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Infinite in All Directions
Gifford Lectures Given at Aberdeen, Scotland April--November 1985
In Praise of Diversity
When my son was three years old he liked to crawl into my bed in the early morning and talk about the problems of life. One morning he said abruptly, "You know there are two Gods." I was surprised and asked him, "What are their names?" He replied, "One is called Jesus and he makes people, and the other is called Bacchus and he makes wine." I suppose my son must have picked up from his surroundings a tendency to polytheism. Anybody who has read or seen a performance of that intensely religious drama, the Bacchae of Euripides, will be aware that Bacchus is a formidable deity, making extreme demands upon his followers. In the tragedies and exaltations of the modern drug culture, Bacchus is alive. I doubt whether my three-year-old son was conscious of all this, any more than he was conscious of the fine points of the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus. His statement showed, in my opinion, a certain innate religious feeling, expressed in language appropriate for the child of a physicist.
Adam Gifford in his will establishing the Gifford Lectures ordained that the subject should be "Natural Theology." The words "Natural Theology" have a technical meaning. According to Christian doctrine, God gave us two books in which his actions are recorded. One book is the Bible, the other is the Book of Nature. By reading the Book of Nature we can obtain knowledge of God's work, whether or not we also read the Bible. This is what Adam Gifford meant when he wrote his will. Natural Theology is the reading of God's mind as expressed in the works of Nature.
My own attitude to religion is closer to the attitude of my three-year-old son than to the attitude of Lord Gifford. I do not claim to be reading the Book of Nature when I do a scientific calculation. I do not claim to be an earnest enquirer after truth when I talk about Jesus and Bacchus. Science and religion are two windows through which we can look out at the world around us. We are free to choose. As the Swiss proverb says, "Some people like to go to church and some people like cherries." One may have a friendly respect for religion without being pious. The way of truth is not necessarily paved with earnestness.
The Gifford Lectures are supposed to be an occasion for an elderly theologian or scientist to express in polished prose the sum total of his life's wisdom. They were given in times past by William James and Alfred North Whitehead and by other distinguished philosophers. The lectures of William James were published in his classic volume The Varieties of Religious Experience,' those of Whitehead in his equally classic but less readable Process and Reality. In the biography of Wi!ham James we read that he took a two-year leave of absence from his position at Harvard in order to collect materials and concentrate his thoughts for the preparation of the Gifford Lectures. The effort of preparation was so intense that it caused a temporary breakdown of his health. After this effort, his health restored, he arrived in Edinburgh with the manuscript of a literary masterpiece in his briefcase. My situation, alas, was different. I had no masterpiece in my briefcase. I am a working scientist with no pretensions to being a deep philosophical thinker. I took no leave of absence to prepare the lectures. Whatever philosophical thinking I do is done in brief snatches, at odd times, and is usually not worth recording. Confronted with the fact that I was not William James or Alfred Whitehead, I decided to make a virtue of necessity. I talked about things which interested me. I did not try to fit the things which interested me into any grand design.
The lectures were given in two series, and this book is accordingly divided into two parts. Part 1 is about life as a scientific phenomenon, about our efforts to understand the nature of life and its place in the universe. Part 2 is about ethics and politics, about the local problems introduced by our species into the existence of life on this planet. The two parts do not come in logical sequence. I do not pretend that the scientific understanding of life will help us to solve political problems. Nevertheless, the two parts are not entirely disconnected. The connecting link is a general point of view. I look both at scientific and at human problems from the point of view of a lover of diversity. Diversity is the great gift which life has brought to our planet and may one day bring to the rest of the universe. The preservation and fostering of diversity is the great goal which I would like to see embodied in our ethical principles and in our political actions.
This first chapter is concerned with the relation between science and religion. The rest of the book touches upon religion only occasionally. When I talk about religion, I speak for myself alone. Any statement which attempted to express a consensus of scientists about religious and philosophical questions would, miss the main point. There is no consensus among us. The voice of science is a Babel of diverse languages and cultures. That is to me the joy and charm of science. Science is a free creation of the human mind, and at the same time it is an international club cutting across barriers of race and nationality and creed. Many first-rate scientists are Christians, Moslems, Buddhists or Jews, many are Marxists, many are militant atheists, many are like me, loosely attached to Christian beliefs by birth and habit but not committed to any particular dogma.
Science and religion are two human enterprises sharing many common features. They share these features also with other enterprises such as art, literature and music ...Infinite in All Directions
Gifford Lectures Given at Aberdeen, Scotland April--November 1985. Copyright © by Freeman J. Dyson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.