Thursday, 13 February 2014

Richard Feynman - not very interested in philosophy

The famous physicist Richard Feynman gave an entertaining and informative lecture on "The Relationship Between Mathematics and Physics", as part of his 1965 "Messenger Lectures" at Cornell University, USA. This is available to watch on youtube, and elsewhere. The lecture is punctuated with moments when Feynman appeals to his audience not to be tempted to ask why the mathematics that describes the phenomena works. In his closing statement there is a clear note of exasperation with those of the "other culture" (a reference to C P Snow's Rede Lecture of 1959, "The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution"): "The horizons are limited which permit such people to imagine that the centre of the universe of interest is man!"

When I came across this lecture four or five years ago, I was very alert to the seeming cultural divide between the sciences and the humanities, and I was interested to find out how it surfaced and how it originated. My interest was fuelled by a problems that emerged in my working life and personal life connected with the extension of scientific thinking into realms outside science. (I think the problems I met are not unusual. I have been very glad to find and be able to access writing on this phenomenon, even very recent writing, such as that of Marilynne Robinson in “Absence of Mind” (2009)).

Richard Feynman was evidently frustrated with the very idea of people, philosophers, setting out to ask why mathematical descriptions of the universe work, seem to give the “right” answers. When he presented this lecture, there was probably a good deal of academic debate, even within the world of theoretical physics, generated by the 1962 publication of Thomas Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. “It works” was evidently enough for Feynman. Yet I wonder if he might have been less averse to such questioning if he had been able to appreciate the philosophical problem, and why people had asked these questions so persistently, not just in the 1950s and 60s, but ever since the time of Newton. Meaning is the concern of disciplines in which "the centre of the universe of interest is man". It is meaningful for humans if, as Hume showed, certain knowledge of the world is not attainable through our senses, because a world that is purely contingent and governed by laws is emptied of meaning.

In the 18th century it was held that true knowledge had been attained in science through Newton's mathematical theories of dynamics, gravitation and light. This attainment of true knowledge had been anticipated ever since Descartes set down his method in pursuit of the indubitable ground of knowledge, fifty years before Newton. Martin Heidegger wrote an essay on the development of Aristotelian into Cartesian metaphysics and Aristitelian to Galilean and Newton's mathematical descriptions of the universe, called "Mathematics, Metaphysics and Modern Science", which I recommend to any reader. Kant saw that the attainment - or what he believed to have been the attainment - of precise warrantable knowledge of the world based on mathematics contradicted Hume’s argument that no such knowledge can be had through our senses. The rationalism of his time, the belief that truths of the world, and of God, can be attained through reason alone, was supported by Newton’s achievement. Hume’s argument placed rationalism, and metaphysical speculation in total, in doubt and Kant regarded all such speculation as having to stop until Hume's challenge could be answered. Kant's response, surely the most profound philosophical effort since the Greeks, was his dualist idea of human mental apparatus through the active use of which we can attain knowledge of appearances of things, but never of "things in themselves".

I don't know whether Feynman could have found interest in what interested Kant. I suppose not.

When I had a good deal more focus and energy than I can muster today, it became something of an obsession to fathom why German philosophers after Kant were not only dissatisfied with Kant's dualism, but driven to overcome it and in so doing developing that strand of philosophy known as German Idealism, and in turn opposed to that, German Romanticism. What could have been the motive for such fantastic efforts of thought? The most plausible idea I came across was that in late 18th century Germany (and just about everywhere else) there was a belief, a very deep conviction, among thinkers that Newton's mechanical theory was true.

There is evidently a very large literature on Kant's  Critique of Pure Reason, and in particular the "transcendental deduction of the categories". Kant seemed to find it to be logically necessary that our mental apparatus should have resulted in the discovery of Newton's theory. This is the contested characterisation of Kant's project as one primarily setting out to show how natural science is possible.
I think this was only part of Kant's project, which I presently conceive of as a wider enquiry into the nature of the experiencing subject. However, I think it is a very penetrating characterisation because it reminds us of the sheer intellectual grip that Newtonian mechanics must have exercised in Kant's day and after.


  1. Please find some references which are very much about the important relationship of science as an open-ended method of free enquiry, scientism as a power-and-control-seeking dogma, and reductionist exoteric religion as a power-and-control-seeking dogma (too).
    2. the 3 Principles of All Truth
    4. humorous talks on science & scientism