Tuesday, March 15, 2005


World Without End (1)

On the terminal point
Of the cul-de-sac
Patients are dying
The horses are dazed
From the glare of stars
The starry wisdom
Owned by the Baron
And he's got the cure

- "The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein's Castle at Weisseria"
Blue Öyster Cult

REVIEW: Frank J. Tipler: The Physics of Immortality. Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead. New York 1994.

There's a religious argument known as Pascal's Wager. If I understand it, it goes like this: If you believe in God, and you're wrong and God does not turn out to exist at all, you're going to end up as wormfood, you'll be munched upon by beetles - but you won't notice anything because there isn't really anything after death. Just the great big black hollow of Nothingness.

If you don't believe in God and you turn out to be right, you're going to end up the same. But you were expecting that anyway.

But if you don't believe in God and you turn out to be wrong, then you're in deep trouble, at least according to Jack Chick cartoons. I read one of them once, and it was very frightening. First, you'll be examined by a really large guy with this featureless, luminous face. A bit like a lightbulb. Like that one Walt Disney character, what's his name, has running around. Only, this one is ten feet tall and dressed in robes. If, then, your name is not in a book that some angel is holding there (and if you don't believe in God, your name is not going to end up in that book), you're sent off to the lake of fire. Livid flames will lap at your skin - for all eternity. Ouch. Aawww. Ooh, that hurts.

However, if you believe in God and you happen to be right, you'll end up in Heaven, where you can look forward to being pleasured by tender-skinned angels for all eternity! (My idea of Heaven differs somewhat from that presented in Jack Chick cartoons).

So, the idea is that it's a rational choice to believe in God. At least you'll not end up being roasted alive and sodomized by awful hairy little devils with red-hot pitchforks for all eternity. And if you happen to be right, the payoff is very big.

Of course, it's not a very good argument. For once, the coldly rational calculation of Pascal's Wager may not be what the Church has in mind when they talk about "belief" and "faith".

Anyway, here's Frank Tipler, who starts off right on the first page by asserting:

(...) 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.

On the first page of the introduction, Tipler announces:

I shall describe the physical mechanism of the universal resurrection. I shall show how physics will permit the resurrection to eternal life of everyone who has lived, is living, and will live. I shall show exactly why this power to resurrect which modern physics allows will actually exist in the far future, and why it will in fact be used. If any reader has lost a loved one, or is afraid of death, modern physics says: "Be comforted, you and they shall live again."

No maybe's and perhapses here. This is the real stuff. Not only is a resurrection possible, it will happen - and what's more, you don't have to go to Church or to actually have to believe for it to happen!

The biggest free lunch in history.

Anyway, if this was any mush-headed New Age tract, I'd have returned the book to the library there and then, because if there's one thing I detest, it's New Age. New Agers hate the body, they hate the flesh and blood and itches and hair and dirt that comes with being human. With them, it's all about becoming one with the Cosmic Consciousness or being rocked like an infant at the ample bosom of Gaia the Earthmother, or some such crap. They're anti-humanists. New Agers would not talk about resurrection as much as about being reincarnated as a fiery ball of pure cosmic energy circling Sirius. Now, I'd be pretty pissed off if I would find myself being a shimmering orb of energy circling some stupid star in the next life. I'd probably collide with the surface of Sirius over and over again, in the slight hope that I could make it go Supernova through some weird quantum effect and be done with it.

What made me not return the book immediately was Tipler's apparent interest in
Christian dogma rather than mush-headed New Age fantasies. Now, Christian dogma is something I know and respect.

Anyway, this book is sure to infuriate theologians and skeptics alike. There's been some kind of armistice between the natural sciences and religion, defended by for example the late Stephen Jay Gould and also Michael Ruse, in which both field would have their own domain, not impinging upon one another. Physics deals with how the world works, Theology and religion with the meaning of it all.

Tipler's book does not as much break down the barrier as plants his fist in its face, spits in its mouth, jeers at it and humiliates it and finally kindly informs it that it has just returned from a drawn-out session of buggering a close member of the barrier's family. You get the idea.

