Richard Feynman on the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society
“In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar — ajar only.”
By Maria Popova
“I fully expected that, by the end of the century, we would have achieved substantially more than we actually did,” lamented original moonwalker Neil Armstrong, who passed away at the age of 82 last week. Implicit to his lament is the rather unsettling question of why — what is it that has held mankind back?
That’s precisely what the great Richard Feynman explored when he took the stage at the Galileo Symposium in Italy in 1964 and delivered a lecture titled “What Is and What Should Be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society,” published in the altogether excellent The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library), titled after the famous film of the same name.
Feynman shares in Armstrong’s dirge:
We are all saddened when we look at the world and see what few accomplishments we have made, compared to what we feel are the potentialities of human beings. People in the past, in the nightmare of their times, had dreams for the future. And now that the future has materialized we see that in many ways the dreams have been surpassed, but in still more ways many of our dreams of today are very much the dreams of people of the past.
He attributes much of this disconnect to a profound lack of mainstream understanding of and enthusiasm for science, making a case for the wonder of science:
People — I mean the average person, the great majority of people, the enormous majority of people — are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in, and they can stay that way … And an interesting question of the relation of science to modern society is just that — why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?
Incidentally, about knowledge and wonder, Mr. Bernardini* said we shouldn’t teach wonders but knowledge.
It may be a difference in the meaning of the words. I think we should teach them wonders and that the purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more. And that the knowledge is just to put into correct framework the wonder that nature is.
He goes on to take a jab at just how unscientific pop culture is — and how culturally condoned certain unscientific beliefs are:
… as I’d like to show Galileo our world, I must show him something with a great deal of shame. If we look away from the science and look at the world around us, we find out something rather pitiful: that the environment that we live in is so actively, intensely unscientific. Galileo could say: ‘I noticed that Jupiter was a ball with moons and not a god in the sky. Tell me, what happened to the astrologers?’ Well, they print their results in the newspapers, in the United States at least, in every daily paper every day. Why do we still have astrologers?
I believe that we must attack these things in which we do not believe. Not attack by the method of cutting off the heads of the people, but attack in the sense of discuss. I believe that we should demand that people try in their own minds to obtain for themselves a more consistent picture of their own world; that they not permit themselves the luxury of having their brain cut in four pieces or two pieces even, and on one side they believe this and on the other side they believe that, but never try to compare the two points of view. Because we have learned that, by trying to put the points of view that we have in our head together and comparing one to the other, we make some progress in understanding and in appreciating where we are and what we are. And I believe that science has remained irrelevant because we wait until somebody asks us questions or until we are invited to give a speech on Einstein’s theory to people who don’t understand Newtonian mechanics, but we never are invited to give an attack on faith healing, or on astrology — on what is the scientific view of astrology today.
The solution he proposes pits good science writing and critical debate as the necessary prick in the filter bubble of public interest:
I think that we must mainly write some articles. Now what would happen? The person who believes in astrology will have to learn some astronomy. The person who believes in faith healing might have to learn some medicine, because of the arguments going back and forth; and some biology. In other words, it will be necessary that science become relevant.
And then we have this terrible struggle to try to explain things to people who have no reason to want to know. But if they want to defend their own point of view, they will have to learn what yours is a little bit. So I suggest, maybe incorrectly and perhaps wrongly, that we are too polite. There was in the past an era of conversation on these matters. It was felt by the church that Galileo’s views attacked the church. It is not felt by the church today that the scientific views attack the church. Nobody is worrying about it. Nobody attacks; I mean, nobody writes trying to explain the inconsistencies between the theological views and the scientific views held by different people today–or even the inconsistencies sometimes held by the same scientist between his religious and scientific beliefs.
(Granted, since 1964, we’ve seen the rise of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism” — Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris — who, along with countless scientists, consistently ensure a constructive lack of “politeness” in the debate.)
Feynman also reiterates a crucial point about the nature and purpose of science and critical thinking — the role of ignorance and the importance of embracing uncertainty, met with enormous resistance in a culture conditioned for grasping at answers:
A scientist is never certain. We all know that. We know that all our statements are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty; that when a statement is made, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false. ‘Does God exist?’ When put in the questional form, ‘how likely is it?’ It makes such a terrifying transformation of the religious point of view, and that is why the religious point of view is unscientific. We must discuss each question within the uncertainties that are allowed.
We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and there is 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 only 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.
Feynman concludes by doing what he does best, bridging science and philosophy to expand the specific question into a broader meditation on human existence:
So today we are not very well off, we don’t see that we have done too well. Men, philosophers of all ages, have tried to find the secret of existence, the meaning of it all. Because if they could find the real meaning of life, then all this human effort, all this wonderful potentiality of human beings, could then be moved in the correct direction and we would march forward with great success. So therefore we tried these different ideas. But the question of the meaning of the whole world, of life, and of human beings, and so on, has been answered very many times by very many people. Unfortunately all the answers are different; and the people with one answer look with horror at the actions and behavior of the people with another answer. Horror, because they see the terrible things that are done; the way man is being pushed into a blind alley by this rigid view of the meaning of the world. In fact, it is really perhaps by the fantastic size of the horror that it becomes clear how great are the potentialities of human beings, and it is possibly this which makes us hope that if we could move things in the right direction, things would be much better. What then is the meaning of the whole world?
We do not know what the meaning of existence is. We say, as the result of studying all of the views that we have had before, we find that we do not know the meaning of existence; but in saying that we do not know the meaning of existence, we have probably found the open channel — if we will allow only that, as we progress, we leave open opportunities for alternatives, that we do not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth, but remain always uncertain — [that we] ‘hazard it.’ The English, who have developed their government in this direction, call it ‘muddling through,’ and although a rather silly, stupid sounding thing, it is the most scientific way of progressing. To decide upon the answer is not scientific. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar — ajar only. We are only at the beginning of the development of the human race; of the development of the human mind, of intelligent life — we have years and years in the future. It is our responsibility not to give the answer today as to what it is all about, to drive everybody down in that direction and to say: ‘This is a solution to it all.’ Because we will be chained then to the limits of our present imagination. We will only be able to do those things that we think today are the things to do. Whereas, if we leave always some room for doubt, some room for discussion, and proceed in a way analogous to the sciences, then this difficulty will not arise. I believe, therefore, that although it is not the case today, that there may some day come a time, I should hope, when it will be fully appreciated that the power of government should be limited; that governments ought not to be empowered to decide the validity of scientific theories, that that is a ridiculous thing for them to try to do; that they are not to decide the various descriptions of history or of economic theory or of philosophy. Only in this way can the real possibilities of the future human race be ultimately developed.
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is a treasure trove of genius in its entirety — highly recommended.
* Chairman of the conference
Published August 27, 2012