Dyson Speaks, his Proportionality like Whitman’s

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself.

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Freeman Dyson, whose eloquence and understanding of human nature can charm even a science illiterate like me, in a lengthy interview (mentioned by Instapundit & linked by Lubos Motl) argues:

If you want an intellectual principle to give this picture a philosophical name, you can call it “The Principle of Maximum Diversity”. The principle of maximum diversity says that life evolves to make the universe as interesting as possible. A rain-forest contains a huge number of diverse species because specialization is cost-effective, just as Adam Smith observed in human societies. But I am impressed more by the visible examples of diversity in rain-forests and coral-reefs and human cultures than by any abstract philosophical principles.

The discussion is wide-ranging, from his sense of the tension between the two “middle classes” of England to the weakness of the claims of climate change to Halliburton’s role in Iraq to the relationship between religion & science. His is not the conventional voice, but his perspective is always interesting and often useful.

He sees optimism as the result of our heritage:

It is true that the tradition of Judeo-Christian religion is strongly coupled with philosophical optimism. Hope is high on the list of virtues. God did not put us here on earth to moan and groan. As my mother used to say, “God helps those who help themselves”.

I am generally optimistic because our human heritage seems to have equipped us very well for dealing with challenges, from ice-ages and cave-bears to diseases and over-population. The whole species did cooperate to eliminate small-pox, and the women of Mexico did reduce their average family size from seven to two and a half in fifty years. Science has helped us to understand challenges and also to defeat them.

He is especially interested in the ramifications of “HAR1 – short for Human Accelerated Region 1.” His optimism is bracing – he sees us as populating the universe. And sometimes we may have our doubts: he seems to believe we are really capable of conquering “The World, The Flesh, and the Devil” by understanding human nature. We may doubt – “knowing” and even “understanding” human nature is not quite the same as controlling our own impulses; many a wise man in the throes of a messy divorce or a drunken argument finds understanding less powerful than he’d hoped. But Dyson’s optimism – intelligent and active – motivates us to meet challenges both without and within.

4 thoughts on “Dyson Speaks, his Proportionality like Whitman’s”

  1. God, I would love to sit down with this guy and just talk about things over a cup of coffee, or something stronger. I sure hope I’d have enough sense to listen more and talk less.

  2. As someone who only knew Dyson from stray essays in rhetoric texts, I am grateful to ArtDOdger. Dyson’s range is breathtaking and yet he remains a man of human sympathies & common sense.

  3. In a world populated by people who really truly believe George Bush lied to everyone about Iraq, went to war because of oil companies , etc etc this man is out of his mind. We’ll be lucky if we find it within ourselves to elimatinate the Islamic Nuclear threat.

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