Sunday


Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot being held by Russia.

Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot until recently incarcerated in Russia.

The Defiance of Nadiya Savchenko

I don’t believe that I have ever seen a more complete or perfect expression of defiance than that on the face of Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot who was until quite recently imprisoned in Russia (and who was elected to the Ukrainian parliament during her imprisonment). This display of defiance is an appropriate opportunity to consider the nature of defiance as an emotion (specifically, a moral emotion) and its place within human life.

It is a natural human response to feel angry when confronted with obvious injustice. When that injustice is not merely observed, but involves ourselves personally, there is also a personal element to the anger. When an individual is angry for an injustice done to themselves, and is not yet defeated, but possesses the strength and the energy to persevere despite on ongoing injustice, that is defiance.

I am sure everyone reading this has had this experience to some degree; this is a universal that characterizes the human condition. This kind of defiance is a staple of classic literature; for example, we know defiance as the spirit of the protagonist of Jane Eyre:

“When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should — so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again… I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved.”

The young friend of Jane Eyre, Helen Burns, replies:

“Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine, but Christians and civilised nations disown it.”

When published Jane Eyre was considered something of a scandal, and Matthew Arnold (of “Sweetness and Light” fame) said of the novel, “…the writer’s mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion and rage and therefore that is all she can, in fact, put in her book.” Another Victorian critic wrote, “…the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.” (Elizabeth Rigby, The London Quarterly Review, No. CLXVII, December, 1848, pp. 82-99) Today we recognize ourselves in the protagonist without hesitation, for what comes naturally to the unbroken spirit of Jane Eyre comes naturally to all of us; it resonates with the human condition (except, perhaps, for the condition of Victorian literary critics). There is much more that could be said in regard to Victorian attitudes to defiance, especially among children, but I will save this for an addendum.

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Defiance as a Moral Emotion

Our conventional idea of an emotion as something that we passively experience — emotions were traditionally called passions because they are affects that we suffer, and not actions that we take — is utterly inadequate to account for an emotion like defiance, which is as much action as passion. At least part of the active nature of defiance is its integration with our moral life, which latter is about active engagements with the world. For this reason I would call defiance a moral emotion, and I will develop the idea of moral emotion in the context of emotive naturalism (see below).

Moral emotions are complex, and it scarcely does them justice to call them emotions. The spectrum of emotion ranges from primarily visceral feelings with little or no cognitive content, and indistinguishable from bodily states, to subtle states of mind with little or no visceral feelings associated with them. Some of our emotions are simple and remain simple, but many states of human consciousness that we carelessly write off as emotions are in fact extremely sophisticated human responses that involve the entire person. Robert C. Solomon’s lectures Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions do an excellent job of drawing out the complexities of how our emotional responses are tied up in a range of purely intellectual concerns on the one hand, and on the other hand almost purely visceral feelings.

Solomon discusses anger, fear, love, compassion, pride, shame, envy, jealousy, resentment, and grief, though he does not explicitly take up defiance. In several posts I have discussed fear (The Philosophy of Fear and Fear of Death), hope (The Structure of Hope and Very Short Treatise on Hope, Perfection, Utopia, and Progress), pride (Metaphysical Pride), modesty (Metaphysical Modesty), and ressentiment (Freedom and Ressentiment), though it could in no sense be said that I have done justice to any of these. The more complex moral emotions are all the more difficult to do justice to; specifically moral emotions such as defiance present a special problem for theoretical analysis.

The positivists of the early twentieth century propounded a moral theory that is known as the emotive theory of ethics, which explicitly sought a reduction of morality to emotion. This kind of reductionism is not as popular with philosophers today, and for good reason. While we would not want to reduce morality to emotion (as the positivists argued), nor to reduce emotions to corporeal sensations (a position sometimes identified with William James), in order to make sense of our emotional and moral lives it may be instructive to briefly consider the origins of emotion and morality in the natural history of human beings. This natural historical approach will help us to account for the relevant evidence without insisting upon reductionism.

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Emotive Naturalism

What emotions are natural for a human being to feel? What thoughts are natural for a human being to think? What moral obligations is it natural for a person to recognize? All of these are questions that we can reasonably ask about human beings, since we know that human beings feel, think, and behave in accordance with acknowledged obligations. I wrote above that it is natural for one to feel anger over injustice. If you, dear reader, have never experienced this, I would be surprised. No doubt there are individuals who do not, and who never have, experienced anger as a result of injustice, but this is not the typical human response. But the typical “human” response is descended with modification from the typical responses of our ancestors, extending into the past long before modern human beings evolved.

I have elsewhere quoted Darwin on the origins of morality, and I think the idea contained in the following passage cannot be too strongly emphasized:

“The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable — namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts… the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, CHAPTER III, “COMPARISON OF THE MENTAL POWERS OF MAN AND THE LOWER ANIMALS”

I would go further than Darwin. I would say that animals with intellectual powers less developed than those of humanity might acquire a moral sense, and that we see such a rudimentary moral sense in most social animals, which are forced by the circumstances of lives lived collectively to adopt some kind of pattern of behavior that makes it possible for group cohesion to continue.

There are many species of social animals that live in large groups that necessitate rules of social interaction. Indeed, we even know from paleontological evidence that some species of flying dinosaurs lived in crowded rookeries (there is fossil evidence for this at Loma del Pterodaustro in Argentina), so that we can derive the necessity of some form of social interaction among residents of the rookery. Many of these social animals have very little in the way of intellectual powers, such as in the case of social insects, but there are also many mammal species, all part of the same adaptive radiation of mammals that followed the extinction of the dinosaurs and of which we are a part, and constituting the sentience-rich biosphere that we have today. Social mammals add to the necessity of social rules for group interactions an overlay of emotive responses. Already in groups of social mammals, then, we begin to see a complex context of social interaction and emotional responses that cannot be isolated one from the other. With the emergence human intellectual capacity, another overlay makes this complex context of social interaction more tightly integrated and more subtle than in prior social species.

I call these deep evolutionary origins of human emotional responses to the world emotive naturalism, but I could just as well call it moral naturalism — or indeed, intellectual naturalism, because by the time human beings emerge in history emotions, morality, and cognition are all bound up in each other, and to isolate any one of these would be to falsify human experience.

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Being and Emotion

While the philosophy of emotion is usually discussed in terms of philosophy of mind or philosophical psychology, I usually view philosophical problems through the lens of metaphysics, and the active nature of defiance as a moral emotion gives us an especially interesting case for examining the nature of our emotional and moral being-in-the-world. This accords well with what Robert Solomon argued in the lectures cited above, which characterize emotions as engagements with the world. What is it to be engaged with the world?

My framework for thinking about metaphysics is a definition of being that goes back all the way to Plato, which I discussed in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being (and which I further elaborated in Agents and Sufferants). Plato held that being is the power to affect or to be affected, i.e., to act or to be acted upon. From this starting point we can extrapolate four forms be being, such that non-being is to neither act nor be acted upon, the fullness of being is to both act and be acted upon, while narrower forms of being involve acting only without being acted upon, or being acted upon only without acting. One may think of these four permutations of Plato’s definition of being as four modalities of engagement with the world.

An interesting example of metaphysical engagement with the world in terms of a moral emotion radically distinct from defiance is to be found with our engagements with the world mediated by love. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in Sermon 50 of his Sermons on the Song of Songs wrote, “Love can be a matter of doing or of feeling.” In other words, love can be active or passive, acting or being acted upon. St. Bernard goes on to give several illuminating examples that develop this theme.

How does the moral emotion of defiance specifically fit into this framework of engagements with the world? We typically employ the term “defiance” when an individual’s circumstances severely constrain their ability to respond, as was the case with Nadiya Savchenko, who was incarcerated and who therefore was prevented from the ordinary freedom of action enjoyed by those of us who are not incarcerated. Nevertheless, she was able to remain defiant even while in prison, and under such circumstances the emotion itself becomes a response. (The reader who is familiar with Sartre’s thought will immediately recognize the connection with Sartre’s theory of emotion; cf. The Emotions: Outline of a Theory) This may sound like a paltry form of “action,” but if it contributes to the differential survival of the individual, defiance has a selective advantage, as it almost certainly must. Defiant individuals have not given up, and they continue to fight despite constrained circumstances.

Nadiya Savchenko has now been freed from incarceration in Russia.

Nadiya Savchenko has now been freed from incarceration in Russia.

The Social Context of Defiance

The survival value of belief in one’s existential choices, which I discussed in Confirmation Bias and Evolutionary Psychology, is exemplified by defiance. Defiance, then, has the ultimate evolutionary sanction: it is a form of confirmation bias — belief in oneself, and in one’s own efficacy — that contributes to the individual’s differential survival. As such, defiance as a moral emotion is selected for and is likely disproportionately represented in human nature because of the selective advantage it possesses. As a feature of human nature, we must reckon with defiance as a socially significant emotion, i.e., an emotion that shapes not only individuals, but also societies.

While we do not often explicitly talk about the role of defiance in human motivation, I believe it is one of the primary springs to action in the human character. Looking back over a lifetime of conversations occurring in the ordinary business of life (for I am an old man now and I can speak in this idiom), I am struck by how often individuals express their displeasure at pressures being brought to bear upon them, and they usually respond by pushing back. This “pushing back” is defiance. Typically, the other side then pushes back in turn. This is the origin of tit-for-tat strategies. Individuals push back when pressured, as do social wholes and political entities. Those that push back most successfully, i.e., the most defiant among them, are those that are most likely to have descendants and to pass their defiance on to the next generation of individuals or social wholes.

