‘The Sum Total of All Human Knowledge’, Part I

Finding our place in space and time

As noted in the earlier post describing heuristic principles for scanning, for most of the run of the Master of Strategic Foresight at Swinburne we used to say—to new students starting in the first unit—that Futures Studies begins with ‘the sum total of all human knowledge’ (Hayward, Voros, and Morrow 2012, p184), before it then asks, whether implicitly or explicitly: “now what?” It would therefore seem to make sense, then, to have some way of organising the sum total of all human knowledge into some sort of more-or-less coherent schema, in order that one might begin to get to grips with what is, after all, merely the starting point of the vast multidisciplinary field of Futures Studies (FS).

Origins

My fascination with frameworks that seek to encapsulate and organise human knowledge into a tractable system goes back a long way—decades in fact. It’s why I eventually ended up using the philosopher Ken Wilber’s Integral Model in my earliest futures work (e.g., Voros 2001). Later, during the writing of a paper on ‘macro-perspectives’ (Voros 2007), I came across the term ‘Big History’ (BH), which had been initially coined somewhat tongue-in-cheek by David Christian (1991); although, as he has frequently noted in our conversations and elsewhere, “the term ‘stuck’”.

Connecting with others working in this similarly vast multidisciplinary field was simply wonderful, almost a cosmic ‘perfect match’. I distinctly remember emailing Fred Spier very early in 2010 because of the eye-catching title of his then soon-to-be-released book Big History and the Future of Humanity (2010), which has since had a second edition (2015). And when the opportunity later arose, I jumped at the chance to become a Founding member of the International Big History Association (IBHA) in 2011 when this was opened up to those who were not present at the legendary Coldigioco meeting in 2010. After meeting with almost all of the members of the-then Board of the IBHA at a conference in Moscow in early 2012, I was later invited to join the Board, and spent the next 5 years serving on it. The authors of the first textbook on BH—David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin (2013)—were extremely supportive of my intention to bring BH to Swinburne, and I can never thank them enough for helping with both content and advice. I still treasure my copy, signed by all three when we were together again physically at the 2014 IBHA conference held at Dominican University in California (Gustafson et al. 2014).

I also distinctly remember sitting with them at lunch one day during that Moscow conference, along with Fred Spier, where I was trying to outline a few ideas for possible conference paper submissions that I hoped might be considered suitable for the upcoming inaugural IBHA conference to be held in Grand Rapids, Michigan later that year in August. Cynthia had overheard me speaking, craned her neck, leaned in closer, and said, in her Tennessee twang: “Oh, you’re coming to Grand Rapids!” In the end, all the proposals I submitted were accepted, so it ended up being a pretty busy conference, but happily so! Sadly, we lost Cynthia in 2017, and she is very greatly missed by those who had the great good fortune to know her.

Cosmic Evolution

This process of searching for ever-larger frameworks with which to understand the Universe had begun back in high school, sparked by a strikingly-presented two-volume set of paperback books called Asimov’s Guide to Science (Asimov [1972] 1975), as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Asimov’s 2-volume Guide to Science arranged side-by-side to show the complete likeness of the author depicted on the cover art.

After considering the question of what science is, he essentially starts out at the Big Bang, and then traces the development of scientific knowledge of the Universe through a loosely chronological structure, ultimately arriving at ‘today’ (i.e., the 1970s). He deals in turn first with the physical sciences (Vol. 1) and then the biological sciences (Vol. 2), in which he had himself specialised, obtaining a PhD in biochemistry while establishing himself as one of the major science-fiction authors of the 20th Century. I still have them even today, although they are of course very dated by now. But, such is the nature of science: through it, we become progressively less wrong about things, but that process of progressive-less-wrongness never actually comes to an end …

