Feynman on Explaining Physics

Here’s a video of physicist Richard Feynman describing why it can be problematic to use physics to “explain” phenomena. It takes him a while to get to the point he’s trying to make, but I recommend that you stick around until the end.

The goal of physics is to answer “why” at deeper and deeper levels. Some of my favourite moments as a teacher have been ones where a student has continued to ask me why something is the case, and I keep answering until together we reach the horizon of our current knowledge about the universe. Why does matter resist acceleration? Why does time flow forwards but never back? We may never know, but we can keep digging — at least until we’ve found what seems to be a truth that lacks any possible explanation for why it is true.

11 thoughts to “Feynman on Explaining Physics”

  1. This is something that is incredibly interesting to me. When I was an undergrad, I took a course on Empiricism, and was introduced to Hume. He blew my mind. His basic tenet was that volition doesn’t exist in nature, and that there is no “why,” but only a “how”. I started seeing this everywhere, people conflating the two, asking the former when they mean the latter.

    This seemingly minor misconception, I believe, has huge consequences. For instance, I think it is a major reason why most educated, scientific minds tend towards atheism. Being trained to ask and be satisfied with an answer to ‘how’, they have no need for the something extra which the ‘why’ question begs. Those who hold dearly to the ‘why’ eventually get led down a rabbit hole which needs something mystical and transcendent to reconcile.

    Ok, I realize that was a tangent, but seriously, I could write a thesis on this topic.

    1. Would it be fair to say that seeking an answer to ‘why’ requires adopting a teleological view of the phenomenon you’re discussing?

  2. What’s interesting is that there seems to be no need for such teleology when discussing ‘natural’ world – i.e. physics. But what about describing human behaviour? It would be all too natural for most people to assume that the behaviour of forward-thinking humans, humans with memory, could/should be described teleologically.

    1. I certainly agree. I don’t dislike ‘why’; I just think it should be saved for human (or sentient) systems. ‘Why’ implies volition, rather than mere causation.

      Unless you wanted to debate free-will, at which point, things become murky…

      1. I always get a bit peeved when people explain things by saying something like, the atom “wants” to bond with the other atom. I know that this explanation tends to make sense to the person saying it – they know full well that a molecule (probably) doesn’t “want” anything. But this kind of inaccuracy can be harmful to a learner’s growing understanding, and worse yet, it does an injustice to the beautiful and complex explanations that science can offer.

        1. Dude, you said it. And it’s funny how common and unnoticed this is.

          Ha, free will, yeah. I got a bit tired of the debate but there are interesting results from neuroscience which add to the discussion. They’ve been doing fMRI on people while they’re making decisions. It made me revisit that old almond nut.

          1. I kinda gave up on that conversation by the second year of a philosophy degree, but I would be interested in reading about the neuroscience perspective. Also, I just had a student ask me something along these lines. Would you cite a study, save me some digging?

        2. I agree. I understand that people talk like that for simplicity’s sake, but there comes a point when simplicity is not what we want to achieve. Unfortunately, at this point, the rhetoric is so inculcated that it’s hard to undo.

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