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Mere Humanity

22 May 2016

Sunday


From 'How the cheetah got its SPEED: Genes mutated to boost muscle strength making the big cat the fastest mammal on land' by Sarah Griffiths

From ‘How the cheetah got its speed: Genes mutated to boost muscle strength making the big cat the fastest mammal on land’ by Sarah Griffiths

Some time ago in Humanity as One I considered the unity of the human species, and, perhaps as significantly, how we discovered that unity. Beyond the woolly thinking and feel-good platitudes that tend to swamp any discussion of human unity, we know now from the genetic evidence contained within each and every human being that humanity constitutes a single species. But while it has become a stubborn problem in the philosophy of biology of how exactly to define species, the real message of the Darwinian conception of species is that of species anti-realism (for lack of a better term). Nature is continuous, and dividing up the natural world into biological taxa — species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom — is a convenience of human knowledge but ought not to be conceived as a Platonic form in biology, i.e., a template imposed upon nature, and not nature itself. So it is with the human species: we are a convenience of taxonomy, not a natural kind.

Given species anti-realism, it should surprise no one that all species are not alike; it may be a mistake to seek a single definition for what constitutes a species, though it is a habit of the Platonic frame of mind to settle on an essentialist definition. In biology specifically, for example, there is a long-standing tension between taxonomies based on some structural criterion or criteria (as in the Linnaean system) and taxonomies based on descent (evolutionary biology since Darwin). Marc Ereshefsky in his book The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy advocates completely abandoning the Linnaean taxonomy and offers as an alternative “species pluralism,” asking whether, “Given the theoretical and pragmatic problems facing the Linnaean system, should biologists continue using that system?” With our contemporary naturalistic conception of human beings as one biological species among others, any change in our conception of species becomes a change in our conception of ourselves as a biological species. Might we define the human species in several different but equally valid ways?

In saying that humanity constitutes a single species we could express this comparatively in relation to other species. Because all species are not alike, a given species might, for example, represent more or less genetic diversity. (If we defined species by their genetic diversity, we would have a rather different taxonomy than that which we currently employ.) Geneticists discuss diversity in terms of nucleotide distance and heterozygosity; I will consider the latter as a measure for human genetic diversity. For example, human genetic diversity is lower than C. brenneri, a “bacteria-eating, 1-millimeter-long worm” (cf. The most genetically diverse animal; C. brenneri has been called “hyperdiverse” with a heterozygosity of around 40%, cf. Molecular hyperdiversity defines populations of the nematode Caenorhabditis brenneri), and higher than the San Nicolas population of island foxes off the coast of California (cf. Foxes on one of California’s Channel Islands have least genetic variation of all wild animals and Genomic Flatlining in the Endangered Island Fox). As I have sometimes cited the cheetah as a mammal population with very low genetic diversity (cf. Multiregional Cognitive Modernity), it is interesting to read that, the San Nicolas island fox, “has nearly an order of magnitude less genetic variation than any other low-diversity species, including the severely endangered African cheetah, Mountain gorilla, and Tasmanian devil.” (cf. Foxes on one of California’s Channel Islands have least genetic variation of all wild animals).

The San Nicolas population of island foxes off the coast of California has perhaps the lowest genetic diversity of any mammal.

The San Nicolas population of island foxes off the coast of California has perhaps the lowest genetic diversity of any mammal.

Now, I will admit that the first comparison with a little-known worm is not very enlightening, as we human beings, being part of the explosive adaptive radiation of mammals after the extinction of the dinosaurs, better understand comparisons with other mammals (cf. A Sentience-Rich Biosphere), and so a better comparison would be the mammal with the greatest genetic diversity. For a non-specialist like myself it is difficult to extract the relevant numbers from the context of scientific papers, but there seem to be mammal populations with significantly higher genetic diversity than human beings, just as there are mammal populations with significantly lower genetic diversity than human beings (on human genetic diversity generally cf. Human heterozygosity: A new estimate). The striped-mouse, Rhabdomys pumilio, has a heterozygosity (in some populations) of 7.3 %, significantly higher than the mammalian mean (there is an established mean heterozygosity for mammals of about 3.6 %, or H = 0.036; cf. Genetic variation in Rhabdomys pumilio (Sparrman 1784) — an allozyme study). The house mouse Mus musculus has populations with a genetic diversity of 8.9 % (H = 0.089). The extremely endangered Rhinoceros unicornis has a heterozygosity of nearly 10%, which may be the highest of any vertebrate (cf. Molecular Markers, Natural History and Evolution by J. C. Avise, p. 366).

indian-rhino

It would be an oversimplification to rely exclusively on heterozygosity as a measure of genetic diversity, but at least it is a measure, and having a quantifiable measure gives us a different way to think about the human species, and a way to think about our species in relation to other species. The intellectual superstructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, which our industrial-technological civilization has inherited but not yet overcome, gave us the scala naturae, also known as the great chain of being (cf. my post Parsimony and Emergent Complexity). This conception also placed human beings in a context, and near the middle: higher than the animals, but lower than the angels. Genetic diversity places human beings in a naturalistic context that can (or, at least, could, with the proper motivation) be studied scientifically.

The scala naturae, or Great Chain of Being, placed humanity higher than animals but lower than angels.

The scala naturae, or Great Chain of Being, placed humanity higher than animals but lower than angels.

Are human beings being studied scientifically today? Yes and no. If you search Google for “highest genetic diversity” and “lowest genetic diversity” the top search results are all related to the perennially troubling question of human races (which I discussed in Against Natural History, Right and Left). On this point contemporary thought is so compromised that objective scientific research is impossible. This is unfortunate. More than 150 years after Darwin, the biology of human beings is still controversial. This ought to make any rational person wince.

Sigmund Freud wrote, “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor.”

Sigmund Freud wrote, “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor.”

What Freud once said of religion — “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanour” — now appears to be true of humanity, which suggests that, despite Comte’s failed attempt to explicitly formulate a religion of humanity, an implicit religion of humanity has grown up almost unnoticed around the idea. This quasi-religious conception of humanity — which Francis Fukuyama expressed by saying, “we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct” (cf. Human Exceptionalism) — militates against any scientific self-understanding by humanity. This suggests an interesting possibility for defining a scientific civilization: a scientific civilization is a civilization in which the intelligent agent responsible for the civilization reflexively applies scientific understanding to itself. Scientific medicine studies human beings scientifically in order to keep them healthy and alive, but, with a few exceptions, human beings are not yet understood in a fully scientific context.

Francis Fukuyama said that we have drawn a red line around human beings and called ourselves sacrosanct. While this is accurately descriptive of anthropocentric morality, it isn't a good guide to a scientific understanding of humanity.

Francis Fukuyama said that we have drawn a red line around human beings and called ourselves sacrosanct. While this is accurately descriptive of anthropocentric morality, it isn’t a good guide to a scientific understanding of humanity.

The scientific revolution set the stage for the possibility of a scientific civilization and for studying human beings in a fully scientific context. Neither of these possibilities have yet come to full fruition, and science itself has continued to develop and evolve, so that any scientific civilization or any conception of humanity based on contemporaneous science would have continually developed in parallel with the development of science. It is interesting to note that the scientific revolution begins about the same time as the Columbian Exchange, which latter essentially unified the human species again after our global diaspora (this was the theme of my earlier Humanity as One), in which populations had become separated and did not know themselves to be one species. The sense of humanity as one that emerges from the global unification of the Columbian Exchange and the sense of humanity as one that emerges from science both give us a planetary conception of humanity that might well be called the overview effect as applied specifically to humanity. I would call this “The Human Overview,” except that I have already used this to indicate the comprehensive impression we derive from meeting with and speaking to another.

I would argue now that we are capable of transcending even this planetary conception of humanity because of the recent extrapolation of biology as astrobiology. Science from the scientific revolution to the middle of the twentieth century was the science of a species exclusively subject to planetary endemism, and even though we overcame geocentrism in a narrow sense, our conceptions of the world and of ourselves often remained subject to geocentrism in an extended sense; the intellectual equivalent of geocentrism is the projection of the assumptions of planetary endemism onto our categories of thought. With the first glimpse of the Earth from space (i.e., the overview effect) and a growing awareness of the cosmological context of our planetary system, we began to transcend this intellectual equivalent of geocentrism. One of the consequences of this has been astrobiology, which places biology in a cosmological context, and, in so far as we understand humanity scientifically, places humanity also in a cosmological context.

Astrobiology would be impossible without both contemporary cosmology and biology; cosmology gives the scope of the conception, and biology the depth. With our increasing knowledge of cosmology and growing sophistication in biology, we have the intellectual resources now to formulate the human condition in a cosmological context and hence to understand ourselves scientifically — if only we have the strength of mind to do so. While such a conception of humanity would be “mere humanity” without the overlay of theological, soteriological, eschatological and teleological concepts that have been used in the past to develop a more comprehensive conception of humanity — what I elsewhere called, “the hopeless tangle of rationalization and cognitive bias that we have painstakingly erected around the idea of humanity” — this “mere humanity” is far more noble and edifying in its simplicity than past attempts to guild the lily.

As a species we have a long and painful history of perverting the ideals we have chosen for ourselves and making the human condition much worse than it was before any such ideals were conceived. As Montaigne noted, men, in seeking to become angels, transformed themselves into beasts (cf. Transcendental Humors). Among these brutal ideals I would count all the theological, soteriological, eschatological and teleological concepts that have been used to flesh out the concept of humanity, while the “darkling aspiration” (“dunklen Drange”) of a Faust has proved not to be our undoing, but rather to be what is best in humanity. In the past, our aspiration to embody perverted ideals in our own lives resulted in raising up as false idols fragmented and partial conceptions of humanity; individuals sought to become some particular kind of humanity (rather than “Mere Humanity”), and accounted this striving as a form of virtue, when it is, in fact, the spirit of ethnic cleansing. The planetary conception of humanity, and indeed the astrobiological conception of humanity, gives the lie to all of this. Soon it will be vain to aspire to be anything other than merely human, and soon after that it will be vain to aspire to be human (i.e., exclusively human). But the way to this understanding is through science and a rigorously scientific conception of humanity.

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An illustration from Andreas Vesalius' De humanis corporis fabrica, a classic of mere humanity.

An illustration from Andreas Vesalius’ De humanis corporis fabrica, a classic of mere humanity.

