Physics, Religion, Science

The Feynman Challenge

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Physicist Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was one of the most highly regarded physicists of the 20th Century.  He had an uncanny knack for getting to the heart of a problem with simple language and insights.  His work had impact not only in fundamental physics  but he posed challenges to explore new areas such as nanotechnology or quantum computing, and also, perhaps surprisingly, science and religion.

Feynman explored the relation between science and religion in a public lecture given in 1963 at the University of Washington in Seattle.  The lecture was published posthumously in a little book  called The Meaning of it All (The Penguin Press, 1998).  Feynman made several valuable points in the lecture.  He also issued a pointed challenge that we would do well to heed.1

First of all, Feynman recognized that science in and of itself does not answer all important questions we pose to the world.  It neither shows us the meaning of our existence nor how we are to behave. Such questions, which are so important for guiding how we live our everyday lives, lie beyond the scope of the scientific method.  Feynman says:

Scientists take all those things that can be analyzed by observations, and thus the things called science are found out.  But there are some things left out, for which the method does not work.  This does not mean that those things are not important.  They are, in fact, in many ways the most important.  In any decision for action, when you have to make up your mind what to do, there is always a “should” involved, and this can not be worked out from “if I do this, what will happen?” alone. (pp. 16-17)

Why can’t we conquer ourselves?  Because we find that even the greatest forces and abilities don’t seem to carry with them any clear instructions on how to use them.  …  The sciences do not directly teach good and bad. (p. 32)

These points are uncontroversial ones with which most scientists would agree.  To give but one example, science can tell us about mass-energy conversion and how to build a nuclear weapon.  But science can not tell us whether we should do so, or if so, how it should be used.  To decide what is ethical comes from sources of wisdom that lie beyond science per se.

Feynman was not a religious believer but recognized that science does not settle the question of the “mystery of existence:”2

What then is the meaning of it all?  What can we say to dispel the mystery of existence?  If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but also all those things we have found out up to today that they didn’t know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. (p. 33)

Yet Feynman was well aware of the importance of the religious heritage of our 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 to follow one’s heart to follow an idea.  … Is the modern church a place to give comfort to a man who doubts God? …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. (pp. 47-48)

Feynman was being honest: he clearly acknowledged that he did not know how to put science and religion together: more specifically how to put the scientific spirit of adventure together with a motivated Christian ethic based on love grounded in the reality of God.  But his challenge to do so–I call it the Feynman Challenge–remains a crucial one to address: “How can we draw inspiration to support these two pillars of Western civilization so that they may stand together in full vigor, mutually unafraid?”

It is my firm conviction that Feynman’s challenge can be met.   A  fruitful response will need to call upon the deepest resources of “mere Christianity” to frame an honest response.   It will require humility of intellect and of spirit.  Furthermore, it will need to inspire both our hearts and minds.

If one wishes to address “the meaning of it all,” one must be respectful of the philosophical quest of the human mind as it has sought to know and be addressed by the One who speaks through the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. As another of my posts indicated, a Christian response needs to be Christ-centered, that is, informed by the logic of the Word-made-flesh seen in Jesus of Nazareth.3  This path of “faith seeking understanding”4 upholds respect for the “mystery of our existence,” as Feynman so aptly expressed it.  It must also seek to be Reality-centered, accounting for all we actually know about the world. Such logic holds together knowing (science) and unknowing (mystery) in a dynamic tension that requires humility and motivates an ethic of love centered on the character of God. It opens us to see goodness, beauty, and truth as real aspects of Reality, not just productions of our “subjective” imaginations.

Let me call your attention to the sermon, “Truth, Mystery, and the Limits of Human Understanding,”  by Alister McGrath, given at the University Church in Oxford, England (posted Nov. 11, 2016).   McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University.  He has written extensively on topics relating to science and Christianity.  His thinking is broadly consonant with my experience as a scientist and believer.  It moves in the right direction to take up Feynman’s challenge.



1. This post is adapted from an original that appeared on the Science and Faith blog of The Anglican Way Magazine on Nov. 17, 2016.

2. I will differ from Feynman on how much we can “know” about the “mystery of our existence.” This is a remarkably subtle issue about which I will write more elsewhere. The deepest mystery of our existence is the mystery of being, that there is something rather than nothing. There is a lot going on with that little word “to be.” To Thomas Aquinas “to be” (esse) was the “actuality of all acts, the perfection of all perfections” (in De Potentia Dei, Question 7, Answer 2, Reply 9).

3. To the Christian philosophical mind, the union of the human and divine in the one person, Jesus Christ, provides the fundamental analogy by which to understand the whole of Reality, the intersection of the immanent and transcendent dimensions of time and eternity. As St. Paul wrote to the Christian community at Colossae, “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17 NASB). John’s Gospel puts it this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.“(John 1:1-3 NASB)

4. The majority view within the historical Christian tradition has been that faith and reason work together in mutual support. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) taught “nisi credideritis, non intelligitis:” “unless you believe, you will not understand.” Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) is associated with the phrase “fides quaerens intellectum” meaning “faith seeking understanding.” One must first place one’s faith in something trustworthy in Reality in order to start any significant endeavor. This necessity was explained by Aristotle in Posterior Analytics and is used by any modern scientist, whether it is recognized or not. The great physicist Max Planck said: “Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.” (in Planck’s 1932 book, Where is Science Going? The Universe in the Light of Modern Physics).

2 thoughts on “The Feynman Challenge”

  1. I like the two strands of West Civ Feynman identifies, but to hold together they must have a third. There is an ontology – deep reality – that holds them together. You suggest this in your footnotes. I hope you finally write your book about it! Pax


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