Four Species of Big History

In Rational Reconstructions of Time I characterized Big History as the culmination, the natural teleology, as it were, of scientific historiography.

While in several posts I have attempted to analyze the positivistic outlook of much contemporary science, which views philosophy like a vampire views garlic and holy water, we all know that the absence of an explicit and acknowledged metaphysic virtually guarantees an implicit and hidden metaphysic. There is a considerable philosophical literature on the metaphysical presuppositions of science; I have written about this also, and in Reduction, Emergence, Supervenience I distinguished between four phases of scientific metaphysics: the eliminativist, the reductionist, the emergentist, and the supervenientist (although when I wrote that post I hadn’t yet fully distinguished eliminativism as a scientific metaphysic).

In so far as Big History constitutes the culmination of scientific historiography, Big History is history informed by the metaphysical presuppositions of natural science. If, then, we take my four divisions of scientific metaphysics as the possible forms that these metaphysical presuppositions can take, we have the four metaphysical forms that Big History can take: eliminativist big history, reductionist big history, emergentist big history, and supervenientist big history. I will consider each of these possibilities in turn.

Already in Reduction, Emergence, Supervenience, in a section titled “Reduction, emergence, and supervenience as philosophies of history,” I began an explicit outline of scientific historiography as founded on these scientific metaphysics:

● Eliminativist Historiography Human history is illusory and should be eliminated as a category of thought; everything history states that is true can be better and exhaustively expressed in a scientific language that makes no use of folk historiography. Therefore we can substitute scientific explanations for historical explanation without change in truth or loss of truth. It would be sufficient to provide a total description of the physics of the past without any overlay of human meanings or values.

● Reductionist Historiography Human history is nothing but natural history, or the history of the world as related by science (which is not necessarily the same thing as natural history). If human meanings and values seem to play a constitutive role in history (or even human consciousness, in the form of making conscious choices), this is merely illusory, an error the follows from human limitations.

● Emergentist Historiography Human history is a whole that emerges from natural history that possesses unique properties as a whole that are not attributable to natural historical processes.

● Supervenient Historiography Human history supervenes on natural history, or the history of the world as related by science. In other words, there can be no change in human history without there being a subvening change in natural history. The A-properties of history supervene upon the B-properties of scientifically delineated history.

The above is a modified version of what I wrote in my earlier post.


Eliminativist Big History

What would be eliminated in a eliminativist big history? Presumably the concepts and categories of folk historiography, as those positivist enthusiasts of eliminativism generally focused on eliminating “folk” concepts (cf. Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress). What are the folk concepts of historiography? Folk concepts of historiography would probably include all or most of the factors highlighted by personalism in history, i.e., concepts of individual human agency, which also might be identified with folk psychology: motivation, intention, purpose, meaning, value, and so on. A scientific historiography would also presumably seek to eliminate all the folk concepts still present in the special sciences made use of by scientific historiography.

How would this play out in Big History? Big History pursued as a form of metaphysical reductionism would resemble a spare and stripped-down scientific historiography more than any other metaphysical formulation under consideration here. The only novel element would be treating the whole history of the universe in these terms of scientific historiography, instead of restricting the scope of such a scientific historiographical enterprise.

Indeed, Otto Neurath, one of the movers and shakers of the Vienna Circle, already foresaw such a reductionist Big History, which he called “Cosmic History”:

“…we may look at all sciences as dovetailed to such a degree that we may regard them as parts of one science which deals with stars, Milky Ways, earth, plants, animals, human beings, forests, natural regions, tribes, and nations — in short, a comprehensive cosmic history would be the result of such an agglomeration… Cosmic history would, as far as we are using a Universal Jargon throughout all branches of research, contain the same statements as our unified science. The language of our Encyclopedia may, therefore, be regarded as a typical language of history. There is no conflict between physicalism and this program of cosmic history.”

Otto Neurath, Foundations of the Social Sciences, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1970 (originally published 1944), p. 9

For Neurath to assert that, “There is no conflict between physicalism and this program of cosmic history,” is to say that history can be subsumed under the physicalism of the Encyclopedia of Unified Science in which the above-quoted monograph appeared, and this means that history could be reduced to protocol sentences of physics. While most historians would, I think, not find this to be congenial, it is remarkable that Neurath conceived this cosmic history as part of the program of unified science, and that it resembles so closely the ambition of Big History.


Reductionist Big History

Reductionism usually takes the form of reducing some higher-level, more comprehensive (or more complex) state-of-affairs to a lower-level, less comprehensive (or less complex) state of affairs; without denying the reality of the higher-level state-of-affairs, but also denying the latter metaphysical primacy. A good example of this is Hilbert’s philosophy of mathematics, which sought to preserve Cantor’s set theory and transfinite numbers, but only by making a distinction between real and ideal mathematics, consigning Cantor to the latter and reserving the former for quasi-constructivist, proto-finitist mathematics. Hilbert “reduced” ideal mathematics to real mathematics, but without insisting upon the elimination of ideal mathematics, and in a similar way reductionist historiography would “reduce” human history to natural history (or to time itself), without insisting upon the elimination of human history.

Like the idealist doctrine of degrees of being, in reductionism there are degrees of reality. Without denying the reality of higher-level, more comprehensive states-of-affairs, these are said to be reducible to, or, “nothing but” the lower-level, less comprehensive states-of-affairs. If we understand history to be a higher-level, more comprehensive conception than time, the reductionist big history would take the form of asserting that history is reducible to time, or that history is nothing but time. But the reductionist does not take the additional step taken by the eliminativist, so that the reductionist does not assert either that history is unreal or time unreal, or that these are meaningless. Both are real, but each enjoys a different degree of reality. This interpretation of reductionism as a doctrine of degrees of reality could be given further exposition, but it opens up so many problems (and so many opportunities) that I will not consider it further at present.

It must be admitted that there are strong reductionist strains in scientific historiography, and many of these are retained in the movement of the ideas of scientific historiography into Big History. If it is argued that some major historical development is entirely due to climate change, or geography, or cosmological circumstances like the fact that Earth had only one moon, and so on, we are here approximating a purely reductionist Big History. This kind of reductionism is antithetical to personalism in history, in which human actors loom large, but while the eliminativist Big Historian might simply do without any reference to human actors in history, the reductivist Big Historian would retain human actors, but would ascribe their actions to larger forces, be those forces fundamental physics, cosmology, geography, or something else.


Emergentist Big History

Emergentism, unlike eliminationism and reductionism, has a prominent and explicit place in Big History. Big Historians usually recognize eight thresholds of emergent complexity in the history of the universe — the big bang, stars, chemical elements, planets, life, human beings, argiculture, and modernity — at least, these are the thresholds made canonical by David Christian. There are alternative periodizations based on thresholds of emergent complexity, but most Big Historians recognize some sort of periodization of the history of the universe entire based on emergent complexity.

One of the similes employed by contemporary philosophers to explain the ambition of metaphysics is the idea of carving nature at the joints. This is precisely what Big Historians are trying to do in using emergent complexity as a basis for periodization. Historians have always employed periodizations; with Big History, these periodizations are now drawn not from human conventions, but from the actual history of nature itself, from the very structure of the universe, and thus are quantifiable and can be studied by science. Here scientific historiography is “cashed out” by making periodization subject to rigorous scientific research. It would be difficult to imagine a more perfect exemplification of a metaphysical synthesis of science and history.

While emergentism features prominently in Big History, the Big History version of emergent complexity has not yet been a focus of research by philosophers, and so it lacks the clarity and ambition to system that we would expect to find in a more philosophical account. In some accounts of Big History, emergentism is invoked rather than explained or exhibited, so there remains much work to be done. Big History employs emergentism, but it could not be said that Big History is as yet a thoroughly emergentist conception of history — we could apply the idea of emergence more systematically and exhaustively — nor could we say that the possibilities of emergentism in the philosophy of history have been even sketched out. I suspect that we will begin to see this in the coming decade.


Supervenientist Big History

I know of no explicit formulation of supervenientist Big History, but as a more subtle and sophisticated philosophical doctrine than its predecessors eliminationism, reductionism, and emergentism, it is not difficult to imagine that someone will, sooner rather than later, employ the metaphysical tools of supervenience to the analysis of history. Supervenience could be interpreted in a way consistent with reductionism or emergentism, so these iterations of the metaphysics of Big History could be considered precursors that eventually lead to a more sophisticated formulation in terms of supervenience. (It should, however, be pointed out that the formulation of emergentism in the first section above, “Human history is a whole that emerges from natural history that possesses unique properties as a whole that are not attributable to natural historical processes,” is not consistent with supervenience, while implies that there could be formulations of emergentist historiography inconsistent with supervenientist historiography.)

Because supervenience is a sophisticated metaphysical doctrine, there are many different formulations with subtle differences. Thus there could be many different forms of supervenientist Big History (as noted above, some compatible with emergence, and some not, and the same could be said of elimination and reduction), depending upon the variety of supervenience one employs in demonstrating that historical properties supervene on some base properties. But what do we take to be the base properties upon which historical properties supervene? Are these base properties temporal properties, or human properties, or physical properties of the universe? One of the reasons I have been emphasizing the relationship between time and history is because in my recent post A Metaphysical Disconnect I argued that the fact that the philosophy of time is not tightly-coupled with the philosophy of history points to a major disconnect. Seen in the might of supervenience, that might have historical properties supervene on properties of human societies rather than properties of time, there is here the suggestion of an argument in favor of the disconnect that I noted.

A supervenientist Big History rapidly becomes so bogged down in technical details that I will have to save an attempt at a brief exposition for a later time, as I do not yet have a grasp of this that would allow me to summarize the issues with any degree of accuracy. Nevertheless, I will not the possibility of a supervenientist Big History as a direction that research into the metaphysics of Big History could take in the near future.

The Four Philosophers by Peter Paul Rubens -- presumably an eliminativist, a reductionist, an emergentist, and a supervenientist.

The Four Philosophers by Peter Paul Rubens — presumably an eliminativist, a reductionist, an emergentist, and a supervenientist.

The Future: Big History after Scientific Metaphysics

In the fullness of time, assuming our civilization does not falter and so continues in its development (i.e., assuming the failure condition), the contemporary paradigm of science will become so altered by revision and addition that it will no longer be recognizable as what we today think of as science. Science itself will be forced to expand and to change in order to encompass objects of knowledge not accessible by contemporary scientific methods (e.g., consciousness). This change will be both influenced by changes in our philosophical outlook, and will in turn influence the shaping of our philosophical outlook. As a consequence, the metaphysical presuppositions of science will evolve along with the evolution of scientific method. The quadripartite schema I have laid out above of eliminativist, reductionist, emergentist, and supervenientist scientific metaphysics will give way to other ways of conceptualizing the world.

Big History, as an expression of scientific historiography, and thus an expression of science and of scientific civilization, will change along with the changes in scientific method and metaphysical presuppositions of history. There will always be a division of history that takes as its remit the most comprehensive conception of history, and in this sense there will always be Big History, though eventually it will be Big History without the metaphysical presuppositions of science that now subtly inform scientific historiography.