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Sunday


hunter-gatherers in outer space

What happens when you take a being whose mind was shaped by hunting and gathering in Africa over the past five million years or so, dress that individual in a spacesuit, and put that individual into a spaceship, sending them beyond the planet from which they evolved? What happens to hunter-gatherers in outer space?

As I pointed out in The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung, the human environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) shapes a worldview based on the standpoint of a planetary surface. Moreover, because the hunter-gatherer lives (or dies) by his attentiveness to his immediate environment, his immediate experience of leaving his planet of origin will make a disproportionate impact upon him. Whereas the hunter-gatherer may intellectually prepare himself, and may know on an intellectual level what to expect, the actual first person experience of leaving his planet of origin and seeing it whole — what Frank Drake calls the overview effect — may have an immediate and transformative impact.

The impact of the overview effect would force the hunter-gatherer to re-examine a number of ideas previously unquestioned, but his reactions, his instincts, would, for the time being, remain untouched. Of course, for a hunter-gatherer to have experienced the overview effect, he will have had to have achieved at least an orbital standpoint, and to achieve an orbital standpoint requires that the hunter-gatherer will have passed through a period of technological development that takes place over a civilizational scale of time — far longer than the scale of time of the individual life, but far shorter than the scale of biological time that could have modified the evolutionary psychology of the hunter-gatherer.

In the particular case of human beings, this period of technological development meant about ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, followed by a short burst of industrialized civilization that made the achievement of an orbital standpoint possible. While it is obvious that the short period of industrialized civilization will have left almost no trace of influence on human behavior, it is possible that the ten thousand years of acculturation to agricultural civilization (and the coevolution with a tightly-coupled cohort of species, as entailed by the biological conception of civilization) did leave some kind of imprint on the human psyche. Thus we might also inquire into the fate of agriculturalists in outer space, and how this might differ from the fate of hunter-gatherers in outer space. It is at least arguable that our interest in finding another planet to inhabit, or even terraforming other planets in our planetary system, is a function of our development of agricultural instincts, which are stronger in some than in others. Some individuals feel a very close connection to the soil, and have a special relationship to farming and food to be had by farming. However, the argument could be made equally well that our search for an “Earth twin” is a function of the homeworld effect more than a specifically agricultural outlook.

The principles to which I am appealing can be extrapolated, and we might consider what could happen in the event of a civilization with a very different history and its relationship to spacefaring, and how it makes the transition to a spacefaring civilization if that civilization is going to survival for cosmologically significant periods of time. Recently in Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilizations: The Preemption That Didn’t Happen I suggested that terrestrial civilization might have been preempted in the second half of the twentieth century by the sudden emergence of a spacefaring civilization, though this did not in fact happen. Late-adopter spacefaring civilizations might indefinitely postpone the threshold presented by spacefaring, which is difficult, dangerous, and expensive — but also an intellectual challenge, and therefore a stimulus. It is entirely conceivable that, on a planet that remains habitable for a cosmologically significant period of time, that an intelligent species might choose to forgo the challenge and the stimulus of a spacefaring breakout from their homeworld, continuing to embody the homeworld effect even after the means to transcend the homeworld effect are available. What would the consequences be for civilization in this case?

In The Waiting Gambit I discussed the rationalizations and justifications employed to make excuses for waiting for the right moment to initiate a new undertaking, and especially waiting until conditions are “right” for making the transition from a planetary civilization to a spacefaring civilization. These justifications are typically formulated in moral terms, e.g., that we must “get things right” on Earth first before we can make the transition to spacefaring civilization, or, more insidiously, that we don’t deserve to become a spacefaring civlization (as though the Earth deserves to suffer from our presence for a few more million years). It would be easy to dismiss the waiting gambit as a relatively harmless cognitive bias favoring the status quo (a special case of status quo bias), except that there are real biological and civilizational consequences to waiting without limit.

The most obvious consequence of playing along with the waiting gambit is that civilization, or even the whole of humanity, might be wiped out on Earth before we ever achieve the promised moment when we can legitimately expand beyond Earth. This is the existential risk of the waiting gambit as a strategy for human history. But even if we could be assured of the survival of humanity on Earth for the foreseeable future (although no such assurance could be given that was not purely illusory), the waiting gambit still has profound consequences. In so far as civilization is a process of domestication (and in Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation I suggested a biological conception of civilization based on a cohort of co-evolving species, which I elaborated in The Biological Conception of Civilization), the longer that human beings live in a planetary-bound, biocentric civilization the more domesticated we become. In other words, we are changed by remaining on Earth in the circumstances of civilization, because civilization itself is selective.

If the time between the advent of civilization and the advent of spacefaring is too short to be selective, then the hunter-gatherer mind is maintained because the genome on which this mind supervenes is essentially unchanged. But if the elapsed time between the advent of civilization and the advent of spacefaring is sufficiently extended so that civilizational selection of the intelligent species takes place, the mind is changed along with the genome upon which it supervenes. At some point, neither known nor knowable today, we will have self-selected ourselves (although not knowingly) for settled planetary endemism and we will lose the capacity to live as nomadic hunter-gatherers. This is an here-to-fore unrecognized consequence of long-lived planetary civilizations. If, on the other hand, human beings do make the transition to spacefaring civilization while retaining the evolutionary psychology of hunter-gatherers, the temporary phase of settled civilization (ten thousand years, more or less) will be seen as a temporary aberration, during which historical period the bulk of humanity lived in circumstances greatly at variance with the human EEA.

One aspect of the homeworld effect is acculturation to planetary endemism. This acculturation to planetary endemism helps to explain the waiting gambit and status quo bias, and if perpetuated it would explain the possibility of an advanced technological civilization that remains endemic to a single planet, attaining a full transition from biocentric to technocentric civilization without however making the transition to spacefaring civilization. This would present a radical break from the past, and thus presents us with the difficulty of conceiving a radically different human way of life — a way of life radically disconnected from the biocentric paradigm — but this is a radical difference from the biocentric paradigm that would in turn be radically different from a nomadic civilization with the entirety of the universe in which to roam. In both cases, traces of the biocentric paradigm are preserved, but different traces in each case. The planetary civilization would preserve continuity with the planet and thus a robust continuity with the homeworld effect; a spacefaring nomadic civilization would preserve continuity with the evolutionary psychology of our long hunter-gatherer past. A successor species to humanity, adapted to life in space, and choosing to live in space rather than upon planetary surfaces, would experience the overview effect exclusively, the overview effect supplanting the homeworld effect, and the homeworld effect might experience historical effacement, disappearing from human (or, rather, post-human) experience altogether.

If nomads were to go into space — that is to say, hunter-gatherers in outer space — they probably wouldn’t speak of “settling” a planet, because they would not assume that they would adopt a planetary mode of life for the sake of settling in one place. Perhaps they would speak of the “pastoralization” of a world (cf. Pastoralization, The Argument for Pastoralization, and The Pastoralist Challenge to Agriculturalism), or they might use some other term. The particular term doesn’t really matter, but the concept that the term is used to indicate does matter. Nomadic peoples have very different conceptions of private property, governmental institutions, social hierarchy, soteriology, and eschatology than do settled peoples; the transplantation (note the agricultural language here) of nomadic and settled conceptions to a spacefaring civilization would yield fascinating differences, and the universe is large enough for the embodiment of both conceptions in concrete institutions of spacefaring civilization — whereas Earth alone is not large enough.

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The Martian Standpoint

31 March 2016

Thursday


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Red Planet Perspectives

It is difficult to discuss human habitation of Mars scientifically because Mars has for so long played an disproportionate role in fiction, and any future human habitation of Mars will take place against this imaginative background. Future human inhabitants of Mars will themselves read this cultural legacy of fiction centered on Mars, and while some of it will be laughable, there are also likely to be passages that start heads nodding, however dated and inaccurate the portrayal of human life on Mars. And this human future on Mars is seeming increasingly likely as private space enterprises vie with national space agencies, and both public and private space programs are publicly discussing the possibility of sending human beings to Mars.

Panoramic view of the Payson outcrop near the Opportunity rover’s landing site.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/Cornell)

Panoramic view of the Payson outcrop near the Opportunity rover’s landing site. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/Cornell)

A human population on Mars would eventually come to identify as Martians, even though entirely human — Ray Bradbury already said as much decades ago — and it would be expected that the Martian perspective would be different in detail from the terrestrial perspective, though scientifically literate persons in both communities would share the Copernican perspective. There would be countless small differences — Martians would come to number their lives both in Terrestrial years and Martian years, for example — that would cumulatively and over time come to constitute a distinctively Martian way of looking at the world. There would also be unavoidably important differences — being separated from the bulk of humanity, having no large cities at first, not being able to go outside without protective gear, and so on — that would define the lives of Martian human beings.

Wernher von Braun's Mars mission concept as imagined by Chesley Bonestell

Wernher von Braun’s Mars mission concept as imagined by Chesley Bonestell

At what point will Martians come to understand themselves as Martians? At what point will Mars become a homeworld? There will be a first human being to set foot on Mars, a first human being born on Mars, a first human being to die on Mars and be buried in its red soil, a first crime committed on Mars, and so on. Any of these “firsts” might come to be identified as a crucial turning point, the moment at which a distinctively Martian consciousness emerges among Mars residents, but any such symbolic turning point can only come about against the background of the countless small differences that accumulate over time. Given human settlement on Mars, this Martian consciousness will surely emerge in time, but the Martian conscious that perceives Mars as a homeworld will differ from the sense in which Earth is perceived as our homeworld.

An actual, and not a mythical, canal on Mars.

An actual, and not a mythical, canal on Mars.

Human beings lived on Earth for more than a hundred thousand years without knowing that we lived on a planet among planets. We have only known ourselves as a planetary species for two or three thousand years, and it is only in the past century that we have learned what it means, in a scientific sense, to be a planet among countless planets in the universe. A consequence of our terrestrial endemism is that we as a species can only transcend our homeworld once. Once and once only we ascend into the cosmos at large; every other celestial body we visit thereafter we will see first from afar, and we will descend to its surface after having first seen that celestial body as a planet among planets. Thus when we arrive at Mars, we will arrive at Mars knowing that we arrive at a planet, and knowing that, if we settle there, we settle on a planet among planets — and not even the most hospitable planet for life in our planetary system. In the case of Mars, our knowledge of our circumstances will precede our experience, whereas on Earth our experience of our circumstances preceded our knowledge. This reversal in the order of experience and knowledge follows from planetary endemism — that civilizations during the Stelliferous Era emerge on planetary surfaces, and only if they become spacefaring civilizations do they leave these planetary surfaces to visit other celestial bodies.

