Ludwig Wittgenstein

A Wittgensteinian Approach to Civilization

One of my most frequently accessed posts is titled following Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus section 5.6, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” (“Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt”). I noted in Contextualizing Wittgenstein that this earlier post on Wittgenstein was posted on Reddit and as a result gained a large number of views — a larger number, at least, than my posts usually receive.

If there is a general principle that can be derived from Tractatus 5.6, one application of this general principle would be the idea that the limits of science are the limits of scientific civilization. In the same vein we could assert that the limits of agriculture are the limits of agrarian civilization (or even, “the limits of agriculture are the limits of biocentric civilization”), and the limits of technology are the limits of technological civilization, and so forth. Another way to express this idea would be to say, the limits of science are the limits of industrial-technological civilization, in so far as our industrial-technological civilization belongs to the genus of scientific civilizations.

Recently I have taken up the problem of scientific civilizations in Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization, Types of Scientific Civilization, Suboptimal Civilizations, Addendum on Suboptimal Civilizations, David Hume and Scientific Civilization, The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization, and Addendum on the Stages of Civilization, inter alia. None of this, as yet, is a systematic treatment of the idea of scientific civilization, though there are many ideas here that can some day be integrated into a more comprehensive synthesis.

What does it mean to live in a scientific civilization constrained by the limits of science? One of the points that I sought to make in my earlier post on Tractatus 5.6 was a scientific interpretation of Wittgenstein’s aphorism, acknowledging that the different idioms we employ to think about the world involve different conceptions of the world. In that post I wrote, “…scientific theories often broaden our horizons and allow us to see and to understand things of which we were previously unaware. But a scientific theory, being a particular idiom as it is, may also limit us, and limit the way we see the world.” This is part of what it means to be constrained by the limits of science: our scientific idioms constrain the conceptual framework we use to understand ourselves and our civilization.

Significantly in this context, different scientific idioms are possible. Indeed, distinct sciences are possible. We have had an historical succession of scientific idioms, which could also be called a succession of distinct sciences — something that could be presented as a Wittgensteinian formulation of Thomas Kuhn — according to which one scientific paradigm has replaced another over time. There is also the unrealized possibility of different origins of science, and different developmental pathways of science, in different civilizations. This is an idea I explored in Types of Scientific Civilization.

A civilization might develop science in a different way than science emerged in terrestrial history. A civilization might begin with a different mathematical formalism or a different logic. Perhaps logic itself might begin with the kind of logical pluralism we know today, which would contrast sharply with the logical monism that has marked most of human history. Different sciences might develop in a different order. The ancient Greeks developed an axiomatic geometry, but no scientific biology. But the idea of natural selection is, in itself, no more difficult than the idea of axiomatic geometry, and could have developed first.

A civilization might fail to develop axiomatic geometry and instead develop a scientific biology in its earliest history — its equivalent of our classical antiquity — and this kind of early biological knowledge would probably take agricultural civilization in a profoundly different direction. There may be (somewhere in the universe) scientific agrarian civilizations that are qualitatively distinct from both agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and industrial-technological civilization. Thus the developmental sequence of sciences in a civilization — which sciences are developed in what order, and to what extent — will shape the scientific civilization that eventually emerges from this sequence (if it does in fact emerge). Is this sequence an historical accident? That is a difficult question that I will not attempt to answer at present.

There are, then, many possibilities for scientific civilizations, and we have not, with the history of terrestrial civilizations, fully explored (much less exhausted) these possibilities. But scientific civilizations also come with limitations that are intrinsic to scientific knowledge. In my Centauri Dreams post, “The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight,” I argued that the science of industrial-technological civilization, essentially narrowed by its participation in the STEM cycle that drives our civilization, is riddled with blind spots, and these blind spots mean that the civilization built on this science is riddled with blind spots.

This should not be a surprising conclusion, though I suspect few will agree with me. There is a comment on my Centauri Dreams post that implies I am arguing for the role of mystical experiences in civilization; this is not my purpose or my intention. This is simply a misunderstanding. But, in fact, the better I am understood probably the less likely it will be that others will agree with me. In another context, in A Fly in the Ointment, I argued that science is a particular branch of philosophy — that philosophy also known as methodological naturalism — which subverts the view (predictably prevalent in industrial-technological civilization) that if philosophy has any legitimacy at all, it is because it is a kind of marginal science in its own right. More often, philosophy is simply viewed as a kind of failed science.

Philosophy is not a kind of science. Science, on the contrary, is a kind of philosophy. This is not a common view today, but that is my framework for interpreting and understanding scientific civilization. It follows from this that a philosophical civilization would not necessarily be a kind of scientific civilization (the philosophy of such a civilization might or might not be the philosophy that we identify as science), but that our scientific civilization is a kind of philosophical civilization.

Philosophy is a much wider field of study, and it is from philosophy that we can expect to address the blind spots of science and the scientific civilization that has grown from science. So the limits both of science and scientific civilization can be addressed, but only from a more comprehensive perspective, and that more comprehensive perspective is not possible from within scientific civilization.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Battle of Crécy, 1346

Battle of Crécy, 1346

In a series of posts I started last summer, A Century of Industrialized Warfare, I reflected on some of the significant 100 year anniversaries of the First World War. There are many more centennials yet to come. There is, in fact, almost a century of centennials from a century of almost continuous warfare.

gas masks

Many have made the claim that the First and Second World Wars were one war with a twenty year hiatus (to rearm and regroup) ever since Marshal Ferdinand Foch, upon seeing the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, summarily announced, “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” (Foch was not one of those, like Keynes, who saw the terms as too harsh; Foch was disturbed that Germany was not completely dismembered as nation-state.) This reasoning can be extrapolated beyond the First and Second World Wars, which was followed immediately by the Cold War, and so on. If we make this extrapolation, we have a period of armed conflict rivaled in its duration only by the Hundred Years’ War.

Going 'over the top' at the Battle of the Somme.

Going ‘over the top’ at the Battle of the Somme.

The Hundred Years’ War was a construction of later historians: no one in the fourteenth and fifteenth century called the series of conflicts between the English and the French the “Hundred Years’ War,” and no one today calls the series of conflicts triggered by the First World War the “Second Hundred Years’ War,” though we can use the second term with as much justification as the first. Our periodizations are devices that we employ to attempt to help us better understand the past. While our metaphysical ambition is to carve nature at the joints, it is not clear that we can do this with history, i.e., that there is an intrinsic metaphysical structure to history. And we might understand the past century better if we understood out time as the Second Hundred Years’ War.

Hundred Years War

As the Hundred Years’ War is divided into a periodization of the Edwardian Era War (1337–1360), the Caroline War (1369–1389), and the Lancastrian War (1415–1453), so too we can divide the Second Hundred Years’ War into World War One, World War Two, The Cold War… and then whatever historians will eventually call our present stage of instability consisting of a series of Balkan wars, Persian Gulf wars, Central Asian wars, and the “War on Terror.” In both cases — that is to say, in both Hundred Year wars — the outcome of each major conflict created the conditions for the conflict to follow, and follow they did, with a dreary inevitability.

Joan of Arc was one of the most famous figures from the Hundred Years' War.

Joan of Arc was one of the most famous figures from the Hundred Years’ War.

If the First Hundred Years’ War was about who would control the largest kingdom on the European continent (i.e., France), the Second Hundred Years’ War is about a political settlement in the context of industrial-technological civilization, when civilization is global. In other words, the Second Hundred Years’ War is about who will control the planet. This was already implicit in the geopolitics that led up to the First and Second World Wars, specifically, in Mackinder’s doctrine (sometimes called The Geographical Pivot of History) that, “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” (Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality, p. 150)

Interestingly, the geographical area that Mackinder identified as the Heartland closely corresponds to the geographical region that David Christian calls Inner Eurasia.

Interestingly, the geographical area that Mackinder identified as the Heartland closely corresponds to the geographical region that David Christian calls Inner Eurasia.

I am not defending Mackinder’s view, which is still today discussed by geostrategists; I have observed elsewhere that Mackinder’s focus on land power was balanced by Alfred Thayer Mahan’s focus on sea power. The world-island, after all, is situated in the world-sea, and either can be a pathway to global dominion. But, really, this is not very interesting any more. No one talks about world dominion in explicit terms these days (except for villains in James Bond films), while the practical and pragmatic approaches to global power projection no longer look like Mackinder (or Mahan).

Inner Eurasia: The huge interior landmass of Eurasia, whose dominant features are flat, semi-arid regions of steppe and forest, is known as Inner Eurasia. David Christian defines Inner Eurasia as the territories ruled by the Soviet Union before its collapse, together with Mongolia and parts of western China. Poland and Hungary on the west and Manchuria (northeastern China) on the east may be thought of as Inner Eurasia’s borderlands. The northern margins are boreal forest and Arctic tundra. The southern boundaries are the Himalayas and other mountain chains.

Inner Eurasia: The huge interior landmass of Eurasia, whose dominant features are flat, semi-arid regions of steppe and forest, is known as Inner Eurasia. David Christian defines Inner Eurasia as the territories ruled by the Soviet Union before its collapse, together with Mongolia and parts of western China. Poland and Hungary on the west and Manchuria (northeastern China) on the east may be thought of as Inner Eurasia’s borderlands. The northern margins are boreal forest and Arctic tundra. The southern boundaries are the Himalayas and other mountain chains.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the global political system, which cannot avoid being global today because of the way all civilizations are crowded up against each other, seeks an equilibrium, and an equilibrium would be some global settlement of power relationships that would allow for an internal security regime in each nation-state and an external security regime that minimized conflict and facilitated trade and commerce. If this is what “global dominion” means today, so be it. Perhaps you would prefer to call it peace. Whatever you call it, this is what it will take to end the Second Hundred Years’ War.

. . . . .

1914 to 2014

. . . . .

A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

4. A Blank Check for Austria-Hungary

5. Serbia and Austria-Hungary Mobilize

6. Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

7. Ernst Jünger is Mobilized

8. The August Madness

9. The Battle of Coronel

10. The Christmas Truce

. . . . .

twentieth century war collage

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Mullah Omar, above left, is dead; Mullah Akhtar Mansour, above right, has been proclaimed the new Taliban leader; Syed Tayyab Agha, below left, head of the Taliban office in Qatar, has quit over the appointment of Mullah Mansour; Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of Al-Qaeda since Bin-Laden was killed, has joined the fray and released a video pledging allegiance to Mansour.

