Imagine a universe in which 1 million human beings have constructed a high-tech civilization on Mars and are living out their lives on the Red Planet, ~225 million kilometers from Earth.
If Elon Musk’s dream comes true, this will be our universe within the next 100 years.
As early as 2040, Musk hopes to have thousands or tens of thousands of people living in a city-like colony on Mars. From there, he hopes to continue to increase the colony’s size until it exceeds one million people, at which point he believes there will be a sufficient number of people to “recreate the entire industrial base,” resulting in a sustainable civilization on Mars.
“Why in the world would he want to do that?,” you might ask.
The answer is complex and multifaceted, but here’s the short version: to ensure the long-term continuation of our species and our earthly evolutionary branch.
In this essay, I will explain in detail why Musk and a growing number of other thinkers believe that humanity must become a multi-planetary species.
But first, we need to take a bit of a detour to consider something potentially quite relevant to this discussion: the meaning of life from the perspective of the universe.
The Meaning of Life From the Perspective of the Universe
Recently, I attended a series of 4-minute “micro-talks” in which some smart people gave brief lectures on a wide range of topics—artificial intelligence, web marketing, post-marriage taxes, and much more.
One of these talks was on “the meaning of life from the perspective of the universe,” a topic which seemed especially intriguing and ambitious to me.
The speaker began by admitting that in order for his argument to be coherent, we would have to accept a basic premise: that the universe “prefers” ever-greater levels of complexity; that complexity in the cosmos is good.
My immediate feeling was that this was dicey territory. The speaker had claimed to be delivering a talk on the meaning of life from the perspective of the universe, but here he was, seemingly asking us to project human qualities—i.e. the capacity to prefer one thing to another, or to deem some things “good” and others “bad”—onto the entire universe.
In my view, he was anthropomorphizing the universe—i.e. talking about it as if it were human.
The universe probably doesn’t really give a shit about increasing complexity, I thought. “Good” and “bad” probably don’t exist to the cosmos; everything probably just is. We have zero evidence that this ancient process we call “universe” has any preferences or values.
Carl Sagan posited that, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” That statement seems to me to contain truth, in the sense that we are an inextricable part of the process of creation and are simultaneously complex sensory apparatuses capable of observing, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, and thinking about ourselves and the larger world and universe around us.
In a real sense, we are the cosmos, so our senses, minds, and experiences are also the cosmos’ senses, minds, and experiences. This seems like a sensible and poetic perspective to take on our present body of scientific evidence. One could even take this further to argue that since we are the universe and since we have values/preferences, our values/preferences are in some sense the universe’s values/preferences. In this somewhat limited sense, at least, we can say that the universe values the continuation of our evolutionary branch, assuming that’s what we value.
That isn’t what this particular speaker was arguing, though. He was suggesting something more fundamental—an intrinsic “desire” for ever-greater complexity embedded into the fabric of creation. It’s a fascinating theory, reminiscent of Terence Mckenna’s novelty theory, but I can’t at present agree with it, as we have no evidence to suggest that this is the case.
Humanity in the 21st Century: A Powerful and Precarious Position
Despite my skepticism regarding the speaker’s foundational claim, I nonetheless found the duration of his talk to be stimulating and important.
Essentially, he argued that mankind is presently in an immensely powerful and precarious position. We are at the forefront of a branch of evolution that began on Earth ~3.5 billion years ago. Over countless millennia, life has diversified and complexified, giving rise to millions upon millions of distinct species—unique expressions of life and complexity, as well as unique apparatuses through which the universe experiences itself in novel ways.
If we assume that the universe “prefers” complexity, then our Earth has been a veritable diamond mine. For all we know at this time, Earth has given rise to the most sophisticated life-forms in the universe. Our present body of scientific evidence suggests that there is no more promising branch of evolution than our own. If allowed to continue, our earthly branch will almost certainly give rise to multiferous untold wonders—inconceivably complex expressions of human and post-human life and technology. Our branch of evolution, if it persists, may well result in intergalactic civilizations of superintelligent beings which we cannot presently fathom.
And so the thesis goes as follows: If we think there is value (to the cosmos) in allowing our branch of evolution to continue to blossom and complexify in whatever ways it may, then we need to make damn sure not to prematurely sever this branch of evolution.
The speaker argued that our present historical moment is a crucial juncture in the unfolding story of the universe, because we now have the power to end all life on Earth.
We possess thousands of nuclear warheads capable of occasioning an existential catastrophe, and we are at the liberty of a fairly fragile global ecosystem with limited resources. Beyond that, our being confined to this single planet means that a single asteroid collision or some other unforeseen cataclysmic event could wipe out our entire species and potentially all intelligent life on Earth. There are numerous other theorized existential risks (e.g. risks arising from advances in artificial intelligence, biotech, nanotech, etc.) as well. In his pioneering 2002 paper, Dr. Nick Bostrom defined “existential risk” as follows:
“Existential risk – One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.
An existential risk is one where humankind as a whole is imperiled. Existential disasters have major adverse consequences for the course of human civilization for all time to come.”
