Four Species of Big History

In Rational Reconstructions of Time I characterized Big History as the culmination, the natural teleology, as it were, of scientific historiography.

While in several posts I have attempted to analyze the positivistic outlook of much contemporary science, which views philosophy like a vampire views garlic and holy water, we all know that the absence of an explicit and acknowledged metaphysic virtually guarantees an implicit and hidden metaphysic. There is a considerable philosophical literature on the metaphysical presuppositions of science; I have written about this also, and in Reduction, Emergence, Supervenience I distinguished between four phases of scientific metaphysics: the eliminativist, the reductionist, the emergentist, and the supervenientist (although when I wrote that post I hadn’t yet fully distinguished eliminativism as a scientific metaphysic).

In so far as Big History constitutes the culmination of scientific historiography, Big History is history informed by the metaphysical presuppositions of natural science. If, then, we take my four divisions of scientific metaphysics as the possible forms that these metaphysical presuppositions can take, we have the four metaphysical forms that Big History can take: eliminativist big history, reductionist big history, emergentist big history, and supervenientist big history. I will consider each of these possibilities in turn.

Already in Reduction, Emergence, Supervenience, in a section titled “Reduction, emergence, and supervenience as philosophies of history,” I began an explicit outline of scientific historiography as founded on these scientific metaphysics:

● Eliminativist Historiography Human history is illusory and should be eliminated as a category of thought; everything history states that is true can be better and exhaustively expressed in a scientific language that makes no use of folk historiography. Therefore we can substitute scientific explanations for historical explanation without change in truth or loss of truth. It would be sufficient to provide a total description of the physics of the past without any overlay of human meanings or values.

● Reductionist Historiography Human history is nothing but natural history, or the history of the world as related by science (which is not necessarily the same thing as natural history). If human meanings and values seem to play a constitutive role in history (or even human consciousness, in the form of making conscious choices), this is merely illusory, an error the follows from human limitations.

● Emergentist Historiography Human history is a whole that emerges from natural history that possesses unique properties as a whole that are not attributable to natural historical processes.

● Supervenient Historiography Human history supervenes on natural history, or the history of the world as related by science. In other words, there can be no change in human history without there being a subvening change in natural history. The A-properties of history supervene upon the B-properties of scientifically delineated history.

The above is a modified version of what I wrote in my earlier post.


Eliminativist Big History

What would be eliminated in a eliminativist big history? Presumably the concepts and categories of folk historiography, as those positivist enthusiasts of eliminativism generally focused on eliminating “folk” concepts (cf. Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress). What are the folk concepts of historiography? Folk concepts of historiography would probably include all or most of the factors highlighted by personalism in history, i.e., concepts of individual human agency, which also might be identified with folk psychology: motivation, intention, purpose, meaning, value, and so on. A scientific historiography would also presumably seek to eliminate all the folk concepts still present in the special sciences made use of by scientific historiography.

How would this play out in Big History? Big History pursued as a form of metaphysical reductionism would resemble a spare and stripped-down scientific historiography more than any other metaphysical formulation under consideration here. The only novel element would be treating the whole history of the universe in these terms of scientific historiography, instead of restricting the scope of such a scientific historiographical enterprise.

Indeed, Otto Neurath, one of the movers and shakers of the Vienna Circle, already foresaw such a reductionist Big History, which he called “Cosmic History”:

“…we may look at all sciences as dovetailed to such a degree that we may regard them as parts of one science which deals with stars, Milky Ways, earth, plants, animals, human beings, forests, natural regions, tribes, and nations — in short, a comprehensive cosmic history would be the result of such an agglomeration… Cosmic history would, as far as we are using a Universal Jargon throughout all branches of research, contain the same statements as our unified science. The language of our Encyclopedia may, therefore, be regarded as a typical language of history. There is no conflict between physicalism and this program of cosmic history.”

Otto Neurath, Foundations of the Social Sciences, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1970 (originally published 1944), p. 9

For Neurath to assert that, “There is no conflict between physicalism and this program of cosmic history,” is to say that history can be subsumed under the physicalism of the Encyclopedia of Unified Science in which the above-quoted monograph appeared, and this means that history could be reduced to protocol sentences of physics. While most historians would, I think, not find this to be congenial, it is remarkable that Neurath conceived this cosmic history as part of the program of unified science, and that it resembles so closely the ambition of Big History.


Reductionist Big History

Reductionism usually takes the form of reducing some higher-level, more comprehensive (or more complex) state-of-affairs to a lower-level, less comprehensive (or less complex) state of affairs; without denying the reality of the higher-level state-of-affairs, but also denying the latter metaphysical primacy. A good example of this is Hilbert’s philosophy of mathematics, which sought to preserve Cantor’s set theory and transfinite numbers, but only by making a distinction between real and ideal mathematics, consigning Cantor to the latter and reserving the former for quasi-constructivist, proto-finitist mathematics. Hilbert “reduced” ideal mathematics to real mathematics, but without insisting upon the elimination of ideal mathematics, and in a similar way reductionist historiography would “reduce” human history to natural history (or to time itself), without insisting upon the elimination of human history.

Like the idealist doctrine of degrees of being, in reductionism there are degrees of reality. Without denying the reality of higher-level, more comprehensive states-of-affairs, these are said to be reducible to, or, “nothing but” the lower-level, less comprehensive states-of-affairs. If we understand history to be a higher-level, more comprehensive conception than time, the reductionist big history would take the form of asserting that history is reducible to time, or that history is nothing but time. But the reductionist does not take the additional step taken by the eliminativist, so that the reductionist does not assert either that history is unreal or time unreal, or that these are meaningless. Both are real, but each enjoys a different degree of reality. This interpretation of reductionism as a doctrine of degrees of reality could be given further exposition, but it opens up so many problems (and so many opportunities) that I will not consider it further at present.

