18 March 2017
Many years ago, reading a source I cannot now recall (and for which I searched unsuccessfully when I started writing this post), I came upon a passage that has stayed with me. The author was making the argument that no sciences were consistent except those that had been reduced to mere catalogs of facts, like geography and anatomy. I can’t recall the larger context in which this argument appeared, but the observation that sciences might only become fully consistent when they have matured to the point of being exhaustive but static and uninteresting catalogs of facts, implying that the field of research itself had been utterly exhausted, was something I remembered. This idea presents in miniature a developmental conception of the sciences, but I think that it is a developmental conception that is incomplete.
Thinking of this idea of an exhausted field of research, I am reminded of a discussion in Conversations on Mind, Matter, and Mathematics by Jean-Pierre Changeux and Alain Connes, in which mathematician Alain Connes distinguished between fully explored and as yet unexplored parts of mathematics:
“…the list of finite fields is relatively easy to grasp, and it’s a simple matter to prove that the list is complete. It is part of an almost completely explored mathematical reality, where few problems remain. Cultural and social circumstances clearly serve to indicate which directions need to be pursued on the fringe of current research — the conquest of the North Pole, to return again to my comparison, surely obeyed the same type of cultural and social motivations, at least for a certain time. But once exploration is finished, these cultural and social phenomena fade away, and all that’s left is a perfectly stable corpus, perfectly fitted to mathematical reality…”
Jean-Pierre Changeux and Alain Connes, Conversations on Mind, Matter, and Mathematics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 33-34
To illustrate a developmental conception of mathematics and the formal sciences would introduce additional complexities that follow from the not-yet-fully-understood relationship between the formal sciences and the empirical sciences, so I am going to focus on developmental conceptions of the empirical sciences, but I hope to return to the formal sciences in this connection.
The idea of the development of science as a two-stage process, with discovery followed by a consistent and exhaustive catalog, implies both that most sciences (and, if we decompose the individual special sciences into subdivisions, parts of most or all sciences) remain in the discovery phase, and that once the discovery phase has passed and we are in possession of an exhaustive and complete catalog of the facts discovered by a science, there is nothing more to be done in a given science. However, I can think of several historical examples in which a science seemed to be converging on a complete catalog, but this development was disrupted (one might say) by conceptual change within the field that forced the reorganization of the materials in a new way. My examples will not be perfect, and some additional scientific discovery always seems to have been involved, but I think that these examples will be at least suggestive.
Prior to the great discoveries of cosmology in the early twentieth century, after which astronomy became indissolubly connected to astrophysics, astronomy seemed to be converging slowly upon an exhaustive catalog of all stars, with the limitation on the research being simply the resolving power of the telescopes employed to view the stars. One could imagine a counterfactual world in which technological innovations in instrumentation supplied nothing more than new telescopes able to resolve more stars, and that the task of astronomy was merely to supply an exhaustive catalog of stars, listing their position in the sky, intrinsic brightness, and a few other facts about the points of light in the sky. But the cataloging of stars itself contributed to the revolution that would follow, particularly when the period-luminosity relationship in Cepheid variable stars was discovered by Henrietta Swan Leavitt (discovered in 1908 and published in 1912). The period-luminosity relationship provided a “standard candle” for astronomy, and this standard candle began the process of constructing the cosmological distance ladder, which in turn made it possible to identify Cepheid variables in the Andromeda galaxy and thus to prove that the Andromeda galaxy was two million light years away and not contained within the Milky Way.
Once astronomy became scientifically coupled to astrophysics, and the resources of physics (both relativistic and quantum) could be brought to bear upon understanding stars, a whole new cosmos opened up. Stars, galaxies, and the universe entire were transformed from something static that might be exhaustively cataloged, to a dynamic and changing reality with a natural history as well as a future. Astronomy went from being something that we might call a Platonic science, or even a Linnaean science, to being an historical science, like geology (after Hutton and Lyell), biology (after Darwin and Wallace), and Paleontology. This coupling of the study of the stars with the study of the matter that makes up the stars has since moved in both directions, with physics driving cosmology and cosmology driving physics. One result of this interaction between astronomy and physics is the illustration above (by Jennifer Johnson) of the periodic table of elements, which prominently exhibits the origins of the elements in cosmological processes. The periodic table once seemed, like a catalog of stars, to be something static to be memorized, and divorced from natural history. This conceptualization of matter in terms of its origins puts the periodic table in a dramatically different light.
As the cosmos was once conceived in Platonic terms as fixed and eternal, to be delineated in a Linnaean science of taxonomical classification, so too the Earth was conceived in Platonic terms as fixed and eternal, to be similarly delineated in a Linnaean science of classification. The first major disruption of this conception came with geology since Hutton and Lyell, followed by plate tectonics and geomorphology in the twentieth century. Now this process has been pushed further by the idea of mineral evolution. I have been listening through for the second time to Robert Hazen’s lectures The Origin and Evolution of Earth: From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence, which exposition closely follow the content of his book, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet, in which Hazen wrote:
“The ancient discipline of mineralogy, though absolutely central to everything we know about Earth and its storied past, has been curiously static and detached from the conceptual vagaries of time. For more than two hundred years, measurements of chemical composition, density, hardness, optical properties, and crystal structure have been the meat and potatoes of the mineralogist’s livelihood. Visit any natural history museum, and you’ll see what I mean: gorgeous crustal specimens arrayed in case after glass-fronted case, with labels showing name, chemical formula, crystal system, and locality. These most treasured fragments of Earth are rich in historical context, but you will likely search in vain for any clue as to their birth ages or subsequent geological transformations. The old way all but divorces minerals from their compelling life stories.”
Robert M. Hazen, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet, Viking Penguin, 2012, Introduction
This illustrates, from the perspective of mineralogy, much of what I said above in relation to star charts and catalogs: mineralogy was once about cataloging minerals, and this may have been a finite undertaking once all minerals had been isolated, identified, and cataloged. Now, however, we can understand mineralogy in the context of cosmological history, and this is as revolutionary for our understanding of Earth as the periodic table understood in terms of cosmological history. It could be argued, in addition, that compiling the “particle zoo” of contemporary particle physics is also a task of cataloging the entities studied by physics, but the cataloging of particles has been attended throughout with a theory of how these particles are generated and how they fit into the larger cosmological story — what Aristotle would have called their coming to be and passing away.
The best contemporary example of a science still in its initial phases of discovery and cataloging is the relatively recent confirmation of exoplanets. On my Tumblr blog I recently posted On the Likely Existence of “Random” Planetary Systems, which tried to place our current Golden Age of Exoplanet Discovery in the context of a developing science. We find the planetary systems that we do in fact find partly as a consequence of observation selection effects, and it belongs to the later stages of the development of a science to attempt to correct for observation selection effects built into the original methods of discovery employed. The planetary science that is emerging from exoplanet discoveries, however, and like contemporary particle physics, is attended by theories of planet formation that take into account cosmological history. However, the discovery phase, in terms of exoplanets, is still underway and still very new, and we have a lot to learn. Moreover, once we learn more about the possibilities of planets in our universe, hopefully also we will learn about the varied possibilities of planetary biospheres, and given the continual interaction between biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere, which is a central motif of Hazen’s mineral evolution, we will be able to place planets and their biospheres into a large cosmological context (perhaps even reconstructing biosphere evolution). But first we must discover them, and then we must catalog them.
These observations, I think, have consequences not only for our understanding of the universe in which we find ourselves, but also for our understanding of science. Perhaps, instead of a two-stage process of discovery and taxonomy, science involves a three-stage process of discovery, taxonomy, and natural history, in which latter the objects and facts cataloged by one of the special sciences (earlier in their development) can take their place within cosmological history. If this is the case, then big history is the master category not only of history, but also of science, as big history is the ultimate framework for all knowledge that bears the lowly stamp of its origins. This conception of the task of science, once beyond the initial stages of discovery and classification, to integrate that which was discovered and classified into the framework of big history, suggests a concrete method by which to “cash out” in a meaningful way Wilfrid Sellars’ contention that, “…the specialist must have a sense of how not only his subject matter, but also the methods and principles of his thinking about it, fit into the intellectual landscape.” (cf. Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man) Big history is the intellectual landscape in which the sciences are located.
A developmental conception of science that recognized stages in the development of science beyond classification, taxonomy, and an exhaustive catalog (which is, in effect, the tombstone of what was a living and growing science), has consequences for the practice of science. Discovery may well be the paradigmatic form of scientific activity, but it is not the only form of scientific activity. The painstakingly detailed and disciplined work of cataloging stars or minerals is the kind of challenge that attracts a certain kind of mind with a particular interest, and the kind of individual who is attracted to this task of systematically cataloging entities and facts is distinct from the kind of individual who might be most attracted by scientific discovery, and also distinct from the kind of individual who might be attracted to fitting the discoveries of a special science into the overall story of the universe and its natural history. There may need to be a division of labor within the sciences, and this may entail an educational difference. Dividing sciences by discipline (and, now, by university departments), which involves inter-generational conflicts among sciences and the paradigm shifts that sometimes emerge as a result of these conflicts, may ultimately make less sense than dividing sciences according their stage of development. Perhaps universities, instead of having departments of chemistry, geology, and botany, should have departments of discovery, taxonomy, and epistemic integration.
Speaking from personal experience, I know that (long ago) when I was in school, I absolutely hated the cataloging approach to the sciences, and I was bored to tears by memorizing facts about minerals or stars. But the developmental science of evolution so intrigued me that I read extensively about evolution and anthropology outside and well beyond the school curriculum. If mineral evolution and the Earth sciences in their contemporary form had been known then, I might have had more of an interest in them.
What are the sciences developing into, or what are the sciences becoming? What is the end and aim of science? I previously touched on this question, a bit obliquely, in What is, or what ought to be, the relationship between science and society? though this line of inquiry is more like a thought experiment. It may be too early in the history of the sciences to say what they are becoming or what they will become. Perhaps an emergent complexity will arise out of knowledge itself, something that I first suggested in Scientific Historiography: Past, Present, and Future, in which I wrote in the final paragraph:
We cannot simply assume an unproblematic diachronic extrapolation of scientific knowledge — or, for that matter, historical knowledge — especially as big history places such great emphasis upon emergent complexity. The linear extrapolation of science eventually may trigger a qualitative change in knowledge. In other words, what will be the emergent form of scientific knowledge (the ninth threshold, perhaps?) and how will it shape our conception of scientific historiography as embodied in big history, not to mention the consequences for civilization itself? We may yet see a scientific historiography as different from big history as big history is different from Augustine’s City of God.
