Saturday


A seal unbroken for 3,245 years on King Tutankhamun’s tomb, 1922.

A Thought Experiment in Infinitistic Historiography

In the past two posts — Technological Civilization: Second Addendum to Part III and Thought Experiment on a Science of Civilization — I discussed a couple of thought experiments intended to explore particular concepts related to civilization. Here I want to pursue yet another thought experiment that builds on these previous thought experiments but which penetrates into different aspects of civilization than I have previously explored. If you like, you can think of this present thought experiment as a thought experiment in infinitistic historiography, as this is an attempt to take seriously questions that stem from histories of civilization that extend indefinitely in time.

The Two Histories

Every ancient civilization has two histories. At least two histories. There is the history that has been re-constructed by scholars that places the given civilization in historical time that is increasingly defined in terms of scientific historiography. And then there is the history of that civilization that is the history that they themselves placed themselves within. (We have a third history if we include the history of the discovery and reconstruction of an ancient civilization, which is distinct both from its reconstructed history or its self-understanding of its history.) Most early civilizations placed themselves within an overarching cosmology or mythology that projected different pasts and different futures for that civilization than the past and future of a given civilization as understood by scientific historiography.

Since a scientific conception of history is very recent, past civilizations did not have scientific conceptions of history, nor could they have had a scientific conception of history. The entire history of science has been necessary to converge upon the concepts of scientific historiography common today; these concepts are an achievement of contemporary thought, and are the function of a long developmental process, so that to project them into the past is an instance of presentism.

The dangers of presentism are widely recognized, and in an attempt to avoid presentism historians also try to understand ancient civilizations on their own terms. This is the other history, the second history of the two recounted above, and it is the history that the individuals who built and participated in that civilization believed to be the historical context of their lives, their society, and their world. These histories are placed in cosmologies that often diverge from the cosmology of contemporary scientific historiography, so that the past and the future of the given civilization, as understood by those who built that civilization, must be reconstructed in contrast to the reconstructed history of the civilization, based on whatever internal evidence that can be derived from the remains of an extinct civilization. Thus we reconstruct two historical timelines, one of them the same timeline as that which we employ today, and within which we can place ourselves as well, and another that of the reconstructed civilization’s big picture conception of its own history.

External and Internal Histories of Ancient Egypt

Let us apply this distinction between the two histories (which we might call external and internal history, or exogenous and endogenous history) to a particular case study: Ancient Egypt. According to this distinction, there is the history of Egypt that we know from textbooks, and which is a history that is nested into a much more comprehensive history that includes Egypt, but also many other civilizations (thus the external history of Egypt). But there is also the history of Egypt as understood by ancient Egyptians — the world seen from the point of view of Egypt, and understood in terms of ancient Egyptian mythology and cosmology (the internal history of Egypt). In this history, all things begin at the primeval mound during the First Time, and the events of the First time echo on down through subsequent history, and will continue to so echo into the future, time without end.

The ancient Egyptian individual understood death not as a passage to salvation or damnation (soteriology and eschatology), and not as a rebirth into this world (metempsychosis), but as a continuation of the struggle of life known in this world, albeit a continued struggle in somewhat different milieux and with more direct contact with the gods:

“As the Western Souls, the justified dead formed part of the crew of the embattled Boat of Millions. They might be thought of as rowing or towing the sun boat or even defending it against the forces of chaos. The vignette to Book of the Dead spell 39 shows a dead person taking on Seth’s role of spearing the Apophis serpent. In death, everyone could be a cosmic hero in the perpetual struggle that was the central feature of Egyptian myth.”

Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, p. 94

There are motifs of both linear time and cyclical time in Egyptian mythology, as well as a conception of eternity:

“As part of establishing the divine order, Shu and Tefnut also become two different types of time. ‘Shu is Eternal Recurrence and Tefnut is Eternal Sameness.’ This began a great cycle in which everything had to change to survive and yet everything remained fundamentally the same.”

Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, p. 89

…and…

“Everything that exists is eternal stability and eternal recurrence”

quoted in Egyptian Mythology: A Very Short Introduction, p. 92

…and…

“The Egyptian universe remained eternally the same only through constant change in the form of cycles of decay, death, and rebirth.”

Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, p. 89

There are many books that have been written about Egyptian mythology, and, no doubt, many books still be written. It would take us too far afield to give a detailed treatment of the afterlife among ancient Egyptians, but the takeaway here is that that Egyptians had a conception of the afterlife for human beings that contextualized the whole of Egyptian civilization within an eternal cosmology. Egyptians might, in the next life, go on to meet the gods and to struggle with them against chaos and evil. This, then, is the internal history of ancient Egypt, in which both life on Earth (within Egyptian civilization) would go on eternally and in parallel with an eternal cosmic struggle.

What if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever?

Now we have the setting for our thought experiment, which will be two thought experiments: a thought experiment in the external history of Egypt and a thought experiment in the internal history of Egypt. And our thought experiment is this question: What if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever? We will ask this question in two ways: 1) what if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever according to its own conceptions of time and history? And 2) what if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever according to the conceptions of time and history to be found in scientific historiography?

The thought experiment in the internal history of Egypt in which that civilization lasts forever is a simple matter, because Egyptian mythology incorporates its eternal iteration as its future. In this thought experiment, Egyptians continue to build and maintain temples to their gods and tombs for themselves in this world, and in the parallel world of the gods, deceased Pharaohs go on to meet the gods in the next life, while ordinary Egyptians could aspire to crewing the Boat of Millions in the next life. There would be slight differences in different eras of Egyptian civilization (Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, etc.) given the changes introduced into Egyptian mythology during the thousands of years that civilization continued to develop, but the basic structure is unaltered while Egyptian civilization was intact and viable.

The External History Thought Experiment

Matters get considerably more interesting when we consider the question of Egyptian civilization enduring forever in the context of its external history, as there are many ways in which to elaborate this counter-factual. Since it is a counter-factual, as in scientific historiography Egyptian civilization had a finite history with a beginning and an end, we can posit a number of distinct ways in which these scenario could develop. We take the existence of Egyptian civilization as we know it from history and we extrapolate this civilization forward into time. Egyptian civilization could expand and modernize and become the basis of a planetary civilization, or it could stagnate and remain in equilibrium for as long as conditions allowed, or it could run the usual course of development of a civilization, but do so in isolation so that Egyptian civilization was a solitary instance of terrestrial civilization, followed by nothing more.

The Egyptians planned for eternity. They had institutions in place to police the regime that they had created. The picture above, of the unbroken seal on the door of the tomb of Tutankhamun, gives us a fascinating glimpse into the mind and the practices of a people who expect that the institutions they have created will continue indefinitely. Royal tombs were sealed, and officials of the “government” (it wasn’t really a “government” in the modern sense, but we will use the term here — again, the danger of presentism) would regularly inspect the seals on tombs to ensure that they were intact. Because of this inspection regime, tomb robbers would tunnel into the fantastically wealthy royal tombs, so as to loot the tombs without disturbing the royal seal.

In an indefinitely enduring Egyptian civilization, one would expect this cat-and-mouse game between officials and thieves to go on indefinitely. There would always be new royal tombs built and filled with fantastic wealth, and there would always be thieves willing to break into these tombs. As the number of tombs became larger and larger over time, it would be more difficult to effectively police them. One would expect that the most recent tombs and the most prestigious tombs would continue to be monitored, thus lesser known tombs would become the target for robbers.

Over the longue dureé, an infinitely iterated Egyptian civilization would pass through predictable vicissitudes. There would be good years and bad years, even good centuries and bad centuries. As in the Year of the Hyenas (1090 BC), bad years and bad centuries would bring a breakdown of social order, more looting, and the inability of the Egyptian state to police its regime of sealed tombs. In better times, the state would recover itself and attempt to make good the damage of the bad years. Something of the tradition would survive, but something would also be lost. This swing between loss and recovery would mean that culture and society would change over time, even if the civilization remained continuous and never suffered a catastrophic failure. An indefinitely iterated Egyptian civilization would change into something else, but what it would change into in this counter-factual history we cannot say.

