Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross‐section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Micah Saul: So, ready for another one?
Aengus Anderson: I am indeed. This interview is going to be Dr. Chris McKay, and he’s a scientist at NASA, which makes me sort of childishly excited to get to go talk to a NASA scientist.
Saul: Yes. It’s always been really cool living so close to Moffat and Ames just you know, driving down to band practice and looking out the window and saying, “Oh hey, that’s NASA.”
Anderson: Yeah. This is this is going to be fascinating.
Saul: So, some quick background. Dr. Chris McKay is a research scientist at Ames in Mountain View.
Anderson: And he studies Mars, and more than that, he studies…well, he’s interested in life on Mars. And he’s also spent a lot of time in really extreme environments on Earth, thinking about life (and we’re talking, you know, microbes obviously) that can survive in Antarctica or in the Atacama desert in Peru. Extremely cold or dry places
Saul: Right. So, that’s awesome. Why is he here?
Anderson: He’s going to look at the present and the future as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about other worlds, and someone who also spends a lot of time thinking about other life.
Saul: We should, I guess, just briefly talk about what we’re hoping to get. Like what sort of parallels can we draw? What should your battle plan be?
Anderson: I think probably the most important thing is to to learn a little bit about how he thinks about life off the planet, and his interest in that. Chris has spent a lot of time thinking about the ethics of what we would do if we encountered that life. And you can’t really be thinking about the ethics of life off the planet without thinking about the ethics of life on the planet. So I think he’s going to be a very different view on a theme that we’ve seen in a lot of our interviews here. The tension between the anthropocentric and the biocentric. He’s thought a lot about terraforming, which is changing the climate of Mars, and he’s been involved in a series of debates over the ethics of doing that.
So I’m really excited to sort of hear, what is a guy spends all of his time thinking about life off-world—
Saul: How does that influence his thinking about our world.
Anderson: Right. And what sort of future we should be striving for here.
Saul: Cool. Well, have fun, and we’ll talk later.
Anderson: Yes indeed we will.
Chris McKay: Well, my background is science, obviously, but more specifically in the questions related to the search for life on other worlds. And normally when people think about the search for life on on other worlds, they think about SETI. Sitting at home listening for a radio signal, we make contact with an alien intelligence, and they tell us everything we need to know.
But in fact the part of the search for life that I’m involved in is quite the opposite. We are going out to other worlds— Nearby worlds; we don’t have much choice. Mars, Europa, Enceladus, worlds like that. And searching for evidence of life there. So it’s a complement to the radio telescope search for intelligent life or signals of intelligent life. This is an active search for microbial life or microorganisms that might be growing in one of the nearby worlds in our solar system.
And the particular questions that I deal with is what do we search for, how do we search? And these are scientific questions and our approach to them is to go to places on earth where life lives in very harsh environments like the Antarctic, dry valleys, or the driest place on earth the Atacama desert in South America. And we study how life lives in these very dry, or very cold and dry locations, and then we extrapolate to other worlds.
But I’ve also gotten very interested in the “So what?” Why does this matter? Why do we do this? And also so what in that what do we do if we actually find it? I make an analogy with the dog chasing the car. What’s a dog gonna do if it actually catches the car? The dog hasn’t thought that far ahead, and in many ways our search for life on Mars and the other worlds of our solar system is like that. Very few people spend time thinking about well, what do we do if we find a life form on Mars that is totally different than anything we’ve ever come across before? What does that mean?
And so that to me is the new frontier in the human thought of what is it going to be like to encounter a different type of life, even if that different type of life is microscopic?
Aengus Anderson: How does your looking to ideas of life in space cause you to reflect on the world we live in now?
McKay: There’s an interesting feedback on thinking about life on Mars. I’m going to use Mars as a placeholder but in fact Europa and Enceladus are also possible worlds with life. But suppose we find microscopic life on Mars. Well, I think that that microscopic life would be very interesting scientifically. And it would warrant a level of moral consideration that we don’t normally attribute to microorganisms. So it’s caused me to step back and think a little more about life on earth and all the microorganisms here that we take for granted. We don’t even think twice about killing millions of them every time we brush our teeth or wash our hands. It’s an interesting interaction that we have with these microorganisms. They’re almost invisible. And yet they are a powerful force on the earth. They are responsible for the recycling of the elements that make up living things. They’re responsible for a lot of our internal digestion and metabolic activities. The human body has ten times more microorganisms than it does human cells.
