Scientific Metaphysics and Big History
31 December 2016
Four Species of Big History
While in several posts I have attempted to analyze the positivistic outlook of much contemporary science, which views philosophy like a vampire views garlic and holy water, we all know that the absence of an explicit and acknowledged metaphysic virtually guarantees an implicit and hidden metaphysic. There is a considerable philosophical literature on the metaphysical presuppositions of science; I have written about this also, and in Reduction, Emergence, Supervenience I distinguished between four phases of scientific metaphysics: the eliminativist, the reductionist, the emergentist, and the supervenientist (although when I wrote that post I hadn’t yet fully distinguished eliminativism as a scientific metaphysic).
In so far as Big History constitutes the culmination of scientific historiography, Big History is history informed by the metaphysical presuppositions of natural science. If, then, we take my four divisions of scientific metaphysics as the possible forms that these metaphysical presuppositions can take, we have the four metaphysical forms that Big History can take: eliminativist big history, reductionist big history, emergentist big history, and supervenientist big history. I will consider each of these possibilities in turn.
Already in Reduction, Emergence, Supervenience, in a section titled “Reduction, emergence, and supervenience as philosophies of history,” I began an explicit outline of scientific historiography as founded on these scientific metaphysics:
● Eliminativist Historiography Human history is illusory and should be eliminated as a category of thought; everything history states that is true can be better and exhaustively expressed in a scientific language that makes no use of folk historiography. Therefore we can substitute scientific explanations for historical explanation without change in truth or loss of truth. It would be sufficient to provide a total description of the physics of the past without any overlay of human meanings or values.
● Reductionist Historiography Human history is nothing but natural history, or the history of the world as related by science (which is not necessarily the same thing as natural history). If human meanings and values seem to play a constitutive role in history (or even human consciousness, in the form of making conscious choices), this is merely illusory, an error the follows from human limitations.
● Emergentist Historiography Human history is a whole that emerges from natural history that possesses unique properties as a whole that are not attributable to natural historical processes.
● Supervenient Historiography Human history supervenes on natural history, or the history of the world as related by science. In other words, there can be no change in human history without there being a subvening change in natural history. The A-properties of history supervene upon the B-properties of scientifically delineated history.
The above is a modified version of what I wrote in my earlier post.
Eliminativist Big History
What would be eliminated in a eliminativist big history? Presumably the concepts and categories of folk historiography, as those positivist enthusiasts of eliminativism generally focused on eliminating “folk” concepts (cf. Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress). What are the folk concepts of historiography? Folk concepts of historiography would probably include all or most of the factors highlighted by personalism in history, i.e., concepts of individual human agency, which also might be identified with folk psychology: motivation, intention, purpose, meaning, value, and so on. A scientific historiography would also presumably seek to eliminate all the folk concepts still present in the special sciences made use of by scientific historiography.
How would this play out in Big History? Big History pursued as a form of metaphysical reductionism would resemble a spare and stripped-down scientific historiography more than any other metaphysical formulation under consideration here. The only novel element would be treating the whole history of the universe in these terms of scientific historiography, instead of restricting the scope of such a scientific historiographical enterprise.
Indeed, Otto Neurath, one of the movers and shakers of the Vienna Circle, already foresaw such a reductionist Big History, which he called “Cosmic History”:
“…we may look at all sciences as dovetailed to such a degree that we may regard them as parts of one science which deals with stars, Milky Ways, earth, plants, animals, human beings, forests, natural regions, tribes, and nations — in short, a comprehensive cosmic history would be the result of such an agglomeration… Cosmic history would, as far as we are using a Universal Jargon throughout all branches of research, contain the same statements as our unified science. The language of our Encyclopedia may, therefore, be regarded as a typical language of history. There is no conflict between physicalism and this program of cosmic history.”
Otto Neurath, Foundations of the Social Sciences, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1970 (originally published 1944), p. 9
For Neurath to assert that, “There is no conflict between physicalism and this program of cosmic history,” is to say that history can be subsumed under the physicalism of the Encyclopedia of Unified Science in which the above-quoted monograph appeared, and this means that history could be reduced to protocol sentences of physics. While most historians would, I think, not find this to be congenial, it is remarkable that Neurath conceived this cosmic history as part of the program of unified science, and that it resembles so closely the ambition of Big History.
Reductionist Big History
Reductionism usually takes the form of reducing some higher-level, more comprehensive (or more complex) state-of-affairs to a lower-level, less comprehensive (or less complex) state of affairs; without denying the reality of the higher-level state-of-affairs, but also denying the latter metaphysical primacy. A good example of this is Hilbert’s philosophy of mathematics, which sought to preserve Cantor’s set theory and transfinite numbers, but only by making a distinction between real and ideal mathematics, consigning Cantor to the latter and reserving the former for quasi-constructivist, proto-finitist mathematics. Hilbert “reduced” ideal mathematics to real mathematics, but without insisting upon the elimination of ideal mathematics, and in a similar way reductionist historiography would “reduce” human history to natural history (or to time itself), without insisting upon the elimination of human history.
Like the idealist doctrine of degrees of being, in reductionism there are degrees of reality. Without denying the reality of higher-level, more comprehensive states-of-affairs, these are said to be reducible to, or, “nothing but” the lower-level, less comprehensive states-of-affairs. If we understand history to be a higher-level, more comprehensive conception than time, the reductionist big history would take the form of asserting that history is reducible to time, or that history is nothing but time. But the reductionist does not take the additional step taken by the eliminativist, so that the reductionist does not assert either that history is unreal or time unreal, or that these are meaningless. Both are real, but each enjoys a different degree of reality. This interpretation of reductionism as a doctrine of degrees of reality could be given further exposition, but it opens up so many problems (and so many opportunities) that I will not consider it further at present.
