The Voyager probes launched in 1977 may exist for billions of years. They carry on board a message that can outlast humanity, attesting to the possible objective immortality of our species.James Edward Huchingson
Voyager 1 is the farthest man-made object from Earth. After sweeping past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, it is now nearly 15 billion miles from Earth in interstellar space.
Both Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, carry small fragments of humanity in the form of 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 numerous cultures, as well as a written message of welcome from Jimmy Carter, who was president of the United States when both spacecraft They left Earth in 1977.
The Golden Discs were built to last a billion years in the environment of space, but in a recent analysis of the paths and dangers these explorers may face, astronomers calculated that they could exist for billions of years without remotely approaching any star.
Having developed my career in the field of 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 uniquely tangible entry point for exploring ideas about immortality.
For many people, immortality is the eternal existence of a soul or spirit that follows death. It can also mean the continuation of one’s legacy in memory and records. With its Golden Disc, each Voyager provides that legacy, but only if discovered and cherished by an alien civilization in the distant future.
Life after death
Religious beliefs about immortality are numerous and diverse. Most religions envision a postmortem career for a personal soul or spirit, and these beliefs range from eternal residence among the stars to reincarnation.
The ideal eternal life for many Christians and Muslims is to remain forever in God’s presence in heaven or paradise.
Judaism’s teachings about what happens after death are less clear. In the Hebrew Bible, the dead are mere “shadows” in a dark place called Sheol. Some rabbinical authorities credit the resurrection of the righteous and even the eternal state of souls.
Immortality is not limited to the individual. It can be collective too. 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 on the Gold Records, is a progressive Southern Baptist believer and a living example of the religious hope of immortality.
Now battling brain cancer and approaching centenarian status, he has thought about dying. After his diagnosis, Carter stated, “I don’t care if I live or die… My Christian faith includes a complete trust in life after death. So I will live again after death.”
It is plausible to conclude that the potential of an alien witnessing the Golden Record and realizing Carter’s identity billions of years in the future, would offer him only marginal additional comfort.
Carter’s knowledge of his ultimate fate is a measure of his deep faith in the immortality of his soul. In this sense, he is likely to represent people of numerous religions.
For secular or non-religious people, there is little comfort in appealing to the continued existence of a soul or spirit after death.
Carl Sagan, who came up with the idea for the Golden Records and directed its development, wrote of the afterlife: “I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.”
It saddened him more to think about missing out on important life experiences, like watching his children grow up, than to expect the 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 a future physical resurrection, or recording one’s consciousness and turning it into a digital form that would outlast the brain.
None of these potential paths to physical immortality have yet proven feasible.
Voyagers and Legacy
Most people, whether secular or religious, want the actions they take in life to have continuing meaning in the future as their fruitful legacy. People want to be remembered and appreciated, even loved. 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 exist for over a billion years, they are as immortal as human artifacts.
Even before the Sun’s expected demise, when it runs out of fuel in about 5 billion years, all living species, mountains, seas and forests will be long gone. It will be as if we and all the wonderful and extravagant beauty of planet Earth never existed, a devastating thought for 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 those records will probably remain as testimony and legacy of the Earth, a kind ofobjective immortality
Religious and spiritual people can find comfort in the belief that God or an afterlife awaits them after death. For secularists hoping someone or something will remember humanity, any awake and grateful alien will have to suffice.
James Edward Huchingson is Professor Emeritus and Professor of Religion and Science at Florida International University. East
Articlewas originally published on The Conversation and is republished with permission.