26 December 2016
In my recent Manifesto for the Study of Civilization I employed the phrase history in an extended sense. Here is a bit more context:
“One form that the transcendence of an exclusively historical study of civilization can take is that of extrapolating historical modes of thought so that these modes of thought apply to the future as well as to the past (and this could be called history in an extended sense).”
In several posts I have developed what I call concepts in an extended sense, as in Geocentrism in an Extended Sense and “biocentrism in an extended sense” in Addendum on the Technocentric Thesis and “ecology in an extended sense” in Intelligent Invasive Species.
In Developmental Temporality I wrote:
“With the advent of civilization in the most extended sense of that term, comprising organized settled agricultural societies and their urban centers, planning for the future becomes systematic.”
And in Reduction, Emergence, Supervenience I wrote:
“Philosophy today, then, is centered on the extended conceptions of ‘experience’ and ‘observation’ that science has opened up to us, and these extended senses of experience and observation go considerably beyond ordinary experience, and the prima facie intellectual intuitions available to beings like ourselves, whose minds evolved in a context in which perceptions mattered enormously while the constituents and overall structure of the cosmos mattered not at all.”
In these attempts to extrapolate, expand, and extend concepts beyond their ordinary usage — the result of which might also be called overview concepts — each traditional concept must be treated individually, as there is a limit that is demarcated by the intrinsic meaning of the concept, and these limits are different in each case. With history, the extrapolation of the concept is obvious: history has taken the past as its remit, but history in an extended sense would apply to the totality of time. This is already being done in Big History.
When I attended the second IBHA conference in 2014 I was witness to a memorable exchange that I described in 2014 IBHA Conference Day 2:
“During the question and answer session, a fellow who had spoken up in previous sessions with questions stood up and said that there were (at least) two conceptual confusions pervasive throughout discussions at this conference: 1) that something could come from nothing (presumably a reference to how the big bang is framed, though this could have been intended more generally as a critique of emergentism) and, 2) that history can say anything about the future. The same individual (whose name I did not get) said that no one had given an adequate definition of history, and then noted that the original Greek term for history meant ‘inquiry.’ Given this Grecian (or even, if you like, Herodotean) origin for the idea of history as an inquiry, I immediately asked myself, ‘If one can conduct an inquiry into the past, why cannot one also conduct an inquiry into the future?’ No doubt these inquires will be distinct because one concerns the past and the other the future, but cannot they be taken up in the same spirit?”
There was a note of frustration in the voice of the speaker who objected to any account of the future as a part of history, and while I could appreciate the source of that frustration, it reminded me of every traditionalist protest against the growth of scientific knowledge made possible by novel methods not sanctioned by tradition. In this connection I think of Isaiah Berlin’s critique of scientific historiography, which I previously discussed in Big History and Scientific Historiography.
Berlin argued that the historical method is intrinsically distinct from the scientific method, so that there can be no such thing as scientific historiography, i.e., that the intrinsic limitations of the concept of history restricts history from being scientific in the way that the natural sciences are scientific. While Berlin’s objection to scientific historiography is not stated in terms of restricting the expansion of historical modes of thought, his appeal to a nature of history intrinsically irreconcilable with science and the scientific method is parallel to an appeal to the nature of history as being intrinsically about the past (thus intrinsically not about the future), hence there can be no such thing as a history that includes within it the study of the future in addition to the study of the past.
Here is a passage in which Berlin characterizes distinctively historical modes of thought, contrasting them to scientific modes of thought:
“Historians cannot ply their trade without a considerable capacity for thinking in general terms; but they need, in addition, peculiar attributes of their own: a capacity for integration, for perceiving qualitative similarities and differences, a sense of the unique fashion in which various factors combine in the particular concrete situation, which must at once be neither so unlike any other situation as to constitute a total break with the continuous flow of human experience, nor yet so stylised and uniform as to be the obvious creature of theory and not of flesh and blood. The capacities needed are rather those of association than of dissociation, of perceiving the relation of parts to wholes, of particular sounds or colours to the many possible tunes or pictures into which they might enter, of the links that connect individuals viewed and savoured as individuals, and not primarily as instances of types or laws.”
