Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

27 MAY, 2015

An Animating Presence: Dani Shapiro on the Quest for a Connected Consciousness


The art of holding up one’s own end of the dialogue.

“I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars,” physicist Margaret Wertheim asserted as she turned to Dante in reconciling science and spirituality. Centuries earlier, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, had articulated the same sentiment — and yet here we are today, we secular moderns, still struggling to find a form of spirituality without religion.

That’s what novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro explores with uncommon elegance, unselfconsciousness, and unaffected candor in Devotion (public library) — her moving memoir of the search for a sense of sacredness as a nonbeliever shackled by the tyrannical routines and responsibilities of contemporary adulthood, longing for some form of tangible assurance that there is a greater meaning to be savored.

Art by William Blake for Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Click image for more.

Jolted out of the trance of productivity by the prod of pain — her father’s untimely death, followed by the near-loss of her baby boy by a rare disease that strikes seven out of every million infants — Shapiro finds herself on the so-called spiritual path, skeptical of even its terminology. But the journey that unfolds is unexpectedly revelatory, her record of it profound without the slightest trace of precious.

As she plunges into the Eastern traditions — arguably the most common refuge for those disenchanted with the organized religions of the West and drawn to the philosophical aspects of spirituality — Shapiro is discombobulated to encounter the familiar demons of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, which she had long left behind and was now, in the wake of her father’s death, trying to understand.

Amid a Metta meditation — Metta being the Buddhist practice of “inclining the mind in the direction of good will” — she is suddenly gripped with unease at the required chants:

After a little while, I became troubled by the question of prayer. Was this a prayer? Who was it directed to? Was I petitioning some almighty being? The God of my childhood asserted himself: judging, withholding, all-knowing. In turn, the phrases themselves became supplication, bargaining, appeasement. My mind was aswirl once again, and I could barely sit still.

When she raises the question to the group, the teacher — none other than the venerable Sylvia Boorstein — explains that rather than metaphysical sorcery, the chants are meant to channel our deepest wishes. (“May I feel protected and safe,” this particular one goes. “May my life unfold smoothly with ease.”) Shapiro’s initial reluctance to give the notion of a wish much credence (“Wishing was something children did — wasn’t it?”) eventually gives way to grasping the deeper significance of these ritualistic incantations:

What did it mean to fervently, wholeheartedly name a desire? … To speak out of a deep yearning — to set that yearning loose in the world? … Could a wish be a less fraught word for a prayer? … Maybe it wasn’t about who, if anyone, was on the other end, listening. Maybe faith had to do with holding up one end of the dialogue.

Writing itself, she comes to observe, works much like a prayer. With an eye to Buddhist scholar Steve Cope’s term for early meditation experiences — “the noble failure” — Shapiro, who has since expanded on this idea in the magnificent Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, reflects:

In novels — as in life — there is no perfection. We do the best we can with the tools we have at our disposal. Given that we are changing, the tools are changing, the thing itself is changing — there must be a moment when we stop. When we say, This is the best I can do for now… There is nobility in the effort, courage in the dailiness — the doggedness. It is a process of trying and failing. Of beginning again.

And so it is with the search for meaning — like writing, its rewards spring not from the finished product but from the integrity of the process, from the act of holding up one’s own end of the dialogue along its ongoingness.

Shapiro brushes with a stark testament to this as she nears the end of her journey. Over tea, a friend asks whether she has found an answer to her spiritual inquiry. She recounts the exchange:

There’s nothing trickier than trying to talk about personal belief. Add on top of that trying to talk about personal belief with a very smart atheist. But I had some things to say. And wasn’t that the whole point, really? To opt back in? To form — if not an opinion — a set of feelings and instincts by which to live?

“I would say yes.” I took a leap. “I believe in God more than I did a couple of years ago. But not the God of my childhood. Not a God who keeps score, and decides whether or not to inscribe me — or anybody else — in the book of life.”

“So what exactly do you believe, then?” She sipped her tea and waited for a better answer. I wanted to tell her that exactly and believe don’t belong in the same sentence.

“I believe that there is something connecting us,” I said. “Something that was here before we got here and will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.”

I looked at my friend for any sign of ridicule, but saw none. She was nodding.

“An animating presence,” she said.

