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 “Government at Its Best”? 

September 2, 2004 
A few days ago George Will wrote a column about the space program that set me thinking. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Why is exploring outer space a proper function of the Federal Government, or of government at all?

Most Americans now take it for granted, as if it’s only natural that we should be taxed (read: forced) to support space exploration, but it began in the name of “national defense,” as so many Federal programs do, during the Cold War, when the first Soviet satellite, Sputnik I in 1957, gave us a shock not unlike the 9/11 attacks. I heard about it over the loudspeaker at a football game in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in mid hot dog. It sent a shudder through the huge crowd.

Since then the space program has taken on a life of its own, and before the Cold War ended the U.S. and Soviet space programs were actually cooperating. So much for defense.

Will’s column celebrates the Genesis program, whose name signifies the search for clues from Mars, the planet believed most similar to Earth, as to the origins of life. As Will puts it, “How did matter, which is what we are, become conscious, then curious? Not all clues can be found on Earth.”

Will laments “deepening public indifference” to the space program, which he lyrically calls “government at its best.” The Genesis mission promises no less than an “understanding of how we came to be.... It is noble to strive to go beyond the book of Genesis and other poetry, to scientific evidence about our origins, and perhaps destiny.”

Strange talk from a noted conservative. It’s a far cry from the views of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, or for that matter Edmund Burke — heck, Karl Marx — on the role of government in human affairs. Will also assumes a materialistic philosophy of human existence itself. “Government at its best” should “go beyond the Book of Genesis and other poetry.”

[Breaker quote: Theology and the space program]In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis observed that the modern schoolboy is conditioned to take one side in a controversy which he has not learned to recognize as a controversy at all. That is, he is trained to assume a materialist and Darwinian outlook, without realizing that materialism and Darwinism have been subject to thoughtful criticisms from their first appearance.

Will, the son of a distinguished philosopher, should know this. He seems to have come a long way from his view of “statecraft as soulcraft.” Or maybe not. Maybe the ultimate in “soulcraft” is explaining away the soul as the product of mere evolving matter. In any case, he hasn’t wavered in his view that old limitations on the role of the state are passé.

If this view is “conservative,” what on earth can the word mean? The space program is fascinating, all right, but is it really the job of government? Why? Does the government’s role now extend to unlocking the ultimate mysteries of life, thereby supplanting centuries of theology and philosophy with samples of rocks and gases from other planets?

If anything is passé, it’s this goggle-eyed worship of physical science. Physical scientists themselves are far from unanimous about materialism as well as Darwinism. If the public has lost interest in space exploration, the likely reason is that we sense that its importance to our lives — and particularly to our defense — has been vastly overblown. Will is unusual, not to say eccentric, in continuing to regard it with a quasi-religious awe.

To expect physical science to crack the secrets of the soul is to commit what some philosophers would call “a category mistake.” Like Hamlet pondering Yorick’s skull, are we to find reflections of our inner selves by contemplating rocks from outer space?

“Knowledge, tickled from the heavens, is the business of a small band of explainers,” namely, the government scientists of the space program, Will says lyrically. But this begs some very large questions. Why not hire government theologians and philosophers to chip in their two-cents’ worth as well? Isn’t knowledge their “business” too?

Presumably theology and philosophy don’t count as “knowledge,” to Will’s way of thinking, but are mere “poetry,” less reliable than what government-funded physical scientists may tickle out of the heavens. Implicit in his panegyric to science is the faith of modern secularism: that “knowledge” doesn’t include anything our Creator may have revealed to us.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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