly western civilization. Rather than ex oriente lux, a light from the east illuminating western barbarism, we have in occidente lux, the ancient light of eastern civilization given new life as it enters into Europe. And by this time in history, the original five clusters of civilization had repeatedly bifurcated and had begotten a range of mixed civilizations that were to confront western civilization as it began its relentless global expansion.
When Roman power collapsed in the west, the empire divided and civilization bifurcated. In the east, the empire became more Greek in character, and Byzantine civilization emerged. In the west, those traditions transmitted from Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Greece, and the Roman Mediterranean once again migrated further west and in so doing found themselves in the midst of the inhospitable barbarism of Western Europe. For all Europe’s early productivity of what archaeologists call “cultures” (and which I would call proto-civilizations, if not civilization simpliciter), Europe did not make the breakthrough to civilization proper, but had to wait for the examples of the West Asian Cluster to show it the way to civilization by way of idea diffusion (which I would now, following Cadell Last, prefer to call idea flow).
In the farthest western peninsula of Eurasia Western Civilization finally took on its definitive and distinctive form as a new civilization arose and became what we now call medieval Europe. But this was not the end. At the farthest western edge of this western peninsula of Eurasia, on an island jutting into the Atlantic, the industrial revolution began in the final quarter of the eighteen century, and this was to inaugurate an entirely new kind of civilization — industrial-technological civilization — that is even today consolidating its planetary expansion. This industrialized civilization leapt over the Atlantic Ocean and found in North America especially fertile soil in which to grow, and so Western Civilization continued in its westward migration. Now that industrial-technological civilization has expanded on a planetary scale, civilization has nowhere to go but upward and outward. When this happens, another novel form of civilization will take shape.
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17 March 2015
One of the most memorable passages in political philosophy, quoted by many who do not know the source, is Thomas Hobbes’ description of life in a state of nature:
“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, CHAPTER XIII OF THE NATURAL CONDITION OF MANKIND AS CONCERNING THEIR FELICITY AND MISERY
For Hobbes, the state of nature was no idyllic peaceable kingdom, but the arena of the war of all against all — a violent vision of anarchy at odds with many subsequent romanticized visions of anarchy.
There has always been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with civilization that leads to a romantic and idyllic of life without civilization — Freud devoted a famous essay to this, Civilization and its Discontents, and I dedicated a significant portion of my essay “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” to what I call the hostile argument against civilization. During the Enlightenment Rousseau was perhaps the most famous critic of civilization who celebrated the state of nature, but not everyone was convinced:
“We were favoured with Sir James Colquhoun’s coach to convey us in the evening to Cameron, the seat of commissary Smollet. Our satisfaction of finding ourselves again in a comfortable carriage was very great. We had a pleasing conviction of the commodiousness of civilization, and heartily laughed at the ravings of those absurd visionaries who have attempted to persuade us of the superior advantages of a state of nature.”
James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D: Including a Journal of His Tour to the Hebrides – Vol. 2, NEW YORK: DERBY & JACKSON, 119 NASSAU STREET, 1859, p. 449
From the point of view of indoor plumbing and modern conveniences, we might today look at the condition of Boswell and Johnson as being little raised above the state of nature, but even with all our creature comforts the seductive idea of a simpler life that is better because it is simpler continues to haunt us. The appeal is not universal, but some are so enthralled by the idea that they can only conceive of the good as the destruction of the civilized order that we have built up over the past ten thousand years. I discussed the source of this some time ago in Fear of the Future, in which I argued that, “apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided… While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.”
Kenneth Clark added his voice to those who question the pretensions to preferring a state of nature to civilization:
“People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilization. I doubt that they have given it a long enough trial… they are bored by civilization; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater. Quite apart from the discomforts and privations, there was no escape from it. Very restricted company, no books, no light after dark, no hope.”
Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York, et al.: Harper & Row, 1969, p. 7
A distinction should be made among the detractors of civilization, between those who look upon a violent convulsion in which civilization is brought to an end as a necessary purging of contemporary wickedness, and those who look rather to the peaceable kingdom they believe will follow after the work of the destruction of civilization is completed; these are two very different motives for welcoming the end of civilization.
Those who wish to fight in a cosmic war in order to be part of the grand work of destroying our wicked civilization — whether it be judged wicked for its wealth, its lack of religious piety, its industrialization, its pollution, its tolerance of individuals who where not tolerated in traditional regimes, or any other reason — have a distinct set of motivations from those who want to inhabit the post-apocalyptic peaceable kingdom, and I will not address these former individuals or their motivations at present, as I have dealt with them elsewhere (e.g., in Kierkegaard and Russell on Rigor).
For the rest, for those who look forward to the peaceable kingdom of a post-apocalyptic, post-industrial world in which human beings will live in harmony with nature (not, presumably, the nature of Hobbes, but rather the nature of Rousseau), what satisfactions will they expect to derive from the restoration of a subsistence economy lacking the creature comforts that we today take for granted, like flushing toilets, hot showers, clean clothes, and our choice of foods made available from the entire world?
Looking around the surrounding world of nature, what will natural man — the noble savage — do in order to seek satisfaction? He may attend to his bodily needs, using his mind and his hands to build shelter, sew clothing, hunt or gather food, and perhaps preserve some part of that food for a future time when the supply of food is less certain. When his bodily needs are met, he may choose to amuse himself, making up stories, or singing, perhaps using his mind and hands again to create a musical instrument or a painting or a piece of sculpture.
In short, natural man in search of satisfaction will begin to transform himself into unnatural man, and thus begin the long process of creating civilization. In the midst of the plenitude of nature, natural man draws upon his own resources to go beyond nature. In other words, he creates civilization as a natural response to his desires. This process, iterated over generations, gives us the traditions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.
Recently in David Hume and Scientific Civilization I quoted from an essay by Susanne K. Langer, “Scientific Civilization and Cultural Crisis.” Here is the passage I quoted:
“There is no denying that the spearhead of this ruthless social revolution is something we all… honor and desire: science. Science is the source and the pacemaker of this modern civilization which is sweeping away a whole world of cultural values.”
Of this scientific civilization Langer further observed:
“It is only rather recently that we are realizing what it has destroyed, and also the very grave fact that in its advance it is still destroying many things of undoubted and irreplaceable value — social orders of rank and status built up by a long national or local history, religious faith and its institutions, arts supported by solid and good traditions, ways of life in which people have long felt secure and useful. Such losses are not to be taken lightly.”
It would be an interesting exercise to parse the above quote in detail, as contains so many interesting assumptions, but I will desist for the time being, except to note that the “social orders of rank and status built up by a long national or local history” closely resemble the traditions described alike by Marx and Edmund Burke (and which I discussed in Globalization and Marxism).
For now, I only want to observe that the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy — really, a subsistence economy for the great mass of humanity, and a luxury economy for the privileged few, since agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations invariably take the form of a mass of peasantry working the land and living hand-to-mouth while elite culture is reserved for the small fraction of the population with the leisure for art and literacy — are precisely those cultural institutions slowly built up over the course of ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, and rudely brought to an end by scientific civilization.
I do not doubt that, given enough time, humanity could be re-acculturated to these institutions, but I suspect that this process would require generations to become effective, and that individuals acculturated in the world today would largely reject these satisfactions of life specific to a subsistence economy — frequent religious festivals, occasional spectacular entertainments (theater, jousts, processions, etc.), etc. — as insufficient compensation for the loss of modern plumbing and the re-imposition of heavy physical labor.
Of course, what I have elsewhere called neo-agriculturalism (in Another Future: The New Agriculturalism) need not necessarily be so technologically rudimentary. I recently considered something like this in Ash Wednesday and Identity Politics, in which I quoted from one of my unpublished manuscripts:
Let us suppose, merely for our private amusement, that human civilization lasts long enough for the pendulum to swing completely, and that our civilization is slowly transformed into its opposite, from its present decadence into renewed, post-modern medievalism. This new epoch of medievalism would be an age with technology superior to our own and a more complete record of the past than we possess. Would these medievals look back upon us as the Golden Age, or upon the Middle Ages as the lost Golden Age? Would they nod while reading the Scholastics and react with horror to the existential excesses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Would they want to preserve our pagan learning, or would they feel entirely justified in extirpating it? Upon such twists of fate do our efforts enjoy success or come to grief.
Perhaps the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy might be rendered more acceptable if we could retain some of our creature comforts. But supposing the transition could be made with plumbing intact but our intellectual horizons severely constrained, would this be any better? If the great mass were kept more or less comfortable but deprived of the possibility of expanding their horizons intellectually, and living in a society without expanding intellectual horizons, would this be easier to accept than a straightforward return to idyllic primitivism? This is a question that could only possibly be settled by a social experiment on a civilizational scale. And it suggests another experiment: suppose we preserve the open intellectual horizon but take away the creature comforts — how would this fare as a form of social organization? And of any of these social experiments, we could ask whether they really would restore us to some sense of the presumed satisfactions of a subsistence economy, or whether this has become strictly unimaginable to us.
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12 March 2015
I‘ve just finished Thomas Piketty’s much talked about book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. There is much that could be said about this rather long book, but I will not attempt a review. Piketty’s theme is the concentration of capital at the top of the income hierarchy. Income inequality has become a political issue of some importance, and Piketty’s book speaks directly to this interest, which partially explains its popularity.
One point that Piketty does not make explicit in his book, but which could be said is implicit throughout, is the transition to an economic paradigm that could only be called a “winner-take-all” model. Many have commented on this. Skyrocketing executive pay is only only symptom of this social transition. It is arguable that the upward skewing of income and expectation is a function of what has been called the “attention economy” (and which in terms of the internet specifically is sometimes called “clickbait”). In a world flooded with a cacophony of voices competing for attention, those who can best capture the interest of others have an advantage. In each field of endeavor — music, sports, entertainment, industry, government, media, etc. — there are a handful of superstars who disproportionately command public attention and the rewards that follow therefrom. They are the winners, and they have scooped up the pot and left nothing on the table.
Kevin Kelly discussed the winner-take-all aspect of contemporary society in The Technium: A Conversation with Kevin Kelly [2.3.14] (I previously discussed this interview in Science, Knowledge, and Civilization). Kelly said in this interview:
Another point about this winner-take-all phenomenon is that at first we have a natural reaction saying, “Well, winner take all; there can only be one winner,” but here’s what technology is doing: technology is increasing the number of races in which you can win. There are more and more niches and more and more places in which the technology creates new ways in which one can win. There isn’t a finite number of winners, there’s an infinite number of winners as long as you’re not trying to win someone else’s race. The way everybody can become a winner is to continue to increase the number of ways to play, even though you have these winner-take-all phenomena. There’s only going to be one search winner, but there are so many other ways to race and to win other than in, say, search. In most cases, trying to compete against a winner is not going to succeed in this kind of dynamic. What you want to do is make up a new way to win.
I suppose that you could call this the “long tail” argument for a winner-take-all economy, and Kelly is arguing that technology is increasing the length of the tail and therefore the number of individuals who can find some place to call their own along this long tail. But the long tail is a tail only, and not the bump in the statistics that identifies the explosive growth of attention (and therefore income earning potential) that takes place at the center of things. Sure, if there’s an infinitely long long tail there could be an infinite number of “winners,” and each of these winners will take all that is at stake in the miniscule region they dominate, but the share of society’s total wealth available in the infinitely long sections of the long tail is also infinitesimally thin. Being a “winner” in this sense is like the boast of being “big in Japan.”
What will we do with the losers in a winner-take-all economy? Keep in mind that most of us are “losers” — including those who are “winners” along some thin segment of the long tail. Most of us are neither rich nor famous nor well-connected and influential. What is to be done with us? are we to be quietly forgotten? Are we to go gentle into that good night of poverty and obscurity?
There is a well-known quote from Boswell’s Life of Johnson about the condition of the poor in relation to those better off:
He said, ‘the poor in England were better provided for than in any other country of the same extent: he did not mean little cantons, or petty republics. Where a great proportion of the people,’ said he, ‘are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization. Gentlemen of education,’ he observed, ‘were pretty much the same in all countries; the condition of the lower orders, the poor especially, was the true mark of national discrimination.’
For Dr. Johnson, then, the mitigation of poverty is a civilizational issue. This is, moreover, the differentia that marks the distinction between true and false civilization. The condition of the well-to-do is pretty much the same everywhere. That is still true. Indeed, it is likely to be even more true today than when Johnson said this to Boswell. The technocratic elite of global society have access to similar resources, they shelter their wealth in similar ways, they travel in the same circles, gather in the same hotels, eat at the same restaurants, and send their children to the same schools. What continent they happen to come from is much less important than their bank account, or what tax haven they happen to use as their address — or the address for their offshore bank accounts.
One of the ways in which individuals become impoverished, marginalized, and socially invisible is through unemployment. While growing income inequality is a complex problem with many historical forces driving it, the problem of unemployment — a problem intrinsic to industrial-technological civilization that can never be “solved,” but only managed — may be significantly exacerbated in the near future (by which I mean within the next 50 years). If technological unemployment becomes a major economic factor in the coming decades, this could drive an already widening social gap to dangerous levels that are not socially sustainable. This may happen anyway, but my point is simply that technological unemployment could make this happen more rapidly.
In several posts on technological unemployment (“…a temporary phase of maladjustment…”, Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment, Automation and the Human Future, Addendum on Automation and the Human Future, Technological Unemployment and the Future of Humanity, and Addendum on Technological Unemployment) I have pointed out that, not only is our society not making the transition to an economic regime in which the structure of employment realistically mirrors the nature of industrialization, but rather the prevailing attitude is punitive. Unemployment is seen as a personal failure, and even as a moral failure — a moral failure deserving of social disapproval. The poor are widely viewed as requiring discipline, regulation, and oversight by the professional classes.
Is it possible to find a way to compensate the losers in a winner-take-all economy when losing is seen as a sign of moral failure and winning is ascribed to meritocratic success? These social attitudes exacerbate rather than mitigate the damage of extreme income inequality. And social attitudes cannot be easily changed. Piketty in his book makes a case for a global tax on capital, but honestly calls it utopian. He probably understands all-too-well that nothing like this is politically possible. But changing policies is much easier than changing social attitudes. Social attitudes do change, but they change with glacial slowness, and while they are ever so incrementally adapting to changed conditions, generations are being effectively lost.
As Dr. Johnson rightly observed, this is a civilizational concern. If we care to pay attention, we can see this before our very eyes. The homeless live the life of nomadic foragers within the interstices of civilization. They have ceased to participate in civilization as we know it; they have given up on civilization, and civilization has given up on them. Of course we know that many of the homeless are mentally ill, and that many are alcoholics and drug addicts. Even today there are a few individuals who devote their lives to trying to help even those who spurn help and who abuse those who seek to help them. This is a thankless task, and it is only done out of love if it is done at all.
That many of these individuals who have gone from merely being unemployed to being utterly destitute have serious deficits that require significant intervention to overcome is an indication that they come at a price that even the destitute are unwilling to pay. We have all heard stories of the indignities visited upon the impoverished and the helpless. Some of these stories are horrific, and, somewhat disturbingly, cultural Foucauldianism is sometimes invoked in order to excuse the failure to intervene in the lives of those who have suffered from the tender mercies of institutionalized “kindness.” I can both understand and sympathize with a desire to live free as an urban forager rather than to be subject to the discipline of some “total institution.” But are these our only choices? Are there not ways to intervene without insisting on control, regulation, and discipline conceived as a moral corrective?
Compensating losers in a winner-take-all society is something that must be done with our eyes wide open, understanding the mistakes that we have made in the past, but understanding also that we are not limited by the mistakes we have made in the past. And if we do not find some constructive way to address the glaring inequity of our society, before the end of the century even the most pleasant lives will not be able to be fully insulated from the growing masses of marginalized and impoverished individuals whose only failing is that they are not good at making money.
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4 March 2015
Financial crisis or political crisis?
Democracy does not come naturally to the governments of Europe. Europe may have the institutions of democracy, and have them in a stronger form than elsewhere in the world, but democracy has shallow roots in the Old World, and in extremis we are not surprised to see Europe move in the direction of statism or populism. The problem of elite opinion, which I began to examine in The Technocratic Elite, is especially strong in Europe, and it repeatedly encounters the limits of engineering consent.
Because of the strong democratic traditions of the nation-states of the western hemisphere, governments are eventually aligned more-or-less with public opinion, but in Europe the attempt to maintain a facade according to which elite opinion is presented as mass opinion leads to periodic instability in which the distance between elite and mass opinion opens up like a fault line during an earthquake, at time swallowing whole the political order entire. The European press, which is itself split between elite opinion and mass opinion, documents this divide. If you visit a European nation-state you will find highbrow media of a quality far superior to that of the US, but you will also find popular newspapers and magazines pandering to the lowest common denominator (the “yellow press”). The individual who reads the Financial Times (as I do) is likely to never read The Sun, and vice versa.
I do not read the mass opinion press of Europe, so I do not know what it says, but I read quite a bit of the elite opinion media from Europe, and this tells us that Syriza, just elected to power in Greece, is a “radical party” of the left; the press also tells us that the National Front in France is a “radical party” of the right. There is a real concern, rooted in the painful lessons of European history, that Europe might once again turn to radicalism and extremism. How radical are these parties? Is Syriza a front for Stalinism or the National Front a front for fascism? Is Europe truly on a verge of an ugly populism that must be suppressed in order to assure the continuity of democratic institutions in Europe? This, as I read it, is the sotto voce position of elite opinion in Europe.
There are, of course, limits to European radicalism. One of the best explications of these limits that I have heard was to be found in a series of lectures by Jeremy Shearmur, an Australian philosopher and political scientist, who recorded a series for The Great Courses titled “Ideas in Politics.” Like many of my favorite lectures from The Great Courses, these have been discontinued and are no longer available (other discontinued favorites include An Introduction to Archaaeology by Susan Foster McCarter and The Search for a Meaningful Past: Philosophy, Theories and Interpretations by Darren Staloff). Shearmur noted in one of his lectures that if a truly radical government were elected, as soon as it came to power there would serious financial consequences: the currency would be bid down on international markets, foreign investors would seek to take their money elsewhere, and the country would become an international pariah. The leaders of a radical regime would then be forced from financial necessity to try to step in and calm the markets by making moderate-sounding statements. The lesson is that all the advanced industrialized nation-states are tightly integrated into the international financial system, and it would be quite painful for anyone of them–even a smallish economy like that of Greece–to separate themselves from this system.
What I have just described is a mechanism of moderation within elite opinion that guides the international system. It is assumed that political leaders will say radical things to get elected, but as soon as they get elected they will begin to moderate their stance. In fact, we have already seen this with Syriza in Greece, and the deal that Greece struck with the EU was not quite the renunciation of its bail out that Syriza had campaigned on. In fact, this pattern is so predictable that truly radical leaders with little or no concern for pragmatism have been elected on the assumption that, once they came to power, they would moderate their tone and their demands. This was one of the mechanisms that made it possible for Hitler and the Nazi party to come to power.
But this is not Germany in 1933. Conditions have changed. Indeed, we could with greater justification call these changes “radical” that to call contemporary European political parties or their leaders “radical.” The rule of Syriza is not going to initiate a new communist crackdown on Greek society, in which artists and poets will be jailed and Lysenkoism is imposed upon agriculture. Syriza may well effect an economic leveling that makes everyone except the nomenklatura and apparatchiks equally poor (this is, after all, what communist regimes typically do), but making everyone equally poor through economic policies known to be disastrous might be stupid, and it might mean the loss of an enormous amount of human potential, but it is unlikely to be criminal in the way that twentieth century communist regimes were criminal. Moreover, these are the policies that the people have voted for, and apparently it is necessary every single generation that people be taught a lesson on the unworkable nature of socialist economic policies.
If Syriza is communist (and Yanis Varoufakis, e.g., has been very upfront about the influence of Marx on his own views), it is a kinder and gentler form of communism (to borrow a phrase from George H. W. Bush). And if the National Front is fascist, it is kinder and gentler form of fascism. No more than Syriza is going to jail opposition intellectuals is Marine Le Pen and the National Front going to preside over a Kristallnacht aimed at Muslims living in France, though if you read the records of elite opinion in Europe you very clearly get the idea that there is a profound undercurrent of anxiety that extremists will come to power in Europe who will repeat the most brutal episodes in European history. However, this anxiety seems to be almost entirely focused on a right-of-center populist reaction against Muslim influence in Europe, as elite opinion journals seem to have little interest in the rise of an extremist left.
