Bytes and Bikes

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On the Uncertainty of Everything

I watched a series of videos of an interview with Richard Feynman today. I highly recommend that you make the time to check them out. (If you don’t know who Richard Feynman is, you should look him up.) While watching the interview, I gained insight into a number of ideas.

One of these is the nature of knowing things. Feynman shares an anecdote of one interaction with his father. He asked his father why a ball in a wagon will roll to the back of the wagon when the wagon is pulled forward. When I heard this question, I immediately thought to myself, “Inertia.” But Feynman’s father answered, “Noone knows… The accepted belief is that things that are moving tend to stay moving and things that are at rest tend to stay at rest unless something pushes them, but noone knows why that is.” I found that very interesting and enlightening. There is a difference between knowing the name of something or being able to describe it, and knowing the why and the how of something. Why do objects at rest tend to stay at rest and objects in motion tend to stay in motion? Feynman expounds further on what it means to Know something throughout the interview.

I gained the other insight from Feynman’s discussion of his beliefs. He comments on both the ideas he believes in and the certainty with which he believes them. In fact, he has some very interesting things to say about his beliefs in God and religion in general. At one point, he says that the view of a scientist is that “we don’t know what’s true, everything is possibly wrong.” He then goes on to imply that this is a problem for religion. I agree with his premise. I don’t think we can know anything with absolute certainty. I am much more certain of some things than others, but I am not absolutely certain of anything. All of my beliefs depend on how my mind processes information; how my senses perceive and experience the world. I can be certain of nothing.

I do not see uncertainty as a problem for religion. This is how I see it: once one has accepted that there is no certainty, then there are two fundamental choices: either adopt faith in something or embrace the reality of not knowing. In reality, almost everyone chooses the former to one extent or another. Some choose a faith in the existence of a creator God and His love of mankind while others accept a faith in the absence of such a being, believing only in what they can sense and perceive (for even that is a type of faith, and as with all faith, some have more of it than others). Richard Feynman chose to accept the reality of not knowing. He states in the interview that being uncertain about things doesn’t scare him. Neither does it scare me, but yet I choose to have faith in something that cannot be studied by science.

My beliefs are based on my faith in three things. First of all, that God exists. Second, that the Bible was inspired by God and, interpreted correctly (ay, there’s the rub), is true. Third, that I can experience reality and reason about it using my mind and body. Everything else I believe (to greater or lesser degrees of certainty) depends on and sprouts forth from these three things.

I find it useful to break things down until they are as clear as I can make them in my mind. I hope that may be the case for some of you and that this post will encourage you to do the same. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.