Monday, April 05, 2010

Ethics According to Feynman

Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988) was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, bongo player, and all-around character. He achieved lasting public renown when he showed how the Challenger's O-ring material stiffened in a glass of ice water, accounting for the fatal explosion of that space shuttle. Possessed of a boundless curiosity and enthusiasm, he would freely expound on things both within and outside his professional field, only warning people that when he spoke on matters other than physics, his opinion was not to be taken any more seriously than that of the guy down the street. But sometimes I think he put on false modesty, such as when he gave a series of three lectures at the University of Washington in Seattle in April 1963 on science, values, and philosophy. Published later as The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist, these lectures were one of the few times when Feynman set down his considered opinions and ideas on the basis of right and wrong, and how scientists (and by implication, engineers) should take values into account. As one of the most admired and brilliant scientists of the twentieth century, Feynman's thoughts on ethics are worth our attention, however brief.

In the lecture entitled "The Uncertainty of Values," he starts from the sadness we all feel when we consider how humanity falls short of its potential. We have tremendous potential power over nature and the ability to cure, heal, feed, and educate billions, but instead we have depressions, poverty, sickness, terrorism, and wars. Why is this? In asking this question, Feynman follows in the footsteps of Pascal, who said, "The more enlightened we are, the more greatness and vileness we discover in man." According to Feynman, it's because our potentials and capabilities don't come with instructions. As he puts it, "The sciences do not directly teach good and bad." So how can we figure out what is good and what is bad, and even if we do that, how can we manage to do the good and avoid the bad?

Whatever the answer is, Feynman thinks we must always allow for the possibility that we're wrong. Because only in that way can we try different things and learn from our mistakes.

Despite the fact that he was not a believer in any religion, he has some nice things to say about religion, which he divides into three aspects: the metaphysical, the ethical, and the inspirational. As far as he can tell, the metaphysical aspects of religion—what it says about God, about why there is anything at all, and so on—are independent of the ethical aspects. But in practice, you have to have all three, because most people need emotional inspiration to obey the ethics, and the metaphysics gives you logical reasons to obey.

Then he runs into a paradox. It seems to Feynman that the people for whom religion "works" the best manage to have an absolute faith in the metaphysical aspect: they really believe in the God of the Bible, for instance. And while Feynman allows that science can't disprove the existence of God, it can't prove it either, and sometimes science comes up with results that seem to contradict one or another of the metaphysical aspects of religion, or sometimes even the ethical ones. So can you be both a good scientist and a good believer? Feynman thinks it's possible, but it takes a lot of work.

He says Western civilization "stands by two great heritages. One is the scientific spirit of adventure—. . . humility of the intellect. The other great heritage is Christian ethics—the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual, the humility of the spirit. These two heritages are logically, thoroughly consistent." But the problem comes when one heritage attacks the values of the other. (The recent fuss over evolution and intelligent design is an example of this kind of battle.)

In the midst of the Cold War, Feynman saw the USSR as an example of how government control of both science and religion led to problems. He said that government should not "limit the forms of literary or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines." The place of government was to maintain freedom for its citizens to contribute to the adventure of intellectual development.

For one of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century to say publicly "I don't know," as Feynman did several times in these lectures, shows a humility of spirit that is exceptional. Feynman was well aware of how famous people could make fools of themselves with careless pronouncements outside their fields of expertise. So he felt free to admit that he saw no farther than the ancients when he faced the problem of why there is evil in a world full of good, capable people, or how you could logically justify doing good while not believing in God. As one of the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb during World War II, Feyman could have wrapped himself in doubts and agonized over the past. Instead, he freely admitted war was terrible, but sometimes necessary in order to defend things we know are right, though we don't know moral principles in the same way we know the theory of relativity.

What I find impressive is his endorsement of Christian ethics as one of the twin pillars of Western civilization, the other being freedom of intellectual and scientific inquiry. In this he agrees with Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher who saw the roots of the Scientific Revolution in the Christian faith of the Middle Ages that maintained the universe was ordered by a Mind Who followed logical laws that our minds could eventually figure out.

Those who would combat religion as a bane of civilization that should be allowed to wither and die would do well to contemplate the words of Richard Feynman, great scientist and non-believer, who nevertheless acknowledged Christianity as the giver of the best guide to conduct, for scientists and everyone else.

Sources: My thanks to Bill Birnie for bringing my attention to this work of Feynman's, The Meaning of It All (Reading, Mass: Perseus Books, 1998). The quotation from the Pensées of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is from no. 613 in P. Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

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