21 August 2016
The Fate of Mind in the Age of Turing
We are living today in the Age of Turing. Alan Turing was responsible for the theoretical work underlying contemporary computer science, but Turing’s work went far beyond the formal theory of the computer. Like Darwin, Turing’s thought ran ahead of the science he founded, and he openly speculated on the consequences of the future development of the computers that his theory made possible.
In his seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (the paper in which he introduced the “Turing Test,” which he called the “imitation game”) Turing began with the question, “Can machines think?” and went on to assert:
I believe that in about fifty years’ time it will be possible, to programme computers, with a storage capacity of about 109, to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning. The original question, “Can machines think?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.
A. M. Turing, “Computing machinery and intelligence,” Mind, 1950, 59, 433-460.
Turing’s prediction hasn’t yet come to pass, but Turing was absolutely correct that one can speak of machines thinking without being contradicted. Indeed, Turing was more right than he could have guessed, as his idea that computers should be judged upon their performance — and even compared in the same way to human performance — rather than on a vague idea of thinking or consciousness, has become so commonplace that, if one maintains the contrary in public, one can expect to be contradicted.
Turing was, in respect to mind and consciousness, part of a larger intellectual movement that called into question “folk concepts,” which came to seem unacceptably vague and far too unwieldy in the light of the explanatory power of scientific concepts, the latter often constructed without reference to folk concepts, which came to be viewed as dispensable. Consciousness has been relegated to the status of a concept of “folk psychology” with no scientific basis.
While I am in sympathy with the need for rigorous scientific concepts, the eliminative approach to mind and consciousness has not resulted in greater explanatory power for scientific theories, but rather has reinforced an “explanatory gap” (a term made prominent by David Chalmers) that has resulted in a growing disconnect between the most rigorous sciences of human and animal behavior on the one hand, and on the other hand what we know to be true of our own experience, but which we cannot formulate or express in scientific terms. This is a problem. The perpetuation of this disconnect will only deepen our misunderstanding of ourselves and will continue to weaken the ability of science to explain anything that touches upon human experience. Moreover, this is not merely a human matter. We misunderstand the biosphere entire if we attempt to understand it while excluding the role of consciousness. More on this below.
Science has been misled in the study of consciousness by an analogy with the study of life. Life was once believed to be inexplicable in terms of pure science, and so there was a dispute between “mechanism” and “vitalism,” with the vitalists believing that there was some supernatural or other principle superadded to inanimate matter, and that possession of this distinctively vital element unaccountable in scientific terms distinguished the animate from the animate. Physics and chemistry alone could explain inanimate matter, but something more was needed, according to vitalism, to explain life. But with the progress of biology, vitalism was not so much refuted as made irrelevant. We now have a good grasp of biochemistry, and while a distinction is made between inorganic chemistry and biochemistry, it is all understood to be chemistry, and no vital spark is invoked to explain the chemistry distinctive of life.
Similarly, consciousness has been believed to be a “divine spark” within a human being that distinguishes a distinctively human perspective on the world, but consciousness “explained” in this way comes with considerable theological baggage, as explicitly theological terms like “soul” and “spirit” are typically used interchangeably with “consciousness” and “mind.” From a scientific perspective, this leaves much to be desired, and we could do much better. I agree with this. Turing’s imitation game seems to present us with an operational definition of consciousness that allows us to investigate mind and consciousness without reference to the theological baggage. There is much to gained by Turing’s approach, but the problem is that we have here no equivalent of chemistry — no underlying physical theory that could account for consciousness in the way that life is accounted for by biochemistry.
Part of the problem, and the problem that most interests me at present, is the anthropocentrism of both traditional theological formulations and contemporary scientific formulations. If we understand human consciousness not as an exception that definitively separates us from the rest of life on the planet, not as a naturalistic stand-in for a “divine spark” that would differentiate human beings from the “lower” animals, but as a distinctive development of consciousness already emergent in other forms preceding human beings, then we understand that human consciousness is continuous with other forms of consciousness in nature, and that, as conscious beings, we are part of something greater than ourselves, which is a biosphere in which consciousness is commonplace, like vision or flight.
There are naturalistic alternatives to an anthropocentric conception of consciousness, alternatives that place consciousness in the natural world, and which also have the virtue of avoiding the obvious problems of eliminativist of reductivist accounts of consciousness. I will consider the views of Antonio Damasio and John Searle. I do not fully agree with either of these authors, but I am in sympathy with these approaches, which seem to me to offer the possibility of further development, as fully scientific as Turing’s approach, but without the denial of consciousness as a distinctive constituent of the world.
Antonio R. Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens distinguished between core consciousness and extended consciousness. Core consciousness, he wrote:
“…provides the organism with a sense of self about one moment — now — and about one place — here. The scope of core consciousness is the here and now. Core consciousness does not illuminate the future, and the only past it vaguely lets us glimpse is that which occurred in the instant just before. There is no elsewhere, there is no before, there is no after.”
Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt, Inc., 1999, p. 16
“…core consciousness is a simple, biological phenomenon; it has one single level of organization; it is stable across the lifetime of the organism; it is not exclusively human; and it is not dependent on conventional memory, working memory, reasoning, or language.”
The simplicity of core consciousness gives it a generality across organisms, and across the life span of a given organism; at any one time, it is always more or less the same. Extended consciousness, on the other hand, is both more complex and less robust, dependent upon an underlying core consciousness, but constructing from core consciousness what Damasio calls the “autobiographical self” in contradistinction to the ephemeral “core self” of core consciousness. Extended consciousness, Damasio says:
“…provides the organism with an elaborate sense of self — an identity and a person, you or me, no less — and places that person at a point in individual historical time, richly aware of the lived past and of the anticipated future, and keenly cognizant of the world beside it.”
“…extended consciousness is a complex biological phenomenon; it has several levels of organization; and it evolves across the lifetime of the organism. Although I believe extended consciousness is also present in some nonhumans, at simple levels, it only attains its highest reaches in humans. It depends on conventional memory and working memory. When it attains its human peak, it is also enhanced by language.”
“…extended consciousness is not an independent variety of consciousness: on the contrary, it is built on the foundation of core consciousness.”
Op. cit., p. 17
One might add to this formulation by noting that, as extended consciousness is built on core consciousness, core consciousness is, in turn, built on the foundation of biological processes. I would probably describe consciousness in a somewhat different way, and would make different distinctions, but I find Damasio’s approach helpful, as he makes no attempt to explain away consciousness or to reduce it to something that it is not. Damasio seeks to describe and to explain consciousness as consciousness, and, moreover, sees consciousness as part of the natural world that is to be found embodied in many beings in addition to human beings, which latter constitutes, “…extended consciousness at its zenith.”
Damasio’s formulation of both core consciousness and extended consciousness as biological phenomena might be compared to what John Searle calls “biological naturalism.” What Searle, a philosopher, and Damasio, a neuroscientist, have in common is an interest in a naturalistic account of mind which is not eliminativist or reductivist. To this end, both emphasize the biological nature of consciousness. Searle has conveniently summarized his biological naturalism in six theses, as follows:
1. Consciousness consists of inner, qualitative, subjective states and processes. It has therefore a first-person ontology.
2. Because it has a first-person ontology, consciousness cannot be reduced to a third-person phenomena in the way that it is typical of other natural phenomena such as heat, liquidity, or solidity.
3. Consciousness is, above all, a biological phenomenon. Conscious processes are biological processes.
4. Conscious processes are caused by lower-level neuronal processes in the brain.
5. Consciousness consists of higher-level processes realized in the structure of the brain.
6. There is, as far as we know, no reason in principle why we could not build an artificial brain that also causes and realizes consciousness.
John R. Searle, Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, New York: Basic Books, 1999, p. 53
Searle’s formulations — again, as with Damasio, I would probably formulate these ideas a bit differently, but, on the whole, I am sympathetic to Searle’s approach — are a reaction against a reaction, i.e., against a reactionary theory of mind, which is the materialist theory of mind formulated in consciousness contradistinction to Cartesian dualism. Searle devotes a considerable portion of several books to the problems with this latter philosophy. I think the most important lesson to take away from Searle’s critique is not the technical dispute, but the thematic motives that underlie this philosophy of mind:
“How is it that so many philosophers and cognitive scientists can say so many things that, to me at least, seem obviously false? Extreme views in philosophy are almost never unintelligent; there are generally very deep and powerful reasons why they are held. I believe one of the unstated assumptions behind the current batch of views is that they represent the only scientifically acceptable alternatives to the antiscientism that went with traditional dualism, the belief in the immortality of the soul, spiritualism, and so on. Acceptance of the current views is motivated not so much by an independent conviction of their truth as by a terror of what are apparently the only alternatives.”
John R. Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, Chap. 1
The biologism of both Damasio and Searle make it possible not only to approach human consciousness scientifically, but also to place consciousness in nature — the alternatives being denying human consciousness or approaching it non-scientifically, and denying consciousness a place in nature. These alternatives have come to have a colorful representation in contemporary philosophy in the discussion of “philosophical zombies.” Philosophical zombies are beings like ourselves, but without consciousness. The question, then, is whether we can distinguish philosophical zombies from human beings in possession of consciousness. I hope that the reader will have noticed that, in the discussion of philosophical zombies we encounter another anthropocentric formulation. (I previously touched on some of the issues related to philosophical zombies in The Limitations of Human Consciousness, A Note on Soulless Zombies, and The Prodigal Philosopher Returns.)
The anthropocentrism of philosophical zombies can be amended by addressing philosophical zombies in a more comprehensive context, in which not only human beings have consciousness, but consciousness is common in the biosphere. Then the question becomes not, “can we distinguish between philosophical zombies and conscious human beings” but “can we distinguish between a biosphere in which consciousness plays a constitutive role and a biosphere in which consciousness is entirely absent”? This is potentially a very rich question, and I could unfold it over several volumes, rather than the several paragraphs that follow, which should be understood as only the barest sketch of the problem.
As I see it, reconstructing biosphere evolution should include the reconstruction, to the extent possible, of the evolution of consciousness as a component of the biosphere — when did it emerge? When did the structures upon which is supervenes emerge? How did consciousness evolve and adapt to changing selection pressures? How did consciousness radiate, and what forms has it taken? These questions are obviously entailed by biological naturalism. Presumably consciousness evolved gradually from earlier antecedents that were not consciousness. Damasio writes, “natural low-level attention precedes consciousness,” and, “consciousness and wakefulness, as well as consciousness and low-level attention, can be separated.” Again, I would formulate this a bit differently, but, in principle, states of a central nervous system prior to the emergence of consciousness would precede even rudimentary core consciousness. If these states of a central nervous system prior to consciousness include wakefulness and low-level attention, this would constitute a particular seriation of the evolution of consciousness.