It could be argued that Europe would benefit from some political diversity (not to mention controversy), since monolithic elite opinion since the end of the Second World War has had the practical effect of denying the bully pulpit to alternative views. The election of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain, the rallies of Pegida in Germany, and the improving poll numbers of the National Front in France are in this sense welcome. In so far as they give the bully pulpit to politicians who do not automatically mouth the euphemisms of elite European opinion, they actually give greater credibility to the EU and its programs.
In so far as the EU and the PR spin doctors of Europe’s elite opinion seek to deny even a voice to radical and marginal parties, they are making the same mistake in relation to politics today that they made with religion in earlier centuries. Instead of a free market of ideas, the attempt to shape a top-down definition of acceptable views has the opposite effect of making the “official” view laughable while piquing curiosity about the other views. In so far as some view is universally condemned in official sources, intellectually alert individuals will take notice and will suppose that there is something of interest and possible even something that is a clear and present danger to the established order in these marginal views.
Of course, the Europeans are not so stupid or as vulgar as to ban minority views outright (although there are a number of laws that make it illegal to make certain claims), but kinder and gentler elite opinion (like kinder and gentler communism and fascism) can be almost as effective in mere disapproval as it can be in outright legal sanction. Again, one need only pay attention to the monolithic on-message character of European politics. If you’re a careerist, you cannot possibly afford to neglect this.
With Round Two of the Eurozone crisis being played out across Europe, and headlines looking a lot like they looked a few years ago, although this time with Syriza in power in Greece, European elite opinion is faced once again with kicking the can down the road or dealing with the problems on the merits. Given the record of European elite opinion being so tightly focused on message, in contradistinction to meaningful action, the likely result seems to be further muddling through while hoping all turns out OK in the end. How many times can Europe lurch to the brink of crisis only to lurch backward from the brink at the last possible moment? European elite opinion worries about the brinkmanship of Europe’s radicals, but it is elite opinion itself that is pushing Europe toward the brink.
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During the initial iteration of the Eurozone Crisis I blogged extensively on the problem, including the following posts:
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28 February 2015
Introduction: A Failed Region
What do you get when you cluster several failed nation-states together in a single geographical region? You get a failed region, and what we see today in Mesopotamia and the Levant is a failed region catastrophically failing. This is regionalism gone horribly wrong. Even by the self-serving standards of the international nation-state system, the several regimes of the region are not only failing to provide basic services for their respective peoples, but are manifestly making life much worse and more difficult for the unfortunates resident in the region.
My previous post on Islamic State, The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State, was purely analysis; I made no recommendations or policy prescriptions. Here I am going to shift gears and consider how the present violence in the region will ultimately be reduced through some settlement to the ongoing conflict. The level of violence in the region is not now compatible with civil society, and the longer this level of violence continues, the greater the breakdown of institutions on the ground. The sooner the violence is reduced, institutions still in existence may recover. If violence persists, all functioning institutions may disappear and new institutions will have to be established in their place, even if they are former institutions resurrected.
Violence is destabilizing; insurgencies and political movements know this (this knowledge is a major source of revolutionary violence), and so they foment violence as a tactic to destabilize the established order so that they can insert themselves in addition to or in place of that order. But implicit in this tactic is that, once a new political accommodation is found, violence will subside and civil society will be able to return to some semblance of normality, perhaps on a different basis (presumably the basis preferred by those who instigated the violence). Islamic State is no exception to this time-honored political calculation, despite its apocalyptic pretensions. They seek to eliminate the nation-states of the region and to assert the control of the Islamic State caliphate in place of these nation-states. Once the work of replacement is completed (if it is completed), civil society will proceed under principles of Islamic law as recognized by Islamic State. The point here is simply that, one way or another, the unsustainable levels of violence will recede, and the only question is the mechanism by which the reduction in violence takes place, and whether it leaves in its wake a stable civil society or an unstable civil society that will give way to further violence.
The Options for Islamic State
After I wrote ISIS and Sykes-Picot I must admit that I was quite surprised that Islamic State declared the reestablishment of the caliphate. The stakes are high. If ISIS proclaims itself to be the caliphate and then fails ignominiously, this compromises any future attempt to reestablish the caliphate (i.e., another subsequent caliphate wouldn’t be taken seriously, and the caliphate is an institution that must command respect or it is better off defunct). If, however, ISIS can secure enough territory to keep its caliphate intact for some period of time, the longer it endures the greater legitimacy it will have.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Islamic State has been called the best funded terrorist organization ever in existence. This may be overstating the case — organized insurgencies in the Golden Triangle that took control of the opium trade, and non-state groups in Andean South America that monopolized cocaine trafficking, both commanded serious financial resources — but even to be among the most well-funded of non-state entities is a significant accomplishment. If ISIS can continue the flow of money and find ways to increase its funding as it increases its de facto territory, this will go a long way toward securing a longer term future for the group.
On the surface, it would seem that the prospects of ISIS are grim, and that the group must almost certainly be destroyed, root and branch, as long as their horrific tactics alienate world opinion so that major powers (like the US) have the political cover to intervene with the support of regional powers. If a nation-state with the resources of the US decides that your group should be destroyed, then you really don’t have much of a chance. Under conditions of strong motive and weak constraints, the US can act with impunity at any place on the planet. However, ideal conditions of motive and constraint rarely obtain in the messy reality of politics and diplomacy.
ISIS is in the classic position of an insurgency, except that it has ambitions to rule territory distinct from any contemporary nation-state. Therefore it cannot simply replace the leadership of some extant nation-state; in order to achieve success on its own terms it must establish control over some territory that can with some credibility be called a caliphate, to which sympathetic Muslims can travel to join the cause. Situated as they are at present, they are in a geographical position to easily draw off the disaffected youth of six neighboring states, and the truly determined will find a way to join the cause regardless of geographical obstacles (individuals from all over the world have already, in fact, made their way to Islamic State). As long as this flow of fighters into Islamic State continues, the group can expand its ability to project power.
Inflows of money and fighters have made ISIS what it is today. Can it maintain or expanded its successes to date? What strategy could ISIS pursue in order to continue in existence as a viable political entity and thereby the gain credibility for the caliphate it has declared? There seems to be only a single viable course of action, and that would be to so divide regional powers so as to paralyze any coalition action against ISIS. If local powers are sufficiently paralyzed, larger powers would be hesitant to commit sufficient forces, or to unilaterally seek the destruction of ISIS. This paralysis is already one of the factors that has allowed ISIS to seize and to hold territory.
As it turns out, it is not terribly difficult to divide opinion and to politically paralyze those regional nation-states that a power like the US would require as cover for offensive action necessary for the attainment of decisive objectives. It has been pointed out by many commentators that the global Islamic community (i.e., the Ummah) is quick to jump on perceived slights to their faith from non-Muslims, but when it comes to atrocities perpetrated by Muslims (as those being committed now by Islamic State as I write this) there is a preternatural silence. And even when the occasional Islamic nation-state makes an official condemnation of ISIS and their like, there still is no broad groundswell of outrage from the Ummah. There are theological reasons for this.
Islam has never had a top-down institutional organization of the kind that is commonplace in Christianity. As a result there has always been a tension in issues of governance of the Ummah. This is particularly apparent when it comes to declaring anything unislamic (takfir). If you wrongly denounce another Muslim as being non-Muslim in beliefs or practices, you are yourself non-Muslim. To be non-Muslim fallen from the true faith is to be an apostate, and the punishment for apostasy is death. Thus an outcry against Islamic State and its brutality would risk the standing of those protesting the beliefs and practices of Islamic State. As Islamic State appears to have a literal reading of the relevant texts on its side, few are ready to meet them in theological debate.
As neighboring regimes are kept off-balance by internal conflict, and no great power is willing to intervene regionally for this reason, ISIS can continue to expand its influence into the vacuum of destabilized and paralyzed regimes, making good on its commitment of offensive jihad.
The Options for Dar al-Harb
The appeal of ISIS is powerful, but also limited. If it demonstrated a resounding series of successes, it would expand its appeal and draw in more who want to believe its message but don’t quite dare to believe it yet. If ISIS can be contained, however, it will not be seen as moving from one success to another, the inflow of excited would-be jihadis will slow to a small trickle, and to the extent that the legitimacy of ISIS is predicated upon expansion through offensive jihad, its legitimacy would be called into question.
If ISIS is to be contained, and its prophetic mission thereby called into question as it accepts de facto borders between itself and surrounding nation-states, it must be contained by local forces with an ongoing interest in policing these borders. Anything achieved by outsiders who will eventually pull out and go home will necessarily be ephemeral, and ISIS can resume offensive Jihad after any pull out, legitimizing any pause in operations as a temporary truce (the latter acceptable according to the prophetic methodology). Thus the containment of ISIS must not be by the US, or NATO, or Europe, or even Russian or Chinese assistance to any one of the warring parties; containment must be effected by those who live in the region and who will remain in the region.
There is a way to do this, but this way is closed to the western powers for political reasons. The one coherent, workable strategy for Mesopotamia and the Levant that would have any chance of success — and by “success” I mean a long term reduction in violence and the establishment of a regional order that will allow the majority of individuals to live out their lives in relative safety and security — is, unfortunately, politically impossible… impossible, at least, for the US, and only nearly impossible for the rest of the world — and cannot be implemented for political reasons. There are, of course, many other strategies as well, but these other strategies are either incoherent, unworkable, or unlikely to issue in success (as defined above).
Because the US and its allies are not going to throw their resources behind Assad in order to resurrect Syria as an Alawite-minority-dominated, Sunni majority dictatorship, and because the other forces that have fought against Assad have proved themselves to be far less capable than ISIS, a workable strategy would need to employ proxies in the region that are militarily capable. And there are militarily capable forces in the regions: the Kurds and Iran and Iranian proxies. If support and materiel were funneled to the Kurds and to Iranian proxies, it would be possible not only to defeat ISIS on the ground, but also to change the political conditions in the region that allowed for the rise of ISIS.
There are problems with this, of course, The Kurds want their own nation-state, and a well armed, supplied and financed Kurdish Peshmerga would take for itself a nation-state carved out of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and in so doing to incur the hatred of all of these nation-states, who are jealous of their territory and who are not about to give up any of it for a homeland for the Kurds. Nevertheless, the Kurds have proved that they can fight and they can organize under adverse conditions.
Another problem is that Iran and Iranian proxies, which have also, like the Kurds, proved their mettle, are supporters of Assad. While this support for Assad has a long history, it is primarily a function of Syria’s ruling clique being Alawite, which is a small offshoot of Shia Islam, and I suspect that a deal could be struck that removed Assad from power while leaving the ruling clique of some rump Syria (dominated by Iran) in the hands of the Alawites. Such a deal would actually be facilitated by the credibility that Iran and its proxies would have in dealing with Assad and his supporters.
Once again I must assure the reader that I am under no illusion that the above scenario will take place, I only say that it is coherent and could be formulated into clear military objectives. There is already a certain measure of support being shown for the Kurds, and despite the apparent political impossibility, there is an article on Foreign Policy’s website, Washington’s Uneasy Partnership With Tehran Now Extends to Yemen by Seán D. Naylor, that discusses de facto US-Iranian cooperation, so, far from being unimaginable, such cooperation is already a fait accompli, and stunts like the IRGC blowing up a mock-up of a US aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz is merely a matter of placating domestic opinion so that no one thinks the regime has gone soft on the Great Satan.
These efforts, however, are much too small to contain what Islamic State has already become. A strategy that had a hope of success would have to be robust; instead of debating whether only non-lethal aid would be sent to the Kurds, the Kurds should receive massive support, and no complaints should be made when they assert territorial control over an independent Kurdistan with the assistance they were given. The geopolitical obsession with retaining current borders — itself an ideological outgrowth of the ossified international system of nation-states — prevents this kind of support from practical realization.
Since we can predict with confidence that the one chance for a sane stability in the region (not stability deriving from a xenophobic and genocidal regime imposing a Pax Islamica) will not be pursued, there is the question of the second best strategy. The second best strategy would be a decapitation strike against the apex leadership of Islamic State, and especially Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I understand that there have been airstrikes that have killed several prominent leaders of IS; these efforts to date have been as ineffectual as support for anti-ISIS forces in the region. by a decapitation strike I don’t mean a rain of cruise missiles, which is the nation-state equivalent of “spray and pray.” I mean two dozen or more stealth helicopters with special forces commandos coming down on top of the apex leadership of ISIS and capturing or killing that leadership. Knowing the ISIS obsession with Dabiq as the location for an apocalyptic battle, it would be no great difficulty to convincingly feint in the direction of Dabiq long enough to draw fighters away from other duties and so to leave the leadership relatively exposed.
Given the commando resources available to the US, it would be entirely within the capacity of US special forces to capture or to kill al-Baghdadi even in the midst of Islamic State territory. The mission would have to be quite large — much larger than the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden — and it would entail casualties. Such an operation would likely result in dozens of US casualties and perhaps hundreds of IS casualties, but successfully executed the apex leadership of IS could be captured or killed, and this might be a sufficient blow against the nascent regime to scatter those who remain behind. (Follow-on strikes could continue the dispersion of remaining leaders and prevent them from regrouping.) It would also be the occasion for much hand-wringing on the part of the international community and protests by nation-states who feel they have a stake in the conflict. It would, however, be a decisive strike and a coherent strategy.
This second option is not much more likely than the first, though it can at least be said that it is not politically impossible. At same time, its greater political feasibility is balanced against its absence of an endgame that would allow the region to transition toward a sustainable and less violent order in the near future. The elimination of ISIS is a mere tactic to stabilize the region; regional stability requires a regional strategy, and not a single operation.
Dar al-Islam vs. Dar al-Harb
Perhaps it is a universal truth that all civil wars produce civil atrocities on an unprecedented scale. The civil war within Islam, i.e., the civil war of the Ummah, like the civil war within Christendom in the 17th century, will be no exception. Whatever side in this conflict receives support from western nation-states, will eventually be implicated in atrocities and war crimes, and, when these atrocities and war crimes come to light, all popular will to continue any support will vanish, and political will to continue support will vanish soon after.
As I have argued elsewhere (The Neurotic Misery of Islamic Civilization), Islam is a civilization in the midst of neurotic misery, and the only therapy that will deliver them over into ordinary human unhappiness is philosophy taught by examples, that is to say, history.
There is a detailed article on The Atlantic’s website, What ISIS Really Wants by Graeme Wood that takes ISIS at its word in regard to the group’s “prophetic methodology,” which is the particular conception of history now entertained by the leadership of ISIS. Wood makes the valid point that ISIS is to a certain extent hamstrung by its Koranic literalness, and that this is a valuable guide in predicting the actions of the group. This is one of the few potentially valuable ways of understanding ISIS that can be of material benefit to any action taken against it.
Another point that Graeme Wood makes is that the west has, up to now, drawn a number of false analogies by putting all jihadist organizations into the same basket. This has indeed been part of the problem, but it is just as much of a problem to treat ISIS an the monolith it aspires to be. The success of ISIS to date has not only been the result of a brutal fidelity to “prophetic methodology,” but also a not inconsiderable rationality and organizational mettle. While there are no doubt a great many within ISIS who see their struggle as a cosmic war, there are probably also many who see ISIS in another, and much more pragmatic, light. Even if ISIS is successfully contained, and its claim to being in the vanguard of cosmic war called into question by any such containment, there will still be a struggle within ISIS between ideological purists and pragmatists who would be content with establishing a new state along the lines of Islamic State but shorn of its ideological pretensions.
A chastened but still violent and combat-effective ISIS could continue to destabilize the region for decades to come, if not centuries, during which time many strategies on both sides of the divide would be tested. If we test the optimal strategy for ISIS against the likely strategy of any anti-ISIS coalition (viz. the US and its European allies making feeble and half-hearted attempts to support the “good” side in this conflict), the prospects for the continued survival of ISIS are quite high, even if it is a mere shadow of its prophetic aspirations.
If a quasi-pragmatic leadership emerges from a less-than-triumphant ISIS, this leadership will have to arrive at some modus vivendi with its neighbors in the region. ISIS would then have to become a nation-state among nation-states, which is apostasy from the purely eschatological point of view, but also a human, all-too-human compromise that should be expected at some point in time.
In this case, the boundaries of existing nation-states — the status quo ante — would be re-established as far as possible given the events that have transpired to date, as part of the process of resurrecting institutions of civil society mentioned above in the Introduction. We recall that the European powers fought their religious wars for almost a century before they finally negotiated the Treaty of Westphalia (which came nearly to affirming borders that existed prior to the conflict), which settled on the principle cuius regio, eius religio, which I previously discussed in The Stalin Doctrine.
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20 February 2015
Kant on Hope
Kant famously summed up the concerns of his vast body of philosophical work in three questions:
1) What can I know?
2) What ought I to do? and…
3) What may I hope?
These three questions roughly correspond to his three great philosophical treatises, the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason, and the Critique of Judgment, which represent, respectively, rigorous inquiries into knowledge, ethics, and teleology. However much the world has changed since Kant, we can still feel the imperative behind his three questions, and they are still three questions that we can ask today with complete sincerity. This is important, because many men who deceive themselves as to their true motives, ask themselves questions and accept answers that they do not truly believe on a visceral level. I am saying that Kant’s questions are not like this.
In other contexts I have considered what we can know, and what we ought to do. (For example, I have just reviewed some aspects of what we can know in Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge, and in posts like The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight I have looked at what we ought to do.) Here I will consider the third of Kant’s questions — what we are entitled to hope. There is no more important study toward understanding the morale of a people than to grasp the structure of hope that prevails in a given society. Kant’s third question — What may I hope? — is perhaps that imperative of human longing that was felt first, has been felt most strongly through the history of our species, and will be the last that continues to be felt even while others have faded. We have all heard that hope springs eternal in the human breast.
It is hope that gives historical viability both to individuals and their communities. In so far as the ideal of historical viability is permanence, and in so far as we agree with Kenneth Clark that a sense of permanence is central to civilization, then hope that aspires to permanence is the motive force that built the great monuments of civilization that Clark identified as such, and which are the concrete expressions of aspirations to permanence. Here hope is a primary source of civilization. More recent thought might call this concrete expression of aspirations to permanence the tendency of civilizations to raise works of monumental architecture (this is, for example, the terminology employed in Big History).
Hope and Conceptions of History
The structure of hope mirrors the conception of history prevalent within a given society. A particular species of historical consciousness gives rise to a particular conception of history, and a particular conception of history in turn defines the parameters of hope. That is to say, the hope that is possible within a given social context is a function of the conception of history; what hope is possible, what hope makes sense, is limited to those forms of hope that are both actualized by and delimited by a conception of history. The function of delimitation puts certain forms of hope out of consideration, while the function of actualization nurtures those possible forms of hope into life-sustaining structures that, under other conceptions of history, would remain stunted and deformed growths, if they were possible forms of hope at all.
In analyzing the structure of hope I will have recourse to the conceptions of history that I have been developing in this forum. Consequently, I will identify political hope, catastrophic hope, eschatological hope, and naturalistic hope. This proves to be a conceptually fertile way to approach hope, since hope is a reflection of human agency, and I have remarked in Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception that the four conceptions of history I have been developing are based upon a schematic understanding of the possibilities of human agency in the world.
All of these structures of hope — political, catastrophic, eschatological, and naturalistic — have played important roles in human history. Often we find more than one form of hope within a given society, which tells us that no conception of history is total, that it admits of exceptions, and the societies can admit of pluralistic manifestations of historical consciousness.
Hope begins where human agency ends but human desire still presses forward. A man with political hope looks to a better and more just society in the future, as a function of his own agency and the agency of fellow citizens; a man with catastrophic hope believes that he may win the big one, that his ship will come in, that he will be the recipient of great good fortune; a man with eschatological hope believes that he will be rewarded in the hereafter for his sacrifices and sufferings in this world; a man with naturalistic hope looks to the good life for himself and a better life for his fellow man. Each of these personal forms of hope corresponds to a society that both grows out of such personal hopes and reinforces them in turn, transforming them into social norms.
Structure and Scope
While a conception of history governs the structure of hope, the contingent circumstances that are the events of history — the specific details that fill in the general structure of history — govern the scope of hope. The lineaments of hope are drawn jointly by its structure and scope, so that we see the particular visage of hope when we understand the historical structure and scope of a civilization.
Like structure, scope is an expression of human agency. An individual — or a society — blessed with great resources possesses great power, and thus great freedom of action. An individual or a society possessed of impoverished resources has much more limited power and therefore is constrained in freedom of action. In so far as one can act — that is to say, in so far as one is an agent — one acts in accords with the possibilities and constraints defined by the scope of one’s world. The scope of human agency has changed over historical time, largely driven by technology; much of the human condition can be defined in terms of humanity as tool makers.
