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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Addendum on Spacesteading

21 September 2012


A few days ago in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II I mentioned the presentation made by Gabriel Rothblatt about spacesteading, and that I had written to ask him the following question:

If you have a spare moment, I would be very interested to know what you consider to be the essential distinction (if there is an essential distinction) between the social structures of colonialism and the social structures of spacesteading.

I certainly take your point about spacesteading, and it would be unfortunate to tie the settling of space to the history of colonialism, but I wonder how you would go about defining the distinction between colonialism and settlement in a cosmological context.

Mr. Rothblatt has been kind enough to favor me with a reply, and since I promised an addendum if he did respond, here follows Mr. Rothblatt’s answers to my questions:

To answer your question about distinctions between social structures I’d have to say purpose. Space colony social structures will be focused on workforce efficiency in production or extraction, with the colonies themselves existing as means to an end and resembling economic zones with policies otherwise incongruent with standards of modern civilized life. By definition and practice a colony will have no right to control its own organization and policy, therefore given the extreme circumstances and remoteness it is highly probable that exaggerated forms of exploitation will be introduced, much like they were in the Americas, which most closely resembles the space colony scenario to-date.

It’s important to consider here that most space enthusiasts are not suited or interested in performing labor and most people in a position to perform the tasks of a colony have no interest in opting to go to space to do so. Spacesteaders came to space voluntarily for the love and/ or the freedom and adventure. Space colonists do so under duress of their economic situations on Earth.

In contrast to space colonization the concept of spacesteading does not as clearly define a specific social structure. What it does is create space based communities that are free to govern themselves. Communities may engage in production and mining for commercial gain, but do not exist for that purpose. The spacestead is the end, the mining/production a means to maintain it. In the former scenario, you would see a homogeneous model of operations, regardless if Interplanetary or Sol Systems was operating the colony. In the latter model the Mormon spacestead may look somewhat different from the Terasemian Monastery and still yet different from the Space Gambit orbital laboratory for Interstellar R&D facility or the municipality of New Nairobi. All of them having in common with each other the right to establish their own laws and existing expressly to be free communities in space, not as feeders to a remote political and economic machine.

To conclude, it is not to say that every model of space colonization we’ve dreamed till now truly fits that definition, some are apt descriptions of spacesteads. I’m not the first to propose this separation nor even the first to use the term spacesteading. As we get closer to a realization of a community in space it becomes more and more important to distinguish between the different pixels in the picture. I foresee soon we will begin to look closer at government versus corporate space colonies, perhaps even religious (although I personally do not distinguish much between government and religion). It is also equally possible for a spacestead to achieve equal or greater degrees of immorality than a space colony, in my humble opinion however, it’s the most pragmatic safe guard against institutionalized human rights violations and an inevitable war of rebellion to interstellar colonialization.

Mr. Rothblatt has outlined several very important points here, and I realize now in retrospect that the paternalism and patriarchalism that I noted in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II as implicitly figuring in many of the 100YSS presentations might also be cast in terms of colonialism — one of the most pernicious and perennial rationalizations of colonialism being that of a benign presence that oversees and attends to the moral edification of the residents of the colony.

Mr. Rothblatt is exactly right to point to the danger of space settlements being primarily economically motivated and therefore lacking self-governance and therefore control over policies, practices, and procedures. We have an image of this danger in the science fiction film Outland, which depicts a space mining settlement as a “company town” with all that implies. This is not a model of development that we should want to extend to the human future in space. The danger of close Earth control over space settlements what I had in mind when I previously opined that it would be unrealistic to think that controlling powers on the Earth could reach out over space and time to shape the lives of those who would be, by then, living under very different conditions.

I also find myself in agreement with Mr. Rothblatt that spacesteading need not define a particular social structure. In the event of multiple settlements in space, I surely hope that we will see a hundred flowers bloom in terms of the diversity of social systems that will be attempted. The political and social experimentation with novel (and perhaps also not-so-novel) systems of governance under new and unprecedented conditions for human beings will be, I think, very healthy for our species and its continued social development. Something genuinely new may come about as the result of social experimentation in parallel with spacesteading, and this ought to be very exciting for any political philosopher.

The social and political diversity of space settlements — not to mention on long distance generational starships — may also, as Mr. Rothblatt points out, be the best safeguard against rebellion and militancy. Any quasi-colonial scenario immediately suggests the possibility of colonists at a great distance from the political center choosing to assert their independence even if this is denied them officially. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine such a scenario not resulting in violent separatism.

As the human future in space slowly and steady grows in scope, it will become increasingly evident that what Thomas Paine said of the relationship between Britain and its American colonies — using an astronomical metaphor no less — must also be true of the Earth and those communities that come to be established off the surface of the Earth:

“Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.”

The Earth is an island in space. In time, we will come to see it as such, and we will be forced to recognize that this small planet, as beautiful as it is, is but a fragment of the cosmos, and that space must belong to itself and not to the earth.

I would like the thank Mr. Rothblatt for his response, which highlights so many important issues for the social future of humanity in space.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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From Moon Shot to Milk Run

20 September 2012


A Boeing 1969 Study for an ‘Integrated Manned Interplanetary Spacecraft’ needing only Saturn V and Saturn IB to lift the sections into orbit. Such an interplanetary craft would require no industrial infrastructure in space. Theoretically, the same approach could be taken with an interstellar spacecraft. In practice, an interstellar spacecraft would be so enormous that lifting it off the surface of the Earth in pieces would probably be prohibitively expensive and inconvenient.

In previous posts on the 100YSS 2012 symposium I discussed some of the unspoken but underlying themes of the conference, namely, the Fermi Paradox and its associated question — “Are we alone?” — and the vaguely paternalistic character of many of the presentations which seemed to assume that the builders of a generational starship could reach out from the earth to retain control over an enterprise unreachably distant both in space and time. It is striking to note that the presentation of Stephen Andrew Taylor about the opera he wrote based on a story of Ursula Le Guin, Paradises Lost, avoided this latter pitfall and therefore revealed itself as one of the more profound contributions of the whole symposium.

This proposed Mars mission spacecraft could be assembled on earth and lifted into orbit section by section, but it would be a lot more efficient to manufacture the biggest pieces in space and just bring up the technically difficult pieces from Earth.

I am not yet finished with the lessons I learned from this year’s 100YSS symposium, but instead of offering an exposition of implicit themes, I would now like to offer an exposition of a of an implicit tension that ran through both the 2011 and 2012 100YSS presentations, and this is the dichotomy in approach between those who assume that further human exploration of space is likely to be Earth-based, so that future spacecraft will continue to be manufactured on the Earth and then launched into space, with additional assembly in orbit required for larger missions, and those who assume that steady and gradual human spacesteading will eventually result in an industrial infrastructure in space so that large spacecraft for ambitious future missions of exploration will inevitably be manufactured in space, off the surface of the earth, by those who already live in space.

