(First published by IEET and H+ Magazine, 2010) – The term Cosmism seems to have been introduced by Konstantin Tsiolokovsky and other Russian Cosmists around 1900. Now, Ben Goertzel’s Cosmist Manifesto (published by Humanity+ Press and available on Amazon) gives it new life and a new twist for the 21st century. Cosmism, as Goertzel presents it, is a practical philosophy for the posthuman era. Rooted in Western and Eastern philosophy as well as modern technology and science, it is a way of understanding ourselves and our universe that makes sense now, and will keep on making sense as advanced technology exerts its transformative impact in the unfolding future. Goertzel weaves a philosophic tapestry using AI, nanotechnology, uploading, immortality, psychedelic drugs, meditation, future social structures, psi phenomena, alien and cetacean intelligence and the Singularity. The Cosmist perspective is shown to make plain old common sense of even the wildest future possibilities.
Dr. Ben Goertzel is a research scientist working on various futuristic technologies including artificial general intelligence and life extension, is also CEO of tech consulting firms Novamente LLC and Biomind LLC. He lives in Maryland with multiple children and animals. Goertzel’s web presence is here.
The book has been available online since the summer of 2009 on Ben’s Cosmist Manifesto blog. Many chapters have been republished online by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, the Cosmist Manifesto has been frequently discussed online already.
I am sure this book will be a life-changer for many readers. It’s a transhumanist book, filled with mind-boggling future options and possibilities that will be enabled by science and technology: extreme life extension aka immortality, human and super-human AI, brain-computer interfacing, mind uploading, synthetic realities, and human (or human spawned) intelligence spreading throughout the galaxies and beyond, perhaps into other dimensions… theories about post-death resurrection, building gods… it’s all here. This is the real visionary, wonderful, space opera style of transhumanism fondly remembered by those who were on the Extropy list in the 90s. Unfortunately, real transhumanism is difficult to find in the sedate, politically correct dullness of many contemporary ex-transhumanist discussion spaces, but the fires are still burning… and Ben’s book will light that fire in your mind.
Clearly it was not Goertzel’s intention here to write a scientific or technical book. A Cosmist Manifesto is rather an impressionist painting that evokes the sense of wonder and meaning inspired by science and technology. Still, technology enthusiasts, particularly those interested in very imaginative technologies and future possibilities, will enjoy the book. But this is also a book about consciousness, spirituality, and a practical guide to living our lives in this unique phase of the evolution of our species as we are preparing to leave biology behind and spread into the universe. In A Cosmist Manifesto, Ben writes also about meditation, positive thinking, mental health, achievement, relationships, sexuality, zen, joy and (why not?) religion. Ben’s book is a unique blend of science and spirituality, futurism and compassion, technology and art, practical life strategies and cosmic visions, where every reader will find snippets of spiritual wisdom and practical advice.
As a “far out” visionary book, A Cosmist Manifesto is a welcome alternative to the very watered-down version of transhumanism currently being proffered in certain “pragmatic” circles. At the same time, it is also far from the hard, chilly, ultrarationalist and over-reductionist naïve version of transhumanism that is often criticized by non-transhumanists for its lack of spirituality, aesthetic sensitivity and humanist compassion. Goertzel understands — and in part agrees with — some critiques of transhumanism. For example, in the chapter on mind uploading, he writes, “The mind is tied to the body, more closely than some (especially modern computer geeks) want to recognize.” This and other passages have more in common with the anti-transhumanist writings of Athena Andreadis and Dale Carrico than with the radical optimistic let’s-upload-to-cyberheaven and leave dull and boring meatspace behind discourse of ’90s space-opera transhumanism. But Ben does not fall into vitalism. He remains firmly rooted in the scientific and radical common sense engineering approach: “Even if it turns out that the brain/body functions can’t be emulated effectively by a digital computer, uploading should still be perfectly possible — one would just need to create the right sort of computer, such as a quantum computer or a quantum-gravity computer, or whatever.”
