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In his book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls presented several highly influential doctrines that have come to be widely discussed. Rawls says that justice is fairness, and his method for arriving at fairness in social structures is that these structures should be formulated from behind a “veil of ignorance,” with that ignorance being the ignorance of the individual as to their place in the society in which they would live. The method that Rawls formulated is a thought experiment called the “original position.” Here’s how he stated it:

“In justice as fairness the original position of equality corresponds to the state of nature in the traditional theory of the social contract. This original position is not, of course, thought of as an actual historical state of affairs, much less as a primitive condition of culture. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice. Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances. Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain.”

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 11

As noted in the above quote, this stands in the tradition of “state of nature” thought experiments familiar from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Pufendorf. State of nature or original position thought experiments posit a time before human societies existed — a blank slate upon which human beings were free to write as they pleased — so as to try to imagine how the existing societies with which we are familiar came into existence.

Many formulations of visions of the human future (including spacefaring futures) implicitly incorporate something like Rawls’ thought experiment without even realizing that this is what they are doing. Outer space as a place for human activity and achievement gives us the same opportunity as state of nature thought experiments to reflect on counterfactual human societies against a backdrop that has been putatively purged of contemporary social presuppositions, though, with outer space, applied symmetrically to the future instead of the past. In so far as we perceive outer space as a blank slate, and in so far as we attempt to project a future upon outer space as though it were a blank slate for future human spacefaring societies, then outer space takes on the properties (or, rather, the lack of properties) of a blank slate.

In the case of outer space, we try to imagine how existing societies with which we are now familiar will pass out of existence and be replaced by some future society. Since the advent of spacefaring futurism (probably traceable to the Golden Age of Science Fiction) outer space became a place where human beings could project what was best in themselves in order to cultivate a hopeful future. Early science fiction such as Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells was markedly dystopian, but the genre rapidly transformed into an optimistic and expansive vision of the future. With this minimal framework of sapcefaring and optimism and progress toward a better future, outer space became a blank slate for human hopes and dreams. For a time, utopianism reigned, but when the simple utopianism faded, it was replaced sometimes by dystopianism, but, more interestingly to me, by the idea of outer space as the kind of blank slate for a better tomorrow in spite of the problems we have today.

This latter conception is something I have personally encountered many times. The idea seems to be that human beings have made many mistakes on Earth so that outer space is a “second chance” for humanity and we consequently have a moral obligation to only establish human societies away from Earth when we are fully prepared to do a better job than we have done on Earth — hence the waiting gambit. Sometimes this position is presented such that humanity does not deserve to establish a presence beyond Earth, because we have made such a mess of things here.

Here the “original position” has been transposed with a “final position” for human society — the ultimate form that human society is to take, projected onto a spacefaring future in which outer space is the setting for a perfect society that has not been realized on Earth, and which cannot be realized on Earth because of our history. Thus the “final position” takes the form that it does because the “original position” was corrupt. This is very much in the spirit of Rousseau, who saw the original foundations of human society to be corrupt, and this inherited corruption (not of the individual, who, according to Rousseau, is naturally good, but of social institutions) has been passed down to all subsequent human societies. Thus outer space presents itself as a domain free from this inherited corruption where a “final position” can be brought into being, and humanity can, for the first time in its history, realize a righteous society.

It is interesting to note that this is in no sense a revolutionary view, as it imagines human beings confined to the purgatory that is Earth for an indefinite period of time until the sins of the youth of our species have been burned and purged away. Only when we have fully completed our penance — a gradual and excruciatingly incremental process — and become perfect, do we deserve to take the next step and inhabit the blank slate of outer space as newly innocent beings, a humanity that has made itself innocent, and thus worthy of the final position, through great moral effort.

A revolutionary view, in contradistinction to this moral incrementalism, would be that the final position is there before us, suspended in the air like Macbeth’s dagger, which we can reach out and grasp at any time. We can, in this view, attain the final position simply by taking a sequence of revolutionary steps that will transform us and our world because we have the boldness to take these steps. This revolutionary moralism vis-à-vis the final position would fit well with what I have called an early spacefaring breakout in The Spacefaring Inflection Point (and further elaborated in Bound in Shallows: Space Exploration and Institutional Drift).

An early and sudden inflection point in the development of spacefaring civilization could be both the revolutionary step required to put in place the final position as well as the advent of a new kind of civilization. This view seems more historiographically justified that the more prevalent incrementalist view, but I have only ever heard the incrementalist view — though, I ought to say, I know of no one who has formulated the incrementalist view in the full sweep of the vision. One usually gets only bits and pieces of the vision, which leaves its advocates with a certain plausible deniability in regard to the future final position implicit in their conception of human destiny in outer space.

It may sound like I am here advocating one conception of the final position over another, but I find both to be as profoundly mistaken as original position or state of nature thought experiments. While I think there is something to be learned from both thought experiments — the original position and the final position — I regard them as being as Rawls has characterized them, “…a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice.” Hypotheticals have a value, but that value is not absolute. Moreover, we know that hypotheticals, whether past or future, are not actual depictions of the past or accurate predictions of the future; they are scenarios that allow us to rehearse certain ideas as they might play out in practice.

In practice, there are no blank slates. Human societies don’t arise from nothing; they arise from prior societies, and these societies can be traced backward in time to long before human beings existed. The same is true of our brain and our intelligence, that we use to shape our social order: both have a deep history in the biosphere, but both bear the lowly imprint of their origins. We can’t even say, as Nietzsche said, that all this is human, all-too-human, because it all precedes humanity. It is terrestrial, all-too-terrestrial.

There was no paradisaical state of nature to which we might dream that we can return (if only we could deconstruct the injustices of human social institutions, which seems to have been Rousseau’s position), and there will be no final position of a perfectly just human society in the future, whether on Earth or in space. Both ideas are painfully naïve, and if we are ever to make real progress, and not the imaginary progress of utopias safely compartmentalized in the distant past or the distant future, we must disabuse ourselves of the idea that humanity is ever going to be anything other than human, all-too-human. Justice and morality did not reign in the past, and they are not going to reign in the future, whether on Earth or in space, world without end. Amen.

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Note added Friday 28 February 2020: A perfect example of the blank slate of outer space can be found in the recently announced contest for a design for a city of a million persons on Mars, Mars City State Design Competition Announced. The text of the announcement includes this: “How, given a fresh start, can life on Mars be made better than life on Earth?”

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I have previously written a number of blog posts on the idea of the blank slate, including:

The Metaphysical Blank Slate: Positivism and Metaphysical Neutrality

Addendum on the Metaphysical Blank Slate

Further Addendum on the Metaphysical Blank Slate

Blank Slate Cosmology

Of Vacuity and Blankness

Two (or Three) Metaphysical Themes

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