The “West Asian Cluster” is a term that I use to identify the several early civilizations that emerged in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia (cf. my remarks on the west Asian cluster in The Seriation of Western Civilization and The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State). Whereas civlization emerged independently in geographically isolated regions scattered across the planet, in the case of the west Asian cluster, these civilizations seem to have arisen in concert and to have been in contact with each other throughout their development.

A nomadic or pastoral people, accustomed to walking, would readily have traveled between the regions of the west Asian cluster. Moreover, we know that long-distance trade routes that preceded civilization ran through the area. Distinctive forms of obsidian were traded over long distance, and examples can be traced back to their source. These trade routes likely remained in place as civilization developed in the region, probably expanding as more manufactured goods became available for trade, and these trade routes could have served as vectors for idea diffusion throughout the region.

Thus I assume that continuous idea diffusion within the region meant that whenever a civilized innovation emerged in one location within the cluster, that it was picked up relatively rapidly by other locations in the cluster. In this way, civilization in the region likely developed in a kind of reticulate pattern, rather than in a unitary and linear manner, so that, if we were in possession of all the evidence, we might find a series of developments took place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating in a single civilization. Developments were likely distributed across the several different civilizations, and disseminated by idea diffusion until they reached all the others. This could be called a seriation of distributed development.

As these civilizations rose in concert, it seems that they also fell in concert, in an event that is sometimes called the Late Bronze Age (LBA) collapse. Previously in Epistemic Collapse I mentioned Eric H. Cline’s book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which deals with this period of history. Near the end of the book Cline wrote:

“…for more than three hundred years during the Late Bronze Age — from about the time of Hatshepsut’s reign beginning about 1500 BC until the time that everything collapsed after 1200 BC — the Mediterranean region played host to a complex international world in which Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mitannians, Canaanites, Cypriots, and Egyptians all interacted, creating a cosmopolitan and globalized world system such as has only rarely been seen before the current day. It may have been this very internationalism that contributed to the apocalyptic disaster that ended the Bronze Age. The cultures of the Near East, Egypt, and Greece seem to have been so intertwined and interdependent by 1177 BC that the fall of one ultimately brought down the others, as, one after another, the flourishing civilizations were destroyed by acts of man or nature, or a lethal combination of both.”

Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 171

If, as I suggested above, the development of these intertwined civilizations was reticulate, one would not be surprised that their collapse was also reticulate, distributed throughout the region, following from multiple causes and cascading into multiple consequences — a seriation of distributed collapse. If we think of this as an ecosystem of civilizations, it is easy to think of the LBA collapse as a mass extinction of civilizations. Species, like civilizations, arise in concert, embedded in coevolutionary contexts, not only evolving along with other species, but also with the inorganic environment. When a food web catastrophically collapses, it brings down many species because of their interdependence, and the same may be true of civilizations within their coevolutionary context.

Here is a discussion of definitions of mass extinctions:

“[Sepkoski] defines mass extinction as any substantial increase in the amount of extinction (that is, lineage termination) suffered by more than one geographically widespread higher taxon during a relatively short interval of geological time, resulting in at least temporary decline in their standing diversity. This is a general definition purposefully designed to be somewhat vague. An equally vague but more concise one offered here is that a mass extinction is an extinction of a significant proportion of the world’s biota in a geologically insignificant period of time. The vagueness about extinctions can be dealt with fairly satisfactorily in particular cases by giving percentages of taxa, but the vagueness about time is more difficult to deal with. A significant question about mass extinctions is how catastrophic they were, so we also require a definition of catastrophe in this context. According to Knoll (1984), it is a biospheric perturbation that appears instantaneous when viewed at the level of resolution provided by the geological record.”

A. Hallam and P. B. Wignall, Mass Extinctions and their Aftermath, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 1

The last of these definitions could be adapted to the mass extinction of civilizations: a social perturbation that appears instantaneous when viewed at the level of resolution provided by the historical record. This isn’t exactly right, as we know that it takes time for civilizations to collapse, but if we soften the “instantaneous” to “rapidly” it works, after a fashion. And the authors of this passage openly recognize the ambiguity of time in the definition.

Have there been other mass extinctions of civilizations in history? If we think of the interconnected Mediterranean Basin in Late Antiquity, the collapse of Roman power in the west would constitute a mass extinction of civilizations of the region, though if we count this as a single Hellenistic civilization stretching across Europe into North Africa and West Asia, then it is only a singular collapse. Similarly, if we think of all the civilizations subsumed under Islamic rule during the greatest reach of Islamic civilization, its collapse might also be characterized as a mass extinction of civilizations.

Could a mass extinction of civilizations happen again? We face similar definitional challenges. Are we to consider the whole of planetary civilization as one civilization, or as several civilizations merged and subsumed? A catastrophic institutional collapse of planetary civilization today might be counted either as the collapse of one worldwide civilization or as several tightly-coupled civilizations, as interdependent as the civilizations of West Asia during the Late Bronze Age.

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Epistemic Collapse

13 April 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Beings that act only and do not suffer

2. Beings that suffer only and do not act

3. Beings that both act and suffer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our Terrestrial Heritage

27 February 2017


Étienne-Louis Boullée, Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)

Étienne-Louis Boullée, Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Indiana Jones is adventure science at its most exciting, though the films are more often about looting and destroying sites rather than preserving them.

Indiana Jones is adventure science at its most exciting, though the films are more often about looting and destroying sites rather than preserving them.

In my recent paper “A Manifesto for the Scientific Study of Civilization” I argued that the study of civilization should be scientific, and that a scientific theory of civilization would be a formal theory. Prior to this, I argued in Rational Reconstructions of Time that a formal historiography is possible. What is the connection between these two claims? In A Metaphysical Disconnect I suggested that it is a philosophical problem that philosophies of time have not been tightly-coupled with philosophies of history. This implies that a formal theory of time could be tightly-coupled with a formal theory of history, and a formal theory of history would presumably encompass (or, at least, overlap) a theory of civilization. A formal theory of civilization, then, might ultimately follow from formal historiography.

I fully understand that these are strange claims for me to be making. What in the world do I mean by a formal theory of time, of history, or of civilization? How could a science of civilization be a formal science? What is a formal science, anyway? Despite the burgeoning growth of computer science in our time, which is the latest addition to the formal sciences, the very idea of the formal as a distinct category of thought (distinct, especially, from the material) seems odd and alien to us, and the distinction between the formal sciences and the natural sciences seems archaic. What are the formal sciences? Here is one view:

“To put it in Kantian terms, the formal sciences dealt with the Reine Anschauung as opposed to empirical data. By that they have been connected to the methodology of mathematics and logic, thereby being part of both the philosophical tradition and the newly won applications of mathematical sciences to the natural sciences and engineering. Both the object and the methods of the Formal sciences were recognized as different from the Natural and the Social sciences.”

“The Formal Sciences: Their Scope, Their Foundations, and Their Unity” by Benedikt Löwe, Synthese, Vol. 133, No. 1/2, Foundations of the Formal Sciences I (Oct.-Nov., 2002),pp. 5-11

In the same paper there is an explicit attempt to answer the question, “What are the Formal Sciences?” Two answers are given:

● Answer 1: “There is a profound duality in the classification of sciences according to their scientific approaches: some sciences are empirical, some are formal. The former deal with predictions and their falsification, the latter with the understanding of systems without empirical component, be it man-made systems (literary systems, the arts or social systems) or formal systems”.

● Answer 2: “Formal sciences are those that deal with the deductive analysis of formal systems (i.e., systems independent of direct human influence)”.

At present I am not going to analyze these differing definitions of the formal sciences, but I will leave them to percolate in the back of the mind of the reader in order to return to the question at hand: the study of civilization as a formal science, i.e., one formal science among many other formal sciences, however we choose to define them.

We can get a hint of what a formal science of civilization would look like from structuralist historians and historians of the Annales school, the chief representatives of the latter being Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Fernand Braudel. Marc Bloch’s two volume history of feudalism, in particular, stands out as a great achievement in the genre, with chapters devoted to features of feudal society rather than to great events and historical turning points. Whereas John Florio had Montaigne say that I describe not the essence but the passage, Bloch sought to describe not the passage, but the essence. (I previously quoted from Bloch in Hegel and the Overview Effect.)

There is (or, there will be) no one, single way to approach formal historiography, in the same way that there is no one, single axiomatization of set theory. Even if one agrees with Gödel that set theory describes a “well-determined reality” (a realist conception that most people today would agree describes the past, even if they would hesitate to say the same of set theory), there are, as yet, many distinct approaches to that reality. So too with formal historiography; there will be many distinct formalisms for the organization, exhibition, and exposition of the well-determined reality of history.

I reveal myself as being more of a traditionalist than Bloch by my preference for approaching a theory of civilization by way of a theory of history, and a theory of history by way of a theory of time. This is “traditional” in the sense that, as I have remarked many times in other places, it has been traditional to study civilization by studying history, rather than studying civilization as an object of knowledge in its own right. I retain the historical perspective, and indeed even many of the prejudices of historians (these come naturally to me), but I can also see beyond history sensu stricto and to a science of time, a science of history, and a science of civilization that lies beyond history even as it draws from the tradition all that that tradition has to offer.

Both the essentialist approach of Bloch and the Annales school, and my own quasi-historical approach to a formal science of civilization, may each have something to contribute to a theory of civilization. Obviously, these are not the only ways to study civilization. Civilization also can be studied as an empirical science — this is probably how most would conceive a science of civilization — and even as an adventure science. What is adventure science?

Together with Dr. Jacob Shively, I wrote an article about adventure science, Adventure Science Enters the Space Age, noting that “big science” has become the paradigm of scientific activity at the present time, but when individual human beings are able to go exploring they will be able to pluck the low-hanging fruit of exploration and discovery. Adventure science characterizes the earliest stage of a science when discoveries can be made simply by traveling to an exotic locale and being the first to describe some phenomenon never before documented by science. Such discoveries are difficult for us now, because the low-hanging fruit of terrestrial discovery has all been plucked, but once off Earth, new worlds will beckon with new discoveries waiting to be made. This will be a new Golden Age of adventure science.

Paradoxically, the science of civilization will become an adventure science (if it ever becomes one) quite late in its history, so that adventure science will characterize a science of civilization not in its earliest stages, but in its latest stages. But civilization has had a kind of early adventure science phase as well. Archaeology was once the paradigm of adventure science — as attested to by the cinematic adventures of Indiana Jones and the television adventures of Relic Hunter — when real life explorers entered jungles and deserts and swamps to search for long lost cities. Archaeology is perhaps the closest existing discipline that we have to a true science of civilization — archaeologists have many theories of civilization — so that the adventure science that archaeology once was, was at the same time (at least in part) an adventure science of civilization. And it may be so again, when xenoarchaeologists lead the way, looking for the ruins of alien civilizations.

All of the resources of contemporary big science, with its thousands of researchers and multi-generational socially-organized research programs, will be necessary in order to develop the science that will make possible the production of interstellar vessels. In my Centauri Dreams post, The Interstellar Imperative, I wrote, “A starship would be the ultimate scientific instrument produced by technological civilization, constituting both a demanding engineering challenge to build and offering the possibility of greatly expanding the scope of scientific knowledge by studying up close the stars and worlds of our universe, as well as any life and civilization these worlds may comprise.” Once starships become a reality, they will make possible the empirical study of civilizations, which will begin as an adventure science, the primary qualification for which will be a willingness to tolerate discomfort and to travel to distant places with a determination to document every new sight that one sees.

Geology will become an adventure science like this once again as soon as human beings have the freedom to travel around our solar system; biology and ecology will become adventure sciences once again as soon as we can visit other living worlds. The study of civilization will not become an adventure science until human beings are free to travel about the cosmos, so that this is a very distant prospect, but still a hopeful one. If we do not find a number of interesting civilizations to study, we will build a number of interesting civilizations, and eventually these will be studied in their turn. In this latter instance, the science of civilization will only become an adventure science after civilization has expanded throughout the cosmos, has forgotten the saga of its expansion, and then rediscovers itself across a plurality of worlds. And once again we will be forced to reckon with Hegel’s prescience for having said that the owl of Minerva takes flight only with the setting of the sun.

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'Anywhen' by Chris Foss perfectly expresses the mystery and adventure of exploration. Perhaps some day in the far future, the study of civilization will be an adventure science in which such exploration takes a central role.

“Anywhen” by Chris Foss perfectly expresses the mystery and adventure of exploration. Perhaps some day in the far future, the study of civilization will be an adventure science in which such exploration takes a central role.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Eusocial insect colonies achieve an impressive degree of social differentiation and specialization without the kind of intelligence found among mammals. Some scientists call this collective behavior social intelligence.

Eusocial insect colonies achieve an impressive degree of social differentiation and specialization without the kind of intelligence found among mammals. Some scientists call this collective behavior ‘social intelligence.’

In a couple of blog posts, Is encephalization the great filter? and Of Filters, Great and Small, I argued that encephalization is the great filter — clearly implying that this is a single filter that is more significant than another filters, and that encephalization is the great filter. The “great filter” is an idea due to Robin Hanson, according to whom, “The Great Silence implies that one or more of these steps [to visible colonization] are very improbable; there is a ‘Great Filter’ along the path between simple dead stuff and explosive life. The vast vast majority of stuff that starts along this path never makes it. In fact, so far nothing among the billion trillion stars in our whole past universe has made it all the way along this path.”

In the second of the two blog posts noted above, Of Filters, Great and Small, I considered the different possible structures that filters might take, and this is a more nuanced view of the great filter that departs from the idea that a single element of the great filter is uniquely responsible for the great silence and the Fermi paradox. The journey to higher forms of emergent complexity seems to be robust, and therefore likely to have been repeated elsewhere, but it is also a long journey of later emergent complexities multiply supervening upon earlier emergent complexities. This structure of emergent complexities over time is itself a structure more complex than any one of the emergent complexities taken in isolation. In so far as we understand the great filter in this content, we understand a more nuanced view than the idea of one step among many steps along this journey being the unique hurdle to the aggressive expansion of life in the universe, and therefore its visible traces discoverable through cosmology.

Even given this more nuanced view of the great filter, later forms of emergent complexity will be less common than earlier forms, and within the structure of the great filter we can identify particular emergent complexities where the iterated structure falters. If we place this stalling point at exponential encephalization, we might find a universe filled with complex life, but with few or no other intelligent species capable of building a civilization. This is the sense in which I wish my claim that encephalization is the great filter to be understood.

Recently I have had reason to revisit the idea that encephalization is the great filter, and this is primarily due to having read The Social Conquest of Earth by E. O. Wilson, which emphasizes the role of eusociality in the construction of complex societies. I think that Wilson is right about this. Wilson notes that eusociality has emerged on Earth only a handful of times, making it a rare form of emergent complexity: “Eusociality arose in ants once, three times independently in wasps, and at least four times — probably more, but it is hard to tell — in bees.” (p. 136) We can compare this rarity of eusociality as an adaptation to the rarity of intelligence as an adaptation.

The insects that have achieved robust eusociality — perhaps I should say arthropods — are very different from mammals. We must go back more than 500 million years to the split between protostomes and dueterostomes to find the last common ancestor of the two. With the arthropods we share being bilaterally symmetrical, but the split between us — hence the split between our brains and central nervous systems (CNS) — is about as old as the split between mammals and molluscs: chordata, mollusca, and arthropoda are distinct phyla. On the one hand, we know from a recent fossil find something about the CNS of the earliest chordates, which we thus have in common with most other terrestrial animalia (cf. How early a mind?); on the other hand, we also know that neural structures have evolved independently on Earth (cf. The ctenophore genome and the evolutionary origins of neural systems), so that we might speak of neurodiversity among terrestrial animalia. Different brains, when sufficiently complex, are substrates for different forms of emergent consciousness, i.e., different forms of mind.

It is not only dramatically different kinds of minds that might give rise to dramatically different forms of encephalization, and thus intelligence and civilization. Part of the differentness of eusocial insects is their reproductive specialization, which goes along with a genetic structure of a colony in which the superorganism of the colony benefits overall from a majority of individuals not reproducing. This is also dramatically different from human societies. It has been objected to Wilson’s thesis of the eusociality of human beings that human beings are not eusocial, but rather prosocial, and that human cooperative societies cannot be compared to insect cooperative societies because there is no parallel to reproductive specialization among human beings. This, I think, is an unnecessarily narrow conception of eusociality. All we have to do is to recognize that eusociality can take multiple forms (as minds and intelligence can take multiple forms, supervening upon multiple distinct neural structures), some of which involve reproductive specialization and some of which do not, in order for us to recognize human cooperative societies as eusocial.

The most developed brain of the molluscs is that of the octopus, a solitary hunter. Octopi have been hunting in the depths of the sea for hundreds of millions of years, and, apparently, they have never experienced competition on the basis of intelligence, and, perhaps because of this, have never experienced an encephalization event. (Recently in How early a mind? I quoted E. O. Wilson to the effect that, “A Homo sapiens level of intelligence can arise only on land, whether here on Earth or on any other conceivable planet.” ) So octopi have a respectable level of intelligence, but are far from being eusocial. The eusocial insects have a much less powerful brain than octopi or mammals, but they did make the breakthrough to eusociality. Only human beings made the breakthrough to both eusociality and high individual intelligence.

Since reading Wilson on the eusociality of human societies, I can come to think that human civilization is what happens when eusociality coincides with intelligence. Termite mounds and bee hives are what happens when eusociality coincides with insect-level intelligence. And this observation of the interaction of eusociality and intelligence immediately suggests two possible counterfactuals to human civilzation, which I will sketch below. Understand that, in this context, when I use the term “human civilization” I am using this is in its most generic signification, covering all the many different human civilizations that have existed, i.e., the class of all human civilizations (which is the class of all known civilizations constructed by a biological being both eusocial and intelligent).

I noted above that we can employ a conception of eusociality less narrow than that restricted to eusocial insects with reproductive specialization. Similarly, the other element in civilization — intelligence — ought also to be construed broadly. Many different kinds of intelligence interacting with many different kinds of eusociality suggest many different possibilities for civilization distinct from the class of human civilizations. At the present time I am not going to consider kinds of eusociality and intelligence as much as degrees of eusociality and intelligence, and I will assume that the insect transition to reproductive specialization represents eusociality taken to a higher degree than eusociality has progressed in human beings. Similarly, I will assume that human intelligence represents a higher degree of intelligence than now-extinct branches of the genus homo, i.e., our ancestors with lower degrees of encephalization and lower intelligence.

From these assumptions about degrees of eusociality and intelligence, two counterfactual classes of civilization are suggested:

High Eusociality/Low Intelligence

A species might be less intelligent than human beings (i.e., possess a lower degree of encephalization) but more eusocial than human beings, and be able to build a civilization.

Low Eusociality/High Intelligence

A species might be more intelligent than human beings (i.e., possessing a higher degree of encephalization, or a thicker neocortex) but less eusocial than human beings, and be able to build a civilization.

This formulation has the virtue of existing human civilization embodying the principle of mediocrity: our eusociality and intelligence are balanced; we are not as eusocial or as individualistic as we might have been, and we are not as intelligence or as unintelligent as we might have been. We are in the “Goldilocks zone” of coinciding eusociality and intelligence, and this human “sweet spot” for civilization may account for the fact that civilization emerged independently in widely separated geographical regions, not as a result of idea diffusion, but rather as a consequence of independent invention.

In the High Eusociality/Low Intelligence class of civilizations, we would see somewhat individually intelligent beings capable of a high degree of cooperation through eusociality forming socieites (superorganisms) quite early in their history. We can see the degree to which bees and ants and termites can develop societies based on eusociality and an almost negligible individual intelligence; with a degree of eusociality approaching this, but in a species endowed with more cognitive capacity, cities might be built that look like something between a human city and a termite mound, and this might happen spontaneously. If this had happened with an earlier human ancestor — a counterfactual ancestor with greater eusociality than any actual human ancestor — it could have preempted the emergence of human civilization by occurring millions of years earlier.

In the Low Eusociality/High Intelligence class of civilizations, civilization may have come about at the level of scattered bands of hunter-gatherers, or, at least, human beings in small groups may have been able to develop science and technology without large social institutions such as governments, universities, and corporations, which discipline unruly human beings and make it possible for them to work cooperatively together. One can imagine that a more intelligent (counterfactual) species of the genus homo might have been sufficiently intelligent to pursue science at a much earlier period of its history, and one can imagine members of such a species coming together for scientific purposes much as our ancestors came together at Göbekli Tepe (which I first wrote about in The Birth of Agriculture from the Spirit of Religion) possibly for religious rituals, even before they gathered in settlements for agriculture.

Both counterfactual scenarios I have described above could have resulted in civilization on Earth emerging tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years earlier than it did in fact emerge. I suppose it would be equally possible to formulate counterfactuals in which different classes of civilization emerged much later.

Each of the three classes of civilizations considered here — moderate eusociality/moderate intelligence, high eusociality/low intelligence, and low eusociality/high intelligence — have distinct advantages and disadvantages, in terms of the viability of the civilization that results. However, cognitive capability begins to play a much greater role in civilization after industrialization when civilization becomes technological and scientific. If a given civilization can survive to make the breakthrough to science-driven technology, all other things being equal, the species with the greatest intelligence will have the greatest advantage in deploying science to further the ends of that species. I suspect that a high eusociality/low intelligence civilization would be stagnant, and possibly so stagnant that the breakthrough to industrialization never occurs. I also suspect that human beings were just smart enough to make that breakthrough, as indicated by the single point of origin of the industrial revolution. Short of that threshold, any civilization remains cosmologically invisible, exclusively bound to its homeworld, and incapable of long-term existential risk mitigation. This scenario is consistent with the great silence, and may constitute another approach to the Fermi paradox.

The research questions that follow from these considerations include: Are there intrinsic limits to eusociality among beings whose biology is not consistent with reproductive specialization? Are there intrinsic limits to intelligence for biological beings of known biochemistry? How do eusociality and intelligence interact biologically and ecologically? Does either constitute a check upon the other?

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Cooperation among human beings has its limits -- as illustrated by the story of the Tower of Babel -- and one limit to cooperation is our level of eusociality.  With a higher or lower level of eusociality, civilization would have had a different structure.

Cooperation among human beings has its limits — as illustrated by the story of the Tower of Babel — and one limit to cooperation is our level of eusociality. With a higher or lower level of eusociality, civilization would have had a different structure.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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An Explanatory Mechanism for Aggressively Expanding Civilizations

Any emergent complexity that adds itself to the ultimate furniture of the universe can be, on the one hand, the basis of further emergent complexities, while on the other hand it can function as a selection pressure upon the other furniture of the universe, including earlier and later iterations of emergent complexity. Now, that sounds very abstract — indeed, I could express this idea even more abstractly in the language of ontology — so let me attempt to provide some illustrative examples. When biology emerged from the geochemical complexity of Earth, biology eventually gave rise to further emergent complexities (consciousness, technology, civilization), but biology also began to shape the geochemical context of its own emergence. Biochemistry emerged from geochemistry, thus biochemistry has always been, ab initio, in coevolution with the geochemistry upon which it supervenes.

Life, then, coevolved with geology, as life now coevolves with later emergent complexities, which means that, in the case of human beings, human life coevolves with the habitat it has made for itself — Earth of the anthropocene and our civilization (cf. Intellectual Niche Construction). This point has been made by Wilson and Lumsden:

“[The] high level of human mental activity creates culture, which has achieved a life of its own beyond the ordinary limits of biology. The principal habitat of the human mind is the very culture that it creates.”

Edward O. Wilson and Charles J. Lumsden, Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1983, p.

