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Late Adopter Spacefaring Civilizations:

Adoption-Lifecycle

The Preemption that Didn’t Happen


Wernher von Braun's design for a rotating space station that could simulate gravity.

Wernher von Braun’s design for a rotating space station that could simulate gravity.

Generalizing the Preemption Hypothesis

In The Preemption Hypothesis I advanced the idea that civilizations are sometimes suddenly preempted and rapidly supplanted by another kind of civilization. The paradigm case of this is the industrial revolution, which preempted a gradually emerging scientific civilization — a civilization I sometimes call Modernism without Industrialism — in favor of a radically different kind of civilization that changed the basic structure of life wherever the industrial revolution arrived.

A generalization of the preemption hypothesis suggests that any civilization is vulnerable to sudden preemption and rapid supplanting, should historical circumstances happen to line up — i.e., the ground is prepared for an innovation that arrives, which in the case of the industrial revolution meant that the legal and institutional framework of a commercial society was in place when the steam engine was invented, allowing this invention to be rapidly exploited, which in turn drove rapid social change.

The iconic space station featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey was an elaboration of von Braun's wheel space station.

The iconic space station featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey was an elaboration of von Braun’s wheel space station.

Unfulfilled Preemptions

If the generalization of the preemption hypothesis holds good, we would expect to be able to identify unfulfilled preemptions in history, and while any such judgment is inherently open to question, past preemptions that did not occur are not unfamiliar. On several occasions I have written about how Hero’s steam turbine did not trigger an industrial revolution in classical antiquity, nor did Taqi al-Din’s turbine trigger an industrial revolution in medieval Islamic civilization (cf. The Industrial Revolution and Scientific Civilization, Historical Disruption, and Hero’s Steam Engine and the Apollo Space Program).

In more recent history I would argue that an unfulfilled preemption occurred in the second half of the twentieth century. The industrial-technological civilization of the middle of the twentieth century (itself the consequence of preemption of the industrial revolution) might have been preempted by the sudden emergence of a spacefaring civilization. The technology was present, the ideas were in circulation, and even the economic basis of such an effort was in place. Nevertheless, this did not happen.

Often in the case of unfulfilled preemptions we find that a technology was present, but it is not yet fully exploited because a comprehensive conception of its use simply did not exist. I previously pointed this out in relation to the cluster of technologies that rapidly came into use during the Second World War (cf. Counter-factual Weapons Systems), when, during a period of five years, ballistic missiles, digital encryption, digital computers, radar, nuclear weapons, and jet propulsion all became available. While these technologies were individually put into use, the full comprehensive vision of how these technologies would function in concert was lacking, and it took several subsequent decades to draw out the consequences of these discoveries.

Another historical analogy: the first heavier-than-air powered human flight took place in 1903; the First World War began a decade later. The development of aircraft technology during the less than five year period of the First World War was in some ways as rapid as the technological developments that characterized the Second World War, and, moreover, by the end of the war the idea of strategic bombing had emerged, large fleets of airplanes communicating by radio were launching coordinated attacks on targets across national borders. It is arguable, on this basis, that the technologies available during the First World War reached a greater level of integration, and achieved that integration earlier, as compared to comparable technological innovations of the Second World War.

The NASA Integrated Program Plan (IPP) was an ambitious program that didn't get funded.

The NASA Integrated Program Plan (IPP) was an ambitious program that didn’t get funded.

What makes the transition to spacefaring civilization so fraught?

Spacefaring, as we know, is difficult. It is also dangerous and expensive. But it is not more dangerous or expensive than any number of routine human activities — though it may well be intellectually and technically more difficult than just about anything else accomplished by human civilization. If we had experienced a spacefaring preemption in the second half of the twentieth century, it is almost certain that many lives would have been lost in the effort to establish a demographically significant human presence in space. But we must place these casualties in context. We routinely accept automobile casualties in the tens of thousands every year (in the United States alone; global figures are much higher). A major spacefaring effort would have involved an increase in the loss of life, but it is unlikely that this figure would have even approached the 40,000 or so highway fatalities experienced every year, year on year. The commercial spacefaring industry is likely to mirror the commercial aviation industry, which does experience catastrophic failures and loss of life, but is statistically far safer than travel on any highway.