The tension between these two points of view is important because it points to very different conceptions of the nature of civilization, and indeed what civilization will become in the course of the coming century. I think that for many people, even people who dream of starships, that the idea of a human civilization of any significant size off the surface of the earth is just too close to science fiction to take seriously. People who take this view can imagine ambitious plans of human exploration of the solar system and beyond, but they imagine it all as the result of earth-based industry.

Last year in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium 2011 Day 1 I wrote this:

Recently in This could go somewhere, or it could go absolutely nowhere… I contrasted the heroic conception of science with the iterative conception of science, as extensions of my previous discussions of The Heroic Conception of Civilization and The Iterative Conception of Civilization. It strikes me now that the idea of planning a starship has something heroic about it, but in so far as it is planned as part of a large-scale institutional undertaking it also falls under the iterative conception.

This distinction between heroic and iterative civilization is useful in this context. (I recently revisited the idea of heroic civilization in Apollo and Everest.) The heroic conception of civilization understands space exploration as an heroic undertaking based on civilization pretty much as we know it today; the iterative conception of civilization sees civilization is incrementally but relentlessly expanding its scope, and if space exploration is part of this conception of civilization, then that exploration will grow organically out of a civilization that is in space anyway. It is entirely possible to understand either conception of civilization as including or excluding human space exploration.

It is possible to elaborate on this distinction between conceptions of civilizations and their undertakings, and in fact while I was listening to some of the presentations during the 100YSS 2012 symposium I started a list dividing the properties of these respective conceptions of civilization. I begin with the paradigm of heroic spaceflight as the “moon shot,” which embodies so many of our ideas of a heroic, one-off undertaking, and I contrast this to the “milk run,” which is a mundane, routine undertaking. Here is my (admittedly imperfect) list so far:

Moon Shot Milk Run
heroic ordinary
sprint long haul
top-down bottom-up
central planning unplanned
sudden incremental
exceptional routine
narrowly-based broadly-based
hierarchical organic

The paradigmatic case of a “moon shot” style space mission is, of course, the moon shot. The entire spacecraft for the moon mission was built and assembled on earth. The Saturn V rocket was enormous, and lofted an enormous payload into orbit. As the mission made its way to the moon, parts of the spacecraft were jettisoned along the route, and by the time the three astronauts returned, they returned in the tiny Apollo capsule that was only large enough to contain the three of them. Many (if not most) of the proposed Mars missions on the drawing boards adopt this paradigm, for obvious reasons. Except for the International Space Station (ISS), there is no industrial infrastructure in space. This is the Achilles heel of the entire contemporary space program. Any large undertaking in space is limited by this absence of industrial infrastructure.

The ISS itself was built on Earth, although its parts were assembled in orbit after having been one at a time lifted off from the Earth. Any large spacecraft would minimally require assembly in orbit, and of course it would make much more sense to employ an industrial infrastructure in space to extract and process the necessary materials rather than lift then from the earth, where the materials themselves are relatively expensive and the cost to take them into orbit even more so. In theory, even an interstellar ship could be manufactured on the Earth and assembled in orbit, although this technology currently envisioned any starship would need to be far larger than anything else previously assembled by human hands.

My point here is that this is more than just a choice of technique in assembling a spacecraft, whether headed to Mars or headed to the stars. The temperamental distinction between thinking of civilization in these two fundamentally distinct ways points to the connection between temperament and civilization. Persons of the one temperament will work toward the creation of a civilization consistent with their temperament, while persons of the other temperament will work toward another kind of civilization. In a large and diverse world, there is room for both temperaments, and in What adventures are actually left? I observed that…

When our early hominid ancestors began to make their way around the earth, I imagine that they traveled from mixed motives, and that it was a little bit of exploration, a little bit of adventure, and a little bit of diaspora.

To exploration, adventure, and diaspora I should add those iterative activities that go to make up the ordinary business of life. As long as there is room for disagreement in the world, we are not forced to choose between differing conceptions of civilization.

From a standpoint of existential risk, which I briefly discussed in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II, it ought to be obvious to us that we would not want to keep all our eggs in one basket, since at present the Earth is a single point of failure for our species — and every other species on the planet.

With or without travel to the stars, a robust and sustainable off-planet civilization could be constructed within our solar system. Off the surface of the Earth, there is so much energy and so many resources that they are for practical purposes endless because we could not exhaust them. At least, we could not exhaust them until we had reached the point where travel to other stars was practicable and we could tap into new sources of energy and raw materials. This is a work-a-day vision of the future of civilization.

But it may be the case that human beings may have a tendency to settle into and settle for stagnation once industrial-technological civilization covers the entire planet and life reaches a reasonable level of comfort for almost everyone. To tear people away from amusement and entertainment and what Fukuyama called “the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands” it may be necessary to pursue the inspirational, the heroic, and the spectacular, even if pursued from the surface of an increasingly comfortable earth.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part I I discussed the interview with Le Var Burton and the talk given my Jill Tarter, both of which events took place during the plenary sessions. Now I will consider some of the other presentations of the day when the group split up into its various tracks.

During one of the plenary sessions it was announced that a presentation that did not appear on the program would be taking place, and this sounded quite interesting to me, so I went to it, and this was “Existential Risk, Human Survival, and the Future of Life” by Heath Rezabek. Mr Rezabek identified himself as a librarian, and his concern was with archiving human civilization. To this end he explained Nick Bostrum’s categories of existential risk (which I first encountered last year at the 2011 100YSS symposium), briefly discussed the Fermi paradox (which I mentioned in my last post), and then went on to detail the possibility of setting up vast archives of human civilization based on Paolo Soleri’s arcology designs.

Based on Nick Bostrum’s conception of existential risk, Mr. Rezabek asserted that “survival is not enough,” because mere survival may play into those categories of existential risk that include permanent stagnation or flawed realization. After Mr. Rezabek’s presentation I asked if the existence of a comprehensive archive didn’t hold the inherent risk of stagnation. Mr. Rezabek responded that the archive would not aim at comprehensiveness, and another guest in the audience said that the archives would create their own artifacts and therefore not fall into stagnation. However, I was unconvinced. This sounded to me much too much like a futurologist’s Byzantium which preserved the works of classical antiquity and even added to them, but not in a way that was robust or vigorous from the perspective of civilizational growth. Another lecturer had mentioned the Corpus Iuris Civilis, better known as Justinian’s digest of Roman law, I thought about going into an explanation of how knowledge tends to get embalmed under such circumstances, but I realized that it would have taken too long to try to make my case.

