Transhumanism and heretical Russian Orthodox Christianity

Charlie Stross has found one of the most distant ancestors of transhumanism and Singularity-style thinking, a heretical 19th century Russian orthodox teacher called Nikolai Fyodorov (or Federov).
Federov believed in a teleological explanation for evolution, that mankind was on the path to perfectibility: and that human mortality was the biggest sign of our imperfection. He argued that the struggle against death would give all humanity a common enemy -- and a victory condition that could be established, in the shape of (a) achieving immortality for all, and (b) resurrecting the dead to share in that immortality. Quite obviously immortality and resurrection for all would lead to an overcrowded world, so Federov also advocated colonisation of the oceans and space: indeed, part of the holy mission would inevitably be to bring life (and immortal human life at that) to the entire cosmos...

So. Transhumanism: rationalist progressive secular theory, or bizarre off-shoot of Russian Orthodox Christianity? And should this affect our evaluation of its validity? You decide!

Federov's Rapture

(Image: Pasternak_fedorov.jpg, Wikimedia Commons/public domain)

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  1. They were talking about him on BBC Radio 4 earlier in the week – how his teachings had influenced the Soviet space programme. He also influenced Werner von Braun, so he may have had an effect on the US space programme as well.

  2. I worked for some years at the Museum of Jurassic Tech in Los Angeles. If local, you might sit down with David Wilson for tea. He’s made a very interesting film about federov, tsiolkovsky, and the roots of modern rocketry called “the common task”. I imagine it still plays regularly in the MJT theater.

    1. The existence of transhumanism shows we have a lot of growing up to do.

      What, do you mean it is an immature philosophy? Why?

  3. Transhumanism: rationalist progressive secular theory, or bizarre off-shoot of Russian Orthodox Christianity? And should this affect our evaluation of its validity?

    While I think that the Singularity is rather unlikely for various technical reasons, it is bad reasoning to think that superficial similarity with a religious idea has any bearing for or against it. That’s the sort of bad reasoning that lead people like Fred Hoyle to oppose (or various Popes to support) the idea of the Big Bang on the grounds that having a beginning to the universe sounded a bit like the Judeo-Christian creation story.

    Claiming that the origins (true or imagined) of an idea has any bearing on its validity is what is known as the genetic fallacy.

  4. I agree very much with Badger. I have mixed attitudes about transhumanism in that I like a lot of their ideas if they were possible, but it seems clear that even the more moderate transhumanists are very optimistic about where technology will go in the next few years. But trying to argue that an idea should be taken less seriously because part of it might have come from a source we don’t like is both illogical and deeply uncool. In contrast, the other recent essay by Stross about why he didn’t think a Singularity was likely seemed to be better thought out. This one is really nothing more than an interesting historical tidbit.

    1. But trying to argue that an idea should be taken less seriously because part of it might have come from a source we don’t like is both illogical and deeply uncool.

      It’s a good thing Stross doesn’t do that, then.

      1. Nelson, then what do you think Stross is attempting to do here? It certainly read like that to me.

  5. Oh no your religion is getting mixed up with my self indulgent secular fantasy! Whatever shall I do?

    1. “It sounds like humanity’s unchecked growth would be a kind of galactic cancer.”

      Not to worry. You don’t SERIOUSLY think that the gift of immortality and unlimited technological power would be given to the unwashed masses do you?

    2. It sounds like humanity’s unchecked growth would be a kind of galactic cancer.

      Indeed, much as cyanobacteria ruined the domination of anaerobe sometime during the Archean. So think about how you’re perpetuating that “cancer” next time you plant a tree!

  6. A minor point: “Federov believed in a teleological explanation for evolution, that mankind was on the path to perfectibility…”
    The process of evolution is about adaptation to specific environments. A march upward and onward to an abstract idea of perfection is a human idea that has nothing to do with evolution. This is a common misunderstanding of the theory, and commonly used in transhumanist literature I’ve come across. If one wants to change one’s body, that’s human engineering, not evolution. There is no “evolution” in the literal sense at work where there is conscious intent. So, any argument for transhumanism (which I am neither for nor against) ought to dispense with the confusing use of the world “evolution” if it wants to get its point across. I’m not sure if this is Federov’s mistake, or the author’s, but I just wanted to make it clear in the name of science literacy.

