Fourth in a Series on Existential Risk

I traveled to Palermo specifically to see this great fresco of the Triumph of Death.

I traveled to Palermo specifically to see this great fresco of the Triumph of Death.

“The human race’s prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenceless against tigers than they are today, when we have become defenceless against ourselves.” Arnold Toynbee, “Man and Hunger” (Speech to the World Food Congress, 04 January 1963, quoted on the Anthropocene Blog)

Readers, I trust, will be aware of existential risks (as well as global catastrophic risks) since I’ve recently written several recent posts on this topic, including Research Questions on Existential Risk, Six Theses on Existential Risk, Existential Risk Reminder, Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk, Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty, and Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty. The idea of the “Death Event” is likely to be much less familiar, so I will try to sketch out the idea itself and its relationship to existential risk.

Edith Wyschogrod

Edith Wyschogrod

The idea of the “death event” is due to philosopher Edith Wyschogrod, and given exposition in her book Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death. Wyschogrod took the title of her book from an aphorism of Wittgenstein’s from 1930: “I once said, perhaps rightly: The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.”

spirit in ashes

In defining the scope of the “death event” Wyschogrod wrote:

“I shall define the scope of the event to include three characteristic expressions: recent wars which deploy weapons in the interest of maximum destruction of persons, annihilation of persons, through techniques designed for this purpose (for example, famine, scorched earth, deportation), after the aims of war have been achieved or without reference to war, and the creation of death-worlds, a new and unique form of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life simulating imagined conditions of death, conferring upon their inhabitants the status of the living dead.”

Edith Wyschogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985, p. 15.

Wyschogrod’s conception of the “death world,” also given exposition in the text, is introduced in conscious contradistinction to the late Husserlian conception of the “Lifeworld” (Lebenswelt). (Cf. Chapter 1, Kingdoms of Death) I cannot do justice to Wyschogrod’s excellent book in a few quotes, so I will simply encourage the reader to look up the book for himself, but I will give a couple more quotes to locate the “death event” in relation to the larger picture of our civilization. Wyschogrod sees a relation between the “death event” and the peculiar character of industrial-technological civilization:

“The procedures and instruments of death which depend upon the quantification of the qualitied world are innovations deriving from technological society and, to that extent, extend its point of view.”

Op. cit., p. 25

And again,

“…the world of the camps is both distinct from and tied to technological society, so too the nuclear void is embedded in the matrix of technological society but not related to it in simple cause and effect fashion.”

Op. cit., p. 29

Perhaps at some future time I will consider Wyschogrod’s “death event” thesis in relation to what I have called Agriculture and the Macabre, which is the particular relationship between agricultural civilization and death, but whether or not the reader agrees with me or not (or with Wyschogrod, for that matter) I will acknowledge without hesitation that the character of the macabre in agricultural civilization is very different from the place of the death event and the death world in industrial-technological civilization.

Wyschogrod focuses on death camps and industrialized warfare, but of course what shocked the world more than anything were the nuclear bombs that ended the war. A considerable bibliography could be devoted to the books exclusively devoted to the anguished reflection that followed the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of them written by and about the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and made the bomb possible. Many of the most eminent philosophers of the time immediately began to think about the consequences — both contemporaneously and for the longer term human future — of human beings being in possession of nuclear weapons.

Bertrand Russell wrote two books on the possibility of nuclear war, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959) and Has Man a Future? (1961) Recently in Bertrand Russell as Futurist I discussed Russell’s views on the need for world government in order to prevent the annihilation of human life due to nuclear weapons — a view shared by Albert Einstein.

Karl Jaspers

Karl Jaspers

In 1958 Karl Jaspers published Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen, later translated into English as The Future of Mankind. What all of these works have in common is struggling with what Jaspers called “the new fact.” Of this new fact Jaspers wrote:

“The atom bomb of today is a fact novel in essence, for it leads mankind to the brink of self-destruction.”

Karl Jaspers, The Future of Mankind, Chap. I, p. 1


“the atom bomb is today the greatest of all menaces to the future of mankind… The possible reality which we must henceforth reckon with — and reckon with, at the increasing pace of developments, in the near future — is no longer a fictitious end of the world. It is no world’s end at all, but the extinction of life on the surface of the planet.”

Op. cit., p. 4

The fact that fear of nuclear Armageddon was felt viscerally as an all-too-real possibility for our world points to the fact that this was not merely the appearance of a new idea in human history — new ideas appear every day — but a fundamental shift in feeling. When the awful reality of the Second World War, which saw man-made mass death on an unprecedented scale, received its finale in the form of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we had acquired a new object for our instinctual fear of annihilation.

The larger meaning of the “death event” — testified not only in Edith Wyschogrod’s explicit formulation, but also in the work of Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, and a hundred others — is that of formal, reflexive consciousness of anthropogenic existential risk. We not only know that we are vulnerable to existential risk, we also know that we know. It is this formal, reflexive self-consciousness of existential risk that is the differentia between human history before the “death event” and human history after the “death event.” The “death event” was a crystallizing event, a particular moment in history that was a watershed for human suffering that placed that suffering in the naturalistic context.

Earlier catastrophes in human experience did not have this character — or, if they did have this character for a few individuals who realized the larger meaning of events, this formal, reflexive consciousness of human vulnerability did not achieve general recognition. Partly this was a consequence of the non-naturalistic and teleological assumptions that were integral with the outlook of earlier epochs of human civilization, before science made a naturalistic conception of the world entire conceivable. If one believes that a supernatural force will intervene to continue to maintain human beings in existence, there is no reason to be concerned with the possibility of human extinction.

The eschatological conception of history is predicated upon the efficacy of supernatural agents.