That was as good a word as any: presence. As in the opposite of absence. By training my thoughts and daily actions in the direction of an open-minded inquiry, what had emerged was a powerful sense of presence. It couldn’t be touched, or apprehended, but nonetheless, when I released the hold of my mind and all its swirling stories, this was what I felt. Something — rather than nothing. While sitting in meditation or practicing yoga, the paradox was increasingly clear to me: emptiness led to fullness, nonthought to greater understanding.


I thought of Sylvia Boorstein’s elegant phrase: complicated with it. We were complicated by our history, by the religion of our ancestors. There was beauty and wisdom and even solace in that. I no longer felt that I had to embrace it all — nor did I feel that I had to run away. I could take the bits and pieces that made sense to me, and incorporate them into the larger patchwork of our lives.

Devotion is a beautiful and deeply gratifying read in its entirety. Complement it with Shapiro on vulnerability and how to live with presence and why creative work requires leaping into the unknown, then revisit neuroscientist Sam Harris on cultivating nonreligious spirituality and Alan Lightman on finding transcendence in everyday life.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

26 MAY, 2015

A Biologist-Turned-Buddhist and His Philosopher Father on the Nature of the Self and the True Measure of Personal Strength


“You first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist.”

For the past few centuries, Western philosophy has maintained that human beings are driven by enlightened self-interest — a view predicated on the needs and desires of a solid self. Meanwhile, Eastern philosophies and spiritual traditions have long considered the self an illusion — a view with which modern science has recently begun to side.

These contradictory conceptions of the self as a centerpiece of identity and success, per the Western view, and as an illusion, per the Eastern one, are what French philosopher Jean-François Revel and his biologist-turned-Buddhist son, Matthieu Ricard, explore in their extraordinary conversation, published as The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life (public library).

What makes the conversation particularly compelling is the unusual pairing of perspectives — it is not only an intergenerational dialogue between a father and a son who both possess enormous intellectual potency, but a dialogue between Western philosophy and Eastern spirituality with a strong emphasis on science. The scientific perspective, in fact, comes not from Revel but from Ricard, who gave up a promising career as a molecular biologist — he had worked with Nobel laureate Jacques Monod — to move to Nepal and study Tibetan Buddhism. Doubly significant is Ricard’s route to Buddhism: Raised in the strongly secular home of two prominent French intellectuals — his mother, Revel’s wife, was the painter Yahne Le Toumelin — he grew up with only an intellectual curiosity toward religion and turned to Buddhism not out of disappointment with Western faiths but out of what his father calls “a state of indifference to any religion, a kind of religious weightlessness.”

Matthieu Ricard (right) with his father, Jean-François Revel (Photograph: Raphaelle Demandre)

So in 1999, when Revel traveled to Ricard’s home in Kathmandu and the two sat down for this remarkable intellectual encounter, it was the philosophical rather than the religion dimensions of Buddhism that took center stage as the father and son contemplated such immutable human concerns as free will, the meaning of life, the value of scientific progress, and the pillars of the good life. As they speak, each addresses the other as much as he is confabulating with himself, which results in a masterpiece of the art of conversation at its most elevated and ennobling — an exchange of dynamic contemplation between and within minds, driven not by the self-righteous slinging of opinions but by a deep commitment to mutual understanding and to enriching the shared pool of wisdom.

One of the most pause-giving dimensions of the conversation deals with this notion of the self and its illusory nature. When Revel takes issue with the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, pointing out its mystical and scientifically ungrounded suppositions, Ricard emphasizes its metaphorical and philosophical importance over its literal interpretation. Embedded in that notion, he suggests, is the key to unmooring ourselves from the tyranny of the self in the here and now:

It’s important to understand that what’s called reincarnation in Buddhism has nothing to do with the transmigration of some “entity” or other… As long as one thinks in terms of entities rather than function and continuity, it’s impossible to understand the Buddhist concept of rebirth.


Since Buddhism denies the existence of any individual self that could be seen as a separate entity capable of transmigrating from one existence to another by passing from one body to another, one might well wonder what it could be that links those successive states of existence together… It’s seen as a continuum, a stream of consciousness that continues to flow without there being any fixed or autonomous entity running through it.

Illustration from 'The Magic Boat' by Tom Seidmann-Freud, Sigmund Freud's niece. Click image for more.

