Below is the Master’s Thesis I recently completed for a Space Studies program. It incorporates many of the ideas I’ve been blogging about here, along with some new proposals for creating an explicit Cosmist ideology and space movement. Enjoy!
Following my previous post about Engineering the Cosmic Order, I received a request from a leader of a visionary space organization to produce an outline for just such a “memetic offensive”. Here is what I came up with…
An Outline of a Cosmist Memetic Offensive
“Before we can colonize outer space, we must first colonize inner space.” –Sean the Cosmist
Humans are creatures of the Earth; we have no strong innate reason to want to engineer a cosmic civilization. What can motivate a complacent humanity to pursue transcendent goals such as space exploration? Hope for a better future. Fear of annihilation. A cosmic perspective on “life, the universe and everything”. Spiritual renewal. A sense of higher purpose for ourselves and our civilization. Historically, such things were the function of religion. What is needed now is an ersatz religion for a skeptical age – an ideology and mythology for an unbounded cosmic future. I call one such ideology “Cosmism”. To create a Cosmist culture, we must plant Cosmist seeds and propagate Cosmist memes. Appeals to reason aren’t enough; we must go on the offensive against more mundane ideologies using memetic engineering. The cosmic doomsday clock is ticking, and our fate is in our hands…
Memetic Engineering Methods:
- Create online schools focused on space science, engineering and culture (e.g. cosmosuniversity.com).
- Enlist SF writers to produce a new series of stories similar to Heinlein’s “juveniles”, with updated visions of the human/posthuman future in space.
- Produce and promote new television shows, documentaries and films related to space.
- Create a brand or meme for the worldview of those who celebrate space exploration, science and culture (e.g. “Cosmism”). Use a consistent logo to brand our content.
- Produce TED talks with a space focus on space.
- Hold mass cultural events (“Observations?”): combination astronomy lecture/rave/mass featuring spectacular space imagery, talks, music and spaceship rituals.
- Infect the internet generation. Produce infectious videos, images, other memes with space-related content (e.g. “Symphony of Science” videos).
- Start an ideological/political/spiritual movement centered around space exploration and science (e.g. “Cosmism”). Hold rallies, lobby, blog, write books, appear on TV, etc.
- Have our “evangelists” conduct seminars and meetups at schools, libraries, community centers, etc. to inform and generate interest among the public in space exploration.
- Work to get more inspiring and educational space-related material included in the early educational curricula.
- Create and promote a long-term, cosmic plan for civilization (e.g. “Billion Year Plan”, “Millennial Project”).
- Aggressively recruit high-status, wealthy, influential individuals to our cause.
These methods can be used together in coordinated “wave” marketing campaigns, employing a broad cross-section of individuals, including space scientists, writers, artists, marketers, industrialists and celebrities. I realize that this is a very broad outline; I can produce more details about these methods and campaigns as needed.
Here is a perspective that needs to be widely disseminated as an antidote to the toxic memes of the pre- and postmodern cynics which have infected our civilization. It’s time for a new wave of intellectuals and cultural creatives to go on the memetic offensive and fully embrace the spirit of Cosmism! Like the pyramids and cathedrals of old, our space rockets, telescopes and probes are expressions of our spiritual quest for transcendence. Take that spirit away, and our civilization will fall as surely as night follows day!
The space program stands with the cathedrals and pyramids as one of the great ‘central projects’ of history, epic social feats embodying the worldview of a culture and the spirit of an age. On the launch pads, the rockets point heavenward like Gothic spires. Searchlights intersect on a waiting ship to form a great candescent pyramid, ablaze on the black horizon like some alien encounter, radiating light to the heavens. To reach for the heavens seems almost the signature of the central project. The pyramid was called the ‘stairway to heaven,’ the cathedral the ‘gate of heaven.’ The archetype is in Genesis: ‘let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven.’
