Interstellar and Philosophy


Interstellar and Philosophy

The Ethics of Space Colonization

 By Lance Belluomini


The highly anticipated Sci-Fi movie Interstellar opened worldwide on November 7th. I couldn’t wait to experience the movie for myself on opening day. And I did, on the largest film format there is—70mm IMAX. I wasn’t disappointed. If nothing else, Interstellar contains the most realistic space imagery ever seen in a film.

It was also packed with emotion. When Murph runs out of the farmhouse holding the watch Cooper had given her as he drove away, when Cooper watched 23 years of stored video messages after suffering time dilation—it was all so riveting. McConaughey, Chastain, Hathaway, and Foy all delivered top-notch performances and Hans Zimmer’s amazing score added emotional depth to each scene. (I can’t get that inspiring Cornfield Chase music out of my head.)

It didn’t surpass Inception in my book of film greats, but Interstellar is still a breathtaking film. I’m sure I’ll appreciate it even more with repeat viewings and a deeper understanding of the science behind the film. I’m looking forward to reading Kip Thorne’s new book: The Science of Interstellar.

Interstellar Raises Questions

But while Thorne’s book will clarify the scientific underpinnings of the film, it won’t answer a slew of other questions that I had walking out of the theater. For example, how did the ultra-advanced bulk beings first survive to make a fifth dimension Tesseract given that there would have been no Tesseract to save them in the first place? Who put the first wormhole there for them? And why didn’t the bulk beings connect the wormhole to a normal solar system with a sun (like ours) that contains a habitable planet (like Earth)? Why connect them to a spinning black hole system that contains 12 mostly uninhabitable planets with harsh environments? Fortunately, I found a satisfactory answer in a certain view of time travel via David Kyle Johnson’s “Interstellar, Causal Loops and Saving Humanity”.

But this still left bigger questions to ponder. Consider the marketing slogan for the film. Cooper says, “Mankind was born on earth, it was never meant to die here.” Could this be true? Should we be looking for other worlds out in the universe in an effort to perpetuate the human species? Is it morally permissible to colonize another planet? Is it morally obligatory?

In the film, NASA and the brave men and women of the Endurance and Lazarus missions are confronted with the opportunity to start a new world. They just need to find a habitable planet. Near the end, we come to learn that of the three potentially habitable planets on the Endurance mission, it is Edmunds’ planet that is most promising. In the final scene of the movie, we see Amelia on Edmunds’ planet with her base set up, implying that this is where the colonization will take place. This is where Amelia will grow her 5000 genetically diverse fertilized eggs, thereby saving the human species from extinction and fulfilling Plan B.

But is it morally permissible for Amelia and her NASA team to colonize this foreign planet? And what about us? Do we in the real-world have the right to colonize Mars, moons, and foreign planets? If you’re on the fence, would it matter if we received an invitation from ultra-advanced beings to colonize? Professor Brand’s NASA team receives just this—an invitation from the mysterious bulk beings to travel through a wormhole to the spinning black hole system Gargantua. But does this invitation justify the space exploration and colonization they carry out? While receiving an invitation would further fuel our desire to explore and colonize, we’d need to consider the ethical implications before committing to such an endeavor.

Terraforming and Intrinsic Value

First, there is the ethics of terraforming another planet—the process of earth-shaping a planet and redesigning it for human habitation. Suppose that in the near future we could cause a greenhouse effect on Mars through the use of C-class asteroid material, thereby producing water, oxygen, and plant life. Would it be morally right to do such a thing? Maybe, but then imagine that NASA’s Curiosity Rover on Mars eventually discovers microbial life that has gone unnoticed for decades. Wouldn’t the terraforming contaminate this existing microbial life? What gives us the right to alter the natural development and future of these life forms?

Conversely, imagine that the Curiosity Rover determines there is no life on Mars but that it contains the ingredients to support microbial life (something we now know is true given the Opportunity Rover’s recent discovery that water flowed on Mars 4 billion years ago). So the potential for life to naturally develop is there, and by terraforming the planet, we would eliminate that potential and interrupt the natural development. Under what circumstances is that an ethical thing to do?

