All things go, all things go
To recreate us
–Chicago, Sufjan Stevens
Biblographic note: I had (inexcusably) forgotten an email I’d received from Damian Tatum that mentioned computer simulation as a strategy for resurrection. Although I had forgotten the email because it came during a busy period, I can only assume it influenced my thinking on the matter since the parallel between what he and I describe is strong. Alexi Turchin had also written an essay which covers very similar ground though in a different way, you can find his essay here: https://www.academia.edu/36998733/Classification_of_the_approaches_to_the_technological_resurrection
It’s about 2012. A friend of mine, about 30 years old, has just died of sepsis. I loved him, and he has been annihilated. I’m standing talking with a friend of mine, also friend of the deceased. We’re both atheists. Suddenly a strange thought occurs to me. “Do you think we’ll ever be able to fix it?” “You mean feel better? Yes that will come with time”, “No, I mean bring him back from the dead?” My friend looked at me in puzzlement and sympathy, thought for a moment and said “No, I don’t think so”.
In the past when loved ones had died I had imagined death as a vast granite barrier which my hands could make no mark on. But what if we could find a ram powerful enough that the wall of Hades couldn’t prevail against it? The thought seemed stupid, yet the future is long and holds technological marvels we haven’t yet dreamt. How could I be so confident there was no hope?
I want to emphasise, at the very beginning, that I am not suffering from psychosis, so I do not really hold the idea I describe here is viable. Yet I can’t help but play with it and ponder it. Didn’t we get where we are in part through mad dreams?
Everyone has fantasies right? No, not that kind- the more ambitious kind . I have one. I mean this entirely seriously when I say that I think it is among the greatest fantasies ever conceived. There is little vanity here because is not my fantasy alone. What if we could redeem all of history- I really mean all of it. Give every story a happy ending. Not just slow or stop the advance of death, but reclaim each territory it has seized from us?
My fantasy is a very old fantasy. It is essentially the fantasy of universal salvation. It receives expression in Mahayana Buddhism and scattered forms of Christianity and Islam. I would bet good money that someone in the Jewish tradition has articulated it, but I haven’t found a reference yet. I’m sure it can be found in many other places besides. Apparently it’s currently a hot topic in Christian theology (or at least the protestant strand thereof). There is at least a prima facie biblical basis for it from the book of Isaiah:
“On this mountain, He will swallow up the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; He will swallow up death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from every face and remove the disgrace of His people from the whole earth.”
Emphasis is mine.
I’ve named a lot of religions. That’s because, generally speaking, the vision has been a supernaturalist one. In the absence of the supernatural it seems probable that persons dissolve at death, with no directions about how to put them back together again retained in some secret archive. At least if Epicurus is any guide, this is what naturalists have believed since there were naturalists. There is at least one exception though- one person who thought salvation might be achieved naturalistically. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov articulated what he called the Common Cause.
Nikolai argued that one of the greatest forms of alienation stunting human potential is that of the living from the dead. The division of the living from the dead is greater than any division between nations or caste. While many trans-humanists have proposed abolishing death going forward, Nikolai was nearly unique in proposing a retrospective abolition of death. Although a Christian himself he thought, on rather shaky scientific grounds, that it might be possible to resurrect everyone who had ever died using science. Without human intervention, salvation would be partial- only for good Christians, or perhaps only for members of the Russian Orthodox church, but a mechanical salvation was possible. Such a salvation would not just restore all humans to life, but make that life eternal through the marvels of science.
If nothing else, what a sweet vision. There’s the obvious of course for a hopeless romantic such as myself, Alexander and Hephaestion, Abelard and Heloise, Antinous and Hadrian, Andromache and Hector, Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, whatever real couple the story of Apollo & Hyacinth was based on- and that’s just couples with names starting with A & H. But far more important than these, nameless peasant 10,405,771,606 whose story you never heard, even though it was far more tragic. The approximately 5,000,000,000 dead of malaria. The roughly half of all children who never made it to adulthood. The lost and broken who lived a long life filled with ceaseless pain. Can you imagine how excited you’d feel if you thought for even a moment that you’d found some way to fix it all? All the jagged sheet of history with misery scrawled on it, folding into something beautiful. It’s such a holy thought- I would loved to have met Nikolai. Indeed it’s just possible that one day I shall.
What are the scientific prospects for this task? Before we get to that we need to take a detour through philosophical theories of personal identity:
You step into a teleporter, it vaporizes you. A person qualitatively identical to yourself steps out of a machine somewhere else, with “your” “memories”, “your” personality, “your” body etc. etc. There are two philosophical questions here:
A) Have you survived? Is the creature that stepped out at the other end “you”?
B) If you have not survived, is the outcome, from a self-interested perspective, i) as good as surviving, ii) better than ordinary death but worse than surviving or iii) As bad as dying in any other way
If you think the answer is yes to A or no to A but i) to B, then you’re in luck, the common cause might, from your point of view, resurrect the dead, (or as good as). If you answered otherwise, than the common task is unlikely to work, unless we can find some way to actually pluck the dead from the past. If you’re interested in these topics, google “philosophical theories of personal identity”.
