Saturday


Knowledge relevant to the Fermi paradox will expand if human knowledge continues to expand, and we can expect human knowledge to continue to expand for as long as civilization in its contemporary form endures. Thus the development of scientific knowledge, once the threshold of modern scientific method is attained (which, in terrestrial history, was the scientific revolution), is a function of “L” in the Drake equation, i.e., a function of the longevity of civilization. It is possible that there could be a qualitative change in the nature of civilization that would mean the continuation the civilization but without the continuing expansion of scientific knowledge. However, if we take “L” in the big picture, a civilization may undergo qualitative changes throughout its history, some of which would be favorable to the expansion of scientific knowledge, and some of which would be unfavorable to the same. Under these conditions, scientific knowledge will tend to increase over the long term up to the limit of possible scientific knowledge (if there is such a limit).

At least part of the paradox of the the Fermi paradox is due to our limited knowledge of the universe of which we are a part. With the expansion of our scientific knowledge the “solution” to the Fermi paradox may be slowly revealed to us (which could include the “no paradox” solution to the paradox, i.e., the idea that the Fermi paradox isn’t really paradoxical at all if we properly understand it, which is an understanding that may dawn on us gradually), or it may hit us all at once if we have a major breakthrough that touches upon the Fermi paradox. For example, a robust SETI signal confirmed to emanate from an extraterrestrial source might open up the floodgates of scientific knowledge through interstellar idea diffusion from a more advanced civilization. This isn’t a likely scenario, but it is a scenario in which we not only confirm that we are not alone in the universe, but also in which we learn enough to formulate a scientific explanation of our place in the universe.

The growth of scientific knowledge could push our understanding of the Fermi paradox in several different directions, which again points to our relative paucity of knowledge of our place in the universe. In what follows I want to construct one possible direction of the growth of scientific knowledge and how it might inform our ongoing understanding of the Fermi paradox and its future formulations.

At the present stage of the acquisition of scientific knowledge and the methodological development of science (which includes the development of technologies that expand the scope of scientific research), we are aware of ourselves as the only known instance of life, of consciousness, of intelligence, of technology, and of civilization in the observable universe. These emergent complexities may be represented elsewhere in the universe, but we do not have any empirical evidence of these emergent complexities beyond Earth.

Suppose, then, that scientific knowledge expands along with human civilization. Suppose we arrive at the geologically complex moons of Jupiter and Saturn, whether in the form of human explorers or in the form of automated spacecraft, and despite sampling several subsurface oceans and finding them relatively clement toward life, they are all nevertheless sterile. And suppose that we extensively research Mars and find no subsurface, deep-dwelling microorganisms on the Red Planet. Suppose we search our entire solar system high and low and there is no trace of life anywhere except on Earth. The solar system, in this scenario, is utterly sterile except for Earth and the microbes that may float into space from the upper atmosphere.

Further suppose that, even after we discover a thoroughly sterile solar system, all of the growth of scientific knowledge either confirms or is consistent with the present body of scientific knowledge. That is to say, we add to our scientific knowledge throughout the process of exploring the solar system, but we don’t discover anything that overturns our scientific knowledge in a major way. There may be “revolutionary” expansions of knowledge, but no revolutionary paradigm shifts that force us to rethink science from the ground up.

At this stage, what are we to think? The science that brought to to see the potential problem represented by the Fermi paradox is confirmed, meaning that our understanding of biology, the origins of life, and the development of planets in our solar system is refined but not changed, but we don’t find any other life even in environments in which we would expect to find life, as in clement subsurface oceans. I think this would sharpen the feeling of the paradoxicalness of the Fermi paradox still without shedding much light on an improved formulation of the problem that would seem less paradoxical, but it wouldn’t sharpen the paradox to a degree that would force a paradigm shift and a reassessment of our place in the universe, i.e., it wouldn’t force us to rethink the astrobiology of the human condition.

Let us take this a step further. Suppose our technology improves to the point that we can visit a number of nearby planetary systems, again, whether by human exploration or by automated spacecraft. Supposed we visit a dozen nearby stars in our galactic neighborhood and we find a few planets that would be perfect candidates for living worlds with a biosphere — in the habitable zone of their star, geologically complex with active plate tectonics, liquid surface water, appropriate levels of stellar insolation without deadly levels of radiation or sterilizing flares, etc. — and these worlds are utterly sterile, without even so much as a microbe to be found. No sign of life. And no sign of life in any other nooks and crannies of these other planetary systems, which will no doubt also have subsurface oceans beyond the frost line, and other planets that might give rise to other forms of life.

At this stage in the expansion of our scientific knowledge, we would probably begin to think that the Fermi paradox was to be resolved by the rarity of the origins of life. In other words, the origins of life is the great filter. We know that there is a lot of organic chemistry in the universe, but what doesn’t take place very often is the integration of organic molecules into self-replicating macro-molecules. This would be a reasonable conclusion, and might prove to be an additional spur to studying the origins of life on Earth. Again, our deep dive both into other planets and into the life sciences, confirms what we know about science and finds no other life (in the present thought experiment).

While there would be a certain satisfaction in narrowing the focus of the Fermi paradox to the origins of life, if the growth of scientific knowledge continues to confirm the basic outlines of what we know about the life sciences, it would still be a bit paradoxical that the life sciences understood in a completely naturalistic manner would render the transition from organic molecules to self-replicating macro-molecules so rare. In addition to prompting a deep dive into origins of life research, there would probably also be a lot of number-crunching in order to attempt to nail down the probability of an origins of life event taking place given all the right elements are available (and in this thought experiment we are stipulating that all the right elements and all the right conditions are in place).

Suppose, now, that human civilization becomes a spacefaring supercivilization, in possession of technologies so advanced that we are more-or-less empowered to explore the universe at will. In our continued exploration of the universe and the continued growth of scientific knowledge, the same scenario as previously described continues to obtain: our scientific knowledge is refined and improved but not greatly upset, but we find that the universe is utterly and completely sterile except for ourselves and other life derived from the terrestrial biosphere. This would be “proof” of a definitive kind that terrestrial life is unique in the universe, but would this finding resolve the Fermi paradox? Wouldn’t it be a lot like cutting the Gordian knot to assert that the Fermi paradox was resolved because only a single origins of life event occurred in the universe? Wouldn’t we want to know why the origins of life was such a hurdle? We would, and I suspect that origins of life research would be pervasively informed by a desire to understand the rarity of the event.