Damasio calls human consciousness, “consciousness at its zenith,” and a naturalistic conception of consciousness recognizes this by placing this zenith of human consciousness at the far end of the continuum of consciousness, but still on a continuum that we share with other beings with which we share the biosphere. A human being is not only a being among beings, but also one biological being among other biological beings. Given Searle’s biological naturalism, our common biology — especially the common biology of our central nervous systems and brains — points to our being a conscious being among other conscious beings. This seems to be borne out in our ordinary experience, as we usually understand our experience. We interact with other conscious beings on the level of consciousness, but the quality of consciousness may differ among beings. Interacting with other beings on the level of awareness means that our relationships with other conscious beings are marked by mutual awareness: not only are we aware of the other, but the other is also aware of us.
Above and beyond mere consciousness is sentient consciousness, i.e., consciousness with an emotional element superadded. We interact with other sentient beings on the level of sentience, that is to say, on the level of feeling. Our relationships with other mammals, especially those we have made part of our civilization, like dogs and horses, are intimate, personal relationships, not mediated by intelligence, but mostly mediated by the emotional lives we share with our fellow mammals, endowed, like us, with a limbic system. We intuitively understand the interactions and group dynamics of other social species, because we are ourselves a social species, Even when the institutions of, for example, gorilla society or chimpanzee society, are radically different from the institutions of human society, we can recognize that these are societies, and we can sometimes recognize the different rules that govern these societies.
Even when human beings are absent from interactions in the biosphere, there are still interactions on the level of consciousness and sentience. When a bobcat chases a hare, both interact on the level of two core consciousnesses, and also, as mammals, they interact on a sentient level. The hare has that level of fear and panic possible for core consciousness, and the bobcat, no doubt, experiences the core consciousness equivalent of satisfaction if it catches the hare, and frustration if the hare escapes. Or when a herd of wild horses panics and stampedes, their common sentient response to some environmental stimulation provides the basis of their interaction as a herd species.
All of this can be denied, and we can study nature as though consciousness were no part of it. While I have assimilated the denial of consciousness in nature to anthropocentrism, many more assimilate the attribution of consciousness to other species as a form of anthropocentrism. Clearly, we need to better define anthropocentrism, where and how it misleads us, and where and how it better helps us to understand our fellow beings with which we share the biosphere. That position that identifies consciousness as peculiarly human and denies it to the rest of the biosphere is, in effect asserting that a biosphere of zombies is indistinguishable from a biosphere of consciousness beings; I can understand how this grows out of a legitimate concern to avoid anthropocentric extrapolations, but I can also recognize the violation of the Copernican principle in this position. The view that recognizes consciousness throughout the macroscopic biosphere can also be interpreted as consistent with avoiding anthropocentrism, but also is consonant with Copernicanism broadly construed.
To adopt an eliminativist or reductionist account of consciousness, i.e., to deny the reality of consciousness, is not only to deny consciousness to human beings (a denial that would be thoroughly anthropocentric), it is to deny consciousness to the whole of nature, to deny all consciousness of all kinds throughout nature. It is to assert that consciousness has no place in nature, and that a planet of zombies is indistinguishable from a planet of consciousness agents. Without consciousness, the world entire would be a planet of zombies.
To deny consciousness is to deny that there are any other species, or any other biospheres, in the universe in which consciousness plays a role. If we deny consciousness we also deny consciousness elsewhere in the universe, unless we insist that terrestrial life is the exception, and that, again, would be a non-Copernican position to take. To deny consciousness is to deny that consciousness will ever inhere in some non-biological substrate, i.e., it is to deny that machines will never become conscious, because there is no such thing as consciousness. To deny consciousness is to constitute in place of the biosphere we have, in which conscious interaction plays a prominent role in the lifeways of megafauna, a planet of zombies in which all of these apparent interactions are mere appearance, and the reality is non-conscious beings interacting mechanically and only mechanically. I am not presenting this as a moral horror, that we should avoid because it offends us, but as naturalistically — indeed, biologically — false. Our world is not a planet of zombies.
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17 August 2016
In Rational Reconstructions of Time I noted that stellar evolution takes place on a scale of time many orders of magnitude greater than the human scale of time, but that we are able to reconstruct stellar evolution by looking into the cosmos and, among the billions of stars we can see, picking out examples of stars in various stages of their evolution and sequencing these stages in a kind of astrophysical seriation. Similarly, the geology of Earth takes place on a scale of time many orders of magnitude removed from human scales of time, but we have been able to reconstruct the history of our planet through a careful study of those traces of evidence not wiped away by subsequent geological processes. Moreover, our growing knowledge of exoplanetary systems is providing a context in which the geological history of Earth can be understood. We are a long way from understanding planet formation and development, but we know much more than we did prior to exoplanet discoveries.
The evolution of a biosphere, like the evolution of stars, takes place at a scale of time many orders of magnitude beyond the human scale of time, and, as with stellar evolution, it is only relatively recently that human beings have been able to reconstruct the history of the biosphere of their homeworld. This began with the emergence of scientific geology in the eighteenth century with the work of James Hutton, and accelerated considerably with the nineteenth century work of Charles Lyell. Scientific paleontology, starting with Cuvier, also contributed significantly to understanding the natural history of the biosphere. A more detailed understanding of biosphere evolution has begun to emerge with the systematic application of the methods of scientific historiography. The use of varve chronology for dating annual glacial deposits, dendrochronology, and the Blytt–Sernander system for dating the layers in peat bogs, date to the late nineteenth century; carbon-14 dating, and other methods based on nuclear science, date to the middle of the twentieth century. The study of ice cores from Antarctica has proved to be especially valuable in reconstruction past climatology and atmosphere composition.
The only way to understand biospheric evolution is through the reconstruction of that evolution on the basis of evidence available to us in the present. This includes the reconstruction of past geology, climatology, oceanography, etc. — all Earth “systems,” as it were — which, together with life, constitute the biosphere. We have been able to reconstruct the history of life on Earth not from fossils alone, but from the structure of our genome, which carries within itself a history. This genetic historiography has pushed back the history of the origins of life through molecular phylogeny to the very earliest living organisms on Earth. For example, in July 2016 Nature Microbiology published “The physiology and habitat of the last universal common ancestor” by Madeline C. Weiss, Filipa L. Sousa, Natalia Mrnjavac, Sinje Neukirchen, Mayo Roettger, Shijulal Nelson-Sathi, and William F. Martin (cf. the popular exposition “LUCA, the Ancestor of All Life on Earth: A new genetic analysis points to hydrothermal vents as the planet’s first habitat” by Dirk Schulze-Makuch; also We’ve been wrong about the origins of life for 90 years by Arunas L. Radzvilavicius) showing that recent work in molecular phylogeny points to ocean floor hydrothermal vents as the likely point of origin for life on Earth.
This earliest history of life on Earth — that terrestrial life that is the most different from life as we know it today — is of great interest to us in reconstructing the history of the biosphere. If life began on Earth from a single hydrothermal vent at the bottom of an ocean, life would have spread outward from that point, the biosphere spreading and also thickening as it worked its way down in the lithosphere and as it eventually floated free in the atmosphere. If, on the other hand, life originated in an Oparin ocean, or on the surface of the land, or in something like Darwin’s “warm little pond” (an idea which might be extended to tidepools and shallows), the process by which the biosphere spread to assume its present form of “planetary scale life” (a phrase employed by David Grinspoon) would be different in each case. If the evolution of planetary scale life is indeed different in each case, it is entirely possible that life on Earth is an outlier not because it is the only life in the universe (the rare Earth hypothesis), but because life of Earth may have arisen by a distinct process, or attained planetary scale by a distinct mechanism, not to be found among other living worlds in the cosmos. We simply do not know at present.
Once life originated at some particular point on Earth’s surface, or deep in the oceans, and it expanded to become planetary scale life, there seems to have been a period of time when life consisted primarily of horizontal gene transfer (a synchronic mechanism of life, as it were), before the mechanisms of species individuation with vertical gene transfer and descent with modification (a diachronic mechanism of life). It is now thought the the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) will only be able to be traced back to this moment of transition in the history of life, but this is an area of active research, and we simply do not yet know how it will play out. But if we could visit many different worlds in the earliest stages of the formation of their respective biospheres, we would be able to track this transition, which may occur differently in different biospheres. Or it may not occur at all, and a given biosphere might remain at the level of microbial life, experiencing little or no further development of emergent complexity, until it ceased to be habitable.
While we can be confident that later emergent complexities must wait for earlier emergent complexities to emerge first, no other biosphere is going to experience the same stages of development as Earth’s biosphere, because the development of the biosphere is a function of a confluence of contingent circumstances. The history of a biosphere is the unique fingerprint of life upon its homeworld. Any other planet will have different gravity, different albedo, different axial tilt, axial precession, orbital eccentricity, and orbital precession, and I have explained elsewhere how these cycles function as speciation pumps. The history of life on Earth has also been shaped by catastrophic events like extraterrestrial impacts and episodes of supervolcano eruptions. It was for reasons such as this that Stephen J. Gould said that life on Earth as we know it is, “…the result of a series of highly contingent events that would not happen again if we could rewind the tape.”
Understanding Earth’s biosphere — the particularities of its origins and the sequence of its development — is only the tip of the iceberg of reconstructing biospheres. Ultimately we will need to understand Earth’s biosphere in the context of any possible biosphere, and to do this we will need to understand the different possibilities for the origins of life and for possible sequences of development. There may be several classes of world constituted exclusively with life in the form of microbial mats. Suggestive of this, Abel Mendez wrote on Twitter, “A habitable planet for microbial life is not necessarily habitable too for complex life such as plants and animals.” I responded to this with, “Eventually we will have a taxonomy of biospheres that will distinguish exclusively microbial worlds from others…” And our taxonomy of biospheres will have to go far beyond this, mapping out typical sequences of development from the origins of life to the emergence of intelligence and civilization, when life begins to take control of its own destiny. On our planet, we call this transition the Anthropocene, but we can see from placing the idea in this astrobiological context that the Anthropocene is a kind of threshold event that could have its parallel in any biosphere productive of an intelligent species that becomes the progenitor of a civilization. Thus planetary scale life is, in the case of the Anthropocene, followed by planetary scale intelligence and planetary scale civilization.
