Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Destruction, 1836

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Destruction, 1836

A couple of days ago in The Byzantine Superweapon, and again yesterday in Innovation, Stagnation, and Optimization, I discussed some of the forces that led to the technological stagnation of classical antiquity, which ensured that there would be no industrial revolution in the classical world. Western civilization had to pass through the painful contraction of political and economic collapse in Western Europe, and lose much of what it had struggled so hard to build, before it could get to the point at which the conditions were right (and ripe) for industrialization.

Now, the way that I have worded the above paragraph suggests a kind of historical inevitability, and this is philosophically objectionable. If one is going to make a claim of historical inevitability, one has an intellectual obligation to state this claim, and to defend it. However, I am not making such a claim, although my position could be interpreted as a weak form of historical inevitability.

What do I mean by “weak historical inevitability”? A strong formulation of historical inevitability would simply be a statement of determinism. A weak formulation of historical inevitably need make no metaphysical claims about determinism, but does acknowledge that, given the kind of civilization that characterized classical antiquity — settled, slave-holding, agrarianism — it would have been virtually impossible, or in any event extremely unlikely for technological innovation to escalate to the point of an industrial revolution. Before industrialization could occur, certain social changes must occur. But the “must” in the last sentence is not the “must” of necessity or determinism, but only a weaker “must” of the preponderance of the evidence. Call this a scientific must if you must, because it shares in the inductivism and revisability of all scientific thought.

In the same spirit of a scientific perspective on history, imbued with an empirical and inductive approach (rather than an a priori and deductive approach, in which “had to” and “must” carry connotations of metaphysical determinism, as in Marxism), there is another factor in the stalling and stagnation of ancient Western civilization that bears examination, and this relates to the geophysical structure of the Roman Empire, which represented classical antiquity at its greatest reach and its most robust iteration.

Of course, the study of the geography of political structures is the meat and potatoes of geopolitics, and I have written a good deal on geopolitics and geostrategy. But even though geopolitics represents a “big picture” and “long term” view on political structures, in the field of geophysics geopolitics is the shortest of short term perspectives. Those who take the longer view of human history and civilization in the context of geography — Jared Diamond is probably the most famous contemporary example of this — are frequently charged with “geographical determinism,” and while in some instances this may be true, but, as I noted above, we can adopt a weak sense of geographical inevitably and avoid all metaphysical determinism.

The geographical unity of the Roman Empire was primarily a function of the Mediterranean Sea, which was ringed by ports that connected the cities of the empire with water-borne commerce — at that time in history, the only form of commerce that could move mass quantities of goods. Maps of the Roman Empire show it surrounding the Mediterranean. After the collapse of Roman power in the West, Western civilization moved inland and approximated pure agriculturalism until expanding again across the North Atlantic and new and larger geographical unity based on water-borne commerce.

During its medieval phase, and carried over into continental politics during the modern period, Western civilization gave rise to no durable empire on the scale of the Roman Empire. The European peninsula is too geographically divided by rivers and mountain ranges to posses the kind of geographical unity the Roman Empire had in virtue of the Mediterranean. George Friedman and Strategic Forecasting often argues in this vein, and in this I think he is right. Friedman has also pointed out that, geopolitically, China is an island. Separated from the rest of the world by deserts, mountain ranges, and the ocean, the traditional unity of Chinese civilization derives from this insular geography. The only people who penetrated the fastness of China were the Mongols; the Chinese themselves did not engage in successful power projection, but spent most of the history warring with each other to determine who would rule the geographical unity of China.

The same geographical divisions of Europe that led to a plethora of petty kingdoms, states, statelets, principalities, and city-states led to ideological, political, economic, and even aesthetic diversity by way of the cultural equivalent of allopatric speciation. In other words, civilization speciated rapidly on the European peninsula. Political and ideological diversity meant a history of continuous conflict, which was at times was ruinous, but at other times had the remarkable quality of competitive government, so that a variety of diverse candidates for political leadership contested with each other to demonstrate (usually militarily) who could provide the best rule. The brilliance of the Italian renaissance is sometimes credited — rightly, in my view — to the competition among principalities on the Italian peninsula.

The Roman Empire, possessing the geographical unity of the Mediterranean — similar in a certain sense to the insularity of Chinese civilization and its series of empires — did not benefit from competitive government. It became, in contrast, a political monoculture that iterated itself around the Mediterranean basin and penetrated as far inland was travel by road was practicable. Instead of competition, the Roman Empire bestowed peace — the Pax Romana.

