27 September 2015
The idea of the great filter was formulated by Robin Hanson. In the exposition below Hanson also names a number of steps (acknowledged to be non-exhaustive) in the development of explosively expanding life:
“Consider our best-guess evolutionary path to an explosion which leads to visible colonization of most of the visible universe… The Great Silence implies that one or more of these steps are very improbable; there is a ‘Great Filter’ along the path between simple dead stuff and explosive life. The vast vast majority of stuff that starts along this path never makes it. In fact, so far nothing among the billion trillion stars in our whole past universe has made it all the way along this path. (There may of course be such explosions outside our past light cone [Wesson 90].)”
Robin Hanson, The Great Filter — Are We Almost Past It? 15 Sept. 1998
Discussion of the Great Filter has focused on singling out one factor and identifying this one factor as the Great Filter, although Hanson is explicit that, “one or more of these steps are very improbable.” In the event that several steps in the development of explosively expanding life rather than some one single step is unlikely, the Great Filter may consist of several elements. I think that this is an important qualification to make, but at present I will adopt the conventional presumption that one step in the development of advanced civilization is improbable (or especially improbable) and constitutes the Great Filter.
What we know about the cosmos is consistent with it being rich in life, but poor in technologically advanced civilization. The more that we learn about exoplanetary systems (living, as we do, in the Golden Age of exoplanet discovery), the more our scientific understanding of the universe points toward a superfluity of habitable worlds (or, at least, potentially habitable worlds), even while no trace of intelligence has yet been seen or heard beyond Earth. Some of this may have to do with the amount of research funding that is channeled into astronomy and astrophysics in comparison to SETI research, which has received relatively little to date. This is about to change. A “Breakthrough Initiative” will be funneling a large amount of money into SETI — Breakthrough Listen — but there is no reason as yet to suppose that this effort will be any more successful than past efforts, though I would be quite pleased to be proved wrong.
The point that I made some time ago in SETI as a Process of Elimination still holds good: as our scientific instrumentation improves with each generation of technology, and our research methods become more sophisticated, we are able to exclude (and, correlatively, to include) an increasing number of possibilities and instances. In other words, progress in science comes about by falsifying certain hypotheses, as would be expected from a philosophy of science derived from the Popper-Lakatos axis. (It is often discussed in relation to SETI research that investigators are hesitant to publish negative results; perhaps if they better understood the crucial role of falsification in the methodology of the scientific research program that is SETI they would be more inspired to publish negative results.)
When, in the coming decades, we are able to obtain spectroscopic analyses of exoplanet atmospheres, our knowledge of what is going on on exoplanets — as opposed to merely knowing about their existence, location, size, orbital period, and so on, which is the kind of scientific knowledge we have only recently come into — will improve by an order of magnitude. At this point in time we will move from ne in the Drake equation (number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life) to fl (fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears) and possibly also fc (fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space, from which we can infer fi, fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges) if exoplanet atmospheric signatures reveal signs of unambiguous industrial activity.
We do not know the prevalence of life in our galaxy, much less in the universe at large — i.e., whether or not we live in a biota-rich GHZ, or even CHZ (cosmic habitable zone) — but we may soon be able to estimate the presence of life in the cosmos as we can now estimate the number of planets in the cosmos. It is entirely possible that the universe is teaming with life, even advanced life that is as sophisticated as the life of the terrestrial biosphere. I have written elsewhere that we may live in a “universe of stromatolites” (cf. A Needle in the Cosmic Haystack), but we may also be living in the universe rich in the ecological equivalents of sharks, koalas, and penguins. With one exception: the emergence of the cognitive capacity that makes abstract intelligence possible as well as the civilization that is predicated upon it.
In an earlier post, A Note on the Great Filter, I suggested that we are the Great Filter. I would now like to refine this: if I were to identify a “Great Filter” (i.e., a single element constituting the Great Filter) somewhere between plentiful life and absent advanced technological civilizations, I would put my finger on hominid encephalization. It was the rapid encephalization of our hominid ancestors that made what we recognize as intelligence and civilization possible. While there are many other large brains in the animal kingdom — the whale brain and the elephant brain are significantly larger than the human brain — and other mammals have brains as convoluted as the human brain — meaning more of the neocortex, which makes up the outer layer of gray matter — the encephalization quotient of the human brain is significantly greater than any other animal.
Brain size in absolute terms may have to exceed a certain threshold before intelligence of the sort we seek to measure can be said to be present. Neurons are of a nearly constant size, so the minimal neuronal structure necessary to control bodily functions take up about the same space in a mouse and an elephant. Factors other than sheer brain size are relevant to brain function, as, for example, the portion of the brain made up by the cerebral cortex and the amount of convolutions (therefore outer surface area, and the cerebral cortex is outer layer). Hence the introduction of encephalization quotient: encephalization quotient is not simply a ratio of brain mass to body mass, but is also based on the expected brain size for a given body plan — this introduces an admitted interpretive element into EQ, but that does not vitiate the measure. When, in the distant future, we can compare EQs over many different species from many different biospheres, we can firm up these numbers. Someday this will be the work of astroneurology.
The human brain (with its distinctive and even disproportionate EQ) has not changed since anatomical modernity — at least a hundred thousand years, and maybe as much as three hundred thousand years — and human thought has probably not greatly changed since the advent of cognitive modernity, perhaps seventy thousand years ago. We must continually remind ourselves that even the earliest anatomically modern human beings had a brain structurally indistinguishable from the human brain today. With the blindingly rapid gains of technological civilization over the past hundred years it is increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of connection to the past, not to mention the distant past. But when the human brain appeared in its modern form, it was unprecedented in its cognitive capacity — it was and still is an extreme outlier. There was nothing else like it on the planet, and from this brain followed control of fire, language, technology, art, and eventually civilization.
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24 September 2015
Perhaps one of the most familiar psychological ideas of our time is the Maslovian hierarchy of needs, and the most familiar form of the exposition of the hierarchy of needs is that of a pyramid resting on a broad base of physiological needs, culminating with self-actualization at the peak of the pyramid.
In one of Maslow’s briefest expositions of the hierarchy of needs he wrote:
“Man is a hierarchy of needs, with the biological needs at the base of the hierarchy and the spiritual needs at the top.”
Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, p. 186
To fully appreciate Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and his humanistic pyschology which serves as the conceptual framework of the hierarchy of needs, all of this must be understood in comparison to (and indeed in contradistinction to) the tradition of Freudian psychodynamic psychology, which, when Maslow was writing, was the dominant school of thought in psychology.
Freud began as a physician, and approached the human psyche as a physician. “Success” in Freudian psychology is formulated in the most minimal and modest way imaginable — this is the famous idea that, “…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness” (cf. From Neurotic Misery to Ordinary Human Unhappiness). Freud did not focus on what makes an individual mentally healthy, but on treating specific pathologies. Patients came to him with problems, and he tried to cure them. The cure was considered efficacious if the patient was relieved of their neurotic misery and returned to a condition of ordinary human unhappiness.
