The Technocratic Elite

21 December 2014


technocratic elite 1

One of the most fascinating aspects of civilization is how, despite thousands of years of development, radically different social, economic, and political systems, and the rapid growth of technology since the industrial revolution, there are structural features of civilization that do not change in essentials over time. (I have previously discussed these civilizational invariants in Invariant Social Structures, Invariant Properties of Civilization, and Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios.) One of these invariant structural features is social hierarchy, and more specifically the fact that, all throughout history, a tiny fraction of the population has been in a position of political control, while the vast bulk of humanity has been subject to the control of a small minority.

The existence of a power elite, as a civilizational invariant, implies that there is always a power elite in every civilization, though this power elite may take different forms in different civilizations, and throughout the history of a given civilization the power elite may shift among individuals, among families, among ideologies, among industries, and even among social classes. From the perspective of the big picture, who happens to hold power in a given society is a mere accident of history, and the interesting feature is that there is always a small elite that holds power.

The “big lie” of our time is that the power elite that currently graces our society is in its position as the consequence of meritocratic mechanisms that assure only the best will achieve the pinnacle of power. Thus the ancient idea of aristocracy (rule by the best) is preserved, but given a contemporary, democratic twist in the assurance that anyone can be selected by these social mechanisms for advancing and rewarding talent. Now, this “big lie” is no worse than any other big lies around which societies have been constructed — no worse, for example, than Plato’s “noble lie” — but no better either.

We may call the power elite who benefit from this “big lie” of industrial-technological civilization the technocratic elite. They are few in number, and essentially oligarchic. (A recent study, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, reported on the BBC in Study: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy; many studies have demonstrated similar findings.) That our elite is a technocratic elite does not reflect upon the quality of individuals who belong to the elite, but rather the kind of civilization that happens to arbitrarily raise up a few individuals into positions of power. The nature of this civilization is such that it shapes its power elites in particular ways that are enabled by the technological means of mass control.

It is not difficult to spot the technocratic elite (apart from the obvious fact that they appear on the news and on the glossy color covers of magazines). They are in excellent health and are dressed well, though in an understated style. Good food and good clothes are expensive. One must also have the leisure to be able to care about such things: they have time to exercise and to eat right. Just the right amount of education in just the right schools to give just the right mid-Atlantic accent accounts for the elocution and steady, careful tone of voice. They have been taught to express superficial concern for the lives of others, and they spend just the right amount of time on just the right charities to achieve just the right amount of media exposure for their time investment. These are not qualities of the individual, but rather qualities conferred upon the individual by their unique position in a technological society.

In A Thought Experiment in Tyranny I asked:

“If the president of a given nation-state belongs to a class of wealthy, world-traveling, foreign language-speaking elites with more in common with other elites than with the people of the nation-state in question, is this local rule or foreign rule?”

While from the perspective of the ruled it matters immensely (and is sometimes a pretext for revolution); from the perspective of the technocratic elite it is irrelevant. The particular nation-state of their citizenship or their government service is indifferent, because wherever they live or serve or invest, they will have the same privileges, advantages, and immunities.

We can think of the technocratic elite as the system administrators of the universal surveillance state, although the particular nation-state for which they are the custodians of surveillance are indifferent. We know that blocs of nation-states freely share their intelligence along elites — for example, within NATO, and more freely yet among the “Five Eyes” of Anglophone intelligence services. Thus while nominally loyal to the interests of a particular nation-state, the technocratic elite are in fact loyal to the international system of nation-states and the vested interests that this system represents. That same anarchic individualism that the procedural rationality of the universal surveillance state seeks to suppress, or, at least, to channel and control, is manifested at a higher order of magnitude among nation-states in the anarchic nation-state system that has been and is becoming institutionalized in international institutions (cf. State Power and Hypocrisy).

The masses can be bought off by the contemporary equivalent of bread and circuses — i.e., food stamps and mass entertainment — they can be be distracted and redirected by a barrage of trivia called “news,” and they can be seduced into passivity by relatively easy working conditions and cheap consumer goods. The middle classes can be bought off by better consumer goods, new luxury cars, and large houses. The more ambitious among the middle classes can be buried under the debt that they acquire in order to acquire the credentials that will secure the social mobility that they desire. The limiting mechanisms of social control assure that there is very little social mobility into or out of the elite class itself, however much social mobility into or out of the middle class, or within the various levels of the middle class, may occur.

In a world of seven billion people, there are only a finite number of Ferraris, Armani suits, and oceanfront mansions; these finite goods are allocated according to a system of privilege intrinsic to the technocratic nation-state. While a member of the middle class may move up in status and wealth and eventually acquire such goods as they may purchase (the best consumer goods, lying beyond the means of most of the middle class, who can afford only better consumer goods beyond the means of the masses), in the big picture these goods are merely decorative, and they may serve to confer status without real power to those who are most deeply invested in the status quo of our society. They have done what is expected of them, and they are rewarded for their loyalty and hard work. They also serve as models for the masses and the less successful middle classes. This is the institutional true believer, i.e., the individual who gives himself or herself to the state, and the state in turn gives to the individuals who have identified their interests with those of the institution in question the rewards due to their station. (I have previously written about such individuals in A Third Temperament.)

It is not difficult to recognize such institutional true believers. Foucault now appears as much a prophet as a philosopher, as he noted that in the change from right of death to power over life, such men are “no longer the rhapsodist of the eternal, but the strategist of life and death.” This is now literally true with the special place that healthcare holds in industrial technological civilization: religion once held out hope of salvation in another world; medicine now holds out hope of salvation in this world. With the PPACA and its individual mandate forcing everyone into the medical-industrial complex, doctors will become the agents of the universal surveillance state. Many medical institutions have already done so, voluntarily and enthusiastically. And this should not surprise us. Being an agent of a powerful entity means access to power, and access to power means privilege. They, too, can reap the material rewards of their special position in society.

Yet in a world of ever more available consumer goods, privilege is increasingly expressed in the form of intangibles. In the information-driven world of industrial-technological civilization, information is power, and access to privileged information is not only restricted to privileged individuals, but the very act of restriction on information creates a privileged class that has access to that information.

Recently I was corresponding with a friend in Tehran, who was telling me about all the internet restrictions in Iran. I asked if the people there accept this with resignation, complain about it, or make excuses for it, and was told that countless excuses are made for these restrictions. We in the west can laugh and be smug about this, except that the situation is little different in western nation-stations. We have seen countless excuses made for the universal warrantless surveillance conducted by the NSA, and shocking vitriol and invective directed at anyone who questions the wisdom of this surveillance regime.

The hysterical response to WikiLeaks disclosures and the Snowden leaks was not about national security, it was about the technocratic elites of the universal surveillance state, who base their status upon privileged access to restricted information, having their status called into question. Security is not an end in itself, but is only a means to an end — the end of social control.

In an op-ed piece on Wikileaks, Google and the NSA: Who’s holding the ‘shit-bag’ now?, Julian Assange recounts what happened in the wake of an attempt by WikiLeaks’ staff to call the State Department directly in order to attempt to speak to Hillary Clinton:

“…WikiLeaks’ ambassador Joseph Farrell, received a call back to discuss the parametres of the call with Hillary, not from the State Department, but from Lisa Shields, the then-girlfriend of Eric Schmidt, who does not formally work for the US State Department. So let’s reprise this situation: The Chairman of Google’s girlfriend was being used as a back channel for Hillary Clinton. This is illustrative. It shows that at this level of US society, as in other corporate states, it is all musical chairs.”

