The Martian Standpoint

31 March 2016


Mars 0

Red Planet Perspectives

It is difficult to discuss human habitation of Mars scientifically because Mars has for so long played an disproportionate role in fiction, and any future human habitation of Mars will take place against this imaginative background. Future human inhabitants of Mars will themselves read this cultural legacy of fiction centered on Mars, and while some of it will be laughable, there are also likely to be passages that start heads nodding, however dated and inaccurate the portrayal of human life on Mars. And this human future on Mars is seeming increasingly likely as private space enterprises vie with national space agencies, and both public and private space programs are publicly discussing the possibility of sending human beings to Mars.

Panoramic view of the Payson outcrop near the Opportunity rover’s landing site.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/Cornell)

Panoramic view of the Payson outcrop near the Opportunity rover’s landing site. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/Cornell)

A human population on Mars would eventually come to identify as Martians, even though entirely human — Ray Bradbury already said as much decades ago — and it would be expected that the Martian perspective would be different in detail from the terrestrial perspective, though scientifically literate persons in both communities would share the Copernican perspective. There would be countless small differences — Martians would come to number their lives both in Terrestrial years and Martian years, for example — that would cumulatively and over time come to constitute a distinctively Martian way of looking at the world. There would also be unavoidably important differences — being separated from the bulk of humanity, having no large cities at first, not being able to go outside without protective gear, and so on — that would define the lives of Martian human beings.

Wernher von Braun's Mars mission concept as imagined by Chesley Bonestell

Wernher von Braun’s Mars mission concept as imagined by Chesley Bonestell

At what point will Martians come to understand themselves as Martians? At what point will Mars become a homeworld? There will be a first human being to set foot on Mars, a first human being born on Mars, a first human being to die on Mars and be buried in its red soil, a first crime committed on Mars, and so on. Any of these “firsts” might come to be identified as a crucial turning point, the moment at which a distinctively Martian consciousness emerges among Mars residents, but any such symbolic turning point can only come about against the background of the countless small differences that accumulate over time. Given human settlement on Mars, this Martian consciousness will surely emerge in time, but the Martian conscious that perceives Mars as a homeworld will differ from the sense in which Earth is perceived as our homeworld.

An actual, and not a mythical, canal on Mars.

An actual, and not a mythical, canal on Mars.

Human beings lived on Earth for more than a hundred thousand years without knowing that we lived on a planet among planets. We have only known ourselves as a planetary species for two or three thousand years, and it is only in the past century that we have learned what it means, in a scientific sense, to be a planet among countless planets in the universe. A consequence of our terrestrial endemism is that we as a species can only transcend our homeworld once. Once and once only we ascend into the cosmos at large; every other celestial body we visit thereafter we will see first from afar, and we will descend to its surface after having first seen that celestial body as a planet among planets. Thus when we arrive at Mars, we will arrive at Mars knowing that we arrive at a planet, and knowing that, if we settle there, we settle on a planet among planets — and not even the most hospitable planet for life in our planetary system. In the case of Mars, our knowledge of our circumstances will precede our experience, whereas on Earth our experience of our circumstances preceded our knowledge. This reversal in the order of experience and knowledge follows from planetary endemism — that civilizations during the Stelliferous Era emerge on planetary surfaces, and only if they become spacefaring civilizations do they leave these planetary surfaces to visit other celestial bodies.

A sunset on Mars photographed by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

A sunset on Mars photographed by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

What is it like, or what will it be like, to be a Martian? The question immediately reminds us of Thomas Nagel’s well known paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” (I have previously discussed this famous philosophical paper in What is it like to be a serpent? and Computational Omniscience, inter alia.) Nagel holds that, “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” A generalization of Nagel’s contention that there is something that it is like to be a bat suggests that there is something that it is like to be a conscious being that perceives the world. If we narrow our conception somewhat from this pure generalization, we arrive at level of generality at which there is something that it is like to be a Terrestrial being. That there is something that it is like to be a bat, or a human being, are further constrictions on the conception of being a consciousness being that perceives the world. But at the same level of generality that there is something that it is like to be a Terrestrial being, there is also something that it is like to be a Martian. Let us call this the Martian standpoint.

Seeing Earth as a mere point of light in the night sky of Mars will certainly have a formative influence on Martian consciousness.

Seeing Earth as a mere point of light in the night sky of Mars will certainly have a formative influence on Martian consciousness.

To stand on the surface of Mars would be to experience the Martian standpoint. I am here adopting the term “standpoint” to refer to the actual physical point of view of an intelligent being capable of looking out into the world and understanding themselves as a part of the world in which they find themselves. Every intelligent being emergent from life as we know it has such a standpoint as a consequence of being embodied. Being an embodied mind that acquires knowledge through particular senses means that our evolutionary history has furnished us with the particular sensory endowments with which we view the world. Being an embodied intelligence also means having a particular spatio-temporal location and having a perspective on the world determined by this location and the sensory locus of embodiment. The perspective we have in virtue of being a being on the surface of a planet at the bottom of a gravity well might be understood as a yet deeper level of cosmological evolution than the terrestrial evolutionary process that resulted in our particular suite of sensory endowments, because all life as we know it during the Stelliferous Era originates on planetary surfaces, and this precedes in evolutionary order the evolution of particular senses.

Sometimes the surface of Mars looks strangely familiar, and at other times profoundly alien.

Sometimes the surface of Mars looks strangely familiar, and at other times profoundly alien.

Mars, like Earth, will offer a planetary perspective. Someday there may be great cities and extensive industries on the moon, supporting a burgeoning population, but, even with cities and industries, the moon will not be a world like Earth, with an atmosphere, and therefore a sky and a landscape in which a human being can feel at home. For those native to Mars — for eventually there will be human beings native to Mars — Mars will be their homeworld. As such, Mars will have a certain homeworld effect, though limited in comparison to Earth. Even those born on Mars will carry a genome that is the result of natural selection on Earth; they will have a body created by the selection pressures of Earth, and their minds will function according to an inherited evolutionary psychology formed on Earth. Mars will be a homeworld, then, but it will not produce a homeworld effect — or, at least, no homeworld effect equivalent to that experienced due to the origins of humanity on Earth. The homeworld effect of Mars, then, will be ontogenic and not phylogenic.

The von Braun Mars mission concept was visionary for its time.

The von Braun Mars mission concept was visionary for its time.

If, however, human beings were to reside on Mars for an evolutionarily significant period of time, the ontogenic homeworld effect of individual development on Mars would be transformed into a phylogenic homeworld effect as Mars became an environment of evolutionary adaptedness. As the idea of million-year-old or even billion-year-old civilizations is a familiar theme of SETI, we should not reject this possibility out of hand. If human civilization comes to maturity within our planetary system and conforms to the SETI paradigm (i.e., that civilizations are trapped within their planetary systems and communicate rather than travel), we should expect such an eventuality, though over these time scales we will probably change Mars more than Mars will change us. At this point, Mars would become a homeworld among homeworlds — one of many for humanity. But it would still be a homeworld absent the homeworld effect specific to human origins on Earth — unless human beings settled Mars, civilization utterly collapsed, resulting in a total ellipsis of knowledge, and humanity had to rediscover itself as a species living on a planetary surface. For this to happen, Mars would have to be Terraformed in order for human beings to live on Mars without the preservation of knowledge sufficient to maintain an advanced technology, and this, too, is possible over time scales of a million years or more. Thus Mars could eventually be a homeworld for humanity in a sense parallel to Earth being a homeworld, though for civilization to continue its development based on cumulative knowledge implies consciousness of only a single homeworld, which we might call the singular homeworld thesis.

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The descent to the surface of Mars will shape our perception of the planet.

The descent to the surface of Mars will shape our perception of the planet.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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5 Responses to “The Martian Standpoint”

  1. xcalibur said

    A major issue here is whether we will colonize the surface of Mars, or stay with space station habitats until we find our way to a more viable planet.

    While there is a natural bias towards living on a planetary surface, there is another major variable – gravity. Mars has about one-third of Earth’s surface gravity. I don’t think there’s any research on the effects of long term exposure to reduced gravity, but I’d assume it’s similar to the deleterious health effects of weightlessness (although to a lesser extent).

    Space station habitats, on the other hand, can be rotated to provide artificial gravity through centrifugal force, which would completely avoid the problem.

    For this reason, I have to question whether a significant Martian community/nation will be built, or whether it will remain undeveloped except for mining operations, tourism, and other specialty uses.

    In spite of the planetary surface bias (which is already apparent in these discussions), I think rotating space habitats (with their economies based on mining asteroids/planets) will be the dominant form of space colonization. At least, that will be the case until we leave the solar system for a habitable exoplanet.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I would hope that people will see the reasonableness of large-scale space habitat development, but the homeworld effect is strong, and the desire for earth and sky is not going to go away soon. A fully articulated spacefaring civilization would have all these things — planetary development, habitats orbiting planets, habitats orbiting the star of the planetary system, and a transportation network linking these nodes together. Probably we can agree that some degree of each form of development will occur in the event of a spacefaring civilization, so that it becomes a matter of the relative distribution of each. It is entirely plausible, as you suggest, that places like Mars will only serve a niche specialty function, but it is also plausible that human beings want to be planetside so badly that they will invest considerable resources in terraforming Mars, Venus, and other celestial bodies in our solar system. Of course, there’s not much we can do about low Martian gravity, but in the longer term we may choose to engineer a human being more adapted to Martian conditions.

      All of these instances pose interesting problems, and all of these problems will also be present with habitable exoplanets. What we do first in our solar system will be a model and a template, whether intended or not, for what we do in other planetary systems, once we have the technology to get there. The desire to live on a planetary surface will be strong, but the desire not to change the basic composition of human beings will be equally strong, and it is impossible to say at present which of these two will prove the more powerful.

      If large numbers of human beings acclimate to space habitats, and accept this way of life as the “new normal,” more interesting consequences follow. For example, the presumed barriers to generation starships will disappear, because there is not much difference between living generationally on a space habitat orbiting a star, and living generationally on a space habitat traveling from one star to another (given an adequate power supply, which is a engineering problem that can be address in time). However, there also isn’t much reason to go to other stars until our sun can no longer provide us with adequate energy flows, except for the raw interest in adventure and being the first. I don’t discount these latter — with Alfred North Whitehead I think that adventure is central to civilization — but how it will play out is another matter.

      Best wishes,


      PS — I’ve delved into some related issues in my newest post, Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space.

      • xcalibur said

        Yes, there will be a conflict between the homeworld bias and the “human bias” – that is, the desire to keep the same basic form and not modify the human mind or physique beyond natural limits or superficial changes. We practice superficial or limited body modification now, but taking this further would, I believe, encounter a massive taboo.

        Adapting to lower gravity would involve changing the human physique to an extent that may trigger the taboo (for lack of a better word), especially since humans adapted to Mars would be ill-adapted to live on Earth.

        Rotating space habitats would allow us to maintain our human heritage in space without significant modifications, while adapting to the Martian surface would satisfy the homeworld bias. It’s hard to say which pull is stronger.

        If space habitats become the dominant form, it’s true that this would break down a barrier to generational starships. However, I’d like to point out that while a space habitat within the solar system can easily replenish resources, a generational starship would have to be self-sufficient for the most part (excepting Oort cloud objects and gas along the way). It would need enough resources to make the trip, which would possibly necessitate a sustained on-board ecosystem. The worldship concept may be the most plausible.

        In spite of all the challenges, history tells me that humans have a natural wanderlust, a desire to strike out into the frontier. If we find a suitable exo-earth in our stellar neighborhood, I don’t doubt that the old pioneering drive will reassert itself and take humans to the stars.

        • geopolicraticus said

          Your comment made be realize that we usually think of the uncanny valley in terms of the non-human that approximates the human, i.e., something that becomes closer to being human, and in moving along this continuum passes through an uncomfortable approximation that seems creepy. But we can also think of the uncanny valley coming from the other side, i.e., something human that becomes less human, and, as it becomes less human, passes through an uncomfortable approximation. But whereas there are countless ways in which the human might be approximated from the outside, so many human approximations that never get close enough to the human to pass into the uncanny value. But in departing from the human, we immediately plunge into the uncanny valley. Hence the “human bias” that erects significant taboos around modifying human beings, because any modification leads directly into the uncanny valley.

          I think that we will see which pull is the stronger — to remain “purely” human, or to have a homeworld — and I think what we will discover is not that one pull or the other is stronger, but that the pull will define those communities caught up within that particular attraction. So there will be those who have a strong intuitive identification with the human body as it is today, and who are willing to make sacrifices (foregoing enhancement, for example) in order to retain this form, while there will be others who have a stronger pull for having a homeworld, any homeworld, and who are willing to make sacrifices (such as not retaining current human form) in order to have a homeworld. So the pull, I think, will be selective.

          Best wishes,


  2. […] Nagel’s famous formulation that there is something that it is like to be a bat [1]), and in The Martian Standpoint (and Addendum on the Martian Standpoint) I discussed the emergence of a distinctively Martian […]

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