Sunday 23 February 2014

Is Human Extraterrestial Migration Banned by (Monotheistic) Religious Ethics – And Maybe Some Secular Too?

As you know, the ethical assessment and political evaluation of technological risk is one of my main areas of interest, and a focus of one of my main research publications, the book The Price of Precaution and the Ethics of Risk. In that book, I consider a number of futuristic scenarios to illustrate and test my theoretical ideas. One thing that I'm not considering, however, is the vision of human migration to other planets. But this very scenario has now become the topic of some inflamed debating between  a visionary entrepreneurial endeavour to such an effect and the opinions of highly authoritative religious scholars.

As infantile, unrealistic and uneconomic they may seem, there are actual plans for having humans migrate from Earth to other planets – Mars being one in immediate focus, for instance through the initiative Mars-One. I'm one of those who think that, while it may be prudent to actually work on such contingencies (this is one reason why I have accepted to be scientific adviser to the Lifeboat Foundation), making it the primary priority seems to me to be an immoral waste of resources in light of more pressing needs where there are no technological barriers for doing good (such as securing clean drinking water and sewerage installations for all people globally, or fixing the rules of global trade to be at least somewhat less to the disbenefit of those needing it the most). I don't, however, host any principled objection to the idea of human extraterrestial migration – to my mind it's about needs, likelihoods of success and priorities in light of what stakes are up for humanity at the moment.

Others, however, seem to take a more rigid stance. Thus, apparently, the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment in the United Arab Emirates has issued a fatwa (i.e., a scholarly, allegedly authoritative interpretation of the tenets of Islam), according to which the idea of a one-way trip to Mars in the Mars-One style, would be too risky and uncertain to be allowed under the ban against recklessly endangering human life:

The committee, presided by Professor Dr Farooq Hamada, said: “Protecting life against all possible dangers and keeping it safe is an issue agreed upon by all religions and is clearly stipulated in verse 4/29 of the Holy Quran: Do not kill yourselves or one another. Indeed, Allah is to you ever Merciful.”
Apparently, the strong wording of these learned clerics is partly motivated by the fact that...

Thousands of volunteers, including some 500 Saudis and other Arabs, have reportedly applied for the mission which costs $6 billion. The committee indicated that some may be interested in travelling to Mars for escaping punishment or standing before Almighty Allah for judgment.
 “This is an absolutely baseless and unacceptable belief because not even an atom falls outside the purview of Allah, the Creator of everything.  This has also been clearly underscored in verse 19&20/93 of the Holy Quran in which Allah says: There is no one in the heavens and earth but that he comes to the Most Merciful as a servant. (Indeed) He has enumerated them and counted them a (full) counting.”
The Mars-One initiative has chosen to respond to this assault on their project (and, I strongly suspect, on its financial viability) not primarily by ridicule or resentment, but in kind, arguing that the mission is in the genral spirit of what some famous muslim explorers have done in the past (which is not really relevant to the argument) and, more interestingly, that central parts of Islamic teaching would rather seem to condone the planned mission, and that the implied risk assessment of the GAIAE committee is flawed from an intellectual perspective:

Space Exploration, just like Earth exploration throughout history, will come with risks and rewards. We would like to respectfully inform the GAIAE about elements of the Mars One mission that reduce the risk to human life as much as possible. It may seem extremely dangerous to send humans to Mars today, but the humans will be preceded by at least eight cargo missions. Robotic unmanned vehicles will prepare the habitable settlement. Water and a breathable atmosphere will be produced inside the habitat and the settlement will be operational for two years, even before the first crew leaves Earth. Each of the cargo missions will land in a system very similar to the human landing capsule. An impressive track record of the landing technology will be established before risking human lives. It should be noted that the moon lander was never test on the Moon before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed successfully on the Moon.
If we may be so bold: the GAIAE should not analyze the risk as they perceive it today. The GAIAE should assess the potential risk for humans as if an unmanned habitable outpost is ready and waiting on Mars. Only when that outpost is established will human lives be risked in Mars One's plan. With eight successful consecutive landing and a habitable settlement waiting on Mars, will the human mission be risk-free? Of course not. Any progress requires taking risks, but in this case the reward is 'the next giant leap for mankind'. That reward is certainly worth the risks involved in this mission.
It remains to be seen what the GAIAE committee will respond. The Mars-One reasoning isn't exactly fail-safe, since it comes down to how the importance of the mission is weighed in light of the cost and what that money could have been used for instead and what those alternative activities might have implied in terms of truly valuable gain and risk to human life and limb. My own theory would probably give the Mars-One option rather low priority in such light, I dare to say without having made any more precise analysis (which, provided the wide range of uncertainty, I would doubt to be possible anyway). And I dare venture the guess that my theory is more allowing to technological adventure than any of the Abrahamitic religions.

For this is my final reflection, inspired by an aside-comment by my colleague Anders Herlitz: The reaction of the Islamic scholars of the UAE is a pretty logical one in light of the strong stance against human taking of human life, not least one's own, in the scriptures of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. As noted by the pioneer theorist of the ethics of risk, theologian Hans Jonas, this stance would seem to warrant a high degree of risk aversion as soon as such scenarios are among the options. For sure (I would say, it's more uncertain if Jonas would be prepared to follow me), taking such risks may – as Mars-One suggests – be justified, but it takes special considerations and circumstances for that to be the case. In particular, venturing on risky missions just for the hell of it, or for making money, or for "doing something different", or for feeling important, or for exapanding human boundaries, or somesuch would in fact not seem to suffice. What would seem to be necessary is the presence of some realistic threat to human life or humanity, where the activity in question would be a necessary or, at least, reasonable response of escape. At the very least, the story of the Ark of Noah would seem to suggest as much.

So, my wonder is really why the GAIAE committee is so alone in its critical response to the Mars-One initiative. Where's the other islamic leaders? Where's the Pope? Where are the Lutheran Arch Bishops or the many preachers of the free churches Where are the chief Rabbis? And, since there are also secular versions around of the stance to the importance of human life, in particular one's own – where's the penetrating analyses from the Future of Humanity Institute and the Institute of the Ethics of Emerging Technology of the Kantian and (late) Wittgensteinian positions on this matter, just to mention the most obvious ones that would seem to qualify?

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