“Literature on the pyramids, cathedrals and moon shots has tended to miss the significance not only of great height as the signal feature of central projects, but also their function as means through which whole cultures have found symbolic expression. Writers often pay lip service to the official rationales — immortality for the Pharaoh, a shrine to the Holy Virgin, or the quest for the grail of lunar rocks — while stressing the negative function of these projects as a source of shallow political pride…or as a display of collective vitality… Though some have noted that the central project focuses the energies and educates the consciousness of a population during periods of cultural transition, attracting the best and most adventurous minds of the age, most of the interpretation has been narrowly political, reflecting the pedestrian, power-oriented, if not paranoid, slant of contemporary social science. Thus the pyramids become a ploy for political control, the Gothic cathedral is rooted in royal squabbles, and the space program is but a product of WASP prejudice or cold war hypocrisy — themes that lack all perception of the projects as spiritual quests in the broadest and deepest sense.”
—Wyn Wachhorst, The Dream of Spaceflight
I am constantly scanning the internet for interesting and inspiring Cosmist-related material — here are a few of my latest discoveries:
These talks by Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams were part of a lecture series at Yale called “The Cosmic Society: The New Universe and the Human Future.” Their idea of creating a cosmic society by unifying humanity around a scientific origin story sounds similar to Bainbridge’s Cosmic Order that I’ve talked about before. There are some big thinkers spreading Cosmist memes these days!
Here is a very informative video by Kelvin Long, director of the Institute for Interstellar Studies, which gives a nice overview of interstellar starship research.
Here is a fantastic BBC documentary about one of the most amazing projects in human history: Project Orion!
Carolyn Porco is a very engaging speaker, with a Saganesque enthusiasm for exploring the Cosmos. This talk takes us on a tour of the Saturn system as revealed by Cassini-Huygens. Spectacular stuff!
And here is another great “Symphony of Science” video featuring Neil Tyson, Brian Cox and Carolyn Porco. Onward to the Edge!
We need several really aggressive, attractive space religions, meeting the emotional needs of different segments of our population, driving traditional religions and retrograde cults from the field.” —William Sims Bainbridge, Religion for a Cosmic Civilization 2.0
“The time has come for man to set himself a goal. The time has come to plant the seed to his highest hope.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
“I have great faith in optimism as a guiding principle, if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.” —Arthur C. Clarke
“MISSIONARIA PROTECTIVA: the arm of the Bene Gesserit order charged with sowing infectious superstitions on primitive worlds, thus opening those regions to exploitation by the Bene Gesserit.” —Terminology of the Imperium, Dune
The above quote from William Sims Bainbridge, whose insightful essay I discussed in the previous post, captures my own sense of urgency toward the current ideological environment. Humans, as creatures of the Earth, have no strong innate reason to want to engineer a cosmic civilization — we are all too easily satisfied by our mundane comforts and traditions. Yet as Bainbridge, Clarke and so many others have pointed out, to fail to build a cosmic civilization at this critical juncture in history is to invite our own extinction. What is to be done?
Like Bainbridge, I suspect that the stupendous challenge of space requires the kind of dedicated, long-term belief in transcendent goals which historically only religions have been able to provide. We who call ourselves Cosmists may therefore need to emulate the Missionaria Protectiva and begin sowing the seeds of a new cosmic religion on this planet, as a first step in engineering what Bainbridge called “The Cosmic Order.”
How can this be achieved? During the 20th century, science fiction writers like Clarke played the leading role in inventing the mythology of the future, creating countless infectious memes and potent visions of mankind’s cosmic destiny. Science fiction thus became an ersatz religion for many in the industrialized world, whose worlds were continually being revolutionized by new technologies and scientific horizons. To someone who grew up on science fiction in the 1950′s and ’60s, the Apollo moon landings would have come as no great surprise, and were only the first baby step in a rapid and inevitable expansion of human beings into space. Surely the memetic environment created by science fiction visionaries of that era, which had made images of humans in space commonplace in books, movies, and articles such as the famous Man Will Conquer Space Soon! series by von Braun and Bonestell in 1952, planted seeds which would blossom into JFK’s announcement of a moon mission, and the political will to carry through with it. Such is the power of ideas — of spreading memes.
