In the painfully slow process of the formulation of a secular world view having started from civilizations that, throughout the world, have been permeated by religious significance — so much so that each of the world’s major religions roughly correspond to each of the world’s major civilizations — one of the walls against which we repeatedly crack our heads is that of the traditional sense of grandeur that is so perfectly embodied in the religious rituals of ecclesiastical civilization.

For many if not most human beings, this grandeur of ritual translates into intellectual grandeur, and, again, for many if not most, this equation of religious grandeur with human honor and dignity has meant that any deviation from the traditions of ecclesiastical civilization have been treated as deviations from the intrinsic respect due to human beings as human beings. That is to say, many Westerners (and possibly also many elsewhere in the world) express indignation, outrage, and anger over a naturalistic account of human origins. The whole legacy of Copernicus is seen as invidious to human dignity.

Among those in the sciences and philosophy, it has become commonplace to attribute the strongly negative reaction to naturalism (especially as is touches upon human origins) as a reaction to the re-contextualization of humanity’s place in nature in view of a naturalistic cosmology. Anthropocentric cosmology is here treated as an expression of overweening human pride, and the need to re-conceptualize the cosmos in terms that make human beings and human concerns no longer central is not only a necessary adjustment to scientific understanding but also serves as a stern lesson to human hubris.

In other words, the scientific demonstration of the peripheral position of humanity in a naturalistic cosmos is understood to be a moral good because it, “brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes” (to quote Thucydides). Science is a rough master, and by formulating scientific cosmology in these unforgiving terms I have made it sound harsh and unsympathetic. This was intentional, because this formulation comes closer to doing justice to the visceral intuitions of the indignant anthropocentric than the usual formulation in terms of a necessary correction to human pride.

Seen in this way, both anthropocentric-ecclesiastical civilization and Copernican-scientific civilization are both related in an essential way to a conception of human pride. Both conceptions of humanity and of civilization have a fundamentally conflicted conception of pride. In ecclesiastical civilization, human pride in species-being (to employ a Marxist term) is magnified while individualistic pride is the sin of Satan and central to the fallen nature of the world. In Copernican civilization, human pride in human knowledge is magnified — and I note that human knowledge is often an individualistic undertaking, but see below for more on this — but pride in species-being is called into question.

In ecclesiastical civilization, pride in species-being is raised to the status of metaphysical pride and is postulated as the organizational principle of the world. But, of course, pride in species-being is identified with humility, and the whole of humanity is dismissed as sinners. In Copernican civilization, pride in knowledge — epistemic pride — is raised to the status of metaphysical pride and is postulated as the organizational principle of the world. But, of course, the epistemic pride of science is often identified with epistemic humility. As Socrates once said to Antisthenes, “I can see your pride through the holes in your cloak.”

Individualistic pride is closely connected to the heroic conception of civilization, and as civilization continues its relentless consolidation of social institutions integrated within a larger whole of human endeavor, the role (even the possibility) of individual heroic action is abridged. Individualistic pride in this context is even more closely connected with the heroic conception of science, which is (as I have pointed out elsewhere) already an antiquated notion.

When civilization was young and scientific research was the province of individuals, not institutions and their communities of researchers, almost all scientific discoveries were the result of heroic individual efforts. Science, like civilization, is now a collective enterprise, and just as the story of civilization was once told as the deeds of kings, so the story of science was once told as the deeds of discoverers. Such authentic efforts could still be found in the nineteenth century (in the person of Darwin) and even in the early twentieth century (in the person of Einstein). But it is rarely the case today, and will become rarer and possibly extinct in the future.

Pride in species-being (in contradistinction to individualistic pride) is something that I have not spent much time thinking about, but when I think about it now in the present context it seems to me that this represents a heroic conception of the career of humanity — a kind of collective heroism of a biological community striving to overcome adverse selection. Thus, if the world is magnified, how much greater is the glory of the species that triumphs over the deselective obstacles thrown up by the world? Religion magnifies the anthropocentrically-organized world in order to magnify the species-being that has been made the principle of the world; science magnifies the Copernican decentralized world in order to magnify the knower whose knowledge has been made the principle of the world.