After Mr. Rezabek’s presentation I stayed on for Gabriel Rothblatt’s “Spacesteading — Settling the High Frontier.” Mr. Rothblatt, who identified himself as a politician, visited a question that was discussed much in last year’s 100YSS symposium, which was the problematic nature of referring to the “colonization of space,” because of its associations with the odious history of colonization. It probably would be better to stop speaking in terms of “space colonization” and instead to speak of “spacesteading,” though I don’t think that the contemporary conception of space colonization is deeply indebted to the tradition of colonialism, and if we focus too much on words and how they offend people rather than on ideas and actions there is a danger that we will never emerge again into the light of day. I wrote down Mr. Rothblatt’s e-mail address and sent him a question by e-mail (to which he has not yet responded; if he does respond I will include it in an attachment) as I didn’t have an opportunity to ask this question after his presentation:

If you have a spare moment, I would be very interested to know what you consider to be the essential distinction (if there is an essential distinction) between the social structures of colonialism and the social structures of spacesteading.

I certainly take your point about spacesteading, and it would be unfortunate to tie the settling of space to the history of colonialism, but I wonder how you would go about defining the distinction between colonialism and settlement in a cosmological context.

After this, I went to another room to catch another presentation, and found that the schedule had been scrambled a bit, though I was fortunate as I managed to catch the presentation of Stephen Andrew Taylor about the opera that he wrote based on a work of noted science fiction writer and Portland resident Ursula LeGuin. I had spoken to Mr. Taylor the previous day and so had hoped to see his work, and his presentation included a couple of clips of a production of his opera. I had asked him if he wrote the libretto, and he said that it was taken from LeGuin’s text; like many of LeGuin’s stories, the idea behind the opera was both compelling and inventive, involved with the emergence of a new religion on a generational starship.

I found myself very intellectually engaged in the final afternoon session of the “Becoming and Interstellar Civilization” track, as I enjoyed all the presentations. Steven Brant of Trimtab Management Systems spoke on “Humanity must see itself as one human family before it can go to the star.” I had spoken with Mr. Brant at lunch prior to his presentation, and mentioned that I had tried to see his talk earlier but thought I had missed it because of the changed schedule. He told me he was next up, so I hadn’t missed it after all. Mr. Brant was particularly concerned that human beings overcome their destructive tribalism, which overcoming he termed “the necessary transition.” Mr Brant also gave a quick thumbnail sketch of James Burke’s views on how societies can become transformed by adopting a new perspective on matters. He particularly cited Burke’s 1985 PBS television series The Day the Universe Changed, which I had watched in rapt attention during its first PBS run, and had even videotaped in order to watch again later.

Steven Brant’s presentation during the Becoming an Interstellar Civilization track.

A careful viewing of Burke’s television series, especially in contrast from his earlier television series called Connections, reveals the profound change of perspective in Burke’s own views as he studied the history of science and civilization. Burke’s Connections was very much in the established tradition of scientific realism, but apparently there came a day when James Burke’s universe changed, since in The Day the Universe Changed he adopted a strong perspectivalist position. Mr. Brant adopted Burke’s perspectivalism and gave an informal exposition of the theory-dependence of observations, though without going into all the implications that this has for Kuhnian incommensurability. This then set up a tension in the later part of his talk, as he went into Amory Lovins’ emphasis on the need for political decisions based upon facts and being able to root out misinformation and what is untrue while giving everyone the idea that it is OK to make mistakes. The problem here is that if observations are theory dependent as in a strong perspectivalist position, then there are not facts to get right or wrong, and no facts on which to base political decisions.

All of this may sound rather arcane, but it cashes out in important ways. The idea of humanity as one human family is a construction of Enlightenment universalism. For better or for worse, Enlightenment universalism has proved to be less durable than ethnic identity. The great mass of human beings take their identity (again, for better or worse) from their ethnic background, and if this ethnic identity is attacked or dismissed as illusory or unimportant, you immediately encounter resistance, because no one wants to be deprived of their identity. There is a fact of the matter on both sides of this question: both the reality of a single hominid species and the reality of ethnically distinct enclaves of the human family that identify more with each other than with outsiders. However, I will allow that Mr. Brant’s exposition of Burkean perspectivalism does constitute a proof of concept that profound changes in our perception of our relationship to the world can in fact come about.

The problematic nature of ethnic identity and human unity was, in fact, cashed out in the very next presentation, when Bob Hawkins spoke about the perception of human spaceflight in Turkey, which is a developing country with almost no space industry but with a popular interest in space travel. Mr. Hawkins discussed how the Turk’s own ethnic identity plays into the interest in space travel, since the Turks self-identify as nomads for whom space is simply the next frontier for a nomadic existence in the future. After his presentation I asked Mr. Hawkins if he was aware of George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, since this book has quite a bit of futuristic speculation on a Turkish space program. He didn’t know the book, but once I mentioned it another member of the audience identified himself as part of Strategic Forecasting (which is Friedman’s consulting company) and who supplied Mr. Hawkin’s with some documentation on the details of my reference so he could look it up later.

Kathleen Toerpe’s presentation to the Becoming an Interstellar Civilization track

Next was Kathleen Toerpe on “From the Moon to the Stars: tapping into share culture to create public momentum for interstellar travel.” I was very impressed with Professor Toerpe’s thoughtful and incisive presentation, which was the most coherent formulation yet of concrete proposals for public outreach, which she called a “Culture Strategy.” If I were myself putting together the 100YSS initiative, I would take the business plan vision outlined by Marsal Gifra that I had seen the previous day and use this to implement the culture strategy outlined by Professor Toerpe. With these two programs together, I really could believe that the necessary momentum to sustain human spacesteading and to avoid permanent stagnation is possible.

Next was Antoine Faddoul who gave a great presentation on how to connect people to the stars, which he sees (rightly) as a common human experience. Mr. Faddoul’s presentation was both systematic and practical in terms of relating stories of the stars to the lives of ordinary people. Lastly in the track, and followed by the question and answer period that took the session to 5:30 pm, which was a half hour beyond the official wrap up of proceedings, was Chris Radcliff of Global Spin on “Generation Zero: Fostering a Culture of Spacefarers.” Generation Zero is the generation that builds and facilitates a generational starship; generation 1 is the generation that embarks on a generational journey, and generation n is the generation that arrives. Mr. Radcliff was concerned to identify contemporary “Maker” culture with Erik Erikson’s generativity stage of human development. I would have given it a rather different exposition, since Mr. Radcliff’s “makers” seem to me to have more to do with Richard Florida’s “creative class” than with Eriksonian generativity.

Chris Radcliff’s presentation to the becoming an Interstellar civilization track

While I found myself more or less nodding in agreement that a generation zero would need to foster a culture of spacefaring, and I really liked his idea of selecting among small pre-existing colonies in the asteroid belt (presumably present by the time a starship is built) to see whom might be best positioned to enter into a generational starship with the least amount of conflict and the greatest degree of comity, but I was made a little uneasy by the many references in Mr. Radcliff’s talk about “choosing generation 1.” Why would anyone want to be “chosen” by some quasi-patriarchal entity? Who is doing the choosing? If these makers had the temperament implied by Mr. Radcliff, they would snort at being “chosen” by anyone who would presume to offer then any way of life different from that which they had chosen for themselves.