It is only a lack of imagination that would limit science to the three stages of development I have outlined above. There may be developments in science beyond those we can currently understand. Perhaps the qualitative emergent from the quantitative expansion of scientific knowledge will be a change in science itself — possibly a fourth stage in the development of science — that will open up to scientific knowledge aspects of experience and regions of nature currently inaccessible to science.
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26 December 2016
In my recent Manifesto for the Study of Civilization I employed the phrase history in an extended sense. Here is a bit more context:
“One form that the transcendence of an exclusively historical study of civilization can take is that of extrapolating historical modes of thought so that these modes of thought apply to the future as well as to the past (and this could be called history in an extended sense).”
In several posts I have developed what I call concepts in an extended sense, as in Geocentrism in an Extended Sense and “biocentrism in an extended sense” in Addendum on the Technocentric Thesis and “ecology in an extended sense” in Intelligent Invasive Species.
In Developmental Temporality I wrote:
“With the advent of civilization in the most extended sense of that term, comprising organized settled agricultural societies and their urban centers, planning for the future becomes systematic.”
And in Reduction, Emergence, Supervenience I wrote:
“Philosophy today, then, is centered on the extended conceptions of ‘experience’ and ‘observation’ that science has opened up to us, and these extended senses of experience and observation go considerably beyond ordinary experience, and the prima facie intellectual intuitions available to beings like ourselves, whose minds evolved in a context in which perceptions mattered enormously while the constituents and overall structure of the cosmos mattered not at all.”
In these attempts to extrapolate, expand, and extend concepts beyond their ordinary usage — the result of which might also be called overview concepts — each traditional concept must be treated individually, as there is a limit that is demarcated by the intrinsic meaning of the concept, and these limits are different in each case. With history, the extrapolation of the concept is obvious: history has taken the past as its remit, but history in an extended sense would apply to the totality of time. This is already being done in Big History.
When I attended the second IBHA conference in 2014 I was witness to a memorable exchange that I described in 2014 IBHA Conference Day 2:
“During the question and answer session, a fellow who had spoken up in previous sessions with questions stood up and said that there were (at least) two conceptual confusions pervasive throughout discussions at this conference: 1) that something could come from nothing (presumably a reference to how the big bang is framed, though this could have been intended more generally as a critique of emergentism) and, 2) that history can say anything about the future. The same individual (whose name I did not get) said that no one had given an adequate definition of history, and then noted that the original Greek term for history meant ‘inquiry.’ Given this Grecian (or even, if you like, Herodotean) origin for the idea of history as an inquiry, I immediately asked myself, ‘If one can conduct an inquiry into the past, why cannot one also conduct an inquiry into the future?’ No doubt these inquires will be distinct because one concerns the past and the other the future, but cannot they be taken up in the same spirit?”
There was a note of frustration in the voice of the speaker who objected to any account of the future as a part of history, and while I could appreciate the source of that frustration, it reminded me of every traditionalist protest against the growth of scientific knowledge made possible by novel methods not sanctioned by tradition. In this connection I think of Isaiah Berlin’s critique of scientific historiography, which I previously discussed in Big History and Scientific Historiography.
Berlin argued that the historical method is intrinsically distinct from the scientific method, so that there can be no such thing as scientific historiography, i.e., that the intrinsic limitations of the concept of history restricts history from being scientific in the way that the natural sciences are scientific. While Berlin’s objection to scientific historiography is not stated in terms of restricting the expansion of historical modes of thought, his appeal to a nature of history intrinsically irreconcilable with science and the scientific method is parallel to an appeal to the nature of history as being intrinsically about the past (thus intrinsically not about the future), hence there can be no such thing as a history that includes within it the study of the future in addition to the study of the past.
Here is a passage in which Berlin characterizes distinctively historical modes of thought, contrasting them to scientific modes of thought:
“Historians cannot ply their trade without a considerable capacity for thinking in general terms; but they need, in addition, peculiar attributes of their own: a capacity for integration, for perceiving qualitative similarities and differences, a sense of the unique fashion in which various factors combine in the particular concrete situation, which must at once be neither so unlike any other situation as to constitute a total break with the continuous flow of human experience, nor yet so stylised and uniform as to be the obvious creature of theory and not of flesh and blood. The capacities needed are rather those of association than of dissociation, of perceiving the relation of parts to wholes, of particular sounds or colours to the many possible tunes or pictures into which they might enter, of the links that connect individuals viewed and savoured as individuals, and not primarily as instances of types or laws.”
Isaiah Berlin, “The Concept of Scientific History,” in Concepts and Categories, p. 140
Every cognitive capacity that Berlin here credits to the historian can be equally well exercised in relation to the future as to the past (I should point out that, as far as I know, Berlin did not take up the problem of the relation of the historian to the future). Indeed, one of the weaknesses of futurism has been that futurists have not immersed themselves in these distinctively historical modes of thought; our conception of the future could greatly benefit from a capacity for integration and perceiving the relation of parts to wholes. I don’t think Berlin would ever have imagined his critique of scientific historiography as advice for futurists, but it could be profitably employed in developing history in an extended sense.
It is common for historians to invoke distinctively historical modes of thought, and I believe that this is a valid concern. Indeed, I would go farther yet. Human modes of thought are primarily temporal, and non-temporal modes of thought come very late in our history as a species in comparison to the effortless way we learn to think of time in subtle and sophisticated ways. For example, when one learns a language, one finds that one spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to master past, present, and future tenses — the tenses of our mother tongue are so fixed in our minds that any other schema strikes us as counterintuitive (and, interestingly, even those who attain fluency in another language or languages usually revert to their mother tongue for counting). But in order to communicate effectively we must master the logic of time as expressed in linguistic tenses. Human beings are inveterate planners, preparers, and schemers; our present is pervasively animated by a concern for the future. We are so taken up with our plans for the future that it is considered something of a “gift” to be able to “live in the moment.”
Many of Berlin’s examples of distinctively historical thought position the historian as attempting to explain historical change. The emphasis on describing change in history results in an indirect deemphasis of continuity, though continuity is arguably the overwhelming experience of time and history. It would be almost impossible for us to delineate all of the things that we know will happen tomorrow, and which we do not even bother to think of as predictions because they fall so far near certainty on the epistemic continuum of historical knowledge. All of the laws of science that have been discovered up to the present day will continue to be in effect tomorrow, and all of the events and processes that make up the world will continue to be governed by these laws of nature tomorrow. We could exhaust ourselves describing the nomological certainties of the morrow, and still not have exhausted the predictions we might have made. Thus it is we know that the sun will rise tomorrow, and we can explain how and why the sun will rise tomorrow. If you are an anchorite living in a cave, the sun will not rise for you, but you can nevertheless be confident that Earth will continue to orbit the sun while rotating, and that this process will result in the appearance of the sun rising for everyone else not so confined.
But our sciences that describe the laws of nature that govern the world are incomplete, and they are in particular incomplete when it comes to history. I have noted elsewhere that there is (as yet) no science of time, and it is interesting to speculate that the absence of a science of time may be related to a parallel absence of a truly scientific historiography or a science of civilization. Because we have no science of time, we have no formal concepts of time — or, rather, we have no concepts of time recognized to be formal concepts. I have argued elsewhere that the idea of the punctiform present is a formal concept of time, i.e., interpreted as a formal concept it can be employed in a formal theory of time which can illuminate actual time as an ideal, simplified model. But as soon as you try to interpret the idea of the punctiform present as an empirical concept you run into difficulties. Would it be possible to measure a dimensionless instant? The punctiform present is like a pendulum with a weightless string, frictionless fulcrum, and no air drag. No such pendulum exists in actual fact, but the ideal pendulum remains a useful fiction for us. Similarly, the punctiform present is a useful fiction for a formal science of time.
A truly (perhaps exhaustively) scientific historiography would not only employ the methods of the special sciences in the exposition of history, but would also incorporate a science of time that would allow us to be as definite about history to come as we can now be definite about our predictions for the natural world as governed by laws of nature. It is not difficult to imagine what Berlin would have thought of such an idea. Here is another quote from Berlin’s essay on scientific historiography:
“…the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied, no matter how successful the human sciences may grow to be — even if, as all but obscurantists must hope, they discover genuine, empirically confirmed, laws of individual and collective behaviour — seems an attempt to square the circle.”
Isaiah Berlin, “The Concept of Scientific History,” in Concepts and Categories, p. 142
What Berlin here condemns as an attempt to square the circle is precisely my ideal in history, and it is what I called formal historiography in Rational Reconstructions of Time. A formulation of history in an extended sense would be a step toward a formal historiography.
While on one level I am interested in history as an intellectual discipline in its own right — history for history’s sake — and therefore I am interested in formal historiography as a sui generis discipline, I also have an ulterior motive in the pursuit of a formal historiography that can develop history in an extended sense. Such a formal historiography will be one tool in the interdisciplinary toolkit of future scientists of civilization, who must study civilization both in terms of its past and its future.
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9 July 2016
Introduction to the Scientific Study of Time
If I had an educational institution in which I could dictate the curriculum, I would have as requirements for the first year at least these two courses: “How to read a scientific paper” and “Understanding scales of time.” Of the former I will only say that, in our scientific civilization, every citizen needs to be able to read a scientific paper, so as not to rely exclusively on popularizations from journalists (perhaps I will write more on this later). The latter — understanding scales of time — is what concerns me at present. When I survey my own attempts to come to an understanding of the differing scales of time employed by the different sciences, I am struck by the slowness of my progress, but also by the importance of making progress. An organized and systematic attempt to give a unified exposition of the historical sciences and the time scales each entails would, I think, contribute significantly to making the various special sciences mutually intelligible and to encourage rigorous interdisciplinary research.
Just to finish the thought of a curriculum appropriate for the population of a scientific civilization, I might also consider not only a first year course in scientific method — many schools have required courses in statistics, which is a good step in this direction — but also a course in the philosophy of science and scientific methods, in order to give a comprehensive sense of the scientific enterprise and to engage students in thinking critically about the nature and limits of scientific knowledge. A scientific civilization that knows its own limits is less likely to fall victim to its own hubris than one in which these limits are not clearly understood.
