The incomparable Feynman

“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 that might be wrong.”

“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.”

32 Comments

  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted April 4, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    It is wonderful to watch this again. And to hear the Queens accent again too.

  2. Steve Knoll
    Posted April 4, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Quite good on the nature of scientific, or empirical/inductive knowledge in general. In the final analysis, nothing is ultimately known. It’s healthy to “know” that.

    Revealed knowledge on the other hand, is known “certainly” by those to whom it is revealed, but not empirically testable. To even be tempted to test it is, to some, heretical.

    Strangely, all knowledge, in the end, comes down to faith, as there is an infinite regress into the unknown with both. The scientific attitude is, by nature, more humble in the face of our ignorance & more easily sustainable when a tenant of it’s “faith” crumbles in the face of new, unexpected, observations.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted April 4, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      The scientific attitude is, by nature, more humble in the face of our ignorance & more easily sustainable when a tenant of it’s “faith” crumbles in the face of new, unexpected, observations.

      I don’t see how it can be referred to as “faith” when the scientific community sees and acknowledges the changes and uses it as a new standard. It may not be accepted instantaneously or by everyone, but it still is not “faith”.

      • Steve Knoll
        Posted April 4, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink

        As mathematics is built on axioms, so to the scientific method, relies on assumptions.

        The assumptions, like the assumption that the laws of nature work the same everywhere, seem entirely reasonable, but nonetheless are taken on faith.

        It is not a bad thing, one has to act in the world in the face of imperfect knowledge. It is simply the nature of the human condition.

        • Posted April 4, 2010 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

          Except that, as Christians seem to define it, ‘faith’ isn’t something that changes with new information – it’s something that resists change under any circumstances; hence why Martin Luther described reason as its enemy. ‘Faith’ in science, on the other hand, doesn’t have reason as its enemy.

          That’s why it seems a little disingenuous to use the term in that context.

          • oldfuzz
            Posted April 5, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink

            “Except that, as Christians seem to define it, ‘faith’ isn’t something that changes with new information”

            Only some Christians. Many, the progressives, would agree with the idea first posited by Knoll that “Strangely, all knowledge, in the end, comes down to faith, as there is an infinite regress into the unknown with both.”

            Faith is a word with many meanings. To restrict its use to that of a small, albeit vocal, segment of society, is like dismissing the definition of science because some refer to creationism as a science.

            My dictionary defines faith several ways, but the first is “confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea or thing.”

            Faith in religion of every type–theist, atheist, non-theist, maybe others–exists in many forms, even within specific religions, particularly the different branches of Christianity; e.g., Roman, Coptic, Nestorian, Judaic

            • Grendels Dad
              Posted April 5, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

              Sure, faith has many definitions. But equivocating between them is still intellectually dishonest. And pretending that religious faith is no different than the confidence scientists have after amassing mountains of evidence is just that sort of equivocation.

            • oldfuzz
              Posted April 5, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

              “…pretending that religious faith is no different than the confidence scientists have after amassing mountains of evidence…”

              I agree with this premise and don’t know who suggested they are the same.

              Are suggesting that science is restricted to mountains of evidence? The science have pursued functions at the edges of evidence as well. For me, that’s where the fun is.

            • Notagod
              Posted April 6, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

              So, Oldfuzz, it seems that your intent is to sow confusion. You advocate the use of a word that you know has opposing meanings and you know that the opposing meaning isn’t just superficial but is a difference at the fundamental level.

              The use of the word isn’t going to change the fundamental difference. Christianity will still be built on a faulty foundation.

              Suck it jesus christ!

            • oldfuzz
              Posted April 6, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

              Notagod, “Christianity will still be built on a faulty foundation.”

              This is false on two counts:
              1. There is no agreed definition of Christianity. You have to be more specific as to which Christianity you refer.
              2. The foundation of Christianity is Judaism, the foundation of which precedes it to earliest human thought.

        • MadScientist
          Posted April 5, 2010 at 5:48 am | Permalink

          There is no faith; what we have is consistency of claims. Religion has nothing remotely like it, only blind ignorance touted as a virtue.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted April 5, 2010 at 8:23 am | Permalink

          This is inductionism, pure and simple. It isn’t even any of the usual “crypto-” about it.

          It is also wrong, since we can test and reject erroneous observations and theories. So no regress there, but elimination to remaining empirical finds, fully quantified by their tested certainty. That is why we have _one_ theory of evolution, for example. With induction we could have any number.

          The idea of induction as opposed to the actual testing that is taking place seems to go back to the religious problems with science and, especially, evolution. At any rate it was explicitly used as a way to shoehorn your preferred gods (and why no others? induction doesn’t say) into remaining “don’t knows”. No wonder why accommodationists cling to this one.

          It is an utter and abysmal failure, as is theology in general.

          And claiming that a method “relies” on axioms? Please! That is a clumsy attempt to put the wagon before the horse.

          Axiomatization of methods is a way of formalizing them. But the proof is in the pudding, methods work (or they do not).

    • Notagod
      Posted April 4, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      The way you are comparing the two is similar to stating that you have to have faith that you are eating an apple instead of an orange, or, needing faith to know if you are eating in contrast to not eating.

      It has the smell of bullshit, me thinks.

      • Posted April 4, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        In a very technical way, you do require faith; your selection of an apple or orange is based on previous experience. That is, “This is what an orange has looked like to me in the past. . .” Or, “The red skin on this apple tells me is should be good to eat.” You may have seen the parlor trick where the blindfolded volunteer is given an onion to eat while an apple slice is held under their nose; the odor gives the participant faith that he is eating an apple. Likewise, things that we take for granted and regard as ‘facts’ are reckoned so only on the basis of previous experience. The pronouncement of the time of sunrise is dependant upon all our previous experiences being repeated, even though this is not absolutely guaranteed.

        • Posted April 4, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

          But that would be ‘faith’ that our senses, having provided us with information wouldn’t, when presented with the same stimuli once more, react in a way different from how they reacted to that stimuli the last time.

          Religious ‘faith’ doesn’t involve any stimuli at all – it just requires people to accept something someone else has told them.

          ‘Faith’ that comes from experience, and the understanding that certain physical properties aren’t likely to change radically from one experience to another is not the same thing as having ‘faith’ that something you can’t test or experience in any way is true.

          • Posted April 4, 2010 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

            “Religious ‘faith’ doesn’t involve any stimuli at all – it just requires people to accept something someone else has told them.”

            While one may not be able to ‘test’ the object(s) of religious faith in a physical sense, the experiential element is still there. My point to Notagod was that faith, religious or scientific(?) was required for action. Testing an hypothesis or praying to a deity both require an expectation of an experience; otherwise, it is a pointless exercise

            • Posted April 4, 2010 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

              “Testing an hypothesis or praying to a deity both require an expectation of an experience; otherwise, it is a pointless exercise”

              Except that, as any Christian (and probably those of other faith traditions like Judaism) will tell you, not having your prayers answered, even after multiple requests, cannot be considered evidence for God’s non-existence.

              Repeatedly biting into an apple and having it taste like an orange, on the other hand, should lead a person to undertake some serious investigation – and/or seriously rethink where they purchase their produce from.

            • Notagod
              Posted April 4, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

              While one may not be able to ‘test’ the object(s) of religious faith in a physical sense, the experiential element is still there.

              Yes, and the experimental evidence shows faith and prayer aren’t consistent or worthwhile in regards to summoning sky fairies of guidance.

        • Notagod
          Posted April 4, 2010 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

          If you mean that faith requires manipulation in order to gain any purchase, I would agree with you. There have been a few christians that have set up manipulative circumstances in an attempt to get me to accept their god-idea.

          I agree with Wowbagger and will add; you are trying to use one word to express the extremes of the balance of evidence. You may not realize it but the sun doesn’t rise, that is a human centric expression, it is a manipulation of the actual facts originating from a time when humans didn’t know any better.

          Would you also find it acceptable to use infinitesimal to describe both the size of an ant and the size of the earth simultaneously in ordinary conversation? The difference in actual meaning of the dual use of the word faith you are describing is actually mind bogglingly larger. Should we also use the word kill to describe murder and love? Because, you know, we really don’t know for sure.

    • oldfuzz
      Posted April 6, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Well said. The new “f” word is faith. Use it in general discussion at your peril. I wonder what moves theoretical physicists to consider string theory, multiple universes, dark energy/matter and other phenomenon beyond current “knowing” if not faith in the human mind to comprehend what is discovered.

      In The Way to Wisdom, Karl Jaspers wrote of the Comprehensive which I understand to be the source of thought (and I probably missed his point).

      What is a thought? Have neuroscientists quantified it? I don’t think so. Will they? Precisely? I doubt it, but that doesn’t stop us from having faith in reason.

  3. Artikcat
    Posted April 4, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I find it interesting that he uses the word “soul” to place his doubts; perhaps the soul refrence is expanded somewhere else?

    • Steve Knoll
      Posted April 4, 2010 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      The original questions in psychiatry dealt with the nature of the “mind”

      The problem, with the problem of the subjective, is that it is not readily observable except by the subject. Not an ideal situation in which to apply the scientific method.

      Skinner, in my view, “solved” the problem by pretty much defining it out of existence & reducing the scope of the field to observable, external behaviors.

      Perhaps that was wise from a scientific point of view, but that does not mean that consciousness does not exist. Just ask Descartes. Or yourself. Me, I’m just a figment of your imagination 🙂

      • Artikcat
        Posted April 4, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        Sorry SK I meant the idea of soul in Dr Feynmann, if he had any

        • Steve Knoll
          Posted April 4, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

          I thought he did a great job of talking about the nature & limits of scientific knowledge.

          To me, the “soul” is the self-aware, conscious, subjectivity which is the reality in which we live & as such, I’m sure he is one. (That is a leap of faith of course, as I can’t prove it)

          Although it doesn’t lend itself to direct scientific observation, I think it highly unlikely that it is immortal.

          My informal experimentation with hallucinogens in the 60s convinced me that is mysterious dimension of the chemical reactions in one’s brain, as tiny changes in chemistry cause massive changes in “reality”.

          It is my view that once the chemical reactions in an individual cease, so does the soul.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 5, 2010 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Of course we have purpose – but we have to make it up. My chosen purpose is to live to the fullest, and have fun while doing it. (And yes, live to the fullest and having fun include learning.)

    • Artikcat
      Posted April 5, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Lets see; “fullest” is?

    • oldfuzz
      Posted April 6, 2010 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

      The key word is “chosen.” I’m going to read Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman again. His “lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose” evokes numerous thoughts… what is lost except to our perception… I suspect the purposelessness of which he speaks has to do with choice.

      The first sage in my life, Mom, always sent me on my way with, “Have fun and be good.” Everything I’ve learned since has reinforced, not altered that encouragement.

  5. oldfuzz
    Posted April 5, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    It would have been wonderful to have seen Richard Feynman and Joseph Campbell discuss the relationship of science and myth.

    Both are experts in their fields–science and myth–and Campbell, who embraced the concept of mythology as a human reality, rejected the god-as-fact, but embraced a god-as-idea concept. His four volume The Masks of God covers mythology extensively.

    In the final sections of volume four he identifies the four essentials of a viable mythology: the mystic, the cosmological, the social and the psychological. He also said, often, that there is no universal myth possible; however, to live without a personal mythology, which may be born of prior myths, is essential for many.

    Consider the high attendance at “Hero Adventure” movies; e.g., Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Blind Side, etc. These are all stories with mythological themes which tap into the meaning of living a human life.

    • Notagod
      Posted April 6, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      So your point is that people make mistakes. Of course it isn’t essential to anyone that they believe in mythology. Some people think that it is essential to eat tasteless crackers infected with mythology too.

      • oldfuzz
        Posted April 6, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        No, my point is that there is a place within human comprehension for consideration of what is beyond knowing. Call it imagination if you will, but myths are one way of expressing these idea.

        As for believing in mythology, that’s not the issue. The question is whether a person lives a more human life with a personal mythology.

        If they do, fine. If not, fine also. It’s up to each to find the way right for them and encourage others to find their way as well.

        The theists who say ours is the only way have something in common with atheists who say the same thing.

      • Antonio Manetti
        Posted April 6, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        The point is that we’re shaped by a culture, including its myths and values. Nobody *believes* Greek mythology, but we are still moved by Greek tragedies, like Oedipus and Medea.

        • oldfuzz
          Posted April 6, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

          Sell said.

          BTW, I am reading “Pathways to Bliss” by Joseph Campbell which is an overview of his half century of investigation myths. It has an interesting chapter on creating your own myth.


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