Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Intellectual Case for Manned Space Exploration

Scientists are sometimes dismissive of manned* spaced exploration. They think it is a waste of money and effort, often just an exercise in hubristic national chauvinism rather than a scientifically legitimate enterprise. I’ve heard several astronomers and astrophysicists complain about the public fascination with putting people into space. Much better to send the robots, they say. The robots will collect all the relevant data, perform the key experiments, and transmit the results back to Earth. We can interpret and understand from our the comfort of our homes.

Ian Crawford is an exception to this. He is a scientist and a passionate advocate of manned space exploration. What’s more, he is an advocate for largely intellectual, and specifically scientific reasons. He has written many papers over the years setting out his stall. In this post, I want to analyse just one of them, ‘Avoiding Intellectual Stagnation: The Starship as an Expander of Minds’, which appeared in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 2014.

I am primarily interested in the structure of Crawford’s argument. I’ll start by clarifying this structure, particularly the motivating premise (his moral/axiological principle), and then I’ll describe the various sub-arguments he adduces to support his case for space exploration.

1. The Motivating Premise: The Need for Dynamic Stabilism
Arguments for manned space exploration typically have a simple, three-part structure. They start with a motivating premise. This will usually be axiological/deontological in nature. In other words, it will stipulate some duty or value that is important/worthwhile. They will then proceed to a minor premise stating that this duty/value can be satisfied through space exploration. In other words, they will draw some causal link between the project of space exploration and the satisfaction of the duty/value. How close a causal link is open to debate. The strongest case for space exploration will, obviously, suggest that there is some necessary and exclusive causal link between the two. Weaker cases will suggest that there is just some link between the two and thus that space exploration is one of perhaps a number of ways of satisfying the duty/value.

This suggests that the following captures the general structure of all arguments for space exploration:

Motivating Premise: It is important/valuable that we do X; or, it is obligatory that we do X

Causal Premise: Manned space exploration will enable us to do X (or is the only thing that will enable us to do X).

Conclusion: Therefore, it is important/obligatory for us to engage in manned space exploration.

I have looked at a versions of this argument that proceed from a deontological motivating premise previously. Crawford’s argument is different because it is axiological in nature. I don’t read him as saying that we have a duty to explore space, but, rather, that it would be a good thing if we did. It would make our lives go better, and fill them with more meaning and flourishing, if we were to proceed with an ambitious project of manned space exploration.

Why is this? Crawford appeals to the value of an ‘open’ future. In this, he takes his cue from the work of the political theorist Francis Fukuyama. Back in the late 1980s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before the imminent collapse of communism, Fukuyama wrote a famous essay titled ‘The End of History’. Inspired by Kant and Hegel, Fukuyama argued that the end of the conflict between liberal democratic capitalism and communism heralded a stabilisation point in history. There would be no more grand ideological conflicts over the best way to live. There would just be practical problems to sort through. This would be good insofar as it called a halt to costly conflicts, but Fukuyama was ambivalent about the ultimate effects of this stabilisation, suggesting that the absence of ideological conflict might sap our lives of meaning:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. 
(Fukuyama 1989)

As someone whose political philosophy is rooted more in the tradition of Hobbes than Hegel I find this quote somewhat ironic. If Hobbes is to be believed, an endless struggle or conflict is a ‘very sad’ thing too. In the extreme, it leads to the state of nature — the war of all against all — in which there is no place for beauty, art and other civilisational virtues. Caretaking the museum of history sounds like a relief after that. So there is presumably some desirable median, between the extreme of endless conflict and perpetual idleness, in which humans can flourish. Perhaps the key is to find the right mix of stability and struggle? If we could call a halt to conflicts over land and political ideology, and struggle instead towards some grand intellectual project, that would seem to be preferable.

