Sunday, October 19, 2008

Resurrecting Nikolai Fedorov

By Nader Elhefnawy
Originally published in the SPACE REVIEW, May 21, 2007

One of the most important, but perhaps most ignored, prophets of space flight is Nikolai Fyodorovich Fedorov (1828-1903). Fedorov was a Russian teacher and librarian who spent most of his career working in the Rumiantsev Museum, at the time Moscow's leading lending library.

While a man ahead of his time, Fedorov was also very much of his time and place. In the view of philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev, there may have been no thinker more characteristically Russian than Fedorov. In his essay "The Religion of Resusciative Resurrection: 'The Philosophy of the Common Task' of N. Fedorov" (which can be found online at ) Berdyayev wrote that Fedorov embodied
the Russian searching for a common task, the task of salvation. The Russian soul cannot joyfully create culture; it is anxious for the world and for all mankind, it thirsts to save all . . . the thirst for the salvation of mankind and the Kingdom of God here, on earth--all this was expressed by Fedorov with an extraordinary intensity, without any sense of strain or quibbling.
Like the other "characteristically Russian" thinkers Berdyayev talked about, his thought was powerfully shaped by both Orthodox Christianity and Hegelian philosophy. Also like many of them, he had little trouble reconciling religion and science in a way that would shock the belligerents in today's war over Creationism. A common product of this combination of ideas was not just a focus on eschatology, but a "Christianity of action." Rather than passively waiting for God to bring on the Millennium, being a good Christian meant participating in the building of heaven on Earth.

It was the way in which he expected this to come about that really separated Fedorov from the others. For him there is only one evil in the world that really counts, death. Moreover, rather than being accepted as a part of "the human condition," part of the human mission is the technological conquest of death. This means not only achieving immortality, but restoring all the people who have ever walked the Earth to life, making the heaven of the afterlife a physical reality. (Put in Fedorov's terms, there must be "sonship" as well as brotherhood in the human family, which entails duty to our ancestors, for whom death must also be conquered.)

Doing so, Fedorov teaches, requires the whole world to come together and treat the project as the "moral equivalent of war," all of humanity completely devoting itself to the struggle against the common foe, death. In the process, all of the ills that human beings suffer from (war, poverty, disease, etc.), being rooted in the problem of mortality, would pass away, creating a perfect world in which we would all live in brotherhood (and sonship) forever. Moreover, this task is not one for a distant future that can forever be put off, but humanity's proper vocation in the here and now.

This idea of committing the whole planet to scientifically raising the dead may seem odd. Even taking into account that his vision was very much a work in progress, and so full of ambiguities, apparent contradictions and even a few notions frankly rendered obsolete by the growth of scientific knowledge, it gets odder still the closer one looks at the details. (Among other things, he makes the case that the Russian Czar is uniquely fitted to lead the global project.) Accordingly, Berdyayev's view that Fedorov was exemplary of the Russian spirit notwithstanding, it may seem that his following must have been limited to a handful of cranks. However, the few who knew and were influenced by his ideas in his lifetime were members of an extremely elite circle, "the greatest of Russian people" as Berdyayev puts it--including the writers Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the two greatest figures in Russian literature; and the philosopher Vladimir Solovyev, perhaps the pivotal figure in Russian philosophy in the late nineteenth century.

Granting that, it may seem that what Fedorov called "the common task" has little to do with space flight, butspace travel actually had a prominent place in it. To help bring the dead back to life, Fedorov believed that humans would eventually collect data from space to track down particles which once belonged to their ancestors in order to reconstitute their bodies. Additionally, since Earth would not be big enough to accommodate all of the people who had ever lived at once, room would be found for them on other planets. At age sixteen Konstantin Tsiolkovsky met Fedorov and became acquainted with his ideas, and while there is some controversy over Fedorov's precise impact on Tsiolkovsky's thoughts on space flight, as Professor George Young, author of Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction, told me "most commentators in Russia have agreed that . . . Fedorov had much to do with Tsiolkovsky's development in that direction."

