The Long View: The Physics of Immortality

I'll freely admit this book review jaundiced me against Tipler's book. I'm still convinced this is not a bad thing. I brought this up in a philosophy course once, and my professor chided me. I'm still convinced this is not a bad thing. Tipler is an advocate of the idea that the universe may be a simulation. I regard this as best unproven, and as at worst ridiculous. Tipler uses this idea to explain how resurrection is just a complicated algorithm. I rather think he missed the point, but some rather smart people agree with him. On the plus side, Tipler's favorite dead theologian is Aquinas. While I do think Thomas got some of the foundational ideas of science right, I still think Tipler misses the point.

As a fair warning, my physics education stopped at the undergraduate level. My philosophical education stopped partway through the masters level. I'm an amateur, and I like it that way.

The Physics of Immortality
by Frank J. Tipler
Doubleday, 1994
ISBN: 0-385-46798-2 $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 anti-religious, 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 which 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 recent 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 which appeared in "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle" (1986), a highly influential work which Dr. Tipler co-authored 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.


The Long View 2002-01-24 There is no time like the present

John wasn't a scientist, but rather a bright and well-read lawyer with an interest in science and science fiction. I think this made him a better analyst of trends and fads in science than those on the inside. John wrote extensively on natural philosophy, and the first links to his essays on that subject start to appear in this post. I've heard it said that most scientists eventually turn to philosophy in their old age, and what I would call natural philosophy was a matter of acute interest to my fellow physicists when I was in college. I always appreciated John's point of view on the implications of science.

There Is No Time Like the Present

I was persuaded of the reality of man-made global warming back in the mid-1970s, at much the same time and for much the same reasons that the idea first recommended itself to Al Gore. The notion of the artificial "greenhouse effect" is one of those intuitive, important-if-true ideas that appeal to science buffs. The hypothesis was not new, but in those days the first data were showing up to suggest a secular warming trend. I even remember realizing, or at least hearing, that the most noticeable effect would not be a general rise in surface temperatures, but changes in the mechanical behavior of the atmosphere. Weather patterns would be different. In some regions, global warming could even cause local cooling.

The most alarming prospects that global warming suggested to my liberal-arts-major mind turned out to be phantoms. For instance, there had been some early speculation that a runaway greenhouse effect might occur on Earth, as it had on Venus. The image of an oceanless Earth with a novel atmosphere seemed to chime with Revelation 21:1, 2 (as well as with Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night, one of the first books I ever read). I have later learned, though, that Earth is just not close enough to the sun for that to happen. If Earth had a predominantly carbon dioxide atmosphere, as Venus does, the surface temperature would be around 130 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than its current 55 degrees or so. Earth would be a nasty place, but the oceans would not evaporate. (Incidentally, if all the ice on the surface of the Earth melted, the oceans would rise just 220 feet. The film Waterworld was not jut a flop; it was a badly researched flop.)