I recommend watching the one-hour film Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by George Carey, aired by the BBC in 2011, to all space enthusiasts interested in the history of the Russian space program and our future out there in the universe. The film zeroes in on the powerful role that religion can play in advancing radical scientific visions.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of the Russian space program, 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.
The real protagonist of Carey’s film is Tsiolkovsky’s mentor, Nikolai Fedorov, who taught that science would make us immortal. The film shows how the Russian space program was strongly inspired by Cosmist philosophers and mystics, who believed that we should evolve into super-humans who could leave our overcrowded planet to colonize the universe. I recently talked to Carey about this film and related projects — he said that he researched Cosmism as a neutral observer who reports what he finds, but I think the film shows that he liked what he found.
Some reprehensible pirates tell me that Carey’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door is easy to find on the Torrent networks. There is also a streaming version on Vimeo.
Fedorov suggested that science was a tool given to us by God to enable us to resurrect the dead and, as promised, enjoy immortal life. He added that because the Earth could not sustain a population that never died, we must first learn to conquer space. 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, inspired generations of Russian scientists and led directly to contemporary transhumanism. See also this interesting review and discussion of Fedorov’s ideas on Charlie Stross’ blog.
Carey’s 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. I think contemporary versions of Cosmist philosophy could renew our enthusiasm and drive for space.
One problem is that Cosmism not only sounds like religion, but was actually a spinoff of Russian Orthodox Christianity. This may upset those space enthusiasts who are also militant atheists but, as recently noted by Charlie Jane Anders on io9, smug atheists should read more science fiction. “A lot of the best science fiction is intensely ‘cosmic,’ conveying just how huge and unknowable the universe is, and how little we still understand it,” says Anders. “In a sense, the huge cosmic imagery of science fiction resembles some of the best religious paintings.”
I think atheists are right when they point an accusing finger to the many evil things done by organized religions. But I believe that evil does not come from the honest, heartfelt faith of believers, who have the right to pursue happiness, and are often nice and compassionate persons. Evil, in religion like everywhere else, comes from evil persons with power over others.
Cosmism is not religion in a conventional sense, but highly imaginative science. Richard Dawkins (yes, Dawkins, the leading atheist thinker) thinks that it’s highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures. In The God Delusion, he writes: “Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.”
In total agreement with Dawkins, I am persuaded that “future magic” technologies will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. If there are God-like beings in the universe, I think we should go and meet them out there, and try to become God-like beings ourselves.
Sociologist William Sims Bainbridge, NSF program manager and editor of the first NBIC Converging Technologies report, thinks that religion of a certain kind was instrumental in the rise of science and modern technology, and that religion of a certain kind will be instrumental in our expansion to the stars. In a 2009 paper on Religion for a Galactic Civilization, he writes:
“Progress in spaceflight technology has halted at a level that is insufficient for colonization of the solar system, let alone for voyages to the stars… We need a new definition of spaceflight that will energize investment and innovation. I suggest a return to the traditional view: The heavens are a sacred realm, that we should enter in order to transcend death.”
“To become fully interplanetary, let alone interstellar, our society would need another leap—and it needs that leap very soon before world culture ossifies into secure uniformity, or decays into absolute chaos. We need a new spaceflight social movement capable of giving a sense of transcendent purpose to dominant sectors of the society.
“Religion will continue to influence the course of progress, and creation of a galactic civilization may depend upon the emergence of a galactic religion capable of motivating society for the centuries required to accomplish that great project. This religion would be a very demanding social movement, and will require extreme discipline from its members, so for purposes of this essay I will call it The Cosmic Order.
“It is wrong to feel that irrational religion must always be a hindrance to progress. I have suggested that only a transcendent, impractical, radical religion can take us to the stars. The alternative is one or another form of ugly death. A successful outcome depends on a kind of lucky insanity, and it is quite unlikely. But for our species, at least it is still possible.”
In my article Uploaded e-crews for interstellar missions on KurzweilAI, republished by io9 as Why we should send uploaded astronauts on interstellar missions, I propose a strategy for cost-effective interstellar missions: to do without the wetware bodies of the crew, and send only their minds to the stars, their software, uploaded to advanced “computronium” circuitry in miniature starships. This will be a step in the right direction, because it seems likely that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, and advanced civilizations among the stars are probably post-biological in nature.
Bainbridge agrees. At a space policy symposium in 2001, he said that the gradual merging of human beings with their computers over the next century gives rise to the prospect of interstellar immortality. Then he teamed up with polymath genius Martine Rothblatt, a very successful space and biotechnology entrepreneur and a relentless advocate of the rights of transgendered persons, to develop the Bainbridge-Rothblatt “mindfile” approach to mind uploading.
“A mindfile is the sum of saved digital reflections about you,” says Martine Rothblatt. “All of the stored emails, chats, texts, IMs and blogs that you write are part of your mindfile. All of the uploaded photos, slide shows and movies that involve you are part of your mindfile. Your search histories, clicked selections and online purchases, if saved, are part of your mindfile. Your digital life is your mindfile.” Rothblatt believes that future AI technology will be able to merge the information stored in the mindfile with “human firmware,” a generic model of a human mind, and bring you back to life.
Rothblatt’s LifeNaut and CyBeRev websites offer a growing array of services for the creation and storage of mindfiles, based on Bainbridge’s research on personality capture. I have strong reservations on the practical possibility to capture enough of a personality with today’s slow interfaces, but future brain scanning and BCI technologies will permit a much faster capture of memories, thoughts and feelings, and I can imagine how future AI technology may be able to patch incomplete information.
Rothblatt founded Terasem, a scientific religion strongly reminiscent of Fedorov’s Cosmism and Bainbridge’s Cosmic Order, to advance space colonization and “soft uploading” via mindfiles. One of the services of Terasem is beaming mindfiles to space in the hope that advanced civilizations, Dawkins’ God-like super aliens, may one day decode them and bring them back to life, much like a police sketch artist creates a realistic photo from a few clues. The same technology will be used by our descendants to beam uploaded astronauts to stellar colonies and starships.