Pondering Science with a Vacuum Cleaner

Exploring The Meaning of it All, Richard Feynman’s three lectures on Science

I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy. Richard Feynman

Housecleaning is not my favorite thing, but it became necessary to pull out the feather duster and the vacuum to free the family from the tyranny of dust and clutter. A Zune comes in handy, I find, and it was Richard Feynman’s The Meaning of it All that occupied my mind while my hands did the work. These are three lectures he gave at Caltech in 1963, preserved in transcript, and read aloud for me by a dull but crisply enunciating voice. (I would rather have had a little enthusiasm, but the ideas came across just as well, I suppose.)

While I have read intriguing quotations of his before, this was the first extended exposure to Richard Feynman, charming apologist for Science. His childlike delight as he explains what science is awakened memories of nurturing three ivy plants for my science experiment in high school Biology. Science really is about asking questions and wondering ‘what if”. Anyone who listened to him had to come away with a healthy respect for the scientific method, and its benefits to humankind.

However, it was the second lecture, “The Uncertainty of Values”, to which I had the strongest responses. Here is a charming man —intelligent, funny, compassionate– I would love to have at my dinner table some evening, who makes a bit of a fool of himself, speaking to something he does not understand. With affection I would challenge him on his assessment of religion as it relates to science, seeking to open his mind to a few things. In this post, I will address two things I heard: his implication that scientific inquiry does not happen where religion thrives, and his definition of religion as a dogma, a code, and inspiration.

First, an honest inspection of the history of science will reveal a strong connection between those who rigorously sought knowledge (the logos) and a faith that it can be found because God (Logos) created. They were certain to find God’s logic, the patterns in the natural world, because they knew the world had a designer. Men and women of faith who were well-educated in theology, philosophy, mathematics and science had a robust certainty that investigation would not challenge their faith, but would only confirm it.

Second, he isn’t working with an adequate definition. He asks ‘Is there a conflict between Science and Religion?” and defines religion as having three facets.

One, he sees any religious system as dogma, definitively answering questions about metaphysics: the meaning of life, the origin of the natural world, the existence of a supreme being. Feynman says a scientist has no interest in this because, as one who forever doubts and questions, absolute answers are unacceptable. He concludes a scientist has no need for this facet of religion.

Two, it is a code of ethics. The necessity of this Feynman dismisses by pointing to the ethics of men who did not need to be told what is virtue but who come to the same conclusions without it. He makes the mistake common even to those who claim faith in a living God, for man’s nature is drawn to a moral code like a toddler whose eyes are drawn to his mother even as he reaches for the hot stove. We have two tendencies: to create a moral map, and to act outside it. Even those free spirits who excuse themselves from a traditional set of rules still have one, and find it suddenly expands when an offense is made against them. Just as Logic is the road-map of the process of reasoning, a code of conduct is the road-map of an objective good. But while it may be true for other religious systems, for Christianity faith is not, in essence, a code of conduct.

Three, religion is a source of inspiration. It strengthens its believers to persevere through crippling circumstances, and this he sees as its only substantial benefit, even while he marvels that anyone can believe what is unbelievable. Essentially, he concludes that believing a lie can give strength (which alas, is not for him). He would agree there is no truth-seeking person who is content to live by a comfortable story, and I add, no one who will die for it.

But real faith is not about a dogma, a code or an inspiration. The outrageous claim of the Judeo-Christian faith is that God came to dwell in our space-time, both demanded justice for our rebellion and paid the penalty for it, and lives in dynamic relationship with the humans He created.

So there I was, my hands full of the vacuum hose, unable to stop and mark passages that caught my attention. “Wait, Dr. Feynman! You are dancing around the real issue! Wait! You can’t define it that way!” He certainly got me thinking outside my dusty box, and I have more I want to chew on in another post. I want to explore what happens when a scientist like Feynman puts limits on the kind of answers he can seek. I want to understand materialism, and if that is the only option for a person is search of the truth. And can Truth be found? Feynman is certain it cannot, but is that true?

About lettersfromheartscontent

Mother of six, homeschool teacher, tutor with Classical Conversations, wife to a forester and educator. I tend a perennial garden with a riot of blossoms, ride my bicycle in and out of the watershed, play ocarina and a boom-chick accompaniment when my kids feel like playing contradance music. I love being home, but I love an open road and adventure, too. Classical Conversations' Writers Circle carries my article on some aspect of classical education once a month.
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One Response to Pondering Science with a Vacuum Cleaner

  1. Myric says:

    I miss you, Ruth. :o)

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