Saturday


Eusocial insect colonies achieve an impressive degree of social differentiation and specialization without the kind of intelligence found among mammals. Some scientists call this collective behavior social intelligence.

Eusocial insect colonies achieve an impressive degree of social differentiation and specialization without the kind of intelligence found among mammals. Some scientists call this collective behavior ‘social intelligence.’

In a couple of blog posts, Is encephalization the great filter? and Of Filters, Great and Small, I argued that encephalization is the great filter — clearly implying that this is a single filter that is more significant than another filters, and that encephalization is the great filter. The “great filter” is an idea due to Robin Hanson, according to whom, “The Great Silence implies that one or more of these steps [to visible colonization] are very improbable; there is a ‘Great Filter’ along the path between simple dead stuff and explosive life. The vast vast majority of stuff that starts along this path never makes it. In fact, so far nothing among the billion trillion stars in our whole past universe has made it all the way along this path.”

In the second of the two blog posts noted above, Of Filters, Great and Small, I considered the different possible structures that filters might take, and this is a more nuanced view of the great filter that departs from the idea that a single element of the great filter is uniquely responsible for the great silence and the Fermi paradox. The journey to higher forms of emergent complexity seems to be robust, and therefore likely to have been repeated elsewhere, but it is also a long journey of later emergent complexities multiply supervening upon earlier emergent complexities. This structure of emergent complexities over time is itself a structure more complex than any one of the emergent complexities taken in isolation. In so far as we understand the great filter in this content, we understand a more nuanced view than the idea of one step among many steps along this journey being the unique hurdle to the aggressive expansion of life in the universe, and therefore its visible traces discoverable through cosmology.

Even given this more nuanced view of the great filter, later forms of emergent complexity will be less common than earlier forms, and within the structure of the great filter we can identify particular emergent complexities where the iterated structure falters. If we place this stalling point at exponential encephalization, we might find a universe filled with complex life, but with few or no other intelligent species capable of building a civilization. This is the sense in which I wish my claim that encephalization is the great filter to be understood.

Recently I have had reason to revisit the idea that encephalization is the great filter, and this is primarily due to having read The Social Conquest of Earth by E. O. Wilson, which emphasizes the role of eusociality in the construction of complex societies. I think that Wilson is right about this. Wilson notes that eusociality has emerged on Earth only a handful of times, making it a rare form of emergent complexity: “Eusociality arose in ants once, three times independently in wasps, and at least four times — probably more, but it is hard to tell — in bees.” (p. 136) We can compare this rarity of eusociality as an adaptation to the rarity of intelligence as an adaptation.

The insects that have achieved robust eusociality — perhaps I should say arthropods — are very different from mammals. We must go back more than 500 million years to the split between protostomes and dueterostomes to find the last common ancestor of the two. With the arthropods we share being bilaterally symmetrical, but the split between us — hence the split between our brains and central nervous systems (CNS) — is about as old as the split between mammals and molluscs: chordata, mollusca, and arthropoda are distinct phyla. On the one hand, we know from a recent fossil find something about the CNS of the earliest chordates, which we thus have in common with most other terrestrial animalia (cf. How early a mind?); on the other hand, we also know that neural structures have evolved independently on Earth (cf. The ctenophore genome and the evolutionary origins of neural systems), so that we might speak of neurodiversity among terrestrial animalia. Different brains, when sufficiently complex, are substrates for different forms of emergent consciousness, i.e., different forms of mind.

It is not only dramatically different kinds of minds that might give rise to dramatically different forms of encephalization, and thus intelligence and civilization. Part of the differentness of eusocial insects is their reproductive specialization, which goes along with a genetic structure of a colony in which the superorganism of the colony benefits overall from a majority of individuals not reproducing. This is also dramatically different from human societies. It has been objected to Wilson’s thesis of the eusociality of human beings that human beings are not eusocial, but rather prosocial, and that human cooperative societies cannot be compared to insect cooperative societies because there is no parallel to reproductive specialization among human beings. This, I think, is an unnecessarily narrow conception of eusociality. All we have to do is to recognize that eusociality can take multiple forms (as minds and intelligence can take multiple forms, supervening upon multiple distinct neural structures), some of which involve reproductive specialization and some of which do not, in order for us to recognize human cooperative societies as eusocial.

The most developed brain of the molluscs is that of the octopus, a solitary hunter. Octopi have been hunting in the depths of the sea for hundreds of millions of years, and, apparently, they have never experienced competition on the basis of intelligence, and, perhaps because of this, have never experienced an encephalization event. (Recently in How early a mind? I quoted E. O. Wilson to the effect that, “A Homo sapiens level of intelligence can arise only on land, whether here on Earth or on any other conceivable planet.” ) So octopi have a respectable level of intelligence, but are far from being eusocial. The eusocial insects have a much less powerful brain than octopi or mammals, but they did make the breakthrough to eusociality. Only human beings made the breakthrough to both eusociality and high individual intelligence.

Since reading Wilson on the eusociality of human societies, I can come to think that human civilization is what happens when eusociality coincides with intelligence. Termite mounds and bee hives are what happens when eusociality coincides with insect-level intelligence. And this observation of the interaction of eusociality and intelligence immediately suggests two possible counterfactuals to human civilzation, which I will sketch below. Understand that, in this context, when I use the term “human civilization” I am using this is in its most generic signification, covering all the many different human civilizations that have existed, i.e., the class of all human civilizations (which is the class of all known civilizations constructed by a biological being both eusocial and intelligent).

