Monday, April 20, 2015

Feynman on Faith and Freedom

Basing an understanding of the world on faith alone without a solid foundation on reason leads to conspiracy thinking.  People who perceive reality through the lens of faith alone naturally come to different conclusions about the way the world works than do people who ground their understanding on empirical evidence and logical argument illuminated and guided by faith.

You know there's a conspiracy because you don't know about it.
There may be conspiracies, even widespread conspiracies.  Often what is construed as a conspiracy, however, is nothing more than individuals or groups acting in conformity with principles or a system that the observer does not understand, or that are based on premises the observer rejects as valid.

Dislodging ideas from the mind of someone operating from a conspiracy mindset is virtually impossible.  This is because, coming from a position based on faith instead of reason, anyone attempting to debate or argue is inevitably put into the position of having to prove that something is not the way the conspiracy theorist insists it must be. This is arguing unfairly, as honest argument can only result from common principles.

Since this is a demand to prove a negative (which is impossible), the conspiracy theorist is confirmed in his or her opinion that anyone holding a contrary position is, ipso facto, a liar, a dupe, or a deceiver.  All evidence or argument that calls one’s beliefs or theory into question is dismissed or ignored.  As physicist Richard Phillips Feynman (1918-1988) noted,

"I'm not joking . . . and don't call me Shirley!"
“Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. . . . It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards.  For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

“Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it.  If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.  There is also a more subtle problem.  When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

“In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.” (Richard P. Feynman, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” Adventures of a Curious Character, As Told to Ralph Leighton.  New York: Bantam Books, 1989, 311-312.)

A scholarly theological debate.
Consciously or not, especially in academia and the church world, many people in non-leadership or key positions feel constrained to tell others what they think those others want to hear.  They are not free to seek truth, because what passes for truth in that particular milieu has already been determined and accepted on faith, not reason.  If anyone breaks ranks, he or she faces ostracism or worse.  Contradictions are ignored or suppressed, sometimes violently. Empirical evidence and logical argument are denigrated, attacked, rejected, or simply ignored.

Nevertheless, strength or force of belief does not mean that something is right, correct, or true.  This is in spite of the sincerity and fervor, even devotion with which people may adhere to their will-based religious opinions.  Unfounded faith cannot turn wrong into right, or falsehood into truth.  As Feynman closed his essay,

So I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity.  May you have that freedom. (Feynman, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, op. cit., 316-317.)

Somehow, Mr. Feynman, we don’t think you were joking.


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