Sunday


David Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday


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

The Dark Underbelly of the Enlightenment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday


John Stuart Mill, philosopher and economist.

In my previous post, The Illiberal Conception of Freedom, I attempted to describe a conception of human freedom that has become distant and alien to us, but which was familiar to everyone for the greater part of human history. Much more familiar to us, living after the Enlightenment, is the liberal conception of freedom, which had among its greatest exponents John Stuart Mill. Here is one of his classic statements of the liberal conception of freedom:

“…the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, I

We can understand the work of John Stuart Mill as part of the Victorian achievement, embodying some of the most trenchant social and political thought of the 19th century, and doing so in admirable Victorian prose that is difficult to quote because Mill’s sentences are long and his paragraphs very long indeed. The passage above is the shortest quote I could tear from context that still carries what I take to be its essential meaning.

It is in Mill that we find some of the most eloquent expressions of human freedom and of the sovereignty, autonomy, and dignity of the individual. These are ideals not only of a conception of freedom peculiar to the Enlightenment, but also perennial ideals of the human spirit, and would probably be recognizable in any age. If we could have transported John Stuart Mill back in time and place him in an earlier social milieu, I suspect he would have had much the same to say, even if in a different idiom.

Even though we can recognize the perennial character of the liberal conception of freedom no less than the perennial conception of the illiberal conception of freedom, the former conception, given eloquent expression by Mill, only fully comes into its own in the modern period, in the context of a social and political milieu that is distinctive to the modern period. And this observation points to an inadequacy in my previous exposition of the illiberal conception of freedom: I failed to place this latter conception in the context of the social milieu and political institutions in which it can best be realized.

That the liberal conception of freedom can only be fully realized in the context of liberal democracy is implied by the fact that both liberal freedom and liberal democracy were ideals expressed by Mill. He was the author not only of On Liberty, but also of On Representative Government. These parallel ideas of the liberal freedom of the individual realized within liberal democracy society are part of the core of the Enlightenment ideal, which is the implicit (and imperfectly realized) central project of contemporary civilization, which could be called Enlightenment civilization.

The illiberal conception of freedom is no less perennial, and could well be realized in the milieu of liberal democratic society, but it would be best realized in the context of a society that understands the meaning of and values the ideals that lie at the center of the illiberal conception of freedom; a society in which the spiritual discipline to attain freedom from the flesh and its appetites is valued above other purposes that an individual might pursue. The ideals of feudalism — as imperfectly realized in actual feudal societies as the Enlightenment is imperfectly realized in our society — constitute the optimal context in which the illiberal conception of freedom could be realized. The chivalric ideal of the knight as an individual who has achieved perfect martial and spiritual discipline (as expressed, for example, in In Praise of the New Knighthood by St. Bernard of Clairvaux) exemplifies the illiberal conception of freedom in a Christian social context.

Both traditional feudal societies and modern Enlightenment societies fall short of their ideals, and the individuals who jointly comprise these societies fall short of the ideals of freedom embodied in each respective social order. That both ideals are imperfectly realized means that there are perversions and corruptions of the illiberal conception of freedom no less than perversions and corruptions of the liberal conception of freedom. We need to say this because it is the nature of an ideal to contrast the ideal to its complement, that is to say, to everything that is not the ideal. This idealistic perspective tends to throw together into one basket everything that deviates from the most pure and perfect exemplification of the one or the other. It would be relatively easy, then, to conflate a perversion or a corruption of the liberal conception of freedom with the illiberal conception of freedom itself, or with a perversion or a corruption of the illiberal conception of freedom. Principled distinctions are important, and must be observed if we are not to lose ourselves in confusion.

Minding the distinctions among varieties of freedom and their corruptions is important because there are substantive differences as well as commonalities. As different as the liberal and illiberal conceptions of freedom are, both are conceptions of freedom realized within a social and political context that optimally actualizes them. There are other varieties of freedom of which this is not the case.

Both the liberal and the illiberal conception of freedom are equally opposed to the anarchic conception of freedom, which could also be called the Hobbesian conception of freedom, which is the freedom that obtains in the state of nature, which is, “…a perpetuall warre of every man against his neighbour…” Or, in more detail:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, CHAPTER XIII. OF THE NATURALL CONDITION OF MANKIND

In the state of nature, there is perfect freedom, but this perfect freedom entails the possibility of being deprived of our freedom at any moment by the equally perfect freedom of another, who has the freedom to murder us, as we have the freedom to murder him. This Hobbesian conception of freedom — so terrifying to Hobbes that he thought everyone must give away their rights to a sovereign Leviathan that could enforce limits to this perfect freedom in a state of nature — holds only outside social and political milieux. The liberal and illiberal conceptions of freedom hold only within social miliuex, and each is best realized in a social milieu that reflects the ideals implicit in the respective conception of freedom.

The liberal and illiberal conceptions of freedom, then, have some properties in common, and so are not entirely disjoint. There remains the possibility that an extraordinary individual might exemplify the ideals both of liberal and illiberal freedom, asserting in action the sovereignty, autonomy, and dignity of the individual in both the liberal and illiberal spheres. Mill wrote that, “…over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” The theorist of illiberal freedom would assert that the individual could never be sovereign over his own body and mind until he had achieved the discipline over body and mind that is the ideal of the illiberal conception of freedom. Realization of the ideal of the liberal conception of freedom, then, may be predicated upon a prior realization of the illiberal conception of freedom.

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Thursday


Queen Victoria reigned 20 June 1837 to 22 January 1901.

There is not only an insufficient appreciation of the Victorian achievement in history, but perhaps more importantly there is an insufficient understanding of the Victorian achievement. Victorian civilization — and I will avail myself of this locution understanding that most would allow that the Victorianism was a period in the history of western civilization, but not itself a distinct civilization — achieved nothing less than the orderly transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization. As such, Victorianism became the template for other societies to make this transition without revolutionary violence.

The transition from agriculturalism to industrialism was the most disruptive in the history of civilization, and can only be compared in its impact to the emergence of agricultural civilization from pre-civilized nomadic hunter-gatherers. But whereas the the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism occurred over thousands of years, the transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization has in some cases occurred within a hundred years (though the transition is still underway on a planetary scale). The Victorians not only managed this transition, and were the first people in history to manage this transition, they moreover managed this transition without catastrophic warfare, without the widespread breakdown of civil order, and with a certain sense of style. It could be argued that, if the Victorians had not managed this transition so well, rather than a new form of civilization taking shape, the industrial revolution might have resulted in the collapse of civilization and a new dark age.

Today we think of Victorianism as a highly repressive social and cultural milieu that was finally cast aside with the innovations of the Edwardian era and then the great scientific and social revolutions that characterized the early twentieth century and which then instituted dramatic social and cultural changes that ever after left the Victorian period in the shadows of history. But Victorian repression was not arbitrary; it served a crucial social function in its time, and it may well have been the only possible social and cultural mechanism that would have made it possible for any society to be the first to make the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism.

Victorianism not only made an orderly transition possible from agriculturalism to industrialism, it also made possible an orderly transition from a social order (i.e., a central project) based on religious tradition to a social order that was largely secular. Americans (especially Americans who don’t travel) are not aware of the degree to which European society is secularized, and much of this occurred in the nineteenth century. Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach was an important early expression of secularization.

