12 December 2014
An Exercise in Techno-Philosophy
Quite some time ago in Fear of the Future I employed the phase “the technological frontier,” but I did not follow up on this idea in a systematic way. In the popular mind, the high technology futurism of the technological singularity has largely replaced the futurism of rocketships and jetpacks, so that the idea of a technological frontier has particular resonance for us today. The idea of a technological frontier is particularly compelling in our time, as technology seems to dominate our lives to an increasing degree, and this trend may only accelerate in the future. If our lives are shaped by technology today, how much more profoundly will they be shaped by technology in ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years? We would seem to be poised like pioneers on a technological frontier.
How are we to understand the human condition in the age of the technological frontier? The human condition is no longer merely the human condition, but it is the human condition in the context of technology. This was not always the case. Let me try to explain.
While humanity emerged from nature and lived entirely within the context of nature, our long prehistory integrated into nature was occluded and utterly lost after the emergence of civilization, and the origins of civilization was attended by the formulation of etiological mythologies that attributed supernatural causes to the manifold natural causes that shape our lives. We continued to live at the mercy of nature, but posited ourselves as outside nature. This led to a strangely conflicted conception of nature and a fraught relationship with the world from which we emerged.
The fraught human relationship to nature has been characterized by E. O. Wilson in terms of biophilia; the similarly fraught human relationship to technology might be similarly characterized in terms of technophilia, which I posited in The Technophilia Hypothesis (and further elaborated in Technophilia and Evolutionary Psychology). And as with biophilia and biophobia, so, too, while there is technophilia, there is also technophobia.
Today we have so transformed our world that the context of our lives is the technological world; we have substituted technology for nature as the framework within which we conduct the ordinary business of life. And whereas we once asked about humanity’s place in nature, we now ask, or ought to ask, what humanity’s place is or ought to be in this technological world with which we have surrounded ourselves. We ask these questions out of need, existential need, as there is both pessimism and optimism about a human future increasingly dominated by the technology we have created.
I attach considerable importance to the fact that we have literally surrounded ourselves with our technology. Technology began as isolated devices that appeared within the context of nature. A spear, a needle, a comb, or an arrow were set against the background of omnipresent nature. And the relationship of these artifacts to their sources in nature were transparent: the spear was made of wood, the needle and the comb of bone, the arrow head of flint. Technological artifacts, i.e., individual instances of technology, were interpolations into the natural world. Over a period of more than ten thousand years, however, technological artifacts accumulated until they have displaced nature and they constitute the background against which nature is seen. Nature then became an interpolation within the context of the technological innovations of civilizations. We have gardens and parks and zoos that interpolate plants and animals into the built environment, which is the environment created by technology.
With technology as the environment and the background of our lives, and not merely constituted by objects within our lives, technology now has an ontological dimension — it has its own laws, its own features, its own properties — and it has a frontier. We ourselves are objects within a technological world (hence the feeling of anomie from being cogs within an enormous machine); we populate an environment defined and constituted by technology, and as such bear some relationship to the ontology of technology as well as to its frontier. Technology conceived in this way, as a totality, suggests ways of thinking about technology parallel to our conceptions of humanity and civilization, inter alia.
One way to think about the technological frontier is as the human exploration of the technium. The idea of the technium accords well with the conception of the technological world as the context of human life that I described above. The “technium” is a term introduced by Kevin Kelly to denote the totality of technology. Here is the passage in which Kelly introduces the term:
“I dislike inventing new words that no one else uses, but in this case all known alternatives fail to convey the required scope. So I’ve somewhat reluctantly coined a word to designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us. I call it the technium. The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections. For the rest of this book I will use the term technium where others might use technology as a plural, and to mean a whole system (as in “technology accelerates”). I reserve the term technology to mean a specific technology, such as radar or plastic polymers.”
Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants
The concept of the technium can be extended in parallel to schema I have applied to civilization in Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-, so that we have the concepts of the eotechnium, the esotechnium, the exotechnium, and the astrotechnium. (Certainly no one is going to employ this battery of unlovely terms I have coined — neither the words nor the concepts are immediately accessible — but I keep this ideas in the back of my mind and hope to further extend, perhaps in a formal context in which symbols can be substituted for awkward words and the ideas can be presented.)
● Eotechnium the origins of technology, wherever and whenever it occurs, terrestrial or otherwise
● Esotechnium our terrestrial technology
● Exotechnium the extraterrestrial technium exclusive of the terrestrial technium
● Astrotechnium the technium in its totality throughout the universe; the terrestrial and extraterrestrial technium taken together in their cosmological context
I previously formulated these permutations of technium in Civilization and the Technium. In that post I wrote:
The esotechnium corresponds to what has been called the technosphere, mentioned above. I have pointed out that the concept of the technosphere (like other -spheres such as the hydrosphere and the sociosphere, etc.) is essentially Ptolemaic in conception, i.e., geocentric, and that to make the transition to fully Copernican conceptions of science and the world we need to transcend our Ptolemaic ideas and begin to employ Copernican ideas. Thus to recognize that the technosphere corresponds to the esotechnium constitutes conceptual progress, because on this basis we can immediately posit the exotechnium, and beyond both the esotechnium and the exotechnium we can posit the astrotechnium.
We can already glimpse the astrotechnium, in so far as human technological artifacts have already reconnoitered the solar system and, in the case of the Voyager space probes, have left the solar system and passed into interstellar space. The technium then, i.e., from the eotechnium originating on Earth, now extends into space, and we can conceive the whole of this terrestrial technology together with our extraterrestrial technology as the astrotechnium.
It is a larger question yet whether there are other technological civilizations in the universe — it is the remit of SETI to discover if this is the case — and, if there are, there is an astrotechnium much greater than that we have created by sending our probes through our solar system. A SETI detection of an extraterrestrial signal would mean that the technology of some other species had linked up with our technology, and by their transmission and our reception an interstellar astrotechnium comes into being.
The astrotechnium is both itself a technological frontier, and it extends throughout the frontier of extraterrestrial space, and a physical frontier of space. The exploration of the astrotechnium would be at once an exploration of the technological frontier and an exploration of an actual physical frontier. This is surely the frontier in every sense of the term. But there are other senses as well.
We can go my taxonomy of the technium one better and also include the endotechnium, where the prefix “endo-” means “inside” or “interior.” The endotechnium is that familiar motif of contemporary thought of virtual reality becoming indistinguishable from the reality of nature. Virtual reality is immersion in the endotechnium.
I have noted (in An Idea for the Employment of “Friendly” AI) that one possible employment of friendly AI would be the on-demand production of virtual worlds for our entertainment (and possibly also our education). One would presumably instruct one’s AI interface (which already has all human artistic and intellectual accomplishments storied in its databanks) that one wishes to enter into a particular story. The AI generates the entire world virtually, and one employs one’s preferred interface to step into the world of the imagination. Why would one so immersed choose to emerge again?
One of the responses to the Fermi paradox is that any sufficiently advanced civilization that had developed to the point of being able to generate virtual reality of a quality comparable to ordinary experience would thereafter devote itself to the exploration of virtual worlds, turning inward rather than outward, forsaking the wider universe outside for the universe of the mind. In this sense, the technological frontier represented by virtual reality is the exploration of the human imagination (or, for some other species, the exploration of the alien imagination). This exploration was formerly carried out in literature and the arts, but we seem poised to enact this exploration in an unprecedented way.
There are, then, many senses of the technological frontier. Is there any common framework within which we can grasp the significance of these several frontiers? The most famous representative of the role of the frontier in history is of course Frederick Jackson Turner, for whom the Turner Thesis is named. At the end of his famous essay on the frontier in American life, Turner wrote:
“From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance. The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom — these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.”
Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which constitutes the first chapter of The Frontier In American History
Turner is not widely cited today, and his work has fallen into disfavor (especially targeted by the “New Western Historians”), but much that Turner observed about the frontier is not only true, but more generally applicable beyond the American experience of the frontier. I think many readers will recognize in the attitudes of those today on the technological frontier the qualities that Turner described in the passage quoted above, attributing them specially to the American frontier, which for Turner was, “an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward.”
The technological frontier, too, is an area of free space — the abstract space of technology — the continuous recession of this free space as frontier technologies migrate into the ordinary business of life even while new frontiers are opened, and the advance of pioneers into the technological frontier.
One of the attractions of a frontier is that it is distant from the centers of civilization, and in this sense represents an escape from the disciplined society of mature institutions. The frontier serves as a refuge; the most marginal elements of society naturally seek the margins of society, at the periphery, far from the centers of civilization. (When I wrote about the center and periphery of civilization in The Farther Reaches of Civilization I could just as well have expressed myself in terms of the frontier.)
In the past, the frontier was defined in terms of its (physical) distance from the centers of civilization, but the world of high technology being created today is a product of the most technologically advanced centers of civilization, so that the technological frontier is defined by its proximity to the centers of civilization, understood at the centers of innovation and production for industrial-technological civilization.
The technological frontier nevertheless exists on the periphery of many of the traditional symbols of high culture that were once definitive of civilizational centers; in this sense, the technological frontier may be defined as the far periphery of the traditional center of civilization. If we identify civilization with the relics of high culture — painting, sculpture, music, dance, and even philosophy, all understood in their high-brow sense (and everything that might have featured symbolically in a seventeenth century Vanitas painting) — we can see that the techno-philosophy of our time has little sympathy for these traditional markers of culture.
The frontier has been the antithesis of civilization — civilization’s other — and the further one penetrates the frontier, moving always away from civilization, the nearer one approaches the absolute other of civilization: wildness and wilderness. The technological frontier offers to the human sense of adventure a kind of wildness distinct from that of nature as well as the intellectual adventure of traditional culture. Although the technological frontier is in one sense antithetical to the post-apocalyptic visions of formerly civilized individuals transformed into a noble savage (which usually marked by technological rejectionism), there is also a sense in which the technological frontier is like the post-apocalyptic frontier in its radical rejection of bourgeois values.
If we take the idea of the technological frontier in the context of the STEM cycle, we would expect that the technological frontier would have parallels in science and engineering — a scientific frontier and an engineering frontier. In fact, the frontier of scientific knowledge has been a familiar motif since at least the middle of the twentieth century. With the profound disruptions of scientific knowledge represented by relativity and quantum theory, the center of scientific inquiry has been displaced into an unfamiliar periphery populated by strange and inexplicable phenomena of the kind that would have been dismissed as anomalies by classical physics.
The displacement of traditional values of civilization, and even of traditional conceptions of science, gives the technological frontier its frontier character even as it emerges within the centers of industrial-technological civilization. In The Interstellar Imperative I asserted that the central imperative of industrial-technological civilization is the propagation of the STEM cycle. It is at least arguable that the technological frontier is both a result and a cause of the ongoing STEM cycle, which experiences its most unexpected advances when its scientific, technological, and engineering innovations seem to be at their most marginal and peripheral. A civilization that places itself within its own frontier in this way is a frontier society par excellence.
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28 August 2014
In my previous post, Big History and Historiography I touched on the question of scientific historiography, which is a central question for Big History because Big History is scientific historiography in its most recent incarnation. There are certain considerations that follow from big history being scientific historiography, and I will attempt to explore these considerations below.
The early examples of western historiography in the works of Herodotus and Thucydides still stand as models for historical writing and historiographical method, and this is a tradition that continued on even into medieval times, in the great histories of Sir John Froissart and Philippe de Commines, who must have read their models carefully and deduced the lessons that had not yet, at that time, been explicitly formulated as principles. Despite these admirable models to emulate, a lot of history has been more or less conscious myth-making, which may then be contrasted to the unconscious myth-making that has yielded religious mythology (through a gradual process of selection not unlike that which yielded the first domesticated crops). Histories have given us historical myths, which is of course why Descartes rejected history as a source of knowledge (of which more below).
With the renaissance we begin to see the emergence of critical historiography, and this then goes on to become the dominant trend in historiography in the following centuries. Historians consciously cultivated a conception of history based on citing sources and basing all claims on written evidence, and these critical historians began to seek out original source material and then to compare and criticize sources in order to arrive, through a methodology that did not necessarily take these sources at their word, at a considered account of history. There is a fascinating book about this — Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination By Paul Veyne — that delves into the emergence of critical historiography. Veyne cites in particular the reception of the Recherches de la France (1560) of Étienne Pasquier, which cites original source material in footnotes. Readers at the time, Veyne noted, objected to this method, and asked Pasquier why he did not rather submit his text to the judgment of posterity, which would either reject it or confirm it as tradition and canon.
Although Pasquier’s Recherches de la France was an early instance of critical historiography, it was also, in its own way, a piece of mythmaking and so something of a historical myth — but not precisely the myth that Pasquier’s contemporaries were prepared to hear. Pasquier was concerned to demonstrate the independent achievements of French civilization apart from classical antiquity, so that Pasquier did not begin with the Greeks or the Romans, but with the earliest peoples of Gaul, about which he derived some sketchy background from Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul — but this, too, is an fascinating window onto historical methodology, as many historians of the later twentieth century up to the present day have attempted to derive the authentic history of colonialized peoples by reading between the lines of the histories and chronicles left by their conquerors. Pasquier was more modern than he knew, and more modern even that Veyne realized.
Critical historiography is then followed by scientific historiography, and scientific historiography begins to go beyond the original texts sought out by critical history and to pursue forms of evidence that did not even exist for previous historians, except in so far as they were preserved in folk memory. Scientific historiography has its own methods and its own canons of evidence, distinct from those of critical historiography. Scientific evidence and sources of knowledge are treated in critical fashion, but it is critical according to the methods of natural science, not textual exegesis. Both critical historiography and scientific historiography have sources and methods of evidence, and both take a critical view of these sources and evidence, but these methods remain distinct at present. These canons of evidence can be brought together if the will and the motive to force an integration and possibly even a synthesis is present, and this attempt to synthesize critical and scientific historiography is an implicit aim of big history.
One of the themes that became evident at the IBHA conference was the extent to which big history embraces the canons of evidence of scientific historiography. The terminology that has been introduced in big history is that of “claims testers,” which is systematically seeking to teach those who are learning big history how to verify the claims that are made on the basis of the methodology of natural science. This is an admirable undertaking, and I can’t say enough good things about an historical method that teaches students to be critical and to demand evidence for any and all claims made. However, the traditional historiographical challenge of “claims testing” was a hermeneutical exercise in textual exegesis. Historians got quite good at this kind of textual criticism. Already in the renaissance it was shown (by Lorenzo Valla), from internal evidence of the document, that the so-called “Donation of Constantine” was a medieval forgery. This work of exegesis continues into our own day, as ancient books are occasionally discovered and similarly interrogated. For example, the recovery of the Nag Hammadi library was a literary bonanza for New Testament scholars, whose discipline was revolutionized by this material.
Analogously, before detailed genetic studies revealed the pattern of human planetary dispersion, there was language, which preserves in its words and structures something of its own distant past, much as DNA does. Linguists traced the world’s languages backward to a root proto-Indo-European language and identified certain nodal points in the development and dispersal of that root. The study of language is in some ways an expansion upon traditional historiography based upon written language, which is say, history in the strict sense, in its narrowest construal, that of traditional historiography. That traditional historiography can be expanded and extended in this way, with the study of language, of inscriptions, of coins, the reconstruction or partially destroyed manuscripts, and other methods, shows how traditional text-based historiography can tend toward scientific historiography. The hunger for knowledge about the past does not relent where our documents leave off, and scholars have sought to fill in lacuna by hook or by crook. Some of these inventive methods have shaded over into scientific historiography.
Scientific Historiography and the Method of Isolation
The physical manuscripts of the Nag Hammadi libtrary themselves, and the context of their recovery, is something to be studied by scientific archaeology (after the fact, as the manuscripts themselves were initially recovered not by archaeologists, but by two Egyptian brothers who kept their discovery quiet in order to sell the find piece by piece, so that much of the archaeological context was lost), but just as traditional literary historiography is limited by its own canons of evidence and cannot penetrate into prehistory, so too scientific historiography is limited by its scientific canons of evidence, and from its studies of the physical condition of manuscripts it can say very little about the historical period as compared to simply reading the documents, which, however, is a specialized skill of scholars of ancient languages (the kind of scholars who revealed the Donation of Constantine as a forgery).
Now, in actual fact, scientific historians do not limit themselves to a scientific study of documents as physical artifacts; they also read the documents and derive information from the content, as we would expect they would. But if, as an exercise, we take the idea of scientific historiography according to the method of isolation, and consider it ideally as only scientific historiography, shorn from its association with traditional historiographical methods, we would be reduced to an archaeology of the historical period, which would be most unsatisfying.
Suppose, as a thought experiment, scientific historiography were to employ its methods to study what archaeologists call the “material culture” of the historical period, but was on principle denied any information recorded in actual documents and inscriptions. That is to say, suppose our picture of the historical past were exclusively the result of the study of the material culture of the historical past (here employing “history” in the narrow and traditional sense of history recorded in written documents). I think that our the historical past reconstructed on the basis of what scientific historiography could derive from material culture would be quite different from the story that we know of the historical past in virtue of written records. No one that I know of pursues this method of isolation in studying the historical past when documents are also available, though this method of isolation is pursued of necessity in the absence of any documents (or in the absence of a language that can be deciphered). Though this method is not pursued in history, it is important to point to that scientific historiography has its limitations no less than the limitations of critical historiography and its tradition.
Isaiah Berlin and Scientific Historiography
Scholarship perpetually finds itself in the midst of the tension between traditionalism and modernization. If tradition is always given priority, scholarship becomes exclusively backward-looking and retrograde; Nietzsche would say that this is history that does not serve life. There have been many examples of this throughout the intellectual life of our planet. But scholarship cannot simply seize upon every intellectual trend that comes along, or it would lose touch with the established canons that have made rigorous scholarship possible. The introduction of a new idea might in fact expand these canons so that rigorous scholarship can have a wider field — I believe this to be the case with big history — but a new idea can appear to traditionalists as a threat to established research, a heresy, a diversion, or a waste of time.
Scientific historiography has been and is just such a new idea: different scholars have judged of it differently. Some few take up the new idea with enthusiasm, most are hesitant, while some few transform themselves into defenders of orthodoxy. Isaiah Berlin took up the problem of scientific historiography, and while he defended a traditionalist position, he did so intelligently, and not in the spirit of a reactionary rejecting anything that contradicts orthodoxy. For that reason we have much to learn from Berlin on this point.
Here is a representative passage from his essay on scientific historiography:
“The gifts that historians need are different from those of the natural scientists. The latter must abstract, generalise, idealise, qualify, dissociate normally associated ideas (for nature is full of strange surprises, and as little as possible must be taken for granted), deduce, establish with certainty, reduce everything to the maximum degree of regularity, uniformity, and, so far as possible, to timeless repetitive patterns. Historians cannot ply their trade without a considerable capacity for thinking in general terms; but they need, in addition, peculiar attributes of their own: a capacity for integration, for perceiving qualitative similarities and differences, a sense of the unique fashion in which various factors combine in the particular concrete situation, which must at once be neither so unlike any other situation as to constitute a total break with the continuous flow of human experience, nor yet so stylised and uniform as to be the obvious creature of theory and not of flesh and blood.”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
Notice in this above passage that Berlin is attributing a nomothetic (lawlike) approach to science and an ideographic (contingency and accident) approach to history. There is a long 19th century tradition of associating history exclusively with the ideographic (i.e., the contingent). This is especially true in Windelband’s 1894 Rectorial Address “History and Natural Science,” which was to be such a profound influence upon Heinrich Rickert, who continued this tradition of thought. While figures like Windelband and Rickert were committed to a rigorous method in historiography, the idea of history as exclusively ideographic is at bottom a Platonic motif, and in Plato the nomothetic is necessary, apodictic truth, worthy of being immortalized among The Forms, while all else is the realm of mere shifting opinion. It is in this tradition Descartes is implicitly following as he searched for an apodictic truth upon which to build science, and along the way dismissed history in a famous passage:
“…fables make one imagine many events to be possible which are not so at all. And even the most accurate histories, if they neither alter nor exaggerate the significance of things in order to render them more worthy of being read, almost always at least omit the baser and less noteworthy details. Consequently the rest do not appear as they really are, and those who govern their own conduct by means of examples drawn from these texts are liable to fall into the extravagances of the knights of our romances and to conceive plans that are beyond their powers.”
René Descartes, Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Searching for Truth in the Sciences
Cartesians thereafter were well known for their lack of interest in history as an intellectual discipline, and if one takes mathematical reasoning as one’s paradigm (an early theme in Descartes that is already evident in his Rules for the Direction of Mind) it is not surprising that historical knowledge will not measure up to this apodictic standard. Even today one finds a quasi-Cartesian skepticism about history among some intelligent individuals whose epistemology is derived, implicitly or explicitly, from mathematics and the non-historical natural sciences.
From his presumption that history is ideographic and science nomothetic, Berlin determines that each contradicts the other:
“…to say of history that it should approximate to the condition of a science is to ask it to contradict its essence.”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
While it is true that scientific method has focused on the nomothetic while historiographical method has focused on the ideographic, is it not possible that there is a nascent, undeveloped ideographic science and a nascent, undeveloped nomothetic historiography, each discipline waiting to be born, as it were, when our conceptual infrastructure feels the want of them and we are forced to develop new conceptions that transcend our old conceptions of science and history? Nomothetic science, ideographic history, nomothetic history, and ideographic science will naturally fit together like the pieces of a puzzle, each complementing rather than contradicting the other. Integrating human history into a background of scientific history, as in cosmology, geology, biology, etc., one is integrating the nomothetic and the ideographic.
One of the most interesting points in Berlin’s essay is his suggestion, by way of an analogy with unscientific thought, of the possibility of an unhistorical mode of thought:
“…to be unscientific is to defy, for no good logical or empirical reason, established hypotheses and laws; while to be unhistorical is the opposite — to ignore or twist one’s view of particular events, persons, predicaments, in the name of laws, theories, principles derived from other fields, logical, ethical, metaphysical, scientific, which the nature of the medium renders inapplicable…”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
A truly comprehensive and integrative history — presumably the aim of big history — would have to avoid both unscientific and unhistorical modes of thought, and this is a valuable observation. This demonstrates that big history is not merely eclectic, but must also, like any rigorous discipline, be defined in terms of what it excludes.
Even though I do not agree with Berlin in detail, and often I disagree with him when it comes to the big picture also, I think that big history can only benefit by engaging with his ideas and his perspective. Ignoring the problems that Berlin points out is not, in my opinion, intellectually responsible. The scholar is called upon to respect and to respond to the arguments of earlier scholars, if only to refute them in order to demonstrate to future generations a blind alley to be avoided.
This brings me to the final quote I will take from Berlin’s essay, and where I most completely disagree with him:
“…the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied, no matter how successful the human sciences may grow to be — even if, as all but obscurantists must hope, they discover genuine, empirically confirmed, laws of individual and collective behaviour — seems an attempt to square the circle. It is not a vain hope for an ideal goal beyond human powers, but a chimera, born of lack of understanding of the nature of natural science, or of history, or of both.”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
I am not saying that Berlin’s approach to history is a blind alley, since traditional historical scholarship can continue and be absorbed into the architectonic of big history, but Berlin is definitely asserting that “the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied” is a blind alley, and here I must decisively part company with Berlin. I think it both possible and desirable to seek a pure theory of history that would stand in relation to applied, empirical history as pure geometry is related to empirical geometry. I would call this discipline formal historiography, and it strikes me as the obvious next development following traditional historiography, critical historiography, and scientific historiography.
