- In a kind of thought experiment, Feynman takes the various points of view of an imaginary panel to represent the thinking of scientists and spiritualists and discusses the points of agreement and of disagreement between science and religion, anticipating by two decades, the current active debate between these two fundamentally different ways of searching for truth.
- Among other questions, he wonders whether atheists can have morals based on what science tells them, in the way that spiritualists can have morals based on their belief in God — an unusually philosophical topic for pragmatic Feynman.
- I’m not sure this paper is worth much. He suspects that more than half of scientists are atheists, but that many have come to an accommodation.
- As Feynman notes, he’s no expert on religion and were it not for his celebrity as a scientist, no-one would care much what he thought on the subject.
- But, he is right that there is a tension between science and “religion”. His main reason for thinking this is related to his own “take” on the essence of science, which is that of treating all beliefs as provisional, which he takes to be antithetical to the attitude of faith, which requires certainty (he thinks). It need not require anything of the sort, of course.
- Also, this attitude need not be applied by the scientist in all domains: it’s applied in science because we don’t know in advance what the laws of nature are. So, in that sense he’s right that if traditions or sacred texts are taken to have an authoritative teaching on the laws of nature, or the constitution of the physical world, this is bound to cause tension where these teachings are seen to be almost certainly wrong.
- But, if religions steer clear of such matters, and if – say – doctrines in other areas just are a matter of revelation, then the scientific method would not apply, and scientists would be foolish to think it did.
- He thinks there are three areas of religion:-
- The metaphysical
- The moral
- The inspirational
- The metaphysical domain is the only one he really has trouble with. He does note that there is some direct conflict – as well as the difference in attitude over certainty. My own view is that you do need to focus on the actual claims and evaluate them. Also, that philosophy – properly embraced – is a greater threat as far as attitude is concerned in that everything is supposed to be up for debate. Of course, many philosophers just use their philosophy to help them think up clever defences for whatever they want to believe, rather than following an argument where it leads.
- Feynman thinks that morality is left largely untouched by science, which has nothing to say on the matter. Maybe, though learning more about human nature – rather than just being told about it (“we’re all sinful”) – ought to help with thinking out a better moral system that leads to human flourishing. Also, science can give us better reasons for why we fail as we often do – evolutionary psychology, rather than the garden of Eden.
- He thinks religion is useful in motivating us to act up to what we think we ought to do, though he thinks atheist can and do act as morally as theists. My own view is – given the conflict in the doctrines of religions – not all can be true, and it’s better to be motivated by truths than falsehoods.
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