So they’re an integral part of the way we as humans live and the way the earth as an ecosystem functions, and we tend to ignore them. They tend to be invisible. And we certainly don’t give them any moral consideration the way we do say, polar bears and pandas and other charismatic megafauna.
And that’s probably okay, because those little guys are pretty tough. They don’t need us to pay attention to them. There’s no way we can hurt them. We can’t change the environment so that they would go extinct the way we can for say, polar bears. But still, it’s interesting to think about them and to realize how much our lives depend upon them, and how we tend to ignore that. And the difference if we go to Mars, we might find life that is only microscopic, it doesn’t have this window‐dressing of large macroscopic organisms that we have on earth and that we tend to think of his life. So it causes us to rearrange our definition of what is life.
Anderson: Do you think that will actually shift the paradigm of thought back on earth, just about how we think about our place in the universe?
McKay: It could shift the paradigm of thought in a lot of ways, depending on what we find. If we find life that’s very different, very different, it will force us to think in a new way about life on Earth and life beyond the Earth. Maybe, for example, we find life on Mars, and as we study it we realize that that type of life could never develop into the complex, intelligent life that has developed on Earth. And that in fact Earth is rare and that microbial life may be common but the secret ingredient, if you will, that could lead to intelligence is not. That would give us a very different appreciation of our role in the universe.
On the other hand, we may go to Mars and find that the life is very similar to life on Earth. We could then expect to be just one of the many kids on the block. And I think those answers could give us different perspectives and affect the way we think about ourselves and affect the way we approach expanding beyond the Earth into the rest of space.
Anderson: One of the one of the interesting themes that sort of pops up on all the conversations I’ve had has been this tension between biocentric thinkers and anthropocentric thinkers that’s sort of come out in a lot of different ways even though it’s not usually the explicit thing we’ve been talking about. But because this is a conversation about the future and what we want to be doing with this world, that comes up again and again in terms of how we make the decisions we make, and the moral weight of other living things. What got you interested in the moral side of something like a microorganism?
McKay: There is a community of people—I’m part of that community—that are interested in the exploration of Mars and in the human exploration of Mars. Many of the members of that community view it as something that is being done for the sake and for the interests of humans. And then if we find life on Mars, it’s an obstacle to human exploration. And so, to characterize their point of view, it would be well put it in a jar, stick in the lab, send the bulldozers in. Wouldn’t let a few lowly microbes stand in the way of human progress and happiness.
And the argument there, it’s not entirely absurd, is that the source of all value ultimately must be human choices and human interest. So therefore human interest and choices triumph, and we only should recognize value in other organisms in that they contribute to human interests and human value the way ecosystems on earth obviously do. And in that case it’s hard to make an argument them microbes on Mars should stand in the way of human settlement and human utilization of that planet.
The other point of view, which I tend to, is that no, what’s of intrinsic value here is the richness and diversity of life in the universe, not just a human value but that life itself has to be accorded some value here and some moral responsibility. And that if we find microorganisms on Mars, we can’t treat them the way we treat microorganisms on Earth. And the reason we can’t is because they are the sole representatives of a second type of life that we have to assign value to if we respect the richness and diversity of life in the universe.
And I summarize my thinking on that, I think it’s important one, from a practical point of view, which is that everything we know about biological sciences, medicine, agriculture, disease, whatever, is based on studying one example of life. Life on Earth. Life as we know it. If we find another example that’s different, a second genesis, and independent origin of life, comparing those two might enable us to answer questions that we would never be able to answer if we only had one example to study. That could provide practical benefits for humans as well as better understanding of how to manage ecosystems, etc.
There’s also a philosophical advantage to preserving a second genesis and studying and searching for a second genesis, and that is understanding the fundamental question of life in the universe. Are we the only life in the universe, or is life widespread? It’s an important fundamental part of our knowledge about the universe, and I put it in the same category as knowing about galaxies, knowing about stars, knowing about the Big Bang, knowing about the curvature of space‐time, and so on. It’s in that same category.
Then my final argument is they’re our neighbors. Imagine sometime in the distant future we do meet intelligent beings and they say, “Well, how are you guys doing? What have you done?” And we say, “Oh, well we discovered the neighbors and we killed them and moved in on their planet. But there were only microscopic.”
