The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist by Richard P. Feynman

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-ScientistThe Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist by Richard P. Feynman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know this may be a shock, but I’ve never read Feynman until now. Of course, I pick a transcription of a three night series of lectures for my first, rather than his…more thought out writings. But, one gets a sense of his humor. The three lectures, in 1963 Seattle, were titled, “The Uncertainty of Science”, “The Uncertainty of Values”, and “This Unscientific Age”. Feynman’s first two lectures had structure, and yet this still reads like the spoken lecture it was – sidetracks here and there. Okay, he was all over the place, and he admits his third lecture is a collection of thoughts, with less structure, certainly, and it reads like it.


In The Uncertainty of Science, Feynman talks about science being “a method of finding things out”. Observation is king in this aspect: if “there is an exception to any rule, and if it can be rpoved by observation, that rule is wrong.” Simple, yet not simple. And

But if a thing is not scientific, if it cannot be subjected to the test of observation, this does not mean that it is dead, wrong, or stupid. … Scientists take all those things that can be analyzed by observation, and thus the things called science are found out. But there are some things left out, for which the method does not work. This does not mean those things are unimportant.

What follows is one of the many times he was all over the place that I mentioned at the start.

Feynman says that the more specific a scientific “rule is, the more interesting it is. The more definite the statement, the more interesting it is to test.” I like that but he jumps right into

Words can be meaningless. If they are used in such a way that no sharp conclusions can be drawn, as in my example of “oomph,” then the proposition they state is almost meaningless, because you can explain almost anything by the assertion that things have a tendency to motility. A great deal has been made of this by philosophers, who say that words must be defined extremely precisely. Actually, I disagree somewhat with this; I think that extreme precision of definition is often not worthwhile, and sometimes it is not possible—in fact mostly it is not possible, but I will not get into that argument here.

I think his point is meaningless. Definitions are not the issue. What words are used is. Regardless, he closes that first lecture with “Doubt is clearly a value in the sciences. Whether it is in other fields is an open questions and an uncertain matter.” If any scientist claims no uncertainty, I think said scientist needs to go back to school.

In his second lecture, The Uncertainty of Values, Feynman skirts and flirts with something Gould thought was non-overlapping. He says

So I have developed in a previous talk, and I want to maintain here, that it is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn’t get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.

By being uncertain, we can progress. On the other end, there is little as certain as a devout religious man, who will not progress. My thoughts, not his. At least not here. He does pose a thought exercise of a young man (recall, this is 1963…) of a religious family going off to a university to study science who learns to doubt. Feynman believed without data that more than half of scientists did not believe in their father’s God and asks, why?

By answering this question I think that we will point up most clearly the problems of the relation of religion and science. Well, why is it? There are three possibilities. The first is that the young man is taught by the scientists, and I have already pointed out, they are atheists, and so their evil is spread from the teacher to the student, perpetually. . . . Thank you for the laughter. If you take this point of view, I believe it shows that you know less of science than I know of religion.

“If you take this point of view…” Love it! The second possibility was an assumption that a little knowledge was dangerous and the young man having learned a little science now thought he knew everything. And the third possibility was that the young man didn’t understand science correctly, because science cannot disprove God. Feynman says “It is not my purpose to disprove anything.” Maybe…maybe not. But Feynman does take the discussion in the right direction” ‘Is there a God, or isn’t there a God?” changes to the question ‘How sure am I that there is a God?’ ” Now, continuing along what Gould would later label Non Overlapping Majesteria, Feynman says that ethical values lie outside the scientific realm, and responding to people who thought that science should have some conclusions about moral values:

I have several reasons for that. You see, if you don’t have a good reason, you have to have several reasons [I laughed out loud at that!], so I have four reasons to think that moral values lie outside the scientific realm. First, in the past there were conflicts. The metaphysical positions have changed, and there have been practically no effects on the ethical views. So there must be a hint that there is an independence. Second, I already pointed out that, I think at least, there are good men who practice Christian ethics and don’t believe in the divinity of Christ. […] The third thing is that, as far as I know in the gathering of scientific evidence, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere, anything that says whether the Golden Rule is a good one or not. I don’t have any evidence of it on the basis of scientific study.
And finally I would like to make a little philosophical argument […] “What should I do? Should I do this?”

… scientifically cannot be answered. Cause and effect can usually be determined, but an effect from cause may not necessarily follow. As to his first point and the hint of independence, I say there is a hint, but not confirmation. And to his second point, he traps himself with naming Christian ethics, which are neither exclusive nor original. (Nor divinely revealed.)

