16 April 2017
Easter is one of the central religious holidays of the Christian calendar — if not the central religious holiday of Christianity — and thus one of the central symbols of Christian civilization. In the period of a single week we pass from Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his betrayal, trial, execution, entombment, and eventual resurrection, which, by any measure, must be something of an emotional roller-coaster for those who celebrate the holiday in a participatory spirit, that is to say, for those who engage in the prescribed rituals as a means of participating in the myth, as when pilgrims travel to Jerusalem and walk the Via Dolorosa, commemorating the Stations of the Cross.
I have often cited Joseph Campbell to the effect that a ritual is the opportunity to participate in a myth, so that all rituals are, in a sense, participatory forms of faith. Rituals are also what J. L. Austin called performatives, i.e., that very act of ritual participation is a religious observance; religious value is inherent in the act of participation.
For the Christian, the ultimate performative is to follow in Christ’s footsteps, a practice that in medieval Christendom was called imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ. In the hope of resurrection and the life everlasting the individual Christian also hopes to extend the imitatio Christi to the next world; the resurrection of Christ is the model for the resurrection of the believer in Christ. The Christian believer, too, can experience resurrection, and this destiny of the individual soul is understood to be a function of salvation.
Recently I have been thinking about the relationship between soteriology and eschatology in the Christian tradition. It strikes me that soteriology and eschatology are tightly-coupled in Christianity — more tightly-coupled than in the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, and much more tightly-coupled that the non-Abrahamic faiths. The events and the symbolism of Easter embody this tightly-coupled Christian tradition of soteriology and eschatology. Though tightly-coupled, there is, however, an asymmetry: soteriology is voluntaristic, but eschatology is not; we will all be judged, but we will not all be saved.
In Christianity, salvation is salvation from death, and the substitution of a life eternal in Christ for a worldly fate of dissolution and personal extinction. Compare this, for example, to the Hindu tradition, in which the transmigration of souls is a central doctrine. Superficially, the eternal life of the transmigrating soul can be compared to the eternal soul of the Christian tradition, but this is misleading. The transmigrating soul casts off bodies like a snake casting off its skin, while the resurrection guarantees the believing Christian not only an eternal life in Christ, but even the possession of the body that the soul seems to cast off upon death.
If soteriology and eschatology are tightly-coupled in the Christian tradition and loosely-coupled in other religious traditions, what are the limits on the possible relations between the two? To what extent are soteriology and eschatology ideally separable from each other? Is it possible to have soteriology in isolation from eschatology, and eschatology in isolation from soteriology? It is arguable that the practical faiths that have focused on human actions in this world, with little or no reference to a life beyond death or a world beyond this world, are soteriological in essence without a significant eschatological element. Judaism is like this to a certain extent, and Confucianism to a much greater extent. When asked by a disciple about life after death, Confucius was supposed to have said, “We have not yet learned to know life. How can we know death?” That the question was asked points to the human preoccupation with death, and that it was dismissed in the way that it was dismissed, points to the distinctive Confucian response to the human condition.
There is another possibility. I can’t think of any existing religious tradition that embodies this approach, but it is equally possible that a system of belief might focus on a grand scheme of cosmological eschatology and be more or less indifferent to soteriology. Indeed, if contemporary science were a religion, or even a religious surrogate (some would argue that it is the latter; I would not so argue), it would perfectly fit the bill in this respect. The Copernican principle is frequently invoked as a punishment of human pride, demonstrating our insignificance before the universe. Human salvation here is unimportant, and so left unaddressed. Positivists, in general, are satisfied with this state-of-affairs, but most human beings are not. One cause for anti-scientific sentiment among the general public is precisely this scientific indifference to the human condition.