The basic idea of memetics is that there are units of cultural information called memes – ideas, beliefs, songs, stories, rituals, fashions, etc. — which replicate, mutate and compete similar to the way genes behave. These memes infect our minds and cause us to behave in various ways, all in the service of their own Darwinian agenda of survival. Highly successful memes can produce religious explosions, cultural revolutions, golden ages, dark ages and world wars. All of human culture can be viewed as a battleground of competing memes and memeplexes (groups of memes working together). Therefore, if you aren’t aggressively spreading your memes, someone elses’ memes will prevail, and the culture will leave you behind. The new memes may be highly irrational or regressive, but that is irrelevant; all that matters is that they are able to propagate more effectively than their competitors.
This is highly relevant to the mission of promoting the Cosmist memeplex, because it suggests that appeals to reason aren’t enough. Cosmists will have to spread their message at least as aggressively as the priests of consumer capitalism and the legacy religions, using every available tool of technology, art, literature and politics. Ask yourself how you became infected with an interest in space exploration — what were the vectors by which the “space bug” entered your mind? Speaking for myself, it was my exposure to science fiction from early childhood; my father was an avid reader of SF, and I used to love looking at the fantastic cover art and descriptions of strange futures, weird worlds and amazing technologies. I was also exposed to Cosmist memes through movies and television shows like Star Trek, Cosmos and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in the mind-blowing cosmic comic books of visionaries like Jack Kirby. I grew up in the wake of Apollo in the 1970s and ’80s, at a time when visions of humanity’s future in space saturated American culture — Cosmist memes were virulent in those days, and seemed to presage a cultural revolution or quasi-religious awakening of some kind.
Alas, Cosmist memes seem to have lost much of their virulence over the past 30 years. Somewhere along the line, our culture fell out of love with memes like “Space: the final frontier”, and became interested in more mundane and cynical visions of the future. I think this is a tragedy, and I feel compelled to do something about it. So how can the Cosmist memeplex be revived in the 21st century? Here are a few ideas:
A new wave of “Conquest of Space” articles: An 21st century version of the classic Collier’s articles, by modern space visionaries, scientists and artists, could implant an updated vision of space colonization plans in a new generation of minds. The most likely place for such articles would be in the blogosphere, but they would stand out from typical internet fare for their high quality and detail. Perhaps space agencies and/or private space firms could sponsor such work in an effort to generate more public support for their enterprises.
Science fiction novels aimed at young adults: I’m thinking of something like Robert Heinlein’s famous “juveniles”, such as Farmer in the Sky and Have Spacesuit — Will Travel. Many scientists and astronauts have acknowledged the tremendous influence Heinlein’s novels had on their choice of careers. In a world where teen vampire novels and “Left Behind” books are huge bestsellers, surely there is a dire need for more books for young people offering more inspiring, cosmic visions of humanity’s future.
A Cosmist ideological movement: I have no doubt that there are millions of Cosmists out there, participating in star parties, space advocacy, science, science fiction fandom, the space industry, etc. What they lack is an explicit ideology, organizational structure and agenda. If these disparate individuals could unite behind a Cosmist ideology and participate in Cosmist events, they could begin to wield significant cultural influence. Perhaps they could adopt sayings, styles of dress, rituals and symbolism that would make others curious and want to copy them. The hundredth monkey effect is a powerful way to spread memes, but first you must get a hundred monkeys together all doing the same thing!
