Folk Astrobiology

6 August 2016

Saturday


If some alien species had encountered Earth during one of its snowball periods, the planet would have resembled a biosphere with a single biome.

If some alien species had encountered Earth during one of its snowball periods, the planet would have resembled a biosphere with a single biome.

Can there be folk concepts in (and of) recent and sophisticated scientific thought, such as astrobiology? Astrobiology is a recent discipline, and as such is a beneficiary of a long history of the development of scientific disciplines; in other words, astrobiology stands on the shoulders of giants. In From an Astrobiological Point of View I characterized astrobiology as the fourth and latest of four revolutions in the life sciences, preceded by Darwinism, genetics, and evolutionary developmental biology (i.e., evo-devo). Can there be folk concepts that influence such a recent scientific discipline?

In Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress and Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization I considered the possibility of folk concepts unique to a scientific civilization, and the folk concepts of recent sciences like astrobiology constitute paradigmatic examples of folk concepts unique to scientific civilization. The concepts of folk astrobiology, far being being rare, have proliferated as science fiction has proliferated and made a place for itself in contemporary culture, especially in film and television.

One idea of folk astrobiology that is familiar from countless science fiction films is that of planets the biosphere of which is dominated by a single biome. Both Frank Herbert’s planet Arrakis from the novel Dune and the planets Tatooine and Jakku from Star Wars are primarily desert planets, whereas the Star Wars planet Dagobah is primarily swamp, the planet Kamino is a global ocean, and the planet Hoth is primarily arctic. Two worlds that appear in the Alien films, Zeta Reticuli exomoon LV-426 in Alien and Aliens and LV-223 in Prometheus, are both desolate, rocky, and barren, like the landscapes we have come to expect from the robotic exploration of the other worlds in our own solar system.

The knowledge we have assembled of the long-term history of the biosphere of Earth, that our planet has passed through “hothouse” and “icehouse” stages, suggest it is reasonable to suppose that we will find similar conditions elsewhere in the universe, though Earth today has a wide variety of biomes that make up its biosphere. We should expect to find worlds both with diverse biospheres and with biospheres primarily constituted by a single biome. Perhaps this idea of folk astrobiology will someday be formalized, when we know more about the evolution of biospheres of multiple worlds, and we have the data to plot a bell curve of small, rocky, wet planets in the habitable zone of their star. This bell curve almost certainly exists, we just don’t know as yet where Earth falls on the curve and what kinds of worlds populate the remainder of the curve.

Biosphere diversity is thus a familiar concept of folk astrobiology. But let me backtrack a bit and try to formulate more clearly an explication of folk astrobiology.

In an earlier post I quoted the following definition of folk biology:

Folk biology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the organic world. Humans everywhere classify animals and plants into species-like groups as obvious to a modern scientist as to a Maya Indian. Such groups are primary loci for thinking about biological causes and relations (Mayr 1969). Historically, they provided a transtheoretical base for scientific biology in that different theories — including evolutionary theory — have sought to account for the apparent constancy of “common species” and the organic processes centering on them. In addition, these preferred groups have “from the most remote period… been classed in groups under groups” (Darwin 1859: 431). This taxonomic array provides a natural framework for inference, and an inductive compendium of information, about organic categories and properties. It is not as conventional or arbitrary in structure and content, nor as variable across cultures, as the assembly of entities into cosmologies, materials, or social groups. From the vantage of EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY, such natural systems are arguably routine “habits of mind,” in part a natural selection for grasping relevant and recurrent “habits of the world.”

Robert Andrew Wilson and Frank C. Keil, The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences

And here is a NASA definition of astrobiology that I have previously quoted:

“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”

Drawing on both of these definitions — “Folk biology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the organic world” and “Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe” — we can formulate a fairly succinct definition of folk astrobiology:

Folk astrobiology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.

I hope that the reader immediately sees how common this exercise is, both in scientific and non-scientific thought. On the scientific side, folk astrobiology is pervasively present in the background assumptions of SETI, while on the non-scientific side, as we have seen above in examples drawn from scientific fiction films, folk astrobiology informs our depiction of other worlds and their inhabitants. These concepts of folk astrobiology are underdetermined by astrobiology, but well grounded in common sense and scientific knowledge as far as it extends today. We will only be able to fully redeem these ideas for science when we have empirical data from many worlds. We will begin to accumulate this data when, in the near future, we are able to get spectroscopic readings from exoplanet atmospheres, but that is only the thin edge of the wedge. Robust data sets for the evolution of multiple independent biospheres will have to await interstellar travel. (This is one reason that I suggested that a starship would be the ultimate scientific instrument; cf. The Interstellar Imperative.)

Folk astrobiology remains “folk” until its concepts are fully formalized as part of a rigorous scientific discipline. As few disciplines ever attain complete rigor (logic and mathematics have come closest to converging on that goal), there is always a trace of folk thought that survives in, and is even propagated along with, scientific thought. Folk concepts and scientific concepts, then, are not mutually exclusive, but rather they overlap and intersect in a Wittgensteinian fashion. However, the legacy of positivism has often encouraged us to see folk concepts and scientific concepts as mutually exclusive, and if one adopts the principle that scientific concepts must be reductionist, therefore no non-reductionist concepts are not scientific, then it follows that most folk concepts are eliminated when a body of knowledge is made scientifically rigorous (I will not further develop this idea at present, but I hope to return to it when I can formulate it with greater precision).

We have a sophisticated contemporary biological science, and thus scientific biological concepts are ready to hand to employ in astrobiology, so that astrobiology has an early advantage in converging upon scientific rigor. But if a science aspires to transcend its origins and to establish itself as a new science co-equal with its progenitors, it must be prepared to go beyond familiar concepts, and in this case this means going beyond the sophisticated concepts of contemporary biology in order to establish truly astrobiological scientific concepts, i.e., uniquely astrobiological concepts, and these distinctive and novel concepts must then, in their turn, converge on scientific rigor. In the case of astrobiology, this may mean formulating a “natural history” where “nature” is construed as to include the whole of the universe, and this idea transcends the familiar idea of natural history, forcing the astrobiologist to account for cosmology as well as biology.

As an example of an uniquely astrobiology concept I above suggested the idea of biosphere diversity. Biosphere diversity, in turn, is related to ideas of biosphere evolution, developmental stages on planets with later emergent complexities, and so on. The several posts I have written to date on planetary endemism (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and more to come) may be considered expositions of the folk astrobiological idea of planetary endemism. Similarly, the homeworld concept is both a folk concept of astrobiology and scientific civilization (cf. The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung, Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space, and The Martian Standpoint).

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The idea of a homeworld is a folk concept of astrobiology and scientific civilization.

The idea of a homeworld is a folk concept of astrobiology and scientific civilization.

