The ethics of interplanetary exploration

the word on everyone’s lips is Curiosity.

If you don’t know what that (meaning Curiosity) is (as opposed to means), I suppose that you haven’t been near or watching a television set for a few days. That’s perfectly reasonable. many people either don’t watch or don’t own a TV. So, in case you don’t know what I’m talking about, Curiosity (spelled with a capital “C” so as to distinguish the thing curiosity from the word meaning inquisitive) is the NASA-built machine that ended its eight-month journey to the planet Mars and is currently surveying the planet’s surface.

It landed last Sunday.

Curiosity’s mission is to find any evidence of past or present life on Mars.

this is the NASA Mars rover Curiosity

this is what NASA expects to see on Mars

this is NOT what NASA wants to see on Mars

Now, I hate to sound like some kind of Debbie Downer, but in all our excitement over the prospect of discovering evidence of life on the Red Planet, shouldn’t we think about what could happen?

Bad things could happen.

Didn’t anybody see the movie Red Planet???

Oh wait, that’s right. No one did.

Still, before we boldly go where no one has gone before, we should consider whether we, human beings, are truly ready for confirmation that we are not alone in the universe — and I not just talking about the possibility that our alien encounter will end up less like a flight across the moon with a friendly E.T.  and more like John Hurt’s last meal in Alien.

Let me remind you how that meal ended:

All kidding aside, we really need to think about this: Given our (mankind) history on Earth, we might want to seriously consider the ethics of interplanetary exploration.

What do we do if we find evidence that Mars once supported life or that Mars is indeed inhabited by non-human lifeforms (like single-celled organisms)? Are we obligated to leave these lifeforms in peace or can we continue to study the planet? If our intent is to eventually colonize Mars, must we consider the welfare of microscopic organisms? Are other planets in the solar system here for humans to do whatever we please? We know that we owe moral consideration to our fellow human and non-human Earthlings, but are we also morally obligated to consider the welfare of a planet that seems to have no current occupants or owner?

None that can verbally object to our presence on their home world, anyway.

I suppose only time will tell what our course of action will be when the we inevitably find life on other planets (or life on other planets finds us). I hope that by then we will have seriously thought about  what to do.

Or else our first encounter with an extra-terrestrial life form might end up like this:


It is your destiny (Or, why I never wanted to be Luke Skywalker)

Even if you can’t STAND Star Wars,you know someone who loves it. Right?

Every body knows a guy who not only likes Star Wars, but LOVES Star Wars. The guy who, if he actually met George Lucas, handing “the Maker” a note suggesting that he get as far away as possible from this Jedi robe-clad Annie Wilkes would be the best course of action. We all know that guy.


The guy who stood in line for three days and dressed up as Qui Gon Jinn to the midnight showing of The Phantom Menace when it opened. The guy who knows the difference between a wampa and a bantha. The guy who knows exactly what kind of crystal powers Mace Windu’s light saber.

That guy.

these are the kind of fans i’m talking about

As any fanboy will tell you, George Lucas used ancient myths and legends as the backbone of his Star Wars saga. And as any Carl Jung fan will tell you, George Lucas’ space opera is crammed with Jungian archetypes.

Obi-Wan Kenobi is the wise old man? Yeah, Carl Jung invented that.

You know, you can spend a couple of days reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces (or you can spend 6 hours listening to it on audio book like I did) to get a full grasp on the ideas behind George Lucas’ Star Wars double trilogy, but what’s more fun is to overanalyze the Star Wars saga philosophically.

By the way, does anyone know what the correct numerical word is for a six-part movie series?

Now, anyone who’s thumbed through an introduction philosophy book and subsequently watched a Star Wars movie will quickly figure spot a few philosophical themes in Star Wars: good and evil, Yoda’s stoicism, the monastic religion of the Jedi order, even the politics of building an empire. There’s one theme that, although it runs through the entire six-part saga (and the animated Clone Wars movie — remember that one?), might not stick out as having any philosophical importance: free will versus determinism.

Ok, it miiiight stick out with all the subtlety of a cudgel to the head.

If you’ve watched any of the Star Wars flicks, you’ll have noticed that there’s a word that pops up several times: destiny. Everybody in these movies is either witness or subject to some kind of preordained future. In Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace several characters (including Jedi masters Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, and Mace Windu) refer to a “prophesy” of “the chosen one”. The “chosen one” (Anakin Skywalker, father of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa) is prophesized to destroy the Jedi and democracy-hating Sith and bring balance to the Force. In Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker not only sees the suffering of his friends in Cloud City (Yoda informs Luke that it is the future that he sees; which begs the question: did Yoda see Luke’s friends suffering in Cloud City, too?), but is told by his nemesis/father Darth Vader that Luke will turn to the Dark Side of the Force because it is Luke’s “destiny”.

Vader tells Luke he knows Luke will turn to evil because the Emperor has “forseen this”.

Here’s a short list of other things the Emperor “forsees”:

  • Everything that happens in The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
  • The Clone Wars (Episode II)
  • Luke turning to the Dark Side (Episode V)
  • Luke confronting his father (Episode VI)
  • Luke destroys the Emperor (Episode VI)

Although Luke doesn’t turn to the Dark Side, all this forseeing business that everyone is chatting about does leave us wondering is, do Luke Skywalker and his companions have free will or are their acts determined?

Before we answer the question, let’s remember what determinism is.

Determinism is defined as:

The belief that everything is caused: the doctrine or belief that everything, including every human act, is caused by something and that there is no real free will.

* Just in case you didn’t know, free will is the opposite of determinism.

Now think about it, there’s a pretty good argument for believing that the Star Wars universe is not one where people chose to do exactly what they want to do: In The Phantom Menace, Luke Skywalker’s father, Anakin (Skywalker), is prophesized to be “the Chosen One” — the one who will destroy the Sith and bring balance back to the Force. Anakin (as Sith Lord Darth Vader) eventually kills the Sith Lord Emperor Palpatine and is redeemed, thus destroying the Sith and fulfilling the prophesy of “the Chosen One”. In The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn (even) tells Anakin and his mother that meeting the boy and his mother was “the will of the Force” AND the Jedi council sense that young Anakin Skywalker may be dangerous a sentiment that certainly becomes a reality in the following films.

Ok, you say, that’s just one person. The fact that one character’s life is the fulfillment of a prophesy doesn’t mean that any other character is subject to the same thing, right?

Well, if you think about it, Luke Skywalker’s life is pretty determined, too. Even when Luke appears to choose, he’s not really choosing according to his own free will.

Here’s my argument why:

Remember when Obi-Wan Kenobi lays the double whammy on Luke and tells the naïve farmboy that not only wasn’t his father a crewman on a spice freighter, but a Jedi Knight who fought in the Clone Wars and that he must accompany Obi-Wan to Alderaan to deliver the data readouts of the Death Star to Princess Leia’s father, Luke tells Obi-Wan that he can’t go along because he’s got work to do at home on his Uncle Owen’s moisture farm? Obi-Wan tells Luke that Luke must do what he thinks is right, but while Obi-Wan’s  blowing smoke up Luke’s patootie, Obi-Wan knows that as Qui-Gon Jinn observed, events (like life) are subject to the will of the Force.

That’s why when Luke goes back home, his aunt and uncle are dead, leaving him no choice but to follow Obi-Wan on his damned fool, idealistic crusade.

And as practitioners of the Force, Jedi (including Luke Skywalker), are also filled with midi-chlorians microscopic life-forms that not only make for a fantastically handy, if not completely mystifying plot device, but are also symbiotic entities. Qui-Gon Jinn tells Anakin that the midi-chlorians tell (or is it dictate to?) the Jedi the will of the Force. This means if Luke is a Jedi and all Jedi are chocked full of midi-chlorians, and midichlorians tell Jedi the will of the Force, and the will of the Force makes things happen, like Qui-Gon Jinn meeting Anakin Skywalker on Tatooine, then events in the Star Wars universe are determined. Luke Skywalker might have thought that he had the ability to choose to stay on his Uncle’s farm, but in reality, there was no such choice.

Because like, the will of God, the will of the Force makes things happen.

You don’t have to believe me on this one,

but the midi-chlorians would say you’d be wrong if you didn’t.

Writer’s block is a complete jerk

I can’t write.

Nah, that’s not right. I’m writing right now. This blog post.

Right now.

See, the thing is, I’m supposed to be writing a book. Since I decided to do this “writing philosophy” thing professionally, and I’ve already written one book on the subject, to consider myself an actual writer of philosophy I have to write.

Books, not blogs.

I really don’t even think what I have is writer’s block. After all, I am writing this blog post right now. I can write blog posts fairly easily. I once wrote eight posts in one day. (Really, I did). What my problem is, is that I’ve got some kind of philosophical performance anxiety. I’m right about to jump in the sack with some W.V.O. Quine but instead of something, there’s nothing. Instead of ED, I’ve got PD — philosophical dysfunction.

I don’t think there’s a pill to cure it, though. No Viagra for philosophers.

Man, that analogy was bad.

I remember sitting in my philosophy classes thinking (I realize arrogantly so) that writing stuff about things I’ve been thinking about shouldn’t really be that hard. I like philosophy. I like writing. I thought, if becoming a writer of philosophy means all I have to do is think about stuff and write it down, it should be easy peasy, right? I mean, come on, I said to myself, if my professors could do it, there was no way in hell that I couldn’t pull it off.

i totally blame these people for filling me with philosophical delusions

Heck, the guys on “Philosophy Talk” make chatting about philosophy seem not only easy, but downright fun and entertaining.

these are the hosts of “philosophy talk”, John Perry and Ken Taylor. do not be fooled by all the fun they seem to be having. it is highly unlikely that doing philosophy (even of you’re having fun) will get you your own radio show.

I’ve been writing on the same six pages of my book for three months.

I guess I was wrong.

I guess it’s not too late to change my mind about writing philosophy.

If I give it up I suppose that I wouldn’t have to think up any more bad Quine analogies.

this is W.V.O. Quine. in case you were curious.

… I wonder if that topless club is still hiring?