Predicting the Human Future in Space

23 September 2012


A human future in space that didn’t happen — or hasn’t happened yet.

Last year when I was writing out my reactions to the 100YSS symposium for 2011 I discussed how a couple of presentations made me realize a distinction must be sedulously observed between what I have called the political conception of history, which makes human agency central to history, and other conceptions of history in which human agency plays less of a role. This was particularly the case in regard to the 2011 presentation by Katherine Denning, in which professor Denning emphasized the accuracy of predictions and in so saying suggested that futurism can be a more-or-less exact science.

Apparently, this kind of thinking is well represented among 100YSS organizers and participants since the epigraph employed at 100YSS for the 2012 symposium was a quote from Will Durant, “The future never just happened, it was created.”

This is something with which I cannot agree when stated in this way, i.e., unconditionally. This claim embodies as perfectly as any one line could the political conception of history, and it is true, as far as it goes — but it doesn’t go far enough. Some of our history is under our control and can be consciously shaped by human agency; some other parts of our history, however, are not at all under our control and, try as we might, human agency cannot shape them to human ends.

When Hamlet says, “There’s a Diuinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will,” or when a religious person says that the Lord works in mysterious ways, these are explicit admissions that there are clear limits to human agency in shaping history, although these expressions of a destiny beyond human agency are strong enough to embody a distinct conception of history, what I have called the eschatological conception of history, which recognizes the agency of non-human powers in the world. It is also possible to recognize the lack of human agency in shaping history (which I call the cataclysmic conception of history).

The reason that I mention these conceptions of history in relation to predicting the human future in space, or the attempt to employ human agency in making a human future in space happen, is that space programs have been the bread-and-butter of both futurism and science fiction throughout the twentieth century and up to the present. We need to be able to place this science fiction futurism in relation to our overall conception of history if we are to understand whether it is a driving vision of a future we are going to create, or a mere distraction from an entirely different future that is already upon us but remains unrecognized for what it is.

One cannot overemphasize the fact that past futurism has been and continues to be a source of camp humor; the very sincerity of the predictions that have been made lend the extra irony that transforms merely humorous mis-prediction into camp humor that is really a form of ridicule, thinly disguised — or not disguised at all.

The account of preternaturally accurate futurist predictions usually focuses on minutae and neglects the big picture. Prediction often gets technological details right even while the human element is laughably wrong. Getting the human element of the future wrong can be as simple as not realizing that people won’t want to give up their convivial dinners for a single pill supplying all necessary nutrition, or it can be as subtle and sophisticated as trying to understanding the relationship between intelligence and consciousness, and what this means for the relationship between artificial intelligence and machine consciousness.

I have written several posts critical of Ray Kurzweil’s conception of a technological singularity (for example, The Singularity Has No Clothes). Recently I watched a Kurzweil lecture to staff of the SETI institute that is available on Youtube. I realized when I watched this that a great many of Kurzweil’s narrowly technological predictions are likely to be true, even while he gets the human context of his predictions all wrong. The human element that Kurzweil gets wrong is human consciousness.

Kurzweil (one of today’s must successful futurists) shows the extent to which he embodies the contemporary scientific attitude by simply pretending that philosophical problems don’t exist (something I described in Fashionable Anti-Philosophy and Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy). He announces poetic metaphors — plainly asserting the identity of mind and software — without even bothering to offer a suggestion about how his position avoids the problem of Searle’s Chinese room thought experiment. No one calls him on his metaphors, and certainly none of his followers ask him to give an account of his philosophical ellipses.

We are, more often than not, blindsided by history. Historian Pauline Maier says this at the beginning of the PBS television series Liberty: The American Revolution (Episode 1):

“The future would bring freedom, it would bring prosperity, because it would be British. The tyrannical French and Spanish had been removed from the continent. How surprising this is to us; we don’t think of this as the great division. Their view of the future seems naive, so different than what we knew their future would have been. Which tells us something: what came was not expected, and it was certainly not desired. They were British, they wanted to be British, they were proud of being British; that they would thirteen years later be declaring their independence is enormously paradoxical. It did not have to be, it should not have been, from their perspective; that it happened is a great mystery that needs to be explained.”

Here is an historical perspective that I can fully endorse, although of course such things vary according to circumstances. In some cases the future is no mystery at all, and requires no explanation, but in other cases the future that did in fact come about is a mystery for which historians can offer no answer. The answer to the mysteries of history transcends history.

A few days ago in From Moon Shot to Milk Run I talked about the different conceptions of civilization involved in conceptualizing a space program as a heroic one-off endeavor like the Apollo moon shot (which exemplifies the heroic conception of civilization) or in conceptualizing a space program as a routine, work-a-day affair (which exemplifies the iterative conception of civilization).

It strikes me now that an heroic conception of a space program is likely to be a manifestation of a political conception of history, since such great endeavors are generally top-down, exhaustively planned missions, while an iterative conception of a space program is likely to be a manifestation of a naturalistic conception of history, that sees the human expansion into space as part of the ordinary business of life rather than a great heroic undertaking.

One of the questions that came up repeatedly at 100YSS both in 2011 and 2012 was public outreach and the relative lack or interest or lack of participation (however you care to interpret it) by the public in the space program. I think that at least part of this attitude — whether originally coming from the space program itself or coming from the public — is the heroic character of the undertaking and its lack of contact with the lives of ordinary people. Most people could understand an iterative space program, since it would have a structure much like their own lives, and would likely involve people that they know. An heroic space program, consisting of a series of “moon shots” is unquestionably an inspiration from a distance, but how long can an inspiration from a distance play a role in the iterated details of ordinary life?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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