"In April 1963, Richard P. Feynman gave a series of remarkable lectures at the University of Washington in Seattle. These three consecutive talks were classic Feynman - full of wit and wisdom - but their subject matter was wholly unexpected: Feynman spoke not as a physicist but as a concerned fellow citizen, revealing his uncommon insights into the religious, political, and social issues of the day." "Now, at last, these lectures have been published under the collective title The Meaning of It All. Here is Feynman on mind reading and the laws of probability and statistics; on Christian Science and the dubious effect of prayer on healing; and on human interpersonal relationships. Here is the citizen-scientist on the dramatic effect simple engineering projects could have on the plague of poverty; the vital role creativity plays in science; the conflict between science and religion; the efficacy of doubt and uncertainty in arriving at scientific truths; and why honest politicians can never be successful."--Jacket.
As always, the great man has the gift of explaining science in clear, simple terms. However, this book is a straight transcript of three lectures given orally without a script, so they lack the elegance of some of Feynman's other writings. All the same, a very stimulating read.
Ah, then the third section/night of lectures. Innocently titled “This Unscientific Age” one might expect the scientist’s usual rant against all things unscientific (astrology, religion, UFOs). Yes, those are approached, but not in the normal way. And science itself does not go unscathed. This is the Feynman that readers look for. The hint that things will be different (i.e. better) comes in the second paragraph when he states “I have completely run out of organized ideas.” I am hard-pressed to believe this is literally true, but what follows is Feynman throwing out ideas in his haphazardly organized method that leads to profound insights. At its core, this section reveals volumes about the way we think about things, about the way logic is missing from some of our thinking, and how logic is our excuse for wrong-headed thinking. For me, this was a springboard to rethinking a number of projects I am currently involved with, and it will be a section I reread a number of times in the future. The slow start is the only thing keeping this from being a better book. And, if you are new to Feynman, you are better off starting with “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”, “’What Do You Care What Other People Think?’”, or “’Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!’”. (Sidebar – isn’t it interesting that the titles of two of these are quotes.) However, if you are even a casual fan, you will want to include this in your reading.
Nevertheless, some interesting ideas such as: the critical importance of doubt as a source of searching, experimentation, and observation, and the fact that the freedom to doubt was born of a long and violent struggle; the impossibility of deciding moral questions by scientific techniques because the two are independent of each other; the great value of uncertainty and the importance of recognizing that it is not a weakness, but a strength; and finally the dangers of the unscientific age through things such as extrapolation of "facts" from random events, the calculations from/confusion of possibilities versus probabilities, the dangers of underestimating the intelligence of the people, and the misuse/abuse of statistical surveys and probabilities to convey certainties about the world that simply do not exist.
But the main theme is that uncertainty is good. Uncertainty is the only thing that allows for questioning, and without any questioning, as was the case in medieval Europe, and the then contemporary Soviet Union, science stagnates. Freedom of thought is essential to good science (topic of the first lecture, "The Uncertainty of Science"), as well as good societies (second lecture, "The Uncertainty of Values").