Saturday


RobotNanny

In my previous post, Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment in the Transportation Sector, I discussed some of the changes that are likely to come to the transportation industry as a result of autonomous vehicles, which may come to be a textbook case of technological unemployment, though I argued in that post that the transition will take many decades, which will allow for some degree of reallocation of the workforce over time. Economic incentives to freight haulers will drive the use of autonomous vehicles, because of their relatively low costs and ability to operate non-stop, but many people today are employed as transportation workers, and these workers, though today in high demand, may find themselves with greatly changed employment opportunities by the end of the twenty-first century. A whole class of workers who today earn a living wage without the necessity of extensive training and education, stands to be eliminated.

Today I want to go a little deeper into the structural problem of technological unemployment. In my previous post, Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment in the Transportation Sector, I mentioned the recent cover story on The Economist, Coming to an office near you… The argument in an article in this issue in The Economist, “The Onrushing Wave,” is that automation allows for capital to substitute for labor. I don’t disagree with this entirely, but there is no mention in The Economist of regressive taxation or decades of policies that have redistributed income upward.

The same article in The Economist mentions the upcoming book The Second Machine Age by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson; the authors of this book recently had an article on the Financial Times’ Comment page, “Robots stay in the back seat in the new machine age” (Wednesday 22 January 2014). The authors try to remain upbeat while grappling with the realities of technological unemployment. One answer to “resigning ourselves to an era of mass unemployment” proposed by the authors is educational reform, but we know that education, too (like employment), is undergoing a crisis. The same socioeconomic system that is making it possible for capital to substitute for labor through automation is the same socioeconomic system that has been driving young people to spend ever-larger amounts of borrowed money on education, which has lined the pockets of the universities, transformed them into credentialing mills, and has driven employers to escalate their educational requirements for routine jobs that could just as well be filled by someone without a credential.

Both The Economist article and the Financial Times article cite Keynes, who in a particularly prescient passage in an essay of 1930 both foresaw and largely dismissed the problem of technological unemployment:

“We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come — namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour. But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day. There would be nothing surprising in this even in the light of our present knowledge. It would not be foolish to contemplate the possibility of a far greater progress still.”

John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion, “ECONOMIC POSSIBILITIES FOR OUR GRANDCHILDREN” (1930)

It is remarkable that Keynes would so plainly acknowledge technological unemployment as a “new disease” and then go on to dismiss is as “…a temporary phase of maladjustment.” It was Keynes, after all, who penned one of the most famous lines in all economic writing about how misleading it is to appeal to the long run while dismissing the temporary problem:

“But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”

John Maynard Keynes, Monetary Reform, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1924, p. 88

Economists would indeed set themselves too easy, too useless a task if they dismiss technological unemployment as a temporary phase of maladjustment. But, to be fair, economists are not social engineers. It is not for economists, in their role as economists, to make social policy, or even to make economic or monetary policy. This is a political task. It is the role of the economist to understand economic policy and monetary policy, and it is to be hoped that this understanding can be the basis of sound practical recommendations that can be presented to policy makers and the public.

It is well worth reading the whole of Keynes’ essay on the economic possibilities for our grandchildren, in which he suggests that human beings have evolved to struggle for subsistence, but that the growth of technology and capital are going to bring an end to this struggle for subsistence, thus marking a permanent change in the human condition (which Keynes calls, “solving the economic problem”). In short, Keynes was a classic techno-optimist, and he thought it would take about a hundred years (from 1930, so 2030) to get to the point at which humanity has definitively solved the economic problem. He does add the caveat that population control, the avoidance of war, and the employment of science will be necessary in addition to economic effort to solve humanity’s economic problem, and presumably, if we fail to heed Keynes’ caveats — as we certainly have since he wrote his essay — we will likely hamper our progress and delay the solution of the economic problem.

What I find remarkable in Keynes, and in the techno-optimists of our own time, is their ability to speak of the coming age of maximized abundance as though it were all but achieved, and to neglect the whole struggle and negotiation that will get us to that point. Keynes effectively consigned a century to being a temporary phase of maladjustment, and recognized that this temporary phase may stretch out over more than a century if matters don’t proceed smoothly. But for Keynes that isn’t the real problem. Keynes feels that, “the economic problem is not — if we look into the future — the permanent problem of the human race.” He then goes on to blandly state:

“…there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.”

In other words, what bothers Keynes is the troubling prospect of leisure for the working classes. To Keynes and the techno-optimists, I say there is nothing to worry you; that the millennium has not yet arrived, nor are we prepared for it to arrive, since the masses of the people will continue to struggle for subsistence for the foreseeable future. In the contemporary economy, we see no measures put into place that would indicate a shift toward institutions that would ease us into the paradise of maximized abundance promised by automation. There are, of course, the traditional workplace protections put into place throughout the industrialized world in the early part of the twentieth century, which include benefits for the unemployed, protections for those injured on the job, and a minimal stipend for the elderly, i.e., the worker after retirement. None of these traditional protections, however, begins to go far enough to support the unemployed worker for extended periods of time, or eases him into our out of his unemployed condition into sometime sustainable for the indefinite future.

If you lose your job at the age of 50 and have another 15 years to go until retirement (assuming a retirement age, and therefore eligibility for retirement benefits, at age 65), the benefits available to unemployed workers are not going to pay your mortgage for 15 years. And if you sell your house and move into an apartment, those benefits are not going to pay your rent. There are food banks and clothing banks for the destitute, so that in an industrialized nation-state you are not likely to go without some minimal amount of food and clothing. Perhaps, by hook or by crook, you find a way to maintain yourself for 15 years without becoming homeless and ending up as an invisible statistic, begging for change on a street corner. At that time you might get the minimal stipend provided for the elderly, and this might sustain you until you die. But what kind of life is the survival that I have described? It is simply another form of the struggle for subsistence, which Keynes’ thought would be eliminated by the solution of humanity’s economic problem.

While the unfortunate scenario I have outlined above consigns an individual to a relentlessly marginal life, others who have managed to find a more fortunate niche for themselves in the changing economy will have a house or two, a car or two, dinners at nice restaurants, a good education for their children, vacations, and all the things that money can buy in a market economy. The kind of problems that Keynes imagines in his essay, and which techno-optimists ever since have been (implicitly) imagining — that is to say, the problem of what individuals will do with all the time hanging heavy on their hands when they no longer have work to do — would be a kind of situation in which material goods become so cheap that they are simply given away to people. But are we going to give away the kind of good life that the fortunate enjoy?

All you have to do is to drive (or walk) through any large city in the world, and in a recession you will see block after block of empty store fronts, and if you read the classified advertisements you will find countless empty apartments waiting to be rented even as there are homeless people living on the street. We know that the owners of the empty store fronts could rent them out if they were willing to drop their asking price, but there is a limit below which landlords will not drop their price, and they would rather hold on to their properties, paying property taxes and maintenance expenses while their property remains idle, in hopes that a tenant will appear who is willing to meet their price. This situation could be met by government income redistribution, if money collected as taxes were spent to subsidize rentals, to give storefronts to small businesses or to rent empty apartments outright in which the homeless might live. But we already know what government programs like this are like. Individuals have to jump through hoops — in other words, they must be ready to humiliate themselves and to grovel before a functionary — in order to receive the “benefit.” Many people will not do this (I wouldn’t do this), and would thus opt out of well-intentioned programs that would make housing available to the homeless — with strings attached.

Suppose, however, you’re willing to grovel and you get your government apartment. What then? You will still be trapped in an extremely marginal position. You won’t be getting a penthouse suite with a view, you won’t be given a Ferrari to drive, you won’t be given an Armani suit, and you won’t be given an all-expense-paid trip to the south of France to sample the food and wine of the region. Who gets the penthouses and the Ferraris and the Armani suits and the vacations in the Dordogne? In other words, how do we allocate luxury goods in an economy of maximized abundance? Ideally, there would be no limits to consumer goods; that’s what “maximized abundance” means, but we all know that we are not going to be living in a world in which everyone has a Ferrari and an Armani suit.

How far can abundance be stretched? Are we to understand maximized abundance (or what Adam Smith called universal opulence) in terms of equal access to luxuries for everyone, or in terms of freezing social arrangements in a particular configuration so that each level of society receives its traditional share of goods? In other words, are we going to understand society as an egalitarian paradise or a feudal hierarchy? History has many examples of feudal hierarchies, and no examples of egalitarian paradises. Those societies explicitly constituted with the goal of becoming egalitarian paradises — i.e., large scale communist societies of the twentieth century — turned out to be even more stultifyingly hierarchical than feudalism.

There are some rather obvious answers to the rhetorical questions I have posed above, and none of them are particularly admirable. Luxury goods may go to those who are born into great wealth, or they may go to those who are particularly expert in some skill valued by society, or they may be reserved to reward government functionaries for loyal service. All of these arrangements have been realized in actual human societies of the past, and none of them constituted what Keynes called a solution to the economic problem for humanity.

Perhaps you think I am being trivial in my discussion of luxury goods, mentioning Ferraris and Armani suits, but I employ these as mere counters for the real luxuries that make life worth living. By these, I mean the experiences that we treasure and which are uniquely our own. The richness of a life is a function of the experiences that comprise the life in question. In market economies as they are administered today, if you have money, you can afford a wide variety of experiences. And if you are poor, your experiences are pretty much limited to staring at the four walls of your room, if you are lucky enough to avoid being homeless.

Believe me, I could easily elaborate a scenario that would stand with the best of the techno-optimists. I have observed elsewhere that, while seven billion human beings is a lot for the Earth, in the Milky Way it is virtually nothing. With the declining birth rates that characterize industrial-technological civilization, we will need every human being simply for the task of expanding our civilization into the Milky Way, leaving the machines to do the dead-end industrial jobs that once trapped human beings in unenviable circumstances.

There are endless interesting things yet to be done, and we will need every living human being freed from drudgery simply to begin the process of establishing a spacefaring civilization. This is a wonderful vision of considerable attraction to me personally. This is the world that I would like to see come about. The problem is, virtually nothing is being done to realize such a vision, or, for that matter, to realize any other techno-optimist vision. On the contrary, policies being implemented today seem formulated for the purpose of discouraging the kind of society that we need to begin building right now, today, if we are to defy the existential risks with which we are confronted as a species.