Ultimately, our taxonomy of the biosphere must transcend the biosphere and consider circumstellar habitable zones (CHZ) and galactic habitable zones (GHZ). In present biological thought, the biosphere is the top level of biological organization; in astrobiological thought, we must become accustomed to yet higher levels of biological organization. We do not yet know if there has been an exchange of life between the bodies of our planetary system (this has been posited, but not yet proved), in the form of lithopanspermia, but whether or not it is instantiated here, it is likely instantiated in some planetary system somewhere in the cosmos, and in such planetary systems the top level of biological organization will be interplanetary. We can go beyond this as well, positing the possibility of an interstellar level of biological organization, whether by lithopanspermia or by some other mechanism (which could include the technological mechanism of a spacefaring civilization; starships may prove to be the ultimate sweepstakes dispersion vector). Given the possibility of multiple distinct interplanetary and interstellar levels of biological organization, we may be able to formulate taxonomies of CHZs for various planetary systems and GHZs for various galaxies.
One can imagine some future interstellar probe that, upon arrival at a planetary system, or at a planet known to possess a biosphere (something we would know long before we arrived), would immediately gather as many microorganisms as possible, perhaps simply by sampling the atmosphere or oceans, and then run the genetic code of these organisms through an onboard supercomputer, and, within hours, or at most days, of arrival, much of the history of the biosphere of that planet would be known through molecular phylogeny. A full understanding of the biospheric evolution (or CHZ evolution) would have to await coring samples from the lithosphere and cryosphere of the planet or planets, and, but the time we have the technology to organize such an endeavor, this may be possible as well. At an ever further future reach of technology, an intergalactic probe arriving at another galaxy might disperse further probes to scatter throughout the galaxy in order to determine if there is any galactic level biological organization.
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6 August 2016
Can there be folk concepts in (and of) recent and sophisticated scientific thought, such as astrobiology? Astrobiology is a recent discipline, and as such is a beneficiary of a long history of the development of scientific disciplines; in other words, astrobiology stands on the shoulders of giants. In From an Astrobiological Point of View I characterized astrobiology as the fourth and latest of four revolutions in the life sciences, preceded by Darwinism, genetics, and evolutionary developmental biology (i.e., evo-devo). Can there be folk concepts that influence such a recent scientific discipline?
In Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress and Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization I considered the possibility of folk concepts unique to a scientific civilization, and the folk concepts of recent sciences like astrobiology constitute paradigmatic examples of folk concepts unique to scientific civilization. The concepts of folk astrobiology, far being being rare, have proliferated as science fiction has proliferated and made a place for itself in contemporary culture, especially in film and television.
One idea of folk astrobiology that is familiar from countless science fiction films is that of planets the biosphere of which is dominated by a single biome. Both Frank Herbert’s planet Arrakis from the novel Dune and the planets Tatooine and Jakku from Star Wars are primarily desert planets, whereas the Star Wars planet Dagobah is primarily swamp, the planet Kamino is a global ocean, and the planet Hoth is primarily arctic. Two worlds that appear in the Alien films, Zeta Reticuli exomoon LV-426 in Alien and Aliens and LV-223 in Prometheus, are both desolate, rocky, and barren, like the landscapes we have come to expect from the robotic exploration of the other worlds in our own solar system.
The knowledge we have assembled of the long-term history of the biosphere of Earth, that our planet has passed through “hothouse” and “icehouse” stages, suggest it is reasonable to suppose that we will find similar conditions elsewhere in the universe, though Earth today has a wide variety of biomes that make up its biosphere. We should expect to find worlds both with diverse biospheres and with biospheres primarily constituted by a single biome. Perhaps this idea of folk astrobiology will someday be formalized, when we know more about the evolution of biospheres of multiple worlds, and we have the data to plot a bell curve of small, rocky, wet planets in the habitable zone of their star. This bell curve almost certainly exists, we just don’t know as yet where Earth falls on the curve and what kinds of worlds populate the remainder of the curve.
Biosphere diversity is thus a familiar concept of folk astrobiology. But let me backtrack a bit and try to formulate more clearly an explication of folk astrobiology.
In an earlier post I quoted the following definition of folk biology:
Folk biology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the organic world. Humans everywhere classify animals and plants into species-like groups as obvious to a modern scientist as to a Maya Indian. Such groups are primary loci for thinking about biological causes and relations (Mayr 1969). Historically, they provided a transtheoretical base for scientific biology in that different theories — including evolutionary theory — have sought to account for the apparent constancy of “common species” and the organic processes centering on them. In addition, these preferred groups have “from the most remote period… been classed in groups under groups” (Darwin 1859: 431). This taxonomic array provides a natural framework for inference, and an inductive compendium of information, about organic categories and properties. It is not as conventional or arbitrary in structure and content, nor as variable across cultures, as the assembly of entities into cosmologies, materials, or social groups. From the vantage of EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY, such natural systems are arguably routine “habits of mind,” in part a natural selection for grasping relevant and recurrent “habits of the world.”
Robert Andrew Wilson and Frank C. Keil, The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences
And here is a NASA definition of astrobiology that I have previously quoted:
“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”
Drawing on both of these definitions — “Folk biology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the organic world” and “Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe” — we can formulate a fairly succinct definition of folk astrobiology:
Folk astrobiology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.
I hope that the reader immediately sees how common this exercise is, both in scientific and non-scientific thought. On the scientific side, folk astrobiology is pervasively present in the background assumptions of SETI, while on the non-scientific side, as we have seen above in examples drawn from scientific fiction films, folk astrobiology informs our depiction of other worlds and their inhabitants. These concepts of folk astrobiology are underdetermined by astrobiology, but well grounded in common sense and scientific knowledge as far as it extends today. We will only be able to fully redeem these ideas for science when we have empirical data from many worlds. We will begin to accumulate this data when, in the near future, we are able to get spectroscopic readings from exoplanet atmospheres, but that is only the thin edge of the wedge. Robust data sets for the evolution of multiple independent biospheres will have to await interstellar travel. (This is one reason that I suggested that a starship would be the ultimate scientific instrument; cf. The Interstellar Imperative.)
Folk astrobiology remains “folk” until its concepts are fully formalized as part of a rigorous scientific discipline. As few disciplines ever attain complete rigor (logic and mathematics have come closest to converging on that goal), there is always a trace of folk thought that survives in, and is even propagated along with, scientific thought. Folk concepts and scientific concepts, then, are not mutually exclusive, but rather they overlap and intersect in a Wittgensteinian fashion. However, the legacy of positivism has often encouraged us to see folk concepts and scientific concepts as mutually exclusive, and if one adopts the principle that scientific concepts must be reductionist, therefore no non-reductionist concepts are not scientific, then it follows that most folk concepts are eliminated when a body of knowledge is made scientifically rigorous (I will not further develop this idea at present, but I hope to return to it when I can formulate it with greater precision).
We have a sophisticated contemporary biological science, and thus scientific biological concepts are ready to hand to employ in astrobiology, so that astrobiology has an early advantage in converging upon scientific rigor. But if a science aspires to transcend its origins and to establish itself as a new science co-equal with its progenitors, it must be prepared to go beyond familiar concepts, and in this case this means going beyond the sophisticated concepts of contemporary biology in order to establish truly astrobiological scientific concepts, i.e., uniquely astrobiological concepts, and these distinctive and novel concepts must then, in their turn, converge on scientific rigor. In the case of astrobiology, this may mean formulating a “natural history” where “nature” is construed as to include the whole of the universe, and this idea transcends the familiar idea of natural history, forcing the astrobiologist to account for cosmology as well as biology.
As an example of an uniquely astrobiology concept I above suggested the idea of biosphere diversity. Biosphere diversity, in turn, is related to ideas of biosphere evolution, developmental stages on planets with later emergent complexities, and so on. The several posts I have written to date on planetary endemism (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and more to come) may be considered expositions of the folk astrobiological idea of planetary endemism. Similarly, the homeworld concept is both a folk concept of astrobiology and scientific civilization (cf. The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung, Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space, and The Martian Standpoint).
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27 July 2016
In The Biocentric Thesis I gave an explicit formulation of the idea that civilizations of the Stelliferous Era originate in the actions of biological agents — actually, I gave two formulations, a weak and a strong, each with a corollary. What I failed to explicitly note in that post was that, in explicitly formulating the biocentric thesis, the idea of biocentricity is not confined to describing the biocentric thesis. In other words, we can identify as “biocentric” some state-of-affairs (presumably a civilization, or, more narrowly, an institution) regardless whether this state-of-affairs exemplifies the biocentric thesis. Thus the concept of the biocentric has a much wider scope than the biocentric thesis specifically.
It is worthwhile to make this distinction because the biocentric thesis is a particular idea about the origin of civilization (an extrapolation of Darwin’s thesis to astrobiological scope) while the idea of the biocentric, being of greater scope, has much wider applicability. If the biocentric thesis is true, that is to say, if all civilizations during the Stelliferous Era begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces (or, in its strong form, if all civilizations in our universe begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces), then biocentrism is not merely a feature of the human condition, it is the condition from which any and all civilizations originate (i.e., it is the common condition of eocivilization).
What is the human relationship to biocentrism beyond a narrowly conceived biocentric thesis on the origins of civilization? In my post Astrobiology Thought Experiment I wrote:
“…I have been trying to get at the human affinity to the rest of life on Earth, and trying to get at it in a primarily visceral sense in order to get around the hopeless tangle of rationalization and cognitive bias that we have painstakingly erected around the idea of humanity.”
What I called “the human affinity for the rest of life on Earth” is also known as biophilia. E. O. Wilson’s initial exposition of the idea of biophilia defined the term as meaning, “…the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” This appears on the very first page of his book Biophilia. Elsewhere, in his book The Diversity of Life, Wilson has defined biophilia as, “…the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.”
In formulating the idea of biophilia Wilson already anticipated the extrapolation of biophilia beyond terrestrial life. (Though Wilson’s term biophilia has rapidly gained currency and has been widely discussed, his original vision embracing a biophilia not limited to Earth has not enjoyed the same level of interest.) Also on the first page of Biophilia is this brief reflection on extraterrestrial life:
“From infancy we concentrate happily on ourselves and other organisms. We learn to distinguish life from the inanimate and move toward it like moths to a porch light. Novelty and diversity are particularly esteemed; the mere mention of the word extraterrestrial evokes reveries about still unexplored life, displacing the old and once potent exotic that drew earlier generations to remote islands and jungled interiors.”
