Diachronic Extrapolation and Uniformitarianism

25 March 2013


catastrophism or uniformitarianism

In my last post, The Problem with Diachronic Extrapolation, I attempted to show how diachronic extrapolation, while the most familiar form of futurism, is often misleading because it fails to adequately account for synchronic interactions as a diachronic strategic trend develops. In other posts concerned with unintended consequences I have emphasized that, in the long term, unintended consequences often outweigh intended consequences. Unintended consequences are the result of synchronic interactions that were not foreseen, that were no part of diachronic agency, and those cases in which unintended consequences swamp intended consequences the synchronic interactions have proved more decisive in shaping the future than diachronic causality.

In my post on The Problem with Diachronic Extrapolation I made several assertions that clearly imply the limitation of inferences from the present to the future, which also implies the limitation of inferences from the present to the past. This brings up issues that go far beyond futurism.

In that post I wrote:

“…diachrony over significant periods of time cannot be pursued in isolation, since any diachronic extrapolation will interact with changed conditions over time, and this interaction will eventually come to constitute the consequences as must as the original trend diachronically extrapolated.”


“…the most frequent form of failed futurism is to take a trend in the present and to project it into the future, but any futurism worthy of the name must understand events in both their synchronic and diachronic context; isolation from succession in time is just as invidious as isolation from interaction across time…”

The reader may have noticed the resemblance of this species of failed futurism to uniformitarianism: instead of taking a strategic trend acting at present and extrapolating it into the future, uniformitarianism takes a physical force acting in the present and extrapolates it into the future (or, as is more likely the case in geology, into the past). This idea of uniformitarianism is usually expressed as, “the present is key to the past,” and we might similarly express the parallel form of futurism as being, “the present is key to the future.” These two claims — the present is the key to the past and the present is the key to the future — are logically equivalent since, as I pointed out previously, every present is the future of some past, and the past of some future.

Since these interpretations of uniformitarianism involve uniformity across past and future, these formulations closely resemble formulations of induction also stated in terms of past and future, as when the logical problem of induction is formulated, “Will the future be like the past?” It is at this point that the philosophy of time, the philosophy of history, the philosophy of science, and futurism all coincide, because it concerns a problem that all have in common.

Stephen Jay Gould noticed this similarity of uniformitarianism and induction in his first published paper, “Is uniformitarianism necessary?” Gould, of course, become famous for his critique of uniformitarianism, and for this alternative to it, punctuated equilibrium (for which he shares the credit with Niles Eldredge). In this early paper by Gould, Gould distinguished between substantive uniformitarianism and methodological uniformitarianism. He tried to show that the former is simply false, and the the latter, methodological uniformitarianism, is now subsumed under the scientificity of geology and paleontology. Here is now Gould put it:

“…we see that methodological uniformitarianism amounts to an affirmation of induction and simplicity. But since these principles belong to the modern definition of empirical science in general, uniformitarianism is subsumed in the simple statement: ‘geology is a science’. By specifically invoking methodological uniformitarianism, we do little more than affirm that induction is procedurally valid in geology.”

Stephen Jay Gould, “Is uniformitarianism necessary?” American Journal of Science, Vol. 263, March 1965, p. 227

That is to say, the earth sciences use the scientific method, which Gould characterizes in terms of inductive logic and the principle of parsimony (I would argue that Gould is also assuming methodological naturalism) — therefore everything that is worth saving in uniformitarianism is already secured by the scientific status of geology, and therefore uniformitarianism is dispensable. Having once served an important function in science, uniformitarianism has now, Gould contends, become an obstacle to progress.

As I noted above, Gould didn’t merely assert that uniformitarianism was no longer necessary, but devoted his career to arguing for an alternative, punctuated equilibrium, which asserts that long period of stasis are interrupted by catastrophic discontinuities. While much has been written about uniformitarianism vs. punctuated equilibrium, I see this as the thin end of the wedge for considering all kinds of alternatives to strict uniformitarianism, and to his end I think we would do well to explore all possible patterns of development, whether uniform (slow, gradual, incremental), punctuated (sudden, catastrophic, discontinuous), or otherwise.

Of course, we could easily produce more sophisticated formulations of uniformitarianism that would avoid the subsequent problems that have been raised, but this is the path that leads to Ptolemaic epicycles and attempts to “save the appearances,” whereas what we want is a rich mixture of theoretical innovation from which we can try many different models and select for further development those that are most true to the world.

Since the philosophy of time, the philosophy of history, the philosophy of science, and futurism all coincide at the point represented by the problem of the relationship of parts of time to other parts of time (and the idea of temporal parts is itself philosophical contested), all of these disciplines stand to learn something of value from exploring alternatives to uniformitarianism. In so far as futurism is dominated by nomothetic diachrony, and constitutes a kind of historical uniformitarianism, very different forms of futurism might emerge from a careful study of the alternatives to uniformitarianism, or merely from a recognition that, as Gould put, uniformitarianism is no longer necessary and something of an anachronism. If there is anything of which futurists ought to beware, being an anachronism must be close to the top of the list.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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