If a naturalistic soteriology could be joined to the naturalistic eschatology of the scientific worldview, this would be a powerful combination. It might even be possible to advance toward a civilization with science as a central project, or some central project derived from science, such as the exploration of the cosmos, if some soteriology were emergent from science. But I cannot think of any ideas derived from science that could adequately serve this function. There is the idea of humanity as one — the ultimate unity of the species — and the idea of mere humanity — a quasi-religious sense of human exceptionalism — or even humanity’s responsibility for itself as a moral imperative. However, I don’t see any of these as effective substitutes for soteriology.
The distinctive characteristic of Axial Age belief systems is the discovery of a universal human nature, the definition of the human condition in terms of this human nature, and the identification of a particular destiny for humanity in virtue of human nature and the human condition. The tribal gods, appropriate to tribal chiefdoms but falling short of the needs of large-scale social organization, were content to be worshiped as a god among gods, and made no special claim to a privileged knowledge of the human heart. The gods of the Axial Age surpassed these tribal gods, and they demanded more in turn. It wasn’t enough simply to build a civilization, to erect great monuments, to foster bustling cities and their commerce, to conquer the cities of rival powers, in other words, the ordinary business of life was not enough. Something more was called for. This something more turned out to be a sacrifice demanded in exchange for salvation.
Christianity could be said to belong to the second generation of Axial Age faiths, descended with modification from the Axial Age innovations of Mesopotamia, if we distinguish a sequence of the original Axial Age faiths, the second generation of faiths that grew out of the original Axial Age faiths, and the third generation of faiths that grew from the earlier two. Each later generation of Axial Age faiths evolved under the selection pressure of the earlier generation of Axial Age faiths, and of the societies that these earlier Axial Age faiths shaped. Part of this evolution became the individual taking personal responsibility for their salvation, but also being the beneficiary of personal salvation. The earlier Axial Age faiths had focused much more on the social whole, but Christianity raised the stakes and introduced a dialectic between the individual and the community. The individual was given new importance, but was also expected to act on behalf of the brotherhood of mankind, selflessly if necessary.
The the survival of early civilizations was at stake in religiously-constructed communal identities, as I noted in All Believers are Brothers, where I wrote:
“Religion facilitates the construction of indefinitely expandable kin networks far more extensive than any exclusively biological kin network. A society that originates as a biological kin network can transcend the natural limitation that checks the growth of a biological kin network through displacing its biological culture into a religious framework. There is, then, no absolute distinction between kin selection and group selection among human beings, because what begins as kin selection can be extended to group selection through an in-group identity rooted in biological origins but later extended to individuals not within the immediate (biological) kin network.”
This principled conflation of differences was the foundation of an identity that made large-scale civilizations, and so already looked beyond the regional civilizations of the Axial Age, in a way not unlike how the regional civilizations looked beyond the tribal chiefdoms they supplanted. This is an example of the continual self-transcendence of civilization that I have remarked on elsewhere. The particular Christian solution to the problem of communal identity was to have tightly-coupled eschatology and soteriology, and it is at least arguable that this tightly-coupled sense of destiny and salvation persists in a secularized form today. But the secularized form is a bastardized theology, and we would do better, for the future of our civilization, if we could find a scientific soteriology to couple with our scientific eschatology, rather to than to continue play out the limited options of a theology that no longer knows itself to be such. The survival of our civilization is no less at stake today than it was during the Axial Age.
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22 May 2016
Some time ago in Humanity as One I considered the unity of the human species, and, perhaps as significantly, how we discovered that unity. Beyond the woolly thinking and feel-good platitudes that tend to swamp any discussion of human unity, we know now from the genetic evidence contained within each and every human being that humanity constitutes a single species. But while it has become a stubborn problem in the philosophy of biology of how exactly to define species, the real message of the Darwinian conception of species is that of species anti-realism (for lack of a better term). Nature is continuous, and dividing up the natural world into biological taxa — species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom — is a convenience of human knowledge but ought not to be conceived as a Platonic form in biology, i.e., a template imposed upon nature, and not nature itself. So it is with the human species: we are a convenience of taxonomy, not a natural kind.
Given species anti-realism, it should surprise no one that all species are not alike; it may be a mistake to seek a single definition for what constitutes a species, though it is a habit of the Platonic frame of mind to settle on an essentialist definition. In biology specifically, for example, there is a long-standing tension between taxonomies based on some structural criterion or criteria (as in the Linnaean system) and taxonomies based on descent (evolutionary biology since Darwin). Marc Ereshefsky in his book The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy advocates completely abandoning the Linnaean taxonomy and offers as an alternative “species pluralism,” asking whether, “Given the theoretical and pragmatic problems facing the Linnaean system, should biologists continue using that system?” With our contemporary naturalistic conception of human beings as one biological species among others, any change in our conception of species becomes a change in our conception of ourselves as a biological species. Might we define the human species in several different but equally valid ways?
In saying that humanity constitutes a single species we could express this comparatively in relation to other species. Because all species are not alike, a given species might, for example, represent more or less genetic diversity. (If we defined species by their genetic diversity, we would have a rather different taxonomy than that which we currently employ.) Geneticists discuss diversity in terms of nucleotide distance and heterozygosity; I will consider the latter as a measure for human genetic diversity. For example, human genetic diversity is lower than C. brenneri, a “bacteria-eating, 1-millimeter-long worm” (cf. The most genetically diverse animal; C. brenneri has been called “hyperdiverse” with a heterozygosity of around 40%, cf. Molecular hyperdiversity defines populations of the nematode Caenorhabditis brenneri), and higher than the San Nicolas population of island foxes off the coast of California (cf. Foxes on one of California’s Channel Islands have least genetic variation of all wild animals and Genomic Flatlining in the Endangered Island Fox). As I have sometimes cited the cheetah as a mammal population with very low genetic diversity (cf. Multiregional Cognitive Modernity), it is interesting to read that, the San Nicolas island fox, “has nearly an order of magnitude less genetic variation than any other low-diversity species, including the severely endangered African cheetah, Mountain gorilla, and Tasmanian devil.” (cf. Foxes on one of California’s Channel Islands have least genetic variation of all wild animals).
Now, I will admit that the first comparison with a little-known worm is not very enlightening, as we human beings, being part of the explosive adaptive radiation of mammals after the extinction of the dinosaurs, better understand comparisons with other mammals (cf. A Sentience-Rich Biosphere), and so a better comparison would be the mammal with the greatest genetic diversity. For a non-specialist like myself it is difficult to extract the relevant numbers from the context of scientific papers, but there seem to be mammal populations with significantly higher genetic diversity than human beings, just as there are mammal populations with significantly lower genetic diversity than human beings (on human genetic diversity generally cf. Human heterozygosity: A new estimate). The striped-mouse, Rhabdomys pumilio, has a heterozygosity (in some populations) of 7.3 %, significantly higher than the mammalian mean (there is an established mean heterozygosity for mammals of about 3.6 %, or H = 0.036; cf. Genetic variation in Rhabdomys pumilio (Sparrman 1784) — an allozyme study). The house mouse Mus musculus has populations with a genetic diversity of 8.9 % (H = 0.089). The extremely endangered Rhinoceros unicornis has a heterozygosity of nearly 10%, which may be the highest of any vertebrate (cf. Molecular Markers, Natural History and Evolution by J. C. Avise, p. 366).
It would be an oversimplification to rely exclusively on heterozygosity as a measure of genetic diversity, but at least it is a measure, and having a quantifiable measure gives us a different way to think about the human species, and a way to think about our species in relation to other species. The intellectual superstructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, which our industrial-technological civilization has inherited but not yet overcome, gave us the scala naturae, also known as the great chain of being (cf. my post Parsimony and Emergent Complexity). This conception also placed human beings in a context, and near the middle: higher than the animals, but lower than the angels. Genetic diversity places human beings in a naturalistic context that can (or, at least, could, with the proper motivation) be studied scientifically.
