Freeman Dyson’s natural theology: The human brain can’t be explained by evolution, ergo we’re “a miracle of some sort”

September 14, 2016 • 2:15 pm

Most of you have probably heard of Freeman Dyson (born 1923), a mathematician and physicist of considerable accomplishment, who worked for decades at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.  He’s also a bit of a polymath, having published on biology and, unfortunately, on metaphysics. For, as he’s admitted, Dyson is a “nondenominational Christian”, something I didn’t know until I read his new interview in Business Insider (BI) and saw some pretty weird statements.

The interview, conducted by Elena Holodny, is actually quite interesting if you leave out the metaphysics. Surprisingly, Dyson says that he thinks people shouldn’t bother learning mathematics unless they have to use it (I don’t really agree, for even in everyday life it can come in handy), and he insists that people shouldn’t waste their time getting Ph.D.s (he doesn’t have one). You’ll hear about Dyson’s work for Britain’s Bomber Command during World War II, about his encounter with the young (and then unknown) Richard Feynman, and hear his one choice comment about The Donald.

It always upsets me a bit when someone with that degree of intelligence succumbs to the blandishments of Jesus. Dyson won the million-dollar Templeton prize in 2000, probably for his accommodationist views as a scientist. These views are expressed in the BI review, with Dyson coming off almost like Steve Gould:

Holodny: You won the Templeton Prize for your contributions to science and its relation to other disciplines such as religion and ethics. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the interplay of science and religion?

Dyson: Yes, because I don’t believe in it. I think they should be separate. Of course, it’s a personal question. Some of my friends like to keep them together, but I certainly like to keep them separate. For me, science is just a bunch of tools — it’s like playing the violin. I just enjoy calculating, and it’s an instrument I know how to play. It’s almost an athletic performance, in a way. I was just watching the Olympics, and that’s how I feel when proving a theorem.

Anyway, religion is totally different. In religion, you’re supposed to be somehow in touch with something deep and full of mysteries. Anyhow, to me, that’s something quite separate.

So there we have it: the non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) form of accommodationism popularized by Gould. So far so good, though I don’t accept this distinction because most believers rely on real truths about the universe imparted by their faith. But after saying this, Dyson steps in quicksand:

Holodny: Do you think that there’s a way they could complement each other? Or are they just in two completely different lanes?

Dyson: Well, they are, of course, two different ways of looking at the universe; and it’s the same universe with two different windows. I like to use the metaphor “windows.”

The science window gives you a view of the world, and the religion window gives you a totally different view. You can’t look at both of them at the same time, but they’re both true. So that’s sort of my personal arrangement, but, of course, other people are quite different.

(My emphasis in the penultimate sentence.) I’m curious what Dyson means by “both religion and science are ‘true'”. What is “true” about religion? I suppose if asked, he’d mutter something about “spiritual truth”, and he certainly equivocates by saying (twice) that “other people are quite different”—a form of bet-hedging that Templeton loves. But I wish Holodny had asked that follow-up question.

I found it especially odd, then, especially for someone who asserts that science and religion are distinct spheres of inquiry, that Dyson violates that dictum at the end of his interview (my emphasis):

Dyson: Almost everything about the universe is astounding. I don’t know how you would measure astounding-ness… I think the most amazing thing is how giftedwe are — as you were saying at the beginning, that we are only monkeys who came down from the trees just recently.

We have these amazing gifts of music and mathematics and painting and Olympic running. I mean, we’re the animal that is best of all the animals at long-distance running. Why? It is quite amazing. Superfluous gifts you don’t really need to survive.

. . . I think that’s what it would say: It’s us that’s really amazing. As far as I can see, our concentration of different abilities in one species — there’s nothing I can see that in this Darwinian evolution that could’ve done that. So it seems to be a miracle of some sort. . . 

Here we see the implicit claim that Darwinian evolution couldn’t have given rise to such a multitalented species, ergo God. That’s not only overstepping the boundaries of science into metaphysics, so that the realms are no longer separate, but it’s also flat wrong.

First of all, we are highly cerebralized, giving us the possibility of using that complicated hardware to do things that could never have been the direct object of natural selection. Also, we have culture, so that the accumulated wisdom of aeons of humans is passed down via language, giving us the ability to do math and music and so on.

With this statement, Dyson makes himself the heir of A. R. Wallace, who, though adhering to Darwinian evolution, found the human brain an exception—something that required the invocation of a Higher Power (Wallace didn’t mean God, though). Never, said Wallace, could selection have installed in the brain of “savages” abilities that could be useful only in the future.  You should be able to refute Dyson’s claim yourself (I did it in my recent review of Tom Wolfe’s new book.)

The attempt to infer something about God’s existence or character from observing nature is, of course, the endeavor called “natural theology,” its premier instantiation being the pre-Darwinian claim that the complexity and “perfection” of nature could be explained only by invoking a creative deity.

In a transcript of his Templeton award speech on the Edge website, Dyson engages in more natural theology, this time involving physics:

The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels. The first level is elementary physical processes, as we see them when we study atoms in the laboratory. The second level is our direct human experience of our own consciousness. The third level is the universe as a whole. Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom. The universe as a whole is also weird, with laws of nature that make it hospitable to the growth of mind. I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God.

I won’t waste my time going after claims like those.

450px-freeman_dyson
Dyson

h/t: Derek

74 thoughts on “Freeman Dyson’s natural theology: The human brain can’t be explained by evolution, ergo we’re “a miracle of some sort”

    1. … and only makes him appear demented.

      Which ironically undercuts his thesis about humans and human brains being so amazing.

  1. Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics.

    I hesitate to call bullflop on Freeman Dyson in physics, but I will here. The non-deterministic nature of QM is very much predictable (on a statistical level), and doesn’t look like a mind making choices at all.

    A good example is radioactive decay. Each individual U-238 atom may decay at a different time, in an unpredictable manner. But put a large sample (many atoms) in a detector, and you can easily discover that the collection follows a statistical distribution which does not look like any sort of mental decision-making at all. It looks like a rules-governed process, just acting statistically predictable rather than deterministically predictable.

    The QM behavior of subatomic particles sure can be weird, but weird /= ungoverned by laws, also /= mental decision-making.

    1. Conversely, dynamical chaotic systems — like the weather — are completely deterministic, yet unpredictable (except statistically over the long haul, which, in the case of weather, we call “climate”). But those systems aren’t any more “conscious” than stochastic ones like your uranium pile, except maybe to one indulging the “pathetic fallacy.”

    2. It’s not just that. The evolution of a wave function in time is perfectely determined by Schrödinger’s equation. It’s its interpretation in terms of probabilities which is not.

      1. Doesn’t qualify. It was only a half-marathon (~ 21 km or 13.1 miles). He didn’t join in until mile 5. He finished around 2:15. I personally am faster than that dog.

          1. No, I think Dyson is referring to endurance over long distances, not speed. My understanding is that human beings can slowly read signs and track down something like a gazelle, which will drop in exhaustion as the hunters eventually catch up.

            1. …Which, if true, offers a handy explanation for how this trait could have evolved. “Gratuitous” my foot. If every creature you’re hunting can run faster than you, then you’d better have stamina.

              1. we have the best on land cooling system. No hair for maximum evaporation (via sweating) from glands in skin on our back, head etc which can then be evaporated. Because we are tall and skinny when standing we only present the head as an ultraviolet target at the hottest time of day – four legged animals present a much larger body mass to the sun

                Other Animals can only lose heat from limited and smaller spots e.g. their nostrils and tongue. Most other animals have a carotid rete – Moist passages in their muzzles dispel heat – they are fed with blood vessels which come from the carotid rete near the brain. The rete is shaped like a radiator it dissipates heat in its network of fine vessels and brings only the cooler air to the brain

                There may also be biomechanical advantages in being upright and two legged in terms of energy conservation in leg movement as opposed to speed over long distances because of gravity.

