Saturday


Nicolaus Copernicus

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

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

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

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

“Fred Hoyle” article in the Encyclopedia Britannica

…here is a formulation in a paper from 2015…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and another formulation…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday


The Thomas Digges chart of a Copernican solar system from 1576.

The Thomas Digges chart of a Copernican solar system from 1576.

The full awareness of our sun being a star, and the stars being suns in their own right, was a development nearly coextensive with the entire history of science, from its earliest stirrings in ancient Greece to its modern form at the present time. During the Enlightenment there was already a growing realization of this, as can be seen in a number of scientific works of the period, but scientific proof had to wait for a few generations more until new technologies made available by the industrial revolution produced scientific instruments equal to the task.

bessel-and-parallax

The scientific confirmation of this understanding of cosmology, which is, in a sense, the affirmation of Copernicanism (as distinct from heliocentrism) came with two scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century: the parallax of 61 Cygni, measured by Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel and published in 1838, which was the first accurate distance measured to a star other than the sun, and the spectroscopy work of several scientists — Fraunhofer, Bunsen, Kirchhoff, Huggins, and Secchi, inter alia (cf. Spectroscopy and the Birth of Astrophysics) — which demonstrated the precise chemical composition of the stars, and therefore showed them to be made of the same chemical elements found on Earth. The stars were no longer immeasurable or unknowable; they were now open to scientific study.

Joseph von Fraunhofer invented the spectroscope, and first observed what are now called Fraunhofer lines.

Joseph von Fraunhofer invented the spectroscope, and first observed what are now called Fraunhofer lines.

The Ptolemaic conception of the universe that preceded this Copernican conception painted a very different picture of the universe, and of the place of human beings within that universe. According to the Ptolemaic cosmology, the heavens were made of a different material than the Earth and its denizens (viz. quintessence — the fifth element, i.e., the element other than earth, air, fire, and water). Everything below the sphere of the moon — sublunary — was ephemeral and subject to decay. Everything beyond the sphere of the moon — superlunary — was imperishable and perfect. Astronomical bodies were perfectly spherical, and moved in perfectly circular lines (except for the epicycles). Comets were a problem (i.e., an anomaly), because their elliptical orbits ought to send them crashing through the perfect celestial spheres.

Geocentric Ptolemaic cosmology by Orance Fine (1494-1555)

Geocentric Ptolemaic cosmology by Orance Fine (1494-1555)

This Ptolemaic cosmology largely satisfied the scientific, philosophical, moral, and spiritual needs of western thought from classical antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages, and this satisfaction presumably follows from a deep consonance between this conception of the cosmos and a metaphysical vision of what the world ought to be. Ptolemaic cosmology is the intellectual fulfillment of a certain kind of heart’s desire. But this was not the only metaphysical vision of the world having its origins (or, at least, its initial expression) in classical antiquity. Another intellectual tradition that pointed in a different direction was mathematics.

The imaginative background of Ptolemaic cosmology; an image of God as architect from a Moralized Bible, folio 1 verso, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

The imaginative background of Ptolemaic cosmology; an image of God as architect from a Moralized Bible, folio 1 verso, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

Mathematics was the first science to attain anything like the rigor that we demand of science today. It remains an open question to this day — an open philosophical question — whether mathematics is a science, one of the sciences (a science among sciences), or whether it is something else entirely, which happens to be useful in the sciences, as, for example, the formal propaedeutic to the empirical sciences, in need of formal structure in order to organize their empirical content. The sciences, in fact, get their rigor from mathematics, so that if there were no mathematical rigor, there would be no possibility of scientific rigor.

Euclid provided the model of formal thought with his axiomatization of geometry. Legend has it that there was a sign over the door of Plato's Academy stating, 'Let no one enter here who has not studied geometry.'

Euclid provided the model of formal thought with his axiomatization of geometry. Legend has it that there was a sign over the door of Plato’s Academy stating, ‘Let no one enter here who has not studied geometry.’

