George Hay: The Ethics of Outer Space

(Reprinted by kind permission of CAUSA UK LTD., to whom the address was delivered).

The particular hat I am wearing for this address is that of Council Member of the Science Fiction Foundation, at the North East London Polytechnic, a body established there since 1971, and in the inception of which I was involved. [see Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, Peter Nicholls, Granada, 1981] The Foundation is believed to have the best library on its subject in Europe, and I shall be drawing upon its contents, as well as upon other material, to present my thesis. The thesis is a simple one, as follows: that ignorance of the effects of scientific development among the general and professional public has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. Not being qualified as a scientist, I shall be speaking from a humanist and philosophic viewpoint. In the course of the address, I shall be putting forward some specific proposals for your consideration.

Although this is not a talk about science fiction, I think I should start out by defining that section of the subject which I prefer to make my own, and which bears upon our subject. This I call ‘Applied Science Fiction’ and it refers to fiction and non-fiction published by science fiction writers which either has been or could be demonstrated in real life. A few examples should suffice. (1) By 1914, three novels had been published dealing with nuclear weapons or the use of nuclear power for the propulsion of spaceships. (2) In 1940 the author Robert Heinlein published, in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, a story, “Blowups Happen,” dealing with potential hazards in a nuclear power station. (3) A recent article in The Times dealt with an American report on computer sabotage through the use of what are known as ‘logic bombs,’ which, inserted into commercial or military programs, can effectively wreck them. The report mentioned that this idea had been picked up and developed by computer hackers from the novel by John Brunner, Shockwave Rider, published in 1975.

The edition of the Science Fiction Foundation’s journal Foundation, for summer of this year, contains an article by Edward James of the University of York’s History Department, dealing with what he calls “Irish proto-science-fiction and its bearing upon the past and present of the Irish problem. Its bibliography lists 13 such works related to Irish Home Rule and published between 1872 and 1893.

These are limited examples but I hope they will make my point. Anyone interested in a wider view of the matter is referred to the October issue of Science and Public Policy, 1984, a journal published by the International Science Policy Foundation. This was guest-edited by myself, and in it, I and others cover some sixty-odd pages listing science-fiction applications over a wide range of disciplines, not excepting sociology and theology. I trust it will be seen that there is a reasonably high correlation between these works of fiction – and related non-fiction also – and what has happened and will happen in the real world. My intention, however, is not just to say, ‘How clever all these writers are,’ it is rather to ask, ‘If they are so clever, why is their work largely ignored?’ and this takes us to a rather different area; that of the workings of the human mind. The mind, I hope you will agree, can be seen as some kind of servo-mechanism at the service of the individual, and also of the society to which he or she belongs. If now, we find that the individual and the group alike seem to be in difficulties, we have to ask ourselves whether the servo-mechanism is defective, or whether it is simply functioning on wrong data – ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ as the computer saying has it. And from the fact that we are all assembled here discussing the dangers of Soviet expansionism, it would seem that we are indeed in difficulties. After all, whatever we may think of the Soviet system, we cannot deny that its members are all human beings, with minds not markedly different from our own. Of course, we believe that the information with which they have been programmed is defective. However, I am going to be rash enough to suggest that our own information may also be defective, and in ways which can be just as dangerous to the West as communism itself. Indeed, it is part of my thesis that the capitalist and communist ideologies share a common ignorance of science, an ignorance which bids fair to threaten the existence of the┬áhuman race itself. And this – for those of you who have been wondering – is where I come to the ethics of outer space.

Ethics is generally taken, in a rather vague way, to relate to right and wrong. Since it seems to be mostly accepted today that right and wrong relate to survival, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Right and wrong for who?’ What is good survival for the duck hunter is bad survival for the duck. We need, therefore, to ask ourselves whether current Soviet and Western space programmes really do relate to our survival, either as a society or as individuals. I say this, by the way, as a long-term enthusiast for spaceflight and, indeed, as an executive of the Free Space and Space Settlers Society and as one who, I assure you, is in no way involved with CND nor with any such body. They relate to quite a different perspective. Let us say I am a libertarian. As such, let me dwell briefly on some aspects of SDI. Members of CAUSA have been well-briefed on this subject, so I do not need to go into great detail. Let me, however, give some quotes from the latest issue of “Spaceflight News,” these being from interviews with SDI operatives. First quote:

Using concepts developed here at the Weapons Lab called “coupled devices and phased arrays,” we are learning how we might be able to link ten small laser devices together so that they will act like one. In the future, you could add as many further units as are necessary to achieve the desired level of lethality.