Nietzsche already saw this secularization happening in the nineteenth century, and, of course, Darwin, a proper English gentleman, worked his own scientific revolution in the midst of the Victorian period, which played an important role in secularization. Rather than being personally destroyed for his efforts — which is what almost any other society would have done to a man like Darwin — Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey and treated like a national hero.

Considerable intellectual toughness was a necessary condition of making a peaceful transition from agriculturalism to industrialism, and we can find the requisite toughness in the writers of nineteenth century England. The intellectual honesty of Matthew Arnold is bracing and refreshing. Arnold’s “Sweetness and Light” is a remarkable essay, and not at all how we today would characterize the aspirations of Victorian society, but in comparison to the horrific counterfactual that might have attended the industrial revolution under other circumstances, the grim Victorian world described so movingly by Charles Dickens is relatively benign. Since we have, for the most part, in our collective historical imagination, consigned nineteenth century English literature to our understanding of a genteel and proper Victorianism, it is easy to believe that the men of the nineteenth century did not yet possess the kind of raw, unsparing honesty that the twentieth century forced upon us. Reading Arnold now, in the twenty-first century, I see that this is not true.

Matthew Arnold’s world may have been innocent of World Wars, Holocausts, genocides, nuclear annihilation, and the rigorously realized horrors bequeathed to us by the twentieth century, but it was not an innocent world. History may always reveal new horrors to us, but even in the slightly less horrific past, there were horrors aplenty to preclude any kind of robust innocence on the part of human beings. And it is interesting to reflect that, while the Victorian Era is remembered for its social and cultural repression, it is not remembered for the scope and scale of its atrocities.

This is significant in light of the fact that the twentieth century, which has been seen as a liberation of society once Victorian constraints were swept away, is remembered for the scope and scale of its atrocities. Again, the Victorians did a better job than we did in managing the great transitions of our respective times. Voltaire famously said (during the Enlightenment) that we commit atrocities because we believe absurdities. If this is true, then the absurdities believed by the Victorians were less pernicious than the absurdities believed in the twentieth century.

The late-Victorian or early Edwardian Oscar Wilde in his De Profundis was raw and unsparing, but was rather too self-serving to measure up to the standard of intellectual honesty set by Matthew Arnold. (I fully understand that most of my contemporaries would probably disagree with this judgment.) However, Wilde’s heresies, like Arnold’s honesty, was characterized by a great sense of style. We may criticize the Victorian legal and penal system for essentially destroying Wilde, but it was also the Victorian cultural milieu that made Oscar Wilde possible. If Wilde had not been quite so daring, he might have gotten by without provoking the authorities to respond to him as it did.

Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism is a wonderful essay, employing the resources of Wilde’s legendary wit in order to to make a serious point. Like many of Wilde’s famous witticisms, his central motif is the contravention of received wisdom, forcing us to see things in a new perspective. Though we know in hindsight the caustic if not criminal consequences for individualism under socialism, Wilde did not have the benefit of hindsight, and Wilde makes the case that socialism will make authentic individualism possible for the first time. Wilde’s conception of individualism under socialism was in fact a paean to his own individualism, carved out within the limitations of Victorian society. This, too, is an ongoing legacy of Victorianism, which was sufficiently large and comprehensive to include individuals as diverse as Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Matthew Arnold, and Oscar Wilde.

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Saturday


The truncated icosahedron geometry employed for the symmetrical shockwave compression of fission implosion devices.

The simplest nuclear weapon is commonly known as a gun-type device, because it achieves critical mass by forcing together two sub-critical masses of uranium through a mechanism very much like a gun that shoots a smaller wedge-shaped sub-critical mass into a larger sub-critical mass. This was the design of the “Little Boy” Hiroshima atomic bomb. The next level of complexity in nuclear weapon design was the implosion device, which relied upon conventional explosives to symmetrically compress a larger reflector/tamper sphere of U-238 into a smaller sphere of Pu-239, with a polonium-beryllium “Urchin” initiator at the very center. The scientists of the Manhattan project were so certain that the gun-type device would work that they didn’t even bother to test it, so the first nuclear device to be tested, and indeed the first nuclear explosion on the planet, was the Gadget device designed to be the proof of concept of the more sophisticated implosion design. It worked, and this design was used for the “Fat Man” atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

These early nuclear weapon designs (conceptually familiar, but all the engineering designs are still very secret) are usually called First Generation nuclear weapons. The two-stage thermonuclear devices (fission primaries to trigger fusion secondaries, though most of the explosive yield still derives from fission) designed and tested a few years later, known as the Teller-Ulam design (and tested with the Ivy Mike device), were called Second Generation nuclear weapons. A number of ideas were floated for third generation nuclear weapons design, and probably many were tested before the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty came into effect (and for all practical purposes brought an end to the rapid development of nuclear weapon design). One of the design concepts for Third Generation nuclear weapons was that of a shaped charge that could direct the energy of the explosion, rather that dissipating the blast in an omnidirecitonal explosion. There are also a lot of concepts for Fourth Generation nuclear weapons, though many of these ideas are both on the cutting edge of technology and they can’t be legally tested, so it is likely that little will come of these as long as the current test ban regime remains in place.

According to Kosta Tsipis, “Nuclear weapons designed to maximize certain of their properties and to suppress others are considered to constitute a third generation in the sense that their design goes beyond the basic, even though sophisticated, design of modern thermonuclear weapons.” These are sometimes also referred to as “tailored effects.” Examples of tailored effects include enhanced radiation warheads (the “neutron bomb”), so-called “salted” nuclear weapons like the proposed cobalt bomb, electro-magnetic pulse weapons (EMP), and the X-ray laser. We will here be primarily interesting in enhancing the directionality of a nuclear detonation, as in the case of the Casaba-Howitzer, shaped nuclear charges, and the X-ray laser.

What I would like to propose as a WMD is the use of multiple shaped nuclear charges directing their blast at a common center. This is like a macroscopic implementation of the implosion employed in first generation nuclear weapons. The symmetry of implosion in the gadget device and the Fat Man bomb employed 32 simultaneous high explosive charges, arranged according to the geometry of a truncated icosahedron, which would result in a nicely symmetrical convergence on the central trigger without having to scale up to an unrealistic number of high explosive charges for an even more evenly symmetrical implosion. (The actual engineering is a bit more complicated, as a combination of rapid explosions and slower explosions were needed for the optimal convergence of the implosion on the trigger.) This could be employed at a macroscopic scale by directional nuclear charges arranged around a central target. I call this a meta-implosion device. In a “conventional” nuclear strike, the explosive force is dissipated outward from ground zero. With a meta-implosion device, the explosive force would be focused inward toward ground zero, which would experience a sharply higher blast pressure than elsewhere as a result of the constructive interference of multiple converging shockwaves.

A partially assembled implosion device of a first generation nuclear weapon.

The reader may immediately think of the Casaba-Howitzer as a similar idea, but what I am suggesting is a bit different. You can read a lot about the Casaba-Howitzer at The Nuclear Spear: Casaba Howitzer, which is contextualized in even more information on Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets site. If you were to surround a target with multiple Casaba-Howitzers and fire at a common center at the same time you would get something like the effect I am suggesting, but this would require far more infrastructure. What I am suggesting could be assembled as a deliverable weapons system engineered as an integrated package.

A cruise missile would be a good way to deliver a meta-implosion device to its target.

There are already weapons designs that release multiple bomblets near a target with each individual bomblet precision targeted (the CBU-103 Combined Effects Munition, more commonly known as a cluster bomb). This could be scaled up in a cruise missile package, so that a cruise missile in approaching its target could open up and release 12 to 16 miniaturized short-range cruise missiles which could then by means of GPS or similar precision location technology arrange themselves around the target in a hemisphere and then simultaneously detonate their directed charges toward ground zero. Both precision timing and precision location would be necessary to optimize shockwave convergence, but with technologies like atomic clocks and dual frequency GPS (and quantum positioning in the future) such performance is possible.

A meta-implosion device could also be delivered by drones flown out of a van.

A similar effect could be obtained, albeit a bit more slowly but also more quietly and more subtly, with the use of drones. A dozen or so drones could be released either from the air or launched from the ground, arrange themselves around the target, and then detonate simultaneously. Where it would be easier to approach a target with a small truck, even an ordinary delivery van (perhaps disguised as some local business), as compared to a cruise missile, which could set off air defense warnings, this would be a preferred method of deployment, although the drones would have to be relatively large because they would have to carry a miniaturized nuclear weapon, precision timing, and precision location devices. There are a few commercially available drones today that can lift 20 kg, which is probably just about the lower limit of a miniaturized package such as I have described.

The most elegant deployment of a meta-implosion device would be a hardened target in exoatmospheric space. Currently there isn’t anything flying that is large enough or hardened enough to merit being the target of such a device, but in a future war in space meta-implosion could be deployed against a hard target with a full spherical implosion converging on a target. For ground-based targets, a hemisphere with the target at the center would be the preferred deployment.

In the past, a nation-state pursuing a counter-force strategy, i.e., a nuclear strategy based on eliminating the enemy’s nuclear forces, hence the targeting of nuclear missiles, had to employ very large and very destructive bombs because nuclear missile silos were hardened to survive all but a near miss with a nuclear weapon. Now the age of land-based ICBMs is over for the most advanced industrialized nation-states, and there is no longer any reason to build silos for land-based missiles, therefore no reason to pursue this particular kind of counter-force strategy. SLBMs and ALCMs are now sufficiently sophisticated that they are more accurate than the most accurate land-based ICBMs of the past, and they are far more difficult to find and to destroy because they are small and mobile and can be hidden.

However, hardened, high-value targets like the missile silos of the past would be precisely the kind of target one would employ a meta-implosion device to destroy. And while ICBM silos are no longer relevant, there are plenty of hardened, high-value targets out there. A decapitation strike against a leadership target where the location of the bunker is known (as in the case of Cheyenne Mountain Complex or Kosvinsky Kamen) is such an example.

This is, of course, what “bunker buster” bombs like the B61 were designed to do. However, earth penetrating bunker buster bombs, while less indiscriminate than above ground bursts, are still nuclear explosions in the ground that release their energy in an omnidirectional burst (or perhaps along an axis). The advantage of a meta-implosion device would be that the focused blast pressures would collapse any weak spots in a target area, and, when you’re talking about a subterranean bunker, even an armored door would constitute a weak spot.

I haven’t seen any discussion anywhere of a device such as I have described above, though I have no doubt that the idea has been studied already.

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Friday


Herodotus, the Father of History

In Rational Reconstructions of Time I described a series of intellectual developments in historiography in which big history appeared in the penultimate position as a recent historiographical innovation. There is another sense, however, in which there have always been big histories — that is to say, histories that take us from the origins of our world through the present and into the future — and we can identify a big history that represents many of the major stages through which western thought has passed. In what follows I will focus on western history, in so far as any regional focus is relevant, as “history” is a peculiarly western idea, originating in classical antiquity among the Greeks, and with its later innovations all emerging from western thought.

Saint Augustine, author of City of God

Shortly after Christianity emerged, a Christian big history was formulated across many works by many different authors, but I will focus on Saint Augustine’s City of God. Christianity takes up the mythological material of the earlier seriation of western civilization and codifies it in the light of the new faith. Augustine presented an over-arching vision of human history that corresponded to the salvation history of humanity according to Christian thought. Some scholars have argued that western Christianity is distinctive in its insistence upon the historicity of its salvation history. If this is true, then Augustine’s City of God is Exhibit “A” in the development of this idea, tracing the dual histories of the City of God and the City of Man, each of which punctuates the other in actual moments of historical time when the two worlds are inseparable for all their differences. Here, the world behind the world is always vividly present, and in a Platonic way (for Augustine was a Christian Platonist) was more real than the world we take for the real world.

Immanuel Kant, author of Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens

The Christian vision of history we find in Saint Augustine passed through many modifications but in its essentials remained largely intact until the Enlightenment, when the combined force of the scientific revolution and political turmoil began to dissolve the institutional structures of agricultural civilization. Here we have the remarkable work of Kant, better known for his three critiques, but who also wrote his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens. The idea of a universal natural history extends the idea of natural history to the whole of the cosmos, and to human endeavor as well, and more or less coincides with the contemporary conception of big history, at least in so far as the scope and character of big history is concerned. Kant deserves a place in intellectual history for this if for nothing else. In other words, despite his idealist philosophy (formulated decades after his Universal Natural History), Kant laid the foundations of a naturalistic historiography for the whole of natural history. Since then, we have only been filling in the blanks.

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, author of Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit

The Marquis de Condorcet took this naturalistic conception of universal history and interpreted it within the philosophical context of the Encyclopédistes and the French Philosophes (being far more empiricist and materialist than Kant), in writing his Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind), in ten books, the tenth book of which explicitly concerns itself with the future progress of the human mind. I may be wrong about this, but I believe this to be the first sustained effort at historiographical futurism in western thought. And Condorcet wrote this work while on the run from French revolutionary forces, having been branded a traitor by the revolution he had served. That Condorcet wrote his big history of progress and optimism while hiding from the law is a remarkable testimony to both the man and the idea to which he bore witness.

Johann Gottfried von Herder, author of Reflections on the Philosophy of History of Mankind

After the rationalism of the Enlightenment, European intellectual history took a sharp turn in another direction, and it was romanticism that was the order of the day. Kant’s younger contemporary, Johann Gottfried Herder, wrote his Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Ideas upon Philosophy and the History of Mankind, or Reflections on the Philosophy of History of Mankind, or any of the other translations of the title), as well as several essays on related themes (cf. the essays, “How Philosophy Can Become More Universal and Useful for the Benefit of the People” and “This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity”), at this time. In some ways, Herder’s romantic big history closely resembles the big histories of today, as he begins with what was known of the universe — the best science of the time, as it were — though he continues on in a way to justify regional nationalistic histories, which is in stark contrast to the big history of our time. We could learn from Herder on this point, if only we could be truly scientific in our objectivity and set aside the ideological conflicts that have arisen from nationalistic conceptions of history, which still today inform perspectives in historiography.

Otto Neurath, author of Foundations of the Social Sciences

In a paragraph that I have previously quoted in Scientific Metaphysics and Big History there is a plan for a positivist big history as conceived by Otto Neurath:

“…we may look at all sciences as dovetailed to such a degree that we may regard them as parts of one science which deals with stars, Milky Ways, earth, plants, animals, human beings, forests, natural regions, tribes, and nations — in short, a comprehensive cosmic history would be the result of such an agglomeration… Cosmic history would, as far as we are using a Universal Jargon throughout all branches of research, contain the same statements as our unified science. The language of our Encyclopedia may, therefore, be regarded as a typical language of history. There is no conflict between physicalism and this program of cosmic history.”

