Saturday


The 50th anniversary of what exactly?

On 20 July 1969 the Apollo 11 mission landed two men on the moon and Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on another astronomical body in the solar system. I was alive for the moon landings, and remember watching them on a black and white television. It was a triumph of science and technology and human aspiration all rolled into one.

What does the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 mean? We cannot say, “Fifty Years of Lunar Voyages,” because fifty years of lunar voyages did not follow the Apollo program. Except for the handful of human beings who have been to the moon because of the Apollo program, no one else has been beyond low Earth orbit. We cannot say, “Fifty Years of Human Space Exploration Records,” because the achievement of reaching the moon was not followed by further achievements of human space exploration (except for long-duration stays on space stations — periods of time sufficient for exploration of the solar system, if only we had undertaken such missions). The human mission to the moon was not followed by a human mission to Mars and then further human missions to the farther reaches of the solar system.

I have heard it argued that there needed to be a pause in space exploration and development after Apollo, whether because the cost of the program was unsustainable (when people say this I remind them that the Apollo program didn’t tank the US economy; on the contrary, it stimulated the US economy) or because life on Earth simply had to “catch up” with the Space Age. Either we weren’t ready or (worse yet) weren’t worthy of following up on the Apollo Program with further and more ambitious programs. When I hear this I am reminded of Pascal’s following pensée:

“‘Why does God not show Himself?’ — ‘Are you worthy?’ — ‘Yes.’ — ‘You are very presumptuous, and thus unworthy.’ — ‘No.’ — ‘Then you are just unworthy.'”

This appears as no. 13 in the Penguin edition of the Pensées in the appendix, “Additional Pensées,” and attributed to Blaise Pascal, Textes inédits, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1962 (i.e., you won’t find this in most editions of the Pensées.)

Regardless of your response, you’re going to be unworthy. There is always some reason that can be found that human beings don’t deserve any better than they have. This may sound like an eccentric point to make, but I believe it to be deeply rooted in human psychology, and we neglect this aspect of human psychology at our peril.

So if I ask, “Why do we not have a spacefaring civilization today?” Someone may respond, “Is humanity worthy of a spacefaring civilization?” I answer “Yes,” and I am told, “Humanity is very presumptuous, and therefore unworthy of it.” And if I answer “No,” I am told, “Then humanity is just unworthy.” Put in this context, we see that this is not really an observation about religion, as it appears in Pascal, but an observation about human self-perception. We have, if anything, seen this attitude grow significantly since 20 July 1969, so that there is a significant contingent of persons today who openly argue that humanity should not expand into the universe, but should remain, ought to remain, confined to its homeworld, and entertain no presumptions of greater things for itself.

It is easy to see how a long history of high-handed moral condemnations of the human condition, only just below the surface even today, even in the busy midst of our technological civilization, can be mobilized to shame us into inaction. In other words, this is about original sin, expiation, atonement, sacrifice, and purification — a litany that sounds strikingly similar to what Hume called the “monkish virtues”: celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, and solitude. Is this to be our future? Do we aspire to medieval ideals in the midst of modernity? Should we aspire to medieval ideals?

It is worth noting that this spacefaring inaction represents one particular implementation of what I have called the waiting gambit: things will be better eventually, so it is better to wait until conditions improve before undertaking some action. If we act now, we act precipitously, and this will mean acting suboptimally, and perhaps it will mean our ruin. Better to wait. That is to say, better to consign ourselves to silent meditation upon our sins than to exert ourselves with bold adventures. And this reminds me of one of Pascal’s most famous pensées:

Diversion. — When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

No. 136 in the Brunschvicg edition and no. 139 in the Lafuma edition

While there are some among us who are suited for this Pascalian quietude, for most of us, we are at our best when exposing ourselves to pain and peril, engaging in what William James called the “strenuous life.” As Hegel once said, nothing great in the world is accomplished without passion, and pain and peril are the inevitable companions of passionate engagement with the world.

The most charitable thing that can be said about the past fifty years of non-achievement in spacefaring development is that it constitutes a “strategic pause” in the development of spacefaring civilization. But fifty years could easily stretch into a hundred years, and after a hundred years a strategic pause in the development of spacefaring civilization takes on a different character, and we would have to ask ourselves if a century spent waiting to be worthy was a century well spent. Could we call a century of inaction a “pause”? I don’t think so. A century has a particular historical resonance for human beings; it represents a period of historical significance, and cannot be readily dismissed or waved away.

Though I am concerned about the human future and the eventual development of a spacefaring civilization, I also have reason to hope: recent years have seen the development of reusable rocket technology — by private industry, and not by the government run space programs that participated in the Space Race — and this may become a major player in space development. Moreover, my own study of civilization has made it clear to me that civilization today, despite pervasive declensionism in the western world, is more robust than ever before, and the ongoing prospect of civilization is hopeful in and of itself, because as long as technological civilization endures, and new technologies are developed, eventually the technology for a spacefaring breakout will be available at a sufficiently low cost that a small community interested in space exploration will eventually be able to engage in this exploration, even if the greater part of humanity prefers to remain quietly on our homeworld.

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Tuesday


In geostrategic circles it is common to speak of China as an island, even though China is very much a part of the Eurasian landmass. China is isolated from its civilizational neighbors by mountain ranges and deserts and an ocean. These barriers have not been absolute, but these have been effective in isolating China and limiting Chinese interaction with other Old World civilizations. The less often recognized flip side of an insular China surrounded by mountains, deserts, and an ocean is that of Chinese unity. Chinese insularity and Chinese unity are two sides of the same coin; China’s geographical barriers both isolate and unify the region.

The idea of Chinese unity has a deep history in geostrategic thought, both in China and elsewhere in Eurasia and the world. Chinese civilization seems to have had its origins in the Yellow River Valley during the Neolithic, and it has been continuously Chinese civilization more-or-less since that time. There is direct line of descent from these earliest origins of civilization in East Asia to the China of today. And while the idea diffusion of Chinese civilization populated East Asia with other civilizations, related to China by descent with modification, few of these other civilizations had a profound reflexive influence upon Chinese civilization, even as they came to maturity and become regional powers. Moreover, when China has not been unified — as during the period of Warring States or the Taiping Rebellion — this has been regarded as an historical aberration.

Chinese unity is a far greater and much older imperative than any one Chinese regime, including the communist iteration of China as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chinese communists are as keen on Chinese unity as any Chinese emperor of the past (much as general secretaries of the communist party in the Soviet Union were as keen on Russian imperialism as was any Tsar). Any great disruption within China threatens Chinese unity, and so is perceived as an existential threat to one of the core strategic imperatives of Chinese civilization. Another way of stating this is Martin Jacques’ contention that China is a “civilization-state” that derives its legitimacy from the continuity of its civilization (cf. Civilization-States and Their Attempted Extirpation).

At the recent 18th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese General Wei Fenghe, State Councilor and Minister of National Defense, PRC, gave a speech largely focused on Taiwan and the South China Sea. Taiwan perfectly exemplifies the Chinese concern for Chinese unity. It has been seventy years since the Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan, and Mao was forced to accept their control of Taiwan because he did not possess the resources to follow the Nationalists across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan has been a de facto independent nation-state since that time, but China has not forgotten Taiwan, and remains intent on re-asserting political control over the island.

After General Wei Fenghe’s speech he was asked questions, and he surprised many in the audience by explicitly answering a question about Tiananmen — the “June Fourth Incident” (天安門事件) — of which he was quoted as saying:

“Everybody is concerned about Tiananmen after 30 years,” Wei said on Sunday. “Throughout the 30 years, China under the Communist Party has undergone many changes — do you think the government was wrong with the handling of June Fourth? There was a conclusion to that incident. The government was decisive in stopping the turbulence.”

Turbulence threatens Chinese unity and stability, and as such it constitutes not merely a threat to the PRC or the ruling communist party, it constitutes a threat to Chinese civilization. Contrast this to Thomas Jefferson’s well known claim that, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Jefferson descended from the tradition of European civilization, which was always at war with itself, and never unified. And if you trace western civilization to its origins in Mesopotamia and Anatolia (cf. The Seriation of Western Civilization) it is obvious that western civilization has a different relationship to its origins than does Chinese civilization.

China’s grand strategy is dictated by these core concerns for continuity, stability, and unity, and China is willing to play the long game in order to secure these grand strategic goals. China has been mostly content to employ persuasion to this end, and this was the motivation for the “one country, two systems” policy that was supposed to assuage concerns in Hong Kong about its reunification with the Chinese mainland. For optimists, the success of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong would persuade Taiwan to voluntarily accept a similar deal for itself. But China also plays the long game in Hong Kong, and it has been steadily wearing away at the autonomy of Hong Kong, so that the “two systems” of the “one country” come ever closer to coinciding.

