Post with 3 notes
This is another addendum to my series of posts on religious experience through human history, which included:
To analyze changing human religious experience in the light of the large-scale changes in civilization is to implicitly acknowledge that, like civilizations, forms of religious experience emerge, flourish, decay, and die. All of these stages in the life cycle of a form of religious experience invite inquiry. Today, however, I will only consider the end of a form of religious experience, which takes the form of a transition to another form of religious experience.
How can a religious tradition be said to fail? A religious tradition fails, or is at least compromised, if it fails to integrate its functions or leaves functions unserved (and therefore leaves human needs unmet). And here when I speak of the “functions” of religious experience I am once again speaking of those four functions of mythology identified by Joseph Campbell: the mystical, the cosmological, the sociological, and the psychology.
During the epoch of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, the ability of a religious tradition to serve and to integrate all the functions of a mythology reflected the existential viability of this civilization. Anything that threatened this narrowly defined viability constituted an existential threat.
When civilization made the transition from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to industrial-technological civilization, the ability of the mythology of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to remain intact fell apart as its constitutive role in society collapsed. Yet the social institutions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization did not collapse suddenly or across the board.
Forged as these traditions were in the context of the collapse of the western Roman Empire, the religiously-conceived institutions of agrarian-ecclesiastical have proved to be extremely robust, perhaps even anti-fragile. Surviving institutions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, even in damaged and compromised form, continued, and even today still continue, to respond to perceived existential threats.
The religious institutions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, which represent the formalization of the religious experience of this civilization, integrated the functions of mythology so effectively that, even deprived of its living connection with immediate human experience, the institutions have continued to function, in some cases almost unhindered.
As a counter-factual thought experiment, one could imagine a body of religious experience that was so perfectly integrated with immediate human experience that the experiences would remain even when the institutions had vanished. Indeed, one could make this claim for the shamanistic practices of hunter-gatherer peoples. Still today, after the ten thousand year interpolation of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, shamanistic practices continue to crop up, being, as they are, an expression of a perennial aspect of the human condition.
If some future civilization were to achieve both the integration with human experience characteristic of hunter-gatherer shamanism, and the institutional integration of mythological functions of agrarian-ecclesiastical universal churches, such a novel synthesis would be rooted in the human condition even more solidly than these past, now partially extinct, forms of religious experience.
This movement suggests a dialectical interpretation: hunter-gatherer shamanism is the historical thesis, unstructured, unhierarchical, earthy, deeply embedded in the life of a people; agrarian-ecclesiastical universal churches are the historical antithesis, disciplined, hierarchical, otherworldly, separating the human and the divine as a matter of principle and doctrine. The historical synthesis would rise above the thetic and antithetic moments of history, subsuming and transcending both.
Photo with 2 notes
“The known universe is astonishing not for its size, but ultimately for how small it is: its measure can be taken by a few intelligent beings from an isolated civilization on the fringes of the Milky Way galaxy.” J. N. Nielsen 09 October 2014
Post with 1 note
Recently on my other blog in Iterative Aspects of Industrial-Technological Civilization, I observed that, “Just as agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization could not produce science, technology, and industry to rival industrial-technological civilization, so too industrial-technological civilization cannot produce artistic masterpieces to rival those of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.”
Pre-industrialized civilizations produced artistic masterpieces with such regularity that this might almost be called an iterative process, except that the nature of artistic expression is singular and cannot be subordinated to any rule of iteration. What human activity can be subject to a rule of iteration?
The assertion of singular genius in the arts is an artifact of the romantic era. Probably there have always been artists who were splendid individuals (like Gislebertus, who carved all the decorations of Cathedral of Saint Lazare at Autun), just as there have always been industrious workers among artists, such as Bach (or such as illustrated in the story "Neighbor").
the idea of the genius artist is also, at least in part, an expression of the (sometimes tortured) individualism of modernity. It is ironic that the great masterpieces of art that are works of splendid individuals appear in the least individualistic epochs of civilization. Or perhaps not ironic; there may be a hidden correlation.
Today it is the greatest science that is the work of splendid individuals creating masterpieces of theory and experiment. Even in an age of “big science” the role of key individuals in formulating and realizing a major research program is an integral part of the most imaginative and visionary science. Perhaps Kuhnian “normal science” can continue to churn out journal articles in familiar fields of research, but the conditio sine qua non of revolutionary science — science that pushes the boundaries of science farther into the unknown — is the vision of an individual.
Given that the continual self-transcendence of science is a feature of the STEM cycle, and that the nature of industrial-technological civilization grows out of this continual self-transcendence, it is revolutionary science rather than normal science that shapes the large-scale structure of our world today.
Human language… allows more precise and efficient transmission of knowledge from brain to brain. That means that humans can share information with great precision, creating a common pool of ecological and technical knowledge… The possibility of learning collectively changes everything… Collective learning is what gives humans a history, because it means that the ecological skills available to humans have changed over time. And there is a clear directionality to this process. Over time, processes of collective learning ensure that humans as a species will get better at extracting resources from the environment, and their increasing ecological skills ensure that, over time, human populations will increase.
Collective learning brings a new perspective to how human beings and human communities differ cognitively from other species, including even the most closely related primates, and it does so in a purely naturalistic fashion, without even appealing to any special faculty of the mind. In this way, this big history perspective on human cognition is compatible with the reductivist and eliminativist philosophies of mind commonly found among contemporary scientists. One can easily see, then, the attraction of this formulation.
Another way to think about collective learning (or, if you like, another way to use the formulation of collective learning to think about big history) is that collective learning allows minds to do what genetic inheritance allows bodies to do: with collective learning there can be a flow of ideas from mind to mind and social group to social group, as in biological inheritance there is a flow of genes from individual to individual and population to population.
This is nothing other than the “idea flow” mentioned by futurist Cadell Last that I mentioned in my post on the third day of the 2014 IBHA conference, and the source of idea diffusion, which has long been at the center of discussions about the origins of evolution of civilization. Idea flow, idea diffusion, and collective learning are all intimately related concepts. Is any one of them more fundamental than the others, so that it can be used in the exposition of the others? Or is there is yet more fundamental idea to which these all implicitly appeal?
How might a Kantian transcendental argument proceed in deriving the necessary conditions of idea flow and idea diffusion? An answer to this question could serve as a bridge between the methodological naturalism of big history and the epistemological tradition of post-Cartesian philosophical thought.
Post with 4 notes
A Response to a Comment
I’ll stop being so skeptical that we can solve our resource problems by going to outer space when and if people start to colonize Antarctica.
I mean, there are lots of minerals in Antarctica! It’s an entire continent that has never been exploited by human miners before, and, IIRC, parts of Antarctica are a geological continuation of some of those fabulously mineral-rich strata in South Africa. And it’s much, much more convenient than space — the fuel cost for getting to Antarctica is pretty negligible, you don’t need to bring your own air and water with you, and there’s no health problems resulting from prolonged exposure to zero-gravity. Antarctica is cozy compared to space. So, if you’re going to argue that, Any Day Now, our Glorious Future in Space will arrive and we’ll start mining asteroids (and it better be literally any day, time is running out), you’ve got to explain why we haven’t densely settled Antarctica yet.
(P.S. Waiting until the glaciers all melt doesn’t count.)
I would like to thank Pure Americanism for this comment, and I want to discuss it in some detail. Firstly, however, I want to clear up a potential ambiguity. While the article on which I was commenting was discussing asteroid mining in the relatively short-term future (the author quotes a source saying, “It’s ‘going to happen much sooner than I think a lot of people realise,’ Lewicki insists. ‘We’re not decades away… there’s [sic] companies ready to do this now’.”), my comments are primarily concerned with a longer-term future.
In the comments from Pure Americanism above, we find, “Any Day Now, our Glorious Future in Space will arrive,” so I wanted to mention that the author of the article might be interpreted as speaking in terms of “any day now,” but I was not. In fact, in my comments I explicitly observed that well-intentioned legislation is likely to slow down the process of human expansion off the surface of Earth
The time scales employed in futurism are important. This should go without saying, but I think a reminder is in order. Recently I wrote this to a couple of friends:
I have come to think that the spectacular failures of earlier futurism – the sort of thing now ridiculed in many books like, Wasn’t the Future Wonderful? – were at least in part futurists allowing themselves to be manipulated by the news cycle, which makes certain demands of relevancy upon those who embark upon a career as a public intellectual. Thus there is great pressure to make forecasts for what the world will be like in 25 years, because many people expect to live 25 years, and very little interest in getting predictions for 250 years, because no one expects to be around this long. Thus a lot of predictions are off by a factor of 10. There is real and substantial change in 250 years, but often very little change in 25 years.
I picked the number 25 because I had recently read an article about an article written 25 years ago about the dim, distant future of LA in 2013. This is the sort of thing that makes people laugh at futurism, because, of course, LA doesn’t look anything like the pictures that were used with the article. But take a chunk of 250 years instead of 25 years: if we think back to 250 years ago, we find a world without electricity, before the industrial revolution, and with no United States. The world of 1764 was very different from the world of 2014, and it seems likely that the world of 2264 will be at least as different from 2014.
Precisely because the world, with few exceptions, changes very little over a lifetime, it is often difficult to believe how different the world was in the past, and how different it will be in the future. Yet the features of the world than remain constant, or nearly constant, throughout the life of an individual, and therefore give the impression of permanence, are anything but permanent. What could seem more permanent that the Earth itself? And yet we know that the continents have rearranged themselves continuously during the four and a half billion years of the Earth’s existence.
With that in mind, it should not be too difficult to see that the fantastic world of science fiction, of human beings traveling throughout the solar system and the galaxy, as strange as it may seem, is no stranger or unlikely than the strange and unlikely circumstance that has resulted in seven billion human beings confined to the surface of Earth. Our present situation is no more permanent than the ages that preceded it, when the Earth was alternately entirely covered by ice or covered in steaming carboniferous swamps. And these are appropriate comparisons, because when we think of the human future in the cosmos, we must think on geological (if not cosmological) time scales.
On these time scales, present day concerns of resource depletion do not play a major role in history. Our present concern with fossil fuels is an artifact of the early stages (i.e., the first two hundred years) of the industrial revolution. As I see it, we ought to be much more concerned about peak population than peak oil. As the industrialization of Latin America, Asia, and Africa continues, raising living standards in these regions of the world to those levels of the industrialized democracies of the west, population growth is likely to follow the trends of other industrialized regions, with growth leveling off, and eventually falling below replacement level.
I am not, then, forecasting recourse to space resources as a “solution” to present day resource depletion problems, although I do think that the industrialization of space will eventually play a role in providing resources for Earth-based populations. I have discussed this previously in Plans for asteroid mining emerge and Will future extraterrestrial history repeat terrestrial history?
The important thing to understand about resources in space is that, while the barriers to space are very high — much higher than getting to Antarctica now, and much higher than getting from Europe to the Western hemisphere in 1492 and subsequent years — once you do have a sustainable presence in space, mineral resources and energy resources are, for all practical purposes, boundless. Of course, these resources aren’t infinite (at least in this universe), but they are far more plentiful than any human population in the universe could exhaust in the foreseeable future. Space is a hostile environment, but it can be made clement to human life with these nearly endless resources. In contrast, the rich mineral strata of Antarctica are just another finite portion of the Earth’s surface, and they could be readily exhausted in a way that space-based resources could not be readily exhausted.
Going into space is not about solving our resource problems. Here on Earth we’ve gotten really good at using our resources more sparingly than in the past, and we’re going to continue to get better as technology improves. And even as the technology for resource extraction and resource consumption becomes more efficient, alternative technologies will also continue to improve, and eventually these alternatives will begin to replace non-renewable resources. The most obvious example of this is the improvement of solar electric cell efficiency. Before we have used up all our fossil fuels, we will be able to convert the global electricity grid to a decentralized system of renewables without any drop in standards of living. (Again, this is the most obvious scenario, but it is not the only scenario — cf. my post Synchrony in Energy Markets.) On the contrary, standards of living will improve in industrialized regions due to reduced pollution, and in developing regions due to inexpensive, mobile, decentralized energy technologies.
I am sure that there will be many people — perhaps most people, perhaps ninety-nine percent of humanity — who will be content to spend their time updating their Facebook profiles, taking recreational drugs made safe through technologically advanced pharmacology, and immersing themselves in virtual worlds of adventure, excitement, and sexual fantasy. But even as the world settles into a comfortable routine of stagnancy, there will still be a number of persons who want a future that is no longer to be found on the surface of Earth. Those who do not wish to live among the last men in their stationary state (of which Mill wrote admiringly, but for some of us would be a torment, cf. Addendum on Technological Unemployment), will go into space.
The same continuously improving technologies that will make us so comfortable on Earth that few will choose to leave, will also eventually tip the economic calculus of going into space where this becomes sufficiently inexpensive and convenient that passage into space will be neither prohibitively expensive or limited to a handful of individuals in state-sponsored space programs. This might come about by gradual technical improvements, by an unexpected scientific breakthrough, by a space elevator, or all of these together with other methods we cannot now imagine.
If civilization does not permanently stagnate, and if it remains within the paradigm of industrial-technological civilization (or some successor civilization in which science, technology, and engineering play a similarly central role), then human beings will certainly go into space, even if only a minority whose interest is merely curiosity, excitement, and adventure. However, in addition to this minimal scenario of demographic minority extraterrestrialization, there are also likely to be pragmatic forms of human expansion into space that will include business, industry, and existential risk mitigation, just as there will eventually be some exploitation of the resources of space for terrestrial benefit (though not as the primary motivation for human space travel).
Simply getting into space, of course, is only the beginning. Other factors will enter into which human beings thrive in space. Pure Americanism has mentioned, “health problems resulting from prolonged exposure to zero-gravity,” but this assumes that the only possible way in which human beings can live off the surface of Earth is in a micro-gravity environment like the ISS, and there is no reason to make this assumption. Other planetary bodies can be adapted for human habitation, and we can build structures in space that imitate gravity. However, it is worth noting that health will be an important factor for those leaving Earth to live elsewhere in the cosmos. Just as the individuals who go into space will be self-selected by their desire to live away from Earth, they will also be physically selected. Living in micro-gravity, low gravity, high gravity or simulated gravity environments will be strongly selective. There may be individuals who desire to live in these other environments, but who find that they are physical incapacitated by them. But due to human genetic variability, there will be some individuals who happened to be well-adapted to differing gravity environments. Such individuals will be favored in the expansion into space and they will pass on their genetic legacy to their children. Humanity will evolve under extraterrestrial selection pressures. .
For thousands of years both individuals and societies have derived hope for the future from a soteriological and eschatological conception of life and the world, and I would argue that this hope has been central to the growth and expansion of civilization, even where this hope turned out to be chimerical. The Axial Age mythologies of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization can no longer perform this function. It is this visceral realization that traditionalist formulations of hope no longer address the human condition in the context of industrial-technological civilization that is responsible, in part, for contemporary anomie, and not the nature of industrial-technological civilization, as is commonly charged.
Certainly not for everyone, but for a few people (myself included) the hope for a future in which human possibilities are greatly expanded by a human presence in space, and the existential risk mitigation that is to be derived form self-supporting human communities off the surface of Earth, is an adequate object of hope. Whatever becomes of me personally, this is a future that I want for humanity, as it is a future of greater value than a future confined to the surface of Earth. And, as I have argued above, even if only a tiny minority desires such a future, and the scientific, technological, and industrial achievements of our civilization continue, all of this can come about while the majority of the human population does nothing, goes nowhere, and desires only their comfort and security. But that isn’t everyone.
Recently I was watching a Sam Harris video in which he said that atheism is a problematic term to employ because every religious person thinks that they have a knock-down argument against atheism. (In many talks Harris has said that we don’t need a word for people who don’t believe in religion any more than we need a word for people who don’t believe in astrology.) Harris said it’s better simply to go “under the radar” and to “destroy bad ideas” wherever they are to be found.
Harris is both right and wrong. He is right that there is no need for a term for non-theists any more than a need for a term for non-astrologers or non-Ouija board believers or non-cheese eaters. Harris is also right that there is no need for non-religious individuals to identify themselves as atheists, and that the atheist label is used to marginalize criticisms of religion.
Harris is on more problematic ground when he talks about destroying bad ideas wherever they are found. How are we to distinguish “bad” ideas from “good” ideas? And even if you can unambiguously identify a bad idea, it is not at all clear that it can be destroyed. Indeed, I would argue that the worst ideas are nearly impervious to destruction.
Let me begin by saying that there is a distinction that needs to be made between attempting to show that an argument is fallacious and attempting to show that an idea is fallacious. An argument can be shown to be fallacious by demonstrating a formal or material fallacy, i.e., that the argument makes a logical mistake or assumes premises that are false (or, at least, not confirmed). The value of an argument can be rationally assessed and discussed in that spirit, but it is not at all clear that an idea as an idea can be rationally assessed or debated on rational principles.
Now, most arguments that you encounter are likely to be based on, to grow out of, ideas, but in refuting the argument are you not refuting the idea. Almost everyone has had the experience of arguing with someone who immediately offers up a new argument for the same idea after their earlier arguments have been shown to be untenable (for those who are honest enough to recognize that their arguments can be shown to be untenable — and this is rare). After a few iterations of this it becomes clear that the “argument” was a rationalization, and the real appeal is the idea and not the argument that supposedly supports the idea.
Elsewhere I have written about the difference between perennial ideas and defunct ideas; in my last post, Time and Tide, I wrote that, “A perennial idea is never refuted.” Truth be told, people are loathe to give up their ideas, perennial or not, and most are aware at some level that an idea cannot be refuted. This is not to say that all ideas are equally valuable or well-founded. They are not. An idea may be misguided or misleading, petty or pernicious, but in and of itself it is not true or false, though it will be meaningful or meaningless, valuable or worthless.
If, instead of attempting to prove that an idea is false or fallacious, you attempt to prove that an idea is meaningless or worthless, you will be doing so vis-à-vis someone who is already convinced of the meaning and value of this idea, who is in fact basing their arguments on this idea, and the likelihood that such an individual will give up their treasured idea is close to zero.
There is a small percentage of the population that is willing to listen to criticism of their fundamental assumptions as to how the world works, but the vast majority of people are either unwilling to listen to such criticism, or they are unable to understand even the possibility that the central idea around which they have constructed their life is a figment of their imagination.
While an idea cannot be refuted, it is probably true that a bad idea can be discredited. However, among the true believers in an idea, the attempt by others to discredit an idea is seen as all the more reason for the believer to demonstrate their unwavering faith; the attempt to discredit a bad idea, then, may have an unintended backlash effect that invigorates the defenders of the idea.
In Beowulf’s Old English:
se geweald hafað
sæla ond mæla; þæt is soð Metod.
In Chaucer’s Middle English:
For thogh we slepe, or wake, or rome, or ryde,
Ay fleeth the tyme, it nyl no man abyde.
And in Edmund Spenser’s modern English:
For, all that from her springs, and is ybredde,
How-euer fayre it flourish for a time,
Yet see we soone decay; and, being dead
To turne again vnto their earthly slime:
Time waits for no man, nor does it wait for ideas.But time is more kind to some ideas than to others, just as some men show the ruin of their youth earlier than others, while some gently age and look distinguished rather than decayed.
There is no more obviously outdated idea than failed futurisms of the past, and I have written about this on several occasions, since it is so easy to dismiss all attempts at futurism when we consider how wrong twentieth century predictions of the future were. I’m going to write on this again soon, but today I want to make a distinction between the kind of futurist ideas that seem painfully dated and the kind of ideas that age more gracefully.
Ideas of the future that remain unrealized are those that show their ruin early. Once the moment for a particular future passes, it passes irretrievably into the past and carries with it the stamp of the era whose vision it is. Such ideas become dated, and they are dated because they were never widely adopted and are therefore identified with the time in which they experienced their brief efflorescence.
As time passes, an idea that was never realized or widely adopted becomes less and less likely to be acted upon, and in terms of ideas of future human society that means that a failed futurist idea becomes more closely associated with the past than with the present. No one wants to show how dated and out of fashion they are by investing their hopes in the future that is already passé in the present.
Distinguished ideas that age gracefully are those that are enthusiastically adopted and undergo rapid development as a result of competition in the marketplace of ideas; these ideas become commonplace in our lives even while they continuously evolve. As a result, these ideas do not seem dated. Familiar ideas age and evolve incrementally before our eyes, so we usually don’t notice it.
Think of someone who decorates their home in a particular style that is clearly identifiable with a particular stage in the development of popular culture. They live in the home every day and don’t notice their decor becoming more faded and dated year in and year out. When they pass away and the house is sold or inherited, it feels like a time warp to walk inside because the decor is so clearly identifiable with a particular period of history.
This isn’t really the best example, however, since interior decoration doesn’t change in the way that ideas adopted by popular culture evolve, but it does illustrate the role of familiarity in the perception of datedness.
But there is an additional wrinkle — a wrinkle in time. In popular culture there is often a failure to distinguish between trivial ideas that briefly become fashionable, are talked about by everyone, and then disappear, and ideas that really do explain some feature of the world, but not on the time scale of popular culture, so when such ideas become briefly popular and then seem to fail to explain short term events, they are drop out of popular usage, but the phenomenon they explain continues to work away in the background, even if unnoticed.
This has been the case most recently with globalization, and before that with secularization and with several other futurist ideas. Talking heads now routinely mock the idea of globalization, even as global trade flows increase and global institutions are progressively more integrated. Similarly, the rise if Islamic militancy was regarded as definitive proof of the failure of secularization theories, but recently a few scholars have been returning to secularization and reassessing the theory in light of evidence that clearly points to the growth of secularism in wealthy, industrialized countries.
I previously addressed these considerations in Confirmation and Disconfirmation in History, in which I discussed the changing currents of history is assessing whether Marxism has been validated or refuted by history. A perennial idea is never refuted, but returns time and time again; each time it seems to be discredited beyond the possibility of future resurrection, it appears again — perhaps with a different name and in a different formulation, but the same idea nevertheless.
The idea that time waits for no man is a commentary upon the transitory nature of all things of this world — sic gloria transit mundi. However, we could just as well invoke this idea to explain the eternal recurrence of perennial ideas.
Page 1 of 89