Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Imagine a World without Metaphysics

Untold hours are spent across planet Earth trying to resolve questions that are unresolvable. Such questions include the existence of God, what happens after you die, whether there are other universes, what happened before the universe, and the ultimate purpose of the universe. It's not just that scientists haven't found these answers yet; rather, the answers to these questions are impossible to obtain. The questions themselves are literally senseless: our senses cannot ever access information that would help answer them. As the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein believed, there is something wrong with trying to answer metaphysical questions with the language we use.

The cosmic paradigm is essentially the rejection of metaphysics as a legitimate field of inquiry. For a cosmic paradigm to prevail, humans will have to fully divorce metaphysical questions from the realm of public policy. I believe that if secular societies dominated the landscapes of our solar system, humans will eventually quit demanding that others live by their metaphysical assumptions; indeed they will eventually turn away from seeking objective answers to metaphysical questions entirely.

Though some will always cling to metaphysical interpretations of life, I believe people will largely begin to seek solace in this world, in this life. I believe that what energy has historically been channeled into metaphysical projects, such as the building of magnificent cathedrals, will be diverted into projects whose rewards are unambiguously intended for this life. What wonders would be possible in a world without metaphysics?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Review: Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None is Fredrich Nietzsche's only fictional work. The protagonist is Zarathustra, named after the Persian prophet who preached the struggle between good and evil, Zoroaster. Nietzsche's Zarathustra disposes of this morality, though the style of the book ironically reflects that of the New Testament.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche bookRead more reviews on AmazonA central theme in Zarathustra is the death of God—a cultural, not metaphysical, event. Zarathustra witnesses his countrymen's fading belief in God, but the belief is not being replaced by anything that motivates action. His countrymen are becoming the last man, Nietzsche's conception of a completely tame human who avoids all risk and just seeks to exist in comfort. To counter this, Zarathustra preaches the overman, the antithesis of the last man and new purpose for humanity. He declares, "The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!"

It's true that Nietzsche's vision of the overman can quickly conjure connections to the Nazi eugenics program and their notion of a master race. Zarathustra himself could be interpreted as an ill-tempered proto-Hitler who "brandishes his stick" at those who annoy him.

But in my view the overman can't be a racial concept at all, and also not an agent of nationalism, German or otherwise. Though Nietzsche has said the overman must be bred, he never displayed an understanding of evolution or genetics. Rather, it seems likely that by bred he meant cultivated in an environment free of the heavy weight of moral dogmas and absolutes. Perhaps it is in this sense that Nietzsche hoped his work would pave the way for the overman—the strong-willed, creative, yet lighthearted individual. To catch a glimpse of this ideal human is how Thus Spoke Zarathustra could be a book for all. That such an ideal is unreachable is how it's a book for none.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Spaceflight as the Highest Hope

It is with great optimism that I view the human future in space. There is nothing that excites me more than participating in a grand effort to colonize other worlds, and sharing this experience with other sentient beings. It is at heart an epic undertaking to spread life—with all its perils and miseries—to new and more distant horizons, to ever-greater heights, to ever-more hostile realms of the unknown. Within the human heart lies a longing to take risks, for the rewards of the cosmos do not come with guarantees.

We are a species that is never satisfied with the current state of affairs. We seek improvements, growth, development, and enlightenment. How can we assess the state of affairs in the valleys of Mars, or in the lunar plains, without human hearts beating in situ, without human hands sifting through the soil?

The promise of spaceflight is to provide us with hope. We were born into a hopeful world because others made it that way—through their own blood, sweat, and tears they made the world that way. They eradicated smallpox so that humans may live to choose their own futures; they built internal combustion engines so that we may be liberated from the limits of muscle power; and they built great rockets so that we may know other worlds. It is up to us to carve a future in which a new generation of dreamers will find inspiration, and will carry the torch of hope farther than we can imagine. Is this not the key to our own fulfillment in this life? Is it not our highest hope to sail amongst the planets as lords of the Solar System?

Sunday, June 12, 2011


There is a kind of prejudice that is widespread among humans today. If you claim that you at least try to be a moral person, as almost everyone does, you are faced with the question of who will receive your moral treatment. In other words, who has moral status? I suspect that if I polled people across the world on this question they would overwhelming respond that all humans do. The common phrases "this is a human being", "treated like an animal", and "basic human rights" reflect the current paradigm that humans have a higher moral status.

But why should other humans be the only recipients of our moral treatment? What exactly is it about humans that entitles them to this status? If we try to argue that humans have moral status because they behave altruistically, we run into trouble. Worker ants, for example, sacrifice much more for others than humans do. I don't hear much praise of worker ants—presumably because we understand they do this on instinct. We understand they are genetically programmed to aid other ants because they are likely to be from the same colony and carry the same genes.

Perhaps then we should assign moral status to other humans simply because we are closely related. This line of thinking is probably much more common than the former. It's the same line of thinking, however, behind racism. Keep the level of relatedness tight, and you have racism; extend it to include all humans, and you have speciesism. The boundary of the species seems quite meaningless. What does the ability to interbreed have to do with morality?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review: The Railway

Édouard Manet's 1873 The Railway showcased the unfolding urban landscape of modern Paris. The two figures in the painting are standing in front of railway tracks that led to the largest train station in Paris, the Gare Saint-Lazare. At this time trains were beginning to grant urban residents greater freedom of movement, as the automobile would not be mass-produced for several more decades. The trains would have been powered by the combustion of coal, the heat from which converted water into steam to drive a reciprocating engine. This was a time when the smoke from trains and factories would be seen as symbols of economic progress, rather than environmental destruction.

The Railway by Edouard Manet artManet's decision to depict modern scenes disrupted the artistic conventions of the time. In The Railway, the bars of the iron gate tend to divide the composition into regular intervals. This can be contrasted with the traditional preference for a natural background, which leaves the composition open and boundless. The iron bars in this painting can evoke the same sense of having constraints as does urban life today.

The Railway has also been interpreted as an optimistic view of the future. The girl looks down, perhaps fascinated, at the passing marvel of modern technology. The woman sits, a serene look on her face, with an open book in her lap. An open book has long been used in art to symbolize the power of knowledge, and this interpretation is not undermined by the modernity of this scene. The same promises of knowledge—personal fulfillment, economic success, social progress—seem to be more and more applicable as time goes on.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

An Ignorant Dispatch to the Stars

The Pioneer plaques were attached to the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, which are already about twice as far from the Sun as Pluto. Though they ran out of fuel long ago, the two spacecraft have enough velocity to completely escape from the Solar System. They will wander amongst the stars in the eons to come, their gold-covered plaques hitching a ride. The idea behind the plaques was to communicate information about humanity should the spacecraft be intercepted by extraterrestrials. Of course, such information must be culture-neutral if it is to be readily understood by an alien race. Simple drawings of our bodies and solar system made up the plaque.

Pioneer plaque
The Pioneer plaque
There is one piece of information on the plaque that should begin to strike us as odd. The bottom contains a linear progression of circles, the first being much larger than the rest. These obviously represent our sun and planets. The next four circles are small, like the terrestrials planets, and the four after those are larger, like the gas giants. But why is there a ninth planet that is as small as the first four?

Our initial inclusion of Pluto as a planet is an example of our failure to group objects by their characteristics. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist, advocates looking at commonalities between astronomical objects and moving away from simply counting the planets. He sees the terrestrial planets as one group, the gas giants as a second, and Pluto and like objects as a third. This makes a great deal of sense to me. It's too bad the reclassification of Pluto by the International Astronomical Union didn't happen before the Pioneer plaques were dispatched to the stars. What might an extraterrestrial think after looking at that ninth circle?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I've Learned Enough!

I often find myself pursuing knowledge as if some great state of enlightenment were just around the corner. But the quest never ends! There is simply no way of obtaining even a large fraction of all human knowledge. And I'm not sure it would make me happy if there were. The sum of human knowledge is expanding, and barring a collapse of free civilization, it will continue to do so. So there is nothing special about the present state of science; in the grand continuum of spacetime, the modern collection of scientific knowledge merely coincides with our time and location in the universe.

In addition to our expanding body of knowledge, there were things known by humans that have been lost forever. When the Library of Alexandria burned to the ground, humans watched as centuries of information was literally erased from the world. There were things known that will never be known again.

Even if we could absorb all that was ever known or will be known by humans, this only represents the knowledge of our species. If there are other intelligent creatures in the cosmos, we would miss out on their knowledge unless we made contact. But many of these civilizations, if they existed, have surely destroyed themselves. Others might come into existence in the future, foreclosing the possibility of mutual understanding. Yet even if one considers the total knowledge of all intelligence that ever was or ever will be, there are still things that will never be known. Imagine the astronomical cataclysms that light the skies of barren solar systems in neglected corners of the universe—great fireworks shows that unfold before no one's eyes. When I ponder the limited set of facts I will ever know, I sometimes feel I've learned enough to be happy.