Post-Naturalistic Permutations of Civilization

Cultural Evolution from Distant Past to Far Future

We can construct an historical sequence in the development of civilization on Earth such that a small number of pristine civilizations initiate an age of agricultural civilizations, and later with the industrial revolution the paradigm of agricultural civilizations, by now almost ten thousand years old, gives way to a new paradigm. This new post-agricultural paradigm I addressed in Permutations of Post-Agricultural Civilizations: Industrial, Technological, and Scientific Formations, in which I suggested that a tightly-coupled STEM cycle entails differences of emphasis that can yield scientific, technological, and industrial engineering civilizations. We are still early in this development, and we have not yet seen the possibilities of this paradigm play out. Perhaps we will need to pass through another ten thousand years of permutations of this post-agricultural paradigm before we come close to exhausting its possibilities.

If civilization can endure the social tensions and military confrontations that will accompany the exhaustion of the possibilities of post-agricultural civilization, which latter I will here refer to as naturalistic civilization (for reasons that will be made clear below), the next great transformation in civilization will be the advent of post-naturalistic civilizations. Post-naturalistic civilizations will be characterized by a post-naturalistic conceptual framework, which I discussed in The Coming Age of Post-Naturalism: Conceptual Frameworks and Emergent Complexities of the Far Future .

In Permutations of Post-Agricultural Civilizations I discussed the scientific, technological, and industrial forms that civilization takes under the condition of a tightly-coupled STEM cycle, which is science producing technologies engineered into industrial applications that produces better instruments that further scientific discovery. All of these permutations of civilization more or less as we know it today are characterized by a naturalistic conceptual framework. In so far as the STEM cycle is built upon science, and science is possible only in the context of a naturalistic conceptual framework, science (as we understand it today) and a naturalistic conceptual framework are mutually reinforcing. Science, however, was not always thus.

In the loosely-coupled STEM cycles of agricultural civilizations, “science” is to be taken in the same loose sense, simply meaning explicitly formulated human knowledge. The philosophical naturalism of the ancient Greeks, unique to western civilization, after its development through Scholasticism, eventually converged on what we know today as science, which is not merely explicitly formulated human knowledge, but explicitly formulated human knowledge arrived at through the scientific method, which means theory tested against experience through experiment. Science only loosely-coupled to experience yields human knowledge only loosely coupled to experience, while science tightly-coupled to experience through the mechanism of experimentation means human knowledge that is uniquely actionable through industrial engineering — science gives us the power to change our world (i.e., to engage in niche construction) in unprecedented ways.

Though we are changing our world, the process of science tightly-coupled to experience remains incomplete, perhaps radically so. While we have not yet reached this integrated point of development in scientific thought, we can postulate a naturalistic conceptual framework as tightly-coupled with human knowledge, analogous to a tightly-coupled STEM cycle that characterizes the economy of contemporary civilization. Naturalistic civilization has yet to achieve this degree of integration of human life with a naturalistic conceptual framework. If we endure for a period of time sufficient to realize this implicit telos of the naturalistic worldview, we could regard this achievement as the culmination of naturalistic civilization and one way of achieving scientific civilization.

How do these speculative developments of science and naturalism relate to the overall history of civilization and human thought? In Para-Civilization I offered the metahistorical sequence of non-civilizationproto-civilizationcivilization properpara-civilizationnon-civilization. We can build on this idealized and simplified periodization for civilization by further articulating an idealized and simplified sequence of cultural evolution for civilization itself, and not only the context (conceptual framework and economic infrastructure) in which civilization appears.

The history of overarching conceptual frameworks can be given the periodization ArchaicAxialScholasticNaturalistic: Archaic thought, from prehistoric beginnings up to the Axial Age, Axial thought from the Axial Age to Scholasticism (at least in western civilization; other civilizations have different developmental trajectories, though we can find cross-cultural parallel developments), and then naturalism, from the end of the Scholasticism up to the present. In this periodization, Archaic, Axial, and Scholastic thought all represent permutations of pre-naturalistic thought, generally supernaturalistic in character.