Assange is right: among the technocratic elite, it’s all musical chairs. But Assange was wrong in implying that things are different outside corporate states. It has always been musical chairs among the elites, whether technocratic or corporate or otherwise. The nature of the society or the civilization may shape the nature of the elites, but it does not change the fact of power elites, which is a civilizational invariant.

It is important to keep in mind that, while the technocratic elite of industrial-technological civilization are no more venal than the elites of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, they are also no less venal. Similarly, the technocratic elite of industrial-technological civilization are no more rapacious than the elites of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, but they are also no less rapacious that their predecessors.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Nobel prize

In a series of posts I have been outlining a theory of the particular variety of civilization that we find today, which I call industrial-technological civilization. These posts, inter alia, include:

The Industrial-Technological Thesis

Medieval and Industrial Civilization: Developmental Parallels

Science, Knowledge, and Civilization

The Open Loop of Industrial-Technological Civilization

Chronometry and the STEM Cycle

What are the distinctive features of civilization as we know it today? Different socioeconomic structures and institutions can be found among different peoples and in different regions of the world. In one sense there is, then, no one, single civilization; in another sense, civilization has become a planetary endeavor, as every people and every region of the world falls under some socioeconomic organization of large-scale cooperation, and each of these peoples and regions abut other such peoples and regions, involving relationships that can only be addressed at the level of the institutions of large-scale socioeconomic cooperation. Thus a planetary civilization has emerged “in a fit of absence of mind,” as John Robert Seeley said of the British Empire. In a very different terminology, we might call this the spontaneous emergence of higher level order in a complex system.

We can think of civilization as the highest taxon (so far) of socioeconomic organization, the summum genus of which the individual human being is the inferior species, to use the Aristotelian language of classification. In between civilization and the individual come family, band, tribe, chiefdom, and state, though I should note that this taxonomic hierarchy seems to imply that a civilization of nation-states is the ultimate destiny of human history — not a point I would ever argue. In the future, civilization will undoubtedly continue to develop, but there is also the possibility of higher taxa emerging beyond civilization, especially with the expansion of civilization in space and time, and possibly also to other worlds, other beings, and other institutions.

For the time being, however, I will set aside my prognostications for the future of civilization to focus on civilization in the present, as we know it. Like any large and complex socioeconomic structure, contemporary industrial-technological civilization consists of a range of interrelated institutions, with the institutions differing in their character and structure.

The chartering of formal social institutions is part of the explicit social contract. Briefly, in The Origins of Institutions, I said, “An implicit social contract I call an informal institution, and an explicit social contract I call a formal institution.” (In this post I also discussed how incipient institutions precede both formal and informal institutions.) In Twelve Theses on Institutionalized Power I made a distinction between the implicit social contract and the explicit social contact in this way:

“The existence of formal institutions require informal institutions that either allow us to circumvent the formal institution or guarantee fair play by obliging everyone to abide by the explicit social contract (something I previously discussed in Fairness and the Social Contract). There is a sense in which formal and informal institutions balance each other, and if the proper equilibrium between the two is not established, social order and social consensus is difficult to come by. However, in the context of mature political institutions, the attempt to find a balance between formal and informal institutions can lead to an escalation in which each seeks to make good the deficits of the others, and if this escalation is not brought to an end by revolution or some other expedient, the result is decadence, understood as an over-determination of both implicit and explicit social contracts.”

The early portion of the industrial revolution may be characterized as a time of incipient institutions of industrial-technological civilization, in which the central structure of that civilization — the STEM cycle in its tightly-coupled form, in which science drives technology employed in engineering that produces better scientific instruments — has not yet fully emerged. Formal institutionalization of the socioeconomic structures usually long follows the employment of these structures in the ordinary business of life, but in industrial-technological civilization many of the developmental processes of civilization have been accelerated, and we can also identify the acceleration of institutionalization as a feature of that civilization. The twentieth century was a period of the consolidation of industrial-technological civilization, in which incipient institutions began to diverge into formal and informal institutions. How are formal and informal institutions manifested and distinguished in industrial-technological civilization?

Anyone who immerses themselves in a discipline soon learns that in addition to the explicit knowledge imparted by textbooks, there is also the “lore” of the discipline, which is usually communicated by professors in their lectures and learned through informal conversations or even overheard conversations. Moreover, there is the intuitively grasped sense of what lines of research are likely to prove fruitful and which are dead ends (what Claude Lévi-Strauss called scientific flair). This intuitive sense cannot be taught directly, but a wise mentor or an effective professor can direct the best students — not those merely present to learn the explicit knowledge contained in books, but those likely to go on to careers of original research — in the best Socratic fashion, acting as mid-wives to intuitive mastery. Within science, these are the formal and the informal institutions of scientific knowledge.

Similarly, anyone who acquires a technical skill, whether that skill is carpentry or designing skyscrapers, has, on the one hand, the explicit knowledge communicated through formal institutions, while, on the other hand, also “know now” and practical experience in the discipline communicated through informal institutions. Both technology and engineering involve these technical skills, and we usually find clusters of expertise and technical mastery — like the famous Swiss talent for watches — that correspond to geographical centers where know how and practical experience can be passed along. One gains once’s scientific knowledge at a university, but one acquires one’s practical acumen only once on the job and learning how things get done in the “real world.” These are the formal and informal institutions of technology and engineering.

Industrial-technological civilization has brought great wealth, even unprecedented wealth, and in a human, all-too-human desire to leave a legacy (a desire that is in no wise specific to industrial-technological civilization, but which is intrinsic to the human condition), significant endowments of this wealth have been invested in the creation of institutions that play fairly clearly defined roles within the STEM cycle.

In terms of both prestige and financial reward, perhaps the most distinguished institution that recognizes scientific achievement is the Nobel Prize, awarded for Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physiology or Medicine, and later a memorial Nobel prize in economics was established. Mathematics is recognized by the Fields Medal. Apart from these most prestigious of awards, there are a great many private think thanks perpetuating an intellectual legacy, and the modern research university, especially institutions particularly dedicated to technology and engineering, is a locus of prestige and financial incentives clustered around both education and research.

Perhaps the best example of a formal institution integrated into the STEM cycle is the Stanford Research Institute. Their website states, “SRI International is a nonprofit, independent research and innovation center serving government and industry. We provide basic and applied research, laboratory and advisory services, technology development and licenses, deployable systems, products, and venture opportunities.” And that, “SRI bridges the critical gap between research universities or national laboratories and industry. We move R&D from the laboratory to the marketplace.” In a similar vein, Lockheed’s Skunkworks is known for its advanced military technology and the secretiveness of its operations, but Lockheed has recently announced that their Skunkworks is working on a compact fusion reactor.

Lockheed’s Skunkworks is an example of research and development within a private business enterprise (albeit a private enterprise with close ties to government), and it is in research and development units that we find the most tightly-coupled STEM cycles, in which focused scientific research is conducted exclusively with an eye to developing technologies that can be engineered into marketable products. The qualifier “marketable products” demonstrates how the STEM cycle is implicated in the total economy. From the perspective of the economist, mass market products are the primary driver of the economy, and better instruments for science are epiphenomenal, but as I have argued elsewhere, it is the technology and engineering that directly feeds into more advanced science that characterizes the STEM cycle, and everything else produced, whether mass market widgets or prestige for wealthy captains of industry, is merely epiphenomenal.

