Friday, March 29, 2013

Homosexual Marriage and Scripture as a Source of Morality

I was asked the following question:

Alonzo: in the South, where I was born & lived most of my life, the majority of people think that gay marriage is immoral because it says so in the Bible. How do you think I should I respond to that?

Well, "should" is an ambiguous term.

"Should" relates objects of evaluation (in this case, a response) to a set of desires.

What which desires?

Often, this can be answered by looking at the context in which the question is asked. It is much like asking for directions. If a person asks, "How do I get to the museum?" this invites the questions, "Which museum?" and "Where are you at now?". However, we can often answer these questions by looking at the context in which the question is asked. In a conversation about an exhibit at the Natural History Museum, we may assume that this is "the museum" in question.

The question could be asking, "What would be the most politically effective response where the goal is to get the person to support - or at least not oppose - a political objective, such as marriage equality?" If this is the question, it may be the case that the most persuasive response is built on a false premise or a convincing fallacy. If an officer in Exxon-Mobile were to ask the Public Relations department, "If I get challenged on global warming, how should I respond?" he is probably best understood as asking for a response evaluated in terms of maximizing profit - regardless of truth or logical soundness.

I am not offering this account to be pendantic. This is a property of the word "should" that is often overlooked and that causes confusion. Desirism provides an account of "should" that explains this ambiguity and provides a way of resolving it. It is one of the things that I offer as evidence that desirism provides a better account of "ought" and "should" than its competitors.

In this case, I am not a political strategist, nor do I want to be. That interpretation of the question would not fit this particular context. In this context, I will interpret "should" as one that relates the reponse to the goal of understanding the facts of the matter and reporting those facts to others.

In that sense, my response would be to say to this person, "You are mistaken. It is not the case that you hold gay marriage to be immoral because it is condemned in scripture. I can prove it."

When a person claims, "A implies B" you can disprove this by offering counter examples of the form "A and not B". So, if a person claims, "Homosexual marriage is condemned in the Bible; therefore I condemn it," this can be disproved by providing examples of X where X is condemned in the Bible but the agent does not condemn X.

Here, the question is, "Where do we start?" We've got things from making graven images to working on the sabbath to eating shellfish to touching the skin of a pig to wearing two types of cloth to the charging of interest (e.g., having an interest-bearing savings account).

With this, we demonstrate, "I hold that homosexual marriage is wrong because it is condensed in the Bible." is almost certainly false.

In fact, the opposite claim seems to me much closer to the truth. "I judge that the Bible condemns homosexual marriage because I hold that homosexual marriage to be immoral." This has the power to explain not only the person's views on homosexual marriage, but on a long list of other issues. It explains why they do not interpret scripture as condemning the eating of shell fish, working on the Sabbath, or collecting interest on a savings account, CD, or bond.

The fact of the matter is that - no matter what a person claims - they do not get their morality FROM scripture. They assign their morality TO scripture.

Where does these moral beliefs come from if they do not come from Scripture?

They are learned from one's environment - one's culture. In the case of homosexual marriage, in the south the majority of people have picked up a cultural prejudice against homosexual marriage. They have also learned the cultural art of assigning one's prejudices to Scripture by promoting or stressing those elements that support one's learned prejudices while ignoring parts that conflict with one's learned prejudices. Thus, they do not "see" in Scripture a condemnation for charging interest, eating shellfish, or working on the Sabbath.

While they claim to get their morality from God, they are actually getting their morality from their community and assigning their community's subjective opinions to God.

This response may not be politically effective, but it is accurate.

One can take the phrase, "In the South . . . people think that gay marriage is immoral because it says so in the Bible," and mark this phrase as "False". I know that a lot of people claim this, but observed behavior does not support this thesis. The response that a person who is interested in the truth and reporting to the truth to others would give to somebody who makes this claim would be, "No, that's not true. Here's the proof," and to go on from there.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Trip Into Space - The Far Future

Today, to end my series on space development, I will engage in some wild and speculative prognostication.

Many space enthusiasts advocate colonizing the Moon or Mars. Some of this may happen, and I have no interest in campaigning against them. However, I think that this represents a planetary bias that humans will quickly outgrow. A time will come - assuming we do not destroy ourselves - when the bulk of humanity lives - not on planets or moons - but in space.

Space provides several advantages over any planet-based community. Not the least of which is - a person can pick their gravity. I mentioned the weights on the spokes of the near-earth-orbit colony. They move in to increase the rate of spin, and out to slow the community down. Modules can be put at different lengths from the center, so that one module can have half of the gravity of another. Non-rotating modules can be attached to the hub.

Another advantage is ease of travel. Give something a gentile nudge in the right direction, and it will eventually reach its (nearby) destination. Drastically changing orbits - going from low earth to gyosynchronous orbit - will take more energy. However, it will not take nearly as much as getting into orbit from a planet's surface.

A space community has constant or near-constant sunlight - thus a near-constant source of energy.

Finally, a significant advantage of space development is the availability of much more living space. With peak efficiency, there is enough material in the asteroid belt to construct the living area equivalent of 30,000 earths. Assuming gross inefficiency, we can see a future with 1 earth, 1 Mars, and 300 earth-equivalents worth of orbiting habitats. And this ignores the material found in Jupiter's moons or comets. Planet-dwellers will be a small minority of humanity.

I am not advocating this option. I am merely predicting. At the same time, I must admit to a lot of ignorance behind this prediction. What new inventions will come our way? What will result from blending human brains with computers? I will be the first to admit that these predictions are almost certainly wrong. But, it is fun to speculate.

Where will these communities be built?

To answer this question, we need to look at what humans value as a means and as an end. Much of this value is best obtained by close proximity to others and the benefits of trade.

I expect many of these communities to be built primarily near Earth, where it occupants can communicate with Earth and others in near-Earth space, visit others, and trade with others.

A commenter to an earlier post mentioned Larry Niven's "Ringworld" around the sun. This is far-fetched. However, a "Ringworld" around the Earth - a "Tubeworld" 71,572 kilometers in diameter (over 236,000 kilometers long) represents one possible future.

