Sunday


proprioception

In the spring of 1914, just before the outbreak of World War 1 (and exactly one hundred years ago as I write this), Bertrand Russell gave a series of Lowell Lectures later published as Our Knowledge of the External World. This is a classic exposition of Russell’s thought which had a significant influence on Anglo-American analytical philosophy.

In the audience for one of the later iterations of these lectures was Will Durant, the noted American historian, whose The Story of Philosophy was so successful in the inter-war years that it freed him up to write his multi-volume The Story of Civilization. In The Story of Philosophy Durant wrote of Russell’s 1914 lectures:

“When Bertrand Russell spoke at Columbia University in 1914, he looked like his subject, which was epistemology — thin, pale, and moribund; one expected to see him die at every period. The Great War had just broken out, and this tender-minded, peace-loving philosopher had suffered from the shock of seeing the most civilized of continents disintegrate into barbarism. One imagined that he spoke of so remote a subject as ‘Our Knowledge of the External World’ because he knew it was remote, and wished to be as far as possible from actualities that had become so grim. And then, seeing him again, ten years later, one was happy to find him, though fifty-two, hale and jolly, and buoyant with a still rebellious energy. This despite an intervening decade that had destroyed almost all his hopes, loosened all his friendships, and broken almost all the threads of his once sheltered and aristocratic life.”

Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, New York: Time Incorporated, 1962, pp. 442-443

Others were more moved by Russell’s thin, pale, and moribund epistemology. Rudolf Carnap read the lectures in book form, and describes the experience in terms reminiscent of a religious conversion:

…in my philosophical thinking in general I learned most from Bertrand Russell. In the winter of 1921 I read his book, Our Knowledge of the External World, as a Field For Scientific Method in Philosophy. Some passages made an especially vivid impression on me because they formulated clearly and explicitly a view of the aim and method of philosophy which I had implicitly held for some time. In the Preface he speaks about “the logical-analytic method of philosophy” and refers to Frege’s work as the first complete example of this method. And on the very last pages of the book he gives a summarizing characterization of this philosophical method in the following words:

The study of logic becomes the central study in philosophy: it gives the method of research in philosophy, just as mathematics gives the method in physics…

All this supposed knowledge in the traditional systems must be swept away, and a new beginning must be made… To the large and still growing body of men engaged in the pursuit of science,… the new method, successful already in such time-honored problems as number, infinity, continuity, space and time, should make an appeal which the older methods have wholly failed to make… The one and only condition, I believe, which is necessary in order to secure for philosophy in the near future an achievement surpassing all that has hitherto been accomplished by philosophers, is the creation of a school of men with scientific training and philosophical interests, unhampered by the traditions of the past, and not misled by the literary methods of those who copy the ancients in all except their merits.

I felt as if this appeal had been directed to me personally. To work in this spirit would be my task from now on And indeed henceforth the application of the new logical instrument for the purposes of analyzing scientific concepts and of clarifying philosophical problems has been the essential aim of my philosophical activity.

Rudolf Carnap, “Intellectual Autobiography,” in The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp, p. 13

Russell’s works set the tone and, to a slightly lesser extent, set the agenda for analytical philosophy, in writing such words that inspired and influenced the next generation of philosophers. While Carnap felt himself to be called to a new kind of philosophical work by Russell’s stirring pages, Russell was nevertheless following in a long and distinguished line, which is nothing other than then mainstream of Western philosophy from Aristotle through Descartes and Kant to Russell himself. Descartes is usually remembered for the “epistemological turn” that defines modern Western philosophy, but Descartes was very much schooled in Scholasticism, and Scholasticism was deeply Aristotelian, so that the unbroken line of European philosophy from Aristotle to Russell and beyond may be compared to the “Golden Chain” of philosophers in the Platonic succession of classical antiquity.

The Aristotelian succession of scientifically-minded philosophers tends to be logical rather than intuitive (Aristotle was the first to formulate a formal logic), analytical in its method rather than synthetic or eclectic, and empirical rather than idealistic. But all philosophers, Platonic or Aristotelian, are interested in ideas, and it is the way in which ideas are expressed and incorporated that differs between the two camps. The Aristotelians can no more do without ideas than the Platonists, though ideas tend to enter into Aristotelian thought by way of schematic conceptions that leave their imprint upon the empirical data, and subtly guide the interpretation of all experience.

Aristotle himself is perhaps the best exemplification of this schematization of empirical knowledge according to philosophical categories. The canonical quinquipartitie division of the senses goes back at least to Aristotle’s On the Soul (commonly known as De anima). That our senses consist of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is an idea due to Aristotle’s De anima, and while this division is based on human faculties of perception and has intuitive plausibility, there are ways in which the division is arbitrary. This is one of my favorite works by Aristotle, so I hope that the reader will understand when I say that Aristotle’s division of experience into five senses is arbitrary, that I say so as a reader who is sympathetic to Aristotle’s account.

The Aristotelian division of the senses into five has bequeathed us an impoverished conception of the self. If we think of how the sense of touch is described and incorporated into accounts of the senses, it is as though we were only capable of experiencing bodies as objectified, touched (or touching) from the outside but not felt from within. And yet we experience ourselves from within more continuously than any other form of human experience — even when we close our eyes and stop our ears. Interoception is how we experience our own bodies from the inside. That to say, a part of the world is “wired” from within by our nervous system (which is itself part of the world in turn), and reveals itself to us viscerally. This is one of the consequences of the fact that we human beings constitute the universe experiencing itself (albeit not the whole the universe, but only a very small part thereof).

Recently philosophy has made significant strides in doing justice to what we feel and what we know through our bodies, which is both complex and subtle, and therefore particularly vulnerable to schematic over-simplifying accounts such as Aristotle’s. (I have noted in several posts that recent philosophy of mind has focused on the embodiment of mind, which may be considered another expression of the felt need to do justice to the body.) There is, for example, a wide recognition of what are called kinesthetic sensations, which are the kind of sensations that you feel when you engage in physical activities. When you run, for example, you don’t merely feel the onrush of air evaporating your sweat on the surface of your skin, you also feel your muscles straining, and if something goes wrong you will really feel that. And unless you have one of many disorders, your body has an almost perfect subconscious knowledge of where each limb is in relation to every other limb, which is why we are able to feed ourselves without thinking about it. Because we don’t think about it, but have reduced this knowledge to habit, we don’t think of it as either sensation or knowledge, but it is both.

Even Sam Harris, who doesn’t spend much time on general epistemological inquiries in his books, made a point of citing a litany of bodily sensations:

“Your nervous system sections the undifferentiated buzz of the universe into separate channels of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, as well as other senses of lesser renown — proprioception, kinesthesia, enteroreception, and even echolocation.”

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005, “Reason in Exile,” p. 41

In this quote, with its allusion to the “undifferentiated buzz” of experience, there is a hint of William James:

“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing, confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space.”

William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890, CHAPTER XIII, “discrimination and Comparison”

James in this short passage has put his finger right on two crucial aspects of perception: that the world comes to us in an undifferentiated welter of sensations, and that we somehow seamlessly knit together this welter into one and the same world. Much as our familiar senses are fully integrated in our experience, so that we experience one world, and not a world of sight, a world of sound, so too our visceral sensations of proprioception, kinaesthesia, and interoception are so subtly integrated that it is only with difficulty that we can distinguish them.

The example of echolocation (which Harris includes in his litany while admitting in a footnote that is not very acute in human beings, but is still present in a limited sense) is especially interesting, because it is a function of hearing that is not exactly identical to hearing as we usually think of hearing (that is to say, hearing that lies outside the Aristotelian template). Moreover, the sensory apparatus inside our skulls that is responsible for hearing is also responsible for vestibular sensations (see glossary below), so that one and the same sense organ allows us more than one perspective on one and the same world.

The seamless integration of sense experience is one of the great unappreciated aspects of the senses in philosophy. Of course, Kant’s transcendental aesthetic was centrally concerned with this problem, there is Husserl on passive synthesis, and there is (or was) Gestalt psychology, and other theories as to how this happens, but none of these are quite right. None of these formulations really drive home the blooming, buzzing confusion of sensation and the unity of the world this sensation reveals. This is the paradox of the one and the many as its manifests itself in sensation.

The feeling of weight, of how one’s body relates to the Earth and to other bodies, is a sensation and that is so subtle and complex, involving both the senses recognized by Aristotle as well as the bodily sensations that Aristotle passed over in silence, that it is extraordinarily difficult to say where one sensation of weight leaves off and another picks up. Consequently, the feeling of weight is difficult to analyze, and most especially its relation to sight — which seems to provide the greater part of our conscious experience of the world — is negligible. When we realize how we typically express knowledge in visual metaphors — e.g., I see what you mean — the disconnect between sight and the feeling of weight takes an a special significance.

To introduce the feeling of weight immediately suggests also the feeling of weightlessness — zero gravity or microgravity conditions, as one experiences in Earth orbit or in deep space. Only a very small number of human beings have experienced weightlessness, and I am not among those few, but I will assume that interoception is fully implicated in the experience of weightlessness. But it is much more than this. Simply put, the experience of weight is the experience of gravity, and, by way of interoception, our body entire is an organ for the sensation of the very fabric of spacetime — our knowledge of the external world by way of our knowledge of the internal world.

