Infinite In All Directions

I started reading Freeman Dyson’s Infinite in All Directions today.

The book is adapted from the Gifford Lectures Dyson gave at University of Aberdeen. Some of the other lectures look interesting. Dyson mentions (twice so far) William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, originally a Gifford Lecture, which sounds like something I should read.

From the preface: “As a working hypothesis to explain the riddle of our existence, I propose that our universe is the most interesting of all possible universes, and our fate as human beings is to make it so.” This must be only half-serious. I imagine a new Candide, bearing witness to the greatest boredoms, while all the while Dyson reassures his friend that we live in the most interesting of all possible worlds.

From the introduction, summing up the theme of the book: “Diversity is for me the chief source of beauty and value… Diversity is the spice of life, and the prevalence of evil in our world is the price we pay for diversity.” This I very much agree with.

In the first chapter, Dyson writes about the relationship between science and religion. He believes that science and religion are in no way incompatible. As far as I can tell, he only makes one argument for this compatibility and it’s a little difficult to follow: “We have learned that matter is weird stuff. It is weird enough, so that it does not limit God’s freedom to make it do what he pleases.” I think what he is saying is that since quantum physics is non-deterministic (putting aside foundational questions), we ascribe outcomes we cannot predict to “random chance”, but perhaps it is not random and is actually “God’s will”. In this way, we can reconcile a God with will with the laws of physics. This idea is familiar to me; I had exactly the same idea when I first learned about quantum mechanics. I think the idea is ultimately unsatisfying (perhaps later I will write why), but at least it seems consistent, as Dyson argues. But perhaps when less mystical explanations of quantum measurement (and human consciousness) are more widely accepted, even this consistency will disappear.

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