Thursday


Joseph Wright orrery

Scientific civilization changes when scientific knowledge changes, and scientific knowledge changes continuously. Science is a process, and that means that scientific civilization is based on a process, a method. Science is not a set of truths to which one might assent, or from which one might withhold one’s assent. It is rather the scientific method that is central to science, and not any scientific doctrine. Theories will evolve and knowledge will change as the scientific method is pursued, and the method itself will be refined and improved, but method will remain at the heart of science.

Pre-scientific civilization was predicated on a profoundly different conception of knowledge: the idea that truth is to be found at the source of being, the fons et origo of the world (as I discussed in my last post, The Metaphysics of the Bureaucratic Nation-State). Knowledge here consists of delineating the truth of the world prior to its later historical accretions, which are to be stripped away to the extent possible. More experience of the world only further removes us from the original source of the world. The proper method of arriving at knowledge is either through the study of the original revelation of the original truth, or through direct communion with the source and origin of being, which remains unchanged to this day (according to the doctrine of divine impassibility).

The central conceit of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to be based upon revealed eternal verities has been so completely overturned that its successor civilization, industrial-technological civilization, recognizes no eternal verities at all. Even the scientific method, that drives the progress of science, is continually being revised and refined. As Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air…”

Scientific civilization always looks forward to the next development in science that will resolve our present perplexities, but this comes at the cost of posing new questions that further put off the definitive formulation of scientific truth, which remains perpetually incomplete even as it expands and becomes more comprehensive.

This has been recently expressed by Kevin Kelly in an interview:

“Every time we use science to try to answer a question, to give us some insight, invariably that insight or answer provokes two or three other new questions. Anybody who works in science knows that they’re constantly finding out new things that they don’t know. It increases their ignorance, and so in a certain sense, while science is certainly increasing knowledge, it’s actually increasing our ignorance even faster. So you could say that the chief effect of science is the expansion of ignorance.”

The Technium: A Conversation with Kevin Kelly [02.03.2014]

Scientific civilization, then, is not based on a naïve belief in progress, as is often alleged, but rather embodies an idea of progress that is securely founded in the very nature of scientific knowledge. There is nothing naïve in the scientific conception of knowledge; on the contrary, the scientific conception of knowledge had a long and painfully slow gestation in western civilization, and it is rather the paradigm that science supplants, the theological conception of knowledge (according to which all relevant truths are known from the outset, and are never subject to change), that is the naïve conception of knowledge, sustainable only in the infancy of civilization.

We are coming to understand that our own civilization, while not yet mature, is a civilization that has developed beyond its infancy to the degree that the ideas and institutions of infantile civilization are no longer viable, and if we attempt to preserve these ideas and institutions beyond their natural span, the result may be catastrophic for us. And so we have come to the point of conceptualizing our civilization in terms of existential risk, which is a thoroughly naturalistic way of thinking about the fate and future of humanity, and is amenable to scientific treatment.

It would be misleading to attribute our passing beyond the infancy of civilization to the advent of the particular civilization we have today, industrial-technological civilization. Even without the industrial revolution, scientific civilization would likely have gradually come to maturity, in some form or another, as the scientific revolution dates to that period of history that could be called modern civilization in the narrow sense — what I have called Modernism without Industrialism. And here by “maturity” I do not mean that science is exhausted and can produce no new scientific knowledge, but that we become reflexively aware of what we are doing when we do science. That is to say, scientific maturity is when we know ourselves to be engaged in science. In so far as “we” in this context means scientists, this was probably largely true by the time of the industrial revolution; in so far as “we” means mass man of industrial-technological civilization, it is not yet true today.

The way in which science enters into industrial-technological civilization — i.e., by way of spurring forward the open loop of industrial-technological civilization — means that science has been incorporated as an integral part of the civilization that immediately and disruptively followed the scientific civilization of modernism without industrialism (according to the Preemption Hypothesis). While the industrial revolution disrupted and preempted almost every aspect of the civilization that preceded it, it did not disrupt or preempt science, but rather gave a new urgency to science.

In several posts I have speculated on possible counterfactual civilizations (according to the counterfactuals implicit in naturalism), that is to say, forms of civilization that were possible but which were not actualized in history. One counterfactual civilization might have been agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization undisrupted by the scientific or industrial revolutions. Another counterfactual civilization might have been modern civilization in the narrow sense (i.e., Modernism without Industrialism) coming to maturity without being disrupted and preempted by the industrial revolution. It now occurs to me that yet another counterfactual form of civilization could have been that of industrialization without the scientific conception of knowledge or the systematic application of science to industry.

How could this work? Is it even possible? Perhaps not, and certainly not in the long term, or with high technology, which cannot exist without substantial scientific understanding. But the simple expedient of powered machinery might have come about by the effort of tinkerers, as did much of the industrial revolution as it happened. If we look at the halting and inconsistent efforts in the ancient world to produce large scale industries we get something of this idea, and this we could call industrialism without modernity. Science was not yet at the point at which it could be very helpful in the design of machinery; none of the sciences were yet mathematicized. And yet some large industrial enterprises were built, though few in number. It seems likely that it was not the lack of science that limited industrialization in classical antiquity, but the slave labor economy, which made labor-saving devices pointless.

There are, today, many possibilities for the future of civilization. Technically, these are future contingents (like Aristotle’s sea battle tomorrow), and as history unfolds one of these contingencies will be realized while the others become counterfactuals or are put off yet further. And in so far as there is a finite window of opportunity for a particular future contingent to come into being, beyond that window all unactualized contingents become counterfactuals.

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An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby

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I have written more on the nature of scientific civilization in…

David Hume and Scientific Civilization …and…

The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization

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Risk and Knowledge

9 May 2013

Thursday


Fifth in a Series on Existential Risk

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Thinking about the Epistemology of Risk


A personal anecdote

What is risk? I have considered this question several times, in different contexts, as, for example, in Risk Management: A Personal View and more recently in Moral Imperatives Imposed by Existential Risk, but today although I want to consider some highly general philosophical ideas about risk, and I am going to start with a highly personal anecdote — a human interest story, if you will. Ultimately I need to make the philosophical effort to bring together these many threads of risk into something more general and comprehensive — but first, the personal story.

When my mother retired, she had for a few years been paying into a private retirement annuity. Upon her retirement she was in a position to begin drawing from this annuity, so I spent some time on the telephone with the financial representative. We had some long calls before we settled on an option that would best serve the financial interests of my mother. The amount she had saved up was not large, but it was enough that she was able to arrange for a fixed monthly payment in perpetuity, in return for handing over the lump sum of her annuity to the financial services company into which she had been making contributions to her annuity.

My mother was surprised to find that if she surrendered her capital to the financial institution with which she had the annuity, that they would promise to pay her a certain amount every month for the rest of her life, regardless of how many payments they had to made. I explained that financial institutions hire professionals called actuaries who calculate the likelihood of how long individuals will live and when they are likely to die. The actuaries make their judgments from statistics, not knowing the individual person. I assured by mother than she is far more healthy than the average person of her age, that the actuaries don’t know any details about an individual’s life, how active they are, what foods they eat, how the individual responds to stress, and so forth.

The actuary as non-constructivist

The actuary engages in classic non-constructivist thought in asserting that a certain number of persons of a certain age will die within a certain period of time, within identifying exactly which individuals are the ones who will die and which individuals are the ones who will live. The actuary sees the big picture (the aerial view of populations, as it were), and from the perspective of investing billions of dollars and insuring the financial security of millions of people, it is the big picture that matters. While life and death is everything to the individual, it is fungible to an institution, and the actuary embodies the institutional point of view.

While it would be possible for an insurance company or a financial institution to pursue a constructivist methodology, in practice this would be unwieldy and inefficient. A constructivist actuary would need to start from the ground up with the facts of the life of each individual, building a detailed profile from verified data. All of this requires time, and time is money. No insurance company or financial institution that pursued this method on a large scale could make a profit, because any gains from the strategy would be offset by the additional costs incurred by information gathering effort.

Actuaries can be extremely accurate on a statistical basis, considering populations on the whole, even while they can be completely wrong in regard to individuals who are members of a given population. Some individuals who are part of a population that dies, on average, at 65, may well live to be 75, 85, or 95 and still not skew the average for the population on the whole. Another individual might die much younger than the average without skewing the average on the whole.

If you know individuals personally, and you know that, for example, someone tends to drive in an erratic and dangerous manner that very well might get them killed, then you have knowledge that the actuary does not have — knowledge, in fact, that the actuary doesn’t even try to address. The actuary might control for age, gender, marital status, geographical location, and all the ordinary information you might put on a questionnaire. Just this much information can be very valuable. With more information, much more can be done, but no financial institution or insurance company could pay to have agents follow investors or policy holders to learn their personal habits, and therefore build a more accurate risk profile for the insured.

The individual possesses knowledge that the institution — financial, insurance, governmental, or whatever else — does not possess, and the individual can leverage this ellipsis of knowledge in order to get a better deal for themselves.

Leveraging knowledge to manage risk

This is an obvious application of the distinction between uncertainty and risk. The more knowledge one has, the less one’s picture of the world is about uncertainty and the more it is about known risks, which are quantities for which one can take preventative or prophylactic measures. To make it personal, if you know someone is an awful driver, you avoid riding with them, and if you know someone becomes aggressive and belligerent when drunk, you avoid going drinking with them, or you take other measures that will protect you from the consequences of beings around a belligerent drunk. If you are especially cunning, you can even turn such known risks to your advantage (transforming a risk into an opportunity), employing calculated risks in a ruse or as a distraction. We all know people like this, and we know that they, too, are a danger to be avoided.

The lesson here is that when you have detailed personal knowledge about a situation, the calculation of risk can change dramatically. Or, to be more precise, matters that are given over to uncertainty in one model become objects of knowledge and therefore in a more epistemically intensive model are transformed from uncertainty into risk, and as risk are amenable to rational calculation. The scope of the calculus of risk expands and contracts, waxing and waning in proportion to knowledge. (Even the actuary, with all that he does not know, knows enough about what matters to his institution that he is dealing with a controlled, calculated risk and not uncertainty.)

Another personal anecdote about investing

Another personal story to illustrate how knowledge bears upon risk: recently in Rationing Financial Services I discussed the different financial services that are available to the working class, of a very basic if not rudimentary character, as compared to the advanced and sophisticated financial services available to the wealthy and the well-connected.

I also mentioned in this post how far my views are from the mainstream, and in my earlier post on Risk Management: A Personal View I mentioned a personal anecdote about how a financial adviser had expressed surprise by the risks that I was taking, when I didn’t believe myself to be taking any risks of particular note. In my most recent consultation with a financial professional, as I was asking questions about various investment products, one banker actually said to the other banker, “I don’t think that these [investments] will be risky enough for him.” I smiled inside. You would think I had been riding a superbike at 90 MPH on a winding mountain road without wearing a helmet. Not quite.

My tolerance for risk is not based on a thrill-seeking personality — I’m not about to take up BASE jumping — but rather upon knowledge. And in so far as I leverage my knowledge to shift the epistemic balance from uncertainty to risk, I am taking a calculated risk, against which I might insure myself (if I felt inclined to do so), but I am not plunging myself into blind uncertainty — in other words, I’m not a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread. The more knowledge one has, the less uncertainty one faces, the more one is presented with calculated risks in place of uncertainty.

When it comes to the investment products available to the individual of ordinary means, the options were really Hobson’s choice — i.e., the choice between what is offered and nothing. The process gave the appearance of choice, because there were a great many funds in which one could invest, and reams of information describing these investments, but really what it all came down to is that they were widely distributed funds of funds that would approximately track the market. I said to my banker than buying into these funds is simply the same as placing a bet on the S&P. If it goes up, you do well; if it goes down, you lose. End of story. I didn’t want the appearance of choice, I wanted the reality of choice.

I asked my banker if any of the funds focused on any particular industry, or resource, or were invested in any particular country or region of the world. No. None of the choices had any distinguishing features of this kind. They were all strategies for, one way or another, gaming the domestic US market to try to get a few more percentage points of profit than the next fund. In this case, having detailed knowledge of the world made no difference at all. If one cares to guess at the direction of the S&P, or if one feels that one has studied the domestic US market sufficiently to predict the direction of the S&P, then you have knowledge that is appropriate to this investment climate. Otherwise, your knowledge is useless and can’t be leveraged to your financial benefit. (I could, of course, become a day-trader, but I really don’t think that’s my thing.)

Knowledge and statistical probability

If you have both real knowledge and real options, your investment portfolio can be less at risk than placing a single bet on the direction of the US market, but my attitude in this respect was treated as one of welcoming more risk — because the requisite knowledge was not taken into account. Knowledge is a factor in the calculation of risk. In fact, knowledge constitutes one among “all factors not really indeterminate” which Frank Knight identified as being crucial to the determination of statistical probability (cf. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty).

If you lack knowledge about the structure and functioning of the global economy, then your ability to choose wise investments is not likely to be any better than your ability to guess the direction of the US market average, and this is the presumption of ignorance that is built into the kind of investment options available to most people. Or if you think you know what is going on, but your knowledge is merely illusory, you might be lucky or you might by unlucky in investing, but your chances are no better than an up or down gamble. But if you have the knowledge of many different sectors of the global economy, and of many different industries and of regions of the world, it really isn’t much of a challenge to be able to improve your chances over the 50/50 guesswork involved in a bet on the S&P.

A curious parallel

Our collective situation as a species is in some ways not unlike my individual situation as an investor: being “stuck” on the surface of the earth, we have Hobson’s choice when it comes to existential risk management and mitigation: the earth or nothing. Take it or leave it. That’s not much of a choice, and it is curiously parallel to my own lack of choices in investments. And this lack of choices gives us no opportunity to leverage our growing knowledge of the cosmos from recent gains in space science in order to get the edge of existential risk. Our knowledge of the universe, at present, makes no difference at all in mitigating existential risk.

The more knowledge that we have of the cosmos, and of the human position within a cosmological context, the more knowledge we will have concerning the exact existential risks that we face. That increase in our knowledge will serve to transmute existential uncertainty into existential risk, sensu stricto, and in so doing will possibly present us with clearcut options of “insuring” against the existential risk in question. But our civilization, in its present form, has a presumption of ignorance built into it. There are countless existential risk mitigation and management options that we simply cannot pursue because we are planet-bound.

Existential risk mitigation aspects of space-based science and industry

When, in the future development of earth-originating extraterrestrial civilization, we begin to construct large-scale scientific instruments off the surface of the earth — say, a large radio-telescope array on the far side of the moon, sheltered from the EM spectrum noise generated by our busy earth — our ability to see deep into the cosmos (farther and more clearly in terms of distance, and therefore also in terms of time) our knowledge of astronomy, cosmology, and astrophysics will increase by an order of magnitude beyond the kind of observations that are possible from the surface of the earth.

Thus large space-based scientific installations will have a two-fold value in the mitigation of existential risk:

1) such facilities would be a function of space-based industry, which in turn would be a function of space-based human presence, and it would be a sustainable human presence in space that would be the first step in overcoming the manifest vulnerability of a species confined to a single planetary body, and …

2) the knowledge yielded by such facilities would significantly increase our knowledge of the universe, and hence of our place in the universe, which knowledge, as we have seen above, is crucial in transforming unactionable uncertainty into actionable risk

In fact, these two existential risk mitigation aspects of space-based science and industry are integral with each other: the space-based position allows us to exploit opportunities not available on the surface of the earth, and the knowledge gained from this enterprise will raise our awareness of opportunities now only dimly perceived.

To adequately assess our existential uncertainty and transform it into existential risk that might be mitigated and managed, we need to acquire existential knowledge — that is to say, knowledge of the existential milieu of human beings, a cosmological equivalent of situational awareness. What situational awareness is to the individual facing existential threats, knowledge of existential risk is to the species facing existential threats.

The more existential knowledge that we have, the better we can calculate our existential risk, and the better we can manage and mitigate that risk.

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danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

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

5. Risk and Knowledge

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ex risk ahead

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Two Epistemic Paradigms

27 December 2011

Tuesday


René Descartes lived in this house in Westermarkt 6, Amsterdam. If you wanted to rebuild it from the ground up, you would need to live in another house in the meantime.