Now, I many be seriously misinterpreting Mr. Radcliff’s point, and I’m sure he would have put it in different terms if I had had a chance to ask my question of him directly, but this wasn’t a problem exclusive to Mr. Radcliff’s presentation. Like the subtle undercurrent of the Fermi paradox to which I alluded yesterday, the secondary sub-theme of the 100YSS 2012 symposium was that of a benign but patriarchal entity that would build the starship, select its crew, and send them on their great adventure as though wishing their children happiness and success in life. It is not difficult to imagine what a Freudian or a Foucauldian critique would make of this. And this is important, because if the social context of a journey for the stars is wrong, nothing will come of it. It is the lack of political and social will to sustain the space program that marginalized popular space exploration consciousness after the Apollo program. If this isn’t addressed in an effective and realistic way, it will be a very long time until we get to the stars, if we do not in fact fall prey to the existential risks of permanent stagnation or flawed realization.

With that, the 100YSS for 2012 was at an end for me, and I grabbed my bags and hopped on a taxi to the airport without so much as a backward glance at Houston.

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Note Added 21 September 2012: I noted above that I had sent a question to Mr. Gabriel Rothblatt about his presentation at the 100YSS 2012 symposium but hadn’t yet received a response as of my writing the above. Mr. Rothblatt has since responded to me, and I have copied his response in Addendum on Spacesteading.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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My second full day of participation in the 2012 100YSS symposium, and the third day of the event, left me with much to think about. (I didn’t attend any events on the first day, and I had to leave upon close of business today, so I will miss the remaining events of Day 4.)

Presentation by Jill Tarter of the SETI institute.

The great eschatological question of the 100YSS symposium was “Are we alone?” Just as Joshua Lederberg said that origins of life research is the great creation myth of science, in similar fashion the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos is becoming the great eschatological myth of science. That science has matured to the point of bookending the human condition with a creation myth and an eschatological myth demonstrates the ongoing force of science in industrial-technological civilization. As a kind of xenomorphic thorough-bass that provided the underlying counter-point of everything else that happened at 100YSS, the Fermi paradox came up repeatedly in several different formulations. This question was present in different forms in both plenary sessions of the day.

A great quote from Philip Morrison that Jill Tarter used in her presentation.

Continuing the Star Trek theme initiated by the interview with Nichelle Nichols yesterday, the day began with an interview with Le Var Burton, who was a cast member of the second Star Trek television series. Mr. Burton was very well spoken and thoughtful. In the course of his interview he also delivered himself of the view that he strongly believed not only that we are not alone in the universe, but that we are being watched, perhaps monitored, by alien intelligences who consider us too dangerous at present to join the comity of the cosmos. This is sometimes known as the “zoo hypothesis” (which also has a variant known as the “planetarium hypothesis”), and is a familiar response to the Fermi paradox, although Mr. Burton never explicitly mentioned either the zoo hypothesis or the Fermi paradox.

The second plenary session of the day was a wonderful address by Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI institute, who has made the search for extraterrestrial intelligence her career, and is passionate about the idea and about the search. While Mr. Burton presented his version of the zoo hypothesis very explicitly as a belief, Dr. Tartar, made a point of positioning her work in classic scientific terms, explicitly saying that belief does not play a role in her work. Dr. Tarter’s implicit response to the Fermi paradox was that the cosmos is very large, and that if one considers our SETI efforts so far, these compare to the scope of the cosmos as a glass of water compares to the oceans of the earth. Dr. Tarter considered a number of other responses to the Fermi paradox — e.g., the problem of the longevity of civilizations and the possibility that we are not listening correctly — but true to her scientific training did not express a belief about these hypothesis independent of the (lack of) evidence for them.

To hammer home the theme of scientific knowledge being distinct from belief, Dr. Tarter. said, “We have outgrown asking poets, priests, and philosophers what we should believe.” (This is a quote taken from memory so I might have gotten it a little off; I don’t have a transcript of the talk as I write this.) As a philosopher and a poet I didn’t care much for this remark, but I certainly understood the scientific spirit in which it was intended. I see poetry and philosophy as parallel to science rather than mutually exclusive, but, as I wrote above, Dr. Tarter chose to couch her remarks in classic scientific terms. It is also worthwhile to point out that, given what I wrote above about science now providing both creation and eschatological myths, poets, priests, and philosophers are now rivals to this preeminent role that scientists have in our society, and while rivalry can be kept civilized, it is rarely friendly and often takes the form of disguised hostility (and sometimes undisguised hostility — cf. Fashionable Anti-Philosophy).

Another implicit theme in Dr. Tarter’s talk was a contrast between technological infancy and technological maturity. Dr. Tarter explicitly acknowledged that, due to the limitations of our current state of technological development, we may be at present simply all wrong in how we are going about SETI, but as technology advances and matures we may eventually be able to join the cosmic conversation now going on over our heads, which suggests the image of human science and technology slowly rising to meet the threshold of an alien technological metric.

The interesting contrast between the perspectives on the Fermi paradox implicitly offered by Le Var Burton and Dr. Jill Tarter during the day’s two plenary sessions demonstrated how one and the same idea can serve as as belief or as an object of intellectual inquiry and scientific knowledge. As I wrote above, Mr. Burton explicitly identified his position as a belief, and I imagine that the idea of SETI can serve as a belief for many people — and in differing capacities, as they imagine alien intelligences to be friendly or hostile, very similar to or very different from us — even while for others the idea of SETI is a matter of theoretical analysis or “part of a suite of technological explorations” as Dr. Tarter said in her talk today (this is another quote from memory).

It is perhaps this very fact of the diverse perspectives on SETI that demonstrate its true (if often tacit) centrality in contemporary life. Any one idea that can inspire both art and science has a privileged position within a civilization. SETI has this role in industrial-technological civilization. Whereas we once filled the void of existential and cosmic loneliness with religion, we are approaching a point at which a significant number of persons fill the void of cosmic loneliness with the question, “Are we alone?” The question admits of scientific inquiry, and may someday be answered with scientific precision, but the same question can also be answered with a belief. This must be identified as one of the most important intellectual developments of our time.

There was much more in the day on which I took detailed notes, but as it has been a very long day on very little sleep, I am tired and so I will continue this account in a Part II.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 2

14 September 2012


What happened to Day 1?

Yesterday I arrived too late to Houston to be present at the Thursday night opening reception for the 2012 100YSS symposium, though I already met one of the symposium participants in the van I took from the airport. So I went through my presentation of couple of times and went to bed with my alarm set for 7:00 am local time, which is 5:00 am Pacific time, which is about the time I usually go to bed. So the symposium is not being operated on my schedule (and, of course, I didn’t expect it to be).