We might distinguish between relationships of tightly-coupled coevolution and loosely-coupled coevolution, with the familiar instances of coevolution — such as pollinating bees and flowers — qualifying as tightly-coupled, while those evolutionary relationships not usually recognized as coevolutionary qualify as loosely-coupled — for example, geochemistry and biochemistry, although the scale at which we make our comparison will be crucial to determining whether the coupling is tight or loose. “Coevolution” is another way of saying that each party to the coevolutionary relationship acts as a selection pressure on the other, so we make the distinction between tightly-coupled coevolution and loosely-coupled coevolution in order to differentiate between selection pressures, some of which are immediate and enduring (tightly-coupled), and some of which are distant and only sporadically influential (loosely-coupled).

Now that civilization has established itself as an emergent complexity on Earth, civilization may serve as the springboard for further emergent complexities, but it also has emerged as a new selection pressure upon the life that gave rise to civilization, while the geology of Earth and the terrestrial biosphere are, in turn, a selection pressure on civilization. Terrestrial (planetary) civilization may come to act as a selection pressure upon other emergent complexities yet to appear, which will also act as a selection pressure on terrestrial civilization, and these emergent complexities are likely to be emergent from civilization. A spacefaring civilization that encompasses (at first) multiple worlds of a planetary system, multiple planetary systems of multiple stars, or multiple galaxies, would be one form of emergent complexity that could arise from planetary civilization.

Among the immediate and enduring selection pressures on spacefaring civilizations will be the distribution of exploitable resources in space, as well as the other spacefaring civilizations with which such a civilization is in competition for these resources (these other spacefaring civilization themselves being an emergent complexity originating from other planetary civilizations derived from other biospheres). There may also be selection pressures from emergent complexities that we do not yet understand, and which we have not yet identified. These two selection pressures — distribution of resources and competition with other spacefaring civilizations — will shape (perhaps have shaped) the origins, evolution, distribution, and fate of spacefaring civilizations. Spacefaring civilizations will be in a tightly-coupled coevolutionary relationship with the cosmological distribution of resources (matter and energy) and the efforts of other spacefaring civilizations to also dominate these resources. Let us consider this more carefully.

When I wrote my post on Social Stratification and the Dominance Hierarchy I included a diagram (reproduced above; also see Group Dynamics) illustrating the selection pressures that lead to a dominance hierarchy in social animals. The diagram distinguished among scarce, limited, and abundant resources. Scarce resources lead to cooperation; sufficiently abundant resources can eliminate competition. In the case of limited resources, these resources can be scattered or concentrated. Scattered resources lead to competition in speed, while concentrated resources lead to competition in aggressiveness, and thence to a dominance hierarchy. The dominance hierarchy among human beings, which in civilization we call social stratification, implies that the resources significant to human beings have been scarce and concentrated.

If we confine our interest in human access to resources only to Earth, we can readily distinguish between regions where resources are sufficiently concentrated that they can be defended, and regions where resources are scattered, cannot be defended, and are therefore the object of competition in speed rather than aggressiveness. (We can also distinguish different social systems that have arisen shaped by the differential distribution of resources.) If we pull back from this geographical scale and consider the question from the perspective of a spacefaring civilization, the whole of Earth, our homeworld, is a concentrated and defensible locus of resources, but the cosmos on the whole represents an extreme scattering, over interstellar and intergalactic distances, of limited or scarce resources. This scattering of limited resources, in contradistinction to the concentrated and defensible resources of the homeworld of any intelligence species, ought to have the result of spacefaring civilizations defending their homeworld while competing for resources with other spacefaring civilizations, not through competition in aggressiveness, but through competition in speed.

Competition in aggressiveness for the resources of spacefaring civilization may be excluded by the scattering of these resources, so that we are not likely to see the emergence of a galactic empire, crushing under the boot heels of its storm troopers the aspirations to freedom, dignity, and equality of intelligent species throughout the galaxy. However, competition in speed for limited resources distributed on a cosmological scale may well be the primary selection pressure on spacefaring civilizations, and competition in speed ought to entail the rapid cosmological expansion of these civilizations.

Elsewhere I have mentioned the papers of S. Jay Olson (cf. Big Time, The Genesis Project as Central Project, and Second Addendum on the Genesis Project as Central Project: Invasive Species) concerning what Olson calls “aggressively expanding civilizations,” which embody rapid expansion on a cosmological scale. Here is Olson’s characterization of such as scenario:

“An ‘aggressive expansion scenario’ is a proposed cosmological phenomenon… whereby a subset of advanced life appears at random throughout the universe and expands in all directions, saturating galaxies and utilizing resources as they go… We also assume that all aggressive expanders will be of the same behaviour type, i.e. they all expand with the same velocity v in the local comoving frame, and the expanding spherical front of galaxy colonization leads to observable changes a fixed time T after the front has passed by.”

“Estimates for the number of visible galaxy-spanning civilizations and the cosmological expansion of life,” S. Jay Olson, International Journal of Astrobiology, Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp. 2-3, doi:10.1017/S1473550416000082

Competition in speed among spacefaring civilization would mean a focus on maximizing v for the expanding spherical front of galaxy colonization.

Citing Bostrom and Omohundro on the nature of superintelligent AI (presumptively the heir of our technological civilization, but see the final sentence below quoted from Olson, as he addresses this as well), Olson writes:

“From an independent field of study, it has been argued that resource acquisition is one of the ‘basic drives’ of a generic superintelligent AI. This means, in essence, that a sufficiently powerful AI will tend to use extreme expansion and resource acquisition as a means of maximizing its utility function, unless it is explicitly and carefully designed to avoid such behavior… even if advanced alien species tend to be monks who have forsaken all worldly gain, the accidents involving insufficiently careful design of an artificial superintelligence are potentially one of the largest observable phenomena in the universe, when they occur. The word ‘civilization’ is not really the best description of such a thing, but we will use it for the sake of historical continuity.”

“Long-term consequences of observing an expanding cosmological civilization”, S. Jay Olson

We can see that competition in speed for limited resources provides an explanatory mechanism for the existence and expansion of aggressively expanding civilizations. Spacefaring civilizations that successfully compete for resources on a cosmological scale endure over cosmological scales of time, and perhaps leave a legacy in the form of a universe transformed sub specie civilizationis. Spacefaring civilizations that fail to expand go extinct, and leave no observable legacy. Whether there is room for more than one aggressively expanding civilization in any one universe, or whether this expansion takes place on scale of time sufficient to foreclose the opportunity of expansion to any rival civilizations, remains an open question. Once a universe is saturated with life, no other life, and no other civilization emergent from other life, would have an opportunity to appear, unless or until a cosmological scale extinction event created such an opportunity (which could be furnished by sufficiently violent gamma ray bursts).

The above considerations pose other interesting questions that could be taken up as research questions in the study of spacefaring civilization. How are we to distinguish between scarce and limited resources on a cosmological scale? Might the closely packed stars of globular clusters and galactic centers constitute limited resources, while diffuse spiral arms and the outer portions of elliptical galaxies constitute scarce resources? At what threshold of availability should we distinguish between matter and energy being scarce or limited? This may be a problem contingently decided by the technologies of spacefaring not yet known to us. That is to say, if technologically mature civilizations find interstellar travel (or intergalactic travel) somewhat routine, then we may regard cosmological resources as scattered and limited, and more concentrated areas such as mentioned (globular clusters and galactic centers) might pass over a threshold such that they would be considered concentrated — thus there would be the possibility of galactic empires competing on aggressiveness for defensible resources. If, on the other hand, interstellar (or intergalactic) travel is always difficult, then the universe presents, at best, limited resources, and perhaps scarce resources. In the case of scarce resources, there would be a window of opportunity for cooperation among spacefaring civilization for the effective and efficient exploitation of these resources.