When we stand on the surface of Earth and look up at the stars, we also feel the gravity of Earth throughout our body, pulling insistently on every part of us and forcing us to recognize continuously and without exception our physical relationship to Earth. In the most intimate and visceral ways we sense through our animal bodies the great forces that shape planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe entire. We know spacetime not as a mere abstraction, but as a constitutive part of our being. This intimate knowledge of spacetime has shaped our intuitive knowledge and understanding of our place in the cosmos, much as our ability to see the stars has similarly shaped our sense of ourselves as part of the universe. (This is what I called, in a recent post on my other blog, Visceral Cosmology.)

It is not only the visceral sensation of our own spatiality that we know through interoception, but also our own temporality. We not only sense time in the Aristotelian sense as the measure of motion (seeing change in the world), but our minds also give us a personal consciousness of the passage of time. This is as remarkable as our sensation of gravity (i.e., spacetime curvature). Our internal time consciousness, so tied up in our personal identity, reflects the larger temporal structure of the universe, pointing in the same direction as the other arrows of time, and giving us another immediate form or intuition into the very structure of the world. The gnawing tooth of time that ultimately shapes everything in the world also gnaws away inside us.

Our minds and the intuitions that it has about the world have been no less shaped by gravity and time than have our bodies. And in so far as gravity is the distortion of spacetime in the presence of mass, our visceral feelings of weight, as well as our consciousness of time, gives us an immediate intuitive perception of the curvature of spacetime. We possess a kind of interoception of the cosmos. We feel the world in our bones and sinews, as it were.

Here lies a crucial clue to understanding the Overview Effect (cf. The Epistemic Overview Effect, The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking, Hegel and the Overview Effect, and The Overview Effect in Formal Thought) Discussions of the overview effect tend to focus on seeing the Earth whole from space, and this is no doubt crucial to the experience, but the viscerality of the experience comes from the countless sensations of microgravity that are too subtle to describe and too numerous to clearly differentiate. It is the visceral experience of being off the surface of Earth combined with the evidence of one’s eyes that Earth lies before one, suspended in space as one is oneself suspended in space, that is the overview effect.

All human history up until the flight of Yuri Gagarin had taken place on the surface of Earth. In Wittgensteinian terms, nothing up to that point in time had contrasted with the form of terrestrial experience (cf. Nothing contrasts with the form of the world). With the visceral experience of being in space, suddenly there is a contrast where before there was none: the sensation of being on Earth, and the sensation of being off the surface of Earth, and subject to distinct (and distinctively different) gravitational conditions. The conditions of weight and weightlessness now define polar concepts, between which are a continuum of graded sensation; the polar concepts take part of their meaning from their contrast with the opposite polar concept, as do all points of experience along the continuum of the experience of weight.

Further technological developments that allow for unprecedented forms of human experience will also result in novel experiences of interoception. When we eventually build large artificial structures in space and spin them in order to imitate terrestrial gravity, there may be some individuals who cannot distinguish between this imitation of gravity and gravity on the surface of Earth, while other individuals may feel a difference. Some individuals may be made ill by the sensation, and in this way artificial structures will be strongly selective of who remains there — and therefore strongly selective of who does and does not create the human future in space.

When, in the further future, our technology allows us to travel at relativistic velocities, we will have yet further experiences of acceleration and of our personal consciousness of time in relation to time dilation, and the twin paradox that I have recently discussed (e.g., in Kierkegaard and Futurism) will prove to be not a limitation, but rather a revelation. We will learn things about ourselves and about the human condition that could not be learned in any other way than the actual experience of living in various extraterrestrial environments.

The overview effect is only the beginning of the human, all-too-human experience of space travel. The exploration of space will not only open new worlds to us beyond Earth, but will also open new inner worlds to us as the human condition expands to comprise unprecedented experiences that can have no parallel on Earth.

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A Note on Terminology: terminology is important, because our vocabulary for the internal experience of our bodies is relatively impoverished in comparison with the vocabulary at our command when it comes to our knowledge of the external world. Neither interoception or “enteroreception” appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. The Free Online Dictionary defines “interception” as “sensitivity to stimuli originating inside of the body.”

I found this distinction made between “enteroreception” and “exteroreception”: “Enteroreception or changes within the organsim that are detected by receptor cells within the organism. Exteroreception or changes that occur outside the orgnasim that are detected by receptor cells at the surface of the organism.”

I am here using “interoception” as a blanket term to cover all forms of visceral perception and sensation, though it might to worth considering coining a new term to cover all these uses, such as, for example, endoception.

There is an interesting glossary of terms related to interoception in The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies by Mark Paterson (New York and Oxford: Berg, 2007):

Haptic Relating to the sense of touch in all its forms, including those below.

Proprioception Perception of the position, state and movement of the body and limbs in space. Includes cutaneous, kinaesthetic, and vestibular sensations.

Vestibular Pertaining to the perception of balance, head position, acceleration and deceleration. Information obtained from semi-circular canals in the inner ear.

Kinaesthesia The sensation of movement of body and limbs. Relating to sensations originating in muscles, tendons and joints.

Cutaneous Pertaining to the skin itself or the skin as a sense organ. Includes sensation of pressure, temperature and pain.

Tactile Pertaining to the cutaneous sense, but more specifically the sensation of pressure (from mechanoreceptors) rather than temperature (thermoceptors) or pain (nociceptors).

Force Feedback Relating to the mechanical production of information sensed by the human kinaesthetic system. Devices provide cutaneous and kinaesthetic feedback that usually correlates to the visual display.

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The Overview Effect

The Epistemic Overview Effect

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Perspective Taking

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

The Human Overview

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

A Further Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought, in the Way of Providing a Measure of Disambiguation in Regard to the Role of Temporality

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Civilizations of Planetary Endemism

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Astronaut-in-Microgravity

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Epistemic Overview Effect

14 September 2013

Saturday


earth-from-space-1

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

The Overview Effect

The “overview effect” is so named for the view of the earth entire — an “overview” of the earth — enjoyed by astronauts and cosmonauts, as well as the change in perspective that a few of these privileged observers have had as a result of seeing the earth whole with their own eyes.

One of these astronauts, Edgar Mitchell, who was on the 1971 Apollo mission and was the sixth human being to walk on the moon, has been instrumental to bringing attention to the overview effect, and has written a book about his experiences as an astronaut and how it affected his perception and perspective, The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds. A short film has been made about the overview effect, and an institution has been established to study and to promote the overview effect, The Overview Institute.

Here is an extract from the declaration of The Overview Institute:

For more than four decades, astronauts from many cultures and backgrounds have been telling us that, from the perspective of Earth orbit and the Moon, they have gained such a vision. There is even a common term for this experience: “The Overview Effect”, a phrase coined in the book of the same name by space philosopher and writer Frank White. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative. Even more so, many of them tell us that from the Overview perspective, all of this seems imminently achievable, if only more people could have the experience!

We have a hint of the overview effect when we see pictures of the Earth as a “blue marble” and as a “pale blue dot”; those who have had the opportunity to see the Earth as a blue marble with their own eyes have been affected by this vision to a greater extent than we can presumably understand from seeing the photographs. Here is another description of the overview effect:

When people leave the surface of the Earth and travel into Low Earth Orbit, to a space station, or the moon, they see the planet differently. My colleague at the Overview Institute, David Beaver, likes to emphasize that they not only see the Earth from space but also in space. He has also been a strong proponent that we describe what then happens as a change in world view.

Deep Space: The Philosophy of the Overview Effect, Frank White

In the same essay White then quotes himself from his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, on the same theme:

“Mental processes and views of life cannot be separated from physical location. Our “world view” as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.”

Frank White has sought to give a systematic exposition of the overview effect in his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, which seeks to develop a philosophy of space travel derived from the personal experience of space by space travelers.

sunset

The Spatial Overview

There is no question in my mind that sometimes you have to see things for yourself. I have invoked this argument numerous times in writing about travel — no amount of eloquent description or stunning photographs can substitute for the experience of seeing a place for yourself with your own eyes. This is largely a matter of context: being in a place, experiencing a place as a presence, requires one’s own presence, and one’s own presence can be realized only as the result of a journey. A journey contextualizes an experience within the experiences required the reach the object of the journey. The very fact that one must travel in order to each a destination alters the experience of the destination itself.

To be present in a landscape means that all of one’s senses are engaged: one not only sees, but one sees with the whole of one’s peripheral vision, and when one turns one’s body in order to take in more of the landscape, one not only sees more of the landscape, but one feels one’s body turn; one smells the air; one hears the distinctive reverberations of the most casual sounds — all of the things that remind us that this is not an illusion but possesses all the chance qualities that mark a real, concrete experience.

I have remarked in other posts that one of the distinctive trends in contemporary philosophy of mind is that of emphasizing the embodiedness of the mind, and in this context the embodied mind is a mind that is inseparable from its sensory apparatus and its sensory apparatus is inseparable from the world with which it is engaged. When our eyes hurt as we look at the sun we are reminded by this visceral experience of sight — one might say overwhelming sight — that we experience the world in virtue of a sensory apparatus that is made of essentially the same materials as the world — that there is an ontological reciprocity of eye that sees and sun that shines, and it is only because the two share the same world and are made of the same materials that they stand in a relation of cause and effect to each other. We are part of the world, of the world, and in the world.

