Dyson on Philosophy

Freeman Dyson has a review of Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist? in the early November issue of The New York Review of Books. Dyson is an esteemed physicist who, as a young man, cinched the link between accounts of quantum electrodynamics given separately by Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger, and Sin-Itiro Tomonanga in the late 1940s. He probably should've been included in the Nobel Prize awarded for QED, but it is limited to three simultaneous recipients. Dyson's review is interesting for a few reasons. First, he attended Cambridge at the time of Wittgenstein and, in fact, lived in an apartment below him. He had been given the Tractatus as a gift in high school and "read it through in one night in an ecstasy of adolescent enthusiasm." His reminiscences about Wittgenstein in a few paragraphs is worth the read itself. Second, his judgment of the philosophy is linked to his judgement of the actions of the man. For instance, "Heiddegger himself lost his credibility" when he joined the Nazi party as a rector at Freiburg. Discussing Wittgenstein and Heidegger (the twin 20th century biggies according to Holt), Dyson quips:

Holt summarizes the difference between Heidegger and Wittgenstein in nine words: “Wittgenstein was brave and ascetic, Heidegger treacherous and vain.” These words apply equally to their characters as human beings and to their intellectual output.

In the end,  while his review presents some overview of Holt's book, it is really a lament of modern philosophy as being out of touch, overly and irredeemably academic, and, in the end, not really much about anything:

Newton and Locke were friends and colleagues in the English parliament of 1689, helping to establish constitutional government in England after the bloodless revolution of 1688. The bloody passions of the English Civil War were finally quieted by establishing a constitutional monarchy with limited powers. Constitutional monarchy was a system of government invented by philosophers. But in the twentieth century, science and history and philosophy had become separate cultures. We were three groups of specialists, living in separate communities and rarely speaking to each other.

When and why did philosophy lose its bite? How did it become a toothless relic of past glories? These are the ugly questions that Jim Holt’s book compels us to ask. Philosophers became insignificant when philosophy became a separate academic discipline, distinct from science and history and literature and religion. The great philosophers of the past covered all these disciplines. Until the nineteenth century, science was called natural philosophy and officially recognized as a branch of philosophy. The word “scientist” was invented by William Whewell, a nineteenth-century Cambridge philosopher who became master of Trinity College and put his name on the building where Wittgenstein and I were living in 1946. Whewell introduced the word in the year 1833. He was waging a deliberate campaign to establish science as a professional discipline distinct from philosophy.

Whewell’s campaign succeeded. As a result, science grew to a dominant position in public life, and philosophy shrank. Philosophy shrank even further when it became detached from religion and from literature. The great philosophers of the past wrote literary masterpieces such as the Book of Job and the Confessions of Saint Augustine. The latest masterpieces written by a philosopher were probably Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 1885 and Beyond Good and Evil in 1886. Modern departments of philosophy have no place for the mystical.

This is a genuine lament on Dyson's part, I think, not merely a physicist scoffing at something that has never touched him, a blind man dismissing painting. It goes to Dyson's expectations for intellectual activity, a deep sense of the importance of the integrity in man, and his belief that an obligation of intellect is the betterment of the lot for others.

I had the fortune to spend some quality time over a few days with Dyson several years ago at St. John's. He'd agreed to give the sole paid invited lecture at the College, the Steiner Lecture, in which we would try to find "people of note" interested in bringing some of the outside world into our small campus. We didn't have much money, so we needed to rely on our ability to convince potential lecturers that they'd have an audience of broadly interested and voracious intellects who are really just interested in what they're thinking.  There is an abiding interest in science at the College, flavored with a deep interest in the philosophical implications of science. Dyson had made great contributions to physics early in his life and had spent the rest of it exercising a broadly interested scientific mind that had room for a variety of questions about human life and human good. He'd been invited in the 80s to give the Templeton Lectures on religion, though he's not a believer in any traditional or apologetic sense. He had a wild, creative mind coming up with the Dyson sphere and astrochickens.

The lecture itself was mediocre. He'd suggested several topics and we ended up choosing one that, on reflection, he didn't seem all that excited about -- the problem of quantum gravity. (Why he suggested it, I don't really know.) He spoke essentially off the cuff for the hour, though quite cogently, outlining his own sense that there would never be a properly quantum mechanical account of gravity. I remember it being interesting at the time, but not memorable.

