The Metaphysical Integrity of the ISS

Friday 19 May 2023

Nick Nielsen
10 min readMay 22, 2023

In previous newsletters I have mentioned that after writing a short blog post on preserving the International Space Station that I had turned this into a paper. A couple of friends have read this and given me helpful feedback, so I am working on minor revisions to it. Also, the Institute on Space Law and Ethics has offered me to have one of their volunteer staff review it, which is further help that I am grateful to have.

This paper, “The Fate of the International Space Station,” is already long enough (about 10,000 words), so the revisions I make to it will not involve substantial additions. When I first mapped out what I wanted to say I figured that it would top out at about 6,000 words, but then I added several sections as the intrinsic interest in the scientific possibilities of a mothballed ISS unfolded themselves for me as I continued to think about it. And I am still thinking about it. It is intellectually exciting for me to discover connections between ethical problems and metaphysical problems. (One of the reasons I especially enjoy D. M. Mackinnon’s A Study in Ethical Theory is the robust connections he finds between ethics and metaphysics.)

I have formulated my argument in the framework of axiology, i.e., value theory, which has long appealed to me. I’ve been reading German contributions to value theory for almost as long as I have been reading philosophy, as my early interest in Husserl led to me also to read Scheler, and Scheler’s Formalism in Ethics and a Non-Formal Ethics of Values has been a major influence on my thinking. Scheler, in turn, led me to read Manfred Frings, Alfons Deeken, Nicolai Hartmann, and others in this tradition.

Two books on axiology have been consuming my interest since working on this project, Victor Kraft’s Foundations for a Scientific Analysis of Values and Roman Ingarden’s Man and Value. Kraft’s book almost defies categorization, as Kraft is sometimes counted among the logical empiricists, and this book was published in the series Vienna Circle Collection, but Kraft has no problem citing the work of Scheler, Meinong, and Rickert, who represent a very different philosophical tradition than that of the Vienna Circle — even though we can point out that, at the turn of the previous century, there were many links connecting continental philosophy and Anglo-American philosophy. Reading Kraft reminded me of Meinong’s contribution to value theory, so I found my copy of Meinong’s On Emotional Presentation and starting re-reading that. It’s easy to just keep going with all the material that there is to plumb, and very little of it yet made the bear fruit.

In contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, those who aren’t expending their efforts on one side or another of the deontology/teleology divide, are either reviving virtue ethics or Stoicism. I don’t mean to denigrate any of these efforts or traditions. I have been taking notes on virtue ethics as well, and I think there is much to be said that hasn’t yet been said, despite the antiquity of the tradition. But one can’t do everything at once, so, for the moment, I am focusing on axiology. In the popular press it is all-too-easy to find references to value, and even to find corporate mission statements couched in terms of value statements. But the philosophical study of value has been marginal. What there is in Anglo-American philosophy primarily derives from G. E. Moore’s work on intrinsic value and those who have built upon and extended the concept of intrinsic value.

There are, then, many interesting ethical problems that can be formulated in an axiological framework and then examined with the analytical tools worked out a hundred years ago by the philosophers I have mentioned above. There are also important intersections between the philosophy of technology and the ethics of preserving the ISS. The ISS is, after all, an enormous artifact, i.e., a piece of technology, and as a piece of technology it is amenable to an analysis in terms of philosophy of technology.

For example, I found this interesting remark in Roman Ingarden: “When some machine is taken completely apart, and there is no more machine, its value also ceases to exist as a result” (Man and Value, p. 138). This seemed to me almost purposefully tailored to a discussion of the ISS, as Ingarden here explicitly expresses an intuition that implies that if the ISS is deorbited into the Pacific or disassembled and used for other purposes (this has been seriously suggested), then its value ceases to exist. Here’s where it gets metaphysically interesting. When I read this passage I immediately realized that a metaphysical framework for philosophy of technology that would be particularly apt is mereology, i.e., the theory of whole and part.

Mereology, as it is most familiar in the work of Stanisław Leśniewski and Nelson Goodman, is extensional in character. I don’t believe that this is intrinsic to mereology, but rather is an artifact of the historical period during which the first formal systems of mereology were formulated, which we could call the Age of Extensionality, if we were to divide human history into philosophical periods. Set theory was also relentlessly subject to the pursuit of extensional formulations, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness — all in the quest to avoid any reference to meaning, which the positivists took to be altogether too philosophically squishy.

There’s always a Soyuz or two docked at the ISS. Are these detachable parts or independent existents?

Extensional set theories hold the admittedly commonsense idea that two sets are identical if they have all their members if common. This treatment was extended to mereology with the analogous extensionalist formulation that two wholes are identical if they have all their parts in common. The problem comes with time and change. If two sets are the same only if they have the same elements, or two wholes are the same only if they have the same parts, then if an element is subtracted, modified, or added, or if a part is subtracted, modified, or added, then we aren’t talking about the same set or whole. So if we take, for example, a person’s life as a whole, then the changes that occur in a life mean that you are not the same person at the beginning of life as at the end of life. For example, when you are a child you get your baby teeth, and these eventually fall out and are replaced by adult teeth. As a result, you have new parts, and therefore the parts you have now are not the same as the parts you had as a child. Therefore, if wholes must have the same parts, then you as a child are not the same whole as you as an adult. Now, there is any amount of literature that develops the theme that one is not the same person at different stages of life (which is admittedly pregnant with poetic meaning), but I will set that aside for the moment in order to address the intuition we have of ontological continuity as a keystone of personal identity. By this criterion, an extensionalist account of mereology is incoherent as an account of familiar wholes that change over time.

The ISS, like a person, is a whole that has endured through time, and throughout its history it has changed repeatedly. First, it was assembled. Its assembly continued throughout its life to date, as new modules have been added. Not long ago, an old bank of batteries was jettisoned from the ISS to burn up in the atmosphere. There is also the question of the spacecraft that dock at the ISS. When they are docked are they part of the ISS, or do their retain their individual and separate identity? If we say that the spacecraft that dock only briefly retain their separate identity, what about the Soyuz that remain continuously docked as potential lifeboats for the ISS crew in the event of some catastrophic failure — are they part of the ISS? However we analyze the whole that is the ISS, parts of it have been added, modified, and subtracted during its existence, and it thus poses all the problems that the continuous identity of a person poses for an analysis in terms of extensional mereology.

Battery pallet jettisoned from the ISS.

Mereology has not been at a standstill since its classic extensionalist formulation, however. I have a copy of Peter Simons Parts: A Study in Ontology (now on my bedside table) that explicitly deals with problems like this, and pushes mereology into modal territory to try deal with problems like necessary parts. It gets complicated quickly, but, as I noted above, it is gratifying to find these metaphysical foundations for moral problems that suggest new ways of looking at things — novel analyses that promise the possibility of unraveling old perplexities.

How is a study of mereology relevant to ethics (much less space ethics)? Some years ago when I read Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work I was quite taken with a passage in which he discussed what he called the metaphysical responsibility he had to the motorcycles he was working on (I wrote a blog post about this in 2010, Metaphysical Responsibility). Generalized beyond the context of motorcycle maintenance, the mechanic who repairs a machine, as well as the technologist who designs it and the engineer who builds it, have a metaphysical responsibility to the machine that they create. I would argue that they have a metaphysical responsibility to the metaphysical integrity of the machine as an autonomous existent, and that this metaphysical integrity is a form of wholeness. A machine, then, is a whole, and that whole commands our metaphysical responsibility to respect its metaphysical integrity.

Persons, communities, historical events, and other existents also possess a metaphysical integrity, which we have a metaphysical responsibility to respect. This integrity can be expressed as a form of wholeness, and wholeness can be formulated in a mereological framework. The ISS possesses a metaphysical integrity that must, to some extent, command our metaphysical responsibility to its maintenance. But in this simple formulation, all the weight comes to rest on “to some extent.” To what extent, exactly, and how do we measure this extent? This is where axiology comes into play, as an ideal axiology would rank-order values in such a way as to determine the extent to which the integrity of a given existent can command our respect. We are far short of an ideally complete axiology (just as we are far short of an ideally complete mereology), so we are still squarely within the Aristotelian scope of practical wisdom, and no hard-and-fast rules will deliver us from the necessity of moral deliberation. We can reflect on the possibility that our knowledge might someday be perfected, and the time will come when rules can be applied with precision and certainty. I do not believe this to be the case, but that is a discussion for another time.

As I mentioned above, I’m not going to try to put this into my current ISS paper, as it is already long, and what I have written above is highly speculative, and it will probably take me months or years to work through this if I apply myself. But it is a task working taking up, given its location at the intersection of ethics, metaphysics, and philosophy of technology, potentially having implications in all these domains. I could write a more narrowly conceived paper in the philosophy of technology to address some of the above. I already have a title I like: “The Metaphysical Integrity of Artifacts.”

My ISS paper already has a number of highly speculative elements in it; I worry it may be rejected for that reason, but I claim the philosopher’s right to speculate. One of arguments only sketched in the paper is the relationship between the intrinsic value of existents, which is potentially infinite, and the life of the individual or the social whole, which is finite. This contrast yields a decision procedure which allows us to locate incommensurable values within a single scale — the scale of how we actually spend our time. I like this argument, but I recognize that I have only sketched it out, and it needs more work. I hope to delve into this further, and I expect to find (just as when one delves into a fractal) all kinds of interesting and unexpected connections.

Another highly speculative element is the concluding reflection on what I call eschatological value, which may be thought of as an axiological formulation of what the twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich called ultimate concern. I have been thinking of this a lot since completing the first draft of the paper, and writing newsletter 231, which also considers eschatological value. Further pursuing resources in axiological ethics this past week, I found that J. N. Findlay, the translator of Husserl’s Logical Investigations and the author of a short book on axiological ethics, has a collection of papers that includes three lectures on the absolute and rational eschatology, so I am looking forward to getting into this, which I suspect will have quite a lot of relevance to my own attempt at exploring rational eschatology and eschatological value.