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

Scoping the territory

In the previous post in this series, we saw how the astronomer Carl Sagan outlined the process of “15 billion years of Cosmic Evolution” in the final episode of the TV series Cosmos (1980). He referred to our “tracing that long path” by which the “star stuff” of which we are made eventually arose to consciousness here on the Planet Earth, and how we have now begun “contemplating the stars” and to “wonder about our origins”. Elsewhere—indeed, in the opening segment of the very first episode of Cosmos—he observed that “we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself”. And it is to that Cosmos and our quest to make sense of and organise our knowledge about it, that we now turn.

The Big History narrative

As mentioned in the previous post, it is that “long path” — the time-line of Cosmic Evolution (CE) — that forms the ‘through-line’ of the narrative of Big History (BH). Eric Chaisson (2008) called it “from the Big Bang to humankind”, Fred Spier (1996) called it “from the Big Bang to today”, Cynthia Brown (2017) called it “from the Big Bang to you”, and I have in my own teaching variously called it (prompted by Sagan’s comments) both “from hydrogen to humanity”, and “from quarks to consciousness” (Voros 2019, 57–58). And in that post I also claimed that that narrative thread can be used as an organising principle for assembling a coherent view of the sum total of all human knowledge.

There are several reasons for this, best explained by the scholars who created the first book on how to teach BH, as opposed to a text teaching BH itself (Simon, Behmand, and Burke 2014, 12):

Because the Big History framework illuminates the structures that underlie the universe, it is a powerful analytic tool. Because its structure binds together content from all human disciplines, it is a powerful pedagogical tool. Finally, because the structure of the Big History narrative parallels the structures of the physical universe, even as it tells the story of those structures, Big History is at once narrative and meta-narrative. All this makes Big History an intuitive vehicle for critical thinking, and for rich, innovative intellectual exploration within students’ and teachers’ home disciplines, as well as within Big History itself. Perhaps most importantly, a Big History understanding, in reframing all of human knowledge in a way that makes intuitive, logical sense, prepares us to consider possible futures, premised on the patterns we see in the past, and empowers us intellectually to act to shape the future. [italic emphasis in original; bold emphasis added here]

This is certainly a very strong claim regarding the utility of Big History as an organising principle for “reframing all of human knowledge”. But does this claim hold up to the scrutiny of evidence? Well, yes, it does. At Dominican University of California, where these scholars were working, the first year of undergraduate study was based around a core of BH, with subsequent years also utilising BH as an essential underpinning. This was their First-Year Experience “Big History” initiative which had already run for some years before their book, based on their own learnings from teaching BH, was published (in time for the BH conference that was held there that northern summer). Further on, when they compared the learning goals the First-Year Experience Program was intended to promote with the actual outcomes they had observed in their classes, we find the following statement (p.344):

Four years later, our assessment shows that it’s working. Our students report that they understand the world differently. They perceive the connections among their various courses and the larger context in which their studies in their majors make sense. They are bringing their Big History understanding into their other classes—so that discussions and academic work throughout the university are informed by this larger context. And they are attuned to the future and to their own agency in shaping it.

For my part, I’ve never needed convincing of the power and utility of the CE/BH narrative for organising knowledge, for to me it has been intuitively obvious since teenage (see previous post). But it’s good to know that this ‘merely anecdotal observation’ has now been borne out in wider experience through rigorous methods of assessment and evaluation. So, enough said; let’s go.

The BH narrative as an organising framework for knowledge

So now we come to a key point: not only that the narrative told by CE/BH—as noted above by Simon et al.—can act as a way to organise and situate the various knowledge disciplines that have emerged from human exploration of the Cosmos, but also how.

The starting point for this is to go back to the early work on CE and ask how those pioneering scholars conceived of it, as a way to look for any underlying structure to how CE has played out over the course of the last 13.8 billion years.

