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Note: This transcript has not been proofread, and therefore its accuracy is not guaranteed.


Wright: Freeman Dyson is professor Emeritus of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study and winner of the 1999 Templeton prize for progress in religion. His books include "Disturbing the Universe," "Infinite in all Directions," and "The Sun, The Genome, and the Internet." I interviewed him in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Well first of all thanks very much for letting me come talk to you here today. I've never been within the Institute for Advanced Study before and I feel kind of privileged. It has a kind of mystique about it. Do you do you find that people react to it that way I mean am I right?

Freeman Dyson: I try to demolish this this aura of sanctity that surrounds the place. What it is basically it's a motel with (()) that's all it is it's just a place where young people come from all over the world and are given a year or two with pay.

Wright: A somewhat more selective admissions policies than some motels have right?

Freeman Dyson: Yes but still that's basically what it is.

Wright: Yes.

Freeman Dyson: The most important thing is what they do when they get home not what they do while they're here.

Wright: I see. But you think there have been I mean Einstein, Von Neumann and so on, there have been a lot of people thinking deep cosmic thoughts here right.

Freeman Dyson: Yes but that's not really what the place is for. That's accidental.

Wright: It's not for cosmic thoughts really?

Freeman Dyson: Well if you're lucky of course you get a few of those but basically we serve the young people, providing them with an opportunity to get to know each other, particularly people from remote parts of the world who otherwise wouldn't be in touch.

Wright: Well you in any event have been doing your share of thinking cosmic thoughts I guess, you've...

Freeman Dyson: Not very much.

Wright: Well, let's... I don't know let's do a brief review. You wrote a paper some time ago on the question of whether life could survive indefinitely in an expanding universe.

Freeman Dyson: Right.

Wright: And you've been you've been discussing that lately. You've you invented this concept of what's now called the Dyson sphere or which which crops up in science-fiction literature sometimes.

Freeman Dyson: Yes I mean both of those items really have nothing to do with work. Those were, both of them, essentially just little jokes and it's amusing that of course you you get to be famous only for the things you don't think are serious.


Wright: Well you've done a good job of not being serious then I guess. Let's let's let's let's...I want to get back to all these cosmic questions and and things you've said about the nature of God and and so on all all the cosmic stuff. But but first as for the the basic science you've done you you started out as a studying mathematics then went into applied mathematics, particularly in the realm of physics right?

Freeman Dyson: Right.

Wright: And you made contributions to quantum mechanics.

Freeman Dyson: Right I mean I did first quite a lot of work as a pure mathematician. And I've always remained essentially a mathematician as far as my technical stuff is concerned.

Wright: But you did you did you did important work in quantum electro dynamics is that the phrase? Which is...

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: ... all I...that's as far as I want to pursue the concept of quantum electro dynamics and it's all I know about it. But I would like to ask you more broadly about quantum physics...

Freeman Dyson: Right.

Wright: ...because people hear the phrase a lot and I think very few people have a clear idea of it and that may be in it's nature that you can't have a clear idea of it but what do you tell people about what's your kind of you know thumbnail description of what quantum mechanics is.

Freeman Dyson: Well it's a wonderful tool for describing the world and it is a mathematical tool and so you can't really explain it except with mathematics. It's simply but it's wonderful precise and wonderfully clear in the language that that's made for it which is mathematics.

Wright: But...

Freeman Dyson: To try to describe it in words it get very fuzzy.


Wright: Right. And and fuzzy in a some people would say a philosophically important way I mean the fuzziness maybe is telling us something about the nature of the ultimate material fabric of the universe or something or other...

Freeman Dyson: Probably not...

Wright: Ok.

Freeman Dyson: ... it's probably only making it more obscure but...

Wright: What I mean you yourself have written about you hear this phrase "the weirdness of quantum physics" and you yourself I think have use have talked about the the the the kind of atomic subatomic level of matter in that way as I recall, right?

Freeman Dyson: Right.

Wright: What do you what do you mean by that?

