Richard P Feynman (1918-1988) was a Nobel Prize-winning Caltech physicist; bongo player; safe-cracker and practical joker. His book, ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman’ is hilarious and worth every effort to read it. In his life he is quoted as saying, “You see, one thing is, 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 which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here.” Or, “I don’t think that the laws can be considered to be like God because they have been figured out.” And, “God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand.”
Richard Feynman was an associate and friend of fellow physicist, Freeman Dyson, (1923-2020) and today probably one of the most famous physicists ever. (See, Freeman Dyson on Richard Feyman and his work).He opposed reductionism, atheism and all forms of dogmatism and has said, “Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive.” He cites T. H. Huxley, an agnostic, who sat on England’s education commission. Huxley had said at one time, “Every child should be taught the Christian Bible as an integral part of English culture”. He then writes, “In recent times the scope of religious instruction in England has been extended to include Judaism and Islam. As a result of this policy, no strong antagonism between religious parents and the public schools has arisen, from 1870 until the present day. The teaching of religion in pubic schools coincided with a decline of religious belief and a growth of religious tolerance. Children exposed to religion in public schools do not as a rule take it seriously.”
I Think That's Terribly Funny
American theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg won the Nobel laureate in physics for his contributions with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow to the unification of the weak force and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles. He once said, “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.” To which Freeman Dyson remarked, “Weinberg’s statement is true as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth. To make it the whole truth, we must add an additional clause: ‘And for bad people to do good things – that takes religion.’ The main point of Christianity is that it is a religion for sinners. Jesus made that very clear. When the Pharisees asked his disciples, ‘Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?’ he said, ‘I come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ Only a small fraction of sinners repent and do good things but only a small fraction of good people are led by their religion to do bad things.”
Feynman also said, (in a May 30, 1949, letter to science fiction writer Jack Williamson, responding to his ideas regarding atomic weight – quoted from Michelle Feynman, editor, ‘Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P Feynman,’): “As you know, a theory in physics is not useful unless it is able to predict underlined effects which we would otherwise expect.” I want to give a few other citations from this funny, clever and emblematic scientist: This one found in ‘Genius, the Life and Science,’ quoted from “An Analysis of the Wisdom of Richard Feynman For the Edification and Entertainment of Philip Adams’: “I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.”
Feynman looked at science as a way of trying not to fool ones self. In, ‘What Do You Care What Other People Think?’ quoted from James A Haught’s, ‘2000 Years of Disbelief.’ “In those days, in Far Rockaway, there was a youth center for Jewish kids at the temple . . . Somebody nominated me for president of the youth center. The elders began getting nervous, because I was an avowed atheist by that time . . . I thought nature itself was so interesting that I didn’t want it distorted like that [by stories of miracles]. And so I gradually came to disbelieve the whole religion.” If my memory serves me right, I do believe this story was told also in ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman’. In talking about mystery and coincidences that perplex even the most scientific mind, it’s hard sometimes to close the door to magic. For instance, on being asked if Feynman thought that the fact that his wife’s favorite clock had stopped the moment she died was a supernatural occurrence.“No! Not for a second!” he responded. “I immediately began to think how this could have happened. And I realized that the clock was old and was always breaking. That the clock probably stopped some time before and the nurse coming in to the room to record the time of death would have looked at the clock and jotted down the time from that. I never made any supernatural connection, not even for a second. I just wanted to figure out how it happened.” Quoted from Al Sekel’s ‘The Supernatural Clock’.
I think Freeman Dyson’s idea that children exposed to religion in public schools do not as a rule take it seriously is true, but of course, some of them think it right-down crucial and as an atheist that’s a bit disconcerting. Of course, Hitler and Stalin killed millions with their pagan and atheistic religions and religious people do all sorts of good charity and shouldn’t be called delusional. What Dyson has said is that it’s impossible to observe both the scientific and the religious aspects of human nature at the same time. “For me,” he says, “science is just a box of tricks, and I enjoy playing with them. It’s a form of exercise. It has nothing to do with philosophy, certainly even less to do with religion. It’s essentially just a skill that I happen to have learned. Some people think about science much more solemnly. For me, science has nothing much to do with deep thoughts.”
