Sunday


The Löwenmensch or Lion Man sculpture, about 32,000 years old, is a relic of the Aurignacian culture.

Recently (in Don’t Cry for the Papers) I wrote that, “Books will be a part of human life as long as there are human beings (or some successor species engaged in civilizational activity, or whatever cultural institution is the successor to civilization).” While this was only a single line thrown out as an aside in a discussion of newspapers and magazines, I had to pause over this to think about it and make sure that I would get my phrasing right, and in doing so I realized that there are several ideas implicit in this formulation.

Map of the Aurignacian culture, approximately 47,000 to 41,000 years ago.

Since I make an effort to always think in terms of la longue durée, I have conditioned myself to note that current forms (of civilization, or whatever else is being considered) are always likely to be supplanted by changed forms in the future, so when I said that books, like the poor, will always be with us, for the sake of completeness I had to note that human forms may be supplanted by a successor species and that civilization may be supplanted by a a successor institution. Both the idea of the post-human and the post-civilizational are interesting in their own right. I have briefly considered posthumanity and human speciation in Against Natural History, Right and Left (as well as other posts such as Addendum on the Avoidance of Moral Horror), but the idea of a successor to civilization is something that begs further consideration.

Now, in the sense, everything that I have written about futurist scenarios for the successor to contemporary industrial-technological civilization (which I have described in Three Futures, Another Future: The New Agriculturalism, and other posts) can be taken as attempts to outline what comes after civilization in so far as we understand civilization as contemporary industrial-technological civilization. This investigation of post-industrial civilization is an important aspect of an analytic and theoretical futurism, but we must go further in order to gain a yet more comprehensive perspective that places civilization within the longest possible historical context.

I have adopted the convention of speaking of “civilization” as comprising all settled, urbanized cultures that have emerged since the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. This is not the use that “civilization” has in classic humanistic historiography, but I have discussed this elsewhere; for example, in Jacob Bronowski and Radical Reflection I wrote:

…Bronowski refers to “civilization as we know it” as being 12,000 years old, which means that he is identifying civilization with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the emergence of settled life in villages and eventually cities.

Taking this long and comprehensive view of civilization, we still must contrast civilization with its prehistoric antecedents. When one realizes that the natural sciences have been writing the history of prehistory since the methods, the technologies, and the conceptual infrastructure for this have been developed since the late nineteenth century, and that paleolithic history itself admits of cultures (the Micoquien, the Mousterian, the Châtelperronian, the Aurignacian, and the Gravettian, for example), it becomes clear that “culture” is a more comprehensive category than “civilization,” and that culture is the older category. The cultures of prehistory are the antecedent institutions to the institution of civilization. This immediately suggests, in the context of futurism, that there could be a successor institution to civilization that no longer could be strictly called “civilization” but which still constituted a human culture.

Thus the question, “What comes after civilization?” when understood in an appropriately radical philosophical sense, invites us to consider post-civilizational human cultures that will not only differ profoundly from contemporary industrial-technological civilization, but which will differ profoundly from all human civilization from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the present day.

Human speciation, if it occurs, will profoundly affect the development of post-human, post-civilizational cultural institutions. I have mentioned in several posts (e.g., Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics) that Francis Fukuyama felt obligated to add the qualification to this “end of history” thesis that if biotechnology made fundamental changes to human beings, this could result in a change to human nature, and then all bets are off for the future: in this eventuality, history will not end. Changed human beings, possibly no longer human sensu stricto, may have novel conceptions of social organization and therefore also novel conceptions of social and economic justice. From these novel conceptions may arise cultural institutions that are no longer “civilization” as we here understand civilization.

Human speciation could be facilitated by biotechnology in a way not unlike the facilitation of the industrial revolution by the systematic application of science to technological development.

Above I wrote, “human speciation, if it occurs,” and I should mention that my only hesitation here is that social or technological means may be employed in the attempt to arrest human evolution at more-or-less its present stage of development, thus forestalling human speciation. Thus my qualification on human speciation in no way arises from a hesitation to acknowledge the possibility. As far as I am concerned, human being is first and foremost biological being, and biological being is always subject to natural selection. However, technological intervention might possibly overtake natural selection, in which case we will continue to experience selection as a species, but it will be social selection and technological selection rather than natural selection.

In terms of radical scenarios for the near- and middle-term future, the most familiar on offer at present (at least, the most familiar that has some traction in the public mind) is that of the technological singularity. I have recounted in several posts the detailed predictions that have been made, including several writers and futurists who have placed definite dates on the event. For example, Vernor Vinge, who proposed the idea of the technological singularity, wrote that, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” (This is from his original essay on the technological singularity published in 1993, which places the date of the advent of the technological singularity at 2023 or sooner; I understand that Mr. Vinge has since revised his forecast.)

To say that “the human era will be ended,” is certainly to predict a radical development, since it postulates a post-human future within the life time of many now living today (much like the claim that, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”). If I had to predict a radical post-human future in the near- to middle-term future I would opt not for post-human machine intelligence but for human speciation facilitated by biotechnology. This latter scenario seems to me far more likely and far more plausible than the technological singularity, since we already have the technology in its essentials; it is only a matter of refining and applying existing biotechnology.

I make no predictions and set no dates because the crowding of seven billion (and counting) human beings on a single planet militates against radical changes to our species. Social pressures to avoid speciation would make such a scenario unlikely in the near- to middle-term future. If we couple human speciation with the scenario of extraterrestrialization, however, everything changes, but this pushes the scenario further into the future because we do not yet possess the infrastructure necessary to extraterrestrialization. Again, however, as with human speciation through biotechnology, we have all the technology necessary to extraterrestrialization, and it is only a matter of refining and applying existing technologies.

From this scenario of human speciation coupled with extraterrestrialization there would unquestionably emerge post-human, post-civilizational cultural institutions that would be propagated into the distant future, possibly marginalizing, and possibly entirely supplanting, human beings and human civilization as we know it today. It is to be expected that these institutions will be directly related to the way of life adopted in view of such a scenario, and this way of life will be sufficiently different from our own that its institutions and its values and its norms would be unprecedented from our perspective.

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Tuesday


Kardashev Scale

The Kardashev scale is a method of measuring an advanced civilization's level of technological advancement... first proposed in 1964 by the Soviet Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev... a Type I civilization has achieved mastery of the resources of its home planet, Type II of its solar system, and Type III of its galaxy. (from Wikipedia)

I have mentioned the Kardashev scale for ranking the technological achievements of civilization based on their ability to utilize energy resources in several posts: A Quick Note on Heideggerian Cosmological Eschatology, Two Conceptions of Civilization, Humanity’s Responsibility for Itself, and Intimations of Mature Civilization. Kardashev was thinking big when he formulated this civilizational metric, and that gives his idea a visionary dimension.

In A Half Century of Human Spaceflight I mentioned Kardashev again, and then went on to suggest my own technological measure of civilization based upon space travel metrics. There I formulated the following:

A Stage 0 spacefaring civilization is a non-spacefaring civilization in which life is largely dictated by regional geography.
A Stage 1 spacefaring civilization has the kind of minimal capacity that we now possess to loft satellites and human beings into orbit, and even to visit nearby heavenly bodies such as the moon.
A Stage 2 spacefaring civilization might be defined as one that had established a permanent, self-sustaining presence off the surface of the world of its biological origin.
A Stage 3 spacefaring civilization would have achieved practical and durable interstellar travel.
A Stage 4 spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical and durable inter-galactic travel.
A Stage 5 spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical and durable travel within the multiverse (i.e., among discrete universes).

I have gone into much greater detail on these stages of spacefaring civilization in The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight.

Not surprisingly, I prefer my own measure to that of Kardashev’s for several reasons. One of the reasons that I didn’t mention in the post in which I developed this idea is the ambiguity of the Kardashev metric in terms of actual vs. comparable energy usage. A carefully constructivist account of Kardashev would insist that a Type II civilization is “a civilization that is able to harness all of the power available from a single star” (from Wikipedia) and that all of this energy must in fact come from that star. In other words, given a strict conception of a Type II civilization, a civilization utilizing energy quantitatively equivalent to but not identical to the actual energy produced by a single star would not constitute a Type II civilization. I have read some accounts that confuse tapping the power of a star with harnessing the energy equivalent to a star. These are very different measures, but apparently these kind of conceptual slips routinely go unnoticed.

My formulation avoids this ambiguity that follows from a failure to distinguish between constructive and non-constructive conceptions. However, what these two measures of civilization — Kardashev’s and mine — have in common is that they are technological measures, and that they are readily quantifiable.

The obvious alternative to a quantitative measure would be a qualitative measure, though how any metric could be fixed on a qualitative measure is difficult to say. Many people have pointed out that the greatest poets aren’t always the greatest builders, with the implied contrary that the monuments we see now of past civilizations that were great builders represent building only, and that there may have been civilizations of great poetic monuments who left no similarly impressive remains. (A technological metric for measuring civilization is implicitly a principle of technological selection, i.e., a kind of observation selection effect.) We certainly couldn’t measure the achievement of a poetic civilization in terms of the quantity of poetry produced, since production may be in inverse proportion to quality.

Perhaps even more elusive would be a measure of civilization on moral metrics. This is not only elusive, but, like any qualitative measure, would be highly controversial. I have discussed this in posts such as The Very Idea of Higher Civilization. It is considered impolite and impolitic to measure and compare the moral or aesthetic worth of distinct civilizations, mostly because representatives of Western civilization did this so loudly and abrasively up until the nineteenth century.

There is, however, a conceivable “moral” measure that is at least in part quantifiable and perhaps slightly less controversial than any measure of aesthetic excellence or virtue in conduct. What I have in mind is a measure of the extent to which we take responsibility for our own destiny, rather than simply riding the wave of history like a surfer on the crest of a wave he did not create and which he does not control.

Whether we call it the cunning of reason (as in Hegel) or the invisible hand (as in Adam Smith) or the unconscious (as in Freud), there has been a recognition among subtle thinkers that human beings are following promptings and drives and instincts, scarcely knowing what they are doing (this position is sometimes equated with soft determinism). If it happens on occasion to add up to civilization and to great works of art, we’re ahead of the game. If it also happens, on occasion, to issue in cataclysmic wars and ingeniously diabolical forms of suffering, then it becomes a little more difficult to glibly assert that we are ahead of the game.

In other words, human beings are mostly subject to events that befall us, and even when we carefully plan for the future, and take proactive steps to shape our lives and the destiny of the world, the unintended consequences of our actions often are more profound and far-reaching than the intended consequences that we planned to bring about.

It seems to me that a truly mature civilization could be measured by the extent to which both individuals and social groups take responsibility for their own destiny, and moreover pursue this proactive sense of responsibility to the extent that unintended consequences are understood to count against our efforts, and that the only honestly measurable “success” of a civilization are those intended consequences brought to fruition with a minimum of unintended consequences. Further, a mature civilization (or the measure of a mature civilization) might also involve steps taken in the amelioration of unintended consequences.

Even on the intuitive and practical level of ordinary life we are not ignorant of the possibility of this degree of self-responsibility. For example, among people who are serious about playing pool, and not just hitting balls into pockets, you must name your shot (“eight ball in the corner pocket”), and if some other ball goes into some other pocket as an unintended consequence of your shot, this is dismissed as “sloppy” and the ball is extracted from its pocket and put back on the table.

Are we prepared, as a civilization, or will we someday be prepared, to aspire to the ethos of the pool hustler?

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I have gone into Kardashev in much more detail in my Centauri Dreams post What Kardashev Really said.

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