Further Elaborations on the Coming Coeval Age

Nick Nielsen
14 min readMay 21, 2024

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

My essay “The Coming Coeval Age” has appeared in Isonomia Quarterly for summer 2024. Last year I contributed an essay to the initial number of the journal. As with my recent paper in the Journal of Big History, “A Complexity Ladder for Big History,” this most recent essay isn’t narrowly about philosophy of history, but there are many philosophy of history themes in it.

The journal’s interest in the theme of isonomia was my point of departure for considering the institutional structure of civilization at the largest conceivable scales. What is isonomia? There is a passage in Book III of Herodotus known as the constitutional debate in which three speakers argue for the best form of government, with these three being monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Here is the first of three speakers in Herodotus advocating for isonomia:

“Otanes urged that they should resign the government into the hands of the whole body of the Persians, and his words were as follows: ‘To me it seems best that no single one of us should henceforth be ruler, for that is neither pleasant nor profitable. Ye saw the insolent temper of Cambyses, to what lengths it went, and ye have had experience also of the insolence of the Magian: and how should the rule of one alone be a well-ordered thing, seeing that the monarch may do what he desires without rendering any account of his acts? Even the best of all men, if he were placed in this disposition, would be caused by it to change from his wonted disposition: for insolence is engendered in him by the good things which he possesses, and envy is implanted in man from the beginning; and having these two things, he has all vice: for he does many deeds of reckless wrong, partly moved by insolence proceeding from satiety, and partly by envy. And yet a despot at least ought to have been free from envy, seeing that he has all manner of good things. He is however naturally in just the opposite temper towards his subjects; for he grudges to the nobles that they should survive and live, but delights in the basest of citizens, and he is more ready than any other man to receive calumnies. Then of all things he is the most inconsistent; for if you express admiration of him moderately, he is offended that no very great court is paid to him, whereas if you pay court to him extravagantly, he is offended with you for being a flatterer. And the most important matter of all is that which I am about to say: — he disturbs the customs handed down from our fathers, he is a ravisher of women, and he puts men to death without trial. On the other hand the rule of many has first a name attaching to it which is the fairest of all names, that is to say “Equality”; next, the multitude does none of those things which the monarch does: offices of state are exercised by lot, and the magistrates are compelled to render account of their action: and finally all matters of deliberation are referred to the public assembly. I therefore give as my opinion that we let monarchy go and increase the power of the multitude; for in the many is contained everything’.”

The three forms of government — monarchical, oligarchical, and democratic — are a perennial theme of Greek political thought that continues to echo through the history of Western civilization. Book III of Aristotle’s Politics goes into this in some detail.

After sending my essay off to Isonomia Quarterly I realized that one of the fundamental ambiguities about the idea of isonomia — and I would have included a footnote on this if I had thought of it sooner — is the ambiguity implicit in speaking in terms of the same law. What is it that is “the same” when we speak of the same law? “The same law” could mean that every particular law would apply to every particular person, or “the same law” could mean that the totality of the law, that is, the whole body of law, applies to the totality of the population. A body of law might involve different laws that apply differently to different persons, so that the second of the two senses does not entail the first of the two senses. If you read my essay you’ll find that I argue that the Greeks understood isonomia in the latter sense, so I won’t repeat that argument or the sources I cite for it here. But the fact that we might interpret a fundamental political idea in different ways poses the question of how these fundamental ideas outlined in antiquity apply to us today, if they do apply, and how they ought to apply now and in the future.

How will these traditional ideas be interpreted in future iterations of human society that might differ quite considerably from the world that we inhabit? How are we to understand isonomia within the context of a spacefaring civilization? For that matter, how are we to understand any classical Greek political theory in the context of future changes to society? For Westerners, this is our heritage, and how this tradition adapts or is adapted to changed conditions will give shape to the ongoing tradition of Western civilization.

In my essay I suggest that, on Earth to date, the expansion of political regimes has constituted what I call synchronic isonomia, when societies are distributed synchronically, that is to say, when they interact in the present across geographical distances. In a specifically legal context, this means the iteration of a body of law across a region of space. The possibility of what Frank White calls Large-Scale Space Migration would initially constitute synchronic expansion on a scale greater than that possible on Earth, but, if continued, it would eventually cross a threshold of diachronic isonomia, that is to say, when societies are distributed diachronically over time. In a specifically legal context, again, this means the iteration of a body of law, the same law, over a period of time. The strange, seemingly paradoxical aspect of this way of thinking is that the human scale of time could be distributed over a much larger cosmological scale of time while retaining its character as distinctively human history. I will try to explain how this could come about, but first I want to point out a peculiarity of terrestrial history that we haven’t seen as a peculiarity.

We are familiar with the idea that we see the universe form a peculiar point of view because we see it from the surface of a planet. Our planetary perspective has been the focus of the Copernican revolution, which has taught us that our apparently centrality in the universe is an artifact of our limited and parochial perspective. The Copernican revolution taught us to transcend our planetary perspective and to see the universe from a non-terrestrial perspective, but there is another aspect of the Copernican revolution that we haven’t yet explored, and that is seeing history from a non-terrestrial perspective. Part of this non-terrestrial perspective is simply to understand that, just as we are not in the center of space, we are also not in the center of time. But there’s more to it than this.

Einstein’s theory of relativity has made it possible for us to see time in a new way, and this can change the way we see history. In many of my episodes I have talked about the need to address the disconnect between philosophies of time and philosophies of history. History is constructed out of time, so a radical reconceptualization of time suggests a radical reconceptualization of history. The theory of relativity is such a radical reconceptualization of time, but many of the influences of relativity and gravity upon time are usually not noticed on a terrestrial scale, and all human history to date has occurred on terrestrial scale.

We can see the effects of relativity when we look out into the cosmos and use instruments to observe cosmological distances over which relatively is relevant, and to observe bodies so dense that they change the structure of spacetime. To date, our technologies have allowed us to measure the relativity of time under the influence of acceleration and gravitation, but we may, at some point in our history, develop technologies that allow us to interact with the universe at a scale at which relativity will change our history. When this eventuality comes to pass, we will eventually be forced to notice things about our history that hadn’t previously been problematic.

Our history to date has been the simplest possible history because it has all transpired on Earth. Earth is our sole inertial frame of reference for all historical events. There are relativistic effects within this inertial frame of reference, but they can only be detected by instruments of extreme precision because the influence of relativity lies below the threshold of human perception. For example, every planet drags its spacetime around with it as it rotates, which is known as frame-dragging. And even the relatively crude instruments of the nineteenth century could detect the perihelion precession of Mercury, which is an observable relativistic perturbation of the orbit of Mercury. This was first observed and noted to diverge from Newtonian predictions in 1859. These relativistic effects are, however, well below the threshold of impacting human history.

Technologies could change this. Relativistic space travel would be such a technology. This has been made famous by the so-called “twins paradox.” The twins paradox is invoked with greatest effect by the use of individuals to illustrate the difference between two clocks in different inertial frames of reference — usually a set of twins. This was called a paradox because it was initially thought to be impossible. We also saw this use of individuals to demonstrate the poignancy of time dilation in the film Interstellar. Here it is a father and daughter who are separated, with the father experiencing an accelerated inertial frame of reference, so that he returns, still a young man, to find his daughter dying as an old woman. This is great for drama, but this isn’t how any relativistic space settlement effort is going to play out, unless someone purposefully arranges something like this as a stunt.

Let us consider a simple example of what is more likely to occur. Suppose a settlement on another world established by several thousands of individuals, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands, like a small city, who travel to another planetary system, tens or hundreds or thousands of light years from Earth. The passengers on the starship in their accelerated inertial framework will experience time dilation, and they will preserve the cultural milieu of Earth has it was upon their launch. When they establish their settlement, there will be two human histories that bifurcate at the point in time when the interstellar settlement initiative was inaugurated.

However, the larger population on Earth will continue to drive cultural evolution at a far faster rate than in the settlement, while, in the settlement, human beings will be subjected to radically different selection pressures than prevailed on Earth, and they will also be a small community likely to retain the cultural milieu they possessed when they left Earth. We would then have two human histories, offset in time by the discontinuity of the relativistic travel time from Earth to the location of the settlement. For example, if the Earth and the settlement are a hundred light years apart, there would be a temporal discontinuity of a century. Life would go on at Earth, and a century later things would be different, but a century later the settlement would just be founded on the basis of Earth’s culture of a century before. This is a kind of historical complexity that we do not have today, but which could happen in the future.

Now imagine not one settlement, but a hundred or a thousand such settlements, each representing a temporal discontinuity from Earth’s history. A hundred settlements of ten thousand persons each would be an effort involving only a million persons, which is a very small proportion of the total human population; Earth wouldn’t even notice the absence of a million persons. Further, imagine travel among these settlements by relativistic spacecraft, and then the history of those who travel between settlements will be even more complex. In this context, depending upon the location of settlements relative to each other, and the date at which the settlement initiative was undertaken, an individual could effectively time travel into the past by traveling outward from Earth to a settlement that preserves the historical milieu at Earth at the time of its departure. You could not return to Earth without finding yourself accelerated into the future, but you could travel further outward to a settlement established from earlier in Earth’s history.

We get a similar, if slower result, if we substitute sub-relativistic spacecraft in conjunction with artificially induced torpor or hibernation — space arks, if you will. A slow boat to the stars would likewise preserve the culture of Earth from the time of its departure, with settlers being roused and resuming their lives once they reached the end of their journey, effectively cut off from a return to their familiar terrestrial milieu, but they would be able to visit other historical peer milieux if they take another slow boat further out into the cosmos.

The kind of distributed temporality that I am describing would achieve its greatest extent, and its greatest historical complexity, in the case of interstellar expansion. However, something similar could be realized on Earth at a smaller scale. Imagine a large scale hibernation project on Earth, such that about 10,000 persons are involved, enough so that there could be a rotating crew of a dozen or so that stays awake to tend the rest to make sure this continues to operate as intended. At some appointed time in the future, the whole community could be brought out of their hibernation and they would bring with them the culture of Earth from their date when they entered into hibernation, now displaced into the future. This would make it possible for temporally distributed communities to appear on Earth, without travel to other worlds or the use of relativistic technology. There are several science fiction stories with something like this as their approximate premise.

