Thursday, February 21, 2013

C.S. Lewis On Astro-Ethics

The field of ethics in astrobiology and space exploration is small but growing.  Does anyone own the rights to the moon?  Who may profit from resources found on asteroids, or on other planets?  What obligations, if any, do we have to other species we may one day encounter?

C.S. Lewis was well ahead of his time in considering these questions.  As Matthew Dickerson and I have discussed at some length, Lewis's novel Out Of The Silent Planet takes up questions like these.  Lewis worried that our stories and myths about space exploration made aliens into monsters and made us into conquering heroes, when the facts could really be quite the reverse.  He was not sanguine about the likelihood that we would treat other species ethically: 
“We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can.Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust-bowls and slag-heaps….I therefore fear the practical, not the theoretical, problems which will arise if ever we meet rational creatures which are not human.”* 
We often make ethical decisions based on appearances, but resemblance to us shouldn't be the basis for considering other species to be rational agents or patients.

His prescription must have seemed wildly impractical, namely that we begin preparing ourselves to encounter other sentient species by teaching ourselves that they may be every bit as worthy of life and God's love as we.  One need not believe in God to see the significance of such a decision, since it amounts to deciding that other species have claims to rights that are every bit as strong as our own.  Here is Lewis again:
"What I do know is that here and now, as our only possible practical preparation for such a meeting you and I should resolve to stand firm against all exploitation and all theological imperialism. It will not be fun. We shall be called traitors to our own species. We shall be hated of almost all men; even of some religious men. And we must not give back one single inch. We shall probably fail, but let us go down fighting for the right side. Our loyalty is due not to our species but to God. Those who are, or can become, his sons, are our real brothers even if they have shells or tusks. It is spiritual, not biological, kinship that counts.” ** 
"Even if they have shells or tusks"
Astro-ethics isn't the same as astropolitics, though Lewis's prediction is that if we ever find another sentient species, the two studies would come together quickly. If this all seems impractical and irrelevant - as even astrobiology does to some people - let me insist that this is not idle ivory-tower speculation.  Astrobiology and exobiology help us to understand our own home better by forcing us to rethink the boundaries of life, which helps us to look for life in places we previously thought there could be no life, like deep-sea vents, deep underground, and under Antarctic ice. Out of the Silent Planet was the first of a trilogy; the third book brought the ethical issues home again.  Thinking through a fantasy of meeting alien species can provide a proxy for meeting others here on earth, and for beginning to recognize the importance of treating the other inhabitants of this terrestrial ball ethically.


*(“Religion and Rocketry,” available here)
**(“Shall We Lose God In Outer Space?” Great Britain: SPCK, 1959. 10) Emphasis added.

The Other Drones Problem: The Tragedy of the Unexplored Commons

John Brennan's nomination hearings brought about a slew of articles about drone warfare.  On the one side, people like William Saletan in Slate argue that drones (or UAVs) minimize civilian casualties while safeguarding American soldiers.  Others, like John Kaag and Sarah Kreps in the New York Times remind us that the technological advances come with moral hazards we might not have anticipated.

But there is another ethical issue related to UAVs that doesn't have to do with war.  Or, if it does, it has to do with a "war against crude nature."

The technologies we invent in wartime don't go away when the conflicts end.  Already, UAVs are being deployed for a number of other uses, and we can expect their uses to increase.  I'm no flag-waving Luddite here.  The things we invent can be put to diverse uses, some helpful and some harmful.  But if we care about promoting the helpful uses, we'll need to be intentional about that.

UAVs are a brilliant platform for remote-sensing technologies.  They can cover a lot of ground and stay aloft for a long time. Drone aircraft are adding to our ability to conquer unknown spaces.  If you've used Google Maps to explore places you've never been before, you know what an aesthetic boost and letdown this can be: it's a boost to see what you've never seen, and at the same time, we find ourselves sharing Aldo Leopold's lament in "The River of the Mother of God": the unknown places are being replaced by maps, and our deep genetic need to explore runs up against the feeling that everything has already been seen.  When I lived in Madrid, I tried to make places like the Retiro park my places of natural exploration and solitude, but I couldn't escape the feeling that I was treading where millions of others had already trod.

We have a deep need for exploration, and so we need places that feel unexplored.

But that is a small worry compared to the bigger issue of the world's oceans and natural resources.  For the whole history of our species we have been able to act as though the world contained unlimited resources.  Our species is an explorer species.  We have "restless genes," as a recent National Geographic article put it.

Gone is the age of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea.  We no longer take to the seas in small craft and fish commercially with handlines.  The last century has pushed fishing fleets thousands of miles from the places where they will ultimately bring their catch to market.  We can no longer treat the oceans as limitless resources; we are fishing them out, and some species may collapse under the pressure and never come back.

In the race to find the last remaining schools of fish, we are beginning to use UAVs to scour the seas.  Where fishermen once looked for birds circling schools of sardines, robot airplanes now skim the waves and do the searching for us.

At the crossroads

Ethicists and game theorists refer to this as the "tragedy of the commons": if we each only take resources in proportion to what we can use, the resources can be shared indefinitely.  But if some of us take more than our share of the "commons" or the resources, they will have a short-term gain at the expense of the long-term gain of everyone.

The STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) are brilliant, and wonderful.  New technologies give us new access to the world, and they can save and improve lives. But they lack the ability to regulate themselves, which is why as the STEM fields grow, we need the humanities (and their critiques of technology) to grow with them.  If we are not careful, new technologies can also permit us to do great harm to our common world - and to ourselves.  If fish seems cheap and plentiful, stop to ask where it came from, and whether that source is sustainable.  If it's not, vote with your dollars and eat something else.

 Here is one of my favorite sources of fish news.

Happy Praise

I recently read this line in the Book of Common Prayer, in the BCP's translation of the Phos Hilaron prayer.  The Phos Hilaron is one of the oldest Christian hymns:  
"Thou art worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Son of God, O Giver of Life..."
It needn't be translated that way, by the way.  It could be translated as "reverent voices" or "opportune voices."  I like this translation, though.  The sentiment is positively Epicurean.  Consider the opening line of Epicurus's Kuriai Doxai*:
 "What is blessed and indestructible has no troubles itself, nor does it give trouble to anyone else..."**
In Epicurus's view, a god that is petulant or demanding is a god that is needy and manipulative.  Such gods may force us to make sacrifices, but they won't earn our praise so much as our derision and scorn.  A god worthy of the name is one that needs and demands nothing for itself.

I'm preparing a scholarly article on St Paul's response to Epicurean philosophy, one I hope to publish soon.  For now, I will summarize one of its points: Christians and Epicureans disagree about the imperturbability of the divine (Christians disagree among themselves about this as well) but they agree that if something can't be praised with gladness at least sometimes, then it's probably not worth praising at all.

This is not just abstract philosophy or theology; it matters for all of life.  We are all always engaged in worship, as David Foster Wallace once said.  We don't get much choice about that.  We do have a choice about what we worship - what we ascribe worth to. We do that all the time when we vote, when we spend and invest our money, when we decide what our laws should be and what our children should learn.  We constantly make decisions about ends that should be pursued, and these are all acts of worship.

* We usually translate this "Principal Doctrines."  The word "kuriai" or "kurios" means "principal" and has the same breadth of resonances and meanings as that word: princely, first and foremost, primary, authoritative.  The word "doxai" or "doxa" has a similar breadth of meanings, ranging from opinion or estimation to reputation and even glory.  The Epicurean title kuriai doxai would have sounded familiar to early Greek-speaking Christians, for whom it would have sounded like "Lordly glories."  The familiar prayer Kyrie eleison is related to the word kurios or kyrios.

** Diogenes Laertius, 10.139; from The Epicurus Reader, Brad Inwood and Lloyd Gerson, translators.  (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994) p. 32.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Have We Met?

This weekend I found myself standing next to an older woman I've met a number of times before.  For a moment, I struggled to remember where we'd met, then it hit me: she has taken a few of the classes I've offered for senior citizens from time to time.  As I recall, she's always been a great student, though I confess I'm having trouble remembering her name right now, and feeling a little sheepish about my memory.

As it turns out, she has it even worse.  When I greeted her, she asked me with her usual winning smile, "Have we met?" I told her we had, and where we had met.  She said she had no recollection, and I thought she must be joking.  Then she added that she has recently suffered a head injury and has lost her memory.  She remembers that she once had such a powerful memory she was reluctant to tell people how much she remembered, lest she appear to be boasting.

Now she has very little of that memory left.  She was cheerful, as always, but I thought maybe a little sad at what she had lost.

A little earlier in the day I had been speaking about C.S. Lewis and ecology to a church group.  There I spent some time reflecting on a passage in Lewis's novel Out Of The Silent Planet where Hyoi cannot understand Ransom's culture. What kind of people would insist on having a pleasant experience again and again, Hyoi asks.  Isn't that like wanting to hear a single word from a beautiful poem over and over, but not the whole poem?  Isn't memory a part of the pleasure?

I have often taken comfort from that passage, since Hyoi's position is that growing old is not a loss but a gain, just as it is a gain to listen to a full symphony and not just the overture.  Perhaps this is why we fear losing our memories: as the symphony of life approaches the finale sometimes we forget the overture.

As my former student turned to go, I told her "It's nice to meet you - again."  She smiled, and walked away.