2014 IBHA Conference Day 2

8 August 2014



Interpretations (1)

It was another busy day at the 2014 IBHA big history conference at the Dominican University in San Rafael, California. I started out with Panel 17 in room 301 called “Interpretations.” Davidson Loehr started out the day right by giving a wonderful presentation on “Growing Beyond Religion: Big History and the Meaning of Life.” Loehr asserted that claims about human nature can now be addressed empirically — something he called “a revolution of the first order” — and that there are three aspects of human nature with “deeply uncomfortable” implications. He said that human nature includes innate empathy and compassion, but the deeply uncomfortable truth here is that empathy and compassion are not specifically human, but are found throughout the animal kingdom. Next he said that human nature is characterized by an innate selfishness. Lastly he said that human nature is inherently gullible. I found this last especially interesting, as was his development of the idea: “Ethical gullibility is the shadow side of our empathy and compassion.” I would like to see this idea further developed in the context of cognitive bias.

Jonathan Markley gave a remarkably entertaining presentation, “‘No meaning or intention’ the problem of intent in big history,” in which he emphasized that planning, meaning, intentions, and conscious behavior play much less of a constitutive role in history than is generally believed to be the case. Although I agree with this, I disagreed in detail with many of the particular claims made to prove this point. However, I liked the point that he illustrated by comparing human action to the coevolutionary relationship between squirrels and the trees that have become dependent upon squirrel seed caches for reproduction. He implied the dispensability of consciousness in human history, which is pushed along by evolutionary forces no less than squirrels and trees. But one could just as well draw the opposite lesson, and acknowledge (as implied by the previous talk) that what we think of as uniquely human (such as consciousness) is common in the animal world, and that consciousness is thus as crucial to the coevolutionary relationship between squirrels and trees as between human beings and their domesticates.

The third talk in this panel was Edward Simmons on “Big History, Meaning, and Paradigm Shifts.” While all the talks in this session were excellent, Simmons was an especially gifted speaker who delivers his material with evangelical zeal, which made his presentation entertaining in a different way from that of Jonathan Markley. Simmons cited two recent paradigms shifts — what he called the “McNeill Paradigm” (after the approach of William McNeill) and the erasure of the distinction between history and prehistory — and said that big history brings together these two paradigm shifts. Simmons spoke a lot about meaning, invoking Michael Shermer’s idea of patternicity, which contrasted quite starkly with the immediately previous presentation by Jonathan Markley, which sought to demote meaning in the same way that Simmons spoke of the “demotion” of the written historical record in the wake of scientific historiography as a source of prehistory. Thus even within a single panel discussion the diversity of present approaches to big history was clearly expressed in almost perfect antithetical terms: big history can do without human meanings, and big history is all about human meanings.


Big History Project Plenary Session

After the initial round of panels there was a plenary session at 11:00 am focusing on The Big History Project. This was mostly about teaching big history using resources developed by The Big History Project, but occasionally the teaching issues boil over into more general problems. During the question and answer session, a fellow who had spoken up in previous sessions with questions stood up and said that there were (at least) two conceptual confusions pervasive throughout discussions at this conference: 1) that something could come from nothing (presumably a reference to how the big bang is framed) and 2) that history can say anything about the future. The same individual (whose name I did not get) said that no one had given an adequate definition of history, and then noted that the original Greek term for history meant “inquiry.” Given this Grecian (or even, if you like, Herodotean) origin for the idea of history as an inquiry, I immediately asked myself, “If one can conduct an inquiry into the past, why cannot one also conduct an inquiry into the future?” No doubt these inquires will be distinct because one concerns the past and the other the future, but cannot they be taken up in the same spirit?

There are still a great many traditional historians who simply dismiss as not being history the many extensions made to traditional historiography. It is commonly asserted, for example, that natural history simply is not history in the sense that historians think of history, and that prehistory is not history, properly speaking; that scientific historiography is not history, and that inquiries into the future are not history. Adducing an argument of conceptual confusion against those who would expand and extend the scope of history reminds me of Quine’s “change of logic, change of subject” argument, in which Quine dismisses attempts to extend classical logics, saying that all that non-classical logics do is to change the subject. There is a sense in which big history is non-classical history, and those who would dismiss big history can say that big historians aren’t really doing history, they’re just changing the subject. I am not ascribing this view in detail to the individual who made the above remarks, but much of this is implicit in his comments.