Space-oriented science fiction shows: When I was growing up, science fiction movies and TV shows set in space were commonplace. While they often weren’t very realistic, shows like Star Trek painted a picture of an unlimited cosmic future which starkly contrasts with the dark, regressive and frivolous programming we see today. Surely with today’s CGI technology, realistic new space-oriented shows could be created which inspire a new generation to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Manifest the Cosmist perspective: The awesome facts about the Cosmos are readily available to inquiring minds, but in everyday life people seem totally oblivious to our cosmic reality. To spread memes which can awaken a slumbering humanity, Cosmists need to bring Cosmist-themed art, science, architecture, literature and industry into the center of our culture. Where churches once served as the spiritual centers of Christian civilization, observatories, planetariums, universities, museums and science centers can become the centers of Cosmist civilization. I believe humanity today is starving for the kind of cosmic awe and ambition which the Cosmist perspective can provide.
Infect the internet generation: The internet is a vast meme machine, but a brief visit to sites like reddit and youtube will show you how mundane and frivolous popular memes tend to be. The internet generation is thought to be unenthusiastic about space exploration, and that may be true, but it’s because they haven’t been exposed to the right memes. The field is wide open for a new generation of internet-savvy Cosmists to promote our memeplex, using the vast digital tools and resources available to them. One example are the “Symphony of Science” videos, which use autotune and clips from various science programs to produce infectious videos like this one:
These are just a few ideas for ways to use memes to begin engineering the Cosmic Order; I’m sure you have many others. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of using this kind of “memetic engineering” to promote Cosmism, let me remind you of what I said earlier: in the world of memes, all that matters is survival and propagation. If you aren’t planting Cosmist memes in people’s minds, then someone else will plant memes which are potentially much worse. This is a reality which all religions understand and exploit well — there really is a war for human minds, and whose memes would you rather see triumph, Arthur C. Clarke’s or Sarah Palin’s? So get out there and start spreading those infectious Cosmist memes!
In all my Cosmism-related research, I’ve somehow never come across the writings of William Sims Bainbridge until now. Bainbridge’s ideas about the need for a new cosmic religion are profound, and very much in line with the vision of Cosmism I am attempting to expound here. His article Religion for a Galactic Civilization 2.0 is an inspiring read, and I have no disagreements with his conclusions. Modern civilization does indeed stand above an abyss, unable to return to the myopic old religions of the past and unlikely to move forward into a cosmic future without a new kind of religiosity. This article is a must read for all Cosmists!
At the moment it seems we have stopped leaping. We may be returning to the moon, and there could be some value in establishing a permanent base there. However the value of the International Space Station has been approximately nil, so we cannot count on great discoveries at the lunar south pole. The moon is being billed as a stepping stone to Mars, but any Martian expedition using technology currently under development would be far too modest to become the seed of a colony. To become fully interplanetary, let alone interstellar, our society would need another leap—and it needs that leap very soon before world culture ossifies into secure uniformity, or decays into absolute chaos. We need a new spaceflight social movement capable of giving a sense of transcendent purpose to dominant sectors of the society. It also should be capable of holding the society in an expansionist phase for the longest possible time, without permitting divergence from its great plan. In short, we need a galactic religion, a Cosmic Order.
The night is falling, and we do not have much time. We are all dying, and the cancer patient who has been told he has six months to live may be run over by a truck tomorrow. We give birth astride a grave, and a person’s whole life is only a brief fall from nonexistence into oblivion. As the philosopher Nietzsche noted, we are balanced precariously on a tightrope across an abyss (Bainbridge 2007b). We cannot go back, into the numbing faith of ancient superstitions, for science has destroyed the world in which they were plausible. We cannot stand here, because the winds of change are blowing and the resonating tightrope will sling our civilization into the chasm if it does not advance. So we must press forward, knowing that every perilous step might be our last.
But look! I see an eternal land beyond the far rim, where love thrives and death’s sorrow never touches. Let us go there, you and I!
–William Sims Bainbridge
For today’s Observation I’d like to take a walk on the dark side and share a few videos with a Dark Cosmist feel. I find these videos stunning; for me they evoke the spirit of cosmicism beautifully: Awe and terror at the vast, alien Cosmos. Play these on full screen with headphones and enjoy!
