Legendary Physicist Freeman Dyson on God, Unanswerable Questions, and Why Diversity Is the Ruling Law of the Universe
By Maria Popova
In 1992, Dutch television journalist Wim Kayzer decided to enlist six of humanity’s greatest living scientists in untangling the mystery of human existence and discerning our place in the universe. He interviewed each of them separately, then flew them to Amsterdam and placed them in six different hotels, keeping them from meeting until the culmination — a roundtable of unparalleled intellectual, almost spiritual potency. The resulting thirteen-hour public television series became a massive hit in the Netherlands and its transcript was published in English as A Glorious Accident: Understanding Our Place in the Cosmic Puzzle (public library).
In accordance with my longtime conviction that literature is the original Internet, I encountered this magnificent, mind-expanding collection of interviews through a passing mention in the memoir of Oliver Sacks, who was one of the six scientists. Another was the great physicist, mathematician, and science sage Freeman Dyson (December 15, 1923–February 28, 2020), who has written beautifully about the new Age of Wonder and has lived nearly a century as a supreme steward of that age himself.
The interview begins with Kayzer’s wonderful portrait of Dyson:
Freeman Dyson is far more fragile than I thought: a small man in a slightly oversized raincoat, with glasses that seem to date from before World War I. When I meet him in a hotel in Cambridge, England, he carries two unbuttered rolls in one hand and a somewhat feminine umbrella in the other. He immediately reminds you of an absentminded professor. His wife, who has accompanied him, explains that Freeman would forget to eat if someone weren’t around to remind him periodically of the concept of taking food.
He has found time, next to his impressive career as a physicist working alongside such people as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Richard Feynman, and Hans Bethe, to raise five daughters and one son. He’s a kind father, that’s plain to see. And he has the most curious smile I’ve come across in years.
When he calls an autistic woman he’s known since her childhood the closest thing to an alien intelligence he’s ever come across, I’m struck by the same observation, looking at the man opposite me. Slightly alien, very kind and easygoing, but also rather strange. Spellbindingly strange, and at the same time spellbindingly normal.
Of all the scientists I interview, he is closest to the archetype of the scholar who studies the world without appearing to be part of it. He seems to have been parachuted into Cambridge by beings with a different kind of intelligence from somewhere around Saturn or the Andromeda nebula, where Dyson is dying to go.
It is from his singular position between the ordinary and the extraordinary that Dyson turns his alien intelligence to the ultimate meta-question — whether there is such a thing as an unanswerable question. He offers a perspective at once utterly humbling and utterly mobilizing:
I consider that we are still monkeys; we just came down from the trees rather recently, and it’s astonishing how well we can do. The fact that we can even write down partial differential equations, let alone solve them, to me is a miracle. The fact that we ourselves at the moment have very limited understanding of things doesn’t surprise me at all.
If you go far enough in the future, we’ll be asking totally different questions. We’ll be thinking thoughts which at the moment we can’t even imagine. So I think to say that a question is unanswerable is ludicrous. All you can say is that it’s not going to be answered in the next hundred years, or the next two hundred years… To say there are unanswerable questions makes no sense. But if history comes to a stop, if we descend into barbarism or if we become extinct, then the questions won’t be answered. But to me that’s just a historical accident.
For Dyson, the notion of such historical accidents, particularly of the human-made variety, is more than an abstract possibility. He survived one World War and was the accidental product of another, which seeded deep within him the abiding awareness that he and his sister owe their lives to a sniper’s bullet. He tells the poignant story:
Our Uncle Freeman was captain I believe in the British infantry in World War I. He was fighting in France. He happened to be very tall, he was two meters tall. So one day he put his head up out of the trench, and a German sniper put a bullet through his head. And that was the end of him. That was I think in Paris of 1916. My father was his closest friend, they were colleagues as schoolteachers. Freeman was a classical scholar, my father was a music teacher. They were very close. Freeman was a sort of confirmed bachelor and had a very close relationship with his sister. They used to wander around Europe together. By the time he died she was already 37, and she probably never would have married if Freeman had not been killed. The fact that he was killed was a tremendous grief to both her and to my father; it brought them together. And so it happened that in 1917, one year after his death, they got married. And my sister and I were the result.
And yet this randomness, coupled with our capacity for choice, is precisely what makes life interesting and worthwhile. Dyson writes:
I propose that our universe is the most interesting of all possible universes, and our fate as human beings is to make it so.
When pushed to elaborate, he adds:
I like that as a statement, though I wouldn’t say that it’s a statement of fact in any sense. It’s just a hope… Every time there’s a new discovery in science, whether it’s in astronomy or biology or any other field, it confirms my belief that this is the most interesting of all possible universes… It’s a good working hypothesis, that’s all. And it may quite well be our destiny to take charge of the universe in some sense, to direct the future of life. It depends on whether or not we meet other creatures who have greater capabilities than ours. If not, then we may find ourselves in charge.
Out of this notion of cosmic responsibility Dyson wrests his personal secular version of God:
I like to describe [God] as the “world soul” — which was my mother’s phrase — so that we are little bits of the world soul. And so it may well be that we are part of the world’s growth. That’s the kind of world I would like to live in, and as a working hypothesis it seems to me quite reasonable. In detail the world shows no evidence of any sort of conscious design. If there is to be a conscious design, it probably has to be ours.
Even so, Dyson — who believes it is more probable than not that other intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe — cautions agains the hubris of assuming ourselves into a singular position of power. Diversity, he argues, is the ruling law of the universe — not sameness, not like-usness. He observes:
The tree of life becomes more diverse as it evolves… Whether [evolution] has a purpose or not… I wouldn’t be dogmatic. We certainly don’t understand whatever purpose it may have, but to deny the existence of a purpose seems to me as foolish as to believe that it has to have a purpose. I would say, we’ll wait and see. Maybe it does have a purpose. Maybe we’ll create a purpose. I think it’s foolish to preach about questions like that.
He illustrates this notion of the necessity of diversity with a conversation he had with his mother as a young boy:
I asked, “Why do we have so many churches in Winchester?” and she said, “If God had wanted us all to worship in one church, he wouldn’t have made so many different kinds of people.” I liked that, and I feel the same way about life as a whole. I mean, that’s the glory of life, that it always seems to tend to diversity. It seems to be one of its most basic characteristics. So in that sense I would say that evolution does have a trend.
He returns to the issue of unanswerable questions and argues that the mysterious reason for life’s complexity is a prime example of a question that is unanswered rather than unanswerable:
It’s a question that we don’t know the answer to yet. Maybe one day we will. It seems to me a perfectly sensible question. There’s nothing in it that makes it inherently unanswerable. Of course I don’t know the answer. I’m not an expert, but the experts don’t know either. Why should they? After all, we’ve been studying life scientifically only since Aristotle, two thousand years, and that’s a generous estimate. How could you expect us really to understand it in such a short time? It’s amazing how much we have discovered in such a short time. The idea that you should solve these major riddles just at the first try seems to me to be asking much more than is reasonable.
Dyson offers one befitting example of mysteries that may at first appear unsolvable, only to reveal themselves as not-yet-solved and remind us that our imagination is always limited by our tools of inquiry — befitting because in the quarter-century since the interview, science has made significant illuminations in this particular area:
The things we understand least are the quasars. These are the most violent and the most energetic objects in the universe, and they’re still totally mysterious. All we know is they’re there, and they’re rather frequent. Nobody ever dreamed they existed until they were found, and even after they were found, it took a long time before people took them seriously. Nature’s imagination is always richer than ours.
A Glorious Accident is a glorious read in its totality, featuring expansive conversations with Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Dennett, Rupert Sheldrake, and Stephen Toulmin. Complement this particular fragment of Dyson’s lengthy and widely rewarding contribution with a counterpoint in Hannah Arendt — a favorite of Dyson’s — on the value of unanswerable questions, then revisit astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in our age of certitude.
Published March 7, 2016