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.