The Physics of Immortality by Frank Tipler. New York:Doubleday, 1994, 528 pp. Hardcover, US $24.95
The discovery of death may well be the defining moment in the evolution of our species. The knowledge that our existence is circumscribed, that it cannot be taken for granted, brought about our fall from grace, our loss of innocence. The fact of Death is the cornerstone on which all human knowledge is built. It is the source of our greatest anxiety, and of our greatest inspiration. It is a fact that even today most, if not all of us, continue to refuse to accept. That refusal has led us to search for a "work-around". It has led us to populate our world with witches, ghosts, ancestral spirits, demons, angels, devils, and gods. It has led to the creation of Heaven and Hell. It has generated the concepts of reincarnation and resurrection. And it has driven us to produce the greatest works of our civilization -- from the pyramids of ancient Egypt to the soaring cathedrals of medieval Europe.
Over the past few hundred years, Science has steadily eroded the foundations of belief. One after another the pillars of faith have been smashed by the wrecking balls of "the scientific method". God, life after death, and the human spirit , once considered "facts" as eternal and immutable as the universe itself, are now mere superstitions, ideas without substance sustained only by "faith" and the irrational workings of the limbic brain.
Yet , for all this, most Americans today believe in God. Tales of past lives discovered under regressive hypnotic therapy cram the shelves of our bookstores. The bright lights and sensations of well-being reported by survivors of near-death experiences are advanced as proof of life after death. And the profoundly mystical and complex discoveries of modern physics have been co-opted as evidence supporting reincarnation, the universal spirit, mind over matter, and virtually any other spurious New Age philosophy you care to name.
With Frank Tipler's The Physics of Immortality, the process has come full circle. Tipler does not merely draw parallels between quantum mechanics and religion as others have done, he advances "scientific proof" that God does indeed exist. Further he "proves" that this God will one day resurrect us all and that we will enjoy eternal life. Not surprisingly, given the nature of the times, Tipler's "God" is, for all intents and purposes, a universal computer and our resurrection will take the form of an atomically precise computer simulation.
Sounds nuts, right? Well, hold on a minute. Tipler uses more than 500 pages to build his case, including an "Appendix for Scientists" which runs for more than a hundred pages and supposedly provides all the equations and theorems necessary to prove his case beyond a doubt. Given our quasi-religious faith in science, our deep-seated longing to believe that death is not the end, and the inability of the average layman to comprehend the intricacies of scientific argument, Tipler's thesis is extraordinarily seductive. Built carefully on predictions we can easily understand and accept -- exponential increases in computing power based on nanotechnology, self-replicating machines and Von Neumann probes that will help life expand its reach throughout the visible universe -- The Physics of Immortality evolves into a complex, technical argument postulating the creation of a universal intelligence at some point fractions of a second before the end of the universe. This being will not only have the power to prevent that final moment from ever actually being reached, it will also, in its desire to know itself, generate a simulation of all that has gone before, a simulation that will necessarily bring back to life everyone who has ever lived.
Frank Tipler is no mad scientist. His credentials are impressive, his work widely respected in scientific circles. A Professor of Mathematical Physics at Tulane University and a major theoretician in the field of global general relativity, Tipler claims to have arrived at his proofs of God and immortality "in exactly the same way physicists calculate the properties of the electron."
Tipler's specialty is the future of the Universe and his theory of God stems from his investigations into the end of the Universe. And how will the Universe end? Tipler, along with his colleague, the physicist, John D. Barrow, has argued that the current expansion of the universe will eventually slow down and then reverse itself. Ultimately, this contraction will create unbelievably large pressures and temperatures, and the universe will collapse. This is the Omega Point. The point where all worldlines converge, where all matter converges, where all of history itself is reduced to a single, infinitesimally small blip in the continuum. Even the most advanced civilization, a civilization that draws its sustenance from the galaxies, a civilization with the power to manipulate space and time, a civilization as powerful as any God we could ever imagine, even such a civilization would be unable to escape the final cataclysm.
Or would it? According to Tipler, the fact that all universal history, past, present, and future, converges in the Omega Point means that the Omega Point itself is infinite. Everything that has ever happened, is happening, or will happen, happens all at once in the Omega Point. Forever.
Assuming that intelligence exists when this point is reached, then the Omega Point is God. From there it is a simple step to the next conclusion. If the Omega Point is the end of time then it is also the beginning. If all histories lead into the Omega Point then all histories necessarily emanate from that same point. In other words, the Universe was created by the Omega Point. And the Omega Point is God.
Of course, the argument is far more complex than my clumsy summary suggests, and far more technical. However, it has its own sweet logic, backed by theorems and equations impossible for the average reader to refute. And it is tempting, oh so tempting, to believe.
But what has all this to do with immortality, with resurrection? Well, first of all, if the Omega Point is intelligent, then intelligent life must necessarily exist as the end of the Universe approaches -- about 100 billion years from now. 100 billion years is a long time, a very, very long time. Current estimates of the age of the Universe put it at about 20 billion years, which means that the future will go on a lot longer than the past. And look how far we've come in a mere million years or so. Look how far we've come in a few thousand. Just imagine how far we could go in a hundred billion.
Tipler argues, as do many others, that on the universal scale of time, life's conquest of the universe will proceed quite quickly. He believes that technology will continue to grow exponentially throughout the future, constantly accelerating relative to existing technology. Even without ways to subvert the speed of light, colonization of most of the known universe might take only a few billion years. Intelligent beings, according to Tipler, will send millions of small Von Neumann probes into the galaxy at near-light speeds to find suitable star systems for settlement. Once a suitable site has been located, these probes will generate self-replicating machines which will rapidly construct a habitable settlement and seed it with human and other life synthesized from cells carried by the probe. More probes would be built and sent further into the galaxy. Meanwhile, of course, technology will continue to become increasingly sophisticated, and the process will gather momentum over the millennia. Ultimately life will engulf and control the universe. And life will use its power to prevent the final collapse.
Tipler's theory of eternal life boils down to this: progress will continue indefinitely, literally to infinity. Progress naturally includes computing power. And, by even the most conservative estimates, the amount of computing power available in 100 billion years will far surpass the number of particles in the Universe. In other words, the computers at the end of time will have the power to reproduce all possible universes down to the quantum level. Which, of course, means they can reproduce everyone and everything that has ever lived.
Things get a bit murky at this point. How will this universal computer know what to reproduce? And why would it bother? Well, first of all, according to Tipler, all the information is there -- at the Omega Point (presumably that's why it can't be done sooner), and secondly, because the Omega Point will necessarily be driven towards total knowledge, towards understanding how it came to be, and that will involve running simulations of all possibilities out of which it could have arisen.
All of this raises more questions than it answers -- some of which Tipler tackles, though seldom convincingly. Life will do this because it must. The Omega Point will resurrect us because it must. But will it resurrect us as eternal computer simulations in some kind of computer heaven? Or shall we rise again, unaware of our previous existence, to repeat it infinitely in the computer mind at the end of the Universe.? Will we become one with the Omega Point and share in its power? Or will we merely be the subject of its researches? And if all this is true, then doesn't it follow that the simulation may be already running and we're living in it? In which case, God, resurrection, and the Omega Point don't make a damn bit of difference.
In the end, it comes back to one thing -- faith. For all its weighty scientific methodology, its equations, its charts, and its graphs, The Physics of Immortality still asks that we believe. It asks us to rest our hopes for eternal life in a theory, a theory so far ignored by Tipler's colleagues. Certainly there's plenty of food for thought here. And certainly Tipler's theory is possible. But he does not ask us to accept its possibility. He ask us to accept it as proven fact. For instance, the quantum fluctuations at the final singularity -- the Omega Point -- which most scientists assume will wipe out life are "obviated with the Omega Point Boundary Condition, because in this case the universe continues to exist because life itself does; quantum fluctuations large enough to destroy life cannot occur because they are prevented by the boundary condition from forming."
We will be resurrected because we will be resurrected.
God is because God is.
Well, sure. Why not? It beats decaying into a stinking mess of worm-eaten gunk.
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Copyright Circuit Traces Communications 1995