I fully expected that by the end of the century we would have achieved substantially more than we actually did,” lamented the famous Neil Armstrong, who passed away at the age of 82 last week. Implicit to his lament is the rather unsettling question of why – what is it that has held mankind back?
That’s precisely what the great Richard Feynman explored when he took the stage at the Galileo Symposium in Italy in 1964 and delivered a lecture titled “What is and what should be the role of scientific culture in modern society,” published in the excellent book – The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.
Feynman shares in Armstrong’s lament: “We are all saddened when we look at the world and see what few accomplishments we have made, compared with what we feel are the potentialities of human beings. People in the past, in the nightmare of their times, had dreams for the future. And now that the future has materialised we see that in many ways the dreams have been surpassed, but in still more ways many of our dreams of today are very much the dreams of people of the past.”
He attributes much of this disconnect to a profound lack of mainstream understanding of and enthusiasm for science, making a case for the wonder of science. “People – I mean the average person, the great majority of people, the enormous majority of people – are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in, and they can stay that way…and an interesting question of the relation of science to modern society is just that – why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?”
Maria Popova, the founder of Brainpickings, invites us to attack these things in which we do not believe. “Not attack by the method of cutting off the heads of the people, but attack in the sense of discuss.” Further she holds that “we should demand that people try in their own minds to obtain for themselves a more consistent picture of their own world,” a picture consistent with today’s scientific spirit.
Feynman also reiterates a crucial point about the nature and purpose of science and critical thinking – the role of ignorance and the importance of embracing uncertainty, met with enormous resistance in a culture conditioned for grasping at answers.
A scientist is never certain. We all know that. We know that all our statements are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty, that when a statement is made, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false. ‘Does god exist?’ may be changed to, ‘How likely is it that god exists?’
Finally he emphasises: “In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar – ajar only.” He adds, “It is our responsibility not to give the answer today as to what it is all about, to drive everybody down in that direction and to say: ‘This is a solution to it all’. That governments ought not to be empowered to decide the validity of scientific theories, that that is a ridiculous thing for them to try to do; that they are not to decide the various descriptions of history or of economic theory or of philosophy. Only in this way can the real possibilities of the future human race be ultimately developed.”
Can we develop a scientific temper that enables us to have the pleasure of finding things out, rationally, critically and creatively? Can we be open to science?
(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Death: Live it!)