The Study of Civilization as Formal Science and as Adventure Science
10 January 2017
In my recent paper “A Manifesto for the Scientific Study of Civilization” I argued that the study of civilization should be scientific, and that a scientific theory of civilization would be a formal theory. Prior to this, I argued in Rational Reconstructions of Time that a formal historiography is possible. What is the connection between these two claims? In A Metaphysical Disconnect I suggested that it is a philosophical problem that philosophies of time have not been tightly-coupled with philosophies of history. This implies that a formal theory of time could be tightly-coupled with a formal theory of history, and a formal theory of history would presumably encompass (or, at least, overlap) a theory of civilization. A formal theory of civilization, then, might ultimately follow from formal historiography.
I fully understand that these are strange claims for me to be making. What in the world do I mean by a formal theory of time, of history, or of civilization? How could a science of civilization be a formal science? What is a formal science, anyway? Despite the burgeoning growth of computer science in our time, which is the latest addition to the formal sciences, the very idea of the formal as a distinct category of thought (distinct, especially, from the material) seems odd and alien to us, and the distinction between the formal sciences and the natural sciences seems archaic. What are the formal sciences? Here is one view:
“To put it in Kantian terms, the formal sciences dealt with the Reine Anschauung as opposed to empirical data. By that they have been connected to the methodology of mathematics and logic, thereby being part of both the philosophical tradition and the newly won applications of mathematical sciences to the natural sciences and engineering. Both the object and the methods of the Formal sciences were recognized as different from the Natural and the Social sciences.”
“The Formal Sciences: Their Scope, Their Foundations, and Their Unity” by Benedikt Löwe, Synthese, Vol. 133, No. 1/2, Foundations of the Formal Sciences I (Oct.-Nov., 2002),pp. 5-11
In the same paper there is an explicit attempt to answer the question, “What are the Formal Sciences?” Two answers are given:
● Answer 1: “There is a profound duality in the classification of sciences according to their scientific approaches: some sciences are empirical, some are formal. The former deal with predictions and their falsification, the latter with the understanding of systems without empirical component, be it man-made systems (literary systems, the arts or social systems) or formal systems”.
● Answer 2: “Formal sciences are those that deal with the deductive analysis of formal systems (i.e., systems independent of direct human influence)”.
At present I am not going to analyze these differing definitions of the formal sciences, but I will leave them to percolate in the back of the mind of the reader in order to return to the question at hand: the study of civilization as a formal science, i.e., one formal science among many other formal sciences, however we choose to define them.
We can get a hint of what a formal science of civilization would look like from structuralist historians and historians of the Annales school, the chief representatives of the latter being Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Fernand Braudel. Marc Bloch’s two volume history of feudalism, in particular, stands out as a great achievement in the genre, with chapters devoted to features of feudal society rather than to great events and historical turning points. Whereas John Florio had Montaigne say that I describe not the essence but the passage, Bloch sought to describe not the passage, but the essence. (I previously quoted from Bloch in Hegel and the Overview Effect.)
There is (or, there will be) no one, single way to approach formal historiography, in the same way that there is no one, single axiomatization of set theory. Even if one agrees with Gödel that set theory describes a “well-determined reality” (a realist conception that most people today would agree describes the past, even if they would hesitate to say the same of set theory), there are, as yet, many distinct approaches to that reality. So too with formal historiography; there will be many distinct formalisms for the organization, exhibition, and exposition of the well-determined reality of history.
I reveal myself as being more of a traditionalist than Bloch by my preference for approaching a theory of civilization by way of a theory of history, and a theory of history by way of a theory of time. This is “traditional” in the sense that, as I have remarked many times in other places, it has been traditional to study civilization by studying history, rather than studying civilization as an object of knowledge in its own right. I retain the historical perspective, and indeed even many of the prejudices of historians (these come naturally to me), but I can also see beyond history sensu stricto and to a science of time, a science of history, and a science of civilization that lies beyond history even as it draws from the tradition all that that tradition has to offer.
Both the essentialist approach of Bloch and the Annales school, and my own quasi-historical approach to a formal science of civilization, may each have something to contribute to a theory of civilization. Obviously, these are not the only ways to study civilization. Civilization also can be studied as an empirical science — this is probably how most would conceive a science of civilization — and even as an adventure science. What is adventure science?
Together with Dr. Jacob Shively, I wrote an article about adventure science, Adventure Science Enters the Space Age, noting that “big science” has become the paradigm of scientific activity at the present time, but when individual human beings are able to go exploring they will be able to pluck the low-hanging fruit of exploration and discovery. Adventure science characterizes the earliest stage of a science when discoveries can be made simply by traveling to an exotic locale and being the first to describe some phenomenon never before documented by science. Such discoveries are difficult for us now, because the low-hanging fruit of terrestrial discovery has all been plucked, but once off Earth, new worlds will beckon with new discoveries waiting to be made. This will be a new Golden Age of adventure science.
Paradoxically, the science of civilization will become an adventure science (if it ever becomes one) quite late in its history, so that adventure science will characterize a science of civilization not in its earliest stages, but in its latest stages. But civilization has had a kind of early adventure science phase as well. Archaeology was once the paradigm of adventure science — as attested to by the cinematic adventures of Indiana Jones and the television adventures of Relic Hunter — when real life explorers entered jungles and deserts and swamps to search for long lost cities. Archaeology is perhaps the closest existing discipline that we have to a true science of civilization — archaeologists have many theories of civilization — so that the adventure science that archaeology once was, was at the same time (at least in part) an adventure science of civilization. And it may be so again, when xenoarchaeologists lead the way, looking for the ruins of alien civilizations.
All of the resources of contemporary big science, with its thousands of researchers and multi-generational socially-organized research programs, will be necessary in order to develop the science that will make possible the production of interstellar vessels. In my Centauri Dreams post, The Interstellar Imperative, I wrote, “A starship would be the ultimate scientific instrument produced by technological civilization, constituting both a demanding engineering challenge to build and offering the possibility of greatly expanding the scope of scientific knowledge by studying up close the stars and worlds of our universe, as well as any life and civilization these worlds may comprise.” Once starships become a reality, they will make possible the empirical study of civilizations, which will begin as an adventure science, the primary qualification for which will be a willingness to tolerate discomfort and to travel to distant places with a determination to document every new sight that one sees.
Geology will become an adventure science like this once again as soon as human beings have the freedom to travel around our solar system; biology and ecology will become adventure sciences once again as soon as we can visit other living worlds. The study of civilization will not become an adventure science until human beings are free to travel about the cosmos, so that this is a very distant prospect, but still a hopeful one. If we do not find a number of interesting civilizations to study, we will build a number of interesting civilizations, and eventually these will be studied in their turn. In this latter instance, the science of civilization will only become an adventure science after civilization has expanded throughout the cosmos, has forgotten the saga of its expansion, and then rediscovers itself across a plurality of worlds. And once again we will be forced to reckon with Hegel’s prescience for having said that the owl of Minerva takes flight only with the setting of the sun.
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