It must be admitted that there are strong reductionist strains in scientific historiography, and many of these are retained in the movement of the ideas of scientific historiography into Big History. If it is argued that some major historical development is entirely due to climate change, or geography, or cosmological circumstances like the fact that Earth had only one moon, and so on, we are here approximating a purely reductionist Big History. This kind of reductionism is antithetical to personalism in history, in which human actors loom large, but while the eliminativist Big Historian might simply do without any reference to human actors in history, the reductivist Big Historian would retain human actors, but would ascribe their actions to larger forces, be those forces fundamental physics, cosmology, geography, or something else.


Emergentist Big History

Emergentism, unlike eliminationism and reductionism, has a prominent and explicit place in Big History. Big Historians usually recognize eight thresholds of emergent complexity in the history of the universe — the big bang, stars, chemical elements, planets, life, human beings, argiculture, and modernity — at least, these are the thresholds made canonical by David Christian. There are alternative periodizations based on thresholds of emergent complexity, but most Big Historians recognize some sort of periodization of the history of the universe entire based on emergent complexity.

One of the similes employed by contemporary philosophers to explain the ambition of metaphysics is the idea of carving nature at the joints. This is precisely what Big Historians are trying to do in using emergent complexity as a basis for periodization. Historians have always employed periodizations; with Big History, these periodizations are now drawn not from human conventions, but from the actual history of nature itself, from the very structure of the universe, and thus are quantifiable and can be studied by science. Here scientific historiography is “cashed out” by making periodization subject to rigorous scientific research. It would be difficult to imagine a more perfect exemplification of a metaphysical synthesis of science and history.

While emergentism features prominently in Big History, the Big History version of emergent complexity has not yet been a focus of research by philosophers, and so it lacks the clarity and ambition to system that we would expect to find in a more philosophical account. In some accounts of Big History, emergentism is invoked rather than explained or exhibited, so there remains much work to be done. Big History employs emergentism, but it could not be said that Big History is as yet a thoroughly emergentist conception of history — we could apply the idea of emergence more systematically and exhaustively — nor could we say that the possibilities of emergentism in the philosophy of history have been even sketched out. I suspect that we will begin to see this in the coming decade.


Supervenientist Big History

I know of no explicit formulation of supervenientist Big History, but as a more subtle and sophisticated philosophical doctrine than its predecessors eliminationism, reductionism, and emergentism, it is not difficult to imagine that someone will, sooner rather than later, employ the metaphysical tools of supervenience to the analysis of history. Supervenience could be interpreted in a way consistent with reductionism or emergentism, so these iterations of the metaphysics of Big History could be considered precursors that eventually lead to a more sophisticated formulation in terms of supervenience. (It should, however, be pointed out that the formulation of emergentism in the first section above, “Human history is a whole that emerges from natural history that possesses unique properties as a whole that are not attributable to natural historical processes,” is not consistent with supervenience, while implies that there could be formulations of emergentist historiography inconsistent with supervenientist historiography.)

Because supervenience is a sophisticated metaphysical doctrine, there are many different formulations with subtle differences. Thus there could be many different forms of supervenientist Big History (as noted above, some compatible with emergence, and some not, and the same could be said of elimination and reduction), depending upon the variety of supervenience one employs in demonstrating that historical properties supervene on some base properties. But what do we take to be the base properties upon which historical properties supervene? Are these base properties temporal properties, or human properties, or physical properties of the universe? One of the reasons I have been emphasizing the relationship between time and history is because in my recent post A Metaphysical Disconnect I argued that the fact that the philosophy of time is not tightly-coupled with the philosophy of history points to a major disconnect. Seen in the might of supervenience, that might have historical properties supervene on properties of human societies rather than properties of time, there is here the suggestion of an argument in favor of the disconnect that I noted.

A supervenientist Big History rapidly becomes so bogged down in technical details that I will have to save an attempt at a brief exposition for a later time, as I do not yet have a grasp of this that would allow me to summarize the issues with any degree of accuracy. Nevertheless, I will not the possibility of a supervenientist Big History as a direction that research into the metaphysics of Big History could take in the near future.

The Four Philosophers by Peter Paul Rubens -- presumably an eliminativist, a reductionist, an emergentist, and a supervenientist.

The Four Philosophers by Peter Paul Rubens — presumably an eliminativist, a reductionist, an emergentist, and a supervenientist.

The Future: Big History after Scientific Metaphysics

In the fullness of time, assuming our civilization does not falter and so continues in its development (i.e., assuming the failure condition), the contemporary paradigm of science will become so altered by revision and addition that it will no longer be recognizable as what we today think of as science. Science itself will be forced to expand and to change in order to encompass objects of knowledge not accessible by contemporary scientific methods (e.g., consciousness). This change will be both influenced by changes in our philosophical outlook, and will in turn influence the shaping of our philosophical outlook. As a consequence, the metaphysical presuppositions of science will evolve along with the evolution of scientific method. The quadripartite schema I have laid out above of eliminativist, reductionist, emergentist, and supervenientist scientific metaphysics will give way to other ways of conceptualizing the world.

Big History, as an expression of scientific historiography, and thus an expression of science and of scientific civilization, will change along with the changes in scientific method and metaphysical presuppositions of history. There will always be a division of history that takes as its remit the most comprehensive conception of history, and in this sense there will always be Big History, though eventually it will be Big History without the metaphysical presuppositions of science that now subtly inform scientific historiography.

Scientific metaphysics is the intellectual superstructure of scientific civilization. In the illustration below I suggest an overall tripartite distinction among pre-scientific metaphysics, scientific metaphysics (i.e., the metaphysics that facilitates science), and post-scientific metaphysics. There is almost certain further developments of scientific metaphysics to come, which will continue to illuminate the scientific civilization of which we are part. But at some point the accumulated differences will push us over a threshold beyond which the scientific paradigm no longer applies, and that post-scientific civilization will have to be illuminated by a post-scientific metaphysics.

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Planet of Zombies

21 August 2016


planet of zombies 2

The Fate of Mind in the Age of Turing

We are living today in the Age of Turing. Alan Turing was responsible for the theoretical work underlying contemporary computer science, but Turing’s work went far beyond the formal theory of the computer. Like Darwin, Turing’s thought ran ahead of the science he founded, and he openly speculated on the consequences of the future development of the computers that his theory made possible.

