Spacetime Constraints and Possibilities

27 May 2013


Addendum on a Future Astropolitics:

If this is what the large scale distribution of matter in the cosmos looks like, then this is what the future distribution of civilization in the universe will look like.  (Illustration: Center for Cosmological Physics, Chicago)

If this is what the large scale distribution of matter in the cosmos looks like, then this is what the future distribution of civilization in the universe will look like. (Illustration: Center for Cosmological Physics, Chicago)

Civilization Shaped by Structures of the Universe

In my previous post on astropolitics, The Fundamental Theorem of Astropolitics, I gave a generalization of my earlier definition of geopolitics (which was, “geography constrains human agency”) as the following:

Human agency is constrained by the structure of space.

Upon reflection I have realized that, while this definition is good as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough. The primary defect of this formulation is that it is formulated exclusively in terms of constraints upon human agency, which is to say, it focuses on the ways in which human agency is limited or even negated.

In formulating either geopolitics or astropolitics in terms of the limitations on human agency, the ways in which geography or the structure of space facilitates human agency gets lost, and this function of facilitation is no less significant than the function of limitation that follows from the lay of the land or the structure of space.

Another weakness in formulating geopolitics or astropolitics in terms of constraint and limitation is that it implies that, were it only not for the limitations placed upon human agency by outside forces, that this agency would be boundless and infinite. In other words, focusing on limitation and constraint suggests, in a very subtle way, what I have called the political conception of history, i.e., history understood primarily in terms of human agency. While this is an empowering way of viewing history, it cannot be considered any more or less accurate than other other conceptions of history I have outlined — the cataclysmic, eschatological, and naturalistic conceptions (for a review of these conceptions cf. The Naturalistic Conception of History) — and it is likely to be misleading.

When I spoke at the 2012 100YSS event one of the central ideas of my talk was the ways in which the structure of spacetime will govern the expansion of civilization on an interstellar scale, and even beyond this the ways in which human beings (or any other finite being exploring the cosmos) can use the apparent limitations imposed upon us by relativity, the finite velocity of light, and the structure of space itself to facilitate the growth of civilization. (I called my talk, “The Large Scale Structure of Spacefaring Civilization.”)

We have come to see the velocity of light as a barrier to human/organic exploration of the cosmos, but this is a profound misconception. In response to this misconception, those contemplating the possibility of interstellar civilization either are looking for ways to avoid relativistic effects, such as the use of the Alcubierre drive (if only it can be made to work), and those who think that interstellar travel is simply impossible or can only be accomplished at very slow rates of expansion, such as the rates of speed at which the Voyager spacecraft are slowly making their way outside our local solar system (i.e., by way of generational ships and long term human preservation or reconstitution).

Although the Voyager I spacecraft is traveling in excess of 38,000 MPH, even at this speed it is a very slow trip to another star.

Although the Voyager I spacecraft is traveling in excess of 38,000 MPH, even at this speed it is a very slow trip to another star.

What I want to suggest is that relativity is our friend. The finite velocity of light and the phenomenon of time dilation can and will be used by human beings to facilitate interstellar travel. Anyone who has studied these matters carefully will know what I am talking about here, but the popular misconceptions are so prevalent that one must pause to mention them. It is often stated that if we sent out an interstellar mission traveling at a rate that involved relativistic effects, that we could only hope for our distant descendents to arrive; that no one would live to see another solar system. In fact, time would continue to pass on Earth, but the closer a starship can approximate the speed of light, even while never reaching that limiting velocity, the slower time passes on board, so that even very long interstellar voyages can be accomplished within life spans typical by contemporary standards.

Carl Sagan discussed this at some length in his book and television series Cosmos, in which he talked about a starship that could accelerate at one gravity. We can think of the 1G starship as the breakthrough technology that will open up our galaxy to exploration and settlement. Already we can accelerate a spaceship at well more than 1G, although we cannot maintain this acceleration for extended periods of time, so I regard attaining this acceleration for extended periods of time to be a merely technical problem, and not an insuperable “physics” problem. (Some people will disagree with me on this point.) Sagan pointed out that with the humble technology of a 1G starship we could circumnavigate the known universe in a typical human life span. By the time we finished this journey, however, billions of years would have passed.


It is easy to lose sight of this possibility when discussing space flight, and our limited capabilities today, but looking at the ability of industrial-technological civilization to continue delivering exponential technological development, we should not consider this technology to be long out of our reach. That is why I call it a “humble” technology. It doesn’t require breaking the known laws of physics, and it doesn’t require an engineering breakthrough on the level of the Alcubierre drive (though I should mention that I still hold out hope for the development of the Alcubierre drive).