And that’s exactly what Crawford urges. His motivating axiological premise holds that an ideal human society is one in which there is both stability and dynamism. More precisely, he argues that the ideal situation is one in which we have achieved relative peace between ourselves, but in which our future is still ‘open’ — i.e. we are not simply caretaking the museum of past achievements. His claim then is that an ambitious project of manned space exploration is the way to do this because of the intellectual challenges and virtues it will promote.

All of which means that Crawford’s case for manned space exploration can be set out like this:

  • (1) It is important/good for us to live in a stable and dynamic society, i.e. one in which our future remains open.

  • (2) Embarking upon an ambitious project of manned space exploration is one way (maybe the best way) in which to maintain an open future.

  • (3) Therefore, it is important/good for us to engage in an ambitious project of manned space exploration.

I’ll say no more about the motivating premise from here on out. I find it persuasive, but I admit that I’m not sure that I can explain why. I think some dynamism and unpredictability is a good thing, provided it is of the right type. Some forms of stability and repetition are good: I enjoy not having to struggle to find food, clothing and shelter. But some struggle is good too because it gives direction and purpose to life, and allows for a sense of achievement and fulfillment. On top of this, there are some intrinsic and instrumental goods associated with struggle. Curing cancer, for example, would involve a lot of struggle but would bring with it a number of intrinsic and instrumental goods, not least of which would be a massive reduction in suffering and hardship. The idea that struggle brings purpose does not have to be a mystical or religious notion, but beyond what I have said I am not convinced that I could say more to defend this idea that it plays an essential part in the good life.

2. The Intellectual Case for Space Exploration: Science, Art and Philosophy
If we set premise (1) to the side, premise (2) becomes the obvious focus of attention. There are a couple of preliminary things to be said about this premise. First, note how, in my formulation, it does not claim that there is a necessary and exclusive causal link between manned space exploration and the goal of maintaining an open future. This is consistent with something that I previously wrote about ‘frontierism’ and space exploration, in which I claimed that there are other ‘spaces’ to explore that could help us to maintain an open future. I also think it is consistent with what Crawford writes, but I do get the impression that he thinks manned space exploration might be the best way in which to maintain an open future, hence why I have added the brackets. The second preliminary comment is simply to note that the goal of maintaining an ‘open future’ is to be understood as shorthand for maintaining some kind of desirable struggle into the future, i.e. avoiding excessive predictability and listlessness. Crawford thinks that an intellectual struggle is the thing we should try to maintain. He does this partly for instrumental reasons but, more importantly, for intrinsic reasons: he thinks there are goods directly associated with and constituted by intellectual progress that are worth achieving.

So how does space exploration enable intellectual struggle and progress? Crawford makes three arguments. The first is that it will enable new forms of scientific investigation and progress. This is probably Crawford’s most famous argument, and he has defended it in a number of papers over the years. In the paper I’m looking at, he offers a brief precis of his position. His claim is partly based on history — space exploration has enabled scientific advances in the past — and partly based on plausible predictions of what would be possible if we did journey through space. He identifies four types of scientific inquiry that would be made possible by this: (i) physical and astrophysical studies conducted using spaceships as observing platforms; (ii) astrophysical studies of the wide variety of stars and their circumstellar environments; (iii) geological (etc) studies of planetary bodies and (iv) astrobiological and exobiological studies of habitable planets. In response to the ‘why not let the robots do all this?’- criticism, he argues that in situ observation and measurement is going to be far better in many cases, and essential in some, particularly in the search for life on other planets (we cannot penetrate the atmospheres of such planets from a distance). That said, one has to wonder whether this is, to some extent, contingent on current forms and understandings of robotic technology. I have argued elsewhere that creating ‘artificial’ robotic offspring might be the best way to realise the dream of interstellar exploration. This quibble to the side, I do think that Crawford is right in thinking that space exploration would give us a practically limitless frontier of for scientific investigation, which would surely stave off some of the stagnation that he fears.