Maslow had something very different in mind. His systematic works like The Psychology of Being don’t focus on the treatment of specific pathologies but instead seek to understand and define the human person in its optimal state of being, especially in relation to “peak experiences” and self-fulfillment. Ordinary human unhappiness is not good enough for Maslow; he wants to see the healthy individual converge upon a state of psychological self-actualization in which the highest spiritual goods are realized and personal fulfillment is achieved.
All of this sounds wonderfully inspirational, but I am deeply troubled with the implications of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the same way that I am deeply suspicious of Erikson’s stages of personality development. There is a perennial human tendency (perhaps rooted in a cognitive bias) to mistake (or even to twist) a description into a prescription, transforming an analysis into a norm. Thus one might say that if you aren’t experiencing the particular psychosocial crisis that Erikson has defined for the stage of life in which you find yourself at present, then there is obviously something wrong with you and that you aren’t developing naturally or normally. Similarly, it might be asserted that if you are not going about clambering up the hierarchy of needs in an orderly and linear fashion, starting with the satisfaction of your physiological needs and gradually working your way up to spiritual self-actualization, then there is something wrong with you, and you need to start over and get it right next time.
One cannot, of course, blame Maslow or Erickson for he dumbed-down versions of their ideas that have filtered into mass consciousness by way of simplified expositions in the mass media, but there are insidious assumptions built into the hierarchy of needs (and, for that matter, Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development) that are intrinsic even to the most refined and sophisticated expositions.
Let me start with something basic — something drawn from the most fundamental physiological human needs. Even if you are tired, hungry, thirsty, and cold, if you see a violent mob moving in your direction you are going to run the other way to keep yourself alive, despite your immediate physiological needs. While these physiological needs are the basis of human well being, I can’t imagine Maslow telling someone about to be murdered by a mob that they ought to get something to eat and drink, put on more layers of clothing, and then get a good night’s rest before running to save their lives. This is the reductio ad absurdum of the hierarchy of needs, and such an observation in no way vitiates the overall scheme, insofar as any general scheme must admit of exceptions.
If that were all, appropriate exceptions could be built into the hierarchy of needs to accommodate immediate exigencies, but that isn’t all. The very idea that our moral life is a distant and expensive luxury that occurs at a peak of self-fulfillment and self-actualization (perhaps reserved for exemplary individuals) is so profoundly misleading that it falsifies what it means to be human.
Let us consider another example. If you find yourself isolated, without friends or family, and thus lacking all the components of love and belonging — and, to formulate this even more strongly, perhaps you see no way whatsoever of lifting yourself out of this isolation — and you use this isolation to focus on the fulfillment of a higher creative or moral calling (instead of fruitlessly expending your energies trying to fulfill this level of the hierarchy of needs, in order to move up to the next level in an orderly and purposeful manner), is your flaunting of the hierarchy of needs a sign of your pathology?
Some of the greatest works of art in human history, the pinnacle of achievement of what would ordinarily be thought of as the work of exemplary individuals, have grown out of circumstances that seem to pervert every assumption built into the hierarchy of needs. Certainty there is sense in which the construction of great communal projects such as the Parthenon, Chartres cathedral, or the Taj Mahal rest on an established material and intellectual framework which is the civilizational equivalent of physiological needs, but the hierarchy of needs was formulated to describe individual psychology and not the functioning of exemplary civilizations (though it may be applicable to this also, mutatis mutandis). Certainly in some individuals we see a progressive fulfillment of needs from the physiological to the intellectual, but I don’t think that this is an adequate, or even a fair, portrayal of the further reaches of human nature.
I have often said that, “…I don’t believe that a person can get out of bed in the morning without implicitly having formulated a philosophical judgment that life is worth living and therefore there is a reason to get out of bed, and not merely to lie there and do nothing.” (cf. Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method). Taking this as the basis for all else that follows from this experience of the human condition, it is in this sense that I have used “raison d’être” as the foundation of an inverted hierarchy of needs (see illustration below). From the individual’s raison d’être at the foundations of an inverted hierarchy of needs there follows, in perfectly reverse order, the fulfillment of emotional and psychological drives eventually building up to the final satisfaction of physical drives and needs.
While it is true that if you do not have air you will die within minutes, and if you do not have water you will die within days, such immediate exigencies can be compared to the immediate exigencies noted above in relation to Maslow’s formulation of a hierarchy of needs: the existence of these immediate contingencies in no way vitiate the overall scheme. An inverted hierarchy of needs admits of certain exceptions. Granted these exceptions, I find this to be a more accurate depiction of actual human experience than Maslow’s version.
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21 September 2015
In a fine-grained account of terrestrial civilization — leaving aside the broadest taxonomies that subsume multiple civilizations — we can identify a distinct Venetian civilization, Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta, or, more simply, La Serenissima, the Most Serene Republic. This Venetian civilization lasted about a thousand years, until it came to an end in 1797 — like Byzantine civilization, and the civilization of Khotan, both of which endured about a thousand years (i.e., each of these examples endured one chronom, in the terminology I suggested in A Metric for the Science of Civilization).
The Republic of Venice was not only long-lived by any measure of terrestrial civilization, it was also, in its time, routinely held up as an exemplar of government, a beacon to which other political entities might look to for inspiration. What were the characteristic institutions of Venice that proved both robust and instructive? It must be said that they were nothing that would be admired today. In particular, the institutions of Venetian statecraft were markedly at variance with the contemporary ideal of transparency.
Everyone today seems to agree that transparency is a good thing, and the more transparency the better. There is an independent organization devoted to transparency issues, Transparency International, which primarily positions itself in opposition to corruption: “Transparency International gives voice to the victims and witnesses of corruption. We work together with governments, businesses and citizens to stop the abuse of power, bribery and secret deals.” Transparency International equates non-transparency with corruption. Was the Most Serene Republic of Venice corrupt? Can we apply modern conceptions and standards of governmental corruption to pre-modern political entities?
The contemporary conception of transparency is entirely predicated upon governments that are at least putatively installed by popular sovereignty, and which therefore must at least give the appearance of honoring democratic processes, representative institutions, and political openness, however compromised these are in practice. Thus transparency becomes a matter of closing the gap between professed principles and actual practices. Corrupt politicians can be publicly shamed by highlighting their failure to implement the principles that they must, in deference to popular sovereignty, publicly espouse.
No such gap between the appearance and reality of democratic forms plagued the Italian city-states. If a government is never constituted on the basis of popular sovereignty, it cannot be accused of any failure to embody the principle. The republics of the medieval and early modern Italian peninsula were spectacularly non-democratic (if not anti-democratic) by any modern measure, but in comparison to other regimes of their day and before, these republican city-states were a marvel of responsive representative government, and were nothing like the absolutism of continental Europe.