Probably this view would divide me no less from most big historians than from traditional historians like Isaiah Berlin. Big history could be a formal school of historical thought in the way that the cultural processual school in archaeology is a formal school of archaeological thought, no less concerned with formal models and the hypothetico-deductive method than with excavating mounds and sorting pottery sherds. But this clearly does not appear to be the direction in which big history is headed.
There could, of course, be a small subfield of formal big history within the overall umbrella (or, if you like, big tent) of big history, which would proceed in true hypothetico-deductive fashion, formulating general laws about history, deriving predictions from these laws, and confirming or disconfirming the laws by testing the predictions against actual events. The scientific method at its most formal has served us well in other capacities, and we have yet to bring its full force to bear upon historical questions.
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Studies in Grand Historiography
8. Big History and Scientific Historiography
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24 August 2014
History without Big History
Not long before I attended the 2014 IBHA “big history” conference I picked up a book at a used bookstore titled History: A Brief Insight by John H. Arnold. The book is copyrighted 2000, with additional text copyrighted 2009. Upon my return from the conference in California, I looked over the book more carefully, scanned the bibliography for names and titles, read the index, and skimmed the text. There is no hint of big history in the book.
There are a number of historians for whom “big history” simply does not yet exist, and, on the basis of textual evidence alone (that is to say, without knowing anything about John H. Arnold except what I found in this one book), John H. Arnold would seem to be one of these historians. I have enjoyed what I have read so far in Arnold’s book, and he covers a range of historiographical questions from human nature (does it change or is it the same in all ages?), through Leopold von Ranke (about how I recently wrote in Political Dimensions of History), to Fernand Braudel and the twentieth century Annales school of historians. There is much here to appreciate, and from which to learn.
It is still, today, possible to write a general introductory text on history and say nothing about big history. Is it significant that a contemporary historian can review perennial ideas of historiography without mentioning the growing contribution of big history to historiographical thought? It is, I think, both significant and understandable. I will try to sketch out why I think this to be the case.
Is there a place for historiography in big history?
Big history, although a creation of historians (David Christian specialized in Russian and Soviet history), owes more to the emergence of scientific historiography than to traditional historiography, and it shows. During my time at the IBHA conference the traditional language and concepts of historiography were notable in their absence: I did not hear a single person (other than myself) mention diachronic, synchronic, ideographic, or nomothetic approaches (four concepts that I have integrated in what I called the axes of historiography), nor did I hear any mention of the Carr-Elton debate or its contemporary re-setting in the work of Rorty and White by Keith Jenkins, nor did I hear anyone mention those figures and ideas that appeared in John H. Arnold noted above, such as Ranke, Bloc, and Braudel.
In the discussion following the presentation by John Mears the traditional historiographical question was asked — Is history a science or does it belong with the humanities? — but, surprisingly in a group of historians, the question was not taken up in its historical context, and it is the historical context of the question, in which history has tended toward the scientific or toward the humanistic by turns, that could most benefit the emerging conception of big history. The question came up again in a nearly explicit form in Fred Spier’s plenary address on the last day, “The Future of Big History,” when Spier brought up C. P. Snow’s famous lecture on “The Two Cultures.” In the middle of the twentieth century Snow had dissected the misunderstanding and mutual mistrust of the sciences and the humanities. This would have been the perfect time and the perfect context in which to pursue the relationship between these two cultures in big history, but Spier did not pursue the theme.
Paradoxical though it sounds, there is, at present, little or no place for historiography — that is to say, for the traditional conflicts and controversies of historiography — within the framework of big history, which seems to effortlessly bypass these now apparently arcane disagreements among scholars, which appear small if not petty within the capacious context of the history of the universe entire.
Big History and Scientific Historiography
Big history is, indirectly, a consequence of the emergence of scientific historiography in the previous century. This is one of the great intellectual movements of our time, and in saying that there appears to be little or no place for historiography within big history I am not seeking to demean or disparage either big history or scientific historiography. On the contrary, I have written many posts and scientific historiography, and the idea plays an important, if not a central, role in my own thought.
From the diversity of opinion represented at the IBHA conference I attended, one can already see divisions emerging between the more natural-science based perspectives and more traditionally humanistically-based perspectives on big history, and one can just as easily imagine a formulation of big history that is more or less an extended branch of physics, or a formulation of big history that only incidentally touches upon physics while investing most of its resources in human history — though, to be sure, a human history greatly expanded by scientific historiography.
For the moment, however, it is the emerging trend of scientific historiography that is the central influence in big history, and this accounts both for the marginalization of traditional historiographical controversies as well as the particular approach to historical evidence that is adopted in big history.
The Handwriting on the Wall
One can already see the handwriting on the wall: big history will become, and then will remain, the dominant paradigm in historiography for the foreseeable future. Any reaction against big history that seeks to raise (or to restore) minutiae and miniaturism to a preeminent position will simply be absorbed into the overall framework of big history, which is sufficiently capacious to find a niche for anything within its comprehensive structure, and which is not bound to reject any kind of historical research.
Given the present paradigm of scientific thought, there is no more comprehensive perspective that can be adopted than that of big history. And when, in the fullness of time, science advances past its present paradigm and places our present knowledge in an even more capacious context, big history can be expanded in like fashion. This is because, as David Christian noted, big history is a form of “framework” thinking. Evolutionary biology is similarly a form of framework thinking, and it was able to seamlessly incorporate plate tectonics and geomorphology into its structure, and is now incorporating astrobiology into its structure for an ever-more-comprehensive perspective on life. Big history as a theoretical framework for historical thought is (or will be) in a position to do the same thing for history.
Even though big history is still inchoate, perhaps one of the reasons it is likely to experience more resistance than the school of world history (there has been an interest in “world history” for some time before big history appeared) is that it incorporates a few definite and distinctive ideas, and, moreover, ideas that have not been a part of traditional historiography (specifically, emergent complexity and “Goldilocks” conditions). When big history develops a more coherent theoretical framework big history will find itself forced to define itself vis-à-vis the traditional historiographical concepts that it has so far largely avoided. One way to do this is to cast them aside and proceed without them; another way is to choose sides and become pigeon-holed into categories of historiographical thought that do not precisely suit big history.
The Structure of Historiographical Revolutions
It has been the nature of intellectual revolutions to cast aside past conceptual frameworks and to strike out in new directions. The most influential work in the philosophy of science of the twentieth century, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, meticulously detailed this process of intellectual revolution. Big history might be just such an intellectual revolution, and with the power of the scientific historiography it can easily abandon the traditions of historiography and strike out to map its own territory in its own way. I think that this would be a mistake. While past intellectual revolutions have needed to break with the past in order to make progress, this break with the past has come at a cost. When renaissance scholarship not only broke with the medieval past, but ridiculed its scholasticism, this may have been necessary at the time, but it resulted in the loss of the sophisticated logic created by medieval scholars, which could have extended and deepened the work of the literary and humanistic scholars of the renaissance. Instead, the tradition of medieval logic lay fallow for five hundred years, and is only being rediscovered in out time, when it is less of a help than it might have been in the past.
Big history could, without doubt, do without traditional historiography, but it would do much better to learn the lessons painstakingly learned by historical scholars since the emergence of critical history, starting with the same renaissance scholars who rejected medieval logic but who created a new discipline of the critical analysis of the language of historical documents. In the transition from the medieval to the modern world it was probably necessary to make a clean break with the past — the Copernican revolution, which plays so large a role in Kuhn’s thought, is another instance of a modern break with the medieval past — but social conditions have changed radically, and it is less necessary to make a break with modernity than it was to make a break with medievalism.
I count myself as a friend of both scientific history and big history, but I don’t think that it is necessary to reject the historiographical tradition in order to pursue these historical frameworks. On the contrary, scientific history and big history will be much more sophisticated if they learn to use the tools developed by earlier generations of historians.
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Studies in Grand Historiography
7. Big History and Historiography
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9 August 2014
Day 3 of the 2014 IBHA conference began with panel 32 in room 201, “Complexity (2).” Three speakers were scheduled, but one canceled so that more time was available to the other two. This turned out to be quite fortunate. This panel was, without question, one of the best I have attended. It began with Ken Baskin on “Sister Disciplines: Bringing Big History and Complexity Theory Together,” and continued with Claudio Maccone with “Entropy as an Evolution Measure (Evo-SETI Theory).”
Ken Baskin, author of the forthcoming The Axial Ages of World History: Lessons for the 21st Century, said that big history and complexity theory are “post-Newtonian disciplines that complement each other.” His subsequent exposition made a real impression to this end. He used the now-familiar concepts of complexity — complex adaptive systems (CAS), non-linearity, and attractors, strange and otherwise — to give an exposition of big history periodization. He presented historical changes as being “thick” — that is to say, not as brief transitional periods, but as extended transitional periods that led to even longer-term states of relative stability. According to his periodization, the hunter-gatherer era was stable, and was followed by the disruption of the agricultural revolution; this eventually issued in a stable “pre-axial” age, which was in turn disrupted by the Axial Age. The Axial Age transition lasted for several hundred years but gave way to somewhat stable post-Axial societies, and this in turn has been disrupted by a second axial age. According to Baskin, we have been in this second axial transition since about 1500 and have not yet settled down into a new, stable social regime.
Claudio Maccone is an Italian SETI astronomer who has written a range of technical books, including Mathematical SETI: Statistics, Signal Processing, Space Missions and Deep Space Flight and Communications: Exploiting the Sun as a Gravitational Lens. His presentation was nothing less than phenomenal. My response is partly due to the fact that he addressed many of my interests. Before the IBHA conference a friend asked me what I would have talked about if I had given a presentation. I said that I would have talked about big history in relation to astrobiology, and specifically that I would like to point out the similarities between the emergent complexity schema of big history to the implicit levels of complexity in the Drake equation. This is exactly what Maccone did, and he did so brilliantly, with equations and data to back up his argument. Also, Maccone spoke like a professor giving a lecture, with an effortless mastery of his subject.
Maccone said that, for him, big history was simply an extension of the Drake equation — the Drake equation goes back some ten million years or so, and by adding some additional terms to the beginning of the Drake equation we can expand it to comprise the whole 13.7 billion years of cosmic history. I think that this was one of the best concise statements of big history that I heard at the entire conference, notwithstanding its deviation from most of the other definitions offered. The Drake equation is a theoretical framework that is limited only by the imagination of the researcher in revising its terms and expression. And Maccone has taken it much further yet.
Maccone has worked out a revision of the Drake equation that plugs probability distributions into the variables of the Drake equation (which he published as “The Statistical Drake Equation” in Acta Astronautica, 2010 doi:10.1016/
j.actaastro.2010.05.003). His work is the closest thing that I have seen to being a mathematical model of civilization. All I can say is: get all his books and papers and study them carefully. It will be worth the effort.
Big History and the Future
The next panel was the most difficult decision to make of the conference, because in one room were David Christian, Cynthia Brown, and others discussing “Meaning in Big History: A Naturalistic Perspective,” but I chose instead to go to panel 39 in room 301, “Big History and the Future,” which was concerned with futurism, or, as is now said, “future studies.”
The session started out with J. Daniel May reviewing past visions of the future by a discussion of twentieth century science fiction films, including Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Lost in Space, Star Trek, and 2001. I have seen all these films and television programs, and, as was evident by the discussion following the talk, many others had as well, citing arcane details from the films in their comments.
