Patinir's painting of Charon crossing the river Styx has always impressed me for its overview effect of the landscape.

Patinir’s painting of Charon crossing the river Styx has always impressed me for its overview effect of the landscape.

In my first post on the overview effect, The Epistemic Overview Effect, I compared a comprehensive overview of knowledge to the perspective-altering view of the whole of the Earth in one glance. Later in The Overview Effect in Formal Thought I discussed the need for a comprehensive overview in formal thought no less than in scientific knowledge. I also discussed the overview in relation to interoception in Our Knowledge of the Internal World.

This account of the overview effect in various domains of knowledge leaves an ellipsis in my formulation of the overview effect, namely, the overview effect in specifically empirical knowledge, i.e., the overview effect in science other than the formal sciences. What would constitute an overview of empirical knowledge? The totality of facts? An awareness of the overall structure of the empirical sciences? A bird’s eye view of the universe entire? (The latter something I recently suggested in A Brief History of the Stelliferous Era.)

A subjective experience is always presented in a personal context, and when that subjective experience is of the overview effect the individual life serves as the “big picture” context by which individual and isolated experiences derive their value. The overview effect, as documented to date, is a personal experience, therefore ideographic, and therefore also idiosyncratic to a certain extent. The traditionally ideographic character of the historical sciences, then, has been uniquely well-adapted to being given an exposition in overview, and so we have the recent branch of historiography called big history. Big history in particular gives an overview of the historical sciences even as the historical sciences are employed to give an overview of history. There is a twofold task here to interpret all the physical sciences historically (in ideographic terms) so that their epistemic contributions can be integrated into the historical sciences, and to move the historical sciences closer to the nomothetic rigor of the traditionally ahistorical physical sciences. We will truly have a comprehensive overview of scientific knowledge when the ideographic historical sciences and the nomothetic ahistorical sciences meet in the middle. This constitutes an ideal of scientific knowledge that has not yet been attained.

Every individual has an overview of their own life — or, rather, every individual with a minimal degree of insight has an overview of their own life — and this is the setting for any other overview of which the individual becomes aware, including the overview effect itself. (Individuals also, partly in virtue of their personal overview of their own life, possess what I have called the human overview, such that in the experience of meeting another person we can usually rapidly place that person within a social, cultural, ethnic, and historical context.) In the future, the personal experience of the overview effect may be harnessed for the production of knowledge understood more broadly than the knowledge engendered by purely personal experience. All empirical knowledge is ultimately derived from personal experience, has its origins in personal experience, but once personal experience has been exapted through idealization and quantification for the purpose of the production of empirical knowledge, it loses its personal and experiential character and becomes impersonal and objective.

It may sound overly subtle at first to make a distinction between personal experience and empirical knowledge, but the distinction is worth noting, and in any theoretical context it is important to observe the distinction. Experience is ideographic; empirical knowledge is nomothetic. Thus personal experience of the overview effect to date is an ideographic overview effect; the possibility of the empirical sciences converging upon an overview effect would be a nomothetic overview effect. If this nomothetic overview effect of scientific knowledge can be further extended by rendering the ahistorical nomothetic sciences in terms of the historical sciences, and the overview effect of scientific knowledge can be given a history in which we have an overview of each stage of development, we can get a glimpse of the possibilities for comprehensive knowledge, and what the future may hold for scientific knowledge.

Science has always been in the business of attempting to provide an overview of the world, but the approach of science has always been a form of objectivity that attempts to alienate personal experience. One sees this most clearly in classical antiquity, when the most abstract of sciences flourished — viz. mathematics — while the other sciences languished, partly because the theoretical framework for constructing objective knowledge out of personal experience did not yet exist. Hundreds of years of the development of scientific thought have subsequently provided this framework, but the paradigm produced by science has come at a certain cost. We are still today struggling with that legacy and its costs.

One way to approach the role of personal experience in empirical knowledge is by way of Bertrand Russell’s distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description (“Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description” in Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays). The task that Russell set himself in this paper — “…what it is that we know in cases where we know propositions about ‘the so-and-so’ without knowing who or what the so-and-so is” — is closely related to the cluster of problems addressed by his theory of descriptions. Russell’s distinction implies two other permutations: the case in which we have neither knowledge by acquaintance nor knowledge by description, which is epistemically uninteresting, and the case in which we have both knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. In the latter case, knowledge by description has been confirmed by knowledge by acquaintance, but for the purposes of his exposition of the distinction Russell makes it quite clear that he wants to focus on instances of knowledge by description in which knowledge is only by description.

I am going to make my own use of Russell’s distinction, but will not attempt to retain any fidelity to the metaphysical context of Russell’s exposition of the distinction. Russell’s exposition of his distinction is wrapped up in a particular metaphysical theory that is no longer as common as it was a hundred years ago, but I am going to interpret Russell in terms of a naive scientific realism, so that when we see the Earth we really do see the Earth, and the Earth is not merely a logical construction out of sense data. (If I, or anyone, wanted to devote an entire book to Russell’s metaphysic in relation to his distinction between acquaintance and description this could easily be done. Indeed, an exposition of the Earth as a logical construction out of sense data would be an interesting intellectual exercise, and I can easily imagine a professor assigning this to his students as a project.)

Russell wrote of knowledge by acquaintance: “I say that I am acquainted with an object when I have a direct cognitive relation to that object, i.e. when I am directly aware of the object itself. When I speak of a cognitive relation here, I do not mean the sort of relation which constitutes judgment, but the sort which constitutes presentation.” Thus in the overview effect, I have a direct cognitive relation to the whole of the Earth, not in terms of judgment, but as a presentation. Intuitively, I think that Russell’s formulation works quite well as an explication of the epistemic significance of the overview effect.

Russell described knowledge by description as follows:

I shall say that an object is “known by description” when we know that it is “the so-and-so,” i.e. when we know that there is one object, and no more, having a certain property; and it will generally be implied that we do not have knowledge of the same object by acquaintance. We know that the man with the iron mask existed, and many propositions are known about him; but we do not know who he was. We know that the candidate who gets most votes will be elected, and in this case we are very likely also acquainted (in the only sense in which one can be acquainted with some one else) with the man who is, in fact, the candidate who will get most votes, but we do not know which of the candidates he is, i.e. we do not know any proposition of the form “A is the candidate who will get most votes” where A is one of the candidates by name. We shall say that we have “merely descriptive knowledge” of the so-and-so when, although we know that the so-and-so exists, and although we may possibly be acquainted with the object which is, in fact, the so-and-so, yet we do not know any proposition “a is the so-and-so,” where a is something with which we are acquainted.

There are a lot of interesting philosophical questions implicit in Russell’s exposition of knowledge by description; I am not going to pursue these at present, but will take Russell at his word. In the context of the overview effect, “the so-and-so” is “the planet on which human beings live,” and we know (to employ a Russellian formulation) that there is one and only one planet upon which human beings live, and moreover this planet is Earth. In fact, we know that it was a considerable achievement of scientific knowledge to come to the understanding that human beings live on a planet, and all this knowledge was achieved through knowledge by description. For the vast majority of human history, we were acquainted with the Earth, yet we did not know the proposition “x is the planet upon which human beings live” where x was something with which we were acquainted. This is almost as perfect an example as there could be of knowledge by description in the absence of knowledge by acquaintance.

In Russell’s distinction, ideographic personal experience is a kind of knowledge — knowledge by acquaintance — but is distinct from knowledge by description. What Russell called “knowledge by description” is a special case of non-constructive knowledge. Non-constructive reasoning is the logic of the big picture and la longue durée (cf. Six Theses on Existential Risk) — the scientific (in contradistinction to the personal) approach to the overview effect. Just as science has always been in the business of seeking an overview, so too science has long been in the business of elaborating knowledge by description, because in many cases this is the only way we can begin a scientific investigation, though in such cases we always begin with the hope that our knowledge by description can eventually be transformed into knowledge by acquaintance. In other words, we hope to become acquainted with the objects of knowledge we describe. Knowledge by description is here the theoretical framework of scientific knowledge in search of instances of acquaintance — evidence, experience, and experiment — to confirm the theory.

Although Russell was not a constructivist per se, his position in this essay is unambiguously constructive in so far as the thesis he maintains is that, “Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted” (italics in original). Russell’s foundation of knowledge in the personal experience of knowledge by acquaintance demonstrates that Russell and Kierkegaard not only have a conception of rigor in common, but also the ultimate epistemic authority of individual experience.

Part of the importance of the overview effect is that it is a personal vision, such as I described in Kierkegaard and Futurism. The individuality of a personal vision is a function of the subjectivity of the individual, hence how the effect is experienced is as significant, if not more significant, than what is experienced.

An interesting result of this inquiry is not only to bring further philosophical resources to the analysis of the overview effect, but also to point the way to the further development science. I have often emphasized that science is not a finished edifice of knowledge, but that science itself continues to grow, not only in sense of continually producing scientific knowledge, but also in the sense of continuing to revise the scientific method itself. One of the most common objections one encounters when talking about science among those who take little account of science is the impersonal nature of scientific knowledge, and even a rejection of that same objectivity that has been the pride science to have attained. To fully appreciate the overview effect as a moment in the development of scientific knowledge is to understand that it may not only give us a new perspective on the world in which we live, but also a new perspective on how we attain knowledge of this world.

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astronaut floating in space

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In the spring of 1914, just before the outbreak of World War 1 (and exactly one hundred years ago as I write this), Bertrand Russell gave a series of Lowell Lectures later published as Our Knowledge of the External World. This is a classic exposition of Russell’s thought which had a significant influence on Anglo-American analytical philosophy.

In the audience for one of the later iterations of these lectures was Will Durant, the noted American historian, whose The Story of Philosophy was so successful in the inter-war years that it freed him up to write his multi-volume The Story of Civilization. In The Story of Philosophy Durant wrote of Russell’s 1914 lectures:

“When Bertrand Russell spoke at Columbia University in 1914, he looked like his subject, which was epistemology — thin, pale, and moribund; one expected to see him die at every period. The Great War had just broken out, and this tender-minded, peace-loving philosopher had suffered from the shock of seeing the most civilized of continents disintegrate into barbarism. One imagined that he spoke of so remote a subject as ‘Our Knowledge of the External World’ because he knew it was remote, and wished to be as far as possible from actualities that had become so grim. And then, seeing him again, ten years later, one was happy to find him, though fifty-two, hale and jolly, and buoyant with a still rebellious energy. This despite an intervening decade that had destroyed almost all his hopes, loosened all his friendships, and broken almost all the threads of his once sheltered and aristocratic life.”

Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, New York: Time Incorporated, 1962, pp. 442-443

Others were more moved by Russell’s thin, pale, and moribund epistemology. Rudolf Carnap read the lectures in book form, and describes the experience in terms reminiscent of a religious conversion:

…in my philosophical thinking in general I learned most from Bertrand Russell. In the winter of 1921 I read his book, Our Knowledge of the External World, as a Field For Scientific Method in Philosophy. Some passages made an especially vivid impression on me because they formulated clearly and explicitly a view of the aim and method of philosophy which I had implicitly held for some time. In the Preface he speaks about “the logical-analytic method of philosophy” and refers to Frege’s work as the first complete example of this method. And on the very last pages of the book he gives a summarizing characterization of this philosophical method in the following words:

The study of logic becomes the central study in philosophy: it gives the method of research in philosophy, just as mathematics gives the method in physics…

All this supposed knowledge in the traditional systems must be swept away, and a new beginning must be made… To the large and still growing body of men engaged in the pursuit of science,… the new method, successful already in such time-honored problems as number, infinity, continuity, space and time, should make an appeal which the older methods have wholly failed to make… The one and only condition, I believe, which is necessary in order to secure for philosophy in the near future an achievement surpassing all that has hitherto been accomplished by philosophers, is the creation of a school of men with scientific training and philosophical interests, unhampered by the traditions of the past, and not misled by the literary methods of those who copy the ancients in all except their merits.

I felt as if this appeal had been directed to me personally. To work in this spirit would be my task from now on And indeed henceforth the application of the new logical instrument for the purposes of analyzing scientific concepts and of clarifying philosophical problems has been the essential aim of my philosophical activity.

Rudolf Carnap, “Intellectual Autobiography,” in The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp, p. 13

Russell’s works set the tone and, to a slightly lesser extent, set the agenda for analytical philosophy, in writing such words that inspired and influenced the next generation of philosophers. While Carnap felt himself to be called to a new kind of philosophical work by Russell’s stirring pages, Russell was nevertheless following in a long and distinguished line, which is nothing other than then mainstream of Western philosophy from Aristotle through Descartes and Kant to Russell himself. Descartes is usually remembered for the “epistemological turn” that defines modern Western philosophy, but Descartes was very much schooled in Scholasticism, and Scholasticism was deeply Aristotelian, so that the unbroken line of European philosophy from Aristotle to Russell and beyond may be compared to the “Golden Chain” of philosophers in the Platonic succession of classical antiquity.

The Aristotelian succession of scientifically-minded philosophers tends to be logical rather than intuitive (Aristotle was the first to formulate a formal logic), analytical in its method rather than synthetic or eclectic, and empirical rather than idealistic. But all philosophers, Platonic or Aristotelian, are interested in ideas, and it is the way in which ideas are expressed and incorporated that differs between the two camps. The Aristotelians can no more do without ideas than the Platonists, though ideas tend to enter into Aristotelian thought by way of schematic conceptions that leave their imprint upon the empirical data, and subtly guide the interpretation of all experience.

Aristotle himself is perhaps the best exemplification of this schematization of empirical knowledge according to philosophical categories. The canonical quinquipartitie division of the senses goes back at least to Aristotle’s On the Soul (commonly known as De anima). That our senses consist of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is an idea due to Aristotle’s De anima, and while this division is based on human faculties of perception and has intuitive plausibility, there are ways in which the division is arbitrary. This is one of my favorite works by Aristotle, so I hope that the reader will understand when I say that Aristotle’s division of experience into five senses is arbitrary, that I say so as a reader who is sympathetic to Aristotle’s account.