That doesn’t sound anywhere near as good in terms of our collective résumé as, “We found the neighbors and they weren’t doing very well, and we helped them out. And now there’s a thriving planet there full of this different type of life. We contributed in a positive way to the diversity of life in our part of the galaxy.”
Anderson: Now, all of those seem like they’re still pretty— I can understand them an anthropocentric terms, right. They increase our understanding of the world and help answer questions. They help us essentially feel that we’ve done the morally right thing, in terms of protecting or helping other life. But when we think about protecting and helping that other life, that is still defined in our terms. With a lot of the questions I talk to folks about, I try to get to an idea of the good that underlies it. Is there anyway to have an idea of the good for say, a microbe on Mars, that is kind of on the microbe’s terms. Or is that actually beyond our ability to philosophically even relate to?
McKay: It’s a good question and it’s a good point you made. It’s certainly true that all the arguments I presented are couched in the terms of the human perspective and human values and human choices, and even the environmental ethics, I submit, is based on human value. Sometimes I don’t know how we can escape that, because we are we are the only moral agents on the scene right now, and so the only way to attribute value is when we attribute it. There is a certain circularity to that in terms of, “So I should therefore respect its value, but I’m the one that assigned it the value.” So there is a circle there.
There’s a separate question, which is if we do go to Mars and we find there’s life there, how do we decide what is good for that life? That’s a very hard question. And we don’t yet know the answer to that, and we may not know the answer to that until after we discover the life and discover what its nature is. We even have a hard time answering that question on Earth in terms of what is the good for an ecosystem, or what is the good for a community of species on Earth. Because the assumption tends to be that well, what is good is what was. The way conditions were before humans “intervened.” That was what is good. But that’s a logically fallacious argument, to say that something is good just because that’s the way it is.
We don’t really yet have ability to, in some sort of objective way or some sort of analytical way, determine what would be good for an ecosystem or for a community or for a world, in a biological sense. It may be that there is no unique answer and we have nothing better to do than to appeal to historical precedent, although I find that argument weak and unsatisfying. Or maybe as we study life more and get more examples of it and study it as a phenomenon in more detail, we will begin to understand its nature and be able to formulate ideas of what is the way to maximize the good for biological systems.
In a sense, you can make that as a parallel to our developing understanding of what is good for a human being. We’ve put a lot more time into studying and understanding human beings, and over the centuries and millennia I think we have made some progress in understanding what is the good for human beings and separating it from economic and political issues. Issues like slavery we now realize cannot be addressed on an economic or political level. They must be addressed on a fundamental good‐for‐a‐human level. And so despite setbacks, we’ve made progress in our understanding what is the good for a human being, and one could look forward to the day where we make similar progress in understanding what is good for life in general. But I argue that finding other examples of life will be part of that learning process for us.
Anderson: With things like the good, how do we arrive at that? I started this project with a conversation with a reverend, and he has sort of a morally objective good. Do we have to have a morally objective sense of good to ever value something like another form of life on another planet?
McKay: Yeah, when we deal with humans we have a better track record, we’ve made more progress. But as you point out, we’ve done so partly by relying on what I call these crutches. Like divine representation; we are all children of God therefore everyone should have certain basic rights. It would be preferred if we could reach that understanding without having to rely on those religious crutches and be able to just see that it is in the nature of human beings that they should have these rights and these opportunities to live full lives and work on meaningful work in solidarity with others, independent of where they were born. And one day we will see that as just has silly a criteria of differencing between people as we see color of hair color of skin right now.
It’s much more difficult to extend that to other life forms, although a lot of people are trying and I think that we need to do that. Part of the reason it’s difficult is because with humans we have a single set of human beings and we have long since appreciated that all members of that set should be treated equally regardless of the details of their capability. Obviously that simplifies the problem when you think about human beings as a set worthy of moral consideration.
And also human beings are moral agents. They have moral decisions. Which is part of why they’re all treated equally. So when we look at life the problem is more complicated because we have a range of organisms from large organisms (cats and dogs, apes and chimpanzees) that have many of the behaviors and attributes that we humans have, down to things like vegetables and microorganisms, which seem almost at times as they’re inanimate. So it’s much harder to come up with a general approach that treats all of life. But I think we have to, because we appreciate that life is a distinct and different state of existence than non‐life.
