Thursday


Like the street battles between communists and Freikorps in the Weimar Republic, now we have street battles between Antifa and the Alt-Right.

It is fascinating to observe when the most extreme and polarized political movements within a single society have basic attitudes in common, and we see this today in the industrialized world in the opposition of the far right and the far left. In both Europe and North America (where industrialized society has reached its furthest point of development), the far left (primarily represented by social justice ideologues) and the far right (primarily represented by the Alt-Right and neoreaction) are both explicitly identitarian movements. That is to say, the most polarized elements of our polarized political system are not antithetical movements, but rather are different responses to the same perceived social and political crises. And even these different responses have important elements in common, namely, the mobilization of identity as a political force.

Political scientists have probably underestimated the power of identity as a force in society, and by this I mean identity in the abstract. Nationalism is a particular case of an identitarian movement, and nationalism has long been a powerful political force. But once we understand that nationalism is but one form of identity among many other possible forms of identity, we begin to see that other identity movements can be equally as powerful. Human society came of age on the basis of tribal identity, so that the mechanisms of identity are bred into our evolutionary psychology. How human beings form tribes within the diversity of industrialized society is one of the central problems to which both the far right and the far left are responding.

It is also significant that the contemporary far right and the far left are quite recent incarnations of perennial political orientations. Both are not only reactions against perceived social and political crises, but moreover reactions against mainstream representatives of these perennial political orientations. The institutionalized right and the institutionalized left are both wealthy, powerful, and moribund. They possess capital in abundance — financial capital, political capital, and social capital — but they are no longer in touch with the masses who were once the rank-and-file of the Republican and Democratic political parties in the US. Richard Spencer of the Alt-Right calls the institutionalized right “Conservatism Inc.” He is right to say this. The same could be said of “Liberalism Inc.” Each is an institutional mirror of the other, just as the far right and far left are non-institutionalized reactions against the complacency of Conservatism Inc. and Liberalism Inc.

Due to the split between institutionalized and reactionary ideologies, there is a great deal of confusion among those who do not understand who they are fighting. Because ideologically motivated individuals generally do not make an effort to understand the ideology to which they are opposed, the far right fails to understand the split between Liberalism Inc. and the the social justice ideologues, and the far left fails to understand the split between the Conservatism Inc. and the Alt-Right. There are exceptions on both sides, of course, but understanding The Other is rarely a priority when ideological factions are engaged in street battles. True believers in the institutions (in this case, party institutions, thus representatives of what I once called a third temperament) hope to co-opt the energy and enthusiasm of the recent reactionary ideologies, without fully understanding that these ideologies mean to replace them rather than to become a new generation of foot-soldiers.

In addition to being identitarian and reacting to institutional complacency, both far right and far left are what I will call “localist” movements. (I would say that both are “völkisch” movements, though that is a loaded term because of its association with Nazism.) What do I mean by “localism”? I mean a movement devoted to a focus on small local community groups and their activities. Both right and left come to their localist orientation by way of a long pedigree.

The localist left emerged from the “small is beautiful” idea of the early 1970s, which in turn had emerged from the Hippie movement and the largely unsuccessful movement to form communes as a social alternative to bourgeois life (few of these communes were viable, and most fell apart). The Hippie movement can, in turn, be traced to the Wandervogel, which is its common root with the localist right. While the localist left imagines small tightly-knit communities tending organic gardens and forgoing fossil fuels, the localist right also imagines small tightly-knit communities, but communities which derive their connection to a particular geographical region in virtue of history and ethnicity. Both far right and far left condemn globalization in the strongest terms, and this stems from the common interest in local community life.

How are identity, reaction against complacency, and localism — albeit interpreted in very different ways by right and left — indicative of the common perception of social and political crises of the contemporary world? The crises of the contemporary world are crises of transition as the ongoing industrial revolution forces social change upon societies that did not choose social change, but which had social change foisted upon them by their embrace of economic and technological change. As it happens, a society cannot fully embrace the economic growth and prosperity that follows from the cultivation of science, technology, and engineering without also experiencing collateral changes to their social fabric. Industrialization implies the emergence of an industrial society, that is to say, a society shaped by industrialization and which contributes to the continued growth of industrialization.

I have been writing about the social trends of industrialized society since the earliest days of this blog, beginning with Social Consensus in Industrialized Society. My emphasis upon the industrial revolution seems dated, but I don’t think that we can overemphasize the transformation the industrialization forces upon wider society. The anomie and lack of community in industrialized society has been discussed ad nauseam. It has become a commonplace, but it is commonplace for a good reason: it is true. When commonplace truths become tiresome there is sometimes a reaction against them, as those who study social trends would like to talk about something else, but changing the subject does not change the structure of society.

Many of those who write about society would prefer, it seems, to iterate the industrial revolution, attempting to establish periodizations of a second industrial revolution, a third industrial revolution, or even a fourth industrial revolution. I believe that this is short-sighted. The process of industrialization began less than 250 years ago. Macrohistorical changes on this scale take hundreds of years to play out. The most recent productions of our high technology industrial base should be seen as simply the latest evolution of the industrial revolution that began with steam engines in the late eighteenth century, and which will continue to evolve for another two or three hundred years.

We live not merely in a society in a state of transition, but in the midst of an entire civilization in transition. Industrialized civilization is new and unprecedented in history, and it is still taking shape. We do not yet know what its final form will be (if it has a final form — I have pointed out elsewhere that it may be preempted before it comes to maturity). These civilizational-scale changes drove the polarization of ideologies in the middle of the twentieth century, which resulted in a totalitarianism of the right and a totalitarianism of the left, and these same unresolved civilizational-scale changes are driving the polarization of contemporary ideologies, which seem to be headed toward an identitarianism of the right and an identitarianism of the left.

In my above-mentioned post, A Third Temperament, I made a distinction between social institutions that are biologically based and social institutions that are not biologically based. This framework could be employed to differentiate the identitarianism of the right and the left. Right identitarians ultimately defer to biologically based social institutions, especially the family and the ethno-state; left identitarians defer to non-biologically based social institutions, and so exemplify a voluntaristic conception of identity, and in exemplifying voluntaristic identity they also exemplify the idea of a “propositional nation” (cf. the work of Thomas Fleming) and the civic nationalism that would be associated with a propositional nation.

A more detailed analysis of human identity, its sources, and its significance, might help us to make sense of this identitarian conflict. At the present time, passions are running high, and it is difficult to be dispassionate and disengaged in this kind of social milieu. These passions, if not checked, may snowball as they did in the middle of the twentieth century, leading to conflict on a global scale, with its attendant death, destruction, and suffering on a global scale. I think that humanity would, as a species, be better off if we could avoid another such episode. For my part, I will continue to suggest lines of analysis and social compromises that might defuse the tension and allow the passions to cool off, even if only temporarily. If this can be done, there is a possibility that we can negotiate the outcome of this conflict without having the fight to determine the outcome. Neither of these options is optimal, but I think we are far beyond the point of an optimal solution to the social problems posed by the industrial revolution.

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Tuesday


In several posts I have argued that the structure of civilization consists of an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project, and that, moreover, the civilization extant today consists of an industrial economic infrastructure joined to a technical intellectual superstructure by the central project that we know as the Enlightenment project. Contemporary civilization as so defined dates back only to the 18th century, when the Enlightenment project emerged as a reaction to the carnage of the religious wars in Europe. The three pillars of modernity — the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and political revolutions — all burst the bounds of traditional feudal societies, and ever since the world has been trying to master the forces unleashed by these revolutions.

The American revolution was the first and the most successful of the political revolutions that swept aside traditionalism, feudalism, and aristocracy. (Sometimes I think of the American revolution as being, in this sense, like Augustus, who was the first of the Roman emperors, and arguably the best of the lot. After that, it was all downhill.) The unique confluence of circumstances that made the American revolution successful, both militarily and politically, included unlikely revolutionaries who were property owners, the pillars of colonial society, and also well-read, as Enlightenment gentlemen were expected to be.

There was nothing democratic about the mostly aristocratic founding fathers, other than their desire to found a new kind of political order drawing upon the best of ancient Greece (democracy) and the best of ancient Rome (republicanism). The founding of a new political order required a revolutionary war to separate the United States from the British Empire, but it also involved a profound intellectual challenge to conceptualize a new political order, and this challenge had already begun in Europe, where the Enlightenment originated.