If it sounds far-fetched to consider earthly extinction scenarios, it shouldn’t. Many intelligent people are discussing this topic, and many are even devoting their lives to attempting to avert crisis situations that could decimate earthly intelligent life. The Future of Life Institute, Future of Humanity Institute, Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, and Centre for the Study of Existential Risk are a few prominent organizations specifically dedicated to this cause. According to Muller and Bostrom (2014), a sample of the top 100 most-cited authors on artificial intelligence ascribed a 10% chance of existential catastrophe when and if AI reaches human-level intelligence. In 2008, a group of experts at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference at Oxford estimated a 19% chance of human extinction before 2100.
If you’re curious to know more about existential risk, Bostrom’s landmark 2002 paper is the place to start. You may also want to follow this list I compiled on Twitter of the best sources of information related to existential risk.
How to Ensure the Continuation of Our Evolutionary Branch
The various existential risks that threaten to decimate humanity and the entire earthly biosphere in the coming decades and centuries have, as I said, compelled a multitude of very smart people to consider how best to avoid the potential catastrophes we’ve identified and how best to identify potential catastrophes that we have yet to notice.
Other smart folks have begun asking a similar question: If a catastrophe does occur, how can we at least ensure that our evolutionary branch will persist?
One popular answer, in certain circles, is that we must become a multi-planetary species as soon as possible.
Among those advocating for the expansion of the human enterprise to other planets, Elon Musk is probably the most iconic.
Musk is the CEO of SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company. As I mentioned in the introduction, Musk and SpaceX hope to create the first city-like colony on Mars by the year 2040. In a supremely fascinating interview with Aeon, Musk said the following of his plans:
“I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary, in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct. It would be like, ‘Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved, but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.’”
“Not everyone loves humanity. Either explicitly or implicitly, some people seem to think that humans are a blight on the Earth’s surface. They say things like, ‘Nature is so wonderful; things are always better in the countryside where there are no people around.’ They imply that humanity and civilization are less good than their absence. But I’m not in that school. I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.”
Musk isn’t alone in thinking this way. Vinay Gupta, a software engineer, inventor, and global resilience guru, is another notable genius thinking along these lines. In an extraordinary interview with Vice, Gupta said:
“Making life interplanetary, and then interstellar, enables creation to generate untold wonders over potentially trillions of years. We have no idea how long human life could last, if we can get it off this one fragile, risk-filled, tiny sphere into the ocean of darkness and light above our heads, and into every nook and cranny of the observable sphere. We owe all the potential futures that could emerge from our present the possibility of existence, and to accomplish this, we must go not only into space, but eventually, by any means found necessary, into the stars.”
Gupta and Musk are at the forefront of a growing movement of thinkers and technologists who are advocating for a multi-planetary civilization. Given the (increasingly) precarious nature of our existence on Earth, this group has arrived at the conclusion that the first question we must ask ourselves is: How do we ensure the continuation of humanity? Becoming a multi-planetary and eventually an interstellar or even intergalactic species is, for these folks, an obvious solution and one which we must pursue with a sense of urgency.
As Musk indicated in the above-cited quote, there are plenty of people who object to this conclusion. Some claim that a focus on leaving Earth distracts from the various challenges and issues presently faced by humanity. Many of these people also argue that becoming multi-planetary would divert precious resources away from our present challenges/issues.
Some claim that leaving Earth is akin to giving up on our home planet—an admission that we aren’t going to be capable of “saving” our home or reversing/averting various human-made crises.
Some are Luddites who disagree on principle with the idea that we should invent more technology to address our current global issues, many of which arose as a result of our technology in the first place.
Others assert that it is technologically unfeasible to colonize Mars, claiming that people like Musk fail to appreciate the truly immense challenge of shipping a bunch of humans to Mars and establishing a sustainable colony of some kind.
Others, some of whom probably identify with the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, view humanity as a kind of virus that is destroying the Earth and wishes to expand outward to “infect” more of the universe. Thus, they wish for humanity to be “contained” on Earth and possibly eradicated altogether.
Addressing the Objections
From my vantage point, these objections range from reasonable and compelling to totally ludicrous.
I think the two strongest arguments against becoming a multi-planetary species are probably the Distraction From Earth’s Issues argument and the Technological Unfeasibility argument, so I’ll respond to each of those here.
The first part of my response to those who claim that becoming multi-planetary would distract from Earth’s present challenges/issues, or would divert precious resources away from those challenges/issues, is essentially the same as Elon Musk’s: Earth’s challenges/issues won’t matter if all intelligent life on Earth is destroyed.
The challenges/issues confronted by sentient beings on Earth only matter so long as there are sentient beings on Earth. And we find ourselves at a precarious historical moment in which we can be nearly certain that there is at least a small risk of various catastrophes occurring that could threaten all life on Earth. Or, at the very least, there are various foreseeable catastrophes that could wipe out humanity and essentially rewind the evolutionary process to a point millions of years in the past, with no guarantee that self-awareness and intelligence would once again emerge as they did within our species.
When viewed from this vantage point, it seems clear that if we care about fighting for issues that affect the community of sentient life, we must ask ourselves how to ensure that there is a community of sentient life to fight for. And if we believe that the flame of human consciousness is something rare and precious, we must ask ourselves how to ensure that the fire is not extinguished, as it were.