There is a lot about the power of positive thinking, which of course has led some unfriendly polemicists to deliberately misunderstanding the message of the book, comparing it to, for example, The Secret. But the power of positive thinking can be for example great athletes, as Ben writes, “adopt an attitude of deep belief and faith that they will succeed.” Most people have occasionally experienced the power of this attitude, and some people, like these great athletes, are able to do it very often. But for most of us adopting a positive and optimist attitude without crippling second thoughts is very difficult, and we need some hard-to-learn mental discipline to do it. Beyond this common sense acknowledgment of the power of a positive attitude in a psychological sense, Ben seems quite open minded regarding the possibility that some mind-over-matter effects, unknown to current science, may make this power even stronger. Ben continues: “While Cosmism lacks the superstitions of conventional religions, it shares with many of them an emphasis on the power of positive thinking and feeling. When you truly want something, and believe it’s possible, quite often you find ways of making it happen. This is what the word ‘will’ means in the Ten Cosmist Convictions cited near the start of this Manifesto.”
The Ten Cosmist Convictions cited above is a short text with bullet-point “cosmist pills” that I drafted, and Ben, after editing and much improvement, inserted in the book as a summary. You can read the online version here. It is a radically optimist set of wildly visionary speculations, of which the wildest (and the most difficult to accept for ultrarationalist transhumanists) is the idea that “Spacetime engineering and future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Eventually we will be able to resurrect the dead by ‘copying them to the future.’” Technological resurrection is, in my opinion, the secret spice that could give Cosmism the strong memetic force of traditional religions, making it really popular as a source of deep hope and happiness. Resurrection is not explicitly mentioned in the rest of the Manifesto, and I have been wondering what Ben really thinks about it. Sadly, he has recently written about it in a blog post dedicated to the tragic death of a young family member: “I really hope to see Lev again on some variant Earth or in some computer simulation or other dimension or whatever. I have no way to confidently estimate the odds of such a thing. I do believe the world we now know and understand via science merely scratches the surface of the overall universe with its copious transhuman hidden patterns, orders and flows… maybe, future technology brings you out. Could all that information be mined out, somehow, someday?”
A modern Shakespeare, Ben is admonishing that there are more things in heaven and earth that are contemplated by our philosophy, and somewhere in this still unknown complexity may lay the possibility of personal resurrection. But this contemplation must take place without — and this seems to be one of his Cosmist principles — falling into blind, unscientific faith: “… But the mysteriousness of life doesn’t imply that the universe will someday deliver us the various things we want.”
In this book, Ben outlines my own worldview. There is not one word that I disagree with and there is not one important omission that I can criticize. I have often thought of writing a book, but Ben has written my book, and much better than I could have. I am honored to have participated in some of the online discussions, which have led to this book, and I am honored to have been quoted in the Cosmist Manifesto.
Congratulations to Ben, and congratulations to Humanity+ for publishing this excellent book! I have already bought the book on Amazon. Of course I had already read the online and PDF versions cover to cover, but this book deserves its place in the physical bookshelves of all transhumanists and all seekers. Visionary technologies firmly rooted in the scientific worldview, and spiritual intuitions spread all over the new age galaxy, come together in a seamless popular philosophy text. I do not share the contempt of many transhumanists for new agers. On the contrary I consider them as fellow seekers, and I hope Cosmism will become a meeting ground.
In both the published book and private communications, Ben is careful not to propose Cosmism as a new religion. He writes: “Cosmism is not a religion. But it has the potential to deliver some of the benefits of religion in a manner more consilient with science.” I completely agree, but I am willing to go one little step further, and to propose Cosmism as a meta-religion: a loose framework of ideas, concepts, hopes, feelings and sensibilities at the intersection of science and religion, compatible with many existing and new frameworks, a magic place where science and religion meet, science becomes religion, religion becomes science, and wanderers can find sense of wonder, sense of meaning, hope and happiness. To explore this further, I have recently started a working group called The Turing Church.
Ben will give an online talk on A Cosmist Manifesto, followed by a Q/A session, on September 12 at 10am PST. Please write to me if you wish to request an invitation.