February 1, 2004

Mars: “Man, You Gotta Go”

There's a hell of a nice universe next door. Let's go."

For the first time in decades, the possibility of going to Mars has been brought forward and placed on the table for discussion and debate. I’ve been carrying on a conversation with a friend over the past few weeks about the immediate ramifications of this, the worst of which is, to my mind the abandonment of the Hubble.

But the Hubble issue and others that have swirled around the Mars gambit in the last few weeks are merely political and transitory; of no more moment, really, than a primary election in a dinky state. There are larger issues that Mars illuminates.

Those issues came to mind this morning when an email from the friend mentioned above said:

”....if, indeed, life and intelligent life is as prevalent as we think it should be, why aren't we (a) intercepting millions of alien broadcasts in the electromagnetic spectrum, and (b) positively inundated with alien landings?

One reason that is disturbing in a deep way is that we're all wrong, and we're all alone....What if, in all those billions of galaxies, we're it. Gives me the shivers.

....Look at us, mankind. We've been given the gift of intelligence, and the ability to expand our ecosystem out into space, where, with some significant but not insurmountable effort, we could spread like a proverbial virus.

But what do we do? Like dung beetles on the last bolus of shit, we cling harder and harder to the Earth, multiplying and strangling it. Resources which could go to expansion, instead go to more weapons to ensure that we have firm control over our little ball of nutrients, all the while depleting it and making it more uninhabitable. Of course, unlike the dung beetles, there's no elephant waiting around to drop us another one in the foreseeable future.

I think we've misinterpreted the slogan "Earth First." Perhaps it really means "First stop of many on the line".

Are we alone and will we, in the vernacular, “blow it.” I think the answer to the latter question is no. As for the former, well....

For quite a few years now, I’ve been a bit unpopular when I suggest that we need to consider the fact that we might, indeed, be all alone; that we might be a fluke or a seed or simply something of no purpose struggling to no avail and heading towards an ignominious ending in a backwater of a third-rate galaxy.

There is currently no real evidence that sentient life 1) exists elsewhere in abundant quantities or 2) exists but is rare. If intelligent life were at all common the electromagnetic spectrum should be awash in signals. And while the old saw “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” tugs at me, the phrase “No information is no information” also comes into play.

Another possibility is that “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” This would suppose that the electromagnetic spectrum is simply not the means by which communication between Extraterrestrial Civilizations (ETC) happens and something else that we are too primitive to understand is being used. We’ve certainly imagined such things just as we’ve imagined “Faster Than Light” drives. But so far these are devices that merely help our science fiction narratives along. It would be boring indeed to have to dunk around the same old solar system forever using chemical rockets. Pushing off to the stars in them would give new meaning to the phrase “slow boat to China.”

Arthur C. Clarke reminds us that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I’d bend that around to say that “Any proposition asserting the existence of ETC is indistinguishable from religion.”

I say “religion” for two reasons. The first is that, regardless of the many arguments advanced for it, there is still no proof that any ETC exist and thus it is purely a matter of faith.

The second reason that the ETC assertion is religious in nature is that technotronic types need to believe it because they need, in their lives, something that is worthy of belief beyond mentation and ‘purposeless matter hovering in the dark.’ Any specific religion can be denied but need to believe in something seems to be hard wired into humanity.

One of the many curses of “free will” is that it can remove, at will, God from the equation of the universe. But removing God does not remove the need to believe. The result is a host of “secular faiths” of which the assertion of “Intelligent Life Is Everywhere” (ILIE) is central to the catechism. No God means that Mind is God, no Soul means that Self is Soul. When the Kingdom of Heaven that is within is denied, then the Kingdom of Heaven must be lurking in, well,

Heaven above. All we need do is figure out how to make a wheel within a wheel to take us away to the middle of the air.

But the ILIE Religion requires proof that our ETC Gods exist and from that you get the High Church of SETI. All we need is one, just one, captured episode of some far-star’s afternoon sit-com and we’ll know ILIE is the one true religion. It will show us that we are not, as mentioned above, a “fluke of the universe;” that we are not alone.

But I suspect that we are, indeed, alone. Or, if not exactly alone, alone enough that it makes no practical difference.

Many years ago I read a very stirring and beautiful book by Guy Murchie called “The Seven Mysteries of Life.” It is a complicated bit of scientific romanticism and I won’t go into it here in detail. Besides I’m sure if I re-read it now it would seem antiquated, even quaint. But at some point in that book, Murchie began to take on the “Google stars - X stars = X Stars Supporting Intelligent Life” proposition that forms the foundation for the ILIE Religion. The argument removes stars from the board of life for being in the center of galaxies, being multiple, being too big, too small, too young, too old, etcetera, etcetera and turtles all the way down. This gets you a much smaller number of stars with planets and then, through application of other elements, makes that number smaller and smaller until you get to, well, the single planet on which we have found intelligent life, Earth. It’s at least as compelling as the arguments for ILIE.

But they are both still religions and we are returned, just when we thought we’d escaped into the one true faith of ILIE, back to a situation of dueling faiths each playing a slightly different tune even if the underlying harmonic blends. But let’s boost the “all alone” track for now and dampen the “ILIE” part of the mix. Let’s say that we are all alone and that Murchie’s argument is correct. After all, the all-aloners do have a planet to stand on. The others need at least two planets to get going.

If we are alone and we are in the “fluke” category, then what we do will hardly matter to anything other than ourselves. Hence, we need to take responsibility for our actions as a race. If we are all that is we need to keep going -- if only from the imperative that life must keep going even if it is to no purpose other than simple replication. To achieve that with any certainty we have to create, it seems to me, a second planet just as an insurance policy, a safe haven. This is, to my mind, the most cogent argument for Mars.

Of course, in technical terms, going to Mars in the near future with the technology on hand will probably be similar to launching balsa log rafts into the Pacific in the Kon Tiki era, but that doesn’t mean we won’t do it. (The only real limits to this are 1) the vehicles cost a lot more than balsa rafts and 2) a foolish desire on our part to make sure that everyone gets there safe and sound 100% -- i.e. We can’t repair the Hubble because “it isn’t safe.”)

In the “Home and Alone” theory of intelligent life in the universe, Mars is key. If we can get there and establish ourselves then we will have transformed ourselves from “fluke” to “seed.” This is especially stimulating to the ILIE Religion because it will seem to be something we’ve done all by ourselves without any help from metaphysical realms or something named ‘God.’ And keeping ‘God’ out of the new ILIE religion is essential. It is more essential to ILIE than finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Keeping God out preserves the ILIE religion as the one true faith and a religion’s first imperative is that there can be only one.

I keep returning to the words “God” and “Religion.” The injection of these terms into a discussion of things scientific always makes people very uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. Today, one seems to have nothing to do with the other. In fact, we did at some time in the 20th century come to a tacit agreement to keep science and religion in separate spheres where: “Never the twain shall meet / Til Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.”

I am not a man of traditional religion. My church going activities are sparse to say the least. I’m what I call “A Christian in Crisis Only.” Make me fearful or make me terrified or make me hurt deeply on an emotional level, and you’ll find me on my knees praying in a church or even on a back lawn somewhere. Other times I go blithely about my business. But that’s not the state I’m talking about when I bring God into this discussion.

To my mind, limited as it is, I’ve been noting a tendency at the extreme reaches of physics and the observable universe to touch the metaphysical. This is the phenomenon that’s called “A universe not only stranger than we imagine, but a universe stranger than we *can* imagine.” The high church of physics/astronomy/biology/mathematics has its high priests, and what they are preaching from their visions of the far edges of the microsphere and the macrosphere on a lot of levels boggles the minds of lesser mortals. But we take them on, well, faith.

Mine is a primitive mind driven by, to tell the truth, poetry and romanticism with a veneer of pragmatism to get through the day. I tend to look at the whole of what is now known, and know that right now all we know is just how deeply ignorant we are. We’ve advanced at a great rate, but I think that all this advancement has gotten us is a vague inkling of what there really is to know. And because of this I think, or rather believe, that what we are about to become, in a way we are too ignorant now to know, is a seed.

If we are home alone then, if we have any purpose whatsoever, we are a means by which the universe can not only know and perceive itself, but also a way of whipping up a hot-fudge sundae for itself. (Not so trivial as you may think.) We’re certainly a driven form of matter. You see that around you everyday. And we are impatient. We want the stars and we want them now. We don’t understand the gap between desire and gratification, and that creates no end of trouble for us. We think we are doing so many things wrong because we can see what is wrong with what we do. We seldom think of all the things we are doing right, not the least of which is taking only about a century (an inch of time) to get out of the gravity well.

So, at the end of the day, I guess I’ll have to take Pascal’s wager and go with it until there is evidence of something other than absence. I’m on the side that believes we are here with some sort of purpose that we are not yet equipped to understand (Please recall that all we really are is a smart monkey.). We don’t really know why we do the things we do, but we will be driven outward, in time, until we do understand it. How, I do not know, but the hominid paddling a log across a river didn’t know about the Lunar Lander, did he?

Everybody needs something worthy of belief. I believe we have a purpose, and probably a purpose given to us by what I would call a non-interventionist God who just sets things up and lets them roll. But for the roll out to work out, free will has to be in the mix. Otherwise, this one planet would be hip-deep in slime mold and that would be the end of the story. Since it isn’t, it comforts me to believe that we have greater ends in store for us and that, as a race, we will somehow make it through our current difficulties. Measured against the sweep of time and the universe, our present problems are quite trivial.

Remember that the moon is already part of our story, if only for a golf shot. Mars? That will be added to the story soon. Beyond that I can’t see, but I do like “Our Story So Far.”

And I like stories that don’t let you know the ending. Mars is one of them. I’ll probably be gone before this chapter ends and the next begins. I like to think at some point we’ll be at the part of the story where somebody like Gully Foyle in Alfred Bester’s “The Stars My Destination” stands up in front of a crowd somewhere and rants at them, “Blow yourselves to Christ gone or come and find me. I make you men. I make you great. I give you the stars.”

Or, in perhaps a less dramatic way, somebody says: “We are here. The stars are there. It is only a matter of going.”

We’re either alone in the universe or part of a maddening crowd. Either way, man, you gotta go.

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Posted by Vanderleun at February 1, 2004 11:46 AM | TrackBack
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