Richard P. Feynman: Doubt and the Meaning of Life

richard_feynmanThrough all ages, men have tried to fathom the meaning of life. They have realized that if some direction or meaning could be given to our actions, great human forces would be unleashed. So, very many answers must have been given to to the question of the meaning of it all. But they have been of all different sorts, and the proponents of one answer have looked with horror at the actions of the believers in another. Horror, because from a disagreeing point of view all the great potentialities of the race were being channeled into a false and confining blind alley. … The dream is to find the open channel.

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 all of what we know today that they didn’t know, then I think we must frankly admit that we do not know.

But in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel.

This is not a new idea; this is the idea of the age of reason. This is the philosophy that guided the men who made the democracy that we live under. The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we really should arrange a system by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, tossed out, more new ideas brought in: a trial and error system. This method was a result of the fact that science was already showing itself to be a successful venture at the end of the 18th century. Even then it was clear to socially minded people that the openness of the possibilities was an opportunity, and that doubt and discussion were essential to progress into the unknown. If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar. …

It is our responsibility to leave the men of the future with a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we, so young and ignorant, say we have the answers now, if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying, ‘This is it, boys! Man is saved!’ Thus we can doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.

It is our responsibility as scientist, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.


~Richard P. Feynman, was an American theoretical physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.

2015 Excellence Reporter


Categories: Excellence, Science

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