A seal unbroken for 3,245 years on King Tutankhamun’s tomb, 1922.

A Thought Experiment in Infinitistic Historiography

In the past two posts — Technological Civilization: Second Addendum to Part III and Thought Experiment on a Science of Civilization — I discussed a couple of thought experiments intended to explore particular concepts related to civilization. Here I want to pursue yet another thought experiment that builds on these previous thought experiments but which penetrates into different aspects of civilization than I have previously explored. If you like, you can think of this present thought experiment as a thought experiment in infinitistic historiography, as this is an attempt to take seriously questions that stem from histories of civilization that extend indefinitely in time.

The Two Histories

Every ancient civilization has two histories. At least two histories. There is the history that has been re-constructed by scholars that places the given civilization in historical time that is increasingly defined in terms of scientific historiography. And then there is the history of that civilization that is the history that they themselves placed themselves within. (We have a third history if we include the history of the discovery and reconstruction of an ancient civilization, which is distinct both from its reconstructed history or its self-understanding of its history.) Most early civilizations placed themselves within an overarching cosmology or mythology that projected different pasts and different futures for that civilization than the past and future of a given civilization as understood by scientific historiography.

Since a scientific conception of history is very recent, past civilizations did not have scientific conceptions of history, nor could they have had a scientific conception of history. The entire history of science has been necessary to converge upon the concepts of scientific historiography common today; these concepts are an achievement of contemporary thought, and are the function of a long developmental process, so that to project them into the past is an instance of presentism.

The dangers of presentism are widely recognized, and in an attempt to avoid presentism historians also try to understand ancient civilizations on their own terms. This is the other history, the second history of the two recounted above, and it is the history that the individuals who built and participated in that civilization believed to be the historical context of their lives, their society, and their world. These histories are placed in cosmologies that often diverge from the cosmology of contemporary scientific historiography, so that the past and the future of the given civilization, as understood by those who built that civilization, must be reconstructed in contrast to the reconstructed history of the civilization, based on whatever internal evidence that can be derived from the remains of an extinct civilization. Thus we reconstruct two historical timelines, one of them the same timeline as that which we employ today, and within which we can place ourselves as well, and another that of the reconstructed civilization’s big picture conception of its own history.

External and Internal Histories of Ancient Egypt

Let us apply this distinction between the two histories (which we might call external and internal history, or exogenous and endogenous history) to a particular case study: Ancient Egypt. According to this distinction, there is the history of Egypt that we know from textbooks, and which is a history that is nested into a much more comprehensive history that includes Egypt, but also many other civilizations (thus the external history of Egypt). But there is also the history of Egypt as understood by ancient Egyptians — the world seen from the point of view of Egypt, and understood in terms of ancient Egyptian mythology and cosmology (the internal history of Egypt). In this history, all things begin at the primeval mound during the First Time, and the events of the First time echo on down through subsequent history, and will continue to so echo into the future, time without end.

The ancient Egyptian individual understood death not as a passage to salvation or damnation (soteriology and eschatology), and not as a rebirth into this world (metempsychosis), but as a continuation of the struggle of life known in this world, albeit a continued struggle in somewhat different milieux and with more direct contact with the gods:

“As the Western Souls, the justified dead formed part of the crew of the embattled Boat of Millions. They might be thought of as rowing or towing the sun boat or even defending it against the forces of chaos. The vignette to Book of the Dead spell 39 shows a dead person taking on Seth’s role of spearing the Apophis serpent. In death, everyone could be a cosmic hero in the perpetual struggle that was the central feature of Egyptian myth.”

Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, p. 94

There are motifs of both linear time and cyclical time in Egyptian mythology, as well as a conception of eternity:

“As part of establishing the divine order, Shu and Tefnut also become two different types of time. ‘Shu is Eternal Recurrence and Tefnut is Eternal Sameness.’ This began a great cycle in which everything had to change to survive and yet everything remained fundamentally the same.”

Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, p. 89


“Everything that exists is eternal stability and eternal recurrence”

quoted in Egyptian Mythology: A Very Short Introduction, p. 92


“The Egyptian universe remained eternally the same only through constant change in the form of cycles of decay, death, and rebirth.”

Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, p. 89

There are many books that have been written about Egyptian mythology, and, no doubt, many books still be written. It would take us too far afield to give a detailed treatment of the afterlife among ancient Egyptians, but the takeaway here is that that Egyptians had a conception of the afterlife for human beings that contextualized the whole of Egyptian civilization within an eternal cosmology. Egyptians might, in the next life, go on to meet the gods and to struggle with them against chaos and evil. This, then, is the internal history of ancient Egypt, in which both life on Earth (within Egyptian civilization) would go on eternally and in parallel with an eternal cosmic struggle.

What if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever?

Now we have the setting for our thought experiment, which will be two thought experiments: a thought experiment in the external history of Egypt and a thought experiment in the internal history of Egypt. And our thought experiment is this question: What if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever? We will ask this question in two ways: 1) what if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever according to its own conceptions of time and history? And 2) what if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever according to the conceptions of time and history to be found in scientific historiography?

The thought experiment in the internal history of Egypt in which that civilization lasts forever is a simple matter, because Egyptian mythology incorporates its eternal iteration as its future. In this thought experiment, Egyptians continue to build and maintain temples to their gods and tombs for themselves in this world, and in the parallel world of the gods, deceased Pharaohs go on to meet the gods in the next life, while ordinary Egyptians could aspire to crewing the Boat of Millions in the next life. There would be slight differences in different eras of Egyptian civilization (Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, etc.) given the changes introduced into Egyptian mythology during the thousands of years that civilization continued to develop, but the basic structure is unaltered while Egyptian civilization was intact and viable.