Isaiah Berlin, “The Concept of Scientific History,” in Concepts and Categories, p. 140
Every cognitive capacity that Berlin here credits to the historian can be equally well exercised in relation to the future as to the past (I should point out that, as far as I know, Berlin did not take up the problem of the relation of the historian to the future). Indeed, one of the weaknesses of futurism has been that futurists have not immersed themselves in these distinctively historical modes of thought; our conception of the future could greatly benefit from a capacity for integration and perceiving the relation of parts to wholes. I don’t think Berlin would ever have imagined his critique of scientific historiography as advice for futurists, but it could be profitably employed in developing history in an extended sense.
It is common for historians to invoke distinctively historical modes of thought, and I believe that this is a valid concern. Indeed, I would go farther yet. Human modes of thought are primarily temporal, and non-temporal modes of thought come very late in our history as a species in comparison to the effortless way we learn to think of time in subtle and sophisticated ways. For example, when one learns a language, one finds that one spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to master past, present, and future tenses — the tenses of our mother tongue are so fixed in our minds that any other schema strikes us as counterintuitive (and, interestingly, even those who attain fluency in another language or languages usually revert to their mother tongue for counting). But in order to communicate effectively we must master the logic of time as expressed in linguistic tenses. Human beings are inveterate planners, preparers, and schemers; our present is pervasively animated by a concern for the future. We are so taken up with our plans for the future that it is considered something of a “gift” to be able to “live in the moment.”
Many of Berlin’s examples of distinctively historical thought position the historian as attempting to explain historical change. The emphasis on describing change in history results in an indirect deemphasis of continuity, though continuity is arguably the overwhelming experience of time and history. It would be almost impossible for us to delineate all of the things that we know will happen tomorrow, and which we do not even bother to think of as predictions because they fall so far near certainty on the epistemic continuum of historical knowledge. All of the laws of science that have been discovered up to the present day will continue to be in effect tomorrow, and all of the events and processes that make up the world will continue to be governed by these laws of nature tomorrow. We could exhaust ourselves describing the nomological certainties of the morrow, and still not have exhausted the predictions we might have made. Thus it is we know that the sun will rise tomorrow, and we can explain how and why the sun will rise tomorrow. If you are an anchorite living in a cave, the sun will not rise for you, but you can nevertheless be confident that Earth will continue to orbit the sun while rotating, and that this process will result in the appearance of the sun rising for everyone else not so confined.
But our sciences that describe the laws of nature that govern the world are incomplete, and they are in particular incomplete when it comes to history. I have noted elsewhere that there is (as yet) no science of time, and it is interesting to speculate that the absence of a science of time may be related to a parallel absence of a truly scientific historiography or a science of civilization. Because we have no science of time, we have no formal concepts of time — or, rather, we have no concepts of time recognized to be formal concepts. I have argued elsewhere that the idea of the punctiform present is a formal concept of time, i.e., interpreted as a formal concept it can be employed in a formal theory of time which can illuminate actual time as an ideal, simplified model. But as soon as you try to interpret the idea of the punctiform present as an empirical concept you run into difficulties. Would it be possible to measure a dimensionless instant? The punctiform present is like a pendulum with a weightless string, frictionless fulcrum, and no air drag. No such pendulum exists in actual fact, but the ideal pendulum remains a useful fiction for us. Similarly, the punctiform present is a useful fiction for a formal science of time.
A truly (perhaps exhaustively) scientific historiography would not only employ the methods of the special sciences in the exposition of history, but would also incorporate a science of time that would allow us to be as definite about history to come as we can now be definite about our predictions for the natural world as governed by laws of nature. It is not difficult to imagine what Berlin would have thought of such an idea. Here is another quote from Berlin’s essay on scientific historiography:
“…the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied, no matter how successful the human sciences may grow to be — even if, as all but obscurantists must hope, they discover genuine, empirically confirmed, laws of individual and collective behaviour — seems an attempt to square the circle.”
Isaiah Berlin, “The Concept of Scientific History,” in Concepts and Categories, p. 142
What Berlin here condemns as an attempt to square the circle is precisely my ideal in history, and it is what I called formal historiography in Rational Reconstructions of Time. A formulation of history in an extended sense would be a step toward a formal historiography.
While on one level I am interested in history as an intellectual discipline in its own right — history for history’s sake — and therefore I am interested in formal historiography as a sui generis discipline, I also have an ulterior motive in the pursuit of a formal historiography that can develop history in an extended sense. Such a formal historiography will be one tool in the interdisciplinary toolkit of future scientists of civilization, who must study civilization both in terms of its past and its future.
