Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Triumph of History

Nearly two decades have passed now since Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history. The chorus of catcalls that greeted this claim was by no means undeserved. Still, his theory deserves a second look today, not least because the logic that underpinned it also guides a great many claims about the shape of the future in the age of peak oil.

Fukuyama’s proclamation appeared in a 1989 article titled “The End of History?” and was further expanded a book released later that same year, The End of History and the Last Man. His arguments were misunderstood generally enough that a brief summary of them is probably worth offering here. From the 19th century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, Fukuyama took the concept of history as a process of repeated conflicts and syntheses between contending forces, leading to a final state of perfection in which the ideal becomes manifest in historical time.

In Fukuyama’s reading, the contending forces are different systems of political economy, and history is the competition among them that ends with the victory of the best. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the intellectual bankruptcy of Marxism, he argued, marked the completion of that process, because liberal democracy – his term for the hybrid corporate-socialist bureaucratic states currently governing most of the world’s industrial societies – has proven to be the best of all possible systems. Thus the historical process is at an end; in the years to come, those states that have not yet adopted liberal democracy will do so, and the world thereafter will bask in an endless afternoon, the closest approximation to Utopia that human nature allows.

A profound irony surrounds this argument, for at every point, it duplicated the Marxist theory Fukuyama dismissed so caustically – a point Fukuyama himself admitted in a later book. Not all that many years before “The End of History?” saw print, quoting Hegel and portraying history as a grand process leading to the best possible society were the distinctive badges of the Marxist intellectual. There was never much that was new, and even less that was genuinely conservative, in the thinking of the neoconservatives who embraced Fukuyama’s claims so enthusiastically, but his proclamation in many ways marked the nadir of the process by which the American right turned into a mirror image of the Marxism it thought it was opposing.

Fukuyama’s claims, though, deserve attention on their own right. In doing this it’s crucial to note the special sense he gave to the word “history.” He was not claiming, as many of his critics suggested, that what might more broadly be called historical events will stop happening; while he claimed that liberal democracy is the best possible system, he admitted its imperfections, and allowed that those imperfections may still lead to wars, political and economic crises, and a great deal of human misery. The end of history, rather, means that no one can ever propose a better system to deal with these difficulties than the one already in place; the challenges faced by the posthistoric world will be matters of management, not of fundamental change or reconsideration.

It’s at this point that Fukuyama’s argument finds common ground with a great many other claims about the future that circulate these days. Most proponents of today’s science, for example, argue that the scientific progress of the last century or so does not simply reflect the maturation of one culture’s way of thinking about nature but, rather, traces the discovery of objective truths that can be refined but not refuted; the more enthusiastic of today’s science writers, in fact, look forward to a time not too far in the future when all nature’s fundamental laws will be known, and researchers will have to content themselves with filling in minor details.

More generally, the collective imagination of the industrial world these days seems increasingly unable to imagine a future that isn’t either a rehash of the present or a sudden, cataclysmically driven lurch backward into the past. Today’s peak oil debates are a case in point. The mainstream consensus these days treats peak oil as a challenge to be solved by finding some other convenient fuel to power the existing machinery of industrial society; move toward the fringes and you’ll find most discussions center on a return to the past, ranging from the moderate – back to the 18th century – through the extreme – back to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle – to the limiting case – back to a world without human beings, or even without life. All these claims, just as much as Fukuyama’s, treat the modern industrial world as the culmination of a historical process that runs in one direction to one foreordained conclusion.

What makes these proclamations of the end of history so fascinating is that they are themselves a historical phenomenon. The assurance of today’s scientists that the universe’s last mysteries will be solved in due time has its precise equivalent in the confidence of medieval scholastics that the nature of the world would be known for good once the last few problems with Ptolemy’s astronomy were worked out. Equally, Fukuyama’s confidence that liberal democracy was the final shape of human society has its mirror in the panegyrists of the Roman Empire, who saw the arrangements of their own time as the last word in human social structures.

As these examples suggest, claims that history has reached its final and unchanging state appear at a distinct stage in the development of cultures, and also in such cultural phenomena as science. Claims that Rome’s empire would last forever surfaced just as that empire’s expansion neared its limit, and took on a more insistent tone with each stage in the following decline. In the same way, Ptolemy’s earth-centered cosmology became steadily more entrenched in medieval culture as the problems fitting it with the observed facts became harder to ignore. Proclamations of an end to history, in fact, are one of the standard phenomena of periods in which the prospect of historical change has transformed itself from a promise to a threat.

