Most of you have probably heard of Freeman Dyson (born 1923), a mathematician and physicist of considerable accomplishment, who worked for decades at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. He’s also a bit of a polymath, having published on biology and, unfortunately, on metaphysics. For, as he’s admitted, Dyson is a “nondenominational Christian”, something I didn’t know until I read his new interview in Business Insider (BI) and saw some pretty weird statements.
The interview, conducted by Elena Holodny, is actually quite interesting if you leave out the metaphysics. Surprisingly, Dyson says that he thinks people shouldn’t bother learning mathematics unless they have to use it (I don’t really agree, for even in everyday life it can come in handy), and he insists that people shouldn’t waste their time getting Ph.D.s (he doesn’t have one). You’ll hear about Dyson’s work for Britain’s Bomber Command during World War II, about his encounter with the young (and then unknown) Richard Feynman, and hear his one choice comment about The Donald.
It always upsets me a bit when someone with that degree of intelligence succumbs to the blandishments of Jesus. Dyson won the million-dollar Templeton prize in 2000, probably for his accommodationist views as a scientist. These views are expressed in the BI review, with Dyson coming off almost like Steve Gould:
Holodny: You won the Templeton Prize for your contributions to science and its relation to other disciplines such as religion and ethics. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the interplay of science and religion?
Dyson: Yes, because I don’t believe in it. I think they should be separate. Of course, it’s a personal question. Some of my friends like to keep them together, but I certainly like to keep them separate. For me, science is just a bunch of tools — it’s like playing the violin. I just enjoy calculating, and it’s an instrument I know how to play. It’s almost an athletic performance, in a way. I was just watching the Olympics, and that’s how I feel when proving a theorem.
Anyway, religion is totally different. In religion, you’re supposed to be somehow in touch with something deep and full of mysteries. Anyhow, to me, that’s something quite separate.
So there we have it: the non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) form of accommodationism popularized by Gould. So far so good, though I don’t accept this distinction because most believers rely on real truths about the universe imparted by their faith. But after saying this, Dyson steps in quicksand:
Holodny: Do you think that there’s a way they could complement each other? Or are they just in two completely different lanes?
Dyson: Well, they are, of course, two different ways of looking at the universe; and it’s the same universe with two different windows. I like to use the metaphor “windows.”
The science window gives you a view of the world, and the religion window gives you a totally different view. You can’t look at both of them at the same time, but they’re both true. So that’s sort of my personal arrangement, but, of course, other people are quite different.
(My emphasis in the penultimate sentence.) I’m curious what Dyson means by “both religion and science are ‘true'”. What is “true” about religion? I suppose if asked, he’d mutter something about “spiritual truth”, and he certainly equivocates by saying (twice) that “other people are quite different”—a form of bet-hedging that Templeton loves. But I wish Holodny had asked that follow-up question.
I found it especially odd, then, especially for someone who asserts that science and religion are distinct spheres of inquiry, that Dyson violates that dictum at the end of his interview (my emphasis):
Dyson: Almost everything about the universe is astounding. I don’t know how you would measure astounding-ness… I think the most amazing thing is how giftedwe are — as you were saying at the beginning, that we are only monkeys who came down from the trees just recently.
We have these amazing gifts of music and mathematics and painting and Olympic running. I mean, we’re the animal that is best of all the animals at long-distance running. Why? It is quite amazing. Superfluous gifts you don’t really need to survive.
. . . I think that’s what it would say: It’s us that’s really amazing. As far as I can see, our concentration of different abilities in one species — there’s nothing I can see that in this Darwinian evolution that could’ve done that. So it seems to be a miracle of some sort. . .
Here we see the implicit claim that Darwinian evolution couldn’t have given rise to such a multitalented species, ergo God. That’s not only overstepping the boundaries of science into metaphysics, so that the realms are no longer separate, but it’s also flat wrong.
First of all, we are highly cerebralized, giving us the possibility of using that complicated hardware to do things that could never have been the direct object of natural selection. Also, we have culture, so that the accumulated wisdom of aeons of humans is passed down via language, giving us the ability to do math and music and so on.
With this statement, Dyson makes himself the heir of A. R. Wallace, who, though adhering to Darwinian evolution, found the human brain an exception—something that required the invocation of a Higher Power (Wallace didn’t mean God, though). Never, said Wallace, could selection have installed in the brain of “savages” abilities that could be useful only in the future. You should be able to refute Dyson’s claim yourself (I did it in my recent review of Tom Wolfe’s new book.)
The attempt to infer something about God’s existence or character from observing nature is, of course, the endeavor called “natural theology,” its premier instantiation being the pre-Darwinian claim that the complexity and “perfection” of nature could be explained only by invoking a creative deity.
In a transcript of his Templeton award speech on the Edge website, Dyson engages in more natural theology, this time involving physics:
The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels. The first level is elementary physical processes, as we see them when we study atoms in the laboratory. The second level is our direct human experience of our own consciousness. The third level is the universe as a whole. Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom. The universe as a whole is also weird, with laws of nature that make it hospitable to the growth of mind. I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God.
I won’t waste my time going after claims like those.