In his seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (the paper in which he introduced the “Turing Test,” which he called the “imitation game”) Turing began with the question, “Can machines think?” and went on to assert:

I believe that in about fifty years’ time it will be possible, to programme computers, with a storage capacity of about 109, to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning. The original question, “Can machines think?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.

A. M. Turing, “Computing machinery and intelligence,” Mind, 1950, 59, 433-460.

Turing’s prediction hasn’t yet come to pass, but Turing was absolutely correct that one can speak of machines thinking without being contradicted. Indeed, Turing was more right than he could have guessed, as his idea that computers should be judged upon their performance — and even compared in the same way to human performance — rather than on a vague idea of thinking or consciousness, has become so commonplace that, if one maintains the contrary in public, one can expect to be contradicted.

Turing was, in respect to mind and consciousness, part of a larger intellectual movement that called into question “folk concepts,” which came to seem unacceptably vague and far too unwieldy in the light of the explanatory power of scientific concepts, the latter often constructed without reference to folk concepts, which came to be viewed as dispensable. Consciousness has been relegated to the status of a concept of “folk psychology” with no scientific basis.

While I am in sympathy with the need for rigorous scientific concepts, the eliminative approach to mind and consciousness has not resulted in greater explanatory power for scientific theories, but rather has reinforced an “explanatory gap” (a term made prominent by David Chalmers) that has resulted in a growing disconnect between the most rigorous sciences of human and animal behavior on the one hand, and on the other hand what we know to be true of our own experience, but which we cannot formulate or express in scientific terms. This is a problem. The perpetuation of this disconnect will only deepen our misunderstanding of ourselves and will continue to weaken the ability of science to explain anything that touches upon human experience. Moreover, this is not merely a human matter. We misunderstand the biosphere entire if we attempt to understand it while excluding the role of consciousness. More on this below.

Science has been misled in the study of consciousness by an analogy with the study of life. Life was once believed to be inexplicable in terms of pure science, and so there was a dispute between “mechanism” and “vitalism,” with the vitalists believing that there was some supernatural or other principle superadded to inanimate matter, and that possession of this distinctively vital element unaccountable in scientific terms distinguished the animate from the animate. Physics and chemistry alone could explain inanimate matter, but something more was needed, according to vitalism, to explain life. But with the progress of biology, vitalism was not so much refuted as made irrelevant. We now have a good grasp of biochemistry, and while a distinction is made between inorganic chemistry and biochemistry, it is all understood to be chemistry, and no vital spark is invoked to explain the chemistry distinctive of life.

Similarly, consciousness has been believed to be a “divine spark” within a human being that distinguishes a distinctively human perspective on the world, but consciousness “explained” in this way comes with considerable theological baggage, as explicitly theological terms like “soul” and “spirit” are typically used interchangeably with “consciousness” and “mind.” From a scientific perspective, this leaves much to be desired, and we could do much better. I agree with this. Turing’s imitation game seems to present us with an operational definition of consciousness that allows us to investigate mind and consciousness without reference to the theological baggage. There is much to gained by Turing’s approach, but the problem is that we have here no equivalent of chemistry — no underlying physical theory that could account for consciousness in the way that life is accounted for by biochemistry.

Part of the problem, and the problem that most interests me at present, is the anthropocentrism of both traditional theological formulations and contemporary scientific formulations. If we understand human consciousness not as an exception that definitively separates us from the rest of life on the planet, not as a naturalistic stand-in for a “divine spark” that would differentiate human beings from the “lower” animals, but as a distinctive development of consciousness already emergent in other forms preceding human beings, then we understand that human consciousness is continuous with other forms of consciousness in nature, and that, as conscious beings, we are part of something greater than ourselves, which is a biosphere in which consciousness is commonplace, like vision or flight.

There are naturalistic alternatives to an anthropocentric conception of consciousness, alternatives that place consciousness in the natural world, and which also have the virtue of avoiding the obvious problems of eliminativist of reductivist accounts of consciousness. I will consider the views of Antonio Damasio and John Searle. I do not fully agree with either of these authors, but I am in sympathy with these approaches, which seem to me to offer the possibility of further development, as fully scientific as Turing’s approach, but without the denial of consciousness as a distinctive constituent of the world.

Antonio R. Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens distinguished between core consciousness and extended consciousness. Core consciousness, he wrote:

“…provides the organism with a sense of self about one moment — now — and about one place — here. The scope of core consciousness is the here and now. Core consciousness does not illuminate the future, and the only past it vaguely lets us glimpse is that which occurred in the instant just before. There is no elsewhere, there is no before, there is no after.”

Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt, Inc., 1999, p. 16


“…core consciousness is a simple, biological phenomenon; it has one single level of organization; it is stable across the lifetime of the organism; it is not exclusively human; and it is not dependent on conventional memory, working memory, reasoning, or language.”

Loc. cit.

The simplicity of core consciousness gives it a generality across organisms, and across the life span of a given organism; at any one time, it is always more or less the same. Extended consciousness, on the other hand, is both more complex and less robust, dependent upon an underlying core consciousness, but constructing from core consciousness what Damasio calls the “autobiographical self” in contradistinction to the ephemeral “core self” of core consciousness. Extended consciousness, Damasio says:

“…provides the organism with an elaborate sense of self — an identity and a person, you or me, no less — and places that person at a point in individual historical time, richly aware of the lived past and of the anticipated future, and keenly cognizant of the world beside it.”

Loc. cit.


“…extended consciousness is a complex biological phenomenon; it has several levels of organization; and it evolves across the lifetime of the organism. Although I believe extended consciousness is also present in some nonhumans, at simple levels, it only attains its highest reaches in humans. It depends on conventional memory and working memory. When it attains its human peak, it is also enhanced by language.”

Loc. cit.


“…extended consciousness is not an independent variety of consciousness: on the contrary, it is built on the foundation of core consciousness.”