We could accurately speak of contemporary economic circumstances as “…a temporary phase of maladjustment…” if we were actively seeking to mitigate the maladjustment and to build an economy that would prepare us for the future. This is not being done. On the contrary, people who lose their jobs are viewed as failures or worse, and are condemned by economic reality to live a life of straightened circumstances. The struggle for subsistence continues, and is likely to continue indefinitely, because despite Keynes’ claim to the contrary, humanity has not yet solved its economic problem, although the economic problem is no longer a problem of production, but rather a problem of distribution and allocation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Saturday


past and future

In my last post, The Retrodiction Wall, I introduced several ideas that I think were novel, among them:

A retrodiction wall, complementary to the prediction wall, but in the past rather than the present

A period of effective history lying between the retrodiction wall in the past and the prediction wall in the future; beyond the retrodiction and prediction walls lies inaccessible history that is not a part of effective history

A distinction between diachronic and synchronic prediction walls, that is to say, a distinction between the prediction of succession and the prediction of interaction

A distinction between diachronic and synchronic retrodiction walls, that is to say, a distinction between the retrodiction of succession and the retrodiction of interaction

I also implicitly formulated a principle, though I didn’t give it any name, parallel to Einstein’s principle (also without a name) that mathematical certainty and applicability stand in inverse proportion to each other: historical predictability and historical relevance stand in inverse proportion to each other. When I can think of a good name for this I’ll return to this idea. For the moment, I want to focus on the prediction wall and the retrodiction wall as the boundaries of effective history.

The retrodiction wall in the past and the prediction wall in the future mask inaccessible portions of history from us.

The retrodiction wall in the past and the prediction wall in the future mask inaccessible portions of history from us.

In The Retrodiction Wall I made the assertion that, “Effective history is not fixed for all time, but expands and contracts as a function of our knowledge.” An increase in knowledge allows us to push the boundaries the prediction and retrodiction walls outward, as a diminution of knowledge means the contraction of prediction and retrodiction boundaries of effective history.

certainty risk uncertainty

We can go farther than this is we interpolate a more subtle and sophisticated conception of knowledge and prediction, and we can find this more subtle and sophisticated understand in the work of Frank Knight, which I previously cited in Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty. Knight made a tripartite distinction between prediction (or certainty), risk, and uncertainty. Here is the passage from Knight that I quoted in Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty:

1. A priori probability. Absolutely homogeneous classification of instances completely identical except for really indeterminate factors. This judgment of probability is on the same logical plane as the propositions of mathematics (which also may be viewed, and are viewed by the writer, as “ultimately” inductions from experience).

2. Statistical probability. Empirical evaluation of the frequency of association between predicates, not analyzable into varying combinations of equally probable alternatives. It must be emphasized that any high degree of confidence that the proportions found in the past will hold in the future is still based on an a priori judgment of indeterminateness. Two complications are to be kept separate: first, the impossibility of eliminating all factors not really indeterminate; and, second, the impossibility of enumerating the equally probable alternatives involved and determining their mode of combination so as to evaluate the probability by a priori calculation. The main distinguishing characteristic of this type is that it rests on an empirical classification of instances.

3. Estimates. The distinction here is that there is no valid basis of any kind for classifying instances. This form of probability is involved in the greatest logical difficulties of all, and no very satisfactory discussion of it can be given, but its distinction from the other types must be emphasized and some of its complicated relations indicated.

Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Chap. VII

This passage from Knight’s book (as the entire book) is concerned with applications to economics, but the kernel of Knight’s idea can be generalized beyond economics to generally represent different stages in the acquisition of knowledge: Knight’s a priori probability corresponds to certainty, or that which is so exhaustively known that it can be predicted with precision; Knight’s statistical probably corresponds with risk, or partial and incomplete knowledge, or that region of human knowledge where the known and unknown overlap; Knight’s estimates correspond to unknowns or uncertainty.

Frank Knight's tripartite distinction among certainty, risk, and uncertainty can be employed in a decomposition of the epistemic continuum into the knowable, the partially knowable, and the unknowable.

Frank Knight’s tripartite distinction among certainty, risk, and uncertainty can be employed in a decomposition of the epistemic continuum into the knowable, the partially knowable, and the unknowable.

Knight formulates his tripartite distinction between certainty, risk, and uncertainty exclusively in the context of prediction, and just as Knight’s results can be generalized beyond economics, so too Knight’s distinction can be generalized beyond prediction to also embrace retrodiction. In The Retrodiction Wall I generalized John Smart‘s exposition of a prediction wall in the future to include a retrodiction wall in the past, both of which together define the boundaries of effective history. These two generalizations can be brought together.

Effective history lies between the brick walls of prediction and retrodiction.

Effective history lies between the brick walls of prediction and retrodiction.

A prediction wall in the future or a retrodiction wall in the past are, as I noted, functions of knowledge. That means we can understand this “boundary” not merely as a threshold that is crossed, but also as an epistemic continuum that stretches from the completely unknown (the inaccessible past or future that lies utterly beyond the retrodiction or prediction wall) through an epistemic region of prediction risk or retrodiction risk (where predictions or retrodictions can be made, but are subject to at least as many uncertainties as certainties), to the completely known, in so far as anything can be completely known to human beings, and therefore well understood by us and readily predictable.

If we open up the prediction wall or the retrodiction wall and allow them to be thick, we can interpolate Knight's tripartite epistemic continuum into both the boundary of future knowledge and the boundary of past knowledge.

If we open up the prediction wall or the retrodiction wall and allow them to be thick, we can interpolate Knight’s tripartite epistemic continuum into both the boundary of future knowledge and the boundary of past knowledge.

Introducing and integrating distinctions between prediction and retrodiction walls, and among prediction, risk and uncertainty gives a much more sophisticated and therefore epistemically satisfying structure to our knowledge and how it is contextualized in the human condition. The fact that we find ourselves, in medias res, living in a world that we must struggle to understand, and that this understanding is an acquisition of knowledge that takes place in time, which is asymmetrical as regards the past and future, are important features of how we engage with the world.

This process of making our model of knowledge more realistic by incorporating distinctions and refinements is not yet finished (nor is it ever likely to be). For example, the unnamed principle alluded to above — that of the inverse relation between historical predictability and relevance, suggests that the prediction and retrodiction walls can be penetrated unevenly, and that our knowledge of the past and future is not consistent across space and time, but varies considerably. An inquiry that could demonstrate this in any systematic and schematic way would be more complicated than the above, so I will leave this for another day.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Retrodiction Wall

23 October 2013

Wednesday


scientific-method

Prediction in Science

One of the distinguishing features of science as a system of thought is that it makes testable predictions. The fact that scientific predictions are testable suggests a methodology of testing, and we call the scientific methodology of testing experiment. Hypothesis formation, prediction, experimentation, and resultant modification of the hypothesis (confirmation, disconfirmation, or revision) are all essential elements of the scientific method, which constitutes an escalating spiral of knowledge as the scientific method systematically exposes predictions to experiment and modifies its hypotheses in the light of experimental results, which leads in turn to new predictions.

The escalating spiral of knowledge that science cultivates naturally pushes that knowledge into the future. Sometimes scientific prediction is even formulated in reference to “new facts” or “temporal asymmetries” in order to emphasize that predictions refer to future events that have not yet occurred. In constructing an experiment, we create a few set of facts in the world, and then interpret these facts in the light of our hypothesis. It is this testing of hypotheses by experiment that establishes the concrete relationship of science to the world, and this is also a source of limitation, for experiments are typically designed in order to focus on a single variable and to that end an attempt is made to control for the other variables. (A system of thought that is not limited by the world is not science.)

Alfred North Whitehead captured this artificial feature of scientific experimentation in a clever line that points to the difference between scientific predictions and predictions of a more general character:

“…experiment is nothing else than a mode of cooking the facts for the sake of exemplifying the law. Unfortunately the facts of history, even those of private individual history, are on too large a scale. They surge forward beyond control.”

Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, New York: The Free Press, 1967, Chapter VI, “Foresight,” p. 88

There are limits to prediction, and not only those pointed out by Whitehead. The limits to prediction have been called the prediction wall. Beyond the prediction wall we cannot penetrate.

effective history

The Prediction Wall

John Smart has formulated the idea of a prediction wall in his essay, “Considering the Singularity,” as follows:

With increasing anxiety, many of our best thinkers have seen a looming “Prediction Wall” emerge in recent decades. There is a growing inability of human minds to credibly imagine our onrushing future, a future that must apparently include greater-than-human technological sophistication and intelligence. At the same time, we now admit to living in a present populated by growing numbers of interconnected technological systems that no one human being understands. We have awakened to find ourselves in a world of complex and yet amazingly stable technological systems, erected like vast beehives, systems tended to by large swarms of only partially aware human beings, each of which has only a very limited conceptualization of the new technological environment that we have constructed.

Business leaders face the prediction wall acutely in technologically dependent fields (and what enterprise isn’t technologically dependent these days?), where the ten-year business plans of the 1950’s have been replaced with ten-week (quarterly) plans of the 2000’s, and where planning beyond two years in some fields may often be unwise speculation. But perhaps most astonishingly, we are coming to realize that even our traditional seers, the authors of speculative fiction, have failed us in recent decades. In “Science Fiction Without the Future,” 2001, Judith Berman notes that the vast majority of current efforts in this genre have abandoned both foresighted technological critique and any realistic attempt to portray the hyper-accelerated technological world of fifty years hence. It’s as if many of our best minds are giving up and turning to nostalgia as they see the wall of their own conceptualizing limitations rising before them.

Considering the Singularity: A Coming World of Autonomous Intelligence (A.I.) © 2003 by John Smart (This article may be reproduced for noncommercial purposes if it is copied in its entirety, including this notice.)

I would to suggest that there are at least two prediction walls: synchronic and diachronic. The prediction wall formulated above by John Smart is a diachronic prediction wall: it is the onward-rushing pace of events, one following the other, that eventually defeats our ability to see any recognizable order or structure of the future. The kind of prediction wall to which Whitehead alludes is a synchronic prediction wall, in which it is the outward eddies of events in the complexity of the world’s interactions that make it impossible for us to give a complete account of the consequences of any one action. (Cf. Axes of Historiography)

wyoming dig

Retrodiction and the Historical Sciences

Science does not live by prediction alone. While some philosophers of science have questioned the scientificity of the historical sciences because they could not make testable (and therefore falsifiable) predictions about the future, it is now widely recognized that the historical sciences don’t make predictions, but they do make retrodictions. A retrodiction is a prediction about the past.