As I see it, there are two main schools of Cosmist thought, which I like to call “Light Cosmism” and “Dark Cosmism” (aka “Cosmicism”). To better understand these schools, I offer the stirring words of four great cosmic thinkers who capture the spirit of each side: Carl Sagan and Marshall Savage vs. H.P. Lovecraft and Friedrich Nietzsche:
“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls.” –Carl Sagan, Cosmos
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” –H.P Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
“The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.” –Carl Sagan, Cosmos
“In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of “world history” — yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die. One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened.” –Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense
“The human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure ‘Victorian fictions’. Only egotism exists.” –H. P. Lovecraft
“Teetering here on the fulcrum of destiny stands our own bemused species. The future of the universe hinges on what we do next. If we take up the sacred fire, and stride forth into space as the torchbearers of Life, this universe will be aborning. If we carry the green fire-brand from star to star, and ignite around each a conflagration of vitality, we can trigger a Universal metamorphosis. Because of us, the barren dusts of a million billion worlds will coil up into the pulsing magic forms of animate matter. Because of us, landscapes of radiation blasted waste, will be miraculously transmuted: Slag will become soil, grass will sprout, flowers will bloom, and forests will spring up in once sterile places. Ice, hard as iron, will melt and trickle into pools where starfish, anemones, and seashells dwell — a whole frozen universe will thaw and transmogrify, from howling desolation to blossoming paradise. Dust into Life; the very alchemy of God.” –Marshall Savage, The Millennial Project
So there you have the two Cosmist schools in a nutshell: The universe is a black sea of infinity in which science is suicide, life is futile and only egotism exists, or it’s an inviting cosmic ocean where science is the key to boundless life and progress. I find them both incredibly poetic and compelling, and have difficulty choosing sides. What say you?
Mitchell’s interests include consciousness and paranormal phenomena. On his way back to earth during the Apollo 14 flight he had a powerful Savikalpa samadhi experience, and also claimed to have conducted private ESP experiments with his friends on Earth. The results of said experiments were published in the Journal of Parapsychology in 1971. In early 1973, he founded the nonprofit Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) to conduct and sponsor research into areas that mainstream science has found unproductive, including consciousness research and psychic events.
“And suddenly it settled in, a visceral moment of knowing that the molecules in my body, the molecules in the spacecraft, and the molecules in my partners had been prototyped and manufactured in an ancient generation of stars. It was not an intellectual realization, but a deep knowing that was accompanied by a feeling of ecstasy and oneness that I had never experienced in that way before.
In that instant, I knew for certain that what I was seeing was no accident. That it did not occur randomly and without order. That life did not, by accident, arise from the primordial earthly sea. It was as though my awareness reached out to touch the furthest star and I was aware of being an integral part of the entire universe, for one brief instance. Any questions that my curious mind might have had about our progress, about our destiny, about the nature of the universe, suddenly melted away as I experienced that oneness. I could reach out and touch the furthest parts and experience the vast reaches of the universe. It was clear that those tiny pinpoints of light in such brilliant profusion were a unity. They were linked together as part of the whole as they framed and formed a backdrop for this view of planet Earth. I knew we are not alone in this universe, that Earth was one of millions, perhaps billions, of planets like our own with intelligent life, all playing a role in the great creative plan for the evolution of life.”
Other astronauts report similar changes in their consciousness from being in space, a phenomenon which has been called the “Overview Effect.” One of my more speculative ideas is that the human mind may be able to more easily sense some kind of universal “Force” from outside the electromagnetic, gravitational or other influences of the Earth. I have even imagined an entire science fiction future history based on the idea that entering the larger cosmos will cause this latent ability to awaken in homo sapiens, who will become “homo cosmicus” – real Jedi, Bene Gesserit and Kohlinaru space mystics!
