Tuesday


Civilisation Clark

At the present time I hold a view of civilization that is quite broad, and which pushes civilization back to the origins of settled agrarianism. As I see it, all of the essential institutions come into place quite early, although they are present in a very rudimentary form. The first few thousand years of civilization, given this broad conception, consist of a painfully slow and incremental refinement of these rudimentary institutions until they become undeniably civilization, and we find fully developed literature, monumental architecture, elaborate social differentiation and organized religion, another other social institutions.

21-social-ancientMesopotamiaLiving

I did not always hold this broad conception of civilization, and I would say that it was a study of prehistory that was decisive in the evolution of my broad view of civilization. Yet I do not doubt or deny that there are many persons who know much more about prehistory than I do and who nevertheless deny to the efforts of prehistoric humanity the title of civilization. It was once customary (that is an unsatisfactory word in this context) to identify civilization with the historical period, and to identify the beginning of the historical period with the invention of written language. While written language did play an important role in the organization of civilization, it must be accounted a coincidence (or, at most, as loosely-coupled association) that fully developed civilizations of antiquity appeared at about the same time in the historical record as written language. I suppose that my own view, before I became critical of my own presuppositions, was to more or less identify civilization with the emergence of written history, so that I formerly accepted this historiographical convention.

Does civilization begin with written records?

Does civilization begin with written records?

In many of my posts on civilization I have referenced Kenneth Clark’s book and television series Civilisation: A Personal View, and in this work we can find hints of a very narrow conception of civilization, which stands out as all the more interesting to me as it contrasts so sharply with my own views at present. This narrow conception of civilization is most apparent in the discussion of England in Chapter 6, in the context of the Protestant Reformation. Early in the chapter Clark mentions in passing, “…the barbarous and disorderly state of England in the fifteenth century,” and later in the same chapter he wrote:

“I suppose it is debatable how far Elizabethan England can be called civilised. Certainly it does not provide a reproducible pattern of civilisation as does, for example, eighteenth century France. It was brutal, unscrupulous and disorderly.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York et al.: Harper and Row, 1969, p. 163

Certainly any conception of civilization that would deny that Elizabethan England — for some, a high point of civilization — constitutes a civilization is a narrow conception indeed, but Clark immediately goes on to add a number of intangible considerations in the characterization of civilization:

“…if the first requisites of civilization are intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality, then the age of Marlowe and Spenser, of Dowland and Byrd, was a kind of civilisation.”

Ibid.

Here Clark concedes that Elizabethan England was a kind of civilization; in other words, there are distinct varieties of civilization, some of which we would unproblematically identify as civilization, and some marginal cases, like Elizabethan England, which might be plausibly interpreted as a civilization if we judge the period sympathetically. This is still a rather narrow conception.

An engraving by Hogarth, Midnight Modern Conversation, of which Clark said, “Plenty of animal spirits, but not what we could, by any stretch, call civilisation. ”

An engraving by Hogarth, Midnight Modern Conversation, of which Clark said, “Plenty of animal spirits, but not what we could, by any stretch, call civilisation. ”

I don’t have any interest in either defending or criticizing this particular judgment, but I am interested in the principles implicit in this judgment, as the contrast of narrow and broad conceptions of civilization may be considered comparative concepts in the study of civilzation, which can contribute to a more scientific understanding. Early in the book Clark disclaims any idea of civilization and offers no definition, but as his exposition develops a number of principles manifest themselves in the narrative. The example of eighteenth-century France comes up several times, so that we may conclude that, for Clark, this constituted a paradigm of civilization.

“La Lecture de Molière” Jean François de Troy, which Clark contrasted to the Hogarth, “...one can't deny that the de Troy is a picture of civilised life.”

“La Lecture de Molière” Jean François de Troy, which Clark contrasted to the Hogarth, “…one can’t deny that the de Troy is a picture of civilised life.”

Strangely enough — strange because it seems like it comes out of an entirely distinct scholarly context, or, one might say, out of a different civilization — this seems also to have been the view of Michel Foucault, who frequently in his historical writings (by which I mean the earlier books thaat are narrowly focused case studies of madness, prisons, clinics, and the human sciences) uses the term “The Classical Age” (l’âge classique), which for Foucault seems to mean the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — though Foucault no more offers a definition of l’âge classique than Clark offers a definition of civilization. For Foucault, l’âge classique constituted a particular épistème in the development of civilization, and one superseded by the emergence of the modern world.

Michel Foucault's Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique established the idea of a classical age without defining it.

Michel Foucault’s Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique established the idea of a classical age without defining it.

Though Clark and Foucault give us no definitions, Clark does offer the intriguing hint that eighteenth century France provides a pattern that can be reproduced, whereas Elizabethan England does not. This idea of a reproducible pattern of civilization I have called (again, drawing on references to Clark) the iterative conception of civilization, and I have contrasted the iterative conception to the heroic conception of civilization. If this contrast holds good in this context, then, if Elizabethan civilization, as Clark allows, is a kind of civilization, it is an heroic civilization. And certainly Shakespeare is an heroic figure in literature, a singular genius who transformed the language thus creating the conditions of a civilization of the word — another idea that Clark introduces, and contrasts to the civilization of the image, i.e., the civilization of medieval Catholicism.

Sir Christopher Michael Wren

Sir Christopher Michael Wren

By the end of Chapter 8, Clark specifically singles out England as an exemplar of civilization, a new paradigm, as it were, to set next to the salons of eighteenth century France, though this is the England of Christopher Wren rather than the England of Shakespeare. Of Wren’s Royal Naval hospital at Greenwich and its dining hall Clark wrote:

“…the result is the greatest architectural unit built in England since the Middle Ages. It is sober without being dull, massive without being oppressive. What is civilisation? A state of mind where it is thought desirable for a naval hospital to look like this and for the inmates to dine in a splendidly decorated hall.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York et al.: Harper and Row, 1969, p. 215

While I don’t reject Clark’s characterization of civilization in this passage, I think it should be acknowledged that this is no less singular and no less idiosyncratic that the earlier England of Shakespeare. What Clark does not say, but which is implicit in his remarks, and in his overall point of view, is that there is an element of democratization involved in building a magnificent naval hospital where residents could dine in splendor. While this is not democracy as we have come to think of it more recently, in comparison to the extremes of poverty and luxury that marked the “civilization of the image” of medieval Christendom, this is in comparison enlightened and magnanimous to spend so lavishly for an institution intended for individuals who were in no sense the elite of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

V0013271 Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich, with houses either side, sh

Thus the idea of narrow and broad conceptions of civilization must itself be broadened to account for the possibility of a civilization that only accrues to the benefit of the most privileged members of society (a different conception of a narrow conception of civilization) and a civilization that accrues to peoples of a society across social classes and irrespective of privilege and hierarchy (a different conception of a broad conception of civilization). Earlier in his exposition of the Reformation Clark noted how Protestantism became an excuse for uneducated individuals to take out their fury on a higher culture in which they did not share. One might argue that this is a consequence of cultivating a narrow conception of civilization in which the benefits of civilization are not distributed widely.