Mathematics has been known since antiquity as the paradigm of exact thought, of precision, the model for all sciences to follow (remembering what science meant to the ancients, which is not what it means today: a demonstrative science based on first principles), and this precision has been seen as a function of its formalism, which is to say its definiteness, it boundedness, its participation in the peras. Despite this there was yet a recognition of the infinite (apeiron) in mathematics. I would go further, and assert that, while mathematics as a rigorous science has its origins in the peras, it has its telos in the apeiron. This is a dialectical development, as we will see below in Proclus.

An early copy of Euclid's Elements, which axiomatically systematized geometry.

An early copy of Euclid’s Elements, which axiomatically systematized geometry.

Proclus expresses the negative character of the infinite in his commentary on Euclid’s Elements:

“…the infinite is altogether incomprehensible to knowledge; rather it takes it hypothetically and uses only the finite for demonstration; that is, it assumes the infinite not for the sake of the infinite, but for the sake the infinite.”

Proclus, A Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements, translated, with an introduction and notes, by Glenn R. Morrow, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, Propositions: Part One, XII, p. 223. This whole section is relevant, but I have quoted only a brief portion.

There is no question that the apeiron appeared on the inferior side of the Pythagorean table of opposites, but it is also interesting to note what Proclus says earlier on:

“The objects of Nous, by virtue of their inherent simplicity, are the first partakers of the Limit (περας) and the Unlimited (ἄπειρον). Their unity, their identity, and their stable and abiding existence they derive from the Limit; but for their variety, their generative fertility, and their divine otherness and progression they draw upon the Unlimited. Mathematicals are the offspring of the Limit and the Unlimited…”

Proclus, Commentary on the First Book of Euclid, Prologue: Part One, Chap. II

Here the apeiron appears on an equal footing with the peras, both being necessary to mathematical being. “Mathematicals” are born of the dialectic of the finite and the infinite. Both of these elements are also found (hundreds of years earlier) in the foundations of geometry. As the philosophers produced proofs that there could be no infinite number or infinite space, Euclid spoke of lines and planes extended “indefinitely” (as “apeiron” is usually translated in Euclid). Even later when the Stoics held that the material world was surrounded by an infinite void, this void had special properties which distinguished it from the material world, and indeed which kept the material world from having any relation with the void. The use of infinities in geometry, however, even though in an abstract context, force one to maintain that space locally, directly before one, is essentially of the same kind as space anywhere else along the infinite extent of a line, and indeed the same as space infinitely distant. All spaces are of the same kind, and all are related to each other. This constitutes a purely formal conception of the uniformity and continuity of nature. One might interpret the subsequent history of science as redeeming, through empirical evidence, this formal insight.

proclus-on-euclid

The infinite is the “internal horizon” (to use a Husserlian phrase) and the telos of mathematical objects. Given this conception of mathematics, the question that I find myself asking is this: what was the mathematical horizon of the Greeks? Did the idea of a line or a plane immediately suggest to them an infinite extension, and did the idea of number immediately suggest the infinite progression of the series, or were the Greeks able to contain these conceptions within the peras, using them not unlike we use them, but allowing them to remain limited? Did ancient mathematical imagination encompass the infinite, or must such a conception of mathematical objects (as embedded in the infinite) wait for the infinite to be disassociated from the apeiron?

husserl-quote

The wait was not long. While the explicit formulation of the mathematical infinite had to wait until Cantor in the nineteenth century, Greek thought was dialectical, so regardless of the nature of mathematical concepts as initially conceived, these concepts inevitably passed into their opposite numbers and grew in depth and comprehensiveness as a result of the development of this dialectic. Greek thought may have begun with an intellectual commitment to the peras, and a desire to contain mathematics within the peras, consequently an almost ideological effort to avoid the mathematical infinite, but a commitment to dialectic confounds the demand for limitation. It is, then, this dialectical character of Greek thought that gives us the transition from purely local concepts to a formal concept of the uniformity of nature, and then the transition from a formal conception of uniformity to an empirical conception of uniformity, and this latter is the cosmological principle that is central to contemporary cosmology.

