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Knocking on Heaven’s Door — Russian Cosmism, Transhumanism and Space Exploration

I watched George Carey‘s film “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” aired by the BBC last year on the 50th Yuri’s Night. The one-hour film is recommended to all those who are interested in space, the history of the Russian space program, the amazing beautiful philosophy known as Russian Cosmism (and, more recently, just Cosmism), our place and future in the universe, technological immortality and resurrection.

The film captures the popular enthusiasm for space in the Soviet Union of the 60s. We had the same enthusiasm in the West at the time, and God knows we could use it now, all over the planet.

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Gagarin poster in Russia

I think we can look, again, at the Cosmist philosophy to renew our enthusiasm and drive with beautiful and energizing cosmic visions, and to remember that wonderful adventures are waiting for us in outer space. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was a brilliant scientist and engineer, but his motivation and drive came from his philosophical convictions, his belief in humanity’s destiny to leave the Earth and colonize the universe, and his vision of a deep unity between man and the cosmos.

Today, following the Cosmist tradition, Russia has a lively transhumanist community and Singularity scene, with the only operational cryonics facility not in the U.S. and, recently, the Global Futures 2045 conference and social movement with its “Project Avatar” dedicated to immortality and mind uploading.

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Nikolai Fedorov

The film features Gagarin, Tsiolkovsky and other Russian cosmonauts and space engineers, but the real protagonist is Tsiolkovsky’s mentor, the Cosmist mystic Nikolai Fedorov. He was one of the first modern thinkers who dared to suggest that, some day, science and technology may be able to resurrect the dead and bring back to life every person who ever lived.

Fedorov thought that the physical resurrection is to be brought about by restoring the body to a condition that existed prior to death. A person is made up of atoms, and when a person dies these (finitely many) particles are scattered. Resurrection of the person occurs as a consequence of restoring the atoms to their previous arrangement. To carry out the resurrection it is necessary to determine what this arrangement was and then to reposition the particles. This is a problem to be solved by science rather than by appeals to an outside power.

His resurrection theory reflects 19th-century models of the universe and seem naive today. More modern resurrection theories have been proposed, for example by Michael Perry and Frank Tipler. See also my article Transcendent Engineering. But Perry’s and Tipler’s approaches, and mine, will probably seem equally naive to future scientists. Fedorov must be credited for the idea of technological resurrection, and we, his followers, are happy to see that many people are warming up to his vision.

See this interesting review and discussion of Fedorov’s ideas on Charlie Stross’ blog.

I have taken the liberty to paste some excerpts of the best reviews of the film below, with [annotations] and links.

BBC | Knocking on Heaven’s Door — April 12th 2011 was the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space, hailed by the Soviet Union as a triumph for socialist science over capitalism. But the true story is much stranger. George Carey’s film shows how the Russian space programme was kick-started by a mystic [Nikolai Fedorov] who taught that science would make us immortal, and carried forward by a scientist [Konstantin Tsiolkovsky] who believed that we should evolve into super-humans who could leave our overcrowded planet to colonise the universe. Stranger still, Carey shows how those ideas have survived Communism and adapted themselves to the science of the modern world.

The Telegraph | Knocking on Heaven’s Door, film-maker George Carey explains the mystic secrets of the cosmos and the Soviet space programme  — The man some people say is the true father of space travel in Russia was not a scientist at all, but a reclusive mystic who was the illegitimate son of a prince called Gagarin.

His followers today say the name is not coincidental – because it was that mystic, Nikolai Fedorov, who set Russians on course for Yuri’s moment of glory. In the 19th century, Darwinism and modern science seemed like enemies of God. But Fedorov came up with an extraordinary counter-suggestion: that science was a tool given to us by God to enable us to resurrect the dead and, as promised, enjoy immortal life. And, with curious practicality, he added that because the Earth could not sustain a population that never died, we must first learn to conquer space… the person who really injected his philosophy – known as Cosmism – into the bloodstream of Russian science was an unknown teenager (Konstantin Tsiolkovsky) who turned up in that library one day looking for advice about what to read… [Danila Medvedev] calls himself a Transhumanist, and believes that he will achieve his own immortality by uploading his personality into cyberspace.