With that sorted, let’s go on to the “science”.
- The possibility of a trace
Nikolai himself hoped that as we gained mastery over the physical world, we would be able to, based on some trace left by the dead, reconstruct them in body and mind. It’s hard to say much on this, except that if it is possible, it would require- as best as I am aware- as yet unknown physical principles. Whether you think this makes it vanishingly unlikely, or reasonably plausible, is something of a matter of epistemic taste.
As science has advanced, it is true that we have gained access to traces the ancients never would have imagined- DNA & Carbon 14 dating or example. We now know could, in principle, reconstruct the bodies of some of the dead through cloning so long as we have their DNA. While this would not fufill the great task, it is a great example of the advance of science uncovering previously undreamt ways of reconstructing that which existed in the past. There is always the possibility of more such discoveries in the future. It is possible we will uncover some, as yet unknown, non-magical version of the Akashic records, although there seems no particular reason to hope so.
One particular trace is fleeing earth at the speed of light- light. Light goes slower through some media than others and can be refracted, so in principle, it might be possible to capture the fleeing light without exceeding the speed of light. This could then be used- again only in principle- to reconstruct events on the earth’s surface. In practice there may not be enough information left, and even if there were enough in principle, the engineering problem may be intractable even for galaxy-spanning super-intellects.
2. Nearly infinite simulation
Suppose that computing power turns out to be really plentiful. Maybe we can build computers from subatomic parts, for example. Now suppose we enter as constraints everything we know about the past and conduct simulations of the past, weaving endless quadrillion lives and creating numberless people. At the end of each those lives we take the persons so created and put them in a digital afterlife. Eventually for every person who has ever lived, one of those people is going to be arbitrarily similar to them. If you think that someone having had an arbitrarily similar life to yourself existing in the future counts as survival you will have survived- congrats! The process would likely be vastly more accurate for contemporary humans because the endless gigabytes of what is known about us means there are far fewer gaps to fill in with estimation, but while this may give you and your loved ones better odds. It’s cold comfort for the long cold nameless peasant 10,405,771,606, whose best approximation is liable to be far looser.
Looming over all of this, of course, is the possibility that we are in a simulation ourselves. Whether that would make the task more or less likely, or whether it might already be underway, will remain open questions. I try not to think about this too much.
3. Time travel
One easy solution were it possible would be time travel. Most plausible conceptions of time travel developed in contemporary physics & philosophy of time suggest that it would be impossible to change the past. That would not necessarily foreclose on us going back and grabbing the data.
This is a reasonable review: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/according-to-current-phys/ of the prospects of time travel by an expert targeted at a lay audience. The conclusion seems to be: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
4. Something we haven’t yet imagined
Do you think we’re near the end of discovery, or do you think that there are things as yet undreamed of in any philosophy, that will one day be dreamt? Almost every human that has ever lived would be unable to understand options 1 to 3, so who is to say there isn’t an option 4, 5 or 6?
Summing up prospects:
To be honest, none of the above methods are especially persuasive to me, at least for all humans that have ever lived. I can conceive something like option 2 working for humans who lived post the invention of social media, and for the relative bare handful of humans who left substantial documentary trace of themselves prior to this. Dan Simmons imagines something like this being used to recreate the poet Keats in the novel Hyperion.
But it might be worth considering the pessimistic meta-induction. The pessimistic meta-induction is as follows: since historically most of our best science has not turned out to be even approximately true, it seems probable that our contemporary best science will turn out to be not even approximately true. Personally I am sceptical of the pessimistic meta-induction in most areas of the philosophy of science, but a related argument which I call the optimistic technological meta-induction seems more plausible. Past attempts to define what would never be possible through technology were very often failures. This is especially true of technologies which we might see as precursors for the great task. Cloning and the creation of life have both been achieved, projects for creating minds & superintelligences and achieving physical immortality are both underway, and will surely be completed at some point if we don’t wipe ourselves out. Most of those who have ever lived would not have thought these things possible for mortals.
Technology so often surprises us, and that which we thought impossible happens so regularly, because, in the words of the IRA to Margaret Thatcher “You have to be lucky every time, we only have to be lucky once”. Out of all the harebrained schemes by humanity and its successor superintelligences, only one has to works. This is what makes betting against the possibility of anything- especially before we even know the fundamental laws of physics- so dangerous.
If you put a gun to my head and asked me to give you a credence I’d say there’s a small chance of this task being possible, but enough that I wouldn’t bet with any great confidence against it.
Practical implications of the common task
There is nothing we can concretely do to make the only infinitesimally possible resurrection of the dead more likely. Either it’s possible at some unimaginably far reach of technology or it isn’t. About the only contribution we can make is fighting against humanity’s extinction, and we should be doing that anyway for all sorts of reasons.
There are lesser tasks which partially fulfil the great task but are time-sensitive and which we can make a contribution to. For example, ending involuntary death. If anyone takes this essay as a reason to aim at these less urgently, I will personally hunt you down and slap you.