The External History Thought Experiment

Matters get considerably more interesting when we consider the question of Egyptian civilization enduring forever in the context of its external history, as there are many ways in which to elaborate this counter-factual. Since it is a counter-factual, as in scientific historiography Egyptian civilization had a finite history with a beginning and an end, we can posit a number of distinct ways in which these scenario could develop. We take the existence of Egyptian civilization as we know it from history and we extrapolate this civilization forward into time. Egyptian civilization could expand and modernize and become the basis of a planetary civilization, or it could stagnate and remain in equilibrium for as long as conditions allowed, or it could run the usual course of development of a civilization, but do so in isolation so that Egyptian civilization was a solitary instance of terrestrial civilization, followed by nothing more.

The Egyptians planned for eternity. They had institutions in place to police the regime that they had created. The picture above, of the unbroken seal on the door of the tomb of Tutankhamun, gives us a fascinating glimpse into the mind and the practices of a people who expect that the institutions they have created will continue indefinitely. Royal tombs were sealed, and officials of the “government” (it wasn’t really a “government” in the modern sense, but we will use the term here — again, the danger of presentism) would regularly inspect the seals on tombs to ensure that they were intact. Because of this inspection regime, tomb robbers would tunnel into the fantastically wealthy royal tombs, so as to loot the tombs without disturbing the royal seal.

In an indefinitely enduring Egyptian civilization, one would expect this cat-and-mouse game between officials and thieves to go on indefinitely. There would always be new royal tombs built and filled with fantastic wealth, and there would always be thieves willing to break into these tombs. As the number of tombs became larger and larger over time, it would be more difficult to effectively police them. One would expect that the most recent tombs and the most prestigious tombs would continue to be monitored, thus lesser known tombs would become the target for robbers.

Over the longue dureé, an infinitely iterated Egyptian civilization would pass through predictable vicissitudes. There would be good years and bad years, even good centuries and bad centuries. As in the Year of the Hyenas (1090 BC), bad years and bad centuries would bring a breakdown of social order, more looting, and the inability of the Egyptian state to police its regime of sealed tombs. In better times, the state would recover itself and attempt to make good the damage of the bad years. Something of the tradition would survive, but something would also be lost. This swing between loss and recovery would mean that culture and society would change over time, even if the civilization remained continuous and never suffered a catastrophic failure. An indefinitely iterated Egyptian civilization would change into something else, but what it would change into in this counter-factual history we cannot say.

Nothing Endures Forever

In scientific historiography, nothing lasts forever. If Egyptian civilization as we know it from history continued in a steady state, in equilibrium, as it were, until the planet were no longer habitable, or if Egyptian civilization grew, flourished, and then decayed in isolation, followed by nothing more or nothing further, and left its ruins to be wasted by time, in either case the indefinite iteration of Egyptian civilization would come to an end, but some of its treasured tombs would have been preserved to the end of that civilization, and would remain inviolate until the planet was no longer habitable.

The idea that a tomb should be eternally inviolate would, then, be realized in a naturalistic way. Suppose that a tomb were built at or near a craton (a part of the continental lithosphere that is not subducted in plate tectonics), so that the actual structure of the tomb remained intact for millions if not billions of years — for as long as the stone was not reduced to dust. The ruin of such a sealed tomb — sealed once and never reentered or reopened — might remain intact as Earth became uninhabitable, eventually sterilized, and without even an atmosphere. The relics preserved within would likely have their preservation augmented by the cold and vacuum of a future barren Earth. The gold death mask of whatever Pharaoh it was in the tomb might have endured for eons within its several layers of wood and stone sarcophagi.

In this scenario, something like what the Egyptians imagined for themselves would have occurred in fact. The ancient Egyptians constructed these tombs for eternity, filled them with what we would call “art” (maybe I should call them “ritual objects”) and treasure, with the idea that these would all be sealed in the tomb for all time and eternity. The value that these artifacts had they would have possessed in virtue of the intentions of the Egyptians who constructed the tombs and created the ritual objects that filled the tombs. These objects were not meant to be valued in an ongoing way by human society, not meant to be studied for what they could teach about Egyptian civilization to later generations, not intended to be dug up and displayed, whether by tomb robbers or by archaeologists, but were meant to be interred with the mummy for which the tomb was built, and launched on an eternal journey into the future — a journey that did not involve ever being removed from their context.

Eternity Realized

There is at least one scenario of scientific historiography in which the Egyptian ambition for their royal tombs is realized. Although Egyptian civilization has lapsed, and most of its tombs have been looted, it is possible that, even after our technological civilization is no more — whether from collapse or moving to another world — that there will be an undisturbed Egyptian tomb with its royal necropolis seal still intact, still underground, still untouched when the Earth is dead and sterile. Suppose that in the far future Earth breaks up, or that an enormous impact plows out a section of Earth’s surface with this intact tomb and sends it flying into space. The sarcophagus of a Pharaoh might float forever in space.

One of the most entertaining and perhaps bizarre takes on ‘Oumuamua that I saw on Twitter was the following:

“…maybe the asteroid, Oumuamua, that recently passed through our solar system, was really an alien funerary sarcophagus launched into space.”

At some future time in our universe, that funerary sarcophagus flying through another planetary system might be from Earth, and if the locals sent out a spacecraft to intercept and study the object, they would certainly have a lot of unanswered questions as to how an Egyptian mummy engaged in a flyby past their planet.

Infinitistic Epilogue

Early in the history of this blog I wrote a post about a naturalistic interpretation of eternity, A Human, All-Too-Human Eternity. I always meant to follow up on this post and to expand upon the idea of a naturalistic eternity. The concept of eternity continues to haunt human beings, probably because of, rather than in spite of, our morality. Eternity is that which is denied us — ontologically forbidden fruit, as it were. But, from time to time, nature grants us glimpses of eternity along with intimations of immortality.

Each civilization is eternal in the sense of wholly occupying the present with its central project and, as such, is eternally present in the moment, timeless as long as one remains suspended within this moment. Some civilizations are more strongly orientated toward this timeless present, while others understand themselves in a larger context in which age succeeds age and the world entire is changed over time. Eternity appears within time and endures as long as time allows. When we happen to touch upon one of these eruptions of eternity into the flow of time, we experience that eternity momentarily. Eternal civilizations (civilizations timeless in the moment of their eruption into the flow of time and history) appear and disappear, and, arguably, in doing so they fulfill their eternalistic mandate and, for a moment, represent the moving image of eternity (as Plato put it).

