October 23, 2012

The Holocaust and Natalism

Holocaust studies in an interesting subject, one where we are faced with what has come to seem the paradigm case of irreducible evil. Even the capitalization of the word itself implies some special status. I am not personally someone who likes to perceive anything in terms of pure evil, evil being a metaphysical construct which interferes with finding pragmatic solutions, but the fact remains that it stands as something “larger than life”.

We might expect, reasoning from that, to find in the Holocaust persuasive reasons for abandoning the entire project of life. On the face of it, the fact of the Holocaust is something that should persuade anyone that life in this world is not worth perpetuating, if, that is, we take the rhetoric of irreducible evil which should be shunned at any cost to its logical conclusion. Unfortunately, a few difficulties arise.

The first of these is that the contemporary West is almost certain that such a thing will not happen again. This is the “growth metaphor” that people typically view civilization in terms of. Like a child with a new toy, humanity is proud to have “been there, done that”, so that we can say with a shrug of the shoulders and a twinkle in our eye, “such a thing will never happen again”. All the while, with admirably neurotic anxiety, we have to keep reminding ourselves how “that shit was really fucked up”, because we know it could happen again at any time.

Another way of saying this is that, in order to justify our continued existence (the existence, perhaps more specifically, of this particular civilizational configuration), we have had to assign the knowledge we have gained through the Holocaust as being of equal metaphysical significance to the Holocaust itself. This knowledge of toleration, diversity, opposition to eugenics, distrust of totalitarianism, etc. must imbue everything we do, existing as a penumbra of values embedded within lived history, and must preside unquestioned over our civic atmosphere.

So the Holocaust anxiety is what we have to live with as long as we exclude the path of nonviolent extinction, the only path that can prevent it forever. And how we get by is by saying we’ve got this knowledge that we didn’t have, as though millions of horrific deaths equates to some Proustian reminiscence.

Another reason that the Holocaust has not implied really avoiding it (through giving up on the human project) is the idea that we should not just lay down and die in the face of evil, that we must assert ourselves, and in doing so perpetuate values that are in opposition to this metaphysical evil of which the holocaust is the paradigm instance. This kind of approach, which would try to oppose evil and assert our vanity at the same time, for the sake of sheer bravado, has no place in a consequentalist system. This is the kind of virtue ethics that makes no sense to me but, regardless, makes sense to other people for one reason or another.  

Both of these views are simply indefensible from a negative consequentalist point of view. But of course there are a plethora of other justifications which can be offered. None of these other ethical discourses make any sense to me at all and seem quite silly. It seems that if there is something bad, and we wish to avoid it, surely we would want to really avoid it, and that is only done through nonviolent extinction. But enough said about that. Other people have other ethical intuitions and I can respect those as being completely idiotic as long as they don’t force me to procreate, or make it difficult for me to avoid subsidizing reproduction which could end in a Holocaust. 

It is comparatively easy to spread life through the universe, but transmitting cultural values requires a complicated cultural apparatus embedded in lived history, lacking which humanity’s bastard offspring will be faced with utter mystification.

The Case of Biotic Ethics

What is more problematic is the possibility that we could cause the Holocaust to recur without even having to face the consequences ourselves. This is where the spectre of so called “biotic ethics” enters the equation. Biotic ethics is the view that life itself has value, and it has been used to defend the idea of panspermia, the notion that is our calling to spread life throughout the universe. These views are represented by the Panspermia Society.

There is no question in these people’s minds that panspermia is a good thing. But we can imagine perfectly well what will happen if we seed life through the universe and it then happens to become intelligent.

The picture is horrifying. We cannot be certain that there will not be a Holocaust, and in fact, judging by history we can be fairly certain that there will be something like it, provided life evolves on a planet whose biosphere contains enough energy to allow industrial civilization to emerge.

And in that instance, how are we to pass on our knowledge (which we now hold up as being of equal metaphysical value as pure evil) to those who we have brought into existence? Are we to send our microbial payloads on their way to another star system along with indecipherable monoliths about tolerance and about how to be civilized– in case our own civilization should become extinct? How the hell are we supposed to be sure our interplanetary offspring will follow those instructions?

It is extremely important that humanity recognize that inflicting a Holocaust on another planet is unconscionable, especially when we would have to face none of the consequences. What if our leaders decide we don’t have the resources to follow up on the project? Sitting on our anti-gravity lawn chairs, sipping lemonade, we could look out in perfect ease while a child in another solar system a being sent to barbaric slaughter, looking up at the stars and asking, “where is God?”. And all because we were led on by the psuedo-philosophy of “biotic ethics”.

The Panspermia Society Responds to the Holocaust

A recurring theme of natalism is the circular, double-movement in which the act of human sacrifice becomes in the same instant an act of preserving the sacrificial object.

Strangely, the Panspermia Society’s statement on ethics reads more like a pronouncement of David Koresh than a statement of philosophy. And whereas I had hoped to make some connection between the Holocaust and this worldview, nothing could have prepared me for what I found. I had thought, knowing nothing about them at all, that these people must just be, prima facie, Holocaust deniers. After all, who else would want to create life on a planet when there is no way we can be sure that we can educate it when it develops intelligence?