There will be other communities built in the vicinity of large asteroids, where mining communities last for centuries until the asteroid is gone and the community built from it remains. The larger the asteroid, the larger the community that is left behind.

In the longer-term future, I think I can predict what star humans will colonize first.

Proxima Centauri.

Over time, people will come to realize that there are four essential natural resources. Any place where these are found in abundance is inhabitable. These are protons, neutrons, electrons, and photons. Proxima Centauri itself is a source of photons. It almost certainly has stuff orbiting it - asteroids and comets that can provide protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Some day, an earth-based craft will arrive. It will enter orbit. It's occupants will go to work applying photons to protons, neutrons, and electrons, and a new community will be born. Given the slow rate at which red dwarfs consume fuel, the inhabitants of this system will see the Earth's sun grow red, burst into a planetary nebula, then shrink and fade from existence. However, they will have the potential to endure for tens to hundreds of billions of years, giving rise to other communities around other red-dwarf stars.

Except, that is far too far away for any reasonable predictions to be made. Just imaginings.

Tomorrow, I'll be coming back to earth.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Trip Into Space - Geostationary Orbit

Today, I am continuing a series that I am writing mostly for enjoyment on the value of developing space.

I mentioned one important reason why a space station should be on an equatorial orbit - and why anybody intending on building a useful space station would focus on one in such an orbit. It is because one does not want to turn in space. Without an atmosphere, turning takes a lot of energy.

This is important because, above our low-earth-orbit space station, at an altitude of 35,786 kilometers, is Geostationary Orbit.

At this altitude, an object in orbit stays constantly above a fixed point on the Earth's equator. A satellite here orbits the earth as fast as the earth spins.

These satellites are in an equatorial orbit. The station in low earth orbit is a way point. Consequently, it is best to have the station in low earth orbit be in an equatorial orbit (or very close to it). This is the gateway to space.

You have left the rocket that brought you here from Earth a few days ago. You have spent that time getting used to space, perhaps being trained in some of the skills that are useful in space. Some people have trouble adapting . . . and may get sent home. However, we will assume that you have adapted well and you are ready to start work.

On your day of departure, you will board a space ship.

This space ship is not of a type often seen in science fiction (modeled too much after ocean-going ships). It will likely be a sphere - having the greatest ratio of volume to surface area, and no corners that the inside air pressure would want to push apart. Once on board, a rocket will fire, and you will be on your way to high earth orbit.

This resource is already being used for communication satellites and for some weather and earth monitoring satellites. It will be important for solar power satellites that beam their energy down to fixed fields on the Earth.

One of the businesses of space development will be the construction and maintenance of these satellites. In fact, the space habitat itself may become a communication hub (where the habitat picks up and rebroadcasts information).

These stations are above the Van Allen belts, which means that occupants will be exposed to cosmic rays. Protection from this and other forms of radiation can be accomplished with about 1 meter of solid mass. Any mass will do - though with mass having a greater density the shield can be thinner.

We can get this mass from asteroids - bringing them (or parts of them) into a high Earth orbit. The asteroid material would be pulverized and refined - with the useful material extracted, leaving behind large lump of tailings. These otherwise useless tailings can be used to make the shell within which our space inhabitants would live - perhaps being formed into a cylinder 3 kilometers in diameter and 20 kilometers long. The cylinder does not rotate; however, the community built inside would. That community would have three counter-rotating sections; 5 kilometers roasting one way, 10 kilometers rotating the other way, and the final 5 kilometers turning the same direction as the first five. This way, angular momentum transferred from the station to the shell will be cancelled out.

The metric for travel in space is called "delay-v" or "change in velocity". It determines how much energy is required to change something from its one orbit to another - from an asteroid's orbit to earth's orbit. On this metric, there are hundreds of known and thousands of unknown asteroids "closer" than the moon.

Nature itself is constantly making small adjustments to the orbits of these asteroids. Over time, these random changes bring some of them into a violent confrontation with Earth. Even ignoring everything said with respect to the usefulness of space development, we have many and strong reason to seek some influence over their orbits.

One option is to move them into a safe earth orbit where we can do something constructive with them.

One of the implications of this is that geostationary orbit will not only be the location for communication and power generation, but also for mining and manufacturing.

Communication, a source of energy to last billions of years, mining, manufacturing, earth defense, and "because it's there" - these are some of the high-value goods to be acquired in high-earth orbit.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Trip Into Space - The Value of a Space Station

The value of a space station

In this trip into space, you so far remain on an observation deck at 0.6 G, enjoying a refreshing drink of your choice, looking out the window at the "bicycle tire" in space, where you sit on the inner rim. Space circles around you at the rate of 1 turn every 80 seconds.

The question arises, "What is the value of a space station?"

Many space enthusiasts, in defending their interest, will try to list a set of instrumental values. They may mention benefits of space-based manufacturing, where weightlessness allows for a better mixing of elements that tend to separate under the influence of gravity. They may mention the spinoff effects, as learning to do this motivates inventions having a use outside the space program.

Some of them are far-fetched rationalizations.

Many will point out, "Every dollar spent on the space program is spent on earth."

It is true that the people who built parts for the International Space Station and who will build the parts for the next space station live in cities on Earth and spend their money at stores on Earth.

However, this would also be true of a program that paid people to do nothing for an hour each day but stand in an empty room and stare at empty walls. They, too, would spend the money they are paid at local stores. However, it does not follow from this that their time is not wasted, and the program that pays them for this time is not a waste of money. People who take this to be a valid defense of a space program have let their passions crowd out their reason.

A space enthusiast may assert that paying people to learn math and engineering is certainly better than paying them to stare at an empty wall. However, it would not answer the challenge of why we cannot have them learn biology and medicine or better construction techniques here on Earth instead. People should be inspired by the challenge of growing food in a growing desert on earth, rather than how to build a community in space. These people still learn something useful - but they also do something useful with what they learn.

An understanding of the nature of value makes it easy to recognize a value that even space enthusiasts often miss - yet it is an important part of their own motivation.

Between 100 and 200 people have died trying to climb Mount Everest. The actual number depends on what counts as "trying to climb Mount Everest". These were young and healthy people. In addition to this cost, we must add the cost in terms of time, energy, and money that went into these expeditions. These people also improved themselves - educated themselves and promoted their physical fitness (and the fitness of those around them).

However, if we looked only at the utility - the usefulness - of spending a few minutes on one square meter of land at the top of Mount Everest, we could not explain this behavior. It has no gold or oil. Not does it have a natural resource such as "Zero Gravity" that can be harvested. The technology of mountain climbing may or may not have developed spin-off effects useful to all of humanity - this hardly seems worth the investment and certainly does not motivate much of it.

An often neglected answer is found in the famous quote of explaining his interest in climbing a mountain. "Because it's there."

This says that we are not to look at the value of mountain climbing in terms of its utility - its usefulness. Or, at least, not entirely in its usefulness. The value of climbing a mountain is found directly in the proposition, "I have climbed a mountain." The value of building a community in space can be found in part in making true the proposition, "We have made a community in space."

A person need not explain - and cannot explain - the value of eating a chocolate cake in terms of its usefulness. It is the eating of a chocolate cake that has value - not its effects.

To some, standing on the observation deck of a space station, watching the universe spin around it, and knowing, "I helped make this happen," is their chocolate cake.

Here, we can still ask whether it would be better to choose another accomplishment. "We have ended childhood malnutrition," or "We have halved illiteracy rates" are better goals than, "We have built a community in space."

Desirism actually invites this question. The value of living on and helping to construct a space station is determined by its relationship to certain desires, the value of those desires are further measured by their capacity to fill yet other desires. While living in space is chocolate cake to some people, is this a desire to encourage or discourage?

In an earlier post, I pointed out that if we were to give up things on the grounds that there are more important things to be done with that time and resources, that space development is far down the list. Sports, computer games, movies and television entertainment, jewelry, cosmetics, dining - all of these represent many billions of dollars and countless hours of labor that could go into "ending childhood malnutrition" and "fighting illiteracy". There are a lot of interests to condemn before we get down to condemning an interest in living and working in space.

On this matter, the desire to explore - to push beyond the horizon - has served humanity well. Without it, we would at best still be a small and impoverished tribe in Africa - and probably extinct. At this point in our history as a species, Earth itself is the equivalent of that valley where the mitochondrial Eve - the biological mother of all humans - was born. For us to lock ourselves on this planet is no different than that tribe locking itself in that valley.

If the call - or the biological nature - of those beings had been, "Do not venture beyond the valley until we have first solved all of our problems at home," it would have remained forever primitive, small, and vulnerable. The land outside the valley holds some of the opportunities for dealing with those problems. Confining everybody to the valley denies them access to those resources.

It would likely be counter-productive to squash this interest with condemnation and ridicule.

There are not only utilitarian reasons to promote the desire to explore and to push outside of our current boundaries, there are utilitarian reasons to explore space. We need energy and other resources - and it is better to harvest them from space than to cut greater and greater scars into the living earth. Space development has contributed directly to improvements in communication, weather and climate monitoring, land management, and GPS navigation. Space development will help to ensure the very survival of the human race, and secure it from harms inflicted by a vast and powerful universe entirely indifferent to its continued existence.

All of these things contribute to the value of a space community. Yet, it is a mistake to focus exclusively on these and to forget the fact that one of the reasons a space community has value is, "Because it's there."

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Trip Into Space - The Desires of the Rich

In my last post, referencing the economics of a space station, I mentioned the fact that there is more money to be had fulfilling the fewer and weaker desires of the rich than the more and stronger desires of the poor.

However, I want to add that "fewer and weaker" does not translate into "worse".

The quality of a desire is not determined by its strength or commonality. It is determined -like the value of all things is determined - by a tendancy to fulfill other desires.

Bill and Melinda Gates' "fewer and weaker desires" are fulfilled by helping to cure malaria and improve education. Their interest in doing good also motivates them to conduct research into what will do the most good. Warren Buffett's interest in doing the most good motivated him to take advantage of Gates' research and donate his money to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It is important to note that there is a distinction between desires TO fulfill the desires of others and desires THAT fulfill the desires of others. There is no intrinsic value that gives a member of the first family of desires natural superiority over a member of the second family. All value that exists is in the form of a relationship between states of affairs and other desires. An interest in space for its own sake can have value in contributing to the defense of the planet from harms even though it may not be a desire TO protect the people on Earth from the dangers of space.

A small number of billionaires are investing money in space development. This includes Robert Bigalow's investments in inflatable space habitats. Elon Musk's interest in building a reusable rocket to lower the cost of access to space. Paul Allen's interest in winning the X Prize for a suborbital and rapidly reusable suborbital rocket. Richard Branson's interest in turning this into a suborbital business. And all of the rich people who are interested in buying tickets to visit space.

Insofar as the long-term survival of the human race, future access to natural resources such as clean energy and minerals without cutting deeper scars into the living ecosystems of earth, and the very survival of the human race may depend on the infrastructure and knowledge gained from fulfilling these desires, they may well qualify as desires THAT fulfill other desires.

There would be no reason to complain about differences in wealth if those who had wealth universally had good desires. In fact, we can trust the Bill and Melinda Gates' foundation to do far more good with $60 billion than any state program can do with several times as much. The state organization would have to worry about fraud and enforcement in getting the money, and in the several special interests groups that will try to channel it from that which will do the most good into the pockets of their constituents.

Evil arises from those who have wealth but do not have good desires - or who actually have bad desires. Chief among these include the desire is to form an empire and to act like ancient Roman aristocracy or feudal lords and ladies over the "serfs" that work their estates. It can also be found not so much the presence of a bad desire but the absence of a good desire - an utter disregard for the killing, maiming, and physical destruction that results from activities that put money on one's own pocket.

Here on the negative side we can also apply the distinction between a desire TO harm others and desires THAT harm other. Here, too, there is no intrinsic value that makes a member of the first family intrinsically bad and a member of the second family morally neutral. A person cannot absolve himself from responsibility for claiming, "But I did not want to kill and maim and poison others and destroy their propery. I just did not care about the fact that it was possible." We condemn the drunk driver - not for wanting to slaughter the family that they crash into on the highway, but for the disregard evident in putting them at risk. The head of the corporation unconcerned with the potential for his products to destroy classifies him as many orders of magnitude worse than any drunk driver.

In summary, an activity that fulfills the fewer and weaker desires of the wealthy is not necessarily bad. It depends on whether those desires themselves tend to fill other desires. Desires that contribute to access to resources such as energy, and potentially to the prevention of catastrophic disasters, would meet those standards.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Trip Into Space - The Politics and Economics of a Space Community

In this series about that which has value in space development, I began you on a trip into space.

I have presented the value of a space station in equatorial orbit, understanding motion sickness, and developing the technology to build a modular rotating habitat.

Since then, I left you sitting in an observation room at 0.6 x normal earth gravity, on the inside rim of a bicycle tire in space. The tire is 2 kilometers in diameter, with spokes from the non-rotating hub to the wheel. From your perspective, the non-moving station arches across the top of the sky, while the Earth, moon, sun, and other stars rotate around a full circle every 80 seconds.

You might see "ballast" on the spokes. These are heavy weights that can be pulled up to the center or lowered to the rim. These computer-controlled weights keep the station balanced. They can also be used to speed up the rotation (by drawing them closer to the hub), or slowing the rotation (by dropping them closer to the rim).

How is this community governed?

Political ideologies aside, we already know the form of government that will rule the first space communities. It will be governed like a ship. There will be a captain with near dictatorial powers, answerable to an earth-based authority. That earth-based authority will likely be a nation-state (e.g., China), a company (e.g., Bigalow Aerospace), or an international treaty-based organization. She will command a crew that makes up a substantial percentage of the occupants of the community. Everybody else will be passengers.

The rule of the station will be to obey the Captain in all things - and to obey the crew as they would the Captain. In the end, the Captain will have to demonstrate that there is some sense in which her commands were relevant to securing the safety or profitability of the ship and its crew and passengers. However, she will be given wide discretion in determining how to promote security, but profitability will be determined by the number at the bottom of the balance sheet.

If we are looking for an earth-based analog to what life would be like on board an orbiting station, perhaps the modern cruise ship would be best.

The passengers make the space station possible. It is from their pockets that the money comes to pay the salaries and other bills. "Crew" fits in the category of expense - and there will be pressure to keep the expenses as low as possible. On average, they will have very deep pockets. Space stations will cater to the very rich - people who have the money to do whatever they please. Those who are not spending their own money are spending corporate money on that which they hope to sell to others who have money, or they are spending government money extracted from the taxpayer. Potential items of value will include engineering research, medical research, zero-gravity (or low-gravity) manufacturing, space-based solar power, and communication services.

At this point, we need to introduce another relevant economic fact that is often overlooked. It has to do with the economic effects of differences in wealth.

In determining what type of goods and services to pursue, the space station management organization needs to look at who has - or who can acquire - money that they can be convinced to spend. This involves looking not only at who has the wealth - but who has wealth above and beyond that which they need to provide for the basics of such as food, water, and rudimentary medical care.

While the top 1% may personally own over 30% of the world's wealth, they own substantially more than 30% of that wealth that they can afford to spend after paying for food, shelter, and medical care. Consequently, an orbiting space community (indeed, all economic activity) is best aimed at serving the interests of the wealthiest people on the planet. The effect of unequal wealth distribution is to pull a great deal of economic activity away from serving the interests of those who have more and stronger desires but an inability to pay, and towards the fulfillment of fewer and weaker desires of those with an excessive ability to pay.

I am not saying anything at this point about the ethics of this fact. However, it is a fact. Wealth differences result in an economy that directs resources away from fulfilling the more and stronger desires of those who have less wealth and toward the fulfillment of the fewer and weaker desires of those who have greater wealth. Wealth differences exist. A real-world space station must be built in recognition of real-world facts or it will fail.

To reduce this post to its most basic point - the problems we experience on earth will not vanish above the stratosphere. The orbiting space station will have its own issues to deal with. There will be issues concerning the tradeoff between safety and cost. There will be under-paid and over-worked workers. There will be vast amount of resources devoted to fulfilling the fewer and weaker desires of those with wealth over the more and stronger desires of those who cannot pay. There will be problems with abuse of power. There will be rapes, murders, theft, and abuse.

At the same time we do research on the engineering problems that will be faced in a space station, the social and political problems deserve some of our attention as well.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Trip Into Space - Low Earth Orbit Space Station

I am taking this week to talk about space development – looking at where research time and money ought to be going with the idea of developing a space-faring community.

I am doing this by taking you on an imaginary trip into space to live – to start a new job and become a member of a community in space.

You have left Earth and are now in low-earth orbit over the equator. As you drift to the orbiting space station, the captain has just turned on the seatbelt sign, directing passengers to strap themselves in for docking.

Outside your window, you can see the space station. But this is not your new home. This is just a stop along the way.

To understand what you see, here are some relevant facts about objects orbiting the earth.

Assume that you are standing in an object in low earth orbit over the equator, facing east (the direction of travel), with the earth below your feet.

There is another object orbiting 1 kilometer to your right.

Forty-five minutes from now, that object will be 1 kilometer to your left. Forty-five minutes after that, it will back to your right again. Thirty-two times per day, it will cross your path. If you are in its way (if it is not at the same time a little ahead of you or a little behind you, then there will be a collision.