Scientific metaphysics is the intellectual superstructure of scientific civilization. In the illustration below I suggest an overall tripartite distinction among pre-scientific metaphysics, scientific metaphysics (i.e., the metaphysics that facilitates science), and post-scientific metaphysics. There is almost certain further developments of scientific metaphysics to come, which will continue to illuminate the scientific civilization of which we are part. But at some point the accumulated differences will push us over a threshold beyond which the scientific paradigm no longer applies, and that post-scientific civilization will have to be illuminated by a post-scientific metaphysics.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Evolutionary Transcendence

7 December 2013


brain in skull

Gödel, McGinn, and the Evolution of Mind

In so far as our human, all-too-human minds supervene upon human, all-too-human bodies (i.e., brains) — subject to all the ills that flesh is heir to — the biological evolution of the brain entails the evolution of the human mind. Indeed, one of the most interesting features of hominid evolution is brain evolution, which has been called The Runaway Brain.

Brain evolution has been a distinctive constituent of human evolution.

Brain evolution has been a distinctive constituent of human evolution.

Why did the brain take off in a runaway escalating spiral among hominids but not in other species? The likely answer is that, at some point in our history — a history that extends well back in time before homo sapiens — human beings and our predecessor species engaged in direct competition engaging intellectual capacity — the survival of the smartest. The human mind, and its distinctive form of consciousness, is the result of an evolutionary “arms race” in intelligence (perhaps even constituting a Fisherian runaway, though not necessarily sexually dimorphic). The impressive brains of several mollusc species, which possess sophisticated camera eyes and a structural complexity prerequisite to controlling the coloration of the entire skin surface, never seems to have been drawn into a cognitive evolutionary spiral as happened with hominids.

It has been argued that the human brain has reached the practical limitations of biologically-based intelligence. A much larger brain would slow down signaling between the regions of the brain, and a much smaller brain would fall below the threshold necessary for consciousness, sentience, and intelligence. While this may be true for strictly biological entities, it leaves aside the possibility of the technological enhancement of an organic brain, or the possibility of pharmaceutical-based cognitive enhancement, in the form of drugs that would improve focus and concentration, or otherwise enhance cognitive function without organic changes to the basic structure and size of the human brain. So there may yet be room for improvement, even if our brains remain more-or-less the same, biologically and organically speaking.

The kind of cognitive improvement I would like to discuss here, however, is not technological or pharmaceutical, but the kind of cognitive improvement that we have seen throughout the development of hominids and the social institutions that hominids have created in order to facilitate cognitive function (like the cumulative effects of social learning, which David Christian of Big History fame has emphasized as a crucial stage in human development). This is a technology, too, if we count ideas as social technologies. The idea of zero is a mathematical technology that allows us to think much more efficiently and effectively in mathematical terms, even if our brains are not organically improved, and even if we are subject to an entire battery of logical fallacies and cognitive biases. (Brain plasticity means that learning new ideas means actual organic changes in the brain, in terms of restructuring neural pathways, but the overall structure and function of the brain remains intact; here it is useful to distinguish between ontogenic development and phylogenic development.)

The evolution of our ideas has been almost as slow as the evolution of our brains. If we look back on the long history of hominids and see the use of tools by early hominids, and eventually the use of fire, were developments of the first importance, but which remained static for literally millions of years. Later with homo sapiens came language, and later still came written language. Only in the past two hundred years have we added electronic telecommunications (the first telegraph for regular communication became operable in 1833), which have so greatly accelerated the utility of language, and allowed language to grow and branch out in new and unexpected ways, that we tend to forget that human beings spoke to each other for tens of thousands of years before anyone was able to put into practice the idea of written symbolic communication.

This at times painfully slow pace of development contrasts with our habit of speaking of “revolutions” in our intellectual development (like the Copernican revolution). Ideas build one upon another, with the earlier often being the condition of the possibility of the later, which makes these earlier ideas, in Kantian terms, the transcendental condition of later ideas. In the same way, our bodies in evolution — and our bodies as specific to our minds, i.e., our brains — are similarly constructed incrementally through history, with the earlier developments being the condition of the possibility of later developments.

The evolutionary and incremental development of our brain, our mind that supervenes on our brain, and our ideas that supervene on our minds, is slow and gradual and only reveals its radical character over the very long term. Without the discoveries of scientific historiography, which has restored to us the once-lost deep history of our species, we might assume that everything remains unchanged in an eternal and unchanging universe — which was, in fact, the dominant conception of human beings in the cosmos in the past.

The reader may find my title — evolutionary transcendence — a bit odd, perhaps not quite right, since we understand by evolution an immanent process, thoroughly integral with the mundane world, and not at all as something “above” or “independent of” the world. Indeed, it would make no sense at all to speak of evolution that is “above” the world. Nevertheless, evolution has, over the long term, repeatedly resulted in radical transcendence that supervenes upon the incremental Kantian transcendental conditions that hold for each stage of a developmental history.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, definition 1.b. of “transcendence” reads as follows:

The attribute of being above and independent of the universe; distinguished from immanence.

The relevant sense of “immanence” (adj. 1) reads as follows:

Indwelling, inherent; actually present or abiding in; remaining within.

Both of the terms — transcendence and immanence — are heavily laden with theological connotations, as the further definitions and examples from the OED make clear. This theological baggage makes the terms problematic, but, if we set aside the connotations of otherworldliness, there is no other word for the consequences of evolution over la longue durée than than later forms — of life and of ideas — transcend earlier forms. Thus is it that existential viability in an evolving world is predicated upon the ability to change, even to the point of essential change, or what Aristotle would have called metábasis eis állo génos (μετάβασις εἰς ἄλλο γένος) — a change into another kind of genus (or category — for Aristotle this was an illegitimate leap, a non sequitur). We usually think of evolution as, quite literally, a change into another kind of species, so the that idea of a change into another kind of genus presents itself as something more radical that evolution. This is merely a façon de parler, since all the biodiversity of the world — from species through genus, family, order, class, and so forth — is the result of repeated evolutionary branching that shapes geographical varieties in the shorter term and genuses and other biological classifications in the longer term.

As suggested above, the biological evolution of the brain bears upon the cognitive history of the mind, and the cognitive history of the mind bears upon the intellectual history of ideas. Driven by the imperative of existential viability, the organism must change, if it changes at all, in such a way as to remain viable — competitive — at every stage of its development. Thus each individual change is small, while the cumulative effect increases over time. And so with the mind and its ideas: at each stage of development the mind and its ideas must be viable in and of themselves, or result in catastrophic failure that marks the extinction of this particular line of development.

We have seen this incremental improvement in mind before in the work of Kurt Gödel. In my post Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics (as well as in Addendum on Technological Unemployment) I quoted Gödel as follows:

“Turing . . . gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”

“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306

Gödel here reveals an infinitistic conception of mind that is at home in an infinitistic and evolving universe. In the earlier post cited above I Further commented (referencing Fukuyama’s approach to the “end of history”):

“To suppose that human moral evolution had come to an end with the advent of the idea and implementation of liberal democracy, however admirable this condition is (or would be), is to suppose that we had tried all possible ideas for human society and that there will be no new ideas (at least, there will be no new moral ideas unless we change human nature through biotechnological intervention). I do not accept either that all ideas for society have been tried and rejected or that there will be no fundamentally new ideas.”


“Gödel is right. The human mind is always developing and changing. Because the mind is not static, it formulates novel ideas on a regular basis. It is a fallacy to conflate the failure of new ideas of achieve widespread socio-political currency with the absence of novel ideas. Among the novel ideas constantly pioneered by the dynamism of human cognition are moral and political ideas. In so far as there are new moral and political ideas, there are new possibilities for human culture, society, and civilization. The works of the human mind, like the human mind itself, are not static, but are constantly developing.”

In a similar vein I also wrote about this unlimited and incremental development of ideas and the consciousness that embodies ideas in The Growth of Historical Consciousness. Our historical experience grows with the passage of history, so that later history is experienced against a different intellectual background, which changes the nature of history and its experience. This is a social instance of an argument that Bergson formulated almost a hundred years ago, when he argued that the individual’s experience of life is cumulative and therefore plays a role in later experience, which makes life non-deterministic.

