14 February 2017
Nietzsche’s Big History
One of the most succinct formulations of Big History of which I am aware is a brief paragraph from Nietzsche:
“In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of ‘world history’ — yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.
“On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Friedrich Nietzsche, Fragment, 1873: from the Nachlass. Translated by Walter Kaufmann
…and in the original German:
In irgend einem abgelegenen Winkel des in zahllosen Sonnensystemen flimmernd ausgegossenen Weltalls gab es einmal ein Gestirn, auf dem kluge Tiere das Erkennen erfanden. Es war die hochmütigste und verlogenste Minute der “Weltgeschichte”: aber doch nur eine Minute. Nach wenigen Atemzügen der Natur erstarrte das Gestirn, und die klugen Tiere mußten sterben.
Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinne, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1873, aus dem Nachlaß
This passage has been translated several times, so, for purposes of comparison, here is another translation:
“In some remote corner of the universe that is poured out in countless flickering solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the most arrogant and the most untruthful moment in ‘world history’ — yet indeed only a moment. After nature had taken a few breaths, the star froze over and the clever animals had to die.”
ON TRUTH AND LYING IN AN EXTRA-MORAL SENSE (1873), Edited and Translated with a Critical Introduction by Sander L. Gilman, Carole Blair, and David J. Parent, New York and Oxford: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1989
Bertrand Russell, who rarely passed over an opportunity to criticize Nietzsche in the harshest terms, expressed a tragic interpretation of human endeavor that is quite similar to Nietzsche’s capsule big history:
“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship”
Even closer to Nietzsche, in both style and spirit, is the passage that immediately precedes this in the same essay by Russell, told, as with Nietzsche, in the form of a parable:
“For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space. At length it began to take shape, the central mass threw off planets, the planets cooled, boiling seas and burning mountains heaved and tossed, from black masses of cloud hot sheets of rain deluged the barely solid crust. And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean, and developed rapidly in the fructifying warmth into vast forest trees, huge ferns springing from the damp mould, sea monsters breeding, fighting, devouring, and passing away. And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death’s inexorable decree. And Man said: `There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts. And when he followed the instincts which God had transmitted to him from his ancestry of beasts of prey, he called it Sin, and asked God to forgive him. But he doubted whether he could be justly forgiven, until he invented a divine Plan by which God’s wrath was to have been appeased. And seeing the present was bad, he made it yet worse, that thereby the future might be better. And he gave God thanks for the strength that enabled him to forgo even the joys that were possible. And God smiled; and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man’s sun; and all returned again to nebula.
“`Yes,’ he murmured, `it was a good play; I will have it performed again.'”
Here Russell, unlike Nietzsche, gives theological meaning to the spectacle, however heterodox that meaning may be; I can easily imagine someone preferring Russell’s theological version to Nietzsche’s secular version, though both highlight the meaninglessness of human endeavor in a thermodynamic universe.
Our sun — a star among stars — will be a relatively early casualty in the heat death of the universe. While the life of the sun is orders of magnitude beyond the life of the individual human being, as soon as we understood that the sun’s life will pass through predictable stages of stellar evolution, we understood that the sun, like any human being, was born, will shine for a time, and then will die, and, when the sun dies, everything that is dependent upon the light of the sun for life will die also. It is only if we can make ourselves independent of the sun that we will not inevitably share the fate of the sun.
The idea that the sun is a star among stars, and that any star will do in terms of supporting human life, is embodied in a quote attributed to Wernher von Braun by Tom Wolfe and reported in Bob Ward’s book about von Braun:
“The importance of the space program is not surpassing the Soviets in space. The importance is to build a bridge to the stars, so that when the Sun dies, humanity will not die. The Sun is a star that’s burning up, and when it finally burns up, there will be no Earth… no Mars… no Jupiter.”
quoted in Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun, Bob Ward, Chapter 22, p. 218, with a footnote giving as the source, “Transcript, NBC’s Today program, New York, November 11, 1998”
Wernher von Braun had seized upon the essential insight of existential risk mitigation, as had many involved in the space program from its inception. As soon as one adopts a naturalistic understand of the place of humanity in the universe, and when technology develops to a point at which its extrapolation offers human beings options and alternatives within the universe, anyone will draw the same conclusion. Another quote from von Braun makes the same point in another way:
“…man’s newly acquired capability to travel through outer space provides us with a way out of our evolutionary dead alley.”
Bob Ward, Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun, Annapolis, US: Naval Institute Press, 2013.
I have previously written about the idea that humanity is a solar species, but the fact that humanity and the biosphere from which we derive has been utterly dependent upon solar insolation has been an accident of history. Any sun will do. We can, accordingly, re-conceive humanity as a stellar species, the kind of species that requires a star and its planetary system to make a home for ourselves. In this sense, all species of planetary endemism are stellar species.
Even this idea of immigration to another star, and of any other star being as good as the sun, is ultimately too narrow. Our sun, or any star, can be the source of energy that powers our civilization, but it can easily be seen that substitute forms of energy could equally well power the future of our civilization, and that it has merely been an historical contingency — a matter of our planetary endemism — that we have been dependent upon a single star, or upon any star, for our energy needs.
This more radical and farther-reaching vision is embodied in a quote attributed to Ray Bradbury by Oriana Fallaci:
“Don’t let us forget this: that the Earth can die, explode, the Sun can go out, will go out. And if the Sun dies, if the Earth dies, if our race dies, then so will everything die that we have done up to that moment. Homer will die. Michelangelo will die, Galileo, Leonardo, Shakespeare, Einstein will die, all those will die who now are not dead because we are alive, we are thinking of them, we are carrying them within us. And then every single thing, every memory, will hurtle down into the void with us. So let us save them, let us save ourselves. Let us prepare ourselves to escape, to continue life and rebuild our cities on other planets: we shall not be long of this Earth! And if we really fear the darkness, if we really fight against it, then, for the good of all, let us take our rockets, let us get well used to the great cold and heat, the no water, the no oxygen, let us become Martians on Mars, Venusians on Venus, and when Mars and Venus die, let us go to the other solar systems, to Alpha Centauri, to wherever we manage to go, and let us forget the Earth. Let us forget our solar system and our body, the form it used to have, let us become no matter what, lichens, insects, balls of fire, no matter what, all that matters is that somehow life should continue, and the knowledge of what we were and what we did and learned: the knowledge of Homer and Michelangelo, of Galileo, Leonardo, Shakespeare, of Einstein! And the gift of life will continue.”
Oriana Fallaci, If the Sun Dies, New York: Atheneum, 1966, pp. 14-15
Fallaci refers to this as a “prayer,” and indeed we might see this as a prayer or a catechism of the Space Age — not a belief, not merely belief, but an imperative ever-present in the hearts and minds of those who have fully imbibed the spirit of the age and who seek to carry that spirit forward with evangelical fervor, proselytizing to the masses and bringing them to the True Faith through purity of will and vision — another way of saying naïveté.
Do the clever animals have to die? No, not yet. Not if they are clever enough to move on to another planet, another star, another galaxy. Not if they are clever enough to change themselves so that, when the changed conditions of the universe in which they exist no longer allow the lives of clever animals to continue, what the clever animals have achieved can be preserved in some other way, and they themselves can be preserved in another form.
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26 December 2016
In my recent Manifesto for the Study of Civilization I employed the phrase history in an extended sense. Here is a bit more context:
“One form that the transcendence of an exclusively historical study of civilization can take is that of extrapolating historical modes of thought so that these modes of thought apply to the future as well as to the past (and this could be called history in an extended sense).”
In several posts I have developed what I call concepts in an extended sense, as in Geocentrism in an Extended Sense and “biocentrism in an extended sense” in Addendum on the Technocentric Thesis and “ecology in an extended sense” in Intelligent Invasive Species.
In Developmental Temporality I wrote:
“With the advent of civilization in the most extended sense of that term, comprising organized settled agricultural societies and their urban centers, planning for the future becomes systematic.”
And in Reduction, Emergence, Supervenience I wrote:
“Philosophy today, then, is centered on the extended conceptions of ‘experience’ and ‘observation’ that science has opened up to us, and these extended senses of experience and observation go considerably beyond ordinary experience, and the prima facie intellectual intuitions available to beings like ourselves, whose minds evolved in a context in which perceptions mattered enormously while the constituents and overall structure of the cosmos mattered not at all.”
In these attempts to extrapolate, expand, and extend concepts beyond their ordinary usage — the result of which might also be called overview concepts — each traditional concept must be treated individually, as there is a limit that is demarcated by the intrinsic meaning of the concept, and these limits are different in each case. With history, the extrapolation of the concept is obvious: history has taken the past as its remit, but history in an extended sense would apply to the totality of time. This is already being done in Big History.
When I attended the second IBHA conference in 2014 I was witness to a memorable exchange that I described in 2014 IBHA Conference Day 2:
“During the question and answer session, a fellow who had spoken up in previous sessions with questions stood up and said that there were (at least) two conceptual confusions pervasive throughout discussions at this conference: 1) that something could come from nothing (presumably a reference to how the big bang is framed, though this could have been intended more generally as a critique of emergentism) and, 2) that history can say anything about the future. The same individual (whose name I did not get) said that no one had given an adequate definition of history, and then noted that the original Greek term for history meant ‘inquiry.’ Given this Grecian (or even, if you like, Herodotean) origin for the idea of history as an inquiry, I immediately asked myself, ‘If one can conduct an inquiry into the past, why cannot one also conduct an inquiry into the future?’ No doubt these inquires will be distinct because one concerns the past and the other the future, but cannot they be taken up in the same spirit?”
There was a note of frustration in the voice of the speaker who objected to any account of the future as a part of history, and while I could appreciate the source of that frustration, it reminded me of every traditionalist protest against the growth of scientific knowledge made possible by novel methods not sanctioned by tradition. In this connection I think of Isaiah Berlin’s critique of scientific historiography, which I previously discussed in Big History and Scientific Historiography.
Berlin argued that the historical method is intrinsically distinct from the scientific method, so that there can be no such thing as scientific historiography, i.e., that the intrinsic limitations of the concept of history restricts history from being scientific in the way that the natural sciences are scientific. While Berlin’s objection to scientific historiography is not stated in terms of restricting the expansion of historical modes of thought, his appeal to a nature of history intrinsically irreconcilable with science and the scientific method is parallel to an appeal to the nature of history as being intrinsically about the past (thus intrinsically not about the future), hence there can be no such thing as a history that includes within it the study of the future in addition to the study of the past.
Here is a passage in which Berlin characterizes distinctively historical modes of thought, contrasting them to scientific modes of thought:
“Historians cannot ply their trade without a considerable capacity for thinking in general terms; but they need, in addition, peculiar attributes of their own: a capacity for integration, for perceiving qualitative similarities and differences, a sense of the unique fashion in which various factors combine in the particular concrete situation, which must at once be neither so unlike any other situation as to constitute a total break with the continuous flow of human experience, nor yet so stylised and uniform as to be the obvious creature of theory and not of flesh and blood. The capacities needed are rather those of association than of dissociation, of perceiving the relation of parts to wholes, of particular sounds or colours to the many possible tunes or pictures into which they might enter, of the links that connect individuals viewed and savoured as individuals, and not primarily as instances of types or laws.”
Isaiah Berlin, “The Concept of Scientific History,” in Concepts and Categories, p. 140
Every cognitive capacity that Berlin here credits to the historian can be equally well exercised in relation to the future as to the past (I should point out that, as far as I know, Berlin did not take up the problem of the relation of the historian to the future). Indeed, one of the weaknesses of futurism has been that futurists have not immersed themselves in these distinctively historical modes of thought; our conception of the future could greatly benefit from a capacity for integration and perceiving the relation of parts to wholes. I don’t think Berlin would ever have imagined his critique of scientific historiography as advice for futurists, but it could be profitably employed in developing history in an extended sense.
It is common for historians to invoke distinctively historical modes of thought, and I believe that this is a valid concern. Indeed, I would go farther yet. Human modes of thought are primarily temporal, and non-temporal modes of thought come very late in our history as a species in comparison to the effortless way we learn to think of time in subtle and sophisticated ways. For example, when one learns a language, one finds that one spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to master past, present, and future tenses — the tenses of our mother tongue are so fixed in our minds that any other schema strikes us as counterintuitive (and, interestingly, even those who attain fluency in another language or languages usually revert to their mother tongue for counting). But in order to communicate effectively we must master the logic of time as expressed in linguistic tenses. Human beings are inveterate planners, preparers, and schemers; our present is pervasively animated by a concern for the future. We are so taken up with our plans for the future that it is considered something of a “gift” to be able to “live in the moment.”
Many of Berlin’s examples of distinctively historical thought position the historian as attempting to explain historical change. The emphasis on describing change in history results in an indirect deemphasis of continuity, though continuity is arguably the overwhelming experience of time and history. It would be almost impossible for us to delineate all of the things that we know will happen tomorrow, and which we do not even bother to think of as predictions because they fall so far near certainty on the epistemic continuum of historical knowledge. All of the laws of science that have been discovered up to the present day will continue to be in effect tomorrow, and all of the events and processes that make up the world will continue to be governed by these laws of nature tomorrow. We could exhaust ourselves describing the nomological certainties of the morrow, and still not have exhausted the predictions we might have made. Thus it is we know that the sun will rise tomorrow, and we can explain how and why the sun will rise tomorrow. If you are an anchorite living in a cave, the sun will not rise for you, but you can nevertheless be confident that Earth will continue to orbit the sun while rotating, and that this process will result in the appearance of the sun rising for everyone else not so confined.
But our sciences that describe the laws of nature that govern the world are incomplete, and they are in particular incomplete when it comes to history. I have noted elsewhere that there is (as yet) no science of time, and it is interesting to speculate that the absence of a science of time may be related to a parallel absence of a truly scientific historiography or a science of civilization. Because we have no science of time, we have no formal concepts of time — or, rather, we have no concepts of time recognized to be formal concepts. I have argued elsewhere that the idea of the punctiform present is a formal concept of time, i.e., interpreted as a formal concept it can be employed in a formal theory of time which can illuminate actual time as an ideal, simplified model. But as soon as you try to interpret the idea of the punctiform present as an empirical concept you run into difficulties. Would it be possible to measure a dimensionless instant? The punctiform present is like a pendulum with a weightless string, frictionless fulcrum, and no air drag. No such pendulum exists in actual fact, but the ideal pendulum remains a useful fiction for us. Similarly, the punctiform present is a useful fiction for a formal science of time.
A truly (perhaps exhaustively) scientific historiography would not only employ the methods of the special sciences in the exposition of history, but would also incorporate a science of time that would allow us to be as definite about history to come as we can now be definite about our predictions for the natural world as governed by laws of nature. It is not difficult to imagine what Berlin would have thought of such an idea. Here is another quote from Berlin’s essay on scientific historiography:
“…the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied, no matter how successful the human sciences may grow to be — even if, as all but obscurantists must hope, they discover genuine, empirically confirmed, laws of individual and collective behaviour — seems an attempt to square the circle.”
Isaiah Berlin, “The Concept of Scientific History,” in Concepts and Categories, p. 142
What Berlin here condemns as an attempt to square the circle is precisely my ideal in history, and it is what I called formal historiography in Rational Reconstructions of Time. A formulation of history in an extended sense would be a step toward a formal historiography.
While on one level I am interested in history as an intellectual discipline in its own right — history for history’s sake — and therefore I am interested in formal historiography as a sui generis discipline, I also have an ulterior motive in the pursuit of a formal historiography that can develop history in an extended sense. Such a formal historiography will be one tool in the interdisciplinary toolkit of future scientists of civilization, who must study civilization both in terms of its past and its future.
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9 July 2016
Introduction to the Scientific Study of Time
If I had an educational institution in which I could dictate the curriculum, I would have as requirements for the first year at least these two courses: “How to read a scientific paper” and “Understanding scales of time.” Of the former I will only say that, in our scientific civilization, every citizen needs to be able to read a scientific paper, so as not to rely exclusively on popularizations from journalists (perhaps I will write more on this later). The latter — understanding scales of time — is what concerns me at present. When I survey my own attempts to come to an understanding of the differing scales of time employed by the different sciences, I am struck by the slowness of my progress, but also by the importance of making progress. An organized and systematic attempt to give a unified exposition of the historical sciences and the time scales each entails would, I think, contribute significantly to making the various special sciences mutually intelligible and to encourage rigorous interdisciplinary research.
Just to finish the thought of a curriculum appropriate for the population of a scientific civilization, I might also consider not only a first year course in scientific method — many schools have required courses in statistics, which is a good step in this direction — but also a course in the philosophy of science and scientific methods, in order to give a comprehensive sense of the scientific enterprise and to engage students in thinking critically about the nature and limits of scientific knowledge. A scientific civilization that knows its own limits is less likely to fall victim to its own hubris than one in which these limits are not clearly understood.
The Idea of a Rational Reconstruction
The human experience of time originates in what Husserl called inner time consciousness, and human time as immediately experienced never extends beyond the lifetime of a single individual. Time consciousness, then, is severely constrained by human limitations. Human consciousness, however, not only consists in time consciousness, but also is the source of human reason, and human reason has sought to surmount the fleeting experience of time consciousness by extending time beyond the limitations of individual consciousness and the individual lifespan. This I will call the rational reconstruction of time.
Any duration of time beyond that of the human lifespan must be rationally reconstructed because it cannot be experienced directly. Extremely brief durations of time, such as are often involved in particle physics, also cannot be experienced directly, because they occur at a rate (or at such a microscopic scale) that cannot be distinguished by human sensory or cognitive faculties. These extremely brief durations of time also must be rationally reconstructed.
What is rational reconstruction? I won’t try to give a straight-forward definition, but instead I will try to give a sense of how philosophers have employed the idea of rational reconstruction. The idea originally came to prominence in the early twentieth century among logical positivists. Here is a passage from Otto Neurath that has become a point of reference in the origin of the idea of rational reconstruction:
“There is no way of taking conclusively established pure protocol sentences as the starting point of the sciences. No tabula rasa exists. We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials. Only the metaphysical elements can be allowed to vanish without trace.”
Otto Neurath, “Protocol sentences,” in Logical Positivism, edited by A.J. Ayer, Free Press, Glencoe, IL, 1959, pp. 199-208, there p. 201.
Neurath further developed his ship analogy in other essays:
“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”
Otto Neurath, “Anti-Spengler,” in Empiricism and Sociology, edited by Marie Neurath and Robert S. Cohen, Dordrecht and Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1973, p. 199
Here the emphasis falls upon the exigency of keeping the ship afloat, which is not the central concern of the rational reconstruction of time, but it would be an interesting exercise to apply this idea to the cognitive framework we all employ, with the necessity being active and effective agency in the world.
Quine adopted the analogy of rebuilding a ship at sea from Neurath. In his Word and Object, Quine quoted Neurath’s ship passage as an epigraph to the book and develops the theme of reconstruction throughout, extending Neurath’s positivist-inspired analogy more generally to philosophy, giving the idea contemporary currency in analytical philosophy.
Hans Reichenbach made the idea of rational reconstruction fully explicit:
“When we call logic analysis of thought the expression should be interpreted so as to leave no doubt that it is not actual thought which we pretend to analyze. It is rather a substitute for thinking processes, their rational reconstruction, which constitutes the basis of logical analysis. Once a result of thinking is obtained, we can reorder our thoughts in a cogent way, constructing a chain of thoughts between point of departure and point of arrival; it is this rational reconstruction of thinking that is controlled by logic, and whose analysis reveals those rules which we call logical laws.”
Hans Reichenbach, Elements of Symbolic Logic, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948, p. 2
Reichenbach has a footnote to this passage saying that “rational reconstruction” was introduced by Carnap, and indeed Carnap has a typically technical exposition of rational reconstruction in his Pseudoproblems in Philosophy (a bit long to quote here). Carnap’s interest in rational reconstruction seems to be due to the great influence that Russell’s philosophy had on Carnap, and it would be an interesting investigation to compare Russell’s conception of logical construction (in the parsimonious sense that Russell uses this term) and Carnap’s conception of rational reconstruction.
Imre Lakatos made extensive use of the idea of rational reconstruction in a more comprehensive context than the more narrowly logical exposition of Reichenbach. Lakatos applied rational reconstruction to the history of science, which is essentially what I am suggesting here:
“The history of science is always richer than its rational reconstruction. But rational reconstruction or internal history is primary, external history only secondary, since the most important problems of external history are defined by internal history. External history either provides non-rational explanation of the speed, locality, selectiveness, etc. of historic events as interpreted in terms of internal history; or, when history differs from its rational reconstruction, it provides an empirical explanation of why it differs. But the rational aspect of scientific growth is fully accounted for by one’s logic of scientific discovery.”
Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers Volume I, Cambridge, 1989, “History of science and its rational reconstructions,” p. 118
A generalization of the point Lakatos makes in this passage would not be limited to the history of science: we can say that history simpliciter is always richer than its rational reconstruction, but the important problems for external history are set by the rational reconstruction of history. And, I think, we will find this to be the case; rational reconstructions of time point us to the most important problems for the historical sciences.
