Faithful to Science

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Richard Feynman Quotes

At the web site “Alternative Reel” I found a list of quotes from Richard Feynman, the brilliant physicist, eloquent writer and humane and insightful person. Some of the quotes are in the area of science and religion, so I will comment on them. First I will simply allow Feynman to speak in his own words. There are ten quotes, presented by “Alternative Reel” as follows:

10. “Looking back at the worst times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter that they insisted that the rest of the world agree with them. And then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their own beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true.” —The Meaning Of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, 1998

9. “The real question of government versus private enterprise is argued on too philosophical and abstract a basis. Theoretically, planning may be good. But nobody has ever figured out the cause of government stupidity—and until they do (and find the cure), all ideal plans will fall into quicksand.” —Letter to wife, Gweneth, 1963

8. “A poet once said ‘The whole universe is in a glass of wine.’ We will probably never know in what sense he meant that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imaginations adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the Earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secret of the universe’s age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are there in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalizations: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts—physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on—remember that Nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!” —Quoted in The New Quantum Universe (by Tony Hey and Patrick Walters), 2003

7. “I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and in many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about a little, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.” —The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (edited by Jeffrey Robbins), 1999

6. “God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you’re taking away from God; you don’t need him anymore. But you need him for the other mysteries. So therefore you leave him to create the universe because we haven’t figured that out yet; you need him for understanding those things which you don’t believe the laws will explain, such as consciousness, or why you only live to a certain length of time—life and death—stuff like that. God is always associated with those things that you do not understand. Therefore I don’t think that the laws can be considered to be like God because they have been figured out.” —Quoted in Superstrings: A Theory of Everything?, (edited by Paul C. W. Davies and Julian R. Brown), 1988

5. “NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources. For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” —Appendix to the Rogers Commission Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, June 9, 1986

4. “We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.” —What Do You Care About What Other People Think?, 1988

3. “We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified–how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You can think you know, as a matter of fact. And most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don’t know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is, or know a great deal of other things. It is possible to live and not know.” —The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (edited by Jeffrey Robbins), 1999

2. “No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of artistic creation, nor limit the forms of literacy or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.” —The Meaning Of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, 1998

1. “It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe, beyond man, to contemplate what it would be like without man, as it was in a great part of its long history and as it is in a great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are fully appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to view life as part of this universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is very rare, and very exciting. It usually ends in laughter and delight in the futility of trying to understand what this atom in the universe is, this thing—atoms with curiosity—that looks at itself and wonders why it wonders. Well, these scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.” —The Meaning Of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, 1998

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Here are some reactions from me.

10. (Absolute dogmatism leading to violent inconsistency) Yes. So we watch out to make sure we are not getting into that way of thinking.

9. (Ideal plans falling into quicksand) This is a comment on the age-old tussle between, roughly speaking, left-wing and right-wing politics. I think we need both, and we need to keep tussling.

8. (A glass of wine). Yes. But there is also much that a glass of wine does not show us. It does not show us anything which is not an “it”. It does not tell us what empathy is, nor what forgiveness is, nor justice, nor hopeful political reform.

7. (Doubt, approximate answers, possible beliefs). Yes, up to a point. I too am not absolutely sure of anything, but I would commit a great deal to the defence of certain propositions. It is easy to find examples. I would risk my very life if that was the only way I could see to protecting some things, such as a room full of children in the presence of a madman with a gun. So I would defend the proposition that those children should be protected; I would defend it just about as forcefully as I could. That is an extreme example, but once you admit there can exist such examples, immediately the whole question of degrees of certainty gets re-framed. Feynman is right to say that abstract questions such as the purpose of the universe are not particularly helpful and we don’t need answers to them. But we do need answers to more immediate questions, such as “what shall I do this afternoon?” That is what authentic transcendence (to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer) is about. It is about responding to the needs of my fellows in the here and now. I think Feynman begins to drift into incoherence at the end of this quote, when he speaks of “being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly.” That last “possibly” is a bit of a cover-all. Absolutely anything can be stated with a qualifying “possibly” at the end. Every statement we ever make has that qualification implicitly attached to it. But what statements shall we make? Shall we remind ourselves that the universe and our lives might be without purpose, possibly? Well, perhaps once a year or once a decade we should remind ourselves of that. We should go to a play by Samuel Beckett once in a while. But that is not the way to live our daily lives. It is worth taking care to write your scientific paper accurately (possibly). It is worth giving your children an encouraging smile (possibly). It is worth restraining your violent impulses and nurturing your respectful non-violent ones (possibly). Your life has a great deal of purpose (possibly). If ever you come to a place where you really lose sight of that, then you have my sympathy but I hope someone will help you to think differently.

