What is Science? Richard Feynman

Discussions on the philosophical foundations, assumptions, and implications of science, including the natural sciences.

What is Science? Richard Feynman

Postby mtbturtle on September 6th, 2012, 9:18 am 

What is Science?

Presented at the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association, 1966 in New York City, and reprinted from The Physics Teacher Vol. 7, issue 6, 1969, pp. 313-320 by permission of the editor and the author. [Words and symbols in brackets added by Ralph Leighton.]

I thank Mr. DeRose for the opportunity to join you science teachers. I also am a science teacher. I have much experience only in teaching graduate students in physics, and as a result of the experience I know that I don't know how to teach.

I am sure that you who are real teachers working at the bottom level of this hierarchy of teachers, instructors of teachers, experts on curricula, also are sure that you, too, don't know how to do it; otherwise you wouldn't bother to come to the convention.

The subject "What Is Science" is not my choice. It was Mr. DeRose's subject. But I would like to say that I think that "what is science" is not at all equivalent to "how to teach science," and I must call that to your attention for two reasons. In the first place, from the way that I am preparing to give this lecture, it may seem that I am trying to tell you how to teach science--I am not at all in any way, because I don't know anything about small children. I have one, so I know that I don't know. The other is I think that most of you (because there is so much talk and so many papers and so many experts in the field) have some kind of a feeling of lack of self-confidence. In some way you are always being lectured on how things are not going too well and how you should learn to teach better. I am not going to berate you for the bad work you are doing and indicate how it can definitely be improved; that is not my intention.

As a matter of fact, we have very good students coming into Caltech, and during the years we found them getting better and better. Now how it is done, I don't know. I wonder if you know. I don't want to interfere with the system; it is very good.

Only two days ago we had a conference in which we decided that we don't have to teach a course in elementary quantum mechanics in the graduate school any more. When I was a student, they didn't even have a course in quantum mechanics in the graduate school; it was considered too difficult a subject. When I first started to teach, we had one. Now we teach it to undergraduates. We discover now that we don't have to have elementary quantum mechanics for graduates from other schools. Why is it getting pushed down? Because we are able to teach better in the university, and that is because the students coming up are better trained.

What is science? Of course you all must know, if you teach it. That's common sense. What can I say? If you don't know, every teacher's edition of every textbook gives a complete discussion of the subject. There is some kind of distorted distillation and watered-down and mixed-up words of Francis Bacon from some centuries ago, words which then were supposed to be the deep philosophy of science. But one of the greatest experimental scientists of the time who was really doing something, William Harvey, said that what Bacon said science was, was the science that a lord-chancellor would do. He [Bacon] spoke of making observations, but omitted the vital factor of judgment about what to observe and what to pay attention to.

And so what science is, is not what the philosophers have said it is, and certainly not what the teacher editions say it is. What it is, is a problem which I set for myself after I said I would give this talk.


http://www.fotuva.org/feynman/what_is_science.html
User avatar
mtbturtle
Banned User
 
Posts: 10229
Joined: 16 Dec 2005


Re: What is Science? Richard Feynman

Postby owleye on September 6th, 2012, 1:43 pm 

Well, we may not know what science is, or what education is, and it may be wise not to look to philosophers for answers, but I think Feynman is missing the point of philosophy (at least in its current manifestation). Philosophy is for thinkers who wish to delve into hard problems, not so much for the purpose of answering them, but to gain insights into their nature, seeing if there are better ways of looking at them, trying to uncover where others have been misled, and so forth. If they fail to achieve answers, we ought not to reject them outright; we ought to be grateful that there are thinkers out there willing to devote themselves to these hard problems, even if they are unpersuasive for some or many. Science, to be sure will press forward, but, as Feynman points out, so too does knowledge and education, without knowing what these things are. Progress is made because of the undercurrents of our humanity, some of which become part of the very language we use, and these undercurrents derive from some of the insights of philosophers in addition to those whose dominions are the humanities, the arts and the sciences.

James
owleye
Honored Member
 
Posts: 5699
Joined: 19 Sep 2009


Re: What is Science? Richard Feynman

Postby neuro on September 6th, 2012, 1:51 pm 

I believe you are quite right, owleye.

Actually, I was a little surprised bu Feynman saying
It is necessary to teach both to accept and to reject the past with a kind of balance that takes considerable skill. Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.

I thought philosophy as well was strongly based on doubting about whatever past teachers taught.
Except during some periods of history, possibly, but "ipse dixit" did not help much philosophical progress at those times.
User avatar
neuro
Forum Moderator
 
Posts: 2620
Joined: 25 Jun 2010
Location: italy


Re: What is Science? Richard Feynman

Postby Marshall on September 6th, 2012, 2:21 pm 

I had just read the whole essay and had copied that same quote, Neuro. I was coming back to paste it in and comment and I discovered you had already commented. :-D

So his PoV is a little parochial in a sense, but the essay is priceless. We should carefully think about almost each paragraph.