As the quotes at the beginning make clear, Tipler is very blatant about the possible religious significance of his ideas. An uncharitable reader would say that he's trying to make a profit out of selling his ideas to the religious. A charitable reader would say that Tipler is being very sincere and up-front.

So what is the gist of the theory Tipler presents in his book?

Start out with the observation that, in a few billion years, the Earth will be gobbled up by the expanding outer shell of the Sun, now gone Red Giant. Oceans will have boiled away long before as the Sun grows hotter. In order to survive as a species, we would need to leave the Earth long before then.

However, manned space-travel in a strict sense is not going to help us. Tipler sticks to the speed of light being an absolute barrier beyond which information cannot be transferred; but even at a fraction of the speed of light, the crew of a spacecraft would be squished by inertial forces like a snail being stepped upon. A survivable trip to a nearby star system would take ages.

Tipler finds a solution in so-called Von Neumann machines. A Von Neumann machine is a conscious, intelligent machine that is able to replicate itself and basically construct anything, given the raw materials. We humans are Von Neumann machines, in a way. However, mechanical Von Neumann machines would have the advantage of great longevity and, more important, possibly a very small size. A nano-engineered Von Neumann machine a few centimetres big would not need that much energy to get from here to Proxima Centauri. So, Tipler envisages Von Neumann machines leaving the Earth in search of habitable systems pretty soon, actually. The Von Neumann machines would contain the information needed to re-create whole colonies of virtual human beings (Tipler assumes that the total content in bits of human memory is immense, but finite) in their tiny memory banks. Once this process has started, it is irreversible; once a few Von Neumann machines have founded colonies on other planets and sent their replicated counterparts forth to seek on, the human race (or, the combined human/machine race) is essentially indestructible.

With me so far? Good.

Now, Tipler invokes a version of the Final Anthropic Principle, the Eternal Life Postulate.

Basically, in its weakest form, the Anthropic Principle states that our observations about the universe should be in accord with the fact that we are observing it. What this means is that out existence places limits on the age and expanse of the universe. We are carbon-based creatures, but the carbon in our world has been spread across the Galaxy by an exploding Supernova. So, the Universe must be at least old enough for stars to develop, go Supernova, and so on; the gravitational constant must be such that some stars are able to go Supernova, etc.

This version of the Anthropic Principle is uncontroversial, the question is whether it is interesting, or merely trivial.

In a stronger sense, the Anthropic Principle states that life is not merely a contingent possibility of the development of the Universe, but is in a way hard-wired into the Universe itself. This based on the fact that many of the fundamental constants in the physical sciences seem to be 'just right' to support a living Universe. If the gravitational constant was slightly stronger, for example, we would have a universe with tiny galaxies and tiny stars kilometres across - however, they would go through their life-cycles so quickly that there would not be enough time for life to develop. A weaker gravitational force and matter might not clutter together tightly enough to even form stars.

As far as I understand, this version of the Anthropic Principle tends to make at least those scientist of a more atheist/skeptical persuasion feel a bit itchy. Because it's a relatively short way from arguing that the emergence of life was somehow part of the "purpose" of the universe, in a more-or-less teleological fashion, and from saying that the fundamental laws of nature are the product of design.

Note, by the way, that a "design" interpretation of the stronger Anthropic Principle is incompatible with "Intelligent Design" as the most recent 'respectable' incarnation of Creationism. For what such an interpretation would state is that the evolution of (intelligent) life is hard-wired into the laws of Nature. However, if we were to accept Intelligent Design/Divine Creation (same thing) in biological evolution, most of the anthropic arguments would become vacuous. If God can create a beetle and an orang-utan and cacatoo and Mongolian death worm etc., then surely he can create the Earth with carbon and gold and iron and all without needing first to waste a whole star to create a fiery Supernova to belch forth all those precious materials! It's one or the other: anthropic design or ID, you can't have both.