Op. cit., p. 17

One might add to this formulation by noting that, as extended consciousness is built on core consciousness, core consciousness is, in turn, built on the foundation of biological processes. I would probably describe consciousness in a somewhat different way, and would make different distinctions, but I find Damasio’s approach helpful, as he makes no attempt to explain away consciousness or to reduce it to something that it is not. Damasio seeks to describe and to explain consciousness as consciousness, and, moreover, sees consciousness as part of the natural world that is to be found embodied in many beings in addition to human beings, which latter constitutes, “…extended consciousness at its zenith.”

Damasio’s formulation of both core consciousness and extended consciousness as biological phenomena might be compared to what John Searle calls “biological naturalism.” What Searle, a philosopher, and Damasio, a neuroscientist, have in common is an interest in a naturalistic account of mind which is not eliminativist or reductivist. To this end, both emphasize the biological nature of consciousness. Searle has conveniently summarized his biological naturalism in six theses, as follows:

1. Consciousness consists of inner, qualitative, subjective states and processes. It has therefore a first-person ontology.

2. Because it has a first-person ontology, consciousness cannot be reduced to a third-person phenomena in the way that it is typical of other natural phenomena such as heat, liquidity, or solidity.

3. Consciousness is, above all, a biological phenomenon. Conscious processes are biological processes.

4. Conscious processes are caused by lower-level neuronal processes in the brain.

5. Consciousness consists of higher-level processes realized in the structure of the brain.

6. There is, as far as we know, no reason in principle why we could not build an artificial brain that also causes and realizes consciousness.

John R. Searle, Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, New York: Basic Books, 1999, p. 53

Searle’s formulations — again, as with Damasio, I would probably formulate these ideas a bit differently, but, on the whole, I am sympathetic to Searle’s approach — are a reaction against a reaction, i.e., against a reactionary theory of mind, which is the materialist theory of mind formulated in consciousness contradistinction to Cartesian dualism. Searle devotes a considerable portion of several books to the problems with this latter philosophy. I think the most important lesson to take away from Searle’s critique is not the technical dispute, but the thematic motives that underlie this philosophy of mind:

“How is it that so many philosophers and cognitive scientists can say so many things that, to me at least, seem obviously false? Extreme views in philosophy are almost never unintelligent; there are generally very deep and powerful reasons why they are held. I believe one of the unstated assumptions behind the current batch of views is that they represent the only scientifically acceptable alternatives to the antiscientism that went with traditional dualism, the belief in the immortality of the soul, spiritualism, and so on. Acceptance of the current views is motivated not so much by an independent conviction of their truth as by a terror of what are apparently the only alternatives.”

John R. Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, Chap. 1

The biologism of both Damasio and Searle make it possible not only to approach human consciousness scientifically, but also to place consciousness in nature — the alternatives being denying human consciousness or approaching it non-scientifically, and denying consciousness a place in nature. These alternatives have come to have a colorful representation in contemporary philosophy in the discussion of “philosophical zombies.” Philosophical zombies are beings like ourselves, but without consciousness. The question, then, is whether we can distinguish philosophical zombies from human beings in possession of consciousness. I hope that the reader will have noticed that, in the discussion of philosophical zombies we encounter another anthropocentric formulation. (I previously touched on some of the issues related to philosophical zombies in The Limitations of Human Consciousness, A Note on Soulless Zombies, and The Prodigal Philosopher Returns.)

The anthropocentrism of philosophical zombies can be amended by addressing philosophical zombies in a more comprehensive context, in which not only human beings have consciousness, but consciousness is common in the biosphere. Then the question becomes not, “can we distinguish between philosophical zombies and conscious human beings” but “can we distinguish between a biosphere in which consciousness plays a constitutive role and a biosphere in which consciousness is entirely absent”? This is potentially a very rich question, and I could unfold it over several volumes, rather than the several paragraphs that follow, which should be understood as only the barest sketch of the problem.

As I see it, reconstructing biosphere evolution should include the reconstruction, to the extent possible, of the evolution of consciousness as a component of the biosphere — when did it emerge? When did the structures upon which is supervenes emerge? How did consciousness evolve and adapt to changing selection pressures? How did consciousness radiate, and what forms has it taken? These questions are obviously entailed by biological naturalism. Presumably consciousness evolved gradually from earlier antecedents that were not consciousness. Damasio writes, “natural low-level attention precedes consciousness,” and, “consciousness and wakefulness, as well as consciousness and low-level attention, can be separated.” Again, I would formulate this a bit differently, but, in principle, states of a central nervous system prior to the emergence of consciousness would precede even rudimentary core consciousness. If these states of a central nervous system prior to consciousness include wakefulness and low-level attention, this would constitute a particular seriation of the evolution of consciousness.

Damasio calls human consciousness, “consciousness at its zenith,” and a naturalistic conception of consciousness recognizes this by placing this zenith of human consciousness at the far end of the continuum of consciousness, but still on a continuum that we share with other beings with which we share the biosphere. A human being is not only a being among beings, but also one biological being among other biological beings. Given Searle’s biological naturalism, our common biology — especially the common biology of our central nervous systems and brains — points to our being a conscious being among other conscious beings. This seems to be borne out in our ordinary experience, as we usually understand our experience. We interact with other conscious beings on the level of consciousness, but the quality of consciousness may differ among beings. Interacting with other beings on the level of awareness means that our relationships with other conscious beings are marked by mutual awareness: not only are we aware of the other, but the other is also aware of us.

Above and beyond mere consciousness is sentient consciousness, i.e., consciousness with an emotional element superadded. We interact with other sentient beings on the level of sentience, that is to say, on the level of feeling. Our relationships with other mammals, especially those we have made part of our civilization, like dogs and horses, are intimate, personal relationships, not mediated by intelligence, but mostly mediated by the emotional lives we share with our fellow mammals, endowed, like us, with a limbic system. We intuitively understand the interactions and group dynamics of other social species, because we are ourselves a social species, Even when the institutions of, for example, gorilla society or chimpanzee society, are radically different from the institutions of human society, we can recognize that these are societies, and we can sometimes recognize the different rules that govern these societies.