Ricard likens this concept to “a river without a boat descending along its course” and is careful to point out a common misconception: Although Buddhism denies the existence of the individual self, it doesn’t deny individual consciousness. He explains:

The fact that there’s no such discontinuous entity being transferred from one life to the next doesn’t mean that there can’t be a continuity of functioning. That the self has no true existence doesn’t prevent one particular stream of consciousness from having qualities that distinguish it from another stream. The fact that there’s no boat floating down the river doesn’t prevent the water from being full of mud, polluted by a paper factory, or clean and clear. The state of the river at any given moment is the result of its history. In the same way, an individual stream of consciousness is loaded with all the traces left on it by positive and negative thoughts, as well as by actions and words arising from those thoughts. What we’re trying to do by spiritual practice is to gradually purify the river. The ultimate state of complete clarity is what we call spiritual realization. All the negative emotions, all the obscurations that render the underlying wisdom invisible, have then been dissolved.

Echoing the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki’s assertion that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow,” Ricard argues that this recognition of individual consciousness is central to the dissolution of the ego-shell:

It’s not a question of annihilating the self, which has never really existed, but simply of uncovering its imposture. Indeed, if the self did have any intrinsic existence we’d never be able to bring it from existence into nonexistence.


A nonexistent self can’t really be “abolished,” but its nonexistence can be recognized. What we want to abolish is the illusion, the mistake that has no inherent existence in the first place… whatever we judge to be disagreeable or harmful. But as soon as we recognize that the self has no true existence, all these attracting and repelling impulses will vanish… The self has neither beginning nor end, and therefore in the present it has no more existence than the mind attributes to it.

Ricard, who has since written about the secret of happiness, considers how our natural, everyday experience of the “I” mutates into the illusion of the self, from which all of our suffering stems:

There’s a natural feeling of self, of “I,” which makes you think “I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m walking,” and so forth. By itself, that feeling is neutral. It doesn’t specifically lead to either happiness or suffering. But then comes the idea that the self is a kind of constant that lasts all your life, regardless of all the physical and mental changes you go through. You get attached to the idea of being a self, “myself,” a “person,” and of “my” body, “my” name, “my” mind, and so on. Buddhism accepts that there is a continuum of consciousness, but denies any existence of a solid, permanent, and autonomous self anywhere in that continuum. The essence of Buddhist practice is therefore to get rid of that illusion of a self which so falsifies our view of the world.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Click image for more.

When his father probes how one is expected to effect positive change in the world without a sense of personal agency — another common critique by those who misunderstand the foundational philosophies of Buddhism — Ricard responds:

The wish to allay others’ suffering, which may inspire a whole lifetime’s work, is an admirable ambition. It’s important to distinguish between negative emotions, like desire, hatred, and pride, that solidify still further our self-centered outlook, and positive ones, like altruistic love, compassion, and faith, that allow us to free ourselves little by little from those negative and self-centered tendencies. Positive emotions don’t disturb our mind, they reinforce it and make it more stable and more courageous.

In a sentiment that calls to mind David Foster Wallace on the dark side of ambition, Ricard makes an important distinction between the two types of ambition:

Positive ambition — the pursuit of others’ well-being by all possible means, the fervent wish to transform oneself — is one of the cardinal virtues in Buddhism. In fact, Buddhists nurture one main ambition without any limits, that of removing the suffering of all living beings throughout the whole universe. That sort of ambition stops you succumbing to inertia and makes you strong-minded and determined. So the distinction between the positive and negative, selfless and self-centered sides of ambition is important. You could say that ambition is positive if its aim is to help others. That’s the simplest definition. Conversely, ambition is negative if achieving it is detrimental to others, and an emotion is negative if it destroys your own and others’ inner peace.

He illustrates this with a verse from the eight-century Buddhist sage Shantideva:

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.
Is there need for lengthy explanation?
Childish beings look out for themselves,
While Buddhas labor for the good of others:
See the difference that divides them!

