20 February 2015
Kant on Hope
Kant famously summed up the concerns of his vast body of philosophical work in three questions:
1) What can I know?
2) What ought I to do? and…
3) What may I hope?
These three questions roughly correspond to his three great philosophical treatises, the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason, and the Critique of Judgment, which represent, respectively, rigorous inquiries into knowledge, ethics, and teleology. However much the world has changed since Kant, we can still feel the imperative behind his three questions, and they are still three questions that we can ask today with complete sincerity. This is important, because many men who deceive themselves as to their true motives, ask themselves questions and accept answers that they do not truly believe on a visceral level. I am saying that Kant’s questions are not like this.
In other contexts I have considered what we can know, and what we ought to do. (For example, I have just reviewed some aspects of what we can know in Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge, and in posts like The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight I have looked at what we ought to do.) Here I will consider the third of Kant’s questions — what we are entitled to hope. There is no more important study toward understanding the morale of a people than to grasp the structure of hope that prevails in a given society. Kant’s third question — What may I hope? — is perhaps that imperative of human longing that was felt first, has been felt most strongly through the history of our species, and will be the last that continues to be felt even while others have faded. We have all heard that hope springs eternal in the human breast.
It is hope that gives historical viability both to individuals and their communities. In so far as the ideal of historical viability is permanence, and in so far as we agree with Kenneth Clark that a sense of permanence is central to civilization, then hope that aspires to permanence is the motive force that built the great monuments of civilization that Clark identified as such, and which are the concrete expressions of aspirations to permanence. Here hope is a primary source of civilization. More recent thought might call this concrete expression of aspirations to permanence the tendency of civilizations to raise works of monumental architecture (this is, for example, the terminology employed in Big History).
Hope and Conceptions of History
The structure of hope mirrors the conception of history prevalent within a given society. A particular species of historical consciousness gives rise to a particular conception of history, and a particular conception of history in turn defines the parameters of hope. That is to say, the hope that is possible within a given social context is a function of the conception of history; what hope is possible, what hope makes sense, is limited to those forms of hope that are both actualized by and delimited by a conception of history. The function of delimitation puts certain forms of hope out of consideration, while the function of actualization nurtures those possible forms of hope into life-sustaining structures that, under other conceptions of history, would remain stunted and deformed growths, if they were possible forms of hope at all.
In analyzing the structure of hope I will have recourse to the conceptions of history that I have been developing in this forum. Consequently, I will identify political hope, catastrophic hope, eschatological hope, and naturalistic hope. This proves to be a conceptually fertile way to approach hope, since hope is a reflection of human agency, and I have remarked in Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception that the four conceptions of history I have been developing are based upon a schematic understanding of the possibilities of human agency in the world.
All of these structures of hope — political, catastrophic, eschatological, and naturalistic — have played important roles in human history. Often we find more than one form of hope within a given society, which tells us that no conception of history is total, that it admits of exceptions, and the societies can admit of pluralistic manifestations of historical consciousness.
Hope begins where human agency ends but human desire still presses forward. A man with political hope looks to a better and more just society in the future, as a function of his own agency and the agency of fellow citizens; a man with catastrophic hope believes that he may win the big one, that his ship will come in, that he will be the recipient of great good fortune; a man with eschatological hope believes that he will be rewarded in the hereafter for his sacrifices and sufferings in this world; a man with naturalistic hope looks to the good life for himself and a better life for his fellow man. Each of these personal forms of hope corresponds to a society that both grows out of such personal hopes and reinforces them in turn, transforming them into social norms.
Structure and Scope
While a conception of history governs the structure of hope, the contingent circumstances that are the events of history — the specific details that fill in the general structure of history — govern the scope of hope. The lineaments of hope are drawn jointly by its structure and scope, so that we see the particular visage of hope when we understand the historical structure and scope of a civilization.
Like structure, scope is an expression of human agency. An individual — or a society — blessed with great resources possesses great power, and thus great freedom of action. An individual or a society possessed of impoverished resources has much more limited power and therefore is constrained in freedom of action. In so far as one can act — that is to say, in so far as one is an agent — one acts in accords with the possibilities and constraints defined by the scope of one’s world. The scope of human agency has changed over historical time, largely driven by technology; much of the human condition can be defined in terms of humanity as tool makers.
Technology is incremental and cumulative, and it generally describes an exponential growth curve. We labor at a very low level for very long periods of time, so that our posterity can enjoy the fruits of our efforts in a later age of abundance. Thus our hopes for the future are tied up in our posterity and their agency in turn. And it is technology that systematically extends human agency. To a surprising degree, then, the scope of civilization corresponds to the technology of a civilization. This technology can come in different forms. Early civilizations mastered the technology of bureaucratic organization, and managed to administer great empires even with a very low level of technical expertise in material culture. This has changed over time, and political entities have grown in size and increased in stability as increasing technical mastery makes the administration of the planet entire a realistic possibility.
The scope of civilization has expanded as our technologically-assisted agency has expanded, and today as we contemplate our emerging planetary civilization such organization is within our reach because our technologies have achieved a planetary scale. Our hopes have grown along the the expanding scope of our civilization, so that justice, luck, salvation, and the good life all reflect the planetary scope of human agency familiar to us today.
Hope in Planetary Civilization
What may we hope in our planetary civilization of today, given its peculiar possibilities and constraints? How may be answer Kant’s third question today? Do we have any answers at all, or is ours an Age of Uncertainty that denies the possibility of any and all answers?
Those of a political frame of mind, hope for, “a thriving global civilization and, therefore… the greater well-being of humanity.” (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape) Those with a catastrophic outlook hope for some great and miraculous event that will deliver us from the difficulties in which we find ourselves immersed. Those whose hope is primarily eschatological imagine the conversion of the world entire to their particular creed, and the consequent rule of the righteous on a planetary scale. And those of a naturalistic disposition look to what human beings can do for each other, without the intervention of fortune or otherworldly salvation.
How each of these attitudes is interpreted in the scope of our current planetary civilization is largely contingent upon how an individual or group of individuals with shared interests views the growth of technology over the past century, and this splits fairly neatly into the skeptics of technology and the enthusiasts of technology, with a few sitting on the fence and waiting to see what will happen next. Among those with the catastrophic outlook on history will be the fence sitters, because they will be waiting for some contingent event to occur which will tip us in one direction or the other, into technological catastrophe or technological bonanza. Those of an eschatological outlook tend to view technology in purely instrumental terms, and the efficacy of their grand vision of a spiritually unified and righteous planet will largely depend on the pragmatism of their instrumental conception of technology. The political cast of mind also views technological instrumentally, but primarily what it can do to advance the cause of large scale social organization (which in the eschatological conception is given over to otherworldly powers).
Perhaps the greatest dichotomy is to be found in the radically different visions of technology held by those of a naturalistic outlook. The naturalistic outlook today is much more common than it appears to be, despite much heated rhetoric to the contrary, since, as I wrote above, many of us deceive ourselves as to our true motives and our true beliefs. The rise of science since the scientific revolution has transformed the world, and many accept a scientific world view without even being aware that they hold such views. Rhetorically they may give pride of place to political ideology or religious faith, but when they act they act in accordance with reason and evidence, remaining open to change if their first interpretations of reason and evidence seem to be contradicted by circumstances and consequences.
The dichotomy of the naturalistic mind today is that between human agency that retreats from technology, as though it were a failed project, and human agency that embraces technology. Each tends to think of their relation to technology in terms of liberation. For the critics of technology, we have become enslaved to The Machine, and either by overthrowing the technological system, or simply by turning out backs on it, people can help each other by living modest lives, transitioning to a sustainable economy, cultivating community gardens, watching over their neighbors, and, generally speaking, living up to (or, as if you prefer, down to) the “small is beautiful” and “limits to growth” creed that had already emerged in the early 1970s.
The contrast could not be more stark between this naturalistic form of hope and the technology-embracing naturalistic form of hope. The technological humanist also sees people helping each other, but doing so on an ever grander scale, allowing human beings to realistically strive toward levels of self-actualization and fulfillment not even possible in earlier ages, perhaps not even conceivable. The human condition, for such naturalists, has enslaved us to a biological regime, and it is the efficacy of technology that is going to liberate us from the stunted and limited lives that have been our lot since the species emerged. Ultimately, technology embracing naturalists look toward transhumanism and all that it potentially promises to human hopes, which in this context can be literally unbounded.
Hope in the Age of Naturalism
Given the state of the world today, with all its pessimism, and the violence of contesting power centers apparently motivated by unchanged and unchanging conceptions of the human condition, the reader may be surprised that I focus on naturalism and the naturalistic conception of history. If we do not destroy ourselves in the short term, the long term belongs to naturalism. Contemporary political hope, in so far as it is pragmatic is naturalistic, and insofar as it is not pragmatic, it will fail. The hysterical and bloody depredations of religious mania in our time is only as bad as it is because, as an ideology, it is under threat form the success of naturalistically-enabled science and technology. Once the break with the past is made, eschatological hope will no longer be the basis of large-scale social organization, and therefore its ability to cause harm will be greatly limited (though it will not disappear). The catastrophic viewpoint is always limited by its shoulder-shrugging attitude to human agency.
Most people cannot bear to leave their fate to fate, but will take their fate into their own hands if they can. How people take their fate into their hands in the future, and therefore the form of hope they entertain for what they do with the fate held in their hands, will largely be defined by naturalism. Perhaps this is ironic, as it has long been assumed that, of perennial conceptions of the human condition, naturalism had the least to say about hope (and eschatology the most). That is only because the age of naturalism had not yet arrived. But naturalistic despair is just as much a reality as naturalistic hope, so that the coming of the age of naturalism will not bring a Millennia of peace, justice, and happiness for all. Human leave-taking of the ideologies of the past is largely a matter of abandoning neurotic misery in favor of ordinary human unhappiness.
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15 February 2015
In my first post on the overview effect, The Epistemic Overview Effect, I compared a comprehensive overview of knowledge to the perspective-altering view of the whole of the Earth in one glance. Later in The Overview Effect in Formal Thought I discussed the need for a comprehensive overview in formal thought no less than in scientific knowledge. I also discussed the overview in relation to interoception in Our Knowledge of the Internal World.
This account of the overview effect in various domains of knowledge leaves an ellipsis in my formulation of the overview effect, namely, the overview effect in specifically empirical knowledge, i.e., the overview effect in science other than the formal sciences. What would constitute an overview of empirical knowledge? The totality of facts? An awareness of the overall structure of the empirical sciences? A bird’s eye view of the universe entire? (The latter something I recently suggested in A Brief History of the Stelliferous Era.)
