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May 11: Richard P. Feynman

Richard P. Feynman (1918)

Richard P. Feynman

It was on this date, May 11, 1918, that Nobel-laureate physicist Richard P. Feynman was born in Far Rockaway, New York. Of his early experience as the son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant, he wrote in 1988,

In those days, in Far Rockaway, there was a youth center for Jewish kids at the temple... Somebody nominated me for president of the youth center. The elders began getting nervous, because I was an avowed atheist by that time... I thought nature itself was so interesting that I didn't want it distorted like that [by miracle stories]. And so I gradually came to disbelieve the whole religion. (What Do You Care What Other People Think?, 1988, pp25-28.)

Feynman earned his Bachelor’s Degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939 and aced the graduate school entrance exams to Princeton University in mathematics and physics, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1942. He also participated as a theorist in the Manhattan Project to built the first nuclear bomb. After the war, he rejected further pure research offers in favor of teaching—teaching theoretical physics from 1945 to 1950 at Cornell University, followed by a teaching and research position at CalTech—becoming known, through his lectures, papers and books, as the “Great Explainer” of theoretical physics. His numerous honors include the Albert Einstein Award (1954), the E. O. Lawrence Award (1962), the Oersted Medal (1972) and the National Medal of Science (1979).

In 1965, along with two other scientists, Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics for expanding the understanding of quantum electrodynamics. In his spare time he translated Mayan hieroglyphics — what were left after Bishop Diego de Landa destroyed most of them in 1562. After the Challenger disaster of 28 January 1986, while in failing health, Feynman reluctantly joined the Rogers Commission which led to the finding that faulty O-rings were the principle cause of the shuttle explosion that killed seven astronauts. Feynman accused NASA of "playing Russian roulette" with astronauts' lives.

Feynman suffered from two rare cancers. He died shortly after a final attempt at surgery for liposarcoma in Los Angeles, California, on 15 February 1988. He was 69. It was Richard Feynman who once said,

God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you're taking away from God; you don't need him anymore. But you need him for the other mysteries. So therefore you leave him to create the universe because we haven't figured that out yet; you need him for understanding those things which you don't believe the laws will explain, such as consciousness, or why you only live to a certain length of time — life and death — stuff like that. God is always associated with those things that you do not understand. Therefore I don't think that the laws can be considered to be like God because they have been figured out. (quoted in Superstrings: A Theory of Everything?, edited by P.C.W. Davies and J. Brown, 1988.)

Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Comment on this posting

On Wed, 05 Nov 2003, I received the following e-mail in response to my commentary:

I have great respect for scientists. However, just because natural phenomena can be explained through certain laws, this doesn't mean that a divine creation is not necessarily involved. Einstein was able to prove the theory of relativity, and yet believed in God. Everything has to come from somewhere. If things are to be made by God, does it mean that they have to be of intangible matter? I don't think so. Everything that has a place in this universe has to obey some kind of law in order to exist. I don't believe in the Adam and Eve myth; on the contrary, I believe in evolution. The Big Bang theory to begin with was established by a catholic priest. Therefore, it is not true, as Feynman says, that God was invented to give an explanation to what cannot be explained.

I replied: Ms. —:

Thank you for reading my rant. I suspect, however, when you say you have great respect for scientists, that you mean you respect them only insofar as they don't disagree with your religious opinions.

I might point out that just because I know how my car works mechanically, doesn't mean that a divine intervention is not necessarily involved. The question is, as William of Ockham asked in the 1300s, why would you multiply entities unnecessarily? That is, why attempt to explain something with the unexplainable?

Yes, Einstein believed in God, but not in a personal, Christian God "who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings." Sorry, but you'll have to find someone else on which to hang your scientist-theist mantle: Einstein was a Pantheist at best.

Yes, the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître proposed the Big Bang Theory in 1927 (calling it the "hypothesis of the primeval atom"), but it was based on Einstein's Theory of Relativity and had to be supported by the experiments of Edwin Hubble, and the discovery by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of the predicted residual background radiation. And the term was coined by Fred Hoyle.

What's your point? That Lemaître converted Einstein to his theory? Granted. But Einstein was not converted to Christianity. And the admittedly brilliant Lemaître was too full of his studies to have much time for sanctity, even if the one had anything at all to do with the other. Lemaître was looking for a natural, not a supernatural, explanation for the origin of the universe.

On your other point, if "everything has to come from somewhere," where did God come from? There is no logical reason to stop with God in your infinite regression. It's an arbitrary stopping point. By your reasoning, the Big Bang had to come from somewhere, too.

Feynman's quote stands on its merits. The concept of God does even less than explain: it's a science-stopper. You should be grateful that it didn't stop Lemaître.

—Ronald Bruce Meyer

On Wed, 05 Nov 2003, I received this follow-up e-mail in response to my commentary:

Thanks for replying. I do respect scientists, and like everyone else, I consider them to be exceptionally intelligent. I also respect other points of view, even though I might not agree. My husband happens to be an athiest. I don't think I would have married him if I didn't respect him. Are you saying that scientists hold the absolute truth in this vast universe? If so, I think you're a bit naive. There is just as much proof that God exists as there is proof of the fact that God doesn't exist. I happen to know my limitations as a human being, and I definitely know that I cannot know everything there is to know. However, for example, for me, it is almost imposible to accept the idea that we are the only intelligent beings in the universe. On the count of what? And I assure you, I haven't seen any aliens yet. We haven't come close to figuring out half of what there is to be learnt about our universe, and whoever thinks that we have figured out everything, might as well state that life outside this planet does not exist because we haven't seen it yet.

I replied: Ms. —:

I never said "scientists hold the absolute truth in this vast universe." Science is not religion, which does claim to hold the absolute truth in this vast universe. The difference is method. Science uses empiricism, observation, experimentation, and a self-checking, error-correcting approach to discovering how nature works. But all conclusions are tentative and testable, that is, falsifiable. Religion depends on intuition and revelation, which is neither testable nor falsifiable (and far from tentative). That isn't to say that religion can't get some things right, but would you rather your surgeon be someone who got his degree after years of study or someone who simply has faith that he'll do the operation right?

As for proof of God's existence, there really is no need of it: nothing in nature requires the existence of a God or gods. Furthermore, it does not require knowing everything to disprove the existence of God. I would wager that you don't believe in any of the thousands of gods that humanity has dreamed up throughout human history — except for the one you were brought up to believe in — so you're more than 99% on my side of the question. I simply believe in one god less than you do!

Bringing up the possibility of other intelligent beings in the universe is really beside the point, don't you think? I would never deny them, but we've never detected them, so there's no harm in living as if we were alone in the universe, is there? People like me feel the same way about God.


—Ronald Bruce Meyer

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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This Week in Freethought History (April 8-14)

(The following is a transcript of a LIVE broadcast by John Mill, the radio persona of Ronald Bruce Meyer. “This Week In Freethought” airs on the American Heathen® internet radio show. Air date of this particular segment: 04/14/12) Here’s your Week in Freethought History: This is more than just a calendar of events or mini-biographies […]

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