Joseph Voros then presented “On the transition to ‘Threshold 9’: examining the implications of ‘sustainability’ for human civilization, using the lens of big history.” The present big history schematization of the past that is most common (but not universal, as evidenced by this conference) recognizes eight thresholds of emergent complexity. This immediately suggests the question of what the next threshold of emergent complexity will be, which would be the ninth threshold, thus making the “ninth threshold” a kind of cipher among big historians and a framework for discussing the future in the context of big history. Given that the current threshold of emergent complexity is fossil-fueled civilization (what I call industrial-technological civilization), and given that fossil fuels are finite, an obvious projection for the future concerns the nature of a post-fossil-fuel civilization.
Voros claimed that all scenarios for the future fall into four categories: 1) continuation, 2) collapse (which is also called “descent”), 3) disciplined society (presumably what Bostrom would call “flawed realization”), and 4) transformational society, in which the transformation might be technological or spiritual. Since Voros was focused on post-fossil-fuel civilization, his talk was throughout related to “peak oil” concerns, though at a much more sophisticated level. He noted the the debate over “peak oil” is almost irrelevant from a big history perspective, because whether oil runs out now or later doesn’t alter the fact that it will run out being a finite resource renewable only over a period of time much greater than the time horizon of civilization. With this energy focus, he proposed that one of the forms of a “disciplined society” that could come about would be that of an “energy disciplined society.” Of the transformational possibilities he outlined four scenarios: 1) energy bonanza, 2) spiritual awakening, 3) brain/mind upload, and 4) childhood’s end.
After Voros, Cadell Last of the Global Brain Institute presented “The Future of Big History: High Intelligence to Developmental Singularity.” He began by announcing his “heretical” view that cultural evolution can be predicted. His subsequent talk revealed additional heresies without further trigger warnings. Last spoke of a coming era of cultural evolution in which the unit of selection is the idea (I was happy that he used “idea” instead of “meme”), and that this future would largely be determined by “idea flows” — presumably analogous to the “energy flows” of Eric Chaisson that have played such a large role in this conference, as well as the gene flows of biological evolution. (“Idea flows” may be understood as a contemporary reformulation of “idea diffusion.”) This era of cultural evolution will differ from biological evolution in that the idea flows, unlike gene flow in biological evolution, is not individual (it is cultural) and is not blind (conscious agents can plan ahead).
Last gave a wonderfully intuitive presentation of his ideas, and though it was the sort of thing that futurists recognize as familiar, I suspect much of what he said would strike the average listener as something akin to moral horror. Last said that, in the present world, biological and linguistic codes are in competition with each other, and gave the example familiar to everyone of having to make the choice whether to invest time and effort into biological descendants or cultural descendants. Scarcity of our personal resources means that we are likely to focus on one or the other. Finally, biological evolution will cease and all energies will be poured into cultural evolution. At this time, we will be free from the “tyranny of biology,” which requires that we engage in non-voluntary activities.
Reconceptualizations of Big History
For the final sessions divided into separate rooms I attended panel 44, “Reconceptualizations of Big History.” I came to this session primarily to hear to Camelo Castillo speak on “Mind as a Major Transition in big History.” Castillo, the author of Origins of Mind: A History of Systems, critiqued previous periodizations of big history, noting that they conflate changes in structure and changes in function. He then went on to define major transitions as, “transitions from individuals to groups that utilize novel processes to maintain novel structures.” With this definition, he went back to the literature and produced a periodization of six major transitions in big history. Not yet finished, he hypothesized that by looking for mind in the brain we are looking in the wrong place. Since all early major transitions involved both structures and processes, and from individuals to groups, that we should be looking for mind in social groups of human beings. The brain, he allowed, was implicated in the development of human social life, but social life is not reducible to the brain, and mind should be sought in theories of social intelligence.
Castillo’s work is quite rigorous and he defends it well, but I asked myself why we should not have different kinds of transitions at different stages of history and development, especially given that the kind of entities involved in the transition may be fundamentally distinct. Just as new or distinctive orders of existence require new or distinctive metrics for their measurement, so too new or distinctive orders of existence may come into being or pass out of being according to a transition specific to that kind of existent.
Final Plenary Sessions
After the individual session were finished, there was a series of plenary sessions. There was a presentation of Chronozoom, Fred Spier presented “The Future of Big History,” and finally there was a panel discussion entirely devoted to questions and answers, with Walter Alvarez, Craig Benjamin, Cynthia Brown, David Christian, Fred Spier, and Joseph Voros fielding the questions.
After the intellectual intensity of the sessions, it was not a surprise that these plenary sessions came to be mostly about funding, outreach, teaching, and the practical infrastructure of scholarship.
And with that the conference was declared to be closed.
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8 August 2014
It was another busy day at the 2014 IBHA big history conference at the Dominican University in San Rafael, California. I started out with Panel 17 in room 301 called “Interpretations.” Davidson Loehr started out the day right by giving a wonderful presentation on “Growing Beyond Religion: Big History and the Meaning of Life.” Loehr asserted that claims about human nature can now be addressed empirically — something he called “a revolution of the first order” — and that there are three aspects of human nature with “deeply uncomfortable” implications. He said that human nature includes innate empathy and compassion, but the deeply uncomfortable truth here is that empathy and compassion are not specifically human, but are found throughout the animal kingdom. Next he said that human nature is characterized by an innate selfishness. Lastly he said that human nature is inherently gullible. I found this last especially interesting, as was his development of the idea: “Ethical gullibility is the shadow side of our empathy and compassion.” I would like to see this idea further developed in the context of cognitive bias.
Jonathan Markley gave a remarkably entertaining presentation, “‘No meaning or intention’ the problem of intent in big history,” in which he emphasized that planning, meaning, intentions, and conscious behavior play much less of a constitutive role in history than is generally believed to be the case. Although I agree with this, I disagreed in detail with many of the particular claims made to prove this point. However, I liked the point that he illustrated by comparing human action to the coevolutionary relationship between squirrels and the trees that have become dependent upon squirrel seed caches for reproduction. He implied the dispensability of consciousness in human history, which is pushed along by evolutionary forces no less than squirrels and trees. But one could just as well draw the opposite lesson, and acknowledge (as implied by the previous talk) that what we think of as uniquely human (such as consciousness) is common in the animal world, and that consciousness is thus as crucial to the coevolutionary relationship between squirrels and trees as between human beings and their domesticates.
The third talk in this panel was Edward Simmons on “Big History, Meaning, and Paradigm Shifts.” While all the talks in this session were excellent, Simmons was an especially gifted speaker who delivers his material with evangelical zeal, which made his presentation entertaining in a different way from that of Jonathan Markley. Simmons cited two recent paradigms shifts — what he called the “McNeill Paradigm” (after the approach of William McNeill) and the erasure of the distinction between history and prehistory — and said that big history brings together these two paradigm shifts. Simmons spoke a lot about meaning, invoking Michael Shermer’s idea of patternicity, which contrasted quite starkly with the immediately previous presentation by Jonathan Markley, which sought to demote meaning in the same way that Simmons spoke of the “demotion” of the written historical record in the wake of scientific historiography as a source of prehistory. Thus even within a single panel discussion the diversity of present approaches to big history was clearly expressed in almost perfect antithetical terms: big history can do without human meanings, and big history is all about human meanings.
Big History Project Plenary Session
After the initial round of panels there was a plenary session at 11:00 am focusing on The Big History Project. This was mostly about teaching big history using resources developed by The Big History Project, but occasionally the teaching issues boil over into more general problems. During the question and answer session, a fellow who had spoken up in previous sessions with questions stood up and said that there were (at least) two conceptual confusions pervasive throughout discussions at this conference: 1) that something could come from nothing (presumably a reference to how the big bang is framed) and 2) that history can say anything about the future. The same individual (whose name I did not get) said that no one had given an adequate definition of history, and then noted that the original Greek term for history meant “inquiry.” Given this Grecian (or even, if you like, Herodotean) origin for the idea of history as an inquiry, I immediately asked myself, “If one can conduct an inquiry into the past, why cannot one also conduct an inquiry into the future?” No doubt these inquires will be distinct because one concerns the past and the other the future, but cannot they be taken up in the same spirit?
There are still a great many traditional historians who simply dismiss as not being history the many extensions made to traditional historiography. It is commonly asserted, for example, that natural history simply is not history in the sense that historians think of history, and that prehistory is not history, properly speaking; that scientific historiography is not history, and that inquiries into the future are not history. Adducing an argument of conceptual confusion against those who would expand and extend the scope of history reminds me of Quine’s “change of logic, change of subject” argument, in which Quine dismisses attempts to extend classical logics, saying that all that non-classical logics do is to change the subject. There is a sense in which big history is non-classical history, and those who would dismiss big history can say that big historians aren’t really doing history, they’re just changing the subject. I am not ascribing this view in detail to the individual who made the above remarks, but much of this is implicit in his comments.
After the Plenary session I headed to panel 23 in room 307 for “Interpretations (2).” First up in this panel was William Katerberg on “Mythic Meaning and Scientific Method in Big History.” This was the most intellectually rigorous presentation that I have seen so far at the conference. Katerberg brought up a lot of interesting issues in an interesting way, breaking new ground as he went. He started out with a discussion of teleology in relation to science, and as someone whose hackles immediately go up when I hear “teleology,” I expected to be irritated, but I wasn’t. Nor did Katerberg do anything predictable like a discussion of Aristotelian natural teleology, but gave several fascinating examples of teleology in science that I would never have thought to characterize in teleological terms. He pointed out the discussions of the supposed inevitability of life and intelligence are teleology. I also was interested in the distinction he made between strong and weak emergentism, which is crucial to clarifying the idea of emergent complexity that is so central to big history.
Next were talks by Rich Blundell on “Radical Hermeneutics: A Case for Big History’s Interpretative Strand,” followed by an online talk from Liverpool by David Hookes on “Cooperation — the key principle in the evolution of the universe.”
There were so many interesting things on the program this afternoon that it was extraordinarily difficult to choose, so for the next round of sessions I skipped between rooms. I started with panel 28 in room 302 to hear Nadia Tomova, who gave another online presentation on “Identification and Analysis of Thresholds in History,” then I skipped over to panel 29 in room 202, catching the last of a presentation from a Montessori standpoint. This was followed by two presenters from Portland, James Butler and Todd Duncan. Their topic was “Beyond Reductionism: Weaving Meaning into the Scientific Story of our Cosmic History.” This was another great presentation that broke new ground. The joint speakers outlined a “reductionist narrative” and then demonstrated its inadequacy. They then carefully constructed a counter-narrative that they called the “meaningful universe narrative,” based on the principle that the universe is generating a language in order to tell its own story. I have not given an adequate account of this, but take my word for it that it was a good idea well presented.
This was followed by Fred Spier on “How can we Understand the Emergence of Morality in Big History?” Spier began by citing Baron D’Holbach, a “notorious” atheist of the Enlightenment, who had asked during those rational and tolerant times how we might construct a better society without religion. His answer, using the best science of his time, was to seek a social order that makes both ourselves and others happy. Spier argued that Thomas Jefferson may have been influenced by D’Holbach. Spier then asked if we can return to D’Holbach’s project using the greater scientific knowledge we now have at our command, with big history as the context.
After these talks there was an extended and vigorous exchange between presenters and the audience, including some very funny remarks about the morality of stromatolites. Spier had traced the rudiments of moral behavior to rudimentary organisms, and a geologist asked how he could call stromatolites “good” when they caused the oxygen catastrophe and the mass extinction of most life on Earth at that time. This was all done very humorously, which I may not be accurately communicating.
With all this talk about meaning and morality, there was a lot of flirtation with the naturalistic fallacy, but no one dealt with this explicitly. But, more importantly, there was an elephant in the room. The elephant in the room was the traditional eschatological idea of a transcendent meaning that comes from outside the world to instill meaning and purpose to agents within the world. All the attempts by the speakers, some of them quite clever and ingenious, to show how the world is meaningful and that science need not be reductionist, failed to even address the fact that people who hunger for a meaning that comes from beyond the world to impose a purpose on all within the world will not be satisfied by any meaning intrinsic to the world — even if you could show them that their meaning too, which they arrogate to transcendent status, was also intrinsic to the world.
