6 October 2016
A biological being among biological beings
A human being is a being among beings, and moreover a biological being among biological beings. We come to an awareness of ourselves, and of what we are, in a biological context. Biophilia, then, is a default consequence of being biological and finding oneself in a biological content; biophilia is a cognitive bias of biological beings. (Previously I considered the relationship between our biological nature and our biological bias in Biocentrism and Biophilia.) From both our biocentrism and our biophilia follows biocentric civilization, which I formulated in terms of the biocentric thesis, so it is natural that I would next attempt to formulate a technocentric thesis, as I have often contrasted biocentric and technocentric conceptions.
Until quite recently there was no possibility of pursing a non-biophilic bent, i.e., of pursuing a technocentric bent. Over the past several thousand years of human civilization, individual human beings had a limited opportunity to immerse themselves into the human world of civilization, and this civilization has been predominantly and pervasively biocentric. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, after which both agriculturalism and pastoralism became economically marginal, and the adoption of technology greatly increased, the ability to separate oneself from biocentric institutions has increased proportionately, but the individual has remained himself a biological being, tied to the biological world through existential needs for personal sustenance. Thus our being biological has repeatedly brought us back to our biological origins. If civilization were to fail, we could still return to an almost exclusively biocentric context and — at least for those who survived this traumatic transition — life would go on.
The emergence of a technological milieu following the industrial revolution suggests the possibility of a technocentric civilization that is the successor to biocentric civilization. Indeed, we may even understand the emergence of a fully technocentric civilization as the telos of industrialized civilization. We can formulate this in greater generality, as this process may hold for any civilization whatsoever that originates as a civilization of planetary endemism and makes the transition to a technological civilization.
Should the intelligent (biological) agents that build a civilization cease to be biological and become, for example, technological instead of biological, over time those intelligent agents could grow apart from their biocentric origins, and the social institutions in which these intelligent agents participate will become increasingly less biocentric. Biocentricity, then, is a function of biological origins, i.e., biocentrism is a consequence of being biological (as I put it in The Biocentric Thesis), and biophilia is an expression of biocentricity. As a technological civilization grows away from its biocentric origins, it is likely to become less biophiliac over time, which will in turn allow for greater expression of technophilia.
An explicit formulation of the technocentric thesis
Let us try to give these ideas a more explicit formulation:
The Technocentric Thesis
Any fully technocentric civilization has evolved from a previous biocentric civilization by descent with modification.
…which implies its corollary formulated in the negative…
No civilization originates as a technocentric civilization.
By a “biocentric civilization” I mean a civilization that exemplifies the biocentric thesis. I have formulated a strong biocentric thesis (all civilizations in our universe begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces) and a weak biocentric thesis (all civilizations during the Stelliferous Era begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces), each of which has a corollary formulated in the negative. The technocentric thesis could also be given strong and weak formulations, e.g., all technocentric civilizations in our universe evolve from biocentric civilizations (strong) and all technocentric civilizations during the Stelliferous Era evolve from biocentric civilizations (weak). The weaker formulation is in each case constrained by temporal parameter while the stronger formulation is unconstrained.
The mechanism by which a technocentric civilization evolves from a biocentric civilization I call replacement, and replacement can be formulated as the replacement thesis:
The Replacement Thesis
All technocentric civilizations begin as biocentric civilizations and are transformed into technocentric civilizations through the replacement of biological constituents with technological constituents.
This in turn implies a negative formulation as its corollary:
Replacement Thesis Corollary
No technocentric civilization originates as a technocentric civilization, but emerges by replacement from a biocentric civilization of planetary endemism.
How far can replacement go? We can already see in our own industrialized civilization partial replacement, but can there be a complete replacement of biological constituents by technological constituents? For any civilizations originating in intelligent biological organisms, it is unlikely that living organisms could ever be completely eliminated, but they may be rendered superfluous for all practical purposes (i.e., superfluous to civilization).
The argument from consciousness
It would be possible to construct a scenario in which biology can never be completely eliminated as a constituent of civilization. Consider the following scenario, which I will call the argument from consciousness, based on the indispensability of consciousness to civilization and the unknown parameters of machine consciousness.
The Argument from Consciousness
I will assume that there is such a thing as consciousness, that human beings are conscious at least some of the time, and that this human consciousness plays a significant role in human existence and in the civilizations built by human beings. (It is necessary to make these rudimentary stipulations because it is not unusual to find consciousness dismissed, or called an “illusion,” or to see its role in the world minimized or marginalized.)
The view is prevalent, perhaps even dominant, in AI circles such that anything that can pass the Turing test must be called conscious. There is a degree of mutual reinforcement between this common view among AI researchers and the tacit positivism that continues to influence the development of contemporary science, which consigns consciousness of the sphere of metaphysics and thus rules out in principle any metaphysical entity that is consciousness. I will not here attempt to make a case for consciousness as a metaphysical entity, but I will assume, for the purposes of what follows, that a principled refusal to consider consciousness is a barrier to understanding human behavior, including the behavior of building civilizations.
Since we do not yet know what consciousness is, and we cannot produce a scientific account of consciousness, we do not know what the conditions of consciousness are. If we had a scientific theory of consciousness that allowed us to quantify consciousness by taking meaningful measures of consciousness, any putative consciousness, whether generated by a mechanism or by biology, natural or modified or fully synthetic, could be tested by such measures of consciousness and objectively determined to be conscious or not. We do not as yet possess any such science, nor can we take any such measurements.
Human and animal consciousness constitute existence proofs of the possibility of consciousness arising by natural means, and thus consciousness ought to be amenable to study by methodological naturalism, and also to replication. It is possible that consciousness can only be produced by biological means, i.e., it is possible that machine consciousness cannot be generated. The existence proof of consciousness provided by biological beings is not an existence proof of machine consciousness. Now, I personally think that machine consciousness will eventually come about, but we will not know that this is possible until it has been achieved.
Even if machine consciousness is impossible, it would still be possible to engineer consciousness by biological means, employing some variation on existing biological substrates of consciousness, or producing consciousness by way of synthetic or artificial biology. In this case, a civilization (or post-civilizational social institution) that preserves consciousness, or desires to preserve consciousness, will not be able to become purely technocentric in the sense of entirely eliminating biology, though the biology that is retained may be entirely subordinated to technical means and technical institutions. A civilization that retained consciousness through such biological means, but entirely within a technocentric context, could be called a technocentric civilization in which biology was ineradicable.
The argument from consciousness is merely an argument (and not a proof of anything), because the same absence of a science of consciousness that would allow us to take objective measures of consciousness is the absence of a science that would make it possible to prove either that consciousness can inhere in different kind of substrates (biological or mechanical, for example), or that consciousness can only be generated through biological means. Until we have a science of consciousness, we can advance this line of argumentation only through existence proofs, i.e., proofs of concept.
Even then, even given building a conscious machine, without a science of consciousness we would have no way to rigorously and objectively compare and contrast human consciousness with machine consciousness. One way to resolve this dilemma is the Turing test, as noted above, but no one who has any degree of scientific curiosity could be satisfied with cutting the Gordian knot of consciousness rather than unraveling it.
One of the virtues of explicitly formulating one’s ideas as theses (or as arguments), as in the above, is that one can then turn to the explicit criticism of these theses, especially to the task of unpacking the assumptions embedded in the theses. Another virtue of explicit formulations is that they can be explicitly falsified. The existence of a civilization not derived from biological complexity emergent on a planetary surface would falsify the biocentric thesis.
