Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Richard Feynman: epistemocrat

Richard Feynman was an epistemocrat, and his insights on science, discovery, and humanity are worth thoughtful consideration (click here to read his bio). He received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his development of quantum electrodynamics. He also introduced and supported nanotechnology, uncovered the failure of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (the o-rings did not expand properly), provided leadership during the Manhattan Project, and served as a professor at Caltech (his physics lectures are famous). Above all, though, Feynman constantly challenged orthodox thinking in many fields as he uncovered the mysteries and wonders of our world; he was a perceptive observer. Recognizing his superb, outside-the-box thinking, Apple used Feynman for their "Think Different" ad campaign.

Here are some of Richard Feynman's insights, thoughts, and musings, taken from his book, The Meaning of it All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist:

"The imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. No one who did not have some inkling of this through observations could ever have imagined such a marvel as nature is" (10).

"The internal machinery of life, the chemistry of its parts, is something beautiful. And it turns out that all life is interconnected with all other life" (11).

"[The] freedom to doubt is an important matter in the sciences and, I believe, in other fields. ... I feel a responsibility to proclaim the value of this freedom and to teach that doubt is not to be feared, but that it is to be welcomed as the possibility of a new potential for human beings. If you know that you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation. I want to demand this freedom for future generations" (28).

"[T]o keep trying new solutions is the way to do everything" (9).

"I want to maintain ... 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" (34).

"The government of the United States was developed under the idea that nobody knew how to make a government, or how to govern. The result is to invent a system to govern when you don't know how. And the way to arrange it is to permit a system, like we have, wherein new ideas can be developed and tried out and thrown away. The writers of the Constitution knew of the value of doubt. ... The fact that you are not sure means that it is possible that there is another way some day. That openness of possibility is an opportunity. Doubt and discussion are essential to progress. The United States government, in that respect, is new, it's modern, and it is scientific" (50).

"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 in admitting this we have probably found the open channel" (33).

"All scientific knowledge is uncertain. This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it" (26,27).

Clearly, as evidenced by these quotes, Richard Feynman was a skeptical empiricist and a humble trial-and-error solution searcher; directive (top-down) design rarely provided him with sufficient answers (he rederived all the "laws" of physics on his own to prove to himself that they were accurate). He theorized as little as possible, scrutinized his observations, embraced ambiguity, and openly recognized the immense importance of serendipity in discovery. Feynman marveled at nature and worked to unravel its mysteries, and, despite how much he knew about our world, he always reminded himself (and others) that new ideas, insights, solutions, remedies, breakthroughs, innovations, discoveries, understandings, concepts, and applications exist in the future that we cannot imagine nor predict right now, in the present (we are bound to stumble upon them sometime soon ... well, as long as we keep the "door to the unknown ajar").

Living in a complex world that he did not understand (he admitted this fact regularly), Feynman asserted that we must remain open to opportunities and should create safe environments for people to tinker stochastically in pursuit of solutions. For Feynman, this bottom-up, agency-driven philosophy - emerging from epoche - should inform science, government, and many other human endeavors (medicine and healthcare, for instance).

Overall, his view is hopeful and optimistic: he believes fervently in our potential to continually challenge and stretch the limits of being human; however, he feels that embracing the humble limits of being human is the process that unleashes our amazing potentials (a wonderful paradox, indeed!).


  1. Thanks for pointing me to The Black Swan.Odds are I'll find a way to quote some of that on my blog.

  2. pp. 42-44 of "The City and Man" by Leo Strauss

    Science is for the sake of power, i.e, for putting at our disposal the means for achieving our natural ends. Those ends can no longer include knowledge for its own sake; they are reduced to comfortable self-preservation. Man as the potential conqueror of nature stands outside of nature. This presupposes that there is no natural harmony between the human mind and the whole. The belief in such harmony appears now as a wishful or good-natured assumption. We must reckon with the possibility that the world is the work of an evil demon bent on deceiving us about himself, the world, and ourselves by means of the faculties with which he has supplied us or, which amounts to the same thing, that the world is the work of a blind necessity which is utterly indifferent as to whether it and its product ever becomes known. Surely [in such a case] we have no right to trust in our natural faculties; extreme skepticism is required. I can trust only in what is entirely within my control: the concepts which I consciously make and of which I do not claim more than that they are my con¬structs, and the naked data as they impress themselves upon me and of which I do not claim more than that I am conscious of them without having made them. The knowledge which we need for the conquest of nature must indeed be dogmatic, but its dogmatism must be based on extreme skepticism; THE SYNTHESIS OF DOGMATISM AND SKEPTICISM EVENTUALLY TAKES THE FORM OF AN INFINITELY PROGRESSIVE SCIENCE AS A SYSTEM OR AGGLOMERATION OF CONFIRMED HYPOTHESES WHICH REMAIN EXPOSED TO REVISION IN INFINITUM. The break with the primary or natural understanding of the whole which is presupposed by the new dogmatism [this dogmatism being that “modern science is the only way to know”] based on extreme skepticism [“open to revision forever”] leads to the transfor¬mation and eventually to the abandonment of the questions which on the basis of the primary understanding reveal themselves as the most important questions; the place of the primary issues is taken by derivative issues.

  3. I was thinkging of another Feinman, Richard D. Feinman.

    Here he is:

    HA HA! at 9:00

    "Carbohydrate restriction has attained the status of the name of G-d in Hebrew: it's never pronounced out loud."

  4. By the way, I wanted to add, regarding the Strauss quote above from “The City and Man” that if you google "Descartes evil demon hypothesis" you'll see Strauss is paraphrasing Descartes's idea/thought experiment -- while obviously raising a possible critique of modern science as the only way to know.

    In “Why We Remain Jews” (I by the way, am a Mark-Sisson Gary-Taubes worshipping low carber in addition to being a believing Catholic!?! ;-)

    Strauss discusses the Jewish belief in God. What if it is a delusion?

    He writes, “...delusion... We also say a "dream." No nobler dream was ever dreamt. It is surely nobler to be a victim of the most noble dream than to profit from a sordid reality and to wallow in it. Dream is akin to aspiration. And aspiration is a kind of divination of an enigmatic vision. And an enigmatic vision in the emphatic sense is the perception of the ultimate mystery, of the truth of the ultimate mystery.

    The truth of the ultimate mystery — the truth that there is an ultimate mystery, that being is radically mysterious — cannot be denied even by the unbelieving Jew of our age.

    That unbelieving Jew of our age, if he has any education, is ordinarily a positivist, a believer in Science, if not a positivist without any education [ooooh, Strauss, that was mean! ;-)].

    As scientist he must be concerned with the Jewish problem among innumerable other problems. He reduces the Jewish problem to something unrecognizable: religious minorities, ethnic minorities. In other words, you can put together the characteristics of the Jewish problem by finding one element of it there, another element of it here, and so on. I am speaking from experience. I once had a discussion with some social scientists in the presence of Rabbi Pekarsky, where I saw how this was done. The unity, of course, was completely missed. The social scientist cannot see the phenomenon, which he tries to diagnose or analyze, as it is. His notion, his analysis, is based on a superficial and thoughtless psychology or sociology. This sociology or psychology is superficial and thoughtless because it does not reflect on itself, on science itself. At the most it raises the question: "What is science?" Nevertheless — whatever may follow from that — I must, by God, come to a conclusion.

    Science, as the positivist understands it, is susceptible of infinite progress. That you learn in every elementary school today, I believe. Every result of science is provisional and subject to future revision, and this will never change. In other words, fifty thousand years from now there will still be results entirely different from those now, but still subject to revision. Science is susceptible of infinite progress.

    But how can science be susceptible of infinite progress if its object does not have an inner infinity?

    In other words, the object of science is everything that is — being. The belief admitted by all believers in science today — that science is by its nature essentially progressive, and eternally progressive — implies, without saying it, that being is mysterious. And here is the point where the two lines I have tried to trace [religion/revelation vs. modern science] do not meet exactly, but where they come within hailing distance. And, I believe, to expect more in a general way, of people in general, would be unreasonable.


  5. Thanks, Solzy, for sharing those excellent thoughts and quotes!

    Glad to e-meet you too!

    I agree: Science is a tool that sometimes helps us sort out the reality that "being is mysterious"--we're left to find fulfillment amidst all of it as Feynman's "Citizen Scientists". When we get lucky, and serendipity strikes, I think this captures things just right:

    "the place of the primary issues is taken by derivative issues."

    Fr. McCurdy said that this happens in our memories; that God shapes our memories:

    "It's like my mentor Fr. McCurdy (a Jesuit priest) used to say: 'I don't need to know whether God, truth, and love exist--following them helps me lead a fulfilling life either way.'"


