Headed Back to Portland

3 October 2011

Monday


I am headed back to Portland after having come to Florida for the 100 Year Starship Study public symposium in Orlando. I’ve chronicled my reactions to the symposium in three posts that I wrote on the evening of each day of the symposium while the events were still fresh in my mind: 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 1, 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 2, and 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 3.

I certainly learned some important lessons. If I ever get the chance to make another presentation, my first question will be, “How much time do I have?” My second question will be, “Do you have any limit on the number of slides that I can use with my presentation?” These are the parameters of public speaking. On a blog one can write as much or as little as one likes. The format is as flexible as one’s inspiration of the moment. When the personal time of others is involved, however, one’s degrees of freedom are constrained. That is a valuable lesson.

While I will not get a second chance to make a first impression, the ideas that I incorporated into my presentation will get a second chance, as one of the requirements for speaking at the 100YSS was to submit a paper, with the intention of the paper to be published in some future number of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

While I was working on my paper and my presentation I conceived a great many ideas that I could not include in my paper, and it would only take me a few months to write it all up in a book-length manuscript if I chose to do so. I may do this eventually, simply because of the intrinsic interest that I have in the ideas, but an earlier lesson learned is that no one buys and almost no one reads the books that I have self-published, so I hesitate to do any more self-publishing except for definitive manuscripts that express my point of view and which I wish to be preserved in some form, regardless of their being commercially non-viable.

I will continue to work on these ideas, since it was my intrinsic interest in the ideas that made me formulate the thoughts in the first place, and this ultimately led to my being present at the 100YSS symposium. As always happens with my philosophical projects, the ideas ultimately “leak” over into other projects, and I have already found important points of connection between these ideas about the moral value of a spacefaring civilization and more general concerns I have in metaphysics and ontology. While this intertextuality of my projects makes it extraordinarily difficult to finish any one project (which is a disadvantage), it also gives a robust philosophical context to any one idea, so that if I am able to give expression to a given idea, I also have a great deal of background material that gives consistent theoretical underpinnings to my work (which is an advantage).

Note added later

In so far as I filled fourteen pages of my notebook during my flights back from Tampa through Atlanta to Portland, the influence of having attended the symposium seems to be “jelling” in my mind and proving fruitful so far. We shall see if any really first class ideas come out of it.

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Sunday


The third and final day of the 100YSS symposium wound up exactly at noon, but I had incorrectly remembered the starting time as 9:00 am whereas it began in fact at 8:00 am, so I was late for the first panel discussion among the track chairs and missed most of it. The second panel, from 9:00 am to 10:30 am was about organizational considerations, sounded deadly dull but was in fact quite interesting. The third panel from 10:30 am to noon, which comprised the celebrities, was less interesting.

During the second panel there was a lively debate and some disagreement about the proper organizational framework for a 100 year starship project. The initial remarks by Alexander Wong of Yoyodyne General Systems received whoops of approval, and throughout the proceedings Mr. Wong repeatedly threw cold water on the contributions of the others. Mr. Wong was very much the hard-headed banker, exemplifying the line from Stendhal that, “Pour être bon philosopher il faut être sec, clair, sans illusion. Un banquier, qui a fait fortune, a une partie du caractère requis pour faire des découvertes en philosophie, c’est-à-dire pour voir clair dans ce qui est.” Mr. Wong urged the participants to, “Talk to investment bankers; they deal with trillions of dollars every day.”

Part of the apparent disagreement (call it a “disconnect” if you like) was really the members of the panel talking at cross-purposes to one another. There was no clarification as to whether the goal was to discuss the creation of a particular organization or institution that would last a hundred years and eventually be instrumental in the building of a starship, or whether what they were ultimately talking about was an overall change in the direction of contemporary civilization that would, in the fullness of time, result in humanity building a starship. These are very different visions and goals.

The opening remarks by James Schalkwyk of the University of Cape Town was a very interesting historical sketch of institutions that have lasted over extended periods of time (more than a hundred years), citing examples as diverse as the Roman Catholic Church and the General Electric corporation. Throughout the proceedings of the symposium the Catholic Church and religion more generally were cited as paradigmatic long-term institutions toward which any starship project should look for inspiration. But in the many examples cited throughout the symposium I never heard anyone mention the Hanseatic League, which seems to me an altogether better historical parallel than the other examples reviewed. The Hanseatic League had a loose but coherent structure, lasted for hundreds of years, left a permanent imprint on the culture of northern Europe, and was profit- and market-driven.