              2. No hair for maximum evaporation …

                You apparently have never seen my male relatives in the shower. 🙂

                I sometimes wish I could say the same.

              3. Interestingly, that’s a similar strategy to the one used by wild canids like African Wild Dogs; don’t run, but just keep up until the victim suffers from exhaustion.

    1. But how about over even longer distances? Persistence hunting is a real thing.

      Though I tend to agree. I’d be very surprised if humans were the best distance runners in the animal kingdom, at any distance. It might be more accurate to say that humans are better at managing heat than most large land animals and leave it at that.

      1. This is fascinating:

        Birds on the run: what makes ostriches so fast?
        After finishing my degree in biology in 2002, I volunteered at Frankfurt Zoo in Germany, where I became fascinated by the ostrich’s racing ability and decided to investigate it. The hypothesis of my PhD research was that the ostrich locomotor system transmits power to the ground with a high degree of efficiency, maximising energetic output (speed and endurance) while minimising energy demands (muscular and metabolic work)…

        1. Just another example of “the archosaurs got all the good stuff”… raptors were designed from the ground up for efficient bipedal locomotion. Mammals, on the other hand, are bodged together from a body plan that was optimized for a rat-sized nocturnal snuffler with a short life expectancy that meant tissue repair/replacement was of no great consequence.

          So we have the bad backs, stupid urogenital routing, and no-warranty cartilage, not to mention our decidedly inferior lungs. All from the mind of the god we created in our image!

          1. Not to mention most of us consist of bacteria and viruses – and parts of old bacteria DNA make up some of our DNA.
            And what about parasites like in Africa – Bilharzia – worms from snails that breed inside peoples guts and then come out painfully – from different parts of the body and from adults and children alike

    2. And why is the running of a marathon singled out as the apex of physical achievements? Who can cover 100 yards the quickest? Who can swim the furthest or quickest? Who has the best eyesight? Who can go the longest without food or water?

      For cripes sake, who can fly?

      1. Yes, I’ve read that one too. Also The Starship and the Canoe about Freeman and George by Kenneth Brower.

        A couple of interesting guy. George has settled down a lot since he was a youth. Kind of a wild water boy back when.

        I was kayaking in the Pac NW when he was writing the Baidarka book in Vancouver. Met him at one or two events.

  2. If we stick with Dyson’s metaphor: “The science window gives you a view of the world, and the religion window gives you a totally different view”, I notice he admits that science gives us a window onto the observable universe, but he is (purposely?) obscure on what we can actually see (a different view?) by looking through the religion “window”. I guess one window is constantly cleaned to increase clarity and the other is permanently fogged?

    1. Well said, though for Dyson, maybe the religion window is a mirror, with nothing on the other side. He keeps looking into it and sees only himself.

    2. I’m trying to figure out when and if the “two windows” metaphor using science as one window ever works.

      “The science window gives you a view of the world, and the ethics window gives you a totally different view”

      “The science window gives you a view of the world, and the personal relationships window gives you a totally different view”

      “The science window gives you a view of the world, and the aesthetics window gives you a totally different view.”

      “The science window gives you a view of the world, and the recreational drugs window gives you a totally different view.”

      I’ve no idea.

      1. I’d be tempted to allow, at least initially, the idea that meditative conscious awareness in the most immediate and subjective sense, might be one window. But as soon as one gets into interpreting what was thus experienced, then it’s either science-based, or it’s speculative bullshit (aka “religion window”).

        The idea that through such awareness one can derive objective facts about the universe is purely Deepakian.

        1. True. And we could probably say the same thing about any direct, uninterpreted experience. The views may not be “totally different” — the subjective qualia of “red” and the mechanistic explanation of how the brain represents a wavelength of light as “red” ought to overlap — but it’s different enough.

    3. The two windows metaphor is not as deep as Turing’s delphic metaphor. “Science is a differential equation. Religion is a boundary condition.” I often ponder that one.

    4. This may be my new shorthand for quality of hotel room. Does it have a science window (a view) or a religion window (window on air-shaft)?

      1. The metaphor is deeper still.

        Wherever you go you peer out windows. Sagan could look out the same window I could and I think he could see a lot more (in general).

        Traveling is like this. Take most grubby, uneducated Americans and have them explore the streets of London, they will likely see far less than anthropologist specializing in cultural memes.

        Until we become ‘Borg-like’ all of our windows are self limited.

  3. Not particularly relevant, but Alaskan Huskies are the best long distance runners in the animal kingdom – far exceeding what any human can do.

    1. In their element yes, but not in our element. They’d fall out from heat exhaustion if the race were on an African plain.

      Sled dogs are incredible though. While working they can burn 50,000 + (k)calories a day!

      1. “Sled dogs are incredible though. While working they can burn 50,000 + (k)calories a day!”

        My God. Is that real? It’s hard to comprehend!

        1. Ooof. Going by memory I confused joules and calories. Here is a quote from the abstract of the study I was thinking of.

          “The average daily energy intake and nutrient content was similar for all diets. During leg one (WH to DS), team 1 gained weight overall, whereas the other two teams experienced weight loss. Linear regression revealed 37 638 kJ/dog/d (8995 kcal/dog/d) was required for weight maintenance. During leg two (DS to Fairbanks Alaska), average weights decreased for all three teams. The extrapolated kcal requirement was approximately 57 734 kJ/dog/d (13 799 kcal/dog/d),.”

          Link to study, Energy requirements for racing endurance sled dogs.

          So the study calculated as high as 57,734 kJ per day, not kcal per day. A mere 13,799 kcal per day. And they were losing weight. Still mind boggling to me.

  4. Religion is true to the same extent that the Hogwarts Express leaves from Platform 9 and 3/4 at Kings Cross at 11 am is true.

    I mean – I’ve seen evidence of it. I have a photo of a trolley stuck in the wall between platforms 9 and platform 10.

    1. I was at King’s Cross a few years ago but didn’t find the trolly. I could have asked but my Man Gene took over.

      But, you’re exactly right. I don’t understand why consciousness is held by many to be such a mysterious thing “outside” of our experience. It is, I think, our experience.

      1. King’s Cross has been massively redeveloped since the books and films.

        There is now a trolley stuck in the wall which you can be photographed next to (there’s always been a queue when I’ve been there), but its in the new concourse area, nowhere near the platforms or where it was filmed.

    1. He doesn’t think it is bunk but he believes it is overstated and exaggerated. He is especially critical of the current simulation models used, and doesn’t like the tactics of activists on the issue.

    2. There is a youtube interview where he agrees that human-caused climate change is happening. But he thinks it’s a good thing — makes for a greener planet.

      Seems like he has adopted one single criterion for what is good and ignored the others.

  5. (2nd try)
    He doesn’t think it is bunk but he believes it is overstated and exaggerated. He is especially critical of the current simulation models used, and doesn’t like the tactics of activists on the issue.

  6. What I would think people like him would land on is that “god” is the being who’s behind the simulation of us, not the Christian god (or any other).

  7. Elsewhere Dyson has said he a “practicing Christian” but not a “believing Christian”, by which I think he means that he has a kind of Christian philosophy (ethically and metaphysically [but not Platonically]) but doesn’t buy specific creeds and theologies, and as such he distances himself from John Polkinghorne.

    Specifically, “I have no use for a theology [such as Polkinghorne’s] 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.”

    Now, a good philosopher will tell you that truth is not the same thing as verifiability- that is there are things that are true but not verifiable.

    But then one must be circumspect about asserting what you think is true.

      1. The quote about being “practicing but not believing” seems terribly unclear and misleading, and only makes sense in the larger context (his New York Times review of a book by his fellow Christian quantum physicist John Polkinghorne of which he is largely critical). Dyson is a skeptic of theology which claims to map out the structure of transcendent reality in detail, but he is not a skeptic of generic semi-agnostic theism.

        Dan Barker says in “Godless” that “Some agnostics are atheistic and some are theistic” (p. 96) Atheist philosopher George Smith says that “agnosticism refers to the impossibility of knowledge with regard to a god or supernatural being. The term “agnostic” does not, in itself, indicate whether or not one believes in a god. Agnosticism can be either theistic or atheistic.”

        Dyson is essentially an a-theological Christian (as opposed to Robert Price who calls himself a “Christian atheist” and attends an Episcopal church while “keeping his mouth shut” and pushing Jesus-mythicism at various atheist conventions!!!)

        He can be described IMO as a theistically inclined agnostic as defined by Wikipedia here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic_theism) as opposed to atheistic inclined agnosticism which WP defines here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic_atheism)
        (plus his concept of God seems rather panentheistic, which is a departure from the traditional Platonic definition.)

        Dyson’s beliefs seem to be limited to asserting that “God exists, that Jesus has a special relationship with him and is in some way divine, and that God should be worshipped” (emphasis added- this the Wikipedia definition of “Christian agnosticism”). He describes himself as “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.”

  8. Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom.

    I think Dyson may be referring to the so-called Free Will Theorem (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will_theorem). This theorem shows that if experimenters can freely choose what experiments they do, then particles should have some measure of freedom too. However, I do not really understand the argument that this shows that both humans and particles have free will. It seems to me that human free will is being assumed in this theorem, not deduced. I’d be interested if other readers have more insight into this than I do.

  9. Dyson essentially argues that:

    1. The more astounding something is, the more compelling the reason that it must have had a creator.
    2. The universe is very astounding.
    3. Therefore, the universe must have had a creator.

    But then why not:

    1. The more astounding something is, the more compelling the reason that it must have had a creator.
    2. God is the most astounding thing that has ever existed.
    3. Therefore, to a greater extent than anything else that has ever existed, god must have had a creator.

  10. Dyson has idiosyncratic views, but he is mellow about it, and doesn’t press it on others or act morally superior, so I forgive him because he is so damn smart otherwise.

  11. Has anyone seen or read “A Glorious Accident: Understanding Our Place in the Cosmic Puzzle” by Wim Kayzer? The videos were recently uploaded on the youtube channel VPRO Extra. It was quite the event in Holland back in 1994, huge TV ratings, and it featured Freeman Dyson, Dan Dennett, Stephen Gould, Oliver Sacks, Stephen Toulmin, and Rupert Sheldrake. The whole point was to ask these six about “Big Questions” but primarily focused around the nature of consciousness. I’ve not viewed all six individual episodes (not seen Sheldrake or Dyson’s,for instance), and only part of the final round table with all six, but it is interesting. Gould comes across as a bit of an ass at first, upset about being asked about his childhood for some reason, but then relaxes a bit. Sacks and Toulmin, I think, talk a bit about their youths spent exploring Hampstead Heath, including a very young Sacks going up to meet Huxley at his house near there and asking him about evolution. Just got the book yesterday in the mail, which seems to be just the episodes transcribed.

    Anyway, a quick search for A Glorious Accident, or for the VPRO Extra channel will turn up the videos, if anyone is so inclined. Cheers!

  12. I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God.

    That’s good, because the distinction between God and mind is fuzzy, too.

    Whenever someone starts thinking that their brain is simply too special, too splendid, too amazing to have had a humble evolutionary origin in nature — they need to remember what’s telling them this.

    1. “Dyson is (or at least was) a very brilliant guy …. but as he got older he got increasingly cranky.”