Presumably, then, to the present in space and feel oneself kineasthetically in space — most obviously, the feeling of a micro-gravity environment once off the surface of the earth — is part of the experience of the overview effect, as is the dramatic journey into orbit, which must remind the viewer of the difficulty of attaining the perspective of seeing the world whole. This is the overview effect in space.

temporal overview

The Temporal Overview

There is also the possibility of an overview effect in time. For the same reason that we might insist that some experiences must be had for oneself, and that one must be present spatially in a spatial landscape in order to appreciate that landscape for what it is, we might also insist that a person who has lived a long life and who has experienced many things has a certain kind of understanding of the temporal landscape of life, and it is only through a conscious knowledge of the experience of time and history that we can attain an overview of time.

The movement in contemporary historiography called Big History (which I have written about several times, e.g., in The Science of Time and Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time) is an attempt to achieve an overview experience of time and history.

I have observed elsewhere that we find ourselves swimming in the ocean of history, but this very immersion in history often prevents us from seeing history whole — which is an interesting contrast to the spatial overview experience, which which contextualization in a particular space is necessary to its appreciation and understanding. But contextualization in a particular time — which we would otherwise call parochialism — tends to limit our historical perspective, and we must actively make an effort to free ourselves from our temporal and historical contextualization in order to see time and history whole.

It is the effort to free ourselves from temporal parochialism, and the particularities and peculiarities of our own time, that give as a perspective on history that is not tied to any one history but embraces the whole of time as the context of many different histories. This is the overview effect in time.

Knowledge Tree

The Epistemic Overview

I would like to suggest that there is also an epistemic overview effect. It is not enough to be told about knowledge in the way that newspaper and magazine articles might tell a popular audience about a new scientific discovery, or in the way that textbooks tell students about the wider world. While in some cases this may be sufficient, and we must rely upon the reports of others because we cannot construct the whole of knowledge on our own, in many cases knowledge must be gained firsthand in order for its proper significance to be appreciated.

Elsewhere (in P or not-P) I have illustrated the distinction between a constructive and a non-constructive point of view being something like the difference between climbing up a mountain, clambering over every rock until one achieves the summit (constructive) versus taking a helicopter and being set down on the summit from above (non-constructive). (I have taken this example over from French mathematician Alain Connes.) With this image in mind, being blasted off into space and seeing the mountain from orbit is a paradigmatically non-constructive experience, and it is difficult to imagine how it could be made a constructive experience.

Well, there are ways. Once space technology becomes widely distributed and accessible, if a person were to build their own SSTO from off-the-shelf parts and then pilot themselves into orbit, that would be something like a constructive experience of the overview effect. And if we go on to create a vibrant and vigorous spacefaring civilization, making it into orbit will only be the first of many steps, so that a constructive experience of space travel will be to “climb” one’s way from the surface of the earth through the solar system and beyond, touching every transitional point in between. It has been said that the journey of the thousand miles begins with a single step — this is very much a constructivist perspective. And it holds true that a journey of a million miles or a billion miles begins with a single step, and that first step of a cosmic voyage is the step that takes us beyond the surface of the earth.

Despite the importance and value of the constructivist perspective, it has its limitations, just as the oft-derided non-constructive point of view has its particular virtues and its significance. Non-constructive methods can reveal to us knowledge that is disruptive because it is forced upon us suddenly, in one fell swoop. Such an experience is memorable; it leaves an impression, and quite possibly it leaves much more of an impression that a painstakingly gradual revelation of exactly the same perspective.

This is the antithesis of the often-cited example of a frog placed in a pot of water and which doesn’t jump out as the water is slowly brought to a boil. The frog in this scenario is a victim of constructivist gradualism; if the frog had had a non-constructive perspective on the hot water in which he was being boiled to death, he might have jumped out and saved himself. And perhaps this is exactly what we need as human beings: a non-constructive (and therefore disruptive) perspective on a the familiar life that has crept over us day-by-day, step-by-step, and bit-by-bit.

An epistemic overview of knowledge can give us a disruptive conception of the totality of knowledge that is not unlike the disruptive experience of the overview effect in space, which allows us to see the earth whole, and the disruptive experience of time that allows us to see history whole. Moreover, I would argue that the epistemic overview is the ultimate category — the summum genus — that must contextualize the overview effect in space and in time. However, it is important to point out that the immediate visceral experience of the overview effect may be the trigger that is required for an individual to begin to seek the epistemic overview that will give meaning to his experiences.

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Friday


Starship_Congress_poster.Kubrick

Day 2 – Interstellar This Lifetime (20 – 50 years) | Friday August 16th, 2013

Today I was present for the whole of Day 2 of the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress, which included by own stint of giving a co-presentation with Heath Rezabek on “Existential Risk for Interstellar Advocates.”

The day began with Michael Minovitch giving an updated perspective on the Bussard ramjet, which by his calculations could obtain 0.7 G acceleration, which puts it in the class of what I have elsewhere called the “game changer” of a 1 G starship. A 1 G starship would allow human beings to travel very long distances within the cosmos in ordinary life spans, which is a point that Carl Sagan also made in his Cosmos television series. Moreover, Mr. Minovitch was quite serious about the possibility of building a Bussard ramjet with contemporary technology, or what we might call nearly contemproary technology. He even suggested that the space shuttle could be take out of math balls to ferry the required parts into orbit for building a Bussard ramjet in the near future.

Many of the day’s talks involved ongoing work on familiar starship designs. It might sound a bit odd that I should say, “familiar starship designs,” because we haven’t yet built any starships, but anyone familiar with the literature can name off a short list of designs that have currency in the community of those who think about such things. For example, Srikanth Reddy gave a detailed structural analysis of the Daedalus starship design, while Friedwardt Winterberg gave a review of several different familiar starship designs, as did Kelvin Long in his talk, “Rise of the Starships.” Winterberg presented one idea that was unfamiliar to me, which was a way to approach the problem of collisions of a starship with micrometeorites, which would impact with devastating force at relativistic velocities. Winterberg suggested that a matter-anti-matter drive could be occasionally turned around and blasted forward to clear a trail for the starship.

Winterberg prefaced his talk with a wonderful quote from Wernher von Braun:

“The importance of the space program is to build a bridge to the stars, so that when the Sun dies, humanity will not die. The Sun is a star that’s burning up, and when it finally burns up, there will be no Earth… no Mars… no Jupiter.”

This is, of course, the essence of existential risk consciousness, and I think that many of those involved with spaceflight are involved because they see the crucial role that spaceflight plays in existential risk mitigation, even if they have never heard the term, “existential risk.” My co-presentation with Heath Rezabek was focused on existential Risk. Heath started with the outline of the idea and some of his proposals, and I followed with a sketch a existential risk in the context of a growing interstellar civilization.

There were many excellent presentations among the above that I have not mentioned here: Robert Freeland on the use of a magsail to slow down a starship, Gwyn Rosaire on nuclear rockets, who clearly presented nuclear rocket technology as part of a developmental process of starship drives, and Armen Papazian on post-scarcity economics for the space age.

The most widely-ranging talk was that of Georgio Gaviraghi on “A Kardashev III Approach to Extra-Solar Colonization.” Gaviraghi gave his own interpretation of Kardeshev which seems to have become commonplace, but he went much further, speaking of singularities in the plural and suggesting that exponential technological growth may result in a K2 and oK3 civilization much earlier than we usually suppose.

After the individual talks there was a panel discussion during which three questions were asked, the panel discussed them, and audience members commented on them. The questions where whether human beings should wait to go to the stars until we have “fixed” things on earth, whether interstellar exploration should be by AI or should be a strictly human undertaking, and whether some policy needs to be adopted in light of the possibility of encountering alien forms of life. These questions generated a lot of interesting comments.

The discussion of the last of the three questions ranged widely over proposed rules for contact with alien life and the unlikelihood that any policy would be impossible to enforce. Kevin Long asked, “Who speaks for alien life?” Several people suggested that if we encounter alien life we should sample it and leave it alone. Someone asked the equivalent of whether human beings want to be an invasive species. Joe Ritter implied his sympathy for directed panspermia. Many seemed to suggest something like the precautionary principle in any exchanges with alien life, and that we should never bring it back to Earth.

My co-presenter, Heath Rezabek, stood up and gave his perspective on this debate, which I thought was quite interesting. Heath suggested that after human beings have spent some time traveling around the cosmos, and had seen a great many barren rocks, that if, after this, we were to find another beautiful blue-green planet like our own, covered in complex life, by that time we may have realized that such things are rare and ought to be treated with respect. I think there is a lot of merit in this observation, and it also incorporates a developmental perspective on human engagement with the cosmos. While we may not learn out lessons reliably, we do sometimes learn our lessons, so that the possibility can’t simply be dismissed.

There is more to say, and I took lots of notes, but I am tired now and must content myself for the moment with this inadequate sketch of the day.

