Freeman Dyson (1923—2020)

Mar 04 2020

The New York Times obituary of the physicist Freeman Dyson, who died last week, includes such characterizations as “iconoclast,” “heretic,” “visionary,” and “religious, but in an unorthodox way.” All of that and more came through in an interview I did with Dyson two decades ago (one of the very first video interviews I ever did, back at the dawn of online video). Below is a mildly edited transcript of the interview. Reading it, I was reminded how eclectically adventurous Dyson was--jumping from the Gaia hypothesis to an eccentric definition of God to the idea that the universe involves “three levels of mind” and to many other things. I was also reminded what a nice person he was.

ROBERT WRIGHT: First of all, thanks very much for letting me come talk to you here today. I've never been within the walls of the Institute for Advanced Study before, and I feel kind of privileged. It has a kind of mystique about it. Do you find that people react to it that way?

FREEMAN DYSON: Well, I tried to demolish this aura of sanctity that surrounds the place. What it is basically is a motel with stipends. ... It's just a place where young people come from all over the world and are given a year or two with pay.

A somewhat more selective admissions policy than some motels have. Right?

Yes. But still that's basically what it is. Mostly the important thing is what they do when they get home, not what they do while they're here.

I see. But there have been—I mean, Einstein, von Neumann and so on—there have been a lot of people thinking deep cosmic thoughts here, right?

Yes, but that's not really what the place is for, that's accidental.

It's not for cosmic thoughts really?

Well, if you're lucky, of course you get a few of those. ...

You, in any event, have been doing your share of thinking cosmic thoughts.

Not very much.

Well, 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.


You invented this concept of what's now called the Dyson sphere, which crops up in the science fiction literature sometimes.

Yes. Both of those items really have nothing to do with work. Those were, both of them, essentially just little jokes. It's amusing that you get to be famous only for the things you don't think are serious.

You've done a good job of not being serious then. 

The weirdness of quantum physics

I want to get back to all these cosmic questions and things you've said about the nature of God and so on—all the cosmic stuff—but first, … I would like to ask you more broadly about quantum physics. Because people hear the phrase a lot and, I think, very few people have a clear idea of it, and that may be in its nature—that you can't have a clear idea of it. 

What's your thumbnail description of what quantum mechanics is?

It's a wonderful tool for describing the world—but it is a mathematical tool, so you can't really explain it except with mathematics. It's wonderfully precise and wonderfully clear in the language that's made for it, which is mathematics. As soon as you try to describe it in words, it gets very fuzzy.

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

Probably not. It's probably only making it more obscure. 

You hear this phrase "the weirdness of quantum physics", and you yourself have talked about the atomic, subatomic level of matter in that way, as I recall. ... What do you mean by that?

Well, it doesn't behave the way that 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're familiar with. Quantum mechanics isn't like that. It's just quite alien to our way of feeling and touching. 

There was a time when the phrase "scientific materialism" was common and maybe a lot of people would use that to describe themselves. Because of the weirdness of quantum physics, is it no longer appropriate to talk that way? 

Well, I don't know. I never talked that way in the first place. I don't like “isms” of any kind. Certainly, there are scientific materialists still around, I'm sure. But exactly what they believe I couldn't tell you.

Well, 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?


First of all, you can, if you would like, name the biologist.

Well I don't remember for sure, it might have been Dawkins.

Wouldn't surprise me.But anyway, you were arguing that that was not a valid dichotomy.


As I recall, the weirdness of the material world at the micro level entered into your argument.

Right. If you look at matter as it really is, it's not like the way a tinker toy model would portray it. It just doesn't fit the model of a machine at all.

“A Christian without the theology”

Then… on the other half of the dichotomy [is] religious transcendentalism—you think there is room for that perspective, or [is] that... a term that you can't yourself quite get a handle on?

Well I don't know what it means. 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 doesn't fit any of those labels.

I think you've described yourself as a Christian without the theology. 

Yes. Right.

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

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

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

Well, yes. I mean, to a first approximation.

The thought of God to me does mean something, but it's such a mystery that I don't feel inclined to try to invent specific models. The fact that we have some instinct of a mind at work in the universe seems to me about as far as I'm willing to go. I call it God. God simply is a mind that's gone beyond the scale of our understanding. That's about as far as my theology goes.

If you were living in another culture you could equally well be a Buddhist or—


You could. Because fundamentally what religion is about to you is the things that people do.