What he tells about his father and that mind-nourishing creative relationship is so valuable and important!

Teaching that balance of learning from and doubting, right from the start, in play.

And do you remember where he puts things in an EVOLUTION context and talks about other species, and primates, and learning from others experience, and the SPEED with which understanding is transmitted reaching a certain threshhold and the importance of checking, not just accepting. He is talking about the human race all the time in this essay. He is conscious of us as a natural species and of science as part of our (biological, I would say) evolution.

But anyway here is what I had on the clipboard:
==quote Feynman essay What is science? 1966 to a science teachers convention.

...I think we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television--words, books, and so on--are unscientific. As a result, there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science.

Finally, with regard to this time-binding, a man cannot live beyond the grave. Each generation that discovers something from its experience must pass that on, but it must pass that on with a delicate balance of respect and disrespect, so that the [human] race--now that it is aware of the disease to which it is liable--does not inflict its errors too rigidly on its youth, but it does pass on the accumulated wisdom, plus the wisdom that it may not be wisdom.

It is necessary to teach both to accept and to reject the past with a kind of balance that takes considerable skill. Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.
===============
User avatar
Marshall
Honored Member
 
Posts: 7916
Joined: 17 Oct 2006


Re: What is Science? Richard Feynman

Postby owleye on September 7th, 2012, 12:41 pm 

I should have added that I have the utmost respect for the brilliance of Feynman. Although he is an insider, I don't consider that his insights were borne of science, qua science. Rather they are borne from a deeper regard the very nature of insights, both of their blessings and their deficits -- a true philosopher, he.

James
owleye
Honored Member
 
Posts: 5699
Joined: 19 Sep 2009


Re: What is Science? Richard Feynman

Postby Don Juan on September 7th, 2012, 12:46 pm 

owleye wrote:Well, we may not know what science is, or what education is, and it may be wise not to look to philosophers for answers, but I think Feynman is missing the point of philosophy (at least in its current manifestation). Philosophy is for thinkers who wish to delve into hard problems, not so much for the purpose of answering them, but to gain insights into their nature, seeing if there are better ways of looking at them, trying to uncover where others have been misled, and so forth. If they fail to achieve answers, we ought not to reject them outright; we ought to be grateful that there are thinkers out there willing to devote themselves to these hard problems, even if they are unpersuasive for some or many. Science, to be sure will press forward, but, as Feynman points out, so too does knowledge and education, without knowing what these things are. Progress is made because of the undercurrents of our humanity, some of which become part of the very language we use, and these undercurrents derive from some of the insights of philosophers in addition to those whose dominions are the humanities, the arts and the sciences.

James


Philosophy does not include only explorations of possibilities, but it is also about the structure of the universe and how our abstractions have to capture this structure. Our explorations in philosophical realm if not guided by this relationship of map-territory distinction and relation can muddle this level of strictness of relation so that there is a tendency to depart from what is real but is intellectually correct and satisfying progression. The detached relation between our abstractions and what is out there leads us to deeper abstractions which can be potentially used to impose upon the universe. This detachment can lead us to blind alleys, false impositions upon the world, waste of time and energies, focus on abstractions instead of what is actual, idealization of terms and concepts and fragmentations, and so on. Exploration is only a part of the whole, at the end of the day, we have to do a path that addresses our main concerns. As cruel as evolution-natural selection are upon the non-surviving species, we have to reject in a rational manner with an eye to reality the abstractions that do not match the structure of reality.

Time-binding is popularized by Alfred Korzybski who also emphasized the map-territory distinction and relation. The match between our abstractions and reality via structure can bring us back to our practical sanity so that we are not continually lost to the blind alleys of our own creativity, imagination and curiosity in the realm of abstractions. Both of which (observation and abstraction) are important, but as Feynman said, there has to be a balance and the selection of what is useful is an effective rejection or qualification of what not, essentially.

I think Feynman is not missing the point of philosophy, but he is emphasizing that as we proceed with our philosophy, we have to remember how we learn as human beings (which can be easily noticed by observing how a child learns) and take note of the order, observation matters before the definition (so we can build upon the match between reality and the definition immediately and as required because the delay has significant influences upon the learning and understanding process; note that in this system, it is not only knowledge that can accumulate, but also sources of confusion) - taking note of the structure of reality before the deeper abstractions, and in essence we have a feedback loop in which we continually check our abstractions with reality, and our abstractions help us in our understanding reality while keeping the confusion at low levels.
Don Juan
Active Member
 
Posts: 1126
Joined: 17 Jun 2010


Re: What is Science? Richard Feynman

Postby bones32 on September 6th, 2014, 6:19 pm 

owleye » September 6th, 2012, 12:43 pm wrote:Philosophy is for thinkers who wish to delve into hard problems, not so much for the purpose of answering them,