The Chinese mainland implicitly offers to Hong Kong and Taiwan the opportunity to hitch their wagons to a star, as the large and growing Chinese economy represents the possibility of great wealth for all who get on board (but at the cost of what Rufus Fears called “national freedom”). Now that China feels its growing strength, both economically and militarily, we hear much less about “one country, two systems” and much more about the core strategic concerns of continuity, stability, and unity. China can now afford to be more direct about its grand strategy.

Thirty years’ on, the Tiananmen Square massacre is now perceived as being safely distant in the past so that it can be acknowledged by Chinese military leaders, who have moved on to other concerns. There will be no official commemorations in mainland China, but the Chinese government may eventually become sufficiently confident of its position and its view of Chinese history that it can acknowledge the incident and place it in a context that they believe contributes to the narrative of the ability of the Chinese leadership class to ensure the strategic imperatives of Chinese continuity, stability, and unity.

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Previous posts on Tiananmen Anniversaries:

2009 Anniversary of a Massacre

2010 Twenty-one years since Tiananmen

2011 Was the Tiananmen massacre an atrocity?

2013 A Dream Deferred

2014 Tiananmen and the Right to be Forgotten

2015 Tiananmen and Chinese Grand Strategy

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Sunday


David Hume

Today I had a new comment on a blog post that I wrote ten years ago. The comment was from Luke Thompson, and the blog post in question was Counter-Cyclical Civilization. I had to re-read my ten-year-old blog post to remind myself of what I had written, and of course I don’t recall in detail what I had in mind ten years ago.

In my ten-year-old post I discussed how the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution (what I would subsequently come to call the Three Revolutions, of which these constitute two) have changed the pattern of previous civilization, which seems to have more-or-less exemplified an organic model of civilization, such that civilizations behave like biological individuals and pass through predictable life cycles from birth to growth to maturity to decline to death. I argued that the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution had disrupted this pattern and thus suggest that the organic model of civilization is inadequate to describe civilization as we know it today. These revolutionary forces are “counter-cyclical” to the predictable cycle of the organic model of civilization.

Mr. Thompson asked what exactly I had meant in that blog post where I had written, “…this time around, the pattern has been interrupted. New forces are at play, and the result must be as unprecedented as the circumstances.” In my response I offered a number forces present in the modern world that apparently work counter-cyclically to the predictable forces of decay and disintegration that begin to break down a civilization when it has run its course and started on its decline.

In my recent post David Hume’s Book Burning Bonfire I described the “dark underbelly of the Enlightenment,” that is to say, the aspects of the Enlightenment that we are less apt to discuss, like Hume’s eagerness to burn the books of “school metaphysics” (by which he meant Scholasticism). Reflecting on this in the light of reading my old post about the organic model of civilization and counter-cyclical forces working against cyclical decline, I see now that I could have (had I remembered) characterized the Enlightenment era interest in book burning and clearing away of the relics of the past as a predictable force in history. When a new kind of civilization appears in the world — in this case, Enlightenment civilization — it is on the rise as the traditional form of civilization is on the decline. Thus Enlightenment civilization, as it emerges, engages those familiar forces of the organic model of civilization, hastening the decline of its predecessor so that it can more rapidly take its place in history.

The high-water mark of communism in the twentieth century similarly sought to eliminate the traces of traditionalist civilization in Russia and China, and in the domains controlled by these superpowers during their communist phases, so that that communist millennium could all the more rapidly take its place as a new communist civilization. During the twentieth century, when communism was the revolutionary ideology par excellence, the transition to a communist social order was seen (and was theorized by Marx to be) the inevitable outcome of historical progress, and all the devices of historiography and philosophy were mobilized to make it seem so. One of the examples I like to cite in this connection is the idea of a new “Soviet Man,” Homo sovieticus, that would mark a new stage in the development of humanity, and not merely a new stage in the development of history.

As catastrophic as the Enlightenment willingness to preside over the destruction of the medieval past, Soviet purges, and the Cultural Revolution were each to the past of the relevant society, these disruptions of the historical record must be considered little disruptions in history, because the intent of those engaged in these historical projects was to continue civilization, but to continue in a radically new direction. This meant that some of the ground had to be cleared in order to make way for the new civilization, but it did not necessarily demand that the entirety of the past be erased.

Radical disruptions in history sometimes do call for the complete effacement of the past and as the necessary step toward clearing the ground for a new civilization that will rise de novo from the ashes of the former civilization. The early Christians and some Muslims today often have this attitude to the past. Some revolutionary groups have this attitude to the past. The most radical communist groups, like the Khmer Rouge, who emptied out cities and sought to force the population into utopian rural agrarianism, had this attitude to the past.

This distinction between limited effacement (like Hume’s book burning) and radical effacement of the past (as in the collapse of Roman civilization) may be useful in theorizing the scope of historical disruption, and it could be employed to further articulate the organic model of civilization in relation to non-organic conceptions of civilization.

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Tuesday


What can possibly be said about the burning of Notre-Dame de Paris? Notre-Dame de Paris was a symbol of civilization, and now that symbol has been partially destroyed by fire. For anyone who cares about our heritage, it is heartbreaking, and words cannot express the horror of seeing an icon in flames. Of course, it will be rebuilt, and since the building was in restoration at the time of the fire, the building is extensively documented and some of its fixtures were stored away from the site. Still, the damage cannot be understated, and, when it is rebuilt, we will visit a rebuilt Notre-Dame de Paris, rather than the Gothic building that was mostly intact from the Middle Ages.

As with any ancient building, Notre-Dame de Paris had been extensively damaged in the past, although its basic structure was virtually intact since it was built. Statues were damaged during the Protestant Reformation and again during the French Revolution, and most of its interior furnishings were looted or destroyed during the revolution. It is the rare structure that passes through hundreds of years of history without extensive damage, and rarer still the building that survives with its furnishings and fixtures intact. The only intact building of classical antiquity (of which I am aware) that has survived into modern times is the Pantheon. The interior of the Pantheon seems to be intact, but its furnishings from antiquity are long gone. The only way that we know about the furnishing and fixtures of ancient buildings is what we know from written records, pictorial records (paintings, drawings, mosaics, etc.), and what has been discovered by archaeology, as when the structures of Pompeii were rapidly abandoned and then filled with volcanic ash.

Classical antiquity is removed from us by a couple of thousand years of history; Notre-Dame de Paris is removed from us by less than a thousand years. We are fortunate that we have many intact buildings from the Middle Ages, and even some with the furnishings intact and preserved in situ in their original context. This is remarkable, and it a treasure to be safeguarded, and that is precisely why the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris is such a disaster. We have only a few authentic survivals from the period, so each one of them is unique. Once destroyed, the knowledge that they represent is lost forever.

Hegel famously called history of slaughter-bench. One could also call history a conflagration. Joseph Campbell called life an ever-burning flame of sacrifice. It seems to be pretty plain what Hegel or Campbell meant, but I see now there are a couple ways to construe this. And part of the reason I have arrived at this reflection is my previous post, David Hume’s Book Burning Bonfire. Whether we take history to be a slaughter-bench or a conflagration, slaughter or fire bring our efforts to naught, so that history is this process of effacement, but the more that history does its “work,” the less of history that there is remaining.

This paradoxical formulation is the result of using “history” in two distinct senses. “History,” as we all know and have heard, can mean either the actual events of the past, or the record and scholarship of the events of the past. The more events fill history, the more of the record of the past is effaced, and the more the record of the past is effaced, the less than we know about all the aforementioned events that populate history. The Notre-Dame de Paris Fire (about which there is already a Wikipedia entry) is a new historical event that occurred at the cost of the actual physical materials consumed in the blaze. This is clear illustration of the processes of effacement: the processes of history consume prior history.

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Tuesday


David Hume, philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment and advocate of book burning.

The Dark Underbelly of the Enlightenment

There is a well known passage from the final paragraph of David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, XII. “Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy”

In the dialectic that is human history we would expect that a dominant paradigm — like the Enlightenment today — would alternate between its benevolent expression and its malevolent expression, sometimes showing to a world a bright and cheerful aspect, while at other times betraying a dark and sinister aspect. This is not distinctive to the Enlightenment, it is a function of human nature, with its ever-present shadow side that we attempt to suppress and obscure and ignore. We can find this dialectic in all stages in the development of human civilization, and in all civilizations in all parts of the world. There are inspiring moments of brilliance, and devastating moments of horror, both flowing from the human heart in all its complexity and mendacity.

We prefer to focus on the novel and edifying aspects of the Enlightenment, and to pass over in the silence the destructive and sinister aspects of the Enlightenment, but both aspects are fully present in the Enlightenment no less than in other historical periods and other intellectual movements. The Enlightenment not only promoted a set of humanistic values, it also anathematized a set of traditional values associated with a form of society that preceded the Enlightenment.