The Aristotelian division of the senses into five has bequeathed us an impoverished conception of the self. If we think of how the sense of touch is described and incorporated into accounts of the senses, it is as though we were only capable of experiencing bodies as objectified, touched (or touching) from the outside but not felt from within. And yet we experience ourselves from within more continuously than any other form of human experience — even when we close our eyes and stop our ears. Interoception is how we experience our own bodies from the inside. That to say, a part of the world is “wired” from within by our nervous system (which is itself part of the world in turn), and reveals itself to us viscerally. This is one of the consequences of the fact that we human beings constitute the universe experiencing itself (albeit not the whole the universe, but only a very small part thereof).

Recently philosophy has made significant strides in doing justice to what we feel and what we know through our bodies, which is both complex and subtle, and therefore particularly vulnerable to schematic over-simplifying accounts such as Aristotle’s. (I have noted in several posts that recent philosophy of mind has focused on the embodiment of mind, which may be considered another expression of the felt need to do justice to the body.) There is, for example, a wide recognition of what are called kinesthetic sensations, which are the kind of sensations that you feel when you engage in physical activities. When you run, for example, you don’t merely feel the onrush of air evaporating your sweat on the surface of your skin, you also feel your muscles straining, and if something goes wrong you will really feel that. And unless you have one of many disorders, your body has an almost perfect subconscious knowledge of where each limb is in relation to every other limb, which is why we are able to feed ourselves without thinking about it. Because we don’t think about it, but have reduced this knowledge to habit, we don’t think of it as either sensation or knowledge, but it is both.

Even Sam Harris, who doesn’t spend much time on general epistemological inquiries in his books, made a point of citing a litany of bodily sensations:

“Your nervous system sections the undifferentiated buzz of the universe into separate channels of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, as well as other senses of lesser renown — proprioception, kinesthesia, enteroreception, and even echolocation.”

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005, “Reason in Exile,” p. 41

In this quote, with its allusion to the “undifferentiated buzz” of experience, there is a hint of William James:

“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing, confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space.”

William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890, CHAPTER XIII, “discrimination and Comparison”

James in this short passage has put his finger right on two crucial aspects of perception: that the world comes to us in an undifferentiated welter of sensations, and that we somehow seamlessly knit together this welter into one and the same world. Much as our familiar senses are fully integrated in our experience, so that we experience one world, and not a world of sight, a world of sound, so too our visceral sensations of proprioception, kinaesthesia, and interoception are so subtly integrated that it is only with difficulty that we can distinguish them.

The example of echolocation (which Harris includes in his litany while admitting in a footnote that is not very acute in human beings, but is still present in a limited sense) is especially interesting, because it is a function of hearing that is not exactly identical to hearing as we usually think of hearing (that is to say, hearing that lies outside the Aristotelian template). Moreover, the sensory apparatus inside our skulls that is responsible for hearing is also responsible for vestibular sensations (see glossary below), so that one and the same sense organ allows us more than one perspective on one and the same world.

The seamless integration of sense experience is one of the great unappreciated aspects of the senses in philosophy. Of course, Kant’s transcendental aesthetic was centrally concerned with this problem, there is Husserl on passive synthesis, and there is (or was) Gestalt psychology, and other theories as to how this happens, but none of these are quite right. None of these formulations really drive home the blooming, buzzing confusion of sensation and the unity of the world this sensation reveals. This is the paradox of the one and the many as its manifests itself in sensation.

The feeling of weight, of how one’s body relates to the Earth and to other bodies, is a sensation and that is so subtle and complex, involving both the senses recognized by Aristotle as well as the bodily sensations that Aristotle passed over in silence, that it is extraordinarily difficult to say where one sensation of weight leaves off and another picks up. Consequently, the feeling of weight is difficult to analyze, and most especially its relation to sight — which seems to provide the greater part of our conscious experience of the world — is negligible. When we realize how we typically express knowledge in visual metaphors — e.g., I see what you mean — the disconnect between sight and the feeling of weight takes an a special significance.

To introduce the feeling of weight immediately suggests also the feeling of weightlessness — zero gravity or microgravity conditions, as one experiences in Earth orbit or in deep space. Only a very small number of human beings have experienced weightlessness, and I am not among those few, but I will assume that interoception is fully implicated in the experience of weightlessness. But it is much more than this. Simply put, the experience of weight is the experience of gravity, and, by way of interoception, our body entire is an organ for the sensation of the very fabric of spacetime — our knowledge of the external world by way of our knowledge of the internal world.

When we stand on the surface of Earth and look up at the stars, we also feel the gravity of Earth throughout our body, pulling insistently on every part of us and forcing us to recognize continuously and without exception our physical relationship to Earth. In the most intimate and visceral ways we sense through our animal bodies the great forces that shape planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe entire. We know spacetime not as a mere abstraction, but as a constitutive part of our being. This intimate knowledge of spacetime has shaped our intuitive knowledge and understanding of our place in the cosmos, much as our ability to see the stars has similarly shaped our sense of ourselves as part of the universe. (This is what I called, in a recent post on my other blog, Visceral Cosmology.)

It is not only the visceral sensation of our own spatiality that we know through interoception, but also our own temporality. We not only sense time in the Aristotelian sense as the measure of motion (seeing change in the world), but our minds also give us a personal consciousness of the passage of time. This is as remarkable as our sensation of gravity (i.e., spacetime curvature). Our internal time consciousness, so tied up in our personal identity, reflects the larger temporal structure of the universe, pointing in the same direction as the other arrows of time, and giving us another immediate form or intuition into the very structure of the world. The gnawing tooth of time that ultimately shapes everything in the world also gnaws away inside us.

Our minds and the intuitions that it has about the world have been no less shaped by gravity and time than have our bodies. And in so far as gravity is the distortion of spacetime in the presence of mass, our visceral feelings of weight, as well as our consciousness of time, gives us an immediate intuitive perception of the curvature of spacetime. We possess a kind of interoception of the cosmos. We feel the world in our bones and sinews, as it were.

Here lies a crucial clue to understanding the Overview Effect (cf. The Epistemic Overview Effect, The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking, Hegel and the Overview Effect, and The Overview Effect in Formal Thought) Discussions of the overview effect tend to focus on seeing the Earth whole from space, and this is no doubt crucial to the experience, but the viscerality of the experience comes from the countless sensations of microgravity that are too subtle to describe and too numerous to clearly differentiate. It is the visceral experience of being off the surface of Earth combined with the evidence of one’s eyes that Earth lies before one, suspended in space as one is oneself suspended in space, that is the overview effect.

All human history up until the flight of Yuri Gagarin had taken place on the surface of Earth. In Wittgensteinian terms, nothing up to that point in time had contrasted with the form of terrestrial experience (cf. Nothing contrasts with the form of the world). With the visceral experience of being in space, suddenly there is a contrast where before there was none: the sensation of being on Earth, and the sensation of being off the surface of Earth, and subject to distinct (and distinctively different) gravitational conditions. The conditions of weight and weightlessness now define polar concepts, between which are a continuum of graded sensation; the polar concepts take part of their meaning from their contrast with the opposite polar concept, as do all points of experience along the continuum of the experience of weight.

