Richard Feynman on Good, Evil, and the Zen of Science, Plus His Prose Poem for the Glory of Evolution.


 “I . . . a universe of atoms . . . an atom in the universe.”

“Everyone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted,”psychology researchers David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo wrote in their fascinating exploration of the good and evil in all of us, and hardly is this variability more critical than in matters that profoundly affect not merely the fate of the individual but also the future of society at large. In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the same indispensable anthology that gave us The Great Explainer’s insights on the universal responsibility of scientists and the role of scientific culture in modern society, titled after the famous film of the same name — Richard Feynman explores the capacity of science to be a catalyst for both good and evil, and the moral choices steering the direction of the dial.

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The first way in which science is of value is familiar to everyone. It is that scientific knowledge enables us to do all kinds of things and to make all kinds of things. Of course if we make good things, it is not only to the credit of science; it is also to the credit of the moral choice which led us to good work. Scientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad — but it does not carry instructions on how to use it. Such power has evident value — even though the power may be negated by what one does.

I learned a way of expressing this common human problem on a trip to Honolulu. In a Buddhist temple there, the man in charge explained a little bit about the Buddhist religion for tourists, and then ended his talk by telling them he had something to say to them that they would never forget — and I have never forgotten it. It was a proverb of the Buddhist religion:

“To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.”

What, then, is the value of the key to heaven? It is true that if we lack clear instructions that determine which is the gate to heaven and which the gate to hell, the key may be a dangerous object to use, but it obviously has value. How can we enter heaven without it?

The instructions, also, would be of no value without the key. So it is evident that, in spite of the fact that science could produce enormous horror in the world, it is of value because it can produce something.


But, for Feynman, science has another value, an entirely personal one, captured in the famous Feynmanism after which this very book is titled. This glorious intellectual enjoyment, he argues, is far too frequently dismissed by those who stress scientists’ moral obligations to society, but it is of equal importance:

Is this mere personal enjoyment of value to society as a whole? No! But it is also a responsibility to consider the value of society itself. Is it, in the last analysis, to arrange things so that people can enjoy things? If so, the enjoyment of science is as important as anything else.

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But I would like not to underestimate the value of the worldview which is the result of scientific effort. We have been led to imagine all sorts of things infinitely more marvelous than the imaginings of poets and dreamers of the past. It shows that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. For instance, how much more remarkable it is for us all to be stuck-half of us upside down — by a mysterious attraction, to a spinning ball that has been swinging in space for billions of years, than to be carried on the back of an elephant supported on a tortoise swimming in a bottomless sea.

He concludes by illustrating his point with what could be best described as a prose poem about the magnificence of evolution, what Richard Dawkins termed“the magic of reality”, Einstein extolled as the ineffable spirit of the universe, and Carl Sagan celebrated as the reverence of nature. The poetic eloquence for which Feynman remains known, which hardly anyone has mastered since, except perhaps Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox, makes for a beautiful read on par with Diane Ackerman’s Cosmic Pastoral. Feynman writes:

I have thought about these things so many times alone that I hope you will excuse me if I remind you of some thoughts that I am sure you have all had — or this type of thought — which no one could ever have had in the past, because people then didn’t have the information we have about the world today.

For instance, I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think. There are the rushing waves . . . mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business . . . trillions apart . . . yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages . . . before any eyes could see . . . year after year . . . thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what? . . . on a dead planet, with no life to entertain.

Never at rest . . . tortured by energy . . . wasted prodigiously by the sun . . . poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves . . . and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity . . . living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein . . . dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle onto the dry land . . . here it is standing . . . atoms with consciousness . . . matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea . . . wonders at wondering . . . I . . . a universe of atoms . . . an atom in the universe.

Source: http://www.brainpickings.org

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Richard Feynman on the Universal Responsibility of Scientists.


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“Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” E. B. White wrote of the role and responsibility of the writer.

In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the anthology that gave us The Great Explainer’s insights on the role of scientific culture in modern society, titled after thefamous film of the same name — Richard Feynman adds to history’s famous definitions of science and considers the responsibility of the scientist as just about the polar opposite: to be continuously informed and shaped by life, free of the despotism of opinion and the addiction to rectitude.

Speaking to the notion that “every child is a scientist,” Feynman champions the true responsibility of science education — a responsibility and purpose sadly belied by the current education system — and argues:

When we read about this in the newspaper, it says, ‘The scientist says that this discovery may have importance in the cure of cancer.’ The paper is only interested in the use of the idea, not the idea itself. Hardly anyone can understand the importance of an idea, it is so remarkable. Except that, possibly, some children catch on. And when a child catches on to an idea like that, we have a scientist. These ideas do filter down (in spite of all the conversation about TV replacing thinking), and lots of kids get the spirit — and when they have the spirit you have a scientist. It’s too late for them to get the spirit when they are in our universities, so we must attempt to explain these ideas to children.

He then moves on to the broader role of science as a cultural force. The idea thatignorance is central to science — as well as filmmedia, and design — is an enduring theme, but Feynman lives up to his reputation and articulates it more beautifully and eloquently than anyone:

The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty– some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.

Echoing Rilke’s counsel to “live the questions,” Feynman traces the roots of science to the vital anti-authoritarianism of brave minds like Galileo and reminds us:

Now, we scientists … take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure — that it is possible to live and notknow. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes that this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle. Permit us to question — to doubt, that’s all — not to be sure. And I think it is important that we do not forget the importance of this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained. Here lies a responsibility to society.

With his signature blend of graceful language and uncompromising conviction, Feynman echoes Bertrand Russell’s contention that “without science, democracy is impossible” and aims at the bullseye of the scientist’s responsibility:

We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. There are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions and pass them on. It is our responsibility to leave the men of the future a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant; if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying, ‘This is it, boys, man is saved!’ and thus doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.

It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.

Source: http://www.brainpickings.org