The Physics of Immortality
by Frank J. Tipler.
Doubleday 528 pp. $24.95
Cultures have their insistences. Navajos, I am told, tend to leave unfinished some little detail of any work they do, just for good luck. Thus, a geometrical design will have a corner undone, or a familiar story will be told on any given occasion with a minor incident omitted. The Bolshevik regime in Russia was vehemently antireligious, yet its leaders found it perfectly natural to embalm and perpetually display the body of Lenin for all the world like the incorrupt body of a Russian saint.
America too has its insistences, features of its culture that are often invisible to the natives but the most striking characteristics of the country in the eyes of foreigners. America, we know from earliest report, has always managed to be both extremely religious and implacably antimetaphysical. Thus, America is the world capital both of textual literalism in religion and of science ambitious to prophesy. Without careful watching, Americans will tend to reduce metaphysical questions to engineering problems, all the while believing that they are resolving real metaphysical difficulties.
A particularly vivid example of this tendency is provided by Frank J. Tipler’s new book, The Physics of Immortality. In this book Dr. Tipler, Professor of Mathematical Physics at Tulane University, purports to demonstrate scientifically the existence of God, the resurrection of the dead, and the moral coherence of the universe (indeed, of all universes, since the author is an adherent of the “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics). The Physics of Immortality sets out an amplified and more extreme version of the speculations about the fate of the universe that appeared in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986), a highly influential work that Tipler coauthored with the British astrophysicist, John D. Barrow. The gist of the earlier book, at least as I understood it, is that we are living in a very improbable universe. If any of the physical and mathematical constants on which physical reality depends were only slightly different, there would not only be no human race, there would be nothing worth mentioning. The Anthropic Principle is that, despite the modern cliche that we live in a hostile world unconcerned with human happiness, in reality the structure and history of the universe are friendly to man. Indeed, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle also claimed to prove that man is the only intelligent species in the universe, and will be the only progenitor of the greater intelligences yet to be. In The Physics of Immortality, the author explains how the universe can be this way and what its future must be.
Tipler is primarily an expert in global relativity theory, a discipline whose founding he credits to Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking. Global relativity theory is largely concerned with the shape of the universe in hyperspace, which means both in space and time. When you know what form the universe will assume, you know a lot about its destiny. A closed universe is one with sufficient mass that gravity causes it to eventually cease expanding from the original Big Bang and ultimately fall back in on itself. While there are some highly unlikely situations in which a reexpansion could then occasion a new cosmic cycle, the most likely fate for a closed universe is a singularity, a black hole. There is no before or after this single stroke of expansion and contraction, since time, too, expands and contracts in the process. A universe that is open or flat, on the other hand, will either continue to expand indefinitely, or expand ever more slowly toward a limit. In either case, such a universe will suffer the ”heat death,” that is, eventually all the energy in it will be used up. Tipler argues that the only way life could survive would be in a closed universe. Now life, in the scheme of this book, is simply a kind of pattern. Human minds are computer programs, and even human bodies could be perfectly expressed (“emulated”) in a computer program. It is in this form, as patterned information, that life will survive into the harsh conditions of the far future, which no conceivable flesh and blood could bear.
If a final collapse were structured correctly, intelligent entities would have more and more energy available to them the closer the collapse comes to the Omega Point. (Remember that this collapse does not mean just that all the stuff in space is closing in on a central point, it means that all of space itself is closing in on a central point.) If time is interpreted to mean subjective time, the time in which you think, these entities could in fact concentrate a literal infinity of experience into the final instants of the universe. In the approach to the Omega Point, all the information there is, the entire history of the universe down to its least detail, will be available in principle. Since an infinity of energy will also be available, everything that could be done in principle could also be done in fact. Even if the retrieval of this information entails insurmountable technical problems, still nothing will be lost: it will be possible to create a computer emulation of the universe, indeed of every possible universe that could have occurred given the known number of atomic particles. The mathematical explanation that the author gives for the problem of emulating all possible universes is a tribute to the power of multiple exponents to express really, really big numbers.
These emulations will, of course, include us, so we will be resurrected. The computers of this ultimate age will not be vulgar hardware, but ethereal entities composed of bent space and structured energy. They will advance in wisdom and power as more energy becomes available to them. (The author uses price theory to show that they will also advance in goodness, since altruism on their part will become ever cheaper to them. They will love us and care for us.) Long before the end of the universe’s history, all the matter in it will have been restructured to the specifications of intelligent entities. The stars themselves will only be construction material. In the lattermost days, all creation will become a single, thinking artifact. The limit of this process is the Omega Point, the singularity beyond the end of the universe, which relativity theory represents simply as a boundary, as something outside time.
Still, It will be Personal, since It will incorporate the ability to generate personalities. It will be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Being omnipresent might not seem to be much of an accomplishment when the cosmos has just become a dimensionless point. Omnipresence is more complicated than that, however. Although the physics of everyday life is subject to the second law of thermodynamics, so that ordinarily physical events are not reversible, this is not true of global relativity. In the latter context, the future determines the past as much as the other way around. Thus, the Omega Point in the ultimate future determined the initial cosmic conditions that made it possible, which means it is also the creator. The Omega Point, by any reasonable definition, is You Know Who.
