Richard Feynman on doubt, uncertainty and religion

A segment of the BBC interview with Richard Feynman, with his views on knowing his answers to everything. “If it turns out there is a simple ultimate law that explains everything so be it. That would be very nice discovery. If it turns out it’s like an onion with millions of layers and we just sick and tired of looking at the layers then that’s the way it is!” Video and transcript below.

“If you expected science to give all the answers to the wonderful questions about what we are, where we are going what the meaning of the universe is and so on then I think you can easily become disillusioned and then look for some mystic answer to these problems. How a scientist can take a mystic answer I don’t know because the whole spirit is to unders…well never mind that, anyway I don’t understand that…but anyhow…if you think of it though…I..the way i think of what we are doing is, we are exploring, we are trying to find out as much as we can about the world.

People say to me, “Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?” No I am not. I am just looking to find out more about the world. And if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law that explains everything so be it. That would be very nice discovery. If it turns out it’s like an onion with millions of layers and we just sick and tired of looking at the layers then that’s the way it is! But whatever way it comes out it’s nature, it’s there, and she’s going to come out the way she is. And therefore when we go to investigate we shouldn’t pre-decide what it is we are trying to do except to find out more about it. If you said…but..the problem is why we do you find out more about it, if you thought that you are trying to find out more about it because you are going to get an answer to some deep philosophical question you may be wrong and may be that you can’t get an answer to that particular question by finding out more about the character of the nature.

But I don’t look it at…my interest in science is to simply find out about the world…and the more I find out and…I like to find out…and there are very remarkable mysteries about the fact that we are able to do so many more things and apparently animals can do.

And other questions like that. Those are the mysteries I want to investigate without knowing the answer to them. So …altogether I can’t believe the special stories that’ve been made up about our relationship to the universe at large because they seem to be…too simple, too connected, too local, too provincial. The “earth,” He came to “the earth”, one of the aspects God came to “the earth!” mind you, and look at what’s out there…? how can we…? it isn’t in proportion…!

Anyway it’s no use to argue, I can’t argue. I am just trying to tell you why the scientific views that I have do have some affect on my beliefs. And also another thing has to do with the question of how do you find out if something is true? And if you have all these theories of the different religions and all different theories about the thing then you begin to wonder…once you start doubting… just like you are supposed to doubt, you asked me if science is true, no no we don’t know what is true…no no we don’t know, we are trying ……start out understanding religion by saying everything is possibly wrong, let us see, as soon as you do that you start sliding down an edge which is harder to recover from. And one…so with the scientific view or my father’s view that we should look to see what’s true and what may not be true, once you start doubting ……which I think, to me, is a very fundamental part of my soul is to doubt and to ask, when you doubt and ask it gets a little harder to believe.

You see, one thing, is 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 then many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask, “Why we are here?” and what that question might mean. I might think about it a bit and then if I can’t figure it out then I go on to something else.

But I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t have to…i don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the 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.”

Source of the transcript

  • Bruce Hamilton

    Hawkings: faith in Man’s eventuall all knowing, God does not exist. Feynman: I`m not absolutely sure of anything. Which one is the wiser man?

    • Giulio Prisco

      Both were very wise men, but on this particular point, I think Feynman was the wiser.

      • Bruce Hamilton

        Agreed