Crawford’s intellectual case for space exploration doesn’t rest on science alone. His second argument for the intellectual vitality of space exploration looks at its impact on artistic expression. Crawford is a fan of Karl Popper’s ‘three-world’ theory. According to this theory, humans sit at the intersection of three worlds: (a) World One, which is the world of physical objects and events; (b) World Two, which is the world of mental states and events and (c) World Three, which is the world of human knowledge (i.e. theories, concepts, models of reality etc). The ‘worlds’ interact with and relate to one another through a series of feedback loops. Crawford argues that art belongs to World Three (the world of human representations) but is an expression of human subjectivity (World Two) that results from human observations/responses to the physical world (World One) and their place within it. What’s more, artistic expression is made possible when human subjectivity (World Two) speaks through the manipulation of physical objects and materials (World One) to create new artefacts and representations (World Three).

Now, you may of course be wondering: where does space exploration fit into this complex web of feedback loops? The argument that Crawford makes is that space exploration will position humans within new physical ‘landscapes’, which will prompt new observations and subjective reactions, which will in turn prompt new forms of artistic expression. He also argues that it will lead to a ‘cosmicizing’ of the human mind — i.e. an enlargement of perspective — which will add a new dimension to our artistic endeavours. Even without Popper’s theoretical overlay, this argument makes a certain amount of sense. Art has always been, at least in part, a response to the world that we inhabit (though it can also be an anticipation of new worlds), and if space exploration brings us into contact with new experiences and new realities, we can expect our artistic endeavours to respond appropriately. This might help to stave off some stagnation in art, which could arise if we end up ‘caretaking the museum of human history’.

Crawford’s final argument is that space exploration will prompt new developments in philosophy, particularly moral and political philosophy. Why so? Because interstellar exploration will prompt new forms of human association — e.g. interstellar economies and colonies — that will require their own political rules and institutions. Establishing those institutions are working out their operations will provide lots of opportunities for philosophers and lawyers. It may also allow for more experiments in living. Similarly, interstellar exploration will throw open new ethical challenges and questions, such as the ethics of terraforming, multi-generational starships, planetary colonisation, the relationship between humans and machines, the duty to continue and diversify ‘life’, and the relationship between humans and other, potential, moral subjects such as alien life. Philosophers are already starting to explore these issues (see, for example, my recent interview with James Schwartz on this very topic) but one can imagine that the intellectual excitement would increase greatly if we embarked on an ambitious programme of space exploration. All that said, and as noted in my interview with James Schwartz, you could question how ‘new’ the philosophical inquiries being proposed here really are. As with much of philosophy, it often seems like we end up re-deploying old concepts and analyses to new problems. Perhaps that is enough novelty to stave off the threat of intellectual stagnation, but if you are looking for something radically new, you might be disappointed.

3. Conclusion
To sum up, Crawford defends manned space exploration on the grounds that it will help to maintain a desirable balance between stability and dynamism. It will do so by staving off intellectual stagnation and providing some direction/purpose to human endeavours. In particular, Crawford argues that manned space exploration will stave off stagnation in science, art and philosophy by giving us new frontier to explore, new experiences to express, and new ethical and political challenges to overcome.

I don’t have too much to say by way of conclusion. The purpose of this post was not to critique Crawford’s argument but to understand it. Hopefully I have succeeded in this. The only thing I will say to conclude is to reiterate the point I made above: that space exploration is one way in which to stave off intellectual stagnation. It may not be the only way. If you take a more abstract interpretation of what an intellectual ‘frontier’ is, you see that there are other ‘spaces’ that humans could explore to similar effect. For example, I presume there are frontiers of mental and physical experience that we are yet to fully explore (through drugs and enhancement technologies); and ‘virtual’ reality could give rise to new frontiers too. Perhaps pursuing progress on all these fronts would be most desirable.

* Is this unnecessarily sexist language? Probably, but I’m not sure if there is an alternative term. ‘Peopled’ or ‘personned’ don’t sound right to me.

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