Interstellar forces this question upon us. The movie is set in the not-too-distant future where overpopulation and crop blight have brought humanity to the edge of extinction. The only option is to leave Earth, find a home for the remaining people on Earth, and set up a colony to save our species. But, given that Amelia was breathing its air at the end of the film, Edmunds’ planet likely contains microbial life, and possibly even plant and animal life. But what gives Amelia the right to override the natural process of life on Edmunds’ planet? After all, in Star Trek, their highest law is the Prime Directive—to not interfere with a species’ natural development. This includes even microbial life; before terraforming a planet, they must ensure not even a single microbe exists. In Interstellar, the humans are blatantly ignoring this rule. I know Star Trek and Interstellar are in different fictional universes—but by ignoring such concerns, could the heroes of Interstellar be doing something monumentally immoral?

Not if you think that the human race is intrinsically valuable. In fact, if the human race is intrinsically valuable, then colonization is obligatory. Logically we ought to produce as many humans as we can. If the human race is intrinsically valuable in itself, we all should recognize our duty to create human life everywhere that we can (including in outer space).

At first glance, given the climate disaster ravaging the Earth in Interstellar, the members of the Endurance and Lazarus missions seem to be justified in their endeavor of starting a colony and creating as many genetically diverse humans as possible. They obviously believe the human race is intrinsically valuable, and that they therefore have a duty to generate more human life and save the human race from extinction.

Similarly, in the real-world, many of us believe the human race is intrinsically valuable. Given the overcrowding and environmental issues we continue to face here on Earth, perhaps we should argue that more funding be secured for space exploration and for terraforming on Mars, Titan, and possibly small planets in other alien solar systems. Perhaps there could someday be “habitable worlds right within our reach.” Some even think we could conceivably engineer atmospheres, ecosystems, and artificially encase small planets in protective shells to simulate Earth-like environments.

Reproduction, Cosmic Radiation, and Health Concerns

On the other hand… Clearly, the overpopulation and environmental issues on Earth, and those seen in Interstellar, are a direct result of reproduction—generating too much human life. The more people there are, the less natural environment there is, and the fewer resources there are. This certainly seems to cast doubt on the belief that our species is intrinsically valuable and that we therefore have a duty to create more humans. In Interstellar, who’s to say that the settlement on Edmunds’ planet wouldn’t in time be faced with the same population control problem that got them there in the first place? In fact, this seems likely.

Even if reproduction were a non-issue, there are other concerns. I keep thinking about the 5000 fertilized eggs weighing in at just under 900 kilos that Amelia brought to Edmunds’ planet. It’s unrealistic to think frozen embryos could survive intact on any interstellar mission. In the movie, it takes them two years just to reach Saturn and the wormhole. But it’s not just time. Along the way, the fertilized eggs would be exposed to harmful cosmic rays (high-energy radiation) that would probably damage all the embryonic DNA. The astronauts would also suffer from the radiation. Therefore, wouldn’t the attempt to colonize another planet be futile? Cooper’s remark to Amelia on Miller’s planet comes to mind, “We are not prepared for this!”

Let’s imagine astronauts and embryos could survive an interstellar voyage. Still, there would be health concerns. For instance, babies in utero acquire a properly functioning immune system from the gut flora of their mothers. But this wouldn’t be the case for the 5000 embryos aboard the Endurance. They wouldn’t acquire the proper gut bacteria needed to support a developing immune system. And there are other considerations for the new colony: What languages, cultures, and values would be taught to the colonists? What form of government, enforcement agencies, and military should be set up? Would they allow a free enterprise to exist with capitalism as their economic system? And how would the colonists claim property in this new world?

