Month: May 2016

Curiosity and the freedom to doubt

  • To many Physicists, Richard P. Feynman is either known as the Nobel Laureate who shared his prize with Julian Schwinger about some mathematical problems in quantumelectrodynamics and how to solve them – with a trick.
  • Or they know Feynman as the author of the Feynman Lectures in Physics, I think three books on Experimental Physics which were even recommended for the Theoretical Physics course at my alma mater.

Or they know Feynman for both.

  • I know Feynman particularly for the other books – about him. Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman. Six not so easy pieces. Six easy pieces. What do you care what other people think? …

On the night of the 14 August 2015 I came across a YouTube video with Bertrand Piccard, where he gave a public lecture on Zeitgeist Americas 2013:

Piccard, who is known for a number of pioneering which I would call “aeronautical stunts”, starts out in his lecture with a claim, a statement which he had read at the entrance to his auditorium. It’s being claimed there:

Everyone is looking for new things all the time.

Piccard then comments on this quote:

I’m not sure it’s true. I believe that maybe here in this room we are all looking for new things. We are curious. And actually we find our balance into the unknown. But so many people in life don’t trust life at all. So many people are afraid of the unknown. Afraid of the doubts. Afraid of the question marks. So what do they do? They try to find completely other tools than curiosity. They try to find control, power, speed. Because this helps them to fight against the doubt and the question marks. This helps them to fight against the uncertainty, against the “changeants”. Against everything that can threaten their comfort zone. So what I love so much in ballooning actually is the fact that when you fly a balloon you learn exactly the other things, exactly the opposite, exactly the contrary. You learn to have – no power. Because you have no engine. You learn to have no control, because you’re pushed by the wind. …”

Now this is very interesting, the distinction between a) people who are curious and in there find their balance, b) and those people who are scared of doubts and questions and rather seek power and control for their balance.

When I heard these words from Piccard, I was then reminded of Feynman who elaborated on the “Meaning of it all” and “The Freedom to doubt”.

Let me quote ( here Richard Feynman from the book “What do you care what other people think?:

The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darned sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.

Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure – that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes that this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle. Permit us to question — to doubt, that’s all — and not to be sure. 

And this reminds me of an opinion brought forward by John F. Kennedy in his well known speechThe President and the Press“, where Kennedy says

No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary.

Obviously, the principle of doubt (controversy) which is known to scientists as a painful evolution (Galileo Galilei) has made it also into modern politics, at least by Kennedy, and to at least one ancient lawmaker (Solon), if you read on Kennedy’s speech.

Whereas in law making and in politics, doubt could be considered a necessary systemic reflex against unilateralism and totalitarianism, in science I believe it could have a true academic origin, this is the curiosity.

Coming back to Piccard’s speech, he says there is two sorts of people, the ones who are curious, I would say the ones who seek questions, rather than answers. And then there is the other class of people, those who  cannot stand questions and won’t rest until they have an answer. The latter are the ones who need control over things, the ones who are not apt to the idea of freedom.

Can the aforementioned systemic reflex of doubt against unilateralism still be considered as originating from the same field like the freedom to doubt in scientific affairs?