Richard Feynman on the Meaning of Life
By Maria Popova
“The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve,” pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary in 1854, “but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.” The meaning of life has indeed been pondered by some of history’s greatest luminaries. For Carl Sagan, it was about our significant insignificance in the cosmos; for Annie Dillard, about inhabiting impermanence; for Anaïs Nin, about living and relating to others “as if they might not be there tomorrow”; for Henry Miller, about the mesmerism of the unknown; for Leo Tolstoy, about finding knowledge to guide our lives; for David Foster Wallace, about learning how to stay truly conscious.
Now comes a fine addition from Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988), found in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — which also gave us The Great Explainer’s wisdom on the universal responsibility of scientists, the role of scientific culture in modern society, and the Zen of science, titled after the famous film of the same name.
Through all ages men have tried to fathom the meaning of life. They have realized that if some direction or meaning could be given to our actions, great human forces would be unleashed. So, very many answers must have been given to the question of the meaning of it all. But they have been of all different sorts, and the proponents of one answer have looked with horror at the actions of the believers in another. Horror, because from a disagreeing point of view all the great potentialities of the race were being channeled into a false and confining blind alley. In fact, it is from the history of the enormous monstrosities created by false belief that philosophers have realized the apparently infinite and wondrous capacities of human beings. The dream is to find the open channel.
What, then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say to dispel the mystery of existence?
If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn’t know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know.
But, in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel.
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is the kind of read you return to again and again, only to find new layers of meaning. Complement it with Feynman on science vs. religion, good and evil, the universal responsibility of scientists, and his little-known art.
Published August 8, 2013