As ecclesiastical civilization slowly, gradually, and incrementally gives way before Copernican civilization, novel ways will need to be found to supply the apparent human need for a heroic conception of the career of humanity as a whole. It will not be enough to insist upon the grandeur of the scientifically understood universe. We have seen that religion, science, and philosophy can all appeal to the grandeur of the world in making the case for a unification of the world around a particular principle. The Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Darwin wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life.” Nietzsche wrote even as he was losing his mind, “Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens are filled with joy.”

Scientific knowledge is now a production of species-being, but I don’t think that science as an institution can bear the heavy burden of human hopes and dreams and expectations. Perhaps civilization, which is also collective and a production of species-being, could be channeled into a heroic conception of species-being that could serve an eschatological function. This seems like a real possibility to me, but it is not something that is yet a palpable reality.

If those who will someday formulate a future science of civilizations also see themselves as engineers of the human soul, i.e., that they conceive of the science of civilization not only descriptively but also prescriptively, they will want to not only formulate a doctrine of what civilization is, but also what civilization will be, can be, and ought to be. If civilization is to be a home for human hopes, then it must become something that is capable of sustaining and nurturing such hopes.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Do we court metaphysical danger

if we engage in cosmic impiety?

I think that it is not at all usual that when one reads a book early in one’s intellectual development, that the author’s ideas, and even his voice and his style, can become so interwoven in one’s own thoughts it can be difficult to recall exactly what was one’s own idea and what one borrowed from this ur-text. One must go back to the text itself to remind oneself how much one read and how much one read into what one read. My experience in this vein is wrapped up with Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. When I began reading philosophy my mother gave me a copy of Russell’s book for Christmas. I still have this copy, though it is now in many pieces.

I found myself thinking of Russell again at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, where several of the presentations touched upon the need for humility in exploration. In Russell’s chapter in his A History of Western Philosophy on the American pragmatist philosophy John Dewey, he has a long aside on what he calls “cosmic impiety” with a certain dread as to unspoken but potentially ruinous consequences:

“The attitude of man towards the non-human environment has differed profoundly at different times. The Greeks, with their dread of hubris and their belief in a Necessity or Fate superior even to Zeus, carefully avoided what would have seemed to them insolence towards the universe. The Middle Ages carried submission much further: humility towards God was a Christian’s first duty. Initiative was cramped by this attitude, and great originality was scarcely possible. The Renaissance restored human pride, but carried it to the point where it led to anarchy and disaster. Its work was largely undone by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. But modern technique, while not altogether favorable to the lordly individual of the Renaissance, has revived the sense of the collective power of human communities. Man, formerly too humble, begins to think of himself as almost a God. The Italian pragmatist Papini urges us to substitute the ‘Imitation of God’ for the ‘Imitation of Christ’.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, p. 737

Russell further goes on to say on the same page:

“In all this I feel a grave danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the way in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness… I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time…”

In so saying Russell was echoing his own earlier writings regarding the humility of scientific knowledge. I quoted several of these passages in Epistemic Hubris. I can imagine that what Russell formulated in terms of science and philosophy he would also have advocated in the case of technology: technological hubris is a danger, and we would do well to cultivate a sense of humility in our technological thought and activity.

While I don’t think that Russell explicitly formulated a principle of technological humility, it is implicit in what he wrote, and I furthermore think that this principle sums up much contemporary cautionary thought. The pervasive sentiment, common at least since the introduction of nuclear weapons, is that humanity’s technological development has outrun its moral development, and this places us in a position of existential danger. The prevalent apocalyptic narratives of our time largely draw upon this sentiment of looming danger from having harnessed forces ultimately beyond our control.