A subjective experience is always presented in a personal context, and when that subjective experience is of the overview effect the individual life serves as the “big picture” context by which individual and isolated experiences derive their value. The overview effect, as documented to date, is a personal experience, therefore ideographic, and therefore also idiosyncratic to a certain extent. The traditionally ideographic character of the historical sciences, then, has been uniquely well-adapted to being given an exposition in overview, and so we have the recent branch of historiography called big history. Big history in particular gives an overview of the historical sciences even as the historical sciences are employed to give an overview of history. There is a twofold task here to interpret all the physical sciences historically (in ideographic terms) so that their epistemic contributions can be integrated into the historical sciences, and to move the historical sciences closer to the nomothetic rigor of the traditionally ahistorical physical sciences. We will truly have a comprehensive overview of scientific knowledge when the ideographic historical sciences and the nomothetic ahistorical sciences meet in the middle. This constitutes an ideal of scientific knowledge that has not yet been attained.
Every individual has an overview of their own life — or, rather, every individual with a minimal degree of insight has an overview of their own life — and this is the setting for any other overview of which the individual becomes aware, including the overview effect itself. (Individuals also, partly in virtue of their personal overview of their own life, possess what I have called the human overview, such that in the experience of meeting another person we can usually rapidly place that person within a social, cultural, ethnic, and historical context.) In the future, the personal experience of the overview effect may be harnessed for the production of knowledge understood more broadly than the knowledge engendered by purely personal experience. All empirical knowledge is ultimately derived from personal experience, has its origins in personal experience, but once personal experience has been exapted through idealization and quantification for the purpose of the production of empirical knowledge, it loses its personal and experiential character and becomes impersonal and objective.
It may sound overly subtle at first to make a distinction between personal experience and empirical knowledge, but the distinction is worth noting, and in any theoretical context it is important to observe the distinction. Experience is ideographic; empirical knowledge is nomothetic. Thus personal experience of the overview effect to date is an ideographic overview effect; the possibility of the empirical sciences converging upon an overview effect would be a nomothetic overview effect. If this nomothetic overview effect of scientific knowledge can be further extended by rendering the ahistorical nomothetic sciences in terms of the historical sciences, and the overview effect of scientific knowledge can be given a history in which we have an overview of each stage of development, we can get a glimpse of the possibilities for comprehensive knowledge, and what the future may hold for scientific knowledge.
Science has always been in the business of attempting to provide an overview of the world, but the approach of science has always been a form of objectivity that attempts to alienate personal experience. One sees this most clearly in classical antiquity, when the most abstract of sciences flourished — viz. mathematics — while the other sciences languished, partly because the theoretical framework for constructing objective knowledge out of personal experience did not yet exist. Hundreds of years of the development of scientific thought have subsequently provided this framework, but the paradigm produced by science has come at a certain cost. We are still today struggling with that legacy and its costs.
One way to approach the role of personal experience in empirical knowledge is by way of Bertrand Russell’s distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description (“Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description” in Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays). The task that Russell set himself in this paper — “…what it is that we know in cases where we know propositions about ‘the so-and-so’ without knowing who or what the so-and-so is” — is closely related to the cluster of problems addressed by his theory of descriptions. Russell’s distinction implies two other permutations: the case in which we have neither knowledge by acquaintance nor knowledge by description, which is epistemically uninteresting, and the case in which we have both knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. In the latter case, knowledge by description has been confirmed by knowledge by acquaintance, but for the purposes of his exposition of the distinction Russell makes it quite clear that he wants to focus on instances of knowledge by description in which knowledge is only by description.
I am going to make my own use of Russell’s distinction, but will not attempt to retain any fidelity to the metaphysical context of Russell’s exposition of the distinction. Russell’s exposition of his distinction is wrapped up in a particular metaphysical theory that is no longer as common as it was a hundred years ago, but I am going to interpret Russell in terms of a naive scientific realism, so that when we see the Earth we really do see the Earth, and the Earth is not merely a logical construction out of sense data. (If I, or anyone, wanted to devote an entire book to Russell’s metaphysic in relation to his distinction between acquaintance and description this could easily be done. Indeed, an exposition of the Earth as a logical construction out of sense data would be an interesting intellectual exercise, and I can easily imagine a professor assigning this to his students as a project.)
Russell wrote of knowledge by acquaintance: “I say that I am acquainted with an object when I have a direct cognitive relation to that object, i.e. when I am directly aware of the object itself. When I speak of a cognitive relation here, I do not mean the sort of relation which constitutes judgment, but the sort which constitutes presentation.” Thus in the overview effect, I have a direct cognitive relation to the whole of the Earth, not in terms of judgment, but as a presentation. Intuitively, I think that Russell’s formulation works quite well as an explication of the epistemic significance of the overview effect.
Russell described knowledge by description as follows:
I shall say that an object is “known by description” when we know that it is “the so-and-so,” i.e. when we know that there is one object, and no more, having a certain property; and it will generally be implied that we do not have knowledge of the same object by acquaintance. We know that the man with the iron mask existed, and many propositions are known about him; but we do not know who he was. We know that the candidate who gets most votes will be elected, and in this case we are very likely also acquainted (in the only sense in which one can be acquainted with some one else) with the man who is, in fact, the candidate who will get most votes, but we do not know which of the candidates he is, i.e. we do not know any proposition of the form “A is the candidate who will get most votes” where A is one of the candidates by name. We shall say that we have “merely descriptive knowledge” of the so-and-so when, although we know that the so-and-so exists, and although we may possibly be acquainted with the object which is, in fact, the so-and-so, yet we do not know any proposition “a is the so-and-so,” where a is something with which we are acquainted.
There are a lot of interesting philosophical questions implicit in Russell’s exposition of knowledge by description; I am not going to pursue these at present, but will take Russell at his word. In the context of the overview effect, “the so-and-so” is “the planet on which human beings live,” and we know (to employ a Russellian formulation) that there is one and only one planet upon which human beings live, and moreover this planet is Earth. In fact, we know that it was a considerable achievement of scientific knowledge to come to the understanding that human beings live on a planet, and all this knowledge was achieved through knowledge by description. For the vast majority of human history, we were acquainted with the Earth, yet we did not know the proposition “x is the planet upon which human beings live” where x was something with which we were acquainted. This is almost as perfect an example as there could be of knowledge by description in the absence of knowledge by acquaintance.
In Russell’s distinction, ideographic personal experience is a kind of knowledge — knowledge by acquaintance — but is distinct from knowledge by description. What Russell called “knowledge by description” is a special case of non-constructive knowledge. Non-constructive reasoning is the logic of the big picture and la longue durée (cf. Six Theses on Existential Risk) — the scientific (in contradistinction to the personal) approach to the overview effect. Just as science has always been in the business of seeking an overview, so too science has long been in the business of elaborating knowledge by description, because in many cases this is the only way we can begin a scientific investigation, though in such cases we always begin with the hope that our knowledge by description can eventually be transformed into knowledge by acquaintance. In other words, we hope to become acquainted with the objects of knowledge we describe. Knowledge by description is here the theoretical framework of scientific knowledge in search of instances of acquaintance — evidence, experience, and experiment — to confirm the theory.
Although Russell was not a constructivist per se, his position in this essay is unambiguously constructive in so far as the thesis he maintains is that, “Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted” (italics in original). Russell’s foundation of knowledge in the personal experience of knowledge by acquaintance demonstrates that Russell and Kierkegaard not only have a conception of rigor in common, but also the ultimate epistemic authority of individual experience.
Part of the importance of the overview effect is that it is a personal vision, such as I described in Kierkegaard and Futurism. The individuality of a personal vision is a function of the subjectivity of the individual, hence how the effect is experienced is as significant, if not more significant, than what is experienced.
An interesting result of this inquiry is not only to bring further philosophical resources to the analysis of the overview effect, but also to point the way to the further development science. I have often emphasized that science is not a finished edifice of knowledge, but that science itself continues to grow, not only in sense of continually producing scientific knowledge, but also in the sense of continuing to revise the scientific method itself. One of the most common objections one encounters when talking about science among those who take little account of science is the impersonal nature of scientific knowledge, and even a rejection of that same objectivity that has been the pride science to have attained. To fully appreciate the overview effect as a moment in the development of scientific knowledge is to understand that it may not only give us a new perspective on the world in which we live, but also a new perspective on how we attain knowledge of this world.
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9 February 2015
Introduction: Madmen in Authority
If you’ve ever heard the final paragraph of Keynes’ economic masterpiece, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, you will not have forgotten these now-classic lines:
“…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”
John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Chapter 24, section V
Whether you care to consider our homegrown madmen here in the west, or the madmen elsewhere in the world, it is difficult to deny Keynes’ estimate of the place of ideas in political life. We are now seeing some especially pernicious ideas being played out in our planet’s history, and while we can be confident that these ideas will be discredited in the long term, in the short term they will be the source of enormous human suffering as long as madmen in authority cling to them, and others are willing to follow the madmen.
One of these madmen in authority at the present time is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri) who, as leader of Islamic State, has taken the name and title Caliph Ibrahim, as the restoration of the caliphate abolished with the end of the Ottoman Empire has been one of the long-held dreams of political Islamists upon which Islamic State has acted. The political entity now called Islamic State is also called ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), in reference to the geographical region in which the movement is now active. The history of this geographical region is relevant to our inquiry, so we will consider this next.
The Civilizational Milieu of Mesopotamia and the Levant
The region of the world now being fought over by Islamic State militants challenging established state structures was that region of the world most productive of ancient civilizations. The civilizations of India and China arose independently in almost complete cultural isolation, and they developed in isolation for hundreds or thousands of years before encountering other civilizations at a similar level of development. In the western hemisphere, there was perhaps more interaction between settled groups, with highland peoples of the Andes trading with lowland peoples along the coast from the earliest origins of civilization in South America, but even this was nothing like the density of civilization to be found in the contiguous regions of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt — a geographical area that came to be called the Fertile Crescent.
At the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea a series of civilizations arose in relation to and often in conflict with each other. Empire succeeded empire as the peoples of the region competed for power. This predecessor — this common ancestor — of Jewish civilization, western civilization, Islamic civilization, North African civilization, Russian civilization and all the civilizations that have their ultimate origins in the Mediterranean Basin, was the most complex, most polyglot, most diverse civilizational milieu on our planet. In my notes to myself I sometimes call this civilizational region the “West Asian cluster,” as these contiguous lands hosted a cluster of evolving and interacting civilizations. History has great depth and complexity here, and one might well spend a lifetime attempting to master all the diverging and converging strains that are interwoven in the region.
The civilization that was to become Western civilization is ultimately from this west Asian cluster (albeit derivatively), specifically, from Anatolia, and it is easy to trace on the map its journey through Thrace, Bulgaria, and into the Balkan Peninsula. Then in Greece that civilization experienced a dramatic mutation, and then again, further west, in Rome, again that civilization mutated into something else, and further west again when the Roman legacy was mixed with Barbarian Europe, Christendom emerged and western civilization as we know it today took shape. Western civilization, in other words, took shape outside the region of the west Asian cluster. The civilizations we see in the region today are those that remained in the region from earliest antiquity, and this is our first hint of the dramatically different histories of East and West. Christendom took shape in the muddy, rural backwaters of manorial estates in western Europe; nothing could be farther from the dusty, desert cities of the Levant, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt — cities that had already existed for thousands of years by the time Islamic civilization emerged and became the dominant power.