The Enlightenment produced a large number of top-notch philosophers whom we still read today, and with profit: their insights have not yet been exhausted. Also, these Enlightenment philosophers were highly diverse. They disagreed sharply with one another, which is the western way. We disagree and we debate in order to analyze an idea, much as an alibi is dissected in a courtroom.

William Blake, who represents the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, wrote a poem criticizing Voltaire and Rousseau in the same breath:

MOCK on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Never mind that Voltaire and Rousseau quarreled and represented polar opposite ends of the Enlightenment. When Voltaire received a copy of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, he responded in a letter to Rousseau: “I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it.” But perhaps this was Blake’s intention to invoke opposite spirits of the Enlightenment, given his appreciation of antitheses as expressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — both Voltaire and Rousseau were to be condemned for their mockery of tradition.

If these quarreling Enlightenment thinkers were alive today, feuding bitterly with each other, the popular press would say that the Enlightenment was obviously burnt out and was now “tearing itself apart.” Soon, the pundits would presumably say, we could go back to the comforts of monarchy and a universal church as though nothing had happened, the whole episode of the Enlightenment having been something like the social equivalent of a bad dream.

Strangely enough, we find a view much like this on both the far left and the far right today. The far left, as represented by the philosophers of the Frankfurt school (the dread prophets of “cultural Marxism”), rejected the Enlightenment (cf. Theory from the ruins: The Frankfurt school argued that reason is dangerous, mass culture deadening, and the Enlightenment a disaster. Were they right? by Stuart Walton), just as neoreactionaries reject the Enlightenment by contrasting the 18th century Enlightenment with the “Dark Enlightenment,” the latter growing organically out of the counter-Enlightenment of J. G. Hamann, Joseph de Maistre, and others.

Like Blake’s dual condemnation of Voltaire and Rousseau, the dual condemnation of the Enlightenment by both left and right is a condemnation of two distinct faces of the Enlightenment. Partly this is a result of the ongoing debate over the proper scope and application of reason, but I think that the deeper issue is the failure of western civilization to overcome the chasm separating its twin ideals of freedom and equality, which are two faces of Enlightenment morality.

Naïvely we want these two ideals to be fully realized together within democratic institutions; when we grow out of our naïveté we usually see these ideals in conflict, and assume that any attempt to mediate between the two must ultimately take the form of a compromise in which we lose some freedom in exchange for equality or we lose some equality in exchange for freedom. But the nineteenth century, which produced the counter-Enlightenment, also produced Hegel, and Hegel would have pointed out that a dialectic, such as the dialectic between freedom and equality, will only be resolved when we transcend the antithesis by a synthesis that is more comprehensive than either ideal in isolation.

When we consider the absolutizing tendency of political rhetoric we would not be at all surprised to see Hegelian formulations like, “The absolute is freedom,” later to be countered by, “The absolute is equality.” Even if such things are not stated so explicitly, it is clear from the behavior of many who set themselves up as the arbiters of American values that they typically take the one or the other as an absolute ideal, and absolutization of one or the other prevents us from seeing the more comprehensive synthesis in which freedom and equality can not only coexist, but in which each can extend the other.

The problem of freedom and equality is the equivalent for social thought of the problem of general relativity and quantum theory for physics. Some are certain that the solution to their integration lies on one side or the other of the divide — there must be quantum gravity because all of physics is now formulated in quantum terms — but the truth is that, at our present stage of intellectual development, the solution eludes us because we have not yet achieved the intuitive breakthrough that will allow us to see the world as one and whole.

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Friday


In my recent post Mass Extinction in the West Asian Cluster I discussed Eric H. Cline’s book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, and in that discussion I characterized the Late Bronze Age (LBA) simultaneous collapse of many civilized societies as a “mass extinction” of civilizations. In the exposition of my argument I first formulated the following idea:

“…civilization in the region likely developed in a kind of reticulate pattern, rather than in a unitary and linear manner, so that, if we were in possession of all the evidence, we might find a series of developments took place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating in a single civilization. Developments were likely distributed across the several different civilizations, and disseminated by idea diffusion until they reached all the others. This could be called a seriation of distributed development.”

This idea, as I now see, can be understood on its own as a distinctive process of complex adaptive systems, applicable not only to civilizations, but also to a range of emergent complexities like life, consciousness, and intelligence as well.

Now I’d like to apply this idea to life, and life under the special circumstances (not presently obtaining within our own planetary system, though that may have been the case in the past) of a multi-planet ecosystem. What, then, is a multi-planet ecosystem?

When the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system was discovered, with seven smallish, rocky planets tightly orbiting a small star, the possibilities for life here were of immediate interest to astrobiologists. It has long been thought that lithopanspermia (the transfer of life between planets on rocks) may have occurred within our solar system between Venus, Earth, and Mars — all smallish, rocky planets relatively close in to the sun, and which are known to have have exchanged ejecta from collisions. With an even greater number of small rocky planets in even closer proximity, the likelihood of lithopanspermia at TRAPPIST-1 (assuming life is present in some form) would seem to be higher than in our solar system.

I already know of two papers on the possibilities of lithopanspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system, Enhanced interplanetary panspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system by Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb, and Fast litho-panspermia in the habitable zone of the TRAPPIST-1 system, by Sebastiaan Krijt, Timothy J. Bowling, Richard J. Lyons, and Fred J. Ciesla. There is also a paper about the possibilities for botany in the system, Comparative Climates of TRAPPIST-1 planetary system: results from a simple climate-vegetation model by Tommaso Alberti, Vincenzo Carbone, Fabio Lepreti, and Antonio Vecchio.

In a couple of Tumblr posts, More is Different and Yet Another Astrobiology Thought Experiment I discussed some of these possibilities of lithopanspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system. (And the same interesting TRAPPIST-1 system was also discussed on The Unseen Podcast Episode 69 — A Taste of TRAPPIST-1.)

In More is Different I wrote…

“It may well prove that more is different when it comes to planets, their biospheres, and ecosystems spanning multiple planets. Multi-planet ecologies (we can’t call them biospheres, because they would be constituted by multiple biospheres) may produce qualitatively distinct emergents based on the greater number of components of the ecosystem so constituted. Emergent complexities not possible in a planetary system like our own, with a single liquid-water world, may be possible where there are multiple such planets ecologically coupled through lithopanspermia, and perhaps through other vectors that we cannot now imagine.”

…and in Yet Another Astrobiology Thought Experiment I wrote…

“If life arose separately on several closely spaced planets, with slight biochemical differences between the distinct origin of life events on the several planets, and circumstances within that planetary system were conducive to lithopanspermia, this would mean that each of the planets would eventually have tinctures of life from the other planets, and if these varieties of life could live together without destroying each other, the mixed biospheres of multi-planetary habitable zones where there has been independent origins of life on multiple worlds would suggest a diversity of life not realized on Earth.”

If we combine the ideas of a multi-planetary ecosystem with the idea of reticulate distributed development (which I introduced in relation to civilizational development), we can immediately see the possibility of a multi-planetary ecosystem in which life remains in nearly continuous interaction across several different planets. In such a complex astrobiological context, the great macroevolutionary transitions would not necessarily need to occur all within a single biosphere. It would be sufficient that the macroevolutionary transition took place on at least one planet of the multi-planetary ecosystem, and was subsequently distributed to the other planets of the ecosystem by lithopanspermia. The result would be a seriation of distributed development, i.e., a series of developments taking place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating on a single planet, in a single biosphere. Is this even possible?

We know that microbial life is remarkably resilient, and could likely make the lithopanspermatic journey from one planet to another, but could anything more complex than microbial life make this journey? Recently Caleb A. Scharf in Complex Life: Wimpy or Tough? Complex life may be less resilient than microbial life by some measures, but it’s not necessarily cosmically delicate questions the received wisdom of assuming that eukaryotic multi-cellular life is too vulnerable and delicate to survive “hurdles of selection” — and certainly panspermia must be among the most vertiginous of such hurdles. What about, for example, if conditions were right to freeze complex cells into a still-liquid chamber within a rock, deep in a protected crevice, which then could travel to another planet with complex life intact? There must be similar vectors for panspermia of which we are unaware simply because our imagination fails us.