But of course, the conceptual framework within which Asimov elaborated this structure was not BH, as such. Rather, it was based upon Cosmic Evolution (CE), a conceptually similar but somewhat broader term that goes back a bit further than ‘BH’ and tends to be used mostly by astronomers, astrophysicists and other physical scientists (e.g., Chaisson 1979, 2001; Sagan 1983; see also Dick 2009). It had emerged as a useful framing model over the course of the 20th Century CE, but really found a solid scientific (as opposed to pragmatic) footing when the polymathic genius Erich Jantsch (1980) laid it out in terms of an evolutionary view of non-equilibrium thermodynamics and self-organising systems. His work actually forms the physical-material right-hand half of the Quadrants aspect of Wilber’s Integral model (see Voros 2019).

I therefore tend to regard BH as a specific example—namely, ours—of the more general process of CE—as described by Jantsch and others—playing out in particular here on Planet Earth (Voros 2019, 63–66). It could, in principle, also have played out in other places elsewhere in the Universe, something that our very existence shows to be a logical possibility, albeit of rather unknown probability. This is also why I have had a fascination with the question of extraterrestrial life and intelligence since teenage, due in no small part to reading Asimov’s science-fiction, but then cemented firmly into place a bit later by the TV series Cosmos by Carl Sagan (1980). Towards the end of the final episode, Sagan narrates an outline of the overall time-line of CE from the Big Bang to now, accompanied by visuals and music, finishing with images depicting modern-day humans going about their many daily pursuits. He then caps it off with the wryly understated observation that (Sagan 1980, ep.13):

These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do, given 15 billion years of cosmic evolution.1

This “cosmic-evolutionary scenario” (Chaisson 1979, passim) is certainly a grand one, perhaps even the grandest of all. And as Sagan notes, continuing the quote above in the very next breath:

It has the sound of epic myth. But it’s simply a description of the evolution of the Cosmos as revealed by science in our time. And we—we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the Cosmos—we’ve begun, at last, to wonder about our origins: star stuff contemplating the stars; organized collections of 10 billion billion billion atoms contemplating the evolution of matter; tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet Earth and, perhaps, throughout the Cosmos.

And it is that “long path” of the time-line of CE that forms the backbone of the “origin story” narrative of BH (Christian 2004, 2018)—a continuous narrative connecting the very beginning of everything that we currently know about right up to the present moment, along a trajectory of ever-increasing material-energetic complexity over the entire 13.8 billion-year course of cosmic time (so far).

These are our origins and the context within which humans have sought to find our place, in order to understand it, and to know more about it through learning collectively (Christian 2010), ever since consciousness dawned in us as a species ~300,000 years ago. And our collective learning has continued to grow ever-more in scope and scale, until we have now eventually and finally arrived at the present moment—the end of that “long path” that has led us to our current state of both being and of knowing.

The sum total …

I’ve used the expression “the sum total of all human knowledge” for so many years now that its precise origin is no longer at all clear to me. But I strongly suspect that it very likely arose from something the physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote back in 1944, in the Preface to his book What is Life? (Schrödinger [1944] 1992).

During my PhD I worked on the electrodynamics of Einstein’s unified field theory, which he based upon extending his own General Theory of Relativity, a theory of gravity, as an attempt to also include the electromagnetic field in a single encompassing framework (e.g., Einstein 1956). Schrödinger, too, had independently worked on a unified field theory, starting from a different underlying basis and set of assumptions than Einstein. But there were strong similarities between them and almost identical field equations eventually emerged. This gave rise to references in the literature at the time to “Einstein-Schrödinger unified field theory”. Even though they did correspond with each other, they did not formally collaborate, for they were, in their minds, working on different theories—arising from different assumptions about what the fundamental object was—even as they were both aiming for the same ultimate goal.

Many of Schrödinger’s later papers were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, or occasionally in the Communications of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, where he was based. As a result, at one stage I spent some time digging out his papers on this topic from a paper-parcel library at the Royal Society building in Melbourne, Australia. Most of the articles were not bound in journal volumes but were instead stored in paper parcels tied up with string stacked on shelves in a back room. The building consisted of several large lecture or meeting rooms, and at least one gorgeous library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with books, and little alcoves here and there with comfy chairs in which one could sit and read. Hanging around there was amazing and slightly surreal, a strange combination of mathematical physics research and archaeology.

It was while I was examining Einstein’s and Schrödinger’s approaches to a unified field theory, reported in the archival journal literature, that I also read their books related to the topic. Schrödinger published Space-time Structure (1950) part-way through his explorations, which in part gave a useful background to his work to that date. Towards the end of his life, Einstein tended to publish the latest version of his unified field theory not in journals any more but instead in the Appendices to new editions of The Meaning of Relativity (e.g., Einstein 1956), which eventually had 5 or 6 editions, depending on how you count them. But I didn’t confine myself to their physics-related books, and it was while I was ‘reading around’ the direct theoretical work of these giants of 20th Century physics in this way that I came across Schrödinger’s little book What is Life?

The book opens with the following passage in the Preface (p.1):

A scientist is supposed to have a complete and thorough knowledge, at first hand, of some subjects and, therefore, is usually expected not to write on any topic of which he is not a master. This is regarded as a matter of noblesse oblige. For the present purpose I beg to renounce the noblesse, if any, and to be freed of the ensuing obligation. My excuse is as follows:

We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge. The very name given to the highest institutions of learning reminds us, that from antiquity and throughout many centuries the universal aspect has been the only one to be given full credit. But the spread, both in width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledge during the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma. We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind fully to command more than a small specialized portion of it. I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true aim be lost for ever) than that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them—and at the risk of making fools of ourselves. So much for my apology. [bold emphasis added here, italics as in original]

Here then is the most likely antecedent of the expression, the origin of which had by then been long forgotten. Until, that is, in March 2011, I watched David Christian’s (2008) Great Courses course, Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity. And right there, in Lecture One, David relates this very quote at length as one of the rationales for undertaking a course of such breathtaking breadth and outlandish ambition as to try to tell the story of, literally, “the whole of the past”. A story that, in effect—as Sagan put it in the quote shown above—traces “that long path” leading from the Big Bang to our present-day information-based technological civilisation. It is this continuous narrative thread that is sometimes referred to by scholars and teachers in BH as “the through-line”; that is, the ‘Big History Through-Line’ (BHTL).

Big History and Futures

I’ve often reflected upon the curious fact that the two main topic areas I had the great good fortune to be able to teach for 20-odd years as a university academic were:

  • Cosmic Evolution / Big History – everything that has happened since The Big Bang; and
  • Futures Studies – whatever comes after all that.

And this brings us right back to our starting point again. How would one try to organise the sum total of all human knowledge, as Schrödinger intimated—“welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole”—in order to make sense of it, both for its own sake (which would be no mean feat and utterly cool, in and of itself), but also as a starting point for exploring the (probably endless) unfolding future? A workable ‘outline understanding’ of the whole of the past would probably be a useful foundation from which to at least begin exploring what then follows on after all that has gone before. Or so it seems to me.

In many of my classes on BH—and in BH-related classes during my Futures teaching, as well—I told students that the BH narrative and its associated ‘through-line’ gives us at least one possible very appealing, very intuitive, and very powerful, way to do just this (Voros 2018). And I’m not the only one who makes this claim. We will soon meet other BH scholars and teachers who have also observed how the BHTL and narrative is something that students of BH generally find immensely useful as an orienting framework, both for organising their existing knowledge as well as for assimilating their new learnings.

For now, however, that discussion—and the exploration of options available to us for how we might use and/or adapt it—is something for another time and place. But I do hope to see you there, at some time in the future…

Next time: Part II: Scoping the territory

Note

  1. At the time of production, c.1980, the age of the Universe was estimated at something like 1.5 × 1010 years (“fifteen billion” in US reckoning). Sagan introduces the segment by saying “Some fifteen billion years ago…” indicating that it is a somewhat rough estimate. Since then it has been continually refined with new observations and theoretical tools, and is now thought to be (as of 2018) 13.787 ± 0.020 × 109 y, usually simplified to “13.8 billion years”.

References

Asimov, Isaac. (1972) 1975. Asimov’s Guide to Science. 2 vols. Penguin Books.

Chaisson, Eric J. 1979. “Cosmic Evolution: A Synthesis of Matter and Life.” Zygon 14 (1): 23–39. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.1979.tb00344.x.

———. 2001. Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Harvard University Press.

Christian, David. 1991. “The Case for ‘Big History’.” Journal of World History 2 (2): 223–38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20078501.

———. 2004. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. The California World History Library. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 2008. Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity. 48 video lectures. Course: 8050. The Great Courses. Chantilly, Virginia, USA: The Teaching Company. http://www.thegreatcourses.com/.

———. 2010. “Reinventing Intelligence: Why Collective Learning Makes Humans so Different.” In Techonomy Conference, Aug 4-6, 2010. Lake Tahoe, California. https://youtu.be/vvxEbYQAtQY.

———. 2018. Origin Story: A Big History of Everything. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

Christian, David, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin. 2013. Big History: Between Nothing and Everything. Boston: McGraw-Hill Education.

Dick, Steven J. 2009. “Cosmic Evolution: History, Culture and Human Destiny.” In Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context, edited by Steven J. Dick and Mark Lupisella, 25–59. NASA Special Publication, SP-2009-4802. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4802.pdf.

Einstein, Albert. 1956. The Meaning of Relativity. 6th edn. London: Chapman and Hall.

Gustafson, Lowell, Walter Álvarez, Craig Benjamin, Cynthia Brown, David Christian, Barry Rodrigue, Fred Spier, and Joseph Voros. 2014. “A Closing Discussion with Big Historians.” At Teaching and Researching Big History: Big Picture, Big Questions; The 2nd International Big History Association conference. Dominican University of California, San Rafael, California, Aug 6-10. https://bighistory.org/Origins/Origins_IV_10.pdf.

Hayward, Peter, Joseph Voros, and Rowena Morrow. 2012. “Foresight Education in Australia — Time for a Hybrid Model?” Futures, Special Issue: University Learning, 44 (2): 181–88. doi:10.1016/j.futures.2011.09.011.

Jantsch, Erich. 1980. The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution. New York: Pergamon Press.

Sagan, Carl. 1980. Cosmos. KCET, Carl Sagan Productions, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0081846/.

———. 1983. Cosmos: The Story of Cosmic Evolution, Science and Civilisation. London: Futura / Macdonald & Co.

Schrödinger, Erwin. 1950. Space-Time Structure. Cambridge University Press.

———. (1944) 1992. What Is Life?; with Mind and Matter; & Autobiographical Sketches. Cambridge University Press.

Spier, Fred. 2010. Big History and the Future of Humanity. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

———. 2015. Big History and the Future of Humanity. 2nd edn. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Voros, Joseph. 2001. “Reframing Environmental Scanning: An Integral Approach.” Foresight 3 (6): 533–52. doi:10.1108/14636680110697200.

———. 2007. “Macro-Perspectives Beyond the World System.” Journal of Futures Studies 11 (3): 1–28. http://jfsdigital.org/articles-and-essays/2007-2/vol-11-no-3-february/articles/macro-perspectives-beyond-the-world-system/.

———. 2018. “Big History as a Scaffold for Futures Education.” World Futures Review, Special Issue: Foresight Education, part 2, 10 (4): 263–78. doi:10.1177/1946756718783510.

———. 2019. “Big History in Its Cosmic Context.” Journal of Big History 3 (3): 57–80. doi:10.22339/jbh.v3i3.3340.

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