Wednesday, December 24, 2008

History's Arrow

One of the advantages of being a Druid is that you get to open your holiday presents four days early. Last Sunday’s winter solstice was pleasant, with a scattering of snow on the ground outside and candles burning indoors as we celebrated the rebirth of the sun. As one hinge of the year’s cycle, the solstice is a good time to ponder the shape of time: on the small scale, with hopes for the year to come and memories of the one now passing; the middle scale, as I think back on past holidays and the uncertain number that still lie ahead; and the large scale, with which this blog is mostly concerned. In keeping with that seasonal theme, I want to talk a bit about history on the large scale, and the ideas our culture uses to frame the idea of history.

One of the things that has interested me most about the reactions to the ideas about the shape of the future I’ve presented here on The Archdruid Report is the extent to which so many of them presuppose one particular way of thinking about history. Like the character in one of Moliére’s plays who was astonished to find that he had been speaking prose all his life, a great many people these days have embraced a distinctive philosophy of history, but seem never quite to have noticed that fact.

This is hardly a new thing. One of the ironies of the history of ideas is the way that so many cultural themes, surfacing first in avant-garde intellectual circles, are dismissed out of hand by the grandparents of those who will one day treat them as obvious facts. Modern nationalism, to cite one example out of many, began with the romantic visions of a few European poets, spilled out into the world largely through music and the arts, and turned into a massive political force that shredded the political maps of four continents. To some extent, this is the intellectuals’ revenge on an unreflective society: the men of affairs who treat the arts as amenities and dismiss philosophy as worthless abstraction spend their workdays unknowingly mouthing the words of dead philosophers and acting out the poems they never read on the stage of current events.

The way of thinking about history I have in mind today has followed the same trajectory. Karl Popper, who devoted much of his career to critiquing it, called it historicism. This is the belief that history as a whole moves inevitably in a single direction that can be known in advance by human beings. Exactly what that single direction is supposed to be varies from one historicist to another; choose any point along the spectrum of cultural politics, and you can find a version of historicism that treats the popular ideals and moral concerns common to that viewpoint as the linchpin of the historical process. The details differ; the basic assumption remains the same.

That same assumption has also spread to infect nearly every contemporary discussion of change over time. After my post “Taking Evolution Seriously” appeared a few weeks back, for example, one of my longtime readers forwarded me comments from a discussion on an email list, whose members took me to task in no uncertain terms for my discussion on the evolutionary process. When I said that no organism is “more evolved” than any other and that evolution has no particular direction or goal, they insisted, I was simply wrong; evolution progresses in the direction of increased complexity over time, one person claimed, and another suggested that I would be better informed if I read more of the writings of the late Stephen Jay Gould.

Now I have no objection to reading more of Gould’s work, as I’ve already enjoyed many of his books. For that matter, I’ve read a fair amount of evolutionary theory, beginning with Darwin and continuing through some of the most recent theorists, and also took college courses in evolutionary ecology and several related branches of environmental science. One thing this taught me is that attempts are always being made to stuff evolution into a historicist straitjacket. Another thing I learned is that these attempts are rejected by the great majority of evolutionary biologists, because the evidence simply doesn’t fit.

Some evolutionary lineages have moved from more simple to more complex forms over time, but others have gone in the other direction, and the vast majority of living things on Earth today belong to phyla that have not added any noticeable complexity since the Paleozoic. Nor has the Earth’s biosphere as a whole become more complex; the entire Cenozoic era – the 65 million years between the last dinosaurs and us – has been less biologically rich than the Mesozoic era that preceded it, and the global cooling of the last fifteen million years or so has seen a decrease in the world’s biological complexity, as ecosystems have adapted to the more rigorous conditions that have spread over much of the world.

The facts on the ground, then, simply don’t support any claim that evolution moves toward greater complexity. No other version of historicism fares any better when applied to evolution, either. Yet ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when you hear people outside of a university biology department talking about evolution, what they have in mind is a linear process leading in a particular direction. They are, in other words, talking historicism.

Trace these ideas back along their own evolutionary lineage and a fascinating history emerges. The founder of the current of thought that gave rise to today’s historicism was an Italian monk named Joachim of Flores, who lived from 1145 to 1202 and spent most of the latter half of his life writing abstruse books on theology. Most Christian theologians before his time accepted Augustine of Hippo’s famous distinction between the City of God and the City of Man, and assigned all secular history to the latter category, one more transitory irrelevance to be set aside by the soul in search of salvation. Joachim’s innovation was the claim that the plan of salvation works through secular history. He argued that all human history, secular as well as sacred, was divided into three ages, the age of Law under the Old Testament, the age of Love under the New, and the age of Liberty that was about to begin.

Some of his theories were formally condemned by church councils, but his core theory proved unstoppable. Every generation of church reformers from the thirteenth century to the eighteenth seized on his ideas and claimed that their own arrival marked the coming of the age of Liberty; every generation of church conservatives stood Joachim on his head, insisted that the three ages marked the progressive loss of divine guidance, and portrayed the arrival of the latest crop of reformers as Satan’s final offensive. As secular thought elbowed theology aside, in turn, Joachim’s notion of history as the working out of a divine plan got reworked into secular theories of humanity’s grand destiny.

Notable among these was the theory argued by the Marquis de Condorcet in Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit in 1794. A rich historical irony surrounds this work; Condorcet had been a strong supporter of the French Revolution, and hoped that the end of the monarchy would usher in a republic of reason; instead, he was condemned to death by the new government and wrote his Sketch while he was on the run from the guillotine. He nonetheless described human history as an inevitable rise from barbarism to a future of reason and progress in which all of human life would undergo endless improvement.

Condorcet’s faith in perpetual progress found many listeners, but a more influential voice was already waiting in the wings: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who managed the rare feat of becoming both the most influential and the most unreadable philosopher of modern times. In his Philosophy of History, which was published shortly after his death in 1831, he argued that history was the process by which human freedom (which, for him, was not quite the freedom of the individual; he idolized Napoleon and the government of Prussia) was maximized in time. In Hegel’s mind, Joachim’s threefold rhythm of history was reworked into the three phases of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, by which every opposition was resolved into a higher unity.

Hegel’s view of history became enormously influential, less through his own work – I challenge any of my readers to plow through the Philosophy of History and come out the other side with anything but a headache – than through the writings of those influenced by him. Political radicals at both ends of the spectrum jumped on Hegel’s ideas; on the left, Karl Marx used Hegelian ideas as the foundation for his philosophy of class warfare and Communist revolution; on the right, Giovanni Gentile, the pet philosopher of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, was a rigorous Hegelian. For that matter, Francis Fukuyama, who played a role much like Gentile’s for the neoconservative movement, drew his theory of an end to history from Hegel.

Still, the spread of Hegel’s ideas isn’t limited to the radical fringes, or even to those who know who Hegel was. I think most people who have been following the issue of peak oil for more than a few months have noticed, when the subject comes up for discussion in public, one of the most common responses is “Oh, they’ll think of something.” Ask the person who says this to explain, and odds are you’ll be told that every time the world runs out of some resource, “they” find something new, and the result is more progress. This is Hegel reframed in terms of economics; shortage is the thesis, ingenuity the antithesis, and progress the synthesis; the insistence that the process is inevitable puts the icing on the Hegelian cake. More generally, the logic of historicism governs the entire narrative: history’s arrow points in the direction of progress, and so whatever happens, the result will be more progress.

Examples could be added by the page, but I hope the point has been made. Still, it’s crucial to realize just how deeply historicism has become entrenched in all modern thinking. If, dear reader, you think yourself untouched by it, I encourage you to try a thought experiment. The average species, paleontologists tell us, lasts around ten million years. Imagine that by some means – a visit from a time machine, say, that leaves you holding a history of humanity written by an intelligent species descended from chipmunks – you find out that this is how long we have. We won’t achieve godhood, or reach the stars, or destroy the planet, or enter Utopia; instead, the nine million years we’ve got left will be like recorded history so far. Civilizations will rise and fall; our species will create great art and literature, interpret the universe in various ways, explore many modes of living on the Earth; finally, millions of years from now, it will slowly lose the struggle for survival, dwindle to small populations in isolated areas, and go extinct.

If that turns out to be humanity’s future, would you be satisfied with it? Or would you feel that some goal has been missed, some destiny betrayed? If the latter, what makes you think that?

Now of course it may be a waste of breath to contend with ideas as pervasive and deeply rooted as historicism, but the effort has to be made, if only because historicism has a dismally bad track record as a basis for prophecy. Name a historicist belief system that’s been around more than a few years, right back to Joachim of Flores himself, and you’ll find a trail of failed predictions of the imminent arrival of the goal of history. (Joachim himself apparently believed that the age of Liberty would arrive in 1260; no such luck.) If we are to have any useful sense of the future ahead of us, historicist belief systems are among the worst sources of guidance available to us.

Fortunately there are other choices. In next week’s post, I plan on talking about some of those. In the meantime, best holiday wishes to all my readers – whatever holidays you celebrate at this time of year.


I've been following the bread crumbs on your recent posts concerning evolution and history and find them a bit perplexing, or perhaps reductive.

First there is the assertion that you seem to make that human culture is not in any significant sense more complex or note able than say....the culture of an antfarm. Furthermore by couching the project of cultural evolution in Darwinian epistemology, you muddle its complexities. Cultural evolution exists in the space of learned behavior, it is transmitted by linguistic memes. It is a software that runs through an operating system provided by the human genome. We are the piano, but culture is the sheet music. As such, the cusp flux and phase transitions of epiphenomenon do not implement by necessity the same adaptive strategies or propagation of the "fittest". Memes survive, but do not explicitly dictate the survival of their human hosts. Cultural evolution exists in a space that is constructed from language, and clearly shows tendencies towards self-organizational behaviors that display "emergent properties". The organismic and non-linear nature of culture allows for the existence of "attractors" that both push and pull what is at first merely probable to the final formalities of actual occasion. One may notice cycles and patterns that are often self-similar on different scales, in this way I think of history as a fractal.

While it is true that history does not always follow an arrow, and is not necessarily pushed from behind, it can be pulled from ahead. Clearly, the eschatology of extinction that you articulate is one such attractor that lies in the future, but it's not the only one. There are an infinite variety of futures, both likely and unlikely, and none of them are pre-determined. This would be linear thought at its finest and most reductive level. And it would also a mean that all of our pontificating is essentially a pointless waste of time.

You have to admit, however much you may not like to, that there is the extremely small possibility that we will make some jump towards a new state of complexity or organization, if not "Utopia" or "Spiritual Transformation". Perhaps this means that scientists messing with the human genome are able to create super-humans and in the process manage to enslave/exterminate the rest of us. Far-fetched science-fiction, perhaps, but so was landing on the moon. The vehicle for this transformation will have been the epigenetic medium of human thought.

My point is that in your zeal to debunk the prevailing religion of Western Civilization, the religion of Progress, you inadvertently trample the richly plotted intricacies that are embedded in the ontology of human and non-human existence. It is interesting, for example, that biological life has survived on this planet for a longer period of time than the life of most stars. Biological life has resisted entropy thus far, and although things look dire, it is nevertheless important to regard the semi-consciousness that we have achieved as something of worth. The Universe wants to become more aware and reflective, we are vehicles for this process.

Godhood is not achieved in the future (which doesn't exist anyways-there is no such thing) but in the non-local "present" of our imaginations.

I wonder if you see any significance at all in the human project ?

12/24/08, 11:54 PM

Robert Magill said...
Happy holidays,

Well, we screwed up this time...big time. We had a century or more to get it right or it least to give it our best shot. But the time has passed, all those precious years wasted and we didn't even really try toward the end.

A flashback. 1950. Stalwart explorers had been breaking new trails for decades . Starting with...
(a bit too long to include so go to )

12/25/08, 3:10 AM

Russ said...
As a detractor of linear progress philosophies myself, I enjoyed this post. The modern ideology of gutter "progress" fundamentalism, always looking to the deus ex machina of techology/innovation-will-save-us, just a picayune residuum of the majesty of Hegelianism, looks increasingly unable to speak for itself.

It no longer has actual arguments for how technology is going to overcome oil depletion. (E.g. how they're going to build a renewables-based globalist "growth" civilization, the IPCC A1T scenario, except on an existing foundation of cheap, plentiful oil. It may have been possible to do that in the past, but man chose to binge and orgy instead, and the opportunity is now gone forever.)

By now all they have left are just flat-earth declarations of faith; it's religion plain and simple.

On that score, I'd like to point out that the concept of linear history wasn't a medieval modification of Christian theology, but is the core of Christianity itself. "Real" history, according to them, begins with the advent of their messiah, and proceeds ("progresses") from there evolving toward and counting down to his return, which is the goal and end of history. All subsequent christian theology is just glossing on this, and the secular linear-history metaphysical philosophies starting with Hegel are transposing it.

At least Marxism is grounded in physical and historical realities, though Marx as well went in for metaphysical eschatology when he switched from diagnostician to prophet.

(This seems to be almost a universal truth, BTW. In books, philosophies, etc., the diagnosis of the problem is almost always vastly more compelling and convincing, and usually better written, than the prescriptive part, the "solution".)

Marx and Nietzsche both also emphasized the indictment you make here, that the ideologists/ commentators of a given time and place always affirm the characteristic man and ideology of that time and place as being the consummation of all history up to that point, and they spare no shred of intellectual integrity in reading those characteristics back into all preceding history.

Here again, the process has reached its nadir in modern times, with the diminished, soul-dead materialistic zombie spending his life comatose in the ICU triumphally proclaimed "the end of history".

I have high hopes that we're beginning to see the end of that wretched stage of history, one which no cycle can revolve back to, since the fossil fuels are gone.

12/25/08, 4:00 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
I always enjoy this interlude between the holidays... to expropriate a term from the Wiccans, it is our "time without time." We are in post holiday relaxed glow, enjoying our gifts, eating and drinking and visiting, and taking time off from work if we have regular sorts of jobs (no such luck down on the farm, of course!). Yet we are still surrounded by the stimulation, energy, and amusing panic of a society in full holiday freakout! Once upon a time we used to host a "December 25th Party" for all our friends who had the day off from work and no particular holiday to celebrate. And being so dramatically decoupled from the macroculture does make it an excellent time for musings on society and history from the mellow position of a comfy chair by the fire on a quiet winter evening.

The failure of society at every level to notice the absolute inability of historicitical models to reliably forecast the future or explain the past is one of the great cultural amazements to me. I think of what has been noted about us Southerners on many occasions, that we never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Historical Progress is a good story, the failure of the facts to conform to it is just an annoyance that we can disregard.

Of course, as you have noted many times, Historicity also spawns its obvious antipode, the "Hell in a Handbasket" model of history. In this view, of course, history is just one long inevitable downward slide, taking us ever farther from the divine/spiritual/natural (choose your preferred primordial state of grace) into a state of evil/sin/nihilism/etc. Just like all these other supposed "opposites," they are just two shades of the same thing. Christianity and Satanism both use the same cosmology, presupposing the existence of Yahweh, Jesus, Heaven, Hell, Angels, and Devils; Capitalism and Communism both accept the inevitability and righteousness of progress through industrialization. I'm sure you have also noticed, that the people who don't say, in response to peak oil scenarios, "Well I'm sure we'll think of something" almost all instead respond with "We're doomed, everything is going to fall apart, it's the end of civilization." Same equation, just change the sign of that square root from positive to negative.

12/25/08, 7:31 AM

David said...
Thank you once again, John Michael, for a consistently delightful and thought-provoking blog. Thank you to all the other readers and commentators. And thank you to all those who struggle to find ways around the obstacles and clever techniques for avoiding the worst. It's all about the tinkering!

Here's hoping that 2009 brings us some betterness and not so much worseness. See you on the other side.

12/25/08, 7:41 AM

Degringolade said...
Thank You Michael....Another Home Run.

I wonder how the whole thing is going to shake out? It is a good reason to look out at the snow, drink an autumn ale, and think.

Enjoy the fire and the warmth of companions.


12/25/08, 8:33 AM

yooper said...
Seasons Greetings, John! What an appropriate article as I struggle with Spengler's, "PROBLEMS OF THE ARABIAN CULTURE (B) THE MAGIAN SOUL"... Your perception, has brought about a better understanding of this perspective, for me...thanks, once again!

Bill Pulliam, excellent, as always!

Thanks, yooper

12/25/08, 10:17 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Sort of in response to Jacques, but not strictly...

I have been thinking about these parallels between biological and cultural evolution, and I think there are a variety of reasons to expect the similarities to be significant in spite of the difference in mechanism. First, and most simply, it is an analogy, or a metaphor, and as such is subject to "yes but A and B are not the same" criticisms. Of course A and B are different, that is why it is an analogy not an identification. So this criticism per se is not very enlightening.

Given that one proceeds through cultural transmission and the other through genetic transmission, the processes still share many fundamental properties. They both represent the complex responses of complex systems to complexly varying influences. But more specifically, they are both ultimately the result of the modification and transmission of information units in response to real-time influences; neither is (strongly) forward-looking, and obviously neither is very backward looking either. At any moment, the forces that are shaping a species or a society are immediate and now, and include both external forcings and internal dynamics. Also, in both cases, the forcing factors are continuously modified by the shifts in the thing being forced in co-evolutionary feedbacks. At any moment in history, the determining factor is how well the system is "working" in its present circumstances, not how well it might work in some unknown future.

At a more mathematical/philosophical level, when you have two systems that are playing "games" with such generally similar "rules," you can expect the strategies and outcomes to be similar as well even if the nitty gritty particulars of the two systems are quite different. Here we come to the fact that mathematical laws appear to be the real universal currency of the universe and all systems that reside within it. The laws of classical physics may break down at subatomic levels, but the laws of mathematics do not. By analogy, the patterns of biological evolution and cultural evolution can be expected, naturally, to show many similarities in spite of their very different ground-level mechanisms. The contrast between memes and genes allows cultural evolution to happen much faster than biological, but it does not create an entirely different, completely non-analogous beast.

Hisory as fractal; well there's another shared pattern. Nature is strongly fractal, both temporally and spacially. The outcomes of evolution show many self-similar elements. So that's another argument for the analogy, not against it. Same with attractors; the existence of convergent evolution (e.g. marsupial wolves, marine mammals) demonstrates the existence of attractors in evolutionary space as well.

As for the second half of Jacques' post, well there he left me. One can always hypothesize unlikely events that will change everything; that's neither here nor there. And biological life does not resist entropy; it thrives on it. It takes advantage of a rain of photons to create massive amounts of entropy, which it then scatters to the universe, in order to maintain small, concentrated pockets of disentropy. The persistence of this concentrated disentropy over billions of years is no more remarkable than the persistence of crystalline rocks over the same time frame. And as for what the Universe "wants," whether that statement is even meaningful at all, that's a religious belief that is rather irrelevant to the discussion.

12/25/08, 10:51 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Jacques, no, I'm asserting that a human society is not more evolved than an anthill. Note the difference. Anthills have survived for a lot longer than human societies, by the way, so the question of whether our social systems' additional complexity is an evolutionary advantage or not is still open.

As for your claims that history is "being pulled from ahead," or that the universe "wants to be self-aware and reflective," those are statements of faith on your part -- how on earth could anybody claim to know what the universe wants? -- and it's not a faith I share. To my way of thinking, humanity isn't a project -- and what is the "significance" of a redwood or a blue whale?

Robert, to my mind we were trying for the wrong goals all along.

Russ, you're looking at Christian theology through post-Joachimite glasses (as admittedly do most Christians these days). The older tradition saw the incarnation of Christ as an irruption of eternity that stripped history of its power; the saved were precisely those whom time no longer had in its clutches.

Bill, exactly. Down is also a single direction.

David, Karl Popper used to argue in favor of piecemeal social change -- tinkering, in your terms -- as opposed to the grand Utopian projects of historicism. I think he had the right idea.

Degringolade, enjoy that ale!

Yooper, excellent. I'm wrestling with Giambattista Vico just now, but another pass through Spengler is on the list for the new year.

12/25/08, 10:54 AM

Richard said...
I was very glad to see you discuss this. I've had similar discussions with friends, and it is very hard to get them to see that evolution is about adapting to changes and conditions and that at times it may be necessary for a species to seemingly go backwards. Evolution is not a one way street.

12/25/08, 10:59 AM

Seaweed Shark said...
This elegant reflection brought to mind something you wrote almost exactly one year ago in praise of Oswald Spengler. That, in itself, bothered me because--isn't Spengler the arch-historicist of all historicists? Didn't he claim to be able to predict the future course of Western civilization by studying the course of previous civilizations?

But having, via the miracle of Google, gone back and re-read that essay of December 2007, I find that is not the case. You wrote that Spengler was discoursing not on the fates of civilizations but of cultures, and [A] culture in Spengler’s sense [is] a distinctive way of grasping the nature of human existence, and everything that unfolds from that--which, in human terms, is just about everything that matters."

Now this strikes me as interesting because a truly, genuinely evolutionary consciousness, if it were to come about, would be precisely "a distinctive way of grasping the nature of human existence." And you seem to be criticizing the way that the new wine of evolutionary consciousness is being poured into the old wineskins of the current age. By gum, the thread of the Archdruid's philosophy runs consistent, year upon year...

12/25/08, 11:10 AM

Jacques de Beaufort said...
those are all great thoughts...

As for mathematics as a universal currency, I'm sure you're aware of Gödel's incompleteness theorems, which show that there are no complete mathematical proofs for all but the most basic formal systems.

At a certain point, the road of logic ends, and we must abandon rational discourse to make leaps of faith.

12/25/08, 12:18 PM

Yiedyie said...
Peak oil and peak experiences!

In Samkya philosophy Prakrti, the feminine principle, or
nature, is likened to a dancing girl. As she dances, her physical charms
seduce the male spirit, purusha, into the web of maya, an unending
circuit of desire, birth, and death. The purpose of her dance, actually,
is finally to dance him into boredom. She helps him to understand his
true nature by dancing and dancing until his desire to watch this
beautiful woman dance finally reaches a point of satiation. He gets
bored with the dance, and recognizing this, she gracefully withdraws.

That's away of saying that the world ends when nobody is there to observe i.e. "the consciousness". But there is evidence that there are versions of the story especially in tantrism where prakriti dances also alone.

I think that if the humans will disappear the nature will start over again and when the context is right "The Observer" will appear again. And the fun and the play will start all over again.

I think the only evolution is for the human in the sense of Consciousness.

There is something transcendent about the "peak oil" reality a kind of mini-satori or peak moment for the today intellectual routine on a individual level. I intentionally said "peak oil" reality not movement.

I think what is lacking is a psychological aspect to the peak oil story and here i mean transcendental and a humanistic psychology.

I think all started when people discovered especially with mysticism and religion (here i mean on an individual basis)that there is an evolution or more than the basic need and that fulfilling the higher needs (as Abraham Maslow would say) made the people feel more toward completeness i.e. evolved. You cannot talk about evolution without the idea of a move toward a goal which is completeness. I think that's the way evolution is generally understood in reality, and the meaning of biological adaptation is generally familiar to the ones that have a certain background in biology.
That this evolution in the sense of completeness is a theme of debate in psychological circles is a fact. But the fundamental error I think is to extrapolate realities of the individual human beings to the social constructs is the generally the root of all evil but not second to trying to objectifying subjective experience (as Joseph Campbell would say taking myths literally and not symbolically). I think on the individual subjective way the myths of progress and apocalypse (which i think you know means revelation) makes perfect sense.

In fact the Biblical Revelation symbolically means IMO nothing that an ceasing of a rhythm and the peak-experience will follow, the brake in the rhythm that causes the hypnosis.

Generally the religious texts and symbols should be interpreted on an individual level. But the fallacy start when the school taught us to think as a we and in terms of transcendence there is no we. Hegel and all made the same error. Generally the people that easily conform and adapt socially start this kind of error.

I think all started with the western school idea where the pupils are treated as equals and identical this idea of we develops (notice like in a fractal this perpetuated and this is seen all over around us in a similar but new forms). In eastern tradition were the guru transmits his instructions on a one to one basis this fallacy doesn't happen.

The Hindu texts either tantric,vedic or vedantic there is a clear warning against a lack of a direct guru to disciple transmition. That's the real motive why this text are sacred.

Summed in a single phrase : all this started as a religious text misinterpretation of some text somewhere in time that perpetuated this thinking and the apparent fractal like appearance of this detail in the "written history" (wich the bible is) made it seem

I done the rest of the job in your place ;) and trace back in time the source of where all started which may be The Bible (and the build up of misinterpretations).

I think that if you have the patience to understand my English (I'm not a native speaker) you will find some new and original ideas and new perspectives.

I've noticed that people who doesn't understand(or better said feel) symbols have also problems with understanding peak oil.

12/25/08, 1:13 PM

Yiedyie said...
To trace the problem more profoundly i think all started with the untested idea that in matter of culture it can be a "one size fits all", an universal software, a kind of margarine in place of food for the soul. And maybe all started with agriculture, or the left size of the brain, or the desire to control, i think that like in any fractal the truth is not in a single point and is futile to find the starting point. But there is a pattern of similarities which the brain can handle some time without error by transcendental subjective experience, sometimes on the intuitive and emotional, right side of the brain.

About that faulty extrapolation that i spoke in the previous comment there is another case where scientific discoveries about the effect of optimism on a individual human being (in terms of health and well being)is extrapolated without doubt to a collective or "we" stuff (make money, have a better job, ...). See The Secret and many other films.

I think that's why all the saints averted us to take care about the "money, fame and lust", that makes us to think of we, and go in the fallacy i talked about.

You are also a spiritual oriented person so I hope you understand my motivation, I just wish having done more justice to the subject and doing a better job. Especially that there is a lack of vision like this. I hope that you with your eloquence and erudite background do a better job.


12/25/08, 1:42 PM

PanIdaho said...
I think of evolution as nature's drive to more efficiently fill ecological niches. I'm sure there are a lot of holes that can be poked into my view of evolution, but here it is as it stands right now...

The way I see it, whenever a living organism has changed enough to efficiently fill its particular ecological niche, it has become "highly evolved." Whether that organism's evolution to fill a particular niche necessitates a higher or a lower level of complexity depends quite a bit upon on the niche that needs to be filled. Anything less than what is required is not optimal - as is anything more than what is required. In other words, I see an increase as complexity as the means to an end, and not as the end.

Of course, since niches do change, organisms need to have enough plasticity in their makeup to themselves change when necessary to continue to efficiently fit into their environment. If a particular organism does not have that adaptability, they will die out and another species gets a shot at filling that spot. This adaptation may require an increase in complexity to pull it off, or it may require *less* complexity (for example, the atrophy of certain structures which are no longer necessary...) But that does not invalidate my original premise, I think, that it is the ecological niche that is the driving factor in evolution - not some "higher destiny" that the organism itself is striving - or being pushed - to fulfill.

12/25/08, 4:28 PM

Degringolade said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12/25/08, 4:52 PM

Danby said...
I was going to reply to Russ, but you saved me the trouble. Anyone who has read the Eastern Fathers could hardly entertain the historicist view. To a (non-Protestant) Christian understanding, secular history isn't "going" anywhere. It's just another spiritual trap, and a particularly subtle one at that.

The proper Christian view of history was expressed by Tolkien, in his letters: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

12/25/08, 7:34 PM

bryant said...
they insisted, I was simply wrong; evolution progresses in the direction of increased complexity over time, one person claimed, and another suggested that I would be better informed if I read more of the writings of the late Stephen Jay Gould.

I just can't reconcile this; Steven Jay Gould specifically argued that there was no "direction" to evolution. His discussion of the evolution of eohippus to the modern horse demolishes the notion that evolution equals increased complexity. Sounds like it's your critics need to read more Gould!

I can't help but note that this:

To some extent, this is the intellectuals’ revenge on an unreflective society: the men of affairs who treat the arts as amenities and dismiss philosophy as worthless abstraction spend their workdays unknowingly mouthing the words of dead philosophers and acting out the poems they never read on the stage of current events.

is one fine bit of prose! Thank you.

12/25/08, 8:23 PM

bryant said...
On another note; during my geologic education it was thought that the average duration of a species was about 2 million years and that families lasted about 10 million years.

I remember a paper which suggested that "generalist" crinoid species lasted about a million years longer than their more facies-restricted brethern...are we generalists? Maybe we have a little extra time?

12/25/08, 8:33 PM

logic11 said...
Well, those durations are averages. We could easily go way over... or under (I could go either way on that).
On a side note: it is so good to actually read some people online who understand evolution. I get really frustrated trying to explain to people (both online and in RL) that the answer to the question "If we descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" is "We didn't descend from monkeys, we descended from a species of ape and there is nothing inherent in evolution that means the parent species stops existing, it just means that within our environment we were better adapted than the parent species, who may still exist in a slightly different environment (although in this case they don't)". Turns out that if you can't do it as a soundbite, a lot of people don't bother stretching their thought enough to get it.

12/25/08, 10:23 PM

Kevembuangga said...
Jacques de Beaufort
As for mathematics as a universal currency,
At a certain point, the road of logic ends, and we must abandon rational discourse to make leaps of faith.

Really,really, man, Yeah! Godel's theorem!
But it doesn't mean what you think, it means the very opposite, namely that the "famous" Principle of Sufficient Reason is wrong as proven by Gregory Chaitin.
Faith is a hard drug indeed.

12/26/08, 12:33 AM

Conchscooter said...
Coming here is a relief from the endless wailing of babies and dicussions of people's jobs around the jolly family celebratory table. Even if one has to be reminded of one more way in which life has no meaning!

12/26/08, 5:24 AM

FARfetched said...
I remember hearing once that we (humans) stopped evolving once we reached the point where we could alter our environment instead of allowing the environment to alter us. This would suggest that civilization in general is a concerted effort to control our alterations in some way (which would answer Degringolade's "where are the wolves?").

Civilization isn't our problem, any more than an anthill is a problem for the ants (unless they build it in someone's yard). Both provide a way for the associated species to defend themselves from both weather and other species, store food, and otherwise get some control over their environment. Our problem is that we've put off the hard questions, always to be dealt with "later" — how many people can we feed? How many of us are needed to keep the place running? — until we've reached the point where the answer is "not as many as we have." Wars, both internal and external, are the unfortunate means we've chosen in the past to remedy the problem… and I'm afraid we're putting off the hard questions until it's too late for any other means.

12/26/08, 1:45 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Offlist to Russ: religious debates are pretty solidly off topic here. If you'd like to continue the discussion of how Christian theologians before Joachim of Flores saw the relationship between history and eternity, please leave out the polemic.

Offlist to XsavagistX: Please reread the note above the post window. I know courtesy is hopelessly old fashioned, but there it is: abusive language directed at anybody here will not be put through.

12/26/08, 2:18 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Bill, nicely put.

Richard, as you've probably guessed, I hear the same misunderstandings very often.

Shark, excellent! Yes, and I'd also add that Spengler never said that history as a whole heads in a given direction -- he simply argued that the histories of the different high cultures follow a common life cycle, and if you can figure out where your culture is in that cycle, you can guess at some of the characteristics of the next stage.

Jacques, of course logic has its limits. Where we disagree, I think, is in our sense of where those limits lie.

Yiedyie, insofar as I follow you, I think we're in agreement about one crucial point -- that it's a mistake to think that individual spiritual attainment can be generalized into some sort of mass event in which everybody achieves a "higher level" or what have you, without effort. That's a seductive fantasy, but it's still a fantasy.

Teresa, well put. One implication of seeing complexity as a means rather than an end is the one Joseph Tainter drew in The Collapse of Complex Societies: too much complexity can be as much a cause of failure as too little.

Degringolade, I had to delete your post for profanity. Please repost it without any of the late George Carlin's favorite words.

Danby, it's an interesting blindness in modern culture that the eternal so often gets flattened into the temporal.

Bryant, thank you! I was baffled by the comment about Gould myself; he's made some very clear and very caustic comments about the attempts to import teleology into evolution.

Logic, nicely put. Of course we could last much less than average, or much more; it was simply a thought experiment.

Kevembuangga, thanks for the link.

Conch, as I see it, life has meaning in the same way that a poem, a statue, or a love affair has meaning. It doesn't have significance -- that is, it doesn't signify or represent something else; its meaning inheres in the experience itself.

Farfetched, I've heard that same claim about evolution, but find it implausible. Human beings are still subject to selection pressures and evolutionary constraints; thus we're still evolving. Since evolution has no direction, though, it's entirely reasonable that we might evolve in place for a while.

12/26/08, 2:54 PM

Guilherme de Baskerville said...
Hey there, John. I'm not much of a poster, but have been reading your blog for some months, now.

Just wanted to say kudos on a very well written post. I'm a historian, and your post is a very good introduction to the problems of what you call historicism. Very well written. Oh, btw, you'll find another group of people who doubt this notion of some ultimate "goal" to history (and to evolution) in most professional historians, too. Some of them still cling to some form of historicism, mainly from marxist thought, but it's diminishing.

Keep up the good work, your balanced views are a nice touch in such extreme times as we live in.

12/26/08, 3:59 PM

galacticsurfer said...
Don`t genes pile up over time? There is a memory due to billions of years of evolution from the first living thing until now and all life forms are descended from that so that the double helix in all animals gains in complexity. Even if a being goes backwards evolutionarily or sideways or whatever it remembers that movement inevitably in its makeup, genetically. Maybe MS windows with its overburdened programming is a good example or maybe a cleaned up Linux OS is the proper example as evolution cleans up the code over time. This is perhaps a more engineering waay to look at the problem without the ideology involved and get where we want to go, a descriptive view of what is going on at the nuts and bolts level without drawing meaning or sigificance from it.

I could imagine genes being imprinted with memories from consciousness in terms of our souls, our auras, becoming us in the process of birth and rebirth and taking the new experiences into our energy bodies and coming back again with the individual memories intact into the new being, of whatever form we choose. The point being fulfillment of intent of the individual, say love or ambition. So the individual purpose might have a trajectory of sorts and a culture and civilzation along with it as people or beings act in concert.

Of course fighting against the western concept of linearity seems a waste of time but as long as once is steeped in the literature and culture, well ok. The circular return to the same starting point, wheel of samsara idea seems more natural in a natural system although ultimately physicists have problems with universe as a cyclical expansion/contraction mechanism or just a drifting object.

At any rate John, you seem to avoid the spiritual, supernatural and remain in the secular, historical, theological realm. I thought ying and yang with melding of ideas to a higher point, as in Hegel, was just natural. I believe that due to memory of religious ideas, or memes and learning of scientific and the combination of those into the esoteric we can come into the synthesis of new concepts due to experiment. If that is called progress to combine old stuff in new ways then so be it but learning and surviving is the name of the game. I see no contradiction anymore between religion and science as I feel th soul is connected to the body and the physical to the spirital universe in very specific manners which are perhaps unprovable, unmeasurable in the purely scinetific sense but which are completeyl comprehensible. This undestanding of "nature" in the large sense I consider progress. We rebelled against th middle ages authority and found a new human centered one, this bcame dehumanizing over time so sprituality became necessary again but without th primitive simplicity and authority of the past but more dmocratic, scieintific, quantum-mechanically fractally. Anyway I am getting a grip on things in my own mind and hope inmy sense to make progress if only way from ignoranc of process of th mechanics of existence.

12/27/08, 8:07 AM

Mike Rock said...
Oh goodness thank you JM! I've written about this blight on my own blog and roll my eyes every time one of my spiritual minded friends talk about becoming "more evolved". Our ancestors were much smarter and superior in many ways to ourselves as indigenous folks are today. We could all stand a little less "evolution" and a lot more primality. It isn't by accident that the past Age of Saturn was considered "Golden".. while ours is Iron progressing rapidly to Lead..

12/27/08, 10:43 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Guilherme, thank you. I'm glad to hear that historians are getting immune to historicism -- used to be a lot of practitioners of Whig history not that long ago.

Surfer, genes contain the biochemical templates of past adaptations, though those get modified over time -- you can't extract the genetic code of a protoprimate from your own genes, any more than you could extract FORTRAN from the operating system of your computer today.

As for the spiritual dimension, that's a complex issue; a lot of people nowadays treat it as something external to the world of everyday experience, which intrudes into the everyday world like Santa Claus to bring them what they want. From a Druid perspective, the world of everyday experience is the manifestation of spirit, and the laws of nature are the laws of spirit (or that subset of them that impinges on us). Thus it's frankly silly, from my point of view, to expect the spiritual realm to overturn the laws of nature and reverse the current of history, just because we don't want to deal with the consequences of our own shortsighted actions.

Mike, thank you! Here's a spiritual exercise to recommend to your friends: every time they see a living thing of any kind -- a tree, a squirrel, a layer of pond scum in a puddle, you name it -- tell them to remember that that living thing is just as evolved as they are, along its own line of evolution. They won't enjoy it, but they just might learn something.

12/27/08, 3:13 PM

Bill Totten said...
Great post, as always, John. Thanks and Happy Holidays. Bill

12/27/08, 4:50 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Bill, thank you!

Christopher (offlist), yes, the AODA email address will get to me promptly. I'd respond directly but Blogger doesn't give me your email.

12/28/08, 2:06 AM

Ricardo Rolo said...
Well, Archdruid, I've been following the reasoning line that you have been using in the last few post and I see that is a deliberate effort to warn the persons that read this blog of the teological ( I really can't find a better word ) premise of linear complexification and development of the human kind ( actually current historicism is the negative of the Graeco-Roman philosophy of the Gold->Iron ages , that preached that humanity was decaying irreversabilbly. You can still find it inside Christianity in the whole fall from grace path ( the bible core premisses are so strange to historicism that my catholic bible even warns the reader of Revelation that the writer was not thinking in terms of linear history ) ). It could even be said that all the historicism lies over three core dogmae:

- Thinghs ( I will use thing to fit both cultural,spiritual and biological items ) always evolve

- Evolution is always Complexification

- A complex thing is always better than than a simpler one

(The "always" were simply putted to sharpen the core idea, in spite of not being needed)

All of them are demostrably false: things will not evolve if they don't need to ( a extreme case is the Cyanophytae : thousands of millions of years passed and no discernible change ), even if they evolve, sometimes it will lose complexity ( the good ol'case of the creatures that descend of surface creatures that gone to lightless enviroments and lost their eyes in the process of adapting there ) and a complex thing most of the times it is actually worse than a simple one that does the same job ( like a russian friend of mine said, a complex system has more possibilities of malfunction per se and most of the times it is more energy intensive than a simpler approach .... so, if you had to make a thing complex, you should find a very good reason for that )

It is a sad thing in my opinion that historicism is so entrenched, because historicism is a "rich man" philosophy: it assumes that there are no real boundaries to human efforts ( otherwise, how could we progress ad infinitum ? ). And applying it to a very finite world can only lead to one thing: the very familiar ( for a academic biology interested person )overspending of resources leading to a brokedown of the supplies pool and a new and very lowened equilibrium population ( in less elegant framing, the loss of a great number of individuals )

And about the first paragraphs, about popular philosophy: it is interesting that both you and some of the persons that commented so far are working over Dawkins mental framework ( even to the point of using some of his words, like memes, as the cultural equivalent of genes ( also sujected to selection and death by the surviving value they have in statistical sense ) ), especially his The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker or two more generation and no one will remember Dawkins, but probably his mental framework will be here to stay ( atleast for a while )

12/28/08, 5:42 AM

Asturchale y Chulo said...
I think historicism rests on two words: “never before”. Our history as a species fits badly into any “eternal return” theory, simply because we have been creating new devices, new ideas, new environmental and geopolitical troubles from the very beginning, and at an increasingly greater speed.
To begin with, we (homo sapiens sapiens) haven`t been around for one million years, rather forty thousand. We remained hunter-gatherers for three quarters of this time, and I would readily admit that our future would be basically the same as our past, had you asked me at any moment during these early thirty thousand years. Agriculture appeared, though, and things changed fast.
Agriculture and cattle raise brought out numberless changes never before seen in the history of the planet, let alone humankind. Then writing appeared, and the first organized states, and for the first time ever information could be recorded and maintained for much longer, and in a much more exact way, than any individual memory would dream. Organized states channeled overproduction and overpopulation to fulfill ideological agenda, and arts along with philosophy, law and religion thrived in separate, though often related, civilizations. No wonder any medieval monk might believe he was close to the End of Days: his time was also unique, since it was the first time ever that any worldwide enterprise (the Church) tried to unite all humans to achieve a spiritual goal with the aid of political powers. It seemed as if the whole Humankind was awaiting for a sudden conclusion.
Enter Columbus: it is the first time ever that the whole world got connected into global trade routes. Then James Watt: never before technical means, free from animal power, had enabled such a wild economic growth all over the world. Nuclear power: never before the end of the world depended on the decisions of so few rational minds. Human Rights: never before tyrants were brought to justice and respond for their misdeeds.
Today, 2008, it seems as if we faced the greatest energy crisis…ever.
There are also two more important words: “never again”. I know civilizations collapse, but never again Paleolithic age returned. We never again returned to the bush, we never again forgot the skills of tilling, writing, cattle raising, mining, sailing, forging metals and worshipping. This being said, progress looks quite like a fact.
Hegel and the rest of the crew were totally wrong at believing that they could find out the jest of history, a mythical underlying current which would lead us all to a supposed goal. They were wrong, also, for dismissing beforehand the environmental constraints that make impossible the myth of endless progress. They were right however, in my opinion, at studying the history of humans as something utterly apart from other species.
Natural evolution, the evolution of species and environments, cannot be paralleled with human history for the simple reason that no rational intelligence plays any role at the former, while it is reason along with intelligence which have shot the arrow of history all along.

12/28/08, 11:05 AM

yooper said...
Hello John! Perhaps on more of a personal note here... I was just given this link
by a fine Russian gentleman. The photos and stories of the Detroit neighborhoods, are just fantastic! Hope you enjoy this blog, I'm quite confident that you'll find your catabolic collapse, here.

Thanks, yooper

12/28/08, 4:21 PM

Joel said...
Good to have a name for historicism. I've seen it (and similar philosophical trends) as something like the bar magnets that some bacteria build.

There's no particular reason to think things will be better to the north or the south, but the population samples a wider space if each individual can stick to a particular heading.

12/29/08, 12:07 PM

Evan said...
Thanks for the post, JMG, and for the thought experiment! A nice massage for the neurons. ;-)

12/29/08, 8:41 PM

Mike Rock said...
@Asturchale "I know civilizations collapse, but never again Paleolithic age returned. We never again returned to the bush, we never again forgot the skills of tilling, writing, cattle raising, mining, sailing, forging metals and worshipping. This being said, progress looks quite like a fact."

This depends on which "we" you are talking about. There are examples of the opposite, most notably the Mayan civilization that returned to the forest and still exist to this day all through central and southern Mexico and through Central America in a more tribal rewilded fashion than their civilized (living in cities) forebears.

12/31/08, 7:38 PM

Kiashu said...
Actually, I'd be extremely impressed if the human race managed to survive another nine million years! It appears we're the first species on Earth with our current level of self-awareness, and yet at the same time the first species able to physically destroy itself or its resource bases by acts of violence, pure carelessness, or over-exploitation.

As I've said before, I don't share the Mad Maxian fantasies of many in our discussion circles, but in that I'm talking about the next century or so. Take it out to thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of years, and our very survival as a species becomes an open question.

1/1/09, 12:25 AM