Obviously, such an occurrence would require many circumstances to occur in just the right order and in just the right way. When this happens for us, as human beings, we say that things are “just right,” and we invoke anthropic selection effects as an explanation, which in this case is simply a Kantian transcendental argument as applied to human beings. But conditions also might be “just right” for some other kind of life, and the antecedent circumstances for such life would be the transcendental conditions of that life — a selection effect of life as we do not know it. This wouldn’t be an “anthropic” explanation in the narrow sense, but if we formalized the concept of an anthropic explanation so that it applied to any being whatsoever, then what human beings call an anthropic explanation would be a special case among a class of explanations. And in this class of explanations would be the “just right” conditions that might lead to rapid and enhanced lithopanspermia among closely spaced planets, which allowed for the transfer to complex life among these planets.

The idea of panspermia has made us familiar with the possibility of life originating on one world and subsequently developing on another world. In case of enhanced and rapid lithopanspermia in an astrobiological context “just right” for such life, we might find life originating on one planet, achieving photosynthesis on another planet, becoming multi-cellular on a third planet, developing an endoskeleton on yet another planet, and so on, possibly continuing to develop into intelligent life. This is what I mean by a seriation of distributed evolutionary development.

If this is possible, if complex life can pass between planets in a multi-planetary ecosystem, I suspect that the rate of evolutionary change would be at least somewhat accelerated in this reticulate astrobiological context, much as the development of civilization was arguably accelerated in the west Asian cluster as a result of the continual interaction of the several civilizations of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, and the eastern Mediterranean.

And as life goes, so goes civilization predicated upon life. In a multi-planetary ecosystem, a civilization that grew up on one of these worlds would evolve in a unique astrobiological context that would shape its unique development. Darwin said that, “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” Civilizations, too, bear the lowly stamp of their biological origins. A biocentric civilization emergent within a multi-planetary ecosystem would be distinctively shaped by the selection pressures of this ecosystem, which would not be the same as the selection pressures of a single biosphere. And a technocentric civilization arising from a biocentric civilization would continue to carry the lowly stamp of its origins into the farthest reaches of its development.

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Saturday


Nicolaus Copernicus

Long ago I lost count of the number of times I have heard and read that we are now, in the present, living in a pivotal moment in history, that we are, in a sense, at the center of history, and that the present is a privileged moment in time. The idea that one is present at a pivotal moment in history, and that one’s actions in relation to the unfolding of events in the present will play a decisive role in the world that is eventually to emerge from accelerated apocalypticism, may be regarded as the Ptolemaic equivalent of historiography, i.e., an anti-Copernican idea.

Ptolemaic historiography, if there were such a thing, would insist upon the centrality of ourselves and our perspective in the history of the world, holding that we have a privileged perspective on history as a consequence of our position in time. There is a more conventional way to understand this kind of claim. In the introduction to his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel made a tripartite distinction between original history, reflective history, and philosophical history. The first of these three, original history, is characterized by histories written by individuals who have witnessed the events they are recounting, or who have heard about them first-hand. Such histories are witnesses to history in two senses: firstly in having directly observed history, and secondly in being a witness to the spirit of the time, which entails sharing the Weltanschauung of the participants in contemporaneous history. Ptolemaic history, then, is a form of original history, because it is predicated upon the centrality of contemporaneous historical actors within their own perspective of history.

Copernican historiography, on the other hand, would apply the Copernican principle in time as the Copernican principle already has been applied to space. We have a parallel to this in the cosmological principle and that Fred Hoyle called the perfect cosmological principle: the cosmological principle simpliciter was concerned with the spatial isotropy of the universe, and Hoyle’s perfect cosmological principle extended this isotropy to time as well. The “perfect cosmological principle” proposed by Hoyle, Bondi and Gold as a supplement to the cosmological principle as conventionally understood, intended to justify a steady-state model of the universe, has, like the familiar cosmological principle, been given many expositions, no two of which are precisely the same. For example, here is the formulation from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

“…the universe on average is not only homogeneous and isotropic in space but also constant in time…”

“Fred Hoyle” article in the Encyclopedia Britannica

…here is a formulation in a paper from 2015…

“…the universe should appear essentially the same to all observers in all places at all times.”

“A new perspective on steady-state cosmology: from Einstein to Hoyle” by Cormac O’Raifeartaigh and Simon Mitton

…and here is a formulation from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“…a homogeneous distribution of matter in an infinite space and throughout an infinite time.”

“Cosmology” article in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1998

Hoyle’s perfect cosmological principle was not widely accepted. The stock answer as to why Hoyle’s perfect cosmological principle was rejected has been to refer to the observational pillars of the big bang cosmology (cf. The Four Pillars of the Standard Cosmology), and most especially the discovery of the CMBR as a confirmation of big bang cosmology. But big bang cosmology ought to be understood in this context as a natural history of the universe. The confirmation of any theory that postulates that the universe has a natural history would have been sufficient to overthrow the steady-state model of the universe. The big bang model of cosmological evolution is one among a class of possible natural histories for the universe.

If we must reject the perfect cosmological principle because the universe is evolving, and therefore appears differently at different times, must we also reject the possibility of Copernican historiography as a rejection of Ptolemaic historiography? I will come back to this, but I will first consider some formulations of the Copernican principle.

Like the many versions of the perfect cosmological principle cited above, there are many formulations of the Copernican principle. For example:

Principle 1.3 (The strong Copernican principle). There are no privileged observers in the universe.”

Hans Ringström, On the Topology and Future Stability of the Universe, Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 6

The generality of this formulation is equally applicable to space and time, unless “the universe” is construed to mean the universe only in its spatial extension and not its temporal extension.

…and another formulation…

“The Copernican principle has been a fundamental tenet of modern science since the 16th century and is also a cornerstone of modern cosmology. It states that we should not live in a special region of the universe.”

“Confirmation of the Copernican principle at Gpc radial scale and above from the kinetic Sunyaev Zel’dovich effect power spectrum” Pengjie Zhang and Albert Stebbins

The implicit distinction between privileged observers and privileged spatial locations appears in formulations of both the cosmological principle and the Copernican principle. An interesting distinction might be explicitly formulated on this basis, such that a privileged spatial region might exist, but that if no observer existed at this location then no privileged observations could be made, but we will set this possibility to one side for the nonce, except to say that a universe without an observer located at a privileged region of space is only a step away from a universe with no observers at all; on the possibility of unobserved universes, and the problems that follow from this idea, cf. my recent post, The Two Senses of “Observable Universe.”

The idea of a perfect cosmological principle and the idea of a Copernican principle, when taken together, imply the possibility of a perfect Copernican principle, generalizing the conventional Copernican principle so that it applies to time as well as to space. A perfect Copernican principle would assert that we do not (or, if you prefer, and in accordance with the formulation in the Zhang and Stebbins paper, we should not) live in a special region or era of the universe.

Given that the Copernican principle follows deductively from the cosmological principle — if the universe is spatially homogeneous and isotropic, it follows that there are no privileged observers, because there are no privileged positions in the universe from which an observer might observe — the perfect Copernican principle would follow from a perfect cosmological principle, and, given material implication, the falsification of any perfect cosmological principle could not entail the truth of a perfect Copernican principle following deductively from a perfect cosmological principle.

History undertaken in the Copernican spirit, i.e., Copernican historiography, would be history written with the perfect Copernican principle as a regulative principle. If the task of history is to write cosmological history, or human history set in the context of cosmological history (as is the case with big history), we cannot do this and remain true to the perfect Copernican principle. A history of the cosmos from from a human perspective (which is the only kind of cosmological history that we, as human beings, can write), is an anthropocentric history, and views the universe entire from the privileged moment in time occupied by human beings, which is a small slice of the evolutionary history of life on Earth, which is, in turn, a small slice in the evolutionary history of the Stelliferous Era, which is, in turn, a small slice in the history of the universe entire.

Big history, then, cannot be Copernican historiography, though one could plausibly argue that big history is the eventual result of viewing the world from a Copernican perspective. I think that this is case, and perhaps I will try to argue another day for a tension within the Copernican principle that leads, on the one hand, to big history, while on the other hand not being theoretically compatible with a strict interpretation of Copernicanism. It seems that not only does the universe evolve, and that human beings evolve, but also the perspective that human beings have of the universe they inhabit also evolves, and it evolves as the interface between human life and the universe.

