While at the gym today, I watched this video of Stephen Hawking addressing TED in 2008. At the very end, Chris Anderson drills into a point Hawking made earlier in his talk:
Chris Anderson: Professor, if you had to guess either way, do you now believe that it is more likely than not that we are alone in the Milky Way, as a civilization of our level of intelligence or higher?
Stephen Hawking: I think it quite likely that we are the only civilization within several hundred light years; otherwise we would have heard radio waves. The alternative is that civilizations don’t last very long, but destroy themselves.
This ties back to a statement that Hawking made earlier, that “our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.” This set me thinking about religion and metaphysic and ethics.
One of the common refrains in Western religions is that without a moral absolute delivered form an almighty Creator, everything would devolve into moral relativism, and that way lies anarchy (and abortions). Further, the promise of the paradisiacal afterlife is the ultimate carrot towards good behavior. As a former (and very lapsed) Objectivist, I always thought this perspective was silly because Ayn Rand did a fairly good job of starting with “A is A” and ending with a perfectly reasonable (if emotionally vapid) ethical system.
But hearing Stephen Hawking today led me to a new line of thought.
The biggest problem with this Ecclesiastical perspective is the idea that our world is just the tryouts. It’s the farm team, it’s the shadow plane to the Platonic ideal. For a very large group of people, what we do here and now is only important until we die, at which point we ascend to the place we’ve been trying to get to all along. And to use their line of reasoning, if nothing is important after we die, then long-term planning really doesn’t matter, does it? It’s totally cool to strip mine our small-town diamond because we’ve got a great big Astrodome waiting for us in the sky. Global warming, deforestation, water scarcity… these are just words to fervent believers, because these words don’t matter when we turn to dust.
But what if Stephen Hawking is right? What if we really are the only intelligent race within hundreds of light years? Doesn’t that make our presence in the universe incredibly precious? Shouldn’t that mean that it’s incredibly vital that we act in a way that Does. Not. Fuck. Things. Up. for the generations who come after us? Generations who might continually represent the only intelligent life in the galaxy? There’s obviously a balance to be struck between current need and long-term planning and, if anything, as a card-carrying capitalist I take a fairly balance approached. But as we continue to debate public policy that has long-term implications for planet Earth, perhaps we should take a moment to question how invested some folks are in our planet’s long-term ability to sustain life.