The Man Who Invented the Future

joachim circle trinity

It is strange how some of the most influential individuals in human history can sometimes manage to slip out of public consciousness to the extent that almost no one knows who they are. What if I were to tell you that the ideas of one person who lived almost 900 years ago were central to everything from the Protestant Reformation, to the French Revolution, to Russia and America’s peculiar type of nationalism, to Communism and Nazism, to neo-liberal optimists such as Steven Pinker and now Michael Shermer, to (of most interest to this audience) followers of Ray Kurzweil and his Singularity; would you believe me, or think I was pulling a Dan Brown?

That individual was a 12th century was a monk named Joachim de Fiore, very much for real, and who up until very recently I had never heard of. In some ways this strange monk not only was a necessary figure in formation all of the systems of thought and political movements listed above, he also might seriously be credited with inventing the very idea of the future itself.

Whether you’re a fan of Game of Thrones or not put yourself for a moment in the mind of a European in the Middle Ages. Nothing around you has what we would consider a rational explanation, rather, it can only be understood in reference to the will of an unseen deity or his demonic rival. It is quite a frightening place, and would even be spatially disorienting  for a modern person used to maps and ideas regarding how the different worlds one sees while looking at the ground or up towards the sky, especially at night, fit together. It would have seemed like being stuck at the bottom of a seemingly endless well, unable to reach the “real” world above. A vertical version of Plato’s famous cave.

Starting in the 13th century there were attempts to understand humankind’s position in space more clearly, and some of these attempts were indeed brilliant, even anticipating current idea such as the Big Bang and the multiverse. This was shown recently in a wonderful collaboration between scholars in the humanities, mathematicians and scientists on the work of another largely forgotten medieval figure, Robert Grosseteste.

Even before Grosseteste was helping expand medievals’ understanding of space, Joachim de Fiore had expanded their notion of time. For time in the medieval worldview time was almost as suffocating as the stuck-in-a-well quality of their notion of space.

Medievals largely lacked a notion of what we would understand as an impersonal future that would be different from the past. It wasn’t as if a person living then would lack the understanding that their own personal tomorrow would be different than today- that their children would age and have children of their own and that the old would die- it was that there was little notion that the world itself was changing. It would be a tough sell to get a medieval to pay for a trip into the future, for in their view whether you’d travel 100 or 1000 years forward everything would be almost exactly the same, unless, that is, the world wasn’t there to visit at all.

Being a medieval was a lot like being on death row- you know exactly how your life will end- you just wouldn’t know when exactly you’ll run out of appeals. A medieval Christian had the end of the story in the Book of Revelation with it’s cast of characters such as the Antichrist and scenes such as the battle of armageddon. A Christian was always on the look out for the arrival of all the props for the play that would be the end of the current world, and if they believed in any real difference between the present and the future it was that the world in which these events were to occur would be what we would consider less technologically and socially advanced than the Roman world into which Christ had been born. History for the medievals, far from being the story of human advancement, was instead the tale of societal decay.

Well before actual events on the ground, improvements in human living standards, technological capacity and scientific understanding, undermined this medieval idea of the future as mere decadence before a final ending, Joachim de Fiore would do so philosophically and theologically.

Joachim was born around 1135 into a well of family with his father being a member of the Sicilian court. Joachim too would begin his career as a court official, but it would not last. In his early twenties, while on a diplomatic mission to the Byzantine Emperor, Joachim broke away to visit the Holy Land, and according to legend felt the call of God.He spent the Lenten season in meditation on Mt Tabor where “on the eve of Easter day, he received ‘the fullness of knowledge’”. (3)  

He became a monk and soon a prior and abbot for of Corazzo one assumes on account of his remarkable intelligence, but Joachim would spend his time writing his great trilogy: The Harmony of the New and Old Testaments, Exposition of Apocalypse, and the Psaltery of Ten Strings eventually receiving a dispensation from his work as abbot by  Pope Clement III so he could devote himself fully to his writing.

Eventually a whole monastic order would grow up around Joachim, and though this order would last only a few centuries, and Joachim would die in 1202 before finishing his last book the Tract on the Four Gospels his legacy would almost fully be felt in the way we understand history and the future.

Joachim constructed a theory of history based on the Christian Trinity: the Age of the Father – from Adam to the birth of Christ, the Age of the Son- from Christ until The Age of the Spirit. There had been examples of breaking history into historical ages before, what made Joachim different was his idea that:

“… Scripture taught a record of man’s gradual spiritual developments, leading to a perfected future age which was the fulfillment of prophetic hope.” (13)

“… one to be ushered in with a New Age of guidance by the Holy Spirit acting through a new order of meditative men who truly contemplated God. “ (12)

What is distinct and new about this was that history was spiritualized, it became the story of humankind’s gradual improvement and moving towards a state of perfection that was achievable in the material world (not in some purely spiritual paradise). And we could arrive at this destination if only we could accept the counsel of the virtuous and wise. It was a powerful story that has done us far more harm than good.

Joachim trinitarian tree circles

Joachimite ideas can be found at the root of the millennia fantasies of the European religious wars, and were secularized in the period of the French Revolution by figures like the Marquis de Condorcet and Auguste Comte. The latter even managed to duplicate Joachim’s tri-part model of history only now the ages only now they were The Theological, The Metaphysical, and the Positive Stage which we should read as religious, philosophical and scientific with Joachim’s monks being swapped for scientists.  

Hegel turned this progressive version of history into a whole system of philosophy and the atheist Marx turned Hegel “upside down” and created a system of political economy and revolutionary program. The West would justify its imperial conquest of Africa and subjugation of Asia on the grounds that they were bringing the progressive forces of history to “barbaric” peoples. The great ideological struggle of the early 20th century between Communism, Nazism, and Liberalism pitted versions of historical determinism against one another.

If postmodernism should have meant the end of overarching metanarratives the political movements that have so far most shaped the 21st century seem not to have gotten the memo. The century began with an attack by a quasi- millenarian cult (though they would not recognize Joachim as a forbearer). The 9-11 attacks enabled an averous and ultimately stupid foreign policy on the part of the United States which was only possible because the American people actually believed in their own myth that their system of government represented the end of history and the secret wish of every oppressed people in the world.

Now we have a truly apocalyptic cult in the form of ISIS while Russia descends into its own version of Joachimite fantasy based on Russia’s “historical mission” while truth itself disappears in a postmodern hall of mirrors. Thus it is that Joachim’s ideas regarding the future remain potent. And the characters attracted to his idea of history are, of course, not all bad. I’d include among this benign group both singularitarians and the new neo-liberal optimists. The first because they see human history moving towards an inevitable conclusion and believe that their is an elite that should guide us into paradise – the technologists. Neo-liberal optimists may not be so starry eyed but they do see history as the gradual unfolding of progress and seem doubtful that this trend might reverse.

The problem I have with the singularitarians is their blindness to the sigmoid curve – the graveyard where all exponentials go to die. There is a sort of “evolutionary” determinism to singularitarianism that seems to think not only that there is only one destination to history, but that we already largely know what that destination is. For Joachim such determinism makes sense, his world having been set up and run by an omnipotent God, for what I assume to be mostly secular singularitarians such determinism does not make sense and we are faced with the contingencies of evolution and history.

My beef with the neo-liberal optimists, in addition to the fact that they keep assaulting me with their “never been better” graphs is that I care less that human suffering has decreased than the reasons why, so that such a decrease can be continued or its lower levels preserved. I also care much more where the moral flaws of our society remain acute because only then will I know where to concentrate my political and ethical action. If the world today is indeed better than the world in the past (and it’s not a slam dunk argument even with the power point) let’s remember the struggles that were necessary to achieve that and continue to move ourselves towards Joachim’s paradise while being humble and wise enough to avoid mistaking ourselves with the forces of God or history, a mistake that has been at the root of so much suffering and evil.            

Advertisements

The Philosophy Behind Elysium

The Waters of Lethe by the Plains of Elysium Stanhope 1880

I finally had the chance to see Elysium this week. As films go, the picture is certainly visually gripping and the fight scenes awesome, if you are into that sort of thing. But, in terms of a film about ideas the picture left me scratching my head, and I could only get a clue as to the film’s meaning as intended by Neill Blomkamp, Elysium’s screenwriter and director, by looking elsewhere.

Embedded within stunning special effects Elysium is certainly meant as a moral critique of  inequality- a futuristic tale of the haves vs the have-nots. The rich, in Blomkamp’s earth of 2154 live on the space station of Elysium- a trans-humanist paradise where diseases are miraculously scanned away while the entire earth below has become a vast slum. Elysium is the mother of all gated communities the people inside it rich and beautiful while those outside suffer, and not to blow the ending, but Blomkamp is out to open the gates.

Blomkamp has made it clear that his film is less of a warning about the future than an allegory for the present.

People have asked me if I think this is what will happen in 140 years, but this isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now!

The Elysium of today is the First World and the earth of the film the Third World with the latter’s immigrants desperate to break into “paradise” for the sake of themselves and their families. The explosion of mega-cities like the 180 million Yangtze Delta in China (which plays no role in Elysium) serves as a kind of sociological backdrop for the film. It is especially the squalor of megacities that draws Blomkamp’s cinematic eye. Part of the movie was filmed in one of the world’s largest dumps in Mexico.

And yet, Elysium certainly seems to articulate some sort of philosophical position not just on the present, but on the future, and adds its own voice to the debate surrounding its possibilities. The question is, what? I left the movie thinking it was mostly a less than veiled critique on transhumanism,  especially the in-egalitarian, utopian seasteading variety of transhumanism as propounded by the like of Peter Theil. And again, not to blow it, but the major epiphany of the protagonist is realizing that his own survival is not the ultimate value.

Blomkamp’s true perspective, however, is somewhat different as evidenced when I looked beyond the film itself. Blomkamp is actually a singularitarian, though a very pessimistic one. He subscribes to the idea of civilizational development put forward by the Russian scientist Nikolai Kardashev. I’ll quote myself  here, “… in the 1960 Kardashev postulated that civilizations go through different technological phases based on their capacity to tap energy resources. A Type I civilization is able to tap the equivalent of its entire planet’s energy. A Type II civilization is able to tap an amount of energy equivalent to the amount put out by its parent star, and a Type III civilization able to tap the energy equivalent to its entire galaxy. Type IV and Type V civilizations able to tap the energy of the entire universe or even the multiverse have been speculated upon that would transcend even the scope of Kardashev’s broad vision.

Blomkamp speculates that the reason for the so-called Fermi Paradox – if the conditions for life in the universe are so abundant, then where are the aliens?- is that the movement to Type I civilization- the emergence of a truly global civilization- is so difficult that none of the many civilizations that have emerged over the history of the universe have made it through this bottleneck, and for Blomkamp we show every sign of sharing this sad fate.

As Blomkamp sees it human nature is the greatest barrier preventing us from reaching Type I. Echoing Julian Savulescu, he has stated:

We have biological systems built into us that were very advantageous for us, up until we became a functioning civilization 10,000 years ago. We are literally genetically coded to preserve life, procreate and get food – and that’s not gonna change. The question is whether you can somehow overpower certain parts of that mammalian DNA and try to give some of your money out, try to take your wealth and pour it out for the rest of the planet.

Again, along transhumanist and singularitarian lines of thinking Blomkamp believes that if we do not solve our problem the world will bifurcate into pockets of the technologically empowered rich isolated within a global mega-city of the miserably poor:

…it’ll either be a singularity discussion or this Mad Max fuckin’ group of savages roaming on the horizon, a Malthusian catastrophe.

Alright, so like many others Blomkamp believes we are at a crossroads whose path will shape the whole fate of humanity, indeed the fate of intelligence in the universe, one more sad example of not being able to breakthrough emerge as a Type I civilization or the glorious birth of a new cosmic era.

Yet, perhaps we need to step back for a moment from this sort of apocalyptic thinking. It’s an at least questionable assumption whether or not intelligence and technology have any such cosmic role to play in the future of the universe, let alone whether the current generation will be the one that ultimately decides our fate. We’ve been in a situation where we are in danger of destroying ourselves since at least the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb in 1954, and there is no foreseeable future where we definitively escape these types of dangers now that we have such powers and now that our reach is global and beyond.

Indeed, if it is the case that civilizations are at risk of catastrophic failure whatever their position on the Kardashev Scale, this would go even further in explaining the Fermi Paradox. Even those that make it through Type I continue to be at risk of botching the whole thing. The obvious rejoinder to this is that once a civilization has”gone galactic” it is safe, but I am not so sure. Perhaps Type II and III super-intelligences come up with galactic scale methods of destruction, or collapse into a singularity induced turtle shell, as imagined so cleverly by Charles Stross. We simply don’t know enough to actually decide one way or another, although in addition to the hunt for planets in the “habitable zone” done by the beloved Kepler and its hopeful successor, scientists at FermiLab are on the hunt for any signs of Type I and II Dyson Spheres whose discovery would actually put meat on the bones of what is otherwise merely a plausible model of technological development not to mention blow our minds.

However, as I have mentioned elsewhere, a much less metaphysically laden explanation for the Fermi Paradox can be found in the simple life cycle of stars. It is only quite recently that the types of stars that create the sorts of heavy elements necessary for life (at least life as we understand it) have emerged, and the number of such heavy element creating stars in increasing. Earth might be one of the first planets to establish life and civilization, but it will in all probability not be the last. There will probably be many many more chances to get it right, if by getting it right we mean getting beyond our current technological stage. There are also likely to be many more type of paths through evolution and historical development than we could ever imagine without any ultimate destiny or convergence point, which some modern scientists and singularitarians have borrowed straight from religious longings.

There is no need to posit a potentially lost cosmic destiny to come to the conclusion that our’s or future generations’ failure to meet our global responsibilities today would constitute a colossal tragedy, and this is what we can confidently take away from Elysium. That one of the greatest challenges in front of us is making sure that all of humanity is able to benefit from scientific, technological and economic progress, and as Blomkamp’s action-packed analogy reminds us, we don’t have to go out to the 22nd century to see that we are failing to live up to this challenge quite miserably.