A Question of Values

Oswald Spengler, whose theory of historical cycles was discussed in last week’s post, was far from the first scholar to propose that the future of modern industrial civilization might best be understood by paying at least a little attention to what happened to other civilizations in the past.  Back in 1725, as the industrial revolution was just getting under way, an Italian philosopher named Giambattista Vico traced out "the course the nations run"—the phrase is his—in the pages of his masterpiece, Principles of a New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations (for obvious reasons, scholars these days shorten this to The New Science). Since then, it’s been rare for more than a generation to go by without some historian or philosopher pointing out to readers that every previous society has followed the familiar arc of rise and fall, and ours seems to be doing exactly the same thing.

Spengler was thus contributing to an established tradition, rather than breaking wholly new ground, and there have been important works since his time—most notably Arnold Toynbee’s sprawling A Study of History, twelve weighty volumes packed with evidence and case studies—that carried the same tradition further. Vico spent his whole career laboring in obscurity, but Spengler and Toynbee were both major public figures in their day, as well as bestselling authors whose ideas briefly became part of the common currency of thought in the Western world. They and their work, in turn, were both consigned to oblivion once it stopped being fashionable to think about the points they raised, and you can read any number of hefty studies of the philosophy of history and never find either man mentioned at all.

What makes this disappearance fascinating to me is that very few critics ever made a serious attempt to argue the facts that Spengler and his peers discussed. There was never any shortage of disagreement, to be sure, but nearly all of it remained weirdly detached from the issues the theorists of historical cycles were attempting to raise. There was a great deal of quibbling about details, a great deal of handwaving about fatalism and pessimism, and whole armies of straw men were lined up and beaten with gusto, but next to nobody tried to show that the basic concept of historical cycles doesn’t work—that the patterns traced by the history of China, let’s say, contradict those displayed by the history of ancient Egypt—and the few attempts that were made in this direction were embarrassingly weak. 

By and large, those who disputed Vico, Spengler, Toynbee, et al. either brushed aside the entire question of patterns of historical change, or conceded that, well, of course, those other civilizations of the past might have followed a shared trajectory, but ours?  Never.  That’s still the predictable response to any suggestion that the past might have anything useful to say about the future, and regular readers of this blog will have seen it deployed countless times in critiques posted by commenters here: in words made famous in any number of speculative bubbles, it’s different this time.

There’s a wry amusement to be had by thinking through the implications of this constantly repeated claim. If our society was in fact shaking off the burdens of the past and breaking new ground with every minute that goes by, as believers in progress like to claim, wouldn’t it be more likely that the theory of historical cycles would be challenged each time it appears with dazzlingly new, innovative responses that no one had ever imagined before?  Instead, in an irony Nietzsche would have relished, the claim that history can’t repeat itself endlessly repeats itself, in what amounts to an eternal return of the insistence that there is no eternal return. What’s more, those who claim that it’s different this time seem blissfully unaware that anyone has made the same claim before them, and if this is pointed out to them, they insist—often with quite some heat—that what they’re saying has nothing whatsoever to do with all the other times the same argument was used to make the same point down through the years.

There are deep patterns at work here, but it’s probably necessary to tackle the different-this-time argument on its own terms first. Of course there are differences between contemporary industrial civilization and those older societies that have already traced out the completed arc of rise and fall.  Each of those previous civilizations differed from every other human society in its own unique ways, too. Each human life, to use an analogy Spengler liked to cite, differs from every other human life in a galaxy of ways, but certain processes—birth, infancy, childhood, puberty, and so on through the life cycle to old age and death—are hardwired into the basic structure of being human, and will come to every individual who lives out a normal lifespan.  The talents, experiences, and achievements that fit into the common sequence of life will vary, often drastically, from person to person, but those differences exist within a common frame. The same thing, the theorists of historical cycles suggest, is true of human societies, and they offer ample evidence to support that claim.

Furthermore, these same scholars point out, modern industrial civilization has passed so far through all the normal stages of social existence appropriate to its age. It emerged out of a feudal setting all but indistinguishable from those that provided the cradle for past civilizations; out of that background, it developed its own unique view of the cosmos, expressed first in religious terms, and later in the form of a rationalist philosophy; it passed through the normal political, economic, and social changes in the usual order, and at the same broad time intervals, as other civilizations; its current political, economic, and cultural condition has precise parallels in older civilizations as far back as records reach. Given that the uniqueness of modern industrial civilization has so far failed to nudge it off the standard trajectory, it’s hard to find any valid reason to insist that our future won’t continue along the same track.

Claims that it’s different this time usually rest on one of three foundations. The first is that this is the first global civilization on record. A difference of scale, though, does not necessarily equal a difference of kind; the trajectory we’re discussing appears in Neolithic societies limited to a single river basin and continental empires with thriving international trade networks, as well as every scale in between. While it might be argued that the greater size of contemporary industrial society amounts to a difference in kind, that claim would have to be backed up with evidence, rather than merely asserted—as, so far, it generally has been. Furthermore, when the slower speed of earlier transportation technologies is taken into account, the "worlds" inhabited by older societies were effectively as large as ours; if your fastest means of transport is a horse-drawn chariot, for example, ancient China is a very big place.

The second foundation for claims of our uniqueness is, of course, the explosive growth of technology made possible over the last three centuries by the reckless extraction and burning of fossil fuels. It’s true that no other civilization has done that, but the differences have had remarkably little impact on the political, cultural, and social trends that shape our lives and the destinies of our communities. The corruption of mass politics in the modern industrial world, for example, is following point for point the same patterns traced out by equivalent phenomena in ancient Greece and Rome; the weapons of war have changed, similarly, but the downward spiral of a failing empire trying to cling to fractious but strategically vital borderlands is the same for America in Afghanistan as it was for the Babylonians in the Elamite hill country in 1000 BCE. Our technology has given us new means, but by and large we’ve employed them for the same ancient purposes, and reaped the same consequences.

The third foundation is newer, and appears these days mostly in those corners of the blogosphere where the apocalyptic faith discussed in an earlier post in this sequence has become standard. This is the claim that the global disasters that are about to wallop industrial civilization go so far beyond anything in the past that there’s no basis for comparison. Now of course that argument is very often based on the well-worn tactic of heaping up an assortment of worst-case scenarios, insisting that the resulting cataclysm is the only possible outcome of current trends, and using that imagined future as a measuring rod with which to dismiss what really happened in the past. This is the sort of thinking I critiqued in a recent post about claims that humanity will inevitably go extinct in the next few decades: if you cherrypick a set of extreme scenarios backed by less than five per cent of current climate change research, and treat those highly speculative hypotheses as though they’re incontrovertible facts, it’s easy to paint the end of industrial civilization in colors as extreme as you happen to like.

What tends to be missed in the resulting discussions, though, is that ecological disasters of the sort we’re actually likely to face featured repeatedly in the collapse of earlier civilizations. Clive Ponting’s excellent A Green History of the World is a helpful corrective for this myopia.  The collapse of classic Mayan civilization, for example, was triggered in large part by catastrophic droughts, caused in large part by deforestation and farming practices that wrecked the hydrologic cycles on which Mayan life depended. Anthropogenic climate change, in other words, was just as destructive to Mayan civilization as it promises to be to ours.  While climate change in Mayan times was more localized than the present equivalent, it’s worth remembering that the Mayan world was equally circumscribed by its geographical knowledge and transport technologies; from a Mayan perspective, the whole world was being ravaged by climate change, as ours will be in its turn.

The downfall of classic Mayan civilization unfolded over a century and a half, and involved the loss of irreplaceable cultural treasures and scientific knowledge, the abandonment of nearly all of the Lowland Mayan cities to the encroaching jungle, and dieoff so severe that postcollapse populations bottomed out around 5% of the Late Classic peak. It’s by no means impossible that the decline and fall of modern industrial civilization could involve losses on the same scale, and it’s a source of endless fascination to me that this suggestion—based as it is on the one source of useful evidence we’ve got, the experience of a previous society going through an equivalent process—should be dismissed by one set of disbelievers in historical cycles as too pessimistic, and by another set as too optimistic.

It’s exactly this twofold dismissal that points to the deeper, nonrational dimension underlying the whole discussion of possible futures. It bears repeating that the belief in progress, and the equal and opposite belief in apocalypse, are narratives about the unknowable. Both claim that the past has nothing to say about the future, that something is about to happen that has never happened before and that can’t be judged on the basis of any previous event. Whether the thing that’s about to happen is a shining new age of wonder, along the lines of Joachim’s Age of the Holy Spirit, or a sudden end of history, along the lines of Augustine’s version of the Second Coming, it refutes everything that has come before. This is what lies behind the endlessly repeated (and just as repeatedly disproved) insistence, on the part of believers in both narratives, that it’s different this time: if it’s not different this time, if the lessons of the past reveal the shape of the future, then both belief systems come crashing down at once.

That is to say, the belief in progress and in apocalypse are both matters of faith, not fact. The same is true of every set of beliefs about the future, however, or about anything else for that matter.  No system of logical inferences, however elaborate and exact, can prove its own presuppositions; dig down to the foundations, and you’ll find that the structure rests on assumptions about the nature of things that have to be taken on faith. It probably has to be pointed out that this is just as true of rationalist beliefs as it is of the most exotic forms of mysticism.  To say, as science does, that statements about the universe ought to be based on observation assumes, has to assume, that what we observe tells us truths about the universe—an assumption that the old Gnostics would have considered laughably naive. To claim that there are many gods, a few gods, only one god, or no gods at all is to insist on something about which human beings have no independently verifiable source of information whatsoever.

It’s tolerably common these days, outside of the surviving theist religions, to affect to despise faith, and you’ll find plenty of people who insist that they take nothing on faith at all. Of course they’re quite wrong. None of us can function in the world for five minutes without taking a galaxy of things on faith, from the solidity of the floor in front of us, through the connection between another person’s words and their thoughts, to the existence of places and times we will never experience.  Gregory Bateson pointed out, in a series of papers that have vanished as thoroughly from the literature of psychology as Spengler and Toynbee have from that of history, that an unwillingness to take anything on faith is at the core of schizophrenia; that’s what lies behind the frantic efforts of the paranoiac to find the hidden meaning in everything around him, and the catatonic’s ultimate refusal to have anything to do with the world at all.

Faith is, among other things, the normal and necessary human response to those questions that can’t be answered on the basis of any form of proof, but have to be answered in one way or another in order to live in the world. The question that deserves discussion is why different people, faced with the same unanswerable question, put their faith in different propositions. The answer is as simple to state as it is sweeping in its consequences: every act of faith rests on a set of values.

We’ll probably have to spend a good deal of time talking about the difference between facts and values one of these weeks, but that’s material for another post. The short form is that facts belong to the senses and the intellect, and they’re objective, at least to the extent that anyone with an ordinarily functioning set of senses and no reason to prevaricate can say, "yes, I see it too."  Values, by contrast, are a matter of the heart and the will, and they’re irreducibly subjective; to say "this is good" or "this is bad," or any other statement of value, does not communicate an objective fact about the thing being discussed, but always expresses a value judgment from some irreducibly individual point of view. More than half the confusions of contemporary thought result from attempts to treat personal value judgments as though they were objectively knowable facts—to say, for example, "x is better than y" without addressing such questions as "better by what criteria?" and "better for whom?"

The prejudices of modern industrial culture encourage that sort of confusion by claiming a higher status for facts than for values. Listen to atheists and Christians talking past each other, as they normally do, and you have a classic example of the result.  The real difference between the two, as the best minds on both sides have grasped, is a radical difference in values that defines equally profound differences in basic assumptions about humanity and the world.  Behind the atheist vision of humanity as a unique but wholly natural phenomenon, in the midst of a soulless universe of dead matter following natural laws, stands one set of value judgments about what counts as right and true; behind the Christian vision of humanity as the adopted child of divine omnipotence, placed temporarily in the material universe as a prologue to eternal bliss or damnation, stands a completely different set.  The difference in values is the heart of the matter, and no amount of bickering over facts can settle a debate rooted in that soil.

In the classical world, in an age when values were given at least as high a status as facts, debates of this sort were conducted on their natural ground, and systems of thought appealed to potential followers by presenting their own visions of the Good and calling into question the values presented by competing systems. Nowadays, such clarity is rare, and indeed it’s embarrassingly common to hear people insist that there’s no way to judge among competing value claims. It’s true that a value can’t be disproved in the same way as a fact, but values don’t exist in a vacuum; any statement of value has implications and consequences, and it’s by assessing these that each of us can judge whether a value is consistent with the other values we happen to hold, and with the universe of fact that we happen to experience.

We all know this, at least in practice. The reason why doctrines of racial inequality are widely and rightly dismissed by most people in the modern industrial world, for example, has little to do with the shoddy intellectual basis offered for such doctrines by their few defenders, quite a bit to do with lynch mobs, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, and other well-known consequences of value systems that deny the humanity of other ethnic groups, and at least as much to do with the conflict between the values expressed in these consequences and other values, such as fairness and compassion, that most people embrace.  This is an extreme example, but the same principle applies more generally: when a statement is made about the unprovable, it’s always wise to ask what the consequences of believing that statement have been in the past, and what other values are consistent or inconsistent with the claim.

We can thus apply the same logic to the faith in perpetual progress and imminent apocalypse. One consequence of accepting these beliefs, and embracing the values that underlie them, is clear enough: both reliably yield false predictions about the future. Believers in progress like to claim the opposite, but you have to read descriptions of the future from before 1960 or so to grasp just how few the hits have always been compared to the flops. For all its failures, though, the faith in progress has a better track record than the faith in apocalypse; across the centuries, whenever anyone has insisted that the world was about to end, he or she has always been dead wrong. Aside from speculative bubbles or the quest for perpetual motion, it’s hard to name a more reliable source of utter hogwash.

For faiths that focus on the future as intently as these do, this inability to foresee the future is not exactly encouraging. It’s possible to go further, though, by noticing the values embodied in the progressive and apocalyptic faiths. Both of them insist that the world we know must shortly be swept away, to be replaced by some better age or annihilated in some grand final judgment. Both of them anchor their entire sense of meaning and value on an imaginary future, and disparage the present by contrast.  Both faiths are thus founded on a rejection of the world as it actually exists.  To borrow one of Nietzsche’s phrases, both are Nay-sayings to life, attempts to posit an unreal "real world" (the shining future of progress, the world after apocalypse) against which life as it actually is can be judged, condemned, and sentenced to death.  The mere fact that the executioners never do their job, though it’s an inconvenience to the believers on either side, does nothing to alter the furious zeal with which, over and over again, the sentence is handed down.

The religion of progress and its antireligion of apocalypse are by no means alone in their Nay-saying to life. The same world-condemning attitude has had a pervasive role in most (though not all) branches of Christianity, the theist faith from which these secular religions covertly derive a good many of their ideas and images.  In an upcoming post, we’ll discuss the way that this attitude in its many forms has helped send contemporary industrial society slamming face first into the wall of crises that shapes today’s headlines and will be defining our history for a good many years to come.

For the time being, though, I’d like to leave my readers with this reflection: what would it mean to found a set of values, and a corresponding set of presuppositions about the world, on life exactly as it is? In the course of opening that can of worms, and getting the worms inside more comfortably situated in their proper soil, we’ll begin the process of circling in toward the question at the center of this series of posts—the quest for a philosophy of life, and perhaps even a spirituality, that can make sense of the human reality of the Long Descent.