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Freeman Dyson comments on ID

The following exchange is from the newsletter CCNet 66/2007 – 27 March 2007:

Christopher Morbey: Dear Professor Dyson: Thanks for taking time to answer questions! I’m wondering if you have an opinion regarding the new interest in “intelligent design” as an independent mode of explaining an event. Typically, pervading opinion demands that events occur only by chance and/or necessity.

What strikes me as strange is that many scientists are so willing to discard ideas that may offer help to overcome significant difficulties in evolution hypotheses. Instead, they tend to make alarmist comments that ID is merely a creationist ploy, that Darwinian claims should be assumptions, not conclusions.

Global warming skeptics point to fundamental temperature and CO2 data, then ask pertinent questions. In a similar way, ID proponents look at fundamental, complex biological and cosmological data, then ask pertinent questions. As you might point out, asking questions could be perceived as rebellion.

But it would appear that most scientists these days are not rebels at all; each is but one case of an emotional-contagion pandemic. It is interesting that war and peace and religion all require a certain discipline of obedience rather than too many questions. Each would offer the chance for freedom yet each would demand necessity for devotion.

Freeman Dyson: My opinion is that most people believe in intelligent design as a reasonable explanation of the universe, and this belief is entirely compatible with science. So it is unwise for scientists to make a big fight against the idea of intelligent design. The fight should be only for the freedom of teachers to teach science as they see fit, independent of political or religious control. It should be a fight for intellectual freedom, not a fight for science against religion.

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21 Responses to Freeman Dyson comments on ID

  1. At least he seems more willing to consider it than Stephen Barr and Francis Collins, which is nice to see.
    Freeman Dyson’s cosmological ID position would be weakened if he took the same approach of Barr and Collins.

  2. Freeman Dyson is refreshing – an honest intellectual rebel in the sense that he doesn’t (seem to) care about being on the more popular side of any scientific battle. But then, he has a notorious dislike of the PhD system, so I suppose that’s natural.

  3. Ah, calm, reasoned response to a question about ID. Very nice to see someone actually take a step away from the culture war to evaluate the ID question objectively.

  4. I believe it was Freeman who said something like, “It’s almost as though the universe knew we were coming.” That’s kind of an interesting way of expressing an ID perspective.

  5. “The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.”

    Freeman Dyson
    Disturbing the Universe
    New York: Harper & Row, 1979, p. 250

  6. I’m not sure why we should be surprised that a Templeton winner should say something like this.

    This is from his Templeton lecture

    “Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious dogma or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance they bring both science and religion into disrepute. The media exaggerate their numbers and importance. The media rarely mention the fact that the great majority of religious people belong to moderate denominations that treat science with respect, or the fact that the great majority of scientists treat religion with respect so long as religion does not claim jurisdiction over scientific questions.”

    Go here: http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge68.html

    Also See his review of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell where he says,

    “He [i.e., Dennett] quotes with approval the famous remark of the physicist Stephen Weinberg: “Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things—that takes religion.” Weinberg’s statement is true as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth. To make it the whole truth, we must add an additional clause: “And for bad people to do good things—that takes religion.” The main point of Christianity is that it is a religion for sinners. Jesus made that very clear. When the Pharisees asked his disciples, “Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?” he said, “I come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Only a small fraction of sinners repent and do good things, but only a small fraction of good people are led by their religion to do bad things.

    I see no way to draw up a balance sheet, to weigh the good done by religion against the evil and decide which is greater by some impartial process. My own prejudice, looking at religion from the inside, leads me to conclude that the good vastly outweighs the evil.”

    And this: “Science is a particular bunch of tools that have been conspicuously successful for understanding and manipulating the material universe. Religion is another bunch of tools, giving us hints of a mental or spiritual universe that transcends the material universe.”

    And this: “We can all agree that religion is a natural phenomenon, but nature may include many more things than we can grasp with the methods of science.”

    Go here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19090

    He calls himself a “skeptical Christian” in this review.

  7. H’mm:

    It may be worth pausing to read biographical summaries here and here.

    GEM of TKI

  8. I don’t get it kairo,
    you suggest that as though there is something bad to read in those links, but I saw nothing alarming about his positions. Am I misreading you?

    dennis grey

  9. Mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our comprehension.

    widely attributed to
    Freeman Dyson

    I’d appreciate if anyone can nail down a reference.

  10. Sal: email him at dyson AT ias DOT edu.

  11. Hi DG:

    I am just pointing out that he evidently has his own specific worldview position, and we shoudl read his remarks in that light.

    GEM of TKI

  12. “Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious dogma or scientific dogma claims to be infallible.”

    Man this so reminds me of folks like Dawkins and PZ.

  13. Re 11

    Which really IS a breath of fresh air! That such a well known, accomplished scientist can have his own worldview is wonderful, IMO. Ninety-something percent go along with the herd.

    Surely the continuing, and timeless question “Who do you say that I am?” implies an continuing imperative to seek the truth. So asking questions, and a healthy dose of skepticism are viable ideals, I would think

    I had hoped the professor would also have commented on freedom/devotion, possibly leading to ideas he might have concerning “purpose”. In answer to another questioner he replied…

    “If it turns out that the universe is populated with many intelligent forms of life, then we must accept the probability that we are minor players on the cosmic stage and that others will define its purpose. If it turns out that we are alone in the universe, then the responsibility for defining purpose is ours. In either case, we have plenty of work to do.”

