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space colony illustration
Having faith that space colonies can save humanity in the long term may be the most powerful argument for supporting efforts to develop them in the near term. (credit: Rick Guidice/NASA)

Space colonization, faith, and Pascal’s Wager

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In his essay “Escaping Earth: Human Spaceflight as Religion” published in the journal Astropolitics, historian Roger Launius argues that enthusiasm for space can be viewed as a religion. He focuses mainly on comparisons with the outer trappings of religion, many of which are apt, but in one place he reaches the heart of the issue. “Like those espousing the immortality of the human soul among the world’s great religions… statements of humanity’s salvation through spaceflight are fundamentally statements of faith predicated on no knowledge whatsoever.”

Having faith in the future, whether a personal future or that of one’s successors, has always been what inspires human action.

I think Launius may be somewhat too pessimistic in his assertion that we have no knowledge whatsoever about our ability to develop technology that will enable humans live in the hostile environment of space, but that is beside the point. It’s true that we have no assurance that the colonization of space will ensure the long-term survival of humankind. “Absent the discovery of an Earthlike habitable exoplanet to which humanity might migrate,” Launius continues, “this salvation ideology seems problematic, a statement of faith rather than knowledge or reason.” And the accessibility of such an exoplanet is questionable, since by current knowledge it will not be possible to cross interstellar space rapidly enough to achieve much migration.

It is indeed faith that underlies the conviction that traveling beyond our home world will prevent the extinction of the human race. But Launius’ presentation of this fact seems to imply that it lessens the significance of such a conviction, as if beliefs supported by mere faith were not to be taken seriously. That is far from the case, as the history of human civilization clearly shows. Most major advances have been made by people who had faith in what they envisioned before they were able to produce evidence; that was what made them keep working toward it. Having faith in the future, whether a personal future or that of one’s successors, has always been what inspires human action.

On what grounds can faith without evidence be justified? This issue was addressed by the 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal in what is known as Pascal’s Wager, now considered the first formal use of decision theory. Pascal was considering whether is rational to believe in God, but the principle he formulated has been applied to many other questions. In his words, “Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.” If on the other hand, you bet on it being false and it turns out to be true, you lose everything; thus to do so would be stupid if the stakes are high.

This is a clear-cut defense of faith. The many refutations of Pascal’s Wager concern not its logic but its unstated premises: that if God exists then there is a Heaven, that only believers go to Heaven, and that belief requires no action leading to harm. Similarly, there are unstated premises in application of this logic to faith in space colonization—it is based on the assumptions that humankind cannot survive indefinitely while confined to one small planet, that extinction of humankind would be a bad outcome, and that widespread faith within society will be needed if large-scale colonies are to be established.

Although many people deny the first assumption, that strikes me as a head-in-the-sand attitude. It is simply not reasonable to believe that the dwindling resources of Earth, however extended by wise use, can support its population forever; and even if they could, the danger of disaster—whether from global war, runaway technology, or a natural event such as an asteroid strike—would remain. Supposing a remnant of the human race did escape destruction, in the distant future it would be annihilated by changes in the Sun.

Does the absence of evidence that colonizing space can save our species make faith in it a religion? Of course it does.

The second assumption, unlike the first, is not subject to factual analysis. There are people who aren’t bothered by the prospect of extinction, and if they’re not, no argument can convince them that it is to be avoided. One might ask, however, what difference the time frame makes to them as long as the human race isn’t wiped out while they’re alive? If it’s okay for us to become extinct, why not a mere hundred years from now? Most people, even those who don't care what happens in the distant future, feel strongly that it would be a bad thing for humankind not to outlast their grandchildren. Yet either the fate of our descendants matters, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, why not let our planet’s environment deteriorate and save ourselves the trouble of trying to preserve it?