With that great Eastern capacity for holding paradox and fusing contradictory concepts into a unity of wisdom, Ricard argues that shedding the ego-shell actually requires first fortifying our ego — more than that, he suggests, true altruism is the product not of selflessness but of a strong sense of self:

Buddhism’s goal of uncovering the “imposture of the ego,” this ego that seems so powerful and causes us so much trouble while having no existence in itself. Nevertheless, as a first step it’s important to stabilize this feeling of a self in order to distinguish all its characteristics. You could say, paradoxically, that you first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist. Someone with an unstable, fragmented, amorphous personality has little chance of being able to identify that powerful feeling of “me,” as a prior step to recognizing that it doesn’t correspond to any real entity. So you need to start with a healthy and coherent self to be able to investigate it. You can shoot at a target, but not in fog.


But it’s important not to think that once the imposture of the ego is unmasked you find yourself in a state of inner nothingness, to the point that the destruction of the personality renders you incapable of acting or communicating. You don’t become an empty container. It’s quite the opposite. When you’re no longer the plaything of an illusory despot, like the shadows in Plato’s cave, your wisdom, love for others and compassion can be freely expressed. It’s a freedom from the limitations imposed by attachment to a self, not at all an anesthesia of the will. This “opening of the eyes of wisdom” increases your strength of mind, your diligence, and your capacity to take appropriate and altruistic action.

Revel contrasts this with the West’s “cult of the self” and our civilizational emphasis on “the strong personality” as a hallmark of success, questioning whether there can be a common ground between cultural and philosophical traditions so diametrically opposed in this regard. But Ricard, once again, meets the problem with semantic lucidity that melts away the apparent conflict:

If by personality you mean exacerbation of the ego, simply to have a strong personality seems to me, unfortunately, a highly dubious criterion of success. Hitler and Mao Tse-tung had very strong personalities.

Illustration by André François from 'Little Boy Brown' by Isobel Harris. Click image for more.

Echoing Bertrand Russell’s famous assertion that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult… and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it,” Ricard adds:

It’s important not to confuse strong individuality and strength of mind. The great teachers I’ve been able to meet had indomitable strength of mind. You could say they had very impressive personalities, and that they radiated a sort of natural strength that everyone who met them could perceive. But the big difference was that you couldn’t find the slightest trace of ego in them. I mean the kind of ego that inspires selfishness and self-centeredness. Their strength of mind came from knowledge, serenity, and inner freedom that were outwardly manifested as an unshakable certainty. They were worlds apart from Hitler, Mao Tse-tung and the like, whose powerful personalities arose from an unbridled desire to dominate, and from pride, greed, or hatred. In both cases, we’re faced with immense power, but in the first that power is a flow of constructive altruism, while in the second it’s negative and destructive.

The Monk and the Philosopher is a remarkable read in its totality, addressing with enormous depth and dimension such aspects of the human experience as happiness, suffering, education, ethics, and love. Complement it with D.T. Suzuki on how Zen can help us cultivate our character and Jack Kerouac’s Zen-inspired meditation on the self illusion and “the golden eternity,” then revisit Albert Einstein and the Indian philosopher Tagore’s historic conversation entwining Eastern and Western perspectives with great mutual curiosity and goodwill.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

14 MAY, 2015

Charlotte Brontë on Faith and Atheism


A specimen from the fossil record of Truth and Reason.

“People wish to be settled,” Emerson wrote in his spectacular 1841 essay on character and the key to personal growth, “[but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Exactly a decade later, Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816–March 31, 1855) — a mind at least as brilliant as Emerson’s and a spirit at least as expansive — tussled with this vital and vitalizing interplay of hope and unsettlement as she faced one of the most momentous frontiers of the human experience.

In an 1851 letter to her friend James Taylor, found in Elizabeth Gaskell’s altogether indispensable 1857 biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë (public library), 35-year-old Brontë urges Taylor to read a book that had just unsettled her worldview in a most profound way — Letters on the Nature and Development of Man, a collection of correspondence between English social theorist Harriet Martineau and American missionary George Henry Atkinson.

After enthusing about the book’s impact, Brontë writes to Taylor:

Of the impression this book has made on me, I will not now say much. It is the first exposition of avowed atheism and materialism I have ever read; the first unequivocal declaration of disbelief in the existence of a God or a future life I have ever seen. In judging of such exposition and declaration, one would wish entirely to put aside the sort of instinctive horror they awaken, and to consider them in an impartial spirit and collected mood. This I find difficult to do. The strangest thing is, that we are called on to rejoice over this hopeless blank — to receive this bitter bereavement as great gain — to welcome this unutterable desolation as a state of pleasant freedom. Who could do this if he would? Who would do this if he could?