Once we allow ourselves to think in these terms, and to imagine as a real possibility human exploration of the cosmos, even limited to contemporary life spans (which are likely to be lengthened considerably in the coming century), what one comes to realize is not the unattainability of the velocity of light, but really how slow the speed of light is in relation to the size of the cosmos. Light is almost pokey in its progress, since it would take light about 93 billion years to traverse the known universe. The age of the universe seems incomprehensibly ancient, but really, when you think about it in cosmological terms, 13.7 billion years isn’t all that much. We’re only really getting started here on this universe bit. And the size the universe? Again, it seems incomprehensible vast, but if we adjust our perspective, it is well within the limits of human comprehension if we will only take the time and the trouble to systematically expand and extend out understanding.

calvin-and-hobbes-look-at-the-stars small

We can spend our time contemplating the littleness of man in the cosmos, or we can work to attain a perspective commensurate with the universe. It is true that we are indeed very small at present, and it has been the tradition of human thought to meditate upon our insignificance, our smallness before the universe, our manifold weaknesses, our miserably short existence, and the sorrows of the human condition — in short, it has been the tradition to meditate on what Hume called the “monkish virtues.” While we do not think of modern thought in this way, once we pause to put matters in context, we see the degree to which this tradition still retains its power over our minds.

Here is how Hume formulated the “monkish virtues”:

Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, Section IX, Conclusion, Part I

To Hume’s litany of the reasons to reject the monkish virtues we might also add that this is no way to go about building a civilization. This is to think in terms of constraints. But we must also think in terms of possibilities, and if we are ever to construct the spacefaring civilization that we can now clearly conceptualize, we will have to think more in terms of possibilities and less in terms of limitations. As central to the creation of a spacefaring civilization as the technological developments is the conceptual revolution that needs to be sustained, and as ambitious and as megalomaniac as this sounds, we must formulate and inculcate a human perspective that takes the human role in the cosmos for granted. We must learn to think on a cosmological scale.

David Hume, philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment and critic of monkish virtues.

David Hume, philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment and critic of monkish virtues.

For those who wonder at the hubris of what I am saying, the punishment of our pride will come about in due course, for no grand enterprise (and there is no grander enterprise than the expansion of civilization) is without reversals, but we cannot begin this enterprise by thinking only in terms of what we cannot do. We would never get off the ground — literally, we would never pass beyond planet-bound civilization to transplanetary civilization — if we thought only in terms of the meagerness of our abilities.

While some limitations are unambiguously limiting, others can be seen as a constraint or an opportunity depending upon one’s perspective. This is true of the structure of the universe and time dilation, which is built into relativistic physics. Future civilization will not try to defy this structure of spacetime (by trying to do something impossible according to physics), but will exploit this structure of spacetime in order to expand civilization in unexpected and unprecedented ways.

time dialation

Astrophysics will shape interstellar civilization. The development of civilization will follow the availability of matter and energy; both matter and energy are found in and around the vicinity of stars, stars are collected in galaxies, and galaxies are found in clusters. Civilization will follow this same structure, from stars to galaxies to clusters, and civilization will do so because this is where the matter and energy at to be found.

Matter shapes the structure of spacetime; in seeking the resources of matter and energy, civilization will find itself in those regions of the universe shaped by the presence of matter. Matter, moreover, is convertible with energy, and vice versa. Civilization seeks matter in part in order to convert it into energy in order to power the industries of industrial-technological civilization. At some future time civilization may also seek energy in order to convert it into matter.


Civilization as we have known it has sought to expand itself in space, but time dilation will allow civilization also to expand in time. Given the breakthrough technology of a 1G starship, civilization will not only move outward in space, but also later in time. While time on Earth may be considered the baseline, a fleet of starships with enough capacity to carry a sufficient portion of terrestrial civilization to establish this civilization at a new center, will carry that civilization to a later time commensurate with the distance traveled outward. Because of time dilation, relatively little time will have passed on the voyage, even while a great deal of time will have passed on Earth.

In other words, while separated by years and lightyears, it will still be essentially the same civilization. From an omnipresent perspective — what might be called the “view from nowhere” (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Nagel) — we can see that these are temporally separated instances of one an the same civilization are. I call this a temporally distributed civilization. (This was one of the central points of my 2012 100YSS talk.) Given this structure of a temporally distributed civilization, there is quite literally no going home again. It would always be possible to migrate outward, and into later times (though essentially into the same civilization displaced later in time), but back would mean going into far future civilization that no longer resembled the civilization one had left behind.

In a temporally distributed civilization, one and the same civilization is distributed in time as well as in space.

In a temporally distributed civilization, one and the same civilization is distributed in time as well as in space.

Civilization conceived and executed on this cosmological scale, integral with the largest astrophysical processes, would leave observable traces. In Transcendent Man, the film about Ray Kurzweil, Kurzweil talks about looking up into the night sky and seeking signs of an alien technological singularity. Others have thought to search the skies for mega-engineering projects, looking for the astronomical markers of Dyson spheres or the use of a black hole as a source of energy.

Nothing definitive has yet been seen in the night sky. There does not appear to have been any civilization of cosmological scale that has preceded us — though there may be one out there, only now coming to maturity and not yet visible to us. Or maybe there is nothing out there. For many, the lack of evidence of a civilization of cosmological scale is proof (not definitive, deductive proof, but incremental, inductive proof, not leading to certainty, but to likelihood and probability) that there is no such civilization, nor can there be such a civilization.

Dyson sphere

Some dreamers who reject the possibility of interstellar travel but want to know something of the other inhabitants who might be out there in the Milky Way and beyond resign themselves to the quietism of SETI, sitting in a room monitoring instruments, hoping to catch a glimpse of alien intelligence from signals among the stars. This model of interstellar exchange is presented as practicable, and therefore something that a person might reasonably believe in, even if it departs from the Buck Rogers model of flying around and visiting other planets, all the while with a trusty sidearm on one’s hip.

I know that there are a great many people who maintain that there will never be any interstellar civilization, therefore no interaction between multiple interstellar civilizations, therefore no interstellar exchanges of any significance — whether for trade or war or culture or otherwise — because of the distances involved and the energy levels that would be required. I do not think that this is an insuperable problem, because in large measure the problem is our own perspective and the human tendency to sabotage our own efforts. Such habits of thought and action are valuable for a planet-bound civilization, but would be crippling for a transplanetary civilization.


I, on the other hand, view the large scale structure of interstellar civilization as an inevitable (or nearly inevitable) outcome of the continued expansion of industrial-technological civilization, in accordance with the Industrial-Technological Thesis that defines technological progress as intrinsic to this form of civilization. The only event that would derail the eventual realization of interstellar civilization is if civilization itself were to be derailed — hence my concern with existential risk.

A theoretical astropolitics would furnish the conceptual infrastructure for any future interstellar trade, interstellar war, or even interstellar “cultural exchanges” (as they were delicately called during the Cold War). And, as should be apparent from the foregoing, it seems clear that, as long as our industrial-technological civilization continues in its present trajectory of development, all of this will come to pass in the fullness of time.

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large scale structure

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “Spacetime Constraints and Possibilities”

  1. Dahni said

    Great article. I’ve pasted onto my desktop as I want ready access to study it further. Assuming the limit of c for a spaceship, and assuming no workable wormholes, space exploration will be a one way journey from the starting point. If so, then imo our spaceship design should concentrate on a few factors;
    1) Large enough to provide living, working, manufactoring and socializing space.
    2) Able to refuel while traveling, which points the direction for the design of the drive system.
    3) Able to provide food and water while traveling.

    My ship design focus is on locating an asteroid with a long axis of 2+ KM and suitable composition. Hollow it and use the outer shell to provide safety from many collisions as well as from harmful radiation.

    Need to design manufacturing systems to convert the debris to usable items, such as metals, fuel, hydrogen, oxygen and so on.

    My bet is that if enough people are available on earth now who would volunteer to move to such an asteroid now, and begin work on the construction of a traveling biome,

    • geopolicraticus said

      I’m very pleased to hear that you found my post to be of some interest.

      Yes, the settlement of the galaxy will be a one-way undertaking, but only the same sense that life has always been one-directional time travel: we can go further into the future, but we can’t go into the past. The great thing about time dilation, once we have the technology to exploit it, is that we will have a greater variety of choice is how much of the future we would like to see.

      We can stay on Earth, enjoying its slow-paced elapse of time, or we can accelerate ourselves and go further into the future, visiting other outposts of human civilization that have also projected themselves into future times.

      I agree with you about volunteers, and I have been intending to write about this.

      Best wishes,


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