The idea of creating a spacefaring civilization and even constructing vessels to take us to the stars might well be taken as a paradigm case of technological hubris. Perhaps we have no moral right to such ambition. I mentioned in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 3 that at least a couple of participants in the symposium voiced the need for humanity to “clean up its act” before it takes its problems with it into the wider universe. This is essentially an objection to metaphysical pride, presumably made in deference to metaphysical modesty.

I don’t think that there is much to be concerned with here, though I think that the moral issues must be taken seriously. I don’t think that the metaphysical pride and metaphysical ambition of extraterrestrialization should be a worry because of an analogy I would make between the precarious position of humanity as a planet-bound civilization today. Despite our enormous technological achievements, and the claim that humanity now lives in the geological era of the anthropocene due to the degree to which we have transformed our own planet, we are still very much at the mercy of earthquakes, storms, severe weather, and all manner of natural disasters. Our dominance of the planet and our technological achievements have not insulated us from the depredations of nature.

Analogously, I think that if we should create a spacefaring civilization and the extraterrestrialization of humanity proceeds apace, that we will find that we continue to be subject to the depredations of nature, though nature on a wider scale and not confined to potential planetary natural disasters. An extraterrestrialized civilization would face natural disasters on the level of galactic ecology, with the dangers at each stage in the growth of civilization roughly proportional to the extent of that civilization. That is to say, both metaphysical pride and metaphysical modesty are subject to metaphysical danger.

W. R. Kramer of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies made humility central to his presentation, titled, “To Humbly Go… Breaking Previous Patterns of Colonization.” Mr. Kramer discussed the dangers of employing the language and images and concepts of past colonial efforts, and certainly when we look back on the record of colonialism there is a rich record of perfidy defended as ideals. This is not a pattern we would want to repeat.

But how exactly could a spacefaring civilization be humble? The very project, as I implied above, can be seen as the height of hubris — hubris on a cosmic scale. Of course, even if the project of extraterrestrialization is hubris, that doesn’t mean that individuals involved in such an enterprise couldn’t adopt a proper spirit of humility and modesty, although, as I said above in regard to metaphysical dangers, I don’t think that humanity will have all that difficult a time in retaining its humility once it has experienced a few hard knocks from the universe on a grand scale.

One specific proposal made by W. R. Kramer in the interest of going humbly into the cosmos was that human efforts in colonizing other planets, should other planets harboring life be found, should focus not on terraforming other worlds, but on adapting human physiology to alien worlds. I found this an interesting proposal. I don’t doubt that by the time a spacefaring civilization reaches other worlds we would have the technology to engineer descendants who could live in an alien biosphere. Just this scenario has been featured in some science fiction novels (in my dated experience of reading science fiction novels, I remember this from Ben Bova’s Exiled from Earth trilogy).

There is definitely something of Stalinist gigantism in the very idea of terraforming a planet, and I can easily imagine someone identifying such an engineering enterprise as a paradigm case of cosmic impiety à la Russell. But notice that it is an engineering challenge. In this sense, finding an alien planet with a biosphere and intending to settle such a planet with human beings, would present us with the choice between two engineering challenges: terraform or adapt. Both are engineering challenges. Both, we will assume, would be difficult but possible. Each engineering challenge presents opportunities and dangers, and each poses moral conundrums that cannot be glossed over.

W. R. Kramer apparently thinks that engineering human beings to live in an alien biosphere is morally preferable to terraforming. I neither agree nor disagree, but it must be pointed out that there are many people who regard genetically tampering with our species with moral horror. One need only read up a little on the reaction to transhumanism to find the things that have been said about purposefully altering human beings. For such a practice would also certainly result in speciation, and it might result in beings that had a problematic relationship at best to the unaltered remainder of the species.

Of course, terraforming might also be regarded with moral horror. Thus we are confronted with a choice between moral horrors: the horror of human speciation or the horror of terraforming. One would expect that changes in civilization between now and some future time when this dilemma might be faced will involve changes in our perception of moral dilemmas, but one also expects that the people of that future time will be divided by this choice. Some will be horrified at the prospect of transforming the biosphere of an entire planet, while others will be more horrified by the prospect of altering human beings until they are perhaps no longer recognizable as human beings.