If, as on the surface of Earth (and relative to a planetary civilization), cosmological resources are distributed unevenly, then the distribution of civilizations will mirror the distribution of resources — not only in extent, but also in character, with concentrated regions producing civilizations competing on aggression, and diffuse regions producing civilizations competing on speed. On a sufficiently large scale, uneven distribution of cosmological resources would violate the cosmological principle, which is a cornerstone of contemporary cosmology. However, on the smaller scales (especially galactic scales) that would confront early spacefaring civilizations, the differential of resources between concentrated stellar regions and diffuse steller regions may be sufficient to differentiate regions of a galaxy given over to competition on speed for cosmological resources and regions of the same galaxy given over to competition on aggressiveness for cosmological resources. With the position of Earth in a spiral arm of the Milky Way, we inhabit a region of relatively diffuse distribution of stars, so that any nascent spacefaring civilizations with which we would be in competition would be competition in speed. It is therefore in our interest to reach the stars as soon as possible, or, by declining competition, reconcile ourselves to the existential risk of being shut out of the possibility of being a civilization relevant to the galaxy.

It may be that civilizations in regions of diffuse and therefore limited resources naturally understand their dilemma and consequently focus upon spacecraft speed (which has always been a preoccupation of those engaged in the speculative engineering of interstellar capable spacecraft), while civilizations in regions of more concentrated and therefore defensible resources intuit their relative ease of travel and focus instead on aggressive domination of their region of space, and the technology that would make such aggressive domination possible. Thus a civilization may already begin to be shaped by the selection pressures of its galactic neighborhood even as a nascent spacefaring civilization. An obvious instantiation of this phenomenon would be a single planetary system in which more than one planet produced life and civilization. These multiple civilizations expanding into a single planetary system would immediately be in conflict over the resources of that planetary system. In our exploration of our own planetary system, we have not had to compete with another civilization, and so our earliest spacecraft have gone into space without armor or armaments. We have a free hand in expanding into our planetary system; that may not be true for all nascent spacefaring civilizations, and it may not be true for us at spacefaring orders of magnitude beyond our planetary system.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Vernacular Declensionism

27 October 2016



When I was an adolescent I was quite taken with what was known at the time as “survivalism.” With the little money that I had a bought a copy of Life After Doomsday by Bruce Clayton, I subscribed to Survive magazine (at the same time I was reading Soldier of Fortune magazine), and my favorite science fiction novels were those that dealt with the end of the world. There is an entire sub-genre of science fiction that dwells on the end of the world — some of it concerns itself with the actual process of societal collapse, some considers the short term consequences of societal collapse, and some considers the far future consequences. The most famous novel in this genre is also perhaps the most famous novel in science fiction — Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz — which lingers over a post apocalyptic future at three distinct six hundred year intervals. My interest in the end of the world also led to my studying civil defense and eventually nuclear strategy, which fascinated me. This autodidactic process eventually led me to high culture sources of declension narratives, and hence to an intellectual engagement that ceased to be related to survivalism.

My Cold War childhood provided ample scope for my secular apocalyticism, but in reading about survivalism it was not long before I discovered that, ideologically, the survivalist movement was far to the right, though with some exceptions. There is was a bit of overlap between the counter-culture back-to-the-land movement, which was typically on the political left, and the survivalists, who were typically on the right. Both camps read the Foxfire books and imagined themselves returning to a simpler, and more self-sufficient life — an obvious response to the alienation produced by industrialized society and exponential urban growth. The exponential urban growth that especially blossomed in Europe and North America following the Second World War, and which effectively led to the depopulation of the rural countryside, continues in our time (cf. The Rural-Urban Divide). One of the most significant global demographic trends has been, is, and will continue to be the movement of rural populations into increasingly large megacities. This process means that the communities of the rural countryside are dismantled, while new communities are created in urban contexts, but the transition is by no means smooth, and some weather the change better than others.

Several changes occurred at or around the middle of the twentieth century that severally contributed to the rise of declension narratives: the exponential growth in urbanism mentioned above, atomic weapons and the Cold War, the dissolution of extended families, the Pill, and so on. Before this time, narratives of the future were largely expansionist and optimistic. During the Golden Age of science fiction, uncomplicated heroes traveled from planet to planet in a quixotic quest to right wrongs and to rescue damsels in distress. Now this seems very innocent, if not naïve, and we now prefer anti-heroes to heroes, as we identify more with their tortured struggles than with the uncomplicated heroes and their happily-ever-after.

Thus while our cities are larger than ever before in the history of civilization, and they are growing larger by the day, civilization is more integrated around the planet than ever before, and becoming more tightly integrated all the time (even as politicians today flee from the label of “globalization” because they know it is, at the moment, politically radioactive), and civilization is more robust than ever, with higher levels of redundancy in essential infrastructure and services than ever before, as well as possessing long-term, large-scale disaster planning and preparation, we are more pessimistic than ever before about the prospects of this vigorous civilization. Perhaps this is simply because it is not the civilization we expected to have.

In the social atmosphere of Cold War tension and the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation, which could materialize at any moment out of the clear blue sky, those initially disaffected by the emerging character of modern urbanized life sought to opt out, and this process of opting out of the emerging social order was often given intellectual justification in terms of a Weltanschauung of decline, which I call declension historiography. Declensionism varies in scope, from mainstream media columnists bemoaning the declining stature of the US in a multipolar world, to disaster preparedness, to societal collapse, to awareness of global catastrophic risk and existential risk, to a metaphysical doctrine of universal, inevitable, and unavoidable decline (which is today often expressed in scientific terms by reference to the second law of thermodynamics). Doomsday preparedness, then, comes in all varieties, from those hoping to survive “the big one,” where “the big one” is a massive earthquake, hurricane, or even an ephemeral political revolution, to those gearing up for the collapse of civilization and living in a world where there is no more electricity, no hospitals, schools, governments, or indeed any social institutions at all beyond the individual survivalist and his intimate circle.

The prehistory of doomsday preppers also included those preparing for a variety of different environmental, social, and political ills. Hippies founded communes and used their agricultural skills to grow better dope. Several apocalyptic churches have predicted the end of the world, and some explicitly urged members to build fallout shelters in order to survive nuclear war (such as the Church Universal and Triumphant). The communitarians on the right have often chosen to opt out of mainstream society under the umbrella of one of these apocalyptic churches, while the rugged individualists on the right became survivalists and they prepared to meet an apocalyptic future on their own terms, but, again, often justified in terms of a much larger conception of history. This declension narrative has become pervasive in contemporary society. While the end of the Cold War has meant the decline in the risk of nuclear war, the political left now favors scenarios of environmental collapse, while the political right favors scenarios of institutional collapse due to bank failure, currency collapse, the welfare state, or the decline of traditional social institutions (such as the church and the family).

The terms “suvivalist” and “survivalism” are not used as widely today, but the same phenomenon is now known in terms of “preppers,” short for “doomsday preppers,” which indicates those who actively plan and prepare for apocalyptic scenarios. The political division and overlap is still evident. The left, focusing on environmental collapse, continues to look toward the “small is beautiful” ideal of the early environmental movement, inherited from the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study; they focus on community and sustainable organic farming and tend not to stress the necessarily violent social transition that would occur if the most shrill predictions of “peak oil” came to pass, and industrialized civilization ground to a halt (this sort of scenario approaches mainstream respectability in some popular books such as $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, which I discussed in Are Happy Days Here Again?). These left-of-center declensionists are rarely called “preppers,” but their activities overlap with those usually called preppers.

The right, in contrast, does focus on the presumptively violent transitional period of social collapse, fetishizing armed resistance to marauding hordes, who will stream by the millions from overcrowded cities when the electricity stops and trucks stop bringing in food. While details are usually absent, the generic social collapse scenario has come to be called “SHTF,” which is an acronym for “shit hits the fan,” as in, “when the shit hits the fan, if you aren’t prepared, things are going to go badly for you.” Right-of-center declensionists, like the left, have an overarching vision of the collapse of civilization (as strange as that may sound), but drawing on different ideas and different causes than the left.

What are these declensionist ideas and the presumed causes of declension? Where does vernacular declensionism get its ideas? Why is declensionism so prevalent today? I have touched upon this issue previously, especially in Fear of the Future, where I made an argument specific to the nature of industrialized society and the reaction against it:

“…apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided… While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.”

This explains the motivation for entertaining declensionist ideas, but it does not explain the sources of these ideas. But in the same post I also cited a number of science fiction films that have prominently depicted apocalyptic visions. It is difficult to name a science fiction film that is not dystopian and apocalyptic, and these films have had a great impact on popular culture. Even those unsympathetic to the prepper mindset effortlessly recognize the familiar tropes of societal collapse portrayed in film. Presumably the writers of these films derive their declensionist ideas from a mixture of vernacular, social media, mass media, and high culture declensionism, as these ideas have percolated through society.

The mass media rarely recognizes preppers (although I see that there is a television program, Doomsday Preppers), and when it does do, it does so in a spirit of condescension. The greatest friends of civilization today are those who never think about it and take for granted all of the comforts and advantages of civilization. For most of them, the end of civilization is simply unimaginable, and it is this perspective that is operative when the occasional article on preppers appears in the mass media, where it is presented with a mixture of bemused pity and incredulity. The target audience for these stories are precisely the people that preppers believe will not last very long when the shit hits the fan. I could easily write a separate blog post (or an entire book) about the relationship of the mass mainstream media to declension scenarios, but this is a distinct topic from that of vernacular declensionism. There is some overlap between mass media and social media, as every mainstream media outlet also has a social media presence, and the occasional social media post will “go viral” and be picked up by the mainstream media. In this way, some survivalist ideas find a wider audience than the core audience, already familiar with the message, and this can draw in the curious, who may eventually become converts to the message. Other than this, the contribution by mass media to declension historiography is very limited (except for supplying a steady stream of inflammatory news articles that are pointed out as sure signs that the end is near).

Social media is vast and amorphous, but is given shape by each and every one of us as we pick and choose the social media we consume. This filtering effect means that like-minded individuals share a common ideological space in social media, and they overlap very little with those of divergent ideologies. The prepper community is well represented in social media, which has taken over from the small private presses that formerly distributed survivalist literature to the small survivalist community. The social media presence of preppers is all over the map, with an array of diverse social collapse scenarios, but, like survivalists of the 70s and 80s, still primarily on the political right, and often inspired by Biblical visions of apocalypse. In 72 Items That Will Disappear First When The SHTF, preppers are urged to buy boxes of Bibles: “Bibles will be in demand and can be used to barter items. A box of 100 small Bibles cost about $20.” Perhaps the writer of this article has watched The Book of Eli too many times and imagines that the Bible may be hard to come by in post-apocalyptic America. It would be extraordinarily difficult for the Bible to become a rarity — as difficult as it would be for human beings to go extinct. Both are too widely distributed to be eradicated by anything short of terrestrial sterilization. If you want trade goods, you would be much better off stocking up on books that will be rare than books that will be common, but this doesn’t stoke the prepper narrative, so the logic of commerce gives way to the ideology of social cohesion through embattled belief.

High culture declensionism, as to be found, for example, in Oswald Spengler’s classic The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), is scholarly, if not pedantic, and is essentially an exercise in the philosophy of history. (Interestingly, the most famous representatives of the Beat Generation, who foreshadowed the hippies’ back-to-the-land rejectionism of industrialized society, were avid readers of Spengler; cf. Sharin N. Elkholy, The Philosophy of the Beats, University Press of Kentucky, 2012, p. 208.) Spengler employs the old standby of a cyclical conception of history, and despite the intellectual and cultural distance we can come since cyclical history was the norm, vernacular cyclical history continues to be an influence. Vernacular cyclical history can appeal to intuitions about the life cycle of all things, and it is easy to conceive of civilization as participating in this coming to be and passing away of everything sublunary.

Saint Augustine, the father of the philosophy of history, may be cited as another high culture representative of declensionism, living as he did as the Roman world was unraveling. The sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD was the occasion of Saint Augustine writing his magnum opus, The City of God (De Civitate Dei). Rome had been a city untouched by any invading army for more than eight hundred years, and had functioned as the capital of the known world, and yet it had been laid low by unsophisticated barbarians. How was this to be explained? This is the task Augustine set himself, and Augustine had an answer. The ruination of the City of Man was, for Augustine, a mere detail of history, of no great importance, as long as the City of God was thriving, as he believed it to be. Indeed, the City of God would go on to thrive for more than a thousand years after Augustine as western Europe attempted to make itself over as the Earthly image of the City of God.

Augustine represents a sharp break with cyclical history. Throughout the City of God Augustine is explicit in his rejection of cyclical history, arguing against it both as a theory of history as well as due to its heterodox consequences. Thus while we can construe Augustine as a representative of declension history, it is a linear declension history. Augustine’s vision of linear declension history was remarkably influential during the European middle ages, when the few educated members of society did not perceive any break in history from classical antiquity to medievalism. For them, they were still Romans, but degraded Romans, very late in the history of Rome. The miserable condition of life of the middle ages was to be put to having come at the tail end of history, waiting for the world to well and truly end.

Vernacular declension, with its intuitive retention of cyclical history, resides awkwardly side-by-side with the Whig historiography and progressivism (ultimately derived from Augustine’s linear conception of history) that is so common in the modern world — the idea that we are modern, and therefore different from the people of the past and their world, is axiomatic and unquestioned. Human periodization of time is as natural as the categories of folk biology — our modernism, then, is, in part, a function of folk historiography (on folk concepts cf. Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress and Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization). What are the categories of folk historiography, what kind of historical understanding of the world is characteristic of folk historiography? This will have to be an inquiry for another time.

I will conclude only with the observation that vernacular declensionism might paradoxically be employed in the service of civilization, if an interest in responses to existential threats to societal stability could be used as a stepping stone to the study of and preparation for global catastrophic risks and existential risks. That is a big “if.” When I think back to my own frame of mind when I was an enthusiast of survivalism, I thought that civilization had little or nothing of interest to me, and that all the adventure that might be possible in the world would follow from the “struggle for subsistence” that Keynes took to be the “economic problem” of humanity, and which contemporary civilization has largely solved. I still have sympathy for those who find little to value in civilization, as I can remember that stage in my own development quite clearly. In a sense, I only became reconciled to civilization; I never belonged to those who never question civilization, and who can’t imagine its extirpation. Civilization was, for me, always open to question.

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Biocentrism in an extended sense

In my recent post The Technocentric Thesis I formulated the latter idea such that all technocentric civilizations begin as biocentric civilizations and are transformed into technocentric civilizations through the replacement of biological constituents with technological constituents. This technocentric thesis implicitly refers to the anterior biocentric thesis, such that all civilizations in our universe begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces (in its strong form) or all civilizations during the Stelliferous Era begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces (in its weak form).

The technocentric thesis may be considered a generalization from the biocentric thesis (or, at least, an extension of the biocentric thesis), in so far as I previously argued in Astrobiology is island biogeography writ large that “spaceflight is to astrobiology as flight is to biogeography” which entails, in regard to the continuity of civilization and natural history, that “technology is the pursuit of biology by other means.” Thus technocentric civilizations continue imperatives of biocentric civilization, but by means other than biocentric means, i.e., by technological rather than biological means. Throughout the process of the replacement of the biological constituents of civilization by technological constituents of civilization, the imperatives of civilization remain intact and continuous.

We can make other generalizations from (and extensions of) the biocentric thesis. I wrote about a generalization of biophilia to non-terrestrial life in The Scope of Biophilia: “[E.O.] Wilson has already anticipated the extrapolation of biophilia beyond terrestrial life. Though Wilson’s term biophilia has rapidly gained currency and has been widely discussed, his original vision embracing a biophilia not limited to Earth has not enjoyed the same level of interest.” Here is the passage in question of E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia:

“From infancy we concentrate happily on ourselves and other organisms. We learn to distinguish life from the inanimate and move toward it like moths to a porch light. Novelty and diversity are particularly esteemed; the mere mention of the word extraterrestrial evokes reveries about still unexplored life, displacing the old and once potent exotic that drew earlier generations to remote islands and jungled interiors.”

Human Biophilia in its initial sense is the affinity that human beings have for the terrestrial biosphere, and the obvious extension of human biophilia (suggested in the passage quoted above from Wilson) would be the affinity that human beings may have for any life whatsoever in the cosmos, terrestrial or extraterrestrial. Might this hold generally for all biological beings, such that we can posit the affinity that some non-terrestrial biological being might have for the life of its homeworld, and the affinity that some non-terrestrial biological being might have for all life, including life on Earth (the mirror image of human biophilia in an extended sense)? These are the exobiological senses of biophilia (exobiophilia, if you like, or xenobiophilia).

These mirror image formulations of human biophilia and biophilia on the part of other intelligent (biological) agents suggests a more comprehensive formulation yet, that of the affinity of any biological being for any biology to be found anywhere in the universe. The presumed affinity that each biological organism will have for the biota of its homeworld involves the existential necessity of an organism’s attachment to the biota of its homeworld on the one hand, while on the other hand there is biophilia as a moral phenomenon, i.e., a constituent in the moral psychology of any biological being, the cognitive expression (or cognitive bias) of biocentrism. Biophilia in this formal sense would be the affinity that any biological being would have for the biota of its homeworld, while this formal biophilia in a generalized sense would be the affinity that any biological being would have for any life whatsoever in the cosmos.

How comprehensive is the scope of biophilia, or how comprehensive can it be, or ought it to be? Can we meaningfully extrapolate the concept of biophilia to such comprehensive scope as to include life on other worlds? I have formulated several thought experiments — Terrestrial Bias, Astrobiology Thought Experiment, and The Book of Earth — to investigate our intuitions in regard to other life, both on Earth and elsewhere. It would be an interesting project to follow up on these thought experiments more systematically as a research program in experimental philosophy. For the moment, however, I remain confined to thought experiments.

There are at least two forces counterbalancing the possibility of an expansive biophilia, with a scope exceeding that of terrestrial biology:

1) biophobia, and…

2) in-group bias

Parallel to biophilia there is biophobia, which is as instinctual as the former. Just as human beings have an affinity for certain life forms, we also have an instinctive fear of certain life forms. Indeed, the biosphere could be divided up into forms of life for which we possess biophilia, forms of life for which we possess biophobia, and forms of life to which we are indifferent. Biophobia, like biophilia, can be extrapolated as above to extraterrestrial forms of life. If and when we do find life elsewhere in the universe, no doubt some of this life will inspire us with awe and wonder, while some of its will inspire us with fear, perhaps even with palpable terror. So the scope of biophilia is modified by the parallel scope of biophobia. Given that terrestrial life is going to be more like us, while alien life will be less like us, I would guess that any future alien life will, on balance, inspire greater biophobia, while terrestrial life will, on balance, inspire greater biophilia. If this turns out to be true, the extension of biophilia beyond life of the terrestrial biosphere will be severely limited.

There is a pervasive in-group bias that marks eusociality in complex life, i.e., life sufficiently complex to have evolved consciousness, and perhaps also among eusocial insects, which are not likely to possess the kind of consciousness possessed by large brained mammals. I am using “eusocial” here in E. O. Wilson’s sense, as I have been reading E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, in which Wilson contrasts the eusociality of insects and of human beings and a few other mammals. Wilson finds eusociality to be a relatively rare adaptive strategy, but also a very powerful one once it takes hold. Wilson credits human eusociality with the human dominance of the terrestrial biosphere today.

Wilson’s conception of eusociality among primates has been sharply rejected by many eminent biologists, among then Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker. The debate over eusociality in primates has focused on group selection (long a controversial topic in evolutionary biology) and the absence of reproductive division of labor in human beings. But the fact that one communication in criticism of Wilson and co-authors to the eminent scientific journal Nature (“Inclusive fitness theory and eusociality” Nature, 2011 March 24; 471, 7339: E1-4; author reply E9-10. doi: 10.1038/nature09831) had 134 signatures indicates that something more than the dispassionate pursuit of knowledge is involved in this debate. I am not going to attempt to summarize this debate here, but I will say only that I find value in Wilson’s conception of eusociality among human beings, and that the criticism of Wilson’s position has involved almost no attempt to understand Wilson’s point sympathetically.

Wilson had, of course, previously made himself controversial with his book on sociobiology, which discipline has subsequently been absorbed into and transformed into evolutionary psychology (one could say that sociobiology is evolutionary psychology in a nascent and inchoate stage of development), which continues to be controversial today, primarily because it says unflattering things about human nature. Wilson has continued to say unflattering things about human nature, and his treatment of human eusociality in The Social Conquest of Nature entails inherent human tribalism, which in turn entails warfare. This is not a popular claim to make, but it is a claim that resonates with my own ideas, as I have many times argued that civilization and war are coevolutionary; Wilson pushes this coevolutionary spiral of (in-group) sociality and (out-group) violence into the prehistoric, evolutionary past of humanity. With this I completely concur.

In-group bias and out-group hostility parallel each other in a way very much like biophilia and biophobia, and we could once again produce parallel formulations for extrapolating these human responses to worlds beyond our own — and perhaps also to other intelligent agents, so that these responses are not peculiarly human. How large can the scope of in-group bias become? It is a staple of many science fiction stories that human beings, divided against each other, unify to fight a common extraterrestrial enemy. I suspect that this would be true, and that in-group bias could be expanded even farther into the universe, but it would never be without the shadow of an out-group, however that out-group came to be defined, whether as other human beings who had abandoned Earth, or another species sufficiently different from us so as to arouse our suspicion and distrust.

There is a little known essay by Freeman Dyson that touches of themes of intrinsic human tribalism that are very much in the vein of Wilson’s argument, though Dyson’s article is many decades old, from the same year that human beings landed on the moon: “Human Consequences of the Exploration of Space” (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sept. 1969, Vol. XXV, No. 7; I was unable to find this article available on the internet, so I obtained a copy through interlibrary loan… many thanks to the Multnomah County Library System). In this article Dyson considers the problem of people in small groups, and in particular he describes how intrinsic human tribalism (i.e., in-group bias) might be exapted for a better future:

“…the real future of man in space lies far away from planets, in isolated city-states floating in the void, perhaps attached to an inconspicuous asteroid of perhaps to a comet… most important of all for man’s future, there will be groups of people setting out to find a place where they can be safe from prying eyes, free to experiment undisturbed with the creation of radically new types of human beings, surpassing us in mental capacities as we surpass the apes… So I foresee that the ultimate benefit of space travel to man will be to make it possible for him once again to live as he lived throughout prehistoric time, in isolated small units. Once again his human qualities of clannish loyalty and exclusiveness will serve a constructive role…”

Once again, I completely concur, though this is not the whole story. One of the greatest demographic trends of our time is urbanization, and we have seen millions upon millions move from rural areas and small towns into the always growing cities, both for their opportunities and their intrinsic interest. So human beings possess these tribal instincts that Dyson would harness for the good, but also eusocial instincts that flower in the world’s megacities, which are centers of both economic and intellectual innovation. Thus I find much of value in Dyson’s vision, but I would supplement it with the occasional conurbation, and I would assume that, over the course of an individual’s life, that there would be times that they would prefer the isolated community, times when they would prefer urban life, and times when they would want to leave all human society behind and immerse themselves in wilderness and wildness — perhaps even in the wilderness of an alien biosphere.

All of the things I have been describing here are essentially biological visions of the human future, which suggest that biocentric civilization still has many ways that it can grow and evolve, even if it does not converge on a form implied by the technocentric thesis, in which biology is displaced by technology. Technology can replace biology, and, when it does, the ends of biocentric civilization come to served by technological means, but that technology can replace biology does not mean that technology will replace biology.

Perhaps one of the sources of our technophilia is that we tend to think in technological terms because technology attains its ends over human scales of time, even over the scale of time of the individual human life and the individual human consciousness. But what technology can do quickly, biology can also do, more slowly, over biological and geological scales of time. If human civilization should be wiped away by any number of catastrophes that await us, the technological path of development will be foreclosed, but the biological path to development will still continue to be open as long as life exists, though it will operate over a scale of time that human beings do not perceive and mostly do not comprehend.

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Paul Klee, Bird Garden, 1924

Paul Klee, Bird Garden, 1924

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The Technocentric Thesis

6 October 2016



A biological being among biological beings

A human being is a being among beings, and moreover a biological being among biological beings. We come to an awareness of ourselves, and of what we are, in a biological context. Biophilia, then, is a default consequence of being biological and finding oneself in a biological content; biophilia is a cognitive bias of biological beings. (Previously I considered the relationship between our biological nature and our biological bias in Biocentrism and Biophilia.) From both our biocentrism and our biophilia follows biocentric civilization, which I formulated in terms of the biocentric thesis, so it is natural that I would next attempt to formulate a technocentric thesis, as I have often contrasted biocentric and technocentric conceptions.

Until quite recently there was no possibility of pursing a non-biophilic bent, i.e., of pursuing a technocentric bent. Over the past several thousand years of human civilization, individual human beings had a limited opportunity to immerse themselves into the human world of civilization, and this civilization has been predominantly and pervasively biocentric. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, after which both agriculturalism and pastoralism became economically marginal, and the adoption of technology greatly increased, the ability to separate oneself from biocentric institutions has increased proportionately, but the individual has remained himself a biological being, tied to the biological world through existential needs for personal sustenance. Thus our being biological has repeatedly brought us back to our biological origins. If civilization were to fail, we could still return to an almost exclusively biocentric context and — at least for those who survived this traumatic transition — life would go on.

The emergence of a technological milieu following the industrial revolution suggests the possibility of a technocentric civilization that is the successor to biocentric civilization. Indeed, we may even understand the emergence of a fully technocentric civilization as the telos of industrialized civilization. We can formulate this in greater generality, as this process may hold for any civilization whatsoever that originates as a civilization of planetary endemism and makes the transition to a technological civilization.

Should the intelligent (biological) agents that build a civilization cease to be biological and become, for example, technological instead of biological, over time those intelligent agents could grow apart from their biocentric origins, and the social institutions in which these intelligent agents participate will become increasingly less biocentric. Biocentricity, then, is a function of biological origins, i.e., biocentrism is a consequence of being biological (as I put it in The Biocentric Thesis), and biophilia is an expression of biocentricity. As a technological civilization grows away from its biocentric origins, it is likely to become less biophiliac over time, which will in turn allow for greater expression of technophilia.


An explicit formulation of the technocentric thesis

Let us try to give these ideas a more explicit formulation:

The Technocentric Thesis

Any fully technocentric civilization has evolved from a previous biocentric civilization by descent with modification.

…which implies its corollary formulated in the negative…

Technocentric Corollary

No civilization originates as a technocentric civilization.

By a “biocentric civilization” I mean a civilization that exemplifies the biocentric thesis. I have formulated a strong biocentric thesis (all civilizations in our universe begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces) and a weak biocentric thesis (all civilizations during the Stelliferous Era begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces), each of which has a corollary formulated in the negative. The technocentric thesis could also be given strong and weak formulations, e.g., all technocentric civilizations in our universe evolve from biocentric civilizations (strong) and all technocentric civilizations during the Stelliferous Era evolve from biocentric civilizations (weak). The weaker formulation is in each case constrained by temporal parameter while the stronger formulation is unconstrained.

The mechanism by which a technocentric civilization evolves from a biocentric civilization I call replacement, and replacement can be formulated as the replacement thesis:

The Replacement Thesis

All technocentric civilizations begin as biocentric civilizations and are transformed into technocentric civilizations through the replacement of biological constituents with technological constituents.

This in turn implies a negative formulation as its corollary:

Replacement Thesis Corollary

No technocentric civilization originates as a technocentric civilization, but emerges by replacement from a biocentric civilization of planetary endemism.

How far can replacement go? We can already see in our own industrialized civilization partial replacement, but can there be a complete replacement of biological constituents by technological constituents? For any civilizations originating in intelligent biological organisms, it is unlikely that living organisms could ever be completely eliminated, but they may be rendered superfluous for all practical purposes (i.e., superfluous to civilization).


The argument from consciousness

It would be possible to construct a scenario in which biology can never be completely eliminated as a constituent of civilization. Consider the following scenario, which I will call the argument from consciousness, based on the indispensability of consciousness to civilization and the unknown parameters of machine consciousness.

The Argument from Consciousness

I will assume that there is such a thing as consciousness, that human beings are conscious at least some of the time, and that this human consciousness plays a significant role in human existence and in the civilizations built by human beings. (It is necessary to make these rudimentary stipulations because it is not unusual to find consciousness dismissed, or called an “illusion,” or to see its role in the world minimized or marginalized.)

The view is prevalent, perhaps even dominant, in AI circles such that anything that can pass the Turing test must be called conscious. There is a degree of mutual reinforcement between this common view among AI researchers and the tacit positivism that continues to influence the development of contemporary science, which consigns consciousness of the sphere of metaphysics and thus rules out in principle any metaphysical entity that is consciousness. I will not here attempt to make a case for consciousness as a metaphysical entity, but I will assume, for the purposes of what follows, that a principled refusal to consider consciousness is a barrier to understanding human behavior, including the behavior of building civilizations.

Since we do not yet know what consciousness is, and we cannot produce a scientific account of consciousness, we do not know what the conditions of consciousness are. If we had a scientific theory of consciousness that allowed us to quantify consciousness by taking meaningful measures of consciousness, any putative consciousness, whether generated by a mechanism or by biology, natural or modified or fully synthetic, could be tested by such measures of consciousness and objectively determined to be conscious or not. We do not as yet possess any such science, nor can we take any such measurements.

Human and animal consciousness constitute existence proofs of the possibility of consciousness arising by natural means, and thus consciousness ought to be amenable to study by methodological naturalism, and also to replication. It is possible that consciousness can only be produced by biological means, i.e., it is possible that machine consciousness cannot be generated. The existence proof of consciousness provided by biological beings is not an existence proof of machine consciousness. Now, I personally think that machine consciousness will eventually come about, but we will not know that this is possible until it has been achieved.

Even if machine consciousness is impossible, it would still be possible to engineer consciousness by biological means, employing some variation on existing biological substrates of consciousness, or producing consciousness by way of synthetic or artificial biology. In this case, a civilization (or post-civilizational social institution) that preserves consciousness, or desires to preserve consciousness, will not be able to become purely technocentric in the sense of entirely eliminating biology, though the biology that is retained may be entirely subordinated to technical means and technical institutions. A civilization that retained consciousness through such biological means, but entirely within a technocentric context, could be called a technocentric civilization in which biology was ineradicable.

The argument from consciousness is merely an argument (and not a proof of anything), because the same absence of a science of consciousness that would allow us to take objective measures of consciousness is the absence of a science that would make it possible to prove either that consciousness can inhere in different kind of substrates (biological or mechanical, for example), or that consciousness can only be generated through biological means. Until we have a science of consciousness, we can advance this line of argumentation only through existence proofs, i.e., proofs of concept.

Even then, even given building a conscious machine, without a science of consciousness we would have no way to rigorously and objectively compare and contrast human consciousness with machine consciousness. One way to resolve this dilemma is the Turing test, as noted above, but no one who has any degree of scientific curiosity could be satisfied with cutting the Gordian knot of consciousness rather than unraveling it.


Final thought

One of the virtues of explicitly formulating one’s ideas as theses (or as arguments), as in the above, is that one can then turn to the explicit criticism of these theses, especially to the task of unpacking the assumptions embedded in the theses. Another virtue of explicit formulations is that they can be explicitly falsified. The existence of a civilization not derived from biological complexity emergent on a planetary surface would falsify the biocentric thesis.

These explicit formulations, then, are not be taken as definitive formulations. I do not consider the biocentric thesis, the technocentric thesis, or the replacement thesis to be in any sense definitive, but rather to be a point of departure in an analysis of the nature of civilization taken in its broadest signification and extrapolated to a cosmological scale. Thus I hope to return to each of these theses in order to tease out their assumptions in order to analytically approach the intuitive conception of civilization with which I began.

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