As an observer on life’s sidelines, I rarely participate in the action. The subject matter is more important than the critic, so I tend to respond in this blog rather than create. Once in a great while, however, someone I know shows up in the media. A number of years back Neal Stephenson introduced me to George Dyson. I instantly felt an affinity for him, and found his book Darwin Among the Machines a great triumph of intelligible science writing. It was no great surprise, then, when George was mentioned in an article in December’s Atlantic magazine, comparing his outlook to that of his father, physicist Freeman Dyson. I was intrigued by physics in high school, but my overwhelming supposition that religion explained life overruled this predilection and so I’ve ended up an unemployed religion professor than a scientist. In the article, however, author Kenneth Brower brings these things together.
Brower asks a pointed question: how can a physicist as brilliant as Freeman Dyson hold factually inaccurate and apparently misguided ideas about global warming? The story contrasts Freeman with his son George as exemplars of two different religions. George represents the environmentalist religion while Freeman represents the belief in humanity’s ability to solve any problem. The use of religion as a means of distinguishing these views again raises a question of definition. I don’t dispute the use of the word – it is entirely apt in this context – but the functional definition here is that religion equates to something deeply believed. I am a little troubled by this. Not because no gods or deities or supernatural forces enter into it, but because for years many evangelicals have boldly declared that science itself is a religion. That idea has been used as leverage to get Creationist ideas equal time with those of science because it comes down to purely a matter of one religion against another.
Belief is a phenomenon that is not well understood. Most people have no difficulty accepting the truthfulness of factual data. Seldom do even religious zealots doubt two plus two equals four. At a more theoretical level, however, facts become formulas incomprehensible to most of us and critics are quick to call this “religion.” Faith in human ability to solve the riddles of the universe. Where is the line with religion crossed? In the year 2000 Freeman Dyson received the Templeton Prize, an honor reserved for those who make significant contribution to the spiritual dimension of life, often with a scientific component. It is the dream of every religionist to be considered for this great honor. Once again, however, the further out we peer into our universe, the more the lines become blurred. That does not worry me. What concerns me is how such ambiguity will no doubt be used by Creationists and their Neo-Con supporters who are only too glad to have a scientist of Freeman Dyson on their side. When religion trumps science not even 2 + 2 = 4 is secure.