July 5, 2009

The Physics of Immortality

Frank Tipler’s book, The Physics of Immortality, came out in 1994 to mixed peer reviews and much hoopla. I read it that same year, hoping it would point to a future in which science and spirituality might rest together in harmony. While I’m still hopeful that the two disciplines will find common ground, to me, Tipler’s book points to some of the difficulties in getting there. In case you haven’t read it, let me offer my take on the book.

Tipler is a mathematical physicist and former agnostic, who while attempting to debunk the notion of a resurrection, inadvertently convinced himself that life after death was not only possible, but inevitable. His methodology was similar to a process mathematicians have, for centuries, used to disprove a false premise: First accept it as true and then show how such acceptance leads to a logical inconsistency. In this manner, Tipler considered ways the resurrection might occur, looking to prove its impossibility. Along the way, he developed a theory that he subsequently called the Omega Point, which he claims is a logical proof of life after death. How is the resurrection to occur? Essentially, we’re brought to life as part of a computer simulation that is so accurate that all possible quantum states for all human beings—including everyone’s DNA—is part of the code. Tipler shows how this could happen by “proving” that:
  • At some point in the future there will be sufficient computing power to accomplish the task
  • Until such time, all information about the universe will be preserved
  • The preserved information will be used in a virtual reality emulation of infinite experiential time that will simulate the universe and all the intelligent creatures that have lived in it
  • All of this must occur to avoid breaking known physical laws.

To me, the thesis is intriguing, but it doesn’t make me any less uncertain of immortality than I was before reading the book. Specifically, I have two problems with it. First, I don’t understand the logical leap Tipler makes by showing how the resurrection is possible then asserting it’s inevitable. After reading a few peer reviews, I can happily say I’m not alone in this regard. The theory includes what Tipler calls an Omega Point Boundary Condition that results in the inevitability of the resurrection, but other physicists have not found the idea compelling. Second, the theory assumes that any emulation that precisely models the DNA of individuals will essentially create (or recreate) the humans emulated. In other words, there is no perceived difference between reality and a perfectly accurate simulation. As a consequence, Tipler claims there is no such thing as a soul—that DNA determines everything about a person that experience does not, including sentience and self-awareness.

While I’m open to the possibility of the non-existence of the soul, I’m disturbed by the idea that DNA describes everything about us. It seems to me that while DNA puts constraints around our development, growth is representative of a chaotic system that leaves considerable variability, even if the genetic code is identical. One need only observe identical twins to find proof of that notion. While they share the same DNA and may resemble each other, they can exhibit a range of physical and behavioral differences. The same can be said of a cloned pet that may have different mannerisms—even coloration—than the Fifi who provided its genetic material.

The study of such chaotic systems (sometimes referred to as chaos theory, which is a misnomer since it hasn’t resulted in a practical or workable theory) is the study of systems that are bounded but unpredictable since they are not subject to any physical laws we understand. These systems include, for example, weather and turbulence. To illustrate their unusual qualities, let me mention that the great physicist, Werner Heisenberg, once said he had two questions for God. They were:
  1. Why is general relativity so weird?
  2. And how do you explain turbulence?

Heisenberg claimed he was certain God would know the answer to the first question, but not so the second. This is from the man who, as author of much of quantum mechanics—including the Uncertainty Principal that bears his name—was arguably as familiar with bizarre physical systems as anyone. To him, however, turbulence went beyond weird into the realm of inexplicable. It’s not a deterministic system. In other words, try to predict the movement of a grain of sand moving through a water pipe, and it quickly becomes apparent that there are no discernible physical laws guiding it. Such is the case no matter how precisely one models the imperfections in the pipe, the weight and dimensions of the grain of sand, the flow and pressure of the water, and all other possible variables.

Weather, too—which has been modeled with as much precision as is humanly possible—is another chaotic system. Climate simulations that measure the precise interactions of thousands of variables, including geothermal, solar, air current, tidal and others, have done little to accurately forecast weather more than two to three days into the future. In fact, time and time again, such simulations have predicted that the earth will freeze over and remain in that condition. Why? In the course of its normal range of climate variability, the earth will eventually receive an unusually high amount of snowfall, which will deflect the sun’s rays and lead to a cycle of even greater precipitation and falling temperatures. Yet, experience teaches us that there are moderating influences directing changes in climate that we don’t understand.

The same lack of predictability is true of growth. After inception, the subsequent division of the fertilized cell first resulting in a zygote, then an embryo, then a baby, is a chaotic process that is subject to great variability. This variability can’t be understood by referencing known physical laws—including DNA replication or even the probabilities associated with quantum fluctuations. Like weather, growth can’t be simulated in a computer, no matter how sophisticated the program. That’s just my opinion.

I suppose in the end, Tipler’s book contributes to a debate that the writings of Plato and Aristotle first introduced. Do we have souls independent of our bodies as Plato claimed? Or are our souls simply the actuality of our bodies as is the opinion of Aristotle? These are perhaps more examples of questions that can only be answered on an individual level through a leap of faith. Like I said earlier, Tipler’s book is intriguing, but it doesn’t reduce the uncertainty of life after death. Maybe uncertainty was always meant to be.


Anonymous said...

Chaos studies observe non-linear systems in which small changes to initial conditions result in significant, unpredictable outcomes. Often, however, what is unpredictable about a dynamic system is orthogonal to what is predictable.

You conclude:
"These are perhaps more examples of questions that can only be answered on an individual level through a leap of faith."

Here are three things that bother me about religious "leaps of faith":

o Religious leaders and communities mis-use "faith" -- often starting with a "leap of faith" -- as a manipulation to habituate dogma for any number of tacit, often destructive personal, social, religious, and political agendas;

o The premise of "faith" that follows by rejection of objective and scientific evidence -- which happens possibly more often than not in religions I've seen -- strikes me as intellectually dishonest;

o The premise of faith that follows by outright fabrication to justify itself and to keep others hewing to similar "faith" strikes me as worse than intellectually dishonest.

There is no end of uncertainty in this universe. That's no argument for a leap of faith as far as I can see.

We can live and die with uncertainty -- and otherwise find all kinds of happiness and constructive creativity. No problem. It's better than faith that reveals itself to be intellectually dishonest, which commonly seems to me lazy, self-serving, and/or immoral.

"With all thy getting, get understanding." - Alan Bahr

Alan Bahr said...

Thanks, Dan, for your comments. I completely agree with your critique of some religious leaps of faith. I'm disappointed and incensed by the the same three issues you raised. If you read some of my past blogs--one in particular regarding William James--you'll notice that we are in complete agreement as far as that goes.

I also believe, however, that there have been incredibly noble advancements made in the name of religion WHEN religion practiced what it preaches. The history of second and third century Christianity, for example, overwhelms me. The people were remarkable. Most appeared to have lived communally and owned/shared all things in common. They worked for the common good, just as Jesus instructed, healing the sick, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. Today, I'm sad to say, few people actually practice Christianity anymore, but that doesn't mean it's an inappropriate or incorrect worldview. The fault is in people, who fall short of Christ's aspirations for humanity.

Furthermore, as I've said elsewhere here, people who have hijacked narrowly defined scripture or other religious pronouncements to manipulate people are assholes (and worse) but if they hadn't had religion as a tool, I'm certain they would have found other philosophies or psuedo sciences to achieve their selfish aims. (Think of all the atrocities the world has experienced, for example, due to petty disagreements over economic or political systems). Some people on the religious right ignore Christ's directives to love and forgive in order to control others and enrich themselves. I'm not happy about that, but the point is, they do it by ignoring, rather than following, what Jesus taught.

In the end, you and I are not so different. I, too, would like people of faith to be intellectually honest and actively engaged in promoting the common good. But they/I can do that and still take a leap of faith in the direction of Christ's higher law. The fact that there is so much about our lives that is uncertain means we must muddle through life without a perfect knowledge that we're doing the right thing at all times. That to me is faith, no matter its basis.

One final point: If I feed the hungry because Jesus said I should, this is no better--and arguably a worse reason--than feeding the hungry because I believe it's the right thing to do. It occurs to me that you may think I believe otherwise. But I'm not here to convert people to Christianity. I don't care why people choose to practice compassion, I just hope we all do. To Christians, I'm trying to point out the fact that Christ's instructions have been largely ignored or misunderstood and we should be better than what is commonly practiced.

If there's a God, I'm sure He would agree.


Anonymous said...

Well, as scientists I hope we can all agree that a 2000 year-old document put together by a committee is not proof of anything. However, I don't think this belief is only based on wishful thinking. There are lots of cases of people coming back to life after being brain dead who have described events that occurred while hovering nearby. This is not scientific proof, of course, because it's hearsay, but I suspect it's the best we're going to get. Besides, who are we to say what's real? Quantum mechanics puts what we perceive as reality on shaky grounds. It's easy for me to believe that our reality is simply a projection inside a wider reality. In fact, physicists talk about this all the time, but not in the context of religion of course.

Alan Bahr said...


Anonymous said...

"It's easy for me to believe that our reality is simply a projection inside a wider reality."

I think so too. For example, an acid (LSD) trip can produce that astral-projection-like experience of being in two places at once, mind and body. I thoroughly enjoy some of the new research on brain activity, roots and impacts. There's a lot to learn there, and enough evidence, I think, to doubt classic religious explanations for those kind of experiences.

Alan, the header on this blog alludes to "Christs higher laws," and "God's personal callings." When I read language like that, I think, "according to whom?" and "with what assumptions?" In the answer to these questions, many self-identified Christians begin to lose credibility with me.

I've often thought that those first two centuries-plus of self-organizing Christianity -- characterized (as much as we vaguely know/infer) by small communities, basic technologies, fellowship, dialogue, mutual care (particularly significant during recurring plagues when non-Christians notably would flee the infected), and lack of unified dogma and hierarchy -- is Christianity's redeeming period.

Of course, with the evolution of a priestly (ownership/leadership) class we also can track an historical explosion of dogma, violence, and destruction. There's no end to it that I've seen.*

Have you written "The Book of New Christians," yet? ...For people eager to practice "real" Christianity, I mean? [grins]

No, what we see among self-identified Christians represents Christianity theory-in-use. I think it's a logical fallacy to say "few people actually practice Christianity anymore."

What we see is Christianity now. It's not monolithic, but it exhibits widely shared characteristics. Among them, I would say, a vulnerability to "faith-based" nonsense -- beliefs and behaviors that too often are destructive. Aside: to observe this is not to belie or deny good things that emerge from Christian communities, too.

Looking forward, I think let's minimize a value like "faith," which helps make whole communities vulnerable to sociopathic behaviors partly because it (faith) discourages self-doubt and self-correction, and let's maximize values like "learning," which embrace self-corrective improvements.

Maybe you'd agree, Alan, that doing so would be a kind-of analogue to our vision of evolving a financial system with better incentives?


* I loved visiting Christian churches in Europe this year, imagining how priests and communities obviously competed with one-another to build increasingly grandiose monuments to their faiths -- and their positions in society. Palaces and churches. Palaces and churches. And the gold...oh, the gold.

Those were the days when major parts of the economy fluctuated with the rise and fall of the priestly class. There's an awesome gold-gilded church in Spain (remember the Inquisition when torture was nothing to be ashamed of? lol) that displays in the nave a wonderful icon of a conquistador standing proudly with his foot on the back of a native from another land, a native with devil's horns and a devil's tail. How convenient faith-based thinking is. How real.

I've shared the thought with some that today's economists and business masters-of-the-universe share much in common with priests and kings in earlier times.