Saturday


Ribera painted several imaginary portraits of ancient philosophers.

Protagoras of Abdera, by Jusepe de Ribera

In the spirit of my Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being, in which I took a short passage from Plato and extrapolated it beyond its originally intended scope, I would like to take a famous line from Protagoras and also extrapolate this beyond its originally intended scope. The passage from Protagoras I have in mind is his most famous bon mot:

“Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.”

…and in the original Greek…

“πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἔστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν δὲ μὲν οντῶν ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὠς οὐκ ἔστιν”

Presocratic scholarship has focused on the relativism of Protagoras’ μέτρον, especially in comparison to the strong realism of Plato, but I don’t take the two to be mutually exclusive. On the contrary, I think we can better understand Plato through Protagoras and Protagoras through Plato.

Firstly, the Protagorean dictum reveals at once both the inherent naturalism of Greek philosophy, which is the spirit that continues to motivate the western philosophical tradition (which Bertrand Russell once commented is all, essentially, Greek philosophy), and the ontologizing nature of Greek thought, which is another persistent theme of western philosophy, though less often noticed than the naturalistic theme. Plato, despite his otherworldly realism, is part of this inherent naturalism of Greek philosophy, which in our own day has become explicitly naturalistic. Indeed, Greek philosophy since ancient Greece might be characterized as the convergence upon a fully naturalistic conception of the world, though this has been a long and bumpy road.

The naturalism of Greek thought, in turn, points to the proto-scientific character of Greek philosophy. The closest approximation to modern scientific thought prior to the scientific revolution is to be found in works such as Archimedes’ Statics and Eratosthenes of Cyrene’s estimate of the diameter of the earth. If these examples are not already fully scientific inquiries, they are at least proto-science, from which a fully scientific method might have emerged under different historical conditions.

Plato and Protagoras were both guilty of a certain degree of mysticism, but strong traces of the scientific naturalism of Greek thought is expressed in their work. Protagoras’ μέτρον in particular can be understood as an early step in the direction of quantificational concepts. Quantification is central to scientific thought (in my podcast The Cosmic Archipelago, Part II, I offered a variation on the familiar Cartesian theme of cogito, ergo sum, suggesting that, from the perspective of science, we could say I measure, therefore I am), and when we think of quantification we think of measurement in the sense of gradations on a standard scale. However, the most fundamental form of quantification is revealed by counting, and counting is essentially the determination whether something exists or not. Thus the Protagorean μέτρον — specifically, the things that are, that they are, and the things that are not, that they are not — is a quantificational schema for determining existence relative to a human observer. Protagoras’ μέτρον is a postulate of counting, and without counting there would be no mathematicized natural science.

All scientific knowledge as we know it is human scientific knowledge, and all of it is therefore anthropocentric in a way that is not necessarily a distortion. For human beings to have knowledge of the world in which they find themselves, they must have knowledge that the human mind can assimilate. Our epistemic concepts are the framework we have erected in order to make sense of the world, and these concepts are human creations. That does not mean that they are wrong, even if they have been frequently misleading. The pyrrhonian skeptic exploits this human, all-too-human weakness in our knowledge, claiming that because our concepts are imperfect, no knowledge whatsoever is possible. This is a strawman argument. Knowledge is possible, but it is human knowledge. Protagoras made this explicit. (This is one of the themes of my Cosmic Archipelago series.)

Taking Plato and Protagoras together — that is, taking Plato’s definition of being and Protagoras’ doctrine of measure — we probably come closer to the originally intended meaning of both Plato and Protagoras than if we treat them in isolation, a fortiori if we treat them as antagonists. Plato’s definition of being — the power to affect or be affected — and Protagoras’ dictum — that man is the measure of all things, which we can take to mean that quantification begins with a human observer — naturally coincide when the power to affect or be affected is understood relative to the human power to affect or be affected.

Since human knowledge begins with a human observer and human experience, knowledge necessarily also follows from that which affects a human being or that which a human being can effect. The role of experimentation in science since the scientific revolution takes this ontological interaction of affecting and being affected, makes it systematic, and derives all natural knowledge from this principle. Human beings formulate scientific experiments, and in so doing affect the world in building an experimental apparatus and running the experiment. The experiment, in turn, affects human beings as the scientist observes the experiment running and records how it affects him, i.e., what he observers in the world as a result of his intervention in the course of events.

Plato and Protagoras taken together as establishing an initial ontological basis for quantification lay the metaphysical groundwork for scientific naturalism, even if neither philosopher was a scientific naturalist in the strict sense.

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I have previously discussed Protagoras’ μέτρον in Ontological Ruminations: Six Protagorean Propositions on the Nature of Man and the World and A Non-Constructive World.

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Friday


measuring earth

Traditional units of measure

Quite some time ago in Linguistic Rationalization I discussed how the adoption of the metric system throughout much of the world meant the loss of traditional measuring systems that were intrinsic to the life of the people, part of the local technology of living, as it were. In that post I wrote:

“The gains that were derived from the standardization of weights and measures… did not come without a cost. Traditional weights and measures were central to the lives and the localities from which they emerged. These local systems of weights and measures were, until they were obliterated by the introduction of the metric system, a large part of local culture. With the metric system supplanting these traditional weights and measures, the traditional culture of which they were a part was dealt a decisive blow. This was not the kind of objection that men of the Enlightenment would have paused over, but with our experience of subsequent history it is the kind of thing that we think of today.”

Perhaps it is not the kind of thing many think of today; most people do not mourn the loss of traditional systems of measurement, but it should be recalled that these traditional systems of measurement were not arbitrary — they were based on the typical experience of individuals in the certain milieu, and they reflected the life and economy of a people, who measured the things that they needed to measure.

In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, a common visual metaphor submitted souls to the rigors of weights and measures.

In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, a common visual metaphor submitted souls to the rigors of weights and measures.

It is often noted that languages have an immediate relation to the life of a people — the most common example cited is that of the number of words for snow in the languages of the native peoples of the far north. Weights and measures — in a sense, the language of commerce — also reflect the life of a people in the same immediate way as their vocabulary. Language and measurement are linked: much of the earliest writing preserved from the Fertile Crescent consists of simple accounting of warehouse stores.

sumerian tablet

A particular example can illustrate what I have in mind. It is common to give the measurement of horses in hands. The hand as as unit of measurement has been standardized as four inches, but it is obvious that the origins of the unit is derived from a human hand. Everyone has an admittedly vague idea of the average size of a human hand, and this gives an anthropocentric measurement of horses, which have been crucial to many if not most human economies. The unit of a hand is intuitive and practical, and it continues to be used by individuals who work with horses. It is, indeed, part of the “lore” of horsemanship. Many traditional units of measurement are like this: derived from the human body — as Pythagoras said, man is the measure of all things — they are intuitive and part of the lore of a tradition. To replace these traditional units has a certain economic rationale, but there is a loss if that replacement is successful. More often (as in measuring horses today), both traditional and SI units are employed.

horse-hands

Units of measure unique to a discipline

One response to the loss of traditional units is to define new units in terms of a system of weights and measures — today, usually the metric system — which reflect the particular concerns of a particular discipline. Having a unit of measurement peculiar to a discipline creates a jargon peculiar to a discipline, which is not necessarily a good thing. However, a unit of measurement unique to a discipline makes it possible to think in terms peculiar to the discipline. This “thinking one’s way into” some mode of thought is probably insufficiently appreciated, but it it quite common in the sciences. There are, for example, many different units that are used to measure energy. In principle, only one unit is necessary, and all units of measuring energy can be given a metric equivalent today, but it is not unusual for the energy of a furnace to be measured in BTUs while the energy of a particle accelerator is measured in electronvolts (eV).

For a science of civilization there must be quantifiable measurements, and quantifiable measurements imply a unit of measure. It is a relatively simple matter to employ (or, if you like, to exapt) existing units of measurement for an unanticipated field of research, but it is also possible to formulate new units of measurement specific to a scientific research program — units that are explicitly conceived and applied with the peculiar object of study of the science in view. It is arguable that the introduction of a unit of measurement specific to civilization would contribute to the formulation of a conceptual framework that allows one to think in terms of civilization in a way not possible, for example, in the borrowed terminology of historiography or some other discipline.

Thinking our way into civilization

With this in mind, I would like to suggest the possibility of a unit of time specific to civilization. We already have terms for ten years (a decade), a hundred years (a century), and a thousand years (a millennium), so that it would make sense to employ a metric of years for the quantification of civilization. The basic unit of time in the metric system is the second, and we can of course define the year in terms of the number of seconds in a year. The measurement of time in terms of a year derives from natural cosmological cycles, like the measurement of time in terms of days. With the increase in the precision of atomic clocks, it became necessary to abandon the calibration of the second in terms of celestial events, and this calibration is now done in terms of nuclear physics. Nevertheless, the year, like the day, remains an anthropocentric unit of time that we all understand and that we are likely to continue to use.

Suppose we posit a period of a thousand years as the basic temporal unit for the measurement of civilization, and we call this unit the chronom. In other words, suppose we think of civilization in increments of 1,000 years. In the spirit of a decimal system we can define a series of units derived from the chronom by powers of ten. The chronom is 1,000 years or 103 years; 1 centichronom is 100 or 102 years (a century), 1 decichronom is 10 years or 101 years (a decade), and 1 millichronom is 1.0 year or 100 years. In other other direction, in increasing size, 1 decachronom is 10 chronom or 10,000 years (104 years), 1 hectochronom is 100 chronom or 100,000 years (105 years), 1 kilochronom is 1,000 chronom or 1,000,000 years (106 years or 1.0 Ma, or mega-annum), and thus we have arrived at the familiar motif of a million year old supercivilization. Continuing upward we eventually would come to the megachronom, which is 1,000,000 chronom or 109 years or 1.0 Ga., i.e., giga-annum, at which point we reach the billion year old supercivilizations discussed by Ray Norris (cf. How old is ET?).

Defamiliarizing civilization

From such a starting point — and I am not suggesting that what I have written above should be the starting point; I have only given an illustration to suggest to the reader what might be possible — it would be possible to extrapolate further coherent units of measure. We would want to do so in terms of non-anthropocentric units, and, moreover, non-geocentric units. While the metric system is a great improvement (in terms of the standardization of scientific practice) over traditional units of measure, it is still a geocentric unit of measure (albeit appealing to geocentrism in an extended sense).

Traditional units of measurement were parochial; the metric system was based on the Earth itself, and so not unique to any nation-state, but still local in a cosmological sense. If we were to extrapolate a metric for civilization according to constants of nature (like the speed of light, or some property of matter such as now exploited by atomic clocks), we would begin to formulate a non-anthropocentric set of units for civilization. A temporal metric for the quantitative study of civilization suggests the possibility of also having a spatial metric for the quantitative study of civilization. For example, a unit of space could be defined that is the area covered by light traveling for 1 chronom. A sphere with a radius of one light year would entirely contain a civilization confined to the region of its star. That could be a useful metric for spacefaring civilizations.

What would be the benefit of such a system to quantify civilization? As I noted above, a system of measurement unique to a discipline allows us to think in terms of the discipline. Units of measurement for the quantification of civilization would allow us to think our way into civilization, and so possibly to avoid some of the traditional prejudices of historiographical thinking which have dominated thinking about civilization so far. Moreover, a non-anthropocentric system of civilization metrics would allow us to think our way into a non-anthropocentric metric for civilization, which would better enable us to recognize other civilizations when we have the opportunity to seek them out.

What I am suggesting here is a process of defamiliarization by way of scientific metrics to take the measure of something so familiar — human civilization — that it is difficult for us to think of it in objective terms. Previously in Kierkegaard and Russell on Rigor I discussed how a defamiliarizing process can be a constituent of rigorous thought. In so far as we aspire to the study of civilization as a rigorous science, the defamiliarization of a scientific set of metrics for quantifying civilization can be a part of that effort.

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Linguistic Rationalization

14 October 2009

Wednesday


jasper-johns-three-flags

There is an insufficient appreciation of the extent to which the US and its characteristic institutions are relics of the Enlightenment. I have commented previously that US leaders no longer believe in the ideals of the Enlightenment, and this may be one of the reasons that the political legacy of the Enlightenment goes largely unrecognized. But the fact remains that the institutions of the US constitute the most systematic and successful attempt to put into practice the ideals of the Enlightenment, and this is one of the sources of American exceptionalism.