Freeman Dyson: Well it doesn't behave the way our normal concepts can explain. I mean we think of the world as made of hard objects and soft objects and fluids we can more or less visualize things we are familiar with and quantum mechanics isn't like that. It's just it's just quite alien to our way of feeling and and touching.

Wright: And the there was a time when the phrase scientific materialism was common and maybe a lot of people would use that to describe themselves. Is that is it because of the weirdness of quantum physics, is it no longer appropriate to talk that way?

Freeman Dyson: Well I don't know I've never talked that way in the first place but I don't like isms of any kind but I mean certainly there are scientific materialists still around I'm sure but exactly what they what they believe I couldn't tell you.


Wright: Well let me let me ask you this I think you've actually written about a biologist whom you did not name in this writing who had talked about a conflict between scientific materialism and religious transcendentalism. You recall this?

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: And first of all you can if you if you would like name the biologist...

Freeman Dyson: Well I can't remember for sure it might have been it might have been Dawkins...

Wright: Wouldn't surprise me.

Freeman Dyson: ... but I don't know...

Wright: But... but you you anyway you were arguing that that is not a valid dichotomy.

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: And as I recall the kind of the weirdness of of the material world at the microlevel entered into your argument.

Freeman Dyson: Right.

Wright: Well ...

Freeman Dyson: ... I mean that that if you look take matter as it really is, it's not like the way a tinker toy modeler would portray it. It's it just doesn't fit the model of a machine at all.

Wright: And then at the other end, on the other half of the dichotomy the religious transcendentalism, I mean you think there is room for that perspective or that again is a term that you can't yourself quite get get a handle on...

Freeman Dyson: Well I don't know what it means ...

Wright: Right.

Freeman Dyson: ...but I mean I'm I I I like to to I claim to be a religious person but without any isms. To me religion is a way of life and not a matter of belief anyway. So it's doesn't fit any of those labels.

Wright: Yes in fact you I think you've described yourself as a Christian without the theology ...

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: ...or something like that.

Freeman Dyson: Right.


Wright: What is what is left of Christianity when you take the theology away?

Freeman Dyson: Well almost the whole thing I mean it's it's it's it's a community of people in church as I experience it and who are taking care of each other and and also there's a great deal of beautiful language there's a great deal of music it's an art form much more than a philosophy.

Wright: So so you've made no reference to explicit beliefs about divinity about a deity about whether there whether Jesus was the son of God or any of that so you're kind of leaving all of that, you're kind of agnostic on all these points?

Freeman Dyson: Well I I I yes I mean to a first approximation I I I think sort of God to me does mean something but it's such a mystery that I don't feel inclined to to try to invent specific models the fact that we have some instinct of of mind at work in the universe seems to be about as far as I'm willing to go I mean that that that I call it God God simply is a mind that's gone beyond the scale of our understanding that's I think that's about as far as my theology goes.


Wright: Ok. So I mean if you were living in another culture you could equally well be a Buddhist ...

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: You could because fundamentally what religion is about to you is the things that people do.

Freeman Dyson: Right.

Wright: Ok.

Freeman Dyson: I think I mean Judaism as I understand it comes closer sort of to my way of being religious it's much more about observance and less about beliefs.

Wright: Ok. And there are people who would say then what is the difference between that and mere ethics? What is the difference between that and a group that gets together and says lets be nice a good government league or something ... what do you ... is there a difference or or...?

Freeman Dyson: Well there is a lot of differences of course and it's I mean one of the great things about religions is that that that they last from century to century that's a very long tradition at least in most religions it goes back a couple of thousand years. That is very important and it'll so you take a much longer view of things and of course there's great emotional aspect to it, it's not just like going to a committee meeting.

Wright: Right. But there there are are certainly people who I think would say that a central part of religion is at least the belief that there's kind of more than meets the eye or something... that there is some ultimate source of meaning that that there's some transcendental source of meaning.

Freeman Dyson: Yes no I would certainly agree to that.

Wright: You agree to that?

Freeman Dyson: Oh yes. And and very strongly certainly that has nothing to do with science.


Wright: Ok and how would you characterize the transcendental source of meaning?

