The Space Age turns 60!

4 October 2017


Sixty years ago today, on 04 October 1957, Sputnik 1 (Спутник-1) became the first object of human manufacture to orbit the Earth. Thus began the Space Race, driven by Cold War competition, but transcending that Cold War competition and being transformed into a triumph of the human spirit (not to mention being a triumph of human engineering, but here engineering expresses the human spirit).

A few years ago, on 12 April 2011, I wrote A Half Century of Human Spaceflight to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight in orbit around the Earth; in just a few years, 2021, we will be able to celebrate sixty years of human spaceflight. The anniversaries of all the important dates for the technologies that have shaped the world today remind us how rapidly the world was transformed from thousands of years of settled agriculturalism, preceded by tens of thousands of years of hunter-gatherer nomadism, into the technological civilization of today. Progress has been dizzying, and the very institutions of civilization that brought us to this point have not yet caught up with the changes wrought by them; even now they labor under the strain of this forced social change.

We are still in the very early stages of the Space Age; the inflection point of this developmental sequence has not yet arrived, so we are today still in the same shallow end of the exponential growth curve that was initiated sixty years ago. In the earliest years of the Space Age (and the Space Race, since the two coincided at least until 1969, when the Space Race as “won”) it became commonplace to speak of the “conquest of space,” as though our first tentative, exploratory foray beyond the atmosphere of our homeworld were a triumphant affirmation of human power. Carl Sagan was nearer to the truth when he wrote in Cosmos that our first few decades of space exploration have been only an incremental step in an endless journey:

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return. These aspirations are not, I think, irreverent, although they may trouble whatever gods may be.”

It is likely that we will continue on in the shallow end of the space exploration curve for some time yet. Perched as we are on the edge of the cosmos, able to see far more than we can explore, like Stout Cortez, silent upon a peak in Darien, it is something akin to madness for those of us who wish to explore, but whose lives will remain Earthbound. We must learn patience, even if that is the least of our virtues. I may not live to see the inflection point, but I know that it is out there, and that the task for us is to keep civilization moving in that direction so that the inflection point will be reached, and that we do not fail before we have reached it. To take heart during this sometimes demoralizing struggle, we have the vision before us of what civilization can become when it is liberated from planetary endemism. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

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The Space Age began with Sputnik.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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What might Byzantine civilization have been like if it had endured for a million years instead of a thousand years?

What might Byzantine civilization have been like if it had endured for a million years instead of a thousand years?

Carl Sagan often discussed the possibility of very old civilizations in the cosmos, hidden from us by distance or by our ignorance, but which we might someday hope to find by way of SETI initiatives. Here is a passage from Cosmos where he mentions the possibility of a million-year-old civilization:

“What does it mean for a civilization to be a million years old? We have had radio telescopes and spaceships for a few decades; our technical civilization is a few hundred years old, scientific ideas of a modern cast a few thousand, civilization in general a few tens of thousands of years; human beings evolved on this planet only a few million years ago. At anything like our present rate of technical progress, an advanced civilization millions of years old is as much beyond us as we are beyond a bush baby or a macaque. Would we even recognize its presence? Would a society a million years in advance of us be interested in colonization or interstellar spaceflight?”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XII, “Encyclopaedia Galactica”

While Sagan focused on the possibility of civilizations that are very old, Kardashev focused on the possibility of civilizations that are very large. Kardashev explicitly argued for the existence of civilizations that he called “supercivilizations” that had quite literally grown to astronomical dimensions. Kardashev wrote:

“The scales of activity of any civilization are restricted only by natural and scientific factors… Civilizations have no inner, inherent limitations on the scales of their activities.”

“On the inevitability and the possible structures of supercivilizations,” Nikolai S. Kardashev, in The Search for Extraterrestrial Life: Recent Developments, edited by M. D. Papagiannis, International Astronomical Union, 1985, pp. 497-504.

These themes occur throughout Kardashev’s writings on supercivilizations, which Kardashev asserted to probably exist and to be detectable by the methods of SETI, if only a SETI project were to focus on supercivilizations:

“Astrophysical research, data from biology and cybernetics, and from other sciences, point to a high probability for the detectability of extraterrestrial civilizations. Currently, what is needed is a fundamental review of our preliminary notions about the possible nature of these civilizations and of the particular method which must be used in the search for them. In my opinion, the only useful concept is the assumption that supercivilizations exist (in particular, also, that our civilization may eventually become a supercivilization).”

“Strategy for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” N. S. KARDASHEV, Institute for Space Research, Academy of Sciences, U.S.S.R., Acta Astronautica, Vol. 6, pp. 33-46, Pergamon Press, 1979

Ray Norris raises the stakes in his calculation of the age of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations and argues that any exocivilization we might hope to find would be on the order of a billion years old:

“Conventional models imply that supernovae and gamma-ray-bursters will extinguish life on planets at intervals of about 200 Myr. Since this has not happened on Earth, either these conventional models are wrong, or else life on Earth is probably unique in the Galaxy. The first case predicts a median age of ET as being of the order of 1 billion years. The second case predicts that we will never detect ET. Thus, if we do detect ET, the median age is of order 1 billion years. Note that, in this case, the probability of ET being less than one million years older than us is less than 1 part in 1000.”

“HOW OLD IS ET?” Ray P. Norris, CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility, Acta Astronautica 47:731, 1999.

For Norris, the idea of a million-year-old supercivilization is a minimum threshold, while the median age for a detectable civilization would be closer to being a billion years old.

The idea of a million- or billion-year-old supercivilization would seem to be the antithesis of a suboptimal civilization, but the consideration of each can help us to refine our conception of the other. If a supercivilization is very old or very large, does this entail that any suboptimal civilization is very young or very small? Given the habitable lifespan of a planet around a stable star, it is possible that even a civilization confined to the surface of a planet (and therefore very small in astronomical terms) could grow very old, perhaps attaining Sagan’s threshold of being a million-year-old civilization. Could we call such a civilization a supercivilization?

A distinction I failed to make in Suboptimal Civilizations is that between civilizational longevity with and without attaining civilizational maturity. Under conditions of planetary constraint, a sequence of civilizations might arise, come to maturity, and disappear, each in turn fulfilling the essential idea of that particular civilization. This cyclical or sequential vision of civilization is distinct from a million-year-old civilization that is not a supercivilization merely in virtue or remaining “small” (confined to a planetary surface).

Furthermore, a million-year-old civilization might either attain its maturity, establishing itself at a plateau (a high level equilibrium, if you will) at or just past its mature plateau in a state of extended senescence (I can imagine this case being made for Byzantine civilization, so imagine, if you will, a million-year-old Byzantium), or a million-year-old civilization might continue indefinitely in the pursuit of some telos that indefinitely eludes it.

If no catastrophic event brings terrestrial civilization to an end (this does not include predictable change that may well be seen by human beings as catastrophic, but which must be expected over a million year horizon — I am thinking of climate change, inter alia), terrestrial civilization could go on to become a million-year-old civilization (that is not a supercivilization) if it fails to cross the threshold of becoming a demographically significant spacefaring civilization.

If we understand civilization of the third order (see below) to extend from the earliest origins of civilization on Earth to galaxy-spanning Kardashevian supercivilizations, than any civilization we know of occupies a point along this civilizational continuum, and the telos of civilization (and therefore the measure of whether civilization has reached maturity) is a supercivilization. In this sense, any civilization that has not evolved into a supercivilization is a suboptimal civilization.

However, given my definition of civilization of the third order, no individual civilization would thus attain supercivilization status; only the whole structure of intertwined civilizations (going back ten thousand years to the origins of civilization on our planet) could be said to be a supercivilization (and indeed not only in Kardashev’s sense of the term, but also a “supercivilization” in the sense of being a meta-conception of civilization distinct from any particular civilization). In the case of a supercivilziation of the third order, no individual civilization within that continuum of civilization could be judged as a suboptimal civilization in so far as each contributory civilization is part of a third order supercivilization.

If, on the other hand, we require that a supercivilization be a single, continuously extant individual civilization of great antiquity and achievement, then a supercivilization is a concept of civilization of the second order. In this case, even if an individual civilization were incorporated into a network of related civilizations (just as the civilizations of Earth manifest a reticulate organization) that eventually lasted a million years and attained supercivilization status, that individual civilization that itself failed to ultimately develop into a supercivilization could be said to be a suboptimal civilization. Thus a civilization’s attaining maturity could be a function of its development or of its place within the larger structure of civilizations. Distinctions need to be made to avoid confusion.

We could define the maturity of civilization in terms of any of the orders of civilization. In Thinking about Civilization I introduced the idea of orders of civilization as follows:

● Civilization of the Zeroth Order is the order of prehistory and of all human life and activity and comes before civilization in the strict sense. Civilization of the zeroth order may involve socioeconomic communities that do not rise to the threshold of civilization.

● Civilization of the First Order are those socioeconomic systems of large-scale organization that supply the matter upon which history works; in other words, the synchronic milieu of a given civilization, a snapshot in time.

● Civilization of the Second Order is an entire life cycle of civilization, from birth through growth to maturity and senescence unto death, taken whole.

● Civilization of the Third Order is the whole structure of developmental stages of civilization such that any particular civilization passes through, but taken comprehensively and embracing all civilizations within this structure and their interactions with each other as the result of these structures. In other words, civilization of the third order is the life cycle of many civilizations as they overlap and intersect in one grand narrative of civilization.

Based on these orders of civilization, the maturity of each conception of civilization can be distinctly defined:

● Zeroth Order Maturity Mature institutions of hunter-gatherer nomadism.

● First Order Maturity Mature institutions of large-scale socioeconomic organization, without reference to the stage of development of that civilization on the whole.

● Second Order Maturity A civilization that has completed its life cycle, including having passed through a stage of fulfillment of its essential idea.

● Third Order Maturity The maturity of the overall structure of civilization, including diachronic and synchronic relations between distinct civilizations, sufficiently developed that all of the essential features of this conception are present.

It is in this final sense of maturity, the maturity of civilization of the third order, that we can speak of all non-supercivilizations as suboptimal civilizations. However, we may wish to make further distinctions. In cases in which a planetary civilization never passes the threshold to a demographically significant spacefaring civilization, and the entirety of civilization originating on such a planet plays itself out on the same planet, there may be predictable patterns of such planetary civilization of the third order, and patterns distinct from spacefaring civilizations of graduated degrees of gravitational thresholds. Thus we might speak of planetary civilizations of the third order, stellar civilizations of the third order, galactic civilizations of the third order, and so on. This clearly implies all of these distinctions also being made for each order of civilization.

We will also want to formulate the orders of supercivilization:

● Supercivilization of the Zeroth Order I am not yet prepared to say what corresponds to this concept, but I leave it here as a placeholder.

● Supercivilization of the First Order This is essentially Kardashev’s conception of Type II and Type III civilizations from his 1964 paper, which are judged to be supercivilizations on the basis of a single technological capacity, which is a snapshot of their technology in time, divorced from any conception of civilizational development or evolution.

● Supercivilization of the Second Order This is the idea of a single civilization possessing a single developmental arc that leads from primitive origins to supercivilization status, in other words, Sagan’s idea of a million-year-old civilization or Norris’ idea of a billion-year-old civilization. Such a civilization might be the source of detectable civilization understood above as a supercivilization of the first order.

● Supercivilization of the Third Order This is the idea of a network of civilizations that overlap and intersect, with individual civilizations emerging and then disappearing, but with successor civilizations carrying on the tradition and eventually achieving supercivilization status.

Given this sketch of the orders of supercivilization, we would also want to formulate the orders of suboptimal civilizations:

● Suboptimal Civilization of the Zeroth Order Again (as above), I am not yet prepared to say what corresponds to this concept, but I leave it here as a placeholder.

● Suboptimal Civilization of the First Order A civilization the institutions of which fail to fulfill their intended purpose. This could be a civilization at any stage of development or evolution, and indeed it could pass on to a later developmental stage at which it ceases to be a suboptimal civilization. This could be taken as a description of every civilization on our planet today.

● Suboptimal Civilization of the Second Order A civilization that has passed through an entire developmental arc and has apparently completed a life cycle (and is possibly extinct) without however having fulfilled or brought to maturity the essential idea that drove its emergence and development.

● Suboptimal Civilization of the Third Order A network of related civilizations that fails to exhibit full development of individual civilizations within the structure and which fails to exhibit any evolution of the structure of civilization on the whole. In other words, the rise and fall of a series of civilizations that accomplish nothing individually or collectively.

That is a lot to think over, and as many of these ideas are almost as new to me as they may be to the reader (if the reader has not come to them through his or her own reflections on supercivilizations and suboptimal civilizations), as I only arrived at these formulations as I was taking a walk yesterday, it will take time to assimilate this conceptual framework and to see whether or not it is useful for the analysis of civilization. But I might mention that it is a certain satisfaction for me that the idea of orders of civilization lends itself so well to this extrapolation, which implies that this idea is useful in the exposition of other ideas.

If I can continue to develop these ideas in the light of each other, as is suggested by the above exposition, they will prove themselves useful as analytical tools in the study of civilization.

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If a Byzantine civilization had endured for a million years, would it have exhibited a regular cyclical pattern of crises and stable periods, or would it have inscribed a long arc of development? Would it be possible for a million-year-old non-technological civilization to exhibit such a long arc of development?

If a Byzantine civilization had endured for a million years, would it have exhibited a regular cyclical pattern of crises and stable periods, or would it have inscribed a long arc of development? Would it be possible for a million-year-old non-technological civilization to exhibit such a long arc of development?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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nuclear explosion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Igor Kurchatov “The Danger of Atomic War” 1954

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Third Time’s a Charm

8 February 2014


geological eras of life

The Three Eras of Life on Earth

The Earth, it would seem, has been regularly reduced to biological penury throughout its long history, which has been punctuated by mass extinctions that have very nearly reduced biodiversity to zero. It is possible that, in the earliest history of life on Earth, when our planet was regularly bombarded by objects from space, and exposed to especially harsh conditions, life may have emerged multiple times, only to be wiped out again in short order. There would have been plenty of time for this to occur during the 550 million years prior to the emergence of the earliest life known to be continuous with our own.

The repeated denudation of the planet by mass extinctions constituted a kind of ecological succession on a grand scale. Each time life had to recover anew, and, in recovering, the surviving species (the “weeds” that were the most robust and which went on to colonize the denuded landscape and seascape) underwent dramatic periods of adaptive radiation until, in the global climax ecosystems prior to a mass extinction event, almost every niche for life has been filled — possibly several times over, leading to contested niches where multiple species compete for the same limited resources.

The history of life is such a reliable indicator of geological time that there is an entire discipline — biostratigraphy — given over to the dating of rocks by the fossils they contain. Once life becomes sufficiently complex to leave a record of itself in the rocks of our planet, the development of life is a sure guide to the age of the rocks that contain traces of this past life. Contemporary scientific geology largely got its start through biostratigraphy in the work of William Smith (called “strata Smith” by his contemporaries), whom I have previously mentioned in The Transplanetary Perspective.

