Tuesday


Interior view showing the control room at Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Receiving Station B.

Questioning the Marxian Thesis

In the final section of Technological Civilization: Addendum to Part III, I made the following tripartite distinction among civilizations, such that there are:

1. Civilizations that exemplify the Marxian Thesis (technical civilizations)

2. Civilizations that exemplify the Burckhardtian Thesis (spiritual civilizations)

3. Civilizations primarily determined by their central projects (paradigmatic civilizations)

To recap these theses, the Marxian Thesis is that the intellectual superstructure is largely determined by the economic infrastructure, while the Burckhardtian Thesis is that the economic infrastructure is largely determined by the intellectual superstructure. In a paradigmatic civilization, infrastructrure and superstructure are equally determined (to some degree) by the central project. Alternatively, in the language of Robert Redfield, the Marxian Thesis is that the moral order is determined by the technical order, and the Burckhardtian Thesis is that the technical order is determined by the moral order. We can give these theses weaker or stronger formulations depending upon whether we hold the determination of one institutional structure of civilization by other to be marginal or total (or something in between).

The Marxian Thesis is the most familiar and the most influential, having been promoted and argued by Marxists for more than a hundred years. I had to formulate the Burckhardtian thesis myself because no one (to my knowledge) has attempted an explicit exposition or defense of the idea. Since the Marxian Thesis still has considerable influence in some quarters, I want to explicitly confront it with a counter-example. This does not mean that I reject the Marxian Thesis or affirm the Burckhardtian Thesis. My larger point is that different civilizations in different stages of historical development might embody the one or the other by turns. I take on the Marxian Thesis now primarily due to its popularity.

If the Marxian Thesis were true, one would expect that the intellectual superstructure would track the development of the economic infrastructure of civilization, so that as the economy developed, and as sciences and technologies appeared and entered into the economic infrastructure, they would be reflected in the intellectual superstructure precisely for their contribution to the economic infrastructure. One can point out instances that seem to confirm this expectation, but there are also instances that seem to defy the expectation. In order to set aside individual instances that may or may not be representative of a general trend, I would like to paint with a broad brush (as indeed Marx was painting with a broad brush). I have been entertaining a thought experiment for several years that I only recently realized speaks to this assumption of the Marxian Thesis, so I will use this in an attempt to make my point.

The Thought Experiment: Euclid and Darwin

Suppose, across a gulf of nearly two thousand years, we swapped Euclid with Darwin. Suppose that an ancient Greek Darwin had lived in the first few centuries AD, while a Victorian Euclid had lived in the 19th century. Obviously (I hope obviously), I am here using Euclid and Darwin as symbols to evoke developments in science associated with the two figures. Euclid represents the growth of mathematical science in classical antiquity, culminating in a figure like Euclid who would rationalize and systematize prior centuries of mathematical research into a great synthesis. Darwin represents the emergence of a scientific biology in the wake of 19th century achievements in scientific geology. Hutton and Lyell had opened the deep past to geologists, and Darwin opened the deep past to biologists. Euclid and Darwin are not perfectly symmetrical figures. Euclid was a systematizer and and synthesizer, like Thomas Aquinas or Hegel. Darwin stood at the head of a new scientific tradition, that would later be systematized and synthesized by others (significantly, the early twentieth century joining of evolution and genetics is called the “neo-Darwinian synthesis”).

Though Euclid and Darwin were not perfectly symmetrical figures in intellectual history, both men were the authors of books that defined a discipline: Euclid’s Elements defined ancient mathematics, while Darwin’s Origin of Species defined evolutionary biology. Thus by invoking Euclid and Darwin as symbols, what I am suggesting is not merely swapping the historical order of Euclid and Darwin, but more-so transposing their respective sciences in history, so that biology, instead of becoming scientific in the 19th century, instead became scientific in classical antiquity. And that geometry, and, by extension, all of higher mathematics, mostly lay dormant during classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, and only fully came into its own in the 19th century. Prior to this time there would have been a rudimentary mathematics, as there was a rudimentary biology in antiquity, but nothing like the sophistication of the Conics of Apollonius of Perga.

