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Cyberspace: the new home of the ‘pearly gates'?


February 10, 2009

Star Trek fans recognize space as “the final frontier.” But author Margaret Wertheim suggests that space also might be the “new heaven.”

In a free 12:15 p.m. lecture at Arizona State University Feb. 23, titled “Body and Soul as Aspects of Being: From Dante to the Internet,” Wertheim will trace the evolution of the concept of space in science, religion and the imagination – and reveal how some people now view cyberspace as a new resting place for human beings.

In her book, “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet,” Wertheim says, “Indeed, many cyber-fantasies imply that in the end we will not need physical bodies at all, for we will be able to reconstruct ourselves totally in cyberspace.”

A person’s mind will be “downloaded” into a computer to function for eternity – or possibly until scientists of the future can recreate human bodies. What about the Christian vision of the Heavenly City, where there will be no more sorrows and tears, and where believers will transcend into heavenly beings?

Believers in the “pearly gates of cyberspace,” Wertheim says, envision another type of New Jerusalem. “Dreaming of a day when we will be able to download ourselves into computers, (Nicole) Stenger has imagined that in cyberspace we will create virtual doppelgangers who will remain youthful and beautiful forever.”

In his book “Mind Children,” Hans Moravec, a renowned robotic expert at Carnegie Mellon University, suggests that mind-downloading will one day be possible. “In an extraordinary passage in his book, he images a scenario in which ‘a robot brain surgeon’ gradually transfers a human mind into a waiting computer,” Wertheim writes

She questions the desirability of having one’s mind “downloaded” forever and ever:

“Myself, I cannot imagine a worse fate than being downloaded into immortality in cyberspace. In Christianity, the elect are promised an eternity of bliss in the presence of ultimate Grace, but what would be the fate of an immortal cyber-elect? What would one do in cybereternity? There are only so many times you can read the complete works of Dante or Shakespeare or Einstein, there are only a finite number of languages to learn; and after that eternity is still forever.”

The lecture will take place in the Great Hall of the College of Law, Monday, February 23 at 12:15pm. It is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. For more information, call (480) 727-6736 or go to http://csrc.asu.edu/events.

The talk is part of the Templeton Research Lectures at ASU, themed "Facing the Challenges of Transhumanism: Religion, Science, Technology," sponsored by the Metanexus Institute and John Templeton Foundation. For more information on the Templeton Research Lectures, go to www.asu.edu/transhumanism.

ASU co-sponsors are the Office of the Vice President for Research; Institute for Humanities Research; Biodesign Institute; Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes; Harold and Jean Grossman Chair of Jewish Studies; Departments of History, Philsophy, Physics and Religious Studies; and the Program in Jewish Studies.

Margaret Wertheim quotes:

"Rather than see ourselves in relation to mythical heroes, gods, and religious laws, we in the West see ourselves now in relation to atoms, stars, and scientific laws."

"Why did physicists replace theologians at the helm of epistemological power?"

"In medieval Christianity the cosmic scheme was primarily a spiritual setting; in modern physics it has been purely physical."

"As historians have shown, the idea of a long-standing war between science and religion is a historical fiction invented in the late nineteenth century."

(quotations from "Phythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars.")