The March for Science

22 April 2017

Saturday


Science has a political problem, but science as an institution is not prepared to face up to its political problem. Worse, institutionalized science is prepared to dig itself in deeper into its political problem with the March for Science today, which will present scientists to the public as activists.

Science is an institution of western civilization — I would argue the central institution of contemporary western civilization — which latter is, in turn, a macro-institution made up of many other institutions. Big science means institutionalized science; institutionalized science means, in turn, an institution integrated with other institutions, including political institutions. So, as many of the backers of the March for Science have insisted, science cannot avoid being political. But not being able to avoid political entanglements is quite a different matter from consciously and purposefully promoting, in the mind of the public, science as a form of activism and the scientist as an activist.

Lawrence M. Krauss touched on part of the problem in an article for Scientific American, March for Science or March for Reality? Hostility toward the former is troublesome, but hostility toward the latter is the underlying issue, in which he wrote, “The March for Science could then appear as a self-serving political lobbying effort by the scientific community to increase its funding base.” But it is not only the problem of appearing to be self-serving, but the appearance of serving an ideology, that is the problem.

Krauss cited Richard Feynman to the effect that, for a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled, and Philip K. Dick to the effect that, Reality is that which continues to exist even when you stop believing in it. Krauss does not cite the also applicable quote from Ayn Rand: “We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” This oversight is understandable; Ayn Rand is quite clearly not the kind of figure that the organizers or supporters of the March for Science would want to invoke. The whole populist movement and its isolationist orientation is far too redolent of Rand’s character John Galt. The fact that Ayn Rand doesn’t fit the March for Science narrative tells us something important about the implicit politics of the March for Science.

Though the organizers of the March for Science have made a point to emphasize the non-partisan nature of the march, this claim in disingenuous, and, indeed, those marchers who insist that science cannot avoid being political are explicitly recognizing the political nature of the march.

Inevitably, the March for Science has become political, despite protestations to the contrary, and it has become political in ways that the organizers were prefer not to recognize. You can read about this in Why the ‘March for Science’ Is in Turmoil: A departure from leadership is highlighting diversity issues less than a week before the march by Tanya Basu, which discusses the departure from the organizers of Jacquelyn Gill, who posted a series of remarks on Twitter explaining the reasons for her departure.

Although institutionalized science has bent over backward to accommodate the hypersensitive contemporary university climate and its sometimes bizarre, sometimes petty, demands that it places upon scholars and researchers, the complaint is that the march has been insufficiently solicitous of those who would play the victim card (and of those who claim to be the representatives of the oppressed and the downtrodden) and whose demands for activism on the part of institutionalized science have not been met to their satisfaction. (Note: these demands cannot be met, and are not intended to be met, but are rather intended to be used as a cudgel against those in positions of power.)

There was an article in Nature (one of the world’s leading science journals, How the March for Science splits researchers: Nature asked members of the scientific community whether or not they plan to march on 22 April — and why by Erin Ross, which included a quote from Nathan Gardner, who put his finger on the problem:

“I am not going to the March for Science, because people in America view science as leftist. Maybe it’s because [former US vice-president] Al Gore launched ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. I’ve seen articles from right-wing outlets that are framing the march as focusing on gender equality and identity politics. I think it could easily politicize science because, even though the march’s mission statement isn’t anti-Trump, the marchers seem anti-Trump.”

This, in a nutshell, is science’s political problem, the problem it does not want to acknowledge, and the problem it is not prepared to address, because to address it head-on would be too painful. There has been a lot of talk about respecting the evidence and the need for a frank recognition of what science tells us, but this commitment is exercised lopsidedly. If you want to talk about hostility to reality, as Krauss would have it, consider the institutional response to scientists who have dared to research “no go” areas of knowledge that contradict the dominate social narrative of our time.

In recent decades, science has largely respected the “no go” areas of the left, and has sometimes enthusiastically embraced the ideological agenda of the left. (Jonathan Haidt and his Heterodox Academy have been particularly effective in pointing out the lack of diversity of opinion in academic science.) While the left has had its “no go” areas largely respected, the “no go” areas of the right and of traditionalists have not been respected, and it is not at all unusual to see their failures gleefully pointed out in the spirit of iconoclasm. Certainly, there was a time in the past when academic institutions slavishly respected the “no go” areas of the traditionalists, but these days are long behind us. And I am certainly not suggesting that anyone’s “no go” areas should be respected. Ideally, scientific research would take place without respect to anyone’s feelings or ideologies, but it is dishonest to carefully avoid offending one side while poking and prodding the other side.

While I think that the March for Science will do more harm than good, it is not likely to have much of an impact, so if it makes people feel good about themselves to go marching and waving signs and chanting call-and-response rituals, it probably doesn’t matter much. The loss to science will be only incremental. But if it is followed by more incremental politicization of science, then our entire civilization will be threatened by the death of a thousand cuts to the ideal of an objective and dispassionate science that tells us as much as we are capable of understanding at present, whether we want to hear it or not. There is no tonic for the soul quite like an unwelcome truth, and science has been masterful at administering these draughts in the past. I hope that science does not lose this talent.

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Sunday


Mathis Gothart, Isenheim Altarpiece, Resurrection panel (1512–1516)

Easter is one of the central religious holidays of the Christian calendar — if not the central religious holiday of Christianity — and thus one of the central symbols of Christian civilization. In the period of a single week we pass from Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his betrayal, trial, execution, entombment, and eventual resurrection, which, by any measure, must be something of an emotional roller-coaster for those who celebrate the holiday in a participatory spirit, that is to say, for those who engage in the prescribed rituals as a means of participating in the myth, as when pilgrims travel to Jerusalem and walk the Via Dolorosa, commemorating the Stations of the Cross.

I have often cited Joseph Campbell to the effect that a ritual is the opportunity to participate in a myth, so that all rituals are, in a sense, participatory forms of faith. Rituals are also what J. L. Austin called performatives, i.e., that very act of ritual participation is a religious observance; religious value is inherent in the act of participation.

For the Christian, the ultimate performative is to follow in Christ’s footsteps, a practice that in medieval Christendom was called imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ. In the hope of resurrection and the life everlasting the individual Christian also hopes to extend the imitatio Christi to the next world; the resurrection of Christ is the model for the resurrection of the believer in Christ. The Christian believer, too, can experience resurrection, and this destiny of the individual soul is understood to be a function of salvation.

Recently I have been thinking about the relationship between soteriology and eschatology in the Christian tradition. It strikes me that soteriology and eschatology are tightly-coupled in Christianity — more tightly-coupled than in the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, and much more tightly-coupled that the non-Abrahamic faiths. The events and the symbolism of Easter embody this tightly-coupled Christian tradition of soteriology and eschatology. Though tightly-coupled, there is, however, an asymmetry: soteriology is voluntaristic, but eschatology is not; we will all be judged, but we will not all be saved.

In Christianity, salvation is salvation from death, and the substitution of a life eternal in Christ for a worldly fate of dissolution and personal extinction. Compare this, for example, to the Hindu tradition, in which the transmigration of souls is a central doctrine. Superficially, the eternal life of the transmigrating soul can be compared to the eternal soul of the Christian tradition, but this is misleading. The transmigrating soul casts off bodies like a snake casting off its skin, while the resurrection guarantees the believing Christian not only an eternal life in Christ, but even the possession of the body that the soul seems to cast off upon death.

If soteriology and eschatology are tightly-coupled in the Christian tradition and loosely-coupled in other religious traditions, what are the limits on the possible relations between the two? To what extent are soteriology and eschatology ideally separable from each other? Is it possible to have soteriology in isolation from eschatology, and eschatology in isolation from soteriology? It is arguable that the practical faiths that have focused on human actions in this world, with little or no reference to a life beyond death or a world beyond this world, are soteriological in essence without a significant eschatological element. Judaism is like this to a certain extent, and Confucianism to a much greater extent. When asked by a disciple about life after death, Confucius was supposed to have said, “We have not yet learned to know life. How can we know death?” That the question was asked points to the human preoccupation with death, and that it was dismissed in the way that it was dismissed, points to the distinctive Confucian response to the human condition.

There is another possibility. I can’t think of any existing religious tradition that embodies this approach, but it is equally possible that a system of belief might focus on a grand scheme of cosmological eschatology and be more or less indifferent to soteriology. Indeed, if contemporary science were a religion, or even a religious surrogate (some would argue that it is the latter; I would not so argue), it would perfectly fit the bill in this respect. The Copernican principle is frequently invoked as a punishment of human pride, demonstrating our insignificance before the universe. Human salvation here is unimportant, and so left unaddressed. Positivists, in general, are satisfied with this state-of-affairs, but most human beings are not. One cause for anti-scientific sentiment among the general public is precisely this scientific indifference to the human condition.

If a naturalistic soteriology could be joined to the naturalistic eschatology of the scientific worldview, this would be a powerful combination. It might even be possible to advance toward a civilization with science as a central project, or some central project derived from science, such as the exploration of the cosmos, if some soteriology were emergent from science. But I cannot think of any ideas derived from science that could adequately serve this function. There is the idea of humanity as one — the ultimate unity of the species — and the idea of mere humanity — a quasi-religious sense of human exceptionalism — or even humanity’s responsibility for itself as a moral imperative. However, I don’t see any of these as effective substitutes for soteriology.