Three of the major divisions of geological time are named for the eras of life that they comprise: Paleozoic (old life), Mesozoic (middle life), and Cenozoic (common, or recent, life). These divisions of geological time give a “big picture” view of the history of life on Earth. The mass extinction events at the end of the Permian and at the K-T boundary were so catastrophic that the Earth in the case of the end Permian extinction came perilously close to being sterilized, and while the K-T event (now known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene or K–Pg extinction event) was not as disastrous, it ended the dominion of the dinosaurs over most ecological niches and thereby gave mammals the opportunity to experience an explosive adaptive radiation.

cosmos 06

Million Year Old Civilizations

We know that intelligent life on Earth arose in the late Cenozoic era, but how clement were these earlier eras of life on Earth to intelligent life? If intelligent life had arisen in the Paleozoic, founded a civilization, and survived to the present, that civilization would be in excess of 250 million years old. If, again, intelligent life had arisen in the Mesozoic, founded a civilization, and survived to the present, that civilization would be in excess of 65 million years old. However, both of these counterfactual civilizations that did not happen would have almost certainly have been destroyed by the catastrophic mass extinctions that separated these eras of terrestrial life (unless they had taken adequate measures to mitigate existential risk, which would seem to be a necessary condition for any truly long-lived civilization).

The idea of a civilization a million or more years old was a theme discussed by Carl Sagan on several occasions. Here is an explicit formulation of the million-year-old civilization theme from Chapter XII, “Encyclopedia Galacitca,” from Sagan’s book Cosmos:

“What does it mean for a civilization to be a million years old? We have had radio telescopes and spaceships for a few decades; our technical civilization is a few hundred years old, scientific ideas of a modern cast a few thousand, civilization in general a few tens of thousands of years; human beings evolved on this planet only a few million years ago. At anything like our present rate of technical progress, an advanced civilization millions of years old is as much beyond us as we are beyond a bush baby or a macaque. Would we even recognize its presence? Would a society a million years in advance of us be interested in colonization or interstellar spaceflight? People have a finite lifespan for a reason. Enormous progress in the biological and medical sciences might uncover that reason and lead to suitable remedies. Could it be that we are so interested in spaceflight because it is a way of perpetuating ourselves beyond our own lifetimes? Might a civilization composed of essentially immortal beings consider interstellar exploration fundamentally childish?”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XII, “Encyclopaedia Galactica”

Human civilization could be considered as being more than ten thousand years old if we date the advent of civilization to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. This is an atypical way to think about civilization, but I have seen it in a few sources (Jacob Bronowski, I think, takes this view, more or less), and it is how I myself think about civilization. A civilization ten thousand years old or more is nothing to dismiss; persisting for ten thousand years is a non-trivial accomplishment. Yet the history of terrestrial civilization may be compared to the history of terrestrial life: there is a long period that is nearly stagnant, with painfully slow innovations, and then an event occurs — the Cambrian explosion for life, the industrial revolution for civilization — and what it means to be “alive” or “civilized” is radically altered.

Dating to the Neolithic Agricultural revolution is consistent with my recent suggestion in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization that civilization could be minimally defined as a coevolutionary cohort of species. However, our industrial-technological civilization is barely more than two hundred years old. To consider the geologically insignificant period of time of one hundred years is to contemplate a period of time half again as long as the entire history of industrial-technological civilization. The kind of technological gains that industrial-technological civilization could experience over a period of a hundred years can be quite remarkable, as our experience of the past hundred years suggests.

This year, 2014, we experience the one hundred year anniversary of global industrialized warfare. Not long after, we will experience the hundred year anniversaries of digital computers, jet propulsion, rocketry, and nuclear technology. Some of these technologies have improved by orders of magnitude. Some have improved very little. If the coming century brings commensurate technological innovations (not to mention innovations in science that would drive these technological innovations), even if not all these developments experience exponential development, and many languish in a state of stagnation, our world and our understanding of the world will nevertheless be repeatedly revolutionized.

Given what we know about the rapidity of technological change — bequeathed to our industrial-technological civilization as a consequence of the STEM cycle — we ought to conclude that we can know almost nothing about what a million year civilization would be like, except in so far as we might be able to imagine only the most stagnant aspects of such a civilization. It would be beyond our ability to understand advanced technologies ten thousand years hence, just as our ancestors, only beginning to lay the foundations of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization ten thousand years ago, could have understood our advanced technologies today. Understanding across these orders of developmental magnitude lie beyond the human zone of proximal development.

Octopus evolution

Counterfactual Civilizations

I have written previously that there is an earliest bound in the history of our universe for life, for intelligent life, and for civilization. It would not be possible to produce an industrial-technological civilization as we know it (i.e., a peer civilization) without heavier metallic elements, so that the emergence of industrial-technological civilization must minimally wait for the formation of Population I stars and their planetary systems. That being said, many population I stars have been around for billions of years, and there have consequently been billions of years for industrial-technological civilizations to emerge and to attain great age.

Are there other constraints upon the emergence of life, intelligence, and civilization that move the boundary for the earliest possible emergence of these phenomena nearer to the present? Is there any reason to suppose, from our knowledge of the natural history of Earth and the complexity of the human brain, that intelligent life and civilization could not have arisen in earlier eras of life — Paleozoic intelligent life or Mesozoic intelligent life, which would, in turn, according to Civilization-Intelligence Covariance, give rise to Paleozoic civilization or Mesozoic civilization? Or, if not here on Earth, why not some other planet orbiting a population I star where life begins 550 million years after the formation of the planet?

Octopi, cuttlefish, and other cephalopods with large brains and highly sophisticated nervous systems — it takes a lot of raw neural processing power to do what some cephalopods do with their skin color — would seem to be ideal candidates for early terrestrial intelligent life. Octopi date back to the Devonian Period, more than 360 million years ago, during the Paleolithic Era, so that ancestors of this life form survived both the End Permian extinction and the K-T extinction (cf. Fossil Octopuses). Why didn’t cephalopods establish a counterfactual civilization during the Permian? There was certainly time enough to do so before the End Permian extinction.

Is a backbone, or something that can serve a similar function like an exoskeleton, a necessary condition for intelligence to issue in the production of civilization? Multicellular life forms without a backbone, or confined to an aquatic environment, might well develop intelligence, but would have a difficult time building a technological civilization — difficult, but not impossible. This is a question I considered previously in The Place of Bilaterial Symmetry in the History of Life and Counterfactuals Implicit in Naturalism.

If we should find life in the oceans below the icy surface of Europa, or any of the other moons in our solar system internally heated by gravitational forces, it would consist of life forms peculiarly constrained by their environment, i.e., possibly more constrained than terrestrial conditions, and therefore more likely to favor extremophiles. Oceanic lifeforms beneath a crust of ice many kilometers thick would not only have the technological disadvantage faced by any intelligent aquatic species, but would face the additional disadvantage of being cut off from the stars. Unable to physically see their place in the universe, such lifeforms might have an even more difficult time that we had in coming to understand the world. The mythology of such a life form would have to be very different from the mythologies created by early human societies, in which the stars typically played a prominent role. Any civilization that might be conjoined with such a mythology might constitute an extremophile civilization.


Inside the Charmed Circle

Many of the questions that I have posed above are variations on ancient themes of anthropocentrism, and from within the charmed circle of anthropocentrism it is difficult for us to see outside that circle. Our minds are quite literally defined by that circle, being the product of human biology, and our imagination is largely circumscribed by the limitations of our minds. But our minds are also capable, with effort, of passing beyond the charmed circle of anthropocentrism, identifying anthropic bias as such and transcending it.

For us, the third time life got a chance on Earth was the charm. Paleozoic life came and (largely) went without producing intelligence or civilization, as did Mesozoic life. It was not until Cenozoic life that intelligence and civilization emerged. But was this the result of mere contingency, or a function of some operative constraint — possibly even a constraint no one has even noticed because of its pervasive presence — that prevented intelligence and civilization from arising in earlier geological eras?

While there might be reason to believe that other forms of life will have something like a DNA structure, or that something like the transition from prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic cells will have taken place, but there is no particular reason to believe that the large scale structure of life on other worlds would have the terrestrial tripartite structure, since this big picture view of life on Earth was a result of particular mass extinction events that seem too contingent to characterize any possible emergence of life. However, there is reason to believe that there will be some mass extinction events afflicting life on other worlds, and at least some of these mass extinction events will result from large scale cosmological events. If solar systems form elsewhere in a process like the formation of our solar system, life elsewhere would also be exposed to asteroid impacts, comets, solar flares, and the like. This is one of the lessons of astrobiology.

That there will be constraints and contingencies that bear upon life we can be certain; but we cannot (yet) know exactly what these constraints and contingencies will be. This is a non-constructive observation: invoking the existence of constraints and contingencies without saying what they will be. What would a constructive approach to life’s constraints and contingencies look like? Is it necessary to adopt a non-constructive perspective where our knowledge is so lacking? As knowledge of the conditions of astrobiology and astrocivilization grows, may we yet adopt a constructive conception of them?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Earth and the moon in one frame as seen from the Galileo spacecraft 6.2 million kilometers away. (from Picture of Earth from Space by Fraser Cain)

Earth and the moon in one frame as seen from the Galileo spacecraft 6.2 million kilometers away. (from Picture of Earth from Space by Fraser Cain)

In my post Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty I cited Frank Knight’s distinction between risk and certainty and attempted to apply this to the idea of existential risk. I suggested that discussions of existential risk ought to distinguish between existential risk (sensu stricto) and existential uncertainty.

In Knight’s now-classic work Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Frank Knight actually made a threefold distinction in the kinds of probabilities that face the entrepreneur:

1. A priori probability. Absolutely homogeneous classification of instances completely identical except for really indeterminate factors. This judgment of probability is on the same logical plane as the propositions of mathematics (which also may be viewed, and are viewed by the writer, as “ultimately” inductions from experience).

2. Statistical probability. Empirical evaluation of the frequency of association between predicates, not analyzable into varying combinations of equally probable alternatives. It must be emphasized that any high degree of confidence that the proportions found in the past will hold in the future is still based on an a priori judgment of indeterminateness. Two complications are to be kept separate: first, the impossibility of eliminating all factors not really indeterminate; and, second, the impossibility of enumerating the equally probable alternatives involved and determining their mode of combination so as to evaluate the probability by a priori calculation. The main distinguishing characteristic of this type is that it rests on an empirical classification of instances.

3. Estimates. The distinction here is that there is no valid basis of any kind for classifying instances. This form of probability is involved in the greatest logical difficulties of all, and no very satisfactory discussion of it can be given, but its distinction from the other types must be emphasized and some of its complicated relations indicated.

Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Chap. VII

At the end of the chapter Knight finally made his point fully explicit:

It is this third type of probability or uncertainty which has been neglected in economic theory, and which we propose to put in its rightful place. As we have repeatedly pointed out, an uncertainty which can by any method be reduced to an objective, quantitatively determinate probability, can be reduced to complete certainty by grouping cases. The business world has evolved several organization devices for effectuating this consolidation, with the result that when the technique of business organization is fairly developed, measurable uncertainties do not introduce into business any uncertainty whatever. Later in our study we shall glance hurriedly at some of these organization expedients, which are the only economic effect of uncertainty in the probability sense; but the present and more important task is to follow out the consequences of that higher form of uncertainty not susceptible to measurement and hence to elimination. It is this true uncertainty which by preventing the theoretically perfect outworking of the tendencies of competition gives the characteristic form of “enterprise” to economic organization as a whole and accounts for the peculiar income of the entrepreneur.

Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Chap. VII

Knight’s distinction between risk and uncertainty — between probabilities that can be calculated, managed, and insured against and probabilities that cannot be calculated and therefore cannot be managed or insured against — continues to be taught in business and economics today. (It is a distinction closely parallel to Rumsfeld’s distinction between known unknowns and unknown unknowns, though worked out in considerably greater detail and sophistication.) Knight’s slightly more subtle threefold distinction among probabilities might be characterized as a tripartite distinction between certainty, risk, and uncertainty.

Knight acknowledges, in his account of statistical probability, i.e., risk, that there are at least two complications:

1. that of eliminating all truly indeterminate features, and…

2. the impossibility of enumerating the equally probable alternatives involved

Knight’s hedged account of risk obliquely acknowledges the gray area that lies between risk and uncertainty — a gray area that can be enlarged in favor of risk as our knowledge improves, or which can be enlarged in favor of uncertainty as additional complicating favors enter into our calculation of risk and render our knowledge less effective and our uncertainty all the greater. That is to say, the line between risk and uncertainty is unclear, and it can move, which makes it doubly ambiguous.

certainty risk uncertainty

These hedges are important qualifications to make, because we all know from real-life experience that additional complicating factors always enter into actual risks. We may try to insure ourselves, and therefore to secure our interests against risk, but fine print in the insurance contract may deny us a settlement, or we may have forgotten to pay our premiums, or a thousand other things might go wrong between our careful planning and the actual events of life that so often preempt our planning and force us to deal with the unexpected with insufficient preparation. As Bobby Burns put it, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!”

field_mouse small

Such consideration span the entire universe from field mice to galaxies. A coldly rational assessment of risk can be made, and resources can be expended to mitigate risk to the extent calculated, but not only are the limits to our knowledge, but we don’t know where the limits to our knowledge lie. Indeterminate features can creep into our calculation and equally probable alternatives could be in play without our even being aware of the fact.

Some events that pose existential risks or global catastrophic risks can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy, and some cannot. Even about those risks that seem predictable to a high degree of accuracy — say, the life of the sun, which can be predicted on the basis of our knowledge of cosmology, and which thereby would seem to give us some knowledge of how long a time we have on earth to lay our schemes — admit of indeterminate elements and equally probably scenarios. The end of the earth seems a long way off, if the earth lasts almost as long as the sun, and putting our existential risk far in the future seems to diminish the threat.

There is a famous quote from Frank Ramsey (who died tragically young in a mountain climbing accident, as might happen to anyone, anytime) that is relevant here, both economically and philosophically:

My picture of the world is drawn in perspective and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as three-penny bits. I don’t really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long time off still and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing.

From a paper read to the Apostles, a Cambridge discussion society (1925). In ‘The Foundations of Mathematics’ (1925), collected in Frank Plumpton Ramsey and D. H. Mellor (ed.), Philosophical Papers (1990), Epilogue, 249

Despite Ramsey having referred (in another context) to the “Bolshevik menace” of Brouwer and Weyl, it has been said that Ramsey became a constructivist not long before he died. This conversion should not surprise us, given Ramsey’s Protagorean profession in his passage.

Protagoras famously said that Man is the measure of all things, of those things that are, that they are, and of those things that are not, that they are not. (πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἐστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν.) Protagoras may be counted as the earliest of proto-constructivists, of which company Kant and Poincaré may be considered the most famous.

In the passage quoted above, Ramsey is essentially saying in a modern idiom that man is the measure of all things, even of time and space — that man is the measure of the farthest reaches of time and space, and in so far as these distant prospects of human experience are inaccessible, they are irrelevant. Ramsey is important in his respect because of his consciously chosen anthropocentrism. In a post-Copernican age, this is significant. We are all, of course, familiar with the advocates of the anthropic cosmological principle, and their implicit anthropocentrism, but Ramsey gives us a slightly different perspective on anthropocentrism. Ramsey essentially brings constructivism to our moral life, and in so doing suggests that the moral imperatives posed by existential risk can be safely ignored for the time being.

What Ramsey is saying here is that we can make a definite calculation of the lives of the stars — and also the expected life of our sun — and that we can insure against this risk, but that the risk lies so far in the future that its present value is practically nil. In other words, the eventual burning out of the sun is a risk and not an uncertainty. On the contrary, it is not an uncertainty at all, but a certainty. Just as the finite amount of oil on Earth must eventually come to an end, the finite sun must also come to an end.

What our growing knowledge of cosmology is teaching us is that we are not isolated from the wider universe. Events on a cosmic scale have influenced the development of life on earth, and may well be responsible for our development as a species. If the earth had not been hit by an asteroid or comet about 65 million years ago, mammals may never have developed as they did, and we would not exist. And if our solar system did not bob up and down through the galactic plane of the Milky Way, resulting in geophysical rhythms from the the gravitational interaction with the rest of the galaxy, a distant asteroid of comet might not have been dislodged from its stable orbit and sent careening toward earth.

Given our connection with the wider universe, and our vulnerability to its convulsions, what we know about our local risks (which is not nearly enough, as recent unpredicted episodes have shown us) is not enough to make a calculation of our vulnerability. What appears superficially to be a calculable risk has uncertainty injected back into it by the cosmological context in which all astronomical events take place.

If the death of the sun were the only existential risk against which we needed to insure ourselves, we would not need to be in any hurry about existential risk mitigation, because we would have literally millions of years to build a spacefaring civilization and thus to insure ourselves against that predictable catastrophe. But in our violent universe (as Nigel Calder called it) scarcely a million years goes by without some cosmic catastrophe occurring, and we don’t know when then next one will arrive.

Carl Sagan rightly pointed out that an event that is unlikely to happen in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred millions years:

The Earth is a lovely and more or less placid place. Things change, but slowly. We can lead a full life and never personally encounter a natural disaster more violent than a storm. And so we become complacent, relaxed, unconcerned. But in the history of Nature, the record is clear. Worlds have been devastated. Even we humans have achieved the dubious technical distinction of being able to make our own disasters, both intentional and inadvertent. On the landscapes of other planets where the records of the past have been preserved, there is abundant evidence of major catastrophes. It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter IV, “Heaven and Hell”

Perhaps in one of his most quoted lines, Sagan said that we are “star stuff,” and certainly this is true. However, the corollary of this inspiring thought is that our star stuff is subject to the natural forces that shape the destinies of stars, and in shaping the destiny of stars, shape the destiny of men who live on planets orbiting stars.

Understanding ourselves as “star stuff” entails understanding ourselves as living in a dangerous universe replete with devouring black holes, gamma ray bursts, supernovae, and other cataclysms almost beyond the capacity of human beings to conceive.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Frank Knight

Frank Knight on risk and uncertainty

Early Chicago school economist Frank Knight was known for his work on risk, and especially for the distinction between risk and uncertainty, which is still taught in economics and business courses. Like Schumpeter, Knight was interested in the function of the entrepreneur in the modern commercial economy, and he employed his distinction between risk and uncertainty in order to illuminate the function of the entrepreneur.

Although it is easy to conflate risk and uncertainty, and to speak as though facing a risk were the same thing as facing uncertain or unknown circumstances, Knight doesn’t see it like this at all. A risk can be quantified and calculated, and because risks can be quantified and calculated, they can be controlled. This is the function of insurance: to quantify and price risk. If you have correctly factored risk into your calculation, it is no longer an uncertainty. You might not know the exact date or magnitude of losses, but you know statistically that there will be a certain number of losses of a certain magnitude. It is the job of actuaries to calculate this, and one buys insurance to control the risk to which one is exposed.

The ordinary business of life, and of business, according to Knight, involves risk management, but the unique function of the entrepreneur is to accept uncertainty that cannot be quantified, priced, or insured. The entrepreneur makes his profit not in spite of uncertainty, but because of uncertainty. No insurance can be bought for uncertainty, so that in taking on an uncertain situation the entrepreneur enters into a realm in which it is recognized that there are factors beyond control. If he is not destroyed financially by these uncontrollable factors, he may profit from them, and this profit is likely to exceed the profit made in ordinary business operations exposed to risk but not to uncertainty.

Here is how Knight formulated his distinction between risk and uncertainty:

To preserve the distinction which has been drawn in the last chapter between the measurable uncertainty and an unmeasurable one we may use the term “risk” to designate the former and the term “uncertainty” for the latter. The word “risk” is ordinarily used in a loose way to refer to any sort of uncertainty viewed from the standpoint of the unfavorable contingency and the term “uncertainty” similarly with reference to the favorable outcome; we speak of the “risk” of a loss, the “uncertainty” of a gain. But if our reasoning so far is at an correct, there is a fatal ambiguity in these terms which must be gotten rid of and the use of the term “risk” in connection with the measurable uncertainties or probabilities of insurance gives some justification for specializing the terms as just indicated. We can also employ the terms “objective” and “subjective” probability to designate the risk and uncertainty respectively, as these expressions are already in general use with a signification akin to that proposed.


Knight went on to add…

The practical difference between the two categories, risk and uncertainty, is that in the former the distribution of the outcome in a group of instances is known (either through calculation a priori or from statistics of past experience), while in the case of uncertainty this is not true, the reason being in general that it is impossible to form a group of instances, because the situation dealt with is in a high degree unique.


The growth of knowledge and experience can transform uncertainty into risk if it contextualizes a formerly unique situation in such a way as to demonstrate that it is not unique but belongs to a group of instances. Of the tremendous gains made in the space sciences during the last forty years, during our selective space age stagnation, it could be said that the function of this considerable gain in knowledge has been to transform uncertainty into risk. But this goes only so far.

Even if the boundary between risk and uncertainty can be pushed outward by the growth of knowledge, the same growth of civilization that attends the growth of knowledge and technology means that the boundaries of civilization itself will also be pushed further out, with the result being that we are likely to always encounter further uncertainties even as old uncertainties are transformed by knowledge into risk.

The evolution of the existential risk concept

In many recent posts I have been discussing the idea of existential risk. These posts include, but are not limited to, Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk, Research Questions on Existential Risk, and Six Theses on Existential Risk. The idea of existential risk is due to Nick Bostrom. (I first heard about this at the first 100YSS symposium in Orlando in 2011, when I was talking to Christian Weidemann.)

Nick Bostrom defined existential risk as follows:

Existential risk – One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.

And added…

An existential risk is one where humankind as a whole is imperiled. Existential disasters have major adverse consequences for the course of human civilization for all time to come.

“Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards,” Nick Bostrom, Professor, Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University, Published in the Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2002)

In his papers on existential risk and the book on Global Catastrophic Risks, Bostrom steadily expanded and refined the parameters of disasters that have (or would have) major adverse consequences for human beings and their civilization.

Table of six qualitative categories of risk from 'Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards'

Table of six qualitative categories of risk from ‘Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards’

The table from an early existential risk paper above divides qualitative risks into six categories. the table below from the book Global Catastrophic Risks includes twelve qualitative risk categories and implies another eight; the table further below from a more recent paper includes fifteen qualitative risk categories and implies another nine. From a philosophical point of view, these further distinctions represent in advance in clarity, contextualizing both existential risks and global catastrophic risks in a matrix of related horrors.

Table of qualitative risk categories from the book Global Catastrophic Risks.

Table of qualitative risk categories from the book Global Catastrophic Risks.

The specific possible events that Bostrom describes range from the imperceptible loss of one hair to human extinction. Recently in Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk I tried to point out how further distinctions can be made within the variety of human extinction scenarios, and that some distinct outcomes might be morally preferable over other outcomes. For example, even if human beings were to become extinct, we might want some of our legacy to remain to potentially be discovered by alien species visiting our solar system. Given the presence of space probes throughout our solar system, it seems highly likely that these would survive any human extinction scenario, so that we have left some kind of mark on the cosmos — a cosmic equivalent of “Kilroy was here.”

Qualitative risk categories, Figure 2 from 'Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority' (2012) Nick Bostrom

Qualitative risk categories, Figure 2 from ‘Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority’ (2012) Nick Bostrom

Further distinction can be made, however, and the distinction that I would like to urge today is that of distinguishing existential risks from existential uncertainties.

The need to explicitly formulate existential uncertainty

Once the distinction is made between existential risks and existential uncertainties, we recognize that existential risks can be quantified and calculated. Ultimately, existential risks can also be insured. The industrial and financial infrastructure is not now in place to do this, although we can clearly see how to do this. And this much is obvious, because much of the discussion of existential risk focuses on potential mitigation efforts. Existential risk mitigation is insurance against extinction.

We can clearly understand that we can guard against the existential risks posed by massive asteroid impacts by a system of observation of objects in space likely to cross the path of the Earth, and building spacecraft that could deflect or otherwise render harmless such threatening asteroids. It was once thought that the appearance of comets or “new stars” (novae) in the sky heralded the death of kings of the end of empires. No longer. This is the perfect example of a former uncertainty that has been transformed into a risk by the growth of knowledge (or, at very least, is in the process of being transformed from an uncertainty into a risk).

We can also clearly see that we could back up the Earth’s biosphere about a truly catastrophic global disaster by transplanting Earth-originating life elsewhere. Far in the future we can even understand the risk of the sun swelling into a red giant and consuming the Earth in its fires — unless by that time we have moved the Earth to an orbit where it remains safe, or perhaps even transported it to another star. All of these are existential risks where “risk” is used sensu stricto.

There are a great many existential risks and global catastrophic risks that have been proposed. When it comes to geological events — like massive vulcanization — or cosmological events — the death of our sun — the sciences of geology and cosmology are likely to mature to the point where these risks are quantifiable, and if industrial-technological civilization continues its path of exponential development, we should also someday have the technology to adequately “insure” against these existential risks.

The vagaries of history and civilization

When it comes to scenarios that involve events and processes not of the variety that contemporary natural science can formulate, we are clearly pushing the envelope of existential risks and verging on existential uncertainties. Such scenarios would include those predicated upon the development of human history and civilization. For example, scenarios of wars of an order of magnitude that far exceed the magnitude of the global wars of the twentieth century are on the outer edges of risk and, as they become more speculative in their formulation, verge onto uncertainty. Similarly, scenarios that involve the intervention of alien species in human history and human civilization — alien invasion, alien enslavement, alien visitation, etc. — verge onto being existential uncertainties.

The anthropogenic existential risks that are of primary concern to Nick Bostrom, Martin Rees, and others — risks from artificial intelligence, machine consciousness, unintended consequences of advanced technologies, and the “gray goo” problem potentially posed by nanotechnology — are similarly problematic as risks, and many must be accounted as uncertainties. In regard to the anthropogenic dimension of many existential uncertainties I am reminded of a passage from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos:

“Biology is more like history than it is like physics. You have to know the past to understand the present. And you have to know it in exquisite detail. There is as yet no predictive theory of biology, just as there is not yet a predictive theory of history. The reasons are the same: both subjects are still too complicated for us. But we can know ourselves better by understanding other cases. The study of a single instance of extraterrestrial life, no matter how humble, will deprovincialize biology. For the first time, the biologists will know what other kinds of life are possible. When we say the search for life elsewhere is important, we are not guaranteeing that it will be easy to find – only that it is very much worth seeking.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, CHAPTER II, One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue

This strikes me as one of the most powerful and important passages in Cosmos. When Sagan writes that, “[t]here is as yet no predictive theory of biology, just as there is not yet a predictive theory of history,” while leaving open the possibility of a future predictive science of biology and history — he wrote as yet — he squarely recognized that neither biology nor human history (much of which derives more or less directly from biology) can be predicted or quantified or measured in a scientific way. If we had a science of history, such as Marx thought we had discovered, then the potential disasters of human history could be quantified, and we could insure against them.

Well, we can insure against some eventualities of history, though certainly not against all. This is a point that Machiavelli makes:

It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.

Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, CHAPTER XXV, “What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs, And How To Withstand Her”

What remains beyond the predictable storms of floods of history are the true uncertainties, the unknown unknowns, and these pose a danger we cannot predict, quantify, or insure. They are not, then, risks in the strict sense. They are existential uncertainties.

It could be argued that our inability to take specific, concrete, effective measures to mitigate the obvious uncertainties of life has resulted in religious responses to uncertainty that systematically avoid falsifiability and thereby secure the immunity of hopes to exterior circumstances. Whether or not this has been true in the past, merely the recognition of existential uncertainty is the first step toward rationally assessing them.

Existential risk suggests a clear course of mitigating action; existential uncertainty cannot, on the contrary, be the object of planning and preparation. The most that one can do to address existential uncertainty is to keep oneself open and flexible, ready to roll with the punches, and responsive to any challenge that might arise, meeting it at the height of one’s powers; any attempt to prepare specific measures will be fruitless, and quite possibly counter-productive because of the wasted effort.

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categories of existential uncertainty

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Carl Sagan’s Dream

10 December 2012


cosmos 1

I have finally watched the whole of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Journey television series. I have in earlier posts expressed my admiration for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, which I have watched numerous times, but, until now, Sagan’s Cosmos had eluded me. (And I didn’t even include it in my post Documentaries Worth Watching — because I hadn’t yet watched it when I wrote that.)

cosmos 02

While the Cosmos series is ostensibly a popular exposition of cosmology — and even, we could say, Big History before big history was known as such, since Sagan insistently places human beings in their cosmological context — the Cold War, strangely, is never far from the surface. Sagan had evidently felt so sharply the existential threat of nuclear war that he returns to this human, all-too-human theme in several places in his exposition of the grandeur of the essentially impersonal, and therefore inhuman, cosmos.

cosmos 3

This concern for nuclear war reaches its zenith in the final episode, “Who Speaks for Earth,” when Sagan recounts the narrative of a dream of nuclear war ending our terrestrial civilization. This dream sequence does not appear in the book version of Cosmos — perhaps it was included in the television series in order to give human interest to such a difficult topic.

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Sagan narrates a dream sequence of visiting a planet that is home to an alien civilization. Gazing down on the planet from space, he sees the lighted night side of the planet, but as he watches, the whole world goes dark. He checks the “Book of Worlds” — what in an earlier episode he called the Encyclopedia Galactica, which I wrote about in Cyberspace and Outer Space — and finds that the world was rated as having less than a one percent chance of survival for the next hundred years.

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As the narration continues, Sagan comforts himself for this loss by listening to radio and television broadcasts from Earth. Most of the snippets of news in this aural montage feature stories of atomic weapons or political tension. As he is listening, the broadcasts from Earth are interrupted and fall silent. Disturbed by this, wondering why the broadcasts from Earth suddenly stopped, he looks up the entry for Earth in the Book of Worlds, and reviews it. He finds that Earth, too, was given a chance of survival of less than one percent over the next hundred years. “Not very good odds,” as Sagan observes. He sees that terrestrial civilization has been destroyed by a full nuclear exchange, and he then recites a melancholy litany of things that will be no more with the end of human civilization.

cosmos 06

Sagan uses this device of his dream of terrestrial civilization extinguished by nuclear war to introduce his theme of the episode — who speaks for Earth? After the dream narrative, Sagan then describes nuclear war again, in less personal but still horrific terms, and then asks, “We know who speaks for the nations, but who speaks for the earth?” This, then, allows Sagan another summary of his history of science, this time noting the dark underside of science as a part of human civilization. Sagan returns to the Library of Alexandria, where some of the first moments of the series are set. Thus Sagan comes full circle, in a nice narrative closure.

cosmos 7

Sagan’s final recap of the history of science in this last episode mirrors an earlier theme from episode seven, “The Backbone of Night,” in which he discussed two distinct traditions of ancient Greek civilization, one that he traces to Democritus and Aristarchus, that is about the sunny uplands of the human intellect as revealed by the best science of which human beings are capable, which is then followed by an almost malevolent account of a counter-tradition that he traces to Pythagoras and Plato, in which the pursuit of knowledge gets caught up in mysticism, obscurantism, and superstition. Even from the earliest beginnings of the Western tradition, it seems, we are dogged by the dialectic of eros and thanatos.

cosmos 8

In episode eight, “Journeys in Space and Time,” Sagan offers us a counter-factual history in which the early beginnings of science in ancient Greek civilization develop continuously and are never interrupted and derailed by the Dark Ages. Sagan speculates that we might now be going to the stars, in spaceships emblazoned with Greek letters, if we had not experienced a thousand year hiatus in the development of science. This idea reappears in a subtle way in Sagan’s dream narrative: when describing the alien civilization that falls silent he suggests that they might have come through a similarly dark time, that they were survivors of past catastrophes, only to be later destroyed by forces they could not control — like us. For Sagan, industrial-technological civilization is its own worst enemy.

cosmos 9

It is interesting and instructive to compare Sagan’s historical perspective to that of Kenneth Clark, who begins his Civilisation: A Personal View in the midst of the European dark ages in order to make the point that civilization made it through this period, as Clark says, by the skin of our teeth. Sagan clearly thought that we are now only making it through by the skin of our teeth. The ever-present threat of nuclear war could end our civilization at any time, and that would be it for all of us. Another way to formulate this would be to say that, for Clark, the “great filter” of human civilization was the dark ages, while for Sagan the great filter is now.

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Clark’s decision to begin in the dark ages was an elegant solution to the problem of how to tell the story of Western civilization without spending all 13 episodes on the Greeks and the Romans — something I would be tempted to do. The solution was to avoid classical antiquity altogether, and to begin with the pitiful remnants of the dark ages and how these gradually grew into a new civilization. Sagan approached this differently, distributing expositions of past and possible dark ages throughout his narrative, so that it appears in the first and the last episode and several of the episodes in between — as I said above, the spirit and the existential angst of the Cold War is never far below the surface of Cosmos.

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Is the history of ancient science any less essential to Western civilization than the history of ancient art? I don’t like to admit it, but I don’t think so. I think that ancient art and ancient science are equally essential and implicated in the world today — and for that reason, equally dispensable. Sagan, then, could have adopted the same “solution” as Clark: avoid classical antiquity altogether, and start with the rebuilding of Western civilization after its early medieval nadir. But Clark got the dark ages out of the way, and, once finished with them, did not return to the theme of the end of civilization. For Sagan, the potential end of civilization is an ever-present menace, so that it could not be taken up in the first episode and then forgotten.

cosmos 12

Another theme that appears in a subtle way in several episodes of Sagan’s Cosmos is that of the social responsibility of scientists. Sagan does not pose this in a strong or an explicit way, but it does come up from time to time, entangled as it is with the development of science and technology. If we recall one of antiquity’s greatest scientists, Archimedes, we remember that Archimedes was known for constructing engines of war for the defense of Syracuse, and that Archimedes himself was a victim of war, struck down by a soldier because he refused to leave his mathematical work.

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In episode seven, “The Backbone of Night,” mentioned above for its contrast between the traditions of Democritus on the one hand and Pythagoras on the other (i.e., the contrast between science and mysticism), Sagan discusses how many philosophers of antiquity — including the greatest among them, Plato and Aristotle — defended retrograde institutions like slavery, and how they served tyrants. (This is, in essence, a Marxist argument that Plato and Aristotle were creating an ideological superstructure to defend the economic infrastructure of the society of which they were a privileged part.) I assume that this reference to tyrants was an oblique reference to Plato’s brief foray into practical politics when he visited the tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse (yes, the same Syracuse) in the capacity of what we would today call a political adviser. Even Plato was insufficiently brilliant to transform the dissolute Dionysius II into a philosopher king.

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This unsuccessful intervention in Syracuse is recounted in Plato’s seventh letter, and in the famous seventh letter Plato made in quite clear that he was doing exactly that he presented as the duty of the philosopher in his famous allegory of the cave in Book VII of Plato’s Republic: after the philosopher has, by his own effort, raised himself out of the cave of shadows and eventually come to look at the blinding form of The Good, he has an obligation to return to the cave of shadows to try to make those still chained below understand their bondage to mere appearances. Plato wrote that he did not want to be considered a mere man of words, and so he undertook his mission to Syracuse, although he was rebuffed and unsuccessful, as most philosophers who return to the cave of shadows are rebuffed by those they seek to enlighten.

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Plato, then, took the responsibilities of the philosopher seriously — so seriously that he undertook a mission likely to fail. But who most needs our intervention? Should we preach to the choir, or should we attempt to pursue our intellectual ministry among the philosophical equivalents of prostitutes, beggars, and thieves? So Plato was no stranger to the social responsibility of the intellectual, and Plato’s mentor, Socrates, took the social responsibility of the intellectual so far as to die for it. Sagan has some harsh words for Plato, and perhaps some of them are deserved, but Plato lived in a dark time, after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian war, and all his efforts must be seen in this context. Could he have done more? Perhaps. Could Socrates have done more? I think not. Socrates gave all.

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In the last episode of Cosmos, “Who speaks for Earth?” that includes the dream narrative recounted above, Sagan says that he really has no idea why ancient civilization failed and gave way to barbarism, but that he would make one observation: that no scientist working at the Library of Alexandria ever questioned the injustices of the society of which he was a part. This is a echo of his earlier criticisms of Plato and Aristotle for defending the institution slavery. And despite disowning knowledge of why Greek civilization failed, he adds another explanation, related to the previous: that ancient science was an elite undertaking that did not broadly involve the mass of the people of antiquity.

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It was precisely Plato’s desire to initiate the masses into what he called the “dear delight” of philosophy that inspired Plato to write so beautifully in a popular style (he wrote in dialogue form), and to convey his ideas in parables and allegories that are as enchanting as stories as they are compelling as philosophical analysis. Plato did what he could, but in a society in which there was no broadly-based moral revulsion of slavery, and in which literacy was quite low compared to the level of contemporary expectations, it was inevitable that much of what Plato and Aristotle said fell on deaf ears. Bertrand Russell, in discussing Aristotle’s disproportionate influence over medieval scholasticism pointed out that this was not Aristotle’s fault, but the result of Aristotle having produced his comprehensive body of work at the end of an intellectually creative period.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Some day in the far future, if humanity (or some successor species) survives and if we establish ourselves as a spacefaring civilization, we will eventually have the opportunity to research whatever other civilizations exist in the universe and which we are able to find. With a study of multiple civilizations as a point of reference for the idea of civilization, we will not only possess a much richer conception of civilization, we may be able for formulate a genuine science of civilizations — a formal and theoretical science of civilization based on classificatory, comparative, and quantitative concepts that can be applied to known civilizations and employed in the prediction of not-yet-known civilizations.

Rudolf Carnap's account of scientific concepts from his Philosophical Foundations of Physics.

Let us begin, however, with something smaller and much more modest than entire civilizations, but something upon which civilizations are crucially dependent. Let us, then, begin with ideas.

I recently posted the following to Twitter:

The natural history of non-temporal transcendencies is the history of their epistemic order in human knowledge.

This remark could use some elucidation, since I have alluded to some ideas that are perhaps not widely known.

When I mentioned “non-temporal transcendencies” I was thinking of Husserl’s use of this idea in his 1905 lectures on time consciousness. here is a passage from the very end of his lectures, from the last two paragraphs of the last section:

“…we must say: the ‘presentation’ (appearance) of the state of affairs is presentation, not in the genuine sense, but in a derived sense. The state of affairs, properly speaking, is not something temporal either; it exists for a specific time but it not itself something in time as a thing or even is. Time-consciousness and presentation do not pertain to the state of affairs as a state of affairs but to the affair that belongs to it.”

“The same is true of all other founded acts and their correlates. A value has no place in time. A temporal object may be beautiful, pleasant, useful, and so on, and these may be for a definite period of time. But the beauty, pleasantness, etc., have no place in nature and in time. They are not things that appear in presentations or re-presentations.”

Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893-1917), translated by John Barnett Brough, Kluwer, 1991, sec. 45

I think that in this final passage of his lectures on time consciousness that Husserl has gone beyond a strictly phenomenological account and has almost imperceptibly passed over into metaphysics with his assertion that, “beauty, pleasantness, etc., have no place in nature and in time.” In other words, Husserl makes the claim that non-temporal transcendencies have no natural history. But in phenomenology nature has been suspended, so it is not within the competency of phenomenology to say that anything has no place in nature. Husserl is here struggling with the problem of apparently non-temporal objects in the light of the universality of constituting time consciousness, and he can’t quite yet see his way clear to a purely phenomenological treatment of non-temporal transcendencies.

Fortunately, although Husserl himself didn’t seem to make the leap, all the elements necessary to that leap are there in his thought, and it doesn’t take much phenomenological reflection to realize that non-temporal transcendencies have a peculiar way of appearing to consciousness, and that being a non-temporal transcendency is nothing more (for the phenomenologist as phenomenologist) than this peculiar way of appearing — a presentation in the derived sense, as Husserl calls it.

Edmund Husserl

When I wrote about the “epistemic order in human knowledge” in the same Twitter aphorism I was thinking about Hans Reichenbach’s distinction between the context of discovery and context of justification. Here is how Reichenbach drew the distinction:

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. The two realms of analysis to be distinguished may be called context of discovery, and context of justification. The context of discovery is left to psychological analysis, whereas logic is concerned with the context of justification, i.e., with the analysis of ordered series of thought operations so constructed that they make the results of thought justifiable. We speak of a justification when we possess a proof which shows that we have good grounds to rely upon those results.

Hans Reichenbach, Elements of Symbolic Logic, 1947, The Macmillan Company

I have elsewhere discussed rational reconstruction so I won’t go into any detail on that here, though the idea of rational reconstruction is fundamental to Reichenbach’s project and in fact inspires the distinction. Reichenbach’s distinctions implies that there are at least two orders into which human knowledge can be organized: in the order of discovery or in the order of justification (presumably in a mature theoretical context).

Hans Reichenbach

What Reichbach does not say, but which we can extrapolate from his distinction, is that there are both ontogenetic and phylogenetic orders of discovery. The individual’s order of discovery may well differ from the order of discovery chronicled as “firsts” in the history of science. There may also be individual and social orders of justification — ideally there would not be, since this would imply multiple theoretical contexts, and even a personal theoretical context, but we must at least acknowledge the possibility.

With these references in mind consider again my Twitter aphorism again:

The natural history of non-temporal transcendencies is the history of their epistemic order in human knowledge.

While what Husserl called nontemporal transcendencies have no “history” of their own, no development or evolution, they do however have a human history in the order in which they have been grasped by human minds, and then in the forms in which they have been sedimented in human cultures. Moreover, their presentation in a derived sense exhibits characteristic forms of order, and among these forms of order are the order of discovery and the order of justification.

Given what I recently wrote about the problem of other minds in The Eye of the Other, an obvious generalization of the above would be to formulate the same free of anthropic bias (to the extent that this is possible), thus:

The natural history of non-temporal transcendencies is the history of their genetic order in the epistemic frameworks of sentient beings.

Any sentient being capable of cognizing a non-temporal transcendency (i.e., thinking abstractly about an idea) constitutes an instance in the natural history of ideas, whether that instance of cognition is human cognition, another terrestrial species, or some non-terrestrial species. In this way, we understand that ideas may be mirrored in the consciousness of many different peoples. Under the aspect of the plurality of conscious minds, the natural history of ideas takes on a new and far more complex aspect.

If we could plot the natural history of ideas (i.e., the derivative appearance of non-temporal transcendencies in cognition of sentient beings of any species whatever) on a graph, I think that this would go a long way toward formulating a science of civilization, since civilization is founded on ideas, albeit ideas that are always found in their implemented form. Mapping the emergence of ideas in a wide variety of diverse civilizations may even suggest empirical generalizations, and from empirical generalizations laws could be formulated and predictions made.

The more research we are able to do in the natural history of ideas (possibly one day extended by the technology of a spacefaring civilization), the more likely we are to find unusual or unexpected instantiations of an idea. There are likely to be some very interesting exceptions to the rule. At the same time, a large body of research could eventually establish some norms for particular classes of civilizations and how these relate to each other. The Kardashev scale is perhaps the first step in this direction.

We might even formulate quantitative concepts of civilization into a graphic representation analogous to the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which in its simplicity reveals the “main sequence” of stars by considering only the variables of luminosity and surface temperature. We may discover that there is a “main sequence” of civilizations, and perhaps this civilizational “main sequence” corresponds to the macro-historical sequence of humanity thus far — nomadism, followed by settled agriculturalism, followed by settled industrialism. I suspect that we will always find that settled agriculturalism is the civilizational prerequisite for the emergence of industrial-technological civilization.

Michio Kaku, in his book Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, suggests a quantitative measure of civilization based on the Kardashev scale and Carl Sagan’s information processing typology. While Kaku’s thought remains on a primarily classificatory or typological level, we could easily plot a civilization’s energy use (or energy flows, if you prefer) on one axis of a graph and its information processing ability on the other axis of a graph and come up with a quantitative presentation of civilization typologies. We would plot known earth civilizations on such a graph, but we wouldn’t really get all that far considering only earth civilizations. Ideally we would want to plot as diverse a set of civilizations as we plot diverse stars from all over the universe on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.

It could also be observed that, in the same circumstances as stated above, in the far future of a human spacefaring civilization, that human beings (or their successor species) will also gather an enormous amount of information about the universe, and possibly also the multiverse (should the world reveal itself to be more than that which can be seen with contemporary technology). No doubt many strange and wonderful things will be discovered. But we have sciences that are capable of comprehending such things. Extended conceptions of astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology will be able to include within their growing bodies of knowledge every outlandish natural phenomenon that we might chance to encounter in the wider universe, but there is nothing, either in a present form or in an inchoate extended form, that can do this for civilization. There is no science of civilization at present, or, at least, nothing worthy of the name.

We could formulate a science of civilization exclusively on the basis of civilizations on the earth — it could be argued that this is what Toynbee attempted to do — although this would be anthropically biased and not as valuable as a future science of civilization that could draw upon the data of many different civilizations on many different planets. While we are on the verge today of just being able to glimpse other planets around other stars, it will be some time yet before we are able to glimpse other civilizations, if there are any.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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