Right. Judaism, as I understand it, comes closer to my way of being religious. It's much more about observance and less about beliefs.

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 “let's be nice”—a good government league or something?

Is there a difference?

There is a lot of difference, of course.

One of the great things about religions is that they last from century to century, that there's a very long tradition. At least in most religions it goes back a couple of thousand years. That is very important. So you take a much longer view of things. And, of course, there is a great emotional aspect to it, it's not as much as like going to a committee meeting.

But there are people who would say that an essential part of religion is at least the belief that there is more than meets the eyes, in some sense; that there is some ultimate, transcendental source of meaning.

Yes. No, I would certainly agree with that, … very strongly. 

Certainly, that has nothing to do with science.

And how would you characterize the transcendental source of meaning?

Well, again, it's a very personal thing. Some people have it and some don't.

It's an intuition … about the nature of the universe?

Yes. 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, on every level.

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


It sounds like it's not necessarily your view that science would lead you to religion.

No, it very often does, of course. A 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. For me, science is much more just a skilled trade that I practice. It's not particularly connected with deep thoughts.

Mind at the micro-level: atoms making choices

But you have constructed almost a metaphysics, I guess—maybe I'm reading too much into it—out of your science that is, in a way, suggestive of religion. You alluded to it earlier when you were talking about evidence of a mind in the universe.

In your writing you've talked about three levels of mind, I think. There is the human mind—that one you don't have to argue with people much about, they'll buy that. Then you've talked about mind residing at the micro-level, the atomic, subatomic level. And then at the very macro level, the universal mind; the universe as mind, or something.


What do you mean by that?

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

But what does the word "mind" even mean? What are the manifestations of mind? What is it about the way the subatomic world acts that leads you to think that mind is a reasonable way to describe what's going on there?

Well, simply that it seems to make choices.

That's part of quantum physics, that notion?

Yes, the fact is that you have an atom of uranium, it sits there on the table, and then tomorrow it's gone—it's decayed into thorium plus an alpha particle—but nobody can predict whether or not that's going to happen today, or tomorrow, or it may take a billion years. 

So the atom seems to have a freedom to choose. That's something which characterizes quantum processes. They seem to just occur spontaneously—we call that spontaneous decay—so ... that, to my mind, implies that the thing makes a choice.

So ... in some sense a decision is being made every day in atoms around the universe.

Right. This freedom that the individual atom seems to have seems to me sort of an indication of some rudimentary form of mind.

Right. Generally, when we talk about decisions being made we think of a mind as making them.

Right... that's the linkage. But it may not be true at all. Of course, 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 be very probable that our intuition of free will is somehow connected with quantum processes, but it could very well be that it's quite different.

I've wondered that myself. Also, the phenomenon of consciousness, do you think that's tied in there with free will and—

Yes, obviously. Of course, then many people believe that that's just an illusion, but I'm quite content to—

That consciousness is an illusion?

Some people maintain that.

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

Yes, exactly. (Laughs.) That's exactly my feeling too.

Mind at the macro-level: “The universe is friendly to life”

And when you talk about mind at the macro level, at the level of the universe, what is the evidence of a decision-making process, or a mind-like process at work there?

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. In that case, that's what I choose to call God. Not that I have any direct evidence of it, but I would find it very reasonable.

Is there anything that would be explained by it?

Well, the fact that the universe is so friendly to life is sort of a great mystery. The world is full of mysteries, and that's one of the things that I enjoy about it.

So, the fact that the universe seems to go out of its way to be friendly to life in all sorts of details—the fact that liquid water has such remarkable properties—[it’s] 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.

So, it looks as though it's not a random universe, that in some sense it's designed to be hospitable to—I don't say hospitable to humans in particular—but hospitable to life in general.

You're talking about what is sometimes called the anthropic principle.

Yes. I hate the word, because it implies humans, but the fact 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.

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 led to a universe incompatible with life.

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

This idea is tied in closely with what you've called the principle of maximum diversity.

Well, not tied in very closely, but it's another way of thinking about it.

The universe has this amazing diversity that we see. 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, it gets a little bit more complicated and a little bit more amazing, 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 doesn't just exist, but it seems to be so extraordinarily luxuriant—instead of having a few species, we have 20 million. That seems to be the nature of things, evolution always seems to lead to tremendous diversity. That's true in the astronomical world as also in the biological world.