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Here is the complete program of today’s events:

8:30am Coffee
8:45am Introduction to Day 2
9:00am Keynote: Michael Minovitch, “Interstellar Space Travel with Reasonable Round-trip Travel Times”
9:45am Presentation 1: Jason Cassibry, “Vehicle Requirements for an Alpha Centauri Flyby in 50 Years”
10:10am Presentation 2: Srikanth Reddy, “Structural Analysis of the Daedalus Reaction Chamber & Thrust Structure”
10:35am Break
10:45am Presentation 4: F. Winterberg, “Cheating the Death of the Sun by Relativistic Interstellar Spaceflight”
11:30am Presentation 3: Robert Freeland, “Trading a Mag-Sail vs. Fusion for Full Deceleration”
11:55am Presentation 6: Gwyn Rosaire, “The Nuclear Thermal Rocket’s Role in Promoting Interstellar Exploration”
12:20pm Lunch
1:15pm Keynote: Kelvin Long, “Rise of the Starships”
2:00pm Presentation 7: Armen Papazian, “Money Mechanics for Space”
2:25pm Presentation 8: Chris Wimer, “Using Game Mechanics to Increase Funding and Improve Public Knowledge”
2:50pm Break
3:00pm Presentation 9: Heath Rezabek & Nick Nielsen, “(Xrisk 101) Existential Risk for Interstellar Advocates”
3:25pm Presentation 10: A. Caminoa & G. Gaviraghi, “Critical Path and Interstellar Routes”
3:50pm Presentation 11: A. Caminoa & G. Gaviraghi, “A Kardashev III Approach to Extra-Solar Colonization”
4:15pm Break | Description of Evening Event
4:30pm STARSHIP CONGRESS: Mid-Term Questions
6:00pm Dinner (Individual)
8:00pm Event 2 | “Starship Congress Cocktail Evening with Sarah Jane Pell”

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Sunday


A human future in space that didn’t happen — or hasn’t happened yet.

Last year when I was writing out my reactions to the 100YSS symposium for 2011 I discussed how a couple of presentations made me realize a distinction must be sedulously observed between what I have called the political conception of history, which makes human agency central to history, and other conceptions of history in which human agency plays less of a role. This was particularly the case in regard to the 2011 presentation by Katherine Denning, in which professor Denning emphasized the accuracy of predictions and in so saying suggested that futurism can be a more-or-less exact science.

Apparently, this kind of thinking is well represented among 100YSS organizers and participants since the epigraph employed at 100YSS for the 2012 symposium was a quote from Will Durant, “The future never just happened, it was created.”

This is something with which I cannot agree when stated in this way, i.e., unconditionally. This claim embodies as perfectly as any one line could the political conception of history, and it is true, as far as it goes — but it doesn’t go far enough. Some of our history is under our control and can be consciously shaped by human agency; some other parts of our history, however, are not at all under our control and, try as we might, human agency cannot shape them to human ends.

When Hamlet says, “There’s a Diuinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will,” or when a religious person says that the Lord works in mysterious ways, these are explicit admissions that there are clear limits to human agency in shaping history, although these expressions of a destiny beyond human agency are strong enough to embody a distinct conception of history, what I have called the eschatological conception of history, which recognizes the agency of non-human powers in the world. It is also possible to recognize the lack of human agency in shaping history (which I call the cataclysmic conception of history).

The reason that I mention these conceptions of history in relation to predicting the human future in space, or the attempt to employ human agency in making a human future in space happen, is that space programs have been the bread-and-butter of both futurism and science fiction throughout the twentieth century and up to the present. We need to be able to place this science fiction futurism in relation to our overall conception of history if we are to understand whether it is a driving vision of a future we are going to create, or a mere distraction from an entirely different future that is already upon us but remains unrecognized for what it is.

One cannot overemphasize the fact that past futurism has been and continues to be a source of camp humor; the very sincerity of the predictions that have been made lend the extra irony that transforms merely humorous mis-prediction into camp humor that is really a form of ridicule, thinly disguised — or not disguised at all.

The account of preternaturally accurate futurist predictions usually focuses on minutae and neglects the big picture. Prediction often gets technological details right even while the human element is laughably wrong. Getting the human element of the future wrong can be as simple as not realizing that people won’t want to give up their convivial dinners for a single pill supplying all necessary nutrition, or it can be as subtle and sophisticated as trying to understanding the relationship between intelligence and consciousness, and what this means for the relationship between artificial intelligence and machine consciousness.

I have written several posts critical of Ray Kurzweil’s conception of a technological singularity (for example, The Singularity Has No Clothes). Recently I watched a Kurzweil lecture to staff of the SETI institute that is available on Youtube. I realized when I watched this that a great many of Kurzweil’s narrowly technological predictions are likely to be true, even while he gets the human context of his predictions all wrong. The human element that Kurzweil gets wrong is human consciousness.

Kurzweil (one of today’s must successful futurists) shows the extent to which he embodies the contemporary scientific attitude by simply pretending that philosophical problems don’t exist (something I described in Fashionable Anti-Philosophy and Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy). He announces poetic metaphors — plainly asserting the identity of mind and software — without even bothering to offer a suggestion about how his position avoids the problem of Searle’s Chinese room thought experiment. No one calls him on his metaphors, and certainly none of his followers ask him to give an account of his philosophical ellipses.

We are, more often than not, blindsided by history. Historian Pauline Maier says this at the beginning of the PBS television series Liberty: The American Revolution (Episode 1):

“The future would bring freedom, it would bring prosperity, because it would be British. The tyrannical French and Spanish had been removed from the continent. How surprising this is to us; we don’t think of this as the great division. Their view of the future seems naive, so different than what we knew their future would have been. Which tells us something: what came was not expected, and it was certainly not desired. They were British, they wanted to be British, they were proud of being British; that they would thirteen years later be declaring their independence is enormously paradoxical. It did not have to be, it should not have been, from their perspective; that it happened is a great mystery that needs to be explained.”

Here is an historical perspective that I can fully endorse, although of course such things vary according to circumstances. In some cases the future is no mystery at all, and requires no explanation, but in other cases the future that did in fact come about is a mystery for which historians can offer no answer. The answer to the mysteries of history transcends history.

A few days ago in From Moon Shot to Milk Run I talked about the different conceptions of civilization involved in conceptualizing a space program as a heroic one-off endeavor like the Apollo moon shot (which exemplifies the heroic conception of civilization) or in conceptualizing a space program as a routine, work-a-day affair (which exemplifies the iterative conception of civilization).

It strikes me now that an heroic conception of a space program is likely to be a manifestation of a political conception of history, since such great endeavors are generally top-down, exhaustively planned missions, while an iterative conception of a space program is likely to be a manifestation of a naturalistic conception of history, that sees the human expansion into space as part of the ordinary business of life rather than a great heroic undertaking.

One of the questions that came up repeatedly at 100YSS both in 2011 and 2012 was public outreach and the relative lack or interest or lack of participation (however you care to interpret it) by the public in the space program. I think that at least part of this attitude — whether originally coming from the space program itself or coming from the public — is the heroic character of the undertaking and its lack of contact with the lives of ordinary people. Most people could understand an iterative space program, since it would have a structure much like their own lives, and would likely involve people that they know. An heroic space program, consisting of a series of “moon shots” is unquestionably an inspiration from a distance, but how long can an inspiration from a distance play a role in the iterated details of ordinary life?

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From Moon Shot to Milk Run

20 September 2012

Thursday


A Boeing 1969 Study for an ‘Integrated Manned Interplanetary Spacecraft’ needing only Saturn V and Saturn IB to lift the sections into orbit. Such an interplanetary craft would require no industrial infrastructure in space. Theoretically, the same approach could be taken with an interstellar spacecraft. In practice, an interstellar spacecraft would be so enormous that lifting it off the surface of the Earth in pieces would probably be prohibitively expensive and inconvenient.

In previous posts on the 100YSS 2012 symposium I discussed some of the unspoken but underlying themes of the conference, namely, the Fermi Paradox and its associated question — “Are we alone?” — and the vaguely paternalistic character of many of the presentations which seemed to assume that the builders of a generational starship could reach out from the earth to retain control over an enterprise unreachably distant both in space and time. It is striking to note that the presentation of Stephen Andrew Taylor about the opera he wrote based on a story of Ursula Le Guin, Paradises Lost, avoided this latter pitfall and therefore revealed itself as one of the more profound contributions of the whole symposium.

This proposed Mars mission spacecraft could be assembled on earth and lifted into orbit section by section, but it would be a lot more efficient to manufacture the biggest pieces in space and just bring up the technically difficult pieces from Earth.

I am not yet finished with the lessons I learned from this year’s 100YSS symposium, but instead of offering an exposition of implicit themes, I would now like to offer an exposition of a of an implicit tension that ran through both the 2011 and 2012 100YSS presentations, and this is the dichotomy in approach between those who assume that further human exploration of space is likely to be Earth-based, so that future spacecraft will continue to be manufactured on the Earth and then launched into space, with additional assembly in orbit required for larger missions, and those who assume that steady and gradual human spacesteading will eventually result in an industrial infrastructure in space so that large spacecraft for ambitious future missions of exploration will inevitably be manufactured in space, off the surface of the earth, by those who already live in space.

The tension between these two points of view is important because it points to very different conceptions of the nature of civilization, and indeed what civilization will become in the course of the coming century. I think that for many people, even people who dream of starships, that the idea of a human civilization of any significant size off the surface of the earth is just too close to science fiction to take seriously. People who take this view can imagine ambitious plans of human exploration of the solar system and beyond, but they imagine it all as the result of earth-based industry.

Last year in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium 2011 Day 1 I wrote this:

Recently in This could go somewhere, or it could go absolutely nowhere… I contrasted the heroic conception of science with the iterative conception of science, as extensions of my previous discussions of The Heroic Conception of Civilization and The Iterative Conception of Civilization. It strikes me now that the idea of planning a starship has something heroic about it, but in so far as it is planned as part of a large-scale institutional undertaking it also falls under the iterative conception.

