Freeman Dyson on the Problem of Evil

Freeman Dyson in the Scientific American

In Infinite In All Directions Dyson addressed, obliquely, the only theological issue that really matters, the problem of evil. If we were created by a loving, all-powerful God, why is life so painful and unfair? The answer, Dyson suggested, might have something to do with “the principle of maximum diversity.”

This principle, he explained, “Operates at both the physical and the mental level. It says that the laws of nature and the initial conditions are such as to make the universe as interesting as possible. As a result, life is possible but not too easy. Always when things are dull, something turns up to challenge us and to stop us from settling into a rut. Examples of things which made life difficult are all around us: comet impacts, ice ages, weapons, plagues, nuclear fission, computers, sex, sin and death. Not all challenges can be overcome, and so we have tragedy. Maximum diversity often leads to maximum stress. In the end we survive, but only by the skin of our teeth.”

When I asked Dyson about the principle of maximum diversity, he downplayed it. “I never think of this as a deep philosophical belief,” he said. “It’s simply, to me, just a poetic fancy.” Perhaps Dyson was being modest, but to my mind, the principle of maximum diversity has profound implications. It suggests that, even if the cosmos was designed for us, we will never figure it out, and we will never create a blissful paradise, in which all our problems are solved. Without hardship and suffering–without “challenges,” from the war between the sexes to World War II and the Holocaust–life would be too boring. This is a chilling answer to the problem of evil, but I haven’t found a better one.

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