Further technological developments that allow for unprecedented forms of human experience will also result in novel experiences of interoception. When we eventually build large artificial structures in space and spin them in order to imitate terrestrial gravity, there may be some individuals who cannot distinguish between this imitation of gravity and gravity on the surface of Earth, while other individuals may feel a difference. Some individuals may be made ill by the sensation, and in this way artificial structures will be strongly selective of who remains there — and therefore strongly selective of who does and does not create the human future in space.

When, in the further future, our technology allows us to travel at relativistic velocities, we will have yet further experiences of acceleration and of our personal consciousness of time in relation to time dilation, and the twin paradox that I have recently discussed (e.g., in Kierkegaard and Futurism) will prove to be not a limitation, but rather a revelation. We will learn things about ourselves and about the human condition that could not be learned in any other way than the actual experience of living in various extraterrestrial environments.

The overview effect is only the beginning of the human, all-too-human experience of space travel. The exploration of space will not only open new worlds to us beyond Earth, but will also open new inner worlds to us as the human condition expands to comprise unprecedented experiences that can have no parallel on Earth.

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A Note on Terminology: terminology is important, because our vocabulary for the internal experience of our bodies is relatively impoverished in comparison with the vocabulary at our command when it comes to our knowledge of the external world. Neither interoception or “enteroreception” appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. The Free Online Dictionary defines “interception” as “sensitivity to stimuli originating inside of the body.”

I found this distinction made between “enteroreception” and “exteroreception”: “Enteroreception or changes within the organsim that are detected by receptor cells within the organism. Exteroreception or changes that occur outside the orgnasim that are detected by receptor cells at the surface of the organism.”

I am here using “interoception” as a blanket term to cover all forms of visceral perception and sensation, though it might to worth considering coining a new term to cover all these uses, such as, for example, endoception.

There is an interesting glossary of terms related to interoception in The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies by Mark Paterson (New York and Oxford: Berg, 2007):

Haptic Relating to the sense of touch in all its forms, including those below.

Proprioception Perception of the position, state and movement of the body and limbs in space. Includes cutaneous, kinaesthetic, and vestibular sensations.

Vestibular Pertaining to the perception of balance, head position, acceleration and deceleration. Information obtained from semi-circular canals in the inner ear.

Kinaesthesia The sensation of movement of body and limbs. Relating to sensations originating in muscles, tendons and joints.

Cutaneous Pertaining to the skin itself or the skin as a sense organ. Includes sensation of pressure, temperature and pain.

Tactile Pertaining to the cutaneous sense, but more specifically the sensation of pressure (from mechanoreceptors) rather than temperature (thermoceptors) or pain (nociceptors).

Force Feedback Relating to the mechanical production of information sensed by the human kinaesthetic system. Devices provide cutaneous and kinaesthetic feedback that usually correlates to the visual display.

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The Overview Effect

The Epistemic Overview Effect

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Perspective Taking

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

The Human Overview

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

A Further Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought, in the Way of Providing a Measure of Disambiguation in Regard to the Role of Temporality

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Civilizations of Planetary Endemism

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Epistemic Overview Effect

14 September 2013



OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

The Overview Effect

The “overview effect” is so named for the view of the earth entire — an “overview” of the earth — enjoyed by astronauts and cosmonauts, as well as the change in perspective that a few of these privileged observers have had as a result of seeing the earth whole with their own eyes.

One of these astronauts, Edgar Mitchell, who was on the 1971 Apollo mission and was the sixth human being to walk on the moon, has been instrumental to bringing attention to the overview effect, and has written a book about his experiences as an astronaut and how it affected his perception and perspective, The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds. A short film has been made about the overview effect, and an institution has been established to study and to promote the overview effect, The Overview Institute.

Here is an extract from the declaration of The Overview Institute:

For more than four decades, astronauts from many cultures and backgrounds have been telling us that, from the perspective of Earth orbit and the Moon, they have gained such a vision. There is even a common term for this experience: “The Overview Effect”, a phrase coined in the book of the same name by space philosopher and writer Frank White. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative. Even more so, many of them tell us that from the Overview perspective, all of this seems imminently achievable, if only more people could have the experience!

We have a hint of the overview effect when we see pictures of the Earth as a “blue marble” and as a “pale blue dot”; those who have had the opportunity to see the Earth as a blue marble with their own eyes have been affected by this vision to a greater extent than we can presumably understand from seeing the photographs. Here is another description of the overview effect:

When people leave the surface of the Earth and travel into Low Earth Orbit, to a space station, or the moon, they see the planet differently. My colleague at the Overview Institute, David Beaver, likes to emphasize that they not only see the Earth from space but also in space. He has also been a strong proponent that we describe what then happens as a change in world view.

Deep Space: The Philosophy of the Overview Effect, Frank White

In the same essay White then quotes himself from his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, on the same theme:

“Mental processes and views of life cannot be separated from physical location. Our “world view” as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.”

Frank White has sought to give a systematic exposition of the overview effect in his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, which seeks to develop a philosophy of space travel derived from the personal experience of space by space travelers.


The Spatial Overview

There is no question in my mind that sometimes you have to see things for yourself. I have invoked this argument numerous times in writing about travel — no amount of eloquent description or stunning photographs can substitute for the experience of seeing a place for yourself with your own eyes. This is largely a matter of context: being in a place, experiencing a place as a presence, requires one’s own presence, and one’s own presence can be realized only as the result of a journey. A journey contextualizes an experience within the experiences required the reach the object of the journey. The very fact that one must travel in order to each a destination alters the experience of the destination itself.

To be present in a landscape means that all of one’s senses are engaged: one not only sees, but one sees with the whole of one’s peripheral vision, and when one turns one’s body in order to take in more of the landscape, one not only sees more of the landscape, but one feels one’s body turn; one smells the air; one hears the distinctive reverberations of the most casual sounds — all of the things that remind us that this is not an illusion but possesses all the chance qualities that mark a real, concrete experience.

I have remarked in other posts that one of the distinctive trends in contemporary philosophy of mind is that of emphasizing the embodiedness of the mind, and in this context the embodied mind is a mind that is inseparable from its sensory apparatus and its sensory apparatus is inseparable from the world with which it is engaged. When our eyes hurt as we look at the sun we are reminded by this visceral experience of sight — one might say overwhelming sight — that we experience the world in virtue of a sensory apparatus that is made of essentially the same materials as the world — that there is an ontological reciprocity of eye that sees and sun that shines, and it is only because the two share the same world and are made of the same materials that they stand in a relation of cause and effect to each other. We are part of the world, of the world, and in the world.

Presumably, then, to the present in space and feel oneself kineasthetically in space — most obviously, the feeling of a micro-gravity environment once off the surface of the earth — is part of the experience of the overview effect, as is the dramatic journey into orbit, which must remind the viewer of the difficulty of attaining the perspective of seeing the world whole. This is the overview effect in space.

temporal overview

The Temporal Overview

There is also the possibility of an overview effect in time. For the same reason that we might insist that some experiences must be had for oneself, and that one must be present spatially in a spatial landscape in order to appreciate that landscape for what it is, we might also insist that a person who has lived a long life and who has experienced many things has a certain kind of understanding of the temporal landscape of life, and it is only through a conscious knowledge of the experience of time and history that we can attain an overview of time.

The movement in contemporary historiography called Big History (which I have written about several times, e.g., in The Science of Time and Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time) is an attempt to achieve an overview experience of time and history.

I have observed elsewhere that we find ourselves swimming in the ocean of history, but this very immersion in history often prevents us from seeing history whole — which is an interesting contrast to the spatial overview experience, which which contextualization in a particular space is necessary to its appreciation and understanding. But contextualization in a particular time — which we would otherwise call parochialism — tends to limit our historical perspective, and we must actively make an effort to free ourselves from our temporal and historical contextualization in order to see time and history whole.

It is the effort to free ourselves from temporal parochialism, and the particularities and peculiarities of our own time, that give as a perspective on history that is not tied to any one history but embraces the whole of time as the context of many different histories. This is the overview effect in time.

Knowledge Tree

The Epistemic Overview

I would like to suggest that there is also an epistemic overview effect. It is not enough to be told about knowledge in the way that newspaper and magazine articles might tell a popular audience about a new scientific discovery, or in the way that textbooks tell students about the wider world. While in some cases this may be sufficient, and we must rely upon the reports of others because we cannot construct the whole of knowledge on our own, in many cases knowledge must be gained firsthand in order for its proper significance to be appreciated.

Elsewhere (in P or not-P) I have illustrated the distinction between a constructive and a non-constructive point of view being something like the difference between climbing up a mountain, clambering over every rock until one achieves the summit (constructive) versus taking a helicopter and being set down on the summit from above (non-constructive). (I have taken this example over from French mathematician Alain Connes.) With this image in mind, being blasted off into space and seeing the mountain from orbit is a paradigmatically non-constructive experience, and it is difficult to imagine how it could be made a constructive experience.

Well, there are ways. Once space technology becomes widely distributed and accessible, if a person were to build their own SSTO from off-the-shelf parts and then pilot themselves into orbit, that would be something like a constructive experience of the overview effect. And if we go on to create a vibrant and vigorous spacefaring civilization, making it into orbit will only be the first of many steps, so that a constructive experience of space travel will be to “climb” one’s way from the surface of the earth through the solar system and beyond, touching every transitional point in between. It has been said that the journey of the thousand miles begins with a single step — this is very much a constructivist perspective. And it holds true that a journey of a million miles or a billion miles begins with a single step, and that first step of a cosmic voyage is the step that takes us beyond the surface of the earth.

Despite the importance and value of the constructivist perspective, it has its limitations, just as the oft-derided non-constructive point of view has its particular virtues and its significance. Non-constructive methods can reveal to us knowledge that is disruptive because it is forced upon us suddenly, in one fell swoop. Such an experience is memorable; it leaves an impression, and quite possibly it leaves much more of an impression that a painstakingly gradual revelation of exactly the same perspective.

This is the antithesis of the often-cited example of a frog placed in a pot of water and which doesn’t jump out as the water is slowly brought to a boil. The frog in this scenario is a victim of constructivist gradualism; if the frog had had a non-constructive perspective on the hot water in which he was being boiled to death, he might have jumped out and saved himself. And perhaps this is exactly what we need as human beings: a non-constructive (and therefore disruptive) perspective on a the familiar life that has crept over us day-by-day, step-by-step, and bit-by-bit.

An epistemic overview of knowledge can give us a disruptive conception of the totality of knowledge that is not unlike the disruptive experience of the overview effect in space, which allows us to see the earth whole, and the disruptive experience of time that allows us to see history whole. Moreover, I would argue that the epistemic overview is the ultimate category — the summum genus — that must contextualize the overview effect in space and in time. However, it is important to point out that the immediate visceral experience of the overview effect may be the trigger that is required for an individual to begin to seek the epistemic overview that will give meaning to his experiences.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Risk and Knowledge

9 May 2013


Fifth in a Series on Existential Risk

space scene small

Thinking about the Epistemology of Risk

A personal anecdote

What is risk? I have considered this question several times, in different contexts, as, for example, in Risk Management: A Personal View and more recently in Moral Imperatives Imposed by Existential Risk, but today although I want to consider some highly general philosophical ideas about risk, and I am going to start with a highly personal anecdote — a human interest story, if you will. Ultimately I need to make the philosophical effort to bring together these many threads of risk into something more general and comprehensive — but first, the personal story.

When my mother retired, she had for a few years been paying into a private retirement annuity. Upon her retirement she was in a position to begin drawing from this annuity, so I spent some time on the telephone with the financial representative. We had some long calls before we settled on an option that would best serve the financial interests of my mother. The amount she had saved up was not large, but it was enough that she was able to arrange for a fixed monthly payment in perpetuity, in return for handing over the lump sum of her annuity to the financial services company into which she had been making contributions to her annuity.

My mother was surprised to find that if she surrendered her capital to the financial institution with which she had the annuity, that they would promise to pay her a certain amount every month for the rest of her life, regardless of how many payments they had to made. I explained that financial institutions hire professionals called actuaries who calculate the likelihood of how long individuals will live and when they are likely to die. The actuaries make their judgments from statistics, not knowing the individual person. I assured by mother than she is far more healthy than the average person of her age, that the actuaries don’t know any details about an individual’s life, how active they are, what foods they eat, how the individual responds to stress, and so forth.

The actuary as non-constructivist

The actuary engages in classic non-constructivist thought in asserting that a certain number of persons of a certain age will die within a certain period of time, within identifying exactly which individuals are the ones who will die and which individuals are the ones who will live. The actuary sees the big picture (the aerial view of populations, as it were), and from the perspective of investing billions of dollars and insuring the financial security of millions of people, it is the big picture that matters. While life and death is everything to the individual, it is fungible to an institution, and the actuary embodies the institutional point of view.

While it would be possible for an insurance company or a financial institution to pursue a constructivist methodology, in practice this would be unwieldy and inefficient. A constructivist actuary would need to start from the ground up with the facts of the life of each individual, building a detailed profile from verified data. All of this requires time, and time is money. No insurance company or financial institution that pursued this method on a large scale could make a profit, because any gains from the strategy would be offset by the additional costs incurred by information gathering effort.

Actuaries can be extremely accurate on a statistical basis, considering populations on the whole, even while they can be completely wrong in regard to individuals who are members of a given population. Some individuals who are part of a population that dies, on average, at 65, may well live to be 75, 85, or 95 and still not skew the average for the population on the whole. Another individual might die much younger than the average without skewing the average on the whole.

