9 May 2016
Recently in The Biological Conception of Civilization I defined civilization as a tightly coupled cohort of coevolving species. In proposing this definition, I openly acknowledged its limitations. This biological conception of civilization defines a biocentric civilization, and if civilization continues in its technological development, it may eventually pass from being a biocentric civilization, dependent upon intelligent organic species originating on planetary surfaces, to being a technocentric civilization, no longer dependent in this sense.
Even given these limitations of the biological conception of civilization, we need not abandon a biological framework entirely to converge upon a yet more comprehensive conception of civilization, beyond the biocentric, but still roughly characterized by conditions that we have learned from our tenure on Earth. Being ourselves an intelligent organic species existing on the surface of a planet, biological modes of thought can be made especially effective for minds such as ours, and it is in our cognitive interest to cultivate a mode of thought for which we are specially adapted.
Let us, then, go a little beyond a strictly biological conception of civilization and formulate an ecological conception of civilization. To make this conception immediately explicit, here is a first formulation…
The Ecological Conception of Civilization:
Civilization is niche construction by an intelligent species.
This formulation of the ecological conception of civilization could be amended to read, “by an intelligent species or by several intelligent species,” in order to anticipate the possibility of intelligence-rich biospheres that give rise to civilizations constituted by multiple intelligent species.
What is niche construction? Here is a sketch of the idea from a book on niche construction:
“…organisms… interact with environments, take energy and resources from environments, make micro- and macrohabitat choices with respect to environments, construct artifacts, emit detritus and die in environments, and by doing all these things, modify at least some of the natural selection pressures present in their own, and in each other’s, local environments.”
Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution, F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin N. Laland, and Marcus W. Feldman, Monographs in Population Biology 37, Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 1
The authors go on to say:
“All living creatures, through their metabolism, their activities, and their choices, partly create and partly destroy their own niches, on scales ranging from the extremely local to the global.”
Human interaction with the terrestrial environment is an obvious example of taking energy and resources from the environment on a global scale, altering the selection pressures on our own evolution as a species by both creating and destroying a niche for ourselves. We are not the first terrestrial organisms to act upon the planet globally; when stromatolites (microbial mats composed of cyanobacteria) were the dominant life form on Earth, their photosynthetic processes ultimately produced the Great Oxygenation Event and catastrophically changed the biosphere. Had it not been for that global catastrophic change of the biosphere, oxygen-breathing organisms such as ourselves could not have evolved.
Though we are not the first terrestrial organism to shape the biosphere entire, we are the first intelligent terrestrial agents to shape the biosphere, and it has been the application of human intelligence to the problem of human survival that has resulted in human beings adapting their activity to every terrestrial biome and so eventually constructing civilization. At the stage of the initial emergence of civilization, the biological and ecological conceptions of civilizations coincide, as niche construction takes the form of engineering a coevolving cohort of species beneficial to the intelligent agent intervening in the biosphere. In later stages in the development of civilization, the ecological conception is shown to be more comprehensive than the biological conception of civilization, and subsumes the biological conception of civilization.
Not any cohort of coevolving species constitutes a civilization. Pollinating insects (bees) and flowers are involved in what might be called a tightly-coupled cohort of coevolving species, but we could not call bees and flowers together a civilization. Perhaps on other worlds the distinction between what we call civilization and coevolution in the natural world would not be so evident, and we could not as confidently make the distinction. For us, however, this distinction seems obvious. Why? At least one difference between civilization and naturally occurring coevolution is that the tightly-coupled cohort of coevolving species that we call civilization has been purposefully engineered for the benefit of the intelligent species that has demonstrated its agency through this engineering of a niche for itself. Moreover, the engineered niche is entirely dependent upon ongoing intervention to maintain this engineered niche. In the absence of civilization, the tightly-coupled cohort(s) of coveolving species would unravel, while naturally occurring instances of coevolution would continue unchanged, i.e., they would continue to coevolve. (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to compare this observation to Schrödinger’s definition of life in thermodynamic terms.)
The necessary role of an intelligent agent in maintaining a coevolutionary cohort of species points beyond the biological conception of civilization to the ecological conception of civilization, which in term points beyond civilizations constructed by biological agents to the possibility of niches constructed by any intelligent agent whatsoever. This makes the ecological conception of civilization more comprehensive than the biological conception of civilization, as the intelligent agents involved in niche construction need not be biological beings. However, biological beings are likely to be the intelligent agents with which civilization begins.
In the kind of universe we inhabit, during the Stelliferous Era biology represents the first possible emergence of intelligent agency, hence the first possibility of intelligent niche construction. (I could hedge a bit on this and instead assert that biological agents are the first likely emergence of intelligent agents, as Abraham Loeb has posited the possibility of life in the very early universe — cf. “The Habitable Epoch of the Early Universe” — but I consider this scenario to be unlikely, and the possibility of such life yielding civilization even less likely.) This biocentric possibility of intelligent niche construction can later be supplemented or replaced by later forms of emergent complexity consistent with intelligent agency and capable of niche construction (which latter could involve either building on existing forms of intelligent niche construction or innovating new forms of intelligent niche construction transcending what we today understand as civilization).
The biological conception of civilization — an engineered coevolving cohort of species — constitutes one possible form of niche construction. That is to say, in managing an ecosystem so that it produces a disproportionate number of the plants and animals consumed as food or other products for the use of the directing intelligent agent (human beings in our case), human beings have attained the first possible stage of intelligent niche construction, which is essentially a delineation of biocentric civilization, but the ecological conception of civilization can be adapted to the understanding of non-biocentric civilizations, as, for example, in the case the technocentric civilizations. The various kinds of civilization that we have seen on Earth — including but not limited to agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and industrial-technological civilization — represent distinct forms of intelligent niche construction, and therefore all fall within the ecological conception of civilization. Civilizations constructed by post-biological agents in the form of technological beings may build upon these constructed niches or construct niches more distinctly adapted to post-biological agents (which may be technological agents).
The ecological conception of civilization lends itself to technocentric extrapolation in so far as the ecological recognition of the biology of planetary endemism being dependent on solar flux is readily adapted to conceptions of civilization that have emerged from the work of Dyson and Kardashev. Dyson famously imagined stars so surrounded by the productions of a technological civilization that only the waste heat of these civilizations would be visible to us in the infrared spectrum, and Kardashev equally famously translated this idea into a formalism representing civilization types in terms of total energy resources commanded by a civilization. Even these distant extrapolations of the possibility of our technological civilization are still recognizably dependent upon stellar flux, no less than the biomass of our terrestrial environment is dependent upon solar flux, as stellar flux represents the primary source of readily available energy during the Stelliferous Era. In this way, even technocentric civilizations constructed by post-biological intelligent agents are continuous with the civilizations of planetary endemism emerging from the biology of planetary surfaces, and both are describable in ecological terms.
It could be said that the ecological conception of civilization presupposes the biological conception, because ecological systems supervene on biological systems (or, at least, ecological systems have supervened upon biological systems to date, but this is not a necessary relationship and may be superseded in the fullness of time), and an ecological perspective provides a conceptual framework placing civilization in the context of the natural world from which it emerged and upon which it depends, as well as placing any given civilization in the context of other civilizations. This latter function — providing a systematic framework for the interaction of civilizations — ultimately may be the most valuable aspect of the ecological conception of civilization, but one that can only be suggested at present. The ecological relationships familiar to us from the study of living organisms — mutualism (or symbiosis), commensalism, predation, and parasitism — may hold for civilizations also, but this kind of parallelism cannot be assumed. The ecological relationships among civilizations — i.e., among intelligent species that have engaged in niche construction — may well be more complex than the ecological relationships among organisms, but this is a matter for further study that I will not attempt to elaborate at present.
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18 February 2016
In earlier posts of this series on Civilizations of Planetary Endemism we saw that planets not only constitute a “Goldilocks” zone for liquid water, but also for energy flows consistent with life as we know it. I would like to go into this in a little more detail, as there is much to be said on this. It is entirely possible that energy flows on a planet or moon outside the circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ) could produce sufficient heat to allow for the presence of liquid water in the outer reaches of a planetary system. Indeed, it may be misleading to think of habitable zones (for life as we know it) primarily in terms of the availability of liquid water; it might be preferable to conceive a habitable zone primarily in terms of regions of optimal energy flow (i.e., optimal for life as we know it), and to understand the availability of liquid water as a consequence of optimal energy flow.
