Sunday, March 22, 2009

Space Advocacy, Philosophy, &Religion

Fair warning: this essay touches on two things most likely to irritate you--politics and religion. Ignore it such things bother you. Other readers consider yourself warned.

I keep getting invites to an organization called the Space Renaissance Initiative (hereafter the SRI). Now I know several of the people who have been inviting me, if by "know" you mean "are acquainted with their viewpoints via Facebook or other sites on the internet." To my knowledge no one I know personally has invited me, though several folks I've met have joined.

I've decided to touch the third rail of space advocacy because this has become a point of concern and contention in my own mind. Before I start opening fire, here are a couple of links to help you understand what I'm responding to:

What Was the Renaissance?

First, I do understand the impetus for and positive outcomes of the Renaissance and Humanism. Europe experienced a resurgence of Greek and Roman learning after the Turks sacked Constantinople in 1453. The Greek scholars there found new homes in the trading cities of Venice, Genoa, and Florence, bringing with them ancient texts and art forms that were radically different from the forms current in feudalism. The spread of Greek and Roman philosophies reignited ancient notions of independence, freedom, democracy, and art. This rebirth of Greek and Roman learning allowed the Italian city-states to become rich and foster the great geniuses of the time: Michelangelo, Raphael, DaVinci, Machiavelli, etc. Meanwhile, Southern Europe got back in touch with ancient Graeco-Roman learning, Northern Europe was getting back in touch with the essential truths of the Bible, which reforming Protestants like Martin Luther felt the Popes had lost to opulence and power-seeking. This led to a less centralized, more individualistic Christianity in Germany, Denmark, Scandinavia, and eventually Great Britain.

I also understand some of their downsides. Catholics and Protestants fought some of their nastiest wars during the Renaissance, including the Thirty Years War, which wiped out a large chunk of the population of Germany. In response to the Reformation, the Catholic Church excommunicated the Protestants like Luther and invoked the Inquisition on those who were deviating from the edicts of Rome. Et cetera, et cetera. Christianity splintered in the wake of this massive religious and political conflict.

The Renaissance, in turn, led to the Enlightenment, which brought forth notions of popular freedom and atheism as widespread doctrines—one can see two results from that experiment by reading the histories of the American and French Revolutions.

Why Create a Space Renaissance?

I believe the SRI folks hope to invoke the Renaissance because they see how the exploration of the New World brought wealth and the ability to afford new luxuries and arts to the Old World. In truth, the gold and new foods from the Americas contributed to the changes I already mentioned above. And it should be noted that Portugal and Spain "found" the Americas as a way to avoid the land route through the Ottomon Empire--colonizing a New World was not their original intention. The Renaissance, then, was a time of dynamism thanks to old ideas being reborn in Western culture at the same time that new ideas, wealth, and products were arriving from America.

America experienced a Renaissance of its own in the 1960s as old ideas of middle-class life and radical ideas of cultural life were at war at home while the nation itself was fighting imperial collectivism overseas by the Soviet Union. The decision to go to the Moon resulted in a radical transformation of American science and technology, and we have been living off of that dramatic inheritance since the end of Project Apollo in 1972. But, again, the adventure into space was a reflection of, not always a cause of, advances and changes already underway. And you could make an argument that the cultural warriors of the 1960s won that particular war, because while science and technology continue to advance, further adventures in space and other technical developments (e.g. nuclear power) have been curtailed in favor of "more important things here on Earth" or the more "environmentally friendly" ethos of the Baby Boomers.

Some questions come to mind, then. Using historical analogies are always tricky, especially with postmodernism calling everything into question. Which parts of the Renaissance would they seek to invoke? The parts that dethroned God and religion from the center of our culture? They're a little late. Today's culture warriors are doing their best to hasten religion off the stage, so there's little need to give that change any more support.

Do they seek a return to older forms of art and philosophy? That might be of some value. The Greeks and Romans had some very bright things to say about the human condition, and their views of aesthetics were much more tasteful than much of what's coming out of the art schools these days (I speak here of political art--the stuff that is put out there to deliberately offend and provoke--there are still folks who adhere to creating things that are pleasing to the eye). And a little Christian humility might behoove some of the technophiles who would try to "perfect" humanity through technology.

Do they seek a return to adventure? Ah! I think this is what they had in mind. The Age of Discovery, led by adventurers like daGama, Columbus, Vespucci, Magellan, etc., created great advances in Europe's knowledge of the world. Those advances in turn brought new advances in the technologies needed to further explore and settle the places explored. And unlike non-European Earth, the rest of the solar system is so-far uninhabited. However, anyone who dares to invoke such an age must now face up to the fact that Christopher Columbus is considered a villain by post-colonialism historians 500 years after his landing at San Salvador. To invoke the glory days of Europe is to reassert the right of cultural (or any other type of) imperialism. Are the SRI folks prepared to fight that battle? If so, I wish them luck.

Do We Need a Space Amendment to the Constitution?

Next, as far as the proposed amendment to the Constitution (I presume they mean the U.S. Constitution--they never really come out and say it), the authors imply that the Constitution as currently written prevents human travel into space. I dispute that. Is the goal to ensure that private citizens, not just civil service astronauts get to go? If so, they need to be explicit. I’m convinced that many provisions in the Constitution have been warped over the last 200+ years because the Founders didn’t think to state the obvious negative corollaries to their principles.

Establishing a New Philosophy

Finally, there is the very long Concepts for a New Humanistic World. I must presume, based on the impressive length of the document, that they seek to create a new philosophy for space, forged out of whatever they see as the best of older philosophies. Clearly they're focusing on philosophy and "evolution" (cultural or biological--it's hard to tell). God and religion are almost completely absent from this document, and that is what bothers me the most.

Side note: I am, perhaps, an increasing minority in the space advocacy community: a conservative churchgoer who believes in exploring space and using the knowledge found there to improve life here. It's been my experience that many Christian sects emphasize the next life more than this one (after all, you really can't take it with you). However, I derive from my faith my desire to use space to do good for my fellow man, not as a means of earning merit toward Heaven, just as something that should be done as a positive good. No doubt someone will correct me, no matter what position I take.

Returning to the Concepts...As near as I can tell, the writers of this document are a mix of pro-science, pro-technology, pro-free market, but also pro-multiculturalism advocates. I say this because the document includes aspects of all of these, and not surprisingly, the document often contradicts itself. For example, Section PC.1100, the "Cultural Openness declaration," states:

We are for cultural Openness, without discrimination based on skin colour, gender, religion, or creed, except where these are themselves anti-Human! We apply the concept of Open World in all aspects of human activities and relations.

I have no argument with this. However, there are cultures that are not so enlightened. What does the SRI propose be done about other cultures that don't share Western notions of equality under the law?

PC.1300, "The Cosmic Destiny," is similarly problematic:

We propose a Cosmic Destiny for the Human Species. Unconscious life expands to occupy all available niches: yet, it's unable to escape extinctions imposed by the natural cycles of the parent planet. Only Intelligent Life can now prevail, thanks to technology, taking beyond the blue planet its civilization and its culture, gardening the otherwise empty and barren spaces.

Are they proposing some sort of new "manifest destiny" for humanity? What if they encounter non-intelligent life on other worlds? Does the New Humanist view support shunting aside life forms below a certain threshold of intelligence? Mind you, I'm partial to expanding humans to Mars myself, slime molds, or no slime molds, but it'd be best if they just come right out and say that.

HE.1900 says,

We are for a politics of controlled growth, able to keep the growth positive, and not in collision with the available resources and environment.

However, this doesn't square with their desire for the freedom of individuals to achieve any end they want to reach their potential. So, are they promoting capitalism or something different?

HE.2100 says,

In the next century, the number of human beings should be controlled within limits sustainable, beyond the ecosystem of Earth alone!

However, PC.300 acknowledges

that Life strives to penetrate, occupy and utilize all locales within its reach to further its survival and expansion. We defend the right, for Humanity, to accede to a greater ecological niche.

and then there's PL.1100...

We reject and condemn any repressive political practices that prohibit the freedoms of expression and the rights to life, happiness, prosperity and justice.

So how am I to interpret this--it's okay to expand the domain of life throughout the solar system, but we must accept population controls here on Earth? Restricting birth rates is a restriction of freedom.

Moving on, since I've already hit most of the cultural questions, the reader encounters SD.500:

We envision the following strategic goals:

  1. Space Power Systems on the Moon and/or in Orbit (see MMS short paper on this topic);
  2. Permanent industrial and scientific settlements on the Moon and artificial orbiting platforms;
  3. Artificial Small Ecosystems research settlements on the Moon and/or in Orbit;
  4. Orbital and lunar defenses against potential impacts by other celestial bodies;
  5. Orbital Medical Research Centers and hospital complex;
  6. A Shielded Astronomical Observatory compound at appropriate location (e.g. SE-L2).

Great! Who's going to pay for and build all this? Who's going to benefit from them?

EC.300, Specificity of the Greater Earth Economy...

We believe that the economic aspects of the Greater Earth development are quite different from anything before.

Different how? Leading you to what conclusions or actions? Again, are you supporting capitalism, welfare-state capitalism, socialism, communism, or fascism?

PL.200, Evolutionary social behaviour

Our beliefs are liberal, democratic, libertarian and antiauthoritarian. We act in the interest of all humanity.

It’s hard to square an "antiauthoritarian" program with some of the other statements.

PL.500 - Defense of the Scientific Research

We reject the idea that Scientific and Technological research is guilty of the environmental and ecological problems and any assumptions which would limit progress in these areas.

Previously they stated that global warming and the means to overcome it were necessarily human-created and -directed activities. Which is it?

PL.700 For an open scientific world

We defend an open concept of Scientific and Technological Research and the universal dissemination of its results.



The problem with any manifesto or other philosophical/political document developed by committee is that the more minds you have working the problem, the more likely it is to descend into incoherence. Clearly there are several different minds contributing to the SRI. I can find agreement with some of it, but much of it disturbs me, and some of it just isn't gelling for me. A primary advantage the space community has over other Earth-focused advocacy communities is that we can come to agreement about at least one common principle: exploring space is good for humanity. The problems come up when you start asking questions like:

  • What should our goals be?
  • Where should we go first?
  • What technologies should we use?
  • Who's going to make the decisions?
  • What should the values of a space-based civilization be?

Heck, we can't even answer these questions on Earth, much less hope to answer them for the solar system. But perhaps we should at least try. Space is a technical discipline, to be sure, but it is also at heart a philosophical one, and if the advocates cannot come up with "something completely different," then the rules pertaining to life on Earth will inevitably rule the spaceways as well. I commend the Space Renaissance Initiative folks for contributing to the conversation, but their effort also demonstrates how far we still have to go.

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