Similar arguments to those above could be made regarding the expense of a major spacefaring effort: it would have been expensive, but not radically more expensive than any number of other initiatives undertaken in human history. It would be difficult to argue that funding the space program at a level that would have made a spacefaring preemption possible would have “broken” the economy of either the US or the USSR, though this is often suggested. I would suggest, on the contrary, that if significant funding had followed the Apollo Program, rather than collapsing after the “space race” was won, that the unintended and unexpected technological spin-offs of a major space program would have transformed the terrestrial economy. However, counter-factuals are difficult if not impossible to prove, so I doubt I would convince anyone who did not want to be convinced on this score.

Probably among the least likely factors to be cited regarding the difficulty of the transition to spacefaring civilization would be the intellectual forces that shape history, but I think in the case of the spacefaring preemption that did not happen that it was the intellectual infrastructure that was the decisive element that derailed this potential historical disruption. Humanity was not ready to become a spacefaring species in the second half of the twentieth century; our concerns remained overwhelmingly terrestrial concerns, and those who tried to get their fellow Earth-bound human beings (Earth-bound in mind as well as in body) to see the possibilities for humanity beyond Earth were largely ignored. It was and still is routine to dismiss large-scale spacefaring as an impossible dream, notwithstanding proven technology and numerous space exploration successes, including human spaceflight.

Gerard K. O'Neill's conception of a spacefaring civilization with current technology was widely discussed, but never funded.

Gerard K. O’Neill’s conception of a spacefaring civilization with current technology was widely discussed, but never funded.

Crossing the Spacefaring Chasm

The absence of a relatively rapid spacefaring preemption of industrial-technological civilization in the recent past does not mean that terrestrial civilization will never make the transition to spacefaring civilization. This transition could come about as the result of a later preemption — perhaps as the result of new newly available technology that drastically reduces the cost of transport to Earth orbit — or as the result of a gradual and incremental transition that involves no preemption incident. In the latter case, it is entirely possible that planetary industrial-technological civilization might continue for hundreds or thousands of years, and hundreds or thousands of years of gradual transition would characterize the eventual emergence of a spacefaring civilization.

In several contexts (e.g., Getting to Starships and The Zoo Hypothesis as Thought Experiment) I have emphasized that human terrestrial civilization cannot be thought of as an “early adopter” spacefaring civilization. An early adopter spacefaring civilization would be a spacefaring civilization that came about as a result of a preemption episode in the early history of space travel. In the case of spacefaring, this did not happen; we did not widely adopt spacefaring technologies as soon as they were available and employ them to begin a human diaspora in the cosmos.

If our civilization does become a spacefaring civilization (we cannot yet say if that will happen), it will do so decades or centuries after having possessed the technological capability to do this, and so must be considered a late-adopter spacefaring civilization, if it is (or will become) any kind of spacefaring civilization at all. Spacefaring civilization has experienced is symbolic firsts, but it has not experienced its horizon — at least, not for human civilization (if there are other civilizations in the cosmos, there may be a civilization or civilizations that have experienced a spacefaring preemption). The temporal distance between spaceflight symbolic firsts and a spaceflight horizon is yet to be determined.

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Soil horizon: Horizontal layers of soil which are distinct from one another. These develop over time due to many factors including the addition of decaying plant material, chemical weathering of rock particles in the soil, and deposition of different kinds of rock materials.

Soil horizon: Horizontal layers of soil which are distinct from one another. These develop over time due to many factors including the addition of decaying plant material, chemical weathering of rock particles in the soil, and deposition of different kinds of rock materials.

In my recent presentation at Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress 2015, “What kind of civilizations build starships?” I recurred on several occasions to archaeology in the course of my exposition. More and more I have been drawing on concepts from archaeology, as it is in archaeology that we find an extant science that has come close to formulating a science of civilization. There are, at least, explicitly formulated theories of civilization in archaeology, which go much further than the unsystematic observations of historians about civilization.

In my talk I drew on archaeological definitions of civilization. Today I want to draw on another archaeological concept, the concept of an archaeological horizon, which is a concept employed pervasively throughout archaeology (as in “dark earth horizon,” for example), and, more specifically, I want to exapt the concept of an archaeological horizon for an exposition of the development of spacefaring civilization.