These explicit formulations, then, are not be taken as definitive formulations. I do not consider the biocentric thesis, the technocentric thesis, or the replacement thesis to be in any sense definitive, but rather to be a point of departure in an analysis of the nature of civilization taken in its broadest signification and extrapolated to a cosmological scale. Thus I hope to return to each of these theses in order to tease out their assumptions in order to analytically approach the intuitive conception of civilization with which I began.
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27 September 2016
Now that Elon Musk has delivered his highly anticipated talk “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species,” providing an overview of his plan for a Martian settlement sufficiently large to be self-sustaining (he mentioned a million persons moving to Mars in a fleet of 1,000 spacecraft leaving Earth en masse), the detailed analysis of this mission architecture can begin. Musk said in his talk that he thought it was a good idea that there should be many different approaches, so he clearly was not making any claim that his plan was the one and only workable mission architecture.
As both public space agencies and private space companies go beyond the talking phase and begin the design, testing, and construction of a Mars mission (or missions), these designs will embody assumptions about the best way to get to Mars with contemporary technology (there are many ways to do this). The assumptions, as usual, aren’t often explicitly discussed, because assumptions are foundational, and you have to have a community of individuals who share the same or similar assumptions even to begin designing something as complex as a human mission to Mars. Foundational assumptions may be challenged in initial “brainstorming” sessions, but once we get to sketches and calculations, the assumptions are already built into the design.
One of the most important assumptions about Mars mission design is whether that mission should be slow or fast. In this context. “slow” means following one of the well-established gravitational transfer trajectories (Hohmann Transfer Orbits) that many uncrewed missions to Mars have followed, which requires a minimum of fuel use and little or no braking upon arrival, but instead requires time.
A Hohmann transfer orbit to Mars would require many months (six months or more; cf. Flight to Mars: How Long? Along what Path?, which gives a figure of 8.5 months), the window to make the journey only occurs every 25 months, and during a long voyage such as this the crew would have to be maintained in good health, protected from radiation, and have enough space onboard to keep from going stir crazy. A Mars cycler configuration would involve travel times on the order of years. This is definitely a “slow” option, but also an option that minimizes propellant use.
The Mars Design Reference Mission (which I recently quoted in A Distinctive Signature of an Early Spacefaring Civilization), a design document produced by NASA in July 2009 (the full title is Human Exploration of Mars: Design Reference Architecture 5.0), characterizes their mission architecture as “fast” (the document repeatedly cites “fast transit trajectory”), but involves a one-way transit time of 6 to 7.5 months:
“…the flight crew would be injected on the appropriate fast-transit trajectory towards Mars. The length of this outbound transfer to Mars is dependent on the mission date, and ranges from 175 to 225 days.”
A “slow” mission to Mars such as this (which NASA calls a “fast” mission) ought to be designed about a large, rotating habitat that can simulate gravity (this has featured in films, such as The Martian). No one wants to spend six months in a “capsule.” An additional benefit of a large and slow Mars mission is that the rotating habitat sent to Mars could be maintained in Mars orbit as a Martian space station (such as I wrote about in A Martian Space Station and A Passage to Mars) and subsequent missions could add to this Martian space station.
Alternatively, instead of a large and comfortable habitat in which to travel, a slow mission to Mars might involve induced torpor in the crew (effectively, human hibernation), and while this would require far less food and water for the journey, this option, too, might be best achieved with simulated gravity. Human bodies evolved in a gravity field, and don’t do well outside that gravity field (cf. Hibernation for Long-term Manned Space Exploration by Shen Ge, which includes many links to resources on induced torpor).
A “fast” mission to Mars I will identify as anything faster that the six months or so required for a Hohmann transfer orbit. Fast journeys could be anything from a gentle ion thrust, using very little propellant and only cutting a little time off the trip, to powering half way to Mars (preferably at 1 g acceleration in order to again simulate gravity) and then decelerating for the second half of the trip. Musk’s mission design as presented in his IAC talk called for initial transfer times “as low as” 80 days (i.e., less than three months; his graphic for this section of the talk showed transit durations from 80-150 days), perhaps improving to as little as 30 days further in the future, but little detail was offered on this part of the mission architecture.
The quickest “fast” trips to Mars contemplated with contemporary technology would be about two weeks. A nuclear-powered ion engine might make the trip in three months, which is a lot better than six months, and might be considered “fast,” but Musk’s 30-80 day transit times are all designed around well-known chemical rocket technology, which makes the effort much closer to being practical in the near term. If you have enough rocket engines, big enough engines, and enough fuel, you can make the trip to Mars more quickly with chemical rockets than is usually contemplated, and that seems to be the SpaceX approach; much of the talk was taken up with concerns of propellant, fuel transfer in Earth orbit, and producing fuel on Mars.
It is important to point out that most of the technologies I have mentioned above — rotating spacecraft, induced torpor, nuclear rockets, and so on — have been the object of much study, but little practical experience. (An early version of the Nerva nuclear rocket was built and tested, but it wasn’t flown into space; cf. Secrecy and the STEM Cycle.) However, we have a pretty good grasp of the science involved in these technologies, so building actual spacecraft incorporating them is primarily an engineering challenge, not a science challenge (except in so far as there is a science of technology design and engineering application; cf. Testing Technology as a Scientific Research Program: A Practical Exercise in the Philosophy of Technology). In other words, we don’t need any scientific breakthroughs for a mission to Mars, but we need a lot of technological development and engineering solutions.
Hearing a presentation such as Elon Musk gave today is exciting, and definitely communicates that this project can be done, and even that it can be done on a grand scale. This is invigorating, and stokes what Keynes called our “animal spirits” for a voyage to Mars. If the momentum can be maintained, the development of a spacefaring civilization can be a practical reality within decades rather then centuries. Musk discussed the “forcing function” of having a settlement on Mars, and he is correct that this human outpost away from Earth would entail continual improvements in space transportation, and moreover it would extend human consciousness to include Mars as a human concern.
Once humanity begins to make itself a home on Mars, and human beings can call themselves “Martians” (perhaps even with a certain sense of pride) and adopt a genuinely Martian standpoint, humanity will be a multiplanetary species, a multiplanetary human civilization will begin to emerge, and this multiplanetary civilization will be distinct from our planetary civilization of today. Mars, in this scenario, would be a point of bifurcation, the origin of a new kind of civilization, localized in the same way that the industrial revolution can be localized to England.
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15 September 2016
A Century of Industrialized Warfare:
Mechanized Armor Enters the Fray
On 15 September 1916 one of the pivotal events of industrialized warfare occurred: the tank was used in battle for the first time in history. Mobile fire has been the crucial offensive weapon of warfare since the beginning of civilization and warfare, whether that mobile fire took the form of chariot archers, mounted horse archers, a ship of the line, or mechanized armor, as with the tank. Before industrialized warfare the heaviest armored unit was heavy cavalry (or possibly elephants, though elephants were never armored to the extent that cataphracti or medieval knights were armored), which was a shock weapon — mobile, but not mobile fire. The tank was able to combine mobile fire with heavy armor in a way that no non-mechanized force was capable, and this made it a distinctive feature of industrialized warfare.
The Battle of the Somme had started on 01 July 1916, and with two and half months into the “battle” it was obvious that the Somme would be like most WWI battlefields: largely static and dominated by defense: trenches, barbed wire, and machine gun nests, which had arrested the progress of any offensive and so had precluded decisive attainment of objectives. Up to this time, the technology of the industrial revolution had strengthened the defense, but with the introduction of the tank all that changed. Mechanized armor brought mobile fire into the age of industrialized warfare, and mechanized armor has remained, for a hundred years, the primary spearhead of offensive action.
