"The Meaning of it All" by Richard Feynman:


This is a series of lectures given by Richard Feynman in 1963. They cover a range of philosophical topics such as, "What is Science?", "What is the scientific method?", "How and whether Religion and Science clash", etc. Feynman has the unique ability to simplify complex ideas and present them with interesting anecdotes. I have given below a few excerpts from this book.


What is Science?

Science usually means different things to different people.


One aspect is the new things you can do because of science - this is usually known as technology. A consequence of science is that one has a power to do things. The effect of this power is visible in almost every aspect of human life. This power to do things carries with it no instructions on how to use it, whether to use it for good or for evil. It is like the Buddhist saying "Every man is given a key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell". The question of how to use this key, this power of science, is not a scientific one, but a humanitarian one.


The other aspect of science is its content, the things that have been found out, the secrets of Nature that have been discovered. The work in this area is not done for the sake of an application, but for the excitement of finding things out. Trying to understand the way Nature works involves a most terrible test of human reasoning ability. It involves subtle trickery, beautiful tightropes of logic on which one has to walk in order not to make a mistake in predicting what will happen. Quantum mechanics and relativity are examples of this.


The other aspect of science is a method of finding things out. This method is based on the principle that observation is the judge of whether something is so or not. A scientist tests a hypothesis and any exception is taken to conclude that the rule is wrong. The scientist asks questions like "If I do this, what will happen?" and not "Should I do this?" The observations must be made very rigorously and carefully without prejudice to the expectation. The observations must be objective, i.e. they must be the same for anyone making them. The rules or conclusions these observations lead to must be very specific and as precise as possible - mathematical if possible. All scientific rules must be mutually consistent; they should not contradict other rules. The history of science shows that old rules are replaced by new rules, which means, old observations were wrong. This is so because experiments are always inaccurate - the degree of inaccuracy depends on the sophistication (or even availability) of measuring instruments and techniques used by scientists.


This also means that every rule in science is uncertain - it is not 100% certain. Scientists thus have the permission to doubt existing scientific knowledge.


Science and Religion:

Religion has many aspects.


First is the metaphysical aspect which attempts to explain things - where man came from, what God is, and the nature of things.


The second aspect discusses how to behave, morality, ethics, etc.


The third aspect is the inspirational aspect. Religion gives inspiration to act well. Not just that, it gives inspiration to be creative, to lead a productive life.


Science clearly conflicts with the first - the metaphysical - aspect of religion. The history of astronomy and biology, for example, indicates that religion has had to retract some of its beliefs in the face of scientific discoveries. Although science cannot disprove the presence of God, it also hasn't encountered even a shred of evidence to support the concept of God espoused by religion.


Science is indifferent to the second aspect. It can have no influence on the ethical code and morality for people, except when the moral rule conflicts with a scientific principle. That's because most rules of ethic are of the type "One should do this, or one should not do that". Science - in its content or methodology - does not touch the "should" aspect of any question. So, science cannot challenge religion's authority on the aspect of personal morality.


Science also has no problem with the inspirational aspect of religion to follow morality and to do creative things. But religion's ability to inspire is closely tied with the validity of its metaphysical aspect - existence of God, which is questioned by science.


So, the problem for mankind is that science has taken away religion's traditional ability to inspire people to be ethical and creative, its ability to be a source of strength and courage. The challenge is how to continue to draw this inspiration, strength, and courage from religion, without having to believe in its dubious metaphysics.


Nothing is 100% Certain: It is important to understand what "uncertainty" means. It is a probabilistic term - when we say something is unlikely, we have to attach a number to it. For example, the odds are 1 to a million that a person X can read people's minds. When evidence is found to support his abilities, the odds only improve; they don't make him a "mind-reader"; because there is always a possibility of another theory "scientifically" explaining his act. So, a scientific person looks at every possibility as a probability (which means he is open to the idea) and through rigorous and continuous testing, he changes the odds. Thus, it is "highly probable" that Einstein's ideas are correct, because all evidence thus far supports them. But they can be disproved by some test in future, so they never become "absolutely certain". The really true ideas are those for which the odds always improve by experimentation. This attitude needs to be adopted in a truly scientific way of thinking.


It is important to distinguish between what is possible and what is probable. Anything is possible, but it may not be highly probable. It's impossible that all that is possible is also probable. In Physics, in fact, that is the general attitude - no matter what the physicist thinks, he is almost certainly wrong. It is a healthy skepticism - which is missing in day-to-day life. People are willing to believe anything which is possible (but highly improbable), based on prejudice or one or two events.


Recommended for Age-group: 16 and above (philosophical and intellectual content)



Last updated: 27 February 2016


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