Reading Richard Feynman
I have been reading Richard Feynman’s lectures collected in the book The Meaning of It All.
It’s no small title, though it is etched on a book some 146 pages long.
In thinking about those figures in life who have impacted me so dramatically, Richard Feynman is one such person. Especially when you consider that each time he appears in front of others, he takes pains to remove the branch he stands on, which is that role as an authority of science. Here in The Meaning of It All, he addresses his lack of confidence in speaking out about what he feels not to be an expert in:
In talking about the impact of ideas in one field on ideas in another field, one is always apt to make a fool of oneself. In these days of specialization there are too few people who have such a deep understanding of two departments of our knowledge that they do not make fools of themselves in one or the other.
What follows is three chapters. First, the uncertainty of science as the basis for finding things out. Second, the uncertainty of values and the discreet roles of religion and science to answer those values. Third, what is titled “The Unscientific Age,” which is a discussion on the climate of science in our time.
There are golden nuggets of wisdom to be had on every single page, made more impressive by the fact that Feynman, like many Americans…thank goodness, believe in the power of plain speech. I do believe in the power of word choice, and I oftentimes give in to the beauty of sophistication, but I also believe that, beyond my desire to make myself feel smart, that the plainer speech is usually the better choice.
Or at the very least that the classical style, as Steven Pinker has described in his book The Sense of Style, is where language is at.
Here are some great quotes that I found which I will use for the remainder of this post.
Looking back at the worst times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something.
And then, finally.
Why do we grapple with problems? We are only in the beginning. We have plenty of time to solve the problems. The only way that we will make a mistake is that in the impetuous youth of humanity we will decide we know the answer. This is it. No one else can think of anything else. And we will jam. We will confine man to the limited imagination of today’s human beings.
History as Kitsch
This latest quote reminded me of Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Is Poverty Necessary?” from the June 2019 edition of Harper’s. Robinson’s essays are profound for just this reason. She is able to think around what we consider to be immutable, inevitable, and…ironically, eternal. For such a religious and spiritually minded thinker, she continues to speak to me of the secular world in better ways than the most atheist of them all. She used the phrase “intellectual lockdown” in an aside when speaking about the history of economics, in the context of education in the United States:
People who know anything at all about Henry George know how to dismiss him in three words—the single tax! This is how we educate people in this country: intellectual lockdown. Learn an attitude and inquire no further.
I have seen this lockdown first hand. I originally majored in history with the intention of becoming a history teacher in high school, but several problems kept me from taking it seriously.
The first was the weight history teachers were given to coach sports. Some 80% of male history teachers are also coaches, and I believe that is especially true in my state of Texas. After my childhood time in baseball, football, and basketball, I have no intention of being involved with sports ever again…
The second was the degree to which history is taken advantage of by standardized tests and curriculum. History is most fun when it is given space to breathe, and when students can approach the topics they like. The paradox between the fascinating world of history in college, where one could choose classes and explore topics that we liked, compared to the droll and repetitive nature of history in primary and secondary education, was not lost on me. Seeing how the “pacing guides” giving weeks to World War II, while leaving little for the Spanish Flu, seems to me to highlight the particular mistake of learning about knowledge of the past.
It is this. We cannot know what history we will need, only that we will need a wide variety of it, a giant plurality of ideas and knowledge and thoughts. And the way that history is taught now does not encourage that at all. It seems that we are educated in history so as to forget it, or so that we might use it to short-circuit our thinking of the world to dogmatism.
“The Joe Rogan Effect”
The use of all this wonderful technology and science for dogmatism is something I have been particularly obsessed with for some time. Feynman laments that just as science has been used for a great many good things, so evil things can arrive too. The Buddhist proverb of the key given to the gate of Heaven also happens to be the key given for the gate of Hell. And sometimes we do not know which is which.
With a platform like YouTube, for example, I could look up many of the new developments for GTP-3, a new machine learning natural language AI. It is a fascinating development that is both jarring and magnetizing. For those on the inside, those experts in artificial intelligence, they might feel as though it is a giant toy. But for a laymen like me, it is nothing less than magic.
On the other hand, one can go to YouTube and see all sorts of videos about politics, economics, religion, science, and these sort of more abstract analyses are valuable too.
And then we also have podcasts and conversations of smart people doing smart things. This is the kind of “Joe Rogan Effect” that I am most troubled by.
For many people, a cognitive problem is uncomfortable. We think that there must be a solution. So rather than going to the public library or rather than doing a deep dive to solve these dilemmas, we instead put on a podcast while doing the dishes. The problems of racism in America are laid bare for us, and we feel “woke” for getting our dose of information. And then that’s it. We believe we can go from “zero to hero” on a subject, to become an immediate expert, after one video.
We trust the smart people to tell us what to think.
I think this is a particular kind of dogmatism that I have fallen for all too often. It was very bad in the space between my undergraduate and graduate years, where I thought philosophers like Michel Foucault had it all figured out.
In high school, I believed Ayn Rand was the best thing to happen to intellectual life in the post war years. Yes…it was that bad…
This is why I adore Feynman. Yes, he is an intellectual, but he is one who understands the limits to authority when making statements. He sees in the West, rather than dogmatism, “intellectual humility” as our greatest success.
It should continue to be such. “Intellectual lockdown” involves taking the answers as gospel, rather than recognizing the pleasure and reward of finding things out.
As a white man, it was tempting for me to read one book on race and be done with race entirely. But nothing is so simple. The United States has a long and fraught history with racism, and it will take a deeper dive before I can take educated guesses.
Is America suffering from too much technology as to be unscientific? We have now more than ever the ability to go out and search for answers, yet we have so many sound bytes of answers that seek to cut off any attempt for deeper involvement and understanding.
So let me do what Feynman does. I have often wondered since starting this blog of whether placing my thoughts out there in the world contributes to this “intellectual lockdown” by proxy. For me, the pleasure of writing the blog perhaps leads to a stunting of others for reading the blog and deciding that they are an expert because some American wrote about America from the inside.
Let me say with as much genteel force as my Quaker heritage provides: this blog has little to no bearing on the expertise of those who do the work for the pleasure of finding things out. In all my interests, whether that concerns neuroscience or education, or whether it involves history or literature, or even movies and videogames, it is my hope that this blog will do little to replace the pleasure of diving deep and finding out for yourself.
At a minimum, I hope to share my thoughts in order to inspire the fun to be had in trying to figure out the universe. But for a blog to be a prophet is to miss the point.
We are all of us containing something fantastic, if we would just take our minds seriously.
If for no other reason, find things out for yourself.