The Omega Point Theory
One of the reasons that science has been widely regarded as an atheistic enterprise over the years, is that for quite a while now, it has preached a future of relentless annihilation.
Ever since the laws of thermodynamics were formulated, the outcome has appeared certain. Available energy is decreasing all the time, as all systems gradually reach equilibrium with their environments. The end result, it would seem, is the “heat death”, where everything has finally smoothed out to await an eternity of no change, no light, no life.
Thus, no matter how great a civilization we may build, no matter how high our aspirations may rise, they are all ultimately doomed to destruction. Every life, every love, everything we value, must be erased in the slow march towards eternal oblivion.
This result has seemed so sure, so certain and established, that Bertrand Russell declared life must henceforth be built on the foundation of pure despair.
Thus declares science.
Or does it? Over the years, a number of scientists have questioned these conclusions. Do the laws of thermodynamics have to lead to this dismal end, or are there other possibilities? Particularly, can we do something about all of this?
One physicist took this question and ran with it. What would it take, he asked, for life to exist all the way to the end of time?
That physicist was Frank Tipler, and the result of his question is the Omega Point Theory. The Omega Point Theory is both a physical theory of cosmology, and a proposal for the future of life in this universe.
I recently interviewed Tipler on the scientific, philosophical, and theological ramifications of his theory. Today, I’ll simply look at the proposal itself.
What would it take for life to survive all the way to the end of time?
Well, first of all, we’re going to have to get off this planet. Within 4 billion years, the sun will have expanded to engulf the entire earth. But even before that, just one billion years from now, the sun will have become so enlarged, all life on earth will be extinct.
This won’t simply be a tragedy for the human race—it will be a tragedy for all life.
But if we do leave the planet, we can carry life with us. All the species of plants and animals, ecosystems and living organisms, both currently living, and long extinct, can be brought back to life to flourish on new worlds.
With a supercomputer, the nano-machines we should have in a few years, and a virtual ‘Noah’s Ark’ of DNA sequences, we should be able to construct a lightweight spacecraft that can venture to other star systems, and seed new living worlds. And it should be able to do this at a substantial fraction of the speed of light.
So that’s the first step.
But simply seeding another world does not mean life is out of danger. There are far bigger dangers on the way, from supernovas to hypernovas to supermassive black holes. Life will have to keep moving and diversifying in order to insure its continued survival.
So these new worlds will themselves launch expeditions to new worlds. And in less than a million years, our galaxy will have come alive.
What happens if we encounter alien life somewhere along the way?
If we encounter alien life, we will want to do everything in our power to protect and preserve it. There are no truly scarce resources in the universe, no reasons for us to launch a battle over water rights, for example. The most valuable thing aliens could offer us is information, history, perspective—and we will provide the same to them. And then we will continue together, spreading and preserving life.
If this process continues, then life will continue beyond the Milky Way and into other galaxies. And eventually life will be expanding nearly as fast as the cosmos.
Let’s talk about the universe for a moment. Science suggests that the universe began approximately 13 billion years ago, and has been expanding rapidly ever since. In fact, that expansion is accelerating. The universe is getting larger, faster and faster all the time. Eventually, if that continues, then we will experience another of the apocalyptic despair scenarios of science: The Big Rip.
The Big Rip is a bit like a balloon popping. It keeps getting bigger and bigger, and then goes too far. Now, instead of one giant balloon, you have tiny fractured pieces everywhere. That’s kind of what might happen to our universe: every galaxy cut off from every other galaxy, every star system cut off from every other star system, eventually everyone cut off from everyone else.
That’s possibly even more despair-provoking than the heat death is.
But this is where the Omega Point Theory offers its first unusual suggestion: Life can stop this from happening.
As life spreads from galaxy to galaxy, from supercluster to supercluster, it has the power to alter the future development of the universe. Life can change the universe from open to closed.
An open universe is one which keeps expanding forever, as we’ve described. This is what the universe presumably is right now. A closed universe, on the other hand, expands for a while, and then contracts. According to the Omega Point Theory, this is the future path all life will prefer, and life will have the power to make it happen.
It’s worth pointing out that I am not a scientist. I cannot evaluate the merit of the proposed mechanism for “closing the universe”. As I understand it, it basically boils down to using up the dark energy that’s currently causing the acceleration, and letting gravity regain the upper hand. Doing this would have the advantage of giving all living beings a nearly unlimited energy supply, while simultaneously insuring the survival of life to the end of time. That’s what we call a win-win scenario.
Beyond the question of how it might be accomplished, why would life want to close the universe?
According to the Omega Point Theory, this provides the maximum possible future for life. Every other scenario leads to a Big Rip, Big Freeze, or some other horrific variation on the heath death. But if we close the universe, then we are directing it to a Big Crunch. And as we head towards the Big Crunch, something special happens.
The universe, now completely populated by life, begins to contract. And as it does so, communication between galaxies and star systems becomes easier and easier. It becomes simpler and simpler to coordinate across vast distances, and to cooperate between worlds. Larger and larger cooperative enterprises and ecosystems can be constructed.
Gradually, the entire universe can coordinate its actions. And just as life directed the universe to become closed, life can steer the collapse of the universe in the most beneficial way possible. As it does so, the opposite of the heat death emerges.
Instead of everything in the universe heading towards a smooth, lifeless equilibrium, the universe heads in the direction of more intensity, more energy, more complexity and differentiation. The gravitational energy of the collapse itself provides the “fuel”—not just to keep life going, but to accelerate its development and growth.
And life will need to grow. The intensifying conditions in the collapsing phase of the universe will render life as we know it increasingly difficult, and then impossible. But that won’t stop life itself—Life can continue to grow and flourish in incredible new ways. We will see creatures emerge that span solar systems, then galaxies, then superclusters. These beings will flourish and thrive in conditions we cannot fathom. Just as microbes today thrive in volcanoes, these beings of the far future will thrive in unimaginable light.
And as they work together, spanning the universe, coordinating its development, achieving increasing heights of power and organization and complexity, they will drive the evolution of the cosmos all the way to the end of time.
I’ve been tossing around that phrase, “the end of time”, but I haven’t defined it.
Within the despair scenarios of the Big Freeze, the Big Rip, or the heat death, there technically is no end. Instead, life becomes impossible and dies out, and then the universe goes on for a lifeless, colorless eternity.
But in the Big Crunch scenario proposed by the Omega Point Theory, this question becomes a little more tricky.
Time, after all, is basically a measure of activity. A year is the time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun, a day is the time it takes for the earth to spin through one rotation, and all of those measurements are really about how many things we can do, how many thoughts we can think, how many moments we can experience.
Even in a scientific framework, time is measured in vibrations of certain atoms. At every level, it comes back to events and our experiences of them.
But the unique thing about the collapse of the universe, is that as the universe gets smaller, the energy available for life increases exponentially. And as it does so, communication, power, and complexity keep accelerating. Life speeds up. More happens every second than it did the second before.
One moment, someone writes a book, the next moment, a thousand books, the next moment, a million books. One moment, someone thinks a single thought, the next moment, a million thoughts, the next moment, a trillion thoughts.
The beings of the distant future would be living faster every moment. But this means that for them, time would be slowing down.
Instead of the end growing closer, and time growing short, the end would be getting further away. One second, the end might be a billion moments in the future—the next second, it could be a trillion moments in the future.
Life in the universe would be endlessly manufacturing time.
And so, even though the universe ends in a finite amount of conventional time, it will take an infinite number of moments to get there. Thus, in one measure of time, the universe has a finite end point. But from the perspective of life itself, history is infinite.
The end itself is rather simple. The universe continues to collapse, life continues to advance, complexity and organization and power continue to increase, intelligence continues to grow, and as the universe gets smaller and smaller, all of these accelerate exponentially. When the universe reaches its final point, life reaches infinity.
This is the Omega Point, the ultimate singularity. Infinitely dense, infinitely complex, infinitely intelligent.
And most importantly, infinitely alive.
Since the theory was proposed, it has provoked a lot of discussion. Tipler has not been shy about describing all kinds of ramifications of this theory, which has rubbed some people the wrong way.
In addition, the Omega Point Theory requires a closed universe. When the theory was first proposed, many people thought the universe might naturally be closed. We now know it to be open. As a result, some people have considered the Omega Point Theory to be disproven.
But this ignores an important point: life can decide. Life exists to make the improbable probable. And if Tipler is right, life will want to close the universe, so that instead of dying out, life can exist at greater and greater levels, all the way to the end of time.
”The fate of the Universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.” - Ray Kurzweil
If you’d like to read more about the Omega Point Theory as a physical theory, I’d suggest David’s Deutsch’s overview from The Fabric of Reality. His whole book is great, and you should read it. An excerpt from the relevant chapter on the Omega Point is here.
If you’d like to read Tipler’s work, I’d suggest starting with The Physics of Immortality, which explores an earlier version of the theory. If you’d like to hear Tipler and I discuss his theory and some of its implications, listen to this episode of the Christian Transhumanist Podcast.
And if you’d like to explore the theological ramifications of all of this—well, that’s what I’m here for. Stay tuned. :)