The term “horizon” is used pervasively in archaeology, though its usage is rarely explicitly defined. Here is an explicit definition from the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology:

horizon: Any artifact, art style, or other cultural trait that has extensive geographical distribution but a limited time span. The term, in anthropology, refers to the spread of certain levels of cultural development and, in geology, the layers of natural features in a region; in soil science, a horizon is a layer formed in a soil profile by soil-forming processes. The main meaning, however, refers to a phase, characterized by a particular artifact or artistic style that is introduced to a wide area and that may cross cultural boundaries. Provided that these “horizon markers” were diffused rapidly and remained in use for only a short time, the local regional cultures in which they occur will be roughly contemporary. The term is less commonly used now that chronometric dating techniques allow accurate local chronologies to be built. Examples of art styles that fulfill these conditions are called a horizon style-such as Tiahuanaco or Chavin. (syn. horizon style)

Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D., Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology, Springer, 2000.

And, much more briefly, here is another…

“A horizon, more like a popular fashion than a culture, can be defined by a single artifact type or cluster of artifact types that spreads suddenly over a very wide geographic area.”

David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 131.

More helpful is the discussion of horizons and traditions in Deetz’s Invitation to Archaeology. Deetz begins with a characterization of a horizon:

“The concept of an archaeological horizon is that of a set of traits which links a number of cultures over a broad area in a short time. In the Peruvian area a wide- spread art and architectural style, known as Chavin, appears at about 800 B.C. It is characterized by feline and condor motifs in the decoration of ceramics and architectural stone- work. Plotting the space-time distribution of sites containing Chavin type objects makes it clear that the spread of the ideas responsible for the style was rapid; the slope of the space-time line is quite shallow. This manifestation is known as the Chavin Horizon.”

James Deetz, Invitation to Archaeology, New York: The Natural History Press, 1967, p. 59

Contrasting horizon with tradition Deetz writes:

“…one might say that horizons are thin traditions of wide distribution, or that traditions are limited horizons of long duration. This may seem as ridiculous as the idea of the world’s largest midget, or smallest giant, but it makes and underscores the point that there should be no fixed dimensions for either horizon or tradition. In fact, most space-time patterns formed by archaeological materials are neither in the true sense, since they are distributed in both dimensions to a considerable extent. The concepts of horizon and tradition are usually reserved for clear instances of extreme dimensions of time or space, usually if not always linking several cultures, and of use at the broadest level of archaeological integration.”

James Deetz, Invitation to Archaeology, New York: The Natural History Press, 1967, p. 61

As an aside, Deetz’s formulation of a tradition can be used to illuminate a definition of civilization found in the same Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology quoted above:

civilization: Complex sociopolitical form defined by the institution of the state and the existence of a distinctive great tradition.

Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D., Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology, Springer, 2000, p. 119.

When I was preparing my talk on civilization I was searching for explicit definitions of civilizations, and this is one that I considered but didn’t use as it was not quite right for my purposes. But informed by Deetz’s spatiotemporal definition of a tradition, one might get close to a quantitative conception of civilization with the “great tradition” defined in spatiotemporal terms.

An archaeological horizon could be formulated in terms of the presence of a class of artifacts, or in terms of the absence of a class of artifacts “An archaeological horizon can be understood as a break in contexts formed in the Harris matrix, which denotes a change in epoch on a given site by delineation in time of finds found within contexts.” (Wikipedia) In other words, a horizon can be formulated as the beginning or the end of some class of artifacts. One might, then, define a horizon in the most general terms possible as a particular structure of material artifacts in time. While archaeologists work with artifacts of the past, often long out of use (perhaps so long out of use that their function is difficult to identify), there is no reason we cannot extrapolate horizons to artifacts in contemporary use, or even not yet in use.

With spacefaring civilization to date we are working with very little information, so much of the horizon structure of spacefaring civilization is conjectural. If, instead, we sought to explicate the horizon structure of scientific civilization, which has been in existence much longer than spacefaring civilization (which has not even yet fully attained its first horizon), there is much more empirical data at our command. The horizons of scientific civilization are marked by artifacts — scientific instruments — but more especially by epistemic horizons. When sciences or bodies of scientific knowledge became commonplace, we have an epistemic horizon. When Newton brought to maturity the astronomical, cosmological, and physics developments of the century or more preceding his work, an epistemic horizon we call The Enlightenment was the result. Such examples could be multiplied.

The useful aspect of the concept of a horizon is that it places less emphasis upon “firsts,” which can be outliers, and instead is concerned with when an artifact becomes common. In other contexts I have formulated this in terms of demographic significance, but since the term archaeological horizon is already established in its usage, it may be better to employ “horizon.” From this perspective, the celebrated firsts of what is sometimes deceptively called “the conquest of space,” are of little importance. What counts, from the perspective of a horizon, is, “…a single artifact type or cluster of artifact types that spreads suddenly over a very wide geographic area.” For the purposes of spacefaring civilization we can substitute “wide spatial distribution” for “wide geographic area.”

Our moonshots and even our multiple probes to other planets in our solar system were outliers. They do not define a horizon of space exploration. It is arguable that now, today, with inexpensive CubeSats becoming commonplace, that we are reaching a horizon for satellite technology. This is primarily a function of cost. A CubeSat is now within reach of even small budgets. When human spaceflight eventually reaches a cost at which space travel can be inexpensive and routine, then we may achieve a human spaceflight horizon, initially to low Earth orbit (LEO). Further horizons will follow as technology improve and costs diminish.

These further horizons can be defined in terms of the gravitational thresholds that technology allows us to overcome. Previously in The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight (as well as in other earlier posts) I formulated six stages of spacefaring civilization, as follows:

Stage O spacefaring civilizations, or a planet-bound civilizations, have no capacity for spaceflight. (Pre-Sputnik civilization)

Stage I spacefaring civilizations have the kind of minimal capacity that we now possess to loft satellites and human beings into orbit, and even to visit nearby heavenly bodies such as the moon. (Sputnik and after)

Stage II spacefaring civilizations might be defined as those that have established a permanent, self-sustaining presence off the surface of the world of a given civilization’s biological origin. This could also be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-planetary travel. This is the minimal level of civilization to assure long-term survivability.

Stage III spacefaring civilizations would have achieved practical, durable, and routine interstellar travel.

Stage IV spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-galactic travel.

Stage V spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine travel in the multiverse, i.e., beyond the known universe defined by the consequences of the big bang.

While I formulated these stages of spacefaring civilizations in terms of practical, durable, and routine space travel, I see now that the way to approach these would be to identify each as a horizon of spacefaring civilization.

As noted above in relation to (relatively) cheap CubeSats, a spacefaring horizon may be achieved for automated probes before it is achieved for human beings; we are on the cusp of a satellite spacefaring horizon, when our artifacts achieve wide spatial distribution over a relatively short period of time. If this satellite spacefaring horizon is followed by a human LEO spacefaring horizon (Stage II above), cheap access to Earth orbit for human beings will open the possibility of the next wave, which would presumably be a planetary probe spacefaring horizon, followed by a human planetary spacefaring horizon (Stage III above). The expansion of terrestrial civilization into extraterrestrial space, then, may follow a pattern of an automated spacefaring horizon followed by a human spacefaring horizon.

I think it would also be useful to distinguish between initial horizons (when an artifact appears) and terminal horizons, when an artifact disappears. Perhaps archaeologists already do this, although I didn’t find any mention of such a distinction in any of the books I’ve recently skimmed, looking for discussions of horizons. Just as the emergence of a civilization would be attended by a sequence of initial horizons, the extinction of a civilization would be attended by a sequence of terminal horizons.

The extinction of a spacefaring civilization would involve the reverse sequence of terminal horizons (counting back from Stage V to Stage 0) as the spatial scope of a civilization diminished from spanning the multiverse to being represented only on a planet (not necessarily the planet on which such a civilization originated), or possibly several planets. This, in turn, suggests the interesting possibility of a multiplanetary civilization returned again to the severe limitations of planetary constraints, technically still a multiplanetary species, perhaps distributed across several star systems, but no longer an interstellar civilization in so far as they no longer interact over interstellar distances. This suggests a further distinction to be made between the interstellar presence of a species and the interstellar interaction of a species.

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global civilization

Teleology and Deontology

In moral theory we distinguish between teleological ethical systems and deontological ethical systems. Teleological ethics (also called consequentialism, in reference to consequences) focus on the end of an action, i.e., that actual result, as that which makes an action praiseworthy or blameworthy. The word “teleological” comes from the Greek telos (τέλος), which means end, goal, or purpose. Deontological ethics focus on the motivation for undertaking an action, and is sometimes referred to as “duty-based” ethics; the word “deontological” derives from the Greek deon (δέον), meaning “duty.”

John Stuart Mill, the great utilitarian moral philosopher, and, by extension, teleologist.

John Stuart Mill, the great utilitarian moral philosopher, and, by extension, teleologist.

The philosophical literature on teleology and deontology is vast. From this vast literature the history of moral philosophy gives us several well known examples of both teleological and deontological ethics. Utilitarianism is often cited as a paradigmatic example of teleological ethics, as utilitarianism (in one of its many forms) holds that an action is to be judged by its ability to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of persons (also known as the greatest happiness principle). Kantian ethics is usually cited as the paradigmatic case of deontological ethics; Kant placed great emphasis upon duty, and held that nothing is good in itself except the good will. These philosophical expressions of the ideas of teleology and deontology also have vernacular expressions that largely coincide with them, as, for example, when teleological views are expressed as, “the ends justify the means,” or when deontological views are expressed as “justice be done though the heavens may fall.”

Immanuel Kant, the patron saint of all deontological ethics.

Immanuel Kant, the patron saint of all deontological ethics.

The vast literature on deontology and teleological also points to many examples that show these categories of ethical thought to be overly schematic and, in some cases, to cut across each other. For example, if we characterize teleological ethics in terms of the aim to be achieved by an action, a distinction can be made between the actual consequences of an action and the intended consequences of an action. The intended consequences of an action may be understood deontologically as the motivation for undertaking an action. Part of this problem can be addressed by tightening up the terminology and the logic of the argument, but, as has been noted, the literature is vast and many sophisticated arguments have been advanced to demonstrate the interpenetration of teleological and deontological conceptions. We must, then, regard this distinction as a rough-and-ready classification that admits of exceptions.

Teleology and Deontology in a Social Context

We can take these ideas of teleological and deontological ethics and apply them not only to individual action but to social action, and thus speak of the actions of social groups of human beings in teleological or deontological terms, i.e., we can speak in terms of the coordinated actions of a group being undertaken primarily in order to achieve some end, or actions undertaken as ends-in-themselves. This suggests the extrapolation of teleological and deontological conceptions to the largest social formations, and the largest social formation known to us is civilization. Can a civilizaiton entire be teleological or deontological in its outlook? Does a civilization have a moral outlook?

I will assume, without arguing in detail, that a civilization can have a moral outlook, understanding that this is a generalization that holds across a civilization, and that the generalization admits of numerous important exceptions. Elsewhere I have noted the Darwinian perspective that any social group of animals that lives together in sufficient density for a sufficient period of time will evolve social customs for interaction. (This is a position that has been further explored in our time by Frans de Waal and Soshichi Uchii.) The lifeway of a particular people is coextensive with social conventions necessary for a social species to live together in a reasonable degree of harmony; what distinguishes regional permutations of lifeways are the climate and available domesticates. Both ethics and civilization grow from this common root, hence the xenophobia of traditionalist civilizations that unproblematically equate the peculiarities of a particular regional civilization with the good in and of itself.

Can this synthesis of lifeways and ethos that marks out a regional civilization (and which is consolidated in the process of axialization) be characterized as overall teleological or deontological orientation in some particular cases? This is a more difficult question, and rather than tackling it directly, I will discuss the question from various perspectives drawn from an overview of the history of civilization.

Teleology and Deontology in Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Civilization

The emergence of settled agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization presents us with an archaeological horizon that appears globally in widely dispersed locations but at approximately the same time. (An archaeological horizon is “a widely disseminated level of common art and artifacts.” Wikipedia) Prior to an actual horizon, there are a great many suggestive sites that imply both domestication and semi-settled lifeways, but at a certain level (between 9 and 11 thousand years before present) the traces of large scale settlement and domestication of plants and animals becomes common. This is the horizon of civilization (or, more narrowly, the horizon of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization).

The horizon of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization exhibits global characteristics that eventually culminate in the Axial Age, when regional civilizations are given definitive expression in mythological terms. Through separately emergent, these civilizations exhibit common features of settlement, division of labor, social hierarchy, a conception of the world, of human nature, and of the relation between the two that are expressed in mythological form, which in being made systematic (an early manifestation of the human condition made rigorous) become the central organizing idea of the civilizations that followed. This period represents the bulk of human civilization history to date, a period lasting almost ten thousand years.

Recently on my other blog I undertook a series on religious experiences and religious observances from hunter-gatherer nomadism through contemporary industrial-technological civilization and on into the future — cf. Settled and Nomadic Religious Experience, Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization, Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization, Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization, and Responding to the World we Find — and thinking of religious observances emergent from human religious experience it is difficult to say whether these ritual observances are performed in the spirit of teleology or deontology, i.e., whether it is the consequences of the ritual that matters, or if the ritual has intrinsic value and ought to be conducted regardless of consequences. This may be one of the many cases in which teleological and deontological categories cut across each other. Agrarian-eccleasiastical civilization at times seems to formulate its central organizing principle of religious observance in terms of the intrinsic value of the observance, and in times in terms of the efficacious consequences of these observances.

We can understand religion (by which I mean the central organizing principle of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations) as an existential risk mitigation strategy for pre-technological peoples, who have no method to address personal mortality or the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations (i.e., civilizational mortality) other than the propitiation of gods; once the transition is made from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to industrial-technological civilization, the methods of procedural rationality that are the organizing principle of the latter can be brought to bear on existential questions, and it finally becomes possible for existential threats to be assessed and addressed on the level of naturalistic human action. It would not have been possible to conceptualize existential risk in terms of naturalistic human action prior to the technological expansion of effective human action.

Teleology and Deontology in Global Industrial-Technological Civilization

Civilization is an historical reality that exhibits change and development over time. The particular change in civilization that we see at the present time is a transition from regional civilizations, reflecting the coevolution of human beings and domesticates (both plant and animal) ecologically suited to a particular geographical region, to a global industrial-technological civilization that is largely indifferent to local and regional ecological and climatological conditions, because a global trade network provides goods and services from any region to any other region, which means that the maintenance of civilization is no longer dependent upon local or regional constraints.

This development of global industrial-technological civilization is likely to dominate civilization until civilization either fails (i.e., civilization experiences extinction, permanent stagnation, flawed realization, or subsequent ruination) or expands beyond Earth and a self-sustaining center of civilization emerges in space or on another planetary body. In order for the latter to occur, human travel in space must move beyond exploratory forays and become commonplace, that is to say, we would have to see a horizon of space travel. I have called the horizon of human space travel extraterrestrialization. Until that time, civilization remains bound by the finite surface of Earth, and this means that our civilization is growing intensively rather than extensively. The intensive growth of regional civilizations exhaustively covering the surface of Earth means the closer integration of these civilizations (sometimes called globalization), and it is this process that is pushing regional civilizations (e.g., Chinese civilization, Indian civilization, European civilization, etc.) toward integration into a single global industrial-technological civilization.

The spatial constraint of the Earth’s surface together with the expansion and consolidation of settled industrial-technological civilization forces these civilizations into integration, even if only at the margins where their borders meet. Is this de facto constraint upon planetary civilization a mere contingency pushing civilization in a particular direction (which in evolutionary terms could be called civilizational directional selection), or may be think of these constraints in non-contingent terms as a “destiny” of planetary civilization? We find both conceptions represented in contemporary thought.

To think of civilization in terms of destiny is to think in teleological terms. If civilization has a destiny apart from the purposes of individuals and societies, that destiny is the telos of that civilization. But we would not likely refer to an historical accident that selects civilization as “destiny,” even if it shapes our civilization decisively. If we reject the idea of a contingent destiny forced upon us by de facto constraints upon growth and development, then we are implicitly thinking of civilization in terms of practices pursued for their own ends, which is an deontological conception of civilization.

The contemporary idea of a transition to a sustainable civilization — the transition from an industrial infrastructure powered by fossil fuels to an industrial infrastructure based on sustainable and renewable sources of fuel — is clearly a deontological conception of the development of civilization, i.e., that such a transition needs to take place for its own sake, but this deontological ideal of a civilization that lives within its means also implies for many who hold this idea a vision of future civilization that has been revamped to avoid the morally catastrophic mistakes of the past, and in this sense the conception is clearly teleological.

The Historico-Temporal Structure of Human Life

One of the most distinctive features of human consciousness is its time consciousness that extends into an explicit understanding of the future and its relationship to present action, and which developed and iterated becomes historical consciousness, in which the individual and the social group understands himself or itself to stand in relation to a past that preceded the present, and a future that will follow from the present. This historico-temporal structure of human life, both individual and communal, means that human beings plan ahead and make provision for the future in a much more systematic way than any other terrestrial species. This consideration alone suggests that the primary ethical category for understanding human action must be teleological. But this presents us with certain problems.