I noted above that we can employ a conception of eusociality less narrow than that restricted to eusocial insects with reproductive specialization. Similarly, the other element in civilization — intelligence — ought also to be construed broadly. Many different kinds of intelligence interacting with many different kinds of eusociality suggest many different possibilities for civilization distinct from the class of human civilizations. At the present time I am not going to consider kinds of eusociality and intelligence as much as degrees of eusociality and intelligence, and I will assume that the insect transition to reproductive specialization represents eusociality taken to a higher degree than eusociality has progressed in human beings. Similarly, I will assume that human intelligence represents a higher degree of intelligence than now-extinct branches of the genus homo, i.e., our ancestors with lower degrees of encephalization and lower intelligence.

From these assumptions about degrees of eusociality and intelligence, two counterfactual classes of civilization are suggested:

High Eusociality/Low Intelligence

A species might be less intelligent than human beings (i.e., possess a lower degree of encephalization) but more eusocial than human beings, and be able to build a civilization.

Low Eusociality/High Intelligence

A species might be more intelligent than human beings (i.e., possessing a higher degree of encephalization, or a thicker neocortex) but less eusocial than human beings, and be able to build a civilization.

This formulation has the virtue of existing human civilization embodying the principle of mediocrity: our eusociality and intelligence are balanced; we are not as eusocial or as individualistic as we might have been, and we are not as intelligence or as unintelligent as we might have been. We are in the “Goldilocks zone” of coinciding eusociality and intelligence, and this human “sweet spot” for civilization may account for the fact that civilization emerged independently in widely separated geographical regions, not as a result of idea diffusion, but rather as a consequence of independent invention.

In the High Eusociality/Low Intelligence class of civilizations, we would see somewhat individually intelligent beings capable of a high degree of cooperation through eusociality forming socieites (superorganisms) quite early in their history. We can see the degree to which bees and ants and termites can develop societies based on eusociality and an almost negligible individual intelligence; with a degree of eusociality approaching this, but in a species endowed with more cognitive capacity, cities might be built that look like something between a human city and a termite mound, and this might happen spontaneously. If this had happened with an earlier human ancestor — a counterfactual ancestor with greater eusociality than any actual human ancestor — it could have preempted the emergence of human civilization by occurring millions of years earlier.

In the Low Eusociality/High Intelligence class of civilizations, civilization may have come about at the level of scattered bands of hunter-gatherers, or, at least, human beings in small groups may have been able to develop science and technology without large social institutions such as governments, universities, and corporations, which discipline unruly human beings and make it possible for them to work cooperatively together. One can imagine that a more intelligent (counterfactual) species of the genus homo might have been sufficiently intelligent to pursue science at a much earlier period of its history, and one can imagine members of such a species coming together for scientific purposes much as our ancestors came together at Göbekli Tepe (which I first wrote about in The Birth of Agriculture from the Spirit of Religion) possibly for religious rituals, even before they gathered in settlements for agriculture.

Both counterfactual scenarios I have described above could have resulted in civilization on Earth emerging tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years earlier than it did in fact emerge. I suppose it would be equally possible to formulate counterfactuals in which different classes of civilization emerged much later.

Each of the three classes of civilizations considered here — moderate eusociality/moderate intelligence, high eusociality/low intelligence, and low eusociality/high intelligence — have distinct advantages and disadvantages, in terms of the viability of the civilization that results. However, cognitive capability begins to play a much greater role in civilization after industrialization when civilization becomes technological and scientific. If a given civilization can survive to make the breakthrough to science-driven technology, all other things being equal, the species with the greatest intelligence will have the greatest advantage in deploying science to further the ends of that species. I suspect that a high eusociality/low intelligence civilization would be stagnant, and possibly so stagnant that the breakthrough to industrialization never occurs. I also suspect that human beings were just smart enough to make that breakthrough, as indicated by the single point of origin of the industrial revolution. Short of that threshold, any civilization remains cosmologically invisible, exclusively bound to its homeworld, and incapable of long-term existential risk mitigation. This scenario is consistent with the great silence, and may constitute another approach to the Fermi paradox.

The research questions that follow from these considerations include: Are there intrinsic limits to eusociality among beings whose biology is not consistent with reproductive specialization? Are there intrinsic limits to intelligence for biological beings of known biochemistry? How do eusociality and intelligence interact biologically and ecologically? Does either constitute a check upon the other?

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Cooperation among human beings has its limits -- as illustrated by the story of the Tower of Babel -- and one limit to cooperation is our level of eusociality.  With a higher or lower level of eusociality, civilization would have had a different structure.

Cooperation among human beings has its limits — as illustrated by the story of the Tower of Babel — and one limit to cooperation is our level of eusociality. With a higher or lower level of eusociality, civilization would have had a different structure.

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Friday


Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

Since the end of the Cold War, the global political and economic order established at the end of the Second World War has been unraveling, sometimes slowly, sometimes with shocking rapidity, but unraveling steadily. After a quarter century of unraveling, the world has still not settled on a “new normal” of stability in international affairs, and, despite the complexity of the world situation, it is relatively easy to point out why the end of the Second World War brought about a relatively rapid settlement and a new normal, while today the world continues to drift: the Second World War ended with the victory of the Allied powers and the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers that left the Allies in a position to dictate the terms of the peace that followed. Because the war was global, the settlement also was global, and the peace, for what it was worth, was global. The Second World War consolidated the era of planetary history.

