These galaxies would certainly gain the mythological attention of any sentient beings living in full view of such spectacular displays.

When a future science of civilizations begins to take shape, it will need to distinguish broad categories or families of civilizations, or, if you will, species of civilizations. In so far as civilizations are out outgrowth of biological species, they are an extension of biology, and it is appropriate to use the terminology of species to characterize civilizations.

Just a few days ago in A Copernican Conception of Civilization I distinguished between eocivilization (i.e., terrestrial civilizations), exocivilization (extraterrestrial civilizations), and astrocivilization (an integrated conception of eo- and exocivilization taken together). This is a first step in identifying species of civilizations.

Given that astrocivilization follows directly from (one could say, supervenes upon) astrobiology, it is particular apt to extend the definition of astrobiology to astrocivilization, and so in A Copernican Conception of Civilization I paraphrased the NASA definition of astrobiology, mutatis mutandis, for civilization. Thus astrociviliation comprises…

…the study of the civilized universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of civilization in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of the structure of spacetime in civilizations, and (3) the study of the Earth’s civilizations in their terrestrial and cosmological context.

Some time ago in A First Image from the Herschel Telescope I made the suggestion that particular physical features of a galaxy might result in any and all civilizations arising within that galaxy to share a certain feature or features based upon the features of the containing galaxy. This is a point worth developing at greater length.

Of the images of the M51 galaxy I wrote:

If there are civilizations in that galaxy, they must have marvelous constellations defined by these presumably enormous stars, and that one star at the top of the image seems to be brighter than any other in that galaxy. It would have a special place in the mythologies of the peoples of that galaxy. And the peoples of that galaxy, even if they do not know of each other, would nevertheless have something in common in virtue of their relation to this enormous star. We could, in this context, speak of a “family” of civilizations in this galaxy all influenced by the most prominent stellar feature of the galaxy of which they are a part.

We can generalize about and extrapolate from this idea of a family of civilizations defined by the prominent stellar features of the galaxy in which they are found. If a galaxy has a sufficiently prominent physical feature that can witnessed by sentient beings, these features will have a place in the life of these sentient beings, and thus by extension a place in the civilizations of these sentient beings.

There is a sense in which it seems a little backward to start from the mythological commonalities of civilizations based upon their view of the cosmos, but it is only appropriate, because this is where cosmology began for human beings. If we remain true to the study of astrocivilization as including, “the search for evidence of the origins and early evolution of civilization on Earth,” the origins and early evolution of civilization on earth was at least in part derived from early observational cosmology. We began with myths of the stars, and it is to be expected that many if not most civilizations will begin with myths of the stars. Moreover, these myths will be at least in part a function of the locally observable cosmos.

The more expected progress of thought would be to start with how the physical features of a particular galaxy or group of galaxies would affect the physical chemistry of life within this galaxy or these galaxies, and how life so constituted would go on to constitute civilization. These are important perspectives that a future science of civilizations would also include.

Simply producing a taxonomy of civilizations based on mythological, physical, biological, sociological, and other factors would only be the first step of a scientific study of astrocivilization. As I have noted in Axioms and Postulates in Strategy, Carnap distinguished between classificatory, comparative, and quantitative scientific concepts. Carnap suggested that science begins with classificatory conceptions, i.e., with a taxonomy, but must in the interests of rigor and precision move on to the more sophisticated comparative and quantitative concepts of science. More recently, in From Scholasticism to Science, I suggested that these conceptual stages in the development of science may also demarcate historical stages in the development of human thought.

It will only be in the far future, when we have evidence of many different civilizations, that we will be able to formulate comparative concepts of civilization based on the actual study of astrocivilization, and it is only after we have graduated to comparative concepts in the science of astrocivilization that we will be able to formulate quantitative measures of civilization informed by the experience of many distinct civilizations.

At present, we know only the development of civilizations on the earth. This has not prevented several thinkers from drawing general conclusions about the nature of civilization, but it is not enough of a sample to say anything definitive about, “the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of civilization in the universe.” The civilizations of the earth represent a single species, or, at most, a single genera of civilization. We will need to study the independent origins and development of civilization in order to have a valid basis of comparison. We need to be able to see civilization as a part of cosmological evolution; until that time, we are limited to a quasi-Linnaean taxonomy of civilization, based on observable features in common; after we have a perspective of civilization as part of cosmological evolution, it will be possible to formulate a more Darwinian conception.

In the meantime, while we can understand theoretically the broad outlines of a study of astrocivilization, the actual content of such a science lies beyond our present zone of proximal development. And taking human knowledge in its largest possible context, we can see that our epistemic zone of proximal development supervenes on the maturity and extent of the civilization of which we are a part. This does not hold for more restricted forms of knowledge, but for forms of knowledge of which the study of astrocivilization is an example (i.e., human knowledge at its greatest extent) it becomes true. Not only individuals, but also whole societies and entire civilizations have zones of proximal development. A particular species of civilization facilitates a particular species of knowledge — but it also constrains other species of knowledge. This observation, too, would belong to an adequate conception of astrocivilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Elsewhere I have written that the Copernican Revolution still has much unfinished business. For practical men who suppose that the whole of life is dictated by drives and appetites and impulses it might sound like an extraordinary claim to say that the ordinary business of life is contingent less upon one’s responses to stimuli and more upon one’s idea of the world, but just as G.K. Chesterton said that “…for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy,” I would add that she should also know her tenant’s cosmology. Indeed, philosophies and cosmologies are likely to overlap, and in some cases they coincide.

In Eo-, Exo-, Astro- I wrote about Joshua Lederberg’s distinction between eobiology and exobiology, and how both of these have been absorbed into the more comprehensive science of astrobiology. Astrobiology can be considered an extrapolation and extension of terrestrial biology. This same schema of extrapolation and extension can be readily applied beyond biology to the other life sciences and earth sciences. Ultimately, the result of the systematic extension of our conceptions of science would yield a Copernican conception of science and knowledge in which the earth would no longer be the center, either literally or metaphorically.

A Copernican conception of the sciences, and the production of Copernican knowledge on the basis of a Copernican conception of the sciences, must ultimately move beyond the natural sciences and also embrace the social sciences. I would argue that the social sciences are in more acute need of the Copernican Revolution than the natural sciences, but that it is more difficult to effect a conceptual revolution within the social sciences given their less quantifiable procedures and the inherent ambiguity of observation and evidence in the social sciences. But the fullness of time must inevitably bring us a Copernican political science, a Copernican sociology, a Copernican cultural geography, a Copernican cultural anthropology, and so forth.

Beyond science, we can also seek to extend the Copernican Revolution throughout familiar conceptions of human knowledge that have unwittingly been based on Ptolemaic conceptions of the cosmos. Despite Ptolemaic cosmology now being a scientific museum piece, it continues to influence our thought because its terms and ideas are embedded in our knowledge. Just as we must make an extra effort in order to think in selective terms, according to an evolutionary paradigm — an effort that can be surprisingly difficult because it is so much easier to think in teleological terms, according to a theological paradigm — so too we must make an extra effort to think in non-earth-centered terms, according to a Copernican paradigm, instead of thinking in earth-centered terms, according to a Ptolemaic paradigm. Ultimately, pushing the familiar categories of our thought to the limit, we must formulate a Copernican conception of civilization.

All civilization as we have known it, has been eocivilization; this is terrestrial civilization confined to the surface of the earth. In so far as human beings are a natural product of the earth, and civilization is a natural product of human beings, civilization ought to be the ultimate object of study of a greatly extended conception of the earth sciences. Early in the history of this blog, in Life and Landscape (as well as in subsequent posts, like Art and Landscape), I attempted to show how the ideas by which we live are ultimately grounded in the landscape in which we have made our lives. This is a theme that I have occasionally worked to develop, but the definitive formulation of the idea continues to elude me, even as I continue to pursue it, coming at it from different angles, the better to catch it unaware, as it were. This present formulation here, of civilization as the ultimately object of the earth sciences, is a continuing part of my struggle to precisely delineate the connections between life and landscape.

Civilization as we might imagine it to be off the surface of the earth, either in the form of a greatly expanded human civilization of the future, or in the form of an extraterrestrial civilization not of human origin, would constitute exocivilization. A future science of civilizations would embrace the study both of eocivilization and exocivilization, and in the spirit of scientific objectivity the study of exocivilization ought to be quite indifferent to whether such exocivilization is derived from human civilization or not.

The larger and more comprehensive point of view would be that of astrocivilization, which would comprehend and include both eocivilziation and exocivilziation. The NASA definitions of astrobiology that I quoted in Eo-, Exo-, Astro- can be nicely reformulated (or, if you like, exapted) to express the idea of astrocivilization:

“Astrocivilization is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of civilization in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for civilized societies in our Solar System and civilized societies outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of the origins and early evolution of civilization on Earth, and studies of the potential for civilization to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”


“The study of the civilized universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of civilization in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of the structure of spacetime in civilizations, and (3) the study of the Earth’s civilizations in their terrestrial and cosmological context.”

I must admit that I rather like the sound of these, and they strike me as an edifying definition of a future science of civilizations.

Problems remain, and there would need to be further revisions of these formulations. We no longer hope to find other civilizations in our own solar system, while at one time this hope was once quite high. Percival Lowell’s poetic vision of a dying Martian civilization building canals to transport remaining water from the poles to the equatorial regions, and H. G. Wells’ darker take on this same vision, making it less poetic and less romantic, but perhaps also more believable, are testimony to the fact that exocivilizations (as well as their motivations and intentions) have been of interest on earth for some time.

More important from a scientific standpoint (since we ought to keep an open mind about other civilizations within our solar system) is the systematic ambiguity between formulating descriptive concepts of civilizations on the one hand, on the other hand and the scientific study of these civilizations. The same ambiguity persists in the term “history,” which can either mean the actual events of the past, or the study of the events of the past. Thus “astrocivilization” could mean the actual civilizations of the universe (which is intuitively quite clear) or the study of such civilizations (which is intuitively not quite as clear, partly because we don’t have an established vocabulary and terminology for the study of eocivilization — except the already-noted ambiguous term “history”).

Much work remains to be done on the study of civilization, just as much work remains to be done in completing the Copernican Revolution.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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How often does Palm Sunday fall on April Fools’ Day? It must happen with a certain (predictable) regularity, I would guess, since April Fools’ Day falls within what we might call the parameters of Easter. No doubt someone, somewhere, has made the calculation and can give a definite answer to the question. Since Easter is a moveable feast, and it carries all of Passiontide with it, including Palm Sunday and Good Friday, all these days move around the Gregorian calender like wanderers seeking a place to rest.

Easter must be calculated, since it falls on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere. And Easter is the still point in the turning world of moveable feasts in the Christian calendar, because all the other moveable feasts are calculated in number of days before or after Easter. The calculation of the date of Easter is an astronomical task that requires some expertise. Copernicus was among the few in early modern Europe who possessed the expertise to arrive at a better calculation.

The accumulating errors of the Julian calendar had, over the centuries, contributed to confusion and unnecessary complexity in the calculation of dates. It was possible to continue with the old system, but the whole process could be streamlined by a root-and-branch rethinking. This is what Copernicus provided. He did not limit himself to local and parochial concerns, but attempted to get the cosmology right so that it agreed with astronomical observations, and this in turn could bring the calendar into accord with both cosmology and astronomy.

Copernicus, like Darwin, long delayed the publication of his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium not least because he was, like Darwin, concerned about the reaction it would cause. The story is that Copernicus received a copy of the first printed edition of his book on his death bed, roused himself from a stroke-induced torpor long enough to recognize this life work, and then passed away. The fears of both men were justified.

Copernicus’ calendar reform had some unintended consequences. This is perhaps the ultimate April Fools’ joke. While it is true that Copernicus himself completed only the first step from geocentric cosmology to heliocentric cosmology, and that we have since gone far beyond heliocentric cosmology even to the point that today any center of the world at all is questionable, it is probably also true that Copernicus’ reform extended as far as cosmological knowledge extended in his time. In its context, the Copernican revolution was radical and complete.

Now we know that neither earth nor sun nor galaxy nor galactic cluster nor super cluster nor the universe itself is the center of anything. There is no center — or, rather, everywhere is the center, which amounts to the same thing, and this coincides with the perennial insights of mysticism and mythology.

The Copernican revolution is still unfolding. The slow, gradual, cumulative process of attaining Copernican conceptions continues today. It is worth noting that the revolution began at the rarefied intellectual level of cosmology, so that a Copernican conception of cosmology itself preceded a Copernican conception of any of the special sciences. Indeed, in Eo-, Exo-, Astro- I recently argued that we are only now able to formulate Copernican conceptions of the sciences, which have, to date, received mostly geocentric formulations.

The calculation of the date of Easter turned out to be one of the truly deconstructive episodes in Western history, when the unraveling of what had seemed to be a single intellectual thread eventually meant the unraveling of a world entire. Copernicus was the first deconstructionist.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Eo-, Exo-, Astro-

19 March 2012


This post has been superseded by Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-, which both corrects and extends what I wrote below.

The Philosophical Significance of Astrobiology as a

Cosmological Extrapolation of Terrestrial Biology

In yesterdays’ Commensurable Perspectives I finished with this observation:

Ecology is the master world-narrative that unifies the sub-narratives employed by individual species in virtue of their perceptual and cognitive architecture. Ultimately, astrobiology would constitute the universal narrative that would unify the ecological narratives of distinct worlds.

The naturalistic narrative has the power to unify even across species and across worlds. This power may not be particularly evident at present, but in the long term future of our species (if our species does in fact have a long term future) this power will prove to be crucial.

If indeed astrobiology is the universal narrative of life, that gives astrobiology a privileged position among the sciences. That is a tall order. But what is astrobiology? At one time I had heard both the terms “exobiology” and “astrobiology” and I was not quite clear about the exact difference between the two, or how each was defined. Thereby hangs a tale. The distinction between the two is in fact a very interesting story, and it is a story to which an entire book has been devoted, The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, by Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick.

I urge the reader to get this book and peruse it for yourself for the detailed version of the emergence of astrobiology as a scientific discipline. I will give only the bare bones of that story here, which will be only enough to grasp the crucial concepts involved. And our interest is in the concepts, not the personalities.

Joshua Lederberg before he had formulated the distinction between eobiology and exobiology.

Exobiology is the older term, introduced by Joshua Lederberg (first used in a public lecture in 1960), and contrasted by him to eobiology. Exobiology has some currency in the public mind, but I didn’t know about eobiology until I read about the history of the discipline. However, the contrast between the two terms is conceptually important. Exobiology is concerned with biology off the surface of the earth, while eobiology is biology on the surface of the earth. (cf. p. 29) In other words, all biological science prior to human spaceflight was eobiology, even if we didn’t know that it was eobiology. Another way to formulate this distinction is to say that eobiology is the biology of the terrestrial biosphere, while exobiology is the biology of everything else.