Brontë was perhaps more sensitive than most to the anguish of this “hopeless blank” — nine years earlier, she had experienced one of its sharpest and most personal permutations in the heartbreak of unrequited love, the ultimate devastation of hope for communion met with blankness. (One wonders where Taylor stood on this most intimate continuum of hope and hopelessness — he had proposed marriage to Brontë three times, to no avail. Indeed, the beloved author received a fair share of marriage proposals, which she declined with great psychological mastery.)

And so, with sturdy self-awareness and crystalline coolness, Brontë goes on to articulate the reason so many people believe — choose to believe — in the truth of “God” even when it clashes with the facts of reason and reality:

Sincerely, for my own part, do I wish to know and find the Truth; but if this be Truth, well may she guard herself with mysteries, and cover herself with a veil. If this be Truth, man or woman who beholds her can but curse the day he or she was born.

English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd captured the concept of non-space in his 1617 creation series, long before the concept of vacuum existed in cosmology. Artwork from 'Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time.'

Click image for more.

But Brontë, a woman of intense intellect, decides not to dwell on the unsettling notion of this “hopeless blank” and instead approaches the issue like a scientist — by seeking out alternative hypotheses and subjecting her theories to an objective peer review:

I wish to hear what some other person thinks, — someone whose feelings are unapt to bias his judgment. Read the book, then, in an unprejudiced spirit, and candidly say what you think of it. I mean, of course, if you have time — not otherwise.

Taylor did find the time to read the book and seems to have vehemently dismissed its premise, for Brontë wrote to him in another letter five weeks later:

I do most entirely agree with you in what you say about [the] book. I deeply regret its publication for the lady’s sake; it gives a death-blow to her future usefulness. Who can trust the word, or rely on the judgment, of an avowed atheist?

Brontë’s response, of course, is to a rather crude conception of atheism equating the absence of belief with the very sense of “unutterable desolation” she so feared. But if, as Richard Dawkins reasoned in coining the word “meme,” our ideas evolve much like our genetic material does, then Brontë’s primitive interpretation of faith and materialism is a necessary step in the evolution of our more nuanced contemporary ideas. Having come of age in a deeply religious era as the daughter of a clergyman, she belongs to that pivotal species of ideological amphibians who first emerged from the oceans of religion to step tentatively onto the solid land of reason and secular thought — even if by merely questioning dogmas that had been accepted for eons and being unsettled by alternative views of reality.

It is in no small part thanks to such unsettled ponderings, however primitive, that a century and a half later we can afford to speak of spirituality without religion and watch our scientists turn to Dante for answers and heed Carl Sagan as he whispers posthumously: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

11 MAY, 2015

Richard Feynman on Science vs. Religion and Why Uncertainty Is Central to Morality


“It is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless treatise on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” Perhaps because, as Krista Tippett has astutely observed, science and religion “ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone,” some of humanity’s greatest scientific minds have contemplated the relationship between these two modes of inquiry — Galileo in his legendary letter to the Duchess of Tuscany; Ada Lovelace in her meditation on the interconnectedness of everything; Einstein in his answer to little girl’s question about whether scientists pray; Jane Goodall in her poetic take on science and spirit; Sam Harris in his elegant case for spirituality without religion; and physicist Margaret Wertheim in turning to Dante for an answer.

Among the tireless investigators of this duality is legendary physicist and science-storyteller Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988), who explores this very inquiry in the final essay in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the same spectacular compendium that gave us the Great Explainer on good, evil, and the Zen of science, the universal responsibility of scientists, and the meaning of life.

Feynman writes:

I do not believe that science can disprove the existence of God; I think that is impossible. And if it is impossible, is not a belief in science and in a God — an ordinary God of religion — a consistent possibility?

Yes, it is consistent. Despite the fact that I said that more than half of the scientists don’t believe in God, many scientists do believe in both science and God, in a perfectly consistent way. But this consistency, although possible, is not easy to attain, and I would like to try to discuss two things: Why it is not easy to attain, and whether it is worth attempting to attain it.

