Category Archives: Philosophy

Empty Integrity

Thoughts on a declining culture:

…it’s hard to find a children’s cartoon or movie that doesn’t tell kids that they need to look inside themselves for moral guidance. Indeed, there’s a riot of Rousseauian claptrap out there that says children are born with rightly ordered consciences. And why not? As Mr. Rogers told us, “You are the most important person in the whole wide world and you hardly even know you.” Hillary Clinton is even worse. In her book It Takes a Village, she claims that some of the best theologians she’s ever met have been five-year-olds (which might be true when compared with a certain homicidal Ukrainian priest).

Such saccharine codswallop overturns millennia of moral teaching. It takes the idea that we must apply reason to nature and our consciences in order to discover what is moral and replaces it with the idea that if it feels right, just do it, baby. Which, by the by, is exactly how Lex Luthor sees the world. Übermenschy passion is now everyone’s lodestar. As Reese Witherspoon says in Legally Blonde, “On our very first day at Harvard, a very wise professor quoted Aristotle: ‘The law is reason free from passion.’ Well, no offense to Aristotle, but in my three years at Harvard I have come to find that passion is a key ingredient to the study and practice of law — and of life.” Well, that solves that. Nietzsche-Witherspoon 1, Aristotle 0.

According to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the death of God and the coming of the übermensch was going to require the new kind of inner-directed hero to become his own god. As a result, anything society did to inconvenience the heroic individual was morally suspect, a backdoor attempt by The Man to impose conformity. This is pretty much exactly what Robin Williams teaches in Dead Poets Society. But that ethos has traveled a long way from Mork. When Barack Obama was asked by a minister to define “sin,” he confidently answered that “sin” just means being “out of alignment with my values.” Taken literally, this would mean that Hannibal Lecter is being sinful when he abstains from human flesh in favor of a Waldorf salad. As you can see, when you take the modern definition of integrity all the way to the horizon, suddenly “integrity” can be understood only as a firm commitment to one’s own principles — because one’s own principles are the only legitimate principles. Heck, if you are a god, then doing what you want is God’s will.

This won’t end well.


Peter Suderman reviews his review.

[Update a while later]

And here‘s John Nolte’s review.

[Sunday-morning update]

Five reasons why Interstellar is a conservative film.

I think that it helps to view it as allegorical, and not try to take the science too seriously.


A Conservative Anti-Government Nationalist Liberal

That’s what this test says I am.

Collectivism score: -67%
Authoritarianism score: -33%
Internationalism score: 0%
Tribalism score: 17%
Liberalism score: 17%


[Update late evening]

You people are all fools. Either this test generates random results, or it’s a way for you all to claim that you’re not RINOs.

Disasters, And Time

Some thoughts from space anthropologist David Valentine on the different perspective of the space community:

Space Is Hard” is a line I have heard from the beginning of my fieldwork in 2009, as is the acknowledgment that at some point, a disaster will strike, that someone will lose a life, and that the industry (and the social movement that I think it is) needs to prepare for its consequences. Starting yesterday, we began to see people doing just that. But it would be missing the point entirely to see this only as industry “damage control” or “spin.” At yesterday’s post-crash press conference in Mojave, Virgin Galactic’s CEO George Whitesides, visibly shaken and grief-struck, repeated this line—space is hard—and gave the usual corporate assurances one often hears in these kinds of press conferences. But he and Stu Witt—the outgoing CEO of the Mojave Air and Space Port—said other things in that press conference that only makes sense if you understand how time and history appear to Newspacers. “The future rests in many ways on hard, hard days like this,” said Whitesides. Witt, a central figure in making Mojave a center for Newspace industries, went further in responding to a young reporter’s question: “We’re doing this for you and your generation, it’s worthy, good business, it’s a cause greater than any of us. I see this as being like the Magellan mission.” For Whitesides the distant future and for Witt, the historical past make sense of the terrible loss they were enduring (and yes, I will be writing more about such colonial analogies at some future point, but not today).

If you hear these statements as pablum, as inappropriate, or as covers for corporate malfeasance, then I think you’re missing the point. I’d challenge you to find any other post-industrial-disaster press conference where people talk about the distant future or past in these ways, under duress, under the pressure of grief. The point is that Whitesides, Witt, and a host of other women and men have a deep commitment to a particular view of history and the future which—whether you find it compelling or not—helps them make sense of a death and the fracturing of daily life that have resulted from this crash. For them, the loss of this pilot’s life—a friend and colleague—is a sacrifice to a larger, historical goal. (For the best characterization of this view, see Rand Simberg’s Safe Is Not an Option). While questions abound about Virgin Galactic’s safety culture and the advisability of sending SpaceShip2 on this flight, for the myriad space settlement advocates who see history as coming back in alignment with its true course, this disaster should not spell the end of the Newspace mission because it is, in Witt’s words, worthy.


The Bioethics Of Mars Settlement

An interesting article over at Slate that raises similar concerns to mine:

If we send heterosexual astronauts, of different sexes and of reproductive age, on extended space missions, then the possibility of pregnancy looms. To ward that off, could it be ethical to demand sterilization for any potentially fertile astronauts in a mixed-sex crew? Radiation exposure may eventually take care of the issue by causing infertility, but some pregnancies could happen before infertility occurs. Is conception even possible in the zero-gravity of space, or in the low-gravity, high-radiation habitats on Mars? If so, would a fetus develop normally?

We don’t know, since it would seem patently unethical to even conduct these sorts of experiments today in space or anywhere else, at least with human subjects. Again, the physical and psychological dangers of procreating and living outside of Earth can seem inhumane, especially for involuntary subjects (the children). Yet many plans for space exploration already take it as a foregone conclusion that humans will reproduce in space. For some, it’s a crucial part of the business plan, as in the case of Mars One’s goal of moving toward a “permanent human settlement.”

As I noted:

What I would suggest to the Mars One people, though, is given that they’re planning to spend billions on this project, and the long-term goal is to have true human settlement of the planet, which necessarily involves offspring of the settlers, they devote a modest amount of their budget funding research that NASA has completely neglected for decades, but that others have privately proposed, to establish a variable-gravity laboratory in orbit where we can start to understand these issues. The fact that NASA (or Congress) have never given such research any priority whatsoever is eloquent testimony to how unimportant both consider the goal of spreading humanity into the solar system. But until we do, young people who want to go off to barren (at least initially) worlds will have to continue to face the prospect of remaining barren themselves.

Space really isn’t important, politically. Just “space” jobs.

[Update a few minutes later]

Meanwhile, Kate Greene says that economics would dictate that a Mars mission consist of all women.

Here’s my problem with that. While of course mass is an important consideration, it isn’t the only one. I would argue that any Mars mission would have to be based on an affordable mission concept, and that if it is, mass won’t matter that much, and if it isn’t, no one will go. Beyond that, I think there’s a flaw in the logic here, or at least insufficient information:

Week in and week out, the three female crew members expended less than half the calories of the three male crew members. Less than half! We were all exercising roughly the same amount—at least 45 minutes a day for five consecutive days a week—but our metabolic furnaces were calibrated in radically different ways.

During one week, the most metabolically active male burned an average of 3,450 calories per day, while the least metabolically active female expended 1,475 calories per day. It was rare for a woman on crew to burn 2,000 calories in a day and common for male crew members to exceed 3,000.

We were only allowed to exit the habitat if we wore mock spacesuits. So many Martian hassles, so little glory.

The data certainly fit with my other observations. At mealtime, the women took smaller portions than the men, who often went back for seconds. One crew member complained how hard it was to maintain his weight, despite all the calories he was taking in.

She doesn’t say, but is it possible that maybe the men were doing more physical work? If so, it might be that if the women had to do all of the heavy lifting, their calorie consumption would increase too. In any event, if you just want to send people to Mars for the sake of sending people to Mars, a female crew would be fine, but if you want to settle the planet, there would be a problem…

[Tuesday-morning update]

There seems to be a lot of off-topic whining in comments about what will be “allowed.” I said nothing about government involvement. I simply expressed an opinion that, given current knowledge, it would be unethical to attempt to have children on Mars (or even in weightlessness). I stand by that opinion.

Neil Tyson’s Latest

“Hey, you just have to trust me on all that stuff I made up“:

Eyewitnesses are a good thing. And if you believe Neil deGrasse Tyson is your lord and savior, his eyewitness testimony is of course sufficient for verifying, for instance, that George W. Bush quote.

But what about those of us who are not in the Tyson faith-based community? Are we “anti-intellectuals” to not trust in his unverified claims? I suppose that will be the continued approach by many in the media, some folks in the Wikipedia community (whose trust in Tyson puts the most devout religious piety to absolute shame), and the other fanboys.

I’ve never been as impressed with him as those who consider themselves my intellectual superiors have been demanding, but wow, he really is a piece of work.

[Update a while later]

Tyson finally admits that he botched the Bush quote:

Tyson claims to be a man of science who follows the evidence where it leads. The evidence here clearly shows Tyson screwed up. Whether knowingly or not, he regularly repeated a false account in order to cast aspersions on another public figure. The only proper thing to do is recant and apologize. That is what a person of integrity does.

I won’t be holding my breath.

Space Tourism

Is it being overhyped?

I fearlessly predict that, as with any other experience, some will be underwhelmed, and others will have their expectations exceeded.

In related news, tired of waiting, and fearing that they won’t get to the (arbitrary) von Karman line, some Virgin Galactic customers are demanding refunds.

[Update a few minutes later]

Richard Branson’s credibility is collapsing in the media.

What Is Science?

A useful essay:

…for all our bleating about “science” we live in an astonishingly unscientific and anti-scientific society. We have plenty of anti-science people, but most of our “pro-science” people are really pro-magic (and therefore anti-science).

This bizarre misunderstanding of science yields the paradox that even as we expect the impossible from science (“Please, Mr Economist, peer into your crystal ball and tell us what will happen if Obama raises/cuts taxes”), we also have a very anti-scientific mindset in many areas.

For example, our approach to education is positively obscurantist. Nobody uses rigorous experimentation to determine better methods of education, and someone who would dare to do so would be laughed out of the room. The first and most momentous scientist of education, Maria Montessori, produced an experimentally based, scientific education method that has been largely ignored by our supposedly science-enamored society. We have departments of education at very prestigious universities, and absolutely no science happens at any of them.

Our approach to public policy is also astonishingly pre-scientific. There have been almost no large-scale truly scientific experiments on public policy since the welfare randomized field trials of the 1990s, and nobody seems to realize how barbaric this is. We have people at Brookings who can run spreadsheets, and Ezra Klein can write about it and say it proves things, we have all the science we need, thank you very much. But that is not science.

Modern science is one of the most important inventions of human civilization. But the reason it took us so long to invent it and the reason we still haven’t quite understood what it is 500 years later is it is very hard to be scientific. Not because science is “expensive” but because it requires a fundamental epistemic humility, and humility is the hardest thing to wring out of the bombastic animals we are.

A useful thought as well see tens of thousands of anti-science, anti-market marching morons in New York today.

Don’t Go To Mars

David Attenborough takes a novel and courageous stand. Let’s “sort out life on earth, first.” [Paywall]

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make that argument before, except a lot of people, for decades.

“America? Let’s sort out life in Europe first.”

“Europe and Asia? Let’s sort out life in Africa, first.”

It’s obviously a mindless prescription for never settling new territory.