Mullah Omar, above left, is dead; Mullah Akhtar Mansour, above right, has been proclaimed the new Taliban leader; Syed Tayyab Agha, below left, head of the Taliban office in Qatar, has quit over the appointment of Mullah Mansour; Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of Al-Qaeda since Bin-Laden was killed, has joined the fray and released a video pledging allegiance to Mansour.

For the past several years I have been writing commentaries on Eid ul-Fitr messages supposedly coming from Mullah Mohammad Omar. Shortly after the last Eid message, it was confirmed the Mullah Omar had been dead for about two years. At least the last three Eid messages carried on the “Voice of Jihad,” the official website of the Afghan Taliban, had appeared after Mullah Omar was dead. I had been commenting on the words of a ghost. But who had been putting words in the mouth of a ghost?

Apparently, a small claque of Taliban leaders, who knew Mullah Omar was dead, played on Mullah Omar’s nearly legendary elusiveness, and pretended that Mullah Omar was still alive, sequestered from the Afghan Ummah, but still issuing annual statements, like a distant and stern father-figure to the the frontline fighters continuing to expend their lives in pursuit of the Taliban’s long game: ouster of the “puppet” regime in Kabul and the ultimate return to power of Mullah Omar and the Taliban.

One wonders how the senior Taliban who were “in the know” on Mullah Omar’s death thought they could keep this secret. There is no sign that the Taliban leadership prepared the people of Afghanistan — essentially, their constituency — for the leadership transition, and the very public defections from the Taliban that occurred immediately after Mullah Omar’s death was confirmed makes it clear that many in the Taliban leadership were not “in” on the secret of Mullah Omar’s death. The most public defection from the Taliban was the departure of Syed Tayyab Agha, head of the Taliban office in Qatar, who resigned his position citing the method by which Mullah Mansour was chosen to follow Mullah Omar.

Significantly, Syed Tayyab Agha specifically noted that the choice of Mullah Mansour was made outside Afghanistan. This is an important but easily over-looked detail. The Afghan Taliban have, throughout their existence, been focused on Afghanistan, and are not to be conflated with transnational Jihadist groups. There is both an ideological and, for want of a better term, a temperamental difference between the Taliban, on the one hand, and on the other hand, ISIS and Al-Qaeda — the latter two very different from each other, but both also very different from the Taliban.

Afghanistan has been torn by warring factions since the end of the Soviet occupation. The Soviet occupation provided a rallying point that was a temporary focus of unification, but with the Soviet pull-out the factions turned on each other. The Taliban was the only organization that could establish an internal security regime within Afghanistan, with the exception of a small territory where the Northern Alliance held out. Mullah Omar was part of the fight against the Soviet occupation and part of the struggle to assert control over Afghanistan in the post-Soviet chaos. If there were anything like an Afghan nation-state, one would say the Mullah Omar was the paradigmatic nationalist seeking to lead his nation against the imposition of a foreign power, regardless of whether that power was the USSR or the US.

Thus Mullah Omar was there from the beginning of the Taliban, thoroughly a product of the Afghan milieu, and in the essentially feudal culture of Afghanistan, the personal loyalty that many Taliban had to Mullah Omar mattered. It mattered in a way that citizens of contemporary nation-states can scarcely conceive, because this concept of personal loyalty to a warlord is no longer what binds together most societies in the age of the nation-state.

Afghanistan is not a nation-state. The government in Kabul aspires to be a nation-state and to join in the global marketplace as an equal, but these concepts are foreign to most of the people of Afghanistan. The Afghans are not stupid; they are from another culture; they do not understand the culture of the nation-state system in the same way that we have forgotten the culture of feudal obligation. We aren’t stupid either; we’re just from another culture. Our mutual incomprehension is a product of forces larger than any individual, forces that have been incubating in global history for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years.

One of the most profound errors of geostrategy on the part of the US in the Cold War was to fail to recognize the national aspirations of people like Ho Chi Minh, who were communists primarily for opportunistic reasons. During the Cold War, if you wanted to stage a struggle of national liberation, you knew that you could get arms and military assistance, because if the one side refused you, the other side would likely accommodate you. There were as many opportunistic democrats as there were opportunistic communists.

It is all too easy to make the opposite mistake with the Taliban, and to identify them as nationalists when it is, rather, their ideological position that defines them. The Taliban are not opportunists. It is also ideology that defines Al Qaeda and ISIS, and in each case these ideologies are distinct. While both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban emerged from the guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation, the two organizations were and are profoundly different. The Taliban are Afghan, while Al-Qaeda is a transnational Jihadist organization, with financing from the wealth of the Arab world and volunteers from all over the Islamic world. Al-Qaeda was to Afghanistan as the Lincoln Brigades and other foreign fighters were to the Spanish Civil War. Al-Qaeda thought globally and acted locally; the Afghan Taliban thought locally and acted locally. Al-Qaeda were war tourists in Afghanistan.

I have read stories in the press over the last few weeks that have characterized the Taliban as being rivals with ISIS for carrying the banner of international Jihad. This is nonsense. The sphere of interests of ISIS and the Taliban overlap in a few places, but the organizations are profoundly different in outlook and structure. Elsewhere I have discussed in detail the philosophical basis of ISIS ideology. Few of any of these philosophical bases hold true for the Taliban. Regardless of what happens with Islamic state — which is actively recruiting and seeking to advance its agenda throughout the Islamic world, something foreign to the Taliban — the Taliban, as long as they are in existence as a distinct entity, will continue to seek power in Afghanistan. And I would not be surprised if there were a few ideologues within the Afghan Taliban who imagine a “Greater Afghanistan,” as there are always those who imagine such a thing. But this is not the conception that defines the movement. ISIS, on the other hand, defines itself in expansionist terms.

The continuing existence of Al-Qaeda, and the growing influence of ISIS, change the political and military context in which the Taliban pursue their traditionalist vision for Afghanistan, but they do not alter that vision. It is possible (though not likely) that the ISIS Caliphate could be so successful that it would expand over and absorb Afghanistan. One suspects, in this case, that ISIS would allow these forbidding mountains and valleys to be ruled by their traditional ruling class, and little or nothing would change in Afghanistan. Perhaps that would even be an acceptable future for the Taliban. It would be fascinating to interview some Taliban on this prospect, though, as I said, I believe it to be highly unlikely.

Al-Qaeda is now too degraded in its capabilities to figure prominently in the political or military settlement of the region. Ayman al-Zawahiri was reduced to the stunt of proclaiming his loyalty to Mullah Mansour in order to try to maintain the relevance of Al-Qaeda. While Al-Qaeda’s status could well change — some outside power might decide to pour money into the group to reinvigorate it as a militant proxy (possibly to counter to highly successful militant proxies of Iran, which many in the Gulf worry will be given a boost if Iranian sanctions are dropped) — I view this scenario as unlikely as that of an expansionist ISIS Caliphate absorbing Afghanistan.

With the Taliban split over the death of Mullah Omar and the rise of Mullah Mansour, what is the group to do? What is the way forward for the Taliban? Because of the Taliban are an Afghan presence, rooted in the traditions of Afghanistan, the Pakistani politicking that resulted in the appointment of Mullah Mansour is, to a certain extent (though not in an absolute sense) irrelevant to the Taliban. The Taliban still have, in large measure, the hearts and minds of the people. The Taliban can still, as Mao said, move among the people as a fish moves through the sea. This has not changed. The Taliban can continue to fight. Insurgencies can persist for very long periods of time. The example of Colombia is often cited in this connection.

The Taliban grand strategy emerges from the intensely feudal, intensely traditional, and intensely local character of the Taliban. This will not change any time soon. Peace talks held on the governmental level will not greatly change this. The failure of peace talks on a governmental level will not greatly change this. The attempt by Pakistan’s ISI to control events in Afghanistan will not greatly change this. As long as Afghanistan’s traditional culture persists, Taliban grand strategy and its long game will persist.

In earlier millennia, Afghanistan was criss-crossed by trade routes, and studded with a few influential cities. But the traditional life of the people was virtually untouched by the presence of trade and urbanization in this form. The nation-state structures that have been imposed upon the region have scarcely made any more impression on the Afghans than Silk Roads and a few wealthy cities. It is only when an industrialized economy transforms the life of peoples in isolated mountain valleys that this will change, and such a transformation will not happen any time soon.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Science in its early stages of development always makes use of folk concepts, and there is always some science in the early stages of its development.

Science in its early stages of development always makes use of folk concepts, and there is always some science in the early stages of its development.

Having provided an exposition of folk concepts in my Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress, I can move on to my motivation for thinking about folk concepts, which was to investigate the role of folk concepts in contemporary civilization, i.e., folk concepts in industrial-technological civilization, or scientific civilization, which latter seems paradoxical. How can folk concepts coexist with scientific civilization? If a civilization were truly scientific, would it not have overcome the use of folk concepts?

Scientific civilization in only about five hundred years old, and it may be divided into two portions, the period 1500-1800 (which I call Modernism without Industrialism, which is to say, the period between the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution) and the period after the industrial revolution (which marks the beginning of industrial-technological civilization, in which science is crucial to the STEM cycle, which drives this civilization).

I have considered the nature of scientific civilization in David Hume and Scientific Civilization and The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization, Addendum on the Stages of Civilization and The Perfectly Scientific Man: A Platonic Thought Experiment (and I am, additionally, working on several posts intended as further explorations of the idea of scientific civilization). To date I have only scratched the surface, and haven’t provided a sustained exposition of the idea of scientific civilization. This is a rich vein of inquiry for the study of civilization, and it will not be exhausted any time soon.

Paradoxical though it sounds, scientific civilization has its own folk concepts. This is because scientific civilization produces not only more refined and sophisticated sciences, but also entirely new sciences, and new sciences involve the introduction of new terms and concepts. Unprecedented developments — of which civilization itself is perhaps the most unprecedented development in human history — demand that we formulate a theoretical framework to intellectually assimilate them. Sometimes the technical and engineering capacities of industrial-technological civilization produce new entities, or new classes of entities (this is a source of planetary constraints on civilization, in the form of what I call the ontic constraint), and no established theoretical framework exists to assimilate these discoveries. Truly novel phenomena demand the formulation of a truly novel theoretical framework.