The dining hall of which Clark wrote, often called The Painted Hall.

The dining hall of which Clark wrote, often called The Painted Hall.

Nearer to our own times, communism, like Protestantism before it, was often used as an excuse for the uneducated, lower strata of society to release its fury against a high culture in which it did not share. We have all heard the stories of the horrors of communism, and I would not wish to minimize them, having often written on the topic. On the other hand, there were moments in which the communist leaders grasped that it was an opportunity for them to demonstrate their concern for the masses in whose name they undertook the revolution by lavishing resources on the people that once would have gone into Tsars palaces. The most famous example of this is the Moscow Metro, the stations of which were designed as “people’s palaces,” which the working class could enjoy during their commute.

Moscow Metro station

Moscow Metro station

Of course, the idea of a broadly based civilization is distinct from the idea of a broadly conceived civilization, as the idea of a narrowly based civilization is distinct from the idea of a narrowly conceived civilization. Yet in the case of narrowness we can see that narrow conceptions foster narrow bases, and narrow bases foster narrow conceptions, so the two are not unrelated. Probably also a broadly based conception of civilization fosters a broadly conceived civilization, but this is not as intuitively striking as the coincidence of narrowness.

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Sunday


Boko Haram

Contemporary terrorism perpetrated by radical militants who self-identify as Muslims constitutes not only a police problem and a military problem (which of the two it is, or properly ought to be, is itself a matter of debate), but it is also a social problem and a political problem. Recent spectacular terrorist attacks — for example, the Peshawar school massacre, the massacre of staff at the Magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and an attack on Kukawa by Boko Haram that may have resulted in 2,000 killed — show this sociopolitical problem in an especially glaring light.

Europe in particular faces a problem in how to respond, and, as I wrote above, this is as much a social and political problem about the response to Islamic terrorism as it is a police or military response. Politicians would be greatly relieved if something so socially problematic could be carefully circumscribed as a police matter without wider social consequences, but this illusion cannot be sustained. Sustaining the illusion does not address the underlying problem, but allows it to fester and to grow from a problem into a crisis. It is better to address the problem when it is still a problem, albeit a thankless problem.

An organization in Germany, Pegida (Patriotische Europaer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) has been organizing demonstrations to protest what it calls the Islamization of Europe, and these demonstrations have been met by larger counter-demonstrations intended to frame Pegida as a xenophobic, right wing fringe movement. The counter-demonstrations against Pegida have been organized by government bodies, and cannot be characterized the spontaneous outpourings of grassroots German sentiment. In other words, we see here Europe wrestling with his own demons from its past. The political leadership of Europe is painfully aware of Germany’s Nazi past, and they are willing to go to considerable lengths to avoid targeting a minority that could be used as scapegoat for public discontent. The situation is similar in France, having its own and different demons from the past. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, French President Hollande said, “Those who committed these acts have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.”

Elite opinion in Europe is at one — the same message comes from the governments and major media outlets — that spectacular terrorist attacks committed by self-identifying Muslims are not to be attributed to Islam nor to the presence of Muslims in Europe (at present, about five million or 7.5% of the population in France, four million or 5% of the population in Germany, and three million or 5% of the population in the UK). However, this unity of elite opinion comes at a cost, and with a danger. Recently in The Technocratic Elite I wrote about the yawning divide between those who hold power and those who are subject to power in the contemporary industrialized nation-state. When elite opinion is perfectly unified, it looks contrived and controlled by the public. Moreover, anyone who speaks out against unified elite opinion is immediately cast in the role of a lone outsider who is speaking unwelcome truth to power. This in itself is a powerful rhetorical position, and those who would protest the influence of Islam and Islamic values in Europe willingly take on the mantle. Elite opinion would probably prove itself to be more effective if it allowed for some latitude, and co-opted the most radical voices by giving them an official outlet.

The problem of elite opinion in Europe is partly the above-mentioned demons of Europe’s past, which suggest the ever-present possibility of plunging into another savage conflict with genocidal overtones (as the Europeans tend to do every century or two), and also partly a result of the fact that the nation-state system has its origins in Europe and it is in Europe that the nation-state is still strongest. That is to say, the political entities that constitute Europe are states based on a national ethnic identity, and despite the attempts by Europe to constitute their contemporary states as diverse liberal democracies, they are nothing like the nation-states of the western hemisphere. Identity matters in Europe. Anyone can become an American. Almost no one can become a German, a Frenchman, or an Italian unless you are born to it. Elite opinion knows this, but still attempts to put a brave face on a pluralistic, diverse, and democratic society.

The larger background to this problem is the demographic imbalance between Europe and its Islamic neighbors. European populations are static or falling, while the population of neighboring Islamic nation-states are growing. Conflict in these Islamic nation-states creates refugees, and the attempt to maintain the facade upon which elite opinion trades in order to maintain its legitimacy requires that Europe take in refugees from anywhere in the world (to “prove” they are not racist or xenophobic). These burgeoning Islamic populations can easily send millions into Europe without affecting population growth in their nation-states of origin. These refugees have no interest in assimilating into European society, and even if they did have an interest, European society cannot realistically pretend that Muslims from North Africa, Arabia, or Mesopotamia can pass as Europeans.

This is not the first time that this has happened in the Old World. If you visit the cities around the Mediterranean Basin, which was once all the Roman Empire, you will find classical temples and Christian churches with contemporary Muslim populations flowing around them like a stream flows around ancient rocks embedded in its course. In some small towns on the coast of Turkey, you can literally find rock cut tombs preserved in the middle of streets, with traffic flowing around them — a reminder of a world that is now utterly lost. Europe knows this story as well as anyone, and even if elite opinion cannot speak of it in public, the idea of the great monuments of European civilization surrounded by a alien population with a different tradition of civilization cannot be far below the surface.

What is to be done? Can elite opinion, steadfastly maintained by elite discipline, allow Europe to negotiate these troubled waters and continue to put a brave face on a politically impossible situation? After all, everything in life is mere temporizing if you look at things in the long term. Europe can temporize a bit longer — for a few hundred years, or a few thousand years. The Europeans are good at this, as the example of Byzantium demonstrates (though the Byzantines were mostly Greek, and Greece is not now in a position to assert its rule over even a rump of Europe). If you can temporize longer than anyone else, you have done all that can be expected of any political entity.

And what of grassroots opinion in Europe? Do we even know what it is? The efficacy of elite discipline in Europe shrouds public opinion in euphemisms that prevent it from being expressed in the ugly forms it took under twentieth century fascism. If elite opinion capitulated to the masses, what would the result be? We don’t know. The post-WWII period in Europe has been so effective in De-Nazification and re-education that we do not know at present that Europeans would do if not guided by the liberal internationalist vision of elite opinion. If elite opinion fell away, would we instantly see an anti-Islamic Kristallnacht unleashed in Berlin, Paris, Rome, London, and Copenhagen? Would we see the beginnings of a new holy war between East and West?