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Mere Humanity

22 May 2016

Sunday


From 'How the cheetah got its SPEED: Genes mutated to boost muscle strength making the big cat the fastest mammal on land' by Sarah Griffiths

From ‘How the cheetah got its speed: Genes mutated to boost muscle strength making the big cat the fastest mammal on land’ by Sarah Griffiths

Some time ago in Humanity as One I considered the unity of the human species, and, perhaps as significantly, how we discovered that unity. Beyond the woolly thinking and feel-good platitudes that tend to swamp any discussion of human unity, we know now from the genetic evidence contained within each and every human being that humanity constitutes a single species. But while it has become a stubborn problem in the philosophy of biology of how exactly to define species, the real message of the Darwinian conception of species is that of species anti-realism (for lack of a better term). Nature is continuous, and dividing up the natural world into biological taxa — species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom — is a convenience of human knowledge but ought not to be conceived as a Platonic form in biology, i.e., a template imposed upon nature, and not nature itself. So it is with the human species: we are a convenience of taxonomy, not a natural kind.

Given species anti-realism, it should surprise no one that all species are not alike; it may be a mistake to seek a single definition for what constitutes a species, though it is a habit of the Platonic frame of mind to settle on an essentialist definition. In biology specifically, for example, there is a long-standing tension between taxonomies based on some structural criterion or criteria (as in the Linnaean system) and taxonomies based on descent (evolutionary biology since Darwin). Marc Ereshefsky in his book The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy advocates completely abandoning the Linnaean taxonomy and offers as an alternative “species pluralism,” asking whether, “Given the theoretical and pragmatic problems facing the Linnaean system, should biologists continue using that system?” With our contemporary naturalistic conception of human beings as one biological species among others, any change in our conception of species becomes a change in our conception of ourselves as a biological species. Might we define the human species in several different but equally valid ways?

In saying that humanity constitutes a single species we could express this comparatively in relation to other species. Because all species are not alike, a given species might, for example, represent more or less genetic diversity. (If we defined species by their genetic diversity, we would have a rather different taxonomy than that which we currently employ.) Geneticists discuss diversity in terms of nucleotide distance and heterozygosity; I will consider the latter as a measure for human genetic diversity. For example, human genetic diversity is lower than C. brenneri, a “bacteria-eating, 1-millimeter-long worm” (cf. The most genetically diverse animal; C. brenneri has been called “hyperdiverse” with a heterozygosity of around 40%, cf. Molecular hyperdiversity defines populations of the nematode Caenorhabditis brenneri), and higher than the San Nicolas population of island foxes off the coast of California (cf. Foxes on one of California’s Channel Islands have least genetic variation of all wild animals and Genomic Flatlining in the Endangered Island Fox). As I have sometimes cited the cheetah as a mammal population with very low genetic diversity (cf. Multiregional Cognitive Modernity), it is interesting to read that, the San Nicolas island fox, “has nearly an order of magnitude less genetic variation than any other low-diversity species, including the severely endangered African cheetah, Mountain gorilla, and Tasmanian devil.” (cf. Foxes on one of California’s Channel Islands have least genetic variation of all wild animals).

The San Nicolas population of island foxes off the coast of California has perhaps the lowest genetic diversity of any mammal.

The San Nicolas population of island foxes off the coast of California has perhaps the lowest genetic diversity of any mammal.

Now, I will admit that the first comparison with a little-known worm is not very enlightening, as we human beings, being part of the explosive adaptive radiation of mammals after the extinction of the dinosaurs, better understand comparisons with other mammals (cf. A Sentience-Rich Biosphere), and so a better comparison would be the mammal with the greatest genetic diversity. For a non-specialist like myself it is difficult to extract the relevant numbers from the context of scientific papers, but there seem to be mammal populations with significantly higher genetic diversity than human beings, just as there are mammal populations with significantly lower genetic diversity than human beings (on human genetic diversity generally cf. Human heterozygosity: A new estimate). The striped-mouse, Rhabdomys pumilio, has a heterozygosity (in some populations) of 7.3 %, significantly higher than the mammalian mean (there is an established mean heterozygosity for mammals of about 3.6 %, or H = 0.036; cf. Genetic variation in Rhabdomys pumilio (Sparrman 1784) — an allozyme study). The house mouse Mus musculus has populations with a genetic diversity of 8.9 % (H = 0.089). The extremely endangered Rhinoceros unicornis has a heterozygosity of nearly 10%, which may be the highest of any vertebrate (cf. Molecular Markers, Natural History and Evolution by J. C. Avise, p. 366).

indian-rhino

It would be an oversimplification to rely exclusively on heterozygosity as a measure of genetic diversity, but at least it is a measure, and having a quantifiable measure gives us a different way to think about the human species, and a way to think about our species in relation to other species. The intellectual superstructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, which our industrial-technological civilization has inherited but not yet overcome, gave us the scala naturae, also known as the great chain of being (cf. my post Parsimony and Emergent Complexity). This conception also placed human beings in a context, and near the middle: higher than the animals, but lower than the angels. Genetic diversity places human beings in a naturalistic context that can (or, at least, could, with the proper motivation) be studied scientifically.

The scala naturae, or Great Chain of Being, placed humanity higher than animals but lower than angels.

The scala naturae, or Great Chain of Being, placed humanity higher than animals but lower than angels.

Are human beings being studied scientifically today? Yes and no. If you search Google for “highest genetic diversity” and “lowest genetic diversity” the top search results are all related to the perennially troubling question of human races (which I discussed in Against Natural History, Right and Left). On this point contemporary thought is so compromised that objective scientific research is impossible. This is unfortunate. More than 150 years after Darwin, the biology of human beings is still controversial. This ought to make any rational person wince.

Sigmund Freud wrote, “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor.”

Sigmund Freud wrote, “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor.”

What Freud once said of religion — “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanour” — now appears to be true of humanity, which suggests that, despite Comte’s failed attempt to explicitly formulate a religion of humanity, an implicit religion of humanity has grown up almost unnoticed around the idea. This quasi-religious conception of humanity — which Francis Fukuyama expressed by saying, “we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct” (cf. Human Exceptionalism) — militates against any scientific self-understanding by humanity. This suggests an interesting possibility for defining a scientific civilization: a scientific civilization is a civilization in which the intelligent agent responsible for the civilization reflexively applies scientific understanding to itself. Scientific medicine studies human beings scientifically in order to keep them healthy and alive, but, with a few exceptions, human beings are not yet understood in a fully scientific context.

Francis Fukuyama said that we have drawn a red line around human beings and called ourselves sacrosanct. While this is accurately descriptive of anthropocentric morality, it isn't a good guide to a scientific understanding of humanity.

Francis Fukuyama said that we have drawn a red line around human beings and called ourselves sacrosanct. While this is accurately descriptive of anthropocentric morality, it isn’t a good guide to a scientific understanding of humanity.