In the case of terraforming sterile but potentially habitable worlds (like Mars, which is close to home and therefore more likely to be a moral dilemma in the nearer-term future), one feels that the moral objection to terraforming would be somewhat less (and therefore possibly less a moral horror than altering human beings), but I can still easily imagine those who would feel a moral horror at the prospect of utterly transforming this sterile but pristine environment for human purposes. It could be argued that no alternation in human physiology could make it possible for human descendants to live on Mars because of its sterility, and this might well be the basis of a future standard in the coming debate over whether to terraform or not to terraform.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Epistemic Hubris

21 November 2010


The peacock is not a bird to hide its light under a bushel.

In More Evidence for the Copernican Principle I finished with this observation:

Now we know, and can demonstrate, that planetary systems are not unique to the Milky Way. From this stronger inductive position, we can with greater confidence extrapolate our existing knowledge to the furthest reaches of the universe.

The Copernican Principle tutors us in metaphysical modesty, but the growing evidence for the Copernican Principle, and the paucity of counter-examples, inspires us to metaphysical ambition. Scientific knowledge is the expression of this metaphysical ambition as much or more than it is an expression of metaphysical modesty.

As soon as I wrote this I realized that this is an idea that deserves its own independent exposition, as there is much that can be said on this head. I will touch on some of these issues here, though a full treatment would require a treatise, so I may need to return to this fascinating topic at a later date in order to refine and extrapolate my formulations as presented below.

I linked the above quoted idea to my post on Metaphysical Modesty, in which I discussed Jeffrey L. Kasser’s lectures on the philosophy of science published by The Teaching Company, and his exposition of the role of humility in scientific knowledge. There I wrote, “The Professor characterizes metaphysical modesty as, ‘The way the world is does not depend on what we think about it’.” And I added, “Now, this is simply an alternative formulation of realism, but Kasser has chosen to express realism as a moral virtue, and particularly as the moral virtue of metaphysical modesty.”

In recognizing the role of humility in scientific knowledge, and formulating it in moral terms, Kasser was not putting himself out on a limb, but on the contrary was staking out a classic position in the philosophy of science. Despite the contempt for philosophical ethics found in much early twentieth century positivist thought (and the formulation of doctrines like the emotivist theory of ethics), many of these scientifically-minded philosophers gave expositions of scientific knowledge saturated in moral significance.

While Bertrand Russell was never a positivist per se, nor simpliciter, he provides a wonderful example, perhaps even the locus classicus, of moralized scientific epistemology. Russell writes of the notion of good and evil being “extruded” from scientific philosophy. After an extensive explanation of how ethical preoccupations have compromised philosophical and scientific inquiry (in the last paragraphs of section I of “On Scientific Method in Philosophy”), Russell begins section II as follows:

“If the notion of the universe and the notion of good and evil are extruded from scientific philosophy, it may be asked what specific problems remain for the philosopher as opposed to the man of science?”

“On Scientific Method in Philosophy,” section II, collected in Mysticism and Logic

Russell’s criticism of the moral preoccupations of earlier philosophers is in the same paper:

“The ethical element which has been prominent in many of the most famous systems of philosophy is, in my opinion, one of the most serious obstacles to the victory of scientific method in the investigation of philosophical questions.”

For Russell, ethics is regulative of scientific thought, rather than constitutive of scientific thought, but that moral concerns are still present is unquestionable, as we see in his discussions of scientific humility:

“A truly scientific philosophy will be more humble, more piecemeal, more arduous, offering less glitter of outward mirage to flatter fallacious hopes, but more indifferent to fate, and more capable of accepting the world without the tyrannous imposition of our human and temporary demands.”

the last sentence of his “Mysticism and Logic” paper

And again:

“The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards which a certain kind of madness—the intoxication of power which invaded philosophy with Fichte, and to which modern men, whether philosophers or not, are prone. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy, which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Chapter XXX, “John Dewey,” p. 828

And again:

“By the practice of methodological doubt, if it is genuine and prolonged, a certain humility as to our knowledge is induced: we become glad to know anything in philosophy, however seemingly trivial. Philosophy has suffered from the lack of this kind of modesty.”