It is fallacy to suppose that we are stuck with a finite stock of ideas, or a finite number of states (or forms) of consciousness (what Gödel, following Turing, calls distinguishable states of mind), just as it is a fallacy to suppose that there are only a finite number of possibilities for political society, for economic organization, for the administration of justice, for social institutions, for science, for mathematics, for philosophy, or or any other human activity. It is a fallacy, and it is a familiar fallacy that we have previously encountered in Comte de Maistre’s Finitistic Political Theory. We do not need to settle for a static, stationary conception of the human future; our aspirations can be as dynamic as our imagination is free to conceive as-yet-unactualized possibilities.

But what is the mechanism by which incremental change comes about in the mind and its ideas? How is this even possible? In my recent post The Size of the World I quoted Colin McGinn’s book Problems in philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry and his formulation he calls Transcendental Naturalism:

“Philosophy is an attempt to get outside the constitutive structure of our minds. Reality itself is everywhere flatly natural, but because of our cognitive limits we are unable to make good on this general ontological principle. Our epistemic architecture obstructs knowledge of the real nature of the objective world. I shall call this thesis transcendental naturalism, TN for short.”

Colin McGinn, Problems in philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry, pp. 2-3

Such a position makes change in the mind and change in ideas virtually impossible, but it is an impossibility predicated upon a presumption of the unchanging nature of the mind. As Gödel pointed out, mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, and because the mind and its ideas are developing, our cognitive limits are developing, i.e., changing, at times increasing, while at times knowledge pushes these limits outward and our minds expand, mastering previously inconceivable ideas. What McGinn has called “our epistemic architecture” makes us think of the static architecture of a grand edifice, like a cathedral, but we need to think of our cognitive architecture as being something more like the familiar metaphors of rebuilding a ship at sea, as famously formulated 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.”

Otto Neurath, “Protocol sentences,” in Logical Positivism, edited by A.J. Ayer, Free Press, Glencoe, IL, 1959, p. 201.

Quine employed the same metaphor:

“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.”

W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object

Naval architecture, then, under the constraint of rebuilding at sea while staying afloat, is a better model for our epistemic architecture, than the idea of a grand and permanent structure, a cathedral of the mind. Under these conditions, we can gradually bring within the sphere of the mind’s capability ever more refined and comprehensive conceptions that better reflect the structure of the world itself. Such conceptions are never perfect, but they are also never so inadequate as to leave us with an absolute mystery. Scientific mysteries are subject to revision, even as the formerly inconceivable comes within the scope of the mind and reveals new mysteries for the mind to tackle in turn.

In The Size of the World I further wrote:

“…while our cognitive abilities are admittedly limited (for all the reasons discussed above, as well as other reasons not discussed), these limits are not absolute, but rather admit of revision. McGinn’s position as stated above implies a false dichotomy between staying within the constitutive structure of our minds and getting outside it. This is a classic case of facing the sheer cliff of Mount Improbable: while it is impossible to get outside our cognitive architecture in one fell swoop, we can little by little transgress the boundaries of our cognitive architecture, each time ever-so-slightly expanding our capacities. Incrementally over time we improve our ability to stand outside those limits that once marked the boundaries of our cognitive architecture. Thus in an ironic twist of intellectual history, the evolutionary argument, rather than demonstrating metaphysical modesty, is rather the key to limiting the limitations on the human mind.”

Evolutionary transcendence comes about gradually, incrementally, bit-by-bit, reconfiguring our epistemic architecture just enough with each development that we can understand a little bit more than we understood before. Gödel’s “understand[ing] abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them,” such that, “more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding” is the gradual mechanism by which we “get outside the constitutive structure of our minds” — only on the margins, at the far edge of reason, and to a limited extent. Better, we revise the constitutive structure of our minds, and thereby get outside the constitutive structure of our mind as it was in the past.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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