In a period of flux and instability, the world is rich in possibilities. When one set of possibilities is realized, the other sets of possibilities become counterfactuals, paths not taken — but at the moment of decision, these counterfactuals were as palpably real as the possibilities that were eventually realized in fact. I previously addressed some counterfactuals related to the Second World War in Counterfactual Weapons Systems, an exercise of sorts — a thought experiment, as it were — in the weapons systems that might have emerged from a longer war, given the tempo of technological development during the war. This was a rather narrow thought experiment, for the disruption in planetary history occasioned by the Second World War was unprecedented, and this unprecedented disruption meant unprecedented possibilities. These unprecedented possibilities, in turn, coagulated rather rapidly upon cessation of armed conflict, so that within a few years of the end of the war, the central facts of planetary history had been established. It is as though the unprecedented disruption led to unprecedented stability on an unprecedentedly short time scale.

The ground for the relatively rapid post-war settlement was prepared by several conferences organized by the Allies when it became apparent that they would eventually win the war, and that some plans must be made for the post-war settlement. There is, in particular, something poignant about the efforts of two dying men — Roosevelt presiding at Yalta and Keynes presiding over Bretton Woods — as both must have known that they would not live long enough to see the world whose foundations they laid.

Recently I have been listening to Yalta: The Price of Peace by S. M. Plokhy, which provides much food for thought both for counterfactuals as well as unlikely eventualities that were realized as the result of the Allied victory. One of the strangest outcomes of the Second World War was a zone of occupation for the French in Germany, despite the fact that the French military collapsed at the beginning of the Second World War and the French (i.e., the French government and military in exile, and the resistance within France) played only a very small and modest role in the eventual Allied victory. Thus in post-war Germany, French soldiers occupied German lands despite the fact that France had been defeated and occupied by Germany in the opening stages of the Second World War, and remained occupied throughout the war.

Plokhy’s book has some discussion of the Morgenthau Plan and other possibilities for dividing or otherwise managing Germany in the post-war period, and this material was of great interest to me. Previously in The Stalin Doctrine I discussed the Morgenthau Plan for post-war Germany, which would have involved not only the partition of Germany, but also its de-industrialization. Once Germany began to rebuild itself under the Marshall Plan, it no longer became possible to de-industrialize Germany along the lines of the Morgenthau Plan; this option, available at the end of the war, was foreclosed upon by subsequent events — the window of opportunity had closed. Instead of pastoralization there was Wirtschaftswunder. But, as we all know, Germany was partitioned, and this partition played a major role in the Cold War and European political conflicts in the second half of the twentieth century.

It is an interesting counterfactual to consider how the de-industrialization and pastorlization of Germany might have been enforced and administered in a post-war Germany of the Morgenthau Plan, i.e., if an explicit interpretation of the Morgenthau Plan had been put into effect. Part of the Morgenthau Plan was partition, and this partition would have included taking some of the most industrialized areas of Germany and either transferring them to France or Belgium, declaring them international zones, or making them small, independent states in their own right. With the most industrialized areas separated off, the remainder of Germany could have been systematically de-industrialized and kept in an enforced pastoral and agrarian condition. While the Morgenthau Plan was ultimately rejected, parts of it became de facto policy. The French Monnet Plan was partially adopted, with Saarland temporarily made a French protectorate, and the French also sought to detach the Ruhr from Germany. Under the justification of controlling coal and steel production, the International Authority for the Ruhr (IAR) presided over some limited dismantling of industry in the region. But when the US became concerned that the Germans might tilt toward the Russians, this policy ceased.

In speculating on a counterfactual history of Europe in which the Morgenthau Plan was put into effect, then, I don’t mean the half measures that were in fact pursued, and then abandoned. I mean, rather, a robust and ongoing enforcement of Germany as an agrarian preserve in the heart of Europe. We have one possible historical parallel, and that is the attempt by the Khmer Rouge to create a de-urbanized agrarian communist utopia in Cambodia — an adaptation and radicalization of Mao’s agrarian adaptation of Lenin’s industrial vision. This isn’t a very good parallel, because de-industrialization and de-urbanization administered by the victorious Allied powers would have been very different from the ideological vision of the Khmer Rouge. But radical questions are raised by the possibility. Would de-industrialization have also meant de-urbanization? Would schools and universities have been allowed to exist? What tools and resources would have been allowed for agricultural activities? How would limitations on industry have been policed and enforced?

Perhaps another historical parallel would be better: imagine the DMZ separating North Korea and South Korea, except that instead of being left in a wild state, a wide swath of territory was left semi-wild, but residents were allowed to farm within that territory. Now imagine a farmed DMZ as large as Germany. That gives a rather different idea of what a Morgenthau Plan Europe might have looked like. This vision of Europe is so radically different from what did in fact happen that it makes one wonder what consequences it would have entailed for the rest of Europe, and indeed for the Cold War. If de-industrialization had included de-urbanization, Berlin could have been depopulated and bulldozed, and it would then have never had the symbolic role that it did have as a divided city representing a world divided by Soviet and American power. There is an historical parallel for this, too, when the Romans triumphed over Carthage: the Romans not only destroyed the city, but plowed salt into the soil to ensure the sterility of the region. It was many centuries until Rome had another rival as powerful as Carthage.

One can even imagine this rural and agrarian Germany in the post-Cold War period, surviving under changed political and economic conditions. One can easily predict that the area would have become a major tourist draw because of its very different way of life, and once the restrictions on industrialization either became irrelevant or were gradually lifted, one could imagine many in the population wanting to keep the region rural and agricultural, partly because they had become familiar with the life, partly because of the tourist income from it, and partly because large industrial works are no longer the paradigm of economic development in the world at present. Whereas industries built on the scale of Stalinist gigantism were once the fetish of economic planners, this is no longer true. Cottage industries and craft traditions would have developed in a unique way in a Morgenthau Plan Germany, which might well have had a bright future in the 21st century.

