Saturday, November 24, 2012

Space, Outer and Inner (Part II addendum)

Back in Jersey for the weekend -- sitting at my old desk where the window faces west; the waxing gibbous moon is in view, sinking toward the bare trees and power lines. And now I'm thinking that last post came out shallow and incomplete. Reading it back to myself, that line about human potential in hits an especially flat note.

The concept of "human potential" deserves examination. It sounds nice, but is most of the time employed only as a platitude. (My own usage is no exception.)

Comparative planetology is a line of study within astronomy aimed at learning more about the features of planets) particularly those in our own neighborhood) and seeing what their similarities and differences suggest about the general principles of planetary formation and evolution. It's a rich field, especially since the planets of our solar system are (relatively) easier to examine and probe than interstellar objects.

Anyone who paid attention in science class should remember the local planets are each defined by their unique features. Mercury is the densest planet and its surface is marked by craters and compression folds. Venus is distinct for its dense atmosphere and tremendous surface temperatures. Mars is sandy and gusty; Jupiter boasts a gigantic magnetic field and tumultuous clouds. Et cetera, et cetera.

On Earth we observe liquid oceans and organic life.

Through the lens of astronomy, life is a surface feature of this planet. No anthropocentric fallacies would be risked in suggesting it is the defining feature: we can point to ther worlds that probably have oceans of liquid water (Europa, Enceladus, Titan), atmospheres and weather (Venus, Mars, Titan), and geological activity (Io), but so far none of our probes or mechanical eyes have spied any worlds on which organic life is so suffusively visible.

The point is that we, Homo sapiens, are merely a constituent part of a characteristic of the planet on which we live.

Even this type of language betrays a profoundly-rooted fallacy in our accustomed reasoning. "The planet on which we live." It implies that the Earth is only the setting of human life, which is absurd.

Given what light astronomy and the related sciences have shed upon our own world, it becomes exponentially difficult to argue humanity's domination of, or even separation from the Earth. Homo sapiens' ascendance was contingent upon a multitude of factors within the Earth's biosphere, and the biosphere's existence is wholly owed to certain overlapping circumstances in the Earth's (and Solar System's) formation.

Given all we've learned about the evolution of terrestrial life and of our own species, we cannot avoid recognizing that Homo sapiens is a transitional stage. The varieties of organic life are constantly in flux, and "humanity" is no exception.

Moreover, our species is only one element in a dynamic, interrelated, and widely inscrutable biosphere that is likewise in a state of constant change. (Total terrestrial homeostasis is likely an impossibility.)

(Note: this is as much a concern of comparative planetology as Earth science. Either discipline can be viewed as an inversion of the other.)

A phrase like "human potential" is exceedingly singleminded. We must ask ourselves: potential for what? To do what? (And what will we become?)

To venture into space, explore the universe, seed the stars is a popular idea, and an ambitious one. But it's rather farsighted, looking ahead to the shore while ignoring the stones and shallows at the bow.

Sustainability and survival are more immediate concerns. Can humanity successfully adapt to the changes its proliferation has wrought upon Earth's biosphere?

At any rate: when we discuss "human potential" we must try to keep our arguments in the realm of practicality. Art, science, technology, and high standards of living are all nice things, but they're rather beside the point when we look at Homo sapiens without the tint of anthropocentric bias. "Where are we going?" is a good question, but it can't be answered until we solve the riddle of "how will we ensure the species' long-term survival?"

Touching upon these topics, we might take a lesson from the history of astronomy and astrophysics. The most renowned figures of these fields were people who, in the course of their inquiries, found that the facts pointed them towards disturbing conclusions. They are to be admired not only for their intellectual powers, but for their courage in following their findings into frightening and forbidden places.

Remember that Galileo, the father of modern astronomy, found himself tried by the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy. His professing the veracity of the heliocentric model went contrary to all conventional wisdom, traditional thought, and religious dogma. It was more than a taboo, more than just a disturbing thought -- it threatened to topple humankind from its special (imagined) position in the cosmos.

But Galileo's claims were correct. His detractors are today rightfully viewed as backwards-thinking dogmatists.

Any serious assessment of humanity, civilization, and the problems of their tenability must be made with the same discipline, resolve, and courage as a Galileo. (Or a Darwin. Or an Einstein.)

Though we are more or less a surface feature of our planet, we can control our activities -- to a certain extent. (Perhaps we can't, in which case it is helpful to believe we can.)

Human behavior continues to be largely influenced by hold assumptions about the species' origins and position within the cosmic order. How can this state of things be changed? How can human behavior be modified to better correspond with our changed (read: improved) perception of the facts? And what changes would we see?

These questions would be better posed and much better answered by more learned and intelligent people than me. But we owe it to ourselves to make an honest attempt to ask and try to answer such questions.

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