The scientific revolution set the stage for the possibility of a scientific civilization and for studying human beings in a fully scientific context. Neither of these possibilities have yet come to full fruition, and science itself has continued to develop and evolve, so that any scientific civilization or any conception of humanity based on contemporaneous science would have continually developed in parallel with the development of science. It is interesting to note that the scientific revolution begins about the same time as the Columbian Exchange, which latter essentially unified the human species again after our global diaspora (this was the theme of my earlier Humanity as One), in which populations had become separated and did not know themselves to be one species. The sense of humanity as one that emerges from the global unification of the Columbian Exchange and the sense of humanity as one that emerges from science both give us a planetary conception of humanity that might well be called the overview effect as applied specifically to humanity. I would call this “The Human Overview,” except that I have already used this to indicate the comprehensive impression we derive from meeting with and speaking to another.

I would argue now that we are capable of transcending even this planetary conception of humanity because of the recent extrapolation of biology as astrobiology. Science from the scientific revolution to the middle of the twentieth century was the science of a species exclusively subject to planetary endemism, and even though we overcame geocentrism in a narrow sense, our conceptions of the world and of ourselves often remained subject to geocentrism in an extended sense; the intellectual equivalent of geocentrism is the projection of the assumptions of planetary endemism onto our categories of thought. With the first glimpse of the Earth from space (i.e., the overview effect) and a growing awareness of the cosmological context of our planetary system, we began to transcend this intellectual equivalent of geocentrism. One of the consequences of this has been astrobiology, which places biology in a cosmological context, and, in so far as we understand humanity scientifically, places humanity also in a cosmological context.

Astrobiology would be impossible without both contemporary cosmology and biology; cosmology gives the scope of the conception, and biology the depth. With our increasing knowledge of cosmology and growing sophistication in biology, we have the intellectual resources now to formulate the human condition in a cosmological context and hence to understand ourselves scientifically — if only we have the strength of mind to do so. While such a conception of humanity would be “mere humanity” without the overlay of theological, soteriological, eschatological and teleological concepts that have been used in the past to develop a more comprehensive conception of humanity — what I elsewhere called, “the hopeless tangle of rationalization and cognitive bias that we have painstakingly erected around the idea of humanity” — this “mere humanity” is far more noble and edifying in its simplicity than past attempts to guild the lily.

As a species we have a long and painful history of perverting the ideals we have chosen for ourselves and making the human condition much worse than it was before any such ideals were conceived. As Montaigne noted, men, in seeking to become angels, transformed themselves into beasts (cf. Transcendental Humors). Among these brutal ideals I would count all the theological, soteriological, eschatological and teleological concepts that have been used to flesh out the concept of humanity, while the “darkling aspiration” (“dunklen Drange”) of a Faust has proved not to be our undoing, but rather to be what is best in humanity. In the past, our aspiration to embody perverted ideals in our own lives resulted in raising up as false idols fragmented and partial conceptions of humanity; individuals sought to become some particular kind of humanity (rather than “Mere Humanity”), and accounted this striving as a form of virtue, when it is, in fact, the spirit of ethnic cleansing. The planetary conception of humanity, and indeed the astrobiological conception of humanity, gives the lie to all of this. Soon it will be vain to aspire to be anything other than merely human, and soon after that it will be vain to aspire to be human (i.e., exclusively human). But the way to this understanding is through science and a rigorously scientific conception of humanity.

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An illustration from Andreas Vesalius' De humanis corporis fabrica, a classic of mere humanity.

An illustration from Andreas Vesalius’ De humanis corporis fabrica, a classic of mere humanity.

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Origins of Globalization

20 December 2015

Sunday


Earth_Nightside_composite

The politics of a word

It is unfortunate to have to use the word “globalization,” as it is a word that rapidly came into vogue and then passed out of vogue with equal rapidity, and as it passed out of vogue it had become spattered with a great many unpleasant associations. I had already noted this shift in meaning in my book Political Economy of Globalization.

In the earliest uses, “globalization” had a positive connotation; while “globalization” could be used in an entirely objective economic sense as a description of the planetary integration of industrialized economies, this idea almost always was delivered with a kind of boosterism. One cannot be surprised that the public rapidly tired of hearing about globalization, and it was perhaps the sub-prime mortgage crisis that delivered the coup de grâce.

In much recent use, “globalization” has taken on a negative connotation, with global trade integration and the sociopolitical disruption that this often causes blamed for every ill on the planet. Eventually the hysterical condemnation of globalization will go the way of boosterism, and future generations will wonder what everyone was talking about at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. But in the meantime the world will have been changed, and these future generations will not care about globalization only because process converged on its natural end.

Despite this history of unhelpful connotations, I must use the word, however, because if I did not use it, the relevance of what I am saying would probably be lost. Globalization is important, even if the word has been used in misleading ways; globalization is a civilizational-level transformation that leaves nothing untouched, because at culmination of the process of globalization lies a new kind of civilization, planetary civilization.

I suspect that the reaction to “planetary civilization” would be very different from the reactions evoked by “globalization,” though the two are related as process to outcome. Globalization is the process whereby parochial, geographically isolated civilizations are integrated into a single planetary civilization. The integration of planetary civilization is being consolidated in our time, but it has its origins about five hundred years ago, when two crucial events began the integration of our planet: the Copernican Revolution and the Columbian exchange.

Copernicus continues to shape not only how we see the universe, but also our understanding of our place within it.

Copernicus continues to shape not only how we see the universe, but also our understanding of our place within it.

The Copernican Revolution

The intellectual basis of of our world as a world, i.e., as a planet, and as one planet among other planets in a planetary system, is the result of the Copernican revolution. The Copernican revolution forces us to acknowledge that the Earth is one planet among planets. The principle has been extrapolated so that we eventually also acknowledged that the sun is one star among stars, our galaxy is one galaxy among galaxies, and eventually we will have to accept that the universe is but one universe among universes, though at the present level of the development of science the universe defines the limit of knowledge because it represents the possible limits of observation. When we will eventually transcend this limit, it will be due not to abandoning empirical evidence as the basis of science, but by extending empirical evidence beyond the limits observed today.

As one planet among many planets, the Earth loses its special status of being central in the universe, only to regain its special status as the domicile of an organism that can uniquely understand its status in the universe, overcoming the native egoism of any biological organism that survives first and asks questions later. Life that begins merely as self-replication and eventually adds capacities until it can feel and eventually reason is probably rare in the universe. The unique moral qualities of a being derived from such antecedents but able to transcend the exigencies of the moment is the moral legacy of the Copernican Revolution.

As the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, the Copernican Revolution is also part of a larger movement that would ultimately become the basis of a new civilization. Industrial-technological civilization is a species of scientific civilization; it is science that provides the intellectual infrastructure that ties together scientific civilization. Science is uniquely suited to its unifying role, as it constitutes the antithesis of the various ethnocentrisms that frequently define pre-modern forms of civilization, which thereby exclude even as they expand imperially.

Civilzation unified sub specie scientia is unified in a way that no ethnic, national, or religious community can be organized. Science is exempt from the Weberian process of defining group identity through social deviance, though this not well understood, and because not well understood, often misrepresented. The exclusion of non-science from the scope of science is often assimilated to Weberian social deviance, though it is something else entirely. Science is selective on the basis of empirical evidence, not social convention. While social convention is endlessly malleable, empirical evidence is unforgiving in the demarcation it makes between what falls within the scope of the confirmable or disconfirmable, and what falls outside this scope. Copernicus began the process of bringing the world entire within this scope, and in so doing changed our conception of the world.

An early encounter between the New World and the Old.

An early encounter between the New World and the Old.

The Columbian Exchange

While the Copernican Revolution provided the intellectual basis of the unification of the world as a planetary civilization, the Columbian Exchange provided the material and economic basis of the unification of the world as a planetary civilization. In the wake of the voyages of discovery of Columbus and Magellan, and many others that followed, the transatlantic trade immediately began to exchange goods between the Old World and the New World, which had been geographically isolated. The biological consequences of this exchange were profound, which meant that the impact on biocentric civilization was transformative.

We know the story of what happened — even if we do not know this story in detail — because it is the story that gave us the world that we know today. Human beings, plants, and animals crossed the Atlantic Ocean and changed the ways of life of people everywhere. New products like chocolate and tobacco became cash crops for export to Europe; old products like sugar cane thrived in the Caribbean Basin; invasive species moved in; indigenous species were pushed out or become extinct. Maize and potatoes rapidly spread to the Old World and became staple crops on every inhabited continent.

There is little in the economy of the world today that does not have its origins in the Columbian exchange, or was not prefigured in the Columbian exchange. Prior to the Columbian exchange, long distance trade was a trickle of luxuries that occurred between peoples who never met each other at the distant ends of a chain of middlemen that spanned the Eurasian continent. The world we know today, of enormous ships moving countless shipping containers around the world like so many chess pieces on a board, has its origins in the Age of Discovery and the great voyages that connected each part of the world to every other part.

earthlights - nasa picture from space

Defining planetary civilization

In my presentation “What kind of civilizations build starships?” (at the 2015 Starship Congress) I proposed that civilizations could be defined (and given a binomial nomenclature) by employing the Marxian distinction between intellectual superstructure and economic infrastructure. This is why I refer to civilizations in hyphenated form, like industrial-technological civilization or agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. The first term gives the economic infrastructure (what Marx also called the “base”) while the second term gives the intellectual superstructure (which Marx called the ideological superstructure).

In accord with this approach to specifying a civilization, the planetary civilization bequeathed to us by globalization may be defined in terms of its intellectual superstructure by the Copernican revolution and in terms of its economic infrastructure by the Columbian exchange. Thus terrestrial planetary civilization might be called Columbian-Copernican civilization (though I don’t intend to employ this name as it is not an attractive coinage).

Planetary civilization is the civilization that emerges when geographically isolated civilizations grow until all civilizations are contiguous with some other civilization or civiliations. It is interesting to note that this is the opposite of the idea of allopatric speciation; biological evolution cannot function in reverse in this way, reintegrating that which has branched off, but the evolution of mind and civilization can bring back together divergent branches of cultural evolution into a new synthesis.

globalization 1

Not the planetary civilization we expected

While the reader is likely to have a different reaction to “planetary civilization” than to “globalization,” both are likely to be misunderstood, though misunderstood in different ways and for different reasons. Discussing “planetary civilization” is likely to evoke utopian visions of our Earth not only intellectually and economically unified, but also morally and politically unified. The world today is in fact unified economically and, somewhat less so, intellectually (in industrialized economies science has become the universal means of communication, and mathematics is the universal language of science), but unification of the planet by trade and commerce has not led to political and moral unification. This is not the planetary civilization once imagined by futurists, and, like most futurisms, once the future arrives we do not recognize it for what it is.

There is a contradiction in the contemporary critique of globalization that abhors cultural homogenization on the one hand, while on the other hand bemoans the ongoing influence of ethnic, national, and religious regimes that stand in the way of the moral and political unification of humankind. It is not possible to have both. In so far as the utopian ideal of planetary civilization aims at the moral and political unification of the planet, it would by definition result in a cultural homogenization of the world far more destructive of traditional cultures than anything seen so far in human civilization. And in so far as the fait accompli of scientific and commercial unification of planetary civilization fails to develop into moral and political unification, it preserves cultural heterogeneity.

Incomplete globalization, incomplete planetary civilization

The process of globalization is not yet complete. China is nearing the status of a fully industrialized economy, and India is making the same transition, albeit more slowly and by another path. The beginnings of the industrialization of Africa are to be seen, but this process will not be completed for at least a hundred years, and maybe it will require two hundred years.

Imperfect though it is, we have today a planetary civilization (an incomplete planetary civilization) as the result of incomplete globalization, and that planetary civilization will continue to take shape as globalization runs its course. When the processes of globalization are exhausted, planetary civilization will be complete, in so far as it remains exclusively planetary, but if civilization makes the transition to spacefaring before the process of globalization is complete, our civilization will assume no final (or mature) form, but will continue to adapt to changed circumstances.

From these reflections we can extrapolate the possibility of distinct large-scale structures of civilizational development. Civilization might transition from parochial, to planetary, and then to spacefaring, not making the transition to the next stage until the previous stage is complete. That would mean completing the process of globalization and arriving at a mature planetary civilization without developing a demographically significant spacefaring capacity (this seems to be our present trajectory of development). Alternatively, civilizational development might be much more disorderly, with civilizations repeatedly preempted as unprecedented emergents derail orderly development.

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Monday


A drawing of James Watt’s Steam Engine printed in the 3rd edition Britannica 1797

A drawing of James Watt’s Steam Engine printed in the 3rd edition Britannica 1797

Historians can always reach further back into the past in order to find ever-more-distant antecedents to the world of today. This is one of the persistent problems of periodization, and it often results in different historians employing different periodizations of the same temporal continuum. There are periodizations that involve greater and lesser consensus. There is a significant degree of consensus that the industrial revolution begins with James Watt’s steam engine developed from 1763 to 1775. Watt’s steam engine, of course, does not appear out of nowhere. It was preceded by the use of much less efficient Newcomen engines used to pump water from mine shafts. It was also preceded by hundreds of years of medieval industry that employed wind and water power to run machinery, so that it was “merely” a matter of installing one of Watt’s new steam engines in an existing mechanical infrastructure that made the industrial revolution possible. Of course, the reality of the historical process is much more detailed — and much more interesting — than that. The steam engine was a trigger, and large scale economic and social forces were already in play that made it possible for the industrial revolution to transform civilization.

Sir Richard Arkwright, oil on canvas, Mather Brown, 1790. New Britain Museum of American Art

Sir Richard Arkwright, oil on canvas, Mather Brown, 1790. New Britain Museum of American Art

The life of Sir Richard Arkwright reveals the search for historical antecedents in particular clarity — as well as revealing the complexity of of the historical process — as Arkwright spent the greater part of his life inventing textile machinery and building mills, some of which were horse powered and most of which were water powered. In 1790 Arkwright built the first textile factory powered by a Boulton and Watt steam engine in Nottingham, England. Arkwright was a man of many plans, who always had another new project into which he poured his apparently abundant energies. The industrial application of the steam engine was only one of many of Arkwright’s projects. Men like Arkwright prepared the ground for the Industrial revolution by a thousand events that occurred long before the industrial revolution. Everything had to be in place for the steam engine to be exploited in the way that it was — a capitalist economy as described by Adam Smith on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, legal institutions that respected private property, nascent industry powered by wind and water, literacy, science in its modern form, and so on.

Richard Arkwright's water-powered Masson Mill

Richard Arkwright’s water-powered Masson Mill

The steam engine might have come about merely by tinkering — its construction was not predicated upon the most advanced scientific knowledge of the time, or the application of this science — and it might have stayed within the realm of tinkering, confined to a social class that did not receive an education in science. Instead, something unprecedented happened. The development of the steam engine led to theorizing about the steam engine, which in turn led to the development of a fundamental science that is still with us today, long after steam engines have ceased to play a significant role in our civilization. Other technologies replaced the steam engine, and the technologies that replaced the steam engine were replaced with later technologies, and so on through several generations of technologies. But the science that grew out of the study of steam engines is with us still in the form of thermodynamics, and thermodynamics is central to contemporary science.

Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot, 01 June 1796 to 24 August 1832, was a French military engineer and physicist; in his only publication, the 1824 monograph Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, Carnot gave the first successful theory of the maximum efficiency of heat engines. (Wikipedia)

Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot, 01 June 1796 to 24 August 1832, was a French military engineer and physicist; in his only publication, the 1824 monograph Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, Carnot gave the first successful theory of the maximum efficiency of heat engines. (Wikipedia)

Indeed, we have passed from the study of ideal steam engines to the study of the universe entire in terms of thermodynamics, so that the scope of thermodynamics has relentlessly expanded since its introduction, even while the applications of steam engines have been been reduced in scope until they are a marginal technology. How is this unprecedented? No Greek philosopher ever wrote a theoretical treatise on Hero’s steam turbine, and if a Greek philosopher had done so, there simply was not enough of a background of scientific knowledge to do so coherently. Archimedes did write several treatises on practical matters, and there was enough mathematics in classical antiquity to give a mathematical treatment of certain problems that might be characterized as physics, but Archimedes remained an individual working mostly in isolation. His work did not become a scientific research program (in the Lakatosian sense); he was not a member of a community of researchers sharing results and working jointly on experiments.

Hero's Steam Turbine remained a curiosity in classical antiquity; it did not spark an industrial revolution.

Hero’s Steam Turbine remained a curiosity in classical antiquity; it did not spark an industrial revolution.

There is a striking resemblance between the industrial revolution and the British agricultural revolution. In most feudal societies of the time — and almost every society at the time was feudal to some degree — the land-owning classes that controlled the agricultural economy that was the engine of society would not work with their hands. To work with one’s hands was to acknowledge that one was a laborer or a tradesman, and this would be a considerable reduction in social status for an aristocrat. What is distinctive about England is that a few aristocrats became passionately interested in the ordinary business of life, and they threw themselves into this engagement in a way that cast aside the traditional taboo against the upper classes working with their hands. A figure who somewhat resembles Arkwright is Sir Thomas Coke of Norfolk, an aristocrat who did not scruple to mix with his tenant farmers, and who actively participated in agricultural reforms. The selective breeding of stock became progressively more scientific over time, and influenced Darwin, who devoted the opening chapter of On the Origin of Species to “Variation under Domestication,” which is concerned with selective breeding.

Portrait of Thomas William Coke, Esq. (1752-1842) inspecting some of his South Down sheep with Mr Walton and the Holkham shepherds Thomas Weaver (1774-1843) / © Collection of the Earl of Leicester, Holkham Hall, Norfolk

Portrait of Thomas William Coke, Esq. (1752-1842) inspecting some of his South Down sheep with Mr Walton and the Holkham shepherds Thomas Weaver (1774-1843) / © Collection of the Earl of Leicester, Holkham Hall, Norfolk

The core of scientific civilization as we know it is the patient and methodical application of the scientific method to industrial processes (including the processes of industrial agriculture). All civilizations have had technologies; all civilizations have had industries. Only scientific civilizations apply science to technology and industry in a systematic way. The tightly-coupled STEM cycle of our industrial-technological civilization has led to more technological change in the past century than occurred in the previous ten thousand years. Thus technology has experienced exponential growth, but only because this growth was driven by the application of science.

The STEM cycle is a distinctive feature of industrial-technological civilization, but it did not achieve its tightly-coupled form until the nineteenth century.

The STEM cycle is a distinctive feature of industrial-technological civilization, but it did not achieve its tightly-coupled form until the nineteenth century.

The role of science in industrial-technological civilization may be less evident than the role of technology, and indeed some desire the technology but are suspicious of the science, and seek to decouple the two. While some technologies pose some moral dilemmas, these dilemmas can be met (if unsatisfactorily met) simply by limiting the application of the technology. The ideas of science are not so easily limited, and they pose an intellectual threat — an existential threat — to ideological complacency.

The scientific revolution led to the scientific study of society, which in turn led to ethnography, and from ethnography we derive a view of the world that has been interpreted as calling into question the basis of scientific civilization.

The scientific revolution led to the scientific study of society, which in turn led to ethnography, and from ethnography we derive a view of the world that has been interpreted as calling into question the basis of scientific civilization.

The scientific civilization that has been created in the wake of the industrial revolution is so productive that it enables non-survival behavior orders of magnitude beyond the non-survival behavior of earlier civilizations. Human intellectual capacity gives us a survival margin not possessed by other species, so that even in a non-civilized condition human societies can engage in non-survival behavior. Here is a passage from Sam Harris on non-survival behavior that suggests the meaning I am getting at:

“Many social scientists incorrectly believe that all long-standing human practices must be evolutionarily adaptive: for how else could they persist? Thus, even the most bizarre and unproductive behaviors — female genital excision, blood feuds, infanticide, the torture of animals, scarification, foot binding, cannibalism, ceremonial rape, human sacrifice, dangerous male initiations, restricting the diet of pregnant and lactating mothers, slavery, potlatch, the killing of the elderly, sati, irrational dietary and agricultural taboos attended by chronic hunger and malnourishment, the use of heavy metals to treat illness, etc. — have been rationalized, or even idealized, in the fire-lit scribblings of one or another dazzled ethnographer. But the mere endurance of a belief system or custom does not suggest that it is adaptive, much less wise. It merely suggests that it hasn’t led directly to a society’s collapse or killed its practitioners outright.”