Mythology: the First Rational Reconstruction of Time
Mythology is the first “big history.” By placing human lives and human actions in a mythological context, human beings are immediately and personally related to a cosmos of enormous scope, far beyond anything to be encountered in the lives of most individuals. In order to achieve this scope, experiences had to be pooled, and a composite, richer experience draw from an inventory wider and deeper than the experiences of any one individual. This is the essence of the rational reconstruction of time, which was later taken to much greater lengths in subsequent human development.
In retrospect, mythological cosmologies are ethnocentric and parochial, usually bound to the biome of a given biocentric civilization, but in their time they constituted the uttermost and outermost reach of human reason, projecting human concerns into the heavens and beneath the Earth. Mythological cosmologies were as comprehensive as they could be at the time, given the limitations of human knowledge under which mythologies took shape.
While mythology is a rational reconstruction of the human condition, we can also can see the rational reconstruction of mythology itself when philosophically-minded later readers of mythology attempted to further bring the mythological cosmos into line with the increasingly rational order of human civilization. Plato famously wanted to ban all poets from his ideal republic, because the stories that poets tell about the gods are not always edifying, and Plato’s republic aspired to exercising absolute control over mythic narrative, to the point of inculcating a “noble lie” intended to reconcile each segment of the population with its social position. That is to say, mythology was to be employed as a tool of social control, which has always been a danger for historical thought.
Classical History: the Second Rational Reconstruction of Time
The distinctive Greek gift for and contribution to rationality was expressed not only in philosophy and the earliest science, but also in works of art — the Parthenon is a monument to rationality, among other things — and literature. The Greeks invented the literary genre of history, and, once they invented history, disagreed on whether it was an art or a science. This was a perennial problem of classical historiography, but is no longer a burning question today, as the advent of scientific historiography has changed the terms of the debate in historiography.
It is at least arguable, however, that scientific historiography was always implicitly present from the origins of history in Herodotus and Thucydides, but no science existed in the time of the ancient Greeks that could realize this potential. The original Greek term used for the title of Herodotus’ The Histories — ἱστορία — means inquiries, i.e., Herodotus conceived his work as an inquiry in the past, and so was part and parcel of the Greek imperative of rationality. Indeed, rationalism applied to the apparent sequence of historical accidents that is the past might well be considered the non plus ultra of rationalism. However, the method of Herodotus’ inquiries was not scientific (in the Greek sense) or logical, but rather narrative.
The extent to which history in this classical sense (one might say, in the Herodotean sense) truly is a rational reconstruction, and not a mere recounting of facts, i.e., a chronicle, is revealed by Arthur Danto’s study of the logic of narrative sentences in his Narration and Knowledge (and which logic of narrative I previously mentioned in Our Intimacy with the Past). Even the most complete account of events as they happen cannot express how the meanings of earlier events are changed by later events, which provide the context and perspective for interpreting earlier events. While Danto did not say so, the mirror image of this insight applies to the future, so that the present is given meaning in relation to its expected outcome, and expected outcomes are valued on the basis of present experience (and unexpected outcomes are also judged in terms of their divergence from expectation). This would be a theme that Big History would begin to explore, although not in these terms.
What we traditionally call history (i.e., Herodotean history) is simply that fragment of the whole of the temporal continuum narratively reconstructed from human records. We can understand this by a sensory analogy: we know from study of the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes are able to see only a small portion of the EM spectrum. Beyond the abilities of human eyes, pit vipers can sense the infrared beyond the red end of the visible EM spectrum, and insects can sense ultraviolet beyond the violet end of the visible EM spectrum. Beyond the capacity of naturally evolved eyes to sense EM radiation, we can employ technology to detect radio waves, x-rays, and the rest of the EM spectrum. What human beings have called history is like the small “visible” portion of the EM spectrum: it is the small portion of the temporal continuum “visible” to human beings. The narrative method of traditional historiography allows us to reconstruct just so much history in human terms and to make it understandable to us.
Scientific Historiography: the Third Rational Reconstruction of Time
Already in classical antiquity we can see the scientific spirit at work in Ptolemy’s Almagest. Ptolemy wrote as a scientist, and not, like Herodotus, as an historian. As his science is now archaic, it is read only for its historical interest today, but in Ptolemy we can glimpse, in embryo, as it were, the scientific method in its characteristic attempt to transcend human limitations and the constraints of the human condition. In the Almagest Ptolemy compares his observations with the best observations of earlier writers, especially Hipparchus, even noting the margin of error inherent in observations due to the construction and position of instruments (cf. especially Book Seven on the fixed stars). In his chapter on determining the length of the year (Book Three, I), Ptolemy is always trying to get the oldest observations to compare with his observations, noting that nearly 300 years had elapsed between Hipparchus’ observations and this own, and reaches further back into Egyptian sources for data 600 years prior.
There is a difference in degree, but not a difference in kind, between these observations of Ptolemy and Freeman Dyson’s discussion whether the laws of nature change over time in “Time without end: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe” (1979). Dyson discusses what has since come to be called the “Oklo Bound,” based on the radioactive byproducts of the naturally-occurring Oklo fission reactor in Gabon. Dyson wrote:
“The fact that the two binding energies remained in balance to an accuracy of two parts in 1011 over 2.109 yr indicates that the strength of nuclear and Coulomb forces cannot have varied by more than a few parts in 1018 per year. This is by far the most sensitive test that we have yet found of the constancy of the laws of physics. The fact that no evidence of change was found does not, of course, prove that the laws are strictly constant. In particular, it does not exclude the possibility of a variation in strength of gravitational forces with a time scale much shorter than 1018 yr. For the sake of simplicity, I assume that the laws are strictly constant. Any other assumption would be more complicated and would introduce additional arbitrary hypotheses.”
Dyson, like Ptolemy, was employing the best scientific measurements and observations of his time in the attempt to transcend his time, though while Ptolemy’s rudimentary methods spanned a few hundred years, science can now comprehend a few billion years. The transcendence of immediately experienced human time by scientific scales of time is the rational reconstruction of time made possible by the historical sciences, and, by extension, for scientific historiography.
While the spirit of science is as old as classical antiquity, and it emerged from the same Greek world that gave us Herodotus and the Greek historians following Herodotus, scientific historiography did not begin to come into its own until the nineteenth century. Besides Ptolemy there were a few other notable intimations of scientific historiography to come, as in Nicholas Steno’s laws of superposition in geology. The historical sciences began to realize their potential in the geology and biology of the nineteenth century in the geology of Lyell and the biology of Darwin. Within a few years’ of the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Lyell Published Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, which reconceptualized humanity in the context of geological time. Later in the nineteenth century, scientific dating techniques such as varve chronology (varves are annual deposits left by melting glaciers) and dedrochronology (tracing overlapping tree rings backward in time) began to give exact dates for historical events long before human records. Scientific archaeology (as opposed to mere treasure hunting) began about the same time.
Scientific historiography reconstructs time employing the resources of the scientific method, which made the reconstruction of time systematic. As long as science continues to develop, and is not allowed to drift into stagnancy, scientific historiography can continue to add depth and detail to this historical record. Scientific historiography extended the narrative tradition of history beyond texts written by human beings to the text of nature itself; the whole of the world became the subject of historical inquiry in the form of the historical sciences, which reconstructed a narrative of Earth entire, and eventually also of the universe entire, which latter became the remit of Big History.
Big History: the Fourth Rational Reconstruction of Time
Big history takes a step beyond the initial scope of scientific historiography, not merely narrating human history on the basis of what science can tell us where texts are silent, but in going beyond human history to a history of the universe entire, in which human history is contextualized. As I write this the 3rd IBHA conference is about to take place next weekend in Amsterdam, and I am a bit disappointed that I won’t be going, as I enjoyed the 2nd IBHA conference I attended a couple of years ago (cf. Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3).
The approach of big history did not come out of nowhere, but was building since the discovery of “deep time” in Steno’s laws of superposition, but especially the geology of James Hutton, then Charles Lyell, and later yet geological time scales brought to the study of life by Darwin. Science that dealt in millions of years and then billions of years slowly acclimated informed human minds of the possibilities for science completely freed of anthropocentric constraints. A hundred years ago, in the early twentieth century, we began to glimpse the size and the age of the universe entire, extending scientific scales of time beyond the Earth and the inherent geocentric constraints of human thought.
How can a human being, starting from the human experience of time, ever come to understand the life and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the largest and oldest structures of the cosmos? This grandest of historical reconstructions is possible because the universe is large and old and diverse. We cannot witness the formation of our own sun or our own planet, but we can look out into the universe and see stars in the process or formation and planetary systems in the process of formation (i.e., protoplanetary disks). If we are sufficiently diligent in surveying the cosmos, we can put together an entire sequence of the evolution of stars and planetary systems, drawn from different individual instances all today at different stages of development. While processes of stellar formation and planetary system development take place on a scale of time that human beings can never directly perceive, our reconstruction of these processes can be made comprehensible to us in this way. And when we are able to travel among the stars and to study life on many different worlds, we will be able engage in the astrobiological equivalent to this cosmological seriation, and similarly so with civilization and other forms of emergent complexity.
Big history provides a comprehensive context in which all of these scientific seriations of time scales beyond human perception can be concatenated in a single grand reconstruction of the whole of time as it is accessible to contemporary science. And, on the basis of contemporary science, Big History represents the culmination and non plus ultra of scientific historiography. Beyond the limits of empirical evidence methods other than science must be employed.
Formal Historiography: the Fifth Rational Reconstruction of Time
The fifth rational reconstruction of time is a rational reconstruction that has not yet been constructed, but we can see, on the horizon, that this is the natural teleology of the development described above. As inductive empirical science matures and grows in sophistication, there is an increasing tendency both to rigor and to integration with other physical theories. Sometimes the imperative to greater rigor is not historically obvious, as an empirical science may remain static in terms of its formal development for a long time — sometimes for centuries. But the need for formal rigor is eventually felt, and some clever soul somewhere has an “A ha!” moment that shows the way to a formal surrogate for a previously intuitive approach. This will be true for historiography as well.
There is a contemporary school of thought — cliodynamics — attempting to transform history into an empirical, testable science, employing numerical methods and quantification. In the bigger picture, scientific historiography more generally speaking adopts the formal methods of the other empirical sciences, and this increases the rigor of historical thought over time, but these efforts remain within the paradigm of inductive empirical science. When history is eventually formalized, it will follow the trajectory of earlier empirical sciences. First the work of scientific historiography must come to maturity, and then we will be in a position to engage in a formal scrutiny of the assumptions made in scientific historiography. Some of these assumptions will be common to other empirical sciences (in the traditional Euclidean language, these will be common notions, or axioms, that are not specific to some particular subject matter) while other assumptions will be unique to scientific historiography and will thus constitute the differentia of historical thought (postulates in Euclid’s terminology).
Most working scientists in daily practice do not employ fully formalized reasoning because it is cumbersome and slow, and, in fact, inductive empirical science can continue in its traditional methodology almost untouched by formalization. There are axiomatizations of general relativity, for example (cf., e.g., “An Axiomatization of General Relativity,” Richard A. Mould, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 103, No. 3, Jun. 15, 1959, pp. 485-529), but this is not the way that most physics is done today. One might think of formalization as the highest level of emergent complexity yet attained within cognitive astrobiology, with mythology, narrative history, scientific historiography, and Big History all as earlier emergents in a sequence of emergents with the later supervening upon the earlier. All of these forms of human thought about time will continue to develop — they will not be replaced or superseded by formal historiography — but it will be formal historiography that moves the discipline of history forward into the terra incognita of time.
With the existence of hard limits to the historical sciences as represented by prediction walls and retrodiction walls, on what material will formal historical proceed? Let me attempt to give a sense of the kind of formal reasoning that can extend formal historiography beyond the constraints of observation and empiricism.
It has become commonplace for physicists to assert that, since time began with the big bang, that it is nonsensical to ask what preceded the big bang. This is, we must honestly admit, a rather tortured piece of reasoning (not to mention circular). While it is true that the big bang constitutes a retrodiction wall beyond which contemporary science cannot pass, and so is a boundary to empirical science, it is not an absolute boundary to human reason. To assert that there is nothing beyond or before the big bang is a perfect demonstration of the fact that human reason does not stop at empirical prediction walls. While it is a perfectly intellectually respectable claim to assert that there was nothing before the big bang, it is not a scientific claim, it is a philosophical claim. And, by the same token, it is a perfectly respectable claim to assert that there is something beyond the observable universe, including something before the big bang, but that this is inaccessible to contemporary science. Again, this is not a scientific claim, but a philosophical claim. In this sense, both of these claims are on the level, as it were.
There is no conceivable form of scientific research that could verify the existence of nothingness prior to the big bang. Philosophically, I would assert that producing evidence of nothingness is ipso facto impossible, and hence ruled out a priori, hence ruling out any scientific claim of nothing preceding the big bang. (Either that, or “nothingness” means something very different for the physicist as compared to the philosopher. And this is most likely the case: the two are talking — if indeed they ever talk — at cross-purposes.) The recognition of a nothingness outside or before the retrodiction wall presented by the big bang can be further illuminated by thought experiments proposed by Sydney Shoemaker and W. H. Newton-Smith that demonstrate the possibility of empty time (I will not attempt to give a summary of these thought experiments here; the reader is urged to consult these authors directly; cf. Newton-Smith’s The Structure of Time, II, 4, pp. 19-24).
These are the materials with which a formal historiography will grapple, along with the concerns of what I have called infinitistic historiography and infinitistic cosmology. In this way, formal historiography will transcend even the grand reconstruction of the whole of time accessible to contemporary science that I mentioned above in connection with Big History.
While the accidents of history might seem to be the last place that anyone would look for fertile ground for the formalization of knowledge, history, I think, will surprise us in this respect. And the surprising applicability of formal methods to history will constitute yet another rational reconstruction of time.
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15 February 2015
In my first post on the overview effect, The Epistemic Overview Effect, I compared a comprehensive overview of knowledge to the perspective-altering view of the whole of the Earth in one glance. Later in The Overview Effect in Formal Thought I discussed the need for a comprehensive overview in formal thought no less than in scientific knowledge. I also discussed the overview in relation to interoception in Our Knowledge of the Internal World.
This account of the overview effect in various domains of knowledge leaves an ellipsis in my formulation of the overview effect, namely, the overview effect in specifically empirical knowledge, i.e., the overview effect in science other than the formal sciences. What would constitute an overview of empirical knowledge? The totality of facts? An awareness of the overall structure of the empirical sciences? A bird’s eye view of the universe entire? (The latter something I recently suggested in A Brief History of the Stelliferous Era.)
A subjective experience is always presented in a personal context, and when that subjective experience is of the overview effect the individual life serves as the “big picture” context by which individual and isolated experiences derive their value. The overview effect, as documented to date, is a personal experience, therefore ideographic, and therefore also idiosyncratic to a certain extent. The traditionally ideographic character of the historical sciences, then, has been uniquely well-adapted to being given an exposition in overview, and so we have the recent branch of historiography called big history. Big history in particular gives an overview of the historical sciences even as the historical sciences are employed to give an overview of history. There is a twofold task here to interpret all the physical sciences historically (in ideographic terms) so that their epistemic contributions can be integrated into the historical sciences, and to move the historical sciences closer to the nomothetic rigor of the traditionally ahistorical physical sciences. We will truly have a comprehensive overview of scientific knowledge when the ideographic historical sciences and the nomothetic ahistorical sciences meet in the middle. This constitutes an ideal of scientific knowledge that has not yet been attained.
Every individual has an overview of their own life — or, rather, every individual with a minimal degree of insight has an overview of their own life — and this is the setting for any other overview of which the individual becomes aware, including the overview effect itself. (Individuals also, partly in virtue of their personal overview of their own life, possess what I have called the human overview, such that in the experience of meeting another person we can usually rapidly place that person within a social, cultural, ethnic, and historical context.) In the future, the personal experience of the overview effect may be harnessed for the production of knowledge understood more broadly than the knowledge engendered by purely personal experience. All empirical knowledge is ultimately derived from personal experience, has its origins in personal experience, but once personal experience has been exapted through idealization and quantification for the purpose of the production of empirical knowledge, it loses its personal and experiential character and becomes impersonal and objective.
It may sound overly subtle at first to make a distinction between personal experience and empirical knowledge, but the distinction is worth noting, and in any theoretical context it is important to observe the distinction. Experience is ideographic; empirical knowledge is nomothetic. Thus personal experience of the overview effect to date is an ideographic overview effect; the possibility of the empirical sciences converging upon an overview effect would be a nomothetic overview effect. If this nomothetic overview effect of scientific knowledge can be further extended by rendering the ahistorical nomothetic sciences in terms of the historical sciences, and the overview effect of scientific knowledge can be given a history in which we have an overview of each stage of development, we can get a glimpse of the possibilities for comprehensive knowledge, and what the future may hold for scientific knowledge.
Science has always been in the business of attempting to provide an overview of the world, but the approach of science has always been a form of objectivity that attempts to alienate personal experience. One sees this most clearly in classical antiquity, when the most abstract of sciences flourished — viz. mathematics — while the other sciences languished, partly because the theoretical framework for constructing objective knowledge out of personal experience did not yet exist. Hundreds of years of the development of scientific thought have subsequently provided this framework, but the paradigm produced by science has come at a certain cost. We are still today struggling with that legacy and its costs.
One way to approach the role of personal experience in empirical knowledge is by way of Bertrand Russell’s distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description (“Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description” in Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays). The task that Russell set himself in this paper — “…what it is that we know in cases where we know propositions about ‘the so-and-so’ without knowing who or what the so-and-so is” — is closely related to the cluster of problems addressed by his theory of descriptions. Russell’s distinction implies two other permutations: the case in which we have neither knowledge by acquaintance nor knowledge by description, which is epistemically uninteresting, and the case in which we have both knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. In the latter case, knowledge by description has been confirmed by knowledge by acquaintance, but for the purposes of his exposition of the distinction Russell makes it quite clear that he wants to focus on instances of knowledge by description in which knowledge is only by description.
I am going to make my own use of Russell’s distinction, but will not attempt to retain any fidelity to the metaphysical context of Russell’s exposition of the distinction. Russell’s exposition of his distinction is wrapped up in a particular metaphysical theory that is no longer as common as it was a hundred years ago, but I am going to interpret Russell in terms of a naive scientific realism, so that when we see the Earth we really do see the Earth, and the Earth is not merely a logical construction out of sense data. (If I, or anyone, wanted to devote an entire book to Russell’s metaphysic in relation to his distinction between acquaintance and description this could easily be done. Indeed, an exposition of the Earth as a logical construction out of sense data would be an interesting intellectual exercise, and I can easily imagine a professor assigning this to his students as a project.)
Russell wrote of knowledge by acquaintance: “I say that I am acquainted with an object when I have a direct cognitive relation to that object, i.e. when I am directly aware of the object itself. When I speak of a cognitive relation here, I do not mean the sort of relation which constitutes judgment, but the sort which constitutes presentation.” Thus in the overview effect, I have a direct cognitive relation to the whole of the Earth, not in terms of judgment, but as a presentation. Intuitively, I think that Russell’s formulation works quite well as an explication of the epistemic significance of the overview effect.
Russell described knowledge by description as follows:
I shall say that an object is “known by description” when we know that it is “the so-and-so,” i.e. when we know that there is one object, and no more, having a certain property; and it will generally be implied that we do not have knowledge of the same object by acquaintance. We know that the man with the iron mask existed, and many propositions are known about him; but we do not know who he was. We know that the candidate who gets most votes will be elected, and in this case we are very likely also acquainted (in the only sense in which one can be acquainted with some one else) with the man who is, in fact, the candidate who will get most votes, but we do not know which of the candidates he is, i.e. we do not know any proposition of the form “A is the candidate who will get most votes” where A is one of the candidates by name. We shall say that we have “merely descriptive knowledge” of the so-and-so when, although we know that the so-and-so exists, and although we may possibly be acquainted with the object which is, in fact, the so-and-so, yet we do not know any proposition “a is the so-and-so,” where a is something with which we are acquainted.
There are a lot of interesting philosophical questions implicit in Russell’s exposition of knowledge by description; I am not going to pursue these at present, but will take Russell at his word. In the context of the overview effect, “the so-and-so” is “the planet on which human beings live,” and we know (to employ a Russellian formulation) that there is one and only one planet upon which human beings live, and moreover this planet is Earth. In fact, we know that it was a considerable achievement of scientific knowledge to come to the understanding that human beings live on a planet, and all this knowledge was achieved through knowledge by description. For the vast majority of human history, we were acquainted with the Earth, yet we did not know the proposition “x is the planet upon which human beings live” where x was something with which we were acquainted. This is almost as perfect an example as there could be of knowledge by description in the absence of knowledge by acquaintance.
In Russell’s distinction, ideographic personal experience is a kind of knowledge — knowledge by acquaintance — but is distinct from knowledge by description. What Russell called “knowledge by description” is a special case of non-constructive knowledge. Non-constructive reasoning is the logic of the big picture and la longue durée (cf. Six Theses on Existential Risk) — the scientific (in contradistinction to the personal) approach to the overview effect. Just as science has always been in the business of seeking an overview, so too science has long been in the business of elaborating knowledge by description, because in many cases this is the only way we can begin a scientific investigation, though in such cases we always begin with the hope that our knowledge by description can eventually be transformed into knowledge by acquaintance. In other words, we hope to become acquainted with the objects of knowledge we describe. Knowledge by description is here the theoretical framework of scientific knowledge in search of instances of acquaintance — evidence, experience, and experiment — to confirm the theory.
Although Russell was not a constructivist per se, his position in this essay is unambiguously constructive in so far as the thesis he maintains is that, “Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted” (italics in original). Russell’s foundation of knowledge in the personal experience of knowledge by acquaintance demonstrates that Russell and Kierkegaard not only have a conception of rigor in common, but also the ultimate epistemic authority of individual experience.
Part of the importance of the overview effect is that it is a personal vision, such as I described in Kierkegaard and Futurism. The individuality of a personal vision is a function of the subjectivity of the individual, hence how the effect is experienced is as significant, if not more significant, than what is experienced.
An interesting result of this inquiry is not only to bring further philosophical resources to the analysis of the overview effect, but also to point the way to the further development science. I have often emphasized that science is not a finished edifice of knowledge, but that science itself continues to grow, not only in sense of continually producing scientific knowledge, but also in the sense of continuing to revise the scientific method itself. One of the most common objections one encounters when talking about science among those who take little account of science is the impersonal nature of scientific knowledge, and even a rejection of that same objectivity that has been the pride science to have attained. To fully appreciate the overview effect as a moment in the development of scientific knowledge is to understand that it may not only give us a new perspective on the world in which we live, but also a new perspective on how we attain knowledge of this world.
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24 November 2014
Contemporary scholarship is a hierarchy of specializations, though the hierarchy is not always obvious. A typical idiom employed today to describe specialization is that of “academic silos,” as though each academic specialization were tightly circumscribed by very high walls rarely breached. The idiom of “silos” points not to a hierarchy, but to a landscape of separate but equal and utterly isolated disciplines.
There are several taxonomies of the academic disciplines that arrange them hierarchically, as in the unity of science movement of twentieth century logical empiricism, which sought to reduce all the sciences to physics. This isn’t what I have in mind when I say that contemporary scholarship is a hierarchy of specializations. I am, rather, recurring to an idea that appeared in the work of Alfred North Whitehead, and which was picked up by Buckminster fuller (of geodesic dome fame).
We can think of Buckminster Fuller as a proto-techno-philosopher, and we know that techno-philosophy disdains the philosophical tradition and seeks to treat traditional philosophical problems de novo from the perspective of science and technology. In one of the rare instances of borrowing by techno-philosophy from traditional philosophy, Buckminster Fuller quoted Alfred North Whitehead, who was a bona fide philosopher.
In R. Buckminster Fuller’s Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity (Chapter 2, “The Music of the New Life”), Fuller identifies what he called “Whitehead’s dilemma,” following an observation made by Alfred North Whitehead about the accelerating pace of specialization in higher education. The dilemma is that the best and brightest students were channeled into specialized studies, and these studies became more specialized as they progress. But there remains a need for a coordinating function among specializations, though all the best minds have already been channeled into specialist studies. That means that the dullest minds that remain are left with the task of the overall coordination of specialist disciplines.
Whitehead formulated his dilemma in terms of academic specialization and governmental coordination of society, but there are “big picture” coordinating functions that have nothing to do with government. This is most especially evident in what I have called the epistemic overview effect, which is concerned with the “big picture” of knowledge. A comprehensive understanding of some specialist discipline no less that an overall coordinating function demands a grasp of the big picture. But the rise of specialization militates against comprehensive understanding in its widest aspect — where it is most needed.
The role of specialization in contemporary scholarship is ironic in historical perspective. It is ironic because, today, more students than ever before in history throng more institutions of higher learning than ever before existed in history, and the traditional ideal of higher education was that of creating a well-rounded individual who had some degree of sophistication across a spectrum of scholarship. Specialization was once the function of the trades (something Whitehead also noted, cf. his Adventures of Ideas, Part One, Chap. 4 “Aspects of Freedom,” Section V; Whitehead’s distinction in this section between profession and craft is instructive). An individual either went on to further academic education in order to understand the wider relationship between the sciences and the humanities, or one entered a trade school or an apprenticeship program and specialized in learning some skill or craft.
It would not be going too far to say that, if you want to understand the big picture, the last person you should talk to is a specialist. A specialist may simply refuse to talk about the big picture, or, if they do talk about the big picture, it will be through the lens of their specialty, which can be highly misleading as regards the big picture. Thus the big picture may be characterized as a body of knowledge in which there are no specialists and no experts. Can there be experts in comprehensive knowledge? Is it possible to specialize in the big picture? How would one go about specializing in the big picture, such that one’s neglect of detail and the specialization of the special sciences would be a principled neglect of detail in order to focus on the details and patterns that emerge exclusively from an attempt to grasp the whole of the world, or the whole of the universe? This kind of specialization sounds counter-intuitive, but we must make the effort to formulate such a conception.
While prima facie counter-intuitive, we should immediately recognize that the idea of specializing in the big picture is nothing other than a particular application of the general principle of scientific abstraction. Science constructs abstract, simplified, idealized models of the world in order to understand processes and phenomena that, in the fullness of their presence, are far too complex to allow totality of knowledge. Recall that Wordsworth said we murder to dissect. The world in itself is intractable; the world of science is made tractable through abstraction; abstraction is the price that we pay for understanding. We must learn to pay that price willingly, if not cheerfully.
In asking if it is possible to specialize in the big picture, I am also in a sense asking if it is possible to think rigorously about the big picture, thus we can also ask: Is it possible to think about the big picture with a clear scholarly conscience? Big picture thinking often invites careless and sloppy formulations, and this has brought big picture thinking into disrepute by those who wish to distance themselves from careless and sloppy thinking — which is to say, almost all contemporary philosophers, who take a special pride in the rigor of their formulations. And this is a rigor largely due to the kind of specialization that Whitehead identified.
There is a kind of implicit contrition in the contemporary philosophical passion for rigor and precision, since much traditional philosophy now seems painfully muddled and unclear, and this has been a stick that scientists have used to beat philosophers, and with which they have justified their fashionable anti-philosophy. But Scientists, too, are guilty on this account. And whereas philosophers committed their sins against rigor in the past, scientists are committing their sins against rigor in the present. The pronouncements of scientists upon extra-scientific questions is an admirable attempt at comprehensive understanding, but it almost always takes place in a context that ignores the history of the question addressed.
History, I think, is essential to the big picture. Indeed, I will go further and I will suggest that the emerging discipline of Big History offers the possibility of a discipline that can specialize in the big picture with the hope of rigorous formulations. We have need of such a discipline. At the 2014 IBHA conference, David Christian in his keynote address (titled,”Can I study everything, please?”) expressed quite vividly the origins of his own interest in what would become big history in an experience of disappointment. He talked about going to school as a child with an initial sense of excitement that his big questions would be answered, only to find that his big questions were shunted aside.
How do you talk about the whole of time without inviting scholarly ridicule by those who have spent their entire careers seeking to accurately portray some small fragment of the whole? Is it possible to speak at this level of generality and still be to “right” in any relevant sense? Big History seeks to be just such a discipline, and the big historians have done a remarkable job in integrating the results of the special sciences into a coherent whole. I have made the claim that big history need not reject any more specialized scholarship, but provides the overall framework within which all specialized studies can find a place. Big history is a “big tent” in which all scholarship can find a place.
Big History is now an established (albeit youthful) branch of historiography, but it could be more than this. Where Big History remains weak is in its theoretical formulations, and this is not a surprise. While Big Historians seek to portray philosophy and the humanities as part of the sweeping story of human civilization (itself a part of a larger cosmic history), they do not draw upon philosophy and the humanities in the same way that they draw upon the special sciences. There is, as yet, no philosophy of big history, and that means that there is, as yet, no systematic attempt to clarify and to extend the conceptions upon which Big History relies in its formulations. This remains to be done.
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7 November 2014
Twentieth century American analytical philosopher W. V. O. Quine said that, “Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.” (The Ways of Paradox, “Mr. Strawson on Logical Theory”) In so saying Quine was making explicit the de facto practice on which Anglo-American analytical philosophy was converging: if philosophy was going to be tolerated at all (even among professional philosophers!) it must delimit its horizons to science, as only in the conceptual clarification of science had philosophy any remaining role to play in the modern world. Philosophy of science was a preoccupation of philosophers throughout the twentieth century, from early positivist formulations in the early part of the century, through post-positivist formulations, to profoundly ambiguous reflections upon the rationality of science in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
I have previously addressed the condition of contemporary philosophy in Philosophy Institutionalized, in which I noted that among the philosophical schools of our time, “there is a common thread, and that common thread is not at all difficult to discern: it is the relationship of thought to the relentless expansion of industrial-technological civilization.” I would like to take this idea a step further, and consider how philosophy might be both embedded in contemporary civilization and how it might look beyond the particular human condition of the present moment of history and also embrace something larger.
The position of philosophy in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization was preeminent, and second only to theology. India had a uniquely philosophical civilization in which schools of thought wildly proliferated and were elaborated over the course of hundreds of years. In those agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations in which religion simpliciter was the organizing principle, initially crude religious ideas were eventually given sophisticated and subtle formulations in an advanced technical vocabulary largely derived from philosophy. Where the explicitly religious impulse was less prominent than the philosophical impulse, a philosophical civilization came into being, as in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, starting with ancient Greece and its successor civilizations.
With the end of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, as it was preempted by industrial-technological civilization, this tradition of philosophical preeminence in intellectual inquiry was lost, and philosophy, no longer being central to the motivating imperatives of civilization, became progressively more and more marginalized, until today, when it is largely an intellectual whipping boy that scientists point out as an object lesson of how not to engage in intellectual activity.
“…science drives technology, technology drives industrial engineering, and industrial engineering creates new resources that allow science to be pursued at a larger scope and scale. In some cases the STEM cycle functions as a loosely-coupled structure of our world. The resources of advanced mathematics are necessary to the expression of physics in mathematicized form, but there may be no direct coupling of physics and mathematics, and the mathematics used in physics may have been available for generations. Pure science may suggest a number of technologies, many of which lie fallow, with no particular interest in them. One technology may eventually come into mass manufacture, but it may not be seen to have any initial impact on scientific research. All of these episodes seem de-coupled, and can only be understood as a loosely-coupled cycle when seen in the big picture over the long term. In the case of nuclear fusion, the STEM cycle is more tightly coupled: fusion science must be consciously developed with an eye to its application in various fusion technologies. The many specific technologies developed on the basis of fusion science are tested with an eye to which can be practically scaled up by industrial engineering to build a workable fusion power generation facility.”
Given the role of the STEM cycle in defining industrial-technological civilization, a robust philosophical engagement with the civilization of our time would mean a philosophy of science, a philosophy of technology, and a philosophy of engineering, as well as an overall philosophy of civilization that knit these together in a way that reflects the STEM cycle that unifies the three in industrial-technological civilization. Thus the twentieth century preoccupation with the philosophy of science can be understood as the first attempt to come to grips with the new form of civilization that had replaced the civilization of our rural, agricultural past.
This fits in well with the fact that the philosophy of technology has been booming in recent decades (partially driven by our technophilia), with philosophers of many different backgrounds and orientations — analytical philosophers, phenomenologists, existentialists, Marxists, and many others — equally interested in providing a philosophical commentary on this central feature of our contemporary world. I have myself written about the emergence of what I call techno-philosophy. The philosophy of engineering is a bit behind philosophy of science and philosophy of technology, but it is rapidly catching up, as philosophers realize that they have had little to say about this essential dimension of our contemporary world. The academic publisher Springer now has a series of books on the philosophy of engineering, Philosophy of Engineering and Technology. I would purchase more of these volumes if they weren’t prohibitively expensive.
Beyond the specialized disciplines of philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, and philosophy of engineering, there also needs to be a “big picture” engagement with the three loosely coupled together in the STEM cycle, and beyond this there needs to be a philosophical engagement with how our industrial-technological civilization is embedded in a larger historical context that includes different forms of civilization with profoundly different civilizational motifs and imperatives.
To address the latter need for a truly big picture philosophy, that is not some backward-looking disinterment of Hegelian philosophy of history, but which engages with the world as it know it today, in the light of scientific rationality, we need a philosophy of history that understands history in terms of scientific historiography, which is how a scientific civilization grasps history and arrives at a self-understanding of its place in history.
Philosophical reflection upon existential risk partially serves as a reminder of the philosophical dimension of history and civilization, in a way not unlike meditations on eternity during the period of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization served as a reminder that life is more than the daily struggle to stay alive. In my post, What is an existential philosophy?, I wrote, “…coming to terms with existence from an existential perspective means coming to terms with Big History, which provides the ultimate (natural historical) context for ordinary experience and its object.”
What we need, then, for a vital and vigorous philosophy for industrial-technological civilization, is a philosophy of big history. I intend to do something about this — in fact, I am working on it now — though it is unlikely that anyone will take notice.
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28 August 2014
In my previous post, Big History and Historiography I touched on the question of scientific historiography, which is a central question for Big History because Big History is scientific historiography in its most recent incarnation. There are certain considerations that follow from big history being scientific historiography, and I will attempt to explore these considerations below.
The early examples of western historiography in the works of Herodotus and Thucydides still stand as models for historical writing and historiographical method, and this is a tradition that continued on even into medieval times, in the great histories of Sir John Froissart and Philippe de Commines, who must have read their models carefully and deduced the lessons that had not yet, at that time, been explicitly formulated as principles. Despite these admirable models to emulate, a lot of history has been more or less conscious myth-making, which may then be contrasted to the unconscious myth-making that has yielded religious mythology (through a gradual process of selection not unlike that which yielded the first domesticated crops). Histories have given us historical myths, which is of course why Descartes rejected history as a source of knowledge (of which more below).
With the renaissance we begin to see the emergence of critical historiography, and this then goes on to become the dominant trend in historiography in the following centuries. Historians consciously cultivated a conception of history based on citing sources and basing all claims on written evidence, and these critical historians began to seek out original source material and then to compare and criticize sources in order to arrive, through a methodology that did not necessarily take these sources at their word, at a considered account of history. There is a fascinating book about this — Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination By Paul Veyne — that delves into the emergence of critical historiography. Veyne cites in particular the reception of the Recherches de la France (1560) of Étienne Pasquier, which cites original source material in footnotes. Readers at the time, Veyne noted, objected to this method, and asked Pasquier why he did not rather submit his text to the judgment of posterity, which would either reject it or confirm it as tradition and canon.
Although Pasquier’s Recherches de la France was an early instance of critical historiography, it was also, in its own way, a piece of mythmaking and so something of a historical myth — but not precisely the myth that Pasquier’s contemporaries were prepared to hear. Pasquier was concerned to demonstrate the independent achievements of French civilization apart from classical antiquity, so that Pasquier did not begin with the Greeks or the Romans, but with the earliest peoples of Gaul, about which he derived some sketchy background from Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul — but this, too, is an fascinating window onto historical methodology, as many historians of the later twentieth century up to the present day have attempted to derive the authentic history of colonialized peoples by reading between the lines of the histories and chronicles left by their conquerors. Pasquier was more modern than he knew, and more modern even that Veyne realized.
Critical historiography is then followed by scientific historiography, and scientific historiography begins to go beyond the original texts sought out by critical history and to pursue forms of evidence that did not even exist for previous historians, except in so far as they were preserved in folk memory. Scientific historiography has its own methods and its own canons of evidence, distinct from those of critical historiography. Scientific evidence and sources of knowledge are treated in critical fashion, but it is critical according to the methods of natural science, not textual exegesis. Both critical historiography and scientific historiography have sources and methods of evidence, and both take a critical view of these sources and evidence, but these methods remain distinct at present. These canons of evidence can be brought together if the will and the motive to force an integration and possibly even a synthesis is present, and this attempt to synthesize critical and scientific historiography is an implicit aim of big history.
One of the themes that became evident at the IBHA conference was the extent to which big history embraces the canons of evidence of scientific historiography. The terminology that has been introduced in big history is that of “claims testers,” which is systematically seeking to teach those who are learning big history how to verify the claims that are made on the basis of the methodology of natural science. This is an admirable undertaking, and I can’t say enough good things about an historical method that teaches students to be critical and to demand evidence for any and all claims made. However, the traditional historiographical challenge of “claims testing” was a hermeneutical exercise in textual exegesis. Historians got quite good at this kind of textual criticism. Already in the renaissance it was shown (by Lorenzo Valla), from internal evidence of the document, that the so-called “Donation of Constantine” was a medieval forgery. This work of exegesis continues into our own day, as ancient books are occasionally discovered and similarly interrogated. For example, the recovery of the Nag Hammadi library was a literary bonanza for New Testament scholars, whose discipline was revolutionized by this material.
Analogously, before detailed genetic studies revealed the pattern of human planetary dispersion, there was language, which preserves in its words and structures something of its own distant past, much as DNA does. Linguists traced the world’s languages backward to a root proto-Indo-European language and identified certain nodal points in the development and dispersal of that root. The study of language is in some ways an expansion upon traditional historiography based upon written language, which is say, history in the strict sense, in its narrowest construal, that of traditional historiography. That traditional historiography can be expanded and extended in this way, with the study of language, of inscriptions, of coins, the reconstruction or partially destroyed manuscripts, and other methods, shows how traditional text-based historiography can tend toward scientific historiography. The hunger for knowledge about the past does not relent where our documents leave off, and scholars have sought to fill in lacuna by hook or by crook. Some of these inventive methods have shaded over into scientific historiography.
Scientific Historiography and the Method of Isolation
The physical manuscripts of the Nag Hammadi libtrary themselves, and the context of their recovery, is something to be studied by scientific archaeology (after the fact, as the manuscripts themselves were initially recovered not by archaeologists, but by two Egyptian brothers who kept their discovery quiet in order to sell the find piece by piece, so that much of the archaeological context was lost), but just as traditional literary historiography is limited by its own canons of evidence and cannot penetrate into prehistory, so too scientific historiography is limited by its scientific canons of evidence, and from its studies of the physical condition of manuscripts it can say very little about the historical period as compared to simply reading the documents, which, however, is a specialized skill of scholars of ancient languages (the kind of scholars who revealed the Donation of Constantine as a forgery).
Now, in actual fact, scientific historians do not limit themselves to a scientific study of documents as physical artifacts; they also read the documents and derive information from the content, as we would expect they would. But if, as an exercise, we take the idea of scientific historiography according to the method of isolation, and consider it ideally as only scientific historiography, shorn from its association with traditional historiographical methods, we would be reduced to an archaeology of the historical period, which would be most unsatisfying.
Suppose, as a thought experiment, scientific historiography were to employ its methods to study what archaeologists call the “material culture” of the historical period, but was on principle denied any information recorded in actual documents and inscriptions. That is to say, suppose our picture of the historical past were exclusively the result of the study of the material culture of the historical past (here employing “history” in the narrow and traditional sense of history recorded in written documents). I think that our the historical past reconstructed on the basis of what scientific historiography could derive from material culture would be quite different from the story that we know of the historical past in virtue of written records. No one that I know of pursues this method of isolation in studying the historical past when documents are also available, though this method of isolation is pursued of necessity in the absence of any documents (or in the absence of a language that can be deciphered). Though this method is not pursued in history, it is important to point to that scientific historiography has its limitations no less than the limitations of critical historiography and its tradition.
Isaiah Berlin and Scientific Historiography
Scholarship perpetually finds itself in the midst of the tension between traditionalism and modernization. If tradition is always given priority, scholarship becomes exclusively backward-looking and retrograde; Nietzsche would say that this is history that does not serve life. There have been many examples of this throughout the intellectual life of our planet. But scholarship cannot simply seize upon every intellectual trend that comes along, or it would lose touch with the established canons that have made rigorous scholarship possible. The introduction of a new idea might in fact expand these canons so that rigorous scholarship can have a wider field — I believe this to be the case with big history — but a new idea can appear to traditionalists as a threat to established research, a heresy, a diversion, or a waste of time.
Scientific historiography has been and is just such a new idea: different scholars have judged of it differently. Some few take up the new idea with enthusiasm, most are hesitant, while some few transform themselves into defenders of orthodoxy. Isaiah Berlin took up the problem of scientific historiography, and while he defended a traditionalist position, he did so intelligently, and not in the spirit of a reactionary rejecting anything that contradicts orthodoxy. For that reason we have much to learn from Berlin on this point.
Here is a representative passage from his essay on scientific historiography:
“The gifts that historians need are different from those of the natural scientists. The latter must abstract, generalise, idealise, qualify, dissociate normally associated ideas (for nature is full of strange surprises, and as little as possible must be taken for granted), deduce, establish with certainty, reduce everything to the maximum degree of regularity, uniformity, and, so far as possible, to timeless repetitive patterns. Historians cannot ply their trade without a considerable capacity for thinking in general terms; but they need, in addition, peculiar attributes of their own: a capacity for integration, for perceiving qualitative similarities and differences, a sense of the unique fashion in which various factors combine in the particular concrete situation, which must at once be neither so unlike any other situation as to constitute a total break with the continuous flow of human experience, nor yet so stylised and uniform as to be the obvious creature of theory and not of flesh and blood.”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
Notice in this above passage that Berlin is attributing a nomothetic (lawlike) approach to science and an ideographic (contingency and accident) approach to history. There is a long 19th century tradition of associating history exclusively with the ideographic (i.e., the contingent). This is especially true in Windelband’s 1894 Rectorial Address “History and Natural Science,” which was to be such a profound influence upon Heinrich Rickert, who continued this tradition of thought. While figures like Windelband and Rickert were committed to a rigorous method in historiography, the idea of history as exclusively ideographic is at bottom a Platonic motif, and in Plato the nomothetic is necessary, apodictic truth, worthy of being immortalized among The Forms, while all else is the realm of mere shifting opinion. It is in this tradition Descartes is implicitly following as he searched for an apodictic truth upon which to build science, and along the way dismissed history in a famous passage:
“…fables make one imagine many events to be possible which are not so at all. And even the most accurate histories, if they neither alter nor exaggerate the significance of things in order to render them more worthy of being read, almost always at least omit the baser and less noteworthy details. Consequently the rest do not appear as they really are, and those who govern their own conduct by means of examples drawn from these texts are liable to fall into the extravagances of the knights of our romances and to conceive plans that are beyond their powers.”
René Descartes, Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Searching for Truth in the Sciences
Cartesians thereafter were well known for their lack of interest in history as an intellectual discipline, and if one takes mathematical reasoning as one’s paradigm (an early theme in Descartes that is already evident in his Rules for the Direction of Mind) it is not surprising that historical knowledge will not measure up to this apodictic standard. Even today one finds a quasi-Cartesian skepticism about history among some intelligent individuals whose epistemology is derived, implicitly or explicitly, from mathematics and the non-historical natural sciences.
From his presumption that history is ideographic and science nomothetic, Berlin determines that each contradicts the other:
“…to say of history that it should approximate to the condition of a science is to ask it to contradict its essence.”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
While it is true that scientific method has focused on the nomothetic while historiographical method has focused on the ideographic, is it not possible that there is a nascent, undeveloped ideographic science and a nascent, undeveloped nomothetic historiography, each discipline waiting to be born, as it were, when our conceptual infrastructure feels the want of them and we are forced to develop new conceptions that transcend our old conceptions of science and history? Nomothetic science, ideographic history, nomothetic history, and ideographic science will naturally fit together like the pieces of a puzzle, each complementing rather than contradicting the other. Integrating human history into a background of scientific history, as in cosmology, geology, biology, etc., one is integrating the nomothetic and the ideographic.
One of the most interesting points in Berlin’s essay is his suggestion, by way of an analogy with unscientific thought, of the possibility of an unhistorical mode of thought:
“…to be unscientific is to defy, for no good logical or empirical reason, established hypotheses and laws; while to be unhistorical is the opposite — to ignore or twist one’s view of particular events, persons, predicaments, in the name of laws, theories, principles derived from other fields, logical, ethical, metaphysical, scientific, which the nature of the medium renders inapplicable…”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
A truly comprehensive and integrative history — presumably the aim of big history — would have to avoid both unscientific and unhistorical modes of thought, and this is a valuable observation. This demonstrates that big history is not merely eclectic, but must also, like any rigorous discipline, be defined in terms of what it excludes.
Even though I do not agree with Berlin in detail, and often I disagree with him when it comes to the big picture also, I think that big history can only benefit by engaging with his ideas and his perspective. Ignoring the problems that Berlin points out is not, in my opinion, intellectually responsible. The scholar is called upon to respect and to respond to the arguments of earlier scholars, if only to refute them in order to demonstrate to future generations a blind alley to be avoided.
This brings me to the final quote I will take from Berlin’s essay, and where I most completely disagree with him:
“…the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied, no matter how successful the human sciences may grow to be — even if, as all but obscurantists must hope, they discover genuine, empirically confirmed, laws of individual and collective behaviour — seems an attempt to square the circle. It is not a vain hope for an ideal goal beyond human powers, but a chimera, born of lack of understanding of the nature of natural science, or of history, or of both.”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
I am not saying that Berlin’s approach to history is a blind alley, since traditional historical scholarship can continue and be absorbed into the architectonic of big history, but Berlin is definitely asserting that “the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied” is a blind alley, and here I must decisively part company with Berlin. I think it both possible and desirable to seek a pure theory of history that would stand in relation to applied, empirical history as pure geometry is related to empirical geometry. I would call this discipline formal historiography, and it strikes me as the obvious next development following traditional historiography, critical historiography, and scientific historiography.
Probably this view would divide me no less from most big historians than from traditional historians like Isaiah Berlin. Big history could be a formal school of historical thought in the way that the cultural processual school in archaeology is a formal school of archaeological thought, no less concerned with formal models and the hypothetico-deductive method than with excavating mounds and sorting pottery sherds. But this clearly does not appear to be the direction in which big history is headed.
There could, of course, be a small subfield of formal big history within the overall umbrella (or, if you like, big tent) of big history, which would proceed in true hypothetico-deductive fashion, formulating general laws about history, deriving predictions from these laws, and confirming or disconfirming the laws by testing the predictions against actual events. The scientific method at its most formal has served us well in other capacities, and we have yet to bring its full force to bear upon historical questions.
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Studies in Grand Historiography
8. Big History and Scientific Historiography
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24 August 2014
History without Big History
Not long before I attended the 2014 IBHA “big history” conference I picked up a book at a used bookstore titled History: A Brief Insight by John H. Arnold. The book is copyrighted 2000, with additional text copyrighted 2009. Upon my return from the conference in California, I looked over the book more carefully, scanned the bibliography for names and titles, read the index, and skimmed the text. There is no hint of big history in the book.
There are a number of historians for whom “big history” simply does not yet exist, and, on the basis of textual evidence alone (that is to say, without knowing anything about John H. Arnold except what I found in this one book), John H. Arnold would seem to be one of these historians. I have enjoyed what I have read so far in Arnold’s book, and he covers a range of historiographical questions from human nature (does it change or is it the same in all ages?), through Leopold von Ranke (about how I recently wrote in Political Dimensions of History), to Fernand Braudel and the twentieth century Annales school of historians. There is much here to appreciate, and from which to learn.
It is still, today, possible to write a general introductory text on history and say nothing about big history. Is it significant that a contemporary historian can review perennial ideas of historiography without mentioning the growing contribution of big history to historiographical thought? It is, I think, both significant and understandable. I will try to sketch out why I think this to be the case.
Is there a place for historiography in big history?
Big history, although a creation of historians (David Christian specialized in Russian and Soviet history), owes more to the emergence of scientific historiography than to traditional historiography, and it shows. During my time at the IBHA conference the traditional language and concepts of historiography were notable in their absence: I did not hear a single person (other than myself) mention diachronic, synchronic, ideographic, or nomothetic approaches (four concepts that I have integrated in what I called the axes of historiography), nor did I hear any mention of the Carr-Elton debate or its contemporary re-setting in the work of Rorty and White by Keith Jenkins, nor did I hear anyone mention those figures and ideas that appeared in John H. Arnold noted above, such as Ranke, Bloc, and Braudel.
In the discussion following the presentation by John Mears the traditional historiographical question was asked — Is history a science or does it belong with the humanities? — but, surprisingly in a group of historians, the question was not taken up in its historical context, and it is the historical context of the question, in which history has tended toward the scientific or toward the humanistic by turns, that could most benefit the emerging conception of big history. The question came up again in a nearly explicit form in Fred Spier’s plenary address on the last day, “The Future of Big History,” when Spier brought up C. P. Snow’s famous lecture on “The Two Cultures.” In the middle of the twentieth century Snow had dissected the misunderstanding and mutual mistrust of the sciences and the humanities. This would have been the perfect time and the perfect context in which to pursue the relationship between these two cultures in big history, but Spier did not pursue the theme.
Paradoxical though it sounds, there is, at present, little or no place for historiography — that is to say, for the traditional conflicts and controversies of historiography — within the framework of big history, which seems to effortlessly bypass these now apparently arcane disagreements among scholars, which appear small if not petty within the capacious context of the history of the universe entire.
Big History and Scientific Historiography
Big history is, indirectly, a consequence of the emergence of scientific historiography in the previous century. This is one of the great intellectual movements of our time, and in saying that there appears to be little or no place for historiography within big history I am not seeking to demean or disparage either big history or scientific historiography. On the contrary, I have written many posts and scientific historiography, and the idea plays an important, if not a central, role in my own thought.
From the diversity of opinion represented at the IBHA conference I attended, one can already see divisions emerging between the more natural-science based perspectives and more traditionally humanistically-based perspectives on big history, and one can just as easily imagine a formulation of big history that is more or less an extended branch of physics, or a formulation of big history that only incidentally touches upon physics while investing most of its resources in human history — though, to be sure, a human history greatly expanded by scientific historiography.
For the moment, however, it is the emerging trend of scientific historiography that is the central influence in big history, and this accounts both for the marginalization of traditional historiographical controversies as well as the particular approach to historical evidence that is adopted in big history.
The Handwriting on the Wall
One can already see the handwriting on the wall: big history will become, and then will remain, the dominant paradigm in historiography for the foreseeable future. Any reaction against big history that seeks to raise (or to restore) minutiae and miniaturism to a preeminent position will simply be absorbed into the overall framework of big history, which is sufficiently capacious to find a niche for anything within its comprehensive structure, and which is not bound to reject any kind of historical research.
Given the present paradigm of scientific thought, there is no more comprehensive perspective that can be adopted than that of big history. And when, in the fullness of time, science advances past its present paradigm and places our present knowledge in an even more capacious context, big history can be expanded in like fashion. This is because, as David Christian noted, big history is a form of “framework” thinking. Evolutionary biology is similarly a form of framework thinking, and it was able to seamlessly incorporate plate tectonics and geomorphology into its structure, and is now incorporating astrobiology into its structure for an ever-more-comprehensive perspective on life. Big history as a theoretical framework for historical thought is (or will be) in a position to do the same thing for history.
Even though big history is still inchoate, perhaps one of the reasons it is likely to experience more resistance than the school of world history (there has been an interest in “world history” for some time before big history appeared) is that it incorporates a few definite and distinctive ideas, and, moreover, ideas that have not been a part of traditional historiography (specifically, emergent complexity and “Goldilocks” conditions). When big history develops a more coherent theoretical framework big history will find itself forced to define itself vis-à-vis the traditional historiographical concepts that it has so far largely avoided. One way to do this is to cast them aside and proceed without them; another way is to choose sides and become pigeon-holed into categories of historiographical thought that do not precisely suit big history.
The Structure of Historiographical Revolutions
It has been the nature of intellectual revolutions to cast aside past conceptual frameworks and to strike out in new directions. The most influential work in the philosophy of science of the twentieth century, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, meticulously detailed this process of intellectual revolution. Big history might be just such an intellectual revolution, and with the power of the scientific historiography it can easily abandon the traditions of historiography and strike out to map its own territory in its own way. I think that this would be a mistake. While past intellectual revolutions have needed to break with the past in order to make progress, this break with the past has come at a cost. When renaissance scholarship not only broke with the medieval past, but ridiculed its scholasticism, this may have been necessary at the time, but it resulted in the loss of the sophisticated logic created by medieval scholars, which could have extended and deepened the work of the literary and humanistic scholars of the renaissance. Instead, the tradition of medieval logic lay fallow for five hundred years, and is only being rediscovered in out time, when it is less of a help than it might have been in the past.
Big history could, without doubt, do without traditional historiography, but it would do much better to learn the lessons painstakingly learned by historical scholars since the emergence of critical history, starting with the same renaissance scholars who rejected medieval logic but who created a new discipline of the critical analysis of the language of historical documents. In the transition from the medieval to the modern world it was probably necessary to make a clean break with the past — the Copernican revolution, which plays so large a role in Kuhn’s thought, is another instance of a modern break with the medieval past — but social conditions have changed radically, and it is less necessary to make a break with modernity than it was to make a break with medievalism.
I count myself as a friend of both scientific history and big history, but I don’t think that it is necessary to reject the historiographical tradition in order to pursue these historical frameworks. On the contrary, scientific history and big history will be much more sophisticated if they learn to use the tools developed by earlier generations of historians.
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Studies in Grand Historiography
7. Big History and Historiography
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9 August 2014
Day 3 of the 2014 IBHA conference began with panel 32 in room 201, “Complexity (2).” Three speakers were scheduled, but one canceled so that more time was available to the other two. This turned out to be quite fortunate. This panel was, without question, one of the best I have attended. It began with Ken Baskin on “Sister Disciplines: Bringing Big History and Complexity Theory Together,” and continued with Claudio Maccone with “Entropy as an Evolution Measure (Evo-SETI Theory).”
Ken Baskin, author of the forthcoming The Axial Ages of World History: Lessons for the 21st Century, said that big history and complexity theory are “post-Newtonian disciplines that complement each other.” His subsequent exposition made a real impression to this end. He used the now-familiar concepts of complexity — complex adaptive systems (CAS), non-linearity, and attractors, strange and otherwise — to give an exposition of big history periodization. He presented historical changes as being “thick” — that is to say, not as brief transitional periods, but as extended transitional periods that led to even longer-term states of relative stability. According to his periodization, the hunter-gatherer era was stable, and was followed by the disruption of the agricultural revolution; this eventually issued in a stable “pre-axial” age, which was in turn disrupted by the Axial Age. The Axial Age transition lasted for several hundred years but gave way to somewhat stable post-Axial societies, and this in turn has been disrupted by a second axial age. According to Baskin, we have been in this second axial transition since about 1500 and have not yet settled down into a new, stable social regime.
Claudio Maccone is an Italian SETI astronomer who has written a range of technical books, including Mathematical SETI: Statistics, Signal Processing, Space Missions and Deep Space Flight and Communications: Exploiting the Sun as a Gravitational Lens. His presentation was nothing less than phenomenal. My response is partly due to the fact that he addressed many of my interests. Before the IBHA conference a friend asked me what I would have talked about if I had given a presentation. I said that I would have talked about big history in relation to astrobiology, and specifically that I would like to point out the similarities between the emergent complexity schema of big history to the implicit levels of complexity in the Drake equation. This is exactly what Maccone did, and he did so brilliantly, with equations and data to back up his argument. Also, Maccone spoke like a professor giving a lecture, with an effortless mastery of his subject.
Maccone said that, for him, big history was simply an extension of the Drake equation — the Drake equation goes back some ten million years or so, and by adding some additional terms to the beginning of the Drake equation we can expand it to comprise the whole 13.7 billion years of cosmic history. I think that this was one of the best concise statements of big history that I heard at the entire conference, notwithstanding its deviation from most of the other definitions offered. The Drake equation is a theoretical framework that is limited only by the imagination of the researcher in revising its terms and expression. And Maccone has taken it much further yet.
Maccone has worked out a revision of the Drake equation that plugs probability distributions into the variables of the Drake equation (which he published as “The Statistical Drake Equation” in Acta Astronautica, 2010 doi:10.1016/
j.actaastro.2010.05.003). His work is the closest thing that I have seen to being a mathematical model of civilization. All I can say is: get all his books and papers and study them carefully. It will be worth the effort.
Big History and the Future
The next panel was the most difficult decision to make of the conference, because in one room were David Christian, Cynthia Brown, and others discussing “Meaning in Big History: A Naturalistic Perspective,” but I chose instead to go to panel 39 in room 301, “Big History and the Future,” which was concerned with futurism, or, as is now said, “future studies.”
The session started out with J. Daniel May reviewing past visions of the future by a discussion of twentieth century science fiction films, including Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Lost in Space, Star Trek, and 2001. I have seen all these films and television programs, and, as was evident by the discussion following the talk, many others had as well, citing arcane details from the films in their comments.
Joseph Voros then presented “On the transition to ‘Threshold 9’: examining the implications of ‘sustainability’ for human civilization, using the lens of big history.” The present big history schematization of the past that is most common (but not universal, as evidenced by this conference) recognizes eight thresholds of emergent complexity. This immediately suggests the question of what the next threshold of emergent complexity will be, which would be the ninth threshold, thus making the “ninth threshold” a kind of cipher among big historians and a framework for discussing the future in the context of big history. Given that the current threshold of emergent complexity is fossil-fueled civilization (what I call industrial-technological civilization), and given that fossil fuels are finite, an obvious projection for the future concerns the nature of a post-fossil-fuel civilization.
Voros claimed that all scenarios for the future fall into four categories: 1) continuation, 2) collapse (which is also called “descent”), 3) disciplined society (presumably what Bostrom would call “flawed realization”), and 4) transformational society, in which the transformation might be technological or spiritual. Since Voros was focused on post-fossil-fuel civilization, his talk was throughout related to “peak oil” concerns, though at a much more sophisticated level. He noted the the debate over “peak oil” is almost irrelevant from a big history perspective, because whether oil runs out now or later doesn’t alter the fact that it will run out being a finite resource renewable only over a period of time much greater than the time horizon of civilization. With this energy focus, he proposed that one of the forms of a “disciplined society” that could come about would be that of an “energy disciplined society.” Of the transformational possibilities he outlined four scenarios: 1) energy bonanza, 2) spiritual awakening, 3) brain/mind upload, and 4) childhood’s end.
After Voros, Cadell Last of the Global Brain Institute presented “The Future of Big History: High Intelligence to Developmental Singularity.” He began by announcing his “heretical” view that cultural evolution can be predicted. His subsequent talk revealed additional heresies without further trigger warnings. Last spoke of a coming era of cultural evolution in which the unit of selection is the idea (I was happy that he used “idea” instead of “meme”), and that this future would largely be determined by “idea flows” — presumably analogous to the “energy flows” of Eric Chaisson that have played such a large role in this conference, as well as the gene flows of biological evolution. (“Idea flows” may be understood as a contemporary reformulation of “idea diffusion.”) This era of cultural evolution will differ from biological evolution in that the idea flows, unlike gene flow in biological evolution, is not individual (it is cultural) and is not blind (conscious agents can plan ahead).
Last gave a wonderfully intuitive presentation of his ideas, and though it was the sort of thing that futurists recognize as familiar, I suspect much of what he said would strike the average listener as something akin to moral horror. Last said that, in the present world, biological and linguistic codes are in competition with each other, and gave the example familiar to everyone of having to make the choice whether to invest time and effort into biological descendants or cultural descendants. Scarcity of our personal resources means that we are likely to focus on one or the other. Finally, biological evolution will cease and all energies will be poured into cultural evolution. At this time, we will be free from the “tyranny of biology,” which requires that we engage in non-voluntary activities.
Reconceptualizations of Big History
For the final sessions divided into separate rooms I attended panel 44, “Reconceptualizations of Big History.” I came to this session primarily to hear to Camelo Castillo speak on “Mind as a Major Transition in big History.” Castillo, the author of Origins of Mind: A History of Systems, critiqued previous periodizations of big history, noting that they conflate changes in structure and changes in function. He then went on to define major transitions as, “transitions from individuals to groups that utilize novel processes to maintain novel structures.” With this definition, he went back to the literature and produced a periodization of six major transitions in big history. Not yet finished, he hypothesized that by looking for mind in the brain we are looking in the wrong place. Since all early major transitions involved both structures and processes, and from individuals to groups, that we should be looking for mind in social groups of human beings. The brain, he allowed, was implicated in the development of human social life, but social life is not reducible to the brain, and mind should be sought in theories of social intelligence.
Castillo’s work is quite rigorous and he defends it well, but I asked myself why we should not have different kinds of transitions at different stages of history and development, especially given that the kind of entities involved in the transition may be fundamentally distinct. Just as new or distinctive orders of existence require new or distinctive metrics for their measurement, so too new or distinctive orders of existence may come into being or pass out of being according to a transition specific to that kind of existent.
Final Plenary Sessions
After the individual session were finished, there was a series of plenary sessions. There was a presentation of Chronozoom, Fred Spier presented “The Future of Big History,” and finally there was a panel discussion entirely devoted to questions and answers, with Walter Alvarez, Craig Benjamin, Cynthia Brown, David Christian, Fred Spier, and Joseph Voros fielding the questions.
After the intellectual intensity of the sessions, it was not a surprise that these plenary sessions came to be mostly about funding, outreach, teaching, and the practical infrastructure of scholarship.
And with that the conference was declared to be closed.
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