(ORDO NEWS) — Voyager 1 is the furthest human-made object from Earth. Having flown past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, it is now almost 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) from Earth in interstellar space.
Both Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, carry pieces of humanity with them in the form of their golden records.
These messages in a bottle include spoken greetings in 55 languages, sounds and images of nature, an album of recordings and images of numerous cultures, and a written greeting from Jimmy Carter, who was President of the United States when the spacecraft left Earth in 1977.
The “gold records” were designed to last a billion years in space, but in a recent analysis of the paths and dangers these explorers might face, astronomers have calculated that they could exist for trillions of years without ever approaching the stars.
Having spent my career in religion and science, I have thought a lot about how spiritual ideas intersect with technological advances. The incredible longevity of the Voyager spacecraft provides a unique, tangible starting point for exploring the ideas of immortality.
For many people, immortality is the eternal existence of the soul or spirit after death. It can also mean the continuation of a person’s legacy in memory and records. Through its Golden Record, each Voyager provides such a legacy, but only if it is discovered and appreciated by an alien civilization in the distant future.
Life after death
Religious ideas about immortality are many and varied. Most religions provide for a posthumous career for the soul or spirit of a person, and these range from eternal residence among the stars to reincarnation.
The ideal eternal life for many Christians and Muslims is an eternal stay in the presence of God in heaven or paradise.
Judaism’s teachings about what happens after death are less clear. According to the Hebrew Bible, the dead are just “shadows” in a dark place called Sheol. Some rabbinical authorities believe in the resurrection of the righteous and even in the eternal status of souls.
Immortality is not limited to the individual. It can also be collective. For many Jews, the ultimate fate of Israel or its people is of paramount importance. Many Christians look forward to the future general resurrection of all the dead and the coming of the Kingdom of God for believers.
Jimmy Carter, whose message and autograph is immortalized in the Golden Records, is a progressive Southern Baptist and a living example of the religious hope for immortality.
Now, battling brain cancer and approaching the age of 100, he is thinking about death. After he was diagnosed, Carter concluded in one of his sermons: “It doesn’t matter to me whether I die or live. … My Christian faith includes complete assurance of life after death. Therefore, I am going to live again after death “.
It is plausible to conclude that the possibility of an alien witnessing the Golden Record and learning about Carter’s identity billions of years in the future will bring him little extra comfort.
Carter’s knowledge of his ultimate destiny is the measure of his deep belief in the immortality of his soul. In this sense, he probably represents people of various faiths.
For secular or non-religious people, there is little consolation in the call for the continuation of the existence of the soul or spirit after death.
Carl Sagan, who conceived and directed the development of the Golden Recordings, wrote of the afterlife: “I don’t know of anything to suggest that this is anything more than just wishful thinking.”
He was more saddened by the thought that he might miss important life experiences – for example, watching his children grow up – than by the expected destruction of his consciousness with brain death.
For people like Sagan, there are other options for immortality. These include freezing and preserving the body for future physical resurrection, or uploading one’s consciousness and turning it into a digital form that will long outlive the brain.
None of these potential paths to physical immortality has yet been proven feasible.
Voyagers and legacy
Most people, both secular and religious, want their deeds done in life to have meaning in the future and become their fruitful legacy. People want to be remembered and appreciated, even cherished. Sagan summed it up nicely: “To live in the hearts we leave behind is to live forever.”
Voyagers 1 and 2 are estimated to last over a trillion years, and they are about as immortal as human artifacts can possibly be.
Even before the expected death of the Sun, when it runs out of fuel in about 5 billion years, all living species, mountains, seas and forests will have long been destroyed. It will look as if we and all the wonderful and extravagant beauty of the planet Earth never existed – a thought that, in my opinion, is destructive.
But in the far future, the two Voyager spacecraft will still hover in space, waiting to be discovered by an advanced alien civilization for which the messages on the Golden Records were intended. Only these records will probably remain as evidence and heritage of the Earth, a kind of objective immortality.
Religious and spiritual people can find comfort in the belief that God or the afterlife awaits them after death. For secular people hoping that someone or something will remember humanity, any awake and grateful aliens will do.
Contact us: [email protected]