At a conference held at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia in 1961, Frank Drake (1961) had devised an ‘equation’ intended to estimate the number, N, of existing extra-terrestrial technological civilisations that might be capable of communication (see Eq. 1). The precise meanings of the terms are not needed here. What is important for our purposes is that Steven Dick (2006, 5) noted how this relationship is characterised around three major types of terms, indicated by the text set underneath them in the equation:

N=\underset{\mathrm{astronomical}}{\underbrace{R_* \times f_p}} \times \underset{\mathrm{biological}}{\underbrace{n_e \times f_l \times f_i}} \times \underset{\mathrm{cultural}}{\underbrace{f_c \times L}} \qquad\qquad\qquad (1)\, .

In their book Intelligent Life in the Universe, co-written with Iosef Shklovskii by Carl Sagan (1966), the overall structure is that of three main parts:

  1. The Universe
  2. Life in the Universe
  3. Intelligent Life in the Universe.

This three-part format follows the sequence: astronomy/astrophysics, biology, and intelligence/culture, which is to say, the sequence mirrors the structure of the Drake Equation. Since Sagan was actually present when Drake wrote the above equation onto the blackboard in that legendary conference room in 1961 (Records of the NRAO 1961), and since Shklovskii also knew of the equation from his own work in the same emerging field, it seems clear that this tripartite division of types of terms was probably a major source of their own three-part book layout. This three- (and, more recently, four-) part structure has remained one of the major guiding models for CE since then (e.g., Dick and Lupisella 2009; but also see Dick 2003).1

A decade and a half later, Erich Jantsch (1980) would also divide the evolution of the Cosmos into these same three main parts, albeit with slightly differing terminology:

  1. Cosmic (i.e., physical)
  2. Sociobiological
  3. Sociocultural.

Jantsch’s work has been dealt with at length elsewhere (Voros 2019), so  we won’t dwell upon it here. But suffice it to say that the matter-biology-mind progression is also taken by Jantsch as the basic sequence of evolution in the Cosmos, which he then explored in vastly more detail and with a profoundly deep understanding of the underlying thermodynamical mechanisms which both allow for and generate it.

At around the same time as Jantsch was writing his masterwork The Self-Organizing Universe (1980), Eric Chaisson (1979) published one of the first of his accounts of CE, listing an expanded version of the above sequence in that paper with the sub-headings: Universe (i.e., as a whole); galaxies; stars; planets; life; intelligence; and future. The main figure on p.26 in that article renders this sequence schematically as an arrow with a timescale marked in billions of years, with the broad phases depicted as elemental, chemical, biological, anthropological, and future. Chaisson would later refine this sequence and diagram to eventually have “7 epochs” (see, e.g., 1998, 14; 2007):

  1. particulate
  2. galactic
  3. stellar
  4. planetary
  5. chemical
  6. biological
  7. cultural,
    with
  8. “future”

added as part of his teaching web site (2008), yielding an overall “7+1”-epoch structure that includes the future as part of the overall framework.

Fred Spier (2010, 2015) also follows a fairly similar sequence, tracing the rise of complexity from the Big Bang: through galaxy formation; the emergence of stars and their role in creating new chemical elements; the formation of the Earth and Solar System; the emergence of life; early and recent human history; and then also finishing up with a look to the future: of life; the Earth; and Humanity. He outlines a general theoretical approach to BH, focusing on the key dynamical processes — namely energy flows through matter, and the attendant rise of material-energetic complexity — operating over all scales of BH. In this there is a clear family resemblance to Jantsch’s similar treatment of the dynamical processes of non-equilibrium thermodynamics in dissipative systems. Combined with Chaisson’s more mathematically-oriented research on this topic (such as in 2000, 2001, 2014), these three scholars in particular provide a very rigorous scientific treatment of the underlying physical dynamics that make CE, and therefore also BH, possible.