This distinction between heroic and iterative civilization is useful in this context. (I recently revisited the idea of heroic civilization in Apollo and Everest.) The heroic conception of civilization understands space exploration as an heroic undertaking based on civilization pretty much as we know it today; the iterative conception of civilization sees civilization is incrementally but relentlessly expanding its scope, and if space exploration is part of this conception of civilization, then that exploration will grow organically out of a civilization that is in space anyway. It is entirely possible to understand either conception of civilization as including or excluding human space exploration.

It is possible to elaborate on this distinction between conceptions of civilizations and their undertakings, and in fact while I was listening to some of the presentations during the 100YSS 2012 symposium I started a list dividing the properties of these respective conceptions of civilization. I begin with the paradigm of heroic spaceflight as the “moon shot,” which embodies so many of our ideas of a heroic, one-off undertaking, and I contrast this to the “milk run,” which is a mundane, routine undertaking. Here is my (admittedly imperfect) list so far:

Moon Shot Milk Run
heroic ordinary
sprint long haul
top-down bottom-up
central planning unplanned
sudden incremental
exceptional routine
narrowly-based broadly-based
hierarchical organic

The paradigmatic case of a “moon shot” style space mission is, of course, the moon shot. The entire spacecraft for the moon mission was built and assembled on earth. The Saturn V rocket was enormous, and lofted an enormous payload into orbit. As the mission made its way to the moon, parts of the spacecraft were jettisoned along the route, and by the time the three astronauts returned, they returned in the tiny Apollo capsule that was only large enough to contain the three of them. Many (if not most) of the proposed Mars missions on the drawing boards adopt this paradigm, for obvious reasons. Except for the International Space Station (ISS), there is no industrial infrastructure in space. This is the Achilles heel of the entire contemporary space program. Any large undertaking in space is limited by this absence of industrial infrastructure.

The ISS itself was built on Earth, although its parts were assembled in orbit after having been one at a time lifted off from the Earth. Any large spacecraft would minimally require assembly in orbit, and of course it would make much more sense to employ an industrial infrastructure in space to extract and process the necessary materials rather than lift then from the earth, where the materials themselves are relatively expensive and the cost to take them into orbit even more so. In theory, even an interstellar ship could be manufactured on the Earth and assembled in orbit, although this technology currently envisioned any starship would need to be far larger than anything else previously assembled by human hands.

My point here is that this is more than just a choice of technique in assembling a spacecraft, whether headed to Mars or headed to the stars. The temperamental distinction between thinking of civilization in these two fundamentally distinct ways points to the connection between temperament and civilization. Persons of the one temperament will work toward the creation of a civilization consistent with their temperament, while persons of the other temperament will work toward another kind of civilization. In a large and diverse world, there is room for both temperaments, and in What adventures are actually left? I observed that…

When our early hominid ancestors began to make their way around the earth, I imagine that they traveled from mixed motives, and that it was a little bit of exploration, a little bit of adventure, and a little bit of diaspora.

To exploration, adventure, and diaspora I should add those iterative activities that go to make up the ordinary business of life. As long as there is room for disagreement in the world, we are not forced to choose between differing conceptions of civilization.

From a standpoint of existential risk, which I briefly discussed in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II, it ought to be obvious to us that we would not want to keep all our eggs in one basket, since at present the Earth is a single point of failure for our species — and every other species on the planet.

With or without travel to the stars, a robust and sustainable off-planet civilization could be constructed within our solar system. Off the surface of the Earth, there is so much energy and so many resources that they are for practical purposes endless because we could not exhaust them. At least, we could not exhaust them until we had reached the point where travel to other stars was practicable and we could tap into new sources of energy and raw materials. This is a work-a-day vision of the future of civilization.

But it may be the case that human beings may have a tendency to settle into and settle for stagnation once industrial-technological civilization covers the entire planet and life reaches a reasonable level of comfort for almost everyone. To tear people away from amusement and entertainment and what Fukuyama called “the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands” it may be necessary to pursue the inspirational, the heroic, and the spectacular, even if pursued from the surface of an increasingly comfortable earth.

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100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 2

14 September 2012

Friday


What happened to Day 1?

Yesterday I arrived too late to Houston to be present at the Thursday night opening reception for the 2012 100YSS symposium, though I already met one of the symposium participants in the van I took from the airport. So I went through my presentation of couple of times and went to bed with my alarm set for 7:00 am local time, which is 5:00 am Pacific time, which is about the time I usually go to bed. So the symposium is not being operated on my schedule (and, of course, I didn’t expect it to be).

Day 2 begins

The day began with a plenary session with everyone present in one room and several short talks, primarily by Mae Jemison, whose foundation entered the running for last year’s RFP (that’s a government term for “request for proposal”) from DARPA to start a 100YSS foundation, and they won. If memory serves, DARPA set aside a million dollars, using half of it for the 2011 100YSS symposium, and then granted the other half of it as “seed money” for the successful RFP entrant who would initiate an ongoing foundation to pursue the idea of human extrasolar travel within a hundred years.

Jemison’s talked emphasized inclusiveness, and, as a corollary to this, Dr. Jemison and others at the event said, “people didn’t lose interest, they were left out.” This is a noble sentiment, but I think that the opposite of what is implied by this is the case: people know all too well what space travel is about, but the spectacular success of Apollo was a tough act to follow, and people wanted further spectacles. Lacking this, and knowing what was possible, people became bored with the modesty of the space program and the somewhat work-a-day business of launching satellites, however profoundly these satellites have changed our life here on earth.

Becoming an interstellar civilization

Last year the symposium was divided into “tracks” and I spoke in the “religious and philosophical” track. This year there is no religious and philosophical track, but I submitted my proposal for a presentation to the “becoming an interstellar civilization” track, so I headed directly to this track room after the plenary session as I was scheduled for the first batch of talks there.

Before me there were three presentations, two of which were given by individuals who were involved with DARPA 100YSS RFPs that did not win, these by Marc Cohen of Astrotecture and Keith Taggart of Spec Innovations. Marc Cohen made the interesting observation that cosmology is the basis of all belief systems, and if he is right, that bodes well for some future naturalistic civilization in which scientific cosmology has pride of place and we no longer labor under the sacred canopy of ecclesiastical civilization. After Keith Taggart’s presentation there was an interesting exchange about whether associating space flight with the idea of a “lifeboat” for humanity was perceived negatively or not. There was also an interesting presentation by Kent Nebergall of Day Five LLC on “Becoming an Interdisciplinary and Interstellar Culture” that emphasized the importance of “enterprise architecture” in planning a project like 100YSS.

The talks that preceded me were very practical, as befit those who would submitting RFPs to DARPA, so I began by warning my audience that my talk would be rather less practical and more theoretical. When I finished, the room was quite quiet, and I feared that the dead space in the room would be filled by a question asked out of pity merely to break the silence, but eventually I was asked a few interesting questions — interesting enough that I returned to think about them over dinner. More on this later.

After I spoke, Thomas W. Hair of Florida Gulf Coast University spoke on “Spatial distribution of interstellar civilization,” which, like my talk, was more theoretical, and which touched on the Fermi paradox, which I also briefly addressed. Professor Hair drew strong conclusions from his mathematical model of the distribution of civilization throughout the galaxy propagated at a very slow rate. I asked if this still didn’t leave lots of room for peer civilizations on the opposite side of the galaxy, several thousand years ahead of us or behind us (which I consider to be not only a peer but a “contemporary” on cosmological time scales — cf. The Law of Trichotomy for Exocivilizations), and he acknowledged that this remained a possibility.

Marsal Gifra’s presentation included this entertaining although imaginary Wall Street Journal headline.

After lunch, the session resumed and I returned to the same room to listen to several more presentations. There was an especially good presentation by Marsal Gifra, “Creating an Interstellar Space Program, A Legacy for Mankind,” which seamlessly passed over into another presentation by others with whom Mr. Gifra was apparently associated. Mr. Gifra seems to have a background in business development, and he gave a compelling presentation of the economics of commercializing a starship initiative.

In the evening there was another plenary session where Nichelle Nichols of the original Star Trek television series discussed her work for NASA recruiting women and minorities as astronauts, as well as several other guests from the space program past and present.

What is an engineering problem?

After the last plenary session of the day, when others went on to the ballroom event, I went walking in Houston, searching for some authentic Texas barbecue. I didn’t find barbecue, but I did have some good Tex-Mex, and over dinner I thought about some of the questions that were asked of me.

One fellow in particular, whose name I do not recall, took exception to my far future scenarios involving travel closely approximating the speed of light and therefore experiencing significant time dilation. He said that I was suggesting something that went beyond contemporary science. I thought that I had been rather careful to stay within the limits of known science, even if I posited technology far in advance of what we have today. I said that I was suggesting the use of very high energy levels, but nothing breaking the known laws of physics. He was not persuaded. So I thought about this.

When I hear objections like this, I assume that problems like the energy and radiation levels that would be generated by relativistic velocities and acceleration that would liquify a human body, are “merely” engineering problems. If science says that travel at the speed of light is not possible, but one can approximate the speed of light (although this involves time dilation, contraction, and an increase in mass which in turn requires even more energy for further acceleration), what this says to me is that technology and engineering ware likely to eventually find a solution, or, if not a solution, an alternative. The question that I received today has made me question this assumption.

In the escalating feedback loop that is of the essence of industrial-technological civilization, we can run into limitations at any point in the cycle of science and technology and engineering that usually feeds back into itself and overcomes the limitations of earlier cycles of escalating technological progress. Is any one limit — scientific limitations, technological limitations, or engineering limitations — inherently more limiting than any other? I tend to think of the scientific limits as incorrigible while while the technological and engineering limits are more flexible. This is probably a mistake, or, at least, my presumptive emphasis upon the incorrigibility of science is probably mistaken.

