On what space exploration says about the soul of a society

Behind human expeditions into space have stood various interests. Principal among them have been national prestige and military applications, certainly, the possibility of territorial expansion and exploitation of resources beyond earth, and a chance to subsidize fundamental development of new technologies.

Yet another motivation, probably much further down the ladder of priorities, has been exploration of the unknown.

Of course, while the larger public in nations with a space program are probably only marginally interested in exploration for its own sake, the scientists involved clearly are interested.

If exploration itself were the chief interest, the development of robotic space probes would probably have highest priority.

Robotic probes can stay in space longer and penetrate more deeply into hostile regions of space than humans probably ever could, but they lack glamour and add little to national prestige compared to manned expeditions that inspire and excite the public.

Manned space exploration offers mainly political and nationalistic advantages over robotics, except for exploration beyond the solar system.

Despite the fact that ours is not presently a world where exploration purely for the sake of discovery carries much political or entrepreneurial gravity, robotic probes have such a great advantage in terms of cost that they have already begun to take center stage in space exploration.

It's easy to imagine relatively lightweight micro-robots routinely probing the entire solar system.

The challenge of building space-borne robots to make significant decisions on their own (radio signals can take hours to reach distant parts of the solar system) would help stimulate developments in robotics.

If exploration itself were the chief interest, the development of robotic space probes would probably have highest priority.

As robotics engineering developed to meet those challenges, robots would eventually become more agile than humans at adapting to unforeseen circumstances in space.

Certainly a positive benefit of robots is that they can do work too tedious or dangerous for humans, allowing humans to be humans instead of machines.

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No clear line divides space exploration from any other form of science. Our terrestrial environment is part of space, in a broad sense.

We are always in "outer space", no matter where we are.

Cosmic debris and radiation constantly reach earth, and earth itself is made of material ejected from ancient generations of stars during their mortal agony.

Life on earth may itself have extraterrestrial origins.

On the other hand, space is never truly empty. Besides being delicately populated by plasma and clouds of dust, it is vibrantly awake with subtle quantum fluctuations in energy.

The categories "earth" versus "space" are arbitrary, except for the significant fact that "earth" provides our only natural habitat.

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Distances involved in interstellar space travel are so immense that even for a probe traveling at speeds approaching that of light, civilizations would have come and gone before the probe reached its destination. Even the immediate neighborhood of the sun could require at least a century to explore.

For exploration into deep interstellar space, robotic probes would offer no benefit to those who built and launched them, and further still, intergalactic probes would be about as absurdly impractical as anything could ever conceivably be.

To undertake the exploration of deeper interstellar space, a colony would have to leave earth and abandon all contemporary communication with the inhabitants of earth, probably forever.

It stands to reason that such a perpetually spacefaring society would probably be devoted primarily to scientific exploration.

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As an exercise in reflection for reflection's sake, we might ask what kind of society would make exploration its top priority. How would a scientifically and artistically oriented rather than a commercially oriented society look?

What kind of society would place its highest value on exploring the inner and outer edges of space?

In many ways, those questions get at the crux of human nature. We are bipedal, symbol-manipulating reproductive organisms. And what else?

Once we meet our needs, we like to do things that we enjoy. And what is enjoyment, then?

Exploration leads to a deepening of the esthetic sense and an appreciation for the sublimeness of underlying patterns in nature.

Partly, it's just a brain state. Because we're neurologically constructed to be drawn toward pleasurable experiences, we try to line up the events in our lives so as to increase enjoyment as much as possible.

Many factors, such as social conditioning, modify what we find enjoyable or not.

Is there more to human life than that? Maybe not. Or perhaps we do have greater potential than simply to be duty-doing, enjoyment-seeking, need-fulfilling biological systems.

Let's make the conjecture that exploration for its own sake is probably the single most effective kind of activity for unlocking human capabilities.

A society whose values are centered around exploration will as a group develop an immense capacity for innovation, prosperity, and healthy relationships.

Exploration itself, as a simple pattern of life, will order the priorities of an individual or a society toward life-enlarging and mind-opening activities and policies.

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It's fairly easy to see how an exploration-oriented society would be prosperous.

Exploration requires and reinforces industriousness, cooperation, and organization, all qualities leading to economic health.

Would it lead to an ethical society, however?

One way to approach that question is to notice that exploration leads to a deepening of the esthetic sense and an appreciation for the sublimeness of underlying patterns in nature.

Esthetics is the instinctive response of the human brain to the elegance and inevitable persuasiveness of those patterns.

As that esthetic sense matures, it carries along a desire to cultivate and preserve beauty.

The reflexive, unconditioned desire to preserve beauty is probably the only reasonable foundation for ethics, and that desire cannot be instilled through education or social pressure.

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One of the outstanding characteristics of a healthy mind is creativity. What is the relationship between creativity and exploration?

We generally think of exploration as pushing outward, as experiencing and understanding the world beyond our immediate proximity.

However, exploration can equally be thought of in terms of pushing inward, of palpating the impulses and sensibilities in one's own mind.

Although a product of creativity may be external, the trajectory followed by the person creating it follows the most intimate beckonings of that person's mind.

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Humans are naturally predisposed to exploration but many factors overwhelm that predisposition.

Above all, fear and distress obviously cause humans to seek comfort and security, attenuating the primal interest in exploration.

Accumulated cultural inertia and conditioning further darken the urge to explore by promoting other values that have arisen out of the drive for security and relief from material want.

While exploration and security are not antithetical, an unrelenting interest in security does eventually extinguish much of the appetite for exploration.

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Perhaps the galactic colonists would find another longterm habitat to replace the watery blue one they left behind, or perhaps they would drive on through the galaxy relentlessly evolving and exploring.

Suppose the colonists met an intelligent species which tried to find patterns in the lives of humans and to understand why humans do what they do.

That alien species would have an advantage over human anthropologists in that some ubiquitous, fundamental characteristics are such a pervasive part of human nature that human anthropologists might not notice them, whereas curious non-human observers might.

What makes humans tick, at root? What are the organizing principles that shape their lives? Would those principles hold for the wandering colonists as well as for their earth-bound ancestors?

One outstanding principle is that human life is inescapably driven by sensation, which binds so tightly to consciousness that every choice or movement is provoked by the urge to shape the flow of sensation attached to awareness.

Even abstract motivations, such as altruism or creativity, derive from sensations of satisfaction. Those sensations have a distinct tenor that invites them to be categorized as spiritual rather than sensuous, but they are sensations nevertheless.

In fact, despite their more subtle texture, spiritual sensations pack such strong motivational charge that humans often forego other sensations or even endure painful ones for significant periods of their lives just for the sake of a few moments of spiritual satisfaction (assurance that they have done well) savored at the lips of death.

For other people, the allure of such pristine satisfaction seems too impalpable, or perhaps it seems not to merit the risks of investing through years of self-denial. Instead, they might choose to align themselves with swiftly digestible sensation in the form of instant gratification.

Others may choose the blunt-edged sensations that come from the thrill of being admired, envied, or feared, and may loathe the sensation of being ignored or regarded as merely ordinary.

No matter the activity, a choice is always made to undertake the activity for the sake of acquiring or ridding oneself of one or more sensations.

Even rudimentary desires, such as escaping hunger, are driven by pangs and cravings, without which humans would probably often let themselves starve to death.

Once we admit to the centrality of sensation in organizing human affairs, the idea of a society wholly dedicated to perceiving the patterns suffusing the unknown seems less vain and self-indulgent.

Further, if we look for an organizing principle that leads to healthier individuals and societes, the choice of exploration as the keystone of human affairs may actually be unrivaled for its effectiveness.

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Carrying the idea of sensation for sensation's sake to an extreme, on the other hand, we can imagine a time when people might choose to have their brains removed from their bodies and immersed in a salubrious pool of chemicals and electrical stimulations.

The pool would regularly induce sensations of mirth, thrills, spiritual and esthetic satisfaction, and general euphoria.

A jab of sharp pain would even occasionally be thrown in for relief, like a strong cup of bitter coffee with dessert.

Why bother with a body and why bother struggling against a stubborn world, if you can simply be submersed in unfailing chemical happiness.

A deep instinct tells us that contrary to prevailing beliefs in today's world, happiness is not actually the central principle of life.

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The proverbial ant toils all summer to build shelter and a stock of food, while the other frivolous animals frolic the summer away.

The perennial question asks how much to invest in improving future conditions rather than squandering on immediate pleasure or gain.

Seeing a splendid view may depend on building an observation tower or cutting a path up the mountain. The finest wines are the fruit of centuries of experimentation and persistent cultivation.

And yet, if happiness is all that matters, even the poorest and simplest can be happy if left in peace to live in close bonds of family and neighbors.

That fact has been observed by countless surprised, well-meaning observers from the privileged world who have traveled to poorer countries to lend a hand.

In many ways the citizens of rich countries are arguably among the most happy people in the world, despite the huge gap in living standards and security.

We must account for the ironic fact that in countries where people are most devoted to the pursuit of happiness, and where resources are most readily at hand, happiness itself seems more elusive than ever.

Relative to those in poor societies, people in wealthy societies tend to be socially isolated, rootless, and continuously reminded of what they ought to have and what they would indeed have if they only worked harder still.

All of that of course leads to stress and a feeling of lack, despite living in relative abundance.

At the same time, the poor suffer immensely when disaster or disease strike, whereas wealthier people are spared many of those misfortunes because of the successful investments their societies have made in infrastructure.

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Exploration, as an organizing principle, elegantly balances the competing interests of building for the future versus living for now.

To explore effectively, we must build, diligently and with foresight. We also have to communicate and cooperate in order to explore any but the most superficial and ready-at-hand aspects of reality.

A society oriented toward exploration fully embraces the present moment, without neglecting to build for the future.

Social structures have to be resilient enough to propagate cumulative discoveries over many generations.

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Creativity ranks among the healthiest categories of human activity, and exploration and creativity are closely intertwined.

Exploration motivates and directs the creative process, but also depends on creativity to respond adaptively under new conditions.

The explorer relies on creativity to press beyond the limits of what is known and to build tools with which to understand elements of the unknown.

Works of art or science are created, in part at least, out of plain curiosity over what they might reveal about some area of interest.

Michael Webb, 2003

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