Arguably, Egyptian civilization aspired to be an eternal civilization. The discovery of historical time, and then deep time, has been a late discovery in human history; most civilizations prior to the present aspired to eternity because they did not possess the conceptual framework that would have made it possible for them to understand ideas of deep history and deep time. The aspiration to eternal civilization becomes, in the context of deep time, an aspiration to infinitistic civilization that can endure because intelligent agents take steps to adapt that civilization to changing conditions, which would provide for some kind of survival over the longue dureé. As with an indefinitely iterated Egyptian civilization, which would necessarily change even if every effort were made to ensure the continuity of tradition, an infinitistic civilization would eventually be transformed into a post-civilization institution. Even if infinite historiography is unattainable, the striving after an unattainable goal possesses intrinsic value. Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?

One could argue that a million-year-old supercivilization or a billion-year-old supercivilization is effectively indistinguishable from an infinitistic civilization because the effective history of both coincides. What I have called “effective history” — history that falls between the retrodiction wall of the past and the prediction wall in the future — is a finite period of time defined by the capacity of scientific historiography to bring evidence to bear. Though finite, effective history may be a part of a larger infinitistic history that we cannot see because historical effacement limits our scope of observation and knowledge.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The French Revolutionary Assembly provided the template for later ideological conflict, with conservative and reactionary elements on the right side and radical and revolutionary elements on the left side.

Introduction to Left/Right Ideological Conflict

It was the thesis of Samuel Huntington that ideologically-based conflict would be displaced by civilization-based conflicts. This is the “clash of civilizations” thesis, which remains controversial still after Huntington’s passing, and will likely remain controversial for some time yet. While there are signs one can point to that suggest the emergence of conflict between civilizations, ideologically-based conflict continues to animate human beings and their political formations. If Huntington’s thesis is true, one would of course expect to see a transitional period, and this transitional period could endure over civilizational scales of time, i.e., for hundreds of years. But one would expect to see over this transitional period the gradual decline of ideologically-based conflict in parallel with the gradual expansion of civilizational conflict. However, the distinction between these two forms of conflict is by no means clear, or clearly defined, so that this movement of history could be occurring even while it was obscured by the complexity of the human terrain.

I have also suggested the decline of ideologically-based conflict, though I would hesitate to go so far as to assert that ideologically-based conflict is giving way to civilization-based conflict. In a blog post titled Ideas That Will Shape the Future from October 2013 I wrote about the decline of left/right politics. This is what I said four years ago:

“The political landscape as we know it today continues to be shaped by the left/right dialectic that emerged in the wake of the French Revolution, as some sought to continue the revolution, others to reverse it, and others yet to expand and extend it. But the traditional governing coalitions based on left/right politics have been increasingly confronted with new political problems that cannot be easily analyzed along a left/right axis. As the most advanced industrialized nation-states converge on political gridlock, innovative solutions are increasingly likely to emerge from non-traditional political sources, marginalizing the left/right dichotomy and possibly giving life to new political movements that cannot be reduced to a left/right division. Moreover, structural changes within society such as increasing urbanization (q.v.), globalization (q.v.), technological unemployment (q.v.), exponentialism (q.v.) albeit selective, bitter conflicts over the life sciences (q.v.) that divide people across previously established coalitions expose mass populations to new forces that shape these populations and their opinions in new ways.”

While I can still endorse the idea behind this, I have been having second thoughts about what it implies: the inevitability and perhaps also the near-term end of left/right politics. The left/right dichotomy has been with us at least since the French revolution, and I would argue that it taps into a deep tendency to bifurcation in human nature (rooted in evolutionary psychology). But even if this is not true, even if human beings were not primed by their nature to split down a left/right division, the two hundred years or so of the left/right dichotomy has not been a sufficient period of time to exhaust the distinction. Political ideas can endure for hundreds of years, or even thousands of years. When the master history of humanity is recorded some day (after the end of the human era), the era of the left/right dichotomy may be seen as enduring for five hundred years, or for a thousand years, so that we are still entirely in the midst of this dialectic and can no more escape it than we can escape the times into which we are born.

In our own time, in recent history, we have seen both left and right repeatedly transform under selection pressures. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the counter-culture left opposed the establishment right; in the 1980s and 1990s, the winding down of the Cold War gave us a left and right no longer represented by great geopolitical blocs with the world split between them; more recently yet, both left and right took a populist turn with the Occupy protests and the Tea Party movement; now, today, we have movements even further afield from establishment left and right, with social justice ideologues and “anti-fascist” (antifa) splitting away from establishment liberalism and the Alt-Right splitting off from establishment conservatism. These mutations of the left and right are not merely quantitative changes in the relative extremism or moderation of the political platform espoused, but also involve qualitative changes in the movements. These qualitative changes result in mutual misunderstandings, because each side tends to reduce the contemporary representative to its historical antecedents, rather than seeing them as a qualitatively novel expressions of a perennial human tendency.

Given that the left/right dichotomy may have several hundred years to run, and that in the coming centuries of its ongoing development this dichotomy may be pushed to new and unprecedented extremes (as well as passing through periods of relative quietude when the extremes are at an ebb), it is natural to ask what kinds of left/right ideological conflict we have yet to see. Was the Cold War the peak of institutionalized left/right confrontation, or may we yet witness forms of left/right confrontation that surpass (perhaps not in all respects, but in some respects) Cold War confrontation? I doubt that we will again see entire nation-states embodying left or right political orientations engaged in global peer-to-peer conflict, or armed with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, but we could still see violet and even vicious conflict, societies torn apart by this conflict, and old political regimes ended while new political regimes are born.

With left and right once again battling in the streets of the US, this is a timely inquiry. It was my plan to write one long blog post attempting to lay out one global catastrophic risk scenario based on ideological conflict, but I have assembled a lot of material — too much for one post — so I will attempt to write a series of posts on the contemporary left/right dichotomy and its prospects for the near- to mid-term future. I also want to examine possible responses and reactions to left/right ideological conflict. I think it is insufficiently appreciated today the extent to which contemporary political culture is a response to and a reaction against some central Cold War themes. Further left/right ideological confrontation will, in the next stage of history, involve a further backlash against this confrontation, which represents an even larger social dialectic playing out over an even longer period of time.

To use the language of Braudel, left/right confrontations play out on the level of the conjuncture, while ideological extremism vs. a backlash again extremism plays out on the level of the longue durée. Indeed, we can easily see that the era of left/right conflict may someday constitute a longue durée periodization for planetary civilization. Examining the particular developments within this longue durée is an exercise in the synchronic study of this period as a whole.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Saturn with astronaut

Our first view of Earth was from its surface; every other planet human beings eventually visit will be first perceived by a human being at a great distance, then from orbit, and last of all from its surface. We will descend from orbit to visit a new world, rather than, as on Earth, emerging from the surface of that world and, only later, much later, seeing it from orbit, and then as a pale blue dot, from a great distance.

With our homeworld, the effect of looking up from the surface of our planet precedes the overview effect; with every other world, the overview effect precedes the surface standpoint. We might call this the homeworld effect, which is a consequence of what I now call planetary endemism (and which, when I was first exploring the concept, I called planetary constraint). We have already initiated this process when human beings visited the moon, and for the first time in human history descended to a new world, never before visited by human beings. With this first tentative experience of spacefaring, humanity knows one world from its surface (Earth) and one world from above (the moon). Every subsequent planetary visit will increase the relative proportion of the overview effect in contradistinction to the homeworld effect.

In the fullness of time, our normative assumptions about originating on a plant and leaving it by ascending in to orbit will be displaced by a “new normal” of approaching worlds from a great distance, worlds perhaps first perceived as a pale blue dot, and then only later descending to familiarize ourselves with surface features. If we endure for a period of time sufficient for further human evolution under the selection pressure of spacefaring civilization, this new normal will eventually replace the instincts formed in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) when humanity as a species branched off from other primates. The EEA of our successor species will be spacefaring civilization and the many worlds to which we travel, and this experience will shape our minds as well, producing an evolutionary psychology adapted not to survival on the surface of a planet, but to survival on any planet whatever, or no planet at all.

The Copernican principle is the first hint we have of the mind of a species adapted to spacefaring. It is a characteristic of Copernicanism to call the perspective borne of planetary endemism, the homeworld effect, into question. We have learned that the Copernican principle continually unfolds, always offering more comprehensive perspectives that place humanity and our world in a context that subsumes our previous perspective. Similarly, the overview effect will unfold over the development of spacefaring civilization that takes human beings progressively farther into space, providing ever more distant overviews of our world, until that world becomes lost among countless other worlds.

In my Centauri Dreams post The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight, I discussed the possibility of further overview effects resulting from attaining ever more distant perspectives on our cosmic home — thus attaining an ever more rigorous Copernican perspective. For example, although it is far beyond contemporary technology, it is possible to imagine we might someday have the ability to go so far outside the Milky Way that we could see our own galaxy in overview, and point out the location of the sun in the Orion Spur of the Milky Way.

There is, however, another sense in which additional overview effects may manifest themselves in human experience, and this would be due less to greater technical abilities that would allow for further first person human perspectives on our homeworld and on our universe, and rather due more to cumulative human experience in space as a spacefaring civilization. With accumulated experience comes “know how,” expertise, practical skill, and intuitive mastery — perhaps what might be thought of as the physical equivalent of acculturation.

We achieve this physical acculturation to the world through our bodies, and we express it through a steadily improving facility in accomplishing practical tasks. One such practical task is the ability to estimate sizes, distances, and movements of other bodies in relation to our own body. An astronaut floating in space in orbit around a planet or a moon (i.e., on a spacewalk) would naturally (i.e., intuitively) compare himself as a body floating in space with the planet or moon, also a body floating in space. Frank White has pointed out to me that, in interviews with astronauts, the astronauts themselves have noted the difference between being inside a spacecraft and being outside on a spacewalk, when one is essentially a satellite of Earth, on a par with other satellites.

The human body is an imperfectly uniform, imperfectly “standard” standard ruler that we use to judge the comparative sizes of the objects around us. Despite its imperfection as a measuring instrument, the human body has the advantage of being more intimately familiar to us than any other measuring device, which makes it possible to achieve a visceral understanding of quantities measured in comparison to our own body. At first perceptions of comparative sizes of bodies in space would be highly inaccurate and subject to optical illusions and cognitive biases, but with time and accumulated experience an astronaut would develop a more-or-less accurate “feel” for the size of the planetary body about which he is orbiting. With accumulated experience one would gain an ability to judge distance in space by eye, estimate how rapidly one was orbiting the celestial body in question, and perhaps even familiarize oneself with minute differences in microgravity environments, perceptible only on an intuitive level below the threshold of explicit consciousness — like the reflexes one acquires in learning how to ride a bicycle.

This idea came to me recently as I was reading a NASA article about Saturn, Saturn the Mighty, and I was struck by the opening sentences:

“It is easy to forget just how large Saturn is, at around 10 times the diameter of Earth. And with a diameter of about 72,400 miles (116,500 kilometers), the planet simply dwarfs its retinue of moons.”

How large is Saturn? We can approach the question scientifically and familiarize ourselves with the facts of matter, expressed quantitatively, and we learn that Saturn has an equatorial radius of 60,268 ± 4 km (or 9.4492 Earths), a polar radius of 54,364 ± 10 km (or 8.5521 Earths), a flattening of 0.09796 ± 0.00018, a surface area of 4.27 × 1010 km2 (or 83.703 Earths), a volume of 8.2713 × 1014 km3 (or 763.59 Earths), and a mass of 5.6836 × 1026 kg (or 95.159 Earths) — all figures that I have taken from the Wikipedia entry on Saturn. We could follow up on this scientific knowledge by refining our measurements and by going more deeply in to planetary science, and this gives us a certain kind of knowledge of how large Saturn is.

Notice that the figures I have taken from Wikipedia for the size of Saturn notes Earth equivalents where relevant: this points to another way of “knowing” how large Saturn is: by way of comparative concepts, in contradistinction to quantitative concepts. When I read the sentence quoted above about Saturn I instantly imagined an astronaut floating above Saturn who had also floated above the Earth, feeling on a visceral level the enormous size of the planet below. In the same way, an astronaut floating above the moon or Mars would feel the smallness of both in comparison to Earth. This is significant because the comparative judgement is exactly what a photograph does not communicate. A picture of the Earth as “blue marble” may be presented to us in the same size format as a picture of Mars or Saturn, but the immediate experience of seeing these planets from orbit would be perceived very differently by an orbiting astronaut because the human body always has itself to compare to its ambient environment.

This is kind of experience could only come about once a spacefaring civilization had developed to the point that individuals could acquire diverse experiences of sufficient duration to build up a background knowledge that is distinct from the initial “Aha!” moment of first experiencing a new perspective, so one might think of the example I have given above as a “long term” overview effect, in contradistinction to the immediate impact of the overview effect for those who see Earth from orbit for the first time.

The overview effect over the longue durée, then, will continually transform our perceptions both by progressively greater overviews resulting from greater distances, and by cumulative experience as a spacefaring species that becomes accustomed to viewing worlds from an overview, and immediately grasps the salient features of worlds seen first from without and from above. In transforming our perceptions, our minds will also be transformed, and new forms of consciousness will become possible. This alone ought to be reason enough to justify human spaceflight.

The possibility of new forms of consciousness unprecedented in the history of terrestrial life poses an interesting question: suppose a species — for the sake of simplicity, let us say that this species is us, i.e., humanity — achieves forms of consciousness through the overview effect cultivated in the way I have described here, and that these forms of consciousness are unattainable prior to the broad and deep experience of the overview effect that would characterize a spacefaring civilization. Suppose also, for the sake of the argument, that the species that attains these forms of consciousness is sufficiently biologically continuous that there has been no speciation in the biological sense. There would be a gulf between earlier and later iterations of the same species, but could we call this gulf speciation? Another way to pose this question is to ask whether there can be cognitive speciation. Can a species at least partly defined in terms of its cognitive functions be said to speciate on a cognitive level, even when no strictly biological speciation has taken place?

I will not attempt to answer this question at present — I consider the question entirely open — but I would like to suggest that the idea of cognitive speciation, i.e., a form of speciation unique to conscious beings, is deserving of further inquiry, and should be of special interest to the field of cognitive astrobiology.

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The Overview Effect

The Epistemic Overview Effect

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Perspective Taking

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

The Human Overview

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

A Further Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought, in the Way of Providing a Measure of Disambiguation in Regard to the Role of Temporality

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Civilizations of Planetary Endemism

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Grand Strategy Annex

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eye clock

In Ecological Temporality I attempted to give an exposition of time from an ecological perspective. There is a lot more to be said about ecological temporality, and I hope to take it up systematically at some point, though for now I will content myself with a few further observations.

Recently I posted the following on Twitter:

Evolutionary biology is the ecology of the longue durée; ecology is the evolutionary biology of the ephemeral durée.

Given my formulations of metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality, I can give a little more precise formulation to the aphorism I posted to twitter, to whit:

Evolutionary biology is the ecology of metaphysical history; ecology is the evolutionary biology of the micro-temporality of the individual.

And “ecology” simpliciter here means a lower level of the hierarchy of metaphysical ecology in which the agency of individual organisms is relevant to the struggle for survival. while “evolutionary biology” is metaphysical ecology on a much larger scale. That is to say, ecology and evolutionary biology are essentially the same process taking place at distinct levels of ecological temporality.

That is to say, the longue durée at its greatest extrapolation is metaphysical history, while the micro-temporality of the individual is that ephemeral temporality of events all but dismissed by Braudel, the great representative of the longue durée as the appropriate temporal category of history.

As soon as I thought of Braudel in this connection I recalled a famous quote from him that I have used a couple times previously:

Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.

Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 2, Part Three: Event, Politics and People, p. 901

As soon as I recalled this quote I realized that Braudel in particular, and structuralism in general, represent a top-down view of history, implying top-down time chains with primarily causality residing in the vast structures that shape history, and with almost no causality going back up the chain from bottom to top. Foucault is often placed in this tradition also. Foucault himself denied being a structuralist, and rightly so, but we can place him among the structuralists with equal right. To borrow a deconstructive term, we must mention Foucault in the connection under erasure.

Ecological temporality from the point of view of historiography reveals Collingwood’s a priori historical imagination (which I have also mentioned several times, e.g., Life in the Holocene Epoch and Philosophy of History in Our Time, Revisited) as a representative of bottom-up temporality, as Collingwood obviously placed not a little emphasis upon the personal experience of time and history — we could even call this an experiential view of history. From the point of view of reconstructing history on the basis of a priori imagination, micro-temporality drives the structures of history from the inside out and from the bottom up.

Ecological temporality would endeavor to show that Braudel’s ephemeral events do not disappear into oblivion, but are passed upward into ever greater temporal structures, while at the same time showing that the great structures of history, the anonymous forces that silently, facelessly move the world forward trickle down into ordinary experience and in this way drive the process of history forward.

The science of the struggle for existence (cf. the Ernst Haeckel quote in Metaphysical Ecology) placed in the context of metaphysical ecology is one way in which we can delineate the interactions between ecological levels that extend the temporal web both from the top down and the bottom up.

The struggle for existence that Haeckel had in mind, and that which has usually preoccupied ecology in the narrow, biological sense, is that of the micro-system over the duration of micro-temporality. This immediately suggests struggles that take place at the level of the meso-, exo-, macro-, and metaphysical levels of ecology. At the level of micro-systems, individual organisms struggle to exist on a time scale relevant to the life and death of individual organisms — i.e., micro-temporality. At the level of meso-systems, communities of organisms struggle to exist — i.e., the struggle within populations and among distinct populations. On the level of exo-systems, populations in different regions struggle to exist, and while on a strictly biological level this involves but little participation of the individual, at the level of global industrial civilization, with distinct populations competing for finite resources around the globe, this struggle comes into its own. On these basis we can extrapolate further struggles, some of which are struggles for existence yet to come as civilization becomes more comprehensive and thus acts at a level of augmented agency.

These are themes that invite treatment at a much greater level of detail and therefore require a systematic effort. At the moment I find that my mind is not up to the task, so I will leave further elaboration to another day.

One more item — I remembered another relevant quote, this from Merleau-Ponty:

“The feeling for eternity is a hypocritical one, for eternity feeds on time. The fountain retains its identity only because of the continuous pressure of water. Eternity is the time that belongs to dreaming, and the dream refers back to waking life, from which it borrows all its structures. Of what nature, then, is that waking time in which eternity takes root?”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of perception, p. 423 in the Humanities Press edition, all of Part Three, Chapter 2, “Temporality” is relevant here

It is not at all surprising to find that Merleau-Ponty, who stands within the phenomenological tradition, holds a more-or-less bottom-up perspective on the structure of time, and in a form that is almost the perfect contradiction of Plato’s characterization of time as the “moving image of eternity.” In Ecological Temporality I cited Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, as a paradigmatic representative of bottom-up time chains, and Plato as a representative of top-down time chains. (Interestingly, Merleau-Ponty writes in terms of “the feeling of eternity,” which is perhaps intended as a response to Freud’s visiting of that theme, something that I have discussed in several posts, i.e., Algorithms of Ecstasy)

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Some time ago in Human Nature I discussed concepts of human nature in Thucydides, Sartre, and John Stuart Mill. I find myself returning time and again to the theme of human nature, as, for example, a couple of months ago when I wrote in Philosophy Teaching by Examples, “even when an idea has been as rigorously disproved as it is possible for an idea to be disproved by history, even a disgraced and defeated idea is never put out of historical action entirely if it has some ongoing basis in human nature or in the perennial character of human affairs.”

Practical philosophers — those that Heilbronner famously called The Worldly Philosophers — philosophical historians like Thucydides, and thoughtful men of all times have struggled with the maddeningly elusive nature of human nature, which at times seems so simple and so obvious, while at other times it seems incapable of definition and the very idea an affront to human freedom. In purely philosophical contexts we can do without human nature (as, for example, Sartre’s rejection of the very idea of human nature in his thick ontological treatise Being and Nothingness), but when we turn to the ordinary business of life, and to individuals making history with their peers from the “bottom up” as it were, it is difficult to avoid invoking human nature. However, I have noticed that in my many posts on economics I have not made any systematic attempt to given an explication of human nature in an economic context. And this is exactly what Homo economicus is, or is supposed to be: human nature in an economic context. This is a necessarily abstract perspective, and no one ought to mistake an abstraction for the real thing, except we know that the very idea of Homo economicus gets people rather worked up.

Previously in On the Very Idea of a “Reason of Humanity” and Amending Self-Interest and Addendum to “Technical Ecstasy” I wrote about the economic abstraction of homo economicus. The very idea of of homo economicus seems to provoke those who have taken a set against economic reductionism, or, if you will, the economic interpretation of history. Like invoking the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith, one can expect a predictable reaction against invoking homo economicus.

A strong formulation of homo economicus would be the claim that human nature is simply identical with homo economicus. To say that human nature is nothing but those properties ascribed to homo economicus — a self-interested maximizer of surplus value — is clearly a form of economic reductionism. A weak formulation of homo economicus would be the claim that human nature is sometimes identical with homo economicus. It is difficult to imagine a rational way to reject this weak thesis.

The weak formulation of the thesis of Homo economicus is consistent with weak formulations of radically different conceptions of human nature, because if human nature can embody a given character at one moment while embodying a distinct character at another moment, there is no reason that episodes of self-interest can be interspersed with episodes of altruism. Thus the weak formulation of homo economicus is simply the claim that human beings are sometimes selfish, and this is obviously true. Therefore it would be more interesting to consider the luke-warm formulation of homo economicus, which would be that human nature is mostly identical to homo economicus, which is to say that homo economicus describes the rule, and, while acknowledging exceptions to the rule, also acknowledges that exceptions are sufficiently rare to be exceptions.

But this discussion already assumes too much, as though we already know what human nature is, what what homo economicus is. We do not know, and we must go much deeper into the structure of civilization as well as into the life of the individual in order to make sense of the forces that shape civilizations and individuals alike. In the spirit of integral ecology we can exapt the biological ideas of ontogeny and phylogeny for the explication of socio-economic categories. Ontogeny gives us the life of the individual, while phylogeny gives us the structure of the civilization in which the individual emerges, and, as is to be expected, the two do not exist in isolation, but each shapes the other.

In Human Nature and the Human Condition I attempted to demonstrate the interplay of the ontogeny and phylogeny of human nature in terms of the development of the individual within particular historical circumstances. The theses I formulated there can be summarized thus:

Human nature is a function of the human condition.
The human condition is a function of the longue durée.
Therefore, human nature is a function of the longue durée.
The longue durée endures, but is not permanent.
Therefore, human nature endures, but is not permanent.
Human nature, as a function of the longue durée, reflects the paradigm of integral history within which it takes shape.

While integral history is the ultimate framework in which human experience (and therefore human nature) can be set, the paradigms of integral history — the pre-human, the nomadic, the agricultural, and the industrial, to date — are the most powerful and pervasive forces shaping human nature at any one moment of history, there are other powerful and pervasive forces that expressed differently and emerge differently in history.

From these two classes of structural forces that shape individuals and their histories — the three historical paradigms of social organization and the four conceptions of history — there follows a typology of twelve possibilities. For example, within the paradigms of integral history, there are conceptions of the nature of human-being-in-the-world based on our presumed agency (or lack therefore) which I called conceptions of history. Conceptions of history represent perennial expressions of human self-understanding, and they also represent the longue durée to an even greater degree than the paradigms of integral history, because the perennial possibilities of self-understanding of our place in nature transcend the paradigms of integral history. There are cataclysmic, naturalistic, political, and eschatological conceptions of human agency alike in nomadic, agricultural, and industrialized societies.

Both the economic institutions of civilizational paradigms — i.e., how the greater part of the people of any era of history make a life for themselves, whether by hunting and gathering, or by farming, or by industrial labor — and the self-understanding of one’s place in the world, which means one’s self-understanding of one’s place within the civilizational paradigm of one’s time, are forces of the longue durée that shape lives, and in shaping individual lives, also shape entire societies.

This much is obvious. What is less obvious and more interesting is how these classes of structural forces manifest themselves in history. Historical paradigms of social organization are primarily phylogenetic forces, whereas conceptions of history are primarily ontogenic forces. Individuals, whether by choice or by temperament, have an understanding of their place in the world, which is a conception of whatever agency they possess or fail to possess, and they bring this understanding to the life that they make for themselves within the paradigm of socio-economic organization, which is a function not of the individual and individual development but rather of community and social development.

Human nature as embodied in the individual person has all the instability of individual temperament: it varies from individual to individual, and so the individual may embody a conception of human nature at odds with his time. As And, moreover, as individual variation is the basis of natural selection — without which there would be no evolution, therefore no human beings, therefore no human nature — it is to be expected that embodied human nature varies across individuals. What aspects of variable human temperament are actualized by or stifled by the socio-economic context in which the individual emerges is another matter. While the individual varies, the social context in which the individual makes his life and livelihood, imposes a socio-economic unity even upon diverse temperaments.

These individual and social forces, ontogenic and phylogenetic forces, develop in parallel in a relationship of coevolution. A particular sense of human agency will foster the development of a particular socio-economic paradigm, while a particular paradigm of socio-economic organization will foster a particular sense of human agency among the members of a society so organized. There can be exceptions to each — societies that fail to respond to the sense of agency entertained by its members, and individuals who fail to conform in their sense of agency with the society of which they are a member — which are not counter-examples to the rule in the sense of denying the existence of the rule.

The fortunes of industrialized civilization rise of fall on the strength of the economy, in all its complexity, reaching from the daily transactions of the individual person to the highest dealings of the councils of state. The centrality of the economy to the mature institutions of industrialized civilization means that homo economicus is made central to the mature institutions of industrialized civilization, and this pervasive economic pressure shapes individuals who live within these circumstances. Under the industrial paradigm, then, homo economicus becomes human nature, because human nature is a function of the longue durée that reflects the paradigm of integral history within which it takes shape.

Ontogeny — the development of the individual’s sense of agency — and phylogeny — the development of socio-economic institutions by which individuals within a society live — are simply the individual and his circumstances, each of which embody a certain conception of human nature, and even of homo economicus (since economic man must differ from one economic system to another). The dialectic of the individual in society seeks a resolution between the individual’s development of a human nature, in the sense of his or her agency, and society’s development of human nature, in the sense of established ways of life. This resolution is often attended by conflict, as matters of such import are rarely settled peacefully. The individual may fight against an imposed way of life, and a society will fight to make the individual conform to its way of life. This conflict can be destructive, or it can be the source of creative tension.

In what Joseph Campbell called the Economic Interpretation of History, homo economicus is the central agent. An alternative formulation to this would be to say that all agents are ultimately reducible to homo economicus. This is a particularly telling formulation, since it puts us in mind of the passage from Thucydides that I have quoted in several posts (Relative Poverty, among them), such that:

War takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.

It is not only war, but any hardship that takes away the easy supply of daily wants, that brings men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. War can be a rough master, to be sure, but the economy itself can prove a rough master, or a natural disaster, or any other interruption in the human condition. Hardship is also a source of conflict, and it too can be destructive or a source of creative tension.

As civilization matures and becomes more comprehensive, more pervasive, more all-encompassing, interruptions to the easy supply of daily wants become all the more noticeable, partly because daily wants have escalated in industrialized civilization many orders of magnitude beyond the minimal needs of life, and partly because the interruptions because less frequent and therefore more unusual. Such a mature civilization, to the degree that it regiments life, which increases over time as institutions mature, forecloses on possibilities for its members. This means not only conflict, but an increasing tension which can spur greater destructiveness or greater creative tension. Mature civilizations that survive the destructive forces created by regimentation in conflict with individual freedom and possibility, give rise to the great monuments of higher civilization. This comes about through escalating creative tension.

Our industrialized civilization today has clearly embodied profound conflicts between individuals in their societies as well as between societies. In the twentieth century it become a real possibility that civilization could commit suicide. While we have thus far avoided civilizational suicide, we have not avoided destructive conflict. It could be argued that, in the twentieth century, social tensions were primarily resolved through destructive release of tension, which would account for the world wars over the past hundred years, as well as the failure of industrialized civilization to yet attain to the achievements of higher civilization. However, it could also be argued that the unique place of homo economicus within the industrial paradigm militates against the emergence of higher civilization.

Can a civilizational paradigm that makes economic activity central, and therefore places homo economicus at the center of its conception of life, transcend these imperatives and achieve greatness in other areas of endeavor? I would argue that it is indeed possible, but not yet actual. The great civilizations of the agricultural paradigm placed the warrior at their center, and made warfare the central activity, and yet from this violent context the great achievements of classical civilization emerged. For this to occur within the industrial paradigm may require the axialization of the industrial paradigm, and this is still come centuries in the future.