Throughout the symposium and during the second panel, it was both stated and implied on several occasions that humanity needs to put its own house in order and fix its problems before it sets out for the stars. Tan Huei Ming of the National University of Singapore implied this by saying that if we failed to do so, we would only take our human, all-too-human pollution and political problems out amongst the stars. In a subtle and unstated way this tied in to the utopian character of many of the presentations, as the speakers struggled to define the kind of society that could possibly survive a long-term, long-distance interstellar flight. Obviously, if we are going to wait to undertake interstellar journeys until we have our house in order on earth, these journeys will never happen. Humanity is not about to suddenly turn a corner and mutually participate in some great historical enterprise. Conflict is not going to come to an end. And in so far as competition is a form of conflict, conflict may well be the spur that does eventually put human beings in space for the long term.

Overweening ambition and conflict are virtues when it comes to undertaking grandly visionary projects — that is to say, projects like building a starship when the technology is not yet available to do this. During the European Middle Ages, civic pride together with eschatological hope drove ambitions for worldly achievement.

As I have noted, the building of cathedrals has been mentioned many times at 100YSS as an analogy for an multi-generational project. We would do well to recall that, in the building of these cathedrals, city-states (in fact, though not in name) competed with each other to erect the grandest edifice that would not only edify the local citizenry but which would also swell their hearts with pride to see the works of which they were capable and how this effort outshone that of their neighbors.

Another theme that emerged at least twice (yesterday during the presentations and today during the second panel) was the idea that one influence that may be behind contemporary apathy in relation to space exploration is that people mostly cannot see the stars. I hadn’t before thought of this as an unintended consequence of urbanization, but it certainly can be construed in this way. With the greater part of the species concentrated in cities with pervasive electrification and therefore pervasive lighting, the spectacular display of the heavens simply doesn’t feature in most people’s lives. This changes the human relationship to the stars. Now a rare vision of the heavens is associated with wilderness rather than civilization, because the lights of civilization blot out the stars, and it is only in a wilderness that we see the stars as our ancestors saw them.

While I was listening to the discussion of the organizational second panel I came to realize the potential value that the creation of a concrete and focused particular institution devoted to interstellar travel could have, though the approach I would intuitively favor (of the two implicitly contrasted) is that of guiding a change in contemporary civilization toward a spacefaring society. By adopting an extremely ambitious plan such as building a starship at the earlist possible time, however, certain advantages appear:

1) intermediate goals short of the final goal become routine,
2) intermediate goals short of the final goal become part of the ordinary business of life,
3) the sting is taken out of failures to achieve intermediate goals short of the final goal, because it is understood that continued attempts will be made until the intermediate goal is accomplished, and
4) A distant goal is like an ideal that remains out of human reach even as it seems tantalizingly close to our grasp, and therefore remains as a perpetual motivation.

In the meantime, humanity would build a spacefaring civilization on the way to attaining intermediate goals, and this spacefaring civilization is what would ultimately make the building of a starship practicable. Once in orbit with a sufficient workforce, building large-scale projects could proceed much more rapidly than many people realize. The slow and incremental part is the creation of an industrial infrastructure off the surface of the earth — that is to say, the industrialization of space. It would be difficult to rally public support for the industrialization of space — indeed, the very sound of it would be off-putting — but it might be realistic to rally public support behind something as visionary as a journey to the stars.

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On my way…

29 September 2011

Thursday


By the primitive expedient of a jetliner I am on my way to the 100 Year Starship Symposium, which will be held this weekend in Orlando, Florida. I will be making a presentation on “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight,” and will also write about whatever else I happen to encounter at the symposium. The symposium has a comprehensive agenda (I suspect that most will view the “religious and philosophical track” as a sideshow), so I looking forward to hearing what others think about the future of spaceflight, and especially the ambitious agenda of travel to the stars.

I expect the other participants will be as eager as I am to see the expansion of life and civilization in the universe, and no doubt there will also be something of an air of impatience with living in a time when this dream is yet beyond our capacity. I would suggest as a motto for the symposium a famous line from Bobby Burns:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

What’s a heaven for? Heaven is a receptacle into which we pour our dreams and visions and ambitions and prophecies. It is a warehouse of hopes… but not merely hopes and dreams. Now, the heavens are more concrete — and more concretely accessible — than ever before. Whereas the heavens were once nearly exclusively the province of mystery, now the skies are an object of knowledge.