Elements of this scenario may seem counterintuitive to the uninstructed reader. They make a bit more sense if you understand that the author explicitly declares his intention to be nothing less than to make theology a branch of physics. He warns us that this is the only way that religion could possibly survive, since science has made the supernatural as traditionally conceived unbelievable to the educated person. Or at any rate, he says it is unbelievable to scientists.
In his theological ambitions, Tipler can hardly be accused of autodidacticism. He has consulted extensively with modern theologians to see whether they could give a credible account of their faith in traditional terms. He has, predictably, found them as a class to be blithering hypocrites, more interested in politics than in God. The chief exception among living theologians is Wolfhart Pannenberg, whose radically eschatological theology he finds congenial. His favorite dead theologian is Thomas Aquinas. I, for one, find this perfectly reasonable. St. Thomas’ angels do in fact bear a suspicious resemblance to mathematical entities that could easily be expressed in algorithms. The Thomistic theory of perception does lend itself to being expressed as digital data encryption. Tipler’s hope for immortality rests in large part in the supposed characteristics of a kind of non-thermodynamic time very much like Thomas’ “aevum.” But I digress.
Given the author’s breathtaking notions of what physics encompasses, his ambitions are almost logical. For instance, he notes that Leibnitz’s principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles (which means that if you can’t tell two things apart, then they are really the same thing) has held up pretty well in practice. Therefore, he pronounces it a principle of physics. The problem with declaring everything that is true to be part of physics is that it makes it difficult for him to make certain distinctions, such as that between logical and physical impossibility. For instance, he notes that God can only be acquitted of being the author of evil if it would have been logically impossible for God to have created a world in which evil was impossible. He then solves the problem of theodicy by pointing out that his “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics permits a very large number of almost perfect worlds, all converging on the Omega Point. There are many worlds because, according to Tipler, everything that quantum physics says might happen, does happen, but in different worlds (or, as he prefers, along different histories). This is why the Omega Point has to occur, since even if it is improbable, there must still be histories in which it actually does happen. If this is the way the universe is structured, then it would be a violation of the laws of physics for God to have removed all the bad possibilities from these history lines. The author, however, seems to think that such an intervention would have been a violation of logic.
The last three chapters of the book (there is also an extensive Appendix for Scientists) attempts to reconcile the Omega Point Theory with the world’s religions. In these chapters, I found the author addressing many points that I had made in the margins of the earlier chapters. (He had hosted a colloquium on this theory, and it seems that many of the participants must have been awake.) For instance, though he finds the historical evidence for Christianity unpersuasive, he does note that the body of the post-Easter Jesus as depicted in the Gospels does have many of the qualities that a computer-emulated body would have in an emulated environment. That is, it was solid and organic, able to change its appearance, and able to appear instantly in any part of the emulation at will. He also notes that if it were necessary to the formation of the Omega Point for Jesus to rise from the dead, then quantum mechanics would make this extraordinarily unlikely event not just possible, but inevitable.
There are moments where the author seems to grow uncomfortable with the implications of his insistence that everything in the universe, without exception, can be transformed into a computer program. Programs can exist within programs. “Virtual” computers, consisting purely of information, can exist and function within hardware computers. This sort of relationship strongly suggests the traditional metaphysical notion of “levels of being.” For a world being emulated on a computer, the system below it (on a lower level of “implementation”) would be quite literally supernatural. Tipler insists that there is no evidence for a level of implementation below the level of the world we see. Well, there’s a comfort. The fact is, however, that though he imagines himself to be giving Platonic metaphysics a drubbing with his ontological monism, what he has in fact done is create a particularly unnerving form of Neoplatonism. His physics is essentially a hierarchy of mind.
The Physics of Immortality could perhaps only have occurred in the same culture, and in the same era, that would keep a book like James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy on the best-seller list for a year. That book presents both interpersonal relationships and the structure of history as outcomes of the evolving economy of “qi” force. This is the invisible universal vital power that all living creatures are supposed to generate, and the struggle for which creates so much trouble in the world. How to deal with other people’s need for vital energy and how to get your own are the basic questions of ethics. Both books confuse a kind of stuff with metaphysical principles, and both tend to render the real stuff in the world a little more ghostly, because they ask it to do double duty as spirit. The authors are incredulous of radical evil. Tipler informs us that science has shown that there neither are nor will be any evil spirits, while even the villains in The Celestine Prophecy are just suffering from psychic malnourishment. The books appeal to a fierce desire for religion coupled with an almost invincible incomprehension of its traditional forms. In particular, neither has much use for a God who can be prayed to, except as a psychological exercise. Perhaps both will find comparable amounts of appeal to readers with different kinds of education. However, I rather think that, in a contest, the sort of spirituality found in The Celestine Prophecy would win out. Both books, after all, are about equally confused, and The Celestine Prophecy has no tensor calculus to understand.
John J. Reilly is a writer living in Jersey City, N.J. He is the author of Spengler’s Future.