Date sent:        Thu, 12 Feb 1998 13:29:51 -0500 (EST)
From:             Benny J Peiser
Subject:          CC DEBATE, 12/02/98
Priority:         NORMAL



 "In this great celestial creation, the catastrophy of a
 world, such as ours, or even the total dissolution of a
 system of worlds, may possibly by no more to the great
 Author of Nature, than the most common accident in life
 with us, and in all probability such final and general
 Doomsday may be as frequent there, as even Birthdays or
 mortality with us upon the earth. This idea has something
 so chearful in it, that I own I can never look upon the
 stars without wondering why the whole world does not
 become astronomers; and that men endowed with sense and
 reason should neglect a science they are naturally such
 much interested in, and so capable of inlarging their
 understanding, as next to a demonstration must conceive
 them of their immortality, and reconcile them to all those
 little difficulties incident to human nature, without the
 least anxiety.
 All this vast apparent provision in the starry mansions
 seem to promise: What ought we then not to do, to preserve
 our natural birthright to it and to merit such
 inheritance, which alas we think created all to gratify
 alone a race of vain-glorious gigantic beings, while they
 are confined to this world, chained like so many atoms to
 a grain of sand". (Thomas Wright, 1750)

From: Alan Harris


Dear Dave [Morrison],

I see our tastes in the good stuff from Cambridge are about the same,
thanks for passing on the item from Steel and Oliver. Morton is
eloquent as always, and very sensible. Duncan's piece also makes some
very good points, but I disagree with his line, "Why are we shirking
our responsibility to the universe?" This is rather analogous to the
environmentalists who keep harping about how "fragile" our planet is.  The
fact is, the Earth is very robust. I am confident that it will recover from
whatever insults we deliver in a few millions of years, or give it a billion
if necessary, the world has plenty of time. What is fragile is the human
species, or at least human comfort. I count myself as an environmentalist,
but not out of concern for the planet, just a selfish desire for comfort:
clean air to breath, beautiful scenery, some peace and quite without
overpopulation, etc. With respect to the universe, I am sure the universe
doesn't give a damn what happens to us, even if we are "alone," and perhaps
even more so if we aren't. While we might have a passing fancy about what
fun it would be if the dinosaurs were still around, we must be sobered by
the fact that if they were, we wouldn't be. Thus protecting ourselves from
extinction is bound to rule out the rise of some future species, terrestrial
or otherwise, just as surely as the preservation of the Roman Empire would
have ruled out the rise of any of the subsequent empires in Europe and the
Americas, maybe even the Orient. Is this good or bad? Who knows? I maintain
that the universe or the planet or future civilizations to be (or not to be)
don't really care one way or the other. The only ones who care are us, now.
So the question rightly put is, "Why are we shirking our responsibility to
ourselves?" As with environmental issues, I agree with the facts and what
should be done about them, I only wonder why it is neccesary to assign some
great global or universal good to them, rather than simple self-interest.



From: Duncan Steel


Dear Al,

Thanks for your comments. I don't disagree with you, but note that my
argument in that particular piece was from a different perspective from that
which you take (and most of us have done in the past). In fact I cannot
claim that this perspective is original to me; it was suggested to me by
Mike Baillie, professor of palaeoecology at Queen's University, Belfast. One
reason that I took that perspective in that piece was the specific audience
it was aimed at (members of The Edge include people like Richard Dawkins and
other evolutionary biologists). It doesn't follow that I feel it to be the
dominant argument, or our major responsibility.

Just to reiterate, or maybe clarify, what I was asking was not what is our
major responsibility, but whether we have a responsibility along the lines I
mentioned (repeated below). Obviously one has many responsibilities (and I
decided some years ago that responsibility is something that one can only
TAKE, not be GIVEN), and at any particular time one or more of those may
dominate. I guess that we all feel we have a responsibility to alert
people/governments to the impact hazard, but we also have a (sometimes
conflicting) responsibility to provide for our families. You have a
responsibility (maybe a contractual obligation) to front up to work at JPL
and part of your work might be fighting the 'NEA menace.' But if, as you
leave for work at 08:00, you notice that your neighbor's house has just
caught fire, then clearly you have another responsibility which takes
precedence, at least for a while.

My point in the original piece was that one can argue for a
responsibility incumbent on the human race on another plane (which is
not necessarily a 'higher' plane). It is not based (necessarily) on
humans spreading through the cosmos, or even our genes in some other
vehicle. What I was arguing was that, so far as we know, there is no
life elsewhere.  But we do know that there are self-replicating
molecules on Earth. ONE COULD ARGUE that life is a 'desirable' thing,
and in that argument humankind then has a responsibility (which we can take,
or not) to spread the DNA. In that argument a universe teeming with life is
preferable to one with life constrained to one planet only. For example, if
Europa has the physical and chemical conditions to support life, but it is
presently sterile, then one could argue for deliberately infecting it
(perhaps in the hope that in the fullness of time some higher organisms will
evolve). On course this view is contrary to the 'planetary quarantine'
perspective; but it is an argument!

You finished by writing "I only wonder why it is neccesary to assign
some great global or universal good to them, rather than simple
self-interest." Don't we all wonder about that? But it is a fact. I am
appalled by the fact that people campaign vociferously to keep, say, the
Antarctic a wilderness area with (say) no oil drilling & processing, and the
effect of that is that we have such things occurring instead in densely
populated areas, leading directly or indirectly to the deaths of thousands
in accidents and pollution.  I love penguins and wilderness, but I'd rather
a thousand dead penguins to a thousand dead humans. But few people actually
see it that way.  By voicing an argument which assigns some "great global or
universal good" one does not necessarily detract from the weight of the
overall argument; one might convince a few more people to come on board.

As I wrote, I accept and agree with your viewpoint, in general; I was
just voicing an additional perspective. In some ways it is a corollary of
Carl Sagan's idea (I think it was him who originated it) that the asteroid
impact hazard makes it more likely that space-faring ETIs exist, since if ET
civilizations exist then in order to survive their own impact hazard they
would need to become space-faring.



From: Alan Harris

Dear Duncan,

Thanks for the long reply.  The short answer to my rhetorical question at
the end of my essay is, "pure rhetorical form."  That is, the statement
about responsibility to the universe has no literal meaning, it is a
rhetorical construct to gain a constituency through emotion.  A similar
example is John Kennedy's statement in his innaugural address (which he in
fact borrowed): "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can
do for your country."  That is nonsense: governments serve people, not the
reverse.  But as a rhetorical construction to gain advocacy of various
programs it was effective, for example in creating the Peace Corps.  I am
aware of the reasons for making such statements, so my statement of "wonder"
was more one of amusement than of lack of understanding.



CCCMENU CCC for 1998