Science Fundamentally Changes
The Way We Look at the World
Freeman Dyson thinks science and religion aren’t at odds: “I think it’s only a small fraction of people who think that. Perhaps they have louder voices than the others . . . I think Richard Dawkins is doing a lot of damage. I disagree very strongly with the way he’s going about it. I don’t deny his right to be an atheist, but I think he does a great deal of harm when he publicly says that in order to be a scientist, you have to be an atheist. That simply turns young people away from science. He’s convinced a lot of young people not to be scientists . . . they don’t want to be atheists. I’m strongly against him on that question. It’s simply not true what he’s saying, and it’s not only not true but also harmful. The fact is that many of my friends are much more religious than I am and are first-rate scientists. There’s absolutely nothing that stops you from being both . . . Dawkins has the arrogance to say that anyone who does not share his views is infected with a virus. No wonder he cannot coexist peacefully with them”.
“I wanted very much to learn to draw,” Feynman said in ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr, Feynman’, “for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world. It’s difficult to describe because it’s an emotion. It’s analogous to the feeling one has in religion that has to do with a god that controls everything in the whole universe: there’s a generality aspect that you feel when you think about how things that appear so different and behave so differently are all run “behind the scenes” by the same organization, the same physical laws. It’s an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is. It’s a feeling of awe – of scientific awe – which I felt could be communicated through a drawing to someone who had also had this emotion. It could remind him, for a moment, of this feeling about the glories of the universe.”
“For me, “ Dyson says, (much as George Santayana had observed before him), “religion is much more about a community of people than about belief. It’s fine literature and music. As far as I can tell, people who belong to my church don’t necessarily believe anything. Certainly we don’t talk about that much. I suppose I’m a better Jew than I am a Christian. Jewish religion is much more a matter of community than it is of belief, and I think that’s true of us Christians to a great extent, too . . . they [my parents] were practicing Christians, but not believing Christians . . . a practicing Christian is somebody who lives a Christian life and likes to worship in common with a lot of other people and considers the church as a community to which to belong, but you don’t inquire closely as to what the others believe. Of course, some people take belief very seriously, and others don’t. My conception of God is not weakened by my not knowing whether the physical universe is open or closed, finite or infinite, simple or multiple. God for me is a mystery, and will remain a mystery after we know the answers to these questions . . . I cannot imagine that he is greatly impressed by our juvenile efforts to read his mind . . . I don’t remember the context out of which this remark arose. Maybe I was thinking of the fight between Galileo and the Aristotelian philosophers of his day. The Aristoteleans wanted to keep the heavens separate from the earth so there would be room for God in the sky. Galileo said the moon was a world like the earth with mountains and seas. Translated into modern language, Galileo was saying that the size and shape of the universe are not telling us anything about God.”
Cosmology and the Divinity Blankie
“It [biology, physics and quantum mechanics] impacts upon our understanding of theology,” Dyson has said, “ What I was pointing out is that human theology is based on our own value system – above all our knowledge of good and evil as we experience it. Take an autistic child. I took the case of Jessica Park, who is a friend of mine who happens to be autistic. If she had a theology, it would be quite different because she cannot understand other people suffering. She has no conception of other people’s existence in the way we have. It’s a radically different world that she lives in. You can tell by the fact that she can’t understand the difference between ‘I’ and ‘you’. She uses the words indiscriminately. So the idea of a suffering savior would have no meaning for her at all. If she had a theology, it wouldn’t involve sin. One thing that is characteristic of autistic people is that they cannot tell a lie. Jessica never tells a lie because to tell a deliberate lie, you have to have the idea of deceiving somebody. That’s something she couldn’t imagine. Since there is no sin, there can be no fall from grace and no redemption. The example of Jessica shows us how our own view of the world might be equally skewed. There may be many essential features of the world to which we are blind, just as she is blind to other people’s thoughts and feelings. So our theology also reflects our possibly skewed view of the world.”
His wisdom often reached out into real world empiricism; he once said "The worst political blunder in the history of civilization was probably the decision of the emperor of China in the year 1433 to stop exploring the oceans and to destroy the ships capable of exploration and the written records of their voyages. . . [China's explorers had already reached the Americas] The decision was the result of powerful people pursuing partisan squabbles and neglecting the long-range interests of the empire. This is a disease to which governments of all kinds, including democracies, are fatally susceptible." China's resolution would in the centuries ahead open its borders to colonial exploitation as they technically fell behind the West, Japan and Russia. If that doesn't sound like the wisdom of Churchill ["The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see"] then I don't know what does.
Feynman has stated that nobody understands quantum mechanics. In ‘The Meaning of It All’ he said, “By honest I don’t mean that you only tell what’s true. But you make clear the entire situation. You make clear all the information that is required for somebody else who is intelligent to make up their mind.” He also remarked in ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman’, “There were a lot of fools at that conference” [a conference on the ethics of equality] “– pompous fools – and pompous fools drive me up the wall. Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools – guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus – that, I cannot stand! An ordinary fool isn’t a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible! And that’s what I got at the conference, a bunch of pompous fools, and I got very upset. I’m not going to get upset like that again, so I won’t participate in interdisciplinary conferences any more.”
