27 November 2013

The Meaning of it All, by Richard Feynman

Posted by Callan Bentley

feynAnother week, another audio book. In this case, it didn’t even take a day – the two and a half hours of philosophizing lectures from celebrated physicist and oddball Richard Feynman make excellent listening.

One of the reasons it works so well, I think, is that the material was originally delivered as a series of three lectures by Feynman. These were then transcribed into book form, and then read aloud by a narrator with a voice not unlike Feynman’s own. Full circle!

A second reason is Feynman’s fine style. He speaks precisely about simple, general things, offering in most cases just the right amount of elaboration or examples to make his point clear. He does have a few verbal tics which become obvious if you listen to all three lectures back to back, as I did. But so do we all – most of them are endearing and charming.

In the first lecture, Feynman talks in plain terms about what science is, and what it isn’t. He conveys how it works, how it cannot work, and what it yields, and how fun he finds it all. In the second lecture, he discusses the implications of science on two matters of non-science: politics and religion. In the third, he applies the implications of sciences to matters of pseudoscience (UFOs, mind readers, conspiracy theories, astrology, etc.). It’s about skepticism in matters less emotionally-charged than the topics of his second lecture. The lovely thing to my ears is how this juxtaposition reveals how science can dispatch the claims of theists or Lysenkoists with equal ease as it does spoon-benders, though with far less societal acceptance. The third lecture isn’t as tight as the first two, and it goes on longer than it really should. Feynman acknowledges this both at the outset of that final installment and also as he stares at the clock, trying to cram in all of the final things he wants to say – so that’s a bit on the lame side. On the other hand, it’s totally understandable and relate-able – I feel that way sometime in lectures at work, and so hearing Feynman, a “genius” struggling with the same issue, makes me feel better about it.

Feynman speaks as a creature of his time (which I’ll just call “the 1950s and 60s,” in spite of the fact that he lived until 1988). All of his examples are men, including hypothetical students and hypothetical professors and hypothetical politicians. The lack of a single reference to any woman in three hours of audiobook, save for (a) his first, deceased wife and (b) a hypothetical paranoid wife character, is a roaring silence to modern ears. Furthermore, many of the political situations to which he refers in lecture #2 are relics of the Cold War. These Soviet concerns illustrate his general points wonderfully, but don’t hold up as particularly relevant in the year 2013. Finally, I would note that I noted his trepidation in discussing the zone of overlapping claims between religion and science. You can tell he’s treading carefully, hoping to elucidate that overlap for his 1950’s audience without offending the more devout members of the audience. The mollifying caveats he drops (“everybody has their own opinion, of course”) in stand in stark contrast to the more direct language of modern writers who advocate a naturalist worldview such as PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, or Richard Dawkins.

On this same topic, Feynman makes an excellent point about how the ethical aspects of religious doctrine don’t change much over time, even as the religions adapt to scientific discovery. He has a very cogent bit in there that concludes with a statement about how the revelation that the Earth is a planet orbiting a star doesn’t influence the question of whether we should “turn the other cheek” or not. The revelations of the age of the Earth have no bearing on the Golden Rule. So religious people shouldn’t feel threatened by scientific revelations about the natural world, in Feynman’s view, since the physical science carries zero ethical or moral implications. He makes a strong case that science can’t “do” ethics in any direct way – though it can certainly inform ethical decisions, it cannot supply the value judgements that drive ethics. This was thought-provoking and interesting. I like Feynman’s out-of-the-box thinking, and am so pleased that he spent time doing things other than quantum physics with his intellect.

Overall: Recommended.