In 1963, Russia was still the big threat, and he had thoughts on it:

Russia is a backward country. Oh, it is technologically advanced. I described the difference between what I like to call the science and technology. It does not apparently seem, unfortunately, that engineering and technological development are not consistent with suppressed new opinion. It appears, at least in the days of Hitler, where no new science was developed, nevertheless rockets were made, and rockets also can be made in Russia. I am sorry to hear that, but it is true that technological development, the applications of science, can go on without the freedom. Russia is backward because it has not learned that there is a limit to government power. The great discovery of the Anglo-Saxons is—they are not the only people who thought of it, but, to take the later history of the long struggle of the idea—that there can be a limit to government power.

Today, members of a certain non-progressive political party claim to want to reduce government, yet they actually want to increase their power. Feynman also says

The fact that Russia is not free is clear to everyone, and the consequences in the sciences are quite obvious. One of the best examples is Lysenko, who has a theory of genetics, which is that acquired characteristics can be passed on to the offspring. This is probably true.

Yeah. You can imagine my reaction. He qualifies that by saying that the major part of genetic behavior is different than Lysenko’s theory. I suppose that’s the good, uncertain, scientist talking.

Feynman’s last lecture was as noted above, admittedly a collection of ideas and not with a specific point. He titled it “The Unscientific Age”. Little did he know that 50 years later it would get worse. On judging an idea, an example:

The first one [example] has to do with whether a man knows what he is talking about, whether what he says has some basis or not. And my trick that I use is very easy. If you ask him intelligent questions—that is, penetrating, interested, honest, frank, direct questions on the subject, and no trick questions—then he quickly gets stuck.

A rather sad assessment, he tells a story about politics

Suppose two politicians are running for president, and one goes through the farm section and is asked, “What are you going to do about the farm question?” And he knows right away—bang, bang, bang. Now he goes to the next campaigner who comes through. “What are you going to do about the farm problem?” “Well, I don’t know. I used to be a general, and I don’t know anything about farming. But it seems to me it must be a very difficult problem, because for twelve, fifteen, twenty years people have been struggling with it, and people say that they know how to solve the farm problem. And it must be a hard problem. So the way that I intend to solve the farm problem is to gather around me a lot of people who know something about it, to look at all the experience that we have had with this problem before, to take a certain amount of time at it, and then to come to some conclusion in a reasonable way about it. Now, I can’t tell you ahead of time what conclusion, but I can give you some of the principles I’ll try to use – not to make things difficult for individual farmers, if there are any special problems we will have to have some way to take care of them,” etc., etc., etc.
Now such a man would never get anywhere in this country, I think. It’s never been tried, anyway., This is in the attitude of mind of the populace, that they have to have an answer and that a man who gives an answer is better than a man who gives no answer, when the real fact of the matter is, in most cases, it is the other way around.

I have direct experience with this. I gave the second answer in an interview. Not what the hiring authority was looking for, or wanting. And in today’s politics, baldfaced lies are preferred by a certain minority of the electorate to anyone who honestly says we have to put in some work.

Asking how we get new ideas, he answers “by analogy” and then illustrates

First, we take witch doctors. The witch doctor says he knows how to cure. There are spirits inside which are trying to get out. You have to blow them out with an egg, and so on. Put a snakeskin on and take quinine from the bark of a tree. The quinine works. He doesn’t know he’s got the wrong theory of what happens. If I’m in the tribe and I’m sick, I go to the witch doctor. He knows more about it than anyone else. But I keep trying to tell him he doesn’t know what he’s doing and that someday when people investigate the thing freely and get free of all his complicated ideas they’ll learn much better ways of doing it. Who are the witch doctors? Psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, of course. If you look at all of the complicated ideas that they have developed in an infinitesimal amount of time, if you compare to any other of the sciences how long it takes to get one idea after the other, if you consider all the structures and inventions and complicated things, the ids and the egos, the tensions and the forces, and the pushes and the pulls, I tell you they can’t all be there. It’s too much for one brain or a few brains to have cooked up in such a short time. However, I remind you that if you’re in the tribe, there’s nobody else to go to.

Okay, I quoted this because his analogy of psychoanalysts to witch doctors was a gem. And damn if he isn’t spot on: so much mumbo jumbo is such a comparatively short in the grand humanity scheme of things amount of time.

So, I whetted my appetite and now need to read more substance from the great physicist.

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