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I realize, of course, that I have not done justice to my topic — the relation of human nature to homo economicus — but hopefully I have at least begun a sketch of how the two are interrelated. Improved formulations can only follow from further meditation on this difficult and large question.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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I have written several posts on human nature, such as it is (or isn’t), and even have human nature as a category. In a post simply titled Human Nature I considered the various views of Thucydides, Sartre, and John Stuart Mill. There I quoted several passages of Thucydides that are classic statements on human nature, I considered Sartre’s explicit skepticism, such that “there is no human nature that we can take as foundational,” and lastly I discussed Mill’s organic metaphor in which he compared human nature to a tree, “which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides.” More recently in Agents and Sufferants I returned to Thucydides to consider human nature in terms of its agency.

Yet more recently I have learned that distinguished anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has written a short book on human nature, The Western Illusion of Human Nature, with the wonderful subtitle, with reflections on the long history of hierarchy, equality and the sublimation of anarchy in the West, and comparative notes on other conceptions of the human condition. I don’t have a copy of this yet, so I am at the mercy of the reviews. The title makes it sound as though Sahlins is a human nature skeptic as thorough as Sartre, but a review says that Sahlins rejects a Hobbesian account of human nature as savage and violent in favor of, “the one truly universal character of human sociality: namely, symbolically constructed kinship relations.” I hope to read the book for myself, but this encounter with another suggestion of human nature skepticism provoked me to further thought.

In addition to several posts about human nature I have also repeatedly quoted a line from Marx, that is one of my favorites:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph

This Marxian reference to men making their own history ties in with my use of Ortega y Gasset’s line — Man has not an essence but a history — that I quoted in my Human Nature post. I think Marx would have agreed with this. Both Marx and Ortega y Gasset place man within history, and make human nature, if there is any, a function of history.

I realized a couple of days ago that one way to express this would be to say that human nature is a function of the human condition. And the human condition in turn is an historical reality. Thus we could paraphrase Marx as follows:

“Men make themselves, but they do not make themselves as they please; they do not make themselves under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Further, we can observe that the human condition is a function of the longue durée. The longue durée, in turn, is an historical reality, or, rather, a way of looking at history. More importantly, the longue durée endures, but it is not permanent. The apparent rigidity of human nature — which for some recommends the idea, while for others is a reason to reject it — is a function of the human perspective. Given the perspective of the longue durée, human nature is not fixed, but is a function of the changing human condition. However, the human condition changes so slowly that from the perspective of the individual human being, it appears fixed and stable.

The human condition does change, and sometimes it changes dramatically. In The Atomic Bazaar: Dispatches from the Underground World of Nuclear Trafficking, which I just discussed a couple of days ago in The Poor Man’s Bomb, author William Langewiesche wrote, “The nuclearization of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed.” (p. 13) I agree with this. The human condition was changed with the advent of nuclearization (which Karl Jaspers called, “the new fact”), because it represents the practical possibility of the suicide at least of civilization, and perhaps also of our species. This is an important development, and it is a changed aspect of the human condition that will, over the longue durée, result in a changed human nature.

In several posts in which I have distinguished what I have called the divisions of integral history, I have divided history not according to the customary distinctions of Western historiography, but according to primarily demographic concerns, based upon how the bulk of the human species lives. Another way to phrase this would be to say that the human condition was initially that of hunter-gatherers under the nomadic paradigm, which was followed by a human condition of subsistence farming under the agricultural paradigm, and has now become a human condition of mass industrial employment under the industrial paradigm. There is a sense, then, in which each of these primary divisions in the human condition would correspond with a human nature that emerges from these conditions.

Human nature, of course, even when conceived as a function of the human condition, is not monolithic. Small, incremental changes — changes like nuclearization — will make their contribution to a human nature substantially shaped by the institutions of industrialized society. There is room for variation, and even for incommensurable individuals existing within the same paradigm. The world, for all that it has shrunk, is still a very big place, and admits of individual and regional variation as certainly as it admits of temporal variation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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blog statistics

Coincidentally, on this one year anniversary total hits passed 30,000. Some sites get as many hits in a day or an hour, but it is more than I expected.

One year ago, on Wednesday 05 November 2008, I began this blog with the post Opening Reflection. In that opening reflection I announced my intention to see contemporary events through the prism of geopolitics, and geopolitics in turn through the prism of ideas. While I have attempted to do this, and have on occasion successfully tied these together, I also made no rigorous effort to contain myself within self-imposed boundaries.

Like an intellectual Epicurean, I have followed my tastes and inclinations quite to the exclusion of any systematic program of comment, sampling whatever fare attracted me. I gravitate to the ideas I most enjoy, for it is with the ideas that I most enjoy that I feel most free and can write spontaneously. Most of the pieces I have posted have been more or less spontaneous productions of the day. A few I labored over for several days, but that was the exception. Sufficient unto the day has been the inspiration thereof.

It is only recently that I have learned of a wonderful quote from Fernand Braudel, the great French historian of the longue durée and representative of the Annales School of historiography:

Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.

Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 2, Part Three: Event, Politics and People, p. 901

While this passage does not appear in the abridged version, the abridged version does include much that reflects this point of view. Braudel returns time and again, in detail and in general overview, to his structuralist orientation. There is a sense in which Braudel’s approach to history is something genuinely new, a novel way to understand human experience. Braudel is no less a methodological naturalist than Thucydides, but his method is nevertheless profoundly distinct from that of Thucydides, though not in a sense in which he seeks to confront and overturn the tradition.

This passage from Braudel also reflects, more and more, my own point of view on history. The political events of the day, upon which I had primarily intended to comment in this forum, seem to me to progressively embody the ephemera of history. I was always committed to understanding the world in terms of the big picture, in terms of the longue durée; the experience of writing this blog has only confirmed me in this prejudice. The passing events of the day are as meaningless as the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave unless they are understood to be shadows of Forms that can be apprehended only by turning away from the fleeting shadows and looking into the blinding light of the ideal.

While I have had very few readers compared to those blogs that are sufficiently popular to have become news in and of themselves, I have nevertheless had more viewers than I expected; far more people have read something here than have ever picked up a copy of one of my books. And while most people who visit probably don’t read much, or in great detail, I do know that I have had a few visitors who have read me quite carefully, as I have received some perceptive comments (and criticism) over the past year. To all who have visited this forum, thank you.

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