Otto Neurath, Foundations of the Social Sciences, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1970 (originally published 1944), p. 9

To my knowledge, no one wrote this positivist big history, but it could have been written, and perhaps it should have been written. I can imagine an ambitious but eccentric scholar completely immersing himself or herself in the intellectual milieu of early twentieth century logical positivism and logical empiricism, and eventually coming to write, ex post facto, the positivist big history imagined by Neurath but not at that time executed. One might think of such an effort as a truly Quixotic quest, or as the fulfillment of a tradition of writing big histories on the basis of current philosophical thought.

From this thought experiment in the ex post facto writing of a history not written in its own time we can make an additional leap. I have noted elsewhere (The Cosmic Archipelago, Part III: Reconstructing the History of the Observable Universe) that scientific historiography has reconstructed the histories of peoples who did not write their own histories. This could be done in a systematic way. An exhaustive scientific research program in historiography could take the form of writing the history of every time and place from the perspective of every other time and place. We would have the functional equivalent of this research program if we had a big history written from the perspective of every time and place for which a distinctive perspective can be identified, because each big history from each identifiable perspective would be a history of the world entire, and thus would subsume under it all regional and parochial histories.

I previously proposed an idea of a similarly exhaustive historiography of the kind that could only be written once the end was known. In my Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica? I suggested that Freeman Dyson’s eternal intelligences could busy themselves as historiographers through the coming trillions of years when the civilizations of the Stelliferous Era are no more, and there can be no more civilizations of this kind because there are no longer planets being warmed by stellar insolation, hence no more civilizations of planetary endemism.

It is a commonplace of historiographical thought that each generation must write and re-write the past for its own purposes and from its own point of view. Gibbon’s Enlightenment history of the later Roman Empire is distinct in temperament and outlook from George Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State. While an advanced intelligence in the post-Stelliferous Era would want to bring its own perspective to the histories of the civilizations of the Stelliferous Era, it would also want a complete “internal” account of these civilizations, in the spirit of thought experiments in writing histories that could have or should have been written during particular periods, but which, for one reason or another, never were written. If we imagine eternal intelligences (at least while sufficient energy remains in the universe) capable of running detailed simulations of the past, this could be a source of the immersive scholarship that would make it possible to write the unwritten big histories of ages that produced a distinctive philosophical perspective, but which did not produce a historian (or the idea of a big history) that could execute the idea in historical form.

There is a sense in which these potentially vast unwritten histories, the unactualized rivals to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, are like the great unbuilt buildings, conceived and sketched by architects, but for which there was neither the interest nor the wherewithal to build. I am thinking, above all, of Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Isaac Newton, but I could just as well cite the unbuilt cities of Antonio Sant’Elia, the skyscraper designed by Antonio Gaudí, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile high skyscraper (cf. Planners and their Cities, in which I discuss other great unbuilt projects, such as Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris and Wright’s Broadacre City). Just as I have here imagined unwritten histories eventually written, so too I have imagined these great unbuilt buildings someday built. Specifically, I have suggested that a future human civilization might retain its connection to the terrestrial past without duplicating the past by building structures proposed for Earth but never built on Earth.

History is an architecture of the past. We construct a history for ourselves, and then we inhabit it. If we don’t construct our own history, someone else will construct our history for us, and then we live in the intellectual equivalent of The Projects, trying to make a home for ourselves in someone else’s vision of our past. It is not likely that we will feel entirely comfortable within a past conceived by another who does not share our philosophical presuppositions.

From the perspective of big history, and from the perspective of what I call formal historiography, history is also an architecture of the future, which we inhabit with our hopes and fears and expectations and intentions of the future. And indeed we might think of big history as a particular kind of architecture — a bridge that we build between the past and the future. In this way, we can understand why and how most ages have written big histories for themselves out of the need to bridge past and future, between which the present is suspended.

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Studies in Grand Historiography

1. The Science of Time

2. Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time

3. The Epistemic Overview Effect

4. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 1

5. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 2

6. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 3

7. Big History and Historiography

8. Big History and Scientific Historiography

9. Philosophy for Industrial-Technological Civilization

10. Is it possible to specialize in the big picture?

11. Rational Reconstructions of Time

12. History in an Extended Sense

13. Scientific Metaphysics and Big History

14. Copernican Historiography

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Digging Up the Anthropocene

29 November 2017

Wednesday


Photograph by Ben Roberts.

A recent paper, The Working Group on the Anthropocene: Summary of evidence and interim recommendations, by Jan Zalasiewicz and twenty-four additional authors, considers the case for the formalization of the Anthropocene as a chronostratigraphic/geochronologic unit, i.e., a periodization of geological time. Since “Anthropocene” was proposed by Paul Crutzen in 2000 as a geological period marked by the impact of human beings upon the Earth, geologists have been attempting to determine if the geological record will someday bear the distinctive traces of human activity and whether (and this an interesting future contingent) geologists might someday be able to reliably locate and identify the Anthropocene boundary in the geological record. The emerging consensus is that there is, “…a clear synchronous signal of the transformative influence of humans on key physical, chemical, and biological processes at the planetary scale.” These synchronous signals are described as follows:

“A range of potential proxy signals emerged as potentially important during the analysis, for instance the spherical carbonaceous particles of fly ash (Rose, 2015; Swindles et al., 2015), plastics (Zalasiewicz et al., 2016), other ‘technofossils’ (Zalasiewicz et al., 2014a, 2016) and artificial radionuclides (Waters et al., 2015), changes to carbon and nitrogen isotope patterns (Waters et al., 2016) and a variety of fossilizable biological remains (Barnosky, 2014; Wilkinson et al., 2014). Many of these signals will leave a permanent record in the Earth’s strata.”

The Working Group on the Anthropocene: Summary of evidence and interim recommendations, by Jan Zalasiewicz, et al., Anthropocene, Volume 19, September 2017, Pages 55-60.

Will paleontologists of the future someday dig up technofossils, and from these technofossils attempt to reconstruct an entire technological infrastructure, much as we today reconstruct an extinct species from a single preserved vertebra or rib, and around the resulting organism we seek to reconstruct the entire vanished ecosystem in which that extinct species made its home?

Recently I was prompted to think about the Anthropocene from a paleontological perspective by a Twitter post by Ben Roberts, which included images of automobiles being degraded by weathering (these photographs are included in this post). In response to these images I wrote that I would like to see what the fossils of these automobiles would look like in ten million years. This caused me to think about the possibility of the artifacts of human civilization that might be preserved over geological scales of time. The signals mentioned above in the paper quoted all constitute microfossils that would begin to appear in the geological record for the first time with the advent of the Anthropocene, but I also wonder if larger artifacts might be preserved in the geological record.

Photograph by Ben Roberts.

The tissues of organisms — sometimes even soft tissues — are preserved in the geological record through several different processes. While it is unlikely that human artifacts would be fossilized by replacement and recrystallization or by adpression, it seems possible that technological fossils could be formed through permineralization or through casts and molds. It is easy to imagine that the hulk of an automobile, a train, or even an entire industrial facility might fill with sediment, and though the steel would rust away, that rust would be preserved in situ more or less in its finished form by the sediment hardening into sedimentary rock around it. A careful paleontologist thus might be able to excavate an entire locomotive by means of rust encased in sedimentary rocks.

