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Monday, February 27, 2012

Space Exploration and the Humanities

Space Exploration and the Humanities

Good news for those interested in the relationship between space exploration and the humanities and social sciences. The book Imagining Outer Space, edited by Alexander CT Geppert is finally out. You may remember that I wrote about it some time ago. You may want to take a look at the website of Palgrave MacMillan, the publisher:

On related news, "Envisioning Limits: Outer Space and the End of Utopia," a sequel conference to the "Imagining Outer Space" symposium, which was the basis of the book, will take place in Berlin at the end of April. Please see for further details, some of which are provided below in this posting:

Envisioning Limits:
Outer Space and the End of Utopia

Berlin, 19 - 21 April 2012



Program (>pdf)

Abstracts (>pdf)

Bios (>pdf)

updated: 10.02.2012

If space exploration is understood as not just one of the twentieth century’s most prestigious feats of engineering, but also a central theme in period visions of the future and utopias, then how might we understand the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s, with its emphasis on re­duced possibilities and limitations to progress? The conference aims to shift the focus away from explanations of transition from Cold War contexts and produce more nuanced narratives: from the familiar struggle between two superpowers, namely the USA and the former USSR, to dis­tinctly West-European perspectives, and from political to socio-cultural dimensions of the Space Age. How were limits created, chal­lenged and maintained? And in what sense was outer space invoked to transform cultural boundaries and how were these conveyed to different audiences? The conference will look at utopia not as a so­cio-cultural objective but rather as a process. Through defining limitless opportunities afforded by outer space, advocates of space exploration not only opened up new possibilities for accelerating or even surpassing human development, but also delineated the historicity and limitations of the imagination.

Conference speakers include Debbora Battaglia (Mount Holyoke College), Martin Collins (National Air and Space Museum), David A. Kirby (University of Manchester), John Krige (Georgia Institute of Technology), Agnes Meyer-Brandis (Universität der Künste Berlin), Roger D. Launius (National Air and Space Museum) and Helmuth Trischler (Deutsches Museum).

For further information and to register please contact the conveners Alexander C.T. Geppert, William R. Macauley and Daniel Brandau at There is a conference fee of 50 € (concessions 25 €) to cover the cost of food, drinks and refreshments during the event.

Conference Venue

Harnack-Haus der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Ihnestrasse 16-20
D-14195 Berlin

THURSDAY, 19 April 2012

09.00 Introduction

Alexander C.T. Geppert, Daniel Brandau, William R. Macauley:
The 1970s, Western Europe and the Delineation of Space

09.30 Feature Presentation I

Martin Collins: Ambiguities of the 1970s: Spaceflight and the Problem of Historically Interpreting the In-Between Decade

11.00 Panel I: Transitions

Andrew Jenks: Transnational History and Human Spaceflight

Doug Millard: Were the 1970s a Period of Transition for the History of Britain’s Exploration of Space?

Program (pdf)
Abstracts (pdf)
Bios (pdf)

updated: 10.02.2012

Chair: Paul Nolte

14.00 Panel II: Pictures

Robert Poole: '2001: A Space Odyssey': Space Travel and the Ends of Progress

Ralf Bülow: The X Files: Reading a West German Sci-Tech Magazine from 1969 to 1973

Chair: Thomas P. Weber

16.00 Panel III: Laws

Luca Follis: Beyond Law’s Frontier: The Normative Imaginary of Outer Space

Virgiliu Pop: The Moon Agreement and the Beginning of Utopia

Chair: Peter Becker

19.00 Feature Presentation II

Agnes Meyer-Brandis: Space Traveling: A Performence-Lecture Examining Real Utopian Aspects of Interplanetary Exchange of Idea and Matter

FRIDAY, 20 April 2012

09.00 Feature Presentation III

John Krige: Blowback, Lift Off: The Rise of Ariane and the Decline of U.S. Monopoly of Access to Space in the 1970s

Chair: William R. Macauley

10.15 Panel IV: Politics

Matthew H. Hersch: 'On the Edge of Forever:' 1972 and the New American Space Consensus

Neil M. Maher: Ground Control: Space Technology, Environmentalism, and Détente Across the Developing World

Chair: Etienne Benson

13.00 Panel V: Texts

Florian Kläger: Reading into the Stars: Cosmology and Self-Reflexivity in the British Novel of the 1970s

Aleksandra Idzior: Images of Extraterrestrial Life and Designs for 'Out-of-Space' in Poland during the 1960s and 1970s

Chair: Matthias Schwartz

15.00 Panel VI: Aesthetics

Christina Vatsella: Artworks in Orbit: The Satellite Art Projects

Thore Bjørnvig: Unlimited Play in a World of Limits: The Lego Classic Space Theme, 1978-80

Chair: Claudia Schmölders

17.00 Panel VII: Prospects

Philippe Ailleris: Red Soil, Phonograph Records and United Nations Resolution 33/426: Our 1970s Extraterrestrial Heritage

Janet Vertesi and Lisa Messeri: The Greatest Mission Never Flown: Mars Sample Return, Terrestrial Planet Finder, and the Limits of Utopia

Chair: Debbora Battaglia

SATURDAY, 21 April 2012

09.00 Panel VIII: Habitats

W. Patrick McCray: Gerard O'Neill’s Visioneering of the 'High Frontier'

Gonzalo Munévar: Space Colonies and their Critics

Chair: Thomas Brandstetter

11.00 Panel IX: Transcendence

Peter J. Westwick: From the Club of Rome to Star Wars: The Era of Limits, Space Colonization, and the Origins of the Strategic Defense Initiative

Roger D. Launius: Human Spaceflight as Religion in the Aftermath of the Space Race

Chair: Helmuth Trischler

14.00 Conclusion

David A. Kirby: General Comment

Chair: Alexander C.T. Geppert

16.00 End

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Play, Human Nature and Exploration: Some Speculations

Chapter 11B

Play, Human Nature and Exploration: Some Speculations

That delight of finding things out, of satisfying curiosity, may on occasion be a search for beauty, as Poincare may have thought, but on the whole it is more properly associated with play. This is not to deny that the search for beauty may itself be a form of play. Nor is it to deny that in play we may find beauty ‑‑a claim to which many people who have engaged in sports would testify. In any event, there is nothing mysterious in that nature should have made us such that we enjoy exercising our skills and developing our talents through play.

When an animal can grow only in a very specific environment, play is probably not very crucial. The animal may be better off rehearsing the specific tasks that will be needed for survival later on. But to the extent that an animal is to meet an open‑ ended environment, it pays to develop all sort of perceptual and motor skills in many combinations. This flexibility will permit the animal to adapt to a greater range of environments. The difference between fixed exercises, such as calisthenics, and play is precisely that whereas specific traits are developed in the first, an exploration of the individuals' abilities takes place in the second.

Although this is not the place to embark into a fully fledged biology of play, at least two qualifications are in order. The first is that there need be no connection between the animal having played while young and its exhibiting a very flexible response later in life. A species may not be restricted to any specific environment, in which case play by its young may be very advantageous to it. But once that species finds itself in a particular environment, the flexibility of its members allows them to try out ways of developing their skills that eventually lead to an optimal interaction with that environment. As that begins to happen, the range of behavior begins to narrow as well. Presumably the adult animals become fairly well adapted and can afford to be as rigid as those other animals that were "designed" for that specific environment.

Thus we see that ravens, for example, grow up to be scavengers in some habitats and predators in others. The species is flexible, and its playing young are flexible, but the individual adults need not be. In a species such as homo sapiens, in which the adult may continue to deal with an open environment, the advantages of prolonged youth and of flexibility in the adult are evident. And indeed contemporary biology ascribes a "neotonous" nature to humans (neoteny permits the retention of immature characters in adulthood).

The second qualification is this. In perfecting its responses to the pressing demands of a specific environment, an animal may receive direct and immediate dividends. The rationale for perfecting those responses is thus obvious. But what mechanisms might evolve to motivate the rehearsal of skills whose application is indirect and far in the future? The question is no longer whether play is biologically advantageous to some species. The answer to that question is yes. The present question concerns rather how the individual animals are led to play.

This demand for a mechanism can be met ‑‑ at least in some cases ‑‑ by proposing that the central nervous system is so constituted that it gives positive feedback (enjoyment) to the animal as it attempts to realize a variety of potentials in a "field released from tension", to borrow Konrad Lorenz's jargon. It is precisely the independence from immediate demands of the environment that permits the trying out of so many skills in so many combinations. And thus it is that independence in action that needs to be encouraged by the response of the central nervous system.[15 play requires some intelligence] It is not difficult, then, to see the biological rationale for evolving such a mechanism. We humans call it play and do enjoy it.

One of the characteristics of play is that it can be applied to a wide range of skills. In particular, it provides a very apt training regimen for developing those skills connected with intelligence, since they often have to do with indirect or postponed action. Intelligence has a role in social interaction, and thus there is a link to social play. But my concern at this time is with intelligence as a means of interacting with nature. And here is where the association with curiosity that Lorenz mentioned comes in.

Some animals which exhibit a great flexibility of response towards the environment ‑‑ "specialists in non‑specialization" ‑‑ also exhibit a great deal of curiosity. Such curiosity is typically present in a field released from tension, just as play is. In other words, curiosity is characterized by independence from the pressing demands of the environment; and it is, as far as we can tell, an enjoyable pursuit. Although it is clear that much play has nothing to do with curiosity, it is nonetheless plausible to think of curiosity as a form of play of a cognitive subject with its environment.

The object of the play, in this case, seems to be the development of the skills by which an individual can gain knowledge of its world. And it should be obvious that in developing such skills an individual actually does come to know its environment better. In species in which learning comes to an end when the individual is reasonably well adapted to a particular environment, those bits of knowledge obtained through the satisfaction of curiosity are of the greatest importance. In species whose individuals keep their mental flexibility for a good portion of their lives, the playful interaction with the environment is bound to continue. In humans, who sometimes tend toward what Poincare would have called "pure intelligence", that playful interaction may take on some very abstract forms.

Here is thus my account of the "delight" of science ‑‑an account rooted in our very nature. But this is an account that firmly links curiosity with our means of interacting with nature; and so presumably it links curiosity with what is useful. As I have argued, the product of our rehearsals in our exploratory relation with nature is the scientific views that we propose and sometimes believe. In the open‑ended environment that we face, however, we are unlikely to get a perfect conceptual adaptation the first time out. Fortunately, we do seem to be specialists in non‑ specialization: as long as social factors do not override our playful drives, as long as the field remains released from tension, we are quite able to come up with new combinations of intellectual and observational skills. And as our conceptual game with nature endures, so does our ability to adapt to a changing environment or to move into new niches. To the extent that science is a means for our intelligence to interact with the universe, the dynamic character of science is a consequence of our nature. And as our views change in accordance with that dynamic character, so changes the panorama of problems and opportunities that becomes available to our species. That is the final link that connects Poincare's delight with the practicality of science in the long run.

If the forces that motivate exploration are so connected with Poincare's delight, other aspects of exploration fall into place. An important reward of play comes when a new stage of performance arises from the combination and development of skills. When we find it we see it as the goal we had been groping for ‑‑ such is the feel of the perfectly kicked ball, of the graceful turn in the air, of the solution to a hard problem. If we have reason to believe that stage had never been reached before, we become aware of how far we have reached, and our sense of accomplishment is naturally so much greater. In attempting to satisfy our curiosity, the equivalent sense of accomplishment comes from being the first to find something that turns out to be important; and in the case of intellectual curiosity we may add the accomplishment of devising a view that can perform intellectually as no other did before. And thus the pursuit of the new combination, of the new vision, of the new land edges us on. It is the discovery of the new that constitutes the biggest prize. That is the sense of discovery implicit in play, and in the delight that accompanies it.

We can now brush aside objections to the effect that scientists often work with no applications in mind, that they do not accept or reject scientific theories on any practical basis. For the scientists' lack of such awareness, or even unconscious intention, cannot detract from the practical value (we might say adaptive) of scientific curiosity anymore than it would in the case of the animals which are "specialists in non‑ specialization". Besides, it would be too simpleminded to expect that all scientific work should aim at dealing directly with the environment so as to get results from it. Much of that work is devoted to the mathematical, theoretical, and/or experimental articulation of scientific ideas (thus, in my view, it aims at dealing indirectly with the environment). And much other work attempts the integration of experience into a network that can then be applied (e.g. neo‑Darwinism). It is science as a whole, as our communal spectacles, that might be thought of as an instrument of adaptation.[16]

We can also begin to understand in which sense nature inclines us toward exploration, so that by engaging in it we fulfill ourselves as human beings. Curiosity is imbued in us because it served our ancestors ‑‑ and ourselves ‑‑ well in allowing them to adapt to a variety of environments, in trying novel strategies to deal with any one given environment, and in coping with changing circumstances. That the satisfaction of curiosity is a form of play makes eminent sense given our complex nervous system. But that very system also makes us extremely complex animals, some might say more than mere animals. In exploration we do more than develop our sensory and motor skills, for our intellectual faculties, as we have seen, are precisely the sort most amenable to improvement by the indirect exercise of play.

Furthermore, our potential is achieved only to the extent that our innate abilities develop to match the opportunities offered by the environments (social and physical) that we encounter. The ideal strategy for the fulfillment of our potential would thus include exposure to a variety of environments as well as the freedom to try out, combine, and refine our talents in them ‑‑ a freedom, that is, to play. In exploration, as a form of play aimed to satisfy our curiosity, both individually and collectively, we increase our mastery over nature while finding and developing in us those skills for which we are most suited. We have already seen that in rejecting or slowing down exploration we reject or slow down the refinement and possible replacement of the communal spectacles with which we perceive the universe. We have already discussed the deprivation that may result from that. But now we can go even further. For we have also seen that we by rejecting or slowing down exploration we hamper our own fulfillment as individual human beings and as human societies. This damage goes beyond the failure to achieve our intellectual and scientific potential. For just as our range for exploratory play is rich and complex, our systems of motivation and satisfaction ‑‑ our "feedback mechanisms"‑‑ are also rich and complex. In this case I would speculate that those systems would involve deep and sophisticated emotions. In the case of space exploration they would be associated, at the very least, with wonder, with excitement, with adventure. This is the heart of space exploration.

Monday, January 23, 2012




The account of science presented in Chapter 3 meets with an objection: my notion of a fundamental practicality of science goes against the grain of traditional philosophy of science. Philosophers have observed that scientific theories are seldom accepted or rejected on the basis of their practicality. They have also observed that scientists are more likely to be motivated by the search for truth or the satisfaction of their intellectual curiosity than by the good of mankind. This tradition is eloquently expressed in the words of another great French scientist and philosopher, Henri Poincare, who at the beginning of this century wrote that "the scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living." [10]

For Poincare the beauty that really counted was not that of "qualities and appearances" ‑‑ the beauty accessible to most human beings ‑‑ but rather that "profounder beauty which comes from the harmonious order of the parts, and which a pure intelligence can grasp."[11] That sentiment is not surprising in one who dedicated his life to understanding nature. But not all humans are so dedicated, and some of them have interests that would not coincide in the slightest with those of a mathematical physicist like Poincare. Nevertheless I think that Poincare was right in saying that scientists seldom study nature because it is useful. But I would stress a consequence, perhaps unintended, of his argument: that because life is worth living, nature is worth knowing.

The reason is that there is a sense in which the satisfaction of scientific curiosity has something akin to adaptive value. To see this more clearly it is helpful to consider how the nature of science arises from the nature of man. And by the nature of man I have in mind that human beings are biological products of their universe, as much a part of that universe as trees and stars. Let me begin, then, by pointing out that curiosity has adaptive value in animals. Of course not all animals have curiosity, but those that do, say the Norway rat or the raven, can adapt to a great variety of environments or to a changing environment. Curiosity, most often in the spirit of play leads them to obtain knowledge of the environment in which they find themselves. Curiosity is thus the key to their flexibility ("specialists in non‑specialization," Konrad Lorenz called them), and their flexibility is the key to their adaptive success.[12] We must also remember that the structures that underlie intelligence are biological. As a result, Jean Piaget says that intelligence " the most highly developed form of mental adaptation, that is to say, the indispensable instrument for interaction between the subject and the universe when the scope of this interaction goes beyond immediate and momentary contacts to achieve far‑ reaching and stable relations."

In short, intelligence has adaptive value. But science is not only a product of intelligence: it is also a means by which intelligence conceives of the universe, as we have seen. In such a case, should not science be expected to have adaptive value as well? Many of the lines of argument developed in this chapter should testify in favor of this claim (e.g. the relation between theoretical achievement and realization of opportunity or of danger). It must be kept in mind, however, that not all our faculties were selected for their present uses. But there is no suggestion here that human brains were selected for atomic physics or to build space telescopes. The selective forces had long done their job before humans thought of atoms or rockets. Nonetheless this consideration does not prevent a faculty developed for something else to acquire adaptive value of its own. And in the case of science the connection is even closer than that, as I will discuss next time.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012



First let me wish you all a happy new year. To meet some requests, I have enclosed below a list of my own formal academic publications on the philosophy of space exploration. If you know of other academic publications in this new filed, please let me know. I will collect any such for a while and publish the list in a future posting.


"Report of an Interdisciplinary Course on Space Exploration," with John C. Kasher, in Social Sciences and Space Exploration, NASA Ep-192, 1984.

"Rhetorical Grounds for Determining what is Fundamental Science: The Case of Space Exploration," in Argument and Social Practice, J.R. Cox, M.O. Sillars, and G.W. Walker, eds., Speech Communication Association, 1985, pp. 420-434.

"Philosophy, Space Science and the Justification of Space Exploration," Essays on Creativity and Science, Diana M. DeLuca, ed. HCTE, Hawaii, 1986, pp. 89-96.

"Pecking Orders and the Rhetoric of Science," Explorations in Knowledge, Vol. III, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 43-48.

"Space Colonies and the Philosophy of Space Exploration," Space Colonization: Technology and the Liberal Arts, C.H. Holbrow, A.M. Russell & G.F. Sutton, eds., American Institute of Physics, Conference Proceedings 148, 1986, pp. 2-12.

"Filosofía y la Evaluación de la Tecnología Espacial," Arbor, May 1988, No. 509, Tomo CXXX, pp. 59-72.

"Human and Extraterrestrial Science," Explorations in Knowledge, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1989, pp. 1-9.

"Why Should Philosophy Influence Science Policy: The Case of Space Exploration," Explorations in Knowledge, vol. 13, No. 1, 1996, pp. 9-17.

“Philosophy and the Exploration of the Solar System,” Philosophic Exchange, No. 28: 1997-1998, pp. 56-61.

“A Philosopher Looks at Space Exploration,” as Chapter 13, Munevar G., Evolution and the Naked Truth, Ashgate, 1998, pp 169-179.

“SETI, Self-Reproducing Machines and Impossibility Proofs,” as Chapter 15, Munevar G., Evolution and the Naked Truth, Ashgatge, 1998, pp. 189-195.

“Venus y el Fin del Mundo,” Eidos, Vol. 4, March 2006, pp. 10-25.

“Humankind in Outer Space,” The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society, Vol. 4, No. 5, 2008, pp. 17-25.

“Einstein y el límite de la velocidad de la luz,” in Guerrero G. (ed.) Einstein: Científico y filósofo, Programa Editorial Universidad del Valle, 2011, pp. 291-308.

“Self-Reproducing Automata and the Impossibility of SETI.” Forthcoming in Geppert, A. (ed.) Imagining Outer Space, Palgrave Macmillan.

Thursday, December 8, 2011




This is not to say that we are always looking out for the interests of the species, few of us are. But then we are practically never looking out for the interests of a stranger, although if we see him collapse on the street many of us would feel a strong impulse to come to his assistance. Similarly, the appropriate time to recognize the interests of the species is when we become aware that they are threatened. And in any event, insofar as we accept the responsibility of deciding for the species, the argument that ought to work is that which takes the interests of the species into account.

I think that the social critics should be, on the whole, very well satisfied by now. But the ideological critics are a different matter altogether. They may agree, though grudgingly, that given the present situation space science provides a possible solution. Or even, that given the present dilemma, space science looks essential. Nevertheless, they may want to challenge the description of the dilemma and insist on a solution more to their liking. And their alternative is this. Space science looks imperative because of the enormous pressure that the incredibly large population is putting on the environment, particularly when that population demands increasingly larger per capita shares of energy and other resources. But is it not obvious that if our numbers were significantly reduced, and our demands for consumption lowered, then the pressure on the environment would be relieved?

Suppose that we institute programs that would lower the total population of the planet. First we cut it in half in fifty years. With other measures that would involve a simpler standard of living and reduced energy consumption per capita, this would certainly accomplish much to make our problems manageable. Suppose then that we continue to cut in half the population of the Earth every fifty years, until after a few centuries the impact of humans on the environment is no longer a threat to the entire planet. China is already taking stern measures to reduce its population drastically. It seems, then, that there are alternatives to the exploration of space.

Now, how could such a momentous decision to reduce population be implemented on a global scale? The amount of coercion in China is considerable, in spite of the fact that China is a relatively homogenous society in which a dominant political ideology facilitates near unanimity of opinion. But I am not sure it is reasonable to suppose that anything short of widespread and unmitigated disaster could bring together the different hostile factions in the world to put such a global program into effect. The disaster may come. Although by then it might be too late. And even if the struggle could still succeed, the misery visited upon mankind may be too high a price to pay, particularly if space exploration could have kept disaster at bay. It does not seem like much of an alternative after all.

And what leverage would the Wendell Berrys of the world employ to launch the conflicting powers that be on a joint enterprise of such monstrous proportions? Surely not moral persuasion and enticements to instill what he calls good character. Appeals of that sort would not have a prayer, at least not in time to avoid the disaster which gives such views an air of reasonableness, however they may have to be accompanied by resignation. So it is unclear just how feasible this ideological alternative is, but two considerations would seem to buttress this position. The first is that we have to do something about the population growth anyway. Space exploration will not be in a position to play a significant role in the reduction of the Earth's population for a long time. If we could take a million people a year into space, which we cannot at the present, it would take thousands of years before we began to make a dent in the amount of population we have now, let alone on a population that is growing at today’s dangerous rate. We have centuries, at the most.

The second consideration is that we better protect the Earth by nurturing respect toward it than by letting people think that we can always move onto another nest. For otherwise we imagine that spoiling our present nest is regrettable but not an insurmountable loss. Learning to live within the confines acceptable to our mother planet is a wiser policy because we already know that we can lead dignified and fruitful lives here. By contrast, learning to live in space is only a promise. Can we bet the future of mankind on it? The greatest gift we can make to posterity is a beautiful Earth and the strength of character to live in harmony with it. In other words, we accomplish more by preserving the natural balances that have been so accommodating to human beings in the past, and by restoring such balances where modern life has already disrupted them. The result of exercising greater moral responsibility toward the world is a better world.

Space exploration, on the other hand, presumably would continue the disruption of the natural balance. If technology has already caused a mess, why should we expect better? Moreover, space exploration would be worse than a necessary evil, for it is not an enterprise that we can engage in just once before returning to a more pastoral existence. As Berry says, in condemning the scientific mind, "(1) It would commit us to a policy of technological `progress' as a perpetual bargaining against `adverse effects.' (2) It would make us perpetually dependent on the `scientific' foretelling and control of such effects -- something that never has worked adequately, and that there is no good reason to believe ever will work adequately." Why could it not work? Because "when you overthrow the healthful balance of the relationships within a system --biological, political, or otherwise -- you start a ramifying sequence of problems...that is not subject to prediction, and that can be controlled only by the restoration of balance." Berry's warning is that "if we elect to live by such disruptions then we must resign ourselves to a life of desperate (and risky) solutions: the alternation of crisis and `breakthrough' described by E.F. Schumacher."[1]

How reasonable an alternative is this to the course of action I have recommended? The first thing that deserves comment is this matter of disruption and restoration of balance. A very early and rather important disruption of natural balance took place when life was born and changed the chemistry of the planet. Another crucial and massive disruption of balance came when the oxygen liberated by life "poisoned" the atmosphere and the oceans. And this was followed by the adaptation of life to oxygen, with the subsequent destruction of the cozy arrangements between early life and the environment. Disruptions of similar magnitude were brought about by the appearance of complex organisms, by the formation of an ozone layer, which made the land available to life --would it have been better for life to stay in the oceans? -- and then by the return of vertebrates to the water, which led to whales and dolphins. Ever since, the evolution of life has created new forms that have remade the environment anew, destroying the very memory of whatever balance had been struck previously, and leaving at best a few scattered fossils of what the Berrys of the time would have insisted on preserving.

The fact of the matter is that life has often created new opportunities for itself, unwittingly no doubt, and has always changed the balance between its different forms --most of which are now extinct. The biota of the planet has remade itself many times over. The natural balance of the ideological critics is merely a fiction, a temporary arrangement that would change even if there were no human beings around to mess things up. And surely life does not exhaust the range of natural causes that have brought about massive disruptions of balance. Do volcanic eruptions, droughts, and asteroids always make for small reversible changes? What may we say, incidentally, of the galactic disruption that forced the collapse of the pre-solar cloud into a planetary system? Of the earlier obliteration of what may have looked like states of cosmic equilibrium, and thus of natural balance? Which balance is it that we are morally obliged to restore?

Clearly humans are not the only creatures that transform their environment and interfere with it. R.C. Lewontin, S. Rose, and L.J. Kamin point out that "all living beings both destroy and create the resources of their own continued life. As plants grow, their roots alter the soil chemically and physically. The growth of white pines creates an environment that makes it impossible for a new generation of pine seedlings to grow up, so hardwoods replace them. Animals consume the available food and foul the land and water with their excreta. But some plants fix nitrogen, providing their own resources; people farm; and beavers build dams to create their own habitat."[2]

The issue is not, then, one of disrupting balance and interfering with the environment. Perfect balance can be found only right before the birth of the universe and perhaps right after its death. Even then we do not really know. And to avoid interfering with nature would be out of character for living things, while impossible to achieve anyway. The issue is rather one of interfering wisely, and of preserving (approximately) certain balances that offer the best compromises for a worthwhile existence on this planet. But how are we going to achieve these goals without the kind of global and long-term knowledge that we have discussed in this book?

To say that we should diminish the presence of man--in numbers and in scope of action--so that nature may run its course as undisturbed as possible, assumes that man is a scourge upon the land, and it denies man the very liberties we give to the rest of living things. But even so, how far should that diminution go? And at what price in human misery? I think that this attitude, to force man back, also assumes that there can be no middle ground between the obliteration of the environment and the reduction of man to insignificance. For at any place in the middle we will see a rather large human interaction with the environment. We are sinners, it appears, and now the time has come to pay for our sins. Without this general mea culpa in the hearts of the large majority of human beings, it is difficult to see why they should act in what surely will seem to many as directly against their interests and those of their descendants. Should we not instead gain knowledge of the world in order to determine what is wise? No. These critics would rather do penance than science.

Nevertheless, as long as our dealings with nature involve a creative element, as long as the transformation of the environment is inevitable, with or without our participation, it seems more sensible to learn the secrets of nature so we can act with our eyes open. Berry and his cohorts may not think highly of many of the opportunities that space exploration may open to us. But why should they bar others from taking advantage of them? What right do they have to decide for others what good character is and to insure that nothing else will have greater priority? Their case is based on a myth about nature. And that is only half the trouble.

The present rate of population growth may well be unsustainable, and for space exploration to make a difference it would have to provide means of carrying billions of people into space, a feat that is not in the cards in the foreseeable future, although eventually it will. In the meantime, space science may help us monitor the pressure on the environment and avail our planet of the resources of the solar system. Moreover, let us remember that in the long run the workings of nature, if man does nothing about them, are bound to create first a most unpleasant world for our descendants and then bring extinction upon them. Having science is no guarantee that those things will not happen. We cannot be assured that the desired level of knowledge is possible within whatever time limits infringe on our future. Nor can we be certain that just because we have that knowledge we will choose according to the best interests of the species. But we can be sure that, without the global knowledge that requires space science, we will simply have no choice to make. Our descendants will suffer for it; and eventually our species will disappear at the earliest cosmic inconvenience.

A species full of self-hatred may well choose such a path. But is the appeal of presumed atonement the most fitting choice for us to make? That ascetic choice may buy us a bit of time, but for what? In the long run it leads us straight into a grave. The other choice, the one that really lets nature run its course offers the opportunities for expansion and diversification that so far life has been fortunate to procure for itself. I refer to it as the one that really lets nature run its course because it recognizes that we, too, are part of nature. There is no question in my mind that in this case the way of nature has the potential for greater wisdom.

Sometimes it is said that a little bit of knowledge is dangerous, and that since we are not likely to have complete knowledge through space or any other kind of exploration, we are better off not embarking on this scientific enterprise in the first place. But we have seen, clearly I hope, that even though a bit of knowledge can be dangerous, there is no long future in ignorance.

My point is not that environmental concerns are unimportant. Just the opposite. They are very important and we should take the steps necessary to make decisions based on the most comprehensive picture of the Earth's environment we can obtain. Only then we can pay proper attention to the interests of our species. What I argue against is the rigid demand to act on myths about nature that have little more than mysticism in their favor.

The decision is, of course, not mine to make. My intent has been to bring before the reader the considerations relevant to these large issues and the arguments that are most suitable to them. I hope I have shown that the very heart of space exploration contains within it the best justification of the entire enterprise. In doing my small part to reduce the dimming of starlight, I trust that, as H. G. Wells said, “Life, for ever dying to be born afresh, for ever young and eager, will presently stand upon this earth as upon a footstool, and stretch out its realm amidst the stars.”[3]

[1] Op. cit., p. 83.

[2] Lewontin, R.C., S. Rose, and L. J. Kamin. Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

[3] H. G. Wells, The Outline of History, 1920, from

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Chapter 10A Again

I was unhappy with my previous posting, and so I decided to rewrite it and add to it the material I had planned to post today.



H.G. Wells said once that our choice is the universe or nothing.[1] And if the argument of this book is sound, he was not that far off the mark. The way humans look at the world, the way they interact with the world, gives them a panorama of problems and opportunities that will change as they strive to satisfy their curiosity: a dynamic science leads to a constantly evolving panorama. To grow is to adapt to a changing environment or to a variety of environments. Given the long-term prospects of the human species, to grow scientifically, into the cosmos, is to hedge our bets against extinction.

Two important questions come to mind at this stage. The first is: why should survival be a value? In particular, why should human survival be a value? If we justify space exploration by reference to survival and to the material improvement of human life, the social critics should be satisfied. Their objectives, in the long run, require that we go into space. But some of the ideological critics may prove more ornery. Thus Wendell Berry supposes that the abundance of resources in space will produce bad character, for good character requires the discipline of finitude.[2]

That the survival of the human species is a value may seem beyond question to most of us, although there might be some who prefer extinction to bad character (not that I wish to suggest here that Berry would go that far) or to decreased chances of spiritual salvation. But even overwhelming agreement on the value of survival might not satisfy some thinkers in their more philosophical moments. It seems that we value survival very highly, they might say, but why should we so keen on leaving behind imperfect creatures much like ourselves?

In such philosophical moments, questioning a value is normally taken as a demand to identify some other, more basic value from which the first one is derived. This is similar to how we presumably justify actions: "This is the right action because it will bring about X and X is a good thing." But the more basic value (or good thing) that does the justifying can itself be questioned, so we then look for an even more basic value (or good thing) until eventually we arrive at a good thing that is not merely good but good in itself, that is, whose goodness does not depend on anything but its own nature. Why do we work? Because we get paid? Why is money a good thing? Because we can use to buy food and clothes, pay the rent, etc. Why do we want to do those things? Because they make us happy. And in happiness, Aristotle thought, we find an end that is complete and self-sufficient.[3] The question “why do we want to be happy” makes no sense. Aristotle had in mind not transient happiness, but a happy life as a whole. He also thought it was obvious that the happiness of a society was of greater value than the happiness of a single individual. Of course, there seems to be a clear connection between human happiness and human survival.

Since this approach grounds ethical justification on a human value, human happiness, some may object that it is therefore relative to our own species. This objection seems to underpin the notion that we should not prefer the good of our own species to that of other living things in our planet, or even to the rocks of another planet. Oftentimes the objection is expressed as the view that ethics and other disciplines of value are "objective" only insofar as their laws are eternal and universal. As characterized by Peter Singer, who criticizes it, the view claims that "The laws of Ethics...existed before there was life on our planet and will continue to exist when the sun has ceased to warm the earth."[4] Moreover, eternal (absolute) laws of ethics seem to demand eternal (absolute) values. Thus a relative value such a human happiness (or human survival) cannot provide an adequate justification for our actions.

Absolute values, however, are not all they are cracked up to be. Conflict may arise between two or more absolute values. Or an absolute value may be of small significance in a particular context and thus should yield to relative values. Besides, absolute laws could in principle be derived from values that always depend on context or on subjective preference, i.e. relative. For example, consider utilitarianism (i.e., roughly, the view that the balance of good vs. bad consequences of an action--its utility--determine its rightness, given the utilities of the alternative actions). At least one version of utilitarianism would calculate utility in accordance with the values assigned by the individuals who would enjoy or suffer the consequences of the action being contemplated.[5]

I need not show that human survival is an absolute value, or that there must be an absolute law of ethics that gives survival a very high priority. I appeal to it in order to show that space exploration is in the interest of the species. When I point out that space exploration can save us from the dangers posed by asteroids and the sun’s becoming a red giant, I give a strong reason to pursue it.

A reason in matters of prudence, or of ethics, need not be one that appeals to an absolute ground of any kind. A reason must be a reason for action, and so it must be aimed to convince the intended audience. This is not to say that efficacy alone is sufficient to commend reasons. The fallacious reasoning of much advertisement may well appeal to the masses of the unwary but would be exposed to ridicule in less superficial disputes. In some polemics the stakes and the standards may be very high. This need not mean that some ideal is approached but that greater care must be exercised to take into account the sorts of considerations that may be brought up by all the parties concerned. And greater care must be exercised not because some of those parties are in possession of truly higher standards of reason or have a more direct line to the truth – they might or might not – but precisely because we have more perspectives in play, because their diversity demands a sharper, more comprehensive case if their potential objections are to be met.

To give ethical reasons to someone is then to give him reasons that take his concerns and interests into account.[6] In discussion with members of another society, we can hardly make way with claims to the effect that our customs are better than theirs because ours are ours, or because our customs appeal to us. A convincing argument would have to show them that, in some respect that they may come to see as important, our customs work better for us than theirs do for them. Or if what we really want is for them to adopt ours, we must show them that our customs will work better for them, too. If action is the intended goal of reason in matters of prudence and ethics, how can reason succeed if it cannot appeal to the audience? And what appeal can there be where the aims, desires, and interests of the audience are ignored?

In an important respect this view preserves an element of universality, although not the peculiar ground of objectivity of so many views in ethics. As the Oxford philosopher J.L. Mackie put it: "If there were objective values, then they would be entities of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else."[7] No. The element of universality depends rather on the realization that, as Singer says, "… one's own interests are one among many sets of interests, no more important than the similar interests of others."[8]

Where the only relevant difference between my wish and yours is that it is mine, I am generally not in a position to give you reasons why you should behave as I want you to. An intelligent being should presumably be able to detect what the relevant factors in a dispute are, and discard those that are revealed as arbitrary. Or else he would go ahead with the full knowledge that his case is also arbitrary and that he has no rational claim upon the behavior of those he was trying to persuade. Practical reasoning that will not treat impartially the interests of all parties will not succeed: It cannot motivate action.

These considerations lead Singer to conclude that all rational beings should come to this process of reasoning. If so, this reasoning would have an eternal and universal aspect. For according to Singer, "Wherever there are rational, social beings, whether on earth on in some remote galaxy, we could expect their standards of conduct to tend toward impartiality, as ours have."[9] This is not to say that all rational beings would adhere to the same specific norms of conduct, for those specific norms may have developed to meet entirely divergent constraints on behavior, as we already saw in Chapter 8. Nor is it to say that ethical behavior between all intelligent species is possible, since such behavior requires a possible commonality of interests that may not always be there (such commonality need not be of prior interests, since in new circumstances complex intelligent beings are capable of developing new interests; although there is no guarantee that new, appropriate interests will in fact be developed).

In this manner we can explain why the appeal to values is thought to provide reasons, for values themselves, as Singer points out, are inherently practical. "To value something," he says, "is to regard oneself as having a reason for promoting it. How can there be something in the universe, existing entirely independently of us and our aims, desires, and interests, which provides us with reasons for acting in certain ways?"[10] When I point out the connections between space science and survival, I consciously expect that my case will be successful because it does take into account what I believe are the aims, desires, and interests of my intended audience. I assume that most normal human beings care deeply about the consequences that I have outlined. Indeed, since what I am doing is trying to meet the objections of the critics, I ought to be on firm ground, for they very explicitly announce their concern for the welfare of all humankind (at least in the case of the social critics).

Should humans be interested in their own interests? The question does not even deserve to be called rhetorical. What often happens, though, is that reasons that presumably take our interests into account may be challenged on the grounds that they really do not -- that if we consider other relevant factors, or a long view of things, then we realize that what appeared to be in our interest really is not. But how can it be that survival is not really in our best interest?

There are cases where survival clearly does not override other reasons (or motives) for action, and where we may agree that it should not. Cases, for example, in which someone risks his life to save his child's, or a stranger's for that matter. Or cases in which principle takes precedence. But all these are cases worthy of admiration precisely because we recognize that the person's survival was in his best interest, but that he disregarded it for the benefit of a higher purpose.

Moreover, I would venture to guess that the reason we are willing to let personal survival be overridden is that this higher purpose is somehow involved with making life better for those that remain, or even to make sure that others do remain. As this purpose expands in scope, it will ultimately cover the well-being of all mankind. And here we should not speak merely of mankind as we may find it in a slice of history, but mankind as it extends through history into the future.

Religion sometimes demands the sacrifice of lives for rather obscure goals, or for goals that only the faithful find less than revolting. And political passion is often guilty of similar motivations. But it is difficult to see how a religion or a political ideology that demanded, or permitted, the destruction of the entire human species, that would deny the future a chance, could justify itself to the most general of audiences. Even so I am not inclined to say that no conceivable set of circumstances could provide a reason more pertinent than the survival of mankind. Still, such a strict requirement is not necessary. I presume to have given good, convincing reasons. Unless someone offers stronger alternatives, I would like to think that I have done enough in this respect.

The previous point is that the line of argument that culminates with a connection to our survival and the betterment of our material condition need not go to a deeper level of justification. This point was clearly aimed at a philosophical critic who might question the ground of justification I provide for the exploration of space. Nevertheless I have not yet earned the right to bring the discussion to an end. First of all other critics may wonder about the appeal to the interests of humanity, not because appealing to interests is not enough but because they may think that "humanity" is too elusive a subject to have interests. And second, some of the ideological critics may resist the conclusion that space science is necessary for the long-term survival of the human species.

The first objection is less powerful than one may imagine. Of course, our species is not some kind of super-organism of which individual human beings are the cells. There is surely no talking to any such "humanity". Humanity in a clear sense does not think what is best for it, nor does it recognize its interests, simply because there is no conscious subject there to think or recognize. Individual human beings do the thinking and recognizing. That is fair enough. Moreover, the interests of human beings are individual interests, what do they have to do with the interests of humans who may live several million years hence? How compelling can that appeal to the future be? How compelling should it be?

I would like to offer two responses, one rhetorical and the other philosophical. The rhetorical response is this. If my aim is to meet the objections against space exploration by the social and ideological critics, this particular point can do little against my case. For those objections cannot even get off the ground unless we assume first that it is not only possible but also our duty to do what is best for humanity. That is, we recognize that we should act not only so as to ensure our own well being but that of others. The audience, in a figurative but still important respect, are the people of the Earth. If that were not so, what would be the point of arguing that combating poverty is more important than observing the X-ray emissions from the vicinity of possible black holes? Or of suggesting that science is not wise because in the long run it will bring us to grief? The "us" here are surely not those of us who may hear the warning when first issued, but those in posterity whose world we may swindle by our recklessness of today.

And now we can move from the purely rhetorical to more general or philosophical remarks. The reason the objections of the social and ideological critics do have a leg to stand on, although they turn out to be ultimately mistaken, is that as a matter of fact we do decide for posterity to a great extent. We may plant the trees from which “our” descendents will receive nourishment and shade, or we may destroy what could have given them a fighting chance against drought and famine. It is for them to make their own decisions, but at least the initial situation in which they will find themselves is more of our making than of theirs. Nor should we think that a society is merely an aggregate of individuals, and the species an aggregate of societies. Even if there is no super-organism, the whole does amount to more than the sum of its parts. Society is not a mere statistical distribution of individual properties. An individual that belongs to a society has characteristics that he could not have by himself. An advanced scientific and literary society, for example, builds libraries, universities, and laboratories, which enable an individual to educate himself for a style of life that would not exist without those institutions. The choices and opportunities open to him are not those that we could have without the benefit of the past efforts of generations that brought about the world into which he was born. No one could choose to be a modern farmer without the technology this century has provided, simply because the things a modern farmer does would not be possible otherwise. Nor could one choose to be a goalie in a soccer team if the game did not exist. In a primitive society it is very difficult to become a scientist, or a movie actor, or for that matter an effective critic of technology, since he will have little acquaintance with it. And in some societies dominated by religion, the female half of the population do not have the right to drive a car, receive an education, or even show their faces.

What we are, what we may become obviously depends on our own efforts and talents. But it also depends on the range of choices, on the freedoms, and on the starting points that our society and culture make available to us. We do not become ourselves in a vacuum. But we also change the society by our choices, and thus we change the face of posterity, and sometimes its very substance. Some may wish to deny that our dialectical relationship with society imposes on us obligations of gratitude. But with a bit of attention, even they should realize that the present generation does decide for mankind, whether unwittingly or not. And they should realize also that the choices we face today are particularly important, more so perhaps than the choices most other generations of humans had to make. Nor is my case aimed strictly to the present generation. Now that space exploration has become a feasible alternative, these controversies have only been born.

Survival of the species is not a value just because it is in accordance with evolution. In the first place survival is not the goal of evolution. Evolution has no goals. And besides that, most species that ever lived are now extinct. Survival is a value to us because without it all the other interests of the species may become moot. And even though the interests of many individuals do not depend on the survival of the species, their collective actions often affect the species as a whole-- and when they recognize this, they care how it all comes out in the wash.

According to some important contemporary views influenced by biology, it is in the nature of human beings to care about the fate of their descendants. This tendency can be explained by the comparative study of life forms and their drive to insure that their genes remain in the world even after they themselves are gone, and especially by the mechanism of kin selection and its concomitant kin altruism. But even if some are suspicious of such sociobiological studies and would rather speak in terms of culture, it would be difficult to deny that survival is in the interest of the species, or that our actions today may affect that interest tomorrow. Knowing that, it is a pretense to argue, as some fanciful philosophers do, that since future generations are not yet born, they do not have rights (for they are not “real”), and therefore we cannot be said to have obligations towards them.[11] Were they correct, I could not be accused of mass murder if I were to leave a large bomb hidden under the floor of the newborn wing of a hospital, timed to go off in six months, since none of my future victims would have been born by the time I hid the bomb.[12] Nor can I leave the bomb there even if I did not plant it myself. Thus we do have obligations to ensure that CFCs no longer destroy the ozone layer so that our grandchildren will not suffer in large numbers from skin cancer. And we also have a positive obligation to put in place space systems to warn us of asteroid impacts and to deflect them, lest our descendants go the way of the dinosaurs.

This is not to say that we are always looking out for the interests of the species, few of us are. But then we are practically never looking out for the interests of a stranger, although if we see him collapse on the street many of us would feel a strong impulse to come to his assistance. Similarly, the appropriate time to recognize the interests of the species is when we become aware that they are threatened. And in any event, insofar as we accept the responsibility of deciding for the species, the argument that ought to work is that which takes the interests of the species into account.

[2] See Berry’s contributions to Space Colonies, ed. by Stewart Brand (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 36-37 and 82-85.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 1, Ch. 7, 2nd Edition, translated by Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000).

[4] Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1981), p. 105.

[5] Many utilitarians, however, assign to pain and pleasure absolute values, positive or negative respectively.

[6] In this I follow Singer in his The Expanding Circle, op. cit.

[7] Quoted in Singer, ibid., p. 107.

[8] Ibid., p. 106.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 107.

[11] Robert M. Adams, "Existence, Self-Interest, and the Problem of Evil," Nous I3 (1979): 57. Derek Parfit, "On Doing the Best for Our Children," in Ethics and Population, ed. Michael Bayles (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, I976), pp. 100-102. Thomas Schwartz, "Obligations to Posterity," in Obligations to Future Generations, ed. Richard Sikora and Brian Barry (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, I978). For a discussion see Robert Elliot, “The Rights of Future People,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 6, no. 2 (1989): 159–69.

[12] Presuming that I time it so precisely that no nurses or visitors will be killed.