The eschatological conception of history is predicated upon the efficacy of supernatural agents.

Prior to industrial-technological civilization (made possible by the scientific revolution, which is particularly relevant in this context), the “end of the world” could only be understood in eschatological terms because eschatologies derived from theological cosmogonies were the only “big picture” accounts of the cosmos that had been formulated and which had achieved any degree of currency. (There have always been non-theological philosophical cosmogonies, but these have remained marginal throughout human history.)

Until science provided an alternative, the only big picture conceptions of the world were traditional cosmogonies, to which the least imaginative among us still recur.

Until science provided an alternative, the only big picture conceptions of the world were traditional cosmogonies, to which the least imaginative among us still recur.

The situation in regard to “big picture” conceptions of the world is closely parallel to that of biology prior to Darwin’s theory of natural selection: there were no strictly biological theories of biology prior to Darwin, only theological theories that were employed to “explain” biological facts. With no alternative to a theological account of biology, it is to be expected that this sole point of view was the universal point of reference, just as where there is no alternative to the theological account of history, this theological account is the sole point of reference in history.

Charles Darwin, in formulating a thorough-going scientific biology, gave the world its first non-theological formulation of biology.

Charles Darwin, in formulating a thorough-going scientific biology, gave the world its first non-theological formulation of biology.

In regard to traditional eschatologies, it would be just as apposite to point out that a supernatural agent might intervene to bring about the end of civilization or the extinction of all human beings (in contradistinction to supernatural interventions intended to be to our benefit), regardless of all human efforts made to preserve themselves and their civilization in existence. The point here is that once we recognize the efficacy of supernatural agents in human history, human agency in shaping the human future cannot be assumed, and in fact the idea of “destiny” (especially in the form of predestination) may come to prevail over conceptions of the future that allow a greater scope to human agency. This is why, in my post The Naturalistic Conception of History, I defined naturalism as “non-human non-agency,” i.e., the absence of supernatural agency.

Four conceptions of history, political, eschatology, cataclysmic, and naturalistic.

Four conceptions of history, political, eschatology, cataclysmic, and naturalistic.

To formulate this from the opposite point of view, we could say that it was only the essentially naturalistic assumptions of our own time, assumptions built into the structure of industrial-technological civilization (because it is dependent upon science, and science cannot systematically expand in the way that science has expanded in recent history without the working philosophical presupposition of methodological naturalism), that made it possible for human beings to understand that no deus ex machina was going to emerge at the end of the human drama to save us in spite of our failure to secure our own future.

We once thought that Atlas carried the weight of the world on his shoulders; now we know that we are the ones who carry the world on our shoulders.

We once thought that Atlas carried the weight of the world on his shoulders; now we know that we are the ones who carry the world on our shoulders.

Once human beings realized with fearful clarity that they possessed the power to annihilate civilization and possibly also all human life, it is only a small step from this consciousness of human vulnerability to come to a similar consciousness of human vulnerability whether or not the existential threat is anthropogenic or non-anthropogenic. A sufficient number of ill-advised and irreversible choices (choices that result in action or inaction, as the case may be) could mean the extinction of human beings, or the reduction of human activity to a level of insignificance. That is what we now know to be the case, and it shifts a heavy burden of responsibility onto human beings for their own future — a burden that had once been carried on the shoulders of gods.

It is only in the past few decades of contemporary science that we have begun to look at the long antiquity of man with the thought of our existential vulnerability in mind, retrospectively placing our fingers at the nodal points of our past, for there have been many times when we might have all been extirpated before any of the many thresholds of development that have brought us to our present state at which we can adequately conceptualize our existential risk came about.

In this way, existential risk mitigation efforts not only provide a kind of clarity in conceptualizing the human future, especially in so far as we abide by the moral imperatives imposed by existential risk, but also by giving us a novel perspective on the human past.

One of the guiding principles of contemporary thought on existential risk is to focus on those risks that human beings have no record of surviving. In order to make good on this principle, we need to understand what existential risks human beings have survived in the past, and to this end we must acquire a better knowledge of human evolution in a cosmological context, which is, in a sense, the particular concern of astrobiology.

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Grand Strategy and Existential Risk: A Series:

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In several posts I have suggested a generalization of Karl Jaspers idea of an “Axial Age.” For Jaspers (and Lewis Mumford, and others who have followed them), the “Axial Age” was a unique period of human history in which peoples all over the world generated the religious and philosophical ideas that were to inform all subsequent civilization, and chronologically corresponded to the period from about the 8th to 3rd centuries BC. I call the generalization of the idea of a “Axial Age” “axialization,” which seeks to understand the processes of Jasper’s Axial Age as a general historical process that is not confined to the single instance Jaspers had in mind.

The posts I have written on this include (inter alia):

The Aftermath of War

The Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm

Abortive Paradigmata

Axial Crisis or Axial Fulfillment?

Addendum on Axialization: Organicism and Ecology

I have just realized that axialization as an historical process is closely tied to institutionalization as an historical process. In so far as axialization involves a period of unusual intellectual innovation, creativity, and originality in which new ideas and new traditions emerge, it is to be expected that later less creative ages will seek to formulate, elaborate, and establish these intellectual innovations of an Axial Age, and this latter process is institutionalization.

The great religious traditions of the world’s great divisions of civilizations that were the focus of Jaspers’ conception of an Axial Age, I have previously observed, were all emergent from agricultural civilization, and, at least to a certain extent, reflect the concerns of agricultural civilization. In this spirit, I suggested that the the great cave paintings of the late Paleolithic in ice age Europe constituted an axialization of the nomadic paradigm of macro-history.