On a human scale of history, however, I think that the perfect Copernican principle can be applicable. That is to say, if we restrict the scope of history to the human tenure on Earth, then something like the perfect Copernican principle obtains, as no one period of history can be judged to be privileged over any other era of history, and certainly not in terms of a perspective from within history to write history. Each era has the opportunity to write what Hegel called the “original history” of itself, and each era has the opportunity to write reflective histories of its own times taken together with all previous history. In this respect, later eras survey a greater portion of the human past, and so are “privileged” in respect to having more empirical content of human history at their disposal. However, on a purely theoretical level, the expanding empirical content of human history is irrelevant.

No doubt this assertion I have just made — that the expanding empirical content of human history is irrelevant — must sound very strange to the reader (except for those who have read me very closely, and these are few and far between). Let me try to explain. Copernican historiography is integral with what I have called history in an extended sense, i.e., extending distinctively historical modes of thought beyond a exclusive engagement with the past. History in an extended sense comprises both past and future, which are formally indistinguishable (or, better, formally complementary), however radically different they are empirically. I also made this point this in my paper A Manifesto for the Study of Civilization in which I first employed the phrase history in an extended sense:

“One form that the transcendence of an exclusively historical study of civilization can take is that of extrapolating historical modes of thought so that these modes of thought apply to the future as well as to the past (and this could be called history in an extended sense).”

In order to understand history from the perspective of the perfect Copernican principle (which is a little like understanding history sub specie aeternitatis), and thus to “de-provincialize” one’s conception of history (I take the word “de-provincialize” from Carl Sagan), it is sufficient to see that unprecedented events are always occurring, always have occurred, and will continue to occur for as long as any events whatsoever continue to occur and thus continue to supply a natural history to the universe. If our presence, or our location in time (regardless of our presence), were singularly unprecedented, we would be justified in asserting that we live at a special time in history, but even a casual survey of history will show that there is always something occurring that has never before happened in the history of the universe.

Unprecedented events occur with predictable regularity. At a temporal microscale, it could be argued that each and every new moment of time is unprecedented, as the structure of the universe in no way guarantees to us that time will continue to produce new moments. On the other hand, each new moment of time is a moment among moments, one of a class of moments, the totality of which makes up the totality of time, so that each new moment may be as unique as each snowflake, but all moments are alike in the way that all snowflakes are alike. Whether or not we see moments of time or snowflakes as unique or as all the same depends upon how fine-grained an account of identity we bring to the analysis. Thus, to fully develop the idea of a Copernican historiography it will be necessary (at some point, though not today) to analyze the conception of identity one brings to history, and the scope of history we are considering at any one time. This is already implicit above when I noted that restricting our scope from cosmological history to human history may yield a valid application of the perfect Copernican principle.

An extremely fine-grained account of history will yield the absolute novelty of every moment; a less detailed overview of history would perhaps eventually yield absolute repetition, as represented by Ecclesiastes’ famous line, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Or maybe not; this is something on which I will have to think further. Ecclesiastes’ principle implies a cyclical conception of history, which I reject, but more on this another time.

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Ecclesiates’ explicit denial of novelty in the world: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

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Accelerationism

16 June 2017

Friday


Salvador Dali, ‘Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man’

In the Salvador Dali painting “Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man” (1943) we see a prophetic figure (sometimes identified as the old world) indicating to the Geopoliticus Child the emergence of a new order, represented by the New Man. Here the Earth is an egg, from which new life emerges, and the Geopoliticus Child, already itself new life, watches from safety the struggle of the New Man to be born. If one could place oneself in this archetypal context (perhaps, as a thought experiment, inhabiting the person of the Geopoliticus Child), there are at least three possibilities as to how one might respond:

one might passively observe the birth of a New Man while taking no action
one might actively seek to facilitate the birth of the New Man
one might actively seek to prevent the New Man from being born

The second of these possibilities represents what I will here term “accelerationism,” which is the conscious and purposeful effort to expedite an historical process so that the process in question will be more rapidly brought to its end or fulfillment.

The terms “accelerationism” and “accelerationist” are sometimes employed to discuss accelerating technological change, especially exponentially accelerating technological change (which is sometimes called “exponentialism”). That is not how I will use the term in this context. In the present discussion, I will use “accelerationism” to refer to the view that certain events or processes could or should “speed up” the collapse of existing political institutions, which can be understood as a good thing if one believes that the ground must be cleared in order to frame new institutions de novo.

Accelerationism in the sense of accelerating the collapse of a decaying and doomed social order is a species of contemporary apocalypticism. I have touched on apocalypticism in several posts, most recently in Vernacular Declensionism focusing on contemporary “preppers” (who were formerly called “survivalists”). There is both a vernacular apocalypticism (such as I wrote about in my “vernacular declensionism” post), which appears to be independent of political orientation, and a high-culture apocalypticism expressed in academic and scholarly terms. It has been my intention for some years to write more generally about apocalypticism, since it has become so widespread, and is rarely challenged on principle. This is a project that still remains in the offing.

It is of some interest to me that contemporary apocalypticism has become prevalent on both the left and the right, including being prevalent among the emerging political permutations that go beyond traditional left and right, and these are the social justice ideologues as the transfiguration of the left, and the alt-right and neo-reaction as the transfiguration of the right. (The most famous neoreactionary is Curtis Yarvin, blogging as Mencius Moldbug; the neoreactionary whose work I follow is Youtube vlogger Reactionary Expat, who has touched on accelerationism in some of his posts.) As I noted in my post on Vernacular Declensionism, this form of apocalypticism has mostly represented the political right, and the idea of the collapse of modern civilization easily plays into the narrative of a return to traditional forms of society. Obviously, a traditionalism predicated upon the destruction of existing social institutions is a radical form of traditionalism, but if the intention is to restore traditionalism by eliminating modernity, sooner rather than later (in virtue of accelerationism), then I guess this still counts as some form of traditionalism.

In recent years, the left has joined in vernacular apocalypticism with gusto, especially with scenarios of environmental apocalypse, to which a growing literature of popular fiction is devoted. However, there is little sign of accelerationism on the left; the hints I have glimpsed of accelerationism have been almost exclusively concerned with hastening the demise of corrupt modern society. There is, however, an important exception: anarchism. This will be discussed below. But, more importantly, accelerationism is apocalypticism with a purpose, and not apocalypticism for its own sake.

Accelerationism is not apocalypticism simpliciter, but rather it is a tactical apocalypticism, i.e., an apocalypticism only for the sake of that which will follow after the apocalypse; in other words, the means of social denudation will be justified by the end of the social order that replaces the existing social order of the present. What social order will replace the existing social order that is to be accelerated in its trajectory of self-destruction? Here there is a clear bifurcation of the visions of the future held by left and right.

It is possible that the surviving vestiges of the past will hamper the emergence of a truly new order to supplant the old order, and this could be an argument for a complete and total extirpation of the old order so that a new order can arise in its place. I am not advocating this argument, but I can see how the argument could be made. Many twentieth century communist regimes attempted to follow this line of reasoning, attempting to utterly obliterate traces of the pre-communist past (the entire Cultural Revolution in China could be framed in these terms). These efforts could be understood as an example of leftist accelerationism, attempting to more rapidly bring into being the communist utopia of a classless society.

Anarchic utopians have long held that the realization of a better social order is just around the corner if only we will take the radically appropriate action of extirpating traditional institutions that have held us back from realizing our human potential. This is an idea that goes back at least to Rousseau (for purposes of Enlightenment thought), and probably is much older. I will not, at present, attempt to elucidate a more thorough history of this idea. While utopians who project a peaceful anarchic society in the near future tend to identify with the political left, we cannot fully assimilate them to the traditional left, in the same way that we cannot fully assimilate social justice ideologues to the traditional left. I cannot, however, think of any anarchists on the right, as the right tends to believe in human fallibility (original sin), and so are distrustful of human nature released into the wild, as it were. The Rousseauvian dream is, for the right, a Hobbesian nightmare. And so we usually find the radical right looking not to anarchy, but to a reaffirmation of order, and of the symbols of order. The apocalypticism of the right thus plays into accelerationism; the two go together as tactic and strategy.

