Gene Expression

I too defend space cadets, what is mankind without a dream? I remember back in the late 1980s a speech by Joseph P. Kennedy II as he stood on the floor of the house of representatives and asked his fellow members if people here at home should eat less so that vessels could fly above them in the cosmos. Should we be forced to make this choice? (shall I point out that many Americans should eat a bit less!)

I’m not going to defend the details of Hawking’s argument, I think the time scale is a little compressed (I’m being generous). But, I am going to defend the dream, because to venture into space isn’t just a utilitarian decision, it is an artistic act. Yes, you heard me right. Human beings engage in a lot of peculiar and “wasteful” activities, from massive architecture to baroque entertainments, and yes, even to esoteric scientific projects. Calls to be more “practical” and “realistic” neglect the fact that we are fundamentally a race of nutcase dreamers whose “spark” of sentience can be gleaned 25,000 years ago via to ochre splashes in dark caves which were emblazoned by the imagination of man.

As for this “pale blue dot” in the universe, its great, and there are powerful practical reasons to be good stewards, but some of the arguments about humans being rats or roaches swarming on this planet seem to be as normative as the ideas of those who argue for space travel because we can. Just as our own bodies are nothing but atoms, so this planet and all its creature are atoms, there is no spirit, no world soul, the rape of the planet is ultimately simply the destruction of self-organizing replicative molecules by other self-organizing replicate molecules. Oh, but what beautiful molecules they are in their endless forms! My point is that the reverence and love of life in all its diversity, what E.O. Wilson calls “biophilia,” has its equivalent in the only face of god that many of us will ever see, the blackness of the deep which calls out to us.

Ultimately this comes down to values. What are they? Where do we get them? You, sitting there in front of the computer reading frivolous science commentary, people starve while you leisure! Do you stand in judgement of the musings of a man dying of ALS while you fret over your corpulence?

We do not give away of all our possessions to feed the unfortunate though most of us grant that that would be a greater good. Life is filled with such contradictions, values unacted upon, dreams which draw us closer than reality. We’re a race of impetuous romantics and ambivalent egoists, not one of judicious saints. We’re all sinners, but sometimes it is easy to call out the transgressions of others against the Benthamite orthodoxy rather than acknowledge that we too have our indulgences, personal pleasures which flower amidst the reality of suffering in the world.

The Quinault rainforest, the spider’s web, a resplendent peak and the milky way, all are manifestations of the altamira principle, all can elicit in some the declaration, “and so I believe in God!” I personally think that’s a small answer to a big question, but I can’t deny the existence of the root sentiment.

Comments

  1. #1 John Emerson
    June 16, 2006

    My bitch with space-colony people is that many of them affect a pessimistic fatalism about life here on earth, while simultaneously advocating cornucopian technical-fix optimism about life here on earth (make up your mind, guys), and also rejecting any attempt to deal with environmental or social problems if it involves any government action or any restrictions on economic activity. There’s quite bit of bait-and-switch going on here.

    I think that space colonies would be a good thing from, as you said, an artistic point of view, but I am annoyed when I see them promoted as a technical fix for social, environmental and population problems which are dogmatically declared to be impossible to address. Those problems will follow us.

  2. #2 David Boxenhorn
    June 16, 2006

    That’s a beautiful bison.

  3. #3 hilllady
    June 16, 2006

    I am going to defend the dream, because to venture into space isn’t just a utilitarian decision, it is an artistic act.

    So the ends justify the means? ;) I have to admit this is the best rationale for going into space I have heard to date.

  4. #4 razib
    June 16, 2006

    , but I am annoyed when I see them promoted as a technical fix for social, environmental and population problems which are dogmatically declared to be impossible to address. Those problems will follow us.

    sure, it is selection bias. techno-libertarians are into this, so their biases creep in. i had a liberal friend who was in a futurist group and she was a counteracting voice. the reality is that many on the Left, as on the pre-modern Right, seem to be positive burkeans of a curmudgeonly bent.

  5. #5 Rietzsche Boknekht
    June 17, 2006

    We’ll be planet-hopping, always in demand of new, uninhabited ones while we ruin the ones we colonize. If the problems that plague us cannot be solved here, where else the universe can they be? Knowing humanity, though, I’m of a rather fatalistic bent myself. Huge socio-environmental problems combined w/ cognitive biases/dissonance/politics do not make for a bright future, wouldn’t you agree?

  6. #6 Theodore Price
    June 17, 2006

    John and Razib,

    I think Hawkings justification (planetary doom) is little more than a funding ploy. I have no doubt that his goals could be achieved on a time scale close to what he proposes. The problem is money. He’s just seizing a current opportunity (legitimate concern I might add) to further a goal he has been talking about for decades (at least that is what I think). Not very much unlike what many virologists are doing over the whole bird-flu thing.

  7. #7 Babe in the Universe
    June 18, 2006

    Since we have found Black Holes within our solar system, it is possible to build spacecraft powered by Hawking radiation capable of reaching other star systems. The Star Trek that Hawking promotes is nearer than you think.

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