Anyway, the problem with the stronger anthropic principle - which, by the way, I find a halfway respectable argument, as opposed to Intelligent Design in biological evolution - is that we're really hovering on the edge of what we know and cannot know. How sure can we be of the chances that our life-supporting Universe, instead of some other uninhabitable one, would emerge from the Big Bang? More to the point, a counter-argument has been levelled to the extent that there may be many universes, some life-supporting, others hostile. If that were true, the fundamental laws in our universe would be not more surprising than the fact we're finding ourselves on Earth instead of on the surface of Jupiter.

One interpretation allowing for many universes which apparently is popular to some extent among physicists is the many-world hypothesis of quantum mechanics. If I understand it - and I very much doubt whether I do (some physically more astute reader should enlighten me) - the status of quantum particles is often indeterminate. They could be waves, or particles. At the moment they are observed, though, they "choose" one of the two possible states. What the many-world interpretation would say, if I understand, that actually both possibilities are realized - the universe branches in two daughter universes.

Anyway, quantum processes have been going on for some time, and what this hypothesis would lead to is that there is, in fact, a near-infinite (or infinite?) number of parallel universes. There's a parallel universe where a certain head of state gets hit by a flaming meteor at the moment of pronouncing the State of the Union speech. There's a parallel universe where the PSSST(KA) rules visible space with an iron fist from it's fortified headquarters on Olympus Mons. Not: there may be such universes, but there are such universes.

Tipler does, in fact, subscribe to the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. I do not know to what extent it would invalidate a stronger anthropic principle, as I do not know to what extent variable constants and fundamental laws of nature are allowed in the alternate universes of the MWI.

In any event, purely as an explanation of anthropic "coincidences", without taking other issues into account, I am not at all sure whether the postulation of alternate universes is less outlandish than the postulation of the existence of God. I wonder whether any of the alternatives would be preferable on the basis of Occam's razor - I'm not sure whether such a thing would be calculable in the first place.

Tipler's theory is based on not merely the stronger version of the Anthropic Principle, but on a Final one: Intelligent life, once emerged, must continue forever.

In short, the rest of the idea is that slowly but inexorably, the Von Neumann machines would colonize the Galaxy and, basically, make it a "living" Galaxy. Then they move on to the Magellean Cloud and Andromeda. Eventually, all of space, the whole universe, would be inhabited by Man and his machine descendants.

An important part of this reasoning is that the Universe does not merely go on to expand forever, as some have suggested (for example Freeman Dyson). At some point, it will start to contract again. Intelligent life cannot exist forever in an eternally expanding universe - eventually, all stars will have burned out, leaving only neutron stars and black holes, and even protons might start to decay. Tipler's anthropic postulate does, of course, support an eventually contracting universe - but you see how much a leap of faith this kind of anthropic reasoning is, tantalizing as it may be.

But now the Universe is contracting, the fun starts. Tipler believes that the universe may be manipulated not into contracting at an even rate in all directions, but to contract faster in one direction while staying the same size in others. This would create stupendous heat differences, and thereby a potentially enormous source of energy. Note that we're dealing with some pretty hostile circumstances at the end of the Universe: intelligent life would need to adapt to the volatile, hot circumstances that exist then.

Eventually, though, Tipler believes that the contracting, living universe would attain an infinite information-processing capacity. Here, Tipler bases himself on a model of the late universe in which there are no event horizons - boundaries beyond which light and information cannot pass, such as the "shells" of Black Holes. When that happens, briefly before the Big Crunch, essentially the living, human universe would become God. As Tipler subscribes to the Many-Worlds Interpretation, all world-lines in all parallel universes would converge upon the Omega Point.

After Teilhard the Chardin, Tipler names this event the Omega Point. It is odd that Tipler stresses that this concept is the only contribution of Teilhard to his thesis, even if he, rightly, defends Teilhard's vague vitalism as the consensus position of evolutionary biologists of his time.

All of this, of course, depends on whether one accepts Tipler's anthropic assumption, his Eternal Life Postulate. If one does, the hypothesis is quite interesting. If one does not, all bets are off.

