Silicon Valley wants to explore space as tech entrepreneurs. We should be traveling as pilgrims.
- By James PoulosJames Poulos is a writer in Los Angeles.
At a technology conference this summer, Elon Musk suggested that if humanity is not yet living in a computer simulation, it is probably already doomed. The only alternative, he explained, was so-called base reality (what most of us would refer to simply as “reality”), where some calamitous event — whether climate change, nuclear war, or an asteroid — was eventually liable to snuff our existence on Earth once and for all. “Either we’re going to create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality or civilization will cease to exist,” he said. “Those are the two options.”
Of course, Musk has also mentioned a different alternative to extinction: the possibility of leaving this planet and decamping for another. As CEO of SpaceX, Musk is deeply involved, and financially invested, in developing plans for a human colony on Mars in about seven years. But, strangely, Musk hasn’t yet explained whether or not he sees interplanetary life as an alternative to living in a simulation, not just to dying on Earth.
It’s telling that Musk has also elided one crucial aspect of building a Mars colony: who precisely ought to be sent to build it. And that omission bears directly on his recent musings on technological advancement and the earthly apocalypse. Musk, and his Silicon Valley backers, are right that humanity’s destiny might be to extend life to other planets. But Musk’s seeming belief that we’re already stuck in a simulated world leaves only dubious reasons to endorse his understanding of what destiny means — and who ought to fulfill it.
The key is in distinguishing two versions of destiny. The first is relatively more detached from (what seems to be) base reality — that is, the natural world. According to this version of destiny, the purpose of space colonization is fully tied up with the purpose of scientific progress in general, complete with transformational changes to our bodies and minds that don’t just augment or twist our experience of being human but break with nature completely, turning us into post-humans. People dreaming this dream have good reason to prefer that our first Mars colonists would see themselves as being on the frontier of such technological progress and committed to pushing it forward — to making the post-human dream as much of a reality as possible, as quickly as possible.
The ultimate evangelists behind that attitude would probably be people who see the urgency as a function of a specieswide race against the apocalyptic clock. Sam Altman, the 31 year-old president of the start-up incubator Y Combinator, gives a glimpse into how that kind of person might talk. “These phones already control us,” he told the New Yorker’s Tad Friend. “The merge has begun—and a merge is our best scenario. Any version without a merge will have conflict: we enslave the A.I. or it enslaves us. The full-on-crazy version of the merge is we get our brains uploaded into the cloud.” But this, Altman says, was the good part. “We need to level up humans, because our descendants will either conquer the galaxy or extinguish consciousness in the universe forever. What a time to be alive!” From this sort of standpoint, Musk’s Mars mission looks sort of like a motivational tool, a concrete objective, that would help humanity organize its productive power and imagination around transforming into fully simulative life before earthbound humanity is wiped out.
But there is another dream out there — a much older one, with even deeper resonances in society’s collective heart and soul. Humans have always spent a lot of time pursuing and experiencing new “worlds” right here on Earth. The traditions of humanism and religion we’ve inherited from ancient Athens and Jerusalem also treat the natural world as a type of “base reality” against which our collective history can take place. Those traditions allow old myths and social orders to be honored and new ones to be founded — fresh starts, but by no means blank slates, where the best of what came before can be retained and given promise on new soil. In this sweeping journey of civilizations, what was begun with the exodus from Egypt and the founding of Rome continued, more or less, right up through the Pilgrims’ arrival on Plymouth Rock, Abraham Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom,” and on, perhaps, to the present day. You don’t have to be pious to think of human history in these essentially religious terms — as a multimillennial journey that is far from over (perennial panic over the literal End Times notwithstanding), and that in its totality can only be fully conceived of and known by a consciousness beyond what our human nature affords.
From this standpoint, the exciting thing about colonizing Mars (and tomorrow, the galaxy!) is not the prospect of accelerating humanity past the point of humanity. Instead, it’s continuing the grand journey of humankind, wherein sacred traditions can be imitatively repeated and re-founded. A colony on Mars, then, is not like a personal trainer, pushing us through some artificial but valuable exercises that end up taking us to a higher plane of aliveness otherwise unavailable to us. Humanity’s achievement of interplanetary life wouldn’t allow us to break with the past and level us up into a new reality. It would humble us in recognition of a newfound, enduring mission — to create new ways to honor our human essence and praise what has allowed it to be sustained over time, whether we call that nature, nature’s God, or something else.
Such an act of providence would be restorative for humanity — and there’s reason to think we now require a Mars colony to allow for it. What’s clear is that Earth no longer invites us to contemplate, much less renew, our deepest spiritual needs. It has filled up so much with people, discoveries, information, and sheer stuff that it’s maddening to find what F. Scott Fitzgerald called a fresh green breast of a new world — the experience of truly open horizons and an open but specific future. That’s a problem that does suggest a terrible calamity, if not exactly an imminent apocalypse. But by making a fresh pilgrimage to a literally new world — say, red-breasted Mars — we could mark our pilgrims’ progress from the shadows of ignorance and apartness from God.
For those of us convinced that religion is a force for oppression in the world, it’s almost a no-brainer to cast our lot with the secular promise of the techno-progressive dream. On the other hand, even many instinctive atheists today recoil at the idea of a future, or present, where humanity is pliantly bottled up in an inescapable simulation built by a handful of nerds in hoodies and cargo shorts. The debate over Mars and our human destiny is about to recast our awareness of how faith and freedom really do work together — or can. Although there’s always room for the truly idiosyncratic futurist who sees apparently vast transformations as God’s plan for us enduringly human beings, the unfolding public debate requires crisper distinctions you don’t need a Ph.D. to think of or talk about.
That means asking and answering initially awkward questions, like, would we be best off if our first Martian colonists were religious observers? Especially today, nature and freedom won’t defend themselves, and they’re certainly not taken as a given by some of Earth’s more powerful people. But it turns out that even today, and in the far-flung future, many of those who see our cosmos as supernaturally real are still their best defenders. There may not be much to recommend for life on Mars if we don’t clear a path for Christ on Mars.
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