A Quote from Dick Feynman

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a bit from the late theoretical physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), one of the better known scientists of the last century whose posthumously published collection of short material, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999) I’m reading now.

I’m noticing a lot of correspondences between his philosophy and my own personal ideals, and this quote beautifully encapsulates the core of what skepticism means to me — a means of doubt, and comfort with doubt, probabilistic thinking, a comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty, things I am increasingly accustomed to — freedom, not fear of freedom, in thought and belief, those things that make skepticism so appealing to me, more so than certitude and the need for certitude, no matter how they’re framed…

I now find those last two things so distasteful, despite my need for them when I accepted the tenets of my former religion and the claims of an assortment of pseudosciences.

“I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and in many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about a little, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.”

The man was an exemplar of disrespect for authority, and disliked honors and accolades, thinking them worthless and even disdaining his winning of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 jointly with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga. I never met him, nor did I know much about him, since I’ve just recently discovered him and his work, but that’s in the process of being remedied. I would have loved to hear him play on his bongos… Maybe I can find a video of that online…

One thought on “A Quote from Dick Feynman

  1. The ancient skeptics talked about the tranquility that results from a suspension of judgment after an issue has been investigated and no conclusion could be drawn. (See especially Sextus Empiricus’ “Outlines of Pyrrhonism”)

    That sounds counterintuitive until you’ve spent time talking to religious fundamentalists, market fundamentalists, or debating fringers online. All facts must confirm their worldview — always.

    It does terrible things to your mind (intolerance and paranoia being the most obvious results).


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