Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Thoughts on Feynman's Philosophy of Life: From Feynman's "The Meaning of it All"

The following is a follow-up to my post on Richard Feynman and his philosophy that the goal of life is to understand the laws of nature. In this post, I focus on the topics he covers in the book "The Meaning of It All," whereas in the earlier post I focused on the small amount of philosophy that shows up in his famous "Lecture Series." The following is my effort to present Feynman's thoughts on the philosophy of life and to discuss the implications of such a philosophy of life.
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 1) Meaning of Life

"Throughout all the ages, men have been trying to fathom the meaning of life. They realize that if some direction or some meaning could be given to the whole thing, to our actions, then great human forces would be unleashed. ...The dream is to find the open channel. What, then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say today to dispel the mystery of existence? If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but also all those things that we have found out up to today that they didn't know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But I think that in admitting this we have probably found the open channel...that it is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn't get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man. I say that we do not know what is the meaning of life and what are the right moral values, that we have no way to choose them and so on...."

I think that this is a pretty good summary of Feynman's philosophy of life: that attempts to find a meaning of life end up causing us to go to war. So, it's best for us to avoid finding meaning in life and to focus on finding the laws of nature. But I personally think that we shouldn't stop trying to find the meaning of life. Telling us to stop looking for the meaning in life is like trying to cage us up at a zoo. We are curious and shouldn't stop asking questions and proposing possible meanings of life.


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2) Science vs. Engineering

"And the question of how much it costs to put a pipe and a pump to the top of each of the hills is not one that seems worth discussing, to me."

"The things that have been found out. This is the yield. This is the gold. This is the excitement, the pay you get for all the disciplined thinking and hard work. The work is not done for the sake of an application. It is done for the excitement of what is found out...the real reason for science."

"The discovery may have uses in the cure for cancer, but they [need to] explain the value of the thing itself."

I think that these quotes speak for themselves. Richard Feynman wasn't interested in the specific applications of the laws of nature (i.e. engineering). As an engineer, I think that it's a little silly to think that the goal of science is to discover the laws of physics. The laws are constantly changing with time. The value of the laws is in their application towards the real world.
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3) Science vs. Religion

"It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe, beyond man, to contemplate what it would be like without man, as it was in a great part of [time]...The God of the church is not big enough."

"I do believe that there is a conflict between science and religion, religion more or less defined that way." [Ordinary, church-going kind of religion...the way ordinary people believe.]

"Science is a key that opens the doors to both heaven and hell"

"It seems to me that there is a kind of independence between the ethical and moral views and the theory of the machinery of the universe."

"Moral values seem somehow to be outside of the scientific realm. ...I have four reasons to think that moral values lie outside the scientific realm. First, in the past there were conflicts. The metaphysical positions have changed, and there have been practically no effects on the ethical views. So there must be a hint that there is an independence. Second, I already pointed out that, I think at least, there are good men who practice Christian ethics and don't believe in the divinity of Christ. The third thing is that, as far as I know in the gathering of scientific evidence, there doesn't seem to be anywhere, anything that says whether the Golden Rule is a good one or not. I don't have any evidence of it on the basis of scientific study. And finally, I would like to make a little philosophical argument...The common human problem, the big question, always is "Should I do this?" It is a question of action. "What should I do? Should I do this?" And how can we answer such a question? We can divide it into two parts? We can say, "If I do this what will happen?" That doesn't tell me whether I should do this. We still have another part, which is "Well, do I want this to happen?" In other words, the first question--"If I do this, what will happen?"--is at least susceptible to scientific investigation; in fact, it is a typically scientific question. It doesn't mean we know what is going to happen. Far from it. We never know what is going to happen. The science is very rudimentary. But, at least it is in the realm of science; we have a method to deal with it. The method is: "Try and see" and accumulate the information and so on...
"But ultimately you have to decide "Yeah, I want that" or "No, I don't." I believe, therefore, that it is impossible to decide moral questions by the scientific technique, and that the two things are independent."

Feynman makes some good points in this section. Socrates argued to Euthyphro that ethical morals are higher than the gods. I also agree that there is a conflict between science today and certain religions (but not all possible religions.) Science is based on rationality, on asking questions, and on running experiments to test hypotheses. There are many forms of fundamentalist religions in which it is incompatible being a good scientist while adhering to that particular religion. (And there are fundamentalists within all of the major religions.) But there are exceptions to every rule. For example, there have been a number of really good scientists who were devout Latter Day Saints (Mormans), even though the religion is seemingly incompatible with the scientific mindset of questioning everything.

I also agree with Feynman that answering questions of "what should I do?" are outside of the realm of pure science. But just because questions of "what should I do?" are outside of the realm of pure science doesn't mean that we shouldn't be asking this question, and that we shouldn't be testing out different answers to the question. I see the goal of science is to help us answer the question "what should I do?".
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 4) Science, Doubt, and Where to Go from Here

"The writers of the Constitution knew of the value of doubt."

"The first is that [the young physicist] learns to doubt, that it is necessary to doubt, that it is valuable to doubt. So, he begins to question everything."

"We have plenty of time to solve the problems. The only way we will make a mistake is that in the impetuous youth of humanity we will decide we know the answer. This is it. No one else can think of anything else. And we will jam. We will confine man to the limited imagination of today's human beings. We are not so smart. We are dumb. We are ignorant. We must maintain an open channel. I believe in limited government...No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated."

What Feynman is implying here is that humans need to not be confined by governments who think that they know right from wrong. But it's not clear that his belief in limited government is justified from a fear of authoritarian government. Behind Feynman's arguments is the idea that people should be allowed to pursue whatever makes them happy, even if it does themselves harm. Is happiness really the meaning of life? Could we really keep our country from falling apart by just focusing on whatever makes people happy?
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5) A Nice Quote to Finish


"Most people find it surprising that in science there is no interest in the background of the author of an idea or in his motive in expounding it. You listen, and if it sounds like a thing worth trying, a thing that could be tried, is different, and is not obviously contrary to something observed before, it gets exciting and worthwhile....In that sense it makes no difference where the ideas comes from."

I like this quote because I like divorcing ideas from the person writing about the ideas. It's the reason that I don't give personal details about myself or my engineering career. I hate how the comments sections of some blogs turn into an endless debate over Republicans vs. Democrats, Creationists vs. Evolutionists, or Capitalists vs. Communists. My ideas don't fit into any one category and I don't want people who simply dismiss my ideas by forcing it into a pre-existing category that they have built of things they dislike. I want the ideas I discuss to stand on their own.

This is what I like about math and physics. An idea is only good if it can be proved or can be confirmed by experiments. I often worry about branching into realms (such as politics or philosophy) in which you can not prove the validity of  statement or when the logical behind an idea has no consequence of whether it will be enacted by our Congress. But then I remind myself that engineering, politics and philosophy are no less human than science or math. Politics is tough because there are so many different people with competing wants, desires, & needs. We have so much more left to do in the realm of politics and science, so there's no reason not to do both.

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