Now, the Omega Point, being omnipresent - it is the living, contracting universe, will also want to become really omniscient. To do that, Tipler argues it will recreate every possible, imaginable human being. As we are basically an immensely complex, but finite pattern, recreated patterns would be identical to us. They would be us. Of course, we'd be resurrected in intricate virtual worlds, which is probably a blessing considering what the real universe will look like seconds before the Big Crunch.

Now, I'm hearing you: "So, Tipler says we're all going to be resurrected and then informs us that it's going to happen seconds before the End of the Universe? This is a bit of an anticlimax." However, as the universe is basically a giant computer with infinite processing capacity, it can do an infinite number of calculations within those few last moments. Subjective time would slow down to virtually nothing. For all intents and purposes, we'd have an eternity ahead of us.

That's the idea in a nutshell. A big nutshell.

As a non-physicist, I cannot really evaluate Tipler's physics. He might be pulling my leg - but let's assume he doesn't. In that case, the weakest link in the argumental chain, in my opinion, would be that it crucially hinges on an anthropic assumption.

The weakest part of the book is where Tipler insists on searching support for his hypothesis from various world religions. Thus, Tipler is quite happy with the burning bush telling Moses "I will be who I will be" in the original Hebrew, rather than "I am who I am." See?, says Tipler, that fits nicely with the Omega Point theory! Ummm... yes, it does, but we're not actually assuming that God literally spoke to Moses in the shape of a burning shrub, do we?

The biggest redeeming feature of the book is Tipler's guns-blazing no-holds-barred scientific optimism. Kuhnian epistemic relativism is dealt with with the terseness that the junk in question deserves. Not only can we go to space, not only should we go to space, we will go to space! (Albeit as bytes in the memory banks of a dwarf-sized Von Neumann machine). No nonsense about the Precautionary Principle here!

Tipler's writing style is occasionally terse and jumpy. Sometimes, arguments that really would needed to be worked out a bit more are dealt with way too briefly in my opinion. Though most of the equations and such are mercifully banished to an "Appendix for Scientists", I quite often feel that Tipler does not take enough time for what is a dazzling chain of arguments. Doubtlessly the publisher placed restrictions on the size of the book - but twice as big would have been nice.

Finally - does Tipler's argument convince me?

I am not religious, but have been teetering on the brink of religion for quite some time, and have been fascinated by the idea of God ultimately emerging from Mankind for a long time. It seems to me that God as emerging from our collective labours, thoughts, knowledge, emotions, love and hate is far more appealing than a constant, distant Creator.

However, in perhaps too many ways Tipler succeeds in replacing a "maybe" or a "perhaps" with a "will" by his usage of the Final Anthropic Principle. Though anthropic reasoning of this kind interests me greatly, I think there are also problems, as I mentioned (particularly the conundrum of, overtly or silently, comparing the make-up of our universes with other possibilities the existence of which we cannot be sure about - as I said, it all borders at the edge of knowability).

Does Tipler's vision of the Universal Resurrection comfort or reassure me? That's difficult to say. Perhaps it's better to die in the knowledge that it's remotely possible that it's remotely possible that it's remotely possible that there is a remote possibility that you'll be resurrected - I am not convinced enough to go any farther.

So, for now, it's Pascal's Wager all over again.

- Merlijn de Smit

PS: As the Omega Point is omniscient, It will of course be able to read this. So, I have a special request. On page 256-257, Tipler writes that after the resurrection: "(...) it would be possible for each male to be matched not merely with the most beautiful woman in the world, not merely the most beautiful woman who has ever lived, but to be matched with the most beautiful woman whose existence is logically possible." Tipler subsequently provides calculations proving that the psychological impact of meeting the most beautiful woman whose existence is logically possible is roughly 100,000 times greater than that of meeting the most beautiful woman currently existing (p. 257).

As you are omnipotent and all, well, ummm... could you, ummm... match me with two of the most beautiful women whose existence is logically possible?

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?