The Idea of a Rational Reconstruction
The human experience of time originates in what Husserl called inner time consciousness, and human time as immediately experienced never extends beyond the lifetime of a single individual. Time consciousness, then, is severely constrained by human limitations. Human consciousness, however, not only consists in time consciousness, but also is the source of human reason, and human reason has sought to surmount the fleeting experience of time consciousness by extending time beyond the limitations of individual consciousness and the individual lifespan. This I will call the rational reconstruction of time.
Any duration of time beyond that of the human lifespan must be rationally reconstructed because it cannot be experienced directly. Extremely brief durations of time, such as are often involved in particle physics, also cannot be experienced directly, because they occur at a rate (or at such a microscopic scale) that cannot be distinguished by human sensory or cognitive faculties. These extremely brief durations of time also must be rationally reconstructed.
What is rational reconstruction? I won’t try to give a straight-forward definition, but instead I will try to give a sense of how philosophers have employed the idea of rational reconstruction. The idea originally came to prominence in the early twentieth century among logical positivists. Here is a passage from Otto Neurath that has become a point of reference in the origin of the idea of rational reconstruction:
“There is no way of taking conclusively established pure protocol sentences as the starting point of the sciences. No tabula rasa exists. We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials. Only the metaphysical elements can be allowed to vanish without trace.”
Otto Neurath, “Protocol sentences,” in Logical Positivism, edited by A.J. Ayer, Free Press, Glencoe, IL, 1959, pp. 199-208, there p. 201.
Neurath further developed his ship analogy in other essays:
“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”
Otto Neurath, “Anti-Spengler,” in Empiricism and Sociology, edited by Marie Neurath and Robert S. Cohen, Dordrecht and Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1973, p. 199
Here the emphasis falls upon the exigency of keeping the ship afloat, which is not the central concern of the rational reconstruction of time, but it would be an interesting exercise to apply this idea to the cognitive framework we all employ, with the necessity being active and effective agency in the world.
Quine adopted the analogy of rebuilding a ship at sea from Neurath. In his Word and Object, Quine quoted Neurath’s ship passage as an epigraph to the book and develops the theme of reconstruction throughout, extending Neurath’s positivist-inspired analogy more generally to philosophy, giving the idea contemporary currency in analytical philosophy.
Hans Reichenbach made the idea of rational reconstruction fully explicit:
“When we call logic analysis of thought the expression should be interpreted so as to leave no doubt that it is not actual thought which we pretend to analyze. It is rather a substitute for thinking processes, their rational reconstruction, which constitutes the basis of logical analysis. Once a result of thinking is obtained, we can reorder our thoughts in a cogent way, constructing a chain of thoughts between point of departure and point of arrival; it is this rational reconstruction of thinking that is controlled by logic, and whose analysis reveals those rules which we call logical laws.”
Hans Reichenbach, Elements of Symbolic Logic, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948, p. 2
Reichenbach has a footnote to this passage saying that “rational reconstruction” was introduced by Carnap, and indeed Carnap has a typically technical exposition of rational reconstruction in his Pseudoproblems in Philosophy (a bit long to quote here). Carnap’s interest in rational reconstruction seems to be due to the great influence that Russell’s philosophy had on Carnap, and it would be an interesting investigation to compare Russell’s conception of logical construction (in the parsimonious sense that Russell uses this term) and Carnap’s conception of rational reconstruction.
Imre Lakatos made extensive use of the idea of rational reconstruction in a more comprehensive context than the more narrowly logical exposition of Reichenbach. Lakatos applied rational reconstruction to the history of science, which is essentially what I am suggesting here:
“The history of science is always richer than its rational reconstruction. But rational reconstruction or internal history is primary, external history only secondary, since the most important problems of external history are defined by internal history. External history either provides non-rational explanation of the speed, locality, selectiveness, etc. of historic events as interpreted in terms of internal history; or, when history differs from its rational reconstruction, it provides an empirical explanation of why it differs. But the rational aspect of scientific growth is fully accounted for by one’s logic of scientific discovery.”
Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers Volume I, Cambridge, 1989, “History of science and its rational reconstructions,” p. 118
A generalization of the point Lakatos makes in this passage would not be limited to the history of science: we can say that history simpliciter is always richer than its rational reconstruction, but the important problems for external history are set by the rational reconstruction of history. And, I think, we will find this to be the case; rational reconstructions of time point us to the most important problems for the historical sciences.
Mythology: the First Rational Reconstruction of Time
Mythology is the first “big history.” By placing human lives and human actions in a mythological context, human beings are immediately and personally related to a cosmos of enormous scope, far beyond anything to be encountered in the lives of most individuals. In order to achieve this scope, experiences had to be pooled, and a composite, richer experience draw from an inventory wider and deeper than the experiences of any one individual. This is the essence of the rational reconstruction of time, which was later taken to much greater lengths in subsequent human development.
In retrospect, mythological cosmologies are ethnocentric and parochial, usually bound to the biome of a given biocentric civilization, but in their time they constituted the uttermost and outermost reach of human reason, projecting human concerns into the heavens and beneath the Earth. Mythological cosmologies were as comprehensive as they could be at the time, given the limitations of human knowledge under which mythologies took shape.
While mythology is a rational reconstruction of the human condition, we can also can see the rational reconstruction of mythology itself when philosophically-minded later readers of mythology attempted to further bring the mythological cosmos into line with the increasingly rational order of human civilization. Plato famously wanted to ban all poets from his ideal republic, because the stories that poets tell about the gods are not always edifying, and Plato’s republic aspired to exercising absolute control over mythic narrative, to the point of inculcating a “noble lie” intended to reconcile each segment of the population with its social position. That is to say, mythology was to be employed as a tool of social control, which has always been a danger for historical thought.
Classical History: the Second Rational Reconstruction of Time
The distinctive Greek gift for and contribution to rationality was expressed not only in philosophy and the earliest science, but also in works of art — the Parthenon is a monument to rationality, among other things — and literature. The Greeks invented the literary genre of history, and, once they invented history, disagreed on whether it was an art or a science. This was a perennial problem of classical historiography, but is no longer a burning question today, as the advent of scientific historiography has changed the terms of the debate in historiography.
It is at least arguable, however, that scientific historiography was always implicitly present from the origins of history in Herodotus and Thucydides, but no science existed in the time of the ancient Greeks that could realize this potential. The original Greek term used for the title of Herodotus’ The Histories — ἱστορία — means inquiries, i.e., Herodotus conceived his work as an inquiry in the past, and so was part and parcel of the Greek imperative of rationality. Indeed, rationalism applied to the apparent sequence of historical accidents that is the past might well be considered the non plus ultra of rationalism. However, the method of Herodotus’ inquiries was not scientific (in the Greek sense) or logical, but rather narrative.
The extent to which history in this classical sense (one might say, in the Herodotean sense) truly is a rational reconstruction, and not a mere recounting of facts, i.e., a chronicle, is revealed by Arthur Danto’s study of the logic of narrative sentences in his Narration and Knowledge (and which logic of narrative I previously mentioned in Our Intimacy with the Past). Even the most complete account of events as they happen cannot express how the meanings of earlier events are changed by later events, which provide the context and perspective for interpreting earlier events. While Danto did not say so, the mirror image of this insight applies to the future, so that the present is given meaning in relation to its expected outcome, and expected outcomes are valued on the basis of present experience (and unexpected outcomes are also judged in terms of their divergence from expectation). This would be a theme that Big History would begin to explore, although not in these terms.
What we traditionally call history (i.e., Herodotean history) is simply that fragment of the whole of the temporal continuum narratively reconstructed from human records. We can understand this by a sensory analogy: we know from study of the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes are able to see only a small portion of the EM spectrum. Beyond the abilities of human eyes, pit vipers can sense the infrared beyond the red end of the visible EM spectrum, and insects can sense ultraviolet beyond the violet end of the visible EM spectrum. Beyond the capacity of naturally evolved eyes to sense EM radiation, we can employ technology to detect radio waves, x-rays, and the rest of the EM spectrum. What human beings have called history is like the small “visible” portion of the EM spectrum: it is the small portion of the temporal continuum “visible” to human beings. The narrative method of traditional historiography allows us to reconstruct just so much history in human terms and to make it understandable to us.
Scientific Historiography: the Third Rational Reconstruction of Time
Already in classical antiquity we can see the scientific spirit at work in Ptolemy’s Almagest. Ptolemy wrote as a scientist, and not, like Herodotus, as an historian. As his science is now archaic, it is read only for its historical interest today, but in Ptolemy we can glimpse, in embryo, as it were, the scientific method in its characteristic attempt to transcend human limitations and the constraints of the human condition. In the Almagest Ptolemy compares his observations with the best observations of earlier writers, especially Hipparchus, even noting the margin of error inherent in observations due to the construction and position of instruments (cf. especially Book Seven on the fixed stars). In his chapter on determining the length of the year (Book Three, I), Ptolemy is always trying to get the oldest observations to compare with his observations, noting that nearly 300 years had elapsed between Hipparchus’ observations and this own, and reaches further back into Egyptian sources for data 600 years prior.
There is a difference in degree, but not a difference in kind, between these observations of Ptolemy and Freeman Dyson’s discussion whether the laws of nature change over time in “Time without end: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe” (1979). Dyson discusses what has since come to be called the “Oklo Bound,” based on the radioactive byproducts of the naturally-occurring Oklo fission reactor in Gabon. Dyson wrote:
“The fact that the two binding energies remained in balance to an accuracy of two parts in 1011 over 2.109 yr indicates that the strength of nuclear and Coulomb forces cannot have varied by more than a few parts in 1018 per year. This is by far the most sensitive test that we have yet found of the constancy of the laws of physics. The fact that no evidence of change was found does not, of course, prove that the laws are strictly constant. In particular, it does not exclude the possibility of a variation in strength of gravitational forces with a time scale much shorter than 1018 yr. For the sake of simplicity, I assume that the laws are strictly constant. Any other assumption would be more complicated and would introduce additional arbitrary hypotheses.”
Dyson, like Ptolemy, was employing the best scientific measurements and observations of his time in the attempt to transcend his time, though while Ptolemy’s rudimentary methods spanned a few hundred years, science can now comprehend a few billion years. The transcendence of immediately experienced human time by scientific scales of time is the rational reconstruction of time made possible by the historical sciences, and, by extension, for scientific historiography.