All of this is now counterfactual speculation, but I think there is some value in considering the radically different paths that terrestrial history might have taken at this past juncture of historical disruption. The post-war situation in Europe was very fluid, but it congealed quickly due to historical circumstances at the moment. With the unraveling of the post-war world order, planetary history is again very fluid, and the circumstances of the moment have kept the situation fluid for almost thirty years. When some “new normal” eventually emerges and establishes itself, the wide range of possibilities we now face — possibilities both welcome and unwelcome — will then be narrowed to one preponderant actuality and a range of unrealized counterfactuals. But for us, now, in the moment, these future counterfactuals are all as palpably real as the future history that will become the central fact of planetary history.

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Thursday


Joseph Wright orrery

Scientific civilization changes when scientific knowledge changes, and scientific knowledge changes continuously. Science is a process, and that means that scientific civilization is based on a process, a method. Science is not a set of truths to which one might assent, or from which one might withhold one’s assent. It is rather the scientific method that is central to science, and not any scientific doctrine. Theories will evolve and knowledge will change as the scientific method is pursued, and the method itself will be refined and improved, but method will remain at the heart of science.

Pre-scientific civilization was predicated on a profoundly different conception of knowledge: the idea that truth is to be found at the source of being, the fons et origo of the world (as I discussed in my last post, The Metaphysics of the Bureaucratic Nation-State). Knowledge here consists of delineating the truth of the world prior to its later historical accretions, which are to be stripped away to the extent possible. More experience of the world only further removes us from the original source of the world. The proper method of arriving at knowledge is either through the study of the original revelation of the original truth, or through direct communion with the source and origin of being, which remains unchanged to this day (according to the doctrine of divine impassibility).

The central conceit of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to be based upon revealed eternal verities has been so completely overturned that its successor civilization, industrial-technological civilization, recognizes no eternal verities at all. Even the scientific method, that drives the progress of science, is continually being revised and refined. As Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air…”

Scientific civilization always looks forward to the next development in science that will resolve our present perplexities, but this comes at the cost of posing new questions that further put off the definitive formulation of scientific truth, which remains perpetually incomplete even as it expands and becomes more comprehensive.

This has been recently expressed by Kevin Kelly in an interview:

“Every time we use science to try to answer a question, to give us some insight, invariably that insight or answer provokes two or three other new questions. Anybody who works in science knows that they’re constantly finding out new things that they don’t know. It increases their ignorance, and so in a certain sense, while science is certainly increasing knowledge, it’s actually increasing our ignorance even faster. So you could say that the chief effect of science is the expansion of ignorance.”

The Technium: A Conversation with Kevin Kelly [02.03.2014]

Scientific civilization, then, is not based on a naïve belief in progress, as is often alleged, but rather embodies an idea of progress that is securely founded in the very nature of scientific knowledge. There is nothing naïve in the scientific conception of knowledge; on the contrary, the scientific conception of knowledge had a long and painfully slow gestation in western civilization, and it is rather the paradigm that science supplants, the theological conception of knowledge (according to which all relevant truths are known from the outset, and are never subject to change), that is the naïve conception of knowledge, sustainable only in the infancy of civilization.

We are coming to understand that our own civilization, while not yet mature, is a civilization that has developed beyond its infancy to the degree that the ideas and institutions of infantile civilization are no longer viable, and if we attempt to preserve these ideas and institutions beyond their natural span, the result may be catastrophic for us. And so we have come to the point of conceptualizing our civilization in terms of existential risk, which is a thoroughly naturalistic way of thinking about the fate and future of humanity, and is amenable to scientific treatment.

It would be misleading to attribute our passing beyond the infancy of civilization to the advent of the particular civilization we have today, industrial-technological civilization. Even without the industrial revolution, scientific civilization would likely have gradually come to maturity, in some form or another, as the scientific revolution dates to that period of history that could be called modern civilization in the narrow sense — what I have called Modernism without Industrialism. And here by “maturity” I do not mean that science is exhausted and can produce no new scientific knowledge, but that we become reflexively aware of what we are doing when we do science. That is to say, scientific maturity is when we know ourselves to be engaged in science. In so far as “we” in this context means scientists, this was probably largely true by the time of the industrial revolution; in so far as “we” means mass man of industrial-technological civilization, it is not yet true today.

The way in which science enters into industrial-technological civilization — i.e., by way of spurring forward the open loop of industrial-technological civilization — means that science has been incorporated as an integral part of the civilization that immediately and disruptively followed the scientific civilization of modernism without industrialism (according to the Preemption Hypothesis). While the industrial revolution disrupted and preempted almost every aspect of the civilization that preceded it, it did not disrupt or preempt science, but rather gave a new urgency to science.

In several posts I have speculated on possible counterfactual civilizations (according to the counterfactuals implicit in naturalism), that is to say, forms of civilization that were possible but which were not actualized in history. One counterfactual civilization might have been agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization undisrupted by the scientific or industrial revolutions. Another counterfactual civilization might have been modern civilization in the narrow sense (i.e., Modernism without Industrialism) coming to maturity without being disrupted and preempted by the industrial revolution. It now occurs to me that yet another counterfactual form of civilization could have been that of industrialization without the scientific conception of knowledge or the systematic application of science to industry.

How could this work? Is it even possible? Perhaps not, and certainly not in the long term, or with high technology, which cannot exist without substantial scientific understanding. But the simple expedient of powered machinery might have come about by the effort of tinkerers, as did much of the industrial revolution as it happened. If we look at the halting and inconsistent efforts in the ancient world to produce large scale industries we get something of this idea, and this we could call industrialism without modernity. Science was not yet at the point at which it could be very helpful in the design of machinery; none of the sciences were yet mathematicized. And yet some large industrial enterprises were built, though few in number. It seems likely that it was not the lack of science that limited industrialization in classical antiquity, but the slave labor economy, which made labor-saving devices pointless.

There are, today, many possibilities for the future of civilization. Technically, these are future contingents (like Aristotle’s sea battle tomorrow), and as history unfolds one of these contingencies will be realized while the others become counterfactuals or are put off yet further. And in so far as there is a finite window of opportunity for a particular future contingent to come into being, beyond that window all unactualized contingents become counterfactuals.

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An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby

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I have written more on the nature of scientific civilization in…

David Hume and Scientific Civilization …and…

The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization

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Sunday


The dawn of a new day always suggests possibilities.

The dawn of a new day always suggests possibilities.

Million year old civilizations are not necessarily supercivilizations

The most common way to think about the possibility of very old civilizations is in terms of an ancient supercivilization, in which it is implied that the civilization in question began much as our civilization began, but has continued its trajectory of development for a million years or more. I previously addressed this theme of a million year old supercivilization in Third Time’s a Charm.

It is also possible, however, to conceive of very old civilizations — perhaps even million year old civilizations — that do not correspond to the assumptions implicit in the idea of a supercivilization. Such ancient but not necessarily advanced civilizations would constitute counterfactual civilizations — paths to civilization not taken by humanity, but which were once open to humanity at one time. Indeed, such paths may be open to us yet.

I previously considered counterfactual civilizations in Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution. This post reviews scenarios for civilization absent the industrial revolution; below I will continue this line of counterfactual thought experiments in the history of civilization.

counterfactual graph

Diachronic extrapolation of the pre-industrial past

If we plot out the history of technology and population (among other metrics) on a graph and extrapolate from trends prior to the industrial revolution (when these metrics suddenly spike) we can easily see the possibility of a very old civilization — tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years old — that would be the result of a simple diachronic extrapolation of trends that had characterized human life from the emergence of hominids up until the industrial revolution. That is to say, if we had just kept doing what we had been doing before the industrial revolution, this slow development represented by a shallow angle could have continued indefinitely without ever catching up to the kind of development that followed the industrial revolution.

The very old civilization that would be the result of a straight-forward diachronic extrapolation of civilization prior to the industrial revolution would be a civilization conceived in terms proportional to earlier human history. We often forget that, prior to Homo sapiens, there was a multi-million year history of hominids with minimal toolkits that changed almost not at all over a million or even two million years. This same level and rate of progress might have continued to characterize human civilization in its later stages of development as well. It is at least possible as a counter-factual, and conceivable by way of an analogy with our prehistoric past, that the breakthrough to industrialization had never occurred.

If we were to add to the absence of an industrial revolution several strategic shocks or global catastrophic events — demographic catastrophes such as the Black Death or natural disasters such as a massive supervolcano eruption or an impact by an asteroid or comet — what little gains that may be made by the ever-so-gradual increases in technology and population due to civilization prior to the industrial revolution might be canceled or reversed. Contingent events could result in a contraction or collapse of a civilization that never made the breakthrough to an industrial revolution.

social science

The social science of a non-industrialized civilization

Imagine that there were social scientists prior to the scientific revolution who studied their contemporaneous society much as we study our own societies today, and further suppose, despite the disadvantages such pre-modern social scientists would have labored under, that they manage to assemble reasonably accurate data sets that allows them to model the world in which they live and the history up to that point that had resulted in the world in which they lived. What kind of future would these pre-modern social scientists forecast for their world?

If you were to show pre-modern social scientists the spike in demographics, technology, energy use, and urbanization that attended the industrial revolution, they might deny that any such development was even possible, and if they admitted that it was possible, they might say that a world so transformed would not constitute civilization as they understood civilization. They would be right, in a sense, to characterize our world today, after the industrial revolution, as a post-civilizational institution, derived perhaps from the long tradition of civilization with which they were familiar, but not really a part of this tradition.

I implied as much about the divergence of contemporary civilization from its pre-modern tradition recently when I wrote (in Is society existentially dependent upon religion?) that:

“It could be argued that traditional society… has already collapsed and has been incrementally replaced by an entirely different kind of society. For this is surely what has happened in the wake of the industrial revolution, which destroyed more aspects of traditional society than any Marxist, any revolutionary, or any atheist.”

Prior to the industrial revolution, the entire economy of civilization was based on agriculture. (Elsewhere I have called this biocentric civilization.) On the basis of this biocentric civilization, there was nothing to suggest (or, more cautiously, almost nothing to suggest) the possibility of a civilization with an economy in which agriculture was marginalized to the point of near invisibility to the overall economy. What could possibly replace agriculture in its role as the indispensable employer and primary producer of commodities?

marvin-the-martian

Non-civilizations and other non-peers

The thought experiment that I have suggested here in regard to the industrial revolution could also be performed in regard to the Neolithic agricultural revolution, although in this case we could not properly speak of an ancient civilization. Humanity as a species might have attained a great antiquity without ever making the breakthrough to civilization; just as we might never have experienced the industrial revolution, we might also have skipped the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. In fact, if Marian scientists had been observing life on Earth for the five millions years or so of hominid history (prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution), they might have said, “Here is an intelligence species with a very long history that has never created a civilization, and shows no signs of creating a civilization.”

