That’s No Joke, Mr. Feynman!


half half mask deI’ve been watching YouTube videos of Richard Feynman lectures.  He has a peculiar, ambivalent effect on me. On one hand, his ideas are clearly conditioned by his artful mastery of theoretical physics.  On the other hand, sometimes the things he says make me cringe.

I’ve even felt ambivalent about posting this piece.  It’s not like I wish to malign the dead. Nor am I the type to seek glory by riding on a great man’s name.  On the other hand, blogging can be about people sharing thoughts that otherwise would have remained private, lacking a medium for expression.  So, I’ve decided to post this anyway, hoping the Reader knows what the word “ambivalent” means. Plus, l like the image I made to go with this post and it seemed such a waste to not use it…

I’ve been working many hours a day for several weeks analyzing the first traunch of data that is intended to test my nonlinear theory of cell injury.  It’s exhilarating, but also mentally tiring. So, to take a break and relax my mind in the midst of all this work, I’ve been watching Feynman lectures.  Some of the videos I’ve enjoyed are here:

Richard Feynman – The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out

“Cargo Cult Science” by Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman – The Character of Physical Law – 6 -Probability and Uncertainty

Richard Feynman – The Character of Physical Law -7 -Seeking New Laws

Feynman is refreshing for his straight-forward style.  It is something I try to do here too.  That is part of why the blog is called “PlaneTalk”: to just speak plainly about things.  With his plain style, Feynman expresses many interesting ideas.  In particular, his ideas on “cargo cult science” have something to say about my own field even, let alone the nonphysical topics I enjoy studying and discussing.

Hearing him discuss, for example, his experiences at the New Age-ish Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA, are pretty priceless (especially the one about the hot chick, the hot tub, and the massage pick up line!).  Additionally, the clarity with which he presents physics is widely recognized as unparalleled, and I learn much listening to him.

However, when he goes outside his expertise, particularly into philosophy and metaphysics, that is when I get the ambivalent “creeps”, so to speak.

On one hand, I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiment that much of philosophy seems to be a waste of time.  Years ago, Beyond the Physical quoted van der Leeuw’s wonderful statement about philosophy, repeated now:

“Especially in philosophy we have suffered for many years from a deluge of words, barren of action, and consequently the man in the street has come to look upon philosophy as a pretentious speculation leading nowhere, an intellectual game, subtle and clever, sometimes not even that, but always without practical value for the life of everyday. Often it has been such; disguising its lack of reality under the cloak of a difficult and technical terminology it frightened away the investigating layman and made him feel that it was his fault, his shortcoming which prevented him from understanding its profound mysteries. Only the bold and persevering investigator discovers that its cloak often hides but a pitiful emptiness.”

van der Leeuw wrote this when Feynman was still in diapers, so a loathing of philosophy is neither new, nor confined to scientists. Of particular note, van der Leeuw had a Doctorate of Letters and so was schooled in the humanities and philosophy. Being a member of the club, van der Leeuw had a right to criticize his own. Feynman, on the other hand, was an outsider: though brilliant in physics, he was not schooled in philosophy, so his criticisms thereof tend towards the primitive.

In spite of van der Leeuw’s critical side, he also knew the positive side of philosophy (this was quoted in What is Science?):

“If we rush into activity, without having this realization of philosophy, we are as a man who undertakes a long journey without first acquainting himself with the nature of the country through which he must travel and the road he must follow…Yet in our daily lives we do disdain the knowledge of the country through which we must all travel, we do disdain the map which philosophy can show us and we have no time to learn the navigation of life.”

How can van der Leeuw seem to have diametrically opposite views?  Well, read Conquest of Illusion and it is apparent he has a balanced point of view, some of which is expressed below.

In addition to trashing philosophy, often in a rather nonspecific way, Feynman liked to make ill comments about parapsychology and astrology. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying this is a bad thing.  I too am critical of parapsychology (except in a constructive way. See Chapter 7 of Beyond The Physical).  In one of the videos above, Feynman mentioned J.B. Rhine by name.  If one reads Rhine, one cannot but conclude the man was delusional (I am too lazy at the moment to take time to find the citation for the specific paper I read of Rhine’s, but it was simply bizarre). Feynman, like Carl Sagan, dwells on the issue of reproducibility in parapsychology.  While half correct, this attitude is too over-simplified, which I will not dwell on here but maybe in some future post.

On the other hand, astrology is a different matter.  Astrology is the mother of science in many ways.  And even though some modern practitioners are of inferior intellect, that does not mean astrology itself is.  Astrology is important for understanding the history and evolution of science, just as alchemy is.  Beyond just historical interest, astrology and alchemy teach important ideas that are worth learning in their own right, something that critics generally fail to appreciate.

Both astrology and alchemy are complex topics that cannot be simplified without doing an intellectual injustice (Hell, even Newton was into alchemy!). They are not science as we understand it today and to shoehorn them in that framework is to miss the point of what they teach.  But Feynman sets up astrology up as a straw-man and knocks it down, and appeared quite self-satisfied in doing so.  For a man of his intellectual caliber, such a thing just seems inappropriate.