While the spirit of science is as old as classical antiquity, and it emerged from the same Greek world that gave us Herodotus and the Greek historians following Herodotus, scientific historiography did not begin to come into its own until the nineteenth century. Besides Ptolemy there were a few other notable intimations of scientific historiography to come, as in Nicholas Steno’s laws of superposition in geology. The historical sciences began to realize their potential in the geology and biology of the nineteenth century in the geology of Lyell and the biology of Darwin. Within a few years’ of the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Lyell Published Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, which reconceptualized humanity in the context of geological time. Later in the nineteenth century, scientific dating techniques such as varve chronology (varves are annual deposits left by melting glaciers) and dedrochronology (tracing overlapping tree rings backward in time) began to give exact dates for historical events long before human records. Scientific archaeology (as opposed to mere treasure hunting) began about the same time.
Scientific historiography reconstructs time employing the resources of the scientific method, which made the reconstruction of time systematic. As long as science continues to develop, and is not allowed to drift into stagnancy, scientific historiography can continue to add depth and detail to this historical record. Scientific historiography extended the narrative tradition of history beyond texts written by human beings to the text of nature itself; the whole of the world became the subject of historical inquiry in the form of the historical sciences, which reconstructed a narrative of Earth entire, and eventually also of the universe entire, which latter became the remit of Big History.
Big History: the Fourth Rational Reconstruction of Time
Big history takes a step beyond the initial scope of scientific historiography, not merely narrating human history on the basis of what science can tell us where texts are silent, but in going beyond human history to a history of the universe entire, in which human history is contextualized. As I write this the 3rd IBHA conference is about to take place next weekend in Amsterdam, and I am a bit disappointed that I won’t be going, as I enjoyed the 2nd IBHA conference I attended a couple of years ago (cf. Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3).
The approach of big history did not come out of nowhere, but was building since the discovery of “deep time” in Steno’s laws of superposition, but especially the geology of James Hutton, then Charles Lyell, and later yet geological time scales brought to the study of life by Darwin. Science that dealt in millions of years and then billions of years slowly acclimated informed human minds of the possibilities for science completely freed of anthropocentric constraints. A hundred years ago, in the early twentieth century, we began to glimpse the size and the age of the universe entire, extending scientific scales of time beyond the Earth and the inherent geocentric constraints of human thought.
How can a human being, starting from the human experience of time, ever come to understand the life and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the largest and oldest structures of the cosmos? This grandest of historical reconstructions is possible because the universe is large and old and diverse. We cannot witness the formation of our own sun or our own planet, but we can look out into the universe and see stars in the process or formation and planetary systems in the process of formation (i.e., protoplanetary disks). If we are sufficiently diligent in surveying the cosmos, we can put together an entire sequence of the evolution of stars and planetary systems, drawn from different individual instances all today at different stages of development. While processes of stellar formation and planetary system development take place on a scale of time that human beings can never directly perceive, our reconstruction of these processes can be made comprehensible to us in this way. And when we are able to travel among the stars and to study life on many different worlds, we will be able engage in the astrobiological equivalent to this cosmological seriation, and similarly so with civilization and other forms of emergent complexity.
Big history provides a comprehensive context in which all of these scientific seriations of time scales beyond human perception can be concatenated in a single grand reconstruction of the whole of time as it is accessible to contemporary science. And, on the basis of contemporary science, Big History represents the culmination and non plus ultra of scientific historiography. Beyond the limits of empirical evidence methods other than science must be employed.
Formal Historiography: the Fifth Rational Reconstruction of Time
The fifth rational reconstruction of time is a rational reconstruction that has not yet been constructed, but we can see, on the horizon, that this is the natural teleology of the development described above. As inductive empirical science matures and grows in sophistication, there is an increasing tendency both to rigor and to integration with other physical theories. Sometimes the imperative to greater rigor is not historically obvious, as an empirical science may remain static in terms of its formal development for a long time — sometimes for centuries. But the need for formal rigor is eventually felt, and some clever soul somewhere has an “A ha!” moment that shows the way to a formal surrogate for a previously intuitive approach. This will be true for historiography as well.
There is a contemporary school of thought — cliodynamics — attempting to transform history into an empirical, testable science, employing numerical methods and quantification. In the bigger picture, scientific historiography more generally speaking adopts the formal methods of the other empirical sciences, and this increases the rigor of historical thought over time, but these efforts remain within the paradigm of inductive empirical science. When history is eventually formalized, it will follow the trajectory of earlier empirical sciences. First the work of scientific historiography must come to maturity, and then we will be in a position to engage in a formal scrutiny of the assumptions made in scientific historiography. Some of these assumptions will be common to other empirical sciences (in the traditional Euclidean language, these will be common notions, or axioms, that are not specific to some particular subject matter) while other assumptions will be unique to scientific historiography and will thus constitute the differentia of historical thought (postulates in Euclid’s terminology).
Most working scientists in daily practice do not employ fully formalized reasoning because it is cumbersome and slow, and, in fact, inductive empirical science can continue in its traditional methodology almost untouched by formalization. There are axiomatizations of general relativity, for example (cf., e.g., “An Axiomatization of General Relativity,” Richard A. Mould, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 103, No. 3, Jun. 15, 1959, pp. 485-529), but this is not the way that most physics is done today. One might think of formalization as the highest level of emergent complexity yet attained within cognitive astrobiology, with mythology, narrative history, scientific historiography, and Big History all as earlier emergents in a sequence of emergents with the later supervening upon the earlier. All of these forms of human thought about time will continue to develop — they will not be replaced or superseded by formal historiography — but it will be formal historiography that moves the discipline of history forward into the terra incognita of time.
With the existence of hard limits to the historical sciences as represented by prediction walls and retrodiction walls, on what material will formal historical proceed? Let me attempt to give a sense of the kind of formal reasoning that can extend formal historiography beyond the constraints of observation and empiricism.
It has become commonplace for physicists to assert that, since time began with the big bang, that it is nonsensical to ask what preceded the big bang. This is, we must honestly admit, a rather tortured piece of reasoning (not to mention circular). While it is true that the big bang constitutes a retrodiction wall beyond which contemporary science cannot pass, and so is a boundary to empirical science, it is not an absolute boundary to human reason. To assert that there is nothing beyond or before the big bang is a perfect demonstration of the fact that human reason does not stop at empirical prediction walls. While it is a perfectly intellectually respectable claim to assert that there was nothing before the big bang, it is not a scientific claim, it is a philosophical claim. And, by the same token, it is a perfectly respectable claim to assert that there is something beyond the observable universe, including something before the big bang, but that this is inaccessible to contemporary science. Again, this is not a scientific claim, but a philosophical claim. In this sense, both of these claims are on the level, as it were.
There is no conceivable form of scientific research that could verify the existence of nothingness prior to the big bang. Philosophically, I would assert that producing evidence of nothingness is ipso facto impossible, and hence ruled out a priori, hence ruling out any scientific claim of nothing preceding the big bang. (Either that, or “nothingness” means something very different for the physicist as compared to the philosopher. And this is most likely the case: the two are talking — if indeed they ever talk — at cross-purposes.) The recognition of a nothingness outside or before the retrodiction wall presented by the big bang can be further illuminated by thought experiments proposed by Sydney Shoemaker and W. H. Newton-Smith that demonstrate the possibility of empty time (I will not attempt to give a summary of these thought experiments here; the reader is urged to consult these authors directly; cf. Newton-Smith’s The Structure of Time, II, 4, pp. 19-24).
These are the materials with which a formal historiography will grapple, along with the concerns of what I have called infinitistic historiography and infinitistic cosmology. In this way, formal historiography will transcend even the grand reconstruction of the whole of time accessible to contemporary science that I mentioned above in connection with Big History.
While the accidents of history might seem to be the last place that anyone would look for fertile ground for the formalization of knowledge, history, I think, will surprise us in this respect. And the surprising applicability of formal methods to history will constitute yet another rational reconstruction of time.
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28 August 2014
In my previous post, Big History and Historiography I touched on the question of scientific historiography, which is a central question for Big History because Big History is scientific historiography in its most recent incarnation. There are certain considerations that follow from big history being scientific historiography, and I will attempt to explore these considerations below.
The early examples of western historiography in the works of Herodotus and Thucydides still stand as models for historical writing and historiographical method, and this is a tradition that continued on even into medieval times, in the great histories of Sir John Froissart and Philippe de Commines, who must have read their models carefully and deduced the lessons that had not yet, at that time, been explicitly formulated as principles. Despite these admirable models to emulate, a lot of history has been more or less conscious myth-making, which may then be contrasted to the unconscious myth-making that has yielded religious mythology (through a gradual process of selection not unlike that which yielded the first domesticated crops). Histories have given us historical myths, which is of course why Descartes rejected history as a source of knowledge (of which more below).
With the renaissance we begin to see the emergence of critical historiography, and this then goes on to become the dominant trend in historiography in the following centuries. Historians consciously cultivated a conception of history based on citing sources and basing all claims on written evidence, and these critical historians began to seek out original source material and then to compare and criticize sources in order to arrive, through a methodology that did not necessarily take these sources at their word, at a considered account of history. There is a fascinating book about this — Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination By Paul Veyne — that delves into the emergence of critical historiography. Veyne cites in particular the reception of the Recherches de la France (1560) of Étienne Pasquier, which cites original source material in footnotes. Readers at the time, Veyne noted, objected to this method, and asked Pasquier why he did not rather submit his text to the judgment of posterity, which would either reject it or confirm it as tradition and canon.
Although Pasquier’s Recherches de la France was an early instance of critical historiography, it was also, in its own way, a piece of mythmaking and so something of a historical myth — but not precisely the myth that Pasquier’s contemporaries were prepared to hear. Pasquier was concerned to demonstrate the independent achievements of French civilization apart from classical antiquity, so that Pasquier did not begin with the Greeks or the Romans, but with the earliest peoples of Gaul, about which he derived some sketchy background from Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul — but this, too, is an fascinating window onto historical methodology, as many historians of the later twentieth century up to the present day have attempted to derive the authentic history of colonialized peoples by reading between the lines of the histories and chronicles left by their conquerors. Pasquier was more modern than he knew, and more modern even that Veyne realized.