Yesterday in The Philosophy of Fear I quoted Descartes from his Discourse on Method, from the section in which he introduces an implicit distinction between the theoretical principles he will use to guide his philosophical activities and the practical moral principles that he will employ in his life while he is going about his theoretical activity. Here is his exposition of his four theoretical principles:

The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.

The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.

The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.

And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.

Anyone who knows Descartes’ works will recognize that he has here stated, much more simply and compactly, the principles that he was working on in his unfinished manuscript Rules of the Direction of Mind. Here, by way of contrast, is a highly condensed version of Descartes’ practical and provisional moral principles:

The first was to obey the laws and customs of my country, adhering firmly to the faith in which, by the grace of God, I had been educated from my childhood and regulating my conduct in every other matter according to the most moderate opinions, and the farthest removed from extremes, which should happen to be adopted in practice with general consent of the most judicious of those among whom I might be living.

My second maxim was to be as firm and resolute in my actions as I was able, and not to adhere less steadfastly to the most doubtful opinions, when once adopted, than if they had been highly certain; imitating in this the example of travelers who, when they have lost their way in a forest, ought not to wander from side to side, far less remain in one place, but proceed constantly towards the same side in as straight a line as possible, without changing their direction for slight reasons, although perhaps it might be chance alone which at first determined the selection; for in this way, if they do not exactly reach the point they desire, they will come at least in the end to some place that will probably be preferable to the middle of a forest.

My third maxim was to endeavor always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented…

Descartes wrote a lot a extremely long run-on sentences, so that one must cut radically in order to quote him (except for his theoretical principles, above, which I have quoted entire), but I have tried to include enough above to give a genuine flavor of how he expressed himself. Although Descartes did not himself make this distinction between theoretical and practical principles explicit, although the distinction is explicitly embodied in his two sets of explicitly stated principles, he does provide a justification for the distinction:

“…as it is not enough, before commencing to rebuild the house in which we live, that it be pulled down, and materials and builders provided, or that we engage in the work ourselves, according to a plan which we have beforehand carefully drawn out, but as it is likewise necessary that we be furnished with some other house in which we may live commodiously during the operations, so that I might not remain irresolute in my actions, while my reason compelled me to suspend my judgement, and that I might not be prevented from living thenceforward in the greatest possible felicity, I formed a provisory code of morals, composed of three or four maxims, with which I am desirous to make you acquainted.”

After I quoted this in The Philosophy of Fear I realized that it constitutes a perfect antithesis to the conception of the rational reconstruction of knowledge embodied in the image of Neurath’s ship, which I have quoted several times.

Rational reconstruction was an idea that fascinated early twentieth century philosophers, especially the logical positivists, whose philosophical tradition would eventually mature and transform itself into mainstream analytical philosophy. It was logical positivism that gave us an enduring image of rational reconstruction, as related by Otto Neurath:

“There is no way of taking conclusively established pure protocol sentences as the starting point of the sciences. No tabula rasa exists. We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials. Only the metaphysical elements can be allowed to vanish without trace.”

Quine then used this image in his Word and Object:

“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

These two epistemic paradigms — what I will call Descartes’ house and Neurath’s ship — represent antithetical conceptions of the epistemological enterprise. Neurath’s ship is usually presented as an anti-foundationalist parable, which would suggest that Descartes’ house is a foundationalist parable. There are certain problems with this initial characterization. The logical positivists who invoked Neurath’s ship with approval were often foundationalists in the philosophy of mathematics while being anti-foundational in other areas.

There is a sense in which it is fair to call Descartes’ house a foundationalist parable: Descartes is suggesting a radical approach to the foundations of knowledge — utterly tearing down our knowledge in order to construct entirely anew on the same ground — and he attempted to put this into practice in his own philosophical work. He doubted everything that he could until he arrived at the fact that he could not doubt his own existence, and then on the basis of the certainty of his own existence he attempted to reconstruct the entire edifice of knowledge. The result was not radical, but actually rather conventional, but the method certainly was radical. It was also total.