Clarifying that by “God” he means the personal deity typical of Western religions, “to whom you pray and who has something to do with creating the universe and guiding you in morals,” Feynman considers the key difficulties in reconciling the scientific worldview with the religious one. Building on his assertion that the universal responsibility of the scientist is to remain immersed in “ignorance and doubt and uncertainty,” he points out that the centrality of uncertainty in science is incompatible with the unconditional faith required by religion:

It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.

Piece from Richard Feynman's little-known sketches, edited by his daughter. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Wendell Berry on the wisdom of ignorance, Feynman adds:

It is necessary, I believe, to accept this idea, not only for science, but also for other things; it is of great value to acknowledge ignorance. It is a fact that when we make decisions in our life, we don’t necessarily know that we are making them correctly; we only think that we are doing the best we can — and that is what we should do.

Befriending uncertainty, Feynman argues, becomes a habit of mind that automates thought to a point of no longer being able to retreat from doubt’s inquiry. The question then changes from the binary “Is there God?” to the degrees-of-certainty ponderation “How sure is it that there is a God?” He writes:

This very subtle change is a great stroke and represents a parting of the ways between science and religion. I do not believe a real scientist can ever believe in the same way again. Although there are scientists who believe in God, I do not believe that they think of God in the same way as religious people do… I do not believe that a scientist can ever obtain that view — that really religious understanding, that real knowledge that there is a God — that absolute certainty which religious people have.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

A believing scientist, then, is one from whom the degree of certainty outweighs but doesn’t displace the degree of doubt — in the scientist, unlike in the religious person, doubt remains a parallel presence with any element of faith. Feynman illustrates this sliding scale of uncertainty by putting our human existence in cosmic perspective:

The size of the universe is very impressive, with us on a tiny particle whirling around the sun, among a hundred thousand million suns in this galaxy, itself among a billion galaxies… Man is a latecomer in a vast evolving drama; can the rest be but a scaffolding for his creation?

Yet again, there are the atoms of which all appears to be constructed, following immutable laws. Nothing can escape it; the stars are made of the same stuff, and the animals are made of the same stuff, but in such complexity as to mysteriously appear alive — like man himself.

With an eye to the immutable mystery at the heart of all knowledge — something Feynman memorably explored in his now-iconic ode to a flower — he adds:

It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means without man — as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described. It usually ends in laughter, delight in the futility of trying to understand. These scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged simply as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems to be inadequate.

But even if one comes to doubt the factuality of divinity itself, Feynman argues that religious myths remain a valuable moral compass, the basic ethical tenets of which can be applied to life independently of the religious dogma:

In the end, it is possible to doubt the divinity of Christ, and yet to believe firmly that it is a good thing to do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you. It is possible to have both these views at the same time; and I would say that I hope you will find that my atheistic scientific colleagues often carry themselves well in society.

Having grown up in communist Bulgaria — a culture where blind nonbelief was as dogmatically mandated by the government as blind belief is by the church elsewhere — I find Feynman’s thoughts on the dogma of atheism particularly insightful:

The communist views are the antithesis of the scientific, in the sense that in communism the answers are given to all the questions — political questions as well as moral ones — without discussion and without doubt. The scientific viewpoint is the exact opposite of this; that is, all questions must be doubted and discussed; we must argue everything out — observe things, check them, and so change them. The democratic government is much closer to this idea, because there is discussion and a chance of modification. One doesn’t launch the ship in a definite direction. It is true that if you have a tyranny of ideas, so that you know exactly what has to be true, you act very decisively, and it looks good — for a while. But soon the ship is heading in the wrong direction, and no one can modify the direction anymore. So the uncertainties of life in a democracy are, I think, much more consistent with science.

He revisits the ethical aspect of religion — its commitment to guiding us toward a more moral life — and its interplay with our human fallibility:

We know that, even with moral values granted, human beings are very weak; they must be reminded of the moral values in order that they may be able to follow their consciences. It is not simply a matter of having a right conscience; it is also a question of maintaining strength to do what you know is right. And it is necessary that religion give strength and comfort and the inspiration to follow these moral views. This is the inspirational aspect of religion. It gives inspiration not only for moral conduct — it gives inspiration for the arts and for all kinds of great thoughts and actions as well.

