Tipler

Back in 1994 Frank J. Tipler, a professor of mathematical physics at Tulane University in New Orleans published a book, The Physics of Immortality, in which he argued that immortality and the resurrection of the dead were consistent with the known laws of physics. He argued that intelligent species would come to fill the universe and would, at the end of time, become what he called the Omega Point, which he identified as God.

When he wrote The Physics of Immortality Tipler was an agnostic. But by 2007, he had converted to Christianity. He since then has published a book entitled The Physics of Christianity, in which he argues that Christian theology is consistent with the laws of physics and that everything from the virgin birth to Jesus’ resurrection can be proven scientifically.

As I read his latest book, I wondered who exactly it would appeal to. Certainly agnostics and atheists will not like it any more than most of them liked his first book. But most Christians will be made uncomfortable by what he says, too. The book begins with an overview of modern physics, which non-physicists may find hard to understand. Nevertheless, I found the book fascinating.

Regarding his first book, The Physics of Immortality, the physicist George Ellis didn’t like it at all. When he reviewed it in the journal Nature, he wrote that it was “a masterpiece of pseudoscience … the product of a fertile and creative imagination unhampered by the normal constraints of scientific and philosophical discipline.” Another scientist, Michael Shermer, devoted a chapter of Why People Believe Weird Things to enumerating the flaws he perceived in Tipler’s thesis.

On the other hand, the Oxford physicist David Deutsch, who pioneered the field of quantum computers, finds Tipler’s arguments compelling enough that he incorporated his Omega Point concept as a central feature of his “four strands” Theory of Everything that he outlined in his 1997 book, The Fabric of Reality.

Tipler is probably best known for a generally well-received book he wrote with John D. Barrow and John A. Wheeler in 1986 called The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. In it, he and his co-authors review the intellectual history of teleology and the large number physical coincidences which allow sapient life to exist.

What is the anthropic principle? There are two basic forms of it, called the weak anthropic principle and the strong anthropic principle. The weak anthropic principle goes as follows (according to Tipler, Barrow and Wheeler): “The observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable but they take on values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve and by the requirements that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so.”

The strong anthropic priciple argues that “the Universe must have those properties which allow life to develop within it at some stage in its history” and “there exists one possible universe ‘designed’ with the goal of generating and sustaining ‘observers.’” It implies, therefore, that the purpose of the universe is to give rise to intelligent life, with the laws of physics and the fundamental constants set so as to ensure that life as we know it will emerge.

What are the fundamental constants in question? The nuclear strong force holds together the particles in the nucleus of an atom. If the nuclear force were only a percentage or two stronger or weaker the universe wouldn’t have the heavier elements in it, such as iron or carbon necessary for life. Likewise, if the nuclear weak force were slightly stronger or weaker, the heavier elements wouldn’t exist. The force of gravity is another constant that affects the interaction of particles and again, if its strength were more or less than it is, the universe would not be condusive to life. The same can be said of electromagnetism.

These and other examples are often given as evidence of the universe being fine-tuned.

Paul Davies discussed the universe’s fine-tuning at length in his book The Goldilocks Enigma (published in 2006). He summarises the current state of the debate over how fine-tuned the universe must be in detail and discusses the question of how this fine tuning is to be understood. He gives several possible interpretations of what we see in nature. First, it could be that the universe is absurd: it just happens to be this way. We were lucky. Second, it could be that there is something in the laws of physics which necessitates the universe being the way it is: that simply having a universe means the strenghths and ratios of the various underlying constants can be only the way they are and no other way. Third, perhaps there are many universes which have any and all possible characteristics, so that we just naturally find ourselves in one of the ones that supports life and consciousness. Or fourth, perhaps an intelligent creator designed the universe specifically to support life and the emergence of intelligence.

These four understandings of the nature of the fine-tuning of our universe are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Although Frank J. Tipler concludes that the fourth possiblility is the true one, he also accepts both the second and third intepretations as being valid as well.

Tipler’s books (and the others) are thought provoking. If you don’t mind having your mind stretched you might enjoy reading them whether you fully—or even at all—accept any of the conclusions.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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