Whether or not Neurath’s ship is anti-foundational, it is certainly incrementalist. If we were to attempt to rebuild a ship while at sea, we would need to proceed bit by bit, and very carefully. Nothing radical would be attempted, for to attempt anything radical would be to sink the ship. There is a sense in which we could identify this effort as essentially constructivist in spirit, though not exclusively constructivist: constructivism is certainly not the only motivation for Neurath’s ship, and many who invoked it employed non-constructive modes of reasoning.

Are Descartes’ house and Neurath’s ship mutually exclusive? Not necessarily. We do remodel houses while living in them, although when we do we need to keep some basic functions available during our residency. And we can demolish certain parts of a ship at sea; as long as the hull remains intact, we can engage in a radical reconstruction (as opposed to a rational reconstruction) of the masts and the rigging.

One ought not to push an image too far, for fear of verging on the ludicrous, but it can be observed that, while living in a house, we can tear down half of it to the ground and rebuild that half from scratch while living in the other half, and then repeat this process in the half we have been living in. In fact, I know people who have done this. There will, of course, be certain compromises that will have to be made in wedding the two halves together, so that the seam between the two has the incrementalist character of Neurath’s ship, while each half has the radical and total character of Descartes’ house.

It is difficult to imagine a parallel for the above scenario when it comes to Neurath’s ship. The hull of the ship can only be rebuilt incrementally, although almost everything else can be radically reconstructed. And it may well be that some parts of epistemology must be approached incrementally while other parts of epistemology may be radically reconstructed almost with impunity. This seems like an eminently reasonable conclusion. But it is no conclusion — at least not yet — because there is more to say.

What underlies the image of Descartes’ house and Neurath’s ship is in each case a distinct metaphor, and that metaphor is for Descartes the earth, the solid ground upon which we stand, while for Neurath it is the sea, to which we must go down in ships, and where we cannot stand but must swim or be carried. So, we have two epistemic metaphors — of what are they metaphors? Existence? Being? Human experience? Knowledge? If the house or the ship is knowledge, then the ground or the sea must be that upon which knowledge rests (or floats). This once again suggests a foundationalist approach, but points to very different foundations: a house stands on dirt and stones; a ship floats on water.

Does knowledge ultimately rest upon the things themselves — the world, existence, or being, as you prefer — or upon human experience of the world? Or is not knowledge a consequence of the tension between human experience and the world, so that both the world and human experience are necessary to knowledge?

Intuitively, and without initially putting much thought into this (although I will continue to think about this because it is an interesting idea), I would suggest that the metaphor of the earth implies that knowledge ultimately is founded on the things themselves, while the metaphor of the sea implies that knowledge ultimately is founded on the ever-changing tides of human experience.

Therefore, if knowledge requires both the world and human experience, either the metaphor of Descartes’ house or Neurath’s ship alone, in isolation from the other, is inadequate. We need something more, or something different, to illustrate our relation to knowledge and how it changes.

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If you want to rebuild a ship at sea, you'd better be careful about how you go about it.

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Monday


Above is a photograph that I took of Prague when I visited in 1992. There are many readily identifiable elements in the image. Even individuals without deep geographical knowledge might recognize the Charles Bridge or St. Vitus Cathedral, even if they didn’t know the names of these structures. More generally, a person is likely to notice that it is a European city that is in the photograph. The closer up your view, the more detail you see, and the more detail you see, the more knowledge that you have — though it is knowledge of a certain kind, specific to a particular scale. We could call this knowledge of a particular order of magnitude, or an epistemic order of magnitude.

This Oslo street scene (above) that I took in 2009 reveals more detail than the landscape view of Prague — for example, one can read individual signs, and perhaps even recognize a particular advertising campaign — but it would be difficult to identify the city unless you had really encyclopedic knowledge of the area. While this probably holds true for street scenes in most cities, there are, of course, immediately identifiable street scenes, such as that below, since it includes a portion of the readily identifiable Brandenburg Gate.

When we pull back further, looking at a city from a great distance, the texture and fabric of urban space presents a certain sameness to the eye, although a keen observer will still be able to pick out distinctive features. In Modernization, Industrialization, Urbanization I wrote regarding this distant perspective:

“Viewed from a distance, a contemporary Japanese city and a contemporary American city are indistinguishable, like two threads, black and white, held at arm’s length at twilight. But up close, profound differences are obvious. Seeing the big picture is just as important as seeing the details.”

