Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
The Feynman Imperative: Why Science Works:
David Lane’s Response to Don Salmon
Don Salmon wrote some very interesting notes and pointed questions on our recent review article, MYSTICISM’S VERSION OF INTELLIGENT DESIGN, on the commentary page of Brian Hines’ blog The Church for the Churchless. The following is my rejoinder.
I’m always intrigued at how much people believe the catechism of scientists. Yes of course, scientists like Richard Feynman no doubt believe what they say when they point out that experiments are not determined by belief. Might I point out that Feynman was a physicist who by virtue of that statement shows he knows little or nothing of the vast research in cognitive science showing how profoundly ignorant we are of the extent to which our beliefs shape our conscious “rational” thinking (and as an interesting aside, have you noticed that the new spate of books in the field of neuroscience purporting to show us how easily our beliefs overrule our rational side, almost all share a physicalist perspective, and almost to an author direct all their attention at showing how any body with a remotely non-physicalist belief is clearly irrational, and it never seems to occur to them that it might just be remotely possible to turn their attention to their own – may I say it – “beliefs” and then they might find out that this rational, belief-proof evidence they make such high and mighty and appealing noble claims about is no more impervious to bias, prejudice and dogmatic blindness than the most intransigent medieval churchman?
DAVID LANE REPLIES:
Richard Feynman, contrary to your assumption, was not naive about the manifold ways that belief can influence the way we go about doing science, including how experiments are designed. But the key point I was making, which I should have emphasized more clearly, was that science makes progress because it follows the trail of evidence. One of the best ways of getting such evidence, of course, is by experimentation. This doesn’t mean that experiments are value free or devoid of human bias. That is why reproducibility and the ability to make unexpected predictions is one of the cornerstones in science.
In other words, what a scientist wants to discover is whether a particular phenomena or observation will hold true regardless of his or her beliefs or biases. It may be one thing for a scientist to claim that he has discovered cold fusion, for instance, but the linchpin is whether others (who may not hold such a belief, but who are willing to “test” it) can reproduce those results. If we discover that it cannot, then naturally our skepticism grows. As Feynman explained,
“In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”
Feynman was also acutely aware of how easy it was to be deceived by our own desires and beliefs and prejudices. In an illuminating commencement speech given at CAL TECH in 1974, later known more popularly as Cargo Cult Science, he said,
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool.”
(by the way, have you actually done any research or hung out with people doing research? A few weeks of conversation with researchers would, I think, quickly reveal the extent to which bias and tightly held beliefs pervade the scientific endeavor)
DAVID LANE REPLIES:
Yes, that is one of the requirements one has to do when securing a Ph.D. and a couple of M.A.’s. And, yes, it is little wonder that biases and “tightly” held beliefs pervade those doing science. But, again, what makes science work and progress is that it is predicated not upon what we desire or wish, but rather competing our guesses, hunches, and theories by allowing them to be tested in real world situations and against other hypotheses and other viewpoints. In this remarkable cauldron we uncover those ideas which survive what Karl Popper famously called “falisfiablity.”
Any ism can do the same (science is, after all, a human enterprise and open to anyone, anytime, anywhere), but to qualify as scientific it must do that most remarkable of things: it must be willing to be disproven, to be corrected, to admit to error. Let me illustrate this from an incident that happened to me when I bought the first Apple iPad back in 2010 and brought it to the computer technical support team at my college. I wrongly assumed that they would be mesmerized by the new gadget and I was expecting some “oohs and aahs.” That is not what I got. Instead, almost from the moment they placed their hands on the touch screen and began swiping this or that app, they voiced complaints. “It doesn’t have flash? That sucks.” “No camera?” “No SD slots?” And so on. I was taken aback and thought to myself that these techies don’t appreciate a good product when it stares them in the face. But then later that night I smiled and realized that they were right to be so critical. Why? Because seeing the flaws or the mistakes or the weaknesses in something (and imagining better ways to do it) is precisely how such tablets will be improved in the future. And so they have, as anyone with an iPad 2 or an iPad 3 will attest.
Science works (and advances) because it is rooted in trying to spot weaknesses or flaws or insufficiencies. It is in a way conscious map making, where the would-be cartographer is constantly surveying possible gaps in the best up to date topographies.