Second quote:

The second major area of “kill” technology being investigated within the framework of SDI is what we have termed the ultra-high-speed “shell.” An extra- ordinary device is under study to fire these shells at velocities which make conventional bullets look like snails. The idea is to produce an electromagnetic rail-gun. Instead of firing shells by means of a chemical explosion, the rail- gun would use tremendously strong magnetic fields to fling them along metal guides and out through frictionless space toward their targets.

As an aside, let me say that I seem to recall first hearing of this idea from a science fiction novel by Heinlein in 1966.

My last quote is brief: it refers to a potential situation considered by the Department of Defense, where the United States is targeted by a Soviet attack with more than 3,000 missiles and over 30,000 warheads.

There are two common denominators involved in these scenarios; speed and scale. We have weapons travelling in enormous numbers, through vast areas of space, at almost unimaginable speeds. And this tells us two things: that the operations will be run by pre-programmed computers and, that no matter how much redundancy is built into the system, the failure-rate will be high. Now, in military terms, that is not vital. You may recall the words of a British general in the film, Oh! What a Lovely War, when reproached with the scale of our losses, ‘You may be right. At the end of the day, we may be left with only fifty thousand men. But the Germans will be left with only ten thousand – and that is what counts.’ Of course, that was an anti-war film, but from the historic records there is little reason to doubt that the military mind worked then in that way, and still does. The name of the game is winning and losing. Military, economic and political systems take this for granted, with social’ considerations being treated as also-rans. To give some idea of the scale involved in just one area of the industry, a study commissioned by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency documented at least 6,928 accidents involving toxic chemicals in the U.S. in the preceding five years – and the listing was, by its own admission, incomplete.

Given the ethics of industry in both East and West, it is clearly not possible to carry out Star Wars-type mechanical operations on the scale envisaged without vast further rationalisations of the military-industrial complex. We know the ruthless nature of the security screen behind which such operations are carried out in the Iron Curtain countries; it seems likely that such security measures will have to be emulated by the West in order to keep abreast of the opposition. Can it be seriously imagined that any of this is compatible with civil liberty? There is an enormous irony involved; the kind of creative invention called for can only be undertaken by free-thinking individuals, individuals who are able to communicate as, and how, they wish with their peers. It is the very lack of that liberty that hamstrings the Soviet scientist, so that his superiors are heavily dependent on the theft, through espionage, of developments elsewhere in the world. But if a similar security clampdown occurs on our side of the line, is it to be supposed that our scientists can keep their lead? Some birds cease to sing when put in cages.

Again, let me emphasise that I am not here engaged in doom-mongering, nor in anti-capitalist propaganda, and that I shall be coming to constructive proposals. But there is no point in minimising the dangers to which, with whatever good intentions, we are exposing ourselves. If solutions are to be found, they will have to be based on a thorough understanding of what is taking place and, as I have indicated, it is my belief that this understanding is missing at every level of our society. I said at the outset that it was an understanding of the implications of science that was missing but science, let me remind you, should embrace not only physics but also human behaviour, individual and social. It is the tragedy of our age that schizophrenia – more generally known as ‘the professional approach’ – has set in throught our commercial, political and educational systems, so that we find theoretical physics in one area, psychology in another, and economics in yet another, as though they were quite unrelated. This is a standard feature of late autumn cultures, declining into Caesarism, which is our position today, with the rather striking difference that, for the first time, we have a truly whole-planet culture. When Caesar ruled what was then known as ‘the whole world’ that left, for example, the enormous and sophisticated culture of China quite unaffected. But today? The whole planet is like a man with his head in a bag.

Well, we’re nearly through the bad news, you’ll be glad to hear – I thought it best to give you that first. However, before going into the constructive bits, I think I should say something about matters bearing on space developments and their ethics, something which in my view actually is good news, though I fear that to some it may appear bad., This refers to some implications of quantum theory. Now, as you know, it takes sometimes a very long while indeed for one scientific paradigm to be replaced by another; indeed, as Kuhn has suggested, the process may entail the death of an entire generation. Add to this the fact, as explained in Systematic Ideology – which I will dwell upon later – that the very people most important in the decision-making areas of the military-industrial complex of this planet tend to be the very people least likely to accept new and, to them, revolutionary ideas. The fact is that, despite the scientific revolution in theoretical physics that has been going on since early in this century, our masters in these areas have their minds firmly embedded in eighteenth-century deterministic views stemming from philosophers such as Kant and Laplace – the kind of views leading men to believe that, once one had located points A and B it was only a matter of time before one could put one’s finger ineluctably on every other letter of the alphabet.