If you know individuals personally, and you know that, for example, someone tends to drive in an erratic and dangerous manner that very well might get them killed, then you have knowledge that the actuary does not have — knowledge, in fact, that the actuary doesn’t even try to address. The actuary might control for age, gender, marital status, geographical location, and all the ordinary information you might put on a questionnaire. Just this much information can be very valuable. With more information, much more can be done, but no financial institution or insurance company could pay to have agents follow investors or policy holders to learn their personal habits, and therefore build a more accurate risk profile for the insured.

The individual possesses knowledge that the institution — financial, insurance, governmental, or whatever else — does not possess, and the individual can leverage this ellipsis of knowledge in order to get a better deal for themselves.

Leveraging knowledge to manage risk

This is an obvious application of the distinction between uncertainty and risk. The more knowledge one has, the less one’s picture of the world is about uncertainty and the more it is about known risks, which are quantities for which one can take preventative or prophylactic measures. To make it personal, if you know someone is an awful driver, you avoid riding with them, and if you know someone becomes aggressive and belligerent when drunk, you avoid going drinking with them, or you take other measures that will protect you from the consequences of beings around a belligerent drunk. If you are especially cunning, you can even turn such known risks to your advantage (transforming a risk into an opportunity), employing calculated risks in a ruse or as a distraction. We all know people like this, and we know that they, too, are a danger to be avoided.

The lesson here is that when you have detailed personal knowledge about a situation, the calculation of risk can change dramatically. Or, to be more precise, matters that are given over to uncertainty in one model become objects of knowledge and therefore in a more epistemically intensive model are transformed from uncertainty into risk, and as risk are amenable to rational calculation. The scope of the calculus of risk expands and contracts, waxing and waning in proportion to knowledge. (Even the actuary, with all that he does not know, knows enough about what matters to his institution that he is dealing with a controlled, calculated risk and not uncertainty.)

Another personal anecdote about investing

Another personal story to illustrate how knowledge bears upon risk: recently in Rationing Financial Services I discussed the different financial services that are available to the working class, of a very basic if not rudimentary character, as compared to the advanced and sophisticated financial services available to the wealthy and the well-connected.

I also mentioned in this post how far my views are from the mainstream, and in my earlier post on Risk Management: A Personal View I mentioned a personal anecdote about how a financial adviser had expressed surprise by the risks that I was taking, when I didn’t believe myself to be taking any risks of particular note. In my most recent consultation with a financial professional, as I was asking questions about various investment products, one banker actually said to the other banker, “I don’t think that these [investments] will be risky enough for him.” I smiled inside. You would think I had been riding a superbike at 90 MPH on a winding mountain road without wearing a helmet. Not quite.

My tolerance for risk is not based on a thrill-seeking personality — I’m not about to take up BASE jumping — but rather upon knowledge. And in so far as I leverage my knowledge to shift the epistemic balance from uncertainty to risk, I am taking a calculated risk, against which I might insure myself (if I felt inclined to do so), but I am not plunging myself into blind uncertainty — in other words, I’m not a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread. The more knowledge one has, the less uncertainty one faces, the more one is presented with calculated risks in place of uncertainty.

When it comes to the investment products available to the individual of ordinary means, the options were really Hobson’s choice — i.e., the choice between what is offered and nothing. The process gave the appearance of choice, because there were a great many funds in which one could invest, and reams of information describing these investments, but really what it all came down to is that they were widely distributed funds of funds that would approximately track the market. I said to my banker than buying into these funds is simply the same as placing a bet on the S&P. If it goes up, you do well; if it goes down, you lose. End of story. I didn’t want the appearance of choice, I wanted the reality of choice.

I asked my banker if any of the funds focused on any particular industry, or resource, or were invested in any particular country or region of the world. No. None of the choices had any distinguishing features of this kind. They were all strategies for, one way or another, gaming the domestic US market to try to get a few more percentage points of profit than the next fund. In this case, having detailed knowledge of the world made no difference at all. If one cares to guess at the direction of the S&P, or if one feels that one has studied the domestic US market sufficiently to predict the direction of the S&P, then you have knowledge that is appropriate to this investment climate. Otherwise, your knowledge is useless and can’t be leveraged to your financial benefit. (I could, of course, become a day-trader, but I really don’t think that’s my thing.)

Knowledge and statistical probability

If you have both real knowledge and real options, your investment portfolio can be less at risk than placing a single bet on the direction of the US market, but my attitude in this respect was treated as one of welcoming more risk — because the requisite knowledge was not taken into account. Knowledge is a factor in the calculation of risk. In fact, knowledge constitutes one among “all factors not really indeterminate” which Frank Knight identified as being crucial to the determination of statistical probability (cf. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty).

If you lack knowledge about the structure and functioning of the global economy, then your ability to choose wise investments is not likely to be any better than your ability to guess the direction of the US market average, and this is the presumption of ignorance that is built into the kind of investment options available to most people. Or if you think you know what is going on, but your knowledge is merely illusory, you might be lucky or you might by unlucky in investing, but your chances are no better than an up or down gamble. But if you have the knowledge of many different sectors of the global economy, and of many different industries and of regions of the world, it really isn’t much of a challenge to be able to improve your chances over the 50/50 guesswork involved in a bet on the S&P.

A curious parallel

Our collective situation as a species is in some ways not unlike my individual situation as an investor: being “stuck” on the surface of the earth, we have Hobson’s choice when it comes to existential risk management and mitigation: the earth or nothing. Take it or leave it. That’s not much of a choice, and it is curiously parallel to my own lack of choices in investments. And this lack of choices gives us no opportunity to leverage our growing knowledge of the cosmos from recent gains in space science in order to get the edge of existential risk. Our knowledge of the universe, at present, makes no difference at all in mitigating existential risk.

The more knowledge that we have of the cosmos, and of the human position within a cosmological context, the more knowledge we will have concerning the exact existential risks that we face. That increase in our knowledge will serve to transmute existential uncertainty into existential risk, sensu stricto, and in so doing will possibly present us with clearcut options of “insuring” against the existential risk in question. But our civilization, in its present form, has a presumption of ignorance built into it. There are countless existential risk mitigation and management options that we simply cannot pursue because we are planet-bound.

Existential risk mitigation aspects of space-based science and industry

When, in the future development of earth-originating extraterrestrial civilization, we begin to construct large-scale scientific instruments off the surface of the earth — say, a large radio-telescope array on the far side of the moon, sheltered from the EM spectrum noise generated by our busy earth — our ability to see deep into the cosmos (farther and more clearly in terms of distance, and therefore also in terms of time) our knowledge of astronomy, cosmology, and astrophysics will increase by an order of magnitude beyond the kind of observations that are possible from the surface of the earth.

Thus large space-based scientific installations will have a two-fold value in the mitigation of existential risk:

1) such facilities would be a function of space-based industry, which in turn would be a function of space-based human presence, and it would be a sustainable human presence in space that would be the first step in overcoming the manifest vulnerability of a species confined to a single planetary body, and …

2) the knowledge yielded by such facilities would significantly increase our knowledge of the universe, and hence of our place in the universe, which knowledge, as we have seen above, is crucial in transforming unactionable uncertainty into actionable risk

In fact, these two existential risk mitigation aspects of space-based science and industry are integral with each other: the space-based position allows us to exploit opportunities not available on the surface of the earth, and the knowledge gained from this enterprise will raise our awareness of opportunities now only dimly perceived.

