Transcendent Engineering

How to cope with death: the Cosmist ‘Third Way’

Recently on Facebook a friend asked: “Hey, atheist friends, I need your help. I would like to listen and read what do you do when you lose somebody who you loved? I have tried several ways to ease the pain, but it is still there.” He addressed his atheist friends because evidently he didn’t want to hear about a supernatural afterlife. I took the liberty to offer my vision of a natural afterlife following technological resurrection, based on science and engineering.

My answer (edited):

I cope with the grief from the death of loved ones by contemplating the Cosmist possibility, described by many thinkers including Nikolai Fedorov, Hans Moravec and Frank Tipler, that future generations (or alien civilizations, or whatever) may develop technologies to resurrect the dead. A related idea is that our reality may be a “simulation” computed by entities in a higher-level reality, who may choose to copy those who die in our reality to another reality. Contemplating these possibilities is my way to cope with grief, I hope you will find your own way.

I realize that these ideas may be rejected without consideration by both believers and atheists. Many believers may reject them because they are based on science and possible future technologies, without any concept of “supernatural” (whatever that means). On the other hand, those fully invested in their atheism may reject them because they sound too much like religion.

Cosmism is one of those “third ways” that are often passionately rejected by those who believe in the old ways, but in my opinion it is a Hegelian synthesis of what is good in the old ways: it is firmly based on science, and at the same time it offers all the important mental devices of religion, including hope in resurrection. It is evident that hoping in an afterlife has survival value for both individuals and societies, because it gives people the strength to continue to live instead of withdrawing (or worse) in despair. Cosmism permits hoping in resurrection without giving up the scientific worldview.

The Cosmist ‘Third Way’, in a nutshell

Long version: See my essay Transcendent Engineering published in the Terasem Journal of Personal Cyberconsciousness.

Shorter version: See my Ten Cosmist Convictions, co-authored with Ben Goertzel, originally appeared in Ben’s A Cosmist Manifesto blog, published in Ben’s book A Cosmist Manifesto.

Very short version: The “manifest destiny” of our species is colonizing the universe and developing spacetime engineering and scientific “future magic” much beyond our current understanding and imagination. Gods will exist in the future, and they may be able to affect their past — our present — by means of spacetime engineering. Probably other civilizations out there already attained God-like powers. Future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Future Gods will be able to resurrect the dead by “copying them to the future.” Perhaps we will be resurrected in virtual reality, and perhaps we are already there. See also Transhumanist religion 2.0.

I have written a lot about these convictions, without calling them “beliefs.” But, following William James, since I am persuaded that these convictions are scientifically plausible, and they give me happiness and drive, I choose to hold them as beliefs. As I say in a note to the Ten Cosmist Convictions, I am not using “will”  in the sense of inevitability, but in the sense of intention: we want to do this, we are confident that we can do it, and we will do our f**king best to do it. You know that, if you really want to achieve a goal, you must firmly believe that you will achieve it.

Daring to hope in resurrection

Bart Centre gives another answer in the excellent article “Dealing with death: How does an atheist cope?” His answer is “It’s enough for me to know the deceased person loved me and I loved them. Enough to know the pain of illness has subsided. Enough to know their contributions to the world will live behind them and their progeny will carry on.  Enough to know that the cycle of life is unstoppable, inevitable, and is shared by all living things. It’s enough to know that the oblivion of death is no more fearful than the oblivion that was pre-life.  I take comfort in that, we all should.”

Bart’s answer is very good and his considerations are beautiful, soothing and inspiring in their own way, but for me they are not “enough,” because I prefer my own answers. If I were persuaded that death is final and science will never be able to do anything about it, I would certainly take refuge in seeing our lives as small cogs in the wonderful and endless cycle of life, shared by all living things. But I think science will be able to do something about death, and I hope to be copied to the future by means of “future magic” (in the sense of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law) and to find my loved ones there.

Bart Centre writes: “How easy and comforting it must be to imagine ones dead loved one running in a sunlit field in the afterlife — eternally young, physically perfect, ecstatic, and being chased by their equally ecstatic childhood cocker spaniel.  Or surrounded by a few generations of previously deceased relatives who embrace them and welcome them to eternal life and introduce them to their angel friends…”

It is easy and comforting indeed! How about making it true?