It now strikes me that not only were the great religious traditions of the world emergent from agricultural civilization, but all of these religions and all of their associated civilizations experienced both axialization and institutionalization under the agricultural paradigm. The institutions of organized religion that have largely served as the organizing principles of the associated civilizations were developed and formalized throughout the duration of agricultural civilization.

I suspect that, since the axialization of the nomadic period came so late in the human development of that period that this axialization never achieved institutionalization, both because the structures of nomadic life did not readily lend themselves to the establishment of institutions, and — just as importantly — because the macro-historical shift from nomadism to agriculturalism meant that the interest and focus of the greater bulk of the human population had shifted to other concerns with the emergence of settled agriculturalism. It is interesting to speculate what an institutionalization of nomadic axial ideas might have been, had settled civilization never emerged.

Agricultural civilization persisted for a period of time sufficient both for the axialization and institutionalization of the ideas implicit in this particular form of human life. Because the ideas implicit in agriculturalism received both axialization (an initial statement) and institutionalization (a definitive formulation), these ideas were not swept aside by the Industrial Revolution in the same way that the ideas implicit in the axialization of the Nomadic paradigm were swept away by agricultural civilization. The nomadic paradigm was swept away so completely by agricultural civilization that this entire epoch of human history was lost to us until it was recovered by the methods of scientific historiography. Throughout the agricultural paradigm, human beings knew nothing except the ideas of the agricultural paradigm. This gave agricultural civilization both a certain narrowness and a certain strength.

I speculated earlier that macro-history may exhibit a “speeding up” such that, while the axialization of the nomadic paradigm came very late in that very long-lasting paradigm, the axialization of the agricultural paradigm did not come nearly so late in the development of agriculturalism. Perhaps, I suggested, the axialization of the industrial paradigm will come even sooner in the relative history of that macro-historical division. But when I wrote that I was not counting on the fact that the institutionalization of the agricultural paradigm had given the axial ideas of agriculturalism a staying power beyond that macro-historical division itself.

Throughout most of the world today, agricultural civilization has been utterly swept away by the industrial revolution and ways of life have been radically change. Yet the ideas of agricultural civilization persist, and they persist partly because of their institutionalization and partly because nothing of commensurate scope and power has emerged to displace them.

Beyond the historical processes of axialization and institutionalization we may have to posit another stage — ossification — in which axial ideas are preserved beyond the macro-historical division that produced them. These ossified ideas serve a retrograde function in keeping human thought tied to a now-lapsed paradigm of human social interaction.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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From World to Globe

10 December 2011


The Bard

If you search the collected works of Shakespeare online for “world” you get 589 hits; if you search for “globe” you get a paltry 10 hits, although these hits include one of my favorite passages from The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

Also from The Tempest is this perhaps even more famous line, in which Miranda evokes the world, not the globe:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

For Shakespeare, it would seem, the worldhood of the world is very much that of the world rather than that of the globe.

I was mildly surprised by these lopsided Shakespearean results — I think I had in mind that Shakespeare’s theater was called The Globe — though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, since “world” is simply a much more frequently used word in English than “globe.” But that may be changing.

Today it is becoming increasingly common to speak in terms of that which is “global,” and especially in terms of “globalization,” which latter has already become a term that evokes an emotional response in many. Does this shift in language reveal anything important, so it is merely a shift between synonyms as a concession to fashionable language?

Language simpliciter has, I think, played a role in this shift. One simply would not say, “worldization” as one would readily say, for example, “globalization.” The fact that we need a word to express an historical process of institutions being adopted worldwide says something about our time. What does it say? It says that we are what I call a Stage I civilization, such that the geographical borders that once separated us and allowed for isolated pockets of human beings who did not know about each other have been reduced or eliminated by transportation technologies that are the result of industrial-technological civilization.

In regard to “global,” the term is neutral and even, we could say, secular, whereas to describe anything as “worldly” carries a definite connotation, and the connotation that it carries increasingly appears to belong to another era.

This linguistic shift is quite recent, taking place only in the past few decades. In the early twentieth century, when it was in vogue for philosophers to discuss socialism, it was usually discussed in the context of world government. At that time, no one spoke of global government. Bertrand Russell, for example, was a great advocate of world government in the first half of the twentieth century. Most people know about Russell’s socialist phase and his world government writings from the 1920s and 1930s, but Russell was so committed to the idea that he had another stage of thought immediately following the Second World War, at which time he argued that the US should use its monopoly on atomic weapons to establish a world government under threat of force. An echo of the early twentieth century concern for world government survives in the conspiracy community, which has all but monopolized the phrase “new world order” to describe a world government foisted upon the peoples of the earth (and especially the peoples of the US) against the will.

Recently when I was reading Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism Vol. 3: The Perspective of the World, I noticed in the Foreword Braudel’s discussion of “world time.” In a note Braudel notes that the French title of the volume was Le Temps du Monde and that the expression “world time” was derived from Wolfram Eberhard’s Conquerors and Rulers: Social Forces in Medieval China. Here is what Braudel says of world time:

“World time then might be said to concentrate above all on a kind of superstructure of world history: it represents a crowning achievement, created and supported by forces at work underneath it, although in turn its weight has an effect upon the base. Depending on place and time, this two-way exchange, from the bottom upwards and from the top down, has varied in importance. But even in advanced countries, socially and economically speaking, world time has never accounted for the whole of human existence.”

Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, Volume 3: The Perspective of the World, Foreword, p. 18

It is fascinating that Braudel here makes use of the Marxist terminology of base and superstructure, though he applies these ideas to time. This suggests interesting possibilities and I know of no one who has further developed this idea. It is equally fascinating to me that Braudel mentions the two-way exchange between base and superstructure, which sounds very close to the temporal relationships that I have posited as characterizing ecological temporality. But formulating this exchange in terms of “bottom up” and “top down” this suggests to me constructive and non-constructive approaches, which roughly approximate the bottom up and top down perspectives. So there is a lot to think about in this short quote from Braudel.

In any case, Braudel expresses himself in terms of world time, not global time. Braudel belonged to an earlier generation, and I suspect that the terminology of world time is formulated by analogy with prevalent ideas of world government.

In Karl Jaspers The Origin and Goal of History, which predates Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism by more than twenty years, putting in right in mid-century, we find Jaspers struggling toward a formulation of world history, and world history would obviously be a function of world time.

Of course, people have been talking about world history for a long time, at least since the Enlightenment, when humanity began to know itself not only as a spatial whole but also as a temporal whole. Jaspers took this a step further. A consequence of Jaspers’ attempt to elucidate his philosophical conception of world history was his formulation of the idea of an Axial Age. I have discussed Jasper’s Axial Age on several occasions (for example, The Next Axial Age and Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm) and the idea of an Axial Age has passed into popular thought and is known to many.

What Jaspers was trying to express in terms of an Axial Age was a shift in human history that was genuinely global. Previous conceptions of “Ages” of human history had always been specific to one culture or one civilization; Jaspers sought a conception of an Age that embraced all humanity, and while Braudel does not mention Jaspers in his discussion of world time, one could justifiably understand Braudel’s efforts as a practical application to historiography of Jasper’s conception of world history.

The terminology that is emerging from the shift from world to globe highlights global change as a process. Earlier conceptions focused on semi-static periodizations. A truly temporal understanding of history will see things in terms of processes, so this is a development that I find to be valuable. I have, after all, expressed my understanding of strategic trends shaping the future in terms of pastoralization, extraterrestrialization, singularization, and so forth.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Near-Earth asteroid 2005 YU55 passed within 0.85 lunar distances from the Earth on 08 November 2011.

Today an asteroid some four hundred meters across (Asteroid 2005 YU55) passed closer to the earth than the orbit of the moon. Astronomers were careful, prior to the flyby, to let people know that there was no danger of impact, for fear of contributing to a panic. If an asteroid this size hit the earth, it would cause enormous destruction, and would probably alter the climate. If a larger asteroid hit the earth, it could cause a mass extinction, and very probably the end of civilization. If a very large asteroid hit the earth, it could spell the doom of all life.

another view of near-Earth asteroid 2005 YU55.

In the earlier years of our solar system, before a great deal of the loose matter in the solar system had either impacted on larger bodies or had been cleared out of the inner solar system by the gravitational influence of Jupiter, collisions between massive celestial bodies were more common than they are in the present epoch of the solar system. One theory of the formation of earth’s moon is that the earth was hit by a very large asteroid (of the size that would today wipe out all life on earth) that tore our a significant portion of earth’s material and flung it up into orbit.

One theory of the formation of the moon, called 'the big splat,' hypothesizes the collision of the earth with a very large asteroid, tearing away a portion of the earth with it.

On cosmological time scales, these things do happen, and although collisions of this magnitude have become rare (even on cosmological time scales) they can still happen today. While the impact of an asteroid the size of Asteroid 2005 YU55 would be an unprecedented natural disaster from a human perspective, most earth life would survive such an event, and civilization would likely survive such an event.

Impacts happen.

Because of the current state of scientific knowledge it is entirely possible to understand such natural disasters naturalistically, that is to say, according to the naturalistic conception of history, although we know that it is human nature (probably rooted in the agency detector of evolutionary psychology) to seek for meaning in events.

Gabriel Malagrida attributed the 1755 Lisbon earth to eschatological causes, and at the end of the long life was horribly executed for heresy, losing his life to the same eschatological demons that he had so readily invoked in accusing the people of Lisbon.

In several posts I have noted the response to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which occurred during the enlightenment, but at a time in history when the medieval memory of divine retribution was still very much kept alive. In Naturalism and Suffering I quoted a passage from Gabriel Malagrida’s 1756 pamphlet, “An Opinion on the True Cause of the Earthquake” (“Juizo da verdadeira causa do terramoto”), which argued that the disaster in Lisbon was divine retribution for the sins of the people of Lisbon:

“Learn, Oh Lisbon, that the destroyers of our houses, palaces, churches, and convents, the cause of the death of so many people and of the flames that devoured such vast treasures, are your abominable sins, and not comets, stars, vapours and exhalations, and similar natural phenomena. Tragic Lisbon is now a mound of ruins. Would that it were less difficult to think of some method of restoring the place; but it has been abandoned, and the refugees from the city live in despair. As for the dead, what a great harvest of sinful souls such disasters send to Hell! It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God, and not even the Devil himself could invent a false idea more likely to lead us all to irreparable ruin. Holy people had prophesied the earthquake was coming, yet the city continued in its sinful ways without a care for the future. Now, indeed, the case of Lisbon is desperate. It is necessary to devote all our strength and purpose to the task of repentance. Would to God we could see as much determination and fervour for this necessary exercise as are devoted to the erection of huts and new buildings! Does being billeted in the country outside the city areas put us outside the jurisdiction of God? God undoubtedly desires to exercise His love and mercy, but be sure that wherever we are, He is watching us, scourge in hand.”

At the time of the Lisbon earthquake there were completely naturalistic accounts given of the disaster, but there were also eschatological accounts of the disaster that found cosmic meaning in suffering and destruction. Thus even though a naturalistic conception of natural disasters was already possible given the state of scientific knowledge in 1755, the eschatological conception of disasters was still a living influence. If a disaster of great magnitude occurs today, it is usually described in naturalistic terms, but there remains a sizable minority of people who understand such things eschatologically and who are determined to find human meaning in natural events.