I have several times discussed the views of Reza Aslan on Islamic terrorism as a form of cosmic warfare. Unlike French President Hollande and most public figures of elite opinion, Aslan openly acknowledges that Islamic terrorists are inspired by religious zeal, but maintains that the only way to win a cosmic war is not to fight it. However, as I have observed, one may get dragged into a cosmic war against one’s will. The eschatological dimension of human experience cannot be avoided. If we pretend it does not exist, others will foist it upon us — sometimes in the form of a massacre (cf. my post Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception).

Sam Harris, like Reza Aslan, frankly recognizes the religious roots of Islamic terrorism and has discussed this unmentionable fact (unmentionable, that is, for elite opinion) of Islamic terrorism repeatedly, claiming that Islam as a religion is uniquely well-adapted for inspiring suicidal terrorism. I’m not sure if Harris has any solution other than to imagine a world without religion, so that, presumably, advancing programs of secularization might be on the table. However, such top-down measures are vulnerable to all of the same problems that how beset elite opinion in Europe. Sometimes it seems as though the more well-intentioned a policy is, the more likely it is to be denounced as malign social engineering.

The critics of Sam Harris, especially in the Arab world, have noted his Jewish background (a fact unmentionable in other contexts) and his lack of criticism of Israel (a religiously-constituted nation-state, presumably an appropriate target for someone like Harris), more or less assimilating Harris’ position to an anti-Islamic prejudice. But Harris is right that there has been no outpouring of revulsion from the Muslim masses over repeated spectacular terrorist attacks by self-identifying Muslims shouting “Allāhu Akbar” as they kill innocent children. You will not often find the governments of Islamic nation-states organizing protests against the killing of Christians in the way that anti-Pegida activists are organizing protests against protests against Muslims.

The problem of Islamic terrorism is not going to go away any time soon. Elite opinion, not only in Europe but the world over, is careful to dissociate such terrorist acts from Islam, but does so at the cost of its intellectual integrity. There are approaches like that of Reza Aslan and Sam Harris that possess intellectual integrity, but appeal as little to mass opinion and mass man as does elite opinion. Elite opinion at least has the virtue of being fired in a political crucible that makes it credible as a mass movement, even if it lacks grassroots appeal. At the grassroots level, we really don’t have any good, non-politicized data to form a judgment as to what might occur if elite opinion capitulated to popular opinion.

The one thing of which we can be certain is the fear. There is the fear of what will become of Europe as European populations dwindle and Muslim populations expand. There is the fear of what will happen if popular sentiment against Muslims living in Europe gets out of hand. There is the fear of what becomes of Western civilization if Europe becomes Islamicized, however slowly and gradually. There is the fear on the part of Muslims of the influence of Western civilization and Western ways upon Islamic civilization. There is the fear of Muslim residents in Europe and elsewhere beyond the Islamic world of what will become of their lives as coreligionists conduct massacres that causes them to live under a cloud of suspicion. There is the fear that civil wars in Nigeria and Syria will spread instability to other parts of the globe. There is a surfeit of fear in the world today, and perhaps this is a sign that it is the fear we should address and is perhaps the most tractable of this cluster of intractable problems.

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Friday


The young Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1905.

The young Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1905.

This past December a link to my 2011 post The limits of my language are the limits of my world was posted on a Reddit philosophy discussion forum. I have never paid any attention to Reddit, but I guess it gets a lot of traffic, since as a result of this link I received a peak number of 12,749 hits on 22 December 2014 — most of them from Reddit, but also a substantial number from Hackernews, which had apparently re-posted the link. This is the greatest number of hits that any of my individual posts have received.

The spike in traffic encouraged me to look at my old post again, and think about what I had said in it. My past effort left much to be desired, and as a result of all the traffic I did receive one perceptive comment on the post itself (apart from all those comments on the Reddit page, where I am not registered so could not respond), and this also gave me reason to think it over again.

In retrospect what bothers me the most (but which was not a focus of any of the comments) is that I had taken this popular Wittgenstein quote out of context and discussed it without systematically relating it to the corpus of Wittgenstein’s thought from which it drawn. In defense of my former self, I can say that it was merely a blog post, and pretty much written off the top of my head. It would take a book-length study, or several book-length studies, to adequately contextualize the Wittgenstein quote that I had plucked out as an aphorism and to give it a proper textual exegesis. But my scholarly conscience bothers me a bit, as my conscience has also been bothering me about a post I wrote about a line plucked out of Einstein in Unpacking an Einstein Aphorism. I don’t repudiate what I wrote in that post, any more than I repudiate what I wrote in my brief post on Wittgenstein, but I do intend to return to this Einstein passage and write about it again in proper context.

The aphorisms taken out of the Tractatus must be understood in the context of the work from which they are taken, and the work itself much be understood in the context of the Wittgenstein’s thought — no small task, especially given the sheer volume of Wittgenstein scholarship. In the case of the Tractatus we are quite fortunate to possess two closely related posthumously published texts by Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-1916, edited by G.H. Von Wright and G.E.M. Anscombe, as well as Prototractatus: An Early Version of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, edited by B.F. McGuinness, T. Nyberg, and G.H. Von Wright. Both of these works generously overlap with the completed text of the Tractatus and provide material not included in the published text. In addition, there are numerous personal letters between Wittgenstein, his philosophical friends, publishers, and translators, and a commentary tradition starting with Russell’s introduction written for the first English language edition and continuing up to the present day. I myself own at least a dozen commentaries on the Tractatus alone (excluding works on Wittgenstein himself or on his later work). That is a lot of context to grind one’s way through.

Some of the confusion surrounding aphorisms attributed to Wittgenstein is understandable because Wittgenstein did write some aphorisms (many of them collected in the posthumously published Culture and Value). However, the sections of the Tractatus that have been taken out of context and used as aphorisms are not aphorisms, but rather sections of a treatise that was composed in aphoristic style. This may sound like an overly-subtle distinction, but it is a distinction that makes a difference. An aphorism is intended to stand on its own; a work composed in aphoristic style is intended to be read and understood as a whole.

Wittgenstein shares this confusing character of his style with the writings of other philosophers who composed works in aphoristic form, notably Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Walter Kaufmann, the noted Nietzsche scholar, often went out of his way to point out that Nietzsche’s aphorisms are part of books and are intended to be read as part of a text that develops an idea throughout. I think part of my scholarly conscience grows out of reading so much of Kaufmann at an early age. When Kaufmann wrote about Nietzsche the latter was still a highly controversial figure, so Kaufmann was at pains to be on his best scholarly behavior. I think that it was also Kaufmann who said that Nietzsche often wrote too well for his own good, as he is often attacked for passages that he was not himself defending, but which he formulated so concisely that his phraseology was taken as a kind of advocacy. The same might be said of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein.

Kierkegaard, of whom I just wrote in Kierkegaard and Russell on Rigor, takes this confusion of the aphorism taken from an aphoristic work to a higher level by publishing pseudonymous works written in aphoristic style, so that any “aphorism” attributed to Kierkegaard may be be a single sentence plucked from a longer work which moreover is written under a pseudonym. Does this “aphorism” represent Kierkegaard’s views? The question is as fraught as how much of Plato’s Socrates represents the views of the historical Socrates.

