Freeman Dyson, at the age of 94, is still disturbing the universe. He has a new book out, Maker of Patterns, a collection of annotated letters that tells his life story through the 1970s. He continues writing splendid essays for The New York Review of Books. His latest, in the May 10 issue, ends with the Dysonian sentence, “Freedom is the divine spark that causes human children to rebel against grand unified theories imposed by their parents.”
Hoping to do a Q&A with him, I sent him a dozen questions. I asked, for example, about his assertions that the environmental movement has been “hijacked by a bunch of climate fanatics” and that “paranormal phenomena are real.” (See my 2011 post on Dyson’s “bunkrapt” ideas.) He ignored all the questions except for one about the Singularity. Here is our exchange:
Horgan: You have speculated about the long-term evolution of intelligence since the 1970s. What do you think about the predictions of Ray Kurzweil and others that we are on the verge of a radical transformation of intelligence, or “Singularity”?
Dyson: The Kurzweil singularity is total nonsense. For better or for worse, human nature is a tough beast, designed to prevail over technological revolutions and natural disasters. It changed only a little in response to the agricultural and industrial revolutions, not to mention ice-ages. It is absurd to imagine it changing radically in a single century.
That’s not enough for a column, so I thought I’d dust off a profile I wrote after interviewing Dyson in 1993 at the Institute for Advanced Study. In the profile, which ended up in The End of Science, I tried to convey Dyson’s personality, and his vision of humanity’s ultimate purpose and destiny. Here is an edited version:
Freeman Dyson is a slight man, all sinew and veins, with a cutlass of a nose and deep-set, watchful eyes. His demeanor is cool, reserved--until he laughs. Then he snorts through his nose, shoulders heaving, like a 12-year-old schoolboy hearing a dirty joke. It is a subversive laugh, the laugh of a man who envisions space as a haven for “religious fanatics” and “recalcitrant teenagers,” who insists that science at its best is “a rebellion against authority.”
Dyson was once at the forefront of the search for a unified theory of physics. In the early 1950s, he contributed to the construction of the quantum theory of electromagnetism. Other physicists have told me that Dyson deserved a Nobel Prize for his work, or at least more credit. They have also suggested that disappointment, as well as a contrarian streak, nudged Dyson away from particle physics and toward pursuits unworthy of his powers.
When I mentioned this assessment to Dyson, he gave me a tight-lipped smile and responded, as he often did, with an anecdote. Lawrence Bragg, he noted, was “a sort of role model.” After Bragg became the director of the University of Cambridge's legendary Cavendish Laboratory in 1938, he steered it away from nuclear physics, on which its mighty reputation rested, and into new territory.
“Everybody thought Bragg was destroying the Cavendish by getting out of the mainstream,” Dyson said. “But of course it was a wonderful decision, because he brought in molecular biology and radio astronomy. Those are the two things which made Cambridge famous over the next 30 years or so.”
Dyson, too, has spent much of his career swerving away from the mainstream. He veered from mathematics, his focus in college, into quantum theory, and then into solid-state physics, nuclear engineering, arms control, climate studies and speculation about humanity’s destiny.
He wrote his 1979 paper “Time Without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe,” in response to Steven Weinberg’s infamous remark that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” No universe with intelligence is pointless, Dyson retorted. He argued that in an open, eternally expanding universe, our descendants could resist heat death and endure virtually forever through shrewd conservation of energy.
Dyson did not think biological intelligence would soon yield to artificial intelligence. In his 1988 book Infinite in All Directions, he conjectured that genetic engineers might someday “grow” spacecraft “about as big as a chicken and about as smart,” which could flit on sunlight-powered wings through the solar system and beyond, acting as our scouts. (Dyson called them “astrochickens.”) Civilizations concerned about dwindling energy supplies could capture the radiation of stars by constructing energy-absorbing shells--sometimes called Dyson spheres--around them.
Eventually, Dyson predicted, intelligence might spread through the entire universe, transforming it into one great mind. He asked, “What will mind choose to do when it informs and controls the universe?” The question, for Dyson, has theological significance. “I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God,” he wrote. “God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension. God may be considered to be either a world-soul or a collection of world souls. We are the chief inlets of God on this planet at the present stage in his development. We may later grow with him as he grows, or we may be left behind.”
Dyson insisted that “no matter how far we go into the future, there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness and memory.” The quest for knowledge would be--must be—“infinite in all directions.” In other words, even a God-like intelligence cannot know everything.
Dyson admitted to me that his vision of the future reflected wishful thinking. When I asked if science is infinite, he replied, “I hope so! It's the kind of world I’d like to live in.” If minds make the universe meaningful, they must have something to think about. Science must, therefore, be eternal. Contrary to what Weinberg and other physicists have suggested, there can be no “final theory” that answers all our questions.
“The only way to think about this is historical,” Dyson explained. Two thousand years ago some “very bright people” invented something that, while not science in the modern sense, was obviously its precursor. “If you go into the future, what we call science won't be the same thing anymore, but that doesn't mean there won't be interesting questions.”
Dyson hoped Godel’s incompleteness theorem might apply to physics as well as to mathematics. “Since we know the laws of physics are mathematical, and we know that mathematics is an inconsistent system, it’s sort of plausible that physics will also be inconsistent”--and therefore open-ended. “So I think these people who predict the end of physics may be right in the long run. Physics may become obsolete. But I would guess myself that physics might be considered something like Greek science: an interesting beginning but it didn't really get to the main point. So the end of physics may be the beginning of something else.”
In Infinite In All Directions Dyson addressed, obliquely, the only theological issue that really matters, the problem of evil. If we were created by a loving, all-powerful God, why is life so painful and unfair? The answer, Dyson suggested, might have something to do with “the principle of maximum diversity.” This principle, he explained,
“operates at both the physical and the mental level. It says that the laws of nature and the initial conditions are such as to make the universe as interesting as possible. As a result, life is possible but not too easy. Always when things are dull, something turns up to challenge us and to stop us from settling into a rut. Examples of things which made life difficult are all around us: comet impacts, ice ages, weapons, plagues, nuclear fission, computers, sex, sin and death. Not all challenges can be overcome, and so we have tragedy. Maximum diversity often leads to maximum stress. In the end we survive, but only by the skin of our teeth.”
When I asked Dyson about the principle of maximum diversity, he downplayed it. “I never think of this as a deep philosophical belief,” he said. “It's simply, to me, just a poetic fancy.” Perhaps Dyson was being modest, but to my mind, the principle of maximum diversity has profound implications. It suggests that, even if the cosmos was designed for us, we will never figure it out, and we will never create a blissful paradise, in which all our problems are solved. Without hardship and suffering--without “challenges,” from the war between the sexes to World War II and the Holocaust--life would be too boring. This is a chilling answer to the problem of evil, but I haven’t found a better one.
Postscript: After I emailed this column to Dyson, he replied: Dear John Horgan, Thank you for sending your summary of my more oracular statements. I find the summary accurate and thoughtful. I have nothing to add or subtract, except for one correction. The “Time Without End” paper is obsolete because it assumed a linearly expanding universe, which the cosmologists believed to be correct in 1979. We now have strong evidence that the universe is accelerating, and this makes a big difference to the future of life and intelligence. I prefer not to speculate further until the observational evidence becomes clearer. Yours sincerely, Freeman Dyson.