Geometry as represented by Raphael in The School of Athens.

Geometry as represented by Raphael in The School of Athens.

The cosmological principle brings us back to where we started: To say that the sun is a star, and every star a sun, is to say that the sun is a star among stars. Earth is a planet among planets. The Milky Way is a galaxy among galaxies. This is not only a Copernican idea, it is also a formal idea, like the formal conception of the uniformity of nature. (In A Being Among Beings I made a similar about biological beings.) To be one among others of the same kind is to be a member of a class, and to be a member of a class is to be the value of a variable. Quine, we recall, said that to be is to be the value of a variable. This is a highly abstract and formal conception of ontology, and that is precisely the importance of the formulation. This is the point beyond which we can begin to reason rigorously about our place in the universe.

The sun in its local stellar neighborhood as a star among stars.

The sun in its local stellar neighborhood as a star among stars.

We require a class of instances before we can draw inductive inferences, generalize from all members of this class, or formalize the concept represented by any individual member of that class. This is one of the formal presuppositions of scientific thought never made explicit in the methodology of science. We could not formulate the cosmological principle if we did not have a concept of “essentially the same,” because the “same” view that we see looking in any direction in the universe is not identically the same, but rather essentially the same. Of any two views of the universe, every detail is different, but the overview is the same. The cosmological principle is not a generalization, not an inductive inference from empirical evidence; it is a formal idea, a regulative idea that makes a certain kind of cosmological thought possible.

cosmological-principle

Formal principles like this are present throughout the sciences, though not often recognized for what they are. Bessel’s observations of 61 Cygni not only required industrialized technology to produce the appropriate scientific instruments, these observations also presupposed the mathematics originating in classical antiquity, so that the nineteenth century scientific work that proved the stars to be like our sun (and vice versa) was predicated upon parallel formal conceptions of universality structured into mathematical thought since its inception as a theoretical discipline (in contradistinction to the practical use of mathematics as a tool of engineering). Formal Copernicanism preceded empirical Copernicanism. Without that formal component of scientific knowledge, that scientific knowledge would never have come into being.

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Thursday


The world is usually more complicated than we realize; there are almost always further layers of reality to discover. A widely reported discovery of a particular exoplanet made me aware of another layer of complexity in the world. An article in Science, subsequently reported on Science Daily and the BBC, described a particular exoplanet, i.e., a planet outside our solar system. Exoplanets are not news anymore, since hundreds have been discovered. We know that planets are plentiful in our galaxy. Now, it seems, we can even get a glimpse of planets in other galaxies.

I have been aware for some time that, in the long term history of the universe, galaxies collide, and the larger galaxies swallow up smaller galaxies. I have mentioned this in relation to the supermassive blackholes that reside in the center of spiral galaxies (in Appearance and Reality in Cosmology). It is pretty well certain that, in the distant future, the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxies will meet in a slow motion collision, and at some time the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way will be swallowed up by the even more massive black hole at the center of the Andromeda galaxy (or maybe they will end up orbiting each other). What I learned today, and what I hadn’t thought of previously, is that our galaxy has already swallowed up smaller galaxies in the distant past.

As it turns out, the Milky Way is surrounded by stellar “streams” that are the remnants of galaxies that have had the misfortune to run into the Milky Way galaxy, and were torn up and largely absorbed by the Milky Way. There is a list of stellar streams on Wikipedia. Not all galaxies have supermassive black holes at their center, and it would seem that the galaxies absorbed by the Milky Way in the “recent” past of the universe, and which have left traces in the form of stellar streams strung out by tidal forces, were stellar clusters or dwarf galaxies something like the Magellanic clouds.