Given the volume of scholarship available on a figure like Wittgenstein, is it even possible to write something like a blog post without entirely misrepresenting one’s source? In other words, is it possible to blog with intellectual integrity? A lot of my early blog posts were written off the top of my head, often from memory without bothering to consult an actual text. That seemed sufficient at the time. None of these posts would stand up to serious critical scrutiny. Since then, my posts have become longer, better researched, and much less frequent. With blog posts like this, one is likely to lose all but the most dedicated readers, but in the event that a post should receive unexpected attention (like my Wittgenstein post that was linked on Reddit), it would stand up a little better to critical scrutiny.

Aware of this, I started my second blog, Grand Strategy Annex, but this, too, has grown into something more serious and I hesitate even there to post poorly thought-out ideas — though I am still guilty of this on occasion (especially with my recent post on gray goo).

A lot of what I put in my early blog posts consisted of ideas to which I attached no great importance. My first post on civilization, for example — Today’s Thought on Civilization — was something I wrote because it wasn’t one of the ideas I was working on in my manuscripts, hence of no great importance. However, that post led to further posts, and now I have a significant tranche of posts on civilization. I also have a much clearer idea of civilization than I had six years ago, and the philosophy of civilization now constitutes a central research interest of mine. Most of what I think about civilization now goes on my blogs, with no thought of “saving” it for a manuscript because I consider it too important for a mere blog post. So my own attitude to my own writing has changed over the time I’ve been blogging on strategy, civilization, and philosophy.

In any case, I now hope to return to my post on The limits of my language are the limits of my world and to give this idea an exposition that does not treat this passage from the Tractatus like an aphorism, which it is not. Skimming though a number of Wittgenstein’s works and commentaries over the past new days I already have a idea of how I will do this, but it will take me some time to get to it. And it would take more time yet to then take the consequences of an inquiry into Wittgenstein and apply it to the interpretation of quantum theory, which was what I did my my original post. To do justice to that idea would definitely require a work of some scope. But I am not entirely ready to give up my intellectually opportunistic ways, seizing upon any idea that strikes me as interesting at the moment and writing about whatever seems related to it.

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In this picture you can clearly see the spike in my stats generated by the Reddit link to my post on Wittgenstein. You can also see that the best day ever was 12,749, which was the second day of the spike in traffic.

In this picture you can clearly see the spike in my stats generated by the Reddit link to my post on Wittgenstein. You can also see that the best day ever was 12,749, which was the second day of the spike in traffic.

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Saturday


Kierkegaard and Russell

The human mind is a strange and complex entity, and while the mind possesses unappreciated subtlety (of the kind I attempted to describe in The Human Overview), rigorous thinking does not come naturally to it. Rigor is a hard-won achievement, not a gift. If we want to achieve some measure of conceptual clarity we must make a particular effort to think rigorously. This is not easy. If you let the mind do what comes naturally and easily to it, you will probably not be thinking rigorously, and you will probably not attain conceptual clarity.

But what is rigor? To ask this question puts us in a position not unlike Saint Augustine who asked, “What, then, is time?” If no one asks me, I know what rigor is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. What distinguishes rigorous thinking from ordinary thinking? And what distinguishes a rigorous life from an ordinary life? Is there any relation between the formal and existential senses of rigor?

As a first and rough approximation, we could say that rigor is the implementation of a precise idea of precision. Whether or not a precise idea of precision can be applied to the human condition, a question that I have addressed in The Human Condition Made Rigorous, is a question of whether the formal sense of rigor is basic, and existential rigor is an implementation of formal rigor in life.

Kierkegaard concerned himself with what I am here calling existential rigor, i.e., the idea of living a rigorous life. One of the central themes that runs through Kierkegaard’s substantial corpus is the question of how one becomes an authentic Christian in an inauthentic Christian society (though this is not how Kierkegaard himself expressed the problem that preoccupied him). Kierkegaard expresses himself in the traditional Christian idiom of suffering for the truth, but Kierkegaard’s suffering is not pointless or meaningless: it is conducive to existential rigor:

“My purpose is to make it difficult to become a Christian, yet not more difficult than it is, nor to make it difficult for stupid people, and easy for clever pates, but qualitatively difficult, and essentially difficult for every man equally, for essentially it is equally difficult for every man to relinquish his understanding and his thinking, and to keep his soul fixed upon the absurd; it is comparatively more difficult for a man if he has much understanding — if one will keep in mind that not everyone who has lost his understanding over Christianity thereby proves that he has any.”

KIERKEGAARD’S CONCLUDING UNSCIENTIFIC POSTSCRIPT, Translated from the Danish by DAVID F. SWENSON, PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA, Completed after his death and provided with Introduction and Notes by WALTER LOWRIE, PRINCETON: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, p. 495

The whole of Kierkegaard’s book Attack Upon Christendom is an explicit attack upon “official” Christianity, which he saw as too safe, too comfortable, too well-connected to the machinery of the state. In Kierkegaard’s Denmark, no one was suffering in order to bear witness to the truth of Christianity:

“…hundreds of men are introduced who instead of following Christ are snugly and comfortably settled, with family and steady promotion, under the guise that their activity is the Christianity of the New Testament, and who live off the fact that others have had to suffer for the truth (which precisely is Christianity), so that the relationship is completely inverted, and Christianity, which came into the world as the truth men die for, has now become the truth upon which they live, with family and steady promotion — ‘Rejoice then in life while thy springtime lasts’.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Attack Upon Christendom, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946, p. 42

And from Kierkegaard’s journals…

“Could you not discover some way in which you too could help the age? Then I thought, what if I sat down and made everything difficult? For one must try to be useful in every possible way. Even if the age does not need ballast I must be loved by all those who make everything easy; for if no one is prepared it difficult it becomes all too easy — to make things easy.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Soul of Kierkegaard: Selections from His Journals, 1845, p. 93

Kierkegaard is full of such passages, and if you read him through you will probably find more compelling instances of this idea than the quotes I have plucked out above.

Kierkegaard called into question the easy habits of belief that we follow mostly without questioning them; Russell called into question the intuitions that come naturally to us, to the human mind, and which we mostly do not question. Both Kierkegaard and Russell thought there was value in doing things the hard way, not in order to court difficulty for its own sake, but rather for the different perspective it affords us by not simply doing what comes naturally, but having to think things through for ourselves.

Russell’s approach to rigor is superficially antithetical to that of Kierkegaard. While Kierkegaard was interested in the individual and his individual existence, Russell was interested in universal logical principles that had nothing to do with individual existence. William James once wrote to Russell, “My dying words to you are ‘Say good-by to mathematical logic if you wish to preserve your relations with concrete realities!'” Russell’s response was perfect deadpan: “As for the advice to say goodbye to mathematical logic if I wish to preserve my relation with concrete realities, I am not wholly inclined to dispute its wisdom. But I should push it farther, & say that it would be well to give up all philosophy, & abandon the student’s life altogether. Ten days of standing for Parliament gave me more relations to concrete realities than a lifetime of thought.”

