Science in a Scientific Civilization

On the Viability of Central Projects

Jun 9, 2018 · 8 min read
“Colbert Presenting the Members of the Royal Academy of Sciences to Louis XIV in 1667” by Henri Testelin.

In a post on Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams, Indifferently Spacefaring Civilizations, I schematically laid out the different kinds of spacefaring civilizations that there could be based on permutations of a particular model of civilization. I take civilization to be an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project. Thus there are three over-arching institutions that jointly constitute civilization (each of which has distinctive relationships to the others), and each of these three institutions is composed of a great many less comprehensive institutions that fall under these umbrella institutions. (Hence civilization can also be defined as an institution of institutions, as I earlier observed in Epistemic Collapse.)

In my Centauri Dreams post I pointed out how the schematic approach I took in regard to spacefaring civilization could be extended to transhumanism and its related ideas and practices. I identified a properly spacefaring civilization as a civilization that has spacefaring as its central project (or raison d’être) and a properly transhumanist civilization as a civilization that has transhumanism as its central project. The scenario that I discussed in Virtual Optimization as a Civilizational Imperative could be understood as a civilization that takes the development of the virtual world as its central project, thus a properly virtual civilization.

It now occurs to me how I can treat scientific civilization in accordance with my definition of civilization parallel to my formulations addressing spacefaring and transhumanism. In regard to a scientific civilization, then, the permutations are as follows:

  • The null case: science is not present in any of the elements that constitute a given civilization. This is a non-scientific civilization.
  • Economically scientific civilization: science is integral only to the economic infrastructure, and is absent elsewhere in the structures of civilization; also called intellectually indifferent scientific civilization.
  • Intellectually scientific civilization: science is integral only to the intellectual superstructure of civilization, and is absent elsewhere in the structures of civilization; also called economically indifferent scientific civilization.
  • Economically and intellectually scientific civilization: science is integral to both the economic infrastructure and the intellectual superstructure of a civilization, but is absent in the central project; also known as morally indifferent scientific civilization.
  • Properly scientific civilization: science is integral to the central project of a civilization.

There are three additional permutations not mentioned above:

  • Science constitutes the central project but is absent in the economic infrastructure and the intellectual superstructure.
  • Science is integral with the central project and economic infrastructure, but is absent in the intellectual superstructure.
  • Science is integral with the central project and intellectual infrastructure, but is absent in the economic infrastructure.

These latter three permutations are non-viable institutional structures and must be set aside. Because of the role that a central project plays in a civilization, whatever defines the central project is also, of necessity, integral to economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure.

With this analysis I can clear up a few things I have previously said about scientific civilization. Without realizing I was doing so, when I was thinking about scientific civilizations I was thinking about what I above called properly scientific civilization, i.e., civilizations that take science as their central project, or as an integral constituent of a multi-faceted central project. The scenario that I wrote about in Another Counterfactual Civilization with Science as its Central Project is a clear instance of an economically indifferent scientific civilization.

Our civilization today, with science present in (though perhaps not fully integral to) the intellectual superstructure, and essentially bound up in the economic infrastructure (because of the place of science in the STEM cycle that drives industrialized civilization), but not present as the driving force in the central project, clearly represents a morally indifferent scientific civilization. If terrestrial civilization were to make the transition to being a properly scientific civilization, it would have to overcome this moral indifference and place science and the pursuit of scientific knowledge at the center of its concerns.

How might such a transition to a properly scientific civilization come about? For an idea or a practice to bear the burden of being a central project, that idea or practice must have reached a certain level of maturity that proves that the focus of the central project has passed the test of time. If a civilization has adopted an immature idea or practice as its central project, it may find that, as this project develops, it is not able to stand the test of time, or that it develops in unexpected directions and with unwelcome unintended consequences.

This is what I see as the great challenge of civilization today that takes the Enlightenment project as its central project. The Enlightenment was drafted into being the central project of western civilization at a very early stage in its development, replacing the failing social institutions of feudalism and the church. When Christianity assumed the role of central project of nascent western civilization in late antiquity, Christianity was already several hundred years old, and had proved itself in persecution and in its ability to attract the greatest minds and the most powerful and effective leaders. This was not the case as western civilization found itself searching for a new central project in the early modern period, and eventually settled on the Enlightenment project.