As I noted above, even if the present cycle of industrial-technological progress cannot solve some particular technological problem, it can sometimes find away around them, and some of our most surprising innovations have been unexpected ways of gaining information from limited data. This is the case, for example, with exoplanets. At one time it would have been thought impossible to know anything about other planetary systems before we have visited them, but now we are routinely finding exoplanets, and we will probably in the coming decades, with even more powerful instrumentation, be able to detect the atmospheres of small, rocky exoplanets (in contradistinction to “hot Jupiters”).

In saying this, I am thinking of some of the clever ways that technology might find a way of getting around the limitations of the human body in terms of interstellar flight. The human body is vulnerable to high acceleration, to radiation, to age, and to the thousand natural ills that flesh is heir to. With the limits of the human body we run into the limits of biological engineering. But if human beings were “reconstituted” at the far end of an interstellar flight, bodies would not need to be subject to acceleration, radiation, or long flight times. But there are limits, given our present state of knowledge, of how much radiation even a starship and its essential systems could bear. Is this an engineering limit, or a technological limit, or a scientific limit? It would probably be artificial to try to classify it as any single limitation. We could say that a problem is “beyond physics” or “beyond our knowledge” and these would be right — such formulations in terms of physics or knowledge also bring out the ambiguity or conventionality of distinctions among science, technology, and engineering.

That being said — and I will continue to think about this, and try to determine if I need to revise my formulations of industrial-technological civilization in terms of constraints — I think that the ability of the same resources of industrial-technological civilization to approach problems indirectly, in contradistinction to a direct frontal attack, will eventually find ways around what now seem like insuperable limitations of physics or knowledge.

The same artificiality of an incorrigible distinction science, technology, and engineering means that an innovative solution to any one limitation can address the other limitations indirectly.

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The downtown business district where the 2012 100YSS symposium is being held at the Hyatt.

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Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-

11 September 2012

Tuesday


NASA has published a number of astrobiology graphic novels that are well worth taking a look at.

Last spring in Eo, Exo-, Astro- I discussed the importance of the distinction between eobilogy, exobiology, and astrobiology as representing a truly Copernican conception of the life sciences, as well as the applicability of concepts from astrobiology to the study civilization. This discussion was partly an outgrowth of my continuing work on the idea of spacefaring civilization, which I discussed when I spoke at last year’s 100 Year Starship Study symposium (100YSS). Now that I am preparing to speak at the 2012 100YSS (my topic this year will be “The Large Scale Structure of Spacefaring Civilization”) I have been working on these ideas again and I found a problem with my previous formualtions.

Joshua Lederberg in front of Mars Lander chart, from Profiles in Science, National Library of Medicine

I mentioned in my previous post on this topic the work of Joshua Lederberg, one of the founders of exobiology. I was lead to Lederberg’s work by the excellent book The Living Universe by Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick, which noted how Lederberg had contrasted eobiology and exobiology. I jumped to the conclusion that eobiology and exobiology were contrasted as terrestrial biology to non-terrestrial biology. While I was right about astrobiology being the more comprehensive synthesis, placing terrestrial biology in its cosmological context, I got Lederberg’s contrast of eobiology and exobiology wrong.

Lecture notes of Lederberg for his Cartwright Lecture at Columbia University on18 November 1981.

Joshua Lederberg wrote this about the formation of his ideas in the immediate post-Sputnik period:

At around this time, I coined the term “exobiology”, a smaller mouthful than “the scientific study of extraterrestrial life”. Exobiology has been panned as one of the few scientific disciplines that may have an empty set as its experimental objects. Regardless, what we have called biology until now should be limned “esobiology”, which can be backformed into “earth’s own biology”. It may be unique in the solar system, perhaps even the cosmos — howbeit, it is still parochial.

Joshua Lederberg, Terry Lectures, Yale University, Thurs – Fri: April 6, 7 and April 13, 14, 1989, “Origin and Extent of Life” (Notes for Terry Lecture #1)

Most if not all of Lederberg’s papers are available online, including several early articles in which he formulated his ideas of exobiology before the idea of astrobiology had emerged. The papers available at Profiles in Science are well worth reading.

Lederberg’s contrast between eobiology and exobiology was intended as a contrast between origins of life research and research into life in the universe beyond the earth, and hence beyond eobiology as the origins of biology. There is almost an element of csomological eschatology present in Lederberg’s visionary compass taking in the breadth of life from it earliest origins to its far-flung possibilities in the depths of space. Lederberg called eobiology “the ultimate creation myth of science,” and exobiology might in the same spirit be called the ultimate eschatological myth of science. Here is how Lederberg formulated the distinction between eobiology and exobiology in 1995:

The reconstruction of life’s origin, eobiology, is the ultimate creation myth of science — certainly it places the most stringent demands on the method of science. On the one hand, DNA and RNA are the most durable physical features of the planet: they have evolved in every detail, but their basic architecture can be inferred to have survived at least 3 billion years of terrestrial history…

Three avenues remain open to us. 1) The reconstruction of plausible emulations of biopoiesis in the laboratory. 2) Observational evidence and palaetiological interpretation of geo- and cosmochemical history of organic molecules: in free space and in condensates such as meteorites and comets. 3) The search for independent evolutions of life beyond narrow terrestrial limits, for an exobiology beyond our own esobiology…

As for exobiology, our principal avenues are 1) telescopic observations from earth, or near orbit, now mainly focused on the substantiation of circumstellar planetary systems like our own; 2) radio-telescopic surveys for possible intelligent signals, and 3) spacecrafted instrumentation visiting the surface of nearby planets, notably Mars.

Joshua Lederberg, Pasteur Centenary Rio February 19-25 ff 1995, I have edited the above remarks but you can read the original in its entirety at the link provided

Term “eobiology” comes from the work of N. W. Pirie, a scientist and philosopher of science — at least, The Living Universe, cited above, attributes “eobiology” to N. W. Pirie, though I was only able to find the term “eobiont” (and not “eobiology”) in Pirie’s work. In any case, with my improved understanding of Lederberg’s formulations of exobiology and related concepts we have the following four concepts that are of particular importance:

● Eobiology: the prefix “eo” means early, so “early biology” or the origins of life

● Esobiology: the prefix “eso” means “inner” or “within” so, in a sense, “our biology,” in other words, terrestrial biology

● Exobiology: the prefix “exo” means “outer” or “outside” so “outer biology” or, if you will, biology in outer space

● Astrobiology: the prefix “astro” means pertaining to the stars, so biology as it pertains to the stars, or biology in a cosmological context

Although I got the original contrast between eobiology and exobiology wrong, I can easily reformulate the distinction I wanted to make in Lederberg’s terms as the contrast between esobiology and exobiology, that is to say, the distinction between terrestrial biology and extraterrestrial biology, which taken together constitute the more comprehensive domain of astrobiology.

I characterized the emergence of astrobiology as being of great importance because it constitutes a fully Copernican science liberated from the prejudices of geocentric biology. My concern was to employ parallel concepts to formulate a similarly fully Copernican Conception of Civilization, and this I see I must now do with the following four concepts:

● Eocivilization the origins of civilization, wherever and whenever it occurs, terrestrial or otherwise

● Esocivilization our terrestrial civilization

● Exocivilization extraterrestrial civilization exclusive of terrestrial civilization

● Astrocivilization the totality of civilization in the universe, terrestrial and extraterrestrial civilization taken together in their cosmological context

Originally I contrasted eocivilization to exocivilization as synthesized in the greater whole of astrocivilization; it is obvious now that the contrast I should have made was that between esocivilization and exocivilization, these two latter of which are unified in astrocivilization.

Although the concepts of esobiology and exobiology can be considered to have been superseded by the concept of astrobiology, the earlier concepts remain useful distinctions within the field of astrobiology, and the same can be said of esocivilization, exocivilization, and astrocivilization: astrocivilization is the comprehensive, Copernican conception of civilization, but it is supplemented by the useful concepts of esocivilization (which for us is terrestrial civilization) and exocivilization (extraterrestrial civilizations), which continue to be valid and useful concepts for the study of civilization.

The original visionary contrast of eobiology and exobiology in Lederberg’s work can be reformulated in the context of civilization as the breadth of civilization from it earliest origins to its far-flung possibilities in the depths of space, which is a sweeping eschatological conception of civilization.

There remains a further subtle distinction that can be made here. Once we understand that the complementary concepts of esocivilization and exocivilization concern the distribution of civilization in space, we recognize that eocivilization is concerned with the distribution of civilization in time. This suggests another concept that would stand opposite that of eocivilization identifying the opposite pole of civilization’s origins — would this be the destiny, aim, or goal of civilization? Such terms are, of course, loaded, and we would be better to avoid them. I discussed in yesterday’s The Industrial-Technological Thesis the tendency of contemporary historians to avoid any mention of “progress,” and for similar reasons we might want to avoid any formulation that suggests a telos of civilization — but this is an interesting question that deserves its own separate discussion rather than a mere aside in passing.

What neutral term could be employed to indicate the opposite of eocivilization, and what term could be employed to indicate the synthesis of eocivilization and its other? The obvious choice would be the prefix “post-” except that I really don’t like the sound of “post-civilization” and what it implies (though I have used in on many occasions, as when I reference post-civilization successor institutions). I think I would prefer some Latinate formulation like Res cultus futurae, but this is awkward contrast to “eocivilization” and “cultus” is a very imperfect translation of “civilization” since ancient Latin had no word for civilization. So I will continue to think about the terminology, but I do want to get the concepts out there while I have them in mind:

● Eocivilization the origins of civilization

● After-civilization that state toward which civilization is evolving, and perhaps also that which comes after civilization

● Metaphysical civilization the totality of civilization in history; the temporal whole of civilization from its earliest origins to its transition into another kind of institution

Thus while I had originally been mistaken in contrasting eocivilization to exocivlization, which I now realize should be the contrast between esocivilization and exocivilization, the term and the concept “eocivilization” turns out to be very useful and highly suggestive (and from it we can arrive at the terrestrial eocivilization thesis).

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Tuesday


In yesterday’s post on China’s Military Aviation Ambitions I discussed some of the early difficulties in jet propulsion, and how the most advanced jet engines of our time continue to be a technical and engineering challenge. China, as I mentioned, buys its most advanced jet engines from Russia and the Ukraine, who apparently possess industrial plant tooling and technical expertise superior to what the Chinese are currently capable of matching.

I expect that this technological hurdle will continue for some time, since despite the fact that jet propulsion technology is older that the technology of nuclear weapons (which I have elsewhere called a mature technology), there is still a great deal of technological and engineering work to go on jet propulsion.

In the past few decades jet propulsion technological research has focused on higher efficiencies, and this research has resulted in passenger jet service that uses significantly less fuel than the first Jet Age when, in the 1960s, passengers jets first began to routinely offer international travel. But I have also noted that the then-expected transition to supersonic jet travel didn’t happen; supersonic jets were loud and expensive and used a lot of fuel. The time saved by supersonic travel was not at that time, and has not up to this time, been enough to offset the disproportionate costs of supersonic passenger travel (although supersonic military jets are now entirely routine, with the newest fighter jets possessing supercruise ability).

But that isn’t the only thing that slowed down the advent of the age of supersonic jet travel. Supersonic jets are a difficult technology to master, and require substantial engineering and technological resources. We still have a long way to go (and therefore many opportunities yet in the future — even the near future) in terms of routine and cost-effective supersonic travel. Since supersonic jet travel has been stalled for some time, it is beginning to feel like fusion power — an engineering challenge just beyond our current reach — always another thirty years in the future.

On my other blog I wrote about tests this past spring on the essential systems of the REL SABRE engine (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine — an illustration of which is pictured above), which is of the greatest interest for future jet propulsion technologies. This is an engine that can take us into space, and is therefore the future and an important technological milestone. The SABRE engine (you can see an animation of its operation both on the REL website and at Vimeo) is designed for SSTO (Single Stage To Orbit) and HOTOL (HOrizontal Take Off and Landing) operation — in other words, this is the engine for the kind of spaceships that you see in the movies, that take off from the ground under their own power, like an airplane, and are able to keep accelerating all the way through the atmosphere and then into space.

Maybe I sound like a booster for REL — their website calls the SABRE engine, “a major breakthrough in propulsion worldwide” — but it would be difficult to underestimate the importance of this propulsion technology, not just for the business of space launch, and not just for any particular industry, but for the human species. If we stay on the earth, we are doomed; we will only propagate our civilization if we become a spacefaring civilization, and an SSTO spacecraft is an essential element in becoming a spacefaring civilization.

When I was reading about the SABRE engine I was surprised that the crucial technology was simply a cooling system. Air traveling at hypersonic speeds gets very hot, and it needs to be cooled down to very low temperatures even while continuing to flow at very high speeds. Also, the moisture has to be extracted from the air, since ice coming into a hypersonic jet could cause serious problems. These are the problems that REL has so far been tackling successfully.

The REL SABRE engine is one solution for an engine that runs as a jet through the atmosphere and then turns itself into a rocket for extra-atmospheric flight. I assume that there are other possible solutions to this technological and engineering challenge, but as far as I know, REL is the only enterprise at present engaged in this kind of research and development. Of course their are always rumors that such things are being developed for the military in “black” programs of which the public knows nothing. It seems to me that if the Skunk Works could build the SR-71 Blackbird in the 1960s, by now they certainly ought to be able to build an air cooler that can aspirate a jet engine to the edge of the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. Certainly I hope that such research is taking place, since the future of civilization is at stake.

There would be very obvious military advantages to a SSTO fighter, which would also be the first space fighter. Because of the ascendancy of the drone industry in recent years, several military hardware commentators have ventured that the current crop of fifth generation fighters (and 5.5 generation fighters) will be the last of the manned combat jets. I think it is much more likely the the F-22, and F-35, the Sukhoi PAK-FA and the J-20 will be the last generation of atmospheric-only military fighter craft, as the next obvious step is a fighter that takes off from the runway on the ground and flies directly into space, there to defend space-based military assets and to attack and disable the space-based assets of rival military powers.

It is hard to imagine that such developments are not taking place far from the eyes of the public. Hopefully my friends over at Open Source GEOINT will spot something like this soon.

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Friday


Do we court metaphysical danger

if we engage in cosmic impiety?


I think that it is not at all usual that when one reads a book early in one’s intellectual development, that the author’s ideas, and even his voice and his style, can become so interwoven in one’s own thoughts it can be difficult to recall exactly what was one’s own idea and what one borrowed from this ur-text. One must go back to the text itself to remind oneself how much one read and how much one read into what one read. My experience in this vein is wrapped up with Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. When I began reading philosophy my mother gave me a copy of Russell’s book for Christmas. I still have this copy, though it is now in many pieces.

I found myself thinking of Russell again at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, where several of the presentations touched upon the need for humility in exploration. In Russell’s chapter in his A History of Western Philosophy on the American pragmatist philosophy John Dewey, he has a long aside on what he calls “cosmic impiety” with a certain dread as to unspoken but potentially ruinous consequences:

“The attitude of man towards the non-human environment has differed profoundly at different times. The Greeks, with their dread of hubris and their belief in a Necessity or Fate superior even to Zeus, carefully avoided what would have seemed to them insolence towards the universe. The Middle Ages carried submission much further: humility towards God was a Christian’s first duty. Initiative was cramped by this attitude, and great originality was scarcely possible. The Renaissance restored human pride, but carried it to the point where it led to anarchy and disaster. Its work was largely undone by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. But modern technique, while not altogether favorable to the lordly individual of the Renaissance, has revived the sense of the collective power of human communities. Man, formerly too humble, begins to think of himself as almost a God. The Italian pragmatist Papini urges us to substitute the ‘Imitation of God’ for the ‘Imitation of Christ’.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, p. 737

Russell further goes on to say on the same page:

“In all this I feel a grave danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the way in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness… I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time…”

In so saying Russell was echoing his own earlier writings regarding the humility of scientific knowledge. I quoted several of these passages in Epistemic Hubris. I can imagine that what Russell formulated in terms of science and philosophy he would also have advocated in the case of technology: technological hubris is a danger, and we would do well to cultivate a sense of humility in our technological thought and activity.

While I don’t think that Russell explicitly formulated a principle of technological humility, it is implicit in what he wrote, and I furthermore think that this principle sums up much contemporary cautionary thought. The pervasive sentiment, common at least since the introduction of nuclear weapons, is that humanity’s technological development has outrun its moral development, and this places us in a position of existential danger. The prevalent apocalyptic narratives of our time largely draw upon this sentiment of looming danger from having harnessed forces ultimately beyond our control.

The idea of creating a spacefaring civilization and even constructing vessels to take us to the stars might well be taken as a paradigm case of technological hubris. Perhaps we have no moral right to such ambition. I mentioned in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 3 that at least a couple of participants in the symposium voiced the need for humanity to “clean up its act” before it takes its problems with it into the wider universe. This is essentially an objection to metaphysical pride, presumably made in deference to metaphysical modesty.

I don’t think that there is much to be concerned with here, though I think that the moral issues must be taken seriously. I don’t think that the metaphysical pride and metaphysical ambition of extraterrestrialization should be a worry because of an analogy I would make between the precarious position of humanity as a planet-bound civilization today. Despite our enormous technological achievements, and the claim that humanity now lives in the geological era of the anthropocene due to the degree to which we have transformed our own planet, we are still very much at the mercy of earthquakes, storms, severe weather, and all manner of natural disasters. Our dominance of the planet and our technological achievements have not insulated us from the depredations of nature.

Analogously, I think that if we should create a spacefaring civilization and the extraterrestrialization of humanity proceeds apace, that we will find that we continue to be subject to the depredations of nature, though nature on a wider scale and not confined to potential planetary natural disasters. An extraterrestrialized civilization would face natural disasters on the level of galactic ecology, with the dangers at each stage in the growth of civilization roughly proportional to the extent of that civilization. That is to say, both metaphysical pride and metaphysical modesty are subject to metaphysical danger.

W. R. Kramer of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies made humility central to his presentation, titled, “To Humbly Go… Breaking Previous Patterns of Colonization.” Mr. Kramer discussed the dangers of employing the language and images and concepts of past colonial efforts, and certainly when we look back on the record of colonialism there is a rich record of perfidy defended as ideals. This is not a pattern we would want to repeat.

But how exactly could a spacefaring civilization be humble? The very project, as I implied above, can be seen as the height of hubris — hubris on a cosmic scale. Of course, even if the project of extraterrestrialization is hubris, that doesn’t mean that individuals involved in such an enterprise couldn’t adopt a proper spirit of humility and modesty, although, as I said above in regard to metaphysical dangers, I don’t think that humanity will have all that difficult a time in retaining its humility once it has experienced a few hard knocks from the universe on a grand scale.

One specific proposal made by W. R. Kramer in the interest of going humbly into the cosmos was that human efforts in colonizing other planets, should other planets harboring life be found, should focus not on terraforming other worlds, but on adapting human physiology to alien worlds. I found this an interesting proposal. I don’t doubt that by the time a spacefaring civilization reaches other worlds we would have the technology to engineer descendants who could live in an alien biosphere. Just this scenario has been featured in some science fiction novels (in my dated experience of reading science fiction novels, I remember this from Ben Bova’s Exiled from Earth trilogy).

There is definitely something of Stalinist gigantism in the very idea of terraforming a planet, and I can easily imagine someone identifying such an engineering enterprise as a paradigm case of cosmic impiety à la Russell. But notice that it is an engineering challenge. In this sense, finding an alien planet with a biosphere and intending to settle such a planet with human beings, would present us with the choice between two engineering challenges: terraform or adapt. Both are engineering challenges. Both, we will assume, would be difficult but possible. Each engineering challenge presents opportunities and dangers, and each poses moral conundrums that cannot be glossed over.

W. R. Kramer apparently thinks that engineering human beings to live in an alien biosphere is morally preferable to terraforming. I neither agree nor disagree, but it must be pointed out that there are many people who regard genetically tampering with our species with moral horror. One need only read up a little on the reaction to transhumanism to find the things that have been said about purposefully altering human beings. For such a practice would also certainly result in speciation, and it might result in beings that had a problematic relationship at best to the unaltered remainder of the species.

Of course, terraforming might also be regarded with moral horror. Thus we are confronted with a choice between moral horrors: the horror of human speciation or the horror of terraforming. One would expect that changes in civilization between now and some future time when this dilemma might be faced will involve changes in our perception of moral dilemmas, but one also expects that the people of that future time will be divided by this choice. Some will be horrified at the prospect of transforming the biosphere of an entire planet, while others will be more horrified by the prospect of altering human beings until they are perhaps no longer recognizable as human beings.

In the case of terraforming sterile but potentially habitable worlds (like Mars, which is close to home and therefore more likely to be a moral dilemma in the nearer-term future), one feels that the moral objection to terraforming would be somewhat less (and therefore possibly less a moral horror than altering human beings), but I can still easily imagine those who would feel a moral horror at the prospect of utterly transforming this sterile but pristine environment for human purposes. It could be argued that no alternation in human physiology could make it possible for human descendants to live on Mars because of its sterility, and this might well be the basis of a future standard in the coming debate over whether to terraform or not to terraform.

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Wednesday


In a previous post (100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 1) I mentioned the influence that science fiction had obviously had over the participants at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, and how it had been suggested more than once that science fiction can be understood as a thought experiment with the future. Certainly science fiction had its influence upon me as well, and while I don’t read science fiction any more (although I do view a lot of science fiction films), all the science fiction novels I read once upon a time exercise a continuing influence over my thought.

During my years of reading science fiction I especially enjoyed the works of Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson, and more especially in the oeuvre of each I enjoyed those vast panoramic views of the future worked out across multiple novels that were sometimes called future histories. No doubt there are authors writing today who are creating their own future histories, and I am simply unaware of it.

There is perhaps something a little tendentious if not pretentious about calling a series of novels a “future history,” though there is also a sense in which it is apt, and is to the future what Balzac’s Comédie humaine was to Balzac’s present. Friedrich Engels said that, “I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together.” Similarly, an imaginative science fiction writer might present to us a concrete vision of the future that surpasses all the efforts of the futurists.

In so far as science fiction is future history, it is always revisionary history, since each author always brings his or her vision of the future to the task of creating an imagined world. More and more, history simpliciter is becoming revisionary history as the equally imagined world of the past is disputed by historians who bring a particular vision to the explication and analysis of the past.

This similarity between the imagined worlds of the distant past and the distant future was a theme of one of the presentations at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, “The Inertia of Past Futures” by Dr. Kathryn Denning, Associate Professor, Dept. of Anthropology, York University. Dr. Denning also emphasized the abstract character of thought as it is progressively further removed from the concrete realities of the present, so that the distant past and the distant future both share in this abstract quality.

We should welcome the vigorous emergence of revisionary history as a development of contemporary thought that helps to keep us honest. In so far as we uncritically accept the narratives bequeathed to us from the past, we usually accept at the same time the morals these narratives were formulated to support. This was another theme of Dr. Denning’s presentation: that we get “boxed in” by the inertia of past futures. Revisionary history gives us a different vision of the past, and therefore also a different moral.

Not only Dr. Denning, but also Alexander Wong of Yoyodyne General Systems who spoke on the third day of the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, made an explicitly revisionary treatment of history a central theme of their talks. Dr. Denning began her presentation by asking the audience if they thought that Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the globe, and then went on to point out that Magellan himself was killed halfway through the voyage. Alexander Wong took the Wright brothers as his theme for revisionary history, and pointed out how, once granted a patent, the Wrights used their patent to sue aircraft manufacturers in the US into non-existence, to the point that when the First World War was underway there was no US domestic aircraft industry, with the unintended consequence being that the aircraft that are remembered from the First World War were all European aircraft.

Both Dr. Denning and Alexander Wong more or less explicitly drew the moral that these figures, commonly represented as the great “winners” of history were also in a sense among history’s great losers. Dr. Denning went on to assert that the commonly received principle that the victor writes the history is not only bad for the victims, but is also bad for the victors. So whether or not we’re talking about armed conflict, it would seem that romanticized history written from the perspective of history’s “winners” is as bad for these winners as it is for the excluded and marginalized losers.

In her presentation, Dr. Denning repeatedly told her audience that the historical theses she was presenting were in no sense exceptional or marginal, but that they represented mainstream views in contemporary academic historiography. While it is more than a little mildly ironic that the authority of a given set of historical theses should be defended on the basis of their mainstream character by an historian who very clearly represents the tradition of “history from the bottom up” which seeks to recover the voices of the excluded and marginalized figures of history, I was even more surprised by the conclusion of her presentation.

Dr. Denning finished her presentation by making the remarkable claim that it was the capital extracted from the New World and sent back to Europe that funded the industrial revolution and made possible all that followed. This is remarkable because it represents the same abstract approach to history that Dr. Denning criticized in other areas of historical thought, but here it has been transplanted into the history of economics, asserted without justification, and set up as a strawman to prove the indebtedness of European industrial development to wealth looted from the peoples of the New World.

There is no question that European colonialists in the New World looted a massive amount of wealth from the New World and shipped it back to Europe. The Spanish were particularly systematic about this, collecting their booty on an annual basis and shipping it back to Spain on a fleet of treasure ships once a year. A few times these treasure fleets were captured and looted in turn by English privateers, but the vast majority of it made it to Spain, and Portugal also extracted a good deal of wealth from the New World and shipped it back to the Old World.

Just as the theses that Dr. Denning defended were unexceptionally mainstream, so in economic historiography it is unexceptionally mainstream to recognize that the massive importation of gold into Spain more or less ruined the Spanish economy through runaway inflation. Until David Hume and Adam Smith there was no theoretical framework available to analyze or understand macro-economic forces, but people certainly at the time knew that something was wrong, though they didn’t know exactly what to do about it. One finds in the writings of contemporaneous economists a struggle to understand what was happening to the Spanish economy.

It has also been argued — though this is less mainstream and more controversial — that the wealth shipped back to Portugal led to a steady diminution of domestic industry that led to the long twilight of the Portuguese economy and made it, as I have written elsewhere, the Bolivia of Western Europe, subject to extreme poverty and repeated political coups.

As I wrote above, English privateers did capture some of the Spanish treasure coming from the New World, but this was the exception rather than the rule. The early English colonies in the New World were not notable for their success or their wealth extraction, but for their repeated financial failures. Certainly the English did what they could to extract wealth from the New World, but they weren’t very successful at it. And after King Philip’s War they were essentially pushed back to a thin strip of land along the coast and lost nearly a century’s worth of progress of expansion into the interior of the continent.

All of this contrasts sharply with the record of the Iberian powers in the New World, with their encomiendas of thousands of native slaves working in plantation conditions and the extraction of enormous gold reserves from the civilizations of South America. Both the Spanish and the English colonial regimes were brutal, but the English mostly lost money from their brutalities, while the Spanish mostly profited. And in one of the notable ironies of history, the Spanish were ruined by their profit while the English were preserved from the “resource curse” of the New World through failed commercial ventures.

The industrial revolution that began in Europe and which therefore initiated industrial-technological civilization in Europe, began not in a Spain awash with gold from the New World, but in England, which had become so frustrated with having to spend money on the defense of its New World colonies that it tried to tax the colonials to pay for said defense. Spain and Portugal remained European backwaters of industrial development well into the twentieth century, isolated from the rest of Europe not only by the Pyrenees, but also by the stranglehold that the Catholic Church maintained over education in the Iberian Peninsula — perpetuated into the second half of the twentieth century by Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

The lessons of colonialism both from the traditional narrative celebrating colonization of the New World and from the now-dominant narrative of revisionary history that expresses horror over the colonization of the New World are both of them part of our moral legacy. It does not help to understand matters by adopting an abstract historical method in respect to one while criticizing the same in respect to the other.

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