A sunset on Mars photographed by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

A sunset on Mars photographed by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

What is it like, or what will it be like, to be a Martian? The question immediately reminds us of Thomas Nagel’s well known paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” (I have previously discussed this famous philosophical paper in What is it like to be a serpent? and Computational Omniscience, inter alia.) Nagel holds that, “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” A generalization of Nagel’s contention that there is something that it is like to be a bat suggests that there is something that it is like to be a conscious being that perceives the world. If we narrow our conception somewhat from this pure generalization, we arrive at level of generality at which there is something that it is like to be a Terrestrial being. That there is something that it is like to be a bat, or a human being, are further constrictions on the conception of being a consciousness being that perceives the world. But at the same level of generality that there is something that it is like to be a Terrestrial being, there is also something that it is like to be a Martian. Let us call this the Martian standpoint.

Seeing Earth as a mere point of light in the night sky of Mars will certainly have a formative influence on Martian consciousness.

Seeing Earth as a mere point of light in the night sky of Mars will certainly have a formative influence on Martian consciousness.

To stand on the surface of Mars would be to experience the Martian standpoint. I am here adopting the term “standpoint” to refer to the actual physical point of view of an intelligent being capable of looking out into the world and understanding themselves as a part of the world in which they find themselves. Every intelligent being emergent from life as we know it has such a standpoint as a consequence of being embodied. Being an embodied mind that acquires knowledge through particular senses means that our evolutionary history has furnished us with the particular sensory endowments with which we view the world. Being an embodied intelligence also means having a particular spatio-temporal location and having a perspective on the world determined by this location and the sensory locus of embodiment. The perspective we have in virtue of being a being on the surface of a planet at the bottom of a gravity well might be understood as a yet deeper level of cosmological evolution than the terrestrial evolutionary process that resulted in our particular suite of sensory endowments, because all life as we know it during the Stelliferous Era originates on planetary surfaces, and this precedes in evolutionary order the evolution of particular senses.

Sometimes the surface of Mars looks strangely familiar, and at other times profoundly alien.

Sometimes the surface of Mars looks strangely familiar, and at other times profoundly alien.

Mars, like Earth, will offer a planetary perspective. Someday there may be great cities and extensive industries on the moon, supporting a burgeoning population, but, even with cities and industries, the moon will not be a world like Earth, with an atmosphere, and therefore a sky and a landscape in which a human being can feel at home. For those native to Mars — for eventually there will be human beings native to Mars — Mars will be their homeworld. As such, Mars will have a certain homeworld effect, though limited in comparison to Earth. Even those born on Mars will carry a genome that is the result of natural selection on Earth; they will have a body created by the selection pressures of Earth, and their minds will function according to an inherited evolutionary psychology formed on Earth. Mars will be a homeworld, then, but it will not produce a homeworld effect — or, at least, no homeworld effect equivalent to that experienced due to the origins of humanity on Earth. The homeworld effect of Mars, then, will be ontogenic and not phylogenic.

The von Braun Mars mission concept was visionary for its time.

The von Braun Mars mission concept was visionary for its time.

If, however, human beings were to reside on Mars for an evolutionarily significant period of time, the ontogenic homeworld effect of individual development on Mars would be transformed into a phylogenic homeworld effect as Mars became an environment of evolutionary adaptedness. As the idea of million-year-old or even billion-year-old civilizations is a familiar theme of SETI, we should not reject this possibility out of hand. If human civilization comes to maturity within our planetary system and conforms to the SETI paradigm (i.e., that civilizations are trapped within their planetary systems and communicate rather than travel), we should expect such an eventuality, though over these time scales we will probably change Mars more than Mars will change us. At this point, Mars would become a homeworld among homeworlds — one of many for humanity. But it would still be a homeworld absent the homeworld effect specific to human origins on Earth — unless human beings settled Mars, civilization utterly collapsed, resulting in a total ellipsis of knowledge, and humanity had to rediscover itself as a species living on a planetary surface. For this to happen, Mars would have to be Terraformed in order for human beings to live on Mars without the preservation of knowledge sufficient to maintain an advanced technology, and this, too, is possible over time scales of a million years or more. Thus Mars could eventually be a homeworld for humanity in a sense parallel to Earth being a homeworld, though for civilization to continue its development based on cumulative knowledge implies consciousness of only a single homeworld, which we might call the singular homeworld thesis.

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The descent to the surface of Mars will shape our perception of the planet.

The descent to the surface of Mars will shape our perception of the planet.

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Saturday


21refPicsSORT

It cannot be pointed out too often that by far the most extensive period of human history is prehistory. In the past it was possible to evade this fact and its problematic consequences for conventional historiography, because prehistory could be safely set aside as not being history at all. The subsequent rise of scientific historiography, which allows us to read texts other than written language — geological texts, genetic texts, the texts of material culture uncovered by archaeologists, and so on — have been progressively chipping away at the facile distinction between history and prehistory, so that boundary between the two can no longer be maintained and any distinction between history and prehistory must be merely conventional, such as the convention of identifying history sensu stricto with the advent of written language.

The evolutionary psychology of human beings carries the imprint of this long past until recently unknown to us, lost to us, its loss during the earliest period of civilization being a function of history effaced as the events of more recent history wipe clean the slate of the earlier history that preceded it. Scientific historiography provides us with the ability to recover lost histories once effaced, and, like a recovered memory, we recognize ourselves in this recovered past because it is true to what we are, still today.

From the perspective of illuminating contemporary human society, we may begin with the historical recovery of relatively complex societies that emerged from the Upper Paleolithic, which communities were the context from which the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution emerged. But from the perspective of the evolutionary psychology that shaped our minds, we must go back to the origins of the brain in natural history, and follow it forward in time, for each stage in the evolution of the brain left its traces in our behavior. The brainstem that we share with reptiles governs autonomous functions and the most rudimentary drives, the limbic system that we share with other mammals and which is implicated in our sentience-rich biosphere is responsible for our emotions and a higher grade of consciousness than the brainstem alone can support, and the cerebral cortex enables more advanced cognitive functions that include reflexive self-awareness and historical consciousness (awareness of the past and the future in relation to the immediacy of the present).

Each of these developments in terrestrial brain evolution carries with it its own suite of behaviors, with each new set of behaviors superimposed on previous behaviors much as each new layer of the brain is superimposed upon older layers. Over the longue durée of evolution these developments in brain evolution were also coupled with the evolution of our bodies, which enact the behaviors in question. As we descended from the trees and hunted and killed for food, our stomachs shrank and our brains grew. We have the record of this transition preserved in the bones of our ancestors; we can still see today the cone-shaped ribcage of a gorilla, over the large stomach of a species that has remained primarily vegetarian; we can see in almost every other mammal, almost every other vertebrate, the flat skull with nothing above the eyes, compared to which the domed cranium of hominids seems strange and out of place.

As I wrote in Survival Beyond the EEA, “Evolution means that human beings are (or were) optimized for survival and reproduction in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA).” (Also on the EEA cf. Existential Threat Narratives) The long history of the formation of our cognitive abilities has refined and modified survival and reproduction behaviors, but it has not replaced them. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors of the Upper Paleolithic were already endowed with the full cognitive power that we continue to enjoy today, though admittedly without the concepts we have formulated over the past hundred thousand years, which have allowed us to make better use of our cognitive endowment in the context of civilization. Everything essential to the human mind was in place long before the advent of civilization, and civilization has not endured for a period of time sufficient to make any essential change to the constitution of the human mind.

The most difficult aspects of the human point of view to grasp objectively are those that have been perfectly consistent and unchanging over the history of our species. And so it is that we do not know ourselves as dwellers on the surface of a planet, shaped by the perspective afforded by a planetary surface, looking up to the stars through the distorting lens of the atmosphere, and held tight to the ground beneath our feet by gravity. At least, we have not known ourselves as such until very recently, and this knowledge has endured for a much shorter period of time than civilization, and hence has had even less impact on the constitution of our minds than has civilization, however much impact it has had upon our thoughts. Our conceptualization of ourselves as beings situated in the universe as understood by contemporary cosmology takes place against the background of the EEA, which is a product of our evolutionary psychology.

To understand ourselves aright, then, we need to understand ourselves as beings with the minds of hunter-gatherers who have come into a wealth of scientific knowledge and technological power over an historically insignificant period of time. How did hunter-gatherers conceive and experience their world? What was the Weltanschauung of hunter-gatherers? Or, if you prefer, what was the worldview of hunter-gatherers?

Living in nature as a part of nature, only differentiated in the slightest degree from the condition of prehuman prehistory, the hunter-gatherer lives always in the presence of the sublime, overwhelmed by an environment of a scale that early human beings had no concepts to articulate. And yet the hunter-gatherer learns to bring down sublimely large game — an empowering experience that must have contributed to a belief in human efficacy and agency in spite of vulnerability to a variable food supply, not yet under human control. Always passing through this sublime setting for early human life, moving on to find water, to locate game, to gather nuts and berries, or to escape the depredations of some other band of hunter-gatherers, our ancestor’s way of life was rooted in the landscape without being settled. The hunter-gatherer is rewarded for his curiosity, which occasionally reveals new sources of food, as he is rewarded for his technological innovations that allow him to more easily hunt or to build a fire. The band never has more children than can be carried by the adults, until the children can themselves escape, by running or hiding, the many dangers the band faces.