To adequately assess our existential uncertainty and transform it into existential risk that might be mitigated and managed, we need to acquire existential knowledge — that is to say, knowledge of the existential milieu of human beings, a cosmological equivalent of situational awareness. What situational awareness is to the individual facing existential threats, knowledge of existential risk is to the species facing existential threats.

The more existential knowledge that we have, the better we can calculate our existential risk, and the better we can manage and mitigate that risk.

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danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

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ex risk ahead

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Two Epistemic Paradigms

27 December 2011


René Descartes lived in this house in Westermarkt 6, Amsterdam. If you wanted to rebuild it from the ground up, you would need to live in another house in the meantime.

Yesterday in The Philosophy of Fear I quoted Descartes from his Discourse on Method, from the section in which he introduces an implicit distinction between the theoretical principles he will use to guide his philosophical activities and the practical moral principles that he will employ in his life while he is going about his theoretical activity. Here is his exposition of his four theoretical principles:

The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.

The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.

The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.

And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.

Anyone who knows Descartes’ works will recognize that he has here stated, much more simply and compactly, the principles that he was working on in his unfinished manuscript Rules of the Direction of Mind. Here, by way of contrast, is a highly condensed version of Descartes’ practical and provisional moral principles:

The first was to obey the laws and customs of my country, adhering firmly to the faith in which, by the grace of God, I had been educated from my childhood and regulating my conduct in every other matter according to the most moderate opinions, and the farthest removed from extremes, which should happen to be adopted in practice with general consent of the most judicious of those among whom I might be living.

My second maxim was to be as firm and resolute in my actions as I was able, and not to adhere less steadfastly to the most doubtful opinions, when once adopted, than if they had been highly certain; imitating in this the example of travelers who, when they have lost their way in a forest, ought not to wander from side to side, far less remain in one place, but proceed constantly towards the same side in as straight a line as possible, without changing their direction for slight reasons, although perhaps it might be chance alone which at first determined the selection; for in this way, if they do not exactly reach the point they desire, they will come at least in the end to some place that will probably be preferable to the middle of a forest.

My third maxim was to endeavor always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented…

Descartes wrote a lot a extremely long run-on sentences, so that one must cut radically in order to quote him (except for his theoretical principles, above, which I have quoted entire), but I have tried to include enough above to give a genuine flavor of how he expressed himself. Although Descartes did not himself make this distinction between theoretical and practical principles explicit, although the distinction is explicitly embodied in his two sets of explicitly stated principles, he does provide a justification for the distinction:

“…as it is not enough, before commencing to rebuild the house in which we live, that it be pulled down, and materials and builders provided, or that we engage in the work ourselves, according to a plan which we have beforehand carefully drawn out, but as it is likewise necessary that we be furnished with some other house in which we may live commodiously during the operations, so that I might not remain irresolute in my actions, while my reason compelled me to suspend my judgement, and that I might not be prevented from living thenceforward in the greatest possible felicity, I formed a provisory code of morals, composed of three or four maxims, with which I am desirous to make you acquainted.”

After I quoted this in The Philosophy of Fear I realized that it constitutes a perfect antithesis to the conception of the rational reconstruction of knowledge embodied in the image of Neurath’s ship, which I have quoted several times.

Rational reconstruction was an idea that fascinated early twentieth century philosophers, especially the logical positivists, whose philosophical tradition would eventually mature and transform itself into mainstream analytical philosophy. It was logical positivism that gave us an enduring image of rational reconstruction, as related by Otto Neurath:

“There is no way of taking conclusively established pure protocol sentences as the starting point of the sciences. No tabula rasa exists. We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials. Only the metaphysical elements can be allowed to vanish without trace.”

Quine then used this image in his Word and Object:

“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

These two epistemic paradigms — what I will call Descartes’ house and Neurath’s ship — represent antithetical conceptions of the epistemological enterprise. Neurath’s ship is usually presented as an anti-foundationalist parable, which would suggest that Descartes’ house is a foundationalist parable. There are certain problems with this initial characterization. The logical positivists who invoked Neurath’s ship with approval were often foundationalists in the philosophy of mathematics while being anti-foundational in other areas.

There is a sense in which it is fair to call Descartes’ house a foundationalist parable: Descartes is suggesting a radical approach to the foundations of knowledge — utterly tearing down our knowledge in order to construct entirely anew on the same ground — and he attempted to put this into practice in his own philosophical work. He doubted everything that he could until he arrived at the fact that he could not doubt his own existence, and then on the basis of the certainty of his own existence he attempted to reconstruct the entire edifice of knowledge. The result was not radical, but actually rather conventional, but the method certainly was radical. It was also total.

Whether or not Neurath’s ship is anti-foundational, it is certainly incrementalist. If we were to attempt to rebuild a ship while at sea, we would need to proceed bit by bit, and very carefully. Nothing radical would be attempted, for to attempt anything radical would be to sink the ship. There is a sense in which we could identify this effort as essentially constructivist in spirit, though not exclusively constructivist: constructivism is certainly not the only motivation for Neurath’s ship, and many who invoked it employed non-constructive modes of reasoning.

Are Descartes’ house and Neurath’s ship mutually exclusive? Not necessarily. We do remodel houses while living in them, although when we do we need to keep some basic functions available during our residency. And we can demolish certain parts of a ship at sea; as long as the hull remains intact, we can engage in a radical reconstruction (as opposed to a rational reconstruction) of the masts and the rigging.

One ought not to push an image too far, for fear of verging on the ludicrous, but it can be observed that, while living in a house, we can tear down half of it to the ground and rebuild that half from scratch while living in the other half, and then repeat this process in the half we have been living in. In fact, I know people who have done this. There will, of course, be certain compromises that will have to be made in wedding the two halves together, so that the seam between the two has the incrementalist character of Neurath’s ship, while each half has the radical and total character of Descartes’ house.

It is difficult to imagine a parallel for the above scenario when it comes to Neurath’s ship. The hull of the ship can only be rebuilt incrementally, although almost everything else can be radically reconstructed. And it may well be that some parts of epistemology must be approached incrementally while other parts of epistemology may be radically reconstructed almost with impunity. This seems like an eminently reasonable conclusion. But it is no conclusion — at least not yet — because there is more to say.

What underlies the image of Descartes’ house and Neurath’s ship is in each case a distinct metaphor, and that metaphor is for Descartes the earth, the solid ground upon which we stand, while for Neurath it is the sea, to which we must go down in ships, and where we cannot stand but must swim or be carried. So, we have two epistemic metaphors — of what are they metaphors? Existence? Being? Human experience? Knowledge? If the house or the ship is knowledge, then the ground or the sea must be that upon which knowledge rests (or floats). This once again suggests a foundationalist approach, but points to very different foundations: a house stands on dirt and stones; a ship floats on water.