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy by Simon Blackburn (p. 330) defines retrodiction thusly:

retrodiction The hypothesis that some event happened in the past, as opposed to the prediction that an event will happen in the future. A successful retrodiction could confirm a theory as much as a successful prediction.

I previously wrote about retrodiction in historical sciences, Of What Use is Philosophy of History in Our Time?, The Puppet Always Wins, and Futurism without predictions.

As with predictions, there is also a limit to retrodiction, and this is the retrodiction wall. Beyond the retrodiction wall we cannot penetrate.

I haven’t been thinking about this idea for long enough to fully understand the ramifications of a retrodiction wall, so I’m not yet clear about whether we can distinction diachronic retrodiction and synchronic retrodiction. Or, rather, it would be better to say that the distinction can certainly be made, but that I cannot think of good contrasting examples of the two at the present time.

Albert Einstein Quote mathematics reality

Effective History

We can define a span of accessible history that extends from the retrodiction wall in the past to the prediction wall in the future as what I will call effective history (by analogy with effective computability). Effective history can be defined in a way that is closely parallel to effectively computable functions, because all of effective history can be “reached” from the present by means of finite, recursive historical methods of inquiry.

Effective history is not fixed for all time, but expands and contracts as a function of our knowledge. At present, the retrodiction wall is the Big Bang singularity. If anything preceded the Big Bang singularity we are unable to observe it, because the Big Bang itself effectively obliterates any observable signs of any events prior to itself. (Testable theories have been proposed that suggest the possibility of some observable remnant of events prior to the Big Bang, as in conformal cyclic cosmology, but this must at present be regarded as only an early attempt at such a theory.)

Prior to the advent of scientific historiography as we know it today, the retrodiction wall was fixed at the beginning of the historical period narrowly construed as written history, and at times the retrodiction wall has been quite close to the present. When history experiences one of its periodic dark ages that cuts it off from his historical past, little or nothing may be known of a past that once familiar to everyone in a given society.

The emergence of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization effectively obliterated human history before itself, in a manner parallel to the Big Bang. We know that there were caves that prehistorical peoples visited generation after generation for time out of mind, over tens of thousands of years — much longer than the entire history of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and yet all of this was forgotten as though it had never happened. This long period of prehistory was entirely lost to human memory, and was not recovered again until scientific historiography discovered it through scientific method and empirical evidence, and not through the preservation of human memory, from which prehistory had been eradicated. And this did not occur until after agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization had lapsed and entirely given way to industrial-technological civilization.

We cannot define the limits of the prediction wall as readily as we can define the limits of the retrodiction wall. Predicting the future in terms of overall history has been more problematic than retrodicting the past, and equally subject to ideological and eschatological distortion. The advent of modern science compartmentalized scientific predictions and made them accurate and dependable — but at the cost of largely severing them from overall history, i.e., human history and the events that shape our lives in meaningful ways. We can make predictions about the carbon cycle and plate tectonics, and we are working hard to be able to make accurate predictions about weather and climate, but, for the most part, our accurate predictions about the future dispositions of the continents do not shape our lives in the near- to mid-term future.

I have previously quoted a famous line from Einstein: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” We might paraphrase this Einstein line in regard to the relation of mathematics to the world, and say that as far as scientific laws of nature predict events, these events are irrelevant to human history, and in so far as predicted events are relevant to human beings, scientific laws of nature cannot predict them.

Singularity-magnify

Singularities Past and Future

As the term “singularity” is presently employed — as in the technological singularity — the recognition of a retrodiction wall in the past complementary to the prediction wall in the future provides a literal connection between the historiographical use of “singularity” and the use of the term “singularity” in cosmology and astrophysics.

Theorists of the singularity hypothesis place a “singularity” in the future which constitutes an absolute prediction wall beyond which history is so transformed that nothing beyond it is recognizable to us. This future singularity is not the singularity of astrophysics.

If we recognize the actual Big Bang singularity in the past as the retrodiction wall for cosmology — and hence, by extension, for Big History — then an actual singularity of astrophysics is also at the same time an historical singularity.

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I have continued my thoughts on the retrodiction wall in Addendum on the Retrodiction Wall.

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Saturday


The Developmental Conception of Civilization

classes of exrisk

Eleventh in a Series on Existential Risk


It is common to think about civilization in both developmental and non-developmental terms. As for the former, ever since Marx historians have identified a sequence of stages of economic development, and of course the idea of social evolution was central for Hegel before Marx gave it an economic interpretation. As for the latter, it is not unusual to hear clear distinctions being drawn between civilized and uncivilized life, very much in the spirit of tertium non datur: either a particular instance of social organization is civilized or it is not.

The developmental conception of civilization can be used to illuminate the idea of existential risk, as the classes of existential risk identified in Nick Bostrom’s “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority” readily lend themselves to a developmental interpretation. Here are the classes of existential risk from Bostrom’s paper (Table 1. Classes of existential risk):

● Human extinction Humanity goes extinct prematurely, i.e., before reaching technological maturity.

● Permanent stagnation Humanity survives but never reaches technological maturity.
Subclasses: unrecovered collapse, plateauing, recurrent collapse

● Flawed realisation Humanity reaches technological maturity but in a way that is dismally and irremediably flawed. Subclasses: unconsummated realisation, ephemeral realisation

● Subsequent ruination Humanity reaches technological maturity in a way that gives good future prospects, yet subsequent developments cause the permanent ruination of those prospects.

These classes of existential risk can readily be explicated in developmental terms:

● Human extinction The development of humanity ceases because humanity itself ceases to exist.

● Permanent Stagnation The development of humanity ceases, although humanity itself does not go extinct.

● Flawed Realization Humanity continues in its development, but this development goes horribly wrong and results in a human condition that is so far from being optimal that it might be considered a betrayal of human potential.

● Subsequent Ruination Humanity continues for a time in its development, but this development is brought to an untimely end before its potential is fulfilled.

In this context, what I have previously called existential viability, i.e., the successful mitigation of existential risk, can also be explicated in developmental terms:

● Existential viability Humanity is able to continue its arc of development to the point of the fulfillment of its technological maturity.

It would be possible (and no doubt also interesting), to delineate classes of existential viability parallel to classes of existential risk, and informed by the developmental possibilities consistent with the fulfillment of technological maturity or some other measurement of ongoing human development that does not terminate according to an existential risk scenario.

Bostrom originally expressed his conception of existential risk in terms of “earth-originating intelligence” — “An existential risk is one that threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development (Bostrom, 2002).” In more recent papers he has expressed existential risk in terms of “humanity” and “technological maturity” (as in the formulations quoted above), as in the following quote:

“The permanent destruction of humanity’s opportunity to attain technological maturity is a prima facie enormous loss, because the capabilities of a technologically mature civilisation could be used to produce outcomes that would plausibly be of great value, such as astronomical numbers of extremely long and fulfilling lives. More specifically, mature technology would enable a far more efficient use of basic natural resources (such as matter, energy, space, time, and negentropy) for the creation of value than is possible with less advanced technology. And mature technology would allow the harvesting (through space colonisation) of far more of these resources than is possible with technology whose reach is limited to Earth and its immediate neighbourhood.”

Nick Bostrom, “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority,” Global Policy, Volume 4, Issue 1, February 2013

For the moment, humanity and Earth-originating intelligence coincide, but this may not always be the case. A successor species to homo sapiens or conscious and intelligence machines could either take over the mantle of earth-originating intelligence or exist in parallel with humanity, so that there comes to be more than a single realization of earth-originating intelligence.

While Bostrom mentions civilization throughout his exposition, his crucial formulations are not in terms of civilization, though it would seem that Bostrom had the human species, homo sapiens, in mind when he formulated the class of human extinction, while the other classes of permanent stagnation, flawed realization, and subsequent ruination bear more closely on civilization, or at least on the social potential of homo sapiens, such as the accomplishments represented by intelligence and technology. It is a very different thing to talk about the extinction of a biological species and the extinction of a civilization, and it would probably be a good idea of explicitly distinguish risks facing biological species from risks facing social institutions, even though many of these risks will coincide.

For what classes of entities might we define classes of existential risk? Well, to start, we could define classes of existential risk for individuals in contradistinction to existential risks for social institutions comprised of many institutions, with civilization being the most comprehensive social institution yet devised by humanity.

I suspect that a developmental account of the individual is much less controversial than a developmental account of civilization (or, for that matter, of Earth-originating intelligent life), partly because the development of the individual is something that is personally familiar to all of us, and partly due to the efforts of psychologists and sociologists in laying out a detailed typology of individual developmental psychology. Attempts to lay out a detailed developmental typology of civilization runs into social and moral controversies, though I don’t see this as an essential objection.

In any case, here is an ontogenic formulation of the classes of existential risk:

● Personal extinction Individual development ceases because the individual himself ceases to exist. Death as an inevitable part of the human condition (at least for the time being) means that personal extinction is the personal existential risk that is visited upon each and every one of us.

● Personal Permanent Stagnation Individual development ceases, although the individual himself does not die (as of yet).

● Personal Flawed Realization The individual continues in his development, but this development goes horribly wrong and results in a life that is so far from being optimal that it might be considered a betrayal of the individual’s potential.

● Personal Subsequent Ruination The individual continues for a time in his development, but this development is brought to an end before the arc of personal development fulfills its potential.

Many of these cases of personal existential risks strike very close to home, as in imagining these situations one may well see all-too-clearly individuals that one knows personally, or one may even see oneself in one or more of these classes of personal existential risk. It is poignant and painful to confront permanent stagnation or flawed realization in one’s own life or in the lives of those one knows personally, however fascinating these conditions are for novelists and dramatists.

Just as we can imagine the classes of existential risk formulated specifically to illuminate the life of the individual, so too we can formulate phylogenic forms of the classes of existential risk:

● Civilizational extinction The development of human civilization ceases because human civilization itself ceases to exist. (But note here that the extinction of civilization may be consistent with the continued existence of humanity.)

● Civilizational Permanent Stagnation The development of human civilization ceases, although human civilization itself does not go extinct.

● Civilizational Flawed Realization Human civilization continues in its development, but this development goes horribly wrong and results in a civilization that is so far from being optimal that it might be considered a betrayal of the very idea of human civilization.

● Civilizational Subsequent Ruination Human civilization continues for a time in its development, but this development is brought to an end before the arc of the history of civilization can fulfill its potential.

Such large-scale formulations lack the poignancy of the personalized classes of existential risk, though they are more to the point of existential risk understood sensu stricto. Note that the civilizational formulations of the classes of existential risk are at least in one case consistent with the existential viability of humanity, and all classes of civilization existential risk are consistent with personal forms of existential viability — individuals within stagnant or flawed civilizations may continue to develop and to fulfill their full potential, although this potential is not expressed in a social form. Thus any individual human potential that is intrinsically social would be ruled out by civilizational failure, but I assume that human potential is not exhausted by exclusively social forms of fulfillment.

The poignancy of personal classes of existential risk may be useful precisely due to the visceral effect they have — not unlike the visceral nature of the overview effect and the potential of the overview effect in raising personal awareness of planetary finitude and vulnerability. Similarly, the finitude and vulnerability of humanity on the whole may be driven home to the individual by a personal illustration of existential risk.

There is a yawning chasm that separates the disasters all-too-easily rationalized away as not being worth the effort to pursue preparedness, and global catastrophic risks and existential risks that have as yet no existing preparedness efforts because they seem intractable and overwhelming merely to contemplate.

It is possible that just as we may begin with mundane forms of risk management — readily understood and readily implemented — move up to crisis management, then to global catastrophic risks and finally to existential risks, so too we may start with personal risks and move up to the most comprehensive forms of risk — and this emerging consciousness of more comprehensive forms of risk is itself a developmental process.

This macrocosm/microcosm approach to existential risk suggests a cross fertilization of ideas, such that personal methods for mitigating existential risks may suggest societal methods, and vice versa. However, we know that flawed individuals sometimes do great things, just as flawed societies can boast of great accomplishments. It may be necessary to distinguish between flaws that augment existential threats and flaws that diminish existential threats. If this is also true on a societal level, the consequences are decidedly interesting.

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classes of exrisk 2

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danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

7. An Alternative Formulation of Existential Risk

8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity

9. Conceptualization of Existential Risk

10. Existential Risk and Existential Viability

11. Existential Risk and the Developmental Conception of Civilization

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ex risk ahead

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signature

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Sunday


The Life of Civilization

Regions in viability space. Living, dead, viable, precarious and terminal regions of the viability space. The dead region or state lies at [A] = 0, above which the living region appears. Inside the living region three different sub-regions are distinguished: the viable region (light grey) where the system will remain alive if environmental conditions don’t change, the precarious region (medium grey) where the system is still alive but tends towards death unless environmental conditions change and the terminal region (dark grey) where the system will irreversibly fall into the dead region. See text body for detailed explanation. (Xabier E. Barandiaran and Matthew D. Egbert)

Regions in viability space. Living, dead, viable, precarious and terminal regions of the viability space. The dead region or state lies at [A] = 0, above which the living region appears. Inside the living region three different sub-regions are distinguished: the viable region (light grey) where the system will remain alive if environmental conditions don’t change, the precarious region (medium grey) where the system is still alive but tends towards death unless environmental conditions change and the terminal region (dark grey) where the system will irreversibly fall into the dead region. See text body for detailed explanation. (Xabier E. Barandiaran and Matthew D. Egbert)

Tenth in a Series on Existential Risk


What makes a civilization viable? What makes a species viable? What makes an individual viable? To put the question in its most general form, what makes a given existent viable?

These are the questions that we must ask in the pursuit of the mitigation of existential risk. The most general question — what makes an existent viable? — is the most abstract and theoretical question, and as soon as I posed this question to myself in these terms, I realized that I had attempted to answer this earlier, prior to the present series on existential risk.

In January 2009 I wrote, generalizing from a particular existential crisis in our political system:

“If we fail to do what is necessary to perpetuate the human species and thus precipitate the end of the world indirectly by failing to do what was necessary to prevent the event, and if some alien species should examine the remains of our ill-fated species and their archaeologists reconstruct our history, they will no doubt focus on the problem of when we turned the corner from viability to non-viability. That is to say, they would want to try to understand the moment, and hence possibly also the nature, of the suicide of our species. Perhaps we have already turned that corner and do not recognize the fact; indeed, it is likely impossible that we could recognize the fact from within our history that might be obvious to an observer outside our history.”

This poses the viability of civilization in stark terms, and I can now see in retrospect that I was feeling my way toward a conception of existential risk and its moral imperatives before I was fully conscious of doing so.

From the beginning of this blog I started writing about civilizations — why they rise, why they fall, and why some remain viable for longer than others. My first attempt to formulate the above stark dilemma facing civilization in the form of a principle, in Today’s Thought on Civilization, was as follows:

a civilization fails when it fails to change when the world changes

This formulation in terms of the failure of civilization immediately suggests a formulation in terms of the success (or viability) of a civilization, which I did not formulate at that time:

A civilization is viable when it successfully changes when the world changes.

I also stated in the same post cited above that the evolution of civilization has scarcely begun, which continues to be my point of view and informs my ongoing efforts to formulate a theory of civilization on the basis of humanity’s relatively short experience of civilized life.

In any case, in the initial formulation given above I have, like Toynbee, taken the civilization as the basic unit of historical study. I continued in this vein, writing a series of posts about civilization, The Phenomenon of Civilization, The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited, Revisiting Civilization Revisited, Historical Continuity and Discontinuity, Two Conceptions of Civilization, A Note on Quantitative Civilization, inter alia.

I moved beyond civilization-specific formulations of what I would come to call the principle of historical viability in a later post:

…the general principle enunciated above has clear implications for historical entities less comprehensive than civilizations. We can both achieve a greater generality for the principle, as well as to make it applicable to particular circumstances, by turning it into the following schema: “an x fails when it fails to change when the world changes” where the schematic letter “x” is a variable for which we can substitute different historical entities ceteris paribus (as the philosophers say). So we can say, “A city fails when it fails to change…” or “A union fails when it fails to change…” or (more to the point at present), “A political party fails when it fails to change when the world changes.”

And in Challenge and Response I elaborated on this further development of what it means to be historically viable:

…my above enunciated principle ought to be amended to read, “An x fails when it fails to change as the world changes” (instead of “…when the world changes”). In other words, the kind of change an historical entity must undergo in order to remain historically viable must be in consonance with the change occurring in the world. This is, obviously, or rather would be, a very difficult matter to nail down in quantitative terms. My schema remains highly abstract and general, and thus glides over any number of difficulties vis-à-vis the real world. But the point here is that it is not so much a matter of merely changing in parallel with the changing world, but changing how the world changes, changing in the way that the world changes.

It was also in this post that I first called this the principle of historical viability.

I now realize that what I then called historical viability might better be called existential viability — at least, by reformulating by principle of historical viability again and calling it the principle of existential viability, I can assimilate these ideas to my recent formulations of existential risk. Seeing historical viability through the lens of existential risk and existential viability allows us to formulate the following relationship between the latter two:

Existential viability is the condition that follows from the successful mitigation of existential risk.

Thus the achievement of existential risk mitigation is existential viability. So when we ask, “What makes an existent viable?” we can answer, “The successful mitigation of risks to that existent.” This gives us a formal framework for understanding existential viability as a successful mitigation of existential risk, but it tells us nothing about the material conditions that contribute to existential viability. Determining the material conditions of existential viability will be a matter both of empirical study and the formulation of a theoretical infrastructure adequate to the conditions that bear upon civilization. Neither of these exist yet, but we can make some rough observations about the material conditions of existential viability.

Different qualities in different places at different times have contributed to the viability of existents. This is one of the great lessons of natural selection: evolution is not about a ladder of progress, but about what organism is best adapted to the particular conditions of a particular area at a particular time. When the “organism” in question is civilization, the lesson of natural selection remains valid: civilizations do not describe a ladder of progress, but those civilizations that have survived have been those best adapted to the particular conditions of a particular region at a particular time. Existential risk mitigation is about making civilization part of evolution, i.e., part of the long term history of the universe.

To acknowledge the position of civilization in the long term history of the universe is to recognize that a change has come about in civilization as we know it, and this change is primarily the consequence of the advent of industrial-technological civilization: civilization is now global, populations across the planet, once isolated by geographical barriers, now communicate instantaneously and trade and travel nearly instantaneously. A global civilization means that civilization is no longer selected on the basis of local conditions at a particular place at a particular time — which was true of past civilizations. Civilization is now selected globally, and this means placing the earth that is the bearer of global civilization in a cosmological context of selection.

What selects a planet for the long term viability of the civilization that it bears? This is essentially a question of astrobiology, which is a point that I recently attempted to make in my recent presentation at the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress and my post on Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams, Existential Risk and Far Future Civilization.

An astrobiological context suggests what we might call an astroecological context, and I have many times pointed out the relevance of ecology to questions of civilization. Pursuing the idea of existential viability may offer a new perspective for the application methods developed for the study of the complex systems of ecology to the complex systems of civilization. And civilizations are complex systems if they are anything.

There is a growing branch of mathematical ecology called viability theory, with obvious application to the viability of the complex systems of civilization. We can immediately see this applicability and relevance in the following passage:

“Agent-based complex systems such as economics, ecosystems, or societies, consist of autonomous agents such as organisms, humans, companies, or institutions that pursue their own objectives and interact with each other an their environment (Grimm et al. 2005). Fundamental questions about such systems address their stability properties: How long will these systems exist? How much do their characteristic features vary over time? Are they sensitive to disturbances? If so, will they recover to their original state, and if so, why, from what set of states, and how fast?”

