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Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Obligation of Philosophy

The Dimming of Starlight

Ch. 1D

It is actually surprising that professional philosophy has not taken up in earnest the question of whether space exploration can be justified. After all, it is part and parcel of philosophy to examine the justification of all significant human activities, including science and technology. Professional philosophers have examined, for example, what computers can and cannot do[1], whether human cloning should be permitted[2], and the extent to which even theoretical scientists are morally responsible for their research.[3] But the call of the “final frontier,” whose significance may well dwarf all other human adventures, has received only scant attention from philosophy. The lack of interest is due in part to the fact that fundamental research has the highest prestige in philosophy, and a field named “the philosophy of space exploration” probably sounds like applied philosophy to most practitioners. But the distinction between fundamental (or pure) and applied can be as misleading in philosophy as in science. This can be seen, for example, in the case of the philosophy of artificial intelligence, where it became clear that the mind is not at all like a digital computer – a fundamental finding in philosophy. I would argue that the deep practicality of science, found in the examination of space science, is also a fundamental finding. Whatever the reason professional philosophy has not concerned itself with the exploration of space, this book is an attempt to remedy that oversight.

Scientific textbook mythology would have us believe that Galileo’s opponents simply refused to believe their own eyes when looking through his telescope (or worse, refused to even look through it!). But the documents of that time indicate instead that many who looked through Galileo’s telescope saw double images or the disc of the Moon displaced to one side, and some people could see nothing at all where Galileo claimed the existence of Jupiter’s moons. This is not surprising. When we perceive we make use of many clues from the environment. We estimate at a glance, say, how large a new painting is, because we see that it takes up so much of a familiar wall. Without those clues, our vision is prey to all sorts of illusions. For example, a point of light on a dark background may appear to move around rapidly. That is why Jupiter shining through a fog in the early evening is often reported as a UFO. Consider also that Galileo’s telescope was primitive and built for his eyes (it lacked a focus mechanism). And to make matters worse, the testimony of the telescope often conflicted with that of the unaided eye.[4]

One of those conflicts involved the brightness of starlight, for in Galileo’s telescope the magnitude of the stars did not keep pace with that of the planets (planetary disks were enlarged, whereas stars remained points of light). Some observers even complained that his telescope made the stars look dimmer[5]. The dimming of starlight was then one of the illusions that threatened the new scientists' exploration of the cosmos. Four hundred years later, as we seek to launch human and machine alike to new worlds, there are those who recoil at the very thought. Where vision once undercut the exciting appeal of the new, today social and ideological misgivings would keep us from reaching for the heavens.

Supporters of space exploration sometimes find favorable omens in the insights of long ago. They should be delighted by Ovid's account of the difference between man and beast: "God elevated man's face and ordered him to contemplate the stars." It is for us now to determine whether Kepler was right in thinking that we should go beyond contemplation and reach for the stars. If he was, we should not let their light dim again.

[1] The first classic work in this field was H. Dreyfus, What Computers Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Intelligence, Harper, 1972. For a work on the nature of mind that includes neural nets (and thus parallel as opposed to serial processing) see P. Churchland, The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul, MIT Press, 1975. Part of the discussion in Chapter 8 will be based on insights derived from these works.

[2] See, for example, Inmaculada de Melo-Martín, Taking Biology Seriously: What Biology Can and Cannot Tell Us about Moral and Public Policy Issues, Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming.

[3] See G. Munévar, "The Moral Autonomy of Science and the Recombinant DNA Controversy," Journal of Social and Biological Structures, 1979, 2, pp.235-243.

[4] P.K. Feyerabend, Against Method, Verso, 1993, Third Edition, Ch. 9.

[5] As described in Feyerabend’s Against Method, ibid, n26, pp. 92-93.

Coming up next: Why there is a need to justify the exploration of space.

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