Colonialism, Environmental Destruction, and Survival

The topic of claiming property raises another issue. Consider the English Colonialism that existed a few centuries ago. Was it morally permissible for foreigners to settle on lands that were being occupied by the indigenous nomadic people of this country? The influential political philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1704) actually defended English colonialism in America in his Second Treatise of Government. Locke believed that if you cultivate a piece of land and use it productively through the labor of your body, you thereby make the land your individual property. Since the indigenous nomads didn’t claim their lands by adding their labor to it (for instance, they didn’t build homes), Locke didn’t think they could properly be regarded as property owners over the lands they roamed. (This seems a good example of how bias can motivate philosophical conclusions, even in the best philosophers.)

In Interstellar, the Endurance and Lazarus teams are not unlike the colonialists. Thanks to the bulk beings, they have an opportunity to start a new world. While there are likely no indigenous nomadic people on Edmunds’ planet, there’s a high probability that native life forms exist, possibly millions of microbial and plant species. Does the land belong to those life forms even if they can’t lay claim to the land? Locke would say no. Those life forms can’t make the land their property because they can’t add their labor to the land. So perhaps it’s morally permissible for Amelia to seize their land and create settlements. However, those that defend the Star Trekkian Prime Directive rule would disagree. Seizing their land would certainly affect those other life forms that are evolving on the planet.

But isn’t the survival of the human race paramount? Most of us would answer “yes.” Interstellar emphasizes the importance of thinking “not as individuals but as a species” and that there’s an inevitability to human evolution. But what makes the human race more intrinsically valuable than other intelligent species that could eventually evolve on Edmunds’ planet? It doesn’t seem that humans have a right to supplant that planet’s life prospects in favor of their own. Doesn’t the potential intelligent species there deserve a shot at being better than us? Further, maybe the survival of the human race isn’t paramount. Perhaps, the human species has lost the right to survive.

Consider what we’ve done as a species. Industry, agriculture, and vehicle emissions have caused air pollution. We’ve allowed bacteria and toxic substances into our drinking water. We’ve polluted our ocean waters and destroyed rainforests. Scientists agree that the greenhouse gases we’ve produced have caused global warming. We continue to put toxic carcinogenic material and different species of chemicals into landfills which harm people and the environment. And it’s overpopulation that is responsible for many of our environmental problems given the non-renewable resources needed to support population growth. If we really do one day render our planet uninhabitable, wouldn’t we have lost our right to survive—and thus the right to colonize new planets?

For those still unconvinced, what’s to prevent these environmental problems on Earth we’ve caused from following us into outer space? After all, human history has a tendency of repeating itself. In Interstellar, even if Amelia’s NASA team has a well thought out prevention plan to protect their new biosphere, it’s hard to believe her colony could avoid the same mistakes made on Earth. Edmund’s planet wouldn’t change mankind’s tendency to overpopulate, destroy and pollute. Think what life would be like there in 10,000 or so years—when the conditions that drove us away from Earth are a distant memory.

Human Extinction

But I have to keep reminding myself that the situation on Earth in Interstellar is grave! Humans didn’t run out of televisions. They ran out of food. The crop blight is putting too much nitrogen into the air which is decreasing oxygen levels. Consequently, the remaining humans will eventually die from suffocation and starvation. This fictional situation attempts to morally justify space exploration and colonization out of necessity. Professor Brand tells Cooper, “…and your daughter’s generation will be the last to survive on Earth.”

But aren’t they overlooking that what’s inevitable is our extinction. Starting an artificial space colony on a foreign planet where humans would continue to evolve doesn’t seem inevitable. We’ve made a mess of Earth, and instead of fleeing it, perhaps we should just live with the consequences. And extinction seems to be the inevitable outcome of our environmental mistakes. Even if we never made a mess of our environment, Earth will eventually be destroyed by the red giant phase of the Sun. Thus, might we argue that the human race just has to eventually come to an end like the dinosaurs?

Of course, many of us are not prepared to give up our right to survive by carelessly killing ourselves. There’s no doubt the human instinct to survive is a powerful drive. But perhaps the extinction of the human race is not that big of a deal in the vast scheme of the universe? Besides, even if we could continue to survive and evolve somewhere in outer space, wouldn’t we evolve into something else? So, perhaps, no matter what we do, our extinction is inevitable.