In the book The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology the authors give a lot of background on the internal politics and budgeting of NASA and how this affected the emergence of astrobiology. It is an interesting story, but I will not go into it here, as our interest at present is exclusively with the conceptual infrastructure of the discipline. Suffice it to say that in 1996 the first attempts were made to define astrobiology (cf. p. 202), and within a couple of years there was a virtual Astrobiology Institute.

The NASA astrobiology website characterizes astrobiology as follows:

“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”

The NASA strategic plan of 1996 gives this definition of astrobiology:

“The study of the living universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of life in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of gravity in living systems, and (3) the study of the Earth’s atmospheres and ecosystems.”

The important lesson to take away from this is that astrobiology is the more comprehensive concept, and that in fact we can consider astrobiology the union of eobiology and exobiology. This sounds simple enough (and it is), but it is important to understand the conceptual leap that has been taken here.

From the perspective of astrobiology, earth sciences are only fragments of far larger and more comprehensive sciences. Just as all biology was once eobiology, the same observation can be made in regard to the other earth sciences, and the same tripartite conceptual distinction can be brought to the other earth sciences. We can formulate eogeology and exogeology unified in astrogeology; we can formulate eohydrology and exohydrology unified in astrohydrology; we can formulate eovulcanology and exovulcanology unified in astrovulcanology; we can formulate eoclimatology and exoclimatology unified in astroclimatology. All of these are cosmological extrapolations of earth sciences. One suspects that, in the future, the prefixes will be dropped and we will return to climatology simpliciter, e.g., but while the conceptual revolution is underway it is important to retain the prefixes as a reminder that science is no longer defined by the boundaries of the earth.

I assert that this is a conceptual leap of the first importance because what we have with astrobiology is the formulation of the first truly Copernican science; astrobiology includes eobiology but it is not exhausted by eobiology; it is supplemented by exobiology. The earth, for obvious reasons, remains important to us, but it no longer dictates the center of our science. All mature sciences will eventually need to take this Copernican turn and dethrone the earth from the center of its concern.

We can take a further step beyond this conceptual formulation of Copernican sciences by observing that traditional earth sciences began as local enterprises, and it has only been in recent decades that truly global sciences have emerged. These global sciences have culminated in objects of scientific study that take the world entire as their object. Thus biology has converged upon study of the biosphere; hydrology has converged on study of the hydrosphere; glaciology has culminated in the study of the cryosphere. Copernican sciences based on the model of astrobiology can go one better than this, transcending earth-defined “-spheres” in favor of more comprehensive concepts.

When I spoke last year on “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” at the NASA/DARPA 100 Year Starship Study symposium it was my intention to spend some time on the emergence of Copernican sciences, but I didn’t have enough time to elaborate. I cut most of that material out and still was rushed. The point that I wanted to make there was that the concepts of the biosphere, the lithosphere, the geosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, atmosphere, anthrosphere, sociosphere, noösphere, and technosphere are essentially Ptolemaic concepts. (If the proceedings of the symposium are published, and if my paper is included, this contains my first sketch of Copernican sciences as transcending these earth-defined “-spheres.”) The Copernican Revolution entails the formulation of Copernican concepts to supersede Ptolemaic concepts, and this work is as yet unfinished. In some spheres of human thought, it has scarcely begun.

One way to transcend our Ptolemaic concepts and to replace them with Copernican concepts, and thus to extend the ongoing shift to a truly Copernican perspective, is to substitute for the earth-defined “-spheres” a conception of the object of the sciences not dependent upon the earth, and this can be done by defining, respectfully, biospace (in place of the biosphere), lithospace, geospace, hydrospace, cryospace, atmospace, anthrospace, sociospace, noöspace, and technospace. In so far as we can facilitate the emergence of Copernican sciences, we can contribute to the ongoing Copernican Revolution, which will someday culminate in a Copernican civilization (if we do not first destroy ourselves).

We can pass beyond the earth sciences and the natural sciences and similarly extend our conceptions of a the social and political sciences. Although concepts from the social sciences are not usually expressed in geocentric terms — except for the above-mentioned anthrosphere, sociosphere, noösphere, and technosphere (which are not employed very often) — our social and political thought is usually even more tied to planetary prejudices than the concepts of the natural sciences. Thus we can extend our conception of politics by distinguishing between eopolitics and exopolitics, both of which are subsumed under astropolitics. Similarly, we can formulate eoeconomics and exoeconomics, subsumed by astroeconomics, eostrategy and exostrategy, subsumed by astrostrategy, and so forth.

As a final note, it is ironic that the breakthrough to a Copernican science should occur first with biology, because biology was among the latest of the sciences to actually attain a scientific status. Prior to Darwin, biological theories were essentially theological theories with but a few exceptions. Darwin put biology on a firm biological footing and created the discipline in its modern scientific form. Thus biology was among the last of the sciences to attain a modern scientific form, though it was the first to attain to a Copernican form.

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This post has been superseded by Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Darwin’s Cosmology

12 February 2012


Today is Darwin’s birthday, and therefore an appropriate time to celebrate Darwin by a mediation upon his work. No one has influenced me more than Darwin, and I always find the study of his works to be intellectually rewarding. I also read (and listen to) quite a number of books about Darwin. Recently I listened to Darwin, Darwinism, and the Modern World, 14 lectures by Dr. Chandak Sengoopta. While I enjoyed the lectures, I sharply differed from many of Dr. Sengoopta’s interpretations of Darwin’s thought. One theme that Dr. Sengoopta returned to several times was a denial that Darwin had anything to say about the ultimate origins of life. Each time that Dr. Sengoopta made this point I found myself grow more and more irritated.

To say that Darwin had nothing to say about the ultimate origins of life may be technically correct in a narrow sense, but I do not think that it is an accurate expression of Darwin’s vision of life, which was sweeping and comprehensive. While it may be a little much to say that Darwin ever entertained ideas that could accurately be called “Darwin’s cosmology,” it is obvious in reading Darwin’s notebooks, in which he recorded thoughts that never made it into his published books, his mind ranged far and wide. It is almost as though, once Darwin made the conceptual breakthrough of natural selection he had discovered a new world.

In characterizing Darwin’s thought in this way I am immediately reminded of a famous letter that Janos Bolyai wrote to his father after having independently arrived at the idea of non-Euclidean geometry:

“…I have discovered such wonderful things that I was amazed, and it would be an everlasting piece of bad fortune if they were lost. When you, my dear Father, see them, you will understand; at present I can say nothing except this: that out of nothing I have created a strange new universe. All that I have sent you previously is like a house of cards in comparison with a tower. I am no less convinced that these discoveries will bring me honor than I would be if they were complete.”

Darwin, too, discovered wonderful things and created the strange new universe of evolutionary biology, though it came on him rather slowly — not in a youthful moment that could be recorded to a letter in his father, and not in a fit of fever, as the idea of natural selection came to Wallace — as the result of many years of ruminating on his observations. But the slowness with which Darwin’s mind worked was repaid with thoroughness. Even though Darwin was the first evolutionist in the modern sense of the term, he must also be accounted among the most complete of all evolutionary thinkers, having spent decades thinking through his idea with a Platonic will to follow the argument wherever it leads.

