Everyone on ScienceBlogsTM is talking about Arthur C. Clarke. I put up a short post where I noted his passing. I wasn’t a super fan of Clarke’s fiction, though I found it interesting and thought provoking. My personal favorite was the The City and the Stars, which tells the story of a future human civilization of immortal citizens who have turned away from the cosmos. Clarke, being a science fiction writer, does not depict this inward looking conservatism positively, though to some extent one might posit that it is a sort of Benthamite utopia.
And that is the significance of men like Clarke; they offer up a vision of the future where humanity explores the cosmos. When I was a child I remember seeing a clip of Joseph P. Kennedy II, the son of Bobby Kennedy, making a speech in congress bemoaning funding for NASA which might come at the expense of social programs. I was stuck by the argument the time, and frankly somewhat alarmed. Obviously no one wants to take food out of the mouths of babes, but such an extreme utilitarianism seems spirit sapping to me, pedestrian if you will. Ultimately Kennedy’s argument hinged on exactly what sort of vision we might have for the future and the present; I doubt he personally abdicated the life of aesthetic appreciation because so many are malnourished around the world. How many lived in want so that Joseph Kennedy could live the life of leisure, philanthropy and activism which is the birthright of a Kennedy? The choices we make in our own lives show that though a spare utilitarian moral calculus may be an place from which the discussion can start, it is not the end of the story.
A few years ago we had a discussion on ScienceBlogsTM over some comments that Stephen Hawking made in regards to space colonization. Some of my colleagues were pretty contemptuous of this sort of starry-eyed talk, but to be honest I think this reflected more the parochialism of many life scientists than anything else. We all have different values, and I think biologists are more likely to be open to the idea that utilitarian concerns should cede ground to intangible concerns when it comes to species diversity than the exploration of space. This is a normative difference which emerges naturally from different outlooks shaped by a sequence of life choices and one’s social environment. 7 years ago the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamyan. This was a cultural tragedy of the first order; but it is important to remember that the outcry over this event occurred at the same time that there was a terrible famine in Afghanistan. The Islamic radicals who were associated with the Taliban not only had little love for the remnants of Afghanistan’s Buddhist past, but they tapped into the resentment that some Afghans felt over the attention paid to dead stone as opposed to living humans.
The fact that we care about cultural treasures shows that humans are more than utility calculation machines. Atheists who complain about religion do need to offer some alternative vision which involves more than the crassest caricatures of utilitarian logic or Epicurean ethics; is man just a consuming and shitting machine? Men like Arthur C. Clarke, who was long interested in the idea of space colonization and the shape our of species’ future, offer a piece of the puzzle for what we should do with the leisure and freedom enabled by the modern age of affluence.
Update: A World Made by HAL:
So what would come after the end of religion? Clarke suggested that humans might join together to form some kind of “supermind,” and venture forth into the galaxy. But to what end? Clarke only rarely considered the justification for humanity’s deep yearning to learn and explore. What if it was, like religion, yet another “mind virus,” one that makes us restless and miserable? Clarke never took this notion seriously, perhaps because he was proffering his own faith. His novels were endlessly inventive and often very fun, but they were, with their wooden characters and simple moral parables, hardly meant to be great literature. They were, in a sense, devotionals. Clarke all but worshipped advanced technology, and his novels were a mash note to heroic humans who transformed the world in a spirit of fellowship and boundless curiosity.