Voyager 1 is the farthest man-made object from Earth. After sweeping past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, it now sits almost 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) from Earth in interstellar space.
Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, both carry little bits of humanity in the form of their golden discs. These messages in a bottle include spoken greetings in 55 languages, sounds and images of nature, an album of recordings and images from many cultures, and a written message of welcome from Jimmy Carter, who was President of the United States. United when the spacecraft left Earth in 1977.
The Golden Records were built to last a billion years in the environment of space, but in a recent analysis of the paths and perils these explorers may face, astronomers calculated that they could exist for trillions of years without coming within distance of any star.
Having spent my career in religion and science, I have thought a lot about how spiritual ideas intersect with technological achievements. The incredible longevity of the Voyager spacecraft presents a unique and tangible entry point into exploring ideas of immortality.
For many people, immortality is the eternal existence of a soul or spirit following death. It can also mean the continuation of his legacy in memory and archives. With its Golden Record, each Voyager provides such a legacy, but only if discovered and enjoyed by an alien civilization in the distant future.
Life after death
Religious beliefs about immortality are many and diverse. Most religions provide for a postmortem career for a personal soul or spirit, and these range from eternal residence among the stars to reincarnation.
The ideal eternal life for many Christians and Muslims is to dwell forever in the presence of God in heaven or paradise. Judaism’s teachings about what happens after death are less clear. In the Hebrew Bible, the dead are just “shadows” in a dark place called Sheol. Some rabbinical authorities place faith 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 the nation of Israel or its people is of paramount importance. Many Christians anticipate a future general resurrection of all who have died and the coming of the kingdom of God for the faithful.
Jimmy Carter, whose message and autograph are immortalized in the Golden Records, is a progressive Southern Baptist and a living example of religious hope for immortality. Now battling brain cancer and close to centenarian status, he thought about dying. Following his diagnosis, Carter concluded in a sermon, “I didn’t care if I died or lived. … My Christian faith includes complete trust in life after death. So I will live again after my death.
It’s plausible to conclude that the potential of an extraterrestrial witnessing the Golden Record and becoming aware of Carter’s identity billions of years in the future would offer him only marginal additional consolation. Carter’s knowledge of his ultimate fate is a measure of his deep faith in the immortality of his soul. In that sense, it probably represents people of many faiths.
For secular or non-religious people, there is little comfort to be found in a call for the continued existence of a soul or spirit after death. Carl Sagan, who had the idea for the Golden Records and directed their development, wrote of the afterlife: “I know of nothing to suggest it was more than just wishful thinking.”
He was more saddened by thoughts of missing important life experiences – like seeing his children grow up than by fear of the expected annihilation of his conscious self with the death of his brain.
For those like Sagan, there are other possible options for immortality. They include freezing and preserving the body for future physical resurrection or downloading its consciousness and transforming it into a digital form that would last a long time longer than the brain. None of these potential paths to physical immortality have yet proven to be feasible.
The Golden Records contain a snapshot of Earth and humanity.
The Voyagers and the Legacy of Humanity
Most people, whether secular or religious, want the deeds they perform in their lifetime to carry continued meaning into the future as 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.”
Since Voyagers 1 and 2 are estimated to have existed for over a trillion years, they are about as immortal as human artifacts. Even before the predicted disappearance of the Sun, when it runs out of fuel in about 5 billion years, all living species, mountains, seas and forests will have long since been wiped out. It will be as if we and all the wondrous, extravagant beauty of planet Earth never existed – a devastating thought to me.
But in the distant future, the two Voyager spacecraft will still be floating in space, waiting to be discovered by an advanced alien civilization for whom the Golden Records messages were intended. Only these recordings will probably remain as a testimony and heritage of the Earth, a kind of objective immortality.
Religious and spiritual people can find comfort in the belief that God or an afterlife awaits them after death. For lay people, hoping that someone or something will remember humanity, any awakened and grateful extraterrestrial will have to.
This article was originally published on The conversation by James Edward Huchingson at Florida International University. Read the original article here.