And there was another problem. In all the discussion of meaning in this panel and in others I attended today, not one person brought up hope as a source of meaning, as in hope for a better world in the future. I don’t think that this was merely an oversight, but rather that it reflects a pervasive tendency of our time to be skeptical if not cynical of any optimistic vision of the future. Having spoken myself on scenarios for the future that look toward more and better things for humanity if only we can prevent the stagnation of our civilization, I know whereof I speak. To be hopeful and optimistic about the future today almost comes across as eccentric. If you add to this pervasive skepticism in regard to hope a sotto voce celebration of lowered horizons, scaled back ambitions, and subtly ascetic modesty under the guise of a normative sustainability, it is difficult to get a hearing for a hopeful and optimistic vision of the future that sees even more human possibilities than we enjoy today.
Journey of the Universe
After some snacks (there was supposed to be a simple dinner, but the campus kitchen was closed down) there was a showing of the film “Journey of the Universe” followed by a discussion including the filmmakers Brian Swimmer and Mary Evelyn Tucker together with Fred Speir and Sun Yue.
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7 August 2014
2014 IBHA Conference
Yesterday I drove all day long from Portland to San Rafael, California, to attend the second IBHA conference, “Teaching and Researching Big History: Big Picture, Big Questions,” being held at the Dominican University of California. IBHA stands for “International Big History Association,” while “big history” is a contemporary approach to historiography that emphasizes telling the whole story of history from the big bang to the present day, and unifies scientific and humanistic approaches to history. Several of the leading figures in the field of big history are present, and many of them have spoken of how they came to the idea of big history, and that they were essentially doing big history long before there was a name for it. I can identify with this, as I was myself groping toward something like big history, which I am one time called integral history.
The conference began with a plenary session featuring David Christian who spoke on “Big History: A Personal Voyage.” David Christian is the most visible face in big history. He began by posing the question, “How do you segue from the smallest scales to the largest scales?” and he gave the first suggestion of an answer by using Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night over the Rhone” (reproduced above) to show the unity of the eight levels of emergent complexity identified by big historians, from the stars in the sky to the two human figures in the foreground. Christian said that he had been encouraged to give a personal view of his journey to big history, and he said that for him it began with an initial disillusionment, when he began school with great enthusiasm, thinking that this would be a place where big questions could be welcomed, and quickly found out that this was not the case. Big history, he said, gives us a framework in which to meaningfully ask big questions.
Christian also said that “mapping is meaning” — and by “mapping” he not only means conventional maps, but also “maps of time,” which is the title of one of his books. If it is true that mapping is meaning, this implies that the lack of a map is the lack of meaning. We lack maps of time, hence the meaning we crave. We all know that meaninglessness has been a touchstone of modernity. It was a central theme of existentialism, and Christian referred to Durkheim’s use of “anomie” (from the Greek a-nomos, the negation of law). Christian pointed out that there are two responses to anomie: the conventional response that anomie is part of modernity, so accept it for what it is, and the big history response, which is that we are in the midst of constructing a new conception of the world, so our disorientation is understandable, but will not necessarily be a permanent feature of the human condition from now on.
Christian spoke for more than an hour, so there was a lot to take in, and I can’t even give a sketch of the whole presentation here. It was videotaped, so perhaps by the time you read this it will be available online. I especially like that fact that Christian referred to himself as a “framework thinker.” This strikes me as particularly apt, and I think that all big thinkers who like to try to see the big picture (and hence are attracted to big history) are framework thinkers.
The second speaker to the plenary session was Robert Conner, a likeable classicist who covered a lot of ground in his talk. Being a classicist, he formulated his perspective in terms of the Greeks, but the principles were in no sense parochial to the west’s classical antiquity. Conner was especially concerned with the difference between those who see education as a matter of acquiring habits of mind, and those who see education as primarily as the communication of a particular story. That is to say, he contrasted history — and, by implication, big history — as an analytical inquiry and as preserving the memory of the past.
Conner developed this theme (by way of a detour through Herodotus and Thucydides) toward the idea of learning and education appropriate to a free people. He framed this in terms of “putting questions to the past that will be useful to us now.” I was a bit surprised after this that he did not mention Nietzsche’s essay “The Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life,” since this covers almost exactly the same ground. It would also have been relevant to bring up T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in this context, just substituting this historical tradition (largely humanistic, rather than scientific) for the literary and poetic tradition that interested Eliot.
After the plenary session the conference broke up into five rooms with presentations going on concurrently (which ensures that attendees will miss a large part of the program because you can’t be in two different rooms at once, though you can move, which is disruptive). I chose to go to the room with the theme of complexity, featuring presentations by David LePoire, David Baker, and J. Daniel May.
David LePoire spoke on “Two Contrasting Views of Energy and Time Scales,” in which he discussed (among other topics) how higher energy flows into systems can force a reorganization of these energy flows by way of a bifurcation. I’m not at all sure that I understood LePoire (though I picked up a list of his papers so that I can review them at some later date) but I took this to mean that a system that has been stable may become unstable when too much energy begins to flow through it, and it this point is bifurcates into two systems, at least one of which is at a higher level of emergent complexity that is able to remain stable and to thrive at these higher energy levels. If this is what LePoire meant, it seems perfectly sensible to me, and all the discussion (see below) about civilization and energy levels then suggests that once we pump too much energy through civilization, civilization will bifurcate, perhaps producing what I have elsewhere called a post-civilizational institution that can presumably remain stable at these higher energy levels.
David Baker spoke on “The Darwinian Algorithm: An Extension of Rising Complexity as a Unifying Theme of Big History” which was concerned with universal Darwinism, which I take to be equivalent to what is elsewhere called universal selection theory. The influence of Eric Chaisson was apparent again here — Chaisson’s name comes up repeatedly, and many expressed disappointment that he is not at this conference — as Baker described how he used Chaisson’s free energy rate density to formulate universal Darwinism in a big history context. There was a lot of discussion about this after the talk, but what was most interesting to me was that that Baker formulated Chaisson’s ideas on energy flows in the language of Kardashev, though without mentioning Kardashev by name. Paraphrasing from memory, he said that a Type I civilization would utilize energy flows of an entire planet, a Type II civilization would utilize the energy flows of an entire star, and a Type III civilization would utilize the energy flows of an entire galaxy. As I have a particular interest in collecting variations on the theme of Kardashev’s civilization types, I was particularly interested to hear this substitution of “energy flows” for the quantitative approach that Kardashev took to civilization and energy. Indeed, I have now come to realize that Kardashev’s civilization types may be considered an early, non-constructive approach to civilization’s use of energy, whereas the big history approaches now being pursued in the shadow of Chaisson may be thought of as constructive expressions of the same essential idea.
J. Daniel May, not in the printed program, spoke on “Complexity by the Numbers.” May is an instructor in big history at the Dominican University (which has a required course on big history for all students), and he was concerned with the practical pedagogical problem of getting students to understand the unifying theme of emergent complexity, and to this end he had been collecting clear examples of qualitative change linked to the quantitative change of a single metric. I thought that this was a very effective approach. He cited examples such as the decrease of the temperature of the early universe and the emergence of matter, the mass of a proto-stellar nebula and the kind of star that forms from them, and the direct and familiar relationship between number of protons in the nucleus of an atom and the different properties of different elements.
Theories of Thresholds
Closely related to the problem of emergent complexity is the problem of thresholds in big history. This session was supposed to consist of three speakers, one by Skype from Moscow, but the Skype connection didn’t work out, so there were two presentations, “An Alternative scheme of Thresholds and historical turning points” by William McGaughey and “Using Marshall Hodgson’s Concept of Transmutations to Advance our Understanding of Thresholds in the Human Historical Experience” by John Mears. Because the third speaker could not be connected via Skype, the two presentations were followed by an extended question and answer session that was both interesting and enlightening.
John Mears raised a number of traditional historiographical problems in a big history context, especially concerning what he called, “the unavoidable problem of periodization” and “the inherent pitfalls of periodization.” I can sympathize with this, as I have struggled with periodization myself. Mears mentioned some of his minor differences over periodization with other big historians — he cited a particular example from the new big history textbook, which did not include Chaisson’s transition from the “energy era” of the universe to the “matter era” — but acknowledged in a very open way that there are many possible approaches to big history periodization. This fit in well with with William McGaughey’s presentation, which was concerned to describe a periodization that concluded with the rapid rise of automation and artificial intelligence — a topic much discussed in technology circles today, especially in relation to technological unemployment.
Mears also discussed the need for a more rigorous theoretical framework for big history, and this is something with which I strongly agree, and one of the things I hoped to learn by attending this conference was who is working on just this problem, and how they are going about it. This was an implicit theme in other presentations, but Mears made it fully explicit, though without giving a definitive formulation of an answer to the problem.
After the initial day of presentations there was an evening reception for all involved, with many interesting conversations going on simultaneously. I was disappointed to have to miss so many presentations that sounded interesting because of the format of the conference. While a single session severely limits the number of presentations that can be made, splitting up the conference into five or six groups really fragments things. I think it would be better to keep the division to two or three concurrent sessions.
My overall reflection on the first day of the conference was the ongoing division between scientific and humanistic historiography, which is precisely what big history is supposed to overcome. In the extensive discussion after the “Theories of Thresholds” presentations, the traditional historiographical question was asked — Is history a science, or does it belong to the humanities? — and, despite this being a gathering of historians, the question was not taken up in its historical context. History began as a literary genre, then it became one among the humanities, and now it is becoming a science. All of these approaches still exist side by side.
There is a division among participants between those coming from a primarily science background, and those with a more traditional background in history, where “traditional” here means “humanities-based historiography. Big historians are determined to bridge these diverse backgrounds, and to emerge from the “silos” of academic specialization — but it hasn’t happened yet.
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Studies in Grand Historiography
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17 February 2012
More than a year ago I formulated the idea of pastoralization as a possible development of macro-historical significance, and as a possible successor form of civilization to present-day industrial-technological civilization. In that first formulation I wrote:
If humanity withdrew into sustainable cities with their own ability to grow produce, the gradually depopulated countryside would be free to be returned to wilderness or to be at the disposal of pastoralists, or both. Wild game would be available in the wilderness for those who wanted to hunt, thus satisfying both a social need and dietary need, while nomadic pastoralists cold drive their herds seasonally from one self-sustaining city to another, selling a portion of their animals for slaughter in return for goods that they could not produce given their nomadic way of life.
I cited the emergence (actually, the re-emergence) of urban agriculture and the demographic trend toward increasing urbanization as driving forces in the scenario of pastoralization. The idea of urban agriculture is also important in another macro-historical scenario, neo-agriculturalism. Pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism are only distinct by degrees, and many of the features of each may co-exist.
Two recent books make suggestive arguments that point toward the ongoing strategic trends of urbanization and urban agriculture, which, if they become the dominant strategic trends in the future, will issue in something like pastoralization or neo-agriculturalism. These two books are $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner and Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser (which latter I wrote about in Cities: The Constructive Kluge).
Glaeser’s book isn’t “brilliant” (as some reviews said) nor is he a mere shill (as some reviews seem to suggest). It is probably sufficient to read the first and last chapters and skip the anecdote the fills most of the book; you can pick up most of his ideas this way and miss very little. Really, all you need to know is the full title, since the book is concerned to demonstrate the thesis that cities make us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier. One need not agree with every aspect of this argument to still agree with many or most of them, and to see that a clear case can be made for urbanization.
In regard to thinking in terms of “making a case for urbanization” we are clearly thinking in political terms rather than historical terms, and this seems to be Glaeser’s orientation. He is critical of policies that have had the unintended result of harming cities, and, since he thinks that cities are the best thing to come along in the human experience, harming cities is tantamount to engaging in self-harm. The limitations of thinking in terms of policy appear when we begin to think in terms of spans of time beyond that of a single human lifespan, and across which greater spans of time unintended consequences tend to swamp intended consequences. This is the difference between urbanization as a political idea and urbanization as an historical idea (conceived parallel to the distinction I made between globalization as a political idea and globalization as an historical idea).
If one is hesitant to fully subscribe to a rationally argued case for the city, there is, alternatively, the economic case for the city, and this is what Christopher Steiner argues in his book. He makes the case that steadily rising prices for gasoline will have far-reaching consequences for the structure of contemporary life, and these changes will have radical consequences for urban, suburban, and rural life. Although both Glaeser and Steiner argue that cities are environmentally and economically more sustainable than suburban, village, or rural life, Glaeser argues additionally that cities are a good thing; Steiner, on the contrary, argues that cities are the inevitable thing because they make more environmental economic sense. Again, this illustrates the difference between urbanism as political idea and urbanism as historical idea.
Steiner is at times almost apocalyptic in making his point, but, I think, justifiably so:
“There will be plenty of small towns that simply do not make the transition from a satellite living on cheap oil to a town that’s half self-sustaining and populated by people who not only prefer a small town life, but also are stringently loyal to their small town and are willing to sacrifice for their neighbors, their town, and their way of life. The hamlets that don’t survive, like the Wal-Marts who fall ahead of them, will be home only to ghosts, gusts, and a reclaiming Mother Nature.”
Christopher Steiner, $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, 2010, p. 151
This is very close to what I wrote about pastoralization, although I would argue further that “reclaiming mother nature” would include those individuals who would also choose to return to Mother Nature rather than live the superfantastic urban life that Edward Glaeser praises (although does not live, since he admits in the book that he lives in the suburbs). Even while high gasoline costs could make the automobile obsolete, and that part of industrial-technical civilization based upon the automobile also obsolete, there will be other technologies (like electric cars) which can be substituted. One could also, however, substitute those robust and durable technologies that preceded the automobile. Horses could be grazed in the abandoned spaces imagined by Steiner, and used for transportation by those who opt out of urban concentrations.
One way to define the difference between my closely related scenarios of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism is how the land freed by abandoned exurbs and rural depopulation will be put to use. If these lands are put to use in settled agriculture along a quasi-nineteenth century model, then the result will be neo-agriculturalism. If these lands are put to use (to the extent that they are “used” at all) for pastoralism, then we have the development of pastoralization. The neo-agricultural paradigm would likely converge upon (or, rather, return to) human societies exemplifying the agricultural macabre, while the pastoralization paradigm, with its mixture of extremely dense urbanism and nomadic pastoralism would produce a very different kind of society (or, rather, two societies), and it is difficult to say what this would be other than a unprecedented synthesis of urbanism and nomadism.
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31 January 2012
A revaluation of agricultural civilization
In several posts I have made a tripartite distinction in human history between hunter-gatherer nomadism, agriculturalism, and industrialism. There is a sense, then, from the perspective of la longue duree, that the macro-historical division of agriculturalism constitutes the “middle ages” of human social development. Prior to agriculturalism, nothing like this settled way of life even existed; now, later, from the perspective of industrialized civilization, agriculture is an enormous industry that can feed seven billion people, but it is a demographically marginal activity that occupies only a small fragment of our species. During those “middle ages” of agriculturalism (comprising maybe fifteen thousand years of human society) the vast bulk of our species was engaged in agricultural production. The very small class of elites oversaw agricultural production and its distribution, and the small class of the career military class or the career priestly class facilitated the work of elites in overseeing agricultural production. This civilizational focus is perhaps unparalleled by any other macro-historical epoch of human social development (and I have elsewhere implicitly referred to this focus in Pure Agriculturalism).
The advent of agricultural civilization was simultaneously the advent of settled civilization, and the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism left the institution of settled civilization in place. Other continuities are also still in place, and many of these continuities from agriculturalism to industrialism are simply the result of the youth of industrial civilization. When industrial civilization is ten thousand years old — should it survive so long, which is not at all certain — I suspect that it will preserve far fewer traces of its agricultural past. For the present, however, we live in a milieu of agricultural institutions held over from the long macro-historical division of agriculturalism and emergent institutions of a still-inchoate industrialism.
The institutions of agricultural civilization are uniquely macabre, and it is worthwhile to inquiry as to how an entire class of civilizations (all the civilizations that belong within the macro-historical division of settled agriculturalism) could come to embody a particular (and, indeed, a peculiar) moral-aesthetic tenor. What do I mean by “macabre”? The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “macabre” as follows:
1: having death as a subject: comprising or including a personalized representation of death
2: dwelling on the gruesome
3: tending to produce horror in a beholder
All of the above characterize settled agricultural civilization, which has death as its subject, dwells upon the gruesome, and as a consequence tends to produce horror in the beholder.
The thousand years of medieval European society, which approximated pure agriculturalism perhaps more closely than many other agricultural civilizations (and which we might call a little bit of civilization in its pure form), stands as a monument to the macabre, especially after the experience of the Black Death (bubonic plague), which gave the culture of Europe a decidedly death-obsessed aspect still to be seen in graphically explicit painting and sculpture. But medieval Europe is not unique in this respect; all settled agricultural civilization, to a greater or a lesser extent, has a macabre element at its core. The Agricultural Apocalypse that I wrote about in my previous post constitutes a concrete expression of the horrors that agricultural civilization has inflicted upon itself. What makes agricultural civilization so horrific? What is the source of the macabre Weltanschauung of agriculturalism?
Both the lives of nomadic hunter-gatherers and the lives of settled agriculturalists are bound up with a daily experience of death: human beings must kill in order to live, and other living beings must die so that human beings can live. Occasionally a human being dies so that another species may live, and while this still happens in our own time when someone is eaten by a bear or a mountain lion, it happens much less often that the alternative, which explains why there are seven billion human beings on the planet while no other vertebrate predator comes close to these numbers. The only vertebrate species that flourish are those that we allow to flourish (there are, for example, about sixteen billion chickens in the world), with the exception of a few successful parasitic species such as rats and seagulls. (Even then, there are about five billion rats on the planet, and each rat weighs only a faction of the mass of a human being, so that total human biomass is disproportionately great.)
Although nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agriculturalists both confront pervasive experiences of death, the experience of death is different in each case, and this difference in the experience and indeed in the practice of death informs everything about human life that is bound up in this relationship to death. John Stuart Mill wrote in his The Utility of Religion:
“Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor, its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be; is it not a matter of far deeper interest to us to learn, or even to conjecture, from whence came this nearer world which we inhabit; what cause or agency made it what it is, and on what powers depend its future fate?”
While Mill wrote that human existence is girt round with mystery, he might well have said that human existence is girt round with death, and in many religious traditions death and mystery or synonymous. The response to the death that surrounds human existence, and the kind of death that surrounds human existence, shapes the mythological traditions of the people so girt round.
Joseph Campbell explicitly recognized the striking difference in mythologies between nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agricultural peoples. This is a theme to which Campbell returns time and again in his books and lectures. The mythologies of hunting peoples, Campbell maintained, revolved around placating the spirits of killed prey, while the mythologies of agricultural peoples resolved around sacrifice, according to the formula that, since life grows out of death, in order to create more life, one must create more death. Hence sacrifice. Campbell clearly explains a link between the mythologies peculiar to macro-historically distinct peoples, but why should peoples respond so strongly (and so differently) to distinct experiences of death? And, perhaps as importantly, why should peoples respond mythologically to death? To answer this question demands a more fundamental perspective upon human life in its embeddedness in socio-cultural milieux, and we can find such a perspective in a psychoanalytic interpretation of history derived from Freud.
It is abundantly obvious, in observing the struggle for life, that organisms are possessed of a powerful instinct to preserve the life of the individual at all costs and to reproduce that life (sometimes called eros or libido), but Freud theorized that, in addition to the survival instinct that there is also a “death drive” (sometimes called thanatos). Here is Freud’s account of the death drive:
“At one time or another, by some operation of force which still completely baffles conjecture, the properties of life were awakened in lifeless matter. Perhaps the process was a prototype resembling that other one which later in a certain stratum of living matter gave rise to consciousness. The tension then aroused in the previously inanimate matter strove to attain an equilibrium; the first instinct was present, that to return to lifelessness. The living substance at that time had death within easy reach; there was probably only a short course of life to run, the direction of which was determined by the chemical structure of the young organism. So through a long period of time the living substance may have been constantly created anew, and easily extinguished, until decisive external influences altered in such a way as to compel the still surviving substance to ever greater deviations from the original path of life, and to ever more complicated and circuitous routes to the attainment of the goal of death. These circuitous ways to death, faithfully retained by the conservative instincts, would be neither more nor less than the phenomena of life as we now know it. If the exclusively conservative nature of the instincts is accepted as true, it is impossible to arrive at any other suppositions with regard to the origin and goal of life.”
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, authorized translation from the second German edition by C. J. M. Hubback, London and Vienna: The International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1922, pp. 47-48
The death drive, or thanatos, does not appear to be as urgent as the drive to live and to reproduce, but according to Freud it is equally implicated in society and culture. Moreover, given the emergence of war from the same settled agricultural societies that practiced a mythology of sacrifice (according to Campbell), there has been a further “production” of death by the social organization made possible by settled societies. It is to be expected that the production of death by sacrifice in order to ensure a good harvest would become entangled with the production of death in order to ensure the continuity of the community, and indeed in societies in which war became highly ritualized (e.g., Aztec civilization and Japanese civilization) there is a strong element of sacrifice in combat.
Freud’s explanation of the death drive may strike the reader as a bit odd and perhaps unlikely, but the mechanism that Freud is proposing is not all that different from Sartre’s contention that being-for-itself seeks to become being-in-itself (to put it simply, everyone wants to be God): life — finite life, human life — is problematic, unstable, uncertain, subject to calamity, and pregnant with every kind of danger. Why would such a contingent, finite being not desire to possess the quiescence and security of being-in-itself, to be free of all contingencies, which Shakespeare called all the ills that flesh is heir to? The mythologies that Campbell describes as being intrinsic to nomadic and settled peoples are mechanisms that attempt to restore the equilibrium to the world that has been disturbed by human activity.
Agricultural civilization is the institutionalization of the death drive. The mythology of sacrifice institutionalizes death as the norm and even the ideal of agricultural civilizations. As such, settled agricultural civilization is (has been) a pathological permutation of human society that has resulted in the social equivalent of neurotic misery. That is to say, agricultural civilization is a civilization of neurotic misery, but all civilization need not be neurotically miserable. The Industrial Revolution has accomplished part of the world of overcoming the institutions of settled agriculturalism, but we still retain much of its legacy. To make the complete transition from the neurotic misery of settled agricultural civilization to ordinary civilizational unhappiness will require an additional effort above and beyond industrialization.
Despite the explicit recognition of a Paleolithic Golden Age prior to settled agriculturalism, there is a strong bias in contemporary civilization against nomadism and in favor of settled civilization. Both Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (both of which I have cited with approval in many posts) make broad evaluative judgments to the detriment of nomadic societies — an entirely superfluous judgment, as though the representatives of settled civilization felt that they needed to defend an existential orientation of their civilization by condemning the way of life of uncivilized peoples, who are called savages and barbarians. The contempt that has been shown for the world’s surviving nomadic peoples — the Sami, the Gypsies, and others — as well as programs of forced sedentarization — e.g., among the Kyrgyz — show the high level of emotional feeling that still attaches to the difference between fundamentally distinct forms of life, even when one pattern of life has become disproporationately successful and no longer needs to defend itself against the depredations of the other.
