Work in Progress: The Problem of Planetary Civilization

Working alone on ideas throughout my life I have often overlooked obvious implications of these ideas for weeks or months or years. Sometimes readers are kind enough to point out to me some of my oversights, and sometimes I eventually catch them myself. After posting last week’s newsletter on concept formation I had an obvious realization that allowed me to formulate a new concept in the theory of civilization, so I might say that it was an insight generative of concept formation.

In newsletter 170 I discussed my change of mind regarding whether or not contemporary civilization is a planetary civilization. Formerly I considered it to be such, but now I am of a mind that there is a difference between a planet as bound by civilization as is ours, and a genuine planetary civilization. The obvious insight this past week was how to define a proper planetary system, and once I phrased it to myself in this way (which is analogous to asking what constitutes a properly scientific civilization, etc., which is a question that I have already asked myself and that I have answered to my satisfaction), it was immediately obvious that, given the institutional structure of civilization that I posit, a planetary civilization is a civilization that takes a planet as its central project. This, then, is an adequate conception of planetary civilization.

There are two observations that must be made about this formulation:

  1. Presumably, an intelligent agent that is the progenitor of a civilization would take its homeworld as the planet that is its central project, and presumably this homeworld would be the planet upon which the species evolved, but, taken in its full generality, the definition of a planetary civilization need not insist upon either of these conditions. In theory, an intelligent agent that is the progenitor of a civilization might take as its central project, a) its planet of origin, or b) it might move to another planet, adopt that as its homeworld, and take that planet as its central project, or c) it might simply become interested in some other planet to such an extent that this other planet becomes its central project. Admittedly, this last possibility is counter-intuitive to the idea of a planetary civilization (if indeed we have any intuitions about planetary civilizations), but I it mention for the sake of thoroughness. However, this might well be an interesting permutation of planetary civilization to explore. Another counter-intuitive planetary civilization that is possible given the above definition would be, d) a geographically regional civilization that takes a planet as its central project. Given this latter possibility, we can see that de facto planetary civilizations and proper planetary civilizations overlap, but their non-overlapping portions are not empty.
  2. A planet could be thematized as the central project of a civilization in many different ways — for instance, as an object of knowledge, as an object of worship, as possessing intrinsic value (which can in turn be broken down into the kinds of intrinsic value it might possess), as the bearer of a biosphere (certainly unique, in the sense of being different from all other biospheres, and possibly also unique in the sense of being the only biosphere in the universe), and so on.

These two observations might be called the what condition — What planet is the central project? — and the how condition — How is the planet thematized as a central project? Retroactively we can see the applications of these conditions to religions that serve as the central projects of pre-modern agricultural civilizations, in regard to which we can ask: 1) What religion is the central project, and 2) How is that religion thematized as the central project? These two questions in turn imply that there is a class of properly religious civilizations, but that there is variation among these properly religious civilizations depending upon which religion is taken as the central project and how that religion is thematized as the central project.

This may sound like an unnecessary circumlocution to use in discussing pre-modern civilizations, almost all of which had religion as a central project, but it is a worthwhile circumlocution because it is an opportunity to clarify my previous formulations, which were less precise. Analogous to my above breakdown of planetary civilizations into 1a, 1b, 1c, and 1d, we could say of properly religious civilization that presumably an intelligent agent that is the progenitor of a civilization would take its own religion as its central project, and presumably its own religion would be the religion that this civilization developed, but we can cite any number of instances of civilizations in which this was not the case. Sometimes civilizations adopt a new religion, or create a new religion, that becomes a central project.

Even the counter-intuitive 1d scenario can be seen to make sense in the context of properly religious civilizations. The analogous formulation for properly religious civilizations would be a civilization that is not itself religious but which takes a religious as its central project. In the history that lies ahead of us in an increasingly secularized world (and, yes, I know that the secularization thesis is frequently disputed and is rejected by many sociologists), it would be easy to imagine civilizations taking religions of past civilizations as their central project. Here the how condition is also important, because a past religion taken as a central project would not be thematized as an object of belief. So, for example, in some future iteration of Western civilization, the Christian tradition could be taken as a central project, but it would not be taken in its original sense as an object of belief. To a certain extent this has already happened in the West, but it is a subordinate theme to the elaboration and promulgation of the Enlightenment project.

I can easily imagine that someone might find the distinction I made in newsletter 170, and which I am making again here, between de facto planetary civilizations and proper planetary civilizations to be a distinction without a difference. And when I expand upon this distinction by formulating in terms of a central project, that is only going to get me deeper into trouble because central projects are nowhere explicit while being everywhere implicit within a given civilization. Central projects are an abstraction, and it is easy to ridicule an abstraction in the name of science, and especially today as science tends more and more toward an idiographic paradigm of knowledge (I previously wrote about this in newsletter 164, as a retreat into Pyrrhonic skepticism).

