Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 87 (November 1998) 9-11.
Ever since Galileo, the received wisdom has held that an "expert" is somebody who "thinks scientifically," as can be seen in the drive to label every discipline a "science." Many scientists, ignoring the last thirty years of philosophical work showing the limitations of the scientific method, have exploited this need for experts to promote themselves as experts not just about physics or microbiology or entomology, but experts on everything, even human nature as such. Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett: all these have, in recent years, tried to leverage their credentials as scientists into positions as guardians of public rationality. And all of them want to set the record straight: Science is close to figuring out all the answers, and anyone who says otherwise is an irrational obscurantist.
Rarely, however, does one find this view put so straightforwardly as in the three public lectures given by the late Nobel laureate physicist Richard P. Feynman, collected by Addison-Wesley and modestly titled The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist. The lectures, given at the University of Washington in 1963, were delivered from hastily organized notes and communicate that honesty which often accompanies improvisation. We find Feynman at his swashbuckling best, a genius physicist explaining to a lay audience what science is and how we live in "an unscientific age." Based on his scientific achievements, it is clear Feynman could have been an expert in just about anything; a man whose rationality has been tested against computational physics and quark theory could surely treat less difficult areas with ease. The irony is that Feynman’s attitude now seems quite anachronistic; his confidence in the wide applicability of his scientific expertise rests upon ideas about science and rationality that we now regard as mere propaganda. Nonetheless, old habits are hard to break; when a scientist speaks of the deepest truths of mankind, most still treat him as an authority.
Take Feynman’s second lecture, which examines why scientists become atheists and agnostics:
A young man of a religious family goes to the university, say, and studies science. As a consequence of his study of science, he begins, naturally, to doubt as it is necessary in his studies. So first he begins to doubt, and then he begins to disbelieve, perhaps, in his father’s God. . . . He learns to doubt, that it is necessary to doubt, that it is valuable to doubt. So he questions everything. . . . The result of this self-study or thinking, or whatever it is, often ends with a conclusion that is very close to certainty that there is a God. [But] it often ends, on the other hand, with the claim that it is almost certainly wrong to believe in God.
Feynman sees atheism as developing out of a methodological skepticism. First the science student begins to question his physical environment—"Why does this turn pink when I add three drops of acid but not two?"—and then, finding that the scientific method is a good way of examining reality, he turns his scientific methods to questions about God—"Now why would a good God have allowed Hitler to kill all those people?" "If God is omnipotent, why would he have needed to suffer and die in order to save us?" "If God is loving and could hear me, why didn’t he answer my prayers?" All believers ask questions, of course. But the scientist is confident in his powers of reason, so if he runs into a sticky problem he works on it until he develops an answer:
Suppose, however, our student does come to the view that individual prayer is not heard. . . . Then what happens? Then the doubting machinery, his doubts, are turned on ethical problems. Because, as he was educated, his religious views had it that the ethical and moral values were the word of God. Now if God maybe isn’t there, maybe the ethical and moral values are wrong. And what is very interesting is that they have survived almost intact. . . . It seems to me that there is a kind of independence between the ethical and moral views and the theory of the machinery of the universe . . . [i.e.,] what things are and where they came from and what man is and what God is and what properties God has and so on.
According to Feynman, the student thinks that because the ethical principles he follows are derived from his religion, it would count in favor of his religion if the ethical principles could not be supported without his faith. But, Feynman argues, since atheists and believers do not act all that differently, since they have the same moral feelings and understandings of other people and of human nature, our student will see that one can keep the morality he believes without the questionable theistic "machinery of the universe." Therefore, learning to doubt and question rationally leads one to atheism, but to an atheism often accompanied by traditional morality.
It is hard to imagine a more quaint position than Feynman’s theory about the independence of morality and religion, and about the similar morals of atheists and believers. His lectures were delivered before our national debates over abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, no-fault divorce, the redefinition of marriage and the family, normalization of homosexuality, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and fetal tissue research. Reliable contraception was even new back then, and the sexual revolution was only just beginning. Nowadays, one’s religious view about "the machinery of the universe" and its purpose is the single most important factor in determining the position one takes on these issues. Which is not to deny that most traditional ethical principles are derivable from reason—they are. It’s just that few atheists today are actually deriving them. A poll taken among the popular scientists mentioned above would not, I would venture, find widespread assent to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. On this side of the 1960s, religion and morality seem more closely linked than ever.
There’s another anachronistic feature of this story of the budding atheist, the notion that the scientist "questions everything." This is not only false, but so manifestly false that virtually nobody believes it today. Beginning with Thomas Kuhn, whose book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published just months before Feynman delivered his lectures, almost every noted philosopher in the world has produced a devastating critique of the model of scientific reasoning that Feynman proudly and accurately describes as being "of the seventeenth century." I even saw this view refuted by the ditzy blond on the NBC sitcom Friends! And yet, as seen by Addison-Wesley’s decision to publish this book and the favorable reviews it received in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, the view of science that those who write for a popular audience wish to promote remains that of the relentlessly rational inquirer, the exposer of false assumptions, the professional skeptic.
Descartes questioned and doubted everything, but scientists don’t. If we define a conclusion to be rational only if it can withstand the sort of skepticism Descartes employed, i.e., only if there is no logically possible alternative, then there might not be a single meaningful scientific conclusion that we can call rational.
John Henry Newman made a distinction between questioning a doctrine and investigating it. We question a doctrine when we withhold our assent from it while we try to find out whether it is true or not. We investigate a doctrine when we assent to it but keep trying to understand it better. A theologian who tries to explain how God can be good and yet allow evil is investigating the matter; presumably if he cannot come up with a satisfactory explanation he will not claim that God cannot be good, but that his own powers were not adequate to the task. Likewise, if a physicist were to see one billiard ball strike another but bounce back, he would not immediately question everything he knows about elastic collisions; he would investigate to see if the second ball were nailed to the table. Scientists assent to the fundamental rules of their discipline without Cartesian-style doubting; that’s the only way they can get any research done. This is not a sign of the scientist’s irrationality, but an indication that logical certainty is not to be found in science. To think otherwise is anachronistic.
So this means that Feynman has to tell a different story about why the young religious man who studies science becomes an atheist. If the young man is genuinely practicing science, he learns how to investigate his surroundings, accept that there are many things he does not know, and in general learn how to reconcile his assent to the scientific laws he has been taught with his less-than-ideal approximation of them in his experiments. In short, he learns how to accept things on authority and deal with his human epistemological limitations.
So why does the young man become an atheist? There are probably as many stories as there are atheists, but Feynman’s own attitudes provide a clue. Feynman thinks it characteristic of the scientist that he be an expert in rational thinking as such. Since metaphysics and theology make allegedly rational claims about how the universe is, they are encroaching on his turf, and as homo sapientissimus, he feels authorized to judge their claims. The rest of religion consists of ethics and lifestyle choices that are not factual matters and so are not susceptible to rational investigation; as a result, not even scientists can become experts in such areas.
Feynman thinks that what a religion says about ethics is not rationally determinable, and what a religion says about the nature of the universe is a matter subject to rational investigation and is problematic on those grounds. So the man who comes to value scientific rationality as Feynman understands it will come to see religion as a set of falsehoods useful to persuade people to behave ethically. As we have seen, though, Feynman misrepresents the nature of scientific rationality in his lectures. Assuming that he and other science professors misrepresent the nature of scientific rationality to their students as well, we can begin to see why the students become atheists. From the false information they receive from their elders, they cannot help but reason falsely about the nature of religious belief. Were the students to realize that their training as scientists was actually training in investigation and not in questioning, that each of them must give his assent to thousands of unproven claims in order for the field to progress, they might see that scientific reasoning is of a piece with reasoning in metaphysics, theology, and ethics. The difference is that its subject matter, the physical universe, makes reasoning much easier.
At the end of his third lecture, Feynman complains about how journalists cover developments in physics—always listening carefully, but in the end deciding, "Well, I understand this, but most of our readers won’t." They go on to write something so simple that it conveys no helpful information to, for instance, another scientist who reads the newspaper. The journalists "assume that the public is stupider" than it is. Feynman points out that, in fact, a reporter is probably "dumber" than every member of his audience in some respect. He doesn’t know how to fix washing machines, or write a macro for a spreadsheet, or dry-clean his suits. There are many things he does not know that somebody else does. Feynman makes this point to argue that journalists should simply record what the scientific experts tell them, and not simplify the story for their allegedly ignorant readers. If Feynman is the authority and the journalist is not, the journalist should transmit Feynman’s expertise and not get in the way.
Of course, the argument cuts both ways. Feynman was an expert in physics, not in the philosophy of rationality. He and other scientists are not expert philosophers, nor as atheists do they have any clue how to lead a religious life in a scientific age. To use Feynman’s phrase, they are "dumber," at least in this respect, than most religious intellectuals. They think they are "smarter" than they are because, they claim, all their beliefs are the result of scientific reasoning and are thus beyond rational doubt. This seventeenth-century idea would be as quaint as belief in alchemy, were it not so corrosive.
Don’t be intimidated by Dennett, Dawkins, et al. Scientists make as many assumptions as the rest of us. And sometimes, just like the rest of us, their assumptions turn out to be wrong, especially when, like Feynman, they assume they know more than they do.
Daniel P. Moloney is Associate Editor of First Things.