Friday, April 21, 2006

Dawkins Vs Dyson

Science journalist John Horgan has written a piece over at criticizing the Templeton foundation, an organization that awards prizes to those - including physicist Freeman Dyson - who have brought science and religion closer together.

Many scientists are annoyed about this, and see it as unnecessary meddling.

Predictably, Richard Dawkins is one of them. Dawkins, of course, is the biologist who wrote 'The Selfish Gene' in the 1970s - a great book, and one of the books that originally turned me on to evolutionary psychology. However, it seems to me that Dawkins has been a bit of a one trick pony, essentially making a career off the back of the Selfish Gene, yet never quite managing to re-ignite the fire of that book: each of his succeeding books have been more and more uninspired. Dyson (also English) in contrast, is one of science's true geniuses. It was said that at age 5 he calculated the number of atoms in the sun. During world war 2 he worked as a statistician for the RAF, and then in the 1950s he was a colleague of Albert Einstein and one of the brains behind America's project Orion: a nuclear powered spaceship that was planned to go to Mars and even Jupiter and the outer planets! That there were scientists working on a practical plan to take men to Mars and beyond in the pre-information-age '50s is astonishing. In recent years Dyson has had a flourishing second career as a writer of popular science books which are, in my view, far more fascinating and thought-provoking than the later Dawkins fare.

So, here we have two scientific archetypes. Dawkins sees the universe as being built upon pure chance. Life is nothing more than a thin layer of organic 'scum' on a not particularly remarkable planet. Even Humans are not that important in Dawkin's cosmology: our minds are not so much thinking machines, but repositories of 'memes', a pretentious quasi-intellectual word that claims many of our ideas are actually informational viruses (for a good critique of 'memes' see HERE). Dyson, in contrast, sees a universe which appears to be maximally interesting and ultimately he senses an intelligence behind it.

Maybe the Templeton foundation is a folly. For I can't imagine these two cosmologies of thought ever merging in the scientific community.

What is ultimately behind our universe? So many of the 'laws' of our universe seem delicately fine-tuned to allow life to exist. This can either be accounted for by intelligence, like that which we see in ourselves, or by the operation of a sort of meta-universe natural selection (there could be millions of universes, and we are just lucky enough to be in the life-friendly one, in fact its the only one we could be in).

Ultimately the choice between the two cannot be based on facts, but on one's personal inclinations.

No comments: