The Bikecast Episode #24: Getting From Here to There, The Arc of History

Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In this podcast, I continue with the theme of “From Here to There,” with a look at the big picture, the “arc of the moral universe,” and the accumulation of information that fuels exponential growth of human knowledge and the corresponding shedding of illusions and heightened moral clarity.

Download this episode of the bikecast

The bending of the arc of history, I propose, coincides with the increased ability to encode information in such a way that it can withstand the rigors of time to serve as a record for the analysis of later generations.

As ideas are encoded, copied, compared, modified and spread, those corresponding to reality and resulting in advancement and flourishing will drive out those that fail by these criteria.

As an example, even a medium as fragile as paper was enough to encode sufficient writings from the classical western world to ignite, or at least propel, the renaissance and the enlightenment [1].

My claim is that, once an idea is captured on a sufficient number of decipherable media, we can guarantee that it will have a chance at future evaluation. Thus, the idea that knowledge comes from favoring evidence from the physical world over the conclusions of of human reasoning survived in the writings of Aristotle. When brought back to the west, the truth value of Aristotle’s proposed manner of understanding the world swept back into widespread acceptance aiding the rediscovery of the scientific method.

Now, the premise that “all humans are equal” has gained evidentiary as well as moral grounding and has been encoded countless times in countless media. Wherever/whenever the ideas of human equality encounter societies in which a sufficiently frustrated majority are held captive to a supposedly superior minority, the traditional forms of social organization will not stand.

The ideas and evidence for the sustainability and societal superiority of equality, freedom, and nonviolence have been established, encoded, and distributed so widely that they will survive any purge or dark age that could possibly occur (may it never be!). This underlies my claim that, after some number of collapses of the dominant violent power structure(s), these ideas and the history of the implementation (and more often and disastrously, their non-implementation) will provide a sufficient basis for non-hierarchical societies to form. Once this process begins, it will be subject to the exponential growth that successful technologies and organizational structures undergo in human society.

Even today, with imperial collapse looming, these notions are rapidly spreading because of their clear practicality and liberating nature. Each additional person who examines these ideas and sees their role in a just and non-violent world becomes a vector for these ideas in their communities.

Hopefully, they will spread widely enough quickly enough. There are always cries for an increase in violence and an increase in the disparity of power between the rulers and the subjects. When the current social structure fails, there must be a critical mass of people calling for an end to dominance based social orders. If this is not the case, a new hierarchical society of some sort will be built on the ashes of the old, and the process will begin again. This next time, however, there will be an expansive, highly redundant and variably scoped set of records, accounts, and ideas for future opponents of hierarchical social orders.

Sounds Like the Arc of History is Really Damn Long

I understand this doesn’t sound hopeful. With the majority of the west believing in God and the necessity of violent hierarchy for social order, the peaceful world that we imagine seems impossibly far away.

It may be so. However, these types of societal changes tend to explode out of kernels of social enlightenment. I talk about this more in the next podcast (I think), but the span of time between the first meeting of abolitionists and the end of slave-states in the western hemisphere is less than 100 years. The time between Martin Luther proposed the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms
and governments with the separation of church and state as a founding principle was less than 200 years.

An additional hopeful factor is the degree of popular buy-in that is required for societal change. It’s very small. There’s no need to convince everyone that, for example, all people are equal and that, therefore, slavery is immoral. All that’s necessary is to get the state to stop subsidizing slavery. The cost of controlling a human being is extraordinary. Without the police, military and legal system providing support at community expense for slavery (i.e. without a slave-state), slavery quickly ends.

The majority of white people in the early 19th century were likely neutral or in favor of the continuation of slavery–after all, if slaves were freed, social upheaval and eventual societyal collapse were inevitable (sound familiar?). Nevertheless a combination of state self-interest and the spread of abolitionist ideas by a small-but-growing group of clear-eyed human beings brought about the end of the western slave-state.

Without a state providing coercion, mandatory religious affiliation is also impossible. It’s prohibitively expensive for the church to compel an entire population to participate in their activities–the cost far outweighs any tithe that could be stolen. For this reason, a society without a state sponsored church doesn’t experience religious homogeneity.

When the idea that the church and state should be disassociated was first put into practice, the majority of people probably would have been in favor of a political mandate that their particular religion be the one true faith in a legally compelling way. Again the small but growing sentiment that governance should be divorced from superstition was able to prevent the state from supporting a particular church, ending compulsory religion.

The arc of history is clarity driving out illusion. It’s the replacing of false beliefs that lead to stagnation and despair with truths that lift up, ennoble and invigorate all of humanity allowing for increasingly complex and beneficial technologies and modes of social organization to be put into practice. This process is rapidly accelerating and cannot be stopped. It’s simply a question of “how long?” No matter what the answer, it’s too long.

  1. [1] I note in the podcast that many of the scrolls that survived burning, theft and entropy are lists of works that no longer exist. For example, there are 123 recorded plays by Sophocles, only 7 of which survive. Only 1/3 of Aristotle’s work survive to the modern day. Oh, and Archimedes was not cataloged there, but his writings were also mostly lost.

I also included the audio from this clip in the podcast. This guy–I have no idea who he is–may be a transhumanist. He’s a little over the top, but I find myself striking the same notes many times.

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