Implicit in the accelerationist view is that there are historical changes occurring anyway, albeit gradual and incremental change, and while this change must be accepted, it is nevertheless amenable to being managed. The accelerationist, then, understands that history transcends itself when an old order is replaced by a new order, so that the accelerationist may be characterized as facilitating historical transcendence, and that, moreover, the historical process must be brought to its fulfillment. In true Hegelian form, we cannot skip a step in the historical process, but not skipping a step in historical evolution does not preclude the possibility of accelerating a step so as to reduce the amount of time spent in a suboptimal form of civilization and therefore to maximize the amount of time spent in a preferred mode of civilization.

Accelerationism on the right, which I believe to be the more common form of accelerationism, understands the preferred mode of civilization to be a society dominated by traditional institutions. How are traditional institutions to be brought into being in the wake of accelerated apocalypticism? This, I think, is the nub of the problem, as the traditionalist favoring accelerationism as a means to realizing a traditional society must either hope for new traditionalist institutions to emerge, or for the reconstitution of defunct institutions. Both of these horns of the dilemma are a problem.

Part of Burke’s criticism of the French revolution was the folly of attempting to craft de novo institutions on the basis of abstract and theoretical propositions about human beings and human society, especially in the light of existing institutions that apparently are adequate to their institutional role, and which are, in some sense, the preserved wisdom of our ancestors. (The attempt to frame new institutions de novo was the source of Goya’s famous etching, “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” which was a symbolic response to the terror that followed the superficial rationalism of the French revolution; more simply, we can call this an instance of the law of unintended consequences.) Burke wrote before an evolutionary understanding of human beings and human society had been formulated, but in the light of evolutionary psychology and the slow evolution of human society we could easily reframe Burke’s critique so that any nebulous invocation of the wisdom of ancestors can be replaced by traditional institutions being the cumulative result of natural selection. This is far more satisfying from a scientific point of view.

The argument can be made that if an episode of social denudation stripped away existing social institutions, surviving human societies would revert to a model of social organization that is naturally emergent from the kind of beings that we are, that is to say, a social order predicated upon our particular cognitive endowments and cognitive biases (as well as that which I have called less than cognitive biases, which might be called “breaking human”). The traditionalist assumes, or would assume, that these naturally emergent institutions would be traditionalist institutions. In this view there is a hint of a venerable pre-modern idea, that truth lies at the source of things, so that if only we can return to the source of being, the source of our being, we will find the authentic truth that has been hidden from us by the overgrowth of thousands of years of extraneous developments that have led us far from our origins. This view stands in stark contrast to the idea that truth is a distant goal to which we aspire, and which we always approximate more closely, but which we never fully possess.

If, instead of seeking to frame traditionalist institutions de novo (which may be a contradictory idea anyway), the accelerationist seeks the reconstitution of defunct traditional institutions, I am skeptical that this effort would fare any better. There have been many times when regimes have attempted to turn back the clock on developments that did not seem to favor their vision of how things ought to be, but I cannot think of any of these attempts that were successful. Old or traditional institutions transplanted into new circumstances will neither function as these traditional institutions functioned, nor will they remain true to the tradition from which they are drawn. The same logic is to be found in arguments over the historically informed performance (HIP) movement in music: can we ever truly make our instruments and performances sound like those of the past, or must our contemporaneous recreations always be performed with modern instruments in a modern setting? This is an interesting debate, and many books of musicology have been devoted to the HIP controversy. Perhaps the discussion of the accelerationist reconstitution of defunct traditionalist institutions could learn something from this discussion.

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Plate 43 of Goya’s Los Caprichos series of etchings: ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.’

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Thursday


From ‘Big Bang Discovery Opens Doors to the ‘Multiverse”

The observable/observed distinction

We can make a distinction between observable universes that are, in fact, observed, and observable universes that, while observable in principle, are not actually observed in fact. Thus, the set of all observable universes may be larger than the set of all universes actually observed, just as the set of all habitable planets is almost certainly larger than the set of all planets that are actually inhabited.

There are many parallels between the observable/observed and inhabitable/inhabited distinctions, and this is because this is, in each case, a modal distinction between potentiality and actuality. For a universe to be observable is for it to be potentially an object of perception, and for a universe to be observed is for it to be actually an object of perception. If “observation” is taken to include not only perception (which might be unknowing and unreflective, i.e., not self-aware) but also conception, we can revise these formulations so that some universe is potentially or actually both an object of perception and an object of thought.

But the observable/observed and inhabitable/inhabited distinctions are even more closely related than both being particular cases of potentiality vs. actuality; an observable universe is a habitable universe, and an observed universe is an inhabited universe. The universe (or a universe), then, is a generalization of a planet, so that in studying the habitable/inhabited distinction where it concerns planets, we are studying the question of observable/observed universes in miniature.

In the case of habitability (i.e., the habitable/inhabited distinction), we know the confusion that this routinely causes. With the increasing number of announcements of exoplanet discoveries, there have been an increasing number of confused accounts which imply that a planet of the right size found within a habitable zone is not just potentially habitable (arguably this formulation is redundant, and it should be sufficient to say “habitable”), but that it is, or must be, inhabited. Exoplanet scientists and astrobiologists are not guilty of this conflation, but accounts of their work in the legacy media make this conflation with regularity.

Perhaps because we see our near neighbors Venus and Mars, both smallish rocky planets like Earth, and both more-or-less in the habitable zone, we can easily understand that a planet that has the right conditions for life does not necessarily host life: these planets are habitable but not inhabited. We can bring the habitable/inhabited distinction home and understand it in human terms, but the observable/observed distinction, especially when applied to the universe entire, is likely to elude us. Moreover, the idea of an empty universe, that is to say, an entire universe without intelligent observers (observers who can both perceive the world and form a conception of what they perceive), is likely to strike many as a bit bizarre, if not absurd.

The Anthropic Cosmological Principle

Sometimes the idea that an empty universe is absurd is made explicit, or nearly so. John Wheeler is credited with saying, “A universe without an observer is not a universe at all.” In fact, Wheeler didn’t write these exact words, but the idea is pervasively present in his exposition of the anthropic cosmological principle. To give a sense of this, here is a comment on the weak anthropic principle (WAP) from Barrow and Tipler’s classic work (with a forward provided by John Wheeler):

“According to WAP, it is possible to contemplate the existence of many possible universes, each possessing different defining parameters and properties. Observers like ourselves obviously can exist only in that subset containing universes consistent with the evolution of carbon-based life.”

The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 19

Three interpretations are given of the strong anthropic principle:

(A) There exists one possible Universe ‘designed’ with the goal of generating and sustaining ‘observers’.

(B) Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being.

(C) An ensemble of other different universes is necessary for the existence of our Universe.

Ibid., p. 22

As these ideas are given an extensive exposition in the text, I will not attempt to flesh them out, but I quote them here only for purposes of exhibition. It would be a considerably involved enterprise to give an exposition of the various formulations of the weak, strong, participatory, and final anthropic principles propounded by Barrow, Tipler, and Wheeler, and then to present them in comparison and contrast with what I have written here about empty universes, but I am not going to attempt that here. Some of these ideas are consistent with a range of universes, some of them empty, and some are not.

Empty, unobserved universes and scientific realism

There can only be two senses of “observable universe” if one is willing to countenance the possibility of empty, unobserved universes, which suggests a strongly realist position, and this interpretation takes to the limit of extrapolation the idea that something exists whether or not we see it (or anyone sees it). If we assume that the back side of the head of the person we are talking to continues to exist even when we do not see it (and if there is no one else looking at it), then we are assuming some degree of realism.

In the case of the person, it could be argued that the person in question is always viscerally conscious of their bodily integrity, and on this basis the back side of their head continues to be perceived, and hence continues to exist without the posit of realism. However, this argument cannot be made with inanimate objects without positing panpsychism. We assume that the back sides of houses, the insides of closets, and the contents of empty rooms continue to exist even when we are not looking at them. I can see no reason this intuitive realism should not be scaled up to entire universes that exist without being observed. This is, at least, consistent with scientific realism, even if it is not entailed by scientific realism.