Noting that all three aspects of religion — metaphysical divinity, morality, and inspiration — are interconnected and that “to attack one feature of the system is to attack the whole structure,” Feynman zeroes in on the inescapable conflict between the empirical findings of science and the metaphysical myths of faith:

The result … is a retreat of the religious metaphysical view, but nevertheless, there is no collapse of the religion. And further, there seems to be no appreciable or fundamental change in the moral view.

After all, the earth moves around the sun — isn’t it best to turn the other cheek? Does it make any difference whether the earth is standing still or moving around the sun?


In my opinion, it is not possible for religion to find a set of metaphysical ideas which will be guaranteed not to get into conflicts with an ever-advancing and always-changing science which is going into an unknown. We don’t know how to answer the questions; it is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong. The difficulty arises because science and religion are both trying to answer questions in the same realm here.

On the other hand, I don’t believe that a real conflict with science will arise in the ethical aspect, because I believe that moral questions are outside of the scientific realm.

Another 16th-century painting by Francisco de Holanda from 'Cosmigraphics.'Click image for more.

And so we get to the most enduring challenge — the fact that, in Tippett’s words, “how we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at.” Arguing that science isn’t aimed at the foundations of morality, Feynman writes:

The typical human problem, and one whose answer religion aims to supply, is always of the following form: Should I do this? Should we do this? Should the government do this? To answer this question we can resolve it into two parts: First — If I do this, what will happen? — and second — Do I want that to happen? What would come of it of value — of good?

Now a question of the form: If I do this, what will happen? is strictly scientific. As a matter of fact, science can be defined as a method for, and a body of information obtained by, trying to answer only questions which can be put into the form: If I do this, what will happen? The technique of it, fundamentally, is: Try it and see. Then you put together a large amount of information from such experiences. All scientists will agree that a question — any question, philosophical or other — which cannot be put into the form that can be tested by experiment … is not a scientific question; it is outside the realm of science.

I claim that whether you want something to happen or not — what value there is in the result, and how you judge the value of the result (which is the other end of the question: Should I do this?), must lie outside of science because it is not a question that you can answer only by knowing what happens; you still have to judge what happens — in a moral way. So, for this theoretical reason I think that there is a complete consistency between the moral view — or the ethical aspect of religion — and scientific information.

But therein lies the central friction — because of the interconnectedness of all three parts of religion, doubt about the metaphysical aspect invariably chips away at the authority of the moral and inspirational aspects, which are fueled by the believer’s emotional investment in the divine component. Feynman writes:

Emotional ties to the moral code … begin to be severely weakened when doubt, even a small amount of doubt, is expressed as to the existence of God; so when the belief in God becomes uncertain, this particular method of obtaining inspiration fails.

He concludes, appropriately, like a scientist rather than a dogmatist — by framing the right questions rather than asserting the right answers:

I don’t know the answer to this central problem — the problem of maintaining the real value of religion, as a source of strength and of courage to most [people], while, at the same time, not requiring an absolute faith in the metaphysical aspects.

Western civilization, it seems to me, stands by two great heritages. One is the scientific spirit of adventure–the adventure into the unknown, an unknown which must be recognized as being unknown in order to be explored; the demand that the unanswerable mysteries of the universe remain unanswered; the attitude that all is uncertain; to summarize it — the humility of the intellect. The other great heritage is Christian ethics — the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual — the humility of the spirit.

These two heritages are logically, thoroughly consistent. But logic is not all; one needs one’s heart to follow an idea. If people are going back to religion, what are they going back to? Is the modern church a place to give comfort to a man who doubts God — more, one who disbelieves in God? Is the modern church a place to give comfort and encouragement to the value of such doubts? So far, have we not drawn strength and comfort to maintain the one or the other of these consistent heritages in a way which attacks the values of the other? Is this unavoidable? How can we draw inspiration to support these two pillars of Western civilization so that they may stand together in full vigor, mutually unafraid? Is this not the central problem of our time?

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is a trove of the Great Explainer’s wisdom on everything from education to integrity to the value of science as a way of life. Complement it with Feynman on why everything is connected to everything else, how his father taught him about the most important thing, and his little-known drawings, then revisit Alan Lightman — a Great Explainer for our day — on science and the divinity of the unknowable.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.