Interviewer: Hi, I'm Kyla Sommers a Phd Student at George Washington University and I'm interviewing Dr. Tommy Curry, a professor of philosophy at Texas A & M University. To start off Dr. Curry, given your background in philosophy and ethical studies, what issues do see as being raised by the topic that students will grapple with during the debates?
Dr. Tommy Curry: I think there's a few topics that are going to be grappled with. I think there's going to be ethical questions involving the specific literature of whether or not microbial life has intrinsic or instrumental value. I also think that there's going to be issues concerning how we come to think about the process of discovery, larger questions of colonization, be they methodological or historical given what we know the history of colonization on earth is. Then I think there are more conceptual problems of how we think of Martians or microbial life on Mars in relation to larger human problems that we have in this country or even on earth in general. In other words, do we value the human over the microbe the same way that we have arguments over valuing human over animal life on earth? So I think these are three broad areas that will be involved in questioning whether or not we have an unrelenting ethical obligation to microbial life.
Interviewer: Okay, great. What do you think of those three areas will be the most difficult or perhaps the most contentious to grapple with?
Dr. Curry: Wow, that's a great question. I mean, when you're dealing with ethical problems or even in the area that I work in which is anti-humanism and anti-ethics, I think you're going to constantly run into the problem of what is more important. So, on the one hand, you have kind of this conceptual argument of how you assign value. This is Charles Cockell's work, right, of how there is instrumental value; meaning we know that microbial life or microorganisms are important because we have uses for them on earth. So can we kind of extend my analogy that microorganisms on Mars will have similar value or the same value. There's the question of whether or not we understand it as indigenous life worthy of preservation and protection. And of course there's issues of ethical principles of whether or not it has intrinsic value.
I think that all those are routinely traditional ethical concerns that we have but I think that sometimes they miss the point. So, the question really becomes not whether or not what value we assign to microorganisms or microbial life, the question is do we have the right to assign value to these entities. And I think that's the most difficult question because it becomes a meta-ethical question or a question about how we formulate ethics in the first place. Some people also refer to this as sort of a philosophical anthropology, what is the capacity of the human or the subject that you're using to do the action to actually construct rational and reasonable and just ends in our views of ethics. And I think that's probably the most difficult question because I think it takes us out of the routine comfort zone of does something have value or does it not have value. It takes us into a realm of whether not we have the capacity to accurately or even justly or rationally assign value to something that we see as external--something that is nonhuman.
Interviewer: Absolutely. That's definitely an interesting way of thinking about it. So, I guess to move on from the abstract of what we'll be dealing with to more, your specific expertise and what you know others have written as well as yourself, what are your views on....
Dr. Curry: I think I lost you for a second, your screen froze. Now I got you back.
Interviewer: I'm sorry, my mike was muted. Did you hear the question?
Dr. Curry: I did not, I'm sorry.
Interviewer: No you didn't. Okay, the question was what are you views on if microbial life has any moral standing or not.
Dr. Curry: That's a great question, you know, I've been thinking about this for a few weeks given the interview. I think it's complicated. Let me phrase what my worry is. I think that some of the arguments made by Carl Sagan and Carl Loubasella, I think some of their work is really interesting on this question. My concern is kind of two fold. One: is there a process of colonization whereby the United States and other earthlings set up a colony or a place where microbial life on Mars or elsewhere simply becomes a fountain for their own uses? In other words, we assign value to it insofar as we find it useful for human existence or discovery or progress. And I think that what comes along with that isn't just physical occupation but also the question of an epistemic or a methodological colonization. And what I mean by that is do we only know microbial life on Mars in so far as it extends to kind of taxonomies we have to know about nature here on earth. In other words, we've set up a cultural or philosophical view that places the human as the discoverer, a rational actor that seeks to go out, discover, colonize, name and categorize nature. And nature in many ways becomes oppositional to that. What's external to the human is something that the human has power to act upon. And I think that when we think about that relationship, how we name something, describe something, and assign value to it, this is a part of epistemology, how we then come to know these other aspects of nature that we had no previous knowledge of before. But part of that--you know, there's really good work that Lewis Warden does on epistemic colonization--but part of that isn't just the description, but it's the process. So, do we somehow now describe microbial life on Mars as something that is inferior to the human because we have ordered society, we have ordered nature in such a way that the human becomes the origin of all taxonomy and definition, and everything else simply passively receives it. This ordering of nature, this ordering of being, is a serious consideration and my fear is that when we make arguments or ask questions about how do we assign value or do they have value then what we're really doing is extending our definitions from Earth onto Mars as if those things are naturally assumed to be true. In other words, in fact what we're doing is suggesting that microbial life on Mars is merely an extension of what the universe and nature is. So, it doesn't require any kind of external or new critical ways to investigate our relationship to nature itself.