If there is an object orbiting 1 kilometer above you then, slowly, it will drift further and further back. Objects in a higher orbit travel more slowly. An object 1 kilometer below you will drift further ahead – the way the inner planets in the solar system speed ahead of the outer planets.

Consequently, you should not expect to see a group of disconnected objects in space orbiting in formation over an extended period of time. When you look out your window, you will see a space station – a single object, perhaps with one or two space ships hovering nearby waiting to dock.

Another relevant fact is that long-term weightlessness is known to cause serious health problems. However, this long-term problem has a solution - a rotating community that simulates gravity through "centrifugal force". The simple fact is that until we have rotating space communities, people will not be living in space. At best, they will visit during short-term work assignments.

One of the reasons for this series (other than the fact that the subject interests me and I enjoy writing about it for its own sake) is to look at what is needed for space settlement. Where should we be investing our time and money?

From the first post - we should be developing a space station in a low equatorial orbit and the least expensive way to get there.

From the second post - we need to find answers to the problem of space sickness for a community whose members will transition from weight to weightlessness on a regular basis.

And we should be working on creating rotating habitats.

The simplest, least expensive form of rotating space station will take two habitats, connect them – perhaps even with something as simple as a set of cables around a central hub, and set it spinning. The resulting station would have a "dumbbell" shape - a sphere or set of disks at each end of a long bar - spinning in space like a baton.

A reasonable distance from the center hub to the outer habitat for the best effect will be about one kilometer. With a rotation of 270 degrees (three quarters of a spin) per minute, this habitat will simulate 0.6 G - which will balance the interest in preventing the harmful effects of weightlessness with the engineering reasons to keep the “weight” of the module, its contents, and the connecting material low.

The space station can be made modular, so that it can grow. A second dumbbell can be built and attached to the first to provide additional living and working space. These modules would be added in pairs of equal mass, perhaps connecting to the first in such a way that, eventually, the dumbbell space station becomes a wheel with spokes.

You will not be fastening one outside module directly to another. The outer module is actually travelling at a rate of more than 275 kilometers per hour in an arc around the central hub. Instead, one would need to set the two new modules spinning at the same rate as the station and then fasten them. Perhaps they will be set spinning on a short cable. Then, when attached, the connecting material will be lengthened as the new habitats move further and further away from the station.

This is going to be a serious engineering challenge – and something that we have many and strong reasons to investigate today.

While there is an interest in spinning the places where people live and work, there are reasons not to spin a lot of the mass that the station would find useful. The solar power arrays that feed the station, for example, would best be attached to the non-spinning hub so that the structure experiences less stress.

The best place for your rocket to dock with the orbiting station will be at this non-spinning hub attached to the center of the station.

After leaving the rocket, you will find your way to an elevator shaft, that will take you 1 kilometer “down” to the habitats. As the elevator descends, you will feel 60 percent of your weight return. Of course, it is not the case that all habitats must be the same distance from the center. Some can be built at 0.25 G, and perhaps others far enough out to simulate 1 G or more. What matters is keeping the wheel balanced.

To do that, there is a weight in the central hub that is shifted around to balance the movements of people and objects though the station. This is the same technology currently used to dampen the effects of swaying in tall buildings.

You have now finished the first leg of your journey. You are in a small room. After settling in to a small room, you have wandered into an observation station. From where you stand, the wheel of the space station – 2 kilometers in diameter – stays motionless “above” you. Meanwhile, the stars and the earth spin at a rate of 1 turn every 80 seconds – like the second hand on a slow clock. You can enjoy something to drink. You can use the bathroom. You can watch rocket ships as they dock and leave. As you do, you can recognize a difference between the long cylinders that travel to and from the Earth, and the stubby non-aerodynamic spheres that travel from station to station in space.

Enjoy your stay. We will be moving along shortly.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Trip Into Space - Orbit

In yesterday’s post, I got you into orbit.

You are now floating above the equator. While you enjoy weightlessness, the pilot is checking over the systems after launch and making plans to rondezvous with the space station.

You are encouraged to remain seated until the ship docks with the space station. There are a number of reasons for this.

There will be a few rocket burns along the way. With every burn, everything floating in the cabin will approach the part of the ship opposite the direction of acceleration. If the pilot speeds up, everything floating moves towards the back of the ship. If the pilot slows down, everything moves to the front.

However, there will be long periods where no burn is expected. At these times, the captain will turn off the seat-belt sign and allow those who wish to do so to experience weightlessness. "You are now free to float about the cabin."

There is another reasons to remain seated, however.

Weightlessness itself is more than “floating”. If you are in a pool, floating, you weigh just the same as you do on land. The water is holding you up in the same way that a floor holds you up – it simply changes its shape fit your body.

Even a sky diver in free fall is not “weightless”. When the sky diver reaches terminal velocity, the pressure of the air blowing past balances the pull of gravity. The sky diver us still falling, but she has stopped accelerating.

To get a better idea of what true weightlessness is like, imagine falling with your eyes closed – with no wind or anything else actually telling you that you are falling. Still, nothing holds you up. Alternatively, if you have ever been flying and hit turbulence, those few seconds where it feels that the plane is falling away from you, you are approaching weightlessness. That feeling is what it will feel like to be weightless. Only, it never ends.

In space, you are in a perpetual state of falling.

Some people will have difficulty when experiencing this. Some training is useful to get a person accustomed to the sensation. An airplane can simulate weightlessness for about 25 seconds. It is odd that this is called a “simulation”, since the passengers for those 25 seconds are actually weightless.

Even with training, it takes some professional astronauts several days to become accustomed to weightlessness lasting more than a few seconds. Not knowing which way is “up” (because there is no “up”) their brain struggles to make sense of these new sensations. As the trip to the space station continues, and the sensation of gravity remains absent, more and more fellow travelers will begin to experience increasingly severe motion sickness.

NASA gives a day or two for its astronauts to become accustomed to weightlessness. The best relief seems to be to remain still, eyes closed, and to not move one's head. Motion-sickness medication also works.

This is not only a problem for those who enter space. The best place to work and live in space is in an environment of simulated gravity. However, this means transitioning to weightlessness on a regular basis. Some people can work in a weightless environment by day and return to simulated gravity when their shift ends, but not many.

Solving this problem will reduce one of the most significant costs of living and working in space.

The best place to do research on these types of problems is in space itself. One needs to send people into space for a day or two to try different things. There is a chance, when space travel is more common, that medical science will find another solution - one that allows people to avoid these sensations entirely.

Another issue that will become apparent after a few minutes springs from the fact that we evolved in a gravity well. Our bodies evolved to push liquids to the head and upper body against gravity. These systems continue to work in space. The face becomes swollen as you feel a pressure of the blood (and other liquids) pooling in the head - much like the sensation of standing on one's head.

After a couple of hours, you will be asked to return to your seat for docking. The spaceship you are travelling in has drifted near enough to the space station to start docking maneuvers. You can see the space station out the window. I will describe it to you in the next post.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Trip Into Space - Launch

This week I am going to have some fun describing life in space.

However, this will not be a frivolous waste of time. There are certain facts about living and working in space that have important implications for how we spend resources on that project. Some of these facts are ignored in our our current space program.

For example, we should be working towards an equatorial space station (a space station on an orbit directly over the equator).

One of the relevant facts is that we do not want to be making any turns in space.

An object in near-earth orbit is moving approximately 7.7 kilometers per second (about 17,500 miles per hour). Making a right turn requires twice as much energy as it took to get that object moving at this speed to start with (minus the effort taken to lift it). To turn an object 90 degrees to the right, one must reduce its forward speed from 7.7 km/s to 0.0, while increasing its speed to the right from 0 to 7.7. In an atmosphere, one can use drag and lift to bring about these effects. To reduce the need to turn, we should build things in their most useful orbit - and for big projects that is an equatorial orbit.

Another of these relevant facts is that the least expensive route from space into orbit starts with flying east along the equator on earth and ends at a space station in low earth orbit over the equator.

The reason is because an object flying east at, let us say, 350 miles per hour picks up another 1000 miles per hour just from the spin of the earth. This is how fast a spot on the equator is moving as the earth spins. This gives you your first 0.6 of the 7.7 km/s at a low cost.

These facts, and others argue that we should be investing in an equatorial space station - and that whomever does so first will have an advantage in controlling the gateway to space.

Given this fact, your trip into space will start at a space port near the equator. You will board what will be recognizable as a standard conventional airplane - wings, engine. You will take your seat, and extra emphasis will be placed on everything being secured. You will likely be required to put on a certified flight suit (overalls) before boarding - and may be at least advised to wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth.

You will take off, fly to the equator, and turn east - and climb.

Do not expect to be served anything on your flight that might produce crumbs or might spill.

When you are going as high and as fast as the plane can get you, you will be warned to prepare for launch. A last check will be made that everything is secure and everybody is fastened in their seats. There will likely be a countdown.

When the countdown reaches 0 you will become instantly weightless as the rocket separates from the airplane. While you drop, the plane that brought you climbs up and away. When you are clear of the plane, the rockets fire, pushing you back into your seat as if somebody sat a bag on your chest that weighs twice as much as you do.

This will last about 4 minutes. During that time the sky outside the window grows black, and the curve of the earth grows noticeable below you.

Then comes main-engine cut-off, and you will be weightless. The seat will actually push you up into your straps.

Anything that was not secured will start to float about the cabin. This actually creates a risk - since these things can be inhaled. The flight suit and mask are to both keep loose things from floating around the cabin, and to prevent people from inhaling things that are missed.

You will also likely be expected to wear a pair of diapers during your space flight. Leaving your seat to go to a weightless bathroom is going to be a real bother - and, in fact, create a risk for yourself and others. It would be best not to bother. Astronauts today are already accustomed to this. It is a very simple solution to a human need - and one where embarrassment is out of place.

Another problem that the space industry will have to deal with is the fact that this sudden change from 1G to 0G to 3G to 0G - with an extended amount of time in 0G - is not going to set well with some people's stomachs. Barf bags may be sufficient - though some people will not complete this maneuver successfully.

Science fiction has the luxury of simply ignoring unpleasant realities it does not want to deal with. Real space travel will not have that option. When people really go into space on a regular basis - these will be some of the realities they will have to deal with.

Well, you are in orbit now, with your fellow passengers. You are weightless. You will probably be free to move around the cabin, look out the window, and enjoy your flight. It will take several hours to rondezvous with the space station.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

A Plan to Sell the Moon

My Wild Scheme - Auctioning the Moon

This post is fantasy - something I find pleasing to imagine but not something I expect to become real. However, it contains within it some important considerations on the nature of value - particularly as it relates to both space development and the care of young children.

Step 1: Create an international organization dedicated to providing children age 12 and under with proper nutrition, health care, and education.

Though I have some strong views about the nature of this organization - that nutrition, health care, and education all be guided by science rather than religion - I also recognize a political reality. This organization will represent a compromise among people with a wide variety of views and, consequently, will not be entirely pleasing to any one individual or group. The need for political compromise is a fact of life, and has to be admitted at the start.

Step 2: Fund the organization.

For funding, I recommend the following:

Give the organization an international license to sell property in space - on the moon, on Mars, the Martian moons, the asteroids, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and so on.

Let me present an image of the first auction.

The action is for the land in a block 100 kilometers wide and 100 kilometers long with the Apollo 11 landing site at its center.

16 square kilometers (4 km x 4km) at the center is not for sale. It is a historical preserve with the untrammeled Apollo 11 landing site at its center. No development is permitted.

20 square kilometers around this (the outer 1 kilometer of a 6 km x 6 km block at the center) is reserved for the association of property owners that is to be formed after the auction. I envision an association where each property owner is given 1 vote for each plot of land that they own - and residents (if there are any) also getting a vote. However, the details here - like those above - are subject to negotiation.

The remaining 964 square kilometers is divided into plots of land 100 meters wide and 100 meters long - a total of 964,000 plots of land.

These plots are all put up for sale in a huge auction. A bidding system is set up so that bidders can log in, identify a plot of land, and put a bid on it - similar to that which is already used in online auctions such as on e-Bay.

On the day the auction closes, the high bidders for each plot of land make good on their bid. The plots of those who do not make good on their bid go back to the international organization for the care, feeding, and education of children to be re-auctioned. The money collected is also handed over to the organization, with the highest bidder for each plot becoming the legitimate internationally recognize owner of that plot of land.

The property owners' association will collect dues from each property owner, as well as rents from the 20 square kilometers of land given to it, and from the sale of any goods and services it can offer on the market. The organization, for example, may arrange for a lunar orbiter to take very high resolution images of the moon and sell those images to property owners, or arrange for a lunar rover to land, or a sample-return mission, or even to send people to the area. It will also, no doubt, be involved in defending and defining certain rights and duties of the property owners in court and in internal negotiations.

The surface area of the moon is such that there can be 3800 auctions of this size. There can me 14,480 similarly sized auctions for property on Mars, 7480 auctions respecting property on Mercury, and 46,020 auctions for property on Venus - though its surface is so far out of reach. There can also be auctions for asteroids, property on the moons of the gas giants (e.g., Titan), Pluto and other Kuiper belt objects, the Oort cloud objects, and (though premature at this point) planets known to orbit other stars.

Of course, I am putting no weight on the claim that auctions must take the form of 100 meter x 100 meter plots. In fact, some auctions should not be auctioned this way. Small asteroids and comets should be auctioned off whole. Ice fields in the dark craters of the lunar poles should be auctioned by the patch (though particularly large patches should be auctioned in sections). The specifics of the auction are, like the other elements, subject to negotiation. However, the principle behind these auctions is that they are used to fund an organization that is dedicated to the feeding, care, and education of young children.

I tend to fit responses to such a plan into three categories.

The first category is the "devil is in the details" category. They concern disputes and concerns about how the details of the project. How should the auction be handled? What should be auctioned? What rights - exactly - does one person have? What powers would the property owner's association have? Who will have the responsibility to make laws governing this land? There are similar questions to be asked with respect to making sure that the aid actually goes to children and not to warlords. Which children? Who decides, and how do they decide?

A second category of responses is like the first, but it declares its problem to be insurmountable - and are offered as reasons to reject such a project entirely.

The third category of objections are objections in principle. "This project should not take place because there should not be any property ownership," or "The International Organization does not have a legitimate natural right to sell this property." This category provides an interesting framework for discussing moral and political theory.

Though, in the end, it must be admitted that this is a dream. It is a very good dream, but a dream nonetheless.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Desirism and Self-Sacrifice

A good person never sacrifices his own interests for the well-being of another.

This is not because a good person is selfish. Rather, it is because a good person is a person that has those interests that tend to fulfill the desires of others. A good person may rush into a burning building to save her children. However, this is not an act of self-sacrifice. It is the best way available to her (we may assume) to realize her own interest in her children's well-being.

A good person has an interest in being somebody others can depend on and in being honest. He enjoys helping others, and prefers spending money to provide a child with medicine to prevent blindness to buying tickets to a local sporting event or concert. He is not giving up anything he values when he does this. Instead, he is realizing the things that he values - he is pursuing the things that interest him. It's just that what interests him are things that produce benefits to others.

This topic comes up because of a post I wrote on space development.

In that post, I discussed the claim that money sent on space development is wasted and we should worry about the problems we have here on Earth before spending money on a space program.

One of me answers to this assertion is to note that if we are looking for something to cut spending on so that we can "solve the problems here on earth," the space program sits pretty far down the list. I mentioned computer games, movies, sports, and dining. I added jewelry, cosmetics, and ocean cruises.

We can clearly argue that the making of a film version of "The Hobbit" can wait until we have solved sone of the problems here on Earth. The 3 to 4 billion dollars people will spend on movie tickets for the trilogy can help a lot of children.

This invited a criticism (often applied to act-utilitarian theories, where it is valid) - that the theory is too demanding. It seems that one must give up very thing that one enjoys as long as there is a hungry child in the world.

For example, this has been a constant criticism of Peter Singer's preference-satisfaction act utilitarianism. "One should always perform the act that satisfies the most preferences, regardless of whose they are."

However, desirism is not so much about what we should do as much as it is about what we should want. It is not about sacrificing an interest in seeing "The Hobbit" so that one can provide health care to a sick child. It is about being interested in providing health care to a sick child instead of having an interest to see "The Hobbit." The good person does not say, "I would love to see 'The Hobbit', but my money should go to feeding the poor instead." Instead, her interest in seeing, "The Hobbit" is like her interest in watching grass grow. She sacrifices nothing in refusing to see "The Hobbit" because she does not care to see it.

Because she has this particular set of interests, the world is a better place than it would be if she was somebody who wanted to see "The Hobbit" but cared nothing about the welfare of a sick child. People generally have more and stronger reasons to promote the first set of interests over the second, and to use praise and condemnation to realize this end.

I do not write this from a position of perfect virtue. I spend time doing things where I know there is little to no reason to praise people who have those interests. I can be found wasting time with a computer game where an interest in something else would be motivating me to do more good. I spend money on dining that could better be spent helping those who are starving. However, the quality of the interests I have does not change what people generally have reason to promote or inhibit through praise and condemnation.

However, my personal interests do not change the fact of what people generally have more and stronger reason to praise or to condemn. People, of course, want to see themselves as more worthy of praise and less worthy of condemnation. Consequently, there is a tendancy to adopt absurd arguments that boost the value of one's own likes. Yet, the fact of the matter remains stubbornly independent of the agent's personal interests.

Furthermore, it is a mistake to interpret this argument as claiming that, "We must force people to give up what they enjoy so that the resources can go to something more useful." It is, instead, an argument about which interests we have reason to promote and which we have reason to inhibit. If people enjoyed working toward better health care for all children a little more, and cared a little less about who will win the Super Bowl, so that they spend more time and money on the former and less time and money on the latter, the world would be a better place. But they are not sacrificing an interest in sports to provide health care for children. Instead, they would not have the interest in sports to sacrifice.

This is the way desirism looks at moral issues. A good person and the villain are alike in doing what they like. The difference is not found in what they do except insofar as what they do is a by-product of what they want.

Monday, March 04, 2013

How to Refute Desirism

Ultimately, desirism is built on the proposition that desires are the only end-reason for intentional action that exist. If one wishes to refute desirism there are two options:

One option is to show that desirism claims too much. The leading contender in this realm is "eliminative materialism" - the thesis that there are no desires. Here, the claim s that a modern theory of action - informed by neuroscience - will come up with a way to explain and predict behavior that makes no mention of "desires" or anything like them. When this happens, desires will be put in the trash bin of failed explanations such as aether, phlogiston, and demonic possession. Anything grounded on desires - such as desirism - will be trashed as well.

My sense is that desirism is most vulnerable from attacks from this direction. In fact, I expect findings in neuroscience will almost certainly require some modifications what we know about intentional action - resulting in some modification to our understanding of what desires are and how they work. Whether this will bend desirism past the breaking point remains to be seen.

In many cases, findings will only require a modification to desirism. For example, I typically assert that an agent acts to fulfill the most and strongest of his own desires given his beliefs. Technically, this is not true.

For example, I conveniently ignore the role of habit - which can cause an agent to perform an intentional action other than the act that will fulfill the most and strongest of his desires given his beliefs. I can switch two letters on the keyboard to my computer. My desire to type a post remains constant. Since I am the one that switched the keys, I know they have been switched. However, habit would sometimes cause me to press a key typing the wrong letter. My action in this case is not explained in terms of what would fulfill the most and strongest of my desires given my beliefs.

This does not threaten desirism. Habits - in addition to beliefs and desires - work to cause intentional actions. However, habits do not provide end-reasons for intentional action. That is to say, habits do not determine our goals. They simply establish a means to obtain those goals that require less mental energy than conscious deliberation.

I leave habit out of the picture because including it adds complexity without clarity. It is my version of the physics teacher's habit of talking about frictionless pulleus and massless strings. Yes, we know these things exist and they add complexity to the system. However, to understand the parts we are focused on (end-reasons for intentional action) we can ignore them for now.

This discussion of habit illustrates some of the components of a legitimate refutation of desirism. Habit provides a way of explaining a set of observable events that belief-desire theory cannot handle (typing the wrong key when the keys are switched). This gives us a reason to postulate habits. Somebody who wants to refute desirism will also need to come up with something - something real and observable - that desirism cannot handle.

The second form of attack against desirism holds that desirism claims too little. These attacks claim that there are end-reasons for intentional action in addition to desires. Examples include devine commands, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, social contracts, and a natural moral law.

This is the most common form of attack against desirism. However, it is also the form of attack that I hold to have almost zero chance of success. What do these end-reasons for intentional action that are not a desires look like? How did they come into existence? How can we reliably detect them? Without answers to these questions and others like them - and without a set of real-world observations that these theoretical end-reasons explain - we can dismiss them as fiction.

The most common form for this objection to take is to argue that there are circumstances in which desirism implies S, and S must be rejected, and therefore desirism itself must be rejected. That is to say, the critic attempts to reduce desirism to an absurdity.

For example, the critic might invent a scenario where desirism supports slavery of genocide. However, we all know that slavery and genocide are always wrong, so desirism must be rejected. Therefore, desirism must be rejected.

My first answer will be to say, "I am still waiting for a demonstration of the existence of these other end-reasons for intentional action. What are they? How did the come into existence? How do we reliably detect them?" Critics always fail these tests.

What the critic usually gives us is a conclusion they do not like. It I settles their stomach and causes them anxiety. From this, they conclude that the conclusion must be false, and desirism must be rejected. Their argument tends to be convicing (while remaining invalid) when the listener or reader shares this sense of emotional anxiety over the possibility of accepting the conclusion.

However, there is no valid inference from, "I do not like your conclusion." to "Therefore, it is false."

In many cases, desirism cannot only explain this anxiety, but can justify it. We can perhaps invent a story where there are beings in that world that have no reason to reject slavery. However, this does not change the fact that the people reading that example and looking at the conclusion are beings that exist in this world. In this world, we have many and strong reasons to promote a strong aversion to genocide or slavery. Thus, we have many and strong reasons to promote in others a feeling of anxiety whenever they read a story in which the beings in that story have little reason to reject slavery or genocide.

Because of these reasons, we do not want to say that the genocide or the slavery in the story is "permissible". This implies that the reader or listener ought not to feel any anxiety or unease over the states that exist in the story. Yet, we have reason to worry about reducing that moral/emotional to slavery or genocide. We have reason to reinforce the feelings of anxiety over seeing the slavery or genocide in the story as "legitimate".

However, this means that we have many and strong reasons to continue to call the slavery or genocide in the story "wrong", even where the beings in the story have no reason to reject it. This is because we are not directing the word "wrong" at the beings in the story. We are directing it at our fellow readers - praising fellow readers who have a strong negative reaction to a story of slavery or genocide while condemning those who do not.

Consequently, there is no real-world observation in the fact of our feeling of anxiety over a story that reports to describe slavery or genocide as "permissible" or in our reasons to promote similar anxiety on the part of others. There is no real-world observation that desirism cannot explain.

This is what I am waiting for on the part of those who claim to refute desirism. "These are the observations that your theory cannot explain. Here is the end-reason for intentional action that I am using to explain it. Here is its description. Here's how you can find it in the real world."

I am looking for something more than, "Desirism implies S, and I don't want S to be true." Or even, "Not only do I not like your conclusion, I and others have many and strong desire-based real-world reasons to want others to dislike your conclusion as well."