Cbr11bingo Science. BINGO!
These essays are by turns provocative and exasperating. Richard P. Feynman, who died in 1988, was a brilliant physicist, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1965. He also was part of the Manhattan Project, was a distinguished lecturer at Cal Tech, and served as a member of the Rogers Commission which investigated the Challenger disaster. The Meaning of It All is a short collection of three lectures that Feynman gave in 1963. In these lectures his goal was to discuss the impact of science on other fields of study. It’s a mixed bag. The first two essays are cogent and provocative; the third is kind of a disorganized look at a variety of fields, but not without its merits.
The first lecture, called “The Uncertainty of Science” is the strongest of the three. Here Feynman explains what he means by science. His is a threefold definition: science is the method of finding things out; the body of knowledge that arises from this; and the applications of this knowledge, also known as technology. Feynman tackles technology first, as it is this aspect of science that most people would be familiar with, and he immediately addresses the issue of whether scientists have some sort of moral responsibility for how the fruits of their labor are used. Short answer: they do not. Feynman recognizes that technology can be used for good or evil. He believes that the way science is applied, the way it is used by powers, is a humanitarian issue. Scientists do their work for the excitement of discovery as opposed to some application. I found this interesting given his work on the Manhattan Project during World War II. That was quite an application of what had been discovered by the likes of Einstein and Niels Bohr. Feynman doesn’t talk about the bomb directly in his essays, but he clearly sees the Russians as an immediate threat to national security in 1963. That is not surprising. I was disappointed though that he didn’t discuss scientists working for the government specifically.
At any rate, Feynman then moves on to discuss how scientists find things out (by observation and testing) and that ideas come from everywhere and anywhere. Science requires great imagination:
The great difficulty is in trying to imagine something that you have never seen, that is consistent in every detail with what has already been seen and that is different from what has been thought of … it must be a definite and not a vague proposition.
Scientific laws are nothing but guesses. Scientific knowledge is “a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty.” Feynman’s big point here is that scientific conclusions, while thoroughly investigated, are always uncertain. Doubt is the hallmark of science. It should be and must be welcomed in science.
The second lecture, “The Uncertainty of Values,” focuses on “the meaning of life,” that is, matters related to morality, religion, ethics and international relations. This lecture is a bit more ambitious. Feynman is treading on territory that is not as familiar to him and it shows. Feynman introduces his topic by noting that for many if not most people, the disparity between humanity’s potential and its accomplishments is somewhat disappointing. We think we could be doing better or more than we are, that we should have peace. Education at one time was thought to be the “cure” for this; if people were better educated, then humanity would achieve its dreams more rapidly.
But it turns out that falsehood and evil can be taught as easily as good. Education is a great power but it can work either way.
We don’t know what the meaning of life is, but religion attempts to deal with this question. And so Feynman then launches into his ideas on the conflict between religion and science. He defines religion as everyday, personal practice of a faith, not in terms of theology. And he says, even though he has no statistics or other proof to back up this claim, that over half of scientists do not believe in “their father’s God.” Yet he also admits that he hasn’t spoken to his colleagues about such questions, so he really doesn’t know the state of their faith or beliefs. He concedes that science and religious belief can co-exist, but thinks this must be very difficult because of the scientist’s tendency to doubt, which leads to conflict with particular tenets of faith. Science deals in uncertainty while religion deals in certainty. Moreover, religion deals with questions of morality and ethics, and for Feynman, moral values are outside the realm of science; as he said in his first lecture, scientists ask “what will happen if I do this” not “should I do this.” He admits that the inspirational aspect of religion, that which inspires people to do good, is a source of strength. Religion’s ideas of the brotherhood of man, love, and humility of spirit are compatible with scientific inquiry and intellectual humility (admitting to not knowing things and being able to admit to being wrong).
When it comes to international relations, Feynman is talking about the US and its relationship with Russia. It helps to know a little history when reading this part of the lecture. In 1963, the Cold War was in full swing. The Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the building of the Berlin Wall had all just recently happened. The race for space was well underway. Russia was the number one danger in the world, and Feynman has many good points to make about the need for scientists to be free to question, to doubt, and to pursue new ideas without having to worry about ideologies. As he says, when you stop ideas, you stop mankind from moving forward. He ends this lecture by stating that governments should not decide on the truth of scientific principles, limit expression or “pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines.”
At the beginning of the third lecture, “The Unscientific Age,” Feynman admits plainly that he pretty much covered what he wanted in the first two lectures and says, “I have completely run out of organized ideas….” I can attest to the truth of that statement. I have to wonder if he even had anything written down before he took the stage. His premise is that science, unfortunately, does not play a part in art, literature, peoples attitudes, etc. He then bounces around topics such as astrology, UFOs, and politics, where he believes the candidate who has a plan when you ask him a question is just setting you up for disappointment (sorry, Elizabeth Warren!). Better to support the man who admits he doesn’t know much about the agricultural problem you mentioned but promises to look into it and surround himself with the best people. He opines that such a person could never get elected. I wonder what he would have thought of George W. Bush?
There are a couple of points in this third lecture that are noteworthy though, particularly for what would happen later in the US. He emphasizes that there is a difference between what is possible and what is probable, and most people don’t understand that. For example, it’s possible that there are UFOs, but
They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it’s possible… but whether it’s going on or not. Whether it’s probably occurring or not, not whether it could occur.
From this, Feynman goes into a discussion of statistics and calculating probability, and the problems that even scientists have in this area. With statistical sampling, the way you choose your sample is crucial; sometimes researchers stack the deck by using samples that are skewed in favor of whatever theory they are testing. Feynman later discusses the Mariner II voyage to Venus (August 1962) which encountered a number of problems while in space, including overheating. Feynman suggests that NASA hurried its production, making changes that led to these problems. These points are especially notable because on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take off. To investigate this disaster, NASA appointed the Rogers Commission, which included Richard Feynman. Feynman’s appendix to the official report reiterates some of these very points from the third lecture. NASA managers were using statistics that made the probability of a systems problem seem low, while engineers estimated a much higher probability that something could go wrong.
Richard Feynman never intended for these lectures to be published. His family chose to publish them ten years after his death. I have found them to be thought provoking, despite the unevenness in presentation. I am now interested in whether other scientists agree that questions of morality have no place in scientific inquiry, and what their thoughts are on the compatibility of science and religious belief. Sadly, I think Feynman’s assessment that our age is unscientific is still true. Science and facts don’t seem to be able to penetrate the thick skulls of a majority of Americans today.