For classical antiquity, and possibly before then back into our prehistoric past, the heavens were a place, one place among other places. It was an inaccessible place, but it was a home of the gods who lived more grandly than we do, but still they lived recognizable lives in a recognizable setting. Then western civilization entered its long twilight in which all knowledge was organized theologically, and much that had once been concrete became abstract, ethereal, and almost unimaginable. The heavens were lost to us. All things solid had melted into air.

After the scientific revolution, and especially the work of early cosmologists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, the heavens once again became solid and concrete. The heavens were still a realm of hopes and dreams, but they also became in addition a real aspiration that was to be fulfilled in the fullness of time. This process continues today, and so it is with concrete hopes and dreams that we can look to the starry heavens above as our future abode.

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There was an article in the New York Times about the 100 Year Starship Study symposium: Offering Funds, U.S. Agency Dreams of Sending Humans to Stars

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Thursday


Roosting birds at Pass-a-Grille Beach, Florida; the natural world is a fitting point of departure not only for understanding nature through science, but also of understanding science through the philosophy of science.

Yesterday’s meditation upon The Fungibility of the Biome led me to think in very general terms about scientific knowledge. It is one of the remarkable things about contemporary natural science — following rigorously, as it does, the methodological naturalism toward which it has struggled over the past several hundred years since the advent of the Scientific Revolution — that the more complex and sophisticated it becomes, the more closely science is in touch with the details of ordinary experience. This is almost precisely the opposite of what one finds with most intellectual traditions. As an intellectual tradition develops it often becomes involuted and self-involved, veering off in oddball directions and taking unpredictable tangents that take us away from the world and our immediate experience of it, not closer to it. The history of human reason is mostly a history of wild goose chases.

Detail of a pelican from the above photograph.

In fact, Western science began exactly in this way, and in so doing gave us the most obvious example of an involuted, self-referential intellectual tradition that was more interested in building on a particular cluster of ideas than of learning about the world. This we now know as scholasticism, when the clerics and monks of medieval Europe read and re-read, studied and commented upon, the works of Aristotle. For a thousand years, Aristotle was synonymous with natural science.

The scholastics constructed a science upon the basis of Aristotle, rather than upon the world with Aristotle as a point of departure.

Aristotle is not to be held responsible for the non-science that was done in his name and, to add insult to injury, was called science. If Aristotle had been treated as a point of departure rather than as dogma to be defended and upheld as doctrine, medieval history would have been very different. But at that time Western history was not yet prepared for the wrenching change that science, when properly pursued, forces upon us, both in terms of our understanding of the world and the technology it makes possible (and the industry made possible in turn by technology).

Science forces wrenching change upon us because it plays havoc with some of the more absurd notions that we have inherited from our earlier, pre-scientific history. Pre-scientific beliefs suffer catastrophic failure when confronted with their scientific alternatives, however gently the science is presented in the attempt to spare the feelings of those still wedded to the beliefs of the past.

Once we get past our inherited absurdities, as I implied above, we can see the world for what it is, and science puts us always more closely in touch with what the world it is. Allow me to mention two examples of things that I have recently learned:

Example 1) We know now that not only does the earth circle the sun, and the sun spins with the Milky Way, but we know that this circling and spinning is irregular and imperfect. The earth wobbles in its orbit, and in fact the sun bobs up and down in the plane of the Milky Way as the galaxy spins. This wobbling and bobbing has consequences for life on earth because it changes the climate, sometimes predictably and sometimes unpredictably. But regularity is at least partly a function of the length of time we consider. The impact of extraterrestrial objects on the earth seems like a paradigmatic instance of catastrophism, and the asteroid impact that likely contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs is thought of as a catastrophic punctuation in the history of life, but we now also know that the earth is subject to periods of greater bombardment by extraterrestrial bodies when it is passing through the galactic plane. Viewed from a perspective of cosmological time, asteroid impacts and regular and statistically predictable. And it happens that about 65 million years ago we were passing through the galactic plane and we caught a collision as a result. All of this makes eminently good sense. Matter is present at greater density in the galactic plane, so we are far more likely to experience collisions at this time. All of this accords with ordinary experience.

Example 2) We have had several decades to get used to the idea that the continents and oceans of the earth are not static and unchanging, but dynamic and dramatically different over time. A great many things that remain consistent during the course of one human lifetime have been mistakenly thought to be eternal and unchanging. Now we know that the earth changes and in fact the whole cosmos changes. Even Einstein had to correct himself on this account. His first formulation of general relativity included the cosmological constant in order to maintain the cosmos according to its presently visible structure. Now cosmological evolution is recognized and we detail the lives of stars as carefully as we detail the natural history of a species. Now that we know something of the natural history of our planet, and we know that it changes, we find that it changes according to our ordinary experience. In the midst of an ice age, when much of the world’s water is frozen as ice and is burdening the continental plates as ice, it turns out that the weight of the ice forces the continents lower as they float in the magma beneath them. During the interglacial periods, when much or most of the ice melts, unburdened of the weight the continents bob up again and rise relative to the oceanic plates that have not been been weighted down with ice. And, in fact, this is how things behave in our ordinary experience. It is perhaps also possible (though I don’t know if this is the case) that the weight of ice, melted and now run into the oceans, becomes additional water weight pressing down on the oceanic plates, which could sink a little as a result.

Last night I was reading A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by John Losee (an excellent book, by the way, that I heartily recommend) and happened across this quote from Larry Laudan (p. 213):

…the degree of adequacy of any theory of scientific appraisal is proportional to how many of the [preferred intuitions] it can do justice to. The more of our deep intuitions a model of rationality can reconstruct, the more confident we will be that it is a sound explication of what we mean by ‘rationality’.

Contemporary Anglo-American analytical philosophers seem to love to employ the locution “deep intuitions” and similar formulations in the way that a few years ago (or a few decades ago) phenomenologists never tired of writing about the “richness of experience.” Certainly experience is rich, and certainly there are deep intuitions, but to have to call attention to either by way of awkward locutions like these points to a weakness in formulating exactly what it is that is rich about experience, and exactly what it is that is deep about a deep intuition.

And this, of course, is the whole problem in a nutshell: what exactly is a deep intuition? What intuitions ought to be considered to be preferred intuitions? I suggest that our preferred intuitions ought to be those most common and ordinary intuitions that we derive from our common and ordinary experience, things like the fact that floating bodies, when weighted down, float a little lower in the water, or whatever medium in which they happen to float. It is in this spirit that we recall the words that Robert Green Ingersoll attributed to Ferdinand Magellan:

“The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church”

The quote bears exposition. Almost certainly Magellan never said it, or even anything like it. Nevertheless, we ought to be skeptical for reasons other than those cited by the most familiar skeptics, who like to point out that the church never argued for the flatness of the earth. We ought to be skeptical because Magellan was a deeply pious man, who lost his life before the completion of his circumnavigation by his crew because Magellan was so intent upon the conversion to Catholicism of the many peoples he encountered. Eventually he encountered peoples who did not want to be converted, and they eventually took up arms and killed him in an entirely unnecessary engagement. But what remains interesting in the quote, and its implied reference to Galileo’s early observations of the moon, is not so much about flatness as about perfection. Aristotle in particular, and ancient Greek philosophy in general, held that the heavens were a realm of perfection in which all bodies were perfectly spherical and moved in perfectly circular motions through the sky. We now know this to be false, and Galileo was among the first to graphically demonstrate this with his sketches of superlunary mountains.

What does the word “superlunary” refer to? It is a term that derives from pre-Copernican (or, if you will, Ptolemaic) astronomy. When it was believed that the earth was the center of the universe, the closest extraterrestrial body was believed to be the moon (this happened to be correct, even if much in Ptolemaic astronomy was not correct). Everything below the moon, i.e., everything sublunary, was believed to be tainted and imperfect, contaminated with the dirt of lowly things and the stain of Original Sin, while everything above the moon, i.e., everything superlunary, including all other known extraterrestrial bodies, were believed to be free of this taint and therefore to be perfect, therefore unblemished. Thus it was deeply radical to observe an “imperfection” on the supposedly perfect spheres beyond the earth, as it was equally radical to discover “new” extraterrestrial bodies that had never been seen before, like the moons of Jupiter.

Both of these heresies point to our previous tendency to attribute an eternal and unchanging status to things beyond the earth. It was believed impossible to discover “new” extraterrestrial bodies because the heavens, after all, were complete, perfect, and unchanging. For the same reason, one should not be able to view anything as irregular as mountains or shadows on extraterrestrial bodies. Once we get beyond the absurd postulate of extraterrestrial perfection, we can see the world with our own eyes, and for what it is. And when we begin to do so, we do not negate the properties of perfection once attributed to the superlunary world as much as we find them to be simply irrelevant. The heavens, like the earth, are neither perfect nor imperfect. They simply are, and they are what they are. To attribute evaluative or normative content or significance to them, such as believing in their perfection, is only to send us off on one of those oddball directions or unpredictable tangents that I mentioned in the first paragraph.

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