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Senior Thesis Spotlight: Is there room for a philosopher at the space policy table? This senior thesis says yes.

Jamie Saxon, Office of Communications | Mon Jun 17, 2024

Ethan Magistro arrived at Princeton with a well-thumbed copy of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" packed in his bags and two summers of philosophy camp under his belt.

He knew without a doubt that he wanted to study philosophy. Yet by the spring of his first year, he'd also become captivated with the field of space policy. Could there be room at the table for a philosopher? Magistro's journey through Princeton has laid a clear path to "yes." 

Growing up in Morristown, New Jersey, Magistro remembers having deep discussions with close friends about big ideas. "You know, like whether people are inherently good or bad," he said. "I didn't know then that it was philosophy but it was. It felt important to me." He began his academic exploration with two years of high school philosophy.

He also spent his nights as a child peering at the sky, keeping detailed notes whenever he saw satellites. "The early pre-Socratic philosophers were astronomers, mathematicians, scientists," he said. "There's an old joke that Thales once walked into a well in front of him because he was too busy looking up at the skies."

In fall 2019, Magistro's first semester at Princeton, he enrolled in an early modern philosophy class with Daniel Garber, the A. Watson Armour, III, University Professor of Philosophy. "Every week I went into office hours, guns blazing," Magistro said.

He appreciated the kind, engaged way Garber listened while also "showing me how much more I needed to learn." That spring, Garber let him take his graduate seminar on the early modern philosopher Spinoza.

But the lure of the sky also held fast, and that same spring, he took an astrophysics class with Christopher Chyba, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor in International Affairs and professor of astrophysical science, who has worked on security research and policy in three Presidential administrations. Magistro quickly saw a possibility for himself he'd never imagined: a humanist who works in space policy.

When he took a gap year in 2020-21, he served as Chyba's research assistant, a role he's held through his time at Princeton, exposing him to a wide range of policy issues. "Being able to connect so closely with all my professors has been the defining part of my Princeton career," he said.

Magistro's senior thesis, "Eternalism, Ethics and the Spirit of Philosophy," explores a concept called eternalism, which holds that all moments in the past, present and future are equally real and now exist within the universe. He uses the analogy of a book: "We may be on page 100, but pages 50 and 150 of the book already exist. It appears that we move through the book when we turn the pages and read it, but, in reality, the pages always exist. We can always re-read page 50."

Among other topics, his thesis considers the ethical implications of this view. A lot of philosophers talk about "continuing the project of humanity," he said. "We should feel the weight of suffering that exists across time, and prevent that kind of suffering in the future. That means taking seriously what future people might need.”

Outside the realm of philosophy, “that's what the policymaker has to do — make tough choices and understand everything that's going into a situation,” he said. “In my career, I hope to create robust space policies that guide the development of space, setting up people now and in the future for success."

Ethan wearing his 2024 sweatshirt

"The point of the humanities — and of college — is to ask deep questions," Magistro says. "When I do policy work, I want to have the philosophy in the back of my head, with some idea of what's right, what's wrong, what I value, how I understand the world."

Magistro's thesis draws on philosophy across time, including Spinoza's belief that the more we develop our own understanding of the world, the more we feel our oneness with it, which makes us act accordingly. Eternalism, Magistro argues, "galvanizes us to feel empowered to leave our mark on reality, like a caveman putting a stencil of their hand on a wall, and to want that mark to be a good one." He also considers the Socratic crux of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance": that our knowledge of what is good comes from a gut sense, or deep intuition about reality

The thesis was awarded a Department of Philosophy Class of 1869 Prize for theses in moral or social philosophy and a departmental Tomb Prize for theses in philosophy of time, and was among those awarded a 2024 Senior Thesis Prize from the University Center for Human Values.

The seed of the idea for his thesis came from a presentation he gave in a philosophy of physics graduate course taught by Hans Halvorson, who later became his thesis adviser.

Unique interests, passionate pursuit

"Ethan impressed me from day one, not because he’s brilliant (which he is), but because he has unique interests that he chose wisely and pursues passionately," said Halvorson, the Stuart Professor of Philosophy. "With his focus on space policy, Ethan has found a brilliant solution to one of life’s hardest puzzles: to find the overlap between what the world needs, what you’re good at and what brings you satisfaction."

While his thesis relates in some ways to space policy, which Magistro calls “a very future-oriented field,” he stresses that he wrote it purely for his own philosophical development.

"I wanted to major in philosophy because I firmly believe college is not about making yourself ready for your career, but about making you a well-rounded individual," he said. "The point of the humanities — and of college — is to ask deep questions. When I do policy work, I want to have the philosophy in the back of my head, with some idea of what's right, what's wrong, what I value, how I understand the world."

At Princeton, Magistro also pursued certificates in environmental studies, and the history and practice of diplomacy — always seeking ways to keep his interests connected.

Outside the classroom, he was editor of the Princeton Legal Journal and a residential college adviser for Butler College. But he said it was his role as president of the student-led Human Values Forum that has been most transformative for him — over weekly dinners with guest philosophers from within Princeton and around the world.

Having Peter Singer as the group's faculty mentor was another opportunity to forge deep connections with a faculty member. "I read Peter Singer in high school, and then I got to work with him at Princeton. I thought, he is the most famous philosopher in the world right now and here he is eating strawberries next to me," Magistro said with a smile.

Last summer, his childhood fascination with satellites came full circle. As a space policy intern with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Office of Space Commerce in Washington, D.C., he assisted with the development of a space debris and satellite tracking system.

In the fall, he will join the new cohort of Princeton's Scholars in the Nation's Service Initiative (SINSI) four-year MPA graduate program, split between Princeton and Washington, D.C., that provides leadership training and work experience in public policy. He is one of four SINSI fellowship recipients in the cohort; his participation in the program is fully funded.