The economics of the STEM cycle that transforms its products into mass market widgets also points to the role of political and economic regulation of industries, which involves social consensus in the shaping of research agendas. Science, technology, and engineering are all regulated, and regulations shape the investment climate no less than regulations influence what researchers see as science that will be welcomed by the wider society and science that will be greeted with suspicion and disapproval. Controversial technologies, especially in biotechnology — reproductive technologies, cloning, radical life extension — make the public uneasy, investors skittish, and scientists wary. Few researchers can afford to plunge ahead heedless of the climate of public opinion.

In this way, the whole of industrial-technological civilization, driven by the STEM cycle set in its economic and political context, can be seen as an enormous social contract, with both implicit and explicit elements, formal and information institutions, and the different sectors of society each contributing something toward the balance of forces that competing in the sometimes fraught tension of the contemporary world. There could, of course, be other social contracts, different ways of maintaining a balance of competing forces. We can see a glimpse of these alternatives in non-western industrialized powers, as in China’s social contract. Whether or not any alternative social contract could prove as robust or as vital as that pioneered by the first nation-states to industrialize is an inquiry for another time.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

The Technological Frontier

12 December 2014


wanderer above the technological frontier

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 not 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

I previously wrote about the technium in Civilization and the Technium and The Genealogy of the Technium.

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.

. . . . .

artificial intelligence

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

The Limits of Science

3 December 2014


P. F. Strawson called his twentieth century exposition of Kant The Bounds of Sense. I have commented elsewhere what a appropriate title this is. The Kantian project (much like metamathematics in the twentieth century) was a limitative project. Kant himself wrote (in the Preface to the 2nd edition of the Critique of Pure Reason): “…my intention then was, to limit knowledge, in order to make room for faith.” Here is the entire passage from which the quote is taken, though in a different translation:

“This discussion as to the positive advantage of critical principles of pure reason can be similarly developed in regard to the concept of God and of the simple nature of our soul; but for the sake of brevity such further discussion may be omitted. [From what has already been said, it is evident that] even the assumption — as made on behalf of the necessary practical employment of my reason — of God, freedom, and immortality is not permissible unless at the same time speculative reason be deprived of its pretensions to transcendent insight. For in order to arrive at such insight it must make use of principles which, in fact, extend only to objects of possible experience, and which, if also applied to what cannot be an object of experience, always really change this into an appearance, thus rendering all practical extension of pure reason impossible. I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.”

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Preface to the Second Edition

What lies beyond the bounds of sense? For Kant, faith. And Kant’s theological agenda drove him to seek the bounds of sense so that speculative reason could be deprived of its pretensions to transcendental insight. Thus Kant gives us an epistemology openly freighted with theological and moral concerns. Talk about the theory-ladenness of perception! It is, however, non-perception — i.e., that which cannot be the object of possible experience — that is the Kantian domain of faith.

The 1791 Döbler portrait of Kant.

Of course, this is the whole Kantian project in a nutshell, is it not? It is Kant’s design to show us exactly how perception is laden with theory, the theory native to the mind, the a priori concepts by which we organize experience. Kant propounds the transcendental aesthetic and the transcendental deduction of the categories in order to demonstrate the reliance of even the most ordinary experience upon the mind’s a priori faculties.

Kant was, in part, reacting against the empiricism of Locke and Hume — especially Hume’s skeptical conclusions, although Kant’s own rejection of metaphysics equaled if not surpassed Hume’s anti-metaphysical stance, as famously described in the following passage from Hume:

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

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, “Of the academical or sceptical Philosophy,” Part III

For Hume, the bounds of sense and the limitation of reason entailed doubt; for Kant the bounds of sense and the limitation of reason entailed belief. There is a lesson in here somewhere, and the lesson is this: from a single state of affairs, multiple interpretations can be shown to follow.

David Hume is the source of the empiricism in philosophy that eventually became contemporary scientific naturalism.

Are the bounds of sense also the bounds of science? It would seem so. In so far as science must appeal to empirical evidence, and empirical evidence comes to us by way of the senses, the limits of the senses impose limits on science. Of course, this is a bit too simplistic to be quite true. There are so many qualifications that need to be made to such an assertion that it is difficult to say where to start.

It should be familiar to everyone that we have come to extensively use instruments to augment our senses. Big Science today sometimes spends years, if not decades, building its enormous machines, without which contemporary science could not be possible. So the limits of the senses are not absolute, and they are subject to manipulation. Also, we sometimes do science without our senses or instruments, when we pursue science by way of thought experiments.

While thought experiments alone, unsupplemented by actual experiments, are probably insufficient to constitute a science, thought experiments have become a necessary requisite to science much as instrumentation has become a necessary requisite to science. Sometimes, when our technology catches up with our ideas, we can transform our thought experiments into actual experiments, so that there is an historical relationship between science properly understood and the penumbra of science represented by thought experiments. And thought experiments too have their controlled conditions, and these are the conditions that Kant attempted to lay down in the transcendental aesthetic.

There is also the question of whether or not mathematics is a science, or one among the sciences. And whether or not we set aside mathematics as something different from the other sciences, we know that the development of unquestionably empirical sciences like physics are deeply mathematicized, so that the mathematical content of empirical theories may act like an abstract instrument, parallel to the material instruments of big science, that extends the possibilities of the senses. Another way to think about mathematics is as an enormous thought experiment that under-girds the rest of science — the one crucial thought experiment, an experimentum crucis, without which the rest of science cannot function. In this sense, thought experiments are indispensable to mathematicized science — as indispensable as mathematics.

At a more radical level of critique, it would be difficult to give a fine-grained account of empirical evidence that did not shade over, at the far edges of the concept, into other kinds of knowledge not strictly empirical. Empirical evidence may shade over into the kind of intuitive evidence that is the basis of mathematics, or the kind of epistemological context that is the setting for our thought experiments. Empirical evidence can also shade over into interoception that cannot be publicly verified (therefore failing a basic test of science) or precisely reproduced by repetition, and which interoception itself in turn shades over into intuitions in which thought and feeling are not clearly distinct.

Where does Kant’s possible experience fit within the continuum of the senses? What is the scope of possible experience? Can we make a clear distinction between extending the senses (and thus human experience) by abstract or concrete instruments and imposing a theory upon experience through these extensions? Does possible experience include all possible past experience? Does past experience include phenomenon that occurred but which were not observed (the famous tree falling in a forest that no one hears)? Does it include all possible future experience, or only those future experiences that will eventually be actualized, and not those that already remain merely shadowy possibilities? Does possible experience include those counterfactuals that feature in the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory? Explicit answers to these questions are less important that the lines of inquiry that the questions prompt us to pursue.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Lund Astronomical Clock

An interesting article on NPR about a new atomic clock being developed by NIST scientists, New Clock May End Time As We Know It, was of great interest to me. Immediately intrigued, I wrote a post on my other blog in which I suggested that the new clock might be used to update the “Einstein’s box” thought experiment (also known as the clock-in-a-box thought experiment). While I would like to follow up on this idea at some time, today I want to write about advanced chronometry in the context of the STEM cycle.

What if, in the clock-in-a-box thought experiment, we replace the clock with one so sensitive it can also function to measure the height of the box?

What if, in the clock-iin-a-box thought experiment, we replace the clock with one so sensitive it can also function to measure the height of the box?

Atomic clocks are among the most precise scientific instruments ever developed. As such, precision clocks offer a good illustration of the STEM cycle, which I identified as the definitive feature of industrial-technological civilization. While this illustration is contemporary, there is nothing new about the use of the most advanced science, technology, and engineering available being employed in chronometry.