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9 August 2014
Day 3 of the 2014 IBHA conference began with panel 32 in room 201, “Complexity (2).” Three speakers were scheduled, but one canceled so that more time was available to the other two. This turned out to be quite fortunate. This panel was, without question, one of the best I have attended. It began with Ken Baskin on “Sister Disciplines: Bringing Big History and Complexity Theory Together,” and continued with Claudio Maccone with “Entropy as an Evolution Measure (Evo-SETI Theory).”
Ken Baskin, author of the forthcoming The Axial Ages of World History: Lessons for the 21st Century, said that big history and complexity theory are “post-Newtonian disciplines that complement each other.” His subsequent exposition made a real impression to this end. He used the now-familiar concepts of complexity — complex adaptive systems (CAS), non-linearity, and attractors, strange and otherwise — to give an exposition of big history periodization. He presented historical changes as being “thick” — that is to say, not as brief transitional periods, but as extended transitional periods that led to even longer-term states of relative stability. According to his periodization, the hunter-gatherer era was stable, and was followed by the disruption of the agricultural revolution; this eventually issued in a stable “pre-axial” age, which was in turn disrupted by the Axial Age. The Axial Age transition lasted for several hundred years but gave way to somewhat stable post-Axial societies, and this in turn has been disrupted by a second axial age. According to Baskin, we have been in this second axial transition since about 1500 and have not yet settled down into a new, stable social regime.
Claudio Maccone is an Italian SETI astronomer who has written a range of technical books, including Mathematical SETI: Statistics, Signal Processing, Space Missions and Deep Space Flight and Communications: Exploiting the Sun as a Gravitational Lens. His presentation was nothing less than phenomenal. My response is partly due to the fact that he addressed many of my interests. Before the IBHA conference a friend asked me what I would have talked about if I had given a presentation. I said that I would have talked about big history in relation to astrobiology, and specifically that I would like to point out the similarities between the emergent complexity schema of big history to the implicit levels of complexity in the Drake equation. This is exactly what Maccone did, and he did so brilliantly, with equations and data to back up his argument. Also, Maccone spoke like a professor giving a lecture, with an effortless mastery of his subject.
Maccone said that, for him, big history was simply an extension of the Drake equation — the Drake equation goes back some ten million years or so, and by adding some additional terms to the beginning of the Drake equation we can expand it to comprise the whole 13.7 billion years of cosmic history. I think that this was one of the best concise statements of big history that I heard at the entire conference, notwithstanding its deviation from most of the other definitions offered. The Drake equation is a theoretical framework that is limited only by the imagination of the researcher in revising its terms and expression. And Maccone has taken it much further yet.
Maccone has worked out a revision of the Drake equation that plugs probability distributions into the variables of the Drake equation (which he published as “The Statistical Drake Equation” in Acta Astronautica, 2010 doi:10.1016/
j.actaastro.2010.05.003). His work is the closest thing that I have seen to being a mathematical model of civilization. All I can say is: get all his books and papers and study them carefully. It will be worth the effort.
Big History and the Future
The next panel was the most difficult decision to make of the conference, because in one room were David Christian, Cynthia Brown, and others discussing “Meaning in Big History: A Naturalistic Perspective,” but I chose instead to go to panel 39 in room 301, “Big History and the Future,” which was concerned with futurism, or, as is now said, “future studies.”
The session started out with J. Daniel May reviewing past visions of the future by a discussion of twentieth century science fiction films, including Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Lost in Space, Star Trek, and 2001. I have seen all these films and television programs, and, as was evident by the discussion following the talk, many others had as well, citing arcane details from the films in their comments.
Joseph Voros then presented “On the transition to ‘Threshold 9’: examining the implications of ‘sustainability’ for human civilization, using the lens of big history.” The present big history schematization of the past that is most common (but not universal, as evidenced by this conference) recognizes eight thresholds of emergent complexity. This immediately suggests the question of what the next threshold of emergent complexity will be, which would be the ninth threshold, thus making the “ninth threshold” a kind of cipher among big historians and a framework for discussing the future in the context of big history. Given that the current threshold of emergent complexity is fossil-fueled civilization (what I call industrial-technological civilization), and given that fossil fuels are finite, an obvious projection for the future concerns the nature of a post-fossil-fuel civilization.