I am not going to dwell further on specific things Feynman said that were of a similar character.  Instead, I am interested in expressing the ambivalence I feel towards him.   Watching the videos of Feynman speak, I realized his case was an example of something else J.J. van der Leeuw discussed in Conquest of Illusion.  Bear with me…the quote is rather longish, yet I think gives a nice, balanced view of why Feynman, and others of his ilk, elicits  in me a feeling of ambivalence.

van der Leeuw here discusses the relative temperaments of materialists and idealists:

“It is impossible to imagine that mind can influence body or body influence mind, energy act on mass or mass on energy, unless there is something which unites the two terms in a higher unity or reduces them to one. If matter and spirit, body and mind were a real duality, each being essentially and fundamentally different from the other, it would be unthinkable, not only that they should influence one another, but even in any way be aware of one another’s existence…”

“The most obvious ways of overcoming the dualism in our universe is to acknowledge only one of its two terms as real and to look upon the other as secondary, produced in some way by the first….”

“There is a type of man who is intensely concentrated on this world around him, ever seeking to explore that world more fully, to discover and observe more facts about it, so that ultimately, by learning the laws governing that outer universe, mankind may gain a control over its environment. That type of man may be of the noblest, may be utterly dedicated to the service of humanity, willing to sacrifice life itself in the pursuit of truth, ready to be tortured and burnt at the stake in adherence to that which he knows to be true, and yet, in his intense and absorbed interest in the physical universe, he will very likely come to a solution of duality by recognizing only matter as real and looking upon spirit or life as a byproduct, an epiphenomenon.”

“Very different is the solution of that type of man who is intensely concentrated on the world within…There is on the other hand a true idealism, which is rooted in an intense realization of life, consciousness or mind and its creative activity. That which absorbs the idealist most is not the diversity of material forms, not their accurate observation and classification, but the power of life or consciousness over these forms, the fact that in all evolution we can recognize a dynamic, creative principle moulding form from within, above all the outstanding fact that man himself can re-create this world of matter around him, can rise triumphantly over his environment. Thus the importance and reality of that outer world retreat into the background; life, spirit, or mind becomes the ultimate reality, matter or form but an idea existing in a mind.”

While van der Leeuw is obviously thinking of Giordano Bruno in his description of the good kind of materialist, I realized that it also can characterize Feynman.  Feynman was certainly a good man.  Not perfect, but who is? But nonetheless, I think van der Leeuw’s characterization is spot on and that Feynman was the “type of man who is intensely concentrated on this world around him“.

And this in turn explains the ambivalence.  With regard this world around us, Feynman obviously had useful and important things to say.  However, it was with respect to the “world within” where Feynman was superficial, uninspiring and, at time, repugnant, with his comments.  So be it.  No one is perfect.

So, the concluding thought is to keep a balanced view.  Some good people function best on one or the other side of the materialism/idealism spectrum.  The point is not to get caught up in the materialsm/idealism debate per se (or any debate for that matter), but to recognize when good people have good things to say, even if everything they say isn’t good (Hello! Newton and Alchemy!!??)


5 thoughts on “That’s No Joke, Mr. Feynman!

  1. Great post. People’s reaction to Feynmann is often almost of an evangelical, fundamentalist nature. David Lane (a professor of philosophy – some humorous irony there) has written elegies to Feynmann. I dared to criticize him along the lines you suggest above (great with physics; cringeworthy with respect to metaphysics) and Lane was shocked! If you’re ever interested, you might enjoy dropping over to (go to “reading room” and search “Lane” or “Salmon”.

    I’m very much enjoying my rereading of “Beyond the Physical” and looking forward to reading your new ebook on science.

    By the way, if you haven’t seen it, you should definitely check out Bernardo Kastrup’s “Why Materialism is Baloney”. He’s a very clear thinker, and I think he’s about 39 or 40 (Danish, I think?), which gives us hope for the younger generation of scientists. He has a great very active forum, “Metaphysical Speculations”. He posts a new theme most weeks, and if you click on “forum” you’ll see some very intuitive insightful folks having interesting conversations.

    • Ha ha, that is ironic, Don. Thanks for the links, will check out as time allows. Yes, it is strange how people deify other people, especially as time goes on. Admiration is one thing. But an aura of devotion develops that becomes like a shield blocking out reason. There is no question that Feynman’s contributions to physics are of the first order. Yet no idea should be immune from constructive criticism. Thanks, for popping in, Don!

  2. PeterJ

    Nice article Don. I share your view of Feynman. Remarkably naïve on philosophy and religion and talks much nonsense.

    • Funny you should mention… I was perusing the Wikipedia page on Paul Feyerabend and he mentioned Feynman by name. He is quoted there using the term ” uncivilized savages” and so seems to take a little different slant on the man (and his peers) than I did above!

      I read Feyerabend when I was an undergrad…I snail-mailed him too and got a nice letter back. I had forgotten how interesting and cogent the man’s ideas were. It makes me realize how deeply integrated his ideas have become in my own thinking. Anyway, thank you for the comment, Peter.

      • PeterJ

        I don’t know Feyerabend, but that comment of his on Wiki is excellent. ‘Uncivilised savages’ is bit rude and inflammatory, okay, but it seems just the right phrase.

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