Sunday


Patinir's painting of Charon crossing the river Styx has always impressed me for its overview effect of the landscape.

Patinir’s painting of Charon crossing the river Styx has always impressed me for its overview effect of the landscape.

In my first post on the overview effect, The Epistemic Overview Effect, I compared a comprehensive overview of knowledge to the perspective-altering view of the whole of the Earth in one glance. Later in The Overview Effect in Formal Thought I discussed the need for a comprehensive overview in formal thought no less than in scientific knowledge. I also discussed the overview in relation to interoception in Our Knowledge of the Internal World.

This account of the overview effect in various domains of knowledge leaves an ellipsis in my formulation of the overview effect, namely, the overview effect in specifically empirical knowledge, i.e., the overview effect in science other than the formal sciences. What would constitute an overview of empirical knowledge? The totality of facts? An awareness of the overall structure of the empirical sciences? A bird’s eye view of the universe entire? (The latter something I recently suggested in A Brief History of the Stelliferous Era.)

A subjective experience is always presented in a personal context, and when that subjective experience is of the overview effect the individual life serves as the “big picture” context by which individual and isolated experiences derive their value. The overview effect, as documented to date, is a personal experience, therefore ideographic, and therefore also idiosyncratic to a certain extent. The traditionally ideographic character of the historical sciences, then, has been uniquely well-adapted to being given an exposition in overview, and so we have the recent branch of historiography called big history. Big history in particular gives an overview of the historical sciences even as the historical sciences are employed to give an overview of history. There is a twofold task here to interpret all the physical sciences historically (in ideographic terms) so that their epistemic contributions can be integrated into the historical sciences, and to move the historical sciences closer to the nomothetic rigor of the traditionally ahistorical physical sciences. We will truly have a comprehensive overview of scientific knowledge when the ideographic historical sciences and the nomothetic ahistorical sciences meet in the middle. This constitutes an ideal of scientific knowledge that has not yet been attained.

Every individual has an overview of their own life — or, rather, every individual with a minimal degree of insight has an overview of their own life — and this is the setting for any other overview of which the individual becomes aware, including the overview effect itself. (Individuals also, partly in virtue of their personal overview of their own life, possess what I have called the human overview, such that in the experience of meeting another person we can usually rapidly place that person within a social, cultural, ethnic, and historical context.) In the future, the personal experience of the overview effect may be harnessed for the production of knowledge understood more broadly than the knowledge engendered by purely personal experience. All empirical knowledge is ultimately derived from personal experience, has its origins in personal experience, but once personal experience has been exapted through idealization and quantification for the purpose of the production of empirical knowledge, it loses its personal and experiential character and becomes impersonal and objective.

It may sound overly subtle at first to make a distinction between personal experience and empirical knowledge, but the distinction is worth noting, and in any theoretical context it is important to observe the distinction. Experience is ideographic; empirical knowledge is nomothetic. Thus personal experience of the overview effect to date is an ideographic overview effect; the possibility of the empirical sciences converging upon an overview effect would be a nomothetic overview effect. If this nomothetic overview effect of scientific knowledge can be further extended by rendering the ahistorical nomothetic sciences in terms of the historical sciences, and the overview effect of scientific knowledge can be given a history in which we have an overview of each stage of development, we can get a glimpse of the possibilities for comprehensive knowledge, and what the future may hold for scientific knowledge.

Science has always been in the business of attempting to provide an overview of the world, but the approach of science has always been a form of objectivity that attempts to alienate personal experience. One sees this most clearly in classical antiquity, when the most abstract of sciences flourished — viz. mathematics — while the other sciences languished, partly because the theoretical framework for constructing objective knowledge out of personal experience did not yet exist. Hundreds of years of the development of scientific thought have subsequently provided this framework, but the paradigm produced by science has come at a certain cost. We are still today struggling with that legacy and its costs.

