Yesterday CBS Evening News reported the following, which is now on their website.

You might be surprised that as part of the Defense Department’s mission to protect Americans, your tax dollars funded a workshop about aliens from “Star Trek” entitled: Did Jesus Die for Klingons, Too? It’s just one questionable projects under the microscope of fiscal conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who’s taking his red pen to cuts that he sees as no-brainers.

Turns out that the question, as reported by the Christian Post, was proposed by a German professor.  Here is part of CP’s account.

During a recent conference that focused on the possibilities and implications of long-term space flight, a German professor made an attempt at applying Christian theology to extraterrestrial aliens, leading him to ask the question “Did Jesus die for Klingons too?”

Christian Weidemann, a philosophy professor from Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, gave the lecture on theology and aliens as part of the 100 Year Starship Study symposium in Orlando, Fla., this past weekend.

Given the Pentagon’s mission, at first glance this certainly seems suited for the red pen.  But it turns out that if Coburn had spent some time on this he would have seen that he is taking a cheap shot.  It is just this kind of myopic, knee jerk reaction to programs that conservative legislators haven’t bothered to examine that threatens, paradoxically, to undermine some of the very things that they support, for example, America as a world leader in technology.   So, what’s the story here?

The conference in which Weidemann’s paper was presented was called the “100 Year Starship Symposium,” which was partially supported by DARPA.  What is DARPA?  From it’s web site:

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was established in 1958 to prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. national security and create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military.

To fulfill its mission, the Agency relies on diverse performers to apply multi-disciplinary approaches to both advance knowledge through basic research and create innovative technologies that address current practical problems through applied research.  DARPA’s scientific investigations span the gamut from laboratory efforts to the creation of full-scale technology demonstrations in the fields of biology, medicine, computer science, chemistry, physics, engineering, mathematics, material sciences, social sciences, neurosciences and more.  As the DoD’s primary innovation engine, DARPA undertakes projects that are finite in duration but that create lasting revolutionary change.

But DARPA does not limit its funding, especially in terms of seed money, only to directly fostering technologies.  It seems to be taking a longer range view.  The conference in which Weidemann’s paper was presented is described on DARPA’s site:

DARPA and NASA Ames Research Center are soliciting abstracts for papers and/or topics/members for discussion panels, to be presented at the 100 Year Starship Study Symposium to be held in Orlando, Florida from September 30 through October 2, 2011 (emphasis added).

The symposium is expected to attract roughly hundreds of people from around the world….

“This won’t just be another space technology conference – we’re hoping that ethicists, lawyers, science fiction writers, technologists and others, will participate in the dialog to make sure we’re thinking about all the aspects of interstellar flight,” said David Neyland, director of the Tactical Technology Office for DARPA. “This is a great opportunity for people with interesting ideas to be heard, which we believe will spur further thought, dreaming and innovation.”

“The 100 Year Starship Study” is currently funded by non-governmental organizations, which are concerned with innovation, space travel, education, and new technologies.  It is described as follows on its website:

“An Inclusive, Audacious Journey Transforms Life Here on Earth and Beyond” proposal won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) challenge—to create “a viable and sustainable non-governmental organization for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel possible.”

The non-profit Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, teamed with Icarus Interstellar and Foundation for Enterprise Development, received seed funding from DARPA to design, establish and implement this extensive program.

To make a long story short, it appears that DARPA provided seed money for the initiative and support for a conference that was meant to engage people in thinking about the implications of long term space travel.  The latter, in turn, whether it occurs or doesn’t in the foreseeable future, has implications for the ways in which we think about current technologies.  We talk all of the time about how America allows us to turn dreams into reality.  But we don’t know what dreams have promise if we avoid opportunities for engaging in sustained discussion of them.  Conferences and programs like this can be helpful.  And given the size of the Pentagon’s budget, this sort of support is almost literally peanuts.

As to the paper on Klingons and Jesus, it doesn’t appear to have been a very compelling paper.  But everyone who has organized large conferences knows that there are bound to be some weak and even off the wall papers that slip in.  Nevertheless, the paper did work on a certain level, or at least its title did.  For the point here is to get people thinking about the ethical implications of how we might respond to those who are different, space aliens, or perhaps just people who appear different from ourselves.  (This relates to ethical issues that are involved in warfare, many of which are addressed in military codes of conduct.  But this is a post for another day.)  The conference organizers understood that technology is not just about things but the way that we think about them, dream about them, and use them, including in our relationships with other people or even Klingons.

Senator Coburn and his budget cutting friends should really do some cost benefit analyses, and they should pay attention to the future  when they do so.  It’s very easy to wave a red pen around.

One thought

  1. Just from the title of the paper “Did Jesus Die for Klingons, Too?” I actually think that has a lot to do with space flight. This may be unfounded since I haven’t read the paper, but here’s a thought. If say we have space flight that takes us far beyond our current bounds of space. Consider now if we actually meet other intelligent beings. Would that shake the faiths? For me, a Christian, no. My faith has much room for other species. Question is, if they don’t know Christ, would it be our place to preach our religion to them. I would say it could be okay, but others might say no. So maybe that’s why so many kinds of people were invited to this conference; there are just so many issues and variables at hand in such exploration.

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