Our conception of habitability, despite what we already know, and what we can derive from plausible projections of scientific knowledge, is being boxed in by the common conceptions (and misconceptions) of biospheres and CHZs. We can posit the possibility of “oasis” civilizations on worlds where only a limited portion of the surface is inhabitable and no “biosphere” develops, although enough of a fragment of a biosphere develops in order for complex life, intelligence, and civilization to emerge. We do not yet have an accurate term for the living envelope that can emerge on a planetary surface, but which does not necessary cover the entire planetary surface. I have experimented with a variety of terms to describe this previously. For example, I used “biospace” in my 2011 presentation “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight,” but this is still dissatisfying.
As is so often the case, we run into problems when we attempt to extrapolate Earth sciences formulated for the explicit purpose of accounting for contingent terrestrial facts, and never conceived as a purely general scientific exercise applicable to any comparable phenomena anywhere in the universe. This is especially true of ecology, and since I find myself employing ecological concepts so frequently, I often feel the want of such formulations. Ecology as a science is theoretically weak (it is much stronger on its observational side, which goes back to traditional nature studies that predate ecology), and its chaos of criss-crossing classification systems reflects this.
There are a great many terms for subdivisions of the biosphere — ecozone, bioregion, ecoregion, life zone, biome, ecotope — which are sometimes organized serially from more comprehensive to less comprehensive. None of these subdivisions of a biosphere, however, would accurately describe the inhabited portion of a world on which biology does not culminate in a biosphere. Perhaps we will require recourse to the language and concepts of topology, since a biosphere, as a sphere, is simply connected. The bioring of a tidally locked M dwarf planet would not be simply connected in this topological sense.
If we conceptualize habitable zones not in terms of a celestial body being the right temperature to have liquid water on its surface, or perhaps in a subsurface ocean, but rather view this availability of liquid water as a consequence of habitable zones defined in terms of the presence of energy flows consistent with life as we know it, then we will need to investigate alternative sources of energy flow, i.e., distinct from the patterns of energy flow that we understand from our homeworld. Energy flows consistent with life as we know it are consistent with conditions that allow for the presence of liquid water on a celestial body, but this also means energy flows that would not overwhelm biochemistry and energy flows that are not insufficient for biochemistry and the origins and maintenance of metabolism.
Energy flows might be derived from stellar output (thus a consequence of gravitational confinement fusion), from radioactivity, which could take the form of radioactive decay or even a naturally-occurring nuclear reactor, as as Oklo in Gabon (thus a consequence of fission), from gravitational tidal forces, or from the kinetic energy of impacts. All of these sources of energy flows have been considered in another connection: suggested ways to resolve the faint young sun paradox (the problem that the sun was significantly dimmer earlier in its life cycle, while there still seems to have been liquid water on Earth) are the contributions of other energy sources to maintaining a temperature on Earth similar to that of today, including greater tidal heating from a closer moon, more heating from radioactive decay, and naturally occurring nuclear fission.
It would be possible in a series of thought experiments to consider counterfactual worlds in which each of these sources of energy flow are the primary source of energy for a biosphere (or a subspherical biological region of a planetary surface). The Jovian moon Io, for example, is the most volcanically active body in our solar system; while Io seems to barren, one could imagine an Io of more clement conditions for biology in which the tidal heating of a moon with an atmosphere was the basis of the energy flow for an ecosystem. A world with more fissionables in its crust than Earth (the kind of worlds likely to be found during the late Stelliferous Era under conditions of high metallicity) might be heated by radioactive decay or natural fission reactors (or some combination of the two) sufficient to generate energy flows for a biosphere, even at a great distance from its parent star. It seems unlikely that kinetic impacts from collisions could provide a sufficiently consistent flow of energy without a biosphere suffering mass extinctions from the same impacts, but this could merely be a failure of imagination. Perhaps a steady rain of smaller impacts without major impacts could contribute to energy flows without passing over the threshold of triggering an extinction event.
Each of these exotic counterfactual biospheres suggests the possibility of a living world very different from our own. The source of an energy flow might be inconsistent, that is to say, consistent up to the point of making life possible, but not sufficiently consistent for civilization, or the development of civilization. That is to say, it is possible that a planetary biosphere or subspheric biological region might possess sufficient energy flows for the emergence of life, but insufficient energy flows (or excessive energy flows) for the emergence of complex life or civilization. Once can easily imagine this being the case with extremophile life. And it is possible that a bioregion might possess sufficient energy flows for the emergence of a rudimentary civilization, but insufficient for the development of industrial-technological civilization that can make the transition to spacefaring civilization and thus ensure its longevity.
Civlizations of planetary endemism on these exotic worlds would be radically different from our own civilization due to differences in the structure and distribution of energy flow. Civilizations of planetary endemism are continuous with the biosphere upon which they supervene, so that a distinct biosphere supervening upon a distinct energy flow would produce a distinct civilization. Ultimately and ideally, these distinct forms of energy flow could be given an exhaustive taxonomy, which would, at the same time, be a taxonomy of civilizations supervening upon these energy flows.
However, the supervenience of civilization upon biosheres and biospheres upon energy flows is not exhaustive. Civilizations consciously harness energy flows to the benefit of the intelligent agent engaged in the civilizing process. The first stage of terrestrial civilization, that of agricuturalism and pastoralism, was a natural extension of energy flows already present in the bioshere, but once the breakthrough to industrialization occurred, energy sources became more distant from terrestrial energy flows. Fossil fuels are, in a sense, stored solar energy, and derive from the past biology of our planet, but this is the use of biological resources at one or more remove. As technologies became more sophisticated, in became possible to harness energy sources of a more elemental nature that were not contingent upon extant energy flows on a planet.
It may be, then, that biocentric civilizations are rightly said to supervene upon biospheres. However, with the breakthrough to industrialization, and the beginning of the transition to a technocentric civilization, this supervenience begins to fail and a discontinuity is interpolated between a civilization and its homeworld. According to this account, the transition from biocentric to technocentric civilization is the end point of civilizations of planetary endemism, and the emergence of a spacefaring civilization as the consequence of technologies enabled by technocentric civilization is a mere contingent epiphenomenon of a deeper civilizational process. This in itself provides a deeper and more fundamental perspective on civilization.
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● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Introduction (forthcoming)
● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part IV
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13 October 2015
Case Studies in Civilization:
Civilizations of the Tropical Rainforest Biome
In an earlier post, Riparian Civilizations, I outlined some of the commonalities of civilizations that had their origins in fertile river valleys — most notably the civilizations of Mesopotamia, i.e., the Fertile Crescent bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the civilization of ancient Egypt, based on the annual flooding of the Nile, the Yellow River Valley civilization (the source of Chinese civilization), and the Indus Valley civilization (the source of civilization in the Indian subcontinent).
While these early civilizations occurred within the equatorial belt, i.e., in the tropics, they were not in tropical rain forests. The biome of a river valley can vary according to rainfall and temperature, even within the tropics. The Congo basin is dominated by tropical rain forests, while the Nile Valley is a canyon that cuts through a desert biome, and so shares properties of the desert and of the river. Mesopotamia has (or had) extensive wetlands fed by its rivers, which became the domain of the Marsh Arabs, who adopted a unique way of life specially suited to this environment. But, again, this was not a tropical rain forest, though Mesopotamia lies in the tropics.
In additional to spatial distinctions among biomes, i.e., recognizing biomes confined to a given geographical region, temporal distinctions must also be made, both because of changing biomes over time due to climatological shifts, and changing human abilities to inhabit and settle a given biome, largely a function of increasing technology. Thus a distinction can be made between civilizations that originate within a given biome and civilizations that acclimate to a given biome. The colonial civilizations that came to Brazil in the early modern period, and to the Congo and SE Asia in the nineteenth century, were transplanted civilizations that adapted to and acclimated to a tropical rainforest biome, and can legitimately be called rainforest civilizations, but none of these civilizations originated in a tropical rainforest biome.
