Some fresh observations on an old problem
by RICHARD P. FEYNMAN
"The Relation of Science and Religion" is a transcript of a talk given by Dr. Feynman at the Caltech YMCA Lunch Forum on May 2, 1956.
In this age of specialization men who thoroughly know one field are often incompetent to discuss another. The great problems of the relations between one and another aspect of human activity have for this reason been discussed less and less in public. When we look at the past great debates on these subjects we feel jealous of those times, for we should have liked the excitement of such argument. The old problems, such as the relation of science and religion, are still with us, and I believe present as difficult dilemmas as ever, but they are not often publicly discussed because of the limitations of specialization.
But I have been interested in this problem for a long time and would like to discuss it. In view of my very evident lack of knowledge and understanding of religion (a lack which will grow more apparent as we proceed), I will organize the discussion in this way: I will suppose that not one man but a group of men are discussing the problem, that the group consists of specialists in many fields – the various sciences, the various religions and so on – and that we are going to discuss the problem from various sides, like a panel. Each is to give his point of view, which may be molded and modified by the later discussion. Further, I imagine that someone has been chosen by lot to be the first to present his views, and I am he so chosen.
I would start by presenting the panel with a problem: A young man, brought up in a religious family, studies a science, and as a result he comes to doubt – and perhaps later to disbelieve in – his father's God. Now, this is not an isolated example; it happens time and time again. Although I have no statistics on this, I believe that many scientists – in fact, I actually believe that more than half of the scientists – really disbelieve in their father's God; that is, they don't believe in a God in a conventional sense.
Now, since the belief in a God is a central feature of religion, this problem that I have selected points up most strongly the problem of the relation of science and religion. Why does this young man come to disbelieve?
The first answer we might hear is very simple: You see, he is taught by scientists, and (as I have just pointed out) they are all atheists at heart, so the evil is spread from one to another. But if you can entertain this view, I think you know less of science than I know of religion.
Another answer may be that a little knowledge is dangerous; this young man has learned a little bit and thinks he knows it all, but soon he will grow out of this sophomoric sophistication and come to realize that the world is more complicated, and he will begin again to understand that there must be a God.
I don't think it is necessary that he come out of it. There are many scientists – men who hope to call themselves mature – who still don't believe in God. In fact, as I would like to explain later, the answer is not that the young man thinks he knows it all – it is the exact opposite.
A third answer you might get is that this young man really doesn't understand science correctly. 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.
When I say...