It’s worth noting that the same stage of history also gives new impetus to the seemingly opposed belief that total cataclysmic change is imminent, and the existing order of things is about to pass away “in the twinkling of an eye.” The opposition here is more apparent than real, however; the new world waiting on the far side of apocalypse, whether it’s defined as the Kingdom of God, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the neoprimitivist hunter-gatherer utopia, or what have you is just as immune from history, at least in theory, as Fukuyama’s liberal democratic consensus. The only point under dispute is whether the ahistorical world of the future is the fulfillment of the present, or its total repudiation.

The rhetorical force and theoretical conviction of these expectations of an end to history cannot be doubted. Equally, though, it’s clear that every such claim that has been tested by events has been flattened by the steamroller force of historical change. The learned doctors who pronounce history dead, and the poets, prophets, and philosophers who write her epitaph, keep on being inconvenienced by the patient’s awkward refusal to lie down and stop breathing. Today’s prophets of history’s end commonly insist that it’s different this time, but then so did their predecessors, right back to the beginning of recorded history.

A meaningful philosophy of history, by contrast, needs to take history itself as its guide – not the few decades of history in which the Marxist-capitalist quarrel played out, as Fukuyama did, nor the few centuries from the end of the Middle Ages to the flowering of today’s technology, as the contemporary myth of progress does, but as broad a view as possible, embracing every human culture and every age of which sufficient details survive to make the exercise worthwhile. One lesson taught by any such broad view of history is that proclamations of the end of history are always premature. Another is that such proclamations are always popular at a time when attentive minds come to suspect that if history continues, the attainments of the present may not turn out to be as lasting as their propagandists claim.

To me, at least, it seems symptomatic that so many historians who attempt such a grasp of history as a whole come to see it in cyclical terms. From ibn Khaldun and Giambattista Vico to Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, the theorists of historical cycles have argued that the historical process has no endpoint. Their logic cuts to the core of the argument Fukuyama borrowed from Hegel, and it also challenges some of the most common assumptions of today’s debates concerning peak oil, anthropogenic climate change, and the other manifestations of the crisis of contemporary industrial civilization.

The central problem with Fukuyama’s argument, from the point of view of a cyclical conception of history, is that it treats the idea of “the best possible society” as an abstraction, divorced from any sense of context and any awareness of the inevitable dependence of human societies on the nonhuman world. What is possible at one time is not possible for all times, and what is good at one point in history may turn out to be far from good at another. Whether what Fukuyama calls “liberal democracy” is the most satisfactory form of human society, then – a point I don’t propose to address here – it depends utterly on radically unsustainable relationships with the planetary biosphere, with the societies it exploits, and with the majority of its own population.

While it’s popular just now to argue that these problems can be fixed without undercutting the system itself, the evidence increasingly points the other way. The American way of life, for example, depends on arrangements that allow 5% of the world’s population to exploit some 33% of its natural resources. The convulsions set off in recent years by modest improvements in China’s and India’s standards of living demonstrate that on a finite planet with rapidly depleting resources, Fukuyama’s vision of a world made over in the image of America is a pipe dream.

Thus, as the theorists of historical cycles have been pointing out all along, history has no end; the consequences of each stage in the historical process set in motion the forces that lead to the next. The question we need to be asking as peak oil makes the transition from a theory to a hard reality, in turn, is not how we can impose an ahistorical permanence on a historical situation that, by its very nature, is unsustainable; nor how we can get ready for an apocalyptic transformation to some other, equally ahistorical future; but instead, how we can cope with the triumph of history over our fantasies of immutability with some measure of grace.

24 comments:

Bill Pulliam said...

Ya know, the first time the Marxist take on the Hegelian dialectic was presented to me, my reaction was "Um, hold on here, aren't you missing something really glaringly obvious here here?" The whole thing about communism eliminating the class struggle that drives the dialectic process, leading to the eternal worker's utopia, just seemed really silly. Isn't it pretty straightforward that "communism" creates another thesis-antithesis pair with "capitalism," which has already lead to the synthesis of "socialism," from which the historical dialectic proceeds apace? And it certainly seems obvious that our "corporate-socialist bureaucratic states" (I love that term, by the way!) are so twisted, tweeked, and dependent on so many unstable things that they will spawn a plethora of antitheses to keep driving the historical engine!

