Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Remembering Freeman Dyson and the Enduring Lesson of “Dyson’s Hypothesis”

Michael Flannery

Editor’s note: See also, “Freeman Dyson: The Passing of an Iconoclastic Physicist,” by Guillermo Gonzalez.

The New York Times described mathematician/physicist Freeman Dyson as “a mathematical prodigy who left his mark on subatomic physics before turning to messier subjects like Earth’s environmental future [he was a climate change skeptic] and the morality of war, [who] died on Friday [February 28, 2020] at a hospital near Princeton, N.J. He was 96.” But Dyson was much more: he was a self-described rebel. And so rather than give a standard recounting of the life and work of this noted scientist, innovative thinker, and obstreperously independent voice,  I would prefer to glimpse his rich and acute intellect through an interesting review published on March 25, 2004.

The essay, “One in a Million,” is one of 29 articles written by Dyson for The New York Review of Books over an extended period and published as The Scientist as Rebel. The articles cover a wide range of topics — “Contemporary Issues in Science,” “War and Peace,” “History of Science and Scientists,” and “Personal and Philosophical Essays” — and are recommended to anyone wishing to experience the broad interests of a man described as a “math genius turned visionary technologist.”

A Law of Miracles

“One in a Million” captured my attention by bridging the wide chasm between the scientific study of nature and the paranormal. Herein hangs a tale. The specific occasion was Dyson’s review of Georges Charpak and Henri Broch’s book, Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience.  Dyson explains that these authors justifiably decry the public’s naïve fixation on all manner of offbeat ideas, from telepathy to astrology. He also notes their ready acceptance of miracles of all kinds. Dyson points out that the highly improbable is actually quite probable by invoking “Littlewood’s law of miracles.” 

John Littlewood, a mathematician at Cambridge University, worked out a formula in which a “miracle” occurs with a probability of about one in a million number of events during our normal waking hours. “Therefore,” explains Dyson, “we should expect one miracle [i.e., an event of special significance of one in a million frequency] to happen, on the average, every month” (327). Now whether these should be considered genuine “miracles” or merely synchronicities (i.e., meaningful coincidences) is a question left unaddressed, but the point is that, looked at in this light, they seem less astonishing. Dyson also agrees with Charpak and Broch that many allegedly paranormal demonstrations of telekinesis and the like can be explained by sleight-of-hand feats of trickery and skillful distractions and deceptions of the audience. He also admits that efforts by Joseph Rhine at Duke University to “prove” telepathy proved “a sorry story” (329).

No Reductionist

After praising Charpak and Broch’s efforts to vindicate scientific inquiry over pseudoscience, Dyson surprisingly shifts his focus to ask, “What are the proper limits of science?” (330). He agrees with Charpak and Broch that attempts to verify paranormal phenomena through the methods of ordinary science have failed. Now for a scientific reductionist like E. O. Wilson (Dyson singles out Wilson’s Consilience as an example) that ends the story. But Dyson is no reductionist:

Knowledge of good and evil, knowledge of grace and beauty, knowledge of ethical and artistic values, knowledge of human nature derived from history and literature or from intimate acquaintance with family and friends, knowledge of the nature of things derived from meditation or from religion, all are sources of knowledge that stand side by side with science, parts of a human heritage that is older than science and perhaps more enduring (330).

In this sense Freeman Dyson probably has more in common with Wendell Berry’s extended reply to Wilson, Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition.  And if Littlewood’s law of miracles makes their occurrence a bit more understandable, they are nonetheless part of a far richer tapestry of experience than that ever envisioned by Wilson’s stark and one-dimensional world. 

A Surprising Step

But Dyson takes a surprising step further. Simply because paranormal phenomena cannot be studied scientifically does not mean they do not exist. Dyson claims “that paranormal phenomena may really exist but may not be accessible to scientific investigation. This is a hypothesis. I am not saying that it is true only that it is tenable, and to my mind plausible” (330). Dyson insists that a great mass of anecdotal evidence supports his hypothesis, evidence recorded across many centuries and many cultures. He believes that the physical sciences and the paranormal may be complementary in Niels Bohr’s sense, in which “two descriptions of nature may both be valid but cannot be observed simultaneously” (331). Light as particle and light as a wave are a classic example. Dyson argues that extending the idea of complementarity to mental phenomena may be a fruitful way of thinking about activity that is “too fluid and evanescent to be grasped with the cumbersome tools of science” (331).

There is a lesson for us here that may be worth seriously considering, namely, that if ID, in fact, “holds that there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause — that is, by the conscious choice of a rational agent — rather than an undirected process” (Signature in the Cell, 4), then it deals principally with mental or mind-like processes. This being the case, we might well pause and ask ourselves if other avenues are open to investigating ID beyond the “cumbersome tools of science.” I am not saying that ID is unscientific (good science surely plays its part), but I am suggesting that much of ID may rest in areas outside of science itself — theology, philosophy, ethics, even aesthetics may be more direct routes to what I believe to be this fundamental truth of nature. Such an idea hardly diminishes the significance of ID. 

So as we bid farewell to one of the most important scientists of our generation, it may very well be that Dyson’s hypothesis will offer an enduring way forward. Gone but not forgotten.

Photo: Freeman Dyson in 2004, by Lumidek at English Wikipedia / CC BY.