Yes, as Launius says, the belief that long-term survival of humankind can be achieved through spaceflight is based on faith rather than evidence. So is the belief that it would be tragic for humanity not to survive. Faith in something, at least in our existence not being pointless, is essential to functioning as human beings. Almost everyone has a deep, instinctive feeling that our species will continue to exist when we ourselves are gone. In evolutionary terms, this is an adaptive trait. If we lacked it no progress would ever have been made; our ancestors would have achieved nothing that affected those who came after them. We might, in fact, have died out long ago due to circumstances we lacked the technology to deal with.

Does the absence of evidence that colonizing space can save our species make faith in it a religion? Of course it does. Faith in an outcome beyond our present understanding is what religion is, not the rituals it involves or the metaphors it employs for the incomprehensible. To those who feel that calling something a religion impugns its relevance to the real world, I would like to say that their definition of religion is too narrow. The essence of religion is its recognition of reality that we cannot explain in terms of facts we now know. The explanations offered by specific religions, whether or not metaphorical, are not its defining aspect. The acknowledgement that we cannot know everything, and must therefore trust that there is a pattern we cannot see, is the universal concept all religions share.

Primitive religions offered metaphors for facts later explained by science. The extent of which the symbols of today’s religions are considered metaphorical depends on the individual (this was the case in ancient times, too, as was pointed out by anthropologist Paul Radin in his classic book Primitive Man as Philosopher). It may well be that our present conception of interstellar travel is a metaphor for a reality we cannot yet even imagine. But knowing this, knowing that we cannot count on being able to travel rapidly between stars by means of any technology compatible with current theories, we have faith that our descendants will reach them somehow—because the alternative is extinction, and we just can’t believe that humankind will become extinct.

The difficulty of establishing large colonies may prove so great that only faith alone can sustain the efforts of our successors. It is not too soon to start encouraging belief in the goal.

Under the principle of Pascal’s Wager, reason demands such faith, assuming that unending survival of the human race is an infinite gain, that permanent confinement to Earth will mean extinction—and, of course, that belief in the efficacy of large-scale colonization will lead to the action required to bring it about. It should be added that widespread lack of faith in a reachable goal would result in a great deal of unnecessary hopelessness as conditions on Earth worsen and more and more people take their heads out of the sand. There are already too many, even among young people, who feel hopeless about the future.

However, the consequences of believing in an unreachable goal must also be considered. If we bet against survival and it’s impossible, then nothing will happen that was not inevitable. But if we, as a civilization rather than as individuals, have faith that proves vain, will any harm have been done?

Some people will think so. Pascal considered the cost of vain belief negligible since all it meant in regard to the issue he was considering was that he would have gone to church and followed some religious rules unnecessarily. But the demands of faith in space colonization are greater. Large-scale space colonies cannot be established without a very long head start; they will be costly in time, effort, and funds. Some will say the effort and especially the funds would be better spent on improving conditions on Earth. (Never mind that, as in the case of the money spent on space so far, funds cut from the space effort would not actually be diverted to causes deemed more worthy.) Even if such people concede that permanent survival of humankind on Earth is impossible, they may feel it would be better to devote ourselves to maximum comfort while we’re here than to worry about the fate of our remote descendants.

The issue is complicated by the fact that at present, it doesn’t really matter whether individuals have faith or not. We are generations away from the stage at which prevalent opinion will influence the final outcome. The earliest space colonies will be built by people who want to go into space personally and who may or may not be thinking about the long term—although they may well be concerned about the possibility of disaster in the near future. They will not need faith in the ultimate survival of humanity; enthusiasm for their work will be sufficient motivation. It’s possible that if these colonies thrive over a long period, they will spearhead the spread of humankind throughout the universe; Earth may not even be involved.

And yet a time may come when the support of society—colonial society if not Earth’s—will be needed if the survival of the human race is to be assured. The difficulty of establishing large colonies may prove so great that only faith alone can sustain the efforts of our successors. It is not too soon to start encouraging belief in the goal.

In any case, no one today should feel foolish for having faith that space colonization will prove to be humankind’s salvation, unlikely though the feasibility of it may now seem. Consideration of Pascal’s Wager shows that when no evidence exists, belief is more rational than denial.