Work in Progress: A Little Big History of Big History

Friday 04 November 2022

Nick Nielsen
9 min readNov 14, 2022

Today I am headed back to Edinburgh to attend the inaugural Forming and Exploring Habitable Worlds conference, which will run the entire week of November 07 to 11. I think I have significantly improved the presentation I gave last August in St. Andrews, and I am seeing more ways to elaborate and extend the material. Some of my discussions of my presentation after its first delivery, made in previous newsletters, have found their way into the revision, as have issues raised in the Q&A that followed my St. Andrews presentation, which was called “Toward Universal Biology: An Observational Scientific Research Program in Origins of Life,” and which is now in its revised version called “Constraining Exobiology: An Observational Scientific Research Program in Origins and Development of Life.”

There is more than a tangential connection of this material with my 2019 presentation in Milan, “Peer Complexity during the Stelliferous Era,” and my first NoRCEL presentation, delivered online in 2021, “How many branches on the tree of life?” The observational research program that I am presenting now would not only be a way to constrain astrobiological conceptions, but also any forms of peer emergent complexity that may be found in the universe. The building blocks for life may also be the building blocks for things that are not life, but which are as complex as life, or nearly so. I assume that these unknown forms of peer complexity would be as interesting to study as extraterrestrial life, and thus should be deemed to be of scientific value.

Moreover, while the chemical composition of various planetary systems in the universe may vary considerably, giving a different spin to the chemical building blocks of consequent forms of emergent complexity, as far as we know that aren’t any other building blocks in the universe for other forms of complexity that might be as complex, and as interesting as life. That may sound a bit confusing, and I need to improve my formulation of that idea.

A lot of the attempted conceptual clarification of other possibilities for interesting things to find in the universe turns on assumptions like finding superintelligent machines instead of finding other living beings, but, as we understand the universe, superintelligent machines would only come into being if built by other living beings, so this is a future projection of the possibilities of human development, but not really an alternative form of emergent complexity as I understand it. Similar attempts to think outside the box that our geocentricism and anthropocentrism has placed our minds within are similarly limited and lacking in radically re-thinking the role of complexity in the universe.

While I have been presenting these ideas in an astrobiological context, they are as much ideas of big history, which has a close affinity to astrobiology, when viewed from a particular perspective. I have often thought about the peculiar situation of astrobiology in the sciences, as it seems to be a subdiscipline of biology, and this implies that it is a specialization, but there is another sense in which astrobiology is more comprehensive than biology simpliciter, and what we today call biology may someday be understood to be terrestrial biology, and a subdiscipline that falls under astrobiology. Is there any other instance of a subdiscipline that has the potential to grow until it subsumes the discipline under which it was introduced?

All of the sciences are potentially in this position in comparison to their cosmological extrapolations, thus astrogeology and geology, astrobotany and botany, astrosociology and sociology, and so on. With astrobiology, this development has been realized sooner and more fully than in these other disciplines, but all the other scientific disciplines may someday be subordinated to their cosmological extrapolations. Astrobiology, being among the first of the sciences to begin converging on a cosmological extrapolation of a science originating within the parameters of our geocentric and antrhopocentric paradigm, may, due to its first-mover advantage, simply continue expanding until it becomes the master narrative of science, subsuming all of special sciences under it.

This came up recently as I was corresponding with David LePoire of the IBHA (he edits the IBHA newsletter, and I sent him a new Frontiers column for the next iteration of the newsletter) and we discussed tying big history to astrobiology. I suggested that the most generous construal of astrobiology will eventually expand to engulf some of the big history talking points, but whether big history will survive this transition is not clear. I like to point out that the Drake equation was big history before its time (I guess we could also call the Drake equation astrobiology before its time), with the terms of the equation corresponding roughly to David Christian’s periodization thresholds.

Over the longue durée, I think we will see big history wax and wane, and we can today point to previous examples that approached the idea of big history — intimations of big history, as it were (Kant, Herder, Condorcet, etc.) — but five hundred years from now it may well be said that big history was first made explicit in the 20th century, but the science at that time wasn’t sufficiently sophisticated to carry out the program in a thorough-going manner, so that the development of the discipline had to wait for other developments. And in this way big history will have its own big history.

It is entirely possible that science has not yet developed to the point at which the implicit program of big history can be carried out in a thorough-going manner. Partially, yes. We can and do at present have a fragmentary big history, but a seamless big history may not yet be within our grasp, and science may have to go through several additional centuries of methodological development before it is in a position to formulate a unified narrative of the universe entire.

Now, when I say that science requires further methodological development, I’m not talking about the growth of scientific knowledge. One could, as a thought experiment, work through whether it would be possible for science to continue to formulate novel knowledge with no methodological development at all, and we could also think through whether it would be possible for science to undergo methodological development and yet cease to formulate new knowledge.

My assumption is that science could continue the expansion of scientific knowledge without any new methodological developments, since this simply involves continuing to do more of the same; the knowledge produced in this way may become increasingly trivial, and the enterprise of science could become one of diminishing returns. On the other hand, while it is unlikely, it seems possible that we could have a thorough-going methodological reform of science and yet have no new scientific knowledge produced. The latter case may seem counter-intuitive, so let me give a couple of examples.

Say that all mathematicians were converted to the constructivist point of view, and were only willing to pursue mathematics that is constructivistically acceptable (as some contemporary philosophers are only willing to countenance formulations that are physicalistically acceptable). Under these circumstances, only that part of classical mathematics, including contemporary mathematics in the classical tradition, that met constructivist tests of rigor would survive. Mathematicians might devote themselves to producing constructivisitic proofs of theorems originally proved non-constructively, and the total number of theorems recognized by mathematics might actually shrink even while a methodological revision was sweeping the field. If we count mathematical theorems as the epistemic equivalent of knowledge in the natural sciences, then we would have a circumstance in which new knowledge production has all but ceased while methodological revisions took center stage.

Another example: the rediscovery and dissemination of Aristotle in Western Europe during the Middle Ages involved something like a re-promulgation of the Aristotelian philosophy of nature, but under the conditions of Scholasticism. This second example is particularly apt, since it touches on the relation of knowledge to social institutions. The conditions of knowledge production in classical antiquity were radically different from the conditions of knowledge production in the Middle Ages, and the shift from the kind of scholarship found in the ancient world, facilitated by the social institutions of this civilization, to the kind of scholarship found in medieval Europe, again, facilitated by the social institutions of this civilization, may be taken as a radical change in methodology, even while some of the content of knowledge (in this case, Aristotelian philosophy) remains invariant.

Science as it is practiced today must be treated at the scale of civilization, because science today is a civilizational-scale undertaking — indeed, in this sense, by the implied definition in this statement, we could say that our civilization is a scientific civilization (and the is it or isn’t it is a question I have visited several times, most especially in “Pathways into the Deep Future,” “The Role of Science in Enlightenment Universalism,” and “The Infinite telos of Reason: Edmund Husserl and Scientific Civilization”).

Science today progresses as rapidly as it does because there are large communities of scientists throughout the world, pursuing science under different social and political conditions, universities that are centers of scientific research all have an international student body, and all the world’s scientific communities are in contact with each other in a planetary-scale communication network. What Twitter is for social discourse, Arxiv and Bioarxiv have been for science, and scientists also use the tools of social media to connect with each other as well as to popularize their work. If any of these conditions are compromised, science will not suddenly cease, but the rate of progress will slow, and enough of these conditions are compromised, science would eventually shudder to a halt, though it would take quite some time for this to happen, even if civilization takes a big hit on a planetary scale.

The bearing here on the production of scientific knowledge compared to the development of scientific methodology is that these same conditions that bear upon the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge could change in ways that encouraged or discouraged either knowledge production in the natural sciences, methodological changes in science, or both. A major disruption in civilization would be a major disruption science, but it could also (like the founder effect in evolutionary biology) put science on a few footing, and facing in a new direction.

For a really big picture view, consider this scenario: our present civilization develops science in its current iteration (as known to us since the scientific revolution) to the limit of the possibilities of this paradigm, and then this civilization collapses and we enter into a new dark age. After this dark age, a new civilization eventually stirs to life, with its own science that comes at problems from a slightly different perspective, with a different emphasis, and so sees the world a bit differently. This slightly different science then develops within its civilization to the limits of its possibilities, and its civilization in its turn is exhausted and fails catastrophically. Out of yet another dark age, yet another civilization appears, but it happens upon a troves of books from both of these previous scientific (or partially-scientific) civilizations, and is able to learn from both the triumphs and failures of these different approaches, and so dialectically overcomes both in a synthesis that includes their capabilities while overcoming their limitations.

Here I would want to distinguish between quality and quantity of science, which I could also call the scope and scale of science. Both distinctions are suggestive, but neither are quite right. I would be willing to allow that some kinds of civilization are intrinsically more conducive to the production of scientific knowledge than others, so that science could develop to a more sophisticated state of development in the one as compared to the other. I would further allow that both the civilizations of classical antiquity and of medieval Europe were limited in the degree to which science could progress under these social conditions, especially as compared to modern Western civilization. However, I do not consider modern Western civilization to be optimal for the progress of science, only marginally better than previous iterations of Western civilization.

These distinctions of the total quantity of scientific knowledge produced, and the degree and rate of progress possible in science in distinct civilizations, are in turn distinct from questions of the quality of science practiced within a given civilization, which involves the metaphysical presuppositions of science, the motivations that drive scientific discovery, and the interest taken in the natural world by individuals acculturated in a given civilization.

Perhaps the ideal conditions for science would be in some distant futurity in which a wealthy civilization spans several worlds, each presumably with their own civilization, and there is relatively rapid travel and communication within this interstellar civilization. Under these conditions, a scientific colony established in some otherwise lawless backwater or boundary region, in which science would not be subject to the arbitrary contingencies of any one civilization, but could borrow from the scientific communities of these multiple distinct civilizations, might make it possible for science to advance at the scale of civilization without being subject to the whims of any one civilization.

If these are the optimal conditions for science, they may never be realized, though we can imagine a future in which they are realized. One could argue that what I have suggested here is similar in some ways to the planet described in Asimov’s Foundation series, but the willingness of the Foundation to use religion as an instrument of social control would have seriously compromised their science.