Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Seeking Hope in the Far Future

Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Seeking Hope in the Far Future

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

To appreciate a multidisciplinary book on the eschatology of the far future, we ought first to acknowledge a debt to the recent past. In particular, a nod must be given to my fellow immigrant Nebraskan, that stentorian bloviator of the plains, William Jennings Bryan. He, you may recall, was the politician who vowed never to be crucified on a cross of gold, and the lawyer who successfully prosecuted teacher John T. Scopes for teaching evolution in a Tennessee classroom.

Forget Bishop Wilberforce. Sure, he earned an immortal place in Punch with his famous 1860 evolution debate against Darwin’s Bulldog, Huxley. But Bryan, with the publication of his 1921 book, The Menace of Darwinism, single-handedly raised the burning brand of “creation science,” without which it is unlikely that scientists would ever have been tempted out of their cozy disciplines to engage in public discourse on big questions.

Certainly, when I was growing up in the 1960s, it seemed that practically the only intelligible science outside a classroom was of the “gee-whiz” variety found in publications like Popular Science. As for science-religion dialogue, the idea would probably have struck most people as irrelevant and bizarre.

By the 1970s, however, the creationist challenge to the legitimacy of science finally roused a reply from within the ivory towers. Eloquent scientists such as Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawkins began writing accessible science books that directly refuted many of the claims of “scientific creationists.” And lo, a new genre of nonfiction was born—the working scientist’s prose for the proles.

To the extent this genre took cognizance of religion, however, it tended to be hostile or indifferent. Years would pass before systematic attempts at constructive science-religion dialogue would get under way, inspired largely by the generosity of Sir John Templeton [1]. Yet, I think it’s fair to infer that but for Bryan’s firebrand rhetoric some of the scientists in this volume might never have strayed into career-threatening, reputation-tarring questions about fate, purpose, and hope.

Indeed, one of the contributors under review, Sir Martin Rees, notes: “Cosmologists have produced an immense speculative literature on the ultra-early universe. In contrast, cosmic futurology has been left to science-fiction writers.”

We can be grateful that this has changed. Mind you, in the waning days of winter 2003, the near term looks so ominous that one may feel the far future can go whistle for its supper. Nevertheless, if we are to avoid giving in to the apocalyptic impulse so popular these days, we must keep continue to look ahead in a spirit of clear-eyed hope.

And so, this collection of essays, drawn largely from a 2000 John Templeton Foundation symposium, amounts to far more than a welcome distraction from the looming threats of war, terrorism, and global warming. Indeed, cosmologist George Ellis, who edited the volume, seems to have anticipated this response. He writes in his introduction:

“Rationality … gives us our ability to plan sensibly and successfully in the face of reality … but hope is often needed in order to continue surviving and functioning in the face of desperate situations—to fight against the odds.”

He poses an overarching question: “Will human life and all intelligence inevitably come to an end as the universe evolves, or is there some way in which they could survive until the end of time?”

The responses form a crazy quilt of doom, gloom and glimmers of hope. The first substantive essay comes from the pen of Vatican astronomer and Jesuit George V. Coyne, S.J. As a theological perspective on the future, it offers informed questions but on the whole disappoints in its responses.

Perhaps the most fascinating convergence of scientific and religious questions about the future concerns fate. In scientific terms, it focuses on whether or not strict determinism rules, while in religion it would be a question of Predestination, free will, or perhaps of “God’s Plan.” Coyne neatly combines these.

“[W]hat can we say,” he asks, “about the degree of contingency in both the past and future history of the universe, and especially of the human being in the universe?”

A wonderfully profound and fecund question for transdisciplinary discourse.

Unfortunately for the project of science-religion dialogue, Coyne seems to prefer divergence. He swiftly passes on to the question of whether there is a transcendental aspect of the human, which he defines as lying beyond the reach of scientific investigation. Without explicitly answering the question, he exploits its implications.

For example, Coyne firmly rejects biblical literalism, because to do so allows special creation to remain immune to scientific falsification. “The claim that all things are created,” he writes, “is a religious claim that all that exists depends for its existence on God.  It says nothing scientifically of how things came to be.”

All the same, Coyne indirectly offers another, splendid model of convergence: his theology and his scientific curiosity appear to be at root aesthetic.