The distinctive characteristic of Axial Age belief systems is the discovery of a universal human nature, the definition of the human condition in terms of this human nature, and the identification of a particular destiny for humanity in virtue of human nature and the human condition. The tribal gods, appropriate to tribal chiefdoms but falling short of the needs of large-scale social organization, were content to be worshiped as a god among gods, and made no special claim to a privileged knowledge of the human heart. The gods of the Axial Age surpassed these tribal gods, and they demanded more in turn. It wasn’t enough simply to build a civilization, to erect great monuments, to foster bustling cities and their commerce, to conquer the cities of rival powers, in other words, the ordinary business of life was not enough. Something more was called for. This something more turned out to be a sacrifice demanded in exchange for salvation.

Christianity could be said to belong to the second generation of Axial Age faiths, descended with modification from the Axial Age innovations of Mesopotamia, if we distinguish a sequence of the original Axial Age faiths, the second generation of faiths that grew out of the original Axial Age faiths, and the third generation of faiths that grew from the earlier two. Each later generation of Axial Age faiths evolved under the selection pressure of the earlier generation of Axial Age faiths, and of the societies that these earlier Axial Age faiths shaped. Part of this evolution became the individual taking personal responsibility for their salvation, but also being the beneficiary of personal salvation. The earlier Axial Age faiths had focused much more on the social whole, but Christianity raised the stakes and introduced a dialectic between the individual and the community. The individual was given new importance, but was also expected to act on behalf of the brotherhood of mankind, selflessly if necessary.

The the survival of early civilizations was at stake in religiously-constructed communal identities, as I noted in All Believers are Brothers, where I wrote:

“Religion facilitates the construction of indefinitely expandable kin networks far more extensive than any exclusively biological kin network. A society that originates as a biological kin network can transcend the natural limitation that checks the growth of a biological kin network through displacing its biological culture into a religious framework. There is, then, no absolute distinction between kin selection and group selection among human beings, because what begins as kin selection can be extended to group selection through an in-group identity rooted in biological origins but later extended to individuals not within the immediate (biological) kin network.”

This principled conflation of differences was the foundation of an identity that made large-scale civilizations, and so already looked beyond the regional civilizations of the Axial Age, in a way not unlike how the regional civilizations looked beyond the tribal chiefdoms they supplanted. This is an example of the continual self-transcendence of civilization that I have remarked on elsewhere. The particular Christian solution to the problem of communal identity was to have tightly-coupled eschatology and soteriology, and it is at least arguable that this tightly-coupled sense of destiny and salvation persists in a secularized form today. But the secularized form is a bastardized theology, and we would do better, for the future of our civilization, if we could find a scientific soteriology to couple with our scientific eschatology, rather to than to continue play out the limited options of a theology that no longer knows itself to be such. The survival of our civilization is no less at stake today than it was during the Axial Age.

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Epistemic Collapse

13 April 2017

Thursday


Not long ago in Snowstorm Reflections on Collapse and Recovery I discussed some of the experiences likely to be related to a local and limited collapse of social institutions, as a way to consider broader and deeper scenarios of social collapse. In this connection I quoted the following from Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

“Collapse, as viewed in the present work, is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a society must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The demise of the Carolingian Empire, thus, is not a case of collapse — merely an unsuccessful attempt at empire building. The collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of sociopolitical structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of weakness and decline.”

Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 4

For Tainter, collapse is sociopolitical collapse, but we need not be limited by this stipulation. There are potentially many different meanings of “collapse” and I would like to particularly focus on what I will call epistemic collapse, which has played at least as prominent a role as social collapse in the extinction of civilizations.

A definition of epistemic collapse, that is to say, a catastrophic loss of knowledge, can closely parallel Tainter’s definition of social collapse, like this:

A society has epistemically collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of knowledge (epistemic complexity). The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a body of knowledge must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The epistemic collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of epistemic structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of epistemic weakness and decline.”

Tainter emphasizes that a “collapse” implies a previous level of attainment and stability (continuity); I agree with Tainter that this is an important qualification to make. It should also be pointed out that collapse implies a subsequent stability of the lower level of complexity and attainment, perhaps for a generation or two. In other words, a collapse — whether social, epistemic, or otherwise — means that stability and continuity at a higher level of complexity and integration is rapidly replaced by stability and continuity at a lower level of complexity and integration.

We know that one of the reasons the European “Dark Ages” were dark was the loss of the accumulated knowledge of classical antiquity, or, if not the loss (in an absolute sense), its restricted access due to loss of educational institutions, reduction in the publication, copying, and distribution of books, reduction in literacy, and so forth. During this period of reduced access to knowledge, some knowledge was lost in an absolute sense. Some books deteriorated or were destroyed before they were copied, and so have been lost to history. Much of the tradition of educational institutions was lost, as the educational institutions of classical antiquity went extinct or were extirpated (Justinian ordered the closing of the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD) and were subsequently replaced by educational institutions attached to the Catholic Church.

To reach further back into the past, around 1200 BC there was a generalized collapse that led to the extinction of several Bronze Age civilizations (this story is recounted in Eric Cline’s book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed). This severe blow to civilization led to a significant epistemic collapse characterized by widespread loss of literacy throughout the ancient world. Homer, we recall, was recounting an “ancient” time of heroes and heroic deeds, and it has been speculated that the Homeric corpus was the translation into written form of oral poetry that survived from this dark age of more warfare and less reading as compared to the age that preceded it.

In the kind of generalized collapse resulting in the extinction of civilizations that characterized the Late Bronze Age, there was both social and epistemic collapse, but to what extent are these two modalities of collapse separable? Even if not instantiated in human history, is it possible for a civilization to remain socially stable while experiencing epistemic collapse, or to remain epistemically stable while experiencing social collapse? I think that counterfactuals could be constructed to illustrate the possibility of isolated social or epistemic collapse, but these would not be very convincing without some historical parallel to make the point. A possible example could be the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, which was not tightly-coupled to a social collapse, but which entailed a significant epistemic loss, or the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258, which, again, was not tightly-coupled to social collapse (except for the collapse of Baghdad itself) but was a disaster for learning and certainly issued in permanently lower levels of epistemic attainment in the region. For an illustration of the opposite isolation, it is arguable that Byzantium preserved the epistemic record of Roman civilization even as all Roman social institutions collapsed and were replaced.

The above considerations suggest that a distinction should be made between collapse (of some particular kind) and the extinction of a civilization. Only the most generalized collapse over several classes of human endeavor result in the extinction of civilization, and we can obtain a more finely-grained appreciation of how societies ultimately fail and civilizations go extinct (or resist extinction) by separating social, financial, legal, religious, and epistemic collapse, inter alia.

Multiple collapses result in the extinction of civilization. Civilization is itself a complex institution that is comprised of many sub-institutions; that is to say, civilization is an institution of institutions. We can classify the institutions that go on to make up a civilization as social institutions, economic institutions, legal institutions, epistemic institutions, and so on. All of these institutions are intertwined in civilization, but it sometimes happens that even an integrated institution within civilization will collapse without the civilization of which it is a part collapsing. The many intertwined institutions that together constitute civilization mutually support each other and can bring a civilization through a difficult time if enough of these institutions persist despite the failure of other institutions.

If our nascent scientific civilization were to experience an epistemic collapse, but the social institutions of our civilization retained a significant measure of continuity, our civilization could enter into a state of permanent stagnation (something I noted as the greatest existential risk of our time in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?). If, on the other hand, we provide a robust backup of our knowledge, so thorough that a social collapse is not also an epistemic bottleneck, we could see the social institutions we know disappear even while our knowledge was largely intact and propagated into the future. Thus the human future itself admits of possible isolated social or epistemic collapse. Something like our civilization would survive on the other side of this collapse, after the recovery or replacement of the failed institutions, but that civilization would be fundamentally altered by the process.

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Sunday


Looking down on Earth from above may not only make us reevaluate out relationship to the planet, but may also help us to understand the planet better.

Science is a way to better understand the world, but science itself is not always easy to understand, and we often find that, after clarifying some problem through science, we must then clarify the science so that the science makes sense to us. Some call this science communication; I call it the pursuit of intuitive tractability.

While it is not part of science proper to seek intuitively tractable formulations, it is part of human nature to seek intuitively tractable formulations, as we are more satisfied with science formulated in intuitively tractable forms than with science that is not intuitively tractable. For example, there is, as yet, no intuitively tractable formulation of quantum theory, and this may be why Einstein famously wrote in a letter to Max Born that, “Quantum Mechanics is very impressive. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing.”

When the concept of zero was introduced into mathematics, it was thought to be an advanced and difficult idea, but we now teach a number system starting with zero to children in primary school. In a similar way, the Hindu-Arabic system of numbers has displaced almost every other system of numbers because it is what I would paradoxically call an intuitive formalism, i.e., it is a formalization of the number concept that is both adequate to mathematics and closely follows our intuitive conception of number. Mathematics is easier with Hindu-Arabic numerals than other numbering systems because this numbering system is intuitively tractable. There are other formalisms for number that are equally valid and equally correct, but not as intuitively tractable.