There is another passage from Hume (which I earlier quoted in The Illiberal Conception of Freedom) that drives home the Enlightenment imperative not only to advance its own program, but also to extirpate tradition:

“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, Section IX, Conclusion, Part I

Hume has here lined up all virtues given pride of place during the Middle Ages (admittedly honored more in the breech than the observance) and roundly condemned them as being counter to human interests and therefore to be cast aside in favor of the values and virtues of the Enlightenment. For Hume, it is not enough merely to promote the rationalism and humanism of the Enlightenment, it is also necessary to extirpate rival moral systems.

When Hume wrote his philosophical works, the memory of the burning of heretics and witches was still fresh in European memory. Indeed, the Enlightenment was largely a reaction against the excesses that followed the Protestant Reformation, and especially the Thirty Years’ War. No doubt Hume saw the representatives of celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, and solitude as responsible, in whole or in part, for the atrocities of the religious wars that had so devastated early modern Europe. The book burning advocated by Hume has a spectacular theatricality that invokes both the auto-de-fé of the Inquisition and the Bonfire of the Vanities in Florence under the brief rule of Savonarola. One good bonfire, it seems, deserves another.

The motives that led Hume to advocate book burning were not qualitatively different from motives that led earlier and later ideologies to advocate book burning and equivalent forms of censorship and the destruction of a former tradition now believed to present an obstacle to the construction of the kind of society that is to be built. During the Protestant Reformation, the furnishings of Catholic churches were looted and destroyed. Perhaps there were cases in which there was a desire to profit from this, but the many damaged sculptures and paintings demonstrate that there was also a desire merely to destroy for the sake of destruction, and to do so with a clear conscience because one was destroying in pursuit of a higher good.

I have previously quoted Montaigne on destructive enthusiasms excused by religious fervor in Transcendental Humors:

“The mind has not willingly other hours enough wherein to do its business, without disassociating itself from the body, in that little space it must have for its necessity. They would put themselves out of themselves, and escape from being men. It is folly; instead of transforming themselves into angels, they transform themselves into beasts; instead of elevating, they lay themselves lower. These transcendental humours affright me, like high and inaccessible places; and nothing is hard for me to digest in the life of Socrates but his ecstasies and communication with demons; nothing so human in Plato as that for which they say he was called divine; and of our sciences, those seem to be the most terrestrial and low that are highest mounted; and I find nothing so humble and mortal in the life of Alexander as his fancies about his immortalisation.”

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Essays, Book III, “Of Experience”

The Soviets destroyed countless Orthodox churches and monasteries, as the Chinese have destroyed many Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries, as the Taliban destroyed the legacy of Buddhism in Central Asia, and the Saudi government has presided over the destruction of almost all pre-Islamic monuments in Mecca (though it should be pointed out that the Saudis, in their enthusiasm for iconoclasm, also routinely destroy sites associated with early Islam). Clearly, this iconoclastic impulse as part of a desire to found a new social order is not distinctive to the Enlightenment or to western civilization. What is interesting here is not a presumption of uniqueness that can be shown to be false, but rather the similarity of the Enlightenment to other movements that look to humanity starting over again with a clean slate. In other words, it is the non-uniqueness of the Enlightenment that interests me in this respect.

The explicit and purposeful destruction of a legacy in order to begin anew from scratch points to an important aspect of contemporary iconoclasm: the blank slate is not a description, but a prescription. If we are to bring forth a new order, we must utterly destroy the old order, because the new order must be brought forth in all its purity and innocence, uncontaminated by the errors of the past. A blank slate is the necessary condition of building the brave new world the revolutionary dreams of founding. The blank slate given an epistemic exposition by Locke during the Enlightenment is thus seen as a moral precondition for the mind of the future, and not a description of the mind of the present. Locke is here engaged in what Nietzsche described as philosophy as the confession of its originator.

Today iconoclasm is viewed as a necessary prerequisite for every undertaking, and the idea of the blank slate continues to wield tremendous influence. I find it frightening that the future is regarded by many as a blank slate, upon which we project our ideals of a better and more just society. These are admirable motives, but they have been the motives of every revolutionary force that has demanded the indiscriminate demolition of all traditional institutions for the sake of a better tomorrow. Most worrisome of all, the lesson of history is that the focus of righteous wrath is usually fixed upon anything that represents a past ideal, as this ideal represents a rival conception of the good that cannot be tolerated. We must expect, then, that that which we have most valued will be most insistently targeted for destruction.

With renewed interest in space exploration in recent years, we are also seeing renewed interest in humanity establishing itself off the surface of Earth, and this interest has contributed to a growing discussion around space settlements. I intend to address these ideas elsewhere, as they are intrinsically interesting, but in connection with the above discussion of Enlightenment iconoclasm I want to focus on just one motif that recurs repeatedly in the discussion of human expansion beyond Earth. This motif is the idea that space is a blank slate for human beings where a new social order can be constructed that leaves behind the problems that have dogged the human condition on Earth. There are those who believe that human beings simply should not leave Earth (and these must be distinguished from those who believe that we cannot leave Earth, because the problem of human space settlement is intractable), but there are also those who do not specifically object to the expansion of humanity beyond Earth, but believe that we should wait until we clean up our act on our homeworld (a position that I call the waiting gambit), or that when we do move out into the solar system, and eventually to other stars, we must do so according to a new social template. In other words, we must abandon the past in order to create new institutions for this new frontier.

Given what has been noted above in respect to Enlightenment iconoclasm, we can see that his conception of humanity’s expansion beyond our homeworld being contingent upon a planetary-scale iconoclasm directed at the entire tradition of human civilization up to the present time is truly a disastrous conceit, and if we attempt to put this into practice, the result will be misery and suffering proportional to the extent that this conceit is realized.

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Saturday


A seal unbroken for 3,245 years on King Tutankhamun’s tomb, 1922.

A Thought Experiment in Infinitistic Historiography

In the past two posts — Technological Civilization: Second Addendum to Part III and Thought Experiment on a Science of Civilization — I discussed a couple of thought experiments intended to explore particular concepts related to civilization. Here I want to pursue yet another thought experiment that builds on these previous thought experiments but which penetrates into different aspects of civilization than I have previously explored. If you like, you can think of this present thought experiment as a thought experiment in infinitistic historiography, as this is an attempt to take seriously questions that stem from histories of civilization that extend indefinitely in time.

The Two Histories

Every ancient civilization has two histories. At least two histories. There is the history that has been re-constructed by scholars that places the given civilization in historical time that is increasingly defined in terms of scientific historiography. And then there is the history of that civilization that is the history that they themselves placed themselves within. (We have a third history if we include the history of the discovery and reconstruction of an ancient civilization, which is distinct both from its reconstructed history or its self-understanding of its history.) Most early civilizations placed themselves within an overarching cosmology or mythology that projected different pasts and different futures for that civilization than the past and future of a given civilization as understood by scientific historiography.

Since a scientific conception of history is very recent, past civilizations did not have scientific conceptions of history, nor could they have had a scientific conception of history. The entire history of science has been necessary to converge upon the concepts of scientific historiography common today; these concepts are an achievement of contemporary thought, and are the function of a long developmental process, so that to project them into the past is an instance of presentism.

The dangers of presentism are widely recognized, and in an attempt to avoid presentism historians also try to understand ancient civilizations on their own terms. This is the other history, the second history of the two recounted above, and it is the history that the individuals who built and participated in that civilization believed to be the historical context of their lives, their society, and their world. These histories are placed in cosmologies that often diverge from the cosmology of contemporary scientific historiography, so that the past and the future of the given civilization, as understood by those who built that civilization, must be reconstructed in contrast to the reconstructed history of the civilization, based on whatever internal evidence that can be derived from the remains of an extinct civilization. Thus we reconstruct two historical timelines, one of them the same timeline as that which we employ today, and within which we can place ourselves as well, and another that of the reconstructed civilization’s big picture conception of its own history.

External and Internal Histories of Ancient Egypt

Let us apply this distinction between the two histories (which we might call external and internal history, or exogenous and endogenous history) to a particular case study: Ancient Egypt. According to this distinction, there is the history of Egypt that we know from textbooks, and which is a history that is nested into a much more comprehensive history that includes Egypt, but also many other civilizations (thus the external history of Egypt). But there is also the history of Egypt as understood by ancient Egyptians — the world seen from the point of view of Egypt, and understood in terms of ancient Egyptian mythology and cosmology (the internal history of Egypt). In this history, all things begin at the primeval mound during the First Time, and the events of the First time echo on down through subsequent history, and will continue to so echo into the future, time without end.