Wilson, E. O., Biophilia: the Human Bond with Other Species, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 1.
It seems likely that we would naturally extrapolate both our biophilic and biophobic reactions to any extraterrestrial life we may find. However, it is also likely that, in our encounters with extraterrestrial life in the future, there may be instances in which we cannot as clearly distinguish between the animate and the inanimate as we can with terrestrial life. Our biophilic intuitions may need to be educated and augmented if they are to applied beyond terrestrial life, just as our mathematical intuitions are educated and augmented when we learn advanced mathematical concepts that were no part of our intuitive endowment of mathematical knowledge (we can cite geometrical intuition as an instance of the latter). Unlike the example of educating our mathematical intuitions, however, we cannot educate and augment our biophilic and biophobic reactions without actually traveling to other biospheres and learning directly about other lifeforms, preferably in their native habitats. In other words, progress in biology is ultimately predicated upon progress in space travel. This is implicit in the very idea of astrobiology.
An interest in life as yet unexplored implies the possibility of xenophilia as a special case of biophilia. Wilson seems to unproblematically assume that this is the case, but I have regarded this as an open question. For example, in Terrestrial Bias: Thought Experiments I wrote:
“Is life itself, regardless of its origins, of value to our biophilic minds, or are our anthropogenic minds so focused on differential survival and reproduction of homo sapiens that life itself is an abstract idea that can find no purchase in our sentiments? How far does biophilia extend? Is biophilia really only terrestrial biophilia? Is xenophilia possible for terrestrially evolved minds?”
We can we a bit more systematic about this: we can distinguish between biophilia in a narrow sense and biophilia in an extended sense, and the meaning of biophilia can be extended in more than one way. Biophilia in its narrowest sense is the affinity that human beings have for other terrestrial life. The generalization of this narrow sense of biophilia would be human affinity for all life, wherever that life may be found (as implied by E. O. Wilson). The formalization of the narrow sense of biophilia would be the affinity that any intelligent agent would feel for the biota of its homeworld, and from this formalizaton we can deduce the possibility of a particular intelligent species with its affinity for its particular homeworld (and this is a distinct concept than the purely formal concept of any species’ affinity for its homeworld). The formalization of the generalization of human biophilia would be affinity that any intelligent biological being would have for any life to be found in the universe. These are the permutations of biophilia, and each permutation may be regarded as an open question inviting further research.
Biophilia in the extended sense of the formalization of human biophilia (the affinity that any biological being would have for the biota of its homeworld) can be taken as a foundational posit of cognitive astrobiology, as predictable in shaping minds as natural selection is predictable in shaping bodies. Biophilia is the cognitive expression of biocentrism, and in so far as biocentrism is likely to typify any intelligent biological being, any intelligent biological being is likely to embody the same kind of biophilia found among human beings. In this sense, biophilia is a central phenomenon of cognitive astrobiology.
However, we can also posit that any intelligent agent that builds a technological civilization, and eventually a spacefaring civilization by technological means, will have, to some degree, marginalized native biophilia to the extent that this is necessary in order for a class of persons in this civilization to be fully immersed in a technological milieu. I take this latter condition to be a sine qua non of the development of advanced technological capabilities; perhaps this idea — i.e., the idea of at least one class of persons under the umbrella of a larger society to be immersed in a technological milieu — demands independent analysis and exposition. This I will reserve for a future post.
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19 July 2016
The Centrality of Biology to Civilization
Beyond the formulation of the biological conception of civilization and the ecological conception of civilization, both of which employ concepts from biology, we can identify a particular thesis (or particular theses) addressing the centrality of biological relationships and biological entities to civilization (as we have known civilization to date). I have expressed the centrality of biology to civilization as the biocentric thesis.
Although I have not previously formulated the biocentric thesis explicitly (here I will attempt to do this) though I have used the idea many times. Previously I wrote about biocentric civilizations in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization, Addendum on the Stages of Civilization, and Another Way to Think about Civilization, inter alia, without attempting to clarify my use of “biocentric,” while in The Biological Conception of Civilization and The Ecological Conception of Civilization I considered biologically-derived conceptions of civilization.
On Being Biological
Let us begin with the basics: human beings, the progenitors of terrestrial civilization, are biological. Being ourselves biological entities, human life has been integral with the biological world from which it arose. We live by consuming other biological entities, and, when we die, our bodies decompose and their constituents are reintegrated with the biological world from which we sprang. When human beings began the civilizational project, we remained integral with the biological world, exapting it for our new-found purposes, which involved the tightly-coupled coevolutionary cohort of species that I employed as the biological conception of civilization. In western thought it as been traditional to oppose nature to culture, but, being biological, we understand our civilization by understanding ourselves, and we understand ourselves by understanding biology.
Biology is both an old and a young science. Plato had little use for biology, and in reading Plato’s dialogues one could be forgiven for supposing that the Greeks had ever lived in any condition other than a civilization in which nature is kept at a certain distance. Aristotle, on the contrary, was a careful observer of nature, thus we may say that biology as science goes back at least to Aristotle’s treatises The History of Animals, On the Parts of Animals, On the Motion of Animals, and On the Gait of Animals.
Biology in its contemporary form goes back to Darwin, from which time biology has rapidly advanced and is today a mature science, as sophisticated in its own way as particle physics. And while we do not usually think of the growing rigor and sophistication of a body of scientific knowledge as an exercise in introspection, in the case of biology we can think of it in this way — if only we have the hardihood to apply what we have learned from biology to ourselves and to our biologically-based civilization. Because we are biological beings, knowledge of biology is knowledge of ourselves.
Being Biological in an Astrobiological Context
Astrobiology is a very young science, but in so far as it takes up the torch of biology and extrapolates biological concepts to their ultimate cosmological context, astrobiology is simply a greatly expanded biology, and in this sense not a new science at all. In From an Astrobiological Point of View I characterized the emergence of astrobiology in this spirit of continuity as the fourth of four great revolutions in biology, the previous three revolutions being Darwinism, Mendelian genetics, and evolutionary developmental biology (better known as “evo-devo”).
In the context of astrobiology, understanding the conditions for life in the universe is a greatly expanded form of human introspection, in which an evolving body of scientific knowledge has the capability of demonstrating the cosmological context of human life. Once again, in understanding astrobiology we can better understand ourselves, if only we have the willingness to understand ourselves scientifically. Beyond understanding ourselves, astrobiology also holds the promise of better understanding our civilization. An astrobiological formulation of the biological conception of civilization would extrapolate this conception of civilization to a cosmological scope.
In Astrobiology is island biogeography writ large I suggested that spaceflight is to astrobiology as flight is to biogeography, which is an application of the principle that technology is the pursuit of biology by other means. Given technologically-enabled spaceflight (made possible by a technological civilization), terrestrial life can expand beyond Earth and beyond our planetary system to other worlds, just as the innovation of flight made it possible for terrestrial organisms (even those that do not fly) to establish themselves on distant, isolated islands — hence the analogy between biogeographical distribution patterns and astrobiological distribution patterns. This is still a biocentric paradigm, but extrapolated to cosmological scope.
With these considerations of what it means to be a biological being in an astrobiological context, I will attempt an explicit formulation of weak and strong biocentric theses. All of these formulations involve what I have earlier called planetary endemism.
The Weak Biocentric Thesis
All civilizations during the Stelliferous Era begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces.
This thesis is “weak” because it addresses only civilizations during the Stelliferous Era. A corollary of the weak biocentric thesis excludes the possibility of any Stelliferous Era civilization that does not arise from biology, as follows:
Corollary of the Weak Biocentric Thesis
No civilizations during the Stelliferous Era existed prior to the advent of Stelliferous Era biota.
The weak biocentric thesis and its corollary implies a strong biocentric thesis, not limited to the Stelliferous Era:
The Strong Biocentric Thesis
All civilizations in our universe begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces.
The strong biocentric thesis also has a strong corollary:
Corollary of the Strong Biocentric Thesis
No civilizations existed in our universe prior to the biocentric civilizations of Stelliferous Era.
Both strong and weak biocentric theses and their corollaries entail that the emergent complexity of civilization arises from the previous emergent complexity of life, and, in their strongest formulations, that it could be no other way. This excludes the possibility that there exist forms of emergent complexity other than life — sufficiently distinct from life as we know it than any identification of this emergent complexity as life would be problematic — from which civilization might independently arise. This is a rather sweeping claim, and, though it is supported by our parochial knowledge of life and civilization on Earth, it would be quite a stretch to assert this for the universe entire. On the other hand, we would still want to entertain this possibility, as there may be universes in which the only emergent complexity upon which civilization can supervene is life, more or less as we know it.
If the Strong Biocentric Thesis and its corollary are true, then there are no pre-Stelliferous Era civilizations, and all post-Stelliferous Era civilizations are derived from Stelliferous Era civilizations having their origins in planetary endemism. Post-Stelliferous Era civilizations would include Degenerate Era civilizations, Black Hole Era civilizations, and Dark Era civilizations. This might be formulated as another thesis in turn.
According to this understanding of civilization, the Stelliferous Era is uniquely generative of civilizations. In so far as we understand civilizations to belong to a suite of emergent complexities, we might say instead that the Stelliferous Era is uniquely generative of emergent complexity. At least, we say that now, prior to the emergent complexities unique to the Degenerate Era. It seems likely, however, that at some point the universe will reach peak complexity, and after that point it will begin to decay, and emergent complexities will begin to disappear, one by one.
The Terrestrial Eocivilization Hypothesis and Darwin’s Thesis
The above is closely related to what I have previously called the Terrestrial Eocivilization Hypothesis, which I characterized as follows:
“I will call the terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis the position that identifies early civilization, i.e., eocivilization, with terrestrial civilization. In other words, our terrestrial civilization is the earliest civilization to emerge in the cosmos. Thus the terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis is the civilizational parallel to the rare earth hypothesis, which maintains, contrary to the Copernican principle, that life on earth is rare. I could call it the ‘rare civilization hypothesis’ but I prefer ‘terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis’.”
