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Richard Feynman: Accidental Philosopher

Stephen Doty says the scientist was a philosopher, whether he liked it or not.

Scientists seem ever the punching bags. Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin – all were attacked. Rarely do scientists strike back. But the greatest American-born scientist, Richard Feynman (1918-88), Nobel Laureate in physics, did. He attacked philosophy often, calling it “low-level baloney,” and saying philosophers “are always on the outside making stupid remarks.” Yet in his two autobiographies he wrote of only three significant brushes with philosophy.

First, while helping his high-school girlfriend with her philosophy homework one night, Feynman read Descartes’ argument for the existence of God. Descartes basically infers that his idea of a perfect God could only have been caused by a perfect God, who therefore must exist. Descartes overlooked that he could have just as well acquired an idea of God from being taught the word as a child from his religious instruction. He might as well have argued that his idea of a Ideal Woman must have an equal cause, so she must exist too. He could even list all her traits. Clearly, teaching such ponderous and fallacious arguments as rigorous and valid does the disservice of discouraging intelligent students like Feynman from studying philosophy. Feynman told his girlfriend how to read philosophy, however – forget who wrote it and see how it tallies with the facts.

Second, while in graduate school at Princeton, Feynman sat in on a philosophy lecture. The professor, knowing Feynman was a physics student, asked him if an electron was an ‘essential object’. Feynman asked back whether a brick is an essential object. Some students said yes, but others said that only the concept of a brick or its ‘brickiness’ was. They could not agree, so Feynman never answered the question and left saying philosophers used words in a “funny way”.

Had he studied their linguistic confusion more, he might have discovered that the term ‘essential’ may be well used stipulatively, but not metaphysically, which is standardless. If stipulatively, just consult the definition stipulated. But, essential for what? Electricity is essential for a light bulb to shine, but not ‘essential’ in itself. Some philosophers, living in England then, Ludwig Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin, were wise to language’s role in creating philosophical muddle, and would never have posed such a question, unless to reveal its flaws. But Feynman seems to have never read their work. Wittgenstein once described his method as bringing “words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” – which was the precise method Feynman needed in that classroom, without realizing it.

Later, when Feynman served on the committee to select science textbooks for California public schools, he learned how common dangerous linguistic infelicities are in the sciences. The textbooks contained misinformative sentences such as “Energy makes it go.” Feynman said the books were “ambiguous, confusing, and partially incorrect,” and doubted anyone could learn science from them. Others on the committee seemed indifferent however, and still approved books he objected to.

Feynman’s most annoying brush with philosophy occurred at an ethics conference. His group was asked to discuss “The ethics of inequality in the fragmentation of knowledge.” Feynman wanted to frame a clear question first, but the others saw no need. They wrote their report in a pretentious academic style which frustrated Feynman, so he decided to translate it into plain English. The first opaque sentence reduced to “People read.” He was wise to a ruse many scholars in the humanities use – cloaking ordinary ideas in ornate verbiage, as if their aim were more to appear erudite than to communicate useful information. Ordinary fools he could tolerate, but the “pompous fools” in the humanities, as he called them, were intolerable. Like George Orwell, Feynman exposed what needs exposing: that many who lack a deep understanding of facts and reasoning rely on something easier to employ – vocabulary; a trend which has since only increased among the literati and the humanities intelligentsia. Today, deconstruction and postmodernism appear to tolerate a deliberate misinterpretation of texts in a spirit of diversity and relativism. But when we lose a criteria of correctness, falsehood may pass for truth, and nonsense may pass for sense. Feynman resolved never to attend another such conference.

Orwell once observed that people aren’t failed saints as much as saints are failed people. Similarly, many in the humanities are like failed scientists who have taken up a less rigorous field. It’s relatively easy to imagine Feynman, a polymath, excelling in a humanities course. But try to imagine a professor of humanities excelling in a physics course taught by Feynman.

When Feynman said philosophers make “stupid remarks,” he had keener insight than when he called philosophy “low-level baloney”. The issue is the craftsmen, not the craft, for bad philosophy is only unknotted by good philosophy, which is an activity. He gave some philosophers a black eye – but not Wittgenstein or Austin, and not philosophy itself. For all his criticism of philosophy, Feynman was a philosopher: an empiricist, a naturalist, and a reductionist prone to linguistic analysis. The original spirit of philosophy is in science; an honest quest for understanding. Yet too often among failed scientists in the humanities a cloud of nebulous jargon acts as a proxy for specific facts and tight reasoning. And if they continue to muddy the water to make it appear deep, or to misapply principles such as relativity, Gödel’s theorem, and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in an effort to impress or steamroll others, then real scientists such as Feynman will continue to strike back.

© Stephen Doty 2006

Stephen Doty initially studied physics in college. Finding it difficult, he switched to philosophy, and then went into law.

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