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Angela Tilby: Professor Freeman Dyson was a physicist who got religion

13 March 2020


Professor Freeman Dyson receives the Templeton Prize from the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace, in 2000

Professor Freeman Dyson receives the Templeton Prize from the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace, in 2000

PHYSICS and theology are not always natural bedfellows. But a physicist who encouraged me to think that the two disciplines could have fruitful conversations was Freeman Dyson, the British-born physicist who died at the end of last month, aged 96. His interests spanned quantum theory, nuclear reactors, climate change, and space travel.

His religious views went back to his immersion in what he described as “watered-down Church of England Christianity”. In later life, he described himself as a non-denominational Christian. He was vehemently criticised by Richard Dawkins in 2000 for accepting the Templeton Prize.

Dyson was unusual in his determination to hold together an understanding both of the cosmos as a whole and the phenomenon of intelligence. For him, it was inescapable that mind was part of the fabric of the universe. He also relished the diversity of nature, believing that evolution was not only about survival, but about the development of novelty and variety.

Though he was quite a shy person, he was regarded by scientific colleagues as somewhat subversive. He was a naturally divergent thinker: when he spotted consensus, he looked out for a contrary point of view.

This, in part, explains his controversial views on climate change. While convinced that it was happening, he rejected disaster scenarios and believed that green adaptation was possible and would prove beneficial. He never won a Nobel Prize: having such a wide range of interests excluded him from supreme achievement in one field.

His openness to religion came from his recognition that matter was, as he put it, “weird stuff”. The more science investigates matter, the more it encounters a strangeness that suggests a transcendent reality at work in its shaping. The emergence of intelligence is not to be explained away as a chance occurrence. It is much more likely to be a sign of where the universe is heading.

A remark of his that I treasure is: “The more I examine the universe and the detail of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.” In other words, the Big Bang produced conditions that made it inevitable that intelligent life would one day emerge.

We are meant to be here. To me, that is as near as science can come to recognising the purposes of God.

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