Really? Philosophy is not for answering hard problems? Then what is it, an intellect stimulator? an ego satisfier? This is the precise problem with Western Philosophy, it never seems to want to genuinely answer questions, it just like to sound clever or superficially win an argument.
bones32
Forum Neophyte
 
Posts: 30
Joined: 02 Jun 2014


Re: What is Science? Richard Feynman

Postby owleye on September 6th, 2014, 6:43 pm 

bones32 » Sat Sep 06, 2014 4:19 pm wrote:
owleye » September 6th, 2012, 12:43 pm wrote:Philosophy is for thinkers who wish to delve into hard problems, not so much for the purpose of answering them,


Really? Philosophy is not for answering hard problems? Then what is it, an intellect stimulator? an ego satisfier? This is the precise problem with Western Philosophy, it never seems to want to genuinely answer questions, it just like to sound clever or superficially win an argument.


Well, I take as evidence for my claim that for every hard problem they tackle, there is generally a wealth of different positions taken on them. Unlike science, philosophy doesn't easily settle things. What they come up with are generally referred to as 'isms.' (c.g. materialism, physicalism, functionalism, dualism, ...). I think philosophy does make progress, but it's far slower than the progress made by the sciences. And this is the case even when it seems that the sciences have solved certain things that were puzzling. Why? Because even in answering certain questions, it raises new questions about their foundations.
owleye
Honored Member
 
Posts: 5699
Joined: 19 Sep 2009


Re: What is Science? Richard Feynman

Postby CanadysPeak on September 6th, 2014, 7:00 pm 

Philosophy comes in a variety of guises. Some see only the Greek philosophers of 2500 years past and try to repeat that formalism over and over again. But others like to think about really hard problems, and don't care about what others tell them. Such thinkers may use methods from different ages and different cultures, but the goal is to think. That thinking is not an end in itself; it is only a way to find out something about a problem. It may not be about finding a solution - many problems simply don't have a solution - but about how to see if there is a solution, where that solution might be found, and what to do until you find a solution.

For example, we have a climate change problem. Philosophers don't know about carbon equivalents, sequestering, NOx, or any of that, but they have the ability to think and ask the question of how we start a discourse on population control, and whether an energy based lifestyle is sustainable for even reduced populations. Thinking is important.
CanadysPeak
Resident Expert
 
Posts: 5931
Joined: 31 Dec 2008


Re: What is Science? Richard Feynman

Postby bones32 on September 6th, 2014, 7:35 pm 

owleye » September 6th, 2014, 5:43 pm wrote:
bones32 » Sat Sep 06, 2014 4:19 pm wrote:
owleye » September 6th, 2012, 12:43 pm wrote:Philosophy is for thinkers who wish to delve into hard problems, not so much for the purpose of answering them,


Really? Philosophy is not for answering hard problems? Then what is it, an intellect stimulator? an ego satisfier? This is the precise problem with Western Philosophy, it never seems to want to genuinely answer questions, it just like to sound clever or superficially win an argument.


Well, I take as evidence for my claim that for every hard problem they tackle, there is generally a wealth of different positions taken on them. Unlike science, philosophy doesn't easily settle things. What they come up with are generally referred to as 'isms.' (c.g. materialism, physicalism, functionalism, dualism, ...). I think philosophy does make progress, but it's far slower than the progress made by the sciences. And this is the case even when it seems that the sciences have solved certain things that were puzzling. Why? Because even in answering certain questions, it raises new questions about their foundations.


I agree that in Philosophy there is a wealth of different positions, and I also can understand why philosophy gets cited as not making much progress in anything. But my point is that that is not because there are no answers in philosophy, or philosophy is not as affective, it is because of philosophers themselves, not philosophy. Which sounds like the same thing I know, but if you look deep enough you will find that the great philosophical problems have been explained in depth by many Eastern and some Western philosopher's, but they are ignored in the West. In the West philosopher's insist on starting at the top, and never get to the fundamentals.

Also, the progress possible in philosophy is different from that of science, science is incapable of unravelling the big Metaphysical questions like is there a god or not, what is reality, where did the universe come from. These questions are inaccessible to science which only deals with phenomenon within the space-time continuum (whatever that actually is) therefore it is the realm of Philosophy and Metaphysics.
bones32
Forum Neophyte
 
Posts: 30
Joined: 02 Jun 2014


Re: What is Science? Richard Feynman

Postby owleye on September 7th, 2014, 8:51 am 

bones32 » Sat Sep 06, 2014 5:35 pm wrote:I agree that in Philosophy there is a wealth of different positions, and I also can understand why philosophy gets cited as not making much progress in anything. But my point is that that is not because there are no answers in philosophy, or philosophy is not as affective, it is because of philosophers themselves, not philosophy. Which sounds like the same thing I know, but if you look deep enough you will find that the great philosophical problems have been explained in depth by many Eastern and some Western philosopher's, but they are ignored in the West. In the West philosopher's insist on starting at the top, and never get to the fundamentals.