Eliminativism (as in, e.g., eliminative materialism) often takes the form of rejecting “folk” concepts as unscientific and insisting upon the replacement of folk concepts with scientific concepts. However, such a replacement of folk by scientific concepts can only work if there is a science of the phenomena to be explained. Where we possess no science, or only an inchoate science — I have many times observed that there is no science of civilization, and no science of consciousness — the elimination of folk concepts leaves us with little or nothing. Thus in the period of time during which a science is developing, and folk concepts and scientific concepts overlap, a scientific theory that incorporates folk concepts is less imperfect (because more adequate) than an inchoate scientific theory that attempts to entirely eliminate folk concepts ad initio.

Folk concepts can contribute to the adequacy of a conceptual framework because they typically draw upon what Michael Polanyi called tacit knowledge, i.e., what we know, but which we cannot account for knowing, or say how we know what we know. Recognizing faces in a crowd is a paradigm case of tacit knowledge. Human beings are very good at recognizing individual faces, but very poor at describing faces or explaining how they recognize a face. Tacit knowledge might also be characterized as knowledge below the level of formalization, or even knowledge below the level of conscious awareness.

While the rejection, elimination, and replacement of folk concepts is often justified, this rejection is often too sweeping in its elimination when it becomes a pretext to eliminate not only the admittedly imperfect and informal folk concept, but also the tacit knowledge upon which the folk concept is based. From a scientific standpoint, it is easy to dismiss tacit knowledge, as it resists precisely the formalization that science would like to impose upon all bodies of knowledge. There is often an attitude in the sciences that that which cannot be made fully explicit can be safely ignored, and there are good grounds for this, as the subtlety of tacit knowledge cannot be subjected to experimentation, repeatability, or public verification. Nevertheless, this is one of the sources of intuition that ultimately lies at the base of all the sciences. New sciences especially are reliant on tacit knowledge.

There is often an imperfect fit between our native intuitions and the ideas of a new science; new sciences often involve concepts that are counter-intuitive, and we must make the effort to formulate new intuitions, and arrive at new ways of thinking about familiar phenomenon. In some cases, our intuitions are utterly silent on questions posed by a new science or a new mode of inquiry, so that we must develop our intuitive competency as we proceed, which is a process that can take generations. In the meantime, folk concepts about new developments, about new phenomena, and even about new sciences grow up like weeds.

Even in the midst of unprecedented developments, life goes on, and since the ordinary business of life goes on, we discuss unprecedented developments in the ordinary language of ordinary life. Ordinary language may be defined in terms of its reliance upon folk concepts. However, ordinary language changes, albeit slowly. With the passage of sufficient time, ordinary language changes significantly. The ordinary language spoken in the context of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization probably differed markedly from the ordinary language spoken in the context of industrial-technological civilization. Each kind of civilization has its distinctive kind of ordinary language. (If you like, you may consider this a weak formulation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, though that is not how I would characterize it; I mention the hypothesis here only because I am certain that some readers will assimilate the argument made here to it.)

In Scientific Curiosity and Existential Need I argued that the distinctive character of scientific mystery (in contradistinction to the eschatological mysteries that seem to satisfy the longings of existential need) is that scientific mysteries are never final. Scientific knowledge in a scientific civilization is in a state of continual growth. Scientific mysteries are eventually solved, but they are at the same time replaced by ever new scientific mysteries, so that there always are and always will be scientific mysteries, but scientific mystery is not some impossible, ineffable truth about the universe that can never admit of rational knowledge. Scientific mysteries admit of definitive answers, and the phenomenon of scientific mystery mystery remains with us only because new scientific mysteries always appear beyond the mysteries that have been resolved.

This sense of there always being a further scientific mystery is well illustrated by a famous quote attributed to Isaac Newton:

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Sir David Brewster, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, 1855, Volume II., Ch. 27.

The same structure of scientific knowledge that means that there are always new scientific mysteries also means that there will always be science on the frontier of knowledge, and science on the frontier of knowledge will always, at least in its inchoate beginnings, have recourse to folk concepts, however far in advance of contemporary knowledge these folk concepts may be.

. . . . .

The Square Kilometer Array: SETI is still a very young science, and moreover a science that occurs at the intersection of the natural sciences and the social sciences. As such, it continues to make use of folk concepts of civilization and astrobiology.

The Square Kilometer Array: SETI is still a very young science, and moreover a science that occurs at the intersection of the natural sciences and the social sciences. As such, it continues to make use of folk concepts of civilization and astrobiology.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

The Atomic Age Turns 70

6 August 2015


“1945-1998” by Isao Hashimoto

Five Years ago on 06 August 2010 I wrote The Atomic Age Turns 65, on the 65th anniversary of the use of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan — the first atomic bomb of the first nuclear war. Now, five years later, the Atomic Age has reached its three score and ten, and we have another five years of historical perspective on what it means to live in the Atomic Age.

In this previous post on the 65th anniversary of the Atomic Age I discussed the failure of philosophers to think clearly about nuclear weapons and nuclear war. This is no more glaring that the failure of politicians, or of any other class of society, except that it is less forgivable in philosophers, because philosophers should be more aware of political and ideological bias, and therefore better able to avoid it. The few individuals who did think clearly about nuclear weapons and nuclear war — most notably Herman Kahn — were often demonized for “thinking the unthinkable.” How many years, how many decades, how many generations before we can think dispassionately about our ability to destroy ourselves?

07 October 1963  President Kennedy signs the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. White House, Treaty Room. Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

07 October 1963 President Kennedy signs the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. White House, Treaty Room. Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

While the atomic bombs that ended the Second World War did not trigger an age of atomic warfare (at least, not yet), it did trigger a period of the development of atomic weapons, and this led to a period of intensive atomic testing that continued until the pace of atomic testing was slowed somewhat by the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The period of the most intensive testing of nuclear weapons corresponded with the period of the highest tensions of the Cold War. This suggests that the Cold War not only consisted of proxy wars in Third World nation-states, but also the proxy war of nuclear testing — nuclear warfare at one remove. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty has not come into force officially, but most nation-states have chosen to abide by its provisions nevertheless. The only nuclear tests in recent years — in recent decades — have been those of India, Pakistan, and North Korea, all of which were undertaken in the face of significant international disapproval. The Cold War is over and nuclear weapons testing has slowed to a trickle.

We are very slowly and gradually putting the nuclear age behind us. Once nuclear weapons were developed, it was often said that the nuclear genie could not be put back in the bottle. That is true, in so far as we have the knowledge and the technology of nuclear weapons. Moreover, each year this knowledge and technology is more widely distributed and more available. Now deliverable nuclear weapons are seventy years old; in another ten years, nuclear technology will be eighty years old, and not long after that nuclear weapons technology will “celebrate” a centennial. Assuming that human civilization remains intact, the knowledge and the technology will not only remain intact, but will be more widely available than ever. Nevertheless, we have reason to hope that we can exercise rational control over our nuclear weapon technology and avoid a second nuclear war. This hope is certainly not a certainty, but it is based on evidence, and there are historical parallels that could be adduced.

Herman Kahn and escalation

If we had cultivated the ability to think clearly and dispassionately about nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare instead of heaping shame, scorn, and disapproval on those who did so — driving it underground into secret military and government think tanks — we would be capable of a more clear-headed assessment of where we are seventy years into the Atomic Age. Instead, we have the hopeful record of controlling this technology coupled with silence and discomfiture with plain speaking when it comes to this hopeful accomplishment — a mixed record, but at least a mixed record that is consistent with the continuing existence of our civilization.

I expect this mixed record to continue, despite provocations. If we can prevent nuclear war for seventy years, we can continue to prevent it for another seventy years. If, despite the desire of many nation-states to possess nuclear weapons, non-proliferation efforts can make this possession expensive and difficult, we can continue to make proliferation expensive and difficult. More nation-states will join the “nuclear club,” but they will do so with untested arsenals, knowing that their conventional weaponry is probably more effective and does not involve pariah status in the international community. And we have to diffuse the tension the constant and continual low-level conventional fighting that is taking place around the world. This may sound like a less-than-ideal, less-than-optimal nuclear future, even a cynical future, but it is, again, a nuclear future consistent with the continued existence of civilization. And until we think our way through to clarity about nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare, this remains the closest to an ideal and optimal future that we can reasonably hope to have.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


many questions

For some philosophers, naturalism is simply an extension of physicalism, which was in turn an extension of materialism. Narrow conceptions of materialism had to be extended to account for physical phenomena not reducible to material objects (like theoretical terms in science), and we can similarly view naturalism as a broadening of physicalism in order to more adequately account for the world. (I have quoted definitions of materialism and physicalism in Materialism, Physicalism, and… What?.) But, coming from this perspective, naturalism is approached from a primarily reductivist or eliminativist point of view that places an emphasis upon economy rather than adequacy in the description of nature (on reductivism and eliminativism cf. my post Reduction, Emergence, Supervenience). Here the principle of parsimony is paramount.

One target of eliminativism and reductionism is a class of concepts sometimes called “folk” concepts. The identification of folk concepts in the exposition of philosophy of science can be traced to philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett introduced the term “folk psychology” in The Intentional Stance and thereafter employed the term throughout his books. Here is part of his original introduction of the idea:

“We learn to use folk psychology — as a vernacular social technology, a craft — but we don’t learn it self-consciously as a theory — we learn no meta-theory with the theory — and in this regard our knowledge of folk psychology is like our knowledge of the grammar of our native tongue. This fact does not make our knowledge of folk psychology entirely unlike human knowledge of explicit academic theories, however; one could probably be a good practising chemist and yet find it embarrassingly difficult to produce a satisfactory textbook definition of a metal or an ion.”

Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance, Chap. 3, “Three Kinds of Intentional Psychology”

Earlier (in the same chapter of the same book) Dennett had posited “folk physics”:

“In one sense people knew what magnets were — they were things that attracted iron — long before science told them what magnets were. A child learns what the word ‘magnet’ means not, typically, by learning an explicit definition, but by learning the ‘folk physics’ of magnets, in which the ordinary term ‘magnet’ is embedded or implicitly defined as a theoretical term.”

Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance, Chap. 3, “Three Kinds of Intentional Psychology”

Here is another characterization of folk psychology:

“Philosophers with a yen for conceptual reform are nowadays prone to describe our ordinary, common sense, Rylean description of the mind as ‘folk psychology,’ the implication being that when we ascribe intentions, beliefs, motives, and emotions to others we are offering explanations of those persons’ behaviour, explanations which belong to a sort of pre-scientific theory.”

Scott M. Christensen and Dale R. Turner, editors, Folk Psychology and the Philosophy of Mind, Chap. 10, “The Very Idea of a Folk Psychology” by Robert A. Sharpe, University of Wales, United Kingdom

There is now quite a considerable literature on folk psychology, and many positions in the philosophy of mind are defined by their relationship to folk psychology — eliminativism is largely the elimination of folk psychology; reductionism is largely the reduction of folk psychology to cognitive science or scientific psychology, and so on. Others have gone on to identify other folk concepts, as, for example, 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

We can easily see that the idea of folk concepts as pre-scientific concepts is applicable throughout all branches of knowledge. This has already been made explicit:

“…there is good evidence that we have or had folk physics, folk chemistry, folk biology, folk botany, and so on. What has happened to these folk endeavors? They seem to have given way to scientific accounts.”

William Andrew Rottschaefer, The Biology and Psychology of Moral Agency, 1998, p. 179.

The simplest reading of the above is that in a pre-scientific state we use pre-scientific concepts, and as the scientific revolution unfolds and begins to transform traditional bodies of knowledge, these pre-scientific folk concepts are replaced with scientific concepts and knowledge becomes scientific knowledge. Thereafter, folk concepts are abandoned (eliminated) or formalized so that they can be systematically located in a scientific body of knowledge. All of this is quite close to the 19th century positivist August Comte’s theory of the three stages of knowledge, according to which theological explanations gave way to metaphysical explanations, which in turn gave way to positive scientific explanations, which demonstrates the continuity of positivist thought — even that philosophical thought that does not recognize itself as being positivist. In each case, an earlier non-scientific mode of thought is gradually replaced by a mature scientific mode of thought.

While this simple replacement model of scientific knowledge has certain advantages, it has a crucial weakness, and this is a weakness shared by all theories that, implicitly or explicitly, assume that the mind and its concepts are static and stagnant. Allow me to once again quote one of my favorite passage from Kurt Gödel, the importance of which I cannot stress enough:

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

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

Not only does the mind refine its concepts and arrive at more abstract formulations; the mind also introduces wholly new concepts in order to attempt to understand new or hitherto unknown phenomena. In this context, what this means is that we are always introducing new “folk” concepts as our experience expands and diversifies, so that there is not a one-time transition from unscientific folk concepts to scientific concepts, but a continual and ongoing evolution of scientific thought in which folk concepts are introduced, their want of rigor is felt, and more refined and scientific concepts are eventually introduced to address the problem of the folk concepts. But this process can result in the formulation of entirely new sciences, and we must then in turn hazard new “folk” concepts in the attempt to get a handle on this new discipline, however inadequate our first attempts may be to understand some unfamiliar body of knowledge.

For example, before the work of Georg Cantor and Richard Dedekind there was no science of set theory. In formulating set theory, 19th century mathematicians had to introduce a great many novel concepts (set, element, mapping) and mathematical procedures (one-to-one correspondence, diagonalization). These early concepts of set theory are now called “naïve set theory,” which have largely been replaced by (several distinct) axiomatizations of set theory, which have either formalized or eliminated the concepts of naïve set theory, which we might also call “folk” set theory. Nevertheless, many “folk” concepts of set theory persist, and Gödel spent much of his later career attempting to produce better formalizations of the concepts of set theory than those employed in now accepted axiomatizations of set theory.

As civilization has changed, and indeed as civilization emerged, we have had occasion to introduce new terms and concepts in order to describe and explain newly emergent forms of life. The domestication of plants and animals necessitated the introduction of concepts of plant and animal husbandry. The industrial revolution and the macroeconomic forces it loosed upon the world necessitated the introduction of terms and concepts of industry and economics. In each case, non-scientific folk concepts preceded the introduction of scientific concepts explained within a comprehensive theoretical framework. In many cases, our theoretical framework is not yet fully formulated and we are still in a stage of conceptual development that involves the overlapping of folk and scientific concepts.

Given the idea of folk concepts and their replacement by scientific concepts, a mature science could be defined as a science in which all folk concepts have been either formalized, transcended, or eliminated. The infinitistic nature of science mystery (which is discussed in Scientific Curiosity and Existential Need), however, suggests that there will always be sciences in an early and therefore immature stage of development. Our knowledge of the scientific method and the development of science means that we can anticipate scientific developments and understand when our intuitions are inadequate and therefore, in a sense, folk concepts. We have an advantage over the unscientific past that knew nothing of the coming scientific revolution and how it would transform knowledge. But we cannot entirely eliminate folk concepts from the early stages of scientific development, and in so far as our scientific civilization results in continuous scientific development, we will always have sciences in the early stages of development.

Scientific progress, then, does not eliminate folk concepts, but generates new and ever more folk concepts even as it eliminates old and outdated folk concepts.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Draghi and Padoan

If the Greek financial crisis were merely a financial crisis, i.e., a financial crisis and nothing else, it would be much less of a crisis than it appears to be today. Many commentators have remarked that Greek GDP represents only a very small portion of the total Eurozone economy, so that the amount of agony expended on the Greek problem is far out of proportion to the size of the problem. But the Greek financial crisis is not merely a financial crisis, it is also a political crisis, and it is a political crisis on many different levels. In so far as the Greek financial crisis is a political crisis, the financial crisis sensu stricto may be viewed as a trigger for larger events. It is this that has magnified the crisis.

Analyses of the crisis sometimes focus on the symbolic importance of a Eurozone nation-state going bankrupt, which is crisis for the idea of Europe, while others focus on the potential fallout and knock-on effects of allowing the Greek financial crisis to run its course without outside assistance (i.e., a bailout and debt forgiveness), which is a financial crisis that ripples outward and grows with its expansion — a trigger event with catastrophic consequences, the textbook case of which is the beginning of the First World War.

A few voices — not many, but a few — have suggested that, implicit in monetary union without banking union was the idea that future crises in the European Monetary Union (EMU) would force a reckoning that would presumptively be resolved by turning to ever closer European integration, so that Europe would gradually, hesitatingly, two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back, lurch its way toward full economic integration, and eventually even to full political integration. This is a more sophisticated analysis that sees the Greek crisis in a larger context, and I will not dismiss it out of hand, but I also cannot bring myself to make the many leaps that this argument requires. When have European crises been resolved by tighter integration? European integration has come about, when it has come about, as the result of peacetime negotiations, and not as a response to crisis.

This scenario has been hinted at (although not made fully explicit — nowhere is this formulation fully explicit) by no less a figure than ECB head Mario Draghi:

“This union is imperfect, and being imperfect is fragile, vulnerable and doesn’t deliver, doesn’t deliver all the benefits that it could if it were to be completed. The future now should see decisive steps on further integration.”

Even more recently, in an article on the front page of the Financial Times, “Italian finance minister says political union needed to ensure euro’s survival” (Monday 27 July 2015), Pier Carlo Padoan is quoted as saying, “The exit and therefore the end of irreversibility is now an option on the table. Let’s not fool ourselves… If we want to take that risk away, then we have to have a different euro — a stronger euro… To have a full-fledged economic and monetary union, you need a fiscal union and you need a fiscal policy… And this fiscal policy must respond to a parliament, and this parliament must be elected. Otherwise there is no accountability.” Here the whole program is laid out with the relentless logic of a domino theory: if you want to have the Euro, you need full-fledged, economic union, and if you want to have a functioning economic union, you need to have a European government with real power. The only thing missing in this account is the expectation that the first formulation of the Eurozone would inevitably result in crises, and the crises would be the trigger for these dominoes to fall.

Those who see the Greek financial crisis in its geopolitical context express concerns of Greek alienation from the Eurozone resulting in closer ties with Putin’s Russia, recalling Cold War fears when Greece was one of the proxy theaters of the Cold War. It is entirely possible that Greece, rebuffed by the Eurozone, may turn to Russia for loans, and the Putin would be ready and willing to provide these loans, despite the desperate condition of the Greek economy (and, for that matter, of the Russian economy as well), for political reasons rather than for economic reasons. (And in a changed political climate Russian loans would likely be paid back even if European loans were not paid off.) This strikes me as a more plausible scenario than the above interpretation involving a purposeful trainwreck.

It was a great Cold War coup that NATO was able to persuade rivals Greece and Turkey both to join NATO in 1952, when Greece was the only Balkan nation-state to be part of the western military alliance. Now other Balkan nation-states are NATO members, and Greece is not isolated in the region as a consequence of its NATO membership, but it would be a source of particularly acute tension to have a leftist Syriza government courting closer ties with Putin’s Russia at a time of European unease over Russian actions in Ukraine.

The attempt to unify Europe economically dates even to before NATO, and began as a geopolitical project to forestall European wars on the scale of the mid-twentieth century, and now that Eurozone is facing its greatest challenge since the implementation of the EMU, the unification of Europe will continue, if at all, as a geopolitical project.

The economic rationale for European economic union seems to be present — i.e., the economic union of Europe seems to make sense, but just because something seems to make sense doesn’t mean that it is practicable. In the particular case of Greece, accession to the Eurozone was highly impractical. Greece entered into the European Monetary Union (EMU) with a wink and a nod. There was a sotto voce acknowledgement that Greece did not meet the macroeconomic requirements of joining the EMU, but everyone looked the other way anyway because it was thought that Greece was hitching its wagon to a star; the EMU and the European wide common market was going to be such a grand success that the problem was going to be keeping the “wrong sort” out (like Turkey, which repeatedly expressed its interest in joining the Eurozone, but excuses were always found to exclude the Turks). Here the political rationale trumps the economic rationale.

When a large and diverse geographical area is contained within the borders of a single nation-state — as with the United States, Russia, China, India, or Brazil — this geographical diversity is often expressed in economic diversity, with wealthy regions and cities contrasted with impoverished regions and cities. Within a single nation-state wealth transfers will sometimes be undertaken to offset these extremes in the form of state institutions and mechanisms. These wealth transfers can range from generous to nearly non-existent depending on the nation-state in question. We see this in a much more limited way in the international system, when wealthy nation-states will sometimes give aid and assistance to impoverished regions of the world, but this kind of aid never reaches the level of wealth transfers seen within a single nation-state.

The unification of a nation-state from multiple territories, and the subsequent imposition of a unified system of banking and taxation, constitutes a microcosm reflecting the opportunities and risks that face larger-scale attempts at economic and political unification, as in the case of the Eurozone. The unification of Italy from 1815 to 1871 — a process requiring more than a half century, but roughly corresponding to the span of time of post-war Europe — and the unification of Germany in 1871, both contain detailed lessons for a unified Europe. The unification of Germany has, of course, been a fraught matter. Libraries of books have been devoted to the topic. The unification of Italy has sometimes been cited as one cause of the economic backwardness of southern Italy in comparison to the dynamic north of the country; coupling these diverse norther and southern regions into one national state with a single set of national institutions has not come without consequences.

The reader who has made it thus far may find themselves expecting me to make a case for the rescue of the Greek economy at any cost in order to salvage the geopolitical project of the Eurozone, which was, after all, never conceived primarily as an economic project. It is an economic project secondarily, but a geopolitical project primarily. I am not going to make this argument, which has been made many times, and which is fatally flawed. Europe remains a continent of nation-states (like every continent except Antarctica). Power lies in the sovereign legislatures of each nation-state, in their economic capacity, and in their respective militaries (or the lack thereof). If Europe is salvaged as a geopolitical project, it will be because some European nation-state, or combination of nation-states, determines that it is in their sovereign interest to salvage the Eurozone, and not because some abstract entity like “Europe” commands the loyalty of any population or its military forces.

In Armed Prophets of Revolution I cited Machiavelli’s distinction between armed and unarmed prophets. Here is the passage in question:

It is necessary, therefore, if we desire to discuss this matter thoroughly, to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance they always succeed badly, and never compass anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed. Besides the reasons mentioned, the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.

Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter VI

While it is no longer the custom in Europe to offer up prayers for ideological programs, the secular equivalents of prayers are daily being published in the organs of mainstream thought in Europe. The Eurozone (and its advocates among Europe’s elite opinion) are unarmed prophets of transnational political unification. As unarmed prophets, we would expect them, following Machiavelli, to be destroyed. But Europe exists under the security umbrella provided by the United States, so that while the Eurozone itself may be an unarmed prophet, it is an unarmed prophet with an armed faction prepared to defend it.

What will the US, as the security guarantor of Europe, see as its geopolitical interest in European unification? Will the US provide the muscle to allow the great European experiment to continue, or will it accept European fragmentation, as long as that fragmentation does not follow the pattern of the Balkan wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia (that other great European experiment in the political unification of the South Slavs, whose earlier fragmentation provided us with the term “Balkanization” and triggered the First World War)? At present, the US is making only cautionary statements and is not actively involved in what is, in effect, the re-negotiation of the Eurozone. With an upcoming US election, one would not expect any new political initiatives from the US in regard to the Eurozone. With the US deeply mired in crises in other parts of the globe, Europe is not high on the agenda.

. . . . .

During the initial iteration of the Eurozone Crisis I blogged extensively on the problem, and have occasionally returned to the problem in subsequent pieces, including the following posts:

The Dubious Benefits of the Eurozone

Shorting the Euro

Will the Eurozone enact a Greek tragedy?

A Return to the Good Old Days

Can collective economic security work?

Poor Cousins

What would a rump Eurozone look like?

An Alternative to the Euro

The Old World in Turmoil

Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone

Europe and its Radicals

Default in the Eurozone

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Ghani and Omar

Time flies, and once again it is Eid al-Fitr, a time of rejoicing in the Muslim world in celebration of the end of the Ramadan fast, and the time of year when we expect to receive another missive issued in the name of Mullah Mohammad Omar, Amir-ul-Momineen, by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), and indeed a new statement was made available on 15 July 2015, Eid Felicitation Message of Amir-ul-Momineen, Mulla Mohammad Umar Mujahid. (As the link to last year’s Eid message on the same website is no longer functional, I will copy the complete text of the message below so that the reader can consult it if they wish to do so.)

Over the years I have made a practice of reading these statements carefully and offering an analysis of the content. Here are my past analyses in the series:

The Graveyard of Empires (2009)

Mullah Mohammad Omar’s Eid al-Fitr Address for 2010

Mullah Mohammad Omar’s Eid al-Fitr Address for 2011

Mullah Mohammad Omar’s Eid al-Fitr Address for 2012

Mullah Mohammad Omar’s Eid al-Fitr Address for 2013

Mullah Mohammad Omar’s Eid al-Fitr Address for 2014

There have been major developments in the region that makes this year’s statement of great interest, and the two developments in particular that I have in mind are the peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Kabul government, and the ongoing success of ISIS, which is transforming the unraveling political status quo of the Fertile Crescent that once provided a comfortable illusion of “stability” both to regional despots and to those western powers who wanted (quite earnestly) to believe in the stability of the region.

Before I consider content related to the above, I want to make two stylistic notes: 1) the opening paragraphs are a bit more refulgent than the usual statements attributed to Mullah Mohammad Omar, and 2) the text is liberally sprinkled with quotations from the Koran, appearing first in the original Arabic, and in the English text made available also translated into English. This opening appeal to emotion and the explicit appeals to faith give this statement a different tone than past statements, which had previously sounded like someone trying a little too hard to sound like one of the technocratic ruling elite.

Perhaps the emotional tone was consciously cultivated to make it easier to swallow item 2 of the text, which never comes out and explicitly says that the Taliban are negotiating terms with the Kabul government, but nevertheless makes it clear that this is what the Taliban are doing. It has been widely reported that Mullah Omar came out in favor of these peace talks, but there is nothing in the statement that makes this explicit. Everything in couched in terms of, “…peaceful interactions with the enemies is not prohibited,” and, “…political endeavors and peaceful pathways for achieving these sacred goals is a legitimate Islamic principle and an integral part of Prophetic politics.” Mullah Omar is giving the Taliban wiggle room sufficient for plausible deniability. (There is also the curious statement that, “…we are an integral part of human society and rely upon one another.” I suspect that something here was lost in translation.)

I find it rather telling that in one of the above-quoted lines Mullah Omar uses the phrase, “Prophetic politics.” This is an echo of ISIS rhetoric, as ISIS makes a habit of referring to, “Prophetic methodology.” I am not saying that Mullah Omar is copying ISIS, much less trying to identify with them, only that the use of “prophetic” as a adjective to describe a particular Islamic approach to social organization seems to now have become a talking point in the Islamic world. Whereas Islamic militants in the recent past have striven to present themselves as being in the vanguard of revolutionary Islam, now they strive with each other to demonstrate their bona fides through adherence to “Prophetic” principles.

Both items 3 and 4 are concerned with Jihadi unity, which seems to be primarily concerned with, on the one hand, exhortations to achieve and maintain this unity, and, on the other hand, assurances that Jihadi forces in Afghanistan do in fact possess this unity. The message is that “this time,” unlike “last time,” when the Taliban come to power Afghanistan is not going to be torn into the fiefs of warlords, as the fighting continues even while the invader and enemy pulls out.

Item 5 concerns charges that the Taliban are agents of Pakistan and Iran. Apart from the obvious motive of asserting the independence of the Afghan Taliban (therefore not puppets like the Kabul government), I assume this makes an appearance because Pakistan has been the host of the first round of talks between representatives of the Taliban and the Kabul government. Given the history of Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan, especially through ISI networks, and that some Pakistanis view Afghanistan as a part of “Greater Pakistan” (cf. Akhand Bharat and Ghazwa-e-hind: Conflicting Destinies in South Asia), the use of Pakistan as a venue could come to seem a bit too cozy and might suggest that the Taliban have been compromised. However, most of item 5 is concerned to demonstrate that the Kabul government is a failure despite its support from abroad, whereas the Taliban are strong and successful despite the lack of similar support.

Item 6 seeks to gainsay the image of the Taliban as exclusively retrograde, backward-looking primitivists, asserting that science is necessary to contemporary warfare (I agree) and that scientific medicine is necessary to treat injured Jihadis. There is a passing mention of dependence upon the scientific resources of the enemy, which pretty much sums up the whole problem. The Taliban understand the limits of their way of warfare, and they know they are dependent upon others to modernize their way of warfare, but they do not appear to have made the connection that scientific inquiry emerges from a particular kind of society, and this is not the kind of society that the Taliban seeks to create. Even if the Taliban were to return to power in a scenario such as Mullah Omar imagines in this statement, this problem of dependency would not go away. It may be exacerbated. And if the Taliban were to administer a nation-state in the twenty-first century without the tools of twenty-first century governance and warfare, they risk being pawns in a game played by others who do possess these tools. There is an awareness of the problem, then, but no sign that an effective way to meet the problem is available: science within “the light of our Holy Sharia law.” That may turn out to be irreconcilable.

Items 7, 8, 9, and 10 return to the emotional and religious tone of the opening section, with a series of appeals and exhortations to be on good behavior, to reform rather than kill enemies, to materially support the Mujahidin, and once again to avoid internal dissension.

The message of the many successes of the Jihadis in taking back Afghanistan for the IEA jars with the implicit message of peace talks with the Kabul government, as the message of Jihadi unity jars with the many assurances that, when the Taliban take over again, it won’t be like last time. But no one is going to grill Mullah Omar over these tensions in his statement. However, the tensions will be felt, and filed away on an unconscious level, even if they are not explicitly debated or addressed. The tensions implicit in the message will not be resolved by Taliban successes, whether on the battlefield or at the negotiating table.

Will the negotiations ever lead to Ashraf Ghani meeting Mullah Mohammad Omar over a peace table? It seems unlikely, simply because it seems unlikely that Mullah Omar would ever allow himself to be exposed to the glare of publicity in this way. Such a meeting would have great symbolic value, but in so far as the Taliban are successful, they will not have to negotiate, and in so far as they are unsuccessful, the negotiations would be perfunctory and “merely” symbolic. So the image of Ashraf Ghani and Mullah Omar facing each other over a table is as deceptive as it is elusive.

. . . . .

Note added Wednesday 29 July 2015: Unconfirmed reports are now being investigated that Taliban Chief Mullah Mohammad Omar has died. Previous reports have turned out to be false, but several authorities are taking this report seriously. Time will tell.

. . . . .

Note added Thursday 30 July 2015: Several major news organizations today stated that the Taliban had officially acknowledged the Mullah Mohammad Omar died in April 2013, which means that the last three Eid ul-Fitr messages attributed to Mullah Omar were published after his death. The IEA website does not yet acknowledge Mullah Omar’s death as of this writing. One suspects they do not know how exactly to report the news. Already there are contradictory conspiracy theories, either that that Afghan government knew about the death of Mullah Omar but kept it quiet, or that the Afghan intelligence services are so incompetent they knew nothing (an incompetency they apparently share with most of the world’s intelligence organizations).