Even when human beings are absent from interactions in the biosphere, there are still interactions on the level of consciousness and sentience. When a bobcat chases a hare, both interact on the level of two core consciousnesses, and also, as mammals, they interact on a sentient level. The hare has that level of fear and panic possible for core consciousness, and the bobcat, no doubt, experiences the core consciousness equivalent of satisfaction if it catches the hare, and frustration if the hare escapes. Or when a herd of wild horses panics and stampedes, their common sentient response to some environmental stimulation provides the basis of their interaction as a herd species.

All of this can be denied, and we can study nature as though consciousness were no part of it. While I have assimilated the denial of consciousness in nature to anthropocentrism, many more assimilate the attribution of consciousness to other species as a form of anthropocentrism. Clearly, we need to better define anthropocentrism, where and how it misleads us, and where and how it better helps us to understand our fellow beings with which we share the biosphere. That position that identifies consciousness as peculiarly human and denies it to the rest of the biosphere is, in effect asserting that a biosphere of zombies is indistinguishable from a biosphere of consciousness beings; I can understand how this grows out of a legitimate concern to avoid anthropocentric extrapolations, but I can also recognize the violation of the Copernican principle in this position. The view that recognizes consciousness throughout the macroscopic biosphere can also be interpreted as consistent with avoiding anthropocentrism, but also is consonant with Copernicanism broadly construed.

To adopt an eliminativist or reductionist account of consciousness, i.e., to deny the reality of consciousness, is not only to deny consciousness to human beings (a denial that would be thoroughly anthropocentric), it is to deny consciousness to the whole of nature, to deny all consciousness of all kinds throughout nature. It is to assert that consciousness has no place in nature, and that a planet of zombies is indistinguishable from a planet of consciousness agents. Without consciousness, the world entire would be a planet of zombies.

To deny consciousness is to deny that there are any other species, or any other biospheres, in the universe in which consciousness plays a role. If we deny consciousness we also deny consciousness elsewhere in the universe, unless we insist that terrestrial life is the exception, and that, again, would be a non-Copernican position to take. To deny consciousness is to deny that consciousness will ever inhere in some non-biological substrate, i.e., it is to deny that machines will never become conscious, because there is no such thing as consciousness. To deny consciousness is to constitute in place of the biosphere we have, in which conscious interaction plays a prominent role in the lifeways of megafauna, a planet of zombies in which all of these apparent interactions are mere appearance, and the reality is non-conscious beings interacting mechanically and only mechanically. I am not presenting this as a moral horror, that we should avoid because it offends us, but as naturalistically — indeed, biologically — false. Our world is not a planet of zombies.

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many questions

For some philosophers, naturalism is simply an extension of physicalism, which was in turn an extension of materialism. Narrow conceptions of materialism had to be extended to account for physical phenomena not reducible to material objects (like theoretical terms in science), and we can similarly view naturalism as a broadening of physicalism in order to more adequately account for the world. (I have quoted definitions of materialism and physicalism in Materialism, Physicalism, and… What?.) But, coming from this perspective, naturalism is approached from a primarily reductivist or eliminativist point of view that places an emphasis upon economy rather than adequacy in the description of nature (on reductivism and eliminativism cf. my post Reduction, Emergence, Supervenience). Here the principle of parsimony is paramount.

One target of eliminativism and reductionism is a class of concepts sometimes called “folk” concepts. The identification of folk concepts in the exposition of philosophy of science can be traced to philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett introduced the term “folk psychology” in The Intentional Stance and thereafter employed the term throughout his books. Here is part of his original introduction of the idea:

“We learn to use folk psychology — as a vernacular social technology, a craft — but we don’t learn it self-consciously as a theory — we learn no meta-theory with the theory — and in this regard our knowledge of folk psychology is like our knowledge of the grammar of our native tongue. This fact does not make our knowledge of folk psychology entirely unlike human knowledge of explicit academic theories, however; one could probably be a good practising chemist and yet find it embarrassingly difficult to produce a satisfactory textbook definition of a metal or an ion.”

Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance, Chap. 3, “Three Kinds of Intentional Psychology”

Earlier (in the same chapter of the same book) Dennett had posited “folk physics”:

“In one sense people knew what magnets were — they were things that attracted iron — long before science told them what magnets were. A child learns what the word ‘magnet’ means not, typically, by learning an explicit definition, but by learning the ‘folk physics’ of magnets, in which the ordinary term ‘magnet’ is embedded or implicitly defined as a theoretical term.”

Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance, Chap. 3, “Three Kinds of Intentional Psychology”

Here is another characterization of folk psychology:

“Philosophers with a yen for conceptual reform are nowadays prone to describe our ordinary, common sense, Rylean description of the mind as ‘folk psychology,’ the implication being that when we ascribe intentions, beliefs, motives, and emotions to others we are offering explanations of those persons’ behaviour, explanations which belong to a sort of pre-scientific theory.”

Scott M. Christensen and Dale R. Turner, editors, Folk Psychology and the Philosophy of Mind, Chap. 10, “The Very Idea of a Folk Psychology” by Robert A. Sharpe, University of Wales, United Kingdom

There is now quite a considerable literature on folk psychology, and many positions in the philosophy of mind are defined by their relationship to folk psychology — eliminativism is largely the elimination of folk psychology; reductionism is largely the reduction of folk psychology to cognitive science or scientific psychology, and so on. Others have gone on to identify other folk concepts, as, for example, folk biology:

Folk biology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the organic world. Humans everywhere classify animals and plants into species-like groups as obvious to a modern scientist as to a Maya Indian. Such groups are primary loci for thinking about biological causes and relations (Mayr 1969). Historically, they provided a transtheoretical base for scientific biology in that different theories — including evolutionary theory — have sought to account for the apparent constancy of “common species” and the organic processes centering on them. In addition, these preferred groups have “from the most remote period… been classed in groups under groups” (Darwin 1859: 431). This taxonomic array provides a natural framework for inference, and an inductive compendium of information, about organic categories and properties. It is not as conventional or arbitrary in structure and content, nor as variable across cultures, as the assembly of entities into cosmologies, materials, or social groups. From the vantage of EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY, such natural systems are arguably routine “habits of mind,” in part a natural selection for grasping relevant and recurrent “habits of the world.”