How to think about the future | Cosmism, Transhumanism and Space Exploration — George Carey’s ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door  [is] a quite amazing film about the birth of the Russian space program and the ideas that prefigured it and were inspired by it. And it is a fascinating portrait of some of the early pioneers and thinkers who began Russia’s race for the stars.

[Nikolai Fedorov] is the philosophical great-grandpapa of the Russian dream of space exploration. He believed in the perfectibility of the human race through evolution, and thought that we would one day conquer death and bring about the resurrection of the physical body through science, and live forever. He also thought that we would extend human presence throughout the solar system and beyond. His ideas about human evolution, and in particular the idea that humans should take control of the process and direct it towards their own goals (i.e. achieving greater intelligence and conquering physical limitations) have led directly to the ‘transhumanist’ movement in Russia, and are echoed, albeit in a less poetic way, in the work of the famous proponent of the ‘Singularity’ [Ray Kurzweil].

Fyodorov not only believed that we must overcome the natural decrepitude and entropy of the body as a biological system, but that we would also one day be able to ‘regulate nature’ so that natural disasters such as volcanoes, earthquakes and so on no longer threatened the human population. Fyodorov is identified with the Cosmists, who advanced ideas about the proletariat conquering space and venerated the machine and technological progress…

But Fyodorov goes much further and is much more radical than the other Cosmists. His ideas concern the very fundamental questions of what it is to be human, what the nature of a human being is or can be, and the purpose and direction of life itself. This is the origin of Transhumanism in the 20th century and has led to whole genres of science fiction, scientific speculation, and the development of experiments and technology to explore the reality of these concepts. The contemporary efforts to preserve life indefinitely through cryogenics follow on from Fyodorov’s writings. There are now scientific institutes in Russia which carry on research into these ideas, attempting to allow humans to communicate directly with cosmic intelligences by ‘tuning’ themselves in, a complicated process of spiritual preparation or clearing. The subject attempts to develop a new awareness, a new kind of sensitivity through which they can receive or respond to the faint communications of other minds.

Fyodorov’s ideas directly inspired another great figure in the history of Russian space science, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky… One of the students who was inspired directly by Tsiolkovsky’s work was the young  Sergey Korolyov, who would go on to become the Russians’ chief rocket scientist and design the launcher for Yuri Gagarin’s historic first flight into space in 1961.

Tsiolkovsky, like Fyodorov before him, also held much wider philosophical views about human progress and space exploration. In 1928 he published a book called ‘The Will of the Universe. The Unknown Intelligence’ in which he claimed that humans would colonise and explore the entire galaxy. He believed that the basic physical constituents of the universe and space also had mental properties, that the cosmos itself has a kind of soul with which it might be possible to commune, and he imagined incorporeal beings whose intelligence far exceeded humans inhabiting distant realms of space. But unlike Fyodorov, Tsiolkosky’s vision of eternal life was not of a coherent physical existence, but rather a joining with the stuff of the cosmos, a re-cycling of ‘happy atoms’ into new shapes, new forms of life…

You don’t have to be Ray Kurzweil to believe that by the end of this century we may be on the brink of a new era of space travel and possibly even permanent habitation on other planets. We are still far from the enormous dreams of men like Fyodorov and Tsiolkovsky, but our determination to explore and push the boundaries of human knowledge has never been greater. Our pursuit of space exploration today does not have the same philosophical and spiritual corona surrounding it. We are inspired by science, by the pursuit of verifiable knowledge, but not by the dream of overcoming death or coming into closer relationships with matter and energy, praying to the angels of the cosmos. And we tend to draw a neater distinction between science and philosophy than those early prophets of the space age did. But we should not lose sight of their visions and their teachings because they still have the power to revive our desire for flight, our dream of visiting the edges of the galaxy and finding out what our human nature truly means.

Source: IEET