Technology is incremental and cumulative, and it generally describes an exponential growth curve. We labor at a very low level for very long periods of time, so that our posterity can enjoy the fruits of our efforts in a later age of abundance. Thus our hopes for the future are tied up in our posterity and their agency in turn. And it is technology that systematically extends human agency. To a surprising degree, then, the scope of civilization corresponds to the technology of a civilization. This technology can come in different forms. Early civilizations mastered the technology of bureaucratic organization, and managed to administer great empires even with a very low level of technical expertise in material culture. This has changed over time, and political entities have grown in size and increased in stability as increasing technical mastery makes the administration of the planet entire a realistic possibility.
The scope of civilization has expanded as our technologically-assisted agency has expanded, and today as we contemplate our emerging planetary civilization such organization is within our reach because our technologies have achieved a planetary scale. Our hopes have grown along the the expanding scope of our civilization, so that justice, luck, salvation, and the good life all reflect the planetary scope of human agency familiar to us today.
Hope in Planetary Civilization
What may we hope in our planetary civilization of today, given its peculiar possibilities and constraints? How may be answer Kant’s third question today? Do we have any answers at all, or is ours an Age of Uncertainty that denies the possibility of any and all answers?
Those of a political frame of mind, hope for, “a thriving global civilization and, therefore… the greater well-being of humanity.” (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape) Those with a catastrophic outlook hope for some great and miraculous event that will deliver us from the difficulties in which we find ourselves immersed. Those whose hope is primarily eschatological imagine the conversion of the world entire to their particular creed, and the consequent rule of the righteous on a planetary scale. And those of a naturalistic disposition look to what human beings can do for each other, without the intervention of fortune or otherworldly salvation.
How each of these attitudes is interpreted in the scope of our current planetary civilization is largely contingent upon how an individual or group of individuals with shared interests views the growth of technology over the past century, and this splits fairly neatly into the skeptics of technology and the enthusiasts of technology, with a few sitting on the fence and waiting to see what will happen next. Among those with the catastrophic outlook on history will be the fence sitters, because they will be waiting for some contingent event to occur which will tip us in one direction or the other, into technological catastrophe or technological bonanza. Those of an eschatological outlook tend to view technology in purely instrumental terms, and the efficacy of their grand vision of a spiritually unified and righteous planet will largely depend on the pragmatism of their instrumental conception of technology. The political cast of mind also views technological instrumentally, but primarily what it can do to advance the cause of large scale social organization (which in the eschatological conception is given over to otherworldly powers).
Perhaps the greatest dichotomy is to be found in the radically different visions of technology held by those of a naturalistic outlook. The naturalistic outlook today is much more common than it appears to be, despite much heated rhetoric to the contrary, since, as I wrote above, many of us deceive ourselves as to our true motives and our true beliefs. The rise of science since the scientific revolution has transformed the world, and many accept a scientific world view without even being aware that they hold such views. Rhetorically they may give pride of place to political ideology or religious faith, but when they act they act in accordance with reason and evidence, remaining open to change if their first interpretations of reason and evidence seem to be contradicted by circumstances and consequences.
The dichotomy of the naturalistic mind today is that between human agency that retreats from technology, as though it were a failed project, and human agency that embraces technology. Each tends to think of their relation to technology in terms of liberation. For the critics of technology, we have become enslaved to The Machine, and either by overthrowing the technological system, or simply by turning out backs on it, people can help each other by living modest lives, transitioning to a sustainable economy, cultivating community gardens, watching over their neighbors, and, generally speaking, living up to (or, as if you prefer, down to) the “small is beautiful” and “limits to growth” creed that had already emerged in the early 1970s.
The contrast could not be more stark between this naturalistic form of hope and the technology-embracing naturalistic form of hope. The technological humanist also sees people helping each other, but doing so on an ever grander scale, allowing human beings to realistically strive toward levels of self-actualization and fulfillment not even possible in earlier ages, perhaps not even conceivable. The human condition, for such naturalists, has enslaved us to a biological regime, and it is the efficacy of technology that is going to liberate us from the stunted and limited lives that have been our lot since the species emerged. Ultimately, technology embracing naturalists look toward transhumanism and all that it potentially promises to human hopes, which in this context can be literally unbounded.
Hope in the Age of Naturalism
Given the state of the world today, with all its pessimism, and the violence of contesting power centers apparently motivated by unchanged and unchanging conceptions of the human condition, the reader may be surprised that I focus on naturalism and the naturalistic conception of history. If we do not destroy ourselves in the short term, the long term belongs to naturalism. Contemporary political hope, in so far as it is pragmatic is naturalistic, and insofar as it is not pragmatic, it will fail. The hysterical and bloody depredations of religious mania in our time is only as bad as it is because, as an ideology, it is under threat form the success of naturalistically-enabled science and technology. Once the break with the past is made, eschatological hope will no longer be the basis of large-scale social organization, and therefore its ability to cause harm will be greatly limited (though it will not disappear). The catastrophic viewpoint is always limited by its shoulder-shrugging attitude to human agency.
Most people cannot bear to leave their fate to fate, but will take their fate into their own hands if they can. How people take their fate into their hands in the future, and therefore the form of hope they entertain for what they do with the fate held in their hands, will largely be defined by naturalism. Perhaps this is ironic, as it has long been assumed that, of perennial conceptions of the human condition, naturalism had the least to say about hope (and eschatology the most). That is only because the age of naturalism had not yet arrived. But naturalistic despair is just as much a reality as naturalistic hope, so that the coming of the age of naturalism will not bring a Millennia of peace, justice, and happiness for all. Human leave-taking of the ideologies of the past is largely a matter of abandoning neurotic misery in favor of ordinary human unhappiness.
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15 February 2015
In my first post on the overview effect, The Epistemic Overview Effect, I compared a comprehensive overview of knowledge to the perspective-altering view of the whole of the Earth in one glance. Later in The Overview Effect in Formal Thought I discussed the need for a comprehensive overview in formal thought no less than in scientific knowledge. I also discussed the overview in relation to interoception in Our Knowledge of the Internal World.
This account of the overview effect in various domains of knowledge leaves an ellipsis in my formulation of the overview effect, namely, the overview effect in specifically empirical knowledge, i.e., the overview effect in science other than the formal sciences. What would constitute an overview of empirical knowledge? The totality of facts? An awareness of the overall structure of the empirical sciences? A bird’s eye view of the universe entire? (The latter something I recently suggested in A Brief History of the Stelliferous Era.)
A subjective experience is always presented in a personal context, and when that subjective experience is of the overview effect the individual life serves as the “big picture” context by which individual and isolated experiences derive their value. The overview effect, as documented to date, is a personal experience, therefore ideographic, and therefore also idiosyncratic to a certain extent. The traditionally ideographic character of the historical sciences, then, has been uniquely well-adapted to being given an exposition in overview, and so we have the recent branch of historiography called big history. Big history in particular gives an overview of the historical sciences even as the historical sciences are employed to give an overview of history. There is a twofold task here to interpret all the physical sciences historically (in ideographic terms) so that their epistemic contributions can be integrated into the historical sciences, and to move the historical sciences closer to the nomothetic rigor of the traditionally ahistorical physical sciences. We will truly have a comprehensive overview of scientific knowledge when the ideographic historical sciences and the nomothetic ahistorical sciences meet in the middle. This constitutes an ideal of scientific knowledge that has not yet been attained.
Every individual has an overview of their own life — or, rather, every individual with a minimal degree of insight has an overview of their own life — and this is the setting for any other overview of which the individual becomes aware, including the overview effect itself. (Individuals also, partly in virtue of their personal overview of their own life, possess what I have called the human overview, such that in the experience of meeting another person we can usually rapidly place that person within a social, cultural, ethnic, and historical context.) In the future, the personal experience of the overview effect may be harnessed for the production of knowledge understood more broadly than the knowledge engendered by purely personal experience. All empirical knowledge is ultimately derived from personal experience, has its origins in personal experience, but once personal experience has been exapted through idealization and quantification for the purpose of the production of empirical knowledge, it loses its personal and experiential character and becomes impersonal and objective.
It may sound overly subtle at first to make a distinction between personal experience and empirical knowledge, but the distinction is worth noting, and in any theoretical context it is important to observe the distinction. Experience is ideographic; empirical knowledge is nomothetic. Thus personal experience of the overview effect to date is an ideographic overview effect; the possibility of the empirical sciences converging upon an overview effect would be a nomothetic overview effect. If this nomothetic overview effect of scientific knowledge can be further extended by rendering the ahistorical nomothetic sciences in terms of the historical sciences, and the overview effect of scientific knowledge can be given a history in which we have an overview of each stage of development, we can get a glimpse of the possibilities for comprehensive knowledge, and what the future may hold for scientific knowledge.
Science has always been in the business of attempting to provide an overview of the world, but the approach of science has always been a form of objectivity that attempts to alienate personal experience. One sees this most clearly in classical antiquity, when the most abstract of sciences flourished — viz. mathematics — while the other sciences languished, partly because the theoretical framework for constructing objective knowledge out of personal experience did not yet exist. Hundreds of years of the development of scientific thought have subsequently provided this framework, but the paradigm produced by science has come at a certain cost. We are still today struggling with that legacy and its costs.
One way to approach the role of personal experience in empirical knowledge is by way of Bertrand Russell’s distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description (“Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description” in Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays). The task that Russell set himself in this paper — “…what it is that we know in cases where we know propositions about ‘the so-and-so’ without knowing who or what the so-and-so is” — is closely related to the cluster of problems addressed by his theory of descriptions. Russell’s distinction implies two other permutations: the case in which we have neither knowledge by acquaintance nor knowledge by description, which is epistemically uninteresting, and the case in which we have both knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. In the latter case, knowledge by description has been confirmed by knowledge by acquaintance, but for the purposes of his exposition of the distinction Russell makes it quite clear that he wants to focus on instances of knowledge by description in which knowledge is only by description.
I am going to make my own use of Russell’s distinction, but will not attempt to retain any fidelity to the metaphysical context of Russell’s exposition of the distinction. Russell’s exposition of his distinction is wrapped up in a particular metaphysical theory that is no longer as common as it was a hundred years ago, but I am going to interpret Russell in terms of a naive scientific realism, so that when we see the Earth we really do see the Earth, and the Earth is not merely a logical construction out of sense data. (If I, or anyone, wanted to devote an entire book to Russell’s metaphysic in relation to his distinction between acquaintance and description this could easily be done. Indeed, an exposition of the Earth as a logical construction out of sense data would be an interesting intellectual exercise, and I can easily imagine a professor assigning this to his students as a project.)