It is an especially interesting thought experiment to imagine humanity having attained great antiquity without creating a civilization when we reflect that the uniquely human activities of art and technology predate civilization and may be understood in isolation from civilization. Even without the great impetus of civilization, there would have been some minimal continued development of art and technology. The rate of technological innovation prior to the advent of civilization was very slow, but it was not zero, and extrapolated to a sufficient age it would have produced an impressive technology. It could be argued that such a gradual development of technology, if extrapolated indefinitely into the distant future, could surpass any arbitrary technological measure.

Something like civilization, but not exactly civilization as we know it, might have emerged from a very old human social context that never passed through the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution or the industrial revolution — the two great disruptions in the history of humanity that define civilization, and which have come to define us as a species. Without these definitive events, humanity would be defined very differently.

The non-civilization social institution that could arise from the antiquity of humanity without civilization might qualify as an example of a non-civilization such as i described in my Seven Levels of Civilizational Comparability. In an attempt to define what constitutes a “peer” civilization we need to try to understand alternatives for sentient species that would not constitute peers, and this thought experiment provides just such an example.

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Tuesday


V-2 single stage ballistic missile

The seeds of all our advanced weapons systems today are to be found in the technology of the 1940s, rapidly brought to an early fruition by the Second World War. I have previously mentioned the litany of jet engines, ballistic missiles, computers, and atomic weapons in The Dialectic of Stalemate, all of which became operational during the Second World War.

The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe ("Swallow") was the world's first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. (from Wikipedia)

If we reflect upon this circumstance we are able to imagine, as a counter-factual thought experiment, how even the atrocities and mass death of the Second World War could have been worse if that contest had continued longer and the ongoing pressure had brought other weapons systems to a similarly early fruition.

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was a four-engine propeller-driven heavy bomber that was flown primarily by the United States in World War II and the Korean War. (from Wikipedia)

The B-29 was one of the great technological triumphs of the Second World War and represents a integrated weapons system. One of the key measures of its sophistication was the very integration of the weapons systems of the B-29, and this was achieved by way of an analog computer, the Central Fire Control Computer (CSFC). Thus the B-29 constituted a computerized weapons system, although the computers employed were rudimentary analog computers.

B-29 Central Fire Control Computer

However, at the same time that the B-29 was employing analog computers for the fire control system of its automated turrets, at Bletchley Park the first electronic digital computers were in operation, working on code breaking. The Colossus computers — there were ten of them operational by the end of the Second World War — were so secret that they remained secret after the war, so secret that those who developed these early digital computers were deprived of their proper credit in the early history books on computers. This information did not begin to be known to the public until the 1970s.

A Colossus Mark 2 computer. The operator on the left is Dorothy Duboisson. The slanted control panel on the left was used to set the pin patterns on the Lorenz. The "bedstead" paper tape transport is on the right. (from Wikipedia)

It would not have taken a war of a much longer duration to bring together these technologies, which, while rudimentary, were already sufficiently robust to be employed in functional, operating weapons systems. Something like the B-29, only more advanced and sophisticated, might have employed Colossus-like computers in its fire control systems. After all, many of the largest bombers of the Second World War mounted radar systems that employed vacuum tubes — again, rudimentary but sufficiently robust for combat — so that the early construction methods of digital computers cannot be used as a reason to dismiss this possibility.

Nuclear weapons technology was one among many new technologies employed in the Second World War.

Similarly, it would not have taken a much longer war for the Axis powers to have produced atomic weapons and to put them on V-2 missiles, and handful of which would have leveled London, after which the Germans might have turned their attention to other targets. We know that the Germans were considering the design of longer ranger missiles, and it would have simply been an extrapolation of existing technology to do so. Jet-powered bombers would also, at that time, have been an extrapolation of existing technology, as would a cruise missile made from a V-1 augmented with computerized control systems.

The of the most famous photographs of Dresden after its annihilation by firebombing. Most of Germany had already been destroyed in this way by the time the atomic bomb was available.

Since the US did in fact produce atomic weapons first, it could have decisively settled the war in Europe as it settled the war in Japan — except that most of Germany’s cities had already been destroyed by conventional bombing, and that fissile materials would have taken time to produce. In the time it would have taken to produce additional fissile materials and therefore additional atomic weapons, other developments could well have made their delivery by the conventional means available to the Allies problematic.

Not only did these counter-factual scenarios fail to occur, but some of these possibilities were nearly extirpated from history. Churchill ordered the Colossus computers to be destroyed, broken into “pieces no bigger than a man’s hand,” and the blueprints were burned. Churchill obviously believed that this was a place that would not be re-visited. In this way, Churchill revealed himself as belonging to another era, to an era of pre-industrial gentility in which scientific discoveries could be as easily suppressed as earlier eras could stop the progress of an idea by burning copies of the books that explained it.

In this, Churchill was like Sir Edmund Hillary, who was quoted by the National Geographic as saying, “Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt.” Hillary went on to add, “We couldn’t have been more wrong.” It may sound like a stretch to compare these accomplishments, but I think it betrays a similar outlook about civilization. It is a conception of civilization in which an heroic feat — whether winning a war or climbing a mountain — once achieved loses interest, so that future heroes must look to other accomplishments. The unheroic character of our time, on the contrary, views accomplishments as a proof of concept, upon which an algorithm can be constructed and the achievement iterated for the benefit of the masses.

