Last week I did a brief hit and run on the concept of the Singularity. Today I'd like to raise awareness of one of the taproots of Extropian thought — specifically, the origins of modern singularitarian thinking in the writings of the 19th century Russian Orthodox teacher and librarian, Nikolai Fyodorov (or Federov).
(Before I start, I'd like to add an explanatory note: I'm an atheist and a materialist who conditionally believes in the validity of the scientific method as a tool for probing the universe we live in, and I'm an anti-supernaturalist: magic, ESP and so on don't make sense within our existing scientific framework, so I tend to be deeply suspicious of anything that involves alleged miracles. I'm willing to test this framework when contradictory evidence emerges — but I use it as a detector for stuff that smells "wrong". And I tend to get rather disturbed when it transpires that a purportedly atheist, materialist, non-supernaturalist ideology — indeed, a science-fictional one — has its taproots buried deep in Orthodox Christian mysticism. Although I probably shouldn't be too surprised, in view of the way the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment sprang originally from Presbyterian fundamentalism ...)
A whistle-stop tour is provided by the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: "Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov was born June 9, 1829, and died December 28, 1903. He was founder of an immortalist (anti-death) philosophy emphasizing "the common task" of resurrecting the dead through scientific means."
The illegitimate son of a Russian prince, Federov worked as a librarian at the Rumiantsev Museum for many years, and as a teacher. During the course of his life he spent some time with the young Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and was cited as an influence on Peter Ouspensky. He was also the formative influence on the Russian cosmists, a Russian philosophical movement that prefigured transhumanism (and specifically extropianism) in many respects — and which exerted mainstream influence (by way of Tsiolkovsky) on Soviet attitudes to space exploration.
A devout Christian (of the Russian Orthodox variety), "Fedorov found the widespread lack of love among people appalling. He divided these non-loving relations into two kinds. One is alienation among people: 'non-kindred relations of people among themselves.' The other is isolation of the living from the dead: 'nature's non-kindred relation to men.'" ... "A citizen, a comrade, or a team-member can be replaced by another. However a person loved, one's kin, is irreplaceable. Moreover, memory of one's dead kin is not the same as the real person. Pride in one's forefathers is a vice, a form of egotism. On the other hand, love of one's forefathers means sadness in their death, requiring the literal raising of the dead."
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.
(The wikipedia article on Federov discusses his transhumanist program in somewhat more detail than the IEP entry.)
The final word probably deserves to go to Nicholas Berdyaev (secondary source here) who in 1928 wrote:
The novelty of Fedorov's idea, one which frightens so many people, lies in the fact that it affirms an activity of man incommensurably greater than any that humanism and progressivism believe in. Resurrection is an act not only of God's grace but also of human activity. We now come to the most grandiose and bewildering idea of N. Fedorov. He had a completely original and unprecedented attitude towards apocalyptic prophecies, and his I doctrine represents a totally new phenomenon in Russian consciousness and Russian apocalyptic expectation. Never before in the Christian world had there been expressed such an audacious, such an astounding concept, concerning the possibility of avoiding the Last Judgement and its irrevocable consequences, by dint of the active participation of man. If what Fedorov calls for is achieved, then there will be no end to the world. Mankind, with a transformed and definitively regulated nature, will move directly into the life eternal.(You will note that the source of that essay was this collection of liturgical essays on the Orthodox church.)
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!