Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Final Frontier: Space Exploration as a Utopian Project

It is said that Alexander the Great, after his conquests in Asia, looked out over his lands and was sad because there was nothing left to conquer. Of course, this was not true. There was plenty of land left to conquer at the time. Nowadays, however, we have something to be sad about. Virtually every inch of our planet has been mapped, or settled or controlled by our fellow human beings. True, there are areas of the deep ocean that are beyond our remit, and environments that are simply too harsh or unpleasant for us to live in for very long, but we know about them, have explored them to some extent, and can make choices about whether we want to live there. There are no real frontiers left on earth.*

Space is a different matter. Space is, to borrow a phrase, the final frontier. If we move out into space, we will be explorers once again, facing new challenges and possibilities. Is this something we should welcome? Could (manned) space exploration be conceived of as a utopian project — something that fulfils the highest ideal for human society? Maybe. In his article ‘Prospects for Utopia in Space’, Christopher C. Yorke considers the connection between space exploration and utopianism. He argues that a certain kind of utopian project is indeed compatible with space exploration, but it faces opposition from another popular conception of utopianism. I want to analyse his argument in this post.

1. Three Flavours of Utopianism
I’ll start where Yorke starts by distinguishing between three different approaches to utopianism. They are:

Teleological Utopianism: This is a type of utopianism that focuses on achieving some stable, ideal end-state for humanity. It is commonly associated with specific ‘blueprints’ for the ideal society. These blueprints are supposed to ‘draw us forward from the present to a more desirable future’ (Yorke, 2). They are supposed to motivate political action and change.

Discursive Utopianism: This is a type of utopianism that focuses on using idealistic blueprints to critique certain features of present society. It is not focused on achieving some particular ideal, but rather identifying and describing several alternatives to our current position. It is primarily a historical and literary movement, looking at how dissatisfaction with the present is pushing us toward something different and better.

Horizonal Utopianism: This is a type of utopianism that focuses on constantly shifting horizons of desire for humanity. The idea here is that there is no single, ideal blueprint that represents a stable end-state for humanity. Utopia is, rather, always just over the horizon: it is something we aim for but never quite achieve. If we achieved it, it would no longer be a utopia. The utopian project is thus conceived of as a constant process — a treadmill of elevating possibilities — not a journey with a fixed destination.

Hopefully, these definitions are reasonably clear. I think the contrast between the teleological and horizonal models is obvious and intuitive: they are contradictories. The discursive model is a little more opaque to me. I get that utopianism in literature is often used to critique and/or satire current social situations, and to articulate different possibilities for humanity, but I’m not entirely sure where discursive utopianism sits, conceptually speaking, relative to the other two.

Fortunately, I can ignore this. Yorke’s main argument has to do with the contrast between the teleological and horizonal approach. He argues that space exploration can be utopian if we conceive of utopianism in horizonal terms; it is not utopian if we conceive of utopianism in teleological terms. Let’s look at both parts of the argument now, starting with the rejection of teleological utopianism.

2. Space Exploration and Teleological Utopianism
Yorke’s argument for the incompatibility of teleological utopianism and space exploration is remarkably straightforward. It works something like this (the construction is mine, not Yorke’s):

  • (1) Teleological utopianism is motivated by a vision of the ideal end-state for humanity, i.e. it is about achieving a state of existence that is best for beings like us.

  • (2) An existence in space (either outer space or other planets) is not best for beings like us.

  • (3) Therefore, space exploration is not compatible with teleological utopianism.

The critical premise here is premise (2). Why assume that space is not the best place for beings like us? Yorke favours a biological incompatibility argument. We are evolved to live in a certain set of habitats and ecosystems. On Earth, we live in environments that are not too hot and not too cold. We are shielded from solar radiation by the Earth’s magnetic sphere. We have symbiotic relationships with bacteria and other organisms. These are just some of the factors that make an earth-bound existence convenient for beings like us. Space is different. We are not evolved to live there. It is a much harsher environment, not congenial to our flourishing. If we go there, we would have to live in highly protective and restrictive spaces that we create for ourselves. If there is life on other planets, we could be exposed to new biological threats and diseases. In the words of Dr McCoy from Star Trek: “space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence”.

This all seems plausible, insofar as it goes. It does, however, highlight a problem with the argument. The motivating assumption behind premise (1) is that teleological utopianism requires a form of existence that is best for beings like us, i.e. being that are constituted as we are currently constituted. But why assume that human nature is fixed in our utopian blueprint? Could we not also change that in order to achieve some more ideal state of existence? This, after all, is what the transhumanist project is all about: escaping from the limitations of our biological form. This could be achieved through genetic and biological manipulation, and it could also be achieved through closer integration with machines (cyborgisation). Indeed, the first article discussing the idea of the cyborg was Klines and Cline’s article on manned space exploration and the need for cyborgisation. So, in many ways, transhumanism has always been part of our imaginings about our future in space.

Yorke acknowledges this. But he argues that if we did incorporate transhumanism into our teleological blueprint, we are likely to end up with something that is closer to a horizonal model of utopianism. Why? Because if nothing is really fixed — not even human nature — the prospects of a stable end-state for humanity are slight.

3. Horizonal Utopianism and Space Exploration
Yorke’s argument for the compatibility between horizonal utopianism and space exploration is also remarkably straightforward. It is, however, a bit stronger than an argument for mere compatibility. It claims that space exploration might be the only way to preserve the horizonal model of utopianism. The argument, as best I can tell, works like this:

  • (4) Horizonal utopianism is about ensuring that there are no fixed horizons of human possibility; it requires that we constantly push out toward new frontiers.

  • (5) Space exploration is the only way to ensure no fixed horizon for humanity.