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Saturday


Today I thought of a question that doubles as a thought experiment. I’ve already posted this to Grand Strategy Annex, but I liked it so much I decided to post it here also.

Imagine that you approach a table with a book lying closed on it. Your name is on the cover. It is the book of your life. What do you do?

Do you sit down and read it through carefully, page by page?

Do you skip to the end to find out what happens?

Do do skim the book for the interesting bits?

Do you only read the dirty parts?

Do you leave the book closed and walk away?

Do you hesitate over it, but take it with you, in case you decide to read it later?

Do you destroy it or throw it away?

Responses are strongly encouraged. I would really like to know how different people would react to this counter-factual opportunity.

This thought experiment is not intended as a question about free will and determinism, but it can be taken that way if the reader is particularly struck by these implications. The existence of a book detailing your entire life implies determinism, but, if taken purely hypothetically, as a thought experiment, suppose that there is such a book, and that it lies closed before you. You have the freedom to pick it up and peruse it, or to leave it undisturbed, which seems to imply free will. If you read the book, it must include a description of our choosing to read the book; if you pass on the opportunity to read the book of your life, its contents are unknown and irrelevant. Presumably, if the book were a complete account of your life, it would include a description of your refusal to read the book, but if the book were not actually a description of your life, but was only so placed and introduced to you as a kind of intellectual provocation, its contents may have no relationship at all to your life.

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Wednesday


Thucydides

A quote quite frequently attributed to Thucydides is that history is philosophy teaching by example. The source of this quote does not seem to be Thucydides himself, though the idea could certainly said to be implicit throughout his work. The sophistication of Thucydides’ perspective suggests a philosophical subtlety, and Marcellinus tells us that Thucydides studied under Anaxagoras, as well as studying rhetoric with Antiphon. In any case, the source for this pseudo-Thucydidean quote seems to be Dionysius of Heraclea, Thus:

The contact with manners then is education; and this Thucydides appears to assert when he says history is philosophy learned from examples.

Dionysius of Heraclea, Ars Rhetorica (XI, 2, p. 212), (Tauchnitz edition)

Perhaps Thucydides said it, and tradition carried the saying to Dionysius of Heraclea, or perhaps Thucydides wrote it in a text now lost, but whatever the case the saying is clearly associated with Thucydides, even if we can’t trace it to an extant text.

In several posts I have touched on the possibility of historical falsification of ideas (cf. e.g., Confirmation and Disconfirmation in History), which also suggests the possibility of the historical verification of ideas, and the verification and falsification of ideas would constitute perfect instances of history teaching by examples.

In other posts I have also discussed counter-factual conditionals in relation to history, and it occurs to me today that counter-factual conditionals are simply the opposite perspective on history teaching philosophy by examples. With counter-factual conditionals we have events that did not in fact happen, but the fact that they did not occur but might have occurred has a lesson to teach us. With history teaching philosophy by example, we have events that did in fact happen, but which we understand might have been otherwise. Each illuminates the other because each is implied by the other. And in so far as each is implied by the other, the two are twin or parallel concepts.

I take it as a philosophical virtue to make parallel formulations explicit, and if we can find the appropriate linguistic formulation for the concepts we can demonstrate their parallelism all the better. For example, we could contrast counter-factual conditionals to factually-consonant conditionals, and then it becomes clear that all history is conditional. This was a theme that S. J. Gould emphasized on several occasions. I quoted him to this effect in The Immiserization Thesis.

In so far as any history, counter-factual or factually-consonant, accords with our ideas, whether validating them or falsifying them, is a matter of our ability to explicitly express these ideas in concrete terms. We can never specify all of the details that might emerge with the translation of ideas into facts and facts into ideas (something I discussed in Putting Ideas First), but we can certainly do better than we have in the past. And the closer we approximate the complexity of facts by filling out the complexity of our ideas beyond their usual abstract and schematic form, the closer we can get to speaking with any degree of precision of historical validation and falsification. And if I am correct that counter-factual conditionals and factually-consonant conditionals are parallel concepts, each shares in the difficulty of the other, even while an improvement in the formulation of the one suggests parallel improvements in the formulation of the other.

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that, even when an idea has been as rigorously disproved as it is possible for an idea to be disproved by history, even a disgraced and defeated idea is never put out of historical action entirely if it has some ongoing basis in human nature or in the perennial character of human affairs. We may know, for example, on an intellectual level that terrorizing civilians does not win wars, much less win hearts and minds, but when we find ourselves with our backs to the wall in an existential struggle, we may nevertheless choose to act upon tactics of mass terror — perhaps for revenge, perhaps to see the hated enemy suffer, perhaps out of sheer desperation or for lack of alternatives.

Similarly (again, a parallel formulation), even when an idea seems to be confirmed beyond any degree of rational doubt by actual historical events that appear to bear out the validity of that idea, we cannot allow ourselves to become smug about it, assuming its permanence. I am sure that almost every person who have lived in a stable society comes to believe in the permanency of the institutions of this society (which is what Sartre called the Spirit of Seriousness), only to be given a rude jolt when the seemingly permanent comes crashing down in a strategic shock or a revolution.

The validation and falsification of ideas by history are parallel concepts, just as countering or conforming to facts are parallel ideas. Extrapolating parallel concepts by applying advances with one idea to a parallel idea, mutatis mutandis, is one way to systematically extend the theoretical framework of our knowledge.

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Thursday


The industrialization of society produced profound consequences through the mobility of labor and the concentration of populations in urban centers, among another developments.