We are fortunate to have the terrestrial example of two civilizations of completely independent origins, both of the tropical rainforest biome, though in opposite hemispheres: Mayan civilization in the western hemisphere and Khmer civilization in the eastern hemisphere. In the best tradition of settled agricultural civilizations, both the Mayans and the Khmer left monumental architecture. Indeed, the pyramids of Central America and the temples of Angkor Wat, made picturesque by their reclamation by the tropical rain forest that was the incubator of these civilizations, overgrown by vines and their foundations tumbled by the roots of gigantic trees, have become iconic tourist draws in their respective regions of the world. The riches of past civilizations have now been passed down as a kind of legacy to the present peoples, mostly ethnically continuous with the peoples who built these civilizations, whose descendants now derive a modest income from tourist traffic.
We do not yet possess a complete seriation of civilization in the western hemisphere. We know that maize cultivation began in the Rio Balsas valley in what is now southern Mexico, a semi-arid tropical biome (and the native range of the teosinte grasses that were transformed by ancient agriculturalists into maize), and so may be assimilated to the paradigm of riparian civilizations. Mayan civilization, however, was concentrated in the rain forests of Central America. How exactly Mayan civilization was related to its northern neighbor, thousands of years its senior, is not yet fully understood.
Genetic sequencing of maize is a source of recent knowledge about the origins of maize, hence of origins of settled agriculturalism in the western hemisphere, but this work is ongoing at present. Moreover, while maize was an important crop for the Maya, and the Mayan corn god plays an important role in Mayan mythology, it was not the sole staple of the Maya. Maize was one of the “Three Sisters”, along with squash and beans, which together constituted a nutritionally balanced diet, and the cultivation of these crops together was ecologically sustainable due to complementary biochemical interaction with the soil.
We also lack a complete seriation of civilization in Asia, of which a seriation of civilization in Indochina would be an appendage. Khmer civilization rose from a pre-existing context of minor kingdoms in Indochina, and seems to draw upon both Indian and Chinese civilizational origins (though primarily Indian and Hindu), though it should be noted that recent archaeological work in the Malay archipelago suggest that civilization may have independently originated on the island of Java as well (depending upon the antiquity of Gunung Padang), in which case Khmer civilization would constitute a florid syncretism of Indian, Chinese, and Javanese cultural antecedents. Indeed, this is true whether or not civilization independently arose in Java, as the Khmer civilization is many thousands of years younger than these other examples.
The biome in which a civilization arises not only dictates the species available for harvesting and domestication, but also shapes the way in which peoples harvest energy from their environments. Agriculture is one way in which human beings harvest energy from their environments, and different forms of agriculture emerge in distinct biomes. The tropical rainforest biome offers enormous biodiveristy, but in tropical civilization we still find the same reliance on a handful of staple crops, as we find in civilizations originating in other biomes. Civilization is, in a certain narrow sense (a narrow sense compatible with the biological definition of civilization mentioned below), a voluntary truncation of biodiversity. Hunter-gatherers almost always have a much more varied diet that settled agricultural peoples, who are usually dependent on less than a dozen staple food crops.
The biological definition of civilization as a coevolving cohort of species (cf. section 6 of my Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation) not only gives us a new tool with which to analyze civilization, but also a suggestive way to compare civilizations. The comparison of civilizations from similar biomes and the contrast of civilizations from distinct biomes is one of these tools. With this method we approach the equivalent of symmetry for the social sciences. Thus we have something to learn from the various ways that riparian civilizations have come to exploit the resources of river systems, and presumably we will have something to learn from the ways that civilizations of the tropical rain forest biome have exploited the high biodiversity of climax communities of tropical rain forests.
Since there is no winter in a tropical rainforest, in Mesoamerica it is possible to raise three crops of maize in a year, and in Indochina it is possible to raise three or four crops of rice in a year. Tropical rainforests thus offer to a civilization the unique opportunity to support the high population densities of cities and ceremonial centers via continuous, year-round food production. However, none of this can happen without water storage and irrigation. Both Mayan and Khmer civilizations might be characterized as hydrological civilizations, since they were predicated upon the careful management of water for irrigation, and both constructed major engineering works (perhaps not as visually impressive as their monumental architecture, but much more interesting from a scientific point of view) to store and to distribute water. The rainforest of Indochina, it should be noted, is a monsoon rainforest, with about six months of rain and six months of drought, so that in order to keep up food production through the months of drought, significant irrigation is necessary, which the Khmer achieved through use of the waters of the Siem Reap river.
Compared to civilizations originating in river valleys, civilizations originating in tropical rain forests are comparatively rare. I have here discussed the two most obvious examples. It is interesting also that both of these civilizations, while they came to full maturity and endured for significant periods of time — many centuries, such as is necessary for a civilization to reach full maturity — both civilizations seem to have collapsed internally, and not due to contacts with other civilizations. There are, of course, many theories about the collapse of Maya civilization; this has become a perennial archaeological riddle. Current theories favor drought or climate change. I am less familiar with the causes of Khmer decline. But whatever the cause of the decline of the Maya and the Khmer, they were not, for the most part, conquered and subdued. Their cities and temples were abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle, not burned and thrown down.
There are still Mayan people speaking the Mayan language in Mesoamerica, and Khmer people in Indochina; the collapse of these civilizations must have led to at least a partial dispersal of the populations from the great urban centers, which remain in ruins, but whatever catastrophes (or slow decline, if that was the case) befell these civilizations, the people who built them are still to be found in the region. The civilizations became extinct, but the populations did not. The difficulty of building a civilization in a tropical rain forest biome constitutes a significant challenge, and this climatological and biological challenge to civilization may be the reason, or one reason among many, that so few civilizations originated in the tropical rain forest, and, of these two here examined, both came to a natural end.
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3. Civilizations of the Tropical Rainforest Biome
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9 April 2012
Geopolitics and Geostrategy
as a formal sciences
In a couple of posts — Formal Strategy and Philosophical Logic: Work in Progress and Axioms and Postulates of Strategy — I have explicitly discussed the possibility of a formal approach to strategy. This has been a consistent theme of my writing over the past three years, even when it is not made explicit. The posts that I wrote on theoretical geopolitics can also be considered an effort in the direction of formal strategy.
There is a sense in which formal thought is antithetical to the tradition of geopolitics, which latter seeks to immerse itself in the empirical facts of how history gets made, in contradistinction to the formalist’s desire to define, categorize, and clarify the concepts employed in analysis. Yet in so far as geopolitics takes the actual topographical structure of the land as its point of analytical departure, this physical structure becomes the form upon which the geopolitician constructs the logic of his or her analysis. Geopolitical thought is formal in so far as the forms to which it conforms itself are physical, topographical forms.
Most geopoliticians, however, have no inkling of the formal dimension of their analyses, and so this formal dimension remains implicit. I have commented elsewhere that one of the most common fallacies is the conflation of the formal and the informal. In Cartesian Formalism I wrote:
One of the biggest and yet one of the least recognized blunders in philosophy (and certainly not only in philosophy) is to conflate the formal and the informal, whether we are concerned with formal and informal objects, formal and informal methods, or formal and informal ideas, etc. (I recently treated this topic on my other blog in relation to the conflation of formal and informal strategy.)
Geopolitics, geostrategy, and in fact many of the so-called “soft” sciences that do not involve extensive mathematization are among the worst offenders when it comes to the conflation of the formal and the informal, often because the practitioners of the “soft” sciences do not themselves understand the implicit principles of form to which they appeal in their theories. Instead of theoretical formalisms we get informal narratives, many of which are compelling in terms of their human interest, but are lacking when it comes to analytical clarity. These narratives are primarily derived from historical studies within the discipline, so that when this method is followed in geopolitics we get a more-or-less quantified account of topographical forms that shape action and agency, with an overlay of narrative history to string together the meaning of names, dates, and places.
There is a sense in which geography and history cannot be separated, but there is another sense in which the two are separated. Because the ecological temporality of human agency is primarily operational at the levels of micro-temporality and meso-temporality, this agency is often exercised without reference to the historical scales of the exo-temporality of larger social institutions (like societies and civilizations) and the macro-historical scales of geology and geomorphology. That is to say, human beings usually act without reference to plate tectonics, the uplift of mountains, or seafloor spreading, except when these events act over micro- and meso-time scales as in the case of earthquakes and tsunamis generated by geological events that otherwise act so slowly that we never notice them in the course of a lifetime — or even in the course of the life of a civilization.