Freeman Dyson: Well again it's a very personal thing ... it's a ...some people have it and some don't.

Wright: It's an intuition?

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: About?

Freeman Dyson: That...

Wright: About the nature of the universe?

Freeman Dyson: Yes, that the that life doesn't make sense unless you believe in some sort of a purpose. That applies to the community as well as to the individual... the whole... on every level.

Wright: So it is certainly your view that science is compatible with religion?

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: And and it sounds like it's not necessarily your view that science would lead you to religion...

Freeman Dyson: No it very often does of course.

Wright: Yes.

Freeman Dyson: Lot of great scientists have actually regarded science as strongly connected with their religion but it hasn't been true of me because my science is much more tinkering and I don't for me science is much more just a skill trade that I practice. It doesn't it's not particularly connected with deep thoughts.


Wright: But you have constructed a kind of almost a metaphysics I guess that maybe I'm reading too much into it... out of your science that is in a way suggestive of religion in the following sense, you alluded to it earlier when you were talking about evidence of kind of mind in the universe and in your writing you've talked about three levels of mind I think there's the human mind and that one you don't have to argue with people much about, they'll buy that. Then you've talked about mind residing at at at the micro level the atomic subatomic level and then at the very macro level the kind of universal mind the mind the universe as mind or something...

Freeman Dyson: Right.

Wright: Now what what what do you mean by that?

Freeman Dyson: Well this is I think a possible model for the way that things might be. It's not something that I believe as a as a matter of faith but I think it's just an interesting model of how the whole thing might fit together and I think it's it's to me it's quite plausible but I wouldn't claim that it's necessarily true.

Wright: Ok but what does the word mind even mean? What are the what are the manifestations of what is about the way the subatomic world acts that leads you to think that mind is a reasonable way to describe what's going on?

Freeman Dyson: Well simply that it seems to make choices.

Wright: And that's part of quantum physics, that notion?

Freeman Dyson: Yes, the fact is that you have an atom of uranium it sits there on the table and and then tomorrow it's gone it's decayed into (()) plus and alpha particles but nobody can predict whether or not that's going to happen today or tomorrow. It may take a billion years so the atom seems to have a freedom to choose, that's something which characterizes quantum processes that they seem to just occur spontaneously we call that spontaneous decay so it is it's spontaneous that to my mind implies that the thing makes a choice.


Wright: So yes I mean generally decisions get made. In some sense a decision is being made everyday in atoms around the universe.

Freeman Dyson: Right. So that that this freedom that the individual atom has to have.

Wright: Yes.

Freeman Dyson: Seems to be an indication of some rudimentary form of mind.

Wright: Right I mean certainly generally when we talk about decisions being made we think of a mind as making them.

Freeman Dyson: Right.

Wright: It's true.

Freeman Dyson: So so that's the linkage but it doesn't it may not be true and and of course it's it's quite unknown whether in fact the quantum processes are important in the human brain. Many people think that they are not. That remains to be seen. It seems to me very probable that our sort of our intuition of free will is somehow connected to quantum processes. But it could very well be that it's quite different.

Wright: Yes that seems I've wondered that myself and also the the phenomenon of consciousness do you think that's tied in there with free will and...

Freeman Dyson: Yes obviously.

Wright: Yes.

Freeman Dyson: And of course there are many people believe that that's just an illusion that I'm I'm I'm I'm quite contented.

Wright: That consciousness is an illusion?

Freeman Dyson: Some people...

Wright: Yes.

Freeman Dyson: ...maintain that...

Wright: I'm sure I have it, I don't know about them.

Freeman Dyson: Yes exactly. That's exactly my feeling too.


Wright: Ok and when you talk about mind at the macro level...

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: ... at the level of the universe, what is the evidence of a decision making process at work there or mind-like process?

Freeman Dyson: Well we don't have any evidence but it just seems very plausible since mind exists in the universe at our level that it might very well exist all through the universe and in that case it's sort of it's that's what I choose to call God and and not that I have any direct evidence of it but I would find it very reasonable.

Wright: What is that what is that is there anything that would be explained by it?