Of course, fossils are rare, and most artifacts will be eroded away rather than fossilized. Moreover, technofossils are likely to be even more rare than natural fossils. Given our interest in our own past, and our technological abilities to recover artifacts, human beings will continually recover our own remains from the historical period. The fossil record that remains to be discovered will depend upon whether civilization is merely transient or whether it will prove to be enduring. In the case of civilization being a transient historical phenomenon (note that civilization could endure for another 10, 20, or 30 thousand years or more and still be “transient” from the perspective of paleontology), the process of recovering artifacts that would otherwise be fossilized will come to be end. There likely will be a few cases at least of human artifacts in sedimentary basins that eventually are preserved by some process or another. Human artifacts will ultimately be preserved in ice, in snow, in a glaciers, covered in sand on beaches and deserts, covered by landslides on land, as well as being preserved in the oceans, in deep, cold anoxic waters, as well as underwater covered in mud. There is a good chance that many ancient ships lost at sea have been entirely covered over by sand, mud, and silt, and are not likely to be located within our own historical period, thereby saved for far future paleontologists specializing in the excavation of technofossils.

Photograph by Ben Roberts.

Human beings have been building structures and leaving artifacts for thousands of years, of course — sufficient time for many of these structures to be abandoned, covered over, forgotten, and subsequently revealed once again to the light of day by archaeology. The extensive remains of the Indus Valley civilization were forgotten in this way, only to be rediscovered in the twentieth century, and the knowledge of the Minoan civilization had been reduced to mere legend when its palaces were eventually excavated. These remains have been subject to weathering and degradation, but some are in a remarkable state of preservation, though they have not been buried for millions of years, or subjected to the temperatures and pressures that result from being contained in geological strata. An insufficient time has passed for there to be a fossil record of human civilization, even though there is an archaeological record of human civilization.

Up until the industrial revolution, human industry was mostly carried out on a modest scale and resulted in little impact on the environment. Most materials employed were biodegradable and have disappeared over scales of historical time. I have previously observed that traces of Roman lead production have been preserved in the ice of Antarctica, and I would not be surprised to learn that silver processing at Potosí in the early modern period also left detectable traces. One might understand these examples as very early anticipations of later industrial processes carried out on a far larger scale. With the advent of technologies made possible by the systematic application of science to industry, new and unprecedented materials were invented and employed in industrial-scale applications. Some of these are the materials cited in the paper quoted above as the distinctive signals of the Anthropocene. While the recent paper cited above singled out a spike of artificial radionuclides, an earlier paper specifically mentioned plastics:

“Plastics are already present in sufficient numbers to be considered as one of the most important types of ‘technofossil’ that will form a permanent record of human presence on Earth.”

“The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene,” by Jan Zalasiewicz, et al.

Contemporary industrial processes are sufficiently sophisticated to produce distinctively new technogenic materials (like Chernobylite) and on a scale to distribute the products of industry globally, and so to leave a planetary trace of human activity. It remains only for time, heat, and pressure to transform these distinctive traces into technofossils.

Photograph by Ben Roberts.

That the global deposition of a distinctive Anthropocene layer begins in earnest in the twentieth century (and specifically in the mid-twentieth century) is significant. The authors of the paper write:

“This mid-20th century level seems to serve best the prime requirement for a chronostratigraphic base of high-precision global synchroneity… Human activities only came to have an effect that was both large and synchronous, and thus leave a clear (chrono-) stratigraphic signal, in the mid-20th century. A wide range of evidence from this time indicates the rapid increase in scale and extent of global human impact on the planetary environment, also clearly recognizable from a wide range of synchronous stratigraphic indicators.”

The Working Group on the Anthropocene: Summary of evidence and interim recommendations, by Jan Zalasiewicz, et al.

It is interesting to note how this mid-20th century boundary (as geologists would call it; I might call it a “threshold”) corresponds to other boundaries (or thresholds) in human development. For example, in the Before Present (BP) time scale frequently employed in the sciences, the “present” for purposes of radiometric dating has been set as 01 January 1950, as radiometric dating became practical at about this time. A neat mid-century point of reference fit well with the actual date of the availability of the technologies of radiometric dating.

Recently in Radio Technology and Existential Risk I discussed what we may call “Sagan’s Thesis,” viz. that nuclear and radio technology are tightly-coupled, so that the invention of radio technology means both that the inventors of the technology can see and be seen in the cosmos, and that the inventors soon will be able to build nuclear weapons and so be enabled to destroy themselves. Radio, then, is both an existential risk and an existential opportunity, thus marking a threshold of technological maturity in the history of an intelligent species:

“Radio astronomy on Earth is a by-product of the Second World War, when there were strong military pressures for the development of radar. Serious radio astronomy emerged only in the 1950s, major radio telescopes only in the 1960s. If we define an advanced civilization as one able to engage in long-distance radio communication using large radio telescopes, there has been an advanced civilization on our planet for only about ten years. Therefore, any civilization ten years less advanced than we cannot talk to us at all.”

Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, Chap. 31

While radio astronomy sensu stricto is not likely to leave any trace in the fossil record (though the wreckage of radio telescopes might be found), it will leave a lasting mark on civilization, and may (under some circumstances) transform a civilization. A changed civilization that endures for geological scales of time will leave a transformed trace of itself in the geological record. And for humanity, this change began near the mid-20th century boundary — about the same time as we began to use nuclear weapons, which is consistent both with Sagan’s Thesis and with a mid-20th century boundary for the Anthropocene.

The consilience of these several factors — planetary-scale anthropogenic impacts, radio technology, and nuclear technology (which includes both nuclear weapons and radiometric dating) — distinctively manifesting themselves on a global scale in the middle of the twentieth century, constitute “synchronous signals” not only for stratigraphy, but also for civilization on historical scales of time. In other words, the Anthropocene marks not only a geological periodization, but also a new stage in the development of civilization.

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

In his original 1964 paper that introduced the idea of “types” of civilization, “Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations,” Kardashev defined a Type I civilization as a civilization at, “a technological level close to the level presently attained on the earth.” (Here I ask the reader to set aside imaginative characterizations of Type I civilizations that have been elaborated by individuals who have never bothered to read Kardashev’s paper.) As this paper was written in 1964, a mid-20th century boundary for the Anthropocene corresponds nicely with the level of technological development close to that attained by civilization at this time. We could, then, identify a Type I civilization with a civilization that produces an Anthropocene-like boundary on its homeworld (i.e., the equivalent of the Anthropocene for some other intelligent species but defined in an non-anthropocentric way).

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The Three Revolutions

12 November 2017

Sunday


Three Revolutions that Shaped the Modern World

The world as we know it today, civilization as we know it today (because, for us, civilization is the world, our world, the world we have constructed for ourselves), is the result of three revolutions. What was civilization like before these revolutions? Humanity began with the development of an agricultural or pastoral economy subsequently given ritual expression in a religious central project that defined independently emergent civilizations. Though widely scattered across the planet, these early agricultural civilizations had important features in common, with most of the pristine civilizations beginning to emerge shortly after the Holocene warming period of the current Quaternary glaciation.