And I go back to my point that one way of achieving that understanding is to find other examples of life. One way that we increase knowledge is to find more data. And in the past, in science for sure, that has been the main way we’ve increased our understanding, is to find more examples and study it more. Those dreaded compare and contrast problems that you got in grade school, those are the ones that really help you understand. And that’s part of why I search for a second genesis of life. So that we have something else to compare to so that we can see what is common and what is special.
Anderson: It seems like at the root of all this there’s a sense that maybe the lowest level of good I’m getting in our conversation here is that life is good. A diversity of life is good. Does this lead us to sort of utilitarian conclusions? When that’s the building block that we’re working from, does that mean that certain forms of life (a deadly microbe) is something that has less moral weight just in a strictly utilitarian sense because it could actually reduce holistic diversity?
McKay: I agree with the statement that life is good. In fact, when I look at the universe, I say where is the source of value? Where do we see the word good, or a way to ascribe a good? The only thing I see is life. I see lots of things where I could ascribe the word beauty. The rings of Saturn, the moon at night, galaxies, the Milky Way. They’re beauty. But when I think of something that’s intrinsically valuable that, that represents good, the only thing I see is life. And so somehow life must be the source of that. And it’s a wonderful choice of value for a couple practical reasons.
One is that it can enhance value. Life, because it reproduces and grows, can be spread. So value is not a fixed quantity but in fact can grow and spread. And we humans are part of that, and we can help it spread. So we can actually be vectors of the good. We can help spread the good, help create the good, help transfer it to other worlds and so on. So I like many of the attributes of assigning life the property of intrinsic good.
Turning it into a specific mechanism to choose or make decisions within that category of life is very hard, as you’re saying. Do we privilege certain life forms because we like them, and not others because they’re potentially pathogenic and dangerous? Who will stand up and vote for mosquitoes, right? And yet they’re part of life. They’re as alive as anything else. So turning it into a set of normative principles that we can use in everyday issues is very very hard. And I don’t think we’re yet at a position to do that.
Anderson: Do you think there actually are scientific answers to better ways to manage life on Earth? Or is that always going to be sort of a qualitative thing, you know because there are a variety of things that we could emphasize?
McKay: I think that there’s not a unique answer, but I do think that we can learn to do a better job. There is room for improvement. And science is one of the tools, not the only tool but is one of the tools, that we need to use to make that improvement.
Anderson: So as we think about science and improvement, are you optimistic about sort of, our short‐term future?
McKay: Yeah, I’m optimistic on the short term as well. I don’t think we will go through a crisis such as a fall of civilization or something like that. We’ll have problems. Global warming is inevitably going to cause sea level rise and coastal cities will be in an uproar, but those will be small‐scale problems compared to the scope of the human enterprise.
I look in the future and I see conditions on the whole getting better. I see more concern for lessening global equality. I see more concern for maintaining cordial relationships between nations and groups. I see integration of large previously‐antagonistic groups. And the problems I see, like global warming and coastal flooding, they’re serious but they’re not going to detract from the overall positive trends.
So I tend to be an optimist. We are like vermin, and we will be hard to kill. Humans are so resilient, they’re so innovative. We have a history of success, and so I am optimistic. That that doesn’t mean that everything we do is good. But I think that we will prevail because we are very adaptable. We’re very clever. The situation may be pretty grim before we act, but eventually we pull through. So I think we have a long history in front of us as well as behind us.
Anderson: And how about for other life? Do you think other life on the planet is going to continue to thrive?
McKay: Well there it’s a more difficult question. Certainly some species on earth are going to be in for a very rough time. And I’m not sure that we’re gonna be able to do much to help them other than preserve their genetic inventory in some isolated environments like zoos and preserves and whatnot.
So, I don’t think our record in dealing with the other species on earth, particularly the large species that are more sensitive to ecological conditions, is going to be a good one. They are the ones that need the lifeboat, not humans. They’re the ones who need the lifeboat. And what can we do? And I really am pleased by things I read about people starting projects to preserve seed banks and plant diversity. We need to start thinking that way in terms of animals, too.
Anderson: Are you optimistic that we can come together and have enough of a conversation to figure out how to at least save some of these, and is that morally good enough?
McKay: Well, I think we have to. We’re in the house and the house is on fire. And rather than have a debate about who started the fire, we need to collect everybody, dogs and cats included, and get out. And I think that’s the situation we have here. I work in the polar regions so I’m particularly sensitive to the question of polar bears. It’s too late to have a discussion that says, “Well we should stop global warming and thereby stop the melting of the Arctic ice.” That is behind us. We now have to ask what can we do to save that genetic diversity, to save that species.
We could separately have a discussion on what can we do to minimize damage in the future, how do we survive the run out of the situation we’ve created. But I have to share some of what you said, and it’s kind of a pessimistic view, that we’re going to be hard‐pressed to maintain civilization the way we would like it to be and maintain the natural ecosystems the way we would like them to be. And that’s a challenge that we face.
Anderson: What we lose if we lose them? I mean, we lose diversity, so there’s something about that. But if we trade that for a certain lifestyle that we like, and if we were the ones who originally assigned value to that, is anything lost to us?
McKay: Yeah, I’d say that’s a hard question. And I could only answer it from my own intuitive sense which is that the loss of these species is not a profound loss if you look in the scope of evolution. There’s been many many many species lost. The dinosaurs. Fabulous, amazing species. The difference here is that we are the cause of the loss. So it’s not that the species are lost but that they’re lost because of us. There’s a funny thing in human perspective, which is that something can happen, and if it happens by by natural events it’s much less of a problem than if it happens because somebody causes it.
And so, for reasons I can’t really articulate, I bring that same perspective to species extinction. So the fact that the dinosaurs went extinct, it’s a fact of history; doesn’t bother me. If the polar bears go extinct, if that was only a fact of history, it would bother me. But if we caused it, it’d bother me in a much more profound way. And it’s more profound than just the objective loss of that particular species. You could ask me to explain, well why is it? Why does that blame aspect bother you? And I can’t really explain it. It’s the moral responsibility of our actions as moral agents that adds that extra component somehow.
Anderson: We’ve talked a lot about other planets, and other forms of life, and the moral value of life, and concerns of the present. I always like to sort of wind down with talking about the idea of the Conversation. Do you think that’s something that we need, or do you think that’s something we’re having?
McKay: I agree it is something that we need, and it’s something that happens. The real question is can we be prepared for it? So, in my own domain, I see a time when we do discover another type of life. My hope is that before that time to have done enough discussion and thinking that when the question does become relevant there’s a body of thought that can help guide that conversation. And in a sense it’s the same in many of these other areas we’ve talked about. These are questions and issues that will erupt. And if we’re prepared when they erupt, we can steer them and guide them in more useful ways than if the eruptions take us completely by surprise.
Anderson: Something else that I sort of wonder about that I think ties into that is, for a lot of these earlier conversations in history they were in areas where if you were an educated person you could really own all of the intellectual material that was out there, and that’s not possible now. And that seems like that changes the dynamic for a conversation. Do you think, let’s say with thinking about life on Mars, for example, is a conversation that we could even have in a larger social context?
McKay: I think that you’re correct there. We live in an era of specialization. There is some value in crosstalk and cross‐fertilization. But I think we have to accept that we now live in a world which is so complex that it will be fragmented and work within that framework. I don’t think we can end that or go back to a day when we had simpler lives.
Anderson: So you don’t worry about people who are in other groups not having their voices represented in perhaps a certain conversation?
McKay: I think it’s hard to get complete representation. I think we strive for that. It’s like, you’re in a big group, you’re at a party, you try to talk to everybody. But you realize that there’s too many people here to talk to everybody, so you do what you can, you do the best you can. And I think that’s the approach we do here. I don’t think you say, “Well, this party’s no good for me. I’m going to go to a place where there’s only two people in the room so that I can have a real conversation and that’s all I’m going to do.” That’s a step backward.
I personally would not want to do that. I like the diversity and richness of our culture and our technology. I think those are things to be celebrated, as they are things to be guided and managed as well.
Aengus Anderson: So I’m back from the NASA research science center with hangers and runways and old Navy buildings.
Micah Saul: Pretty awesome, right?
Anderson: It was really cool. I’m not going to lie. The five year‐old in me who was like, “I want to be an astronaut,” just reappeared and I was like, “Man. At least I made one life choice that got me down here visiting.”
Anderson: So, really cool conversation with Chris McKay today. Very different direction than the other ones.
Saul: I was really excited that he was just able to really quickly say like, “Okay, no. There is intrinsic value. This is fundamentally good,” and defining what the good is. And not shying away from from those words in spite of and even recognizing the sort of religious connotations that they often carry, which is what I believe may have caused Dr. More to shy away from the notion of intrinsic value.
Anderson: Right. It’s interesting that Chris was able to… Well, that he talks about intrinsic value but he does it from a secular standpoint.
Anderson: Were you persuaded by that?
Saul: Um…in a way. I think it’s fundamentally a contradiction. But it’s one that I personally also live under.
Anderson: Okay. Explain the contradiction.
Saul: I don’t believe that you can remove the trappings of context. And since our society is fundamentally based on Judeo‐Christian thought, at its core there is still an a— you know, Max More’s arational sort of base.
Anderson: So for Chris that is, life is good and diversity of life is good.
Saul: Yeah. So I think it’s totally convincing to me. But at the same time, I don’t think there’s any way you can remove the historical context and the religious context.
Anderson: Yeah. I was interested though that he was sort of able to think about the idea of getting better. You know, getting better at making choices about life in a way that maybe doesn’t get you to this picture of the objective good, but it does, almost through trial and error or maybe through reflection, it gets you to better taking care of life, better supporting diversity. And maybe it will never get you all the way.
Saul: Yeah. Interesting. One of our major themes going through all of these conversations is the back and forth push between biocentrism and anthropocentrism. What would you say Chris McKay is?
Anderson: You had to turn this around on me didn’t you?
Anderson: I would say that he is both.
Saul: I agree.
Anderson: On one hand, talking about Mars and if we discovered life on Mars, it has intrinsic value for him. So if you found some sort of bacteria dormant in the ice on Mars, you could go, “Well, this had existed in its own ecosystem. Let’s bring that back.” And for him that would be a biocentric good. At the same time, doing that is sort of an anthropocentric thing. It’s an imposition, in a way, on that organism.
Saul: That brings up what I thought was an interesting contradiction that I’m struggling with. I’m trying to use words that aren’t loaded here. But the desire to help that life along… Our actions in the environment always have repercussions that we could not have predicted, or we didn’t predict.
Saul: What are the repercussions of helping this life along?
Anderson: And, if you believe it’s worth helping Martian life along, how should we be changing our course of action here?
Anderson: Because we know that our society affects a lot of other creatures in ways that are detrimental to them. It’s not encouraging diversity of life on the planet. But it didn’t seem like he shared Jan Lundberg’s conviction that we needed to really throw out the engine of industrial civilization.
Saul: No. It didn’t. That wasn’t even on the table as something that he would ever even think about.
Saul: He says that yes, we could probably lower our energy consumption some. But he views progress as being forever marching forward.
Anderson: That was another interesting response to Lundberg, the notion that the past, by virtue of having been the past and having been less affected by us, is not necessarily better than the present. Which again seems contradictory to a notion that greater diversity is good. The past would’ve had a greater diversity of animals.
Anderson: And the present has a lower diversity, and we are the causal agent in between. Do you need an objective good that is ultimately, from a secular scientific standpoint, unachievable? Is it always going to be that we are living with those two things in tension unless you have an objective answer to that? It seems like life is either good and diversity is good, in which case you should protect it always. Or, it isn’t and it doesn’t matter if you wipe out some species.
Saul: How do you arrive at that objective good? How do you determine what that is?
Saul: Is there actually a scientific definition of good?
Anderson: Chris himself says it: science is one tool of many. And maybe it can’t always answer those questions for you know. In a way, the position we put him in when we’re asking these questions is we’re asking him to fall into Hume’s complaint. We’re asking him to talk about what is and infer what ought. And what ought is always going to be the arational, moral values‐driven jump.
Saul: Right. Another parallel I saw with one of our previous conversations. He was talking about the choices we’re making now affecting us for thousands of years.
Saul: And that’s very much in line with Alexander over at the Long Now Foundation.
Saul: For many of the conversations we’ve had so far, the future that we’ve been talking about is tomorrow. And it’s interesting to talk to people for whom the future is a thousand years from now.
Anderson: It feels so science fiction, and it’s incredible to talk to someone whose actual work is kind of in the world that we think of as science fiction. And he takes these very seriously as moral issues.
Anderson: And I am glad someone is doing that. And we’re going to have another in our line of incredible people tomorrow with Dr. Timothy Morton.
Saul: Yes. Let’s…
Saul: Reconvene in a bit and give a little brief intro on him, and send you on your way tomorrow morning.
Anderson: To beautiful sunny Davis, California.
Saul: Ah, yes. Home of the Aggies.
Anderson: That was Dr. Chris McKay, recorded at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, May 28, 2012.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.