In this context, the Pax Romana could be understood as a cause, if not the cause, of the decline of classical antiquity, for without the continual pressure of war there was no need reason to systematically harness science, technology, and engineering to practical ends, and these pursuits remained an elite preoccupation of a handful of privileged and relatively isolated individuals.

By contrast, the continual (internal) warfare of medieval Europe eventually gave birth to the scientific revolution even before the industrial revolution made the application of science to technology systematic.

Universal empire — as in Rome or China — leaves peoples with a choice between civilization and barbarism, whereas competing political entities offer peoples a choice between different representatives of a particular tradition of civilization.

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Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Desolation, 1836

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Desolation, 1836

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Civilization as social technology: the Byzantine Empire was a machine for getting people into heaven. Was it also the poster child for civilizational stagnation?

Civilization as social technology: the Byzantine Empire was a machine for getting people into heaven. Was it also the poster child for civilizational stagnation?

In my post from yesterday, The Byzantine Superweapon, I suggested that the civilization of classical antiquity experienced technological stagnation from lack of interest in technological innovation, rather than lack of ability in technological innovation.

Above I specifically mentioned technological stagnation, i.e., stagnation specific to technology. To say that a civilization experiences technological stagnation is not to find it stagnant across the board, and generally suffering from decay, decline, and decadence (the condition once attributed to “dark ages” — a term now generally held in historiographical disrepute). The condition of technological stagnation is an intentionally narrow and focused formulation. In other words, technological stagnation simpliciter does not equate with a “dark age.”

Now, it may well be that classical antiquity also suffered from other forms of stagnation — e.g., political stagnation, social stagnation, ideological stagnation, religious stagnation, aesthetic stagnation, which, when taken together, may well constitute a “dark age” — but to only discuss classical antiquity in terms of its technological stagnation is to engage in a kind of historical abstraction. In other words, it is to take a scientific perspective, and indeed a formal perspective, on history.

In the Preface to my Political Economy of Globalization I wrote this about the abstract nature of economics:

“Logic, as paradigmatically representative of rationalism, has in particular been subject to attacks from a variety of perspectives — empiricist, Marxist, feminist, post-modernist; every tendentious school of thought seems to find its own particular fault with logic. This is not to say that the doctrines of logic are fixed, which they are not, but that there are, on the one hand, constructive ways to contribute to the changing discipline of logic, and, on the other, ignorant and uninformed criticisms that contribute nothing because they are so wide of mark that they have no relevance. A political critique of logic is without meaning, rather than false. Similarly, a cultural critique of economics that fails to recognize economics as a particular species of abstract thought is meaningless, though not false.

To which was appended this footnote:

According to Robert L. Heilbroner, “…economics only comes into being in the first place through the most heroic process of abstraction.” (Between Capitalism and Socialism: Essays in Political Economics, New York: Vintage Books, 1970, Preface, p. xiii)

Heilbroner himself famously called economics the work of the “worldly philosophers,” and in this spirit we tend of think of social sciences like economics and history as being more concrete sciences, but they are as given to abstraction and formalization as any other theoretical discipline.

I make these distinctions, conditions, and qualifications in order to make it clear that it is entirely possible and coherent to talk about some kind of historical phenomenon in tightly circumscribed terms. We must get clear about this in order to move on to the next observation that, even if classical antiquity was a civilization in terminal decline, stagnant in almost every field of endeavor, this is not true of all civilizations.

Once we adopt a sufficiently objective and impartial perspective on history and civilization, I think it will be obvious that in most civilization — also throughout entire eras of civilization, which witness several closely related civilizations rise and fall in parallel and in succession — growth and stagnation are localized phenomena.

It is entirely possible that a civilization experiences growth and even innovation in one area while experiencing stagnation or decline in another area. Moreover, innovation and stagnation may migrate among different expressions of civilization throughout the history of a civilization.

Human history exhibits a pattern of localized escalating growth and localized stagnation, perhaps also localized decline or catastrophic collapse, so that human creativity gets poured into one area at the expense of other areas, and then after this particular fascination wanes, another area of interest captures the human fancy and is the recipient of disproportionate attention, effort, and resources. This makes for a highly uneven texture of human experience and the human condition.

Our own industrial-technological civilization, for all its achievements, experiences limited and localized stagnation. I think we need to honestly acknowledge that specifically in terms of the human presence in space, we are in a period of extended stagnation (hopefully not permanent stagnation). This is not only about the human presence in space, but also space technologies. Kurzweil is known for mapping out the exponential growth of technologies, and this model fits some technologies (like computer technology) but it pretty obviously doesn’t apply to space propulsion technology (or, at very least, to the systematic exploitation of propulsion technologies). We’re still using the chemical rockets of the 1960s, just as we are still using the subsonic jets of the 1960s — although the onboard entertainment offerings are much improved.

An optimal civilization, consisting of intelligent institutions, would involve minimizing stagnation across the board while maximizing innovation across the board. Whether or not human beings could sustain this effort I can’t say for sure, but I have to admit that I am quite optimistic about this, because an optimized civilization would be a much more exciting and interesting context for all human endeavors, to which everyone would have something to contribute. In an optimized civilization we would not have to settle for our less than optimal labor market, and an optimal civilization would offer the possibility of optimally harnessing human enthusiasm, which would in turn mitigate the existential risk of permanent stagnation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Saint Augustine made a distinction between progress for the City of Man and progress for the City of God.

Recently I wrote about progress in Biology Recapitulates Cosmology where I contrasted Stephen J. Gould’s explicit anti-progressivism to more recent forms of progressivism found in futurism and technological thought. Western thought has a long history of finding both progress and decadence in its own historical record. Even as St. Augustine was writing while the Roman Empire was falling apart and there were barbarians literally at the gates of Hippo where Augustine was Bishop, Augustine acknowledged that the City of Man was in a bad way and likely to get worse, but the City of God was going from triumph to triumph as divine providence led the way — thus rescuing a kind of progress from the ruins of a civilization in the process of collapsing around him. Augustine’s was a brave gambit, and later attitudes tended to be more narrowly progressive or declinist, not making the distinction that Augustine made.

Is Augustine’s thought an example of smuggling progress into human history by way of divine providence, or are contemporary conceptions of progress a secularized formulation of divine providence, as Karl Löwith would have argued? This is an interesting question, but I am not going to try to answer it here. I have strong views on this, and I want to write a detailed post (or several posts) specifically about this question (though I have already written some specifically about the idea of secularization, in addition to citing Löwith’s influential work in several posts, such as Addendum on ontological extrapolation, Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations, The Feast of Saint Nicholas, and Marxist Eschatology).

In any discussion of progress one must carefully distinguish between the kinds of progress that are possible. For example, we can distinguish at least technological progress and moral progress and aesthetic progress, just for starters. One might explicitly argue for technological progress, and all those measures of quality of life directly attributable to technological progress like per capita GDP, access to clean water, and so forth, while saying nothing about moral progress or aesthetic progress (as seems to be the case with Kevin Kelly’s explicit argument for progress in What Technological Wants). I don’t think that many people today would assert that the pictures painted today are obviously better than the pictures painted in the past even if our technology seems obviously superior. Therefore aesthetic stagnation might go hand-in-hand with technological progress. I also doubt that many today would argue that we are becoming obviously more ethical with the passage of time and the growth of technology.

It would also be a good idea to distinguish between stagnation and retrogression, so that we are thinking in terms of a continuum that runs between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression, with stagnation as the “golden mean” between the two (as it were). It is common to use the term “stagnation” not only to indicate a socioeconomic system that is moving neither forward nor backward, but also for socioeconomic systems that are losing ground and moving backward. Thus making the distinction between stagnation and retrogression, and placing both in relation to progress, allows us to differentiate societies that are static from societies that are declining. For lack of a better term, we can call the continuum between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression the continuum of progress.

To gain a proper appreciation for the role that the continuum of progress has played in human affairs we must further distinguish the perception of progress, stagnation, or retrogression from any quantifiable measure of progress, stagnation or retrogression. If we want to think about economics in isolation (i.e., in isolation from other possible social measures of progress), we can immediately see the significant role that perceptions play, as it is often claimed that the collective action of declining consumer confidence can cause an economy to go into recession even if there is no other trigger for an economic downturn. Keynes’ remarks about the role of “animal spirits” also has a role to play in economic perceptions in contrast to economic reality.

Human beings being what they are, a significant divergence between appearance and reality can be maintained for some period of time if enough people are prepared to delude themselves. This is am important point, so I want to go into it in more detail, and most especially I want to elucidate economic appearance and reality in terms of two philosophical ideas: self-deception and the sorites paradox.

I have mentioned in other posts that I think the role of self-deception in human affairs is greatly underestimated. Self-deception is simply lying to oneself, and it is especially associated with the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre. People lie to themselves all the time, and for a variety of motives. If you approach life as though everyone was always on the up-and-up, you will soon find yourself disabused of that illusion, for it is illusion rather than reality that is the order of the day in human affairs. Human society only exists in virtue of a complex tapestry of fine-crafted duplicity that people teach themselves to believe in as the price of being part of any society.

The sorites paradox is an ancient idea associated with the ambiguous use of terms. If you have a heap of grains of sand, and take away one grain of sand at a time, when does it cease to be a heap? Contrariwise, if you begin adding one grain of said to another, when does it begin to be a heap? The same paradox is also formulated in terms of baldness: if you pluck the hair off a head one by one, when does the head qualify as being bald?

So, what do self-deception and the sorites paradox have to do with the continuum of progress as it applies to economic appearance and reality? Economic progress is one of the most quantifiable forms of progress of all human endeavors. Whatever economic measure we care to take — GDP, per capita GDP, steel production, potable water, and so forth — we can measure these and monitor progress based upon them. If you decide that progress is a nation-state in which there is a chicken in every pot, you can measure if there is a chicken in every pot, and how often, etc. So it would seem, given these relatively discrete measures, that the measurement of economic progress would be difficult to fudge.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and much of this has to do with the predominant role that human perception plays in large economies that can only be measured statistically. Because of the potential divergence between economic perception and economic reality, a population might believe itself to be experiencing progress even while it is moving backward. Or a population might believe itself to be moving backward even while objective measures demonstrate progress (of whatever sort of progress is defined as progress by that society).

Statistical measures of a large economy bear a strong resemblance to the sorites paradox. You might be able to demonstrate that a population is incrementally growing wealthier, but since a heap of wealth is always just a heap of wealth, and you don’t notice a few dollars more or a few dollars less, any more than you would notice a few grains of sand more or less on a heap of sand, it is entirely possible that even as a society grows wealthier, it might believe itself to be growing poorer, or even as a society is growing poorer, it might believe itself to be growing richer. Such counter-factual perceptions, if maintained by collective self-deception, can make an entire nation believe that it is going in the right direction when it is not, or vice versa.

Schumpeter noted that the growth of mature industrialized economies usually hovers about two percent, and although this modest two percent growth will double the size of the economy every 35 years — which is an impressive achievement if we think of the long history of stagnation of agricultural civilization — it probably isn’t enough to satisfy those who believe that they are getting a bad deal from the system. Schumpeter might have also noted that a two percent growth rate wouldn’t be noticeable from year to year, even if it is noticeable in the longer term — being noticed is different from being measurable. And if we add the difficulty of noticing two percent growth to the possibility of collective self-deception that growth is not happening, well, people may well believe that they are going backward even when the economy doubles in size every generation.

What I wrote in the above paragraph about growth also holds for economic decline: a decline of two percent per year might never be noticed year-on-year, even if it is obvious over the longer term. And if there is a collective self-deception that things are getting better, because we want to believe that things are getting better, people can easily delude themselves that the world is improving even as they are impoverishing their descendents.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Planetary Torpor

6 November 2012


A curious case of selective stagnation:

A whole new way to think about Weltschmerz

Among those who think about human space exploration, the relatively modest (i.e., less than ambitious) human space program since the end of the Apollo program that took human beings to the moon is a problem that requires an explanation. There have always been futurist speculations that have taken particular trends out of context and extrapolated them in isolation. Such narrowly focused futurism almost always gets things wrong. But when we think of all that might have been accomplished in terms of space exploration in the past forty years, and how far we might have gone in terms of existential risk mitigation as a result of a robust space program, one inevitably asks why more has not been done.

Putting the space program in the context of existential risk shifts our understanding a bit, since the space program is usually understood as science or exploration or adventure, but I am coming more to the view that it must be understood in terms of mitigating existential risk, that is to say, establishing self-sustaining, self-sufficient settlements off the surface of the Earth so that life and civilization can go on whatever the vulnerabilities of our home world. From this perspective, from the perspective of existential risk, the space program, and in fact all of human civilization, has been stagnant. We have had the power to leave the Earth and to create a second home for ourselves elsewhere, and we have failed to do so.

The idea of existential risk is due to Nick Bostrum, whom I have mentioned several times recently. His papers Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards and Existential Risk Reduction as Global Priority lay out the basic architecture of the concept, introducing several qualitative risk categories and their classification in terms of existential risk. Bostrum distinguishes four classes of existential risk: human extinction, permanent stagnation, flawed realization, and subsequent ruination.

How are we to construe the relative stagnation of the space program over the past forty years, which could provide a degree of existential risk mitigation, but which has not been widely viewed in this light. Space science has had many spectacular successes in recent decades, which have substantially increased our knowledge of the universe in which we live, but all of this is for naught if our exclusively-terrestrially dwelling species is wiped out by a natural catastrophe beyond the power of our technology to stop or to tame. There is a sense, then, no matter how valuable our scientific knowledge from unmanned missions, that the past forty years have been a wasted opportunity to secure against existential risk. We had the knowledge to go into space, the ability, the economic foundation — all the elements were present, but the will to secure the survival of our own species has been lacking. How do we explain this?

We cannot say that civilization has been exactly stagnant over the past forty years. How can human civilization be said to be stagnant when we have been experiencing exponential technological growth? We have experienced an explosion in the development of telecommunications and computing that was unpredicted and unprecedented. This has profoundly changed our personal lives and the structure of the overall economy and society. It has also increased the rate of technological change, since computerized engineering and design makes it possible to build other technologies in a much more sophisticated fashion than previously was the case. When we think of technological triumphs like the SR-71, the Apollo project, and the Concorde, we must remember that most of this was accomplished by engineers with slide rules writing calculations in pencil on paper. And yet today we have no sophisticated supersonic aerospace industry and nothing on the scale of the Apollo program, though we could presumably do both better now than we did before.

With all this technological progress, there remains a feeling of unfulfilled potential in the past half century. No one can say — as it was in fact said before the space program — that it is simply impossible to travel in space, or for human beings to live in space, or to travel to the moon. We’ve all seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even this modest human future in space, with a rotating space station and a base on the moon, didn’t happen. Did people lose interest? Did they turn inward, preferring personal comfort to what Theodore Roosevelt called “the strenuous life”? Was the human spirit broken by the Cold War and the haunting threat of nuclear annihilation?

In German there is a word that we lack in English: Weltschmerz, sometimes translated as “world-weariness.” Americans have never had much use for either the term or the idea, and it sounds a bit too much like post-War French existentialism with its systematic exposition of guilt, despair, alienation, and absurdity. Nevertheless, it is difficult to look at the past half century without thinking of it in terms not unlike Weltschmerz.

Thomas Couture Romans of the Decadence

Stagnation can take the form of a civilization being shot through with ellipses. We could called this condition selective stagnation. Because there are so many possible explanations for the selective stagnation of the past forty years, and because it is unlikely that any one single social, economic, political, or ideological explanation could explain our selective stagnation, the only way we can embrace the complex social phenomenon of selective stagnation is to cover it with a term specifically intended to indicate many historical causes coming together into a trend that constitutes a whole greater than any of its individual parts. Once upon a time this was called “decadence,” as in Thomas Coulture’s famous painting “Romans of the Decadence.” We could also call it Weltschmerz (although it this case it should be Raumshmerz rather than Weltschmerz), or we could call it terrestrial malaise or even planetary torpor.

Since the advent of civilization, there have been several periods of extended stagnation, which historians formerly called “dark ages” but which term is avoided today because of its disparaging connotations. I have previously written about the Greek Dark Ages, and I still occasionally refer to the early middle ages in Western Europe as the “dark ages” because there are senses in which the term remains apt. When we compare the selective stagnation of the past half century to these comprehensive periods during which Western civilization stumbled, and it was a real question whether or not it would recover its footing, our selective stagnation is so minor it scarcely bears mentioning.

But there is a crucial difference: the Greek Dark Age and the Dark Age following the collapse of Roman power in the western empire took place long before the scientific revolution. Since the scientific revolution we have continuously learned more about our place in the universe, and since the industrial revolution we have had the power to modify our place within nature with increasing scope and efficacy. Now we understand better than at any time in the past the existential risks we are facing, and for the past fifty years we have had the power to do something about that existential risk: to establish a human presence in extraterrestrial space that would not be vulnerable to disasters specific to the Earth. This is not absolute risk mitigation — the idea of absolute risk mitigation is illusory — but it is incrementally much better, perhaps even or order of magnitude of distancing ourselves from manifest vulnerability. .

It may be the case that when civilization reaches a certain stage of development at which a minimum level of creature comforts are available for the bulk of the world’s population, that this relative prosperity undermines the springs to action. Because we have only our own terrestrial civilization by which to judge, we don’t have a sufficiently big picture conception of civilization that would allow us to generalize at this level of the idea of civilization.

Singulatarians and transhumanists will tell you that we are poised on the verge of transformative change that will make all previous transitions in human history pale by comparison, and which will launch human beings — or, rather, the post-human, post-biological beings who will be the successors of specifically human being — on a course of development that will make these considerations either irrelevant, or so trivial that it will be a small matter to execute the required solution. But even as these wonders are coming about, we remain vulnerable. We might be on the very verge of the technological singularity when we are wiped out by a stray asteroid. This scenario would constitute what Nick Bostrum called “ephemeral realization.”

For these reasons, as well as many other that the reader will immediately see, I think that the idea of selective stagnation bears further study in its own right.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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