It must be admitted that there are strong reductionist strains in scientific historiography, and many of these are retained in the movement of the ideas of scientific historiography into Big History. If it is argued that some major historical development is entirely due to climate change, or geography, or cosmological circumstances like the fact that Earth had only one moon, and so on, we are here approximating a purely reductionist Big History. This kind of reductionism is antithetical to personalism in history, in which human actors loom large, but while the eliminativist Big Historian might simply do without any reference to human actors in history, the reductivist Big Historian would retain human actors, but would ascribe their actions to larger forces, be those forces fundamental physics, cosmology, geography, or something else.
Emergentist Big History
Emergentism, unlike eliminationism and reductionism, has a prominent and explicit place in Big History. Big Historians usually recognize eight thresholds of emergent complexity in the history of the universe — the big bang, stars, chemical elements, planets, life, human beings, argiculture, and modernity — at least, these are the thresholds made canonical by David Christian. There are alternative periodizations based on thresholds of emergent complexity, but most Big Historians recognize some sort of periodization of the history of the universe entire based on emergent complexity.
One of the similes employed by contemporary philosophers to explain the ambition of metaphysics is the idea of carving nature at the joints. This is precisely what Big Historians are trying to do in using emergent complexity as a basis for periodization. Historians have always employed periodizations; with Big History, these periodizations are now drawn not from human conventions, but from the actual history of nature itself, from the very structure of the universe, and thus are quantifiable and can be studied by science. Here scientific historiography is “cashed out” by making periodization subject to rigorous scientific research. It would be difficult to imagine a more perfect exemplification of a metaphysical synthesis of science and history.
While emergentism features prominently in Big History, the Big History version of emergent complexity has not yet been a focus of research by philosophers, and so it lacks the clarity and ambition to system that we would expect to find in a more philosophical account. In some accounts of Big History, emergentism is invoked rather than explained or exhibited, so there remains much work to be done. Big History employs emergentism, but it could not be said that Big History is as yet a thoroughly emergentist conception of history — we could apply the idea of emergence more systematically and exhaustively — nor could we say that the possibilities of emergentism in the philosophy of history have been even sketched out. I suspect that we will begin to see this in the coming decade.
Supervenientist Big History
I know of no explicit formulation of supervenientist Big History, but as a more subtle and sophisticated philosophical doctrine than its predecessors eliminationism, reductionism, and emergentism, it is not difficult to imagine that someone will, sooner rather than later, employ the metaphysical tools of supervenience to the analysis of history. Supervenience could be interpreted in a way consistent with reductionism or emergentism, so these iterations of the metaphysics of Big History could be considered precursors that eventually lead to a more sophisticated formulation in terms of supervenience. (It should, however, be pointed out that the formulation of emergentism in the first section above, “Human history is a whole that emerges from natural history that possesses unique properties as a whole that are not attributable to natural historical processes,” is not consistent with supervenience, while implies that there could be formulations of emergentist historiography inconsistent with supervenientist historiography.)
Because supervenience is a sophisticated metaphysical doctrine, there are many different formulations with subtle differences. Thus there could be many different forms of supervenientist Big History (as noted above, some compatible with emergence, and some not, and the same could be said of elimination and reduction), depending upon the variety of supervenience one employs in demonstrating that historical properties supervene on some base properties. But what do we take to be the base properties upon which historical properties supervene? Are these base properties temporal properties, or human properties, or physical properties of the universe? One of the reasons I have been emphasizing the relationship between time and history is because in my recent post A Metaphysical Disconnect I argued that the fact that the philosophy of time is not tightly-coupled with the philosophy of history points to a major disconnect. Seen in the might of supervenience, that might have historical properties supervene on properties of human societies rather than properties of time, there is here the suggestion of an argument in favor of the disconnect that I noted.
A supervenientist Big History rapidly becomes so bogged down in technical details that I will have to save an attempt at a brief exposition for a later time, as I do not yet have a grasp of this that would allow me to summarize the issues with any degree of accuracy. Nevertheless, I will not the possibility of a supervenientist Big History as a direction that research into the metaphysics of Big History could take in the near future.
The Future: Big History after Scientific Metaphysics
In the fullness of time, assuming our civilization does not falter and so continues in its development (i.e., assuming the failure condition), the contemporary paradigm of science will become so altered by revision and addition that it will no longer be recognizable as what we today think of as science. Science itself will be forced to expand and to change in order to encompass objects of knowledge not accessible by contemporary scientific methods (e.g., consciousness). This change will be both influenced by changes in our philosophical outlook, and will in turn influence the shaping of our philosophical outlook. As a consequence, the metaphysical presuppositions of science will evolve along with the evolution of scientific method. The quadripartite schema I have laid out above of eliminativist, reductionist, emergentist, and supervenientist scientific metaphysics will give way to other ways of conceptualizing the world.
Big History, as an expression of scientific historiography, and thus an expression of science and of scientific civilization, will change along with the changes in scientific method and metaphysical presuppositions of history. There will always be a division of history that takes as its remit the most comprehensive conception of history, and in this sense there will always be Big History, though eventually it will be Big History without the metaphysical presuppositions of science that now subtly inform scientific historiography.
Scientific metaphysics is the intellectual superstructure of scientific civilization. In the illustration below I suggest an overall tripartite distinction among pre-scientific metaphysics, scientific metaphysics (i.e., the metaphysics that facilitates science), and post-scientific metaphysics. There is almost certain further developments of scientific metaphysics to come, which will continue to illuminate the scientific civilization of which we are part. But at some point the accumulated differences will push us over a threshold beyond which the scientific paradigm no longer applies, and that post-scientific civilization will have to be illuminated by a post-scientific metaphysics.
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