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In several posts I’ve alluded to the problem of progress. The classic treatment of the problem of progress is J. B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into it Origin and Growth. Bury suggests that progress may be, “…the animating and controlling idea of western civilisation.” Perhaps it is this animating and controlling idea of progress that makes warnings of decline so powerful.
How can we define progress? Should we be skeptical of claims that civilization has entailed progress? Can we recognize progress in our own history? In what ways are our judgments of our own history skewed by our inherent biases? In what way is our idea of progress skewed by anthropic bias? If progress is possible, is decline also possible?
Historians are well aware of the pitfalls of progress (we get the cautionary term "Whiggish history" from history writing that is too ready to see progress in history) but this awareness has little or no place in those writing about the history and future of technology. I have mentioned elsewhere that Kevin Kelly offers an explicit defense of progress in his book What Technology Wants. This is an exception to the rule, and it is an exception that comes from techno-philosophy.
There are both classic and contemporary sources of skepticism about historical progress. If history is cyclical, there is no progress, only a wheel of fortune that sometimes rotates us to the top, only to later plunge us to the bottom. The advent of industrial-technological civilization and the weapons of industrialized warfare that it made possible — nuclear, chemical, and biological agents of mass destruction — have inspired new questions regarding the putative progress of civilization.
Many today who are skeptical of progress would not be similarly skeptical of discerning decline in history. Narratives of declension and decadence are perhaps a perennial expression of dissatisfaction with civilization, even when a given civilization is achieving progress by quantifiable measures. Why is it easier to believe in decline than to believe in progress? If there can be a downward trend in civilization as a result of cumulative forces, cannot there also be an upward trend also as a result of cumulative forces?
Technological progress is inherent in the STEM cycle that drives our industrial-technological civilization, so there is good reason to discern “progress” in history since the industrial revolution if by “progress” one means “technological progress.” But technological progress does not necessarily entail moral progress, aesthetic progress, poetic progress, intellectual progress, or any other kind of progress we might like to discover in civilization.
The same is true of the scientific progress and industrial progress that is coupled to technological progress in industrial-technological civilization: there is no necessary, inherent, or intrinsic relationship between scientific progress and industrial progress as compared with forms of progress that touch upon the moral life of humanity.
However, it is also true that there is no necessary, inherent, or intrinsic disconnect between moral progress and progress in technology, science, and engineering. In other words, progress in either sphere of human endeavor can be realized in isolation from the other. It is a little too simplistic and schematic to divide the spheres of human endeavor between the technical and the moral, but as a very rough approximation of a permeable divide in human life, it serves a purpose.
All of the above has been preface merely to introduce a possible definition of intellectual progress. If there is no intrinsic or inherent connection or disconnection between technical progress and moral progress, then moral progress is at least possible in the context of industrial-technological civilization. How might moral progress come about? By way of intellectual progress. How can we define intellectual progress?
One way to define intellectual progress would be to characterize it as the transition from the intuitions of our environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) to intuitions of industrial-technological civilization.
This suggestion requires a little exposition. Firstly, this is a definition of progress that is explicitly relative to industrial-technological civilization, specifically, acclimatizing human beings intellectually to the civilization that they have created. Secondly, how does this transition from the intuitions of our EEA to the intuitions of technical civilization come about?
Intuitions hang together, and, jointly, a number of intuitions hanging together constitute what is sometimes called a “world-vew” (or a Weltanschauung, or an epistēmē — ἐπιστήμη — in the Foucauldian sense, or a paradigm in the Kuhnian sense).The transition from one set of intuitions that hang together in a coherent way to another set of intuitions that hang together in a coherent way means that, unless one has a catastrophic “conversion” experience is which these intuitions are exchanged in one fell swoop, the transition from one world-view to another entails a gradual, one-by-one relinquishment of intuitions and their equally incremental replacement by other intuitions.
During the transitional period from the intuitions of our EEA to an intellectual outlook compatible with industrial-technological civilization, we must intellectually inhabit a cognitive borderland in which our thoughts are less than thoroughly coherent, because they consist partly of intuitions relevant to our evolutionary past, and partially of intuitions relevant to the civilized world of today. This makes this transitional period seem intellectually unattractive, but the very instability of such a world-view can be exapted to further shift the transition to the future — though it is also vulnerable to reversal for the same reason.
It is intellectual progress uncoupled from specifically technical progress that may make moral progress possible in the context of industrial-technological civilization. if our minds are equal to the civilization that we have unwittingly created, we are in a better position to make the best of this civilization — to master it, rather than to allow our own creation to master us.
Though it certainly isn’t being given much press, the state of Vermont has voted for a single-payer healthcare system for the state, thus opting out of the PPACA by pursuing a alternative that those who wrote the PPACA could not even consider. The only reason I know about this was a tweet I happened upon. Could this be the tip of an iceberg of states that experiment with alternatives to the PPACA? Not likely, but one can always hope.
Even media sources that I trust — like the BBC and the Financial Times — persist in identifying the PPACA as, “A law meant to help millions" (Financial Times, Tuesday, 26 November). It is nothing of the sort. It is legislation designed to retain the wealth and privileges of the most well-placed individuals and groups in US society at the expense of those with the least political influence.
Health insurance executives will prosper as a flood of money washes over their industry by government coercion. Doctors will continue to thrive (doctors constitute the largest single demographic of Ferrari owners in the US). Hospitals will continue to boom, as will manufacturers of medical equipment. Drug companies will whistle all the way to the bank.
Who gets taken to the cleaners by this sweet deal for industry? Well, mostly the Tumblr demographic — young people who are healthy, and who know they are healthy, and for whom buying health insurance is about as pointless as flushing money down the toilet. But at least when you flush your money down the toilet, you get the pleasure of watching it spiral down the drain. When you pay for health insurance the money simply disappears into someone else’s pocket, never to be seen again.
It is crucial the understand that the individual mandate of the PPACA was quite explicitly constructed not to take on any powerful interests that could or would fight back, but only to take on politically powerless young people who could be cajoled and bullied and eventually pressured into buying something for which they have no use.
Because the American consumer is one of the wealthiest consumers in the world, the companies of the world treat the American consumer as a cash cow, extracting every bit of wealth that can be extracted. Our government has been a willing accomplice in this fleecing, and now is going to enforce this arrangement in health care on pain of legal penalty for non-participation.
One way to provide health care and save money would be a single-payer system as found in most other industrialized nation-states, where health care costs are lower and public health is better because there aren’t a whole range of macro-parasites making their fortunes off a bloated health care industry (i.e., the medical-industrial complex).
Since the US government has spent the last several decades engineering the tax code to re-distribute income upward, making the rich richer and the poor poorer, I suppose I should not be surprised that we are now getting a health care system that does exactly the same thing.
Nevertheless, there is hope that as the impossibly Byzantine PPACA cracks under the strain of its implementation, more states will opt out and will try plans that actually make sense without systematically seeking to punish and penalize those least enabled to enact social and political change.
While I personally would prefer a completely free market in health care (such as described by Hans-Hermann Hoppe), if there is going to be a government-administered health care system, the least that the government could try to do would be to eliminate profiteering and rent-seeking in the health care industry, but, unfortunately for us all, it seems that there is not only going to be more health care than ever, but also more rent-seeking than ever.
Christianity was always foreign in Europe; no matter how hard the Europeans tried to convince themselves that they were good Christians, and no matter how brutally they tried to enforced the practice of Christianity, it was never a good fit. And here by “Europe” I mean Western Europe, as those parts of Europe that belong to the Eastern Orthodox tradition had a different experience of Christianity.
That Europe secularized as rapidly as it did in the second half of the twentieth century is a tribute to the shallowness of Christian roots in European soil. Given the appropriate conditions, Christianity virtually vanished in a puff of smoke in what had come to be thought of as the heartland of Christendom.
Yet there are other traditions that have deep roots in European soil. In my previous post, The Geography of Freedom, I mentioned that I was going through Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate. A passing remark made by Kaplan reminded me of these pre-Christian European roots:
"Christianity, too, becomes, as a consequence of the stresses of suburban living in the American South and West, more ideological, even as a loose form of environmental paganism takes root in the cities of Europe, replacing traditional nationalism, given that the super-state of the European Union has only abstract meaning to all but the elite."
I can imagine that some would dismiss “a loose form of environmental paganism” as characterizing the European religious outlook as sweeping and inaccurate; perhaps it is, but it touches on important changes in Europe. Kaplan notes in his book that the fall of the Berlin Wall was a wake up call to him, as the Cold War had seemed to be a permanent feature of Europe. It was not.
On a longer time scale than that of the Cold War, Christianity has seemed to be a permanent feature of European life. It is not. Europe’s spiritual traditions lie elsewhere, and the more history that passes without necessitating a unified, hierarchical, state-sponsored religious institution, the further Europeans will drift away from Christianity. And as they drift away from Christianity they are likely to approximate the religious life of their prehistoric ancestors; local, decentralized, egalitarian, focused on agrarian rituals specific to the crops and animals of the region.
Christianity was uniquely useful as a state-building institution. It was rapidly adopted by agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization more-or-less as soon as its doctrines coalesced. As Europe has moved away from state-building and seeks instead to maintain its traditions while other peoples expand their reach, the state-building motive no longer drives culture, which latter seeks to return to its roots, and the more Europeans penetrate to the root of their culture, the closer they approximate the prehistoric paganism universal throughout Europe prior to the introduction of religious contagion from the Levant.
While we are likely to think of European pacifism under the US security umbrella (explicitly rejecting both power blocs during the late Cold War) and the more recent “locavore” movement in in food production as unrelated manifestations of culture, both testify to the spiritual life of a people. Kaplan and others have noted the geographical diversity of Europe, which led to political diversity and the emergence not of a continental land empire, but numerous political institutions contesting with each other.
It is this same geography that is favorable to a decentralized, diverse, amorphous paganism, still rooted in local traditions of food production and preparation, which can once again put alienated urbanites in European cities in touch with the authentic roots of their culture.
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Recently I have been making my way through Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate. While there are many details in this book with which I disagree, I cannot fault the basic premise, i.e., that geography is formative, though not determinative, in history.
Near the beginning of the book, Kaplan makes this claim about mountains:
"Mountains are a conservative force, often protecting within their defiles indigenous cultures against the fierce modernizing ideologies that have too often plagued the flatlands, even as they have provided refuge for Marxist guerrillas and drug cartels in our own era."
I have often myself argued for the conservative bias of mountainous regions. When lowlands were initially settled, when agriculture began, the peoples who did not wish to participate in this new agrarian way of life retreated into the mountains, occasionally raiding the rich cities of the lowlands.
However, I never really thought of this process in terms of the, “modernizing ideologies that have too often plagued the flatlands,” and after I read this I reflected on it. Do lowland agrarian regions favor modernizing ideologies? Certainly they are richer, and they have larger cities, and it is likely the modernizing ideologies will be represented first in areas with larger, wealthy cities.
But there is, I realized, an interesting reversal that has occurred since the emergence of agriculture.
The early lowland empires of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization were oppressive, so that those who fled to the mountains were not only escaping modern technologies and the way of life that went with them, but they were also fleeing to preserve their liberty. Mountain peoples took self-determination seriously; lowland empires were aggressively expansionist and cared nothing either for self-determination or individual autonomy.
The more advanced civilization of the lowlands did, however, produce both economic growth and population growth. From this growth came modernizing ideologies, to be sure, but also personal leisure and the products of high culture.
Eventually these lowland developments led to political and legal institutions that were no longer as oppressive as those that typified the earliest developmental stage of lowland civilization. As these developments were occurring in the lowlands, the stagnant and conservative culture of mountains and highlands changed almost not at all.
From this came the historical reversal that those who sought the greatest degree of personal and political liberty, who once would have fled to the mountains, now must flee from the arrested and oppressive culture of the mountains to the dynamic and changing culture of the lowlands.
At one time in history, those who wished to secure the greatest possible freedom for themselves fled to the mountains and their relative lack of state institutions; at a later time in history, those who again wished to secure the greatest possible freedom for themselves left their mountain redoubts for those lowland civilizations that had developed beyond the need to minutely control the lives of their peoples.
Freedom is distributed in space and time according to a logic that is independent of geography. The best we can hope to do is to game the system to get the greatest degree of freedom possible for ourselves in whatever moment of history we find ourselves occupying.
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One of the great quests of modern science is to find an “Earth twin,” that is to say, another planet as close as possible to the Earth in another solar system. One major step toward finding an Earth twin is finding a rough twin to the planetary structure of our solar system. The recent riches of exoplanet astronomy have now yielded a roughly similar planetary system to that of our own, as reported in New Star System Similar to Ours —“We Cannot Stress Just How Important This Discovery Is”.
The chart above shows a comparison of planetary system structures, with our solar system on top, the recently discovered KOI-351 just below it, and other known exoplanet systems (including the widely reported Kepler system) below that. One of the things that really interested me about this discovery is that the KOI-351 system is about 2,500 light years distance from us.
Some time ago, so give a sense of the scale of our galaxy, I took an image of our sun in relation to several cepheid variable stars in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way (the original image is available at Cepheids in the Solar Neighbourhood — where we are located in the Milky Way), and attempted to show (in red) a sphere with a radius of about a hundred light years in order to represent the human electromagnetic footprint in our galaxy. In this context, it looks pretty small. That is as far as our unintentional EM spectrum radiation leakage extends in the cosmos, so if there’s anyone out there looking for us, well, we’re kind of like a needle in a haystack.
In the map above of the Orion arm of the Milky Way galaxy (another version of the same map of cepheid variables) I have rather clumsily interpolated a scale of 5,000 light years with the sun in the center of the radius of 2,500 light years. This gives a graphic understanding of our current scientific and technological reach in the Milky Way — that is to say, we can see other solar systems like our own this far away. Not too bad for a little civilization still confined to its homeworld. Any civilization with a technology advanced beyond ours by just a few decades (not to mention a few centuries) would be able to do much better.
(If you click on the above image you might be able to see a larger version of this.)
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