Despite its initial effectiveness as a “terror weapon,” the pace of tank development was somewhat slow for wartime conditions. The Germans did not introduce their first tank until the A7V was deployed in March 1918, and the first battle between tanks took place during the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918. Early tanks were mechanically unreliable, and were fielded in smaller numbers than would have been necessary to fundamentally change the conditions of battle. In many ways, this paralleled the use of aircraft during the First World War: the technology was introduced, but not yet mastered.
It was not the introduction of the tank that ended the First World War. However, an adequate conceptualization of mechanized armor began to emerge during the interwar period, when tanks underwent extensive development and testing, and Heinz Guderian wrote his Achtung — Panzer! (much as Giulio Douhet wrote The Command of the Air during the interwar period). The tank truly came into its own during the Second World War, combined with close air support in a highly mobile form of maneuver warfare that came to be called Blitzkrieg. The largest tank battle in history took place during the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, almost thirty years after the tank was first used in combat.
In The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier I speculated that armored helicopters could take the place of tanks in a mechanized spearhead. Though helicopters will always be more vulnerable than a tank, because they can never be as heavily armored as tanks, they are today the premier weapon of mobile fire and could press forward the attack far faster than tanks. Helicopter gunships, however, have not yet been fully exploited for battlefield use, partly because they appeared on the scene at a point of time in history when peer-to-peer conflict among nation-states was already a declining paradigm, and so they have filled a very different combat role.
The paradigm of hybrid warfare that is emerging in our own time — a form of warfare probably more consistent with the existence of planetary civilization than the past paradigm of peer-to-peer conflict among nation-states — has no place for heavily armored mobile fire comparable to the place of the tank in twentieth century warfare. The forces now actually engaged in armed conflict (as opposed to appearing in military parades) tend to be lighter, faster, and stealthier. Despite the tendency of warfare to press forward the rapid development of technologies under conditions of existential threat, we have seen that it can take decades to fully assimilate a new technology into warfare, as was the case with the tank. It will probably take decades to get beyond doctrines of mechanized warfare established in the twentieth century and to adopt a doctrine more suitable for the forces employed today.
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A Century of Industrialized Warfare
11. The Tank after One Hundred Years
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11 September 2016
It is now fifteen years since the coordinated terror attacks of 11 September 2001 on the US — specifically, on New York City and Washington, DC — and while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were the immediate consequence of these attacks are now receding into history like 9/11 itself, we continue to live with the legacy of the altered geopolitical conditions of that day.
The ongoing turmoil in Syria, which began as an uprising against Assad and developed into a civil war, is one of the geopolitical consequences of 9/11. It is unlikely that the uprising against Assad would have occurred without the Arab Spring, and it is unlikely the Arab Spring would have occurred if the US had not toppled Saddam Hussein from power. I am not suggesting a direct chain of causality here — many other events were implicated as well — but only that one set of events is the background to another set of events, and 9/11 was the pivotal geopolitical event of the beginning of the 21st century. As such, the post-Cold War order grows out of the series of events set in motion by 9/11 (counting the last decade of the 20th century as a “buffer” between the Cold War and the War on Terror).
The sluggish recovery of growth following the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession is probably a function of the ongoing geopolitical turmoil, and in this way we can also see that the populist reaction against globalization is also an indirect consequence of 9/11. When the “wealth effect” is contributing to a perception of a rising tide that raises all boats, there is little resentment against those at the top of the income pyramid, but when times are tough the wealth effect dissipates into thin air, and in the clarity of this thin air those who have not done well for themselves cast envious eyes on those who are living well despite tough times.
It would not be difficult to construct a counterfactual world in which 9/11 never happened, “irrational exuberance” continued apace (Keynes called this “animal spirits”), and the world was several percentage points per year wealthier than we are now from steadily growing global trade. We might compare ourselves to this world — not unlike the world of the late 19th and early 20th century, before the spell was broken by the First World War — as a kind of ongoing measure of what might have been.
Bertrand Russell wrote that no one could understand the assumptions of progress of the late Victorian, and then the Edwardian period, and how World War I ended all this, who was not there to experience it. But we have our own analogy, imperfect as it is. We remember the talk of what the post-Cold War world would be like, and how this dream evaporated with the attacks of 9/11. In one day, a world bright with promise for the 21st century simply vanished.
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10 September 2016
The missile boat (SSBN) — a submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles (SLBM) while at sea — was the ultimate weapons system of the Cold War, and now North Korea has them. North Korea has just conducted its fifth nuclear teat, and before that it conducted a successful missile launch from a submarine. Thus North Korea possesses all the elements necessary to mount a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile and to fire such missiles from a submarine at sea.
The official North Korean news agency has made the connection between ballistic missiles and the most recent nuclear test explicit in a press report DPRK Succeeds in Nuclear Warhead Explosion Test:
“The standardization of the nuclear warhead will enable the DPRK to produce at will and as many as it wants a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power with a firm hold on the technology for producing and using various fissile materials. This has definitely put on a higher level the DPRK’s technology of mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets.”
There are only nine (9) nation-states that possess nuclear weapons (the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel, the latter a non-declared nuclear state), and seven (7) nation-states with a nuclear SLBM capability (the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, and North Korea). This is a small and exclusive club — half the number of nation-states who operate aircraft carriers (i.e., 15) — but, as we see, it is a club that can be crashed. If a nation-state like North Korea is willing to neglect the needs of its citizens and invest its national resources in weapons systems, even a poor and isolated nation-state can join this select club.
It should be noted that all of these advanced weapons systems — weapons systems such as submarines, ballistic missiles, and nuclear weapons, which require years, if not decades, to produce — have been developed or acquired while North Korea was actively engaged in “peace” negotiations (the “six party talks”), as well as throughout the era of “Sunshine Policy” diplomacy by South Korea (which was in place for almost a decade, from 1998 to 2007), which era included paying North Korea about 200 million USD to attend the June 2000 North–South summit. The most obdurate forms of denialism would be necessary in order to construe either diplomatic negotiations or the Sunshine Policy as possessing even limited efficacy, given that North Korea has developed its missile boats under these diplomatic umbrellas. We should not try to conceal from ourselves the magnitude of this failure.
Why would North Korea choose to invest its limited resources into the development of missile boats rather than providing for the basic needs of the North Korean people, such as food, electricity, education, hospitals, and shelter? John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies, was quoted on the BBC as saying:
“Above all else, North Korea’s nuclear programme is about security — it is, by their estimation, the only reliable guarantee of the country’s basic sovereignty, of the Communist regime’s control, and of the rule of Kim Jong-un.”
This quote perfectly illustrates the imperative of what J. Rufus Fears called “national freedom” (and which I recently discussed in Eight Permutations of Freedom, Following J. Rufus Fears): North Korea sees itself as securing its national freedom, i.e., sovereignty and autonomy, first and foremost. The imperative of sovereignty and the imperataive of regime survival, moreover, are identical when national sovereignty and the regime are identified, and this identification is usually a key goal of propaganda.
