The Meaning of It All
posted on: Sep 8, 2018

Just finished reading “The Meaning of It All” by Richard Feynman. It is based on a previously unpublished, three-part public lecture he gave at the University of Washington in 1963. It contains some absolutely brilliant ideas on uncertainty. My notes/highlights from this book.

He touches many topics including the conflict between science and religion, people’s distrust of politicians, and our universal fascination with flying saucers, faith healing, and mental telepathy. The parts which most interested me include the scientific method and his thoughts on the uncertainty in the world and learning to live with it rather than accepting wrong answers.

  • We have to understand how to handle uncertainty. The idea that it’s good to have an open channel, that there’s value in uncertainty, that it’s more important to permit us to discover new things, rather than to choose a solution that we now make up - that to choose a solution, no matter how we choose it now is to choose a much worse thing than what we would get if we waited and worked things out.
  • It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn’t get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before.
  • We must frankly admit that we do not know. Admitting that we do not know, and maintaining perpetually the attitude that we do not know the direction necessarily to go, permit a possibility of alteration, of thinking, of new contributions and new discoveries for the problem of developing a way to do what we want ultimately, even when we do not know what we want.
  • I listened intrigued to a man who in a dream visited God and received all kinds of special information…But I don’t know what to do with that one. I don’t know what rule of reasoning to use to show right away that it’s nutty. I think it just belongs to a general lack of understanding of how complicated the world is and how elaborate and how unlikely it would be that such a thing would work.
  • The number of things that are possible is not fully appreciated by the average individual. And it is also not clear, then, to them how many things that are possible must not be happening.
  • The imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. We are so used to looking at the world from the point of view of living things that we cannot understand what it means not to be alive, and yet most of the time the world had nothing alive on it.
  • The size of the universe is very impressive, with us on a tiny particle that whirls around the sun. That’s one sun among a hundred thousand million suns in this galaxy, itself among a billion galaxies. And again, we learn about the close biological relationship of us to the animals and one form of life to another, and that we are latecomers in a long and vast evolving drama. That is more romantic, more exciting.
  • A principle of science: If there is an exception to any rule, and if it can be proved by observation, that rule is wrong. It is most exciting, then, to find out what the right rule, if any, is.
  • You can’t prove anything by one occurrence, or two occurrences, and so on. Everything has to be checked out very carefully. Otherwise you become one of these people who believe all kinds of crazy stuff and don’t understand the world they’re in.
  • Words can be meaningless. If they are used in such a way that no sharp conclusions can be drawn, then the proposition they state is almost meaningless, because you can explain almost anything.
  • What we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain.

I think this excerpt from “The Three Body Problem” by Cixin Liu summarizes this book really well.