I always find it fascinating when atheist heroes of science and technology speak about the meaning of life. Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Bill Gates, Bill Nye, Ray Kurzweil and others have all waxed philosophical about the nature of our existence, and every time they’ve done it, I’ve learned something fascinating about their common worldview.
Yesterday, Elon Musk made some curious comments during a TED interview. In this instance, we learn about Musk’s motivation to advance sustainable energy and colonize Mars: it’s so that he may wake up in the morning and not want to slit his wrists.
After speaking briefly on the subject of Mars colonization, which he’s pursuing as a goal for his SpaceX company, he said, “There have to be reasons that you get up in the morning and you want to live. Why do you want to live? What’s the point? What inspires you? What do you love about the future? If the future does not include being out there among the stars and being a multi-planet species, I find that incredibly depressing.”
This is a man who has outgrown the earth, in his own mind. In his opinion, if we can’t live on other planets, then life really isn’t worth living.
Ask any of those geniuses I listed above (if they’re still alive) what kind of existence on the earth is truly sustainable, and they will answer: None. According to their calculations, this planet and everything on it will cease to exist when the sun explodes in a few billion years. So nothing on the earth can be sustained forever. Accordingly, any vision for real, enduring sustainability into eternity necessitates that mankind becomes an “interplanetary species” (a term invoked confidently as if such a concept has been shown to exist in reality, and not just in science fiction).
From this perspective, “sustainable energy” really means “energy sustainable enough to buy us time to build other life-extending technologies that will take us to other planets.”
Musk adds that building those technologies will take very hard work from people like himself:
“If you look at the progress in space, in 1969 we were able to send somebody to the moon. Then we had the space shuttle, which could only take people to low-Earth orbit. Now we take no one to orbit. That’s the trend — it’s down to nothing. We’re mistaken when we think technology automatically improves. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better.”
Technology certainly does automatically improve, in an unstoppable way, as long as we’re around to work as it demands, but it improves according to internal performance criteria measured for efficiency rather than anyone’s personal perception of quality.
For example, before you got the illusion of sustainable coffee (for it is an illusion), you got the reality of instant coffee in styrofoam cups: high efficiency, low quality of life.
Before you got the illusion of clean nuclear power too cheap to meter (for it too is an illusion), you got the reality of the atom bomb: high efficiency coupled with a hostility toward human life.
Just because Musk wants to go to Mars (which is yet another illusion in the making, whether he knows it or not) doesn’t mean technological improvement will move him in that direction. More than likely, as things get tougher to sustain on this planet, technology will help move us not to Mars, but to concentration camps. After all, it wasn’t the eugenic ideology as much as the emerging technology that enabled Nazi Germany to manage their extraordinarily huge undertaking to exterminate the Jews – their logistics operations were powered by IBM (think about that the next time you see an IBM Watson commercial).
Technology only cares about your quality of life insofar as it benefits its perpetual and ineluctable logic of efficiency.
Musk concluded by saying, “I want to be clear: I’m not trying to be anyone’s savior. I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.”
Interesting term – savior. Musk is trying to be his own savior, saving himself from his existential dread, seeking technological solutions to the consuming darkness encroaching around him by launching rockets into the darkness, the certainty of his annihilation pushed off for now into the unknown elsewhere.
Speaking of saviors and sustainable energy, let’s consider the biblical account of Jesus with the woman at Jacob’s well. Jesus said, “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13b-14).
There’s your savior. There’s your sustainable energy source. There’s your eternal life in peace and joy. There’s your way to think about the future and not be sad. There’s your future out there among the stars. There’s your reason to wake up in the morning and want to live.
Indeed, life is not eternally sustainable on this earth. Thank God the Father sent His Son to save us.
(Also, I find it fitting that someone at TED carries the title of “Head Curator” – would that be someone who curates heads?)