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The Meaning of It All

The Meaning of It All

I was happy, when I got the invitation to give the John Danz Lectures, to hear that there would be three lectures, as I had thought about these ideas at great length and wanted an opportunity not to express myself in only one lecture, but to develop the ideas slowly and carefully in three lectures. I found out that I developed them slowly and carefully, completely, in two.

I have completely run out of organized ideas, but I have a large number of uncomfortable feelings about the world which I haven’t been able to put into some obvious, logical, and sensible form. So, since I already contracted to give three lectures, the only thing I can do is to give this potpourri of uncomfortable feelings without having them very well organized.

Perhaps someday, when I find a real deep reason behind them all, I will be able to give them in one sensible lecture instead of this thing. Also, in case you are beginning to believe that some of the things I said before are true because I am a scientist and according to the brochure that you get I won some awards and so forth, instead of your looking at the ideas themselves and judging them directly—in other words, you see, you have some feeling toward authority—I will get rid of that tonight. I dedicate this lecture to showing what ridiculous conclusions and rare statements such a man as myself can make. I wish, therefore, to destroy any image of authority that has previously been generated.

You see, a Saturday night is a night for entertainment, and that is… I think I have got the right spirit now and we can go on. It is always a good to entitle a lecture in a way that nobody can believe. It is either peculiar or it is just the opposite of what you would expect. And that is the reason, of course, for calling it “This Unscientific Age.” Of course if you mean by scientific the applications of technology, there is no doubt that this is a scientific age. There is no doubt at all that today we have all kinds of scientific applications which are causing us all kinds of trouble as well as giving us all kinds of advantages. And so in that sense it certainly is a scientific age. If you mean by a scientific age an age in which science is developing rapidly and advancing fully as fast as it can, then this is definitely a scientific age.

The speed at which science has been developing for the last two hundred years has been ever increasing, and we reach a culmination of speed now. We are in particular in the biological sciences, on the threshold of the most remarkable discoveries. What they are going to be I am unable to tell you. Naturally, that is the excitement of it. And the excitement that comes from turning one stone over after another and finding underneath new discoveries has been going on now perpetually for several hundred years, and it is an ever-rising crescendo. This is, in that sense, definitely a scientific age. It has been called a heroic age, by a scientist, of course. Nobody else knows about it. Sometime when history looks back at this age they will see that it was a most dramatic and remarkable age, the transformation from not knowing much about the world to knowing a great deal more than was known before. But if you mean that this is an age of science in the sense that in art, in literature, and in people’s attitudes and understandings, and so forth science plays a large part, I don’t think it is a scientific age at all. You see, if you take, the heroic age of the Greeks, say, there were poems about the military heroes. In the religious period of the Middle Ages, art was related directly to religion, and people’s attitudes toward life were definitely closely knit to the religious viewpoints. It was a religious age. This is not a scientific age from that point of view.

Now, that there are unscientific things is not my grief. That’s a nice word. I mean, that is not what I am worrying about, that there are unscientific things. That something is unscientific is not bad; there is nothing the matter with it. It is just unscientific. And scientific is limited, of course, to those things that we can tell about by trial and error. For example, there is the absurdity of the young these days chanting things about purple people eaters and hound dogs, something that we cannot criticize at all if we belong to the old flat foot floogie and a floy floy or the music goes down and around. Sons of mothers who sang about “come, Josephine, in my flying machine,” which sounds just about as modern as “I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China.” So in life, in gaiety, in emotion, in human pleasures and pursuits, and in literature and so on, there is no need to be scientific, there is no reason to be scientific. One must relax and enjoy life. That is not the criticism. That is not the point.

But if you do stop to think about it for a while, you will find that there are numerous, mostly trivial things which are unscientific, unnecessarily. For instance, there are extra seats in the front here, even though there are people [standing in the back].

While I was talking to some of the students in one of the classes, one man asked me a question, which was, “Are there any attitudes or experiences that you have when working in scientific information which you think might be useful in working with other information?”

(By the way, I will at the end say how much of the world today is sensible, rational, and scientific. It’s a great deal. So, I am only taking the bad parts first. It’s more fun. Then we soften it at the end. And I latched onto that as a nice organizing way to make my discussion of all the things that I think are unscientific in the world.)

I would like, therefore, to discuss some of the little tricks of the trade in trying to judge an idea. We have the advantage that we can ultimately refer the idea to experiment in the sciences, which may not be possible in other fields. But nevertheless, some of the ways of judging things, some of the experiences undoubtedly are useful in other ways. So, I start with a few examples.

The first one has to do with whether a man knows what he is talking about, whether what he says has some basis or not. And my trick that I use is very easy. If you ask him intelligent questions—that is, penetrating, interested, honest, frank, direct questions on the subject, and no trick questions—then he quickly gets stuck. It is like a child asking naive questions. If you ask naive but relevant questions, then almost immediately the person doesn’t know the answer, if he is an honest man. It is important to appreciate that. And I think that I can illustrate one unscientific aspect of the world which would be probably very much better if it were more scientific. It has to do with politics. Suppose two politicians are running for president, and one goes through the farm section and is asked, “What are you going to do about the farm question?” And he knows right away—bang, bang, bang. Now he goes to the next campaigner who comes through. “What are you going to do about the farm problem?” “Well, I don’t know. I used to be a general, and I don’t know anything about farming. But it seems to me it must be a very difficult problem, because for twelve, fifteen, twenty years people have been struggling with it, and people say that they know how to solve the farm problem. And it must be a hard problem. So the way that I intend to solve the farm problem is to gather around me a lot of people who know something about it, to look at all the experience that we have had with this problem before, to take a certain amount of time at it, and then to come to some conclusion in a reasonable way about it. Now, I can’t tell you ahead of time what conclusion, but I can give you some of the principles I’ll try to use—not to make things difficult for individual farmers, if there are any special problems we will have to have some way to take care of them,” etc., etc., etc.

Now such a man would never get anywhere in this country, I think. Its never been tried, anyway. This is in the attitude of mind of the populace, that they have to have an answer and that a man who gives an answer is better than a man who gives no answer, when the real fact of the matter is, in most cases, it is the other way around. And the result of this of course is that the politician must give an answer. And the result of this is that political promises can never be kept. It is a mechanical fact; it is impossible. The result of that is that nobody believes campaign promises. And the result of that is a general disparaging of politics, a general lack of respect for the people who are trying to solve problems, and so forth. It’s all generated from the very beginning (maybe—this is a simple analysis). Its all generated, maybe, by the fact that the attitude of the populace is to try to find the answer instead of trying to find a man who has a way of getting at the answer.

Now we try another item that comes in the sciences—I give only one or two illustrations of each of the general ideas—and that is how to deal with uncertainty. There have been a lot of jokes made about ideas of uncertainty. I would like to remind you that you can be pretty sure of things even though you are uncertain, that you don’t have to be so in-the-middle, in fact not at all in-the-middle. People say to me, “Well, how can you teach your children what is right and wrong if you don’t know?” Because I’m pretty sure of what’s right and wrong. I’m not absolutely sure; some experiences may change my mind. But I know what I would expect to teach them. But, of course, a child won’t learn what you teach him.

I would like to mention a somewhat technical idea, but it’s the way, you see, we have to understand how to handle uncertainty. How does something move from being almost certainly false to being almost certainly true? How does experience change? How do you handle the changes of your certainty with experience? And it’s rather complicated, technically, but I’ll give a rather simple, idealized example.

You have, we suppose, two theories about the way something is going to happen, which I will call “Theory A” and “Theory B.” Now it gets complicated. Theory A and Theory B. Before you make any observations, for some reason or other, that is, your past experiences and other observations and intuition and so on, suppose that you are very much more certain of Theory A than of Theory B—much more sure. But suppose that the thing that you are going to observe is a test. According to Theory A, nothing should happen. According to Theory B, it should turn blue. Well, you make the observation, and it turns sort of a greenish. Then you look at Theory A, and you say, “It’s very unlikely,” and you turn to Theory B, and you say, “Well, it should have turned sort of blue, but it wasn’t impossible that it should turn sort of greenish color.” So the result of this observation, then, is that Theory A is getting weaker, and Theory B is getting stronger. And if you continue to make more tests, then the odds on Theory B increase. Incidentally, it is not right to simply repeat the same test over and over and over and over, no matter how many times you look and it still looks greenish, you haven’t made up your mind yet. But if you find a whole lot of other things that distinguish Theory A from Theory B that are different, then by accumulating a large number of these, the odds on Theory B increase.

Example. I’m in Las Vegas, suppose. And I meet a mind reader, or, let’s say, a man who claims not to be a mind reader, but more technically speaking to have the ability of telekinesis, which means that he can influence the way things behave by pure thought. This fellow comes to me, and he says, “I will demonstrate this to you. We will stand at the roulette wheel and I will tell you ahead of time whether it is going to be black or red on every shot.”

I believe, say, before I begin, it doesn’t make any difference what number you choose for this. I happen to be prejudiced against mind readers from experience in nature, in physics. I don’t see, if I believe that man is made out of atoms and if I know all of the—most of the-ways atoms interact with each other, any direct way in which the machinations in the mind can affect the ball. So from other experience and general knowledge, I have a strong prejudice against mind readers. Million to one.

Now we begin. The mind reader says it’s going to be black. It’s black. The mind reader says it’s going to be red. It’s red. Do I believe in mind readers? No. It could happen. The mind reader says it’s going to be black. It’s black. The mind reader says it’s going to be red. It’s red. Sweat. I’m about to learn something. This continues, let us suppose, for ten times. Now it’s possible by chance that that happened ten times, but the odds are a thousand to one against it. Therefore, I now have to conclude that the odds that a mind reader is really doing it are a thousand to one that he’s not a mind reader still, but it was a million to one before. But if I get ten more, you see, he’ll convince me. Not quite. One must always allow for alternative theories. There is another theory that I should have mentioned before. As we went up to the roulette table, I must have thought in my mind of the possibility that there is collusion between the so-called mind reader and the people at the table. That’s possible. Although this fellow doesn’t look like he’s got any contact with the Flamingo Club, so I suspect that the odds are a hundred to one against that. However, after he has run ten times favorable, since I was so prejudiced against mind reading, I conclude it’s collusion. Ten to one. That it’s collusion rather than accident, I mean, is ten to one, but rather more likely collusion than not is still 10,000 to one. How is he ever going to prove he’s a mind reader to me if I still have this terrible prejudice and now I claim it’s collusion? Well, we can make another test. We can go to another club.

We can make other tests. I can buy dice. And we can sit in a room and try it. We can keep on going and get rid of all the alternative theories. It will not do any good for that mind reader to stand in front of that particular roulette table ad infinitum. He can predict the result, but I only conclude it is collusion.


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