Posted by: spacewritinguy | February 14, 2008

Philosophy and Space Advocacy

I’d like to take the political discussion a level up and talk about philosophy. This might seem a rather academic or lofty approach, but sometimes instead of getting down into the weeds of hardware discussions–which I’m not qualified to argue anyway–it’s better to step back and consider what we’re really trying to accomplish.

Now I wouldn’t recommend that NASA design and develop space architectures this way, but it might serve as a jumping-off point for establishing a space advocacy campaign.

So when we talk philosophy, we go back to some serious questions.

  • What are human beings (in an older context, “what is man?” – for those of you more comfortable with the pre-PC language, feel free to substitute)?
  • What should a human being do with his/her life?
  • What is a good society?
  • How should people live?

Everyone will have a different answer to those questions. And while the specifics of what people say and think might vary, they could also fit into a variety of archetypes:

  • Humans are thinking beings.
  • Humans are tool builders.
  • Humans are economic animals.
  • Humans are part of nature.
  • Humans are individuals first.
  • Humans are members of a group first.
  • Humans are creatures of sensation.
  • Humans are spiritual beings/children of God.
  • Humans are made to love one another.
  • Humans are here to have fun.
  • Humans are here to do their duty.
  • Humans are fighters.
  • Humans are the creatures who laugh.
  • Et cetera.

Below that, you have questions of politics. For example, if you believe that human beings are primarily thinking beings (there are other statements above to which you might agree, but let’s stick with that as a starting point), you are most likely to believe in freedom of inquiry, open exchanges of information, and intellectual progress. Given that…

  • What should government do (or not do)?
  • What policies should government follow to ensure
  • What methods should government use to pursue an agreed-upon goal?

Now if you think humans are primarily thinking beings, you would obviously not want government interference in scientific inquiry. You would not want restraints on information sharing. And perhaps, as positive action, you would want your government to fund intellectual pursuits that allow individuals to learn more about the universe. Given those assumptions about what government should do, you can next decide on programs. And from there, we’ve got programmatic questions:

  • Where should we go?
  • What should we do when we get there?
  • What do we expect the outcomes to be?

The intellectually curious will most likely want to go everywhere. Now other ideas and beliefs will come into play: do you want to do as much as possible? Do you believe that human presence in a particular place is necessary to obtain the expected outcomes? If the answers to both questions are yes, and the expected outcomes are data for forming theories (rather than experiences to change or enhance the human experience), then you would most likely expect your government to fund a large number of robotic missions to other objects in the solar system. Below these questions, we have project questions:

  • What are our hardware/software requirements?
  • What hardware will meet those requirements?

Now all this might seem a long way to around the barn, but there’s a point to be made here. When you hear arguments about hardware, you might in fact be hearing an argument about program goals. When you hear arguments about program goals, you might in fact be hearing a political argument. And at bottom, political arguments are fundamental differences about what’s important in life.

When I first got into this space advocacy life, I was impressed by the philosophical tone of books like The Case for Mars and The High Frontier. Those books and others start from first principles because they make statements about human nature and sometimes human destiny. It’s a little utopian, but many philosophies are. NASA, too, has an underlying philosohpy–heck, call it faith: exploration is natural to the human condition. This is not, in fact, always true among cultures or individuals. The Chinese backed off from a couple centuries of bold exploration to the point of burning their ships and closing their borders. And one needn’t go as far as China 500 years ago. I went to high school with a very nice girl who looked at me in horror when I told her I was moving 60 miles away from home to go to college. When I told her I was going to move out of state after that, she shook her head in mystification, as if I’d said I wanted to move to Mars, sans spacesuit. But I digress.

The point is that NASA has a starting point in their message, and that point is an assumption about human nature. Other advocates have their assumptions as well. It might be a worthwhile endeavor to consider our founding principles and beliefs before going out and facing the non-space-interested public. Again, start with people, life on Earth, and the known, and then we can work our way up toward the stars. Of course we’ll never reach some people, but we can at least reach some other audiences in new ways.

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