“Up there, just above us, is the Moon…Unrubbed by wind. Unwashed by rain…Standing there, unblinking since time began.” — Moonwalk One, 2009.
Fifty years after men first walked on the moon, private corporations are readying to make space travel, in the words of Elon Musk, “as common as air travel.” The science of space exploration, much like the other sciences we study in the modern world, frequently eclipse the values and meaning we derive from them. What are we to do with the realization that space travel will be so common? How would we define ourselves as a species, as a community no longer bound by Earth? Is venturing out into the lifeless void of space even worth it?
These and other questions linger about like dirty dishes we leave in the kitchen sink —they are ever present in our minds, and will start to stink if we don’t do anything about them. For decades, a techno-centric view of the world has been dominating the discourse of education and in the minds of our leaders: STEM-focused curriculums, the rise in engineering degrees coupled with a precipitous decline in the humanities, are evidence to the decline of “value-based thinking.” As the popular intellectual Sam Harris succinctly stated: “When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.” That is, all human knowledge is scientific knowledge; if it isn’t scientific, it is not real knowledge.
By reducing our view of the world in this strict sense, we become blinded to the other kinds of ways of knowing about the world, such as stories. But the stories our culture sells aren’t “fiction” anymore: they are “science fiction,” as if to indicate the supremacy of scientific thought in our collective imagination–now bound by the physical laws of our universe. No more talking animals, bring in the aliens instead! A wardrobe that leads to another world? Well that’s just a wormhole built by scientists. No heroes that hurl thunder, only genetically modified soldiers. I don’t want to give the reader the impression that I’m a science-basher–I am a software engineer after all. Science helps us understand the natural world by observing it and deriving laws that describe our universe at large; it does not tell us about what makes for a happy life, what a rose smells like, or why we should even bother to study the universe at all. In this sense, there’s a dire need to ask, and answer, the moral questions that arise from our exploration into space, and not just the scientific ones. This isn’t just an ethical question, it’s an epistemological one: if we don’t ask the whys, we will never attain a full understanding of the universe.
One can think of the recent developments by SpaceX, NASA and other small companies in making accessible space travel as a distraction; a commendable but unnecessary enterprise that does more to fill up the ambitions of billionaires instead of the bellies of the poor and hungry. Isn’t our world enough to fill our needs? Can’t we instead spend our precious time and energy in creating communities of solidarity? Shouldn’t we learn to love one another first before venturing out into the void?
I believe there are many answers to this question, but there’s one that stands out by its sheer compatibility with our biology and spiritual make up which I wish to make a case for.
Fossil evidence tells us that man first appeared on Earth in the tropical heartland of Africa about two millions years ago. Since then, he ventured out: first into the Middle East and Europe, then India, China, the whole of Asia, and finally, the Americas. What drove those first people out of their evolutionary crib? Hunger? Competition? War? We don’t know. But then again, we surely know, as anyone who’s been forced to sit in a room for a long time can attest. Remember that time you were explicitly told not to do something and immediately felt a burning desire to do it? We all carry that fire within us — that curiosity, desire for exploration, rebelliousness even. Could this same feeling also have driven our ancestors out of their homelands?
Our desire to explore is innate. What is the source of this desire is debatable, but to deny it exists is like saying we don’t feel cravings when presented with a delicious piece of cake. Like that piece of cake, we are compelled to engage in the act of discovery when given the chance, and the undertaking feels like a reward in itself. In the course of history, exploration has proven to be excellent at displaying the better parts of our nature: teamwork to accomplish a goal, patience in the face of overwhelming odds and suffering, ingenuity in crafting solutions, the list goes on. Aristotle tells us that something is most itself when it is able to demonstrate its own excellence. The function of excellence in man, according to him, is his reason. It is that higher capacity to think, discern and understand that separates us from the animals and makes us “a little less than the angels.” Isn’t this excellence present when man explores? Who can deny the teamwork involved to visit far-off places? Who can ignore the patience exercised in the face of overwhelming odds, of ingenuity required to craft solutions, of courage to face dangerous obstacles? To venture out into the unknown, is to venture into the deepest parts of our soul to find out what we’re made of. Outer space, the ultimate unknown, fascinates us in its ethereal brilliance and confronts us with cosmic dread. Space travel indeed can become the last, great frontier of exploration left for humanity to conquer.
What does a society that accepts this proposition look like? What, in other words, does the culture of a space-faring civilization look like? Consider: the stories which space-faring people could tell one another will just, if not more outstanding, than any fantasy we can conjure up on Earth. By expanding our imagination to the literally cosmic level, we open up ourselves to a universe of unimaginable beauty, danger and excitement. These fantasies and stories meld closely with the amazing science which the civilization would have created. The achievements of the human mind would be in full display as people regularly bend the rules of space and time to travel vast distances to other worlds. The conception of what these people believe possible would be much more flexible than our own. The creation of such technologies and the incredible wealth of knowledge necessary to understand and describe them would probably mean that there would only be a few who understand how these machines function, with the vast majority of people content to go about their daily lives. It would be interesting to consider whether the common people would see the marvels of technologies which they come into contact with as “magic,” or accept a passing description of them much the same way one presses to ask a person how a plane flies.
Throughout the centuries, people have described the place they live in as a prologue to the history that took place there. A person born in France isn’t just born in the modern nation-state of “France” — she carries within herself a whole mythos of francophone culture, imbued with the spirit, blood and sweat that was poured within the bounds of the society she lives in. Even the first pilgrims that arrived to America could recognize that they weren’t alone, that the lands which they lived were inhabited far longer than their memories could imagine. But what of settlers who arrive on a new planet? What would they think of themselves as they start a new colony? With the only connection to the rest of humanity being the delicate strand of their own past, the new generations born out of their parents could feel far greater independence and self-reliance than societies on earth do.
The increase in technological prowess will not change how people behave, merely the means and ways in which they can pursue the object of their desire. As our mastery over matter increases, will the mastery over our senses increase as well? Our appetites are infinite, and nothing in the universe can satisfy them completely. It is plausible to assume that, if the technology becomes available, some will tap into the Tree of Life to create (as oppose to capture) human slaves that do their bidding. As the creation of nuclear weapons, biological and chemical weapons have shown, the capability for man to commit crimes of depravity increase as his means (i.e technological power) increase. Cain killed his only brother in jealousy; will a future Cain kill billions in amusement? Facts can tell us how the world works, values tell us how we should treat it. It remains to the hearts of future explorers to discern how they will educate their progeny in light of their increased power. A person in the 1800s could only harm as much as his rifle allowed; the same person in the year 2300 could destroy an entire continent (perhaps he/she have enough access to anti-matter). Alternatively, if individuals are not as effective in self-government as their technology would allow them, we could imagine a government that maintains absolute control over them to effectuate the safety of its citizens. A Leviathan-like state that tracks its citizens’ every move and quickly effectuates justice could maintain the tight grip required to keep society from obliterating itself. For “at the end of the path of liberation lies enslavement. Such liberation from all obstacles is finally illusory, for two simple reasons: human appetite is insatiable and the world is limited” (Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed).
When God gave Adam the garden of Eden to tend, He gave him dominion over all creation. He did not say, “Everything under the atmosphere you can explore,” or “stay within the bounds of the garden I made.” Yes, for a long time, our species has dwelt in the circle of the earth and looked above to the stars as the plane of the gods. We can now expand our horizon of understanding to include this plane, acknowledging that the eternal fire wasn’t contained there, or anywhere else for that matter, for it dwells outside and inside all there is. We can venture out with confidence therefore, into the unexplored realm of the celestial heavens, assured that the sense of wonder that propels us is good and guided by the creator himself.