Among the many fascinating topics the pair touched upon during their lively, almost two hour conversation, two in particular stood out for me, connecting with books I have read over the past few years: Deutsch’s concerns about the threats he sees to the future of humankind; and his explanation and discussion of the Fermi Paradox, and possible explanations for it.
Regarding the future of humanity, at 1:17:58 into the conversation Harris asks Deutsch:
SH: What worries you about the viability of the human career at this point? What’s on your short list of concerns?
Deutsch opens his reply with a succinct and rather pessimistic sketch of human history, before going on to identify what he feels was the key moment of transition that led to the explosion of progress of the last several centuries:
DD: Well, I see human history as a long period of complete failure. Failure, that is, to make any progress. Now our species has existed for depending on where you count it from maybe 50 thousand years, maybe 100, 200 thousand years, but, anyway, the vast majority of that time people were alive, they were thinking, they were suffering, they wanted things --- nothing ever improved.
The slow improvements that did happen, happened so that … geologists can’t distinguish the difference between the artifacts from one era to another with a resolution of like 10,000 years. So, from the point of view of a human lifetime, nothing ever improved. Generation upon generation upon generation of suffering and stasis.
Then there was slow improvement, then a more rapid improvement, then there were several attempts to institutionalize a tradition of criticism, which I think is the key to rapid progress in the sense that we think of it, progress discernible on the time scale of a human lifetime. And also error correction, so that regression is less likely.
That happened several times, and failed every time except once: in the European enlightenment of the 17th, 18th centuries.
Deutsch’s highlighting of the importance of the development of a tradition of criticism recalled for me a similar analysis by historian Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. (The discussion that follows on Harari's views is adapted from my review of his book, linked to at the right; quotes from the book are referenced with the page number.)
Harari’s book centers on the idea that the key trait that differentiated Homo Sapiens from the other human species, and allowed them to therefore become the sole surviving species of humans, was the development of the ability to create imagined orders: fictions or constructs that form the basis of all of our non-biologically driven thought and action. He goes on to describe the wide variety of extraordinary ways in which this ability manifested itself during the evolution of human society and civilization.
Evoking Deutsch’s identification of the development of a tradition of criticism as the driver for the Enlightenment, Harari highlights that same moment, if in slightly different language, in pinpointing the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution some 500 years ago as the period when humankind began to acknowledge its own ignorance, and so ceased to blindly divide knowledge between that which was ordained by religious belief and that which was simply unimportant to know. Along with this change came a shift to making observation and mathematics central to improving our understanding, and a focus on turning scientific discoveries into technical advances.
Like Deutsch, Harari also sees this development as having occurred successfully only in Western Europe, and as having resulted in an unparalleled advantage for the West in its growth. There, Harari notes, this revolution was matched by a burning desire to fill in the gaps, a “mentality of conquest” (283) that set off a frenzied search for new discoveries both in a scientific sense, and also in the searching out of news lands in parts of the globe unknown to Europeans: “As time went by, the conquest of knowledge and the conquest of territory became ever more tightly intertwined.” (284)
This combination of interest in science and desire for conquest resulted in a decisive edge for nations in Western Europe, Harari argues, as they reached outward. Although empires in Asia and the Western Hemisphere produced scientific discoveries on par with Western Europe, and were more powerful than countries in Western Europe as the Scientific Revolution began, “they lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form in the West and which could not be copied and internalized rapidly.” (282) Thus, as Western Europeans began exploring the globe, these more powerful empires stayed close to home, and found themselves unprepared to counter Europe’s expansion onto the world scene.
The deep belief and faith in progress and the future that accompanied the Scientific Revolution in Western Europe also set the stage for the development of capitalism. Harari points out that capitalism and the Scientific Revolution worked hand in hand in the West, becoming a combination of imagined orders that strengthened one another in a powerful feedback loop as investments in science led to new discoveries that led to new technologies that gave governments the power to gain control of more resources, and so provide yet more funding for further scientific advancement.
Thus, whether naming it "a tradition of criticism," per Deutsch, or an "acknowledgement of ignorance," per Harari, a critical change in thought patterns in Western Europe some half a millennium ago, provided the impetus for the rapid growth and spread of its civilization, and so utterly shaped our present world.
Returning, then, to Deutsch's comments, he goes on to express his deep concern over what he sees as the fragile nature of this tradition of criticism, and the lack of understanding among those currently benefiting from it of how to maintain that tradition, and so Western civilization.
