Transcendental Humors

4 December 2015

Friday


Portrait of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) by Daniel Dumonstier, around 1578.

Portrait of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) by Daniel Dumonstier, around 1578.

In the last of his essays, essay XIII of Book III, “Of Experience,” Montaigne wrote:

“The mind has not willingly other hours enough wherein to do its business, without disassociating itself from the body, in that little space it must have for its necessity. They would put themselves out of themselves, and escape from being men. It is folly; instead of transforming themselves into angels, they transform themselves into beasts; instead of elevating, they lay themselves lower. These transcendental humours affright me, like high and inaccessible places; and nothing is hard for me to digest in the life of Socrates but his ecstasies and communication with demons; nothing so human in Plato as that for which they say he was called divine; and of our sciences, those seem to be the most terrestrial and low that are highest mounted; and I find nothing so humble and mortal in the life of Alexander as his fancies about his immortalisation.”

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Essays, Book III, “Of Experience”

In writing of “transcendental humors” Montaigne has brilliantly co-opted the medieval physiology of “humors” and gone beyond it even while employing a language that his readers would have immediately recognized. In this passage Montaigne has managed to transcend his era even while employing the language and the concepts of his time.

In medieval western medicine it was believed that the body possessed four “vital humors” including blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. This was not only a medical idea, but also a psychological idea, as differences in temperament were ascribed to an excess or deficiency of a given humor. We retain traces of these ideas in our language, as when we describe an individual as “sanguine” or “phlegmatic.” These humors were human, all-too-human. This may sound a bit strange, but if the medieval imagination had comprised the possibility other beings on other worlds, it seems likely that such an imagination would have posited other, alien humors that would have determined both the physical constitution and mental temperament of these other beings, and speculation on the character of ETI would have taken the form of suggesting what other kinds of humors there might possibly be.

It is possible that we, too, may be able to transcend the limits of our time even while continuing to employ the familiar linguistic and conceptual infrastructure that is as deeply embedded in contemporary history as Montaigne’s linguistic and conceptual infrastructure was deeply embedded in the thought of his time. It is an uncommon insight, but not an impossible insight, that throws away the ladder after having climbed up the same.

Perhaps this passage from Montaigne so appeals to me because it is so similar to my own way of thought. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote (in section 572):

Biology of religion.–The more human, all-too-human a given phenomenon, the more certain it is to be called sacred or holy.

It almost sounds as though I am purposefully paraphrasing Montaigne, but when I wrote this I was not familiar with the passage from Montaigne quoted above.

One might well be accused of a “category error” to study religion in terms of biology, though in recent years this has become much more common, as quite a number of books on the evolutionary psychology of religion have appeared, though we can see above the idea is already present in Montaigne, and it occurs throughout Nietzsche, even if it is not as explicit there as we would hope, and Nietzsche lacked the detailed scientific background that would have made it possible for him to fully appreciate, and to fully develop, the idea.

We are now getting to the point at which such ideas can be formulated explicitly and given clear and unambiguous scientific content. But our linguistic and conceptual infrastructure, while it provides the basis of the possibility of our intellectual development and progress, remains limited, and moments of great insight are necessary to transcend the prejudices of our age and to begin to comprehend the ideas that, some hundreds of years from now, our descendants will be able to formulate in an explicit way.

Perhaps it is better for us at the present time that we cannot yet formulate our most elusive ideas explicitly. I am reminded of a passage from H. P. Lovecraft that I recently quoted in The Cosmos Primeval:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu,” first paragraph

Lovecraft was half right, but he (like many others) failed to see, or refused to acknowledge (perhaps in Lovecraft it follows from a matter of principle), the possibility of progress in knowledge. While it is true that some go mad and some flee, while others exist on the cusp and madness and sanity, still others are able to look squarely at terrifying vistas of reality and to stare into the face of Medusa without turning to stone.

We are always engaged in the business of slowly and painstakingly assembling dissociated bits of knowledge into a larger and more comprehensive scheme, even if we are not aware that our thirst for comprehension and clarity (which thirst must certainly be accounted among the transcendental humors) is pushing us toward a revelation for which we are not prepared. Most this occurs on an historical scale of time, so that the frightening outlines of the world to come is only discerned dimly by us, and, as Lovecraft implied, this may be a mercy. But every once in a while, under the influence of especially strong transcendental humors, we may find ourselves suddenly face-to-face with the Medusa, quite unexpectedly. Such moments are definitive.

I have often quoted a passage from Kurt Gödel (most recently in Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress) about the possibility of progress in knowledge:

“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.

Without any intention of belittling Gödel, it is perhaps worthwhile to note in this context that Gödel himself lived on the verge of madness, and that his mental health deteriorated to the point that he essentially starved himself to death, like some western equivalent of an Indian Yogi (or, if you prefer, a starving Buddha, representations of which always have the same haunted eyes that one sees in the photographs of the logician). One can imagine Montaigne transported into another place or time, writing essays on Gödel or a starving Buddha, neither of which he ever encountered, but each of which I think would have piqued his interest, as they represent those transcendental humors that have both plagued humanity with self-imposed ascetic rigors and which have equally advanced civilization in the most unexpected ways.

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Sunday


shush

In several posts I have described what I called the STEM cycle, which typifies our industrial-technological civilization. The STEM cycle involves scientific discoveries employed in new technologies, which are in turn engineered into industries which supply new instruments to science resulting in further scientific discoveries. For more on the STEM cycle you can read my posts The Industrial-Technological Thesis, Industrial-Technological Disruption, The Open Loop of Industrial-Technological Civilization, Chronometry and the STEM Cycle, and The Institutionalization of the STEM Cycle.

Industrial-technological civilization is a species of the genus of scientific civilizations (on which cf. David Hume and Scientific Civilization and The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization). Ultimately, it is the systematic pursuit of science that drives industrial-technological civilization forward in its technological progress. While it is arguable whether contemporary civilization can be said to embody moral, aesthetic, or philosophical progress, it is unquestionable that it does embody technological progress, and, almost as an epiphenomenon, the growth of scientific knowledge. And while knowledge may not grow evenly across the entire range of human intellectual accomplishment, so that we cannot loosely speak of “intellectual progress,” we can equally unambiguously speak of scientific progress, which is tightly-coupled with technological and industrial progress.

Now, it is a remarkable feature of science that there are no secrets in science. Science is out in the open, as it were (which is one reason the appeal to embargoed evidence is a fallacy). There are scientific mysteries, to be sure, but as I argued in Scientific Curiosity and Existential Need, scientific mysteries are fundamentally distinct from the religious mysteries that exercised such power over the human mind during the epoch of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. You can be certain that you have encountered a complete failure to understand the nature of science when you hear (or read) of scientific mysteries being assimilated to religious mysteries.

That there are no secrets in science has consequences for the warfare practiced by industrial-technological civilization, i.e., industrialized war based on the application of scientific method to warfare and the exploitation of technological and industrial innovations. While, on the one hand, all wars since the first global industrialized war have been industrialized war, since the end of the Second World War, now seventy years ago, on the other hand, no wars have been mass wars, or, if you prefer, total wars, as a result of the devolution of warfare.

Today, for example, any competent chemist could produce phosgene or mustard gas, and anyone who cares to inform themselves can learn the basic principles and design of nuclear weapons. I made this point some time ago in Weapons Systems in an Age of High Technology: Nothing is Hidden. In that post I wrote:

Wittgenstein in his later work — no less pregnantly aphoristic than the Tractatus — said that nothing is hidden. And so it is in the age of industrial-technological civilization: Nothing is hidden. Everything is, in principle, out in the open and available for public inspection. This is the very essence of science, for science progresses through the repeatability of its results. That is to say, science is essentially an iterative enterprise.

Although science is out in the open, technology and engineering are (or can be made) proprietary. There is no secret science or sciences, but technologies and industrial engineering can be kept secret to a certain degree, though the closer they approximate science, the less secret they are.

I do not believe that this is well understood in our world, given the pronouncements and policies of our politicians. There are probably many who believe that science can be kept secret and pursued in secret. Human history is replete with examples of the sequestered development of weapons systems that rely upon scientific knowledge, from Greek Fire to the atom bomb. But if we take the most obvious example — the atomic bomb — we can easily see that the science is out in the open, even while the technological and engineering implementation of that science was kept secret, and is still kept secret today. However, while no nation-state that produces nuclear weapons makes its blueprints openly available, any competent technologist or engineer familiar with the relevant systems could probably design for themselves the triggering systems for an implosion device. Perhaps fewer could design the trigger for a hydrogen bomb — this came to Stanislaw Ulam in a moment of insight, and so represents a higher level of genius, but Andrei Sakharov also figured it out — however, a team assembled for the purpose would also certainly hit on the right solution if given the time and resources.

Science nears optimality with it is practiced openly, in full view of an interested public, and its results published in journals that are read by many others working in the field. These others have their own ideas — whether to extend research already preformed, reproduce it, or to attempt to turn it on its head — and when they in turn pursue their research and publish their results, the field of knowledge grows. This process is exponentially duplicated and iterated in a scientific civilization, and so scientific knowledge grows.

When Lockheed’s Skunkworks recently announced that they were working on a compact fusion generator, many fusion scientists were irritated that the Skunkworks team did not publish their results. The fusion research effort is quite large and diverse (something I wrote about in One Hundred Years of Fusion), and there is an expectation that those working in the field will follow scientific practice. But, as with nuclear weapons, a lot is at stake in fusion energy. If a private firm can bring proprietary fusion electrical generation technology to market, it stands to be the first trillion dollar enterprise in human history. With the stakes that high, Lockheed’s Skunkworks keeps their research tightly controlled. But this same control slows down the process of science. If Lockheed opened its fusion research to peer review, and others sought to duplicate the results, the science would be driven forward faster, but Lockheed would stand to lose its monopoly on propriety fusion technology.

Fusion science is out in the open — it is the same as nuclear science — but particular aspects and implementations of that science are pursued under conditions of industrial secrecy. There is no black and white line that separates fusion science from fusion technology research and fusion engineering. Each gradually fades over into the other, even when the core of each of science, technology, and engineering can be distinguished (this is an instance of what I call the Truncation Principle).

The stakes involved generate secrecy, and the secrecy involved generates industrial espionage. Perhaps the best known example of industrial espionage of the 20th century was the acquisition of the plans for the supersonic Concorde, which allowed the Russians to get their “Konkordski” TU-144 flying before the Concorde itself flew. Again, the science of flight and jet propulsion cannot be kept secret, but the technological and engineering implementations of that science can be hidden to some degree — although not perfectly. Supersonic, and now hypersonic, flight technology is a closely guarded secret of the military, but any enterprise with the funding and the mandate can eventually master the technology, and will eventually produce better technology and better engineering designs once the process is fully open.

Because science cannot be effectively practiced in private (it can be practiced, but will not be as good as a research program pursued jointly by a community of researchers), governments seek the control and interdiction of technologies and materials. Anyone can learn nuclear science, but it is very difficult to obtain fissionables. Any car manufacturer can buy their rival’s products, disassemble them, and reserve engineer their components, but patented technologies are protected by the court system for a certain period of time. But everything in this process is open to dispute. Different nation-states have different patent protection laws. When you add industrial espionage to constant attempts to game the system on an international level, there are few if any secrets even in proprietary technology and engineering.

The technologies that worry us the most — such as nuclear weapons — are purposefully retarded in their development by stringent secrecy and international laws and conventions. Moreover, mastering the nuclear fuel cycle requires substantial resources, so that mostly limits such an undertaking to nation-states. Most nation-states want to get along to go along, so they accept the limitations on nuclear research and choose not to build nuclear weapons even if they possess the industrial infrastructure to do so. And now, since the end of the Cold War, even the nation-states with nuclear arsenals do not pursue the development of nuclear technology; so-called “fourth generation nuclear weapons” may be pursued in the secrecy of government laboratories, but not with the kind of resources that would draw attention. It is very unlikely that they are actually being produced.

Why should we care that nuclear technology is purposefully slowed and regulated to the point of stifling innovation? Should we not consider ourselves fortunate that governments that seem to love warfare have at least limited the destruction of warfare by limiting nuclear weapons? Even the limitation of nuclear weapons comes at a cost. Just as there is no black and white line separating science, technology, and engineering, there is no black and white line that separates nuclear weapons research from other forms of research. By clamping down internationally on nuclear materials and nuclear research, the world has, for all practical purposes, shut down the possibility of nuclear rockets. Yes, there are a few firms researching nuclear rockets that can be fueled without the fissionables that could also be used to make bombs, but these research efforts are attempts to “design around” the interdictions of nuclear technology and nuclear materials.

We have today the science relevant to nuclear rocketry; to master this technology would require practical experience. It would mean designing numerous designs, testing them, and seeing what works best. What works best makes its way into the next iteration, which is then in its turn improved. This is the practical business of technology and engineering, and it cannot happen without an immersion into practical experience. But the practical experience in nuclear rocketry is exactly what is missing, because the technology and materials are tightly controlled.

Thus we already can cite a clear instance of how existential risk mitigation becomes the loss of an existential opportunity. A demographically significant spacefaring industry would be an existential opportunity for humanity, but if the nuclear rocket would have been the breakout technology that actualized this existential opportunity, we do not know, and we may never know. Nuclear weapons were early recognized as an existential risk, and our response to this existential risk was to consciously and purposefully put a brake on the development of nuclear technology. Anyone who knows the history of nuclear rockets, of the NERVA and DUMBO programs, of the many interesting designs that were produced in the early 1960s, knows that this was an entire industry effectively strangled in the cradle, sacrificed to nuclear non-proliferation efforts as though to Moloch. Because science cannot be kept secret, entire industries must be banned.

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Nuclear rocketry: an industry that never happened.

Nuclear rocketry: an industry that never happened.

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Sunday


soul rising from body

Preamble

My title today, Human Agency and the Exaptation of Selection, is perhaps not a very good title, but if anyone out there has read a representative selection of my posts they will be aware that all of these topics — human agency, exaptation, and natural selection — are matters to which I have returned time and again, and I feel like I beginning to see my way clear to a point at which I can systematically tie together these themes into something more comprehensive than occasional remarks and comments of the sort that are the usual fare of blog posts.

Macro-Historical Revolutions

All macro-historical revolutions to date have simply happened to us; they were not planned or chosen or made to happen, they just happened. And before the emergence of human agency in history, all the great transitions of natural history — i.e., the natural equivalent of a macro-historical revolution — simply happened without design, purpose, or direction.

Human efforts (including individual choices) in constituting historical realities have, to date, been like the myriad accidents of natural history that together and cumulatively constitute natural history. Even though human consciousness gives meaning and value to these individual decisions, and at times we participate in collective meanings and values, none of this has yet risen to the level of consciously constituting an epoch of history on the basis of human meanings and values. We have given meaning and value to circumstances that we have (accidentally) brought about, but have not brought about a civilization or a way of life in response to a determination to realize particular meanings and values. This is the social equivalent of Schopenhauer’s assertion that, while we are free to do what we want, we are not free to want what we want.

To shape the future of history, to plan for the kind of civilization to come, and possibly even to create a kind of civilization consciously intended and brought into being, would be historically unprecedented on a scale beyond the unprecedented events of human history (such as I recently wrote about in Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios, i.e., how it would be unprecedented for an invariant of civilization to be overturned), because the trend of human history being shaped by non-human forces is far older than human history, and far older than our species.

Naturalism and its Others

It is at this point that the naturalistically inclined philosopher of history must obviously and unavoidably part company with those who retain theological conceptions of the world and its development. The idea of the world, up until the emergence of human intelligence from human consciousness, being utterly unplanned, undirected, and undesigned is a rigorously (and indeed rigidly) naturalistic conception that excludes even the most distant and unconcerned creator of deism.

Even the religiously and theologically inclined who make no attempt to defy what science tells us about the world must retain some minimal sense of purpose and direction — perhaps a quasi-Aristotelian final cause — since without this there remains nothing upon which to pun one’s beliefs that is not strictly a part of nature — no transcendent eschatology or soteriology.

It should be obvious from my other posts that I am writing from a rigorously naturalistic perspective, but sometimes one must be explicit about these things so as not to leave any wiggle room, so that one’s naturalistic formulations will either be interpreted naturalistically or rejected tout court because they are naturalistic. What I have written above about unprecedented historical developments simply makes no sense is one deviates from a strict naturalism, and that is why I make it explicit here.

The Threshold of Agency

The imposition of human will upon unthinking and uncomprehending nature began in the most rudimentary ways — the chipping of stone for tools and the gathering of sufficient sustenance such that this might last beyond the next meal. At this level of planning and provision for the future, the human mind is no different from other mammalian minds, since we know that other mammals make rudimentary tools and store food for the future.

To define the point at which human planning and provision for the future exceed this common mammalian standard, and thereby also exceed the possibility of being entirely the result of instinct refined by natural selection, genetically encoded in our biology (and the ultimate limit of evolutionary psychology), involves a sorites paradox (i.e., the paradox of the heap). While we need not define a particular point that human planning exceeds the mammalian norm, we can content ourselves with a span of time (viz. between the emergence of biologically modern homo sapiens and the advent of the historical period strictly speaking, i.e., a span of time encompassing human prehistory). In accordance with what I have called the Truncation Principle, we can in fact recognize an historical discontinuity, even if that discontinuity comes about gradually.

Over some period of time, then, human planning and provision exceeded the mammalian norm and became something historically unprecedented. We tend to magnify this transition, calling ourselves the “rational animal” and associating our reason with that which is uniquely human. One of the great themes of our time is that of human beings asserting their control over the planet, assuming de facto right over the disposition of the biosphere. In fact, we don’t even control our own history, much less the history of the planet. We affect our history and the natural history of our planet, but we do not control them.

We have risen to the level of micro-historical efficacy with the first rudimentary steps of tool making and food storage. We rose to the level of meso-historical efficacy in constituting human societies. These societies began as emergent accidents of human behavior, but I think that we can assert that, over time, we have consciously constituted at least a few limited examples of communities intentionally constituted to certain ends. We rose to the level of exo-historical efficacy in constituting the largest institutions and political entities that have dominated human history. Many of these institutions and political entities have also been accidents of history, but, again, I think that we can say that there are at least some explicit examples of the purposeful constitution of human institutions and political entities.

In other words, have passed at least three thresholds of agency defined in terms of ecological temporality. For human agency to rise to the level of macro-historical efficacy we would need to rise to the level of shaping entire eras of civilization and history. We aren’t there yet. As with the natural historical emergence of human communities and later larger institutions, which began with historical accidents and were only later rationalized, human macro-history remains at the level of our accidental participation. Millions upon millions of conscious human actions were required to create the industrial revolution, but no one consciously sought to create the industrial revolution; although it was, in a sense, made by us, in a more important sense it simply happened to us.

The Problem of Progress

In several posts — Civilization and the Technium, Biology Recapitulates Cosmology, and Progress, Stagnation, and Retrogression among them — I have mentioned Kevin Kelly’s explicit arguments for progress in his book What Technology Wants. I have mentioned this because, in terms of our current intellectual climate, he is an outlier, although among techno-philosophers he may represent something closer to a consensus. Among contemporary academic philosophers and historians, almost no one argues for progress — to do so is considered an unforgivable form of naïveté.

I mention this again here because the above treatment of human agency in terms of ecological temporality might provide a quantitative way to talk about human progress and the progress of human civilization that is not tied to the development of some particular technology. Any time anyone asserts that there has been progress because we now have airplanes and computers whereas once we did not, someone else responds by pointing to the moral horrors of the twentieth century, such as genocide, to demonstrate that technological progress cannot be conflated with moral progress. Moral progress requires an entirely separate argument, as does aesthetic progress. (So too, presumably religious, ideological, or eschatological progress, but I will not attempt to address any of these at present.)

The expanding scope of human agency through levels of ecological temporality can be interpreted as a kind of progress independent of any technological development. In so far as human agency is centrally implicated in human morality, the progress of human agency could even be interpreted as a form of moral progress. Now, this is an admittedly deceptive way to formulate it, because I do not here mean “moral” in the narrow sense of “ethical” but rather “moral” in the way we would use the term in a phrase like, “the moral lives of human beings.” Another way to formulate this would be to call it human progress, but this is probably no improvement at all. I mean progress in the form of asserting human agency over the peculiarly human aspects of our lives — emotions, relationships, interactions, evaluations, creations, and so forth.

A Darwinian conception of history

A Darwinian conception of history and of civilization is simply a conception of history and civilization fully in accord with Darwin’s thorough-doing naturalism, and especially the role of selection in the constitution of historical entities (like human history and human civilization). We can understand Darwinian conceptions of history and civilization as aspects of a Darwinian cosmology. The above formulations of the ecological temporal thresholds of human agency allow us to do this in an interesting way.

When human agency crosses a threshold from being subject to accidents, including its own cumulative accidents, to asserting control over the whole process of agency and its consequences — i.e., what it brings about — what is essentially happening is that human agency is taking over for natural selection; selection, or some part of selection, is transferred from nature to humanity. In other words, the expansion of human agency is the exaptation of selection. Selection that began as natural selection, taken over by the expanding agency of human beings, becomes human selection. This is exaptation not of organic structures, but of behavioral structures, i.e., exaptation on the order of the will.

To assert that the expansion of human agency is the exaptation of selection is to formulate a Darwinian conception of history and of civilization that does not need to declare the progress is impossible to account for in a selective paradigm, and also is not obligated to argue that progress is inherent in the very nature of things, which it is not.

Recapitulation

One can understand the problematic idea of “progress” (which we may someday be able to take out of scare quotes) as the increasing human ability to impose human direction, purpose, and design upon history.

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Wednesday


Saint Augustine made a distinction between progress for the City of Man and progress for the City of God.

Recently I wrote about progress in Biology Recapitulates Cosmology where I contrasted Stephen J. Gould’s explicit anti-progressivism to more recent forms of progressivism found in futurism and technological thought. Western thought has a long history of finding both progress and decadence in its own historical record. Even as St. Augustine was writing while the Roman Empire was falling apart and there were barbarians literally at the gates of Hippo where Augustine was Bishop, Augustine acknowledged that the City of Man was in a bad way and likely to get worse, but the City of God was going from triumph to triumph as divine providence led the way — thus rescuing a kind of progress from the ruins of a civilization in the process of collapsing around him. Augustine’s was a brave gambit, and later attitudes tended to be more narrowly progressive or declinist, not making the distinction that Augustine made.

Is Augustine’s thought an example of smuggling progress into human history by way of divine providence, or are contemporary conceptions of progress a secularized formulation of divine providence, as Karl Löwith would have argued? This is an interesting question, but I am not going to try to answer it here. I have strong views on this, and I want to write a detailed post (or several posts) specifically about this question (though I have already written some specifically about the idea of secularization, in addition to citing Löwith’s influential work in several posts, such as Addendum on ontological extrapolation, Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations, The Feast of Saint Nicholas, and Marxist Eschatology).

In any discussion of progress one must carefully distinguish between the kinds of progress that are possible. For example, we can distinguish at least technological progress and moral progress and aesthetic progress, just for starters. One might explicitly argue for technological progress, and all those measures of quality of life directly attributable to technological progress like per capita GDP, access to clean water, and so forth, while saying nothing about moral progress or aesthetic progress (as seems to be the case with Kevin Kelly’s explicit argument for progress in What Technological Wants). I don’t think that many people today would assert that the pictures painted today are obviously better than the pictures painted in the past even if our technology seems obviously superior. Therefore aesthetic stagnation might go hand-in-hand with technological progress. I also doubt that many today would argue that we are becoming obviously more ethical with the passage of time and the growth of technology.

It would also be a good idea to distinguish between stagnation and retrogression, so that we are thinking in terms of a continuum that runs between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression, with stagnation as the “golden mean” between the two (as it were). It is common to use the term “stagnation” not only to indicate a socioeconomic system that is moving neither forward nor backward, but also for socioeconomic systems that are losing ground and moving backward. Thus making the distinction between stagnation and retrogression, and placing both in relation to progress, allows us to differentiate societies that are static from societies that are declining. For lack of a better term, we can call the continuum between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression the continuum of progress.

To gain a proper appreciation for the role that the continuum of progress has played in human affairs we must further distinguish the perception of progress, stagnation, or retrogression from any quantifiable measure of progress, stagnation or retrogression. If we want to think about economics in isolation (i.e., in isolation from other possible social measures of progress), we can immediately see the significant role that perceptions play, as it is often claimed that the collective action of declining consumer confidence can cause an economy to go into recession even if there is no other trigger for an economic downturn. Keynes’ remarks about the role of “animal spirits” also has a role to play in economic perceptions in contrast to economic reality.

Human beings being what they are, a significant divergence between appearance and reality can be maintained for some period of time if enough people are prepared to delude themselves. This is am important point, so I want to go into it in more detail, and most especially I want to elucidate economic appearance and reality in terms of two philosophical ideas: self-deception and the sorites paradox.

I have mentioned in other posts that I think the role of self-deception in human affairs is greatly underestimated. Self-deception is simply lying to oneself, and it is especially associated with the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre. People lie to themselves all the time, and for a variety of motives. If you approach life as though everyone was always on the up-and-up, you will soon find yourself disabused of that illusion, for it is illusion rather than reality that is the order of the day in human affairs. Human society only exists in virtue of a complex tapestry of fine-crafted duplicity that people teach themselves to believe in as the price of being part of any society.

The sorites paradox is an ancient idea associated with the ambiguous use of terms. If you have a heap of grains of sand, and take away one grain of sand at a time, when does it cease to be a heap? Contrariwise, if you begin adding one grain of said to another, when does it begin to be a heap? The same paradox is also formulated in terms of baldness: if you pluck the hair off a head one by one, when does the head qualify as being bald?

So, what do self-deception and the sorites paradox have to do with the continuum of progress as it applies to economic appearance and reality? Economic progress is one of the most quantifiable forms of progress of all human endeavors. Whatever economic measure we care to take — GDP, per capita GDP, steel production, potable water, and so forth — we can measure these and monitor progress based upon them. If you decide that progress is a nation-state in which there is a chicken in every pot, you can measure if there is a chicken in every pot, and how often, etc. So it would seem, given these relatively discrete measures, that the measurement of economic progress would be difficult to fudge.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and much of this has to do with the predominant role that human perception plays in large economies that can only be measured statistically. Because of the potential divergence between economic perception and economic reality, a population might believe itself to be experiencing progress even while it is moving backward. Or a population might believe itself to be moving backward even while objective measures demonstrate progress (of whatever sort of progress is defined as progress by that society).

