Sunday, May 27, 2007

Soft Tiplerianism

This is a summary of my recent arguments on some transhumanist mailing lists in support of the idea that transhumanism might be, or become, a suitable alternative to religion. For lack of a better term, I am using "Soft Tiplerianism" to indicate a general, high level, conceptual appreciation of some ideas proposed by Fedorov, Teilhard, Tipler, Kurzweil, Perry and Clarke, without any specific proposal for their actual implementation.

In The Physics of Immortality, Frank J. Tipler proposed a high level concept:

Future technology may be able to resurrect the dead of past ages by some kind of "copying them to the future"

He also proposed a specific resurrection mechanism based on:

Intelligent beings of a far future epoch close to the gravitational collapse of the universe (the so called Big Crunch) may develop the capability to steer the collapse along a specific mode (Taub collapse) with unlimited subjective time, energy, and computational power available to them before reaching the final singularity. Having done so, they may wish to restore to consciousness all sentient beings of the past, perhaps through a "brute force" computational emulation of the past history of the universe. So after death we may wake up in a simulated environment with many of the features assigned to the afterlife world by the major religions. (from my Interview with Frank J. Tipler of November 2002).

Actually I liked David Deutsch's account of Tipler's vision (described in his popular book The Fabric of Reality) more than Tipler's own account. While I found some parts of The Physics of Immortality *very* interesting, I was not impressed with the overall conceptual clarity and felt that he was stretching some interesting analogies far too much.

Tipler's mechanism for resurrection is often criticized on the basis of its cosmological assumptions, that are not supported by current observations. Even if this is the case (that is, even if the Universe "left to itself" would not spontaneously evolve an Omega Point ´like cosmology), Tipler thinks that we may be able to do something about it: "the expansion of life to engulf the universe is exactly what is required to cancel the positive cosmological constant" (reference above). This "fix what you don't like" is, in my opinion, a very transhumanist attitude and is supported by Ray Kurzweil's last sentence in The Age of Spiritual Machines: "So will the Universe end in a big crunch, or in an infinite expansion of dead stars, or in some other manner? In my view, the primary issue is not the mass of the Universe, or the possible existence of antigravity, or of Einstein's so-called cosmological constant. Rather, the fate of the Universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right".

We should not take nature (lower case n intended) as an absolute that cannot be modified or as something "superior" that must be revered, but rather as a plastic material that can be shaped and modified once we develop the capability to do so. Which is, in my opinion, what transhumanism is all about. Past generations were used to considering human biology, with all its comic or tragic accidents such as body fat, unchosen gender, stupidity, aging and mortality, as an absolute. We are beginning to see that, after all, our bodies and minds are just machines that can be fixed, improved and redesigned by engineering once we develop the needed knowledge and tools. I am just proposing to apply the same concept to cosmology and the fabric of reality, that's all (!). Of course. I do not have the faintest idea of whether, when and how megascale cosmic engineering may be an actual possibility. But I do not think we know enough of the detailed machinery of reality to rule out this vision, and find some pleasure and motivation in allowing myself to contemplate it.

It is worth noting that also Tipler's predecessor in using the term "Omega Point", Pierre Teilhard de Cardin, has been often criticized (even by Tipler himself!) for not getting some scientific facts right. But this is really like dismissing Leonardo as a crank because his aircraft sketches wouldn't fly, which is just stupid. Leonardo was a genius who got the *concepts* right, and later engineers equipped with more detailed knowledge have realized his visions.

While I find speculations on megascale cosmological engineering in the very far future interesting, I don't think we can take too seriously any current speculations on the capabilities and motivations of persons (in an extended meaning of "person" of course) millions of years more advanced than ourselves. So, I am quite agnostic on the specific resurrection mechanism proposed by Tipler. I also think that, perhaps, we may find some better ways to resurrect the dead much before the end of the universe, regardless of a Big Crunch that may or may not take place, like the fictional example in Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter's novel The Light of Other Days. In Clarke-Baxter "theory" micro wormholes naturally embedded with huge density in the fabric of spacetime permit looking back in time and downloading a copy of a person's mind, that can then be "uploaded to the future". Many other thinkers and writers, including Nikolai Fedorov and Mike Perry, have dared contemplating resurrection. See also the website of the Society for Universal Immortalism.

While I cannot claim any knowledge of future "super technologies", I do relate deeply to Tipler's high level concept that future technology may be able to resurrect the dead of past ages by some kind of "copying them to the future"and, in the spirit of "There are more things in Heaven and Earth...", allow myself to contemplate such possibilities. There may be a point where consciousness becomes a important factor in the destiny of the universe, where conscious beings develop the capability to choose and build the universe they *want* to inhabit, and invite the dead of past ages to join the party by copying them to the future. I am using "Soft Tiplerianism" to indicate this soft rationalist, high level and not detailed concept that will, I hope, be detailed and realized by future scientists and engineers.

Since these are very long term visions, I do not put them in the realistic/programmatic world. What I do put in the realistic/programmatic world, in a "think big, act small" sense, is taking the first small steps toward the advancement of our species on this cosmic path, while at the same time trying to ensure our immediate survival. The future can be magic and beautiful, and we want to be there to see it happen. One of the first small steps that should be taken, in my opinion, is making transhumanism more appealing to more people in a more immediate way. Therefore, I am proposing to include "Soft Tiplerianism", as defined here as "Future technology may be able to resurrect the dead of past ages by some kind of copying them to the future", in the transhumanist memetic package. I am persuaded that this could facilitate outreaching beyond the original transhuamanist subculture(s), give many more people hope and a sparkling vision of a better future, and motivate them to roll up their sleeves and try to contribute to realizing such vision.

I am *only* arguing for the hypothetical feasibility, in principle, of these concepts, and my argument is based on the fact that they do not contradict the laws of physics as they are presently understood. I never said, do not want to say, and do not think that these possibility are "absolutely certain" or "guaranteed", just that they are a possible outcome of the development of our species. So I am not at all certain that our descendants will be able to, or be willing to, upload me to the future, but the simple possibility of this option is good enough (for me) as a replacement of religion. The main point of my proposal is an explicit acknowledgment that the current scientific thinking, and some reasonable extrapolations from today's engineering, *may* provide *some degree of* hope, grounded in technology and sciences, in some of the promises of traditional religions. Without, of course, the irrational faith, rigid dogmatism and intolerance that have plagued traditional religions.