Given the imperatives of sovereignty and regime survival, why a missile boat? Why not a supersonic bomber? Why not an aircraft carrier? Why not build a hybrid warfare capacity? I have already noted above that the missile boat was the ultimate Cold War weapons system. Why was the missile boat the ultimate Cold War weapons system? Because it is difficult to track submarines under the sea (when submerged they can’t be seen by satellites), and because submarines can approach the coastline of any continent and fire missiles at close range. A missile fired off the coast of a nation-state on a depressed trajectory could reach its target with a nuclear warhead in ten minutes or less, which is too short of a response time for even the most advanced anti-missile systems. The US would have a reasonable chance of taking out a land-based ICBM launched from North Korean soil, but there is little that the US could do about an SLBM a few minutes away from a major coastal city.
Missile boats were originally conceived as a “second strike” capability; that is to say, if a major nuclear exchange took place between the superpowers, it was assumed that land-based ballistic missiles and air bases (which could put nuclear-armed bombers in the air) would be mostly destroyed in the first strike, but no nuclear planner was so optimistic as to believe that even a massive, thorough, and precise first strike could also destroy all missile boats at sea. Thus a nuclear “sneak attack” could not achieve a perfect counterforce result (i.e., disarming the enemy), and the attacker would still bear the brunt of nuclear retaliation. Nuclear deterrence was guaranteed by missile boats.
Understood as a second strike weapon upon its introduction, the SSBN was conceived as an integral part of the nuclear “triad,” which also included land-based ICBMs and nuclear-armed bombers. Continuing technological advances transformed the SSBN from one leg of the stool to the primary strategic weapon. Missiles became more accurate, and MIRVed warheads allowed one missile to carry multiple warheads. The only reason that ICBMs still exist today is because they have a political and economic constituency; there is no longer any military need for ICBMs, which are the most vulnerable part of the nuclear triad. There is still good reason to have nuclear-armed bombers, but submarines can carry more missiles than a bomber, can stay away from its base longer than a bomber, and is more difficult to find than a bomber. All of these advantages have contributed to making the SSBN the primary strategic weapons system.
Given the status of SSBNs as the primary strategic weapon, submarine warfare become increasingly important throughout the Cold War. Soviet and American subs tracked each other through the world’s oceans. There is an entire book devoted to the Cold War submarine theater, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. I strongly recommend this book, as it describes in detail the technologically sophisticated but also dramatically human story of the attempt by both the US and the USSR to track each other’s missile boats at sea, which was a grand cat-and-mouse game that endured throughout the Cold War, and indeed probably endures to this day in a modified form. Now the impoverished and paranoid nation-state of North Korea is a player in this game.
Given the technical difficulty of submarine warfare, we should not expect North Korea’s first efforts to be any match for the Russians or the Americans, but the point is that, as they enter into this deadly game, they will incrementally improve their technology and operations. One would not expect that North Korean missile boats could patrol the west coast of North America without being discovered, at their present level of technology and operations, but in ten or twenty years that might change. At the present moment, the US and NATO allies possess definitive technological superiority over North Korean submarine assets, but we can easily predict that these assets will not be effectively employed against North Korea, because the same technological superiority was not employed to prevent them from developing these weapons systems in the first place. As long as no nation-state has the stomach to confront North Korea, it will continue to improve its arsenal of strategic weapons. By the time it becomes necessary to act to counter North Korea’s strategic weapons systems, these weapons systems will be better than they are today, and the confrontation more costly than it would be today.
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Note Added 03 October 2016: Several articles have appeared today noting new satellite imagery that suggests North Korea is building a larger missile boat than anything presently in their submarine fleet, cf. North Korea Building Massive New Ballistic Missile Submarine For Nuclear Strikes.
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3 September 2016
Islam Karimov, ruler of Uzbekistan for decades, has passed away (the date of his death is officially yesterday, 02 September 2016, but he may have passed away a day or two earlier). The fate of Central Asia hangs in the balance of the uncertainty created by his death. Karimov seamlessly made the transition from President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic to post-Soviet authoritarian, as Uzbekistan seamlessly made the transition from Soviet client to post-Soviet independent nation-state. As the Soviet model was the template for Karimov’s iron-fisted rule while alive, so too the Soviet model was the template for Karimov’s death: rumored to be in “ill-health” for several days, the state apparatus seemed to be gradually preparing the populace for the announcement of Karimov’s death. When the confirmation of Karimov’s death came, it came indirectly from a statement of condolences from the Turkey’s Prime Minister.
Central Asia during the Soviet period experienced decades of peace, at the cost of heavy-handed political repression. Those post-Soviet republics of Central Asia that managed to sustain the Soviet model after the end of the Soviet Union continued to enjoy peace, at the continued cost of political repression. Karimov followed the model of Soviet repression quite closely and was rewarded with a quiescent nation-state rarely mentioned in the news. It is easy to imagine, given the experiences of Afghanistan (never a Soviet republic) and Chechnya (never an independent nation-state), not to mention the wider disturbances of the region and the rise of terrorism as a major force in political affairs in the region, that some might be willing to openly endorse this kind of Soviet-style autocratic rule over the attempt to create open political institutions, which latter have never been successful in the region. The choice seems to one between state-sponsored repression or non-state repression.
The attempt, such as it was, to agitate for political openness and western-style democracy in Central Asia came in the form of the so-called “color revolutions” — primarily the “Rose” revolution in Georgia (November 2003), the “orange” revolution in Ukraine (November 2004), and the “Tulip” revolution in Kyrgyzstan (February 2005), though many other events are often counted as falling under this umbrella term. It is difficult to over-state the impact of the Central Asian “color revolutions” on the political elites of the region as well as in Russia, where they were perceived as an existential threat to the established political order. Visceral fear of another color revolution runs through the political class of Central Asia, and we even find the idea of a color revolution as a theme in hybrid warfare, as it is mentioned in the introduction to Russian General Valery Gerasimov’s article on hybrid warfare:
“The experience of military conflicts — including those connected with the so-called colored revolutions in north Africa and the Middle East — confirm that a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.”
For authoritarians, the color revolutions were a metaphysical challenge to their rule, giving the appearance of an indigenous demand for political openness, but masking the reality of foreign-sponsored political division and chaos within the country. This may sound like the purest Soviet-style political paranoia, but, in this case, the false positives of Soviet-style political paranoia has been strongly selective: those old-guard leaders most effective in the repression of civil society have managed to retain their grip on power for the longest period of time. For an authoritarian to loosen his grip was to invite a flowering of civil society which might result in a color revolution, and, again from the authoritarian’s perspective, this would be a disaster (much as old-guard Chinese communists like Li Peng feared that the Tiananmen protest might be the seed of another Cultural Revolution, once again throwing China into chaos; cf. Twenty-one years since Tiananmen).
For western politicians, Soviet-style repression in Central Asia, while generally only gently criticized (if ever), was a metaphysical challenge to liberal democracy, giving the appearance of peace and prosperity on the surface, while masking the ugly reality of political repression, imprisonment, torture, and corruption. It is no wonder that the two sides cannot communicate with each other: they have different and incommensurable political ontologies.
There is, however, one point of agreement between authoritarians of Central Asia and their supporters on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the supporters of democracy and color revolutions: no one wants to see Uzbekistan, much less the whole of Central Asia, descend into chaos and anarchy. There is an overwhelming bias on behalf of stability, and this bias for stability will play a major role in the events that will unfold in the wake of the death of Islam Karimov.