Day 2 begins

The day began with a plenary session with everyone present in one room and several short talks, primarily by Mae Jemison, whose foundation entered the running for last year’s RFP (that’s a government term for “request for proposal”) from DARPA to start a 100YSS foundation, and they won. If memory serves, DARPA set aside a million dollars, using half of it for the 2011 100YSS symposium, and then granted the other half of it as “seed money” for the successful RFP entrant who would initiate an ongoing foundation to pursue the idea of human extrasolar travel within a hundred years.

Jemison’s talked emphasized inclusiveness, and, as a corollary to this, Dr. Jemison and others at the event said, “people didn’t lose interest, they were left out.” This is a noble sentiment, but I think that the opposite of what is implied by this is the case: people know all too well what space travel is about, but the spectacular success of Apollo was a tough act to follow, and people wanted further spectacles. Lacking this, and knowing what was possible, people became bored with the modesty of the space program and the somewhat work-a-day business of launching satellites, however profoundly these satellites have changed our life here on earth.

Becoming an interstellar civilization

Last year the symposium was divided into “tracks” and I spoke in the “religious and philosophical” track. This year there is no religious and philosophical track, but I submitted my proposal for a presentation to the “becoming an interstellar civilization” track, so I headed directly to this track room after the plenary session as I was scheduled for the first batch of talks there.

Before me there were three presentations, two of which were given by individuals who were involved with DARPA 100YSS RFPs that did not win, these by Marc Cohen of Astrotecture and Keith Taggart of Spec Innovations. Marc Cohen made the interesting observation that cosmology is the basis of all belief systems, and if he is right, that bodes well for some future naturalistic civilization in which scientific cosmology has pride of place and we no longer labor under the sacred canopy of ecclesiastical civilization. After Keith Taggart’s presentation there was an interesting exchange about whether associating space flight with the idea of a “lifeboat” for humanity was perceived negatively or not. There was also an interesting presentation by Kent Nebergall of Day Five LLC on “Becoming an Interdisciplinary and Interstellar Culture” that emphasized the importance of “enterprise architecture” in planning a project like 100YSS.

The talks that preceded me were very practical, as befit those who would submitting RFPs to DARPA, so I began by warning my audience that my talk would be rather less practical and more theoretical. When I finished, the room was quite quiet, and I feared that the dead space in the room would be filled by a question asked out of pity merely to break the silence, but eventually I was asked a few interesting questions — interesting enough that I returned to think about them over dinner. More on this later.

After I spoke, Thomas W. Hair of Florida Gulf Coast University spoke on “Spatial distribution of interstellar civilization,” which, like my talk, was more theoretical, and which touched on the Fermi paradox, which I also briefly addressed. Professor Hair drew strong conclusions from his mathematical model of the distribution of civilization throughout the galaxy propagated at a very slow rate. I asked if this still didn’t leave lots of room for peer civilizations on the opposite side of the galaxy, several thousand years ahead of us or behind us (which I consider to be not only a peer but a “contemporary” on cosmological time scales — cf. The Law of Trichotomy for Exocivilizations), and he acknowledged that this remained a possibility.

Marsal Gifra’s presentation included this entertaining although imaginary Wall Street Journal headline.

After lunch, the session resumed and I returned to the same room to listen to several more presentations. There was an especially good presentation by Marsal Gifra, “Creating an Interstellar Space Program, A Legacy for Mankind,” which seamlessly passed over into another presentation by others with whom Mr. Gifra was apparently associated. Mr. Gifra seems to have a background in business development, and he gave a compelling presentation of the economics of commercializing a starship initiative.

In the evening there was another plenary session where Nichelle Nichols of the original Star Trek television series discussed her work for NASA recruiting women and minorities as astronauts, as well as several other guests from the space program past and present.

What is an engineering problem?

After the last plenary session of the day, when others went on to the ballroom event, I went walking in Houston, searching for some authentic Texas barbecue. I didn’t find barbecue, but I did have some good Tex-Mex, and over dinner I thought about some of the questions that were asked of me.

One fellow in particular, whose name I do not recall, took exception to my far future scenarios involving travel closely approximating the speed of light and therefore experiencing significant time dilation. He said that I was suggesting something that went beyond contemporary science. I thought that I had been rather careful to stay within the limits of known science, even if I posited technology far in advance of what we have today. I said that I was suggesting the use of very high energy levels, but nothing breaking the known laws of physics. He was not persuaded. So I thought about this.

When I hear objections like this, I assume that problems like the energy and radiation levels that would be generated by relativistic velocities and acceleration that would liquify a human body, are “merely” engineering problems. If science says that travel at the speed of light is not possible, but one can approximate the speed of light (although this involves time dilation, contraction, and an increase in mass which in turn requires even more energy for further acceleration), what this says to me is that technology and engineering ware likely to eventually find a solution, or, if not a solution, an alternative. The question that I received today has made me question this assumption.

In the escalating feedback loop that is of the essence of industrial-technological civilization, we can run into limitations at any point in the cycle of science and technology and engineering that usually feeds back into itself and overcomes the limitations of earlier cycles of escalating technological progress. Is any one limit — scientific limitations, technological limitations, or engineering limitations — inherently more limiting than any other? I tend to think of the scientific limits as incorrigible while while the technological and engineering limits are more flexible. This is probably a mistake, or, at least, my presumptive emphasis upon the incorrigibility of science is probably mistaken.

As I noted above, even if the present cycle of industrial-technological progress cannot solve some particular technological problem, it can sometimes find away around them, and some of our most surprising innovations have been unexpected ways of gaining information from limited data. This is the case, for example, with exoplanets. At one time it would have been thought impossible to know anything about other planetary systems before we have visited them, but now we are routinely finding exoplanets, and we will probably in the coming decades, with even more powerful instrumentation, be able to detect the atmospheres of small, rocky exoplanets (in contradistinction to “hot Jupiters”).

In saying this, I am thinking of some of the clever ways that technology might find a way of getting around the limitations of the human body in terms of interstellar flight. The human body is vulnerable to high acceleration, to radiation, to age, and to the thousand natural ills that flesh is heir to. With the limits of the human body we run into the limits of biological engineering. But if human beings were “reconstituted” at the far end of an interstellar flight, bodies would not need to be subject to acceleration, radiation, or long flight times. But there are limits, given our present state of knowledge, of how much radiation even a starship and its essential systems could bear. Is this an engineering limit, or a technological limit, or a scientific limit? It would probably be artificial to try to classify it as any single limitation. We could say that a problem is “beyond physics” or “beyond our knowledge” and these would be right — such formulations in terms of physics or knowledge also bring out the ambiguity or conventionality of distinctions among science, technology, and engineering.

That being said — and I will continue to think about this, and try to determine if I need to revise my formulations of industrial-technological civilization in terms of constraints — I think that the ability of the same resources of industrial-technological civilization to approach problems indirectly, in contradistinction to a direct frontal attack, will eventually find ways around what now seem like insuperable limitations of physics or knowledge.

The same artificiality of an incorrigible distinction science, technology, and engineering means that an innovative solution to any one limitation can address the other limitations indirectly.

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The downtown business district where the 2012 100YSS symposium is being held at the Hyatt.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-

11 September 2012


NASA has published a number of astrobiology graphic novels that are well worth taking a look at.

Last spring in Eo, Exo-, Astro- I discussed the importance of the distinction between eobilogy, exobiology, and astrobiology as representing a truly Copernican conception of the life sciences, as well as the applicability of concepts from astrobiology to the study civilization. This discussion was partly an outgrowth of my continuing work on the idea of spacefaring civilization, which I discussed when I spoke at last year’s 100 Year Starship Study symposium (100YSS). Now that I am preparing to speak at the 2012 100YSS (my topic this year will be “The Large Scale Structure of Spacefaring Civilization”) I have been working on these ideas again and I found a problem with my previous formualtions.

Joshua Lederberg in front of Mars Lander chart, from Profiles in Science, National Library of Medicine

I mentioned in my previous post on this topic the work of Joshua Lederberg, one of the founders of exobiology. I was lead to Lederberg’s work by the excellent book The Living Universe by Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick, which noted how Lederberg had contrasted eobiology and exobiology. I jumped to the conclusion that eobiology and exobiology were contrasted as terrestrial biology to non-terrestrial biology. While I was right about astrobiology being the more comprehensive synthesis, placing terrestrial biology in its cosmological context, I got Lederberg’s contrast of eobiology and exobiology wrong.

Lecture notes of Lederberg for his Cartwright Lecture at Columbia University on18 November 1981.

Joshua Lederberg wrote this about the formation of his ideas in the immediate post-Sputnik period:

At around this time, I coined the term “exobiology”, a smaller mouthful than “the scientific study of extraterrestrial life”. Exobiology has been panned as one of the few scientific disciplines that may have an empty set as its experimental objects. Regardless, what we have called biology until now should be limned “esobiology”, which can be backformed into “earth’s own biology”. It may be unique in the solar system, perhaps even the cosmos — howbeit, it is still parochial.

Joshua Lederberg, Terry Lectures, Yale University, Thurs – Fri: April 6, 7 and April 13, 14, 1989, “Origin and Extent of Life” (Notes for Terry Lecture #1)

Most if not all of Lederberg’s papers are available online, including several early articles in which he formulated his ideas of exobiology before the idea of astrobiology had emerged. The papers available at Profiles in Science are well worth reading.

Lederberg’s contrast between eobiology and exobiology was intended as a contrast between origins of life research and research into life in the universe beyond the earth, and hence beyond eobiology as the origins of biology. There is almost an element of csomological eschatology present in Lederberg’s visionary compass taking in the breadth of life from it earliest origins to its far-flung possibilities in the depths of space. Lederberg called eobiology “the ultimate creation myth of science,” and exobiology might in the same spirit be called the ultimate eschatological myth of science. Here is how Lederberg formulated the distinction between eobiology and exobiology in 1995:

The reconstruction of life’s origin, eobiology, is the ultimate creation myth of science — certainly it places the most stringent demands on the method of science. On the one hand, DNA and RNA are the most durable physical features of the planet: they have evolved in every detail, but their basic architecture can be inferred to have survived at least 3 billion years of terrestrial history…

Three avenues remain open to us. 1) The reconstruction of plausible emulations of biopoiesis in the laboratory. 2) Observational evidence and palaetiological interpretation of geo- and cosmochemical history of organic molecules: in free space and in condensates such as meteorites and comets. 3) The search for independent evolutions of life beyond narrow terrestrial limits, for an exobiology beyond our own esobiology…

As for exobiology, our principal avenues are 1) telescopic observations from earth, or near orbit, now mainly focused on the substantiation of circumstellar planetary systems like our own; 2) radio-telescopic surveys for possible intelligent signals, and 3) spacecrafted instrumentation visiting the surface of nearby planets, notably Mars.

Joshua Lederberg, Pasteur Centenary Rio February 19-25 ff 1995, I have edited the above remarks but you can read the original in its entirety at the link provided

Term “eobiology” comes from the work of N. W. Pirie, a scientist and philosopher of science — at least, The Living Universe, cited above, attributes “eobiology” to N. W. Pirie, though I was only able to find the term “eobiont” (and not “eobiology”) in Pirie’s work. In any case, with my improved understanding of Lederberg’s formulations of exobiology and related concepts we have the following four concepts that are of particular importance:

● Eobiology: the prefix “eo” means early, so “early biology” or the origins of life

● Esobiology: the prefix “eso” means “inner” or “within” so, in a sense, “our biology,” in other words, terrestrial biology

● Exobiology: the prefix “exo” means “outer” or “outside” so “outer biology” or, if you will, biology in outer space

● Astrobiology: the prefix “astro” means pertaining to the stars, so biology as it pertains to the stars, or biology in a cosmological context

Although I got the original contrast between eobiology and exobiology wrong, I can easily reformulate the distinction I wanted to make in Lederberg’s terms as the contrast between esobiology and exobiology, that is to say, the distinction between terrestrial biology and extraterrestrial biology, which taken together constitute the more comprehensive domain of astrobiology.

I characterized the emergence of astrobiology as being of great importance because it constitutes a fully Copernican science liberated from the prejudices of geocentric biology. My concern was to employ parallel concepts to formulate a similarly fully Copernican Conception of Civilization, and this I see I must now do with the following four concepts:

● Eocivilization the origins of civilization, wherever and whenever it occurs, terrestrial or otherwise

● Esocivilization our terrestrial civilization

● Exocivilization extraterrestrial civilization exclusive of terrestrial civilization

● Astrocivilization the totality of civilization in the universe, terrestrial and extraterrestrial civilization taken together in their cosmological context

Originally I contrasted eocivilization to exocivilization as synthesized in the greater whole of astrocivilization; it is obvious now that the contrast I should have made was that between esocivilization and exocivilization, these two latter of which are unified in astrocivilization.

Although the concepts of esobiology and exobiology can be considered to have been superseded by the concept of astrobiology, the earlier concepts remain useful distinctions within the field of astrobiology, and the same can be said of esocivilization, exocivilization, and astrocivilization: astrocivilization is the comprehensive, Copernican conception of civilization, but it is supplemented by the useful concepts of esocivilization (which for us is terrestrial civilization) and exocivilization (extraterrestrial civilizations), which continue to be valid and useful concepts for the study of civilization.

The original visionary contrast of eobiology and exobiology in Lederberg’s work can be reformulated in the context of civilization as the breadth of civilization from it earliest origins to its far-flung possibilities in the depths of space, which is a sweeping eschatological conception of civilization.

There remains a further subtle distinction that can be made here. Once we understand that the complementary concepts of esocivilization and exocivilization concern the distribution of civilization in space, we recognize that eocivilization is concerned with the distribution of civilization in time. This suggests another concept that would stand opposite that of eocivilization identifying the opposite pole of civilization’s origins — would this be the destiny, aim, or goal of civilization? Such terms are, of course, loaded, and we would be better to avoid them. I discussed in yesterday’s The Industrial-Technological Thesis the tendency of contemporary historians to avoid any mention of “progress,” and for similar reasons we might want to avoid any formulation that suggests a telos of civilization — but this is an interesting question that deserves its own separate discussion rather than a mere aside in passing.

What neutral term could be employed to indicate the opposite of eocivilization, and what term could be employed to indicate the synthesis of eocivilization and its other? The obvious choice would be the prefix “post-” except that I really don’t like the sound of “post-civilization” and what it implies (though I have used in on many occasions, as when I reference post-civilization successor institutions). I think I would prefer some Latinate formulation like Res cultus futurae, but this is awkward contrast to “eocivilization” and “cultus” is a very imperfect translation of “civilization” since ancient Latin had no word for civilization. So I will continue to think about the terminology, but I do want to get the concepts out there while I have them in mind:

● Eocivilization the origins of civilization

● After-civilization that state toward which civilization is evolving, and perhaps also that which comes after civilization

● Metaphysical civilization the totality of civilization in history; the temporal whole of civilization from its earliest origins to its transition into another kind of institution

Thus while I had originally been mistaken in contrasting eocivilization to exocivlization, which I now realize should be the contrast between esocivilization and exocivilization, the term and the concept “eocivilization” turns out to be very useful and highly suggestive (and from it we can arrive at the terrestrial eocivilization thesis).

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Grand Strategy Annex

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project astrolabe logo smaller

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Eo-, Exo-, Astro-

19 March 2012


This post has been superseded by Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-, which both corrects and extends what I wrote below.

The Philosophical Significance of Astrobiology as a

Cosmological Extrapolation of Terrestrial Biology

In yesterdays’ Commensurable Perspectives I finished with this observation:

Ecology is the master world-narrative that unifies the sub-narratives employed by individual species in virtue of their perceptual and cognitive architecture. Ultimately, astrobiology would constitute the universal narrative that would unify the ecological narratives of distinct worlds.

The naturalistic narrative has the power to unify even across species and across worlds. This power may not be particularly evident at present, but in the long term future of our species (if our species does in fact have a long term future) this power will prove to be crucial.

If indeed astrobiology is the universal narrative of life, that gives astrobiology a privileged position among the sciences. That is a tall order. But what is astrobiology? At one time I had heard both the terms “exobiology” and “astrobiology” and I was not quite clear about the exact difference between the two, or how each was defined. Thereby hangs a tale. The distinction between the two is in fact a very interesting story, and it is a story to which an entire book has been devoted, The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, by Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick.

I urge the reader to get this book and peruse it for yourself for the detailed version of the emergence of astrobiology as a scientific discipline. I will give only the bare bones of that story here, which will be only enough to grasp the crucial concepts involved. And our interest is in the concepts, not the personalities.

Joshua Lederberg before he had formulated the distinction between eobiology and exobiology.

Exobiology is the older term, introduced by Joshua Lederberg (first used in a public lecture in 1960), and contrasted by him to eobiology. Exobiology has some currency in the public mind, but I didn’t know about eobiology until I read about the history of the discipline. However, the contrast between the two terms is conceptually important. Exobiology is concerned with biology off the surface of the earth, while eobiology is biology on the surface of the earth. (cf. p. 29) In other words, all biological science prior to human spaceflight was eobiology, even if we didn’t know that it was eobiology. Another way to formulate this distinction is to say that eobiology is the biology of the terrestrial biosphere, while exobiology is the biology of everything else.

In the book The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology the authors give a lot of background on the internal politics and budgeting of NASA and how this affected the emergence of astrobiology. It is an interesting story, but I will not go into it here, as our interest at present is exclusively with the conceptual infrastructure of the discipline. Suffice it to say that in 1996 the first attempts were made to define astrobiology (cf. p. 202), and within a couple of years there was a virtual Astrobiology Institute.

The NASA astrobiology website characterizes astrobiology as follows:

“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”

The NASA strategic plan of 1996 gives this definition of astrobiology:

“The study of the living universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of life in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of gravity in living systems, and (3) the study of the Earth’s atmospheres and ecosystems.”

The important lesson to take away from this is that astrobiology is the more comprehensive concept, and that in fact we can consider astrobiology the union of eobiology and exobiology. This sounds simple enough (and it is), but it is important to understand the conceptual leap that has been taken here.

From the perspective of astrobiology, earth sciences are only fragments of far larger and more comprehensive sciences. Just as all biology was once eobiology, the same observation can be made in regard to the other earth sciences, and the same tripartite conceptual distinction can be brought to the other earth sciences. We can formulate eogeology and exogeology unified in astrogeology; we can formulate eohydrology and exohydrology unified in astrohydrology; we can formulate eovulcanology and exovulcanology unified in astrovulcanology; we can formulate eoclimatology and exoclimatology unified in astroclimatology. All of these are cosmological extrapolations of earth sciences. One suspects that, in the future, the prefixes will be dropped and we will return to climatology simpliciter, e.g., but while the conceptual revolution is underway it is important to retain the prefixes as a reminder that science is no longer defined by the boundaries of the earth.

I assert that this is a conceptual leap of the first importance because what we have with astrobiology is the formulation of the first truly Copernican science; astrobiology includes eobiology but it is not exhausted by eobiology; it is supplemented by exobiology. The earth, for obvious reasons, remains important to us, but it no longer dictates the center of our science. All mature sciences will eventually need to take this Copernican turn and dethrone the earth from the center of its concern.

We can take a further step beyond this conceptual formulation of Copernican sciences by observing that traditional earth sciences began as local enterprises, and it has only been in recent decades that truly global sciences have emerged. These global sciences have culminated in objects of scientific study that take the world entire as their object. Thus biology has converged upon study of the biosphere; hydrology has converged on study of the hydrosphere; glaciology has culminated in the study of the cryosphere. Copernican sciences based on the model of astrobiology can go one better than this, transcending earth-defined “-spheres” in favor of more comprehensive concepts.

When I spoke last year on “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” at the NASA/DARPA 100 Year Starship Study symposium it was my intention to spend some time on the emergence of Copernican sciences, but I didn’t have enough time to elaborate. I cut most of that material out and still was rushed. The point that I wanted to make there was that the concepts of the biosphere, the lithosphere, the geosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, atmosphere, anthrosphere, sociosphere, noösphere, and technosphere are essentially Ptolemaic concepts. (If the proceedings of the symposium are published, and if my paper is included, this contains my first sketch of Copernican sciences as transcending these earth-defined “-spheres.”) The Copernican Revolution entails the formulation of Copernican concepts to supersede Ptolemaic concepts, and this work is as yet unfinished. In some spheres of human thought, it has scarcely begun.