Given that Darwin himself thought that making the idea of natural selection public was like “confessing to a murder,” the fragments of Darwin’s cosmology must be sought in his latter and notebooks as much as in his published works. As for the origins of life, narrowly considered, apart from the cosmological implications of life, Darwin openly speculated on a purely naturalistic origin of life in a letter to Joseph Hooker:

“It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, — light, heat, electricity &c. present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.”

Darwin’s 1871 letter to Joseph Hooker

What has widely come to be known as “Darwin’s warm little pond” sounds like nothing so much as the famous Stanley L. Miller electrical discharge experiment.

Darwin revealed his consistent naturalism in his rejection of teleology in a letter to Julia Wedgwood, where he indirectly refers to his slow, steady, cumulative mode of thinking (quite the opposite of revelation):

“The mind refuses to look at this universe, being what it is, without having been designed; yet, where would one most expect design, viz. in the structure of a sentient being, the more I think on the subject, the less I can see proof of design.”

Darwin’s letter of 11 July 1861 to Miss Julia Wedgwood

This same refusal continues to a sticking point to the present day, since, like so much that we learn from contemporary science, appearances are deceiving, and the reality behind the appearance can be so alien to the natural constitution of thue human mind that it is rejected as incomprehensible or unthinkable. That Darwin was able to think the unthinkable, and to so with a unparalleled completeness at a time when no one else was doing so, is testimony to the cosmological scope of his thought.

One of the most memorable passages in all of Darwin’s writings is the last page or so of the Origin of Species, which touches not a little on cosmological themes. Take, for instance, the “tangled bank” passage:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

Besides anticipating the evolutionary study of ecology and complex adaptive systems long before these disciplines became explicit and constituted their own sciences, Darwin here subtly invokes a law-like naturalism that both suggests Lyell’s uniformitarianism while going beyond it.

Darwin places this law-governed naturalism in cosmological context in the last two sentences of the book, here also implicitly invoking Malthus, whose influence was central to his making the breakthrough to the idea of natural selection:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

This famous passage from Darwin reminds me of a perhaps equally famous passage from Immanuel Kant, who concluded The Critique of Practical Reason with this thought:

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first starts at the place that I occupy in the external world of the senses, and extends the connection in which I stand into the limitless magnitude of worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems, as well as into the boundless times of their periodic motion, their beginning and continuation. The second begins with my invisible self, my personality, and displays to me a world that has true infinity, but which can only be detected through the understanding, and with which . . . I know myself to be in not, as in the first case, merely contingent, but universal and necessary connection. The first perspective of a countless multitude of worlds as it were annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which must give the matter out of which it has grown back to the planet (a mere speck in the cosmos) after it has been (one knows not how) furnished with life-force for a short time.”

Both Darwin and Kant invoke both the laws of the natural world (and both, again, do so by appealing to grandeur of the heavens) and a humanistic ideal. For Kant, the humanistic ideal is morality; for Darwin, the humanistic ideal is beauty, but what Kant said of morality and the moral law is equally applicable, mutatis mutandis, to beauty. Darwin might equally well have said of “the fixed law of gravity” and of “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” that he saw them before himself and connected them immediately with the consciousness of his existence. Kant might equally well have said that there is “grandeur in this view of life” that embraces both the starry heavens above and the moral law within.

Darwin did not express himself (and would not have expressed himself) in these philosophical terms; he was a naturalist and a biologist, not a philosopher. But Darwin’s naturalism and biology were so comprehensive to have spanned the universe and to have converged on an entire cosmology — a cosmology, for the most part, not even suspected before Darwin had done his work.

There is a sense in which Darwin fulfilled Marx’s famous pronouncement, from this Theses on Feuerbach, such that: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Darwin, however, did not change the world by fomenting a revolution; Darwin changed the world by thinking, like a philosopher. In this sense, at least, Darwin must be counted among the greatest philosophers.

I would be a rewarding project to devote an entire book to the idea of Darwin’s Cosmology. I know that I have not even scratched the surface here, and have not come near to doing justice to the idea. It would be a rewarding project to think through this idea as carefully as Darwin thought through his ideas.

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Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Origins of Time

30 November 2011


The Construction of Ecological Temporality

The geologic time spiral — A path to the past

A Genetic Account of the Origins of the World

The ontogeny of time

The emergence and development of temporal consciousness — that is to say, the origins of individual time, the ontogeny of time — begins in the individual, but the early experience of the individual is that of an individual embedded in a temporal context. The individual’s internal time consciousness is constructed in a temporal context that I will call the reflexive experience of time.

Children — at least those children allowed a childhood, which is not always the case — live most in the world of meso-temporality, mostly because they have not yet learned not to trust, and so they feel free to express the spontaneity of their inner time consciousness as though by reflex. Reflexive experience of time, in which there are few if any barriers between the micro-temporality of the individual and the meso-temporality of the immediate social context of the individual, embodies an absolute innocence.

In a condition of innocence, everything that occurs is new, so that time is densely populated with unprecedented events. Every hour and every day brings novelty. As we age, every hour and every day brings more of the same — the same old same old, as we say today — and so it is little surprise that we don’t notice the passing of this undifferentiated sameness. For the young, time flies by unnoticed, and because the passage of time is unnoticed it has the quality of timelessness.

As we age, time flies by all the faster.

Later, in our maturity, we have the ability to appreciate episodes of innocence that we could not have appreciated in our younger years — thus following the well-worn idea that youth is wasted upon the young — there is another sense in which youthful experience makes the fullest use of time and yields a density of experience that we cannot experience in later life.

G. B. Shaw was the one who first said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

The time consciousness of youth, driven by the stream of novelty that is the result of innocence, sharpens and enlarges the smallest events, and thus we see young children sobbing over a ice cream cone that has dropped to the ground, which leaves us, as adults, largely unmoved. We shrug our shoulders and move on. Would that we could experience life with such intensity that an ice cream cone were worth a flood of tears.

There is a sense in which it is counter-intuitive to speak of the intensity of experience of children, since the halcyon days of youth are usually not thought to consist of intensity but rather of carefree indolence, but in the sense outlined above, the innocent lead lives of greater intensity than the jaded.

Innocence wrings every last drop from the passing of time, so that in a condition of innocence there is no moment that is wasted. In maturity, the greater part of time is wasted, until, as Shakespeare noted, having wasted time, time wastes us.

Developmental temporality: the role of play

Developmental psychologists have had much to say about the child’s initial encounters with a recalcitrant world that does not answer to its whims. This initial phase of socialization is also the first loss of innocence, and the first compromise of reflexive temporality. As the consciousness of temporality progresses in the individual, the individual comes to understand that they can cultivate a Cartesian privacy in which fantasies will not be interrupted by the recalcitrant world. Thus reflexive temporality gradually gives way to imaginative temporality, and the spontaneity of the child is displaced from the immediate expression of inner promptings to the inner expression of these promptings by way of imagination. Thus play emerges, and the imaginative temporality of play allows the individual to further develop the inner time consciousness of Cartesian privacy.

Erik Erikson's stages of psycho-social development is one well-known developmental theory.

Play, however, also makes possible a re-discover of reflexive temporality when the childred discovers other children and begins to play with them. The shared, social temporality of play, especially when adults are not present to puncture the illusions generated by imaginative time consciousness, can again converge onto a purely reflexive time consciousness when the child feels free to express their spontaneity among peers who share the form of time consciousness common to this stage in the development of childhood.