Given that, given that explanation, I that when we look at and ask ourselves does microorganisms on Mars have value, what we're in fact trying to ask ourselves is can we ever know of the value that microorganisms would have in such a way that we have duties or obligations to them. My view generally in these kind of ethical questions--because I don't think that we should epistemicaly colonize or epistemicaly converge and make them try to fit into our schemas that order our relations. I don't think that we should be making those kind of designations because those designations always require that we have some sort of superior order and inferior order. So what I would be more interested in is suggesting that given that we can't accurately ascertain the value that these organisms have in relation to the human then it means that the human has to suspend their ability to claim that they've discovered it. When can make note of it, we can describe it, but we can't give a value to it so that the value stands in relationship to say how we look at dogs, cats, other animals and the human. Right, we should resist putting it within our schema, you know, of a rational order. So, the question isn't really does it have value, the question would be yes, it exists, in so far as we know by analogy we can say it has a will to live, that these organisms are thriving, are existing or perhaps they're maybe dying. But all that should be beyond human cognition except for the description of the microbe.
Interviewer: So you mentioned that there's a lot of other ethicists that have discussed the ways that we try and establish ethical values, and categories. Do they often use a comparison to events historically on earth--
Dr. Curry: Yes.
Interviewer: --and how that has played out in terms of making hierarchies and do you think that any of those have a particular applicability to this topic?
Dr. Curry: Um, I think so, I think that's Sagan's point--that we've done such a horrible job with the environment on earth that we certainly don't want to do that on Mars. I think even Caldwell's piece talks about the relationship between planetary protection versus planetary preservation. Is this a situation where, you know, we simply aim to not contaminate and or endanger indigenous life on Mars or are we trying to enhance it, right? So, I think all those models can be used to come to ethical decisions. We can say, here's something that we can call ethical given what we're trying to do on earth. The problem is the reason we have the problems we have on earth is because we've created relationships with the economy, relationships with how we examine the subject or the human and then the nonhuman, the way that we view nature as something that's inanimate versus not living, right? I mean, think about it, if we look at indigenous cultures of Africa or North American cultures or even Asian cultures, the relationship the human has with nature is not innate, is not already given, right, they have different views, they think that the human rather than being a kind of biological fixity outside of nature, right, is actually inside of nature. You know, you have indigenous people that think that animals are people, you know you have different spiritual qualities. So, all these different cosmologies suggest that the relationships we have with nature would be vastly different if we modeled it off of western epistemology or western anthropology. Given that truth, then it says, sure we have all these problems on earth but do these problems originate because of necessity, because any economic, any industrial system would do this to the planet, or do these things originate because we have a human centric view that views capitalism as a rational economic system, profit as a neoliberal and self-interested rational endeavor, and the consequences to nature to be something that we simply don't care about because it's fundamentally external to how humans on this planet, or particularly cultural notion of humanity, exists on this planet. If we look at those things, right, not just looking at the effects of human action, but the kind of ideological or hierarchical rubrics that necessitate or rationalize the effects of those actions, then I think we get into a situation where we can say, well look, you know, if we actually cared about the environment on earth, if we adopted a different cosmology of the environment on earth, then the ethical effects and questions we'd be asking would be different. So that's kind of the need for, you know, a teleological suspension, so to speak, a suspension of how we think we should engage simply with Mars as a function of nature or as an example of nature that we can just extend our earthly or our already human centric views upon. I think that in order for us to actually, to get to the root of what's happening on earth, we have to look at the causalities, like what has modernity done such that the introduction of the rational human being has allowed us to do things like capitalism and corporatism and globalization and has had these kind of effects on the planet. And then do we use that model when we're trying to engage in microbial life on Mars. Do we look at it as only a resource of discovery, do we look at it as a resource for how we look at human life. I mean, think of about the self-interestedness there. That we're discovering new life, but we're only interested