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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Knowledge and Energy

The Beginnings of Infinity, David Deutsch, Pelican edition, 2012
This is a stimulating book to read. It is packed full of challenging ideas, which I will need to read through again (and again no doubt). One which has already got me thinking hard is his defence of the Enlightenment.

David Deutsch’s argument on the Enlightenment is that it created a breakthrough from stable, static societies of the past  to the dynamic ‘Western’ society of the present and future.  The dynamism comes from the liberation  provided by scientific (but not quite so much from  philosophical) rationality.  Rationality is open-ended  and so we are  at the beginning of infinity - the beginning of unlimited progress. Progress is unlimited since rationality has the ability to solve problems. So any problems created by rationality become the stimulus for  further problem solving in a sequence without end - and infinite sequence.

This is an optimistic scenario, but one based on reality - since, as Deutsch argues-  scientific rationality is derived from and explains reality.

My problem is that I have also recently read ’Energy and the English Industrial Revolution’ by E. A. Wrigley (Cambridge, 2010). What Deutsch calls the stable and static societies of the pre-Enlightenment past, Wrigley describes as ‘organic economies’ and contrasts them with the ‘mineralised economies’ which emerged with the industrial revolution. Both the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution occurred in the eighteenth century so there is an overlap between Deutsch and Wrigley.

The key problem is how to understand the relationship between knowledge and energy. Deutsch argues (p.414) that ‘primitive, static societies… contained pitifully little knowledge and  existed only by suppressing innovation’. Wrigley’s argument is that ‘organic economies’ were constrained by their reliance on human and animal power and wind and water as energy sources which placed limits on their ability to innovate and grow.

So did the Enlightenment stimulate the industrial revolution? More specifically, did the Enlightenment stimulate science which then influenced the industrial revolution?  Probably not. The key stimulus was economic and the economic impetus came from the opportunities created by the expansion of what was to become the British Empire and the wars (mainly with France) which went with that expansion. Very little science was involved in the trial and error tinkering with existing methods and technologies which formed the basis for the industrial revolution.

The substitution of coal and coke for wood and charcoal in iron smelting, the use of iron as a replacement for wood in ploughs, bridges and machines, the use of steam rather than wind, water, human and animal power to drive machines - all came about through trail and error tinkering with existing methods of production and technologies. All depended on the exploitation of a mineral resource- coal - to breakthrough the constraints of an organic economy. With the cotton industry, slavery was another vital component.

Damn. Themes from the book are now circling around my head. There are so many of them, its difficult to get a fix on any one of them long enough to critically assess it. Another difficulty is the all or nothing logic. Deutsch explains that questioning arguments from authority was part of the Enlightenment project but then, using his position as a world-class authority on physics  goes on to create a series of arguments from authority which extend beyond physics and into history and social/ cultural anthropology to create a static/dynamic distinction between non-rational and rational (Enlightened) societies.

In particular, in a slightly confusing discussion of global warming/ climate change , he seems to suggest that a dynamic society will find ways to either reduce the temperature or thrive at a higher temperature. He goes on to say ‘ There is as yet no serious sign of retreat into a sustainable lifestyle (which would really mean  achieving  only the semblance of sustainability), but even the aspiration is dangerous.’ Dangerous because it would mean  rejecting  the alternative choice  ‘to embark on an open-ended journey of creation and exploration whose every step  is unsustainable  until it is redeemed by the next…’

The suggestions made - carbon capture, creating clouds to reflect sunlight, encouraging aquatic organism to absorb carbon dioxide - are possible techno-fixes which do not involve reducing our output of carbon dioxide and Deutsch does not make any suggestions about how we might be able to ‘thrive’ at higher global temperatures. This section of his book  seems more focused on denying that there are any limits to growth than seriously engaging with the problem of climate change. This creates a strange tension, where Deutsch as advocate of science has to down play the findings of science.

This brings us back to Wrigley and his mineralised economy. If it was the exploitation of energy from coal and oil rather than the knowledge of the Enlightenment which  liberated us from organic/ static/ sustainable societies , then we will never achieve Deutsch’s vision of infinity. Either climate change or resource depletion will prevent us from embarking on an ‘open-ended journey of creation and exploration’.  As our sources of concentrated energy run out, so will the knowledge associated with an energy rich culture.  If climate change begins to damage our ability to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves, the complexities of our culture will be diminished - including  science- as existence once more becomes a daily struggle for survival.

On the other hand, if Deutsch is right and  we have passed a threshold of complexity, these problems will inspire solutions and the Enlightenment (creative rationality) will be conserved. This optimistic scenario is one I hope will prevail. But to hedge my bets, I will continue to wrestle with Hegel- who is not mentioned by Deutsch. Although the industrial revolution had begun in Britain during Hegel’s lifetime, it had not yet reached Germany where he lived. His philosophical speculations are therefore the product of an organic  rather than mineralised economy and were directly inspired by the Enlightenment. Hegel’s work in turn influenced Karl Marx - who Deutsch rejects as a ‘mechanical’ thinker.

To conclude- if Deutsch is right, our future is to infinity and beyond. I would like to agree with his optimistic vision, but when he moves from his field of expert knowledge - physics- to the history and future of human societies, his vision starts to be contradicted by actuality.


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