Whether through relativistic travel or human hibernation, historical communities could be preserved from all eras into some indefinite future, and in that indefinite future, these distinct historical communities would be synchronically present. This is what I call coevalism, when all ages of history are equally accessible. The idea of coevalism occurred to me many years ago, and not in connection with relativistic travel; I was thinking about the increasing fidelity of recording technologies. Written language is the most rudimentary form of recording technology, and is allows us the most rudimentary form of time travel, by being able to share the thoughts of those long dead. Since the industrial revolution, technologies have become much more sophisticated, with photographs, film, and sound recordings, with always-increasing fidelity to the original.

The rapid growth of computer technology and telecommunications in recent decades has made us aware that, if this arc of technological development continues, we will have nearly-perfect fidelity recordings. But in addition to recordings, we could generate states-of-affairs that never existed in fact, as in fantasy and science fiction, or we could generate the milieux of the past, both with a degree of fidelity equal to that of the present. Computers are already sufficiently sophisticated to generate simple films, and the reconstruction of past milieux can be done without computers as well.

In the original Westworld film on 1973, a past milieu was re-created using robots. Robotics hasn’t yet achieved this level of realism, but we could do this today with human actors, and we may yet do so someday with robots. In fact, we do this in a limited way. Theme parks re-create fantasy worlds populated with actors who make fantasy characters come to life. So coevalism can be realized at smaller scales than sparefaring civilizations, but it would be in a spacefaring civilizations with relativistic space travel in which the possibilities of coevalism would come to their fullest expression, and in which history would achieve its greatest complexity.

History is already extraordinarily complex, but I said earlier than our terrestrial history is the simplest history possible given the spacetime structure of the universe. It is when we begin distributing our civilization in cosmological time that historical complexity will cease to be a single linear continuum. The possibilities of spacefaring histories will be both facilitated and limited by our technology. These possibilities will also be facilitated and limited by the actual spacetime structure of the universe, which is a function of the distribution of matter in the universe. Just as terrestrial history has been shaped by oceans, mountain ranges, and rivers, cosmological history is shaped by stars, gravitation, and expansion, and human history that takes place within this cosmological context will be shaped by these forces. The point I want to make is that, while human history is complex, we are not necessarily limited by the complexity of the single inertial frame of reference of our homeworld.

When multiple inertial frames of reference are available to us, and travel between then is possible, the possible structures of history will dramatically expand, and with these possibilities human experience will dramatically expand, and I hope you can see how this can give a whole new meaning to the idea of speculative philosophy of history. In the conventional distinction between analytical philosophy of history and substantive philosophy of history, analytical philosophy of history is, according to Danto, “…philosophy applied to the special conceptual problems which arise out of the practice of history,” while substantive philosophy of history is a philosophical account of the historical process itself. This same distinction has also been called the distinction between critical and speculative philosophy of history by William Dray, and the distinction between formal and material philosophy of history by Maurice Mandelbaum. Here I emphasize speculative philosophy of history as that which reflects uon the actual historical process.

In addition to the speculative philosophy of history that considers the historical process, we can also imagine a speculative philosophy of history that concerns itself with the implications of speculative states-of-affairs upon history yet to come — historical processes not yet realized, but which may be realized someday. Many of the speculative states-of-affairs I can imagine involve human exploration and expansion into the cosmos. The speculative states-of-affairs we might encounter in the wider universe could involve scientific discoveries not yet made and technologies not yet constructed, the histories of life on other worlds and the histories of alien civilizations, as well as the histories that we will create for ourselves. It’s a big universe, and we might discover any number of unlikely or unprecedented existents.

In my episode on a complexity ladder for big history I argued that there may be distinctive emergents from historical knowledge, that is to say, the quantitative growth of historical knowledge may pass a threshold to become a qualitative change in historical understanding. What kind of emergents could these be? For example, an increase in the knowledge of our own history can change our understanding of ourselves. We are seeing this with the use of the genetic record to reconstruct the sequence by which human beings distributed themselves across Earth. In this way, epistemic emergents reshape our past and our understanding of ourselves.

In addition to these emergents from knowledge of our past, there may yet come emergents that arise from a temporally distributed civilization and the advent of coevalism. A temporally distributed civilization could also give rise to emergents in historical knowledge. The dawning realization of epistemic emergents yet to come in the future will shape our conception of what we can become (in contradistinction to increased knowledge of the past shaping what we are), reshaping our future, and we will need these epistemic emergents from a history of a greater order of complexity so as to understand the more complex world coming into being, and which our descendants will inhabit. Without these epistemic emergents we would not be able to understand the more complex world arising out of these novel technologies and the world they will bring into being. The future of philosophy of history has never been brighter, as we see that it will come to grappled with ever-larger and more complex problems.