Critical historiography is then followed by scientific historiography, and scientific historiography begins to go beyond the original texts sought out by critical history and to pursue forms of evidence that did not even exist for previous historians, except in so far as they were preserved in folk memory. Scientific historiography has its own methods and its own canons of evidence, distinct from those of critical historiography. Scientific evidence and sources of knowledge are treated in critical fashion, but it is critical according to the methods of natural science, not textual exegesis. Both critical historiography and scientific historiography have sources and methods of evidence, and both take a critical view of these sources and evidence, but these methods remain distinct at present. These canons of evidence can be brought together if the will and the motive to force an integration and possibly even a synthesis is present, and this attempt to synthesize critical and scientific historiography is an implicit aim of big history.
One of the themes that became evident at the IBHA conference was the extent to which big history embraces the canons of evidence of scientific historiography. The terminology that has been introduced in big history is that of “claims testers,” which is systematically seeking to teach those who are learning big history how to verify the claims that are made on the basis of the methodology of natural science. This is an admirable undertaking, and I can’t say enough good things about an historical method that teaches students to be critical and to demand evidence for any and all claims made. However, the traditional historiographical challenge of “claims testing” was a hermeneutical exercise in textual exegesis. Historians got quite good at this kind of textual criticism. Already in the renaissance it was shown (by Lorenzo Valla), from internal evidence of the document, that the so-called “Donation of Constantine” was a medieval forgery. This work of exegesis continues into our own day, as ancient books are occasionally discovered and similarly interrogated. For example, the recovery of the Nag Hammadi library was a literary bonanza for New Testament scholars, whose discipline was revolutionized by this material.
Analogously, before detailed genetic studies revealed the pattern of human planetary dispersion, there was language, which preserves in its words and structures something of its own distant past, much as DNA does. Linguists traced the world’s languages backward to a root proto-Indo-European language and identified certain nodal points in the development and dispersal of that root. The study of language is in some ways an expansion upon traditional historiography based upon written language, which is say, history in the strict sense, in its narrowest construal, that of traditional historiography. That traditional historiography can be expanded and extended in this way, with the study of language, of inscriptions, of coins, the reconstruction or partially destroyed manuscripts, and other methods, shows how traditional text-based historiography can tend toward scientific historiography. The hunger for knowledge about the past does not relent where our documents leave off, and scholars have sought to fill in lacuna by hook or by crook. Some of these inventive methods have shaded over into scientific historiography.
Scientific Historiography and the Method of Isolation
The physical manuscripts of the Nag Hammadi libtrary themselves, and the context of their recovery, is something to be studied by scientific archaeology (after the fact, as the manuscripts themselves were initially recovered not by archaeologists, but by two Egyptian brothers who kept their discovery quiet in order to sell the find piece by piece, so that much of the archaeological context was lost), but just as traditional literary historiography is limited by its own canons of evidence and cannot penetrate into prehistory, so too scientific historiography is limited by its scientific canons of evidence, and from its studies of the physical condition of manuscripts it can say very little about the historical period as compared to simply reading the documents, which, however, is a specialized skill of scholars of ancient languages (the kind of scholars who revealed the Donation of Constantine as a forgery).
Now, in actual fact, scientific historians do not limit themselves to a scientific study of documents as physical artifacts; they also read the documents and derive information from the content, as we would expect they would. But if, as an exercise, we take the idea of scientific historiography according to the method of isolation, and consider it ideally as only scientific historiography, shorn from its association with traditional historiographical methods, we would be reduced to an archaeology of the historical period, which would be most unsatisfying.
Suppose, as a thought experiment, scientific historiography were to employ its methods to study what archaeologists call the “material culture” of the historical period, but was on principle denied any information recorded in actual documents and inscriptions. That is to say, suppose our picture of the historical past were exclusively the result of the study of the material culture of the historical past (here employing “history” in the narrow and traditional sense of history recorded in written documents). I think that our the historical past reconstructed on the basis of what scientific historiography could derive from material culture would be quite different from the story that we know of the historical past in virtue of written records. No one that I know of pursues this method of isolation in studying the historical past when documents are also available, though this method of isolation is pursued of necessity in the absence of any documents (or in the absence of a language that can be deciphered). Though this method is not pursued in history, it is important to point to that scientific historiography has its limitations no less than the limitations of critical historiography and its tradition.
Isaiah Berlin and Scientific Historiography
Scholarship perpetually finds itself in the midst of the tension between traditionalism and modernization. If tradition is always given priority, scholarship becomes exclusively backward-looking and retrograde; Nietzsche would say that this is history that does not serve life. There have been many examples of this throughout the intellectual life of our planet. But scholarship cannot simply seize upon every intellectual trend that comes along, or it would lose touch with the established canons that have made rigorous scholarship possible. The introduction of a new idea might in fact expand these canons so that rigorous scholarship can have a wider field — I believe this to be the case with big history — but a new idea can appear to traditionalists as a threat to established research, a heresy, a diversion, or a waste of time.
Scientific historiography has been and is just such a new idea: different scholars have judged of it differently. Some few take up the new idea with enthusiasm, most are hesitant, while some few transform themselves into defenders of orthodoxy. Isaiah Berlin took up the problem of scientific historiography, and while he defended a traditionalist position, he did so intelligently, and not in the spirit of a reactionary rejecting anything that contradicts orthodoxy. For that reason we have much to learn from Berlin on this point.
Here is a representative passage from his essay on scientific historiography:
“The gifts that historians need are different from those of the natural scientists. The latter must abstract, generalise, idealise, qualify, dissociate normally associated ideas (for nature is full of strange surprises, and as little as possible must be taken for granted), deduce, establish with certainty, reduce everything to the maximum degree of regularity, uniformity, and, so far as possible, to timeless repetitive patterns. Historians cannot ply their trade without a considerable capacity for thinking in general terms; but they need, in addition, peculiar attributes of their own: a capacity for integration, for perceiving qualitative similarities and differences, a sense of the unique fashion in which various factors combine in the particular concrete situation, which must at once be neither so unlike any other situation as to constitute a total break with the continuous flow of human experience, nor yet so stylised and uniform as to be the obvious creature of theory and not of flesh and blood.”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
Notice in this above passage that Berlin is attributing a nomothetic (lawlike) approach to science and an ideographic (contingency and accident) approach to history. There is a long 19th century tradition of associating history exclusively with the ideographic (i.e., the contingent). This is especially true in Windelband’s 1894 Rectorial Address “History and Natural Science,” which was to be such a profound influence upon Heinrich Rickert, who continued this tradition of thought. While figures like Windelband and Rickert were committed to a rigorous method in historiography, the idea of history as exclusively ideographic is at bottom a Platonic motif, and in Plato the nomothetic is necessary, apodictic truth, worthy of being immortalized among The Forms, while all else is the realm of mere shifting opinion. It is in this tradition Descartes is implicitly following as he searched for an apodictic truth upon which to build science, and along the way dismissed history in a famous passage:
“…fables make one imagine many events to be possible which are not so at all. And even the most accurate histories, if they neither alter nor exaggerate the significance of things in order to render them more worthy of being read, almost always at least omit the baser and less noteworthy details. Consequently the rest do not appear as they really are, and those who govern their own conduct by means of examples drawn from these texts are liable to fall into the extravagances of the knights of our romances and to conceive plans that are beyond their powers.”
René Descartes, Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Searching for Truth in the Sciences
Cartesians thereafter were well known for their lack of interest in history as an intellectual discipline, and if one takes mathematical reasoning as one’s paradigm (an early theme in Descartes that is already evident in his Rules for the Direction of Mind) it is not surprising that historical knowledge will not measure up to this apodictic standard. Even today one finds a quasi-Cartesian skepticism about history among some intelligent individuals whose epistemology is derived, implicitly or explicitly, from mathematics and the non-historical natural sciences.
From his presumption that history is ideographic and science nomothetic, Berlin determines that each contradicts the other:
“…to say of history that it should approximate to the condition of a science is to ask it to contradict its essence.”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
While it is true that scientific method has focused on the nomothetic while historiographical method has focused on the ideographic, is it not possible that there is a nascent, undeveloped ideographic science and a nascent, undeveloped nomothetic historiography, each discipline waiting to be born, as it were, when our conceptual infrastructure feels the want of them and we are forced to develop new conceptions that transcend our old conceptions of science and history? Nomothetic science, ideographic history, nomothetic history, and ideographic science will naturally fit together like the pieces of a puzzle, each complementing rather than contradicting the other. Integrating human history into a background of scientific history, as in cosmology, geology, biology, etc., one is integrating the nomothetic and the ideographic.
One of the most interesting points in Berlin’s essay is his suggestion, by way of an analogy with unscientific thought, of the possibility of an unhistorical mode of thought:
“…to be unscientific is to defy, for no good logical or empirical reason, established hypotheses and laws; while to be unhistorical is the opposite — to ignore or twist one’s view of particular events, persons, predicaments, in the name of laws, theories, principles derived from other fields, logical, ethical, metaphysical, scientific, which the nature of the medium renders inapplicable…”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
A truly comprehensive and integrative history — presumably the aim of big history — would have to avoid both unscientific and unhistorical modes of thought, and this is a valuable observation. This demonstrates that big history is not merely eclectic, but must also, like any rigorous discipline, be defined in terms of what it excludes.
Even though I do not agree with Berlin in detail, and often I disagree with him when it comes to the big picture also, I think that big history can only benefit by engaging with his ideas and his perspective. Ignoring the problems that Berlin points out is not, in my opinion, intellectually responsible. The scholar is called upon to respect and to respond to the arguments of earlier scholars, if only to refute them in order to demonstrate to future generations a blind alley to be avoided.
This brings me to the final quote I will take from Berlin’s essay, and where I most completely disagree with him:
“…the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied, no matter how successful the human sciences may grow to be — even if, as all but obscurantists must hope, they discover genuine, empirically confirmed, laws of individual and collective behaviour — seems an attempt to square the circle. It is not a vain hope for an ideal goal beyond human powers, but a chimera, born of lack of understanding of the nature of natural science, or of history, or of both.”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
I am not saying that Berlin’s approach to history is a blind alley, since traditional historical scholarship can continue and be absorbed into the architectonic of big history, but Berlin is definitely asserting that “the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied” is a blind alley, and here I must decisively part company with Berlin. I think it both possible and desirable to seek a pure theory of history that would stand in relation to applied, empirical history as pure geometry is related to empirical geometry. I would call this discipline formal historiography, and it strikes me as the obvious next development following traditional historiography, critical historiography, and scientific historiography.