Though I don't really buy into the Hegelian dialectical process anyway, one wonders if "progress" and "apocalypse" are sort of forming a dialectical pair for the present era?

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
Another excellent post, though as one who never could make any sense of claims that an “end of history” was imminent I suppose I’m biased.

My only quibble is that I would have preferred that you had not written “What is possible at one time is not possible for all times, and what is good at one point in history may turn out to be far from good at another”. You see, that was the exact comment I was all fired up to make.

As for “The assurance of today’s scientists that the universe’s last mysteries will be solved in due time”, well, I’m of the group (including some mainstream scientists) who see gaping and widening holes in current scientific theory, the kind of holes that were apparent in late 19th Century science. We await this century’s Einstein with interest and impatience.

In short, I suspect we are at least one more scientific revolution running it’s full course away from a satisfactory Theory Of Everything (TOE).

Robin said...

Knowledge of the basic processes does not imply an understanding of all the epiphenomena.

One might undertake to account for all the individual electrons coursing through the myriad circuits in a computer, but that accounting does not in itself describe the display on the monitor or the output from the speakers.

One might account for every electron, neutron and proton involved, but the accounting may not suffice to describe a breeze.

This is even seen at larger scales. A detailed study of human psychology and human relatonships and interactions - sociology, may not suffice to explain what happens at the level fo international politics.

And what happens at a different level of organization may have effects not explicalbe at the basal level.

A claim that the end state is nigh presumes the resolution of all instabilities at all levels of organization. However thia also persumes that we are aware of every level.

But just as the affected fauna are quite unaware of the events at levels or organization well behond their ken that are proving lethal to them, so too humans may be unaware of what is transpiring in levels of organization beyond our ken.

Laurent Brondel said...

The Apocalyptists tend to read every event as proof of the end to come: for example prices of oil, food etc. now surely mean the beginning of the end… If not the next crisis will bring civilization to its knees.

On the other hand, never the human population has been so numerous and inter-dependent before. Never a majority of humans have been living in cities (or slums) in previous eras.
The difference now, as opposed to then, is there is nowhere else to go in times of crisis, no promised land, eldorado or wilderness to be conquered and plowed, no safety valve so to speak.

Pretty much every habitable corner of the Earth is (over) populated by human societies and I think any mass-movement has to be traumatic and felt globally.

I'd be curious to read your thoughts on this.

dharmagaian said...

Hear, hear! Great post, great points, JMG! Thank you! I concur: "The question we need to be asking as peak oil makes the transition from a theory to a hard reality,is how we can cope with the triumph of history over our fantasies of immutability with some measure of grace." This is actually what Buddhism addresses: how can we cope with the hard reality of impermanence, and not delude ourselves with fantasies of immutability, with some measure of grace (and virtue)? In that case, the Buddhist 'middle way' is to believe in neither progress nor apocalypse, but relate with the reality of the present with compassion. All these Western historical struggles between this ideology and that ideology then appear rather poignant, if also absurd. Let us not forget that apocalypse also means 'revelation.' I suspect that our current historical process will reveal the tragic deludedness of Western hubris, among many other things.

FARfetched said...

Good refutation — focusing on one or two data points, instead of considering the entire set, always carries the risk of self-deception. But there is a difference this time: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans (not to mention the Eastern or Mesoamerican civilizations) were all driven by renewable energy sources. They could clear-cut a forest, and suffer a shortage of wood, but left alone over the course of several generations the forest would grow back. On the other hand, we've been driven by fossil fuels for the last 400–500 years. Every drop of oil or lump of coal we burn today won't be there tomorrow, and we've come close to tapping out the practicable sources. The several forays we've made toward returning to biofuels have gone badly (think food riots). Over geological time, there will be more crude oil — but the civilizations that could tap those resources may well not be human.

A side note: you said that "[Fukuyama’s] proclamation in many ways marked the nadir of the process by which the American right turned into a mirror image of the Marxism it thought it was opposing." Co(s)mic justice at work: you become what you hate.