Central projects, though large, are elusive. It literally took me years to figure out that it is the Enlightenment project that is the central project of Western civilization since the Enlightenment (taking the early modern period as a transition from the medieval world to a modern world in which it is possible for something like the Enlightenment to be formulated). Part of this elusiveness is the difficulty of seeing our own civilization from the perspective of an outsider, i.e., the problem of self-alienation or defamiliarization, but part of the problem is the abstractness of a central project. But “abstractness” doesn’t capture all of what I am talking about. Part of what I here mean by “abstraction” is the “big picture” level at which some ideas are effective (in contrast to ideas that are effective at a much smaller scale).

I have previously addressed this problem in part in a blog post on whether it is possible to formulate any science of the big picture — Is It Possible to Specialize in the Big Picture? This past week I came upon a similar idea in Philip Bagby’s Culture and History: Prolegomena to the Comparative Study of Civilizations. I have mentioned this book previously, as I find that Bagby struggled with many of the same problems that have interested me. Here is Bagby’s formulation of the idea of a science of the big picture:

“…the historian cannot see the wood for the trees. What I am proposing is that he should look only at the wood, for the time being, and neglect the trees; it would be a great thing if someone could invent a ‘macroscope,’ an instrument which would ensure that the historian would see only the larger aspects of history and blind him to the individual details. It is only by remaining at this higher level of abstraction that we can hope to decipher the principal patterns of historical change, to identify the ‘forces,’ whatever they are, which have made the world what it is today.” (p. 128)

Here Bagby has also invoked “abstraction,” but in abstracting from some details, as every science must, we are, at the same time, attending to other details — details we might overlook, but because they are too small and trivial to notice (cf. the Cartesian critique of history), but because they are too large (and perhaps too important) to notice.

The above definition of a planetary civilization — a planetary civilization is a civilization that takes a planet as its central project — has given me new insights into what I have called the SETI conception of civilization. I discuss what I call the SETI conception of civilization in a couple of manuscripts (primarily, Civilization: Past, Present, Future, and The Missing Piece of the SETI Puzzle) in which I address the unarticulated conception of civilization implicit in SETI. SETI is forced into an act of extreme abstraction because of the nature of the SETI undertaking: searching for technosignatures that are to be located at such a distance that we would identify the source as a planet (or a megastructure, or a technology of sufficient scale to be detected over interstellar distances).

From the initial conceit of SETI there is a tendency to identify planets with civilizations and civilizations with planets. Thus the SETI conception of civilization is implicitly a conception of planetary civilization. When I was thinking through the above ideas and distinctions I realized that it would be possible the study civilization on a planetary scale without necessarily employing a planetary conception of civilization. Again, this is a highly abstract point of view, and some might not see the point here, but, from the perspective of the study of civilization, the idea is important. I can readily understand, however, if someone’s primary interest is not the study of civilization, that this kind of distinction might seem overly subtle.

I should note that the SETI conception of civilization is distinct from what I call the SETI paradigm, which latter consists of a number of presuppositions common among SETI research, and which indeed provide the motivations and intellectual background for SETI research. In Stagnant Supercivilizations and Interstellar Travel I described the SETI paradigm in this way:

“The advocate of the SETI paradigm must assert that interstellar travel is impossible, because, if it is possible, the idea of a grand Encyclopedia Galactica existing in the form of a network of SETI signals crisscrossing the cosmos is very unlikely to be realized. Thus this cluster of assumptions that I call the SETI paradigm — that interstellar travel is difficult or impossible, that communication is easy, and therefore SETI and METI are, or ought to be, the focus of the efforts of advanced civilizations to interact with peers — hang together by mutual implication. If we reject any one aspect of the paradigm, it falls apart.”

It would be an interesting project for me to try to understand in what ways, if any, the SETI conception of civilization and the SETI paradigm imply each other. Prima facie, it is likely that the SETI conception of civilization follows at least in part from the SETI paradigm, which latter constitutes the fundamental assumptions of SETI research, and so probably informs most SETI concepts, including those concepts that have not been made explicit. The concepts of SETI overlap with the concepts of the early Space Age, the formation of which I discussed last week.

Let me finish with an observation on planetary civilization that is relevant to contemporary politics: I have often said that the only significant political ideology to emerge in the second half of the twentieth century was environmentalism. In this context we can see why this is: environmentalism thematizes Earth entire as an object of intrinsic value (alternatively, environmentalism thematizes the biosphere as intrinsically valuable, and the biosphere supervenes on Earth entire), and so Earth sub specie natura is potentially a central project of a planetary civilization. While it is unlikely that anything like this is explicit in the minds of the environmentalists that engage in political activism, it is pervasively implicit. I recognized this in Space Development Futures, as one of my six examples of a future civilization was an environmentalist civilization.

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