3 February 2017
A Conceptual Overview
What is the relationship between planetary endemism and the overview effect? This is the sort of question that might be given a definitive formulation, once once we have gotten sufficiently clear in our understanding of these ideas and their ramifications. I’m not yet at the point of formulating a definitive expression of this relationship, but I’m getting closer to it, so this post will be about formulating relationships among these and related concepts in a way that is hopefully clear and illuminating, while avoiding the ambiguities inherent in novel concepts.
This post is itself a kind of overview, attempting to show in brief compass how a number of interrelated concepts neatly dovetail and provide us with a rough outline of a conceptual overview for understanding the origins, development, distribution, and destiny of civilization (or some other form of emergent complexity) in the universe.
The Stelliferous Era
The Stelliferous Era is that period of cosmological history after the formation of the first stars and before the last stars burn out and leave a cold and dark universe. In the cosmological periodization formulated by Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin, the Stelliferous Era is preceded by the Primordial Era and followed by the Degenerate Era. During the Primordial Era stars have not yet formed, but matter condenses out of the primordial soup; during the Degenerate Era, the degenerate remains of stars, black holes, and some exotic cosmological objects are to the found, but the era of brightly burning stars is over.
What typifies the Stelliferous Era is its many stars, radiating light and heat, and whose nucleosynthesis and supernova explosions forge heavier forms of matter, and therefore the chemical and minerological complexity from which later generations of (high metallicity) stars and planets will form. (A Brief History of the Stelliferous Era is an older post about the Stelliferous Era that needs to be revised and updated.)
In comparison to the later Degenerate Era, Black Hole Era, and Dark Era of cosmological history, the Stelliferous Era is rather brief, extending from 106 to 1014 years from the origins of the universe, and almost everything that concerns us can be further reduced to the eleventh cosmological decade (from 10 billion to 100 billion years since the origin of the universe). Since this cosmological periodization is logarithmic, the later periods are even longer in duration than they initially appear to be.
Our interest in the Stelliferous Era, and, more narrowly, our interest in the eleventh decade of the Stelliferous Era, does not rule out interesting cosmological events in other eras of cosmological history, and it is possible that civilizations and other forms of emergent complexity that appear during the Stelliferous Era may be able to make the transition to survive into the Degenerate Era (cf. Addendum on Degenerate Era Civilization), but this brief period of starlight in cosmological history is the Stelliferous Era window in which it is possible for peer planetary systems, peer species, and peer civilization to exist.
Planetary Endemism is the condition of life during the Stelliferous Era as being unique to planetary surfaces and their biospheres. Given the parameters of the Stelliferous Era — a universe with planets, stars, and galaxies, in which both water (cf. The Solar System and Beyond is Awash in Water) and carbon-based organic molecules (cf. Mixed aromatic–aliphatic organic nanoparticles as carriers of unidentified infrared emission features by Sun Kwok and Yong Zhang) are common — planetary surfaces are a “sweet spot” for emergent complexities, as it is on planetary surfaces that energy from stellar insolation can drive chemical processes on mineral- and chemical-rich surfaces. The chemical and geological complexity of the interface between atmosphere, ocean, and land surfaces provide an opportunity for further emergent complexities to arise, and so it is on planetary surfaces that life has its best opportunity during the Stelliferous Era.
Planetary endemism does not rule out exotic forms of life not derived from water and organic macro-molecules, nor does it rule out life arising in locations other than planetary surfaces, but the nature of the Stelliferous Era and the conditions of the universe we observe points to planetary surfaces being the most common locations for life during the Stelliferous Era. Also, the “planetary” in “planetary endemism” should not be construed too narrowly: moons, planetesimals, asteroids, comets and other bodies within a planetary system are also chemically complex loci where stellar insolation can drive further chemical processes, with the possibility of emergent complexities arising in these contexts as well.
The Homeworld Effect
The homeworld effect is the perspective of intelligent agents still subject to planetary endemism. When the emergent complexities fostered by planetary endemism rise to the level of biological complexity necessary to the emergence of consciousness, there are then biological beings with a point of view, i.e., there is something that it is like to be such a biological being (to draw on Nagel’s formulation from “What is it like to be a bat?”). The first being on Earth to open its eyes and look out onto the world possessed the physical and optical perspective dictated by planetary endemism. As biological beings develop in complexity, adding cognitive faculties, and eventually giving rise to further emergent complexities, such as art, technology, and civilization, embedded in these activities and institutions is a perspective rooted in the homeworld effect.
The emergent complexities arising from the action of intelligent agents are, like the biological beings who create them, derived from the biosphere in which the intelligent agent acts. Thus civilization begins as a biocentric institution, embodying the biophilia that is the cognitive expression of biocentrism, which is, in turn, an expression of planetary endemism and the nature of the intelligent agents of planetary endemism being biological beings among other biological beings.
The homeworld effect does not rule out the possibility of exotic forms of life or unusual physical dispositions for life that would not evolve with the homeworld effect as a selection pressure, but given that planetary endemism is the most likely existential condition of biological beings during the Stelliferous Era, it is to be expected that the greater part of biological beings during the Stelliferous Era are products of planetary endemism and so will be subject to the homeworld effect.
The Overview Effect
The overview effect is a consequence of transcending planetary endemism. As biocentric civilizations increase in complexity and sophistication, deriving ever more energy from their homeworld biosphere, biocentric institutions and practices begin to be incrementally replaced by technocentric institutions and practices and civilization starts to approximate a technocentric institution. The turning point in this development is the industrial revolution.
Within two hundred years of the industrial revolution, human beings had set foot on a neighboring body of our planetary system. If a civilization experiences an industrial revolution, it will do so on the basis of already advancing scientific knowledge, and within an historically short period of time that civilization will experience the overview effect. But the unfolding of the overview effect is likely to be a long-term historical process, like the scientific revolution. Transcending planetary endemism means transcending the homeworld effect, but as the homeworld effect has shaped the biology and evolutionary psychology of biological beings subject to planetary endemism, the homeworld effect cannot be transcended as easily as the homeworld itself can be transcended.
For biological beings of planetary endemism, the overview effect occurs only once, though its impact may be gradual and spread out over an extended period of time. An intelligent agent that has evolved on the surface of its homeworld leaves that homeworld only once; every subsequent world studied, explored, or appropriated (or expropriated) by such beings will be first encountered from afar, over astronomical distances, and known to be a planet among planets. A homeworld is transcended only once, and is not initially experienced as a planet among planets, but rather as the ground of all being.
The uniqueness of the overview effect to the homeworld of biological beings of planetary endemism does not rule out further overview effects that could be experienced by a spacefaring civilization, as it eventually is able to see its planetary system, its home galaxy, and its supercluster as isolated wholes. However, following the same line of argument above — stars and their planetary systems being common during the Stelliferous Era, emergent complexities appearing on planetary surfaces characterizing planetary endemism, organisms and minds evolving under the selection pressure of the homeworld effect embodying geocentrism in their sinews and their ideas — it is to be expected that the overview effect of an intelligent agent first understanding, and then actually seeing, its homeworld as a planet among other planets, is the decisive intellectual turning point.
Bifurcation of Planetary and Spacefaring Civilizations
What I have tried to explain here is the tightly-coupled nature of these concepts, each of which implicates the others. Indeed, the four concepts outlined above — the Stelliferous Era, planetary endemism, the homeworld effect, and the overview effect — could be used as the basis of a periodization that should, within certain limits, characterize the emergence of intelligence and civilization in any universe such as ours. Peer civlizations would emerge during the Stelliferous Era subject to planetary endemism, and passing from the homeworld effect to the overview effect.
If such a civilization continues to develop, fully conscious of the overview effect, it would develop as a spacefaring civilization evolving under the (intellectual) selection pressure of the overview effect, and such a civilization would birfurcate significantly from civilizations of planetary endemism still exclusively planetary and still subject to the homeworld effect. These two circumstances represent radically different selection pressures, so that we would expect spacefaring civilizations to rapidly speciate and adaptively radiate once exposed to these novel selection pressures. I have previously called this speciation and adaptive radiation the great voluntaristic divergence.
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● The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight
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27 September 2016
Now that Elon Musk has delivered his highly anticipated talk “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species,” providing an overview of his plan for a Martian settlement sufficiently large to be self-sustaining (he mentioned a million persons moving to Mars in a fleet of 1,000 spacecraft leaving Earth en masse), the detailed analysis of this mission architecture can begin. Musk said in his talk that he thought it was a good idea that there should be many different approaches, so he clearly was not making any claim that his plan was the one and only workable mission architecture.
As both public space agencies and private space companies go beyond the talking phase and begin the design, testing, and construction of a Mars mission (or missions), these designs will embody assumptions about the best way to get to Mars with contemporary technology (there are many ways to do this). The assumptions, as usual, aren’t often explicitly discussed, because assumptions are foundational, and you have to have a community of individuals who share the same or similar assumptions even to begin designing something as complex as a human mission to Mars. Foundational assumptions may be challenged in initial “brainstorming” sessions, but once we get to sketches and calculations, the assumptions are already built into the design.
One of the most important assumptions about Mars mission design is whether that mission should be slow or fast. In this context. “slow” means following one of the well-established gravitational transfer trajectories (Hohmann Transfer Orbits) that many uncrewed missions to Mars have followed, which requires a minimum of fuel use and little or no braking upon arrival, but instead requires time.
A Hohmann transfer orbit to Mars would require many months (six months or more; cf. Flight to Mars: How Long? Along what Path?, which gives a figure of 8.5 months), the window to make the journey only occurs every 25 months, and during a long voyage such as this the crew would have to be maintained in good health, protected from radiation, and have enough space onboard to keep from going stir crazy. A Mars cycler configuration would involve travel times on the order of years. This is definitely a “slow” option, but also an option that minimizes propellant use.
The Mars Design Reference Mission (which I recently quoted in A Distinctive Signature of an Early Spacefaring Civilization), a design document produced by NASA in July 2009 (the full title is Human Exploration of Mars: Design Reference Architecture 5.0), characterizes their mission architecture as “fast” (the document repeatedly cites “fast transit trajectory”), but involves a one-way transit time of 6 to 7.5 months:
“…the flight crew would be injected on the appropriate fast-transit trajectory towards Mars. The length of this outbound transfer to Mars is dependent on the mission date, and ranges from 175 to 225 days.”
A “slow” mission to Mars such as this (which NASA calls a “fast” mission) ought to be designed about a large, rotating habitat that can simulate gravity (this has featured in films, such as The Martian). No one wants to spend six months in a “capsule.” An additional benefit of a large and slow Mars mission is that the rotating habitat sent to Mars could be maintained in Mars orbit as a Martian space station (such as I wrote about in A Martian Space Station and A Passage to Mars) and subsequent missions could add to this Martian space station.
Alternatively, instead of a large and comfortable habitat in which to travel, a slow mission to Mars might involve induced torpor in the crew (effectively, human hibernation), and while this would require far less food and water for the journey, this option, too, might be best achieved with simulated gravity. Human bodies evolved in a gravity field, and don’t do well outside that gravity field (cf. Hibernation for Long-term Manned Space Exploration by Shen Ge, which includes many links to resources on induced torpor).
A “fast” mission to Mars I will identify as anything faster that the six months or so required for a Hohmann transfer orbit. Fast journeys could be anything from a gentle ion thrust, using very little propellant and only cutting a little time off the trip, to powering half way to Mars (preferably at 1 g acceleration in order to again simulate gravity) and then decelerating for the second half of the trip. Musk’s mission design as presented in his IAC talk called for initial transfer times “as low as” 80 days (i.e., less than three months; his graphic for this section of the talk showed transit durations from 80-150 days), perhaps improving to as little as 30 days further in the future, but little detail was offered on this part of the mission architecture.
The quickest “fast” trips to Mars contemplated with contemporary technology would be about two weeks. A nuclear-powered ion engine might make the trip in three months, which is a lot better than six months, and might be considered “fast,” but Musk’s 30-80 day transit times are all designed around well-known chemical rocket technology, which makes the effort much closer to being practical in the near term. If you have enough rocket engines, big enough engines, and enough fuel, you can make the trip to Mars more quickly with chemical rockets than is usually contemplated, and that seems to be the SpaceX approach; much of the talk was taken up with concerns of propellant, fuel transfer in Earth orbit, and producing fuel on Mars.
It is important to point out that most of the technologies I have mentioned above — rotating spacecraft, induced torpor, nuclear rockets, and so on — have been the object of much study, but little practical experience. (An early version of the Nerva nuclear rocket was built and tested, but it wasn’t flown into space; cf. Secrecy and the STEM Cycle.) However, we have a pretty good grasp of the science involved in these technologies, so building actual spacecraft incorporating them is primarily an engineering challenge, not a science challenge (except in so far as there is a science of technology design and engineering application; cf. Testing Technology as a Scientific Research Program: A Practical Exercise in the Philosophy of Technology). In other words, we don’t need any scientific breakthroughs for a mission to Mars, but we need a lot of technological development and engineering solutions.
Hearing a presentation such as Elon Musk gave today is exciting, and definitely communicates that this project can be done, and even that it can be done on a grand scale. This is invigorating, and stokes what Keynes called our “animal spirits” for a voyage to Mars. If the momentum can be maintained, the development of a spacefaring civilization can be a practical reality within decades rather then centuries. Musk discussed the “forcing function” of having a settlement on Mars, and he is correct that this human outpost away from Earth would entail continual improvements in space transportation, and moreover it would extend human consciousness to include Mars as a human concern.
Once humanity begins to make itself a home on Mars, and human beings can call themselves “Martians” (perhaps even with a certain sense of pride) and adopt a genuinely Martian standpoint, humanity will be a multiplanetary species, a multiplanetary human civilization will begin to emerge, and this multiplanetary civilization will be distinct from our planetary civilization of today. Mars, in this scenario, would be a point of bifurcation, the origin of a new kind of civilization, localized in the same way that the industrial revolution can be localized to England.
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7 June 2016
There may be more justification, in the short term, for building an artificial habitat in Mars orbit rather than Earth orbit. Before I discuss the reasons for this, I will give some background on the near-term prospects for Mars missions.
The Mars Race
It is, once again, an exciting time in space exploration. After decades in the doldrums, we are on the cusp of private industry commercial space exploration. Both Blue Origin and Space X have landed rockets on their tails, just like in early science fiction films, and with increased re-usability comes lower costs. Many other technologies are in development that may further lower costs, but right now we are already seeing private space technology companies with capabilities not possessed by the space program of any nation-state. This is remarkable and unprecedented. Partly this is a result of the exponential improvements in technology in recent decades, especially computing technologies, which in turn improve the performance of other technologies. Partly this is also the result of the concentration of wealth at the top of the income pyramid. I previously mentioned this in The Social Context of SETI, where I noted Yuri Milner’s investment in Breakthrough Listen, a SETI project. Billionaires are now in a position to personally finance enterprises once the exclusive remit of nation-states. With the funding available, only the motivation is needed.
It looks increasingly like a human mission to Mars will be realized by private industry rather than by a government space program. For space exploration enthusiasts, Mars is such stuff as dreams are made on. Mars is another world almost within our grasp. For all practical purposes, we have the technology to get there, only the funding has been lacking. As technology improves, becomes cheaper, and great capital is concentrated into the hands of a few, it becomes possible to undertake what was not possible just a few years earlier. The most visible figure in this recent spate of space activity has been Elon Musk of Space X, who has been explicit about his intention to develop rockets capable of human missions to Mars. In a recently announced time table, Space X may be able to mount a Martian mission in 2024, i.e., within ten years (this announcement was made at Code Conference 2016 in Los Angeles; cf., e.g., Elon Musk Is Sending Humans To Mars In 2024 by Evan Gough, 03 June 2016).
Musk has also been explicit that his interest is in creating an ongoing settlement on Mars. NASA plans for human missions to Mars cover exploration but not settlement, and their timetable is further in the future than Musk’s. It will be interesting to see if the model of the Space Race will portend for Mars what happened on the moon — once one side got there, the other gave up trying — or whether we will see multiple human missions to Mars, some purely for scientific exploration, and others bringing settlers with a plan to stay.
Martian Extraplanetary Infrastructure
With the possibility of multiple human missions to Mars, and with a population of settlers on Mars, the need and uses for Martian extraplanetary infrastructure becomes obvious. The crucial piece of the puzzle of Martian extraplanetary infrastructure would be a Martian space station. By a Martian space station I don’t mean something like the International Space Station (ISS) now orbiting Earth, though this would be better than nothing, to be sure; I mean an enormous Gerard K. O’Neill style space habitat, such as an O’Neill cylinder, a Stanford Torus, or a Bernal sphere. Such an artificial habitat could serve a variety of functions in Mars orbit.
We have all heard that any Martian settlers would be dead within a few months’ time from suffocation and “starvation, dehydration, or incineration in an oxygen-rich atmosphere” — cf. the widely discussed MIT study An independent assessment of the technical feasibility of the Mars One mission plan – Updated analysis, by Sydney Do, Andrew Owens, Koki Ho, Samuel Schreiner, and Olivier de Weck. The MIT analysis concludes that Mars settlers would not be self-sufficient and so their survival would require continual re-supply from Earth. Part of this analysis hinges on what technologies are “existing, validated and available.” Needless to say, technologies can advance rapidly given the necessary expenditure of resources upon them. The analysis does not address how quickly innovative technologies can be brought online, and it is important to understand that the MIT report does not argue that human self-sufficiency on Mars is impossible, only that there are problems with the Mars One mission architecture.
Many of the shortcomings of the Mars One mission architecture, or the shortcomings of any other proposed mission to Mars (Mars One is the most detailed proposal to date, so it has received the most detailed criticism), could be addressed by a large, self-sustaining artificial habitat in Mars orbit. We should expect that the settlement of a sterile and hostile environment will be a difficult undertaking, but we could make this difficult undertaking much less difficult with the resources that might be needed positioned nearby, in orbit of Mars.
With large enough mirrors to capture sunlight, the interior of an artificial habitat even at the far edge of the habitable zone in our solar system would be able to concentrate sufficient sunlight for electrical power generation, growing crops, and the maintenance of comfortable conditions for residents. In orbit around Mars, an artificial habitat could provide a steady source of food produced under controlled conditions (under perfect greenhouse conditions, and far more amenable to control that any environment initially set up on the surface of Mars), before large scale food production is possible on the surface of Mars itself. The industrial infrastructure and processes necessary to maintain the lives of early Martian settlers could probably be maintained in orbit more cheaply and more efficiently than on the surface.
Some other considerations for Martian extraplanetary infrastructure include:
● Martian dirt It would be cheaper and easier to lift Martian dirt off Mars than to lift dirt off Earth in order to begin large scale agricultural production in a large artificial habitat. Having an artificial habitat in orbit around Mars would make it relatively easy to transfer significant quantities of Martian soil into Mars orbit. Using Martian soil for farming under controlled conditions, moreover, would provide valuable experience in Martian agronomy.
● Gravity A large artificial habitat in orbit around Mars could provide simulated full Earth gravity. This could be very valuable for long term settlers on Mars, who may experience health problems due to the low surface gravity on Mars. Settlers could be rotated through an artificial habitat on a regular basis. This would also be an opportunity to study how rapidly the human body could recover any lost bone mass, etc., after living in lower than Earth gravity conditions. It might also be valuable to experiment with slightly more than Earth gravity to see if this can compensate for extended periods of time in lower gravity environments. On an artificial habitat, simulated gravity can be tailored to the specific needs of the crew by spinning the habitat faster or slower.
● Way Station A Martian space station would also be a stepping stone for human missions farther along into the outer solar system. With all the resources necessary to preserve the lives of Martian settlers, such a way station could also serve to preserve the lives of deep space travelers. This would also provide an opportunity for space travelers to experience time “planetside” before and after missions into the outer solar system or beyond. The first human mission to the stars might be launched not from Earth, but from Mars orbit, or from similar habitats even more distant in the outer solar system.
Martian extraplanetary infrastructure could prove to be one of the greatest investments in space exploration ever made. We will likely have the technology to build a space elevator between the Martian surface and Mars orbit before we can build a space elevator between Earth’s surface and Earth orbit. Linking the Martian surface directly with Martian extraplanetary infrastructure will make possible economic opportunities that will not yet be available on Earth when they are available on Mars, with consequent economic growth likely integral with growth in science and technology. This will drive forward the STEM cycle more rapidly, and it will happen first on Mars.
The Martian Future
The first stage of an interplanetary civilization will be a human civilization that spans both Earth and Mars. In going to Mars, we will learn a great deal about living and working both in space and on other words. This knowledge and experience is a necessary condition of establishing the redundancy that human beings, our civilization, and the terrestrial biosphere require in order to overcome existential risks that could mean our extinction if we remain an exclusively terrestrial species.
The human future on Mars, then, is an essential element in expanding human experience so that we are not indefinitely subject to the planetary constraints native to planetary endemism. We need to experience the Martian standpoint in order to develop both as a species and as a civilization, and then to go beyond Mars.
After interplanetary civilization will come interstellar civilization, and we will need to begin with the experience of Mars, our planetary neighbor, in order to take the next step on to more distant worlds. The way to ensure the initial success and eventual expansion of an interplanetary civilization within our planetary system is through the construction of an artificial habitat in Mars orbit. One such artificial habitat could mean the difference between the life and death of the earliest settlers, and, in the long term, the success of these earliest settlers on another world will mean the difference between life and death for our civilization.
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10 April 2016
What happens when you take a being whose mind was shaped by hunting and gathering in Africa over the past five million years or so, dress that individual in a spacesuit, and put that individual into a spaceship, sending them beyond the planet from which they evolved? What happens to hunter-gatherers in outer space?
As I pointed out in The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung, the human environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) shapes a worldview based on the standpoint of a planetary surface. Moreover, because the hunter-gatherer lives (or dies) by his attentiveness to his immediate environment, his immediate experience of leaving his planet of origin will make a disproportionate impact upon him. Whereas the hunter-gatherer may intellectually prepare himself, and may know on an intellectual level what to expect, the actual first person experience of leaving his planet of origin and seeing it whole — what Frank Drake calls the overview effect — may have an immediate and transformative impact.
The impact of the overview effect would force the hunter-gatherer to re-examine a number of ideas previously unquestioned, but his reactions, his instincts, would, for the time being, remain untouched. Of course, for a hunter-gatherer to have experienced the overview effect, he will have had to have achieved at least an orbital standpoint, and to achieve an orbital standpoint requires that the hunter-gatherer will have passed through a period of technological development that takes place over a civilizational scale of time — far longer than the scale of time of the individual life, but far shorter than the scale of biological time that could have modified the evolutionary psychology of the hunter-gatherer.
In the particular case of human beings, this period of technological development meant about ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, followed by a short burst of industrialized civilization that made the achievement of an orbital standpoint possible. While it is obvious that the short period of industrialized civilization will have left almost no trace of influence on human behavior, it is possible that the ten thousand years of acculturation to agricultural civilization (and the coevolution with a tightly-coupled cohort of species, as entailed by the biological conception of civilization) did leave some kind of imprint on the human psyche. Thus we might also inquire into the fate of agriculturalists in outer space, and how this might differ from the fate of hunter-gatherers in outer space. It is at least arguable that our interest in finding another planet to inhabit, or even terraforming other planets in our planetary system, is a function of our development of agricultural instincts, which are stronger in some than in others. Some individuals feel a very close connection to the soil, and have a special relationship to farming and food to be had by farming. However, the argument could be made equally well that our search for an “Earth twin” is a function of the homeworld effect more than a specifically agricultural outlook.
The principles to which I am appealing can be extrapolated, and we might consider what could happen in the event of a civilization with a very different history and its relationship to spacefaring, and how it makes the transition to a spacefaring civilization if that civilization is going to survival for cosmologically significant periods of time. Recently in Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilizations: The Preemption That Didn’t Happen I suggested that terrestrial civilization might have been preempted in the second half of the twentieth century by the sudden emergence of a spacefaring civilization, though this did not in fact happen. Late-adopter spacefaring civilizations might indefinitely postpone the threshold presented by spacefaring, which is difficult, dangerous, and expensive — but also an intellectual challenge, and therefore a stimulus. It is entirely conceivable that, on a planet that remains habitable for a cosmologically significant period of time, that an intelligent species might choose to forgo the challenge and the stimulus of a spacefaring breakout from their homeworld, continuing to embody the homeworld effect even after the means to transcend the homeworld effect are available. What would the consequences be for civilization in this case?
In The Waiting Gambit I discussed the rationalizations and justifications employed to make excuses for waiting for the right moment to initiate a new undertaking, and especially waiting until conditions are “right” for making the transition from a planetary civilization to a spacefaring civilization. These justifications are typically formulated in moral terms, e.g., that we must “get things right” on Earth first before we can make the transition to spacefaring civilization, or, more insidiously, that we don’t deserve to become a spacefaring civlization (as though the Earth deserves to suffer from our presence for a few more million years). It would be easy to dismiss the waiting gambit as a relatively harmless cognitive bias favoring the status quo (a special case of status quo bias), except that there are real biological and civilizational consequences to waiting without limit.
The most obvious consequence of playing along with the waiting gambit is that civilization, or even the whole of humanity, might be wiped out on Earth before we ever achieve the promised moment when we can legitimately expand beyond Earth. This is the existential risk of the waiting gambit as a strategy for human history. But even if we could be assured of the survival of humanity on Earth for the foreseeable future (although no such assurance could be given that was not purely illusory), the waiting gambit still has profound consequences. In so far as civilization is a process of domestication (and in Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation I suggested a biological conception of civilization based on a cohort of co-evolving species, which I elaborated in The Biological Conception of Civilization), the longer that human beings live in a planetary-bound, biocentric civilization the more domesticated we become. In other words, we are changed by remaining on Earth in the circumstances of civilization, because civilization itself is selective.
If the time between the advent of civilization and the advent of spacefaring is too short to be selective, then the hunter-gatherer mind is maintained because the genome on which this mind supervenes is essentially unchanged. But if the elapsed time between the advent of civilization and the advent of spacefaring is sufficiently extended so that civilizational selection of the intelligent species takes place, the mind is changed along with the genome upon which it supervenes. At some point, neither known nor knowable today, we will have self-selected ourselves (although not knowingly) for settled planetary endemism and we will lose the capacity to live as nomadic hunter-gatherers. This is an here-to-fore unrecognized consequence of long-lived planetary civilizations. If, on the other hand, human beings do make the transition to spacefaring civilization while retaining the evolutionary psychology of hunter-gatherers, the temporary phase of settled civilization (ten thousand years, more or less) will be seen as a temporary aberration, during which historical period the bulk of humanity lived in circumstances greatly at variance with the human EEA.
One aspect of the homeworld effect is acculturation to planetary endemism. This acculturation to planetary endemism helps to explain the waiting gambit and status quo bias, and if perpetuated it would explain the possibility of an advanced technological civilization that remains endemic to a single planet, attaining a full transition from biocentric to technocentric civilization without however making the transition to spacefaring civilization. This would present a radical break from the past, and thus presents us with the difficulty of conceiving a radically different human way of life — a way of life radically disconnected from the biocentric paradigm — but this is a radical difference from the biocentric paradigm that would in turn be radically different from a nomadic civilization with the entirety of the universe in which to roam. In both cases, traces of the biocentric paradigm are preserved, but different traces in each case. The planetary civilization would preserve continuity with the planet and thus a robust continuity with the homeworld effect; a spacefaring nomadic civilization would preserve continuity with the evolutionary psychology of our long hunter-gatherer past. A successor species to humanity, adapted to life in space, and choosing to live in space rather than upon planetary surfaces, would experience the overview effect exclusively, the overview effect supplanting the homeworld effect, and the homeworld effect might experience historical effacement, disappearing from human (or, rather, post-human) experience altogether.
If nomads were to go into space — that is to say, hunter-gatherers in outer space — they probably wouldn’t speak of “settling” a planet, because they would not assume that they would adopt a planetary mode of life for the sake of settling in one place. Perhaps they would speak of the “pastoralization” of a world (cf. Pastoralization, The Argument for Pastoralization, and The Pastoralist Challenge to Agriculturalism), or they might use some other term. The particular term doesn’t really matter, but the concept that the term is used to indicate does matter. Nomadic peoples have very different conceptions of private property, governmental institutions, social hierarchy, soteriology, and eschatology than do settled peoples; the transplantation (note the agricultural language here) of nomadic and settled conceptions to a spacefaring civilization would yield fascinating differences, and the universe is large enough for the embodiment of both conceptions in concrete institutions of spacefaring civilization — whereas Earth alone is not large enough.
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31 March 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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20 January 2016
Our first view of Earth was from its surface; every other planet human beings eventually visit will be first perceived by a human being at a great distance, then from orbit, and last of all from its surface. We will descend from orbit to visit a new world, rather than, as on Earth, emerging from the surface of that world and, only later, much later, seeing it from orbit, and then as a pale blue dot, from a great distance.
With our homeworld, the effect of looking up from the surface of our planet precedes the overview effect; with every other world, the overview effect precedes the surface standpoint. We might call this the homeworld effect, which is a consequence of what I now call planetary endemism (and which, when I was first exploring the concept, I called planetary constraint). We have already initiated this process when human beings visited the moon, and for the first time in human history descended to a new world, never before visited by human beings. With this first tentative experience of spacefaring, humanity knows one world from its surface (Earth) and one world from above (the moon). Every subsequent planetary visit will increase the relative proportion of the overview effect in contradistinction to the homeworld effect.