The pursuit of intuitive tractability has also been evident in geometry, and especially the axiomatic exposition of geometry that begins with postulates accepted ab initio as self-evident, and which has been the model of rigorous mathematics ever since Euclid. Euclid’s fifth postulate, the famous parallel postulate, is difficult to understand and was a theoretical problem for geometry until its independence was proved, but whether or not the fifth postulate was demonstrably independent of the other postulates, Euclid’s opaque exposition did not help. Here is Euclid’s parallel axiom from the Elements:

“If a line segment intersects two straight lines forming two interior angles on the same side that sum to less than two right angles, then the two lines, if extended indefinitely, meet on that side on which the angles sum to less than two right angles.”

Almost two thousand years later, in 1846, John Playfair formulated what we now call “Playfair’s axiom,” which tells us everything that Euclid’s postulate sought to communicate, but in a far more intuitively tractable form: “In a plane, given a line and a point not on it, at most one line parallel to the given line can be drawn through the point.” Once this more intuitively tractable formulation of the parallel postulate was available, Euclid’s formulation was largely abandoned. There is, then, a process of cognitive selection, whereby the most intuitively tractable formulations are preserved and the less intuitively tractable formulations are abandoned.

Those concepts that are the most intuitively tractable are those concepts that are familiar to us all and which are seamlessly integrated into ordinary thought and language. I have called such concepts “folk concepts.” Folk concepts that have persisted from their origins in our earliest evolutionary psychology up into the present have been subjected to the cognitive equivalent of natural selection, so that we can reasonably speak of folk concepts as having been refined and elaborated by the experience of many generations.

In a series of posts — Folk Astrobiology, Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization, and Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress — I have considered the nature of “folk” concepts as they have been frequently invoked, and it is natural to ask, in the light of such an inquiry, whether there is a “folk Weltanschauung” that is constituted by a cluster of folk concepts that naturally hang together, and which inform the pre-scientific (or non-scientific) way of thinking about the world.

Arguably, the idea of a folk Weltanschauung is already familiar by a number of different terms that philosophers have employed to identify the concept (or something like the concept) — naïve realism or common sense realism, for example. What Husserl called “natürliche Einstellung” and which Boyce Gibson translated as “natural standpoint” and Fred Kersten translated as “natural attitude” could be said to approximate a folk Weltanschauung. Here is how Husserl describes the natürliche Einstellung:

“I am conscious of a world endlessly spread out in space, endlessly becoming and having endlessly become in time. I am conscious of it: that signifies, above all, that intuitively I find it immediately, that I experience it. By my seeing, touching, hearing, and so forth, and in the different modes of sensuous perception, corporeal physical things with some spatial distribution or other are simply there for me, ‘on hand’ in the literal or the figurative sense, whether or not I am particularly heedful of them and busied with them in my considering, thinking, feeling, or willing.”

Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy: First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology, translated by Fred Kersten, section 27

Husserl characterizes the natural attitude as a “thesis” — a thesis consisting of a series of posits of the unproblematic existence of ordinary objects — that can be suspended, set aside, as it were, by the phenomenological procedure of “bracketing.” These posits could be identified with folk concepts, making the thesis of the natural standpoint into a folk Weltanschauung, but I think this interpretation is a bit forced and not exactly what Husserl had in mind.

Perhaps closer to what I am getting at than the Husserlian natural attitude is what Wilfrid Sellars has called the manifest image of man-in-the-world, or simply the manifest image. Sellars’ thought is no easier to get a handle on than Husserl’s thought, so that one never quite knows if one has gotten it right, and one can easily imagine being lectured by a specialist in the inadequacies of one’s interpretation. Nevertheless, I think that Sellers’ manifest image is closer to what I am trying to get at than Husserl’s natürliche Einstellung. Closer, but still not the same.

Sellars develops the idea of the manifest image in contrast to the scientific image, and this distinction is especially given exposition in his essay Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man. After initially characterizing the philosophical quest such that, “[i]t is… the ‘eye on the whole’ which distinguishes the philosophical enterprise,” and distinguishing several different senses in which philosophy could be said to be a synoptic effort at understanding the world as a whole, Sellars introduces terms for contrasting two distinct ways of seeing the world whole:

“…the philosopher is confronted not by one complex many dimensional picture, the unity of which, such as it is, he must come to appreciate; but by two pictures of essentially the same order of complexity, each of which purports to be a complete picture of man-in-the-world, and which, after separate scrutiny, he must fuse into one vision. Let me refer to these two perspectives, respectively, as the manifest and the scientific images of man-in-the-world.”

Wilfrid Sellars, Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man, section 1

Sellars’ distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image has been quite influential. A special issue of the journal Humana Mente, Between Two Images: The Manifest and Scientific Conceptions of the Human Being, 50 Years On, focused on the two images. Bas C. van Fraassen in particular has written a lot about Sellars, devoting an entire book to one of the two images, The Scientific Image, and has also written several relevant papers, such as “On the Radical Incompleteness of the Manifest Image” (Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association,Vol. 1976, Volume Two: Symposia and Invited Papers 1976, pp. 335-343). All of this material is well worth reading.

Sellars is at pains to point out that his distinction between manifest image and scientific image is not intended to be a distinction between pre-scientific and scientific worldviews (“…what I mean by the manifest image is a refinement or sophistication of what might be called the ‘original’ image…”), though it is clear from this exposition that the manifest image, however refined and up-to-date, has its origins in a pre-scientific conception of the world. (“It is, first, the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world.”) The essence of this distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image is that the manifest image is correlational while the scientific image is postulational. What this means is that the manifest image “explains” the world (in so far as it could be said to explain the world at all) by correlations among observables, while the scientific image explains the world by positing unobservables that connect observables “under the surface” of things, as it were (involving, “…the postulation of imperceptible entities”). Sellars also maintains that the manifest image cannot postulate in this way, and therefore cannot be improved or refined by science, although it can improve on itself by its own correlational methods.

I do not yet understand Sellars well enough to say why he insists that the manifest image cannot incorporate insights from the scientific image, and this is a key point of divergence between Sellars’ manifest image and what I above called a folk Weltanschauung. If a folk Weltanschauung consists of a cluster of tightly-coupled folk concepts (and perhaps a wide penumbra of associated but loosely-coupled folk concepts), then the generation of refined scientific concepts can slowly, one-by-one, replace folk concepts, so that the folk Weltanschauung gradually evolves into a more scientific Weltanschauung, even if it is not entirely transformed under the influence of scientific concepts. Science, too, consists of a cluster of tightly-coupled concepts, and these two distinct clusters of concepts — the folk and the scientific — might well resist mixing for a time, but the human mind cannot keep such matters rigorously separate, and it is inevitable that each will bleed over into the other. Sometimes this “bleeding over” is intentional, as when science reaches for metaphors or non-scientific language as a way to make its findings understood to a wider audience. This is part of the pursuit of intuitively tractable formulations, but it can also go very wrong, as when scientists adopt theological language in an attempt at a popular exposition that will not be rejected out-of-hand by the Great Unwashed.

Despite my differences with Sellars, I am going to here adopt his terminology of the manifest image and the scientific image, and I will hope that I don’t make too much of a mess of it. I will have more to say on this use of Sellars’ concepts below (especially in relation to the postulational character of the scientific image). In the meantime, I want to use Sellars’ concepts in a exposition of intuitive tractability. Sellars’ uses the metaphor of “stereoscopic vision” as the proper way to understand how we must bring together the manifest image and the scientific image as a single way of understanding the world (“…the most appropriate analogy is stereoscopic vision, where two differing perspectives on a landscape are fused into one coherent experience”). I think, on the contrary, that intuitively tractable formulations of scientific concepts can make the manifest image and the scientific image coincide, so that they are one and the same, and not two distinct images fused together. A slightly weaker formulation of this is to assert that intuitively tractable formulations allow us to integrate the manifest image and the scientific image.

Now I want to illustrate this by reference to the overview effect, that is to say, the cognitive effect of seeing our planet whole — preferably from orbit, but, if not from orbit, in photographs and film that make the point as unmistakably as though one were there, in orbit, seeing it with one’s own eyes.

Before the overview effect, we saw our planet with the same eyes, but even after it is proved to us that the planet is (roughly) a sphere, hanging suspended in space, it is difficult to believe this. All manner of scientific proofs of the world as a spherical planet can be adduced, but the science lacks intuitive tractability and we have a difficult time bringing together our scientific concepts and our folk concepts of the world — or, if you will, we have difficulty reconciling the manifest image and the scientific image. The two are distinct. Until we achieve the overview effect, there is an apparent contradiction between what we experience of the world and our scientific knowledge of the world. Our senses tell us that the world is flat and solid and unmoving; scientific knowledge tells us that the world is round and moving and hanging in space.

Once we attain the overview effect, this changes, and the apparent contradiction is revealed as apparent. The overview effect shows how the manifest image and the scientific image coincide. The things we know about ordinary objects, which shapes the manifest image, now applies to Earth, which is seen as an object rather than as surrounding us as an environment with an horizon that we can never reach, and which therefore feels endless to us. Seen from orbit, this explains itself intuitively, and an explicit explanation now appears superfluous (as is ideally the case with an axiom — it is seen to be true as soon as it is understood). The overview effect makes the scientific knowledge of our planet as a planet intuitively tractable, transforming scientific truths into visceral truths. One might say that the overview effect is the lived experience of the scientific truth of our homeworld. In this particular case, we have replaced a folk concept with a scientific concept, and the scientific concept is correct even as intuition is satisfied.

