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Earth to Russell

Chad Trainer on the limits of Russell’s views on space exploration.

Bertrand Russell was one of the best at chronicling and lampooning history’s opponents of science. Surprisingly, though, he himself expressed opposition to the exploration of space. In this article I’ll describe and critique the four lines of argument Russell employed in attacking the space program.

Bertrand Russell regularly noted the drawbacks of living in the past, both as a danger in old age and as an obstacle to an entire culture’s progress. He wrote much about the merits of scientific exploration and the importance of realizing the planet Earth’s minute place in the cosmos. In the light of all this, it might seem a safe bet that Russell would have enthusiastically supported the space program. He did not. For Russell was also a self-described Cassandra – doomed to prophesy evil and not be believed. As early as 1924, he spoke of how his long experience of statesmen and governments has made him skeptical: “I am compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy. Icarus, having been taught to fly by his father Daedalus, was destroyed by his rashness. I fear that the same fate may overtake the populations whom modern men of science have taught to fly.” It was in such a vein that Russell expressed his concerns over space exploration.

Passing remarks about exploring space are scattered throughout Russell’s writings, but the bulk of his proclamations on this topic can be found concentrated in three places: a 1958 article for Maclean’s magazine, a filmed 1965 interview of Russell by Ralph Miliband, and some 1966 comments for Paris Match. Russell had essentially four criticisms of space exploration:

•• The space program was not undertaken in a spirit of scientific impartiality;

• The exploration of space could result in the spread of human foolishness;

• It would be better to expend energy addressing terrestrial problems before involving ourselves in celestial affairs; and

•• The actual increase in human understanding that could result was questionable.

Lack of Scientific Impartiality

Russell’s first contention is that space exploration was not being undertaken in a spirit of scientific detachment: “I am afraid that it is from baser motives that Governments are willing to spend the enormous sums involved in making space-travel possible.”

In fairness to Russell, he lived during the dawn of the nuclear age. Today, people do not always appreciate the extent to which space exploration was associated with the arms race during the Red Scare. In its time, Sputnik conjured up fears of nuclear annihilation. Given Russell’s concern with human welfare and given the predominantly military nature of the nascent space program’s purposes, his skepticism was perhaps understandable. But even if early space exploration was thoroughly military and devoid of anything in the way of scientific detachment, the ensuing deluges of data and experience have since become available to all, including the ‘sufficiently scientifically detached’. When Galileo presented his spyglass to the Doge, “Galileo was … more concerned with the rewards to be reaped from the earthly advantages of an improved instrument than with any celestial advantage.” Yet this has hardly prevented the telescope from eventually being employed for the purest and loftiest purposes.

In any case, Russell could well have feared that the human race would destroy itself before any advances of military technology could accommodate the ‘scientifically impartial’.

Spreading Human Folly

Russell’s second argument against the space program was that it could lead to the spread of human follies. “Before long, if we do not destroy ourselves, our destructive strife will have spread to those planets.” “[W]hen I read of plans to defile the heavens by the petty squabbles of the animated lumps that disgrace a certain planet, I cannot but feel that the men who make these plans are guilty of a kind of impiety.” It might be argued by some that Russell harbored no objections to space exploration as long as it took the form of mere astronomical observation and was not militarily oriented. However, the evidence suggests that Russell would have been wary even of astronomical observation, chiefly because of the military missions that might be concealable under the guise of mere ‘exploration’.

If space exploration was bad, it is interesting to ponder to what degree Russell thought the planet’s atmosphere should also be off-limits. Would he have objected to Albert Abraham Michelson’s interferometer, notwithstanding its establishment of light’s speed as a universal constant? Or would Fitzgerald and Lorentz’s experiments with radio waves be deemed objectionable in spite of the wireless telegraphy such experiments spawned? How about Orville and Wilbur Wright’s aeronautical innovations? All such developments are subject to misuse. Yet Russell can be assumed to have appreciated such advances profoundly, as befits a man who sung the praises of scientists and took theologians to task for such superstitious behavior as condemning Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod or protesting advances in medicine. It is against this backdrop that his charges of space exploration perpetrating “a kind of impiety” appear so out of character.

Nevertheless, Russell was certainly right about the intrusion of militarily-oriented missions into space. With spy satellites, ballistic missiles and star wars defence systems, one prominent kind of human folly has indeed been spread beyond the atmosphere of our home planet.

