Cambrian Explosion in Abstraction (part i)

The Cambrian Explosion as you’ll remember refers to an epoch recorded in the fossil record which is known as, in the words of noted archaeologist Bill Bryson, “[…] the moment when complex life burst forth in dazzling profusion — the famous Cambrian explosion”. We’re talking 500-million-plus years ago.

I want to suggest that something similar happened in the Axial Age roughly 2,500 ago, but with thought. According to Karl Jaspers in his work Origin and Goal of History something profound or pivotal happened between the 8th century BCE and the 3rd century BCE in China, India, and Greece. World-spanning religions were formed. Itinerant scholars† plied their trade. According to Karen Armstrong in The Great Transformation what is now called The Golden Rule was formulated simultaneously and what seems like independently. Axiomatic math was laid out by a dude called Euclid. David Graeber in Debt: The First 5000 Years‡ argues that it is the simultaneous and independent invention of coinage that spurred this social complexity. But to have coinage one must have not just the technology but the idea of coinage. Witness bitcoin where tech capability pre-dated invention by 30 years or so. And for an idea like coinage one needs abstraction. And we know what that age also gave us, the birth of philosophy, and if there is one thing a philosopher gets off on it’s abstraction.

David Foster Wallace argues (convincingly in my opinion) that what set the Ancient Greeks apart from their Babylonian and Egyptian neighbours was abstraction. Everything and More is where that’ll be found.  Abstraction, which metaphorically and etymologically means to draw away [from] is the mental procedure of hoisting oneself one rung up your mental ladder away from the concrete world of the senses towards the ethereal realm of pure relation and symbol. From seeing a red patch on a wall to the curious notion of redness shorn of substance. From the use of capital to the ideology of capitalism.

To explain why an Aristotle then at that particular time and not before and not elsewhere. That is the challenge.

Rewind to a bit to just before the Cambrian explosion in abstraction. All ancient cultures had an origin myth. Not that they thought it was myth, mind you. It was their way of answering the mind-bending and soul-crushing question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” And who would blame them? In those times they were  big on the spirit world — you inhabited the spirit world before you were incarnated, post-mortem you returned to the spirit world. All entities be they living or non-living led a “spirited” existence. Reincarnation doesn’t change this story. And because agency and spirit are intertwined concepts people could believe such things like a hammer was to blame if when wielded it accidentally struck another. Try to imagine such a world-view.

All ancient cultures believed that everything is made out of the same basic stuff. The primitive elements. Mostly there were believed to be four elements, you know them: earth, wind, fire, water. Sometimes there was a fifth special one which is where we get that beautiful word quintessence from, which is one of those arresting poetic words that would never actually be used in a poem by an any way decent poet. But I digress. I used to think how ridiculous that anyone could believe that all things were materially reducible to just four paltry elements. But as a first approximation it’s not that bad a conjecture and when you think about it it’s non-obvious that a thing’s stuff and its appearance are at variance. That’s quite a leap to make. And clearly there is solid organic stuff, liquidy* things, airy stuff that fills our lungs, and fire from lightning, volcanoes and sparks from flint. So, like I say, as a first approximation, not bad.

Then look what happens in Ancient Greece. Thinkers begin to try to reason from first principles, they begin to look for natural causes and explanations for natural phenomena, and their thinking becomes much more abstract.

Lore tells us … okay, okay, records inform us that Thales of Miletus was the first philosopher in this tradition,

Yet they do not all agree as to the number and the nature of these principles. Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says the principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water), getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it (and that from which they come to be is a principle of all things). He got his notion from this fact, and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things.

Aristotle, Metaphysics Alpha, 983b18

This is a highly informative paragraph. First it shows that there was intellectual disagreement and that tradition did not trump enquiry. This means that by the time of a mature Thales (c. 600 BC) the intellectual support structures were in place to allow his type of enquiry. Second we see a thinker trying to reason from first principles, trying to look for natural explanations, attempting to use abstract reasoning. Third it shows that Thales gave reasons for his beliefs and these reasons are important to Aristotle.

It should be noted that others (Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Xenophanes, …) conjectured that the first principle was one of the other elements: be it air, or fire, or earth. Empedocles thought the elements to be irreducible. So we have an inching forward of thought while still clinging to mythos. But it is with Anaximander that we get a leap in abstraction, he claimed that apeiron (that which is without limit) was the first principle. This can be thought of as formlessness or chaos. Anaximander is interesting also because he posited that the Earth is a free-floating body in space, which was a revolutionary idea, seemingly self-evidently false†† being completely at odds with the information we receive from our senses. With Anaximander we seem to get abstraction working on itself recursively, this is the difference.



† Made you look; footnotes are fun, aren’t they?

‡ A book I’ve been meaning to read since it came out.

* Firefox’s spell-checker is underlining liquidy with a red squiggly line.

†† Logicians

Really the End of History

Francis Fukayama was right but not in the way he thought he was right. In his 1989 book, The End of History, Fukayama famously argued that liberal democracy and capitalism have won (so to speak) and so that, by consequence, we are entering into an era where local, regional, and global governments are and will continue to be liberal democracies and that their economies are and will adhere to free market capitalist ideals. He talks about countries and nation states ‘getting on the escalator’ – note the upward trend in that metaphor.

History is a nightmare from which we struggle to waken. That communities in conflict remain in conflict because they cannot drop their historical baggage and unlink the historical chains that bind them to the past should be obvious to anybody after a moment’s recollection. History will be at an end when a negative attitude towards the historicization of the past prevails in very much the same way as the project of negative ethics treats moralism with a high degree of suspicion.

Fukayama’s thesis concerns just two social systems, the political and economic. These are important institutions but society is not dominated by these institutions. Note that Fukayama is making a social claim when declaring that history in its entirety is at an end when certain economic and political orders have prevailed. Fukayama’s thesis is part assertion and part prediction. That assertion, into which discipline does it fall? That prediction, into which discipline does it fall?

Those who argue with Fukayama’s thesis are falling into the same trap that Fukayama has fallen into. They are arguing over details. Everyone has their own favourite economic system and political system. Everyone identifies with a certain way of distributing power and property – these ideological commitments shape every one of us. The system that wins out is perhaps the system that has the better propaganda. And what better propaganda to claim, that ideologically speaking, your side has won and so the other sides should put down their ideologies. This is the trap, we must transcend ideology. The end of history is marked by a future where history loses its grip on our minds, not a future where my economic and political team has overcome your team.

Incidentally (though it does not affect my main point) Fukayama’s thesis commits a couple of errors within its own world-view. First it commits the error of thinking that democracy (as such) and capitalism (as such) go hand in hand ideologically speaking. Just because you grew up where the river flowed west-to-east down the valley does not mean that every river one encounters in life will flow west-to-east. This is just a feature of your natural local geography. Why would you think it applies globally? Secondly to believe that the political joke that is the Western liberal democratic project in any way resembles unanimous direct democratic ideals is laughable – to claim that the crony capitalism that infects the markets today is an honest stand in for regulated free market capitalism is to show yourself as worryingly blinkered.

So it goes.

History will be at an end when we wake up from history, only this is true – everything else is ideological nonsense and sleight of hand.