Burden and destiny
Why “Against Mars" — cont'd
Space colonizers, be they scientists, engineers, State bureaucrats or capitalist entrepreneurs, give us strikingly un-scientific speculations as rationales for their grandiose projects. In their own words, space colonization is pure scientism, a sanctimonious bricolage of trite statements about the human condition, wrapped in the language and in the imposing raiment of science.
On the one hand, space colonizers purport that their mission is the destiny of so-called “intelligent life.” It is biological, a function of evolution by natural selection, the logical fulfillment of sentience, our pre-written telos. The proof, according to Carl Sagan, is that all intelligent life in the universe, all technological civilizations, have all ultimately reached for the stars or withered away.
That teleology, that design without a God, is a central belief of space colonization. As Russian Cosmist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the inventor of modern astronautics, once quipped: Earth may be the cradle of humanity, but a child must leave the cradle. QED.
You find echoes of that idea everywhere, and particularly in the pitter-patter of NASA officials. To wit, no later than last August, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson regurgitated these very same bromides at a press briefing, in response to a question about the goal of the planned US mission to Mars:
“…First of all, we are explorers and adventurers as a species. That basically is the fulfillment of our destiny…”
On the other hand and at the same time, space colonization is a deliberate escape from destiny, that is, death.
The death of humanity will come. One day we will no longer exist. In the long run, in the course of geological aeons, our species’ death will happen. Sorry I do not make the rules. Death and entropy are the way of all things, flowers and stars alike.
A lot has been said about the long-term risks to humanity and how to mitigate them. Quite interestingly, as an aside, the rise of that specific line of inquiry coincided with the Cold War and the invention of the Bomb. Some of those who built the Bomb got involved: for instance Luis Alvarez, Oppenheimer’s number 2 at Los Alamos, famously discovered conclusive evidence that a giant asteroid had caused the dinosaurs’ extinction (with his son, geologist Walter Alvarez: and yes, I am well aware that it is still being debated in some corners of geology - for more on this, read Peter Brannen’s excellent 2017 book “The Ends of the World”).
Perhaps a similar asteroid impact will bring about our own extinction, or a gamma ray burst, or a supernova too close for comfort, or a nuclear holocaust, or a super-nefarious super-AI machine, or just old age — who knows what else? Regardless: space colonization is the prescribed remedy, humanity’s insurance policy in the face of certain death. In short, salvation. Consequently, it is our species’ first and foremost obligation to deploy our technology so as to “extend the light of consciousness” beyond the confines of Earth.
It is easy to see how space colonization zealots end up caught in a philosophical trap of their own making. They waver aimlessly between the consolations of deterministic fate and the daunting burden of the species’ survival. It will happen! It's in our genes! No! We're all gonna die! We must make it happen! Get cracking!
I will delve into that fundamental contradiction in greater detail later, with the proverbial receipts. There is no shortage of material. Much ink has been spilled on the great fable of humanity’s future in space.
For now, I’ll just take notice that none of this has anything to do with science or technology. Space colonization is a literary sub-genre in its own right, and it has made the reputation of many otherwise serious scientists. But science, it is not. And neither is it science-fiction. And while broadly philosophical, it is definitely not philosophy in the usual sense. Maybe a right term for space colonization’s stylings would be something like non-science non-fiction.
In a way, viewed from orbit as it were, space colonization is a myth, a narrative repository of shared meanings and values, the understanding of the world that binds a community, a clan, a kin or a society together. “We are born explorers and adventurers” / “we must work for our own salvation”. You can tell that it is a myth precisely because it pits against each other these two clashing and contradictory accounts of our role in the universe, burden against destiny.
All myths are true, at least in their own time and place. Since space colonization is our myth, it is true as well, even if it is difficult for us to see it for what it really is. And as with all myths, space colonization’s truth lies neither in its discrete, superficial elements — totems and trinkets such as ballistic missiles — nor in its heroes’ epic journeys of interplanetary conquests, but rather in the moral dispositions it seeks to enforce upon us all.
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As an archaeologist, I have some claim to understanding human evolution. An area of study in archaeology is the emergence of what is called behavioural modernity - the suite of characteristics that make Homo sapiens different from other hominid species or more successful than other human ancestors. Exploring and adventuring have never appeared in all the literature as an innate modern human quality! And of course now, with the discovery of new human species like Homo floresiensis and the Denisovans, and the recent results showing that Paranthropus was making stone tools at Olduvai Gorge, the idea that there is some sort of linear trajectory of evolution leading to the stars seems even more ridiculous. Interestingly, when I challenge the idea of the human urge to explore in space gatherings, it sometimes makes people quite angry. It is for sure a foundational myth for contemporary space 'exploration'.
Thank your for these thoughts, I especially like the characterization of space colonization as "non-science non-fiction" – I am writing my PhD in American literature and I am exploring Indigenous and Postcolonial Perspectives on Outer Space and Cosmologies in contrast to the prevalent techno-utopian logics and discourses of space colonization. And in my thesis, I aim to disrupt the imaginary boundary between "serious" political/technological/capitalist views of outer space and "fictional" ones (that is broadly: SF, poetry, film, etc.) and read legal texts and corporate claims also as texts that performatively write the future they strive for into being.
Anyways, sorry for the long introduction to what I am doing, but your "non-science non-fiction" paragraph has struck a chord with me. Excited where this project takes you and I am glad to be a part of it!