Work in Progress: Formulating Novel Intuitions

Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 to 12 February 1804)

Today is Kant’s birthday. I have prepared a birthday notice for my philosophy of history space on Quora, but Kant has been on my mind quite a bit lately, beyond merely noting his birthday. I’ve mentioned that I gave a couple of talks last year on space philosophy, one of which was an overview of and an introduction to the field, and the other of which focused on existential risks connected with space exploration, or, if you like space risk. I continued to think about topics in space philosophy and eventually outlined a series of talks, one of which would be a presentation on philosophy of religion from a space philosophy stand point. Here are the titles of my talks in my hypothetical curriculum:

  1. Introduction: Why Space Philosophy?
  2. Philosophy of Technology Like Your Life Depended on It
  3. Experiences and Experiments: The Overview Effect and Mary’s Room
  4. Philosophy of Future History
  5. Is it possible to build a new human society in space?
  6. Big Questions: What is at stake in space exploration?
  7. Philosophy of Religion in Outer Space
  8. The Good Life in Outer Space

I revise this regularly as my thinking on space philosophy develops. № 6 above is the presentation on space risk; № 1 is the repeatedly revised introductory talk; № 8 is about space ethics — I mentioned in newsletter 157 that I participated in a space ethics workshop, and this gave me much to think about, and I think that it is the ethical possibilities — and the potential ethical dilemmas — that most interests others insofar as there is any interest in space philosophy.

In thinking about philosophy of religion (for № 7 above) I thought that Kant’s Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft (1793; variously translated as Religion Within the Bounds of Bare Reason, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, and Religion Within the Boundary of Pure Reason) would make a good starting point. I looked over some recent works and I found that contemporary scholarship on Kant’s philosophy of religion is quite sophisticated, and not something that one can just blunder into without some significant preparation.

My specific interest in this work is because it is one of the major Enlightenment works on the philosophy of religion, and I argue that our civilization today is best understood as an Enlightenment civilization, so an Enlightenment philosophy of religion would have obvious applications to an Enlightenment civilization. While Kant always makes every short list of the greatest philosophers of the Western tradition, and he is routinely pigeon-holed as an idealist (which is accurate, insofar as this categorization goes), Kant was also an Enlightenment philosopher, and he wrote a famous essay taking up the burning question of the day: “What is Enlightenment?” which he sententiously answered in the opening line of this essay: “Enlightenment is the human being’s emancipation from its self-incurred immaturity.” I think it would be fair to say that Kant’s philosophy of religion is an Enlightenment philosophy of religion, and we would therefore expect it to be a philosophy of religion that focuses on humanity’s emancipation from its self-incurred religious immaturity.

The Enlightenment, and our Enlightenment civilization, represents something authentically new in human history, and that is a central project for civilization that is not primarily a mythology. Arguably, Chinese civilization since Confucius has had a central project that is not primarily a mythology; on the other hand, one could argue that anything that serves the role of a central project is de facto a mythology, even if it is the secularized mythology of progress that is the Enlightenment, or it is the mythology of social harmony and filial piety of Confucianism. Metaphorically, one could say that human societies have a religion-shaped hole at their center, and anything that fills this hole will eventually be shaped by the demands placed upon it into something like the traditional mythologies that served as the basis of civilizations until the Enlightenment.

There is something to be said for this latter view, but it is also possible that profound changes could yet obtain in human civilization that would mean the central project could be differently shaped than the religiously-shaped hole of the past; indeed, we could even pass over into a post-civilizational institution that no longer possessed the institutional structure of civilization, and then everything changes. Toynbee thought that this post-civilizational institution would be a universal church, but we need not limit ourselves in this way. Insofar as we conceive of a post-civilizational institution as an emergent from civilization proper, then civilization could be the basis of multiple emergents, one of which might be a universal church, but others of which might be something entirely different — and entirely incomprehensible and unpredictable to us, shaped, as we are, by civilization.

In Volume VII of Toynbee’s A Study of History he turns from Universal States to Universal Churches

In regard to № 8 above, “The Good Life in Outer Space,” I have taken some notes on a very traditional conception of the good life as conceived in classical philosophy, only displaced into outer space — a topic that I believe deserves exposition as not having been much discussed — but this leaves most of space ethics untouched. I could expand this outline by additional talks on space ethics related topics, and I had a good idea for this — a couple of ideas, in fact.

One of these ideas would begin with a short description of the Valladolid Debate, when the Spanish crown convened a formal debate over the moral status of Native Americans, and their proper relationship to the Spanish. The Spanish often get a bad rap when it comes to the Spanish Conquest — historians call this bad rap the Black Legend — but the Spanish were significantly more conscious of their expansion into the Americas than other European peoples engaged in similar expansion. The problem, of course, is that their consciousness is not our modern consciousness, so it is easy to pass over Spanish moral conscientiousness without recognizing it for what it was.

The Black Legend of Spanish cruelty

This is important; it involves a judgment that the present passes upon the past, finding the past inadequate to present moral demands. This observation ought to inspire us to moral humility, but that is the last thing on the menu these days. Many human beings today have an overweening sense of their moral righteousness, and they are in perfectly good conscience in imposing their standards, or expecting these standards to be imposed, on both past and future. But I don’t think that the future will be any kinder to us that we are to the Spanish, and there may someday be a Black Legend of the early twenty-first century about our unconscionable recklessness and our grotesquely self-righteous blundering.

