Friday


In my recent post Mass Extinction in the West Asian Cluster I discussed Eric H. Cline’s book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, and in that discussion I characterized the Late Bronze Age (LBA) simultaneous collapse of many civilized societies as a “mass extinction” of civilizations. In the exposition of my argument I first formulated the following idea:

“…civilization in the region likely developed in a kind of reticulate pattern, rather than in a unitary and linear manner, so that, if we were in possession of all the evidence, we might find a series of developments took place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating in a single civilization. Developments were likely distributed across the several different civilizations, and disseminated by idea diffusion until they reached all the others. This could be called a seriation of distributed development.”

This idea, as I now see, can be understood on its own as a distinctive process of complex adaptive systems, applicable not only to civilizations, but also to a range of emergent complexities like life, consciousness, and intelligence as well.

Now I’d like to apply this idea to life, and life under the special circumstances (not presently obtaining within our own planetary system, though that may have been the case in the past) of a multi-planet ecosystem. What, then, is a multi-planet ecosystem?

When the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system was discovered, with seven smallish, rocky planets tightly orbiting a small star, the possibilities for life here were of immediate interest to astrobiologists. It has long been thought that lithopanspermia (the transfer of life between planets on rocks) may have occurred within our solar system between Venus, Earth, and Mars — all smallish, rocky planets relatively close in to the sun, and which are known to have have exchanged ejecta from collisions. With an even greater number of small rocky planets in even closer proximity, the likelihood of lithopanspermia at TRAPPIST-1 (assuming life is present in some form) would seem to be higher than in our solar system.

I already know of two papers on the possibilities of lithopanspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system, Enhanced interplanetary panspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system by Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb, and Fast litho-panspermia in the habitable zone of the TRAPPIST-1 system, by Sebastiaan Krijt, Timothy J. Bowling, Richard J. Lyons, and Fred J. Ciesla. There is also a paper about the possibilities for botany in the system, Comparative Climates of TRAPPIST-1 planetary system: results from a simple climate-vegetation model by Tommaso Alberti, Vincenzo Carbone, Fabio Lepreti, and Antonio Vecchio.

In a couple of Tumblr posts, More is Different and Yet Another Astrobiology Thought Experiment I discussed some of these possibilities of lithopanspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system. (And the same interesting TRAPPIST-1 system was also discussed on The Unseen Podcast Episode 69 — A Taste of TRAPPIST-1.)

In More is Different I wrote…

“It may well prove that more is different when it comes to planets, their biospheres, and ecosystems spanning multiple planets. Multi-planet ecologies (we can’t call them biospheres, because they would be constituted by multiple biospheres) may produce qualitatively distinct emergents based on the greater number of components of the ecosystem so constituted. Emergent complexities not possible in a planetary system like our own, with a single liquid-water world, may be possible where there are multiple such planets ecologically coupled through lithopanspermia, and perhaps through other vectors that we cannot now imagine.”

…and in Yet Another Astrobiology Thought Experiment I wrote…

“If life arose separately on several closely spaced planets, with slight biochemical differences between the distinct origin of life events on the several planets, and circumstances within that planetary system were conducive to lithopanspermia, this would mean that each of the planets would eventually have tinctures of life from the other planets, and if these varieties of life could live together without destroying each other, the mixed biospheres of multi-planetary habitable zones where there has been independent origins of life on multiple worlds would suggest a diversity of life not realized on Earth.”

If we combine the ideas of a multi-planetary ecosystem with the idea of reticulate distributed development (which I introduced in relation to civilizational development), we can immediately see the possibility of a multi-planetary ecosystem in which life remains in nearly continuous interaction across several different planets. In such a complex astrobiological context, the great macroevolutionary transitions would not necessarily need to occur all within a single biosphere. It would be sufficient that the macroevolutionary transition took place on at least one planet of the multi-planetary ecosystem, and was subsequently distributed to the other planets of the ecosystem by lithopanspermia. The result would be a seriation of distributed development, i.e., a series of developments taking place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating on a single planet, in a single biosphere. Is this even possible?