As settled agriculturalism began to displace hunter-gatherers, first from the fertile lowlands and river valleys were riparian civilizations emerged, new behaviors emerged that were entirely dependent upon the historical consciousness enabled by the cerebral cortex (that is to say, enabled by the ability to explicitly remember the past and to plan for the future). Here we find fatalism in the vulnerability of agriculture to the weather, humanism in this new found power over life, a conscious of human power in its the command of productive forces, and the emergence of soteriology and eschatology, the propitiation of fickle gods, as human compensations for the insecurity inherent in the unknowns and uncertainties of integrating human life cycles with the life cycles of domesticated plants and animals and the establishment of cities, with their social differentiation and political hierarchies, all unprecedented in the history of the world.

The Weltanschauung of hunter-gatherers, which laid the foundations for the emergence of agrarian and pastoral civilizations, I call the homeworld effect in contradistinction to what Frank White has called the overview effect. The homeworld effect is our understanding of ourselves and of our world before we have experienced the overview effect, and before the overview effect has transformed our understanding of ourselves and our world, as it surely will if human beings are able to realize a spacefaring civilization.

The homeworld effect — that our species emerged on a planetary surface and knows the cosmos initially only from this standpoint — allows us to assert the uniqueness of the overview effect for human beings. The overview effect is an unprecedented historical event that cannot be repeated in the history of a civilization. (If a civilization disappears and all memory of its having attained the overview effect is effaced, then the overview effect can be repeated for a species, but only in the context of a distinct civilization.) A corollary of this is that each and every intelligent species originating on a planetary surface (which I assume fulfills the principle of mediocrity for intelligent species during the Stelliferous Era) experiences a unique overview effect upon the advent of spacefaring, should the cohort of emergent complexities on the planet in question include a technologically competent civilization.

The homeworld effect is a consequence of planetary surfaces being a locus of material resources and energy flows where emergent complexities can appear during the Stelliferous Era (this is an idea I have been exploring in my series on planetary endemism, on which cf. Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V). We can say that the homeworld effect follows from this planetary standpoint of intelligent beings emerging on the surface of a planet, subject to planetary constraints, just as the overview effect follows from an extraterrestrial standpoint.

We can generalize from this observation and arrive at the principle that an effect such as the overview effect or the homeworld effect is contingent upon the experience of some standpoint (or, if you prefer, some perspective) that an embodied being experiences in the first person (and in virtue of being embodied). This first level of generalization makes it obvious that there are many standpoints and many effects that result from standpoints. Standing on the surface of a planet is a standpoint, and it yields the homeworld effect, which when formulated theoretically becomes something like Ptolemaic cosmology — A Weltanschauung or worldview that was implicit and informal for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but which was explicitly formulated and formalized after the advent of civilization. A standpoint in orbit yields a planetary overview effect, with the standpoint being the conditio sine qua non of the effect, and this converges upon a generalization of Copernican cosmology — what Frank White has called the Copernican Perspective. (We could, in which same spirit, posit a Terrestrial Perspective that is an outgrowth of the homeworld effect.) If a demographically significant population attains a particular standpoint and experiences an effect as a result of this standpoint, and the perspective becomes the perspective of a community, a worldview emerges from the community.

Further extrapolation yields classes of standpoints, classes of effects, classes of perspectives, and classes of worldviews, each member of a class possessing an essential property in common. The classes of planetary worldviews and spacefaring worldviews will be different in detail, but all will share important properties. Civilization(s) emerging on planetary surfaces at the bottom of a gravity well constitute a class of homeworld standpoints. Although each homeworld is different in detail, the homeworld effect and the perspective it engenders will be essentially the same. Initial spacefaring efforts by any civilization will yield a class of orbital standpoints, again, each different in detail, but yielding an overview effect and a Copernican perspective. Further overview effects will eventually (if a civilization does not stagnate or collapse) converge upon a worldview of a spacefaring civilization, but this has yet to take shape for human civilization.

A distinctive aspect of the overview effect, which follows from an orbital standpoint, is the suddenness of the revelation. It takes a rocket only a few minutes to travel from the surface of Earth, the home of our species since its inception, into orbit, which no human being saw until the advent of spacefaring. The suddenness of the revelation not only furnishes a visceral counter-example to what our senses have been telling us all throughout our lives, but also stands in stark contrast to the slow and gradual accumulation of knowledge that today makes it possible to understand our position in the universe before we experience this position viscerally by having attained an orbital standpoint, i.e., an extraterrestrial perspective on all things terrestrial.

With the sudden emergence in history of the overview effect (no less suddenly than it emerges in the experience of the individual), we find ourselves faced with a novel sublime, the sublime represented by the cosmos primeval, a wilderness on a far grander scale than any wilderness we once faced on our planet, and, once again, as with our ancestors before the vastness of the world, the thundering thousands of game animals on the hoof, oceans that could not be crossed and horizons that could not be reached, we lack the conceptual infrastructure at present to fully make sense of what we have seen. The experience is sublime, it moves us, precisely because we do not fully understand it. The human experience of the homeworld effect eventually culminated in the emergence of scientific civilization, which in turn made it possible for human beings to understand their world, if not fully, at least adequately. Further extrapolation suggests that the human experience of the overview effect could someday culminate in an adequate understanding of the cosmos, as our hunter-gatherer drives for locating and exploiting resources wherever they can be found, and the reward for technological innovations that serve this end, continue to serve us as a spacefaring species.

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I am indebted to my recent correspondence with Frank White and David Beaver, which has influenced the development and formulation of the ideas above. Much of the material above appeared first in this correspondence.

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Wednesday


Saturn with astronaut

Our first view of Earth was from its surface; every other planet human beings eventually visit will be first perceived by a human being at a great distance, then from orbit, and last of all from its surface. We will descend from orbit to visit a new world, rather than, as on Earth, emerging from the surface of that world and, only later, much later, seeing it from orbit, and then as a pale blue dot, from a great distance.

With our homeworld, the effect of looking up from the surface of our planet precedes the overview effect; with every other world, the overview effect precedes the surface standpoint. We might call this the homeworld effect, which is a consequence of what I now call planetary endemism (and which, when I was first exploring the concept, I called planetary constraint). We have already initiated this process when human beings visited the moon, and for the first time in human history descended to a new world, never before visited by human beings. With this first tentative experience of spacefaring, humanity knows one world from its surface (Earth) and one world from above (the moon). Every subsequent planetary visit will increase the relative proportion of the overview effect in contradistinction to the homeworld effect.

In the fullness of time, our normative assumptions about originating on a plant and leaving it by ascending in to orbit will be displaced by a “new normal” of approaching worlds from a great distance, worlds perhaps first perceived as a pale blue dot, and then only later descending to familiarize ourselves with surface features. If we endure for a period of time sufficient for further human evolution under the selection pressure of spacefaring civilization, this new normal will eventually replace the instincts formed in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) when humanity as a species branched off from other primates. The EEA of our successor species will be spacefaring civilization and the many worlds to which we travel, and this experience will shape our minds as well, producing an evolutionary psychology adapted not to survival on the surface of a planet, but to survival on any planet whatever, or no planet at all.

The Copernican principle is the first hint we have of the mind of a species adapted to spacefaring. It is a characteristic of Copernicanism to call the perspective borne of planetary endemism, the homeworld effect, into question. We have learned that the Copernican principle continually unfolds, always offering more comprehensive perspectives that place humanity and our world in a context that subsumes our previous perspective. Similarly, the overview effect will unfold over the development of spacefaring civilization that takes human beings progressively farther into space, providing ever more distant overviews of our world, until that world becomes lost among countless other worlds.

In my Centauri Dreams post The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight, I discussed the possibility of further overview effects resulting from attaining ever more distant perspectives on our cosmic home — thus attaining an ever more rigorous Copernican perspective. For example, although it is far beyond contemporary technology, it is possible to imagine we might someday have the ability to go so far outside the Milky Way that we could see our own galaxy in overview, and point out the location of the sun in the Orion Spur of the Milky Way.

There is, however, another sense in which additional overview effects may manifest themselves in human experience, and this would be due less to greater technical abilities that would allow for further first person human perspectives on our homeworld and on our universe, and rather due more to cumulative human experience in space as a spacefaring civilization. With accumulated experience comes “know how,” expertise, practical skill, and intuitive mastery — perhaps what might be thought of as the physical equivalent of acculturation.

We achieve this physical acculturation to the world through our bodies, and we express it through a steadily improving facility in accomplishing practical tasks. One such practical task is the ability to estimate sizes, distances, and movements of other bodies in relation to our own body. An astronaut floating in space in orbit around a planet or a moon (i.e., on a spacewalk) would naturally (i.e., intuitively) compare himself as a body floating in space with the planet or moon, also a body floating in space. Frank White has pointed out to me that, in interviews with astronauts, the astronauts themselves have noted the difference between being inside a spacecraft and being outside on a spacewalk, when one is essentially a satellite of Earth, on a par with other satellites.

The human body is an imperfectly uniform, imperfectly “standard” standard ruler that we use to judge the comparative sizes of the objects around us. Despite its imperfection as a measuring instrument, the human body has the advantage of being more intimately familiar to us than any other measuring device, which makes it possible to achieve a visceral understanding of quantities measured in comparison to our own body. At first perceptions of comparative sizes of bodies in space would be highly inaccurate and subject to optical illusions and cognitive biases, but with time and accumulated experience an astronaut would develop a more-or-less accurate “feel” for the size of the planetary body about which he is orbiting. With accumulated experience one would gain an ability to judge distance in space by eye, estimate how rapidly one was orbiting the celestial body in question, and perhaps even familiarize oneself with minute differences in microgravity environments, perceptible only on an intuitive level below the threshold of explicit consciousness — like the reflexes one acquires in learning how to ride a bicycle.

This idea came to me recently as I was reading a NASA article about Saturn, Saturn the Mighty, and I was struck by the opening sentences:

“It is easy to forget just how large Saturn is, at around 10 times the diameter of Earth. And with a diameter of about 72,400 miles (116,500 kilometers), the planet simply dwarfs its retinue of moons.”