The Tower of the Winds in Athens held one of the most advanced timekeeping devices in classical antiquity; the tower still stands, but the mechanism is long gone.

The Tower of the Winds in Athens held one of the most advanced timekeeping devices in classical antiquity; the tower still stands, but the mechanism is long gone.

The earliest sciences, already developed in classical antiquity, were mathematics and astronomy. These early scientific disciplines were applied to the construction of timekeeping mechanisms. Among the most interesting technological artifacts of the ancient world are the clock once installed in the Tower of the Winds in Athens (which was described in antiquity, but which no longer exists) and the Antikythera mechanism, the corroded remains of which were dredged up from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera (while discovered by sponge divers in 1900, the site is still yielding finds). A classic paper on the Tower of the Winds compares these two technologies: “This is a field in which ancient literature is curiously meager, as we well know from the complete lack of any literary reference to a technology that could produce the Antikythera Mechanism of the same date.” (“The Water Clock in the Tower of the Winds,” Joseph V. Noble and Derek J. de Solla, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 72, No. 4, Oct., 1968, pp. 345-355) Both of these artifacts are concerned with chronometry, which demonstrates that the most advanced technologies, then and now, have been employed in the measurement of time.

antikythera mechanism reconstruction

The advent of high technology as we know it today — unprecedented in human history — has been the result of the advent of a new kind of civilization — industrial-technological civilization — and the use of advanced technologies in chronometry provides a useful lens with which to view one of the unique features of our civilization today, which I call the STEM cycle. The acronym STEM is familiar in educational contexts in order to refer to education and training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, so I have taken over this acronym as the name for one of the socioeconomic processes that lies at the heart of our civilization: Science seeks to understand nature on its own terms, for its own sake. Technology is that portion of scientific research that can be developed specifically for the realization of practical ends. Engineering is the industrial implementation of a technology. Mathematics is the common language in which the elements of the cycle are formulated. A feedback loop of science driving technology, driving engineering, driving more science, characterizes industrial-technological civilization. This is the STEM cycle.

Ammonia maser frequency standard built 1949 at the US National Bureau of Standards (now National Institute of Standards and Technology) by Harold Lyons and associates. (Wikipedia)

Ammonia maser frequency standard built 1949 at the US National Bureau of Standards (now National Institute of Standards and Technology) by Harold Lyons and associates. (Wikipedia)

The distinctions between science, technology, and engineering are not absolute — far from it. To employ a terminology I developed elsewhere, I would say that science is only weakly distinct from technology, technology is only weakly distinct from engineering, and engineering is only weakly distinct from science. In some contexts any two elements of the STEM cycle are identical, while in other contexts of the STEM cycle they are starkly contrasted. This is not due to inconsistency, but rather to the fact that science, technology, and engineering are open-textured concepts; we could adopt conventional distinctions that would make them strongly distinct, but this would be contrary to usage in ordinary language and would only result in confusion. Given the lack of clear distinctions among science, technology, and engineering, where we draw the dividing lines within the STEM cycle is to some degree arbitrary — we could describe this cycle in different terms, employing different distinctions — but the cycle itself is not arbitrary. By any other name, it drives industrial-technological civilization.

STEM cycle 1

The clock that was the inspiration for this post — the new strontium atomic clock, described in JILA Strontium Atomic Clock Sets New Records in Both Precision and Stability, and the subject of a scientific paper, An optical lattice clock with accuracy and stability at the 10−18 level by B. J. Bloom, T. L. Nicholson, J. R. Williams, S. L. Campbell, M. Bishof, X. Zhang, W. Zhang, S. L. Bromley, and J. Ye (a preprint of the article is available at Arxiv) — is instructive in several respects. In so far as we consider atomic clocks to be a generic “technology,” the strontium clock represents the latest and most advanced instance of this technology yet constructed, a more specific form of technology, the optical lattice clock, within the more generic division of atomic clocks. The sciences involved in the conceptualization of atomic clocks are fundamental: atomic physics, quantum theory, relativity theory, thermodynamics, and optics. Atomic clocks are a technology built from another technologies, including advanced materials, lasers, masers, a vacuum chamber, refrigeration, and computers. Building the technology into an optimal device involves engineering for dependability, economy, miniaturization, portability, and refinements of design.

JILA's experimental atomic clock based on strontium atoms held in a lattice of laser light is the world's most precise and stable atomic clock. The image is a composite of many photos taken with long exposure times and other techniques to make the lasers more visible. (Ye group and Baxley/JILA)

JILA’s experimental atomic clock based on strontium atoms held in a lattice of laser light is the world’s most precise and stable atomic clock. The image is a composite of many photos taken with long exposure times and other techniques to make the lasers more visible. (Ye group and Baxley/JILA)

The NIST web page notes that, “NIST invests in a number of atomic clock technologies because the results of scientific research are unpredictable, and because different clocks are suited for different applications.” (For further background on atomic clocks at NIST cf. A New Era for Atomic Clocks.) The new record breaking clocks in terms of stability and accuracy are experimental devices; the current standard for timekeeping is the NIST-F2 “cesium fountain” atomic clock. The transition from the previous standard timekeeping, NIST-F1, to the present standard, NIST-F2, is largely a result of engineering refinements of the earlier atomic clock. Even the experimental strontium clock is likely to be soon surpassed. JILA Strontium Atomic Clock Sets New Records in Both Precision and Stability quotes Jun Ye as saying, “We already have plans to push the performance even more, so in this sense, even this new Nature paper represents only a ‘mid-term’ report. You can expect more new breakthroughs in our clocks in the next 5 to 10 years.”

STEM cycle epiphenomena 10

The engineering refinement of high technology has two important consequences:

1) inexpensive, widely available devices (which I will call the ubiquity function), and…

2) improved, cutting edge devices that improve the precision of measurement (which I will call the meliorative function), sometimes improved by an order of magnitude (or several orders of magnitude).

These latter devices, those that represent greater precision, are not likely to be inexpensive or widely available, but as the STEM cycle continues to advance science, technology, and engineering in a regular and predictable manner, the older generation of technology becomes widely available and inexpensive as new technologies take their place on the expensive cutting edge. However, these cutting edge technologies are in turn displaced by newer technologies, and the cycle continues. Thus there is a relationship — an historical relationship — between the two consequences of the engineering refinement of technology. Both of these phases in the life of a technology affect the practice of science. NIST Launches a New U.S. Time Standard: NIST-F2 Atomic Clock quotes NIST physicist Steven Jefferts, lead designer of NIST-F2, as saying, “If we’ve learned anything in the last 60 years of building atomic clocks, we’ve learned that every time we build a better clock, somebody comes up with a use for it that you couldn’t have foreseen.”


Widely available precision measurement devices (the ubiquity function) bring down the cost of scientific research and we begin to see science cropping up in all kinds of interesting and unexpected places. The development of computer technology and then the miniaturization of computers had the unintended result of making computers inexpensive and widely available. This, in turn, has meant that everyone doing science carries a portable computer with them, and this widely available computational power (which I have elsewhere called the computational infrastructure of civilization) has transformed how science is done. NIST Atomic Devices and Instrumentation (ADI) now builds “chip-scale” atomic clocks, which is both commercializing and thereby democratizing atomic clock technology in a form factor so small that it could be included in a cell phone (or whatever mobile device form factor you prefer). This is perfect illustration of the ubiquity function in an engineering application of atomic clock technology.

New cutting edge precision measurement devices (the meliorative function), employed only by the governments and industries that can afford to push the envelope with the latest technology, are scientific instruments of great sensitivity; increasing the precision of the measurement of time by an order of magnitude opens up new possibilities the consequences of which cannot be predicted. What can be predicted, however, is the present generation of high precision measurement devices make it possible to construct the next generation of precision measurement devices, which exceed the precision of the previous generation of devices. A clock built to a new design that is far more precise than its predecessors (like the strontium atomic clock) may not necessarily find its cutting edge scientific application exclusively in the measurement of time (though, again, it might do that also), but as a scientific instrument of great sensitivity it suggests uses throughout the sciences. A further distinction can be made, then, between instruments used for the purposes they were intended to serve, and instruments that are exapted for unintended uses.

A loosely-coupled STEM cycle is characterized primarily by the ubiquity function, while a tightly-coupled STEM cycle is characterized primarily by the meliorative function. Human civilization has always involved a loosely-coupled STEM cycle, sometimes operating over thousands of years, with no apparent relationship between science, technology, and engineering. Technological progress was slow and intermittent under these conditions. However, the productivity of industrial-technological civilization is such that its STEM cycle yields both the ubiquity function and the meliorative function, which means that there are in fact multiple STEM cycles running concurrently, both loosely-coupled and tightly-coupled.

The research and development branch of a large business enterprise is the conscious constitution of a limited, tightly-coupled STEM cycle in which only that science is pursued that is expected to generate specific technologies, and only those technologies are developed that can be engineered into marketable products. An open loop STEM cycle, loosely-coupled STEM cycle, or exaptations of the STEM cycle are seen as wasteful, but in some cases the unintended consequences from commercial enterprises can be profound. When Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were hired by Bell Labs, it was with the promise that they could use the Holmdel Horn Antenna for pure science once they had done the work that Bell Labs would pay them for. As it turned out, the actual work of tracing down interference resulted in the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), earning Penzias and Wilson the Nobel prize. An engineering problem became a science problem: how do you explain the background interference that cannot be eliminated from electronic devices?

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


academic silos

Contemporary scholarship is a hierarchy of specializations, though the hierarchy is not always obvious. A typical idiom employed today to describe specialization is that of “academic silos,” as though each academic specialization were tightly circumscribed by very high walls rarely breached. The idiom of “silos” points not to a hierarchy, but to a landscape of separate but equal and utterly isolated disciplines.

There are several taxonomies of the academic disciplines that arrange them hierarchically, as in the unity of science movement of twentieth century logical empiricism, which sought to reduce all the sciences to physics. This isn’t what I have in mind when I say that contemporary scholarship is a hierarchy of specializations. I am, rather, recurring to an idea that appeared in the work of Alfred North Whitehead, and which was picked up by Buckminster fuller (of geodesic dome fame).

We can think of Buckminster Fuller as a proto-techno-philosopher, and we know that techno-philosophy disdains the philosophical tradition and seeks to treat traditional philosophical problems de novo from the perspective of science and technology. In one of the rare instances of borrowing by techno-philosophy from traditional philosophy, Buckminster Fuller quoted Alfred North Whitehead, who was a bona fide philosopher.

In R. Buckminster Fuller’s Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity (Chapter 2, “The Music of the New Life”), Fuller identifies what he called “Whitehead’s dilemma,” following an observation made by Alfred North Whitehead about the accelerating pace of specialization in higher education. The dilemma is that the best and brightest students were channeled into specialized studies, and these studies became more specialized as they progress. But there remains a need for a coordinating function among specializations, though all the best minds have already been channeled into specialist studies. That means that the dullest minds that remain are left with the task of the overall coordination of specialist disciplines.

Whitehead formulated his dilemma in terms of academic specialization and governmental coordination of society, but there are “big picture” coordinating functions that have nothing to do with government. This is most especially evident in what I have called the epistemic overview effect, which is concerned with the “big picture” of knowledge. A comprehensive understanding of some specialist discipline no less that an overall coordinating function demands a grasp of the big picture. But the rise of specialization militates against comprehensive understanding in its widest aspect — where it is most needed.

The role of specialization in contemporary scholarship is ironic in historical perspective. It is ironic because, today, more students than ever before in history throng more institutions of higher learning than ever before existed in history, and the traditional ideal of higher education was that of creating a well-rounded individual who had some degree of sophistication across a spectrum of scholarship. Specialization was once the function of the trades (something Whitehead also noted, cf. his Adventures of Ideas, Part One, Chap. 4 “Aspects of Freedom,” Section V; Whitehead’s distinction in this section between profession and craft is instructive). An individual either went on to further academic education in order to understand the wider relationship between the sciences and the humanities, or one entered a trade school or an apprenticeship program and specialized in learning some skill or craft.

It would not be going too far to say that, if you want to understand the big picture, the last person you should talk to is a specialist. A specialist may simply refuse to talk about the big picture, or, if they do talk about the big picture, it will be through the lens of their specialty, which can be highly misleading as regards the big picture. Thus the big picture may be characterized as a body of knowledge in which there are no specialists and no experts. Can there be experts in comprehensive knowledge? Is it possible to specialize in the big picture? How would one go about specializing in the big picture, such that one’s neglect of detail and the specialization of the special sciences would be a principled neglect of detail in order to focus on the details and patterns that emerge exclusively from an attempt to grasp the whole of the world, or the whole of the universe? This kind of specialization sounds counter-intuitive, but we must make the effort to formulate such a conception.

While prima facie counter-intuitive, we should immediately recognize that the idea of specializing in the big picture is nothing other than a particular application of the general principle of scientific abstraction. Science constructs abstract, simplified, idealized models of the world in order to understand processes and phenomena that, in the fullness of their presence, are far too complex to allow totality of knowledge. Recall that Wordsworth said we murder to dissect. The world in itself is intractable; the world of science is made tractable through abstraction; abstraction is the price that we pay for understanding. We must learn to pay that price willingly, if not cheerfully.

In asking if it is possible to specialize in the big picture, I am also in a sense asking if it is possible to think rigorously about the big picture, thus we can also ask: Is it possible to think about the big picture with a clear scholarly conscience? Big picture thinking often invites careless and sloppy formulations, and this has brought big picture thinking into disrepute by those who wish to distance themselves from careless and sloppy thinking — which is to say, almost all contemporary philosophers, who take a special pride in the rigor of their formulations. And this is a rigor largely due to the kind of specialization that Whitehead identified.

There is a kind of implicit contrition in the contemporary philosophical passion for rigor and precision, since much traditional philosophy now seems painfully muddled and unclear, and this has been a stick that scientists have used to beat philosophers, and with which they have justified their fashionable anti-philosophy. But Scientists, too, are guilty on this account. And whereas philosophers committed their sins against rigor in the past, scientists are committing their sins against rigor in the present. The pronouncements of scientists upon extra-scientific questions is an admirable attempt at comprehensive understanding, but it almost always takes place in a context that ignores the history of the question addressed.

History, I think, is essential to the big picture. Indeed, I will go further and I will suggest that the emerging discipline of Big History offers the possibility of a discipline that can specialize in the big picture with the hope of rigorous formulations. We have need of such a discipline. At the 2014 IBHA conference, David Christian in his keynote address (titled,”Can I study everything, please?”) expressed quite vividly the origins of his own interest in what would become big history in an experience of disappointment. He talked about going to school as a child with an initial sense of excitement that his big questions would be answered, only to find that his big questions were shunted aside.