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake: a natural disaster with philosophical consequences.

The naturalistic understanding of massive natural disasters recognizes that a great cataclysm can befall human beings and all their works, and the event has no meaning at all. In fact, an event of such great magnitude could occur that would annihilate our species and, naturalistically understood, it would have no meaning. This is an idea that is beyond the ability of many apparently rational and intelligent people to comprehend. Indeed, even to say so sounds inhumane. Of course, a great disaster is given human meaning by the stories that emerge from the lived experience of the disaster (if anyone survives it), but this is importantly distinct from an event having an intrinsic meaning apart from that meaning given to it ex post facto by human beings who experienced it.

The mechanisms of anthropogenic mass death realized in the twentieth century gave humanity a new perspective, though its own agency, on disasters of macro-historical scope.

With the mechanized means of mass death that emerged in the middle of the twentieth century — Nazi death camps, firestorms, and the atomic bomb — new potential sources of human extinction appeared from human beings themselves. Now, someone committed to an eschatological reading of history would say that such inventions were demonically inspired, but I think that by the time mutually assured destruction had become a fact of life during the high point of the Cold War that most people understood the existential threat to humanity from nuclear war as being an entirely human creation. This was a time of conscious modernism, before the backlash that made modernity a target of cynicism and nihilistic criticism, and many people embraced a nascent naturalism as an apparently inevitable development of modern history.

Originally published in 1958, Jasper's work was one of the first of many philosophical treatises attempting to come to grips with the new reality of potential self-annihilation.

Nevertheless, eschatological language was routinely employed to discuss nuclear war: Nuclear Armageddon was a typical phrase one heard during the Cold War. Despite the persistence of eschatological language, the possibility of human self-annihilation was rightly understood to have human meaning because it was a possibility brought about by human agency. Human beings were forced to recognize that they had created a power capable of destroying themselves, and many philosophers as diverse as Karl Jaspers and Bertrand Russell bent every effort to impress this fact upon the popular mind.

Russell wrote several works on the dangers of nuclear war, attempted to intervene in the Cuban Missile Crisis by sending telegrams to Kennedy and Kruschev, actively participated in demonstrations, and was arrested for his activism.

With the advent of atomic weapons and the possibility of human self-annihilation philosophers realized that humanity was faced with a qualitatively new and unprecedented historical development, and they quite frankly struggled to take account of it and to create new categories of evil and new ways of thinking about history in order to convey this qualitatively changed historical circumstance. This effort is unfinished in our day. Much work remains to be done. It also suggests parallel work that might be done in understanding natural disasters.

Philosophical reflection on anthropogenic extinction by way of nuclear war contributed to the realization that history has its terrors both natural and unnatural, and it can be difficult to draw a clear line between the two.

It may well be that human beings do not yet possess an adequate conceptual infrastructure, and sufficient historical experience, to be able to understand massive natural disasters naturalistically. Because of our limited conceptual infrastructure and limited historical experience, in times of great duress we are thrown back on eschatological conceptions that so dominated earlier forms of human civilization. While our industrial-technological civilization (predicated as it is upon a relentless naturalistic instrumentalism) has far outstripped most of the institutions of nomadic and agricultural society, we do not yet possess the intellectual institutions commensurate with the forces that have been unleashed. We are all of us like the sorcerer’s apprentice.

Mircea Eliade formulated the idea of 'The Terror of History' in his The Myth of the Eternal Return, or, Cosmos and History.

We could make a start in the direction of a conceptual infrastructure adequate to the exposition of natural and man-made cataclysms by adapting the idea of the “terror of history” to natural history. It was Mircea Eliade who introduced the phrase “The Terror of History” (in his famous book The Myth of the Eternal Return), and it is one of those rare historical bons mots — like, for example, Weber’s “The disenchantment of the World,” to which it is related — that sententiously encapsulates a paradigm shift in a single phrase.

Eliade's idea of the terror of history has been understood in terms of humanistic history, but given the intrinsic naturalism of industrial civlization we would do well to extend the idea of the terror of history to the terror of natural history.

The transhistorical models and metahistorical meanings that Eliade attributes to non-historical peoples in their understanding of history can all be found in relation to natural history as well as humanistic history. Once the disenchantment of the world takes away the possibility of investing the world with transhistorical meaning and we are, as it were, left naked before the depredations of time, we experience the terror of history. Human history had its terrors of war, disease, failed harvests, famine, riots, and cruel monarchs that could all be blunted (to some degree) by an “understanding” that all of this had happened before, all of this would happen again, and there is nothing new under the sun. Natural history is similarly replete with disasters such as earthquakes, fires, floods, and droughts.

Mircea Eliade, 13 March 1907 to 22 April 1986

Several of these disasters, most particularly famine and disease, are in equal measures human and natural disasters, so that any distinction one draws within them cannot but be conventional. Given that human history emerged incrementally from the natural history with which it is continuous, I would argue that the cyclical and eschatological conceptual means employed to effect the devalorization of history probably emerged first in relation to natural disasters and were only later applied to specifically human history. I don’t think that Eliade would have disagreed with this, and it may well have been his intended meaning.

The four horsement of the apocalypse -- war, disease, famine, and death -- constituted a traditional litany of the disasters to which humanity was subject, i.e., the familiar terrors of history.