Are human beings being studied scientifically today? Yes and no. If you search Google for “highest genetic diversity” and “lowest genetic diversity” the top search results are all related to the perennially troubling question of human races (which I discussed in Against Natural History, Right and Left). On this point contemporary thought is so compromised that objective scientific research is impossible. This is unfortunate. More than 150 years after Darwin, the biology of human beings is still controversial. This ought to make any rational person wince.
What Freud once said of religion — “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanour” — now appears to be true of humanity, which suggests that, despite Comte’s failed attempt to explicitly formulate a religion of humanity, an implicit religion of humanity has grown up almost unnoticed around the idea. This quasi-religious conception of humanity — which Francis Fukuyama expressed by saying, “we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct” (cf. Human Exceptionalism) — militates against any scientific self-understanding by humanity. This suggests an interesting possibility for defining a scientific civilization: a scientific civilization is a civilization in which the intelligent agent responsible for the civilization reflexively applies scientific understanding to itself. Scientific medicine studies human beings scientifically in order to keep them healthy and alive, but, with a few exceptions, human beings are not yet understood in a fully scientific context.
The scientific revolution set the stage for the possibility of a scientific civilization and for studying human beings in a fully scientific context. Neither of these possibilities have yet come to full fruition, and science itself has continued to develop and evolve, so that any scientific civilization or any conception of humanity based on contemporaneous science would have continually developed in parallel with the development of science. It is interesting to note that the scientific revolution begins about the same time as the Columbian Exchange, which latter essentially unified the human species again after our global diaspora (this was the theme of my earlier Humanity as One), in which populations had become separated and did not know themselves to be one species. The sense of humanity as one that emerges from the global unification of the Columbian Exchange and the sense of humanity as one that emerges from science both give us a planetary conception of humanity that might well be called the overview effect as applied specifically to humanity. I would call this “The Human Overview,” except that I have already used this to indicate the comprehensive impression we derive from meeting with and speaking to another.
I would argue now that we are capable of transcending even this planetary conception of humanity because of the recent extrapolation of biology as astrobiology. Science from the scientific revolution to the middle of the twentieth century was the science of a species exclusively subject to planetary endemism, and even though we overcame geocentrism in a narrow sense, our conceptions of the world and of ourselves often remained subject to geocentrism in an extended sense; the intellectual equivalent of geocentrism is the projection of the assumptions of planetary endemism onto our categories of thought. With the first glimpse of the Earth from space (i.e., the overview effect) and a growing awareness of the cosmological context of our planetary system, we began to transcend this intellectual equivalent of geocentrism. One of the consequences of this has been astrobiology, which places biology in a cosmological context, and, in so far as we understand humanity scientifically, places humanity also in a cosmological context.
Astrobiology would be impossible without both contemporary cosmology and biology; cosmology gives the scope of the conception, and biology the depth. With our increasing knowledge of cosmology and growing sophistication in biology, we have the intellectual resources now to formulate the human condition in a cosmological context and hence to understand ourselves scientifically — if only we have the strength of mind to do so. While such a conception of humanity would be “mere humanity” without the overlay of theological, soteriological, eschatological and teleological concepts that have been used in the past to develop a more comprehensive conception of humanity — what I elsewhere called, “the hopeless tangle of rationalization and cognitive bias that we have painstakingly erected around the idea of humanity” — this “mere humanity” is far more noble and edifying in its simplicity than past attempts to guild the lily.