. . . . .

Note added Friday 31 July 2015: The official IEA website now has a statement on the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar, Declaration of the Leading Council of the Islamic Emirate regarding the appointment of new Amir (leader) of the Islamic Emirate, dated 30 July 2015.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Eid Felicitation Message of Amir-ul-Momineen, Mulla Mohammad Umar Mujahid

15 July 2015

In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, the most Merciful.

الحمد لله رب العلمین و الصلوة والسلام علی سیدالأنبیاء والمرسلین محمد وعلی آله وأصحابه أجمعین وبعد

:قال الله تعالی

[أُذِنَ لِلَّذِينَ يُقَاتَلُونَ بِأَنَّهُمْ ظُلِمُوا وَإِنَّ اللهَ عَلَى نَصْرِهِمْ لَقَدِيرٌ ﴾ [الحج:39﴿

Translation: (Permission to take up arms is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged and Allah, indeed, has power to help them.) (Al-Hajj – 39)

To the whole Muslim Umma, particularly to the Muslim and Mujahid Masses of Afghanistan!

السلام علیکم ورحمة الله وبرکاته

(May peace and blessings of Allah be upon you!)

I would like to felicitate you on this auspicious occasions of both Eid-ul-Fitr and the significant conquests in the field of Jihad along with my sincere best wishes. May Allah, the Almighty, accept all your worships, donations and virtuous deeds related with the holy month of Ramadan! Amin.

All of these conquests are the result of perpetual support of Allah Almighty followed by the untold sacrifices, endeavors and backing of the Afghan Mujahid people. I pray to Allah, the Almighty, to remunerate all of them for their services and sacrifices.

It is a moment of deep gratitude and great honor for me to share my feelings with you concerning the sanctified and blessed days of the Holy Religion of Islam. The Muslims congratulate one another in these days, pray for their well-being and express their sincerity, brotherhood and sympathy in an atmosphere fraught with religious fraternity.

I would like, by seizing this occasion, to elucidate some issues about the previous and present on-going Jihadi struggle of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

1. The invasion of Afghanistan by the occupying alliance headed by America was in reality an explicit brutal aggression, contradicting all humane principles, on an integral part of the Muslim Umma and subsequently, the initiation of Holy Jihad against this aggression became a binding individual obligation upon us. As Allah Almighty says:

[ وَقَاتِلُواْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللّهِ الَّذِينَ يُقَاتِلُونَكُمْ… ﴾ [البقرة:190 ﴿

Translation: (And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. Surely, Allah loves not the transgressors.) (Al-Baqarah – 190)

It was according to this religious obligation that more than fifteen hundred religious scholars of our country issued the decree of Holy Jihad to the Islamic Emirate which was subsequently approved by the righteous scholars around the world. In the light of this genuine religious decree, Jihad is as obligatory today as it was in the beginning of foreign occupation because our Muslim homeland Afghanistan is still under occupation and both its land and air space are controlled by the invaders. The only minor difference is that after suffering heavy casualties and financial losses, the foreign occupying forces have reduced their numbers and have confined themselves to heavily fortified bases, filling this void with some notorious figures of our society, mercenary forces trained by foreign intelligence agencies and some naive youngsters in the disguise of Afghan security forces who are financially, logistically and even directly supported by the very occupying forces when pressured by Mujahidin. It is therefore still obligatory upon us to continue our sacred Jihad to liberate our beloved homeland and restore an Islamic system.

It is true that large areas of the country are liberated by the Mujahidin but our Jihadi struggle will continue until the infidel occupation of our country has ended and a pure Islamic system is implemented.

2. Concurrently with armed Jihad, political endeavors and peaceful pathways for achieving these sacred goals is a legitimate Islamic principle and an integral part of Prophetic politics. As our holy leader, the beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), was actively engaged in fighting the infidels in the fields of ‘Badr’ and ‘Khyber’, he simultaneously participated in agreements beneficial for Muslims, held meetings with envoys of infidels, sent messages and delegations to them and on various occasions even undertook the policy of face to face talks with warring infidel parties. If we look into our religious regulations, we can find that meetings and even peaceful interactions with the enemies is not prohibited but what is unlawful is to deviate from the lofty ideals of Islam and to violate religious decrees. Therefore the objective behind our political endeavors as well as contacts and interactions with countries of the world and our own Afghans is to bring an end to the occupation and to establish an independent Islamic system in our country. It is our legitimate right to utilize all legal pathways because being an organized and liable setup, we are responsible to our masses, we are an integral part of human society and rely upon one another. All Mujahidin and countrymen should be confident that in this process, I will unwaveringly defend our legal rights and viewpoint everywhere. We have established a ‘Political Office’ for political affairs, entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring and conducting all political activities.

3. We insist upon the unity of Jihadi front in Afghanistan because firstly, it is the command of Allah Almighty and secondly, the fruits of successful Jihad against the former Soviet Union were lost as an inevitable consequence of the multiplicity of factions.

Allah Almighty has said about the unity of Jihadi front:

( إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الَّذِينَ يُقَاتِلُونَ فِي سَبِيلِهِ صَفّاً كَأَنَّهُم بُنيَانٌ مَّرْصُوصٌ) (4 الصف)

Translation: (Verily, Allah loves those who fight in His cause arrayed in solid ranks, as though they were a strong structure cemented with molten lead.) (As-Saff – 4)

On another occasion, the Holy Quran unequivocally inhibits from all contentions, differences and mutual disputes in the following explicit words:

( وَأَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَلَا تَنَازَعُوا فَتَفْشَلُوا وَتَذْهَبَ رِيحُكُمْ ۖ وَاصْبِرُوا ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَ الصَّابِرِينَ) (46 الانفال)

Translation: (And obey Allah and His Messenger and dispute not with one another, lest you falter and your strength depart from you. And be steadfast; surely, Allah is with the steadfast.) (Al-Anfal – 46)

And our Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) says:

{لاَ يُلْدَغُ الْمُؤْمِنُ مِنْ جُحْرٍ وَاحِدٍ مَرَّتَيْنِ} {رواه البخاري}

Translation: (A believer is not stung twice from the same hole.) Narrated by Bukhari.

Since maintaining the unity of Jihadi front in our country is a religious obligation, we have therefore directed all our Mujahidin to preserve their unity and forcefully prevent all those elements who attempt to create differences, damage this Jihadi front or try to disperse the Mujahidin.

4. Our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) has said:

الْمُسْلِمُ أَخُو الْمُسْلِمِ لَا يَظْلِمُهُ وَلَا يَخْذُلُهُ وَلَا يَحْقِرُهُ التَّقْوَى هَاهُنَا” وَيُشِيرُ إِلَى صَدْرِهِ ثَلَاثَ مَرَّاتٍ، “بِحَسْبِ امْرِئٍ مِن الشَّرِّ أَنْ يَحْقِرَ أَخَاهُ الْمُسْلِمَ كُلُّ الْمُسْلِمِ عَلَى الْمُسْلِمِ حَرَامٌ دَمُهُ وَمَالُهُ وَعِرْضُهُ ) رواه مسلم و احمد

Translation: (Every Muslim is the brother of another Muslim. He should neither oppress him, nor let him down, nor insult him. Piety is here, while pointing to his chest thrice. It is enough for a man’s mischief to look down upon his Muslim brother. The blood, property and honor of every Muslim is forbidden for another Muslim.) Narrated by Muslim and Ahmad.

In view of the above saying of our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and being a member of the Muslim society, we look upon every Muslim as our brother and we formally recognize the legitimate rights of all Afghans including minorities as our religious duty.

The formation of Islamic Emirate comprises of virtuous and erudite people from all areas and nations of our country, learning a lot from the experiences of previous 36 years especially from the responsibilities borne over the past twenty years hence no one should fear about what will happen if the Islamic Emirate comes to power. I assure you that the upcoming changes will in no way resemble the situation following the collapse of the communist regime when everything turned upside down. There are no such disagreements inside the Jihadi ranks as were in the past. This time every legal development around the country will be preserved, national assets and the achievements of private sector will be maintained, the dignity of all individuals and communities of the country will be honored, an accountable, transparent, professional and inclusive Afghan administration will be setup to meet both the worldly and religious needs of the Afghan masses. We have always tried, in light of Islamic principles and national interests, to maintain cordial and reciprocal relations with all neighboring, regional and world countries so that Afghanistan is secured both from external malice as well as internal differences.

5. Some circles accuse Mujahidin of being agents of Pakistan and Iran. This is an utterly unjust verdict because neither our past history nor the present prevailing circumstances attest to this statement and the forthcoming history will also be a witness against these false accusations, Insha-Allah (God-willing).

Nevertheless, it is a fact that we have sought cordial relations not only with Pakistan and Iran but also all other neighboring countries. Just like towards the people of Pakistan and Iran, we have been the well-wishers of all masses of all neighboring, regional and world countries and we are determined to pursue this wise policy.

We call upon all people with intellect not to be deceived by the baseless propaganda of the enemy intelligence. Do not attribute you’re extraordinary achievements to others. The vast areas spreading from Badakhshan to Kandahar, from Faryab to Paktia and from Herat to Nangarhar, which almost covers the entire country cannot be liberated with foreign support. If foreign aid were so effective then it would have treated the wounds of the Kabul administration which enjoys the unconstrained support of fifty countries. They freely get weapons and manpower from abroad, even their leaders are brought up and trained by the foreigners. But none of these provisions stabilized them rather they are losing ground on a daily basis. Therefore if we were not supported by Allah Almighty as well as our pious masses and Jihadi spirit, how could it be possible for us to have sustained this lopsided war for fourteen years against major world military powers with the insignificant and secret support of either one or two neighboring countries? Without a doubt, no sane mind would ever accept this nonsense.

Therefore our Muslim brothers, near and far, should not be victimized by the enemy propaganda because the enemy is not only devious but also shrewd and well-equipped, able to convey and spread rumors and propaganda against Muslims and Islamic movements to the world masses. Hence all Muslims should remain vigilant and discerning equipped with faith and spiritual perspicacity.