The greatest temporal disconnect occurs between the smallest scales (micro-temporality) and the largest scales (macro-temporality), while there is less disconnect across immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality. I can employ a distinction that I recently made in a discussion of Descartes, that between strong distinctions and weak distinctions (cf. Of Distinctions Weak and Strong). Immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality are weakly distinct, while those not immediately adjacent are strongly distinct.
We have traditionally recognized the abstraction of macroscopic history that does not descend into details, but it has not been customary to recognize the abstractness of microscopic history, immersed in details, that does not also place these events in relation to a macroscopic context. In order to attain to a comprehensive perspective that can place these more limited perspectives into a coherent context, it is important to understand the limitations of our conventional conceptions of history (such as the failure to understand the abstract character of micro-history) — and, for that matter, the limitations of our conventional conceptions of geography. One of these limitations is the abstractness of either geography or history taken in isolation.
The degree of abstractness of an inquiry can be quantified by the ecological scope of that inquiry; any one division of ecological temporality (or any one division of metaphysical ecology) taken in isolation from other divisions is abstract. It is only the whole of ecology taken together that a truly concrete theory is possible. To take into account the whole of ecological temporality in a study of history is a highly concrete undertaking which is nevertheless informed by the abstract theories that constitute each individual level of ecological temporality.
Geopolitics, despite its focus on the empirical conditions of history, is a highly abstract inquiry precisely because of its nearly-exclusive focus on one kind of structure as determinative in history. As I have argued elsewhere, and repeatedly, abstract theories are valuable and have their place. Given the complexity of a concrete theory that seeks to comprehend the movements of human history around the globe, an abstract theory is a necessary condition of any understanding. Nevertheless, we need to rest in our efforts with an abstract theory based exclusively in the material conditions of history, which is the perspective of geopolitics (and, incidentally, the perspective of Marxism).
Geopolitics focuses on the seemingly obvious influences on history following from the material conditions of geography, but the “obvious” can be misleading, and it is often just as important to see what is not obvious as to explicitly take into account what is obvious. Bertrand Russell once observed, in a passage both witty and wise, that:
“It is not easy for the lay mind to realise the importance of symbolism in discussing the foundations of mathematics, and the explanation may perhaps seem strangely paradoxical. The fact is that symbolism is useful because it makes things difficult. (This is not true of the advanced parts of mathematics, but only of the beginnings.) What we wish to know is, what can be deduced from what. Now, in the beginnings, everything is self-evident; and it is very hard to see whether one self-evident proposition follows from another or not. Obviousness is always the enemy to correctness. Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious. Then we set up certain rules for operating on the symbols, and the whole thing becomes mechanical. In this way we find out what must be taken as premiss and what can be demonstrated or defined. For instance, the whole of Arithmetic and Algebra has been shown to require three indefinable notions and five indemonstrable propositions. But without a symbolism it would have been very hard to find this out. It is so obvious that two and two are four, that we can hardly make ourselves sufficiently sceptical to doubt whether it can be proved. And the same holds in other cases where self-evident things are to be proved.”
Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”
Russell here expresses himself in terms of symbolism, but I think it would better to formulate this in terms of formalism. When Russell writes that, “we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious,” the new and difficult symbolism he mentions is more than mere symbolism, it is a formal theory. Russell’s point, then, is that if we formalize a body of knowledge heretofore consisting of intuitively “obvious” truths, certain relationships between truths become obvious that were not obvious prior to formalization. Another way to formulate this is to say that formalization constitutes a shift in our intuition, so that truths once intuitively obvious become inobvious, while inobvious truths because intuitive. Thus formalization is the making intuitive of previously unintuitive (or even counter-intuitive) truths.
Russell devoted a substantial portion of his career to formalizing heretofore informal bodies of knowledge, and therefore had considerable experience with the process of formalization. Since Russell practiced formalization without often explaining exactly what he was doing (the passage quoted above is a rare exception), we must look to the example of his formal thought as a model, since Russell himself offered no systematic account of the formalization of any given body of knowledge. (Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica is a tour de force comprising the order of justification of its propositions, while remaining silent about the order of discovery.)
A formal theory of time would have the same advantages for time as the theoretical virtues that Russell identified in the formalization of mathematics. In fact, Russell himself formulated a formal theory of time, in his paper “On Order in Time,” which is, in Russell’s characteristic way, reductionist and over-simplified. Since I aim to formulate a theory of time that is explicitly and consciously non-reductionist, I will make no use of Russell’s formal theory of time, though it is interesting at least to note Russell’s effort. The theory of ecological temporality that I have been formulating here is a fragment of a full formal theory of time, and as such it can offer certain insights into time that are lost in a reductionist account (as in Russell) or hidden in an informal account (as in geography and history).
As noted above, a formalized theory brings about a shift in our intuition, so that the formerly intuitive becomes unintuitive while the formerly unintuitive becomes intuitive. A shift in our intuitions about time (and history) means that a formal theory of time makes intuitive temporal relationships less obvious, while making temporal relationships that are hidden by the “buzzing, blooming world” more obvious, and therefore more amenable to analysis — perhaps for the first time.
Ecological temporality gives us a framework in which we can demonstrate the interconnectedness of strongly distinct temporalities, since the panarchy the holds between levels of an ecological system is the presumption that each level of an ecosystem impacts every other level of an ecosystem. Given the distinction between strong distinctions and weak distinctions, it would seem that adjacent ecological levels are weakly distinct and therefore have a greater impact on each other, while non-adjacent ecological levels are strongly distinct and therefore have less of an impact on each other. In an ecological theory of time, all of these principles hold in parallel, so that, for example, micro-temporality is only weakly distinct from meso-temporality, while being strongly distinct from exo-temporality. As a consequence, a disturbance in micro-temporality has a greater impact upon meso-temporality than upon exo-temporality (and vice versa), but less of an impact does not mean no impact at all.
Another virtue of formal theories, in addition to the shift in intuition that Russell identified, is that it forces us to be explicit about our assumptions and presuppositions. The implicit theory of time held by a geostrategist matters, because that geostrategist will interpret history in terms of the categories of his or her theory of time. But most geostrategists never bother to make their theory of time explicit, so that we do not know what assumptions they are making about the structure of time, hence also the structure of history.
Sometimes, in some cases, these assumptions will become so obvious that they cannot be ignored. This is especially the case with supernaturalistic and soteriological conceptions of metaphysical history that ultimately touch on everything else that an individual believes. This very obviousness makes it possible to easily identify eschatological and theological bias; what is much more insidious is the subtle assumption that is difficult to discern and which only can be elucidated with great effort.
If one comes to one’s analytical work presupposing that every moment of time possesses absolute novelty, one will likely make very different judgments than if one comes to the same work presupposing that there is nothing new under the sun. Temporal novelty means historical novelty: anything can happen; whereas, on the contrary, the essential identity of temporality over historical scales — identity for all practical purposes — means historical repetition: very little can happen.
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Note: Anglo-American political science implicitly takes geopolitics as its point of departure, but, as I have attempted to demonstrate in several posts, this tradition of mainstream geopolitics can be contrasted to a nascent movement of biopolitics. However, biopolitics too could be formulated in the manner of a theoretical biopolitics, and a theoretical biopolitics would be at risk of being as abstract as geopolitics and in need of supplementation by a more comprehensive ecological perspective.
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25 February 2012
About a week ago I was browsing in a used book store and had the good fortune to come across a book that I’d never heard of, but just the title told me that it was something that would immediately appeal to my particular perspective on history. The book, which I purchased, is Western Civilization in Biological Perspective: Patterns in Biohistory by Stephen Boyden.
The author, I learned upon investigation, has had a long and varied career — exactly the sort of thing that would give a person the kind of broad perspective that would be needed to write the history from western civilization from a biological perspective.
Recently, in a series of posts — Geopolitics and Biopolitics, Addendum on Geopolitics and Biopolitics, and A Further Note on Geopolitics and Biopolitics — I took the idea of “biopolitics” and “biopower” from Foucault and developed it as a possible alternative to geopolitics as a form of strategic analysis.
