The 19th-century Russian thinker Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov proposed a “Common Task” which he held to be the most important project of humanity. Fedorov argued that the greatest alienation was one rarely directly remarked on- that of the living from the dead. To lose someone to death is a profound and permanent wound. We are all crippled, whether or not we realise it, by irrevocable connections to the irrevocably gone.
Others might have used this as a springboard for sad existential reflections on the briefness of life- not Fedorov. Fedorov called for the abolition of death- and not just going forward. He called for the resurrection of everyone who had ever died. I do not know what he was like as a person, but as a thinker, he had the greatest can-do mindset in all history. Apt, for one of history’s first transhumanists.
Although a religious man, Fedorov did not rely upon miraculous means. Rather he called for the discovery, and application, of technological means yet unknown.
I have never read Fedorov’s work first hand, yet ever since I heard of the idea it has haunted me. I have wondered at his hope. I have wondered why I could not find the same faith.
Is it possible? I suspect not.
This much is clear- the project only has hope if one holds that personal identity consists in the continuation of a pattern. If personal identity requires the physical continuation of a body, the effort is doomed because the bodies have been destroyed by time. Any plausible attempt at the common task will have to aim to reconstruct the dead based on information from the past, available in the present
I have considered the matter on and off, with no real background in physics, for many years. In theory, A powerful telescope located a thousand light-years away might now record the life of a person who lived a thousand ago. Thus if faster than light travel is possible it would be possible, in principle, to collect this information. One would have to get out ahead of the light fleeing earth. Since light travels slower than its vacuum-speed through many media, it might even be possible to “get out ahead” of the fleeing light without exceeding C. The problem is that it is unlikely we could make a good enough telescope.
Beyond this cartoonish scheme, there’s always “something we haven’t thought of yet”. I do not know how one would go about proving or disproving the in-principle possibility of Fedorov’s common task.
What about partial completions- the recovery of some of the dead? One option that I am aware of exists for recreating both the recently deceased and the well-attested deceased.
We have bits of partial information about many people in a variety of forms including:
1.Their genetic code.
2.The memories of the living about them.
3.Their writings, and the writings of others about them.
4. Information about the world they lived in generally.
These sources of information would be substantial for anyone who had died within living memory. Consider an unimaginably powerful supercomputer synthesising all available information and creating the best possible guess about a person’s psychology, including reconstructed “memories” to fit.
Dan Simmons moots this idea in Hyperion. Despite being set in the far future, the poet John Keats is a character. This “John Keats” is reconstructed through known biographical information, his genetic material and his letters, poems and other writings.
For remaking the contemporary dead we would have two main advantages viz: A) the long trail of electronic data and B) direct extraction of memories of the living via a brain-machine interface.
Exactly how good a copy of a person one could triangulate using available data is an open question. My guess is shockingly good- inclusive of secret hopes and fears- for recent individuals and impressive for those for whom we have less data. Exactly how good a copy has to be to count as “resurrection” is another open question.
The problem with any partial salvation of the dead, from a Fedorovian perspective, is that it negates the majesty and universal redemptive quality of the vision. Perhaps the full plan will remain simply a haunting vision, a scream of wrongs never undone.
Walter Benjamin (who I have also read very little of) argued that the triumph of a better world is not only a victory “going forward”. Rather the triumph of a better world is the redemption of the past. More than anything else, this is why I cannot get the idea of Fedorov’s common task out of my mind. The enchantment of liberty and mercy for all souls whose lives were full of pain. Taking all the discordant notes, of history and
weaving them into a happy whole.
To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever proven Fedorov’s Common Task impossible. Perhaps this gives warrant, if slender, for hope.
One thought on “The Resurrection of the Dead”
An implication of this is that we can build copies of a person that are *better* than the original.
WB Yeats wrote some great poems, some mediocre poems that nobody remembers, and probably some shoddy poems that immediately ended up in the wastebasket. Imagine if we reconstructed Yeats using only his great poems as training data?
He’d be a different man…or maybe an enhanced version of the same man. It’d be like sharpening and colour-balancing an image in Photoshop. In a sense, you’ve changed it. In another sense, you haven’t changed it. You’ve taken its essence and elevated it.
When the surviving members of The Doors saw the 1991 biopic about their career, they commented that Val Kilmer was even more like Jim Morrison than Jim Morrison had been. This is the actor’s art: they identify the core of a character, and strip away the quotidian dross. A computer could do an even better job.