In the fullness of time, our normative assumptions about originating on a plant and leaving it by ascending in to orbit will be displaced by a “new normal” of approaching worlds from a great distance, worlds perhaps first perceived as a pale blue dot, and then only later descending to familiarize ourselves with surface features. If we endure for a period of time sufficient for further human evolution under the selection pressure of spacefaring civilization, this new normal will eventually replace the instincts formed in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) when humanity as a species branched off from other primates. The EEA of our successor species will be spacefaring civilization and the many worlds to which we travel, and this experience will shape our minds as well, producing an evolutionary psychology adapted not to survival on the surface of a planet, but to survival on any planet whatever, or no planet at all.
The Copernican principle is the first hint we have of the mind of a species adapted to spacefaring. It is a characteristic of Copernicanism to call the perspective borne of planetary endemism, the homeworld effect, into question. We have learned that the Copernican principle continually unfolds, always offering more comprehensive perspectives that place humanity and our world in a context that subsumes our previous perspective. Similarly, the overview effect will unfold over the development of spacefaring civilization that takes human beings progressively farther into space, providing ever more distant overviews of our world, until that world becomes lost among countless other worlds.
In my Centauri Dreams post The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight, I discussed the possibility of further overview effects resulting from attaining ever more distant perspectives on our cosmic home — thus attaining an ever more rigorous Copernican perspective. For example, although it is far beyond contemporary technology, it is possible to imagine we might someday have the ability to go so far outside the Milky Way that we could see our own galaxy in overview, and point out the location of the sun in the Orion Spur of the Milky Way.
There is, however, another sense in which additional overview effects may manifest themselves in human experience, and this would be due less to greater technical abilities that would allow for further first person human perspectives on our homeworld and on our universe, and rather due more to cumulative human experience in space as a spacefaring civilization. With accumulated experience comes “know how,” expertise, practical skill, and intuitive mastery — perhaps what might be thought of as the physical equivalent of acculturation.
We achieve this physical acculturation to the world through our bodies, and we express it through a steadily improving facility in accomplishing practical tasks. One such practical task is the ability to estimate sizes, distances, and movements of other bodies in relation to our own body. An astronaut floating in space in orbit around a planet or a moon (i.e., on a spacewalk) would naturally (i.e., intuitively) compare himself as a body floating in space with the planet or moon, also a body floating in space. Frank White has pointed out to me that, in interviews with astronauts, the astronauts themselves have noted the difference between being inside a spacecraft and being outside on a spacewalk, when one is essentially a satellite of Earth, on a par with other satellites.
The human body is an imperfectly uniform, imperfectly “standard” standard ruler that we use to judge the comparative sizes of the objects around us. Despite its imperfection as a measuring instrument, the human body has the advantage of being more intimately familiar to us than any other measuring device, which makes it possible to achieve a visceral understanding of quantities measured in comparison to our own body. At first perceptions of comparative sizes of bodies in space would be highly inaccurate and subject to optical illusions and cognitive biases, but with time and accumulated experience an astronaut would develop a more-or-less accurate “feel” for the size of the planetary body about which he is orbiting. With accumulated experience one would gain an ability to judge distance in space by eye, estimate how rapidly one was orbiting the celestial body in question, and perhaps even familiarize oneself with minute differences in microgravity environments, perceptible only on an intuitive level below the threshold of explicit consciousness — like the reflexes one acquires in learning how to ride a bicycle.
This idea came to me recently as I was reading a NASA article about Saturn, Saturn the Mighty, and I was struck by the opening sentences:
“It is easy to forget just how large Saturn is, at around 10 times the diameter of Earth. And with a diameter of about 72,400 miles (116,500 kilometers), the planet simply dwarfs its retinue of moons.”
How large is Saturn? We can approach the question scientifically and familiarize ourselves with the facts of matter, expressed quantitatively, and we learn that Saturn has an equatorial radius of 60,268 ± 4 km (or 9.4492 Earths), a polar radius of 54,364 ± 10 km (or 8.5521 Earths), a flattening of 0.09796 ± 0.00018, a surface area of 4.27 × 1010 km2 (or 83.703 Earths), a volume of 8.2713 × 1014 km3 (or 763.59 Earths), and a mass of 5.6836 × 1026 kg (or 95.159 Earths) — all figures that I have taken from the Wikipedia entry on Saturn. We could follow up on this scientific knowledge by refining our measurements and by going more deeply in to planetary science, and this gives us a certain kind of knowledge of how large Saturn is.
Notice that the figures I have taken from Wikipedia for the size of Saturn notes Earth equivalents where relevant: this points to another way of “knowing” how large Saturn is: by way of comparative concepts, in contradistinction to quantitative concepts. When I read the sentence quoted above about Saturn I instantly imagined an astronaut floating above Saturn who had also floated above the Earth, feeling on a visceral level the enormous size of the planet below. In the same way, an astronaut floating above the moon or Mars would feel the smallness of both in comparison to Earth. This is significant because the comparative judgement is exactly what a photograph does not communicate. A picture of the Earth as “blue marble” may be presented to us in the same size format as a picture of Mars or Saturn, but the immediate experience of seeing these planets from orbit would be perceived very differently by an orbiting astronaut because the human body always has itself to compare to its ambient environment.
This is kind of experience could only come about once a spacefaring civilization had developed to the point that individuals could acquire diverse experiences of sufficient duration to build up a background knowledge that is distinct from the initial “Aha!” moment of first experiencing a new perspective, so one might think of the example I have given above as a “long term” overview effect, in contradistinction to the immediate impact of the overview effect for those who see Earth from orbit for the first time.
The overview effect over the longue durée, then, will continually transform our perceptions both by progressively greater overviews resulting from greater distances, and by cumulative experience as a spacefaring species that becomes accustomed to viewing worlds from an overview, and immediately grasps the salient features of worlds seen first from without and from above. In transforming our perceptions, our minds will also be transformed, and new forms of consciousness will become possible. This alone ought to be reason enough to justify human spaceflight.
The possibility of new forms of consciousness unprecedented in the history of terrestrial life poses an interesting question: suppose a species — for the sake of simplicity, let us say that this species is us, i.e., humanity — achieves forms of consciousness through the overview effect cultivated in the way I have described here, and that these forms of consciousness are unattainable prior to the broad and deep experience of the overview effect that would characterize a spacefaring civilization. Suppose also, for the sake of the argument, that the species that attains these forms of consciousness is sufficiently biologically continuous that there has been no speciation in the biological sense. There would be a gulf between earlier and later iterations of the same species, but could we call this gulf speciation? Another way to pose this question is to ask whether there can be cognitive speciation. Can a species at least partly defined in terms of its cognitive functions be said to speciate on a cognitive level, even when no strictly biological speciation has taken place?
I will not attempt to answer this question at present — I consider the question entirely open — but I would like to suggest that the idea of cognitive speciation, i.e., a form of speciation unique to conscious beings, is deserving of further inquiry, and should be of special interest to the field of cognitive astrobiology.
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The Overview Effect
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13 September 2015
In my recent presentation at Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress 2015, “What kind of civilizations build starships?” I recurred on several occasions to archaeology in the course of my exposition. More and more I have been drawing on concepts from archaeology, as it is in archaeology that we find an extant science that has come close to formulating a science of civilization. There are, at least, explicitly formulated theories of civilization in archaeology, which go much further than the unsystematic observations of historians about civilization.
In my talk I drew on archaeological definitions of civilization. Today I want to draw on another archaeological concept, the concept of an archaeological horizon, which is a concept employed pervasively throughout archaeology (as in “dark earth horizon,” for example), and, more specifically, I want to exapt the concept of an archaeological horizon for an exposition of the development of spacefaring civilization.
The term “horizon” is used pervasively in archaeology, though its usage is rarely explicitly defined. Here is an explicit definition from the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology:
horizon: Any artifact, art style, or other cultural trait that has extensive geographical distribution but a limited time span. The term, in anthropology, refers to the spread of certain levels of cultural development and, in geology, the layers of natural features in a region; in soil science, a horizon is a layer formed in a soil profile by soil-forming processes. The main meaning, however, refers to a phase, characterized by a particular artifact or artistic style that is introduced to a wide area and that may cross cultural boundaries. Provided that these “horizon markers” were diffused rapidly and remained in use for only a short time, the local regional cultures in which they occur will be roughly contemporary. The term is less commonly used now that chronometric dating techniques allow accurate local chronologies to be built. Examples of art styles that fulfill these conditions are called a horizon style-such as Tiahuanaco or Chavin. (syn. horizon style)
Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D., Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology, Springer, 2000.
And, much more briefly, here is another…
“A horizon, more like a popular fashion than a culture, can be defined by a single artifact type or cluster of artifact types that spreads suddenly over a very wide geographic area.”
David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 131.
More helpful is the discussion of horizons and traditions in Deetz’s Invitation to Archaeology. Deetz begins with a characterization of a horizon:
“The concept of an archaeological horizon is that of a set of traits which links a number of cultures over a broad area in a short time. In the Peruvian area a wide- spread art and architectural style, known as Chavin, appears at about 800 B.C. It is characterized by feline and condor motifs in the decoration of ceramics and architectural stone- work. Plotting the space-time distribution of sites containing Chavin type objects makes it clear that the spread of the ideas responsible for the style was rapid; the slope of the space-time line is quite shallow. This manifestation is known as the Chavin Horizon.”
James Deetz, Invitation to Archaeology, New York: The Natural History Press, 1967, p. 59
Contrasting horizon with tradition Deetz writes:
“…one might say that horizons are thin traditions of wide distribution, or that traditions are limited horizons of long duration. This may seem as ridiculous as the idea of the world’s largest midget, or smallest giant, but it makes and underscores the point that there should be no ﬁxed dimensions for either horizon or tradition. In fact, most space-time patterns formed by archaeological materials are neither in the true sense, since they are distributed in both dimensions to a considerable extent. The concepts of horizon and tradition are usually reserved for clear instances of extreme dimensions of time or space, usually if not always linking several cultures, and of use at the broadest level of archaeological integration.”
James Deetz, Invitation to Archaeology, New York: The Natural History Press, 1967, p. 61
As an aside, Deetz’s formulation of a tradition can be used to illuminate a definition of civilization found in the same Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology quoted above:
civilization: Complex sociopolitical form defined by the institution of the state and the existence of a distinctive great tradition.
Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D., Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology, Springer, 2000, p. 119.
When I was preparing my talk on civilization I was searching for explicit definitions of civilizations, and this is one that I considered but didn’t use as it was not quite right for my purposes. But informed by Deetz’s spatiotemporal definition of a tradition, one might get close to a quantitative conception of civilization with the “great tradition” defined in spatiotemporal terms.
An archaeological horizon could be formulated in terms of the presence of a class of artifacts, or in terms of the absence of a class of artifacts “An archaeological horizon can be understood as a break in contexts formed in the Harris matrix, which denotes a change in epoch on a given site by delineation in time of finds found within contexts.” (Wikipedia) In other words, a horizon can be formulated as the beginning or the end of some class of artifacts. One might, then, define a horizon in the most general terms possible as a particular structure of material artifacts in time. While archaeologists work with artifacts of the past, often long out of use (perhaps so long out of use that their function is difficult to identify), there is no reason we cannot extrapolate horizons to artifacts in contemporary use, or even not yet in use.
With spacefaring civilization to date we are working with very little information, so much of the horizon structure of spacefaring civilization is conjectural. If, instead, we sought to explicate the horizon structure of scientific civilization, which has been in existence much longer than spacefaring civilization (which has not even yet fully attained its first horizon), there is much more empirical data at our command. The horizons of scientific civilization are marked by artifacts — scientific instruments — but more especially by epistemic horizons. When sciences or bodies of scientific knowledge became commonplace, we have an epistemic horizon. When Newton brought to maturity the astronomical, cosmological, and physics developments of the century or more preceding his work, an epistemic horizon we call The Enlightenment was the result. Such examples could be multiplied.
The useful aspect of the concept of a horizon is that it places less emphasis upon “firsts,” which can be outliers, and instead is concerned with when an artifact becomes common. In other contexts I have formulated this in terms of demographic significance, but since the term archaeological horizon is already established in its usage, it may be better to employ “horizon.” From this perspective, the celebrated firsts of what is sometimes deceptively called “the conquest of space,” are of little importance. What counts, from the perspective of a horizon, is, “…a single artifact type or cluster of artifact types that spreads suddenly over a very wide geographic area.” For the purposes of spacefaring civilization we can substitute “wide spatial distribution” for “wide geographic area.”
Our moonshots and even our multiple probes to other planets in our solar system were outliers. They do not define a horizon of space exploration. It is arguable that now, today, with inexpensive CubeSats becoming commonplace, that we are reaching a horizon for satellite technology. This is primarily a function of cost. A CubeSat is now within reach of even small budgets. When human spaceflight eventually reaches a cost at which space travel can be inexpensive and routine, then we may achieve a human spaceflight horizon, initially to low Earth orbit (LEO). Further horizons will follow as technology improve and costs diminish.
These further horizons can be defined in terms of the gravitational thresholds that technology allows us to overcome. Previously in The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight (as well as in other earlier posts) I formulated six stages of spacefaring civilization, as follows:
Stage O spacefaring civilizations, or a planet-bound civilizations, have no capacity for spaceflight. (Pre-Sputnik civilization)
Stage I spacefaring civilizations have the kind of minimal capacity that we now possess to loft satellites and human beings into orbit, and even to visit nearby heavenly bodies such as the moon. (Sputnik and after)
Stage II spacefaring civilizations might be defined as those that have established a permanent, self-sustaining presence off the surface of the world of a given civilization’s biological origin. This could also be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-planetary travel. This is the minimal level of civilization to assure long-term survivability.
Stage III spacefaring civilizations would have achieved practical, durable, and routine interstellar travel.
Stage IV spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-galactic travel.
Stage V spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine travel in the multiverse, i.e., beyond the known universe defined by the consequences of the big bang.
While I formulated these stages of spacefaring civilizations in terms of practical, durable, and routine space travel, I see now that the way to approach these would be to identify each as a horizon of spacefaring civilization.
As noted above in relation to (relatively) cheap CubeSats, a spacefaring horizon may be achieved for automated probes before it is achieved for human beings; we are on the cusp of a satellite spacefaring horizon, when our artifacts achieve wide spatial distribution over a relatively short period of time. If this satellite spacefaring horizon is followed by a human LEO spacefaring horizon (Stage II above), cheap access to Earth orbit for human beings will open the possibility of the next wave, which would presumably be a planetary probe spacefaring horizon, followed by a human planetary spacefaring horizon (Stage III above). The expansion of terrestrial civilization into extraterrestrial space, then, may follow a pattern of an automated spacefaring horizon followed by a human spacefaring horizon.
I think it would also be useful to distinguish between initial horizons (when an artifact appears) and terminal horizons, when an artifact disappears. Perhaps archaeologists already do this, although I didn’t find any mention of such a distinction in any of the books I’ve recently skimmed, looking for discussions of horizons. Just as the emergence of a civilization would be attended by a sequence of initial horizons, the extinction of a civilization would be attended by a sequence of terminal horizons.
The extinction of a spacefaring civilization would involve the reverse sequence of terminal horizons (counting back from Stage V to Stage 0) as the spatial scope of a civilization diminished from spanning the multiverse to being represented only on a planet (not necessarily the planet on which such a civilization originated), or possibly several planets. This, in turn, suggests the interesting possibility of a multiplanetary civilization returned again to the severe limitations of planetary constraints, technically still a multiplanetary species, perhaps distributed across several star systems, but no longer an interstellar civilization in so far as they no longer interact over interstellar distances. This suggests a further distinction to be made between the interstellar presence of a species and the interstellar interaction of a species.
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6 September 2015
The events of Starship Congress 2015 at Drexel University in Philadelphia have now wrapped up. September 4th and 5th were busy days full of attending sessions and interactions with other participants. After the first day of events I gave a partial rundown on events on Paul Carr’s The Unseen Podcast in Episode 22: Report from Starship Congress. I have not yet had time write up my experiences of the congress in detail. I also did not have time to take in any of the historic sights of the city, though the weather in Philadelphia has been quite nice.
The organizers of Starship Congress — primarily Andreas Tziolas and Mike Mongo of Icarus Interstellar, but of course many others contributed to the effort — had chosen Drexel University as the venue for Starship Congress 2015 because the university hosts an active student chapter of Icarus Interstellar. The organizers emphasized that they hoped to build on the student participation in the previous Starship Congress in 2013 (cf. Day 2, Day 3, and Day 4), and this proved to be a wise decision. Student engagement was impressive. The students not only brought energy and enthusiasm, they also showcased considerable ingenuity and hard work in their presentations of their projects.
On the afternoon of the second day of the event I gave my presentation, “What kind of civilizations build starships?” (Most of the conference was streamed live on Youtube, and you can watch the entirety of my presentation there.) The organizers had generously allowed me 45 minutes to speak, so I had time to develop some points in detail. Over the past few years, and in other presentations, I have emphasized that we have no science of civilization. I took this point further in this presentation in attempting to show how discussion of civilization to date has been in terms of folk concepts, and suggested ways in which the study of civilization might be developed employing fully scientific concepts.
I drew on the work of Carnap and Hempel, so I was employing what might be characterized as a rather conservative philosophy of science, going back to the logical empiricism of the mid-twentieth century. This approach to the science of civilization might well be pursued with more recent resources in the philosophy of science, but I strongly feel the need to try to start with a blank slate, as it were, and to re-think civilization from the ground up from the perspective of systematically articulating concepts of civilization that can transform the study of civilization into a rigorous science.
Because of my preparations for my presentation and the congress I have not been posting much here. I hope to write more on Starship Congress 2015, and some of the ideas I encountered will eventually find themselves into further posts.
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21 November 2013
When Frank Drake first formulated the eponymously-named Drake equation the number of planetary systems in the universe (the second term in the Drake equation, fp) was an unknown among other unknowns. Now we are rapidly approaching a scientifically-based quantification of this once unknown number. We now know that planetary systems are common, and moreover that planetary systems with smallish, rocky planets in the habitable zones of stars are relatively common. (Cf., e.g., Earth-Like Worlds “Very Common”)
As soon as we reached a level of technological and scientific expertise that made the search for exoplanets practical, we began to find them. The most recent exoplanet discoveries, and the recent announcement that planets and planetary system are common, are primarily due to the NASA Kepler mission. According to the NASA website, the Kepler mission was…
“…specifically designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover dozens of Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets.”
In this, the Kepler mission has been wildly successful. But in order to get to the point at which our civilization could conceive, design, build, and operate the Kepler mission we had to pass through thousands of years of development, and before our civilization developed to its current state of technological prowess, it took terrestrial biology billions of years of development to arrive at organisms capable of creating a civilization that could develop to this level.
Contrast the experience of Kepler’s exoplanet search with the experience of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. What did not happen as soon as we began searching for SETI signals? We did not immediately begin hearing a whole range of intelligent extraterrestrial signals, which would have been a result parallel to the immediate successes of the exoplanet search (immediate, that is, in the technological zone of proximal development). Both Kepler and SETI are searches of the sky. The Kepler mission gave nearly immediate results; Frank Drake conducted the first SETI study in 1960. Drake found only an eerie silence, and ever since we have only heard an eerie silence. Once the technological threshold of exoplanet search was reached, the search immediately discovered its object, but once the technological threshold of SETI was reached, the search revealed nothing.
Please understand that, in making this observation, I am in no sense criticizing SETI efforts; I am not saying that SETI is a waste of effort, or a waste of money; I am not saying that SETI is wrongheaded or that it is not a science. On the contrary, I think SETI is interesting and important, and that includes the fact that SETI has found only an eerie silence — this is in itself important and interesting. We have discovered radio silence, except for natural sources. This tells us something about the universe. If there were a truly predatory peer civilization in our region of the Milky Way, it would be expected that they would go to the trouble to broadcast their presence to the universe, in hope of luring unsuspecting peer civilizations. Like Odysseus having himself strapped to the mast of his ship so that he could hear the song of the Sirens while his crew rowed on oblivious, their ears stopped with wax, we would have to listen to such signals restraining ourselves from rushing toward that fatal lure.
What we now know, as a result of SETI’s discovery of the eerie silence, is that METI (messaging extraterrestrial intelligence) beacons are not common. If METI beacons were common in the Milky Way, we would have heard them by now. There may yet be METI beacons, but they are not the first thing that you hear when you begin a SETI program (unlike looking for exoplanets and finding them as soon as you have the capability of looking). If METI beacons exist, they are rare and difficult to find. I think we can go further than this, and assert with some degree of confidence that there is no alien “super-civilization” in our galactic neighborhood constructing vast mega-engineering projects and pumping out high-power EM spectrum emissions that would be easily detectable by any technological civilization that suddenly had the idea to begin listening for such signals.
I wrote above that SETI and exoplanet searches are sensitive to a technological threshold. We passed the SETI threshold in the 1960s, and we have passed the exoplanet search threshold in the first decade of the twenty-first century. There is a further technological threshold, which is also an economic threshold — the ability to detect the unintentional EM spectrum radiation “leakage” from technological civilizations that have not had the interest or the resources to establish a METI beacon, but which, like us, are radiating EM spectrum signals as an epiphenomenal expression of our industrial-technological civilization. I say that this is also an economic threshold, as James Benford and colleagues have taken pains to point out the expense associated with establishing a METI beacon. (This is something I discussed in my Centauri Dreams post SETI, METI, and Existential Risk; James Benford responded on Centauri Dreams with James Benford: Comments on METI; my post on Centauri Dreams, along with responses from Benford and from David Brin, received quite a few comments, so if the reader is interested, it is worthwhile to follow the links and read the ensuing discussion.)
If METI is “shouting to the galaxy” (as James Benford put it), then the unintentional leakage of EM spectrum radiation of industrial-technological civilization is not shouting to the galaxy but rather whispering to the cosmos, and in order to be able to hear a whisper we must listen intently — holding our breath and putting a hand to our ear. Whether or not we choose to listen intently for whispers from the cosmos, we have not yet reached the developmental stage of civilization in which this is practical, though we seem to be moving in that direction. If we should continue the trajectory of our technological development — which, as I see it, entails both increasing automation and routine travel between Earth and space — such an effort will be within our grasp within the coming century.
Advanced industrial-technological civilizations will, by definition, know much more than we know. Their science will be commensurate with their technology and their engineering, since their civilization, if it is an industrial-technological peer civilization (and in so far as industrial-technological civilization is defined by the STEM cycle, which I believe to be the case), will experience the advance of science joined inseparably to the advance of technology and engineering. What would they do with this epistemic advantage? Such an epistemic advantage presents the possibility of SETI and METI asymmetry. We have an asymmetrical advantage over civilizations at an earlier stage of development, as older industrial-technological civilizations would have an asymmetrical advantage over us, with the ability to find us while concealing themselves.
The developmental direction of industrial-technological civilization as defined by the STEM cycle means that any advanced industrial-technological civilization will be “backward compatible” with earlier forms of technological communication. We might not (yet) be able to build a quantum entanglement transmitter in order to communicate instantaneously over cosmic distances (even though we can conceive the possibility), but an advanced peer civilization will be able to listen for our EM spectrum radiation leakage, in the same way that we today could continue to look for signs of ETI compatible with earlier stages of industrial-technological civilization. Karl Friedrich Gauss suggested geometrical shapes laid out in wheat in the wastes of Siberia to get the attention of extraterrestrials, while Joseph von Littrow suggested trenches filled with burning oil in the Sahara. Interesting in this context, although our civilization had the technology to pursue these methods, no one undertook them on a large scale.
When, in the future, we have the ability to image the surface of exoplanets with large extraterrestrial telescopes, we could look for such attempted signals within the capability of less developed civilizations to produce, such as those suggested by Gauss and Littrow. But when it comes to advanced peer civilizations, we don’t have the knowledge to know what to look for. The more advanced the civilization, the farther it lies beyond our civilizational zone of proximal development (ZPD), but the more advanced a civilization the earlier it would have to have its origins in the history of the universe, and at some point in the development of the universe (going backward in time to the origins of the universe) it would not be possible for an industrial-technological civilization to emerge because if we go far enough back in time, the elements necessary to an industrial-technological civilization do not yet exist. So there seems to be a window of development in the history of the universe for the emergence of industrial-technological civilizations. This strikes me as a non-anthropocentric way of expressing one formulation of the anthropic cosmological principle (and an idea worth developing further, since I have been searching for a formulation of the anthropic cosmological principle worthy of the name).
In an optimistic assessment of our place in the universe, we could hope that any substantially more advanced civilization could serve as the “more knowledgeable other” (MKO) that would facilitate our progress through the civilizational zone of proximal development.
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18 September 2013
In my previous post on The Epistemic Overview Effect I now realize that I failed to make an obvious connection with some earlier threads of my thought. Specifically, I failed to see or to develop the connection between the overview effect and what some developmental psychologists call “perspective taking.”
In The Hierarchy of Perspective Taking I discussed the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lev Vygotsky. In this post I attempted to show how perspective taking transcends the life of the individual and applies as well to entire civilizations — which distinction might be called that between ontogenetic perspective taking and phylogenetic perspective taking. In this post I wrote:
“Piagetian cognitive development in terms of perspective taking can easily be extended throughout the human lifespan (and beyond) by the observation that there are always new perspectives to take. As civilization develops and grows, becoming ever more comprehensive as it does so, the human beings who constitute this civilization are forced to formulate always more comprehensive conceptions in order to take the measure of the world being progressively revealed to us. Each new idea that takes the measure of the world at a greater order of magnitude presents the possibility of a new perspective on the world, and therefore the possibility of a new achievement in terms of perspective taking.”
Re-reading this passage in light of the overview effect — the view of the earth entire experienced by astronauts and cosmonauts, as well as the change in perspective that a few of these observers have had as a result of seeing the earth whole with their own eyes — I would now add to my exposition of a hierarchy of perspective taking that the expansion and extension of civilization not only produces new ideas and conceptions, but also new experiences. Technology makes it possible to experience aspects of the world directly that were impossible to experience prior to the advent of industrial-technological civilization.
The overview effect is a paradigmatic case of technologically-facilitated experience. While I could say that those who have, so far, been fortunate enough to experience the overview effect, are “forced” as a result of their experience to formulate new conceptions of the world as a consequence of their experience (as I used this idiom of being “forced” previously), it would be better to say as I put it more recently in The Epistemic Overview Effect that the experience is a trigger that inspires an effort to formulate a conception of the world adequate to the experience.
While the overview effect itself is likely a powerful experience, merely the idea that others are experiencing an overview can itself be a powerful experience. This involves the most fundamental of all ethical thought experiments: the attempt to place ourselves in the position of the other, and so to experience the otherness of the other and the otherness of ourselves. When we believe that we have understood the other’s point of view, it is not unusual to say, “I can see your perspective.”
Perspective taking in the form of taking the perspective of the other is a key achievement in the development of an ethical perspective of the individual life. Some never achieve this level of insight, and some come to an adequate appreciation of the perspective of the other only late in life.
In the Swedish film My Life as a Dog there is an beautiful evocation of such ethical perspective taking in the life of a young boy, by way of the theme of the Russian space dog Laika, which recurs as a motif to which the young protagonist returns time and again as an example of perspective. Here are some of the voiceovers from the protagonist’s narration:
“And what about Laika, the space dog? They put her in the Sputnik and sent her into space. They attached wires to her heart and brain to see how she felt. I don’t think she felt too good. She spun around up there for five months until her doggy bag was empty. She starved to death. It’s important to have something like that to compare things to.”
“It’s strange how I can’t stop thinking about Laika. People shouldn’t think so much. ‘Time heals all wounds,’ Mrs. Arvidsson says. Mrs. Arvidsson says some wise things. You have to try to forget.”
“…I’ve been kinda lucky. I mean, compared to others. You have to compare, so you can get a little distance from things. Like Laika. She really must have seen things in perspective.”
Laika did indeed see things in perspective, and may well have experienced the overview effect before any human being. The young boy in My Life as a Dog understands this, intuiting the Laika’s perspective, and is able to better judge his own station in life by comparing his situation to that of Laika.
As long as our industrial-technological civilization continues in its development (i.e., as long as it does not succumb to the existential risks of flawed realization or permanent stagnation), we individuals contextualized within this civilization can continue our development, and this development will be facilitated by the technologies produced by this civilization that will give us new experiences, and these new experiences will afford us with new perspectives on the world.
Recently there have been many new stories about Voyager-1 being the first human artifact to leave the solar system (cf. Voyager probe ‘leaves Solar System’ by Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent, BBC News). Meditations upon the achievement of Voyager-1 have taken the form of a perspective taking on our solar system entire. We are inspired to contemplate our perspective on the world by imaginatively taking the point of view of Voyager-1. Some day, a human being will travel as far or farther than Voyager-1, and will look back and see our sun at a distance, as we once looked back and saw the earth for the first time at a distance.
Our technologically-facilitated perspective taking will not end there. There are grander views yet to contemplate, and grander conceptions of nature that will follow from a direct, visceral experience of these grander views. As wonderful as the Earth must appear from space, and as transformative as seeing this must be, further in the future there will be the possibility of flying far enough beyond the Milky Way that we will be able to turn around and look back at our home galaxy. Knowing it to be our home (and by that time having come to a kind of astronautical familiarity with the Earth, our solar system, and the Orion Spur of the Milky Way), we will be moved by the sight of our entire galaxy seen whole, in one glance of the eye, hanging suspended and seemingly motionless against the blackness of space unrelieved by stars — for the only companions to our galaxy from this extra-galactic point of view will be other galaxies, and this astonishing perspective may well spur us toward a yet more comprehensive, therefore more adequate, conception of the universe.
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