Viability and Resilience of Complex Systems: Concepts, Methods and Case Studies from Ecology and Society (Understanding Complex Systems), edited by Guillaume Deffuant and Nigel Gilbert, p. 3

Civilization itself is an agent-based complex system like, “economics, ecosystems, or societies.” Another innovative approach to complex systems and their viability is to be found in the work of Hartmut Bossel. Here is an extract from the Abstract of his paper “Assessing Viability and Sustainability: a Systems-based Approach for Deriving Comprehensive Indicator Sets”:

Performance assessment in holistic approaches such as integrated natural resource management has to deal with a complex set of interacting and self-organizing natural and human systems and agents, all pursuing their own “interests” while also contributing to the development of the total system. Performance indicators must therefore reflect the viability of essential component systems as well as their contributions to the viability and performance of other component systems and the total system under study. A systems-based derivation of a comprehensive set of performance indicators first requires the identification of essential component systems, their mutual (often hierarchical or reciprocal) relationships, and their contributions to the performance of other component systems and the total system. The second step consists of identifying the indicators that represent the viability states of the component systems and the contributions of these component systems to the performance of the total system. The search for performance indicators is guided by the realization that essential interests (orientations or orientors) of systems and actors are shaped by both their characteristic functions and the fundamental and general properties of their system environments (e.g., normal environmental state, scarcity of resources, variety, variability, change, other coexisting systems). To be viable, a system must devote an essential minimum amount of attention to satisfying the “basic orientors” that respond to the properties of its environment. This fact can be used to define comprehensive and system-specific sets of performance indicators that reflect all important concerns.

…and in more detail from the text of his paper…

Obtaining a conceptual understanding of the total system. We cannot hope to find indicators that represent the viability of systems and their component systems unless we have at least a crude, but essentially realistic, understanding of the total system and its essential component systems. This requires a conceptual understanding in the form of at least a good mental model.

Identifying representative indicators. We have to select a small number of representative indicators from a vast number of potential candidates in the system and its component systems. This means concentrating on the variables of those component systems that are essential to the viability and performance of the total system.

Assessing performance based on indicator states. We must find measures that express the viability and performance of component systems and the total system. This requires translating indicator information into appropriate viability and performance measures.

Developing a participative process. The previous three steps require a large number of choices that necessarily reflect the knowledge and values of those who make them. In holistic management, it is therefore essential to bring in a wide spectrum of knowledge, experience, mental models, and social and environmental concerns to ensure that a comprehensive indicator set and proper performance measures are found.

“Assessing Viability and Sustainability: a Systems-based Approach for Deriving Comprehensive Indicator Sets,” Hartmut Bossel, Ecology and Society, Vol. 5, No. 2, Art. 12, 2001

Another dimension can be added to this applicability and relevance by the work of Xabier E. Barandiaran and Matthew D. Egber on the role of norms in complex systems involving agents. Here is an extract from the abstract of their paper:

“One of the fundamental aspects that distinguishes acts from mere events is that actions are subject to a normative dimension that is absent from other types of interaction: natural agents behave according to intrinsic norms that determine their adaptive or maladaptive nature. We briefly review current and historical attempts to naturalize normativity from an organism-centred perspective that conceives of living systems as defining their own norms in a continuous process of self-maintenance of their individuality. We identify and propose solutions for two problems of contemporary modelling approaches to viability and normative behaviour in this tradition: 1) How to define the topology of the viability space beyond establishing normatively-rigid boundaries, so as to include a sense of gradation that permits reversible failure; and 2) How to relate, in models of natural agency, both the processes
that establish norms and those that result in norm-following behaviour.”

The author’s definition of a viability space in the same paper is of particular interest:

Viability space: the space defined by the relationship between: a) the set of essential variables representing the components, processes or relationships that determine the system’s organization and, b) the set of external parameters representing the environmental conditions that are necessary for the system’s self-maintenance

“Norm-establishing and norm-following in autonomous agency,” Xabier E. Barandiaran, IAS-Research Centre for Life, Mind, and Society, Dept. of Logic and Philosophy of Science, UPV/EHU University of the Basque Country, Spain, xabier.academic@barandiaran.net, and Matthew D. Egbert, Center for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics, University of Sussex, Brighton, U.K.

Clearly, an adequate account of the existential viability of civilization would want to address the “essential variables representing the components, processes or relationships that determine” the civilization’s structure, as well as the “external parameters representing the environmental conditions that are necessary” for the civilization’s self-maintenance.

In working through the conception of existential risk in the series of posts I have written here I have come to realize how comprehensive the idea of existential risk is, which gives it a particular utility in discussing the big picture and the human future. In so far as existential viability is the condition that results from the successful mitigation of existential risk, then the idea of existential viability is at least as comprehensive as that of existential risk.

In formulating this initial exposition of existential viability I have been struck by the conceptual synchronicities that have have emerged: recent work in viability theory suggests the possibility of the mathematical modeling of civilization; the work of Barandiaran and Egbert on viability space has shown me the relevance of artificial life and artificial intelligence research; the key role of the concept of viability in ecology makes recent ecological studies (such as Assessing Viability and Sustainability cited above) relevant to existential viability and therefore also to existential risk; formulations of ecological viability and sustainability, and the recognition that ecological systems are complex systems demonstrates the relevance of complexity theory; ecological relevance to existential concerns points to the possibility of employing what I have written earlier about metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality to existential risk and existential viability, which in turn demonstrates the relevance of Bronfenbrenner’s work to this intellectual milieu. I dare say that the idea of existential viability has itself a kind of viability and resilience due to its many connections to many distinct disciplines.

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danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

7. An Alternative Formulation of Existential Risk

8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity

9. Conceptualization of Existential Risk

10. Existential Risk and Existential Viability

. . . . .

ex risk ahead

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signature

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Saturday


Ninth in a Series on Existential Risk:

astronaut in space

How we understand what exactly is at risk.


In my last post in this series on existential risk, Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity, I wrote this:

How we understand existential risk, then, affects what we understand to be a risk and what we understand to be a reward.

It is possible to clarify this claim, or at least to lay out in greater detail the conceptualization of existential risk, and it is worthwhile to pursue such a clarification.

We cannot identify risk-taking behavior or risk averse behavior unless we can identify instances of risk. Any given individual is likely to identify risks differently than any other individual, and the greater the difference between any two given individuals, the greater the difference is likely to be in their identification of risks. Similarly, a given community or society will be likely to identify risks differently than any other given community or society, and the greater the differences between two given communities, the greater the difference is likely to be between the existential risks identified by the two communities.

This difference in the assessment of risk can at least in part be put to the role of knowledge in determining the distinction between prediction, risk, and uncertainty, as discussed in Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty and Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty: distinct individuals, communities, societies, and indeed civilizations are in possession not only of distinct knowledge, but also of distinct kinds of knowledge. The distinct epistemic profiles of different societies results in distinct understandings of existential risk.

Consider, for example, the kind of knowledge that is widespread in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization in contradistinction to industrial-technological civilization: in the former, many people know the intimate details of farming, but few are literate; in the latter, many are literate, but few know how to farm. The macro-historical division of civilization in which a given population is to be found profoundly shapes the epistemic profile of the individuals and communities that fall within a given macro-historical division.

Moreover, knowledge is integral with ideological, religious and philosophical ideas and assumptions that provide the foundation of knowledge within a given macro-historical division of civilization. The intellectual foundations of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization (something I explicitly discussed in Addendum on the Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Thesis) differ profoundly from the intellectual foundations of industrial-technological civilization.

Differences in knowledge and differences in the conditions of the possibility of knowledge among distinct individuals and civilizations mean that the boundaries between prediction, risk, and uncertainty are differently constructed. In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, the religious ideology that lies at the foundation of all knowledge gives certainty (and therefore predictability) to things not seen, while consigning all of this world to an unpredictable (therefore uncertain) vale of tears in which any community might find itself facing starvation as the result of a bad harvest. The naturalistic philosophical foundations of knowledge in industrial-technological civilization have stripped away all certainty in regard to things not seen, but by systematically expanding knowledge has greatly reduced uncertainty in this world and converted many certainties into risks and some risks into certain predictions.

Differences in knowledge can also partly explain differences in risk perception among individuals: the greater one’s knowledge, the more one faces calculable risks rather than uncertainties, and predictable consequences rather than risks. Moreover, the kind of knowledge one possesses will govern the kind of risk one perceives and the kind of predictions that one can make with a degree of confidence in the outcome.

While there is much that can be explained between differences in knowledge, and differences between kinds of knowledge (a literary scholar will be certain of different epistemic claims than a biologist), there is also much that cannot be explained by knowledge, and these differences in risk perception are the most fraught and problematic, because they are due to moral and ethical differences between individuals, between communities, and between civilizations.

One might well ask — Who would possibly object to preventing human extinction? There are many interesting moral questions hidden within this apparently obvious question. Can we agree on what constitutes human viability in the long term? Can we agree on what is human? Would some successor species to humanity count as human, and therefore an extension of human viability, or must human viability be attached to a particular idea of the homo sapiens genome frozen in time in its present form? And we must also keep in mind that many today view human actions as being so egregious that the world would be better off without us, and such persons, even if in the minority, might well affirm that human extinction would be a good thing.

Let us consider, for a moment, a couple of Nick Bostrom’s formulations of existential risk:

An existential risk is one that threatens the premature
extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development.

…and again…

…an existential risk is one that threatens to cause the extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic failure of that life to realise its potential for desirable development. In other words, an existential risk jeopardises the entire future of humankind.

Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority, Nick Bostrom, University of Oxford, Global Policy (2013) 4:1, 2013, University of Durham and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

What exactly would constitute the “drastic failure of that life to realise its potential for desirable development”? What exactly is permanent stagnation? Flawed realization? Subsequent ruination? What is human potential? Does it include transhumanism?

For some, the very idea of transhumanism is a moral horror, and a paradigm case of flawed realization. For others, transhumanism is a necessary condition of the full realization of human potential. Thus one might imagine an exciting human future of interstellar exploration and expanding knowledge of the world, and understand this to be an instance of permanent stagnation because human beings do not augment themselves and become something more or something different than we are today. And, honestly, such a scenario does involve an essentially stagnant conception of humanity. Another might imagine a future of continual human augmentation and experimentation, but more or less populated by beings — however advanced — who engage in essentially the same pursuits as those we pursue today, so that while the concept of humanity has not remained stagnant, the pursuits of humanity are essentially mired in permanent stagnation.

Similar considerations hold for civilization as hold for individuals: there are vastly different conceptions of what constitutes a viable civilization and of what constitutes the good for civilization. Future forms of civilization that depart too far from the Good may be characterized as instances of flawed realization, while future forms of civilization that don’t depart at all from contemporary civilization may be characterized as instances of permanent stagnation. The extinction of earth-originating intelligent life, or the subsequent ruination of our civilization, may seem more straight-forward, but what constitutes earth-originating intelligent life is vulnerable to the questions above about human successor species, and subsequent ruination may be judged by some to be preferable to the present trajectory of civilization continuing.

Sometimes these moral differences among peoples are exemplified in distinct civilizations. The kind of existential risks recognized within agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization are profoundly different from the kind of existential risks now being recognized by industrial-technological civilization. We can see earlier conceptions of existential risk as deviant, limited, or flawed as compared to those conceptions made possible by the role of science within our civilization, but we should also realize that, if we could revive representatives of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and give them a tour of our world today, they would certainly recognize features of our world of which we are most proud as instances of flawed realization (once we had explained to them what “flawed realization” means). For a further investigation of this idea I strongly recommend that the reader peruse Reinhart Koselleck’s Future’s Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time.

It would be well worth the effort to pursue possible quantitative measures of human extinction, permanent stagnation, flawed realization, and subsequent realization, but if we do so we must do so in the full knowledge that this is as much a moral and philosophical inquiry as it would be a scientific and theoretical inquiry; we cannot separate the desirability of future outcomes from the evaluative nature of our desires.

Like the sailors on the Pequod who each look into the gold doubloon nailed to the mast and see themselves and their personal concerns within, just so when we look into the mirror that is the future, we see our own hopes and fears, notwithstanding the fact that, when the future arrives, our concerns will be long washed away by the passage of time, replaced by the hopes and fears of future men and women (or the successors of men and women).

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danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

7. An Alternative Formulation of Existential Risk

8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity

9. Conceptualization of Existential Risk

. . . . .

ex risk ahead

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signature

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Tuesday


Earth and the moon in one frame as seen from the Galileo spacecraft 6.2 million kilometers away. (from Picture of Earth from Space by Fraser Cain)

Earth and the moon in one frame as seen from the Galileo spacecraft 6.2 million kilometers away. (from Picture of Earth from Space by Fraser Cain)

In my post Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty I cited Frank Knight’s distinction between risk and certainty and attempted to apply this to the idea of existential risk. I suggested that discussions of existential risk ought to distinguish between existential risk (sensu stricto) and existential uncertainty.

In Knight’s now-classic work Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Frank Knight actually made a threefold distinction in the kinds of probabilities that face the entrepreneur:

1. A priori probability. Absolutely homogeneous classification of instances completely identical except for really indeterminate factors. This judgment of probability is on the same logical plane as the propositions of mathematics (which also may be viewed, and are viewed by the writer, as “ultimately” inductions from experience).

2. Statistical probability. Empirical evaluation of the frequency of association between predicates, not analyzable into varying combinations of equally probable alternatives. It must be emphasized that any high degree of confidence that the proportions found in the past will hold in the future is still based on an a priori judgment of indeterminateness. Two complications are to be kept separate: first, the impossibility of eliminating all factors not really indeterminate; and, second, the impossibility of enumerating the equally probable alternatives involved and determining their mode of combination so as to evaluate the probability by a priori calculation. The main distinguishing characteristic of this type is that it rests on an empirical classification of instances.

3. Estimates. The distinction here is that there is no valid basis of any kind for classifying instances. This form of probability is involved in the greatest logical difficulties of all, and no very satisfactory discussion of it can be given, but its distinction from the other types must be emphasized and some of its complicated relations indicated.

Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Chap. VII

At the end of the chapter Knight finally made his point fully explicit:

It is this third type of probability or uncertainty which has been neglected in economic theory, and which we propose to put in its rightful place. As we have repeatedly pointed out, an uncertainty which can by any method be reduced to an objective, quantitatively determinate probability, can be reduced to complete certainty by grouping cases. The business world has evolved several organization devices for effectuating this consolidation, with the result that when the technique of business organization is fairly developed, measurable uncertainties do not introduce into business any uncertainty whatever. Later in our study we shall glance hurriedly at some of these organization expedients, which are the only economic effect of uncertainty in the probability sense; but the present and more important task is to follow out the consequences of that higher form of uncertainty not susceptible to measurement and hence to elimination. It is this true uncertainty which by preventing the theoretically perfect outworking of the tendencies of competition gives the characteristic form of “enterprise” to economic organization as a whole and accounts for the peculiar income of the entrepreneur.

Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Chap. VII

Knight’s distinction between risk and uncertainty — between probabilities that can be calculated, managed, and insured against and probabilities that cannot be calculated and therefore cannot be managed or insured against — continues to be taught in business and economics today. (It is a distinction closely parallel to Rumsfeld’s distinction between known unknowns and unknown unknowns, though worked out in considerably greater detail and sophistication.) Knight’s slightly more subtle threefold distinction among probabilities might be characterized as a tripartite distinction between certainty, risk, and uncertainty.

Knight acknowledges, in his account of statistical probability, i.e., risk, that there are at least two complications:

1. that of eliminating all truly indeterminate features, and…

2. the impossibility of enumerating the equally probable alternatives involved

Knight’s hedged account of risk obliquely acknowledges the gray area that lies between risk and uncertainty — a gray area that can be enlarged in favor of risk as our knowledge improves, or which can be enlarged in favor of uncertainty as additional complicating favors enter into our calculation of risk and render our knowledge less effective and our uncertainty all the greater. That is to say, the line between risk and uncertainty is unclear, and it can move, which makes it doubly ambiguous.

certainty risk uncertainty

These hedges are important qualifications to make, because we all know from real-life experience that additional complicating factors always enter into actual risks. We may try to insure ourselves, and therefore to secure our interests against risk, but fine print in the insurance contract may deny us a settlement, or we may have forgotten to pay our premiums, or a thousand other things might go wrong between our careful planning and the actual events of life that so often preempt our planning and force us to deal with the unexpected with insufficient preparation. As Bobby Burns put it, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!”

field_mouse small

Such consideration span the entire universe from field mice to galaxies. A coldly rational assessment of risk can be made, and resources can be expended to mitigate risk to the extent calculated, but not only are the limits to our knowledge, but we don’t know where the limits to our knowledge lie. Indeterminate features can creep into our calculation and equally probable alternatives could be in play without our even being aware of the fact.

Some events that pose existential risks or global catastrophic risks can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy, and some cannot. Even about those risks that seem predictable to a high degree of accuracy — say, the life of the sun, which can be predicted on the basis of our knowledge of cosmology, and which thereby would seem to give us some knowledge of how long a time we have on earth to lay our schemes — admit of indeterminate elements and equally probably scenarios. The end of the earth seems a long way off, if the earth lasts almost as long as the sun, and putting our existential risk far in the future seems to diminish the threat.

There is a famous quote from Frank Ramsey (who died tragically young in a mountain climbing accident, as might happen to anyone, anytime) that is relevant here, both economically and philosophically:

My picture of the world is drawn in perspective and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as three-penny bits. I don’t really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long time off still and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing.

From a paper read to the Apostles, a Cambridge discussion society (1925). In ‘The Foundations of Mathematics’ (1925), collected in Frank Plumpton Ramsey and D. H. Mellor (ed.), Philosophical Papers (1990), Epilogue, 249

Despite Ramsey having referred (in another context) to the “Bolshevik menace” of Brouwer and Weyl, it has been said that Ramsey became a constructivist not long before he died. This conversion should not surprise us, given Ramsey’s Protagorean profession in his passage.

Protagoras famously said that Man is the measure of all things, of those things that are, that they are, and of those things that are not, that they are not. (πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἐστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν.) Protagoras may be counted as the earliest of proto-constructivists, of which company Kant and Poincaré may be considered the most famous.

In the passage quoted above, Ramsey is essentially saying in a modern idiom that man is the measure of all things, even of time and space — that man is the measure of the farthest reaches of time and space, and in so far as these distant prospects of human experience are inaccessible, they are irrelevant. Ramsey is important in his respect because of his consciously chosen anthropocentrism. In a post-Copernican age, this is significant. We are all, of course, familiar with the advocates of the anthropic cosmological principle, and their implicit anthropocentrism, but Ramsey gives us a slightly different perspective on anthropocentrism. Ramsey essentially brings constructivism to our moral life, and in so doing suggests that the moral imperatives posed by existential risk can be safely ignored for the time being.

What Ramsey is saying here is that we can make a definite calculation of the lives of the stars — and also the expected life of our sun — and that we can insure against this risk, but that the risk lies so far in the future that its present value is practically nil. In other words, the eventual burning out of the sun is a risk and not an uncertainty. On the contrary, it is not an uncertainty at all, but a certainty. Just as the finite amount of oil on Earth must eventually come to an end, the finite sun must also come to an end.

What our growing knowledge of cosmology is teaching us is that we are not isolated from the wider universe. Events on a cosmic scale have influenced the development of life on earth, and may well be responsible for our development as a species. If the earth had not been hit by an asteroid or comet about 65 million years ago, mammals may never have developed as they did, and we would not exist. And if our solar system did not bob up and down through the galactic plane of the Milky Way, resulting in geophysical rhythms from the the gravitational interaction with the rest of the galaxy, a distant asteroid of comet might not have been dislodged from its stable orbit and sent careening toward earth.

Given our connection with the wider universe, and our vulnerability to its convulsions, what we know about our local risks (which is not nearly enough, as recent unpredicted episodes have shown us) is not enough to make a calculation of our vulnerability. What appears superficially to be a calculable risk has uncertainty injected back into it by the cosmological context in which all astronomical events take place.

If the death of the sun were the only existential risk against which we needed to insure ourselves, we would not need to be in any hurry about existential risk mitigation, because we would have literally millions of years to build a spacefaring civilization and thus to insure ourselves against that predictable catastrophe. But in our violent universe (as Nigel Calder called it) scarcely a million years goes by without some cosmic catastrophe occurring, and we don’t know when then next one will arrive.

Carl Sagan rightly pointed out that an event that is unlikely to happen in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred millions years:

The Earth is a lovely and more or less placid place. Things change, but slowly. We can lead a full life and never personally encounter a natural disaster more violent than a storm. And so we become complacent, relaxed, unconcerned. But in the history of Nature, the record is clear. Worlds have been devastated. Even we humans have achieved the dubious technical distinction of being able to make our own disasters, both intentional and inadvertent. On the landscapes of other planets where the records of the past have been preserved, there is abundant evidence of major catastrophes. It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter IV, “Heaven and Hell”

Perhaps in one of his most quoted lines, Sagan said that we are “star stuff,” and certainly this is true. However, the corollary of this inspiring thought is that our star stuff is subject to the natural forces that shape the destinies of stars, and in shaping the destiny of stars, shape the destiny of men who live on planets orbiting stars.

