NEW YORK — This year's recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, Freeman J. Dyson, is a physicist who strives to understand the universe and improve the lot of his fellow men and women, especially the poor.
Dyson says he utilizes two windows — science and religion.
His writings deal with technical scientific matters and the impact of science on the human condition, particularly questions of social justice.
Dyson, a Presbyterian, recently spoke with the Register about his work, especially how science and religion can support each other in the search for truth.
Rinaldi: The Templeton Award for Progress in Religion, which comes with a $948 thousand purse, was once given to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Dyson: Yes. I don't know what I am doing in that company but there it is.
The award “is given to a living individual for outstanding originality and advancing the world's understanding of God or spirituality.” What has your work had to do with religion?
I don't really call it work. What I've done is write books for the general public, quite distinct from my “work.” The books are much more literature than science. I tell stories and some of them have religious themes.
In your book,
That is certainly true. Religion is definitely a part of the human condition. It's in all societies. Science is comparatively a rare bird because science has only originated recently in certain parts of the world. While [science] is in human history as a whole, religion certainly plays a more important role.
In your most recent book,
That is certainly true.
You also argue that technology ought to be used to help the poor. Tell us a little about that.
There are two very powerful technologies that are going ahead very rapidly at the moment that can help mankind: the Internet and the World Wide Web in communications on the one hand, and biotechnology with all its applications to medicine on the other.
You say the Internet can be an important tool for poorer countries.
It certainly could be. It has to be more widely accessible, and that is something we have to work at.
You claim that entrepreneurs and scientists must join forces with religious leaders for the advancement of man.
Yes, by pushing gently. We can't decide how the world is going to go. We are not omnipotent. There is a clear social problem at the moment: a gross inequality both between the rich and the poor inside each country and between [rich and poor] countries. This kind of gross inequality is something we can try to reduce through gentle pushing. It's something that religious organizations or environmental movements and medical and scientific organizations could work together on. It's not that we have the power to decide how the world goes, but that we can exert a gentle influence. In the long run it can be extremely important.
You call for a spreading of knowledge and wealth. This is offered in opposition to our preoccupation with science and technology as ways to build toys for the rich.
They are not totally in conflict with each other. The world can deal with both. There's nothing evil in building toys for the rich as long as you take care of the poor at the same time.
In your book,
The problem is: how can we keep our weapons under control and how we can reduce stockpiled missiles? These are political problems, not technical problems.
How do you see science and religion working together for long-term moral and social solutions?
You had a clear example this year when the Senate voted not to ratify the [United Nations’ nuclear] test ban treaty, which I considered a disaster. They did that for petty political reasons without paying any attention to the big picture and the great importance of this test ban in history.
I think that's a case where political process could have been influenced by religion. Just the way the vote was taken, of course, didn't give anybody any time. It was deliberately done in a rush so that people couldn't have the chance to think. [Many] scientists and religious leaders felt strongly that the test ban was a good idea. I think we might have gotten together on this and talked to the politicians.
You also suggest that scientists should be less attached to profitability.
I'm not against profits. Profits are absolutely necessary. If you run a business, you better make a profit or you're in trouble. Profits are not evil but there must be a balance between the necessity of making profits and the desire to do something useful.
Are American companies getting it right?
A lot of industrial research is too concentrated on short-term profits. It is a question of balance. Emphasis on the short-term, the next quarter's earnings, is bad for science and, in the end, probably bad for the company, too.
Does this play out on the level of the individual employee as well?
The people who work for industry are faced with this all the time: On the one hand you work for the company and, on the other hand, you would like to do something that is good for the society. Everybody lives in that kind of a tension.