Undoubtedly there will be those who claim to be scientists who will try to cheat or pass off their results as scientific. But the great thing about science (and why it has had such a successful run) is that it is constantly open to correction. Nothing is sacred, not even the most cherished of ideas. No authority is beyond questioning. Einstein or Darwin or Hawking or Witten or whomever can be and has been wrong. As Feynman explains,
“The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn't know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darned sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty -- some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.”
One doesn't have to believe in gravity, for instance, to see and acknowledge its effects.
A complete red herring; or perhaps that’s the wrong phrase. The specific phrase of yours I’m challenging as involving a belief system is the idea that science has the capacity to judge the source of consciousness (an obvious impossibility when you consider that scientists as of yet do not accept any methodology by which one could even detect the presence of consciousness – I’m including the flimsy attempts among qualitative researchers to attempt some form of introspection, which as currently practiced also does not provide any means of detecting consciousness from a scientifically acceptable perspective). As far as gravity, the only aspect of it relevant to your phrase is whether “gravity” is independent of consciousness. And when I say “gravity” – of course we realize we’re not talking about anything we have direct empirical evidence of - the quantum physicist’s phrase (I think it was Eddington but I’m not sure) “something is doing something to something that we know almost nothing about” – yes, we feel something, and our instruments (which also are only known to us as forms in awareness) respond and we hypothesize the activity of something to which we give the abstract name “Gravity” – this has nothing to do with whether there is some force that exists entirely independent of consciousness.
DAVID LANE REPLIES:
I find it a bit odd and perhaps a bit telling that you seem almost a priori resistant to the notion that consciousness has a physical basis. Are you sure that your own belief system isn’t blinding you from at least the possibility that self-reflective awareness is grounded within a physical substratum? You, and this is not without irony, make a grandiose and absolute claim when you write that you challenge
“... the idea that science has the capacity to judge the source of consciousness (an obvious impossibility when you consider that scientists as of yet do not accept any methodology by which one could even detect the presence of consciousness) [my bracket closure]. . .”
I realize that you have already shown your guiding metaphysic when you cited a passage from Krishna Prem,
“It should be clear from introspective meditation that all forms are sustained in consciousness, and that, apart from consciousness, we know nothing and can know nothing of forms. It is in fact meaningless to talk of forms as existing apart from consciousness The objects supposed by some to exist behind the forms are mere mental constructs devised for dealing with experience in practice. No one knows them, no one can ever know them; to believe in their existence is a pure… act of faith.”
While I can appreciate this Consciousness is All (or CIL) proposition, since we are indubitably stuck to our own awareness which invariably filters what we know about the universe at large and within, it doesn’t follow that such reflective awareness is cannot be the result of underlying physical properties. We should be cautious not to confuse our state of awareness with how that state came into being.
V.S. Ramachandran studies on phantom limb pain are instructive here, unless we want to fall into an infinite labyrinth of solipsism. As “Rama” (as he known among his colleagues and students) wrote,
“With the advent of non-invasive imaging techniques such as MEG (magnetoencephalogram) and functional MRI, topographical reorganization can also be demonstrated in humans, so that it is now possible track perceptual changes and changes in cortical topography in individual patients. We suggest, therefore, that these patients provide a valuable opportunity not only for exploring neural plasticity in the adult human brain but also for understanding the relationship between the activity of sensory neurons and conscious experience.”
Now from those suffering from phantom limb pain (and not conversant with the neural mapping which causes it), they feel as if they still have an arm or a leg and that the pain is located in one or more of their now amputated extensions. Their own conscious experience doesn’t reveal that the origination of such pain is nowhere in an extended limb but is rather part and parcel of their brain.
Once this is pointed out to them (i.e., once they learn to cognitively bypass their own conscious presumptions), they can be quite successful in either eliminating or greatly reducing the pain. Thus, we should be quite cautious about conflating our experience of consciousness with how such self-awareness originates.
Perhaps one of the key issues you bring to bear is when you write of the impossibility “that scientists as of yet do not accept any methodology by which one could even detect the presence of consciousness.”