Naturalism transcends the supernaturalistic conceptual frameworks of all prior human thought, whether Archaic, Axial, or Scholastic, and represents an authentic novelty in emergent complexity in our conceptual framework in the same way the industrialization (with which naturalism is coupled, through science) represents an authentic novelty in emergent complexity in our economic infrastructure.

Taking the naturalistic perspective (since we are the products of naturalism) as the pivot on which human history turns, the sequence of conceptual frameworks of civilization would be supernaturalisticnaturalisticpost-naturalistic. It could be argued that human beings, as biological beings, so that our conceptual frameworks emerge from a biological brain that is very much a product of its (biological) environment, the naturalistic perspective is our intrinsic telos. Thus the overarching development of human conceptual frameworks could be expected to take the form of some pre-naturalistic cognition (mythology, mysticism, religion, and supernaturalistic conceptions generally speaking), followed by the mature development of naturalism, and finishing as naturalism breaks up and various non-naturalistic conceptual frameworks arise and take shape in the vacuum left by the unsustainable peak of accomplishment that was naturalism.

Naturalism as a conceptual framework equal to great conceptual frameworks of the past — such as Scholasticism, which in turn grew out of the melding of ancient science and Christian theology — can be expected to endure for hundreds of years at least, and possibly for thousands of years or longer. Perhaps the epoch of naturalism will be as long as or longer than the pre-naturalistic conceptual frameworks that recede into the distant past, having their origins long before civilization. While these conceptual frameworks were not “naturalistic,” they were “natural” in so far as they represent the earliest conceptual frameworks of human beings and thus our first intuitive glimmerings of independent thought that set us apart from and, to a certain extent, outside nature.

As there is a certain symmetry between proto-civilization and para-civilization, both being non-civilizations immediately removed from civilization proper (the one before, the other after), and again there is a symmetry between pre-civilization non-civilization and post-civilization non-civilization, we would expect to see a certain limited symmetry between pre-naturalistic civilization and post-naturalistic civilization, with certain perennial themes of human thought returning after the naturalistic culmination in a realized telos of scientific civilization.

It is possible that a post-naturalistic order, after it has in its turn played out, will be gradually transformed into para-civilization, or there may be another permutation of civilization between post-naturalistic civilization and para-civilization. In the former case, we have the historical sequence non-civilizationproto-civilizationagricultural civilizationnaturalistic civilizationpost-naturalistic civilizationpara-civilizationnon-civilization; in the latter case, another permutation of civilization is interpolated between post-naturalistic civilization and para-civilization.

If human beings are followed by some non-naturalistic intelligence — either through human speciation within the context of industrialized civilization (a civilization that could select for non-naturalistic beings), or as a result of human beings constructing artificial intelligence or machine consciousness that becomes our successor — then an age of post-naturalistic civilization (if it is civilization) could appear much more rapidly, before the possibilities of naturalistic civilization have been fully played out, and such successors could go on to define their own destinies in the universe unconstrained by the biological bodies and evolutionary psychology that defines human beings. In this case, pre-naturalistic and post-naturalistic symmetry fails because a novel emergent complexity has supplanted human beings, and history is then no longer a human development.

From this reflection an elusive yet interesting principle suggests itself: where overarching symmetries are present in historical development, we are seeing a single, unitary development play out, whereas when overarching symmetries are missing, something genuinely new has appeared that pushes history in a new direction, uncoupled from past constraints. At first glimpse, this principle, if it is a principle, plays out dialectically in history, with both symmetries and asymmetries commingled, so that the patterns implied by the principle only make sense if we sedulously extricate them and present them in isolation from the complex context in which they appear. This, too, is an idealized and simplified projection of a principle upon the backdrop of actual history, which is neither ideal nor simple.

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