Maybe I’m setting myself up for heartache in the future, but I like to sometimes use the common task as an organising myth in my life. A sense of what would be the ideal outcome of everything, to measure and assess more feasible alternatives against. The role of ethical-aesthetic organising principle is difficult to explain, but it seems to help. Sometimes, when I’m at my bleakest, it becomes a reminder that no one has ever scientifically proven that everything won’t turn out alright.
For a philosophy of the common task
Someone (maybe you!) could write a very good book considering the common task from a contemporary philosophical perspective. The common task raises questions in the philosophy of personal identity, time, physics, ethics & metaethics, religion and many more.
Indeed, you could teach a very good introductory philosophy course, using the philosophy of the common task as a springboard. Time travel (theories of time), personal identity and persistence over time, the simulation argument (epistemology & skepticism), duties to the dead (utilitarianism against alternatives), the skeptical meta-induction (scientific realism and its rivals) etc.
Perhaps the most unique question is about the value of resurrection. Let us suppose that we can raise all ~100 billion people who have ever lived from the dead, but that we could instead use those resources to create, say, 200 billion new, joyous lives. Should we do the former or the latter? Do we have a duty to the dead to restore them to life if we can? Do we have a duty to the living, not to leave them alienated from the dead? Do we have duties to the dead in a way that we don’t have duties to the hypothetical persons we could bring into being?
And if we do start raising the dead, do we raise all of them? Presumably if we had the technology to do this, we could keep everyone safe from everyone else, but morally does the world need Mussolini or Bundy back? Should they at least serve some kind of sentence before joining everyone else? These problems might seem absurd (they are, really) but it’s an interesting way to grapple with questions about the reason and purpose of punishment. The seeming absurdity of punishing anyone under these conditions is one of reasons I believe that punishment can only be instrumentally good.
Aesthetics of the common task
There is an endless range of poems, t-shirts, mini-series, sculptures, novels, paintings, desktop backgrounds and radio plays waiting to be written on the common-task- or on the idea of a secular resurrection of the dead. At present I know of only two novels, neither of which I have read. One of which, which I have forgotten the name of, tackles Nikolai’s work explicitly, whereas the other is Riverworld.
Aesthetically the idea is almost megalomaniacal and difficult to pull off. It undercuts a central concept of much contemporary literature and art- death as an inescapable existential problematic. Part of secular maturity is accepting the permanence of death, so the idea represents, in some sense, a return to existential childhood. I feel it myself, even as write this with unusual giddiness.
In the past I’ve suggested that post-scarcity worlds are very hard to write about because they remove many (though not all) of the obstacles that fuel narrative and that this leads authors to a kind of reflex anti-Utopianism, equating that which is bad for story with that which is bad simplictr. A post-scarcity, post resurrection world redoubles these problems. Add to this the human tendency to rationalise even involuntary death as a good thing to cope, and I can only suspect many authors and artists would instinctively oppose the great task. It will always find purchase among some though.
Some human problems do remain in a context without death or material scarcity, and while it would be very difficult to write a narrative about a context like that, I think it could be worthwhile.
Ultimately we have to grapple with religious aesthetics if we’re going to try and represent the common task. In a personal capacity I find myself wondering if I am not trying to reconstruct the Christianity of my youth in a thinly secular context. It is surely significant that my last three essays were about the resurrection of the dead, mercy and what it means to care about another person. While I don’t believe, I can’t help but dream a glorious τετέλεσται, even if it makes me a sucker.
4 thoughts on “Oh, death where is the antidote for thy sting? Or: Prolegomena to a new philosophy of the common task”
I like this idea of the common task as an organizing myth. I read the Age of Spiritual Machines in college, and I became a madman about the Singularity’s endless possibilities. I even put out that if the Singularity didn’t happen while we were alive, we’d be reanimated later in a simulation. Later, I realized that this was my placeholder notion of an afterlife.
If I had to take a stab, I’d say top priority would be frontier physics. The second priority would be AGI/Singularity work. And third, would be forensics/reanimation (re-creating the Woolly Mammoth is a start).
It seems likely to me that there will be the capacity to recreate us (specifically online modern people like you and I) in a simulation at some point- assuming there isn’t massive data-loss. Certainly it seems desirable to me, but I guess that’s up to the ethical judgement of the future.
I tend to think the pace will be determined by the pace of AI discovery. Frontier physics, reanimation etc. and all science will be utterly transformed by this, even in the absence of a “hard” singularity.
Sorry but it seems like you quote religions without actually understanding them. If you knew anything about religion, you would know how stupid the idea of raising the dead is.
‘you are not your body’
“We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and to life in the world to come. Amen.”- The Nicean Creed
“I believe by complete faith that there will be a resurrection of the dead at the time that will be pleasing before the Creator, blessed be His name, and the remembrance of Him will be exalted forever and for all eternity.”- Maimonidies 13 principles of faith
“As to the dead, Allah will raise them up; then will they be turned unto Him.”- Holy Quran, 6:36