Russell wrote of knowledge by acquaintance: “I say that I am acquainted with an object when I have a direct cognitive relation to that object, i.e. when I am directly aware of the object itself. When I speak of a cognitive relation here, I do not mean the sort of relation which constitutes judgment, but the sort which constitutes presentation.” Thus in the overview effect, I have a direct cognitive relation to the whole of the Earth, not in terms of judgment, but as a presentation. Intuitively, I think that Russell’s formulation works quite well as an explication of the epistemic significance of the overview effect.
Russell described knowledge by description as follows:
I shall say that an object is “known by description” when we know that it is “the so-and-so,” i.e. when we know that there is one object, and no more, having a certain property; and it will generally be implied that we do not have knowledge of the same object by acquaintance. We know that the man with the iron mask existed, and many propositions are known about him; but we do not know who he was. We know that the candidate who gets most votes will be elected, and in this case we are very likely also acquainted (in the only sense in which one can be acquainted with some one else) with the man who is, in fact, the candidate who will get most votes, but we do not know which of the candidates he is, i.e. we do not know any proposition of the form “A is the candidate who will get most votes” where A is one of the candidates by name. We shall say that we have “merely descriptive knowledge” of the so-and-so when, although we know that the so-and-so exists, and although we may possibly be acquainted with the object which is, in fact, the so-and-so, yet we do not know any proposition “a is the so-and-so,” where a is something with which we are acquainted.
There are a lot of interesting philosophical questions implicit in Russell’s exposition of knowledge by description; I am not going to pursue these at present, but will take Russell at his word. In the context of the overview effect, “the so-and-so” is “the planet on which human beings live,” and we know (to employ a Russellian formulation) that there is one and only one planet upon which human beings live, and moreover this planet is Earth. In fact, we know that it was a considerable achievement of scientific knowledge to come to the understanding that human beings live on a planet, and all this knowledge was achieved through knowledge by description. For the vast majority of human history, we were acquainted with the Earth, yet we did not know the proposition “x is the planet upon which human beings live” where x was something with which we were acquainted. This is almost as perfect an example as there could be of knowledge by description in the absence of knowledge by acquaintance.
In Russell’s distinction, ideographic personal experience is a kind of knowledge — knowledge by acquaintance — but is distinct from knowledge by description. What Russell called “knowledge by description” is a special case of non-constructive knowledge. Non-constructive reasoning is the logic of the big picture and la longue durée (cf. Six Theses on Existential Risk) — the scientific (in contradistinction to the personal) approach to the overview effect. Just as science has always been in the business of seeking an overview, so too science has long been in the business of elaborating knowledge by description, because in many cases this is the only way we can begin a scientific investigation, though in such cases we always begin with the hope that our knowledge by description can eventually be transformed into knowledge by acquaintance. In other words, we hope to become acquainted with the objects of knowledge we describe. Knowledge by description is here the theoretical framework of scientific knowledge in search of instances of acquaintance — evidence, experience, and experiment — to confirm the theory.
Although Russell was not a constructivist per se, his position in this essay is unambiguously constructive in so far as the thesis he maintains is that, “Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted” (italics in original). Russell’s foundation of knowledge in the personal experience of knowledge by acquaintance demonstrates that Russell and Kierkegaard not only have a conception of rigor in common, but also the ultimate epistemic authority of individual experience.
Part of the importance of the overview effect is that it is a personal vision, such as I described in Kierkegaard and Futurism. The individuality of a personal vision is a function of the subjectivity of the individual, hence how the effect is experienced is as significant, if not more significant, than what is experienced.
An interesting result of this inquiry is not only to bring further philosophical resources to the analysis of the overview effect, but also to point the way to the further development science. I have often emphasized that science is not a finished edifice of knowledge, but that science itself continues to grow, not only in sense of continually producing scientific knowledge, but also in the sense of continuing to revise the scientific method itself. One of the most common objections one encounters when talking about science among those who take little account of science is the impersonal nature of scientific knowledge, and even a rejection of that same objectivity that has been the pride science to have attained. To fully appreciate the overview effect as a moment in the development of scientific knowledge is to understand that it may not only give us a new perspective on the world in which we live, but also a new perspective on how we attain knowledge of this world.
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9 February 2015
Introduction: Madmen in Authority
If you’ve ever heard the final paragraph of Keynes’ economic masterpiece, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, you will not have forgotten these now-classic lines:
“…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”
John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Chapter 24, section V
Whether you care to consider our homegrown madmen here in the west, or the madmen elsewhere in the world, it is difficult to deny Keynes’ estimate of the place of ideas in political life. We are now seeing some especially pernicious ideas being played out in our planet’s history, and while we can be confident that these ideas will be discredited in the long term, in the short term they will be the source of enormous human suffering as long as madmen in authority cling to them, and others are willing to follow the madmen.
One of these madmen in authority at the present time is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri) who, as leader of Islamic State, has taken the name and title Caliph Ibrahim, as the restoration of the caliphate abolished with the end of the Ottoman Empire has been one of the long-held dreams of political Islamists upon which Islamic State has acted. The political entity now called Islamic State is also called ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), in reference to the geographical region in which the movement is now active. The history of this geographical region is relevant to our inquiry, so we will consider this next.
The Civilizational Milieu of Mesopotamia and the Levant
The region of the world now being fought over by Islamic State militants challenging established state structures was that region of the world most productive of ancient civilizations. The civilizations of India and China arose independently in almost complete cultural isolation, and they developed in isolation for hundreds or thousands of years before encountering other civilizations at a similar level of development. In the western hemisphere, there was perhaps more interaction between settled groups, with highland peoples of the Andes trading with lowland peoples along the coast from the earliest origins of civilization in South America, but even this was nothing like the density of civilization to be found in the contiguous regions of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt — a geographical area that came to be called the Fertile Crescent.
At the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea a series of civilizations arose in relation to and often in conflict with each other. Empire succeeded empire as the peoples of the region competed for power. This predecessor — this common ancestor — of Jewish civilization, western civilization, Islamic civilization, North African civilization, Russian civilization and all the civilizations that have their ultimate origins in the Mediterranean Basin, was the most complex, most polyglot, most diverse civilizational milieu on our planet. In my notes to myself I sometimes call this civilizational region the “West Asian cluster,” as these contiguous lands hosted a cluster of evolving and interacting civilizations. History has great depth and complexity here, and one might well spend a lifetime attempting to master all the diverging and converging strains that are interwoven in the region.
The civilization that was to become Western civilization is ultimately from this west Asian cluster (albeit derivatively), specifically, from Anatolia, and it is easy to trace on the map its journey through Thrace, Bulgaria, and into the Balkan Peninsula. Then in Greece that civilization experienced a dramatic mutation, and then again, further west, in Rome, again that civilization mutated into something else, and further west again when the Roman legacy was mixed with Barbarian Europe, Christendom emerged and western civilization as we know it today took shape. Western civilization, in other words, took shape outside the region of the west Asian cluster. The civilizations we see in the region today are those that remained in the region from earliest antiquity, and this is our first hint of the dramatically different histories of East and West. Christendom took shape in the muddy, rural backwaters of manorial estates in western Europe; nothing could be farther from the dusty, desert cities of the Levant, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt — cities that had already existed for thousands of years by the time Islamic civilization emerged and became the dominant power.
Islamic State is seeking to establish itself and to project power at the heart of this West Asian Cluster that proved itself fertile not only in its soil for the production of food, but fertile also in the minds of its peoples for the production of civilizations. But it is interesting to note that among the civilizations that emerge from the West Asian cluster, Islamic civilization is only derivatively from this cluster (like Western Civilization), since Islamic civilization in the narrow sense has its origins in the Arabian Peninsula, although the civilizations of the Arabian Peninsula had their origins in turn from the West Asian Cluster.
The Golden Age of Islamic Civilization
It is not unusual to hear the ideology of ISIS compared to medieval interpretations of Islam, but medieval Islam — a civilization of wealth and power at the height of its historical influence — was a large and diverse civilization, one of civilization’s “big tents,” and moreover a civilization of many hundreds of years in duration, so that if you were to compare early medieval Islam of the sort you might find in Samarra and Baghdad with late medieval Islam of the sort you might find in Granada and Cordoba, the differences may be more evident than the continuity of Islamic identity. Medieval Islam, then, is not exactly what people usually have in mind when they speak of “medieval Islam.”
The height of medieval Islamic civilization saw cosmopolitan cities, monumental architecture, and a great efflorescence of philosophy. The works of classical philosophy lost in western Europe with the collapse of Roman institutions were translated into Arabic and were the subject of extensive interpretation and commentary. When medieval Europe recovered to the point of being able to once again engage with philosophy, they received the Greek and Roman classics from Islam, and they consumed the works of Islamic commentators no less than ancient works. While St. Thomas called Aristotle “The Philosopher,” he also called Averroes “The Commentator.”
Any wealthy agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization that begins to produce an abundance of intellectual innovation will trigger a reaction from the conservative sectors of society who wish to preserve untainted the religious principles of social organization that are of the very essence of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. This was true for the Greeks, for the Romans, for the Jews, and it was true for Islam. The Greeks killed Socrates, the Romans exiled Ovid, the Jews excommunicated Spinoza, and Islam produced figures like Ibn Taymiyyah who condemned all intellectual innovation.
Ibn Taymiyyah and reactionary philosophy
I begin my inquiry into the violence in the region from the earliest traces of civilization, but the echo chamber of the press and the popular media goes back only when pressed for explanations they do not have, and then they go only far enough to seize upon a figure who can be used to “explain” the apparently inexplicable. A review of regional history may include the split between Shia and Sunni, and will certainly go on to discuss the crucial role of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Wahhabism in the ideology of the militant Salafist groups. It would be an easy matter to use up one’s available time simply trying to clarify the distinction, if any, between Wahhabism and Salafism.