Probably this view would divide me no less from most big historians than from traditional historians like Isaiah Berlin. Big history could be a formal school of historical thought in the way that the cultural processual school in archaeology is a formal school of archaeological thought, no less concerned with formal models and the hypothetico-deductive method than with excavating mounds and sorting pottery sherds. But this clearly does not appear to be the direction in which big history is headed.
There could, of course, be a small subfield of formal big history within the overall umbrella (or, if you like, big tent) of big history, which would proceed in true hypothetico-deductive fashion, formulating general laws about history, deriving predictions from these laws, and confirming or disconfirming the laws by testing the predictions against actual events. The scientific method at its most formal has served us well in other capacities, and we have yet to bring its full force to bear upon historical questions.
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Studies in Grand Historiography
8. Big History and Scientific Historiography
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24 August 2014
History without Big History
Not long before I attended the 2014 IBHA “big history” conference I picked up a book at a used bookstore titled History: A Brief Insight by John H. Arnold. The book is copyrighted 2000, with additional text copyrighted 2009. Upon my return from the conference in California, I looked over the book more carefully, scanned the bibliography for names and titles, read the index, and skimmed the text. There is no hint of big history in the book.
There are a number of historians for whom “big history” simply does not yet exist, and, on the basis of textual evidence alone (that is to say, without knowing anything about John H. Arnold except what I found in this one book), John H. Arnold would seem to be one of these historians. I have enjoyed what I have read so far in Arnold’s book, and he covers a range of historiographical questions from human nature (does it change or is it the same in all ages?), through Leopold von Ranke (about how I recently wrote in Political Dimensions of History), to Fernand Braudel and the twentieth century Annales school of historians. There is much here to appreciate, and from which to learn.
It is still, today, possible to write a general introductory text on history and say nothing about big history. Is it significant that a contemporary historian can review perennial ideas of historiography without mentioning the growing contribution of big history to historiographical thought? It is, I think, both significant and understandable. I will try to sketch out why I think this to be the case.
Is there a place for historiography in big history?
Big history, although a creation of historians (David Christian specialized in Russian and Soviet history), owes more to the emergence of scientific historiography than to traditional historiography, and it shows. During my time at the IBHA conference the traditional language and concepts of historiography were notable in their absence: I did not hear a single person (other than myself) mention diachronic, synchronic, ideographic, or nomothetic approaches (four concepts that I have integrated in what I called the axes of historiography), nor did I hear any mention of the Carr-Elton debate or its contemporary re-setting in the work of Rorty and White by Keith Jenkins, nor did I hear anyone mention those figures and ideas that appeared in John H. Arnold noted above, such as Ranke, Bloc, and Braudel.
In the discussion following the presentation by John Mears the traditional historiographical question was asked — Is history a science or does it belong with the humanities? — but, surprisingly in a group of historians, the question was not taken up in its historical context, and it is the historical context of the question, in which history has tended toward the scientific or toward the humanistic by turns, that could most benefit the emerging conception of big history. The question came up again in a nearly explicit form in Fred Spier’s plenary address on the last day, “The Future of Big History,” when Spier brought up C. P. Snow’s famous lecture on “The Two Cultures.” In the middle of the twentieth century Snow had dissected the misunderstanding and mutual mistrust of the sciences and the humanities. This would have been the perfect time and the perfect context in which to pursue the relationship between these two cultures in big history, but Spier did not pursue the theme.
Paradoxical though it sounds, there is, at present, little or no place for historiography — that is to say, for the traditional conflicts and controversies of historiography — within the framework of big history, which seems to effortlessly bypass these now apparently arcane disagreements among scholars, which appear small if not petty within the capacious context of the history of the universe entire.
Big History and Scientific Historiography
Big history is, indirectly, a consequence of the emergence of scientific historiography in the previous century. This is one of the great intellectual movements of our time, and in saying that there appears to be little or no place for historiography within big history I am not seeking to demean or disparage either big history or scientific historiography. On the contrary, I have written many posts and scientific historiography, and the idea plays an important, if not a central, role in my own thought.
From the diversity of opinion represented at the IBHA conference I attended, one can already see divisions emerging between the more natural-science based perspectives and more traditionally humanistically-based perspectives on big history, and one can just as easily imagine a formulation of big history that is more or less an extended branch of physics, or a formulation of big history that only incidentally touches upon physics while investing most of its resources in human history — though, to be sure, a human history greatly expanded by scientific historiography.
For the moment, however, it is the emerging trend of scientific historiography that is the central influence in big history, and this accounts both for the marginalization of traditional historiographical controversies as well as the particular approach to historical evidence that is adopted in big history.
The Handwriting on the Wall
One can already see the handwriting on the wall: big history will become, and then will remain, the dominant paradigm in historiography for the foreseeable future. Any reaction against big history that seeks to raise (or to restore) minutiae and miniaturism to a preeminent position will simply be absorbed into the overall framework of big history, which is sufficiently capacious to find a niche for anything within its comprehensive structure, and which is not bound to reject any kind of historical research.
Given the present paradigm of scientific thought, there is no more comprehensive perspective that can be adopted than that of big history. And when, in the fullness of time, science advances past its present paradigm and places our present knowledge in an even more capacious context, big history can be expanded in like fashion. This is because, as David Christian noted, big history is a form of “framework” thinking. Evolutionary biology is similarly a form of framework thinking, and it was able to seamlessly incorporate plate tectonics and geomorphology into its structure, and is now incorporating astrobiology into its structure for an ever-more-comprehensive perspective on life. Big history as a theoretical framework for historical thought is (or will be) in a position to do the same thing for history.
Even though big history is still inchoate, perhaps one of the reasons it is likely to experience more resistance than the school of world history (there has been an interest in “world history” for some time before big history appeared) is that it incorporates a few definite and distinctive ideas, and, moreover, ideas that have not been a part of traditional historiography (specifically, emergent complexity and “Goldilocks” conditions). When big history develops a more coherent theoretical framework big history will find itself forced to define itself vis-à-vis the traditional historiographical concepts that it has so far largely avoided. One way to do this is to cast them aside and proceed without them; another way is to choose sides and become pigeon-holed into categories of historiographical thought that do not precisely suit big history.
The Structure of Historiographical Revolutions
It has been the nature of intellectual revolutions to cast aside past conceptual frameworks and to strike out in new directions. The most influential work in the philosophy of science of the twentieth century, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, meticulously detailed this process of intellectual revolution. Big history might be just such an intellectual revolution, and with the power of the scientific historiography it can easily abandon the traditions of historiography and strike out to map its own territory in its own way. I think that this would be a mistake. While past intellectual revolutions have needed to break with the past in order to make progress, this break with the past has come at a cost. When renaissance scholarship not only broke with the medieval past, but ridiculed its scholasticism, this may have been necessary at the time, but it resulted in the loss of the sophisticated logic created by medieval scholars, which could have extended and deepened the work of the literary and humanistic scholars of the renaissance. Instead, the tradition of medieval logic lay fallow for five hundred years, and is only being rediscovered in out time, when it is less of a help than it might have been in the past.
Big history could, without doubt, do without traditional historiography, but it would do much better to learn the lessons painstakingly learned by historical scholars since the emergence of critical history, starting with the same renaissance scholars who rejected medieval logic but who created a new discipline of the critical analysis of the language of historical documents. In the transition from the medieval to the modern world it was probably necessary to make a clean break with the past — the Copernican revolution, which plays so large a role in Kuhn’s thought, is another instance of a modern break with the medieval past — but social conditions have changed radically, and it is less necessary to make a break with modernity than it was to make a break with medievalism.
I count myself as a friend of both scientific history and big history, but I don’t think that it is necessary to reject the historiographical tradition in order to pursue these historical frameworks. On the contrary, scientific history and big history will be much more sophisticated if they learn to use the tools developed by earlier generations of historians.
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Studies in Grand Historiography
7. Big History and Historiography
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23 October 2013
Prediction in Science
One of the distinguishing features of science as a system of thought is that it makes testable predictions. The fact that scientific predictions are testable suggests a methodology of testing, and we call the scientific methodology of testing experiment. Hypothesis formation, prediction, experimentation, and resultant modification of the hypothesis (confirmation, disconfirmation, or revision) are all essential elements of the scientific method, which constitutes an escalating spiral of knowledge as the scientific method systematically exposes predictions to experiment and modifies its hypotheses in the light of experimental results, which leads in turn to new predictions.
The escalating spiral of knowledge that science cultivates naturally pushes that knowledge into the future. Sometimes scientific prediction is even formulated in reference to “new facts” or “temporal asymmetries” in order to emphasize that predictions refer to future events that have not yet occurred. In constructing an experiment, we create a few set of facts in the world, and then interpret these facts in the light of our hypothesis. It is this testing of hypotheses by experiment that establishes the concrete relationship of science to the world, and this is also a source of limitation, for experiments are typically designed in order to focus on a single variable and to that end an attempt is made to control for the other variables. (A system of thought that is not limited by the world is not science.)
Alfred North Whitehead captured this artificial feature of scientific experimentation in a clever line that points to the difference between scientific predictions and predictions of a more general character:
“…experiment is nothing else than a mode of cooking the facts for the sake of exemplifying the law. Unfortunately the facts of history, even those of private individual history, are on too large a scale. They surge forward beyond control.”
Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, New York: The Free Press, 1967, Chapter VI, “Foresight,” p. 88
There are limits to prediction, and not only those pointed out by Whitehead. The limits to prediction have been called the prediction wall. Beyond the prediction wall we cannot penetrate.
The Prediction Wall
John Smart has formulated the idea of a prediction wall in his essay, “Considering the Singularity,” as follows:
With increasing anxiety, many of our best thinkers have seen a looming “Prediction Wall” emerge in recent decades. There is a growing inability of human minds to credibly imagine our onrushing future, a future that must apparently include greater-than-human technological sophistication and intelligence. At the same time, we now admit to living in a present populated by growing numbers of interconnected technological systems that no one human being understands. We have awakened to find ourselves in a world of complex and yet amazingly stable technological systems, erected like vast beehives, systems tended to by large swarms of only partially aware human beings, each of which has only a very limited conceptualization of the new technological environment that we have constructed.
