Sunday, June 6, 2010

Feynman Letters - On Religion

As I said in my book review of Perfectly Reasonable Deviations (a collections of letters written by and to Richard Feynman), I wanted to write a few posts about some of the contents of the book that I thought was interesting and relevant in some way.  Since this blog is primarily about atheism and religion, I thought I'd start with Feynman's thoughts on the subject.

In addition to all of the letters the book contained, there were also a number of appendices, which include articles and things referenced in his letters to give them context.  One of them was an interview he did for the T.V. show Viewpoint, in 1959.  Originally, the television studio, KNXT, who recorded the interview wanted Feynman to record another interview, giving him a number of different reasons why.  In a letter to Feynman refused:
Yesterday I heard an audio tape recording of the interview.  I found that I had ample opportunity to express my views, that these views were expressed honestly and  sincerely and in a calm logical and undogmatic manner.  I cannot conceive that antagonism could result from the way I expressed myself, but only perhaps from the fact that I did express myself.
The letter doesn't go into detail about the specific content that could be found objectionable.  But after reading the interview, I suspect is has to do with the religious views he expressed:
I mean, from what I learned about science, I can't be practicing in the conventionally religious sense.  It doesn't fit together.  It seems to me that the ideas of conventional religion... are very limited.  They didn't realize the tremendous extent of the world, or the length of time in which things have been going on... 
He expands upon this, before beautifully summing up his objection to religion in a single sentence:
The stage is too big for the drama.
He just doesn't see why God would create such an amazing and complex universe, if his goal is to "watch human beings struggle with good and evil."  His knowledge of how the universe appears to work suggests that the Bible and other holy books are mistaken.  He goes on to describe his scientific worldview, and how dogma is its antithesis:
You say you're not sure of anything -- we're not sure of anything in the sciences; the thing is we don't know.  As we learn more, we get more and more sure, more or less, that is still more likely to be sure, or that such-and-such an idea is more and more likely to be false.
You can't accept something absolutely.  You're not sure.  Once you get that feeling, you lose the inspirational value of the religion.  
He does go on to say some good words about religion, that it inspires many people to do good, and improve the world.  But he notes that the problem seems to be the entanglement of the morality we get in religion with its metaphysical claims:
Nothing that I learned about the distance to the stars teaches me that the golden rule is not likely to be true, or that I ought to kill or not kill.  It's got nothing to do with it.  But the people who develop religion have put something in.  In addition to those other propositions, about what moral values are, they put something else in -- that I would also believe in certain miracles performed by [Jesus].  I don't think those miracles are true.  I still can thinking that the teachings of a great philosopher are worth paying attention to.  The science does not make any immorality.  It wants the religion to not say anything about the metaphysical structure of the world - that is to say, how it came about, how old it is, whether or not it's possible to have a virgin birth.  Why does it have to know that?  Why is it necessary.
This point reminds me of Sam Harris' TED talk about science and morality, and why I disagree with his claim that science can directly answer moral questions*.  Science can often help us learn more about the way the world really is, which can help make better decisions, because we have more information.  But we still need a moral philosophy in order to determine what we ought to do, given that information.  Science may someday be able to tell us whether a fetus at X weeks suffers, and how much, but we still need some way to determine that we should try to reduce suffering.  This was Feynman's response to a letter he received from from Lawrence Cranberg, a physics professor, about Feynman's article "The Relation of Science and Religion," in which he says that "moral questions are outside of the scientific realm."
Science can help us see what might happen if we do [certain things], but the question as to whether we want something to happen depends on a choice of the ultimate ethical good.
He doesn't mention religion in many letters, usually only when a question about religion is asked of him.  What is clear from a number of his letters is that he cared deeply about science education, and getting youngsters to understand what a real explanation is.**  Although this letter is about science textbooks, his views about religious explanations comes through a bit:
One gets the impression then that science is to be a set of pat formulas to standard questions.  "What makes it move," quickly all hands are eagerly raised, the lesson is learned, they are to say "Energy makes it move," "Gravity makes it fall," The soles of our shoes wear out because of friction."  Just words, nothing is explained.  It is like just saying "Because of God's will" and having nothing left to look into.
Finally, I want to leave you with another short quotation, which I think sums up Feynman's apparent views of religion, although it was not directly about religion at the time.  When writing about a female professor at Caltech, who was initially denied tenure after her department had unanimously recommended her.  She was eventually granted tenure after a settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Feynman wrote a letter to the editor of the California Tech (Caltech's student newspaper):
In physics the truth is rarely perfectly clear, and that is certainly universally the case in human affairs.  Hence, what is not surrounded by uncertainty cannot be the truth.

* To be fair, most of his talk was somewhat ambiguous on this point.  He could simply mean what I have stated here: that science gives us better information to make these moral decisions.  That said, he has not responded that way to this criticism made by several others, so I assume that's not what he meant in his talk.

** I plan on writing about some of his other letters on science education in another post.  Stay tuned!
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