A Copernican Conception of Civilization

29 April 2012


Elsewhere I have written that the Copernican Revolution still has much unfinished business. For practical men who suppose that the whole of life is dictated by drives and appetites and impulses it might sound like an extraordinary claim to say that the ordinary business of life is contingent less upon one’s responses to stimuli and more upon one’s idea of the world, but just as G.K. Chesterton said that “…for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy,” I would add that she should also know her tenant’s cosmology. Indeed, philosophies and cosmologies are likely to overlap, and in some cases they coincide.

In Eo-, Exo-, Astro- I wrote about Joshua Lederberg’s distinction between eobiology and exobiology, and how both of these have been absorbed into the more comprehensive science of astrobiology. Astrobiology can be considered an extrapolation and extension of terrestrial biology. This same schema of extrapolation and extension can be readily applied beyond biology to the other life sciences and earth sciences. Ultimately, the result of the systematic extension of our conceptions of science would yield a Copernican conception of science and knowledge in which the earth would no longer be the center, either literally or metaphorically.

A Copernican conception of the sciences, and the production of Copernican knowledge on the basis of a Copernican conception of the sciences, must ultimately move beyond the natural sciences and also embrace the social sciences. I would argue that the social sciences are in more acute need of the Copernican Revolution than the natural sciences, but that it is more difficult to effect a conceptual revolution within the social sciences given their less quantifiable procedures and the inherent ambiguity of observation and evidence in the social sciences. But the fullness of time must inevitably bring us a Copernican political science, a Copernican sociology, a Copernican cultural geography, a Copernican cultural anthropology, and so forth.

Beyond science, we can also seek to extend the Copernican Revolution throughout familiar conceptions of human knowledge that have unwittingly been based on Ptolemaic conceptions of the cosmos. Despite Ptolemaic cosmology now being a scientific museum piece, it continues to influence our thought because its terms and ideas are embedded in our knowledge. Just as we must make an extra effort in order to think in selective terms, according to an evolutionary paradigm — an effort that can be surprisingly difficult because it is so much easier to think in teleological terms, according to a theological paradigm — so too we must make an extra effort to think in non-earth-centered terms, according to a Copernican paradigm, instead of thinking in earth-centered terms, according to a Ptolemaic paradigm. Ultimately, pushing the familiar categories of our thought to the limit, we must formulate a Copernican conception of civilization.

All civilization as we have known it, has been eocivilization; this is terrestrial civilization confined to the surface of the earth. In so far as human beings are a natural product of the earth, and civilization is a natural product of human beings, civilization ought to be the ultimate object of study of a greatly extended conception of the earth sciences. Early in the history of this blog, in Life and Landscape (as well as in subsequent posts, like Art and Landscape), I attempted to show how the ideas by which we live are ultimately grounded in the landscape in which we have made our lives. This is a theme that I have occasionally worked to develop, but the definitive formulation of the idea continues to elude me, even as I continue to pursue it, coming at it from different angles, the better to catch it unaware, as it were. This present formulation here, of civilization as the ultimately object of the earth sciences, is a continuing part of my struggle to precisely delineate the connections between life and landscape.

Civilization as we might imagine it to be off the surface of the earth, either in the form of a greatly expanded human civilization of the future, or in the form of an extraterrestrial civilization not of human origin, would constitute exocivilization. A future science of civilizations would embrace the study both of eocivilization and exocivilization, and in the spirit of scientific objectivity the study of exocivilization ought to be quite indifferent to whether such exocivilization is derived from human civilization or not.

The larger and more comprehensive point of view would be that of astrocivilization, which would comprehend and include both eocivilziation and exocivilziation. The NASA definitions of astrobiology that I quoted in Eo-, Exo-, Astro- can be nicely reformulated (or, if you like, exapted) to express the idea of astrocivilization:

“Astrocivilization is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of civilization in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for civilized societies in our Solar System and civilized societies outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of the origins and early evolution of civilization on Earth, and studies of the potential for civilization to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”


“The study of the civilized universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of civilization in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of the structure of spacetime in civilizations, and (3) the study of the Earth’s civilizations in their terrestrial and cosmological context.”

I must admit that I rather like the sound of these, and they strike me as an edifying definition of a future science of civilizations.

Problems remain, and there would need to be further revisions of these formulations. We no longer hope to find other civilizations in our own solar system, while at one time this hope was once quite high. Percival Lowell’s poetic vision of a dying Martian civilization building canals to transport remaining water from the poles to the equatorial regions, and H. G. Wells’ darker take on this same vision, making it less poetic and less romantic, but perhaps also more believable, are testimony to the fact that exocivilizations (as well as their motivations and intentions) have been of interest on earth for some time.

More important from a scientific standpoint (since we ought to keep an open mind about other civilizations within our solar system) is the systematic ambiguity between formulating descriptive concepts of civilizations on the one hand, on the other hand and the scientific study of these civilizations. The same ambiguity persists in the term “history,” which can either mean the actual events of the past, or the study of the events of the past. Thus “astrocivilization” could mean the actual civilizations of the universe (which is intuitively quite clear) or the study of such civilizations (which is intuitively not quite as clear, partly because we don’t have an established vocabulary and terminology for the study of eocivilization — except the already-noted ambiguous term “history”).

Much work remains to be done on the study of civilization, just as much work remains to be done in completing the Copernican Revolution.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “A Copernican Conception of Civilization”

  1. […] than a finished and finite archive of what was accomplished by the totality of civilization, i.e., astrocivilization, during the period of time in the history of the universe when civilizations were possible. […]

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