Richard Feynman on Religion, Science, the Search for Truth & Our Willingness to Live with Doubt

A completely unsurprising thing has happened during the first season of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos reboot. Creationists vocally complained that the show does not give their point of view an equal hearing. Tyson responded, saying “you don’t talk about the spherical earth with NASA and then say let’s give equal time to the flat-earthers.” The analogy is more amusing than effective, since roughly fifty percent of Americans are Creationists, while perhaps 49.9 percent fewer believe the earth is flat. But the point stands. If scientific theories were arrived at by popular vote, the “equal time” argument might make some sense. Of course that’s not how science works. Is this bias? As Tyson put it in one of his well-crafted tweets, “you are not biased any time you ever speak the truth.”

“But what is truth?” asks a certain kind of skeptic. That, suggests the late Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman above, depends upon your method. If you’re doing science, you may find answers, but not necessarily the ones you want:

If you expected science to give all the answers to the wonderful questions about what we are, where we’re going, what the meaning of the universe is and so on, then I think you can easily become disillusioned and look for some mystic answer.

Going to the sciences, says Feynman, to “get an answer to some deep philosophical question,” means “you may be wrong. It may be that you can’t get an answer to that question by finding out more about the character of nature.” Science does not begin with answers, but with doubt: “Is science true? No, no we don’t know what’s true, we’re trying to find out.” Feynman’s scientific attitude is profoundly agnostic; he’d rather “live with doubt than have answers that might be wrong.”

Feynman couches his comments in personal terms, admitting there are scientists who have religious faith, or as he puts it “mystic answers,” and that he “doesn’t understand that.” He declines to say anything more. While similarly agnostic, Neil deGrasse Tyson states his opinions a bit more forcefully on scientists who are believers, saying that around one third of “fully-functioning” “Western/American scientists claim that there is a god to whom they pray.” Yet unlike the claims of Answers in Genesis and other Creationist outfits, “There is no example of someone reading their scripture and saying, ‘I have a prediction about the world that no one knows yet, because this gave me insight. Let’s go test that prediction,’ and have the prediction be correct.”

Both Feynman and Tyson seem to agree that the scientific and Creationist methods for discovering “truth,” whatever that may be, are basically incompatible. Says Feynman: “There are very remarkable mysteries… but those are mysteries I want to investigate without knowing the answers to them.” For that reason, says Feynman, he “can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe.” His wording recalls the phrase Answers in Genesis uses to characterize human origins: “special creation,” the description of a method that places meaning and value before evidence, and doggedly assumes to know the truth about what it sets out to investigate in ignorance.

Confronted with the Creationists of today, Feynman would likely lump them in with what he called in a 1974 Caltech commencement speech “Cargo Cult Science,” or “science that isn’t science” but that intimidates “ordinary people with commonsense ideas.” That lecture appears in a collection of Feynman’s speeches, lectures, interviews and articles called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, which also happens to be the title of the program above, from which the clip at the top comes.

Produced by the BBC in 1981, the hour-long interview (found in our Free Documentaries collection) was taped for a show called Horizon which, like Cosmos, showcases scientists sharing the joys of discovery with a lay audience. Like Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan before him, Feynman was a very likable and accomplished science communicator. He had little time for philosophy, but his practice of the scientific method is unimpeachable. Of the Feynman TV special above, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto remarked: “The 1981 Feynman-Horizon is the best science program I have ever seen. This is not just my opinion – it is also the opinion of many of the best scientists that I know who have seen the program… It should be mandatory viewing for all students whether they be science or arts students.”

Related Content:

‘The Character of Physical Law’: Richard Feynman’s Legendary Course Presented at Cornell, 1964

The Richard Feynman Trilogy: The Physicist Captured in Three Films

Richard Feynman Introduces the World to Nanotechnology with Two Seminal Lectures (1959 & 1984)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness



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  1. Hanoch says . . . | March 27, 2014 / 8:42 am

    I find it curious why so many get hung up on the supposed “conflict” between science and religion. The former deals exclusively with exploration of the physical properties of the natural world. The latter posits (based on revelation) that there exists something outside the natural world (i.e., something that, by definition, is not subject to the scientific method) which is responsible for the existence of the natural world and establishes its moral boundaries. To argue that these concepts are in conflict is like arguing that there is a conflict between red and yellow.

  2. Josh Jones says . . . | March 27, 2014 / 9:18 am

    Seems to me the conflict arises when certain people insist that their particular religious ideas be taught as science, or flatly deny scientific findings that conflict with their metaphysical beliefs. That’s where the “hang up” originates. It’s a widespread category confusion that has very deleterious effects on science education and public policy.

  3. Hanoch says . . . | March 27, 2014 / 12:38 pm

    Agreed that religion should not be taught as science. But assertions that religion is incompatible with, or refuted by, science are equally misguided and damaging. Science education is not helped by either camp.

  4. Robert Landbeclk says . . . | March 28, 2014 / 1:11 pm

    “Our willingness to live with “doubt” particularly on the God question, may be simply that we have been conditioned by centuries of religious orthodoxy and tradition to accept that there is no alternative. And thus no one is actually looking for something more profound than what an all too human theological process, that presumes nothing greater, is able to provide!

    That may all be about to change. As the first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the Gospel and moral teachings of Christ has been published. Radically different from anything else we know of from theology or history, this new teaching is predicated upon the ‘promise’ of a precise, predefined, predictable and repeatable experience of transcendent omnipotence and called ‘the first Resurrection’ in the sense that the Resurrection of Jesus was intended to demonstrate Gods’ willingness to reveal Himself and intervene directly into the natural world for those obedient to His will, paving the way for access, by faith, to the power of divine Will and ultimate proof!

    Thus ‘faith’ becomes an act of trust in action, the search along a defined path of strict self discipline, [a test of the human heart] to discover His ‘Word’ of a direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power that confirms divine will, law, command and covenant, which at the same time, realigns our mortal moral compass with the Divine, “correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries.” Thus is a man ‘created’ in the image and likeness of his Creator.

    So like it or no, a new religious teaching, testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation and definitive proof now exists. Nothing short of an intellectual, moral and religious revolution is getting under way. To test or not to test, that is the question? More info at http://www.energon.org.uk

  5. Ronny says . . . | March 29, 2014 / 2:08 am

    Speaking personally I have never found the slightest incompatability between my faith and science. I believe it is fashionable for some to regard the vocal fundamentalist minority as speaking for all believers.

  6. Nobody says . . . | March 30, 2014 / 9:47 pm

    “I have different degrees of certainty about different things, but I am not sure of any of them” Essentially, everybody is entitled to it’s own cosmovision, provided, said cosmovision has no pretension of universality. Or in other words… Everything possible, is true, to a certain degree, somewhere.

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