6. “God was invented to explain mystery … God is always associated with those things that you do not understand”. The trouble with this quote is that Feynman appears to have failed to realise that religious thinkers have long recognised the emptiness of this way of thinking. Of course we have. It is so obvious. Failing to recognise or acknowledge the existence of intellectually serious religious discourse is like failing to recognise the difference between science and pseudo-science.

You can find plenty of pseudo-science in the world today (homeopathy, some of the claims made about cosmetics, some of the claims made by climate-change sceptics, etc.) and it is right to denounce pseudo-science. But in doing so, it would not be right to bundle pseudo-science and science together into one thing and denounce that. Similarly, it is intellectually inadmissible to talk breezily of “God” in terms that bundle together muddled religious ideas with intellectually serious ones, without any attempt to recognise the difference between them.

Intellectually serious religious ideas are what you find in the writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, or Simone Weil or Rowan Williams. If you read the reactions to Jesus of Nazareth that you can find in the New Testament documents, you do not find him particularly interested in locating God in things not understood. Rather, he was interested in offering a way forward from guilt, and a way of re-framing human society. He was interested in seeing truthfully and with empathy, not locating God in things he did not understand, but joining in with God in human situations he did understand.

5. “reality must take precedence over public relations” Yes.

4. “But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.” Yes, it is helpful to realise that the future may be very long. Note that here Feynman talks about responsibility, and so (of course) he does think that our lives have purpose (see under (7) above).

3. “We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty.” Yes. I completely agree with the whole of quote number 3 above.

2. On government and freedom. Yes, this is a good broad statement about the role of government.

1. “to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to view life as part of this universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is very rare, and very exciting. It usually ends in laughter and delight in the futility of trying to understand what this atom in the universe is, this thing—atoms with curiosity”

Yes. Go and read the book of Job, and a few other Biblical writings, and there you have this very thing, already seen and expressed thousands of years ago.

“… they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.”

Well yes, but who ever said that it is all arranged for God to watch? Not me. Not the author of Job. Not the Psalmist, nor the authors of the Gospels. Not Jesus of Nazareth. Especially not him. Not Francis of Assisi. Not any other serious religious commentator.

Starting out from insight and wisdom, Feynman here sees the “G-“ word on the horizon, and suddenly he descends into stupid shallow ways of using that word. The “God” he alludes to here is indeed some sort of stupid idea, a thing that simply does not exist at all, nor have any role in our existence. But to use the “G-“ word in this way is simply to take a word that is used by serious thoughtful people in one way, and use it in a completely different way. That is what incoherent speech essentially consists in.

It is a pity to leave our visit with Richard Feynman’s writings on this rather ignorant comment from him. What he is tackling is, of course, one of the forms that religious expression can take, so we can agree the shallowness of the thing he rejects here. But what he fails to grapple with, both here and elsewhere in his writings, is the idea that we don’t have to be shallow in our attempts to speak about what it is that human beings experience when they experience God, or when they don’t know exactly what they experience, but find themselves reaching for something not adequately expressed in analytical language, and not adequately engaged-with in a passive, impersonal mode.

I have a lot of regard for Feynman both as a scientist and as a human being, so I will finish with a brief comment on why it is that intelligent people can fail to see the truthfulness of some forms of religious language. It is, I think, largely because they never encountered it. They encountered, instead, a morass of muddled, superstitious language, and got the feeling there was no need to explore further in that direction, because they were already content with devoting their time and energy to more clearly productive things. It is only when you see faith in God causing really creative things, things like joy and mutual recognition, help for otherwise hopeless people who fall through the cracks in society, massive investment in open education or political liberation, civil rights movements, ecological wisdom and effort, trustworthy business practice, and so on, that you will take it more seriously. Or when you become painfully aware of failure in yourself: breaking promises and lying, anger and bitterness, and so on.

The reason that there is so much superstitious nonsense in Christian churches is that the church tries to be inclusive. The church is not a club for the respectable, it is a rowing-boat for the unrespectable. Pastors and ministers are sent to theological college largely so that they can be trained in how to combat the superstition that they will encounter in their congregations. Yes, theology is all about combating superstition. Faith and superstition are close to opposites. The first is based on trust and effort in the pursuit of truth, the second is based on fear and laziness.

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