As far as my knowledge extends — and this is not as far as I would like — the idea of the terror of history has been exclusively applied to a traditionally humanistic conception of history. To extend the terror of history to the terror of natural history both preserves the continuity of the idea while acknowledging its extension beyond humanistic history to natural history. And the intrinsic naturalism of industrial-technological civilization intrinsically places that civilization in the context of natural history rather than eschatological history.

The idea of history has been dramatically expanded by the application of scientific methods to inquiry into the past, so much so that the distinction between humanistic history and natural history breaks down at some points (I have addressed this in several posts, especially The Continuity of Civilization and Natural History). While calling this a “break down” carries a certain negative connotation, the assertion of the essential continuity of history seems to me to be a good thing. Indeed, I have devoted a great many posts of an extended conception of history that I once called integral history and which I now call metaphysical history.

So far I have above only discussed catastrophic events in the context of naturalistic and eschatological conceptions of history, but I have divided conceptions of human history into four categories based on the conception of human agency involved:

● Political history understood in terms of human agency

● Cataclysmic history understood in terms of human non-agency

● Eschatological history understood in terms of non-human agency

● Naturalistic history understood in terms of non-human non-agency

Since I have already covered (to a limited extent) naturalistic and eschatological conceptions of natural disasters, for the sake of completeness I ought also to comment on cataclysmic and political conceptions of natural disasters.

How could there possibly be a political conception of natural disasters? One of the consistent themes in Machiavelli, to which he frequently recurs, is that while human beings cannot control fortune, they can certainly control the circumstances that dictate one’s response to fortune. In other words, one may never know when the river will flood, but in times of social stability one can build dams and levees and make every effort to assert one’s control over fortune so that, when the worst happens, it can be managed.

Chapter twenty-five of Machiavelli’s The Prince is titled, “What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs, And How To Withstand Her.” It is here that Machiavelli gives his famous formulation in which he compares fortune to a river:

“I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.”

Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XXV

In this sense, then, the political conception of natural disasters, almost all disaster planning in the industrialized world constitutes an exercise in the political conception of natural disasters. Disaster and recovery planning has become more sophisticated than at any time in the past, and wealthy governments (as well as some NGOs) have contingency plans in place for all manner of contingencies, not excluding visitation of the earth by extraterrestrials. This conception of natural disasters is closely related to the naturalistic conception, and in some contexts the two many be indistinguishable.

Similarly, the cataclysmic conception of natural disasters is nearly indistinguishable from the eschatological conception, only that the eschatological conception adds a layer of meaning that is absent from the brute recognition that unprecedented and unpredictable disasters can befall us for no reason at all, just as the political conception of natural disasters adds a layer of meaning to the naturalistic conception of natural disasters.

A sensitive and subtle account would bring out the differences between the natural and political conceptions of natural disasters on the one hand, and on the other hand the eschatological and cataclysmic conceptions. I will try to work more on this later, but for the moment I have another idea I want to sketch.

In relation to the eschatological conception of history and its realization in the concept of cosmic war, I have noted that when grievances are formulated in eschatological terms, only a cosmic war is felt to address this particularly eschatological concerns. An eschatological grievance answered with pragmatic and utilitarian measures will leave those who have asserted the grievance still with an eschatological hunger than has been unfilled. And so it is that apparently happy and prosperous peoples will throw themselves into disastrous wars (seemingly exemplifying the cataclysmic conception of war) when as eschatological need has gone unfilled and the only obvious way to fill it is to undertake some action of great moment (even if ill-conceived) equal to the feeling that demands satisfaction.

Similarly in the case of natural disasters, how they are conceived, according to what conception of history they are understood, will have much to do with the kind of aid and comfort that the victims will find to speak to their needs. Given the instrumentalist presumptions of industrial-technological civilization, those of us in the industrialized world want to know that every practical effort is being taken in order to minimize our suffering and maximize our comfort in the midst of great disruption and turmoil. Conventional disaster planning models speak precisely to these needs.

It is typically later, once the initial danger has passed, and the political process reasserts itself, that people begin asking the political questions and aligning their thinking according to the political conception of natural disasters: why there the levees and flood walls allowed to degraded? Why were they not maintained or even strengthened? Why was not more planning done, and why were not more adequate contingency plans formulated.

For the eschatological conception of natural disaster, what is wanted is spiritual aid and comfort. We can cite numerous examples from medieval and early modern history in this context. When great plagues swept across Europe starting in 1348 and continuing throughout the early modern period, the response was not typically to undertake public health measures, but rather to parade religious statues, reliquaries, and sacred objects in great processions through affected areas in order to act upon the relevant eschatological concerns.

While this sort of response is somewhat rare today, it is not absent, in in circumstances in extremis, it is not at all unusual for religious leaders to call for repentance and atonement, and to point to the disaster as an opportunity for individuals to realign themselves with an eschatological conception of the world.

For the cataclysmic conception of natural disasters I cannot imagine any response, for in the grip of actual cataclysmic events, the cataclysmic conception is, as it were, actively unfolding and proving itself. In the face of such events, what could possibly be done? For the true believer in the cataclysmic conception of history, I cannot at present imagine any more appropriate response than running and screaming in terror.

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The Next Axial Age

11 August 2010


It is rare for a philosopher to have much influence over the popular mind, although it does happen occasionally. I have previously mentioned how Kuhn’s conception of a paradigm shift has been widely adopted (Philosophy of Science in the FT). Another rare borrowing is the idea of an “Axial Age.” This goes back to Karl Jaspers book, The Origin and Goal of History, although the same idea and even the same term was introduced about the same time by Louis Mumford.