Astronomers have managed to detect an exoplanet around a star in the Helmi Stream, which is a stellar stream likely the result of another galaxy absorbed by the Milky Way. The star and the planet are sufficiently old that they likely originated in their formerly independent galaxy, before it was absorbed by the Milky Way. And so it is that we can “see,” after a fashion, an extragalactic planet right here as part of the Milky Way. From this we can infer that exoplanets are not only to be found elsewhere in the Milky Way, but also in other galaxies, and indeed in galaxies of a very different construction than ours.

Almost a year ago, in Other Worlds, I discussed our increasing knowledge of extrasolar planets. At one time, all of this was sheer speculation. Now we have a growing body of scientific knowledge about extrasolar planets, what other solar systems are like, how plentiful they are, where we are likely to find them, and the like. This growing body of exoplanetary science has been inductively confirming the Copernican Principle, also called the Principle of Mediocrity, which holds that there are no privileged observers in the universe, which is equivalent to the statement that we are not unique. Now we know, and can demonstrate, that planetary systems are not unique to the Milky Way. From this stronger inductive position, we can with greater confidence extrapolate our existing knowledge to the furthest reaches of the universe.

The Copernican Principle tutors us in metaphysical modesty, but the growing evidence for the Copernican Principle, and the paucity of counter-examples, inspires us to metaphysical ambition (perhaps driven by metaphysical pride). Scientific knowledge is the expression of this metaphysical ambition as much or more than it is an expression of metaphysical modesty.

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Copernicus continues to shape not only how we see the universe, but also our understanding of our place within it.

Copernicus continues to shape not only how we see the universe, but also our understanding of our place within it.

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Humanity as One

5 September 2010

Sunday


Global human migration patterns

Joseph Campbell opens up the Foreword to his The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology with this reflection:

“Looking back today over the twelve delightful years that I spent on this richly rewarding enterprise, I find that its main result for me has been its confirmation of a thought I have long and faithfully entertained: of the unity of the race of man, not only in its biology but also in its spiritual history, which has everywhere unfolded in the manner of a single symphony, with its themes announced, developed, amplified and turned about, distorted, reasserted, and, today, in a grand fortissimo of all sections sounding together, irresistibly advancing to some kind of mighty climax, out of which the next great movement will emerge.”

Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Penguin Books, 1981, p. v

We now know scientifically the biological unity of humanity, and have known this for more than a hundred years. More recently, DNA science has cast a whole new light on the human diaspora since it began to spread out of Africa, and whereas we once had many theories of how humanity spread itself across the globe, and with little hope of deciding between these theories, DNA evidence now gives us a vast quantity of new information that has decisively settled most open questions of human migration of global colonization, and which has furnished us, from the material of our own bodies, with a richly documented narrative of how we settled the globe.

And settle the globe we did. Human beings moved through every ecosystem, every biome, and in the process of migration some stayed and settled in every niche in which a living could be had. All of this happened long before recorded history, was lost to us for the better part of our history, and is only now being rediscovered through the work of science.

A map from Wikipedia detailing terrestrial biomes, all colonized in the course of human migration.

Because of the circumstances of human migration, we lost touch with our own history, and the parts of humanity in far flung regions of the globe did not know of each other. George Friedman in his The Next 100 Years commented on this:

“Until the fifteenth century, human lived in self-enclosed, sequestered worlds. Humanity did not know itself as consisting of a single fabric. The Chinese didn’t know of the Aztecs, and the Mayas didn’t know of the Zulus. The Europeans may have heard of the Japanese, but they didn’t really know them — and they certainly didn’t interact with them. The Tower of Babel had done more than make it impossible for people to speak to each other. It made civilizations oblivious to each other.”

George Friedman, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, first Anchor Books edition, p. 19

The unity of the fragmented whole of humanity was occluded by the migration that resulted in the globalization of our species. Today, in an age of rapid worldwide travel and even more rapid telecommunications, we can stay in touch with our point of origin and return to it whenever we like. When the human adventure began, it was a one-way trip. And, once arrived, settlements emerged in isolation and without any knowledge of the world left behind. When populations expanded until they once again touched other previously isolated groups, no memory of the connection remained and such reunions of the human family were rarely happy affairs.

reunions among the various branches of the human family tree were rarely happy affairs. (Claude-Mathieu Fessard, engraver, b.1740, after John Webber, 1752–1793, Mort tragique du Capitaine Cook, le 15 février, 1779, sur la côte d’Owhy-hee, l’une des Isles Sandwich, découverte par ce navigateur)

This points to an important (and hopefully obvious) lesson: humanity can understand itself as a whole, as it is in fact (and which we now know it to be), or some subdivision of humanity can misunderstand itself to be the whole of humanity, so that when it encounters other parts of the human family tree it is incapable of recognizing them for what they are.

The examples of the human diaspora given above focus on the spatial separation of peoples when communications and transportation technology were sufficient to globalize our species but not sufficient to preserve our unity as a species. This can thus be expressed explicitly: humanity can understand itself as a whole in space, as it is in fact, or it can misunderstand some spatially-defined subset of itself as the whole of humanity proper, even though this is not the case in fact. This misunderstanding — really, fallacy — we can call the fallacy of spatial parochialism, and it is well familiar to us in all the stories of outrageous provincialism.

This explicit spatial formulation suggests an equally explicit temporal formulation: humanity can understand itself as a whole through time, as it is in fact, or it can misunderstand some temporally-defined subset of itself as the whole of humanity proper, even though this is not the case in fact. This latter misunderstanding we can call the fallacy of temporal parochialism, which is less familiar than spatial parochialism, but which I have previously discussed in this forum (and is therefore not unknown to my readers).

In so far as the fallacy of spatial parochialism and the fallacy of temporal parochialism are fallacies — we might group them together as fallacies of fragmentation — rigorous reasoning will learn to identify them and to eradicate them. (We might treat them as special cases of the fallacy of composition, but this would require a more detailed treatment that I will not pursue today.) The effort to identify and eradicate these fallacies of human fragmentation could be called the anthropological formulation of the Copernican Principle, which might sound paradoxical (in so far as the Copernican Principle is often explicitly contrasted to the Anthropic Principle), but also might be exactly what we need in order to counter some of the sillier consequences drawn from strong formulations of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle.

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N.B. I have no quarrel with weak formulations of the anthropic principle, which I regard as tautologically true.

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Our Place in History

11 July 2009

Saturday


skeleton-of-the-gibbon-orang-chimpanzee-gorilla-and-man

Our place in the history of life is the subject matter of biology. Our place in the history of technology is the subject matter of a subject that has not yet emerged in history. There is, as yet, nothing that we could call a history of high technology; all of it is too new to be seen in historical perspective. And the science of biology was elaborated from the time of Aristotle until the middle of the nineteenth century until it finally acquired a genuine natural history, and this is a history we are still discovering. In any case, we should not be surprised that we have not yet acquired an historical perspective on our place within the Technological Revolution, and we should not expect it any time soon.

eniac

There are many people alive today (whether the majority or not, I don’t know) who were born before the advent of digital consumer electronics. This means that those of us who have witnessed the evolution to date of the personal computer and the cell phone and all degrees of personal electronic devices between the two have been through the early rapid changes and have been intimately acquainted with the details of now defunct operating systems. This gives us a unique perspective on them.

The branching bush of early computer evolution.

The branching bush of early computer evolution.

On the one hand, our conception of personal electronic devices is tied to early paradigms that may no longer hold true, and this may prevent us from making full use of recent innovations. On the other hand, we have an historical perspective on the evolution of computers, and that makes it possible for us to understand why things are the way they are today. We remember the early browser wars, and the choice between operating systems. If Google’s planned (at the date of this writing) Chrome operating system ultimately displaces or even seriously challenges Microsoft’s Windows, we will remember that too.

T. S. Eliot formulated an historical principle on the avoidance of generalizing, which, as a general principle, is self-negating.

T. S. Eliot formulated an historical principle on the avoidance of generalizing, which, as a general principle, is self-negating.

In his essay “Poetry in the Eighteenth Century” (The New Pelican Guide to English Literature: From Dryden to Johnson, Volume 4), T. S. Eliot wrote, “It is dangerous to generalize about the poetry of the eighteenth century as about that of any other age; for it was, like any other age, an age of transition.” This is a wise observation that resists tempting simplifications, but if we generalize it to other cases we would be violating the spirit of the observation, however much it deserves a generalized formulation as a principle. But perhaps there is a principle already formulated under which Eliot’s observation can be subsumed.

Copernicus was the game-changer in the history of cosmology, and if we follow his lead we find that we must think differently not only about space, but also about time and history.

Copernicus was the game-changer in the history of cosmology, and if we follow his lead we find that we must think differently not only about space, but also about time and history.

Eliot’s observation may be considered an application to the history of poetry of what cosmologists call the Copernican Principle: that our perspective is not privileged, but may be assumed to be like other perspectives. (Cf. More Evidence for the Copernican Principle) In its original form, the Copernican Principle was simply that the Earth was not the center of the universe. We are used to this idea now, and the general principle behind Copernicanism has been repeatedly extended to keep up with the growth of scientific knowledge.

In Ptolemaic cosmology human beings on the surface of the earth are privileged observers because they occupy the center of the universe.

If every age is an age of transition, then our age is like every other age; hence our perspective on temporal and historical periodization is not privileged. But there is a plain-speaking and level-headed riposte to T. S. Eliot in William Carroll Bark’s Origins of the Medieval World. Bark writes that when one is confronted with distinct periodizations one may, “fall back on the cliché that all ages are ages of transition,” but Bark goes on to suggest that, “an age of transition in the narrow and proper sense, [is] an age characterized by unusually rapid and significant change and marking a decisive passage from one stage to another.” (pp. 3-4)

How then shall we understand our place in the history of technology? Do we occupy a privileged place in the early development of consumer digital electronics, something that is unique and is not likely to ever be repeated in the history of our species, or will future technology evolve so rapidly that all future ages will be ages of transition and the human species from here on out will have to evolve and adapt as rapidly as our technology changes? This thought brings us around to our old friend the Technological Singularity, upon which I have written several posts.

By the 1930s the basic conventions of car design had been established; since then, while improvements have been constant, they have also been incremental and non-revolutionary.

By the 1930s the basic conventions of car design had been established; since then, while improvements have been constant, they have also been incremental and non-revolutionary.

As a singularity skeptic, I am expecting current technologies to level off and achieve a robust level of integration into ordinary human use, just has been the case with automobiles. Thus I stand with Bark, and against Eliot, that there are ages of rapid and significant change. Moreover, in respect to technological innovation, we are living in such an era which will establish standards for man-machine interfaces that will converge upon moderately optimal solutions for the obvious problems posed by such interfaces. This happened before with the advent of printing, which more of less froze the development of modern European languages in the stage of development they enjoyed at the time. The man-book interface was established in the sixteenth century after a brief and rapid period of experimentation and exploration. Now this is occurring with respect to digital technologies.

The conventions of printed books were rapidly established during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and remain with us today.

The conventions of printed books were rapidly established during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and remain with us today.

Whether or not our privileged perspective on the computer and technological revolution constitutes a violation of the Copernican Principle depends upon how narrowly we formulate that principle, and investigating different degrees of strength in the formulation of the Copernican principle would be an endeavor well worth the effort. I suspect that we would learn something about our assumptions embedded in the Copernican Principle through such an investigation.

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