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, Introduction

As a result of the productive powers of scientific civilization, science can remain a marginal activity, largely walled off from the general public, while continuing to revolutionize the production processes of industry. This process of walling off science from the general public partly occurs due to the public’s discomfort with and distrust of science, but it also occurs partly due to the desire of scientists to continue their work without having to justify it to the general public, as the process of public justification inevitably becomes a social and political process in which the values unique to science easily become lost (This will be the topic of a future post, currently being drafted, on science communication to the public).

This social disconnect sets up an image of embattled scientists trying to carry on the work of scientific civilization in the face of what Ortega y Gasset called the revolt of the masses. A public indifferent to, or even hostile to, science decides, through its representatives, what sciences get funded and how much they get funded, and their social choices decide the social standing of the sciences and scientists. Can scientific civilization endure when those responsible for its continuation are increasingly marginal in social and political thought?

The house of industrial-technological civilization cannot long stand divided against itself. But taking the long view that was seen to be necessary to understanding the industrial revolution — that the steam engine was a trigger that occurred in the context of a civilization ripe for transformation — we must wonder what pervasive yet subtle changes are taking place today that may be triggered by the advent of some new invention that will transform civilization. While I think that scientific civilization has a long run ahead of it, scientific civilization can take many forms, of which industrial-technological civilization is but one early example. We live in the midst of industrial-technological civilization, so its institutions feel permanent and unchangeable to us, even as the most passing acquaintance with history will demonstrate that almost everything we take for granted today is historically unprecedented.

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Friday


Ludwig Wittgenstein

A Wittgensteinian Approach to Civilization

One of my most frequently accessed posts is titled following Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus section 5.6, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” (“Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt”). I noted in Contextualizing Wittgenstein that this earlier post on Wittgenstein was posted on Reddit and as a result gained a large number of views — a larger number, at least, than my posts usually receive.

If there is a general principle that can be derived from Tractatus 5.6, one application of this general principle would be the idea that the limits of science are the limits of scientific civilization. In the same vein we could assert that the limits of agriculture are the limits of agrarian civilization (or even, “the limits of agriculture are the limits of biocentric civilization”), and the limits of technology are the limits of technological civilization, and so forth. Another way to express this idea would be to say, the limits of science are the limits of industrial-technological civilization, in so far as our industrial-technological civilization belongs to the genus of scientific civilizations.

Recently I have taken up the problem of scientific civilizations in Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization, Types of Scientific Civilization, Suboptimal Civilizations, Addendum on Suboptimal Civilizations, David Hume and Scientific Civilization, The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization, and Addendum on the Stages of Civilization, inter alia. None of this, as yet, is a systematic treatment of the idea of scientific civilization, though there are many ideas here that can some day be integrated into a more comprehensive synthesis.

What does it mean to live in a scientific civilization constrained by the limits of science? One of the points that I sought to make in my earlier post on Tractatus 5.6 was a scientific interpretation of Wittgenstein’s aphorism, acknowledging that the different idioms we employ to think about the world involve different conceptions of the world. In that post I wrote, “…scientific theories often broaden our horizons and allow us to see and to understand things of which we were previously unaware. But a scientific theory, being a particular idiom as it is, may also limit us, and limit the way we see the world.” This is part of what it means to be constrained by the limits of science: our scientific idioms constrain the conceptual framework we use to understand ourselves and our civilization.

Significantly in this context, different scientific idioms are possible. Indeed, distinct sciences are possible. We have had an historical succession of scientific idioms, which could also be called a succession of distinct sciences — something that could be presented as a Wittgensteinian formulation of Thomas Kuhn — according to which one scientific paradigm has replaced another over time. There is also the unrealized possibility of different origins of science, and different developmental pathways of science, in different civilizations. This is an idea I explored in Types of Scientific Civilization.

A civilization might develop science in a different way than science emerged in terrestrial history. A civilization might begin with a different mathematical formalism or a different logic. Perhaps logic itself might begin with the kind of logical pluralism we know today, which would contrast sharply with the logical monism that has marked most of human history. Different sciences might develop in a different order. The ancient Greeks developed an axiomatic geometry, but no scientific biology. But the idea of natural selection is, in itself, no more difficult than the idea of axiomatic geometry, and could have developed first.

A civilization might fail to develop axiomatic geometry and instead develop a scientific biology in its earliest history — its equivalent of our classical antiquity — and this kind of early biological knowledge would probably take agricultural civilization in a profoundly different direction. There may be (somewhere in the universe) scientific agrarian civilizations that are qualitatively distinct from both agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and industrial-technological civilization. Thus the developmental sequence of sciences in a civilization — which sciences are developed in what order, and to what extent — will shape the scientific civilization that eventually emerges from this sequence (if it does in fact emerge). Is this sequence an historical accident? That is a difficult question that I will not attempt to answer at present.

There are, then, many possibilities for scientific civilizations, and we have not, with the history of terrestrial civilizations, fully explored (much less exhausted) these possibilities. But scientific civilizations also come with limitations that are intrinsic to scientific knowledge. In my Centauri Dreams post, “The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight,” I argued that the science of industrial-technological civilization, essentially narrowed by its participation in the STEM cycle that drives our civilization, is riddled with blind spots, and these blind spots mean that the civilization built on this science is riddled with blind spots.

This should not be a surprising conclusion, though I suspect few will agree with me. There is a comment on my Centauri Dreams post that implies I am arguing for the role of mystical experiences in civilization; this is not my purpose or my intention. This is simply a misunderstanding. But, in fact, the better I am understood probably the less likely it will be that others will agree with me. In another context, in A Fly in the Ointment, I argued that science is a particular branch of philosophy — that philosophy also known as methodological naturalism — which subverts the view (predictably prevalent in industrial-technological civilization) that if philosophy has any legitimacy at all, it is because it is a kind of marginal science in its own right. More often, philosophy is simply viewed as a kind of failed science.

Philosophy is not a kind of science. Science, on the contrary, is a kind of philosophy. This is not a common view today, but that is my framework for interpreting and understanding scientific civilization. It follows from this that a philosophical civilization would not necessarily be a kind of scientific civilization (the philosophy of such a civilization might or might not be the philosophy that we identify as science), but that our scientific civilization is a kind of philosophical civilization.

Philosophy is a much wider field of study, and it is from philosophy that we can expect to address the blind spots of science and the scientific civilization that has grown from science. So the limits both of science and scientific civilization can be addressed, but only from a more comprehensive perspective, and that more comprehensive perspective is not possible from within scientific civilization.

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Friday


Science in its early stages of development always makes use of folk concepts, and there is always some science in the early stages of its development.

Science in its early stages of development always makes use of folk concepts, and there is always some science in the early stages of its development.