      That sums it up very nicely. He also is a bit of a contrarian what explains part of his crankiness.

  13. “… we’re the animal that is best of all the animals at long-distance running.”

    Some of us, following a strict regimen of diet and training, are very good at long-distance running — like those of us who run the 5,000 or 10,000 meter races or the marathon at the Olympics. Most of the rest of us would have a hard time running all the way down a grocery-store aisle even if our survival depended on it.

    I’d heard Dyson had espoused some odd Fred Hoyle-style views on panspermia, but had no idea he’d ventured this far into benightedness.

  14. Your right your entire history is filled with inbred half wit morons completely unevolved. Hell they couldn’t even understand their own religious text let alone the topic, god… inbreds. thank god for universities ,education , science !!! Yes indeed science that wonderous magik that has given us environmental destruction mass extinctions over population to the absurd. Science oh it’s so smart so special. I would say the apple has not fallen far from your ancestor tree. Free from religious nonsense I think not.

    1. So where’re you from?

      (Me, I’m from where they know the difference between “your” and “you’re” and how to use majuscules and commas.)

    2. I think that, if you are consistent in your view that universities, education, science and technology are bad, you should not be typing on an Internet-connected computer. You should be writing with a pen on paper. Oh, actually you should be writing with a sharp object on a clay tablet or a piece of leather.

  15. This is anthropomorphic arrogance once again with a human being thinking he is hot shit and blind to what natural selection has managed to do so far.
    He looks like a pleasant enough fellow or fella.
    With no evidence of any mystery elements ever seen, sighted or hinted at with a lot more hardware and brains than a book, we have the slow but destructive path of science through faith and out the other side leaving it trailing in it’s factshit.
    Dyson is in a sense right though, they are two distinct window thingies, one is floundering in a sea of facts, working like an eraser on biblical texts.. sadly still, only for very smart people to make a circus of themselves but I guess a carnival and not just a little bit of pomp is always a g-g-god time.
    Tyson’s brain and other suckers seem to think we are no longer a multi cellular organism an animal, a primate but should transcend our minds into believers in after death fantasy where we can have a different kind of body, be a non body. That won’t get stinky.
    Anyway, he doesn’t want to be an oxygen breathing animal he wants to be something greater, something with big D purpose.. very smart I am but I just don’t think I’m that disposable, to being tossed over after 4 score and twenty???.. never mind said the atheist, and that is probably about right.. no mind, no god. Special clauses now terminated.

  16. I mean, we’re the animal that is best of all the animals at long-distance running. Why? It is quite amazing. Superfluous gifts you don’t really need to survive.

    The more I read this the dumber it sounds. Aside from the debatable “best of” claim, it’s basically saying that running is not a survival mechanism. I beg to differ.

  17. Dyson characterizes certain human abilities as “superfluous gifts you don’t really need to survive” but I wonder if he is at all perplexed that we lack some abilities more in keeping with a God-like mind which would definitely help with survival.

    For example, even a rudimentary form of the God-like ability to control the material world would be quite beneficial. Suppose, by thought alone, that we could move small objects short distances or occasionally alter the identity of something such as dirt into food when starving.

    Even such modest abilities as these would suggest that mind is fundamental and that mind holds metaphysical primacy over existence and is not essentially just a means of awareness and identification.

  18. The human brain is a result of evolution. The Cultural Mind that the brain enabled is a kind of psychopathology leading to a dead end in spite of its self-admiration. It seems incapable of realizing that, preferring instead to build bigger and bigger temples to technology when it hasn’t even managed to understand itself yet.

    Both mathematics and language simply are not up to the task. Perhaps a kind of meta-mathematics and meta-communication beyond language will come along in time to save our rosy red asses from implosion, perhaps not.

    Indicators include, but probably are not limited to, the denial of the fact of limits, which we are rapidly overreaching.

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