PHILOSOPHY AND THE PHYSICIST
Updated: May 6
“Three philosophy books?! Three bloody philosophy books?” A long-time friend called me the day after I'd posted the most recent 40 Books in 2018 blog. He was laughing and sounded like his shoulders were shrugging at the same time. “It’s the end of August, two-thirds through the year, and you haven’t reached twenty books yet. You could have ploughed through half-a-dozen summer reads easy in the past couple of weeks. And you chose 1000 pages of philosophy. Wha’for?”
At the surface level, he was right; six weeks on three books was disproportionate, especially in the context of my target. And who reads 3,600-word blog posts - even if they include a couple Monty Python videos? “Good question,” I said, after I'd finished laughing too. “I had thought about that when I was discarding the first draft.” “You write DRAFTS?!! Jeez, Paul, it’s only a blog. It’s not for a Pulitzer or a Booker prize. Don’t take it so seriously. Just type it and press ‘post’.” Metaphorically, he did just that with the conversation and changed subject. Nothing is more important than how your lawn is recovering after the summer drought. So here’s the reply I should have given him on that call:
"It’s not the writing that’s serious - it’s the learning. If we’re not learning, we’re standing still. And what’s the point of that?" THE FEYNMAN TECHNIQUE I can read a 300-page book in 48 hours. And forget it by the next day. From my experience, ‘speed reading’ is useful for skimming what we already know, but not much else. It’s useless for learning new ground. There may be a few idiot savants who can take instant mental pictures of pages, and ‘read’ them back, but that isn’t understanding. That’s just repeating.
And repeating is not learning. Physicist Richard Feynman (member of the Manhattan Project team, Nobel Prize winner, and world-renowned bongo player) said the following in his 1974 commencement address at Caltech:
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
In other words, don’t fool yourself into believing that you’re learning.
Feynman’s Technique is a robust self-check, and the cause of my six-week, three-book quest to understand the Eric Idle philosophy song. 1. EXPLAIN it to a child. This doesn’t mean literally an 8-year old; rather, it’s a reminder to use straightforward vocabulary and not to hide behind jargon. (Clarity for a newcomer is also being able to explain the relationship between the basic components, e.g. a description of empiricism and rationalism in the history of philosophy.) 2. REVIEW what you know and fill the gaps. Writing about a new topic is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. If the parts don’t link into a whole picture, you don’t fully understand. Read some more. 3. ORGANIZE and simplify. My original intent was to follow the structure of Eric Idle’s lyrics - but while putting Immanuel Kant first and Aristotle last might be funny, it was impossible to follow how one idea led to another. Hence the re-drafts and making it chronological. By following these three steps, I now have a broad 2,500-year outline of Western thought (and hope it’s useful for others). I’m not an expert, but it's a frame on which to hang more detailed explanations. THE CHALLENGER DISASTER
If all this sounds rather theoretical, I’ll close with a perfect example of Feynman putting his own technique into practice. In 1986, the NASA Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members. Imagine the complexity of the craft, the multiplicity of potential errors and - perhaps most difficult - how to articulate the truth through a cloud of politics, blame and corporate avoidance. When Feynman was invited to join the Commission investigating the cause, he was reluctant to go to Washington. His wife persuaded him to go; he might see something that others missed. She was right.
Not only did he uncover a failure in the rubber seals that connected Challenger's four fuel segments; he also explained the cause to the American nation:
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