I am not quite sure what you mean here by “detection” but perhaps it is similar to Sam Harris’ dilemma where he writes,
“The problem, however, is that no evidence for consciousness exists in the physical world. Physical events are simply mute as to whether it is “like something” to be what they are. The only thing in this universe that attests to the existence of consciousness is consciousness itself; the only clue to subjectivity, as such, is subjectivity. Absolutely nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience. Were we not already brimming with consciousness ourselves, we would find no evidence of it in the physical universe—nor would we have any notion of the many experiential states that it gives rise to. The painfulness of pain, for instance, puts in an appearance only in consciousness. And no description of C-fibers or pain-avoiding behavior will bring the subjective reality into view.”
I have written an extended article on Harris’ conundrum ["Inside Outside: Sam Harris' Dilemma"] and illustrated his concern by employing a Mobius strip as a fitting metaphor. In this regard I don’t think we have to disregard consciousness (Searle’s 1st person) and only opt for a purely objective (Searle’s 3rd person) perspective. I don’t see why it has to be one versus the other. And such notable scientists as Gerald Edelman, Nobel laureate and pioneering thinker in neural Darwinism, and others have long argued that both perspectives must be incorporated.
But in taking this approach, I also don’t see why we have to be resistant to exploring the physical basis of awareness. Indeed, I have long argued that such reductionism is altogether progressive, even if one ends up with a purely non-material explanation. In order to accomplish this aim one doesn’t have to separate the experience of awareness from its empirical mooring.
I am curious as to why you are under the impression that science has to do away with consciousness in order to understand it. Science is well aware, certainly after the breakthroughs in quantum mechanics of the 1920s and the mathematical revelations of Kurt Godel, Alonzo Church, and Alan Turing of the 1930s, that one cannot naively escape the observer component in studying nature.
You write, “[when] . . .we hypothesize the activity of something to which we give the abstract name ‘Gravity’ – this has nothing to do with whether there is some force that exists entirely independent of consciousness.”
But therein I think is why we may be talking at cross purposes. Arguing that consciousness has a material basis doesn’t then mean by extension that we have to make an ontological claim such as gravity or any other force is “entirely” independent of consciousness. That is not necessary, just as when physicists making graphene don’t have to invalidate Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty when they isolate an atomic plane of graphite. Moreover, I am not arguing for a naive dualism of matter and awareness as separate entities, since I think the real blockade is mostly a linguistic confusion over the word matter as indicating something grey, flat, or one-dimensional. When in point of fact and in point of experimentation, it is anything but.
It was for this very reason that my wife, Andrea, and I presented an extended film presentation via video hook-up (along with an extended illustrated publication) to the International Conference on Spiritual and Consciousness at the Dayal Bagh Educational Institute in Agra, India, in 2010 explaining that religion in general, and more mystically oriented paths in particular, need to change and update their understanding of what the term matter actually means. This is why we wrote,
“Therefore, a very strong argument can be made that the real problem with materialism (the idea everything that arises is nothing but permutations of matter) isn’t that it is the exact opposite of spirit or that it somehow diminishes human consciousness, but rather that we do not properly appreciate what the word actually means and what it entails. To say something is ‘just’ matter is akin to say something is ‘just’ light (which matter, by the way, also contains). Even when intertheoretic reductionisms hold true there is no “just” about it, since the very phenomena under inspection doesn’t lose its mystery by being contextually or algorithmically comprehended. If someone says that the Atlantic is merely H20, the ocean and all its magnificence isn’t lessened by such molecular equations. The trouble isn’t with matter or our tendency to ground all properties to it, but rather that we are assuming that matter is one thing when it is completely the opposite of that.”
The same holds true with electromagnetism. Nathaniel Branden provided a wonderful insight into the weaknesses of some of Ken Wilber's analogies and I think the same applies here.
What was said about gravity equally applies to electromagnetism. I assume, being a physicalist, you have the assumption that electromagnetism exists independently of any kind of consciousness whatsoever. Maybe it does. Whether it does or not is not my interest here. I’m not saying you’re “wrong”. I’m only pointing out that in your comment there is a non-empirical assumption which cannot in any way – given currently acceptable scientific methodology – even be put to an experiment much less be proven or disproven. It is utterly meaningless in the current scientific framework.