Understanding ourselves as “star stuff” entails understanding ourselves as living in a dangerous universe replete with devouring black holes, gamma ray bursts, supernovae, and other cataclysms almost beyond the capacity of human beings to conceive.

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Monday


catastrophism or uniformitarianism

In my last post, The Problem with Diachronic Extrapolation, I attempted to show how diachronic extrapolation, while the most familiar form of futurism, is often misleading because it fails to adequately account for synchronic interactions as a diachronic strategic trend develops. In other posts concerned with unintended consequences I have emphasized that, in the long term, unintended consequences often outweigh intended consequences. Unintended consequences are the result of synchronic interactions that were not foreseen, that were no part of diachronic agency, and those cases in which unintended consequences swamp intended consequences the synchronic interactions have proved more decisive in shaping the future than diachronic causality.

In my post on The Problem with Diachronic Extrapolation I made several assertions that clearly imply the limitation of inferences from the present to the future, which also implies the limitation of inferences from the present to the past. This brings up issues that go far beyond futurism.

In that post I wrote:

“…diachrony over significant periods of time cannot be pursued in isolation, since any diachronic extrapolation will interact with changed conditions over time, and this interaction will eventually come to constitute the consequences as must as the original trend diachronically extrapolated.”

…and…

“…the most frequent form of failed futurism is to take a trend in the present and to project it into the future, but any futurism worthy of the name must understand events in both their synchronic and diachronic context; isolation from succession in time is just as invidious as isolation from interaction across time…”

The reader may have noticed the resemblance of this species of failed futurism to uniformitarianism: instead of taking a strategic trend acting at present and extrapolating it into the future, uniformitarianism takes a physical force acting in the present and extrapolates it into the future (or, as is more likely the case in geology, into the past). This idea of uniformitarianism is usually expressed as, “the present is key to the past,” and we might similarly express the parallel form of futurism as being, “the present is key to the future.” These two claims — the present is the key to the past and the present is the key to the future — are logically equivalent since, as I pointed out previously, every present is the future of some past, and the past of some future.

Since these interpretations of uniformitarianism involve uniformity across past and future, these formulations closely resemble formulations of induction also stated in terms of past and future, as when the logical problem of induction is formulated, “Will the future be like the past?” It is at this point that the philosophy of time, the philosophy of history, the philosophy of science, and futurism all coincide, because it concerns a problem that all have in common.

Stephen Jay Gould noticed this similarity of uniformitarianism and induction in his first published paper, “Is uniformitarianism necessary?” Gould, of course, become famous for his critique of uniformitarianism, and for this alternative to it, punctuated equilibrium (for which he shares the credit with Niles Eldredge). In this early paper by Gould, Gould distinguished between substantive uniformitarianism and methodological uniformitarianism. He tried to show that the former is simply false, and the the latter, methodological uniformitarianism, is now subsumed under the scientificity of geology and paleontology. Here is now Gould put it:

“…we see that methodological uniformitarianism amounts to an affirmation of induction and simplicity. But since these principles belong to the modern definition of empirical science in general, uniformitarianism is subsumed in the simple statement: ‘geology is a science’. By specifically invoking methodological uniformitarianism, we do little more than affirm that induction is procedurally valid in geology.”

Stephen Jay Gould, “Is uniformitarianism necessary?” American Journal of Science, Vol. 263, March 1965, p. 227

That is to say, the earth sciences use the scientific method, which Gould characterizes in terms of inductive logic and the principle of parsimony (I would argue that Gould is also assuming methodological naturalism) — therefore everything that is worth saving in uniformitarianism is already secured by the scientific status of geology, and therefore uniformitarianism is dispensable. Having once served an important function in science, uniformitarianism has now, Gould contends, become an obstacle to progress.

As I noted above, Gould didn’t merely assert that uniformitarianism was no longer necessary, but devoted his career to arguing for an alternative, punctuated equilibrium, which asserts that long period of stasis are interrupted by catastrophic discontinuities. While much has been written about uniformitarianism vs. punctuated equilibrium, I see this as the thin end of the wedge for considering all kinds of alternatives to strict uniformitarianism, and to his end I think we would do well to explore all possible patterns of development, whether uniform (slow, gradual, incremental), punctuated (sudden, catastrophic, discontinuous), or otherwise.

Of course, we could easily produce more sophisticated formulations of uniformitarianism that would avoid the subsequent problems that have been raised, but this is the path that leads to Ptolemaic epicycles and attempts to “save the appearances,” whereas what we want is a rich mixture of theoretical innovation from which we can try many different models and select for further development those that are most true to the world.

Since the philosophy of time, the philosophy of history, the philosophy of science, and futurism all coincide at the point represented by the problem of the relationship of parts of time to other parts of time (and the idea of temporal parts is itself philosophical contested), all of these disciplines stand to learn something of value from exploring alternatives to uniformitarianism. In so far as futurism is dominated by nomothetic diachrony, and constitutes a kind of historical uniformitarianism, very different forms of futurism might emerge from a careful study of the alternatives to uniformitarianism, or merely from a recognition that, as Gould put, uniformitarianism is no longer necessary and something of an anachronism. If there is anything of which futurists ought to beware, being an anachronism must be close to the top of the list.

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Saturday


Synchronic interaction is like the ripples of rain drops in a pond, which collide with other ripples and create new patterns.

Synchronic interaction is like the ripples of rain drops in a pond, which collide with other ripples and create new patterns.

In Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization and Axes of Historiography I discussed the differences between synchronic and diachronic approaches to historiographical analysis (and in much greater detail in Ecological Temporality and the Axes of Historiography). The synchronic/diachronic distinction can also be useful in futurism, and in fact we can readily distinguish between what I will call synchronic extrapolation and diachronic extrapolation.

Synchronic interaction is as familiar as a conversation, which rarely follows a straight line.

Synchronic interaction is as familiar as a conversation, which rarely follows a straight line.

If we understand synchrony as, “the present construed broadly enough to admit of short term historical interaction” (as I formulated it in Axes of Historiography), then synchronic extrapolation is the extrapolation of a broadly construed present across its interactions. This may not sound very enlightening, but you’ll understand immediately what I mean when I relate it to chaos and complexity. Recent interest in chaos theory and what is known as the “butterfly effect” has led some to think in terms of synchronic extrapolation since the idea of the is of a small event the interactions of which cascade to produce significant consequences.

An exponential growth curve is one form of diachronic extrapolation.

An exponential growth curve is one form of diachronic extrapolation.

As a form of futurism, synchronic extrapolation is not familiar (probably because it doesn’t take us very far forward into the future), but we need to keep it in mind in order to contrast it with diachronic extrapolation. Diachronic extrapolation is one of the most familiar forms of futurism today, especially as embodied in Ray Kurzweil’s love of exponential growth curves, which are usually diachronic extrapolations. One of the reasons that I remain so skeptical about the claims of Kurzweil and other singulatarians (even though I have learned a lot about them recently and have a less negative picture overall than initially) is the heavy reliance on diachronic extrapolation in their futurism. I frequently cite specific examples of failed exponential growth curves or technologies (like chemical rockets) that seem to be stuck in a technological rut (what I have called a stalled technology), experiencing little or no development (and certainly not exponential development), and I do this because readers usually find specific, particular examples persuasive.

The straight line of causality of falling dominoes constitutes another model of diachronic extrapolation.

The straight line of causality of falling dominoes constitutes another model of diachronic extrapolation.

I have discovered over the course of many conversations that most people tune out extended theoretical expositions, and only sort of wake up and pay attention when you give a concrete example. So I do this, to the best of my ability. But really, the dispute with diachronic extrapolation (and particular schools of futurist thought that employ diachronic extrapolation to the exclusion of other methods, such as the singulatarians) is theoretical, and all the examples in the world aren’t going to get to the nub of the problem, which must be given the theoretical exposition that it deserves. And the nub of the problem is simply that diachrony over significant periods of time cannot be pursued in isolation, since any diachronic extrapolation will interact with changed conditions over time, and this interaction will eventually come to constitute the consequences as must as the original trend diachronically extrapolated.

The interplay of synchronic interaction and diachronic succession is like a chain reaction.

The interplay of synchronic interaction and diachronic succession is like a chain reaction.

Diachronic extrapolation may be derailed by historical singularities, but it is far more frequent that nothing so discontinuous as a singularity need happen in order for a straight-forward extrapolation of present trends fail to be be realized. I specifically single out diachronic extrapolation in isolation, because the most frequent form of failed futurism is to take a trend in the present and to project it into the future, but any futurism worthy of the name must understand events in both their synchronic and diachronic context; isolation from succession in time is just as invidious as isolation from interaction across time. This simultaneous synchrony and diachrony resembles a chain reaction of ever-growing consequences from the initial point of departure.

In my two immediately previous posts — Addendum on Automation and the Human Future and Bertrand Russell as Futurist — I dealt obliquely with the problems of diachronic extrapolation. Predicting technogenic unemployment on the basis of contemporary automation, or predicting a bifurcation between annihilation or world government, is a paradigm case of diachronic extrapolation that fails to sufficiently take into account future interactions that will become as important or more important than the diachronically extrapolated trend.

This was the point that I was trying to make in Addendum on Automation and the Human Future when I wrote:

I am willing to admit without hesitation that, 250 years from now, we may well have realized a near-automated economy, and that this automation of the economy will have truly profound and far-reaching socioeconomic consequences. However, the original problem then becomes a different problem, because so many other things, unanticipated and unprecedented things, have changed in the intervening years that the problem of labor and employment is likely to look completely different at this future date.

In other words, a diachronic extrapolation of current employment trends — technogenic unemployment, new jobs created by new industries, and perennial problems of unemployment and underemployment — is helpful in so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough in capturing the different world that the future will be.

Similar concerns hold for Russell’s failed futurism that I reviewed in Bertrand Russell as Futurist: Russell took several trends operating at present — war, nuclear weapons, anarchic competition among nation-states — and extrapolated them into the future as though nothing else would happen in history except these closely related group of strategically significant trends.