The use of the overview effect to illustrate the manifest and scientific images, and their possible coincidence in a single experience, is especially interesting in light of Sellars’ insistence that the scientific image is distinctive because it is postulational, and more particularly that it postulates unobservables as a way to explain observables. When, in a scientific context, someone speaks of unobservables or “imperceptible entities” the assumption is that we are talking about entities that are too small to see with the naked eye. The germ theory of disease and the atomic theory of matter both exemplify this idea of unobservables being observable because they are smaller than the resolution of unaided human vision. We can only observe these unobservables with instruments, and then this experience is mediated by complex instruments and an even more complex conceptual framework so that no one ever speaks of the “lived experience” of particle physics or microbiology.

In contrast to this, the Earth is unobservable to the human eye not because it is too small, but because it is too large. When shown scientific demonstrations that the world is round, we must posit an unobservable planet, and then identify this unobservable entity with the actual ground under our feet. This is difficult to do, intuitively speaking. We see the world at all times, but we do not see it as a planet. We do not see enough of the world at any one moment to see it as a planet. Enter the overview effect. Seeing the Earth whole from space reveals the entity that is planet Earth, and if one has the good fortune to lift off from Earth and experience the process of departing from its surface to then see the same from space, this makes a previously unobservable postulate into a concretely experienced entity.

We are in the same position now vis-à-vis our place within the Milky Way galaxy, and our place within the larger universe, as we were once in relation to the spherical Earth. Our accumulated scientific knowledge tells us where we are at in the universe, and where we are at in the Milky Way. We can even see a portion of the Milky Way when we look up into the night sky, but we cannot stand back and see the whole from a distance, taking in the Milky Way and pointing of the position of our solar system within one of the spiral arms of our galaxy. We know it, but we haven’t yet experienced it viscerally. We have to posit the Milky Way galaxy as a whole, the Virgo supercluster, and the filaments of galaxies that stretch through the cosmos, because they are too large for us to observe at present. They are partially observed, in the way we might say that an atom is partially observed when we look at a piece of ordinary material composed of atoms.

Our postulational scientific image of the universe in which we live is redeemed for intuition by experiences that put us in a position to view these entities with our own eyes, and so to see them in an intuitively tractable manner. Perhaps one of the reasons that quantum theory remains intuitively intractable is that the unobservables that it posits are so small that we have no hope of ever seeing them, even with an electron microscope.

Ultimately, intuitively tractable formulations of formerly difficult if not opaque scientific ideas is a function of the conceptual framework that we employ, and this is ultimately a philosophical concern. Sellars suggests that the manifest and scientific conceptual framework might be harmonized in stereoscopic vision, but he doesn’t hold out any hope that the manifest image can be integrated with the scientific image. I think that the example of the overview effect demonstrates that there are at least some cases when manifest image and scientific image can be shown to coincide, and therefore these two ways of grasping the world are not entirely alien from each other. Cosmology may be the point of contact at which the two images coincide and through which the two images can communicate.

The pursuit of intuitive tractability is, I submit, a central concern of scientific civilization. If there ever is to be a fully scientific civilization, in which scientific ways of knowing and scientific approaches to problems and their solutions are the pervasively held view, this scientific civilization will come about because we have been successful in our pursuit of intuitive tractability, and we are able to make advanced scientific concepts as familiar as the idea of zero is now familiar to us. Since the question of a conceptual framework in which rigorous science and intuitively tractable concepts can be brought together is not a scientific question, but a philosophical question, the contemporary contempt for philosophy in the special sciences is invidious to the effective pursuit of intuitive tractability. The fate of scientific civilization lies with philosophy.

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Overview Effects

The Epistemic Overview Effect

The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

A Further Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought, in the Way of Providing a Measure of Disambiguation in Regard to the Role of Temporality

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Planetary Endemism and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Intuitive Tractability

Homeworld Effects

The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung

The Martian Standpoint

Addendum on the Martian Standpoint

Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space

What will it be like to be a Martian?

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Saturday


The periodic table, color-coded by the source of the element in the solar system. By Jennifer Johnson.

Many years ago, reading a source I cannot now recall (and for which I searched unsuccessfully when I started writing this post), I came upon a passage that has stayed with me. The author was making the argument that no sciences were consistent except those that had been reduced to mere catalogs of facts, like geography and anatomy. I can’t recall the larger context in which this argument appeared, but the observation that sciences might only become fully consistent when they have matured to the point of being exhaustive but static and uninteresting catalogs of facts, implying that the field of research itself had been utterly exhausted, was something I remembered. This idea presents in miniature a developmental conception of the sciences, but I think that it is a developmental conception that is incomplete.

Thinking of this idea of an exhausted field of research, I am reminded of a discussion in Conversations on Mind, Matter, and Mathematics by Jean-Pierre Changeux and Alain Connes, in which mathematician Alain Connes distinguished between fully explored and as yet unexplored parts of mathematics:

“…the list of finite fields is relatively easy to grasp, and it’s a simple matter to prove that the list is complete. It is part of an almost completely explored mathematical reality, where few problems remain. Cultural and social circumstances clearly serve to indicate which directions need to be pursued on the fringe of current research — the conquest of the North Pole, to return again to my comparison, surely obeyed the same type of cultural and social motivations, at least for a certain time. But once exploration is finished, these cultural and social phenomena fade away, and all that’s left is a perfectly stable corpus, perfectly fitted to mathematical reality…”

Jean-Pierre Changeux and Alain Connes, Conversations on Mind, Matter, and Mathematics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 33-34

To illustrate a developmental conception of mathematics and the formal sciences would introduce additional complexities that follow from the not-yet-fully-understood relationship between the formal sciences and the empirical sciences, so I am going to focus on developmental conceptions of the empirical sciences, but I hope to return to the formal sciences in this connection.

The idea of the development of science as a two-stage process, with discovery followed by a consistent and exhaustive catalog, implies both that most sciences (and, if we decompose the individual special sciences into subdivisions, parts of most or all sciences) remain in the discovery phase, and that once the discovery phase has passed and we are in possession of an exhaustive and complete catalog of the facts discovered by a science, there is nothing more to be done in a given science. However, I can think of several historical examples in which a science seemed to be converging on a complete catalog, but this development was disrupted (one might say) by conceptual change within the field that forced the reorganization of the materials in a new way. My examples will not be perfect, and some additional scientific discovery always seems to have been involved, but I think that these examples will be at least suggestive.

Prior to the great discoveries of cosmology in the early twentieth century, after which astronomy became indissolubly connected to astrophysics, astronomy seemed to be converging slowly upon an exhaustive catalog of all stars, with the limitation on the research being simply the resolving power of the telescopes employed to view the stars. One could imagine a counterfactual world in which technological innovations in instrumentation supplied nothing more than new telescopes able to resolve more stars, and that the task of astronomy was merely to supply an exhaustive catalog of stars, listing their position in the sky, intrinsic brightness, and a few other facts about the points of light in the sky. But the cataloging of stars itself contributed to the revolution that would follow, particularly when the period-luminosity relationship in Cepheid variable stars was discovered by Henrietta Swan Leavitt (discovered in 1908 and published in 1912). The period-luminosity relationship provided a “standard candle” for astronomy, and this standard candle began the process of constructing the cosmological distance ladder, which in turn made it possible to identify Cepheid variables in the Andromeda galaxy and thus to prove that the Andromeda galaxy was two million light years away and not contained within the Milky Way.

Once astronomy became scientifically coupled to astrophysics, and the resources of physics (both relativistic and quantum) could be brought to bear upon understanding stars, a whole new cosmos opened up. Stars, galaxies, and the universe entire were transformed from something static that might be exhaustively cataloged, to a dynamic and changing reality with a natural history as well as a future. Astronomy went from being something that we might call a Platonic science, or even a Linnaean science, to being an historical science, like geology (after Hutton and Lyell), biology (after Darwin and Wallace), and Paleontology. This coupling of the study of the stars with the study of the matter that makes up the stars has since moved in both directions, with physics driving cosmology and cosmology driving physics. One result of this interaction between astronomy and physics is the illustration above (by Jennifer Johnson) of the periodic table of elements, which prominently exhibits the origins of the elements in cosmological processes. The periodic table once seemed, like a catalog of stars, to be something static to be memorized, and divorced from natural history. This conceptualization of matter in terms of its origins puts the periodic table in a dramatically different light.

As the cosmos was once conceived in Platonic terms as fixed and eternal, to be delineated in a Linnaean science of taxonomical classification, so too the Earth was conceived in Platonic terms as fixed and eternal, to be similarly delineated in a Linnaean science of classification. The first major disruption of this conception came with geology since Hutton and Lyell, followed by plate tectonics and geomorphology in the twentieth century. Now this process has been pushed further by the idea of mineral evolution. I have been listening through for the second time to Robert Hazen’s lectures The Origin and Evolution of Earth: From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence, which exposition closely follow the content of his book, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet, in which Hazen wrote:

“The ancient discipline of mineralogy, though absolutely central to everything we know about Earth and its storied past, has been curiously static and detached from the conceptual vagaries of time. For more than two hundred years, measurements of chemical composition, density, hardness, optical properties, and crystal structure have been the meat and potatoes of the mineralogist’s livelihood. Visit any natural history museum, and you’ll see what I mean: gorgeous crustal specimens arrayed in case after glass-fronted case, with labels showing name, chemical formula, crystal system, and locality. These most treasured fragments of Earth are rich in historical context, but you will likely search in vain for any clue as to their birth ages or subsequent geological transformations. The old way all but divorces minerals from their compelling life stories.”

Robert M. Hazen, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet, Viking Penguin, 2012, Introduction

This illustrates, from the perspective of mineralogy, much of what I said above in relation to star charts and catalogs: mineralogy was once about cataloging minerals, and this may have been a finite undertaking once all minerals had been isolated, identified, and cataloged. Now, however, we can understand mineralogy in the context of cosmological history, and this is as revolutionary for our understanding of Earth as the periodic table understood in terms of cosmological history. It could be argued, in addition, that compiling the “particle zoo” of contemporary particle physics is also a task of cataloging the entities studied by physics, but the cataloging of particles has been attended throughout with a theory of how these particles are generated and how they fit into the larger cosmological story — what Aristotle would have called their coming to be and passing away.

The best contemporary example of a science still in its initial phases of discovery and cataloging is the relatively recent confirmation of exoplanets. On my Tumblr blog I recently posted On the Likely Existence of “Random” Planetary Systems, which tried to place our current Golden Age of Exoplanet Discovery in the context of a developing science. We find the planetary systems that we do in fact find partly as a consequence of observation selection effects, and it belongs to the later stages of the development of a science to attempt to correct for observation selection effects built into the original methods of discovery employed. The planetary science that is emerging from exoplanet discoveries, however, and like contemporary particle physics, is attended by theories of planet formation that take into account cosmological history. However, the discovery phase, in terms of exoplanets, is still underway and still very new, and we have a lot to learn. Moreover, once we learn more about the possibilities of planets in our universe, hopefully also we will learn about the varied possibilities of planetary biospheres, and given the continual interaction between biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere, which is a central motif of Hazen’s mineral evolution, we will be able to place planets and their biospheres into a large cosmological context (perhaps even reconstructing biosphere evolution). But first we must discover them, and then we must catalog them.

These observations, I think, have consequences not only for our understanding of the universe in which we find ourselves, but also for our understanding of science. Perhaps, instead of a two-stage process of discovery and taxonomy, science involves a three-stage process of discovery, taxonomy, and natural history, in which latter the objects and facts cataloged by one of the special sciences (earlier in their development) can take their place within cosmological history. If this is the case, then big history is the master category not only of history, but also of science, as big history is the ultimate framework for all knowledge that bears the lowly stamp of its origins. This conception of the task of science, once beyond the initial stages of discovery and classification, to integrate that which was discovered and classified into the framework of big history, suggests a concrete method by which to “cash out” in a meaningful way Wilfrid Sellars’ contention that, “…the specialist must have a sense of how not only his subject matter, but also the methods and principles of his thinking about it, fit into the intellectual landscape.” (cf. Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man) Big history is the intellectual landscape in which the sciences are located.

A developmental conception of science that recognized stages in the development of science beyond classification, taxonomy, and an exhaustive catalog (which is, in effect, the tombstone of what was a living and growing science), has consequences for the practice of science. Discovery may well be the paradigmatic form of scientific activity, but it is not the only form of scientific activity. The painstakingly detailed and disciplined work of cataloging stars or minerals is the kind of challenge that attracts a certain kind of mind with a particular interest, and the kind of individual who is attracted to this task of systematically cataloging entities and facts is distinct from the kind of individual who might be most attracted by scientific discovery, and also distinct from the kind of individual who might be attracted to fitting the discoveries of a special science into the overall story of the universe and its natural history. There may need to be a division of labor within the sciences, and this may entail an educational difference. Dividing sciences by discipline (and, now, by university departments), which involves inter-generational conflicts among sciences and the paradigm shifts that sometimes emerge as a result of these conflicts, may ultimately make less sense than dividing sciences according their stage of development. Perhaps universities, instead of having departments of chemistry, geology, and botany, should have departments of discovery, taxonomy, and epistemic integration.

Speaking from personal experience, I know that (long ago) when I was in school, I absolutely hated the cataloging approach to the sciences, and I was bored to tears by memorizing facts about minerals or stars. But the developmental science of evolution so intrigued me that I read extensively about evolution and anthropology outside and well beyond the school curriculum. If mineral evolution and the Earth sciences in their contemporary form had been known then, I might have had more of an interest in them.

What are the sciences developing into, or what are the sciences becoming? What is the end and aim of science? I previously touched on this question, a bit obliquely, in What is, or what ought to be, the relationship between science and society? though this line of inquiry is more like a thought experiment. It may be too early in the history of the sciences to say what they are becoming or what they will become. Perhaps an emergent complexity will arise out of knowledge itself, something that I first suggested in Scientific Historiography: Past, Present, and Future, in which I wrote in the final paragraph:

We cannot simply assume an unproblematic diachronic extrapolation of scientific knowledge — or, for that matter, historical knowledge — especially as big history places such great emphasis upon emergent complexity. The linear extrapolation of science eventually may trigger a qualitative change in knowledge. In other words, what will be the emergent form of scientific knowledge (the ninth threshold, perhaps?) and how will it shape our conception of scientific historiography as embodied in big history, not to mention the consequences for civilization itself? We may yet see a scientific historiography as different from big history as big history is different from Augustine’s City of God.

It is only a lack of imagination that would limit science to the three stages of development I have outlined above. There may be developments in science beyond those we can currently understand. Perhaps the qualitative emergent from the quantitative expansion of scientific knowledge will be a change in science itself — possibly a fourth stage in the development of science — that will open up to scientific knowledge aspects of experience and regions of nature currently inaccessible to science.

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Thursday


The large number of cities that formed the network of the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley nicely illustrates a concrete conception of civilization.

Some time ago in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being I discussed a famous passage in Plato that gives an explicit definition of being. The passage is as follows:

STRANGER: Let us push the question; for if they will admit that any, even the smallest particle of being, is incorporeal, it is enough; they must then say what that nature is which is common to both the corporeal and incorporeal, and which they have in their mind’s eye when they say of both of them that they ‘are.’ Perhaps they may be in a difficulty; and if this is the case, there is a possibility that they may accept a notion of ours respecting the nature of being, having nothing of their own to offer.

THEAETETUS: What is the notion? Tell me, and we shall soon see.

STRANGER: My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.

The Greek text of the Eleatic Stranger’s crucial formulation is as follows:

Ξένος: λέγω δὴ τὸ καὶ ὁποιανου̂ν [τινα] κεκτημένον δύναμιν [247e] εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ ποιει̂ν ἕτερον ὁτιου̂ν πεφυκὸς εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ παθει̂ν καὶ σμικρότατον ὑπὸ του̂ φαυλοτάτου, κἂν εἰ μόνον εἰς ἅπαξ, πα̂ν του̂το ὄντως εἰ̂ναι: τίθεμαι γὰρ ὅρον [ὁρίζειν] τὰ ὄντα ὡς ἔστιν οὐκ ἄλλο τι πλὴν δύναμις.

My extrapolation of Plato’s definition of being was to derive four permutations from this definition of beings, in this way:

1. Beings that act only and do not suffer

2. Beings that suffer only and do not act

3. Beings that both act and suffer

4. Beings that neither act nor suffer, which may be non-beings

Another way to extrapolate Plato’s definition of being would be the ability of some entity to act or to suffer in kind, that is, to engage in reciprocal relations with a peer, to interact with another entity of the same (or similar) kind in the same (or similar) way. With this extrapolation, the fourth permutation above — beings that neither act nor suffer — becomes meaningful, because a given entity might possess a minimal ontological status in regard to interactions of acting and suffering without the opportunity to engage in such relationships with a peer entity. Thus a contradictory, or at least problematic, permutation of Plato’s definition of being can be given meaning.

An entity might be analyzed in terms of the classes of relationships across which it interacts, and where a class of interactions is absent, the entity is a non-being in this respect even if it is clearly a being in other respects. For example, Robinson Crusoe, living alone as a castaway on a desert island, interacts with the island, its flora and fauna, but initially interacts with no other human beings. Crusoe has not been cast out of existence by being marooned on a desert island, but he has been deprived of human society; no human society exists on his island (at first). Crusoe has lost his status as a member of human society by being deprived of the kind of interactions that constitute human society, i.e., interactions with other human beings, even as he continues to interact with the world across broad categories of existence that have nothing to do with human society.

This example of Robinson Crusoe and his interaction with peers (or lack thereof) can be scaled up and applied to larger human societies. Human society at the level of organization of the hunter-gatherer band, such as characterized the human world of the upper Paleolithic, brought into being relationships between such bands, which relationships were almost certainly implicated in the human expansion across the entire surface of Earth. When, near the beginning of the Holocene, some bands settled down into agricultural villages, these villages would have interacted with each other, and when some of the villages expanded in size and complexity and became cities, these early cities would have interacted with each other. What I would like to suggest there is that interaction among cities as cities is what characterizes civilization.

Recently in Another Counterfactual: the Single City Civilization I discussed a couple of different definitions of civilization that I have been employing, particularly in my Centauri Dreams post Martian Civilization, one of these definitions abstract and the other concrete:

● Concrete — A network of cities engaged in relationships of cooperation and conflict.

● Abstract — A society with a central project that unifies its economic infrastructure and its intellectual superstructure.

My “concrete” definition of civilization interpreted in the light of Plato’s definition of being suggests that civilization comes into being when cities interact on the ontological level distinctive to cities, i.e., cities interacting on a civic level. Before this, isolated cities would not have had an opportunity to interact with ontological peers; a city would interact with the surrounding countryside, and perhaps also with hunter-gatherer bands that might pass by for raiding or trading, but these sub-urban interactions would not yet rise to the level of civilization.

The class of relationships that are distinctive of civilization come into being when multiple cities interact with each other as cities. Before this, individual cities may emerge and interact with their surroundings, but these relationships belong to another order of being.

This is, I think, a conception of civilization that is consistent with V. Gordon Childe and the “urban revolution” that I discussed in my Centauri Dreams post Martian Civilization, but also a definition that goes beyond Childe and fills in the gap between Childe’s formulations specifically concerned with the nature of cities but not yet with the nature of cities in mutual interaction.

This Platonic interpretation of my “concrete” definition of civilization transforms it into a theoretical definition that may yet point to implications that I have not yet fully realized.

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The large number of Mayan cities in Mesoamerica also illustrates a network of cities engaged in interaction.

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Our Terrestrial Heritage

27 February 2017

Monday


Étienne-Louis Boullée, Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)

Étienne-Louis Boullée, Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)

In my previous post, Do the clever animals have to die?, I considered the “ultimate concern” (to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich) of existential risk mitigation: the survival of life and other emergent complexities beyond the habitability of its homeworld or home planetary system. While a planetary system could be inhabited for hundreds of millions of years in most cases, and possibly for billion or tens of billions of years (the latter in the case of red dwarf stars, as in the recently discovered planetary system at TRAPPIST-1, which appears to be a young star with a long history ahead of it), there are yet many events that could occur that could render a homeworld or an entire planetary system uninhabitable, or which could be sufficiently catastrophic that a civilization clustered in the vicinity of a single star would almost certainly be extirpated by them (e.g., a sufficiently large gamma ray burst, GRB, from outside our solar system, or a sufficiently large coronal mass ejection, CME, from within our solar system).

Because any civilization that endures for cosmologically significant periods of time must have established multiple independent centers of civilization, and will probably have survived its homeworld having become uninhabitable, mature advanced civilizations may view this condition as definitive of a mature civilization. Having ensured their risk of extinction against existential threats through establishing multiple independent centers of civilization, these advanced civilizations may not regard as a “peer” (i.e., not regard as a fellow advanced civilization) any civilization that still remains tightly-coupled to its homeworld.

It nevertheless may be the case (if there are, or will be, multiple examples of advanced civilizations) that some civilizations choose to remain tightly-coupled to their homeworlds. We can posit this as the condition of a certain kind of civilization. In the question and answer segment following my 2015 talk, What kind of civilizations build starships? a member of the audience, Alex Sherwood, suggested, in contradistinction to the expansion hypothesis, a constancy hypothesis, according to which a civilization does not expand and does not contract, but rather remains constant; I would prefer to call this the equilibrium hypothesis. One way in which a civilization might exemplify the constancy hypothesis would be for it to remain tightly-coupled to its homeworld.

Some subset of homeworld-coupled civilizations will probably experience extinction due to this choice. Such a homeworld-coupled civilization might choose, instead of establishing multiple independent centers of civilization as existential risk mitigation, to instead establish de-extinction and backup measures that would allow civilization to be restored on its homeworld despite any realized existential risks. However, while this approach to civilizational longevity may ensure the existence of a civilization over the billions of years of the life of its parent star, if a civilization does not want the historical accident of the age of its parent star to determine its ongoing viability, then such a civilization must abandon its homeworld and eventually also its home planetary system.

A civilization might continue to exemplify the equilibrium hypothesis by maintaining the unity and distinctiveness of its civilization despite needing to pursue megastructure-scale projects in order to ensure its ongoing existential viability. The idea of constructing a Shkadov thruster to move a star was partly inspired by this particular conception of the equilibrium hypothesis, as a star might, by this method, be moved to another, younger star, and the homeworld transferred into the orbit of that younger star. In this way, the relationship to the parent star is de-coupled, but the relationship to homeworld remains exclusive. At yet another remove, an entire civilization might simply choose to pick up from its homeworld and transfer itself to another chosen world. (As an historical analogy, consider the ancient city of Knidos, which was founded on the Datça Peninsula, but as the city grew in size and wealth, the city fathers decided that they needed to start again, so they built themselves a new and grander city nearby, and moved the entire city to this new location.) This conception of the equilibrium hypothesis would de-couple a civilization from both parent star and homeworld, but could still maintain the civilization as a unique and distinctive whole, thus continuing that civilization in its equilibrium condition.

A civilization that establishes multiple independent centers of civilization (and thus, to some degree, exemplifies the expansion hypothesis) might still retain strong connections to its homeworld — only not the connection of dependency. Such civilizations fully independent of a homeworld might be said to be loosely-coupled to their homeworld, in contradistinction to civilizations tightly-coupled to their homeworld and exemplifying the equilibrium hypothesis. Expansionary civilizations might remain in close contact with a homeworld for as long as the homeworld was habitable, only to fully abandon it when the homeworld could no longer support life.

Eventually, as the climate changes and the continents move and the surface of Earth is entirely rearranged, as would be experienced by a billion-year-old civilization, almost all terrestrial cities and monuments will disappear, and even the familiar look of Earth will change until it eventually becomes unrecognizable. The heritage of terrestrial civilization might be preserved in part by moving entire monuments to other worlds, or to no world at all, but perhaps to a permanent artificial habitat that is not a planet. Terrestrial places might be recreated on other worlds (or, again, on no world at all) in a grand gesture of historical reconstruction.

There might be other surprising ways of preserving our terrestrial heritage, such as building projects that were never realized on Earth. For example, some future civilization might choose to build Étienne-Louis Boullée’s design for an enormous cenotaph commemorating Isaac Newton, or Antoni Gaudí’s unbuilt skyscraper, or indeed any number of countless projects conceived but never built. An entire city of unbuilt buildings could be constructed on other worlds, which would be new cities, cities never before built, but cities in the tradition of our terrestrial heritage, maintaining the connection to our homeworld even while looking to a future de-coupled from that homeworld.

A civilization that outlasts its homeworld could be said to be de-coupled from its homeworld, though the homeworld will always be the origin of the intelligent agent that is the progenitor of a civilization, and hence a touchstone and a point of reference — like a hometown that one has left in order to pursue a career in the wider world. One would expect historical reconstruction and reenactment in order to maintain our intimacy with the past, which is, at the same time, our intimacy with our homeworld, should we become de-coupled from Earth. If humanity goes on to expand into the universe, establishing multiple independent centers of civilization, including gestures of respect to our terrestrial past in the form of reconstruction, the eventual loss of the Earth to habitability may not come as such a devastating blow if some trace of Earth was preserved.

When the uninhabitability of the Earth does become a definite prospect, and should civilization endure up to that time, that future civilization’s opportunities for historical preservation and conservation will be predicated upon the technological resources available at that time, and what conception of authenticity prevails in that future age. A civilization of sufficiently advanced technology might simply preserve its homeworld entire, as a kind of museum, moving it to wherever would be convenient in order to maintain it in some form that it would be visited by antiquaries and eccentrics. Or such a future civilization might deem such preservation to be undesirable, and only certain artifacts would be removed before the planet entire was consumed by the sun as it expands into a red giant star. In an emergency abandonment of Earth, what could be evacuated would be limited, and principles of selection therefore more rigorous — but also constrained by opportunity. In the event of emergency abandonment, there might also be the possibility of returning for salvage after the emergency had passed.

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Antonio Sant'Elia's La Città Nuova, or Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City, or even Le Corbusier's Voisin plan for Paris might yet be built on other worlds.

Antonio Sant’Elia’s La Città Nuova, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, or even Le Corbusier’s Voisin plan for Paris might yet be built on other worlds.

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Tuesday


munchnietzsche

Nietzsche’s Big History

One of the most succinct formulations of Big History of which I am aware is a brief paragraph from Nietzsche:

“In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of ‘world history’ — yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.

“On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Friedrich Nietzsche, Fragment, 1873: from the Nachlass. Translated by Walter Kaufmann

…and in the original German:

In irgend einem abgelegenen Winkel des in zahllosen Sonnensystemen flimmernd ausgegossenen Weltalls gab es einmal ein Gestirn, auf dem kluge Tiere das Erkennen erfanden. Es war die hochmütigste und verlogenste Minute der “Weltgeschichte”: aber doch nur eine Minute. Nach wenigen Atemzügen der Natur erstarrte das Gestirn, und die klugen Tiere mußten sterben.

Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinne, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1873, aus dem Nachlaß

This passage has been translated several times, so, for purposes of comparison, here is another translation:

“In some remote corner of the universe that is poured out in countless flickering solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the most arrogant and the most untruthful moment in ‘world history’ — yet indeed only a moment. After nature had taken a few breaths, the star froze over and the clever animals had to die.”