Statistical measures of a large economy bear a strong resemblance to the sorites paradox. You might be able to demonstrate that a population is incrementally growing wealthier, but since a heap of wealth is always just a heap of wealth, and you don’t notice a few dollars more or a few dollars less, any more than you would notice a few grains of sand more or less on a heap of sand, it is entirely possible that even as a society grows wealthier, it might believe itself to be growing poorer, or even as a society is growing poorer, it might believe itself to be growing richer. Such counter-factual perceptions, if maintained by collective self-deception, can make an entire nation believe that it is going in the right direction when it is not, or vice versa.

Schumpeter noted that the growth of mature industrialized economies usually hovers about two percent, and although this modest two percent growth will double the size of the economy every 35 years — which is an impressive achievement if we think of the long history of stagnation of agricultural civilization — it probably isn’t enough to satisfy those who believe that they are getting a bad deal from the system. Schumpeter might have also noted that a two percent growth rate wouldn’t be noticeable from year to year, even if it is noticeable in the longer term — being noticed is different from being measurable. And if we add the difficulty of noticing two percent growth to the possibility of collective self-deception that growth is not happening, well, people may well believe that they are going backward even when the economy doubles in size every generation.

What I wrote in the above paragraph about growth also holds for economic decline: a decline of two percent per year might never be noticed year-on-year, even if it is obvious over the longer term. And if there is a collective self-deception that things are getting better, because we want to believe that things are getting better, people can easily delude themselves that the world is improving even as they are impoverishing their descendents.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Monday


When writing about civilization I have started using the term “industrial-technological civilization” as I believe this captures more accurately the sense of what is unique about contemporary civilization. In Modernism without Industrialism: Europe 1500-1800 I argued that there is a sense in which this early modern variety of civilization was an abortive civilization (a term used by Toynbee), the development of which was cut short by the sudden and unprecedented emergence of industrial-technological civilization (an instance of preemption). I also discussed this recently in Temporal Structures of Civilization.

What I am suggesting is that the industrial revolution inaugurated a novel form of civilization that overtook modernism and essentially replaced it through the overwhelming rapidity and totality of industrial-technological development. And while the industrial revolution began in England, it was in nineteenth century Germany that industrial-technological civilization proper got its start, because it was in Germany that the essential elements that drive industrial-technological civilization came together for the first time in a mutually-reinforcing feedback loop.

Karl Eduard Biermann (1803-1892) Borsig’s Maschinenbau-Anstalt zu Berlin (1847)

The essential elements of industrial-technological civilization are science, technology, and engineering. Science seeks to understand nature on its own terms, for its own sake. Technology is that portion of scientific research that can be developed specifically for the realization of practical ends. Engineering is the actual industrial implementation of a technology. I realize that I am introducing conventional definitions here, and others have established other conventions for these terms, but I think that this much should be pretty clear and not controversial. If you’d like the parse the journey from science to industry differently, you’ll still come to more or less the same mutually-reinforcing feedback loop.

The important thing to understand about the forces that drive industrial-technological civilization is that this cycle is not only self-reinforcing but also that each stage is selective. Science produces knowledge, but technology only selects that knowledge from the scientific enterprise that can be developed for practical uses; of the many technologies that are developed, engineering selects those that are most robust, reproducible, and effective to create an industrial infrastructure that supplies the mass consumer society of industrial-technological civilization. The process does not stop here. The achievements of technology and engineering are in turn selected by science in order to produce novel and more advanced forms of scientific instrumentation, with which science can produce further knowledge, thus initiating another generation science followed by technology followed by engineering.

Big science is made continually bigger by the relentless expansion of industrial-technological civilization.

Because of this unique self-perpetuating cycle of industrial-technological civilization, continuous scientific, technological, and engineering development is the norm. It is very tempting to call this development “progress,” but as soon as we mention “progress” it gets us into trouble. Progress is problematic because it is ambiguous; different people mean different things when they talk about progress. As soon as someone points out the relentless growth of industrial-technological civilization, someone else will point out some supposed depravity that has flourished along with industrial-technological civilization in order to disprove the idea that such civilization involves “progress.” The ambiguity here is the conflation of technological progress and moral progress.

How many poets today believe that they will improve upon the work of Shakespeare?

It is often said that poets only hope to produce poetry as good as that of past poets, and few imagine that they will create something better than Homer, Dante, Chaucer, or Shakespeare. The standards of poetry and art were set high early in the history of civilization, so much so that contemporary poets and sculptors do not imagine progress to be possible. One can give voice to the authentic spirit of one’s time, but one is not likely to do better than artists of the past did in their effort to give voice to the spirit of a different civilization. Thus it would be difficult to argue for aesthetic progress as a feature of civilization, much less industrial-technological civilization, any more than one would be likely to attribute moral progress to it.

Sir James Mackintosh

Contemporary thinkers are also very hesitant to use the term “progress” because of its abuse in the recent past. When a history is written so that the whole of previous history seems to point to some present state of perfect as the culmination of the whole of history, we call this Whiggish history, and everyone today is contemptuous of Whiggish history because we know that history is not an inevitable progression toward greater rationality, freedom, enlightenment, and happiness. Whiggish history is usually traced to Sir James Mackintosh’s The History of England (1830–1832, 3 vols.), and this was thought to inaugurate a particular nineteenth century fondness for progressive history, so much so that one often hears the phase, “the nineteenth century cult of progress.”

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet

Alternatively, the origins of Whiggish history can be attributed to the Marquis de Condorcet’s Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind (1795), and especially its last section, “TENTH EPOCH. Future Progress of Mankind.”

