Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Meaning of It All - In 1963, The Future Nobel Laureate Called for a Philosophy of Ignorance

''The Meaning of It All'' consists of three lectures Feynman gave at the University of Washington in April 1963, on the relationship between science and society. The subject is dangerous. Many a Nobel laureate has floundered when presented so broad a target, pumping out enough hot air to validate Will Rogers's remark that we're all ignorant, just on different subjects. But Feynman was a stranger to pomposity, and there's some splendid stuff here. Perhaps the most striking thing is his rare appreciation of the deep connections linking science and democracy, connections that he saw as arising from a common rootedness in doubt. ''Scientists . . . are used to dealing with doubt and uncertainty,'' he says, an experience the value of which ''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.''

He argues that this scientific appreciation of uncertainty is reflected in the thinking behind the Constitution: ''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. In the age that they lived, for instance, science had already developed far enough to show the possibilities and potentialities that are the result of having uncertainty, the value of having the openness of possibility.''

This was particularly perspicacious in 1963, when many American academics still imagined that science could flourish under the totalitarian regimes of China and the Soviet Union. Feynman shared no such delusions. He saw that science demands genuine freedom. This the Communist regimes could not provide; therefore, science in the Communist world was doomed. ''I don't think of the problem as between socialism and capitalism but rather between suppression of ideas and free ideas,'' Feynman says. ''The fact that Russia is not free is clear to everyone, and the consequences in the sciences are quite obvious. . . . Russia . . . is doing nothing.''

Generalizing this point, Feynman calls for ''a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, and the progress made possible by such a philosophy, progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought. 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.''

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