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L’astrofuturisme et au-delà

[To] the last [be] human

Against the New Futurist case for space expansionism
Brad Tabas
Traduction(s) :
Jusqu’au bout de l’humain [fr]


This paper presents a critique of the ethical claims underwriting what it calls the New Futurism. The New Futurists are a group of thinkers who are associated with Silicon Valley Dataism, and who, armed with Bayesian arguments, argue that it is morally imperative for humankind to colonize the solar system. This paper attacks not the general idea of humankind expanding into space, but this specific formulation of the argument for space expansionism, as it is voiced in the work of William MacAskill and a few others. I suggest that the authors of these New Futurist arguments for space embrace as ethical and rational the pursuit of what Derek Parfit called the “Repugnant Conclusion,” and in so doing break with the very economy of moral reasoning: essentially arguing that what we ought to do implies acting in such a way that will, even within their own speculative imaginings of the matter, make every future individual’s life worse. Taking this into account, the paper suggests (without arguing for or denying the possibility of such cases) that any legitimate arguments for expansion of the human habitat beyond the planet would need to remain human – that is to say, they would need to show the ethical value of expanding beyond the Earth in terms of the quality of the life that it might deliver to a finite number of beings who themselves live the sort of finite and ecologically vulnerable lives that we now live on this planet.

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1The idea of expanding the human habitat beyond the Earth has always been slightly mad – only slightly less mad than the belief in the predictability of the future, which is perhaps why the future (at least over the last century) has so often been projected into outer space.

  • 1 I qualify all the thinkers discussed in the following as New Futurists, but this term is not one th (...)

2Yet the madness of space expansionism, and also the ardent, so also mad, desire to go to space, has recently been reaching a fever pitch. The philosopher William MacAskill is one of the primary advocates of the ideology that in the following I will describe as New Futurism: a hybrid form of space futurism fusing what Harari (2017) has called Dataism, the worship of the power of information and computing, with older strains of what Kilgore (2003) has called Astrofuturism, the belief that humans are destined to settle the cosmos. MacAskill claims that we are at a turning point, a moment when we have “an outsized opportunity to make a difference” (2022: 41), which is to say a moment in which we have an outsized moral imperative to expand into the solar system.1 The reasons for this are multiple. The shock of the Anthropocene (Bonneuil & Fressoz 2013), with its attendant anxieties relative to the future of life on Earth, is critical. So too are the recent and rapid recent advances in artificial intelligence and rocket technology, as well as our culture’s ever-greater political, economic, and even ecological dependence on satellite infrastructure (Bratton 2015; Dawes 2018; Edwards 2010; Gabrys 2016; Parks 2005). Associated with this has been the boom in private space commerce, the birth of what has been called “new space” (Pasco 2017; Saint Martin 2019) or Space 2.0 (Pyle 2019). But the madness of the New Futurists also applies to their ideas. For if we are sending more technology into space, we are also coming to better understand the limits of the human body and how radically we may need to change ourselves if we want to become extra-terrestrials. Yet, most of all, the New Futurists’ pitch is mad because so much of their argument implies leaving behind what we would normatively call ethical rationality.

The moral case for space expansionism

3The New Futurist plea for space expansionism, what MacAskill calls the “moral case for space settlement,” runs as follows. It is derived from utilitarian reasoning predicated on maximizing the quantity and duration of life, which is taken as a primary good, and on the claim that there would be much more life if we were able to expand beyond the Earth. As MacAskill argues:

Though Earth-based civilisation could last for hundreds of millions of years, the stars will still be shining in trillions of years’ time, and a civilisation that is spread out across many solar systems could last at least this long. And civilisation could be expansive as well as long. Our sun is just one of one hundred billion stars in the Milky Way; the Milky Way is one of just twenty billion galaxies in the affectable universe. The future of civilisation could be literally astronomical in scale, and if we will achieve a thriving, flourishing society, then it would be of enormous importance to make it so. (2022: 247).

  • 2 Astronomer Martin Elvis and philosopher Tony Milligan (2019) have suggested that the available reso (...)

4Tom Chivers (2022) calculates that this future civilization could contain as many as 1058 possible humans. This may be out of line with the facts, but that is (for now) beside the point.2 What matters is how space expansion affects utility calculations by ballooning the dimensions of measurable hypothetical future existents and years of existence. Chivers lays out the point clearly, without really seeming to grasp its perversity. As he explains, in light of the possible happiness, and the duration of that happiness that could be accumulated by making such an enormous civilization possible, “all the good done right now by every charity in the world would still be a drop in an ocean that is itself a drop in a much bigger ocean in comparison to the good that would be done by slightly reducing the chance that humanity gets destroyed before it can take to the stars” (Chivers 2022: 36).

5There is a statistically overwhelming utilitarian case for going to space. Where this argument goes mad, however, is where this purely quantitative case, when extended outwards to astronomical temporal and spatial scales, crosses with quality. Given the astronomical numbers involved, this case would still hold even if all those future people lived the worst lives imaginable, and if making their lives possible implied that we and all immediate descendants should live the worst lives endurable. The philosopher Derek Parfit (1984) called this the “Repugnant Conclusion,” and devoted his late work trying to think utilitarian theory out of it. But the New Futurists lean into this repugnant logic. In fact, MacAskill, who was a student of Parfit’s, thinks we have reasons to believe that the Repugnant Conclusion “is not quite so repugnant as it first seems” (2022: 240).

6So how do the New Futurists make this argument sound compelling? A significant aspect of their argumentation depends on us making us feel as if our present is already unspeakably bad, and that the statistically most likely future enabled by inaction is going to be not only worse, but literally non-existent. For example, Elon Musk (space entrepreneur, friend of MacAskill’s, and the richest man on the planet) prognosticates:

I think there are really two fundamental paths. History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event. I do not have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually, history suggests, there will be some doomsday event. The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go. (2017: 47)

7This argument is statistically valid. As Oxford existential risk theorist Toby Ord explains: “[I]f there were a growing number of locations which all need to be destroyed for humanity to fail, and if the chance of each suffering a catastrophe is independent of whether the others do too, then there is a good chance humanity could survive indefinitely” (2020: 194). Diversifying our habitat portfolio improves our odds of surviving possible existential risk events – climate change, nuclear war, misaligned AI, a pandemic, what have you – by decorrelating the risk of our collective extinction from the occurrence of any of these events. Expansionism increases the hypothetical availability of future lifetimes, and this significantly affects our future-oriented utility calculations. But missing is any comparison of the future lives lived in the meantime.

8There is also a spatial version of this argument. At least since the 1960s, humankind has been living in what Alexander Geppert (2018) has called “the Age of Limits.” As Vaclav Smil (2020) has made clear, the planet imposes strict limits on future growth – even if it is “dematerialized.” Yet at least since the publication of Gerard O’Neill’s The High Frontier (1982), Astrofuturists have insisted that there are abundant horizons and resources off planet. Jeff Bezos (space entrepreneur and world’s second richest man) makes the New Futurist case as follows:

A very fundamental long-range problem is that we will run out of energy on Earth. This is just arithmetic. It’s going to happen. …We don’t want to stop using energy. But our use levels are unsustainable. …There’s good news: if we move out into the solar system, we will have, for all practical purposes, unlimited resources. … We could have a trillion humans in the solar system, which means we’d have a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins. This would be an incredible civilization. (2020: 246-247)

9Settling space would not only free us from our current concern with catastrophes being courted by overstepping the limits of the planet, but it would also yield a hypothetical population explosion which would shift us towards a post-scarcity paradigm. Once again, there is no question of quality of life here, only a simple logic of more = more.

10But what really would become abundant? The non-repugnancy of the “Repugnant Conclusion” depends on how great that future in space might be. Science fiction stories – even dystopian ones – tend to incline us to believe that a future off planet would be cool. The Rocket Billionaires (Fernholz 2018) say the future that they are making is “fantastic” and “incredible.” But is this just false advertising, a cynical way of cashing in on the cultural capital accrued by acting in accordance with the doctrines of the New Futurist moralists?

Repugnant anticipations

11Let us look closer, trying to differentiate the science fiction from the science fantasy. It is probably no exaggeration to claim the history of space exploration has also been a history of downgrading the expected quality of life available to normal human beings in space. At the beginning of the space age, there was a persistent myth disseminated by both NASA and Ruskosmos that the fittest specimens of humanity were such “supermen” that they would be able to conquer space (Maher 2017: 144). But now, seventy years later, no one really seems to believe that fitness alone will be enough. A standout piece of recent evidence comes from the study of the identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly. Scott spent a year abord the International Space Station, and a team of scientists analyzed the changes undergone by his body upon his return. He didn’t die, but the verdict of Christopher Mason, one of the NASA doctors charged with studying him to establish the probable physiological effects of long-term space travel, and a New Futurist himself, is telling. In Mason’s opinion, even surviving a voyage to Mars will require us to engineer ourselves in the same way that we engineer our “rockets and ships,” namely by installing “protections on the inside, within the astronauts themselves.” New Futurists see nothing wrong with this: giving up our bodies is “humanity’s innate duty, needed to ensure the survival of life” (Mason 2021: 12) But we need to be honest. If this is right, then the 1058 lives, which we can now qualify as disembodied lives, suddenly don’t have quite the same value. I accept that this argument is limited: maybe we will develop better technologies so that we can have our bodies and go to space too. But I don’t think that I need to show anything about our future bodies. I only want to show that the futures that the New Futurists think that we ought to work towards are ones that only people who confuse ethics with misanthropy could desire.

  • 3 Elon Musk, March 21, 2021 5:31 AM.

12Let’s look at another example. Many New Futurists not only claim that we ought to get rid of our bodies. They think that we need to rid ourselves of our minds. Elon Musk3 claims that it is “the light of consciousness” that will colonize Mars. I would suggest that it is “light” and not just “consciousness,” and this is the case because Musk, like many of his peers, feels that wetware is too limited a support to accomplish the engineering tasks required to leave the Earth behind (hence his investments in Neuralink). Ray Kurzweil (2005: 5737), the chief scientist at Google, lays this point out clearly, arguing that the timelines of technologically enabled cognitive enhancement and technologically enabled cosmic expansionism will be roughly simultaneous, such that once our brains are able to process data more quickly by becoming silicon or even quantum, moving “at terahertz (trillions of operations per second) speeds compared to the few gigahertz (billions of operations per second) speeds of current chips,” then “the intelligence of our civilization” will expand “outward into the rest of the universe” at near the speed of light. For Kurzweil, our glorious future civilization will be a “massively distributed” swarm of nanobot computers, “micron”-sized robots (2005: 6824) which function as hosts for uploaded consciousnesses, and which work together in networks to extract and exploit their environments. Trading body and mind for bot would maximize survival output relative to input. Being small and multiple would augment resilience, since each would need only a small amount of energy to survive, and all could be spread out in such a way as to nearly guarantee that no single tragedy could cut us down.

13Presumably our subjective experience of being selves would not be that of dots floating in the void, but something rather akin to the experience of being in the Metaverse as it was depicted by cyberpunk authors such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, only with more computing power. Depending on how we were programmed, we either could or couldn’t know the difference. We might, for example, have chosen to configure our future selves to live in what philosopher David Chalmers (2022) has called “Reality+”: a hypothetical virtual world that will have attained a level of granular detail such as to be indistinguishable from what we now call reality. But that would only be in the case in which we imagine Reality+ as integral reality, and that could only happen if the past was wiped, and our descendants were programmed to be unable to see the true condition, or to compare it to our current one. That said, it should be unsurprising that many New Futurists, for example MIT computer scientist Rizwan Virk (2019), quite simply believe that we are already living in a simulation.

14New Futurists are not totally insensible to the idea that this is repugnant. Some of them have tried to find the bright side. Nick Bostrom thinks it will be pretty good to off ourselves. He claims that our massively enhanced future cognitive capacities will offer us enhanced senses of “aesthetic appreciation, narration, humor, eroticism, spirituality,” and new depths of what he calls “subjective wellbeing,” including greater intensities of “joy, comfort, sensual pleasures, fun, positive interest and excitement” (2014: 9, 11). Eliezer Yudkowsky (2015: 205) anticipates enjoying a deeper integration of “the lessons of probability theory” and a happiness emergent from being a more “perfect Bayesian” capable of reasoning “in the face of uncertainty” in a nearly ideal manner. One is tempted here to start considering scenarios such as those explored in Greg Egan’s Quarantine (2014), cases in which our consciousness itself is hacked, and so dissatisfaction in any case can’t be registered, but getting into that will distract us back onto the terrain of comparing alternate counterfactuals. Let us leave it at the claim that the experiences of the options are literally unthinkable.

