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Guest Thinkers

Space(y?) Philosophy

1. So my post on NASA provoked a variety of most thoughtful responses.  The ones by Brendan were the most detailed and philosophic, but they were all worthwhile. 

2. Their relevance is heightened by this being the BIG THINK day where we question the wisdom of economic and technological progress from the point of view of STABILITY.  Being detached from our home planet would be mighty destablizing.  Another German philosopher, Hannah Arendt, actually feared that possibility as one culmination of the disorienting, inhuman logic of modern science.

3. So on BIG THINK I was attacked, once more, for being a conservative.  But in other places I was more reasonably attacked for being a liberal or at least libertarian.  A fiscal conservative could reasonably say we don’t have money for this techno-luxury these days, and a social conservative could add that playing around in space just distracts us from doing what’s required to lead decent and virtuous lives right here. 

4. The post about NASA needing a philosopher ended with a question mark.  It was, as they say, a thought experiment.  America’s most philosophic novelist of the 20th century, Walker Percy, said our job is to put back together what’s true about Anglo-American empiricism (science generally) with what’s true about European existentialism (which is really various forms of the dumbing down of the evil and pretty unreadable genius Martin Heidegger).

5.  So even in departments of philosophy you see that division.   Analytical philosophy is very rigorous and attuned to scientific inquiry, but it’s boring because it says so little about who we really are.  What usually called “Continental philosophy” is pretty interesting (to the extent it can divorce itself from bad translations of Heideggerian terminology) because it deals with real people in real situations (Sartre, Camus), but it’s usually between pretty and really undisciplined and usually has an unreasonable contempt for what scientists (such as our friend Carl Sagan) really know.  (I didn’t say Carl Sagan was silly about everything;  he wasn’t only an effective popularizing physicist–he was one heck of a theoretical physicist.)

6. So here’s, exactly, where Sagan was silly:  He thought we should make conscious our natural inclination to indefinitely perpetuate our species, and make that project our sacred cause.  And he thought that the ETs would be benignly wise “pure minds”–check out CONTACT or ET for the most boring aliens imaginable.  Those advanced minds, he thought, could tell us what we really needed to know to save ourselves from destruction, from our seemingly fatal combination of very high technology and residually reptilian brains. 

7. Given that we don’t really have a duty to the species, we might follow the Germans and say we have a duty to preserve what distinguishes human beings–openness to Being, the truth.  We have the duty to preserve the only source of meaning the universe.  There are realistic objections to this conclusion.  Brendan had a great one:  What has Being ever done for ME?

8.  To which I would add the obvious, what has the species ever done for ME?  Sagan and Heidegger, each in his own way, is too impersonal to be realistic about who each of us is.

9. Percy asked why it makes sence to be all excited about searching the cosmos for “aliens” when the strangest and most wonderfully alienated beings imaginable–US–live right here on earth.  That’s not to say there aren’t “aliens” elsewhere in the cosmos, but, following Percy and Brendan, I am saying we already know pretty much what they’ll be like.  Sagan’s problem is that he didn’t really appreciate how strange and wonderful WE are–and even HE was. (And Heidegger didn’t see that it it’s our NATURAL capacity for wondering that leads to our wandering…)  

10. I said before that we tend to exaggerate the ontological and theological significance of successfully cloning a human being.  Just because we, in a way, make the clones doesn’t mean they won’t have souls, display unique and irreplaceable individuality or the inwardness of personal identity.  Successful cloning won’t be any decisive evidence one way or another for the possibility that we’re beings made in the image and likeness of a personal God.

11. The same goes for discovering highly intelligent and in some way or another embodied life elsewhere in the cosmos. 


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