Fedorov's association with Tsiolkovsky would by itself seem enough to assure him a place in the history of space flight. However, his ideas also directly won him a wide audience in the years that followed, with "Fedorovism" a real force in pre-revolutionary Russia and the early Soviet period--a time of unique intellectual ferment in regard to space travel, as Brian Harvey shows in his recent book Russian Planetary Exploration: History, Development, Legacy and Prospects. While this climate was suppressed by Stalin in the 1930s, following his death the discourse on space flight revived with the result that Sputnik was not a shock to Soviet citizens, but the realization of an old idea. (Indeed, there are still thinkers today who cite Fedorov's ideas as influences on their own, like futurist Michael G. Zey, author of The Future Factor: The Five Forces Transforming Our Lives and Shaping Our Destiny.)

In the process of working out his main idea Fedorov, who despite the extravagance of some of his ideas was an ardent and capable student of the sciences as well as a religious philosopher, also suggested a number of other ideas that may have seemed outlandish in his day but are fairly mainstream today, like viewing the Earth as an ecosystem that must be maintained and regulated rather than an object to be exploited, and shifting the world's energy base from fossil fuels to solar and wind energy.

His ideas about immortality also mark him as a clear forerunner of transhumanist thought, one of the main predecessors of which was the Russian Cosmism directly influenced by Fedorov. Indeed, Fedorov's idea that space travel might be part of a larger transhuman evolution is a familiar one today, from both science-fiction and science speculation. The possibilities of biotechnology and life-extending nanites aside, Raymond Kurzweil anticipates in books like The Age of Spiritual Machines that in a matter of decades human beings will be uploadable into computers--after which they need never die, and in which form they might take interstellar journeys.

Frank J. Tipler's The Physics of Immortality is even more radical. Tipler argues that evolution will end with the development of a vast artificial intelligence running simulations of all the sentient beings that have ever existed, a process that Tipler himself has described as the resurrection of all who have ever existed. While Tipler did not depend on the religious philosophy of Fedorov or anyone else in working out his system, the parallel is there nonetheless.

Of course, all of this raises the question of why Fedorov's life and work is not more widely known. The simple answer is that Russian philosophy has been unjustly neglected in the West, and it is difficult to find copies of the major works of even much better known thinkers in any language, let alone good English translations. (Have you ever tried to actually run down an English-language version of any of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's works, for instance?)

Fedorov, moreover, is a neglected figure in a field of neglected figures. Frederick C. Coppleston's 445-page Philosophy in Russia: From Herzen to Lenin and Berdyayev contains only two brief references to him (one actually a footnote), and then only because of his influence on the thought of Solovyev and Berdyayev. However, the nature of his writings is also a factor. His principal work, The Philosophy of the Common Task, is not a unified treatise, but a posthumously edited collection of unpublished material ranging from essays and articles to notes and jottings. His thinking was not systematic, and his literary style was notoriously difficult, further complicating matters. Consequently, only portions of his work have been translated into English, and copies of the books containing these are rare enough that even most university libraries do not carry them in any edition.

This is unfortunate. In a time when political scientists of Francis Fukuyama's stature write about "our posthuman future" and Ray Kurzweil gets three hours on C-SPAN to take questions from callers; when stem cell research, genetically modified crops and clones are not just political but legal issues; and it is taken for granted that human technology has evolved to the point at which it can rescue or destroy the biosphere; Fedorov's work is becoming more rather than less relevant to our current situation. As Professor Young put it in his book, exactly
what we should do with this Godlike power is a question that someone is going to have to answer. Fedorov's answer may not be the best one that will ever be proposed, but so far it seems the most thorough and deepest attempt at one.
Young's words are even truer today than when he wrote them almost three decades ago. However, even were that not the case, and Fedorov's ideas only a curious but outgrown starting point for our thinking on space flight, it would only be fitting that the man who devoted so much thought and energy to the problem of resurrection himself be resurrected from obscurity as a forefather of space flight.

Acknowledgement: The author wishes to acknowledge the help of George Young. Naturally, any mistakes are the author's own.


Anonymous said...

Surely a surprise for my culture. Very, very interesting read Berdiaev thinking of Fedorov. The problem is i'm not able to find out Fedorov's books in english or french. can you help me?
My best compliments for "resurrecting N.K. ". F.B.

Nader said...

Hi F.B. Thanks for writing.
To my knowledge there has been no full translation of The Philosophy of the Common Task into English. However, a translation of a substantial portion of its contents can be found in the volume What Was Man Created For? (New York: Hyperion, 1990), a collection of Fedorov's work translated and edited by Elizabeth Koutaissoff and Marilyn Minto. Comprehensive but readable, I found it very worthwhile.

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