One way to transcend our Ptolemaic concepts and to replace them with Copernican concepts, and thus to extend the ongoing shift to a truly Copernican perspective, is to substitute for the earth-defined “-spheres” a conception of the object of the sciences not dependent upon the earth, and this can be done by defining, respectfully, biospace (in place of the biosphere), lithospace, geospace, hydrospace, cryospace, atmospace, anthrospace, sociospace, noöspace, and technospace. In so far as we can facilitate the emergence of Copernican sciences, we can contribute to the ongoing Copernican Revolution, which will someday culminate in a Copernican civilization (if we do not first destroy ourselves).

We can pass beyond the earth sciences and the natural sciences and similarly extend our conceptions of a the social and political sciences. Although concepts from the social sciences are not usually expressed in geocentric terms — except for the above-mentioned anthrosphere, sociosphere, noösphere, and technosphere (which are not employed very often) — our social and political thought is usually even more tied to planetary prejudices than the concepts of the natural sciences. Thus we can extend our conception of politics by distinguishing between eopolitics and exopolitics, both of which are subsumed under astropolitics. Similarly, we can formulate eoeconomics and exoeconomics, subsumed by astroeconomics, eostrategy and exostrategy, subsumed by astrostrategy, and so forth.

As a final note, it is ironic that the breakthrough to a Copernican science should occur first with biology, because biology was among the latest of the sciences to actually attain a scientific status. Prior to Darwin, biological theories were essentially theological theories with but a few exceptions. Darwin put biology on a firm biological footing and created the discipline in its modern scientific form. Thus biology was among the last of the sciences to attain a modern scientific form, though it was the first to attain to a Copernican form.

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This post has been superseded by Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In yesterday’s Addendum on Neo-Agriculturalism I made a distinction between political ideas (with which, to use Sartre’s formulation, essence precedes existence) and historical ideas (with which existence precedes essence). Political ideas are formulated as ideas and are packaged and promoted as ideologies to be politically implemented. Historical ideas are driving forces of historical change that are only recognized and explicitly formulated as ideas ex post facto. At least, that was my general idea, though I recognize that a more subtle and sophisticated account is necessary that will take account of shadings of each into the other, and acknowledging all manner of exceptions. But I start out (being the theoretician of history that I am) in the abstract, with the idea of the distinction to be further elaborated in the light of evidence and experience.

Also in yesterday’s post I suggested that this distinction between political and historical ideas can be applied to communism, extraterrestrialization, pastoralization, singularization, and neo-agriculturalism. Thinking about this further as I was drifting off to sleep last night (actually, this morning as I was drifting off to sleep after staying awake all night, as is my habit) I realized that this distinction can shed some light on the diverse ways that the term “globalization” is used. In short, globalization can be a political idea or an historical idea.

I have primarily used “globalization” as an historical idea. I have argued from many different perspectives and in regard to different sets of facts and details, that globalization is nothing other than the unfolding of the Industrial Revolution in those parts of the world where the Industrial Revolution had not yet transformed the life of the people, many of whom until recently, and many of whom still today, live in an essentially agricultural civilization and according to the institutions of agricultural civilization. While is the true that industrialization is sometimes consciously pursued as a political policy (though the earliest appearances of industrialization was completely innocent of any design), politicized industrialization is almost always a failure. Or, the least we can say is that politicized industrialization usually results in unintended consequences outrunning intended consequences. Industrialization happens when it happens when a people is historically prepared to make the transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization. This is not a policy that has been implemented, but a response both to internal social pressures and external influences.

In this sense of globalization as the industrialization of the global economies and all the peoples of the world, globalization is not and cannot be planned, is not the result of a policy, and in fact almost any attempt to implement globalization is likely to be counter-productive and result in the antithesis of the intended result (with the same dreary inevitability that utopian dreams issue in dystopian nightmares).

However, this is not the only sense in which “globalization” is used, and in fact I suspect that “globalization” is invoked more often in the popular media as a name for a political idea, not an historical idea. Globalization as a political idea is globalization consciously and intentionally pursued as a matter of policy. It is this sense of globalization that is protested in the streets, found wanting in a thousand newspaper editorials, and occasionally touted by think tanks.

Considering the distinction between political ideas and historical ideas in relation to globalization, I was reminded of something I wrote a few months back in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 2:

If you hold that history can be accurately predicted (at least reasonably accurately) a very different conception of the scope of human moral action must be accepted as compared to a conception of history that assumes (as I do) what we are mostly blindsided by history.

A conception of history dominated by the idea that things mostly happen to us that we cannot prevent (and mostly can’t change) is what I have previously called the cataclysmic conception of history. The antithetical position is that in which the future can be predicted because agents are able to realize their projects. This is different in a subtle and an important way from either fatalism or determinism since this conception of predictability assumes human agency. This is what I have elsewhere called the political conception of history.

What I have observed here in relation to futurist prediction holds also in the case of commentary on current events: if one supposes that everything, or almost everything, happens according to a grand design, then it follows that someone or some institution is responsible for current events. Therefore there is someone to blame.

Of course, the world is more complicated and subtle than this, but we only need acknowledge one exception to an unrealistically picayune political conception of history in order to provide a counter-example that demonstrates not all things happen according to a grand design. Any sophisticated political conception of history will recognize that some things happen according to plan, other things just happen and are not part of any plan, while the vast majority of human action is an attempt, only partly successful, to steer the things that happen into courses preferred by conscious agents. If, then, this is the sophisticated political conception of history, what I just called the “unrealistically picayune political conception of history” may be understood as the vulgar political conception of history (analogous to “vulgar Marxism.” Vulgar politicism is political determinism.

This analysis in turn suggests a distinction between vulgar catastrophism, which maintains dogmatically that everything “merely happens,” that chance and accident rules the world without exception, and that there is no rhyme or reason, no planning or design whatsoever, in the world. From this it follows that human agency is illusory. A sophisticated catastrophism would recognize that things largely happen out of our control, but that we do possess authentic agency and are sometimes able to affect historical outcomes — sometimes, but not always or dependably or inevitably.

In so far as globalization is global industrialization, it is and has been happening to the world and began as a completely unplanned development. Since the advent of industrialization, its global extrapolation has mostly followed from the same principles as its unplanned beginnings, but has occasionally been pursued as a matter of policy. On the whole, the industrialization of the world’s economy today is a development that proceeds apace, and which we can sometimes (although not always) influence in small and subtle ways even while the main contours are beyond direct control. Thus globalization begins as a purely historical idea, and as it develops gradually takes on some features of a political idea. This pattern of development, too, is probably repeated in regard to other historical phenomena.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Do we court metaphysical danger

if we engage in cosmic impiety?

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

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

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

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

Russell further goes on to say on the same page:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Strategy Annex

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