Waste of Vital Resources

Russell’s third argument against exploring space is that we need “a little more wisdom in the conduct of affairs on earth before we extend our strident and deadly disputes to other parts.” It is true that we have huge problems here on Earth – war, plague and famine – shouldn’t we devote our energies to tackling those first? Russell seems guilty of a false disjunction here. Substantial progress in the space program is not necessarily a net setback for our terrestrial prosperity. Space exploration has not only helped this planet but could well have been predicted to do as much. The amount of money required by NASA, say, amounts to only a small portion of the U.S. federal budget, and space satellites have had more than military applications. Many military enterprises do ultimately redound to civilians’ economic and social benefit.

Let’s take some examples. The Topex/Poseidon satellite has enabled oceanography researchers to observe major patterns of surface circulation. Satellite radar measurements were able to inform scientists about El Niño and satellite maps are expected to help us in comprehending the distribution of mineral resources on the planet’s seafloor. Nowadays specialized maps can be used, for example, to “predict crop yields, model optimal lumber harvests, or chart ever-changing wetlands.” Satellites have also helped archaeologists to detect ancient remains.

Satellite technology has assisted us in exploring the science behind the planet’s single ecosystem and helped us comprehend global environmental changes. Satellites have given meteorologists enough detail to foresee big storms all over the planet. They have enabled us to provide disaster warnings. They have provided navigational aid for the maritime and trucking industries. To bring matters a little closer to home, the Global Positioning System has not only become the basis of modern navigation and mapmaking but GPS devices in automobiles significantly assist directionally-challenged people (like the present writer) in finding obscure locations such as those of philosophy conferences.

Thousands of communication satellites circling the Earth enable television to broadcast between nations and continents and also provide telephone services, particularly in poorer and remoter regions of the Third World where laying cables would be uneconomic. But perhaps considering the amount of time people spend watching TV or talking on cell phones, Lord Russell might not have considered these as advances.

While there may be plenty of advantages to the foregoing civilian technologies, the net gain or loss for human welfare probably does depend, ultimately, on the fate of the military applications of this technology. Some of these technologies do serve a positive function in the realm of arms control when it comes to verifying or abiding by international treaties. But whether space science will be used to “make men happy” or to “promote the power of dominant groups” still remains to be seen.

Doesn’t Promote Human Understanding

Russell’s fourth and final argument against space exploration was that “There is no reason whatever to suppose that the new possibilities of travel will do anything to promote wisdom.” That Russell objected to space exploration not just on the grounds of prudence but also because it did not offer anything of cerebral value is all too clear from the Miliband interview:

Ralph Miliband: You wouldn’t put this [space exploration] in the department of the search for truth?

Bertrand Russell: Oh no, no.

Ralph Miliband: The thirst for knowledge? Bertrand Russell: It is … just fantasy.

Such declarations seem in complete contradiction to the overall tone and texture of Russell’s philosophy. For example, Russell criticizes Hegel as being entirely too terrestrial in his thinking and speaks of how “if you want to get a sound philosophy, you must have astronomy well in your head and realize that this planet is a very unimportant and trivial part of the universe. And what happens on it, from a cosmic point of view, isn’t very important.” Elsewhere, Russell credits Halley and Newton for their respective discoveries dispelling superstition about comets. He has nothing but scorn for their obscurantist contemporaries. In saying that the space program has nothing to offer when it comes to the search for truth, Russell himself seems to be guilty of an obscurantism of sorts. For even the most cursory survey of the space program’s history reveals that it has yielded insights of the highest order.

To take just some examples, in 1989 the European Space Agency launched the Hipparchos satellite, which charted the positions of more than 100,000 stars with a precision “100 times better than ever before achieved on Earth.” Also, the Hubble Space Telescope has helped solve a variety of astronomical riddles. To name but a few, Hubble has revealed proof of the existence of black holes, given us a direct look at Pluto’s surface, and was particularly helpful in viewing the 21 fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that collided with Jupiter. A host of extrasolar planets have been discovered some of which “raise many questions about the late stages of stellar evolution, not to mention the origin of planets around old pulsars.” And evidence has been discovered of conditions for past or present life on Mars, on one of Jupiter’s moons, and on planets in other solar systems.

In 1998, measurements of the brightness of distant exploding stars afforded evidence for the ‘cosmological constant’ (a kind of cosmic repulsion force first postulated by Albert Einstein in 1916 in his General Relativity equations). During 2001, new studies were reported of the most distant supernova found to date, which yielded the best evidence ever that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

In 1993 a U.S.-Australian team using Hubble verified Einstein’s prediction that gravity bends light. By the end of that year, there had been four reports of massive compact halo objects in outer areas of the Milky Way. This established an observational technique for detecting ‘dark matter’ in the universe. The case is becoming increasingly strong that the universe contains substantially more matter than can be seen in the way of stars and galaxies. The matter’s gravitational effects in bending light indicate its existence. Space-based oberservations may soon tell us whether there is enough of this so-called dark matter for the universe to be ‘closed’ – ie for it to eventually stop expanding and shrink back into itself due to its own gravitational pull.

Finally, space research has enabled astronomers to estimate the age of the universe as ranging anywhere from 7 billion to 14 billion years.

If Russell had lived to see these results, would he still have said that there was no increase in wisdom following from space exploration? While the net worth of space exploration for our terrestrial welfare remains to be seen, the extent of our scientific understanding has plainly and simply increased. Surely Russell would have relished the increasingly better-informed accounts of the cosmos that enable us to more thoroughly refute the misguided metaphysics of the past.

From the days of old, a determination to view celestial phenomena as being of an inviolably different order than terrestrial phenomena has been an obstacle to scientific progress. Galileo’s revolutionary assumption that the laws of physics applicable to Earth are on a continuum of sorts with those applicable to the heavens seems to have pointed us toward a proper approach. And for Russell to be dismissive of space exploration’s merits brings to mind the Jesuits who castigated Galileo for peering through his telescope. To discount the firmament as a source of wisdom seems grimly reminiscent of the very obscurantism Russell never tired of deriding and vilifying.

Was Russell Wrong?

Overall, Russell’s disapproval of space exploration can be assessed as being 1) understandable in the context of the early Cold War arms race; 2) well founded regarding the specter of militarizing space; 3) an open issue in calculating our ultimate earthly welfare; and 4) inaccurate in denying that there is any wisdom to be derived from its discoveries.

In our own time, new technology creates new challenges for human wisdom with regard to electronic surveillance, genetic testing, and the like. The most helpful philosophers here would seem to be those proposing the best uses for the new technology and pointing out possible abuses against which we should be on our guard. Less helpful are philosophers who simply dismiss new discoveries as “fantasy,” or “impiety,” and suggest that we simply try to close Pandora’s box, or squeeze the genie back into the bottle.

It may have been such reflections combined with a spirit of British compromise that prompted Russell in 1966 to outline conditions that would allay his misgivings about people exploring space as a “sacrifice to science.” He remarks in the Paris Match piece that, first of all,

“[t]he man must be willing to take the risk. In the second place, he must be a scientist able to report validly on his new environment. In the third place, he must be unarmed and the expense of his journey must be shared, at any rate, by America, Russia and China. It is above all important that he [the astronaut] should not be the advance guard of a military expedition by one of the existing powers.”

Russell’s denial that worthwhile knowledge can be derived from the space program is particularly striking in view of the fact that he opens his autobiography by citing “the search for knowledge” as one of his life’s three governing passions. But another of the three passions was “unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” When it came to the exploration of space in Russell’s day, he must have seen these two passions as being on a collision course. He opted to side with the welfare of mankind even at the cost of placing obstacles in the way of man’s quest for knowledge. In the twilight of his life, as his campaign for nuclear disarmament mounted, Russell took a different perspective on his life’s greatest achievements. Regarding even his contributions to mathematical logic, which are typically viewed as his greatest accomplishments, Russell reflected: “What is the truth on logic does not matter two pins if there is no-one alive to know it.” The same can safely be said to have been Russell’s view concerning ‘the truth on astronomy’. “Material progress has increased men’s power of injuring one another, and there has been no correlative moral progress.” Hence Russell’s (and Einstein’s) efforts in launching the Pugwash Movement, a stillcontinuing series of conferences of eminent scientists aiming for peace and disarmament. Russell’s biographer Ray Monk (a man not exactly known for his charitable interpretations of the aged Bertrand) hails the Pugwash Movement as enjoying “an impeccable reputation as a sober and respectable body that governments could trust, listen to and learn from, and…is widely credited with having been responsible for the partial Test-Ban Treaty of 1964.”

In conclusion, perhaps we can bear in mind Ray Monk’s point that “Looked at like this, in the last ten years of his life, though Russell wrote no more on philosophy – indeed, precisely in not writing any more on philosophy – he was perfectly fulfilling the duties of a philosopher.”

© Chad Trainer 2003

Chad Trainer is an independent scholar engaged in a study of ideas and arguments from the history of philosophy.

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