There are several older and deeper layers of history sedimented into the ideology of ISIS. One of the pivotal philosophical figures in contemporary militant ideology is that of Ibn Taymiyyah, who is one of the “Two Shaikhs” — the other being al-Islam — of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. It should be noted that jurisprudence plays a much larger role in Islamic thought than it does in Christian thought. Perhaps this is a consequence of the separation of political and ecclesiastical power that has always marked western civilization; perhaps there are other historical forces at work as well. In any case, one of the major distinction made within Islam is that made among the five schools of Islamic jurisprudence, viz. the Ja‘fari, the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi΄i, and the Hanbali. There are in addition some other schools, though with relatively few followers.
Ibn Taymiyyah not only played a prominent role in the foundation of the Hanbali school, he was also what we would today call a technical philosopher, that is to say, he wrote technical treatises in philosophy that can only be understood by other philosophers who have studied similar questions. But Ibn Taymiyyah was a technical philosopher only because he felt the need to refute the doctrines of other technical philosophers. Refuting philosophers on their own terms has the paradoxical consequence of requiring that the intellectual representatives of a simpler past are forced to engage these philosophers on their own terms, adopting the language and the concepts of philosophy in order to give the lie to philosophy.
A figure like Ibn Taymiyyah within Islam has several parallels in the western philosophical tradition. When intellectual life revived in western Europe after the Dark Ages, and scholars began to read Aristotle and his Greek and Arabian commentators (all of these texts passed along via a cosmopolitan Islamic civilization, since they had been lost in the west), many sincere yet conservative Schoolmen were nothing less than horrified by the “Latin Averroists” and other philosophers who openly learned from pagan and Islamic scholars. They not only argued against these philosophical innovations, they also actively sought to have these views suppressed and their authors silenced, and they were successful with depressing regularity and thoroughness.
Giles of Rome is a good example of this: he wrote a book called The Errors of the Philosophers, in which he recounts in detail the false doctrines that Christian philosophers had disastrously picked up from reading Greek and Arabic philosophical texts. Yet, paradoxically, in order to effectively refute these doctrines, Giles himself had to learn to speak the language of the philosophers. A good example of this is his book Theorems on Existence and Essence — a technical philosophical treatise on ontology. If you read this book without knowing medieval philosophy, you would have no idea if Giles was a flaming radical or the most hidebound reactionary. It bristles with philosophical terminology that can only be understood by initiates of the discipline. Nietzsche once wrote, “Kant wanted to prove in a way that would dumfound the ‘common man’ that the ‘common man’ was right.” A similar observation might be made on Giles of Rome.
Ibn Taymiyyah was in a similar position: he wanted to refute the rationalism of the Greek logicians, but in order to do so he was forced to adopt the language and the concepts of the Greeks, and so his primary theoretical text, Against the Greek Logicians, like Giles’ treatises against Christians borrowing from Greeks and Arabs, is a demanding philosophical read. It is a subtle and sophisticated work, not a mere catalog of rejection or condemnation, though it also resembles Saint Augustine in its elaborate and verbose digressions. But his project is a paradoxical project. Like all anti-rationalist philosophies, it is beset with contradictions from the outset. But a little contradiction never worried a committed ideologue; indeed, the very idea of contradiction stems from logic, so that in so far as you use logic to condemn itself (as Ibn Taymiyyah does), you are in a position to welcome contradictions.
In so far as we can identify the Enlightenment project as the re-emergence of rationalism in western civilization, all of those western nation-states today who look to the Enlightenment project, or which, like the US and France, owe their very existence to the Enlightenment, have their source and origin in Locke, Hume, and the cluster of early modern political philosophers who made their work possible. But it is not only rationalism that re-emerges repeatedly in history; irrationalism also returns time and again in human history. The philosophy of ISIS constitutes a parallel re-emergence of Ibn Taymiyaah’s project, a reactionary, anti-rational project for civilization. While we already know that anti-rationalistic programs are failed civilizational programs, sometimes failed ideas are perennial ideas, and so they come back to haunt us time and time again, no matter how pernicious to human well being and many times discredited by history when history teaches by example.
Fawaz A. Gerges on Islamic State
In a cosmopolitan civilization, men like Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome would be mere cranks, rapidly left behind by accelerating intellectual innovations that open up new horizons of inquiry and research and which change civilization in their wake. (I suspect that Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome, had they ever met, would have gotten along famously as long as the topic of religion never came up, in which case they would likely have killed each other.) Unfortunately, in human history from all quarters of the planet we can find examples of growing and dynamic civilizations, civilizations that do not feel threatened by diversity of thought, retrenching from their cosmopolitanism, closing themselves off from new influences, looking to the past rather than the future, and refusing change, if not actively working to reverse changes. (In Islamic thought there is actually a term for this: “closing of the gate of ijtihad.”)
In non-cosmopolitan civilizations, in reactionary social contexts, failed ideas that fully deserve to be defunct ideas are given a new lease on life, and perhaps more importantly and most dangerously, these ideas are placed in the context of a mythology that gives cosmic significance to them. In such a retrograde social context, men like Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome take on a prophetic quality: they have seen the limitations of reason and scientific inquiry, and they were among the first to issue warnings about where such developments will take us if we allow them to continue.
We have seen that the philosophical basis of ISIS and related groups that share the ideology of ISIS is the principled rejection of that rationalism that has been the unique contribution of the western branch of the west Asian cluster of civilizations, and that Ibn Taymiyyah is one of the theoretical sources of this principled rejection, and author of the many of the principles that can be and have been invoked to this end. Much of the social and eschatological background against which these ideas have been received can be found in an article on the BBC, Islamic State: Can its savagery be explained? by Fawaz A. Gerges, Emirates Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In this article Gerges wrote:
“…IS actually stresses violent action over theology and theory, and has produced no repertoire of ideas to sustain and nourish its social base. It is a killing machine powered by blood and iron.”
Obviously, I do not share this view, but Gerges is unquestionably correct that Islamic State emphasizes violent action over theoretical disputation. Gerges, however, also notes several other factors in the appeal of Islamic State that constitute the social context within which the ideological superstructure of the group is played out:
● “victory through terrorism” (the quotation marks are in the Gerges’ text, though I can’t find the source of this presumed slogan)
● Get out of the way or you will be crushed; join our caravan and make history.
● a powerful vanguard that delivers victory and salvation
● shock-and-awe tactics against the enemies of Islam
● capturing huge swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq
● a greater mission — to resurrect a lost idealised type of caliphate (Gerges also says “establishing a caliphate”)
● be part of a tight-knit community with a potent identity
● to defend persecuted co-religionists
● an anti-Shia diet and visceral hatred of minorities in general
● the spearhead of Sunni Arabs in the fight against sectarian-based regimes in Baghdad and Damascus
All of these are direct quotes from the Gerges article on the BBC. While this may not sound like an ideology compared to the tortuous theological justifications for brutality to which we are accustomed, it is clearly an ideological program, and, more than that, it is an ideological program with an unmistakeable pragmatic bent.
Strategy and Tactics of Cosmic War
It would be difficult to produce a more concise list of the tactics of cosmic war than that above I have derived from Gerges. The violence and brutality, then, are epiphenomenal to the eschatological core of militant Salafism, which is in turn the core of Islamic State.
It is at least arguable that the devolution of warfare has driven the brutality of warfare on the ground, as this remains one of the few avenues for perpetrating atrocities that will command the attention of the world, and it is through the practice of atrocities that Islamic State has advertised itself and its ruthlessness to the world. But the calling card of brutality and ruthlessness is not be conflated with the ideological superstructure of Islamic State.
We can see that all of these slogans, ideas, and actions noted by Gerges play into a conception of history, that is to say, they constitute a kind of historical consciousness, and a particular conception of history superadded to the individual’s conception of himself — which is to say, the individual consciousness supplemented by an historical consciousness that places that individual within a big picture conception of the world — is a potent ideological cocktail. It is precisely this kind of historical consciousness that drove fanatical (and also often victorious) communists in the twentieth century. In other words, militant Islam today is in some sense parallel to militant communism in the twentieth century. This observation should give us pause, and it is something that we need to remember when we consider the problem of Islamic terrorism.
A conception of history, while powerful, is essentially only the scaffolding of an ideological superstructure. The scaffolding is there to support and to organize the principles that constitute the substance of an ideological superstructure. This substance of the ideological superstructure is taken from the older, perennial theoretical justifications found in original thinkers like Ibn Taymiyyah (who, I might note, would not want to have been thought of as an original thinker).
The principles that ultimately govern the shape of the ideological superstructure go far beyond the tactical implementation of a particular conception of history: these ideas are the strategy of cosmic war. We can understand thinkers like Ibn Taymiyyah, then, as the strategists of cosmic war — and I even think that if a sympathetic reader of Ibn Taymiyyah and a supporter of Islamic State took the time to understand that I have written here, that he would not necessarily reject this formulation.
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30 January 2015
Introduction: Periodization in Cosmology
Recently Paul Gilster has posted my Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica? on his Centauri Dreams blog. In this post I employ the framework of Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin from their book The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of Eternity, who distinguish the Primordial Era, before stars have formed, the Stelliferous Era, which is populated by stars, the Degenerate Era, when only the degenerate remains of stars are to be found, the Black Hole Era, when only black holes remain, and finally the Dark Era, when even black holes have evaporated. These major divisions of cosmological history allow us to partition the vast stretches of cosmological time, but it also invites us to subdivide each era into smaller increments (such is the historian’s passion for periodization).
The Stelliferous Era is the most important to us, because we find ourselves living in the Stelliferous Era, and moreover everything that we understand in terms of life and civilization is contingent upon a biosphere on the surface of a planet warmed by a star. When stellar formation has ceased and the last star in the universe burns out, planets will go dark (unless artificially lighted by advanced civilizations) and any remaining biospheres will cease to function. Life and civilization as we know it will be over. I have called this the End-Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event.
It will be a long time before the end of the Stelliferous Era — in human terms, unimaginably long. Even in scientific terms, the time scale of cosmology is long. It would make sense for us, then, to break up the Stelliferous Era into smaller periodizations that can be dealt with each in turn. Adams and Laughlin constructed a logarithmic time scale based on powers of ten, calling each of these powers of ten a “cosmological decade.” The Stelliferous Era comprises cosmological decades 7 to 15, so we can further break down the Stelliferous Era into three divisions of three cosmological decades each, so cosmological decades 7-9 will be the Early Stelliferous, cosmological decades 10-12 will be the Middle Stelliferous, and cosmological decades 13-15 will be the late Stelliferous.