To see the world through the eyes of a newborn, prior to all categories of thought; to experience the cosmic unity of all things; to be in awe of reality; to glimpse infinity – these are the essence of the mystical experience. In the Zen tradition it is called “Satori”, in Hinduism it is “Samadhi”, for Gnostic Christians it is “gnosis”, in Kabbalism it is “Ein Sof”, Taoists call it “Te”, in Sufi Islam it is “fana”, and apparently for astronauts it is the “Overview Effect”.
This effect could even become the prime motivator for manned space exploration – imagine space temples in orbit or on Mars which offer panoramic views of the heavens to visiting spiritual adventurers, or pilgrims voyaging ever deeper into space in search of a more profound cosmic gnosis, or a new cosmic religion exploding out into the universe, inspired by a prophet such as Mitchell. To me these scenarios are no more farfetched than Stone Age Egyptians suddenly erecting vast pyramids, or Arab barbarians conquering the Near East, or Christians colonizing entire continents, and it’s certainly a more inspiring vision of our cosmic future than a solar system full of mindless space probes and automated asteroid mines!
Skeptics may dismiss Mitchell as a New Age crackpot, but to me he is a modern shaman – one who has journeyed outside the bounds of mundane reality and returned with a message for the entire human tribe. In these trying times, faced as we are with a global shaman’s test, perhaps the consciousness-expanding Overview Effect is the mystical revelation we need for a new cosmic age. May the Force be with us all…
For the definitive book on the Overview Effect, including interviews with Mitchell and other astronauts, see The Overview Effect by Frank White. Mitchell’s autobiographical account of his epiphany and his subsequent mystical investigations is also quite interesting.
It would be remiss of me not to post something to mark the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic first orbit of our planet, but I would like to commemorate it in the larger context of Russian Cosmism.
While the nationalist imperatives of the Cold War may have driven the Space Race in the 1960′s, Gagarin’s flight, like so many other pioneering Russian achievements in space, was really the culmination of nearly a century of Russian Cosmist ideas about humanity’s cosmic destiny. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the early Cosmist and spiritual father of the Russian space program, had already envisioned the manned exploration of the solar system before the first aircraft left the ground at Kitty Hawk. The great Russian aerospace engineer Sergei Korolyov, who was the driving force behind the Russian program in Gagarin’s time, studied Tsiolkovsky’s ideas as a youth and became determined to turn them into reality. Wernher von Braun, who played a similar role in first the German and then the American space programs, owned a German translation of one of Tsiolkovsky’s books which had been embellished with von Braun’s comments on almost every page (found, ironically enough, at the Peenemünde rocket research facility by the victorious Russian forces at the end of World War II). I can think of no greater example of the power of cosmic vision than the eccentric Tsiolkovsky, a self-taught, near-deaf schoolteacher who spent most of his life in a log cabin in rural Russia while his mind roamed the Cosmos and inspired future generations of explorers.
Today, it appears that the heirs of Tsiolkovsky are ready to reclaim their position as the leaders of manned space exploration. While NASA will soon have no means of sending human beings into orbit and may be forced to use Russian rockets if they wish to do so, Roscosmos is proposing nuclear-powered rockets that could take humans to Mars and beyond. But the difference between 1961 and 2011 is striking; rather than reacting to such developments with fear and nationalistic rivalry, NASA is in discussions with Ruscosmos about the possibility of jointly developing nuclear spaceships! We are clearly living in a different world today, one in which all of humanity can celebrate the great achievements of Gagarin, Armstrong and the space pioneers of every nation without having their patriotism questioned. So as a human patriot above all, I join the entire world in saluting Yuri Gagarin and the Russian Cosmists on this anniversary of their greatest triumph — a testament to the truth of Tsiolkovsky’s powerful advice:
Every human being must live and think as if he or she can achieve anything. –Konstantin Tsiolkovsky