Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Meaning in Space: Mars as Distraction

From io9, an excerpt from Robert Zubrin's book The Case For Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must:
There are real and vital reasons why we should venture to Mars. It is the key to unlocking the secret of life in the universe. It is the challenge to adventure that will inspire millions of young people to enter science and engineering, and whose acceptance will reaffirm the nature of our society as a nation of pioneers. It is the door to an open future, a new frontier on a new world, a planet that can be settled, the beginning of humanity's career as a spacefaring species, with no limits to its resources or aspirations, as it continues to push outward into the infinite universe beyond.
[...]
The only meaningful counterargument against launching a humans [sic] to Mars initiative is the assertion that we cannot do it.

Is that really the only counterargument?

I will treat Zubrin's reasons here individually.

1. [A mission to Mars] is the key to unlocking the secret of life in the universe.

Why do we want to know the secret of life? Mostly, because we want to know our own origins. Why do we want to know our origins? I submit that it is because we suspect they will give us a clue to our purpose.

However, study of life origins to date have not given us any clue as to what our purpose might be. If anything, it has shown us that we have no purpose.

I would find it aesthetically beautiful to know how life emerged, how common it is, whether there are different chemical possibilities for life than ours. But my experience of aesthetic beauty does not make up for the very real suffering of others, and it is criminally negligent for me to use aesthetic beauty to distract myself from their very real suffering. Anaesthetic beauty, that.

2. It is the challenge to adventure that will inspire millions of young people to enter science and engineering

As with the moon race, this is probably true. But to what purpose? Is attracting more young people into science and engineering a good thing? The life of a scientist or engineer is frequently dull and unrewarding, not at all that promised by the grand adventure of a Mars mission. I could not comfortably usher teenagers into the kind of life lived by my friends who are actual aerospace engineers.

3. ...and whose acceptance will reaffirm the nature of our society as a nation of pioneers.

I thought we all agreed, after Vonnegut, that "pioneer" was a swear now, like "conquistador" and "rapist." Even if there's no one out there to be, um, "pioneered," geographical expansion is the most boring, primitive sort of exploration.

Also, Zubrin's appeal to in-group loyalty ("nation") must fall flat for anyone with a more global sense of empathy.

4. It is the door to an open future, a new frontier on a new world

In other words, a Mars mission will let us think about nice science-fiction fantasies, instead of the depressing reality of hunger and cancer and environmental destruction.

As to the emotional connotations of "pioneer" and "frontier," see my post on Political Metonymy.

5. ...a planet that can be settled, the beginning of humanity's career as a spacefaring species, with no limits to its resources or aspirations, as it continues to push outward into the infinite universe beyond.

Getting more resources and more space does not solve any of the interesting problems. We want geographical expansion for monkey reasons, not person reasons. Like longevity (see: The ____ Must Go On), expansion in physical space is one of those primitive goals that need not infect our thinking any longer, as we now know it cannot lead us to what we really care about.

Distraction is what we mean by finding meaning in our search for meaning, the canard of Camus.

The only reason to go to Mars is that we are lonely and bored. But if there is anything to be learned from the whole of human history, it is that nothing relieves loneliness or boredom. Adventure can, at best, distract us from it for a while, while we pass on our loneliness and boredom down into the future, and all around the galaxy.

11 comments:

  1. Ach, you're so inspirational these days! :) Seriously, I've been thinking along these same lines a lot lately. Think I'll write something about it instead of cleaning my apartment. Yeah, that'll work!

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  2. I definitely see where you're coming from, Sister Y. Still, boredom itself is a kind of pain. If going to Mars or out into the whole wider universe helps us to relieve some of that boredom, I'm all for it (for the sake of the actual existent, at least). The universe is so big that even if we could warp to different galaxies in literally an eyeblink, there's now way we could visit them all. That should keep us from getting too bored.

    Also, some people in the areospace industry likely have a genuiine passion for their field, so it's can't possibly be that ALL people in the field are bored by it.