Natural selection, despite being counter-intuitive (the human mind is deeply teleological), is a simple idea. Certainly, natural selection is sufficiently simple that, had the idea been formulated in antiquity, and had it become the focus of research in the way that mathematical (and astronomical) ideas had been the focus of multi-generational scientific research programs in antiquity, most of the ideas of Darwin’s Origin of Species could have been formulated in terms understandable in classical antiquity. Moreover, the kind of experiments that Gregor Mendel later performed, which were the foundations of genetics, could also have been performed in classical antiquity. However, there is some ambiguity here in saying that the experiments, “could have been performed.” The experimental programs of Darwin and Mendel required no high technology, and thus could have been performed in classical antiquity (i.e., the lack of experimental apparatus would not have prevented these experiments from being performed), but the idea of experimental research in science did not yet exist in classical antiquity. There are many intimations of experimentation in antiquity, but nothing as methodical and systematic as Mendel’s pea plant experiments.

Let us suppose, then, as part of our thought experiment to transpose modern biological thought into antiquity in exchange for transposing ancient mathematical thought into the modern world, that Euclid’s axiomatization did not exist prior to being formulated in the 19th century, so that it did not appear as a method in antiquity, while experimental scientific method (at least in biology) instead appeared in antiquity. In a sense, this is not so far from what did happen, in terms of mathematical development. Axiomatics appeared in antiquity, but was little developed as a discipline, and was essentially static until the revolution in rigor in the late 19th century which brought a new urgency to axiomatics, which then developed rapidly thereafter, especially in the 20th century.

An Interpretation: Relevant and Irrelevant Scientific Developments

A fully developed evolutionary biology available in classical antiquity would have had significant ramifications. I don’t think it would be too much to say that this would have radically altered the course of the development of subsequent civilization. For example, to take a truly radical scenario, it might have taken human beings and our civilization in the direction of greater eusociality as a species; the understanding of natural selection would have provided the conceptual framework to go about selective breeding in a way that human beings did not undertake. With the knowledge of how species evolve, but without the biotechnology made available by technological civilization, the knowledge would have been there to manage selective breeding to accomplish what could not have been accomplished by biotechnology, and human beings might have bred themselves into multiple castes, phenotypically distinct, and serving functions as distinct as the classes in Plato’s Republic.

This scenario highlights an easily overlooked aspect of modern history: one of the consequences of the world wars of the 20th was a social and political regime of containing and limiting technologies. Global treaty regimes based on moral concerns to limit certain technological developments (paradigmatically, nuclear proliferation, but also chemical and biological warfare, etc.) were the result of a long historical development, and this development had not yet occurred in classical antiquity. (I do not say that this development was good or bad, or that it helped or hindered the development of civilization, I only say that it is.) If ancient civilization had had the power to shape species implied by a knowledge of natural selection, but had not possessed the subsequent history to appreciate the dangers inherent in scientific knowledge and technological power, civilization might have developed in a way that could not be undone, and that would have put humanity of a different course than that which we did in fact take.

One could modify the thought experiment in any number of ways, so, for example, we might have had an ancient Darwin but not an ancient Mendel, which would have meant that the idea of natural selection was available, but the technological application of genetics was not, which would have greatly limited the application of ancient biotechnology. This would be something like the stagnation of axiomatics after Euclid’s use of it. Natural selection as an idea might have lain stagnant for two thousand years before being revived at a later stage of history, and very little would have been changed in subsequent history, especially compared to the radical scenario above.

However, even a level of practical biological knowledge such as represented, for example, by the British Agricultural Revolution, would have made a great difference in the subsequent development of civilization. One of the things (inter alia) that made western European civilization so stagnant during the Middle Ages was the conservatism of agriculture. A better agriculture would have meant a much richer society, with much less likelihood of starvation, hence a lower likelihood of disease, better infant nutrition, and higher IQs as a result. Over hundreds of years, this would have had a significant impact on social development.

To mention the British Agricultural Revolution suggests something about the limitations of thought experiments such as this. It is arguable that Darwin’s work would not have happened without the backdrop of the British Agricultural Revolution; Jethro Tull may have been as important an influence on Darwin as Charles Lyell (whether or not Darwin knew it). After all, Darwin’s Origin of Species begins with a long chapter on selective breeding. It is an act of historical violence to disentangle the history of science from its actual course and to transpose it into another period of time, in which it is not native, and therefore considerable changes must be made in order to naturalize this science in another era.

Back to the Marxian Thesis: a Refutation?

The point of this thought experiment was to examine the Marxian Thesis critically. What I want to suggest with this thought experiment, then, was that classical antiquity did not develop a biological science that would have had a large and significant influence on a biocentric civilization that primarily derived its energy flows from the ambient environment through agriculture. A more sophisticated biology, even a practical biology as represented by the British Agricultural Revolution, would have been immediately applicable to civilization on a large scale, and would have altered the fates of civilizations that used a more sophisticated biology to its ends.

Instead, classical antiquity developed mathematics to a high degree of sophistication and precision. The achievement of Greek mathematics, later to be supplemented by the Hindu number system and Arab algebra, was so far beyond applicability in its time that many of the discoveries of ancient mathematics would not find application until after the scientific revolution, and some not until after the industrial revolution. While the biological thought that could have transformed civilization in antiquity did not develop, a body of mathematical thought virtually without application did develop (a mathematical body of knowledge that would have been highly useful to a technocentric civilization). In this sense, not only did the intellectual superstructure of scientific knowledge fail to track the development of the economic infrastructure, it arguably achieved the antithesis of tracking the economic infrastructure, neglecting knowledge that would have been applicable while developing knowledge that was largely inapplicable.

Taking the Marxian Thesis in the abstract, one might have expected that an agricultural civilization would have resulted in a sophisticated agricultural science, while a technological civilization would have resulted in a sophisticated industrial science. In the former case, this does not seem to have occurred, and, in the latter case, it occurred assisted by the mathematics of an earlier civilization which developed mathematics as an end in itself, and not out of any practical concern for application. While we could try to explain away the absence of a sophisticated agricultural science in pre-modern agricultural civilizations, and appeal to the prominent role of agriculture and pastoralism in ancient mythology and religion (which are other expressions of the intellectual superstructure), this should at least give the advocate of the Marxian Thesis pause.

Part of this disconnect between the knowledge of the intellectual superstructure and the practices of the economic infrastructure may be put to the overall progress of human social and technological development. Any science, such as Darwin’s biology, that was formulated after the scientific revolution was able to be developed much more rapidly, and with greater practical effect, than any science formulated prior to the scientific revolution, which might lie fallow for centuries or even millennia without practical application. The scientific method itself is a triumph of the human intellect, and its formulation, while several hundred years old, is far from complete. We have a lot yet to learn about how to do science. Because modern science is historically recent, one might argue, no science of evolutionary biology could have existed in classical antiquity. There is some validity in this argument, but I do not think that this fully accounts for the disconnect between the infrastructure and superstructure of classical antiquity, which could simply be put to suboptimality.

Arguably, mathematics was developed in antiquity because this was a science that could be developed on a purely intellectual basis with a minimal level of technology, and a minimal, perhaps absent, sense that scientific knowledge would have any application at all, especially to economics. Education in classical antiquity was about preparing an élite class to give persuasive speeches in a public assembly or a law court, and not about advancing knowledge. Moreover, there were any number of simple mathematical ideas that did not appear in classical antiquity. Obviously, the Greeks did not formulate the numbers we use today, which seem to have originated in India, and which are perhaps the most effective and intuitive formalism ever invented by human beings. I noted above that natural selection is essentially a simple idea; for that matter, set theory is also based on very simple ideas that ancient mathematicians could have have grasped, but the idea did not appear until the late 19th century, after Darwin. It would make another interesting thought experiment to ask how history might have been different if set theory had been introduced in classical antiquity. Maybe it would have made no difference at all; maybe not.

Another Take Away: Human Technophilia

However flawed this thought experiment, another take away from it is the extent to which human beings might be called a technologically adept species. We are interested in and express ourselves through technology in a way that suggests that the peculiarities of the human intellect have a particular affinity for technology. We have had many opportunities in our history to go in a more “biological” direction, but we have almost always taken the technologically intensive path. This has been recognized in the past, when human beings have been called homo faber in addition to homo sapiens: man the builder, the doer, the maker, the innovator, and eventually man the engineer of machines. Now that we possess the technological capability to do so, we build entirely artificial environments in which we live, which is why I have argued that Wilson’s biophilia needs to be supplemented with an understanding of technophilia.

Technological civilization, in all its contemporary scope and scale and sophistication, may be a consequence of the peculiarly technological bent of the human mind. And this may be sufficiently peculiar that it happens infrequently in the history of the universe. That is to say, it may be common for biology to evolve into more complex forms, and common even for intelligence to emerge from biology, but uncommon for that intelligence to take the form of a technological interest. It was the human use of technology — spear points, canoes, the bone needle, form-fitting clothing, the use of fire, and so on — which made it possible for our Paleolithic ancestors to settle the planet entire even before we developed civilization. Another way to think about this is that our technological impulses are stronger, and were expressed earlier, than our eusocial impulses. This in itself is an important observation, and may suggest why human eusociality attained the level that it did, but it did not go further, as it has with bees and termites and ants.

Even if my thought experiment does not show what I hoped it would show in regard to casting doubt on the Marxian Thesis (by which I mean, casting doubt on the Marxian Thesis as describing the only or predominant permutation of civilization), it may have some value on shining a light on the peculiarly technological character of the human intellect. Philosopher of technology Don Ihde has identified a technological texture to contemporary life; he is right to make this observation, but we might ask whether this technological texture of life is a result of our lives being unexpectedly transformed by technology since the industrial revolution, or whether human life has always had a technological texture, expressed with the materials on hand, and is due not to some accident of history like the industrial revolution, but is an inevitable projection of the human mind, which is a technological mind. In the latter case, it is the technological character of the human mind that is the accident of history, and, given a mind of this cast, the industrial revolution was an inevitable expression of a mind of this kind.

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Monday


Reconsiderations and Revisions

While working on Technological Civilization, Part IV, I have reconsidered some of my formulations in Part III and I now see that several revisions are in order, both to improve and to clarify what I wrote previously. My model of civilization is a work in progress, conducted in the open and made available in talks and blog posts — an exercise that has been called “open-source philosophy.” Being a work in progress, I have had many false starts and have had to backtrack infelicitous formulations.

Immediately after my talks in 2015 (“What kind of civilizations build starships?”) and 2017 (“The Role of Lunar Civilization in Interstellar Buildout”) I started making revisions to my PowerPoint presentations because of the shortcomings I perceived in each of these talks. Neither of these revised presentations was delivered, but continuing to elaborate these ideas did lead to further insights that I have applied to later formulations. There remains something of value in these earlier efforts, but I am not tied to any one set of ideas or a single way of expressing ideas. Hence the need for continual revision.

The Symmetry Thesis Rather than the Interaction Thesis

In Part III I defined the Marxian Thesis as being that the moral order of a civilization is determined by the technical order, the Burckhardtian Thesis as being the technical order determined by the moral order, and I also suggested the Interaction Thesis as being that, “…the technical order and the moral order mutually influence each other.” This latter claim is poorly stated. I now realize that interaction is not a strictly structural concept, so that it is out of place here in this exposition of the institutional structure of civilization. (The distinction implicit in singling out strictly structural concepts will become important in a future post in this series.)

What I meant by calling the interaction thesis the condition in which the moral and technical orders influence each other, is that there can be both forms of institutional causality at the same time, so that some elements of the moral order determine some elements of the technical order, and some elements of the technical order determine some elements of the moral order. This is distinct from interaction in time, in which each might influence the other in turn, with causality passing back and forth from the one to the other. This is indeed another way in which a civilization might function, but it isn’t what I was trying to say in this context. For what I was trying to say, Symmetry Thesis would be a better name.

Sir William Hamilton, 9th Baronet FRSE DD FSAS

Exhaustive, Strong, Weak, and Null Theses

I want to go into a bit more detail on the relation of the Symmetry Thesis to the Marxian Thesis and the Burckhardtian Thesis. I thought the possibilities were sufficiently obvious that I didn’t need to state them, but perhaps I should spell it out just to be clear. The vulgar interpretation of Marxism is that the ideological infrastructure is exhaustively determined by the economic infrastructure. In this case, all of the moral order is determined by the technical order. By substituting for the quantifier “all” we arrive at different possible permutations of the Marxian Thesis. We have already mentioned the exhaustive Marxian thesis. If we assert that most of the moral order is determined by the technical order, this is the strong Marxian Thesis, and if we assert that some of the moral order is determined by the technical order, that is the weak Marxian Thesis.

The reader will see that these permutations can be mirrored by formulations of the Burckhardtian Thesis. The exhaustive Burckhardtian Thesis is when all of the technical order is determined by the moral order; the strong Burckhardtian Thesis is when most of the technical order is determined by the moral order; the weak Burckhardtian Thesis is when some of the technical order is determined by the moral order. There are also null permutations of each: when none of the moral order is determined by the technical order (the negation of the Marxian Thesis, which corresponds to the exhaustive Burckhardtian Thesis), and when none of the technical order is determined by the moral order (the negation of the Burckhardtian Thesis, which corresponds to the exhaustive Marxian Thesis).

The strong Marxian Thesis (most determination of the moral order by the technical order) is consistent with the weak Burckhardtian thesis (some determination of the technical order by the moral order). Moreoever, the weak Marxian thesis (some determination of the moral order by the technical order) is consistent with both the weak Burckhardtian thesis (some determination of the technical order by the moral order) and the strong Burckhardtian thesis (most determination of the technical order by the moral order). Contrariwise, each of these formulations holds, mutatis mutandis, for the strong and weak Burckhardtian theses in relation to strong and weak Marxian theses. All of these are permutations of the Symmetry Thesis (some elements of the moral order are determined by the technical order, and vice versa), so the Symmetry Thesis is ultimately reducible to formulations in terms of either the Marxian Thesis or the Burckhardtian Thesis, thus the Symmetry Thesis does not define a fundamentally distinct kind of civilization.

Even these formulations above, though a bit clearer than my previous exposition, admit of ambiguities, but I believe that these ambiguities can be cleared up in a more formal presentation of these ideas. For example, when I say that some elements of the technical order determine the moral order is the weak Marxian Thesis, this could mean either that some elements of the technical order determine the entirety of the moral order, or the same elements of the technical order determine some (but not all) of the moral order. Here the quantification of the predicate — an innovation in traditional Aristotelian logic introduced by Sir William Hamilton — is particularly relevant, and Hamilton’s formulations could be employed in a statement of the permutations that might hold between the moral order and the technical order. For now, as a kind of shorthand, the reader should assume that I am not speaking of exhaustive formulations (which are usually idealizations not exemplified in matters of fact).

Determination of Moral and Technical Orders by the Central Project

Elements of the moral or technical order not determined by the other order might be autonomous, i.e., self-determining, or they might be determined by some other factor. The obvious factor that I failed to mention in Part III is that they might be determined primarily by the central project. The paradigmatic form of civilization, according to my model, is when the moral and technical orders are primarily (though not necessarily exhaustively) determined by the central project, and I think that this is what we find among pristine civilizations. With historically derivative civilizations that follow the earliest pristine civilizations, when novel central projects have had time to evolve either out of the moral order or the technical order, we find civilizations of the two fundamental kinds that I identified in Part III, viz. the technical and the spiritual.

It was not my intention to suggest that this distinction between fundamentally technical civilizations and fundamentally spiritual civilization was especially important, even though it certainly is interesting. In an attempt at clarification of this distinction I provided the following analogy: “…we can say that all human beings fall into one of two classes, male or female, and in some contexts this is important, but it doesn’t really tell us much about our species. To know what human beings are it is better to know anatomy, physiology, psychology, and natural history (i.e., the sciences relevant to anthropology).”

Here is another analogy: hunter-gatherer nomads might pass through a year in which there is very little game to be had, so that most of their nutrition comes from gathering, or there could be a year with plenty of game but little to gather, so that their nutrition comes primarily from eating meat. Thus we could say that there are two fundamental kinds of hunter-gatherer bands: those that derive most of their calories from gathering, and those that derive most of their calories from hunting. In fact, we know of nomadic peoples who have specialized in the one or the other. For example, the Sami people of the far north of Europe follow reindeer herds and primarily eat meat. Although we can make this interesting distinction, there is a lot more to know about a hunter-gatherer band than where it gets the greater part of its calories, though this question does point to an important distinction, and this distinction sometimes has uses in understanding hunter-gatherer peoples.

It is a matter of historical contingency when a civilization comes to be dominated by either the moral order or the technical order, and indeed we might identify such civilizations as essentially derivative and as a deviation from the paradigmatic form of civilization, in which the central project plays in the primarily role in determining both the moral order and the technical order.

Three Kinds of Civilizations

The upshot of the above is that I should have said that there are three fundamental kinds of civilization, rather than two fundamental kinds:

1. Civilizations that exemplify the Marxian Thesis (technical civilizations)

2. Civilizations that exemplify the Burckhardtian Thesis (spiritual civilizations)

3. Civilizations primarily determined by their central projects (paradigmatic civilizations)

Again, this tripartite distinction is interesting, and has implications in understanding civilization, but it should not be accorded more emphasis than it deserves. Above all, I am not interested in making a distinction like this and then going through the world’s civilizations and placing every one of them in one column or the other; such an approach to the study of civilization would be unhelpful at best, and would prove an obstacle to understanding at worst.

However, in the present context this discussion is relevant because I have defined one of two kinds of technological civilization as a civilization for which the Marxian Thesis holds, the other kind of technological civilization — properly technological civilization — being a civilization that takes technology as its central project. Given what I have suggested above, viz. that pristine civilizations are likely to be paradigmatic civilizations, and given the unlikelihood that a technological civilization could be a pristine civilization, it makes sense that our usage of “technological civilization” accords with the Marxian Thesis, and that our technological civilization today is not one that takes technology as its central project.

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