Freeman Dyson: Well the the the the these the fact that the that the universe is so friendly to life is sort of the great mystery that's the world is full of mystery and that's that's...

Wright: Right.

Freeman Dyson: of the things that I enjoy about it. So that this the fact that the universe seems to be sort of to go out of it's way to be friendly to life in all sorts of details and the fact that liquid water has such remarkable properties is something that is absolutely essential to life as we know it and it depends on all sorts of details of the physics of how atoms of oxygen and hydrogen behave which could have been different.

Wright: Right.

Freeman Dyson: And so it looks as though it's not a random universe, that in some sense it's it's designed to be hospitable toward I don't say hospitable to humans in particular but hospitable to life in general.


Wright: So you're kind of you're you're kind of talking about what is sometimes called the anthropic principle.

Freeman Dyson: Yes I hate the word because it it implies humans but in fact I think the fact that the that the universe is hospitable to life and mind to me is very important. So I don't like to call it anthropic but it's certainly the same idea.

Wright: And the idea is that there are a lot of properties of the universe that had they been even slightly different than what they are would have lead to a universe incompatible with life.

Freeman Dyson: As far as we know I mean there might have of course there might have been then other kinds of life that would have emerged. But at least it wouldn't have been compatible with the sort of life we understand.

Wright: And this this idea is tied in closely to what you've called the principle of maximum diversity.

Freeman Dyson: Well not tied in very closely but that's another way of thinking about it I mean the universe has this amazing diversity that we see I mean this afternoon at lunch we were hearing about all these great things that are being found by the astronomers and every time we go every Tuesday to listen to the astronomers talk and it gets a little bit more complicated and a little bit more amazing what the kind of stuff that exists out there. So that seems to be characteristic of the universe as we see it and of course it's even more true in the living world. Life just doesn't exist but it seems to be so extraordinarily luxuriant. Instead of having a few species we have 20 million and that seems to be the nature of things. That evolution always seems to lead to tremendous diversity that's true in the astronomical world but also in the biological world.


Wright: Yes. The and the the way you phrase the principle of maximum diversity is it (()) it's what that that things are built so that the universe is is as interesting as it could be or something like that?

Freeman Dyson: Right right yes.

Wright: That's got to be...

Freeman Dyson: This is the most interesting of possible universes.

Wright: That's a difficult hypothesis to test.

Freeman Dyson: Right. It's not supposed to be science that's ... that's it's just a poet way of talking about things. I think I mean I take a very limited view of science I think science has a restricted domain of application and that's why it doesn't ever come into collision with religion in my mind. Science just doesn't touch these questions.

Wright: Yes. The ... do you think there is a tendency among scientists to over estimate the realm within which science is competent at speaking.

Freeman Dyson: Oh yes. That's in fact a very prevalent disease in particular I remember recently there was Ed Wilson whom otherwise I admire very much I mean he's a great biologist and also a friend of mine but he wrote a book recently called "Consilience" which is trying to pretend that science can take care of everything including ethics. That to my mind is totally wrong so I wrote a review of this book in which I roundly denounced this this his his his view and then I got a very friendly back from him afterwards and I was happy I didn't disturb his equanimity.


Wright: Ok. Let's talk a little about the kind of some of your more science-fictiony musings. What are these these Dyson spheres or Dyson shells that I've heard about?

Freeman Dyson: Well it was really a joke which has been completely misunderstood but anyway. What really happened was forty forty years ago I published a one-paged note in the Journal of Science which was called "Search for Artificial Sources of Infrared Radiation." And the idea was that you might have intelligent people in the sky or intelligent creatures who were actually pursuing a vigorous life but weren't interested in communicating. We had just the year before that Frank Drake had started listening for radio signals from aliens and that was fine as long as aliens were trying to communicate. But it occurred to me that you might want to detect aliens even if they weren't communicating. And there was a way to do it and that would be to look for Infrared radiation which is essentially waste heat so if there is a society who has suffered a population explosion and is growing very large or has just a very highly developed industry it's compelled by the laws of thermodynamics to get rid of the waste heat you can't exist without getting rid of waste heat and that has to radiated into space and so you will see that heat radiation as Infrared. So I suggested that people actually start looking in the sky with Infrared telescopes as well as regular telescopes. So that was the proposal. But unfortunately I added to the end of that the remark that what we're what we're looking for in an Artificial biosphere meaning by biosphere just a habitat something that could be in orbit around the neighboring star where the aliens might be living. So the word biosphere didn't imply any particular shape however the science-fiction writers got a hold of this and imagine biosphere means a sphere and it has to be some big round ball so out of that there came these weird notions which ended up on Star Trek.