    Still, I see your points about the scope and limits of what space colonization can and cannot achieve (i.e. REAL purpose for humanity independent of humanity's mere say-so). Ditto for adventure being a distraction from boredom more than a total emancipation from it. The best that going out into the galaxy can do is to delay human or human-descendant extinction by an immense but finite number of years. Even that immense but finite number is not even a quark in a proton of an atom of a molecule of the ocean that eternity is.

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  3. "Even that immense but finite number is not even a quark in a proton of an atom of a molecule of the ocean that eternity is."

    Great line.

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  4. "The only reason to go to Mars is that we are lonely and bored. But if there is anything to be learned from the whole of human history, it is that nothing relieves loneliness or boredom. Adventure can, at best, distract us from it for a while, while we pass on our loneliness and boredom down into the future, and all around the galaxy."

    With this quote, you have hit on the root of much of the proble,, Sister Y. This is essentially why life IN AND OF ITSELF is suffering.. or as Ligotti put it "Malignantly Useless". As Schopenhauer explains in detail, ennui is just the reverse coin of survival. We pursue to keep ourselves alive so that we can DISTRACT ourselves because we have such big brains and the self-aware knowledge of the unsatisfactoriness of our individual being. It is my contention that the root of most motivations is, in fact, boredom and perhaps loneliness as a sub-type of boredom. As Zapffe pointed to, our consciousness is so much, that we do not know what to do with it. We try to direct it at "something" (civilization, science, space exploration, whatever).. but it just doesn't fill that overall lacking.

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  5. Speaking of deep space and distraction, I'm reminded of this part of an interview with Ligotti:

    "On the subject of intelligent life forms existing in other precincts of the universe, I just don't care one way or the other. I can't bring myself to feel that it makes any difference. I remember my youngest brother saying something funny about this subject. He's a big sports fan and as a way of expressing his devotion to football he remarked that if an alien landing were being televised on one channel and Monday Night Football was on another channel, he would watch the football game and tape the alien landing. I think that I'd probably watch the alien landing because I'm not a football fan and there aren't any decent TV shows on Monday. I do remember being disheartened to learn that there might exist some form of organic life below the glacial surface of one of the moons of Jupiter. "There's goes another perfectly good wasteland pure of the agitations of creaturely existence," I thought to myself in a mood of relative detachment.”

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  6. My apologies if this has already been mentioned, but did you see that Time published an article about Optimism Bias?

    http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2074067,00.html

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  7. I too have considered why people might venture away from earth and my vehicle of consideration is speculative fiction. One of the things that has come up is sapience, anthropomorphism, and the view that without earth and its culture we as individuals are nothing. I found this site looking up articles on the evolutionary basis of suicide. Leaving earth for good for a life elsewhere and outside human history would be suicide of a sort or in principle. I think people will travel to Mars and elsewhere because they want to, and they can. I don't think it will be a distraction any more than earth as the center of the universe and definer of man; is a distraction.

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  8. I like the way you think. A Mars mission would be like a huge ego manifestation of humanity, though I doubt we'd even be able to pull it off. We haven't sent a man to the moon since the 70's, and it's questionable if we could recreate such a feat, let alone sending a man to Mars.

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  9. That's what Zubrin wants us to focus on - feasibility. It's an interesting question in itself, but he deftly moves the focus away from the goal's desirability, which he takes as obvious.

    I made the mistake of watching Transformers 3D this weekend, though, so I'm burnt out on the moon program, like, forever. I never want to see space travel again.

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  10. As an antinatalist and a transhumanist, I side more with Zubrin than I do with you. If the posthuman race had somehow achieved an antinatalist consensus, they wouldn't sit around on Earth. The universe is actually interesting. Potentially fatal, but still interesting.

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  11. "I could not comfortably usher teenagers into the kind of life lived by my friends who are actual aerospace engineers"

    Maybe they would be happier if you gave them a, um, blowjob? Just some thoughts.

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