Freeman Dyson, who possessed one of the truly original minds of the modern era, has died. Dyson, 96, helped construct the standard model of particle physics, and he envisioned the Singularity decades before that term was adopted to describe the radical transformation of human intelligence. Below is a eulogy cobbled together from The End of Science and other writings. –John Horgan
Humanity, Nietzsche proclaimed, is just a steppingstone, a bridge leading to the Superman. If Nietzsche were alive today, he would surely entertain the notion that the Superman might be made not of flesh and blood but of silicon. As human science wanes, those who hope that the quest for knowledge will continue must put their faith not in Homo sapiens but in intelligent machines. Only machines can overcome our physical and cognitive weaknesses--and our indifference.
In fact, there is an odd little sub-culture within science whose members speculate about how intelligence might evolve when or if it sheds its mortal coil. Participants are not practicing science, of course, but ironic science, or wishful thinking. They are concerned with what the world might be or should be centuries or millennia or eons hence. The literature of this field—which I call scientific theology--may nonetheless shed new light on age-old philosophical and even theological questions: What would we do if we could do anything? What is the point of life? What are the ultimate limits of knowledge? Is suffering a necessary component of existence, or can we attain eternal bliss?
Physicist Freeman Dyson was the leading practitioner of scientific theology. In his 1988 essay collection Infinite in All Directions, Dyson speculated on why there is so much violence and hardship in the world. The answer, he suggested, might have something to do with what he called "the principle of maximum diversity." This principle, he continued,
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.
Dyson, it seemed to me, was suggesting that we cannot solve all our problems, we cannot create heaven, we cannot find The Answer to the riddle of existence. Life is--and must be--an eternal struggle. Was I reading too much into Dyson's remarks? I hoped to find out when I interviewed him in 1993 at the Institute for Advanced Study, his home since the early 1940's.
Dyson was a slight man, all sinew and veins, with a cutlass of a nose and deep-set, watchful eyes. He resembled a gentle raptor. His demeanor was generally cool and reserved--until he laughed. Then he snorted through his nose, shoulders heaving, like a 12-year-old schoolboy hearing a dirty joke. It was a subversive laugh, the laugh of a man who envisioned space as a haven for "religious fanatics" and "recalcitrant teenagers," who insisted that science at its best is "a rebellion against authority."
I did not ask Dyson about his maximum-diversity idea right away. First I inquired about the choices that had characterized his career. Dyson had once been at the forefront of the search for a unified theory of physics. In the early 1950s, the British-born physicist strove with Richard Feynman and other titans to forge a quantum theory of electromagnetism. It has often been said that Dyson deserved a Nobel prize for his efforts--or at least more credit. In fact, some colleagues have suggested that disappointment and, perhaps, a contrarian streak, later drove Dyson toward pursuits unworthy of his powers.
When I mentioned this assessment to Dyson, he gave me a tight-lipped smile. He then responded, as he was wont to do, with an anecdote. The British physicist 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, had spent his career swerving toward unknown lands. He veered from mathematics, his focus in college, to particle physics and from there to solid state physics, nuclear engineering, arms control, climate studies--and speculation about the long-term prospects of intelligence.
Dyson was provoked into taking up this final topic by physicist Steven Weinberg, who once remarked that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." No universe with intelligence is pointless, Dyson retorted in a 1979 paper in Reviews of Modern Physics. He sought to show that in an open, eternally expanding universe, intelligence could persist forever--perhaps in the form of a cloud of charged particles--through shrewd conservation of energy.
Dyson did not think organic intelligence would soon give way to artificial intelligence. In Infinite in All Directions, he speculated 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.") Still more distant civilizations, perhaps concerned about dwindling energy supplies, could capture the radiation of stars by encasing them in energy-absorbing shells--now called Dyson spheres.
Eventually, Dyson predicted, intelligence might spread through the entire universe, transforming it into one great mind. But he 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."
Dyson addressed the most important question raised by this prophecy: "What will mind choose to do when it informs and controls the universe?" The question, Dyson made clear, was theological rather than scientific:
I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. 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
Ultimately, we “cannot hope to answer" the question of what this superbeing, this God, will do or think. Dyson admitted that his view of the future reflected wishful thinking. When I asked if science could keep evolving forever, 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, so science must be eternal.
"The only way to think about this is historical," he 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."
Like physicist Roger Penrose, Dyson hoped that Godel's theorem might apply to physics as well as 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."
When, finally, I asked Dyson about his maximum diversity idea, he shrugged. Oh, he didn't intend anyone to take that too seriously. He insisted that he was not really interested in "the big picture." One of his favorite quotes, he said, is "God is in the details." But given his insistence that diversity is somehow essential to existence, I asked, didn't he find it disturbing that so many scientists and others seemed compelled to reduce everything to a single insight? Didn't such efforts represent a dangerous game?
"Yes, that's true in a way," Dyson replied, with a small smile that suggested he found my interest in his little idea amusing. "I never think of this as a deep philosophical belief," he added. "It's simply, to me, just a poetic fancy." Dyson was maintaining an appropriate ironic distance between himself and his ideas, but there was something disingenuous about his attitude. After all, throughout his own eclectic career, he seemed to be striving to adhere to the principle of maximum diversity.
The 1984 book The Limits of Science by biologist Peter Medawar consisted for the most part of regurgitated Popperisms. Medawar kept insisting, for example, that "there is no limit upon the power of science to answer questions of the kind science can answer," as if this were a profound truth rather than a vacuous tautology. Medawar did offer some felicitous phrases, however. He concluded a section on "bunk"--by which he meant myths, superstitions and other beliefs lacking an empirical basis--with the remark, "It is fun sometimes to be bunkrapt."
Dyson was both brilliant and bunkrapt. He thought that global warming, on balance, might be beneficial, and he took extrasensory perception seriously. In a 2004 essay in the New York Review of Books, he proposed that "paranormal phenomena are real but lie outside the limits of science." No one has produced empirical proof of ESP, Dyson conjectured, because it tends to occur under conditions of "strong emotion and stress," which are "inherently incompatible with controlled scientific procedures."
Dyson’s vision of the far future is bunkrapt, too—and also one of the most profound bits of ironic science I have encountered. The principle of maximum diversity 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. No theory of everything, no heaven. 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.
Freeman Dyson, global warming, ESP and the fun of being "bunkrapt"
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See also my free, online book Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are.