This might, more simply, be called the “priority thesis,” and is to be distinguished from the “uniqueness thesis,” i.e., that there is one and only one civilization in the universe, and that one is terrestrial civilization. Thinking over this again in retrospect, I realize that priority, uniqueness, and biocentricity can be distinguished. A civilization might be unique in virtue of being first (i.e., having priority), or by being the only civilization, or by being the last of all civilizations. Thus priority is only one form of uniqueness among others. And priority and uniqueness can both be distinguished from biocentricity: according the biocentric theses above, biocentric civilization has priority (at least during the Stelliferous Era) but it not necessarily unique in the universe, nor unique to Earth. Terrestrial civilization is a biocentric civilization, and it may also have priority and it may be unique.
The biocentric theses are also related to what I have called Darwin’s Thesis on the Origins of Civilization, according to which civilization emerges from non-civilization, much as naturalistic accounts of life hold that life emerges from non-life (sometimes called abiogenesis). Whereas the priority thesis (i.e., the terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis, that the earliest civilization is terrestrial civilization) is specific to Earth, Darwin’s thesis, like the biocentric theses above, can be applied universally without reference to the historical accidents of civilization on Earth (including its emergence, and whether this emergence was earlier than or later than any other emergence of civilization).
From a scientific standpoint, then, it is more important to determine the exact logical relationships between the biocentric theses and Darwin’s thesis, as the details of what happened on Earth belong to the accidents of cosmological history. As I said in my post on Darwin’s thesis, these ideas about civilization are rudimentary in the extreme, but since a science of civilization does not yet exist, we must begin with these simplest of concepts if we are ever to think clearly about civilization.
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9 July 2016
Introduction to the Scientific Study of Time
If I had an educational institution in which I could dictate the curriculum, I would have as requirements for the first year at least these two courses: “How to read a scientific paper” and “Understanding scales of time.” Of the former I will only say that, in our scientific civilization, every citizen needs to be able to read a scientific paper, so as not to rely exclusively on popularizations from journalists (perhaps I will write more on this later). The latter — understanding scales of time — is what concerns me at present. When I survey my own attempts to come to an understanding of the differing scales of time employed by the different sciences, I am struck by the slowness of my progress, but also by the importance of making progress. An organized and systematic attempt to give a unified exposition of the historical sciences and the time scales each entails would, I think, contribute significantly to making the various special sciences mutually intelligible and to encourage rigorous interdisciplinary research.
Just to finish the thought of a curriculum appropriate for the population of a scientific civilization, I might also consider not only a first year course in scientific method — many schools have required courses in statistics, which is a good step in this direction — but also a course in the philosophy of science and scientific methods, in order to give a comprehensive sense of the scientific enterprise and to engage students in thinking critically about the nature and limits of scientific knowledge. A scientific civilization that knows its own limits is less likely to fall victim to its own hubris than one in which these limits are not clearly understood.
The Idea of a Rational Reconstruction
The human experience of time originates in what Husserl called inner time consciousness, and human time as immediately experienced never extends beyond the lifetime of a single individual. Time consciousness, then, is severely constrained by human limitations. Human consciousness, however, not only consists in time consciousness, but also is the source of human reason, and human reason has sought to surmount the fleeting experience of time consciousness by extending time beyond the limitations of individual consciousness and the individual lifespan. This I will call the rational reconstruction of time.
Any duration of time beyond that of the human lifespan must be rationally reconstructed because it cannot be experienced directly. Extremely brief durations of time, such as are often involved in particle physics, also cannot be experienced directly, because they occur at a rate (or at such a microscopic scale) that cannot be distinguished by human sensory or cognitive faculties. These extremely brief durations of time also must be rationally reconstructed.
What is rational reconstruction? I won’t try to give a straight-forward definition, but instead I will try to give a sense of how philosophers have employed the idea of rational reconstruction. The idea originally came to prominence in the early twentieth century among logical positivists. Here is a passage from Otto Neurath that has become a point of reference in the origin of the idea of rational reconstruction:
“There is no way of taking conclusively established pure protocol sentences as the starting point of the sciences. No tabula rasa exists. We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials. Only the metaphysical elements can be allowed to vanish without trace.”
Otto Neurath, “Protocol sentences,” in Logical Positivism, edited by A.J. Ayer, Free Press, Glencoe, IL, 1959, pp. 199-208, there p. 201.
Neurath further developed his ship analogy in other essays:
“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”
Otto Neurath, “Anti-Spengler,” in Empiricism and Sociology, edited by Marie Neurath and Robert S. Cohen, Dordrecht and Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1973, p. 199
Here the emphasis falls upon the exigency of keeping the ship afloat, which is not the central concern of the rational reconstruction of time, but it would be an interesting exercise to apply this idea to the cognitive framework we all employ, with the necessity being active and effective agency in the world.
Quine adopted the analogy of rebuilding a ship at sea from Neurath. In his Word and Object, Quine quoted Neurath’s ship passage as an epigraph to the book and develops the theme of reconstruction throughout, extending Neurath’s positivist-inspired analogy more generally to philosophy, giving the idea contemporary currency in analytical philosophy.
Hans Reichenbach made the idea of rational reconstruction fully explicit:
“When we call logic analysis of thought the expression should be interpreted so as to leave no doubt that it is not actual thought which we pretend to analyze. It is rather a substitute for thinking processes, their rational reconstruction, which constitutes the basis of logical analysis. Once a result of thinking is obtained, we can reorder our thoughts in a cogent way, constructing a chain of thoughts between point of departure and point of arrival; it is this rational reconstruction of thinking that is controlled by logic, and whose analysis reveals those rules which we call logical laws.”
Hans Reichenbach, Elements of Symbolic Logic, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948, p. 2
Reichenbach has a footnote to this passage saying that “rational reconstruction” was introduced by Carnap, and indeed Carnap has a typically technical exposition of rational reconstruction in his Pseudoproblems in Philosophy (a bit long to quote here). Carnap’s interest in rational reconstruction seems to be due to the great influence that Russell’s philosophy had on Carnap, and it would be an interesting investigation to compare Russell’s conception of logical construction (in the parsimonious sense that Russell uses this term) and Carnap’s conception of rational reconstruction.
Imre Lakatos made extensive use of the idea of rational reconstruction in a more comprehensive context than the more narrowly logical exposition of Reichenbach. Lakatos applied rational reconstruction to the history of science, which is essentially what I am suggesting here:
“The history of science is always richer than its rational reconstruction. But rational reconstruction or internal history is primary, external history only secondary, since the most important problems of external history are defined by internal history. External history either provides non-rational explanation of the speed, locality, selectiveness, etc. of historic events as interpreted in terms of internal history; or, when history differs from its rational reconstruction, it provides an empirical explanation of why it differs. But the rational aspect of scientific growth is fully accounted for by one’s logic of scientific discovery.”
Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers Volume I, Cambridge, 1989, “History of science and its rational reconstructions,” p. 118
A generalization of the point Lakatos makes in this passage would not be limited to the history of science: we can say that history simpliciter is always richer than its rational reconstruction, but the important problems for external history are set by the rational reconstruction of history. And, I think, we will find this to be the case; rational reconstructions of time point us to the most important problems for the historical sciences.
Mythology: the First Rational Reconstruction of Time
Mythology is the first “big history.” By placing human lives and human actions in a mythological context, human beings are immediately and personally related to a cosmos of enormous scope, far beyond anything to be encountered in the lives of most individuals. In order to achieve this scope, experiences had to be pooled, and a composite, richer experience draw from an inventory wider and deeper than the experiences of any one individual. This is the essence of the rational reconstruction of time, which was later taken to much greater lengths in subsequent human development.
In retrospect, mythological cosmologies are ethnocentric and parochial, usually bound to the biome of a given biocentric civilization, but in their time they constituted the uttermost and outermost reach of human reason, projecting human concerns into the heavens and beneath the Earth. Mythological cosmologies were as comprehensive as they could be at the time, given the limitations of human knowledge under which mythologies took shape.
While mythology is a rational reconstruction of the human condition, we can also can see the rational reconstruction of mythology itself when philosophically-minded later readers of mythology attempted to further bring the mythological cosmos into line with the increasingly rational order of human civilization. Plato famously wanted to ban all poets from his ideal republic, because the stories that poets tell about the gods are not always edifying, and Plato’s republic aspired to exercising absolute control over mythic narrative, to the point of inculcating a “noble lie” intended to reconcile each segment of the population with its social position. That is to say, mythology was to be employed as a tool of social control, which has always been a danger for historical thought.
Classical History: the Second Rational Reconstruction of Time
The distinctive Greek gift for and contribution to rationality was expressed not only in philosophy and the earliest science, but also in works of art — the Parthenon is a monument to rationality, among other things — and literature. The Greeks invented the literary genre of history, and, once they invented history, disagreed on whether it was an art or a science. This was a perennial problem of classical historiography, but is no longer a burning question today, as the advent of scientific historiography has changed the terms of the debate in historiography.
It is at least arguable, however, that scientific historiography was always implicitly present from the origins of history in Herodotus and Thucydides, but no science existed in the time of the ancient Greeks that could realize this potential. The original Greek term used for the title of Herodotus’ The Histories — ἱστορία — means inquiries, i.e., Herodotus conceived his work as an inquiry in the past, and so was part and parcel of the Greek imperative of rationality. Indeed, rationalism applied to the apparent sequence of historical accidents that is the past might well be considered the non plus ultra of rationalism. However, the method of Herodotus’ inquiries was not scientific (in the Greek sense) or logical, but rather narrative.
The extent to which history in this classical sense (one might say, in the Herodotean sense) truly is a rational reconstruction, and not a mere recounting of facts, i.e., a chronicle, is revealed by Arthur Danto’s study of the logic of narrative sentences in his Narration and Knowledge (and which logic of narrative I previously mentioned in Our Intimacy with the Past). Even the most complete account of events as they happen cannot express how the meanings of earlier events are changed by later events, which provide the context and perspective for interpreting earlier events. While Danto did not say so, the mirror image of this insight applies to the future, so that the present is given meaning in relation to its expected outcome, and expected outcomes are valued on the basis of present experience (and unexpected outcomes are also judged in terms of their divergence from expectation). This would be a theme that Big History would begin to explore, although not in these terms.
What we traditionally call history (i.e., Herodotean history) is simply that fragment of the whole of the temporal continuum narratively reconstructed from human records. We can understand this by a sensory analogy: we know from study of the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes are able to see only a small portion of the EM spectrum. Beyond the abilities of human eyes, pit vipers can sense the infrared beyond the red end of the visible EM spectrum, and insects can sense ultraviolet beyond the violet end of the visible EM spectrum. Beyond the capacity of naturally evolved eyes to sense EM radiation, we can employ technology to detect radio waves, x-rays, and the rest of the EM spectrum. What human beings have called history is like the small “visible” portion of the EM spectrum: it is the small portion of the temporal continuum “visible” to human beings. The narrative method of traditional historiography allows us to reconstruct just so much history in human terms and to make it understandable to us.
Scientific Historiography: the Third Rational Reconstruction of Time
Already in classical antiquity we can see the scientific spirit at work in Ptolemy’s Almagest. Ptolemy wrote as a scientist, and not, like Herodotus, as an historian. As his science is now archaic, it is read only for its historical interest today, but in Ptolemy we can glimpse, in embryo, as it were, the scientific method in its characteristic attempt to transcend human limitations and the constraints of the human condition. In the Almagest Ptolemy compares his observations with the best observations of earlier writers, especially Hipparchus, even noting the margin of error inherent in observations due to the construction and position of instruments (cf. especially Book Seven on the fixed stars). In his chapter on determining the length of the year (Book Three, I), Ptolemy is always trying to get the oldest observations to compare with his observations, noting that nearly 300 years had elapsed between Hipparchus’ observations and this own, and reaches further back into Egyptian sources for data 600 years prior.
There is a difference in degree, but not a difference in kind, between these observations of Ptolemy and Freeman Dyson’s discussion whether the laws of nature change over time in “Time without end: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe” (1979). Dyson discusses what has since come to be called the “Oklo Bound,” based on the radioactive byproducts of the naturally-occurring Oklo fission reactor in Gabon. Dyson wrote:
“The fact that the two binding energies remained in balance to an accuracy of two parts in 1011 over 2.109 yr indicates that the strength of nuclear and Coulomb forces cannot have varied by more than a few parts in 1018 per year. This is by far the most sensitive test that we have yet found of the constancy of the laws of physics. The fact that no evidence of change was found does not, of course, prove that the laws are strictly constant. In particular, it does not exclude the possibility of a variation in strength of gravitational forces with a time scale much shorter than 1018 yr. For the sake of simplicity, I assume that the laws are strictly constant. Any other assumption would be more complicated and would introduce additional arbitrary hypotheses.”
Dyson, like Ptolemy, was employing the best scientific measurements and observations of his time in the attempt to transcend his time, though while Ptolemy’s rudimentary methods spanned a few hundred years, science can now comprehend a few billion years. The transcendence of immediately experienced human time by scientific scales of time is the rational reconstruction of time made possible by the historical sciences, and, by extension, for scientific historiography.
While the spirit of science is as old as classical antiquity, and it emerged from the same Greek world that gave us Herodotus and the Greek historians following Herodotus, scientific historiography did not begin to come into its own until the nineteenth century. Besides Ptolemy there were a few other notable intimations of scientific historiography to come, as in Nicholas Steno’s laws of superposition in geology. The historical sciences began to realize their potential in the geology and biology of the nineteenth century in the geology of Lyell and the biology of Darwin. Within a few years’ of the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Lyell Published Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, which reconceptualized humanity in the context of geological time. Later in the nineteenth century, scientific dating techniques such as varve chronology (varves are annual deposits left by melting glaciers) and dedrochronology (tracing overlapping tree rings backward in time) began to give exact dates for historical events long before human records. Scientific archaeology (as opposed to mere treasure hunting) began about the same time.
Scientific historiography reconstructs time employing the resources of the scientific method, which made the reconstruction of time systematic. As long as science continues to develop, and is not allowed to drift into stagnancy, scientific historiography can continue to add depth and detail to this historical record. Scientific historiography extended the narrative tradition of history beyond texts written by human beings to the text of nature itself; the whole of the world became the subject of historical inquiry in the form of the historical sciences, which reconstructed a narrative of Earth entire, and eventually also of the universe entire, which latter became the remit of Big History.
Big History: the Fourth Rational Reconstruction of Time
Big history takes a step beyond the initial scope of scientific historiography, not merely narrating human history on the basis of what science can tell us where texts are silent, but in going beyond human history to a history of the universe entire, in which human history is contextualized. As I write this the 3rd IBHA conference is about to take place next weekend in Amsterdam, and I am a bit disappointed that I won’t be going, as I enjoyed the 2nd IBHA conference I attended a couple of years ago (cf. Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3).
The approach of big history did not come out of nowhere, but was building since the discovery of “deep time” in Steno’s laws of superposition, but especially the geology of James Hutton, then Charles Lyell, and later yet geological time scales brought to the study of life by Darwin. Science that dealt in millions of years and then billions of years slowly acclimated informed human minds of the possibilities for science completely freed of anthropocentric constraints. A hundred years ago, in the early twentieth century, we began to glimpse the size and the age of the universe entire, extending scientific scales of time beyond the Earth and the inherent geocentric constraints of human thought.
How can a human being, starting from the human experience of time, ever come to understand the life and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the largest and oldest structures of the cosmos? This grandest of historical reconstructions is possible because the universe is large and old and diverse. We cannot witness the formation of our own sun or our own planet, but we can look out into the universe and see stars in the process or formation and planetary systems in the process of formation (i.e., protoplanetary disks). If we are sufficiently diligent in surveying the cosmos, we can put together an entire sequence of the evolution of stars and planetary systems, drawn from different individual instances all today at different stages of development. While processes of stellar formation and planetary system development take place on a scale of time that human beings can never directly perceive, our reconstruction of these processes can be made comprehensible to us in this way. And when we are able to travel among the stars and to study life on many different worlds, we will be able engage in the astrobiological equivalent to this cosmological seriation, and similarly so with civilization and other forms of emergent complexity.
Big history provides a comprehensive context in which all of these scientific seriations of time scales beyond human perception can be concatenated in a single grand reconstruction of the whole of time as it is accessible to contemporary science. And, on the basis of contemporary science, Big History represents the culmination and non plus ultra of scientific historiography. Beyond the limits of empirical evidence methods other than science must be employed.
Formal Historiography: the Fifth Rational Reconstruction of Time
The fifth rational reconstruction of time is a rational reconstruction that has not yet been constructed, but we can see, on the horizon, that this is the natural teleology of the development described above. As inductive empirical science matures and grows in sophistication, there is an increasing tendency both to rigor and to integration with other physical theories. Sometimes the imperative to greater rigor is not historically obvious, as an empirical science may remain static in terms of its formal development for a long time — sometimes for centuries. But the need for formal rigor is eventually felt, and some clever soul somewhere has an “A ha!” moment that shows the way to a formal surrogate for a previously intuitive approach. This will be true for historiography as well.
There is a contemporary school of thought — cliodynamics — attempting to transform history into an empirical, testable science, employing numerical methods and quantification. In the bigger picture, scientific historiography more generally speaking adopts the formal methods of the other empirical sciences, and this increases the rigor of historical thought over time, but these efforts remain within the paradigm of inductive empirical science. When history is eventually formalized, it will follow the trajectory of earlier empirical sciences. First the work of scientific historiography must come to maturity, and then we will be in a position to engage in a formal scrutiny of the assumptions made in scientific historiography. Some of these assumptions will be common to other empirical sciences (in the traditional Euclidean language, these will be common notions, or axioms, that are not specific to some particular subject matter) while other assumptions will be unique to scientific historiography and will thus constitute the differentia of historical thought (postulates in Euclid’s terminology).
Most working scientists in daily practice do not employ fully formalized reasoning because it is cumbersome and slow, and, in fact, inductive empirical science can continue in its traditional methodology almost untouched by formalization. There are axiomatizations of general relativity, for example (cf., e.g., “An Axiomatization of General Relativity,” Richard A. Mould, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 103, No. 3, Jun. 15, 1959, pp. 485-529), but this is not the way that most physics is done today. One might think of formalization as the highest level of emergent complexity yet attained within cognitive astrobiology, with mythology, narrative history, scientific historiography, and Big History all as earlier emergents in a sequence of emergents with the later supervening upon the earlier. All of these forms of human thought about time will continue to develop — they will not be replaced or superseded by formal historiography — but it will be formal historiography that moves the discipline of history forward into the terra incognita of time.
With the existence of hard limits to the historical sciences as represented by prediction walls and retrodiction walls, on what material will formal historical proceed? Let me attempt to give a sense of the kind of formal reasoning that can extend formal historiography beyond the constraints of observation and empiricism.
It has become commonplace for physicists to assert that, since time began with the big bang, that it is nonsensical to ask what preceded the big bang. This is, we must honestly admit, a rather tortured piece of reasoning (not to mention circular). While it is true that the big bang constitutes a retrodiction wall beyond which contemporary science cannot pass, and so is a boundary to empirical science, it is not an absolute boundary to human reason. To assert that there is nothing beyond or before the big bang is a perfect demonstration of the fact that human reason does not stop at empirical prediction walls. While it is a perfectly intellectually respectable claim to assert that there was nothing before the big bang, it is not a scientific claim, it is a philosophical claim. And, by the same token, it is a perfectly respectable claim to assert that there is something beyond the observable universe, including something before the big bang, but that this is inaccessible to contemporary science. Again, this is not a scientific claim, but a philosophical claim. In this sense, both of these claims are on the level, as it were.
There is no conceivable form of scientific research that could verify the existence of nothingness prior to the big bang. Philosophically, I would assert that producing evidence of nothingness is ipso facto impossible, and hence ruled out a priori, hence ruling out any scientific claim of nothing preceding the big bang. (Either that, or “nothingness” means something very different for the physicist as compared to the philosopher. And this is most likely the case: the two are talking — if indeed they ever talk — at cross-purposes.) The recognition of a nothingness outside or before the retrodiction wall presented by the big bang can be further illuminated by thought experiments proposed by Sydney Shoemaker and W. H. Newton-Smith that demonstrate the possibility of empty time (I will not attempt to give a summary of these thought experiments here; the reader is urged to consult these authors directly; cf. Newton-Smith’s The Structure of Time, II, 4, pp. 19-24).
These are the materials with which a formal historiography will grapple, along with the concerns of what I have called infinitistic historiography and infinitistic cosmology. In this way, formal historiography will transcend even the grand reconstruction of the whole of time accessible to contemporary science that I mentioned above in connection with Big History.
While the accidents of history might seem to be the last place that anyone would look for fertile ground for the formalization of knowledge, history, I think, will surprise us in this respect. And the surprising applicability of formal methods to history will constitute yet another rational reconstruction of time.