Robert Andrew Wilson and Frank C. Keil, The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences

We can easily see that the idea of folk concepts as pre-scientific concepts is applicable throughout all branches of knowledge. This has already been made explicit:

“…there is good evidence that we have or had folk physics, folk chemistry, folk biology, folk botany, and so on. What has happened to these folk endeavors? They seem to have given way to scientific accounts.”

William Andrew Rottschaefer, The Biology and Psychology of Moral Agency, 1998, p. 179.

The simplest reading of the above is that in a pre-scientific state we use pre-scientific concepts, and as the scientific revolution unfolds and begins to transform traditional bodies of knowledge, these pre-scientific folk concepts are replaced with scientific concepts and knowledge becomes scientific knowledge. Thereafter, folk concepts are abandoned (eliminated) or formalized so that they can be systematically located in a scientific body of knowledge. All of this is quite close to the 19th century positivist August Comte’s theory of the three stages of knowledge, according to which theological explanations gave way to metaphysical explanations, which in turn gave way to positive scientific explanations, which demonstrates the continuity of positivist thought — even that philosophical thought that does not recognize itself as being positivist. In each case, an earlier non-scientific mode of thought is gradually replaced by a mature scientific mode of thought.

While this simple replacement model of scientific knowledge has certain advantages, it has a crucial weakness, and this is a weakness shared by all theories that, implicitly or explicitly, assume that the mind and its concepts are static and stagnant. Allow me to once again quote one of my favorite passage from Kurt Gödel, the importance of which I cannot stress enough:

“Turing… gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”

“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306.

Not only does the mind refine its concepts and arrive at more abstract formulations; the mind also introduces wholly new concepts in order to attempt to understand new or hitherto unknown phenomena. In this context, what this means is that we are always introducing new “folk” concepts as our experience expands and diversifies, so that there is not a one-time transition from unscientific folk concepts to scientific concepts, but a continual and ongoing evolution of scientific thought in which folk concepts are introduced, their want of rigor is felt, and more refined and scientific concepts are eventually introduced to address the problem of the folk concepts. But this process can result in the formulation of entirely new sciences, and we must then in turn hazard new “folk” concepts in the attempt to get a handle on this new discipline, however inadequate our first attempts may be to understand some unfamiliar body of knowledge.

For example, before the work of Georg Cantor and Richard Dedekind there was no science of set theory. In formulating set theory, 19th century mathematicians had to introduce a great many novel concepts (set, element, mapping) and mathematical procedures (one-to-one correspondence, diagonalization). These early concepts of set theory are now called “naïve set theory,” which have largely been replaced by (several distinct) axiomatizations of set theory, which have either formalized or eliminated the concepts of naïve set theory, which we might also call “folk” set theory. Nevertheless, many “folk” concepts of set theory persist, and Gödel spent much of his later career attempting to produce better formalizations of the concepts of set theory than those employed in now accepted axiomatizations of set theory.

As civilization has changed, and indeed as civilization emerged, we have had occasion to introduce new terms and concepts in order to describe and explain newly emergent forms of life. The domestication of plants and animals necessitated the introduction of concepts of plant and animal husbandry. The industrial revolution and the macroeconomic forces it loosed upon the world necessitated the introduction of terms and concepts of industry and economics. In each case, non-scientific folk concepts preceded the introduction of scientific concepts explained within a comprehensive theoretical framework. In many cases, our theoretical framework is not yet fully formulated and we are still in a stage of conceptual development that involves the overlapping of folk and scientific concepts.

Given the idea of folk concepts and their replacement by scientific concepts, a mature science could be defined as a science in which all folk concepts have been either formalized, transcended, or eliminated. The infinitistic nature of science mystery (which is discussed in Scientific Curiosity and Existential Need), however, suggests that there will always be sciences in an early and therefore immature stage of development. Our knowledge of the scientific method and the development of science means that we can anticipate scientific developments and understand when our intuitions are inadequate and therefore, in a sense, folk concepts. We have an advantage over the unscientific past that knew nothing of the coming scientific revolution and how it would transform knowledge. But we cannot entirely eliminate folk concepts from the early stages of scientific development, and in so far as our scientific civilization results in continuous scientific development, we will always have sciences in the early stages of development.

Scientific progress, then, does not eliminate folk concepts, but generates new and ever more folk concepts even as it eliminates old and outdated folk concepts.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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scientific metaphysics 1

The slow percolation of metaphysical ideas into human experience

It took some two hundred years or more for Rousseau’s ideas to trickle down from philosophical speculation to popular consciousness and practical implementation. Much of what has its origins in Rousseau only came to fruition in the second half of the twentieth century as the environmental movement and the counter-culture movement. Some of Rousseau’s ideas found more immediate application: his book The Social Contract was an influence in revolutionary France and continues to have a profound influence on Western political thought. But most philosophical ideas only percolate through history over time, and come to have an indirect influence only after they have become so familiar that they are no longer thought of as philosophical ideas.

We expect that the philosophical ideas that will broadly affect the lives of individuals in mass society will be those political and ethical ideas such as we find in Rousseau’s political works, but even rarefied metaphysical concepts like reduction, emergence, and supervenience can, given the passage of time, become as commonplace as Rousseau’s incipient environmentalism has become the now through the pervasively-present environmental movement. It is worth recalling in this connection that the concept of zero was once advanced mathematics, and very difficult to conceive for peoples possessing only limited mathematical conceptual resources, while it is now taught in the earliest years of school and is easily mastered by young children. Philosophical ideas must often make a pilgrimage like that of the concept of zero: from an outlandish proposal to a universally accepted presupposition that lies at the foundation of all other thought.

It can, however, be difficult to recognize when subtle and complex metaphysical ideas have entered into the popular mind as these concepts ever-so-slowly filter into the exposition of the big ideas that shape civilization. The process can be so slow and gradual that, like evolutionary processes, they cannot be seen on a timescale that human beings can immediately perceive. Or, rather, a particular effort — a philosophical effort — must be made in order to perceive this development.