DAVID LANE REPLIES:
Your last paragraph nicely summarizes a fundamental misinterpretation you have about my views on consciousness as being physically based. You assume that I believe that electromagnetism “exists independently of any kind of consciousness whatsoever.” I have never said such a thing nor does any physicalist have to hold such a supposition, particularly in light of the statistical and probabilistic basis of fundamental physics where our experimentations (or intrusions) alter what is observed.
No, my position is that consciousness is simply a different aspect of matter. Rearrange atoms in such a way and you get the elements in the periodic table--from hydrogen to iron to plutonium, etc. Rearrange those same atoms in particularly complex ways and you get organisms with the ability for virtual simulation and self navigation/reflection. We don’t have to opt for Cartesian style dualism or opt for silly outdated and inaccurate definitions of matter.
One may object and say that we cannot study anything without our attendant awareness and thus we are stuck (whether we like it or not) with an all pervading consciousness lighting up everything that we see and pontificate upon. Yes, but saying this doesn’t then mean that consciousness cannot be physical. It simply means we have to reorient ourselves to a deeper understanding of the wondrous plasticity and multi-dimensionality of what we mean by matter in the first place. As for Sir Arthur Eddington’s quote, it apparently refers not to gravity (but, like you, I can readily see how it could), but to his observation on Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty in 1927.
Here’s something from John Searle that is relevant:
"How is it that so many philosophers and cognitive scientists can say so many things that, to me at least, seem obviously false?... I believe one of the unstated assumptions behind the current batch of views is that they represent the only scientifically acceptable alternatives to the anti-scientism that went with traditional dualism, the belief in the immortality of the soul, spiritualism, and so on. Acceptance of the current views is motivated not so much by an independent conviction of their truth as by a terror of what are apparently the only alternatives. That is, the choice we are tacitly presented with is between a "scientific" approach, as represented by one or another of the current versions of "materialism," and an "unscientific" approach, as represented by Cartesianism or some other traditional religious conception of the mind.Sunday, July 29, 2012"
DAVID LANE REPLIES:
I have long enjoyed Searle’s books and lectures, especially his acerbic style, but a closer reading of Searle reveals that he too thinks that consciousness has a material basis. He is very clear about it, especially when he writes, “We know consciousness happens and we know the brain does it.”
The question for Searle, therefore, is not if consciousness is materially produced, but how a complicated and interwoven three pounds of glorious meat does it. Searle isn’t objecting to the physics of awareness, as such, but to the proposed models and maps of how the brain produces self reflective awareness, particularly those which have taken a purely computational approach.
There is nothing "metaphysical" about using anesthesia in a hospital to perform surgery on a patient, thereby rendering his "waking" state consciousness dormant. There is nothing "metaphysical" when that same patient is kept under sedation by such "physical" chemicals as cyclopropane.
I’m assuming that you’re taking “anesthesia” to be a purely non-mental or non-conscious phenomenon; similarly, you apparently have the same assumption about cyclopropane. When the only way you or anybody could possibly know about “anesthesia” (do you mean the sensory phenomenon or something that is measured by certain instruments) or any chemical or any instruments which provide information about chemicals is as a form in awareness, then your description of something as “physical” – along with the assumption that “physical” means independent of consciousness – if not “metaphysical” – then in more simple psychological terms, is a virtually non provable assumption….. imagine trying to prove something is consciousness-independent – as soon as you think you’ve ascertained it, you’ve made it an object of consciousness. And what could the word “object” mean independent of subjectivity?
DAVID LANE REPLIES:
Once again you mistakenly assume that I think matter and consciousness are two different properties, especially when you persist in stating that “the assumption that physical means independent of consciousness.” Again, I have never stated such a dualism, since I don’t think it is at all necessary to do. Just as John Searle has pointed out that water has many aspects (including the property of wetness) it doesn’t then follow that we have to ontologically separate such categories, even if we may distinguish their varying emergent properties.
Once again, I think the confusion is systemic and stems from the notion that we cannot get out of our own awareness to see how such a process could arise without inevitably seeing it through the lens of our own reflections on the subject. Yet, that is why it is important to open up our understandings to others who may have a different view or perspective. Science focuses us not to fall prey to our own solipsism. And, as such, allows us to communicate our subjective offerings as open sources so that others (with similar or varying operating systems) can appraise or adjudicate them in larger arenas and larger testing.
Studying consciousness scientifically doesn’t necessitate eliminating the 1st person narrative and only allowing a third person description. To the contrary both can go hand in hand.
No, I think confusing science's practical tools with metaphysics is to entirely misunderstand the very nature of how and why science progresses.
Once again (leaving aside the term “metaphysical” for now) we have an idealized view of science which bears little or no resemblance to the incredibly messy, emotional, prejudice filled world of real research. I’ve seen scientists defend this by saying, “well yes that’s how research really works, but still, we hold that before ourselves as an ideal.” Yes, and if you believe the stated ideals of various professions, then there is no such thing as police corruption, all corporate CEOS are saints, and all politicians – well, we won’t go there…
DAVID LANE REPLIES:
I don’t think we have an idealized view of science at all. Rather, it has been pretty clear to anyone who has either engaged in science or who is familiar with books on the sociology and history of science that it is indeed a thoroughly human affair and, as you point out, quite a messy one. Generally speaking, no one is claiming otherwise. Yet, that ironically is its greatest strength since science cannot hold out absolute truths and must by its very nature allow competing ideas and competing theories to be played out. Scientists are invariably finding faults with research design, statistical analyses, experimental protocol, and studies which make hasty inferences and conclusions. That is why science is tentative and is always looking, indeed encouraging, others to test and retest observations and findings, since there can always be a missing part of the puzzle.
My wife, Andrea, worked as a research assistant to V.S. Ramchandran, the famed neuroscientist, on visual perception at UCSD for a year or so and she did original studies where oftentimes the results were mixed and didn’t necessarily support one’s own pet hypotheses or fit into the prevailing paradigm. But that is to be expected. As Richard Feynman rightly pointed out,
“We've learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature's phenomena will agree or they'll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven't tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it's this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.”
It is for that reason that I think exploring the very material basis of consciousness is the key..... and why, lest we forget, we want our doctors trained in how trimethylene actually works in a real physical body and not going off ruminating about how science is merely a belief system or entirely metaphysical.
What do you mean by “material”? or “a real physical body”? Whatever it is, underlying it is the assumption that what is “material” or “physical” is consciousness-independent.
DAVID LANE REPLIES:
No, I don’t think your logical syllogism holds. Exploring the physical basis of consciousness doesn’t mean by implication that “material is consciousness independent.”
Those who explore the very heart of quantum electrodynamics or quantum chromodynamics and who may philosophically agree with Niels Bohr and others in their Copenhagen interpretation of subatomic physics (“It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how Nature is. Physics concerns what we say about Nature.”) focus on what they can uncover and have made tremendous progress in their pursuits. There is absolutely no reason why neuroscientists exploring the brain-consciousness connection cannot do the same. It is an unnecessary dualism that you are invoking and one that is not required to explore the neuronal basis of awareness.
Again you may be right, but what materialists and physicalists usually believe is that “that’s just the way things are” and it has nothing to do about ruminating about belief systems or metaphysics. I’m just point out that there’s a startling amount of ruminating, assumptions and hidden beliefs in the use of the term “material” – particularly, “the very material basis of consciousness” – does that material basis have any association with consciousness “from the beginning” (“beginning’ also being a word fraught with difficult unprovable assumptions – and please don’t assume I’m advocating phenomenalism or skepticism; remember, I’m not advocating any position – not nondualism either – though that’s not really a position, at least not in Nagarjuna’s hands)
DAVID LANE REPLIES:
Well, I am not altogether sure what you are driving at, since your sweeping generalizations about what materialists and physicalists “usually believing that’s just the way things are” doesn’t resonate with me nor does it with the scientists I know. And, interestingly, one of the reasons there can be progress in science is because researchers do hold certain positions and certain assumptions, but then they are required to “hang those out to dry” so that others may see where their particular ideas hold true and where they do not. Science only works to the degree that it can withstand an onslaught of competition, where eventually (by trial and by error) the best explanations--even if only tentatively held--hold court until another and better theory emerges. Newton’s understanding of gravity was quite a breakthrough for its time, but Einstein’s theory was more comprehensive and explained hitherto inexplicable problems that Newtonian physics could not. Such is science and how it works over time.
Or, to give another example, planes fly and have been improved over the last 100 years not because science is a metaphysical system of beliefs, but because we test, and test again, very physical objects in very physical arenas.
I don’t think you’re actually meaning to do this, but I find in these conversations with physicalists there’s often a point where they say “well, where has your metaphysics (or epistemology or lucid dream experiments or whatever) gotten us in 3000 or so years; “science” has given us real useful things like flying planes and bombs and eyeglasses and cars; what do you want to give all that up?” That’s often the conclusion, that I’m being “anti-science”.
DAVID LANE REPLIES:
Yes, I really do mean this. Science works because it gets tested in real world situations. I don’t know if you are anti-science, but you do seem resistant to a physical explanation of consciousness and I think have prematurely assumed far too much about what science can and cannot accomplish by closely examinng the physical parameters about how and why self reflective awareness can arise when a certain bio-chemical complexity is reached.
So much has the word “science” become associated with the unprovable, nonempirical belief system of physicalism that to challenge it is taken to be a challenge to science itself. Rather, I’d like to think I’m defending science against dogma, carrying on in the tradition of William James, who wrote more than 100 years ago:
“Science taken in its essence should stand only for a method and not for any special beliefs, yet as habitually taken by its votaries, science has come to be identified with a certain fixed general belief, the belief that the deeper order of nature is mechanical exclusively, and that non-mechanical categories are irrational ways of conceiving and explaining even such a thing as human life.”
DAVID LANE REPLIES:
This seems like a classic straw man argument since I am not (nor are the cognitive scientists I know) defending scientism, which really isn’t science at all, but rather dogmatism dressed up in cynical garb. You claim that “science [has] become associated with the unprovable, nonempirical belief system of physicalism that to challenge it is taken to be a challenge to science itself.” Yet, you provide no specific examples with which to your hang your very questionable claim. What has any of this to do with the pioneering work being done in neuroscience and its interface with consciousness? My argument is a very simple one: let’s explore the physics of awareness first and see where it leads us. If my hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching has a physical basis (e.g., just think of how successful eye surgery has become in the last two decades), is it really that much of a stretch to think that my “self awareness” is also grounded within my neural-body complex? I think not, and therefore instead of getting caught in endless philosophical debates on the subject, I suggest it is wise to take a more practical approach and let scientists in different fields (from neuroscience to mathematics) be encouraged in their efforts. Consciousness studies is still in its early days and I think we will surprised in the decades to come to see how much progress will be made on the purely physicalist front.
In conclusion, I don’t think our humanity is lessened if we discover that you and I are the product of material complexity. Matter is as mystical (in the wondrous sense of that term) as anything posited in our religious scriptures. And, therefore, I think our resistance to empirical explanations is based on a deep misunderstanding of what the term matter actually defines and what it signifies.
Richard Feynman gave a beautiful talk in 1966 in New York city to the National Science Teachers Association which illustrated the beauty of doing science,
“The world looks so different after learning science. For example, trees are made of air, primarily. When they are burned, they go back to air, and in the flaming heat is released the flaming heat of the sun which was bound in to convert the air into tree, and in the ash is the small remnant of the part which did not come from air that came from the solid earth, instead. These are beautiful things, and the content of science is wonderfully full of them. They are very inspiring, and they can be used to inspire others.Another of the qualities of science is that it teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought; the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true. You must here distinguish--especially in teaching--the science from the forms or procedures that are sometimes used in developing science. It is easy to say, "We write, experiment, and observe, and do this or that." You can copy that form exactly. But great religions are dissipated by following form without remembering the direct content of the teaching of the great leaders. In the same way, it is possible to follow form and call it science, but that is pseudo-science. In this way, we all suffer from the kind of tyranny we have today in the many institutions that have come under the influence of pseudoscientific advisers.”
Science isn’t a thing or merely a body of facts. It is a process, a human process no doubt, but one which works best only when we test our own pet guesses and hunches and see how well they hold up against other ideas and other hypotheses. This, in other words, is the Feynman Imperative: our willingness to be wrong.
As Richard Feynman very wisely explained,
“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain … In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”
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