The photograph below of San Francisco might be mistaken for another large city of the industrial era, and it could be just about anywhere, except it does reveal some of those distinctive features, such as the distinctive Transamerica Pyramid.

Pulling back even farther, moving to another order of magnitude in perspective, identifying a city can become quite problematic. Individual landmarks mostly disappear, except for truly monumental constructions, and most cities lack truly monumental constructions and thus become indistinguishable at this level. Consider the photograph below:

I cannot remember where I found this photograph, and I can’t identify it. The photograph admirably shows the road and rail networks that cut through all cities of the late twentieth century, and I suspect that it is in Europe or North America, but it could just as well be on other continents. There are details that can be picked out, but what we must notice at this level of magnification is the overall structure.

Some cities, even from orbital distance, are immediately recognizable, as with Brasília, which we can see (above) retaining the structure of its original plan (below). Generally speaking, planned cities built rapidly in accordance with a recognizable geometry are likely to be readily identifiable, whereas organic cities that grew up without a plan are less clearly differentiated.

Other cities have distinctive harbors or a relation to a distinctive river or ocean coastline or other natural feature that would make them identifiable, although few people have an encyclopedic knowledge of harbors and would be able to identify a city on that basis. Here (below) is Naples from space:

It used to be said, “See Naples and die,” such was its reputation for urban beauty. Whatever the reputation of Naples today, this kind of beauty is not recognizable from a great distance. Probably Naples would be a little more recognizable if the entire Bay of Naples were included. Here (below) is Tokyo’s harbor from space:

Whatever one knows or does not know about Naples and Tokyo, the satellite photographs tell you something important about their economies that may well not be revealed by a photograph of a street scene: both are major ports, and their economies are therefore tied to trade. And here (below) is São Paulo from space:

São Paulo is close to the coast, and while many maps make it look like it is on the coast, it is in fact an inland city. While São Paulo is one of the largest cities in the world, and therefore an economic force to reckon with, we can see that a port does not play the same role in its economy that port facilities play in Tokyo or, for example, Seattle, which is as wedded to Puget Sound, into which ocean-going ships can freely enter, as Tokyo is wedded to Tokyo Bay. While not a satellite photograph, this picture gives a great sense of Seattle’s dependence on water-borne commerce:

Some cities are a surprise from an aerial view, and present an aspect not at all evident from the ground. Take this city for example:

Who would have guessed that Khandahar is so orderly, with its regular grid plan and cruciform center? No street scenes give a sense of Khandahar’s overall order. It certainly surprised me. I suspect there is an interesting story behind Khandahar’s macroscopic order, and I would like to know that it is. My first intuition is that Khandahar has grown up from an ancient Roman street plan, which centered a city on the perpendicular crossing of the Decumanus Maximus and Cardo Maximus. This may be the case, but I have not confirmed this. The city of Poreč on the Istrian Peninsula, known for retaining it Roman street plan, has a far less obvious cruciform plan than Khandahar:

Poreč on the Istrian Peninsula

Barcino, Split, Umm Qais, and Damascus are also known for their preservation of Roman planning, and now that I think of it I will need to look at aerial or orbital pictures of these cities and see if they approach the rectilinear regularly of Khandahar. In any case, at least part of a city’s history may be evident from the abstract perspective afforded by distance.

If we pull back far enough, a city ceases to even look like a city. In the NASA photograph above, it has been observed that London at night looks like a constellation. Many of the satellite images above reveal cities that, from a distance, look like organic growths — or, if you prefer a more threatening image, like a cancer on the land.

There is a sense in which an view of cities from a distance gives us an abstract perspective — both upon the city itself, as a whole and as an artifact, and upon urbanized human life, which is inseparable from the city upon which it supervenes.

Abstract perspectives of necessity lack the kind of detail of a concrete perspective, but we learn particular kinds of things from an abstract perspective, and different kinds of things that we learn from close up concrete detail. The abstract and the concrete represent distinct (though complementary) epistemic orders of magnitude.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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