Although independently originating, these early civilizations had much in common — arguably, each had more in common with the others emergent about the same time than they have in common with contemporary industrialized civilization. How, then, did this very different industrialized civilization emerge from its agricultural civilization precursors? This was the function of the three revolutions: to revolutionize the conceptual framework, the political framework, and the economic framework from its previous traditional form into a changed modern form.

The institutions bequeathed to us by our agricultural past (the era of exclusively biocentric civilization) were either utterly destroyed and replaced with de novo institutions, or traditional institutions were transformed beyond recognition to serve the needs of a changed human world. There are, of course, subtle survivals from the ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, and historians love to point out some of the quirky traditions we continue to follow, though they make no sense in a modern context. But this is peripheral to the bulk of contemporary civilization, which is organized by the institutions changed or created by the three revolutions.

Copernicus stands at the beginning of the scientific revolution, and he stands virtually alone.

The Scientific Revolution

The scientific revolution begins as the earliest of the three revolutions, in the early modern period, and more specifically with Copernicus in the sixteenth century. The work of Copernicus was elaborated and built upon by Kepler, Galileo, Huygens, and a growing number of scientists in western Europe, who began with physics, astronomy, and cosmology, but, in framing a scientific method applicable to the pursuit of knowledge in any field of inquiry, created an epistemic tool that would be universally applied.

The application of the scientific method had the de facto consequence of stigmatizing pre-modern knowledge as superstition, and the attitude emerged that it was necessary to extirpate the superstitions of the past in order to build anew on solid foundations of the new epistemic order of science. This was perceived as an attack on traditional institutions, especially traditional cultural and social institutions. It was this process of the clearing away of old knowledge, dismissed as irrational superstition, and replacing it with new scientific knowledge, that gave us the conflict between science and religion that still simmers in contemporary civilization.

The scientific revolution is ongoing, and continues to revolutionize our conceptual framework. For example, four hundred years into the scientific revolution, in the twentieth century, the Earth sciences were revolutionized by plate tectonics and geomorphology, while cosmology was revolutionized by general relativity and physics was revolutionized by quantum theory. The world we understood at the end of the twentieth century was a radically different place from the world we understood at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is due to the iterative character of the scientific method, which we can continue to apply not only to bodies of knowledge not yet transformed by the scientific method, but also to earlier bodies of scientific knowledge that, while revolutionary in their time, were not fully comprehensive in their conception and formulation. Einstein recognized this character of scientific thought when he wrote that, “There could be no fairer destiny for any physical theory than that it should point the way to a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.”

Democracy in its modern form dates from 1776 and is therefore a comparatively young historical institution.

The Political Revolutions

The political revolutions that began in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, beginning with the American Revolution in 1776, followed by the French Revolution in 1789, and then a series of revolutions across South America that displaced Spain and the Spanish Empire from the continent and the western hemisphere (in a kind of revolutionary contagion), ushered in an age of representative government and popular sovereignty that remains the dominant paradigm of political organization today. The consequences of these political revolutions have been raised to the status of a dogma, so that it no longer considered socially acceptable to propose forms of government not based upon representative institutions and popular sovereignty, however dismally or frequently these institutions disappoint.

We are all aware of the experiment with democracy in classical antiquity in Athens, and spread (sometimes by force) by the Delian League under Athenian leadership until the defeat of Athens by the Spartans and their allies. The ancient experiment with democracy ended with the Peloponnesian War, but there were quasi-democratic institutions throughout the history of western civilization that fell short of perfectly representative institutions, and which especially fell short of the ideal of popular sovereignty implemented as universal franchise. Aristotle, after the Peloponnesian War, had already converged on the idea of a mixed constitution (a constitution neither purely aristocratic nor purely democratic) and the Roman political system over time incorporated institutions of popular participation, such as the Tribune of the People (Tribunus plebis).

Medieval Europe, which Kenneth Clark once called a, “conveniently loose political organization,” frequently involved self-determination through the devolution of political institutions to local control, which meant that free cities might be run in an essentially democratic way, even if there were no elections in the contemporary sense. Also, medieval Europe dispensed with slavery, which had been nearly universal in the ancient world, and in so doing was responsible for one of the great moral revolutions of human civilization.

The political revolutions that broke over Europe and the Americas with such force starting in the late eighteenth century, then, had had the way prepared for them by literally thousands of years of western political philosophy, which frequently formulated social ideals long before there was any possibility of putting them into practice. Like the scientific revolution, the political revolutions had deep roots in history, so that we should rightly see them as the inflection points of processes long operating in history, but almost imperceptible in their earliest expression.

Early industrialization often had an incongruous if not surreal character, as in this painting of traditional houses silhouetted again the Madeley Wood Furnaces at Coalbrookdale.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution began in England with the invention of James Watt’s steam engine, which was, in turn, an improvement upon the Newcomen atmospheric engine, which in turn built upon a long history of an improving industrial technology and industrial infrastructure such as was recorded in Adam Smith’s famous example of a pin factory, and which might be traced back in time to the British Agricultural Revolution, if not before. The industrial revolution rapidly crossed the English channel and was as successful in transforming the continent as it had transformed England. The Germans especially understood that it was the scientific method as applied to industry that drove the industrial revolution forward, as it still does today. It is science rather than the steam engine that truly drove the industrial revolution.

As the scientific revolution drove epistemic reorganization and the political revolutions drove sociopolitical reorganization, the industrial revolution drove economic reorganization. Today, we are all living with the consequences of that reorganization, with more human beings than ever before (both in terms of absolute numbers and in terms of rates) living in cities, earning a living through employment (whether compensated by wages or salary is indifferent; the invariant today is that of being an employee), and organizing our personal time on the basis of clock times that have little to do with the sun and the moon, and schedules that have little or no relationship to the agricultural calendar.

The emergence of these institutions that facilitated the concentration of labor (what Marx would have called “industrial armies”) where it was most needed for economic development indirectly meant the dissolution of multi-generational households, the dissolution of the feeling of being rooted in a particular landscape, the dissolution of the feeling of belonging to a local community, and the dissolution of the way of life that was embodied in these local communities of multi-generational households, bound to the soil and the climate and the particular mix of cultivars that were dietary staples. As science dismissed traditional beliefs as superstition, the industrial revolution dismissed traditional ways of life as impractical and even as unhealthy. Le Courbusier, a great prophet of the industrial city, possessed of revolutionary zeal, forcefully rejected pre-modern technologies of living, asserting, “We must fight against the old-world house, which made a bad use of space. We must look upon the house as a machine for living in or as a tool.”

Revolutionary Permutations

Terrestrial civilization as we know it today is the product of these three revolutions, but must these three revolutions occur, and must they occur in this specific order, for any civilization whatever that would constitute a peer technological civilization with which we might hope to engage in communication? That is to say, if there are other civilizations in the universe (or even in a counterfactual alternative history for terrestrial civilization), would they have to arrive at radio telescopes and spacecraft by this same sequence of revolutions in the same order, or would some other sequence (or some other revolutions) be equally productive of technological civilizations?

This may well sound like a strange question, perhaps an arbitrary question, but this is the sort of question that formal historiography asks. In several posts I have started to outline a conception of formal historiography in which our interest is not only in what has happened on Earth, or what might yet happen on Earth, but what can happen with any civilization whatsoever, whether on Earth or elsewhere (cf. Big History and Scientific Historiography, History in an Extended Sense, Rational Reconstructions of Time, An Alternative Formulation of Rational Reconstructions of Time, and Placeholders for Null-Valued Time). While this conception is not formulated for the express purpose of investigating questions like the Fermi paradox, I hope that the reader can see how such an investigation bears upon the Fermi paradox, the Drake equation, and other “big picture” conceptions that force us to think not in terms of terrestrial civilization, but rather in terms of any civilization whatever.