Having provided an exposition of folk concepts in my Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress, I can move on to my motivation for thinking about folk concepts, which was to investigate the role of folk concepts in contemporary civilization, i.e., folk concepts in industrial-technological civilization, or scientific civilization, which latter seems paradoxical. How can folk concepts coexist with scientific civilization? If a civilization were truly scientific, would it not have overcome the use of folk concepts?

Scientific civilization in only about five hundred years old, and it may be divided into two portions, the period 1500-1800 (which I call Modernism without Industrialism, which is to say, the period between the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution) and the period after the industrial revolution (which marks the beginning of industrial-technological civilization, in which science is crucial to the STEM cycle, which drives this civilization).

I have considered the nature of scientific civilization in David Hume and Scientific Civilization and The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization, Addendum on the Stages of Civilization and The Perfectly Scientific Man: A Platonic Thought Experiment (and I am, additionally, working on several posts intended as further explorations of the idea of scientific civilization). To date I have only scratched the surface, and haven’t provided a sustained exposition of the idea of scientific civilization. This is a rich vein of inquiry for the study of civilization, and it will not be exhausted any time soon.

Paradoxical though it sounds, scientific civilization has its own folk concepts. This is because scientific civilization produces not only more refined and sophisticated sciences, but also entirely new sciences, and new sciences involve the introduction of new terms and concepts. Unprecedented developments — of which civilization itself is perhaps the most unprecedented development in human history — demand that we formulate a theoretical framework to intellectually assimilate them. Sometimes the technical and engineering capacities of industrial-technological civilization produce new entities, or new classes of entities (this is a source of planetary constraints on civilization, in the form of what I call the ontic constraint), and no established theoretical framework exists to assimilate these discoveries. Truly novel phenomena demand the formulation of a truly novel theoretical framework.

Eliminativism (as in, e.g., eliminative materialism) often takes the form of rejecting “folk” concepts as unscientific and insisting upon the replacement of folk concepts with scientific concepts. However, such a replacement of folk by scientific concepts can only work if there is a science of the phenomena to be explained. Where we possess no science, or only an inchoate science — I have many times observed that there is no science of civilization, and no science of consciousness — the elimination of folk concepts leaves us with little or nothing. Thus in the period of time during which a science is developing, and folk concepts and scientific concepts overlap, a scientific theory that incorporates folk concepts is less imperfect (because more adequate) than an inchoate scientific theory that attempts to entirely eliminate folk concepts ad initio.

Folk concepts can contribute to the adequacy of a conceptual framework because they typically draw upon what Michael Polanyi called tacit knowledge, i.e., what we know, but which we cannot account for knowing, or say how we know what we know. Recognizing faces in a crowd is a paradigm case of tacit knowledge. Human beings are very good at recognizing individual faces, but very poor at describing faces or explaining how they recognize a face. Tacit knowledge might also be characterized as knowledge below the level of formalization, or even knowledge below the level of conscious awareness.

While the rejection, elimination, and replacement of folk concepts is often justified, this rejection is often too sweeping in its elimination when it becomes a pretext to eliminate not only the admittedly imperfect and informal folk concept, but also the tacit knowledge upon which the folk concept is based. From a scientific standpoint, it is easy to dismiss tacit knowledge, as it resists precisely the formalization that science would like to impose upon all bodies of knowledge. There is often an attitude in the sciences that that which cannot be made fully explicit can be safely ignored, and there are good grounds for this, as the subtlety of tacit knowledge cannot be subjected to experimentation, repeatability, or public verification. Nevertheless, this is one of the sources of intuition that ultimately lies at the base of all the sciences. New sciences especially are reliant on tacit knowledge.

There is often an imperfect fit between our native intuitions and the ideas of a new science; new sciences often involve concepts that are counter-intuitive, and we must make the effort to formulate new intuitions, and arrive at new ways of thinking about familiar phenomenon. In some cases, our intuitions are utterly silent on questions posed by a new science or a new mode of inquiry, so that we must develop our intuitive competency as we proceed, which is a process that can take generations. In the meantime, folk concepts about new developments, about new phenomena, and even about new sciences grow up like weeds.

Even in the midst of unprecedented developments, life goes on, and since the ordinary business of life goes on, we discuss unprecedented developments in the ordinary language of ordinary life. Ordinary language may be defined in terms of its reliance upon folk concepts. However, ordinary language changes, albeit slowly. With the passage of sufficient time, ordinary language changes significantly. The ordinary language spoken in the context of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization probably differed markedly from the ordinary language spoken in the context of industrial-technological civilization. Each kind of civilization has its distinctive kind of ordinary language. (If you like, you may consider this a weak formulation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, though that is not how I would characterize it; I mention the hypothesis here only because I am certain that some readers will assimilate the argument made here to it.)

In Scientific Curiosity and Existential Need I argued that the distinctive character of scientific mystery (in contradistinction to the eschatological mysteries that seem to satisfy the longings of existential need) is that scientific mysteries are never final. Scientific knowledge in a scientific civilization is in a state of continual growth. Scientific mysteries are eventually solved, but they are at the same time replaced by ever new scientific mysteries, so that there always are and always will be scientific mysteries, but scientific mystery is not some impossible, ineffable truth about the universe that can never admit of rational knowledge. Scientific mysteries admit of definitive answers, and the phenomenon of scientific mystery mystery remains with us only because new scientific mysteries always appear beyond the mysteries that have been resolved.

This sense of there always being a further scientific mystery is well illustrated by a famous quote attributed to Isaac Newton:

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Sir David Brewster, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, 1855, Volume II., Ch. 27.

The same structure of scientific knowledge that means that there are always new scientific mysteries also means that there will always be science on the frontier of knowledge, and science on the frontier of knowledge will always, at least in its inchoate beginnings, have recourse to folk concepts, however far in advance of contemporary knowledge these folk concepts may be.

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The Square Kilometer Array: SETI is still a very young science, and moreover a science that occurs at the intersection of the natural sciences and the social sciences. As such, it continues to make use of folk concepts of civilization and astrobiology.

The Square Kilometer Array: SETI is still a very young science, and moreover a science that occurs at the intersection of the natural sciences and the social sciences. As such, it continues to make use of folk concepts of civilization and astrobiology.

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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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Tuesday


subsistence agriculture

One of the most memorable passages in political philosophy, quoted by many who do not know the source, is Thomas Hobbes’ description of life in a state of nature:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, CHAPTER XIII OF THE NATURAL CONDITION OF MANKIND AS CONCERNING THEIR FELICITY AND MISERY

For Hobbes, the state of nature was no idyllic peaceable kingdom, but the arena of the war of all against all — a violent vision of anarchy at odds with many subsequent romanticized visions of anarchy.

