Feynman vs. O’Reilly on Ignorance

Richard Feynman & Bill O'ReillySomewhat recently, the Colbert Report featured a montage of Bill O’Reilly’s argument for the existence of God.  O’Reilly’s argument is that he doesn’t understand how the universe could have gotten to be as seemingly orderly as it is without a God.  The clips reminded me of a beautiful quote I once read by physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman in the book Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track.  In 1963, Feynman was speaking to an audience about how the need of scientists to freely investigate the world while “dealing with doubt and uncertainty … is of very great value, [one that] extends beyond the sciences.”   He said:

“I feel a responsibility as a scientist who knows the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, and the progress made possible by such a philosophy, progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought…to proclaim the value of this freedom and to teach that doubt is not to be feared, but that it is to be welcomed as the possibility of a new potential for human beings.  If you know that you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation.  I want to demand this freedom for future generations.”

O’Reilly’s response to something he doesn’t understand is to turn to a  supernatural explanation that, in his own words, is only “true for him” (see O’Reilly’s discussion with Richard Dawkins).  In contrast, Feynman points out that recognizing one’s ignorance about something is the necessary first step to actually learning anything about that phenomenon and realizing new possibilities.

I suspect that scientists, science teachers, and the science media could be doing a better job of helping the public at large to see Feynman’s perspective.  Specifically, I think we should do a better job at conveying to the public the stories behind scientific discoveries. In my own experience, science classes and science journalism are typically primarily focused on communicating scientific knowledge and say little about the uncertainty, curiosity, ingenuity and hard work that went into discovering that knowledge.  Perhaps if the general public were more familiar with the process of discovery and the history of science, they would be less likely to see shortcomings of our current scientific understanding as reasons to dismiss science and more likely to see them as mysteries whose eventual answers may someday prove as wondrous to us today as an airplane would appear to someone living 1000 years ago.

-David Groppe


~ by eeging on March 11, 2011.

4 Responses to “Feynman vs. O’Reilly on Ignorance”

  1. doubt also apply to the existence or nonexistence of God
    that’s why i cringe to read most of atheists often repeated unsubstantiated arguments
    science won’t shows anything about God science is a tool to understand the universe (with is not only physical)
    so lets keep religion out of science and science out of religion
    saying that God may explain the order of the universe don’t mean that God would explain everything so lets stop studying the universe
    it’s like someone who study how a watch works the identity of the watchmaker is irrelevant to the understanding of the mechanism
    so the existence of God is irrelevant to science that’s why there is scientists of all kind of faiths (or do you believe that only the atheist mind is capable of understanding and thinking rationally)

  2. The existence of god is not irrelevant to science. In my culture (I am Asian), some gods are supposed to be able to predict lottery draws. I have no problem saying that those gods don’t exist. The randomness of lottery draws is very carefully monitored by statisticians (it’s a billion dollar business). I am quite confident that those gods, believed and worshipped by millions of people, are imaginary. “My people” believe in thousands of gods, each do their own things (calm the sea for fishermen, bring rains for farmers…etc.). None of them exist.

    The worship of the Sea Goddess is the biggest religion in my country. The Sea Goddess supposedly just punished the Japanese for the atrocities they committed in WWII. I am quite confident that the tsunami had nothing to do with the wrath of the Sea Goddess. We know the causes of tsunami very well. Science says that the Sea Goddess does not exist. But maybe we can re-conceptualize the Sea Goddess in a way such that she doesn’t cause or prevent disasters, thus keeping her compatible with science? I don’t think so. If you take her superpowers away there will be no reason to worship her.

    You might come from a culture where religious folks worship a god or gods that does absolutely nothing. In that case you are right that science has nothing to say about the existence of those gods. I must visit your country some day. Where is it?

  3. believing in your faith is not just a matter blind faith (that makes delusional )
    it also needs some healthy dose of rationality
    to me (i’m a muslim from Algeria) there are things i can no longer take without some reflexion there are things that i don’t take as unquestionable facts
    and my understanding of my religion and science is evolving steadily over time
    that also applies to argument used by some fanatical atheist (yes fanatical apply also to atheist) which i can’t swallow and makes light of our intelligence
    if the debate if that of positive philosophical argument with the intent of improving our understanding than it’s better but if it’s only used to attack for the sake of attacking and not for illuminating the mind then it’s negative and won’t improve understanding nor tolerance

  4. doubt applies too to science itself
    how much theories were taken for granted as facts and where disproves later
    how much of scientific disciplines are now considered pseudoscience
    (like phrenology, Eugenics ..etc ) coupled with atheistic fanaticism
    made so much harm that puts inquisition to shame

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