Feynman on Doubt November 30, 2009

Feynman on Doubt

by Jesse Galef

Everyone can do with more Feynman in their lives. I hear tell that there’s a treasure trove of his lectures called project Tuva, but I haven’t investigated it yet. I found this video of him having a conversation in an interview. As such, he has more asides and tangents than he would have in lectures, but there were so many interesting points I decided I had to share:

I’ll try to type up some of my favorite parts:

I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large. They seem to be… too simple to conn- too local, too provincial! The Earth! He came to the Earth! One of the aspects of God came to the Earth mind, you. Look at what’s out there! It isn’t in proportion.

Different religions have all these different theories and you begin to wonder. You start doubting just like you’re supposed to doubt. You ask me if the science is true and we say ‘No, no, we don’t know what’s true, 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… When you doubt and ask it gets a little harder to believe.

Well put. But it’s what immediately follows that I found most interesting:

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 certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything. For many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. … But i don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things. By being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.

I like this sentiment, but there’s an undeniable unpleasant feeling called “confusion” when we don’t understand something. Feynman might not be ‘frightened’ by it, but he used to acknowledge that it was unpleasant:

How should we cope with uncertainty? We evolved to find it uncomfortable, but it’s an important part of truth-seeking. I guess we just have to suck it up.
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  • heironymous

    Almost all religions are old and based on an earth-only view (Scientology is an exception). Therefore questions about the smallness of the earth vs. immensity of the universe aren’t dealt with.

    Just another example of how we know that religions are just made up by man rather than inspired by some all-powerful being(s).

  • Ben

    How should we? Well, I don’t know, just deal with it like we already do, I suppose.

    The alternative is to make up stories you can’t possible prove, with the promise that anything you don’t know will be revealed when you’re no longer in need of answers (dead).

  • I’m personally comfortable with being uncertain or not knowing. Perhaps this is because I’ve been an atheist my whole life and have never had the (false IMO) comfort that religion offers in certainty. I view uncertainty kind-of like gravity. If you live with it long enough, you get used to it and although you know it is there, it is just part of life and you don’t really need to consciously think about it in your day-to-day life. For example, I can walk and play catch without needing to solve differential equations (of motion). Likewise, I can live my life without needing to have absolutely answered questions of “where it all came from” or “how it all came to be”. I can be comfortable knowing the up-to-date scientific theories and explanations for these questions. I also am comfortable in knowing that many of the details of the current theories will be replaced with details of better theories as time goes on. I find this temporal increase in knowledge exciting.

  • gski

    I’ve never understood this discomfort with uncertainty regarding nature and the world. If we don’t know something so what? Take some time and figure it out. It’s fun to investigate using science to answer questions. But to be bothered by not knowing, not a bit.

  • Tizzle

    Religion didn’t provide ALL the answers. I questioned as much or more back then as I do now. So I thought I knew how the world originated, that didn’t mean I knew how it all worked.

  • Kris

    Feynman is an absolute joy to listen to. I could listen to his stories all day. Incidently, both of his semi-autobigraphical books (‘Surely you’re joking Mister Feynman’ / ‘What do you care what other people think?’) are awesome!

  • We Are The 801

    I’ve never been able to relate to Pascal’s sentiment: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”

    I feel closer to Rilke when he writes: “But the fear of the inexplicable has not only impoverished the reality of the individual; it has also narrowed the relationship between one human being and another… For it is not only indolence that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new, inconceivable experience, which we don’t think we can deal with. but only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.”

    Ironically, for me, when I finally let go of the last pieces of my already dissolving theism, it was, ironically, an epiphany. There is joy and beauty in not being in the centre of an indifferent universe.

  • muggle

    I love listening to him talk! Not only does he make so much sense but he’s always just so happy that it’s catchy. You can’t help but feel some of it.

    I never did understand the obsession with the how and why we’re here nonsense. Who cares? It’s enough for me to take it like as I find it and know what I can of what I have to deal with here and now. Science helps us do that by understanding our world better.

    But as far as how it all started. Who cares? And, frankly, there is no why we’re all here. Accept that there’s utterly no reason for life and enjoy just being for once.

    I think the only person I ever heard getting the “secret of life” even halfway right is James Taylor “the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time”. In other words, the only secret of life is life itself and enjoying your life while you have it.

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