Sunday, August 28, 2011

Richard Feynman on doubt, uncertainty and religion

Faithful transcription of a Feynman's interview on doubt, uncertainty, religion and the pleasure of finding things out for the BBC programme Horizon, 1981.

If you expected science to give all the answers to the wonderful questions about "what we are", "where we are going", "what the meaning of the universe is" and so on... then I think you can easily become disillusioned and then look for some mystic answers to these problems.

How a scientist can take a mystic answer I don't know because the whole spirit is to underst(and). Well, never mind that. Any(way) I don't understand that... but anyhow... if you think of it though.... I... the way I think of what we're doing is we're exploring, we are trying to find out as much as we can about the world.

People say to me: "Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?" "No, I am "not". I am just looking to find out more about the world. And if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law that explains everything, so be it. That would be very nice discovery. If it turns out it's like an onion with millions of layers and we're just sick and tired of looking at the layers, then that's they way it is! But whatever way it comes out it's nature, is there and she's gonna come out the way she is.

And therefore when we go to investigate we shouldn't pre-decide what it is we're trying to do except to find out more about it. If you said... but... your problem is "why do you find out more about it?" If you thought that you were trying to find out more about it because you gotta get an answer to some deep philosophical question, you may be wrong and may be that you can't get an answer to that particular question by finding out more about the character of nature. But I don't look at it. My interest in science is to simply find out about the world. And the more I found out, the better it is. I like to find out...

And there are very remarkable misteries about the fact that we're able to see many more things than apparently animals can do and other questions like that. But those misteries I want to investigate without knowing the answer to them. And so altogether I can't believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large because... they seem to be... too simple, too... too connected, too local, too provincial! The earth! He came to the earth! ONE of the aspects of god "came to the EARTH, mind you!". And look at what's out there... How can he... It isn't in proportion!

Anyway, it's not use arguing. I can't argue. I am just trying to tell you why the scientific views that I have do have some effect on my beliefs. And also another thing has to do with the question of how do you find out if something is true? And... if you have all these theories of the different religions and all different theories about the thing.

Then you begin to wonder. Once you start doubting... just like you're supposed to doubt, you've asked me of the science: is true? We say: No, no! We don't know what's the truth, we're trying to find out, everything is possibly wrong. Start out understanding religion by saying "everything is possibly wrong", let us see.

As soon as you do that you start sliding down an edge which is hard to recover from. And so one with the scientific view or my father's view that we should look to see what's true and what may be... may not be true... once you start doubting... which I think to me is a very fundamental part of my soul, is to doubt and to ask. When you doubt and ask it gets a little harder to believe.

You see, one thing is: I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think is 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 certainty about different things but I'm not absolutely sure of anything. And on many things I don't know anything about... such as whether it means anything to ask "why we're here?" And what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit but I can't figure it out then I go to something else.

But I don't have to know an answer. I don't have (to)... I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the misterious universe without having any purpose which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell possibly. It doesn't frighten me.

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