In early 2015, I gave a couple of lectures at Carleton College in Minnesota. One was on our visions on human future in space. I talked about three visionaries—Tom Wolfe, Carl Sagan, and the Nolan brothers (Interstellar).
The intelligent students were on board with Carl Sagan’s vision of wise and benevolent ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence) as a kind of soft and rather incredible transhumanism. But they were reluctant to diss all claims for transhumanism, giving how much they know about what scientific progress promises to do even to transform who each of us is. I actually do not think that is an unreasonable position. The Singularity is not around the corner, but we cannot rule out a radical extension of human longevity and a far less “biological” existence, one much more disconnected from the natural life cycle and from being moved by birth and death. The philosophic issue, of course, is whether we will be happier, more dignified, and more truthful as a result of that technological progress. My reflections always begin with: Do not believe for a moment we will be less screwed up. That is, of course, what Carl Sagan tended to believe in his vision of our evolutionary journey from pure body to pure mind.
The students were on board with Tom Wolfe’s view that it is our duty to wander through space and find other homes to “keep meaning alive”—to keep the only meaningful beings, so far as we know, in the cosmos around a lot longer than nature intends on this planet. In Interstellar, the physicist rages against “the dying of the light” that would be the extinction of our species. Our reasonable assumption is that we beings with meaning are alone in the cosmos, which means that our future is in our own hands. Meaning, of course, is found in the being with Logos or the Word. For Mr. Wolfe, we have already transformed nature on our planet to enhance our singular status, but that should just be the beginning.
Now, that does not mean we should not prudently attend to our “environment” on this planet and do what we can to be at home with families, friends, and local communities. It is just that the truth is that we are not totally at home on the earth out to extinguish us, and that “being at home” is not enough for so many members of our wondering and wandering species. We cannot all be farmers, and it is natural for some or many to be basically engineers and physicists. One message of Interstellar is that Wendell Berry is only partly right, and we cannot look only to him if we really take sustainability seriously.
I also think that all our space visionaries do not do well enough in thinking about the true causes of our wandering and wondering. It is true enough that we wandering beings cannot help but look to the sky, and the earth is not really the home of the human mind. Having said that, more strange and wonderful than the stars are each of us, who wander, to some extent, as displaced persons because we wonder. The characteristic errors of physicists and engineers are diverting them from the true causes of their own troubles. When I said something like that, a physics major reasonably responded that it is possible to be a physicist with genuinely introspective self-knowledge. That guy is, in fact, also all about studying Plato and Nietzsche.
I also said that it was the height of vanity to really believe that the future of meaningful being was in our hands. And that Sagan was on the right track when he thought that each of us needs help we cannot really provide for ourselves. Neither of those observations really speaks all that much to the question of whether we should do what we can to wander in space to better secure ourselves in the cosmos. Sure, we will remain “lost in the cosmos,” but that is no real argument against a manned mission to Mars.
In more than one sense, the earth is not simply our true home.