To me, these are not supernatural beliefs, but engineering projects: we will have to engineer resurrection, and build Heaven. These are very ambitious engineering projects for the very far future, so the only things that we can do, here and now, is to try to ensure that our specie has a future out there, to avoid extinction, to develop emerging technologies, and to begin our expansion into space. The Cosmist Third Way offers not only relief from the painful grief of death, but also motivation and drive to make the world a better place, here and now.

In “The Never-Ending Days of Being Dead: Dispatches from the Front Line of Science,” Marcus Chown paints a scene very similar to Centre’s:

“As your eyelids begin to fall, coming down like metal shutters on your life, the hubbub of the world fades to a distant murmur. You draw one last breath…”

“… and it is summer and you are young again. Your favorite dog — the one you loved so much as a child and thought you would never see again — has knocked you to the ground and is licking your face furiously. Through tears of joy, you see your father and mother — long dead — standing over you. They are young — just as they were when you were ten years old — and they are laughing and stretching out their hands to you.”

“What is happening? Have you died and gone to Heaven? Not exactly. You’ve been resurrected as a simulation on a computer at the end of time!”

This is the beginning of the last chapter of the book, dedicated to Tipler’s theories. Also the other chapters inspire beautiful and comforting visions, and show that space-time is a strange and wonderful place, so strange and wonderful that, perhaps, our loved ones who left us can be found somewhere out there. The first chapter is titled “Elvis Lives.”

Continuing the Facebook discussion, my friend said “I don’t think I can suspend disbelief about the Omega Point idea of Tipler.” Well, other “simpler” resurrection mechanisms have been proposed, that don’t require waiting until the Big Crunch.

In “The Light of Other Days”, Sir Arthur C. Clarke (who else?) and Stephen Baxter imagine a near future world profoundly transformed by the invention of a “Wormcam”: a remote viewing device that permits scanning any location at any time, including in the past, by using micro wormholes naturally embedded with high density in the fabric of space-time (every space-time pixel is connected with every other space-time pixel). Soon engineers are able to resurrect the dead: “It was possible now to look back into time and read off a complete DNA sequence from any moment in an individual’s life. And it was possible to download a copy of that person’s mind and, by putting the two together, regenerated body and downloaded mind, to restore her…”

But I am afraid atheists will continue to find suspension of disbelief in possible resurrection technologies very difficult… because the concept of resurrection itself (even if based on science) will continue to sound too much like religion to them.

Just a few minutes ago on the KurzweilAI Forums, another friend said “A friend of mine just died… it’s not enough for me to settle for never laughing with her again. Will we EVER be able to correct the travesty that is Death? And how soon til then?”

My answer:

I am very sorry for your loss. Your grief is my grief, and your hope is my hope.

No, it won’t be soon. I think future scientists will be eventually able to “fish” dead people from the past via Quantum Archaeology (whatever that turns out to be) or other time scanning technologies, and copy them to their present — our future — via mind uploading, but it won’t be soon. The scientific and engineering challenges involved are so huge that I believe it will take thousands of years. Or, as Frank Tipler thinks, billions of years.

But the subjective time that we have to wait is simple to estimate, and much shorter: it is the remaining time that we have to live, plus a few seconds to wake up in the future. From her subjective perspective, your friend may be already there, and waiting for you to join and laugh with her again.

Can I offer this as a certainty? No, I can’t. But I can offer it as a scientifically plausible hope. Make the best of your life as your friend would have wished, and, perhaps, you will be reunited with her when the time is right.

Transcendent Engineering
Transcendent Engineering, by Lori Rhodes
  • Thanks, Giulio. I share your faith.

  • Peter Christiansen


    This is a brilliantly composed answer to the question, – How do we cope with death – and explanation of The Cosmist philosophy to someone uninitiated in it. It is also a very compassionate act on your part, to share the Cosmists alternative to supernatural naivete and atheistic despair.

  • Giulio,

    Thanks for this clear and succinct exposition of the Cosmist view of conditional immortality, with which I find much in resonance.

    What strikes me as particularly odd about the Cosmist way of looking at reality is the built-in assumption that all this speculative technological development will be done by our (human or AI) descendants, who will see it as a part of their “work” in building and perfecting the final cosmic noosphere, the Omega Point of Teilhard de Chardin and the full developed Terasem as the destiny of all consciousness.

    One need hardly go beyond the verb choices in “Ten Cosmist Convictions” to see the potential disconnect with a more plausible reality. These numbers correspond to specific “convictions” in the “Cosmist Manifesto”:
    2. We will develop… (sentient AI and mind uploading)
    3. We will spread… (to the stars and to other dimensions)
    4. We will develop… (virtual realities able to encompass sentience)
    5. We will develop… (spacetime engineering and future magic)
    6. …will permit… (achieving the promises of religions)
    Note that the verbs in each case are indicative of future actions, which “we” or our vital descendants will presumably do if these convictions are correct.

    The unstated assumptions behind these five cosmist convictions are that:
    A. We have to do this from the resources we command on earth by use of our minds and hands.
    B. These proposed (and obviously necessary) technologies have not already been developed elsewhere.
    C. If there are any other civilizations in the universe, each has to develop this sort of thing for themselves.

    This way of thinking strikes me as “geocentric” in that it ignores the rich and complex structure and functions of the universe that we do not see in a telescope, simply because the details are presently beyond the reach of observation and participation. But the questions surely remain:
    I. Is it not possible that other societies, much older and more advanced technologically than our own, have already addressed and solved these challenges for themselves?
    II. If other civilizations have mastered a form of consciousness resurrection, is it not possible that they would collaborate to extend this service to sentient life wherever their influence may extend?
    III. If humans will someday “…meet and merge with other species out there” is it not equally reasonable to think that beings not original to this planet may already be meeting and merging with our species right here and now, simply without calling attention to their presence and actions?

    Obviously, these questions, whatever their answers, do not invalidate cosmist thought; however, they certainly shift the perspeective with which tranhumanists who are interested in such matters might approach the discussion.

    On the other hand, I find it strange that such a large and varied group of intelligent people would make the egocentric assumption that all realities of time and space are centered in and revolve around the social and intellectual artifacts of less than 2000 years of “rationally” organized discourse on this planet.

    Fortunately, the beauty of the Cosmist vision survives even if the cosmos is already developed along the lines I suggest and merely awaits the intellectual and vitological leadership of this planet to seek it out and engage it constructively.

    Perhaps the most valid and accessible form of SETI will be getting to know your neighbor, sharing his concerns and problems, and helping him find his own path to personally joyful immortality…

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Dan – as you say, other societies out there, much older and more advanced technologically than our own, may have already addressed and solved these challenges for themselves, and may be already “extending their services” to us. Actually, I would be surprised if this is not the case.

    This scenario is explored in the excellent science fiction novel Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson:

    I think, however, that the assumption that we will have to achieve resurrection science for ourselves is mentally healthier, because it requires that we _do_ something: we must advance our scientific understanding of the universe, develop advanced technologies and “future magic,” then develop even more magic technologies, and of course we must move to space and colonize the galaxy.

    We must become equal partners with other cosmic civilizations. That will motivate them to resurrect humans from the past, if they aren’t doing it already.

  • Peter Christiansen

    We need to dedicate and continually re-dedicate ourselves to The Common Task, outlined by Fedorov. Some as scientists and technologists in the front lines, and some of us (myself) in the rear guard supporting the effort, and helping to spread the meme. We need to encourage our colleagues in The Common Task and remind ourselves that time really is on our side but anything we can do to hurry the project along is well worth doing.

  • Peter Christiansen

    Don’t know where to post this but it is an interesting piece from the New York Times regarding a speech by Barbara Marx Hubbard to U.S. Roman Catholic nuns, and including quotations from Buckminster Fuller!

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Peter, wow the NYT article is very cool.

    I don’t think anyone is in the front lines of the Common Task, not directly, because at our current development stage we can’t even begin to imagine the sciences and technologies that will permit achieving the Common Task in the far future. (Note: Fedorov’s Common Task is the resurrection of the dead).

    At this moment, the idea that our descendants (or somebody else, see Dan’s comment) may achieve the Common Task is mainly useful to avoid the grief and despair caused by the death of our loved ones, and by the idea of our own death. This is useful in itself, not only because it makes us happier, but also because it gives us the strength to continue to live and do something good.

    All the little (and big) good things that we do can be seen as small contributions to the achievement of the Common Task in the far future.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Republished by IEET, interesting discussion!