Our Terrestrial Heritage

27 February 2017

Monday


Étienne-Louis Boullée, Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)

Étienne-Louis Boullée, Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)

In my previous post, Do the clever animals have to die?, I considered the “ultimate concern” (to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich) of existential risk mitigation: the survival of life and other emergent complexities beyond the habitability of its homeworld or home planetary system. While a planetary system could be inhabited for hundreds of millions of years in most cases, and possibly for billion or tens of billions of years (the latter in the case of red dwarf stars, as in the recently discovered planetary system at TRAPPIST-1, which appears to be a young star with a long history ahead of it), there are yet many events that could occur that could render a homeworld or an entire planetary system uninhabitable, or which could be sufficiently catastrophic that a civilization clustered in the vicinity of a single star would almost certainly be extirpated by them (e.g., a sufficiently large gamma ray burst, GRB, from outside our solar system, or a sufficiently large coronal mass ejection, CME, from within our solar system).

Because any civilization that endures for cosmologically significant periods of time must have established multiple independent centers of civilization, and will probably have survived its homeworld having become uninhabitable, mature advanced civilizations may view this condition as definitive of a mature civilization. Having ensured their risk of extinction against existential threats through establishing multiple independent centers of civilization, these advanced civilizations may not regard as a “peer” (i.e., not regard as a fellow advanced civilization) any civilization that still remains tightly-coupled to its homeworld.

It nevertheless may be the case (if there are, or will be, multiple examples of advanced civilizations) that some civilizations choose to remain tightly-coupled to their homeworlds. We can posit this as the condition of a certain kind of civilization. In the question and answer segment following my 2015 talk, What kind of civilizations build starships? a member of the audience, Alex Sherwood, suggested, in contradistinction to the expansion hypothesis, a constancy hypothesis, according to which a civilization does not expand and does not contract, but rather remains constant; I would prefer to call this the equilibrium hypothesis. One way in which a civilization might exemplify the constancy hypothesis would be for it to remain tightly-coupled to its homeworld.

Some subset of homeworld-coupled civilizations will probably experience extinction due to this choice. Such a homeworld-coupled civilization might choose, instead of establishing multiple independent centers of civilization as existential risk mitigation, to instead establish de-extinction and backup measures that would allow civilization to be restored on its homeworld despite any realized existential risks. However, while this approach to civilizational longevity may ensure the existence of a civilization over the billions of years of the life of its parent star, if a civilization does not want the historical accident of the age of its parent star to determine its ongoing viability, then such a civilization must abandon its homeworld and eventually also its home planetary system.

A civilization might continue to exemplify the equilibrium hypothesis by maintaining the unity and distinctiveness of its civilization despite needing to pursue megastructure-scale projects in order to ensure its ongoing existential viability. The idea of constructing a Shkadov thruster to move a star was partly inspired by this particular conception of the equilibrium hypothesis, as a star might, by this method, be moved to another, younger star, and the homeworld transferred into the orbit of that younger star. In this way, the relationship to the parent star is de-coupled, but the relationship to homeworld remains exclusive. At yet another remove, an entire civilization might simply choose to pick up from its homeworld and transfer itself to another chosen world. (As an historical analogy, consider the ancient city of Knidos, which was founded on the Datça Peninsula, but as the city grew in size and wealth, the city fathers decided that they needed to start again, so they built themselves a new and grander city nearby, and moved the entire city to this new location.) This conception of the equilibrium hypothesis would de-couple a civilization from both parent star and homeworld, but could still maintain the civilization as a unique and distinctive whole, thus continuing that civilization in its equilibrium condition.

A civilization that establishes multiple independent centers of civilization (and thus, to some degree, exemplifies the expansion hypothesis) might still retain strong connections to its homeworld — only not the connection of dependency. Such civilizations fully independent of a homeworld might be said to be loosely-coupled to their homeworld, in contradistinction to civilizations tightly-coupled to their homeworld and exemplifying the equilibrium hypothesis. Expansionary civilizations might remain in close contact with a homeworld for as long as the homeworld was habitable, only to fully abandon it when the homeworld could no longer support life.

Eventually, as the climate changes and the continents move and the surface of Earth is entirely rearranged, as would be experienced by a billion-year-old civilization, almost all terrestrial cities and monuments will disappear, and even the familiar look of Earth will change until it eventually becomes unrecognizable. The heritage of terrestrial civilization might be preserved in part by moving entire monuments to other worlds, or to no world at all, but perhaps to a permanent artificial habitat that is not a planet. Terrestrial places might be recreated on other worlds (or, again, on no world at all) in a grand gesture of historical reconstruction.

There might be other surprising ways of preserving our terrestrial heritage, such as building projects that were never realized on Earth. For example, some future civilization might choose to build Étienne-Louis Boullée’s design for an enormous cenotaph commemorating Isaac Newton, or Antoni Gaudí’s unbuilt skyscraper, or indeed any number of countless projects conceived but never built. An entire city of unbuilt buildings could be constructed on other worlds, which would be new cities, cities never before built, but cities in the tradition of our terrestrial heritage, maintaining the connection to our homeworld even while looking to a future de-coupled from that homeworld.

A civilization that outlasts its homeworld could be said to be de-coupled from its homeworld, though the homeworld will always be the origin of the intelligent agent that is the progenitor of a civilization, and hence a touchstone and a point of reference — like a hometown that one has left in order to pursue a career in the wider world. One would expect historical reconstruction and reenactment in order to maintain our intimacy with the past, which is, at the same time, our intimacy with our homeworld, should we become de-coupled from Earth. If humanity goes on to expand into the universe, establishing multiple independent centers of civilization, including gestures of respect to our terrestrial past in the form of reconstruction, the eventual loss of the Earth to habitability may not come as such a devastating blow if some trace of Earth was preserved.

When the uninhabitability of the Earth does become a definite prospect, and should civilization endure up to that time, that future civilization’s opportunities for historical preservation and conservation will be predicated upon the technological resources available at that time, and what conception of authenticity prevails in that future age. A civilization of sufficiently advanced technology might simply preserve its homeworld entire, as a kind of museum, moving it to wherever would be convenient in order to maintain it in some form that it would be visited by antiquaries and eccentrics. Or such a future civilization might deem such preservation to be undesirable, and only certain artifacts would be removed before the planet entire was consumed by the sun as it expands into a red giant star. In an emergency abandonment of Earth, what could be evacuated would be limited, and principles of selection therefore more rigorous — but also constrained by opportunity. In the event of emergency abandonment, there might also be the possibility of returning for salvage after the emergency had passed.

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Antonio Sant'Elia's La Città Nuova, or Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City, or even Le Corbusier's Voisin plan for Paris might yet be built on other worlds.

Antonio Sant’Elia’s La Città Nuova, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, or even Le Corbusier’s Voisin plan for Paris might yet be built on other worlds.

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Saturday


Jean-Paul Sartre: existence precedes essence.

Jean-Paul Sartre: existence precedes essence.

Sartre’s skepticism regarding human nature (discussed in Human Nature) is not arbitrary and nihilistic skepticism, but has a theoretical basis in Sartre’s pure philosophical work. And while Being and Nothingness is a daunting and difficult work, in the same famous lecture we have quoted in which Sartre expressed his skepticism regarding human nature, Sartre also summarized many of his technical doctrines, and even reduced them to aphoristic sententiousness, as with existence precedes essence.

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. And this is what people call its “subjectivity,” using the word as a reproach against us. But what do we mean to say by this, but that man is of a greater dignity than a stone or a table? For we mean to say that man primarily exists – that man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before that projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be.

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” 1946, translated by Philip Mairet

In what sense are we to take “precedes”: in a temporal sense, or an ontological sense, or both? One could well maintain that the relation is one of deductive precedence, so that once given the extant, such as it is, the essential can be systematically derived. This is one form of ontological precedence, but it seems to be almost the negation of what Sartre was suggesting. The obvious interpretation, though not the only possible interpretation (or even the only plausible interpretation), is that the precedence of existence before essence is a temporal precedence: first there are existing things, and then there are the essences of existing things. This alone doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of essence. It does not even imply the derivative character of essence (in contradistinction to the non-derivative character of existence) as does an interpretation of “existence precedes essence” in terms of deductive (or ontological) precedence, as mentioned above.

The famous Cafe de Flore in Paris, where Sartre held court.

The famous Cafe de Flore in Paris, where Sartre held court.

To make the point that essence is derivative while existence is primary (that is to say, primitive, non-derivative), and to retain a naturalistic interpretation of the world, one must insist that the slogan “existence precedes essence” must be interpreted both in terms of deductive and temporal precedence. But in so doing, it becomes obvious that a great many other considerations have been imported into the formula: not least the imperative to maintain a naturalistic understanding of the world, however grossly nature is undervalued. But expressing an ontological doctrine in the space of an aphorism is likely to result in a certain degree of compression and thus ambiguity, so we ought not to fix too much on this simple formula, as Sartre’s longer treatment is readily available elsewhere.