Voros claimed that all scenarios for the future fall into four categories: 1) continuation, 2) collapse (which is also called “descent”), 3) disciplined society (presumably what Bostrom would call “flawed realization”), and 4) transformational society, in which the transformation might be technological or spiritual. Since Voros was focused on post-fossil-fuel civilization, his talk was throughout related to “peak oil” concerns, though at a much more sophisticated level. He noted the the debate over “peak oil” is almost irrelevant from a big history perspective, because whether oil runs out now or later doesn’t alter the fact that it will run out being a finite resource renewable only over a period of time much greater than the time horizon of civilization. With this energy focus, he proposed that one of the forms of a “disciplined society” that could come about would be that of an “energy disciplined society.” Of the transformational possibilities he outlined four scenarios: 1) energy bonanza, 2) spiritual awakening, 3) brain/mind upload, and 4) childhood’s end.
After Voros, Cadell Last of the Global Brain Institute presented “The Future of Big History: High Intelligence to Developmental Singularity.” He began by announcing his “heretical” view that cultural evolution can be predicted. His subsequent talk revealed additional heresies without further trigger warnings. Last spoke of a coming era of cultural evolution in which the unit of selection is the idea (I was happy that he used “idea” instead of “meme”), and that this future would largely be determined by “idea flows” — presumably analogous to the “energy flows” of Eric Chaisson that have played such a large role in this conference, as well as the gene flows of biological evolution. (“Idea flows” may be understood as a contemporary reformulation of “idea diffusion.”) This era of cultural evolution will differ from biological evolution in that the idea flows, unlike gene flow in biological evolution, is not individual (it is cultural) and is not blind (conscious agents can plan ahead).
Last gave a wonderfully intuitive presentation of his ideas, and though it was the sort of thing that futurists recognize as familiar, I suspect much of what he said would strike the average listener as something akin to moral horror. Last said that, in the present world, biological and linguistic codes are in competition with each other, and gave the example familiar to everyone of having to make the choice whether to invest time and effort into biological descendants or cultural descendants. Scarcity of our personal resources means that we are likely to focus on one or the other. Finally, biological evolution will cease and all energies will be poured into cultural evolution. At this time, we will be free from the “tyranny of biology,” which requires that we engage in non-voluntary activities.
Reconceptualizations of Big History
For the final sessions divided into separate rooms I attended panel 44, “Reconceptualizations of Big History.” I came to this session primarily to hear to Camelo Castillo speak on “Mind as a Major Transition in big History.” Castillo, the author of Origins of Mind: A History of Systems, critiqued previous periodizations of big history, noting that they conflate changes in structure and changes in function. He then went on to define major transitions as, “transitions from individuals to groups that utilize novel processes to maintain novel structures.” With this definition, he went back to the literature and produced a periodization of six major transitions in big history. Not yet finished, he hypothesized that by looking for mind in the brain we are looking in the wrong place. Since all early major transitions involved both structures and processes, and from individuals to groups, that we should be looking for mind in social groups of human beings. The brain, he allowed, was implicated in the development of human social life, but social life is not reducible to the brain, and mind should be sought in theories of social intelligence.
Castillo’s work is quite rigorous and he defends it well, but I asked myself why we should not have different kinds of transitions at different stages of history and development, especially given that the kind of entities involved in the transition may be fundamentally distinct. Just as new or distinctive orders of existence require new or distinctive metrics for their measurement, so too new or distinctive orders of existence may come into being or pass out of being according to a transition specific to that kind of existent.
Final Plenary Sessions
After the individual session were finished, there was a series of plenary sessions. There was a presentation of Chronozoom, Fred Spier presented “The Future of Big History,” and finally there was a panel discussion entirely devoted to questions and answers, with Walter Alvarez, Craig Benjamin, Cynthia Brown, David Christian, Fred Spier, and Joseph Voros fielding the questions.
After the intellectual intensity of the sessions, it was not a surprise that these plenary sessions came to be mostly about funding, outreach, teaching, and the practical infrastructure of scholarship.
And with that the conference was declared to be closed.
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8 August 2014
It was another busy day at the 2014 IBHA big history conference at the Dominican University in San Rafael, California. I started out with Panel 17 in room 301 called “Interpretations.” Davidson Loehr started out the day right by giving a wonderful presentation on “Growing Beyond Religion: Big History and the Meaning of Life.” Loehr asserted that claims about human nature can now be addressed empirically — something he called “a revolution of the first order” — and that there are three aspects of human nature with “deeply uncomfortable” implications. He said that human nature includes innate empathy and compassion, but the deeply uncomfortable truth here is that empathy and compassion are not specifically human, but are found throughout the animal kingdom. Next he said that human nature is characterized by an innate selfishness. Lastly he said that human nature is inherently gullible. I found this last especially interesting, as was his development of the idea: “Ethical gullibility is the shadow side of our empathy and compassion.” I would like to see this idea further developed in the context of cognitive bias.
Jonathan Markley gave a remarkably entertaining presentation, “‘No meaning or intention’ the problem of intent in big history,” in which he emphasized that planning, meaning, intentions, and conscious behavior play much less of a constitutive role in history than is generally believed to be the case. Although I agree with this, I disagreed in detail with many of the particular claims made to prove this point. However, I liked the point that he illustrated by comparing human action to the coevolutionary relationship between squirrels and the trees that have become dependent upon squirrel seed caches for reproduction. He implied the dispensability of consciousness in human history, which is pushed along by evolutionary forces no less than squirrels and trees. But one could just as well draw the opposite lesson, and acknowledge (as implied by the previous talk) that what we think of as uniquely human (such as consciousness) is common in the animal world, and that consciousness is thus as crucial to the coevolutionary relationship between squirrels and trees as between human beings and their domesticates.
The third talk in this panel was Edward Simmons on “Big History, Meaning, and Paradigm Shifts.” While all the talks in this session were excellent, Simmons was an especially gifted speaker who delivers his material with evangelical zeal, which made his presentation entertaining in a different way from that of Jonathan Markley. Simmons cited two recent paradigms shifts — what he called the “McNeill Paradigm” (after the approach of William McNeill) and the erasure of the distinction between history and prehistory — and said that big history brings together these two paradigm shifts. Simmons spoke a lot about meaning, invoking Michael Shermer’s idea of patternicity, which contrasted quite starkly with the immediately previous presentation by Jonathan Markley, which sought to demote meaning in the same way that Simmons spoke of the “demotion” of the written historical record in the wake of scientific historiography as a source of prehistory. Thus even within a single panel discussion the diversity of present approaches to big history was clearly expressed in almost perfect antithetical terms: big history can do without human meanings, and big history is all about human meanings.
Big History Project Plenary Session
After the initial round of panels there was a plenary session at 11:00 am focusing on The Big History Project. This was mostly about teaching big history using resources developed by The Big History Project, but occasionally the teaching issues boil over into more general problems. During the question and answer session, a fellow who had spoken up in previous sessions with questions stood up and said that there were (at least) two conceptual confusions pervasive throughout discussions at this conference: 1) that something could come from nothing (presumably a reference to how the big bang is framed) and 2) that history can say anything about the future. The same individual (whose name I did not get) said that no one had given an adequate definition of history, and then noted that the original Greek term for history meant “inquiry.” Given this Grecian (or even, if you like, Herodotean) origin for the idea of history as an inquiry, I immediately asked myself, “If one can conduct an inquiry into the past, why cannot one also conduct an inquiry into the future?” No doubt these inquires will be distinct because one concerns the past and the other the future, but cannot they be taken up in the same spirit?
There are still a great many traditional historians who simply dismiss as not being history the many extensions made to traditional historiography. It is commonly asserted, for example, that natural history simply is not history in the sense that historians think of history, and that prehistory is not history, properly speaking; that scientific historiography is not history, and that inquiries into the future are not history. Adducing an argument of conceptual confusion against those who would expand and extend the scope of history reminds me of Quine’s “change of logic, change of subject” argument, in which Quine dismisses attempts to extend classical logics, saying that all that non-classical logics do is to change the subject. There is a sense in which big history is non-classical history, and those who would dismiss big history can say that big historians aren’t really doing history, they’re just changing the subject. I am not ascribing this view in detail to the individual who made the above remarks, but much of this is implicit in his comments.
