The Physics of Immortality: Preface
Tipler (Frank)
Source: Tipler - Physics of Immortality, Preface
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  1. It is quite rare in this day and age to come across a book proclaiming the unification of science and religion. It is unique to find a book asserting, as I shall in the body of this book, that theology is a branch of physics, that physicists can infer by calculation the existence of God and the likelihood of the resurrection of the dead to eternal life in exactly the same way as physicists calculate the properties of the electron. One naturally wonders if I am serious.
  2. I am quite serious. But I am as surprised as the reader. When I began my career as a cosmologist some twenty years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straightforward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.
  3. I obtained my Ph.D. in 1976 in the area of global general relativity. This branch of physics, created in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the great British physicists Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, enables us to draw very deep and very general conclusions about the structure of space and time by looking at the universe in its totality in both time and space.
  4. Now one might think that such a view of the universe is the view of all cosmologists, but this is not so. Almost all cosmologists concern themselves with what is called the visible universe: that part of the universe whose past can be seen from Earth. Since the universe came into existence about 20 billion years ago, and since nothing can go faster than light, we can in principle see the pasts of galaxies which are now about 20 billion light-years away: the visible universe is thus a sphere about 20 billion light-years across.
  5. But to anyone regarding the universe in its total extent in space and especially in time, it is immediately obvious that the visible universe is only a tiny fraction of reality. The universe is almost certain to continue to exist for another 100 billion years, and probably much longer. In other words, the part of the spacetime which can be seen from Earth is relatively insignificant in comparison to the part which lies in our future; we humans have come into existence in the very early childhood of the cosmos. Hence, as a global relativist, I realized that I would have to study the future of the universe, since the future comprises almost all of space and time. It is not possible to look at the universe in its totality in both time and space while ignoring almost all of space and time.
  6. But how does one calculate the behavior of the universe in the far future? My colleague, the British astrophysicist John D. Barrow, has proved that this behavior would be chaotic, which means that the evolution1 of the universe becomes unpredictable after a time short in cosmological scales. It is now known that chaotic evolution2 is common on all astronomical scales: on the scale of the solar system, on the scale of the galaxies, on the scale of clusters of galaxies, and so on up to the scale of the entire universe itself.
  7. Furthermore, a simple calculation shows that, since chaos occurs on all size scales, intelligent beings would be able to use these instabilities to manipulate the motion of matter on the very largest scales. In other words, the possible presence and actions of intelligent life cannot be ignored in any calculation of the evolution3 of the far fixture. This would appear to make calculation of the universe's future even more impossible, since the behavior of humans is notoriously unpredictable. We shall have chaos in the society of intelligent living beings added to the chaos in the Einstein equations.
  8. Interestingly, this is not true. The two sources of chaos cancel out. What happens is that intelligent life, in order to survive, must use the chaos in the physical laws to force the evolution4 of the universe into one of a very restricted number of possible futures. Its very survival requires life to impose order on the universe. Taking biology into account allows us to do the physics of the far future.
  9. But in order to do calculations, it is essential to translate basic biological concepts into physics language. It is necessary to regard all forms of life — including human beings — as subject to the same laws of physics as electrons and atoms. I therefore regard a human being as nothing but a particular type of machine, the human brain as nothing but an information processing device, the human soul as nothing but a program being run on a computer called the brain. Further, all possible types of living beings, intelligent or not, are of the same nature, and subject to the same laws of physics as constrain all information processing devices.
  10. Many people find this extreme reductionist approach to life not only wrong but repulsive. I think, however, that their hostility is not to reductionism as such but to what they mistakenly believe to be consequences of reductionism. They are convinced that regarding people as machines would mean that people would have no "free will," that there is no hope of individual life after death5, that life itself is a totally insignificant part of "an overwhelmingly hostile universe.”
  11. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The very fact that humans are machines of a very special sort allows us to prove humans probably have free will, that we shall have life after death6 in an abode that closely resembles the Heaven of the great world religions, and that life, far from being insignificant, can be regarded as the ultimate cause of the very existence of the universe itself. How this works as a matter of physics is the subject of this book. The fact that all of these assertions are a consequence of physical reductionism has come as a great surprise to me also. As I said above, I never imagined when I began my career as a physicist that I would one day be writing, qua physicist, that Heaven exists, and that we shall each and every one of us enjoy life after death7. But here I am, writing what my younger self would regard as scientific nonsense. Here I stand — as a physicist, I can do no other.
  12. One naturally wonders why it is only in the last decade of the twentieth century that these ideas have appeared in physical cosmology. A good question. Part of the reason is that the mathematical techniques to analyze the global structure of the universe did not exist until about twenty-five years ago. But a deeper reason is that almost all physicists have ignored the future of the physical universe. There seemed to be a tacit consensus that the future is not as real as the present and the past, in spite of the fact that all fundamental physical theories advanced in the past three centuries — Newtonian mechanics, general relativity, quantum mechanics8, string field theory — have insisted that there is no fundamental distinction between past, present, and future. Hence, the future is just as real as the present. Fifty years ago, the early universe was an equally taboo subject. As the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg put it:
      . . . I think . . . the "big bang" theory did not lead to a search for the 3°K microwave background because it was extraordinarily difficult for physicists to take seriously any theory of the early universe. (I speak here in part from recollections of my own attitude before 1965.) . . . [The early universe is] so remote from us in time, the conditions of temperature and density are so unfamiliar, that we feel uncomfortable in applying our ordinary theories of statistical mechanics and nuclear physics. This is often the way it is in physics — our mistake is not that we take our theories too seriously, but that we do not take them seriously enough. It is always hard to realize that these numbers and equations we play with at our desks have something to do with the real world. Even worse, there often seems to be a general agreement that certain phenomena are just not fit subjects for respectable theoretical and experimental effort.
  13. I take the far future of the universe as seriously as I do the early universe. The equations of physics tell us to take the far future seriously, and until I have experimental evidence to the contrary, I shall believe what the equations say. I hope my fellow physicists will do the same. I intend to show in this book that, by ignoring the far future, they are passing up opportunities to do physics as they previously did by ignoring the early universe.
  14. It is more surprising to me that theologians have ignored the ultimate future of the cosmos. This ultimate future supposedly is the chief concern of the two main Western religions, Christianity and Islam. The central discipline for both religions should therefore be eschatology, which is the study of "last things." Eschatology has traditionally dealt with questions of whether to expect life after death9, what the afterlife10 will be like, and how God will provide for humankind in this afterlife11.
  15. I have been interacting with theologians and professors of religious studies for some six years now, and I have gotten the impression that, with only a few exceptions, they are quite ignorant of eschatology. Let me justify my accusation by recounting one of my recent experiences. In the fall of 1990 the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion happened to be held in New Orleans. I attended a plenary lecture by a famous Columbia University historian of the Middle Ages, who spoke on medieval beliefs about life after death12. She discussed at length an analysis by St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the medieval theologians, of a technical problem which arises with the idea of the resurrection of the dead: if the universal resurrection is accomplished by reassembling the original atoms which made up the dead, would it not be logically impossible for God to resurrect cannibals? Every one of their atoms belongs to someone else! The audience, several hundred theologians and religious studies professors, thought this quaint "problem" hilarious, and laughed loudly.
  16. I didn't laugh. When I first read Aquinas' analysis, which I came across when I first began to consider seriously the technical problems associated with a universal resurrection, I did laugh. But I soon realized that Aquinas' cannibal example was subtly chosen to illustrate the problem of personal identity between the original person and the resurrected person; establishing this identity is the central problem to be solved in any theory of resurrection of the dead. Any scholar who has seriously thought about the resurrection of the dead would almost certainly have come across Aquinas' analysis, be completely familiar with the cannibal example, and not laugh when it was mentioned. I infer that the typical American theologian / religious studies professor has never seriously thought about the resurrection of the dead. Eschatology has been left to the physicists.
  17. We physicists are by and large an extremely arrogant group of scholars. Our arrogance stems from the reductionist perception that ours is the ultimate science, and from our undoubted achievements over the past few centuries. What we promise, we generally deliver. Whatever one thinks of the social significance of the nuclear bomb, there is no doubt that it works. Solar eclipses occur exactly when we predict they will. As one who has spent his entire life as a physicist or as a physicist manqué, I not surprisingly share this arrogance. In my previous publications on religion and physics, I have attempted to conceal this arrogance (not very successfully). In this book, however, I have not bothered, mainly because such concealment in the past has prevented me from presenting the strongest case for reductionism. And reductionism is true. Furthermore, accepting reductionism allows one to integrate fully religion and science.
  18. Many of my fellow physicists have strongly advised me to avoid using words like "God," "Heaven," "free will," and the like. My friends believe these words have been debased by philosophers and theologians into synonyms for "nonsense." The "Omega Point" is a beautiful pure physics construct, and it should not be sullied by calling it "God." My friends have a point, but the old theological words retain a rough coherence in the popular language, and I propose to reintroduce them as technical terms which, as the reader will see in the chapters of this book, have roughly their popular meaning. "Resurrection of the dead" has a clear and unequivocal meaning to the person in the street, and if physics predicts such an event will one day occur, it seems unreasonable to adopt a new vocabulary to describe it. Another reason for their well-intended advice is that my fellow physicists are as a general rule atheists, believing that religion is a phenomenon of a pre-scientific world view. They are convinced that the God hypothesis is one which was refuted long ago.
  19. But on rare occasions we physicists find we must reconsider long-rejected theories. Copernicus was perfectly aware that he was resurrecting a theory that had been rejected by astronomers nearly two thousand years before. As his student Rheticus reported in 1539: "My teacher [Copernicus] is convinced, however, that the rejected method of the Sun's rule in the realm of nature must be revived. . .” Copernicus himself in his own book, published four years after Rheticus wrote these words, emphasized that the ancient astronomers had considered and then rejected the Sun-centered solar system.
  20. It is time scientists reconsider the God hypothesis. I hope in this book to persuade them to do so. The time has come to absorb theology into physics, to make Heaven as real as an electron.

    … Fort Walton Beach, Florida, July 1993

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