Interpretations (2)

After the Plenary session I headed to panel 23 in room 307 for “Interpretations (2).” First up in this panel was William Katerberg on “Mythic Meaning and Scientific Method in Big History.” This was the most intellectually rigorous presentation that I have seen so far at the conference. Katerberg brought up a lot of interesting issues in an interesting way, breaking new ground as he went. He started out with a discussion of teleology in relation to science, and as someone whose hackles immediately go up when I hear “teleology,” I expected to be irritated, but I wasn’t. Nor did Katerberg do anything predictable like a discussion of Aristotelian natural teleology, but gave several fascinating examples of teleology in science that I would never have thought to characterize in teleological terms. He pointed out the discussions of the supposed inevitability of life and intelligence are teleology. I also was interested in the distinction he made between strong and weak emergentism, which is crucial to clarifying the idea of emergent complexity that is so central to big history.

Next were talks by Rich Blundell on “Radical Hermeneutics: A Case for Big History’s Interpretative Strand,” followed by an online talk from Liverpool by David Hookes on “Cooperation — the key principle in the evolution of the universe.”

Fred Spier

Fred Spier

Interpretations (3)

There were so many interesting things on the program this afternoon that it was extraordinarily difficult to choose, so for the next round of sessions I skipped between rooms. I started with panel 28 in room 302 to hear Nadia Tomova, who gave another online presentation on “Identification and Analysis of Thresholds in History,” then I skipped over to panel 29 in room 202, catching the last of a presentation from a Montessori standpoint. This was followed by two presenters from Portland, James Butler and Todd Duncan. Their topic was “Beyond Reductionism: Weaving Meaning into the Scientific Story of our Cosmic History.” This was another great presentation that broke new ground. The joint speakers outlined a “reductionist narrative” and then demonstrated its inadequacy. They then carefully constructed a counter-narrative that they called the “meaningful universe narrative,” based on the principle that the universe is generating a language in order to tell its own story. I have not given an adequate account of this, but take my word for it that it was a good idea well presented.

This was followed by Fred Spier on “How can we Understand the Emergence of Morality in Big History?” Spier began by citing Baron D’Holbach, a “notorious” atheist of the Enlightenment, who had asked during those rational and tolerant times how we might construct a better society without religion. His answer, using the best science of his time, was to seek a social order that makes both ourselves and others happy. Spier argued that Thomas Jefferson may have been influenced by D’Holbach. Spier then asked if we can return to D’Holbach’s project using the greater scientific knowledge we now have at our command, with big history as the context.

After these talks there was an extended and vigorous exchange between presenters and the audience, including some very funny remarks about the morality of stromatolites. Spier had traced the rudiments of moral behavior to rudimentary organisms, and a geologist asked how he could call stromatolites “good” when they caused the oxygen catastrophe and the mass extinction of most life on Earth at that time. This was all done very humorously, which I may not be accurately communicating.

With all this talk about meaning and morality, there was a lot of flirtation with the naturalistic fallacy, but no one dealt with this explicitly. But, more importantly, there was an elephant in the room. The elephant in the room was the traditional eschatological idea of a transcendent meaning that comes from outside the world to instill meaning and purpose to agents within the world. All the attempts by the speakers, some of them quite clever and ingenious, to show how the world is meaningful and that science need not be reductionist, failed to even address the fact that people who hunger for a meaning that comes from beyond the world to impose a purpose on all within the world will not be satisfied by any meaning intrinsic to the world — even if you could show them that their meaning too, which they arrogate to transcendent status, was also intrinsic to the world.

And there was another problem. In all the discussion of meaning in this panel and in others I attended today, not one person brought up hope as a source of meaning, as in hope for a better world in the future. I don’t think that this was merely an oversight, but rather that it reflects a pervasive tendency of our time to be skeptical if not cynical of any optimistic vision of the future. Having spoken myself on scenarios for the future that look toward more and better things for humanity if only we can prevent the stagnation of our civilization, I know whereof I speak. To be hopeful and optimistic about the future today almost comes across as eccentric. If you add to this pervasive skepticism in regard to hope a sotto voce celebration of lowered horizons, scaled back ambitions, and subtly ascetic modesty under the guise of a normative sustainability, it is difficult to get a hearing for a hopeful and optimistic vision of the future that sees even more human possibilities than we enjoy today.


Journey of the Universe

After some snacks (there was supposed to be a simple dinner, but the campus kitchen was closed down) there was a showing of the film “Journey of the Universe” followed by a discussion including the filmmakers Brian Swimmer and Mary Evelyn Tucker together with Fred Speir and Sun Yue.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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