One might also here note that colonizing Mars could be the key to solving many of our issues on Earth. Powerful, new technological solutions to previously intractable problems could be developed on Mars or in the process of colonizing it. It’s also possible that becoming multi-planetary will have a unifying/pacifying effect on humanity, helping those on Earth to see themselves as members of a single species that is now advancing out into the cosmos.
Don’t get me wrong: I think it is tremendously important for us to address global poverty, the refugee crisis, human trafficking/slavery, industrial farming, various environmental crises, etc. But those issues won’t matter at all if all intelligent life in the biosphere is obliterated.
It’s also important that we view those issues, and the present population of sentient beings on Earth, within the context of a timespan of potentially trillions of years, because that’s how long our evolutionary branch could, theoretically, persist. The existence of trillions or quadrillions of potential future intelligent life-forms hinges on our ability to avoid catastrophes that might obliterate intelligent life on Earth.
Think of that for a moment: Trillions, quadrillions of potential human and post-human beings will never taste this existence unless we ensure the continuation of our evolutionary branch.
We cannot fathom what these beings might become, or what untold wonders they might create, in this universe. If we value each of them even 0.00000000001% as much as we value each sentient being presently existing on Earth, we must admit that our top priority should be to ensure their existence, to ensure that the biological roadshow continues.
To those who claim that it is technologically unfeasible to colonize Mars, I would ask: How certain are you? And would you be willing to stake the lives of quadrillions of future life-forms on it?
We’ve already made significant advances in the domain of space travel, and our technological/scientific understanding continues to improve all the time. Surely we must be approaching a point at which we will be able to colonize Mars, if we aren’t there already.
Given the myriad existential risks we’ve already identified and the numerous others that we likely have yet to identify, becoming a multi-planetary species is potentially an extremely urgent matter. If we care at all, for any reason, about the preservation of our evolutionary branch, we must take this task seriously. And thus, even if it is unlikely that colonizing Mars is currently technologically feasible (which I’m not sure of), can one really claim in good conscience that we should be devoting zero time and resources to the matter? Even if there is a minuscule chance of success, the colossal stakes would seem to necessitate that we dedicate a certain portion of our collective time and resources to becoming multi-planetary.
This essay began by reflecting on the idea that the universe might “prefer” increasing complexity, or that it might “prefer” to experience itself in increasingly diverse and novel ways.
I discounted this hypothesis, noting that our current body of scientific evidence gives no indication that the cosmos has any sort of human-like preference for certain states of affairs to occur.
Nonetheless, consider the possibility that this hypothesis is true. In that case, it would actually be of unfathomable importance for us to ensure the continuation of our evolutionary branch: The entire cosmos would prefer it. Like, holy shit.
But even if you, like me, think that the universe probably doesn’t have any innate preference for how it unfolds through time, there are still a multitude of reasons why you might think that our top priority, as a species, should be to ensure the continuation of our evolutionary branch.
Maybe you value the awesome biodiversity of our Earth and want to see it preserved in whatever way possible. Maybe you think the capacity of human intelligence to engage in things like art, science, and philosophy is magnificent, and that our flicker of consciousness must therefore be safeguarded. Maybe you think the universe is just a lot more wonderful with life doing its thing and would rather not see the only known biological dance squelched out just as things are getting really interesting.
One of the most basic and compelling reasons, in my opinion, is the fact that we are life. We are life. Our most basic drive in this universe is to act in such a way so as to perpetuate our species and life as whole. In a strictly evolutionary sense, this is what we are born to do.
Does it not follow, then, that the continuation of life into the deep, deep future should be our highest priority as a species, as sentient beings in the cosmos?
Perhaps you don’t think so. Perhaps you’re one of the people who thinks we should value potential future beings approximately ~0% as much as we value present beings. Or perhaps you think that humanity has been destroying the Earth and would only go on to destroy other parts of the universe, if given the chance to persist for countless millennia.
To be honest, it wasn’t too long ago that I would have been quite sympathetic to either of those positions, as well as some of the other objections I mentioned earlier. But in the course of considering the matters I’ve discussed in this essay the past couple years, I’ve settled decidedly upon the position of wholehearted support for a multi-planetary human civilization.
I have determined that my allegiance is to life. Earthly life has evolved over billions of years to achieve previously unimaginable and wondrous forms. The biosphere has developed into an inconceivably rich apparatus for experiencing the universe. Life has already become so much, and it can become so much more, if given the chance. It can become something more complex and marvelous than anything of which we can come close to conceiving.
The future human and post-human enterprise—the existence of quadrillions of future beings—hinges upon our ability to ensure that our evolutionary branch is not destroyed. It might be true that the universe doesn’t care at all about these beings—about whether or not life persists. But even if it doesn’t, can you imagine a more epic purpose for humanity than to give these beings a chance to exist? To ensure that life can develop in near-infinite ways which we cannot fathom? I can’t. In a godless universe, this, to me, is the most magnificent collective purpose ever conceived.
Further Reading: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
This essay was originally published at HighExistence.