Feynman on God and his granny

The Meaning of It All
May 29, 1998

Universal questions: Feynman thought deeply about the conflict between science and religion

Years ago, when I was an assistant professor of physics at Berkeley, I used to be invited down to Cal Tech about once a year to give a talk. It was usually the low point of my year. In the audience at Cal Tech were two leaders of modern physics, Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman, who interrupted with frequent questions, ruthlessly probing to see if I really knew what I was talking about and had anything new to say. Of the two, Feynman was the more frightening. Gell-Mann was mostly interested in finding out whether there was anything in my talk that he should know about, so he was no problem if I did have anything worth while to say. Feynman was having fun.

It is Feynman as a fun-lover - chum of Las Vegas showgirls, cracker of safes at Los Alamos, player of bongo drums - who has won the hearts of the public. I found this side of Feynman hard to take. But, of course, Feynman had a more serious side. He did not do his great work on the quantum theory of fields in a moment between bongo gigs, but over several years of hard intellectual labour. On a more personal level, while helping to design the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during the war, Feynman devotedly nursed his first wife through her tragic and ultimately fatal illness. And Feynman thought deeply about the goals and methods of science, as shown in his 1964 Messenger lectures at Cornell.

Unfortunately, The Meaning of It All does not show Feynman at his best. These are lectures Feynman gave at the University of Washington in 1963, as taken directly from the tape recording, without being edited or expanded by Feynman. Most of what he says is sensible, but unremarkable. He tells a few good stories, though. For instance, one day when Feynman was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he was typing a paper on philosophy, and suddenly there came into his mind a powerful impression that his grandmother had just died. Immediately after that the telephone rang. The call was for someone else. Nothing was wrong with his grandmother. The point is, of course, that you cannot judge the possibility of clairvoyance unless you take into account all the times when it did not work.

The part of this book that will probably attract most attention is Feynman's discussion of the conflict between science and religion. No, Feynman does not think that science can disprove the existence of God, but he does think there is a psychological conflict between science and conventional religion. One source of the conflict is doubt. The young scientist learns that in science it is valuable to doubt, and often begins also to question the truths of his or her religion. Another source of psychological conflict is the chill that comes with what we learn from science - that people are recent arrivals in a universe that is billions of years old, that we are closely related to the animals that were here before us and that the earth on which we live circles a star that is just one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies. None of this proves anything about God but, as Feynman says, "the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate."

The result, according to Feynman (and in my own experience), is that many scientists (including Feynman himself) become atheists. Fortunately, as Feynman says, the loss of religious belief need not mean the loss of moral principles. I think that Feynman is correct that knowledge about the universe can sometimes teach us to get what we want, but has nothing to tell us about what we ought to want. He notes that, as Christianity has retreated from its position that the earth is at the centre of a universe created a few thousand years ago, it has not thereby become less moral. But although the loss of religion does not logically imply a loss of morality, Feynman points out that it does entail a loss of inspiration, an inspiration that is responsible for much great art, and that serves as a source of moral principles for many people. Feynman regrets the loss of the inspiration provided by religion and is honest enough to admit he does not know what to do about it.

I find it tremendously refreshing to read someone who still thinks that there is a conflict between science and religion. There has been a great effort lately to paper this over, on the part of such scientists as Freeman Dyson, Stephen Gould, and John Polkinghorne. Dyson and Gould say that there is no conflict because religion is not about belief, but about behaviour. (It would be fun to imagine them explaining this to the Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader, or to the Pope.) Polkinghorne says that there is no conflict because religious belief is in its way as scientific as belief in the principles of relativity or quantum mechanics. Feynman thinks of religion as a blend of belief and behaviour motivated by belief, and he sees nothing scientific about it. Good for him!

Steven Weinberg, professor of science, University of Texas at Austin and author of Dreams of a Final Theory.

The Meaning of It All

Author - Richard P. Feynman
Editor - Allen Lane
ISBN - 0 713 99251 4
Publisher - The Penguin Press
Price - £9.99
Pages - 133

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