Given this low esteem in which existential alternatives are held, it is important to see settled agricultural civilization, as well as its direct descendent, settled industrial civilization, in their true colors and true dimensions, and to explicitly recognize the pathological and explicitly macabre elements of the civilization that we have called our own in order to see it for what it is and therefore to see its overcoming as an historical achievement for the good the species.
We are not yet free of the institutions of settled agricultural civilization, which means that we are not yet free of a Weltanschauung constructed around macabre rituals focused on death. And despite the far-reaching changes to life that have come with the Industrial Revolution, there is no certainly that the developments that separate us from the settled agricultural macabre will continue. I wrote above that, given the consolidation of industrial civilization, we will probably have institutions far less agricultural in character, but it remains possible that the industrialism may falter, may collapse, or may even, after consolidating itself as a macro-historical division, give way to a future macro-historical division in which the old ways of agriculturalism will be reasserted.
I count among the alternatives of future macro-historical developments the possibility of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism. In any civilization largely constituted by either the historical processes of pastoralization of neo-agriculturalism, agriculture would once again play a central and perhaps a dominant role in the life of the people. In a future macro-historical division in which agriculture was once again the dominant feature of human experience, I would expect that the macabre character of agricultural civilization would once against reassert itself in a new mythology eventually consolidated in the axialization of a future historical paradigm centered on agriculture.
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12 December 2011
“From the relation of the planets among themselves and to the signs of the zodiac. future events and the course of whole lives were inferred, and the most weighty decisions were taken in consequence. In many cases the line of action thus adopted at the suggestion of the stars may not have been more immoral than that which would otherwise have been followed. But too often the decision must have been made at the cost of honour and conscience. It is profoundly instructive to observe how powerless culture and enlightenment were against this delusion; since the latter had its support in the ardent imagination of the people, in the passionate wish to penetrate and determine the future. Antiquity, too, was on the side of astrology.”
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878, Part Six, MORALITY AND RELIGION, “Influence of Ancient Superstition”
A few days ago Neil Houghton read my post The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought and made the following comment on Twitter:
● Neil Houghton — I add prospective agency. RT @geopolicraticus The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought: human agency in time and history
I responded with a question, and a miniature dialogue developed (within the tightly constrained limits of Twitter):
● Nick Nielsen — How would you define prospective agency? Is this agency understood in terms of possibility and potentiality?
● Neil Houghton — Great question… in one word, foresight… in more a transdisciplinary practice between, across and beyond orders of time
● Nick Nielsen — The whole problem is separating the wheat from the chaff: the wheat is the big picture; the chaff, trivial predictions.
● Neil Houghton — Yes. seeing gradience is an aspect of the problem; the difference between the big picture and trivial prediction is one such gradience.
● Nick Nielsen — Seeing the big picture in both space and time yields a different kind of foresight than the attempt to predict future events.
● Neil Houghton — Foresight as gradience between freedom and destiny (for example) … please say more of your different kind of foresight.
This brief exchange points to something that I consider to be important, so I will attempt to give an account of the distinction I proposed between seeing the big picture and attempting to make predictions.
The most familiar form of futurism consists in making a series of predictions. Like any prognosticator of the future, regardless of methodology, the futurist is caught in a bind. The more specific his predictions, the more likely he is to be caught out. Even if the general drift of a prediction is correct, supplying a lot of details means more ways of potentially being wrong. And the more vague a prediction, the less interesting they are likely to be.
Some futurists take pride in their detailed lists of predictions, and although detail is an opportunity to be wrong, it also provides a lot of fodder for utterly pointless debate. In The Law of Stalled Technologies I wrote the following about Ray Kurzweil’s specific predictions:
Kurweil’s futurism makes for some fun reading. Unfortunately, It will not age well, and will become merely humorous over time (this is not to be confused with his very real technological achievements, which may well develop into robust and durable technologies). I have a copy of Kurzweil’s book that preceded The Singularity is Near, namely The Age of Spiritual Machines (published ten years ago in 1999), which is already becoming humorous. Part III, Chapter Nine of The Age of Spiritual Machines, contains his prophecies for 2009, and now it seems that the future is upon us, because it is the year AD 2009 as I write this. Kurzweil predicted that “People typically have at least a dozen computers on and around their bodies.” It is true that many people do carry multiple gadgets with microprocessors, and some of these are linked together via Bluetooth, so this prophecy does not come off too badly. He also notes that “Cables are disappearing” and this is undeniably true.
Kurzweil goes a little off the rails, however, when it comes to matters that touch directly on human consciousness and its expressions such as language. He predicted that, “The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition”, and I think it is safe to say that this is not the case. I don’t want to parse all his predictions, but I need to be specific about a few particularly damning failures. Among the damning failures is the prediction that, “Translating Telephone technology … is commonly used for many language pairs.” Here we step over the line of the competence of technology and the limitations of even the most imaginative engineers. While machine translation is common today for text, everyone knows that it is a joke — quite literally so, as the results can be very funny though not terribly helpful.
Kurzweil gives a decade-by-decade running commentary of predictions. I once had somebody scold me about ridiculing Kurzweil’s predictions, because, I was told, the dates given were intended to indicate the initial dates of a ten year period, which gives him a ten year window to be right, thus kicking all his predictions another ten years down the road. This is the kind of ridiculous debate over pointless predictions that is an utter waste of breath. Predictions can be parsed like this until the end of time; this is precisely why people are always trying to show that Nostradamus predicted something. Add vagueness to ambiguity and you create the deconstructionists’ dream: anything can mean anything.
Just to unearth one more prediction, for 2019 Kurzweil predicted:
“Paper books or documents are rarely used and most learning is conducted through intelligent, simulated software-based teachers.”
Even if we give Kurzweil another ten years, I can guarantee you that, if I am still alive in 2029, that I will still have my personal library, it will probably be bigger than it is now, and I will consult it every day, as I do now. This does not, for me, constitute rarity of use. However, I will readily acknowledge that there is, already today, no need whatever to print textbooks, since knowledge is changing so rapidly and students usually don’t retain their textbooks after they have been used for a class. In situations such as this, it makes much more sense to make the material available on the internet. But even if we don’t bother with textbooks anymore, there will be a continuing role for books. At least, for me there will be a continuing role for books.
Whether you want to take pride in a list of specific predictions, having convinced yourself through a charitable hermeneutic that they have all come true, or whether you would rather it were all forgotten as a great embarrassment along with jetpacks, flying cars, and unisex jumpsuits, this model of futurism will always have a certain novelty value, so I will predict that “laundry list futurism” (like the poor) will always be with us.
There is, however, another kind of futurism, which we may not even want to call futurism, but which does incorporate a vision of the future. This other model of futurism is not about offering a laundry list of predictions, but rather about understanding the big picture, as I have said, both in space and time, i.e., geographically and historically. Here, “seeing the big picture” means having a theory of history that embraces the future as well as the past. This approach is about seeing patterns and understanding how the world works in general terms, and from an understanding of patterns and how the world works, having a general idea of what the future will be like, just as one may have a general idea of what they past was like, even if one cannot jump into a time machine and march with Alexander the Great or listen to Peter Abelard debate.
The big picture in space and time — and the biggest picture is what I have called metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history — is a theory, which if it is to be coherent, consistent, and universally applicable, must be applicable both to the past and the future. Ultimately, such a theory would be a science of time, although we aren’t quite there yet. I hope that, before I die, I can make a substantial contribution in this direction, but I recognize that this is a distant goal.
In the meantime, familiar sciences are engaged in precisely this enterprise, though on a less comprehensive scale. Let me try to explain how this is the case.
When we work in the historical sciences, the scale of time is so great that we must settle for retrodiction, because this is what can be done within one human lifespan, or within the lifespan of a community of researchers engaged in a common research program, but if we could afford to wait for thousands or millions or billions of years we could make predictions about the future. When, on the contrary, we work in the natural sciences as in physics, we must make predictions about the future, because we must create an elaborate apparatus to test our theories, and these did not exist in the past, so retrodiction is as closed to us as prediction is closed to the historical sciences. If we could go back in time with a superconducting supercollider, we could make retrodictions in physics, but at the present stage of technology this time travel would be more difficult than the experiment itself.
We accept the limitations of science that we are forced to accept, perhaps not gladly, but of necessity. What alternatives do we have? If we would have knowledge, we must have knowledge upon the conditions that the world will allow us knowledge, or refuse knowledge altogether. We are confident that our theories of physics apply equally well to the past, even if they cannot be tested in the past, and we are confident that our theories of paleontology would apply to the future if only we could wait long enough for the bones of the present to be fossilized.
In the fullness of time, if industrial-technological civilization continues in existence, the limits of science will be pushed back from the positions they presently occupy, but they will never be eliminated altogether. However, our strictly scientific knowledge can be extrapolated within a more comprehensive philosophical context, in which the resources of logical and linguistic analysis can be brought to bear upon the “problem” of history.
When I first began writing about what I began to call integral history, and which I now call metaphysical history, my aim at that time was to give an exposition of an extended conception of history that made use of the resources both of traditional humanistic narrative history and the emerging scientific historical disciplines, such as genomic resources which have taught us so much about the natural history of our species. I have subsequently continued to expand my expanded conception of history, and this is what I call metaphysical history, elaborated in the context of ecological temporality.
A further extension of the already extended conception of metaphysical history would be a conception of history that sees the big picture by seeing time whole, past, present, and future together as one structure that exhibits laws, regularities, patterns, and, of course, exceptions to all of the same.
This, then, was what I meant when I said that, “Seeing the big picture in both space and time yields a different kind of foresight than the attempt to predict future events.” The kind of foresight I have in mind is an understanding of historical events, both past and future, in a larger theoretical context. It is “foresight” only because it is, as the same time, hindsight. Both the past and the future are comprehended in an adequate theory of history.
I have no desire to produce a laundry list of predictions; I have no desire to say what I think the world will look like in 2019 or 2029 or 2039. I think that most of these predictions are irresponsible, though it may land a prophet on the front page of the National Enquirer. Not all such attempts at prediction, however, are irresponsible from my point of view. I have several times discussed George Friedman’s book The Next 100 Years, which strikes me as a responsible exercise in laundry list futurism. I have also discussed Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100.
Kaku’s book is particularly interesting to me in the present context, because Kaku has a very specific method for his futurism. He has interviewed scientists about the technologies that they are developing now, in the present, and which will become part of our lives in the foreseeable future. I realize now that Kaku’s methodology may be characterized as a constructive futurism: he is immersed in the details of technology, and extrapolating particular, incremental advances and applications. This is a bottom-up approach. What I am suggesting, on the contrary, is a profoundly non-constructive approach to the philosophy of history, a top-down understanding that looks for the largest structures of space and time and regards all details and particulars as fungible and incidental. That is my vision of a theory of history, and I think that such a theory would give a certain degree and kind of foresight into event in the future, but certainly not the same degree and kind of foresight that one might gain from the constructive methods of Kaku and Friedman.
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8 November 2011
Today an asteroid some four hundred meters across (Asteroid 2005 YU55) passed closer to the earth than the orbit of the moon. Astronomers were careful, prior to the flyby, to let people know that there was no danger of impact, for fear of contributing to a panic. If an asteroid this size hit the earth, it would cause enormous destruction, and would probably alter the climate. If a larger asteroid hit the earth, it could cause a mass extinction, and very probably the end of civilization. If a very large asteroid hit the earth, it could spell the doom of all life.
In the earlier years of our solar system, before a great deal of the loose matter in the solar system had either impacted on larger bodies or had been cleared out of the inner solar system by the gravitational influence of Jupiter, collisions between massive celestial bodies were more common than they are in the present epoch of the solar system. One theory of the formation of earth’s moon is that the earth was hit by a very large asteroid (of the size that would today wipe out all life on earth) that tore our a significant portion of earth’s material and flung it up into orbit.
On cosmological time scales, these things do happen, and although collisions of this magnitude have become rare (even on cosmological time scales) they can still happen today. While the impact of an asteroid the size of Asteroid 2005 YU55 would be an unprecedented natural disaster from a human perspective, most earth life would survive such an event, and civilization would likely survive such an event.
Because of the current state of scientific knowledge it is entirely possible to understand such natural disasters naturalistically, that is to say, according to the naturalistic conception of history, although we know that it is human nature (probably rooted in the agency detector of evolutionary psychology) to seek for meaning in events.
In several posts I have noted the response to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which occurred during the enlightenment, but at a time in history when the medieval memory of divine retribution was still very much kept alive. In Naturalism and Suffering I quoted a passage from Gabriel Malagrida’s 1756 pamphlet, “An Opinion on the True Cause of the Earthquake” (“Juizo da verdadeira causa do terramoto”), which argued that the disaster in Lisbon was divine retribution for the sins of the people of Lisbon:
“Learn, Oh Lisbon, that the destroyers of our houses, palaces, churches, and convents, the cause of the death of so many people and of the flames that devoured such vast treasures, are your abominable sins, and not comets, stars, vapours and exhalations, and similar natural phenomena. Tragic Lisbon is now a mound of ruins. Would that it were less difficult to think of some method of restoring the place; but it has been abandoned, and the refugees from the city live in despair. As for the dead, what a great harvest of sinful souls such disasters send to Hell! It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God, and not even the Devil himself could invent a false idea more likely to lead us all to irreparable ruin. Holy people had prophesied the earthquake was coming, yet the city continued in its sinful ways without a care for the future. Now, indeed, the case of Lisbon is desperate. It is necessary to devote all our strength and purpose to the task of repentance. Would to God we could see as much determination and fervour for this necessary exercise as are devoted to the erection of huts and new buildings! Does being billeted in the country outside the city areas put us outside the jurisdiction of God? God undoubtedly desires to exercise His love and mercy, but be sure that wherever we are, He is watching us, scourge in hand.”
At the time of the Lisbon earthquake there were completely naturalistic accounts given of the disaster, but there were also eschatological accounts of the disaster that found cosmic meaning in suffering and destruction. Thus even though a naturalistic conception of natural disasters was already possible given the state of scientific knowledge in 1755, the eschatological conception of disasters was still a living influence. If a disaster of great magnitude occurs today, it is usually described in naturalistic terms, but there remains a sizable minority of people who understand such things eschatologically and who are determined to find human meaning in natural events.
The naturalistic understanding of massive natural disasters recognizes that a great cataclysm can befall human beings and all their works, and the event has no meaning at all. In fact, an event of such great magnitude could occur that would annihilate our species and, naturalistically understood, it would have no meaning. This is an idea that is beyond the ability of many apparently rational and intelligent people to comprehend. Indeed, even to say so sounds inhumane. Of course, a great disaster is given human meaning by the stories that emerge from the lived experience of the disaster (if anyone survives it), but this is importantly distinct from an event having an intrinsic meaning apart from that meaning given to it ex post facto by human beings who experienced it.
With the mechanized means of mass death that emerged in the middle of the twentieth century — Nazi death camps, firestorms, and the atomic bomb — new potential sources of human extinction appeared from human beings themselves. Now, someone committed to an eschatological reading of history would say that such inventions were demonically inspired, but I think that by the time mutually assured destruction had become a fact of life during the high point of the Cold War that most people understood the existential threat to humanity from nuclear war as being an entirely human creation. This was a time of conscious modernism, before the backlash that made modernity a target of cynicism and nihilistic criticism, and many people embraced a nascent naturalism as an apparently inevitable development of modern history.
Nevertheless, eschatological language was routinely employed to discuss nuclear war: Nuclear Armageddon was a typical phrase one heard during the Cold War. Despite the persistence of eschatological language, the possibility of human self-annihilation was rightly understood to have human meaning because it was a possibility brought about by human agency. Human beings were forced to recognize that they had created a power capable of destroying themselves, and many philosophers as diverse as Karl Jaspers and Bertrand Russell bent every effort to impress this fact upon the popular mind.
With the advent of atomic weapons and the possibility of human self-annihilation philosophers realized that humanity was faced with a qualitatively new and unprecedented historical development, and they quite frankly struggled to take account of it and to create new categories of evil and new ways of thinking about history in order to convey this qualitatively changed historical circumstance. This effort is unfinished in our day. Much work remains to be done. It also suggests parallel work that might be done in understanding natural disasters.
It may well be that human beings do not yet possess an adequate conceptual infrastructure, and sufficient historical experience, to be able to understand massive natural disasters naturalistically. Because of our limited conceptual infrastructure and limited historical experience, in times of great duress we are thrown back on eschatological conceptions that so dominated earlier forms of human civilization. While our industrial-technological civilization (predicated as it is upon a relentless naturalistic instrumentalism) has far outstripped most of the institutions of nomadic and agricultural society, we do not yet possess the intellectual institutions commensurate with the forces that have been unleashed. We are all of us like the sorcerer’s apprentice.
We could make a start in the direction of a conceptual infrastructure adequate to the exposition of natural and man-made cataclysms by adapting the idea of the “terror of history” to natural history. It was Mircea Eliade who introduced the phrase “The Terror of History” (in his famous book The Myth of the Eternal Return), and it is one of those rare historical bons mots — like, for example, Weber’s “The disenchantment of the World,” to which it is related — that sententiously encapsulates a paradigm shift in a single phrase.
The transhistorical models and metahistorical meanings that Eliade attributes to non-historical peoples in their understanding of history can all be found in relation to natural history as well as humanistic history. Once the disenchantment of the world takes away the possibility of investing the world with transhistorical meaning and we are, as it were, left naked before the depredations of time, we experience the terror of history. Human history had its terrors of war, disease, failed harvests, famine, riots, and cruel monarchs that could all be blunted (to some degree) by an “understanding” that all of this had happened before, all of this would happen again, and there is nothing new under the sun. Natural history is similarly replete with disasters such as earthquakes, fires, floods, and droughts.
Several of these disasters, most particularly famine and disease, are in equal measures human and natural disasters, so that any distinction one draws within them cannot but be conventional. Given that human history emerged incrementally from the natural history with which it is continuous, I would argue that the cyclical and eschatological conceptual means employed to effect the devalorization of history probably emerged first in relation to natural disasters and were only later applied to specifically human history. I don’t think that Eliade would have disagreed with this, and it may well have been his intended meaning.
As far as my knowledge extends — and this is not as far as I would like — the idea of the terror of history has been exclusively applied to a traditionally humanistic conception of history. To extend the terror of history to the terror of natural history both preserves the continuity of the idea while acknowledging its extension beyond humanistic history to natural history. And the intrinsic naturalism of industrial-technological civilization intrinsically places that civilization in the context of natural history rather than eschatological history.
The idea of history has been dramatically expanded by the application of scientific methods to inquiry into the past, so much so that the distinction between humanistic history and natural history breaks down at some points (I have addressed this in several posts, especially The Continuity of Civilization and Natural History). While calling this a “break down” carries a certain negative connotation, the assertion of the essential continuity of history seems to me to be a good thing. Indeed, I have devoted a great many posts of an extended conception of history that I once called integral history and which I now call metaphysical history.
So far I have above only discussed catastrophic events in the context of naturalistic and eschatological conceptions of history, but I have divided conceptions of human history into four categories based on the conception of human agency involved:
● Political history understood in terms of human agency
● Cataclysmic history understood in terms of human non-agency
● Eschatological history understood in terms of non-human agency
● Naturalistic history understood in terms of non-human non-agency
Since I have already covered (to a limited extent) naturalistic and eschatological conceptions of natural disasters, for the sake of completeness I ought also to comment on cataclysmic and political conceptions of natural disasters.
How could there possibly be a political conception of natural disasters? One of the consistent themes in Machiavelli, to which he frequently recurs, is that while human beings cannot control fortune, they can certainly control the circumstances that dictate one’s response to fortune. In other words, one may never know when the river will flood, but in times of social stability one can build dams and levees and make every effort to assert one’s control over fortune so that, when the worst happens, it can be managed.
Chapter twenty-five of Machiavelli’s The Prince is titled, “What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs, And How To Withstand Her.” It is here that Machiavelli gives his famous formulation in which he compares fortune to a river:
“I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.”
Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XXV
In this sense, then, the political conception of natural disasters, almost all disaster planning in the industrialized world constitutes an exercise in the political conception of natural disasters. Disaster and recovery planning has become more sophisticated than at any time in the past, and wealthy governments (as well as some NGOs) have contingency plans in place for all manner of contingencies, not excluding visitation of the earth by extraterrestrials. This conception of natural disasters is closely related to the naturalistic conception, and in some contexts the two many be indistinguishable.
Similarly, the cataclysmic conception of natural disasters is nearly indistinguishable from the eschatological conception, only that the eschatological conception adds a layer of meaning that is absent from the brute recognition that unprecedented and unpredictable disasters can befall us for no reason at all, just as the political conception of natural disasters adds a layer of meaning to the naturalistic conception of natural disasters.
A sensitive and subtle account would bring out the differences between the natural and political conceptions of natural disasters on the one hand, and on the other hand the eschatological and cataclysmic conceptions. I will try to work more on this later, but for the moment I have another idea I want to sketch.
In relation to the eschatological conception of history and its realization in the concept of cosmic war, I have noted that when grievances are formulated in eschatological terms, only a cosmic war is felt to address this particularly eschatological concerns. An eschatological grievance answered with pragmatic and utilitarian measures will leave those who have asserted the grievance still with an eschatological hunger than has been unfilled. And so it is that apparently happy and prosperous peoples will throw themselves into disastrous wars (seemingly exemplifying the cataclysmic conception of war) when as eschatological need has gone unfilled and the only obvious way to fill it is to undertake some action of great moment (even if ill-conceived) equal to the feeling that demands satisfaction.
Similarly in the case of natural disasters, how they are conceived, according to what conception of history they are understood, will have much to do with the kind of aid and comfort that the victims will find to speak to their needs. Given the instrumentalist presumptions of industrial-technological civilization, those of us in the industrialized world want to know that every practical effort is being taken in order to minimize our suffering and maximize our comfort in the midst of great disruption and turmoil. Conventional disaster planning models speak precisely to these needs.
It is typically later, once the initial danger has passed, and the political process reasserts itself, that people begin asking the political questions and aligning their thinking according to the political conception of natural disasters: why there the levees and flood walls allowed to degraded? Why were they not maintained or even strengthened? Why was not more planning done, and why were not more adequate contingency plans formulated.
For the eschatological conception of natural disaster, what is wanted is spiritual aid and comfort. We can cite numerous examples from medieval and early modern history in this context. When great plagues swept across Europe starting in 1348 and continuing throughout the early modern period, the response was not typically to undertake public health measures, but rather to parade religious statues, reliquaries, and sacred objects in great processions through affected areas in order to act upon the relevant eschatological concerns.
While this sort of response is somewhat rare today, it is not absent, in in circumstances in extremis, it is not at all unusual for religious leaders to call for repentance and atonement, and to point to the disaster as an opportunity for individuals to realign themselves with an eschatological conception of the world.
For the cataclysmic conception of natural disasters I cannot imagine any response, for in the grip of actual cataclysmic events, the cataclysmic conception is, as it were, actively unfolding and proving itself. In the face of such events, what could possibly be done? For the true believer in the cataclysmic conception of history, I cannot at present imagine any more appropriate response than running and screaming in terror.
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