Thursday, May 22, 2008

Not Smelling What Frank Tipler is Cooking – Part III

Copyright 2006 by Sidney Harris

Finishing Frank Tipler’s ‘The Physics of Immortality’ was complicated by the fact that he consistently resorts to using unnecessarily dense scientific jargon and implicit authoritarianism whenever he is on shaky ground in his reasoning. Frankly, I found it exasperating how Tipler bloviated his way over the heads of his non-specialist audience on the points that would require the greatest expository clarity if his ideas were going to come together to form a rational framework (the points at which, in the words of Sidney Harris, “a miracle occurs”).

I actually have a reasonably good layperson’s head for physics yet Tipler occasionally managed to talk over it in his discussion of the science that supports his position. His efforts to justify his sometimes dubious conclusions consisted of authoritatively citing relatively obscure (from the layperson’s perspective) yet evidently legitimate scientific principles and then performing interpretive legerdemain to justify his belief that they support his position.

I was generally able to slog through this morass secure in the knowledge that no matter how confidently Tipler stated his case, his fundamental premise had already most likely gone down in cosmological flames. It was interesting to watch Tipler assemble such an impressive sounding argument in the aftermath of the discovery of solid contradictory evidence that was not available to him at the time.

The context in which I read ‘The Physics of Immortality’ provided me with a unique insight into how experts use their credentials, in conjunction with often impenetrable, yet seemingly coherent jargon to lead laypeople to accept untenable conclusions. But then I am innately mistrustful of those who, when speaking to a general audience, choose to use jargon that implicitly elevates them in the eyes of that audience rather than attempting to elevate their audience by simply and clearly explaining their position.

Reading ‘The Physics of Immortality’ under these circumstances, I got the distinct impression that Tipler was teleologically cherry picking from among the many diverse principles in cosmology, physics, information theory, cybernetics, etc. those that he interprets as supporting his conclusions. One cannot help but wonder whether Tipler is failing to mention other positions of equal or even greater significance that contradict his. Once you get into the business of citing legitimizing sources to a general audience it is disingenuous to imply that the consensus in the encompassing discipline supports your position when there may not even be a consensus or worse, when you are actually on the wrong side of the consensus.

The most disappointing thing about the whole Frank Tipler saga is what became of him in the aftermath of ‘The Physics of Immortality’. Though he still primarily works as a professor of physics and mathematics, Tipler has fallen in with the Intelligent Design crowd. While this does not automatically invalidate his position, it does give his work a certain theistic bias. This bias saturates in his follow-up book, ‘The Physics of Christianity’.

Tipler is out speaking to Christian audiences about how physics proves that their beliefs are valid. Ironically, I agree with his basic premise that many spiritual beliefs are supported by rational arguments. I simply do not believe that Tipler’s unswervingly materialist arguments are the appropriate ones.

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