Now this was by no means entirely a bad thing. Such views fuelled the entire development we know as the Enlightenment, to which we owe in large part our entire corpus of knowledge, and the enormous benefits delivered by the sciences, medicine, and engineering, as well as an unheard-of rise in world standards of living. If it led also to the horrors of the Industrial Revolution and of World Wars One and Two, there are many among us who would think the price well worth paying. There is, of course, the question of just exactly who it is who is paying that price. A quotation from Charles Perrow, of Yale:

The new risks have produced a new brand of shaman called risk assessors. As with the shamans and physicians of old, it might be more dangerous to go to them for advice than to suffer un- attended, because of the dangers of this new alchemy, where body-counting replaces social and cultural values and excludes us from participating in decisions about risks that a few have decided the many cannot do without.

Rather neatly put, I think!

However, the fact remains that whatever major decisions are taken are in the hands of ‘practical’ men: the kind of men who firmly believe that a table is a table, a piece of rock is a piece of rock, and that their job and ours is to get the hardware up and operative in time, and to hell with the side effects. Hilaire Belloc once gave the definitive explanation as to why the ‘practical’ man is the most dangerous fool in the world, and I wish there were time to quote him on this here but I must forbear, because it is more important for me to stress how probabilistic aspects of quantum theory continue to demonstrate that, even in their own terms, the practical men are wrong.

It is not so much a matter of saying that military / economic decisions taken by eighteenth-century minds may produce results which humanitarians must dread – many will still reply in terms of eggs and omelettes. Rather, it is a matter of saying that if an essentially Newtonian mind persists in taking decisions on the truly gigantic scale envisaged, then that mind will sooner or later – and probably sooner – discover that we are no longer living in Newton’s world but in Einstein’s. In the Franco-Prussian war it was possible for a general to look at his watch and say, ‘In exactly x minutes, the enemy will have been destroyed.’ Given the nature of modern electronics, the nature of modern computers and, I have to add, the nature of the minds of those operating these – if giving a command to a wholly self- actuated and entirely unpredictable mass of circuits and micro-chips may be considered as ‘operating’ – then it must be concluded that, whatever the result, it will not be that which was intended. The safely predictable world, beloved of masters of industry and of military commanders, no longer exists. The world described by Laplace and Newton exists only to a limit, and that limit is now being overpassed. Let me give you a recent quotation on this matter:

There is not really any interesting and strong metaphysical distinction between subjective and objective, or between belief and knowledge. Certainty of knowledge – either in the sense of psycho- logical immediacy, in the sense of logical truth, or in the sense of complete precision of measurement – is unachievable.

The development of quantum mechanics in the first three decades of the twentieth century finally mustered enough strong evidence against the fantasy of certainty to dislodge it. It was reluctantly but conclusively recognised that it did not make sense to claim that any continuous physical quantity could work with arbitrary precision in conjunction with the simultaneous measurement of other related physical quantities. Thus, in the strict determinism of Laplace, to predict the deterministic course of events we require the simultaneous exact measurement of the position and momentum of each particle. It is precisely the point of the fundamental facts of quantum mechanics, however, that such a simultaneous precise measurement of position and momentum is not possible and, most important, it is not possible in principle. The inability to make exact measurements is not due to technological inadequacies of measuring equipment; rather, it arises from the fundamental principle of uncertainty first enunciated by Heisenberg about half a century ago. (Probabilistic Metaphysics, by Patrick Suppes, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1984).

I hope you will see that I have not been exaggerating. I am talking about the ethics of outer-space military developments, developments which must of their nature turn the entire world into a series of armed and heavily-policed camps, and yet which cannot even be justified on the grounds that they would achieve the stated ends of either of the two sides. Enough of that. Let us turn to more constructive matters.

