Thursday, 27 March 2008

Richard Feynman: part 3 1/2

Mike Gottlieb's comment on Richard Feynman Part 3set me pondering last night. My pondering came up with two things, so here they are. I feel that they do link up to each other.

First Thing

I included in Part 3 the following quotation from the end of chapter 5 of Feynman's The Character of Physical Law. I left on one side what the quotation might tell us about Feynman's views on religion.
Which end is nearer to God; if I may use a religious metaphor. Beauty and hope, or the fundamental laws? I think that the right way, of course, is to say that what we have to look at is the whole structural interconnection of the thing; and that all the sciences, and not just the sciences, but all the efforts of intellectual kinds, are an endeavour to see the connections of the hierarchies, to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man's psychology, man's psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways...And I do not think either end is nearer to God... to stand with evil and beauty and hope, or to stand with the fundamental laws, hoping that way to get a deep understanding of the whole world, with that aspect alone, is a mistake. "

Qn 1: What can we infer from this about Feynman's own religious beliefs? Ans: As Mike Gottlieb pointed out in his comment, Feynman refers to God as a "metaphor" so indicating that he does not believe in the existence of God, and this .

Qn 2: What can we infer about Feynman's attitude towards religious belief and towards those who hold religious beliefs? Ans: To be fair to Feynman, we can only be very tentative in answering this question, and should recognise that Feynman was not in this context talking to believers specifically. But in a dialogue with people of faith, a non-believer would recognise that, though he does not believe God exists at all, those he is talking to do believe that God exists as an objective reality - and not just as a "metaphor". Does the use of the term "metaphor" indicate a discourtesy towards believers?

Qn 3 (and, for me, the most perplexing question): In this passage, what exactly does Feynman use the metaphor of God to represent? Ans: A "deep understanding of the whole world", a complete understanding of the whole world? ....

Second Thing

In Richard Feynman Part 2, I included the following quote, taken from the end of chapter 1 of The Character of Physical Law, where Feynman is summarising the features of physical laws. I added my own observation that I thought the word inexact had been well chosen. It did not indicate that the laws are wrong or incorrect, rather that they are open to and need the greater precision that comes with the furtherance of scientific knowledge.

"First, it is mathematical in its expression; the others are that way too. Second, it is not exact; Einstein had to modify it, and we know it is not quite right yet, because we have still to put the quantum theory in. That is the same with all our other laws - they are not exact. There is always an edge of mystery, always a place where we have some fiddling around to do yet. This may or may not be a property of Nature, but it certainly is common to all laws as we know them today. It may be only a lack of knowledge."

It is in this context that I think we need to read Feynman's comment that "science is uncertain" as it occurs in chapter 3 of The Character of Physical Law:

"..the only utility of science is to go on and try to make guesses. So what we always do is to stick our necks out ... Of course this means that science is uncertain; the moment that you make a proposition about a region of experience that you have not directly seen then you must be uncertain... In order to avoid simply describing experiments that have been done, we have to propose laws beyond their observed range. There is nothing wrong with that, despite the fact that it makes science uncertain."

Qn 1:

Does Feynman suggest that physical laws are "inexact" or that they are "uncertain"; or does his use of the term "uncertain" equate to his use of the term "inexact"? Ans: I am willing to interpret "uncertain" here as equivalent of "inexact". Experimental observation is capable of turning the "uncertain" guess into a confirmation or otherwise of the validity of a physical law in a new region of experience, thus exploring its field of inexactitude. I also think it would be incorrect to take away from these passages a view that "all science is uncertain". It would be more correct to take away a view that some points of scientific knowledge are known with greater certainty/exactitude than others. This is primarily based on reading the two passages in the context of each other.

In other writings, Feynman seems to favour more what would be termed in every day language "uncertainty" than what would be termed "inexactitude". This is what I intend to look at in part 4 of this series, but here is a taster. It is from an essay The Value of Science which is the last chapter of Feynman's What do you care what other people think?.

"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 still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognise our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty - some unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain."

Qn 2:

Does this last passage say something different than the original quotation from The Character of Physical Law or does it say the same thing but using a different terminology? Ans: My view is that this last passage does represent a view that is less confident in the ability of the scientist to know the physical laws that nature manifests than the first. This is particularly so if we look at my First Thing Qn 3 above, which is suggesting/implying that The Character of Physical Law expresses a greater practical confidence in the knowledge gained by science.

Qn 3 (and, again, the most significant question): What does this all tell us about Feynman's view as to whether or not scientists' can really know the physical laws of nature? Ans: A full answer will have to wait until part 4, but herewith two indicators. Does Feynman's approach to the knowledge of nature prepare the ground for his atheism? Someone who considers science, which studies a nature that can be directly experienced, to be uncertain, is unlikely to be disposed to believe in God, of whom we have by and large only indirect experience. The second thing to bear in mind is that the thought expressed in The Character of Physical Law dates from 1964, while that from The Value of Science dates from a public address given in 1955, with a similar presentation in lectures given in 1963 (The Meaning of it all). There is a hermeneutical enquiry to be pursued here, both looking at the sequence in which Feynman's views were expressed and the context of the types of lectures involved. Or it might just be that The Character of Physical Law is atypical of Feynman's thought as a whole. See part 4!

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