Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How is that space program coming along?

Last week's cosmic coincidence - the meteor airburst in Russia that injured over 1000 people and damaged property across thousands of square kilometers, and the near miss by an asteroid with over 20 times the mass - invites us to ask, "How is that space program coming along?"

Remember, if the odds against something happening are a billion to one in a given year, it has already happened four times in earth's history, and we are waiting for the fifth (on average).

Space development is something that I have spent some time studying. I would like to share some of those thoughts.

At the same time, I would like to use this as an illustrative example of how to look at a matter of public policy in the light of the theory of value I have been presenting in this blog. After all, the relevant question is: Should we have a space program, and - if so - what should it look like?

In this case, this is a particularly important question. We could well be discussing whether the human race survives, or whether all that remains is a collection of artifacts, perhaps to be discovered by a more successful species from some other planet.

All true value claims relate states of affairs to desires. To ask whether we ought to have a space program is to ask, "What reasons for action exist for the exploration and development of space?" Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Therefore, to answer that question, we need to ask about the various "desires that P" and look at the propositions P that space development makes or keeps true - as well as looking at the propositions P it will make or keep false.

We also need to look at the moral dimension. For these various "desires that P", we have to ask whether the desire itself is malleable. Can the desire be strengthened or weakened and, if so, what reasons for action exist for strengthening or weakening it?

In other words, can a space program give us what we want and, more importantly, can it give us what we should want?

One argument I sometimes hear says that we should not explore space because the heavens belong to god and we ought not to be trespassing. The puzzle of property rights in space is an interesting one and our potential relations with other species is an interesting one. Furthermore, it is likely that there are resources in space that we have reason to think of as already owned by creatures not of earth. However, there is no god and our actions do not trespass against any imaginary being.

In a related argument, some argue that we do not need a space program to prevent any large scale disasters because god the creator would never allow us to be destroyed - not unless it was a part of a plan, in which case it would be wrong for us to interfere. Both of these claims are claims of pure fantasy. We have no magical divine protection against forces of nature with the potential to destroy the planet - or at least all human life. All that we have is our own ability to learn about them before it is too late and to prevent or weaken their effects if possible. If the human race does suffer a violent end due to some cosmic event, it will not be due to a "divine will" but bad luck potentially augmented by basic human ignorance or foolishness.

Another claim I sometimes hear is that an untouched asteroid, moon, or planet has intrinsic value. As soon as humans touch it, this value is destroyed and can never be restored. However, nothing has intrinsic value. The untouched moon only has value to the person who desires it. Here, we need to ask whether we have reason to promote or to inhibit this desire for untouched asteroids. Given that untouched asteroids have no desires of their own, and no living thing on them has desires, and given the large set of human desired thwarted by an aversion to putting marks on moons and asteroids, this "desire for an untouched moon" counts as an evil - as a desire we have many and strong reasons to condemn.

On the other side, there is no intrinsic value in exploration either. Exploration has value only insofar that, for some desires that P, P is true in the act of exploring or its consequences. On this measure, the desire to explore likely has value. It has fulfilled other human desires in the past and will likely do so in the future. It is a desire to be encouraged through praise, not discouraged through condemnation.

However, space exploration costs money. The resources spent in making or keeping P true through space exploration for any desires that P are resources not being spent on making or keeping Q true for any desires that Q. Famine, drought, poverty, disease, the ravages of war and criminal activities, other natural disasters, all thwart a great many desires. The argument can be made that the resources spent on a space program would be better spent on a health program, or an energy program, or a peace program.

That might actually be true - though no other program would be worth much if the human race itself were to be destroyed. But, then, what are the odds of that happening?

So, these are the types of considerations that are relevant to space development. They will help to tell us not only whether we should have a space program, but what form it should take. They also tell us something about how to apply desirism to an actual policy issue. I will look at these types of considerations in some detail in the posts that follow.

1 comment:

Hand of Talha said...

Debunking the Pseudo-Scientific New Atheist