Business leaders face the prediction wall acutely in technologically dependent fields (and what enterprise isn’t technologically dependent these days?), where the ten-year business plans of the 1950’s have been replaced with ten-week (quarterly) plans of the 2000’s, and where planning beyond two years in some fields may often be unwise speculation. But perhaps most astonishingly, we are coming to realize that even our traditional seers, the authors of speculative fiction, have failed us in recent decades. In “Science Fiction Without the Future,” 2001, Judith Berman notes that the vast majority of current efforts in this genre have abandoned both foresighted technological critique and any realistic attempt to portray the hyper-accelerated technological world of fifty years hence. It’s as if many of our best minds are giving up and turning to nostalgia as they see the wall of their own conceptualizing limitations rising before them.
Considering the Singularity: A Coming World of Autonomous Intelligence (A.I.) © 2003 by John Smart (This article may be reproduced for noncommercial purposes if it is copied in its entirety, including this notice.)
I would to suggest that there are at least two prediction walls: synchronic and diachronic. The prediction wall formulated above by John Smart is a diachronic prediction wall: it is the onward-rushing pace of events, one following the other, that eventually defeats our ability to see any recognizable order or structure of the future. The kind of prediction wall to which Whitehead alludes is a synchronic prediction wall, in which it is the outward eddies of events in the complexity of the world’s interactions that make it impossible for us to give a complete account of the consequences of any one action. (Cf. Axes of Historiography)
Retrodiction and the Historical Sciences
Science does not live by prediction alone. While some philosophers of science have questioned the scientificity of the historical sciences because they could not make testable (and therefore falsifiable) predictions about the future, it is now widely recognized that the historical sciences don’t make predictions, but they do make retrodictions. A retrodiction is a prediction about the past.
The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy by Simon Blackburn (p. 330) defines retrodiction thusly:
retrodiction The hypothesis that some event happened in the past, as opposed to the prediction that an event will happen in the future. A successful retrodiction could confirm a theory as much as a successful prediction.
As with predictions, there is also a limit to retrodiction, and this is the retrodiction wall. Beyond the retrodiction wall we cannot penetrate.
I haven’t been thinking about this idea for long enough to fully understand the ramifications of a retrodiction wall, so I’m not yet clear about whether we can distinction diachronic retrodiction and synchronic retrodiction. Or, rather, it would be better to say that the distinction can certainly be made, but that I cannot think of good contrasting examples of the two at the present time.
We can define a span of accessible history that extends from the retrodiction wall in the past to the prediction wall in the future as what I will call effective history (by analogy with effective computability). Effective history can be defined in a way that is closely parallel to effectively computable functions, because all of effective history can be “reached” from the present by means of finite, recursive historical methods of inquiry.
Effective history is not fixed for all time, but expands and contracts as a function of our knowledge. At present, the retrodiction wall is the Big Bang singularity. If anything preceded the Big Bang singularity we are unable to observe it, because the Big Bang itself effectively obliterates any observable signs of any events prior to itself. (Testable theories have been proposed that suggest the possibility of some observable remnant of events prior to the Big Bang, as in conformal cyclic cosmology, but this must at present be regarded as only an early attempt at such a theory.)
Prior to the advent of scientific historiography as we know it today, the retrodiction wall was fixed at the beginning of the historical period narrowly construed as written history, and at times the retrodiction wall has been quite close to the present. When history experiences one of its periodic dark ages that cuts it off from his historical past, little or nothing may be known of a past that once familiar to everyone in a given society.
The emergence of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization effectively obliterated human history before itself, in a manner parallel to the Big Bang. We know that there were caves that prehistorical peoples visited generation after generation for time out of mind, over tens of thousands of years — much longer than the entire history of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and yet all of this was forgotten as though it had never happened. This long period of prehistory was entirely lost to human memory, and was not recovered again until scientific historiography discovered it through scientific method and empirical evidence, and not through the preservation of human memory, from which prehistory had been eradicated. And this did not occur until after agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization had lapsed and entirely given way to industrial-technological civilization.
We cannot define the limits of the prediction wall as readily as we can define the limits of the retrodiction wall. Predicting the future in terms of overall history has been more problematic than retrodicting the past, and equally subject to ideological and eschatological distortion. The advent of modern science compartmentalized scientific predictions and made them accurate and dependable — but at the cost of largely severing them from overall history, i.e., human history and the events that shape our lives in meaningful ways. We can make predictions about the carbon cycle and plate tectonics, and we are working hard to be able to make accurate predictions about weather and climate, but, for the most part, our accurate predictions about the future dispositions of the continents do not shape our lives in the near- to mid-term future.
I have previously quoted a famous line from Einstein: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” We might paraphrase this Einstein line in regard to the relation of mathematics to the world, and say that as far as scientific laws of nature predict events, these events are irrelevant to human history, and in so far as predicted events are relevant to human beings, scientific laws of nature cannot predict them.
Singularities Past and Future
As the term “singularity” is presently employed — as in the technological singularity — the recognition of a retrodiction wall in the past complementary to the prediction wall in the future provides a literal connection between the historiographical use of “singularity” and the use of the term “singularity” in cosmology and astrophysics.
Theorists of the singularity hypothesis place a “singularity” in the future which constitutes an absolute prediction wall beyond which history is so transformed that nothing beyond it is recognizable to us. This future singularity is not the singularity of astrophysics.
If we recognize the actual Big Bang singularity in the past as the retrodiction wall for cosmology — and hence, by extension, for Big History — then an actual singularity of astrophysics is also at the same time an historical singularity.
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I have continued my thoughts on the retrodiction wall in Addendum on the Retrodiction Wall.
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2 February 2013
In my last post, The Science of Time, I discussed the possibility of taking an absolutely general perspective on time and how this can be done in a way that denies time or in a way that affirms time, after the manner of big history.
David Christian, whose books on big history and his Teaching Company lectures on Big History have been seminal in the field, in the way of introduction to his final lectures, in which he switches from history to speculation on the future, relates that in his early big history courses his students felt as though they were cut off rather abruptly when he had brought them through 13.7 billion years of cosmic history only to drop them unceremoniously in the present without making any effort to discuss the future. It was this reaction that prompted him to continue beyond the present and to try to say something about what comes next.
Another way to understand this reaction of Christian’s students is that they wanted to see the whole of the history they have just been through placed in an even larger, more comprehensive context, and to do this requires going beyond history in the sense of an account of the past. To put the whole of history into a larger context means placing it within a cosmology that extends beyond our strict scientific knowledge of past and future — that which can be observed and demonstrated — and comprises a framework in the same scientific spirit but which looks beyond the immediate barriers to observation and demonstration.
Elsewhere in David Christian’s lectures (if my memory serves) he mentioned how some traditionalist historians, when they encounter the idea of big history, reject the very idea because history has always been about documents and eponymously confined to to the historical period when documents were kept after the advent of literacy. According to this reasoning, anything that happened prior to the invention of written language is, by definition, not history. I have myself encountered similar reasoning as, for example, when it is claimed that prehistory is not history at all because it happened prior to the existence of written records, which latter define history.
This a sadly limited view of history, but apparently it is a view with some currency because I have encountered it in many forms and in different contexts. One way to discredit any intellectual exercise is to define it so narrowly that it cannot benefit from the most recent scientific knowledge, and then to impugn it precisely for its narrowness while not allowing it to change and expand as human knowledge expands. The explosion in scientific knowledge in the last century has made possible a scientific historiography that simply did not exist previously; to deny that this is history on the basis of traditional humanistic history being based on written records means that we must then define some new discipline, with all the characteristics of traditional history, but expanded to include our new knowledge. This seems like a perverse attitude to me, but for some people the label of their discipline is important.
Call it what you will then — call it big history, or scientific historiography, or the study of human origins, or deny that it is history altogether, but don’t try to deny that our knowledge of the past has expanded exponentially since the scientific method has been applied to the past.
In this same spirit, we need to recognize that a greatly expanded conception of history needs to reach into the future, that a scientific futurism needs to be part of our expanded conception of the totality of time and history — or whatever it is that results when we apply Russell’s generalization imperative to time. Once again, it would be unwise to be overly concerned with what we call his emerging discipline, whether it be the totality of time or the whole of time or temporal infinitude or ecological temporality or what Husserl called omnitemporality or even absolute time.
Part of this grand (historical) effort will be a future science of civilizations, as the long term and big picture conception of civilization is of central human interest in this big picture of time and history. We not only want to know the naturalistic answers to traditional eschatological questions — Where did we come from? Where are we going? — but we also want to know the origins and destiny of what we have ourselves contributed to the universe — our institutions, our ideas, civilization, the technium, and all the artifacts of human endeavor.
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30 January 2013
F. H. Bradley in his classic treatise Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay, made this oft-quoted comment:
“If you identify the Absolute with God, that is not the God of religion. If again you separate them, God becomes a finite factor in the Whole. And the effort of religion is to put an end to, and break down, this relation — a relation which, none the less, it essentially presupposes. Hence, short of the Absolute, God cannot rest, and, having reached that goal, he is lost and religion with him. It is this difficulty which appears in the problem of the religious self-consciousness.”
I think many commentators have taken this passage as emblematic of what they believe to be Bradley’s religious sentimentalism, and in fact the yearning for religious belief (no longer possible for rational men) that characterized much of the school of thought that we now call “British Idealism.”
This is not my interpretation. I’ve read enough Bradley to know that he was no sentimentalist, and while his philosophy diverges radically from contemporary philosophy, he was committed to a philosophical, and not a religious, point of view.
Bradley was an elder contemporary of Bertrand Russell, and Bertrand Russell characterized Bradley as the grand old man of British idealism. This if from Russell’s Our Knowledge of the External World:
“The nature of the philosophy embodied in the classical tradition may be made clearer by taking a particular exponent as an illustration. For this purpose, let us consider for a moment the doctrines of Mr Bradley, who is probably the most distinguished living representative of this school. Mr Bradley’s Appearance and Reality is a book consisting of two parts, the first called Appearance, the second Reality. The first part examines and condemns almost all that makes up our everyday world: things and qualities, relations, space and time, change, causation, activity, the self. All these, though in some sense facts which qualify reality, are not real as they appear. What is real is one single, indivisible, timeless whole, called the Absolute, which is in some sense spiritual, but does not consist of souls, or of thought and will as we know them. And all this is established by abstract logical reasoning professing to find self-contradictions in the categories condemned as mere appearance, and to leave no tenable alternative to the kind of Absolute which is finally affirmed to be real.”
Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Chapter I, “Current Tendencies”
Although Russell rejected what he called the classical tradition, and distinguished himself in contributing to the origins of a new philosophical school that would come (in time) to be called analytical philosophy, the influence of figures like F. H. Bradley and J. M. E. McTaggart (whom Russell knew personally) can still be found in Russell’s philosophy.
In fact, the above quote from F. H. Bradley — especially the portion most quoted, short of the Absolute, God cannot rest, and, having reached that goal, he is lost and religion with him — is a perfect illustration of a principle found in Russell, and something on which I have quoted Russell many times, as it has been a significant influence on my own thinking.
I have come to refer to this principle as Russell’s generalization imperative. Russell didn’t call it this (the terminology is mine), and he didn’t in fact give any name at all to the principle, but he implicitly employs this principle throughout his philosophical method. Here is how Russell himself formulated the imperative (which I last quoted in The Genealogy of the Technium):
“It is a principle, in all formal reasoning, to generalize to the utmost, since we thereby secure that a given process of deduction shall have more widely applicable results…”
Bertrand Russell, An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, Chapter XVIII, “Mathematics and Logic”
One of the distinctive features that Russell identifies as constitutive of the classical tradition, and in fact one of the few explicit commonalities between the classical tradition and Russell’s own thought, was the denial of time. The British idealists denied the reality of time outright, in the best Platonic tradition; Russell did not deny the reality of time, but he was explicit about not taking time too seriously.
Despite Russell’s hostility to mysticism as expressed in his famous essay “Mysticism and Logic,” when it comes to the mystic’s denial of time, Russell softens a bit and shows his sympathy for this particular aspect of mysticism:
“Past and future must be acknowledged to be as real as the present, and a certain emancipation from slavery to time is essential to philosophic thought. The importance of time is rather practical than theoretical, rather in relation to our desires than in relation to truth. A truer image of the world, I think, is obtained by picturing things as entering into the stream of time from an eternal world outside, than from a view which regards time as the devouring tyrant of all that is. Both in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom.”
“…impartiality of contemplation is, in the intellectual sphere, that very same virtue of disinterestedness which, in the sphere of action, appears as justice and unselfishness. Whoever wishes to see the world truly, to rise in thought above the tyranny of practical desires, must learn to overcome the difference of attitude towards past and future, and to survey the whole stream of time in one comprehensive vision.”
Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, and Other Essays, Chapter I, “Mysticism and Logic”
While Russell and the classical tradition in philosophy both perpetuated the devalorization of time, this attitude is slowly disappearing from philosophy, and contemporary philosophers are more and more treating time as another reality to be given philosophical exposition rather than denying its reality. I regard this as a salutary development and a riposte to all who claim that philosophy makes no advances. Contemporary philosophy of time is quite sophisticated, and embodies a much more honest attitude to the world than the denial of time. (For those looking at philosophy from the outside, the denial of the reality of time simply sounds like a perverse waste of time, but I won’t go into that here.)
In any case, we can bring Russell’s generalization imperative to time and history even if Russell himself did not do so. That is to say, we ought to generalize to the utmost in our conception of time, and if we do so, we come to a principle parallel to Bradley’s that I think both Russell and Bradley would have endorsed: short of the absolute time cannot rest, and, having reached that goal, time is lost and history with it.
Since I don’t agree with this, but it would be one logical extrapolation of Russell’s generalization imperative as applied to time, this suggests to be that there is more than one way to generalize about time. One way would be the kind of generalization that I formulated above, presumably consistent with Russell’s and Bradley’s devalorization of time. Time generalized in this way becomes a whole, a totality, that ceases to possess the distinctive properties of time as we experience it.
The other way to generalize time is, I think, in accord with the spirit of Big History: here Russell’s generalization imperative takes the form of embedding all times within larger, more comprehensive times, until we reach the time of the entire universe (or beyond). The science of time, as it is emerging today, demands that we almost seek the most comprehensive temporal perspective, placing human action in evolutionary context, placing evolution in biological context, placing biology is in geomorphological context, placing terrestrial geomorphology into a planetary context, and placing this planetary perspective into a cosmological context. This, too, is a kind of generalization, and a generalization that fully feels the imperative that to stop at any particular “level” of time (which I have elsewhere called ecological temporality) is arbitrary.
On my other blog I’ve written several posts related directly or obliquely to Big History as I try to define my own approach to this emerging school of historiography: The Place of Bilateral Symmetry in the History of Life, The Archaeology of Cosmology, and The Stars Down to Earth.
The more we pursue the rapidly growing body of knowledge revealed by scientific historiography, the more we find that we are part of the larger universe; our connections to the world expand as we pursue them outward in pursuit of Russell’s generalization imperative. I think it was Hans Blumenberg in his enormous book The Genesis of the Copernican World, who remarked on the significance of the fact that we can stand with our feet on the earth and look up at the stars. As I remarked in The Archaeology of Cosmology, we now find that by digging into the earth we can reveal past events of cosmological history. As a celestial counterpart to this digging in the earth (almost as though concretely embodying the contrast to which Blumenberg referred), we know that by looking up at the stars, we are also looking back in time, because the light that comes to us ages after it has been produced. Thus is astronomy a kind of luminous archaeology.
In Geometrical Intuition and Epistemic Space I wrote, “…we have no science of time. We have science-like measurements of time, and time as a concept in scientific theories, but no scientific theory of time as such.” Scientists have tried to think scientifically about time, but, as with the case of consciousness, a science of time eludes us as a science of consciousness eludes us. Here a philosophical perspective remains necessary because there are so many open questions and no clear indication of how these questions are to be answered in a clearly scientific spirit.
Therefore I think it is too early to say exactly what Big History is, because we aren’t logically or intellectually prepared to say exactly what the Russellian generalization imperative yields when applied to time and history. I think that we are approaching a point at which we can clarify our concepts of time and history, but we aren’t quite there yet, and a lot of conceptual work is necessary before we can produce a definitive formulation of time and history that will make of Big History the science and it aspires to be.
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15 December 2008
The “news” of natural history
The weather is often used as a metaphor for fickleness and unpredictability. To be “as changeable as the weather” is to be capricious indeed. And it is often said, despite the fact that it is not true, that “lightning never strikes twice in the same place.” Though the weather is unpredictable, it does, however, have patterns. In yesterday’s Snow in Portland I discussed the weather patterns of northwestern Oregon in some detail.
Weather is the “news” of natural history. It is the day-to-day eventfulness of natural history, which latter is larger and more comprehensive than the mere weather, but also would not exist without the weather. Natural history is the big picture, the “novel” in contradistinction to the “news” of the weather. In natural history, patterns are even more evident than in the weather. We cannot predict the future of natural history in detail, but we can be pretty clear about the overall outline. For example, we can’t predict the exact outlines of the coastlines of future continents, but we can, on the basis of data available today, project the large scale movements of land masses and how continents will be made and unmade in the ongoing saga of geomorphology.
The possibility of scientific history: iterated structures of nature
A scientific approach to history would quantify regularities, calculate probabilities, and make predictions based on documented empirical data. We have a well-established scientific approach to natural history. In fact, contemporary natural history was essentially created by the efforts of natural science. There is, however, no consensus regarding a scientific approach to human history. But our inquiry, at present, is not a scientific inquiry in the strict sense of the term. We seek understanding rather than prediction, and understanding in terms of laws, principles, structures, and ideas.
There is no sense in which we reject a scientific approach to history or the scientific method generally; rather, ours is at times a complementary undertaking, and at times a more comprehensive undertaking. Scientific laws are one form of understanding – one form among many. A more comprehensive approach to understanding history subsumes the scientific form of understanding through inductively formulated laws under a general schema of laws that includes scientific laws among others.
History itself is, in a sense, a comprehensive grasp of the present. That is to say, history takes in not only the present of the moment, but all presents (in the plural) in their totality.
Humanistic history: iterated structures of human behavior
If there is anything else in the world as unpredictable of the weather, it is human behavior and human history. But, once again, while human beings are fickle and unpredictable, one can nevertheless discover patterns in the life of the individual and in the life of the species. And it may also be that, the more comprehensive our perspective becomes (as with continents above) the clearer the overall outline becomes even while the details become perhaps less clear.
There seems to be a ratio of inverse proportion involved here. We might even suggest a law on this basis: the comprehensivity one’s temporal perspective stands in inverse proportion to clarity of detail and in direct proportion to clarity of structure. The first statement of a law or principle is likely to be awkward, and this off-the-cuff observation of mine is no exception. If I think about it enough, I might arrive at a better formulation (and perhaps even a definitive formulation).
Moreover, the fact that a pattern can be identified does not mean that it always inevitably unfolds in the same way each time. This too is part of the pattern: patterns themselves admit of patterns, and they change over time, just as with the weather. There is a law of principle buried somewhere in this observation too, but I will leave its formulation for another occasion.
There is more than an analogy that holds between human behavior and the weather: natural history now embraces the whole of human history, extending our history into time out of mind, and making both the weather and the daily events of human life equally the passing substance that fills the moments of time and which, by slow and incremental action, come to shape the large scale structures of history, human and natural alike.
History: the synthesis of scientific and humanistic approaches
Here, then, is another use for the philosophy of history in our time: to reconcile the scientific perspective on natural history with the fact that human history is a part of natural history, in light of the fact that the scientific perspective on human history is not always an adequate guide to human history.
In the Republic, Plato has his Socrates suggest that, since it is easier to see justice in the large than in the small, the participants in the discussion should seek to elucidate the just state, so that once justice is seen in the large, they could then move on to elucidate the character of a just man, which is justice seen in miniature. Civilization is the largest scale human institution in time, and therefore perhaps the best structure in which to seek parallels with natural history.
It could be argued that the culture of non-civilized peoples is in fact an older and more durable human institution. It could be said that Neanderthals possessed culture without civilization. And while civilizations have come and gone, culture has remained the abiding possession of human beings, though it may be a possession with its origins in a creature not precisely human, sensu stricto. We will leave this question for another time. This, too, is a problem for the philosophy of history in our time.
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