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May
19th
Tue
permalink
Richard P. Feynman on the conflict between science and religion



“I do believe that there is a conflict between science and religion, religion more or less defined that way. And in order to bring the question to a position that is easy to discuss, by making the thing very definite, instead of trying to make a very difficult theological study, I would present a problem which I see happens from time to time.

A young man of a religious family goes to the university, say, and studies science. As a consequence of his study of science, he begins, naturally, to doubt as it is necessary in his studies. So first he begins to doubt, and then he begins to disbelieve, perhaps, in his father’s God. By „God” I mean the kind of personal God, to which one prays, who has something to do with creation, as one prays for moral values, perhaps. This phenomenon happens often. It is not an isolated or an imaginary case. In fact, I believe, although I have no direct statistics, that more than half of the scientists do not believe in their father’s God, or in God in a conventional sense. Most scientists do not believe in it. Why? What happens? By answering this question I think that we will point up most clearly the problems of the relation of religion and science.

Well, why is it? There are three possibilities. The first is that the young man is taught by the scientists, and I have already pointed out, they are atheists, and so their evil is spread from the teacher to the student, perpetually… (Thank you for the laughter.) If you take this point of view, I believe it shows that you know less of science than I know of religion. (…)

Another answer may be that a little knowledge is dangerous; this young man has learned a little bit and thinks he knows it all, but soon he will grow out of this sophomoric sophistication and come to realize that the world is more complicated, and he will begin again to understand that there must be a God.

I don’t think it is necessary that he come out of it. There are many scientists – men who hope to call themselves mature – who still don’t believe in God. In fact, as I would like to explain later, the answer is not that the young man thinks he knows it all – it is the exact opposite.

A third answer you might get is that this young man really doesn’t understand science correctly. I do not believe that science can disprove the existence of God; I think that is impossible. And if it is impossible, is not a belief in science and in a God – an ordinary God of religion — a consistent possibility?

Yes, it is consistent. Despite the fact that I said that more than half of the scientists don’t believe in God, many scientists do believe in both science and God, in a perfectly consistent way. But this consistency, although possible, is not easy to attain, and I would like to try to discuss two things: Why it is not easy to attain, and whether it is worth attempting to attain it. (…)

Attitude of uncertainty

The first source of difficulty is this – that it is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty: “It is very much more likely that so and so is true than that it is not true;” or “such and such is almost certain but there is still a little bit of doubt;” or – at the other extreme – “well, we really don’t know.” (…)

I think that when we know that we actually do live in uncertainty, then we ought to admit it; it is of great value to realize that we do not know the answers to different questions. This attitude of mind – this attitude of uncertainty – is vital to the scientist, and it is this attitude of mind which the student must first acquire. It becomes a habit of thought. Once acquired, one cannot retreat from it any more. (…) (2)

[Young man] learns to doubt, that it is necessary to doubt, that it is valuable to doubt. So, he begins to question everything. The question that might have been before, „Is there a God or isn’t there a God” changes to the question „How sure am I that there is a God?” He now has a new and subtle problem that is different than it was before. (…) (1)

This very subtle change is a great stroke and represents a parting of the ways between science and religion. I do not believe a real scientist can ever believe in the same way again. Although there are scientists who believe in God, I do not believe that they think of God in the same way as religious people do. If they are consistent with their science, I think that they say something like this to themselves: “I am almost certain there is a God. The doubt is very small.” That is quite different from saying, “I know that there is a God.” I do not believe that a scientist can ever obtain that view – that really religious understanding, that real knowledge that there is a God – that absolute certainty which religious people have. (…) (2)

Of course it is true that the man does not usually start by doubting directly the existence of God. He usually starts by doubting some other details of the belief, such as the belief in an afterlife, or some of the details of Christ’s life, or something like this. But in order to make this question as sharp as possible, to be frank with it, I will simplify it and will come right directly to the question of this problem about whether there is a God or not. (1)

Belief in God – and the facts of science

That brings us to the second difficulty our student has in trying to weld science and religion: Why does it often end up that the belief in God – at least, the God of the religious type – is considered to be very unreasonable, very unlikely? I think that the answer has to do with the scientific things – the facts or partial facts – that the man learns. (…)(2)

The result of this self - study or thinking, or whatever it is, often ends with a conclusion that is very close to certainty that there is a God. And it often ends, on the other hand, with the claim that it is almost certainly wrong to believe that there is a God. (…)

Now the second difficulty that the student has when he studies science, and which is, in a measure, a kind of conflict between science and religion, because it is a human difficulty that happens when you are educated two ways. Although we may argue theologically and on a high-class philosophical level that there is no conflict, it is still true that the young man who comes from a religious family gets into some argument with himself and his friends when he studies science, so there is some kind of a conflict.

Well, the second origin of a type of conflict is associated with the facts, or, more carefully, the partial facts that he learns in the science. For example, he learns about the size of the universe. 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, he learns about the close biological relationship of man to the animals and of one form of life to another and that man is a latecomer in a long and vast, evolving drama. Can the rest be just a scaffolding for His creation? And yet again there are the atoms, of which all appears to be constructed following immutable laws. Nothing can escape it. The stars are made of the same stuff, the animals are made of the same stuff—but in some such complexity as to mysteriously appear alive.

It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe, beyond man, to contemplate what it would be like without man, as it was in a great part of its long history and as it is in a great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are fully appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to view life as part of this universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is very rare, and very exciting. It usually ends in laughter and a delight in the futility of trying to understand what this atom in the universe is, this thing—atoms with curiosity—that looks at itself and wonders why it wonders. Well, these scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.” (…)(1)

Religion has many aspects; it answers all kinds of questions. First, for example, it answers questions about what things are, where they come from, what man is, what God is – the properties of God, and so on. Let me call this the metaphysical aspect of religion. It also tells us another thing – how to behave. Leave out of this the idea of how to behave in certain ceremonies, and what rites to perform; I mean it tells us how to behave in life in general, in a moral way. It gives answers to moral questions; it gives a moral and ethical code. Let me call this the ethical aspect of religion.

Now, we know that, even with moral values granted, human beings are very weak; they must be reminded of the moral values in order that they may be able to follow their consciences. It is not simply a matter of having a right conscience; it is also a question of maintaining strength to do what you know is right. And it is necessary that religion give strength and comfort and the inspiration to follow these moral views. This is the inspirational aspect of religion. It gives inspiration not only for moral conduct – it gives inspiration for the arts and for all kinds of great thoughts and actions as well. (…)

Interconnections

So these three things are very well interconnected. The difficulty is this: that science occasionally conflicts with the first of the three categories – the metaphysical aspect of religion. For instance, in the past there was an argument about whether the earth was the center of the universe – whether the earth moved around the sun or stayed still. The result of all this was a terrible strife and difficulty, but it was finally resolved – with religion retreating in this particular case. More recently there was a conflict over the question of whether man has animal ancestry. (…)



After all, the earth moves around the sun – isn’t it best to torn the other cheek? Does it make any difference whether the earth is standing still or moving around the son? We can expect conflict again. Science is developing and new things will be found out which will he in disagreement with the present‑day metaphysical theory of certain religions. In fact, even with all the past retreats of religion, there is still real conflict for particular individuals when they learn about the science and they have heard about the religion. The thing has not been integrated very well; there are real conflicts here – and yet morals are not affected.

As a matter of fact, the conflict is doubly difficult in this metaphysical region. (…) The spirit of uncertainty in science is an attitude toward the metaphysical questions that is quite different from the certainty and faith that is demanded in religion. There is definitely a conflict, I believe – both in fact and in spirit – over the metaphysical aspects of religion.

In my opinion, it is not possible for religion to find a set of metaphysical ideas which will be guaranteed not to get into conflicts with an ever‑advancing and always‑changing science which is going into an unknown. We don’t know how to answer the questions; it is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong. The difficulty arises because science and religion are both trying to answer questions in the same realm here. (…)

Science and moral questions

(…) The typical human problem, and one whose answer religion aims to supply, is always of the following form: Should I do this? Should we do this? Should the government do this? To answer this question we can resolve it into two parts: First — If I do this, what will happen? – and second – Do I want that to happen? What would come of it of value – of good?

Now a question of the form: If I do this, what will happen? is strictly scientific. As a matter of fact, science can be defined as a method for, and a body of information obtained by, trying to answer only questions which can be put into the form: If I do this, what will happen? The technique of it, fundamentally, is: Try it and see. Then you put together a large amount of information from such experiences. All scientists will agree that a question – any question, philosophical or other – which cannot be put into the form that can be tested by experiment (or, in simple terms, that cannot be put into the form: If I do this, what will happen?) is not a scientific question; it is outside the realm of science.

I claim that whether you want something to happen or not – what value there is in the result, and how you judge the value of the result (which is the other end of the question: Should I do this?) – must lie outside of science because it is not a question that you can answer only by knowing what happens; you still have to judge what happens – in a moral way. So, for this theoretical reason I think that there is a complete consistency between the moral view – or the ethical aspect of religion – and scientific information.

Turning to the third aspect of religion – the inspirational aspect – brings me to the central question that I would like to present to this imaginary panel. The source of inspiration today – for strength and for comfort – in any religion is very closely knit with the metaphysical aspect; that is, the inspiration comes from working for God, for obeying his will, feeling one with God. Emotional ties to the moral code – based in this manner – begin to be severely weakened when doubt, even a small amount of doubt, is expressed as to the existence of God; so when the belief in God becomes uncertain, this particular method of obtaining inspiration fails.

I don’t know the answer to this central problem – the problem of maintaining the real value of religion, as a source of strength and of courage to most men, while, at the same time, not requiring an absolute faith in the metaphysical aspects. (2)

The heritages of Western civilization

Western civilization, it seems to me, stands by two great heritages. One is the scientific spirit of adventure - the adventure into the unknown, an unknown that must be recognized as unknown in order to be explored, the demand that the unanswerable mysteries of the universe remain unanswered, the attitude that all is uncertain. To summarize it: humility of the intellect. The other great heritage is Christian ethics—the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual, the humility of the spirit.

These two heritages are logically, thoroughly consistent. But logic is not all. One needs one’s heart to follow an idea. If people are going back to religion, what are they going back to? Is the modern church a place to give comfort to a man who doubts God? More, one who disbelieves in God? Is the modern church the place to give comfort and encouragement to the value of such doubts? So far, haven’t we drawn strength and comfort to maintain the one or the other of these consistent heritages in a way which attacks the values of the other? Is this unavoidable? How can we draw inspiration to support these two pillars of Western civilization so that they may stand together in full vigor, mutually unafraid? That, I don’t know. But that, I think, is the best I can do on the relationship of science and religion, the religion which has been in the past and still is, therefore, a source of moral code as well as inspiration to follow that code. (1)

See also:

Albert Einstein on God
Why people believe in strange things, Lapidarium notes
Religion tag on Lapidarium

Richard P. Feynman in his essay “The Uncertainty of Values” (1) (April 1963). Available in The Meaning of It All (pdf), p.16-21. (Originally The Relation of Science and Religion (2) (full transcript) - a talk given at the Caltech YMCA Lunch Forum on May 2, 1956.)