Given the dubiousness of moral progress, the absence of aesthetic progress, and the bad reputation of history written to illustrate progress, historians have become predictably skittish about saying anything that even suggests progress, but this has created an historiographical climate in which any progress is simply dismissed as impossible or illusory, but we know this is not true. Even while some dimensions of civilization may remain static, and some may become retrograde, there are some dimensions of civilization that have progressed, and we need to say so explicitly or we will misunderstand the central fact of life in industrial-technological civilization.

Thus I will assert as the Industrial-Technological Thesis that technological progress is intrinsic to industrial-technological civilization. (I could call this the “fundamental theorem of industrial-technological civilization” or, if I wanted to be even more tendentious, “the technological-industrial complex.”) I wish to be understood as making a rather strong (but narrow) claim in so asserting the industrial-technological thesis.

More particularly, I wish to be understood as asserting that industrial-technological civilization is uniquely characterized by the escalating feedback loop of science, technology, and engineering, and that if this cycle should fail or shudder to a halt, the result will not be a stagnant industrial-technological civilization, but a wholly distinct form of civilization. Given the scope and scale of contemporary industrial-technological civilization, which possesses massive internal momentum, even if the cycle that characterizes technological progress should begin to fail, the whole of industrial-technological civilization will continue in existence in its present form for quite some time to come. Transitions between distinct forms of civilization are usually glacially slow, and this would likely be the case with the end of industrial-technological civilization; the advent of industrial-technological civilization is the exception due to its rapidity, thus we must acknowledge at least the possibility that another rapid advent is possible (by way of another instance of preemption), even if unlikely.

Because of pervasive contemporary irony and skepticism, which is often perceived as being sufficient in itself to serve as the basis for the denial of the technological-industrial thesis, one expects to hear casual denials of progress. By asserting the technological-industrial thesis, and noting the pervasive nature of technological progress within it (and making no claims whatsoever regarding other forms of progress — moral, aesthetic, or otherwise), I want to point out the casual and dismissive nature of most denials of technological progress. The point here is that if someone is going to assert that technological progress cannot continue, or will not continue, or plays no essential role in contemporary civilization, it is not enough merely to assert this claim; if one denies the industrial-technological thesis, one is obligated to maintain an alternative thesis and to argue the case for the absence of technological progress now or in the future. (We might choose to call this alternative thesis Ecclesiastes’ Thesis, because Ecclesiastes famously maintained that, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”)

The industrial-technological thesis has significant consequences. Since civilizations ordinarily develop over a long time frame (i.e., la longue durée), and industrial-technological civilization is very young, we can likely expect that it will last for quite some time, and that means that escalating progress in science, technological, and engineering will continue apace. The wonders that futurists have predicted are still to come, if we will be patient. As I observed above, even if the feedback loop of technological progress is interrupted, the momentum of industrial-technological civilization is likely to continue for some time — perhaps even long enough for novel historical developments to emerge from the womb of a faltering industrial-technological civilization and overtake it in its decline with innovations beyond even the imagination of futurists.

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Thursday


Which alternative represents the future of humanity?

Which alternative represents the future of humanity?

Last month in The Phenomenon of Civilization, after briefly surveying some possible fates not merely of our civilization, or of any one particular civilization, but of civilization on the whole, I concluded thus: “The present world would seem to offer no clues as to which scenario we should favor. Certainly there are many possibilities, and scenarios can be spun endlessly, but there is no dominating fact of the development of our time, or of the character of civilization of our time, that points to any one course of evolution or devolution.”

I now have reservations about the claim that there is no dominating fact of the development of civilization. Civilization is a temporal phenomenon and it has exhibited a significant measure of historical viability. That, in and of itself, is significant.

A map indicating dark ages in various regions of the world.

A map indicating dark ages in various regions of the world.

Although particular civilizations have come and gone since the origin of the first civilizations, there has been no time since that origin that the phenomenon of civilization itself has been completely extinguished, however dimly the flame may have burned during some periods of time and in some places throughout the subsequent history of civilization. While there has been much savagery and barbarism since our ancestors first began to live settled lives in cities supported by agriculture, there have been at least an equal number of Golden Ages and cultural high points. The continuum of civilization is riddled with exceptions and discontinuities.

It could be argued that the proven historical viability of civilization has slowly and gradually increased the robustness of civilization over time, making the continued likelihood of civilization higher than its possible disappearance from history. The longer civilization lasts, the stronger, the more durable, and the more pervasive it seems to become. The Greek Dark Ages from about 1200 BC – 800 BC were dark indeed, but elsewhere in the world civilization carried on at a minimal level. The Dark Ages of later Western history were not nearly so dark (nor as protracted) as the Greek Dark Ages, but, relative to the level of civilization immediate prior and immediately following, the European Dark Ages represented a low ebb of civilization.

The architecture, art, and literature of the western European Dark Ages is relatively modest and humble.  This picture of Santa María del Naranco, an example of Asturian architecture of the Ramirense period, shows it to be a building of harmonious proportions, but still diminutive in comparison to, say, the Colosseum preceeding it or Notre Dame de Paris following it; but at about the same time Hagia Sophia was being built at Constantinople at a scale to rival any monumental construction.

The architecture, art, and literature of the western European Dark Ages is relatively modest and humble. This picture of Santa María del Naranco, an example of Asturian architecture of the Ramirense period, shows it to be a building of harmonious proportions, but still diminutive in comparison to, say, the Colosseum preceding it or Notre Dame de Paris following it; but at about the same time Hagia Sophia was being built at Constantinople at a scale to rival any monumental construction.

Recent scholarship has reacted against the very idea of a “Dark Ages” and the term is scarcely used today, but it remains a useful way to characterize western European civilization from about 400 AD to 800 AD (roughly speaking). In Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective, I observed that, “No one reads Spartan poetry. No one admires Spartan architecture. The Spartans themselves had little use for such niceties.” It could be similarly observed that, while there is surviving literature from the European Dark Ages, it is not widely read today. Beowulf, the best-known classic of the early Middle Ages, comes from the ninth century, already a period passing out of the Dark Ages, as testified by the production of classic literature. Thus civilization did reach a low ebb, but it flourished elsewhere, beyond western Europe, and ultimately returned to western Europe.

The above considerations imply that the overall development of civilization does point to a pattern of development, and that pattern of development suggests that, if future will be like the past (the basic premiss of inductive reasoning), then civilization has a future that is stronger and greater (in a quantitative sense) that its history to date. But whether it is ever adequate to characterize civilization in quantitative terms is at least questionable: what we rightly value most in the history of civilization are the qualitative achievements that show themselves to exemplify an ideal not previously even conceived, much less concretely realized.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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hope utopia perfection progress

Part I

Theoretical Reflection

1.0 An unstable future is more likely to inspire fear than hope, but an exhaustive tradition in which everything is determined in totality is perhaps even worse than fear of the unknown.

2.0 Mature institutions converge on totality, foreclosing upon instability (hence also opportunity) in the name of order, and perhaps also in the name of perfection, as in the pursuit of a more perfect union.

3.0 In so far as perfection is understood to be a finished state, an end attained, perfection cannot incorporate progress—there can only be progress toward perfection, never progress in perfection.

3.1 Even if perfection must be innocent of progress, we can still define progress as a utopian process as contrasted to a finished utopian state of being.

3.2 While progress and utopia are mutually exclusive, they are also intimately related—there must be progress in order to achieve utopia, but in the same motion that utopia is realized, progress ceases.

3.21 The ladder of progress is to be cast away once of the summit of utopia has been surmounted; the end of history has arrived.

4.0 Hope is a disposition, not an emotion.We can distinguish between the disposition of hope and the emotion associated with hope.

4.1 While it would be inaccurate to call hope an emotion, there is a hopeful state of mind that qualifies as an emotion.

4.11 This hopeful state of mind could be called hopefulness, in order to distinguish it from hope proper.

4.12 In same way, while it would be inaccurate to call love an emotion, there is a loving state of mind that qualifies as an emotion.

4.2 Hope and love are dispositions that admit of parallelism.

4.21 The hopeful state of mind (4.1), i.e., hopefulness, and the loving state of mind (4.11) are emotions that admit of parallelism.

5.0 Hope and expectation can be distinguished.

5.1 Although hope and expectation are distinct, and can be distinguished by those who care to distinguish them, hope and expectation cannot however be disentangled in the life of any individual.

5.2 Hopes and expectations naturally escalate when things are going well, each one contributing to the other, so that expectations of a certain standard of living encourage one to hope for better, while this on-going hope for the better, if it receives any encouragement at all, often leads to an expectation of an improved standard of living, inspiring, in turn, further hopes to live better yet.

5.3 When an individual’s circumstances are declining the expectation of a declining standard of living is checked by hopes that these expectations will not be fulfilled, so that the unrealistic spiral of hopes and expectations during good times are rarely brought down to realistic levels even in poor times.

6.0 Human beings, being driven primarily by emotion, are more readily reached through hopefulness than through hope sensu stricto.

6.1 Even where hope has fled, hopefulness often remains, which explains why (5.3) when an individual’s circumstances are declining… etc.

6.2 Wittgenstein wrote in the Foreword to his Philosophical Remarks that he would like to say that he had written the book to the glory of God, but, he says, that would be chicanery today. Similarly, to mention hope today sounds like chicanery, and even those who have not read T. S. Eliot’s line that “hope would be hope for the wrong thing,” would instinctively understand the lines and believe them to be an accurate summary of our present condition.

6.21 Hope for the wrong thing is possible because hopefulness subsists even in the absence of hope.

7.0 If politics cultivated hope in the way it now cultivates anger, the world would be a different place than it is today.

Part II

Practical Application

1.0 To counteract stagnancy and despair an explicit policy of encouraging change, promoting progress, and inspiring enthusiasm for the future should be pursued without apologies to any who find the measures unrealistic, sentimental, insufficiently sophisticated for our time, or just plain wrong. Progress has had its share of critics—perhaps more than its share of critics. Perhaps it is time for the advocates of progress to make their case again. It would be difficult to identify an idea that came in for more abuse in the twentieth century than the idea of progress.

2.0 The events of the twentieth century constitute an inductive argument against progress as an operative principle of world history.

3.0 Being an operative principle of world history is a matter distinct from being worthy and admirable, or even from being the source of whatever was worthy and admirable in a century of crimes and atrocities.

4.0 We are not obliged to take facts for our ideals, and we are not in error if we are unable to transform our ideals into facts.

5.0 We are bound to history and its unsavory facts, but we are not absolutely bound, and we also have the capacity to transcend history.

5.1 The events of history, while not inevitable, occur within the parameters of the possible.

5.2 The parameters of the possible are established by past events without being determined by them.

5.21 Past events establish a point of departure for events of the future without determining events of the future.

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