Walter Alvarez (2016) — a geologist famed for co-developing the asteroid impact extinction hypothesis for the decline of the dinosaurs ~65 million years ago — uses a slightly broader division of the main eras of CE and BH, one which not surprisingly also emphasises the Earth in the overall sequence:

  1. Cosmos
  2. Earth
  3. Life
  4. Humanity.

This gets a mention in particular because the International Big History Association (IBHA), which Walter helped to found, took the following as its key orienting statement (IBHA 2016):

Big History seeks to understand the integrated history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity, using the best available empirical evidence and scholarly methods,

thereby positioning itself as overtly taking a scientific and scholarly approach to the question of our origins, rather than any other type of approach, such as mythico-poetic (e.g., Abrams and Primack 2011) or religious/spiritual (e.g., Christopher 2013). Those who were present at the IBHA Dominican conference in 2014 know that an underlying tension has tended to exist between this explicitly scientific-scholarly stance as compared with other stances that approach BH from different perspectives and foundational orientations (Gustafson et al. 2014).

Lastly, perhaps the most well-known of the frameworks of BH — due in no small part to the Internet-based Big History Project initiative co-founded by David Christian and Bill Gates, as well as its use in the first major textbook (Christian, Brown, and Benjamin 2013) — is the ‘8-threshold’ framework of David Christian (e.g., 2004, 2018). It views the sequence of BH in 8 step-changes of increasing complexity, as follows:

  1. The Big Bang
  2. Stars
  3. Chemical elements
  4. Planets
  5. Life
  6. Collective Learning (i.e., humans)
  7. Agriculture, and
  8. Modernity.

In this we again see the same basic progression of matter-biology-mind, albeit here with more detail present for the ‘Humanity’ part of the IBHA’s four-fold structure. And this holds true for most of the frameworks of CE/BH: individual scholars will naturally feel more comfortable emphasising and elaborating upon their own speciality within the overall sequence: astrophysics for Chaisson; geology for Alvarez; (human) history for Christian; physics and the future for myself, etc. In contrast, Jantsch and Spier take a higher-level view focusing on the general processes operating, looking for commonalities across the overall sequence of “regimes” of relative stability which emerge across all scales. In essence, both are looking at the foundational scale-independent dynamics which pervade CE/BH, which then find expression at different scales as different “regimes” of this quasi-stability (Jantsch 1980; Spier 2010, 2015).

Summing up: we can now discern an overall sequence of phases of CE/BH at varying levels of detail.

At the broadest scope this can be rendered as the three-fold progression: physical-material evolution, biological evolution, and cultural evolution, which can also be rendered four-fold as Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity. This three-/four-fold structure can be further expanded into Chaisson’s 7 ‘epochs’ of particulate, galactic, stellar, planetary, chemical, biological, and cultural. This can in turn also be rendered as Christian’s 8 ‘thresholds’ of Big Bang, stars, elements, planets, life, humans, agriculture and modernity, with a “future” phase either explicit or implied in most of these sequences (e.g., see the ‘matching pair’: Christian 2018, 2022).

These frameworks all describe the same basic underlying increase in the complexity of material structural organisation over the course of cosmic time. Only the degree of detail or the relative emphasis is different. The diagrams shown in Voros (2019) for the combined Jantsch-Wilber model indicate just how detailed this zooming-in can be made. Table 1 shows a comparative rendering of this multi-faceted view.

Table 1. Differing degrees of structural detail in the phases of Cosmic Evolution / Big History
Drake; Shklovskii & Sagan; (Jantsch) Alvarez; IBHA Chaisson Christian
Physical (cosmic) Cosmos particulate Big Bang
galactic
stellar Stars / Elements
Earth planetary Earth & Solar System
chemical
(Socio-) Biological Life biological Life
(Socio-) Cultural Humanity cultural Collective Learning
Agriculture
Modernity
future (Future)

Each scale of view reveals partitions and transitions that tend to separate conventional knowledge disciplines. For example, at the broadest level, the transitions between physical, biological and cultural phases are essentially the distinctions between the physical, biological, and the social sciences and the humanities and arts. The fuzzy transition from stars to planets is the fuzzy boundary between stellar astrophysics and planetary sciences. The transition from chemical to biological is the distinction between chemistry and biology, with an intermediate zone between them of biochemistry, which could arguably be regarded equally well as the ‘end’ of chemistry or the ‘start’ of biology. And so on. One can quickly see how the various human knowledge disciplines seem to ‘line up’ along a pathway leading from lesser relative complexity to greater relative complexity. This pathway is the Cosmic Evolution Time-Line (CETL), or equivalently, the Big History Through-Line (BHTL).

