THE PHYSICS OF IMMORTALITY:
MODERN COSMOLOGY, GOD AND THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD
By Frank J. Tipler
New York, Doubleday, 1994 xi + 528 pages, $24.95 hardcover

If nothing else, this book should get the prize for being one of the most audacious books to appear in the area of theology during the past decade. This is particularly surprising because it was not written by a theologian but by a mathematical physicist, one who also claims that he remains, at least until his theories are proved true, an atheist.

Basing his reasoning on the total picture of modern cosmology as developed by such scientists as Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, and looking forward to the advances in particle physics promised by such devices as the "super-collider" (if the U.S. Congress ever wakes up and lets that project get back on track) Tipler claims that in all probability science will soon end up proving not only that there is a God but that even the hoary old belief in the "resurrection of the dead" will be proven to be in the future of the universe!

However, before one gets too excited about these possibilities, the reader should be warned. Tipler is a total reductionist: as he puts it in the preface, he "regard[s] a human being as nothing but a particular type of machine, a human brain as nothing but an information processing device, [and] the human soul as nothing but a program run on a computer called the brain." And not only does Tipler not apologize for this reductionism, but he celebrates it as the final solution to the old hassle between religion and science. Theology becomes, in his estimate, a branch of physics, or even (as he says toward the end of the book) a part of astronomy, for in the end it will not be just the theories of physics that will prognosticate the future of humanity, but the findings of astronomy that will be needed to confirm it.

What are we to make of such claims? While I can't speak for them, I suspect that a lot of scientists will dismiss the whole thing out of hand, prejudices being what they are -- even though the book contains over a hundred pages of a special "Appendix For Scientists" in which each of his major ideas is explored, and as he claims, proven, in largely mathematical term -- much of which less specialized readers like myself will have to take on "faith".

But even as a non-scientist, I am a bit uneasy with what appears to me to be some hops, skips, and jumps in Tipler's reasoning: for example his apparent assumption (widely held today but still largely unproven) that this is a "closed" or eventually collapsing universe, this when the search for the necessary amount of "dark matter" to insure this result has so far been unsuccessful. Since this book went to print, new searches for "dark matter" in the form of numerous "red dwarf" stars with the aid of the repaired Hubble Space Telescope have turned up next to nothing.

Likewise, Tipler's adoption of an "Eternal Life Postulate", the conviction that life, once it appears in the universe must continue forever, appears to be a rephrasing of what he called the "final anthropic principle" in his earlier book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, co-authored with astrophysicist John D. Barrow (Oxford University Press, 1986) and sounds suspiciously like just the kind of teleological argument that may be attractive to a theologian but which most hard-core scientists do their best to avoid. Wouldn't it be more honest to admit that such an outcome, much like the "Omega-Point Theory" (the title of which he admits is teilhardian in inspiration but claims is otherwise in no way dependent on Teilhard's thought) which Tipler builds on the closed universe scenario, remain more matters of conjecture?

And finally, even if such premises are admitted, there is the curious discrepancy, quietly argued in the earlier book but now shouted in a footnote: "THERE ARE NO EXTRATERRESTRIALS! If there were, they would be here by now." One would think that if this vast universe, with its billions of galaxies, is in some way "designed", as he and Barrow argued, for the production of intelligent life such as ourselves, that the claim that humanity is the sole instance of such intelligent life is self- contradictory. Would not only one instance of such life in several billion possible locations suggest mere accidental chance at work more than any intelligent design?

But on this particular point Tipler's new worry is that more than one (or at must just a very few) such intelligent species would interfere with the conservation of enough energy to steer or control the collapse of the universe in such a way to preserve intelligent life until the final convergence or "Omega-Point" is reached -- when not only all life and all thought that has ever existed in all possible configurations of the universe will be reconstituted (hence "resurrected") but transformed or transported as it were into an eternity that transcends all space and time. Even as science fiction, much less a branch of physics, is this not assuming a just bit too much?

Which brings me to my final point. What I'm most concerned about is how this book will be regarded by theologians. Many, no doubt, intimidated by the scientific language and haunted the failures of "natural theology" in the past, will run the other way. If so, this is highly unfortunate, in fact, disastrous for the future credibility of any theology that claims to be a "science" in its own right. True, there are other kinds of science than the strictly empirical (that is, "testable" -- through repeated experiments) disciplines that have cornered the word "science" for themselves in this post-enlightenment age. However, if theology is to be taken seriously by the majority of humanity in our time, it cannot run from serious attempts to understand and to dialogue with "science" as it is commonly understood today. In fact, it could be argued that some of the most serious attempts at a truly contemporary theology is being done, not by theologians, but by scientists like Tipler, no matter how clumsy these attempts may at first appear.

And as for this book in particular, no matter how much we might question some of Tipler's assumptions or his conclusions, I think that we all might take more seriously one of his parting statements aimed at the general reader: "The problem with contemporary theology and indeed with most of late-twentieth-century religion is not that it is separated from science but that it is separated from modern science." If that is the case, and if Tipler's initially stated aim is to persuade scientists to "reconsider the God hypothesis" and "to make Heaven as real as the electron", one can also hope a book like this will also persuade theologians to take science, particularly physics, astronomy, and cosmology, as seriously as they do scripture or their own theories about God.

R W Kropf


Review originally published in the National Catholic Reporter


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