After the Plenary session I headed to panel 23 in room 307 for “Interpretations (2).” First up in this panel was William Katerberg on “Mythic Meaning and Scientific Method in Big History.” This was the most intellectually rigorous presentation that I have seen so far at the conference. Katerberg brought up a lot of interesting issues in an interesting way, breaking new ground as he went. He started out with a discussion of teleology in relation to science, and as someone whose hackles immediately go up when I hear “teleology,” I expected to be irritated, but I wasn’t. Nor did Katerberg do anything predictable like a discussion of Aristotelian natural teleology, but gave several fascinating examples of teleology in science that I would never have thought to characterize in teleological terms. He pointed out the discussions of the supposed inevitability of life and intelligence are teleology. I also was interested in the distinction he made between strong and weak emergentism, which is crucial to clarifying the idea of emergent complexity that is so central to big history.
Next were talks by Rich Blundell on “Radical Hermeneutics: A Case for Big History’s Interpretative Strand,” followed by an online talk from Liverpool by David Hookes on “Cooperation — the key principle in the evolution of the universe.”
There were so many interesting things on the program this afternoon that it was extraordinarily difficult to choose, so for the next round of sessions I skipped between rooms. I started with panel 28 in room 302 to hear Nadia Tomova, who gave another online presentation on “Identification and Analysis of Thresholds in History,” then I skipped over to panel 29 in room 202, catching the last of a presentation from a Montessori standpoint. This was followed by two presenters from Portland, James Butler and Todd Duncan. Their topic was “Beyond Reductionism: Weaving Meaning into the Scientific Story of our Cosmic History.” This was another great presentation that broke new ground. The joint speakers outlined a “reductionist narrative” and then demonstrated its inadequacy. They then carefully constructed a counter-narrative that they called the “meaningful universe narrative,” based on the principle that the universe is generating a language in order to tell its own story. I have not given an adequate account of this, but take my word for it that it was a good idea well presented.
This was followed by Fred Spier on “How can we Understand the Emergence of Morality in Big History?” Spier began by citing Baron D’Holbach, a “notorious” atheist of the Enlightenment, who had asked during those rational and tolerant times how we might construct a better society without religion. His answer, using the best science of his time, was to seek a social order that makes both ourselves and others happy. Spier argued that Thomas Jefferson may have been influenced by D’Holbach. Spier then asked if we can return to D’Holbach’s project using the greater scientific knowledge we now have at our command, with big history as the context.
After these talks there was an extended and vigorous exchange between presenters and the audience, including some very funny remarks about the morality of stromatolites. Spier had traced the rudiments of moral behavior to rudimentary organisms, and a geologist asked how he could call stromatolites “good” when they caused the oxygen catastrophe and the mass extinction of most life on Earth at that time. This was all done very humorously, which I may not be accurately communicating.
With all this talk about meaning and morality, there was a lot of flirtation with the naturalistic fallacy, but no one dealt with this explicitly. But, more importantly, there was an elephant in the room. The elephant in the room was the traditional eschatological idea of a transcendent meaning that comes from outside the world to instill meaning and purpose to agents within the world. All the attempts by the speakers, some of them quite clever and ingenious, to show how the world is meaningful and that science need not be reductionist, failed to even address the fact that people who hunger for a meaning that comes from beyond the world to impose a purpose on all within the world will not be satisfied by any meaning intrinsic to the world — even if you could show them that their meaning too, which they arrogate to transcendent status, was also intrinsic to the world.
And there was another problem. In all the discussion of meaning in this panel and in others I attended today, not one person brought up hope as a source of meaning, as in hope for a better world in the future. I don’t think that this was merely an oversight, but rather that it reflects a pervasive tendency of our time to be skeptical if not cynical of any optimistic vision of the future. Having spoken myself on scenarios for the future that look toward more and better things for humanity if only we can prevent the stagnation of our civilization, I know whereof I speak. To be hopeful and optimistic about the future today almost comes across as eccentric. If you add to this pervasive skepticism in regard to hope a sotto voce celebration of lowered horizons, scaled back ambitions, and subtly ascetic modesty under the guise of a normative sustainability, it is difficult to get a hearing for a hopeful and optimistic vision of the future that sees even more human possibilities than we enjoy today.
Journey of the Universe
After some snacks (there was supposed to be a simple dinner, but the campus kitchen was closed down) there was a showing of the film “Journey of the Universe” followed by a discussion including the filmmakers Brian Swimmer and Mary Evelyn Tucker together with Fred Speir and Sun Yue.
