By In Ideas, Normative Ethics, Practical reasons, Value Theory Comments (5)

Panspermia

I have a test case that I’d like to get responses to, one that tests a certain kind of utilitarian intuition, mixed however, with an interesting conflating factor.

Suppose that the next generation of space telescopes will allow us to spot habitable worlds around quite a number of stars within, say, 100 light years of earth. Suppose that some of these will be around much smaller stars, whose lifespan could be up to 10 trillion years. That might be too small; life would work better around larger stars, with higher energy light and planets that are less likely to be tidally locked if in the habitable zone. So let’s imagine that we are concerned with planets that seem likely to stay in a habitable zone for 100 billion years up to a trillion years–a long time.

Now suppose that our biochemists come up with a formula for the building blocks for earth-style life such that, if unleashed in a planet with liquid water, we could be very confident that the most basic forms of life would start to grow there. Finally, suppose we could put these building blocks into canisters that would allow them to be sent out to these other planets. It would take a very long time. Suppose we can only get them sent off at something like .01% of the speed of light. Then a planet 50 light years away would not be reached for 500,000 years. Still, if we can get our aim right, and perhaps give it some ability to adjust course once out of the solar system, it would get there. Finally, suppose we could be confident that when it got there, the outer shell would burn off in the planet’s atmosphere, allowing the contents to spill into the planet’s air, land, and seas.

Evolution would then have a very long time to work its magic, and we might have good reason to believe that within some millions of years, multi-cellular life would form, and that life then would be off to the races, if it is not already doing fine before we try to seed it.

Would we want to do this? It is much more likely to work than sending humans off to find other habitable planets. If intelligent life can evolve here, we should expect that it can evolve elsewhere, at least if it starts from the same building blocks. Should this be an ethical imperative, because life is good? Or do we not really care about life in the abstract, and want only to preserve the sorts of life we have here on earth? OR–the confounding factor–do we worry that we would somehow be despoiling the universe with something akin to an invasive species?

I have my own inclinations on this, but I’d really like to hear what others have to say.

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5 Responses to Panspermia

  1. David Sobel says:

    My own inclination is that this would be a quite valuable thing to do. Of course there are many valuable uses of our resources. One would want some sense of the opportunity cost of doing such a thing before hazarding an intuition about whether it makes sense to do or not.

  2. Jacob Sparks says:

    I remember when I learned about Tardigrades (often called ‘water bears’), my first thought was, “we should be sending these resilient little guys off into space in huge numbers, in the hopes that they land on some habitable planet.” So clearly I share the intuition that seeding life on other planets is a good thing to do. But I don’t think I’m attracted to life seeding because I just think life is good and more is better. Underlying my intuition is the wish to avoid a lifeless future. Seeding life on other planets decreases the odds of the depressing scenario where life and intelligence are totally absent from the universe.

    Also, for what it’s worth, the ‘invasive species’ thought you mention seems absurd to me.

  3. Reid Blackman says:

    I certainly don’t think it’s morally imperative, and I’m not convinced it would be a good thing to do. For one, I’m not sure the value of life can be assessed apart from considerations about the quality of that life, and in that regard, I’d say the average sentient creature since the dawn of sentience hasn’t exactly had a great life. If I had to put my money somewhere, I’d say there’s been far more suffering than joy in the history of sentient creatures (and it’s probably even more lopsided towards suffering in the case of human history). Sure, there are some bright spots, but they’re pretty few and far between, and many of them concern the joy of beginning to remove the knife from our collective back (e.g. overthrowing repressive regimes) more than the addition of a great good. Jacob Sparks (previous comment) said, “Seeding life on other planets decreases the odds of the depressing scenario where life and intelligence are totally absent from the universe.” I suppose that’s depressing. But so is increasing the odds of more genocide, war, famine, another Trump, and so on. Then there’s the connected issue about the moral responsibility for creating the conditions under which that level of suffering occurs…But I could be convinced otherwise. If, for instance, one’s commitment to the welfare of current human beings and the human beings we’ll create commits one to being for panspermia, I’d sooner support panspermia than I would abandon the welfare of current and future humans connected to us in the usual way.

    The universe is fairly large, so I’d be no more worried about it being despoiled by inhabiting an additional planet or two than I’d worry that a singular piece of dust in the ocean constitutes pollution.

  4. Heath White says:

    Wow, fascinating thought experiment. My inclination is to say that the project is morally indifferent, though I have low confidence in that judgment. I think I only believe there is reason for “me” or “us” to be concerned about the future of life if its “my” or “our” future, in some sense … if there is reason at all. The perpetuation of my family or our culture or even our species; but not just the existence of life in general.

    But it does appeal to me as a super-cool engineering project.

  5. Adam Flores says:

    The word ‘unleashed’ is used to describe the introduction of a biochemical agent and it feels like an accurate depiction of the process. It is impossible to know if life is already present on the prospective planet and if so what the implications would be of unleashing it on the unsuspecting science experiments. Earth’s inhabitants would certainly not appreciate this gesture to be inflicted upon them by foreign biological colonizers.