“[W]e have no illusion, even those of us who are religious believers, that we possess the truth; quite the contrary, we are very aware that the truth is not to be possessed but to be contemplated.  The future is forever drawing us forward in what we sense as an interminable journey to understand.  Beauty is irresistible; beauty draws us to seek understanding.”

In this, he joins Einstein, Feynman, and other scientists who have figured their awe in the language of aesthetics [2].  Perhaps that is worth hanging onto, for the section of the book that follows, on physics and cosmology, offers little cheer.

Mathematician John Barrow of Cambridge University, for example, presents a great many versions of doom, summed up thus: “All manner of dramatic sudden ends of us or of the universe around us can be contemplated given what we know to be possible from current … physics.”

His best hope lies in a scientific “miracle”—the quantum transformation of finite objects within the universe, anything from rocks to black holes, with consequences that cannot be foretold.

To prop up such a vastly improbable occurrence, Barrow makes an oft-repeated assertion that I find curiously unconvincing.  “When there is an infinite time to wait, then anything that can happen eventually will happen.  Worse (or better) than that, it will happen infinitely often.”

This may well be true in the abstract, but only if the chance of any given thing happening remains above zero for eternity. In a universe where the Second Law of Thermodynamics dominates (as Barrow seems to acknowledge), can this be true of all things? I don’t see how. Even if the universe lasts forever, can we expect that the Disney Electric Parade will periodically undergo quantum transformation on Main Street USA? Alas, no. In the far future, physics counsels us, quantum mechanics will have nothing more to work with than subatomic particles.

Mathematical physicist and Templeton laureate Paul Davies, with customary cool and elegant prose, offers a variety of scenarios leading, unhappily, to this: “I believe there is no plausible cosmological model on offer at this time that simultaneously satisfies two widespread but seemingly conflicting desires: that the universe has an ultimate destiny or purpose, and that the universe will exist for eternity.”

Never one to be the Gloomy Gus, however, Davies exits Stage Right, on a vague yet gently uplifting line: “[I]t may be that the discovery that time is only a secondary phenomenon will induce a wholly radical change of world view, along with our hopes and fears.”

The distinguished astrophysicist Martin Rees broadens our perspective with an essay on the multiverse—a conjecture best pictured by imagining our visible Universe as but one bubble in an infinite glass of champagne.

Rees makes amply clear the remoteness of any hope that lies in that conjecture, yet he finishes on an intriguing note—one this review will reprise at its conclusion: “[B]y prudence, and by spreading ourselves beyond the earth, we could ensure sufficient diversity to safeguard life’s potential for an infinite future, in a cosmos that is even vaster and more diverse than previously believed.”

There follows a section on biology. Graham Cairns-Smith restates his famous hypothesis of the mineral origin of life and advances a sketch for interstellar crystalline spores, and Simon Conway Morris offers a version of the strong anthropic argument (generically, that the improbability of our existence indicates an intelligent creator) as a gateway to eschatology.

However, the centerpiece of this section, and perhaps of the book, rests on a justly famous series of lectures delivered in 1978 by another Templeton laureate—physicist Freeman Dyson—along with his contemporary reflections.

Drawing inspiration from a 1977 paper by Jamal Islam, Dyson made a bold and detailed case for the eternal survival of life in an expanding universe.  More important, he did so in the only language that physicists respect: mathematical physics. In brief, his case relies on the argument that life (a very different kind of life from ours, to be sure) can in principle downshift its information-processing activity and make use of hibernation to keep in step with the cooling universe. Though admittedly short of definitive proof, he plausibly argued that “communication of an infinite quantity of information at a finite cost in energy is possible.”

In reconsidering this more than twenty years on, Dyson examines forceful counterarguments from Lawrence Krauss and Glenn Starkman. These press Dyson into a surprising conclusion: information processing may be the heart of life, but the kind counts. It turns out that in the loooooong run, analogue beats digital. (So, Mr. Kurzweil, don’t download your consciousness into a computer just yet.)

With that, Dyson goes on to rebut his critics. However, he admits that if current indications of an accelerating universe is proven true, it’s game, set and match to the grim reaper. All the same, Dyson holds out hope. Although the evidence for acceleration appears strong, he notes that to err is human, and in this instance wouldn’t that be divine?

In order not to make this essay as lengthy as the book, I fear it will be necessary to give short shrift to sundry other contributors. By way of an apologetic synecdoche, let me note just three more intriguing points before treating the climactic entry.

An essay on game theory experiments, in the section titled “Humanity.” includes this memorable conclusion: “[C]ooperation can be sustained only if there is a sufficient level of hope—some reasonable expectation that cooperation will occur in the future.” This would seem to provide empirical evidence of the need to bind rationality with hope.

However, the bonding of theology and science remains problematic. In the same section, philosopher Stephen R.L. Clark, in considering various naturalistic speculations on a emergent supreme being, observes: “No such Omega, it is easy to conclude, could actually be God—even if its character and purposes turned out to be ones that creatures like us could share, or at any rate appreciate. God, by hypothesis, is that than which none greater can be conceived.”

And similarly, in the “Theology” section, Keith Ward writes: “What, then, do Christians have to say about the far future of the universe?  First, that our hope is not ‘for this world only,’ so ultimate human destiny will not be found there.”

Eschatology draws its meaning from religion. Yet, throughout this book the reader senses that scientists shy away from tying their rational speculations to explicit religious propositions, while theologians resist plunging all their hopes into the realm that science studies—”this world only.”

Still, in the book’s final essay, editor George Ellis makes a sophisticated attempt to synthesize physics, metaphysics and theology. He offers a bold view of ontology, claiming that four different “worlds” exist and join hands through causality. Briefly, they are: physical, human thought, potential, and Platonic. He redefines epistemology as the study of relations among these four “worlds.”

Ellis argues vigorously for the reality of, among other things, concepts and mathematics. Concepts operate in the physical world, he suggests, through the familiar mechanism of top-down process. Math, he argues (as others have before), is woven too neatly into nature to be a human overlay. Having written on these subjects myself, I am predisposed to agree. However, I doubt that philosophers and mathematicians generally will be prepared to sign on. Even fewer will stand shoulder to shoulder with Ellis when he ventures to argue for Platonic reality:

“[O]ne can suggest it is not even coherent to suggest that world 2 ideas can truly arise out of nothing; rather, that ideas of a kind never seen before cannot be genuinely human inventions arising out of nothing.  As in the particular case of mathematics, while they appear novel, they must in fact necessarily be human discoveries of entities of with a preexisting nature.”

So Homer Simpson existed for all eternity before Matt Groening discovered him? What an appalling thought! Ellis himself concedes that this strong Platonism is controversial, but he adds that his central argument does not depend on its being true. This, I think, proves to be a strategic error.

Ellis adds a “world 5” to his scheme, a world of underlying purpose, values and meanings, and then goes on to unveil his grandest idea: Metaworld 0. This, he tells us, is “the underlying fundamental reality: the world of God, partially described by theology… .” The concept will be familiar to anyone who has read Tillich, though Ellis may well have his own refinements. But having said this metaworld does not depend on his ontological analysis, we may wonder what arguments justify it. They turn out to be an ancient grab-bag: individual experience, intuition of a higher power, prevalence of religious experiences, and the cosmological argument, updated with the strong anthropic principle.  Ellis has far too much integrity to claim a conclusive case. However, it is disappointing to have come so far and find no new bridge from science and philosophy on one bank to theology on the other.  In the end, Ellis plants his flag on the far shore, with the “other world” theologians:

“[B]elief in such a … Creator is based on faith.  It can provide the seeds for hope that despite the surface appearances, which may lead to a despair in the face of ultimate desolation and decay, the far-future evolution of the universe is in fact filled with light and joy.”

So, as St. Paulonce remarked, by faith alone are we justified…

Before closing, I must note some general flaws. At the outset, I characterized this book as a crazy quilt. And with ample justification. It is impossible to discern the audience for whom the book is intended. The papers range from highly technical to sweetly speculative. The prose in many has the clarity of a mountain stream, but in others the turbidity of the Nile in flood.

Perhaps employing an expert as editor has its drawbacks. One is this: he may hear sweet music in formulae that strike other ears as cacophony. I, for one, am perfectly willing to accept that Dyson’s 137 equations lead without error to the conclusion he proposes, but I cannot say what their inclusion in this volume is meant to signal the reader. And, since they were published in 1979, and since Dyson subsequently published a far more accessible nonmathematical version in his book Infinite in All Directions, I can’t help wondering if a lay editor would have balked at reprinting the original from the Reviews of Modern Physics.

The expert editor may also fail to see where the lay reader requires some help. Cosmologist Michael Heller makes heroic efforts to dumb down the difficult issues of time, but even so, many a lay reader (though not, ha ha, your present reviewer) might well be stumped by a passage such as this:

“…Curves along which causal influences can be propagated are called causal curves.  Space-time is said to be stably causal if it contains no closed causal curves (technically, the space-time is strongly causal), and a slight perturbation of the gravitational field (which is mathematically represented by the so-called Lorentz metric) cannot produce closed causal curves.  The appearance of such curves would lead to temporal loops, and this would ruin the idea of global time.”

I don’t say this amounts to gibberish, but a consulting analogist might have proved valuable.

One other criticism: it is no secret within academia that scholars frequently spare themselves the bother of writing a wholly original paper merely to suit a conference theme. Instead, they often redecorate their favorite subject to make an abstract fit within the theme’s bounds, and then go with what they know.

When compiling a book, however, an editor might resist the temptation to include those papers whose substance strays from the theme. The most egregious example is the Cairns-Smith essay. I found his reasoning about life’s origins fascinating, but the author himself admits, “The major part of this chapter has been looking backward.” Indeed, Cairns-Smith’s only contribution to thinking about the far future seems to be the borrowed idea that we might engage in directed panspermia with artificial life. Big whoop. Rees said much the same.

Still, on balance, The Far-Future Universe, though it demands much from readers, gives back a great deal more. Its value resides not so much in the answers it provides as the questions it provokes.

Each of us must be guided by our own lights in seeking answers, but to my mind the biggest question remains much as Ellis posed it: Can we rationally draw hope for the survival of consciousness into the far future? If not, then theologians who point to hope beyond “this world” may be pragmatically justified. After all, civilization depends crucially on cooperation, and if empirical evidence points to the need for hope to sustain cooperation, then unfalsifiable hope may be just what we need.

On the other hand, if science hints at survival in this universe, then the balance tips and theology must adapt. As this volume makes plain, “wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction,” in our universe, while “narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

To put it more prosaically, if we do have a shot at survival, it will require tremendous cooperative ingenuity, dedication, and trust to exploit it. Faith in a transcendent salvation may be a distraction from the task, or at worst an apocalyptically obsessed foe. An example of the latter appears in the fierce opposition of the American Christian right to environmental stewardship. Former Interior Secretary James Watt’s quip on long-term resource management sums it up: “I am not sure how many more generations there will be.”

So, does this book provide any hope for the survival of consciousness in the universe?  Perhaps. But the reader will have to harvest ideas from among many of the eighteen essays in this collection to form a coherent answer. To my rather literal way of thinking, Dyson’s vision of eternal life as an analogue information-processor is not only a faint hope but an unappealing one. However, his emphasis on information processing surely points us in the right direction. Ellis gives us another vital clue with his ontological analysis of the reality of concepts, though in my view he fails to carry it far enough. Take a look out the window, and chances are you will see a largely artificial landscape. Concepts re-order the environment. Extrapolate from that, and you begin to see grand possibilities.

However, the most valuable contribution may come from Rees: the multiverse. Absent divine intervention, only a multiverse offers life the hope of a fresh start, of other chambers in the House to explore. Of course, we have little idea how such exploration might be possible. Wormholes, black-hole engineering, and false-vacuum manipulation might be the right tools, but as we have only a partial understanding of this joint, humanity is hardly ready for a walkabout through the multiverse.

Still, with at least a billion years of life left in our sun, we have plenty of time to work out the details. Provided, of course, we figure out how to survive the next few decades. That may well prove to be the greatest challenge of all.  To meet it, I daresay, the constructive engagement of science and religion must succeed. And so, let us hope that The Far-Future Universe, valuable though it is, will not be the last word on scientifically informed eschatology.


[1] Full disclosure: both this forum and my own center are, directly and indirectly, the recipients of Templeton Foundation grants.  At first, I may remark, I viewed the notion of “constructive engagement” of science and religion with deep skepticism.  However, I have come to respect its importance, and particularly to appreciate John Templeton’s emphasis on humility.

[2] Physicist Richard Feynman, who was a far from lyrical writer, once remarked, “To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature…”  Einstein, who was nearly as gifted a writer as a physicist, wrote, “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religion.”