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.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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.

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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

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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

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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.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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.

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Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, moved from Boston to Philadelphia and thus inaugurated the quintessentially American tradition of self-reinvention through geographical mobility.

Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, moved from Boston to Philadelphia and thus inaugurated the quintessentially American tradition of self-reinvention through geographical mobility.

The viability of political entities

There is a well-known story that Benjamin Franklin was asked as he left Independence Hall as the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were in their final day, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin’s famous response to this was, “A Republic, madam — if you can keep it.” (The source of this anecdote is from notes of Dr. James McHenry, a Maryland delegate to the Convention, first published in The American Historical Review, vol. 11, 1906.)

The qualification implies the difficulty of the task of keeping a republic together, and keeping it republican. If doing so were easy, Franklin would not have bothered to note that qualification. That he did note it, in the spirit of a witticism, reminds me of another witticism from the American Revolution — quite literally an instance of gallows humor: “Gentlemen, we must now all hang together, or we shall most assuredly all hang separately.” This, too, was from Benjamin Franklin.

The men who fomented the American Revolution, and who went on to hold the Constitutional Convention, were no starry-eyed dreamers. They were tough-minded in the sense that William James used that phrase. They had no illusions about human nature and human society. Their decision to break with England, and their later decision to write the Constitution, was a calculated risk. They reasoned their way to revolution, and they well knew that all that all that they had done, and all that they had risked, could come to ruin.

And still that American project could come to ruin. It is a work in progress, and though it now has some history behind it, as long as it continues in existence it shares in the uncertainty of all human things.

Recently in Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation I wrote:

“If human freedom were something ideal and absolute, it would not be subject to revision as a consequence of technological change, or any change in contingent circumstances. But while we often think of freedom as an ideal, it is rather grounded in pragmatic realities of action. If a lever or an inclined plane make it possible for you to do something that it was impossible to do without them, then these machines have expanded the scope of human agency; more choices are available as a result, and the degrees of human freedom are multiplied.”

The same can be said of the social technologies of government: if you can do something with them that you cannot do without them, you have expanded the scope of human freedom. The hard-headed attitude of the founders of the republic understood that freedom is grounded in the pragmatic realities of action. It was because of this that the American project has enjoyed the success that it has realized to date. And the freedoms that it facilitates are always subject to revision as the machinery of government evolves. Again, this freedom is not an ideal, but a practical reality.

It is not enough merely to keep the republic, as though preserved under glass. The trajectory of its evolution must be managed, so that it continues to facilitate freedom under the changing conditions to which it is subject. Freedom is subject to contingencies as the fate of the republic is subject to contingencies, and it too can come to ruin just as the republic could yet come to ruin. The challenge remains the same challenge Franklin threw back at his questioner: “If you can keep it.”

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Happy 4th of July!

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measuring earth

Traditional units of measure

Quite some time ago in Linguistic Rationalization I discussed how the adoption of the metric system throughout much of the world meant the loss of traditional measuring systems that were intrinsic to the life of the people, part of the local technology of living, as it were. In that post I wrote:

“The gains that were derived from the standardization of weights and measures… did not come without a cost. Traditional weights and measures were central to the lives and the localities from which they emerged. These local systems of weights and measures were, until they were obliterated by the introduction of the metric system, a large part of local culture. With the metric system supplanting these traditional weights and measures, the traditional culture of which they were a part was dealt a decisive blow. This was not the kind of objection that men of the Enlightenment would have paused over, but with our experience of subsequent history it is the kind of thing that we think of today.”

Perhaps it is not the kind of thing many think of today; most people do not mourn the loss of traditional systems of measurement, but it should be recalled that these traditional systems of measurement were not arbitrary — they were based on the typical experience of individuals in the certain milieu, and they reflected the life and economy of a people, who measured the things that they needed to measure.

In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, a common visual metaphor submitted souls to the rigors of weights and measures.

In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, a common visual metaphor submitted souls to the rigors of weights and measures.

It is often noted that languages have an immediate relation to the life of a people — the most common example cited is that of the number of words for snow in the languages of the native peoples of the far north. Weights and measures — in a sense, the language of commerce — also reflect the life of a people in the same immediate way as their vocabulary. Language and measurement are linked: much of the earliest writing preserved from the Fertile Crescent consists of simple accounting of warehouse stores.

sumerian tablet

A particular example can illustrate what I have in mind. It is common to give the measurement of horses in hands. The hand as as unit of measurement has been standardized as four inches, but it is obvious that the origins of the unit is derived from a human hand. Everyone has an admittedly vague idea of the average size of a human hand, and this gives an anthropocentric measurement of horses, which have been crucial to many if not most human economies. The unit of a hand is intuitive and practical, and it continues to be used by individuals who work with horses. It is, indeed, part of the “lore” of horsemanship. Many traditional units of measurement are like this: derived from the human body — as Pythagoras said, man is the measure of all things — they are intuitive and part of the lore of a tradition. To replace these traditional units has a certain economic rationale, but there is a loss if that replacement is successful. More often (as in measuring horses today), both traditional and SI units are employed.


Units of measure unique to a discipline

One response to the loss of traditional units is to define new units in terms of a system of weights and measures — today, usually the metric system — which reflect the particular concerns of a particular discipline. Having a unit of measurement peculiar to a discipline creates a jargon peculiar to a discipline, which is not necessarily a good thing. However, a unit of measurement unique to a discipline makes it possible to think in terms peculiar to the discipline. This “thinking one’s way into” some mode of thought is probably insufficiently appreciated, but it it quite common in the sciences. There are, for example, many different units that are used to measure energy. In principle, only one unit is necessary, and all units of measuring energy can be given a metric equivalent today, but it is not unusual for the energy of a furnace to be measured in BTUs while the energy of a particle accelerator is measured in electronvolts (eV).

For a science of civilization there must be quantifiable measurements, and quantifiable measurements imply a unit of measure. It is a relatively simple matter to employ (or, if you like, to exapt) existing units of measurement for an unanticipated field of research, but it is also possible to formulate new units of measurement specific to a scientific research program — units that are explicitly conceived and applied with the peculiar object of study of the science in view. It is arguable that the introduction of a unit of measurement specific to civilization would contribute to the formulation of a conceptual framework that allows one to think in terms of civilization in a way not possible, for example, in the borrowed terminology of historiography or some other discipline.

Thinking our way into civilization

With this in mind, I would like to suggest the possibility of a unit of time specific to civilization. We already have terms for ten years (a decade), a hundred years (a century), and a thousand years (a millennium), so that it would make sense to employ a metric of years for the quantification of civilization. The basic unit of time in the metric system is the second, and we can of course define the year in terms of the number of seconds in a year. The measurement of time in terms of a year derives from natural cosmological cycles, like the measurement of time in terms of days. With the increase in the precision of atomic clocks, it became necessary to abandon the calibration of the second in terms of celestial events, and this calibration is now done in terms of nuclear physics. Nevertheless, the year, like the day, remains an anthropocentric unit of time that we all understand and that we are likely to continue to use.

Suppose we posit a period of a thousand years as the basic temporal unit for the measurement of civilization, and we call this unit the chronom. In other words, suppose we think of civilization in increments of 1,000 years. In the spirit of a decimal system we can define a series of units derived from the chronom by powers of ten. The chronom is 1,000 years or 103 years; 1 centichronom is 100 or 102 years (a century), 1 decichronom is 10 years or 101 years (a decade), and 1 millichronom is 1.0 year or 100 years. In other other direction, in increasing size, 1 decachronom is 10 chronom or 10,000 years (104 years), 1 hectochronom is 100 chronom or 100,000 years (105 years), 1 kilochronom is 1,000 chronom or 1,000,000 years (106 years or 1.0 Ma, or mega-annum), and thus we have arrived at the familiar motif of a million year old supercivilization. Continuing upward we eventually would come to the megachronom, which is 1,000,000 chronom or 109 years or 1.0 Ga., i.e., giga-annum, at which point we reach the billion year old supercivilizations discussed by Ray Norris (cf. How old is ET?).

Defamiliarizing civilization

From such a starting point — and I am not suggesting that what I have written above should be the starting point; I have only given an illustration to suggest to the reader what might be possible — it would be possible to extrapolate further coherent units of measure. We would want to do so in terms of non-anthropocentric units, and, moreover, non-geocentric units. While the metric system is a great improvement (in terms of the standardization of scientific practice) over traditional units of measure, it is still a geocentric unit of measure (albeit appealing to geocentrism in an extended sense).

Traditional units of measurement were parochial; the metric system was based on the Earth itself, and so not unique to any nation-state, but still local in a cosmological sense. If we were to extrapolate a metric for civilization according to constants of nature (like the speed of light, or some property of matter such as now exploited by atomic clocks), we would begin to formulate a non-anthropocentric set of units for civilization. A temporal metric for the quantitative study of civilization suggests the possibility of also having a spatial metric for the quantitative study of civilization. For example, a unit of space could be defined that is the area covered by light traveling for 1 chronom. A sphere with a radius of one light year would entirely contain a civilization confined to the region of its star. That could be a useful metric for spacefaring civilizations.

What would be the benefit of such a system to quantify civilization? As I noted above, a system of measurement unique to a discipline allows us to think in terms of the discipline. Units of measurement for the quantification of civilization would allow us to think our way into civilization, and so possibly to avoid some of the traditional prejudices of historiographical thinking which have dominated thinking about civilization so far. Moreover, a non-anthropocentric system of civilization metrics would allow us to think our way into a non-anthropocentric metric for civilization, which would better enable us to recognize other civilizations when we have the opportunity to seek them out.

What I am suggesting here is a process of defamiliarization by way of scientific metrics to take the measure of something so familiar — human civilization — that it is difficult for us to think of it in objective terms. Previously in Kierkegaard and Russell on Rigor I discussed how a defamiliarizing process can be a constituent of rigorous thought. In so far as we aspire to the study of civilization as a rigorous science, the defamiliarization of a scientific set of metrics for quantifying civilization can be a part of that effort.

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In several posts I have described what I called the STEM cycle, which typifies our industrial-technological civilization. The STEM cycle involves scientific discoveries employed in new technologies, which are in turn engineered into industries which supply new instruments to science resulting in further scientific discoveries. For more on the STEM cycle you can read my posts The Industrial-Technological Thesis, Industrial-Technological Disruption, The Open Loop of Industrial-Technological Civilization, Chronometry and the STEM Cycle, and The Institutionalization of the STEM Cycle.

Industrial-technological civilization is a species of the genus of scientific civilizations (on which cf. David Hume and Scientific Civilization and The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization). Ultimately, it is the systematic pursuit of science that drives industrial-technological civilization forward in its technological progress. While it is arguable whether contemporary civilization can be said to embody moral, aesthetic, or philosophical progress, it is unquestionable that it does embody technological progress, and, almost as an epiphenomenon, the growth of scientific knowledge. And while knowledge may not grow evenly across the entire range of human intellectual accomplishment, so that we cannot loosely speak of “intellectual progress,” we can equally unambiguously speak of scientific progress, which is tightly-coupled with technological and industrial progress.

Now, it is a remarkable feature of science that there are no secrets in science. Science is out in the open, as it were (which is one reason the appeal to embargoed evidence is a fallacy). There are scientific mysteries, to be sure, but as I argued in Scientific Curiosity and Existential Need, scientific mysteries are fundamentally distinct from the religious mysteries that exercised such power over the human mind during the epoch of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. You can be certain that you have encountered a complete failure to understand the nature of science when you hear (or read) of scientific mysteries being assimilated to religious mysteries.

That there are no secrets in science has consequences for the warfare practiced by industrial-technological civilization, i.e., industrialized war based on the application of scientific method to warfare and the exploitation of technological and industrial innovations. While, on the one hand, all wars since the first global industrialized war have been industrialized war, since the end of the Second World War, now seventy years ago, on the other hand, no wars have been mass wars, or, if you prefer, total wars, as a result of the devolution of warfare.

Today, for example, any competent chemist could produce phosgene or mustard gas, and anyone who cares to inform themselves can learn the basic principles and design of nuclear weapons. I made this point some time ago in Weapons Systems in an Age of High Technology: Nothing is Hidden. In that post I wrote:

Wittgenstein in his later work — no less pregnantly aphoristic than the Tractatus — said that nothing is hidden. And so it is in the age of industrial-technological civilization: Nothing is hidden. Everything is, in principle, out in the open and available for public inspection. This is the very essence of science, for science progresses through the repeatability of its results. That is to say, science is essentially an iterative enterprise.

Although science is out in the open, technology and engineering are (or can be made) proprietary. There is no secret science or sciences, but technologies and industrial engineering can be kept secret to a certain degree, though the closer they approximate science, the less secret they are.

I do not believe that this is well understood in our world, given the pronouncements and policies of our politicians. There are probably many who believe that science can be kept secret and pursued in secret. Human history is replete with examples of the sequestered development of weapons systems that rely upon scientific knowledge, from Greek Fire to the atom bomb. But if we take the most obvious example — the atomic bomb — we can easily see that the science is out in the open, even while the technological and engineering implementation of that science was kept secret, and is still kept secret today. However, while no nation-state that produces nuclear weapons makes its blueprints openly available, any competent technologist or engineer familiar with the relevant systems could probably design for themselves the triggering systems for an implosion device. Perhaps fewer could design the trigger for a hydrogen bomb — this came to Stanislaw Ulam in a moment of insight, and so represents a higher level of genius, but Andrei Sakharov also figured it out — however, a team assembled for the purpose would also certainly hit on the right solution if given the time and resources.

Science nears optimality with it is practiced openly, in full view of an interested public, and its results published in journals that are read by many others working in the field. These others have their own ideas — whether to extend research already preformed, reproduce it, or to attempt to turn it on its head — and when they in turn pursue their research and publish their results, the field of knowledge grows. This process is exponentially duplicated and iterated in a scientific civilization, and so scientific knowledge grows.

When Lockheed’s Skunkworks recently announced that they were working on a compact fusion generator, many fusion scientists were irritated that the Skunkworks team did not publish their results. The fusion research effort is quite large and diverse (something I wrote about in One Hundred Years of Fusion), and there is an expectation that those working in the field will follow scientific practice. But, as with nuclear weapons, a lot is at stake in fusion energy. If a private firm can bring proprietary fusion electrical generation technology to market, it stands to be the first trillion dollar enterprise in human history. With the stakes that high, Lockheed’s Skunkworks keeps their research tightly controlled. But this same control slows down the process of science. If Lockheed opened its fusion research to peer review, and others sought to duplicate the results, the science would be driven forward faster, but Lockheed would stand to lose its monopoly on propriety fusion technology.

Fusion science is out in the open — it is the same as nuclear science — but particular aspects and implementations of that science are pursued under conditions of industrial secrecy. There is no black and white line that separates fusion science from fusion technology research and fusion engineering. Each gradually fades over into the other, even when the core of each of science, technology, and engineering can be distinguished (this is an instance of what I call the Truncation Principle).

The stakes involved generate secrecy, and the secrecy involved generates industrial espionage. Perhaps the best known example of industrial espionage of the 20th century was the acquisition of the plans for the supersonic Concorde, which allowed the Russians to get their “Konkordski” TU-144 flying before the Concorde itself flew. Again, the science of flight and jet propulsion cannot be kept secret, but the technological and engineering implementations of that science can be hidden to some degree — although not perfectly. Supersonic, and now hypersonic, flight technology is a closely guarded secret of the military, but any enterprise with the funding and the mandate can eventually master the technology, and will eventually produce better technology and better engineering designs once the process is fully open.

Because science cannot be effectively practiced in private (it can be practiced, but will not be as good as a research program pursued jointly by a community of researchers), governments seek the control and interdiction of technologies and materials. Anyone can learn nuclear science, but it is very difficult to obtain fissionables. Any car manufacturer can buy their rival’s products, disassemble them, and reserve engineer their components, but patented technologies are protected by the court system for a certain period of time. But everything in this process is open to dispute. Different nation-states have different patent protection laws. When you add industrial espionage to constant attempts to game the system on an international level, there are few if any secrets even in proprietary technology and engineering.

The technologies that worry us the most — such as nuclear weapons — are purposefully retarded in their development by stringent secrecy and international laws and conventions. Moreover, mastering the nuclear fuel cycle requires substantial resources, so that mostly limits such an undertaking to nation-states. Most nation-states want to get along to go along, so they accept the limitations on nuclear research and choose not to build nuclear weapons even if they possess the industrial infrastructure to do so. And now, since the end of the Cold War, even the nation-states with nuclear arsenals do not pursue the development of nuclear technology; so-called “fourth generation nuclear weapons” may be pursued in the secrecy of government laboratories, but not with the kind of resources that would draw attention. It is very unlikely that they are actually being produced.

Why should we care that nuclear technology is purposefully slowed and regulated to the point of stifling innovation? Should we not consider ourselves fortunate that governments that seem to love warfare have at least limited the destruction of warfare by limiting nuclear weapons? Even the limitation of nuclear weapons comes at a cost. Just as there is no black and white line separating science, technology, and engineering, there is no black and white line that separates nuclear weapons research from other forms of research. By clamping down internationally on nuclear materials and nuclear research, the world has, for all practical purposes, shut down the possibility of nuclear rockets. Yes, there are a few firms researching nuclear rockets that can be fueled without the fissionables that could also be used to make bombs, but these research efforts are attempts to “design around” the interdictions of nuclear technology and nuclear materials.

We have today the science relevant to nuclear rocketry; to master this technology would require practical experience. It would mean designing numerous designs, testing them, and seeing what works best. What works best makes its way into the next iteration, which is then in its turn improved. This is the practical business of technology and engineering, and it cannot happen without an immersion into practical experience. But the practical experience in nuclear rocketry is exactly what is missing, because the technology and materials are tightly controlled.

Thus we already can cite a clear instance of how existential risk mitigation becomes the loss of an existential opportunity. A demographically significant spacefaring industry would be an existential opportunity for humanity, but if the nuclear rocket would have been the breakout technology that actualized this existential opportunity, we do not know, and we may never know. Nuclear weapons were early recognized as an existential risk, and our response to this existential risk was to consciously and purposefully put a brake on the development of nuclear technology. Anyone who knows the history of nuclear rockets, of the NERVA and DUMBO programs, of the many interesting designs that were produced in the early 1960s, knows that this was an entire industry effectively strangled in the cradle, sacrificed to nuclear non-proliferation efforts as though to Moloch. Because science cannot be kept secret, entire industries must be banned.

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Nuclear rocketry: an industry that never happened.

Nuclear rocketry: an industry that never happened.

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The Waiting Gambit

18 June 2015


waiting room

What is the waiting gambit? The waiting gambit is the idea that, if we wait for the right moment, conditions will be better (whether in the moral sense or the practical sense, or both) at a later time to undertake some initiative for which conditions now are not propitious. In other words, conditions for future initiatives will improve, but conditions are not right at the present time for these same initiatives. Our patience will be rewarded, in only we can forbear from action at the present moment. Good things come to those who wait.

I have previously written about the sociology of waiting in Epistemic Space: Mapping Time, in which I observed:

While I am sympathetic to Russell’s rationalism, I think that Bergson had a point in his critique of spatialization, but Bergson did not go far enough with this idea. Not only has there been a spatialization of time, there has also been a temporalization of space. We see this in the contemporary world in the prevalence of what I call transient spaces: spaced designed to pass through but not spaces in which to abide. Airports, laundromats, bus stations, and sidewalks are all transient spaces. The social consequences of industrialization that have forced us to abide by the regime of the calendar and the time clock by the very fact of quantifying time into discrete regions and apportioning them according to a schedule also forces us to wait. The waiting room ought to be recognized as one of the central symbols of our age; the waiting room is par excellence the temporalization of space.

The waiting gambit on the largest scale, i.e., on the scale of civilization, is, quite simply, to transform the Earth entire into a waiting room, perpetually on the verge of the new world that lies beyond. Why wait, rather than act upon the future now? This deceptively simple question is quite difficult to answer adequately. I will attempt an answer, however, though it is not likely to be fully satisfying nor adequate to the subtlety of the problem. One reason this question is so complicated is that there are many dimensions of human experience that it addresses; the waiting gambit comes in many forms.

The most familiar form of the waiting gambit on the civilizational scale is the oft-heard claim that we cannot expect to go into space until we get our house in order here on Earth. “How can we spend money on space travel when we have such pressing problems here on Earth?” This gives to the waiting gambit a moral bite: we are not worthy to go into space, because there are still problems are Earth; we have to solve our problems on Earth first, and then we can think about going into space. But is there anyone who truly believes that this Earthly utopia will ever be realized? Isn’t it pretty clear by now that there will be no Earthly utopia, no point in time when all terrestrial problems will be solved, so that waiting for the coming of the Millennium in order to initiate a spacefaring effort is as much as saying that it will never happen? There is a fundamental contradiction involved in the idea that we can do nothing and become perfect in the meantime; if we do nothing, we will not become perfect, not now, not tomorrow, and not the day after tomorrow.

The waiting gambit in its moral form is not the only possibility. There is also the pragmatic rationalization of the waiting game: acting now is impractical; if we wait, it will be easier, less expensive, and more convenient to act. Certainly there is a tension between inefficiently constructing a space-based infrastructure at present — an option we have possessed since the middle of the twentieth century — or waiting for better technologies that will enable a much more efficient construction of space-based infrastructure. If we proceed at present, it may require diverting resources from other enterprises, but if we wait we may succumb to existential risk; to commit oneself to wait is more or less to commit oneself to a principled stagnation.

There is also the argument for waiting based on safety. To act now is unsafe, but if we wait, it will be safer to act in the future. As with the terrestrial utopia argument for waiting, the safety argument for waiting becomes an excuse never to act. As we become more affluent and more comfortable, what we identify as a danger, or an unacceptable imperfection in society, shifts to ever-more-subtle and elusive dangers, so that fear plays an increasingly disproportionate role as risks decrease while fear remains nearly constant. There will always be dangers, and even as the dangers are minimized they will grow in proportion until they seem overwhelming, hence there will always be reason to continue to wait rather than to act.

It is of the essence of the waiting gambit that many different rationalizations and justifications are employed for waiting. At each stage in the process when a new justification emerges, it seems like a rational and legitimate choice to continue to wait, but viewed from a larger perspective, it becomes apparent that the waiting is merely waiting for its own sake, and the transient excuses offered for waiting change even as we wait. Once waiting becomes normative, action becomes pathological.

Can an entire civilization wait? Would we not, in waiting, create a civilization of waiting, that is to say, a civilization constituted by waiting? I do not believe that an entire civilization can wait all the while pretending it is dedicated to some future good — but only when the time is right.

Civilizations must be judged as the existentialists judged individuals. There is a passage from Sartre that I have quoted previously (in Existence Precedes Essence) that addresses this:

“…in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art. The genius of Proust is the totality of the works of Proust; the genius of Racine is the series of his tragedies, outside of which there is nothing. Why should we attribute to Racine the capacity to write yet another tragedy when that is precisely what he did not write? In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait. No doubt this thought may seem comfortless to one who has not made a success of his life. On the other hand, it puts everyone in a position to understand that reality alone is reliable; that dreams, expectations and hopes serve to define a man only as deceptive dreams, abortive hopes, expectations unfulfilled; that is to say, they define him negatively, not positively.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” 1946, translated by Philip Mairet

Similarly for civilizations: in history, a civilization commits itself, draws its own portrait, and at the end of the day there is nothing but that portrait. This is as much as saying that civilization has not an essence, but a history — something I earlier hinted at, following Ortega y Gasset in An Existentialist Philosophy of History. The principles of an existentialist philosophy of history, as with existential philosophy generally, can be adopted and adapted, mutatis mutandis, for an existentialist philosophy of civilization.