Bill, the dialectical process may not be an accurate model of the world, but it's an accurate model of how many people "think." It's far far easier to create a false dichotomy (for example, if not "business as usual" then "communism") and reject the second choice out of hand, than to consider the slightest changes.

Jim said...

A nice example of how things can seem almost finally settled right before a major revolution is Lord Kelvin's lecture in 1900 where he noted two dark clouds on the horizon that marred what looked like a beautiful sky in physics. Those dark clouds were the hints of relativity and quantum mechanics, the great twentieth century upheaval of physics.

http://www.physics.gla.ac.uk/Physics3/Kelvin_online/clouds.htm

What comes next? Perhsps the further blossoming of things like complexity theory and non-equilibrium thermodynamics. The physics of life, the interface between computation and thermodynamics, especially in open systems. Reductionist science seems at an end - the death of the superconducting supercollider was a major nail in the coffin. Look at the science we need now - like fleshing out Lovelock's Gaia theories to understand how we can steer our own behavior to work more effectively on the planetary team alongside plankton and beetles and all the rest to keep the planet alive and thriving.

There is amazing science just around the corner that will make quantum electrodynamics look boring and irrelevant.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, no argument there. Mind you, Hegel himself was no better a prophet. He argued that history culminated in -- drumroll, please -- the 19th century Prussian state. His dialectic would have worked better if he'd suggested that each thesis turns into its own antithesis and so refutes itself.

Stephen, well, I'm very much a follower of Thomas Kuhn's thought when it comes to philosophy of science. I don't think there will ever be a fully satisfactory theory of everything, simply a sequence of paradigmatic structures each of which loosely approximates nature's infinite complexity. But you're certainly right that contemporary science has more holes than a good Swiss cheese; current quantum mechanics resembles nothing so much as late Ptolemaic cosmology, with all those creaking epicycles and equants trying to save the phenomena by brute force.

Robin, a good philosophical summary. I'd also point out that since all we experience directly are the epiphenomena, we have no real knowledge of basic processes, simply models that may well turn out to need drastic correction.

Laurent, er, I've been expressing my thoughts on that since I started this blog. The short form is that the decline now under way is different in scale, but not in kind, from previous examples; given the scale of our technology and resources, our culture area is about as overcrowded and subject to ecological stresses as was the culture area of the classical Maya, say, in terms of the scale of their technology and resources.

Dharmagaian, one of the reasons I suspect Buddhism may do very well in the West in the next dozen centuries or so is precisely the way it focuses on the experiences of transience and suffering.

Farfetched, other civilizations have depended on nonrenewable resources -- consider the Maya, who basically strip-mined the fertility of their fragile tropical soils. That's one of the reasons I've argued that our decline and fall will be total, rather than the sort of recurrent cycle of rise and fall you'll find in the history of more sustainable civilizations such as China and ancient Egypt.

Jim, thanks for the cite! I was trying to remember who made the comment you mention. Of course there are new opportunities for science; as Thomas Kuhn pointed out, there always are -- but the change usually involves a shift in which questions are considered important and what aspects of nature deserve most study.

Anthony said...

John,

I've been reading your blog for a while now and I've even read some of your books and I keep tripping over the same things again and again. Namely you will proclaim that those that put forth apocalyptic arguments are wrong and then describe a likely scenario for the future that sounds an awful lot like an apocalypse.

To wit - you have said that the Classic Maya make a good model for our decline. So we are talking massive die off - dispersal of remaining population and towering ruins left over to be discovered by some wandering future civilization (China)? Sounds like an apocalypse to me.

Or are you defining apocalyptic belief as a decline to some previous state (Kunstler and the 18th century, Derrick Jensen and hunter gathering) without any chance of a return of civilization? I could be wrong but I believe only a tiny minority of doomers propose that no civilization will ever arise again. Even Jensen proposes that a variety of local civilizations will arise post collapse- just not a world wide civilization such that we have today.

Or are you defining apocalyptic thinking in terms of the speed of decent - i.e. you believe in a step down decline and some argue for a "fall off a cliff"?

I guess I am not sure how you define apocalyptic thinking especially in contrast to your Maya analogy.

AV

Seaweed Shark said...

Another good essay. As for the claims of scientists to have figured everything out, here's Richard Feynman from "The Character of Physical Law (1967, p. 173)

"After the fundamental laws are discovered, physics will succumb to second-rate thinkers, that is, philosophers. The philosophers who are always on the outside making stupid remarks will be able to close in, because we cannot push them away by saying "If you are right we would be able to guess all the laws," because when the laws are all there they will have an explanation for them ... There will be a degeneration of ideas."

Bill Pulliam said...

"I'd also point out that since all we experience directly are the epiphenomena, we have no real knowledge of basic processes"

Sounds a bit like the meeting place of the Scientific and Religious worldviews, eh?

John Michael Greer said...

Anthony, the Maya example is a good one, because -- despite simplistic media portrayals -- it was a slow, complex, and incomplete affair. The decline of the classic Lowland Maya city-states took close to two centuries, with different cities abandoned at different times, and successor cultures drawing heavily on the classic Maya tradition continued on a smaller scale, especially in the highlands and the north, right up to the Spanish conquest. That's what I'm suggesting we face: a long, slow, tangled process of decline and contraction extending over centuries, with a great many ups and downs, and plenty of regional variations. The distinction I'm trying to draw is between that, on the one hand, and the popular image of overnight global collapse and mass death on the other.

Shark, thanks for the quote!

Bill, yes, at least in the sense that intellectual humility is something that contemporary scientific and religious thinking could both use more of.

Bill Pulliam said...

One thing about the use of the term "cyclical" in an historical context... I think this might encourage some to think that in the future we will be returning to the past, almost literally; hence the notions that we will see the rebirth of feudalism or 18th Century chattel slavery or what not. It's perhaps a confusion of "cyclical" and "circular." But it is more of a helix than a circle, really. When we return to a point on the cycle, we have also travelled a great distance in the perpendicular direction of linear passage of time. So our current location is in the cyclical plane very close to the peak of the Roman Empire, but in the other dimension we are removed from Rome by 1600 years. So, in 200
years we may be in a place comparable to Europe in the 7th Century in a cyclical sense, but we will still also be 1600 years farther along in time, hence it will of course be very different, even if comparable. Does this make any sense? I need a blackboard to scribble diagrams on. It's like the earth orbiting the sun, while the whole solar system flies off in it own vast galactic orbit. Every year we may return to the same point relative to the sun, but we are many millions of miles way from where we were a year ago viewed relative to the galaxy.

Man, that metaphor is reaching its breaking point... I guess the whole point is perhaps a tendency to take "cyclical" too literally.

FARfetched said...

Didn't the Mayans invent terra preta? Oh well. I don't want to get *too* far off topic.

current quantum mechanics resembles nothing so much as late Ptolemaic cosmology, with all those creaking epicycles and equants trying to save the phenomena by brute force.

Heh, I'm not the only one who's noticed that then! I keep looking at quantum physicists sub-dividing and sub-dividing, and thinking to myself, "there has to be a more simple model." Lord only knows what it is, but when someone comes up with the equivalent of the elliptical orbit everyone will go "of course, that's so obvious, why didn't I think of that?"

Danby said...

Hegel has always amused me. The view of history as a process of academic debate, followed by everybody agreeing that nobody was completely right and going out for a beer is risable.

Of course, as a Catholic, I believe in an end to history, but not one that comes as the completion of a set of current trends, but rather as a direct intervention by the hand of the Creator, of which no man knows the hour.

I think both the "end of history" and the "we're all gonna die" paradigms are the product of wishful thinking. For someone of the upper-middle class intellectual type, like Fukuyama, pretty much everything seems right with the world, and he's pretty happy, so that's how things are supposed to be.

Everyone will get with the program sooner or later. That the system is built on the exploitation (read that "oppression") of 3/4 of the world's population doesn't even enter into his thoughts. He's got his money in commodities futures, that's where the real action is these days. Financial-market induced starvation of poor people in Asia is regrettable, but what can we do about that anyway? The free market is a harsh master.

As for Apocalyptoids, well, it appeals the same grim stoic personality that seems to like Atheism. Apocalysm lets one in to the elite brotherhood of Those Who Know What's Really Going To Happen. Mostly though, it seems to me that it's about "those Bad Guys (Republicans, Liberals, My Parents, Christians, Moslems, anti-envirnmentalists, the Upper Class, the Lower Classes, the Weak, the Strong, whoever) are gonna really get it this time, good and hard. I will probably die too, but we all deserve it."

RE: neoconservatives. Yes they do exist. Fukuyama is one. They are largely ex-Trotsyists who have given up on Communism. They now see American-style "democratic" "Capitalism" as the best way to improve the lot of the oppressed classes. They also see military intervention as the best way to impose democracy. Irrational, I know.

They have largely taken over the right in this country. Their conservatism is largely restricted to a rhetorical nod now and then to lower taxes, although never to lower spending. On just about every other matter, they are on the left. Mostly though, they are about war. Everywhere and always. Hundred years in Iraq? Sure. Destroy our economy by attacking Iran? Sign 'em up!

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, that's a good point. Cyclical theories aren't proposing an eternal return in which every event happens over and over again in lockstep; it's more, to borrow a Wittgensteinian phrase, that there's a family resemblance among the life cycles of civilizations, so that each one can be usefully understood by comparison with others.

Farfetched, nah, terra preta was invented by tribes in the Amazon. As for quantum mechanics, my guess is that it will eventually be realized that the whole zoo of subatomic particles are created by the experiments that purport to observe them, and so quantum physicists are basically chasing their own shadows.

Danby, of course the arguments I've used in this post don't apply to an overtly religious apocalyptic -- given the existence of a transcendent, omnipotent, and personal god, it's reasonable to suggest that history will start and stop whenever He wants it to. (The question of whether the transcendent ground of being and value is in fact an entity of this description is another matter, and one that belongs to theology rather than philosophy.)

What makes today's secular apocalyptic so dubious, and so popular, is that it argues that history can transcend itself -- that causes immanent in history in this world can produce a result that brings history to a stop. I'll have more to say about that fallacy later on.

Bill Pulliam said...

Something often not appreciated about the Copernican revolution (and appropriate to scientific and historical transformation in general):

Copernicus' heliocentric model of the solar system was actually MORE complex than Ptolemy's geocentric model. Because he was still dealing with perfect circles, he too had to use epicycles and epi-epicycles to attempt to account for the deviations of the planets from simple circular motions. I forget the numbers, but lodged in the back of my head is something like 28 circles in Ptolemy's universe, and 45 in Copernicus' (numbers almost certainly incorrect in detail, but roughly correct in magnitude I believe). This was one of the barriers to its acceptance in scientific circles, on beyond the church's objections.

It was not until the next century with Kepler's laws of planetary motion that the tide truly shifted. When Kepler replaced circles with elipses, place the sun at a focus of the elipse rather than at the center, and described the Law of Equal Areas and the square-cube relation of period and radius, then finally a beautiful, elegant, and magnificently simple heliocentric solar system model was achieved that explained all that was known about planetary motions with three simple, precise, and easily comprehensible laws. Science was satisfied with a truly accurate and robust model, and Church was satisfied with a demonstration of the genius of the Creator.

"Revolutions" are just first drafts, and may bear little resemblance to the ultimate "revolutionary paradigm" they lead to.

Jim said...

On the idea that "the whole zoo of subatomic particles are created by the experiments that purport to observe them", see Elementary Excitations in Solids by David Pines.

Particles are the quantized excitations of a system. Excitations in a linear system can generally be expressed as a weighted sum of some set of basis excitations. Normal modes of vibration have nice simple periodic dynamics, & so form an elegant basis set.

But reality is not linear. The best approximation is near vacuum, when particles hardly interact. Or crystals can be nice, too. But the normal modes are totally different.

A phonon is the quantum of sound. What's fascinating is that sound doesn't exist in a vacuum! A phonon is a particle that lives just in a medium like a crystal. Phonons make a mess of reductionism. Holes are another nice example - they're like anti-electrons, but inside crystals.

Anyway, physics seems mostly grounded on elementary particles moving in a vacuum, like planets in outer space, or electrons in a cathode ray tube.

Is a vacuum really some pure absolute ideal reference point & the universal true way to understand phenomena is as a fluctuation from the vacuum state?

Seems like we need to let go of our worship of the vacuum. The whole star trek dream of physically launching ourselves into the transcendent heavens - that is really a quest for some immortal state. But the only immortal state is death! Life is not a vacuum fluctuation!

It's interesting - outer space is really a death realm. We somehow have got ourselves caught up in a global cult of death worchip.

Maybe the notion of rebirth will turn out to be important in turning ourselves around. Even if we incinerate the planet, we will not thereby escape the struggle and confusion of nonlinear dynamics, the world of constant surprises, unpredictable emergence of ever new basins of attraction. The real game is embrace, not escape!

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, an excellent point.

Jim, of course modern science, in its religious dimensions, is a death cult -- thus its hostility to vitalism, spirituality, and anything else not reducible to dead matter in a void. One of the challenges of the ecotechnic age will be finding a way to make use of the best aspects of modern science while breaking free of its will to power and its obsession with death.

Anthony said...

I prefer the term sterility over death when the term is used as a criticism. It may be pissing in the wind but I prefer to think of death in the composting sense of life cycles. The problem with a lot of science is that is approaches the universe as having no life within it at all (and no life means no death) i.e. sterile.

Anthony

slomo said...

The more enthusiastic of today’s science writers, in fact, look forward to a time not too far in the future when all nature’s fundamental laws will be known, and researchers will have to content themselves with filling in minor details.

I've been thinking a lot about this issue lately. This is another place where the broad sweep of history does not support the strength of the conviction. Recall the certainty of the classical physicists? Or even more recently, the confidence in the Central Dogma of biology, which though true in very rough terms turns out to be several orders of magnitude too simplistic, comparing what we know now from what we thought we understood, say, 20 years ago.

The second law of thermodynamics is intimately connected to time, which is of course the basis of history. We have swallowed the assumption that "things fall apart" and tend to a "disordered" state, as much as we fight entropy and fill our dreams with hopes of perfectly ordered systems. But entropy is just the filling of all available states. In the real world of interconnected systems, where nothing is truly isolated, the available states are constantly changing. Thus "entropy" is really just the movement from one complex configuration to the next, in a cyclical or chaotic fashion (the word "chaotic" being used in the nonlinear dynamical systems sense of the word).

This strikes me as the fundamental scientific principle behind what you've written. There is no "ideal" state, no perfectly ordered or unordered system. There are simply moments where a system converges to what seems like a stable state, then when the conditions for stability dissolve, there is a cascade to a different attractor, unrecognizable and unpredictable from the previous well.

I would like to think that the next scientific revolution will somehow be able to grapple with this problem: the fundamental nonlinearity of the real world. Whether our old tools, based on mathematics and computation, will work for us or whether we will have to move to new ways of knowing the world remains to be seen.

slomo said...

One thing about the use of the term "cyclical" in an historical context...

Jim, in my previous comment, I almost used the word "cyclical" but abandoned it for "chaotic" for the reasons you just mentioned. By "chaotic", I mean vaguely cyclical, but in a high-dimensional space where certain projections look like circles, other projections look like corkscrews, and other projections look like a big mess.

Jim said...

Another characteristic of chaotic systems is their unpredictability. Whatever small uncertainty is involved in measuring the present state of a system, that uncertainty grows exponentially as one extrapolates the behavior of the system out into the future. So cutting the measurement uncertainty by half only adds some fixed time interval, a day or an hour, whatever, to the effective range of one's predictive powers.

Descartes's split between mind and matter, that I think is where we really need to get beyond our pretence of isolation. And not by attempting to transform matter into the kind of sterile (thanks, anthony) machine that we've somehow come to see as the essence of mind - does this even go back to Plato's ideal forms?

Hiking in the mountains, only a fool will pack relying on a weather forecast. The way to survive is to realize that the weather can change on a dime. You need to dress in layers, to stay sensitive to the conditions of both the environment and one's own physiology, and be quick to adapt as conditions change.

That sort of humble approach is what we need. Life is a kind of dance between organism and environment, a mutual responsiveness. Math and science are powerful tools. Where we get stuck is when we use them to build fortresses. A nomad's tent better enables mutual responsiveness!

John Michael Greer said...

A reminder to all -- comments containing profanity will not be put through. Yes, I know, I'm hopelessly old-fashioned, but the decline and fall of civil discourse in this society has gone far enough, and you gotta draw a line somewhere.