Uit The Witness.
And so, by a backhanded, upside-down argument, was predicted that there is in carbon a level at 7.82 million volts; and then experiments in the laboratory with carbon show indeed that there is. And therefore the existence in the world of all these other elements is very closely related to the fact that there is this particular level in carbon.
But the position of this particular level in carbon seems to us, after knowing the physical laws, to be a very complicated accident
of twelve complicated particles interacting. So I use to illustrate, by this example, that an understanding of the physical laws doesn’t give an understanding in a sense of a — understanding significance of the world in any way.
The details of real experience are very far, often, from the fundamental laws. There are, in a way of speaking in the world —We have a way of discussing the world, which you could call a, we discuss it at various hierarchies, or levels. Now I don’t mean to be very precise, there’s a level, there’s another level, and another level, but I will indicate, by describing a set of ideas to you, just one after the other, what I mean by hierarchies of ideas.
For example, at one end, we have the fundamental laws of physics.
Then we invent other terms for concepts which are approximate, who have, we believe, their ultimate explanation in terms of the fundamental laws. For instance, ‘heat’. Heat is supposed to be the jiggling, and it’s just a word for — a hot thing is just a word for a mass of atoms which are jiggling. For that fundamentally we should think of the atoms jiggling. But for a while, if we’re talking about heat, we sometimes forget about the atoms jiggling — just like when we talk about the glacier we don’t always think of the hexagonal ice snowflakes which originally fell.
Another example of the same thing is a salt crystal. Looked at fundamentally, it’s a lot of protons, neutrons, and electrons; but we have this concept ’salt crystal’, which carries a whole pattern, already, of fundamental interactions. Or an idea like pressure. Now if we go higher up from this, in another level, we have properties of substances — like ’refractive index’, how light is bent when it goes through something; or ’surface tension’, the fact that the water tends to pull itself together, is described by a number. I remind you that we have to go through several laws down to find out that it’s the pull of the atoms, and so on. But we still say it’s ’surface tension’, and don’t worry, when we’re discussing surface tension, of the inner workings — always — sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t.
Go on — up — in the hierarchy. With the water we have the waves and we have a thing like a storm, we have a word ’storm’ which represents an enormous mass of phenomena, or ’sunspot’ or ’star’, which is an accumulation of things.
And it’s not worthwhile always to think of it way back. In fact we can’t, because the higher up we go, we have too many steps in between, each one of which is a little weak, and we haven’t thought them all through yet.
As we go up in this hierarchy of complexity, we get to things like frog, or nerve impulse, which, you see, is an enormously complicated thing in the physical world, involving an organization of matter in a very elaborate complexity. And then we go on, we come to things, words and concepts like ’man’, and ’history’, or ’political expediency’, and so forth, which is a series of concepts that we use to understand things at an ever-higher level.
And going on, we come to things like evil, and beauty, and hope… Now which end is nearer to the ultimate creator, or the ultimate?
So if I make a religious metaphor, which end is nearer to God?
Beauty and hope, or the fundamental laws?
I think that the right way, of course, is to say the whole structural interconnections of the thing is the thing that we have to look at, and that the sequence of hierar — that all the sciences and all the efforts, not just the sciences but all the efforts of intellectual kinds, are to see the connections of the hierarchies, to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man’s psychology, man’s psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways.
And today we cannot, and there’s no use making believe we can, draw carefully a line all the way from one end of this thing to the other, in fact we’ve just begun to see that there is this relative hierarchy.
And so I don’t think either end is nearer to God’s.
And that to stand at either end, and to walk out off the end of the pier only, hoping out in that direction is the complete understanding, is a mistake.
And to stand with evil and beauty and hope, or to stand with the fundamental laws, hoping that way to get a deep understanding of the whole world, with that aspect alone, is a mistake.
And it is not sensible either, for the ones who specialize at one end, and the ones who specialize at the other end, to have such disregard for each other. (They don’t actually, but the people say they do. Sorry.)
But that actually, the great mass of workers in between, connecting one step to another, are improving all the time our understanding of the world, both from working at the ends and working in the middle. And in that way we are gradually understanding this connection, this tremendous world of interconnecting hierarchies.
If you expected science to give all the answers to the wonderful questions about what we are, where we’re going,
what the meaning of the universe is and so on, then I think you could easily become disillusioned and then look for some mystic answer to these problems. How a scientist can take a mystic answer I don’t know because the whole spirit is to understand — well, never mind that. Anyhow, I don’t understand that, but anyhow if you think of it, the way I think of what we’re doing is we’re exploring, we’re trying to find out as much as we can about the world.
People say to me, “Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?” No, I’m not, I’m just looking to find out more about the world and if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law that explains everything, so be it, that would be very nice to discover.
If it turns out it’s like an onion with millions of layers and we’re just sick and tired of looking at the layers, then that’s the way it is, but whatever way it comes out its nature is there and she’s going to come out the way she is, and therefore when we go to investigate it we shouldn’t pre-decide what it is we’re trying to do except to find out more about it.
If you said your problem is, why do you find out more about it, if you thought you were trying to find out more about it
because you’re going to get an answer to some deep philosophical question, you may be wrong.
It may be that you can’t get an answer to that particular question by finding out more about the character of nature, but I don’t look at it — My interest in science is to simply find out about the world, and the more I find out the better it is.
I like to find out.
There are very remarkable mysteries about the fact that we’re able to do so many more things than apparently animals can do, and other questions like that, but those are mysteries I want to investigate without knowing the answer to them.
And so altogether I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large because — they seem to be — too simple, too connected to — Too local! Too provincial! The earth, he came to the earth! One of the aspects of God came to the earth, mind you, and look at what’s out there. How can you — It isn’t in proportion. Anyway, it’s no use arguing, I can’t argue it, I’m just trying to tell you why the scientific views that I have do have some effect on my beliefs. And also another thing has to do with the question of how you find out if something’s true, and if you have all these theories,
the different religions have all different theories about the thing, then you begin to wonder. Once you start doubting,
just like you’re supposed to doubt, you ask me is the science true.
We say no no, we don’t know what’s true, we’re trying to find out, everything is possibly wrong.
Start out understanding religion by saying everything is possibly wrong; let us see. As soon as you do that, you start sliding down an edge which is hard to recover from.
And so with the scientific view, well, my father’s view, that we should look to see what’s true and what may not be true, once you start doubting, which I think to me is a very fundamental part of my soul, is to doubt and to ask, and when you doubt and ask it gets a little harder to believe. You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.
I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean.
I might think about it a little bit, if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else, but I don’t have to know an answer.
I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell.
It doesn’t frighten me.