As a species we have a long and painful history of perverting the ideals we have chosen for ourselves and making the human condition much worse than it was before any such ideals were conceived. As Montaigne noted, men, in seeking to become angels, transformed themselves into beasts (cf. Transcendental Humors). Among these brutal ideals I would count all the theological, soteriological, eschatological and teleological concepts that have been used to flesh out the concept of humanity, while the “darkling aspiration” (“dunklen Drange”) of a Faust has proved not to be our undoing, but rather to be what is best in humanity. In the past, our aspiration to embody perverted ideals in our own lives resulted in raising up as false idols fragmented and partial conceptions of humanity; individuals sought to become some particular kind of humanity (rather than “Mere Humanity”), and accounted this striving as a form of virtue, when it is, in fact, the spirit of ethnic cleansing. The planetary conception of humanity, and indeed the astrobiological conception of humanity, gives the lie to all of this. Soon it will be vain to aspire to be anything other than merely human, and soon after that it will be vain to aspire to be human (i.e., exclusively human). But the way to this understanding is through science and a rigorously scientific conception of humanity.
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27 May 2012
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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10 February 2012
Kurt Gödel was possibly the greatest logician of the twentieth century, and certainly among the handful of greatest logicians of all time. Tarski called himself the “greatest living sane logician,” implicitly conceding Gödel first place if the qualifier “sane” is removed. Gödel’s greatest contributions were his incompleteness theorems, which have subsequently been extrapolated to an entire class of limitative theorems that formally demonstrate that which formal systems cannot prove. I just mentioned in The Clausewitzean Conception of Civilization that Gödel’s results were widely interpreted as the death-knell of Hilbert’s program to provide a finite axiomatization for all mathematics.
Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, however, were not his only contribution. Over the past few years his correspondence and unpublished papers have been published, giving a better idea of the full scope of Gödel’s thought, which ranged widely across logic, mathematics, cosmology, and even theology. Hao Wang in his Reflections on Kurt Gödel called Gödel’s, “A life of fundamental theoretical work,” and this is an apt characterization.
It strikes me as fitting and appropriate, then, to apply Gödel’s fundamental theoretical work whenever and wherever it might be applicable, and I will suggest that Gödel’s work has implications for theoretical geopolitics (and even, if there were such a discipline, for theoretical biopolitics).
Now, allow me to back up for a moment and mention Francis Fukuyama again, since I have mentioned him and the “end of history” thesis in several recent posts: Addendum on Marxist Eschatology, Another Future: The New Agriculturalism, Addendum on Neo-Agriculturalism, Geopolitics and Biopolitics, and Addendum on Geopolitics and Biopolitics to name a few. Should the reader think that I am beating a dead horse, I would submit to you that Fukuyama himself is still thinking through the consequences of his thesis. In his book The End of History and the Last Man, the idea of a “struggle for recognition” plays an important role, and Fukuyama has mentioned this again quite recently in his recent Foreign Policy essay, The Drive for Dignity. And this is the way it should be: our impatient society may frown upon spending ten or twenty years thinking through an idea, but this is what philosophers do.
In the aforementioned The End of History and the Last Man Fukuyama poses this question, related to his “end of history” thesis:
“Whether, at the end of the twentieth century, it makes sense for us to once again to speak of a coherent and directional History of of mankind that will eventually lead the greater part of humanity to liberal democracy?”
Fukuyama answers “yes” to this question, giving economics and the “struggle for recognition” as his reasons for so arguing. Although Fukuyama seems to avoid the tendentious formulation he employed earlier, yes, history is, after all, coming to an end. But wait. There is more. In his later book Our Posthuman Future and in some occasional articles, Fukuyama has argued that history can’t quite come to and end yet because science hasn’t come to an end. Moreover, the biotechnology revolution holds out either the promise or the threat of altering human nature itself, and if human nature is altered, the possibilities for our future history are more or less wide open.
From these two lines of argument I conclude that Fukuyama still thinks today that the ideological evolution of humanity has come to an end in so far as humanity is what it is today, but that this could all change if we alter ourselves. In other words, our ideological life supervenes upon our physical structure and the mode of life dictated by that physical structure. We only have a new ideological future if we change what human beings are on an essential level. Now, this is a very interesting position, and there is much to say about it, but here I am only going to say a single reason why I disagree with it.
