Dateline 2010: the world-historical situation

In the twilight century of western civilisation, the US, the last resting place of western power, has as its primary purpose the containment of rising China. China has as its primary purpose to put the world 'back to rights'. It is playing a waiting game, and is anxious not to jump the gun.

Dark Age Watch (DAW on hold.)

Issue du jour 1: War with Iran--important to containing China but delayed over two years

Issue du jour 2: The world economy--unbalanced, interwoven, delusional--some predict its unravelling

Issue du jour 3: Somalia--leading the world into a dark age

Issue du jour 4: Pirates exploit the decline of international order

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Self-organised criticality and uniformitarianism

Per Bak, discoverer of self-organised criticality, stated that his researches 'disproved' uniformitarianism. In reality, they confirmed it at a deeper level.

IBM sandpile experiment, demonstrating self-organised criticality

Bak misunderstood uniformitarianism as meaning that change is always gradual. However, the deeper meaning of uniformitarianism is that extraordinary effects do not have to have extraordinary causes.

In his famous sandpile experiment, Bak showed that a uniform input (sand falling onto a pile one grain at a time) could produce effects (avalanches of sand falling off the pile) on all scales. Small slippages occurred frequently, medium slippages less often, and large slippages very rarely (once the pile had 'self-organised' to the 'critical' state, that is). Contrary to Bak's view, this is a validation of the uniformitarian principle since it shows that large and unusual phenomena (big avalanches) can arise from the same processes as produce ordinary ones (the continual small avalanches).

Self-organised criticality shows how something like the extinction of the dinosaurs or the fall of the Roman empire need not require some special factor such as a meteorite impact or a barbarian invasion. It may come about through the same processes as lie behind smaller effects, such as the extinction of individual species or everyday fluctations in people's political and economic fortunes.

As used on this website, uniformitarianism means precisely this. History, despite its enormous variety, is to be understood not as a series of chance events with ad hoc causes, but as the expression of eternal and constant principles.

From stone age hunters to masters of the universe

To our far distant descendants, we humans who are alive today will seem to have progressed very little beyond the stone age. When people are travelling between the stars and to other galaxies, all the time that we have spent confined to earth will be lumped together as the first, primitive phase of human existence. For an estimate of the timescales, see the following diagram, and the notes below.

The graph is based on the Kardashev scale, as a way of characterising the growth of human capability.

Kardashev level

Refers to a civilisation controlling the resources of an entire...




Solar system




Universe (see note)

(Note. Some define K=4 as controlling a galactic supercluster, with K=5 for the universe. However, I see the step from galaxy to galactic cluster as less of a leap than that from star to galaxy, and not worthy of being denoted by a separate Kardashev level. Whereas routine travel around the solar system is conceivable within the currently understood laws of physics, routine travel around the galaxy would take thousands of years even at the speed of light, which is currently considered impassable. We therefore need new physics to conquer the galaxy in a meaningful sense. However, once we can move around easily within the galaxy, it would not be such a stretch to move to other galaxies, and no more new physics is required. Intra-galactic and inter-galactic travel seem to belong to the same level of human capability.)

Reaching K=4 can be considered to imply some sort of crisis or goal-achievement, in that there can be nowhere to go after mastery of the universe itself. Below, I expressed this in terms of a face-to-face encounter with God and ultimate understanding of reality. Some suggest that we might move into parallel universes, and they envisage another Kardashev level involving the control of the multiverse. However, I suspect we cannot pass from universe to multiverse without 'encountering God' (finding answers to the questions of creation and existence). It is nevertheless possible that this will occur a little bit beyond what we, with our limited knowledge, currently understand as the limits of the universe, i.e. not at K=4 but somewhere beyond K=4.

The pertinent questions are (1) where are we now on the Kardashev scale and (2) how long will it take us to reach K=4 (or a bit more) and mastery of the universe?

Kardashev defined his levels in terms of power consumption (i.e. K=1 means consuming all the power on the planet, K=2 means consuming all the power output by the star etc.). On this basis, humanity is currently at about K=0.7. Assuming a historically realistic rate of energy growth, Kardashev predicted achievement of K=3 in about 5000 years.

This viewpoint can, however, be seen as too historically specific, since the trend Kardashev relied on was only a couple of centuries old and is already faltering. (See the diagram below, where Btoe="billion tons oil equivalent"; data supplied by BP.) Raw energy consumption may have seemed like an important factor from the perspective of the twentieth century, but in the distant past and in the distant future, changes in human capability should probably be measured by other means.

Given that it is barely a hundred years since the Wright brothers, while we now go into space as a matter of course, it may seem reasonable that humans will have made incredible progress and could well be flitting around the galaxy after another few thousand years. However, recent progress may be just a blip. Since the human race has taken something like 50 ky (kiloyears) to reach K=0.7, I think it unrealistic to suppose we could go from K=0.7 to K=4+ in only 5-10 ky.

If the time taken to reach a given civilisational level is proportional to the K value, we might predict achievement of K=4 at about 300 ky, i.e. 250 ky from now. (Using T to represent the time elapsed since the birth of the human race, if T~K, and T=50 ky when K=0.7, we have TK=4 = 50 x 4/0.7 = (approx.) 300 ky when K=4.)

I believe that even this is an underestimate, however. Considering 50 ky have gone by and we are still only tentatively clawing our way off our planet's surface, we hardly seem likely to have conquered the inconceivably vast universe in just another 250 ky. I imagine that we should be thinking in terms of a million, perhaps several million, years before we achieve ultimate understanding and mastery of the cosmos.

I will defer my detailed reasoning to a later post, but I suggest we assume a relation of the form log(T) = const + K, where T = time elapsed since human speciation and K = Kardashev number. Taking our current value of K as 0.7, I obtain the graph shown at the top of this post. Note that in this graph, the vertical (K) axis is anti-logarithmic, so that, for example, the gap between K=3 and K=4 is bigger than that between K=1 and K=2. Although the graph only goes down to K=0, I envisage a series of negative Kardashev levels before that, where say K=0 represents control of a region, K=-1 represents control of a sub-region etc. At the birth of the human species, we had K=-infinity.

One implication is that the rate of increase of the Kardashev level was faster in earlier times than it is now, and faster now than it will be in future. This might seem counter-intuitive. We normally imagine that progress is speeding up. The explanation is that the size of the problem in moving to the next Kardashev level gets bigger at an even faster rate.

Think in terms of the spread of humanity. Humans had spread across most of the planet at a very early date; the colonisation of Australia is put at about 40,000 BC, i.e. after just 10 ky. At that rate, humans might have thought they would soon be spreading into outer space. However, it has actually taken tens of thousands of years to get ready to leave the planet's surface, despite many attempts at flying machines over the technology for traversing interstellar space is inconceivably harder to develop and detains us for a long time. Remember that, just as early people had no understanding of the science behind space travel, we currently have no understanding of what science might allow travel to the stars (we think it is impossible).

Or look at it another way. Control of a particular Kardashev level becomes harder as we move towards it. Early humans, having occupied most of the planet within 20 ky of speciation, might have thought they were well on the way to K=1. Yet they did not know about farming, metalworking, radio waves or many other technologies we have had to master in order to come close to controlling the planet's resources. Conquest of the solar system or the galaxy may look 'easy', but there are probably issues to overcome we have not yet even dreamed of.

Finally, think in terms of the marginal contribution of each new technology. If you could wave a magic wand and disinvent, say, the mobile phone, it would not take long for people to reinvent it and get us back to where we are now. But if you waved a magic wand and disinvented, say, writing, civilisation would collapse. It could then take a very long time to recover and rebuild. The earliest discoveries, which we take for granted, were the most fundamental and, in Kardashev terms, made a much bigger contribution than do the latest gadgets.

For all these reasons, I think it is fair to suppose that the pace of movement through the Kardashev levels will slow down, and our cosmic quest will take a million or so years to fulfil, not a few thousand.

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Birth of the human race

I put the birth of the modern human species, Homo sapiens sapiens, at about 50,000 years ago. Around that time, there seems to have occurred a quantum change in social evolution. Beforehand, a hundred thousand years could go by without any noticeable change in the form and technique of stone tools. Afterwards, there was a process of continual development, from stone tools to the Saturn V.

I ascribe this change to the emergence of proper language. No doubt, for a million or more years, the genus Homo had had language skills somewhere between that of modern humans and what chimpanzees have been able to achieve. However, I equate the appearance of 'full' language, implying subtle gradations of syntax and the ability to express any concept, with the achievement of full humanity. Having said this, the crucial innovation was probably not in language per se, but in some more abstract cognitive skill, such as symbolic thought. For instance, a clear distinction between our species and the closely related Neanderthals was that the Neanderthals produced little or nothing that can be called art, whereas early humans were already producing art that stands comparison with modern work. The newly acquired capacities for both art and true language might therefore be traceable back to some novel mental aptitude, common to both.

I admit, such an attempt to pin down the reason for and birthdate of modern humanity is to some extent prejudice and guesswork. There will always be archaeologists pushing back the date of human origins. Nevertheless, one has to have some kind of baseline, and the 40,000 BC date for the emergence of our species is a traditional one in the literature. In speaking of 50,000 years of human existence, I am rounding up this traditional figure in anticipation of future discoveries.

Uniformitarianism and the principle of mediocrity

Two philosophical underpinnings of the theory of history and society presented here are uniformitarianism and the principle of mediocrity. Uniformitarianism means attempting to explain apparently disparate phenomena in terms of uniform causes, while the principle of mediocrity means viewing our own position and perspective as normal rather than central.

Charles Lyell is credited with introducing the concept of uniformitarianism in the study of geology. He meant the assumption that the processes we observe today are those that operated in the past. The point was that, rather than imagining special eventualities--such as Noah-like floods, thunderbolts or divine creation--to explain features of the landscape, we should understand them as arising through the normal processes--such as erosion and sedimentation--we can see occurring in front of our eyes. An important consequence, considering the time it would take to erode the Grand Canyon or pile up Mount Everest, was a recognition of the great age of the earth. It is said that Lyell's ideas influenced Charles Darwin, both giving him the idea that species could emerge through slow-acting selection pressures and supplying the vast spans of time that his theory of evolution would need.

Uniformitarianism can be seen as a default assumption of science. Although we have sampled an infinitesimally tiny portion of space, we assume that the laws of physics we observe operating here on our planet also apply everywhere throughout the universe. Astronomers interpret what they see in the heavens by applying familiar principles of science, rather than by postulating novel principles in an ad hoc manner - e.g. explaining the forms of galaxies in terms of gravitational and electro-magnetic forces, rather than in terms of special 'galactic forces'.

Related to this is the principle of mediocrity. It says that we should assume we are in a typical rather than a privileged position with respect to the phenomena we observe. The history of cosmology has been a gradual unveiling of the principle of mediocrity. Early humans thought the earth was at the centre of the universe and that everything revolved around it. Now, not only do we know that the earth is just one of many planets orbiting the sun, but the sun itself has been revealed as an ordinary star in a humdrum part of the Milky Way, which is one of countless similar galaxies spread through the universe.

Neither uniformitarianism nor the principle of mediocrity should be applied in a dogmatic manner. It is rather that they are the most sensible default assumptions, in the absence of evidence to the contrary. In a later post, I will discuss how criticism of uniformitarianism arising from one theory of complex systems reflects a misreading of the concept.

Uniformitarianism does not require rigid insistence that systems' behaviour and properties never change. Astrophysicists entertain the possibility of secular variation in physical laws, and since there are, for example, anomalies in the rotation of galaxies, it is possible that there may be physical laws we have not yet discovered. Nevertheless, the point is that we should seek common explanations that can account for dramatic, large-scale phenomena alongside modest, everyday, local phenomena, before we resort to invoking special, unusual forces. In this respect, it is an example of Ockham's razor.

Similarly, the principle of mediocrity is a point to start from rather than something that must inevitably be true. Suppose you were asked to pick a ball from a bag and it turned out to be blue. It might be that you happened to pick out the single blue ball from a bag full of red balls, but there is no real reason to think that. If you had to predict the colour of a second ball from the same bag, your best bet would be to assume the principle of mediocrity and say blue, even though that is far from guaranteed. This is an artificial situation, but in science the principle of mediocrity is usually a reliable guide.

Applied to the study of history and society these concepts lead to the following assumptions on which the theory is built:

  1. Human beings have been much the same at all times and in all places.
  2. We do not live at a special time in history, nor does our country/society have a special place in the world.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

The management of human affairs

Some commentators on my 'dark age watch' site described me, in effect, as a fascist. My politics are or should be irrelevant to the observations I offer on these sites, which attempt to be objective statements deriving from a theory of history that is based on study of the past and of historians' writing about it. I do not think of myself as a fascist, because I dislike orthodoxy and I am too insubordinate to belong to any kind of monolithic entity. However, I would be deluded if I claimed to be without bias, and I shall try to explain what views I do hold.

Firstly, I believe in the essential unity of humanity. I do not care too much about the fate of this or that civilisation, including the one I happen to be in. In my view of history, these things are inevitably ephemeral. They serve their purpose for a while, but then it is right that they should go. What is important, I would say, is the future of the human race, to which we all belong.

Secondly, I believe in freedom ahead of equality, and in less government not more. Freedom and equality are incompatible. If people are to be allowed to realise their potential, they will end up unequal, since all have different aptitudes and abilities. If people are to be made equal, there must be an element of compulsion and control over their behaviour. Small government means people being free to achieve; big government is needed to impose and enforce equality. Nevertheless, the situation is not black and white. Some might speak of equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome, where you can have one or the other but not both. Yet take education. Providing free schools is creating equality of opportunity from the perspective of the individual child, but from the perspective of the family or parents it creates equal outcomes, i.e. schooling their children regardless of their own efforts. Equality of opportunity can therefore sometimes require equality of outcome. Unbridled freedom and laissez faire may mean wasting human potential. (Even with free schooling, as Bourdieu argued, education tends to project the values and reproduce the power relations of the existing, unequal social order, so that further interventions may be justified.) Meanwhile, the society that does not assist and support its weaker members not only would be inhuman but is historically very rare. A balance has to be struck. This balance between freedom and equality can only be negotiated through a political process. All I am saying is that my bias is towards the freedom side, or that, other things being constant, I feel a lack of freedom to be less 'fair' than a lack of equality. This perhaps makes me right-wing.

Thirdly, I do not believe that what we call democracy is a good form of government. I am fond of saying, usually after a few drinks, "the universal franchise has been an absolute disaster for this country". Democracy allows power to be obtained by the people who should not have it, while elected politicans tend to bribe the voters with ever-increasing subsidies. Such here-today-gone-tomorrow rulers find it hard to act for the long term, since that requires sacrifice and sustained commitment. By contrast, hereditary rulers, who "own" the societies they govern, treat them thoughtfully. Furthermore, their temperaments are not exclusively those of power-seekers but reflect the full range of human personalities, and, since they do not have to manoeuvre their way to the top, they have no reason to act corruptly. It might be thought that such political forms are unfair, holding back talent, and denying opportunity, but there is always social mobility, and people can participate in power as advisers and agents of the rulers. Again, the situation is not black and white, and a balance must be struck. Absolute despots often destroy their societies (as do democracies though), and it is perhaps best when the monarch rules in conjunction with some form of representative assembly. I would nevertheless commend traditional and hereditary methods of choosing the representatives, rather than any widespread franchise. This might make me an authoritarian.

Fourthly, I reject "environmentalism" along with concerns about overpopulation or running out of natural resources. Environmentalists see humans as a contaminant within the universe, using too much energy and creating too much pollution. I disagree. For me, nothing in the universe has meaning except as it relates to humans and our struggle to find out who we are and why we are here. We are supposed to exploit the universe's resources in pursuing our mysterious quest. I do not worry about exhausting such resources because I consider our stay on this planet to be a brief, initial phase, soon coming to an end. What this universe does not lack are energy, raw materials and room to contain expanding human numbers. As we move out to other planets and later other star systems, concerns about global warming will come to seem utterly irrelevant. It is just that necessity is the mother of invention, and population, resource and environmental stresses are the incentives we need to get off the planet.

These are some of my views. I do not claim that they are consistent, have been well thought through, or add up to any kind of manifesto. It is not my purpose to take up political positions. On the whole, I view the antics of the human race not entirely favourably, yet I cannot help but smile all the same.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Coming of age in the cosmos

Humans are not destined to remain forever on this tiny planet we now inhabit. The earth is just our birthplace. In terms of a computer game, the terrestrial phase of our existence is Level 1. We are supposed to get out there into the universe, where many remarkable discoveries await us. We cannot answer the deeper mysteries of existence by sitting in this obscure backwater. Out there, in the fullness of time, we will find answers to all humanity's questions. I take seriously the Fermi paradox and the anthropic principle, in that I believe humans are alone in the universe, which has been set as a puzzle for us to solve. The following cartoon explains my vision of the long-term adventure of the human race. (Click to expand the pictures, or click on the title above for a PDF version.)

One great city

The world is one great city, and the substance out of which it is formed is single, and there must necessarily be a cycle of change, in which one thing gives way to another, and some things are destroyed and others come into being, and some things remain where they are and others are moved. (Epictetus, ex-slave and Stoic philosopher, 1st century AD)