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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why the Philosophy of Space Exploration?

The Philosophy of Space Exploration

By Gonzalo Munévar

CHAPTER I, Section A


One night almost 400 years ago Galileo turned his telescope to the sky, and the sky grew immense and crowded. Since then we have explored the heavens with telescope and mind, in the spirit of wonder and adventure. In our own time, through space exploration, we can touch where Galileo could only see, and we can reach where he could only dream. Our spaceships are beginning to realize a perennial longing made explicit by the great astronomer Johannes Kepler when he wrote to Galileo
There will certainly be no lack of human pioneers when we have mastered the art of flight... Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travelers, maps of the celestial bodies — I shall do it for the Moon, you, Galileo, for Jupiter.[i]

Sky-travelers are, at long last, sailing along the routes marked on the maps of Kepler and Galileo. And as Kepler would have imagined, they find adventure, beauty and excitement in the enterprise. They also promise us knowledge and bright new hope if mankind agrees to expand first into the solar system and eventually into the galaxy. But how firm is this promise? And what sacrifices should we make so that it can be kept? Those are the main questions of this book. I want to examine why human beings explore space and to determine whether we ought to.

This examination is by no means easy, for space exploration elicits many polemical responses. On the one hand we have the enthusiasm of people like Wernher von Braun, the famous rocket expert, who claimed that, "[T]he first moon landing was equal in importance to that moment in evolution when aquatic life came crawling on the land."[ii] On the other hand we have social and ideological critics. The social critics argue that we are besieged by illness, poverty, and hopelessness. We thus have an obligation to invest our money, talents, and resources to solve these human problems, but the pursuit of space exploration competes for the means needed to fulfill our obligation. The ideological critics view space exploration as a logical extension of science, and science (at least “big science”) as a basically unwise activity, for science leads us to interfere with nature instead of trying to live in harmony with it. According to them, this now massive interference has brought the world to the brink of environmental catastrophe. Only a change of ideology, or perhaps of moral outlook, can give us hope. The "promise" of space is then nothing but a siren song that diverts our attention at a crucial moment in our history.

In response to these and other critics, space enthusiasts list the many benefits we derive from the space program: weather satellites save lives and crops; communication satellites bring about economic expansion; and land satellites discover resources and help us monitor the environment. Moreover, space technology spins off valuable products into our lives, such as cell phones, reflective insulation, and voice-controlled wheelchairs.

Why then is space exploration adrift? And why does it no longer excite the public passion as it did during its Golden Age in the 1960s, when we went to the Moon and the sky was no longer the limit? Should not the response by the space enthusiasts light star fires in the eyes of their fellow citizens? Why do the enthusiasts’ arguments fail to align social policy with their values and dreams? Econometric studies have not done the job. Comparisons of (presumed) costs and benefits have not done the job. Why do the bulk of humankind remain blind to such wonderful treasures at the end of cosmic rainbows?

Part of the reason has to do with the bad choices made since NASA became one more sluggish bureaucracy, particularly since its fateful decision to build the Space Shuttle, as I argue in Chapter 7. But the main reason is that space enthusiasts have not offered enough of a compelling argument. As we will see in Chapter 2, the social critics may simply accept space exploration but only to a point, as in fact most people do. They will agree to the likes of communication satellites, from which we clearly derive benefits. Now, daring space missions such as the probes of Jupiter and Titan give us knowledge, and, yes, that knowledge is exciting, but is it better than improving the lives of people? We have the same objection again, even if the scope is somewhat reduced. As for the ideological critics, they will stick to their guns, continuing to argue that the problems that our adventures in space might help alleviate would not arise if we learned to treat our environment and each other differently.

Space enthusiasts like to appeal to the unintended benefits of previous scientific exploration. Who could have imagined so many serendipitous discoveries when the first human-made satellite, Sputnik I, went into orbit in 1957? But can we really trust the promise that our most esoteric and daring adventures will deliver new and presently unimagined bounty? As we will also see in Chapter 2, the historical anecdotes generally offered to support the notion of the serendipity of science are not enough.

Can we offer enough? Yes – enough indeed to justify the exploration of space, as I argue in Chapter 3. We may begin by noticing that each side of the controversy justifies its position by appeal to the things it values, and that each stresses different values. The issue of justification thus has the air of a philosophical problem. And so it is, though not because it is a hopeless muddle, but because philosophical tools can be deployed to resolve it. Of these tools, the first is the philosopher's search for the assumptions that underlie the problem. Eventually this search will lead us to the realization that they are assumptions about the nature of science.

For example, the social critics find the value of scientific knowledge – as obtained through space science – not large enough to justify the money that it presumably takes away from attending to other human needs. But to estimate the value of scientific knowledge in any fruitful way one should have some idea of what science is like and of what it has to offer.

The ideological critics, for their part, hold that science is unwise. But what insights about science have led them to such a conclusion? And since reflecting on the nature of science is the province of the philosophy of science – whether done by philosophers, scientists, or lay people – the resolution of this important controversy in scientific and social policy is also a job for the philosophy of science.

My own reflections lead me to conclude that we ought to explore space. One crucial reason, as I argue in Chapter 3, is that the exploration of space will transform our views of the Earth and the universe to the significant benefit of our species. As we explore space we challenge our science, and as we challenge our science we change it in ways so profound that we come to face a different panorama of problems and opportunities in our dealings with the world. Indeed, it is as if a new world opens up to us; and when we try to adapt to the new “lay of the land,” ideas and inventions occur to us that would have been unimaginable under the old perspective.

We will see, in other words, that serendipity is a natural, practically inevitable consequence of scientific exploration. My argument will thus depend on the very nature of scientific exploration and on the way that nature is illustrated in space science and other aspects of our space adventures.

[i] Johannes Kepler, Conversations with the Star Messenger, 1610. Partially quoted in A. Koestler, The Watershed: A Biography of Johannes Kepler, University Press of America, 1960, p. 195.
[ii] Quoted in W. S. Bainbridge, The Spaceflight Revolution, John Wiley & Sons, 1976, p. 1.

Next Posting: brief summary of the arguments for space science: comparative planetology, space physics and astronomy, astrobiology, biological experiments in space