Given a formulation of a philosophical principle as clear and as simple as existence precedes essence, it would seem obvious that Sartre’s principle can easily be confronted with its opposite by inverting the formula: essence precedes existence. How are we to interpret this? We must travel rather beyond the bounds of popularized philosophy to find an adequate philosophical embodiment of this, and we can find it, to a certain extent, in Alexius von Meinong.

Alexius von Meinong: being is independent from being-so.

Alexius von Meinong: being is independent from being-so.

Meinong’s principle of independence — that being is independent of being-so — may be contrasted to Sartre’s dictum that existence precedes essence, which is a principle of both ontological and temporal dependence. For Meinong, in other words, the way a thing is, or how a thing is (its “being-so”), is independent of the fact that a thing is. Meinong’s principle of independence would appear to be more strictly and purely ontological than Sartre’s principle. We know for a fact that with human manufactures essence precedes existence, and therefore for at least one class of existents — the class of manufactures — that Meinong’s principle holds: the being-so of what it is to be an article of manufacture is independent of its being. A design may or may not be put into production; there is, with the principle of independence, a recognition of the disconnect between idea and reality. An architect can design a building that is never in fact built, as with Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton. Thus also Meinong’s principle of independence does not hold for the complement of the class of entities for which Sartre’s principle holds.

Étienne-Louis Boullée’s design for a Cenotaph for Newton, which remains unbuilt. This is perhaps one of the most famous unbuilt structures in the history of architecture.

Étienne-Louis Boullée’s design for a Cenotaph for Newton, which remains unbuilt. This is perhaps one of the most famous unbuilt structures in the history of architecture.

A doctrine of relative degrees of independence could be readily formulated, (i.e., being might be dependent to a greater or lesser extent upon being-so), as could a doctrine of relative independence analogous to relative identity, (i.e., some individual aspects—properties—of an object might possess independence while others did not). Independence, like identity, is a concept that invites interpretation in terms of totality and absolutization, as exemplified by the implied tertium non datur : either being is independent of being-so (Meinong’s principle) or being is not independent of being-so (the negation of Meinong’s principle). If being is not independent of being-so, there are many ways in which it might be dependent, but if being is independent of being-so, then it is independent and there is nothing more to say.

One way in which being might be dependent upon being-so, or vice versa, is if existence always precedes being-so, that is to say, if existence precedes essence. So we see that Meinong’s principle of independence is somewhat more general that Sartre’s principle of existentialism. As we have seen, there are many ways for existence to precede essence, any many ways for being to be dependent upon being-so (and there is at least once sense in which the two coincide), but the independence of being and being-so (or, if you like, the independence of being and essence) seems to be of a more general character — a more sweeping principle, as it were.

There is not a perfect symmetry between Sartre’s principle and Meinong’s principle, although the two are sufficiently interrelated to be suggestive. But if we go beyond the realm of pure philosophy we can find a doctrine more perfectly in symmetrical opposition to Sartre. The inversion of Sartre’s principle – the principle that essence precedes existence – is clearly a teleological principle, and as such it could be considered a central principle of theism. Existentialism, under this interpretation, is not opposed to any other philosophical doctrine as much as it stands in opposition to theism.

But even here we run into trouble. In the same lecture of Sartre’s quoted above, Sartre makes a distinction between act and potential not unlike that promulgated by the schoolmen, and, again like the schoolmen, gives action priority over potential (this is a doctrine especially associated with St. Thomas Aquinas). Indeed, it could fairly be said that Sartre rejects potential as invidious to the understanding of human action.

“…in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art. The genius of Proust is the totality of the works of Proust; the genius of Racine is the series of his tragedies, outside of which there is nothing. Why should we attribute to Racine the capacity to write yet another tragedy when that is precisely what he did not write? In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait. No doubt this thought may seem comfortless to one who has not made a success of his life. On the other hand, it puts everyone in a position to understand that reality alone is reliable; that dreams, expectations and hopes serve to define a man only as deceptive dreams, abortive hopes, expectations unfulfilled; that is to say, they define him negatively, not positively.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” 1946, translated by Philip Mairet

This is a radical doctrine. And there is a sense in which it is astonishing that there should be any commonality between Sartre and the scholastics, not merely because Sartre was an explicit atheist, but rather because Sartre’s atheism runs deep, at a primordial level, and, though felt profoundly, was expressed in abstract and theoretical terms.

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Saint Thomas Aquinas: Absolutely speaking, act must be prior to potency, both in nature and in time, because every potential being is made actual by some actual being.

Saint Thomas Aquinas: Absolutely speaking, act must be prior to potency, both in nature and in time, because every potential being is made actual by some actual being.

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