Our Omega Point, which art in heaven

Bryan Appleyard questions the new theology of physics THE PHYSICS OF IMMORTALITY Frank J Tipler Macmillan £20
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"It is quite rare," this book begins, "in this day and age to come across a book proclaiming the unification of science and religion. It is unique to find a book asserting . . . that theology is a branch of physics, that physicists can infer by ca lculation the existence of God and the likelihood of the resurrection of the dead to eternal life. . . One naturally wonders if I am serious."

Tipler is a Professor of Mathematical Physics who used to be an atheist. He accepted the standard scientific view that the universe was a cold, impersonal place that neither required nor provided evidence for a superior or ultimate reality. But modern physics has been changing rapidly. It has become obsessed with big questions of beginnings and endings, and has swayed into realms previously occupied by philosophy.

Tipler has been concentrating on The End - on the apparent certainty that the universe will finally contract into a terminal singularity after the force of gravity overcomes the present expansive phase. Clearly such an end would appear to be a complete end in that consciousness could not exist in anything like its present form in such conditions - or, indeed, in any form since the singularity would lie beyond all time and all known laws of nature.

Tipler's work has led him to the conviction that we can anticipate a radically less pessimistic conclusion. Essentially, what should happen is that consciousness will progressively - over millions of years - colonise the entire universe. As the contraction begins towards what he calls "The Omega Point", this consciousness will be able to exploit "gravity shear" - a phenomenon that arises because of varying rates of contraction - to provide enough energy to maintain this new, universal awareness. This level of energy combined with the unimaginable sophistication of the future operations of consciousness will make it possible to produce computer emulations of everybody who has ever lived or ever could have lived.

These emulations will be identical to their originals and, therefore, they will be the originals. "The prospect is, therefore, that we shall die to be resurrected millions of years later among everybody we have ever known or could have known. Immortalitywould be assured because subjective time in proximity to The Omega Point would be limitless."

Tipler's explanations of the physics of this idea for the layman are good - indeed, at times thrilling - but the scientific meat of the argument is reserved for the "Appendix for Scientists" which outlines the mathematics involved. This immediately emphasises an important chasm between different levels of understanding. Clearly the layman cannot argue with the maths and yet equally clearly, it is the maths which constitues the real case. Furthermore, not all physicists believe this thesis, and thou gh the figures may appear solid they are disputable. This might be said to leave the layman precisely where he was before - suspended between faith and disbelief.

But the big issue of the book is that raised by Tipler's insistence that his theory unites science and religion, turning theology into a branch of physics. His God is The Omega Point. It draws all things to itself, it is the future determinant of all that we are. And, he claims, The Omega Point "loves" us in precisely the way that God has always been said to love his creation. Invoking Berkeley, he says that to exist is to be perceived by the omniscient Omega Point God.

Tipler says that his theory supports all human religions because "the core of all religions is a belief in a Supreme Personal God." This is an alarming statement because it is not factually correct - there is no such God in Buddhism, for example - and because the emphasis is misleading. It would be more true to say: the core of all religions is a belief that there is a transcendent demand on mankind to behave according to certain principles. The emphasis, in other words, is moral rather than physical.

But I think what Tipler intends to say is the opposite of what he says in his opening paragraph. He really believes that all human religions support his theory, rather than vice versa, and this is a quite different matter. For, if he is correct, then allreligions have effectively been colourful, metaphoric approximations to the truth which physics is now revealing. It would be more accurate, therefore, to say that his theory aspires to the conquest of religion by science rather than a peaceful union ofthe two.

Yet, however we twist and turn the argument, here is this physicist, a master of an arcane and potent craft, saying it is all true and, doubtless, thereby providing consolation for people unable to accept the demands of mere faith. The theory is, he claims, "the first redemption theory justified by reason, not faith."

Reasonably, we could treat all this as a fascinating oddity, an exciting speculation, the truth of which we are unlikely to see established in our lifetime and the immediate implications of which are unclear. But, for Tipler, there are immediate implications. For it is perfectly possible that we could cripple the whole process of immortality by our behaviour. We must, for example, accept that we are machines whose selves can be emulated by computer. We must embrace the technology that will give us artificial intelligence to drive the deep space probes that will spread consciousness across the universe. We must embrace all of science and its fruits as our true destiny, as they are the only route to the all- loving Omega Point.

This is, I am afraid, dangerously close to megalomania and it reveals the extent to which Tipler is, in fact, trying to conquer rather than make peace with religion. For most religions also emphasise humility and the sanity of human life. Either of thesecould perfectly reasonably be invoked to resist the idea of attempting to create machines with higher intelligence than ourselves or of making ourselves the slaves rather than the masters of technology.

In fact, the only requirement for Tipler's "religion" is that we subject ourselves to the logic of physics and all manner of thing shall be well. Sane people might feel that, coming from a physicist, this is more than a little self-serving. Crazy people will think this book offers them salvation. It offers nothing of the kind. The book is simply more evidence of the way in which physics has become a new kind of fundamentalism, not content to remain merely a branch of science, determined to draw all kno wledge into itself.