in so far as it clarifies our origin, right? Now there's something to be said for knowledge for knowledge's sake, but does that knowledge then produce or offer us a respect of what is discovered in nature or does that knowledge create ethical systems that allow us to rationalize the use, exploitation, and in many ways degradation of what we see microorganisms as on Mars. So I think it's a very complicated problem that requires us to look more into how we evaluate the relationship of the human to nature and the relationship of knowledge in trying to rationalize those kinds of products. There's nothing that says we have to utilize microbial life for our own needs. We just presuppose it as the basis of science. There's nothing that says scientific discovery has to come at the cost of another life or of other entities. We simply presuppose it. And that's what I mean when we uncritically extend what we take to be scientific fixities in the relationship of the human to nature upon every discovery every when it's something like another planet.
Interviewer: So, I think the next question really addresses what you've just spoken about but maybe you would want to reframe in the context of a specific question. So, if microbial life does have moral standing, which I think you just spoke to, how should we assess a conflict between human life and extraterrestrial microbial life?
Dr. Curry: Right, see this is that hierarchy and order of being I'm saying, right? This is the problem. Well, let me say this is what I think is the general problem that's unannounced with ethical systems: it requires an ordering. So in order for us to answer that question we have to decide what is the value of extraterrestrial life and what's the value of human life such that we can make a utilitarian calculus of which one is worth more and what we value more in conflict. How do we do that? I know how people do do it, but how do we earnestly do it? Do we just pick a number? Do we just suggest that because it's microbes and not human that the nonhuman is less than the human? See these are the concepts of western man that someone like Sylvia Winters is concerned with. If we think of the human as a biological apex, as something that comes at the very height of evolution, the height of civilization, that is worth the most, then what we overlook is that that notion is not given in nature, is in fact culturally constructed--is something that is the product not of what we take to be biology, but what biology, what religion, what economics has all given us culturally to assume about the human in relationship to nature. So then to ask that question means that we have to kind of work backwards, to say why do we place the human, this specific rational and economic concept of the human above what we take to be the lower life forms of life. And I think if we're going to say, well how do we value the two, then the question becomes why are we in contact with such life on another planet that creates the conflict in the first place. In other words, we've engaged them in a situation where we're the visitor, in many ways we're the colonizer. So how do we think of the relationship that our life has now on a completely different planet, on a completely different geography. You know, this is where Fanon's work really does resonate, what then is the value of the colonizer so to speak such that you can negate the native and you're then one that artificially inserted yourself as the foreigner. So the conflict emerges because we've put ourselves in that type of situation. And I think if we've looking at it from a decolonial or anti-humanist stance where we don't prioritize the human, then we could suggest something like microbial life is simply worth more than human life because we don't have any reason to believe humans should naturally take up the chain of being in this other planetary context. I also think one of the risks of this is that it assumes the modalities and hierarchies we have on earth should simply be analogously placed on life on Mars. And what's the reasoning for that? Is the reason that we haven't found any intelligent or human like intelligence or being on Mars that could resist our schema, that we should simply impose ours? Or is it simply the case that we believe that ours is the extension of the natural laws of the universe and that it holds in all cases. I think in the first case that we shouldn't have to require intelligent life to simply not impose our view. If we recognize that the human is a cultural construction then that means there's also limits to how far that notion can go. And in the later view, I think there's a question of why we believe that discovery necessitates universality. That we can discover something and still have an incomplete view of its ontology, its fundamental being and origin, or even how we think we should use it. In other words, the notions that we have of discovery could simply be wrong because we don't know what we're categorizing or the actual meaning of what we've discovered has in its own planetary context. So I think those are the types of things that would kind of push us away from asking that ethical question and already resolve it for us. Is to suggest we have no ethical basis unless we erroneously assume the priority of the human over other life forms to adequately assign value to human life over other life on different planets.
Interviewer: Well, I guess my final question, or perhaps not final, is do you think that…you've talked a lot about western constructs of ethics, western constructs of hierarchies, do you see this system of thinking as pervasive throughout the world or do you think it could depend, the way that we interact with whatever microbial life was discovered could depend on which part of the world discovered it first and how that initial contact…
Dr. Curry: That's a great question. That's a very good question. I think it depends. Unfortunately the way we look at science, reason, the very process of scientific discovery--this is Coon's work, the social construction of revolutions. I think we have to understand that there's a culture contingency there. The question becomes who's been acculturated into that. It's the scientific method that we see coming from the West, from Europe, the Enlightenment, really a product of both the culture and the discipline of astrobiology for instance. We'd actually have to study the discipline to know what the core assumptions of it are. Which I think would be a great way to approach the topic of what does astrobiology presuppose about the nature of biology on other planets. But I think if you're looking at different cultures of different cosmologies that may be involved in how we look at astrobiology or life on other planets then there's a way for us to get a little closer to decolonizing or at least decontextualizing the kinds of ethical questions that we're going to ask. Remember, ethics is not a universal question, it's a universal question based on certain contingent assumptions about relationships of rational human beings. So this is why it becomes so messy when you say what is the human's obligation to the disabled person, what is the rational person's obligation to the non-rational person. Notice how that's a difference of kind because now you're saying there's more obligation to different kinds of people. Whereas when you think reason generally or ethics generally, you say well what then should two rational beings decide given the same conditions, or given the same conflict. I think the issue of Mars gets to this meta ethical question of this other kind of being. And if we're going to seriously engage that question, then we have to say, okay, are there other cultural constructs we have here on earth that would get us a little closer to understanding the relationally of life then the way we look at the intrinsic or instrumental values that are generally so prevalent in Western metaphysics and ethics. So yeah, hypothetically speaking, we could think of someone in Africa or Asia or South America or people or groups of people that we know have different relationships to nature or discovery outside of the west that may very well have a very different account of how we should engage with microbial life on Mars simply based on their cosmological views of how they relate to nature and to the larger order of the universe. But we don't know, the spread of scientific knowledge, of economics, globalization has in many ways done the job of socializing many disciplines, universities, especially these kind of, you know, space explorations, towards this view of who gets there first, what resources will be discovered, what ways can we use the knowledge or the life we've discovered on these other planets, so there is a very real neoliberal model even in the idea that we should explore other planets outside of earth. Can we solve that problem? I don't know. You know, because this is a problem of knowledge, this is a problem of how we think about the categories we use for ethical deliberation. How do we weigh…on earth, microbes, they're amongst the lowest, they're at the food chain level. So, if we just make that analogous to how we think of them on Mars, then we may miss the point. What if that is the only life on Mars? Then we're functionally dehumanizing in so far as the devaluation would be literally saying the Martian life doesn't matter because it's not at a stage that we believe is equal to the human. And these are real problems, these are real problems of reasoning because we're making ethical decisions based on analogy. [W.V.] Quine makes this argument in the indeterminacy of translation that says that despite us pointing to the same object, that you know, we think of an animal as a rabbit, and they think, another group of people think of it as a gabbai. He says, well we can point to the same object, but the question is do we understand the full relations and significance, because gabbai cannot just be what we call the rabbit, but the grass or their environment or literally their space or spirituality that the gabbai occupies. But we don't perceive that because we just see rabbit, we're just looking at the furry animal. So, is it the same thing with the microbe? Do we only see what our science has designated as that microbe, that organism, when in reality it has a very different meaning within the complexities or…I mean, what if it's the beginning of an evolutionary chain? What if our interruption in fact destroys the possibility of a civilization millennia from now? These are the ethical questions we can't ascertain if we take a human centric view, or a bio centric view of the human. Because it eliminates the possibility of actualizing things beyond our conceptualization of our use and our reason. And I think these are of course more difficult questions than does something have value or not have value, but I think it's questions that require us to push the cosmological boundaries of what we think western science and western epistemology or even the epistemology of capitalist countries like America or Europe or Russia, right, who pushed space exploration in the past. So I think all these things have to be looked at in terms of empirical conditions like economic growth, profit, the push for resources, the notoriety for discovery, being the first person to do something, next to the overall picture of can we really say the universe moves around human understanding. Or does human understanding merely impede the larger motion of the universe. We're only a blip, you know, in reality and our ethical systems really only apply to what we think about, and not the overall constructs of the problems that existed since the beginning of time that we're trying to deal with. So I think we have to have that kind of critical view, we have to take a pensive and somewhat meta-ethical view of how we want to engage the topic.
Interviewer: So, on Monday, the news came out that scientists had discovered water on Mars. And you talked a lot about the ways that hierarchies of ways we assume that microbes are at the bottom of the food chain and various ways that we assume things are for our benefit as humans. Did you see a lot of those themes in the press releases or the discussions of the discovery of water on Mars?
Dr. Curry: I did, I did, I saw a few that spoke…some worried about contamination, what harm could we cause through cross-planetary contamination, which I thought was a pretty cool term, you know, I saw some of that and some people argued similar to the point I was making about how do we affect the possible growth or evolution of this life. So I think that people are having the conversation, the problem is that I don't think we have frames to resolve it. And that's what I mean, on the one hand we could honestly ask the question should we contaminate, should we preserve, should we protect, what happens if we do, right? We're going to look at that from our vantage point. But the other part about it is, what are the other kinds of frames, epistemological frames that we have to rationalize microbes outside of microorganisms on earth. And that's what hasn't been explored. All the literature from Opessee to Sagan to you know, Cockle, are making very clear distinctions about our affects and consequences on microbes, do they have value, do they not have value, how does our presence affect them? But the other question is, if we don't know what they are and the relationship they play on their own planet, only in so far as we see it, right, so it's just like, as an individual seeing you, I don't know your interworking’s, I don't know your psychology, I don't know your personality, I don’t know what your aspirations are. If we can't assign those things or know of those things for Martian life, than how do we accurately capture what they mean? We just know them by designation. And I think that's part of the excitement, and is also part of the trepidation that I saw when they discovered water on Mars. Because there's a fundamental question of this is exciting, what does it mean? Now we know that we see microbial life, yes, we're there. But on the other hand there's the question of, well how do we engage it? Is the water on Mars a resource? Is the water on Mars something that's going to justify drilling beneath the surface to find out where it comes from? Is this water inevitably going to be venture capitalism? Right, notice how the discovery is connected to all the taxonomies that we have on earth. Because this is how, this is how we operate. So, yeah, I saw a little of it. I think to the question of contamination is very important, we're trying to respect the life of Martians. But then again, I think the best thing that we can do is suggest that it has value, that we can't place that value in our schema. And then just stop, just stop right there, you know. Let's not try to rationalize it beyond why we should or shouldn't engage it, let's say, okay we found this and there's possibility for more discovery, but let's not try and put this in a kind of modality or hierarchy where we then think we can rationalize our engagement to it. And I think that's going to be one of the most challenging parts of the topic, is that many people, many students, are going to assume that the best way for us to engage the topic is to argue yes or no, do we have this overriding ethical moral obligation or do we not have it? But the fundamental questions in either case is why do we assume that we're the ones to decide it? That's the supposition of modern ethics, that you have to assume the rational human--you have to assume an economic, self-interested human. This is just what our cultural baggage has given us. So, whether or not we do good or bad--inevitably it's probably going to be bad--but whether or not we do good or bad, kind of has to come as a secondary question, maybe a tertiary question to the foundational question of how do we see ourselves relating within a order to Martian life.