Ok. It appears what you have in mind something like a "philosophy of life" in which one may cite Confucius, Buddha or Jesus Christ as among the folks who have given us answers. I suppose I should accept that, but I'm afraid I'm not much of an advice giver (or taker, for that matter) and though I recognize that happiness is one of the interesting topics within western philosophical circles, I'm not fond of that sort of philosophical enterprise. Progress in philosophy , in my view, is made by clearing up concepts and finding important distinctions among them. Progress of this sort doesn't settle in until they are found first among the educated class and then eventually flow down to the vocabulary of public use. Perhaps science has this same flow, though, I think of science as much more technical in their defining principles.

bones wrote:Also, the progress possible in philosophy is different from that of science, science is incapable of unravelling the big Metaphysical questions like is there a god or not, what is reality, where did the universe come from. These questions are inaccessible to science which only deals with phenomenon within the space-time continuum (whatever that actually is) therefore it is the realm of Philosophy and Metaphysics.


You have a peculiarly disparaging outlook on science I think. And though you seem to think philosophy has some special qualities, you aren't much on doing any actual philosophy. I have to probe to figure out where you get these ideas. Do you have any science background at all that you can say with such authority that "science is incapable of unraveling the big Metaphysical questions...." And your idea that philosophy has somehow unravelled the mysteries of god and reality or where the universe comes from, is quite the opposite of the present state of philosophy. The philosophers of the mind, for example, have yet to unravel its mysteries. The best one can say is that those who have given it some thought arrive at an ontological commitment to it. This is an advance over the terms previously used, specifically those related to belief and knowledge. Similarly for many other concepts relating to having an ontological commitment: 'time', 'space', 'free-will', 'consciousness', etc.
owleye
Honored Member
 
Posts: 5699
Joined: 19 Sep 2009


Re: What is Science? Richard Feynman

Postby wolfhnd on January 28th, 2015, 8:06 pm 

Of late I have decided that philosophers are good at making scientific papers readable. What I noted is that if there is a philosopher in the contributors list you won't come away wondering what the point they were trying to make was. It could just be writing skills but I doubt that. Many people see philosophers as a source of confusion, endlessly debating some abstract and irrelevant detail but they are totally missing the point. owleye is right that philosophers are not so much trying to answer questions, as provide insights but that doesn't mean that the same skill set can't be put to use clarifying what the question is and to what extent it is answered.
User avatar
wolfhnd
Resident Member
 
Posts: 4333
Joined: 21 Jun 2005
Blog: View Blog (3)


Re: What is Science? Richard Feynman

Postby mitchellmckain on January 29th, 2017, 11:14 pm 

Science is an activity to address particular types of questions by a methodology that strives for objectivity by making its results independent of who does it or what they believe. It is NOT an ideology, philosophy, way of thinking or way of life! It is something you can do and participate in NOT something to believe in. Neither is it defined by its claims. Rather, quite unlike religion, it is all about method. And why do I say "particular types of questions"? It is because there are criterion by which science judges whether a question/hypothesis is a proper matter for scientific inquiry or not.

1. Is it falsifiable? Some claims practically make themselves true by definition and any test made of the claim simply moves the line/boundary of the claim so that the claim cannot ultimately be proven false.
2. Is it testable? If there is no conceivable measurement or observation which can give a verdict on whether the claim is true or not then this not a matter for scientific inquiry.
3. Is it verifiable? The objectivity which science aims for requires its claims to be demonstrated to people on demand in some way or another.

These are not separate criterion but linked and layered and the point is that they filter out things which the methodology of science is not applicable to.

The crucial part of the so called "scientific method" is that instead of seeking evidence to prove something to be true, you devise a means to test your hypothesis and abide by the results. This is what distinguishes science from the methodology of rhetoric used in most other human activities like politics, the courtroom justice, used car sales, and religion. There is much which tries to pass itself off as scientific by using the lingo and presenting proof of its claims but ultimately it simply seeks evidence to support its claims rather than testing them and thus it is nothing but pseudoscience.

By seeking an objectivity independent of observer and his beliefs a spectrum from soft to hard science is introduced based on the degree to which this is possible. It means that science has something of a blindspot when it comes to the observer himself, and the efforts to study such stuff of the softer sciences becomes prone to revolutions changing from one paradigm mired in subjective judgments to another.
User avatar
mitchellmckain
Member
 
Posts: 734
Joined: 27 Oct 2016



Return to Philosophy of Science

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 5 guests