Easy Chair — From the January 2016 issue

Everything That Rises

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I have come to perceive a cosmos filled with superintelligent beings — a virtually infinite number of them, whose minds have transcended their earthbound bodies and are independent of any particular substrate — a “connectome” thinking at fantastic speeds, light, effulgent, deathless. The beings are ourselves a thousand or ten thousand years in the future, networked across galactic distances and accompanied by every human consciousness that has ever existed, resurrected from the abysm of time by quantum recovery techniques that even now can be shown not to violate the laws of physics. And I have come to perceive how we on Earth now must begin the task of bringing this future about.

Actually, I don’t perceive all this myself. But I spent a long day recently in the social-activities room of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, listening to the speakers at the Modern Cosmism conference describe these and other visions in PowerPoint presentations. Large color photographs on the walls showed galaxies and nebulae. The A/V system was a bit balky. There was boxed coffee. Close to a hundred people sat in stackable chairs, many of them familiar with the general concepts and eager to ask questions of the presenters. Several were of Russian origin, including Vlad Bowen, the conference’s organizer and the executive director of the Cosmism Foundation. Over the course of the day the Russian cosmist tradition of past centuries was mentioned and honored as inspiration, but this conference was forward-looking to a high degree: the focus was on new cosmism, not old.

It’s possible that without knowing much of anything about, say, theosophy, or naturism, or spiritualism, you could guess at their basic concepts and aims. But I doubt the same is true of Russian cosmism. The speakers at this conference were largely enthusiasts of cutting-edge science or sciencelike speculation, and their graphs and charts and videos described actual experimental results as well as far-off possibilities. Bowen opened the proceedings by describing the Greek concept of an original chaos — meaningless and formless — out of which arose a cosmos, ordered and beautiful. He noted, as once upon a time a classics teacher of mine had, that the words cosmos and cosmetics have the same root. But universal oneness and order is not what cosmists mostly contemplate now, and really it never was.

George Young, in his encyclopedic account The Russian Cosmists, calls the movement “oxymoronic”: a blend of “activist speculation, futuristic traditionalism, religious science, exoteric esotericism, utopian pragmatism, idealistic materialism — higher magic partnered to higher mathematics.” Many of the wildest speculators in the Russian tradition were scientists, including the physicist Nikolai Umov, the pioneering rocket theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and the geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky. Their grounding in science didn’t hinder, and may have powered, their quasi-religious speculations, which most of them regarded as practical programs for long-term human action. Young argues that it’s a specifically cosmist tendency to make every search for knowledge a starting point for work: to change every -ology into an -urgy. Thus theology yields theurgy: knowledge of God yields methods for putting God’s power to work.

Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov — a nineteenth-century librarian, philosopher, and secular saint — is still largely unheard-of outside Russia but a central figure in the history of Russian thought. He didn’t use the term “cosmism,” but his vast writings and, even more, his teaching and his friendships gave rise to the movement, as both theory and program, -ology and -urgy. For Fedorov, the central problem facing mankind (and he believed that indeed there is a central problem) was death, and the solution was to find the means and the will to defeat death, to make it powerless over the future and to rescue from its grasp everyone who has ever lived: a general resurrection of all the dead. We receive life from our mothers and fathers; our duty is to reverse the process and give life back to them. That is the “common task” he said was set for humanity.

This may sound like the most groundless kind of occult speculation, and it’s true that cosmism was infused with esoteric Christian leanings. But Fedorov considered his immense project to be actually workable, achievable by as yet undiscovered technologies. To him death was disintegration, the disaggregation of the cells and molecules that compose us, which are subject to random scattering or lumping in lifeless concretions. To resurrect the dead would mean finding, separating, and reaggregating all the particles in the right order and with the right connections, whereupon they would return to life. Starting small — just one person reanimated, perhaps only briefly — the process would become more and more replicable, reach deeper into the past, and range further afield. The particles of the very earliest and longest dead have been carried away from Earth and into space as the world turns, but they must also be recovered and revived. For total resurrection we would have to reach the planets and even beyond to recover the “ancestral dust,” to identify each person’s contents, and (contra Humpty Dumpty) to put them together again. These journeys would have another benefit: by the time a fully resurrected population threatened to overwhelm old Earth, other planets would be ready to receive us. Fedorov thought that it would be possible to sail and steer Earth itself like a spaceship, out of its old orbit and on to who knows where.

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