What I remember most about interacting with him was his genuine politeness and interest in one thing after another. I took him to one of our labs to meet some students and, looking at a laser shining on a piece of paper, he wondered about the particularly dappled, iridescent quality of the light. The students had noticed this as well and they spoke for some time about it, what the possibilities were, and what they weren't. He took time with them and was interested to hear what they were learning and what they thought about it. Later, reading a long interview of him when he made his controversial arguments about global warming, it was clear to me that he didn't deny global warming as an effect, rather that it was an effect worth worrying about in the face of other human suffering in the world that ought to have our attention.

All this ties back to his lament of philosophy. In the end, Dyson is a futurist, a intellect concerned with possibilities, particularly possibilities for improving the lot of human life. (He's Cartesian in this way.) For him, philosophy ties back to mysticism because it's about articulating the unexplainable, wrestling with possibility. He's also a free spirit who's not very interested in class or academic divisions and those that promulgate them. There's a lot to admire about that.



  1. Profile photo of Bill Burgess says

    Very interesting post. I’ve always found Dyson fascinating. However, I disagree with him regarding the role of philosophy in the world of the past 100 years. The fact that most people, even educated people, can’t tell you who William James, John Dewey, or Charles Pierce are does not erase the how pragmatism permeates American civilization. Everyone has heard of Marx and may imagine him discredited but few realize how influential he remains with the intellectual elite. Consider post-modernism in our politics and existentialism in the more artistic information in popular culture. In the past 100 years western civilization has moved from the world of religion to a world completely dominated by philosophy. Even the scientific method which produces our technology is, and remains, a branch of philosophy. Materialistic Empiricism is a philosophy and always will be.

  2. Adam Mossbottom says

    I find Dyson’s review enormously refreshing. As Dylan says, it is “a lament of modern philosophy as being out of touch, overly and irredeemably academic, and, in the end, not really much about anything”. Indeed, the method which academic philosophy pursues (with the belief that unknotting the contradictory, and sometimes outdated mess of prior thinkers’ works is the only way forward) leaves modern philosophy around in circles, ever deepening the trench it has been trapped in for so long.

    I am pleased with Dyson’s perspective because not all philosophers are locked in the academic charade. The book The Fates Unwind Infinity is written in the spirit of reattaining the freedom philosophers enjoyed in the past, before the academic framework came to prominence and hobbled all adventurous thought outside the established intellectual status quo. The book’s content and publication are in line with Dyson’s “deep sense of the importance of the integrity in man, and his belief that an obligation of intellect is the betterment of the lot for others”; the book is published anonymously and given to the world for free (hopefully representing integrity of purpose- no wealth or personal fame is in the balance), and the book describes some revelations which redefine and enrich our understanding of reality in an enlightening and heartening way.

    (The book is available online here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/87848420/The-Fates-Unwind-Infinity)

  3. Kevin says

    Thanks to Dylan, I was invited to have lunch with Freeman Dyson when he came to St. John’s. I had no idea how lucky I was then. Since then I’ve delved more into physics and am currently a 3rd year grad student in it, and my respect for Dyson – and my appreciation for having spent a day with him – continues to grow. Whatever else one thinks about what he said above, it’s certainly the case that various disciplines have become solipsistic and it is awesome to see someone very, very good at one of them show appreciation for another rather than dismissing it out of ignorance or insecurity.

    I do remember the lecture, vaguely. I remember in particular that he questioned the quest of physics to always proceed by unification (such as how electricity & magnetism were shown to be aspects of one thing, electromagnetism). I still think about that sometimes. I think giving that up would be an end to a certain kind of physics, the kind that has always driven it forward, leaving only applied physics. Even Newton’s gravity unified the the moon’s orbit with an apple’s fall. I certainly don’t know what I would do – calculate harder and harder Feynman diagrams? And then there’s the fact that the environment of a black hole or the early universe requires a theory of quantum gravity if they are to be described by physics. Maybe we could move forward in some areas without unifying them with others but at some point I think without that we’d hit a dead end.

    Anyway, there is a lot to admire. He’s one of only two or three great physicists I know of alive today that retain the wide-ranging curiosity that characterized the early great physicists.

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