Book Review: The Meaning of It All

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist by Richard Feynman

The Meaning of It All is a short book based on a series of three lectures that Feynman gave in 1963 but is bursting with a great idea: We should embrace uncertainty not just in science but in other realms like ethics, religion, and politics. Though he doesn’t use the term, modern skepticism is strongly based on the idea that we know far less than we think we do and there’s power and clarity in embracing that viewpoint.

The first lecture is on uncertainty and science where the idea was birthed. Scientific theories generally have a range of validity and there’s a (proper) obsession with accuracy and error in scientific fields. The idea that fact and ideas have a range of uncertainty is pretty much built in to the whole system.

The next two lectures are about exporting that idea to other realms, notably religion and politics. All too often there is value attached with a show of certainty (these rules are Divine; he’s not a flip-flopper like the other guy!) but Feynman argues that to be certain about something complicated like an ethical or political system is to cut off so many possible avenues of experimentation that could potentially yield better results in the future. We should instead always have a caveat that our system may not be the best possible and continually fiddle with the apparatus to see what works better and what doesn’t, keeping the former and discarding the latter. Being uncertain then is not a show of weakness but a gateway to letting in good ideas and notions in the future.

Feynman is always worth reading (though almost all of it is transcriptions of things he said, usually in lectures), both since he conveys great ideas and has a keen wisdom, but also because the writing (or speaking) is clear, uncomplicated, and a joy to read. Most of his works are on physics, but this one stands apart from the rest as being more general and philosophical (though, of course, the first third is on the philosophy of science particularly).

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