There has always been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with civilization that leads to a romantic and idyllic of life without civilization — Freud devoted a famous essay to this, Civilization and its Discontents, and I dedicated a significant portion of my essay “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” to what I call the hostile argument against civilization. During the Enlightenment Rousseau was perhaps the most famous critic of civilization who celebrated the state of nature, but not everyone was convinced:

“We were favoured with Sir James Colquhoun’s coach to convey us in the evening to Cameron, the seat of commissary Smollet. Our satisfaction of finding ourselves again in a comfortable carriage was very great. We had a pleasing conviction of the commodiousness of civilization, and heartily laughed at the ravings of those absurd visionaries who have attempted to persuade us of the superior advantages of a state of nature.”

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D: Including a Journal of His Tour to the Hebrides – Vol. 2, NEW YORK: DERBY & JACKSON, 119 NASSAU STREET, 1859, p. 449

From the point of view of indoor plumbing and modern conveniences, we might today look at the condition of Boswell and Johnson as being little raised above the state of nature, but even with all our creature comforts the seductive idea of a simpler life that is better because it is simpler continues to haunt us. The appeal is not universal, but some are so enthralled by the idea that they can only conceive of the good as the destruction of the civilized order that we have built up over the past ten thousand years. I discussed the source of this some time ago in Fear of the Future, in which I argued that, “apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided… While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.”

Kenneth Clark added his voice to those who question the pretensions to preferring a state of nature to civilization:

“People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilization. I doubt that they have given it a long enough trial… they are bored by civilization; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater. Quite apart from the discomforts and privations, there was no escape from it. Very restricted company, no books, no light after dark, no hope.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York, et al.: Harper & Row, 1969, p. 7

A distinction should be made among the detractors of civilization, between those who look upon a violent convulsion in which civilization is brought to an end as a necessary purging of contemporary wickedness, and those who look rather to the peaceable kingdom they believe will follow after the work of the destruction of civilization is completed; these are two very different motives for welcoming the end of civilization.

Those who wish to fight in a cosmic war in order to be part of the grand work of destroying our wicked civilization — whether it be judged wicked for its wealth, its lack of religious piety, its industrialization, its pollution, its tolerance of individuals who where not tolerated in traditional regimes, or any other reason — have a distinct set of motivations from those who want to inhabit the post-apocalyptic peaceable kingdom, and I will not address these former individuals or their motivations at present, as I have dealt with them elsewhere (e.g., in Kierkegaard and Russell on Rigor).

For the rest, for those who look forward to the peaceable kingdom of a post-apocalyptic, post-industrial world in which human beings will live in harmony with nature (not, presumably, the nature of Hobbes, but rather the nature of Rousseau), what satisfactions will they expect to derive from the restoration of a subsistence economy lacking the creature comforts that we today take for granted, like flushing toilets, hot showers, clean clothes, and our choice of foods made available from the entire world?

Looking around the surrounding world of nature, what will natural man — the noble savage — do in order to seek satisfaction? He may attend to his bodily needs, using his mind and his hands to build shelter, sew clothing, hunt or gather food, and perhaps preserve some part of that food for a future time when the supply of food is less certain. When his bodily needs are met, he may choose to amuse himself, making up stories, or singing, perhaps using his mind and hands again to create a musical instrument or a painting or a piece of sculpture.

In short, natural man in search of satisfaction will begin to transform himself into unnatural man, and thus begin the long process of creating civilization. In the midst of the plenitude of nature, natural man draws upon his own resources to go beyond nature. In other words, he creates civilization as a natural response to his desires. This process, iterated over generations, gives us the traditions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

Recently in David Hume and Scientific Civilization I quoted from an essay by Susanne K. Langer, “Scientific Civilization and Cultural Crisis.” Here is the passage I quoted:

“There is no denying that the spearhead of this ruthless social revolution is something we all… honor and desire: science. Science is the source and the pacemaker of this modern civilization which is sweeping away a whole world of cultural values.”

Of this scientific civilization Langer further observed:

“It is only rather recently that we are realizing what it has destroyed, and also the very grave fact that in its advance it is still destroying many things of undoubted and irreplaceable value — social orders of rank and status built up by a long national or local history, religious faith and its institutions, arts supported by solid and good traditions, ways of life in which people have long felt secure and useful. Such losses are not to be taken lightly.”

It would be an interesting exercise to parse the above quote in detail, as contains so many interesting assumptions, but I will desist for the time being, except to note that the “social orders of rank and status built up by a long national or local history” closely resemble the traditions described alike by Marx and Edmund Burke (and which I discussed in Globalization and Marxism).

For now, I only want to observe that the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy — really, a subsistence economy for the great mass of humanity, and a luxury economy for the privileged few, since agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations invariably take the form of a mass of peasantry working the land and living hand-to-mouth while elite culture is reserved for the small fraction of the population with the leisure for art and literacy — are precisely those cultural institutions slowly built up over the course of ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, and rudely brought to an end by scientific civilization.

I do not doubt that, given enough time, humanity could be re-acculturated to these institutions, but I suspect that this process would require generations to become effective, and that individuals acculturated in the world today would largely reject these satisfactions of life specific to a subsistence economy — frequent religious festivals, occasional spectacular entertainments (theater, jousts, processions, etc.), etc. — as insufficient compensation for the loss of modern plumbing and the re-imposition of heavy physical labor.

Of course, what I have elsewhere called neo-agriculturalism (in Another Future: The New Agriculturalism) need not necessarily be so technologically rudimentary. I recently considered something like this in Ash Wednesday and Identity Politics, in which I quoted from one of my unpublished manuscripts:

Let us suppose, merely for our private amusement, that human civilization lasts long enough for the pendulum to swing completely, and that our civilization is slowly transformed into its opposite, from its present decadence into renewed, post-modern medievalism. This new epoch of medievalism would be an age with technology superior to our own and a more complete record of the past than we possess. Would these medievals look back upon us as the Golden Age, or upon the Middle Ages as the lost Golden Age? Would they nod while reading the Scholastics and react with horror to the existential excesses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Would they want to preserve our pagan learning, or would they feel entirely justified in extirpating it? Upon such twists of fate do our efforts enjoy success or come to grief.

Perhaps the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy might be rendered more acceptable if we could retain some of our creature comforts. But supposing the transition could be made with plumbing intact but our intellectual horizons severely constrained, would this be any better? If the great mass were kept more or less comfortable but deprived of the possibility of expanding their horizons intellectually, and living in a society without expanding intellectual horizons, would this be easier to accept than a straightforward return to idyllic primitivism? This is a question that could only possibly be settled by a social experiment on a civilizational scale. And it suggests another experiment: suppose we preserve the open intellectual horizon but take away the creature comforts — how would this fare as a form of social organization? And of any of these social experiments, we could ask whether they really would restore us to some sense of the presumed satisfactions of a subsistence economy, or whether this has become strictly unimaginable to us.

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Thursday


Joseph Wright orrery

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Technium: A Conversation with Kevin Kelly [02.03.2014]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby

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

David Hume and Scientific Civilization …and…

The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization

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