Science was part and parcel of the Enlightenment project as that project came into being, but it was not as central as we once thought. In our own time, we can see the beginning of the cracks that reveal that science and the Enlightenment project may lead in different directions, and we may be forced to make a choice, or compromise the one or the other in order for two to continue to function as part of the cluster of related ideas that makes up the central project of western civilization (or banish one or the other into the intellectual superstructure).

Science was part and parcel of the Enlightenment, but science predated the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution marked the beginning of the end of the traditional central project of western civilization. In my post Modernity without Industrialism I argued that there was a distinctive kind of civilization in western Europe from approximately 1500–1800, after the scientific revolution got started, but before the industrial revolution made itself felt.

In retrospect, I realize that what I was discussing in Modernity without Industrialism was a nascent scientific civilization in which science was on the verge of being a central project of civilization, but it was as yet insufficiently mature to function as such. Today we have an entire cosmology that has grown out of centuries of scientific research, but in the early modern period science was only beginning to challenge traditional cosmology, which was based on religious and philosophical models of the universe. Without a cosmology that has stood the test of time, science in the early modern period was not in a position to carry the burden of civilization.

Perhaps we could say that, during the period 1500–1800, our civilization approximated a properly scientific civilization, or that it constituted an intimation of a properly scientific civilization, and we have a vicarious experience of this intimation of properly scientific civilization in the painting above by Henri Testelin of Colbert Presenting the Members of the Royal Academy of Sciences to Louis XIV in 1667. (More often the experience of science has been like that of the painting of Faraday, below, by Harriet Jane Moore, working alone in his laboratory, without the gorgeous trappings of a royal court.)

These considerations of the role of science in early modern European civilization point to important ways to understand what is and what is not a viable candidate as the central project of a civilization. In my 2017 talk The Role of Lunar Civilization in Interstellar Buildout, I stated that central projects emerge organically from the life of a people. This organicism of central projects is related to their maturity. A central project that arises from the ordinary life of a people as they converge upon a modus vivendi in a given biome is a central project that has stood the test of time and is consistent with human nature over the longue durée.

An idea must be consistent with human nature for it to function effectively as a central project — that, or humanity must be made to be consistent with the idea. And we often do, in fact, find that utopian central projects have as a theme the making of a “new man” (for example, the idea that the Soviet Union would shape a “new Soviet man,” homo sovieticus). This “new man” will be the citizen that the new political order deserves, and who will make this political project a success.

Utopian projects usually fail because they are based upon immature ideas that are pressed into service too early and cannot bear the burden that being a central project of a civilization imposes upon them. The familiar critique of the French Revolution by Edmund Burke, and the more reactionary critique of the French Revolution by Joseph de Maistre, was implicitly based on this observation that immature ideas are not ready to function as a principle to hold together a coherent society, though Burke and de Maistre formulated their critique in religious terms, as the only fully developed ideas with which they were familiar were religious conceptions of society.

For Burke and de Maistre, the problem with the Enlightenment project as the basis of society was that the ideas of the Enlightenment were “artificial” and were not sanctioned from all eternity. But these ideas — and others as well — appeared artificial because they were new and human beings were not yet accustomed to them. Science, too, was a new-fangled idea in the early modern period, and not at that time sufficiently robust or mature to function as a central project. However, in the next hundred years or so, science may come to a level of maturity at which it could function as a viable central project of a civilization — and this may occur at a time when the Enlightenment project has been judged to have failed, so that civilization will be once again casting about for something that can serve as a central project.

However, for science to emerge organically from the life of a people as a central project, that life would have to be through-and-through scientific, that is to say, ordinary people in their daily lives would have to exemplify the spirit and the practice of science. While there are already intimations of this in the world today, there is nothing like the broadly-based appreciation of science that would be necessary to the organic emergence of science as a central project. Thus, at this time, science is still a utopian ideal in terms of coherent social vision.



Faraday in his Laboratory, by Harriet Jane Moore

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