Cosmic Hubris or Cosmic Humility?

7 October 2011


Do we court metaphysical danger

if we engage in cosmic impiety?

I think that it is not at all usual that when one reads a book early in one’s intellectual development, that the author’s ideas, and even his voice and his style, can become so interwoven in one’s own thoughts it can be difficult to recall exactly what was one’s own idea and what one borrowed from this ur-text. One must go back to the text itself to remind oneself how much one read and how much one read into what one read. My experience in this vein is wrapped up with Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. When I began reading philosophy my mother gave me a copy of Russell’s book for Christmas. I still have this copy, though it is now in many pieces.

I found myself thinking of Russell again at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, where several of the presentations touched upon the need for humility in exploration. In Russell’s chapter in his A History of Western Philosophy on the American pragmatist philosophy John Dewey, he has a long aside on what he calls “cosmic impiety” with a certain dread as to unspoken but potentially ruinous consequences:

“The attitude of man towards the non-human environment has differed profoundly at different times. The Greeks, with their dread of hubris and their belief in a Necessity or Fate superior even to Zeus, carefully avoided what would have seemed to them insolence towards the universe. The Middle Ages carried submission much further: humility towards God was a Christian’s first duty. Initiative was cramped by this attitude, and great originality was scarcely possible. The Renaissance restored human pride, but carried it to the point where it led to anarchy and disaster. Its work was largely undone by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. But modern technique, while not altogether favorable to the lordly individual of the Renaissance, has revived the sense of the collective power of human communities. Man, formerly too humble, begins to think of himself as almost a God. The Italian pragmatist Papini urges us to substitute the ‘Imitation of God’ for the ‘Imitation of Christ’.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, p. 737

Russell further goes on to say on the same page:

“In all this I feel a grave danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the way in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness… I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time…”

In so saying Russell was echoing his own earlier writings regarding the humility of scientific knowledge. I quoted several of these passages in Epistemic Hubris. I can imagine that what Russell formulated in terms of science and philosophy he would also have advocated in the case of technology: technological hubris is a danger, and we would do well to cultivate a sense of humility in our technological thought and activity.

While I don’t think that Russell explicitly formulated a principle of technological humility, it is implicit in what he wrote, and I furthermore think that this principle sums up much contemporary cautionary thought. The pervasive sentiment, common at least since the introduction of nuclear weapons, is that humanity’s technological development has outrun its moral development, and this places us in a position of existential danger. The prevalent apocalyptic narratives of our time largely draw upon this sentiment of looming danger from having harnessed forces ultimately beyond our control.

The idea of creating a spacefaring civilization and even constructing vessels to take us to the stars might well be taken as a paradigm case of technological hubris. Perhaps we have no moral right to such ambition. I mentioned in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 3 that at least a couple of participants in the symposium voiced the need for humanity to “clean up its act” before it takes its problems with it into the wider universe. This is essentially an objection to metaphysical pride, presumably made in deference to metaphysical modesty.

I don’t think that there is much to be concerned with here, though I think that the moral issues must be taken seriously. I don’t think that the metaphysical pride and metaphysical ambition of extraterrestrialization should be a worry because of an analogy I would make between the precarious position of humanity as a planet-bound civilization today. Despite our enormous technological achievements, and the claim that humanity now lives in the geological era of the anthropocene due to the degree to which we have transformed our own planet, we are still very much at the mercy of earthquakes, storms, severe weather, and all manner of natural disasters. Our dominance of the planet and our technological achievements have not insulated us from the depredations of nature.

Analogously, I think that if we should create a spacefaring civilization and the extraterrestrialization of humanity proceeds apace, that we will find that we continue to be subject to the depredations of nature, though nature on a wider scale and not confined to potential planetary natural disasters. An extraterrestrialized civilization would face natural disasters on the level of galactic ecology, with the dangers at each stage in the growth of civilization roughly proportional to the extent of that civilization. That is to say, both metaphysical pride and metaphysical modesty are subject to metaphysical danger.

W. R. Kramer of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies made humility central to his presentation, titled, “To Humbly Go… Breaking Previous Patterns of Colonization.” Mr. Kramer discussed the dangers of employing the language and images and concepts of past colonial efforts, and certainly when we look back on the record of colonialism there is a rich record of perfidy defended as ideals. This is not a pattern we would want to repeat.

But how exactly could a spacefaring civilization be humble? The very project, as I implied above, can be seen as the height of hubris — hubris on a cosmic scale. Of course, even if the project of extraterrestrialization is hubris, that doesn’t mean that individuals involved in such an enterprise couldn’t adopt a proper spirit of humility and modesty, although, as I said above in regard to metaphysical dangers, I don’t think that humanity will have all that difficult a time in retaining its humility once it has experienced a few hard knocks from the universe on a grand scale.

One specific proposal made by W. R. Kramer in the interest of going humbly into the cosmos was that human efforts in colonizing other planets, should other planets harboring life be found, should focus not on terraforming other worlds, but on adapting human physiology to alien worlds. I found this an interesting proposal. I don’t doubt that by the time a spacefaring civilization reaches other worlds we would have the technology to engineer descendants who could live in an alien biosphere. Just this scenario has been featured in some science fiction novels (in my dated experience of reading science fiction novels, I remember this from Ben Bova’s Exiled from Earth trilogy).

There is definitely something of Stalinist gigantism in the very idea of terraforming a planet, and I can easily imagine someone identifying such an engineering enterprise as a paradigm case of cosmic impiety à la Russell. But notice that it is an engineering challenge. In this sense, finding an alien planet with a biosphere and intending to settle such a planet with human beings, would present us with the choice between two engineering challenges: terraform or adapt. Both are engineering challenges. Both, we will assume, would be difficult but possible. Each engineering challenge presents opportunities and dangers, and each poses moral conundrums that cannot be glossed over.

W. R. Kramer apparently thinks that engineering human beings to live in an alien biosphere is morally preferable to terraforming. I neither agree nor disagree, but it must be pointed out that there are many people who regard genetically tampering with our species with moral horror. One need only read up a little on the reaction to transhumanism to find the things that have been said about purposefully altering human beings. For such a practice would also certainly result in speciation, and it might result in beings that had a problematic relationship at best to the unaltered remainder of the species.

Of course, terraforming might also be regarded with moral horror. Thus we are confronted with a choice between moral horrors: the horror of human speciation or the horror of terraforming. One would expect that changes in civilization between now and some future time when this dilemma might be faced will involve changes in our perception of moral dilemmas, but one also expects that the people of that future time will be divided by this choice. Some will be horrified at the prospect of transforming the biosphere of an entire planet, while others will be more horrified by the prospect of altering human beings until they are perhaps no longer recognizable as human beings.

In the case of terraforming sterile but potentially habitable worlds (like Mars, which is close to home and therefore more likely to be a moral dilemma in the nearer-term future), one feels that the moral objection to terraforming would be somewhat less (and therefore possibly less a moral horror than altering human beings), but I can still easily imagine those who would feel a moral horror at the prospect of utterly transforming this sterile but pristine environment for human purposes. It could be argued that no alternation in human physiology could make it possible for human descendants to live on Mars because of its sterility, and this might well be the basis of a future standard in the coming debate over whether to terraform or not to terraform.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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