The ancient Egyptian individual understood death not as a passage to salvation or damnation (soteriology and eschatology), and not as a rebirth into this world (metempsychosis), but as a continuation of the struggle of life known in this world, albeit a continued struggle in somewhat different milieux and with more direct contact with the gods:

“As the Western Souls, the justified dead formed part of the crew of the embattled Boat of Millions. They might be thought of as rowing or towing the sun boat or even defending it against the forces of chaos. The vignette to Book of the Dead spell 39 shows a dead person taking on Seth’s role of spearing the Apophis serpent. In death, everyone could be a cosmic hero in the perpetual struggle that was the central feature of Egyptian myth.”

Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, p. 94

There are motifs of both linear time and cyclical time in Egyptian mythology, as well as a conception of eternity:

“As part of establishing the divine order, Shu and Tefnut also become two different types of time. ‘Shu is Eternal Recurrence and Tefnut is Eternal Sameness.’ This began a great cycle in which everything had to change to survive and yet everything remained fundamentally the same.”

Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, p. 89

…and…

“Everything that exists is eternal stability and eternal recurrence”

quoted in Egyptian Mythology: A Very Short Introduction, p. 92

…and…

“The Egyptian universe remained eternally the same only through constant change in the form of cycles of decay, death, and rebirth.”

Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, p. 89

There are many books that have been written about Egyptian mythology, and, no doubt, many books still be written. It would take us too far afield to give a detailed treatment of the afterlife among ancient Egyptians, but the takeaway here is that that Egyptians had a conception of the afterlife for human beings that contextualized the whole of Egyptian civilization within an eternal cosmology. Egyptians might, in the next life, go on to meet the gods and to struggle with them against chaos and evil. This, then, is the internal history of ancient Egypt, in which both life on Earth (within Egyptian civilization) would go on eternally and in parallel with an eternal cosmic struggle.

What if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever?

Now we have the setting for our thought experiment, which will be two thought experiments: a thought experiment in the external history of Egypt and a thought experiment in the internal history of Egypt. And our thought experiment is this question: What if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever? We will ask this question in two ways: 1) what if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever according to its own conceptions of time and history? And 2) what if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever according to the conceptions of time and history to be found in scientific historiography?

The thought experiment in the internal history of Egypt in which that civilization lasts forever is a simple matter, because Egyptian mythology incorporates its eternal iteration as its future. In this thought experiment, Egyptians continue to build and maintain temples to their gods and tombs for themselves in this world, and in the parallel world of the gods, deceased Pharaohs go on to meet the gods in the next life, while ordinary Egyptians could aspire to crewing the Boat of Millions in the next life. There would be slight differences in different eras of Egyptian civilization (Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, etc.) given the changes introduced into Egyptian mythology during the thousands of years that civilization continued to develop, but the basic structure is unaltered while Egyptian civilization was intact and viable.

The External History Thought Experiment

Matters get considerably more interesting when we consider the question of Egyptian civilization enduring forever in the context of its external history, as there are many ways in which to elaborate this counter-factual. Since it is a counter-factual, as in scientific historiography Egyptian civilization had a finite history with a beginning and an end, we can posit a number of distinct ways in which these scenario could develop. We take the existence of Egyptian civilization as we know it from history and we extrapolate this civilization forward into time. Egyptian civilization could expand and modernize and become the basis of a planetary civilization, or it could stagnate and remain in equilibrium for as long as conditions allowed, or it could run the usual course of development of a civilization, but do so in isolation so that Egyptian civilization was a solitary instance of terrestrial civilization, followed by nothing more.

The Egyptians planned for eternity. They had institutions in place to police the regime that they had created. The picture above, of the unbroken seal on the door of the tomb of Tutankhamun, gives us a fascinating glimpse into the mind and the practices of a people who expect that the institutions they have created will continue indefinitely. Royal tombs were sealed, and officials of the “government” (it wasn’t really a “government” in the modern sense, but we will use the term here — again, the danger of presentism) would regularly inspect the seals on tombs to ensure that they were intact. Because of this inspection regime, tomb robbers would tunnel into the fantastically wealthy royal tombs, so as to loot the tombs without disturbing the royal seal.

In an indefinitely enduring Egyptian civilization, one would expect this cat-and-mouse game between officials and thieves to go on indefinitely. There would always be new royal tombs built and filled with fantastic wealth, and there would always be thieves willing to break into these tombs. As the number of tombs became larger and larger over time, it would be more difficult to effectively police them. One would expect that the most recent tombs and the most prestigious tombs would continue to be monitored, thus lesser known tombs would become the target for robbers.

Over the longue dureé, an infinitely iterated Egyptian civilization would pass through predictable vicissitudes. There would be good years and bad years, even good centuries and bad centuries. As in the Year of the Hyenas (1090 BC), bad years and bad centuries would bring a breakdown of social order, more looting, and the inability of the Egyptian state to police its regime of sealed tombs. In better times, the state would recover itself and attempt to make good the damage of the bad years. Something of the tradition would survive, but something would also be lost. This swing between loss and recovery would mean that culture and society would change over time, even if the civilization remained continuous and never suffered a catastrophic failure. An indefinitely iterated Egyptian civilization would change into something else, but what it would change into in this counter-factual history we cannot say.

Nothing Endures Forever

In scientific historiography, nothing lasts forever. If Egyptian civilization as we know it from history continued in a steady state, in equilibrium, as it were, until the planet were no longer habitable, or if Egyptian civilization grew, flourished, and then decayed in isolation, followed by nothing more or nothing further, and left its ruins to be wasted by time, in either case the indefinite iteration of Egyptian civilization would come to an end, but some of its treasured tombs would have been preserved to the end of that civilization, and would remain inviolate until the planet was no longer habitable.

The idea that a tomb should be eternally inviolate would, then, be realized in a naturalistic way. Suppose that a tomb were built at or near a craton (a part of the continental lithosphere that is not subducted in plate tectonics), so that the actual structure of the tomb remained intact for millions if not billions of years — for as long as the stone was not reduced to dust. The ruin of such a sealed tomb — sealed once and never reentered or reopened — might remain intact as Earth became uninhabitable, eventually sterilized, and without even an atmosphere. The relics preserved within would likely have their preservation augmented by the cold and vacuum of a future barren Earth. The gold death mask of whatever Pharaoh it was in the tomb might have endured for eons within its several layers of wood and stone sarcophagi.

In this scenario, something like what the Egyptians imagined for themselves would have occurred in fact. The ancient Egyptians constructed these tombs for eternity, filled them with what we would call “art” (maybe I should call them “ritual objects”) and treasure, with the idea that these would all be sealed in the tomb for all time and eternity. The value that these artifacts had they would have possessed in virtue of the intentions of the Egyptians who constructed the tombs and created the ritual objects that filled the tombs. These objects were not meant to be valued in an ongoing way by human society, not meant to be studied for what they could teach about Egyptian civilization to later generations, not intended to be dug up and displayed, whether by tomb robbers or by archaeologists, but were meant to be interred with the mummy for which the tomb was built, and launched on an eternal journey into the future — a journey that did not involve ever being removed from their context.

Eternity Realized

There is at least one scenario of scientific historiography in which the Egyptian ambition for their royal tombs is realized. Although Egyptian civilization has lapsed, and most of its tombs have been looted, it is possible that, even after our technological civilization is no more — whether from collapse or moving to another world — that there will be an undisturbed Egyptian tomb with its royal necropolis seal still intact, still underground, still untouched when the Earth is dead and sterile. Suppose that in the far future Earth breaks up, or that an enormous impact plows out a section of Earth’s surface with this intact tomb and sends it flying into space. The sarcophagus of a Pharaoh might float forever in space.

One of the most entertaining and perhaps bizarre takes on ‘Oumuamua that I saw on Twitter was the following:

“…maybe the asteroid, Oumuamua, that recently passed through our solar system, was really an alien funerary sarcophagus launched into space.”

At some future time in our universe, that funerary sarcophagus flying through another planetary system might be from Earth, and if the locals sent out a spacecraft to intercept and study the object, they would certainly have a lot of unanswered questions as to how an Egyptian mummy engaged in a flyby past their planet.

Infinitistic Epilogue

Early in the history of this blog I wrote a post about a naturalistic interpretation of eternity, A Human, All-Too-Human Eternity. I always meant to follow up on this post and to expand upon the idea of a naturalistic eternity. The concept of eternity continues to haunt human beings, probably because of, rather than in spite of, our morality. Eternity is that which is denied us — ontologically forbidden fruit, as it were. But, from time to time, nature grants us glimpses of eternity along with intimations of immortality.