Suppose that we ran the numbers on the kind of supercomputers that a supercivilization would have available to it, and we found that, even though our application of probability to the life sciences indicated the origins of life events should, strictly speaking, be very rare, they shouldn’t be so rare that there was only a single, unique origins of life event in the history of the universe. Say, given the age and the extent of the universe, which is very old and vast beyond human comprehension, life should have originated, say, a half dozen times. However, at this point we are a spacefaring supercivilization, we can can empirically confirm that there is no other life in the universe. We would not have missed another half dozen instances of life, and yet our science points to this. However, a half dozen compared to no other instances of life isn’t yet even an order of magnitude difference, so it doesn’t bother us much.

We can ratchet up this scenario as we have ratcheted up the previous scenarios: probability and biology might converge upon a likelihood of a dozen instances of other origins of life events, or a hundred such instances, and so on, until the orders of magnitude pile up and we have a paradox on our hands again, despite having exhaustive empirical evidence of the universe and its sterility.

At what point in the escalation of this scenario do we begin to question ourselves and our scientific understanding in a more radical way? At what point does the strangeness of the universe begin to point beyond itself, and we begin to consider non-naturalistic solutions to the Fermi paradox, when, by some ways of understanding the paradox, it has been fully resolved, and should be regarded as such by any reasonable person? At what point should a rational person consider as a possibility that a universe empty of life except for ourselves might be the result of supernatural creation? At what point would we seriously consider the naturalistic equivalent of supernatural creation, say, in a scenario such as the simulation hypothesis? It might make more sense to suppose that we are an experiment in cosmic isolation conducted by some greater intelligence, than to suppose that the universe entire is sterile except for ourselves.

I should be clear that I am not advocating a non-naturalistic solution to the Fermi paradox. However, I find it an interesting philosophical question that there might come a point at which the resolution of a paradox requires that we look beyond naturalistic explanations, and perhaps we may have to, in extremis, reconsider the boundary between the naturalistic and the non-naturalistic. I have been thinking about this problem a lot lately, and it seems to me that the farther we depart from the ordinary business of life, when we attempt to think about scales of space and time inaccessible to human experience (whether the very large or the very small), the line between the naturalistic and the non-naturalistic becomes blurred, and perhaps it ultimately ceases to be meaningful. In order to solve the problem of the universe and our place within the universe (if it is a problem), we may have to consider a solution set that is larger than that dictated by the naturalism of science on a human scale. This is not a call for supernaturalistic explanations for scientific problems, but rather a call to expand the scope of science beyond the bounds with which we are currently comfortable.

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Friday


Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

Since the end of the Cold War, the global political and economic order established at the end of the Second World War has been unraveling, sometimes slowly, sometimes with shocking rapidity, but unraveling steadily. After a quarter century of unraveling, the world has still not settled on a “new normal” of stability in international affairs, and, despite the complexity of the world situation, it is relatively easy to point out why the end of the Second World War brought about a relatively rapid settlement and a new normal, while today the world continues to drift: the Second World War ended with the victory of the Allied powers and the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers that left the Allies in a position to dictate the terms of the peace that followed. Because the war was global, the settlement also was global, and the peace, for what it was worth, was global. The Second World War consolidated the era of planetary history.

In a period of flux and instability, the world is rich in possibilities. When one set of possibilities is realized, the other sets of possibilities become counterfactuals, paths not taken — but at the moment of decision, these counterfactuals were as palpably real as the possibilities that were eventually realized in fact. I previously addressed some counterfactuals related to the Second World War in Counterfactual Weapons Systems, an exercise of sorts — a thought experiment, as it were — in the weapons systems that might have emerged from a longer war, given the tempo of technological development during the war. This was a rather narrow thought experiment, for the disruption in planetary history occasioned by the Second World War was unprecedented, and this unprecedented disruption meant unprecedented possibilities. These unprecedented possibilities, in turn, coagulated rather rapidly upon cessation of armed conflict, so that within a few years of the end of the war, the central facts of planetary history had been established. It is as though the unprecedented disruption led to unprecedented stability on an unprecedentedly short time scale.

The ground for the relatively rapid post-war settlement was prepared by several conferences organized by the Allies when it became apparent that they would eventually win the war, and that some plans must be made for the post-war settlement. There is, in particular, something poignant about the efforts of two dying men — Roosevelt presiding at Yalta and Keynes presiding over Bretton Woods — as both must have known that they would not live long enough to see the world whose foundations they laid.

Recently I have been listening to Yalta: The Price of Peace by S. M. Plokhy, which provides much food for thought both for counterfactuals as well as unlikely eventualities that were realized as the result of the Allied victory. One of the strangest outcomes of the Second World War was a zone of occupation for the French in Germany, despite the fact that the French military collapsed at the beginning of the Second World War and the French (i.e., the French government and military in exile, and the resistance within France) played only a very small and modest role in the eventual Allied victory. Thus in post-war Germany, French soldiers occupied German lands despite the fact that France had been defeated and occupied by Germany in the opening stages of the Second World War, and remained occupied throughout the war.

Plokhy’s book has some discussion of the Morgenthau Plan and other possibilities for dividing or otherwise managing Germany in the post-war period, and this material was of great interest to me. Previously in The Stalin Doctrine I discussed the Morgenthau Plan for post-war Germany, which would have involved not only the partition of Germany, but also its de-industrialization. Once Germany began to rebuild itself under the Marshall Plan, it no longer became possible to de-industrialize Germany along the lines of the Morgenthau Plan; this option, available at the end of the war, was foreclosed upon by subsequent events — the window of opportunity had closed. Instead of pastoralization there was Wirtschaftswunder. But, as we all know, Germany was partitioned, and this partition played a major role in the Cold War and European political conflicts in the second half of the twentieth century.

It is an interesting counterfactual to consider how the de-industrialization and pastorlization of Germany might have been enforced and administered in a post-war Germany of the Morgenthau Plan, i.e., if an explicit interpretation of the Morgenthau Plan had been put into effect. Part of the Morgenthau Plan was partition, and this partition would have included taking some of the most industrialized areas of Germany and either transferring them to France or Belgium, declaring them international zones, or making them small, independent states in their own right. With the most industrialized areas separated off, the remainder of Germany could have been systematically de-industrialized and kept in an enforced pastoral and agrarian condition. While the Morgenthau Plan was ultimately rejected, parts of it became de facto policy. The French Monnet Plan was partially adopted, with Saarland temporarily made a French protectorate, and the French also sought to detach the Ruhr from Germany. Under the justification of controlling coal and steel production, the International Authority for the Ruhr (IAR) presided over some limited dismantling of industry in the region. But when the US became concerned that the Germans might tilt toward the Russians, this policy ceased.