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4 July 2016
The title of this post, “The Revolutionary Republic,” I have taken over from Ned Blackhawk from his lectures A History of Native America. No doubt others have used the phrase “revolutionary republic” earlier, but Blackhawk’s lectures were the context in which the idea of a revolutionary republic really struck me. Blackhawk contextualized the American revolution among other revolutionary republics, specifically the subsequent revolutions in France and Haiti. In his book, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West, Blackhawk has this to say about the Haitian Revolution:
“…in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, contests among New France, New Spain, British North America, and the United States redrew the imperial boundaries of North America in nearly every generation. In 1763, French Louisiana, for example, became part of New Spain. Reverting to France in 1801, it was sold to the United States for a song in 1803 after Haiti’s bloody revolution doomed Napoleon’s ambition to rebuild France’s once expansive American empire.”
Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 150
The backdrop of the geopolitical contest that Blackhawk mentions — the “Great Game” of the Enlightenment, as it were — was the Seven Years’ War (what we in the US sometimes call “The French and Indian War,” though this term can be reserved to refer exclusively to the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War), in which future first President of the United States, George Washington, fought as a major in the militia of the British Province of Virginia. The Seven Years’ War is sometimes called the first global war, as it was fought between a British-led coalition and a French-led coalition across the known world at the time.
The Seven Years’ War was the final culmination of imperial conflict between France and the British Empire, and the defeat of the French ultimately led to the triumph of the British Empire and its worldwide extent and command of the seas in the nineteenth century. As an interesting counterfactual, we might consider a world in which the British has triumphed earlier over the French, and had established unquestioned supremacy by the time of the American Revolution. Under these changed circumstances, it would have been even more difficult than it was for the American colonists to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War, and as it was, it was a close-run thing. The colonial forces only won because they fought an ongoing guerrilla campaign against a distant power, which had to project force across the Atlantic Ocean in order to engage with the colonials.
Even at the disadvantage of having to send its soldiers overseas, the British won most of the battles of the Revolutionary War, and the colonials triumphed in the end because they wore down British willingness to invest blood and treasure in their erstwhile colony. When the colonials did win a battle, the Battle of Saratoga, the British made a political decision to cut their losses and focus on other lands of their global empire. From the British perspective, the loss of their American colonies was the price to be paid for empire — an empire must choose its battles, and not allow itself to get tied down in a quagmire among hostile natives — and it was the right decision at the time, as the British Empire was to continue to expand for another hundred years or more. With the French out of the way (defeated by the British in the Seven Years’ War, and then further crippled by the Haitian Revolution, as Blackhawk pointed out), and the American colonies abandoned, the British could move on to the real prizes: China and india.
The Seven Years’ War was the “big picture” geopolitical context of the American Revolution, and the American Revolution itself triggered the next “big picture” political context for what was to follow, which was the existence of revolutionary republics, and panic on the part of the ruling class of Europe that the revolutionary fervor would spread among their own peoples in a kind of revolutionary contagion. One cannot overemphasize the impact of the revolutionary spirit, which struck visceral fear into the hearts of Enlightenment-era constitutional monarchs much as the revolutionary spirit of communism struck fear into the hearts of enlightened democratic leaders a hundred years later. The revolutionary spirit of one generation became the reactionary spirit of the next generation. Applying this geopolitical rule of thumb to our own age, we would expect that the last revolutionary spirit became reactionary (as certainly did happen with communism), while the revolutionary spirit of the present will challenge the last revolutionary regimes in a de facto generational conflict (and this didn’t exactly happen).
The political principles of the revolutionary republics of the Enlightenment came to represent the next great political paradigm, which is today the unquestioned legitimacy of popular sovereignty. All the royal houses that were spooked by the revolutions in the British colonies, France, and Haiti were eventually either themselves deposed or eased into a graceful retirement as powerless constitutional monarchs. So they were right to be spooked, but the mechanisms by which their countries were transformed into democratic republics were many and various, so it was not revolution per se that these regimes needed to fear, but the implacable progress of an idea whose time had come.
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Happy 4th of July!
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1 July 2016
Today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme (also called the Somme Offensive), which began on 01 July 1916. The Somme has become symbolic in regard to the military mistakes of the First World War, especially in its wastefulness of human life. On the first day of the battle alone the British lost almost 20,000 killed in action out of a total of 57,470 casualties. This went on for months, with the total casualties for all armies numbering about a million on this one battlefield — the exact number will never be known.
When I first began reading about the First World War I can remember that I was confused about “battles” that went on for months at a time. Verdun, like the Somme, was another “battle” that went on for months. Earlier in history, a battle was a conflict that was usually decided in one day, between sunrise and sunset — a battle possessed the Aristotelian dramatic unities of space, time, and action — and at the most in a few days. The Battle of Gettysburg went on for four days. One can easily make the shift from single day battles of classical antiquity to multi-day battles of the nineteenth century, when the confrontation was more complex, not least because the societies upon which the battle supervened were larger and more complex. But from four days to four months is more of a stretch, and the Battle of the Somme went on for four and half months.
Today we would call military engagements like the Somme or Verdun operations rather than battles, as in The Somme Operation or Operation Verdun. Understanding the Somme (or Verdun) as operations rather than battles places these conflicts on the strategico-tactical continuum, i.e., operational thinking lies between tactical exigencies and strategic thinking, and different talents and a different kind of mind is required for operational planning in contradistinction to tactical action or strategic planning. The fact that we still call The Somme and Verdun “battles” — a usage preserved from the era of the conflict — shows how little these engagements were understood at the time.
As the First Global Industrialized War, World War One involved many new elements unprecedented in warfare, primarily technological innovations. How these technological innovations came together tactically, operationally, or strategically was not understood, and it was not understood for the simple reason that no one had any experience of these technologies on the battlefield. World War One provided this experience, while the interwar period provided time to reflect, and resulted in definitive treatises like Heinz Guderian‘s Achtung – Panzer! and Giulio Douhet‘s Il dominio dell’aria. With the advent of World War Two, military thinking had caught up with industrialized military technology, and the Second Global Industrialized War was very different from the first.
I am sure that memorials will be held on this hundredth anniversary, and speeches will be made. For the most part, the Somme has passed out of living memory and into historical memory. What is the historical memory of the Somme? Today we primarily remember the bloodletting — not any nobility of sacrifice or military glory, not any technological innovation or bold idea. What we remember is the human toll.
Recently I learned a term for the human toll of conflict, “hemoclysm,” used by Matthew White to describe the mass bloodletting that was characteristic of the twentieth century — “A violent and bloody conflict, a bloodbath; specifically (chiefly with capital initial), the period of the mid-twentieth century encompassing both world wars” — and which specially marks the Somme. Unfortunately, the Somme no longer stands out for its human toll. During the Second World War there were far higher casualty totals for single days, mostly civilians killed when entire cities were destroyed in a single day or a single night, which is something like a return to the paradigm of warfare according to the Aristotelian unities — although we can no longer call these slaughters “battles” in good conscience, so, in this sense, they diverge from the classical warfare paradigm, as they also diverge in primarily resulting in the deaths of civilians.
Total numbers of casualties increased until World War Two, after which they began to decline — something I identified in an early blog post as the “lethality peak.” However, this steady decline in lethality — partly a result of improving technology and precision weapons, but also partly a result of changing human attitudes to industrialized slaughter — took place against the backdrop of the Cold War, i.e., the possibility of nuclear war, with its ever-present possibility of a greater number of casualties in a shorter period of time than any possible conflict with conventional weapons. If humanity every fights a full scale nuclear war, the casualties will be orders of magnitude greater than our conventional wars.
We call nuclear weapons “strategic weapons” as a concession to their limited utility in actual warfighting. The few examples of tactical nuclear weapons that have been built were considered controversial, because they lowered the threshold for nuclear conflict — notwithstanding the fact that the first use of nuclear weapons was as just another weapon of war — the latest innovation from the conveyor belt of new technologies served up by wartime industries pushed to the limit of their capacity. The attempts to “think the unthinkable,” i.e., to think clearly about nuclear weapons, most famously made by Herman Kahn, were primarily strategic reflections. However, we know that NATO would not pledge “no first use” of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, as the last line of defense for a massive Warsaw Pact tank invasion of western Europe would have been the use of battlefield nuclear weapons, so some tactical doctrine for nuclear weapons would have been worked out, but it is not likely to come to light for some decades.
Nuclear weapons today, like machine guns and barbwire, airplanes and mobile armor a hundred years ago in 1916, remain a technology not yet assimilated to warfighting, and for good reason. The possibilities of nuclear weapons have lain fallow because the powers possessing nuclear weapons have recognized that their use must not be allowed while their escalation would result in our extinction as a species. In other words, our planetary endemism made nuclear war suicidal. This may change eventually.
If I am right that the native range of an intelligent species is not the single world of planetary endemism, but to be distributed across many worlds, the weapons systems that we can today imagine but choose not to build in the interest of our survival may be seen to have a military utility that they do not possess today. When we have a full tactical, operational, and strategic doctrine worked out for nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, we may see a conflict played out on a scale that dwarfs twentieth century world wars as twentieth century world wars dwarfed all previous conflicts.
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A Century of Industrialized Warfare
10. The Somme after One Hundred Years
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24 June 2016
In the wake of the vote by the British to leave to the EU (i.e., “Brexit”), the UK and the EU both have many options on how to manage the transition, and the vote in and of itself is not enough to predict how exactly British exit from the EU will occur. We have to wait and watch if we are to understand, and to correctly interpret, the subtle clues and telling details in a political landscape defined by a lack of subtlety and a barrage of trivia no item of which is a telling detail. Whatever happens, and however it happens, we are seeing geopolitics played out on a grand scale.
As a divisive political confrontation, the immediate fallout of the “Leave” vote will be accusations and recriminations, short term market fluctuations, dramatic public statements being made, a painstakingly detailed analysis of the demographic breakdown of the vote, and so on. The press will focus on these immediate consequences, and as the press was enthusiastic in backing “Project Fear” it is more or less obligated to report the worst possible news that it can find in order to confirm the narrative that the world will come to an end in the event of a “Leave” vote. The immediate consequences are the “white noise” of political conflict, and must be set aside in order for a more rational assessment of short-term, mid-term, and long-term consequences.
In a previous post on futurism I cited the “futures cone,” which depicts the arrow of time flaring outward into the future, with the probable future in the center, the plausible future just beyond the center, the possible future farther yet from the center, and the preposterous future at the outside edge of the futures cone (see above — I have adopted this language from Joseph Voros’ exposition of the futures cone). We can employ the futures cone to distinguish classes of outcomes from the Brexit vote.