The smile of the Enlightenment: a self portrait of Maurice Quentin de La Tour

The smile of the Enlightenment: a self portrait of Maurice Quentin de La Tour

But no practice fully or absolutely embodies the theory of which it is an attempted realization, and so too the US and its institutions constitute an incomplete realization of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was not exhausted by its political ideals, but also spawned ideals throughout social, economic, religious, and philosophical thought. The US has realized some, but not all, of the political ideals of the Enlightenment, but few of the other ideals of the Enlightenment found application in the institutions of the US, however important these ideals were in the lives of the founders.

We all know (or should know by now) that from the American perspective, the American Revolution was the first great political event of the Enlightenment, while from the European perspective the American Revolution was a sideshow while the French Revolution was the main event. Again, from the American Perspective the French Revolution was a glorious failure and an object lesson that ended in blood and suffering and eventually the tyranny of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon royal family. But France, whatever its political troubles, did make one lasting shift due to the Enlightenment, and that was its conversion to the metric system.

metric-english

Again, as we all know, the US does not use the metric system. Specialists use it for special purposes, and people who work on Japanese and German cars have wrench sets available in metric sizes, but the mechanics have not thrown away their standard wrenches. The US is nearly isolated internationally in its failure to adopt the metric system. An odd exception along with the US is Burma.

World map showing dates at which the metric system was adopted.

World map showing dates at which the metric system was adopted.

There is a sense in which the metric system is one of those great ideas of Enlightenment utopianism and universalism, like the idea of a universal language such as Esperanto (of which Carnap was an enthusiast, but of which Wittgenstein said, “Esperanto. The feeling of disgust we get if we utter an invented word with invented derivative syllables.”). What makes the metric system different from other pie-in-the-sky universalist fantasies is that it was actually adopted and is in use throughout most of the world today.

Europe once had almost as many weights and measures as there were cities and towns. Many of these weights and measures were brought to the Americas along with the languages and political traditions of the immigrating Europeans. The Constitution gave the US Congress the power to “fix the Standard of Weights and Measures” but the Congress did not carry out the kind of wholesale rationalization that was embodied in the metric system. The greatest experiment in the practical application of Enlightenment principles — the United States itself — was to do without the advantages of the Enlightenment’s system of weights and measures.

While in one sense the metric system is a utopian idea, it is also an idea with profound practical economic consequences. The standardization of weights and measures across political boundaries eases trade to a remarkable degree. It is the same logic that was behind the creation of the Euro, a common currency for the European Union (the standardization of currency). The gains that were derived from the standardization of weights and measures, however, did not come without a cost. Traditional weights and measures were central to the lives and the localities from which they emerged. These local systems of weights and measures were, until they were obliterated by the introduction of the metric system, a large part of local culture. With the metric system supplanting these traditional weights and measures, the traditional culture of which they were a part was dealt a decisive blow. This was not the kind of objection that men of the Enlightenment would have paused over, but with our experience of subsequent history it is the kind of thing that we think of today.

If the standardization of weights and measures had the profound effect that it had on commerce, imagine the economic gains that could be realized from the standardization of language. If one language came to dominate the world in the way that the metric system dominates the world today, there would be a great facilitation of commerce. But the very idea of embarking on a program to replace all the world’s languages with a single language — call it linguistic rationalization, if you like — not only sounds like a utopian fantasy, but in many quarters would be greeted with nothing less than horror. Anthropologists regularly inform us how many of the world’s languages are being lost, and with the loss of every language the world permanently loses part of its cultural heritage.

This is true. It is also true that the world lost a lot of its cultural heritage when the metric system supplanted local systems of weights and measures. It could be argued that while the cultural loss was permanent, or nearly permanent (there are probably records of former systems of measurement), we did not substantially lose cultural diversity as a result. It could also be argued that weights and measures are not as central to cultural life as is language, and that that is why weights and measures were relatively easily converted to the metric system.

Similar arguments, mutatis mutandis, could be made regarding language. A comprehensive program could be undertaken to document all the world’s remaining languages before they were extirpated from general use and replaced with a linguistic rationalization that would facilitate commerce to a remarkable degree. Suppose it could be shown that such a program would make the world wealthier to some definite degree — say it would account for an additional two percent of annual growth in the world economy in perpetuity — can you imagine anyone suggesting such a proposal?

We should consider counter-factual scenarios like this when we meditate on the legacy of the Enlightenment, which, from this perspective, becomes more complex, and therefore more interesting.

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