The worry now, with Karimov out of the picture, is that a color revolution will occur, or Islamic forces will come to power, or both, and the state will tear itself apart in factional conflict between Karimov-style authoritarians, Islamists, and color revolutionists. In the event of chaos, each side will blame the other, but in the final result it doesn’t matter who starts it. And the worry beyond this worry is that, once one of the central nation-states of Central Asia descends into lawlessness, it will drag down the whole region in a domino effect of anarchy. No one wants to see a domino effect come to Central Asia, with the instability of any one nation-state spilling over into its neighbor, until the entire region becomes unstable and the factions become radicalized. None of this is inevitable. Turkmenistan managed to survive the death of a more bizarre autocratic ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov, who called himself “Türkmenbaşy,” and remains quiescent today. But it is unlikely that the Central Asia will remain quiescent forever.
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Note Added 13 October 2016: The BBC has an interesting article about the succession in Uzbekistan, After Karimov: How does the transition of power look in Uzbekistan? by Abdujalil Abdurasulov
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21 August 2016
The Fate of Mind in the Age of Turing
We are living today in the Age of Turing. Alan Turing was responsible for the theoretical work underlying contemporary computer science, but Turing’s work went far beyond the formal theory of the computer. Like Darwin, Turing’s thought ran ahead of the science he founded, and he openly speculated on the consequences of the future development of the computers that his theory made possible.
In his seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (the paper in which he introduced the “Turing Test,” which he called the “imitation game”) Turing began with the question, “Can machines think?” and went on to assert:
I believe that in about fifty years’ time it will be possible, to programme computers, with a storage capacity of about 109, to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning. The original question, “Can machines think?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.
A. M. Turing, “Computing machinery and intelligence,” Mind, 1950, 59, 433-460.
Turing’s prediction hasn’t yet come to pass, but Turing was absolutely correct that one can speak of machines thinking without being contradicted. Indeed, Turing was more right than he could have guessed, as his idea that computers should be judged upon their performance — and even compared in the same way to human performance — rather than on a vague idea of thinking or consciousness, has become so commonplace that, if one maintains the contrary in public, one can expect to be contradicted.
Turing was, in respect to mind and consciousness, part of a larger intellectual movement that called into question “folk concepts,” which came to seem unacceptably vague and far too unwieldy in the light of the explanatory power of scientific concepts, the latter often constructed without reference to folk concepts, which came to be viewed as dispensable. Consciousness has been relegated to the status of a concept of “folk psychology” with no scientific basis.
While I am in sympathy with the need for rigorous scientific concepts, the eliminative approach to mind and consciousness has not resulted in greater explanatory power for scientific theories, but rather has reinforced an “explanatory gap” (a term made prominent by David Chalmers) that has resulted in a growing disconnect between the most rigorous sciences of human and animal behavior on the one hand, and on the other hand what we know to be true of our own experience, but which we cannot formulate or express in scientific terms. This is a problem. The perpetuation of this disconnect will only deepen our misunderstanding of ourselves and will continue to weaken the ability of science to explain anything that touches upon human experience. Moreover, this is not merely a human matter. We misunderstand the biosphere entire if we attempt to understand it while excluding the role of consciousness. More on this below.
Science has been misled in the study of consciousness by an analogy with the study of life. Life was once believed to be inexplicable in terms of pure science, and so there was a dispute between “mechanism” and “vitalism,” with the vitalists believing that there was some supernatural or other principle superadded to inanimate matter, and that possession of this distinctively vital element unaccountable in scientific terms distinguished the animate from the animate. Physics and chemistry alone could explain inanimate matter, but something more was needed, according to vitalism, to explain life. But with the progress of biology, vitalism was not so much refuted as made irrelevant. We now have a good grasp of biochemistry, and while a distinction is made between inorganic chemistry and biochemistry, it is all understood to be chemistry, and no vital spark is invoked to explain the chemistry distinctive of life.
Similarly, consciousness has been believed to be a “divine spark” within a human being that distinguishes a distinctively human perspective on the world, but consciousness “explained” in this way comes with considerable theological baggage, as explicitly theological terms like “soul” and “spirit” are typically used interchangeably with “consciousness” and “mind.” From a scientific perspective, this leaves much to be desired, and we could do much better. I agree with this. Turing’s imitation game seems to present us with an operational definition of consciousness that allows us to investigate mind and consciousness without reference to the theological baggage. There is much to gained by Turing’s approach, but the problem is that we have here no equivalent of chemistry — no underlying physical theory that could account for consciousness in the way that life is accounted for by biochemistry.
Part of the problem, and the problem that most interests me at present, is the anthropocentrism of both traditional theological formulations and contemporary scientific formulations. If we understand human consciousness not as an exception that definitively separates us from the rest of life on the planet, not as a naturalistic stand-in for a “divine spark” that would differentiate human beings from the “lower” animals, but as a distinctive development of consciousness already emergent in other forms preceding human beings, then we understand that human consciousness is continuous with other forms of consciousness in nature, and that, as conscious beings, we are part of something greater than ourselves, which is a biosphere in which consciousness is commonplace, like vision or flight.
There are naturalistic alternatives to an anthropocentric conception of consciousness, alternatives that place consciousness in the natural world, and which also have the virtue of avoiding the obvious problems of eliminativist of reductivist accounts of consciousness. I will consider the views of Antonio Damasio and John Searle. I do not fully agree with either of these authors, but I am in sympathy with these approaches, which seem to me to offer the possibility of further development, as fully scientific as Turing’s approach, but without the denial of consciousness as a distinctive constituent of the world.
Antonio R. Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens distinguished between core consciousness and extended consciousness. Core consciousness, he wrote:
“…provides the organism with a sense of self about one moment — now — and about one place — here. The scope of core consciousness is the here and now. Core consciousness does not illuminate the future, and the only past it vaguely lets us glimpse is that which occurred in the instant just before. There is no elsewhere, there is no before, there is no after.”
Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt, Inc., 1999, p. 16
“…core consciousness is a simple, biological phenomenon; it has one single level of organization; it is stable across the lifetime of the organism; it is not exclusively human; and it is not dependent on conventional memory, working memory, reasoning, or language.”
The simplicity of core consciousness gives it a generality across organisms, and across the life span of a given organism; at any one time, it is always more or less the same. Extended consciousness, on the other hand, is both more complex and less robust, dependent upon an underlying core consciousness, but constructing from core consciousness what Damasio calls the “autobiographical self” in contradistinction to the ephemeral “core self” of core consciousness. Extended consciousness, Damasio says:
“…provides the organism with an elaborate sense of self — an identity and a person, you or me, no less — and places that person at a point in individual historical time, richly aware of the lived past and of the anticipated future, and keenly cognizant of the world beside it.”
“…extended consciousness is a complex biological phenomenon; it has several levels of organization; and it evolves across the lifetime of the organism. Although I believe extended consciousness is also present in some nonhumans, at simple levels, it only attains its highest reaches in humans. It depends on conventional memory and working memory. When it attains its human peak, it is also enhanced by language.”
“…extended consciousness is not an independent variety of consciousness: on the contrary, it is built on the foundation of core consciousness.”
Op. cit., p. 17
One might add to this formulation by noting that, as extended consciousness is built on core consciousness, core consciousness is, in turn, built on the foundation of biological processes. I would probably describe consciousness in a somewhat different way, and would make different distinctions, but I find Damasio’s approach helpful, as he makes no attempt to explain away consciousness or to reduce it to something that it is not. Damasio seeks to describe and to explain consciousness as consciousness, and, moreover, sees consciousness as part of the natural world that is to be found embodied in many beings in addition to human beings, which latter constitutes, “…extended consciousness at its zenith.”
Damasio’s formulation of both core consciousness and extended consciousness as biological phenomena might be compared to what John Searle calls “biological naturalism.” What Searle, a philosopher, and Damasio, a neuroscientist, have in common is an interest in a naturalistic account of mind which is not eliminativist or reductivist. To this end, both emphasize the biological nature of consciousness. Searle has conveniently summarized his biological naturalism in six theses, as follows:
1. Consciousness consists of inner, qualitative, subjective states and processes. It has therefore a first-person ontology.
2. Because it has a first-person ontology, consciousness cannot be reduced to a third-person phenomena in the way that it is typical of other natural phenomena such as heat, liquidity, or solidity.
3. Consciousness is, above all, a biological phenomenon. Conscious processes are biological processes.
4. Conscious processes are caused by lower-level neuronal processes in the brain.
5. Consciousness consists of higher-level processes realized in the structure of the brain.
6. There is, as far as we know, no reason in principle why we could not build an artificial brain that also causes and realizes consciousness.
John R. Searle, Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, New York: Basic Books, 1999, p. 53
Searle’s formulations — again, as with Damasio, I would probably formulate these ideas a bit differently, but, on the whole, I am sympathetic to Searle’s approach — are a reaction against a reaction, i.e., against a reactionary theory of mind, which is the materialist theory of mind formulated in consciousness contradistinction to Cartesian dualism. Searle devotes a considerable portion of several books to the problems with this latter philosophy. I think the most important lesson to take away from Searle’s critique is not the technical dispute, but the thematic motives that underlie this philosophy of mind:
“How is it that so many philosophers and cognitive scientists can say so many things that, to me at least, seem obviously false? Extreme views in philosophy are almost never unintelligent; there are generally very deep and powerful reasons why they are held. I believe one of the unstated assumptions behind the current batch of views is that they represent the only scientifically acceptable alternatives to the antiscientism that went with traditional dualism, the belief in the immortality of the soul, spiritualism, and so on. Acceptance of the current views is motivated not so much by an independent conviction of their truth as by a terror of what are apparently the only alternatives.”
John R. Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, Chap. 1
The biologism of both Damasio and Searle make it possible not only to approach human consciousness scientifically, but also to place consciousness in nature — the alternatives being denying human consciousness or approaching it non-scientifically, and denying consciousness a place in nature. These alternatives have come to have a colorful representation in contemporary philosophy in the discussion of “philosophical zombies.” Philosophical zombies are beings like ourselves, but without consciousness. The question, then, is whether we can distinguish philosophical zombies from human beings in possession of consciousness. I hope that the reader will have noticed that, in the discussion of philosophical zombies we encounter another anthropocentric formulation. (I previously touched on some of the issues related to philosophical zombies in The Limitations of Human Consciousness, A Note on Soulless Zombies, and The Prodigal Philosopher Returns.)
The anthropocentrism of philosophical zombies can be amended by addressing philosophical zombies in a more comprehensive context, in which not only human beings have consciousness, but consciousness is common in the biosphere. Then the question becomes not, “can we distinguish between philosophical zombies and conscious human beings” but “can we distinguish between a biosphere in which consciousness plays a constitutive role and a biosphere in which consciousness is entirely absent”? This is potentially a very rich question, and I could unfold it over several volumes, rather than the several paragraphs that follow, which should be understood as only the barest sketch of the problem.
As I see it, reconstructing biosphere evolution should include the reconstruction, to the extent possible, of the evolution of consciousness as a component of the biosphere — when did it emerge? When did the structures upon which is supervenes emerge? How did consciousness evolve and adapt to changing selection pressures? How did consciousness radiate, and what forms has it taken? These questions are obviously entailed by biological naturalism. Presumably consciousness evolved gradually from earlier antecedents that were not consciousness. Damasio writes, “natural low-level attention precedes consciousness,” and, “consciousness and wakefulness, as well as consciousness and low-level attention, can be separated.” Again, I would formulate this a bit differently, but, in principle, states of a central nervous system prior to the emergence of consciousness would precede even rudimentary core consciousness. If these states of a central nervous system prior to consciousness include wakefulness and low-level attention, this would constitute a particular seriation of the evolution of consciousness.
Damasio calls human consciousness, “consciousness at its zenith,” and a naturalistic conception of consciousness recognizes this by placing this zenith of human consciousness at the far end of the continuum of consciousness, but still on a continuum that we share with other beings with which we share the biosphere. A human being is not only a being among beings, but also one biological being among other biological beings. Given Searle’s biological naturalism, our common biology — especially the common biology of our central nervous systems and brains — points to our being a conscious being among other conscious beings. This seems to be borne out in our ordinary experience, as we usually understand our experience. We interact with other conscious beings on the level of consciousness, but the quality of consciousness may differ among beings. Interacting with other beings on the level of awareness means that our relationships with other conscious beings are marked by mutual awareness: not only are we aware of the other, but the other is also aware of us.
Above and beyond mere consciousness is sentient consciousness, i.e., consciousness with an emotional element superadded. We interact with other sentient beings on the level of sentience, that is to say, on the level of feeling. Our relationships with other mammals, especially those we have made part of our civilization, like dogs and horses, are intimate, personal relationships, not mediated by intelligence, but mostly mediated by the emotional lives we share with our fellow mammals, endowed, like us, with a limbic system. We intuitively understand the interactions and group dynamics of other social species, because we are ourselves a social species, Even when the institutions of, for example, gorilla society or chimpanzee society, are radically different from the institutions of human society, we can recognize that these are societies, and we can sometimes recognize the different rules that govern these societies.
Even when human beings are absent from interactions in the biosphere, there are still interactions on the level of consciousness and sentience. When a bobcat chases a hare, both interact on the level of two core consciousnesses, and also, as mammals, they interact on a sentient level. The hare has that level of fear and panic possible for core consciousness, and the bobcat, no doubt, experiences the core consciousness equivalent of satisfaction if it catches the hare, and frustration if the hare escapes. Or when a herd of wild horses panics and stampedes, their common sentient response to some environmental stimulation provides the basis of their interaction as a herd species.
All of this can be denied, and we can study nature as though consciousness were no part of it. While I have assimilated the denial of consciousness in nature to anthropocentrism, many more assimilate the attribution of consciousness to other species as a form of anthropocentrism. Clearly, we need to better define anthropocentrism, where and how it misleads us, and where and how it better helps us to understand our fellow beings with which we share the biosphere. That position that identifies consciousness as peculiarly human and denies it to the rest of the biosphere is, in effect asserting that a biosphere of zombies is indistinguishable from a biosphere of consciousness beings; I can understand how this grows out of a legitimate concern to avoid anthropocentric extrapolations, but I can also recognize the violation of the Copernican principle in this position. The view that recognizes consciousness throughout the macroscopic biosphere can also be interpreted as consistent with avoiding anthropocentrism, but also is consonant with Copernicanism broadly construed.
To adopt an eliminativist or reductionist account of consciousness, i.e., to deny the reality of consciousness, is not only to deny consciousness to human beings (a denial that would be thoroughly anthropocentric), it is to deny consciousness to the whole of nature, to deny all consciousness of all kinds throughout nature. It is to assert that consciousness has no place in nature, and that a planet of zombies is indistinguishable from a planet of consciousness agents. Without consciousness, the world entire would be a planet of zombies.
To deny consciousness is to deny that there are any other species, or any other biospheres, in the universe in which consciousness plays a role. If we deny consciousness we also deny consciousness elsewhere in the universe, unless we insist that terrestrial life is the exception, and that, again, would be a non-Copernican position to take. To deny consciousness is to deny that consciousness will ever inhere in some non-biological substrate, i.e., it is to deny that machines will never become conscious, because there is no such thing as consciousness. To deny consciousness is to constitute in place of the biosphere we have, in which conscious interaction plays a prominent role in the lifeways of megafauna, a planet of zombies in which all of these apparent interactions are mere appearance, and the reality is non-conscious beings interacting mechanically and only mechanically. I am not presenting this as a moral horror, that we should avoid because it offends us, but as naturalistically — indeed, biologically — false. Our world is not a planet of zombies.
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17 August 2016
In Rational Reconstructions of Time I noted that stellar evolution takes place on a scale of time many orders of magnitude greater than the human scale of time, but that we are able to reconstruct stellar evolution by looking into the cosmos and, among the billions of stars we can see, picking out examples of stars in various stages of their evolution and sequencing these stages in a kind of astrophysical seriation. Similarly, the geology of Earth takes place on a scale of time many orders of magnitude removed from human scales of time, but we have been able to reconstruct the history of our planet through a careful study of those traces of evidence not wiped away by subsequent geological processes. Moreover, our growing knowledge of exoplanetary systems is providing a context in which the geological history of Earth can be understood. We are a long way from understanding planet formation and development, but we know much more than we did prior to exoplanet discoveries.
The evolution of a biosphere, like the evolution of stars, takes place at a scale of time many orders of magnitude beyond the human scale of time, and, as with stellar evolution, it is only relatively recently that human beings have been able to reconstruct the history of the biosphere of their homeworld. This began with the emergence of scientific geology in the eighteenth century with the work of James Hutton, and accelerated considerably with the nineteenth century work of Charles Lyell. Scientific paleontology, starting with Cuvier, also contributed significantly to understanding the natural history of the biosphere. A more detailed understanding of biosphere evolution has begun to emerge with the systematic application of the methods of scientific historiography. The use of varve chronology for dating annual glacial deposits, dendrochronology, and the Blytt–Sernander system for dating the layers in peat bogs, date to the late nineteenth century; carbon-14 dating, and other methods based on nuclear science, date to the middle of the twentieth century. The study of ice cores from Antarctica has proved to be especially valuable in reconstruction past climatology and atmosphere composition.
The only way to understand biospheric evolution is through the reconstruction of that evolution on the basis of evidence available to us in the present. This includes the reconstruction of past geology, climatology, oceanography, etc. — all Earth “systems,” as it were — which, together with life, constitute the biosphere. We have been able to reconstruct the history of life on Earth not from fossils alone, but from the structure of our genome, which carries within itself a history. This genetic historiography has pushed back the history of the origins of life through molecular phylogeny to the very earliest living organisms on Earth. For example, in July 2016 Nature Microbiology published “The physiology and habitat of the last universal common ancestor” by Madeline C. Weiss, Filipa L. Sousa, Natalia Mrnjavac, Sinje Neukirchen, Mayo Roettger, Shijulal Nelson-Sathi, and William F. Martin (cf. the popular exposition “LUCA, the Ancestor of All Life on Earth: A new genetic analysis points to hydrothermal vents as the planet’s first habitat” by Dirk Schulze-Makuch; also We’ve been wrong about the origins of life for 90 years by Arunas L. Radzvilavicius) showing that recent work in molecular phylogeny points to ocean floor hydrothermal vents as the likely point of origin for life on Earth.
This earliest history of life on Earth — that terrestrial life that is the most different from life as we know it today — is of great interest to us in reconstructing the history of the biosphere. If life began on Earth from a single hydrothermal vent at the bottom of an ocean, life would have spread outward from that point, the biosphere spreading and also thickening as it worked its way down in the lithosphere and as it eventually floated free in the atmosphere. If, on the other hand, life originated in an Oparin ocean, or on the surface of the land, or in something like Darwin’s “warm little pond” (an idea which might be extended to tidepools and shallows), the process by which the biosphere spread to assume its present form of “planetary scale life” (a phrase employed by David Grinspoon) would be different in each case. If the evolution of planetary scale life is indeed different in each case, it is entirely possible that life on Earth is an outlier not because it is the only life in the universe (the rare Earth hypothesis), but because life of Earth may have arisen by a distinct process, or attained planetary scale by a distinct mechanism, not to be found among other living worlds in the cosmos. We simply do not know at present.
Once life originated at some particular point on Earth’s surface, or deep in the oceans, and it expanded to become planetary scale life, there seems to have been a period of time when life consisted primarily of horizontal gene transfer (a synchronic mechanism of life, as it were), before the mechanisms of species individuation with vertical gene transfer and descent with modification (a diachronic mechanism of life). It is now thought the the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) will only be able to be traced back to this moment of transition in the history of life, but this is an area of active research, and we simply do not yet know how it will play out. But if we could visit many different worlds in the earliest stages of the formation of their respective biospheres, we would be able to track this transition, which may occur differently in different biospheres. Or it may not occur at all, and a given biosphere might remain at the level of microbial life, experiencing little or no further development of emergent complexity, until it ceased to be habitable.
While we can be confident that later emergent complexities must wait for earlier emergent complexities to emerge first, no other biosphere is going to experience the same stages of development as Earth’s biosphere, because the development of the biosphere is a function of a confluence of contingent circumstances. The history of a biosphere is the unique fingerprint of life upon its homeworld. Any other planet will have different gravity, different albedo, different axial tilt, axial precession, orbital eccentricity, and orbital precession, and I have explained elsewhere how these cycles function as speciation pumps. The history of life on Earth has also been shaped by catastrophic events like extraterrestrial impacts and episodes of supervolcano eruptions. It was for reasons such as this that Stephen J. Gould said that life on Earth as we know it is, “…the result of a series of highly contingent events that would not happen again if we could rewind the tape.”
Understanding Earth’s biosphere — the particularities of its origins and the sequence of its development — is only the tip of the iceberg of reconstructing biospheres. Ultimately we will need to understand Earth’s biosphere in the context of any possible biosphere, and to do this we will need to understand the different possibilities for the origins of life and for possible sequences of development. There may be several classes of world constituted exclusively with life in the form of microbial mats. Suggestive of this, Abel Mendez wrote on Twitter, “A habitable planet for microbial life is not necessarily habitable too for complex life such as plants and animals.” I responded to this with, “Eventually we will have a taxonomy of biospheres that will distinguish exclusively microbial worlds from others…” And our taxonomy of biospheres will have to go far beyond this, mapping out typical sequences of development from the origins of life to the emergence of intelligence and civilization, when life begins to take control of its own destiny. On our planet, we call this transition the Anthropocene, but we can see from placing the idea in this astrobiological context that the Anthropocene is a kind of threshold event that could have its parallel in any biosphere productive of an intelligent species that becomes the progenitor of a civilization. Thus planetary scale life is, in the case of the Anthropocene, followed by planetary scale intelligence and planetary scale civilization.
Ultimately, our taxonomy of the biosphere must transcend the biosphere and consider circumstellar habitable zones (CHZ) and galactic habitable zones (GHZ). In present biological thought, the biosphere is the top level of biological organization; in astrobiological thought, we must become accustomed to yet higher levels of biological organization. We do not yet know if there has been an exchange of life between the bodies of our planetary system (this has been posited, but not yet proved), in the form of lithopanspermia, but whether or not it is instantiated here, it is likely instantiated in some planetary system somewhere in the cosmos, and in such planetary systems the top level of biological organization will be interplanetary. We can go beyond this as well, positing the possibility of an interstellar level of biological organization, whether by lithopanspermia or by some other mechanism (which could include the technological mechanism of a spacefaring civilization; starships may prove to be the ultimate sweepstakes dispersion vector). Given the possibility of multiple distinct interplanetary and interstellar levels of biological organization, we may be able to formulate taxonomies of CHZs for various planetary systems and GHZs for various galaxies.