Final Thoughts

Are we meant to colonize in space or not? Professor Brand says to Cooper, “We’re not meant to save the world, we’re meant to leave it.” But what does he mean by “meant?” If we believe in God, aren’t we meant by God to remain caretakers of the Earth? More likely, Professor Brand means we’re meant by nature or by the universe to be pioneers and ensure humans continue to evolve.

But is this right? I believe it’s difficult to make a case for space colonization. First, it’s not realistic. Humans wouldn’t be able to survive the cosmic radiation on an interstellar journey. It would therefore be a futile attempt. Second, if astronauts and embryos could survive an interstellar journey, we need to consider the harm colonization would bring about to us and other native species. Lastly, given what we’ve done to Earth, we seem to have lost our right to survive. Given all the ethical considerations discussed, we certainly can’t conclude that colonizing on other planets would serve the greater good of the universe. Perhaps we should just live (or die) with the consequences of our mistakes—or perhaps, we should be trying to correct them. Maybe it’s not too late to earn that right back. This doesn’t mean we can’t explore space, but perhaps—like those in the movie—we should be thinking about how we might improve the conditions on Earth first.

I applaud Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan for giving us a fictional story full of optimism that attempts to justify space colonization and the survival of the human race. I enjoyed Interstellar as it forces us to confront what makes us human and what our place is in the universe. It makes a bold claim: We can exist beyond the Earth. But this calls us to question whether we really can—and whether we have the right to do so?

Lance Belluomini has contributed chapters to Wiley-Blackwell’s Inception and Philosophy, The Walking Dead and Philosophy, Ender’s Game and Philosophy, and The Ultimate Star Wars and Philosophy (forthcoming in 2015).


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5 thoughts on “Interstellar and Philosophy

  1. Excellent post on an important topic! It made me think about whether we’ve really lost our right to survive beyond Earth.

  2. Regarding the ethics of space colonization, we can learn a lot from animal rights ethics. No use recreating the wheel on this, since the work has been done to demonstrate whether or not other life forms are morally considerable or not.

    The findings are this: that non-sentient beings are not as morally considerable as sentient beings (called by ethicist Tom Regan “subjects of a life”) so that colonizing a planet with microbes is ethically permissible, but colonizing a planet if it would displace or harm the existing sentient beings is ethically wrong since there is no rational basis for human superiorism. This is not to say that we cannot co-inhabit a planet with other sentient beings, but ought to do so only in a way that ensures no harm to them.

    And the same moral imperative exists for us here at this time on Earth: we need to bring an end to animal agriculture, animal testing, and stop the mass extinction of species.

    There is also the question of the Fermi paradox: maybe the planets are so distant by design, to prevent invasive colonization? On the other hand, perhaps there is value in colonizing other planets and bringing biodiversity to them (even though we are destroying it here).

    Also, as explored in the film there is the imperative of survival, and not necessarily for the species as a whole, but also individual survival. The sadness of the film is that Murph suffers without her father, and he without her, but their sacrifice allows humanity to prevail by giving her the equation she needs that would allow humanity to continue. So the film is as much about grief as anything else.

    As in the film Contact, there are deep issues raised based on our contact with other intelligent species. What we should learn from this is that there are intelligent species here on Earth we need to acknowledge as well: right now most of humanity is blinded by specieism, and cannot see that other sentient beings are deserving of moral consideration, including the right to life and freedom from harm.

    Human beings are only one of 8.7 million species on Earth, not higher or lower than other species, as Darwin said. To imagine that we are is an incredible conceit. How can we presume to colonize the stars before we learn that all-important moral lesson?

    You can learn more about this from this slideshow on Star Trek and animal rights:

    Also this slideshow on animal rights and Doctor Who:

  3. Pingback: Interstellar Orchestral Suite 6.0 – Nathaniel Jacobs

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