How large is Saturn? We can approach the question scientifically and familiarize ourselves with the facts of matter, expressed quantitatively, and we learn that Saturn has an equatorial radius of 60,268 ± 4 km (or 9.4492 Earths), a polar radius of 54,364 ± 10 km (or 8.5521 Earths), a flattening of 0.09796 ± 0.00018, a surface area of 4.27 × 1010 km2 (or 83.703 Earths), a volume of 8.2713 × 1014 km3 (or 763.59 Earths), and a mass of 5.6836 × 1026 kg (or 95.159 Earths) — all figures that I have taken from the Wikipedia entry on Saturn. We could follow up on this scientific knowledge by refining our measurements and by going more deeply in to planetary science, and this gives us a certain kind of knowledge of how large Saturn is.

Notice that the figures I have taken from Wikipedia for the size of Saturn notes Earth equivalents where relevant: this points to another way of “knowing” how large Saturn is: by way of comparative concepts, in contradistinction to quantitative concepts. When I read the sentence quoted above about Saturn I instantly imagined an astronaut floating above Saturn who had also floated above the Earth, feeling on a visceral level the enormous size of the planet below. In the same way, an astronaut floating above the moon or Mars would feel the smallness of both in comparison to Earth. This is significant because the comparative judgement is exactly what a photograph does not communicate. A picture of the Earth as “blue marble” may be presented to us in the same size format as a picture of Mars or Saturn, but the immediate experience of seeing these planets from orbit would be perceived very differently by an orbiting astronaut because the human body always has itself to compare to its ambient environment.

This is kind of experience could only come about once a spacefaring civilization had developed to the point that individuals could acquire diverse experiences of sufficient duration to build up a background knowledge that is distinct from the initial “Aha!” moment of first experiencing a new perspective, so one might think of the example I have given above as a “long term” overview effect, in contradistinction to the immediate impact of the overview effect for those who see Earth from orbit for the first time.

The overview effect over the longue durée, then, will continually transform our perceptions both by progressively greater overviews resulting from greater distances, and by cumulative experience as a spacefaring species that becomes accustomed to viewing worlds from an overview, and immediately grasps the salient features of worlds seen first from without and from above. In transforming our perceptions, our minds will also be transformed, and new forms of consciousness will become possible. This alone ought to be reason enough to justify human spaceflight.

The possibility of new forms of consciousness unprecedented in the history of terrestrial life poses an interesting question: suppose a species — for the sake of simplicity, let us say that this species is us, i.e., humanity — achieves forms of consciousness through the overview effect cultivated in the way I have described here, and that these forms of consciousness are unattainable prior to the broad and deep experience of the overview effect that would characterize a spacefaring civilization. Suppose also, for the sake of the argument, that the species that attains these forms of consciousness is sufficiently biologically continuous that there has been no speciation in the biological sense. There would be a gulf between earlier and later iterations of the same species, but could we call this gulf speciation? Another way to pose this question is to ask whether there can be cognitive speciation. Can a species at least partly defined in terms of its cognitive functions be said to speciate on a cognitive level, even when no strictly biological speciation has taken place?

I will not attempt to answer this question at present — I consider the question entirely open — but I would like to suggest that the idea of cognitive speciation, i.e., a form of speciation unique to conscious beings, is deserving of further inquiry, and should be of special interest to the field of cognitive astrobiology.

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The Overview Effect

The Epistemic Overview Effect

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Perspective Taking

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

The Human Overview

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

A Further Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought, in the Way of Providing a Measure of Disambiguation in Regard to the Role of Temporality

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Civilizations of Planetary Endemism

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Transcendental Humors

4 December 2015

Friday


Portrait of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) by Daniel Dumonstier, around 1578.

Portrait of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) by Daniel Dumonstier, around 1578.

In the last of his essays, essay XIII of Book III, “Of Experience,” Montaigne wrote:

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

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

In writing of “transcendental humors” Montaigne has brilliantly co-opted the medieval physiology of “humors” and gone beyond it even while employing a language that his readers would have immediately recognized. In this passage Montaigne has managed to transcend his era even while employing the language and the concepts of his time.

In medieval western medicine it was believed that the body possessed four “vital humors” including blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. This was not only a medical idea, but also a psychological idea, as differences in temperament were ascribed to an excess or deficiency of a given humor. We retain traces of these ideas in our language, as when we describe an individual as “sanguine” or “phlegmatic.” These humors were human, all-too-human. This may sound a bit strange, but if the medieval imagination had comprised the possibility other beings on other worlds, it seems likely that such an imagination would have posited other, alien humors that would have determined both the physical constitution and mental temperament of these other beings, and speculation on the character of ETI would have taken the form of suggesting what other kinds of humors there might possibly be.

It is possible that we, too, may be able to transcend the limits of our time even while continuing to employ the familiar linguistic and conceptual infrastructure that is as deeply embedded in contemporary history as Montaigne’s linguistic and conceptual infrastructure was deeply embedded in the thought of his time. It is an uncommon insight, but not an impossible insight, that throws away the ladder after having climbed up the same.

Perhaps this passage from Montaigne so appeals to me because it is so similar to my own way of thought. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote (in section 572):

Biology of religion.–The more human, all-too-human a given phenomenon, the more certain it is to be called sacred or holy.

It almost sounds as though I am purposefully paraphrasing Montaigne, but when I wrote this I was not familiar with the passage from Montaigne quoted above.

One might well be accused of a “category error” to study religion in terms of biology, though in recent years this has become much more common, as quite a number of books on the evolutionary psychology of religion have appeared, though we can see above the idea is already present in Montaigne, and it occurs throughout Nietzsche, even if it is not as explicit there as we would hope, and Nietzsche lacked the detailed scientific background that would have made it possible for him to fully appreciate, and to fully develop, the idea.

We are now getting to the point at which such ideas can be formulated explicitly and given clear and unambiguous scientific content. But our linguistic and conceptual infrastructure, while it provides the basis of the possibility of our intellectual development and progress, remains limited, and moments of great insight are necessary to transcend the prejudices of our age and to begin to comprehend the ideas that, some hundreds of years from now, our descendants will be able to formulate in an explicit way.

Perhaps it is better for us at the present time that we cannot yet formulate our most elusive ideas explicitly. I am reminded of a passage from H. P. Lovecraft that I recently quoted in The Cosmos Primeval:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu,” first paragraph

Lovecraft was half right, but he (like many others) failed to see, or refused to acknowledge (perhaps in Lovecraft it follows from a matter of principle), the possibility of progress in knowledge. While it is true that some go mad and some flee, while others exist on the cusp and madness and sanity, still others are able to look squarely at terrifying vistas of reality and to stare into the face of Medusa without turning to stone.

We are always engaged in the business of slowly and painstakingly assembling dissociated bits of knowledge into a larger and more comprehensive scheme, even if we are not aware that our thirst for comprehension and clarity (which thirst must certainly be accounted among the transcendental humors) is pushing us toward a revelation for which we are not prepared. Most this occurs on an historical scale of time, so that the frightening outlines of the world to come is only discerned dimly by us, and, as Lovecraft implied, this may be a mercy. But every once in a while, under the influence of especially strong transcendental humors, we may find ourselves suddenly face-to-face with the Medusa, quite unexpectedly. Such moments are definitive.

I have often quoted a passage from Kurt Gödel (most recently in Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress) about the possibility of progress in knowledge:

“Turing… gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”

“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306.

Without any intention of belittling Gödel, it is perhaps worthwhile to note in this context that Gödel himself lived on the verge of madness, and that his mental health deteriorated to the point that he essentially starved himself to death, like some western equivalent of an Indian Yogi (or, if you prefer, a starving Buddha, representations of which always have the same haunted eyes that one sees in the photographs of the logician). One can imagine Montaigne transported into another place or time, writing essays on Gödel or a starving Buddha, neither of which he ever encountered, but each of which I think would have piqued his interest, as they represent those transcendental humors that have both plagued humanity with self-imposed ascetic rigors and which have equally advanced civilization in the most unexpected ways.

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godel and buddha

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Monday


Depiction of a mammoth from Roufignac, France, painted by our distant ancestors.

Depiction of a mammoth from Roufignac, France, painted by our distant ancestors.

Between the advent of cognitive modernity, perhaps seventy thousand years ago (more or less), and the advent of settled agricultural civilization, about ten thousand years ago, there is a period of fifty thousand years or more of human history — an order of magnitude of history beyond the historical period, sensu stricto, i.e., the period of written records formerly presumed coextensive with civilization — that we have only recently begun to recover by the methods of scientific historiography. This pre-Holocene world was a world of the “ice age” and of “cave men.” These ideas have become so confused in popular culture that I must put them in scare quotes, but in some senses they are accurate, if occasionally misleading.

This graph shows the alternation of cold glacial periods with warmer interglacial periods over a little more than a half million years of the recent past.

This graph shows the alternation of cold glacial periods with warmer interglacial periods over a little more than a half million years of the recent past.

One way in which the idea of an “Ice Age” is misleading is that it implies that our warmer climate today is the norm and an ice age is a passing exception to that norm. This is the reverse of the case. For the past two and a half million years the planet has been passing through the Quaternary Period, which mostly consists of long (about 100,000 year) periods of glaciation punctuated by shorter (about 10,000 year) interglacial periods (also called warming periods) during which the global climate warms and the polar ice sheets retreat. I have pointed out elsewhere that, although human ancestors have been present throughout the entire Quaternary, and so have therefore experienced several cycles of glaciation and interglacials, the present interglacial (the Holocene) is the first warming period since cognitive modernity, and we find the beginnings of civilization as soon as this present warming period begins. Thus the Holocene Epoch is dominated, from an anthropocentric perspective, by civilization; the Quaternary Period before the Holocene Epoch is, again from an anthropocentric perspective, human history before civilization: history before history.

quaternary

We should remind ourselves that this very alien world and its inhabitants is the precursor to our world and the inhabitants are our direct ancestors. In other words, this is us. This is our history, even if we have only recently become accustomed to thinking of prehistory as history no less than the historical period sensu stricto. The Upper Paleolithic, with its ice age, cave bears, cave men, painted animals seen in flickering torchlight, and thousands upon thousands of years of a winter that does not end was a human world — the human world of the Upper Paleolithic — that we can only with effort recover as our own and come to feel its formative power to shape what we have become. The technical term is that his human world of the Upper Paleolithic was our environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). It is this world that made us what we are today.

Cave bear 1

One website has this very evocative passage describing the world of the Upper Paleolithic:

“The longest war ever fought by humans was not fought against other humans, but against another species — Ursus spelaeus, the Cave Bear. For several hundred thousand years our stone age ancestors fought pitched and bloody battles with these denizens of the most precious commodity on earth — habitable caves. Without these shelters homo sapiens would have had little chance of surviving the Ice Ages, the winter storms, and the myriad of predators that lurked in the dark.”

While there isn’t direct scientific evidence for this compellingly dramatic way of thinking about the Upper Paleolithic (though I was very tempted to title this post “The 100,000 Year War”), it can accurately be said that human/cave bear interactions did occur during the most recent glacial maximum, that both human beings and cave bears are warm-blooded mammals and caves would have provided a measure of protection and warmth that would have endured literally for thousands or tens of thousands of years during this climatological “bottleneck” for mammals, whereas no human-built shelter could have survived these conditions for this period of time. Another species as ill-suited for cold weather as homo sapiens would have simply moved on or gone extinct, but we had our big brains by this time, and this made it possible for early man to fight tenaciously for keep a grip on life even in an environment in which they have to fight cave bears for the few available shelters.

ursus-spelaeus-cave-bear-size

Human beings would have survived elsewhere on the planet in any event, because the equatorial belt was still plenty warm at the time, but the fact that some human beings survived in caves in glaciated Europe is a testament both to their cognitive modernity and their stubbornness. It becomes a little easier to understand how and why early human beings squeezed into caves by passages that cause contemporary archaeologists to experience not a little claustrophobia, when we understand that human beings were routinely inhabiting caves, and probably had to explore them in some depth to make sure they wouldn’t have any unpleasant surprises when a cave bear woke up from its hibernation in the spring.

An elegant rendering of a cave bear by one of our ancestors, in Chavet cave.

An elegant rendering of a cave bear by one of our ancestors, in Chavet cave.

Unlike human beings, cave bears probably could not have survived elsewhere — they were a species endemic to a particular climate and a particular range and did not have the powers of behavioral adaptation possessed by human beings. The caves of ice age Eurasia were their world, and they spent enough time in these shelters that the walls of caves have a distinctive sheen that is called “Bärenschliffe”:

The “Bärenschliffe” are smooth, polished and often shining surfaces, thought to be caused by passing bears, rubbing their fur along the walls. These surfaces do not only occur in narrow passages, where the bear would come into contact with the walls, but also at corners or rocks in wider passages.

“Trace fossils from bears in caves of Germany and Austria” by Wilfried Rosendahl and Doris Döppes, Scientific Annals, School of Geology Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Special volume 98, p. 241-249, Thessaloniki, 2006.

Some of these caves are said to be polished “like marble” (I haven’t visited any of these caves myself, so I am reporting what I have read in the literature), so that one must imagine cave bears passing through the narrow passages of their caves for thousands of years, brushing against the wall with their fur until the rough stone is made smooth. The human beings who later took over these caves would have run their hand along these smooth walls, noted the niches where the bears hibernated, and wondered if another bear would come to claim the cave they had claimed.

drachenloch skull vault

There is a particularly interesting cave in Switzerland, Drachenloch (which means “dragon’s lair,” as cave bear skulls were once thought to have been the skulls of dragons), in which early human beings seem to have stacked cave bear skulls in a stone “vault” in the floor of the cave. Certainly these two mammal species — ursus spelaeus and homo sapiens — would have known each other by all their shared signs of cave habitation. Indeed, they would have smelled each other.

Entrance to Drachenloch cave.

Entrance to Drachenloch cave.

Mythology scholar Joseph Campbell many times pointed out the fundamental mythological differences between hunter-gatherer peoples and settled agricultural peoples; in the case of the Upper Paleolithic, we have hunter-gatherers and only hunter-gatherers — that is to say, tens of thousands of years of a belief system emergent from a hunting culture with virtually no alternatives. Given the tendency of hunting peoples to animism, and of viewing other species as spiritually significant — metaphysical peers, as it were — one would expect that hunters who fought and killed cave bears in order to take over their shelters would have revered these animals in a religious sense, and this religious reverence for the slain foe (of any species) could explain the prevalence of apparent cave bear altars in caves inhabited by human beings during the Upper Paleolithic.

Perhaps the most permanent action that any human being has accomplished in the history of our species is when one of our ancestors placed this cave bear skull on a rock, where still it sits, tens of thousands of years later.

Perhaps the most permanent action that any human being has accomplished in the history of our species is when one of our ancestors placed this cave bear skull on a rock, where still it sits, tens of thousands of years later.

The human world of the Upper Paleolithic would also have been a world shared with other hominid species — an experience we do not have today, being the sole surviving hominid (perhaps as the result of being a genocidal species) — and most especially shared with Neanderthals. Recent genetic research has demonstrated that there was limited interbreeding between homo sapiens and Neanderthals (cf., e.g., Neanderthals had outsize effect on human biology), but it is likely that these communities were mostly separate. If we reflect on the still powerful effect of in-group bias in our cosmopolitan world, how much stronger must in-group bias have been among these small communities of homo sapiens, homo neanderthalensis, and Denisova hominins? One suspects that strong taboos were associated with other species, and rivals in hunting.

promiscuity-in-the-pleistocene

It is likely that Neanderthals evolved in the Levant or Europe from human ancestors who left Africa prior to the speciation of Homo sapiens. The Neanderthal were specifically adapted to life in the cold climates of Eurasia during the last glacial maximum. However, such is the power of intelligence as an adaptive tool that the modern human beings who left Africa were able displace Neanderthals in their own environment, much as homo sapiens displaced a great many other species (and much as they displaced cave bears from their caves). While Neanderthals had larger brains than Homo sapiens, they made tools and they wore clothing after a fashion, Neanderthals did not pass through a selective filter that (would have) resulted in the Neanderthal equivalent of cognitive modernity.

neanderthal tree

Homo sapiens made better tools and better clothing, and, in the depths of the last glacial maximum, better tools and better clothing constituted the margin between survival and extinction. Perhaps the most significant invention in hominid history after the control of fire was the bone needle, that allowed for the sewing of form-fitting clothing. With form-fitting clothing our prehistoric ancestors were able to make their way through the world of the last glacial maximum and the occupy every biome and every continent on the planet (with the exception of Antarctica).

The bone needle: key to human survival and expansion during the last glacial maxiumum (eyed needles from the Solutrean, dating to MIS 2, at Grotte de Jouclas, France, redrawn from White 1986, p. 78).

The bone needle: key to human survival and expansion during the last glacial maxiumum (eyed needles from the Solutrean, dating to MIS 2, at Grotte de Jouclas, France, redrawn from White 1986, p. 78).

While “lost worlds” and inexplicable mysteries are a favorite feature of historical popularization, the lost human world of the Upper Paleolithic is being recovered for us by scientific historiography. We are, as a result, reclaiming a part of our identity lost for the ten thousand years of civilization since the advent of the Holocene. The mystery of human origins is gradually becoming less mysterious, and will become less more, the more that we learn.

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Sunday


Hominid encephalization reveals an exponential growth curve.

Hominid encephalization reveals an exponential growth curve.

The idea of the great filter was formulated by Robin Hanson. In the exposition below Hanson also names a number of steps (acknowledged to be non-exhaustive) in the development of explosively expanding life:

“Consider our best-guess evolutionary path to an explosion which leads to visible colonization of most of the visible universe… The Great Silence implies that one or more of these steps are very improbable; there is a ‘Great Filter’ along the path between simple dead stuff and explosive life. The vast vast majority of stuff that starts along this path never makes it. In fact, so far nothing among the billion trillion stars in our whole past universe has made it all the way along this path. (There may of course be such explosions outside our past light cone [Wesson 90].)”

Robin Hanson, The Great Filter — Are We Almost Past It? 15 Sept. 1998

Discussion of the Great Filter has focused on singling out one factor and identifying this one factor as the Great Filter, although Hanson is explicit that, “one or more of these steps are very improbable.” In the event that several steps in the development of explosively expanding life rather than some one single step is unlikely, the Great Filter may consist of several elements. I think that this is an important qualification to make, but at present I will adopt the conventional presumption that one step in the development of advanced civilization is improbable (or especially improbable) and constitutes the Great Filter.

Graph of the encephalization quotient of several mammals.

Graph of the encephalization quotient of several mammals.

What we know about the cosmos is consistent with it being rich in life, but poor in technologically advanced civilization. The more that we learn about exoplanetary systems (living, as we do, in the Golden Age of exoplanet discovery), the more our scientific understanding of the universe points toward a superfluity of habitable worlds (or, at least, potentially habitable worlds), even while no trace of intelligence has yet been seen or heard beyond Earth. Some of this may have to do with the amount of research funding that is channeled into astronomy and astrophysics in comparison to SETI research, which has received relatively little to date. This is about to change. A “Breakthrough Initiative” will be funneling a large amount of money into SETI — Breakthrough Listen — but there is no reason as yet to suppose that this effort will be any more successful than past efforts, though I would be quite pleased to be proved wrong.

Brain to body mass ratio is distinct from encephalization quotient (EQ).

Brain to body mass ratio is distinct from encephalization quotient (EQ).

The point that I made some time ago in SETI as a Process of Elimination still holds good: as our scientific instrumentation improves with each generation of technology, and our research methods become more sophisticated, we are able to exclude (and, correlatively, to include) an increasing number of possibilities and instances. In other words, progress in science comes about by falsifying certain hypotheses, as would be expected from a philosophy of science derived from the Popper-Lakatos axis. (It is often discussed in relation to SETI research that investigators are hesitant to publish negative results; perhaps if they better understood the crucial role of falsification in the methodology of the scientific research program that is SETI they would be more inspired to publish negative results.)

Comparative brain sizes of several mammals.

Comparative brain sizes of several mammals.

When, in the coming decades, we are able to obtain spectroscopic analyses of exoplanet atmospheres, our knowledge of what is going on on exoplanets — as opposed to merely knowing about their existence, location, size, orbital period, and so on, which is the kind of scientific knowledge we have only recently come into — will improve by an order of magnitude. At this point in time we will move from ne in the Drake equation (number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life) to fl (fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears) and possibly also fc (fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space, from which we can infer fi, fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges) if exoplanet atmospheric signatures reveal signs of unambiguous industrial activity.

Frank Drake

We do not know the prevalence of life in our galaxy, much less in the universe at large — i.e., whether or not we live in a biota-rich GHZ, or even CHZ (cosmic habitable zone) — but we may soon be able to estimate the presence of life in the cosmos as we can now estimate the number of planets in the cosmos. It is entirely possible that the universe is teaming with life, even advanced life that is as sophisticated as the life of the terrestrial biosphere. I have written elsewhere that we may live in a “universe of stromatolites” (cf. A Needle in the Cosmic Haystack), but we may also be living in the universe rich in the ecological equivalents of sharks, koalas, and penguins. With one exception: the emergence of the cognitive capacity that makes abstract intelligence possible as well as the civilization that is predicated upon it.

Do we live in a universe of stromatolites?

Do we live in a universe of stromatolites?

In an earlier post, A Note on the Great Filter, I suggested that we are the Great Filter. I would now like to refine this: if I were to identify a “Great Filter” (i.e., a single element constituting the Great Filter) somewhere between plentiful life and absent advanced technological civilizations, I would put my finger on hominid encephalization. It was the rapid encephalization of our hominid ancestors that made what we recognize as intelligence and civilization possible. While there are many other large brains in the animal kingdom — the whale brain and the elephant brain are significantly larger than the human brain — and other mammals have brains as convoluted as the human brain — meaning more of the neocortex, which makes up the outer layer of gray matter — the encephalization quotient of the human brain is significantly greater than any other animal.

neocortex

Brain size in absolute terms may have to exceed a certain threshold before intelligence of the sort we seek to measure can be said to be present. Neurons are of a nearly constant size, so the minimal neuronal structure necessary to control bodily functions take up about the same space in a mouse and an elephant. Factors other than sheer brain size are relevant to brain function, as, for example, the portion of the brain made up by the cerebral cortex and the amount of convolutions (therefore outer surface area, and the cerebral cortex is outer layer). Hence the introduction of encephalization quotient: encephalization quotient is not simply a ratio of brain mass to body mass, but is also based on the expected brain size for a given body plan — this introduces an admitted interpretive element into EQ, but that does not vitiate the measure. When, in the distant future, we can compare EQs over many different species from many different biospheres, we can firm up these numbers. Someday this will be the work of astroneurology.

The 'WOW!' signal -- fugitive signature of intelligence in an otherwise lonely universe? Perhaps astroneurology will someday study neural architecture across biospheres and arrive at a non-anthropocentric measure of intelligence that could account for something like the 'WOW!' signal.

The ‘WOW!’ signal — fugitive signature of intelligence in an otherwise lonely universe? Perhaps astroneurology will someday study neural architecture across biospheres and arrive at a non-anthropocentric measure of intelligence that could account for something like the ‘WOW!’ signal.

The human brain (with its distinctive and even disproportionate EQ) has not changed since anatomical modernity — at least a hundred thousand years, and maybe as much as three hundred thousand years — and human thought has probably not greatly changed since the advent of cognitive modernity, perhaps seventy thousand years ago. We must continually remind ourselves that even the earliest anatomically modern human beings had a brain structurally indistinguishable from the human brain today. With the blindingly rapid gains of technological civilization over the past hundred years it is increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of connection to the past, not to mention the distant past. But when the human brain appeared in its modern form, it was unprecedented in its cognitive capacity — it was and still is an extreme outlier. There was nothing else like it on the planet, and from this brain followed control of fire, language, technology, art, and eventually civilization.

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Thursday


Maslow hierarchy

Perhaps one of the most familiar psychological ideas of our time is the Maslovian hierarchy of needs, and the most familiar form of the exposition of the hierarchy of needs is that of a pyramid resting on a broad base of physiological needs, culminating with self-actualization at the peak of the pyramid.

In one of Maslow’s briefest expositions of the hierarchy of needs he wrote:

“Man is a hierarchy of needs, with the biological needs at the base of the hierarchy and the spiritual needs at the top.”

Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, p. 186

To fully appreciate Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and his humanistic pyschology which serves as the conceptual framework of the hierarchy of needs, all of this must be understood in comparison to (and indeed in contradistinction to) the tradition of Freudian psychodynamic psychology, which, when Maslow was writing, was the dominant school of thought in psychology.

Freud began as a physician, and approached the human psyche as a physician. “Success” in Freudian psychology is formulated in the most minimal and modest way imaginable — this is the famous idea that, “…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness” (cf. From Neurotic Misery to Ordinary Human Unhappiness). Freud did not focus on what makes an individual mentally healthy, but on treating specific pathologies. Patients came to him with problems, and he tried to cure them. The cure was considered efficacious if the patient was relieved of their neurotic misery and returned to a condition of ordinary human unhappiness.

Maslow had something very different in mind. His systematic works like The Psychology of Being don’t focus on the treatment of specific pathologies but instead seek to understand and define the human person in its optimal state of being, especially in relation to “peak experiences” and self-fulfillment. Ordinary human unhappiness is not good enough for Maslow; he wants to see the healthy individual converge upon a state of psychological self-actualization in which the highest spiritual goods are realized and personal fulfillment is achieved.

All of this sounds wonderfully inspirational, but I am deeply troubled with the implications of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the same way that I am deeply suspicious of Erikson’s stages of personality development. There is a perennial human tendency (perhaps rooted in a cognitive bias) to mistake (or even to twist) a description into a prescription, transforming an analysis into a norm. Thus one might say that if you aren’t experiencing the particular psychosocial crisis that Erikson has defined for the stage of life in which you find yourself at present, then there is obviously something wrong with you and that you aren’t developing naturally or normally. Similarly, it might be asserted that if you are not going about clambering up the hierarchy of needs in an orderly and linear fashion, starting with the satisfaction of your physiological needs and gradually working your way up to spiritual self-actualization, then there is something wrong with you, and you need to start over and get it right next time.

One cannot, of course, blame Maslow or Erickson for he dumbed-down versions of their ideas that have filtered into mass consciousness by way of simplified expositions in the mass media, but there are insidious assumptions built into the hierarchy of needs (and, for that matter, Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development) that are intrinsic even to the most refined and sophisticated expositions.

Let me start with something basic — something drawn from the most fundamental physiological human needs. Even if you are tired, hungry, thirsty, and cold, if you see a violent mob moving in your direction you are going to run the other way to keep yourself alive, despite your immediate physiological needs. While these physiological needs are the basis of human well being, I can’t imagine Maslow telling someone about to be murdered by a mob that they ought to get something to eat and drink, put on more layers of clothing, and then get a good night’s rest before running to save their lives. This is the reductio ad absurdum of the hierarchy of needs, and such an observation in no way vitiates the overall scheme, insofar as any general scheme must admit of exceptions.

If that were all, appropriate exceptions could be built into the hierarchy of needs to accommodate immediate exigencies, but that isn’t all. The very idea that our moral life is a distant and expensive luxury that occurs at a peak of self-fulfillment and self-actualization (perhaps reserved for exemplary individuals) is so profoundly misleading that it falsifies what it means to be human.

Let us consider another example. If you find yourself isolated, without friends or family, and thus lacking all the components of love and belonging — and, to formulate this even more strongly, perhaps you see no way whatsoever of lifting yourself out of this isolation — and you use this isolation to focus on the fulfillment of a higher creative or moral calling (instead of fruitlessly expending your energies trying to fulfill this level of the hierarchy of needs, in order to move up to the next level in an orderly and purposeful manner), is your flaunting of the hierarchy of needs a sign of your pathology?

Some of the greatest works of art in human history, the pinnacle of achievement of what would ordinarily be thought of as the work of exemplary individuals, have grown out of circumstances that seem to pervert every assumption built into the hierarchy of needs. Certainty there is sense in which the construction of great communal projects such as the Parthenon, Chartres cathedral, or the Taj Mahal rest on an established material and intellectual framework which is the civilizational equivalent of physiological needs, but the hierarchy of needs was formulated to describe individual psychology and not the functioning of exemplary civilizations (though it may be applicable to this also, mutatis mutandis). Certainly in some individuals we see a progressive fulfillment of needs from the physiological to the intellectual, but I don’t think that this is an adequate, or even a fair, portrayal of the further reaches of human nature.

I have often said that, “…I don’t believe that a person can get out of bed in the morning without implicitly having formulated a philosophical judgment that life is worth living and therefore there is a reason to get out of bed, and not merely to lie there and do nothing.” (cf. Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method). Taking this as the basis for all else that follows from this experience of the human condition, it is in this sense that I have used “raison d’être” as the foundation of an inverted hierarchy of needs (see illustration below). From the individual’s raison d’être at the foundations of an inverted hierarchy of needs there follows, in perfectly reverse order, the fulfillment of emotional and psychological drives eventually building up to the final satisfaction of physical drives and needs.

While it is true that if you do not have air you will die within minutes, and if you do not have water you will die within days, such immediate exigencies can be compared to the immediate exigencies noted above in relation to Maslow’s formulation of a hierarchy of needs: the existence of these immediate contingencies in no way vitiate the overall scheme. An inverted hierarchy of needs admits of certain exceptions. Granted these exceptions, I find this to be a more accurate depiction of actual human experience than Maslow’s version.

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Maslow hierarchy inverted

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A revised and expanded version of this can be found at Inverting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Revised and Expanded, as well as two addenda, Addendum on Inverting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Another Addendum on the Moral Psychology of Needs.

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