One can imagine some future interstellar probe that, upon arrival at a planetary system, or at a planet known to possess a biosphere (something we would know long before we arrived), would immediately gather as many microorganisms as possible, perhaps simply by sampling the atmosphere or oceans, and then run the genetic code of these organisms through an onboard supercomputer, and, within hours, or at most days, of arrival, much of the history of the biosphere of that planet would be known through molecular phylogeny. A full understanding of the biospheric evolution (or CHZ evolution) would have to await coring samples from the lithosphere and cryosphere of the planet or planets, and, but the time we have the technology to organize such an endeavor, this may be possible as well. At an ever further future reach of technology, an intergalactic probe arriving at another galaxy might disperse further probes to scatter throughout the galaxy in order to determine if there is any galactic level biological organization.
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6 August 2016
Can there be folk concepts in (and of) recent and sophisticated scientific thought, such as astrobiology? Astrobiology is a recent discipline, and as such is a beneficiary of a long history of the development of scientific disciplines; in other words, astrobiology stands on the shoulders of giants. In From an Astrobiological Point of View I characterized astrobiology as the fourth and latest of four revolutions in the life sciences, preceded by Darwinism, genetics, and evolutionary developmental biology (i.e., evo-devo). Can there be folk concepts that influence such a recent scientific discipline?
In Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress and Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization I considered the possibility of folk concepts unique to a scientific civilization, and the folk concepts of recent sciences like astrobiology constitute paradigmatic examples of folk concepts unique to scientific civilization. The concepts of folk astrobiology, far being being rare, have proliferated as science fiction has proliferated and made a place for itself in contemporary culture, especially in film and television.
One idea of folk astrobiology that is familiar from countless science fiction films is that of planets the biosphere of which is dominated by a single biome. Both Frank Herbert’s planet Arrakis from the novel Dune and the planets Tatooine and Jakku from Star Wars are primarily desert planets, whereas the Star Wars planet Dagobah is primarily swamp, the planet Kamino is a global ocean, and the planet Hoth is primarily arctic. Two worlds that appear in the Alien films, Zeta Reticuli exomoon LV-426 in Alien and Aliens and LV-223 in Prometheus, are both desolate, rocky, and barren, like the landscapes we have come to expect from the robotic exploration of the other worlds in our own solar system.
The knowledge we have assembled of the long-term history of the biosphere of Earth, that our planet has passed through “hothouse” and “icehouse” stages, suggest it is reasonable to suppose that we will find similar conditions elsewhere in the universe, though Earth today has a wide variety of biomes that make up its biosphere. We should expect to find worlds both with diverse biospheres and with biospheres primarily constituted by a single biome. Perhaps this idea of folk astrobiology will someday be formalized, when we know more about the evolution of biospheres of multiple worlds, and we have the data to plot a bell curve of small, rocky, wet planets in the habitable zone of their star. This bell curve almost certainly exists, we just don’t know as yet where Earth falls on the curve and what kinds of worlds populate the remainder of the curve.
Biosphere diversity is thus a familiar concept of folk astrobiology. But let me backtrack a bit and try to formulate more clearly an explication of folk astrobiology.
In an earlier post I quoted the following definition of folk biology:
Folk biology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the organic world. Humans everywhere classify animals and plants into species-like groups as obvious to a modern scientist as to a Maya Indian. Such groups are primary loci for thinking about biological causes and relations (Mayr 1969). Historically, they provided a transtheoretical base for scientific biology in that different theories — including evolutionary theory — have sought to account for the apparent constancy of “common species” and the organic processes centering on them. In addition, these preferred groups have “from the most remote period… been classed in groups under groups” (Darwin 1859: 431). This taxonomic array provides a natural framework for inference, and an inductive compendium of information, about organic categories and properties. It is not as conventional or arbitrary in structure and content, nor as variable across cultures, as the assembly of entities into cosmologies, materials, or social groups. From the vantage of EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY, such natural systems are arguably routine “habits of mind,” in part a natural selection for grasping relevant and recurrent “habits of the world.”
Robert Andrew Wilson and Frank C. Keil, The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences
And here is a NASA definition of astrobiology that I have previously quoted:
“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”
Drawing on both of these definitions — “Folk biology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the organic world” and “Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe” — we can formulate a fairly succinct definition of folk astrobiology:
Folk astrobiology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.
I hope that the reader immediately sees how common this exercise is, both in scientific and non-scientific thought. On the scientific side, folk astrobiology is pervasively present in the background assumptions of SETI, while on the non-scientific side, as we have seen above in examples drawn from scientific fiction films, folk astrobiology informs our depiction of other worlds and their inhabitants. These concepts of folk astrobiology are underdetermined by astrobiology, but well grounded in common sense and scientific knowledge as far as it extends today. We will only be able to fully redeem these ideas for science when we have empirical data from many worlds. We will begin to accumulate this data when, in the near future, we are able to get spectroscopic readings from exoplanet atmospheres, but that is only the thin edge of the wedge. Robust data sets for the evolution of multiple independent biospheres will have to await interstellar travel. (This is one reason that I suggested that a starship would be the ultimate scientific instrument; cf. The Interstellar Imperative.)
Folk astrobiology remains “folk” until its concepts are fully formalized as part of a rigorous scientific discipline. As few disciplines ever attain complete rigor (logic and mathematics have come closest to converging on that goal), there is always a trace of folk thought that survives in, and is even propagated along with, scientific thought. Folk concepts and scientific concepts, then, are not mutually exclusive, but rather they overlap and intersect in a Wittgensteinian fashion. However, the legacy of positivism has often encouraged us to see folk concepts and scientific concepts as mutually exclusive, and if one adopts the principle that scientific concepts must be reductionist, therefore no non-reductionist concepts are not scientific, then it follows that most folk concepts are eliminated when a body of knowledge is made scientifically rigorous (I will not further develop this idea at present, but I hope to return to it when I can formulate it with greater precision).
We have a sophisticated contemporary biological science, and thus scientific biological concepts are ready to hand to employ in astrobiology, so that astrobiology has an early advantage in converging upon scientific rigor. But if a science aspires to transcend its origins and to establish itself as a new science co-equal with its progenitors, it must be prepared to go beyond familiar concepts, and in this case this means going beyond the sophisticated concepts of contemporary biology in order to establish truly astrobiological scientific concepts, i.e., uniquely astrobiological concepts, and these distinctive and novel concepts must then, in their turn, converge on scientific rigor. In the case of astrobiology, this may mean formulating a “natural history” where “nature” is construed as to include the whole of the universe, and this idea transcends the familiar idea of natural history, forcing the astrobiologist to account for cosmology as well as biology.
As an example of an uniquely astrobiology concept I above suggested the idea of biosphere diversity. Biosphere diversity, in turn, is related to ideas of biosphere evolution, developmental stages on planets with later emergent complexities, and so on. The several posts I have written to date on planetary endemism (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and more to come) may be considered expositions of the folk astrobiological idea of planetary endemism. Similarly, the homeworld concept is both a folk concept of astrobiology and scientific civilization (cf. The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung, Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space, and The Martian Standpoint).
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