How do you talk about the whole of time without inviting scholarly ridicule by those who have spent their entire careers seeking to accurately portray some small fragment of the whole? Is it possible to speak at this level of generality and still be to “right” in any relevant sense? Big History seeks to be just such a discipline, and the big historians have done a remarkable job in integrating the results of the special sciences into a coherent whole. I have made the claim that big history need not reject any more specialized scholarship, but provides the overall framework within which all specialized studies can find a place. Big history is a “big tent” in which all scholarship can find a place.

Big History is now an established (albeit youthful) branch of historiography, but it could be more than this. Where Big History remains weak is in its theoretical formulations, and this is not a surprise. While Big Historians seek to portray philosophy and the humanities as part of the sweeping story of human civilization (itself a part of a larger cosmic history), they do not draw upon philosophy and the humanities in the same way that they draw upon the special sciences. There is, as yet, no philosophy of big history, and that means that there is, as yet, no systematic attempt to clarify and to extend the conceptions upon which Big History relies in its formulations. This remains to be done.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


religious traditions

When I find myself among conspiracy theorists and pseudo-science aficionados, I probably sound like the most relentless, ruthless, unforgiving positivist that you have ever heard. But, of course, I’m not a positivist at all. When I find myself among those educated in the sciences, I probably sound like the most woolly-headed philosopher imaginable, who seemingly takes every opportunity to needlessly complicate matters that are perfectly clear just as they are. I am caught between defending science among those innocent of science, and defending philosophy among those innocent of philosophy. In other words, I can’t win. And now I’m going to make my hopeless position worse by taking the conflict (rather, the absence of communication) between science and philosophy into the forbidden no-man’s-land of politics.

My particular dilemma is the result of understanding that science is philosophy; that is to say, science as we know it today, is a particular branch of philosophy (something that I began to explain in A Fly in the Ointment). While it may be grudgingly acknowledged that science has philosophical presuppositions, it is step further to see science as a particular philosophy that is rather less comprehensive than the whole of philosophy. Now, it is true that science has become differentiated from the rest of philosophy because of its practical successes, but its practical successes alone are no warrant for separating methodological naturalism, i.e., science, from the rest of philosophy.

Without philosophy we cannot understand science; philosophy provides both the synchronic and the diachronic context of science. The emergence of science within western civilization is the diachronic narrative of philosophy, and the relations of science to other aspects of the world and human experience is the synchronic context of science that can only adequately be addressed by philosophy. The need for a robust engagement between science and philosophy, as is to be found, for example, in the work of Einstein, is a need that grows out of the philosophical context of science.

Previous epochs of civilization — notably, agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — might point to their own pragmatic implementations of philosophy, no less than the successes of the sciences are heralded today. Enormous monumental building projects that still impress us today, symbols of civilization such as the pyramids, Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal, the Daibutsu at Nara, and Borobudur, were possible only through the effort of a philosophically unified civilization, and the monuments themselves are monuments to those civilizations and their philosophical bases.

As an example of a philosophical civilization animated from the power elites at the top down to the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder I have elsewhere quoted Gregory Nazianzus on the Christological controversies in Byzantium:

“Constantinople is full of handicraftsmen and slaves, who are all profound theologians, and preach in their workshops and in the streets. If you want a man to change a piece of silver, he instructs you in which consists the distinction between the Father and the Son; if you ask the price of a loaf of bread, you receive for answer, that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you ask, whether the bread is ready, the rejoinder is that the genesis of the Son was from nothing.”

Another example might be the reach of stoicism in the Roman empire from the emperor Marcus Aurelius to the slave Epictetus. This philosophical character of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is not limited to western civilization, its predecessors, and successors, but is a planetary phenomenon.

The civilization of India is perhaps uniquely philosophical in the world. India is a civilization-state, and Indian civilization is a philosophical civilization. In this respect, it is markedly different from western civilization, which has no contemporary single state representative, and in regard to philosophy is more narrow and focused.

This can give us a certain insight into western civilization, which is not a philosophical civilization in the sense that India is, but is a fragment of a philosophical civilization. In so far as science is a particular branch of philosophy, and in so far as western civilization in its present form (industrial-technological civilization) is founded upon science as the source of the STEM cycle, western civilization is a philosophical civilization for the particular philosophy of methodological naturalism. Indeed, the very insistence today that science can do without philosophy is an expression of the philosophical narrowness of western civilization.

Much is to be learned from the comparison of the philosophies and civilizational structures of those independent civilizations that can be traced all the way to their origins in the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, during which all agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations had their earliest origins. But there is a problem here. In reaction against the imperialism of western civilization since that period once called the Age of Discovery, when Columbus, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, Amerigo Vespucci, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, and many others, sailed from Europe and began to survey the world entire, it is now considered in supremely bad taste to compare civilizations. The celebratory model of tolerance is almost universally adopted and every civilization is counted as a special snowflake that has something to contribute to human history.

In my post on The Future Science of Civilizations I noted Carnap’s tripartite distinction among scientific concepts, which Carnap identified as the classificatory, the comparative, and the quantitative. (We note that this typology itself takes a classificatory form, and an entire class of scientific concepts are comparative concepts.) In so far as we understand Carnap’s conceptual schema of measurement as developmental, proceeding in phases so that initial classifications lead to comparisons, and comparisons lead to quantification, all the while gaining in objectivity, Carnap’s schematism of scientific measurement embodies what Edith Wyschogrod called “the quantification of the qualitied world.”

If we take the division of classificatory, comparative, and quantitative concepts not in a developmental sense but as different approaches to a scientific grasp of the world, then each conceptual method of measurement may yield unique information about the world. In either case, whether we take these scientific concepts of measurement in developmental terms or take each in isolation, comparative concepts have a crucial role to play: either they are a stage in the development of a fully quantitative science, or they yield unique information about the world.

We cannot fully or adequately conceptualize civilization without developing comparative concepts of civilization to the greatest extent possible, but the development and exploration of this conceptual space is severely constrained by the contemporary political proscription upon the comparison of civilizations. In this way, the study of civilization today is unnecessarily yet unavoidably political. In order to frankly and bluntly discuss comparative conceptions of civilization, we are forced to seek artful euphemisms to speak evasively. This is unfortunate for the development of a science of civilization, but it is not insuperable, and the appropriate degree of abstraction and formalization in a fully developed theoretical context may be sufficient to violate this taboo in spirit while leaving the letter of the proscription intact.

. . . . .

The legendary meeting of Confucius and Lao Tzu, each representing very different philosophical traditions of China.

The legendary meeting of Confucius and Lao Tzu, each representing very different philosophical traditions of China.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

A Fly in the Ointment

11 November 2014


Wittgenstein - cartoon

Wittgenstein was not himself a positivist, but his early work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, had such a profound influence on early twentieth century philosophy that the philosophy that we now identify as logical positivism was born from reading groups that got together to study Wittgenstein’s Tractatus — what I have elsewhere called The Ludwig Wittgenstein Reading Club — primarily the Vienna Circle.

Wittgenstein began his education as an engineer, and only later became interested in philosophy by way of the philosophy of mathematics then emerging from the work of Frege and Russell. It has been said that the early Wittgenstein approached philosophy like an engineer, setting out to drain the swamps of philosophy. A more familiar metaphor for Wittgenstein’s philosophy, though for the later rather than the earlier Wittgenstein, is that of philosophy as a kind of therapy:

“A philosopher is a man who has to cure many intellectual diseases in himself before he can arrive at the notions of common sense.”

Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 1944, p. 44e

Wittgenstein does not himself use the term “therapy” or “therapeutic,” but frequently recurs to the theme in other words:

“In philosophizing we may not terminate a disease of thought. It must run its natural course, and slow cure is all important. (That is why mathematicians are such bad philosophers.)”

Wittgenstein, Zettel, 382

The idea of philosophy as therapy is not entirely new. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I noted the medieval tradition of conceiving philosophers as “doctors of the soul”:

“During late antiquity philosophers were sometimes called ‘doctors of the soul.’ Later yet, Avicenna was a practicing physician in addition to being both a logician and a philosopher, and he stands at the head of a tradition of doctor-philosophers among the Arabs. All this has a superficial resemblance to the contemporary conception of philosophy as therapy, but in reality it is the antithesis of the modern conception of philosophy as a sickness in need of therapy, of scholarship as an illness, and of the philosopher as corrupt and corrupting.”

Variations on the Theme of Life, section 767

Every age must confront the ancient and perennial questions of philosophy anew, because each age has its own, peculiar therapeutic needs. It has become a commonplace of contemporary commentary, as least since the middle of the twentieth century, that the pace and busyness of our civilization today is driving us insane, and in so far as this is true, we are more in need of therapy than previous ages.

In my previous post, Philosophy for Industrial-Technological Civilization, I suggested, contrary to Quine, that philosophy of science is not philosophy enough; that we also need philosophy of technology and philosophy of engineering, and to unify these aspects of the STEM cycle within the big picture, we need a philosophy of big history. There is only one problem with my vision for the overarching philosophy demanded by the world of today: there is no demand for it. No one is interested in my vision or, for that matter, any other vision of philosophy for the twenty-first century.

Previously I wrote three posts on contemporary anti-philosophy:

Fashionable Anti-Philosophy

Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy

Beyond Anti-Philosophy

The most prestigious scientists of our time seem at one in their insistence upon the irrelevance of philosophy. A post on the SelfAwarePatters blog, E.O. Wilson: Science, not philosophy, will explain the meaning of existence, brought my attention to E. O. Wilson’s recent statements belittling philosophy. SelfAwarePatters has also written about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “blanket dismissal of philosophy” in Neil deGrasse Tyson is wrong to dismiss all of philosophy, but he may have a point on some of it.

It is almost painful to watch Wilson’s oversimplifications in the above linked “Big Think” piece, though I suspect his oversimplifications will have a wide and sympathetic audience. After implying the pointlessness of studying the history of philosophy and making the claim that philosophy mostly consists of “failed models of how the brain works,” Wilson then appeals to the “full story of humanity” (without mentioning big history, though the interdisciplinary concatenation he mentions is very much in the spirit of big history), and formulates a point of view almost precisely the same as that I heard several times at the 2014 IBHA conference: once we have this big picture view of history, we no longer need to ask what the meaning of life is, because we will know it.

The inescapable reflexivity of philosophical thought means that any principled rejection of philosophy is itself a philosophical claim; unprincipled rejections, that is to say, dismissal without reason or argument, have no more standing than any other unprincipled claim. So the scientists who dismiss philosophy and give reasons for doing so are doing philosophy. The unfortunate consequence is that they are doing philosophy poorly, much like someone who dismisses science but who pontificates on matters scientific, and does so poorly. We are well familiar with this, as pseudo-science has been given a megaphone by the internet and other forms of mass media. Scientists are aware of the problem posed by pseudo-science, but seem to be blissfully unaware of the problem of pseudo-philosophy.

There is a book by Louis Althusser, Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of Scientists, that I have cited previously (in Fashionable Anti-Philosophy) since the title is so evocative, in which Althusser says, “…in every scientist there sleeps a philosopher or, to put it another way, that every scientist is affected by an ideology or a scientific philosophy which we propose to call by the conventional name: the spontaneous philosophy of the scientists…” It is this spontaneous philosophy of scientists that we see in the anti-philosophical pronouncements of E. O. Wilson and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Not only eminent scientists, but also science popularizers share this attitude. Michio Kaku’s recent book, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind, is essentially a speculative work in the philosophy of mind. There is a pervasive yet implicit Kantianism running through Kaku’s book of which I am sure he is unaware, because, like most scientists today who write on philosophical topics, he has not bothered to study the philosophical literature. If one knows that one is arguing a neo-Kantian position on the transcendental aesthetic, in trying to come to terms with how the barrage of sensory data is somehow translated into an apparently smooth and unitary stream of consciousness, then one can simply consult the literature to learn where state of the argument over the transcendental aesthetic stands today, what the standard arguments are for and against contemporary Kantianism, but without this basic knowledge, one does little more than repeat what has already been said — better — by others, and long ago. Even Sam Harris, who has some background in philosophy, gives his exposition of determinism in a philosophical vacuum, as though the work of philosophers such as Robert Kane, Helen Steward, and Alfred R. Mele simply did not exist, or is beneath notice.

The anti-philosophy and pseudo-philosophy of prominent scientists is an instance of the spontaneous philosophy noted by Althusser. But this spontaneous expression of uninformed philosophical speculation does not come out of nowhere; it has a basis, albeit dimly understood, in the nature of science itself. What is the nature of science itself? I have an answer to this, but it is not an answer that will be welcome to most of those in science today: science is philosophy. That is to say, science is a particular branch of philosophy, that branch once called natural philosophy, and it is natural philosophy practiced in accordance with methodological naturalism. Science is a narrow slice of a far more comprehensive conception of the world.

Scientists are philosophers without realizing they are philosophers, and when then pronounce upon philosophical questions without reference to the philosophical tradition — which is much broader and pluralistic than any one, single branch of philosophy, such as natural philosophy — they do little more than to restate their presuppositions as principles. Given the preeminent role of science within industrial-technological civilization, this willful ignorance of philosophy, and of the position of science in relation to philosophy, is not only holding back both science and philosophy, it is holding back civilization.

The next stage of development of our civilization (not to mention the macro-evolution of our civilization into another kind of civilization) will not come about until science utterly abandons the positivistic assumptions that are today the unquestioned yet implicit presuppositions of scientific inquiry, and science extends the scientific method, and the sense of responsibility to empirical evidence, beyond the confines of any one branch of philosophy to the whole of philosophy. To paraphrase Plato, until philosophers theorize as scientists or those who are now called scientists and leading thinkers genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until science and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, civilization will have no rest from evils… nor, I think, will the human race.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .



Twentieth century American analytical philosopher W. V. O. Quine said that, “Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.” (The Ways of Paradox, “Mr. Strawson on Logical Theory”) In so saying Quine was making explicit the de facto practice on which Anglo-American analytical philosophy was converging: if philosophy was going to be tolerated at all (even among professional philosophers!) it must delimit its horizons to science, as only in the conceptual clarification of science had philosophy any remaining role to play in the modern world. Philosophy of science was a preoccupation of philosophers throughout the twentieth century, from early positivist formulations in the early part of the century, through post-positivist formulations, to profoundly ambiguous reflections upon the rationality of science in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

I have previously addressed the condition of contemporary philosophy in Philosophy Institutionalized, in which I noted that among the philosophical schools of our time, “there is a common thread, and that common thread is not at all difficult to discern: it is the relationship of thought to the relentless expansion of industrial-technological civilization.” I would like to take this idea a step further, and consider how philosophy might be both embedded in contemporary civilization and how it might look beyond the particular human condition of the present moment of history and also embrace something larger.

The position of philosophy in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization was preeminent, and second only to theology. India had a uniquely philosophical civilization in which schools of thought wildly proliferated and were elaborated over the course of hundreds of years. In those agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations in which religion simpliciter was the organizing principle, initially crude religious ideas were eventually given sophisticated and subtle formulations in an advanced technical vocabulary largely derived from philosophy. Where the explicitly religious impulse was less prominent than the philosophical impulse, a philosophical civilization came into being, as in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, starting with ancient Greece and its successor civilizations.

With the end of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, as it was preempted by industrial-technological civilization, this tradition of philosophical preeminence in intellectual inquiry was lost, and philosophy, no longer being central to the motivating imperatives of civilization, became progressively more and more marginalized, until today, when it is largely an intellectual whipping boy that scientists point out as an object lesson of how not to engage in intellectual activity.

I have elsewhere described industrial-technological civilization as being defined by the STEM cycle, which I later further elaborated in One Hundred Years of Fusion as follows:

“…science drives technology, technology drives industrial engineering, and industrial engineering creates new resources that allow science to be pursued at a larger scope and scale. In some cases the STEM cycle functions as a loosely-coupled structure of our world. The resources of advanced mathematics are necessary to the expression of physics in mathematicized form, but there may be no direct coupling of physics and mathematics, and the mathematics used in physics may have been available for generations. Pure science may suggest a number of technologies, many of which lie fallow, with no particular interest in them. One technology may eventually come into mass manufacture, but it may not be seen to have any initial impact on scientific research. All of these episodes seem de-coupled, and can only be understood as a loosely-coupled cycle when seen in the big picture over the long term. In the case of nuclear fusion, the STEM cycle is more tightly coupled: fusion science must be consciously developed with an eye to its application in various fusion technologies. The many specific technologies developed on the basis of fusion science are tested with an eye to which can be practically scaled up by industrial engineering to build a workable fusion power generation facility.”

Given the role of the STEM cycle in defining industrial-technological civilization, a robust philosophical engagement with the civilization of our time would mean a philosophy of science, a philosophy of technology, and a philosophy of engineering, as well as an overall philosophy of civilization that knit these together in a way that reflects the STEM cycle that unifies the three in industrial-technological civilization. Thus the twentieth century preoccupation with the philosophy of science can be understood as the first attempt to come to grips with the new form of civilization that had replaced the civilization of our rural, agricultural past.

This fits in well with the fact that the philosophy of technology has been booming in recent decades (partially driven by our technophilia), with philosophers of many different backgrounds and orientations — analytical philosophers, phenomenologists, existentialists, Marxists, and many others — equally interested in providing a philosophical commentary on this central feature of our contemporary world. I have myself written about the emergence of what I call techno-philosophy. The philosophy of engineering is a bit behind philosophy of science and philosophy of technology, but it is rapidly catching up, as philosophers realize that they have had little to say about this essential dimension of our contemporary world. The academic publisher Springer now has a series of books on the philosophy of engineering, Philosophy of Engineering and Technology. I would purchase more of these volumes if they weren’t prohibitively expensive.

Beyond the specialized disciplines of philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, and philosophy of engineering, there also needs to be a “big picture” engagement with the three loosely coupled together in the STEM cycle, and beyond this there needs to be a philosophical engagement with how our industrial-technological civilization is embedded in a larger historical context that includes different forms of civilization with profoundly different civilizational motifs and imperatives.

To address the latter need for a truly big picture philosophy, that is not some backward-looking disinterment of Hegelian philosophy of history, but which engages with the world as it know it today, in the light of scientific rationality, we need a philosophy of history that understands history in terms of scientific historiography, which is how a scientific civilization grasps history and arrives at a self-understanding of its place in history.

Philosophical reflection upon existential risk partially serves as a reminder of the philosophical dimension of history and civilization, in a way not unlike meditations on eternity during the period of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization served as a reminder that life is more than the daily struggle to stay alive. In my post, What is an existential philosophy?, I wrote, “…coming to terms with existence from an existential perspective means coming to terms with Big History, which provides the ultimate (natural historical) context for ordinary experience and its object.”

What we need, then, for a vital and vigorous philosophy for industrial-technological civilization, is a philosophy of big history. I intend to do something about this — in fact, I am working on it now — though it is unlikely that anyone will take notice.

. . . . .

big history with thinker small

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


six years

It is always a pleasure to mark another anniversary of Grand Strategy: The View of Oregon. While I remain a thoroughly marginal figure with very few readers, my efforts have not been entirely in vain. After all, you’re reading this.

A surprising number of blogs appear to be about nothing but blogging, statistics, attracting an readership, responding to comments, and so on. This is incredibly tedious, and I don’t know how they’ve gotten the subscribers and comments that these sites usually feature. (Maybe it’s mostly friends and family, or maybe its some unseen connection to the mainstream media.) There is nothing quite so tiresome as to hear writers talking about writing, or to hear the resentful talking about their resentments. Sometimes the two are one and the same. Thus I limit myself to one post per year in which I vent on the mundane details of writing this blog, so as not to presume too much upon my readers’ patience. My previous anniversary postings include:

Grand Strategy Celebrates One Year!

Grand Strategy Celebrates Two Years!

Grand Strategy Celebrates Three Years!

Four More Years!

Five Years!

That I have continued my efforts is a reflection of intrinsic interest; many blogs are started, and most fizzle, whether or not the writers gain an audience. Given that 95 percent of blogs are abandoned, that fewer men than women blog, that most blogs are written by individuals in their 20s, I am something of a statistical anomaly by dint of pure perseverance. I continue to produce posts, albeit at a slower rate than before, and because I still have plenty of ideas I don’t see myself running out of things to say any time soon.

I don’t blog because I expect a book deal to come out of my efforts, or because I expect to have a million hits a day, or because I think I’m going to be interviewed on television or by the New York Times (though, honestly, I would prefer the Financial Times). On the contrary, blogging is much more likely to bring ridicule than fame and fortune, as others express consternation as to why one bothers at all.

It is interesting to compare the nay-sayers at opposite ends of the spectrum. There are the working class nay-sayers who can’t understand why someone with a full time job would use their spare time to write a blog rather than to enjoy the short space of leisure to which their employment entitles them between the end of the work day and the onset of sleep. On the other hand, there are the privileged nay-sayers, those who have already come into a position of influence, fame, or money, who cannot understand why those on the bottom continue to struggle for some recognition when — obviously — they are doomed to eternal anonymity.

Nay-sayers aside, it is with a certain Schadenfreude that marginal individuals like myself can look upon the near catastrophic failure in the publishing industry today, even if the mainstream media continues to dominate public opinion on the internet now instead of through print. Those who assumed that the publishing industry would go on as it has always gone on have been forced to face hard truths about newspapers and magazines in a digital age. Media outlets that can come to be social institutions have had to change their way of doing business, and, as I have remarked elsewhere, no one should cry for the papers.

I write not to fill column inches or to sell soap, but because I have something to say. I earn nothing from my efforts, but I would be writing this material anyway, without regard to readers or remuneration, so by putting this material that I would have written anyway on a blog, a few people read it who would not otherwise have read it. A few ideas are shared.

A sincere “thank you” to the handful of readers who have returned, and for whom I now write. There is more to come.

. . . . .


. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 371 other followers

%d bloggers like this: