A few months ago, I came across a proverbial Twitter battle between Democratic politician Bernie Sanders and the founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk. Gone are the days that an internet spat could be dismissed as petty and trivial because, for better or worse, social media has become our public square. And when an influential politician resolutely disagrees with a man trying to make humanity a multi-planetary species, we probably should pay attention (if we take humanity seriously and respect each other’s sovereignty).
The attack was typical of Bernie to highlight the abhorrent inequality we see in America:
Elon replied, stating he wants to “make life multi-planetary” as his justification for “accumulating resources”:
Bernie concludes the Twitter spat, stating that while space travel is an “exciting” idea, there are imminent and much more pressing issues that we need to resolve “right now”.
Unfortunately, like most online arguments, the debate bifurcated into unswerving groups. As per our tribal nature, there had to be opposing teams: Team Elon Vs Team Bernie. And since this involved a politician, it had to be reduced to cheap and unproductive political attacks on both parties.
But, I believe most reasonable people, who aren’t indoctrinated by an ideology that makes them brainwashed mindless puppets to fallacious parasitic ideas1, stood in both camps. Despite the ostensibly opposing views, those of us trying to actually think and not let a political/social ideology do the thinking for us probably agreed with both sides. However, given that in economics, and perhaps life itself, there aren’t perfect solutions, but only trade-offs2, it begs the question: is it tenable to agree with Bernie’s rightful concerns about our economic systems and still believe in Elon’s vision of space exploration? That’s what I try to reason and explore in this essay.
Firstly, I need to explicitly state that this essay isn’t about the broader politics of another Elon-Bernie debate*; nor is this an exploration into the current billionaire and political class. But not because this isn’t a political conversation. Since Bernie’s concerns lie within the political domain (even though it’s not only political), it’s impossible to investigate the specific matters while being apolitical. Although I’m unsympathetic towards Bernie’s populist tactics, where he engages in class warfare by tapping into the worst parts of human nature, i.e. resentment, envy, anger, etc., his analysis of inequality is accurate. Economic disparity isn’t a trivial issue to be carelessly dismissed as a harsh reality of any social system&. And combating inequality has a political component, but my reason for not making a strictly political case is because contemporary politics has become chiefly a zero-sum game4. Shrewdly “dunking” on an opponent’s political arguments or trying to defeat an opponent in a debate will, by definition, leave a loser. There is nothing inherently wrong with political discussion. But, as Matt Taibbi elucidated5 in Hate Inc., due to the mass corporate media structures, our political debate has turned into “manufacturing discontent” between groups of people over seeking truth and solving problems. Demagogues then use this manufactured pseudo-polarization expediently and pin us, the pawns, against each other using our race, gender, class, political views, etc. This is unproductive and deeply unethical.
Given that life doesn’t invariably have to be a zero-sum game, I’d instead attempt to invoke a theologos (θεολόγος)—a sincere search for truth—when in conversation with another person (written or otherwise), which will hopefully benefit everyone involved.
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*You can read the article ‘Attacks On Elon Musk For His Wealth Are Truly Ridiculous’ by Zachary Shahan for a more political take.
&There is yet to be an economic system that doesn’t produce inequality as the moment people structurise a social system and rank order priorities, hierarchies of value are created, which will inevitably create disparity3 between the levels that emerge.
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Can we play in a non-zero-sum game?
If there were unlimited resources and all systems were infinitely efficient, there wouldn’t be a reason to ask this question. But life is cursed by natural inadequacy and human fallibility. It’s a miracle that we manage to feed people despite our innate destituteness, and we seem to be doing a better job6 at it, with time. For myself, this isn’t naive, fanciful optimism. Rather, when I realize our responsibility to ensure progress towards reducing undue suffering isn’t hindered, I tremble at this datum. Therefore, as Bernie rightly states, prioritising7 our goals as nations, communities and individuals is no triviality. If we’re to play in a non-zero-sum game where space exploration isn’t going to forestall material human progress, then our priorities have to be in order.
In that case, can we do both: innovate, build, explore the cosmos and attempt to understand reality while also dealing with perennial problems, i.e. inequality, poverty, etc.? I don’t know, nor does any single individual, as our collective wisdom will always triumph over an individual’s narrow understanding8 of monumental existential problems*.
However, in hopes of contributing to the dialogue of that collective wisdom, I will present two parallel arguments—within the context of this essay’s theme—to legitimise playing a non-zero-sum game where space exploration doesn’t have to be diametrically opposed to combating inequality (or other social and environmental problems). The first argument is the utilitarian case: there is untold socio-economic utility in exploring space (both the means and the end); therefore, we probably should engage in this mission. And subsequently, the second is why the previous utilitarian case doesn’t suffice: human beings aren’t mere cogs in a machine to be constantly economically utilised for some “greater good”. On the contrary, as ‘Man shall not live on bread alone’9, we need breathtaking splendour to justify our existence; without beauty, religious-like inspiration (psychologically speaking) and an orientation towards the transcendent unknown, in all likelihood, we die10.
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*This is why the never-ending political and philosophical dialogue between individuals, as cumbersome as it may be, is imperative because human beings aren’t omniscient. So we need to work things out collectively through conversation.
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As I intimated before, despite inequality being an unfortunate part of being, it isn’t a problem that we can thoughtlessly dismiss or ignore. At least, if we believe a worthy goal striving towards is that people ought to have a decent standard of living globally without unwarranted suffering.
A harsh truth about reality we must contend with seems to be what sociologists call the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage11, named after the parable of the talents12 in the Bible:
“For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” Matthew 25:29 (NIV)
Not many findings shocked me as the Matthew effect did when I understood its distinctive characteristics. And I’m still trying to comprehend its real-world implications*. Essentially its consequences are manifold. The effect is observable in scientific publications where a minute number of scientists produce the most influential papers in academia. Therefore, naturally, credit goes only to a few scientists despite science being a collective enterprise13. It’s seen in education where children who don’t start learning to read early will never catch up with those who do so in due time, and there will be a widening gap between the slow starters and fast starters as their schooling continues14. It’s even seen in the cosmos, where a small number of heavenly bodies contain almost all the mass in the universe, and due to their ever-growing gravitational pull, it only gets larger. Within the context of inequality, the Matthew effect is patent in economics, where we hear the platitude: ‘the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.’ However, the good news is that since around the 1800s, extreme poverty has been falling faster than ever before in recorded human history15. But, once again, seeing the ill-starred Matthew effect in action, the world has become much more unequal: wealthier developed countries are 10-times richer than poorer developing countries16 and the world’s richest 1% own 43.4% of the world’s wealth17.
Assuming, despite the unjust vicissitudes of life, we aren’t going to cynically capitulate to the forces of inequality; we must accept that for all the undeniable merits of neoliberal capitalism, it has some deep flaws (like every human-made system)—if like me, statistics don’t always move you emotionally watch the Shady series by Refinery2918. Therefore, if we want to genuinely help those left at the bottom of society, we need bold (yet grounded) renewed ideas over those ensued by the trite left-right political dialogue. I’ve found empty clichés like “vote for X or do X, and then poverty will vanish” to be insipid, vague, lacking nuance, and downright manipulative lies.
The aforementioned is also why a logical utilitarian case based on objectivity must be made to explore this essay’s themes.
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*Writing this essay is a part of this incessant comprehension and my attempt to build lucidity on how to act, both ethically and practically, given the conspicuous reality of the Matthew effect.
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Poverty & Ideology
Before I specifically make the case, I have to explicate some presuppositions I’ve used to frame my contention.
Poverty is an existential problem: nothing causes poverty; it’s the innate state of being. In nature, inadequacy, destitution and inequality of resources are where we begin. Therefore, poverty cannot be resolved nor explained through a single ideology such as Marxism, Libertarianism, Objectivism, etc.
A Marxist might say that capitalism is at the root of all poverty and inequality. And capitalism is nothing else but essentially an exploitative system where the proletariat will always be at the whims of the bourgeoisie*. On that preconception, they might conclude our neoliberal institutions (both private and public) are fundamentally corrupt, causing all of modernity’s problems.
Similarly, a Libertarian might invert the argument and place the failure of public institutions at the root of all societal problems. Therefore, they might assert that privatizations and unequivocal trust in the free markets will be the panacea to poverty and inequality, leaving no room for collective social action that generally requires a government. Such quasi-religious& ideologies are normatively incoherent, unproductive and harmful when applied to the real world. As any society, in all its grand complexity, doesn’t perfectly fit into a single political ideology. One parochial worldview does not explain everything. Therefore, as one of Jordan Peterson’s wise rules19 states, we must “Abandon ideology.”
If a Marxist concludes that any individual ambition is greed or all achievement is due to privilege, they are pragmatically wrong and morally corrupt. Such asinine conclusions can be used as empty throwaway lines but don’t require any actual analysis of a situation. If a Libertarian concludes that inequality is to be disregarded as it’s a blunt reality of a “free society” despite the overwhelming evidence20 that extreme inequality makes society worse, they are wrong. Recognizing that inequality is inevitable doesn’t necessitate that we ignore those on the bottom of the social ladder, even if their lamentable circumstance is due to their own fault. Leaving aside our moral imperative of compassion, forgiveness and redemptively looking out for one another, even if we viewed inequality purely through an objectivist21 lens where self-interest and reason are the highest virtues, wouldn’t objectivists want to make sure society doesn’t denigrate into mayhem even if it was solely for their own sake? If a person is truly selfish, they have to be somewhat altruistic and engage in reciprocity if they want to live in a functioning society because we aren’t just atomized individuals taking up space in this world; our individuality is deeply interwoven into society, culture and being itself.
Maybe for scholastic sake, we can ideologically categorize nations into an intellectual abstraction and place them on the left-right political spectrum. But in modern (functional) democracies, the left and right have worked in tandem despite their political differences. And more importantly, through incentives and value alignment, governments and the private sector have worked symbiotically+ towards societal betterment.
For example, Matt Ridley elucidates how innovation has become a salient phenomenon in the modern age stating, “Innovation is the child of freedom and the parent of prosperity.”22 Furthermore, he debunks our romantic notions of the heroic entrepreneur or inventor who, entirely by themselves, single-handedly changed the world through sheer effort and acumen%. Conversely, being an economic liberal, Ridley believes innovation to be a decentralised, collective enterprise; it’s not imbued out of a single genius even though the contribution of the John von Neumann’s in this world will be considerably, unspeakably greater than mine. Innovation is evolutionary, in essence, works through trial and error, served best by a free exchange of goods, services and ideas.
Ridley is correct in freedom being a prerequisite for innovation and prosperity, but this sort of freedom comes in many forms, not only through a free market. One of those forms is the university, a vital institution of our society, which should be a petri dish of academic freedom. Most universities (even in America24), whether private or public, are either publicly funded25 or heavily subsidised. Scientists need an environment that gives them carte blanche to make mistakes and engage in rigorous research. Such freedom can only be created through systems like academic tenure in an established university that doesn’t have the limitations of a private company, i.e. profit motive, product-market fit, risk of bankruptcy, etc. Although I’ve been told that the reality of being an academic involves vexingly getting grants and maneuvering through bureaucracy to be a much more complicated matter, our progress in scientific discovery demonstrates the system to be tolerably functional and thankfully not corrupt to its core. Plus, evidence suggests that academia acting as a precommitment mechanism allows scientists to freely pursue their own interests in unexplored terrain, resulting in vital early-stage research that private industry may not be incentivised to explore. In accord, “the private sector’s ability to direct scientists toward higher-payoff activities makes it more attractive for later-stage research.”26 For example, some of the renowned companies that transpired out of the computer revolution would not have existed if not for nascent forms of research that took place in universities27.
So in tackling poverty (or inequality) through innovation and prosperity, this demonstrates that no particular viewpoint or ideology that formed modern society gets the upper hand or absolutism; both have utility. The truth of the matter speaks to both sides, the left and the right, politically and socioeconomically. The private sector needs publicly funded institutions and vice versa. And none of these sectors are inherently corrupt, dispensable or, for lack of a better term, more evil than the other. Nor are they perfect but flawed like every other human institution.
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*The terminology and context might change but I’ve found this formulation to be the gist of the underlying philosophy.
&I’m not using ‘religious’ derogatorily in any way whatsoever. Far from it, as I use the term to represent a philosophical framework, or more accurately, an indispensable narrative structure that a person uses to interpret and filter through reality. And regardless of one’s beliefs, we all unwittingly base our life on this lucidificating mechanism.
+I’m well aware of how this relationship has, at times, been corrupt and deleterious. However, I based this generalisation on the fact that modern liberal democracies still exist. Both left and right-wing parties have been in political power equally, and we haven’t destroyed each other yet.
%Interestingly, despite opposing political views to Ridley, Malcolm Gladwell makes a comparable case in his bestselling book Outliers23. This datum indicates a deeper truth in contemporary society as both these writers arrive at similar conclusions even though they begin from different worldviews.
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Corruption & Accountability
Unfortunately, due to human nature and its concomitant flaws, the freedom mentioned above created by free markets, universities, or other institutions cannot exist in a siloed vacuum. Like myself, even if you have a rudimentary understanding of game theory28 and rational* decision making, it’s clear that in a liberal democracy (the best governing tools we’ve conjured up so far), the private and public sectors should be kept in check by the general public. Fortunately, we have institutions like the media^ (in its many forms) for that exact purpose.
As Jordan Peterson rightly identifies31, all hierarchies become somewhat tyrannical and corrupt; much like poverty, this is a perennial problem we must confront. So even democratic institutions are susceptible to this predicament.
Even with the ostensible power of voting, if people are trapped in the left-right, Republican-Democrat, or Labour-Liberal duopoly, warranted frustration builds up, leading to distrust and cynicism about the system. And with trust being essential for any civilized society, none of these worries exhibited by ordinary people (that’s most of us) should be casually ignored and hastily dismissed. As Camus states32,
“Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.”
So what is this ‘essence’ we so deeply yearn for?
It’s a collective ideal: it’s a promise we make to each other and even an article of faith we base most of our life on. This mostly unspoken ethos buttresses any nation that isn’t irredeemably corrupt or a failed state (to use modern political parlance). For example, Australia’s quintessential ideals are liberty, mateship and giving everyone a fair go; egalitarianism, individual rectitude rather than class, shapes the national character33. Millions of migrants like myself move to Australia because of these unique and rare values. So they aren’t mere mantras but something we ought to embody as we become a part of Australian society. However, as with any other country, Australia isn’t perfect (nor will it ever be), so the problem lies when institutions don’t live up to this cultural ethos and become corrupt. To use a recent story: a widespread petition34 by ex-Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd (left-wing, Labour party) and Malcolm Turnbull (right-wing, Liberal party) calling for a royal commission to inquire into the cartel-like practices of the Murdoch media monopoly exemplifies how institutions, be it private or public, ought to be held accountable if they don’t abide by this cultural ethos of a nation.
A problem$ common to free countries, primarily Western nations that are offshoots of English common law (e.g. Australia, Canada and the United States), is the tragedy of the commons: when individuals have free access to resources, self-seeking agents exploit the common goods (e.g. natural resources, services, etc.) for their private gain. Not particularly out of any malevolent intent, but because individual agents in a system, guided by self-interest, would find the privatized gain to exceed their share of the commonized loss35. Therefore, this commons-dilemma is due to perfectly rational behaviour. Consequently, due to a myriad of reasons spanning from human psychology to game theory, if shared social structures don’t modulate societies, opportunism will prevail. A more recent example of the commons-dilemma is the ongoing debate about social media companies and the societal role of Big Tech oligopolies. Whatever your stance on censorship, hate speech, data privacy, etc., maybe, I think most people agree that these institutions aren’t living up to the cultural ethos (of the West in this case) nor acting ethically (as defined by our culture) in the marketplace. Quillette Magazine righty identified the problem:
“[…] the entities that control mass-market peer-to-peer content, software, and monetization—including Google, Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, PayPal, GoFundMe, and Patreon—are largely unconstrained by any kind of government oversight. […] crucial decisions about what can and cannot be said in the public sphere are now being made by small groups of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. In some cases, it really just comes down to the up-or-down vote of a single person.”36
The private gains of Big Tech companies apparently supersede their share of the public loss; however, the rest of us have to face the ramifications due to their dereliction of essential civic duties. Therefore people begin to trust these entities less. While people may have certain powers to influence Big Tech through voting and market choices, private institutions could get powerful and corrupt to a point where government intervention as a last resort is necessary.
In short, unaccountable institutions cannot be free if their freedom to be corrupt oppresses a citizenry’s individual freedoms and sovereignty.
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*A drawback I see in game theory is the assumption that players in a respective game will act rationally in maximising their self-interest. However, as Daniel Kahneman’s29 findings (which laid the foundations for behavioural economics) revealed, human beings aren’t purely rational thinkers. Our patterns of thinking involve unaccountable non-rational motivations. And as Doestoevsky30 elucidated almost two centuries ago, it isn’t clear that human beings even desire a blissful, rationalist utopia.
^Needless to state, even this institution is corruptible. Such is the unfortunate fact of being: everything stultifies, degenerates and needs to be continually revivified.
$This problem is a price worth paying for being free because the alternative, as we see in non-democratic countries, is tyranny, propaganda, war and endless suffering at the whims of the state.
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Is There A Case For Space Exploration?
So far, I’ve identified the inevitable problems that we face despite humanity’s ascent in quality of living compared to historical standards and given the astounding fact that we haven’t gone extinct yet. Of course, there clearly are other conspicuous issues that call our attention, such as pandemics, climate change, radicalism, terrorism, imminent cold wars amongst superpowers, and I could go on ad infinitum. But, I only highlighted those perennial problems that seem to be eternal. They’re existential realities, naturalistic phenomena of being that we cannot do away with but only contend and learn to live amongst. To restate more succinctly, they are:
- Poverty, inequality and the Matthew effect.
- Inexorable corruption of artificial systems and the need for constant revivification.
- The tragedy of the commons in free societies and the penchant for rational agents in a system to act in a self-interested manner, which harms the general public.
- The problem of trust as societies scale.
Given these patent problems we must tackle, is there still a pragmatic (utilitarian) case for space exploration?
It seems like Elon already answered this question in his own idiosyncratic way when he tweeted, “I am accumulating resources to help make life multi-planetary & extend the light of consciousness to the stars.” Notwithstanding the problems I’ve highlighted hitherto, his reasoning still seems convincing.
Given there have been many mass extinctions on Earth, human beings will either become multi-planetary or go extinct like every other species. For better or worse, both these trajectories are ineludible. So if not for our generation, there will be a time when someone must take that audacious first step into the cosmos and “extend the light of consciousness”—hopefully, we could include other sentient creatures too. This step is an existential imposition thrown at us out of our sheer need for survival as a species. Regardless of the cause, it’s a predestined inevitability of the human story—or possibly life itself. So then why not now? Is there ever a perfect time for space exploration? Probably not.
Outwardly Elon Musk’s entrepreneurship seems like the moves of a typical market disruptor we’ve seen come out of Silicon Valley in the last four decades. As professor W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne37 state,
“In recent years disruption has become the battle cry of business. Disruption occurs when an innovation creates a new market and business model that causes established players to fall. […] Millions of us benefit from Uber’s driver-on-demand service, even as it displaces existing taxi companies.” However, the unfortunate side of such Creative Destruction38 is those who get the shorter end of the stick and are displaced by market changes: the ongoing discussion about Amazon’s role39 in the economy and if antitrust enforcement is necessary would be a timely example of this phenomenon. Still, contrarily, as Mauborgne and Kim argue, disruption isn’t particularly synonymous with innovation, and another cardinal block of innovation and growth is “nondisruptive creation, which offers a new way of thinking about what’s possible. It highlights the immense potential for creating new markets where none existed before. This is creation without disruption or destruction.”
SpaceX being the first private company to launch and return a spacecraft from Earth’s orbit successfully, makes what Elon is doing unprecedented. So there isn’t the type of disruption that Amazon has created in the precursory markets, and it’s a mistake to put companies like Amazon and SpaceX in the same camp. Other than the pronounced economic benefits of SpaceX creating new markets, i.e. Jobs, technology, etc., such non-zero-sum nondisruptive creation won’t imbue innovation and growth* at the cost of existing players.
As I’ve underlined above, despite the inexorable existential problems we perpetually face, the economic and anthropological, pragmatic case for space exploration seems plausible. The question shouldn’t be posed as a bifurcated either/or decision between space exploration and combating inequality (and poverty). We can, or even meant to and ought to, do both. We’re fortunate (or unfortunate depending on your values and opinion of humankind) enough to be a part of humanity’s story. And as far as one’s qualia41 is concerned, it doesn’t matter if we don’t believe in this datum or not, as we nevertheless live in this given narrative. If space exploration is part of our story, we must partake in it. Thankfully though, this endeavour appears to have favourable outcomes.
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* I’m using these terms only to be descriptive but not prescriptive. This isn’t a libertarian argument for unfettered free markets simply for the sake of more innovation and growth. While free markets are an excellent tool for this purpose, coming out of this pandemic, maybe it’s time we prioritize other values such as public health, individual well-being, communal ties and strengthening our social fabric. As Robert D. Putnam highlights fastidiously in Bowling Alone40, the West is also in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. And the remedy to such dilemmas isn’t economical.
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Cultural Pressure As A Necessity
Culture is an effective source of accountability for individuals, no matter how small. At a minimum, it at least acts as a tool to maintain trust and social cohesion. So it’s a perilous and myopic mistake to reduce culture to a mere opioid given to the masses to keep them in check, obedient and docile. It does a lot more than compelling an individual to live in a particular manner because the world is complex beyond belief, and culture keeps us sane42. Within a community, everything of social value is downstream from culture as the cultural norms we abide by are tangible manifestations of the grand narrative humanity lives within—this is true despite the tendency for culture to get corrupt and stultify43 (that too is a part of the narrative). And most people intuitively know this to be true as we act within cultural boundaries even though some of us—usually the maverick types—may be disinclined to accept this fact.
Thereby, as David C. Rose argues in his book Why Culture Matters Most44, it seems like the best solution we have for the tragedy of the commons and cultural commons dilemma% in large societies is to undergird our economies and social systems through apt cultural pressure. For most societies, such pressure is derived primarily from a religious framework that binds individuals into moral communities46. So our best bet is to act religiously (in the moral sense of the word if viewed colloquially) when making economic decisions; if not, the propensity for destructive self-interested opportunism to prevail is almost inevitable.
Human beings aren’t inherently good. If you disagree, I suggest you read The Rape of Nanking47. The accounts in it will first give you nightmares and subsequently end your Rousseauian fantasy. While there is some evidence48 for the foundations of morality being innate and evolutionary in human beings (and other primates49), social structures and cultural forces aren’t arbitrary and play an indispensable role in creating formidable individuals who cooperate and live in sophisticated, functioning societies. We cannot be amoral in our collective decision making. Nor is it the case that any single individual is “self-made” and exists in a silo; our actions affect broader society and vice versa. As Malcolm Gladwell elucidated in Outliers50, culture, environment and happenstance, for better or worse, play a pivotal role in our life’s outcomes. As social beings, we’re all deeply interconnected to each other and our communities. Therefore, if the prevalent cultural narrative doesn’t allow space exploration, even if a pioneer like Elon believes it ought to be done, we cannot do it—and we shouldn’t.
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%David defines this dilemma as, “In the cultural commons, each untrustworthy act amounts to taking advantage of the high-trust society that has been built up over the years. The benefit of doing so for any citizen might be great, but the harm done to a large, high-trust society is often imperceptible.”45
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Why The Utilitarian Case Doesn’t Suffice
Provided the cultural zeitgeist allows it, the normative case advanced on the grounds of utilitarianism made through economics, science and politics for space exploration while also combating inequality or, for that matter, any other far-reaching social issue seems reasonable enough for a pragmatic rationalist. But any argument made on rationalism still lacks potency as it isn’t deep enough for our souls (or affective valence to be technical). Especially for a young person who’s adopted a messianic complex51, the current narratives around ‘calculated and steady incremental progress’ doesn’t speak at a level deep enough to compel action the same way a revolutionary story told by, for instance, social justice activism^ would.
So we’ll always need something awe-inspiring (music, art, sport, space exploration, etc.) that orients us towards a higher ideal. But justifying something bold, audacious and unprecedented like the next frontier of space exploration purely on practical grounds is inadequate. It lacks the romanticisms we all desire: the starry-eyed, fantastical, and, I dare say, numinous aspect of the human soul should never be ignored. The yearning to explore and seek out the unknown, even at the cost of rationality, gives us hope. And to jeer and be causally cynical about such hope (which modern people tend to do so easily) is pernicious. The ineffable sublimity that lies within those who are hopeful—without naivety—in relationship with the world and divinity53 teaches us to see life in a new light. It’s a truth William Blake exalted:
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
He who mocks the Infants Faith
Shall be mocked in Age & Death
He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall neer get out
He who respects the Infants faith
Triumphs over Hell & Death
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day”54
A rational contention for space exploration or combating poverty could be easily refuted as such: (1) being multi-planetary is futile as we’ll only ship our problems to another planet or (2) combating poverty is unavailing as people are incompetent, flawed and corrupt, so even if the problem of poverty is solved temporarily in due time, it’ll come back. Both these refutations are warranted as we have historical evidence in their support.
Human beings aren’t omniscient, so we live on faith; we have axioms, but we can act on them only through faith. Therefore, the spiritual (or moral) conclusion will always come first, and afterwards, the rational argumentation only affirms it55. As Paul Tillich postulates, for human beings, questions of the utmost existential necessity are informed by our ultimate concern56. These are questions that ask, “Is humanity worth saving?”, “Is being good?” or “Is my life meaningful?”: they exist in the religious domain and are one’s fundamental attitude towards life. All other questions—“should we combat inequality?” or “should humanity become multi-planetary?”—come afterwards; every other concern branches off the ultimate concern as the ultimate governs the immediate. So our ultimate orientation—how we live—is the faith we place upon our rationale to justify our existential conclusions. Reason, so to speak, is a mere tool used to legitimise the spirit.
The story of rational, scientific reason alone isn’t good enough because science itself is nested within a religious narrative57. The empirical and critical methodology of science that we all admire so much serves a higher transcendent meta-ethic. When we assert that science ought to pursue truth, or it should be used to increase human wellbeing, it’s based on the presupposition that doing so is better—a moral judgement we make through our ultimate concern—than falsifying scientific findings or decreasing human wellbeing.
Therefore the questions brought up in this essay cannot be answered through isolated empiricism undergirded by axiomatic reason alone as we—the “mind”, to be technically precise—experience the world through meaning and relevance58. Furthermore, as doctrinal Christianity59 asserted and modern cognitive science discovered, our “embodied understanding is not merely a conceptual/propositional activity of thought, but rather constitutes our most basic way of being in, and engaging with, our surroundings in a deep visceral manner.”60 so in effect, human beings can’t make sense of any truth claim without an all-encompassing, embodied meta-narrative.
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^I’m not implying ‘social justice’ activism to be an overall negative for society. That certainly cannot be true, as many historical movements towards the betterment of humanity have been based on such calls for egalitarian social justice. However, like most social movements, the devil is in the details. One shouldn’t engage in social justice activism to steal the limelight or give in to one’s messianic complex. Activism plays a vital role in free societies, but the poor and downtrodden aren’t there to give meaning (or attention) to an activist’s life. Activism’s goal ought not to be the activist’s sustenance. If activism is a form of love manifest and as Aquinas said, “To love is to will the good of the other.”52 then our predominant driver should be the need to serve those we’re trying to help, nothing more, nothing less. In a sense, the goal of an activist should be to end the activism itself, as with progress, it becomes no longer needed.
. . .
We aren’t cogs in a machine to be optimally utilised or, at worse, be exploited like will-less automatons. Leaving aside the ethics of this claim, as Hubert Dreyfus explicated in his trenchant and uproaring critique of algorithmic rule-based artificial intelligence61, our minds cannot be understood as computational machines; thereby, we cannot be treated this way. Hence, we rarely do find positivistic a priori arguments palatable. In fact, human beings are the most peculiar entity in the universe; what makes us human is our irrationality—our unpredictable, mercurial nature. Sometimes humans do the most senseless things without ever ascertaining why we do them in the first place. If you ask an artist like Pablo Picasso, “why did you spend a lifetime producing over 50,000 artworks?” or a scientist like B. F. Skinner, “why did you spend a whole career experimenting (and playing) with rats?” I bet they’ll reply, “because it evoked my interest,” and as far as I’m concerned, that’s an entirely plausible response. We don’t have to rationally justify everything we do in life (within ethical limits, of course). Certain things simply grab our attention and become meaningful to us, and those things don’t have to always be of economic or social utility.
Dostoevsky famously made his enigmatic remark, “beauty will save the world”62, and in my reading of The Idiot, he isn’t talking about mere aesthetics. The “beauty” he refers to is sublime and brings sustenance to the human soul; such beauty changes our fundamental attitude on life and orients our being towards the transcendent good. It isn’t limited to an elite “artistic” ilk. Despite modern people’s tendencies to curtail everything ineffable into categories, true beauty cannot be reduced to a mere epiphenomenal nicety (or, God forbid, a decoration). Notwithstanding our rampant materialism—exacerbated by consumerism—all things don’t have to be viewed through a lens of productivity or economic utility. Beauty, for example, cannot be seen as just another utility. If done so, we destroy it: the utilitarian materialist would ask, “why do we spend public funds on art galleries or museums?” or “why beautify architecture?” instead, “why not spend all this money on infrastructure development or social welfare?” Viewed through the utilitarian lens, these are reasonable objections. But ironically, it’s such rational good intentions that have created a purposeless society63 that’s killing64 us in the West. So, as a culture, we need to move beyond material fulfilment. As Henry David Thoreau warned us, if we try to fill the void in our lives through materialism, it’ll only eventuate in nihilism:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things. […] Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward.”65
Intimations of nihilism isn’t a modern phenomenon. Such existential angst is a perpetual, cross-cultural human universal. However, I profoundly (and poignantly) feel if material advancement is all our industrial society can give us, we will eventually die+. Therefore every generation needs a renewed story based on the archetypes of our collective unconscious* that art, for example, ineffably yet manifestly portrays. These narratives we live by aren’t explicitly articulated but objectively, deeply rigidified in the psyche75.
There always is a story—motifs—of overcoming strife and agony through strenuousness, sagacity, and sacrifice across cultures. It may be that defeating the COVID-19 pandemic is yet another societal battle for our generation, similar to fighting the Nazis or winning the cold war by those of the past. If all people heard were impersonal and abstract statistics without any meaningful context from the media, this pandemic would be a non-issue. The populace, for better or worse, would’ve mostly ignored public health measures. Whatever one’s opinion on the government’s reaction to the ongoing pandemic may be, we should notice how the solutions were sold to us by the powers that be. The messages are always communicated within a narrative of defeating this elusive enemy—the virus—through sacrifice and tenacity to carry out our communal responsibilities as citizens—it’s a patriotic duty. We will only act on the proposed solutions if they make sense to us and feel we’re part of this story.
Dissenters themselves—those who oppose the government measures mandated to deal with COVID-19—have their own story of the overbearing, tyrannical and even oppressive state. The point being, regardless of the political sides, there is always a non-arbitrary narrative we base our actions on, no matter the presuppositions and ideological underpinnings. But overcoming isn’t the only story; the other is Adventure. Or perhaps, the Adventure itself is found in overcoming as we’re all in some way crushed by predicaments of life—some, of course, more than others. No true Adventure (at least, a good one that captivates us) comes without its assortment of obstacles.
A trope in cross-cultural mythology$ is that of the archetypal hero. The meta-pattern found in humanities greatest and oldest stories is of the exploratory hero, embarking on an adventure at great personal risk, confronting the chaotic unknown, and defeating the threat (dangerous forces lurking amongst the uncanny) and subsequently returns home to share his spoils with the community to revivify the dying kingdom, i.e. Book of Genesis77, New Testament78, Bhagavad Gita79, Epic of Gilgamesh80, etc.:
“The hero’s quest or journey has been represented in mythology and ritual in numerous ways, but the manifold representations appear in accordance with the myth of the way, as previously described: a harmonious community or way of life, predictable and stable in structure and function, is unexpectedly threatened by the emergence of (previously harnessed) unknown and dangerous forces. An individual of humble and princely origins rises, by free choice, to counter this threat. This individual is exposed to great personal trials, and risks or experiences physical and psychological dissolution. Nonetheless, he overcomes the threat, is magically restored (frequently improved) and receives a great reward, in consequence. He returns to his community with the reward, and (re)establishes social order (sometimes after a crisis engendered by his return). […] Chaos breeds novelty, promising and threatening; the hero leaves his community, voluntarily, to face this chaos. His exploratory/creative “act” quells the threat embedded in chaos, and frees what is promising from its “grip.” Incorporation of this freed promise (this “redemptive” information) – symbolized by union with the virgin, or discovery of the treasure – transforms the hero. His transformed (enriched) behavior then serves his community as a model. The group is therefore transformed – and restabilized – in turn.”81
Joseph Campbell called this ubiquitous pattern found in antiquity of almost every culture a monomyth82—the motif of the archetypal narrative. His seminal work of the hero’s journey model introduced a theory in answering the eternal question: what makes a hero?83 It was this monomyth that Arthur C. Clarke integrated into 2001: A Space Odyssey, and George Lucas modelled his characters after in the Star Wars franchise84. It’s not a mistake that these riveting works have captivated modern culture, and millions of people are enchanted by the narrative. Their stupendous success should point to these stories—derived from the meta-story—not being mere entertainment but speaking to something much more profound and true in our psyche. And we ignore these realities at our own peril. However, the mechanics or facts of the stories themselves aren’t what’s always revealing of human nature (even though the narratives undoubtedly matter); rather, as Maria Popova highlights85 we should intimately understand what the very purpose of hero-myths is for our lives:
“It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may very well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. […] The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what [Carl] Jung called ‘the archetypal images.’86”
. . .
+Concluding that we will “die” isn’t mere dramatic prose. As John Vervaeke covers in his incisive and exhaustive lecture series ‘Awakening from the Meaning Crisis’66, there is well documented psychometric evidence (i.e., increase in suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, personal reports, social unrest, etc.) that we’re living in times of rampant meaninglessness. And there is a dramatic increase in “deaths of despair”67, a neologism used by researchers to categorize this modern social phenomenon.
*In my opinion, Carl Jung is a modern-day prophet. His ideas are sagacious, dense, recondite and almost impossible to grasp for a dilettante like myself—even erudite Jungians like Jordan Peterson state, “The Jungian position, which is almost never understood properly, has attracted more than its share of derision.”68 Jung’s theory (in the original sense of the Greek therein, ‘looking about the world,” or the German Weltanschauung69) of the collective unconscious probably tops that list of his derided positions. But it still hasn’t been unproven70. Psychoanalysis told us that an individual unconscious71 exists, situated outside our conscious awareness, yet has a dramatic impact on the self—the forces underlying our behaviour. Building on this finding, Jung proposes an even deeper impersonal, collective and “objective psyche” that exists in another transpersonal realm:
“So if we regard the psyche as an independent factor, we must logically conclude that there is a psychic life which is not subject to the caprices of our will. If, then, those qualities of elusiveness, superficiality, shadowiness, and indeed of futility attach to anything psychic, this is primarily true of the subjective psychic, i.e., the contents of consciousness, but not of the objective psychic, the unconscious, which is an a priori conditioning factor of consciousness and its contents. From the unconscious there emanate determining influences…which, independently of tradition, guarantee in every single individual a similarity and even a sameness of experience, and also of the way it is represented imaginatively. One of the main proofs of this is the almost universal parallelism between mythological motifs…”72
He found archetypes to be perennial patterns—abstracted manifestation—with an evolutionary basis that allow us to observe and experience the “contents” of the collective unconscious through symbols and myth (or even art):
“Just as the human body represents a whole museum of organs, each with a long evolutionary history behind it, so we should expect to find that the mind is organized in a similar way. It can no more be a product without history than is the body in which it exists. By “history” I do not mean the fact that the mind builds itself up by conscious reference to the past through language and other cultural traditions. I am referring to the biological, prehistoric, and unconscious development of the mind in archaic man, whose psyche was still close to that of the animal.”73
I think Peterson’s comments on Jung are perspicacious and palatable for a modern person who isn’t trained in symbolic thinking or prejudiced by the materialist worldview, “Jung believed that religious or mythological symbols sprung from a universal source, whose final point of origin was biological (and heritable). His’ collective unconscious’ was composed of ‘complexes,’ which he defined as heritable propensities for behaviour or for classification.”74
$We must understand the actual meaning of “Myth” to extract the qualitative value of mythology—humanity’s earliest and most existentially pertinent embodied truths. Essentially such understanding necessitates a paradigm shift: reading ancient stories require a non-judgmental, humble, and seeking attitude towards the text, and instead, a literary lens that allows the reader to live within the story. To understand these truths correctly, one must partake in the narrative, not just intellectually but even act out the abstracted values or lessons derived from a given myth. It’s a way of seeing (and being within) the world one must acquire through practice. For the modern mind, the most useful description of “Myth” I’ve heard is from John Vervaeke’s lectures, “Now let me explain to you how I’m using this word “myth”, because I’m not using it the way we normally use it. The use I’m going to talk about, it’s been deeply influenced by people like Jung, people like Tillich, Victor Turner… and a variety of different thinkers. So when we use the word myth, we tend to mean a falsehood that is widely believed. And that’s unfortunate because we’ve lost the term for what I want to talk about. See, myths aren’t false stories about the ancient past. They’re symbolic stories about perennial patterns that are always with us. That’s a very different thing! So a lot of what’s going on in myth is an attempt to take these intuitive, implicitly learned patterns and put them into some form that is sharable with ourselves and with each other.”76
. . .
Given the patent problems (only a few of which I highlighted in this piece), we as individuals and collectively as humanity face, facts alone will not sustain us. They cannot even make us act in this world because there’s an infinite amount of facts with an infinite amount of options, we fall into a confused state similar to what AI researchers and cognitive scientists define as a combinatorial explosion87—the exponential growth in the complexity of a problem space (the world) causing an agent unable to act. Or colloquially, one may call this a paralysis by analysis. Therefore, we need filtering heuristics to be prejudicial towards these facts.
For human beings, these heuristics aren’t self-contained logical models but are best represented through narrative. And the narratives aren’t epiphenomena of the facts but are equally (or even more) important and relevant as the facts themselves. For example, the United Nations IPCC report on climate change would be meaningless if we don’t believe in the narrative that our world is worth saving. The facts of climate change aren’t relevant to our being if we don’t view them through our narratives. Therefore, our stories are quintessentially how we live in this world.