One way to approach the role of personal experience in empirical knowledge is by way of Bertrand Russell’s distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description (“Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description” in Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays). The task that Russell set himself in this paper — “…what it is that we know in cases where we know propositions about ‘the so-and-so’ without knowing who or what the so-and-so is” — is closely related to the cluster of problems addressed by his theory of descriptions. Russell’s distinction implies two other permutations: the case in which we have neither knowledge by acquaintance nor knowledge by description, which is epistemically uninteresting, and the case in which we have both knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. In the latter case, knowledge by description has been confirmed by knowledge by acquaintance, but for the purposes of his exposition of the distinction Russell makes it quite clear that he wants to focus on instances of knowledge by description in which knowledge is only by description.

I am going to make my own use of Russell’s distinction, but will not attempt to retain any fidelity to the metaphysical context of Russell’s exposition of the distinction. Russell’s exposition of his distinction is wrapped up in a particular metaphysical theory that is no longer as common as it was a hundred years ago, but I am going to interpret Russell in terms of a naive scientific realism, so that when we see the Earth we really do see the Earth, and the Earth is not merely a logical construction out of sense data. (If I, or anyone, wanted to devote an entire book to Russell’s metaphysic in relation to his distinction between acquaintance and description this could easily be done. Indeed, an exposition of the Earth as a logical construction out of sense data would be an interesting intellectual exercise, and I can easily imagine a professor assigning this to his students as a project.)

Russell wrote of knowledge by acquaintance: “I say that I am acquainted with an object when I have a direct cognitive relation to that object, i.e. when I am directly aware of the object itself. When I speak of a cognitive relation here, I do not mean the sort of relation which constitutes judgment, but the sort which constitutes presentation.” Thus in the overview effect, I have a direct cognitive relation to the whole of the Earth, not in terms of judgment, but as a presentation. Intuitively, I think that Russell’s formulation works quite well as an explication of the epistemic significance of the overview effect.

Russell described knowledge by description as follows:

I shall say that an object is “known by description” when we know that it is “the so-and-so,” i.e. when we know that there is one object, and no more, having a certain property; and it will generally be implied that we do not have knowledge of the same object by acquaintance. We know that the man with the iron mask existed, and many propositions are known about him; but we do not know who he was. We know that the candidate who gets most votes will be elected, and in this case we are very likely also acquainted (in the only sense in which one can be acquainted with some one else) with the man who is, in fact, the candidate who will get most votes, but we do not know which of the candidates he is, i.e. we do not know any proposition of the form “A is the candidate who will get most votes” where A is one of the candidates by name. We shall say that we have “merely descriptive knowledge” of the so-and-so when, although we know that the so-and-so exists, and although we may possibly be acquainted with the object which is, in fact, the so-and-so, yet we do not know any proposition “a is the so-and-so,” where a is something with which we are acquainted.

There are a lot of interesting philosophical questions implicit in Russell’s exposition of knowledge by description; I am not going to pursue these at present, but will take Russell at his word. In the context of the overview effect, “the so-and-so” is “the planet on which human beings live,” and we know (to employ a Russellian formulation) that there is one and only one planet upon which human beings live, and moreover this planet is Earth. In fact, we know that it was a considerable achievement of scientific knowledge to come to the understanding that human beings live on a planet, and all this knowledge was achieved through knowledge by description. For the vast majority of human history, we were acquainted with the Earth, yet we did not know the proposition “x is the planet upon which human beings live” where x was something with which we were acquainted. This is almost as perfect an example as there could be of knowledge by description in the absence of knowledge by acquaintance.

In Russell’s distinction, ideographic personal experience is a kind of knowledge — knowledge by acquaintance — but is distinct from knowledge by description. What Russell called “knowledge by description” is a special case of non-constructive knowledge. Non-constructive reasoning is the logic of the big picture and la longue durée (cf. Six Theses on Existential Risk) — the scientific (in contradistinction to the personal) approach to the overview effect. Just as science has always been in the business of seeking an overview, so too science has long been in the business of elaborating knowledge by description, because in many cases this is the only way we can begin a scientific investigation, though in such cases we always begin with the hope that our knowledge by description can eventually be transformed into knowledge by acquaintance. In other words, we hope to become acquainted with the objects of knowledge we describe. Knowledge by description is here the theoretical framework of scientific knowledge in search of instances of acquaintance — evidence, experience, and experiment — to confirm the theory.