Some of the most obvious outcomes neatly fall into the categories of the futures cone:
● Probable The UK negotiates a trade deal with the UN that allows both Britain and the EU to continue to employ the City of London as the de facto banking capital of western Europe, which is overwhelmingly in the interest of all concerned. Very little of substance changes. The press selectively reports on economic problems so that the sore loser “remain” faction can maintain plausible deniability that it was right all along, while the “leave” faction gets what it wants in changes to immigration policy.
● Plausible Eurocrats in Brussels are vindictive and seek retaliation for their humiliation; the EU attempts to economically isolate and marginalize the UK, and both sides erect trade barriers that result in UK and EU growth turning negative. A long recession and a slow recovery ensues. This scenario could well be exacerbated by actions taken by the US, as both major political party candidates for the US presidential election are opposed to free trade.
● Possible The “Leave” vote is set aside (the EU has a long history of setting aside votes that fail to conform to its narrative); endless negotiations drag on for years while the EU and the UK are at best economically stagnant; or additional votes are taken until the desired result is obtained.
● Preposterous There is no end to the number of preposterous scenarios that can be constructed upon the “Leave” vote. For example, the unraveling EU might lead to widespread chaos and disorder, ultimately meaning the end of civilization in Europe. Or a royal coup might set aside the popular vote and reverse the decision by royal decree, suspending democratic process. Or the unraveling of the EU might be followed by the constitution of alternative trade zones, as I once suggested in several posts on a northern trade zone (which I called the “Hansazone”) around the Baltic.
In my previous posts on futurism and the futures cone I emphasized that it is a relatively easy matter to predict what tomorrow will be like, because there are definite limits on how different tomorrow can be from today. However, it is extraordinarily difficult to predict the long-term future, so that between the predictable short term and the unpredictable long term, it is in the mid-term that our predictions go wrong. With this in mind, to get a better sense of the foreign country that is the future (and in this sense like the past), we should attempt to construct plausible paths by which probable and plausible short-term actions issue in implausible mid-term and long-term consequences.
For example, in the short-term there will be conflicting motives, with the EU being torn between cutting a deal that is good for all, or seeking a vindictive settlement that will punish Britain. Why should Eurocrats want to punish the UK for going its own way? Because despite the constant drumbeat in the press of the economic risks to Britain to leave the EU, the EU is much more vulnerable than the UK, partly because it is much less resilient and robust in its institutional structure. The “Leave” vote shows this up, and has the symbolic meaning that is the EU, and not the UK, that is weak, and that states can choose to leave the EU and it is not the end of the world. The illusion of the inevitable triumphal expansion of the EU has been rudely shattered, and some will want the UK to suffer for this, regardless of the cost. Thus the negotiations on the EU departure of the EU will be fraught, and may be in equal parts conciliatory and vindictive.
The kind of sausage-making that will result from mixed motives in the EU departure negotiations could result in radically different outcomes in the mid-term. While I regard it as unlikely, it is nevertheless possible that the EU might drag out its negotiations with the UK while fast-tracking the accession of candidates for entry into the EU, meaning that the UK is stuck and stagnant while the EU is expanding. Under this scenario, the EU grows and thrives while the UK becomes a marginalized economic backwater.
Another example of a mid-term future veering away from the most probable future constrained by concerns for stability and vested interests, is that the departure of the UK does begin the process of the unraveling of the EU (meaning the end of “Eurozone civilization” as was the concern of Donald Tusk). Other nation-states may hold referendums and depart from the EU, which shrinks as more and more parts are lopped off. The EU might continue in name only, as a ghost of its former self, and be remembered as a grand but failed visionary political project, the last gasp of the spirit of Yalta and Bretton Woods.
Under this scenario, the EU becomes economically marginal (sort of like Mercosur in South America), but the unraveling need not stop there. One might see the UK break up also, with Scotland and Ireland holding their own referendums to leave, and possibly even trying to rejoin the EU as independent nation-states. Paradoxically, this degree of Balkanization in western Europe, while it would be met with horror by the chattering classes, would probably result in far more pluralism and democracy than the EU model for pluralism and democracy in Europe. Also, in this pluralistic context it would be relatively straight-forward to constitute new economic zones, and so my “preposterous” scenario above could become plausible in the fullness of time.
The “Leave” vote was just the beginning of a process, and the immediate fallout will simply be theatrics. Only time will tell what the process itself will actually be (the situation is unprecedented, as no nation-state has previously negotiated its departure from the EU), and what outcomes are likely to follow.
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15 June 2016
How briefly can a socioeconomic state of affairs endure and still constitute a distinct and identifiable civilization? To phrase the question in another way, how finely can we parse the concept of civilization? Though this is a question of some theoretical interest, I ask this question now because of recent remarks by President of the European Council Donald Tusk. Tusk was interviewed by the German publication Bild on the topic of the pending referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union (which latter has been given the unfortunate name “Brexit”). Tusk said the following in this interview:
The leave campaign contains a very clear message: “Let us leave, nothing will change, everything will stay as before”. Well, it will not. Not only economic implications will be negative for the UK, but first and foremost geopolitical. Do you know why these consequences are so dangerous? Because in the long-term they are completely unpredictable. As a historian, I am afraid this could in fact be the start of the process of destruction of not only the EU but also of the Western political civilization.
And in the original German…
„Die Kampagne für den Brexit hat eine sehr klare Botschaft: ,Lasst uns austreten. Nichts wird sich ändern, alles wird bleiben wie immer.’ Nun, das ist falsch. Nicht nur wirtschaftlich, sondern vor allem geopolitisch wäre es ein Rückschlag für Großbritannien. Warum ist das so gefährlich? Weil niemand die langfristigen Folgen vorhersehen kann. Als Historiker fürchte ich: Der Brexit könnte der Beginn der Zerstörung nicht nur der EU, sondern der gesamten politischen Zivilisation des Westens sein.“
Bild, Nikolaus Blome und Kai Diekmann, EU-Ratspräsident Donald Tusk über die Brexit-Gefahr „Unsere Feinde werden Champagner trinken
There are two interesting qualifications that Tusk makes to his sweeping pronouncement on the beginning of the end of European civilization: “as a historian” (“Als Historiker”) and “Western political civilization” (“politischen Zivilisation des Westens”). I assume that Tusk is making the qualification “as a historian” in order to emphasize that he is not speaking as a politician, or in some other capacity, in this context. (Indeed, Tusk studied history at the University of Gdańsk.) The other qualification — instead of simply invoking “western civilization” he specified “western political civilization” — is more difficult to interpret. One might speculate that he attaches the idea of politics to civilization as a hedge, suggesting that political civilization might unravel, but that is not necessarily the end of civilization simpliciter. However, one probably shouldn’t try to read too much into this qualification.
Can we speak of a Eurozone civilization, or has the Eurozone been too ephemeral in historical terms to qualify as a civilization? I would have no hesitation in referring to a Eurozone civilization, and, in so far as there is a Eurozone civilization, the unraveling of the Eurozone project that could follow from British withdrawal could well begin the unraveling of Eurozone civilization. But let us take a closer look at short-lived civilizations.
I have previously written about Soviet Civilization (cf. Addendum on Failed Civilizations and The Genocide of Homo Sovieticus), which only endured about seventy years, and unraveled when the Soviet Union fell apart. I think that one could, with equal validity, speak of a Nazi civilization, though this endured less than twenty years. In the case of very short-lived political entities like Nazism, it might be more accurate to speak in aspirational terms, i.e., in terms of what the nascent political entity hoped to achieve as a civilization.
In the case of both Soviet civilization and Nazi civilization, we have examples of failed civilizations due to failed central projects; when the central project of these respective civilizations failed, the civilizations failed. Thus if one defines a civilization in terms of a viable central project, the Soviet and Nazi experiments do not constitute civilizations, but rather failed attempts to found civilization de novo. However, this poses additional questions, such as whether a civilization founded on a central project that ultimately proves to be non-viable, but it takes hundreds of years for the civilization to well and truly fail, is a civilization. Should we deny that such failed civilizations constituted civilizations? I think there is a certain bias toward longevity that would make us hesitate to deny a long-lived failed civilization to be a civilization. So should we deny that short-lived failed civilizations are civilizations?
In my presentation “What kind of civilizations build starships?” (at the 2015 Starship Congress) I defined civilizations in terms of economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure: where we find both, we have a civilization. I would now amend this, and add that a civilization is an economic infrastructure and an intellectual superstructure joined by a central project. This definition of civilization does not take longevity into account, so it can equally well apply to short-lived or long-lived civilizations.
The Eurozone has all the elements of civilization as I define it. There is an economic infrastructure, which might be identified with Rhine Capitalism; there is an intellectual superstructure, as embodied in the legal and political institutions of the EU, as well as the older ideas of European civilization and western civilization that transcend the specific context of the Eurozone; and there is a central project, the idea of Europe itself, transformed into a political idea.
Superficially, Eurozone civilization would seem to be a highly stable and viable enterprise, as many of the economic institutions and intellectual institutions are mutually supporting. For example, the free movement of populations, now being tested as a central pillar of European integration, is both an economic doctrine and a doctrine of personal liberty. However, despite these apparent virtues of the Eurozone, the project seems doomed to failure in its current incarnation, which, of course, does not mean that the Europeans cannot try again. There have been many movements to unify and integrate Europe over its long history, and we can expect that, if the current template for unification and integration fails, there will be future attempts.
A final thought: Europe has long been unified and integrated as a cultural and intellectual entity, and even as an economic entity. In other words, the unity of Europe is the same as the unity of our planetary civilization: unity in all relevant senses expect political and legal unification. But this legal and political unity has become a kind of fetish, so that we seem to be unable to recognize planetary civilization for what it is simply because we lack a planetary political order (cf. Origins of Globalization). In the same way, Europe has made a fetish of legal and political unification, and this has obscured the extent to which Europe is already one, single European civilization. The transformation of the idea of Europe into a political project may be the essential problem with the Eurozone. The motivation of this project — to prevent any future conflicts on the scale of the world wars of the twentieth century — primarily addresses the Franco-German rivalry that has characterized Europe since the death of Charlemagne. In so far as Britain has always been the “offshore balancer” to this continental rivalry, it is no surprise that Britain is the first powerful nation-state to seriously pose the question of its exit from the EU.
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