    I’m afraid the “plenty of work” will be fighting for intellectual freedom.

    Post-normal reaction to anything against prevailing winds of wishful thinking is to stifle it, ignore it, deny it, or outlaw it. There was a day when preposterous statements like…

    “No matter if the science is all phony, there are collateral environmental benefits…climate change provides the greatest chance to bring about justice and equality in the world” Christine Stewart, former Canadian Environment Minister

    would be cause for laughter and ridicule. Not so today: data are of lesser and lesser importance, truth sacrifices itself to ideology. The proponents are dead serious: conclusions first, then premises to match.

    The enemies of ID and sensible science are not arguments or data or individual opponents; the real enemy is the quickly disappearing loss of intellectual freedom.

  14. Freeman Dyson, Infinite in All Directions (from lectures given in 1985):

    Life in its earliest stages was little removed from ordinary chemistry. We can at least imagine life originating by ordinary processes which chemists know how to calculate. [He said, using his imagination.]

    The argument from design…was at the heart of the battle between creationists and evolutionists in nineteenth-century biology. The evolutionists won the battle. Random genetic variations plus Darwinian selection were shown to be sufficient causes of biological evolution. [He said, credulously.]

    Now comes the argument from design. There is evidence from peculiar features of the laws of nature that the universe as a whole is hospitable to the growth of mind. The argument here is merely an extension of the Anthropic Principle up to a universal scale. Therefore it is reasonable to believe in the existence of…a mental component of the universe… [He said, justifiably.]

  15. EB:

    Serious points. Well worth reflecting on.

    GEM of TKI

  16. If one wants to seriously fight against ID all one has to do is to substantiate the materialistic anti-ID position.

    What anti-IDists try to do is to either re-define science to only include “natural” processes, as if intelligent causes are non-natural, or try to tie ID to the supernatural (they just don’t realize that even their position requires something beyond nature). They think that if ID is tied to the supernatural then it has violated some arbitrary rule of science. Either that or they try to hold ID to some other arbitrary rules of science, never thinking that the reigning paradigm has no chance of meeting those same standards.

    However that tactic is of no relevance:

    In any case, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out, debate about methodological rules of science often forms part of the practice of science, especially during times when established paradigms are being challenged. Those who reject the “teach the controversy” model on the grounds that ID violates the current rules of scientific practice only beg the question. The present regime of methodological rules cannot prevent the controversy for the simple reason that those rules may themselves be one of the subjects of scientific controversy. page xxv of Darwinism, Design and Public Education

  17. Re 13

    “disappearing loss”

    Maybe the “loss” fell between the cracks! :-)

    Sorry.

  18. Bill,

    I found the source for Dyson’s quote! Unfortunately, the quote does leaves one wondering what Dyson really believes:

    Science & Religion: No Ends in Sight By Freeman Dyson

    I am myself a Christian, a member of a community that preserves an ancient heritage of great literature and great music, provides help and counsel to young and old when they are in trouble, educates children in moral responsibility, and worships God in its own fashion. But I find Polkinghorne’s theology altogether too narrow for my taste. I have no use for a theology that claims to know the answers to deep questions but bases its arguments on the beliefs of a single tribe. I am a practicing Christian but not a believing Christian. To me, to worship God means to recognize that mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our comprehension. When I listen to Polkinghorne describing the afterlife, I think of God answering Job out of the whirlwind, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?… Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding…. Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? Or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?” God’s answer to Job is all the theology I need. As a scientist, I live in a universe of overwhelming size and mystery. The mysteries of life and language, good and evil, chance and necessity, and of our own existence as conscious beings in an impersonal cosmos are even greater than the mysteries of physics and astronomy. Behind the mysteries that we can name, there are deeper mysteries that we have not even begun to explore.

  19. [...] Uncommon Descent My opinion is that most people believe in intelligent design as a reasonable explanation of the universe, and this belief is entirely compatible with science. So it is unwise for scientists to make a big fight against the idea of intelligent design. The fight should be only for the freedom of teachers to teach science as they see fit, independent of political or religious control. It should be a fight for intellectual freedom, not a fight for science against religion. [...]

  20. Re 18

    It would seem that the professor might be more in agreement with more Eastern Christian thinking, at least in its “theory”. Although God and his creation are ontologically distinct, God participates with it more fully than he would in Western Christian thinking. Almost a kind of Panentheism, if you like, yet perfectly in consilience with the Creed.

    I would guess that ID might find better acceptance within Eastern Christian thinking simply because of the “closeness” of God’s acting within creation to the evidence for design itself.

    Professor Dyson would appear to acknowledge supreme intelligence beyond creation. That in itself is so far beyond ND that he needs to be careful not to be totally marginalized or ignored.

    If I have it right, a practicing Christian (in Eastern Christian thinking) would be more viable than a believing Christian — mere belief being rather fickle, changeable, or volatile. So if that’s the case, it might not matter so much what the professor really believes.

    That he accepts ID as entirely compatible with science is a huge step, IMO.

  21. […] Dyson on ID: […]

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