Saturday, November 19, 2016

Space: The Final Frontier ... of nothing really important

LOOK! A ball of rock! Amazing!
This is more of a polemical post.

When I was younger, I was hell-bent on becoming an astrophysicist. Space and its contents, from stars to planets to black holes and nebulae, were captivating and inspiring.

It wasn't until later that I realized that I actually didn't really like the strictly scientific aspects of astrophysics, but rather I liked the common philosophical tropes associated with it and the related space-related scientific fields: exploration, survival, mathematical beauty, and of course a heavy dose of teenage edgelord pretentious nihilism which can only be seen as a shitty fan-fic abomination of an erotic three-way between Jean-Paul Sartre, Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins entitled The Cringe.

What are the major plot points of The Cringe? Well, they are (spoilers):

  • A naive belief in the inherent value to scientific inquiry, nevermind the costs ("science or bust!")
  • A schizophrenic nihilism, in which the Universe is Absurd and irrational but somehow the people within it are perfectly rational and meaningful
  • A socially sexy bandwagon devotion to the New Atheist movement and their obnoxiously ignorant equivocation of theism and organized religion, and the hypocritical monopolization of the transcendental universals of Reason and Science as the only route to Truth (i.e. what is entertaining enough to warrant a PBS television show narrated by Morgan Freeman)
  • A baseless belief that, despite all the suffering in the world and the utter pointlessness of the universe at large, we ought to rejoice in our collective existences and praise the powers that be that have accidentally, coincidentally, and carelessly puked out our genetic information (cue the violins)
  • An even more baseless belief that humans are somehow "destined" to explore the stars and rise to cosmic greatness (cue the drumroll)
  • And the wholly gratuitous notion that the Universe is something special and beautiful and worthy of being studied for its own sake as if it is were a god itself (cue the choir)

To summarize it in a more precise manner: the emergence/continuation of a positive aesthetic of the universe at large from a cosmic nihilistic perspective is contradictory in that it slices reality down the middle, separating the Universe from Humanity, the Absurd vs the Meaningful, the Scientific Image vs the Manifest Image (Sellars), in an entirely unnatural and non-existent dualism. It is a sexy nihilism, a nihilism for those who like to pretend to be all deep and angsty but don't have the balls to see their nihilism all the way through, a nihilism that people actually enjoy aligning with cause it makes them look suave and rebellious.

Another ball of rock! WOW!
Actual nihilism  consistency is to recognize that you cannot simultaneously accuse God of being malignant for allowing harm yet accept or even praise those who have the intra-worldly omnipotent power to control harm but fail to do so (namely, biological parents), nor accept that if the world is so bent out of shape as to warrant disbelief in a benevolent God it is reasonable to still continue to see the world and its various processes (including evolutionary natural selection) as good. Such is the shallow philosophy of popular science.

Humans are addicted to all things new: call this neophilia. First it was fire. Then it was agriculture and husbandry. Then came a sequence of metallurgical evolutions. Then came the neighbor's wife. Then came new continents and people (to subjugate). And now we come to space, the final frontier for exploration and all things new. 

At first, the exploration of space was out of political necessity but advertised as pure scientific curiosity. Then the curiosity took full control. But it was always motivated by some kind of need - we need more space, we need more resources, etc. Had Earth provided everything we needed, including stimulating experiences, we wouldn't need to escape the boring dullness in search of the novel.

But what awaits us out there in space? If space is indeed so harsh and extreme, why do we feel this entitlement to navigate it? And why do we think anything will be any different half a light-year away? We'll still have to pay taxes, attend to our needs, and die. And don't forget about the monotonous nature of the universe:

Look, it's another planet! Just as round as the last thousand! Look, it's another star! Just as bright as those before! Look, it's another fucking asteroid, another fucking solar system, another fucking nebula! Woooo, a giant cloud of toxic gas, how incredibly amazing and inspiring! An INFINITE expanse of repetition and unoriginality! Incredible! Excelsior!

The whole popular stellar-exploratory rhetoric depends upon some vague notion that we'll find something worth something out there in space. But what if we don't? What if all we find is dust and rocks? What if exploration confirms our underlying suspicion: that there isn't anything remotely or inherently special or impressive about the universe at large, but just an infinite expanse of combinations and configurations? That the universe is unfathomably wide yet nauseatingly shallow, a real-life No Man's Sky?

Now, I'll admit, if I had the chance to go to the Moon or to Mars or whatever I would probably take it. These places are different, new, and interesting. But after a while I would probably get really fucking bored with it all. You can only twist reality so much until you have to just accept the fact that, yeah, Mars is a big ball of rock and Jupiter is a big ball of gas and the Sun is a big ball of unimaginably hot plasma. And then it's on to the next big thing of intrigue. All that money, all that time, all that effort, just to see a bunch of balls of different stuff.

No, it's not necessarily the end-goal that makes the process of exploration "important", it's the process itself of exploration that gives it its appeal. To build engineering marvels, cross millions of miles of space, etc. It's the anticipation of impressiveness that makes exploration seductive.

If we do happen to find something rather interesting (a unique configuration of atoms), we can be pretty damn sure that sooner or later the bureaucracy is going to catch up with the explorers and find a way to monetize whatever it is. First comes curiosity of the unknown, then comes the commodification of it.

The whole point of exploration is to escape what is currently the case. To get the fuck out of there and find some better situation. The hope for a pleasant future in a far-off land is inevitably crushed by the bullshit from behind being dragged along. Let's not spread that to other places, hmm?

Almost all of the universe is toxic to organic life. Shouldn't this tell us something? Like maybe we aren't meant to go beyond Earth? That the universe is not meant to house creatures like us? We habitually call the rest of the universe strange, but what if it is us who are the strange ones, the ones that don't belong?

What the fuck is so important as to warrant us to spread the human race to its maximum flexibility?

Civilization may thrive but only at the expense of its constituents.


  1. Why is there a systemic bias towards pessimism when hard data shows the world is getting better every day?

    Have you read Norberg's newest book is Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (2016).

    1. Well, because "better" is not always "good".

      The fact that we have to improve the universe ourselves means that the universe was never adequate to begin with.

  2. NY,

    I don't think you understand evolution, or the world. The human race (a form of life) can't evolve to surpass the inherent frailties of life itself, death, the ravages of disease, viruses, the burden of consciousness and of consciousness under time, the unpredictability of the world, the base animality of man, entropy, and all the rest.

    If you are interested in having your beliefs challenged in order to achieve some degree of objectivity, you might find John Gray an interesting writer, he has a lot to say on the optimists pipe dream of progress and liberal humanism.

  3. Genius. I really like reading your posts, darthbarracuda. Keep it up! Also, do you have any recommendation of philosophy books to read?