The Early Stelliferous
Another Big History periodization that has been employed other than that of Adams of Laughlin is Eric Chaisson’s tripartite distinction between the Energy Era, the Matter Era, and the Life Era. The Primordial Era and the Energy Era coincide until the transition point (or, if you like, the phase transition) when the energies released by the big bang coalesce into matter. This phase transition is the transition from the Energy Era to the Matter Era in Chaisson; for Adams and Laughlin this transition is wholly contained within the Primordial Era and may be considered one of the major events of the Primorial Era. This phase transition occurs at about the fifth cosmological decade, so that there is one cosmological decade of matter prior to that matter forming stars.
At the beginning of the Early Stelliferous the first stars coalesce from matter, which has now cooled to the point that this becomes possible for the first time in cosmological history. The only matter available at this time to form stars is hydrogen and helium produced by the big bang. The first generation of stars to light up after the big bang are called Population III stars, and their existence can only be hypothesized because no certain observations exist of Population III stars. The oldest known star, HD 140283, sometimes called the Methuselah Star, is believed to be a Population II star, and is said to be metal poor, or of low metallicity. To an astrophysicist, any element other than hydrogen or helium is a “metal,” and the spectra of stars are examined for the “metals” present to determine their order of appearance in galactic ecology.
The youngest stars, like our sun and other stars in the spiral arms of the Milky Way, are Population I stars and are rich in metals. The whole history of the universe up to the present is necessary to produce the high metallicity younger stars, and these younger stars form from dust and gas that coalesce into a protoplanetary disk surrounding the young star of similarly high metal content. We can think of the stages of Population III, Population II, and Population I stars as the evolutionary stages of galactic ecology that have produced structures of greater complexity. Repeated cycles of stellar nucleosynthesis, catastrophic supernovae, and new star formation from these remnants have produced the later, younger stars of high metallcity.
It is the high relative proportion of heavier elements that makes possible the formulation of small rocky planets in the habitable zone of a stable star. The minerals that form these rocky planets are the result of what Robert Hazen calls minerological evolution, which we may consider to be an extension of galactic ecology on a smaller scale. These planets, in turn, have heavier elements distributed throughout their crust, which, in the case of Earth, human civilization has dug out of the crust and put to work manufacturing the implements of industrial-technological civilization. If Population II and Population III stars had planets (this is an open area of research in planet formation and without a definite answer as yet), it is conceivable that these planets might have harbored life, but the life on such worlds would not have had access to heavier elements, so any civilization that resulted would have had a difficult time of it creating an industrial or electrical technology.
The Middle Stelliferous
In the Middle Stelliferous, the processes of galactic ecology that produced and which now sustain the Stelliferous Era have come to maturity. There is a wide range of galaxies consisting of a wide range of stars, running the gamut of the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram. It is a time of both galactic and stellar prolixity, diversity, and fecundity. But even as the processes of galactic ecology reach their maturity, they begin to reveal the dissipation and dissolution that will characterize the Late Stelliferous Era and even the Degenerate Era to follow.
The Milky Way, which is a very old galaxy, carries with it the traces of the smaller galaxies that it has already absorbed in its earlier history — as, for example, the Helmi Stream — and for the residents of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies one of the most spectacular events of the Middle Stelliferous Era will be the merging of these two galaxies in a slow-motion collision taking place over millions of years, throwing some star systems entirely clear of the newly merged galaxies, and eventually resulting in the merging of the supermassive black holes that anchor the centers of each of these elegant spiral galaxies. The result is likely to be an elliptical galaxy not clearly resembling either predecessor (and sometimes called the Milkomeda).
Eventually the Triangulum galaxy — the other large spiral galaxy in the local group — will also be absorbed into this swollen mass of stars. In terms of the cosmological time scales here under consideration, all of this happens rather quickly, as does also the isolation of each of these merged local groups which persist as lone galaxies, suspended like a island universe with no other galaxies available to observational cosmology. The vast majority of the history of the universe will take place after these events have transpired and are left in the long distant past — hopefully not forgotten, but possibly lost and unrecoverable.
The Tenth Decade
The tenth cosmological decade, comprising the years between 1010 to 1011 (10,000,000,000 to 100,000,000,000 years, or 10 Ga. to 100 Ga.) since the big bang, is especially interesting to us, like the Stelliferous Era on the whole, because this is where we find ourselves. Because of this we are subject to observation selection effects, and we must be particularly on guard for cognitive biases that grow out of the observational selection effects we experience. Just as it seems, when we look out into the universe, that we are in the center of everything, and all the galaxies are racing away from us as the universe expands, so too it seems that we are situated in the center of time, with a vast eternity preceding us and a vast eternity following us.
Almost everything that seems of interest to us in the cosmos occurs within the tenth decade. It is arguable (though not definitive) that no advanced intelligence or technological civilization could have evolved prior to the tenth decade. This is in part due to the need to synthesize the heavier elements — we could not have developed nuclear technology had it not been for naturally occurring uranium, and it is radioactive decay of uranium in Earth’s crust that contributes significantly to the temperature of Earth’s core and hence to Earth being a geologically active planet. By the end of the tenth decade, all galaxies will have become isolated as “island universes” (once upon a time the cosmological model for our universe today) and the “end of cosmology” (as Krauss and Sherrer put it) will be upon us because observational cosmology will no longer be able to study the large scale structures of the universe.
The tenth decade, thus, is not only when it becomes possible for an intelligent species to evolve, to establish an industrial-technological civilization on the basis of heavier elements built up through nucleosynthesis and supernova explosions, and to employ these resources to launch itself as a spacefaring civilization, but also this is the only period in the history of the universe when such a spacefaring civilization can gain a true foothold in the cosmos to establish an intergalactic civilization. After local galactic groups coalesce into enormous single galaxies, and all other similarly coalesced galaxies have passed beyond the cosmological horizon and can no longer be observed, an intergalactic civilization is no longer possible on principles of science and technology as we understand them today.
It is sometimes said that, for astronomers, galaxies are the basic building blocks of the universe. The uniqueness of the tenth decade, then, can be expressed as being the only time in cosmological history during which a spacefaring civilization can emerge and then can go on to assimilate and unify the basic building blocks of the universe. It may well happen that, by the time of million year old supercivilizations and even billion year old supercivilizations, sciences and technologies will have been developed far beyond our understanding that is possible today, and some form of intergalactic relationship may continue after the end of observational cosmology, but, if this is the case, the continued intergalactic organization must be on principles not known to us today.
The Late Stelliferous
In the Late Stelliferous Era, after the end of the cosmology, each isolated local galactic group, now merged into a single giant assemblage of stars, will continue its processes of star formation and evolution, ever so slowly using up all the hydrogen produced in the big bang. The Late Stelliferous Era is a universe having passed “Peak Hydrogen” and which can therefore only look forward to the running down of the processes of galactic ecology that have sustained the universe up to this time.
The end of cosmology will mean a changed structure of galactic ecology. Even if civilizations can find a way around their cosmological isolation through advanced technology, the processes of nature will still be bound by familiar laws of nature, which, being highly rigid, will not have changed appreciably even over billions of years of cosmological evolution. Where light cannot travel, matter cannot travel either, and so any tenuous material connection between galactic groups will cease to play any role in galactic ecology.
The largest scale structures that we know of in the universe today — superclusters and filaments — will continue to expand and cool and to dissipate. We can imagine a bird’s eye view of the future universe (if only a bird could fly over the universe entire), with its large scale structures no longer in touch with one another but still constituting the structure, rarified by expansion, stretched by gravity, and subject to the evolutionary processes of the universe. This future universe (which we may have to stop calling the universe, as it is lost its unity) stands in relation to its current structure as the isolated and strung out continents of Earth today stand in relation to earlier continental structures (such as the last supercontinent, Pangaea), preceding the present disposition of continents (though keep in mind that there have been at least five supercontinent cycles since the formation of Earth and the initiation of its tectonic processes).
Near the end of the Stelliferous Era, there is no longer any free hydrogen to be gathered together by gravity into new suns. Star formation ceases. At this point, the fate of the brilliantly shining universe of stars and galaxies is sealed; the Stelliferous Era has arrived at functional extinction, i.e., the population of late Stelliferous Era stars continues to shine but is no longer viable. Galactic ecology has shut down. Once star formation ceases, it is only a matter of time before the last of the stars to form burn themselves out. Stars can be very large, very bright and short lived, or very small, scarcely a star at all, very dim, cool, and consequently very long lived. Red dwarf stars will continue to burn dimly long after all the main sequence stars like the sun have burned themselves out, but eventually even the dwarf stars, burning through their available fuel at a miserly rate, will burn out also.
The Post-Stelliferous Era
After the Stelliferous Era comes the Degenerate Era, with the two eras separated by what I have called the Post-Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event. What the prospects are for continued life and intelligence in the Degenerate Era is something that I have considered in Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica? and Addendum on Degenerate Era civilization, inter alia.
Our enormous and isolated galaxy will not be immediately plunged into absolute darkness. Adams and Laughlin (referred to above) estimate that our galaxy may have about a hundred small stars shining — the result of the collision of two or more brown dwarfs. Brown dwarf stars, at this point in the history of the cosmos, contain what little hydrogen remains, since brown dwarf stars were not large enough to initiate fusion during the Stelliferous Era. However, if two or more brown dwarfs collide — a rare event, but in the vast stretches of time in the future of the universe rare events will happen eventually — they may form a new small star that will light up like a dim candle in a dark room. There is a certain melancholy grandeur in attempting to imagine a hundred or so dim stars strewn through the galaxy, providing a dim glow by which to view this strange and unfamiliar world.
Our ability even to outline the large scale structures — spatial, temporal, biological, technological, intellectual, etc. — of the extremely distant future is severely constrained by our paucity of knowledge. However, if terrestrial industrial-technological civilization successfully makes the transition to being a viable spacefaring civilization (what I might call extraterrestrial-spacefaring civilization) our scientific knowledge of the universe is likely to experience an exponential inflection point surpassing the scientific revolution of the early modern period.
An exponential improvement in scientific knowledge (supported on an industrial-technological base broader than the surface of a single planet) will help to bring the extremely distant future into better focus and will give to our existential risk mitigation efforts both the knowledge that such efforts requires and the technological capability needed to ensure the perpetual ongoing extrapolation of complexity driven by intelligent, conscious, and purposeful intervention in the world. And if not us, if not terrestrial civilization, then some other civilization will take over the mantle and the far future will belong to them.
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