From a purely formal conception of social institutions, it could be argued that something like these revolutions would have to take place in something like the terrestrial order. The epistemic reorganization of society made it possible to think scientifically about politics, and thus to examine traditional political institutions rationally in a spirit of inquiry characteristic of the Enlightenment. Even if these early forays into political science fall short of contemporary standards of rigor in political science, traditional ideas like the divine right of kings appeared transparently as little better than political superstitions and were dismissed as such. The social reorganization following from the rational examination the political institutions utterly transformed the context in which industrial innovations occurred. If the steam engine or the power loom had been introduced in a time of rigid feudal institutions, no one would have known what to do with them. Consumer goods were not a function of production or general prosperity (as today), but rather were controlled by sumptuary laws, much as the right to engage in certain forms of commerce was granted as a royal favor. These feudal political institutions would not likely have presided over an industrial revolution, but once these institutions were either reformed or eliminated, the seeds of the industrial revolution could take root.

In this interpretation, the epistemic reorganization of the scientific revolution, the social reorganization of the political revolutions, and the economic reorganization of the industrial revolution are all tightly-coupled both synchronically (in terms of the structure of society) and diachronically (in terms of the historical succession of this sequence of events). I am, however, suspicious of this argument because of its implicit anthropocentrism as well as its teleological character. Rather than seeking to justify or to confirm the world we know, framing the historical problem in this formal way gives us a method for seeking variations on the theme of civilization as we know it; alternative sequences could be the basis of thought experiments that would point to different kinds of civilization. Even if we don’t insist that this sequence of revolutions is necessary in order to develop a technological civilization, we can see how each development fed into subsequent developments, acting as a social equivalent of directional selection. If the sequence were different, presumably the directional selection would be different, and the development of civilization taken in a different direction.

I will not here attempt a detailed analysis of the permutations of sequences laid out in the graphic above, though the reader may wish to think through some of the implications of civilizations differently structured by different revolutions at different times in their respective development. For example, many science fiction stories imagine technological civilizations with feudal institutions, whether these feudal institutions are retained unchanged from a distant agricultural past, or whether they were restored after some kind of political revolution analogous to those of terrestrial history, so one could say that, prima facie, political revolution might be entirely left out, i.e., that political reorganization is dispensable in the development of technological civilization. I would not myself make this argument, but I can see that the argument can be made. Such arguments could be the basis of thought experiments that would present civilization-as-we-do-not-know-it, but which nevertheless inhabit the same parameter space of civilization-as-we-know-it.

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Monday


In my Centauri Dreams post Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? I noted that it has become a contemporary commonplace that the emergence of superintelligent artificial intelligence represents the greatest existential risk of our time and the near future. I do not share this view, but I understand why this view is common. Testimony to superintelligence as an existential risk is the book Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom, who has been instrumental both in the exposition of existential risks and in the exposition of superintelligence.

Bostrom prefaces his book on superintelligence with a fable, “The Unfinished Fable of the Sparrows.” In the fable, a flock of sparrows decides that they would benefit if they had an owl to help them. One member of the flock, Scronkfinkle, objects, saying, “Should we not give some thought to the art of owl-domestication and owl-taming first, before we bring such a creature into our midst?” The other sparrows disregard the warning, upon the premise that they will first obtain own owlet or an owl egg, and then concern themselves with the control of the owl. As the other sparrows leave to find an owl, the fable ends:

“Just two or three sparrows remained behind. Together they began to try to work out how owls might be tamed or domesticated. They soon realized that Pastus had been right: this was an exceedingly difficult challenge, especially in the absence of an actual owl to practice on. Nevertheless they pressed on as best they could, constantly fearing that the flock might return with an owl egg before a solution to the control problem had been found. It is not known how the story ends, but the author dedicates this book to Scronkfinkle and his followers.”

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford, 2016

Bostrom leaves the fable unfinished; I will provide one account of what happens next.

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The few sparrows who remained behind, despite their difficulties, settled on the plan that the best way to approach owl taming and domestication was by not allowing the owl to understand that he is an owl. They would raise any owl obtained by the sparrows to maturity as a sparrow, so that the owl would believe itself to be a sparrow, and so would naturally identify with the flock of sparrows, would desire use its greater strength to build better nests for the sparrows, would want to help with the care of both young and old sparrows, and would advise the sparrows even while protecting them from the cat. “This owl will be as sparrow-like as an owl can possibly be,” they asserted, and set about formulating a detailed plan to raise the owl as one of their own.

When the other sparrows returned with the enormous egg of a tawny owl, many times the size of a sparrow egg, the owl tamers were confident in their plan, and the returning sparrows with their owl egg rejoiced to know that the most advanced owl researchers had settled upon a plan that they were sure would work to the benefit of all sparrows. Several sparrows sat on the egg at the same time in order to evenly incubate the owl egg, and once the young owlet broke out of its shell, it immediately imprinted its sparrow mothers, who brought it seeds and small insects to eat. This was a challenge, as the large owlet ate much more than several sparrow chicks, and many sparrows had to be tasked in the feeding of their owlet.

The owlet grew, though it grew slowly, and certainly was not the most impressive specimen of a tawny owl, fed as it was an small seeds and small insects that were scarcely enough to satisfy its hunger. As the owlet grew, all the sparrows, overseen by the owl researchers, sought to teach the owl to be a good sparrow. Wanting to please his sparrow parents, the owlet tried to chirp cheerfully like a sparrow, to dust bathe with the other sparrows, and to hop around on the ground looking for seeds and insects to eat.

The plan appeared to exceed all expectations, and the owlet counted himself one of the flock of sparrows, never questioning his place among the sparrows, and already beginning to use this growing strength to aid his “fellow” sparrows. Until one day. The sparrows were together in a large flock looking for seeds when an enormous adult tawny owl suddenly descended upon them. The sparrows panicked and scattered, all of them flying off in different directions. Except for the owlet, for he, too, was a tawny owl, though he did not know it. He stood his ground as the great, magnificent tawny owl settled down, folded his feathers smoothly and seamlessly to his body, and looked quizzically at the little tawny owlet, who stood alone where moments before there had been hundreds of sparrows.

And what is this?” asked the large tawny owl, “An owl living with sparrows?” And then he gave a large, piercing hoot of the kind that tawny owls use as their call. The little owlet, a bit frightened but still standing his ground, replied with a subdued, “Chirp, chirp.” The large owl tilted his head to one side, perplexed with the little fellow, and also a bit put-out that one of his kind should behave in such a manner and be living with sparrows.

The large owl said to the little owlet, “I will show you your true nature,” so he picked up the owlet carefully but firmly in his powerful beak and flew the little owlet to a branch that hung low over a still pond. There he set the owlet down on the branch, and indicated for him to look down into the water. The still, smooth surface of the pond reflected the perfect likeness of the two tawny owls, one large, one small, so that as both looked down into the water they saw themselves, and for the first time the little owlet saw that he was an owl, and that he was not a sparrow. “You see now that you are like me,” said the large owl to the owlet, “Now be like me!”