While the Donation of Constantine was discussed (and eventually demonstrated to be a forgery) by the Italian humanists, doctrines of the divine right of kings played little role in the political ideology of the Italian peninsula. Theologically justified absolutism was primarily a concern of ultramontane Europe. There was, of course, the Papacy, which ruled over the Papal States as a theologically-constituted political entity with the Pope as head of state and acting in a tradition of Papal absolutism, but this was a very different kind of political entity that the monarchies of west and central Europe, which sought legitimation of absolutism though special divine sanction of royal power.
It is arguable that the monarchies of Europe that sought legitimation through public spectacle were acting on the medieval equivalent of transparency: power was power made visible. Everyone understood power when made visible in this way. Venice represented something very different, though despite its difference its power was no less recognized by contemporaries. Perhaps a measure of this differentness derived from its utterly distinct economic model. The monarachies of Europe possessed an almost exclusively agrarian economy; wealth was measured in land, and the agricultural productivity of this land. Venice grew far more wealthy from trade and commerce, and this was no doubt difficult to understand in a time when it was thought that all occupations other than agriculture were inherently sterile (a doctrine eventually formalized by the physiocrats hundreds of years later). Agricultural wealth and power is, in a sense, on display to all; the wealth of merchant republics, and especially the sources of this wealth, is often kept hidden. And Venice was a master of secrecy.
The Venetian Republic made a principle and a practice of secrecy; it was the very embodiment of non-transparency. Anyone could be denounced in secret (by way of the bocca di leone), retained in secret, interrogated in secret, tried in secret, condemned in secret, imprisoned in secret, executed in secret, and their remains disposed of in secret. “Disappearances” were the modus operandi of “Venetian justice,” a phrase that has survived down to modern times as a synonym for harshly disproportionate punishment, for which Venice was notorious. The spectacularly non-transparent Council of Ten was perfectly democratic in its impunity: it had the power to take any action against any individual, regardless of rank or station.
Nothing about the Venetian justice system would pass contemporary muster, but it can also be said of Venice that its serenity was not disturbed by show trials, which routinely mar, and routinely pervert, the administration of justice in democratic republics; there was no need to publicly display Venetian power, since everyone knew and understood (and feared and respected) this power without the necessity of a vulgar display. Venetian power was famously “the iron fist in a velvet glove.” Venice not only exercised power, it did so elegantly. In this sense, Venice is not only distinct from contemporary standards of transparency, but also distinct from the theatricality of most medieval regimes, which gloried in public torture and executions as an enactment of the theater of power. Venice, of course, knew how to put on a show — what greater show is there is Europe than Carnival? — and it did engage in public executions, when the personage to be executed was sufficiently visible that their execution could serve as exemplary justice. But Venice did not need to do this to retain its power.
It is impossible to imagine any contemporary nation-state today being identified as “most serene.” Our politics is as noisy and as intrusive as our industry. The pursuit of transparency is the very embodiment of this intrusiveness, as Venice was the very embodiment of non-transparency. And in its non-transparency Venice was widely regarded as an example to be admired and emulated — indeed, its governmental structure was thought to be a nearly perfect exemplification of a republican constitution. That is, until the American and French revolutions revealed to the world a very different kind of republicanism. As such, Venice presents to us the spectacle of a political Other, drawn from within the western tradition, yet today incomprehensibly alien to us.
Venetian civilization lasted a thousand years. The city of Venice itself, with all its reminders of the heyday of Venetian civilization, endures still. The idea of The Most Serene Republic will probably last as long as human civilization lasts — at least until the next effacement of history, when civilization on the other side of prediction wall assumes some unrecognizable form that no longer looks back to terrestrial history as a point of reference.
Of what political entity extant today is this likely to be true?
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13 September 2015
In my recent presentation at Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress 2015, “What kind of civilizations build starships?” I recurred on several occasions to archaeology in the course of my exposition. More and more I have been drawing on concepts from archaeology, as it is in archaeology that we find an extant science that has come close to formulating a science of civilization. There are, at least, explicitly formulated theories of civilization in archaeology, which go much further than the unsystematic observations of historians about civilization.
In my talk I drew on archaeological definitions of civilization. Today I want to draw on another archaeological concept, the concept of an archaeological horizon, which is a concept employed pervasively throughout archaeology (as in “dark earth horizon,” for example), and, more specifically, I want to exapt the concept of an archaeological horizon for an exposition of the development of spacefaring civilization.
The term “horizon” is used pervasively in archaeology, though its usage is rarely explicitly defined. Here is an explicit definition from the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology:
horizon: Any artifact, art style, or other cultural trait that has extensive geographical distribution but a limited time span. The term, in anthropology, refers to the spread of certain levels of cultural development and, in geology, the layers of natural features in a region; in soil science, a horizon is a layer formed in a soil profile by soil-forming processes. The main meaning, however, refers to a phase, characterized by a particular artifact or artistic style that is introduced to a wide area and that may cross cultural boundaries. Provided that these “horizon markers” were diffused rapidly and remained in use for only a short time, the local regional cultures in which they occur will be roughly contemporary. The term is less commonly used now that chronometric dating techniques allow accurate local chronologies to be built. Examples of art styles that fulfill these conditions are called a horizon style-such as Tiahuanaco or Chavin. (syn. horizon style)
Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D., Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology, Springer, 2000.
And, much more briefly, here is another…
“A horizon, more like a popular fashion than a culture, can be defined by a single artifact type or cluster of artifact types that spreads suddenly over a very wide geographic area.”
David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 131.
More helpful is the discussion of horizons and traditions in Deetz’s Invitation to Archaeology. Deetz begins with a characterization of a horizon:
“The concept of an archaeological horizon is that of a set of traits which links a number of cultures over a broad area in a short time. In the Peruvian area a wide- spread art and architectural style, known as Chavin, appears at about 800 B.C. It is characterized by feline and condor motifs in the decoration of ceramics and architectural stone- work. Plotting the space-time distribution of sites containing Chavin type objects makes it clear that the spread of the ideas responsible for the style was rapid; the slope of the space-time line is quite shallow. This manifestation is known as the Chavin Horizon.”
James Deetz, Invitation to Archaeology, New York: The Natural History Press, 1967, p. 59
Contrasting horizon with tradition Deetz writes:
“…one might say that horizons are thin traditions of wide distribution, or that traditions are limited horizons of long duration. This may seem as ridiculous as the idea of the world’s largest midget, or smallest giant, but it makes and underscores the point that there should be no ﬁxed dimensions for either horizon or tradition. In fact, most space-time patterns formed by archaeological materials are neither in the true sense, since they are distributed in both dimensions to a considerable extent. The concepts of horizon and tradition are usually reserved for clear instances of extreme dimensions of time or space, usually if not always linking several cultures, and of use at the broadest level of archaeological integration.”
James Deetz, Invitation to Archaeology, New York: The Natural History Press, 1967, p. 61
As an aside, Deetz’s formulation of a tradition can be used to illuminate a definition of civilization found in the same Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology quoted above:
civilization: Complex sociopolitical form defined by the institution of the state and the existence of a distinctive great tradition.
Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D., Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology, Springer, 2000, p. 119.
When I was preparing my talk on civilization I was searching for explicit definitions of civilizations, and this is one that I considered but didn’t use as it was not quite right for my purposes. But informed by Deetz’s spatiotemporal definition of a tradition, one might get close to a quantitative conception of civilization with the “great tradition” defined in spatiotemporal terms.
An archaeological horizon could be formulated in terms of the presence of a class of artifacts, or in terms of the absence of a class of artifacts “An archaeological horizon can be understood as a break in contexts formed in the Harris matrix, which denotes a change in epoch on a given site by delineation in time of finds found within contexts.” (Wikipedia) In other words, a horizon can be formulated as the beginning or the end of some class of artifacts. One might, then, define a horizon in the most general terms possible as a particular structure of material artifacts in time. While archaeologists work with artifacts of the past, often long out of use (perhaps so long out of use that their function is difficult to identify), there is no reason we cannot extrapolate horizons to artifacts in contemporary use, or even not yet in use.
With spacefaring civilization to date we are working with very little information, so much of the horizon structure of spacefaring civilization is conjectural. If, instead, we sought to explicate the horizon structure of scientific civilization, which has been in existence much longer than spacefaring civilization (which has not even yet fully attained its first horizon), there is much more empirical data at our command. The horizons of scientific civilization are marked by artifacts — scientific instruments — but more especially by epistemic horizons. When sciences or bodies of scientific knowledge became commonplace, we have an epistemic horizon. When Newton brought to maturity the astronomical, cosmological, and physics developments of the century or more preceding his work, an epistemic horizon we call The Enlightenment was the result. Such examples could be multiplied.
The useful aspect of the concept of a horizon is that it places less emphasis upon “firsts,” which can be outliers, and instead is concerned with when an artifact becomes common. In other contexts I have formulated this in terms of demographic significance, but since the term archaeological horizon is already established in its usage, it may be better to employ “horizon.” From this perspective, the celebrated firsts of what is sometimes deceptively called “the conquest of space,” are of little importance. What counts, from the perspective of a horizon, is, “…a single artifact type or cluster of artifact types that spreads suddenly over a very wide geographic area.” For the purposes of spacefaring civilization we can substitute “wide spatial distribution” for “wide geographic area.”
Our moonshots and even our multiple probes to other planets in our solar system were outliers. They do not define a horizon of space exploration. It is arguable that now, today, with inexpensive CubeSats becoming commonplace, that we are reaching a horizon for satellite technology. This is primarily a function of cost. A CubeSat is now within reach of even small budgets. When human spaceflight eventually reaches a cost at which space travel can be inexpensive and routine, then we may achieve a human spaceflight horizon, initially to low Earth orbit (LEO). Further horizons will follow as technology improve and costs diminish.
These further horizons can be defined in terms of the gravitational thresholds that technology allows us to overcome. Previously in The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight (as well as in other earlier posts) I formulated six stages of spacefaring civilization, as follows:
Stage O spacefaring civilizations, or a planet-bound civilizations, have no capacity for spaceflight. (Pre-Sputnik civilization)
Stage I spacefaring civilizations have the kind of minimal capacity that we now possess to loft satellites and human beings into orbit, and even to visit nearby heavenly bodies such as the moon. (Sputnik and after)
Stage II spacefaring civilizations might be defined as those that have established a permanent, self-sustaining presence off the surface of the world of a given civilization’s biological origin. This could also be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-planetary travel. This is the minimal level of civilization to assure long-term survivability.
Stage III spacefaring civilizations would have achieved practical, durable, and routine interstellar travel.
Stage IV spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-galactic travel.
Stage V spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine travel in the multiverse, i.e., beyond the known universe defined by the consequences of the big bang.
While I formulated these stages of spacefaring civilizations in terms of practical, durable, and routine space travel, I see now that the way to approach these would be to identify each as a horizon of spacefaring civilization.
As noted above in relation to (relatively) cheap CubeSats, a spacefaring horizon may be achieved for automated probes before it is achieved for human beings; we are on the cusp of a satellite spacefaring horizon, when our artifacts achieve wide spatial distribution over a relatively short period of time. If this satellite spacefaring horizon is followed by a human LEO spacefaring horizon (Stage II above), cheap access to Earth orbit for human beings will open the possibility of the next wave, which would presumably be a planetary probe spacefaring horizon, followed by a human planetary spacefaring horizon (Stage III above). The expansion of terrestrial civilization into extraterrestrial space, then, may follow a pattern of an automated spacefaring horizon followed by a human spacefaring horizon.
I think it would also be useful to distinguish between initial horizons (when an artifact appears) and terminal horizons, when an artifact disappears. Perhaps archaeologists already do this, although I didn’t find any mention of such a distinction in any of the books I’ve recently skimmed, looking for discussions of horizons. Just as the emergence of a civilization would be attended by a sequence of initial horizons, the extinction of a civilization would be attended by a sequence of terminal horizons.
The extinction of a spacefaring civilization would involve the reverse sequence of terminal horizons (counting back from Stage V to Stage 0) as the spatial scope of a civilization diminished from spanning the multiverse to being represented only on a planet (not necessarily the planet on which such a civilization originated), or possibly several planets. This, in turn, suggests the interesting possibility of a multiplanetary civilization returned again to the severe limitations of planetary constraints, technically still a multiplanetary species, perhaps distributed across several star systems, but no longer an interstellar civilization in so far as they no longer interact over interstellar distances. This suggests a further distinction to be made between the interstellar presence of a species and the interstellar interaction of a species.
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6 September 2015
The events of Starship Congress 2015 at Drexel University in Philadelphia have now wrapped up. September 4th and 5th were busy days full of attending sessions and interactions with other participants. After the first day of events I gave a partial rundown on events on Paul Carr’s The Unseen Podcast in Episode 22: Report from Starship Congress. I have not yet had time write up my experiences of the congress in detail. I also did not have time to take in any of the historic sights of the city, though the weather in Philadelphia has been quite nice.
The organizers of Starship Congress — primarily Andreas Tziolas and Mike Mongo of Icarus Interstellar, but of course many others contributed to the effort — had chosen Drexel University as the venue for Starship Congress 2015 because the university hosts an active student chapter of Icarus Interstellar. The organizers emphasized that they hoped to build on the student participation in the previous Starship Congress in 2013 (cf. Day 2, Day 3, and Day 4), and this proved to be a wise decision. Student engagement was impressive. The students not only brought energy and enthusiasm, they also showcased considerable ingenuity and hard work in their presentations of their projects.
On the afternoon of the second day of the event I gave my presentation, “What kind of civilizations build starships?” (Most of the conference was streamed live on Youtube, and you can watch the entirety of my presentation there.) The organizers had generously allowed me 45 minutes to speak, so I had time to develop some points in detail. Over the past few years, and in other presentations, I have emphasized that we have no science of civilization. I took this point further in this presentation in attempting to show how discussion of civilization to date has been in terms of folk concepts, and suggested ways in which the study of civilization might be developed employing fully scientific concepts.
I drew on the work of Carnap and Hempel, so I was employing what might be characterized as a rather conservative philosophy of science, going back to the logical empiricism of the mid-twentieth century. This approach to the science of civilization might well be pursued with more recent resources in the philosophy of science, but I strongly feel the need to try to start with a blank slate, as it were, and to re-think civilization from the ground up from the perspective of systematically articulating concepts of civilization that can transform the study of civilization into a rigorous science.
Because of my preparations for my presentation and the congress I have not been posting much here. I hope to write more on Starship Congress 2015, and some of the ideas I encountered will eventually find themselves into further posts.
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A Wittgensteinian Approach to Civilization
One of my most frequently accessed posts is titled following Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus section 5.6, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” (“Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt”). I noted in Contextualizing Wittgenstein that this earlier post on Wittgenstein was posted on Reddit and as a result gained a large number of views — a larger number, at least, than my posts usually receive.
If there is a general principle that can be derived from Tractatus 5.6, one application of this general principle would be the idea that the limits of science are the limits of scientific civilization. In the same vein we could assert that the limits of agriculture are the limits of agrarian civilization (or even, “the limits of agriculture are the limits of biocentric civilization”), and the limits of technology are the limits of technological civilization, and so forth. Another way to express this idea would be to say, the limits of science are the limits of industrial-technological civilization, in so far as our industrial-technological civilization belongs to the genus of scientific civilizations.
Recently I have taken up the problem of scientific civilizations in Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization, Types of Scientific Civilization, Suboptimal Civilizations, Addendum on Suboptimal Civilizations, David Hume and Scientific Civilization, The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization, and Addendum on the Stages of Civilization, inter alia. None of this, as yet, is a systematic treatment of the idea of scientific civilization, though there are many ideas here that can some day be integrated into a more comprehensive synthesis.
What does it mean to live in a scientific civilization constrained by the limits of science? One of the points that I sought to make in my earlier post on Tractatus 5.6 was a scientific interpretation of Wittgenstein’s aphorism, acknowledging that the different idioms we employ to think about the world involve different conceptions of the world. In that post I wrote, “…scientific theories often broaden our horizons and allow us to see and to understand things of which we were previously unaware. But a scientific theory, being a particular idiom as it is, may also limit us, and limit the way we see the world.” This is part of what it means to be constrained by the limits of science: our scientific idioms constrain the conceptual framework we use to understand ourselves and our civilization.
Significantly in this context, different scientific idioms are possible. Indeed, distinct sciences are possible. We have had an historical succession of scientific idioms, which could also be called a succession of distinct sciences — something that could be presented as a Wittgensteinian formulation of Thomas Kuhn — according to which one scientific paradigm has replaced another over time. There is also the unrealized possibility of different origins of science, and different developmental pathways of science, in different civilizations. This is an idea I explored in Types of Scientific Civilization.
A civilization might develop science in a different way than science emerged in terrestrial history. A civilization might begin with a different mathematical formalism or a different logic. Perhaps logic itself might begin with the kind of logical pluralism we know today, which would contrast sharply with the logical monism that has marked most of human history. Different sciences might develop in a different order. The ancient Greeks developed an axiomatic geometry, but no scientific biology. But the idea of natural selection is, in itself, no more difficult than the idea of axiomatic geometry, and could have developed first.
A civilization might fail to develop axiomatic geometry and instead develop a scientific biology in its earliest history — its equivalent of our classical antiquity — and this kind of early biological knowledge would probably take agricultural civilization in a profoundly different direction. There may be (somewhere in the universe) scientific agrarian civilizations that are qualitatively distinct from both agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and industrial-technological civilization. Thus the developmental sequence of sciences in a civilization — which sciences are developed in what order, and to what extent — will shape the scientific civilization that eventually emerges from this sequence (if it does in fact emerge). Is this sequence an historical accident? That is a difficult question that I will not attempt to answer at present.
There are, then, many possibilities for scientific civilizations, and we have not, with the history of terrestrial civilizations, fully explored (much less exhausted) these possibilities. But scientific civilizations also come with limitations that are intrinsic to scientific knowledge. In my Centauri Dreams post, “The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight,” I argued that the science of industrial-technological civilization, essentially narrowed by its participation in the STEM cycle that drives our civilization, is riddled with blind spots, and these blind spots mean that the civilization built on this science is riddled with blind spots.
This should not be a surprising conclusion, though I suspect few will agree with me. There is a comment on my Centauri Dreams post that implies I am arguing for the role of mystical experiences in civilization; this is not my purpose or my intention. This is simply a misunderstanding. But, in fact, the better I am understood probably the less likely it will be that others will agree with me. In another context, in A Fly in the Ointment, I argued that science is a particular branch of philosophy — that philosophy also known as methodological naturalism — which subverts the view (predictably prevalent in industrial-technological civilization) that if philosophy has any legitimacy at all, it is because it is a kind of marginal science in its own right. More often, philosophy is simply viewed as a kind of failed science.
Philosophy is not a kind of science. Science, on the contrary, is a kind of philosophy. This is not a common view today, but that is my framework for interpreting and understanding scientific civilization. It follows from this that a philosophical civilization would not necessarily be a kind of scientific civilization (the philosophy of such a civilization might or might not be the philosophy that we identify as science), but that our scientific civilization is a kind of philosophical civilization.
Philosophy is a much wider field of study, and it is from philosophy that we can expect to address the blind spots of science and the scientific civilization that has grown from science. So the limits both of science and scientific civilization can be addressed, but only from a more comprehensive perspective, and that more comprehensive perspective is not possible from within scientific civilization.
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15 August 2015
In a series of posts I started last summer, A Century of Industrialized Warfare, I reflected on some of the significant 100 year anniversaries of the First World War. There are many more centennials yet to come. There is, in fact, almost a century of centennials from a century of almost continuous warfare.
Many have made the claim that the First and Second World Wars were one war with a twenty year hiatus (to rearm and regroup) ever since Marshal Ferdinand Foch, upon seeing the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, summarily announced, “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” (Foch was not one of those, like Keynes, who saw the terms as too harsh; Foch was disturbed that Germany was not completely dismembered as nation-state.) This reasoning can be extrapolated beyond the First and Second World Wars, which was followed immediately by the Cold War, and so on. If we make this extrapolation, we have a period of armed conflict rivaled in its duration only by the Hundred Years’ War.
The Hundred Years’ War was a construction of later historians: no one in the fourteenth and fifteenth century called the series of conflicts between the English and the French the “Hundred Years’ War,” and no one today calls the series of conflicts triggered by the First World War the “Second Hundred Years’ War,” though we can use the second term with as much justification as the first. Our periodizations are devices that we employ to attempt to help us better understand the past. While our metaphysical ambition is to carve nature at the joints, it is not clear that we can do this with history, i.e., that there is an intrinsic metaphysical structure to history. And we might understand the past century better if we understood out time as the Second Hundred Years’ War.
As the Hundred Years’ War is divided into a periodization of the Edwardian Era War (1337–1360), the Caroline War (1369–1389), and the Lancastrian War (1415–1453), so too we can divide the Second Hundred Years’ War into World War One, World War Two, The Cold War… and then whatever historians will eventually call our present stage of instability consisting of a series of Balkan wars, Persian Gulf wars, Central Asian wars, and the “War on Terror.” In both cases — that is to say, in both Hundred Year wars — the outcome of each major conflict created the conditions for the conflict to follow, and follow they did, with a dreary inevitability.
If the First Hundred Years’ War was about who would control the largest kingdom on the European continent (i.e., France), the Second Hundred Years’ War is about a political settlement in the context of industrial-technological civilization, when civilization is global. In other words, the Second Hundred Years’ War is about who will control the planet. This was already implicit in the geopolitics that led up to the First and Second World Wars, specifically, in Mackinder’s doctrine (sometimes called The Geographical Pivot of History) that, “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” (Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality, p. 150)
I am not defending Mackinder’s view, which is still today discussed by geostrategists; I have observed elsewhere that Mackinder’s focus on land power was balanced by Alfred Thayer Mahan’s focus on sea power. The world-island, after all, is situated in the world-sea, and either can be a pathway to global dominion. But, really, this is not very interesting any more. No one talks about world dominion in explicit terms these days (except for villains in James Bond films), while the practical and pragmatic approaches to global power projection no longer look like Mackinder (or Mahan).
Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the global political system, which cannot avoid being global today because of the way all civilizations are crowded up against each other, seeks an equilibrium, and an equilibrium would be some global settlement of power relationships that would allow for an internal security regime in each nation-state and an external security regime that minimized conflict and facilitated trade and commerce. If this is what “global dominion” means today, so be it. Perhaps you would prefer to call it peace. Whatever you call it, this is what it will take to end the Second Hundred Years’ War.
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A Century of Industrialized Warfare
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14 August 2015
For the past several years I have been writing commentaries on Eid ul-Fitr messages supposedly coming from Mullah Mohammad Omar. Shortly after the last Eid message, it was confirmed the Mullah Omar had been dead for about two years. At least the last three Eid messages carried on the “Voice of Jihad,” the official website of the Afghan Taliban, had appeared after Mullah Omar was dead. I had been commenting on the words of a ghost. But who had been putting words in the mouth of a ghost?
Apparently, a small claque of Taliban leaders, who knew Mullah Omar was dead, played on Mullah Omar’s nearly legendary elusiveness, and pretended that Mullah Omar was still alive, sequestered from the Afghan Ummah, but still issuing annual statements, like a distant and stern father-figure to the the frontline fighters continuing to expend their lives in pursuit of the Taliban’s long game: ouster of the “puppet” regime in Kabul and the ultimate return to power of Mullah Omar and the Taliban.
One wonders how the senior Taliban who were “in the know” on Mullah Omar’s death thought they could keep this secret. There is no sign that the Taliban leadership prepared the people of Afghanistan — essentially, their constituency — for the leadership transition, and the very public defections from the Taliban that occurred immediately after Mullah Omar’s death was confirmed makes it clear that many in the Taliban leadership were not “in” on the secret of Mullah Omar’s death. The most public defection from the Taliban was the departure of Syed Tayyab Agha, head of the Taliban office in Qatar, who resigned his position citing the method by which Mullah Mansour was chosen to follow Mullah Omar.
Significantly, Syed Tayyab Agha specifically noted that the choice of Mullah Mansour was made outside Afghanistan. This is an important but easily over-looked detail. The Afghan Taliban have, throughout their existence, been focused on Afghanistan, and are not to be conflated with transnational Jihadist groups. There is both an ideological and, for want of a better term, a temperamental difference between the Taliban, on the one hand, and on the other hand, ISIS and Al-Qaeda — the latter two very different from each other, but both also very different from the Taliban.
Afghanistan has been torn by warring factions since the end of the Soviet occupation. The Soviet occupation provided a rallying point that was a temporary focus of unification, but with the Soviet pull-out the factions turned on each other. The Taliban was the only organization that could establish an internal security regime within Afghanistan, with the exception of a small territory where the Northern Alliance held out. Mullah Omar was part of the fight against the Soviet occupation and part of the struggle to assert control over Afghanistan in the post-Soviet chaos. If there were anything like an Afghan nation-state, one would say the Mullah Omar was the paradigmatic nationalist seeking to lead his nation against the imposition of a foreign power, regardless of whether that power was the USSR or the US.
Thus Mullah Omar was there from the beginning of the Taliban, thoroughly a product of the Afghan milieu, and in the essentially feudal culture of Afghanistan, the personal loyalty that many Taliban had to Mullah Omar mattered. It mattered in a way that citizens of contemporary nation-states can scarcely conceive, because this concept of personal loyalty to a warlord is no longer what binds together most societies in the age of the nation-state.
Afghanistan is not a nation-state. The government in Kabul aspires to be a nation-state and to join in the global marketplace as an equal, but these concepts are foreign to most of the people of Afghanistan. The Afghans are not stupid; they are from another culture; they do not understand the culture of the nation-state system in the same way that we have forgotten the culture of feudal obligation. We aren’t stupid either; we’re just from another culture. Our mutual incomprehension is a product of forces larger than any individual, forces that have been incubating in global history for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years.
One of the most profound errors of geostrategy on the part of the US in the Cold War was to fail to recognize the national aspirations of people like Ho Chi Minh, who were communists primarily for opportunistic reasons. During the Cold War, if you wanted to stage a struggle of national liberation, you knew that you could get arms and military assistance, because if the one side refused you, the other side would likely accommodate you. There were as many opportunistic democrats as there were opportunistic communists.
It is all too easy to make the opposite mistake with the Taliban, and to identify them as nationalists when it is, rather, their ideological position that defines them. The Taliban are not opportunists. It is also ideology that defines Al Qaeda and ISIS, and in each case these ideologies are distinct. While both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban emerged from the guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation, the two organizations were and are profoundly different. The Taliban are Afghan, while Al-Qaeda is a transnational Jihadist organization, with financing from the wealth of the Arab world and volunteers from all over the Islamic world. Al-Qaeda was to Afghanistan as the Lincoln Brigades and other foreign fighters were to the Spanish Civil War. Al-Qaeda thought globally and acted locally; the Afghan Taliban thought locally and acted locally. Al-Qaeda were war tourists in Afghanistan.
I have read stories in the press over the last few weeks that have characterized the Taliban as being rivals with ISIS for carrying the banner of international Jihad. This is nonsense. The sphere of interests of ISIS and the Taliban overlap in a few places, but the organizations are profoundly different in outlook and structure. Elsewhere I have discussed in detail the philosophical basis of ISIS ideology. Few of any of these philosophical bases hold true for the Taliban. Regardless of what happens with Islamic state — which is actively recruiting and seeking to advance its agenda throughout the Islamic world, something foreign to the Taliban — the Taliban, as long as they are in existence as a distinct entity, will continue to seek power in Afghanistan. And I would not be surprised if there were a few ideologues within the Afghan Taliban who imagine a “Greater Afghanistan,” as there are always those who imagine such a thing. But this is not the conception that defines the movement. ISIS, on the other hand, defines itself in expansionist terms.
The continuing existence of Al-Qaeda, and the growing influence of ISIS, change the political and military context in which the Taliban pursue their traditionalist vision for Afghanistan, but they do not alter that vision. It is possible (though not likely) that the ISIS Caliphate could be so successful that it would expand over and absorb Afghanistan. One suspects, in this case, that ISIS would allow these forbidding mountains and valleys to be ruled by their traditional ruling class, and little or nothing would change in Afghanistan. Perhaps that would even be an acceptable future for the Taliban. It would be fascinating to interview some Taliban on this prospect, though, as I said, I believe it to be highly unlikely.
Al-Qaeda is now too degraded in its capabilities to figure prominently in the political or military settlement of the region. Ayman al-Zawahiri was reduced to the stunt of proclaiming his loyalty to Mullah Mansour in order to try to maintain the relevance of Al-Qaeda. While Al-Qaeda’s status could well change — some outside power might decide to pour money into the group to reinvigorate it as a militant proxy (possibly to counter to highly successful militant proxies of Iran, which many in the Gulf worry will be given a boost if Iranian sanctions are dropped) — I view this scenario as unlikely as that of an expansionist ISIS Caliphate absorbing Afghanistan.
With the Taliban split over the death of Mullah Omar and the rise of Mullah Mansour, what is the group to do? What is the way forward for the Taliban? Because of the Taliban are an Afghan presence, rooted in the traditions of Afghanistan, the Pakistani politicking that resulted in the appointment of Mullah Mansour is, to a certain extent (though not in an absolute sense) irrelevant to the Taliban. The Taliban still have, in large measure, the hearts and minds of the people. The Taliban can still, as Mao said, move among the people as a fish moves through the sea. This has not changed. The Taliban can continue to fight. Insurgencies can persist for very long periods of time. The example of Colombia is often cited in this connection.
The Taliban grand strategy emerges from the intensely feudal, intensely traditional, and intensely local character of the Taliban. This will not change any time soon. Peace talks held on the governmental level will not greatly change this. The failure of peace talks on a governmental level will not greatly change this. The attempt by Pakistan’s ISI to control events in Afghanistan will not greatly change this. As long as Afghanistan’s traditional culture persists, Taliban grand strategy and its long game will persist.
In earlier millennia, Afghanistan was criss-crossed by trade routes, and studded with a few influential cities. But the traditional life of the people was virtually untouched by the presence of trade and urbanization in this form. The nation-state structures that have been imposed upon the region have scarcely made any more impression on the Afghans than Silk Roads and a few wealthy cities. It is only when an industrialized economy transforms the life of peoples in isolated mountain valleys that this will change, and such a transformation will not happen any time soon.
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7 August 2015
Having provided an exposition of folk concepts in my Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress, I can move on to my motivation for thinking about folk concepts, which was to investigate the role of folk concepts in contemporary civilization, i.e., folk concepts in industrial-technological civilization, or scientific civilization, which latter seems paradoxical. How can folk concepts coexist with scientific civilization? If a civilization were truly scientific, would it not have overcome the use of folk concepts?
Scientific civilization in only about five hundred years old, and it may be divided into two portions, the period 1500-1800 (which I call Modernism without Industrialism, which is to say, the period between the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution) and the period after the industrial revolution (which marks the beginning of industrial-technological civilization, in which science is crucial to the STEM cycle, which drives this civilization).
I have considered the nature of scientific civilization in David Hume and Scientific Civilization and The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization, Addendum on the Stages of Civilization and The Perfectly Scientific Man: A Platonic Thought Experiment (and I am, additionally, working on several posts intended as further explorations of the idea of scientific civilization). To date I have only scratched the surface, and haven’t provided a sustained exposition of the idea of scientific civilization. This is a rich vein of inquiry for the study of civilization, and it will not be exhausted any time soon.
Paradoxical though it sounds, scientific civilization has its own folk concepts. This is because scientific civilization produces not only more refined and sophisticated sciences, but also entirely new sciences, and new sciences involve the introduction of new terms and concepts. Unprecedented developments — of which civilization itself is perhaps the most unprecedented development in human history — demand that we formulate a theoretical framework to intellectually assimilate them. Sometimes the technical and engineering capacities of industrial-technological civilization produce new entities, or new classes of entities (this is a source of planetary constraints on civilization, in the form of what I call the ontic constraint), and no established theoretical framework exists to assimilate these discoveries. Truly novel phenomena demand the formulation of a truly novel theoretical framework.
Eliminativism (as in, e.g., eliminative materialism) often takes the form of rejecting “folk” concepts as unscientific and insisting upon the replacement of folk concepts with scientific concepts. However, such a replacement of folk by scientific concepts can only work if there is a science of the phenomena to be explained. Where we possess no science, or only an inchoate science — I have many times observed that there is no science of civilization, and no science of consciousness — the elimination of folk concepts leaves us with little or nothing. Thus in the period of time during which a science is developing, and folk concepts and scientific concepts overlap, a scientific theory that incorporates folk concepts is less imperfect (because more adequate) than an inchoate scientific theory that attempts to entirely eliminate folk concepts ad initio.
Folk concepts can contribute to the adequacy of a conceptual framework because they typically draw upon what Michael Polanyi called tacit knowledge, i.e., what we know, but which we cannot account for knowing, or say how we know what we know. Recognizing faces in a crowd is a paradigm case of tacit knowledge. Human beings are very good at recognizing individual faces, but very poor at describing faces or explaining how they recognize a face. Tacit knowledge might also be characterized as knowledge below the level of formalization, or even knowledge below the level of conscious awareness.
While the rejection, elimination, and replacement of folk concepts is often justified, this rejection is often too sweeping in its elimination when it becomes a pretext to eliminate not only the admittedly imperfect and informal folk concept, but also the tacit knowledge upon which the folk concept is based. From a scientific standpoint, it is easy to dismiss tacit knowledge, as it resists precisely the formalization that science would like to impose upon all bodies of knowledge. There is often an attitude in the sciences that that which cannot be made fully explicit can be safely ignored, and there are good grounds for this, as the subtlety of tacit knowledge cannot be subjected to experimentation, repeatability, or public verification. Nevertheless, this is one of the sources of intuition that ultimately lies at the base of all the sciences. New sciences especially are reliant on tacit knowledge.
There is often an imperfect fit between our native intuitions and the ideas of a new science; new sciences often involve concepts that are counter-intuitive, and we must make the effort to formulate new intuitions, and arrive at new ways of thinking about familiar phenomenon. In some cases, our intuitions are utterly silent on questions posed by a new science or a new mode of inquiry, so that we must develop our intuitive competency as we proceed, which is a process that can take generations. In the meantime, folk concepts about new developments, about new phenomena, and even about new sciences grow up like weeds.
Even in the midst of unprecedented developments, life goes on, and since the ordinary business of life goes on, we discuss unprecedented developments in the ordinary language of ordinary life. Ordinary language may be defined in terms of its reliance upon folk concepts. However, ordinary language changes, albeit slowly. With the passage of sufficient time, ordinary language changes significantly. The ordinary language spoken in the context of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization probably differed markedly from the ordinary language spoken in the context of industrial-technological civilization. Each kind of civilization has its distinctive kind of ordinary language. (If you like, you may consider this a weak formulation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, though that is not how I would characterize it; I mention the hypothesis here only because I am certain that some readers will assimilate the argument made here to it.)
In Scientific Curiosity and Existential Need I argued that the distinctive character of scientific mystery (in contradistinction to the eschatological mysteries that seem to satisfy the longings of existential need) is that scientific mysteries are never final. Scientific knowledge in a scientific civilization is in a state of continual growth. Scientific mysteries are eventually solved, but they are at the same time replaced by ever new scientific mysteries, so that there always are and always will be scientific mysteries, but scientific mystery is not some impossible, ineffable truth about the universe that can never admit of rational knowledge. Scientific mysteries admit of definitive answers, and the phenomenon of scientific mystery mystery remains with us only because new scientific mysteries always appear beyond the mysteries that have been resolved.
This sense of there always being a further scientific mystery is well illustrated by a famous quote attributed to Isaac Newton:
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Sir David Brewster, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, 1855, Volume II., Ch. 27.
The same structure of scientific knowledge that means that there are always new scientific mysteries also means that there will always be science on the frontier of knowledge, and science on the frontier of knowledge will always, at least in its inchoate beginnings, have recourse to folk concepts, however far in advance of contemporary knowledge these folk concepts may be.
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6 August 2015
Five Years ago on 06 August 2010 I wrote The Atomic Age Turns 65, on the 65th anniversary of the use of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan — the first atomic bomb of the first nuclear war. Now, five years later, the Atomic Age has reached its three score and ten, and we have another five years of historical perspective on what it means to live in the Atomic Age.
In this previous post on the 65th anniversary of the Atomic Age I discussed the failure of philosophers to think clearly about nuclear weapons and nuclear war. This is no more glaring that the failure of politicians, or of any other class of society, except that it is less forgivable in philosophers, because philosophers should be more aware of political and ideological bias, and therefore better able to avoid it. The few individuals who did think clearly about nuclear weapons and nuclear war — most notably Herman Kahn — were often demonized for “thinking the unthinkable.” How many years, how many decades, how many generations before we can think dispassionately about our ability to destroy ourselves?
While the atomic bombs that ended the Second World War did not trigger an age of atomic warfare (at least, not yet), it did trigger a period of the development of atomic weapons, and this led to a period of intensive atomic testing that continued until the pace of atomic testing was slowed somewhat by the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The period of the most intensive testing of nuclear weapons corresponded with the period of the highest tensions of the Cold War. This suggests that the Cold War not only consisted of proxy wars in Third World nation-states, but also the proxy war of nuclear testing — nuclear warfare at one remove. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty has not come into force officially, but most nation-states have chosen to abide by its provisions nevertheless. The only nuclear tests in recent years — in recent decades — have been those of India, Pakistan, and North Korea, all of which were undertaken in the face of significant international disapproval. The Cold War is over and nuclear weapons testing has slowed to a trickle.
We are very slowly and gradually putting the nuclear age behind us. Once nuclear weapons were developed, it was often said that the nuclear genie could not be put back in the bottle. That is true, in so far as we have the knowledge and the technology of nuclear weapons. Moreover, each year this knowledge and technology is more widely distributed and more available. Now deliverable nuclear weapons are seventy years old; in another ten years, nuclear technology will be eighty years old, and not long after that nuclear weapons technology will “celebrate” a centennial. Assuming that human civilization remains intact, the knowledge and the technology will not only remain intact, but will be more widely available than ever. Nevertheless, we have reason to hope that we can exercise rational control over our nuclear weapon technology and avoid a second nuclear war. This hope is certainly not a certainty, but it is based on evidence, and there are historical parallels that could be adduced.
If we had cultivated the ability to think clearly and dispassionately about nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare instead of heaping shame, scorn, and disapproval on those who did so — driving it underground into secret military and government think tanks — we would be capable of a more clear-headed assessment of where we are seventy years into the Atomic Age. Instead, we have the hopeful record of controlling this technology coupled with silence and discomfiture with plain speaking when it comes to this hopeful accomplishment — a mixed record, but at least a mixed record that is consistent with the continuing existence of our civilization.
I expect this mixed record to continue, despite provocations. If we can prevent nuclear war for seventy years, we can continue to prevent it for another seventy years. If, despite the desire of many nation-states to possess nuclear weapons, non-proliferation efforts can make this possession expensive and difficult, we can continue to make proliferation expensive and difficult. More nation-states will join the “nuclear club,” but they will do so with untested arsenals, knowing that their conventional weaponry is probably more effective and does not involve pariah status in the international community. And we have to diffuse the tension the constant and continual low-level conventional fighting that is taking place around the world. This may sound like a less-than-ideal, less-than-optimal nuclear future, even a cynical future, but it is, again, a nuclear future consistent with the continued existence of civilization. And until we think our way through to clarity about nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare, this remains the closest to an ideal and optimal future that we can reasonably hope to have.
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