6. Some people, without having any sound proof, think that the Islamic Emirate is against all new developments, modern sciences and resources. This despite the overall expenditure on schools and higher educational institutions being higher than the traditional religious madrassas during the reign of the Islamic Emirate. Twenty percent of the budget was allocated for education and training. Contemporary studies are recommended by our religious scholars as they are obligatory according to Islamic teachings. Allah Almighty says in His Holy Book:

(وَأَعِدُّوا لَهُمْ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْ مِنْ قُوَّةٍ وَمِنْ رِبَاطِ الْخَيْلِ تُرْهِبُونَ بِهِ عَدُوَّ اللَّهِ وَعَدُوَّكُمْ… )(الانفال 60)

Translation: (And make ready against them all you can of power, including steeds of war, whereby you may frighten the enemy of Allah and your enemy…) (Al-Anfal – 60)

According to the above blessed verse which stresses upon every possible preparation against the enemy and since Jihad is an indispensable obligation for the Muslims today thus modern resources to combat the enemy can neither be had nor utilized without the prior knowledge of modern sciences and new experiences. Similarly treatment of injured Mujahidin and health-care of Muslim masses, freeing ourselves from enemy dependence in technical, industrial, agricultural and various other walks of life as well as properly serving the Muslims and self-sufficiency of Islamic society needs our excellence in modern knowledge. It is a well-established rule of Islamic jurisprudence that the requisite of an obligation is obligatory.

Therefore the Islamic Emirate realizes the value and importance of modern sciences and sources in the light of our Holy Sharia law. The proof is that Mujahidin are facilitating both religious and modern studies for the young generation of our beloved homeland in all the areas under their control.

7. I would like to remind all the Mujahidin that if they abide by two things then eventual victory will be theirs. First, they should aim for Allah’s pleasure in all their deeds. They should endure their allegiance with their creed, country, the Islamic Emirate and their leaders as guided by our Holy Book:

(يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِن تَنصُرُواْ اللَّهَ یَنصُرْکمْ وَ یُثَبِّتْ أَقْدَامَکمْ.) (محمد 7)

Translation: (O ye who believe! if you help the cause of Allah, He will help you and will make your foothold firm.) (Muhammad – 7)

Secondly, our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) says:

( لَيْسَ مِنَّا مَنْ لَمْ يَرْحَمْ صَغِيرَنَا وَلم يُوَقِّرْ كَبِيرَنَا) (ترمذي)

Translation: (Those who do not have mercy on youngsters and not respectful to elders are not from us.) Narrated by Tirmidhi

So deal with your people gently, with love and good manners. Treat their elders as your own parents and their youngsters as your own brothers and children. The protection of lives and properties of ordinary people is your Islamic and human responsibility. Particularly in your military planning, take all possible measures to avoid civilian losses and casualties. If you glance over history, you will vividly see that the one who has betrayed the sacred religion of Allah or has looked down upon this pious Mujahid nation or ignored good ethics has failed at succeeding here. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) says:

( أکمل المؤمنين إيماناً أحسنهم خلقاً ) (رواه ابوداود)

Translation: (The most perfect amongst the pious people is the one whose behavior is sublime.) Narrated by Abu Daud

So win over your nation with good behavior.

8. O Mujahidin! As Allah Almighty has flung open the doors of victories to you, try your best to invite and guide the opponents to the right path and provide them with secured and honorable living conditions. Instead of killing them, it is better to reform (guide) them as our community will inevitably suffer due to their widows and orphans. The people who control their anger and pardon are held in high esteem by Allah Almighty as He says:

(وَالْكَاظِمِينَ الْغَيْظَ وَالْعَافِينَ عَنِ النَّاسِ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ)‌ (آل عمران (134)

Translation: (And those who suppress anger, and pardon men; and Allah loves those who do good.) (Al-Imran – 134)

9. Muslims of the whole world and specially the pious masses of Afghanistan are requested to increase their physical and financial support to the Mujahidin amidst the current triumphant process as you constantly extended it over the past fourteen years. You should remember that Jihad is an individual obligation upon every single Muslim. If one cannot participate in the Jihadi fronts physically, he can discharge his duty by extending financial or political or cultural support to the Mujahidin. Our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) says:

(مَنْ جَهَّزَ غَازِياً فِي سَبِيلِ الله فَقَدْ غَزَا، وَمَنْ خَلَفَ غَازِياً فِي سَبِيلِ الله بِخَيْرٍ فَقَدْ غَزَا) (متفق علیه)

Translation: (Whosoever equipped a fighter in the path of Allah, and the one who looked after a fighter’s family behind, verily he participated in Jihad.) Agreed Upon

10. To end, I request all the leaders and masses of the Muslim world to maintain unity and fraternity among themselves and not allow internal differences to weaken their ranks. The policy of tolerance, patience, acumen and strict abidance by Islamic Sharia should be adopted. I would like to remind all the well-off sympathizing brothers to extend their complete support to the bereaved families of the martyrs, prisoners, disabled, poor and orphans of frontline Mujahidin during these happy days of Eid-ul-Fitr. They should not be left alone and must be encouraged because it is the source of success and prosperity in this world as well the world hereafter. Wish good for others as you seek it for yourselves as the Holy Quran says:

(وَافْعَلُوا الْخَيْرَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ) (الحج – 77)

Translation: (And do good deeds that you may prosper.) (Al-Hajj – 77)

I once again congratulate all of you on this happy occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr and pray to Allah Almighty that all your worship and services are rewarded.


Servant of Islam


Mulla Mohammad Umar Mujahid

. . . . .


brain outline

Evolutionary Psychology in an Astrobiological Context

Recently I was reading about evolutionary biology and it struck me how it might be possible to place evolutionary psychology in an astrobiological context and thereby formulate a much more comprehensive conception of astrobiology that goes beyond biology narrowly conceived (as well as a much more comprehensive conception of evolutionary psychology). Evolutionary biology itself has gone beyond the strictly biological in the form of evolutionary psychology, which applies the theoretical framework of evolutionary biology to elucidate human nature, human behavior, and human thought. Evolutionary biology has also gone beyond the terrestrial in the form of astrobiology, which applies the theoretical framework of evolutionary biology to elucidate life on Earth in a cosmological context. To join together these extrapolations of biology in an even larger synthesis would provide a impressive point of view.

I cannot mention evolutionary psychology without pausing to acknowledge the controversy of this discipline, and evolutionary biology today has the (nearly) unique status of being disparaged by both the political left and the political right, but my readers will already have guessed where I am likely to stand on this controversy, especially if they have read my Against Natural History, Right and Left. That the tender sensibilities of the politically motivated are offended by the harsh insights of evolutionary psychology ought to be counted in its favor. Here I am reminded of something Foucault said:

“I think I have in fact been situated in most of the squares on the political checkerboard, one after another and sometimes simultaneously: as anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised Marxist, nihilist, explicit or secret anti-Marxist, technocrat in the service of Gaullism, new liberal and so on. An American professor complained that a crypto-Marxist like me was invited in the USA, and I was denounced by the press in Eastern European countries for being an accomplice of the dissidents. None of these descriptions is important by itself; taken together, on the other hand, they mean something. And I must admit that I rather like what they mean.”

Foucault, Michel, “Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” in Essential Works of Foucault, edited by Paul Rabinow, Vol. 1, “Ethics,” The New Press, 1998.

Being politically denounced in this way from all possible points of view is an admission that the existing framework of thought does not yet have a convenient pigeonhole in which a person or an idea can be placed and then forgotten.

Evolutionary psychology in the context of astrobiology becomes something even more difficult to place than it is at present, although it seems to me like the logical extrapolation of astrobiology placing biology in a cosmological context. I’m not the only one who has been thinking in these terms. About the same time that I started thinking about evolutionary psychology and astrobiology together, I happened across the work of Pauli Laine, who characterizes himself as a cognitive astrobiologist. Laine spoke at the 2013 and 2014 100YSS conferences (I spoke at the 2011 and 2012 100YSS conferences, so we didn’t cross paths).

The psychology of an organism that attains to consciousness will be constrained by the evolutionary history of that organism long before it made the breakthrough the consciousness. (However, it does not follow that the conscious mind is wholly determined by biological processes; this is a distinct thesis and must be separately defended.) The biology of the organism and its species is, in turn, constrained by the biosphere in which that organism evolved. The biosphere is, in turn, constrained by the planet upon which the biosphere emerged; the parameters of the planet are constrained by the protoplanetary disk from which it and its star formed, this protoplanetary disk is in turn constrained by the galactic ecology of its local galaxy, and the galaxy is constrained by the parameters of the universe. We need not assert determinism at any level in this sequence (i.e., we need not assert that any one level of emergent complexity is wholly and exhaustively determined by the preceding level of emergent complexity) in order to acknowledge the role of an earlier state of the universe in constraining a later state of the universe.

Following the above nesting of local constraints within global constraints, the consciousness and psychology of the individual is ultimately constrained by the parameters of the universe. However, these global constraints are relatively weak in comparison to the local constraints, such as the evolutionary history of the species to which the individual organism belongs.

The next step would be to begin the above nested sequence of transitive constraints with civilization, such that civilization is constrained by the minds that produce it, the minds that produce civilization are constrained by the evolutionary history of that organism long before it made the breakthrough the consciousness, and so on. This doesn’t work so neatly, as we can intuitively see that, while civilization is a product of mind, mind is in turn influenced by the civilization it creates, so that mind and civilization are coevolutionary. This is true of the other instances of transitive constraints mentioned. For example, evolutionary biology is constrained by the biosphere, but the biosphere is in its turn influenced by the organisms that emerge within it. This added complexity does not falsify the point I am trying to make, it just means that we have to take more factors into account. It also means that mind may ultimately play a role in the universe that ultimately constrains it, and if civilization expands throughout the cosmos it is easy to see how this could happen.

Elsewhere I have suggested that astrocivilization is civilization understood in a cosmological context, as astrobiology is biology understood in a cosmological context. I have cited the NASA definition of astrobiology as, “…the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe,” which invites the parallel formulation of astrocivilization as the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of civilization in the universe. Astrocivilization is the extended conception of civilization that follows from transcending our native geocentrism and formulating a concept of civilization free from anthropocentrism and terrestrial bias (and one way to do this is to follow the Husserlian methodology of thought experiments).

Ultimately, our civilization is constructed gradually and piecemeal from countless individual decisions made by countless individuals, each following the promptings of a mind shaped by a long evolutionary history. This evolutionary history may be pushed back in time to the origins of the universe, and when science is capable of taking us beyond this point, the same evolutionary history will be pushed back even further in time to the antecedents of the observable universe. Somewhat more narrowly, given what I call the Principle of Civilization-Intelligence Covariance, the nature of astrocivilization follows from the nature of evolutionary psychology in a cosmological context.

I could have titled this post, “From Astrophysics to Astrocivilization” rather than “From Astrobiology to Astrocivilization,” because we can employ an even more comprehensive framework than that of astrobiology, according to which astrobiology is derived from astrophysics, and particular examples of evolution, ecology, and selection are local and limited instances of what on the largest scale is galactic ecology. But we still have much work to do in placing evolutionary psychology in an astrobiological context. We can think of this synthesis of evolutionary psychology and astrobiology (or, employing Laine’s term, cognitive astrobiology) as a higher form of naturalism, where “nature” is not our planet alone, but the whole of the cosmos. Naturalism in this sense is something like cosmologism. This would then answer the question, “What comes after naturalism?” That is to say, once contemporary philosophy has exhausted naturalism, what comes next? What comes next is the universe entire, and, after that, the universe beyond the scope of contemporary science.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


thinking about civilization

In my recent post The Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science I discussed Husserl’s conception of rigorous science and how Husserlian ideas were implicitly present throughout my own analysis of civilization. If the study of civilization can be formulated as a rigorous science, then Husserl has something to teach us. I followed up on this post on Husserlian science with another post, Addendum on the Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science, in which I used an example from Bertrand Russell to illustrate Husserl’s point. It was a particular pleasure for me to illustrate a Husserlian idea with a Russellian image, as Husserl and Russell stand at the respective heads of the contemporary division of philosophy into the continental and the analytical.

From the perspective of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy of science (or philosophy of history, or philosophy of anything), Husserl doesn’t even exist. This is an unfortunate ellipsis. One of the things I have appreciated about the object-oriented philosophers (especially Graham Harman) has been their willingness to read across the conventional boundaries that divide philosophy today, and especially the division between analytical and continental philosophy. This is all to the good, and something I seek to put into practice as well. While my primary guides in philosophy of science relevant to formulating a science of civilization have been Rudolf Carnap and Carl Hempel — analytical stalwarts — I draw on Husserl, Karl Löwith, Blumenberg, and others, not out of a sense of eclecticism, but because they, too, have important insights about the nature of science in the modern world (to borrow a phrase of Alfred North Whitehead).

As I implied in my earlier discussion of Husserl, adapting Husserl’s insights to contemporary philosophy of science requires a steady and sedulous hand in distinguishing the archaic elements still “sedimented” into Husserlian thought and the genuinely novel contributions that Husserl himself makes. Discussing Husserl in this way suggests an analogy with Marx: in order to make use of Marx today, one must equally proceed with a steady and sedulous hand in distinguishing that which is no longer defensible, from Marx’s genuine insights upon which philosophers today might build. Yet with all the enormous resources expended on Marxism, and the vast number of individuals who identify with Marxism, whether vaguely and passionately, I do not know of anyone who has systematically taken Marx’s insights that remain valid and translated them into the technical apparatus of contemporary economics. This is probably merely a reflection of my ignorance of contemporary Marx studies, but I can at least say that such an effort is not commonplace. One would think it would be.

The most glaring example of this is the attempt by contemporary Marxists to continue to flog the dead horse of the labor theory of value, which inevitably results in a Rube Goldberg theory of economic value, since economics has gone far beyond the theoretical framework available to Marx. As I have said in other contexts, there is no reason whatsoever that someone could not adapt Marx’s essential insights to the theory of diminishing marginal utility, or even something more contemporary. It is a remarkable contrast to look at the behavioral economics of Daniel Kahneman, who, even in proposing his prospect theory, has anticipated critics by openly acknowledging that, although his prospect theory possesses certain advantages over traditional marginal utility theory, it cannot account for disappointment and regret. This is the spirit of science at its best. It should come as no surprise that contemporary science at its best comes from someone who has spent a career studying cognitive biases.

Okay. So that was a bit of a digression, and merely in order to place Husserl in historical context in order to get a feeling for how the ideas of dead philosophers are treated. With Husserl, feelings do not run as high as they are do discussions of Marx, so it is less controversial to plunder Husserl for his valuable ideas while tossing aside the archaisms still embedded in his thought.

Today a further appropriation from Husserl’s thought occurred to me, and it is also another example of my proceeding according to an Husserlian method (as with Husserl’s idea of rigorous science has banishing profundity in favor of Cartesian clarity) without realizing that that is what I have been doing.

Recently I have been working on a lot of thought experiments in relation to civilization. Just this morning I came up with a great new thought experiment that I hope to elaborate (not here, and not today, but another time). I have been using thought experiments to explore the idea of civilization, to push the limits of civilization to try to discover what is implicit in our conception of civilization that we have not yet been able to formulate explicitly because we do not yet have a science of civilization. Not only do we not have a science of civilization, we also have no examples of civilization other than human civilization on Earth, and while on the one hand this can be subdivided into many distinct examplars of civilization, on the other hand they are all human and terrestrial civilizations, and for that we have no counter-examples. This poses severe limitations on our ability to think critically about civilization, and so I turn to thought experiments for counter-examples and contrasts.

An essay of mine appeared on Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams blog, The Zoo Hypothesis as Thought Experiment, which is an example of using a thought experiment to explore the idea of civilization. This resulted in more comments than my previous couple of Centauri Dreams posts, but much of the discussion in the comments centered about the validity or invalidity of the zoo hypothesis. I did not argue for or against the zoo hypothesis; I only wanted to use the zoo hypothesis in order to explore the idea of civilization. I was asking myself this question: if you were entering into a planetary system in which you knew there to be an intelligent species, how would you go about conducting observations intended to identify and isolate the “big picture” of the civilization that you encounter? However, I didn’t make that motivation explicit. I wanted this essay to be readable and enjoyable, so I held back on explicit formulations in order to allow the narrative to do the work. Perhaps this was a mistake. But I did learn something from those who commented, even if few seemed to get the idea that I was trying to explore.

In elaborating these recent thought experiments about civilization I realized that, once again, almost unknowingly, I had been following Husserl’s lead. One of the methods that Husserl employs is something that he called, “Eidetic Seeing and Phantasy. Eidetic Cognition Independent of All Cognition
of Matters of Fact” and “The Role of Perception in the Method of Eidetic Clarification. The Primacy of Free Phantasy” (these are section titles from Ideas I; I don’t know why translators have rendered his as “phantasy” rather than as “fantasy”). Here is Husserl on phantasy as a method to converge upon essences:

The Eidos, the pure essence, can be exemplified for intuition in experiential data — in data of perception, memory, and so forth; but it can equally well be exemplified in data of mere phantasy. Accordingly, to seize upon an essence itself, and to seize upon it originarily, we can start from corresponding experiencing intuitions, but equally well from intuitions which are non-experiencing, which do not seize upon factual existence but which are instead “merely imaginative”. If we produce in free phantasy spatial formations, melodies, social practices, and the like, or if we phantasy acts of experiencing of liking or disliking, of willing, etc., then on that basis by “ideation” we can see various pure essences originarily and perhaps even adequately: either the essence of any spatial shape whatever, any melody whatever, any social practice whatever, etc., or the essence of a shape, a melody, etc., of the particular type exemplified.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 4

Husserl is not easy to read (which I noted back in I Dreamed a Dream…), and it’s difficult to find a good passage to quote, but here’s another to give you a little more of a flavor of Husserl on phantasy as a philosophical method:

In freedom we generate intuitive objectivations of the same any — “physical thing” — whatever and we make the vague sense of the word clear to us. Since a “universal objectivation” is involved, we must proceed by way of example. Let us generate optional intuitions in phantasy of physical things, such as free intuitions of winged horses, white ravens, golden mountains, and the like; they would, in any case, be physical things, and objectivations of them therefore serve as examples just as well as objectivations of the physical things given to actual experience. Effecting ideation on that basis, in intuitive clarity we seize upon the essence, “physical thing,” as the subject of universally delimited noematic determinations.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 149

Husserl even calls his method of using phantasy “experiments in phantasy”: .

“…should one say, as has in fact been said on other sides, that we owe geometrical insights to ‘experience in phantasy’ that we ought to effect them as inductions based upon experiments in phantasy? But why, we ask in contra, does the physicist make no use of such marvelous experience in phantasy? For no other reason than because experiments in the imagination are imagined experiments, just as figures, movements, multiplicities in phantasy are not actual but imagined ones.”

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 25

Earlier in the same text Husserl had justified the use of phantasy in geometry in contradistinction to the factual sciences:

The geometer who draws his figures on the board produces thereby factually existing lines on the factually existing board. But his experiencing of the product, qua experiencing, no more grounds his geometrical seeing of essences and eidetic thinking than does his physical producing. This is why it does not matter whether his experiencing is hallucination or whether, instead of actually drawing his lines and constructions, he imagines them in a world of phantasy. It is quite otherwise in the case of the scientific investigator of Nature. He observes and experiments; that is, he ascertains factual existence according to experience; for him experiencing is a grounding act which can never be substituted by a mere imagining. And this is precisely why science of matters of fact and experiential science are equivalent concepts. But for the geometer who explores not actualities but “ideal possibilities,” not predicatively formed actuality-complexes but predicatively formed eidetic affair-complexes, the ultimately grounding act is not experience but rather the seeing of essences.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 7

Here we see that, although Husserl does not use the term “thought experiment” he comes very close to this. It would be possible to reformulate everything that I have written about thought experiments in the study of civilization in terms of Husserl’s variation in phantasy; this would simply be an alternative formulation substituting the theoretical framework of phenomenology for the theoretical framework of thought experiments and contemporary analytical philosophy of science.

This reformulation would be an arduous task, as the greater part of Husserl’s Ideas I touches on the idea of seeking essences through variations in phantasy, so I could not so readily simply reformulate a paragraph from Husserl as I have, on other occasions, torn a paragraph out of another philosopher and reformulated it to make a point (as a recently did with a long paragraph from Plato in The Perfectly Scientific Man: A Platonic Thought Experiment).

Again, and as before, this can only be done by disentangling the useful elements in Husserl from those that we would no longer wish to employ. Philosophers today would not likely express themselves as Husserl did on essences, and many commentators on Husserl have acknowledged that Husserl’s use of the term “essence” is a stumbling block for his Anglophone readers. I could say that I was seeking the essence of civilization, but I prefer to say that I am exploring the concept of civilization. The former way of expressing the nature of the inquiry is perfectly fine, but vulnerable to misreadings and misconceptions.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 443 other followers

%d bloggers like this: