Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Carbon Chauvinism

Reading the various astrosociology manifestos yesterday, a few other conjunctions started to occur to me. What will happen when/if astrosociology starts becoming more attentive to astrobiological concerns? (to some extent this blog draws impetus from both sociological/biological concerns) Uncovering new astrobiological lifeforms would most likely be the precursor to later colonisation of alien worlds, followed by terraforming. This raises a whole swag of ethical questions.

By way of an instructive example, I've read Robinson's Mars Trilogy, and like ahuthnance, was appreciative of the representation of the indigenous Martians. The colonists are seemingly not aware of a lifeform so exotic that it escapes detection by their traditional methods of collecting specimens for the sake of arranging them into scientific taxonomies. Of course, there are "Green" colonists who favour terraforming with some qualification, and Robinson attempts to portray a viable "Blue" political compromise between "Red" and "Green" factions.

Looking then at Robinson's colonists, it is apparent that there were varying degrees of "carbon chauvinism" among the groups, insofar as there was divided opinion as to whether they could know where to search for xenobiological lifeforms; and by extension, whether it was still worth attempting to make some allowance for them in regard to space probe and mission planning. What kind of a philosophical conceptual vocabulary would be required then to do justice to the possible existence of such truly "alien" life forms? I'm wondering if so-called "speculative realism" presents as a suitable candidate, at least to the extent it may foreground the significance of, "non human worlds, by the interactions of dust mites in a carpet as much as by the dark sides of planets on which no human foot will ever tread". I regard it as equally important though to also consider the willingness of its adherents to nominate the appropriate circumstances under which "no human foot will ever tread" must become more prescriptive in tone .i.e. "no human foot should ever tread".

If this happened, what kind of a politics could be licensed? To my mind the possible answers sound a lot like the "astro" version of Deep Ecology, as portrayed by Robinson (as distinct from the positions held by many who would quite consciously identify themselves as astrobiologists, as distinct from xenobiologists, who are their Deep Ecology methodological relatives). Another concern is how a practitioner of "speculative realism" such as Graham Harman displays an elective affinity in his thought with actor network theory, some of the inherent problems of which (i.e. of ANT, not Harman specifically) have already been discussed elsewhere on this blog. Notwithstanding his stated differences from Latour et al (as referred to in the above piece on speculative realism), my principal concern in each case is the implicit downsizing of human agency. To what end should we be willing to adopt such a working assumption? So, if astrosociologists wish to ask such appropriately social scientific questions of these philosophers, it might be wise to follow some of the guidelines in my earlier post on Mark Bold.

In other words, I am attempting to foreground the significance of astrosociology as a sociology of anticipation: will we see a time in which it becomes necessary for astrosociologists, astrobiologists (along with xenobiologists), to sit down with "speculative realists" to discuss possibilities together? Harman refers to "the open" in his discussion of the future, and I am wondering if it may eventually be circumscribed by the kinds of scenarios described in Peter Dickens et al's book, The Cosmic Society (already anticipated to a certain extent by Robinson's fiction). Afterall, Harman appears to be ascribing a potentially contestatory power to "the open":

"neither Bhaskar nor DeLanda quite solve the problem with their colourful mist of catalysts and multiple causal factors. The complexity of such factors may lie beyond our own understanding, but not beyond that of a deity or a malevolent supercomputer. Some new approach is required to find openness amidst the turmoil of linear causes".

Until this approach materializes, I can at least amuse myself with this short adaptation of Terry Bisson's Nebula Award nominated story, They're Made Out of Meat. Although the story has inspired philosophical reflections on "carbon chauvinism" in its own right, (as some quick crossreferencing on Wikipedia will confirm), at present I have no knowledge of dialogues taking place with the recent school of "speculative realism", letalone earlier thinkers such as Carl Sagan (who laid some philosophical foundations for diagnosing "carbon chauvinism").

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