Nothing Endures Forever

In scientific historiography, nothing lasts forever. If Egyptian civilization as we know it from history continued in a steady state, in equilibrium, as it were, until the planet were no longer habitable, or if Egyptian civilization grew, flourished, and then decayed in isolation, followed by nothing more or nothing further, and left its ruins to be wasted by time, in either case the indefinite iteration of Egyptian civilization would come to an end, but some of its treasured tombs would have been preserved to the end of that civilization, and would remain inviolate until the planet was no longer habitable.

The idea that a tomb should be eternally inviolate would, then, be realized in a naturalistic way. Suppose that a tomb were built at or near a craton (a part of the continental lithosphere that is not subducted in plate tectonics), so that the actual structure of the tomb remained intact for millions if not billions of years — for as long as the stone was not reduced to dust. The ruin of such a sealed tomb — sealed once and never reentered or reopened — might remain intact as Earth became uninhabitable, eventually sterilized, and without even an atmosphere. The relics preserved within would likely have their preservation augmented by the cold and vacuum of a future barren Earth. The gold death mask of whatever Pharaoh it was in the tomb might have endured for eons within its several layers of wood and stone sarcophagi.

In this scenario, something like what the Egyptians imagined for themselves would have occurred in fact. The ancient Egyptians constructed these tombs for eternity, filled them with what we would call “art” (maybe I should call them “ritual objects”) and treasure, with the idea that these would all be sealed in the tomb for all time and eternity. The value that these artifacts had they would have possessed in virtue of the intentions of the Egyptians who constructed the tombs and created the ritual objects that filled the tombs. These objects were not meant to be valued in an ongoing way by human society, not meant to be studied for what they could teach about Egyptian civilization to later generations, not intended to be dug up and displayed, whether by tomb robbers or by archaeologists, but were meant to be interred with the mummy for which the tomb was built, and launched on an eternal journey into the future — a journey that did not involve ever being removed from their context.

Eternity Realized

There is at least one scenario of scientific historiography in which the Egyptian ambition for their royal tombs is realized. Although Egyptian civilization has lapsed, and most of its tombs have been looted, it is possible that, even after our technological civilization is no more — whether from collapse or moving to another world — that there will be an undisturbed Egyptian tomb with its royal necropolis seal still intact, still underground, still untouched when the Earth is dead and sterile. Suppose that in the far future Earth breaks up, or that an enormous impact plows out a section of Earth’s surface with this intact tomb and sends it flying into space. The sarcophagus of a Pharaoh might float forever in space.

One of the most entertaining and perhaps bizarre takes on ‘Oumuamua that I saw on Twitter was the following:

“…maybe the asteroid, Oumuamua, that recently passed through our solar system, was really an alien funerary sarcophagus launched into space.”

At some future time in our universe, that funerary sarcophagus flying through another planetary system might be from Earth, and if the locals sent out a spacecraft to intercept and study the object, they would certainly have a lot of unanswered questions as to how an Egyptian mummy engaged in a flyby past their planet.

Infinitistic Epilogue

Early in the history of this blog I wrote a post about a naturalistic interpretation of eternity, A Human, All-Too-Human Eternity. I always meant to follow up on this post and to expand upon the idea of a naturalistic eternity. The concept of eternity continues to haunt human beings, probably because of, rather than in spite of, our morality. Eternity is that which is denied us — ontologically forbidden fruit, as it were. But, from time to time, nature grants us glimpses of eternity along with intimations of immortality.

Each civilization is eternal in the sense of wholly occupying the present with its central project and, as such, is eternally present in the moment, timeless as long as one remains suspended within this moment. Some civilizations are more strongly orientated toward this timeless present, while others understand themselves in a larger context in which age succeeds age and the world entire is changed over time. Eternity appears within time and endures as long as time allows. When we happen to touch upon one of these eruptions of eternity into the flow of time, we experience that eternity momentarily. Eternal civilizations (civilizations timeless in the moment of their eruption into the flow of time and history) appear and disappear, and, arguably, in doing so they fulfill their eternalistic mandate and, for a moment, represent the moving image of eternity (as Plato put it).

Arguably, Egyptian civilization aspired to be an eternal civilization. The discovery of historical time, and then deep time, has been a late discovery in human history; most civilizations prior to the present aspired to eternity because they did not possess the conceptual framework that would have made it possible for them to understand ideas of deep history and deep time. The aspiration to eternal civilization becomes, in the context of deep time, an aspiration to infinitistic civilization that can endure because intelligent agents take steps to adapt that civilization to changing conditions, which would provide for some kind of survival over the longue dureé. As with an indefinitely iterated Egyptian civilization, which would necessarily change even if every effort were made to ensure the continuity of tradition, an infinitistic civilization would eventually be transformed into a post-civilization institution. Even if infinite historiography is unattainable, the striving after an unattainable goal possesses intrinsic value. Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?

One could argue that a million-year-old supercivilization or a billion-year-old supercivilization is effectively indistinguishable from an infinitistic civilization because the effective history of both coincides. What I have called “effective history” — history that falls between the retrodiction wall of the past and the prediction wall in the future — is a finite period of time defined by the capacity of scientific historiography to bring evidence to bear. Though finite, effective history may be a part of a larger infinitistic history that we cannot see because historical effacement limits our scope of observation and knowledge.

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The Snapshot Effect

22 January 2018

Monday


Images will always be with us, but the age of the snapshot understood in its cultural and technological context, now belongs to the past. Or, if not to the past, it belongs to antiquarians and enthusiasts who will keep the technology of the snapshot alive even as it passes out of the popular mind. The snapshot inhabited that era that intervened between the age of cameras as large, bulky, specialized equipment that required a certain expertise to operate, and today’s universal presence of cameras and consequent universal availability of images — images often made available on the same electronic device that captured the image. The snapshot — presumably named for the onomatopoeic mechanical sound of the camera shutter that went “Snap!” as one took the “shot” — is, then, predicated upon a particular degree of finitude, of images more common and more spontaneous than a daguerreotype, but also less common and of more value than a smartphone selfie.

The most famous photographers of the snapshot era — for example, Henri Cartier-Bresson — become known for their candid and spontaneous images of ordinary life, sort of the still life version of cinéma vérité. Never before had so much of ordinary life been captured and preserved. Painters had always been interested in genre scenes, and the early photographers who lugged around their heavy and complex gear often followed the interest and example of these painters, but these images were relatively rare. In the age of the snapshot, images of ordinary people engaged in ordinary pursuits became as ordinary as the people and the pursuits themselves.

Part of what we mean, then, when we refer casually to a “snapshot,” is this sense of an image that spontaneously captures an ordinary moment of history, without formality or pretense, but with a documentarian’s fidelity. And once the moment is past, it remains only in the snapshot, almost a random moment fixed in time, while the persons and the events and the circumstances that once came together in the confluence of the snapshot, are now gone or changed beyond recognition.

It is partly this meaning that I want to tap into when I use the term “snapshot effect” to convey a particular idea about the human relationship to time and to history. Human life is long compared to the life of a mayfly, but it is quite short compared to the life of a redwood, and shorter still when measured against evolutionary, geological, or cosmological scales of time. What the individual human being experiences — what the individual sees, hears, feels, and so on — is as a snapshot in comparison to the world of which it is a fleeting image. A snapshot may or may not be representative of what it purports to represent; it may be a good likeness or a poor likeness. Because a snapshot is a moment snatched out of a continuum, we can only judge its fidelity if we compare it to a sufficient number of comparable moments taken from the same continuum. But the image often has the impact that it has precisely because it is a moment snatched out of time and stripped of all context. Often we resist a survey that would reveal the representativeness of the snapshot because to do so would be to deprive ourselves of the power of the isolated image.

I am going to use the term “snapshot effect,” then, to refer to the temporally narrow nature (and perhaps also the fragmentary nature) of human perception. We see not the world, but a snapshot of the world. We see not the object, but the side of the face that happens to be turned toward us when we glance in its direction. We hear not the narrative of a life, but a snippet of conversation that relates only a fragment of a single experience. We taste not the crop of strawberries, but the single strawberry that dissolves on our tongue, and judge the quality of the year’s produce by this experience. Even the grandest of grand views of the world are snapshots: to look into the night sky is to experience a snapshot of cosmology, and to recognize a geological formation is a snapshot of deep time. These snapshots reveal more than a casual glance, especially if they are attended by understanding, but they still exclude far more than they include.