The Big History ‘Through-Line’ as a ‘filing index’

When one comes to teach BH, it is done with a view to guiding students through the key staging points situated along the entire length of the BHTL. Importantly, there is no requirement or need to learn all of the knowledge in the disciplines through which the through-line passes. It suffices to simply learn ‘enough’ of the core ideas of the current discipline being studied to allow for a ‘sufficient-enough’ knowledge structure to emerge in order to be able to connect forward to the next discipline, at the next-higher level of complexity. Thus, one learns enough of the core concepts of, say, stellar astrophysics to allow for an understanding of chemistry to emerge; enough of the core ideas of chemistry to allow for an understanding of molecular biology to emerge; enough about molecular biology for an understanding of evolution by natural selection to emerge; and so on.

This produces an unbroken chain of conceptual ‘hooks’ upon which to ‘hang’ new knowledge as one learns it. This is what Simon et al. were getting at in their first statement quoted above. Rather than an homogeneous ‘pile’ of undifferentiated knowledge-bites accumulating ad hoc without structure, one can immediately ‘file’ this information into its appropriate place in the overall chronological squence. This frees the student’s (and scholar’s) mind of the problem of where to put it, while also at the same time placing it into a knowledge context which allows for an easy way of making connections to related concepts, thereby allowing a deeper understanding to emerge as a consequence.

Figure 1. Schematic sketch of CE/BH as a ‘trajectory through knowledge’ disciplines, rather than as a simple collection of knowledge disciplines. The trajectory utilises whatever it needs from each discipline to allow for moving on to the next.

The image in Fig.1 is cropped from a photo taken of my office whiteboard at Swinburne in early October 2013.2 In it you can see that the CETL/BHTL ‘skims’ across the ‘top’ of the different representative knowledge disciplines schematised as vertical columns. The intention is to suggest that each discipline does not need to be known fully and in complete depth before there is enough of a knowledge structure to be able to connect forward to the next one in the sequence of rising complexity.3

In this way, in CE and BH one traverses a ‘trajectory’ through the  knowledge disciplines without necessarily needing to learn every single part or aspect of the knowledge disciplines. It is sufficient to know roughly where things are generally found or ‘belong’, including most especially how the different disciplines ‘line up’ along the overall general sequence of greater-or-lesser complexity on the CETL or BHTL. That is, one can begin to get one’s head around this vast totality of human knowledge by learning just the main concepts, ideas and theories within each discipline; how they connect backwards to prior disciplines (in terms of foundations as well as in terms of complexity and emergence over cosmic time); as well as how they set the scene for connecting forwards to the next discipline which follows in terms of the emergence of complexity. As noted above by Simon et al., this is both intuitive and powerful, and provides an orienting framework for navigating and exploring the universe of knowledge — as provided by the very structures of the Universe itself! — that is just waiting to be known.

The key idea, then, is that of the timeline of CE—or equivalently the through-line of BH—being a kind of ‘complexity indexing parameter’, which thereby becomes a sort of ‘wayfinding pathway’ through the knowledge disciplines; one that gives enough conceptual support to provide a workable panoramic view of the general overall structure of the human knowledge disciplines. And, as the right-hand end of the CETL/BHTL in Fig.1 shows in red, Futures Studies then joins with the other preceding disciplines in its logical place at the very end: ‘the future’ is the natural focus of knowledge explorers who have sampled the totality of the past and have oriented themselves here in the present. And—as noted by Simon et al. above—from this synoptic vantage point, we are thereby suitably poised to explore the prospects and the implications of the many futures that potentially lie ahead. So it is in this way, then (at last), that one can now see how Futures Studies begins with the sum total of all human knowledge. But of course, as suggested in Fig. 1, the end of the timeline of CE and through-line of BH is really only just the beginning of the story for Futures Studies…

Now what?

So far, this initial exploration of the broad contours of and staging points along the timeline of CE and through-line of BH has been largely intuitive. How then can we make this idea a bit more rigorous and methodical? To do that will require a way to more formally organise the knowledge disciplines according to some more-or-less detailed systematic schema. This schema will need to encapsulate the central idea of the CE time-line or BH through-line as a filing index. That will be the subject of the next post.

Next time: Part III: Finding a schema

Notes

  1. In the closely-related fields of astrobiology and the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), cultural evolution, as a general phase, is also thought to potentially include a major sub-phase (or even next phase) of technological evolution (based on our own example) which may potentially lead to post-biological evolution of intelligence (see, e.g., Dick 2003, 2009). This idea is, of course, based on extrapolating from our own example, which is unfortunately all we can do (at least for the moment!).
  2. The top part of the poster from the 2012 Grand Rapids conference can be seen at bottom right.
  3. This of course is inspired by Eric Chaisson’s 7+1 epoch web site diagram (2008), as direct comparison will reveal—albeit here with knowledge disciplines rather than epochs, as such—with the term ‘anthropology’ giving another hint of his original diagram from 1979.

References

Abrams, Nancy Ellen, and Joel R. Primack. 2011. The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Alvarez, Walter. 2016. A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

Brown, Cynthia Stokes. 2017. Big History, Small World: From the Big Bang to You. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, USA: Berkshire Publishing Group.

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.

———. 1998. “The Cosmic Environment for the Growth of Complexity.” Biosystems 46 (1-2): 13–19. doi:10.1016/S0303-2647(97)00076-2.

———. 2000. “The Cosmic Environment for the Growth of Complexity.” In When SETI Succeeds: The Cultural Impact of High-Information Contact, edited by Allen Tough, 87–92. Seattle, WA, USA: Foundation for the Future.

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

———. 2007. Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos. New paperback. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 2008. “Cosmic Evolution: From the Big Bang to Humankind.” Interactive web pages. Harvard University. 2008. https://lweb.cfa.harvard.edu/~ejchaisson/cosmic_evolution/docs/splash.html.

———. 2014. “The Natural Science Underlying Big History.” The Scientific World Journal 2014: 41. doi:10.1155/2014/384912.

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

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

———. 2022. Future Stories: What’s Next. New York: Little, Brown Spark/ Little, Brown and Company.

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

Christopher, David. 2013. The Holy Universe: A New Story of Creation for the Heart, Soul and Spirit. Santa Rosa, CA, USA: New Story Press.

Dick, Steven J. 2003. “Cultural Evolution, the Postbiological Universe and SETI.” International Journal of Astrobiology 2 (1): 65–74. doi:10.1017/S147355040300137X.

———. 2006. “Anthropology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: An Historical View.” Anthropology Today 22 (2): 3–7. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8322.2006.00421.x.

———. 2009. “The Postbiological Universe and Our Future in Space.” Futures, Space: The final frontier, 41 (8): 578–80. doi:10.1016/j.futures.2009.04.023.

Dick, Steven J., and Mark Lupisella, eds. 2009. Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context. NASA Special Publication, SP-2009-4802. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4802.pdf.

Drake, Frank D. 1961. “Discussion at Space Sciences Board.” At National Academy of Sciences Conference on Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life, 1-2 November 1961. Green Bank, West Virginia, USA.

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.

International Big History Association. 2016. “What Is Big History?” Web page. https://bighistory.org/whatisbighistory/.

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

Records of the NRAO. 1961. “Conference on Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life, Green Bank, 1-2 November 1961.” National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) Archives. https://www.nrao.edu/archives/items/show/15837.

Sagan, Carl. 1980. Cosmos. Illustrated (1st) edn. New York: Random House.

Shklovskii, Iosef S., and Carl Sagan. 1966. Intelligent Life in the Universe. San Francisco: Holden-Day, Inc.

Simon, Richard B., Mojgan Behmand, and Thomas Burke, eds. 2014. Teaching Big History. Oakland, CA, USA: University of California Press.

Spier, Fred. 1996. The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang Until Today. Amsterdam University Press.

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

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

Voros, Joseph. 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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