April 1, 2009

The Importance of the Heretic

The Times Magazine published a long profile of the legendary "subversive" theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson last weekend. Dyson's most recent claim to fame is his stubbornness in acquiescing to his community's consensus that global warming is a man-made and dangerous problem; he says “all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated," and argues that global warming has reached a cultish fame ahead of more practical issues facing mankind, like poverty and infectious disease, and that increased carbon in the atmosphere has positive as well as negative effects. Dyson is a celebrated scientist, one "fleeced" out of a Nobel, and his notoriety as a heretic is often spoken of with exasperation; he says, "the world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies." Despite what you think of his "trillion carbon-absorbing trees" idea, or his famous Dyson sphere (really, this man would have made a killing as a science fiction writer), Dyson makes an important point that is increasingly salient as the country tries to recover from an authoritarian administration where deregulation equalled a free market and creationism equalled religion. On that subject, Dyson has said,

"Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect.

Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance they bring both science and religion into disrepute. The media exaggerate their numbers and importance. The media rarely mention the fact that the great majority of religious people belong to moderate denominations that treat science with respect, or the fact that the great majority of scientists treat religion with respect so long as religion does not claim jurisdiction over scientific questions. ... I am neither a saint nor a theologian. To me, good works are more important than theology."

And there you have it: that rare creature, the theist-scientist: the complete dissident.

For further reading: The Scientist As Rebel (2008); A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (2007); Disturbing the Universe (2001).

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