Over at Foreign Affairs, James Poulos frets that, in the event that Elon Musk’s Mars mission ever gets off the ground, Musk (who admittedly has some strange beliefs: he appears to think that we are all living in some type of computer simulation) might pick the wrong sorts to settle the red planet. While Musk hasn’t given too much guidance as to who these future colonists might be, Poulos worries that they will turn out to be the sort of people who see our species’ arrival on the fourth rock from the sun as part of a broader scientific evolution:
According to this version of destiny, the purpose of space colonization is fully tied up with the purpose of scientific progress in general, complete with transformational changes to our bodies and minds that don’t just augment or twist our experience of being human but break with nature completely, turning us into post-humans. People dreaming this dream have good reason to prefer that our first Mars colonists would see themselves as being on the frontier of such technological progress and committed to pushing it forward — to making the post-human dream as much of a reality as possible, as quickly as possible.
That may be overegging the pudding. If I had to guess—and if history is any precedent— early ‘private sector’ colonists of Mars will be a mixed bunch with mixed motives. If some of them are into a spot of genetic tweaking or trying to turn themselves into cyborgs, that’s fine. They are highly unlikely to be as ‘post’ human as Poulos imagines— or they themselves might hope.
But Poulos has another vision:
[T]here is another dream out there — a much older one, with even deeper resonances in society’s collective heart and soul. Humans have always spent a lot of time pursuing and experiencing new “worlds” right here on Earth. The traditions of humanism and religion we’ve inherited from ancient Athens and Jerusalem also treat the natural world as a type of “base reality” against which our collective history can take place. Those traditions allow old myths and social orders to be honored and new ones to be founded — fresh starts, but by no means blank slates, where the best of what came before can be retained and given promise on new soil. In this sweeping journey of civilizations, what was begun with the exodus from Egypt and the founding of Rome continued, more or less, right up through the Pilgrims’ arrival on Plymouth Rock, Abraham Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom,” and on, perhaps, to the present day.
That’s to paint a very pretty picture both of “new worlds” (which, after all, is what the Bolsheviks—to name just one of a long series of monsters— thought that they were creating) and of the motives of those who, often accidentally, create them: there are more conquistadors and chancers than there are pilgrims.
From this standpoint, the exciting thing about colonizing Mars (and tomorrow, the galaxy!) is not the prospect of accelerating humanity past the point of humanity. Instead, it’s continuing the grand journey of humankind, wherein sacred traditions can be imitatively repeated and re-founded. A colony on Mars, then, is not like a personal trainer, pushing us through some artificial but valuable exercises that end up taking us to a higher plane of aliveness otherwise unavailable to us. Humanity’s achievement of interplanetary life wouldn’t allow us to break with the past and level us up into a new reality. It would humble us in recognition of a newfound, enduring mission — to create new ways to honor our human essence and praise what has allowed it to be sustained over time, whether we call that nature, nature’s God, or something else.
What we call that is nonsense.
Crusades, cults and civilizations come and go. Sometimes we move forward, sometimes we go into reverse. Mankind has no ‘enduring’ mission. There is no ‘grand journey’. There is merely a muddling through the millennia.
As for the rest, well, in the end Ozymandias.
Back to Poulos:
“What’s clear is that Earth no longer invites us to contemplate, much less renew, our deepest spiritual needs”.
Quite what the evidence for that is, I do not know.
Never mind, Poulos wants the move to Mars to be transformed into a “pilgrimage”, an act of “progress from the shadows of ignorance and apartness from God”. Just managing to live all those millions of miles away is, apparently, not enough. There has to be some greater mission, some grander meaning. There is, apparently, going to be a “debate over Mars and our human destiny” (there is?) and it’s “going to recast our awareness of how faith and freedom really do work together — or can”. It is?
[It] means asking and answering initially awkward questions, like, would we be best off if our first Martian colonists were religious observers? Especially today, nature and freedom won’t defend themselves, and they’re certainly not taken as a given by some of Earth’s more powerful people. But it turns out that even today, and in the far-flung future, many of those who see our cosmos as supernaturally real are still their best defenders. There may not be much to recommend for life on Mars if we don’t clear a path for Christ on Mars.
Only time will tell, but if I had to guess, the law of averages will mean that any Martian colony would, like just about any other human settlement, eventually have a large contingent of people who believe in the supernatural including, perhaps, Musk. How else to describe his faith in that computer simulation–an invisible organizing principle–of his? And (I would assume) there will turn out to be more Christians than a simple caricature of nerds on Mars would suggest. There would be no need to clear any paths for Jesus – or for any religious test for prospective colonists.
As to what happens then, well, let’s just say that Ray Bradbury is badly missed.