Any rational individual, and any individual trained in the sciences, learns to control for the limited evidence available to us, but as carefully as we set our trap for limited evidence by rigorously controlling the conditions of our observations — observations that will count toward scientific knowledge, whereas our ordinary observations do not count because they are not so controlled — so too we also grant ourselves license to derive generalities from these observations. Ordinary experience is but a snapshot of the world; scientific experience derived from controlled conditions is an even more fragmentary snapshot of the world.

Because of the snapshot effect, we have recourse to principles that generalize the limited evidence to which we are privileged. The cosmological principle legitimizes our extrapolation from limited evidence to the universe entire. The principle of mediocrity legitimizes our extrapolation from a possibly exceptional moment to a range of ordinary cases and the most likely course of events. Conservation principles assure us that we can generalize from our limited experience of matter and energy to the behavior of the universe entire.

A recognition of the snapshot effect has long been with us, though called by other names. It has been a truism of philosophy, equally acknowledged by diverse (if not antagonistic) schools of thought, that our experiences constitute only a small slice of the actuality of the world. To cite two examples from the twentieth century, here, to start, is Bertrand Russell:

“…let us concentrate attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound. Any one else who sees and feels and hears the table will agree with this description, so that it might seem as if no difficulty would arise; but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is ‘really’ of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the same point of view, and any change in the point of view makes some change in the way the light is reflected.”

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Chap. I, “Appearance and Reality”

Russell represents the tradition that would become Anglo-American analytical philosophy, temperamentally and usually also theoretically disjoint from European continental philosophy, which might well be represented by Jean-Paul Sartre. Nevertheless, Sartre opens his enormous treatise Being and Nothingness with a passage that closely echoes that of Russell quoted above:

“…an object posits the series of its appearances as infinite. Thus the appearance, which is finite, indicates itself in its finitude, but at the same time in order to be grasped as an appearance-of-that-which-appears, it requires that it be surpassed toward infinity. This new opposition, the ‘finite and the infinite,’ or better, ‘the infinite in the finite,’ replaces the dualism of being and appearance. What appears in fact is only an aspect of the object, and the object is altogether in that aspect and altogether outside of it.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, translated by Hazel Barnes, Introduction: The Pursuit of Being, “I. The Phenomenon,” p. xlvii

Both Russell and Sartre in the passages quoted above are wrestling with the ancient western metaphysical question of appearance and reality. Both recognize a multiplicity of appearances and a presumptive unity of the objects of which the appearances are a manifestation. Seen in this light, the snapshot effect is a recognition that we see only an appearance and not the reality, and this reflection in turn embeds this simple observation in a metaphysical context that has been with us since the Greeks created western philosophy.

The snapshot effect means that our experiences are appearances, but our appreciation of appearances has grown since the time of Parmenides and Plato, and we see Russell and Sartre alike struggling to make out exactly why we should attach an ontological import to appearances — snapshots, as it were — when we know that they do no exhaust reality, and sometimes they betray reality.

The ontology of time and of history ought to concern us as much as the ontology of objects implicitly schematized by Russell and Sartre. A snapshot of time is an appearance of time, and as an appearance it does not exhaust the reality of time. Nevertheless, we struggle to do justice to this appearance — just as we struggle to do justice to our intuitions, for, indeed, a snapshot of time is an instance of sensible intuition — because the moment abstracted from time is still an authentic manifestation of time.

The “snapshot effect,” then, will be the term I will use to refer to the fact that human perceptions are a mere snapshot, perhaps representative or perhaps not, but perceptions which we tend to treat as normative, though we rarely take the trouble even to attempt to understand the extent to which our snapshot views of the world are, in fact, normative. There is, then, not only a metaphysical aspect to the snapshot effect, but also an axiological aspect to the snapshot effect, as our valuations are likely to be tied to, if not derived from, a snapshot in this sense.

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