Physicist Richard Feynman (MIT ’39) went on to do great things at Princeton and beyond, but here I want to focus on what Feynman’s work can reveal about nature, reality, and God. If conservatism properly understood concerns an acknowledgement and deep understanding of the complexity associated with nature, reality and God, the Feynman’s thoughts and comments on them are relevant. This post will feature three quotes from Feynman supported by three videos.
First, with regards to science, which takes place in three steps: “(1) Guess it, (2) Compute the consequence of the guess, (3) Compare to nature, experiment, observation. If it disagrees with experiment, then it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science.” The notion of “consequence” falls out this observation in the form of experiment. For complex systems, like complex social systems, then the concept of experiment can get confounded because all relevant variables can’t be accounted for. In fact, some experiments can’t even be repeated. Nevertheless, thinking seriously about consequences if fundamental to the scientific process. This is often confounded with “scientism,” taking on the coloring of science to make one’s argument appear more legitimate and solid without the hard work and harsh discipline of performing rigorous experiments.
Second, “The game I play is a very interesting one, imagination in a tight straitjacket, which is this, that it has to agree with the known laws of physics.” It has been my professional experience that most of the time senior decision makers craft policy, they are not considering and integrating all the best information and knowledge available, what Feynman calls, “the known laws of physics.” Instead decision combine a toxic combination of selective facts, historical ignorance, and wishful thinking to create policies that are almost certain to fail. When I was a policy analyst, I was told to “stop admiring the problem! What can you do productively over the next 24 to 48 hours?” Does this really make sense if the larger policy setting is destined to fail?
Third, with regards to the Challenger shuttle disaster, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” To be completely honest, in today’s democracy-driven political environment, almost no attention is given to the complex reality necessary to design and execute effective policy. Instead, most of the effort is put into building the coalition necessary to pass and fund a policy — the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars as well as Obamacare come immediately to mind, but examples are legion. The problem is, persuasive and linguistically adapt politicians are expert as the public relations, but effective public policy requires a deeper understanding. When poorly designed policies are implemented, negative consequences obtain because, as Feynman says, “Nature cannot be fooled.”