Saturday 19 October 2013

What can analysis of historical patterns tell us about the probable future?


Probably not much - because we are not in any reversible pendulum swing such as has happened before in history, but off the chart.

There has never before in the history of the world been a society which has experienced 200 years in which economic growth has outstripped population rise, in which almost all the children born in the world are expected to live to adulthood (and where this has been the situation for up to eight generations in some places), in which the total world population was so many-fold larger than ever before, in which the average age is so very old in some countries and so very young in others, in which geographical economic inter-dependence is so extreme, in which population movements are so massive, in which all the wealthiest and most powerful countries have massively sub-replacement fertility, in which all the wealthiest and most powerful countries have abandoned religion wholesale in public discourse and among the ruling classes ... and so on.

And we also live in a world where in public discourse these subjects are either taboo or communication has been hemmed-about with such tight restrictions and punishments as to make clarity and honesty impossible.


As I say, the world is in uncharted territory; we are far beyond any extreme of any previous pendulum swing, and indeed it looks as if the pendulum is still swinging, ever further away from any previous equilibrium point.

We can, perhaps, learn some causal principles from history, but causal principles interact - so in a complex system we cannot predict without precedent; and there is no precedent for the current situation.



Anti-Democracy Activist said...

Spengler, Spengler, Spengler.

There is no "pendulum", there is a cycle. And we have seen it before - in societies on the backside of the curve of absolute civilizational decline.

I'm sorry, but the Whig View Of History - the idea that history is (some temporary ups and downs aside) more or less a straight line upwards towards some grand destination - is bunk. Don't confuse human civilizations with the Kingdom of Heaven. Human civilizations come and go in cycles, and God's plan remains unaffected by it because it is immutable and beyond the ability of humans to affect. Are we so arrogant as to assume that God will only start the Revelation when we're good and ready for it, which we'll show by having put our civilization into this or that shape? When we feel we've cleaned up the place sufficiently that it's finally presentable enough to invite the Four Horsemen over?

The West will crumble and fall, and the world will keep turning, and God's plan will remain the same. Revelation will happen when God is ready for it to happen, not when we are. Will it be tomorrow, or in ten thousand years? Sorry, "but about that day or hour, no one knows". I sure don't, and I wouldn't presume to guess.

As the faux-Spengler David Goldman noted: "It's not the end of the world; it's just the end of you".

Bruce Charlton said...

@ADA - You are correct in supposing that I believe the Spenglerian view of history to be false, whether it is described as a pendulum or a cycle - more exactly, it ceased to be true from the time of the industrial revolution when 'modernity' supervened with economic growth outstripping population growth due to multiple relevant science and technological breakthroughs.

But you are way off in seeming to assume that this means I regard history as progress (Whiggish history), or that I believe that modernity can go on and on, or whatever other straw men you seem to imputing to me! I thought you were a regular reader of this blog - but I have spent a lot of time arguing against these things!

So, history cannot legitimately be regarded as cyclical because we are now (in multiple and highly significant ways) in a situation where humanity has never been.

We can try and predict on the basis of processes - for example, we know that exponential processes are not sustainable for very many generations after they first become detectable, so there must be major disturbances ahead.

But what we cannot predict (on the basis of cycles) is what kind of thing will follow, after the kind of thing we have now has collapsed - because there never has been the kind of thing we have now, so we don't know what happens after it.

Obviously, the fall of Rome in the Western Empire is the nearest equivalent - but the equivalence isn't very near...

Anti-Democracy Activist said...

@BC Ah - I see the problem here.

I think that where we disagree, then, is that I am not a technological exceptionalist. I don't believe that our scientific wonders will save us from collapse any more than Rome's stadiums or arches saved it from collapse. And as for economic growth outstripping population growth, the only sense in which that will continue to be true is if the west's continuing population crash manages to outpace its continuing economic crash in their race to the bottom.

The thing is, the factors that are causing the West to crumble and fall are things that machines can't fix. Ours is a spent culture that has become bored with all the ideas that made it successful, that is exhausted in every possible sense of the word, and that can't even really work up the will to continue on anymore. The West is out of workable ideas, out of money, out of babies, and getting very close indeed to being out of time.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ADA - I have changed and developed a few ideas since I wrote this

but it may be of interest.

Nicholas Fulford said...

I believe that broadly based that social inertia acts to centre a society and human behaviour. Hence, change is incremental most of the time, and hedging strategies work, most of the time. (Now I am falling into the dismal "science" of economics, since really economics is a metric for individual and collective human behaviours.)

But, there are events or tipping points that once crossed make it unlikely that a true reversion to the status quo of an earlier time is possible. The industrial revolution is one such event or point. Even if a massive catastrophe were to befall the species, unless it killed a massive percentage of our species, would only be a setback. It may take a 100 years to overcome, but the tools and direction of technical development would continue, not regress.

Even societies such as the Amish are not completely isolated and insulated from these trends. Whether it is possible, is a good question. In practice, I think not.

The probable future I see is based upon a greater integration through cyberlinks. The development of more intimate interfaces at higher bandwidths will at some point allow for a collective intelligence to emerge as a result. It may only be a collective projection, (like the Internet), but with a much higher bandwidth, but that is I think inevitable. Life extension, perhaps a radically increased one will also follow, albeit after hitting a great many obstacles. And there will be a ton of unintended effects, which will create challenges unknown at this time.

We may initiate a mass die-off event, or experience one for reasons unrelated to us in particular.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - Ah... you are a transhumanist, eh?

Well, it is not going to happen, because science is already bust

there are no more geniuses to make breakthoughs, and massive international and international declines of intelligence (necessary for genius) are far advanced.

Titus Didius Tacitus said...

I've often had the same though, and it comforts me.

Logically this is a locked box and we are dead, gone, genocided.

But there's no precedent for this. So there's no historic logic that applies.

And that means hope, doesn't it?

Bruce Charlton said...

@TDT - I distinguish between Hope and Optimism. I have hope (as a Christian it is in fact a duty not to despair) - but I am not optimistic, I am pessmistic. For this world I expect things to get worse, maybe much worse, and I fear it could begin at any time - maybe it has already begun. But this is not inevitable - the worst could be averted by acknowledgement of evil and error, and repentance. However, I see not the slightest sign of this.

Arakawa said...

Transhumanism is literally almost as old as medicine. Ever since the first physicians discovered ways to avert previously-fatal ailments, a minority of people have expressed high hopes for a cure for death-in-general.

Titus Didius Tacitus said...

You think an army of Fausts could make an acknowledgement of evil and error, and repent? That's your idea of a solution, if there's to be one?

Bruce Charlton said...

@TDT - Yes repentance must be the first step. And it is possible.

Samson J. said...

Yes, what I never understood about the pop-cultural pseudo-Christian idea of "selling one's soul" is that it should be awfully easy to get out of the deal.