In speculating on a counterfactual history of Europe in which the Morgenthau Plan was put into effect, then, I don’t mean the half measures that were in fact pursued, and then abandoned. I mean, rather, a robust and ongoing enforcement of Germany as an agrarian preserve in the heart of Europe. We have one possible historical parallel, and that is the attempt by the Khmer Rouge to create a de-urbanized agrarian communist utopia in Cambodia — an adaptation and radicalization of Mao’s agrarian adaptation of Lenin’s industrial vision. This isn’t a very good parallel, because de-industrialization and de-urbanization administered by the victorious Allied powers would have been very different from the ideological vision of the Khmer Rouge. But radical questions are raised by the possibility. Would de-industrialization have also meant de-urbanization? Would schools and universities have been allowed to exist? What tools and resources would have been allowed for agricultural activities? How would limitations on industry have been policed and enforced?

Perhaps another historical parallel would be better: imagine the DMZ separating North Korea and South Korea, except that instead of being left in a wild state, a wide swath of territory was left semi-wild, but residents were allowed to farm within that territory. Now imagine a farmed DMZ as large as Germany. That gives a rather different idea of what a Morgenthau Plan Europe might have looked like. This vision of Europe is so radically different from what did in fact happen that it makes one wonder what consequences it would have entailed for the rest of Europe, and indeed for the Cold War. If de-industrialization had included de-urbanization, Berlin could have been depopulated and bulldozed, and it would then have never had the symbolic role that it did have as a divided city representing a world divided by Soviet and American power. There is an historical parallel for this, too, when the Romans triumphed over Carthage: the Romans not only destroyed the city, but plowed salt into the soil to ensure the sterility of the region. It was many centuries until Rome had another rival as powerful as Carthage.

One can even imagine this rural and agrarian Germany in the post-Cold War period, surviving under changed political and economic conditions. One can easily predict that the area would have become a major tourist draw because of its very different way of life, and once the restrictions on industrialization either became irrelevant or were gradually lifted, one could imagine many in the population wanting to keep the region rural and agricultural, partly because they had become familiar with the life, partly because of the tourist income from it, and partly because large industrial works are no longer the paradigm of economic development in the world at present. Whereas industries built on the scale of Stalinist gigantism were once the fetish of economic planners, this is no longer true. Cottage industries and craft traditions would have developed in a unique way in a Morgenthau Plan Germany, which might well have had a bright future in the 21st century.

All of this is now counterfactual speculation, but I think there is some value in considering the radically different paths that terrestrial history might have taken at this past juncture of historical disruption. The post-war situation in Europe was very fluid, but it congealed quickly due to historical circumstances at the moment. With the unraveling of the post-war world order, planetary history is again very fluid, and the circumstances of the moment have kept the situation fluid for almost thirty years. When some “new normal” eventually emerges and establishes itself, the wide range of possibilities we now face — possibilities both welcome and unwelcome — will then be narrowed to one preponderant actuality and a range of unrealized counterfactuals. But for us, now, in the moment, these future counterfactuals are all as palpably real as the future history that will become the central fact of planetary history.

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Wednesday


thinking about civilization

In my recent post The Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science I discussed Husserl’s conception of rigorous science and how Husserlian ideas were implicitly present throughout my own analysis of civilization. If the study of civilization can be formulated as a rigorous science, then Husserl has something to teach us. I followed up on this post on Husserlian science with another post, Addendum on the Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science, in which I used an example from Bertrand Russell to illustrate Husserl’s point. It was a particular pleasure for me to illustrate a Husserlian idea with a Russellian image, as Husserl and Russell stand at the respective heads of the contemporary division of philosophy into the continental and the analytical.

From the perspective of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy of science (or philosophy of history, or philosophy of anything), Husserl doesn’t even exist. This is an unfortunate ellipsis. One of the things I have appreciated about the object-oriented philosophers (especially Graham Harman) has been their willingness to read across the conventional boundaries that divide philosophy today, and especially the division between analytical and continental philosophy. This is all to the good, and something I seek to put into practice as well. While my primary guides in philosophy of science relevant to formulating a science of civilization have been Rudolf Carnap and Carl Hempel — analytical stalwarts — I draw on Husserl, Karl Löwith, Blumenberg, and others, not out of a sense of eclecticism, but because they, too, have important insights about the nature of science in the modern world (to borrow a phrase of Alfred North Whitehead).

As I implied in my earlier discussion of Husserl, adapting Husserl’s insights to contemporary philosophy of science requires a steady and sedulous hand in distinguishing the archaic elements still “sedimented” into Husserlian thought and the genuinely novel contributions that Husserl himself makes. Discussing Husserl in this way suggests an analogy with Marx: in order to make use of Marx today, one must equally proceed with a steady and sedulous hand in distinguishing that which is no longer defensible, from Marx’s genuine insights upon which philosophers today might build. Yet with all the enormous resources expended on Marxism, and the vast number of individuals who identify with Marxism, whether vaguely and passionately, I do not know of anyone who has systematically taken Marx’s insights that remain valid and translated them into the technical apparatus of contemporary economics. This is probably merely a reflection of my ignorance of contemporary Marx studies, but I can at least say that such an effort is not commonplace. One would think it would be.

The most glaring example of this is the attempt by contemporary Marxists to continue to flog the dead horse of the labor theory of value, which inevitably results in a Rube Goldberg theory of economic value, since economics has gone far beyond the theoretical framework available to Marx. As I have said in other contexts, there is no reason whatsoever that someone could not adapt Marx’s essential insights to the theory of diminishing marginal utility, or even something more contemporary. It is a remarkable contrast to look at the behavioral economics of Daniel Kahneman, who, even in proposing his prospect theory, has anticipated critics by openly acknowledging that, although his prospect theory possesses certain advantages over traditional marginal utility theory, it cannot account for disappointment and regret. This is the spirit of science at its best. It should come as no surprise that contemporary science at its best comes from someone who has spent a career studying cognitive biases.

Okay. So that was a bit of a digression, and merely in order to place Husserl in historical context in order to get a feeling for how the ideas of dead philosophers are treated. With Husserl, feelings do not run as high as they are do discussions of Marx, so it is less controversial to plunder Husserl for his valuable ideas while tossing aside the archaisms still embedded in his thought.

Today a further appropriation from Husserl’s thought occurred to me, and it is also another example of my proceeding according to an Husserlian method (as with Husserl’s idea of rigorous science has banishing profundity in favor of Cartesian clarity) without realizing that that is what I have been doing.

Recently I have been working on a lot of thought experiments in relation to civilization. Just this morning I came up with a great new thought experiment that I hope to elaborate (not here, and not today, but another time). I have been using thought experiments to explore the idea of civilization, to push the limits of civilization to try to discover what is implicit in our conception of civilization that we have not yet been able to formulate explicitly because we do not yet have a science of civilization. Not only do we not have a science of civilization, we also have no examples of civilization other than human civilization on Earth, and while on the one hand this can be subdivided into many distinct examplars of civilization, on the other hand they are all human and terrestrial civilizations, and for that we have no counter-examples. This poses severe limitations on our ability to think critically about civilization, and so I turn to thought experiments for counter-examples and contrasts.

An essay of mine appeared on Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams blog, The Zoo Hypothesis as Thought Experiment, which is an example of using a thought experiment to explore the idea of civilization. This resulted in more comments than my previous couple of Centauri Dreams posts, but much of the discussion in the comments centered about the validity or invalidity of the zoo hypothesis. I did not argue for or against the zoo hypothesis; I only wanted to use the zoo hypothesis in order to explore the idea of civilization. I was asking myself this question: if you were entering into a planetary system in which you knew there to be an intelligent species, how would you go about conducting observations intended to identify and isolate the “big picture” of the civilization that you encounter? However, I didn’t make that motivation explicit. I wanted this essay to be readable and enjoyable, so I held back on explicit formulations in order to allow the narrative to do the work. Perhaps this was a mistake. But I did learn something from those who commented, even if few seemed to get the idea that I was trying to explore.

In elaborating these recent thought experiments about civilization I realized that, once again, almost unknowingly, I had been following Husserl’s lead. One of the methods that Husserl employs is something that he called, “Eidetic Seeing and Phantasy. Eidetic Cognition Independent of All Cognition
of Matters of Fact” and “The Role of Perception in the Method of Eidetic Clarification. The Primacy of Free Phantasy” (these are section titles from Ideas I; I don’t know why translators have rendered his as “phantasy” rather than as “fantasy”). Here is Husserl on phantasy as a method to converge upon essences:

The Eidos, the pure essence, can be exemplified for intuition in experiential data — in data of perception, memory, and so forth; but it can equally well be exemplified in data of mere phantasy. Accordingly, to seize upon an essence itself, and to seize upon it originarily, we can start from corresponding experiencing intuitions, but equally well from intuitions which are non-experiencing, which do not seize upon factual existence but which are instead “merely imaginative”. If we produce in free phantasy spatial formations, melodies, social practices, and the like, or if we phantasy acts of experiencing of liking or disliking, of willing, etc., then on that basis by “ideation” we can see various pure essences originarily and perhaps even adequately: either the essence of any spatial shape whatever, any melody whatever, any social practice whatever, etc., or the essence of a shape, a melody, etc., of the particular type exemplified.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 4

Husserl is not easy to read (which I noted back in I Dreamed a Dream…), and it’s difficult to find a good passage to quote, but here’s another to give you a little more of a flavor of Husserl on phantasy as a philosophical method:

In freedom we generate intuitive objectivations of the same any — “physical thing” — whatever and we make the vague sense of the word clear to us. Since a “universal objectivation” is involved, we must proceed by way of example. Let us generate optional intuitions in phantasy of physical things, such as free intuitions of winged horses, white ravens, golden mountains, and the like; they would, in any case, be physical things, and objectivations of them therefore serve as examples just as well as objectivations of the physical things given to actual experience. Effecting ideation on that basis, in intuitive clarity we seize upon the essence, “physical thing,” as the subject of universally delimited noematic determinations.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 149

Husserl even calls his method of using phantasy “experiments in phantasy”: .

“…should one say, as has in fact been said on other sides, that we owe geometrical insights to ‘experience in phantasy’ that we ought to effect them as inductions based upon experiments in phantasy? But why, we ask in contra, does the physicist make no use of such marvelous experience in phantasy? For no other reason than because experiments in the imagination are imagined experiments, just as figures, movements, multiplicities in phantasy are not actual but imagined ones.”

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 25

Earlier in the same text Husserl had justified the use of phantasy in geometry in contradistinction to the factual sciences:

The geometer who draws his figures on the board produces thereby factually existing lines on the factually existing board. But his experiencing of the product, qua experiencing, no more grounds his geometrical seeing of essences and eidetic thinking than does his physical producing. This is why it does not matter whether his experiencing is hallucination or whether, instead of actually drawing his lines and constructions, he imagines them in a world of phantasy. It is quite otherwise in the case of the scientific investigator of Nature. He observes and experiments; that is, he ascertains factual existence according to experience; for him experiencing is a grounding act which can never be substituted by a mere imagining. And this is precisely why science of matters of fact and experiential science are equivalent concepts. But for the geometer who explores not actualities but “ideal possibilities,” not predicatively formed actuality-complexes but predicatively formed eidetic affair-complexes, the ultimately grounding act is not experience but rather the seeing of essences.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 7

Here we see that, although Husserl does not use the term “thought experiment” he comes very close to this. It would be possible to reformulate everything that I have written about thought experiments in the study of civilization in terms of Husserl’s variation in phantasy; this would simply be an alternative formulation substituting the theoretical framework of phenomenology for the theoretical framework of thought experiments and contemporary analytical philosophy of science.

This reformulation would be an arduous task, as the greater part of Husserl’s Ideas I touches on the idea of seeking essences through variations in phantasy, so I could not so readily simply reformulate a paragraph from Husserl as I have, on other occasions, torn a paragraph out of another philosopher and reformulated it to make a point (as a recently did with a long paragraph from Plato in The Perfectly Scientific Man: A Platonic Thought Experiment).

Again, and as before, this can only be done by disentangling the useful elements in Husserl from those that we would no longer wish to employ. Philosophers today would not likely express themselves as Husserl did on essences, and many commentators on Husserl have acknowledged that Husserl’s use of the term “essence” is a stumbling block for his Anglophone readers. I could say that I was seeking the essence of civilization, but I prefer to say that I am exploring the concept of civilization. The former way of expressing the nature of the inquiry is perfectly fine, but vulnerable to misreadings and misconceptions.

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Suboptimal Civilizations

25 April 2015

Saturday


sphinx-egypt-mcleish

When Thinking about civilization this also entails thinking about compromised forms of civilization as well as the end of civilization. Ideally, a comprehensive theory of civilization would be able to account for both civilizations that flourish and prosper as well as those that fail to flourish, and which stagnate, decline, or disappear, or which develop in an undesirable direction (flawed realization). One can think of stagnation and decline as selective or partial collapse; contrariwise, civilizational collapse can be understood as the totality of stagnation or decline (the fulfillment of decline, if you will, which shows that not only progress but also decay can be formulated in teleological terms).

ziggurat-ur

In what follows I will adopt the term “suboptimal civilizations” to indicate those civilizations that have weathered existential threats and which have not gone extinct, but have continued in existence, albeit in a damaged, deformed, or otherwise compromised form due to being subject to stresses beyond that civilization’s level of resilience. A suboptimal civilization, then, is a civilization that has fallen prey to existential risk or risks, but is still extant.

Angkor-Wat-by-Helen-Candee

A civilization may become extinct even when the species that produced that civilization has not gone extinct. Thus the extinction of civilizations is a separate and distinct question from that of the extinction of species. However, the extinction of a species is likely to be much more tightly coupled to the extinction of a civilization, though we could construct scenarios in which a civilization is continued by some other species, or some other agent, than that which originated a given civilization. Generally speaking, those existential risks that lead to the extinction of a civilization are extinction and subsequent ruination; those existential risks that lead to suboptimal civilizations are stagnation and flawed realization.

Temple of Heaven

There is a philosophical problem when it comes to judging civilizations of the past that have transitioned into contemporary forms of civilization, losing their identity in the process, but leaving a legacy in the form of a continuing influence. One way to deal with this problem is to distinguish between civilizations that attained maturity and those that did not. Is a civilization that failed to attain maturity because it was preempted by another form of civilization now to be considered extinct? The obvious example that I have in mind, and which I have cited numerous times, is that of early modern European civilization, which I have called modernism without industrialism, which rapidly was transformed by the industrial revolution, which latter preempted the “natural” development of modernity before that modernity had achieved maturity.

India postcard

I will not attempt at present to define maturity for civilization, but my assumption will be that the maturity of a civilization will have something to do with the bringing to fulfillment of the essential idea of a civilization. I am not prepared to say how the essential idea of a civilization is to be identified, or how it is to be judged to have come to fulfillment, but this should be sufficient to give the reader an intuitive sense of what I have in mind.

917_001

The range of suboptimal civilizations, including those trapped in the social equivalent of neurotic misery, might be quite considerable. Toynbee formulated a range of concepts to understand suboptimal civilizations, including abortive civilizations, arrested civilizations, and fossil civilizations. Extrapolating from Toynbee’s conceptions of suboptimal civilizations, I formulated the idea of submerged civilizations in my post In the Shadow of Civilization.

martin_chambi_141

Toynbee’s conceptions of suboptimal civilizations are imaginative and poetic, but more qualitative than quantitative conceptions. In order to do this in the spirit of science, we would want our comprehensive theory of civilization to incorporate quantifiable metrics for the success or failure of a civilization. At our present stage of social development, it is controversial to compare civilizational traditions and to rate any one tradition as “higher” or “more advanced” than any other tradition (an idea I discussed in Comparative Concepts in the Study of Civilization), as representatives of those civilizations that rate lower on any proposed scale are offended by the metric employed, and they will usually suggest alternative metrics by which their preferred civilizational metric fares much better, while the civilizational tradition that fared better under the other metric would not come off as well by this alternative metric. The attempt by the nation-state of Bhutan to measure “gross national happiness,” may be taken as an example of this, although I am not sure that this is a helpful measure.

BALBECK-Baalbek-LEBANON

It would also be desirable in a comprehensive theory of civilization to formulate metrics for the viability or sustainability of a given civilization. In some cases, metrics for the success of civilization might coincide with metrics for the viability of civilization, but the possibility of very long lived civilizations that are less than ideal — suboptimal civilizations — points out the limitations of defining civilizational success in terms of civilizational survival. In some cases viability and optimality will coincide, while in some cases they will not coincide, and suboptimal civilizations that survive existential risks in a compromised form will be an example of such non-coincidence. The survival of a stagnant civilization can be a matter of mere cosmic good fortune, whereby a particular planet enjoys an uncommonly clement cosmic climate for an uncharacteristically long period of time (while other contingent factors may mean that the climate for civilizational development to maturity is not equally clement).

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There are many ways to explore the idea of suboptimal civilization, as was observed above there are many ways for a civilization to languish in suboptimality. Indeed, it may be the case that the essential idea of a civilization has a much smaller class of circumstances in which that idea comes to full fruition and maturity, and a much larger class of circumstances in which that idea fails to mature for any number of distinct reasons, so that suboptimal civilizations are likely to outnumber civilizations that have attained optimality.

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There is another philosophical problem, related to the problem noted above, in identifying the continuity of a civilization, so that a later stage of development can be considered the fulfillment, or failure of fulfillment, of some earlier civilizational idea, and not the emergence of a new idea not yet brought to fulfillment. I have previously considered this problem in several posts on the invariant properties of civilization. If a civilization emerges that seems to lack heretofore invariant properties of civilization, is to identified as a new form of civilization, or as non-civilization? Another way to formulate the problem is to ask whether civilization is an open-textured concept. The problem is posed every time an unprecedented development occurs in the history of civilization, so that the problem re-emerges at every stage in the history of a tradition, since the unprecedented is always occurring in one form or another. Let me provide an example of what I mean by this claim.

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Imagine, if you will (as a thought experiment), that there were social scientists prior to the scientific revolution who studied their contemporaneous society much as we study our own societies today, and further suppose that despite the disadvantages such pre-modern social scientists would have labored under, that they manage to assemble reasonably accurate data sets that allows them to model the world in which they live and the history up to that point that had resulted in the world in which they lived (that is, the world of modernism without industrialism).

Venice from the early 20th Century

If you were to show pre-modern social scientists the spike in demographics, technology, energy use, and urbanization that attended the industrial revolution they might deny that any such development was even possible, and if they admitted that it was possible, they might say that a world so transformed would not constitute civilization as they understood civilization. They would be right, in a sense, to characterize our world today, after the industrial revolution, as a post-civilizational institution, derived perhaps from the long tradition of civilization with which they were familiar, but not really a part of this tradition. I implied as much recently when I wrote that, “It could be argued that traditional society… has already collapsed and has been incrementally replaced by an entirely different kind of society. For this is surely what has happened in the wake of the industrial revolution, which destroyed more aspects of traditional society than any Marxist, any revolutionary, or any atheist.” (cf. Is society existentially dependent upon religion?)

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The thought experiment that I have suggested here in regard to the industrial revolution could also be performed in regard to the Neolithic agricultural revolution, although in this case we could not properly speak of an ancient civilization. Humanity as a species might have attained a great antiquity and even have made use of its intellectual gifts without having passed through any stage of large-scale settlement. This is an especially interesting thought experiment when we reflect that the paradigmatically human activities of art and technology predate civilization and may be understood in isolation from civilization, and might have developed separately from civilization. The rate of technological innovation prior to the advent of civilization was very slow, but it was not zero, and extrapolated to a sufficient age it would have produced an impressive technology, though this would have taken an order of magnitude longer than it took as a result of the industrial revolution. Something like civilization, but not exactly civilization as we know it, might have emerged from a very old human society that had not adopted large-scale settlement and consequently the institutions of settled civilization.

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This ancient human society that had never crossed the threshold of civilization proper — at least in some senses a suboptimal form of social organization, even if not a suboptimal civilization — suggests yet another thought experiment: an ancient civilization that, despite its antiquity, never passes the threshold to become a Kardashevian supercivilization. The motif of a million-year-old civilization is a common one, Kardashev called them “supercivilizations” and Sagan often speculated on their histories, but what about the possibility of a million-year-old civilization that never develops technologically and never experiences an industrial revolution?

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If we plot out the history of technology and population (among other metrics) on a graph and extrapolate from trends prior to the industrial revolution (when these metrics suddenly spike) we can easily see the possibility of a very old civilization — tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years old — that would be the result of a simple diachronic extrapolation of trends that had characterized human life from the emergence of hominids up until the industrial revolution. This is at least possible as a counter-factual, and conceivable by way of an analogy with our prehistoric past.

Downtown Hartford early 1900s

The very old civilization that would be the result of a straight-forward diachonic extrapolation of civilization prior to the industrial revolution, given climatological conditions that allow for continual development, would be a civilization conceived in terms proportional to human history. We often forget that, prior to Homo sapiens, there is a multi-million year history of hominids with minimal toolkits that changed almost not at all over a million or even two million years. The human condition need not change appreciably even over very long periods of time.

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A million year old agricultural civilization would probably look much like a 2,000 year old civilization, except that it would have a very long history, which means either a massive archive if continuity is maintained, or a lot of ruins and buried artifacts of the past if continuity has not been maintained. Would we have anything to learn from a million-year-old civilization that was not a supercivilization? Consider the possibility of art and literature a million years in development — the steady rate at which civilization prior to the industrial revolution produced masterpieces of art suggests that civilization without industrialization would be a very old agrarian civilization that was laden with a million years’ worth of art treasures. In this case a suboptimal civilization would be productive of values that would not and could not be achieved under an optimal civilization, which ought to make us question the optimality of optimal civilization where our presuppositions of optimality are drawn from industrialization.

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Sunday


The dawn of a new day always suggests possibilities.

The dawn of a new day always suggests possibilities.

Million year old civilizations are not necessarily supercivilizations

The most common way to think about the possibility of very old civilizations is in terms of an ancient supercivilization, in which it is implied that the civilization in question began much as our civilization began, but has continued its trajectory of development for a million years or more. I previously addressed this theme of a million year old supercivilization in Third Time’s a Charm.

It is also possible, however, to conceive of very old civilizations — perhaps even million year old civilizations — that do not correspond to the assumptions implicit in the idea of a supercivilization. Such ancient but not necessarily advanced civilizations would constitute counterfactual civilizations — paths to civilization not taken by humanity, but which were once open to humanity at one time. Indeed, such paths may be open to us yet.

I previously considered counterfactual civilizations in Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution. This post reviews scenarios for civilization absent the industrial revolution; below I will continue this line of counterfactual thought experiments in the history of civilization.

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Diachronic extrapolation of the pre-industrial past

If we plot out the history of technology and population (among other metrics) on a graph and extrapolate from trends prior to the industrial revolution (when these metrics suddenly spike) we can easily see the possibility of a very old civilization — tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years old — that would be the result of a simple diachronic extrapolation of trends that had characterized human life from the emergence of hominids up until the industrial revolution. That is to say, if we had just kept doing what we had been doing before the industrial revolution, this slow development represented by a shallow angle could have continued indefinitely without ever catching up to the kind of development that followed the industrial revolution.

The very old civilization that would be the result of a straight-forward diachronic extrapolation of civilization prior to the industrial revolution would be a civilization conceived in terms proportional to earlier human history. We often forget that, prior to Homo sapiens, there was a multi-million year history of hominids with minimal toolkits that changed almost not at all over a million or even two million years. This same level and rate of progress might have continued to characterize human civilization in its later stages of development as well. It is at least possible as a counter-factual, and conceivable by way of an analogy with our prehistoric past, that the breakthrough to industrialization had never occurred.

If we were to add to the absence of an industrial revolution several strategic shocks or global catastrophic events — demographic catastrophes such as the Black Death or natural disasters such as a massive supervolcano eruption or an impact by an asteroid or comet — what little gains that may be made by the ever-so-gradual increases in technology and population due to civilization prior to the industrial revolution might be canceled or reversed. Contingent events could result in a contraction or collapse of a civilization that never made the breakthrough to an industrial revolution.

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The social science of a non-industrialized civilization

Imagine that there were social scientists prior to the scientific revolution who studied their contemporaneous society much as we study our own societies today, and further suppose, despite the disadvantages such pre-modern social scientists would have labored under, that they manage to assemble reasonably accurate data sets that allows them to model the world in which they live and the history up to that point that had resulted in the world in which they lived. What kind of future would these pre-modern social scientists forecast for their world?

If you were to show pre-modern social scientists the spike in demographics, technology, energy use, and urbanization that attended the industrial revolution, they might deny that any such development was even possible, and if they admitted that it was possible, they might say that a world so transformed would not constitute civilization as they understood civilization. They would be right, in a sense, to characterize our world today, after the industrial revolution, as a post-civilizational institution, derived perhaps from the long tradition of civilization with which they were familiar, but not really a part of this tradition.

I implied as much about the divergence of contemporary civilization from its pre-modern tradition recently when I wrote (in Is society existentially dependent upon religion?) that:

“It could be argued that traditional society… has already collapsed and has been incrementally replaced by an entirely different kind of society. For this is surely what has happened in the wake of the industrial revolution, which destroyed more aspects of traditional society than any Marxist, any revolutionary, or any atheist.”

Prior to the industrial revolution, the entire economy of civilization was based on agriculture. (Elsewhere I have called this biocentric civilization.) On the basis of this biocentric civilization, there was nothing to suggest (or, more cautiously, almost nothing to suggest) the possibility of a civilization with an economy in which agriculture was marginalized to the point of near invisibility to the overall economy. What could possibly replace agriculture in its role as the indispensable employer and primary producer of commodities?

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Non-civilizations and other non-peers

The thought experiment that I have suggested here in regard to the industrial revolution could also be performed in regard to the Neolithic agricultural revolution, although in this case we could not properly speak of an ancient civilization. Humanity as a species might have attained a great antiquity without ever making the breakthrough to civilization; just as we might never have experienced the industrial revolution, we might also have skipped the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. In fact, if Marian scientists had been observing life on Earth for the five millions years or so of hominid history (prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution), they might have said, “Here is an intelligence species with a very long history that has never created a civilization, and shows no signs of creating a civilization.”

It is an especially interesting thought experiment to imagine humanity having attained great antiquity without creating a civilization when we reflect that the uniquely human activities of art and technology predate civilization and may be understood in isolation from civilization. Even without the great impetus of civilization, there would have been some minimal continued development of art and technology. The rate of technological innovation prior to the advent of civilization was very slow, but it was not zero, and extrapolated to a sufficient age it would have produced an impressive technology. It could be argued that such a gradual development of technology, if extrapolated indefinitely into the distant future, could surpass any arbitrary technological measure.

Something like civilization, but not exactly civilization as we know it, might have emerged from a very old human social context that never passed through the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution or the industrial revolution — the two great disruptions in the history of humanity that define civilization, and which have come to define us as a species. Without these definitive events, humanity would be defined very differently.

The non-civilization social institution that could arise from the antiquity of humanity without civilization might qualify as an example of a non-civilization such as i described in my Seven Levels of Civilizational Comparability. In an attempt to define what constitutes a “peer” civilization we need to try to understand alternatives for sentient species that would not constitute peers, and this thought experiment provides just such an example.

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Wednesday


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It has been a dozen years now since 11 September 2001. Like that day, today is a beautifully clear and pleasant September day. That such an event should be associated in my memory with nice weather is not unlike that memory almost a hundred years ago of the summer of 1914, just before the Guns of August, when Europeans reported one of their most pleasant summers ever, as though to drive home the stark horror of all that followed that beautiful summer.

I last wrote about September 11 two years ago, on the tenth anniversary, in Ephemera and Pseudo-Events, when I explored the nature of anniversaries as “pseudo-events” that are created by media participation. This year media participation seems pretty low key, making the anniversary perhaps less of a pseudo-event. Moreover, the anniversary of September 11 is also the anniversary of the coup that ousted Salvador Allende from power in Chile, and the news in the sources I read (I should mention that I don’t get my news from US sources) gave almost as much play to the 40th anniversary of the Pinochet coup as to the terrorist attacks on the US.

September 11 not only marked a turning point for US geopolitical involvement in the world in the post-Cold War era, it also marked a decisive turning point in the narrative by which we understand these events and their place in history. New terms and political catch-phrases entered our vocabulary and were relentlessly repeated by media outlets until they became meaningless almost as rapidly as they were introduced. A lot can happen in a dozen years — three or four presidents, for example, though in fact the post-9/11 political environment has yielded only two.

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As rapidly as events occurred in the wake of September 11, events have continued to succeed each other with astonishing rapidity, and for all the day-to-day continuity that one experiences when swimming in the ocean of history, we can already begin to see the dissolution of the political patterns of the first decade of the 21st century and the emergence of patterns that will define the second decade of the 21st century. The US has sought to execute a “strategic pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, even as the apparent clarity of purpose in Afghanistan and Iraq yield to the irremediable ambiguities of Libya and Syria.

It is a worthwhile thought experiment to attempt to see one’s own time in historical perspective, but this is admittedly very difficult. As I noted above, the onward rush of events in the present does not allow us to lose sight of the continuity of history, but we know that when we look back on previous centuries (which is itself an arbitrary historical periodization) we tend to break up the centuries into decades and make sweeping generalizations about each decade (perhaps an even more arbitrary historical periodization) as though each were lived separately, in isolation from the decade immediately preceding and immediately following.

What will be said, a hundred years from now (or five hundred years from now), about the first two decades of the twenty-first century? How will they be compared and contrasted in university examinations? What will our descendents say about how we lived, and how different it was to be alive in 2013 as compared to 2003? One obvious narrative structure would be to consign US political history to the presidents in office, so that the first decade of the twenty-first century will be thought of as the Bush years, defined by 9/11 and the response thereto, while the second decade of the twenty-first century will be thought of as the Obama years, when Americans wanted to distance themselves from the radical democratization initiatives of the Bush years and return to a more traditional isolationist stance in relation to the larger world.

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This is one particularly obvious narrative, but one of the things that makes it obvious is its traditionalist focus on political leaders and military engagements — the dreaded grammar-school triumvirate of “names, dates, places” — whereas historiography has turned decisively away from top-down narratives in favor of bottom-up narratives that focus on the ordinary lives of ordinary people. But who is ordinary? In the context of the succession of presidents, any one president is ordinary, so context must be taken into account.

How could we arrive at a bottom-up narrative structure for contemporary history since the end of the Cold War? Or must we change our perspective even more, acknowledging that on the micro-historical level things change little and slowly, so that periodizations must look to macro-historical forces and structures that are so much larger than the Cold War, and what preceded and followed it, that such events barely register in the lives of ordinary individuals? In this context, what would seem to matter is the slow erosion of the position of the middle class, widening income disparity (just yesterday it was reported that US income inequality at record high), and the large-scale change in the structure of the labor market influencing the kind of jobs that are available, how much they pay, and how long they last.

Of course, no one is going to be satisfied with any one narrative or another exclusively. Part of the complexity of history is the collision of competing narratives. While in the history text books one narrative may triumph to the exclusion of others, the conflict from which the triumph emerges inevitably alters the triumphant narrative so that it becomes a kind of synthesis of the trends of the age.

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Saturday


Today I thought of a question that doubles as a thought experiment. I’ve already posted this to Grand Strategy Annex, but I liked it so much I decided to post it here also.

Imagine that you approach a table with a book lying closed on it. Your name is on the cover. It is the book of your life. What do you do?

Do you sit down and read it through carefully, page by page?

Do you skip to the end to find out what happens?

Do do skim the book for the interesting bits?

Do you only read the dirty parts?

Do you leave the book closed and walk away?

Do you hesitate over it, but take it with you, in case you decide to read it later?

Do you destroy it or throw it away?

Responses are strongly encouraged. I would really like to know how different people would react to this counter-factual opportunity.

This thought experiment is not intended as a question about free will and determinism, but it can be taken that way if the reader is particularly struck by these implications. The existence of a book detailing your entire life implies determinism, but, if taken purely hypothetically, as a thought experiment, suppose that there is such a book, and that it lies closed before you. You have the freedom to pick it up and peruse it, or to leave it undisturbed, which seems to imply free will. If you read the book, it must include a description of our choosing to read the book; if you pass on the opportunity to read the book of your life, its contents are unknown and irrelevant. Presumably, if the book were a complete account of your life, it would include a description of your refusal to read the book, but if the book were not actually a description of your life, but was only so placed and introduced to you as a kind of intellectual provocation, its contents may have no relationship at all to your life.

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Saturday


Plato and Aristotle by Rafael

Yesterday in Risk Management: A Personal View I asked the question, in relation to John Rawls’ thought experiment involving choosing a just society from behind a veil of ignorance, “How would Aristotle’s Great Souled Man judge a society from behind a veil of ignorance?” Here is Rawls’ original formulation of his thought experiment:

“…no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.”

And here is Aristotle’s description of the Great Souled Man:

“Now the proud man, since he deserves most, must be good in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most. Therefore the truly proud man must be good. And greatness in every virtue would seem to be characteristic of a proud man. And it would be most unbecoming for a proud man to fly from danger, swinging his arms by his sides, or to wrong another; for to what end should he do disgraceful acts, he to whom nothing is great? If we consider him point by point we shall see the utter absurdity of a proud man who is not good. Nor, again, would he be worthy of honour if he were bad; for honour is the prize of virtue, and it is to the good that it is rendered. Pride, then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it is not found without them. Therefore it is hard to be truly proud; for it is impossible without nobility and goodness of character. It is chiefly with honours and dishonours, then, that the proud man is concerned; and at honours that are great and conferred by good men he will be moderately Pleased, thinking that he is coming by his own or even less than his own; for there can be no honour that is worthy of perfect virtue, yet he will at any rate accept it since they have nothing greater to bestow on him; but honour from casual people and on trifling grounds he will utterly despise, since it is not this that he deserves, and dishonour too, since in his case it cannot be just. In the first place, then, as has been said, the proud man is concerned with honours; yet he will also bear himself with moderation towards wealth and power and all good or evil fortune, whatever may befall him, and will be neither over-joyed by good fortune nor over-pained by evil. For not even towards honour does he bear himself as if it were a very great thing. Power and wealth are desirable for the sake of honour (at least those who have them wish to get honour by means of them); and for him to whom even honour is a little thing the others must be so too. Hence proud men are thought to be disdainful.”

This translation of Aristotle uses “pride” in place of “great souled” or “great minded,” but whatever the language, the idea comes through. Aristotle did not present the great souled man as a thought experiment, but he is an ideal of Aristotelian ethics, and we can treat him as a thought experiment in exemplification of Aristotelian virtue.

What struck me later after I wrote that post about Aristotle’s Great Souled Man in relation to risk is that I had combined two distinct thought experiments into one. This in turn suggests further thought experiments. One of my favorite sections of Plato’s Republic is the description of the perfectly just and the perfectly unjust man in Book II:

“Now, if we are to form a real judgment of the life of the just and unjust, we must isolate them; there is no other way; and how is the isolation to be effected? I answer: Let the unjust man be entirely unjust, and the just man entirely just; nothing is to be taken away from either of them, and both are to be perfectly furnished for the work of their respective lives. First, let the unjust be like other distinguished masters of craft; like the skillful pilot or physician, who knows intuitively his own powers and keeps within their limits, and who, if he fails at any point, is able to recover himself. So let the unjust make his unjust attempts in the right way, and lie hidden if he means to be great in his injustice (he who is found out is nobody): for the highest reach of injustice is: to be deemed just when you are not. Therefore I say that in the perfectly unjust man we must assume the most perfect injustice; there is to be no deduction, but we must allow him, while doing the most unjust acts, to have acquired the greatest reputation for justice. If he have taken a false step he must be able to recover himself; he must be one who can speak with effect, if any of his deeds come to light, and who can force his way where force is required his courage and strength, and command of money and friends. And at his side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good. There must be no seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honored and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honors and rewards; therefore, let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering; and he must be imagined in a state of life the opposite of the former. Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust. When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two.”

I find this passage almost frightening in its unflinching portrayal of corruption masquerading as virtue, and virtue mistaken for vice, but while few of us would qualify as perfectly just or perfectly unjust, I think most people will have had experiences in their life that reflect Plato’s point and give it the ring of truth. In any case, we can take Plato’s perfectly just man and his perfectly unjust man and make another thought experiment by asking how a perfectly just man would choose from behind a veil of ignorance, and how a perfectly unjust man would choose from behind a veil of ignorance.

We can go beyond this and ask how Nietzsche’s Übermensch would choose from behind a veil of ignorance, or how Machiavelli’s Prince would so choose, or how homo economicus might so choose.

We might also take these various philosophical characters and substitute them in other thought experiments, like that of Buridan’s Ass: a jackass is positioned equidistant from two piles of hay, and in the classic version of the thought experiment, the ass starves to death, unable to choose between identical options. We might similarly present the perfectly just man, the perfectly unjust man, the great souled man, Machiavelli’s Prince, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or homo economicus with a similar dilemma and ask how each would fare.

By the time we come to inserting one philosophical thought experiment inside another, we have reached a pitch of abstraction that may prevent us from thinking coherently. Of what value is such an exercise? What I have suggested might seem a little ridiculous, if not outright silly, but it suggests an increase in the order of magnitude of the difficulty of our thought experiments. This might be a profitable exercise if it helps us to pick out intrinsic weaknesses in thought experiments, and allows us to go back to the original thought experiments with a clearer idea of what exactly is involved in them.

If we could submit our thought experiments to controlled conditions, we might pursue them more profitably. This is precisely what logic seeks to do. With the appropriate formalized language, all our philosophical thought experiments could be formulated in a rigorous language, and we could be pretty clear about the consequences. However, in this case we have simply displaced the problem from the intuitive difficulty of working through the problem on its own problematic merits into the difficulty of finding or formulating the appropriate formalism.

If we are honest with ourselves, nothing can spare us from the difficulty of thinking clearly about things that are themselves not clear. Thought experiments are the Zen Koans of Western thought, and their contemplation yields for us the Western equivalent of enlightenment. To put one thought experiment inside another is to raise the stakes, making an already difficult exercise all the more difficult. But this is good for us. As Spinoza wrote at the end of his Ethics, “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.”

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