    I'm looking forward to Feinman's presentation at the Ancestral Health Symposium too!



  6. Hi Epistemocrat! Fr. McCurdy is quite the fellow; I looked him up. You were lucky to know him! God shaping our memories... interesting notion that ties into something I wrote in my 20s... a story with "God as the Snatcher" - I think God can hold an actual memory we were about to speak of in abeyance until a better time for it to reappear to us - say, in a conversation in which our interlocutor really needs to put something into the conversation before we continue...Suddenly we forget what we were about to say until that something (a necessary ingredient) gets put in first ...I think this "snatching" happens so we don't all blather "schpiels" past each other (we all have our schpiels ;-), but instead, can become close enough to each other to really learn...

    Blathering schpiels past each other is not learning. But how much of our lives do we all spend doing that?

    Now as usual I want to go where angels (rightly?) fear to tread - the evolution v creation argument(by the way, I really like David Berlinski on this subject: he's hard on evolution but hard on I.D. too; says he has a "warm but distant relationship" to the Discovery Institute, "...the sort of relationship I have with my ex-wives..."). He's very funny.

    His "The Devil's Delusion" is a response to (but certainly not limited to a response to) Dawkins)and is IMHO the best and most hiliarious thing out there (Berlinkski being an agnostic Jew and life-long science writer). I'm a believer, but he speaks for me. What a writer! How illuminating!

    Here's my plug for a certain Scriptural interpretation as applied to the Paleo diet debate (yes, I do see that if we want to live long and well, we must eat as hunter gatherers!):


    Evolution is considered a fact and that puts believers at a disadvantage, but also throws the baby (Bible) out with the bathwater (belief). But consider this:

    For centuries it has been considered that Scripture has four levels of interpretation: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical.

    Before we consign a story such as the following to the “they-were-ridiculous-back-then” ash heap, let’s see if it might have at LEAST an underlying truth, and a powerful one at that:


    From wiki:

    “In all versions, Cain is a crop farmer and his younger brother Abel is a shepherd. Cain is portrayed as sinful, committing the first murder by killing his brother, after God has rejected his offerings of produce but accepted the animal sacrifices brought by Abel.

    “The oldest known copy of the Biblical narration is from the 1st century Dead Sea Scrolls. Cain and Abel also appear in a number of other texts, and the story is the subject of various interpretations.

    “A few scholars suggest it may have been based on a Sumerian story representing the conflict between nomadic shepherds and settled farmers. Others think that it may refer to the days in which agriculture began to replace the ways of the hunter-gatherer.”

    I think we can agree that Scripture contains (at the very least) powerful depictions and analyses of the human condition – it gets to the root of very many things. You don’t have to believe it to be literal or (dast I say) even divinely inspired, to reap a very great deal from it.

    I love Leo Strauss’s “An Intepretation of Genesis.” He nails why there are two creation stories in Genesis (something I actually had never noticed), for instance. But he does the book the great honor of viewing it as word perfect.

  7. Thanks, Solzy, for sharing these insights--thoughtful thinkering!

    Memories of Fr. McCurdy enter my stream of consciousness regularly, though unpredictably, typically at 3:30 PM. Each day at Jesuit High School, Fr. McCurdy would sit on the same bench from 3:00 to 3:30 PM and read a book while smoking his pipe. During this time, students would sit with him and chat or simply stop by to say, "Hi." He was consistent, and out of that consistency grew wonderful blessings for the entire Jesuit community. This memory serves as an important leadership lesson on how to provide a consistent presence for people.

    Luckily, the Jesuits also embrace an openness when it comes to creation. This openness welcomes the limits of our knowledge, permits evolution as a mechanism for change across time, and challenges people to think creatively about how the Bible and science hybridize to produce valuable insight. I bet some good Jesuits would enjoy your Cain vs. Abel analysis.

    Have you seen?

    I think we still struggle with the "conflict between nomadic shepherds and settled farmers" in modern times: the settled farmers represent any group of people in positions of power, while the nomadic shepherds represent fragmented groups of people with limited say in society. Bridging the gap between these groups is a timeless leadership challenge that we must face and embrace: pearls of wisdom in the Bible provide a road map for how to make stands against injustice while building these bridges to close the gaps.

    I hope to do some of that in our healthcare systems.