  7. I saw a documentary about him at the Museum for Jurassic Technology, but given the odd anachronism of his ideas and the setting of the film, I wasn’t sure till just now that he was real.

  8. Old news.

    Father Fyodorov was the first saint canonized by the Church of Transhumanism, Irish Rite.

  9. Many people are intrigued by the idea of transhumanism for secular reasons; one believing in it for (heterodox) religious reasons need not change the facts. It need not even change the worthiness of the concept. Many supporters of intelligent design base their beliefs that evolution is “proof” of ID. Does that change the accepted theories and facts around evolution? Of course, I could have saved myself some time by writing “Yeah. What Badger said.”

    1. The understanding of evolution may be the same, but using it as a basis for justifying ID is logically unsound.

      1. That’s what I’m trying to say. Supporters of ID may use it as a basis, but that doesn’t make evolution wrong. It’s being mishandled, but it isn’t in and of itself wrong. Also, there are plenty of reasons to “evaluate the validity” of transhumanism beside an obscure theologian thinking about it.

  10. The problem with the genetic fallacy is it assumes ‘origin’ has no relevance when understanding human conduct, thereby precluding historical context or meaning any significance when considering a human ‘idea.’ There is a difference between mechanical or scientific ‘evolution’ and organic or historical and social ‘evolution.’ To preclude human meaning and ‘will’ in the development of human activity results in a very negative and repressive view of humans. Yes, stories of origin are problematic and lead to argument, but an insightful investigation of where an idea sprang forth in the process of human activity is essential for progressing mankind to an ‘enlightened’ state.

  11. This topic of transhumanism plays into the corporate amendment posted earlier in sooooo many ways.

  12. This all seems similar to some of the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin. Extra points essay question: Compare and contrast “The Singularity” with “The Omega Point”.

  13. Are they the various disciplines of physics as we know them, or are they the musica universalis?

    Personally, I don’t really agree with the transhumanist perspective, but I like to think I can, at least, understand why the perspective exists and would make sense to a certain point (no pun intended).

  14. I have great respect for Charlie’s future-fu, but he seems to be confusing transhumanism with extropianism.

    I’m a transhumanist in that I don’t regard body-modification as some kind of heretical Frankensteining of the sacred flesh. In other words, my body, my prerogative, and a one-figured salute to anyone who would tell me I’m playing God or Goddess or Brahman by exerting ownership over myself. Doesn’t mean I believe we’re all gonna get raptured in a technological singularity and float off to Chardin’s Omega Point.

    Calling all transhumanists singulatarians is like calling all Muslims Wahhabists. It’s taking the most extreme subgroup and judging all by them.

  15. How about: technological trans-humanism is an inevitable plot pathway when pushed to the extremes of narrative forecasting. It can be “discovered” or “created” by anyone who has the time to generalize and to extend the timeline of their creative thinking. Just say this is how things have looked, this is how things look now, and this is how things seem to be going. Keep on building without an objective. Let the story organically grow by saying “and then what, and then what, and then what” etc… You’ll probably end up in a similar fictional landscape as others who have done the same thing. Doesn’t mean the outcome will be accurate or true, but it speaks volumes about the human animal (in my case, one from a western culture). Just thinking.

  16. I dont know if the singularity will or will not come about. But improving humanity is per se is a worthy goal. Yes there are many dangers but any powerful technology also can be dangerous.

    1. Nobody read The Quantum Thief?

      What makes you say that?

      Best post-human solar opera writer since Tony Daniel, IMHO. Unlike Daniel, Rajaniemi better not stop after book two of his trilogy >:-{

  17. I agree transhumanism has a whiff of religion about it, but what exactly does it claim that is wrong? It may not align perfectly with common sense, but I thought that was a criterion we abandoned long ago.

  18. “One such vector is TDSS (AKA “TLd-4″), a rootkit that infects your computer, kicks out all the other malware running on it, and then helps hackers distribute malware.”

    Well gosh, if it’s that great, is there any way to delete step 3 and unleash the greatest antivirus ever produced? Probably not, but just curious

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