A counterfactual conditional is a statement making a claim as to what would be the case if the antecedent of the conditional were true, but in which the antecedent of the conditional is in fact false. This sounds confusing, but it is familiar in ordinary experience both in irresponsible historical speculation (e.g., “If the Nazis had won the Second World War, we’d all be speaking German now”) and in the commonplace recriminations and accusations that are unfortunately so much a part of our lives (e.g., “If you’d only done as I had asked, we would have been on time!”). As I have just implied, entertaining counterfactual conditionals can be an amusing but pointless way to pass the time, for example, on a long car trip with friends when the stereo isn’t working and everyone is bored.

In an as-yet unpublished manuscript I wrote the following about counterfactuals:

It is an almost irresistible temptation to speculate upon what the world might be like today if some particular change were made in the past. Speculative history is also an irresponsible impulse, as it can count only as a distraction from the real problems facing us, being a philosophical dead end. But let us be charitable, and instead of calling it irresponsible let us call it a guilty pleasure, and let us be twice charitable and give it a respectable philosophical title: a counter-factual thought experiment. Very well, then, I want now to indulge in the guilty pleasure of a counter-factual thought experiment.

The thought experiment I was contemplating in that manuscript I will leave for another time, but here I would like to suggest a counterfactual thought experiment relating to the Industrial Revolution.

I started thinking about this in relation to unemployment. Unemployment is a timely topic due to the recent recession. While the most recent figures show the US economy in the last quarter growing at an annualized rate of something like 5.9 percent (which is quite good), unemployment is still higher than most would like. This is not a surprise. But that the popular media reports this in hysterical tones also should not surprise. Employment is always a trailing indicator of economic growth. When an economy contracts, employers usually delay laying off employees as a last measure. When the economy expands, employers also usually delay hiring until they absolutely must hire in order to keep their businesses running. Again, there is nothing surprising in this.

What is surprising, from a long term perspective (a very long term perspective — the longue durée measured in centuries if not millennia), is that the match between employers and employees in the labor market is as close as it is. Even in a recession in an advanced industrialized economy, unemployment rarely goes over ten percent, though in some localized areas it may climb to twenty-five percent or more. Still, the vast majority of the employable labor force is working. Why should there be such a close match between employers and employees in the labor market? This question posed itself to me, and it suggested a thought experiment.

What if, instead of the Industrial Revolution that we did in fact have, we had had instead an Industrial Revolution of a different sort? Let me try to explain. The mechanization of agriculture has made it possible to feed a population of a given country with only, say, two to three percent of the workforce involved in food production. This is what makes the Industrial Revolution a revolution in a robust sense. Before the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of the population in all social systems in all parts of the world (which means in all climates, raising all different kinds of foodstuffs) were peasants tied to the land. It took ninety percent or better of the population laboring over food production just to keep people fed, and mostly they weren’t fed very well. And then the revolution came.

With the Industrial Revolution, civilization experienced a dramatic and wrenching change in the lives of its people, and this change had two parts. Food production could be managed by a small work force, which meant that the vast majority of the population left the farms and fields of their ancestors. What happened to them? They migrated to cities and got jobs in emerging industry. This is the second component of the movement of peoples spurred by the Industrial Revolution.

But what if we had had an Industrial Revolution that revolutionized agriculture and food production but which didn’t create vast industrialized cities with work for the masses liberated from what Marx called rural idiocy? The industrialization of agriculture could come through mechanization (as in fact it did, in part), but perhaps also it could come without a focus on mechanization but simply with improved techniques in pastoralism and husbandry. This sort of thing was already happening in England during the Enlightenment, and England was also the earliest part of Europe to experience the full force of the Industrial Revolution.

It could be argued that the famous example in Adam Smith of the number of workmen required in order to make a simple coat illustrates the cascading nature of industrialization, and that any economy that industrialized agricultural production would necessarily have evolved other industries in parallel, the growth of which would absorb the masses no longer tied to subsistence agriculture. But allow us to suppose, simply for the sake of argument, that the components of industrialization could be separated, and that agriculture could be industrialized without the remainder of society being industrialized, so that food production employed at most five percent of the population, and the traditional elites that organized society made up about ten percent (probably less) of the population, thus leaving eight-five percent of the population at loose ends. What would the world look like if eighty-five percent of the population were terminally unemployed?

Since most rational discussions of the actual world revolve not around absolutes and extremes, but around rates and degrees, suppose that emergent industry, instead of employing almost all of the population no longer needed for agricultural production, employed only about half of them. This is certainly a conceivable scenario. What would the advanced industrialized economies of today look like if there was a nearly permanent unemployment rate of fifty percent? Could any known society survive the demographic challenge of so many idle hands? Would a very different society have had to emerge from these conditions, since society as we know it would simply self-destruct under these conditions?

If the necessities of life were present in abundance but work was not present in nearly equal abundance, civilized society as we know it today would not function. Perhaps Georges Bataille was right after all about the accursed share, that the real problem for society is not scarcity but superfluity, that we must construct socially acceptable ways of expending wealth. Moreover, consumption can only be fetishized when it is a commodity that is relatively scarce. Perhaps in a society revolutionized by the industrial revolution that did not happen, labor would be fetishized, and instead of the emergence of consumerism we would have a society based on productionism, i.e., fetishized labor. Authentic labor would then be the ultimate scarce commodity, and people would seek authentic opportunities to work as they now seek exotic opportunities for leisure.

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Georges Bataille: not the best known among twentieth century philosophers, but certainly among the most interesting.

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