Some metaphysical ideas: reduction, emergence, supervenience

What is reduction? What is reductionism? What is emergence? What is emergentism? What is supervience? How are these ideas related?

Here is how The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy defines reduction:

“A position based on the assumption that apparently different kinds of entities or properties are identical and claiming that items of some types can be explained in terms of more fundamental types of entities or properties with which they are identical.”

“reductionism” in The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy, edited by NICHOLAS BUNNIN and JIYUAN YU

Here is a definition of emergence:

“Philosophy of science, philosophy of social science based on the assumption that a whole is more than the sum of all its parts, the doctrine of emergence holds that the whole has properties which cannot be explained in terms of the properties of its parts. Such a property is called an emergent property. The enormous complexity of the interactions among parts leads to the generation of a property of the whole that cannot be deduced from the properties of parts.”

“emergence” in The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy, edited by NICHOLAS BUNNIN and JIYUAN YU

And here is a (somewhat longer, and therefore less clear) definition of supervience from the same source:

“A term which can be traced to G. E. Moore , but which gained wider use through the work of R. M. Hare. Hare used it for the claim that moral or evaluative properties such as goodness must supervene upon natural properties such as intelligence, health, and kindness. If something has the moral property in virtue of having the natural property and if anything having the natural property would in virtue of having it also have the moral property, then the moral property supervenes upon the natural property. If two things are alike in all descriptive respects, the same evaluative properties must be applied to both of them. On this view, good is supervenient upon underlying natural properties, although it is not reducible to them. Davidson extended this notion to the philosophy of mind, and claims that mental properties are supervenient upon physical properties. If two things are alike in all physical properties, they can not differ in mental properties, but the mental can not be reduced to the physical. Supervenient physicalism offers an alternative to reductionist identity theory. Supervenience is an irreducible relation of dependence upon base properties by supervenient properties.”

“supervenience” in The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy, edited by NICHOLAS BUNNIN and JIYUAN YU

This last definition of supervenience is a little less clear than the others because supervenience is a more subtle idea than reduction or emergence, and the difficulty of the idea has led the author to express the idea in something less than full philosophical generality.

We can think of the sequence of ideas represented by reductionism, emergentism, and supervenience as the progressively more subtle and detailed reconciliation of philosophy with the discoveries of the physical sciences since the scientific revolution, and more especially since the advent of industrial-technological civilization, which latter has seen such a dramatic acceleration of the ability of science to explain the world.

Contemporary metaphysical ideas in relation to science

These three definitions don’t give a sense of the continuity of philosophical development that links the ideas of reduction, emergence, and supervenience together. The three ideas may appear not as stages in the development of a philosophical perspective informed by contemporary science, and, truth be told, they are not usually presented in this way, but this is how I see them. Before I say more about the interrelationship of the three, however, I’m going to give a sketch of the relation of Western philosophical thought to science.

Ancient philosophy began with the macroscopic features of human experience open to all; philosophical observation, scientific observation, and mathematical observation were all one and the same. Only religious “observation” (i.e., specifically religious experiences such as mystical trance and ecstatic possession) stood apart as giving a special insight into the nature of things that was not publicly open and available in the same way that the observations of ordinary experience are open to all. The common sense view of the world that is so central to ancient philosophy, even when it was decisively rejected by Plato (and then vigorously reasserted by Aristotle), was based on ordinary experience of this kind.

Since the time of classical antiquity new forms of observation, and new forms of systematizing observation, have emerged, and the most fundamental of these forms of observation and theorizing are known as science. Subsequent to the scientific revolution — which is an ongoing revolution because science gives us not a truth but a method — philosophy has been forced to transcend its origins in the manifest worldview of macroscopic observation and to integrate the discoveries of science that derive from more disciplined and systematic forms of observation. The principle of public accessibility is as central to science as it was to ancient common sense — perhaps we could even say that it is more central, if there were any such thing as one thing being “more” central than another — and any scientific observation or theory is not only open to the investigations of others, but it is assumed that any scientific result will immediately mean that others will seek to duplicate the result. However, the efforts to duplicate a result increase in difficulty as science increases in complexity, driven by earlier science. This limits the accessibility of advanced scientific results, and forces us to rely not on our own experience, but upon the painstaking work of others.

Philosophy today, then, is centered on the extended conceptions of “experience” and “observation” that science has opened up to us, and these extended senses of experience and observation go considerably beyond ordinary experience, and the prima facie intellectual intuitions available to beings like ourselves, whose minds evolved in a context in which perceptions mattered enormously while the constituents and overall structure of the cosmos mattered not at all. Thus we are faced with a profound philosophical struggle to attempt to arrive at novel intellectual intuitions that will guide us through the experiences and observations made possible by contemporary science. This fundamentally distinguishes the contemporary philosophical project from the philosophical project of classical antiquity, when Western philosophy originated.

The metaphysical interpretation of contemporary science

We can understand reductionism, emergentism, and supervenience as stages in the philosophical attempt to reconcile the results of scientific experience and observation with a comprehensive conception of the world of the kind of philosophy seeks to formulate. This philosophical vision of a comprehensive conception of the world may today be understood as the attempt to build a bridge between the results of contemporary science and the ordinary experiences that were once the exclusive concern of philosophy. Any truly comprehensive conception of the world would have to find some way to show that ordinary experience follows from the extraordinary observations of science, or vice versa. Reduction, emergence, and supervenience are three strategies for demonstrating such a relationship.

In fact, the sequence of development from reductionism through emergentism to supervenience neatly conforms to the Hegelian dialectic:

● The Reductionist Thesis Wholes are nothing but their constituent parts, to which they can be reduced by analysis.

● The Emergentist Antithesis Wholes possess unique properties not possessed by their parts, so that if a whole is reduced to its parts in analysis the emergent properties are not discoverable by the analysis.

● The Supervenience Synthesis Whole possess unique properties undiscoverable by analysis, but these properties supervene upon the properties of the parts.

Employing this Hegelian framework allows us to see the developmental connection between apparently opposed doctrines, and in fact this is how much thinking gets done: we perceive a flaw in our opponent’s position, so we point this out, then someone comes along later and shows how the two positions can be reconciled.