Although Russell was not a constructivist per se, his position in this essay is unambiguously constructive in so far as the thesis he maintains is that, “Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted” (italics in original). Russell’s foundation of knowledge in the personal experience of knowledge by acquaintance demonstrates that Russell and Kierkegaard not only have a conception of rigor in common, but also the ultimate epistemic authority of individual experience.

Part of the importance of the overview effect is that it is a personal vision, such as I described in Kierkegaard and Futurism. The individuality of a personal vision is a function of the subjectivity of the individual, hence how the effect is experienced is as significant, if not more significant, than what is experienced.

An interesting result of this inquiry is not only to bring further philosophical resources to the analysis of the overview effect, but also to point the way to the further development science. I have often emphasized that science is not a finished edifice of knowledge, but that science itself continues to grow, not only in sense of continually producing scientific knowledge, but also in the sense of continuing to revise the scientific method itself. One of the most common objections one encounters when talking about science among those who take little account of science is the impersonal nature of scientific knowledge, and even a rejection of that same objectivity that has been the pride science to have attained. To fully appreciate the overview effect as a moment in the development of scientific knowledge is to understand that it may not only give us a new perspective on the world in which we live, but also a new perspective on how we attain knowledge of this world.

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Saturday


Kierkegaard and Russell

The human mind is a strange and complex entity, and while the mind possesses unappreciated subtlety (of the kind I attempted to describe in The Human Overview), rigorous thinking does not come naturally to it. Rigor is a hard-won achievement, not a gift. If we want to achieve some measure of conceptual clarity we must make a particular effort to think rigorously. This is not easy. If you let the mind do what comes naturally and easily to it, you will probably not be thinking rigorously, and you will probably not attain conceptual clarity.

But what is rigor? To ask this question puts us in a position not unlike Saint Augustine who asked, “What, then, is time?” If no one asks me, I know what rigor is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. What distinguishes rigorous thinking from ordinary thinking? And what distinguishes a rigorous life from an ordinary life? Is there any relation between the formal and existential senses of rigor?

As a first and rough approximation, we could say that rigor is the implementation of a precise idea of precision. Whether or not a precise idea of precision can be applied to the human condition, a question that I have addressed in The Human Condition Made Rigorous, is a question of whether the formal sense of rigor is basic, and existential rigor is an implementation of formal rigor in life.

Kierkegaard concerned himself with what I am here calling existential rigor, i.e., the idea of living a rigorous life. One of the central themes that runs through Kierkegaard’s substantial corpus is the question of how one becomes an authentic Christian in an inauthentic Christian society (though this is not how Kierkegaard himself expressed the problem that preoccupied him). Kierkegaard expresses himself in the traditional Christian idiom of suffering for the truth, but Kierkegaard’s suffering is not pointless or meaningless: it is conducive to existential rigor:

“My purpose is to make it difficult to become a Christian, yet not more difficult than it is, nor to make it difficult for stupid people, and easy for clever pates, but qualitatively difficult, and essentially difficult for every man equally, for essentially it is equally difficult for every man to relinquish his understanding and his thinking, and to keep his soul fixed upon the absurd; it is comparatively more difficult for a man if he has much understanding — if one will keep in mind that not everyone who has lost his understanding over Christianity thereby proves that he has any.”

