Saturday, November 18, 2023

18: I like Star Trek. I used to like Arthur C Clarke. I am re-reading the Hugh Walters books which I adores when I was a kid.

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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g said...

As someone who has some sympathy with "we ought to get beyond this planet if we can" (though my impression is that it's much harder than a lot of people advocating it think it is), the nearest of your explanations to mine are "Because other forms of life ... would have their own culture" and "Because humans have ... sentience ... it is vitally important to preserve it".

But I can't quite get behind your elaborations of these.

Other forms of life:

We do, indeed, share the planet with dolphins and whales and octopuses, and I think that fact is delightful and I am all in favour of trying to understand how the world looks to them. But (a) so far as we can tell they don't have culture, knowledge, and understanding that we might learn new things from, whereas if there's intelligent life on a planet circling Alpha Centauri (there probably isn't) then it might have. And (b) "we already have some of X, therefore there's no point seeking out more of X" makes no sense to me.

The more reasonable "science bros" seem happy to agree that Maori cultural modes of understanding are interesting and worthy both of respect and of study; what they get worked up about is the idea that we should be teaching about mana and mauri and so forth as science. Which seems like a reasonable concern to me (though it's hard to tell what's really being proposed and what's scaremongering).

It is possible that if we encounter other forms of life we will just try to exploit and conquer them. Or vice versa. Either would be bad. But I don't see why that's inevitable. The joke about the army is funny, but it kinda is an army's job to kill people. Most of the time, when people go to distant places, they don't in fact kill them.

Sentience or consciousness:

I see why "it matters a lot whether there are minds" is an ethical proposition. I kinda-sorta see why you might call it "spiritual", though I don't think I would. But I don't see any basis for calling it "a religious belief". (If you think otherwise: what does "religious" actually mean?)

The simplest possible crude approximation of my value system says: "It's good when people get what they want and what they like". Wanting and liking is where value most fundamentally comes from. Right now, we have billions of humans getting things they want and like, and this is a glorious thing. If the human race dies out, all of that goes away. (Maybe there are still lots of non-human animals, and they too may get what they like and want. But for reasons that I don't think are just prejudice, that seems less valuable to me; their likes and wants seem shallower in some important way.)

Intelligent sentient aliens' wants and likes seem about as important as ours, in principle (though if they came into conflict I would probably favour ours, on basically-selfish grounds, just as your wants and likes are as important as mine but if you say "can I please have your house" the answer is probably no). I think that all else being equal, having more wants and likes satisfied is better, so even if there are intelligent sentient aliens it is better for humanity not to go extinct, and even though there's humanity it's better for any intelligent sentient aliens not to go extinct.

And: no, as you know perfectly well we aren't all agreed that we are passive objects being acted on by indifferent mind viruses. Not even if we're built out of mind viruses. (The properties of a thing are not simply the properties of its parts.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

By "religious" or "faith position" I mean an irreducible axiom: something important to the person holding it, but not really open to analysis outside the system.

"I am against euthanasia because it will result in less palliative care and less help for the seriously disabled and because old people may be pressured in killing themselves by their families" is a political or ethical belief. You can challenge the premises or say that the conclusions don't follow from them.

"I am against abortion because only YHWH can determine the time of a person's death" is a faith position.

I guess I am asking whether space travel is good for some reason, or, in Platonic terms, The Good.

What do you mean, why has it got to be built? It's a bypass. You've got to build by passes.

g said...

There's no escaping having some irreducible axioms, or something like them. Whatever you believe, one can keep asking "but why?" and eventually you have to say "well, just because" or go round in circles -- which amounts to saying "well, just because" about the whole of whatever cycle you end up in.

(Maybe in principle you could have infinitely many beliefs, where belief N is justified by belief N+1. But that's no better, and I don't think it's realistic either.)

You are against euthanasia because it will result in less palliative care. You are against less palliative care because then dying people will suffer more. You are against dying people suffering more because ... well, if you're like me, just because. Suffering is bad in itself, and that's all there is to it.

You are against euthanasia because it will result in people being pressured to kill themselves. You are against people being pressured to kill themselves because it sets families against one another and because it's bad when people are made to do things they very much don't actually want to. You are against people being made to do things they don't want to because ... well, if you're like me, just because. Being forced to do something you don't want to do is bad in itself, and that's all there is to it.

Your actual answers to "but why?" might be different from those guesses. But they have to have something like that shape.

You can call that "religious" if you want to, I guess. But that means that everyone's positions, by logical necessity, are "religious".

I call "because only YHWH can determine the time of a person's death" a religious position not because it's not based on some logically more primitive belief or value, but because it is literally part of many people's religion.

(Maybe also because it's axiomatic but isn't the sort of thing you could reasonably claim is obvious to everyone, as you could "suffering is generally bad" or "having to do something you don't want to is generally bad". I think that distinction is important, but I wouldn't myself use the word "religious" to describe it.)

Mike Taylor said...

I'm chipping in just so I get notified of further chapters in this interesting discussion. (For what it's worth, I am largely in agreement with g about much of this, although I am a Christian myself.)

g said...

Also for what it's worth, I think my opinions on these things would have been more or less the same back when I too was a Christian. I might have been less inclined to take things like "suffering is bad" as axioms, and more inclined to look for some way to justify such intuitions theologically. But that just changes which axioms, not whether there are axioms.

(I am a little uneasy about calling these things "axioms" because the relationships between moral judgements are generally not quite the logically-precise relationships one has in mathematics where there really are axioms. I take it everyone understands that, and am pointing it out just in case anyone might be inclined to think I don't.)