Does knowledge ultimately rest upon the things themselves — the world, existence, or being, as you prefer — or upon human experience of the world? Or is not knowledge a consequence of the tension between human experience and the world, so that both the world and human experience are necessary to knowledge?

Intuitively, and without initially putting much thought into this (although I will continue to think about this because it is an interesting idea), I would suggest that the metaphor of the earth implies that knowledge ultimately is founded on the things themselves, while the metaphor of the sea implies that knowledge ultimately is founded on the ever-changing tides of human experience.

Therefore, if knowledge requires both the world and human experience, either the metaphor of Descartes’ house or Neurath’s ship alone, in isolation from the other, is inadequate. We need something more, or something different, to illustrate our relation to knowledge and how it changes.

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If you want to rebuild a ship at sea, you'd better be careful about how you go about it.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Above is a photograph that I took of Prague when I visited in 1992. There are many readily identifiable elements in the image. Even individuals without deep geographical knowledge might recognize the Charles Bridge or St. Vitus Cathedral, even if they didn’t know the names of these structures. More generally, a person is likely to notice that it is a European city that is in the photograph. The closer up your view, the more detail you see, and the more detail you see, the more knowledge that you have — though it is knowledge of a certain kind, specific to a particular scale. We could call this knowledge of a particular order of magnitude, or an epistemic order of magnitude.

This Oslo street scene (above) that I took in 2009 reveals more detail than the landscape view of Prague — for example, one can read individual signs, and perhaps even recognize a particular advertising campaign — but it would be difficult to identify the city unless you had really encyclopedic knowledge of the area. While this probably holds true for street scenes in most cities, there are, of course, immediately identifiable street scenes, such as that below, since it includes a portion of the readily identifiable Brandenburg Gate.

When we pull back further, looking at a city from a great distance, the texture and fabric of urban space presents a certain sameness to the eye, although a keen observer will still be able to pick out distinctive features. In Modernization, Industrialization, Urbanization I wrote regarding this distant perspective:

“Viewed from a distance, a contemporary Japanese city and a contemporary American city are indistinguishable, like two threads, black and white, held at arm’s length at twilight. But up close, profound differences are obvious. Seeing the big picture is just as important as seeing the details.”

The photograph below of San Francisco might be mistaken for another large city of the industrial era, and it could be just about anywhere, except it does reveal some of those distinctive features, such as the distinctive Transamerica Pyramid.

Pulling back even farther, moving to another order of magnitude in perspective, identifying a city can become quite problematic. Individual landmarks mostly disappear, except for truly monumental constructions, and most cities lack truly monumental constructions and thus become indistinguishable at this level. Consider the photograph below:

I cannot remember where I found this photograph, and I can’t identify it. The photograph admirably shows the road and rail networks that cut through all cities of the late twentieth century, and I suspect that it is in Europe or North America, but it could just as well be on other continents. There are details that can be picked out, but what we must notice at this level of magnification is the overall structure.

Some cities, even from orbital distance, are immediately recognizable, as with Brasília, which we can see (above) retaining the structure of its original plan (below). Generally speaking, planned cities built rapidly in accordance with a recognizable geometry are likely to be readily identifiable, whereas organic cities that grew up without a plan are less clearly differentiated.

Other cities have distinctive harbors or a relation to a distinctive river or ocean coastline or other natural feature that would make them identifiable, although few people have an encyclopedic knowledge of harbors and would be able to identify a city on that basis. Here (below) is Naples from space:

It used to be said, “See Naples and die,” such was its reputation for urban beauty. Whatever the reputation of Naples today, this kind of beauty is not recognizable from a great distance. Probably Naples would be a little more recognizable if the entire Bay of Naples were included. Here (below) is Tokyo’s harbor from space:

Whatever one knows or does not know about Naples and Tokyo, the satellite photographs tell you something important about their economies that may well not be revealed by a photograph of a street scene: both are major ports, and their economies are therefore tied to trade. And here (below) is São Paulo from space:

São Paulo is close to the coast, and while many maps make it look like it is on the coast, it is in fact an inland city. While São Paulo is one of the largest cities in the world, and therefore an economic force to reckon with, we can see that a port does not play the same role in its economy that port facilities play in Tokyo or, for example, Seattle, which is as wedded to Puget Sound, into which ocean-going ships can freely enter, as Tokyo is wedded to Tokyo Bay. While not a satellite photograph, this picture gives a great sense of Seattle’s dependence on water-borne commerce:

Some cities are a surprise from an aerial view, and present an aspect not at all evident from the ground. Take this city for example:

Who would have guessed that Khandahar is so orderly, with its regular grid plan and cruciform center? No street scenes give a sense of Khandahar’s overall order. It certainly surprised me. I suspect there is an interesting story behind Khandahar’s macroscopic order, and I would like to know that it is. My first intuition is that Khandahar has grown up from an ancient Roman street plan, which centered a city on the perpendicular crossing of the Decumanus Maximus and Cardo Maximus. This may be the case, but I have not confirmed this. The city of Poreč on the Istrian Peninsula, known for retaining it Roman street plan, has a far less obvious cruciform plan than Khandahar:

Poreč on the Istrian Peninsula

Barcino, Split, Umm Qais, and Damascus are also known for their preservation of Roman planning, and now that I think of it I will need to look at aerial or orbital pictures of these cities and see if they approach the rectilinear regularly of Khandahar. In any case, at least part of a city’s history may be evident from the abstract perspective afforded by distance.

If we pull back far enough, a city ceases to even look like a city. In the NASA photograph above, it has been observed that London at night looks like a constellation. Many of the satellite images above reveal cities that, from a distance, look like organic growths — or, if you prefer a more threatening image, like a cancer on the land.

There is a sense in which an view of cities from a distance gives us an abstract perspective — both upon the city itself, as a whole and as an artifact, and upon urbanized human life, which is inseparable from the city upon which it supervenes.

Abstract perspectives of necessity lack the kind of detail of a concrete perspective, but we learn particular kinds of things from an abstract perspective, and different kinds of things that we learn from close up concrete detail. The abstract and the concrete represent distinct (though complementary) epistemic orders of magnitude.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Addendum on Beholding

2 March 2010


Martin Schongauer’s treatment of the Ecce Homo theme — Behold the man! I once had the good fortune to see an exhibition of Schongauer’s graphic works, when I visited the famous Unter den linden Museum in Colmar, France, where I had made an aesthetic pilgrimage to see the Issenheim Altar.

A couple of days ago in What it Means to Behold I suggested that the relationship of beholding belongs to a unique epistemic category. I didn’t think of it at the time (though it seems obvious now), but the quote attributed to Paul Valéry that I have discussed on several occasions — to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees — could be said to exemplify at least one aspect of beholding.

There is, in the Valéry quote, a recognition of a mode of both perception and of cognition that has become removed from the familiar order of things. The suspension of familiar linguistic conventions and categories implied by the quote is part of this (and this is what the Russian formalists called “defamiliarization”). But beholding goes father than this. One could say that to behold is to forget the name of thing one beholds, and also to forget oneself and to forget the world entire. In the attitude of beholding there is the object that is beheld and nothing else, nothing more.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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