Stuff:Votorola/a/M0:Endless continuity through myth

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Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.1 — Kant

Nothing seems more natural than to view the stars as a field of freedom and morality as a regime of constraint. Nevertheless I invite you to consider a strangely opposite view in which morality, by leaning upon a universal, physical constraint of nature, can enable us to break free of contingency and steer our own future. The physical constraint it would lean upon for this purpose is the prohibition on superluminal motion. We must assume this, therefore, as our first premise:

[OS] Orion Spur. The sun (ar­row) is lo­cat­ed in the O­ri­on Spur (O), be­tween the Per­se­us (P) and Sa­git­tari­us (S) ga­lact­ic arms.2
(P1)Let all communications be limited to light speed.

Nothing can travel faster than light. To understand why this matters, it helps to look around and compare the scale of our surroundings to the speed of light. We are located in a relatively small structure of stars and star-forming regions called the Orion Spur, the nearest stars of which populate our night skies. Although small in relation to the overall galaxy, it is still large enough that the distance travelled by light in a single year (a light year, or 'ly') would be indiscernible in figure OS. Even the distance it travelled in a lifetime would be barely discernible. Light emitted by the sun on the fateful day the Goths sacked Rome, for example, has yet to work its way across the Orion Spur's width; a span of some 3,000 ly. Having travelled since the year 410, it is roughly half way across.

Even the most urgent of news cannot travel very quickly through the stars. But sometimes a limitation is a good thing, especially in human affairs. The philosopher and historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, who was much concerned with political ethics and the dangers of violence in pursuing collective ends, once recommended that the best we might hope for is some kind of limiting arrangement that served to protect 'differing groups of human beings — at the very least to prevent them from attempting to exterminate each other, and, so far as possible, to prevent them from hurting each other'.3

Perhaps such a safeguard is offered in the limit of light speed. The slow crawl it imposes on communications certainly makes nonsense of the notion of 'star wars'. Even the most catastrophic war could not communicate with any force across interstellar distances; the speed limit is small enough, and the distances large enough, that together they form a barrier to both natural and artificial extinction events. Life could radiate across that barrier (just), but death could not.

Leave aside for a moment the question of how to cross such a formidable barrier. Think instead of the destination on the other side. Imagine how it would feel to be there: A child is looking at the night sky. His mother points, 'Do you see that star?' she asks, 'That's where we come from. We also have people there, and there,' she says, pointing to other specks of light, one by one. Then she gestures across the whole of the starry sky, 'This is where we live,' she says, 'We will always live here.'

So a mythic story is told that will always be true, a promise-gift from mother to child. Together they reaffirm and carry forward to the next generation an understanding of what it means to be human. That understanding succeeds in capturing and conveying the essence of humanity precisely because it is timeless; a trillion years later, and the same story will be retold under a starry sky. For any who have crossed the threshold and entered into the inheritance of humankind, it will always be so.

The alternative is extinction. For us, therefore, the night sky presents a more uncertain prospect. Looking to the future, we see both possibilities hanging in the balance. On one hand, we see all those children looking back at us with wonder in their eyes; on the other, we see nothing at all. Exactly one of these possibilities is fated to become a fact, then to hold for all time, thus defining humanity for what it is. Nobody knows which of these two ends will eventually become the definitive fact, yet the clarity of the choice is something we can deal with in terms of present-day moral theory. Our second premise is designed, therefore, to come to grips with it:

(P2)Let reason be the supreme value.

Assume that reason is the ultimate good for us; if pressed, we would do anything to save reason. This assumption brings several advantages to a moral argument. For one, it expands the argument to its proper scope: morality can be a useful concept only if its principles are, as Kant puts it, 'so extensive' that they 'must hold not merely for human beings but for all rational beings as such'.4 With this expansion, then, we can now deduce the main principles of a moral theory.

[MTP] Moral theory and practice.
Theory Practice
form (M2) Morality promotes a maximum of personal
freedom compatible with equal freedoms for all
personal freedom
form (M1) Morality relates personal action to a universally
collective end
matter (M0) Morality purposes the endless continuity of
rational being
Forever retelling
the myth

The material principle of the theory (M0, above) follows almost directly from the two premises: while the laws of nature (P1) enable rational beings to assure themselves of a continuous existence, as opposed to extinction, that same continuity would also be necessary to fully develop and realize the supreme value (P2). So we take that continuity as the material end of morality. Here we are treating morality as a purposeful, constructed facility on which the full weight of our most cherished value may come to rest. Thinking like engineers, therefore, and wary of failure, we must now design a structure to bear that load.

Accordingly, one span of the structure (M1) we should anchor in the individual, and extend formally to the end. This positioning arises from analysis of the end. We might reach it without anyone really trying, but that is unlikely. More likely it will require a great deal of personal, wilful agency. Therefore the M1 span attaches to personal action and extends from there into the endless continuum of rational being. The form of this extension is collective, since rational being reproduces and develops in social spaces that are independent of any individual; and the width is universal, since anything less would increase the risk of ultimate failure. The stakes are high, because a chancier, more human-bounded construction might lead, for all we can ever know, to a cosmos that is forever devoid of reason.

