Katie: Hi! My name is Katie Stasaski, and I’m a student at the George Washington University. I’m here with Professor Derek Malone-France, Executive Director of the University Writing Program at The George Washington University, where he is also an Associate Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Religion. His academic areas of interest include philosophical and religious implications of astrobiology and space exploration.This interview is being conducted for the NASA Astrobiology debates, in which debaters from different schools around the country will be discussing Resolved: An overriding ethical obligation to protect and preserve extraterrestrial microbial life and ecosystems should be in incorporated into international law. First question: Professor, given your background in philosophy and ethical studies, what issues do you see as being raised by the topic in your areas of expertise that students are going to have to grapple with during the debates?
Professor: Well, there are so many. I think one of the really fun things with being involved in astrobiology, especially in the expansive way that NASA defines that, which includes not only the search for life elsewhere obviously, which is the main focus of the resolution, but also the implications of that search for that understanding of the origins and evolution of life on earth. Which of course has, first of all, tremendous religious implications. If, for example, we were to find even very simple microbial life that was clearly of a distinct origin from Earth life. So say we find life, not on Mars, where there might have been a co-origin—for example, life might have evolved on Mars first and moved to Earth during a period where Mars were habitable sooner due to the sun’s expansion and heat it was eventually burned out almost. But, material could have still moved over. That would still be interesting, but if we found microbial life on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, where the conditions are so completely different environmentally, or life outside of our solar system, where it would almost be guaranteed to have been originated distinctly separately from our form of life, religious people at least major traditions—Christianity comes to mind obviously. Its very prominent focus on the creation of life here on earth and on the specialness of human life, would have to make some adjustments. Now, what those adjustments would be like for each religious community would depend upon the way they view the traditions that are put in place. So some Christians, having a very liberalistic understanding of the Book of Genesis might find the discovery of extraterrestrial life genuinely theologically traumatic. And, for them, there would be profound religious implications which would obviously bleed over into moral and ethical implications including those having to do with their political membership. In a pluralistic democracy like ours in the contemporary scientific era in which we live, these kinds of beliefs have been a focus on not just personal moral, ethical, and religious debates, but also very prominent political ones. Whereas a Christian who has a more metaphorical understanding of the Bible, say, would adjust to this in a very different way. In fact, when many periods of Christian history when there was a belief in life on other planets, many Christians actually embraced that. So, religiously, Buddhists would have a completely different reaction than Christians would. And then, on the other hand, in a philosophical context, obviously the political implications are profound. We live in a globalized world but not a global political society. So who makes the decisions about what we do in relation to these findings? If we come across microbial life in or beyond our solar system, is it up to the country whose technology or even the corporation, let’s say SpaceEx finds it before the United States, or say it’s a joint venture that happens. Who makes that decision and ultimately who then has some power to define humanity’s relationship to this profound and impactful discovery?
Katie: Which would be the stronger argument for who should be in control of how we approach microbial life that we encounter?
Professor: Well, you know, it’s interesting. On the one hand, as someone whose worked in democratic political theory, my inclination is always to err on the side of wider circles of discourse. Which, I think leads to greater ethical legitimacy and political justification for the decisions or the actions that are made or taken. And, in that sense, one would say these are events that would impact the entire human race. It can’t be up to a single political community or certainly a single corporate entity or an individual human being to make those kinds of decisions unilaterally. But on the other hand, throughout human history, the creation of our communities and political societies has been driven by decisions that were made often by individuals or smaller groups without validation from the larger groups they were a part of, much less larger human community. And so when you think about it in those kinds of historical terms, were the U.S. or China or India or one of the other space exploring countries to make contact individually on its own first would have a strong claim to a historical right to set that context. Absent more robust international legal agreements that are going to be contemplated by the debaters here in relation to this resolution.
Katie: What are your views on the question of whether extraterrestrial microbial life has moral standing?
