You’ve been involved as a CTI member in the Inquiry on the Societal Implications of Astrobiology both in the first year and continuing this year. How has this work influenced the trajectory of your research in philosophy and cognitive science?
Olli-Pekka Vainio is a University Lecturer of Systematic Theology in the Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki, Finland. His research interests include the history of philosophy and theology and contemporary philosophy of religion. Previously, he was a visiting scholar in the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford. His most recent publications include Religious Disagreement: An interdisciplinary approach (2016), Virtues: An introduction to theory and practice (2016) and Beyond Fideism: Negotiable Religious Identities (2011).
Josh Mauldin: What led to your interest in the societal implications of astrobiology?
Olli-Pekka Vainio: I have always been fascinated by space. On my first day in school, I went to the teacher and asked her when we would study astronomy. Her response was that I would have to wait five years. I was devastated. In elementary school, I read through all the sci-fi books in our town library, and tried to cultivate my interest independently outside of school. As I grew older, my interests gravitated towards more philosophical topics, and this changed my perspective on the stars. Slowly, I began to ask questions about the meaning and purpose of the universe. These are questions that require both philosophical acumen and the knowledge of hard facts. The borderline between these two ways of knowing is not always clear, which makes this inquiry especially interesting.
JM: What project are you working on this year?
OV: C. S. Lewis was a popular author and one of the most well-known Christian philosophers in the 20th century, who wrote about the place of humans in the cosmos, as we now understand it. He did this in the form of science fiction, historical studies of ancient worldviews, and speculative essays. I have always found his approach very helpful as it combines both the contemporary scientific worldview and a deep appreciation of human experience. Using Lewis as a model, I am writing a monograph on the effect of various cosmological themes for our worldview throughout the history. The questions include for example: How does our experience of the cosmos differ from the ancient Greeks? Does the size and constitution of the cosmos influence human significance? How might the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe challenge our perception of ourselves and our religious convictions?
JM: Could you give an example on how our view of the cosmos has changed over the years?
OV: The major change in the history of Western thought was the crumbling of Ptolemaic universe after the so-called Copernican turn. However, it’s not right to assume that the Ptolemaic universe was small, cozy and human-sized. It was not. Even if the measurements were widely off the mark, as phenomenological accounts they expressed an astonishment not unlike our contemporary scientific accounts: for humans, the cosmos has always been mind-bogglingly huge. For example, Ptolemy estimated that the distance from the earth to stellatum (the boundary of the physical universe) was 57,340,000 miles. Moses Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed (ca. 1190) contains the following illustrious passage:
It has been proved that the distance between the centre of the earth and the outer surface of the sphere of Saturn is a journey of nearly eight thousand seven hundred solar years. Suppose a day’s journey to be forty legal miles of two thousand ordinary cubits, and consider the great and enormous distance! [125,000,000 miles]…
These are distances which were impossible to fathom for a medieval person. Few people at that time travelled far from the towns where they were born. The Copernican model of the solar system confirmed that the universe is vast. To be sure, the Ptolemaic cosmos was a tidy cosmos where everything had its proper place. The cosmos was ordered and shaped according to a conception of perfect ideas. Orbits were simple, regular and perfectly circular. It was a beautifully designed machine, perfect in its execution.
Interestingly, in the Ptolemaic system the Earth was in the lowest place of value because it was the farthest point from perfection. Dante famously put Satan in the center of the Cosmos; human beings were his next-door neighbors. This was not a place of great worth. Nevertheless, the Earth was still the epicenter of cosmic drama; the dwelling place of human beings and witness to God’s involvement with the creation. Our home was provincial but not forgotten. After Copernicus, there was no change in the register of immensity, but there was a kind change in the register of place.
The Copernican turn changed the order of the planets but it also enabled several other more important changes in the picture of cosmos. These included ideas of other sentient beings living in other planets in our solar system, the removing of cosmological boundaries, like stellatum, from the edges of cosmos, the idea that fixed stars are suns like our own sun, with similar planets and similar life in those planets, and the idea of infinite universe, with infinite numbers of stars and planets. But interestingly, many of these ideas were held by ancient philosophers, church fathers, and medieval scholastic authors long before there existed the means to offer scientific data for such theories. Another significant change in our scientific worldview would likely occur upon the discovery of life beyond Earth, and this will certainly influence how we understand ourselves. Understanding the history of science, philosophy, and religion will help us grapple with new discoveries.
JM: How has dialogue with the CTI fellows shaped how you’re approaching your project?
OV: To successfully pursue this kind of interdisciplinary project requires that you have people around you who possess skills that you may not have. Without this kind of collaboration, it is all too easy to make simplistic presuppositions and unwarranted claims. I cannot think of a better place than CTI to effectively pursue such an interdisciplinary set of questions.
Erik Persson holds the PhD in philosophy from Lund University. His primary research interests are applied ethics and value theory, in particular environmental ethics and space ethics. He has published several book chapters and journal articles on ethical aspects of astrobiology. He is presently principal investigator for the research project “A Plurality of Lives” at the Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies as Lund University. The project aims at investigating how the discovery of extraterrestrial life, and the creation of synthetic life, will affect our conception of and attitude to life.Josh Mauldin: You have written several journal articles and book chapters focused on ethical questions in astrobiology. What are some of the key issues you have written about?
Erik Persson: The most important issue I have focused on has been how to relate morally to other life forms. That is something I have worked with on our own planet and that has also been my focus when it comes to extra-terrestrial life. Today, planetary protection is focused on the value of extra-terrestrial life for science. I am asking if there might also be other values or if extra-terrestrial life might have moral standing in its own right, and what that would mean for astrobiology.
Another issue I have focused on has to do with emerging commercial interests in space. I refer in particular to how commercial interests and scientific interests can co-exist, but also to how we can make sure that commercial exploration of space is done in a sustainable and democratic way. There is a lot happening in terms of commercial initiatives for space exploration and space exploitation right now. Most of it is in the form of very long term investments. As we know both philosophical thinking and policy making take time, so it is in fact high time to start working on these questions.
JM: As a philosopher, what led you to take an interest in the emerging field of astrobiology?
EP: I have been working a lot with environmental ethics, and planetary protection is essentially environmental ethics on an inter-planetary scale, so it was a natural next step in my research. It was also a way of combining three of my major interests: Space, biology and philosophy.
JM: Tell me about the project you are working on during the year at CTI.
EP: My project here at CTI deals with ethical questions at the intersection of planetary protection, astrobiology and commercial space use. I am trying to identify potential conflicts between two or all of them and apply methods from environmental ethics to handle them in a constructive way. It is in particular important to identify which values are at stake and to describe and classify these values so they can be weighed against each other. It is, for example, important to discuss where to strike the balance between protecting extra-terrestrial life on the one hand, and finding and studying it on the other. It is also important to discuss where to strike the balance between these values and the potentially enormous economic values at stake in connection with mining and tourism in space.
JM: How has your time at CTI shaped your project?
EP: The most important impact my time at CTI has had on my project is in the form of the time I have been able to put into the project, time that I don't have at my own university, with teaching and administration. For emprirical sciences it is important to have access to lab fascilities, large telescopes, etc., but for philosophers the greatest asset is time. Deep thinking takes time. I have also met many people here (colleagues and others) with approaches very different from mine, which has created a need to explain what I am doing in very different words and from very different perspectives. Explaining what one is doing to people with different backgrounds is actually a great way of forcing oneself to look at one's own project from other angles, which in turn creates new ideas that sometimes are very useful.