  • (6) Therefore, space exploration is compatible with (and maybe the only way to preserve) the horizonal approach to utopianism.

Premise (5) is the key to this argument. Its defence comes in two parts. The first part argues that staying on earth means accepting a fixed horizon. The second part argues that space has limitless horizons. To support the first part you can follow the reasoning I set out in the introduction to this post, i.e. point out that we have conquered and explored virtually all corners of the earth, and that, even if there are some elements left to conquer and explore, there is no getting around the fact that the Earth is finite: we will eventually exhaust its horizons. To support the second part, you can point to the virtually limitless frontiers of space. As Yorke puts it:

In the unconquerable vastness of space, the unyielding aspirations of humankind might meet their material match. If, indeed, space represents the final frontier of human desire, because the conditions for its complete possession can never be met, then the horizonal model of utopia may indeed have a novel and central role for outer space to play within it. 
(Yorke, 8)

He follows this up later on with a reaffirmation of the limits of life of Earth:

In the barest physical sense, but also in an important psychological one, the abandonment of space exploration is the acceptance of a fixed horizon for humankind. 
(Yorke, 11)

This supports the view that Yorke’s argument is not just about the compatibility between horizonal utopianism and space exploration, but also about the preservation of the horizonal ideal.

But this, of course, raises a deeper question: is the horizonal model actually an ideal? To answer that, Yorke looks at a contrast between two theories: ‘frontierism’, which he derives from the work of Frederick Turner; and ‘consolidationism’, which he associates with the work of Immanuel Kant. Frontierism is an idea that is deeply embedded in the US psyche. It can be supported by a virtue ethical approach to the good life. The idea is that the frontier of possibility represents a set of obstacles to human existence (physical, mental, social etc.). By trying to overcome these obstacles, we build character and develop our virtues. Furthermore, the greater the obstacles, the greater the virtues being developed. Since space would be filled with many great obstacles, it could provide the ideal arena for developing virtues. This is why it would be a good thing to explore the final frontier of space. (For what it’s worth, I think this is wrong. Frontierism can work both ways: overcoming obstacles can bring out the worst in us as well as the best, particularly if the obstacles drive us to extremes of behaviour).

Contrast that with consolidationism. This is the view found in Immanuel Kant’s essay ‘Perpetual Peace’. It holds that limits on humanity are a good thing because they will force us to reach some accommodation with one another (to achieve the perpetual peace of Kant’s title). It is when we are pushing towards a new frontier that we get into conflict; reaching the limits existential possibility will lead to stability. As Yorke describes it: “Consolidation of Kant’s variety models humanity as a liquid, which will come to rest peacefully once it fully spreads to the edges of its container (Yorke, 16).

A full consideration of the merits of consolidationism lies beyond the scope of this post. Fortunately, we don’t need a full consideration. Yorke criticises it on the grounds that it contains one significant, conceptual flaw. Consolidationism only incentivises peace if we all agree that we have reached the limit: that there are no lands (in a metaphorical sense) left to conquer. As long as there is the ‘live’ possibility of a new frontier, our restlessness and ambition can takeover once again. Space is a ‘live’ possible new frontier. Even if we are not currently exploring it and populating it, we can at least envision that possibility. We can imagine, and even start to create, the technologies that will enable us to explore this final frontier. That means consolidationism is highly unlikely to take hold in the real world. Frontierism — and with it the horizonal model — provides a more practical and unifying vision.

4. Some lingering concerns
All that said, there are some lingering doubts one can have about the merits of the horizonal view and its link to space exploration. Yorke himself acknowledges two. The first concerns the distinction between individual and collective horizons. Obviously what counts as a horizon (or new frontier) for me may not count as a horizon for humanity as a whole. I have never been to China, for example. Exploring China would mean exploring a new frontier for me. Indeed, I have lots of horizons left to explore on Earth: I can thus carry out my own utopian project right here without ever thinking about going into space. But obviously my personal horizons are not the same as humanity’s as a whole. If we are to follow the horizonal model, we must think in terms of collective horizons, not individual ones.

The other concern that Yorke discusses is the potential tension between the horizonal case for space exploration and other moral considerations that may weigh against space exploration. The horizonal model does not provide an all-things-considered case for space exploration. It could be that space exploration is unwise or immoral for other reasons, e.g. it would waste valuable resources or destroy the environment. You need to factor in these other moral considerations when making the all-things-considered case for space exploration.

I have my own doubts about the horizonal case for space exploration. My main worry is the lack of precision on what counts as a ‘horizon’ or ‘frontier’. Throughout much of the critique of consolidationism, Yorke seems to presume a geographical/physical conception of horizons. The problem with Earth is that its geographical limits have been reached (or, at least, will be eventually). But I think we should favour a broader, more conceptual understanding of horizons. Humans exist in multiple realms/dimensions — the mental, social, emotional, biological, geographical — each of which has its own current horizons of possibility. If we adopted this broader conception of horizons, premise (5) of the horizonal case for space exploration would be much weaker than it currently appears to be. We may have reached our geographical limits on Earth but have we reached our mental, social and biological limits? I would say not. Exploring geographical space is just one way of realising the horizonal model; there are others too. It surprises me that Yorke doesn’t consider this in more detail in his article, particularly given that his earlier comments about transhumanism hinted at a broader conception of horizons.

This is not to deny the value of space exploration. If we are committed to the horizonal model, I think space exploration would be a good idea since it would be good to push out on all frontiers. I also think there are other moral considerations that weigh in favour of space exploration. But I will have to leave discussion of those to some other time.

* I’m speaking loosely and abstractly about the human species as a whole. There are many people who do not have a choice over where they live for political and personal reasons. Also, the language of conquest and colonisation is deeply problematic since it historically involves taking control of land that has been settled and controlled by others.

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