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What can be learned from Big (and World) History?

by William McGaughey

(1) The book, History of the Triple Existence, is a work in the field of “Big History”. Big History combines “Big” with “History”. History, as opposed to science, tells the story of how something developed over time to become what it presently is. Big History is therefore a creation story. In this case, it is a creation story based upon scientific knowledge as currently known and understood. It is what Aristotle called an “efficient cause” of the universe. This story or “cause” does not just include one event but a series of them that explains how the present situation came to be. “Big”, on the other hand, indicates size or extent in time and space. Big History includes events taking place in all the space and time in the universe, between the “big bang” and the present.

(2) The big historian is more like an artist than a scientist because he creates the design of the story. Scientific knowledge is the same for all but the design of the story can be different just as different artists paint different pictures of a common scene. In other words, there can be more than one story telling how something came to be. We can ponder the question: What is the best design? What is the best way to tell the story of how our present situation came to be?

(3) When we talk of our “present situation”, we are talking about a mixture of several types of being. Our world of personal experience does not just involve atoms and molecules interacting in various ways but also various life forms and expressions of human thought. The “triple existence” includes matter, life, and thought. How should the story of all existence defined this way be organized in a single package of stories?

(4) Each type of being - matter, life, and thought - had a beginning. For matter, it was the “big bang”. For life, there are several theories of how this DNA-based being originated in a world of inorganic chemicals. For thought, the cognitive capacity of the human brain developed alongside the development of the species itself; the beginning was not recorded. Notably, life and thought appeared only on earth while matter pervades the entire universe.

(5) The story of how matter and life developed is fairly clear. But thought? How should its story be organized? Even though thought occurs within individual human brains, we are really talking about collective human consciousness and the formation of knowledge. This story cannot be separated from events taking place within human society. A good starting point, then, might be to describe how human society developed. Afterwards, we might try to see how thought emanated from that structure. We might try to construct a history of ideas. I also think that the invention and development of communication technology helps explain how thought in its present form came to be. The progression of such technologies over time helps organize Big History in the era of human thought.

(6) Big History is not going to give its student more information about particular persons or events in history but, rather, present the “big picture” of our developing universe. Such a history gives context for all the smaller histories which students of history are accustomed to receiving.

(7) Considering history on various scales of magnitude, we can imagine constructing a “pyramid of history” as an organized form of knowledge. In other words, history can be written at several levels of detail. There can be a 100-page book of Big History telling the story in general terms, and a 5,000-page book covering each area in much greater detail. Here we must consider the time that people have to study history. We must consider how the process of receiving historical knowledge fits into people’s lives. How much time do they have for this type of pursuit and how can it be useful to them? More people can enjoy shorter versions of Big History than long ones because it takes less time to learn it.

(8) Most stories have beginnings and ends. The beginnings of Big History we have already discussed. How about the end? Since this event will happen in the future, we have no immediate knowledge of it. We can only project future events from present trends. In this respect, Big History is different from world history which tells the rise and fall of civilizations. Knowing their pattern of life cycle, we can apply the knowledge gained from the history of past civilizations to our present one. However, Big History has no precedent. We have only projection from present trends.

(9) The history of the triple existence gives an interesting perspective on death. For life, preserving the species is the important thing. For individual human beings, it is also important to preserve thought. What we fear most is the loss of our individual consciousness or collection of thoughts when we die and are buried in the earth. With respect to other people’s awareness of us, this can be partially overcome by the writings we leave behind. Dead Shakespeare still lives in his poetry and dramatic works. With respect to life, our existence continues genetically in offspring we might have. But life and thought cannot continue together unless incorporated in an intelligent machine. Matter, on the other hand, continues indefinitely. The atoms in a dead person’s body are rearranged in other structures after life has ended.

(10) Just as death is a common human experience, so Big History can be a unifying force in human society because we are all part of the same story. In fact, this discipline is rapidly spreading to schools around the world.

A final note: These observations are thoughts about Big History, not Big History itself. That requires a story. Such a story is presented in the book, History of the Triple Existence, as well as a number of other books.

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What can be learned from World History?

(Note: This discussion is based on the scheme of world history in the book Five Epochs of Civilization.)

tools and machines

Knowledge is thought’s soft dimension. Thought exists in a collection of written expressions and sensuous images. However, thought also has an external or physical dimension. I am referring to tools and machines. Primitive man, endowed with opposable thumbs, used stone tools to kill wild game, prepare food, and cut wood or animal hide. These tools were an extension of his bodily endowment. Although man had fingernails and teeth, a stone blade could cut into animal flesh or the fiber of plants more easily than they could. More than other animals, man lived with the assistance of tools.

With the first civilizations came new types of tools. The large irrigation projects of Sumer required more than sheer physical labor. The great pyramids of Egypt needed tools to cut large slabs of rock from quarries, transport them over a great distance, and lift them into place. The Romans used water power to crush ore, cut wood, and process grain. Oars and sails powered boats traveling upon the water.

Tools are a hybrid of matter and thought. Thought is reflected in the design of a physical object created for a particular use. As matter, this object exists in the physical world. It causes certain things to happen when used by human beings.

With the Renaissance, tool making advanced to a new level of sophistication. The age of machines began. According to Arnold Toynbee, a machine differs from a tool in that its operation does not merely extend motions of the human body. Rather it “relieves Man from doing any of the physical work himself.” Leonardo da Vinci, the great Renaissance painter, was also a prolific inventor of machines.

Besides printing, the three most important machines for achieving western dominance in the 15th and 16th centuries were the Portuguese sailing vessel, the compass, and muskets that used gunpowder to overpower non-European peoples. The new sailing vessel represented a technological upgrade of wind-powered ships long used in the western world. Chinese alchemists invented gunpowder. The compass, a finder of direction, was first used for purposes of divination.

What we call the “Industrial Revolution” took place in the second half of the 18th century. James Watt improved upon Thomas Newcomen’s earlier design of a steam-powered engine. Originally such machines were used to pump water out of mines. Before long, however, steam engines powered machinery that wove cloth in textile mills. In the early 19th century, steam-powered ships began to replace sailing vessels. Steam-powered locomotives pulled trains with freight or passenger cars across the land.

Additionally, machines were being built with interchangeable parts, cut to great precision. They became more efficient by repeating certain operations to produce large quantities of a product. Besides metal, machines were being made of plastics. Self-regulating control mechanisms, equipped with sensing devices, allowed them to function with minimal human supervision. Then came electronic computers able to engage in a wider range of intelligent functions. Taken together, machines were starting to replace human beings in the production process.

This was thought carried a step further. No longer did a human craftsman, working with tools, have to think what he was doing while fashioning an object. Instead, an engineer designed a machine to assume the craftsman’s function. This machine had both a physical presence and a body of technical knowledge behind it.

Therefore, I would say that the story of history in at least the last thousand years can be told in terms of increasing dependence upon machines. When civilization began, mankind lived closer to a state of nature. Today, the earth has been substantially transformed by human thought. Our worldly experience is being shaped in every way by artificial devices. Machines are not incidental to human experience but the very embodiment of progress.

a rhythm of knowledge

The story of how this came to be runs through conventional history. For machines to take hold in human culture, we had to get away from the philosophical and religious thinking prevalent in medieval times. Human intelligence had to be redirected toward nature. And then, the commercial spirit of the age turned science into technologies that could produce goods more efficiently to gain money. Education prepared people to serve society’s moneyed institutions.

One perceives that first two epochs of world history have much in common. So do the third and fourth epochs. The first and second epochs of civilization are about individuals and groups of individuals pursuing knowledge and power. A human scribe produces written texts. In the third and fourth epochs of civilization, machines take over some of those functions. The printing machine “writes” texts for people to read. Other kinds of machines handle transportation and production of goods much more efficiently than before. Mechanized war ceases to be heroic but is simply brutal.

On the other hand, power which was projected through force and fear in the first two epochs now must be exercised through persuasion. Imperial armies killed their way to obedience. Religious institutions ruled by the fear of excommunication and hell. In contrast, today’s businesses cannot be successful unless they can persuade people to buy their products. Elected officials must persuade people to vote for them; they do not inherit their positions through birth. Today’s business and political leaders know how to sell the public on what they have to offer.

Within each pair of epochs, there a progressive and a recessive phase with respect to production of knowledge. The first civilization achieved impressive technological feats - e.g., the great pyramids of Egypt, the great wall of China. There were royal or imperial libraries where knowledge-laden texts were stored. The second civilization, centering upon religion, changed the direction of thought. Inquiring minds now pored over sacred texts. The natural sciences became less important as people were in- stead focused on being admitted to heaven. At the same time, religion made human society more humane.

In the third and fourth epochs of civilization, there is again a progressive and recessive phase. The third civilization resumed the production of knowledge concerning the physical world. The natural sciences flourished in 17th century Europe. At the end of the 18th century came the Industrial Revolution. Education was meanwhile developing as an institution that would transmit and create knowledge. The subsequent fourth civilization, centering upon entertainment, was diverted to less serious pursuits. This humanized the previous culture of education and business. Appealing models of personality became important.

a dichotomy between life and its tools

Looking to the future, one can foresee an even closer relationship between man and machine. If thinking machines (computers) are brought up to a certain level of intelligence, our minds could be surpassed artificially. In the not-too-distant future, computers may acquire full-scale artificial intelligence. There may also be machines with physical extensions like the human body. If robots ever rise to the level of life, the next chapter of history could be quite breathtaking.

We therefore have a dichotomy between man and his tools, the one being a projection of his DNA and other other an extension of his thought. DNA changes over thousands or millions of years. Tools change over a much shorter time in human history. That is because thoughts evolve more quickly than life.

Going back billions of years, one sees the faint beginning of this dichotomy. In contrast to matter, which does not disturb other matter, life acts upon exterior objects in its environment to live.

Primitive bacteria “learned” to extract energy from hydrogen sulfide by prying the hydrogen atom loose and fusing it with carbon dioxide to form carbohydrates. Plants “learned” to break carbon dioxide down through photosynthesis, releasing oxygen into the air. Animals “learned” to eat plants. Carnivores “learned” to eat other animals. Although such “learning” may not have advanced to the level of thinking, there had to be other objects around that allowed the living creatures to be what they were.

Thinking processes begin with animals, and real thought (as we believe it to be) begins with human beings. However, man is also an animal that needs to kill other animals and plants in order to live. In his capacity as a thinking creature, man alters the course of nature through agriculture and the domestication of animals. Human thought decides which seeds will be preserved for next year’s crops or which wild animals will be selectively bred. One species has control of another. Life thus becomes thought’s raw material.

With tools and machines, thought acts upon inanimate matter. Stones are chipped and metallic compounds are made to yield metals that can be heated and molded into various shapes. The more complicated machines are a product of scientific knowledge. Yet, they, too, are built out of matter. With man controlling their creation and use, they are not pure matter but have a large component of thought in their being. And that’s the way our world is headed, now and in the foreseeable future.

It may be too soon to say what will come as computer technology matures. One has a sense of existential dread. The atomic age, threatening to destroy humanity, began about the same time as electronic computers. Human populations are on a collision course with the earth’s finite resources. Ray Kurzweil and others suggest that man and machine will merge to create a cyborg species. Robotic machines may become superior to their human parent. In either case, big changes are in store for us as a species; and that could be discomforting.

We have learned from history that no trend continues forever; events headed in a particular direction tend to reverse themselves over time. Universal history has no certain outcome that we can know through competent techniques of prediction. But we can look at previous civilizations or stretches of history to gain a sense of where ours will go. For the final chapter, there is no such precedent.


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