DD: So, you asked what worries me. What worries me is that the inheritors of that little bit of progress, little bit of salutary progress, are only a small proportion of the population of the world today. It’s the culture or civilization that we call the West. Only the West really has a tradition of criticism institutionalized. And, this has manifested itself in various problems, including the problem of failed cultures, which see their failure writ large by comparison of themselves with the West, and therefore want to do something about this that doesn’t involve creativity. And that is very, very dangerous.
So, then there’s the fact that in the West, the knowledge of what it takes to maintain our civilization is not widely known. In fact, as you’ve also said, the prevailing view among people in the West, including very educated people, is of a picture of the relationship between knowledge and progress and civilization and values and so on, that’s just wrong in so many different ways.
So, although the institutions of our culture are amazingly good, that they have been able to manage stability in the face of rapid change for hundreds of years, the knowledge of what it takes to keep civilization stable, in the face of rapidly increasing knowledge, is not very widespread, and in fact, severe misconceptions about several aspects of it are common among political leaders, educated people, and society at large. So, we’re like people on a hugely well designed submarine, which has got all sorts of life-saving devices built-in, but they don’t know they’re in a submarine, they think they’re in a motorboat, and they’re going to open all the hatches because they want to have a nicer view.
Deutsch’s concern regarding what he perceives as the loss among those in the West of “the knowledge of what it takes to maintain our civilization” recalled for me the thesis of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gassett, in his 1930 essay The Revolt of the Masses, in which he argues that there has been a loss of what he refers to as the “vital force” necessary for the maintenance and further development of civilization. (The discussion that follows on Ortega's views is adapted from my review of his book, linked to at the right; quotes from the book are referenced with the page number.)
Although Deutsch did not elaborate in his conversation with Harris on what he considers to have been the origins of what he refers to as the "severe misconceptions about several aspects" of "the knowledge of what it takes to keep civilization stable," Ortega makes explicitly and firmly clear his opinion of its origins already in his title: a revolt of the masses.
Early on in his essay Ortega clarifies that the revolt to which he refers is not the violent overthrow of a governing regime but rather an upending of the social order, in which the masses have inserted themselves into, and asserted their sovereignty over, all aspects of society: “the accession of the masses to complete social power.” (11) The consequence of this has been the loss of the “vital force" necessary for maintaining civilization. That vital force, he says, had been provided for centuries by aristocrats: scientists, philosophers, politicians and other intellectuals who took responsibility for the enrichment and governing of civilization, and guided the progress of human society in all spheres of development.
By aristocrat, Ortega refers not simply to someone with money, power or prestige, but rather to what he calls a select minority, “the man who demands more of himself than the rest”, and so is capable of supporting and advancing humankind’s social development. This is not a class issue, Ortega claims, differentiating the select minority from the masses, "who demand nothing special of themselves, [and] for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection." (15) Thus, the distinguishing feature of someone in the masses is an inability to recognize the efforts required by our forebearers to achieve the benefits of current day civilization, and consequently an unwillingness to struggle to improve oneself and society.
Critically, the masses had historically ceded power to these aristocrats, allowing them to determine the distribution and access to the benefits thus created. In one of the more striking claims of Ortega's analysis, however, he argues that the very advances that have improved life for so many have also inevitably led to the accession of the masses that now threatens civilization’s future. These newly ascendant masses, in contrast to the select minorities who labored diligently to advance civilization, have viewed the resulting benefits as a kind of outgrowth of the natural world --- essentially a birthright.
Thus, failing to recognize the effort required to maintain and grow civilization, the masses have narrowed their focus onto themselves, and have found no reason to exert effort in “pushing themselves to excel, [and] have little feeling of ‘duty’ or ‘obligation’.” (65) A further consequence of this has been that the masses regard their thoughts and opinions as perfect, and so take on new ideas and beliefs without making any effort to develop the rationale and reasons for them. This leaves them unwilling, then, to put up with contrary opinions, because to do so would subject their own ideas to uncomfortable discussion and consideration.
Ortega goes on to describe the world as having been led by Europe from the time that an integrated global civilization developed. In his view, however, the accession of mass-man to a position of power, and their unwillingness to exert the effort required to advance, or even maintain, civilization’s complex infrastructure, have diminished Europe’s ability to maintain its leadership role in the world.
In his comments, Deutsch called the fact that "the knowledge of what it takes to keep civilization stable ... is not very widespread" as being "very, very dangerous." And, so although Deutsch may or may not agree with the details of Ortega's arguments for the causes that have led to this present situation, his conclusion is not so far removed from Ortega's: a vacuum in leadership has developed, one that left countries and regions of the world drifting in dangerously divergent directions, and, as a result, “Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilizations.” (11)
At about 1:39:20 point in the conversation, Harris raises the question of the Fermi Paradox with Deutsch. (Note that Deutsch corrects him to say it’s the Fermi Problem, but my review of the two terms indicates that Harris was correct, and that the Fermi Problem is actually a different concept; the Fermi Paradox could be argued to be a type of Fermi Problem, focused specifically on the existence of extra-terrestrial life. So, with the awareness that I'm correcting a world renowned physicist, I’ve reflected that in the opening words of Deutsch’s reply.)
SH: I wanted to get your opinion on the Fermi Paradox. And, describe what the paradox is for those who don't know it, but then, tell me why our not seeing the galaxy teeming with more advanced civilizations than our own isn't a sign that there's something about gathering more knowledge that might in fact be fatal to those who gather it.
DD: The Fermi [Paradox] is: where are they? Where are the extra-terrestrials?
The idea is that the galaxy is very large, but how big it is, is trumped by how old it is. So that, if there were two civilizations anywhere in the galaxy, the chances that they had arisen less than, say, ten million years apart, are infinitesimal. So therefore, if there is another one out there, it’s overwhelmingly likely to be at least ten million years older than us, and therefore to have had ten million years more time to develop, and also in that time there’s plenty of time for them to get here, if not be space travel, then by sheer mixing of the stars in the galaxy. They only need to colonize a few nearby stars to them, so that after say a hundred million years, or a billion years, those stars will be far apart, and spread about the galaxy. So, we would be seeing evidence of them, and since we don’t see evidence of them, they’re not out there.
Well, this is a problem, but I think the problem is just that we don’t yet understand very well most of the parameters. And if you just fill in the parameters, like you know: are they likely to use radio waves; what are they likely to do by way of exploration; what are their wishes likely to be. In all these cases we make an assumption that’s kind of based on saying that they’ll be like us in that way, and that they will use technology in the same way that we do. And, we only need to be wrong in one of those assumptions for the conclusion that we should have seen them by now to be false.
Now, another possibility is that we are the first, at least we are the first in our galaxy. And I think that would be quite nice.
SH: Does that second assumption strike you as very implausible, or not?
DD: Like I say, I don’t think we know enough about all the different factors affecting this for any one idea to be very plausible or implausible. I mean, what’s implausible is that they can have a different way of creating knowledge to us. That kind of thing is implausible, because it just implies that physics is very different from the way we think it is, and if you’re going to think that, you may as well, believe in the Greek Gods.
Another possibility is that most societies don’t destroy themselves --- like I said, I think that’s fairly implausible for us and it’s very, very implausible that this generically happens. … I think what is more plausible --- although again, I must say that this is just idle speculation --- is that most societies settle down to staticity.
Deutsch's comments on the Fermi Paradox reminded me of Chinese engineer and science fiction writer Liu Cixin's answer to it in his recent science fiction trilogy Remembrance of Earth's Past. I link to my review of the first of the novels in the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, at right. Links to my reviews of the remaining two novels can also be found there.
In his trilogy, Liu postulates the universe as being what he refers to as a dark forest. Broadly, his thesis is that given the inherent nature of the limitations in ability to communicate over large distances, and the patterns of rapid technological growth, planetary civilizations come to recognize the danger of revealing their presence to others in the galaxy, and so hide, like fearful animals in a dark forest, afraid to reveal themselves in case a more powerful animal might see them, and predisposed to attack first, if they discover some other animal.
More details on his viewpoint, and on his extremely engaging and thought-provoking trilogy, can be found in my reviews of his novels.
Returning again to Deutsch's comments, he goes on to give a more complete description of his idea of staticity:
DD: Now, our experience of staticity is conditioned by static societies in our past, which, as I said, have been unimaginably horrible from our present perspective. But if you imagine a society who’s material welfare is say a million times better than ours, and somehow that become settled into a sort of ritualistic religion in which everybody does the same thing all the time, but nobody really suffers --- that seems to me like hell, but I can imagine that there can be societies in which, as you said, they can’t see the different ways of being. So, it’s like you said, used the example of being near Oxford and not knowing about Africa; you could be on the top of the tallest mountain in Britain, and not know that Mount Everest exists. And, if the height of the mountain is what measures happiness, you might be moderately happy, and no know that a better happiness is available. And, if so, you could just stay like that.
Have you read these books, others by these authors, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf