by Denyse O'Leary
When I asked a gifted Canadian physicist what he thought of Frank Tipler's The Physics of Christianity, he said, "in one word: wacky". But readers will expect more than one word from me, and I think there is more than that to be said for Tipler's book.
Frank Tipler is in an unusual position. He is a Christian physicist who is an exponent of "many worlds" theory. This theory, according to which new universes are constantly generated by each choice that we make, is typically shunned by Christian physicists (including my friend, mentioned above). Apart from its dizzying implications, many worlds theory seems to make life's choices meaningless. (Tipler does not appear to see it that way.)
Now, one good thing about Tipler, he is no pussyfoot. He is NOT afraid to take on the implications of whatever he espouses. For example, he writes,
Contrary to what many physicists have claimed in the popular press, we have had a Theory of Everything for about thirty years. Most physicists dislike this Theory of Everything because it requires the universe to begin in a singularity. That is, they dislike it because the theory is consistent only if God exists, and most contemporary scientists are atheists. They don't want God to exist, and if keeping God out of science requires rejecting physical laws, well, so be it. (p. 2)
Traditional theists will be quite happy with this. But they will not be happy with what follows: Tipler also believes that quantum physics shows that there is an infinite number of universes, in which everything that could happen happens.
Now, most thinkers use ideas like this to eliminate the traditional Western idea of God. (If everything that can happen happens, who or what needs to be God?) So it is somewhat of a surprise to see Tipler using this idea not only to argue for God, but for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and for miracles.
(Note: The "Virgin Birth" refers to Mary conceiving and giving birth to Jesus, as described in Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:6-7, without a human father. Immaculate Conception refers to the Catholic teaching that Mary herself was conceived without original sin, with the result that Jesus can be described as "sinless" in Biblical literature even though all humans are held, in orthodox Christian scriptures, to have inherited a sinful nature through Adam and Eve.)
These are bold moves. All the bolder is Tipler's attempt to explain the miracles in a way that accepts their existence and maintains what most Christians would see as mere materialism. For example, he insists that Jesus was an XX male and that this claim is consistent with the findings from the DNA of the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be Jesus' burial shroud.
Underlying this and many other aesthetically awkward attempts to fit religious teachings into the framework of physics models is an assumption that God works only within the framework of the known universe (s). Tipler writes as if this framework is entirely known. For example, Jesus' resurrection is explained by quantum tunnelling. The resurrection of the dead will occur in virtual reality inside computers (made necessary by nuclear warfare). The end of the universe is to be understood according to the latest physics theories.
After a while, it begins to sound much as if Canadian science fiction writer Rob Sawyer (one of my faves) had written one of the Gospels of the New Testament (The Gospel According to Rob?). (Note: Rob knows that he is one of my faves, but he would be the first to admit that he is not a gospeller.)
Well, almost. Some Biblical miracles Tipler simply rejects. The miracle of the loaves and fishes, he decides, was simply people sharing food (p. 200), because no current theory of physics is obviously handy to explain it.
For some time, while reading the book, I sensed a problem. By now, I am beginning to see the outlines of the problem more clearly.
Tipler is in no sense a conventional theological liberal. What sharply differentiates him from other materialists is that, instead of using physics to deny or explain away Biblical miracles, he mostly uses it to accept them. That is the most likely reason for his difficulties with the current American academic establishment. Goodness knows, if all he wanted to do was accommodate the Scriptures to an atheistic worldview, he would be a hero.
Rather, he is trying to interpret a theistic worldview (an explicitly Christian and - at some points - a Catholic worldview) in the light of physics that he believes are a complete and accurate interpretation of reality. To the extent that Tipler believes that physics has answered all key questions, the mysterious events described in the Bible can simply be subsumed under physics and therewith conveniently despatched.
But here is the difficulty: Tipler never clearly explains why, given the way he arrives at his conclusions, the Bible should particularly be regarded as a source of truth. If physics sits in judgement over the Bible, even in matters that involve the nature of the triune God, it's unclear how the Bible ever attained the status Tipler readily ascribes to it.
That said, I recommend Tipler as an antidote to the many anti-Christian, anti-religious, or anti-theistic works that build on the same sorts of ideas as he does.
Lo and behold (so to speak), it turns out that both sides can play that game.
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).
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