It is in this spirit that we should take up the ideas of space ethics today, when fewer than a thousand human beings have ever been into space, and we have very little experience of what it is like for human beings to live in space — and no experience at all of a large scale human society in space. We still have before us the whole range of human moral experiences in space, including crimes — the first murder in space, for example — and great acts of benevolence — the first act of heroic self-sacrifice in space. Without a robust history of spacefaring, complete with all the complexities of human society worked out in space until they are as routine in space as they are on Earth, it is only arrogance that could lead us to believe that we can understand even the faintest outline of space ethics. What we do not yet know far outstrips what we do know, and given that space is of indefinite extent, and far larger than Earth, it offers possibilities of moral experience that will far transcend human experience on Earth.

It would be easy to tell ourselves that we are, for the first time in our history, engaging in a conscious exploration of our moral obligations before engaging in a great enterprise — viz. the expansion of humanity beyond Earth — but, as we have seen, we have been here before, and our judgment of this effort should not inspire much confidence in our current effort. Telling ourselves that we are going to exercise ethics in space development, and that we aren’t going to make the same mistakes we have made earlier in our history, is not humility, but rather hubris.

I will allow that there are fundamental novelties that can appear in human history; I wrote above that Enlightenment civilization represents just such a novelty in human history, and it could be the case that a morally conscious expansion into space might be different than past efforts to ex post facto rationalize what we would have done anyway, without moral reflection. All of this is possible, but not likely, and we ought to proceed on the assumption that nothing fundamentally new is involved in our enterprises in the present. One could call this Ecclesiastes’ condition: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Extraordinary evidence should be required for the extraordinary claim of any departure from Ecclesiastes’ condition.


Now, if Kant is right (or was right) that Enlightenment consists in emancipation from our self-imposed immaturity, then we would accept that there is an one-time transition in human history when human beings pass from immaturity to maturity, and if that time is the present (or was during the 18th century Enlightenment), then that would constitute an extraordinary claim to a unique transition in human history, and we had better be able to bring some pretty compelling evidence to bear to make the case for this. Since I am discussing space development, I can’t resist making the observation that if Kantian Enlightenment still lies in our future, and if, in that future, human beings are widely distributed in the cosmos, Enlightenment might be a very uneven process, coming to some human communities centuries or millennia before it comes to other communities. Perhaps Enlightenment comes to only one human community, with other human communities having passed out of its lightcone and therefore beyond the possibility of communication. Or suppose communication was possible, but no personal presence. If instruction in Enlightenment requires actual lived experience (something familiar in human history from relationships of mentorship and discipleship), it would not be enough to send a message of Enlightenment out into the cosmos.

This observation is also relevant to SETI. Freeman Dyson once formulated what he called the Philosophical Discourse Dogma, according to which messages of Enlightenment were being sent between ancient civilizations and formed the basis of an interstellar communications network. But if precepts must be taught by example, such messages would labor under a burden from which they could not be released. This was not Dyson’s argument, but may be accounted another strike against the Philosophical Discourse Dogma.

Valladolid, Igelisa de San Pablo

When the Valladolid debate took place, what was on the table was whether Native Americans had souls and whether they should be converted to Catholicism, by force if necessary. Today someone like me might say that the better question would have been whether the Native Americans and their culture possessed intrinsic value, and whether there was some obligation to preserve the intrinsic value of their way of life.

As it developed over time, the peoples of the Americans mostly survived (with exceptions like the Taino, the native peoples of the Greater Antilles, who are now extinct), but much of their culture was lost. Only four Mayan codices were saved from the fires, and from these books, and many inscriptions, linguists managed to reconstruct the written script of the Mayan language. This is only a small fragment of what was lost, and what is recoverable. The independently originating civilizations of the Americas were utterly lost. And these losses were, in part, a result of the questions that the Spanish asked themselves, no less than the answers that they gave. Questions set the agenda of a debate, and by making the Valladolid debate about whether or not the indigenous peoples had souls or not, the debate sought to expand the framework of traditional moral thought, but not to change it or to form novel moral intuitions.

Taino man, 1870

As we approach space ethics today, we too are seeking to expand the scope of our familiar moral intuitions, but we are not seeking to fundamentally change these moral intuitions, nor to form new moral intuitions that might be more suitable for a world understood on a cosmological scale. In all honesty, we are pretty self-satisfied with our present moral intuitions, and we find fault based on a failure to exemplify these intuitions as much as with having distinct moral intuitions.

Now, it may sound odd to talk about forming new intuitions. Are we not gifted with a fixed stock of intuitions that are our natural inheritance as human beings? I’ve written about developing new intuitions previously, especially in my paper The Limits of Formal Thought. I like to use the concept of zero as an example. When zero was introduced it was considered to be advanced mathematics, but now we teach the concept of zero to young children, and most of us are so familiar with the concept that we can’t imagine quantitative thinking without it. Zero has become intuitive to us, and it has done so by either answering to a cognitive need, or displacing other intuitions that might have served a similar function, but not as well, or both. Concepts undergo conceptual selection, with conceptual descent with modification and the survival of the fittest concepts.

The same is true with our moral concepts: we have a stock of familiar moral concepts, some of which are probably near to optimality, but others of which are far from optimality and could stand considerable improvement. It may be possible to formulate new moral concepts that, by their intrinsic power, would displace earlier and less perfect moral intuitions. I am not saying that this is easy; conceptually, it is probably the most difficult thing that human beings can do. But in moments of self-transcendence we sometimes glimpse a concept to which we were previously blind.

Given how much greater in scale the universe is compared to the Americas (implying the much greater effort that will be involved in the exploration of the cosmos in comparison to the exploration of the Americas), the degree of moral evolution we have yet to experience may dwarf the forced moral evolution we experienced as a result of the Age of Discovery, which entailed humanity becoming a species integrated on a planetary scale. The history of the past five hundred years of this process of integration has been, at times, incredibly cruel, but we have learned something. We still have much to learn.




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Nick Nielsen

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