The intellectual development from reductionism through emergentism to supervenience roughly parallels the development from positivistic science through physicalism to contemporary naturalism. At each stage of this development, we find a refinement of the conception, and these refined conceptions will in turn be superseded by further innovations.

Reduction, emergence, and supervenience in sharper focus

Twentieth century science was (and, in some respects, remains) largely reductionist, and reductionism is familiar to everyone in many different forms. Whenever one finds, “nothing but,” as in, “x is nothing but y” — e.g., life is nothing but chemistry, man is nothing but a machine (after La Mettrie), mind is nothing but brain function, history is nothing but one damn thing after another — one finds reductionism. Reductionism should be familiar to us all, and probably most of us are equally aware of its dissatisfactions in the form of its notorious oversimplifications and the need to dismiss much that is essential to human experience as illusory or otherwise irrelevant.

Some contemporary philosophers dissatisfied not with reductionism, but feeling that reductionism is insufficiently radical in view of the results of science, have formulated “eliminativist” doctrines which maintain that ordinary experience does not reduce to scientific experience, but that ordinary experience is simply false and misleading, so it must be eliminated in favor of the scientific conceptions that have replaced intuitive conceptions. This is one source of the attempt to dismiss “folk psychology” and “folk physics” as relics of an earlier age that no longer have any meaning since they have been replaced by exact scientific concepts. I do not wish to make the claim that this is not a legitimate philosophical position, but it can never be the basis of a comprehensive conception of the world, because it makes not attempt to reconcile manifest experience with scientific results.

Reductionism is not in much favor now, but emergentism is slowly beginning to filter its way into the Western Weltanschauung. It started with gestalt psychology and then Buckminster Fuller’s use of the term “synergy” (which is now pervasively used in business-speak), and now emergentism in an explicit form is appearing in Big History, which is essentially a scientific Weltanschauung for a coming naturalistic age.

Even though Newton said “I make no hypotheses” (“hypotheses non fingo”), he nevertheless postulated gravitation as a universal force, and made no attempt to explain what gravitation is, only how it worked. In this Newtonian method we can see the origins both of instrumentalism, which foreswears any insight into the actual nature of the world, and emergentism, that posits wholes and properties of wholes, delineating how these wholes and their properties are distinct from parts of wholes and properties of parts, but not attempting to provide a mechanism that explains this distinction.

The idea of supervenience is a little more subtle than that of reduction or emergence, and, as a consequence of its subtlety, it will probably take proportionately longer for the concepts of supervenience to trickle down from philosophical theories into popular consciousness and practical implementation — but there is no reason to suppose that the moment of popular supervenience will never come. Precisely because supervenience is more subtle and sophisticated than the blunt instrument of reductionism and potentially has greater explanatory power than the positing of emergentism, the idea has a great future.

Supervenience offers one additional step beyond emergentism, a step that suggests, while not fully delineating, the mechanisms that give rise to emergent properties, but does so without the oversimplifications and ontological losses of reductionism. This may be the future of a more sophisticated future iteration of Big History in which emergentist themes are treated in terms of supervenience. That is but one possibility among countless others.

Reduction, emergence, and supervenience as philosophies of history

The absence of institutions and therefore the absence of procedural rationality informing all aspects of life means that the human condition under nomadic hunter-gatherer conditions is the least intellectualized iteration of the human condition. Ideas mattered little for our paleolithic ancestors. The introduction of institutions in agrarian civilizations forces a certain degree of the rationalization of life, and it was this degree of the rationalization of human social life that saw the emergence of philosophy (Jaspers’ Axial Age).

The introduction of specifically scientific institutions (both science itself, and the institution of industrial-technological civilization driven by science) saw an increase in several orders of magnitude of the rationalization of the human condition. Ideas matter much more now, even if we systematically fail to understand the role that ideas play in our lives. The metaphysical nature of civilization, in which life is shaped as much by ideas as by the necessities of life, means that with the introduction of civilized institutions, and the gradual maturation of these institutions, that the relationship between manifest experience and its manifest intuitions on the one hand, and the increasingly complex experiences and concepts of science are in more urgent need for unification in a single conceptual framework.

Is it possible to understand human history in metaphysical terms? The emerging scientific historiography of big history clearly suggests reductist, emergentist, and supervenience accounts of human history in relation to the scientific historiography that has so dramatically expanded our historical perspective beyond that of human testimony. The literary and humanistic tradition of historiography had its beginnings in ancient Greece almost simultaneously with the beginnings of philosophy, and both appealed to the same manifest experience of human beings as the only available paradigm for the foundation of knowledge.

If we formulate the distinction as that between between natural history in its most general signification (or scientific historiography, if you like) and human history, that is to say, history invested with human meanings and values, we can easily formulate a reductionist account of the relationship between natural history and human history, an emergentist account of the relationship between natural history and human history, and an account in terms of supervenience of the relationship between natural history and human history:

● Reductionist Historiography Human history is nothing but natural history. If human meanings and values seem to play a constitutive role in history (or even human consciousness, in the form of making conscious choices), this is merely illusory. If we wanted a stronger formulation of the same, we could frame an “eliminativist historiograpy.” (I leave this as an exercise to the reader.)

● Emergentist Historiography Human history is a whole that emerges from natural history that possesses unique properties as a whole that are not attributable to natural historical processes.

● Supervenient Historiography Human history supervenes on natural history. In other words, there can be no change in human history without there being a subvening change in natural history.

The reader can easily write the book comparing these three paradigms of metaphysical historiography with a minimum of effort and research. I think I’ve outlined enough of the relevant concepts to get you started.

The prospects for reduction, emergence, and supervenience

It seems obvious that supervenience is not an end point of philosophical development, but that it points toward further developments that will supersede supervenience as emergentism superseded reductionism and supervenience has superseded emergentism. Recently in The Emerging School of Techno-Philosophy I wrote that there has never been a more exciting time than the present to be a philosopher. Part of what makes our time so philosophically exciting is the question of what further scientific discoveries will require philosophical interpretation and what form of interpretation will follow after supervenience.

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