Nevertheless, beyond these superficial differences, both Kierkegaard and Russell understood, each in his own way, that the easy impulse must be resisted. A passage from Bertrand Russell that I previously quoted in The Overview Effect in Formal Thought makes this point for formal rigor:

“The fact is that symbolism is useful because it makes things difficult. (This is not true of the advanced parts of mathematics, but only of the beginnings.) What we wish to know is, what can be deduced from what. Now, in the beginnings, everything is self-evident; and it is very hard to see whether one self-evident proposition follows from another or not. Obviousness is always the enemy to correctness. Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious. Then we set up certain rules for operating on the symbols, and the whole thing becomes mechanical. In this way we find out what must be taken as premiss and what can be demonstrated or defined.”

Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”

And elsewhere…

“There is a good deal of importance to philosophy in the theory of symbolism, a good deal more than at one time I thought. I think the importance is almost entirely negative, i.e., the importance lies in the fact that unless you are fairly self conscious about symbols, unless you are fairly aware of the relation of the symbol to what it symbolizes, you will find yourself attributing to the thing properties which only belong to the symbol. That, of course, is especially likely in very abstract studies such as philosophical logic, because the subject-matter that you are supposed to be thinking of is so exceedingly difficult and elusive that any person who has ever tried to think about it knows you do not think about it except perhaps once in six months for half a minute. The rest of the time you think about the symbols, because they are tangible, but the thing you are supposed to be thinking about is fearfully difficult and one does not often manage to think about it. The really good philosopher is the one who does once in six months think about it for a minute. Bad philosophers never do.”

Bertrand Russell, Logic and Knowledge: Essays 1901-1950, 1956, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism,” I. “Facts and Propositions,” p. 185

For Russell, the use of symbols in reasoning constitutes a reformulation of the intuitive in a counter-intuitive form, and this makes it possible for us to struggle toward the truth without being distracted by matters that seem so obvious that our cognitive biases lead us toward deceptive obviousness instead of toward the truth. There is another name for this, defamailiarization (which I previously discussed in Reversing the Process of Defamiliarization). Great art defamiliarizes the familiar in order to present it to us again, anew, in unfamiliar terms. In this way we see the world with new eyes. Just so, the reformulation of intuitive thought in counter-intuitive forms presents the familiar to us in unfamiliar terms and we see our reasoning anew with the mind’s eye.

Intuitions have their place in formal thought. I have in the past written of the tension between intuition and formalization that characterizes formal thought, as well as of the place of intuition in philosophical argument (cf. Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method). But if intuitions have their place, they also have their limitations, and the making of easy things difficult is a struggle against the limitations of intuition. What Kierkegaard and Russell have in common in their conception of rigor is that of making something ordinarily easy into something difficult in order to overcome the limitations of the natural and the intuitive. All of this may sound rather arcane and confined to academic squabbles, but it is in fact quite directly related to the world situation today.

I have often written about the anonymity and anomie of life in industrial-technological civilization; this is a familiar theme that has been worked through quite extensively in twentieth century sociology, and one could argue that it is also a prominent element in existentialism. But the human condition in the context of our civilization today is not only marked by anonymity and anomie, but also by high and rising standards of living, which usually translates directly into comfort. While we are perhaps more bereft of meaning than ever, we are also more comfortable than ever before in history. This has also been studied in some detail. Occasionally this combination of a comfortable but listless life is called “affluenza.”

Kierkegaard’s defamiliarization of (institutionalized and inauthentic) Christianity was intended to make Christianity difficult for bourgeois worldlings; the militant Islamists of our time want to make Islam difficult and demanding for those who would count themselves Muslims. It is the same demand for existential rigor in each that is the motivation. If it is difficult to understand why young men at the height of their prowess and physical powers can be seduced into extremist militancy, one need only reflect for a moment on the attraction of difficult things and the earned honors of existential rigor. The west has almost completely forgotten the attraction of difficult things. What remains is perhaps the interest in “extreme” sports, in which individuals test themselves against contrived physical challenges, which provides a kind of existential rigor along with bragging rights.

Extremist ideologies offer precisely the two things for which the individual hungers but cannot find in contemporary industrialized society: meaning, and a challenge to his complacency. An elaborately worked out eschatological conception of history shows the individual his special place within the grand scheme of things (this is the familiar ground of cosmic warfare and the eschatological conception of history), but this eschatological vision is not simply handed for free to the new communicant. He must work for it, strive for it, sacrifice for it. And when he has proved himself equal to the demands placed upon him, then he is rewarded with the profoundly satisfying gift of an earned honor: membership in a community of the elect.

This view is not confined to violent extremists. We meet with this whenever someone makes the commonplace remark that we don’t value that which is given away for free, and Spinoza expressed the thought with more eloquence: “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.” Anyone who feels this pull of difficult things, who desires a challenge, who wants to be tested in order to prove their worth in the only way that truly counts, is an existentialist in action, if not in thought, because it is the existentialist conception of authenticity that is operative in this conception of existential rigor.

We have tended to think of pre-modern societies, mostly agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, with their rigid social hierarchies and inherited social positions, as paradigmatic examples of inauthentic societies, but we have managed to create a thoroughly inauthentic society in the midst of our industrial-technological civilization. This civilization and its social order may have its origins in the overturning of the inauthentic social order of earlier ages, but, after an initial period of social experimentation, the present social order ossified and re-created many of the inauthentic and hierarchical forms that characterized the overthrown social order.

Inauthentic societies are awash in unearned unearned advantages. I wrote about this earlier in discussing the urban austerity of Simone Weil, the wilderness austerity of Christopher McCandless (also known as Alexander Supertramp), and comparing the two in Weil and McCandless: Another Parallel:

“…the accomplishments of the elite and the privileged are always tainted by the fact that what they have attained has not been earned. But it is apparent that there are always a few honest individuals among the privileged who are acutely aware that their position has not been earned, that it is tainted, and the only way to prove that one can make it on one’s own is to cut one’s ties to one’s privileged background and strike out on one’s own.”

There is a certain sense in which the available and ample comforts of industrial-technological civilization transformed the greater part of the global population into complacent consumers who accept an inauthentic life. There is another name of this too; Nietzsche called such individuals Last Men.

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The Christmas Truce

25 December 2014

Thursday


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:

Christmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News.

A Spontaneous Truce on Christmas Day 1914


In a summer war that was supposed to be over in a month or two, the fact that the war had persisted and even grown in scale over the intervening months meant that this was not the war that was expected, it was something entirely different. And it was. It was the first global industrialized war. Entire societies were mobilized for warfare; costs in lives and materiel spiraled far beyond anything anticipated. And the war drug on. The war had not stopped in the fall for harvest, as wars did during agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. The war had not stopped when the weather turned bad. And the war had not stopped when winter began. There were to be no winter’s quarters, only continued fighting.

Perhaps the most familiar images of the First World are those of trench warfare. The machine gun increased lethality while barbed wire slowed troop movements, leading to slaughter and stagnation on an unprecedented scale — an industrial scale. Even before machines guns, rifled small arms were beginning to make frontal assaults suicidal, as in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. No longer could soldiers stand shoulder-to-shoulder and wait to fire until they saw the whites of their enemy’s eyes. The contest of the battlefield would be settled long before ranks had closed at such a proximity. Instead, soldiers dug in, and only peeked above their trenches at the enemy, also dug in and peering from their trenches.

Many popular English idioms date from the trench warfare of the First World War, and we use them without thinking twice about their origins: in the trenches, over the top, no man’s land, and so on. Between the trenches was no man’s land, an area cratered by continuous shelling, and strung with barbed wire to prevent surprise trench raids. When the weather turned bad, the churned up soil of no man’s land turned into mud.

By Christmas 1914 the war had been stalemated for four months. The violence and misery had settled into a routine. The violence became so routine, in fact, that there are stories of soldiers on both sides warning the other side when then would begin firing. It is in this context that the Christmas truce (Weihnachtsfrieden in German, Trêve de Noël in French) occurred.

Here is part of an account of the Christmas truce by Frank Richards:

On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one. Platoons would sometimes go out for twenty-four hours’ rest – it was a day at least out of the trench and relieved the monotony a bit — and my platoon had gone out in this way the night before, but a few of us stayed behind to see what would happen. Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.

Buffalo Bill [the Company Commander] rushed into the trench and endeavoured to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. He had to accept the situation, so soon he and the other company officers climbed out too. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man’s-land. Their officers was also now out. Our officers exchanged greetings with them. One of the German officers said that he wished he had a camera to take a snapshot, but they were not allowed to carry cameras. Neither were our officers.

A longer account of the same can be found at Christmas in the Trenches, 1914.

What stands out about the spontaneous Christmas Day truce of 1914 is the humanity of the individual soldier. The conditions of the war had been inhumane one a scale not previously experienced in wartime. And yet soldiers were not so brutalized by the brutal war they had endured up to that time that they could not recognize the common humanity of fellow soldiers on the other side of the trenches, i.e., the humanity of their enemy. Common humanity is typically among the first casualties of war.

There was anger at the Christmas Truce at the highest levels of military leadership on both sides, where it was styled “fraternization with the enemy.” The generals knew very well that it would be all the more difficult to work their troops up into a homicidal fury if those troops identified more with the soldiers on the other side than with their officers and leaders. They need not have been concerned. The feeling of shared humanity among the soldiers at the front was not sufficient to bridge the gap between the warring powers, though it did provide relief for a day.

While the leadership was dismayed by the fraternization, there were others for whom it would not have been a surprise. Jean Jaurès, like Einstein and Russell, was among the few Europeans not moved by the August Madness. The French socialist leader had predicted that the next great war would mean that the working classes would slaughter each other on the battlefields of Europe, and this is exactly what happened. Jaurès was assassinated on 31 July 1914, as the war was breaking out in earnest, shot to death at a café in Paris, Le Croissant, by a young French nationalist angered by Jaurès’ pacifism.

Jaurès’ pacificism and international socialism died with him, but the essential solidarity of the soldiering masses was revealed in the Christmas Truce as in few other episodes in the war. Idealists — perhaps we should call them utopians — like Einstein, Russell, and Jaurès imagined that this solidarity might demonstrate the futility of the war to the working classes, who would do the greater part of the fighting and the dying, but that time had not yet arrived. Popular expressions of the futility of the war did not fully come to a head until the French mutinies in the spring of 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in the fall of 1917.

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1914 Christmas Truce

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1914 to 2014

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

4. A Blank Check for Austria-Hungary

5. Serbia and Austria-Hungary Mobilize

6. Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

7. Ernst Jünger is Mobilized

8. The August Madness

9. The Battle of Coronel

10. The Christmas Truce

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twentieth century war collage

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Tuesday


nuclear explosion

The Cold War forced us to think in global terms. In other words, it forced us to think in planetary terms. The planet was divided into two armed camps, with one camp led by the US presiding over NATO and the other camp led by the USSR presiding over the Warsaw Pact. Every action taken, or every action forborne, was weighed and judged against its planetary consequences, and this became most evident when faced with the ultimate Cold War nightmare, a massive nuclear exchange between the superpowers that came to known as MAD for mutually assured destruction. It is at least arguable that the idea of anthropogenic existential risk emerged from the Cold War MAD scenarios.

The visionary thinking of the Cold War period has been tainted by its association with what was then openly called “the unthinkable” — a massive thermonuclear exchange — but the true visionaries are not the ones who narrated a utopian fantasy that we would all have liked to believe, but rather the visionaries are the ones who unflinchingly explored the implications of what Karl Jaspers called “the new fact.” Anthropogenic extinction became technologically possible with the advent of the nuclear era, and because it was made possible, it became a pressing need to discuss it honestly. In this sense, the great visionaries of the recent past have been men like Guilio Douhet and Herman Kahn

Douhet’s work predates the nuclear age, but Douhet was a great visionary of air power, and the extent to which Douhet understood that air power would change warfare is remarkable:

“No longer can areas exist in which life can be lived in safety and tranquility, nor can the battlefield any longer be limited to actual combatants. On the contrary, the battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy. There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians. The defenses on land and sea will no longer serve to protect the country behind them; nor can victory on land or sea protect the people from enemy aerial attacks unless that victory insures the destruction, by actual occupation of the enemy’s territory, of all that gives life to his aerial forces.”

Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, translated by Dino Ferrari, Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998, pp. 9-10

There have been many predictions for future warfare that have not been borne out in practice, but with hindsight we can see that Douhet was right about almost everything he predicted, and, more importantly, he was right for the right reasons. He saw, he understood, he drew the correct implications, and he laid out his vision in admirable clarity.

The Cold War standoff between the US and the USSR was a consequence of the implications of air power already glimpsed by Douhet (in 1921), and raised to a higher order of magnitude by advanced technology weapons systems. When Douhet wrote this work, there were as yet no jet engines, no ballistic missiles, and no nuclear weapons, but Douhet’s vision was so comprehensive and accurate that these major technological innovations did not alter the basic framework that he predicted. Citizens did become combatants, and the citizens of each side were held hostage by the other. This is the essence of the MAD scenario.

The increasing efficacy of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems did not substantially change Douhet’s framework, but by raising the stakes of destructiveness, nuclear weapons, jet bombers, and missiles did change the scope of warfare from mere localized destruction to a potential planetary catastrophe. Many scientists began to discuss the potential consequences for life and civilization of the use of nuclear weapons, and many of the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project later felt misgivings for their role in releasing the nuclear genie from the bottle.

These concerns were not confined to western scientists. In an internal report to USSR leadership, Soviet nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov wrote bluntly about the possibility of human extinction in the event of nuclear war:

“Calculations show that if, in the case of war, weapons that already exist are used, levels of radioactive emissions and concentration of radioactive substances, which are biologically harmful to human life and vegetation, will be created on a significant portion of the earth’s surface. The rate of growth of atomic explosives is such that in just a few years the stockpile will be large enough to create conditions under which the existence of life on the whole globe will be impossible. The explosion of around one hundred hydrogen bombs could lead to this result.”

“There is no hope that organisms, and the human organism in particular, will adjust themselves to higher levels of radioactivity on earth. This adjustment can take place only through a prolonged process of evolution. So we cannot but admit that mankind faces the enormous threat of an end to all life on earth.”

Igor Kurchatov “The Danger of Atomic War” 1954

Kurchtov’s formulations are striking in their unaffected naturalism and the bluntness of the message that he sought to communicate. Even as Kurchatov wrote of the end of the world he avoided histrionics. His account of human extinction is what Colin McGinn might call “flatly natural.” The result of a dispassionately scientific account of the end of the world is perhaps the more powerful for avoiding emotional and rhetorical excess.

The space age began three years after Kurchatov’s memo on the dangers of nuclear war, when Sputnik was launched on 04 October 1957. Thereafter a “space race” paralleled the arms race and became a new venue for superpower competition. Bertrand Russell, for example, was scathing in his righteous ridicule of the space program as being merely a symptom of the Cold War. (Chad Trainer has discussed this in Earth to Russell.)

It has become a commonplace of commentary on the Apollo missions that this was the occasion of an intellectual turning point in our collective self-understanding. The photograph of Earth taken from space on the way to the moon was a way to communicate some hint of the “overview effect” to the public. Again, we were forced to think in planetary terms by this new image of Earth hanging isolated against the blackness of space. Earth was achingly beautiful, we all saw, but also terribly vulnerable.

The Cold War arms race and space race came together during the latter part of the twentieth century in a kind of cosmic pessimism over the very possibility of the longevity of any civilization whatever, here extrapolated far beyond the Earth to the possibility of any other inhabited planet.

When Carl Sagan wrote his Cosmos: A Personal Journey during the height of the Cold War, the concern over nuclear war was such that the term L in the Drake equation (the length of time a SETI-capable civilization is transmitting or receiving) was frequently judged to be quite short, only a few hundred years at most. This is given a poignant depiction in Carl Sagan’s Dream described in the last episode of Cosmos.

It could be said that nuclear weapons and space exploration driven by political competition opened our eyes to our place in the cosmos in a way that might not have made a similar impression if the stakes had not been so high. Samuel Johnson is often quoted for his line, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Similarly it could be said that the Cold War and the nuclear arms race brought the whole of humanity face-to-face with extinction, and we pulled back from the brink. The danger is not over, but the human species has been changed by the experience of imminent destruction.

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The Technocratic Elite

21 December 2014

Sunday


technocratic elite 1

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

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

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

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

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

In A Thought Experiment in Tyranny I asked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday


Nobel prize

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

The Industrial-Technological Thesis

Medieval and Industrial Civilization: Developmental Parallels

Science, Knowledge, and Civilization

The Open Loop of Industrial-Technological Civilization

Chronometry and the STEM Cycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Technological Frontier

12 December 2014

Friday


wanderer above the technological frontier

An Exercise in Techno-Philosophy

Quite some time ago in Fear of the Future I employed the phase “the technological frontier,” but I did not follow up on this idea in a systematic way. In the popular mind, the high technology futurism of the technological singularity has largely replaced the futurism of rocketships and jetpacks, so that the idea of a technological frontier has particular resonance for us today. The idea of a technological frontier is particularly compelling in our time, as technology seems to dominate our lives to an increasing degree, and this trend may only accelerate in the future. If our lives are shaped by technology today, how much more profoundly will they be shaped by technology in ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years? We would seem to be poised like pioneers on a technological frontier.

How are we to understand the human condition in the age of the technological frontier? The human condition is not longer merely the human condition, but it is the human condition in the context of technology. This was not always the case. Let me try to explain.

While humanity emerged from nature and lived entirely within the context of nature, our long prehistory integrated into nature was occluded and utterly lost after the emergence of civilization, and the origins of civilization was attended by the formulation of etiological mythologies that attributed supernatural causes to the manifold natural causes that shape our lives. We continued to live at the mercy of nature, but posited ourselves as outside nature. This led to a strangely conflicted conception of nature and a fraught relationship with the world from which we emerged.

The fraught human relationship to nature has been characterized by E. O. Wilson in terms of biophilia; the similarly fraught human relationship to technology might be similarly characterized in terms of technophilia, which I posited in The Technophilia Hypothesis (and further elaborated in Technophilia and Evolutionary Psychology). And as with biophilia and biophobia, so, too, while there is technophilia, there is also technophobia.

Today we have so transformed our world that the context of our lives is the technological world; we have substituted technology for nature as the framework within which we conduct the ordinary business of life. And whereas we once asked about humanity’s place in nature, we now ask, or ought to ask, what humanity’s place is or ought to be in this technological world with which we have surrounded ourselves. We ask these questions out of need, existential need, as there is both pessimism and optimism about a human future increasingly dominated by the technology we have created.

I attach considerable importance to the fact that we have literally surrounded ourselves with our technology. Technology began as isolated devices that appeared within the context of nature. A spear, a needle, a comb, or an arrow were set against the background of omnipresent nature. And the relationship of these artifacts to their sources in nature were transparent: the spear was made of wood, the needle and the comb of bone, the arrow head of flint. Technological artifacts, i.e., individual instances of technology, were interpolations into the natural world. Over a period of more than ten thousand years, however, technological artifacts accumulated until they have displaced nature and they constitute the background against which nature is seen. Nature then became an interpolation within the context of the technological innovations of civilizations. We have gardens and parks and zoos that interpolate plants and animals into the built environment, which is the environment created by technology.

With technology as the environment and the background of our lives, and not merely constituted by objects within our lives, technology now has an ontological dimension — it has its own laws, its own features, its own properties — and it has a frontier. We ourselves are objects within a technological world (hence the feeling of anomie from being cogs within an enormous machine); we populate an environment defined and constituted by technology, and as such bear some relationship to the ontology of technology as well as to its frontier. Technology conceived in this way, as a totality, suggests ways of thinking about technology parallel to our conceptions of humanity and civilization, inter alia.

One way to think about the technological frontier is as the human exploration of the technium. The idea of the technium accords well with the conception of the technological world as the context of human life that I described above. The “technium” is a term introduced by Kevin Kelly to denote the totality of technology. Here is the passage in which Kelly introduces the term:

“I dislike inventing new words that no one else uses, but in this case all known alternatives fail to convey the required scope. So I’ve somewhat reluctantly coined a word to designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us. I call it the technium. The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections. For the rest of this book I will use the term technium where others might use technology as a plural, and to mean a whole system (as in “technology accelerates”). I reserve the term technology to mean a specific technology, such as radar or plastic polymers.”

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants

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

The concept of the technium can be extended in parallel to schema I have applied to civilization in Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-, so that we have the concepts of the eotechnium, the esotechnium, the exotechnium, and the astrotechnium. (Certainly no one is going to employ this battery of unlovely terms I have coined — neither the words nor the concepts are immediately accessible — but I keep this ideas in the back of my mind and hope to further extend, perhaps in a formal context in which symbols can be substituted for awkward words and the ideas can be presented.)

● Eotechnium the origins of technology, wherever and whenever it occurs, terrestrial or otherwise

● Esotechnium our terrestrial technology

● Exotechnium the extraterrestrial technium exclusive of the terrestrial technium

● Astrotechnium the technium in its totality throughout the universe; the terrestrial and extraterrestrial technium taken together in their cosmological context

I previously formulated these permutations of technium in Civilization and the Technium. In that post I wrote:

The esotechnium corresponds to what has been called the technosphere, mentioned above. I have pointed out that the concept of the technosphere (like other -spheres such as the hydrosphere and the sociosphere, etc.) is essentially Ptolemaic in conception, i.e., geocentric, and that to make the transition to fully Copernican conceptions of science and the world we need to transcend our Ptolemaic ideas and begin to employ Copernican ideas. Thus to recognize that the technosphere corresponds to the esotechnium constitutes conceptual progress, because on this basis we can immediately posit the exotechnium, and beyond both the esotechnium and the exotechnium we can posit the astrotechnium.

We can already glimpse the astrotechnium, in so far as human technological artifacts have already reconnoitered the solar system and, in the case of the Voyager space probes, have left the solar system and passed into interstellar space. The technium then, i.e., from the eotechnium originating on Earth, now extends into space, and we can conceive the whole of this terrestrial technology together with our extraterrestrial technology as the astrotechnium.

It is a larger question yet whether there are other technological civilizations in the universe — it is the remit of SETI to discover if this is the case — and, if there are, there is an astrotechnium much greater than that we have created by sending our probes through our solar system. A SETI detection of an extraterrestrial signal would mean that the technology of some other species had linked up with our technology, and by their transmission and our reception an interstellar astrotechnium comes into being.

The astrotechnium is both itself a technological frontier, and it extends throughout the frontier of extraterrestrial space, and a physical frontier of space. The exploration of the astrotechnium would be at once an exploration of the technological frontier and an exploration of an actual physical frontier. This is surely the frontier in every sense of the term. But there are other senses as well.

We can go my taxonomy of the technium one better and also include the endotechnium, where the prefix “endo-” means “inside” or “interior.” The endotechnium is that familiar motif of contemporary thought of virtual reality becoming indistinguishable from the reality of nature. Virtual reality is immersion in the endotechnium.

I have noted (in An Idea for the Employment of “Friendly” AI) that one possible employment of friendly AI would be the on-demand production of virtual worlds for our entertainment (and possibly also our education). One would presumably instruct one’s AI interface (which already has all human artistic and intellectual accomplishments storied in its databanks) that one wishes to enter into a particular story. The AI generates the entire world virtually, and one employs one’s preferred interface to step into the world of the imagination. Why would one so immersed choose to emerge again?

One of the responses to the Fermi paradox is that any sufficiently advanced civilization that had developed to the point of being able to generate virtual reality of a quality comparable to ordinary experience would thereafter devote itself to the exploration of virtual worlds, turning inward rather than outward, forsaking the wider universe outside for the universe of the mind. In this sense, the technological frontier represented by virtual reality is the exploration of the human imagination (or, for some other species, the exploration of the alien imagination). This exploration was formerly carried out in literature and the arts, but we seem poised to enact this exploration in an unprecedented way.

There are, then, many senses of the technological frontier. Is there any common framework within which we can grasp the significance of these several frontiers? The most famous representative of the role of the frontier in history is of course Frederick Jackson Turner, for whom the Turner Thesis is named. At the end of his famous essay on the frontier in American life, Turner wrote:

“From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance. The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom — these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.”

Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which constitutes the first chapter of The Frontier In American History

Turner is not widely cited today, and his work has fallen into disfavor (especially targeted by the “New Western Historians”), but much that Turner observed about the frontier is not only true, but more generally applicable beyond the American experience of the frontier. I think many readers will recognize in the attitudes of those today on the technological frontier the qualities that Turner described in the passage quoted above, attributing them specially to the American frontier, which for Turner was, “an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward.”

The technological frontier, too, is an area of free space — the abstract space of technology — the continuous recession of this free space as frontier technologies migrate into the ordinary business of life even while new frontiers are opened, and the advance of pioneers into the technological frontier.

One of the attractions of a frontier is that it is distant from the centers of civilization, and in this sense represents an escape from the disciplined society of mature institutions. The frontier serves as a refuge; the most marginal elements of society naturally seek the margins of society, at the periphery, far from the centers of civilization. (When I wrote about the center and periphery of civilization in The Farther Reaches of Civilization I could just as well have expressed myself in terms of the frontier.)

In the past, the frontier was defined in terms of its (physical) distance from the centers of civilization, but the world of high technology being created today is a product of the most technologically advanced centers of civilization, so that the technological frontier is defined by its proximity to the centers of civilization, understood at the centers of innovation and production for industrial-technological civilization.

The technological frontier nevertheless exists on the periphery of many of the traditional symbols of high culture that were once definitive of civilizational centers; in this sense, the technological frontier may be defined as the far periphery of the traditional center of civilization. If we identify civilization with the relics of high culture — painting, sculpture, music, dance, and even philosophy, all understood in their high-brow sense (and everything that might have featured symbolically in a seventeenth century Vanitas painting) — we can see that the techno-philosophy of our time has little sympathy for these traditional markers of culture.

The frontier has been the antithesis of civilization — civilization’s other — and the further one penetrates the frontier, moving always away from civilization, the nearer one approaches the absolute other of civilization: wildness and wilderness. The technological frontier offers to the human sense of adventure a kind of wildness distinct from that of nature as well as the intellectual adventure of traditional culture. Although the technological frontier is in one sense antithetical to the post-apocalyptic visions of formerly civilized individuals transformed into a noble savage (which usually marked by technological rejectionism), there is also a sense in which the technological frontier is like the post-apocalyptic frontier in its radical rejection of bourgeois values.

If we take the idea of the technological frontier in the context of the STEM cycle, we would expect that the technological frontier would have parallels in science and engineering — a scientific frontier and an engineering frontier. In fact, the frontier of scientific knowledge has been a familiar motif since at least the middle of the twentieth century. With the profound disruptions of scientific knowledge represented by relativity and quantum theory, the center of scientific inquiry has been displaced into an unfamiliar periphery populated by strange and inexplicable phenomena of the kind that would have been dismissed as anomalies by classical physics.

The displacement of traditional values of civilization, and even of traditional conceptions of science, gives the technological frontier its frontier character even as it emerges within the centers of industrial-technological civilization. In The Interstellar Imperative I asserted that the central imperative of industrial-technological civilization is the propagation of the STEM cycle. It is at least arguable that the technological frontier is both a result and a cause of the ongoing STEM cycle, which experiences its most unexpected advances when its scientific, technological, and engineering innovations seem to be at their most marginal and peripheral. A civilization that places itself within its own frontier in this way is a frontier society par excellence.

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The Limits of Science

3 December 2014

Wednesday


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

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

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

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

The 1791 Döbler portrait of Kant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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