I like Star Trek. I used to like Arthur C Clarke. I am re-reading the Hugh Walters books which I adored when I was a kid.
But I am moved to ask. In what way would it be a Good Thing for Humanity to become Multi-Planetary?
--Because if we carry on breeding at the present rate, there won’t be room for all of us on one little planet?
But we have very decent methods of birth control. All of us can have as much sex as we want to without suffocating the rest.
--Because we don’t want to use birth control: because making human babies is a Good Thing in itself, the more babies, the better
But where is this written: what is the moral imperative which says that the most important thing is for there to be the greatest possible number of human beings alive?
--Because we don’t want to become extinct?
Why not? Particularly? I mean, I would certainly like to live a long and healthy life. I suppose I kind of assume that in ten million years there will still be some humans; and I kind of assume that in ten million years there will not be any elephants. But I am not sure that’s a Good Thing. Certainly not the only Good Thing. What cosmic trolley problem tells me that, if it come to a choice, I ought to wipe out the elephants and preserve the humans?
--Because there is an evolutionary imperative that says that we—our species—should survive?
I agree that Darwin says that the fittest survive, because “most able to survive” is what “fittest” means. I do not see how it follows that I, an embodied consciousness with agency, ought to make choices that blind evolution was going to make in any case. “You have to work very hard to make this happen because this will happen inevitably whether you work very hard or not” is a funny precept to live your life by. Individual humans certainly have an instinct to preserve their own lives; but they also have the ability to override that instinct. When someone jumps onto a grenade in order to save his comrades, we call him brave. When someone says that they aren’t getting into that bloody space rocket because they might get blown up, we call them cowards.
There are times when it would be better to play the antique Roman than the Dane. If I thought the human race was going to evolve into Nazis or Daleks or Daily Express readers then I might decide that pushing the button and bringing the species to an end would be quite a good choice. Have you never seen Beneath The Planet Of the Apes?
--Because interplanetary travel, frontiers, the Wild West, men were real men and women were real women, an acre of land, stage coaches: humans digging mines and planting crops and building Jerusalem on Mars’s ochre and pleasant land?
I do see the appeal, for a certain sort of person, of the frontier spirit. I like science fiction movies, and some people like cowboy films. Star Trek started life explicitly as a western set in space. But digging trenches and building log cabins is pretty much the same experience whether you do it on earth, Mars or Planet Zog. You can only be in one place at a time. I think I’d rather have folk music and comic books and beer and flat whites on earth, thank you very much.
The first colonists didn’t come to America because they thought that coming to America was a good thing it itself and there was a moral imperative on Europeans to become multi-continental. They came because they were militant protestants and wanted a Christianity purified of residual Catholic elements. Later they came because the potato crop was infected and there was work to be had and railroads to be built and money to be earned. What they wanted was a house and a wife and some kids and a fiddle and a jar of Guinness. Migrating was the means to an end. To what end is interplanetary travel the means?
--To seek out new life and new civilisation?
Now this interests me. But it occurs to me to ask: for what reason do we want to seek these things out?
--Because other forms of life and other forms of civilisation would have their own culture, their own stories; their own ways of looking at the world: because once we have sat and talked with a three-gendered silicon based hamster our own understanding of personhood will be wider and bigger?
But we already share this existing planet with dolphins and whales and octopuses. If I talk about looking at the world from their point of view then I am apt to be called a hippy, a tree-hugger, and indeed woke. And we share this existing planet with human cultures—Maori and Inuit and Japanese and Texans—who see and perceive and understand the universe very differently from the ways in which we do. But any suggestion that a science department might take account of Maori cultural modes of understanding elicits hoots of derision from the science bros. Why would we be more interested in the modes of thinking on Alpha Centauri?
You used to see a T-shirt, I suppose from the Vietnam era. “Join the Army. Travel the world. Meet new people. Learn how to kill them.” If we travel the universe and encounter sentient lifeforms with different sciences and different cultures, isn’t it overwhelmingly likely that what we will do is kill them? Or enslave them? Or eat them? Or keep them as pets? Or is the plan simply to wipe out their ecosystems and drill for petrochemicals?
--Because humans have a quality called sentience or consciousness; and this is such a preposterously unlikely thing to have developed that it is vitally important to preserve it, because the chances of it existing anywhere else is vanishingly unlikely?
I get this one. It doesn’t really matter how many planets and flesh suits and rain forests we flatten, provided somewhere in the universe there are still minds.
It’s a spiritual, almost a religious proposition. Consciousness over mere stuff. It’s a throwback, in a way, to nineteenth century ideas of Life Forces and Bergsonian notions of creative evolution. In Stapleton’s great Starmaker, human consciousnesses turn into planetary consciousnesses and planetary consciousnesses turn into galactic consciousnesses and finally a universal consciousness which is able to get in touch with THE STAR MAKER. One thinks of Stephen Hawking wondering rhetorically if the right equations will allow us to know the mind of God.
Harold Bloom suggested that the core American faith was not orthodox Christianity, but a kind of gnosticism in which dispersed minds reached out for the deity. It lies behind Mormonism and Christian Science and Country and Western music. There’s a God out there and if we jump up and down and make a fuss we can maybe attract his attention.
I get it. If there is nothing which can perceive the universe there is not much point in the universe bothering to exist. And I have a lot of time for faith positions. But if “the human race ought to become interplanetary” is a religious belief, let’s come clean and say so.
If humans are not the only sentience in the universe, then I have different questions. What is so precious about our particular version of sentience that compels us to generate more of it? When we encounter other minds, will we learn from them, teach them, or ex-ter-min-ate them?
And any way: haven’t we de-centred human consciousness? Aren’t we all agreed that we are not autonomous divine sparks in flesh suits, but passive objects being acted on by indifferent mind viruses? Why is it so important to carry those viruses to Mars?
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