KIERKEGAARD’S CONCLUDING UNSCIENTIFIC POSTSCRIPT, Translated from the Danish by DAVID F. SWENSON, PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA, Completed after his death and provided with Introduction and Notes by WALTER LOWRIE, PRINCETON: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, p. 495

The whole of Kierkegaard’s book Attack Upon Christendom is an explicit attack upon “official” Christianity, which he saw as too safe, too comfortable, too well-connected to the machinery of the state. In Kierkegaard’s Denmark, no one was suffering in order to bear witness to the truth of Christianity:

“…hundreds of men are introduced who instead of following Christ are snugly and comfortably settled, with family and steady promotion, under the guise that their activity is the Christianity of the New Testament, and who live off the fact that others have had to suffer for the truth (which precisely is Christianity), so that the relationship is completely inverted, and Christianity, which came into the world as the truth men die for, has now become the truth upon which they live, with family and steady promotion — ‘Rejoice then in life while thy springtime lasts’.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Attack Upon Christendom, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946, p. 42

And from Kierkegaard’s journals…

“Could you not discover some way in which you too could help the age? Then I thought, what if I sat down and made everything difficult? For one must try to be useful in every possible way. Even if the age does not need ballast I must be loved by all those who make everything easy; for if no one is prepared it difficult it becomes all too easy — to make things easy.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Soul of Kierkegaard: Selections from His Journals, 1845, p. 93

Kierkegaard is full of such passages, and if you read him through you will probably find more compelling instances of this idea than the quotes I have plucked out above.

Kierkegaard called into question the easy habits of belief that we follow mostly without questioning them; Russell called into question the intuitions that come naturally to us, to the human mind, and which we mostly do not question. Both Kierkegaard and Russell thought there was value in doing things the hard way, not in order to court difficulty for its own sake, but rather for the different perspective it affords us by not simply doing what comes naturally, but having to think things through for ourselves.

Russell’s approach to rigor is superficially antithetical to that of Kierkegaard. While Kierkegaard was interested in the individual and his individual existence, Russell was interested in universal logical principles that had nothing to do with individual existence. William James once wrote to Russell, “My dying words to you are ‘Say good-by to mathematical logic if you wish to preserve your relations with concrete realities!'” Russell’s response was perfect deadpan: “As for the advice to say goodbye to mathematical logic if I wish to preserve my relation with concrete realities, I am not wholly inclined to dispute its wisdom. But I should push it farther, & say that it would be well to give up all philosophy, & abandon the student’s life altogether. Ten days of standing for Parliament gave me more relations to concrete realities than a lifetime of thought.”

Nevertheless, beyond these superficial differences, both Kierkegaard and Russell understood, each in his own way, that the easy impulse must be resisted. A passage from Bertrand Russell that I previously quoted in The Overview Effect in Formal Thought makes this point for formal rigor:

“The fact is that symbolism is useful because it makes things difficult. (This is not true of the advanced parts of mathematics, but only of the beginnings.) What we wish to know is, what can be deduced from what. Now, in the beginnings, everything is self-evident; and it is very hard to see whether one self-evident proposition follows from another or not. Obviousness is always the enemy to correctness. Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious. Then we set up certain rules for operating on the symbols, and the whole thing becomes mechanical. In this way we find out what must be taken as premiss and what can be demonstrated or defined.”

Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”

And elsewhere…

“There is a good deal of importance to philosophy in the theory of symbolism, a good deal more than at one time I thought. I think the importance is almost entirely negative, i.e., the importance lies in the fact that unless you are fairly self conscious about symbols, unless you are fairly aware of the relation of the symbol to what it symbolizes, you will find yourself attributing to the thing properties which only belong to the symbol. That, of course, is especially likely in very abstract studies such as philosophical logic, because the subject-matter that you are supposed to be thinking of is so exceedingly difficult and elusive that any person who has ever tried to think about it knows you do not think about it except perhaps once in six months for half a minute. The rest of the time you think about the symbols, because they are tangible, but the thing you are supposed to be thinking about is fearfully difficult and one does not often manage to think about it. The really good philosopher is the one who does once in six months think about it for a minute. Bad philosophers never do.”

Bertrand Russell, Logic and Knowledge: Essays 1901-1950, 1956, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism,” I. “Facts and Propositions,” p. 185

For Russell, the use of symbols in reasoning constitutes a reformulation of the intuitive in a counter-intuitive form, and this makes it possible for us to struggle toward the truth without being distracted by matters that seem so obvious that our cognitive biases lead us toward deceptive obviousness instead of toward the truth. There is another name for this, defamailiarization (which I previously discussed in Reversing the Process of Defamiliarization). Great art defamiliarizes the familiar in order to present it to us again, anew, in unfamiliar terms. In this way we see the world with new eyes. Just so, the reformulation of intuitive thought in counter-intuitive forms presents the familiar to us in unfamiliar terms and we see our reasoning anew with the mind’s eye.

Intuitions have their place in formal thought. I have in the past written of the tension between intuition and formalization that characterizes formal thought, as well as of the place of intuition in philosophical argument (cf. Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method). But if intuitions have their place, they also have their limitations, and the making of easy things difficult is a struggle against the limitations of intuition. What Kierkegaard and Russell have in common in their conception of rigor is that of making something ordinarily easy into something difficult in order to overcome the limitations of the natural and the intuitive. All of this may sound rather arcane and confined to academic squabbles, but it is in fact quite directly related to the world situation today.

I have often written about the anonymity and anomie of life in industrial-technological civilization; this is a familiar theme that has been worked through quite extensively in twentieth century sociology, and one could argue that it is also a prominent element in existentialism. But the human condition in the context of our civilization today is not only marked by anonymity and anomie, but also by high and rising standards of living, which usually translates directly into comfort. While we are perhaps more bereft of meaning than ever, we are also more comfortable than ever before in history. This has also been studied in some detail. Occasionally this combination of a comfortable but listless life is called “affluenza.”

Kierkegaard’s defamiliarization of (institutionalized and inauthentic) Christianity was intended to make Christianity difficult for bourgeois worldlings; the militant Islamists of our time want to make Islam difficult and demanding for those who would count themselves Muslims. It is the same demand for existential rigor in each that is the motivation. If it is difficult to understand why young men at the height of their prowess and physical powers can be seduced into extremist militancy, one need only reflect for a moment on the attraction of difficult things and the earned honors of existential rigor. The west has almost completely forgotten the attraction of difficult things. What remains is perhaps the interest in “extreme” sports, in which individuals test themselves against contrived physical challenges, which provides a kind of existential rigor along with bragging rights.

Extremist ideologies offer precisely the two things for which the individual hungers but cannot find in contemporary industrialized society: meaning, and a challenge to his complacency. An elaborately worked out eschatological conception of history shows the individual his special place within the grand scheme of things (this is the familiar ground of cosmic warfare and the eschatological conception of history), but this eschatological vision is not simply handed for free to the new communicant. He must work for it, strive for it, sacrifice for it. And when he has proved himself equal to the demands placed upon him, then he is rewarded with the profoundly satisfying gift of an earned honor: membership in a community of the elect.

This view is not confined to violent extremists. We meet with this whenever someone makes the commonplace remark that we don’t value that which is given away for free, and Spinoza expressed the thought with more eloquence: “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.” Anyone who feels this pull of difficult things, who desires a challenge, who wants to be tested in order to prove their worth in the only way that truly counts, is an existentialist in action, if not in thought, because it is the existentialist conception of authenticity that is operative in this conception of existential rigor.

We have tended to think of pre-modern societies, mostly agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, with their rigid social hierarchies and inherited social positions, as paradigmatic examples of inauthentic societies, but we have managed to create a thoroughly inauthentic society in the midst of our industrial-technological civilization. This civilization and its social order may have its origins in the overturning of the inauthentic social order of earlier ages, but, after an initial period of social experimentation, the present social order ossified and re-created many of the inauthentic and hierarchical forms that characterized the overthrown social order.

Inauthentic societies are awash in unearned unearned advantages. I wrote about this earlier in discussing the urban austerity of Simone Weil, the wilderness austerity of Christopher McCandless (also known as Alexander Supertramp), and comparing the two in Weil and McCandless: Another Parallel:

“…the accomplishments of the elite and the privileged are always tainted by the fact that what they have attained has not been earned. But it is apparent that there are always a few honest individuals among the privileged who are acutely aware that their position has not been earned, that it is tainted, and the only way to prove that one can make it on one’s own is to cut one’s ties to one’s privileged background and strike out on one’s own.”

There is a certain sense in which the available and ample comforts of industrial-technological civilization transformed the greater part of the global population into complacent consumers who accept an inauthentic life. There is another name of this too; Nietzsche called such individuals Last Men.

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Sunday


Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, 05 May 1813 – 11 November 1855.

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, 05 May 1813 – 11 November 1855.

Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript is an impassioned paean to subjectivity, which follows logically (if Kierkegaard will forgive me for saying so) from Kierkegaard’s focus on the individual. The individual experiences subjectivity, and, as far as we know, nothing else in the world experiences subjectivity, so that if the individual is the central ontological category of one’s thought, then the subjectivity that is unique to the individual will be uniquely central to one’s thought, as it is to Kierkegaard’s thought.

Another way to express Kierkegaard’s interest in the individual is to identify his thought as consistently ideographic, to the point of ignoring the nomothetic (on the ideographic and the nomothetic cf. Axes of Historiography). Kierkegaard’s account of the individual and his subjectivity as an individual falls within an overall ontology of individuals, therefore a continuum of contingency. Thus, in a sense, Kierkegaard represents a kind of object-oriented historiography (as a particular expression of an object-oriented ontology). From this point of view, once can easily see Kierkegaard’s resistance to Hegel’s lawlike, i.e., nomothetic, account of history, in which individuals are mere pawns at the mercy of the cunning of Reason.

At the present time, however, I will not discuss the implications of Kierkegaard’s implicit historiography, but rather his implicit futurism, though the two — historiography and futurism — are mirror images of each other, and I have elsewhere quoted Friedrich von Schlegel that, “The historian is a prophet facing backwards.” The same concern for the individual and his subjectivity is present in Kierkegaard’s implicit futurism as in his implicit historiography.

In Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, written under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, we find the following way to distinguish the objective approach from the subjective approach:

The objective accent falls on WHAT is said, the subjective accent on HOW it is said.

Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Translated from the Danish by David F. Swenson, completed after his death and provided with Introduction and Notes by Walter Lowrie, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 181

A few pages prior to this in the text, Kierkegaard tells us a story about the importance of the subjective accent upon how something is said:

The objective truth as such, is by no means adequate to determine that whoever utters it is sane; on the contrary, it may even betray the fact that he is mad, although what he says may be entirely true, and especially objectively true. I shall here permit myself to tell a story, which without any sort of adaptation on my part comes direct from an asylum. A patient in such an institution seeks to escape, and actually succeeds in effecting his purpose by leaping out of a window, and prepares to start on the road to freedom, when the thought strikes him (shall I say sanely enough or madly enough?): “When you come to town you will be recognized, and you will at once be brought back here again; hence you need to prepare yourself fully to convince everyone by the objective truth of what you say, that all is in order as far as your sanity is concerned.” As he walks along and thinks about this, he sees a ball lying on the ground, picks it up, and puts it into the tail pocket of his coat. Every step he takes the ball strikes him, politely speaking, on his hinder parts, and every time it thus strikes him he says: “Bang, the earth is round.” He comes to the city, and at once calls on one of his friends; he wants to convince him that he is not crazy, and therefore walks back and forth, saying continually: “Bang, the earth is round!” But is not the earth round? Does the asylum still crave yet another sacrifice for this opinion, as in the time when all men believed it to be flat as a pancake? Or is a man who hopes to prove that he is sane, by uttering a generally accepted and generally respected objective truth, insane? And yet it was clear to the physician that the patient was not yet cured; though it is not to be thought that the cure would consist in getting him to accept the opinion that the earth is flat. But all men are not physicians, and what the age demands seems to have a considerable influence upon the question of what madness is.

Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Translated from the Danish by David F. Swenson, completed after his death and provided with Introduction and Notes by Walter Lowrie, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 174

These themes of individuality and subjectivity occur throughout Kierkegaard’s work, always expressed with humor and imagination — Kierkegaard’s writing itself is a testament to the individuality he so valued — as especially illustrated in the passage above. Kierkegaard engages in philosophy by telling a joke; would that more philosophy were written with similar panache.

From Kierkegaard we can learn that how the future is presented can mean the difference between a vision that inspires the individual and a vision that sounds like madness — and this is important. Implicit Kierkegaardian futurism forces us to see the importance of the individual in a schematic conception of the future that is often impersonal and without a role for the individual that the individual would care to assume. Worse yet, there are often aspects of futurism that seem to militate against the individual.

One of the great failings of the communist vision of the future — which inspired many in the twentieth century, and was a paradigm of European manifest destiny such as I described in The Idea and Destiny of Europe — was its open contempt for the individual, which is a feature of most collectivist thought. Not only is it true that, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” but one might also say that without a personal vision, the people perish.

One of the ways in which futurism has been presented in such a manner that almost seems contrived to deny and belittle the role of the individual is the example of the “twin paradox” in relativity theory. I have discussed this elsewhere (cf. Stepping Stones Across the Cosmos) because I find it so interesting. The twin paradox is used to explain of the oddities of general relativity, such that an accelerated clock moves more slowly relative to a clock that remains stationary.

In the twin paradox, it is postulated that, of two twins on Earth, the two say their goodbyes and one remains on Earth while another travels a great distance (perhaps to another star) at relativistic velocities. When the traveling twin returns to Earth, he finds that his twin has aged beyond recognition and the two scarcely know each other. This already poignant story can be made all the more poignant by postulating an even longer journey in which an individual leaves Earth and returns to find everyone he knew long dead, and perhaps even the places, the cities, and the monuments once familiar to him now long vanished.

The twin paradox, as it is commonly told, is a story, and, moreover, is a parable of cosmic loneliness. We would probably question the sanity of any individual who undertook a journey of space exploration under these conditions, and rightly so. If we imagine this story set within a larger story, the only kind of character who would undertake such a journey would be the villain of the piece, or an outcast, like a crazed scientist maddened by his lack of human contact and obsessed exclusively with his work (a familiar character from fiction).

The twin paradox was formulated to relate the objective truth of our universe, but it sounds more like Kierkegaard’s story of a madman reciting an obvious truth: no one is fooled by the madman. As long as a human future in space is presented in such terms, it will sound like madness to most. What we need in order to present existential risk mitigation to the public are stories of space exploration that touch the heart in a way that anyone can understand. We need new stories of the far future and of the individual’s role in the future in order to bring home such matters in a way that makes the individual respond on a personal level.

A subjective experience is always presented in a personal context. This personal context is important to the individual. Indeed, we know this from many perspectives on human life, whether it be the call to heroic personal self-sacrifice for the good of the community that is found collectivist thought, or the celebration of enlightened self-interest found in individualistic thought. Just as it is possible to paint either approach as a form of selfishness rooted in a personal context, it is possible to paint either as heroic for the same reason. In so far as a conception of history can be made real to the individual, and incorporates a personal context suggestive of subjective experiences, that conception of history will animate effective social action far more readily than even the most seductive vision of a sleek and streamlined future which nevertheless has no obvious place for the individual and his subjective experience.

The ultimate lesson here — and it is a profoundly paradoxical lesson, worthy of the perversity of human nature — is this: the individual life serves as the “big picture” context by which the individual, the individual’s isolated experiences, derive their value.

When we think of “big picture” conceptions of history, humanity, and civilization, we typically think in impersonal terms. This is a mistake. The big picture can be equally formulated in personal or impersonal terms, and it is the vision that is formulated in personal terms that speaks to the individual. In so far as the individual accepts this personal vision of the big picture, the vision informs the individual’s subjective experiences.

The narratives of existential risk would do well to learn this lesson.

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