ON TRUTH AND LYING IN AN EXTRA-MORAL SENSE (1873), Edited and Translated with a Critical Introduction by Sander L. Gilman, Carole Blair, and David J. Parent, New York and Oxford: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1989

Bertrand Russell, who rarely passed over an opportunity to criticize Nietzsche in the harshest terms, expressed a tragic interpretation of human endeavor that is quite similar to Nietzsche’s capsule big history:

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship”

Even closer to Nietzsche, in both style and spirit, is the passage that immediately precedes this in the same essay by Russell, told, as with Nietzsche, in the form of a parable:

“For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space. At length it began to take shape, the central mass threw off planets, the planets cooled, boiling seas and burning mountains heaved and tossed, from black masses of cloud hot sheets of rain deluged the barely solid crust. And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean, and developed rapidly in the fructifying warmth into vast forest trees, huge ferns springing from the damp mould, sea monsters breeding, fighting, devouring, and passing away. And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death’s inexorable decree. And Man said: `There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts. And when he followed the instincts which God had transmitted to him from his ancestry of beasts of prey, he called it Sin, and asked God to forgive him. But he doubted whether he could be justly forgiven, until he invented a divine Plan by which God’s wrath was to have been appeased. And seeing the present was bad, he made it yet worse, that thereby the future might be better. And he gave God thanks for the strength that enabled him to forgo even the joys that were possible. And God smiled; and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man’s sun; and all returned again to nebula.

“`Yes,’ he murmured, `it was a good play; I will have it performed again.'”

Here Russell, unlike Nietzsche, gives theological meaning to the spectacle, however heterodox that meaning may be; I can easily imagine someone preferring Russell’s theological version to Nietzsche’s secular version, though both highlight the meaninglessness of human endeavor in a thermodynamic universe.

Our sun — a star among stars — will be a relatively early casualty in the heat death of the universe. While the life of the sun is orders of magnitude beyond the life of the individual human being, as soon as we understood that the sun’s life will pass through predictable stages of stellar evolution, we understood that the sun, like any human being, was born, will shine for a time, and then will die, and, when the sun dies, everything that is dependent upon the light of the sun for life will die also. It is only if we can make ourselves independent of the sun that we will not inevitably share the fate of the sun.

The idea that the sun is a star among stars, and that any star will do in terms of supporting human life, is embodied in a quote attributed to Wernher von Braun by Tom Wolfe and reported in Bob Ward’s book about von Braun:

“The importance of the space program is not surpassing the Soviets in space. The importance is to build a bridge to the stars, so that when the Sun dies, humanity will not die. The Sun is a star that’s burning up, and when it finally burns up, there will be no Earthno Marsno Jupiter.”

quoted in Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun, Bob Ward, Chapter 22, p. 218, with a footnote giving as the source, “Transcript, NBC’s Today program, New York, November 11, 1998”

Wernher von Braun had seized upon the essential insight of existential risk mitigation, as had many involved in the space program from its inception. As soon as one adopts a naturalistic understand of the place of humanity in the universe, and when technology develops to a point at which its extrapolation offers human beings options and alternatives within the universe, anyone will draw the same conclusion. Another quote from von Braun makes the same point in another way:

“…man’s newly acquired capability to travel through outer space provides us with a way out of our evolutionary dead alley.”

Bob Ward, Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun, Annapolis, US: Naval Institute Press, 2013.

I have previously written about the idea that humanity is a solar species, but the fact that humanity and the biosphere from which we derive has been utterly dependent upon solar insolation has been an accident of history. Any sun will do. We can, accordingly, re-conceive humanity as a stellar species, the kind of species that requires a star and its planetary system to make a home for ourselves. In this sense, all species of planetary endemism are stellar species.

Even this idea of immigration to another star, and of any other star being as good as the sun, is ultimately too narrow. Our sun, or any star, can be the source of energy that powers our civilization, but it can easily be seen that substitute forms of energy could equally well power the future of our civilization, and that it has merely been an historical contingency — a matter of our planetary endemism — that we have been dependent upon a single star, or upon any star, for our energy needs.

This more radical and farther-reaching vision is embodied in a quote attributed to Ray Bradbury by Oriana Fallaci:

“Don’t let us forget this: that the Earth can die, explode, the Sun can go out, will go out. And if the Sun dies, if the Earth dies, if our race dies, then so will everything die that we have done up to that moment. Homer will die. Michelangelo will die, Galileo, Leonardo, Shakespeare, Einstein will die, all those will die who now are not dead because we are alive, we are thinking of them, we are carrying them within us. And then every single thing, every memory, will hurtle down into the void with us. So let us save them, let us save ourselves. Let us prepare ourselves to escape, to continue life and rebuild our cities on other planets: we shall not be long of this Earth! And if we really fear the darkness, if we really fight against it, then, for the good of all, let us take our rockets, let us get well used to the great cold and heat, the no water, the no oxygen, let us become Martians on Mars, Venusians on Venus, and when Mars and Venus die, let us go to the other solar systems, to Alpha Centauri, to wherever we manage to go, and let us forget the Earth. Let us forget our solar system and our body, the form it used to have, let us become no matter what, lichens, insects, balls of fire, no matter what, all that matters is that somehow life should continue, and the knowledge of what we were and what we did and learned: the knowledge of Homer and Michelangelo, of Galileo, Leonardo, Shakespeare, of Einstein! And the gift of life will continue.”

Oriana Fallaci, If the Sun Dies, New York: Atheneum, 1966, pp. 14-15

Fallaci refers to this as a “prayer,” and indeed we might see this as a prayer or a catechism of the Space Age — not a belief, not merely belief, but an imperative ever-present in the hearts and minds of those who have fully imbibed the spirit of the age and who seek to carry that spirit forward with evangelical fervor, proselytizing to the masses and bringing them to the True Faith through purity of will and vision — another way of saying naïveté.

Do the clever animals have to die? No, not yet. Not if they are clever enough to move on to another planet, another star, another galaxy. Not if they are clever enough to change themselves so that, when the changed conditions of the universe in which they exist no longer allow the lives of clever animals to continue, what the clever animals have achieved can be preserved in some other way, and they themselves can be preserved in another form.

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Friday


figure-against-stars

A Conceptual Overview

What is the relationship between planetary endemism and the overview effect? This is the sort of question that might be given a definitive formulation, once once we have gotten sufficiently clear in our understanding of these ideas and their ramifications. I’m not yet at the point of formulating a definitive expression of this relationship, but I’m getting closer to it, so this post will be about formulating relationships among these and related concepts in a way that is hopefully clear and illuminating, while avoiding the ambiguities inherent in novel concepts.

This post is itself a kind of overview, attempting to show in brief compass how a number of interrelated concepts neatly dovetail and provide us with a rough outline of a conceptual overview for understanding the origins, development, distribution, and destiny of civilization (or some other form of emergent complexity) in the universe.

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The Stelliferous Era

The Stelliferous Era is that period of cosmological history after the formation of the first stars and before the last stars burn out and leave a cold and dark universe. In the cosmological periodization formulated by Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin, the Stelliferous Era is preceded by the Primordial Era and followed by the Degenerate Era. During the Primordial Era stars have not yet formed, but matter condenses out of the primordial soup; during the Degenerate Era, the degenerate remains of stars, black holes, and some exotic cosmological objects are to the found, but the era of brightly burning stars is over.

What typifies the Stelliferous Era is its many stars, radiating light and heat, and whose nucleosynthesis and supernova explosions forge heavier forms of matter, and therefore the chemical and minerological complexity from which later generations of (high metallicity) stars and planets will form. (A Brief History of the Stelliferous Era is an older post about the Stelliferous Era that needs to be revised and updated.)

In comparison to the later Degenerate Era, Black Hole Era, and Dark Era of cosmological history, the Stelliferous Era is rather brief, extending from 106 to 1014 years from the origins of the universe, and almost everything that concerns us can be further reduced to the eleventh cosmological decade (from 10 billion to 100 billion years since the origin of the universe). Since this cosmological periodization is logarithmic, the later periods are even longer in duration than they initially appear to be.

Our interest in the Stelliferous Era, and, more narrowly, our interest in the eleventh decade of the Stelliferous Era, does not rule out interesting cosmological events in other eras of cosmological history, and it is possible that civilizations and other forms of emergent complexity that appear during the Stelliferous Era may be able to make the transition to survive into the Degenerate Era (cf. Addendum on Degenerate Era Civilization), but this brief period of starlight in cosmological history is the Stelliferous Era window in which it is possible for peer planetary systems, peer species, and peer civilization to exist.

planetary surfaces

Planetary Endemism

Planetary Endemism is the condition of life during the Stelliferous Era as being unique to planetary surfaces and their biospheres. Given the parameters of the Stelliferous Era — a universe with planets, stars, and galaxies, in which both water (cf. The Solar System and Beyond is Awash in Water) and carbon-based organic molecules (cf. Mixed aromatic–aliphatic organic nanoparticles as carriers of unidentified infrared emission features by Sun Kwok and Yong Zhang) are common — planetary surfaces are a “sweet spot” for emergent complexities, as it is on planetary surfaces that energy from stellar insolation can drive chemical processes on mineral- and chemical-rich surfaces. The chemical and geological complexity of the interface between atmosphere, ocean, and land surfaces provide an opportunity for further emergent complexities to arise, and so it is on planetary surfaces that life has its best opportunity during the Stelliferous Era.

Planetary endemism does not rule out exotic forms of life not derived from water and organic macro-molecules, nor does it rule out life arising in locations other than planetary surfaces, but the nature of the Stelliferous Era and the conditions of the universe we observe points to planetary surfaces being the most common locations for life during the Stelliferous Era. Also, the “planetary” in “planetary endemism” should not be construed too narrowly: moons, planetesimals, asteroids, comets and other bodies within a planetary system are also chemically complex loci where stellar insolation can drive further chemical processes, with the possibility of emergent complexities arising in these contexts as well.

21refPicsSORT

The Homeworld Effect

The homeworld effect is the perspective of intelligent agents still subject to planetary endemism. When the emergent complexities fostered by planetary endemism rise to the level of biological complexity necessary to the emergence of consciousness, there are then biological beings with a point of view, i.e., there is something that it is like to be such a biological being (to draw on Nagel’s formulation from “What is it like to be a bat?”). The first being on Earth to open its eyes and look out onto the world possessed the physical and optical perspective dictated by planetary endemism. As biological beings develop in complexity, adding cognitive faculties, and eventually giving rise to further emergent complexities, such as art, technology, and civilization, embedded in these activities and institutions is a perspective rooted in the homeworld effect.

The emergent complexities arising from the action of intelligent agents are, like the biological beings who create them, derived from the biosphere in which the intelligent agent acts. Thus civilization begins as a biocentric institution, embodying the biophilia that is the cognitive expression of biocentrism, which is, in turn, an expression of planetary endemism and the nature of the intelligent agents of planetary endemism being biological beings among other biological beings.

The homeworld effect does not rule out the possibility of exotic forms of life or unusual physical dispositions for life that would not evolve with the homeworld effect as a selection pressure, but given that planetary endemism is the most likely existential condition of biological beings during the Stelliferous Era, it is to be expected that the greater part of biological beings during the Stelliferous Era are products of planetary endemism and so will be subject to the homeworld effect.

surface-earth-space

The Overview Effect

The overview effect is a consequence of transcending planetary endemism. As biocentric civilizations increase in complexity and sophistication, deriving ever more energy from their homeworld biosphere, biocentric institutions and practices begin to be incrementally replaced by technocentric institutions and practices and civilization starts to approximate a technocentric institution. The turning point in this development is the industrial revolution.

Within two hundred years of the industrial revolution, human beings had set foot on a neighboring body of our planetary system. If a civilization experiences an industrial revolution, it will do so on the basis of already advancing scientific knowledge, and within an historically short period of time that civilization will experience the overview effect. But the unfolding of the overview effect is likely to be a long-term historical process, like the scientific revolution. Transcending planetary endemism means transcending the homeworld effect, but as the homeworld effect has shaped the biology and evolutionary psychology of biological beings subject to planetary endemism, the homeworld effect cannot be transcended as easily as the homeworld itself can be transcended.

For biological beings of planetary endemism, the overview effect occurs only once, though its impact may be gradual and spread out over an extended period of time. An intelligent agent that has evolved on the surface of its homeworld leaves that homeworld only once; every subsequent world studied, explored, or appropriated (or expropriated) by such beings will be first encountered from afar, over astronomical distances, and known to be a planet among planets. A homeworld is transcended only once, and is not initially experienced as a planet among planets, but rather as the ground of all being.

The uniqueness of the overview effect to the homeworld of biological beings of planetary endemism does not rule out further overview effects that could be experienced by a spacefaring civilization, as it eventually is able to see its planetary system, its home galaxy, and its supercluster as isolated wholes. However, following the same line of argument above — stars and their planetary systems being common during the Stelliferous Era, emergent complexities appearing on planetary surfaces characterizing planetary endemism, organisms and minds evolving under the selection pressure of the homeworld effect embodying geocentrism in their sinews and their ideas — it is to be expected that the overview effect of an intelligent agent first understanding, and then actually seeing, its homeworld as a planet among other planets, is the decisive intellectual turning point.

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Bifurcation of Planetary and Spacefaring Civilizations

What I have tried to explain here is the tightly-coupled nature of these concepts, each of which implicates the others. Indeed, the four concepts outlined above — the Stelliferous Era, planetary endemism, the homeworld effect, and the overview effect — could be used as the basis of a periodization that should, within certain limits, characterize the emergence of intelligence and civilization in any universe such as ours. Peer civlizations would emerge during the Stelliferous Era subject to planetary endemism, and passing from the homeworld effect to the overview effect.

If such a civilization continues to develop, fully conscious of the overview effect, it would develop as a spacefaring civilization evolving under the (intellectual) selection pressure of the overview effect, and such a civilization would birfurcate significantly from civilizations of planetary endemism still exclusively planetary and still subject to the homeworld effect. These two circumstances represent radically different selection pressures, so that we would expect spacefaring civilizations to rapidly speciate and adaptively radiate once exposed to these novel selection pressures. I have previously called this speciation and adaptive radiation the great voluntaristic divergence.

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Overview Effects

The Epistemic Overview Effect

The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

A Further Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought, in the Way of Providing a Measure of Disambiguation in Regard to the Role of Temporality

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Homeworld Effects

The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung

The Martian Standpoint

Addendum on the Martian Standpoint

Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space

What will it be like to be a Martian?

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Sunday


2017-jan-1

Early in the history of this blog I wrote about a snowstorm in Portland during December 2008, Snow in Portland, More Snow, and Lessons from a Snowstorm, and now Portland has had another uncharacteristically heavy snowfall eight years on. I am always fascinated to watch the rapidly changing behaviors of the population of a city as it responds to rapidly changing conditions, and I can’t help but extrapolate from these observations to other disruptions to the ordinary business of life.

2017-jan-2

The initial impact of a big snowstorm (in a temperate climate where snowstorms are infrequent) is chaos and frantic activity. After the initial chaos, the city goes quiet, and driving around a city after it has gone quiet gives an apocalyptic feeling, as though the end of the world has come. A snowstorm is, in miniature, the collapse of a complex society, such as Joseph Tainter wrote about:

“Collapse, as viewed in the present work, is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a society must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The demise of the Carolingian Empire, thus, is not a case of collapse — merely an unsuccessful attempt at empire building. The collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of sociopolitical structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of weakness and decline.”

Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 4

Of course, the collapse precipitated by a snowstorm is not a political collapse, but it is a rapid and significant loss of an established level of complexity, and a temporary return to a simpler way of life.

2017-jan-3

When someone abandons their car and walks away, eventually walking around their neighborhood rather than driving, this is a significant simplification of life, and the simplest level to which life can be reduced is that of mere survival, or perhaps I should say subsistence. Because the conditions of a snowstorm or a flood or some similar disruption (say, a power outage) are temporary it does not force a return to subsistence agriculture, but there are occasions when one finds oneself no longer concerned by the technical details of one’s work, and one is only fighting to stay alive, as all other considerations are thrust aside in order to deal with the immediacy of the circumstances. However, it is easy to imagine (especially with the looming specter of climate change) that a storm could be the first disruption in a series of escalating disruptions that could force society to abandon its complex institutions and way of life, returning to subsistence agriculture, or even nomadic hunting and gathering. If a large flood failed to recede after a few days because water levels had crept higher, the disruption of the the storm that caused the flood would be a mere foretaste of things to come.

2017-jan-4

There is a great deal of social momentum behind the ordinary business of life, and one can observe that people continue to go about their routines in the routine way for as along as possible — right up the moment when it becomes actually physically impossible to continue to going about things as usual. Thus one sees people setting out for work as usual even as the snow is beginning to fall, and as the snow piles up they try to continue to go about their business. It is only when, on the drive home, their car will not move forward another inch, when they abandon it and walk away. As long as a choice remains, most will choose to continue with the ordinary business of life; the routine is only abandoned when no choice remains and one is forced by circumstances to alter one’s behavior.

2017-jan-5

There is also a strong desire to return to normalcy after the disruption of a storm, so that at the first sign of conditions improving, people head out again in large numbers. In the case of the snowstorms I have seen in my years, this creates a problem because the main roads will be cleared of snow, but the secondary roads and parking lots are still icy, and many people over-confidently driving at full speed on the highways cause problems for themselves and others. The desire for the return to normalcy is a desire for the familiar normalcy, the old normal, while the conditions of the storm, strange and unfamiliar at first, dictate a new normal, and there is a tension between the old normal and the new normal as society attempt to adjust and compensate for changed conditions. As long as the conditions of the new normal are temporary, the old normal will return, but the longer the conditions persist, the longer the new normal persists, and, as the phrase implies, the new normal eventually becomes familiar if it endures for a sufficient period of time.

2017-jan-6

I imagine that in the case of the true collapse of societies, and not merely an ephemeral collapse precipitated by a weather event, that this desire to return to normalcy results in a lot of false starts, like commuters returning to the roads too soon after a snowstorm. There are probably many hopeful moments in the collapse of a society when people come out of their hiding places and venture out into the world again, hoping that they can return to their routines. When Sarajevo was under siege during the Balkan wars of the 90s, it was several years before life could return to normal. Similarly, when the First and Second World Wars began, it would be several years before normalcy would return.

2017-jan-7

When a society well and truly collapses, never to rise again, one can imagine for years or for decades people looked for a return to normalcy that would never come. Or if life seemed to return to normal for a time — for weeks or months or years — it was only a deceptive return to old ways that would soon disappear forever. When Roman cities in the west began to fail, there was probably a movement like the ebb and flow of the tide, when people would abandon their city, then go back, then abandon it again. Each time those who returned would be fewer in number, there would be fewer shops open, and fewer goods for sale, and there might be increasing lengths of time between abandonment and return, until eventually the period of abandonment stretched into years, and the city fell into disrepair, fit only for looting from the ruins.

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