  • 4 There is abundant literature on the Fermi Paradox particularly among those interested in Astrobiolo (...)

15In practice, most New Futurists talk less about how good the future will be, and more about how bad things could be if we don’t make the necessary sacrifices. Nick Bostrom (2016) imagines that by staying human we are likely to end up as slaves to some inevitable misaligned artificial monster. Borrowing a term from the economist Robin Hanson (2016), his pitch amounts to an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ‘Em’” (the ranks of the “brain emulations”) solution. Transhumanist Susan Schneider (2019: 103) makes a similar point, only this time invoking not the threat of malignant AI but that of alien invaders. As she explains in a discussion of the implications of the Fermi Paradox (which is to say, the paradoxical absence of apparent life in the cosmos given the fact that the sheer scale of what is would seem to make the discovery of life more likely than not), there is not only a strong possibility that aliens are out there, but also that they are already artificially super-intelligent, which means that the sentimentally of saving our earthling minds and bodies implies condemning our descendants to slavery since they will be “intellectual lightweights” compared to the Superminds that will “colonize the universe.”4

16To sum it all up, the future that is anticipated and endorsed by the advocates of the “Repugnant Conclusion” might be judged better than our own future either if we think we already live in the worst of possible worlds, or if we think that deluding everyone all the time is acceptable, or if we believe some horrible catastrophe is immediately on the horizon, or if we think it would be epistemically consoling to know for sure that we were brains in vats (Putnam 1981). I find it difficult to believe that anyone – including the New Futurists – believes that a future in which we are ghosts in a nano-swarm, duped or not, is really, all things being equal, a desirable future. I doubt strongly that this civilization is one which we would feel proud to have created, though I am open to acknowledging that some might, in their darkest existential moods, feel that such a civilization has more going for it than our own. But the more critical point is this: it is morally repugnant to make arguments claiming that we should get to work at once towards remaking our world into one that we all believe will be worse for everyone. Which is to say that it seems to me that we should take some time to reflect on how and why apparently solid moral reasoning is leading us in this unpalatable direction.

The sense of an ending

  • 5 It is also worth nothing, quite in passing, that MacAskill was closely associated with the cryptocr (...)

17Therein lies the rub. It feels veritably immoral to argue that we should act in such a way as to allow our descendants to die by not rationally pursuing the extension of the life of our species. But then again, it likewise seems to have led to immorality to have pursued the other course. Moreover, and this is worth emphasizing, the pursuit of life at all costs has also ended up providing ideological justification for accepting features of our present that are undesirable. For example, the New Futurism furnishes arguments for maintaining the wealth gap between Bezos, Musk, and the rest of the planet in the name of enabling the risky investments that are the consensus “best” way of making us interplanetary.5 New Futurism also imposes and absolutizes the logic of what Luciano Floridi (2014) has called the Infosphere, undercutting resistance to surveillance capitalism’s invasion of life by suggesting that everything has just been data to begin with (Zuboff 2020). But all of that, in a way, only gives additional reasons why at this point in history the New Futurists might find rational (i.e. morally acceptable) their claim that we ought to pursue what is repugnant.

18Looking at this historically won’t accomplish a moral revolution which will put rationality aright. I think that with respect to the “Repugnant Conclusion,” or maybe even, more properly, with respect to the sublime spatial and temporal prospects opened by space colonization, moral theorizing encounters something like a singularity: a paradoxical zone in which normally reliable heuristics become unreliable. Rather than trying to solve this problem, let’s try to understand it. Aristotle, in the Politics, claims that there is something about the kind of infinite perspective generated by chrematistic accumulation – the accumulation of monetary wealth – that is unnatural, for there is no limit to the amount of money that one could acquire, gold being imperishable, whereas there are limits on the quantity of any commodity that one might individually be capable of consuming. While “natural” is a hotly contested term, there is one thing that is clearly unnatural or unlimited about the future imagined by the New Futurists, and that is the refusal of death. Although the arguments that I have rehearsed above never specifically discuss longevity enhancement, most New Futurists want eternal life both for themselves and for the species. Their maximalist accounts of the future never factor in the idea that there could be a natural (i.e. a desirable) future end to civilization, but rather treat all ideal futures as ones in which there is ever more life to be had. It is obviously hard to say that dying is good, much less to claim that our descendants ought to die, that there should be a moment when the Earth and all members of its ecosystem come to an end. But it is equally true that dying has often been taken as the perspective from which one measures the value of a life, the perspective from which one differentiates qualitatively the mere fact of having lived from the ethical state of having lived well. As Heidegger (1977 [1927]: 234) puts it, death “delimits and determines the possible totality of existence,” allowing us to make sense of being in time. The same is probably true from the perspective of civilizations, and even for living planetary collectives. Perhaps that which is good for being acquired infinitely is in effect good for nothing at all, in practice or in ethics.

19Ethical thinking may need to include death. It may be that what is wrong with our nanodescendants is that they never live, in part because their civilization has little meaningful prospect of coming to an end. They only experience the illusion of living, a simulacrum of life en masse and for all eternity. Maybe the futures we ought to act towards are always ones in which we might imagine our future descendants as willing to die, or perhaps not only them, but their entire community of ecologically entangled others. This sounds paradoxical. I am not suggesting that we should ourselves live towards our own deaths, or in acceptance of the death of all Earthlings today. Maybe I am trying to say something akin to what poet Jorie Graham (2022) is saying when she writes: “[To] the last [be] human.” I am talking about being human in the way we imagine our descendants imagining their ends as good, as human. It does not seem that this entails acting to bring about the end of our civilization, only acting in such a way as to imagine that if all Earthlings came to an end, at that point one could imagine that the planet would not have existed in vain, would not have had a life without really living. With respect to the unthinkability of this idea, expressed by Graham in the bracketing of “[being],” I think that we are somewhat like the nanobots already: I cannot imagine wanting my civilization to end now, because I want to believe that future Earthlings will be able to live better on the planet than we have been capable of doing – which is to say that I actually see our civilization as currently but wrongly prompting us to want to become aliens, precisely because we want to buy time for our children, in some fantasy future, to actually live as humans.

20Imagining a human future may be an impossible injunction. Avid readers of Ursula K. Le Guin feel that at the core of every dystopia there is a utopia, and vice versa, which is to say that virtually every imagined future falls short of giving us reasons to feel that it is the one towards which our rationality should non-dialectically incline. But I am less concerned with this falling short than with refusing to assent to the claim that the “Repugnant Conclusion” is an expression of right reason. It would be better if our dreams of the future in space were the wild and highly improbable folies of Afrofuturism chronicled by Frédéric Neyrat in his L’Ange noir de l’histoire (2021) than ones whose numbers add up, but which sacrifice all humanity in the name of becoming a sublime swarm of monstrously alienated aliens.

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1 I qualify all the thinkers discussed in the following as New Futurists, but this term is not one that they apply to themselves. They generally call themselves Long-Termists, New Rationalists, Transhumanists, or Existential Risk Theorists. They are united in using computers and Bayesian probability to model the future, and they frequently use keywords like “effective altruism,” “exponential growth,” “data,” and “Bayesian reasoning.” New Futurists can be found worldwide, but they are found in particularly dense clusters in Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and in Silicon Valley. I differentiate these New Futurists from older futurists who operated using mostly language (scenario thinking) as opposed to machine and data-driven models, and I would also contrast them and their vision of future ethics, which is strongly pro-technology, with the strongly technophobic future ethics pioneered by Jonas (1979) and other theorists of the precautionary principle.

2 Astronomer Martin Elvis and philosopher Tony Milligan (2019) have suggested that the available resources in space are much less cornucopian than is imagined, particularly if we continue to exponentially increase our resource consumption.

3 Elon Musk, March 21, 2021 5:31 AM.

4 There is abundant literature on the Fermi Paradox particularly among those interested in Astrobiology. Two relevant discussions, both carried out by thinkers more or less within the circle of the New Futurists, are Moynihan (2020) and Ćirković (2018)

5 It is also worth nothing, quite in passing, that MacAskill was closely associated with the cryptocriminal Sam Bankman-Fried, and that this philosophy could presumably be used to justify stealing money from individuals in the case that the money stolen was reinvested in such a way as to maximally promote the collective good (i.e. by making us post-planetary).

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