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, third from the last paragraph of the last chapter.

Would it be too much to say that scientific humility was a preoccupation of Russell’s? As I noted above, Russell is the locus classicus here, and Kasser was on firm ground following his lead.

Russell makes a persuasive case for the role of humility in science, but as I realized as I was writing about the further evidence we now have for the Copernican Principle, the role of ambition in science is no less central, and perhaps more interesting. As our patient methods of induction increase our level of certainty about an hypothesis, we rightly become more comfortable with its further generalization and extrapolation.

To make a sweeping generalization about a law of nature, as when Newton posited universal gravitation, is an act of epistemic hubris. That the mind can capture, in an act of thought, a truth that is as true immediately beneath our feet as it is on the other side of the universe, is nothing short of astonishing. Nevertheless, it can be expressed with cool detachment, as with Newton’s law of gravitation:

“Every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is directly proportional to the product of the masses of the particles and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.”

Newton here invokes “Every particle of matter in the universe” without qualification. It is this simplicity that gives general laws of nature such great power of prediction and theoretical unity, but it also must be recognized as a triumph of epistemic ambition, if not epistemic hubris. As it often commented in regard to Newton, he said that “I feign no hyptheses” (“Hypotheses non fingo”) even while formulating an unconditional and universal law of gravitation. If this isn’t an hypothesis, I don’t know what is.

To contemplate the possibility of metaphysical ambition co-equal with metaphysical modesty as one of the springs of science brings us to the locus classicus of ambition, MacBeth’s speech as he contemplates politically-motivated murder:

I haue no Spurre
To pricke the sides of my intent, but onely
Vaulting Ambition, which ore-leapes it selfe,
And falles on th’ other.

Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Macbeth (1623 First Folio Edition)

Shakespeare’s use of “Vaulting Ambition” in this speech has often been quoted. I cite it here because of what it implies: a leaping-over of all that intervenes into order to get directly to the object without recourse to the painstakingly slow method of creeping along the ground. This way of formulating Vaulting Ambition reveals it as a non-constructive strategy, and this makes it interesting.

If you have not studied philosophy, logic, or mathematics you are not likely to be consciously aware of the formal distinction between constructive and non-constructive methods, or, formulated metaphysically, between idealism and realism. Nevertheless, the distinction is fundamental, and even those who cannot distinguish a constructive proof from a non-constructive proof will be immediately familiar with the intuitive instantiations of these divergent attitudes, as in “seeing is believing” (a constructivist idea) or “there is more to the world than we can see” (a Platonic, and therefore a realist, non-constructive idea).

Vaulting ambition in science, as revealed in breathtaking leaps of deduction to striking and unexpected conclusions, is usually a non-constructive enterprise. Non-constructive proofs are fascinating, and show us things we would probably not otherwise even guess, but they have their weaknesses. Some non-constructive proofs prove things but do not show us how to find them, construct them, or otherwise submit them to immediate observation, inquiry, or further analysis. For example, we may “feel in our bones” that there is more to the world than meets the eye, but not be able to say exactly what it is that the world consists of but which cannot be seen.

By way of contrast, the humility in science, of the sort recommended by Bertrand Russell and Kasser (though formulated in the language of metaphysical realism), is usually a constructive enterprise, whereby we reach our conclusions by the most slow and painstaking methods, so that when we arrive at our conclusion we know exactly how we got there, what we found, and we can point to the result of our research so that others can inspect it for themselves.

Both humility and hubris are to be found in scientific thought, with now one, now the other, taking precedence in the way we understand the world, but even when one is in the ascendancy, the other is never absent.

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