Religion, to Feynman is perhaps ‘hocus pocus’. To Dyson, maybe it’s more about ‘a community of people than about belief’. Dyson is appealing like Einstein. He says all the moderate democratic catch-phrases just as Hawkings tried to do before his ex-wife outed him. I wonder if Dyson really holds with magic? But if so, just as surely as Einstein (when you got right down to it) held no warrant with the supernatural, I think magic for Dyson is a comforting blankie given to him in his past with which he never had the inclination to depart; I think Einstein (who never admitted to being an atheist) was the same way. Of all the manifestations of a creator Dyson could have chosen, after all, being raised a Christian, he just happened to pick Christianity, (as opposed to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Marxism, Zarathustrianism or one of the many other choices but it makes a person wonder to the extent of his sincerity in this matter. If you truly believe in Jesus Christ, don’t you go screaming into the streets saving souls for the Father? I mean if you truly sincerely rely on it, aren’t there consequences in your personal life as well as your public one that would forbid you your comfortable scientific views? Do you really become a world renowned physicist while you should be out doing the male version of Mother Theresa’s work, and is quantum mechanics really that kind of effort? You wouldn’t think so.
A Strange Way
Everyone is entitled to a little wishful thinking, that’s what science fiction is for; however, Dyson once said, "The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming." * The problem is that religious values brought to the public square is a little like a rain dance brought to meteorology. One would think that human management with tentative knowledge based on reason (logic, science, evidentiary proof, etcetera) (though not perfect) is preferred to ancient scriptural law. Dyson perhaps means that these are separate things and that religion can be completely private to the individual? But then historically, why is it not so?
“When you finally discover how something works,” Feynman said, “you get some laws which you’re taking away from God; you don’t need him anymore. But you need him for the other mysteries. So therefore you leave him to create the universe because we haven’t figured that out yet; you need him for understanding those things which you don’t believe the laws will explain, such as consciousness, or why you only live to a certain length of time – life and death – stuff like that. God is always associated with those things that you do not understand. Therefore I don’t think that the laws can be considered to be like God because they have been figured out.” So Dyson’s belief in Jesus seems rather cosmological, but he sounds like he should be in such a brilliant mental state of mind that a supernatural explanation wouldn’t be necessary to his own vast government of the cosmos. He is considered by many to be the smartest living person in the world. How so then is it that defying this logic, he embraces faith and separates it from his science?
Perhaps the treasure of his mind, the wealth it generates, takes him to a place none can follow, a place that is not real in any objective sense. Reality here on earth is not always a great place for an intellect bursting for the universe, but here we are, and in as much as the earth is round, you cannot hold it is flat; in as much as you trust in human rights, freedom and liberty, you cannot follow a credo in socialism; and to the degree you want our continued survival, you cannot turn your back on mother earth. Most importantly still, if reason and value are inextricably connected as they seem to be, you cannot think that morality is the monopoly of religionists or spiritualists, many dead for millenniums.
I think Feynman would agree that creationists and scientific materialists can be equally dogmatic, and what’s more, probably most religious and scientific people with any common sense would concur with that. The problem is, that if the smartest guy on the globe, co-invents the TRIGA reactor which produces medical isotopes, the results don’t much effect our social reality as an idea with a force to change points of view on a metaphysical plain. It doesn’t give comfort, for example, to a theocracy or to people who would like to start one. But if he says, “I believe in God” then the ramifications to the young believer who wants to blindly keep his faith in God without doing due diligence and taking an adult approach to the evidence as perhaps Dyson has, that teenager can fire back, “Even your greatest scientists believe in God! Praise Allah!”
Fun With Dick and Dyson
“Thirty-one years ago ,” Dyson once remarked, “Dick Feynman told me about his ‘sum over histories’ version of quantum mechanics. ‘The electron does anything it likes,’ he said. ‘It just goes in any direction at any speed, forward or backward in time, however it likes, and then you add up the amplitudes and it gives you the wave-function.’ I said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But he wasn’t.” . . .
* “My personal theology is described in the Gifford lectures that I gave at Aberdeen in Scotland in 1985,” Dyson said in an interview in the Atlantic this year, (2012), “published under the title, ‘Infinite In All Directions’. Here is a brief summary of my thinking. The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels: the first level is elementary physical processes, as we see them when we study atoms in the laboratory; the second level is our direct human experience of our own consciousness; the third level is the universe as a whole. Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics.”
© 2021 - E. A. St. Amant