…the use, however haltingly, of our imaginations upon the possibilities of the future is a valuable spiritual exercise.
– J. B. S. Haldane
Freeman Dyson’s insightful piece on the tradition of theological fiction in the March 2002 NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS implies a vacuum in the current literary world:
“Between science and theology there is a genre of literature which I like to call theofiction. Theofiction adapts the style and conventions of science fiction to tell stories that have more to do with theology than with science.”
His examples include novels of Octavia Butler (a MacArthur Grant winner), C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, and principally, Olaf Stapledon. These works remain in print many decades after publication, and point to the continuing evolution of theofiction.
Where is it headed? Many advancing fronts of both science and technology provoke theological conflicts and fundamental questions. If science and Godhood are to find common ground, they will meet in the imaginations of our writers.
A few near-term examples: The gathering practice of cryonic freezing of the dead, for eventual “resurrection” and cure, calls into question traditional ideas about the afterlife. (The summer 2002 freezing of baseball player Ted Williams met both ridicule and respect in the news media.) Myriad human reproductive technologies, such as cloning and “designer genes,” challenge our preconceptions. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence may receive the theological views of advanced beings utterly unlike us. All these promise vast, earth-shaking changes.
Fiction at the cutting edge of these developments is still rare and should be encouraged. To illuminate the interplay between fact and fiction, here I shall treat one major idea just emerging—linking the human prospect to cosmology itself.
The Big Bang had considerable theological impact. It enshrined the idea of a Creation. Viewed through the lens of General Relativity, it showed that since space and time were created simultaneously, literally nothing happened before it; there was no before. Theologically, this showed that Augustine was right and popular religion was mistaken, in its view of God as existing in the stream of time before Creation.
I also think that cosmology will have similarly large implications for theology and popular religion alike, as our emerging scientific concensus about the far future gives solid information about these huge time scales. These ideas may yield in a more nuanced mode, hints that the cosmos we inhabit may be rich with purpose or at least a discernible goal for life.
I also believe that the concern for long-term prospects comes, at least in part, from our greatly expanded lifetimes. The figure below shows how greatly our prospect has grown. Reflect that the average longevity of a man born in 1900 was 48 years. All the great religions were born in times when a man of 48 was old. Early cultures’ concerns for origins may have arisen from their short lifespans.
Our ideas about the future hinge upon theological assumptions geared to those distant eras. The year 2100 may hold a greater prospect for our longevity, as the figure guesses, giving birth to a similar greater interest in the far future. What theologies will emerge from such an expanded view? As our prospects of living longer have improved, so have our attitudes toward the far future altered.
We humans have always had some sort of cosmology, however simple. Our yearning for connection explains many cultures’ ancestor worship: we enter into a sense of progression, expecting to be included eventually in the company. Deep within us lies a need for continuity of the human enterprise, perhaps to offset our own mortality. Deep time in its panoramas, both past and future, redeems this lack of meaning, rendering the human prospect again large and portentous.
We gain stature alongside such enormities. This sets an ultimate question: will a time come when humanity itself will not be remembered, our works lost and gone for nothing?
An Accelerating Universe
A major change in our ideas of cosmology occurred only a few years ago, with the discovery that our universe’s expansion is accelerating. This overthrows half a century, in which we thought that deceleration held sway, and that the universe might even cease expanding and implode into a final crunch, and that perhaps this had happened before. I have reservations about this finding, which relies upon measuring the luminosities of supernovas in very distant galaxies. It remains to be extensively checked, but for the moment I take it as given.
Does this acceleration imply an ever-bigger cosmos, forever? Some feel repulsed by the entire notion. Cyclic universes have great appeal, as every public lecturer on cosmology knows from the audience questions. Evolution may have geared us to expect cycles; the seasons deeply embedded this in our ancestors. The ancient Hindu system embraces it especially, holding that we are already uncountably far into the oscillations, and the universe is unknowably old. Love of cyclic universes may come from a deep unease with linear time that predates our modern ideas. But genuinely endless repetition also seems to revolt most of the cyclic devotees–they still want to avoid the abyss of infinite time. (Aristotle was an exception. He thought there had been an infinite number of generations, since there had been no beginning.)
Not all faiths worry about time. Confucian and Taoist beliefs do not comment or care about how the universe began or will end. For them there is no far-off divine comeuppance, “to which the whole Creation moves,” as Tennyson put it. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “There never was a time when I was not..there will never be a time when I will cease to be.” This can be so cosmologically, since time began with creation, as both St. Augustine and the Big Bang attest.
The Abrahamic faiths “of the book” — Jews, Christians and Islamites alike, envision linear, not cyclic time. This reflects an advance from the unchanging atmosphere of the far ancient world, when little changed. Christian scripture says that this is a suffering world, addicted to attachment, to be ultimately transcended. The far future then lies beyond that goal. God’s agenda is then rigorous–creation, fall, incarnation, redemption, final judgment, then the ultimate fate, Last Things. We moderns think long; the far future matters to us.
But many are horrified by a universe that lasts only a finite time, ending in cold or heat. Even placing it in the very far future, long after our personal deaths, carries the heavy freight of making what we do now meaningless because it does not last. Will Shakespeare endure literally forever? As Bertrand Russell put it in Why I am Not a Christian,
All the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast heat death of the solar system, and…the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.
So he doesn’t believe in God because nothing lasts.
Some fervent believers attack the second law of thermodynamics (the heat death) for exactly this reason, ironically joining company with atheist Friedrich Engels.
Paradise seems boring to many, if it is mere joyful indolence. Is perpetual novelty even possible, though? Can we think an infinite variety of thoughts? Science may be able to settle whether this eternally-deferred arrival is physically possible.
Kurt Godel’s famous theorem showed that mathematics contains inexhaustible novelty, i.e., true theorems that can’t be proved with what has come before. Only by expanding the conceptual system can they be proved. Most people would not turn to mathematics for a message of spiritual hope, but there it is.
So theofiction confronting this subject must face a paradox. We seem to harbor twin desires–purpose and novelty, progress and eternity alike.
Christian theology solved this dilemma by putting God outside time, so that holy eternity was not infinite duration but rather not time at all. This belief is long-standing, but it need not stay in fashion forever. Faiths may arise which long for the heat death, or embrace the coming big crunch–cosmological cheerleaders for cleansing ends.
In 1979 Freeman Dyson brought this entire issue to center stage for physicists and astronomers. He already had his prejudices: he wouldn’t countenance the Big Crunch option because it gave him “a feeling of claustrophobia”. What was the prognosis for intelligent life? Even after stars have died, he asked, can life survive forever without intellectual burn-out?
Energy reserves will be finite, and at first sight this might seem to be a basic restriction. But he showed that this constraint was actually not fatal. He looked beyond times when any stars would have tunnelled into black holes, which would then evaporate in a time that will be, in comparison, almost instantaneous. As J.D. Bernal foresaw in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1929):
…consciousness itself may end…becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately resolving itself entirely into light…these beings…each utilizing the bare minimum of energy…spreading themselves over immense areas and periods of time…the scene of life would be…the cold emptiness of space.
In the 23 years since Dyson’s article appeared, our perspective has changed in two ways, and both make the outlook more dismal. First, most physicists now suspect that atoms don’t live forever. The basic building block, the proton, will decay into lesser particles. White dwarfs and neutron stars will erode away, maybe in 1036 years. The heat generated by particle decay will make each star glow, but only as dimly as a domestic heater.
We speak here of very long times. By then our Local Group of galaxies would be just a swarm of dark matter, electrons and positrons. Thoughts and memories would only survive beyond the first 1036 years, if downloaded into complicated circuits and magnetic fields in clouds of electrons and positrons — maybe something that resembles the threatening alien intelligence in The Black Cloud, the first and most imaginative of astronomer Fred Hoyle’s science fiction novels, written in the 1950s.
As this darkened universe expands and cools, lower-energy quanta (or, equivalently, radiation at longer and longer wavelengths) can be used to store or transmit information. Just as an infinite series can have a finite sum (for instance, 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + …….. = 2), so there is no limit to the amount of information processing that could be achieved with a finite expenditure of energy. Any conceivable form of life would have to keep ever-cooler, think slowly, and hibernate for ever-longer periods.
But there would be time to think every thought. As Woody Allen once said, “Eternity is very long, especially toward the end.”
Characteristically, Dyson was optimistic about the potentiality of an open universe because there seem be no limit to the scale of artifacts that could eventually be built. He envisioned the observable universe getting ever vaster Many galaxies, whose light hasn’t yet had time to reach us, would eventually come into view, and therefore within range of possible communication and “networking”. Interactions will matter.
These long-range projections involve fascinating physics, most of which is quite well understood. But what happens in zillions of years has uncertainties.
These ideas will probably loom larger as we learn more about the destiny of all visible Creation. Theofiction can confront even such grand epochs.
This area of science gives one example of its power to inform and shape our human agenda. The Odyssey was a founding text of western civilization, an imaginative fiction about fantastic events. Grand epics of the far future could set our ideas just as powerfully.