In metaphysics (a branch of philosophy that’s abstruse yet vital for us to live), our stories become even more salient to our existence. For example, thinkers such as the Christian apologists C. S. Lewis and even unorthodox religious critics like Carl Jung believed88 Christ’s resurrection myth was when the perennial meta-ideal—the highest timeless ethic found across cultures—met the physical through Christ’s absolute embodiment at one point in history, creating a literal psycho-cosmic reversal89 imbuing a miracle. As a naturally sceptical person, I understand this seems like an unfalsifiable argument and cannot be empirically proven. I only used this example to buttress my assertion of myth being indispensable to reality*.
Nevertheless, the point being, within the context of this essay, stories and myths are deeply pertinent for human beings. Nobody can truly ascertain where their limits lie. So we should open ourselves to what they reveal, and to reiterate, they’re not by-products of some material phenomena but are ontological, phenomenological facts.
In the recent past, if we take figures like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, there were intimations of the ideal being embodied by them. Or, in Lewisian terms, they became little Christs90 by being in relationship with the ineffable, transcendent spirit of being―the logos. And it’s self-evident what such superlative figures―who, after all, are human like you and I―have done for the world. They change the course of humanity, our planet and still live within our cultural narratives. In many ways, they’ve become demigods for us. So we don’t know the limits of human beings when we decide to orient ourselves towards that ultimate ideal.
Elon Musk is, of course, not a humanitarian or world-changing activist similar to the examples I’ve used above. However, he’s comparable to them in the sense of giving humanity yet another story to live through by also embodying parts of the ideal. He’s giving us a story of hope, adventure and exploring the uncanny unknown. While this (clearly) isn’t the only story we need, I believe it’s a story worth being a part of, as the emotive feelings of inspiration and awe that’s evoked in us when we see a SpaceX rocket launch ought not to be dismissed or ignored as simply being irrational and quixotic. Such stories give our life sustenance and meaning, and those stories that speak to our better angels should never be cavalierly jettisoned without first being sifted through as to why they appeared in our individual psyches, culture and collective consciousness in the first place.
. . .
*Besides, an exegesis of Christian mythology is way beyond my intellectual capacity, but I’ve spent at least the last five years meditating on the story of Christ. And writing purely anecdotally, I’ve concluded it’s a story one could only experience but not abstractly intellectualise.
. . .
If you’ve read up to this point, you would’ve realised that while I’ve attempted to answer the titular question, the underlying themes were beyond the Elon-Bernie debate, combating inequality or space exploration. As I was getting through this piece, I began to understand that contentious topics like the “billionaire space race”, climate change, our response to the pandemic or, more ideologically, the fundamental attacks on meritocracy91 are symptomatic of a much deeper problem of our times.
Firstly, I hope I didn’t give the impression that I’m an uncritical, credulous apologist for Elon Musk and his companies. I’m not; after listening to people like the legendary roboticist Rodney Brooks92, I’ve lost the ardent enthusiasm I had for Musk’s ventures, especially on the AI front. Secondly, I only used the Elon-Bernie Twitter spat as being concomitant in conveying a broader point that’s the essence of this essay.
I fear that we’ve abandoned our emotions, intuitions and every other aspect of being human at the behest of our intellect that we idolise so much. The modern battle isn’t about space travel, inequality or between capitalism vs socialism, individual vs collective, or freedom vs safety; rather, it’s between seeing humans as spiritual and holistic beings vs mechanistic material entities. Every other worldview, from the political to the private, is based on this fundamental philosophy of how we view ourselves. This tension was portrayed best in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov93 when in one scene of the novel, a young lady confesses to a wiser Father Zosima on her inability to “love actively”, he replies:
“It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,’ observed the elder. ‘He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.”
Dostoevsky managed to convey the ultimate message in a single paragraph that’s taken me a whole essay to fail at conveying. Life isn’t messy with an abstract humanity as we can easily extrapolate humanity to generalised, predictable entities that act per our wishes. These entities don’t act irrationally; they have no mood swings or heartbreaks and don’t blow their nose. These entities can exist as numbers on a government report, a bottom-line for a corporation or become metrics of a social media platform. Abstractions are infinitely malleable; therefore, we can play statistical games ad infinitum. They fit into any mustered up, contrived ideology and, of course, justifying to engage in space travel (or not) and ending inequality is simple with such entities; the answers are straightforward and obvious on paper because everything else is an irrelevant inconvenience to our theories. But they’re not real, as the name itself suggests; they’re only mere representational, static abstractions. We can never fully experience them except as intellectual conjectures.
True knowing only lies in our intimate, individual experience of the naked—ugly and beautiful—reality. So any broader politico-socio-cultural discussions first require an understanding of how we understand ourselves and what assumptions we hold that may need changing to answer the most daunting existential questions.
Thank you to Euwyn Goh for proofreading this essay.
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Further (more comprehensive) evidence: Henrique, G., 2015. Welcome to the Age of Confusion. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: <https://bit.ly/3kdknZK> [Accessed 24 August 2021].
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The general irritation over Jung’s “heritable memory” hypothesis has blinded psychologists – and not just psychologists – to the remarkable fact that narratives do appear patterned, across diverse cultures. The “mere” fact that all cultures use what are clearly and rapidly identifiable as “narratives” (or at least as “rites,” which are clearly dramatic in nature) in itself strongly points to an underlying commonality of structure and purpose.
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 Paraphrased: Ep. 3 – Awakening from the Meaning Crisis – Continuous Cosmos and Modern World Grammar. 2019. Directed by J. Vervaeke. https://youtu.be/C1AaqD8t3pk: Dr. John Vervaeke YouTube Channel.
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 The Hero’s Journey: Bhagavad Gita as Monomyth. 2018. Directed by J. M Greene. https://youtu.be/SY2kKc08g0k: Embodied Philosophy.
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Cover image By The Wheeler Centre