I will contend here that any resolution of these problems must depend on an improved knowledge of the human mind and upon a systematic application of that knowledge. That mind, as I see it, is not something vague and indeterminable, but something fully equipped in principle to deal with the world in which it finds itself. There are, of course, differing views as to just how it operates, and I do not speak here as a partisan of any particular one of these, though I shall dwell briefly on one or two, since I believe they are valuable and deserve to be known. First, though, let me remind you that we have, so to speak, been here before. What I have had to say up to now has not been particularly cheerful and it may help if I remind you that the problems attendant upon ‘the last time round’ – that is, upon the confusion attendant upon the fall of the Roman Empire – were resolved to an extraordinary degree by such theologians as Thomas Aquinas, with his recapitulations of Aristotelian philosophy. Of course, we are not all Thomists and many of us may disagree quite considerably with the doctrines concerned. That is not the point. The point is, that in a situation of sheer barbarism and with very limited resources, the doctors and workers of the early Church introduced into society the idea that order, both within the human mind and within the social framework, was something perfectly achievable. And, to a truly remarkable extent, those ideas were brought to a very high point of demonstration. And it must follow that what has been done once can be done again. Just because we find ourselves in a howling mess it does not follow that we have to put up with it.

I will now mention two methodologies of human behaviour, one British, the other American, which I believe to be of value. The first is Systematic Ideology, a theory created by the late Harold Walsby. (The Domain of Ideologies, a study of the Origin, Development and Structure of Ideologies.’ Glasgow, Wm. McLellan, 1947). Let me quote a definition by George Walford, editor of Ideological Commentary, the journal of the subject:

All human beings enter adult society with the same major ideology; some of them develop to the next, some of those to the next again, and so on, and the outcome is a structure which can be represented as a stepped pyramid, the more highly-developed ideologies towards the peak and the greater number of people towards the base. (‘Higher’ is not being used as a synonym for ‘better’; development is not always, and by all criteria, a good thing). Activities in which theory plays a small part, such as sports and right-wing political movements, express the less developed ideologies and those in which it plays a larger part, such as psycho-analysis and left-wing political movements, the more developed ones. This explains the tendency for political movements to become smaller as they are farther to the left; the farther left the movement, the more developed the ideology underlying it, and consequently the smaller the pool of its potential adherents. (IC25 and previous issues, p.2)

At first sight this may seem to be somewhat simplistic; I can only express my belief that a close look at this methodology shows up facets of political and other behaviour that, while logical, might not at all have been expected, and that a more widespread understanding of the principles involved might evoke from students of such behaviour rather more light and rather less heat.

The American methodology is that of General Semantics, formulated by the late Alfred Korzybski in his major work, Science and Sanity: an Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (Institute of General Semantics, [address], 1933). The scope of this work is truly colossal, since Korzybski was quite possibly the first person to have ever analysed language in terms of its total connections with natural existence, including particularly the development of the human nervous system. In its specific applications, the subject may be considered the study of the relations between language, ‘thought’ and behaviour: between how we talk, therefore how we ‘think’ and therefore how we act. It deals with the harmful effects upon us of Aristotelian two-valued logic, of subject-predicate forms, and a host of other confusions. I should stress that it is not simply a set of theories, but a highly workable discipline, which has now been applied over many years in education, business, remedial therapy, leadership studies – what have you. One recent report, for example, has shown how a business consultancy using General Semantics methods was able measurably to improve the performance of airline staff. That such a methodology has no working base in this country is, I consider, a standing disgrace to our educational system.

New approaches, too, continue to surface. For example, there is neuro-linguistic programming, about which I myself know little but which does seem to have considerable promise. Each of us here would have his or her own ideas on the workability of these approaches. What seems to me undeniable, is the way in which our teaching, commercial and political systems continue to ignore them in what one can only call a studied way. It is not, it seems to me, simply a matter of drawing attention to these matters. If I may revert to my own subject, it was a science fiction novel that first drew public attention fictionally to the implications of the Heisenberg uncertainty equations – ‘Uncertainty,’ written by John W.Campbell in 1936. Campbell later went on to become, as an editor, the father of modern science fiction and it was in one of his magazines that the author A.E.van Vogt first popularised General Semantics in a serialised novel, The World of Null-A, in 1945. A considerable number of people were influenced. Alas! The Department of Education and Science and the Department of Trade and Industry have yet to hear of these works. If the general public is to be invited to leave the eighteenth century for the twentieth, then a very concerted and well-planned effort is called for. Perhaps we must adapt the words of Disraeli to our own time, and say again, ‘We must educate our masters.’ If as few as one per cent of the human race seized the workings of their own minds, there would ensue a revolution of a kind the world has never yet seen. The question I leave you with is: When do we start?

from Ideological Commentary 26, March 1987.