In my post on Russell’s futurism I cited his essay “The Future of Man”, but Russell made the same point innumerable. times. In his first essay on the atomic bomb, “The Bomb and Civilization,” he wrote:

Either war or civilization must end, and if it is to be war that ends, there must be an international authority with the sole power to make the new bombs. All supplies of uranium must be placed under the control of the international authority, which shall have the right to safeguard the ore by armed forces. As soon as such an authority has been created, all existing atomic bombs, and all plants for their manufacture, must be handed over. And of course the international authority must have sufficient armed forces to protect whatever has been handed over to it. If this system were once established, the international authority would be irresistible, and wars would cease. At worst, there might be occasional brief revolts that would be easily quelled.

And in his book-length study of the same question, Has Man a Future? Russell made the same point again:

“So long as armed forces are under the command of single nations, or groups of nations, not strong enough to have unquestioned control over the whole world — so long it is almost certain that sooner or later there will be war, and, so long as scientific technique persists, war will grow more and more deadly.”

Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962, p. 69

We have seen that armed forces continue to be under the command of individual nation-states, and in fact they continue to go to war with each other. Moreover, scientific technique has markedly improved, and while the construction of weapons of mass destruction remains today a topic of considerable political comment, the availability of improved weapons of mass destruction did not automatically or inevitably lead to global nuclear war and human extinction.

In the same book Russell went on to say:

“…it seems indubitable that scientific man cannot long survive unless all the major weapons of war, and all the means of mass destruction, are in the hands of a single authority, which, in consequence of its monopoly, would have irresistible power and, if challenged to war, could wipe out any rebellion within a few days without much damage except to the rebels.”

Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962, p. 70

In writing these comments, we can now see in hindsight that one of the major strategic trends of the second half of the twentieth century that Russell missed was the rise in the efficacy of asymmetrical resistance to irresistible power. Russell does not seem to have recognized that authorities in possession of de facto irresistible power might choose not to annihilate a weaker power because of global opinion and the hit that such an actor would take to its soft power if it simply wiped out a rebellion. Moreover, the wide distribution of automatic weapons — not weapons of mass destruction — proved to be a disruptive force in global political affairs by providing just enough friction to the military operations of great powers that rebellions could not be wiped out within a few days.

The rise of twentieth century guerrilla resistance and rebellion was an important development in global affairs, and a development not acknowledged until it was already a fait accompli, but I don’t think that it constituted an historical singularity — as it is part of a devolution of warfare rather than a breakthrough to a new order of magnitude of war (which seems to have been what Russell feared would come about).

It has been said (by L. P. Hartley, a contemporary of Russell) that the past is a foreign country. This is true. It is also true that the future is a foreign country. (Logically, these two claims are identical; every present is the future to some past.) We ought to make no pretense to false familiarity with the future, since they do things differently there.

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Thursday


Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Arthur William Russell (b.1872 – d.1970)

In 1948, shortly after the end of the Second World War and the first use of atomic weapons, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled, “The Future of Man”, apparently published in The Atlantic in 1951 (and subsequently collected in Russell’s Unpopular Essays). Russell opened his essay with a sweeping prediction:

Before the end of the present century, unless something quite unforeseeable occurs, one of three possibilities will have been realized. These three are: —

1. The end of human life, perhaps of all life on our planet.

2. A reversion to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of the population of the globe.

3. A unification of the world under a single government, possessing a monopoly of all the major weapons of war.

I do not pretend to know which of these will happen, or even which is the most likely. What I do contend is that the kind of system to which we have been accustomed cannot possibly continue.

Russell numbered three possibilities for the future, but there is a fourth, which we can call the zeroeth possibility: something quite unforeseeable. Russell left himself an out, but even with the out, I will argue, he got it wrong.

In any case, here are Russell’s four possibilities, which closely correspond to several categories of futurism hotly debated at the present time:

● 0th scenario: unforeseeable developments — this is Russell’s singularity, i.e., the occurrence of an event so discontinuous with previous history that it results in a “prediction wall” that prevents us from seeing or understanding subsequent historical developments.

● 1st scenario: human extinction — following the use of nuclear weapons to end the Second World War, Russell (like Jaspers and other contemporaneous philosophers) was fully aware of anthropogenic existential risks, of which human extinction from nuclear war is a paradigm case, so this is one of Russell’s qualitative risk categories.

● 2nd scenario: global catastrophic failure — Russell identified a two-fold global catastrophic event — drastic diminution of the human population followed by a return to barbarism — which obviously followed from his concern that the next war would be so catastrophic as to end civilization (this is a scenario that also worried Einstein, who famously said that, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but world War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”). Whether we consider this a global catastrophic risk, or a form of subsequent ruination, this is another of Russell’s qualitative risk categories.

● 3rd scenario: world government — again like Einstein, Russell was an advocate for world government, and thought it likely the only means by which we could escape our own destruction. In the immediate post-war period, when the US had a nuclear monopoly, Russell actually advocated that the US should use its nuclear monopoly to assert global hegemony and enforce a world government. Later, Russell was to become much more well known for protesting against nuclear weapons, being sharply critical of the Cold War, and writing telegrams to both Khrushchev and Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It seems to me beyond dispute that human life has not come to an end (Russell’s 1st scenario), that human society has not reverted to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of population (Russell’s 2nd scenario), the world has not been unified under a single government (Russell’s 3rd scenario), and nothing quite unforeseen has happened (Russell’s 0th scenario). It is important to spell this out, being entirely explicit about it, because it is easy to imagine that any or all four of these possibilities might be disputed.

Of the strictly quantifiable predictions, any disputant would really have to tie themselves in knots in order to maintain the human beings have gone extinct or that there has been a catastrophic diminution of population. Only the philosophically desperate would attempt to argue that human life, as we knew it in 1951, has ended forever, or that the seven billion souls alive today somehow do not represent a much larger human population than in 1948. However, I must pause to say this, because there clearly are philosophically desperate disputants who are willing to make claims precisely of this character. But having explicitly acknowledged these strategies of desperation, I will henceforth dismiss them and consider them no further, except in so far as the bear upon the other scenarios.

It could be argued, and it has been argued, that the result of the resolution of the Cold War (which did occur before the end of the century in which Russell was writing) was the installation of US global hegemony as a de facto world government. It has also been argued by conspiracy theorists that there is in fact a world government operating behind the scenes, but not in any public and explicit fashion. It might also be argued that the UN and its associated international agencies (like the International Criminal Court) constitute a nascent world government that will someday coalesce into something more robust and capable of exercising authority. Sometimes these latter theses — government by conspiracy and the UN as world government — are merged together into a single claim.

Even if any or all of these claims are true, none of them have accomplished what was central to Russell’s concern for the future: the abolition of war. Near the end of the same essay Russell wrote:

Owing to the increased productivity of labor, it has become possible to devote a larger percentage of the population to war. If atomic energy were to make production easier, the only effect, as things are, would be to make wars worse, since fewer people would be needed for producing necessaries. Unless we can cope with the problem of abolishing war, there is no reason whatever to rejoice in laborsaving technique, but quite the reverse. On the other hand, if the danger of war were removed, scientific technique could at last be used to promote human happiness. There is no longer any technical reason for the persistence of poverty, even in such densely populated countries as India and China. If war no longer occupied men’s thoughts and energies, we could, within a generation, put an end to all serious poverty throughout the world.

The conspiracy theorists argue that war is part of the plan of subduing the global population, but this isn’t at all the kind of world government that Russell had in mind. When Russell and Einstein wrote about world government in the middle part of the twentieth century, they implicitly had in mind the Weberian conception of sovereignty, i.e., a legal monopoly on violence. Both Russell and Einstein wanted to see a single military power that would beneficently impose its unilateral will upon the world so that we would not see the perpetuation of armed conflict between nation-states.

This did not happen, nor did anything like it happen. On the contrary, the second half of the twentieth century demonstrated the possibility of a state of near-permanent armed conflict as definitive of the world order. In order for this to happen, something did come about, which I have called the devolution of warfare — that is to say, parties to conflicts throughout the world realized that nuclear war could lead to global catastrophic risks, so everyone decided to continue to make war, but to do so without atomic weapons. This way human beings could indulge to the full their love of war and violence without making themselves extinct (and thereby ending the fun for everyone).

This brings us to Russell’s 0th scenario: has the devolution of warfare constituted something quite unforeseeable? Not in my judgment. The devolution of warfare is a negative historical development, involving the suppression or limitation of human agency and capabilities previously demonstrated. The limitation of a demonstrated human capability represents a retrograde development, and I don’t think retrograde developments of this kind rise to the level of constituting a singularity in history.

If anything, the development and use of nuclear weapons constituted an historical singularity, therefore creating a “prediction wall,” so that the deliberate tradition of non-use represents a step back from an historical singularity and a return to predictability. Indeed, what some scholars have called “the return of history” might also be called “the return of predictability” in the sense of being a return to the predictable behavior of nation-states in anarchic competition employing conventional weapons.

It could be argued that what Russell did not see was that at precisely the time he was writing his essay a world order of sorts was being forged, in the post-war agreements on economics at Bretton-Woods and on political matters at Yalta — and, as importantly, if not more importantly, how these explicitly formulated agreements were worked out in practice, sometimes through open warfare, and usually through superpower competition, as in the Berlin Airlift. This de facto world order essentially held throughout the period that Russell considered in his essay — the second half of the twentieth century. Since the actually working out of these agreements in practice was as essential as the agreements themselves, we cannot blame Russell for a lack of prescience in not recognizing in Bretton-Woods and Yalta the foundations of the post-war world. And I don’t think that anything in that war-torn whilst stable post-war world could be said to have fulfilled any of Russell’s predictions.

Now that the post-war world that Russell failed to recognize as it was taking shape has finally become unraveled, we find ourselves once again contemplating the future with great uncertainty, and asking ourselves about the possibilities of radical historical discontinuity (i.e., a singularity), global catastrophic risks, existential risks, and world governance. Dante similarly found himself asking questions of this sort just at the very earliest moment when the scholastic synthesis of the medieval world was beginning to unravel — not only did Dante consider eschatological scenarios that would have constituted a singularity, global catastrophic risks, and existential risks, but also considered world government in his De Monarchia. But Dante was a great poet, and great poets are sensitive souls, and are likely to hear the rumbling on the horizon even when the rest of us are blissfully unaware.

Perhaps whenever the world finds itself at a point of historical transition, grand narratives of transition are contemplated — but in the final analysis (the Hegelian analysis, in which the owl of Minerva takes flight only with the setting of the sun) we usually end up muddling through in the best human tradition, rarely realizing any grand narrative.

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