March of Civilization

What fascinates me about history is that no matter how far we advance, we’re still, in a sense, in the same place. Of course our technology gets better. We live longer and we’re healthier. I don’t mean we stay the same in that way. What I mean is that no matter how far we come, we still find ourselves in the following situation: some people are on the bottom and some are on top, and problems beset our way of life from all sides. No matter how much we innovate — and don’t get me wrong, we do innovate and in doing so, SOLVE problems — we find ourselves with new problems.

In this post, I tried to give some reasons for this. Now I want to try to sharpen my picture of history a little bit. In that post, I talked about how increases in the scale of thing x, can make it the case that something other than thing x emerges. I tried to use physics as an example, but I don’t know muh about physics, so it felt like a poor example. But now I have a better example.

Nature, at the birth of the universe, consisted of particles. But the universe was so complex, that combinations of particles created something that was itself MORE than just a combination of particles, and that was life. Living things are a different category of type of thing than atoms or whatever. The system of particles in our universe was so complex  that it gave rise to something that was a new category of thing. Before life, there were just particles and more particles, but then “more particles” became “living thing.” This difference is reflected in the difference between biology and physics. But then the complexity of the system flipped to another level again, the level of perception. Perceptual states cannot be reduced to any biological category, because perception necessarily involves REPRESENTATION, which is not a biological category and introduces the idea of fidelity or veridicality. Things again move forward once perception moves to propositional thinking, which involves the manipulation of concepts not tied to the specifics of the organism’s specific situation (we can think about distant planets).

The pattern here is that a complexly interacting system of one type of thing (atoms), manages to flip to a new level of thing (a lizard).

But once we have that pattern in mind, we can see that human society accomplishes that SAME THING, just at a faster and constant rate. I think this is a beautiful explanation of the complexity of human life. Take the internet. It’s a new thing. Of course, it’s LIKE things that came before like the telephone, but it’s also NOT like that thing, it’s something else, it’s own thing. Or take something else. Some early counting systems didn’t have 0, but not we do. It’s not hard to see that introducing zero into mathematics changed the whole trajectory of science and human civilization.

And I think we can now see why humans are always behind, always essentially in the same, existential, place. The reason is that human civilization is UNBELIEVABLY complex and so keeps hopping up the latter of complexity. So, just when we figured out trench warfare in WWI, airplanes come along to give us WWII, which was an entirely different conflict. At the end of WWII, humans invented the atom bomb, which from that moment on introduced an entirely different type of conflict. For proof, note that the strategizing, technological advancement, and conceptual change that accompanied a war that was COLD rather than HOT. (not sure why war metaphors always stand out for me, they resonate with me because of the cliche that militaries are “always fighting the last war.”

So, my claim is that civilization is complex, so dense with information and so beholden to previous jumps in complexity, that the nature of human civilization is jumps in its own complexity. We’re always leapfrogging over ourselves and our brains are always rushing to keep up.


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