Each civilization is eternal in the sense of wholly occupying the present with its central project and, as such, is eternally present in the moment, timeless as long as one remains suspended within this moment. Some civilizations are more strongly orientated toward this timeless present, while others understand themselves in a larger context in which age succeeds age and the world entire is changed over time. Eternity appears within time and endures as long as time allows. When we happen to touch upon one of these eruptions of eternity into the flow of time, we experience that eternity momentarily. Eternal civilizations (civilizations timeless in the moment of their eruption into the flow of time and history) appear and disappear, and, arguably, in doing so they fulfill their eternalistic mandate and, for a moment, represent the moving image of eternity (as Plato put it).

Arguably, Egyptian civilization aspired to be an eternal civilization. The discovery of historical time, and then deep time, has been a late discovery in human history; most civilizations prior to the present aspired to eternity because they did not possess the conceptual framework that would have made it possible for them to understand ideas of deep history and deep time. The aspiration to eternal civilization becomes, in the context of deep time, an aspiration to infinitistic civilization that can endure because intelligent agents take steps to adapt that civilization to changing conditions, which would provide for some kind of survival over the longue dureé. As with an indefinitely iterated Egyptian civilization, which would necessarily change even if every effort were made to ensure the continuity of tradition, an infinitistic civilization would eventually be transformed into a post-civilization institution. Even if infinite historiography is unattainable, the striving after an unattainable goal possesses intrinsic value. Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?

One could argue that a million-year-old supercivilization or a billion-year-old supercivilization is effectively indistinguishable from an infinitistic civilization because the effective history of both coincides. What I have called “effective history” — history that falls between the retrodiction wall of the past and the prediction wall in the future — is a finite period of time defined by the capacity of scientific historiography to bring evidence to bear. Though finite, effective history may be a part of a larger infinitistic history that we cannot see because historical effacement limits our scope of observation and knowledge.

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Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1949. Photograph by John E. Fletcher and Anthony B. Stewart.

Supplement to an Addendum

Recently I posted Technological Civilization: Second Addendum to Part III, in which I employed a thought experiment to explore what I call the Marxian Thesis, which is the idea that the intellectual superstructure of a civilization is determined by its economic infrastructure. That post was an addendum on the series of posts investigating the nature of technological civilization, which is, in turn, a device I am using to take technological civilization as a lens with which to focus on civilization simpliciter. This post is a supplement to that addendum, following up on the thought experiment of the addendum with another thought experiment that leads us in a different direction–but still a thought experiment exploring the idea of civilization, and especially the possibility of a scientific study of civilization.

In my Euclid/Darwin swap thought experiment I thought about the possibility of an ancient Darwin introducing natural selection during classical antiquity, but civilization would have to wait for a Victorian Euclid to introduce higher mathematics and axiomatics into history. How different would the history of western civilization be under these circumstances? Wouldn’t a scientific biology have been a much greater benefit to early agricultural civilizations than advanced mathematics? Another kind of thought experiment in historical counterfactuals could derive from swapping existing figures with non-existent figures. This may sound rather curious, but I will try to explain what I mean by this.

In my previous post I noted that Euclid and Darwin both wrote books that defined a discipline. Euclid wrote The Elements while Darwin wrote his Origin of Species. There are other examples of definitive works, for example, Clausewitz’s On War and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. In the present context I want to especially focus on Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations, but I suppose I could just as well take Clausewitz as my example: both Smith and Clausewitz represent the application of Enlightenment ideals of scientific knowledge to a particular domain of human experience and activity. For Smith, it was economics; for Clausewitz, it was war.

Adam Smith published his The Wealth of Nations at the high water mark of the Enlightenment. The book was immediately influential, and arguably has only grown in influence since then. Smith’s book effectively created the modern discipline of economics, much as Darwin’s Origins effectively created scientific biology. There were books on economics written before Adam Smith (as there were books about biology written before Darwin), but earlier economics treatises (like earlier biological treatises) did not provide the conceptual framework adequate for the foundation of a discipline on scientific principles. One could say that the financial needs of the industrial revolution meant that someone would inevitably formulate a scientific economics (and this would be evidence for the Marxian Thesis), but we have already seen that this does not always happen. One could equally well claim that the biological needs of agricultural civilization would have inevitably resulted in a scientific biology, but this did not happen.

Suppose that, instead of Adam Smith initiating the development of scientific economics during the Enlightenment, or in addition to this, some other scientific discipline, viz. one not yet in existence today, had its origins during the Enlightenment. So this is my sense of a thought experiment that involves swapping an existing person and text with a non-existent person or text. Suppose we swap Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations with a non-existent founder of a science of civilization and a definitive book that initiated the development of the scientific study of civilization. In this scenario, some author writes a definitive text on a science of civilization in the late 18th century or early 19th century more-or-less single-handedly formulating an adequate conceptual framework for the study of civilization and creating a social science with civilization as its special object of scientific investigation. This text then goes on to be the basis of an ongoing scholarly tradition, so that a science of civilization beginning in the Enlightenment grows into a formal academic discipline with entire departments of universities devoted to its study.

It should be noted that the social sciences during the Enlightenment were far behind the development of the natural sciences, with which latter the scientific revolution began. There was no parallel development of the social sciences (much less a science of civilization) on the order of what was going on in physics, chemistry, biology, and geology at this time. However, this near total absence of an equally well developed social science tradition did not stop Adam Smith from initiating modern economics as a social science discipline. Perhaps economics was the first social science to assume a modern form, and it may be relevant that economics is the most formalized and mathematized of the social sciences today. If we take history to be a social science, then history is certainly far older than economics, but history stagnated from classical antiquity until the modern period, and did not become the basis of a growing social science tradition in the way that economics became something of a template for the social sciences that would follow in the 19th and 20th centuries.

We can even speculate on how a social science of civilization might have come about during the Enlightenment. There was a time in the late 18th century and the early 19th century–the late Enlightenment, when both Adam Smith and Kant were active–when an individual with sufficient resources could have traveled the world almost as extensively as today, if a bit more slowly. This was at the same time when young English noblemen took the “Grand Tour” of Italy (cf. Brian Sewell’s television documentary about the Grand Tour, Brian Sewell’s Grand Tour of Italy), traveling through Europe at a time when European societies were strikingly different from each other. This was also an age of gentlemen amateurs, some of whom became great scientists. Given the resources to travel, and a sufficiently robust constitution that would allow for a bit of discomfort, one would have had, at this time, an historically unique opportunity to travel the world and to see profoundly different civilizations little influenced by each other in comparison to the level of cross-cultural influence today.

With this in mind, we could even construct an imaginary backstory for our counter-factual author of a counter-factual 18th century treatise on civilization, consisting of the social and cultural equivalent of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, subsequently returning home to reflect upon his experiences. Alternatively, a sedentary scholar (like Kant) might seclude himself in his library with the great travelogues being written about the same time (because travel on a planetary scale was now possible)–I am thinking of the likes of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), James Bruce (1730–1794), Richard Burton (1821-1890), Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), Charles M. Doughty (1843-1926), and others of the time–and draw from these accounts of nearly pristine civilizations the ideas for a scientific account of civilization.

Some world-traveling gentleman amateur would have had the opportunity to witness regional civilizations uncontaminated by all but immediate neighbors, piquing the curiosity of our traveler, much as Darwin’s curiosity was piqued by his naturalist observations made during his time on the Beagle in its expedition around South America. Returning home to ruminate over all he had seen, he begins collecting more information about every known civilization, and eventually sets pen to paper to record his collected observations and the principles employed to unify his observations. Travel and reading would have made possible the study of civilization in an empirical, scientific manner by visiting regional civilizations, observing them, and perhaps even measuring them by whatever means might have been available to social science metrics of the time (perhaps creating these methods, as Galileo created his own methods of quantitative research of physical phenomena).

We tend to think of the 19th century conception of civilization as naïve or worse, but in so far as it was, for those who traveled, informed by direct observations of regional civilizations (more isolated from each other than civilizations are today) it was a more sophisticated understanding based on first-hand knowledge, and before the resistance to comparing and contrasting civilizations that we see today (cf. Comparative Concepts in the Study of Civilization). In order to identify the common core of civilization one must be willing and able to analyze civilizations, and analyzing civilizations would mean reducing them to their constituent parts and determining the relationship of the parts to the whole. To do this with civilization requires a certain social environment that is not present today. Civilizations as we see them today have been racked on the Procrustean Bed of universalism and can no longer be seen for what they are because of the strong ideological overlay of scholarship.

If the rudiments of a science of civilization had been initially presented by a definitive text of the Enlightenment, or even of the romantic era, and subsequently refined and formalized as economics and biology have been refined and formalized since their inception as modern scientific disciplines, how might the world have been different? Would the history of western civilization have been altered by the self-understanding made possible by a science of civilization? In On a Science of Civilization and its Associated Technologies I discussed how a science of civilization could lead to technologies of civilization, just as biological science has led to biological technologies. With a science of civilization issuing in technologies of civilization, we would be in possession of the means to actively intervene in the process of civilization in order to attain certain ends. One could see in this ability both profound dangers and great opportunities. Existential risks are always the flip side of existential opportunities.

Even though there was this opportunity for the study of civilization when civilizations are largely isolated from each other, it didn’t happen, and so as I have presented it here in this thought experiment this scenario will forever remain a counter-factual unrealized in our history. We could still today begin the scientific study of civilization, but the evidence of isolated and pristine civilizations is being lost by the day, just as the archaeological and the geological record are degraded by the passage of time and further human activity. The earlier a science appears in history, the more it can take advantage of an historical record that is degraded with the passage of time.

One of the essential elements in the development of a civilization is the order in which sciences and technologies appear. We could formulate alternative historical sequences for civilizations in which sciences and technologies appear in a different order than they did in fact in terrestrial history, or alternative historical sequences in which particular sciences or technologies are missing that have been present in human history, or which are present that have been absent in human history. A science of civilization is an example of the latter, so that we can posit a counterfactual civilization in which a science of civilization is robustly present, and whether this science has its origins near the beginning of the history of a civilization (as with higher mathematics) or later in the development of a civilization (as with biology and economics) would also affect the developmental trajectory of a civilization that possessed the knowledge that would be produced by a science of civilization, that the technologies of civilization made possible by that knowledge.

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Interior view showing the control room at Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Receiving Station B.

Questioning the Marxian Thesis

In the final section of Technological Civilization: Addendum to Part III, I made the following tripartite distinction among civilizations, such that there are:

1. Civilizations that exemplify the Marxian Thesis (technical civilizations)

2. Civilizations that exemplify the Burckhardtian Thesis (spiritual civilizations)

3. Civilizations primarily determined by their central projects (paradigmatic civilizations)

To recap these theses, the Marxian Thesis is that the intellectual superstructure is largely determined by the economic infrastructure, while the Burckhardtian Thesis is that the economic infrastructure is largely determined by the intellectual superstructure. In a paradigmatic civilization, infrastructrure and superstructure are equally determined (to some degree) by the central project. Alternatively, in the language of Robert Redfield, the Marxian Thesis is that the moral order is determined by the technical order, and the Burckhardtian Thesis is that the technical order is determined by the moral order. We can give these theses weaker or stronger formulations depending upon whether we hold the determination of one institutional structure of civilization by other to be marginal or total (or something in between).

The Marxian Thesis is the most familiar and the most influential, having been promoted and argued by Marxists for more than a hundred years. I had to formulate the Burckhardtian thesis myself because no one (to my knowledge) has attempted an explicit exposition or defense of the idea. Since the Marxian Thesis still has considerable influence in some quarters, I want to explicitly confront it with a counter-example. This does not mean that I reject the Marxian Thesis or affirm the Burckhardtian Thesis. My larger point is that different civilizations in different stages of historical development might embody the one or the other by turns. I take on the Marxian Thesis now primarily due to its popularity.

If the Marxian Thesis were true, one would expect that the intellectual superstructure would track the development of the economic infrastructure of civilization, so that as the economy developed, and as sciences and technologies appeared and entered into the economic infrastructure, they would be reflected in the intellectual superstructure precisely for their contribution to the economic infrastructure. One can point out instances that seem to confirm this expectation, but there are also instances that seem to defy the expectation. In order to set aside individual instances that may or may not be representative of a general trend, I would like to paint with a broad brush (as indeed Marx was painting with a broad brush). I have been entertaining a thought experiment for several years that I only recently realized speaks to this assumption of the Marxian Thesis, so I will use this in an attempt to make my point.

The Thought Experiment: Euclid and Darwin

Suppose, across a gulf of nearly two thousand years, we swapped Euclid with Darwin. Suppose that an ancient Greek Darwin had lived in the first few centuries AD, while a Victorian Euclid had lived in the 19th century. Obviously (I hope obviously), I am here using Euclid and Darwin as symbols to evoke developments in science associated with the two figures. Euclid represents the growth of mathematical science in classical antiquity, culminating in a figure like Euclid who would rationalize and systematize prior centuries of mathematical research into a great synthesis. Darwin represents the emergence of a scientific biology in the wake of 19th century achievements in scientific geology. Hutton and Lyell had opened the deep past to geologists, and Darwin opened the deep past to biologists. Euclid and Darwin are not perfectly symmetrical figures. Euclid was a systematizer and and synthesizer, like Thomas Aquinas or Hegel. Darwin stood at the head of a new scientific tradition, that would later be systematized and synthesized by others (significantly, the early twentieth century joining of evolution and genetics is called the “neo-Darwinian synthesis”).

Though Euclid and Darwin were not perfectly symmetrical figures in intellectual history, both men were the authors of books that defined a discipline: Euclid’s Elements defined ancient mathematics, while Darwin’s Origin of Species defined evolutionary biology. Thus by invoking Euclid and Darwin as symbols, what I am suggesting is not merely swapping the historical order of Euclid and Darwin, but more-so transposing their respective sciences in history, so that biology, instead of becoming scientific in the 19th century, instead became scientific in classical antiquity. And that geometry, and, by extension, all of higher mathematics, mostly lay dormant during classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, and only fully came into its own in the 19th century. Prior to this time there would have been a rudimentary mathematics, as there was a rudimentary biology in antiquity, but nothing like the sophistication of the Conics of Apollonius of Perga.

Natural selection, despite being counter-intuitive (the human mind is deeply teleological), is a simple idea. Certainly, natural selection is sufficiently simple that, had the idea been formulated in antiquity, and had it become the focus of research in the way that mathematical (and astronomical) ideas had been the focus of multi-generational scientific research programs in antiquity, most of the ideas of Darwin’s Origin of Species could have been formulated in terms understandable in classical antiquity. Moreover, the kind of experiments that Gregor Mendel later performed, which were the foundations of genetics, could also have been performed in classical antiquity. However, there is some ambiguity here in saying that the experiments, “could have been performed.” The experimental programs of Darwin and Mendel required no high technology, and thus could have been performed in classical antiquity (i.e., the lack of experimental apparatus would not have prevented these experiments from being performed), but the idea of experimental research in science did not yet exist in classical antiquity. There are many intimations of experimentation in antiquity, but nothing as methodical and systematic as Mendel’s pea plant experiments.

Let us suppose, then, as part of our thought experiment to transpose modern biological thought into antiquity in exchange for transposing ancient mathematical thought into the modern world, that Euclid’s axiomatization did not exist prior to being formulated in the 19th century, so that it did not appear as a method in antiquity, while experimental scientific method (at least in biology) instead appeared in antiquity. In a sense, this is not so far from what did happen, in terms of mathematical development. Axiomatics appeared in antiquity, but was little developed as a discipline, and was essentially static until the revolution in rigor in the late 19th century which brought a new urgency to axiomatics, which then developed rapidly thereafter, especially in the 20th century.

An Interpretation: Relevant and Irrelevant Scientific Developments

A fully developed evolutionary biology available in classical antiquity would have had significant ramifications. I don’t think it would be too much to say that this would have radically altered the course of the development of subsequent civilization. For example, to take a truly radical scenario, it might have taken human beings and our civilization in the direction of greater eusociality as a species; the understanding of natural selection would have provided the conceptual framework to go about selective breeding in a way that human beings did not undertake. With the knowledge of how species evolve, but without the biotechnology made available by technological civilization, the knowledge would have been there to manage selective breeding to accomplish what could not have been accomplished by biotechnology, and human beings might have bred themselves into multiple castes, phenotypically distinct, and serving functions as distinct as the classes in Plato’s Republic.

This scenario highlights an easily overlooked aspect of modern history: one of the consequences of the world wars of the 20th was a social and political regime of containing and limiting technologies. Global treaty regimes based on moral concerns to limit certain technological developments (paradigmatically, nuclear proliferation, but also chemical and biological warfare, etc.) were the result of a long historical development, and this development had not yet occurred in classical antiquity. (I do not say that this development was good or bad, or that it helped or hindered the development of civilization, I only say that it is.) If ancient civilization had had the power to shape species implied by a knowledge of natural selection, but had not possessed the subsequent history to appreciate the dangers inherent in scientific knowledge and technological power, civilization might have developed in a way that could not be undone, and that would have put humanity of a different course than that which we did in fact take.

One could modify the thought experiment in any number of ways, so, for example, we might have had an ancient Darwin but not an ancient Mendel, which would have meant that the idea of natural selection was available, but the technological application of genetics was not, which would have greatly limited the application of ancient biotechnology. This would be something like the stagnation of axiomatics after Euclid’s use of it. Natural selection as an idea might have lain stagnant for two thousand years before being revived at a later stage of history, and very little would have been changed in subsequent history, especially compared to the radical scenario above.

However, even a level of practical biological knowledge such as represented, for example, by the British Agricultural Revolution, would have made a great difference in the subsequent development of civilization. One of the things (inter alia) that made western European civilization so stagnant during the Middle Ages was the conservatism of agriculture. A better agriculture would have meant a much richer society, with much less likelihood of starvation, hence a lower likelihood of disease, better infant nutrition, and higher IQs as a result. Over hundreds of years, this would have had a significant impact on social development.

To mention the British Agricultural Revolution suggests something about the limitations of thought experiments such as this. It is arguable that Darwin’s work would not have happened without the backdrop of the British Agricultural Revolution; Jethro Tull may have been as important an influence on Darwin as Charles Lyell (whether or not Darwin knew it). After all, Darwin’s Origin of Species begins with a long chapter on selective breeding. It is an act of historical violence to disentangle the history of science from its actual course and to transpose it into another period of time, in which it is not native, and therefore considerable changes must be made in order to naturalize this science in another era.

Back to the Marxian Thesis: a Refutation?

The point of this thought experiment was to examine the Marxian Thesis critically. What I want to suggest with this thought experiment, then, was that classical antiquity did not develop a biological science that would have had a large and significant influence on a biocentric civilization that primarily derived its energy flows from the ambient environment through agriculture. A more sophisticated biology, even a practical biology as represented by the British Agricultural Revolution, would have been immediately applicable to civilization on a large scale, and would have altered the fates of civilizations that used a more sophisticated biology to its ends.

Instead, classical antiquity developed mathematics to a high degree of sophistication and precision. The achievement of Greek mathematics, later to be supplemented by the Hindu number system and Arab algebra, was so far beyond applicability in its time that many of the discoveries of ancient mathematics would not find application until after the scientific revolution, and some not until after the industrial revolution. While the biological thought that could have transformed civilization in antiquity did not develop, a body of mathematical thought virtually without application did develop (a mathematical body of knowledge that would have been highly useful to a technocentric civilization). In this sense, not only did the intellectual superstructure of scientific knowledge fail to track the development of the economic infrastructure, it arguably achieved the antithesis of tracking the economic infrastructure, neglecting knowledge that would have been applicable while developing knowledge that was largely inapplicable.

Taking the Marxian Thesis in the abstract, one might have expected that an agricultural civilization would have resulted in a sophisticated agricultural science, while a technological civilization would have resulted in a sophisticated industrial science. In the former case, this does not seem to have occurred, and, in the latter case, it occurred assisted by the mathematics of an earlier civilization which developed mathematics as an end in itself, and not out of any practical concern for application. While we could try to explain away the absence of a sophisticated agricultural science in pre-modern agricultural civilizations, and appeal to the prominent role of agriculture and pastoralism in ancient mythology and religion (which are other expressions of the intellectual superstructure), this should at least give the advocate of the Marxian Thesis pause.

Part of this disconnect between the knowledge of the intellectual superstructure and the practices of the economic infrastructure may be put to the overall progress of human social and technological development. Any science, such as Darwin’s biology, that was formulated after the scientific revolution was able to be developed much more rapidly, and with greater practical effect, than any science formulated prior to the scientific revolution, which might lie fallow for centuries or even millennia without practical application. The scientific method itself is a triumph of the human intellect, and its formulation, while several hundred years old, is far from complete. We have a lot yet to learn about how to do science. Because modern science is historically recent, one might argue, no science of evolutionary biology could have existed in classical antiquity. There is some validity in this argument, but I do not think that this fully accounts for the disconnect between the infrastructure and superstructure of classical antiquity, which could simply be put to suboptimality.

Arguably, mathematics was developed in antiquity because this was a science that could be developed on a purely intellectual basis with a minimal level of technology, and a minimal, perhaps absent, sense that scientific knowledge would have any application at all, especially to economics. Education in classical antiquity was about preparing an élite class to give persuasive speeches in a public assembly or a law court, and not about advancing knowledge. Moreover, there were any number of simple mathematical ideas that did not appear in classical antiquity. Obviously, the Greeks did not formulate the numbers we use today, which seem to have originated in India, and which are perhaps the most effective and intuitive formalism ever invented by human beings. I noted above that natural selection is essentially a simple idea; for that matter, set theory is also based on very simple ideas that ancient mathematicians could have have grasped, but the idea did not appear until the late 19th century, after Darwin. It would make another interesting thought experiment to ask how history might have been different if set theory had been introduced in classical antiquity. Maybe it would have made no difference at all; maybe not.

Another Take Away: Human Technophilia

However flawed this thought experiment, another take away from it is the extent to which human beings might be called a technologically adept species. We are interested in and express ourselves through technology in a way that suggests that the peculiarities of the human intellect have a particular affinity for technology. We have had many opportunities in our history to go in a more “biological” direction, but we have almost always taken the technologically intensive path. This has been recognized in the past, when human beings have been called homo faber in addition to homo sapiens: man the builder, the doer, the maker, the innovator, and eventually man the engineer of machines. Now that we possess the technological capability to do so, we build entirely artificial environments in which we live, which is why I have argued that Wilson’s biophilia needs to be supplemented with an understanding of technophilia.

Technological civilization, in all its contemporary scope and scale and sophistication, may be a consequence of the peculiarly technological bent of the human mind. And this may be sufficiently peculiar that it happens infrequently in the history of the universe. That is to say, it may be common for biology to evolve into more complex forms, and common even for intelligence to emerge from biology, but uncommon for that intelligence to take the form of a technological interest. It was the human use of technology — spear points, canoes, the bone needle, form-fitting clothing, the use of fire, and so on — which made it possible for our Paleolithic ancestors to settle the planet entire even before we developed civilization. Another way to think about this is that our technological impulses are stronger, and were expressed earlier, than our eusocial impulses. This in itself is an important observation, and may suggest why human eusociality attained the level that it did, but it did not go further, as it has with bees and termites and ants.

Even if my thought experiment does not show what I hoped it would show in regard to casting doubt on the Marxian Thesis (by which I mean, casting doubt on the Marxian Thesis as describing the only or predominant permutation of civilization), it may have some value on shining a light on the peculiarly technological character of the human intellect. Philosopher of technology Don Ihde has identified a technological texture to contemporary life; he is right to make this observation, but we might ask whether this technological texture of life is a result of our lives being unexpectedly transformed by technology since the industrial revolution, or whether human life has always had a technological texture, expressed with the materials on hand, and is due not to some accident of history like the industrial revolution, but is an inevitable projection of the human mind, which is a technological mind. In the latter case, it is the technological character of the human mind that is the accident of history, and, given a mind of this cast, the industrial revolution was an inevitable expression of a mind of this kind.

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Friday


I started writing this blog in November 2008, and now it is November 2018, so this blog has remained active for ten years. In this respect, it has defied the odds, because most blogs rapidly go defunct, but it has defied the odds only because I have continued to plug away at writing about the things that interest me, and not because I have been rewarded for my efforts (I haven’t been), or because this blog is popular and widely read (it isn’t), or because of any support or assistance received (there hasn’t been any). If this blog is a “success,” it is only a success of stubbornness.

My rate of posting has continued to decline, but not because I am short of ideas. On the contrary, my conception of civilization is evolving so rapidly that I now hesitate to write anything down because the next day I will have a better formulation. In a way, this is a culmination of this blog, because I started writing about civilization here simply because it was a different topic than the things I was writing about in my notebooks at the time. In this sense, in the sense of being a form of intellectual stimulation, I can call this blog a success.

At first when I was writing about civilization (initially in Today’s Thought on Civilization) I was only throwing out random ideas. Now these ideas have started to coalesce into something more substantial, and I see the all-too-apparent weaknesses of my earlier, more random thoughts. When Darwin hit on the idea of natural selection he wrote, “Here, then, I had a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it.” This is something like I now feel.

As my rate of posting has slowed, I have thought about starting a newsletter that would be an anecdotal account of my ongoing research. I could take the email addresses of the individuals who have subscribed to this blog and start sending them a newsletter, but I understand that there are now laws in place that govern how email addresses can be used, and that some countries and many businesses have a “double opt-in” policy to ensure that those who get emails really did want to receive them. Therefore I will start from scratch.

I made several attempts to create a simple subscription form, but my technical skills are nonexistent, so I had to settle for a link (and, while I tested it, I’m not even sure if this will work properly). I signed up with an alternative email just to see if it would work, and it seemed to do so. Here is the link:

Grand Strategy Newsletter

If I get a dozen subscriptions, I will start some kind of newsletter. If you subscribe, be sure to check your junk mail and spam folders for the second of the double opt-in notices. If you don’t click on the link in the email sent to you as a result of clicking on the link above and entering your email, you won’t be subscribed. The test subscription I did myself went directly into the email’s junk folder.

I intend to continue my work, and to continue posting it here, as long as the opportunity to do so remains. For those who have taken the time to read and to comment, thanks. You’ve helped to keep me focused on the development of these ideas. Many people have brought my attention to resources and references of which I would not otherwise have been aware. This has been valuable for me, and, again, on this basis I can call this blog a “success” (with only modest irony in the use of the term).

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Monday


Reconsiderations and Revisions

While working on Technological Civilization, Part IV, I have reconsidered some of my formulations in Part III and I now see that several revisions are in order, both to improve and to clarify what I wrote previously. My model of civilization is a work in progress, conducted in the open and made available in talks and blog posts — an exercise that has been called “open-source philosophy.” Being a work in progress, I have had many false starts and have had to backtrack infelicitous formulations.

Immediately after my talks in 2015 (“What kind of civilizations build starships?”) and 2017 (“The Role of Lunar Civilization in Interstellar Buildout”) I started making revisions to my PowerPoint presentations because of the shortcomings I perceived in each of these talks. Neither of these revised presentations was delivered, but continuing to elaborate these ideas did lead to further insights that I have applied to later formulations. There remains something of value in these earlier efforts, but I am not tied to any one set of ideas or a single way of expressing ideas. Hence the need for continual revision.

The Symmetry Thesis Rather than the Interaction Thesis

In Part III I defined the Marxian Thesis as being that the moral order of a civilization is determined by the technical order, the Burckhardtian Thesis as being the technical order determined by the moral order, and I also suggested the Interaction Thesis as being that, “…the technical order and the moral order mutually influence each other.” This latter claim is poorly stated. I now realize that interaction is not a strictly structural concept, so that it is out of place here in this exposition of the institutional structure of civilization. (The distinction implicit in singling out strictly structural concepts will become important in a future post in this series.)

What I meant by calling the interaction thesis the condition in which the moral and technical orders influence each other, is that there can be both forms of institutional causality at the same time, so that some elements of the moral order determine some elements of the technical order, and some elements of the technical order determine some elements of the moral order. This is distinct from interaction in time, in which each might influence the other in turn, with causality passing back and forth from the one to the other. This is indeed another way in which a civilization might function, but it isn’t what I was trying to say in this context. For what I was trying to say, Symmetry Thesis would be a better name.

Sir William Hamilton, 9th Baronet FRSE DD FSAS

Exhaustive, Strong, Weak, and Null Theses

I want to go into a bit more detail on the relation of the Symmetry Thesis to the Marxian Thesis and the Burckhardtian Thesis. I thought the possibilities were sufficiently obvious that I didn’t need to state them, but perhaps I should spell it out just to be clear. The vulgar interpretation of Marxism is that the ideological infrastructure is exhaustively determined by the economic infrastructure. In this case, all of the moral order is determined by the technical order. By substituting for the quantifier “all” we arrive at different possible permutations of the Marxian Thesis. We have already mentioned the exhaustive Marxian thesis. If we assert that most of the moral order is determined by the technical order, this is the strong Marxian Thesis, and if we assert that some of the moral order is determined by the technical order, that is the weak Marxian Thesis.

The reader will see that these permutations can be mirrored by formulations of the Burckhardtian Thesis. The exhaustive Burckhardtian Thesis is when all of the technical order is determined by the moral order; the strong Burckhardtian Thesis is when most of the technical order is determined by the moral order; the weak Burckhardtian Thesis is when some of the technical order is determined by the moral order. There are also null permutations of each: when none of the moral order is determined by the technical order (the negation of the Marxian Thesis, which corresponds to the exhaustive Burckhardtian Thesis), and when none of the technical order is determined by the moral order (the negation of the Burckhardtian Thesis, which corresponds to the exhaustive Marxian Thesis).

The strong Marxian Thesis (most determination of the moral order by the technical order) is consistent with the weak Burckhardtian thesis (some determination of the technical order by the moral order). Moreoever, the weak Marxian thesis (some determination of the moral order by the technical order) is consistent with both the weak Burckhardtian thesis (some determination of the technical order by the moral order) and the strong Burckhardtian thesis (most determination of the technical order by the moral order). Contrariwise, each of these formulations holds, mutatis mutandis, for the strong and weak Burckhardtian theses in relation to strong and weak Marxian theses. All of these are permutations of the Symmetry Thesis (some elements of the moral order are determined by the technical order, and vice versa), so the Symmetry Thesis is ultimately reducible to formulations in terms of either the Marxian Thesis or the Burckhardtian Thesis, thus the Symmetry Thesis does not define a fundamentally distinct kind of civilization.

Even these formulations above, though a bit clearer than my previous exposition, admit of ambiguities, but I believe that these ambiguities can be cleared up in a more formal presentation of these ideas. For example, when I say that some elements of the technical order determine the moral order is the weak Marxian Thesis, this could mean either that some elements of the technical order determine the entirety of the moral order, or the same elements of the technical order determine some (but not all) of the moral order. Here the quantification of the predicate — an innovation in traditional Aristotelian logic introduced by Sir William Hamilton — is particularly relevant, and Hamilton’s formulations could be employed in a statement of the permutations that might hold between the moral order and the technical order. For now, as a kind of shorthand, the reader should assume that I am not speaking of exhaustive formulations (which are usually idealizations not exemplified in matters of fact).

Determination of Moral and Technical Orders by the Central Project

Elements of the moral or technical order not determined by the other order might be autonomous, i.e., self-determining, or they might be determined by some other factor. The obvious factor that I failed to mention in Part III is that they might be determined primarily by the central project. The paradigmatic form of civilization, according to my model, is when the moral and technical orders are primarily (though not necessarily exhaustively) determined by the central project, and I think that this is what we find among pristine civilizations. With historically derivative civilizations that follow the earliest pristine civilizations, when novel central projects have had time to evolve either out of the moral order or the technical order, we find civilizations of the two fundamental kinds that I identified in Part III, viz. the technical and the spiritual.

It was not my intention to suggest that this distinction between fundamentally technical civilizations and fundamentally spiritual civilization was especially important, even though it certainly is interesting. In an attempt at clarification of this distinction I provided the following analogy: “…we can say that all human beings fall into one of two classes, male or female, and in some contexts this is important, but it doesn’t really tell us much about our species. To know what human beings are it is better to know anatomy, physiology, psychology, and natural history (i.e., the sciences relevant to anthropology).”

Here is another analogy: hunter-gatherer nomads might pass through a year in which there is very little game to be had, so that most of their nutrition comes from gathering, or there could be a year with plenty of game but little to gather, so that their nutrition comes primarily from eating meat. Thus we could say that there are two fundamental kinds of hunter-gatherer bands: those that derive most of their calories from gathering, and those that derive most of their calories from hunting. In fact, we know of nomadic peoples who have specialized in the one or the other. For example, the Sami people of the far north of Europe follow reindeer herds and primarily eat meat. Although we can make this interesting distinction, there is a lot more to know about a hunter-gatherer band than where it gets the greater part of its calories, though this question does point to an important distinction, and this distinction sometimes has uses in understanding hunter-gatherer peoples.

It is a matter of historical contingency when a civilization comes to be dominated by either the moral order or the technical order, and indeed we might identify such civilizations as essentially derivative and as a deviation from the paradigmatic form of civilization, in which the central project plays in the primarily role in determining both the moral order and the technical order.

Three Kinds of Civilizations

The upshot of the above is that I should have said that there are three fundamental kinds of civilization, rather than two fundamental kinds:

1. Civilizations that exemplify the Marxian Thesis (technical civilizations)

2. Civilizations that exemplify the Burckhardtian Thesis (spiritual civilizations)

3. Civilizations primarily determined by their central projects (paradigmatic civilizations)

Again, this tripartite distinction is interesting, and has implications in understanding civilization, but it should not be accorded more emphasis than it deserves. Above all, I am not interested in making a distinction like this and then going through the world’s civilizations and placing every one of them in one column or the other; such an approach to the study of civilization would be unhelpful at best, and would prove an obstacle to understanding at worst.

However, in the present context this discussion is relevant because I have defined one of two kinds of technological civilization as a civilization for which the Marxian Thesis holds, the other kind of technological civilization — properly technological civilization — being a civilization that takes technology as its central project. Given what I have suggested above, viz. that pristine civilizations are likely to be paradigmatic civilizations, and given the unlikelihood that a technological civilization could be a pristine civilization, it makes sense that our usage of “technological civilization” accords with the Marxian Thesis, and that our technological civilization today is not one that takes technology as its central project.

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