Pieter Bruegel, detail from Children's Games, 1560, Oil on oak panel, 118 x 161 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna

Play, too, is eventually compromised, as conflicts inevitably emerge from games played with peers, so that the life of the child exhibits a dialectic of shifting between reflexive time consciousness and imaginative time consciousness, which is a shift of the focus of spontaneity from outer life to inner life and back again to outer life. It is the dialectical process that contributes to the further development and reinforcement of an inner time consciousness of Cartesian privacy, which becomes a haven for the individual, wounded by encounters with an unsympathetic world.

Games among children often result in conflicts, and these conflicts teach us early in life that the world is usually not responsive to our will.

All throughout the dialectic of early time consciousness, however, the experience of the child is still marked by innocence, and it is the process of the degradation of innocence that brings about a fully mature time consciousness (if, in fact, this does develop, and its development is not arrested by trauma).

The degradation of innocence and the emergence of mature time consciousness

The degradation of innocence comes about from cumulative experience. Cumulative experience can only be experienced as cumulative with the development of memory, so that the emergence of robust memories is central to the emergence of fully mature time consciousness. However, it is the same process of the emergence of memory that degrades innocence. Memory demonstrates to us the non-novelty of our spontaneity, and as the spontaneity of our internal promptings loses its novelty, it also begins to lose its interest.

As we age, and the depth and breadth of our experience grows, preserved in an improving memory, and our opportunities for experiences of innocence decline proportionately until our capacity approaches zero and we no longer expect or even hope to directly experience innocence again. In the lives of many adults it is their relationships with children that yield whatever vicarious experiences of innocence for which they still retain hope, and so they take pleasure in seeing the world anew through the eyes of another, but there is a melancholy to this because one knows in one’s heart of hearts (as subtle as the distinction may seem to be) that there is a difference between immediate and vicarious experiences of innocence.

And yet (and despite), when we are surprised by an authentic experience of innocence later in life, beyond the bounds of youth, we now experience it from a perspective of maturity, and both its rarity and our capacity to appreciate it make the experience all the more precious. When we are young, everything is new to us, and experiences of innocence are common; experience narrows the scope of innocence until any such experience appears as something completely unexpected, but when it does occur we have the maturity to appreciate the experience that we did not possess in youth.

It is the same innocence that is behind the very different time consciousness of youth compared to maturity. Everyone knows that as you age, time seems to pass ever more quickly, until it flies by and the years scarcely make any impression in their passing. This stands in stark contrast to feelings of endless summers from our childhood that seemed to go on forever, as well as anticipating and waiting for holidays that seemed to take forever to arrive.

The time consciousness we associate will full cognitive modernity is a product of cognitive maturity.

Keeping secrets and Cartesian privacy

Another aspect of the child’s encounter with a recalcitrant world not obedient to his or her wishes is the discovery of the power of secrets. The youngest children, immersed as they are in meso-temporality and observing few if any boundaries between internal spontaneity and external expression, cannot keep a secret. Even if they make an experiment of it, and older children try to let them in on a secret, they will usually blurt it out, and as a consequence are considered untrustworthy. …

The shared confidences of older children, however, especially confidences that exclude adults and their alien forms of time consciousness, become an object of envy for the younger child, who wants to become “grown up” in order to share in these confidences. Thus the younger child makes a conscious effort of will to cultivate inhibitions on his or her spontaneity. Older children will continue to test the younger children for the trustworthiness in keeping secrets, at the behest of the pleading of younger children, initially with small secrets and eventually with larger secrets. When these secrets are successfully kept, the child passes the test, and in passing the tests passes another threshold of maturing time consciousness.

The experimenting and testing of secret-keeping trains the child in the development of his or her Cartesian privacy, which becomes a faculty consciously developed by the individual as an exclusively private reserve from which the world entire. The child discovers that not only may adults be excluded, but that other children can also be excluded from this realm of Cartesian privacy. In this perfectly private space of conscious, purely interior micro-temporal consciousness takes root and begins to grow, and as it grows it contributes progessively more to constitution of individual consciousness.

Shared time, social time, and the world as we find it

One of the most mysterious aspects of personal chemistry between individuals, and that which is perhaps the conditio sine qua non of friendship (whether Platonic or romantic), is the simple fact of shared time. Friendship has its origins in childhood play, but its possibilities are deepened by mature time consciousness. We are able to be friends with those with whom the common passage of time is enjoyable. Play is the first expression of joy in shared time. In adolescence, the shared time begins to take on a more intellectual form as shared time becomes primarily shared conversation. In contemporary colloquial English, this is called “hanging out” or simply “hanging.”

I suspect that everyone, or almost everyone, has experienced among their interaction with acquaintances the fact that, with some combinations of individuals, the two or more parties in question mutually enjoy the passage of time together, while among other combinations of individuals, the two or more parties find the common passing of time together to be irritating, unpleasant, or otherwise unfulfilling. The former is a welcome kind of chemistry, while the latter is an unwelcome (but also inevitable) kind of chemistry.

There are also obvious cases of asymmetry, when one party to the shared passage of time finds the experience rewarding, while another party to the same shared temporal frame of reference finds the experience unrewarding or even odious. Here the temporal frame of reference is identical, but the subjective experience of that shared time is sharply distinct. Such are what Shakespeare called the pangs of despised love.

In my post ecological temporality, in which I developed Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological model, specifically expanding and extending the ecological treatment of time, I distinguished levels of temporality parallel to Bronfenbrenner’s distinction between levels of bio-ecology. Thus what Husserl called internal time consciousness I called micro-temporality, and the interaction of micro-temporalities begets meso-temporality.

Meso-temporality is social time, and another way to refer to social time would be to call it shared time. An isolated individual experiences the micro-temporality of internal time consciousness, and simply by being present in an environment experiences a rudimentary level of meso-temporality from the necessary interaction of an organism with its environment (the minimal form of rudimentary meso-temporality involves interaction with an inert environment, as, for example, knocking on a door).

Shared time is facilitated by secret-keeping. The young child who cannot yet keep a secret says things openly that impair social relationships. As children learn more above the social environment in which they find themselves, they learn, under penalty of social exclusion, what must be confined to Cartesian privacy, and what may be openly and freely shared. To blurt out socially inappropriate assertions with no concern for boundaries of privacy — both one’s own privacy as well as the privacy of The Other — is to commit a social faux pas and to risk social exclusion. Being envious of social inclusion, children make an effort to train themselves in the boundaries of polite expression, and in so doing they are forced to cultivate a consciousness of the Cartesian privacy of The Other, which is another important threshold on the way to mature time consciousness. The recognize the Cartesian privacy of the other is to recognize the internal time consciousness of The Other. Thus one’s own emerging micro-temporality is placed in the context of the other’s inferred micro-temporality, which together and jointly constitute social time.

The social time or meso-temporality that emerges from a common temporal frame of reference for two or more individuals possessing internal time consciousness is perhaps distinct from that meso-temporality emergent from the micro-temporality of internal time consciousness in the context of an inert, non-conscious environment. Thus meso-temporality may take a variety of forms. Meso-temporality simpliciter may be taken as the interaction of a micro-temporal agent with its environment. When that environment includes other micro-temporal agents and agents join in common action (or common inaction, for that matter), this is social time or share time. Thus social time is a subdivision of meso-temporality.

The minimum condition for social time is two conscious individuals. Two micro-temporalities functioning in a common frame of temporal reference constitutes the first and simplest level of shared time, though shared time can be augmented with the addition of more conscious individuals and can grow until, for spatio-geographical reasons, a common frame of temporal reference is not longer possible. This meso-temporality that exceeds a common frame of temporality is meso-temporality of a higher order of magnitude, and thus constitutes exo-temporality. The interaction of meso-temporalities yields exo-temporality, which is the usually setting for “history” as this is usually understood. Herodotus and Thucydides write on the level of exo-temporality: the interaction and intersection of particular communities over space (a given geographical region) and time (a given period of history).

Returning to the interaction of micro- and meso-temporalities, we can see from the very different responses that individuals have to shared social time that this “functionality” in a shared temporal frame of reference can function in different ways for different individuals. Even when the shared temporal frame of reference is identical, the micro-temporality of consciousness usually remains clearly distinct from the shared time. That is to say, consciousness usually enjoys Cartesian privacy. This is the point of departure of Husserlian internal time consciousness.

The exceptions to Cartesian privacy occur when an individual agent, even having previously cultivated a sense of Cartesian privacy in the childhood dialectic of reflexive time and imaginative time (which perhaps only becomes possible in the context of fully mature historical consciousness), becomes so fully embedded in a meso-temporal frame of reference that they experience no boundaries between themselves and the other agents present. In shared social time one may be so comfortable in the presence of others that one is as spontaneous in interacting with them as one may be spontaneous with one’s own thoughts in private. This constitutes a (temporary) recovery of the reflexive time consciousness of early childhood.

One way to express this is that a particular subdivision of shared social time is when individuals participating in a common meso-temporal frame of reference experience in common what psychologists call “flow states”, such that the individuals in question can no longer distinguish between their internal time consciousness and the meso-temporality of shared time: the barriers of the self come down, and the individual is lost in the shared world. This would be a particularly intimate form of social time, and is possibly the necessary condition of love. Possibly.

The lost paradise of reflexive time

Why do we seek ideal love? We seek ideal love because it is the temporary recovery of the lost paradise of the purely reflexive temporality — unmindful of boundaries, unmindful of a distinction between self and world, unmindful of any barrier to absolute spontaneity and freedom of expression, unmindful of any social constraint risking social exclusion. Love is the reminder of what we have lost in coming to mature time consciousness, even while knowing what we having gained in terms of cultivated micro-temporality, memory linked both to immediate micro-temporality and enduring self-identity, and an awareness of history and our personal place within history.

Moreover, ideal love in the context of mature time consciousness can exceed or surpass the lost paradise of early childhood’s reflexive temporality, because ideal love can accommodate an authentic awareness of the beloved as other, as possessing its own Cartesian privacy and its own micro-temporality. To love the other in full awareness of their otherness is a more profound species of shared social temporality, and with this profundity comes depth of feeling that did not exist and could not exist in childhood. It has been said that a woman’s heart is a ocean of secrets, and perhaps we need not even superadd a qualification of gender to this poetic truth. Shared secrets, withheld from the rest of the world, can be among the most powerful form of shared social temporality, and it is the power of these experiences that moves us (i.e., we experience the sublime) and thus generates profound awareness of the other and depth of feeling in one’s relationship to The Other.

However, love disappoints more often than it satisfies, so that our tentative reaching out to the world in search of love becomes an experiment that is disconfirmed more often than it is confirmed. And even when love satisfies, it rarely endures. Some retreat within themselves, when the pangs of despised love are too powerful, while others, unable to forget the ideal of the lost paradise, continue to seek, and are in rare moments rewarded for their efforts.

The phylogeny of time

The origin of non-human time, of objective time, is the proper concern of the phylogeny of time. Of course, ontogeny and phylogeny are intimately interconnected, and we may even speculate on a temporal recapitulation in which temporal ontogeny recapitulates temporal phylogeny, but I will not pursue this further in the present context.

In terms of the origins of time, or, rather the origins of human time consciousness, interaction with other agents within an environment — i.e., meso-temporality — almost certainly preceded the emergence of self-aware micro-temporality, just as meso-temporal interaction almost certainly preceded those larger temporal formations such as exo-temporality and macro-temporality.

Macro-temporality emerges even later, in terms of specifically human macro-temorality. Before humanity knew itself as a whole (on which cf. the quote from George Friedman that I cited in Humanity as One) we did not know ourselves as a whole either in space or time. It is only with the emergence of human self-knowledge of our species as a whole in time that macro-temporality emerges, and this cannot happen until a fully naturalistic account of human origins emerges with Darwin.

The internal time consciousness of Cartesian privacy emerges from cognitive modernity, much as does historical consciousness. There is a sense in which internal time consciousness is historical consciousness of the self, while historical consciousness is the internal time consciousness of history. Both represent temporal consciousness of a greater order of magnitude than the interactions of meso-temporality. This is another interesting idea that I will not pursue further at present, but which deserves independent exposition.

Cosmological and relativistic time

Objective conceptions of time rooted in mathematics, physics, cosmology, and the natural sciences can be formulated without reference to human time, much less to the structures of micro- and meso-temporality that constitute the greater part of the ordinary business of life. However, science, as a human undertaking, retains its relevance to the human agents who are responsible for the constitute of objective, natural time.

In fact, we run into difficulties when we attempt to formulate a doctrine of time too far removed from human experience, precisely because human experience has been responsible for science, and the truths of science must ultimately be redeemed in human experience.

One is immediately put in mind, in this context, of Newton’s famous formulation from his Principia:

“Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration: relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, a year.”

Newton implies that human measures of time such as “an hour, a day, a month, a year,” are untrue, because only mathematical time is true time, but Newton’s categories of “relative, apparent, and common time,” are in fact quantitative measures of time in natural history which can be studied and defined with the utmost precision by natural science. Time measurements of a day, a month, and a year are rooted in astronomical events that constitute some of humanity’s first and earliest scientific knowledge. Had Newton gone in the other direction in the litany of apparent time, listing instead “an hour, a minute, a second, …” he would have approached the punctiform present and therefore the ideal limit of micro-temporality.

Despite the relativity of simultaneity that isolates us from the temporality of other dynamic systems independent of our own, there is a sense in which human temporal categories seem to me to retain their relevance throughout the cosmos today — at very least, just because human beings are an interested party in the universe at present — in a way that I do not feel human temporal categories to be relevant to very early cosmological history or to the far flung future of cosmological history.

One way to formulate this would be to put it in the context of the divisions of cosmological history propounded in The Five Ages of the Universe. We live today in the Stelliferous Era, i.e., the Age of Stars. Before the Stelliferous Era came the Primordial Era, which includes the Big Bang, expansion, inflation, and consists in large part of subatomic particles that have not yet congealed into familiar elements and structures. After the Stelliferous Era come the Degenerate Era, the Black Hole Era, and the Dark Era, after the stars have burned themselves out and the cosmos goes dark again. This is a classic scenario of cosmological eschatology based on heat death due to entropy.

Human measures of time seem meaningless at the quantum and subatomic scale of the early universe, and these same measures seem equally meaningless at the vast time scales of the universe as it steadily runs down in entropic heat death. Yet, at the present, anthropocentric time scales seem relevant to the universe entire as we know it today (relevant, though not by any means necessary or even privileged), although most of the universe is beyond any meaningful relation to specifically human time, and will remain so.

One justification for the feeling (which I readily admit is my own prejudiced intuition, and I claim no validity for it beyond that) that anthropocentric temporal categories apply throughout the Stelliferous Era is that life as we know it is possible throughout the Stelliferous Era, while life as we know it is not possible during the Primordial Era or during the Degenerate Era or after.

The possibility of life as we know it throughout the Stelliferous Era means the possibility of other species emergent from other solar systems, other planets, other biospheres, and other sentient species emergent from a parallel biological context, functioning according to the same natural laws that govern our world, our bodies, and our minds, means that an approximately anthropocentric (although technically xenocentric) time consciousness exists elsewhere in the Stelliferous Era, and is perhaps pervasive throughout it.

Objective micro-temporality

Although the categories of human time seem irrelevant to either the earliest stages of the universe immediately following the big bang, and perhaps also to the largest structures of space andtime, the “cosmic soup” of the early universe is recognizably a form of micro-temporality, even if it is not microtemporality at the same level of human micro-temporality. Moreover, the micro-temporality of pre- and sub-atomic particles prior to the precipitation of universe from the coalescence of ordinary elements is another paradigmatic instance of meso-temporality: the particles interact, and they can only come together and coalesce into the world we know and love by coming together.

The temporality of the early universe thus closely parallels the temporality of the ontogeny of time in the individual, in so far as the individual’s micro-temporality is always constituted jointly by the meso-temporality of the shared milieu in which the individual finds himself or herself. The micro-temporality of the individual particles of the early cosmic soup is crucially dependent upon the milieu of interacting particles, which is a meso-temporal milieu.

Larger structures of cosmological time — objective exo-temporality, objective macro-temporality, and objective metaphysical temporality — only come above in the fullness of time — lots of time — as the universe matures and new spatio-temporal structures emerge. As novel physical structures emerge, there necessarily emerges an interaction of these larger structures with smaller structures and with other larger structures, and these interactions of ever-increasing size produce the higher levels of objective ecological temporality.

Closing speculation

As ever-larger temporal structures emerge from a universe consolidating its structure, and ever-larger temporal structures emerge from the maturation of human consciousness, these objective and human forms of ecological temporality converge. It would be very difficult to demonstrate a close parallelism between the micro-temporality of consciousness and the micro-temporality of fundamental particles, but in the increasingly more comprehensive temporal categories of ecological temporality the chasm between the two becomes less marked.

At the level of macro-temporality, it is not difficult to see the convergence of human time and objective time, since human life and human civilizations are shaped by macroscopic forces such as geography, and geography is a local expression of cosmology. A human civilization that emerges from its planet-bound condition and asserts itself on a cosmological scale would constitute human beings living on a macro-historical level, and to do so would demand the emergence and cultivation of macro-temporal consciousness.

It may be only at the level of metaphysical temporality (which I also call metaphysical history) that there can be a full convergence of human time and objective time, so that that two ultimately become indistinguishable and therefore one. This may be the ultimate telos of civilization: to establish an identity with the universe at large.

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I have had a little more to say on the above in Addendum on the Origins of Time.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Roosting birds at Pass-a-Grille Beach, Florida; the natural world is a fitting point of departure not only for understanding nature through science, but also of understanding science through the philosophy of science.

Yesterday’s meditation upon The Fungibility of the Biome led me to think in very general terms about scientific knowledge. It is one of the remarkable things about contemporary natural science — following rigorously, as it does, the methodological naturalism toward which it has struggled over the past several hundred years since the advent of the Scientific Revolution — that the more complex and sophisticated it becomes, the more closely science is in touch with the details of ordinary experience. This is almost precisely the opposite of what one finds with most intellectual traditions. As an intellectual tradition develops it often becomes involuted and self-involved, veering off in oddball directions and taking unpredictable tangents that take us away from the world and our immediate experience of it, not closer to it. The history of human reason is mostly a history of wild goose chases.

Detail of a pelican from the above photograph.

In fact, Western science began exactly in this way, and in so doing gave us the most obvious example of an involuted, self-referential intellectual tradition that was more interested in building on a particular cluster of ideas than of learning about the world. This we now know as scholasticism, when the clerics and monks of medieval Europe read and re-read, studied and commented upon, the works of Aristotle. For a thousand years, Aristotle was synonymous with natural science.

The scholastics constructed a science upon the basis of Aristotle, rather than upon the world with Aristotle as a point of departure.

Aristotle is not to be held responsible for the non-science that was done in his name and, to add insult to injury, was called science. If Aristotle had been treated as a point of departure rather than as dogma to be defended and upheld as doctrine, medieval history would have been very different. But at that time Western history was not yet prepared for the wrenching change that science, when properly pursued, forces upon us, both in terms of our understanding of the world and the technology it makes possible (and the industry made possible in turn by technology).

Science forces wrenching change upon us because it plays havoc with some of the more absurd notions that we have inherited from our earlier, pre-scientific history. Pre-scientific beliefs suffer catastrophic failure when confronted with their scientific alternatives, however gently the science is presented in the attempt to spare the feelings of those still wedded to the beliefs of the past.

Once we get past our inherited absurdities, as I implied above, we can see the world for what it is, and science puts us always more closely in touch with what the world it is. Allow me to mention two examples of things that I have recently learned:

Example 1) We know now that not only does the earth circle the sun, and the sun spins with the Milky Way, but we know that this circling and spinning is irregular and imperfect. The earth wobbles in its orbit, and in fact the sun bobs up and down in the plane of the Milky Way as the galaxy spins. This wobbling and bobbing has consequences for life on earth because it changes the climate, sometimes predictably and sometimes unpredictably. But regularity is at least partly a function of the length of time we consider. The impact of extraterrestrial objects on the earth seems like a paradigmatic instance of catastrophism, and the asteroid impact that likely contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs is thought of as a catastrophic punctuation in the history of life, but we now also know that the earth is subject to periods of greater bombardment by extraterrestrial bodies when it is passing through the galactic plane. Viewed from a perspective of cosmological time, asteroid impacts and regular and statistically predictable. And it happens that about 65 million years ago we were passing through the galactic plane and we caught a collision as a result. All of this makes eminently good sense. Matter is present at greater density in the galactic plane, so we are far more likely to experience collisions at this time. All of this accords with ordinary experience.

Example 2) We have had several decades to get used to the idea that the continents and oceans of the earth are not static and unchanging, but dynamic and dramatically different over time. A great many things that remain consistent during the course of one human lifetime have been mistakenly thought to be eternal and unchanging. Now we know that the earth changes and in fact the whole cosmos changes. Even Einstein had to correct himself on this account. His first formulation of general relativity included the cosmological constant in order to maintain the cosmos according to its presently visible structure. Now cosmological evolution is recognized and we detail the lives of stars as carefully as we detail the natural history of a species. Now that we know something of the natural history of our planet, and we know that it changes, we find that it changes according to our ordinary experience. In the midst of an ice age, when much of the world’s water is frozen as ice and is burdening the continental plates as ice, it turns out that the weight of the ice forces the continents lower as they float in the magma beneath them. During the interglacial periods, when much or most of the ice melts, unburdened of the weight the continents bob up again and rise relative to the oceanic plates that have not been been weighted down with ice. And, in fact, this is how things behave in our ordinary experience. It is perhaps also possible (though I don’t know if this is the case) that the weight of ice, melted and now run into the oceans, becomes additional water weight pressing down on the oceanic plates, which could sink a little as a result.

Last night I was reading A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by John Losee (an excellent book, by the way, that I heartily recommend) and happened across this quote from Larry Laudan (p. 213):

…the degree of adequacy of any theory of scientific appraisal is proportional to how many of the [preferred intuitions] it can do justice to. The more of our deep intuitions a model of rationality can reconstruct, the more confident we will be that it is a sound explication of what we mean by ‘rationality’.

Contemporary Anglo-American analytical philosophers seem to love to employ the locution “deep intuitions” and similar formulations in the way that a few years ago (or a few decades ago) phenomenologists never tired of writing about the “richness of experience.” Certainly experience is rich, and certainly there are deep intuitions, but to have to call attention to either by way of awkward locutions like these points to a weakness in formulating exactly what it is that is rich about experience, and exactly what it is that is deep about a deep intuition.

And this, of course, is the whole problem in a nutshell: what exactly is a deep intuition? What intuitions ought to be considered to be preferred intuitions? I suggest that our preferred intuitions ought to be those most common and ordinary intuitions that we derive from our common and ordinary experience, things like the fact that floating bodies, when weighted down, float a little lower in the water, or whatever medium in which they happen to float. It is in this spirit that we recall the words that Robert Green Ingersoll attributed to Ferdinand Magellan:

“The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church”

The quote bears exposition. Almost certainly Magellan never said it, or even anything like it. Nevertheless, we ought to be skeptical for reasons other than those cited by the most familiar skeptics, who like to point out that the church never argued for the flatness of the earth. We ought to be skeptical because Magellan was a deeply pious man, who lost his life before the completion of his circumnavigation by his crew because Magellan was so intent upon the conversion to Catholicism of the many peoples he encountered. Eventually he encountered peoples who did not want to be converted, and they eventually took up arms and killed him in an entirely unnecessary engagement. But what remains interesting in the quote, and its implied reference to Galileo’s early observations of the moon, is not so much about flatness as about perfection. Aristotle in particular, and ancient Greek philosophy in general, held that the heavens were a realm of perfection in which all bodies were perfectly spherical and moved in perfectly circular motions through the sky. We now know this to be false, and Galileo was among the first to graphically demonstrate this with his sketches of superlunary mountains.

What does the word “superlunary” refer to? It is a term that derives from pre-Copernican (or, if you will, Ptolemaic) astronomy. When it was believed that the earth was the center of the universe, the closest extraterrestrial body was believed to be the moon (this happened to be correct, even if much in Ptolemaic astronomy was not correct). Everything below the moon, i.e., everything sublunary, was believed to be tainted and imperfect, contaminated with the dirt of lowly things and the stain of Original Sin, while everything above the moon, i.e., everything superlunary, including all other known extraterrestrial bodies, were believed to be free of this taint and therefore to be perfect, therefore unblemished. Thus it was deeply radical to observe an “imperfection” on the supposedly perfect spheres beyond the earth, as it was equally radical to discover “new” extraterrestrial bodies that had never been seen before, like the moons of Jupiter.

Both of these heresies point to our previous tendency to attribute an eternal and unchanging status to things beyond the earth. It was believed impossible to discover “new” extraterrestrial bodies because the heavens, after all, were complete, perfect, and unchanging. For the same reason, one should not be able to view anything as irregular as mountains or shadows on extraterrestrial bodies. Once we get beyond the absurd postulate of extraterrestrial perfection, we can see the world with our own eyes, and for what it is. And when we begin to do so, we do not negate the properties of perfection once attributed to the superlunary world as much as we find them to be simply irrelevant. The heavens, like the earth, are neither perfect nor imperfect. They simply are, and they are what they are. To attribute evaluative or normative content or significance to them, such as believing in their perfection, is only to send us off on one of those oddball directions or unpredictable tangents that I mentioned in the first paragraph.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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monster of the milky way

Today I was watching an excellent PBS NOVA episode, Monster of the Milky Way, about recent cosmological theories that all, or almost all, galaxies have supermassive black holes at their center, including the Milky Way galaxy, our own little home in the universe. I don’t consider the theory problematic; in fact, I think it makes perfect sense. Just as our solar system revolves around the sun, so too the much larger structure of galaxies, especially spiral galaxies, would seem to be revolving around something much more massive than your typical, run-of-the-mill main sequence star. So I’m not going to address supermassive black holes in this post.

In the NOVA episode, astrophysicist Andrew Hamilton makes the following statement:

“Albert Einstein had this crazy idea that space and time were curved, and it was the curvature of space that gave the appearance of gravity.”

I found this to be of great interest. To speak of “the appearance of gravity” suggests a contrast to the reality of gravity, and the appearance/reality distinction is deeply embedded in Western metaphysics since Parmenides and Plato (and given life again in the recent recrudescence of metaphysics). Physicists often speak loosely, and I doubt that Andrew Hamilton intended to propound a philosophical thesis within cosmology, but it is a thesis worth exploring, even if unintended.

Is gravity the mere appearance by which a deeper reality manifests itself? And is that deeper reality the structure of spacetime? Is gravity less real than spacetime? Can gravity be reduced to the structure of spacetime? All of these questions can be reformulated as their opposite number: Is the structure of spacetime a mere appearance manifesting the deeper reality of gravity? Is spacetime less real than gravity? Can spacetime structure be reduced to gravity?

It would be strange indeed if gravity were epiphenomenal to the cosmos. Contemporary physical theory distinguishes four physical forces at work in the nature of things: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force. Unified field theories have done a passable job of providing a common framework for electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force, but gravity has proved resistant to these unified field theories, not least because of the difficulty of giving a quantum account of gravitation. There are plenty of quantum gravity theories, but none of them are yet considered definitive, and their connection to the other forces and a unified theoretical framework is more speculation than physics.

The problem of appearance and reality is an old one in the philosophy of science. Russell caricatured F. H. Bradley as the “classical” tradition in philosophy (in his Our Knowledge of the External World, and elsewhere as well I think), and Bradley is remembered for his treatise Appearance and Reality. But Russell himself opens his The Problems of Philosophy with a chapter on appearance and reality, where, writing about a table, he says:

With the naked eye one can see the grain, but otherwise the table looks smooth and even. If we looked at it through a microscope, we should see roughnesses and hills and valleys, and all sorts of differences that are imperceptible to the naked eye. Which of these is the ‘real’ table? We are naturally tempted to say that what we see through the microscope is more real, but that in turn would be changed by a still more powerful microscope. If, then, we cannot trust what we see with the naked eye, why should we trust what we see through a microscope? Thus, again, the confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.

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Similar difficulties arise when we consider the sense of touch. It is true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends upon how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with; thus the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, but is not actually apparent in any of them. And the same applies still more obviously to the sounds which can be elicited by rapping the table.

Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Hence, two very difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?

Russell often expresses himself in the language of contemporary science, but the distinctions he makes in this passage (which I have greatly shortened) are not dependent upon science. But science does add another layer to the distinction between appearance and reality. The instruments of scientific research give us unprecedented ways to extend our senses, and with each novel perspective on things that science opens up, there is another way to describe these things. Moreover, scientific theory appeals to non-observable entities to explain the way the world is and naïve scientific realism assures us that the elementary particles are truly real and calls into question the manifest realities of macroscopic experience.

The problem of gravity, however, can’t even be settled by naïve scientific realism. Scientific realism would hold that the elementary particles that make up the objects studied by cosmology and astrophysics are real, and it would not deny the collections of elementary particles into atoms, molecules, stars, and galaxies to possess a certain reality. But whether gravity is epiphenomenal to spacetime structure, or whether spacetime structure is epiphenomenal to gravity is not readily settled by an appeal to scientific realism. Asking “What comes first, the gravity or the structure?” is a lot like asking, “What comes first, the chicken or the egg?”

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Grand Strategy Annex

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