Jaspers is a genuine philosopher (I mentioned him a few days ago in The Atomic Age Turns 65) and thus commands our respect. (And, yes, if you’re wondering, there are fake philosophers who command the approbation of the public but who have few if any genuine ideas of their own.) Since the idea of an Axial Age comes out of Jaspers, and is not merely a manifestation of popular intellectuals, it is worth considering in some detail.

Karl Theodor Jaspers, 23 February 1883 – 26 February 1969

Jasper’s idea of an Axial Age is that of an axis of world history, and not only of western history. This he finds in a period that he characterizes as, “a spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C.” And Jaspers goes on to say that, “It is there that we meet with the most deepcut dividing line in history. Man, we we know him today, came into being.” Jaspers cites the presence of Confucius, Lao-tse, the Buddha, the writing of the Upanishads, Zarathustra, the Hebrew Prophets, and the Greek philosophers as empirical evidence of such an Axial Age.

I have written many posts dealing with historical periodization, and my own attempt to frame a naturalistic historical periodization that I call integral history both builds upon and transcends the traditional periodizations of western history. In this, I also aspire to defining axes of world history, although I do not see a single axis as does Jaspers, but several (which, of course, is why I referred to them as “axes”). So as I see Jasper’s Axial Age it falls entirely within the agricultural period of human civilization. In this sense, like my post mentioning the English Civil War and its ideological ramifications (The Agricultural Paradigm), we see that an enormously important age of human history, with all its changes and transformations, nevertheless lies entirely within, and is therefore at least in part constituted by, the institutions of agricultural civilization.

Since I have called attention to this on several occasions — that is to say, I have called attention to periods of great intellectual ferment that do not seem to have been triggered by demographic or economic transformations that define how the bulk of human beings live in a given age (and which I therefore take as an adequate basis for a naturalistic conception of history) — I might as well give it a name, so I can refer to it again in the future. Therefore I will call such periods or transitions between periods intra-civilizational axes. I might also call them intra-integral axes, intra-integral shifts, or even intra-integral civilizational axes (or shifts), but I fear I may lose what few readers I have if I stretch it that far. So we will leave it at that for the time being.

I do not deny that there was an Axial Age, and that it was crucial to the intellectual and spiritual development of human beings, but it isn’t a naturalistic phenomenon, and therefore doesn’t constitute what I have been calling an integral shift. And I think that Jaspers (as well as many of his defenders) would agree with me that the Axial Age was a non-naturalistic historical phenomenon and that indeed its non-naturalism is the very point. So in this respect I can make common cause with those who conceive history very differently from the way in which I do.

Bear with me for a digression. I have a habit of what may be called “binge scholarship,” by which I mean that I tend to completely immerse myself in a particular intellectual milieu for a period of time until I become sated and “come up for air,” as it were. I mentioned just such a binge of listening to Joseph Campbell lectures (in Class Consciousness and Mythology), and this resulted in several posts. I have recently returned to Joseph Campbell and am listening again to what has become my favorite set of lectures, Man and Myth. Of the Campbell lectures I have heard, these are the most dense with ideas and therefore provide the greatest degree of intellectual stimulation.

I find myself listening to Joseph Campbell again.

As I have re-listened to Campbell’s Man and Myth lectures over the past few days I am reminded of the emphasis that Campbell placed on the fact that the western tradition placed an emphasis upon the historicity of mythological events, and subsequent developments in science have called this historicity into question, which has also called the mythology into question. Campbell has also on many occasions discussed the need for myths that speak to the contemporary mind. I don’t think that he put it this way, but what he is saying is that we need to respond to a myth viscerally or it isn’t really a myth; a myth has lost its power as a myth if it no longer affects us immediately.

Campbell is such a great speaker that when he is giving an exposition of an ancient myth it is easy to believe that he is himself a true believer, and the implicit message some people take away from his books and lectures is a reactionary one: that we need to go back to the great myths, which are all, I will point out, myths of the Axial Age. In this, he is like Nietzsche, who often made such a convincing case for his adversaries that many took Nietzsche to be advocating precisely the doctrines he was criticizing. Walter Kaufmann has pointed this out in several of his books.

Walter Kaufmann (01 July 1921 to 04 September 1980) gave a rather uncharitable assessment of Joseph Campbell.

If you listen to Campbell closely, however, and listen to a lot of what he had to say (not being content with a few quotes and fragments that happen to agree with what you want to hear) it is obvious that he is a true believer in no one mythology, but in the role of mythology in human life generally speaking. I think this is what tripped up Walter Kaufmann in his estimation of Campbell, as well as a great many more lesser minds.

Campbell’s repeated statements to the effect of the need for modern myths for a modern age belies any reactionary interpretation of his works, and I am myself personally very sympathetic to this claim that Campbell makes. There are many incipient myths of contemporary industrialized civilization, but they remain amorphic, not fully formed, and are not yet prepared to take the full weight of an existential crisis, to be that which sustains ordinary men and women in their hour of need, except for a very few (non-representative) individuals.

Thinking about this aspect of Campbell’s thought at the same time as I was thinking about Jaspers’ Axial Age, I began framing these two ideas within the context of my own recent work. As I noted above, I see the Axial Age as an intra-civilizational axis that is entirely contained within the agricultural paradigm. I think that the case could be made, even though the Axial Age appears relatively late in the agricultural paradigm, that agricultural civilization had to develop to a given degree of sophistication, stability, and institutional complexity before such an intellectual and spiritual turning point could develop in this context. And this is what I think happened.