Civilization itself, and the great processes of civilization such as the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, urbanization, and industrialization, were unplanned developments that just happened. No one planned to build a civilization, and no one planned for regional civilizations to run into planetary constraints and thus to begin to integrate into a global civilization. So although human beings have the ability to plan and the carry out long term projects, many of the historical human realities that are among the most significant in shaping our lives both individually and collectively were not planned. In the future we may be able to plan a civilization or civilizational process and bring this plan to a successful conclusion, but nothing like this has yet been accomplished in the history of civilization. The closest we have come to this is to build planned communities or cities, and this falls far short of the construction of an entire civilization. Until we can do more, we are subject to a limited teleological civilizational ethos at most.

Teleological and Deontological Sources of Civilization

While agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization tends to organize around an eschtological destiny, and is therefore profoundly teleological in outlook, and industrial-technological civilization tends to organize around procedural rationality, and is therefore profoundly deontological in outlook, we can think of a prehistoric past that is the source of both of these paradigms of civilization as either essentially teleological or deontological.

The basic historico-temporal properties of human life noted above, iterated, extended, and eventually made systematic culminate in an organized and communal way of life for a social species, and this telos of human activity is civilization. Civilization on this view is inherent in human nature. This can be expressed in non-naturalistic, eschatological terms, and this probably the form in which this conception is most familiar to us, but it can also be expressed in scientific terms. Here is Carl Sagan’s expression of this idea:

The cerebral cortex, where matter is transformed into consciousness, is the point of embarkation for all our cosmic voyages. Comprising more than two-thirds of the brain mass, it is the realm of both intuition and critical analysis. It is here that we have ideas and inspirations, here that we read and write, here that we do mathematics and compose music. The cortex regulates our conscious lives. It is the distinction of our species, the seat of our humanity. Civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XI, “The Persistence of Memory”

In my post 2014 IBHA Conference Day 2 I mentioned the presentation of William Katerberg, in which he characterized ideas of inevitability and impossibility as forms of teleology in scientific historiography. While Sagan may not be asserting the inevitability of civilization emerging from the cerebral cortex, all of these conceptions belong under the overarching umbrella of teleology, whether weakly teleological or strongly teleological.

When we consider the highest expressions of the human mind in intellectual and aesthetic production, it is not at all clear if these monuments of human thought are undertaken for their intrinsic value as ends in themselves, or if they have been pursued with an eye to some end beyond the construction of the monument. Consider the pyramids: are these monuments to glorify the Pharaoh, and thus by extension to glorify Egyptian civilization as an end in itself, or are these monuments to secure the eternal reign of the Pharaoh in the afterlife? Many of the mysterious monuments that remain from past civilizations — Stonehenge, Carnac, Göbekli Tepe, the Moai of Easter Island, and the Sphinx, inter alia — have this ambiguous character.

We can imagine a civilization of the prehistorical past essentially called into being by the great effort to create one of these monoliths. The site of Göbekli Tepe is one of the more recent and interesting discoveries from the Neolithic, and some archaeologists that suggested that the site points to civilization coming into being for the purpose of constructing and maintaining this ritual site (something I mentioned in The Birth of Agriculture from the Spirit of Religion).

Teleology, Deontology, and a Philosophy of History

Teleology has been subject to much abuse in the history of human thought, as I have noted on many occasions. There is a strong desire to believe in meaning and purpose that transcends the individual, if not the entire species. The essentially incoherent desire for an meaning or purpose coming from outside the world entire, entering into the world from outside and giving a purpose to mundane actions that these actions cannot derive from any source within the world, is an imperfectly expressed theme of almost all religious thought. Logically, this is the desire for a constructive foundation for meaning and purpose; finding meaning or purpose for the world from within the world is an inherently non-constructive conception that leaves a vaguely dissatisfied feeling rarely brought to logical clarification.

The first great work in western philosophy of history, Saint Augustine’s City of God, is a thoroughly teleological conception of history culminating in the -. Perhaps the next most influential philosophy of history after Augustine was that of Hegel, and, again, Hegel’s philosophy of history is pervasively teleological in spirit. A particular philosophical effort is required to conceive of human history (and human civilization) in non-Augustinian, non-Hegelian terms.

Does there even exist, in the Western philosophical tradition, a deontological philosophy of civilization? In light of the discussion above, I have to examine my own efforts in the philosophy of history, as I realize now that some of my formulations could be interpreted as implying that civilization is the telos of human history. Does human history culminate in human civilization? Is civilization the destiny of humanity? If so, this should be made explicit. If not, a more careful formulation of the relationship of civilization to human history is in order.

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