A Metric for the Science of Civilization
3 July 2015
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.
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.
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?).
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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