Instead, what I found, in a twist that would intrigue any psychoanalyst, is that panbiotic ethics rests on a cultish vision that is fairly obsessed with existentially justifying the Holocaust from the point of view of a totalitarian “I”. I couldn’t make up the following:

“Your brave hearts, your fearless self-deceit, your great promise, your lies, your blind loves, your hopes, your tender children; all will turn into soot.
Because I say cry out and you are idle; you chose to ignore the voice of Life within you.
Therefore if a threat arises to imperil all Life, stand up to face and eradicate that danger; do not remain silent:
As silence is an evil that will turn upon you and your children in vengeance.
Always rise up to confront and utterly destroy every threat to Life.”

Now, when one talks about tender children turning into soot, one is clearly alluding to the Holocaust, which, after all, was a case of genocide. So it certainly seems the Panspermia Society is aware of the Holocaust, and wishes to integrate the possibility of that eventuality somehow into its plans. Of course, there’s the element of silly bravado I’ve already mentioned. But this is not mere bravado. Let’s not overlook the element of justification inherent in this statement, the justification coming from this totalitarian “I”.

The first question is, who is this the totalitarian “I” which is speaking? To be charitable, maybe this is just the author’s way of conveying a visionary idea by appropriating a Biblical prophetic tone of voice. But it seems there are also more sinister possibilities. What we witness, when we imagine the possibility of panspermia without education, is the possibility of recreating our civilization’s history ad naseum. And that implies an increasing number of Holocausts happening throughout the universe. In order to justify such totalitarian imposition, one must appeal to totalitarianism. Thus this totalizing “I” is created, capable of justifying such an action.

Another question is, should we believe this totalitarian “I”? Now, for all I know, it may be that the children who died in concentration camps suffered because they had “ignored the voice of Life within [them]”. Perhaps these were simply bad, lazy children who had decided that, rather than playing outside like the other children, they would sit in front of the window in a catatonic daze. But the chances are, it seems to me, that they were innocent victims.

In fairness, the Panspermia Society does convey the message that this eventuality is to be avoided:

“Only always beware to imprint in your descendants the essential human attributes, as this is your unique power: compassion, aggression and intellect in proper balance.”

But it is not at all clear how this is to be assured, provided we do not seed life in a fully intelligent state to begin with, in which it can culturally transmit what is known already about the civilization we are trying to perpetuate. If that’s the case, why not clearly delimit panspermia to human space colonization?

Frankly I haven’t read the entire statement, because it’s mostly gibberish. But it is rife with radical natalism and equally unrelenting optimism which seeks to just gloss over darwinian constraints on ecosystems. Considering the fact that this dream of panspermia is an escapist fantasy in which “Life” can be capitalized like the Holocaust, with no possibility of the Holocaust recurring, it should be no surprise that the end is complete wish-fulfillment. Thus, the following is no surprise either:

“In the empires of Life the pain of need and the dread of extinction will not be remembered”

We can almost hear the plaintive call here and we can almost sympathize with it. But sympathy does not mean endorsement. For thousands of years philosophical optimists have been justifying everything through circular double-logic. Violence can be overcome through violence. The legacy of totalitarianism can be escaped through internalizing totalitarianism. Here then is a new absurdity: creating the possibility of Holocausts will allow us to overcome them, and causing them will allow us to forget them.

The Panspermia Society wants to seed life into space by 2050. Are we so assured of our continued survival as to believe that we can educate our progeny after it arrives at its destination and evolves? The time scales for planning such an action responsibly are inconceivable. When we have extracted and used all the fossilized sunlight we can to power our industrial civilization, it will be clear that we have begun what we cannot finish on other planets. The worst could and would happen. For the beings that evolve on such planets, there will be no books, nor histories, nor recollection, only a black vacuum of ignorance enforced upon them by our species irresponsibility. 

Irresponsible panspermia, as supported by panbiotic ethics, needs to be called what it is: catastrospermia. It is the denial of the significance of the Holocaust and the denial of the possibility (perhaps inevitable) that genocide will recur in any situation where the causes exist. The Holocaust ought to permanently shatter our civilization’s vanity, not serve as a pretext for spreading it.

Panspermia: An Immanent Danger

The eminently well-designed Phobos-Grunt probe ended up somewhere in the Southern pacific ocean before making it to Phobos.

One would hope or expect that preventing catastrospermia is the kind of cause that liberals everywhere would embrace with open arms. Nevertheless, this would be too optimistic, as they have their eye on more important issues. 

Hence, the controlling laws have gone unenforced. Article IX of The United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 clearly stipulates against the contamination of extraterrestrial bodies. Nevertheless, as recently as this year, the Russian mission Phobos-Grunt was slated to be launched with a payload of extremophiles onboard, as part of the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment. The mission only failed, however, because of technical difficulties; the same sort of technical difficulties that could result in the release of these microbes onto the moon’s surface.

The opponents of such contaminating missions, which pose the danger of panspermia, include Barry E. DiGregorio, the director of the International Committee Against Mars Sample Return. He provides a number of reasons such plans are ill-conceived:

“The Russian Federal Space Agency’s Phobos Sample Return Mission (formerly known as Phobos-Grunt) will send not just microbial spores but live bacteria into the solar system for the first time. If this isn’t a direct violation of the Outer Space Treaty then what is?”

If we spread life to other celestial bodies, there is no possible way of telling what could happen after four billion years, nor if we will even be around at all. But we can be assured there will be conflict in any darwinian system we create. And one more thing will be certain: it will be hard to convey whatever lessons we think we’ve learned over the course of our vain existence.