Islamic State is seeking to establish itself and to project power at the heart of this West Asian Cluster that proved itself fertile not only in its soil for the production of food, but fertile also in the minds of its peoples for the production of civilizations. But it is interesting to note that among the civilizations that emerge from the West Asian cluster, Islamic civilization is only derivatively from this cluster (like Western Civilization), since Islamic civilization in the narrow sense has its origins in the Arabian Peninsula, although the civilizations of the Arabian Peninsula had their origins in turn from the West Asian Cluster.
The Golden Age of Islamic Civilization
It is not unusual to hear the ideology of ISIS compared to medieval interpretations of Islam, but medieval Islam — a civilization of wealth and power at the height of its historical influence — was a large and diverse civilization, one of civilization’s “big tents,” and moreover a civilization of many hundreds of years in duration, so that if you were to compare early medieval Islam of the sort you might find in Samarra and Baghdad with late medieval Islam of the sort you might find in Granada and Cordoba, the differences may be more evident than the continuity of Islamic identity. Medieval Islam, then, is not exactly what people usually have in mind when they speak of “medieval Islam.”
The height of medieval Islamic civilization saw cosmopolitan cities, monumental architecture, and a great efflorescence of philosophy. The works of classical philosophy lost in western Europe with the collapse of Roman institutions were translated into Arabic and were the subject of extensive interpretation and commentary. When medieval Europe recovered to the point of being able to once again engage with philosophy, they received the Greek and Roman classics from Islam, and they consumed the works of Islamic commentators no less than ancient works. While St. Thomas called Aristotle “The Philosopher,” he also called Averroes “The Commentator.”
Any wealthy agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization that begins to produce an abundance of intellectual innovation will trigger a reaction from the conservative sectors of society who wish to preserve untainted the religious principles of social organization that are of the very essence of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. This was true for the Greeks, for the Romans, for the Jews, and it was true for Islam. The Greeks killed Socrates, the Romans exiled Ovid, the Jews excommunicated Spinoza, and Islam produced figures like Ibn Taymiyyah who condemned all intellectual innovation.
Ibn Taymiyyah and reactionary philosophy
I begin my inquiry into the violence in the region from the earliest traces of civilization, but the echo chamber of the press and the popular media goes back only when pressed for explanations they do not have, and then they go only far enough to seize upon a figure who can be used to “explain” the apparently inexplicable. A review of regional history may include the split between Shia and Sunni, and will certainly go on to discuss the crucial role of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Wahhabism in the ideology of the militant Salafist groups. It would be an easy matter to use up one’s available time simply trying to clarify the distinction, if any, between Wahhabism and Salafism.
There are several older and deeper layers of history sedimented into the ideology of ISIS. One of the pivotal philosophical figures in contemporary militant ideology is that of Ibn Taymiyyah, who is one of the “Two Shaikhs” — the other being al-Islam — of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. It should be noted that jurisprudence plays a much larger role in Islamic thought than it does in Christian thought. Perhaps this is a consequence of the separation of political and ecclesiastical power that has always marked western civilization; perhaps there are other historical forces at work as well. In any case, one of the major distinction made within Islam is that made among the five schools of Islamic jurisprudence, viz. the Ja‘fari, the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi΄i, and the Hanbali. There are in addition some other schools, though with relatively few followers.
Ibn Taymiyyah not only played a prominent role in the foundation of the Hanbali school, he was also what we would today call a technical philosopher, that is to say, he wrote technical treatises in philosophy that can only be understood by other philosophers who have studied similar questions. But Ibn Taymiyyah was a technical philosopher only because he felt the need to refute the doctrines of other technical philosophers. Refuting philosophers on their own terms has the paradoxical consequence of requiring that the intellectual representatives of a simpler past are forced to engage these philosophers on their own terms, adopting the language and the concepts of philosophy in order to give the lie to philosophy.
A figure like Ibn Taymiyyah within Islam has several parallels in the western philosophical tradition. When intellectual life revived in western Europe after the Dark Ages, and scholars began to read Aristotle and his Greek and Arabian commentators (all of these texts passed along via a cosmopolitan Islamic civilization, since they had been lost in the west), many sincere yet conservative Schoolmen were nothing less than horrified by the “Latin Averroists” and other philosophers who openly learned from pagan and Islamic scholars. They not only argued against these philosophical innovations, they also actively sought to have these views suppressed and their authors silenced, and they were successful with depressing regularity and thoroughness.
Giles of Rome is a good example of this: he wrote a book called The Errors of the Philosophers, in which he recounts in detail the false doctrines that Christian philosophers had disastrously picked up from reading Greek and Arabic philosophical texts. Yet, paradoxically, in order to effectively refute these doctrines, Giles himself had to learn to speak the language of the philosophers. A good example of this is his book Theorems on Existence and Essence — a technical philosophical treatise on ontology. If you read this book without knowing medieval philosophy, you would have no idea if Giles was a flaming radical or the most hidebound reactionary. It bristles with philosophical terminology that can only be understood by initiates of the discipline. Nietzsche once wrote, “Kant wanted to prove in a way that would dumfound the ‘common man’ that the ‘common man’ was right.” A similar observation might be made on Giles of Rome.
Ibn Taymiyyah was in a similar position: he wanted to refute the rationalism of the Greek logicians, but in order to do so he was forced to adopt the language and the concepts of the Greeks, and so his primary theoretical text, Against the Greek Logicians, like Giles’ treatises against Christians borrowing from Greeks and Arabs, is a demanding philosophical read. It is a subtle and sophisticated work, not a mere catalog of rejection or condemnation, though it also resembles Saint Augustine in its elaborate and verbose digressions. But his project is a paradoxical project. Like all anti-rationalist philosophies, it is beset with contradictions from the outset. But a little contradiction never worried a committed ideologue; indeed, the very idea of contradiction stems from logic, so that in so far as you use logic to condemn itself (as Ibn Taymiyyah does), you are in a position to welcome contradictions.
In so far as we can identify the Enlightenment project as the re-emergence of rationalism in western civilization, all of those western nation-states today who look to the Enlightenment project, or which, like the US and France, owe their very existence to the Enlightenment, have their source and origin in Locke, Hume, and the cluster of early modern political philosophers who made their work possible. But it is not only rationalism that re-emerges repeatedly in history; irrationalism also returns time and again in human history. The philosophy of ISIS constitutes a parallel re-emergence of Ibn Taymiyaah’s project, a reactionary, anti-rational project for civilization. While we already know that anti-rationalistic programs are failed civilizational programs, sometimes failed ideas are perennial ideas, and so they come back to haunt us time and time again, no matter how pernicious to human well being and many times discredited by history when history teaches by example.
Fawaz A. Gerges on Islamic State
In a cosmopolitan civilization, men like Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome would be mere cranks, rapidly left behind by accelerating intellectual innovations that open up new horizons of inquiry and research and which change civilization in their wake. (I suspect that Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome, had they ever met, would have gotten along famously as long as the topic of religion never came up, in which case they would likely have killed each other.) Unfortunately, in human history from all quarters of the planet we can find examples of growing and dynamic civilizations, civilizations that do not feel threatened by diversity of thought, retrenching from their cosmopolitanism, closing themselves off from new influences, looking to the past rather than the future, and refusing change, if not actively working to reverse changes. (In Islamic thought there is actually a term for this: “closing of the gate of ijtihad.”)
In non-cosmopolitan civilizations, in reactionary social contexts, failed ideas that fully deserve to be defunct ideas are given a new lease on life, and perhaps more importantly and most dangerously, these ideas are placed in the context of a mythology that gives cosmic significance to them. In such a retrograde social context, men like Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome take on a prophetic quality: they have seen the limitations of reason and scientific inquiry, and they were among the first to issue warnings about where such developments will take us if we allow them to continue.
We have seen that the philosophical basis of ISIS and related groups that share the ideology of ISIS is the principled rejection of that rationalism that has been the unique contribution of the western branch of the west Asian cluster of civilizations, and that Ibn Taymiyyah is one of the theoretical sources of this principled rejection, and author of the many of the principles that can be and have been invoked to this end. Much of the social and eschatological background against which these ideas have been received can be found in an article on the BBC, Islamic State: Can its savagery be explained? by Fawaz A. Gerges, Emirates Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In this article Gerges wrote:
“…IS actually stresses violent action over theology and theory, and has produced no repertoire of ideas to sustain and nourish its social base. It is a killing machine powered by blood and iron.”
Obviously, I do not share this view, but Gerges is unquestionably correct that Islamic State emphasizes violent action over theoretical disputation. Gerges, however, also notes several other factors in the appeal of Islamic State that constitute the social context within which the ideological superstructure of the group is played out:
● “victory through terrorism” (the quotation marks are in the Gerges’ text, though I can’t find the source of this presumed slogan)
● Get out of the way or you will be crushed; join our caravan and make history.
● a powerful vanguard that delivers victory and salvation
● shock-and-awe tactics against the enemies of Islam
● capturing huge swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq
● a greater mission — to resurrect a lost idealised type of caliphate (Gerges also says “establishing a caliphate”)
● be part of a tight-knit community with a potent identity
● to defend persecuted co-religionists
● an anti-Shia diet and visceral hatred of minorities in general
● the spearhead of Sunni Arabs in the fight against sectarian-based regimes in Baghdad and Damascus
All of these are direct quotes from the Gerges article on the BBC. While this may not sound like an ideology compared to the tortuous theological justifications for brutality to which we are accustomed, it is clearly an ideological program, and, more than that, it is an ideological program with an unmistakeable pragmatic bent.
Strategy and Tactics of Cosmic War
It would be difficult to produce a more concise list of the tactics of cosmic war than that above I have derived from Gerges. The violence and brutality, then, are epiphenomenal to the eschatological core of militant Salafism, which is in turn the core of Islamic State.
It is at least arguable that the devolution of warfare has driven the brutality of warfare on the ground, as this remains one of the few avenues for perpetrating atrocities that will command the attention of the world, and it is through the practice of atrocities that Islamic State has advertised itself and its ruthlessness to the world. But the calling card of brutality and ruthlessness is not be conflated with the ideological superstructure of Islamic State.
We can see that all of these slogans, ideas, and actions noted by Gerges play into a conception of history, that is to say, they constitute a kind of historical consciousness, and a particular conception of history superadded to the individual’s conception of himself — which is to say, the individual consciousness supplemented by an historical consciousness that places that individual within a big picture conception of the world — is a potent ideological cocktail. It is precisely this kind of historical consciousness that drove fanatical (and also often victorious) communists in the twentieth century. In other words, militant Islam today is in some sense parallel to militant communism in the twentieth century. This observation should give us pause, and it is something that we need to remember when we consider the problem of Islamic terrorism.
A conception of history, while powerful, is essentially only the scaffolding of an ideological superstructure. The scaffolding is there to support and to organize the principles that constitute the substance of an ideological superstructure. This substance of the ideological superstructure is taken from the older, perennial theoretical justifications found in original thinkers like Ibn Taymiyyah (who, I might note, would not want to have been thought of as an original thinker).
The principles that ultimately govern the shape of the ideological superstructure go far beyond the tactical implementation of a particular conception of history: these ideas are the strategy of cosmic war. We can understand thinkers like Ibn Taymiyyah, then, as the strategists of cosmic war — and I even think that if a sympathetic reader of Ibn Taymiyyah and a supporter of Islamic State took the time to understand that I have written here, that he would not necessarily reject this formulation.
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30 January 2015
Introduction: Periodization in Cosmology
Recently Paul Gilster has posted my Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica? on his Centauri Dreams blog. In this post I employ the framework of Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin from their book The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of Eternity, who distinguish the Primordial Era, before stars have formed, the Stelliferous Era, which is populated by stars, the Degenerate Era, when only the degenerate remains of stars are to be found, the Black Hole Era, when only black holes remain, and finally the Dark Era, when even black holes have evaporated. These major divisions of cosmological history allow us to partition the vast stretches of cosmological time, but it also invites us to subdivide each era into smaller increments (such is the historian’s passion for periodization).
The Stelliferous Era is the most important to us, because we find ourselves living in the Stelliferous Era, and moreover everything that we understand in terms of life and civilization is contingent upon a biosphere on the surface of a planet warmed by a star. When stellar formation has ceased and the last star in the universe burns out, planets will go dark (unless artificially lighted by advanced civilizations) and any remaining biospheres will cease to function. Life and civilization as we know it will be over. I have called this the End-Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event.
It will be a long time before the end of the Stelliferous Era — in human terms, unimaginably long. Even in scientific terms, the time scale of cosmology is long. It would make sense for us, then, to break up the Stelliferous Era into smaller periodizations that can be dealt with each in turn. Adams and Laughlin constructed a logarithmic time scale based on powers of ten, calling each of these powers of ten a “cosmological decade.” The Stelliferous Era comprises cosmological decades 7 to 15, so we can further break down the Stelliferous Era into three divisions of three cosmological decades each, so cosmological decades 7-9 will be the Early Stelliferous, cosmological decades 10-12 will be the Middle Stelliferous, and cosmological decades 13-15 will be the late Stelliferous.
The Early Stelliferous
Another Big History periodization that has been employed other than that of Adams of Laughlin is Eric Chaisson’s tripartite distinction between the Energy Era, the Matter Era, and the Life Era. The Primordial Era and the Energy Era coincide until the transition point (or, if you like, the phase transition) when the energies released by the big bang coalesce into matter. This phase transition is the transition from the Energy Era to the Matter Era in Chaisson; for Adams and Laughlin this transition is wholly contained within the Primordial Era and may be considered one of the major events of the Primorial Era. This phase transition occurs at about the fifth cosmological decade, so that there is one cosmological decade of matter prior to that matter forming stars.
At the beginning of the Early Stelliferous the first stars coalesce from matter, which has now cooled to the point that this becomes possible for the first time in cosmological history. The only matter available at this time to form stars is hydrogen and helium produced by the big bang. The first generation of stars to light up after the big bang are called Population III stars, and their existence can only be hypothesized because no certain observations exist of Population III stars. The oldest known star, HD 140283, sometimes called the Methuselah Star, is believed to be a Population II star, and is said to be metal poor, or of low metallicity. To an astrophysicist, any element other than hydrogen or helium is a “metal,” and the spectra of stars are examined for the “metals” present to determine their order of appearance in galactic ecology.
The youngest stars, like our sun and other stars in the spiral arms of the Milky Way, are Population I stars and are rich in metals. The whole history of the universe up to the present is necessary to produce the high metallicity younger stars, and these younger stars form from dust and gas that coalesce into a protoplanetary disk surrounding the young star of similarly high metal content. We can think of the stages of Population III, Population II, and Population I stars as the evolutionary stages of galactic ecology that have produced structures of greater complexity. Repeated cycles of stellar nucleosynthesis, catastrophic supernovae, and new star formation from these remnants have produced the later, younger stars of high metallcity.
It is the high relative proportion of heavier elements that makes possible the formulation of small rocky planets in the habitable zone of a stable star. The minerals that form these rocky planets are the result of what Robert Hazen calls minerological evolution, which we may consider to be an extension of galactic ecology on a smaller scale. These planets, in turn, have heavier elements distributed throughout their crust, which, in the case of Earth, human civilization has dug out of the crust and put to work manufacturing the implements of industrial-technological civilization. If Population II and Population III stars had planets (this is an open area of research in planet formation and without a definite answer as yet), it is conceivable that these planets might have harbored life, but the life on such worlds would not have had access to heavier elements, so any civilization that resulted would have had a difficult time of it creating an industrial or electrical technology.
The Middle Stelliferous
In the Middle Stelliferous, the processes of galactic ecology that produced and which now sustain the Stelliferous Era have come to maturity. There is a wide range of galaxies consisting of a wide range of stars, running the gamut of the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram. It is a time of both galactic and stellar prolixity, diversity, and fecundity. But even as the processes of galactic ecology reach their maturity, they begin to reveal the dissipation and dissolution that will characterize the Late Stelliferous Era and even the Degenerate Era to follow.
The Milky Way, which is a very old galaxy, carries with it the traces of the smaller galaxies that it has already absorbed in its earlier history — as, for example, the Helmi Stream — and for the residents of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies one of the most spectacular events of the Middle Stelliferous Era will be the merging of these two galaxies in a slow-motion collision taking place over millions of years, throwing some star systems entirely clear of the newly merged galaxies, and eventually resulting in the merging of the supermassive black holes that anchor the centers of each of these elegant spiral galaxies. The result is likely to be an elliptical galaxy not clearly resembling either predecessor (and sometimes called the Milkomeda).
Eventually the Triangulum galaxy — the other large spiral galaxy in the local group — will also be absorbed into this swollen mass of stars. In terms of the cosmological time scales here under consideration, all of this happens rather quickly, as does also the isolation of each of these merged local groups which persist as lone galaxies, suspended like a island universe with no other galaxies available to observational cosmology. The vast majority of the history of the universe will take place after these events have transpired and are left in the long distant past — hopefully not forgotten, but possibly lost and unrecoverable.
The Tenth Decade
The tenth cosmological decade, comprising the years between 1010 to 1011 (10,000,000,000 to 100,000,000,000 years, or 10 Ga. to 100 Ga.) since the big bang, is especially interesting to us, like the Stelliferous Era on the whole, because this is where we find ourselves. Because of this we are subject to observation selection effects, and we must be particularly on guard for cognitive biases that grow out of the observational selection effects we experience. Just as it seems, when we look out into the universe, that we are in the center of everything, and all the galaxies are racing away from us as the universe expands, so too it seems that we are situated in the center of time, with a vast eternity preceding us and a vast eternity following us.
Almost everything that seems of interest to us in the cosmos occurs within the tenth decade. It is arguable (though not definitive) that no advanced intelligence or technological civilization could have evolved prior to the tenth decade. This is in part due to the need to synthesize the heavier elements — we could not have developed nuclear technology had it not been for naturally occurring uranium, and it is radioactive decay of uranium in Earth’s crust that contributes significantly to the temperature of Earth’s core and hence to Earth being a geologically active planet. By the end of the tenth decade, all galaxies will have become isolated as “island universes” (once upon a time the cosmological model for our universe today) and the “end of cosmology” (as Krauss and Sherrer put it) will be upon us because observational cosmology will no longer be able to study the large scale structures of the universe.
The tenth decade, thus, is not only when it becomes possible for an intelligent species to evolve, to establish an industrial-technological civilization on the basis of heavier elements built up through nucleosynthesis and supernova explosions, and to employ these resources to launch itself as a spacefaring civilization, but also this is the only period in the history of the universe when such a spacefaring civilization can gain a true foothold in the cosmos to establish an intergalactic civilization. After local galactic groups coalesce into enormous single galaxies, and all other similarly coalesced galaxies have passed beyond the cosmological horizon and can no longer be observed, an intergalactic civilization is no longer possible on principles of science and technology as we understand them today.
It is sometimes said that, for astronomers, galaxies are the basic building blocks of the universe. The uniqueness of the tenth decade, then, can be expressed as being the only time in cosmological history during which a spacefaring civilization can emerge and then can go on to assimilate and unify the basic building blocks of the universe. It may well happen that, by the time of million year old supercivilizations and even billion year old supercivilizations, sciences and technologies will have been developed far beyond our understanding that is possible today, and some form of intergalactic relationship may continue after the end of observational cosmology, but, if this is the case, the continued intergalactic organization must be on principles not known to us today.
The Late Stelliferous
In the Late Stelliferous Era, after the end of the cosmology, each isolated local galactic group, now merged into a single giant assemblage of stars, will continue its processes of star formation and evolution, ever so slowly using up all the hydrogen produced in the big bang. The Late Stelliferous Era is a universe having passed “Peak Hydrogen” and which can therefore only look forward to the running down of the processes of galactic ecology that have sustained the universe up to this time.
The end of cosmology will mean a changed structure of galactic ecology. Even if civilizations can find a way around their cosmological isolation through advanced technology, the processes of nature will still be bound by familiar laws of nature, which, being highly rigid, will not have changed appreciably even over billions of years of cosmological evolution. Where light cannot travel, matter cannot travel either, and so any tenuous material connection between galactic groups will cease to play any role in galactic ecology.
The largest scale structures that we know of in the universe today — superclusters and filaments — will continue to expand and cool and to dissipate. We can imagine a bird’s eye view of the future universe (if only a bird could fly over the universe entire), with its large scale structures no longer in touch with one another but still constituting the structure, rarified by expansion, stretched by gravity, and subject to the evolutionary processes of the universe. This future universe (which we may have to stop calling the universe, as it is lost its unity) stands in relation to its current structure as the isolated and strung out continents of Earth today stand in relation to earlier continental structures (such as the last supercontinent, Pangaea), preceding the present disposition of continents (though keep in mind that there have been at least five supercontinent cycles since the formation of Earth and the initiation of its tectonic processes).
Near the end of the Stelliferous Era, there is no longer any free hydrogen to be gathered together by gravity into new suns. Star formation ceases. At this point, the fate of the brilliantly shining universe of stars and galaxies is sealed; the Stelliferous Era has arrived at functional extinction, i.e., the population of late Stelliferous Era stars continues to shine but is no longer viable. Galactic ecology has shut down. Once star formation ceases, it is only a matter of time before the last of the stars to form burn themselves out. Stars can be very large, very bright and short lived, or very small, scarcely a star at all, very dim, cool, and consequently very long lived. Red dwarf stars will continue to burn dimly long after all the main sequence stars like the sun have burned themselves out, but eventually even the dwarf stars, burning through their available fuel at a miserly rate, will burn out also.
The Post-Stelliferous Era
After the Stelliferous Era comes the Degenerate Era, with the two eras separated by what I have called the Post-Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event. What the prospects are for continued life and intelligence in the Degenerate Era is something that I have considered in Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica? and Addendum on Degenerate Era civilization, inter alia.
Our enormous and isolated galaxy will not be immediately plunged into absolute darkness. Adams and Laughlin (referred to above) estimate that our galaxy may have about a hundred small stars shining — the result of the collision of two or more brown dwarfs. Brown dwarf stars, at this point in the history of the cosmos, contain what little hydrogen remains, since brown dwarf stars were not large enough to initiate fusion during the Stelliferous Era. However, if two or more brown dwarfs collide — a rare event, but in the vast stretches of time in the future of the universe rare events will happen eventually — they may form a new small star that will light up like a dim candle in a dark room. There is a certain melancholy grandeur in attempting to imagine a hundred or so dim stars strewn through the galaxy, providing a dim glow by which to view this strange and unfamiliar world.
Our ability even to outline the large scale structures — spatial, temporal, biological, technological, intellectual, etc. — of the extremely distant future is severely constrained by our paucity of knowledge. However, if terrestrial industrial-technological civilization successfully makes the transition to being a viable spacefaring civilization (what I might call extraterrestrial-spacefaring civilization) our scientific knowledge of the universe is likely to experience an exponential inflection point surpassing the scientific revolution of the early modern period.
An exponential improvement in scientific knowledge (supported on an industrial-technological base broader than the surface of a single planet) will help to bring the extremely distant future into better focus and will give to our existential risk mitigation efforts both the knowledge that such efforts requires and the technological capability needed to ensure the perpetual ongoing extrapolation of complexity driven by intelligent, conscious, and purposeful intervention in the world. And if not us, if not terrestrial civilization, then some other civilization will take over the mantle and the far future will belong to them.
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20 January 2015
At the present time I hold a view of civilization that is quite broad, and which pushes civilization back to the origins of settled agrarianism. As I see it, all of the essential institutions come into place quite early, although they are present in a very rudimentary form. The first few thousand years of civilization, given this broad conception, consist of a painfully slow and incremental refinement of these rudimentary institutions until they become undeniably civilization, and we find fully developed literature, monumental architecture, elaborate social differentiation and organized religion, another other social institutions.
I did not always hold this broad conception of civilization, and I would say that it was a study of prehistory that was decisive in the evolution of my broad view of civilization. Yet I do not doubt or deny that there are many persons who know much more about prehistory than I do and who nevertheless deny to the efforts of prehistoric humanity the title of civilization. It was once customary (that is an unsatisfactory word in this context) to identify civilization with the historical period, and to identify the beginning of the historical period with the invention of written language. While written language did play an important role in the organization of civilization, it must be accounted a coincidence (or, at most, as loosely-coupled association) that fully developed civilizations of antiquity appeared at about the same time in the historical record as written language. I suppose that my own view, before I became critical of my own presuppositions, was to more or less identify civilization with the emergence of written history, so that I formerly accepted this historiographical convention.
In many of my posts on civilization I have referenced Kenneth Clark’s book and television series Civilisation: A Personal View, and in this work we can find hints of a very narrow conception of civilization, which stands out as all the more interesting to me as it contrasts so sharply with my own views at present. This narrow conception of civilization is most apparent in the discussion of England in Chapter 6, in the context of the Protestant Reformation. Early in the chapter Clark mentions in passing, “…the barbarous and disorderly state of England in the fifteenth century,” and later in the same chapter he wrote:
“I suppose it is debatable how far Elizabethan England can be called civilised. Certainly it does not provide a reproducible pattern of civilisation as does, for example, eighteenth century France. It was brutal, unscrupulous and disorderly.”
Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York et al.: Harper and Row, 1969, p. 163
Certainly any conception of civilization that would deny that Elizabethan England — for some, a high point of civilization — constitutes a civilization is a narrow conception indeed, but Clark immediately goes on to add a number of intangible considerations in the characterization of civilization:
“…if the first requisites of civilization are intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality, then the age of Marlowe and Spenser, of Dowland and Byrd, was a kind of civilisation.”
Here Clark concedes that Elizabethan England was a kind of civilization; in other words, there are distinct varieties of civilization, some of which we would unproblematically identify as civilization, and some marginal cases, like Elizabethan England, which might be plausibly interpreted as a civilization if we judge the period sympathetically. This is still a rather narrow conception.
I don’t have any interest in either defending or criticizing this particular judgment, but I am interested in the principles implicit in this judgment, as the contrast of narrow and broad conceptions of civilization may be considered comparative concepts in the study of civilzation, which can contribute to a more scientific understanding. Early in the book Clark disclaims any idea of civilization and offers no definition, but as his exposition develops a number of principles manifest themselves in the narrative. The example of eighteenth-century France comes up several times, so that we may conclude that, for Clark, this constituted a paradigm of civilization.
Strangely enough — strange because it seems like it comes out of an entirely distinct scholarly context, or, one might say, out of a different civilization — this seems also to have been the view of Michel Foucault, who frequently in his historical writings (by which I mean the earlier books thaat are narrowly focused case studies of madness, prisons, clinics, and the human sciences) uses the term “The Classical Age” (l’âge classique), which for Foucault seems to mean the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — though Foucault no more offers a definition of l’âge classique than Clark offers a definition of civilization. For Foucault, l’âge classique constituted a particular épistème in the development of civilization, and one superseded by the emergence of the modern world.
Though Clark and Foucault give us no definitions, Clark does offer the intriguing hint that eighteenth century France provides a pattern that can be reproduced, whereas Elizabethan England does not. This idea of a reproducible pattern of civilization I have called (again, drawing on references to Clark) the iterative conception of civilization, and I have contrasted the iterative conception to the heroic conception of civilization. If this contrast holds good in this context, then, if Elizabethan civilization, as Clark allows, is a kind of civilization, it is an heroic civilization. And certainly Shakespeare is an heroic figure in literature, a singular genius who transformed the language thus creating the conditions of a civilization of the word — another idea that Clark introduces, and contrasts to the civilization of the image, i.e., the civilization of medieval Catholicism.
By the end of Chapter 8, Clark specifically singles out England as an exemplar of civilization, a new paradigm, as it were, to set next to the salons of eighteenth century France, though this is the England of Christopher Wren rather than the England of Shakespeare. Of Wren’s Royal Naval hospital at Greenwich and its dining hall Clark wrote:
“…the result is the greatest architectural unit built in England since the Middle Ages. It is sober without being dull, massive without being oppressive. What is civilisation? A state of mind where it is thought desirable for a naval hospital to look like this and for the inmates to dine in a splendidly decorated hall.”
Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York et al.: Harper and Row, 1969, p. 215
While I don’t reject Clark’s characterization of civilization in this passage, I think it should be acknowledged that this is no less singular and no less idiosyncratic that the earlier England of Shakespeare. What Clark does not say, but which is implicit in his remarks, and in his overall point of view, is that there is an element of democratization involved in building a magnificent naval hospital where residents could dine in splendor. While this is not democracy as we have come to think of it more recently, in comparison to the extremes of poverty and luxury that marked the “civilization of the image” of medieval Christendom, this is in comparison enlightened and magnanimous to spend so lavishly for an institution intended for individuals who were in no sense the elite of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.
Thus the idea of narrow and broad conceptions of civilization must itself be broadened to account for the possibility of a civilization that only accrues to the benefit of the most privileged members of society (a different conception of a narrow conception of civilization) and a civilization that accrues to peoples of a society across social classes and irrespective of privilege and hierarchy (a different conception of a broad conception of civilization). Earlier in his exposition of the Reformation Clark noted how Protestantism became an excuse for uneducated individuals to take out their fury on a higher culture in which they did not share. One might argue that this is a consequence of cultivating a narrow conception of civilization in which the benefits of civilization are not distributed widely.
Nearer to our own times, communism, like Protestantism before it, was often used as an excuse for the uneducated, lower strata of society to release its fury against a high culture in which it did not share. We have all heard the stories of the horrors of communism, and I would not wish to minimize them, having often written on the topic. On the other hand, there were moments in which the communist leaders grasped that it was an opportunity for them to demonstrate their concern for the masses in whose name they undertook the revolution by lavishing resources on the people that once would have gone into Tsars palaces. The most famous example of this is the Moscow Metro, the stations of which were designed as “people’s palaces,” which the working class could enjoy during their commute.
Of course, the idea of a broadly based civilization is distinct from the idea of a broadly conceived civilization, as the idea of a narrowly based civilization is distinct from the idea of a narrowly conceived civilization. Yet in the case of narrowness we can see that narrow conceptions foster narrow bases, and narrow bases foster narrow conceptions, so the two are not unrelated. Probably also a broadly based conception of civilization fosters a broadly conceived civilization, but this is not as intuitively striking as the coincidence of narrowness.
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11 January 2015
Contemporary terrorism perpetrated by radical militants who self-identify as Muslims constitutes not only a police problem and a military problem (which of the two it is, or properly ought to be, is itself a matter of debate), but it is also a social problem and a political problem. Recent spectacular terrorist attacks — for example, the Peshawar school massacre, the massacre of staff at the Magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and an attack on Kukawa by Boko Haram that may have resulted in 2,000 killed — show this sociopolitical problem in an especially glaring light.
Europe in particular faces a problem in how to respond, and, as I wrote above, this is as much a social and political problem about the response to Islamic terrorism as it is a police or military response. Politicians would be greatly relieved if something so socially problematic could be carefully circumscribed as a police matter without wider social consequences, but this illusion cannot be sustained. Sustaining the illusion does not address the underlying problem, but allows it to fester and to grow from a problem into a crisis. It is better to address the problem when it is still a problem, albeit a thankless problem.
An organization in Germany, Pegida (Patriotische Europaer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) has been organizing demonstrations to protest what it calls the Islamization of Europe, and these demonstrations have been met by larger counter-demonstrations intended to frame Pegida as a xenophobic, right wing fringe movement. The counter-demonstrations against Pegida have been organized by government bodies, and cannot be characterized the spontaneous outpourings of grassroots German sentiment. In other words, we see here Europe wrestling with his own demons from its past. The political leadership of Europe is painfully aware of Germany’s Nazi past, and they are willing to go to considerable lengths to avoid targeting a minority that could be used as scapegoat for public discontent. The situation is similar in France, having its own and different demons from the past. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, French President Hollande said, “Those who committed these acts have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.”
Elite opinion in Europe is at one — the same message comes from the governments and major media outlets — that spectacular terrorist attacks committed by self-identifying Muslims are not to be attributed to Islam nor to the presence of Muslims in Europe (at present, about five million or 7.5% of the population in France, four million or 5% of the population in Germany, and three million or 5% of the population in the UK). However, this unity of elite opinion comes at a cost, and with a danger. Recently in The Technocratic Elite I wrote about the yawning divide between those who hold power and those who are subject to power in the contemporary industrialized nation-state. When elite opinion is perfectly unified, it looks contrived and controlled by the public. Moreover, anyone who speaks out against unified elite opinion is immediately cast in the role of a lone outsider who is speaking unwelcome truth to power. This in itself is a powerful rhetorical position, and those who would protest the influence of Islam and Islamic values in Europe willingly take on the mantle. Elite opinion would probably prove itself to be more effective if it allowed for some latitude, and co-opted the most radical voices by giving them an official outlet.
The problem of elite opinion in Europe is partly the above-mentioned demons of Europe’s past, which suggest the ever-present possibility of plunging into another savage conflict with genocidal overtones (as the Europeans tend to do every century or two), and also partly a result of the fact that the nation-state system has its origins in Europe and it is in Europe that the nation-state is still strongest. That is to say, the political entities that constitute Europe are states based on a national ethnic identity, and despite the attempts by Europe to constitute their contemporary states as diverse liberal democracies, they are nothing like the nation-states of the western hemisphere. Identity matters in Europe. Anyone can become an American. Almost no one can become a German, a Frenchman, or an Italian unless you are born to it. Elite opinion knows this, but still attempts to put a brave face on a pluralistic, diverse, and democratic society.
The larger background to this problem is the demographic imbalance between Europe and its Islamic neighbors. European populations are static or falling, while the population of neighboring Islamic nation-states are growing. Conflict in these Islamic nation-states creates refugees, and the attempt to maintain the facade upon which elite opinion trades in order to maintain its legitimacy requires that Europe take in refugees from anywhere in the world (to “prove” they are not racist or xenophobic). These burgeoning Islamic populations can easily send millions into Europe without affecting population growth in their nation-states of origin. These refugees have no interest in assimilating into European society, and even if they did have an interest, European society cannot realistically pretend that Muslims from North Africa, Arabia, or Mesopotamia can pass as Europeans.
This is not the first time that this has happened in the Old World. If you visit the cities around the Mediterranean Basin, which was once all the Roman Empire, you will find classical temples and Christian churches with contemporary Muslim populations flowing around them like a stream flows around ancient rocks embedded in its course. In some small towns on the coast of Turkey, you can literally find rock cut tombs preserved in the middle of streets, with traffic flowing around them — a reminder of a world that is now utterly lost. Europe knows this story as well as anyone, and even if elite opinion cannot speak of it in public, the idea of the great monuments of European civilization surrounded by a alien population with a different tradition of civilization cannot be far below the surface.
What is to be done? Can elite opinion, steadfastly maintained by elite discipline, allow Europe to negotiate these troubled waters and continue to put a brave face on a politically impossible situation? After all, everything in life is mere temporizing if you look at things in the long term. Europe can temporize a bit longer — for a few hundred years, or a few thousand years. The Europeans are good at this, as the example of Byzantium demonstrates (though the Byzantines were mostly Greek, and Greece is not now in a position to assert its rule over even a rump of Europe). If you can temporize longer than anyone else, you have done all that can be expected of any political entity.
And what of grassroots opinion in Europe? Do we even know what it is? The efficacy of elite discipline in Europe shrouds public opinion in euphemisms that prevent it from being expressed in the ugly forms it took under twentieth century fascism. If elite opinion capitulated to the masses, what would the result be? We don’t know. The post-WWII period in Europe has been so effective in De-Nazification and re-education that we do not know at present that Europeans would do if not guided by the liberal internationalist vision of elite opinion. If elite opinion fell away, would we instantly see an anti-Islamic Kristallnacht unleashed in Berlin, Paris, Rome, London, and Copenhagen? Would we see the beginnings of a new holy war between East and West?
I have several times discussed the views of Reza Aslan on Islamic terrorism as a form of cosmic warfare. Unlike French President Hollande and most public figures of elite opinion, Aslan openly acknowledges that Islamic terrorists are inspired by religious zeal, but maintains that the only way to win a cosmic war is not to fight it. However, as I have observed, one may get dragged into a cosmic war against one’s will. The eschatological dimension of human experience cannot be avoided. If we pretend it does not exist, others will foist it upon us — sometimes in the form of a massacre (cf. my post Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception).
Sam Harris, like Reza Aslan, frankly recognizes the religious roots of Islamic terrorism and has discussed this unmentionable fact (unmentionable, that is, for elite opinion) of Islamic terrorism repeatedly, claiming that Islam as a religion is uniquely well-adapted for inspiring suicidal terrorism. I’m not sure if Harris has any solution other than to imagine a world without religion, so that, presumably, advancing programs of secularization might be on the table. However, such top-down measures are vulnerable to all of the same problems that how beset elite opinion in Europe. Sometimes it seems as though the more well-intentioned a policy is, the more likely it is to be denounced as malign social engineering.
The critics of Sam Harris, especially in the Arab world, have noted his Jewish background (a fact unmentionable in other contexts) and his lack of criticism of Israel (a religiously-constituted nation-state, presumably an appropriate target for someone like Harris), more or less assimilating Harris’ position to an anti-Islamic prejudice. But Harris is right that there has been no outpouring of revulsion from the Muslim masses over repeated spectacular terrorist attacks by self-identifying Muslims shouting “Allāhu Akbar” as they kill innocent children. You will not often find the governments of Islamic nation-states organizing protests against the killing of Christians in the way that anti-Pegida activists are organizing protests against protests against Muslims.
The problem of Islamic terrorism is not going to go away any time soon. Elite opinion, not only in Europe but the world over, is careful to dissociate such terrorist acts from Islam, but does so at the cost of its intellectual integrity. There are approaches like that of Reza Aslan and Sam Harris that possess intellectual integrity, but appeal as little to mass opinion and mass man as does elite opinion. Elite opinion at least has the virtue of being fired in a political crucible that makes it credible as a mass movement, even if it lacks grassroots appeal. At the grassroots level, we really don’t have any good, non-politicized data to form a judgment as to what might occur if elite opinion capitulated to popular opinion.
The one thing of which we can be certain is the fear. There is the fear of what will become of Europe as European populations dwindle and Muslim populations expand. There is the fear of what will happen if popular sentiment against Muslims living in Europe gets out of hand. There is the fear of what becomes of Western civilization if Europe becomes Islamicized, however slowly and gradually. There is the fear on the part of Muslims of the influence of Western civilization and Western ways upon Islamic civilization. There is the fear of Muslim residents in Europe and elsewhere beyond the Islamic world of what will become of their lives as coreligionists conduct massacres that causes them to live under a cloud of suspicion. There is the fear that civil wars in Nigeria and Syria will spread instability to other parts of the globe. There is a surfeit of fear in the world today, and perhaps this is a sign that it is the fear we should address and is perhaps the most tractable of this cluster of intractable problems.
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9 January 2015
This past December a link to my 2011 post The limits of my language are the limits of my world was posted on a Reddit philosophy discussion forum. I have never paid any attention to Reddit, but I guess it gets a lot of traffic, since as a result of this link I received a peak number of 12,749 hits on 22 December 2014 — most of them from Reddit, but also a substantial number from Hackernews, which had apparently re-posted the link. This is the greatest number of hits that any of my individual posts have received.
The spike in traffic encouraged me to look at my old post again, and think about what I had said in it. My past effort left much to be desired, and as a result of all the traffic I did receive one perceptive comment on the post itself (apart from all those comments on the Reddit page, where I am not registered so could not respond), and this also gave me reason to think it over again.
In retrospect what bothers me the most (but which was not a focus of any of the comments) is that I had taken this popular Wittgenstein quote out of context and discussed it without systematically relating it to the corpus of Wittgenstein’s thought from which it drawn. In defense of my former self, I can say that it was merely a blog post, and pretty much written off the top of my head. It would take a book-length study, or several book-length studies, to adequately contextualize the Wittgenstein quote that I had plucked out as an aphorism and to give it a proper textual exegesis. But my scholarly conscience bothers me a bit, as my conscience has also been bothering me about a post I wrote about a line plucked out of Einstein in Unpacking an Einstein Aphorism. I don’t repudiate what I wrote in that post, any more than I repudiate what I wrote in my brief post on Wittgenstein, but I do intend to return to this Einstein passage and write about it again in proper context.
The aphorisms taken out of the Tractatus must be understood in the context of the work from which they are taken, and the work itself much be understood in the context of the Wittgenstein’s thought — no small task, especially given the sheer volume of Wittgenstein scholarship. In the case of the Tractatus we are quite fortunate to possess two closely related posthumously published texts by Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-1916, edited by G.H. Von Wright and G.E.M. Anscombe, as well as Prototractatus: An Early Version of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, edited by B.F. McGuinness, T. Nyberg, and G.H. Von Wright. Both of these works generously overlap with the completed text of the Tractatus and provide material not included in the published text. In addition, there are numerous personal letters between Wittgenstein, his philosophical friends, publishers, and translators, and a commentary tradition starting with Russell’s introduction written for the first English language edition and continuing up to the present day. I myself own at least a dozen commentaries on the Tractatus alone (excluding works on Wittgenstein himself or on his later work). That is a lot of context to grind one’s way through.
Some of the confusion surrounding aphorisms attributed to Wittgenstein is understandable because Wittgenstein did write some aphorisms (many of them collected in the posthumously published Culture and Value). However, the sections of the Tractatus that have been taken out of context and used as aphorisms are not aphorisms, but rather sections of a treatise that was composed in aphoristic style. This may sound like an overly-subtle distinction, but it is a distinction that makes a difference. An aphorism is intended to stand on its own; a work composed in aphoristic style is intended to be read and understood as a whole.
Wittgenstein shares this confusing character of his style with the writings of other philosophers who composed works in aphoristic form, notably Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Walter Kaufmann, the noted Nietzsche scholar, often went out of his way to point out that Nietzsche’s aphorisms are part of books and are intended to be read as part of a text that develops an idea throughout. I think part of my scholarly conscience grows out of reading so much of Kaufmann at an early age. When Kaufmann wrote about Nietzsche the latter was still a highly controversial figure, so Kaufmann was at pains to be on his best scholarly behavior. I think that it was also Kaufmann who said that Nietzsche often wrote too well for his own good, as he is often attacked for passages that he was not himself defending, but which he formulated so concisely that his phraseology was taken as a kind of advocacy. The same might be said of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein.
Kierkegaard, of whom I just wrote in Kierkegaard and Russell on Rigor, takes this confusion of the aphorism taken from an aphoristic work to a higher level by publishing pseudonymous works written in aphoristic style, so that any “aphorism” attributed to Kierkegaard may be be a single sentence plucked from a longer work which moreover is written under a pseudonym. Does this “aphorism” represent Kierkegaard’s views? The question is as fraught as how much of Plato’s Socrates represents the views of the historical Socrates.
Given the volume of scholarship available on a figure like Wittgenstein, is it even possible to write something like a blog post without entirely misrepresenting one’s source? In other words, is it possible to blog with intellectual integrity? A lot of my early blog posts were written off the top of my head, often from memory without bothering to consult an actual text. That seemed sufficient at the time. None of these posts would stand up to serious critical scrutiny. Since then, my posts have become longer, better researched, and much less frequent. With blog posts like this, one is likely to lose all but the most dedicated readers, but in the event that a post should receive unexpected attention (like my Wittgenstein post that was linked on Reddit), it would stand up a little better to critical scrutiny.
Aware of this, I started my second blog, Grand Strategy Annex, but this, too, has grown into something more serious and I hesitate even there to post poorly thought-out ideas — though I am still guilty of this on occasion (especially with my recent post on gray goo).
A lot of what I put in my early blog posts consisted of ideas to which I attached no great importance. My first post on civilization, for example — Today’s Thought on Civilization — was something I wrote because it wasn’t one of the ideas I was working on in my manuscripts, hence of no great importance. However, that post led to further posts, and now I have a significant tranche of posts on civilization. I also have a much clearer idea of civilization than I had six years ago, and the philosophy of civilization now constitutes a central research interest of mine. Most of what I think about civilization now goes on my blogs, with no thought of “saving” it for a manuscript because I consider it too important for a mere blog post. So my own attitude to my own writing has changed over the time I’ve been blogging on strategy, civilization, and philosophy.
In any case, I now hope to return to my post on The limits of my language are the limits of my world and to give this idea an exposition that does not treat this passage from the Tractatus like an aphorism, which it is not. Skimming though a number of Wittgenstein’s works and commentaries over the past new days I already have a idea of how I will do this, but it will take me some time to get to it. And it would take more time yet to then take the consequences of an inquiry into Wittgenstein and apply it to the interpretation of quantum theory, which was what I did my my original post. To do justice to that idea would definitely require a work of some scope. But I am not entirely ready to give up my intellectually opportunistic ways, seizing upon any idea that strikes me as interesting at the moment and writing about whatever seems related to it.
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27 December 2014
The human mind is a strange and complex entity, and while the mind possesses unappreciated subtlety (of the kind I attempted to describe in The Human Overview), rigorous thinking does not come naturally to it. Rigor is a hard-won achievement, not a gift. If we want to achieve some measure of conceptual clarity we must make a particular effort to think rigorously. This is not easy. If you let the mind do what comes naturally and easily to it, you will probably not be thinking rigorously, and you will probably not attain conceptual clarity.
But what is rigor? To ask this question puts us in a position not unlike Saint Augustine who asked, “What, then, is time?” If no one asks me, I know what rigor is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. What distinguishes rigorous thinking from ordinary thinking? And what distinguishes a rigorous life from an ordinary life? Is there any relation between the formal and existential senses of rigor?
As a first and rough approximation, we could say that rigor is the implementation of a precise idea of precision. Whether or not a precise idea of precision can be applied to the human condition, a question that I have addressed in The Human Condition Made Rigorous, is a question of whether the formal sense of rigor is basic, and existential rigor is an implementation of formal rigor in life.
Kierkegaard concerned himself with what I am here calling existential rigor, i.e., the idea of living a rigorous life. One of the central themes that runs through Kierkegaard’s substantial corpus is the question of how one becomes an authentic Christian in an inauthentic Christian society (though this is not how Kierkegaard himself expressed the problem that preoccupied him). Kierkegaard expresses himself in the traditional Christian idiom of suffering for the truth, but Kierkegaard’s suffering is not pointless or meaningless: it is conducive to existential rigor:
“My purpose is to make it difficult to become a Christian, yet not more difficult than it is, nor to make it difficult for stupid people, and easy for clever pates, but qualitatively difficult, and essentially difficult for every man equally, for essentially it is equally difficult for every man to relinquish his understanding and his thinking, and to keep his soul fixed upon the absurd; it is comparatively more difficult for a man if he has much understanding — if one will keep in mind that not everyone who has lost his understanding over Christianity thereby proves that he has any.”
KIERKEGAARD’S CONCLUDING UNSCIENTIFIC POSTSCRIPT, Translated from the Danish by DAVID F. SWENSON, PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA, Completed after his death and provided with Introduction and Notes by WALTER LOWRIE, PRINCETON: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, p. 495
The whole of Kierkegaard’s book Attack Upon Christendom is an explicit attack upon “official” Christianity, which he saw as too safe, too comfortable, too well-connected to the machinery of the state. In Kierkegaard’s Denmark, no one was suffering in order to bear witness to the truth of Christianity:
“…hundreds of men are introduced who instead of following Christ are snugly and comfortably settled, with family and steady promotion, under the guise that their activity is the Christianity of the New Testament, and who live off the fact that others have had to suffer for the truth (which precisely is Christianity), so that the relationship is completely inverted, and Christianity, which came into the world as the truth men die for, has now become the truth upon which they live, with family and steady promotion — ‘Rejoice then in life while thy springtime lasts’.”
Søren Kierkegaard, Attack Upon Christendom, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946, p. 42
And from Kierkegaard’s journals…
“Could you not discover some way in which you too could help the age? Then I thought, what if I sat down and made everything difficult? For one must try to be useful in every possible way. Even if the age does not need ballast I must be loved by all those who make everything easy; for if no one is prepared it difficult it becomes all too easy — to make things easy.”
Søren Kierkegaard, The Soul of Kierkegaard: Selections from His Journals, 1845, p. 93
Kierkegaard is full of such passages, and if you read him through you will probably find more compelling instances of this idea than the quotes I have plucked out above.
Kierkegaard called into question the easy habits of belief that we follow mostly without questioning them; Russell called into question the intuitions that come naturally to us, to the human mind, and which we mostly do not question. Both Kierkegaard and Russell thought there was value in doing things the hard way, not in order to court difficulty for its own sake, but rather for the different perspective it affords us by not simply doing what comes naturally, but having to think things through for ourselves.
Russell’s approach to rigor is superficially antithetical to that of Kierkegaard. While Kierkegaard was interested in the individual and his individual existence, Russell was interested in universal logical principles that had nothing to do with individual existence. William James once wrote to Russell, “My dying words to you are ‘Say good-by to mathematical logic if you wish to preserve your relations with concrete realities!'” Russell’s response was perfect deadpan: “As for the advice to say goodbye to mathematical logic if I wish to preserve my relation with concrete realities, I am not wholly inclined to dispute its wisdom. But I should push it farther, & say that it would be well to give up all philosophy, & abandon the student’s life altogether. Ten days of standing for Parliament gave me more relations to concrete realities than a lifetime of thought.”
Nevertheless, beyond these superficial differences, both Kierkegaard and Russell understood, each in his own way, that the easy impulse must be resisted. A passage from Bertrand Russell that I previously quoted in The Overview Effect in Formal Thought makes this point for formal rigor:
“The fact is that symbolism is useful because it makes things difficult. (This is not true of the advanced parts of mathematics, but only of the beginnings.) What we wish to know is, what can be deduced from what. Now, in the beginnings, everything is self-evident; and it is very hard to see whether one self-evident proposition follows from another or not. Obviousness is always the enemy to correctness. Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious. Then we set up certain rules for operating on the symbols, and the whole thing becomes mechanical. In this way we find out what must be taken as premiss and what can be demonstrated or defined.”
Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”
“There is a good deal of importance to philosophy in the theory of symbolism, a good deal more than at one time I thought. I think the importance is almost entirely negative, i.e., the importance lies in the fact that unless you are fairly self conscious about symbols, unless you are fairly aware of the relation of the symbol to what it symbolizes, you will find yourself attributing to the thing properties which only belong to the symbol. That, of course, is especially likely in very abstract studies such as philosophical logic, because the subject-matter that you are supposed to be thinking of is so exceedingly difficult and elusive that any person who has ever tried to think about it knows you do not think about it except perhaps once in six months for half a minute. The rest of the time you think about the symbols, because they are tangible, but the thing you are supposed to be thinking about is fearfully difficult and one does not often manage to think about it. The really good philosopher is the one who does once in six months think about it for a minute. Bad philosophers never do.”
Bertrand Russell, Logic and Knowledge: Essays 1901-1950, 1956, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism,” I. “Facts and Propositions,” p. 185
For Russell, the use of symbols in reasoning constitutes a reformulation of the intuitive in a counter-intuitive form, and this makes it possible for us to struggle toward the truth without being distracted by matters that seem so obvious that our cognitive biases lead us toward deceptive obviousness instead of toward the truth. There is another name for this, defamailiarization (which I previously discussed in Reversing the Process of Defamiliarization). Great art defamiliarizes the familiar in order to present it to us again, anew, in unfamiliar terms. In this way we see the world with new eyes. Just so, the reformulation of intuitive thought in counter-intuitive forms presents the familiar to us in unfamiliar terms and we see our reasoning anew with the mind’s eye.
Intuitions have their place in formal thought. I have in the past written of the tension between intuition and formalization that characterizes formal thought, as well as of the place of intuition in philosophical argument (cf. Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method). But if intuitions have their place, they also have their limitations, and the making of easy things difficult is a struggle against the limitations of intuition. What Kierkegaard and Russell have in common in their conception of rigor is that of making something ordinarily easy into something difficult in order to overcome the limitations of the natural and the intuitive. All of this may sound rather arcane and confined to academic squabbles, but it is in fact quite directly related to the world situation today.
I have often written about the anonymity and anomie of life in industrial-technological civilization; this is a familiar theme that has been worked through quite extensively in twentieth century sociology, and one could argue that it is also a prominent element in existentialism. But the human condition in the context of our civilization today is not only marked by anonymity and anomie, but also by high and rising standards of living, which usually translates directly into comfort. While we are perhaps more bereft of meaning than ever, we are also more comfortable than ever before in history. This has also been studied in some detail. Occasionally this combination of a comfortable but listless life is called “affluenza.”
Kierkegaard’s defamiliarization of (institutionalized and inauthentic) Christianity was intended to make Christianity difficult for bourgeois worldlings; the militant Islamists of our time want to make Islam difficult and demanding for those who would count themselves Muslims. It is the same demand for existential rigor in each that is the motivation. If it is difficult to understand why young men at the height of their prowess and physical powers can be seduced into extremist militancy, one need only reflect for a moment on the attraction of difficult things and the earned honors of existential rigor. The west has almost completely forgotten the attraction of difficult things. What remains is perhaps the interest in “extreme” sports, in which individuals test themselves against contrived physical challenges, which provides a kind of existential rigor along with bragging rights.
Extremist ideologies offer precisely the two things for which the individual hungers but cannot find in contemporary industrialized society: meaning, and a challenge to his complacency. An elaborately worked out eschatological conception of history shows the individual his special place within the grand scheme of things (this is the familiar ground of cosmic warfare and the eschatological conception of history), but this eschatological vision is not simply handed for free to the new communicant. He must work for it, strive for it, sacrifice for it. And when he has proved himself equal to the demands placed upon him, then he is rewarded with the profoundly satisfying gift of an earned honor: membership in a community of the elect.
This view is not confined to violent extremists. We meet with this whenever someone makes the commonplace remark that we don’t value that which is given away for free, and Spinoza expressed the thought with more eloquence: “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.” Anyone who feels this pull of difficult things, who desires a challenge, who wants to be tested in order to prove their worth in the only way that truly counts, is an existentialist in action, if not in thought, because it is the existentialist conception of authenticity that is operative in this conception of existential rigor.
We have tended to think of pre-modern societies, mostly agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, with their rigid social hierarchies and inherited social positions, as paradigmatic examples of inauthentic societies, but we have managed to create a thoroughly inauthentic society in the midst of our industrial-technological civilization. This civilization and its social order may have its origins in the overturning of the inauthentic social order of earlier ages, but, after an initial period of social experimentation, the present social order ossified and re-created many of the inauthentic and hierarchical forms that characterized the overthrown social order.
Inauthentic societies are awash in unearned unearned advantages. I wrote about this earlier in discussing the urban austerity of Simone Weil, the wilderness austerity of Christopher McCandless (also known as Alexander Supertramp), and comparing the two in Weil and McCandless: Another Parallel:
“…the accomplishments of the elite and the privileged are always tainted by the fact that what they have attained has not been earned. But it is apparent that there are always a few honest individuals among the privileged who are acutely aware that their position has not been earned, that it is tainted, and the only way to prove that one can make it on one’s own is to cut one’s ties to one’s privileged background and strike out on one’s own.”
There is a certain sense in which the available and ample comforts of industrial-technological civilization transformed the greater part of the global population into complacent consumers who accept an inauthentic life. There is another name of this too; Nietzsche called such individuals Last Men.
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25 December 2014
A Century of Industrialized Warfare:
A Spontaneous Truce on Christmas Day 1914
In a summer war that was supposed to be over in a month or two, the fact that the war had persisted and even grown in scale over the intervening months meant that this was not the war that was expected, it was something entirely different. And it was. It was the first global industrialized war. Entire societies were mobilized for warfare; costs in lives and materiel spiraled far beyond anything anticipated. And the war drug on. The war had not stopped in the fall for harvest, as wars did during agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. The war had not stopped when the weather turned bad. And the war had not stopped when winter began. There were to be no winter’s quarters, only continued fighting.
Perhaps the most familiar images of the First World are those of trench warfare. The machine gun increased lethality while barbed wire slowed troop movements, leading to slaughter and stagnation on an unprecedented scale — an industrial scale. Even before machines guns, rifled small arms were beginning to make frontal assaults suicidal, as in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. No longer could soldiers stand shoulder-to-shoulder and wait to fire until they saw the whites of their enemy’s eyes. The contest of the battlefield would be settled long before ranks had closed at such a proximity. Instead, soldiers dug in, and only peeked above their trenches at the enemy, also dug in and peering from their trenches.
Many popular English idioms date from the trench warfare of the First World War, and we use them without thinking twice about their origins: in the trenches, over the top, no man’s land, and so on. Between the trenches was no man’s land, an area cratered by continuous shelling, and strung with barbed wire to prevent surprise trench raids. When the weather turned bad, the churned up soil of no man’s land turned into mud.
By Christmas 1914 the war had been stalemated for four months. The violence and misery had settled into a routine. The violence became so routine, in fact, that there are stories of soldiers on both sides warning the other side when then would begin firing. It is in this context that the Christmas truce (Weihnachtsfrieden in German, Trêve de Noël in French) occurred.
Here is part of an account of the Christmas truce by Frank Richards:
On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one. Platoons would sometimes go out for twenty-four hours’ rest – it was a day at least out of the trench and relieved the monotony a bit — and my platoon had gone out in this way the night before, but a few of us stayed behind to see what would happen. Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.
Buffalo Bill [the Company Commander] rushed into the trench and endeavoured to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. He had to accept the situation, so soon he and the other company officers climbed out too. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man’s-land. Their officers was also now out. Our officers exchanged greetings with them. One of the German officers said that he wished he had a camera to take a snapshot, but they were not allowed to carry cameras. Neither were our officers.
A longer account of the same can be found at Christmas in the Trenches, 1914.
What stands out about the spontaneous Christmas Day truce of 1914 is the humanity of the individual soldier. The conditions of the war had been inhumane one a scale not previously experienced in wartime. And yet soldiers were not so brutalized by the brutal war they had endured up to that time that they could not recognize the common humanity of fellow soldiers on the other side of the trenches, i.e., the humanity of their enemy. Common humanity is typically among the first casualties of war.
There was anger at the Christmas Truce at the highest levels of military leadership on both sides, where it was styled “fraternization with the enemy.” The generals knew very well that it would be all the more difficult to work their troops up into a homicidal fury if those troops identified more with the soldiers on the other side than with their officers and leaders. They need not have been concerned. The feeling of shared humanity among the soldiers at the front was not sufficient to bridge the gap between the warring powers, though it did provide relief for a day.
While the leadership was dismayed by the fraternization, there were others for whom it would not have been a surprise. Jean Jaurès, like Einstein and Russell, was among the few Europeans not moved by the August Madness. The French socialist leader had predicted that the next great war would mean that the working classes would slaughter each other on the battlefields of Europe, and this is exactly what happened. Jaurès was assassinated on 31 July 1914, as the war was breaking out in earnest, shot to death at a café in Paris, Le Croissant, by a young French nationalist angered by Jaurès’ pacifism.
Jaurès’ pacificism and international socialism died with him, but the essential solidarity of the soldiering masses was revealed in the Christmas Truce as in few other episodes in the war. Idealists — perhaps we should call them utopians — like Einstein, Russell, and Jaurès imagined that this solidarity might demonstrate the futility of the war to the working classes, who would do the greater part of the fighting and the dying, but that time had not yet arrived. Popular expressions of the futility of the war did not fully come to a head until the French mutinies in the spring of 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in the fall of 1917.
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A Century of Industrialized Warfare
10. The Christmas Truce
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23 December 2014
The Cold War forced us to think in global terms. In other words, it forced us to think in planetary terms. The planet was divided into two armed camps, with one camp led by the US presiding over NATO and the other camp led by the USSR presiding over the Warsaw Pact. Every action taken, or every action forborne, was weighed and judged against its planetary consequences, and this became most evident when faced with the ultimate Cold War nightmare, a massive nuclear exchange between the superpowers that came to known as MAD for mutually assured destruction. It is at least arguable that the idea of anthropogenic existential risk emerged from the Cold War MAD scenarios.
The visionary thinking of the Cold War period has been tainted by its association with what was then openly called “the unthinkable” — a massive thermonuclear exchange — but the true visionaries are not the ones who narrated a utopian fantasy that we would all have liked to believe, but rather the visionaries are the ones who unflinchingly explored the implications of what Karl Jaspers called “the new fact.” Anthropogenic extinction became technologically possible with the advent of the nuclear era, and because it was made possible, it became a pressing need to discuss it honestly. In this sense, the great visionaries of the recent past have been men like Guilio Douhet and Herman Kahn
Douhet’s work predates the nuclear age, but Douhet was a great visionary of air power, and the extent to which Douhet understood that air power would change warfare is remarkable:
“No longer can areas exist in which life can be lived in safety and tranquility, nor can the battlefield any longer be limited to actual combatants. On the contrary, the battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy. There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians. The defenses on land and sea will no longer serve to protect the country behind them; nor can victory on land or sea protect the people from enemy aerial attacks unless that victory insures the destruction, by actual occupation of the enemy’s territory, of all that gives life to his aerial forces.”
Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, translated by Dino Ferrari, Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998, pp. 9-10
There have been many predictions for future warfare that have not been borne out in practice, but with hindsight we can see that Douhet was right about almost everything he predicted, and, more importantly, he was right for the right reasons. He saw, he understood, he drew the correct implications, and he laid out his vision in admirable clarity.
The Cold War standoff between the US and the USSR was a consequence of the implications of air power already glimpsed by Douhet (in 1921), and raised to a higher order of magnitude by advanced technology weapons systems. When Douhet wrote this work, there were as yet no jet engines, no ballistic missiles, and no nuclear weapons, but Douhet’s vision was so comprehensive and accurate that these major technological innovations did not alter the basic framework that he predicted. Citizens did become combatants, and the citizens of each side were held hostage by the other. This is the essence of the MAD scenario.
The increasing efficacy of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems did not substantially change Douhet’s framework, but by raising the stakes of destructiveness, nuclear weapons, jet bombers, and missiles did change the scope of warfare from mere localized destruction to a potential planetary catastrophe. Many scientists began to discuss the potential consequences for life and civilization of the use of nuclear weapons, and many of the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project later felt misgivings for their role in releasing the nuclear genie from the bottle.
These concerns were not confined to western scientists. In an internal report to USSR leadership, Soviet nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov wrote bluntly about the possibility of human extinction in the event of nuclear war:
“Calculations show that if, in the case of war, weapons that already exist are used, levels of radioactive emissions and concentration of radioactive substances, which are biologically harmful to human life and vegetation, will be created on a significant portion of the earth’s surface. The rate of growth of atomic explosives is such that in just a few years the stockpile will be large enough to create conditions under which the existence of life on the whole globe will be impossible. The explosion of around one hundred hydrogen bombs could lead to this result.”
“There is no hope that organisms, and the human organism in particular, will adjust themselves to higher levels of radioactivity on earth. This adjustment can take place only through a prolonged process of evolution. So we cannot but admit that mankind faces the enormous threat of an end to all life on earth.”
Igor Kurchatov “The Danger of Atomic War” 1954
Kurchtov’s formulations are striking in their unaffected naturalism and the bluntness of the message that he sought to communicate. Even as Kurchatov wrote of the end of the world he avoided histrionics. His account of human extinction is what Colin McGinn might call “flatly natural.” The result of a dispassionately scientific account of the end of the world is perhaps the more powerful for avoiding emotional and rhetorical excess.
The space age began three years after Kurchatov’s memo on the dangers of nuclear war, when Sputnik was launched on 04 October 1957. Thereafter a “space race” paralleled the arms race and became a new venue for superpower competition. Bertrand Russell, for example, was scathing in his righteous ridicule of the space program as being merely a symptom of the Cold War. (Chad Trainer has discussed this in Earth to Russell.)
It has become a commonplace of commentary on the Apollo missions that this was the occasion of an intellectual turning point in our collective self-understanding. The photograph of Earth taken from space on the way to the moon was a way to communicate some hint of the “overview effect” to the public. Again, we were forced to think in planetary terms by this new image of Earth hanging isolated against the blackness of space. Earth was achingly beautiful, we all saw, but also terribly vulnerable.
The Cold War arms race and space race came together during the latter part of the twentieth century in a kind of cosmic pessimism over the very possibility of the longevity of any civilization whatever, here extrapolated far beyond the Earth to the possibility of any other inhabited planet.
When Carl Sagan wrote his Cosmos: A Personal Journey during the height of the Cold War, the concern over nuclear war was such that the term L in the Drake equation (the length of time a SETI-capable civilization is transmitting or receiving) was frequently judged to be quite short, only a few hundred years at most. This is given a poignant depiction in Carl Sagan’s Dream described in the last episode of Cosmos.
It could be said that nuclear weapons and space exploration driven by political competition opened our eyes to our place in the cosmos in a way that might not have made a similar impression if the stakes had not been so high. Samuel Johnson is often quoted for his line, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Similarly it could be said that the Cold War and the nuclear arms race brought the whole of humanity face-to-face with extinction, and we pulled back from the brink. The danger is not over, but the human species has been changed by the experience of imminent destruction.
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