Wright: Oh yes. Yes in fact just based on secondary accounts, I had imagined some giant sphere whose function was to capture all of the energy of the sun so that none would go to waste. Is that completely erroneous?

Freeman Dyson: Well except it shouldn't be a sphere of course...

Wright: Right.

Freeman Dyson: ... it should have been but I imagined in fact a swarm of objects surrounding a star I mean that that would be the way to use all the starlight and and and so it would look essentially from the outside rather like a dust cloud and actually this was invented not by me but by Olef Stapleton the science-fiction writer who wrote in the 1930s. So if you really wanted to give a name to it it should be the Stapleton sphere rather than the Dyson sphere...

Wright: I think it's too late to make that change I'm afraid your legacy is is inextricably intertwined.

Freeman Dyson: I'm sort of stuck with it.


Wright: In any event it certainly got your name far and wide, right? I mean...

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: Did they actually use the phrase Dyson sphere on Star Trek?

Freeman Dyson: Oh yes.

Wright: Did they really?

Freeman Dyson: One of my daughters sent me a tape of that program afterwards and so I watched it. Of yes it's very clearly labeled and and actually it was sort of fun to watch it but it's all nonsense but but it's it's it's it's quite a good piece of cinema.

Wright: So in general the amount of publicity your ideas get seems inversely proportional to how seriously you intended them.

Freeman Dyson: Oh yes. I suppose that's true of most of them.

Wright: I have no data bearing on myself so far but now you you've spoken approvingly of the idea of Gaya the idea of the earth as a kind of self-regulating almost super organism...

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: ... I mean including the whole biosphere including the human species.

Freeman Dyson: Right that seems fairly obvious that that's true. Of course I mean Lynn Margolis, have you talked with her?

Wright: I actually haven't.

Freeman Dyson: No? You should.

Wright: Yes.

Freeman Dyson: She's she's the one whose really an expert on this. She didn't invent Gaya but she's it's chief promoter in this country and I think what she says about it is very good. I mean you can to some people Gaya is a sort of mystical concept with some sort of religious overtones with their sort of the she-goddess, goddess of the earth and and but that's not the way Lynn Margolis thinks of it I mean she's a scientist and for her it's a solid scientific notion which it is also to me that that the whole earth is a self-regulating system and it has somehow acquired the ability to preserve itself.


Wright: Yes well I guess to the extent that people would try to make a religious connection in an arguably valid way it would be that generally speaking self-regulatory systems were designed to be that way I mean if you look at an individual organism we know that natural selection designs things to have these self-regulating properties so natural selection in our case is the designer I mean when you find self-regulation to be characteristic of anything which raises the question whether it wasn't designed to do that right?

Freeman Dyson: Right and in that case it couldn't be natural selection, we only have one earth.

Wright: Right.

Freeman Dyson: If the earth had gone down and and and life had become extinct of course we wouldn't be here to talk about it.

Wright: Well you can imagine a sort of meta-natural selection process with you know invoking kind of directed panspermia you know Francis Crick's notion where... over of course the universe probably hasn't been around long enough for this to actually happen much but you can imagine where you know planets get seeded with life and then the ones that after a few billion years flourish and succeed in sustaining themselves rather than blowing themselves up then kind of fertilize other planets and some fail some don't you can kind of dream up a natural selection scenario right but...

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: ... I admit it's not very plausible.