There is nothing of Foucault in Boyden’s book. Foucault’s name does not appear in the index, and a search of the text reveals no reference to Foucault. More importantly, the nature of the text itself is utterly divorced from Foucault and from continental philosophy generally speaking — it seems to employ no terminology or concepts in common with the continental tradition, and treats of none of the familiar preoccupations of this tradition (Marx and Freud are mentioned in passing in a couple of places, but are in no sense a focus of the text; they do not even influence the terms of the discussion).
Although Boyden’s treatment of biohistory has virtually nothing to do with Foucault, I can’t imagine a more perfect theoretical foundation for biopolitics than a scholarly treatment of biohistory as found in Boyden. Boyden brings the kind of Anglo-American objectivity (though he is an Aussie) to biohistory that could greatly sharpen and improve the formulations of biopolitics, which latter are vulnerable to the enthusiasms of continental philosophy. Foucault himself insisted upon the “grayness” of genealogy, and the patient analysis of Boyden constitutes a de facto genealogy of biopower, which is something Foucault said that he had to write, but which he did not get to before he died.
A biohistory of civilization would be, in effect, an ecology of civilization, and Boyden employs ecological concepts throughout his study. One way to bring further analytical clarity to an ecology of civilization would be the systematic use of ecological temporality in the exposition of biohistory. This is something that I will think about.
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30 November 2011
The Construction of Ecological Temporality
A Genetic Account of the Origins of the World
The ontogeny of time
The emergence and development of temporal consciousness — that is to say, the origins of individual time, the ontogeny of time — begins in the individual, but the early experience of the individual is that of an individual embedded in a temporal context. The individual’s internal time consciousness is constructed in a temporal context that I will call the reflexive experience of time.
Children — at least those children allowed a childhood, which is not always the case — live most in the world of meso-temporality, mostly because they have not yet learned not to trust, and so they feel free to express the spontaneity of their inner time consciousness as though by reflex. Reflexive experience of time, in which there are few if any barriers between the micro-temporality of the individual and the meso-temporality of the immediate social context of the individual, embodies an absolute innocence.
In a condition of innocence, everything that occurs is new, so that time is densely populated with unprecedented events. Every hour and every day brings novelty. As we age, every hour and every day brings more of the same — the same old same old, as we say today — and so it is little surprise that we don’t notice the passing of this undifferentiated sameness. For the young, time flies by unnoticed, and because the passage of time is unnoticed it has the quality of timelessness.
Later, in our maturity, we have the ability to appreciate episodes of innocence that we could not have appreciated in our younger years — thus following the well-worn idea that youth is wasted upon the young — there is another sense in which youthful experience makes the fullest use of time and yields a density of experience that we cannot experience in later life.
The time consciousness of youth, driven by the stream of novelty that is the result of innocence, sharpens and enlarges the smallest events, and thus we see young children sobbing over a ice cream cone that has dropped to the ground, which leaves us, as adults, largely unmoved. We shrug our shoulders and move on. Would that we could experience life with such intensity that an ice cream cone were worth a flood of tears.
There is a sense in which it is counter-intuitive to speak of the intensity of experience of children, since the halcyon days of youth are usually not thought to consist of intensity but rather of carefree indolence, but in the sense outlined above, the innocent lead lives of greater intensity than the jaded.
Innocence wrings every last drop from the passing of time, so that in a condition of innocence there is no moment that is wasted. In maturity, the greater part of time is wasted, until, as Shakespeare noted, having wasted time, time wastes us.
Developmental temporality: the role of play
Developmental psychologists have had much to say about the child’s initial encounters with a recalcitrant world that does not answer to its whims. This initial phase of socialization is also the first loss of innocence, and the first compromise of reflexive temporality. As the consciousness of temporality progresses in the individual, the individual comes to understand that they can cultivate a Cartesian privacy in which fantasies will not be interrupted by the recalcitrant world. Thus reflexive temporality gradually gives way to imaginative temporality, and the spontaneity of the child is displaced from the immediate expression of inner promptings to the inner expression of these promptings by way of imagination. Thus play emerges, and the imaginative temporality of play allows the individual to further develop the inner time consciousness of Cartesian privacy.
Play, however, also makes possible a re-discover of reflexive temporality when the childred discovers other children and begins to play with them. The shared, social temporality of play, especially when adults are not present to puncture the illusions generated by imaginative time consciousness, can again converge onto a purely reflexive time consciousness when the child feels free to express their spontaneity among peers who share the form of time consciousness common to this stage in the development of childhood.
Play, too, is eventually compromised, as conflicts inevitably emerge from games played with peers, so that the life of the child exhibits a dialectic of shifting between reflexive time consciousness and imaginative time consciousness, which is a shift of the focus of spontaneity from outer life to inner life and back again to outer life. It is the dialectical process that contributes to the further development and reinforcement of an inner time consciousness of Cartesian privacy, which becomes a haven for the individual, wounded by encounters with an unsympathetic world.
All throughout the dialectic of early time consciousness, however, the experience of the child is still marked by innocence, and it is the process of the degradation of innocence that brings about a fully mature time consciousness (if, in fact, this does develop, and its development is not arrested by trauma).
The degradation of innocence and the emergence of mature time consciousness
The degradation of innocence comes about from cumulative experience. Cumulative experience can only be experienced as cumulative with the development of memory, so that the emergence of robust memories is central to the emergence of fully mature time consciousness. However, it is the same process of the emergence of memory that degrades innocence. Memory demonstrates to us the non-novelty of our spontaneity, and as the spontaneity of our internal promptings loses its novelty, it also begins to lose its interest.
As we age, and the depth and breadth of our experience grows, preserved in an improving memory, and our opportunities for experiences of innocence decline proportionately until our capacity approaches zero and we no longer expect or even hope to directly experience innocence again. In the lives of many adults it is their relationships with children that yield whatever vicarious experiences of innocence for which they still retain hope, and so they take pleasure in seeing the world anew through the eyes of another, but there is a melancholy to this because one knows in one’s heart of hearts (as subtle as the distinction may seem to be) that there is a difference between immediate and vicarious experiences of innocence.
And yet (and despite), when we are surprised by an authentic experience of innocence later in life, beyond the bounds of youth, we now experience it from a perspective of maturity, and both its rarity and our capacity to appreciate it make the experience all the more precious. When we are young, everything is new to us, and experiences of innocence are common; experience narrows the scope of innocence until any such experience appears as something completely unexpected, but when it does occur we have the maturity to appreciate the experience that we did not possess in youth.
It is the same innocence that is behind the very different time consciousness of youth compared to maturity. Everyone knows that as you age, time seems to pass ever more quickly, until it flies by and the years scarcely make any impression in their passing. This stands in stark contrast to feelings of endless summers from our childhood that seemed to go on forever, as well as anticipating and waiting for holidays that seemed to take forever to arrive.
The time consciousness we associate will full cognitive modernity is a product of cognitive maturity.
Keeping secrets and Cartesian privacy
Another aspect of the child’s encounter with a recalcitrant world not obedient to his or her wishes is the discovery of the power of secrets. The youngest children, immersed as they are in meso-temporality and observing few if any boundaries between internal spontaneity and external expression, cannot keep a secret. Even if they make an experiment of it, and older children try to let them in on a secret, they will usually blurt it out, and as a consequence are considered untrustworthy. …
The shared confidences of older children, however, especially confidences that exclude adults and their alien forms of time consciousness, become an object of envy for the younger child, who wants to become “grown up” in order to share in these confidences. Thus the younger child makes a conscious effort of will to cultivate inhibitions on his or her spontaneity. Older children will continue to test the younger children for the trustworthiness in keeping secrets, at the behest of the pleading of younger children, initially with small secrets and eventually with larger secrets. When these secrets are successfully kept, the child passes the test, and in passing the tests passes another threshold of maturing time consciousness.
The experimenting and testing of secret-keeping trains the child in the development of his or her Cartesian privacy, which becomes a faculty consciously developed by the individual as an exclusively private reserve from which the world entire. The child discovers that not only may adults be excluded, but that other children can also be excluded from this realm of Cartesian privacy. In this perfectly private space of conscious, purely interior micro-temporal consciousness takes root and begins to grow, and as it grows it contributes progessively more to constitution of individual consciousness.
