12 November 2020

The limits of space exploration by Lawrence


The limits of space exploration by Lawrence



Space exploration covers a range of activities and for the purpose of our topic I will also include space exploitation. Our topic is also one of two topics on space we agreed on Sunday, the other topic is on the ethics of space exploration. For this reason I won’t be including ethical issues in my essay.


So what are the philosophical issues related to space exploration? Let's face it, many issues regarding this topic belong to the philosophy of science, including quantum mechanics, Newtonian or classic physics, chemistry and many more. But of course, the first important issue for space exploration is the state of our knowledge at the time. Knowledge has always been at the forefront of exploration. And by knowledge I mean actionable knowledge and not knowledge that we cannot use for whatever reason.


For example Polynesian voyagers crossing the Pacific Ocean were experts at celestial navigation. Some implications of these voyages, and those of many others, are: 1) the Polynesians were confident and trusted their knowledge so much that they employed it and put it to the test; 2) their technological skills were sufficiently good to put their celestial knowledge into practice. There is no point in having excellent navigational skills using stars if one's boat sinks a few miles from the beach. And 3) they had a system of transferring said knowledge over time was robust enough to survive the times. Sure these navigators are not with us anymore but at the time they were on top of their game.


But a key feature of valid knowledge is that there must solid scope to predict things in the future. The Polynesians would have been able to predict the outcome of following a course, or trace back their course if they were following an unknown destination: they knew what comes next. I can, therefore, assume that the Polynesians were not only good at reading the stars, but also good at reading the clouds, and with at a pinch the state of the ocean. There is no point being experts of the start but know nothing about clouds in the middle of an ocean.


This brings me to another necessary condition when we come to apply knowledge: knowledge about a single discipline is practically useless without cross discipline knowledge. Mastery in reading stars is useless without ocean going boat technology; and as I hypothesised including meteorological skills at least at reading the clouds.


And of course modern space exploration does rest on multi discipline knowledge exchange and dependence. Thus in a fashion we have answered the first part of our question: the limits to space exploration are the limits of our knowledge. This leaves us with the two other terms: space and exploration.


Space and exploration bring to mind astronauts, spaceships and flag waving. Unfortunately, the weakness of our knowledge and our technology are human beings. Basically, humans and space don’t mix very well. Space is big, it is dangerous, and most important of all it takes time to explore, a lot of astronomical time. Humans are fragile, biologically demanding (we need food, water, air, etc) and we don’t live long enough to reach other parts of the solar system that might prove useful. In effect space exploration is best done by robot machines given the state of our knowledge, the rest is just Hollywood.


Of course, today space exploration is also done from Earth and orbiting satellites such as Skylab. A valuable source of space exploration is done on meteorites and comments parts of which have been falling on Earth since day one! In other words the scope of space exploration can start from here on Earth. Indeed Earth is a good model to understand other worlds and geological structures and in a way space exploration starts at home here on Earth.


Some might argue that space exploration might help us discover alien life. Indeed and many scientists are working on the problem as we write and it’s called Astrobiology. They also stand a good chance of finding some Astro-life forms but not necessarily humanoid life forms. There are many reasons why we won’t come across any Astro humanoids down our high streets and one of them is the same knowledge problems we have for not walking down their high streets, we don’t have the knowledge we don’t have the knowledge to do so. Light cones and event horizons excepted!


We can safely assume that space exploration done with spaceships and astronauts is very limiting as already mentioned. There is nothing that a human astronaut can do on Mars which a dozen robots cannot do at a cheaper price. But could this idea that we need an astronaut to explore space be highlighting the human need to move on and change our surroundings?


One of the reasons to pursue space exploration space by humans is for political posture. Remember the saga between the USA and the Soviet Union about who will be first to go into space and the first to go to the moon. I will not go into the conspiracy theories but it is curious that no one has been back to visit the moon in person. The simple answer must surely be that it is very expensive and very dangerous for basically nothing. What they are doing now on the moon is being done by robots.


By including exploitation in our question we can easily justify the need to explore our environment and move on to settle somewhere else: basically to find new resources, better living conditions, and maybe better physical surroundings. We can see that going back to the moon in person does not make sense because there are no resources that can be exploited now: what are we going to stake by being there? Protect the billion year old dust? It does not make any economic sense to go back to the moon today.


This does not mean it won’t happen in the future but it does mean that space exploration does make sense only when it is economically viable. Hollywood got it right by showing scouts ahead of the caravans, today we are extremely advanced at scouting by sending robots to the four corners of the solar system and beyond.


Although I say economically viable, I do not only mean financially viable but also technologically and intellectually viable. Today we do explore and exploit space for our benefits: communication satellites, GPS, Mobile communications, data satellites, spying, weather tracking, navigation satellites, radiation hitting the Earth, and so on.


This implies that the space exploration model, resulting into exploitation, clearly follows the biological model of migration. Biological creatures, including humans, exploit their local resources, and when this fails we move on until we find a good alternative. We seem to be exploring-exploiting space in the same way we explore and exploit our Earth: explore new frontiers, confirm their economic viability, exploit the location and resources to the limit then move on. Today after only 60 or so years the immediate Earth orbit is like a junkyard with satellite derbies.


But is our need to explore more powerful than the need to exploit? And are we in reality very limited with space exploitation? Curiosity is certainly a powerful motivation for some people. We can easily claim that curiosity is no different from our quest for knowledge. Unfortunately curiosity only works at the individual level: individuals are curious, societies are consumers. Some might argue that space exploration is a collective sense of curiosity, sure but curiosity does no mean wanting to know, but rather actually trying to know.


Of course space exploration can be very interesting, and give a billion euros to scientists and engineers and they’ll seriously indulge their curiosity of nature and everything else. For others space exploration is just a pay cheque at the end of the month. But making financial resources available for space exploration has always been a contentious issue for countries: especially countries that use space exploration for political status rather than curiosity for new knowledge.


Thus a very important limit of space exploration is political philosophy: today sending humans to space does not add much as exploration, what we explore matters today. Wealth distribution does limit how far we can spend on science and intellectual curiosity. And a country’s wealth is limited to economic prosperity, which brings us back to the human conflict between exploration for exploration’s sake and exploration for exploitation purposes.


I personally doubt that we’ll be doing much space exploitation in the near future other than what we are achieving now. Maybe events will be different by the end of this century, however, space exploration should be at the top end of a must-do list. Space technology has always benefited society indirectly this is not an issue, the problem with space exploration is that it is not done at a species level but at the political ideology level. With this attitude we certainly won’t be exploring space that much.






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