Human moral evolution has not come to an end, and although it would probably be given a spur to further and faster growth by biotechnological interventions in human life (and most especially by human-induced human speciation, which would certainly be a major event in the history of our species), human moral evolution, and the ideological changes that supervene upon human moral evolution, will continue with or without biotechnological intervention in human life.
To suppose that human moral evolution had come to an end with the advent of the idea and implementation of liberal democracy, however admirable this condition is (or would be), is to suppose that we had tried all possible ideas for human society and that there will be no new ideas (at least, there will be no new moral ideas unless we change human nature through biotechnological intervention). I do not accept either that all ideas for society have been tried and rejected or that there will be no fundamentally new ideas.
The denial of future conceptual innovation is interesting in its own right, and constitutes a particular tradition of thought that one runs into from time to time. This is the position made famous by Ecclesiastes who said that, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Politicians, geopoliticians, geostrategists, and strategists simpliciter have been as vulnerable to “group think” (i.e., intellectual conformity) as any other group of people, and they tend to think that if every idea has been pretty much discussed and exhausted among their circle of friends, that ideas in general have been pretty much exhausted. The idea that there are no new ideological ideas forthcoming represents group think at the nation-state level, and in part accounts for the increasing ossification of the nation-state system as it exists today. I have mentioned elsewhere the need for nothing less than a revolution to conduct a political experiment. It is no wonder, then, that new ideas don’t get much of a hearing.
To the position of Ecclesiastes we can oppose the position of Gödel, who saw clearly that some have argued and will argue for the end of the evolution of the human mind and its moral life. In a brief but characteristically pregnant lecture Gödel made the following argument:
“Turing . . . gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”
“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306
Since we are, today, living in the Age of Turing (as I write this, the entire current year of 2012 has been declared The Alan Turing Year), ushered in by the pervasive prevalence of computers in contemporary life, it is to be expected that those who follow Turing in his conception of the mind are at or near the flood-tide of their influence, and this conception might well be as pervasively prevalent as the computers that Turing made possible by his own fundamental theoretical work. And in fact, in contemporary philosophers of mind, we find a great many expressions of the essentially mechanical nature of the mind, sometimes called the computational model of the mind. It has become a commonplace to see the mind as the “software” installed in the body’s “hardware,” despite the fact that most of the advocates of a computational theory of mind also argue strongly against Cartesian dualism.
Gödel is right. The human mind is always developing and changing. Because the mind is not static, it formulates novel ideas on a regular basis. It is a fallacy to conflate the failure of new ideas of achieve widespread socio-political currency with the absence of novel ideas. Among the novel ideas constantly pioneered by the dynamism of human cognition are moral and political ideas. In so far as there are new moral and political ideas, there are new possibilities for human culture, society, and civilization. The works of the human mind, like the human mind itself, are not static, but are constantly developing.
I have recently argued that biopolitics potentially represents a fundamentally novel moral and political idea. An entire future history of humanity might be derived from what is implicit in biopolitics, and this future history would be distinct from the future history of humanity based on the idea of liberal democracy and its geopolitical theoreticians. I wrote about biopolitics because I could cite several examples and go into the idea in some level of detail (although much more detail is required — I mean a level of detail relative to the context), but there are many ideas that are similarly distinct from the conventions of contemporary statesmen and which might well be elaborated in a future that would come as a surprise to us all.
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5 September 2010
Joseph Campbell opens up the Foreword to his The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology with this reflection:
“Looking back today over the twelve delightful years that I spent on this richly rewarding enterprise, I find that its main result for me has been its confirmation of a thought I have long and faithfully entertained: of the unity of the race of man, not only in its biology but also in its spiritual history, which has everywhere unfolded in the manner of a single symphony, with its themes announced, developed, amplified and turned about, distorted, reasserted, and, today, in a grand fortissimo of all sections sounding together, irresistibly advancing to some kind of mighty climax, out of which the next great movement will emerge.”
Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Penguin Books, 1981, p. v
We now know scientifically the biological unity of humanity, and have known this for more than a hundred years. More recently, DNA science has cast a whole new light on the human diaspora since it began to spread out of Africa, and whereas we once had many theories of how humanity spread itself across the globe, and with little hope of deciding between these theories, DNA evidence now gives us a vast quantity of new information that has decisively settled most open questions of human migration of global colonization, and which has furnished us, from the material of our own bodies, with a richly documented narrative of how we settled the globe.
And settle the globe we did. Human beings moved through every ecosystem, every biome, and in the process of migration some stayed and settled in every niche in which a living could be had. All of this happened long before recorded history, was lost to us for the better part of our history, and is only now being rediscovered through the work of science.
Because of the circumstances of human migration, we lost touch with our own history, and the parts of humanity in far flung regions of the globe did not know of each other. George Friedman in his The Next 100 Years commented on this:
“Until the fifteenth century, human lived in self-enclosed, sequestered worlds. Humanity did not know itself as consisting of a single fabric. The Chinese didn’t know of the Aztecs, and the Mayas didn’t know of the Zulus. The Europeans may have heard of the Japanese, but they didn’t really know them — and they certainly didn’t interact with them. The Tower of Babel had done more than make it impossible for people to speak to each other. It made civilizations oblivious to each other.”
George Friedman, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, first Anchor Books edition, p. 19
The unity of the fragmented whole of humanity was occluded by the migration that resulted in the globalization of our species. Today, in an age of rapid worldwide travel and even more rapid telecommunications, we can stay in touch with our point of origin and return to it whenever we like. When the human adventure began, it was a one-way trip. And, once arrived, settlements emerged in isolation and without any knowledge of the world left behind. When populations expanded until they once again touched other previously isolated groups, no memory of the connection remained and such reunions of the human family were rarely happy affairs.
This points to an important (and hopefully obvious) lesson: humanity can understand itself as a whole, as it is in fact (and which we now know it to be), or some subdivision of humanity can misunderstand itself to be the whole of humanity, so that when it encounters other parts of the human family tree it is incapable of recognizing them for what they are.
The examples of the human diaspora given above focus on the spatial separation of peoples when communications and transportation technology were sufficient to globalize our species but not sufficient to preserve our unity as a species. This can thus be expressed explicitly: humanity can understand itself as a whole in space, as it is in fact, or it can misunderstand some spatially-defined subset of itself as the whole of humanity proper, even though this is not the case in fact. This misunderstanding — really, fallacy — we can call the fallacy of spatial parochialism, and it is well familiar to us in all the stories of outrageous provincialism.
This explicit spatial formulation suggests an equally explicit temporal formulation: humanity can understand itself as a whole through time, as it is in fact, or it can misunderstand some temporally-defined subset of itself as the whole of humanity proper, even though this is not the case in fact. This latter misunderstanding we can call the fallacy of temporal parochialism, which is less familiar than spatial parochialism, but which I have previously discussed in this forum (and is therefore not unknown to my readers).
In so far as the fallacy of spatial parochialism and the fallacy of temporal parochialism are fallacies — we might group them together as fallacies of fragmentation — rigorous reasoning will learn to identify them and to eradicate them. (We might treat them as special cases of the fallacy of composition, but this would require a more detailed treatment that I will not pursue today.) The effort to identify and eradicate these fallacies of human fragmentation could be called the anthropological formulation of the Copernican Principle, which might sound paradoxical (in so far as the Copernican Principle is often explicitly contrasted to the Anthropic Principle), but also might be exactly what we need in order to counter some of the sillier consequences drawn from strong formulations of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle.
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N.B. I have no quarrel with weak formulations of the anthropic principle, which I regard as tautologically true.
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