Shared time, social time, and the world as we find it
One of the most mysterious aspects of personal chemistry between individuals, and that which is perhaps the conditio sine qua non of friendship (whether Platonic or romantic), is the simple fact of shared time. Friendship has its origins in childhood play, but its possibilities are deepened by mature time consciousness. We are able to be friends with those with whom the common passage of time is enjoyable. Play is the first expression of joy in shared time. In adolescence, the shared time begins to take on a more intellectual form as shared time becomes primarily shared conversation. In contemporary colloquial English, this is called “hanging out” or simply “hanging.”
I suspect that everyone, or almost everyone, has experienced among their interaction with acquaintances the fact that, with some combinations of individuals, the two or more parties in question mutually enjoy the passage of time together, while among other combinations of individuals, the two or more parties find the common passing of time together to be irritating, unpleasant, or otherwise unfulfilling. The former is a welcome kind of chemistry, while the latter is an unwelcome (but also inevitable) kind of chemistry.
There are also obvious cases of asymmetry, when one party to the shared passage of time finds the experience rewarding, while another party to the same shared temporal frame of reference finds the experience unrewarding or even odious. Here the temporal frame of reference is identical, but the subjective experience of that shared time is sharply distinct. Such are what Shakespeare called the pangs of despised love.
In my post ecological temporality, in which I developed Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological model, specifically expanding and extending the ecological treatment of time, I distinguished levels of temporality parallel to Bronfenbrenner’s distinction between levels of bio-ecology. Thus what Husserl called internal time consciousness I called micro-temporality, and the interaction of micro-temporalities begets meso-temporality.
Meso-temporality is social time, and another way to refer to social time would be to call it shared time. An isolated individual experiences the micro-temporality of internal time consciousness, and simply by being present in an environment experiences a rudimentary level of meso-temporality from the necessary interaction of an organism with its environment (the minimal form of rudimentary meso-temporality involves interaction with an inert environment, as, for example, knocking on a door).
Shared time is facilitated by secret-keeping. The young child who cannot yet keep a secret says things openly that impair social relationships. As children learn more above the social environment in which they find themselves, they learn, under penalty of social exclusion, what must be confined to Cartesian privacy, and what may be openly and freely shared. To blurt out socially inappropriate assertions with no concern for boundaries of privacy — both one’s own privacy as well as the privacy of The Other — is to commit a social faux pas and to risk social exclusion. Being envious of social inclusion, children make an effort to train themselves in the boundaries of polite expression, and in so doing they are forced to cultivate a consciousness of the Cartesian privacy of The Other, which is another important threshold on the way to mature time consciousness. The recognize the Cartesian privacy of the other is to recognize the internal time consciousness of The Other. Thus one’s own emerging micro-temporality is placed in the context of the other’s inferred micro-temporality, which together and jointly constitute social time.
The social time or meso-temporality that emerges from a common temporal frame of reference for two or more individuals possessing internal time consciousness is perhaps distinct from that meso-temporality emergent from the micro-temporality of internal time consciousness in the context of an inert, non-conscious environment. Thus meso-temporality may take a variety of forms. Meso-temporality simpliciter may be taken as the interaction of a micro-temporal agent with its environment. When that environment includes other micro-temporal agents and agents join in common action (or common inaction, for that matter), this is social time or share time. Thus social time is a subdivision of meso-temporality.
The minimum condition for social time is two conscious individuals. Two micro-temporalities functioning in a common frame of temporal reference constitutes the first and simplest level of shared time, though shared time can be augmented with the addition of more conscious individuals and can grow until, for spatio-geographical reasons, a common frame of temporal reference is not longer possible. This meso-temporality that exceeds a common frame of temporality is meso-temporality of a higher order of magnitude, and thus constitutes exo-temporality. The interaction of meso-temporalities yields exo-temporality, which is the usually setting for “history” as this is usually understood. Herodotus and Thucydides write on the level of exo-temporality: the interaction and intersection of particular communities over space (a given geographical region) and time (a given period of history).
Returning to the interaction of micro- and meso-temporalities, we can see from the very different responses that individuals have to shared social time that this “functionality” in a shared temporal frame of reference can function in different ways for different individuals. Even when the shared temporal frame of reference is identical, the micro-temporality of consciousness usually remains clearly distinct from the shared time. That is to say, consciousness usually enjoys Cartesian privacy. This is the point of departure of Husserlian internal time consciousness.
The exceptions to Cartesian privacy occur when an individual agent, even having previously cultivated a sense of Cartesian privacy in the childhood dialectic of reflexive time and imaginative time (which perhaps only becomes possible in the context of fully mature historical consciousness), becomes so fully embedded in a meso-temporal frame of reference that they experience no boundaries between themselves and the other agents present. In shared social time one may be so comfortable in the presence of others that one is as spontaneous in interacting with them as one may be spontaneous with one’s own thoughts in private. This constitutes a (temporary) recovery of the reflexive time consciousness of early childhood.
One way to express this is that a particular subdivision of shared social time is when individuals participating in a common meso-temporal frame of reference experience in common what psychologists call “flow states”, such that the individuals in question can no longer distinguish between their internal time consciousness and the meso-temporality of shared time: the barriers of the self come down, and the individual is lost in the shared world. This would be a particularly intimate form of social time, and is possibly the necessary condition of love. Possibly.
The lost paradise of reflexive time
Why do we seek ideal love? We seek ideal love because it is the temporary recovery of the lost paradise of the purely reflexive temporality — unmindful of boundaries, unmindful of a distinction between self and world, unmindful of any barrier to absolute spontaneity and freedom of expression, unmindful of any social constraint risking social exclusion. Love is the reminder of what we have lost in coming to mature time consciousness, even while knowing what we having gained in terms of cultivated micro-temporality, memory linked both to immediate micro-temporality and enduring self-identity, and an awareness of history and our personal place within history.
Moreover, ideal love in the context of mature time consciousness can exceed or surpass the lost paradise of early childhood’s reflexive temporality, because ideal love can accommodate an authentic awareness of the beloved as other, as possessing its own Cartesian privacy and its own micro-temporality. To love the other in full awareness of their otherness is a more profound species of shared social temporality, and with this profundity comes depth of feeling that did not exist and could not exist in childhood. It has been said that a woman’s heart is a ocean of secrets, and perhaps we need not even superadd a qualification of gender to this poetic truth. Shared secrets, withheld from the rest of the world, can be among the most powerful form of shared social temporality, and it is the power of these experiences that moves us (i.e., we experience the sublime) and thus generates profound awareness of the other and depth of feeling in one’s relationship to The Other.
However, love disappoints more often than it satisfies, so that our tentative reaching out to the world in search of love becomes an experiment that is disconfirmed more often than it is confirmed. And even when love satisfies, it rarely endures. Some retreat within themselves, when the pangs of despised love are too powerful, while others, unable to forget the ideal of the lost paradise, continue to seek, and are in rare moments rewarded for their efforts.
The phylogeny of time
The origin of non-human time, of objective time, is the proper concern of the phylogeny of time. Of course, ontogeny and phylogeny are intimately interconnected, and we may even speculate on a temporal recapitulation in which temporal ontogeny recapitulates temporal phylogeny, but I will not pursue this further in the present context.
In terms of the origins of time, or, rather the origins of human time consciousness, interaction with other agents within an environment — i.e., meso-temporality — almost certainly preceded the emergence of self-aware micro-temporality, just as meso-temporal interaction almost certainly preceded those larger temporal formations such as exo-temporality and macro-temporality.
Macro-temporality emerges even later, in terms of specifically human macro-temorality. Before humanity knew itself as a whole (on which cf. the quote from George Friedman that I cited in Humanity as One) we did not know ourselves as a whole either in space or time. It is only with the emergence of human self-knowledge of our species as a whole in time that macro-temporality emerges, and this cannot happen until a fully naturalistic account of human origins emerges with Darwin.
The internal time consciousness of Cartesian privacy emerges from cognitive modernity, much as does historical consciousness. There is a sense in which internal time consciousness is historical consciousness of the self, while historical consciousness is the internal time consciousness of history. Both represent temporal consciousness of a greater order of magnitude than the interactions of meso-temporality. This is another interesting idea that I will not pursue further at present, but which deserves independent exposition.