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7 August 2014
2014 IBHA Conference
Yesterday I drove all day long from Portland to San Rafael, California, to attend the second IBHA conference, “Teaching and Researching Big History: Big Picture, Big Questions,” being held at the Dominican University of California. IBHA stands for “International Big History Association,” while “big history” is a contemporary approach to historiography that emphasizes telling the whole story of history from the big bang to the present day, and unifies scientific and humanistic approaches to history. Several of the leading figures in the field of big history are present, and many of them have spoken of how they came to the idea of big history, and that they were essentially doing big history long before there was a name for it. I can identify with this, as I was myself groping toward something like big history, which I am one time called integral history.
The conference began with a plenary session featuring David Christian who spoke on “Big History: A Personal Voyage.” David Christian is the most visible face in big history. He began by posing the question, “How do you segue from the smallest scales to the largest scales?” and he gave the first suggestion of an answer by using Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night over the Rhone” (reproduced above) to show the unity of the eight levels of emergent complexity identified by big historians, from the stars in the sky to the two human figures in the foreground. Christian said that he had been encouraged to give a personal view of his journey to big history, and he said that for him it began with an initial disillusionment, when he began school with great enthusiasm, thinking that this would be a place where big questions could be welcomed, and quickly found out that this was not the case. Big history, he said, gives us a framework in which to meaningfully ask big questions.
Christian also said that “mapping is meaning” — and by “mapping” he not only means conventional maps, but also “maps of time,” which is the title of one of his books. If it is true that mapping is meaning, this implies that the lack of a map is the lack of meaning. We lack maps of time, hence the meaning we crave. We all know that meaninglessness has been a touchstone of modernity. It was a central theme of existentialism, and Christian referred to Durkheim’s use of “anomie” (from the Greek a-nomos, the negation of law). Christian pointed out that there are two responses to anomie: the conventional response that anomie is part of modernity, so accept it for what it is, and the big history response, which is that we are in the midst of constructing a new conception of the world, so our disorientation is understandable, but will not necessarily be a permanent feature of the human condition from now on.
Christian spoke for more than an hour, so there was a lot to take in, and I can’t even give a sketch of the whole presentation here. It was videotaped, so perhaps by the time you read this it will be available online. I especially like that fact that Christian referred to himself as a “framework thinker.” This strikes me as particularly apt, and I think that all big thinkers who like to try to see the big picture (and hence are attracted to big history) are framework thinkers.
The second speaker to the plenary session was Robert Conner, a likeable classicist who covered a lot of ground in his talk. Being a classicist, he formulated his perspective in terms of the Greeks, but the principles were in no sense parochial to the west’s classical antiquity. Conner was especially concerned with the difference between those who see education as a matter of acquiring habits of mind, and those who see education as primarily as the communication of a particular story. That is to say, he contrasted history — and, by implication, big history — as an analytical inquiry and as preserving the memory of the past.
Conner developed this theme (by way of a detour through Herodotus and Thucydides) toward the idea of learning and education appropriate to a free people. He framed this in terms of “putting questions to the past that will be useful to us now.” I was a bit surprised after this that he did not mention Nietzsche’s essay “The Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life,” since this covers almost exactly the same ground. It would also have been relevant to bring up T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in this context, just substituting this historical tradition (largely humanistic, rather than scientific) for the literary and poetic tradition that interested Eliot.
After the plenary session the conference broke up into five rooms with presentations going on concurrently (which ensures that attendees will miss a large part of the program because you can’t be in two different rooms at once, though you can move, which is disruptive). I chose to go to the room with the theme of complexity, featuring presentations by David LePoire, David Baker, and J. Daniel May.
David LePoire spoke on “Two Contrasting Views of Energy and Time Scales,” in which he discussed (among other topics) how higher energy flows into systems can force a reorganization of these energy flows by way of a bifurcation. I’m not at all sure that I understood LePoire (though I picked up a list of his papers so that I can review them at some later date) but I took this to mean that a system that has been stable may become unstable when too much energy begins to flow through it, and it this point is bifurcates into two systems, at least one of which is at a higher level of emergent complexity that is able to remain stable and to thrive at these higher energy levels. If this is what LePoire meant, it seems perfectly sensible to me, and all the discussion (see below) about civilization and energy levels then suggests that once we pump too much energy through civilization, civilization will bifurcate, perhaps producing what I have elsewhere called a post-civilizational institution that can presumably remain stable at these higher energy levels.