This is, as Sartre noted, a harsh standard by which to judge, whether judging an individual or a civilization. It is not comforting for those who employ the waiting gambit, whether in their own life or in the social life of a community. Nevertheless, we should accustom ourselves to the view that there is no civilization apart from the deeds of civilization. Reality alone is reliable.

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2011 pictures 166

In my previous post, The Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science I drew upon examples from both Edmund Husserl and Bertrand Russell — the Godfathers, respectively, of contemporary continental and analytical philosophy — to illustrate some of the concerns of constituting a new science de novo, which is what a science of civilization must be.

In particular, I quoted Husserl to the effect that true science eschews “profundity” in favor of Cartesian clarity and distinctness. Since Husserl himself was none-too-clear a writer, his exposition of a distinction between profundity and clarity might not be especially clear. But another example occurred to me. There is a wonderful passage from Bertrand Russell in which he describes the experience of intellectual insight:

“Every one who has done any kind of creative work has experienced, in a greater or less degree, the state of mind in which, after long labour, truth, or beauty, appears, or seems to appear, in a sudden glory — it may be only about some small matter, or it may be about the universe. The experience is, at the moment, very convincing; doubt may come later, but at the time there is utter certainty. I think most of the best creative work, in art, in science, in literature, and in philosophy, has been the result of such a moment. Whether it comes to others as to me, I cannot say. For my part, I have found that, when I wish to write a book on some subject, I must first soak myself in detail, until all the separate parts of the subject matter are familiar; then, some day, if I am fortunate, I perceive the whole, with all its parts duly interrelated. After that, I only have to write down what I have seen. The nearest analogy is first walking all over a mountain in a mist, until every path and ridge and valley is separately familiar, and then, from a distance, seeing the mountain whole and clear in bright sunshine.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, CHAPTER XV, “The Theory of Ideas”

Russell returned to this metaphor of seeing a mountain whole after having wandered in the fog of the foothills on several occasions. For example:

“The time was one of intellectual intoxication. My sensations resembled those one has after climbing a mountain in a mist, when, on reaching the summit, the mist suddenly clears, and the country becomes visible for forty miles in every direction.”

Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1872-1914, Chapter 6, “Principia Mathematica”

…and again…

“Philosophical progress seems to me analogous to the gradually increasing clarity of outline of a mountain approached through mist, which is vaguely visible at first, but even at last remains in some degree indistinct. What I have never been able to accept is that the mist itself conveys valuable elements of truth. There are those who think that clarity, because it is difficult and rare, should be suspect. The rejection of this view has been the deepest impulse in all my philosophical work.”

Bertrand Russell, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, Preface

Russell’s description of intellectual illumination employing the metaphor of seeing a mountain whole is an example of the what I have called the epistemic overview effect — being able to place the parts of knowledge within a larger epistemic whole gives us a context for understanding that is not possible when confined to any parochial, local, or limited perspective.

If we employ Russell’s metaphor to illustrate Husserl’s distinction between the profound and the pellucid we immediately see that an attempt at an exposition which is confined to wandering in the foothills enshrouded in mist and fog has the character of profundity, but when the sun breaks through, the fog lifts, and the mist evaporates, we see clearly and distinctly that which we had before known only imperfectly and at that point we are able to give an exposition in terms of Cartesian clarity and distinctness. Russell’s insistence that he never thought that the mist contained any valuable elements of truth is of a piece with Husserl eschewing profundity.

Just so, a science of civilization should surprise us with unexpected vistas when we see the phenomenon of civilization whole after having familiarized ourselves with each individual parts of it separately. When the moment of illumination comes, dispelling the mists of profundity, we realize that it is no loss at all to let go of the profundity that has, up to that time, been our only guide. The definitive formulation of a concept, a distinction, or a principle can suddenly cut through the mists that we did not even realize were clouding our thoughts, revealing to us the perfect clarity that had eluded us up to that time. As Russell noted that, “this view has been the deepest impulse in all my philosophical work,” so too this is the deepest impulse in my attempt to understand civilization.

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