Practical Eschatology:

Immanentizing the Eschaton for Fun & Profit

"Eschatology" is the study of the ends of things: of individual lives, and of the world as a whole. Normally it is considered a branch of theology, since it has traditionally been religion that tells us what happens when we die, and what the ultimate fate of the world will be. Still, science also has things to say on these subjects. So far it has not succeeded in finding evidence of any life after this one; but it has revealed what the fate of our planet and our whole cosmos will be, in the natural course of things.

In recent times, both scientists and science-fiction writers have addressed questions properly belonging to eschatology -- approaching them as problems to be solved by human effort and ingenuity. In the absence of any life after death, for instance, they have sought a medical cure for death. Cryonics and nanotechnology are the most promising fields of exploration; I hope that either or both might be perfected within my lifetime -- my natural lifetime, that is. If either of them is perfected soon enough, I need never die at all.

But not only may the individual life be saved: so may the whole human species -- maybe even the planet, and then the Cosmos. If nature takes its course, the Earth will be burned to a cinder by our own sun in a few billion years. By then -- if our species still exists, and has continued to advance technologically -- we should have spread throughout the Galaxy, if not further; and if we want to save our homeworld, for old times' sake (if I am still alive then, I'm sure that I will, for one), we could do so through cosmic engineering to prolong the life of the Sun, or perhaps to move the Earth to a younger star.

Science tells us that the Cosmos itself will come to an end, though scientists are not sure how this will happen. Either it will continue to expand into infinity, all its suns gradually burning themselves out; or it will collapse in on itself and implode into a single gigantic black hole. But science does not, and can't yet, tell us how we could prevent either fate -- given billions of years to expand throughout the Cosmos and to increase our power over it.

My own pet notion is that we will be able to mine black holes for energy and raw materials. If we can do this, no resource in the Universe will be beyond our power. Perhaps we will build vast artificial planets with black holes at their cores, and fill the sky with artificial suns burning antimatter. We could move these megaspheres as far apart or as close together as we like, and perhaps even manipulate the very fabric of space/time.

Let me reiterate: when I say "we," I mean, quite literally, you and me and others alive today, as well as our descendants. But this is still only a possibility, not a certainty. What if the cure for death is not found within our lifetimes? And what about all the generations that have been born and died before our own time?

If our descendants rise to such a level that they can indefinitely forestall their own deaths, and expand throughout the Cosmos and prevent its death, it is also possible that (by some means currently unimaginable) they could resurrect the dead. Perhaps it will take a million years, but is there any reason in principle why it would be physically impossible? Even if we think there is now, who knows what will become possible within the next million years of human progress?

The question then is, why would they bother? Two likely motivations present themselves: compassion and self-interest. Of course the two are most powerful when conjoined. The first generation of immortals will remember and mourn for those who died before the cure for death was found; this will give them a powerful motive to seek out and utilize the means to resurrect them. Perhaps other, more altruistic enthusiasts might wish to give all the dead a second chance in happier circumstances. Some may, out of sheer curiosity, wish to resurrect famous persons from history for first-hand accounts of past events. Linguists would pay dearly to learn dead and undocumented languages from their native speakers. Yet others, out of gratitude, may wish to resurrect the great creators and discoverers who built civilization up out of barbarism.

Of course, all these motivations assume that the civilization of the future will be spiritual as well as mechanical -- that people will have more lofty aspirations than quantitative growth and hedonistic gratification. There is no guarantee that we, and those we love who are dead, will be resurrected. But there are two, and only two things we can do to increase the chances: keep science and civilization advancing, and cultivate a sense of filial piety to the past. We will live again only if future generations have both the power to resurrect us, and the motivation to use it.

No doubt the first resurrectees will in turn resurrect others, and so on in a great chain reaction racing back through the past. If the whole Galaxy (or even a significant part of it) belongs to mankind, there will be plenty of room for them all.

"Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory!" (1 Cor. 15:54)

W. Olaf Stapledon, the greatest science-fiction writer of all time, addressed eschatological themes in his twin masterpieces: Last and First Men, which covers the future history of mankind and its ultimate extinction; and Star Maker, which covers the whole history of the Cosmos and its ultimate extinction. Philip Jose Farmer, who belongs in the top ten or twenty SF writers of all time, addressed the theme of technological resurrection in his Riverworld series.

The mathematician Frank J. Tipler has seriously proposed, as a scientific hypothesis, the existence of God and the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. His Physics of Immortality is, of course, very controversial. He has also argued, in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, for the good news that we are the only intelligent life in the Cosmos. His idea is that we will expand throughout the Cosmos and ultimately merge into a single collective consciousness that will be, for all practical purposes, God.

An obscure but very intriguing Russian thinker, Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov, proposed a similar, though not pantheistic, theology involving space colonization and the technological resurrection of the dead. There is a brief outline of his ideas here.

Cryonics was first seriously propounded by Robert W. Ettinger in The Prospect of Immortality, though suspended animation had long been a staple of science fiction. The most important potential of nanotechnology is to repair damaged tissues without surgery, and particularly to repair the gradual deterioration of cells in old age. It is also likely to be the only possible way to repair the tissues damaged by deep-freezing so that "corpsicles" (to use Larry Niven's term) can be brought back to life.

© 2000 by Karl Jahn