David Baker spoke on “The Darwinian Algorithm: An Extension of Rising Complexity as a Unifying Theme of Big History” which was concerned with universal Darwinism, which I take to be equivalent to what is elsewhere called universal selection theory. The influence of Eric Chaisson was apparent again here — Chaisson’s name comes up repeatedly, and many expressed disappointment that he is not at this conference — as Baker described how he used Chaisson’s free energy rate density to formulate universal Darwinism in a big history context. There was a lot of discussion about this after the talk, but what was most interesting to me was that that Baker formulated Chaisson’s ideas on energy flows in the language of Kardashev, though without mentioning Kardashev by name. Paraphrasing from memory, he said that a Type I civilization would utilize energy flows of an entire planet, a Type II civilization would utilize the energy flows of an entire star, and a Type III civilization would utilize the energy flows of an entire galaxy. As I have a particular interest in collecting variations on the theme of Kardashev’s civilization types, I was particularly interested to hear this substitution of “energy flows” for the quantitative approach that Kardashev took to civilization and energy. Indeed, I have now come to realize that Kardashev’s civilization types may be considered an early, non-constructive approach to civilization’s use of energy, whereas the big history approaches now being pursued in the shadow of Chaisson may be thought of as constructive expressions of the same essential idea.
J. Daniel May, not in the printed program, spoke on “Complexity by the Numbers.” May is an instructor in big history at the Dominican University (which has a required course on big history for all students), and he was concerned with the practical pedagogical problem of getting students to understand the unifying theme of emergent complexity, and to this end he had been collecting clear examples of qualitative change linked to the quantitative change of a single metric. I thought that this was a very effective approach. He cited examples such as the decrease of the temperature of the early universe and the emergence of matter, the mass of a proto-stellar nebula and the kind of star that forms from them, and the direct and familiar relationship between number of protons in the nucleus of an atom and the different properties of different elements.
Theories of Thresholds
Closely related to the problem of emergent complexity is the problem of thresholds in big history. This session was supposed to consist of three speakers, one by Skype from Moscow, but the Skype connection didn’t work out, so there were two presentations, “An Alternative scheme of Thresholds and historical turning points” by William McGaughey and “Using Marshall Hodgson’s Concept of Transmutations to Advance our Understanding of Thresholds in the Human Historical Experience” by John Mears. Because the third speaker could not be connected via Skype, the two presentations were followed by an extended question and answer session that was both interesting and enlightening.
John Mears raised a number of traditional historiographical problems in a big history context, especially concerning what he called, “the unavoidable problem of periodization” and “the inherent pitfalls of periodization.” I can sympathize with this, as I have struggled with periodization myself. Mears mentioned some of his minor differences over periodization with other big historians — he cited a particular example from the new big history textbook, which did not include Chaisson’s transition from the “energy era” of the universe to the “matter era” — but acknowledged in a very open way that there are many possible approaches to big history periodization. This fit in well with with William McGaughey’s presentation, which was concerned to describe a periodization that concluded with the rapid rise of automation and artificial intelligence — a topic much discussed in technology circles today, especially in relation to technological unemployment.
Mears also discussed the need for a more rigorous theoretical framework for big history, and this is something with which I strongly agree, and one of the things I hoped to learn by attending this conference was who is working on just this problem, and how they are going about it. This was an implicit theme in other presentations, but Mears made it fully explicit, though without giving a definitive formulation of an answer to the problem.
After the initial day of presentations there was an evening reception for all involved, with many interesting conversations going on simultaneously. I was disappointed to have to miss so many presentations that sounded interesting because of the format of the conference. While a single session severely limits the number of presentations that can be made, splitting up the conference into five or six groups really fragments things. I think it would be better to keep the division to two or three concurrent sessions.
My overall reflection on the first day of the conference was the ongoing division between scientific and humanistic historiography, which is precisely what big history is supposed to overcome. In the extensive discussion after the “Theories of Thresholds” presentations, the traditional historiographical question was asked — Is history a science, or does it belong to the humanities? — and, despite this being a gathering of historians, the question was not taken up in its historical context. History began as a literary genre, then it became one among the humanities, and now it is becoming a science. All of these approaches still exist side by side.
There is a division among participants between those coming from a primarily science background, and those with a more traditional background in history, where “traditional” here means “humanities-based historiography. Big historians are determined to bridge these diverse backgrounds, and to emerge from the “silos” of academic specialization — but it hasn’t happened yet.
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Studies in Grand Historiography
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