Thursday — Thanksgiving Day


Studies in Formal Thought:

Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955)

Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955)

Einstein’s Philosophy of Mathematics


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

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

…which, in the original German, was…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An illustration from Einstein’s lecture Geometry and Experience

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Studies in Formalism

1. The Ethos of Formal Thought

2. Epistemic Hubris

3. Parsimonious Formulations

4. Foucault’s Formalism

5. Cartesian Formalism

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

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

8. Unpacking an Einstein Aphorism

9. The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

10. Einstein on Geometrical intuition

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

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

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The Three Revolutions

12 November 2017

Sunday


Three Revolutions that Shaped the Modern World

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

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

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

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

The Scientific Revolution

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

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

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

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

The Political Revolutions

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

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

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

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

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

The Industrial Revolution

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

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

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

Revolutionary Permutations

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Strategy: Nine Years

8 November 2017

Wednesday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Inflection Point

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

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

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

Middling Inflection Point

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

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

Late Inflection Point

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

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

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

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

The Null Case

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

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

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

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The Space Age turns 60!

4 October 2017

Wednesday


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

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

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

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

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

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The Space Age began with Sputnik.

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How to Live on a Planet

27 September 2017

Wednesday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday


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

Introduction to Left/Right Ideological Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday


Wilhelm Dilthey (19 November 1833 to 01 October 1911)

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

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

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

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

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

Of time and lived experience Dilthey wrote:

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

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

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

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

Op. cit., pp. 216-217

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the locus classicus of the thought experiment:

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

Frank Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia” (1982)

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

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

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

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

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Pierre Pomme (1735 to 1812)

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Worlds of Convenience

24 August 2017

Thursday


Three Worlds, Three Civilizations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Overview Effects

The Epistemic Overview Effect

The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

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

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Planetary Endemism and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Intuitive Tractability

Stoicism, Sensibility, and the Overview Effect

Homeworld Effects

The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung

The Martian Standpoint

Addendum on the Martian Standpoint

Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space

What will it be like to be a Martian?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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