Now,” said the large owl, “I will show you how an owl lives.” He took the owlet to his nest in the hollow of a tree as the sun was setting, and as the little owl flew behind the big owl he saw how beautiful the forest was in the low light of dusk. He perched at the edge of the hollow, and the large owl said, “Wait here,” then dived down into the growing darkness below. The little owlet realized that even in the dim light he could see the large owl swoop down and fly purposefully, but to some purpose the owlet did not yet understand.

Soon the large own returned, and he held in his claws a freshly killed bird, about the size of a sparrow (he had spared the owlet the agony of beginning with a sparrow). The little owlet felt sick to this stomach. He said to the big owl, “I’m hungry and I would like some seeds and insects please.” The large owl looked at him disdainfully. He held the dead bird down with one talon and ripped the body open with his beak. “This is owl food!” he said to the owlet as he gulped down a chunk of fresh meat. The big owl tears off another chunk of meat and says to the owlet, “Open your beak!” The little owlet shakes his head from side to side (finding that he can almost rotate his head all the way around when he does so) and tries to flatten himself against the wall of the tree behind him.

No, I want to eat seeds,” says the little owlet. The large owl will have none of it, and he forces the chunk of fresh meat down the maw of the little owl, who gags on the bloody feast (as all gag upon attempting to swallow an unwelcome truth) but eventually chokes it down. Gagging and frightened, the little owlet slowly begins to understand that he has now, for the first time in his life, encountered his true food, the food of owls, the only food that can nourish him and sustain him as an owl. For he has seen himself in the still water of the pond, and now knows himself to be an owl.

The little owlet attempts to hoot like a tawny owl, and though his first owl-utterance is a weak and sickly sort of hoot, it is the right kind of sound for an owl to make. The big owl looks down on him with growing satisfaction and says, “Today you are an owl. Now I will take you into the depths of the forest at night and we will hunt like owls and eat owl food.” While the little owl does not understand all that this means, he nods uncertainly and follows as the larger owl leaps into the darkness again.

What happens next in the Fable of the Sparrows has not been recorded, but one can conjecture that the owl researchers among the sparrows returned to their notes and their calculations, trying to understand where they had gone wrong, and attempting to form a new plan, now that their sparrow-like owl had been taken under the wing of a true owl.

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Readers familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell will immediately recognize that the myth I have here made use of is the Indian myth of the tiger and the goats from Campbell’s “The Occult in Myth and Literature” in The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987.

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Tuesday


In several posts I have argued that the structure of civilization consists of an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project, and that, moreover, the civilization extant today consists of an industrial economic infrastructure joined to a technical intellectual superstructure by the central project that we know as the Enlightenment project. Contemporary civilization as so defined dates back only to the 18th century, when the Enlightenment project emerged as a reaction to the carnage of the religious wars in Europe. The three pillars of modernity — the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and political revolutions — all burst the bounds of traditional feudal societies, and ever since the world has been trying to master the forces unleashed by these revolutions.

The American revolution was the first and the most successful of the political revolutions that swept aside traditionalism, feudalism, and aristocracy. (Sometimes I think of the American revolution as being, in this sense, like Augustus, who was the first of the Roman emperors, and arguably the best of the lot. After that, it was all downhill.) The unique confluence of circumstances that made the American revolution successful, both militarily and politically, included unlikely revolutionaries who were property owners, the pillars of colonial society, and also well-read, as Enlightenment gentlemen were expected to be.

There was nothing democratic about the mostly aristocratic founding fathers, other than their desire to found a new kind of political order drawing upon the best of ancient Greece (democracy) and the best of ancient Rome (republicanism). The founding of a new political order required a revolutionary war to separate the United States from the British Empire, but it also involved a profound intellectual challenge to conceptualize a new political order, and this challenge had already begun in Europe, where the Enlightenment originated.

The Enlightenment produced a large number of top-notch philosophers whom we still read today, and with profit: their insights have not yet been exhausted. Also, these Enlightenment philosophers were highly diverse. They disagreed sharply with one another, which is the western way. We disagree and we debate in order to analyze an idea, much as an alibi is dissected in a courtroom.

William Blake, who represents the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, wrote a poem criticizing Voltaire and Rousseau in the same breath:

MOCK on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Never mind that Voltaire and Rousseau quarreled and represented polar opposite ends of the Enlightenment. When Voltaire received a copy of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, he responded in a letter to Rousseau: “I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it.” But perhaps this was Blake’s intention to invoke opposite spirits of the Enlightenment, given his appreciation of antitheses as expressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — both Voltaire and Rousseau were to be condemned for their mockery of tradition.

If these quarreling Enlightenment thinkers were alive today, feuding bitterly with each other, the popular press would say that the Enlightenment was obviously burnt out and was now “tearing itself apart.” Soon, the pundits would presumably say, we could go back to the comforts of monarchy and a universal church as though nothing had happened, the whole episode of the Enlightenment having been something like the social equivalent of a bad dream.

Strangely enough, we find a view much like this on both the far left and the far right today. The far left, as represented by the philosophers of the Frankfurt school (the dread prophets of “cultural Marxism”), rejected the Enlightenment (cf. Theory from the ruins: The Frankfurt school argued that reason is dangerous, mass culture deadening, and the Enlightenment a disaster. Were they right? by Stuart Walton), just as neoreactionaries reject the Enlightenment by contrasting the 18th century Enlightenment with the “Dark Enlightenment,” the latter growing organically out of the counter-Enlightenment of J. G. Hamann, Joseph de Maistre, and others.

Like Blake’s dual condemnation of Voltaire and Rousseau, the dual condemnation of the Enlightenment by both left and right is a condemnation of two distinct faces of the Enlightenment. Partly this is a result of the ongoing debate over the proper scope and application of reason, but I think that the deeper issue is the failure of western civilization to overcome the chasm separating its twin ideals of freedom and equality, which are two faces of Enlightenment morality.

Naïvely we want these two ideals to be fully realized together within democratic institutions; when we grow out of our naïveté we usually see these ideals in conflict, and assume that any attempt to mediate between the two must ultimately take the form of a compromise in which we lose some freedom in exchange for equality or we lose some equality in exchange for freedom. But the nineteenth century, which produced the counter-Enlightenment, also produced Hegel, and Hegel would have pointed out that a dialectic, such as the dialectic between freedom and equality, will only be resolved when we transcend the antithesis by a synthesis that is more comprehensive than either ideal in isolation.

When we consider the absolutizing tendency of political rhetoric we would not be at all surprised to see Hegelian formulations like, “The absolute is freedom,” later to be countered by, “The absolute is equality.” Even if such things are not stated so explicitly, it is clear from the behavior of many who set themselves up as the arbiters of American values that they typically take the one or the other as an absolute ideal, and absolutization of one or the other prevents us from seeing the more comprehensive synthesis in which freedom and equality can not only coexist, but in which each can extend the other.

The problem of freedom and equality is the equivalent for social thought of the problem of general relativity and quantum theory for physics. Some are certain that the solution to their integration lies on one side or the other of the divide — there must be quantum gravity because all of physics is now formulated in quantum terms — but the truth is that, at our present stage of intellectual development, the solution eludes us because we have not yet achieved the intuitive breakthrough that will allow us to see the world as one and whole.

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Happy 4th of July!

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