The Axial Age represents the flourishing intellectual maturity of the institutions of agricultural civilization, that is to say, this is the first time in the history of agricultural civilization that its institutions passed a critical threshold beyond which such non-naturalistic developments in civilization became possible, and once they became possible they were rapidly realized in many diverse cultures and civilizations. In this sense, the religious traditions of the Axial Age are fully a product and a consequence of agricultural civilization, and are specific to it. This accounts for the progressive decline (except when fanned by reactionary fervor) of these traditions in industrialized civilization. We can argue as much as we like about the future of mythology and religion (or even the future of an illusion, as Freud would have it), but the fact of the matter, as Campbell has repeatedly pointed out, is that many if not most of the mythologies of the Axial Age no longer speak to people on a visceral level. Mass man continues to render his respect to these traditions, but they do not move him as they did in the past — specifically, in the pre-industrial past.

Everything takes time, and it will take time for an authentic and genuine mythology of the industrial age to emerge. I have several times argued that industrialized civilization has sought a modus vivendi in two forms of social consensus that have failed, and that the social discontent, anomie, and drift that we see today is the consequence of industrialized civilization groping toward a third social consensus that it has not yet found (Social Consensus in Industrialized Society). Even if industrialized civilization does settle upon a third social consensus, there is no guarantee that this will be a lasting social consensus, if indeed there can be any lasting social consensus in industrialized civilization. However, I predict that if and when such a modus vivendi emerges within industrialized civilization, and the institutions of industrialized civilization can then come to maturity within a stable social context, that it will be then, and only then, that the next axial age can occur. And the next axial age will be an intellectual flourishing of industrialized civilization that will create mature, authentic, and genuine spiritual traditions specific to industrialized civilization.

All of this, as I said, takes time. Of course, things today happen very quickly. T. Greer’s vision of a growth revolution makes this clear. In an age of exponential growth things happen very quickly indeed, and we have seen things happen very quickly in our own lifetimes. But some historical processes still take time. It required perhaps 8,000 or more years for the slow development of agricultural civilization to experience its intellectual efflorescence in the Axial Age identified by Jaspers. I do not think that it will take civilization of the industrial age even a thousand years to develop to a similar degree of institutional maturity, but I do think that it will take several hundred years, and that we are not quite there yet. The next axial age is coming, but we cannot deliver ourselves of the prophecy, and say as Christ said, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.” (Mark 9:1 KJV) While this is the message of the singulartarians, my message is that many generations will pass before the next axial age comes with power.

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The Atomic Age turns 65

6 August 2010


What we now usually call the Second World War was also the First Nuclear War. Today marks 65 years since the first atomic bomb was detonated as an airburst over Hiroshima, annihilating the city in one fell swoop and marking the advent of the Atomic Age. Three days later, on 09 August 1945, a second atomic bomb eliminated Nagasaki. We have not yet had a Second Nuclear War. This in itself is remarkable, and suggests the profundity of the impact of the use of atomic weapons to end the Second World War.

The principle behind the “Little Boy” bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was sufficiently straight-forward that the scientists didn’t even bother to test the design before its employment. This is quite remarkable in this history of munitions. With a technology so new and so difficult to master, those who designed it were so confident in the scientific principles of the design and its execution that they were willing to risk their careers that the “Little Boy” bomb would work. This demonstrates the degree to which even military technology came to be driven by pure scientific research.

The “Fat Man” bomb that destroyed Nagasaki three days later was more complex in execution, and the scientists wanted a test for this. The “gadget” device that was exploded as the “Trinity” test, the first ever atomic explosion on the earth, was essentially the same design as the Fat Man bomb. Again, technological sophistication was central to the design and execution. The Fat Man design became the basic design for nuclear weapons until the advent of the hydrogen bomb a few years later. This technology is still difficult to master. With the appropriate fissile materials, a Little Boy-type bomb is not terribly difficult to build, but even given the appropriate fissile materials (which are not easy to either produce or to steal), the precision needed to implode a plutonium sphere into a nearly perfect smaller sphere still remains a formidable engineering task that could not be managed by terrorists hidden in caves.

The technology is difficult, but has since been mastered by many industrialized nation-states; the moral issues posed are more difficult still, but we cannot simply adopt the nihilistic pose and say that these issues have not been mastered in the same way. The moral problems have not in fact been mastered, but they have not been neglected either. As noted above, there has been no Second Nuclear War — at least, not yet. As a species, we have made progress. We have had the means to destroy ourselves, and we did not do so. Given all the grim “might have beens” of the twentieth century, it ought to give us hope that the world remains largely intact.

The atomic bomb was, among other things, a philosophical problem. Not long after Hiroshima and then the first hydrogen bomb test in 1952, Karl Jaspers wrote an entire book about nuclear war, The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man (later published in English simply as The Future of Mankind). Jaspers struggled mightily — and honestly — with the new problem. Many more books have followed, few as good as Jasper’s tome. Philosophical thinking about nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare has actually suffered and become less sophisticated as it has become more ideologically driven. Philosophers have created categories of evil unique to nuclear weapons, as though in verbal escalation to demonstrate their disapproval of the very existence of nuclear weapons, but they have not explained why the sudden annihilation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki is ethically worse than the greater numbers who died in the firebombing of Tokyo or Dresden.

My fellow philosophers have failed in their analyses of nuclear war and nuclear weapons by allowing themselves to become politicized, and this failure will not be redeemed until a new generation of philosophers takes up the problem, however emotionally intense, in the spirit of pure theoretical interest. I think that this will happen as conventional munitions approach the yield of nuclear weapons, which is only now beginning to happen. Nuclear weapons, in this new technological context, will no longer be a terrifying exception; they will be one technology among many in a terrifying arsenal. If we allow ourselves to be terrified, we will end our days in panic; if we use our reason to illuminate a terrifying reality, we will take charge of our destiny and demonstrate our emotional maturity.

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