Cosmological and relativistic time
Objective conceptions of time rooted in mathematics, physics, cosmology, and the natural sciences can be formulated without reference to human time, much less to the structures of micro- and meso-temporality that constitute the greater part of the ordinary business of life. However, science, as a human undertaking, retains its relevance to the human agents who are responsible for the constitute of objective, natural time.
In fact, we run into difficulties when we attempt to formulate a doctrine of time too far removed from human experience, precisely because human experience has been responsible for science, and the truths of science must ultimately be redeemed in human experience.
One is immediately put in mind, in this context, of Newton’s famous formulation from his Principia:
“Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration: relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, a year.”
Newton implies that human measures of time such as “an hour, a day, a month, a year,” are untrue, because only mathematical time is true time, but Newton’s categories of “relative, apparent, and common time,” are in fact quantitative measures of time in natural history which can be studied and defined with the utmost precision by natural science. Time measurements of a day, a month, and a year are rooted in astronomical events that constitute some of humanity’s first and earliest scientific knowledge. Had Newton gone in the other direction in the litany of apparent time, listing instead “an hour, a minute, a second, …” he would have approached the punctiform present and therefore the ideal limit of micro-temporality.
Despite the relativity of simultaneity that isolates us from the temporality of other dynamic systems independent of our own, there is a sense in which human temporal categories seem to me to retain their relevance throughout the cosmos today — at very least, just because human beings are an interested party in the universe at present — in a way that I do not feel human temporal categories to be relevant to very early cosmological history or to the far flung future of cosmological history.
One way to formulate this would be to put it in the context of the divisions of cosmological history propounded in The Five Ages of the Universe. We live today in the Stelliferous Era, i.e., the Age of Stars. Before the Stelliferous Era came the Primordial Era, which includes the Big Bang, expansion, inflation, and consists in large part of subatomic particles that have not yet congealed into familiar elements and structures. After the Stelliferous Era come the Degenerate Era, the Black Hole Era, and the Dark Era, after the stars have burned themselves out and the cosmos goes dark again. This is a classic scenario of cosmological eschatology based on heat death due to entropy.
Human measures of time seem meaningless at the quantum and subatomic scale of the early universe, and these same measures seem equally meaningless at the vast time scales of the universe as it steadily runs down in entropic heat death. Yet, at the present, anthropocentric time scales seem relevant to the universe entire as we know it today (relevant, though not by any means necessary or even privileged), although most of the universe is beyond any meaningful relation to specifically human time, and will remain so.
One justification for the feeling (which I readily admit is my own prejudiced intuition, and I claim no validity for it beyond that) that anthropocentric temporal categories apply throughout the Stelliferous Era is that life as we know it is possible throughout the Stelliferous Era, while life as we know it is not possible during the Primordial Era or during the Degenerate Era or after.
The possibility of life as we know it throughout the Stelliferous Era means the possibility of other species emergent from other solar systems, other planets, other biospheres, and other sentient species emergent from a parallel biological context, functioning according to the same natural laws that govern our world, our bodies, and our minds, means that an approximately anthropocentric (although technically xenocentric) time consciousness exists elsewhere in the Stelliferous Era, and is perhaps pervasive throughout it.
Although the categories of human time seem irrelevant to either the earliest stages of the universe immediately following the big bang, and perhaps also to the largest structures of space andtime, the “cosmic soup” of the early universe is recognizably a form of micro-temporality, even if it is not microtemporality at the same level of human micro-temporality. Moreover, the micro-temporality of pre- and sub-atomic particles prior to the precipitation of universe from the coalescence of ordinary elements is another paradigmatic instance of meso-temporality: the particles interact, and they can only come together and coalesce into the world we know and love by coming together.
The temporality of the early universe thus closely parallels the temporality of the ontogeny of time in the individual, in so far as the individual’s micro-temporality is always constituted jointly by the meso-temporality of the shared milieu in which the individual finds himself or herself. The micro-temporality of the individual particles of the early cosmic soup is crucially dependent upon the milieu of interacting particles, which is a meso-temporal milieu.
Larger structures of cosmological time — objective exo-temporality, objective macro-temporality, and objective metaphysical temporality — only come above in the fullness of time — lots of time — as the universe matures and new spatio-temporal structures emerge. As novel physical structures emerge, there necessarily emerges an interaction of these larger structures with smaller structures and with other larger structures, and these interactions of ever-increasing size produce the higher levels of objective ecological temporality.
As ever-larger temporal structures emerge from a universe consolidating its structure, and ever-larger temporal structures emerge from the maturation of human consciousness, these objective and human forms of ecological temporality converge. It would be very difficult to demonstrate a close parallelism between the micro-temporality of consciousness and the micro-temporality of fundamental particles, but in the increasingly more comprehensive temporal categories of ecological temporality the chasm between the two becomes less marked.
At the level of macro-temporality, it is not difficult to see the convergence of human time and objective time, since human life and human civilizations are shaped by macroscopic forces such as geography, and geography is a local expression of cosmology. A human civilization that emerges from its planet-bound condition and asserts itself on a cosmological scale would constitute human beings living on a macro-historical level, and to do so would demand the emergence and cultivation of macro-temporal consciousness.
It may be only at the level of metaphysical temporality (which I also call metaphysical history) that there can be a full convergence of human time and objective time, so that that two ultimately become indistinguishable and therefore one. This may be the ultimate telos of civilization: to establish an identity with the universe at large.
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I have had a little more to say on the above in Addendum on the Origins of Time.
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12 August 2011
To speak of induced failure in complex adaptive systems is already to acknowledge a distinction between induced failure and non-induced failure, and beyond this distinction we can make a further distinction between failure that is purposefully induced and failure that is induced but as an unintended consequence of some other action — i.e., failure as an externality. An obvious example of purposefully induced failure is military action undertaken with the intention of causing catastrophic failure on the part of enemy forces. An equally obvious example of induced failure as an unintended consequence is that of environmental damage that results from pollution and the pressures of industrialized society on the ecosystem.
It could be argued that the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which was precipitated by the collapse of the value of the Thai Bhat (much as the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 was precipitated by the subprime mortgage crisis), was, for all intents and purposes, an intended failure, as investors had placed the Thai Bhat under considerable pressure by shorting the currency on international currency markets. When a nation-state (or even a quasi-state entity like the Eurozone) finds its currency under pressure by international speculators, it will often protest that the speculators are at fault, while the speculators will say that they are only trying to make a profit, and that they serve a valuable function within the financial community in bringing vulnerabilities to light.
In the past few days we have seen some dramatic examples of this sort of thing, as the downgrading of US government securities by Standard & Poor’s was called a “mistake” by Gene Sperling (NEC director) when it was clearly a carefully deliberated decision (especially in terms of its announcement after close of business on Friday to give markets time to absorb the news before opening on Monday), while Greece and Turkey enacted bans on short selling, although European regulators could not agree on a wide-ranging ban on short sales. Are we to say that this week’s market turmoil was induced by Standard & Poor’s downgrade, so that the ratings agency has a measure of historical agency in bringing this about, or is the ratings agency merely the canary in the coal mine?
Clearly, it becomes a matter of how the boundary is drawn between agency and absence of agency, just as it is a matter of how we draw the boundary between induced and non-induced failure. I think it would quite difficult to formulate an adequate theoretical definition of non-induced failure, and in fact I am not prepared to even suggest anything at this time. Since non-induced failure is when failure “just happens,” there will always be claims made for agency in failure, including the agency of natural forces (say, friction). So I think the better method here is to try to understand induced failure better, and then to define non-induced failure as the complement of the cases of induced failure.
In the present context, we will call a purposefully induced failure a formal failure, while a failure that results from unintended consequences will be called an informal failure. According to this terminology, an old building that has been dynamited to bring it down has experienced a formal failure, while shoddy design or construction practices that have resulted in a building collapsing (as in the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse) is an example of informal failure.
It is a standard mode of argument among conspiracy theorists to claim that an informal failure is really a formal failure, though the mechanisms of purpose in the failure have been disguised by nefarious agents so that what appears, at first sight, to be an informal failure is in fact a formal failure. It could be argued that the attempt to impose purpose upon informal failures is a consequence of what evolutionary psychologists call the agency detector. On an intuitive level, it doesn’t take much sophistication to understand that, 1) individuals want to believe that they understand things that others do not understand, and 2) that this intellectual form of self-aggrandizement plays a role in drawing the boundary between formal and informal failures so as to exclude all informal failures. This, however, is ultimately uninteresting, and I maintain that there is a valid distinction between formal and informal failure. Just as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, so too failure is sometimes just failure and involves no agency.
At a somewhat higher level of sophistication, it is a standard mode of argument among ideologically-motivated partisans that, although informal failures are technically informal failures, any reasonable and responsible person should have seen the unintended consequences that would follow from their actions, so that if people would just take their blinders off they would see the informal failures for the formal failures that they are. Such an argument implies self-deception at some level, whether on the part of participants who are following orders or on the part of those issuing the orders. This argument is important because it brings our attention to the role of self-deception in understanding the world — and I believe the role of self-deception to be under-estimated in human affairs — but it is easy to make sweeping claims in this regard which, when pressed, lead to the denial of the very possibility of informal failures, and the denial of the possibility of informal failure leads to the search for agents responsible for the formal failure — scapegoating and witch-hunts.
The universal search for scapegoats is just as uninteresting as the universal search for nefarious and hidden agents, and so I reject the ideological attempt to draw the boundary between formal and informal failure so as to exclude all informal failure. I have said elsewhere, in another context, that the facts do not speak for themselves. This bears repeating, as does the observation that what is obvious to one person in terms of unintended consequences is in no sense obvious to another person.
There is as yet no standard definition for complex adaptive systems; the discipline is too recent to have settled upon the requisite conventions. The Wikipedia article on complex adaptive systems cites a definition by John Henry Holland: “Cas [complex adaptive systems] are systems that have large numbers of components, often called agents, that interact and adapt or learn.”
If the agents that constitute a complex adaptive system fail to adapt, or adapt poorly, fail to learn or learn the wrong lessons, then such complex adaptive systems are vulnerable to failure. If a complex adaptive system can be induced to adapt poorly, or induced to learn the wrong lesson, then such complex adaptive systems can be induced to reveal vulnerabilities. If the induced vulnerabilities are intentional (that is to say, if they are formal failures), the vulnerability can be exploited to bring about catastrophic failure cascading from the point of the vulnerability.
As we follow out this reasoning we must be careful because matters become complicated very quickly. In all of the above cases we must distinguish between formally inducing failure and informally inducing failure. Taking the example of environmental degradation, we know that some industrial chemicals allowed into the biosphere mimic naturally occurring substances and replace the naturally occurring substances, sometimes to deleterious effect. This in an informally induced poor adaptation that results in a vulnerability. Taking the example of military defeat, a campaign of disinformation can cause the enemy to “learn” the wrong lesson and this can be calculated to open a vulnerability. This is a formally induced learning of an incorrect lesson.
Adaptation and learning occur in the context of interaction, and interaction takes place at many different levels. Following my adaptation of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model (cf. Metaphysical Ecology), I hold that interaction takes place on five levels of metaphysical ecology:
● macro-interaction, and
● metaphysical interaction
Such interaction may take place simultaneously across many different ecological levels, or at one or several levels. All of these interactions carry with them the possibility of adaptation and learning on the part of the agents primarily functioning on the levels in question, and all of these interactions carry with them the possibility of formal or informal failure.
We know from ordinary experience how a complex adaptive system can fail on one level and this failure can cascade bringing about a catastrophic failure of the entire system, even when other ecological levels of the complex adaptive have learned and adapted appropriately. For example, during wars one always hears of soldiers learning lessons on the battlefield (micro- and meso- learning) that have not been learned at an institutional level (meso- and exo- level learning), and thus the institution goes on making the same mistake that the soldiers know to be a mistake but cannot change because they are not empowered to bring about institutional change. These kinds of failures are also very common in business, when frontline employees know policies to be failing, but are required by management to continue a failing policy because the lesson has not yet been learned at an institutional level.
On the other side of this dialectic, it is often the case that people who see the big picture clearly understand the nature of a problem and have learned their lessons (on meso- and exo- levels), but are, for one reason or another, unable to communicate this understanding to meso- and micro- levels, where the same mistakes continue to be made. This is clearly the case with social workers who understand the roots of inter-personal violence (IPV) in families and communities, and although they seek to educate families and communities with all the resources that they have available, the same problems continue to appear over and over again.
I assumed both of the above examples to be generalizable throughout metaphysical ecology), which means that even in ecological systems — and complex adaptive systems are ecological systems — there is just enough compartmentalization for an isolated failure to develop to the point that it can cause a cascading catastrophic failure, even if successful adaptations and effective learning is taking place on other ecological levels.
I assume that in a highly sensitive complex adaptive system that minor failures and disturbances would be rapidly transmitted up and down through all ecological levels of the system. In so far as learning and adaptation are global — meaning not that it takes place on the highest ecological level, but that it takes place across all ecological levels, and that there is a feedback loop that allows one level to learn from the adaptations and learning of other levels — I suggest that a highly sensitive complex adaptive system, while superficially fragile, may represent the more robust and resilient form of order.
The ability to learn from what others have learned — which I have expressed here as learning lessons and adaptations from other ecological levels — might be called higher-order learning, but this is a fancy name for a simple idea… the idea that you don’t have to be the one to burn your finger on the stove to know that it is hot. There is a kind of intellectual maturity involved in learning from the lessons of others, and when this intellectual maturity can be integrated into institutions the resultant institutions would possess a much higher degree of resiliency than those that lack this capacity.
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9 June 2011
There is a famous verse that exists in many different forms, but is most familiar, I think, in this version of For Want of a Nail:
For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Today we know this as the “Butterfly Effect.” We are familiar with the Butterfly effect from popular expositions of chaos theory. Choas theory has rapidly become the central theoretical reference point for studying complexity, but we don’t even have to invoke chaos theory in order to discuss cascading failures in complex systems.
The “for want of a nail” scenario above is a classic evocation of a cascading failure, and indeed the story illustrates a small failure that cascades all the way to catastrophic failure. (NB: not all cascading failures culminate in catastrophic failure.) It is in part because such scenarios of cascading failure begin with small and simple events that it becomes easy to think of failure as a simple thing. But it is not. Failure is not always simple, though it may sometimes be simple.
Complex systems fail in complex ways. Moreover, the scope of a catastrophic failure of a complex system is commensurate with the scope of the complex system. This is easy to see intuitively since a catastrophic cascading failure in a complex system must penetrate through all levels of the system and encompass both core and periphery.
This sense of the complexity of failure was brought home to me when I received a copy of Emergency Management magazine. I don’t know how I got on their mailing list, but the magazine was of interest to me. The article Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Is an Ominous Sign for Critical Infrastructure’s Future by Austen Givens explicitly formulated the equivalence of complexity of failure with the complexity of the system that fails:
“…as complex systems continue to proliferate — converging people, processes and technologies — equally sophisticated failures of those systems are likely to emerge.”
Complex failures are all about failures that are as sophisticated as the systems themselves that experience failure. Another article, Black Swan Events Require Expanded Thinking, Planning by Eric Holdeman, made a similar point:
“The world has been experiencing a series of extreme events — political, technological and natural… Japan was hit by a triple whammy: an earthquake, followed by a tsunami and then a partial meltdown of nuclear reactors. This natural disaster led to cascading events, including the deaths of tens of thousands, the evacuation of hundreds of thousands and electrical power shortages that will continue for months.”
While considering complex systems and their complex failures, I will also point out that this holds for the increasing complexity of human societies, and even the increasing moral complexity of human life. Life today is more complex than at any earlier time in our history. The number of concerns that must be juggled by the average individual is staggering, and all of the dizzying complexity of life in the contemporary world has a moral dimension.
I can see now that when I discussed the moral complexity of life in Spots Upon the Sun that I did not there go far enough. The revolution, terror, and genocide that marks our time, and the weaponization of eliminationism that I have discussed are instances of complex moral failures only possible in a morally complex world.
There is a sense in which the complex failure of complex systems is reliant upon ecological mechanisms as well as the fact that ecological mechanisms are all but inevitable to emerge within complex systems. If failures could be compartmentalized, failures would not cascade and would not prove catastrophic. It is only when each level of the functionality of a system is related to the functionality of every other level that a system as a whole is compromised when a part of the system is compromised.
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