Freeman Dyson: No I think that that it it it's not all that implausible either. We we we just learned a couple of years ago that the Mars rock which came from Mars to the Earth just by natural processes being blasted off the surface by impact actually remained cool all the way but was at some people in Cal tech actually did the magnetic analysis of this piece of rock and they showed if the inside had ever been warm the magnetic fields wouldn't be what they are so that it's know for a fact that this particular piece of rock which came here from Mars could have carried life with it. So that not to say that it did but if there had been anything alive inside that piece of rock it could have survived the trip. That's I think an important piece of information so that there are natural ways for life to spread from one planet to another.


Wright: Now if you I guess if you ruled out the kind of meta-natural selection explanation but still believe that the earth had these kind of striking self-regulatory properties then you might be inclined to evoke a more conventional kind of divinity as designer is the explanation I mean that would be one logical path.

Freeman Dyson: Well it's possible of course. Certainly not necessary I mean you can certainly imagine that that this is somehow built into the nature of life that it has this quality which we see of course in the individual cells what we call homeostasis...

Wright: Right but in that case we know that they were designed that that property was selected we understand the creative process.

Freeman Dyson: Well it it it's sort of I think you can put it the other way around that what's remarkable about life is not that that natural selection can do everything but there has to be something there for natural selection to work on.

Wright: Right.

Freeman Dyson: So this kind of homeostastatic mechanism must have been already there before natural selection started.

Wright: You mean in order for things to be stable enough for there to be self-replicating molecules or something?

Freeman Dyson: Yes. And so that somehow it is not just a matter of natural selection but there has to be a spontaneous formation of some kind of self-perpetuating mechanism which we don't understand and that's true of Gaya as a whole and true of individual cells as well that natural selection doesn't really explain that even on the cellular level.

Wright: No but at least natural selection once you've got the self-replicating entities natural selection can explain how you build up these larger mechanism that would have self-regulating properties...

Freeman Dyson: Well I think it's the other way around actually. That of course Darwin didn't know anything about replication.

Wright: No, he didn't know about the mechanism of genes.

Freeman Dyson: He didn't even know that there was any such thing and and I mean it isn't necessary to have self self-replicating unit to have natural selection.

Wright: Well you need some kind of some kind of not always perfect transmission of information.

Freeman Dyson: Right you have to have some thing that can be inherited but it doesn't have to be replication.

Wright: I guess I'm having trouble imagining what it would be if it wouldn't involve replication of information but...

Freeman Dyson: Yes that's an interesting question because I because one of the things I do as a hobby is studying the origin of life.

Wright: Right.

Freeman Dyson: And that's I mean I'm I'm not a biologist but I love to think about the origin of life because to me that's one of the major mysteries and and we're all equally ignorant so I even wrote a book about that...

Wright: What have you what have you had to say about what have you...

Freeman Dyson: Well essentially that the you can have...


Wright: Now the name of that book is "The Origin of Life," isn't it or something?

Freeman Dyson: It's called "Origins of Life."

Wright: It's called "Origins of Life," ok.

Freeman Dyson: That's important I mean that...

Wright: Ok.

Freeman Dyson: It's plural rather than singular so the idea is that life began without replication very likely that replication may have been a late development. I think that's important.

Wright: Ok.

Freeman Dyson: It's much easier to imagine life originating without replication so that it was originally more like Gaya in fact... it was self-organizing system without replication which is roughly what Gaya is.

Wright: So what you first have is a system that kind of resists the anthropic tendencies, it builds up this local order not withstanding the tendency of things in general to get degraded.

Freeman Dyson: Right.

Wright: And then after some success at that replicating material kind of comes along and parasitize it or something?

Freeman Dyson: Precisely. Yes. So the idea of DNA in fact was a parasite. And I think that's that's sort of reasonable because this whole DNA apparatus has the sort of has the appearance of something alien that came in later.

Wright: So you view the direction of history at least recent history as in many ways promising and up beat more good than bad. Is that ...

Freeman Dyson: Yes, in fact compared what the problems we have today with the ones we had in the 1930s when I was growing up it's certainly far less gloomy now than it was then. In the 1930s everything seemed to be going to hell at the same time. We had Hitler, we had World War II about to break out, we had a world depression...

Wright: Now were you in England at that point?

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: Yes.

Freeman Dyson: And I didn't expect to survive. It was a it was for it us it looked completely desperate. And when I look at the problems of the world today they're they're certainly big problems but nothing like as hopeless as it was then so if we survived that I think we can survive the problem we have today.


Wright: That's encouraging. And what about the the the longer time frame of history if you compare over the millennium I mean you're not a historian I know but is it your impression that things have gotten better?

Freeman Dyson: Well undoubtedly the until the last couple of centuries almost the entire world was living in deep poverty and only just a handful of aristocrats were carrying on the civilization which was I think it's an amazing development in the last 300 years I mean roughly since the Reformation that masses of people are living more or less educated and and and productive lives so I can't help feeling that things on the whole are going in a good direction.

Wright: And is this in your mind the idea that the basic direction of history is more good than bad, is that evidence of higher purpose, evidence of a God or anything?

Freeman Dyson: No. I don't think so but of course it's certainly consistent. I mean if there were a higher purpose then this might be part of it.

Wright: I mean it's more more suggestive of that than the alternative scenario would be.

Freeman Dyson: Yes it does look as though we are absolutely doomed at least I I have the feeling humans are amazing well equipped to take care of difficulties.


Wright: Let me let me read you just a few quotes of yours, this gets back to the topic we were on for a while about how to conceive of God well through your lenses I guess and this business of kind of mind existing at different at three different levels. "Matter... the level of matter is weird enough so that it doesn't limit God's freedom to make it do what God pleases."

Freeman Dyson: Right.

Wright: What does that mean exactly?

Freeman Dyson: Well it's only I mean again it's it's it's poetry it's not a scientific statement. I I I feel religion and poetry are very closely connected to me. What I write is in a way goes much further than what I necessarily believe I mean I don't make a when I make a statement like that it's not a statement of belief it's...

Wright: Ok.

Freeman Dyson:'s essentially a poem.

Wright: Ok.

Freeman Dyson: And but it may be right as many poet many many many poems have a lot of truth in them but they're not scientific statements.

Wright: Ok. But when you saying something like "God can be thought of as mind on a scale beyond our comprehension"...

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: That's not a scientifically reached conclusion on the other hand it is...

Freeman Dyson: That's sort of a definition it's it's...

Wright: And it's a scientifically respectable definition in a certain sense I mean in other words it's a way to talk about God that is compatible with the modern scientific world view.

Freeman Dyson: Absolutely. Yes.

Wright: And that's I guess it sounds like that's your basic view of the connection between science and religion. It isn't so much that science provides massive cooperating evidence for the hypothesis of divinity although in some ways you are saying the universe is suggestive of of of design but but it seems to me a greater part of your emphasis has been that the two are wholly compatible..

Freeman Dyson: Right.

Wright: ... the scientific and religious world views...

Freeman Dyson: Yes. And and I think I mean to me the most important thing about religion is that it's always associated with great literature. Every great religion has a great literature has it's foundation and that to me speaks much more for it than any connections with science.


Wright: And so it sounds if I had to guess I would say that in some respects you're your world view kind of technically speaking is the world view of an agnostic.

Freeman Dyson: Yes I mean in the strict sense yes I mean agnostic is is what I am I don't know anything but that applies to science as well as to religion. Science is all about mysteries too and if it wasn't if the world wasn't full of mysteries then we wouldn't do science.

Wright: Right.

Freeman Dyson: And the same is true of religion.

Wright: But your intuition is that there is in some sense more there than meets the eye/

Freeman Dyson: Oh indeed. That's true in science as well.

Wright: What are some examples of that being true in science.

Freeman Dyson: Well I mean for example these gamma ray bursts which are now the most fashionable part of astronomy and we have known that these exist now for about 30 years, we're only just getting a glimmering of what they are and how they might actually be produced. I mean they are still totally mysterious when it comes to any sort of details. All we know is that there are these these fantastic explosions which are just unimaginably powerful and they're going off at the rate of one every day all over the universe and that's sort of typical of of what's going on I mean we had no inclining that these even existed until somebody put up some satellites 30 years ago for a totally different purpose.

Wright: Right. So you mean things keep kind of weird findings keep showing up that...

Freeman Dyson: Yes. As soon as you start another open another window you see all kinds of stuff you never expected or even imagined.

Wright: Of course I mean that the some people would say still that if you look at the pattern the pattern of science is to take these novel things and ultimately explain them in materialistic terms maybe I should put quotes around materialistic but still explain them in scientific terms.

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: And to them that suggests that as for their ultimately being more than meets the eye in the religious sense that the success of science really diminishes the prospects for there being in in the end more than meets the eye because ultimately everything is explicable in these concrete terms without reference to higher purpose or divinity or anything else, right? That's one thing you hear.

Freeman Dyson: Yes. I mean I I I remember recently I heard this beautiful metaphor for science which I don't remember who it came for but anyway science is a meadow just a little piece of nicely cultivated grass where you can walk around in the sunshine. All around there's deep forest, deep and gloomy forest which we don't understand at all and and as the the the centuries go by we chop down trees and the meadow gets a little bit larger but the mysteries all around still go on to infinity so...


Wright: Right. And mysteries in some sense in different dimensions...

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: I mean there's some mysteries that just may never be amenable to scientific inquiries such as consciousness, right?

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: Right I mean that that may just be more metaphysical question.

Freeman Dyson: Maybe it is amenable we don't know...

Wright: Right.

Freeman Dyson: It could be but I mean but the point is there will always be other mysteries when you solve one you find two more.

Wright: So just tell me in closing kind of how your frame of reference which is I guess I would characterize as technically agnostic but on the other hand suspecting that there is an ultimate source of meaning. Is that right?

Freeman Dyson: Yes I mean I wouldn't say suspecting I mean to me it's a way of life I mean that I couldn't function if I didn't believe the thing had a purpose and so it's not really...

Wright: A larger purpose.

Freeman Dyson: Yes. I mean the point is action comes before thinking. Life is action and not thinking. And so the belief in a purpose has to do with action it has it's not something that we could've come to logically but it's just part of a part of a part part of the of being alive.

Wright: So if you weren't if you if you in this sense didn't have a little bit of religion in your world view you would have trouble just living.

Freeman Dyson: Yes.

Wright: And what about people who say well that's a cop out, you're just you're just relying on this belief as a crutch as you might you know on a on a prescribed drug or something made you feel good.

Freeman Dyson: Yes well maybe so and but then everybody has to rely on all sorts of things I mean we're not self-sufficient. It's silly to imagine that you could be.

Wright: And the larger point I guess is that whatever the origins of your intuition, it is compatible with science. It it it's plausible in light of everything you you know about science.

Freeman Dyson: Yes I mean I like to think of there is this metaphor of the two windows that religion and science are two windows looking out on the universe and you can't look through both of them at the same time, that they both of them show the same universe. There are simply different ways of looking.


Wright: So is your everyday work thinking about the natural world is it charged with a kind of reverence?

Freeman Dyson: No.

Wright: It's not.

Freeman Dyson: No no my everyday life in science is just tinkering around with mathematical tools. I mean it's rather like playing a musical instrument and it's if you're a professional musician you don't necessarily feel the same kind of musically emotions as as the listeners feel when they hear you play. You're job as a professional is to play it well because the more feeling you put into it the better.

Wright: But I think most professional musicians are capable of being transported by music and certainly that's one thing that got them into the business.

Freeman Dyson: That's true yes well that's true of me too. I mean I am certainly I am in awe of the way the universe is built but that's not what actually makes me when I'm doing my job as a scientist I'm scribbling equations on bits of paper. And it's the equations themselves which I enjoy, the awe is quite separate.

Wright: It just pops up every once and a while.

Freeman Dyson: Yes the awe comes more when I'm looking out at the sky in the night...

Wright: I see. Ok. Well I guess I'll I'll let you get back to scribbling equations and looking out at the sky. Thanks. Thanks so much for having this talk.

Freeman Dyson: Well thanks for coming.

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