The way you phrase the principle of maximum diversity succinctly is that things are built so that the universe is as interesting as it could be, or something like that?

Yes. This is the most interesting of possible universes.

Now, that's a difficult hypothesis to test.

Right. It's not supposed to be science. It's just a poetic way of talking about things.

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. …

Gaia—the Earth as a self-regulating super-organism

You've spoken approvingly of the idea of Gaia, the idea of the Earth as a kind of self-regulating almost super organism. Including the whole biosphere, including the human species.

Right. That seems fairly obvious, that that's true. 

Lynn Margulis … is really the expert on this. She didn't invent Gaia, but she's its chief promoter promoter in this country, and I think what she says about it is very good. 

To some people, Gaia is a sort of mystical concept with some sort of religious overtones, some sort of a she-goddess of the Earth. But that's not the way Lynn Margulis thinks of it. She's a scientist, and for her it's a solid scientific notion—which it is also to me—that the whole Earth is a self-regulating system, and it has somehow acquired the ability to preserve itself.

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. When you find self-regulation to be characteristic of anything, it at least raises the question of whether it was designed to do that, right?

Right. In that case, there couldn't be natural selection, we only have one Earth. If the Earth had gone down and life had become extinct, of course we wouldn't be here to talk about it.

Well, you can imagine a kind of meta natural selection process, invoking directed panspermia—Francis Crick's notion, where ... 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 fertilize other planets, and some fail, some don't. You can kind of dream up a natural selection scenario, right?


But I admit it's not very plausible.

I think that it's not all that implausible either. 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 an impact, actually remained cool all the way.

Some people in Cal Tech actually did the magnetic analysis of this piece of rock. They showed [that], if the inside had ever been warm, the magnetic fields wouldn't be what they are. So it's known for a fact that this particular piece of rock, which came here from Mars, could have carried life with it. 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. There are natural ways for life to spread from one planet to another.

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

Well, it's possible of course. But it's certainly not necessary. 

I mean, you can certainly imagine that this is somehow built into the nature of life. That it has this quality, which we see in the individual cells, what we call homeostasis.

Right, but in that case we know that ... that property was selected. We understand the creative process.

I think you can put it the other way around. What's remarkable about life is not that natural selection can do everything, but [that] there has to be something there for natural selection to work on. So this kind of homeostatic mechanism must have been already there before natural selection started.

You mean, in order for things to be stable enough for there to be self-replicating molecules?

Yes. Somehow it is not just a matter of natural selection, but there has to be a spontaneous formation of some kind of self-perpetuating mechanisms, which we don't understand—and that's true of Gaia as a whole, and it's true of the individual cells as well. The natural selection doesn't really explain that even on the cellular level. … 

One of the things I do as a hobby is studying the origin of life. 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. We're all equally ignorant and so I even wrote a book about that. …

The name of that book is The Origin of Life, isn't it?

It's called Origins of Life. ... That's important, it's plural rather than singular. 

So the idea is that life very likely began without replication, that replication may have been a late development. I think that's important. 

It's much easier to imagine life originating without replication—so that it was originally more like Gaia, in fact—it was a self-organizing system without replication, which is roughly what Gaia is.

So what you first have is a system that resists the entropic tendencies. It builds up its local order notwithstanding the tendency of things in general to get degraded. And then after some success at that, replicating material comes along and kind of parasitizes it or something?

Precisely. Yes. So the idea is that DNA in fact was a parasite. That's sort of reasonable, because this whole DNA apparatus sort of has the appearance of something alien that came in later.

Direction of history

You view the direction of history, at least recent history, as in many ways promising and upbeat, more good than bad.

Yes, if I compare what 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.

Were you in England at that point?

Yes. I didn't expect to survive. For us it looked completely desperate. 

When I look at the problems of the world today, there are certainly big problems, but nothing like as hopeless as it was then. So if we survived that, I think we can survive the problems we have today.

That's encouraging. What about the longer time frame of history, if you compare over the millennia? You're not a historian, I know, but is it your impression that things have gotten better?

Well, undoubtedly. 

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. I think it's an amazing development that—over the last 300 years, roughly since the Reformation—that masses of people are now living more or less educated and productive lives. 

So I can't help feeling that things on the whole are going in a good direction.

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

No, I don't think so. But, of course, it's certainly consistent. If there were a higher purpose, then this might be a part of it.

It's more suggestive of that than the alternative scenario would be?

Yes. It doesn't look as though we are absolutely doomed, at least. I have the feeling humans are amazingly well-equipped to take care of difficulties.

Science, poetry and religion

Let me read you a few quotes of yours. This gets back to this topic we were on for a while about how to conceive of God—well, through your lenses I guess—and this business of mind existing at three different levels.

"The level of matter is weird enough so that it doesn't limit God's freedom to make it do what God pleases."


What does that mean exactly?

Again, it's poetry. It's not a scientific statement. Religion and poetry are very closely connected to me. 

What I write, in a way, goes much further than what I necessarily believe. When I make a statement like that, it's not a statement of belief. It's essentially a poem. 

But it may be right. Many poems have a lot of truth in them, but they're not scientific statements.

But when you say something like that God can be thought of as mind on a scale beyond our comprehension, that's not a scientifically reached conclusion. On the other hand…

That's sort of a definition.

It's a scientifically respectable definition in a certain sense, right?

Oh, yes.

In other words, it's a way to talk about God that is compatible with a modern scientific worldview.

Absolutely. Yes.

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

Yes. To me, the most important thing about religion is that it's always associated with great literature. Every great religion has a great literature as its foundation, and that to me speaks much more for it than any connections with science.

If I had to guess, I would say that in some respects your world view, technically speaking, is the worldview of an agnostic.

In the strict sense, yes. Agnostic is what I am. I don't know anything. 

But that applies to science as well as to religion. The science is all about mysteries too. If the world wasn't full of mysteries, we wouldn't do science. 

Same is true of religion.

But your intuition is that there is, in some sense, more there than meets the eye.

Oh, indeed. That's true, of course, in science as well.

What are some examples of that being true in science?

For example, these gamma-ray bursts, which is now the most fashionable part of astronomy.

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. They are still totally mysterious when it comes to any sort of details. All we know is there are these fantastic explosions, which are just unimaginably powerful, and they're going off at the rate of one every day all over the universe.

That's sort of typical of what's going on. We had no inkling that these even existed until somebody put up some satellites 30 years ago for a totally different purpose.

So you mean, weird findings keep showing up.

Yes. As soon as you open another window, you see all kinds of stuff you never expected or even imagined.

Some people would say that still, 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.


To them, that suggests that … the success of science really diminishes the prospects for there being, 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.

Yeah. I remember recently I heard this beautiful metaphor for science, I don't remember who it came from. 

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 as 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.

Right. Mysteries, in some sense, in different dimensions. I mean, there are some mysteries that just may never be amenable to scientific inquiry—such as consciousness. Right? That may be just a more metaphysical question.

Yeah, or maybe it is amenable, but we don't know. But it could be. 

The point is there'll always be other mysteries. When you solve one, you find two more.

I guess I would characterize [your frame of reference] as technically agnostic, but on the other hand suspecting that there is an ultimate source of meaning, is that right?

Yes. I wouldn't say "suspecting." To me, it's a way of life. I couldn't function if I didn't believe the thing had a purpose.

A larger purpose.

The point is action comes before thinking. Life is action and not thinking. 

So the belief in a purpose has to do with action. It's not something that we could come to logically, but it's just part of being alive.

So if you, in this sense, didn't have a little bit of religion in your world view, you would have trouble just living?


What about people who say: Well, then that's a cop-out, you're just relying on this belief as a crutch, the way you might on a prescribed drug ... that made you feel good?

Yes, well maybe so. But then everybody has to rely on all sorts of things. We're not self-sufficient. It's silly to imagine that you could be.

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

Yes. I like to think of the 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, but both of them show the same universe. They're simply different ways of looking.

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


It's not?

No, my everyday life in science is just tinkering around with mathematical tools. 

It's rather like playing a musical instrument. If you're a professional musician, you don't necessarily feel the same kind of musical emotions that the listeners feel when they hear you play. But your job as a professional is to play it well. Of course, the more feeling you put into it the better.

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

That's true, yes. Well, that's true of me too. I'm certainly in awe of the way the universe is built. But that's not what actually animates 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.

It just pops up every once in a while?

Yeah. The awe comes more when I'm looking out at the sky in the night.

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

Well, thanks for coming.

Illustrations by Nikita Petrov.

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