Professor: You know, it’s funny. One of the things that came out of recent conversations among scholarly experts at the Library of Congress that I took part in was the question of why we put such a premium on life? Why are we looking for life? Why is life so important to us? And I think part of the answer is that traditionally speaking, human moral systems, most of which positively or negatively evolved out of religious systems, have seen life as a special component of the universe that deserves a kind of respect that is not requisite to the non-living universe. But of course now, as the science has proceeded and understanding in which the way science operates has proceeded over the past several centuries, it’s become almost impossible for anyone in the current context to offer a definition of what life is. As opposed to non-life. Some of the most interesting arguments that are taking place philosophically in this area relate to the concept of artificial life, which is not the same thing as artificial intelligence. Artificial life can be a much simpler construct. A mechanical form of organizational entity that might have the same kinds of properties you might describe if giving a definition of life based on, say, Darwinian evolution. So the kind of mechanism that could replicate itself but that doesn’t involve organic protein folds that we associate with ourselves or plants or even microbial life forms. Why then give special ethical status to even small microbial life that we might encounter in outer space? I think there are a number of reasons but the first one I would give has little to do with the microbes and everything to do with us. There’s an old story or anecdote or urban myth of a man coming along and seeing a little boy pulling the wings off of a fly. The little boy says it’s not hurting him, it’s just a fly. The old man says I want you to stop not because of what it’s doing to the fly, but because of what it’s doing to you that you’re doing this. The concern is for the way in which the little boy’s moral imagination is being shriveled by this encounter with something that he believes he doesn’t have to respect in any way. The kind of casual cruelty. I think whatever we come to decide about whether simple microbial life can have the kinds of experiences with the ability to suffer, without absolute knowledge and without absolute agreement among ourselves about what that moral status ought to be, then erring on the side of moral caution is always the best approach. We don’t want to put ourselves in a position of doing something we’d regret. Humanity has, sadly, a long history of discovering after the fact that practices that were undertaken in relation to beings described as others, be they non-humans or other kinds of humans, turn out to look very bad in retrospect. So I think that’s the kind of thing where space exploration allows humans to overcome within relation to itself. This could be a moment where our species could transcend its own propensity to act without sufficient moral regard for the long term consequences. This could be really exciting—it’s not just about negation. But rather what could we do that would spark a greater sense of global and moral imagination working toward some end that all humans have some mutual interest in.
Katie: Assuming microbial life does have moral standing, what are your views on how we ought assess a potential conflict between the needs of human beings and the needs of extraterrestrial microbial life:?
Professor: From my point of view and speaking as somebody who works in the particular specialization that I work in, which obviously frames my answer, my focus is on procedure. Political deliberative procedure. I don’t anticipate us ever reaching a point where humanity has totally shared consensus on any meaningful moral issue. As long as we are human beings. So then what does legitimacy look like? A genuine grappling with all of the dimensions of a situation rather than bracketing off the dimensions that interest us and attending only to those. That’s the economic and colonialistic approach to contact with other forms of life. There are those who have argued that we should have an absolute prohibition in engaging in any contact beyond discovery. Even going so far as to argue if we found microbial life on mars, we should bar ourselves ever from going to Mars. The moral imperative being one in allowing the natural evolution of the microbe without our interference. But what is natural or unnatural interference? In an expanding cosmic environment we are just one of those other environmental factors with which other life would have to defend. And the other end of the spectrum is those who would say it’s about the human good if we don’t find entities that are at same level of sophistication, we don’t owe them much. Particularly we don’t owe simple life forms elsewhere any more than we owe them here. I think the answer to whether either of those is correct is unclear and obviously there are a lot of positions in between those that deal with the nuances of exactly what we think we’re dealing with. I would revert to any discovery like this is going to take a long time to verify. We’re not talking w/in 10 years probably making contact with microbial life. But we might be looking into finding signatures that that life exists in a place. Then we start a conversation, probably a 50 year conversation, before so. Because the technical challenges of reaching even our most local, so to speak, celestial neighbors, Mars, Venus, are obviously profound and the expense is huge. That’s where the possibility for a conversation about what we do with this discovery could morph into a broader conversation about how we understand ourselves and how we relate as a community here on earth. That brings in the concern about whether finding life elsewhere and/or continuing our expansion into space makes us more or less protective of our environment here on earth. Do we take our expansion as an opportunity to get ourselves squared away or does it look like an opportunity to say we’re going to leave this garbage pile behind and go and start again. That would be extreme in terms of tech, but it could be a long term shift in consciousness if our environment continues to degrade.
Katie: What are your views on the moral standing of future generations? If there is an obligation to future generations to preserve microbial life, how do we assess the importance of such an obligation so as to determine whether it is “overriding” or not?
Professor: Obviously we have in my mind strong moral obligations to future generations of human beings. It seems the argument that people who don’t exist don’t have rights is not something that trumps the notion that we have a moral obligation to the indefinite future human community. One of which is to keep it going. That’s where those who would say we need to be more aggressive in exploring space and we need to think of this as not exploitation but our one and only opportunity to keep the human race going in the long term would plant their flag. That would be an arg for not giving moral obligations to other life if they got in the way of development. Even setting aside the kind of inclination towards moral caution that I advocated earlier, we now know that we destroyed a lot of value in deforestation of areas like the Amazon rain forest where we are now finding there are special kinds of organic chemicals that can be used in medicine, special foods, GMO, where you have the engineered reduction of biodiversity. So if you think about that dynamic and you start to extend it to space, we cannot know the potential value of the continued existence of forms of life that are distinct from the terrestrial stream. If we were to destroy those, we could be destroying untapped wells for future generations that we would never be able to rediscover.
Katie: Are there any other areas of consideration that debaters might be grappling with with this topic that we haven’t discussed so far?
Professor: I think for the most part at this point, leaders in the political sense, particularly leaders of space faring nations are thinking about this in terms of power politics and international relations. I don’t say that as a critique, it’s their job. They privilege that aspect over much, but it’s understandable. And, setting aside issues of contact control of outer space is going to be a tremendous variable in the dynamics of military relations in the next 20,50,100 years. And so, that’s understandable. But, I think that there is this combining moment of crisis regarding the environment here on our planet and the issue of overpopulation with a greater public awareness with just how far tech of space exploration has come in past 40 years. People were paying attention in 60s and 70s because of the cold war, the Viking mission to try to find life on mars. When people saw no signs of life on mars, that interest migrated to science fiction. And now, as the public is turning its attention back to real science of space exploration. NASA has done a fantastic job of getting itself in the news. People are starting to be aware that some of the kinds of moral narratives of human progress or of failure of human progress, associated with scifi are coming up on the horizon as possible aspects of our future. It would be nice if the leaders of the countries involved most substantively could see an opportunity for more collaborative and discursive engagement around the issue. It’s become pretty clear that without very radical change in the way in which decisions about the global environment and relate to humanity as a whole are made, we might not have that long to go. We are approaching a critical mass of 11 billion people in your lifetime if not mine. That is unsustainable in any imaginable reality that doesn’t involve magic. This is our last shot and in that context, the fact that what we’re talking about is so transformative and revolutionary in our understanding of ourselves and our relation to the universe, it could be the point where humans could get their act together and begin to behave more rationally. I’m not as hopeful as Star Trek next generation view, but I hope we don’t have to destroy ourselves first before we figure out that we need to be cooperating.
Katie: Do you have any concluding remarks on the subject?
Professor: I think it’s really exciting these debates are happening. Even someone like me—I’m entering my mid 40s—I think I’m going to see contact. I think we will discover signs of extraterrestrial life in my lifetime. But I don’t think that I will see the culmination of efforts to rationalize a program for dealing with that discovery in concert with whatever solution, I hope, gets worked out for our own terrestrial environmental crisis. It’s all on you and those younger than you who are the future generations who are going to be grappling with this. This will be exciting as long as we don’t screw it up too badly before you have a chance to take the reins.
Katie: Thank you so much for your time. I think you brought in an interesting perspective and I’m really excited to see how debaters use it in the upcoming debates.