Settled Life, Settled Thought

8 August 2010


Our settled ideas of things begin here in the first settled communities of prehistory.

In earlier posts I have pointed out that all civilization to date has been settled civilization, which implies both that most civilization is likely to remain settled as well as the intriguing possibility of a non-settled civilization. Though we are currently living in the midst industrialized civilization in full swing, the vast bulk of the history of civilization is dominated by the agricultural paradigm. I have noted that while I have been able to provide suggestions for the overall structure and evolution of industrialized civilization, I have no comparable structure for understanding agricultural civilization, and in several subsequent posts I have begun the long yet fascinating work of addressing this ellipsis in my thought (Some Rough Notes on Agricultural Civilization, Pure Agriculturalism, and The Telos of Agriculturalism, inter alia).

Today it has occurred to me that one of the features of settled civilization is a parallel tendency to engage in settled modes of thought: settled civilization begets settled thought. This will require some explanation, and I’m not sure if I am yet able to give an adequate presentation to this idea, but I will give it a try.

It is only in the lifetime of those now living that the full implications of natural history as revealed by science has become evident. While the Darwinian breakthrough to understanding the natural history of species, and therefore of our own species, is a hundred fifty years old, it took the succeeding generations of scientists to transcend assumptions of fixity that extended far beyond the fixity of species challenged by Darwin. Cosmology is a very young science as of yet, and it has contributed greatly to understanding the natural history of the world. It was only with the emergence of cosmology as a science (rather than mythological cosmologies) that we have been able to explain the origins of the chemical elements that constitute our world. This process has not been concluded — far from it — but it has now reached a stage of development that allows us to conceive the world entire in scientific terms that have completely rejected the paradigm of settled thought.

At each stage in the development of scientific thought we have seen, as more and more of the world is understood to have a natural history, that the frontier of the supposedly static, permanent, unchanging, and eternal aspects of the world (that is to say, the Platonic world) has been pushed further and further away. We now have a reasonable understanding of the natural history of species, of planets, of solar systems, of galaxies, and, however imperfectly, of the cosmos as a whole. It has taken the entire span of time from Darwin to ourselves to make this progress, and it is a work that has only begun; each scientific discovery suggests further questions, so that the whole enterprise of science expands exponentially over time. In other words, science itself has transcended the paradigm of settled thought.

In Radical Theories, Modest Formulations I described how both Einstein and Darwin initially presented their theories more conservatively and more modestly than they might have. General relativity was in itself sufficiently radical for Einstein, so that even though his initial formulation of the theory suggested a dynamic universe with a natural history, he pulled back from this, inserted the cosmological constant in order to maintain the universe in a steady state, and presented a modest formulation of general relativity to the scientific public. In other words, Einstein made a concession to settled thought in order to improve the chances that his theory would get a hearing. I am not suggesting that this was an act of cunning; Einstein himself at that time believed the universe to exemplify a steady state. Einstein’s concession to settled thought was a concession embodied in his conception of the world that led him to reject tout court the possibility of a world entire with a natural history. Einstein had fully internalized the idea of the fixity of the universe, and while he was able to conceive of space, time, and gravitation as dynamic, he was not prepared to conceive of the world on the whole as being dynamic.

I think that a detailed exposition of the history of the scientific knowledge and of the extension of human knowledge generally would reveal this to be a consistent pattern. Not only Einstein, but indeed almost all of us have internalized the settled thought of settled civilization, with its presumptions of fixity and unchanging realities. Many of us, moreover, will never transcend the settled ideas of settled life. Absolutist political structures have furthermore thrown the weight of their influence behind the idea of political rule being divinely ordained for eternity. While almost no one today defends (or believes in) the Divine Right of Kings, a great many of the political structures we retain to this day have their origins in absolutist monarchy believed to enjoy divine sanction.

Earlier generations had the excuse of not knowing any better. This is no longer an excuse for us. Not only do we know better, but we now know to question presumptions of permanency. We can now glimpse the possibility of a world understood thoroughly in terms of natural history in which fixity, eternity, and permanency, are never the presumption of our thought. This work has but begun, and it will be at least as much of a struggle to overthrow static assumptions as to overthrow teleological assumptions that have ruled our thought.

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