The Principle of Plenitude

This kind of distinction I am making here between observable universes and observed universes immediately puts us in mind of the principle of plenitude (on which I previously wrote in Cosmology is the Principle of Plenitude Teaching by Example and Parsimony and Plenitude in Cosmology). The most obvious interpretation of the principle of plenitude in this context is that a universe that was habitable would eventually realize the potential of this habitability and would become inhabited. Perhaps this is why some advocates of the strong anthropic principle say that a universe that does not produce observers is a “failed” universe (not the kind of claim I would ever make, but one can understand something of this by saying that such a universe has failed to realize its potential). If we acknowledge the possibility of “failed” universes in this sense, then we would have empty, uninhabited universes, only we would attach a (negative) valuation to them (and presumably we would attach a positive valuation to successful universes that realize their potential and produce observers).

There is, however, another way to interpret the principle of plenitude in this context, and that is to argue that the principle of plenitude entails the realization of every possible kind of universe, and that the existence of an empty universe without observers is a potential that will eventually be realized, if it has not already been realized. Moreover, every kind of universe that can be observed by an observer that evolves within that universe constitutes another kind of universe that could exist in which the potential of such an observer is not realized. Thus if there are a plurality of observed universes, then this interpretation of the principle of plenitude suggests that there will be a plurality of observable but unobserved universes.

The Principle of Parsimony

The principle of plenitude as applied to worlds or to universes would imply densely inhabited worlds and intensively observed universes — what Frank Drake and Dava Sobel called, “an infinitely populated universe.” The principle of parsimony (often invoked as a counter to the principle of plenitude) as applied to worlds or the universe would limit us almost in a constructivistic sense to the world we inhabit — there is at least one observable universe that is, in fact, observed — though before or after the existence of this one known instance of an observer the universe would be empty and unobserved.

The intersection of the principle of plenitude and the principle of parsimony would yield at least one such-and-such (plenitude) and at most one such-and-such (parsimony), that is to say, this intersection would yield uniqueness, one and only one such-and-such — but whether this uniqueness should apply to each and every universe, or whether the universe itself ought to be considered unique, is another question.

A final reflection

It seems to me that the idea of an uninhabited planet, that is unobserved because it it uninhabited, has become a familiar and even a conventional idea of contemporary cosmology and astrobiology — it is, I think, widely assumed that we will eventually find other life in the universe, sprung from other origin of life events, but that intelligent life, and thus an observer that knows itself to be observing, is likely to be quite rare. This consensus view — if it is a consensus — encounters problems when it is extrapolated from habitable/inhabited planets to habitable/inhabited universes. Why this idea appears to transcend science (in the narrow sense) when extrapolated to the whole of the universe I am not yet prepared to say, but I will continue to think about this.

I began this post with the intention to make a simple and straight-forward distinction between observable universes and observed universes (my first draft was only three paragraphs), but as I worked on this I got myself entangled in a number of difficult questions that ended up entailing all-too-brief discussions of difficult ideas like the principle of plenitude and the principle of parsimony. This is admittedly unsatisfying, and I know that I have not done these ideas justice, but at some point I have to bring this to a close.

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Sunday


The “West Asian Cluster” is a term that I use to identify the several early civilizations that emerged in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia (cf. my remarks on the west Asian cluster in The Seriation of Western Civilization and The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State). Whereas civlization emerged independently in geographically isolated regions scattered across the planet, in the case of the west Asian cluster, these civilizations seem to have arisen in concert and to have been in contact with each other throughout their development.

A nomadic or pastoral people, accustomed to walking, would readily have traveled between the regions of the west Asian cluster. Moreover, we know that long-distance trade routes that preceded civilization ran through the area. Distinctive forms of obsidian were traded over long distance, and examples can be traced back to their source. These trade routes likely remained in place as civilization developed in the region, probably expanding as more manufactured goods became available for trade, and these trade routes could have served as vectors for idea diffusion throughout the region.

Thus I assume that continuous idea diffusion within the region meant that whenever a civilized innovation emerged in one location within the cluster, that it was picked up relatively rapidly by other locations in the cluster. In this way, civilization in the region likely developed in a kind of reticulate pattern, rather than in a unitary and linear manner, so that, if we were in possession of all the evidence, we might find a series of developments took place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating in a single civilization. Developments were likely distributed across the several different civilizations, and disseminated by idea diffusion until they reached all the others. This could be called a seriation of distributed development.

As these civilizations rose in concert, it seems that they also fell in concert, in an event that is sometimes called the Late Bronze Age (LBA) collapse. Previously in Epistemic Collapse I mentioned Eric H. Cline’s book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which deals with this period of history. Near the end of the book Cline wrote:

“…for more than three hundred years during the Late Bronze Age — from about the time of Hatshepsut’s reign beginning about 1500 BC until the time that everything collapsed after 1200 BC — the Mediterranean region played host to a complex international world in which Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mitannians, Canaanites, Cypriots, and Egyptians all interacted, creating a cosmopolitan and globalized world system such as has only rarely been seen before the current day. It may have been this very internationalism that contributed to the apocalyptic disaster that ended the Bronze Age. The cultures of the Near East, Egypt, and Greece seem to have been so intertwined and interdependent by 1177 BC that the fall of one ultimately brought down the others, as, one after another, the flourishing civilizations were destroyed by acts of man or nature, or a lethal combination of both.”

Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 171

If, as I suggested above, the development of these intertwined civilizations was reticulate, one would not be surprised that their collapse was also reticulate, distributed throughout the region, following from multiple causes and cascading into multiple consequences — a seriation of distributed collapse. If we think of this as an ecosystem of civilizations, it is easy to think of the LBA collapse as a mass extinction of civilizations. Species, like civilizations, arise in concert, embedded in coevolutionary contexts, not only evolving along with other species, but also with the inorganic environment. When a food web catastrophically collapses, it brings down many species because of their interdependence, and the same may be true of civilizations within their coevolutionary context.

What exactly is a mass extinction? Here is a discussion of definitions of mass extinctions:

“[Sepkoski] defines mass extinction as any substantial increase in the amount of extinction (that is, lineage termination) suffered by more than one geographically widespread higher taxon during a relatively short interval of geological time, resulting in at least temporary decline in their standing diversity. This is a general definition purposefully designed to be somewhat vague. An equally vague but more concise one offered here is that a mass extinction is an extinction of a significant proportion of the world’s biota in a geologically insignificant period of time. The vagueness about extinctions can be dealt with fairly satisfactorily in particular cases by giving percentages of taxa, but the vagueness about time is more difficult to deal with. A significant question about mass extinctions is how catastrophic they were, so we also require a definition of catastrophe in this context. According to Knoll (1984), it is a biospheric perturbation that appears instantaneous when viewed at the level of resolution provided by the geological record.”

A. Hallam and P. B. Wignall, Mass Extinctions and their Aftermath, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 1

The last of these definitions could be adapted to the mass extinction of civilizations: a social perturbation that appears instantaneous when viewed at the level of resolution provided by the historical record. This isn’t exactly right, as we know that it takes time for civilizations to collapse, but if we soften the “instantaneous” to “rapidly” it works, after a fashion. And the authors of this passage openly recognize the ambiguity of time in the definition.

Have there been other mass extinctions of civilizations in history? If we think of the interconnected Mediterranean Basin in Late Antiquity, the collapse of Roman power in the west would constitute a mass extinction of civilizations of the region, though if we count this as a single Hellenistic civilization stretching across Europe into North Africa and West Asia, then it is only a singular collapse. Similarly, if we think of all the civilizations subsumed under Islamic rule during the greatest reach of Islamic civilization, its collapse might also be characterized as a mass extinction of civilizations.

Could a mass extinction of civilizations happen again? We face similar definitional challenges. Are we to consider the whole of planetary civilization as one civilization, or as several civilizations merged and subsumed? A catastrophic institutional collapse of planetary civilization today might be counted either as the collapse of one worldwide civilization or as several tightly-coupled civilizations, as interdependent as the civilizations of West Asia during the Late Bronze Age.

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The March for Science

22 April 2017

Saturday


Science has a political problem, but science as an institution is not prepared to face up to its political problem. Worse, institutionalized science is prepared to dig itself in deeper into its political problem with the March for Science today, which will present scientists to the public as activists.

Science is an institution of western civilization — I would argue the central institution of contemporary western civilization — which latter is, in turn, a macro-institution made up of many other institutions. Big science means institutionalized science; institutionalized science means, in turn, an institution integrated with other institutions, including political institutions. So, as many of the backers of the March for Science have insisted, science cannot avoid being political. But not being able to avoid political entanglements is quite a different matter from consciously and purposefully promoting, in the mind of the public, science as a form of activism and the scientist as an activist.

Lawrence M. Krauss touched on part of the problem in an article for Scientific American, March for Science or March for Reality? Hostility toward the former is troublesome, but hostility toward the latter is the underlying issue, in which he wrote, “The March for Science could then appear as a self-serving political lobbying effort by the scientific community to increase its funding base.” But it is not only the problem of appearing to be self-serving, but the appearance of serving an ideology, that is the problem.

Krauss cited Richard Feynman to the effect that, for a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled, and Philip K. Dick to the effect that, Reality is that which continues to exist even when you stop believing in it. Krauss does not cite the also applicable quote from Ayn Rand: “We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” This oversight is understandable; Ayn Rand is quite clearly not the kind of figure that the organizers or supporters of the March for Science would want to invoke. The whole populist movement and its isolationist orientation is far too redolent of Rand’s character John Galt. The fact that Ayn Rand doesn’t fit the March for Science narrative tells us something important about the implicit politics of the March for Science.

Though the organizers of the March for Science have made a point to emphasize the non-partisan nature of the march, this claim in disingenuous, and, indeed, those marchers who insist that science cannot avoid being political are explicitly recognizing the political nature of the march.

Inevitably, the March for Science has become political, despite protestations to the contrary, and it has become political in ways that the organizers would prefer not to recognize. You can read about this in Why the ‘March for Science’ Is in Turmoil: A departure from leadership is highlighting diversity issues less than a week before the march by Tanya Basu, which discusses the departure from the organizers of Jacquelyn Gill, who posted a series of remarks on Twitter explaining the reasons for her departure.

Although institutionalized science has bent over backward to accommodate the hypersensitive contemporary university climate and its sometimes bizarre, sometimes petty, demands that it places upon scholars and researchers, the complaint is that the march has been insufficiently solicitous of those who would play the victim card (and of those who claim to be the representatives of the oppressed and the downtrodden) and whose demands for activism on the part of institutionalized science have not been met to their satisfaction. (Note: these demands cannot be met, and are not intended to be met, but are rather intended to be used as a cudgel against those in positions of power.)

There was an article in Nature (one of the world’s leading science journals), How the March for Science splits researchers: Nature asked members of the scientific community whether or not they plan to march on 22 April — and why by Erin Ross, which included a quote from Nathan Gardner, who put his finger on the problem:

“I am not going to the March for Science, because people in America view science as leftist. Maybe it’s because [former US vice-president] Al Gore launched ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. I’ve seen articles from right-wing outlets that are framing the march as focusing on gender equality and identity politics. I think it could easily politicize science because, even though the march’s mission statement isn’t anti-Trump, the marchers seem anti-Trump.”

This, in a nutshell, is science’s political problem, the problem it does not want to acknowledge, and the problem it is not prepared to address, because to address it head-on would be too painful. There has been a lot of talk about respecting the evidence and the need for a frank recognition of what science tells us, but this commitment is exercised lopsidedly. If you want to talk about hostility to reality, as Krauss would have it, consider the institutional response to scientists who have dared to research “no go” areas of knowledge that contradict the dominant social narrative of our time.

In recent decades, science has largely respected the “no go” areas of the left, and has sometimes enthusiastically embraced the ideological agenda of the left. (Jonathan Haidt and his Heterodox Academy have been particularly effective in pointing out the lack of diversity of opinion in academic science.) While the left has had its “no go” areas largely respected, the “no go” areas of the right and of traditionalists have not been respected, and it is not at all unusual to see their failures gleefully pointed out in the spirit of iconoclasm. Certainly, there was a time in the past when academic institutions slavishly respected the “no go” areas of the traditionalists, but these days are long behind us. And I am certainly not suggesting that anyone’s “no go” areas should be respected. Ideally, scientific research would take place without respect to anyone’s feelings or ideologies, but it is dishonest to carefully avoid offending one side while poking and prodding the other side.

While I think that the March for Science will do more harm than good, it is not likely to have much of an impact, so if it makes people feel good about themselves to go marching and waving signs and chanting call-and-response rituals, it probably doesn’t matter much. The loss to science will be only incremental. But if it is followed by more incremental politicization of science, then our entire civilization will be threatened by the death of a thousand cuts to the ideal of an objective, disinterested, and dispassionate science that tells us as much as we are capable of understanding at present, whether we want to hear it or not. There is no tonic for the soul quite like an unwelcome truth, and science has been masterful at administering these draughts in the past. I hope that science does not lose this talent.

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Sunday


Mathis Gothart, Isenheim Altarpiece, Resurrection panel (1512–1516)

Easter is one of the central religious holidays of the Christian calendar — if not the central religious holiday of Christianity — and thus one of the central symbols of Christian civilization. In the period of a single week we pass from Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his betrayal, trial, execution, entombment, and eventual resurrection, which, by any measure, must be something of an emotional roller-coaster for those who celebrate the holiday in a participatory spirit, that is to say, for those who engage in the prescribed rituals as a means of participating in the myth, as when pilgrims travel to Jerusalem and walk the Via Dolorosa, commemorating the Stations of the Cross.

I have often cited Joseph Campbell to the effect that a ritual is the opportunity to participate in a myth, so that all rituals are, in a sense, participatory forms of faith. Rituals are also what J. L. Austin called performatives, i.e., that very act of ritual participation is a religious observance; religious value is inherent in the act of participation.

For the Christian, the ultimate performative is to follow in Christ’s footsteps, a practice that in medieval Christendom was called imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ. In the hope of resurrection and the life everlasting the individual Christian also hopes to extend the imitatio Christi to the next world; the resurrection of Christ is the model for the resurrection of the believer in Christ. The Christian believer, too, can experience resurrection, and this destiny of the individual soul is understood to be a function of salvation.

Recently I have been thinking about the relationship between soteriology and eschatology in the Christian tradition. It strikes me that soteriology and eschatology are tightly-coupled in Christianity — more tightly-coupled than in the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, and much more tightly-coupled that the non-Abrahamic faiths. The events and the symbolism of Easter embody this tightly-coupled Christian tradition of soteriology and eschatology. Though tightly-coupled, there is, however, an asymmetry: soteriology is voluntaristic, but eschatology is not; we will all be judged, but we will not all be saved.

In Christianity, salvation is salvation from death, and the substitution of a life eternal in Christ for a worldly fate of dissolution and personal extinction. Compare this, for example, to the Hindu tradition, in which the transmigration of souls is a central doctrine. Superficially, the eternal life of the transmigrating soul can be compared to the eternal soul of the Christian tradition, but this is misleading. The transmigrating soul casts off bodies like a snake casting off its skin, while the resurrection guarantees the believing Christian not only an eternal life in Christ, but even the possession of the body that the soul seems to cast off upon death.

If soteriology and eschatology are tightly-coupled in the Christian tradition and loosely-coupled in other religious traditions, what are the limits on the possible relations between the two? To what extent are soteriology and eschatology ideally separable from each other? Is it possible to have soteriology in isolation from eschatology, and eschatology in isolation from soteriology? It is arguable that the practical faiths that have focused on human actions in this world, with little or no reference to a life beyond death or a world beyond this world, are soteriological in essence without a significant eschatological element. Judaism is like this to a certain extent, and Confucianism to a much greater extent. When asked by a disciple about life after death, Confucius was supposed to have said, “We have not yet learned to know life. How can we know death?” That the question was asked points to the human preoccupation with death, and that it was dismissed in the way that it was dismissed, points to the distinctive Confucian response to the human condition.

There is another possibility. I can’t think of any existing religious tradition that embodies this approach, but it is equally possible that a system of belief might focus on a grand scheme of cosmological eschatology and be more or less indifferent to soteriology. Indeed, if contemporary science were a religion, or even a religious surrogate (some would argue that it is the latter; I would not so argue), it would perfectly fit the bill in this respect. The Copernican principle is frequently invoked as a punishment of human pride, demonstrating our insignificance before the universe. Human salvation here is unimportant, and so left unaddressed. Positivists, in general, are satisfied with this state-of-affairs, but most human beings are not. One cause for anti-scientific sentiment among the general public is precisely this scientific indifference to the human condition.

If a naturalistic soteriology could be joined to the naturalistic eschatology of the scientific worldview, this would be a powerful combination. It might even be possible to advance toward a civilization with science as a central project, or some central project derived from science, such as the exploration of the cosmos, if some soteriology were emergent from science. But I cannot think of any ideas derived from science that could adequately serve this function. There is the idea of humanity as one — the ultimate unity of the species — and the idea of mere humanity — a quasi-religious sense of human exceptionalism — or even humanity’s responsibility for itself as a moral imperative. However, I don’t see any of these as effective substitutes for soteriology.

The distinctive characteristic of Axial Age belief systems is the discovery of a universal human nature, the definition of the human condition in terms of this human nature, and the identification of a particular destiny for humanity in virtue of human nature and the human condition. The tribal gods, appropriate to tribal chiefdoms but falling short of the needs of large-scale social organization, were content to be worshiped as a god among gods, and made no special claim to a privileged knowledge of the human heart. The gods of the Axial Age surpassed these tribal gods, and they demanded more in turn. It wasn’t enough simply to build a civilization, to erect great monuments, to foster bustling cities and their commerce, to conquer the cities of rival powers, in other words, the ordinary business of life was not enough. Something more was called for. This something more turned out to be a sacrifice demanded in exchange for salvation.

Christianity could be said to belong to the second generation of Axial Age faiths, descended with modification from the Axial Age innovations of Mesopotamia, if we distinguish a sequence of the original Axial Age faiths, the second generation of faiths that grew out of the original Axial Age faiths, and the third generation of faiths that grew from the earlier two. Each later generation of Axial Age faiths evolved under the selection pressure of the earlier generation of Axial Age faiths, and of the societies that these earlier Axial Age faiths shaped. Part of this evolution became the individual taking personal responsibility for their salvation, but also being the beneficiary of personal salvation. The earlier Axial Age faiths had focused much more on the social whole, but Christianity raised the stakes and introduced a dialectic between the individual and the community. The individual was given new importance, but was also expected to act on behalf of the brotherhood of mankind, selflessly if necessary.

The the survival of early civilizations was at stake in religiously-constructed communal identities, as I noted in All Believers are Brothers, where I wrote:

“Religion facilitates the construction of indefinitely expandable kin networks far more extensive than any exclusively biological kin network. A society that originates as a biological kin network can transcend the natural limitation that checks the growth of a biological kin network through displacing its biological culture into a religious framework. There is, then, no absolute distinction between kin selection and group selection among human beings, because what begins as kin selection can be extended to group selection through an in-group identity rooted in biological origins but later extended to individuals not within the immediate (biological) kin network.”

This principled conflation of differences was the foundation of an identity that made large-scale civilizations, and so already looked beyond the regional civilizations of the Axial Age, in a way not unlike how the regional civilizations looked beyond the tribal chiefdoms they supplanted. This is an example of the continual self-transcendence of civilization that I have remarked on elsewhere. The particular Christian solution to the problem of communal identity was to have tightly-coupled eschatology and soteriology, and it is at least arguable that this tightly-coupled sense of destiny and salvation persists in a secularized form today. But the secularized form is a bastardized theology, and we would do better, for the future of our civilization, if we could find a scientific soteriology to couple with our scientific eschatology, rather to than to continue play out the limited options of a theology that no longer knows itself to be such. The survival of our civilization is no less at stake today than it was during the Axial Age.

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Epistemic Collapse

13 April 2017

Thursday


Not long ago in Snowstorm Reflections on Collapse and Recovery I discussed some of the experiences likely to be related to a local and limited collapse of social institutions, as a way to consider broader and deeper scenarios of social collapse. In this connection I quoted the following from Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

“Collapse, as viewed in the present work, is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a society must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The demise of the Carolingian Empire, thus, is not a case of collapse — merely an unsuccessful attempt at empire building. The collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of sociopolitical structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of weakness and decline.”

Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 4

For Tainter, collapse is sociopolitical collapse, but we need not be limited by this stipulation. There are potentially many different meanings of “collapse” and I would like to particularly focus on what I will call epistemic collapse, which has played at least as prominent a role as social collapse in the extinction of civilizations.

A definition of epistemic collapse, that is to say, a catastrophic loss of knowledge, can closely parallel Tainter’s definition of social collapse, like this:

A society has epistemically collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of knowledge (epistemic complexity). The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a body of knowledge must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The epistemic collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of epistemic structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of epistemic weakness and decline.”

Tainter emphasizes that a “collapse” implies a previous level of attainment and stability (continuity); I agree with Tainter that this is an important qualification to make. It should also be pointed out that collapse implies a subsequent stability of the lower level of complexity and attainment, perhaps for a generation or two. In other words, a collapse — whether social, epistemic, or otherwise — means that stability and continuity at a higher level of complexity and integration is rapidly replaced by stability and continuity at a lower level of complexity and integration.

We know that one of the reasons the European “Dark Ages” were dark was the loss of the accumulated knowledge of classical antiquity, or, if not the loss (in an absolute sense), its restricted access due to loss of educational institutions, reduction in the publication, copying, and distribution of books, reduction in literacy, and so forth. During this period of reduced access to knowledge, some knowledge was lost in an absolute sense. Some books deteriorated or were destroyed before they were copied, and so have been lost to history. Much of the tradition of educational institutions was lost, as the educational institutions of classical antiquity went extinct or were extirpated (Justinian ordered the closing of the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD) and were subsequently replaced by educational institutions attached to the Catholic Church.

To reach further back into the past, around 1200 BC there was a generalized collapse that led to the extinction of several Bronze Age civilizations (this story is recounted in Eric Cline’s book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed). This severe blow to civilization led to a significant epistemic collapse characterized by widespread loss of literacy throughout the ancient world. Homer, we recall, was recounting an “ancient” time of heroes and heroic deeds, and it has been speculated that the Homeric corpus was the translation into written form of oral poetry that survived from this dark age of more warfare and less reading as compared to the age that preceded it.

In the kind of generalized collapse resulting in the extinction of civilizations that characterized the Late Bronze Age, there was both social and epistemic collapse, but to what extent are these two modalities of collapse separable? Even if not instantiated in human history, is it possible for a civilization to remain socially stable while experiencing epistemic collapse, or to remain epistemically stable while experiencing social collapse? I think that counterfactuals could be constructed to illustrate the possibility of isolated social or epistemic collapse, but these would not be very convincing without some historical parallel to make the point. A possible example could be the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, which was not tightly-coupled to a social collapse, but which entailed a significant epistemic loss, or the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258, which, again, was not tightly-coupled to social collapse (except for the collapse of Baghdad itself) but was a disaster for learning and certainly issued in permanently lower levels of epistemic attainment in the region. For an illustration of the opposite isolation, it is arguable that Byzantium preserved the epistemic record of Roman civilization even as all Roman social institutions collapsed and were replaced.

The above considerations suggest that a distinction should be made between collapse (of some particular kind) and the extinction of a civilization. Only the most generalized collapse over several classes of human endeavor result in the extinction of civilization, and we can obtain a more finely-grained appreciation of how societies ultimately fail and civilizations go extinct (or resist extinction) by separating social, financial, legal, religious, and epistemic collapse, inter alia.

Multiple collapses result in the extinction of civilization. Civilization is itself a complex institution that is comprised of many sub-institutions; that is to say, civilization is an institution of institutions. We can classify the institutions that go on to make up a civilization as social institutions, economic institutions, legal institutions, epistemic institutions, and so on. All of these institutions are intertwined in civilization, but it sometimes happens that even an integrated institution within civilization will collapse without the civilization of which it is a part collapsing. The many intertwined institutions that together constitute civilization mutually support each other and can bring a civilization through a difficult time if enough of these institutions persist despite the failure of other institutions.

If our nascent scientific civilization were to experience an epistemic collapse, but the social institutions of our civilization retained a significant measure of continuity, our civilization could enter into a state of permanent stagnation (something I noted as the greatest existential risk of our time in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?). If, on the other hand, we provide a robust backup of our knowledge, so thorough that a social collapse is not also an epistemic bottleneck, we could see the social institutions we know disappear even while our knowledge was largely intact and propagated into the future. Thus the human future itself admits of possible isolated social or epistemic collapse. Something like our civilization would survive on the other side of this collapse, after the recovery or replacement of the failed institutions, but that civilization would be fundamentally altered by the process.

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