We know that microbial life is remarkably resilient, and could likely make the lithopanspermatic journey from one planet to another, but could anything more complex than microbial life make this journey? Recently Caleb A. Scharf in Complex Life: Wimpy or Tough? Complex life may be less resilient than microbial life by some measures, but it’s not necessarily cosmically delicate questions the received wisdom of assuming that eukaryotic multi-cellular life is too vulnerable and delicate to survive “hurdles of selection” — and certainly panspermia must be among the most vertiginous of such hurdles. What about, for example, if conditions were right to freeze complex cells into a still-liquid chamber within a rock, deep in a protected crevice, which then could travel to another planet with complex life intact? There must be similar vectors for panspermia of which we are unaware simply because our imagination fails us.

Obviously, such an occurrence would require many circumstances to occur in just the right order and in just the right way. When this happens for us, as human beings, we say that things are “just right,” and we invoke anthropic selection effects as an explanation, which in this case is simply a Kantian transcendental argument as applied to human beings. But conditions also might be “just right” for some other kind of life, and the antecedent circumstances for such life would be the transcendental conditions of that life — a selection effect of life as we do not know it. This wouldn’t be an “anthropic” explanation in the narrow sense, but if we formalized the concept of an anthropic explanation so that it applied to any being whatsoever, then what human beings call an anthropic explanation would be a special case among a class of explanations. And in this class of explanations would be the “just right” conditions that might lead to rapid and enhanced lithopanspermia among closely spaced planets, which allowed for the transfer to complex life among these planets.

The idea of panspermia has made us familiar with the possibility of life originating on one world and subsequently developing on another world. In case of enhanced and rapid lithopanspermia in an astrobiological context “just right” for such life, we might find life originating on one planet, achieving photosynthesis on another planet, becoming multi-cellular on a third planet, developing an endoskeleton on yet another planet, and so on, possibly continuing to develop into intelligent life. This is what I mean by a seriation of distributed evolutionary development.

If this is possible, if complex life can pass between planets in a multi-planetary ecosystem, I suspect that the rate of evolutionary change would be at least somewhat accelerated in this reticulate astrobiological context, much as the development of civilization was arguably accelerated in the west Asian cluster as a result of the continual interaction of the several civilizations of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, and the eastern Mediterranean.

And as life goes, so goes civilization predicated upon life. In a multi-planetary ecosystem, a civilization that grew up on one of these worlds would evolve in a unique astrobiological context that would shape its unique development. Darwin said that, “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” Civilizations, too, bear the lowly stamp of their biological origins. A biocentric civilization emergent within a multi-planetary ecosystem would be distinctively shaped by the selection pressures of this ecosystem, which would not be the same as the selection pressures of a single biosphere. And a technocentric civilization arising from a biocentric civilization would continue to carry the lowly stamp of its origins into the farthest reaches of its development.

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Saturday


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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.

eliminativism

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.

reductionism

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.

emergentism

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.

supervenience

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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Saturday


There are a lot of Earth-like planets out there, and they vary from Earth according to physical gradients.

There are a lot of Earth-like planets out there, and they vary from Earth according to physical gradients.

In my previous posts on planetary endemism (see links below) I started to explore the ideas of how civilization is shaped by the planet upon which a given civilization arises. I began to sketch a taxonomy based on developmental factors arising from planetary endemism, but I have realized the inadequacy of this. As I have no systematic idea for a taxonomy based on a more comprehensive understanding of planetary types, I must undertake a series of thought experiments to explore the relevant ideas in more detail. This I intend to do.

I should point out that taxonomy I began to sketch in my 2015 Starship Congress talk, “What kind of civilizations build starships?” — a taxonomy employing a binomial nomenclature based on a distinction between economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure — still remains valid to make fine-grained distinctions among terrestrial civilizations, or indeed within the history of any civilization of planetary endemism. What I am seeking to do now to arrive at a more comprehensive taxonomy under which this more fine-grained taxonomy can be subsumed, and which, as a large-scale conception of civilization, is consistent with and integrated into our knowledge of cosmology and planetology.

While I have no systematic idea of taxonomy at present taking account of types of planets, I think I can identify a crucial question for this inquiry, and it is this:

What physical gradient is, or would be, correlated with the greatest qualitative gradient in the civilization supervening upon that physical gradient?

In other words, if we could experiment with civilization under controlled condition, systematically substituting different valuables for a given variable while holding all over variables constant, and these variables are the physical conditions to which a given planetary civilization is subject, which one of these variables when its value is changed would produce the greatest variation on the supervening civilization? A qualitative change in civilization yields another kind of civilization, so that if varying a physical condition produces a range of different kinds of civilizations, this is the variable to which we would want to pay the greatest attention in formulating a taxonomy of civilizations that takes into account the kind of planet on which a civilization arises. Understood in this way, civilization, or at least the kind of civilization, can be seen as an emergent property with the physical condition given a varying value as the substructure upon which emergent civilization supervenes.

Some gradients of physical conditions will be closely correlated: planet size correlates with surface area, surface gravity, and atmospheric density. These multiple physical conditions are in turn correlated with multiple constraints upon civilization. With the single variable of planet size correlated to so many different conditions and constraints upon civilization, planet size will probably figure prominently in a taxonomy of civilizations based on homeworld conditions. Large planets and small planets both have advantages and disadvantages for supervening civilizations. Large planets have a large surface area, but the higher gravity may pose an insuperable challenge for the emergence of spacefaring civilization. Small planets would pose less of a barrier to a spacefaring breakout, but they also have less surface area and probably a thinner atmosphere, possibly limiting the size of organisms that could survive in its biosphere. Also, there may be a point at which the surface area on a small planet falls below the minimum threshold necessary for the unimpeded development of civilization.

Planets too large or too small may be inhabitable, in terms of possessing a biosphere, but may be too challenging for a civilization to arise. Any intelligent being on a planet too large or too small would be faced with challenges too great to overcome, resulting in what Toynbee called an arrested civilization. But how large is too large, and how small is too small? We don’t have an answer for these questions yet, but to formulate the question explicitly provides a research agenda.

Other important physical gradients are likely to be temperature (or insolation, which largely determines the temperature of a planet), which can result in planets too hot (Venus) or too cold (Mars), and the amount of water present, which could mean a world too wet or too dry. A planet with a higher temperature would probably have a higher proportion of its surface as desert biomes, and possibly also a greater variety of desert biomes than we find on Earth, while a planet with a lower temperature would probably possess a more extensive cryosphere and a large proportion of it surface in arctic biomes. And a planet mostly ocean (i.e., too wet), with extensive island archipelagos, might foster the emergence of a vigorous seafaring civilization, or it might result in the civilizational equivalent of insular dwarfism. Again, we don’t yet know the parameters the values of these variables can take and still be consistent with the emergence of civilization, but to formulate the question is to contribute to the research agenda.

I think it is likely that we will someday be able to reduce to most significant variables to a small number — perhaps two, size and insolation, much as the two crucial variables for determining a biome are temperature and rainfall — and a variety of qualitatively distinct civilizations will be seen to emerge from variations to these variables — again, as in a wide variety of biomes that emerge from changes in temperature and rainfall. And, again, like ecology, we will probably begin with a haphazard system of taxonomy, as today we have several different taxonomies of biomes.

Civilizations (i.e., civilizations of planetary endemism during the Stelliferous Era) supervene upon biospheres, and a biosphere is a biome writ large. We can study the many terrestrial biomes found in the terrestrial biosphere, but we do not yet have a variety of biospheres to study. When we are able to study a variety of distinct biospheres, we will, of course, in the spirit of science, want to produce a taxonomy of biospheres. With a taxonomy of biospheres, we will be more than half way to a taxonomy of civilizations, and in this way astrobiology is immediately relevant to the study of civilization.

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Planetary Endemism

● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Introduction (forthcoming)

Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part I

Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part II

● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part III

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Sunday


Mosaic of the epic and pastoral poet Virgil, flanked by Clio, muse of history, and Melpomene, muse of tragic and lyric poetry.

Mosaic from the III century A.D. of the poet Virgil, flanked by Clio, muse of history, and Melpomene, muse of tragic and lyric poetry.

History without Big History

Not long before I attended the 2014 IBHA “big history” conference I picked up a book at a used bookstore titled History: A Brief Insight by John H. Arnold. The book is copyrighted 2000, with additional text copyrighted 2009. Upon my return from the conference in California, I looked over the book more carefully, scanned the bibliography for names and titles, read the index, and skimmed the text. There is no hint of big history in the book.

There are a number of historians for whom “big history” simply does not yet exist, and, on the basis of textual evidence alone (that is to say, without knowing anything about John H. Arnold except what I found in this one book), John H. Arnold would seem to be one of these historians. I have enjoyed what I have read so far in Arnold’s book, and he covers a range of historiographical questions from human nature (does it change or is it the same in all ages?), through Leopold von Ranke (about how I recently wrote in Political Dimensions of History), to Fernand Braudel and the twentieth century Annales school of historians. There is much here to appreciate, and from which to learn.

It is still, today, possible to write a general introductory text on history and say nothing about big history. Is it significant that a contemporary historian can review perennial ideas of historiography without mentioning the growing contribution of big history to historiographical thought? It is, I think, both significant and understandable. I will try to sketch out why I think this to be the case.

Is there a place for historiography in big history?

Big history, although a creation of historians (David Christian specialized in Russian and Soviet history), owes more to the emergence of scientific historiography than to traditional historiography, and it shows. During my time at the IBHA conference the traditional language and concepts of historiography were notable in their absence: I did not hear a single person (other than myself) mention diachronic, synchronic, ideographic, or nomothetic approaches (four concepts that I have integrated in what I called the axes of historiography), nor did I hear any mention of the Carr-Elton debate or its contemporary re-setting in the work of Rorty and White by Keith Jenkins, nor did I hear anyone mention those figures and ideas that appeared in John H. Arnold noted above, such as Ranke, Bloc, and Braudel.

In the discussion following the presentation by John Mears the traditional historiographical question was asked — Is history a science or does it belong with the humanities? — but, surprisingly in a group of historians, the question was not taken up in its historical context, and it is the historical context of the question, in which history has tended toward the scientific or toward the humanistic by turns, that could most benefit the emerging conception of big history. The question came up again in a nearly explicit form in Fred Spier’s plenary address on the last day, “The Future of Big History,” when Spier brought up C. P. Snow’s famous lecture on “The Two Cultures.” In the middle of the twentieth century Snow had dissected the misunderstanding and mutual mistrust of the sciences and the humanities. This would have been the perfect time and the perfect context in which to pursue the relationship between these two cultures in big history, but Spier did not pursue the theme.

Paradoxical though it sounds, there is, at present, little or no place for historiography — that is to say, for the traditional conflicts and controversies of historiography — within the framework of big history, which seems to effortlessly bypass these now apparently arcane disagreements among scholars, which appear small if not petty within the capacious context of the history of the universe entire.

Big History and Scientific Historiography

Big history is, indirectly, a consequence of the emergence of scientific historiography in the previous century. This is one of the great intellectual movements of our time, and in saying that there appears to be little or no place for historiography within big history I am not seeking to demean or disparage either big history or scientific historiography. On the contrary, I have written many posts and scientific historiography, and the idea plays an important, if not a central, role in my own thought.

From the diversity of opinion represented at the IBHA conference I attended, one can already see divisions emerging between the more natural-science based perspectives and more traditionally humanistically-based perspectives on big history, and one can just as easily imagine a formulation of big history that is more or less an extended branch of physics, or a formulation of big history that only incidentally touches upon physics while investing most of its resources in human history — though, to be sure, a human history greatly expanded by scientific historiography.

For the moment, however, it is the emerging trend of scientific historiography that is the central influence in big history, and this accounts both for the marginalization of traditional historiographical controversies as well as the particular approach to historical evidence that is adopted in big history.

The Handwriting on the Wall

One can already see the handwriting on the wall: big history will become, and then will remain, the dominant paradigm in historiography for the foreseeable future. Any reaction against big history that seeks to raise (or to restore) minutiae and miniaturism to a preeminent position will simply be absorbed into the overall framework of big history, which is sufficiently capacious to find a niche for anything within its comprehensive structure, and which is not bound to reject any kind of historical research.

Given the present paradigm of scientific thought, there is no more comprehensive perspective that can be adopted than that of big history. And when, in the fullness of time, science advances past its present paradigm and places our present knowledge in an even more capacious context, big history can be expanded in like fashion. This is because, as David Christian noted, big history is a form of “framework” thinking. Evolutionary biology is similarly a form of framework thinking, and it was able to seamlessly incorporate plate tectonics and geomorphology into its structure, and is now incorporating astrobiology into its structure for an ever-more-comprehensive perspective on life. Big history as a theoretical framework for historical thought is (or will be) in a position to do the same thing for history.

Even though big history is still inchoate, perhaps one of the reasons it is likely to experience more resistance than the school of world history (there has been an interest in “world history” for some time before big history appeared) is that it incorporates a few definite and distinctive ideas, and, moreover, ideas that have not been a part of traditional historiography (specifically, emergent complexity and “Goldilocks” conditions). When big history develops a more coherent theoretical framework big history will find itself forced to define itself vis-à-vis the traditional historiographical concepts that it has so far largely avoided. One way to do this is to cast them aside and proceed without them; another way is to choose sides and become pigeon-holed into categories of historiographical thought that do not precisely suit big history.

The Structure of Historiographical Revolutions

It has been the nature of intellectual revolutions to cast aside past conceptual frameworks and to strike out in new directions. The most influential work in the philosophy of science of the twentieth century, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, meticulously detailed this process of intellectual revolution. Big history might be just such an intellectual revolution, and with the power of the scientific historiography it can easily abandon the traditions of historiography and strike out to map its own territory in its own way. I think that this would be a mistake. While past intellectual revolutions have needed to break with the past in order to make progress, this break with the past has come at a cost. When renaissance scholarship not only broke with the medieval past, but ridiculed its scholasticism, this may have been necessary at the time, but it resulted in the loss of the sophisticated logic created by medieval scholars, which could have extended and deepened the work of the literary and humanistic scholars of the renaissance. Instead, the tradition of medieval logic lay fallow for five hundred years, and is only being rediscovered in out time, when it is less of a help than it might have been in the past.

Big history could, without doubt, do without traditional historiography, but it would do much better to learn the lessons painstakingly learned by historical scholars since the emergence of critical history, starting with the same renaissance scholars who rejected medieval logic but who created a new discipline of the critical analysis of the language of historical documents. In the transition from the medieval to the modern world it was probably necessary to make a clean break with the past — the Copernican revolution, which plays so large a role in Kuhn’s thought, is another instance of a modern break with the medieval past — but social conditions have changed radically, and it is less necessary to make a break with modernity than it was to make a break with medievalism.

I count myself as a friend of both scientific history and big history, but I don’t think that it is necessary to reject the historiographical tradition in order to pursue these historical frameworks. On the contrary, scientific history and big history will be much more sophisticated if they learn to use the tools developed by earlier generations of historians.

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Studies in Grand Historiography

1. The Science of Time

2. Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time

3. The Epistemic Overview Effect

4. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 1

5. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 2

6. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 3

7. Big History and Historiography

8. Big History and Scientific Historiography

9. Philosophy for Industrial-Technological Civilization

10. Is it possible to specialize in the big picture?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Tuesday


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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