The Physics of Immortality, Frank J. Tipler

Doubleday, 1994, 528 pages, C$25.00 tpb, ISBN 0-385-46798-2

The dust jacket copy suggests it all: An attempt to bring religion under the aegis of science. The physical proof for God. Equations proving that we’re going to be resurrected sooner or later. Whew!

It has now been ten years since the publication of The Physics of Immortality and the book has had time to percolate through the noosphere. Science Fiction has (somewhat) embraced a few of the book’s arguments: Frederik Pohl wrote a trilogy about Tipler’s “Omega Point”, and the same rough outline of divinity can be found in works such as Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia and the Clarke/Baxter collaboration The Light of Other Days. I suppose it’s appropriate for SF to take back a little bit from a work which itself owes a lot to Science Fiction.

Tipler’s “Omega Point” theory, as I understand it in a nutshell, is that as life inevitably spreads through the universe (don’t worry: even his postulates are grandiose), it will come to achieve a complete mastery of space/time, develop ultimate computing capabilities and generally achieve god-like powers. In addition to that, life (being all-good) will do everything in its power to recreate past life through fantastically detailed simulations and, yes, will end up recreating you at the moment of your death, and then keep simulating you in a perpetual state of bliss forever and ever, amen.

Yes, it sounds silly. But Tipler certainly doesn’t think so, and he spends a lot of the book’s 528 pages proving to his satisfaction that mathematics and physics and computer science and general relativity are on his side. In one way, this is a book-length rationalization where physics are used to prove wishful thinking. Or at least that’s the impression I got. But I’m no scientist, and the 150-pages “Appendix for Scientists” (where the book’s equations are carefully contained, though this is no way implies that the rest of the book is unusually accessible.) looks exactly like the kind of stuff that should intimidate me into silence. As Tipler points out in his foreword to the Appendix, “the science (here) is extremely interdisciplinary. To comprehend it all without reference to a research library would require Ph.D.s in at least three disparate fields: (1) global general relativity, (2) theoretical particle physics, and (3) computer complexity theory” [P.395] Oookay.

But that doesn’t mean that I can’t comment the book from the perspective of a science-fiction reader, right? In the absence of rigorous peer-reviewed eschatology papers in Nature, it may be the most appropriate way to tackle it. (Certainly, some of the book’s premises are already untenable; ten years later, the “Big Crunch” is thought unlikely to happen) There is no shame in browsing parts of this book for lack of interest; not everyone is dying to know how Tipler’s “Omega Point” theory fits with other major religions, much like few will care about the topology of a contracting universe.

The least you can say is that Tipler thinks big. Universe-wide concepts reaching to the end of time are bandied about with ease, through -ironically enough-, SF readers are liable to feel restless through them, as they’re either taken straight from SF or have since been re-appropriated. As a fun theoretical supposition to play with, the “Omega Point” theory is a nifty thing: With it, you can effortlessly tie THE MATRIX with God, time-travel and faster-than-light voyages.

It’s even more interesting as a philosophical point, though: By arguing that God doesn’t yet exist, but will be created by the perfection of humankind, Tipler is essentially shifting religion from the past (and the creation of the universe) to the future, leaving aside the still-troubling questions of where the universe came from. And yet the practical “moral guidance” implied by a resurrection by the hands of a future God is identical to traditional theology: work hard at perfecting the world so that your descendants can keep making progress toward the Omega Point, and do so nicely, because this future God may not want to resurrect its undeserving ancestors. Cute, and entirely consistent with the pro-knowledge, good-triumphs-over-evil ethos of traditional Science Fiction.

If only for that, here’s a lot to like from The Physics of Immortality, even though it’s kind of cruel to ask readers to slog through hundreds of pages to get to that point. There’s no denying that Tipler’s book is almost the ultimate in self-rationalization. Even though I’m looking at it from a singularly uninformed perfective, it doesn’t strike me as serious science nor serious theology. But the central point is worth mulling about. And, who knows, it may even act as a source for other good SF stories…

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