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The Science and Technology of Civilization

In several contexts I have observed that there is no science of civilization, i.e., that there is no science that takes civilization as its unique object of inquiry. I wrote a short paper, Manifesto for the Scientific Study of Civilization, in which I outlined how I would begin to address this deficit in our knowledge. (And I’ve written several blog posts on the same, such as The Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science, Addendum on the Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science, and The Study of Civilization as Formal Science and as Adventure Science, inter alia.) Suppose we were to undertake a science of civilization (whether by my plan or some other plan) and thus began to assemble reliable scientific knowledge of civilization. Would we be content only to understand civilization, or would we want to employ our scientific knowledge in order to effect changes in the same way that scientific knowledge of other aspects of human life have facilitated more effective action?

Can we distinguish between a science of civilization and technologies of civilization? What is the difference between a science and a technology? One of the ways to distinguish science from technology is that science seeks knowledge, understanding, and explanation as ends in themselves, while technology employs scientific knowledge, understanding and explanation in order to attain some end or aim. Roughly, science has no purpose beyond itself, while technology is conceived specifically for some purpose. Thus if we wish to use scientific knowledge of civilization not only to understand what civilization is, but also to shape, direct, and develop civilization in particular ways, we would then need to go beyond formulating a science of civilization and to also construct technologies of civilization.

This distinction, while helpful, implies that technologies follow from science as applications of that science. This implication is misleading because technologies can appear in isolation from any science (other than the most rudimentary forms of knowledge). Epistemically, science precedes technology, but in terms of historical order, technology long preceded science. Our ancestors were already shaping stone tools millions of years ago, and by the time civilization emerged in human history and the first glimmerings of science can be discerned, technology was already well advanced. However, the greatest disruption in the history of civilization (to date) has been the industrial revolution, and the industrial revolution marks the point at human history in which the historical order of technology followed by science was reversed by the systematic application of science to industry, and since that time the most powerful technologies have been derived from following the epistemic order of starting with science and only then, after attaining scientific knowledge, applying this scientific knowledge to the building of technology.

Social Engineering for Preferred Outcomes

If we were to formulate a science of civilization today, it would be a science formulated in this post-industrialization historical context, and we would expect that we could converge on a body of knowledge about civilization that could then be applied reflexively to civilization as technologies in order to achieve whatever results are desired (within the scope of what is possible; assuming that there are intrinsic modal limits to civilization). At the same time, thinking of civilization in this way, and looking back over the historical record, we can easily see that there have been many technologies of civilization (i.e., technologies of civilization preceding a science of civilization) in use from the beginnings of large-scale social organization. (In an earlier post I called these social technologies, among which we can count civilization itself.)

Almost all civilizations have intervened in social outcomes in a heavy-handed way through social engineering. The inquisition, for example, was a form of social engineering intended to limit, to contain, to punish, and to expunge religious non-conformity. While this is perhaps an extreme example of social engineering through religious institutions, since most central projects of civilizations have been religious in character, most of human history has been marked by the use of religious institutions to shape and direct social life. Or, to take an example less likely to be controversial (religious examples are controversial both because those who continue to identify with Axial Age religious faiths would see this discussion as an affront to their beliefs, and also because religiously-based social engineering could be taken to be a soft target), law can be understood as a technology of civilization. From the earliest attempts at the regulation of social life, as, for example, with the code of Hammurabi, to the present day, systems of law have been central to shaping large-scale social organization.

The Structure of Civilization through the Lens of Social Technologies

Elsewhere I have suggested that civilization can be understood as an institution of institutions. This is a very low resolution conception, but it has its uses. In the same spirit we can say that civilization is a social technology of social technologies, and this, too, is a very low resolution concept. I have also proposed that a civilization can be defined as an economic infrastructure linked to an intellectual superstructure by a central project (for example in my 2017 Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress presentation, The Role of Lunar Civilization in Interstellar Buildout). This conception of civilization is a bit more articulated, as it gives specific classes of social institutions that jointly constitute the social institution of civilization, and how these classes of institutions are related to each other.

In revisiting the question of civilization from the perspective of a science of civilization that might make technologies of civilization available, I have come to realize that the definition one gives of the structure of civilization will reflect (in part) the concepts employed in the analysis of civilization. What I have previously identified as the economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure of civilization could mostly be classed under the concept of technologies of civilization, and this can be employed to present a structural model of civilization slightly different from that I have previous presented.

As noted above, technologies are purposive, and in order to organize purposive activity it is necessary to define or otherwise specify these purposes. This is the function of the central project of a civilization. From this perspective, the structure of civilization is a central project that delineates purposes and all the other institutions of civilization are social technologies that implement the purposes of the central project. This account of the structure of civilization does not contradict my definition of civilization in terms of superstructure and infrastructure joined by a central project, but it does give a distinctly different emphasis.

Partial and Complete Definitions of Civilization

There are many definitions of civilization that have been proposed. Civilization is a multivariant phenomenon (it is characterized by many different properties) and so each time we look at civilization a bit differently, we tend to see something a bit different. I have been thinking about civilization for many years, writing up my ideas in fragmentary form on this blog, and continually re-visiting these ideas and testing them for adequacy in the light of later formulations. In the above I have tried to show how different definitions of civilization (especially definitions of varying degrees of resolution) can be compatible and do not necessarily point to contradiction. However, this is does not entail that all definitions of civilization are compatible.

Formally, we will want to know which definitions of civilization are different ways of looking at the same thing, and thus ultimately compatible if we can fit them together properly within an overarching framework, and which definitions are not singling out the same thing, either because they fail to single out anything, or they fail to single out civilization specifically. Someone may set out to define civilization, and they end up defining culture or society instead (and perhaps conflating culture, society, and civilization). Some others may set out to define civilization and end up producing an incoherent definition that doesn’t allow us to converge upon civilizations in any reliable theoretical way. More often, attempts at defining civilization end up defining some part or aspect or property of civilization, but fail to illuminate civilization on the whole.

Partial definitions of civilization mean that the definition does not yet capture the big picture of civilization, but partial definitions can still be very helpful. As we have seen above, the institutions that jointly shape civil society can be distinguished between a class of institutions of the economic infrastructure (the ways and means of civilization) and a class of institutions of the intellectual superstructure (exposition of the ends and aims of civilization), but that all of these institutions can also be seen as falling within the same class of social technologies employed to implement the central project of a civilization.

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