On the Cusp of a New Age

John Michael Greer, in this post, continues the development of his idea that the imminent exhaustion of fossil fuels will bring its wake such far-ranging economic changes that our entire framing of our world will change.

In particular, he says, we will no longer find relevant the belief in Progress that for the past three hundred years, since the 18th-century Industrial Revolution in England, has provided the framework for how we think about the human race and its history.

Greer invites us (I refer to previous posts, on the same website) to think about “the shape of time”: for the Ancient Greeks, as for the classical Chinese, time was shaped as a decline, a falling away from the heroic Days of Yore.  The revolutionary impact of Christianity can be seen in St. Augustine’s replacement of a decline with a split world: a spiritual contest for the immortal soul of the individual, together with a meaningless jumble of good and evil in the mortal world.  And the more elaborate framework of spiritual history introduced by Joachim of Fiore completed the picture: as a population, we are presently developing toward a more perfect society.  (In passing, I note that Greer’s analysis of the idea of Progress and its origins is considerably more coherent than that of the wikipedia team.)

You can see for yourself (should you choose to do so) how wide-ranging Greer’s discussion is.  My point here is solely to indicate that the late 2oth century has already witnessed a turning away, in natural philosophy, from the mechanistic model of the world that resonated so well with the architects of the Industrial Revolution.  In the course of the 19th century in Europe, the French historian of physics Olivier Darrigol writes [Electrodynamics from Ampère to Einstein (Oxford: 2000), p. viii]:

[E]lectrodynamics [was] a testing ground for various forms of mechanical reductionism.  Essential innovations in electrodynamic theory depended upon attempted reductions to mechanical systems.

and it is just the non-mechanical, irreducible indeterminism of quantum-mechanical physics that sends even the greatest modern physicists into mental cramps [“Thinking that you understand quantum mechanics is proof that you don’t understand it” — Nobel Laureate American physicist Richard Feynman, for example].  It is arguable that the revolution in the philosophy of science associated with the work of Thomas Kuhn, as well as the replacement of understandable prose, first in literary criticism but more recently in sociological works of all sorts, with ‘postmodern’ jargon which no one, not even its authors can understand, originates from this loss of a mechanical system within which to reduce to explanation the world around us.


About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
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