Falsifiability of Big History

  • Monday, December 18, 2017 12:55 PM
    Message # 5641401

    From my perspective, its important for the development of the field of Big History that there be structural features in the field that encourage and enable Big History claims to be challenged, refuted and/or falsified and updated as new data come in. The trajectory of such a field would then be progress toward ever-increasing accuracy, consensus, and wholeness (as opposed to partialness) of the truth. This type of field would differ from one, like literature, in which the goal is not to come to firmer and firmer consensus, but rather the opposite.

    I'm interested to know if you guys agree with me on that.

    If people agree on this vision for how the field would progress, my next question is, Does Big History have such structural features that enable and encourage this kind of challenging? 

    For example, has each section of the textbook been systematically  subjected to peer review by content experts (physicists, anthropologists, etc) as well as by other Big Historians? What degree of consensus does it generate?

    Also, I can imagine that independent attempts at synthesis by different scholars might include different information, exclude different information, and come to different storylines with different themes. These different "theories of Big History" would then contest with each other somehow. Does the field encourage that? Should it?

  • Tuesday, December 26, 2017 11:30 AM
    Reply # 5648800 on 5641401

    Sounds like you would like to more formally add one of Karl Popper's criteria for what constitutes a true scientific theory (perhaps we could add at least a testable philosophical assertion as well?).  In short, I like with your proposal and it might give better direction and interests to the forum, the journal, etc. I would think that one of the first steps is to identify an outline of important assertions made by big historians that are either key to the discipline, or those that at least are somewhat unique to it. For example, the field of paleo-anthropology is continuing to revise many of its beliefs as ancient fossils and artifacts push various time and space boundaries of early human history ever further it seems (some key "facts" in the tale told by big history). How and why complexity has increased over billions of years, at least in our little corner of the cosmos, or key changes wrought by agriculture in social energy flows, would be a couple of relatively unique interests of big history.  Someone with a well-established authority and broad understanding of big history like David Christian, Fred Spier, Andrey Korotayev, etc. might propose just such a outline?

  • Saturday, January 06, 2018 6:24 PM
    Reply # 5665222 on 5641401

    I think such an outline would be a great idea, Ken. I’m reading called “Major Transitions in Evolution, Revisited”. In this book, numerous theoretical biologists wrestle with trying to find a common theme among the thresholds in the life portion of the Big History story. Its an incredibly sophisticated, high level analysis. In my reading of their theoretical work, I don’t think they would agree with the simple notion from Big History that increasing complexity best captures what’s going on, although they carefully consider that possibility. An alternative storyline they consider is that the history of life is better described by increases in evolvability – changes that facilitate the generation of new individuals, facilitate greater production of variation, and facilitate progressively better mechanisms of inheritance. I think their scenario can apply outside the life portion into the whole Big History timeline.

    So I wondered if Big History had challenged the notion that “increase in complexity is the basic shape of Big History” in an equally sophisticated theoretical analysis as these theoretical biologists had.

  • Sunday, January 07, 2018 7:47 PM
    Reply # 5666344 on 5641401

    I agree that an assertion, or at least implication, that goes something like: "life's spectrum of increasing complexity is but a continuation of increasing abiotic complexity," likely has a lot of room for discussion. (An assertion of  increasing abiotic complexity seems harder to refute on both an empirical and physics level).  Coincidentally, I am rereading David Layzer's  book, Cosmogenesis, and I happen to be at the section of the book where he somewhat addresses your proposed query as well. For example, he points out that complex organisms, like mammals, also seem to have an increased ability for making relatively rapid macro changes compared to simpler organisms, like bacteria. Hence, entertaining the notion that life's increasing complexity is but an epiphenomena of what is actually an underlying increase in the potential for life to rapidly adapt is an intriguing one. (Look at how rapidly mammalian species radiated after the KT catastrophe compared to bacteria, or even crocodilians for example.) I've not read “Major Transitions in Evolution, Revisited”, so I can't comment on its insights, of course. 

    Back to principle point of your suggestion,  rigorously questioning and testing the core premises of a discipline has historically often been a fruitful enterprise with surprising discoveries - a point I won't belabor because most big historians are already aware of this.  Adding some order and priorities to falsifiable big history tenets (and even some proposals on how to do so) would be a grand and relevant project.