A similar prudence gives rise to the other formal principle (M2). While success depends on personal action, we cannot know in advance which particular actions are necessary. The goal is too distant and the eventualities too complex to judge with certainty. But people are numerous. They can explore many paths simultaneously; so that, if a given action does not reduce anyone's freedom to act, then it can hardly reduce the likelihood of eventual success. Success depends on opportune discoveries to which the formal theory is blind. Therefore the optimum strategy for the blind strategist is to maximize everyone's freedom of action. Anything less would again increase the risk of ultimate failure and an irrecoverable loss of the highest value. The tipping points between success and failure are many, and each hinges on the freedom of an individual whose identity is unknown. Like the collectively aimed M1 span, therefore, the individually aimed M2 span is designed to bridge a tremendous void of uncertainty and risk.

In translating this structure from theory to practice, it helps to first translate the architectural analogy of lines and spaces to a procedural one of steering the future. The practical goal is to institute a steering mechanism for the modern context, one that engages with the all-pervading laws, plans and other action norms by which modern society deliberately regulates itself. Let us therefore append an intermediate, procedural principle to the theory behind the practice. This is the discourse principle, as formulated by the social philosopher Jürgen Habermas:5

(D)Just those action norms are valid to which all possibly affected persons could agree as participants in rational discourses.

For our purposes, we may think of D as the shape that is necessarily taken by the normative canvas whenever it is held in tension by the moral frame (M1, M2). There it hangs like a powerful sail captured by an equally strong mast and boom. As we enter into an exploration of the practice, however, perhaps the most important image to hold in mind is that of the individual as a hero, hand on tiller, eye on the stars, directing everyone's future while limiting no one's freedom.

Editorial note: The original text included two additional sections at this point: one on the necessary inventions for maximizing personal freedom; and one on steering the future through mythopoeic overguidance.6

Forever retelling the myth: the material practice of rational being

Rational being cannot be maintained in a continuous line without the telling and retelling of myth, for myth carries the knowledge of origins and the acknowledgement of purpose that are essential to practical reason itself. It runs like a conductor between past and future, equalizing their substance and exposing it to the present. At the outset, we left our descendants looking back in time from a safe vantage among the stars. We can imagine what they are thinking; that assurance of safety they enjoy is the creation of a people who had none. But it takes only a turn and a backward look for us to share in their perspective. Danger and imminent crisis are timeless in retrospect, as are the countless deprivations, failures, and trial-and-error achievements that informed the steps of our passage, even to our creation; for the line of our descent ran not only through history and prehistory, of course, but also through the ages before language and thought. We entered the last, great crossing to a new environment as a Devonian fish, some 400 million years ago. The anthropologist and literary naturalist, Loren Eiseley, describes the venture to land with empathy: 'It was not the magnificent march through the breakers and up the cliffs that we fondly imagine. It was a stealth advance made in suffocation and terror, amidst the leaching bite of chemical discomfort. It was made by the failures of the sea.' 7 Myth has the capacity (when told with art) to convey the meaning of such persistence, and to carry it over the next threshold.

The future of humanity is necessarily of mythic construction, our ultimate existence hinging on our ability to invent and evolve a story so convincing it becomes immortal. What is necessary to the means of steering, therefore, becomes essential to the end; the perpetual telling and retelling of the myth becomes our only holdfast to the mythic assurance of safety, once won. Since that assurance depends on sustaining a modicum of expansion, it also depends on sustaining a memory of the reason. This then is the condition of rational being in the universe, to be always conscious of our origin and purpose; to ride on a sea of contingency, of risk, and only by this knowing effort keep afloat.

We loved the earth
but could not stay.8
— Eiseley


See also

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  1. ^ Immanuel Kant. 1788. Critique of Practical Reason. Translated by Mary J. Gregor, 1997. Cambridge University Press. 5:161, p. 133.
  2. ^ Modified from an original drawing by Robert Hurt, 2008. NASA/JPL, public domain.
  3. ^ Isaiah Berlin, 1978. The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West. Japan Foundation, Tokyo. Reprinted in The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas. 2nd edition. Edited by Henry Hardy, 2013. Princeton University Press. p. 50.
  4. ^ Immanuel Kant, 1785. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Mary Gregor and Jens Timmermann, 2012. Cambridge University Press. 4:408.
  5. ^ Jürgen Habermas. 1992. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Translated by William Rehg, 1996. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. p. 107.
  6. ^ The present text is modified from a (2014) submission to an essay contest.
  7. ^ Loren Eiseley, 1957. The Immense Journey. Random House, New York. p. 54.
  8. ^ Epitaph of Loren and Mabel Eiseley. From Loren's poem, The little treasures. Another Kind of Autumn. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1977. p. 57.

    The sailboat of the endpiece is by Virginia Frances Sterrett, 1928. Illustration for Arabian Nights. Edited by Hildegard Hawthorne. Penn Publishing, Philadelphia, public domain.

  9. ^ Unfortunately this discussion archive is private.
© 2014 Michael Allan, please do not copy