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Dr. Feynman or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Uncertainty

Many people fear uncertainty. It makes them uncomfortable. They don’t feel in control when everything isn’t crystal clear. Many will seek out some explanation and stubbornly cling to it, closing their minds for fear of being sucked into the shadow of doubt once more. Attacking the other possibilities, rationalizing one’s own decision, trying desperately to make it completely true to ease the mind. Agnostics, for example, are often criticized by theists and atheists alike as being afraid of commitment, trying to play both sides, and so forth, and this is quite unfortunate.

Here is an excerpt from the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1981).

Dr. Feynman makes several excellent points. The first is in regards to the purpose of science and scientific discovery. Too often do people see science as a way to answer particular questions. While it’s not impossible for this to work out, in the vast majority of cases, such a mindset is at best going to lead to a letdown, and at worst going to cause the results to be manipulated and shoehorned into a desired answer. He says, “We shouldn’t pre-decide what it is we’re trying to do, except to find out more about it.” One must think of science as simply exploring and documenting. Every discovery is important. Going in with an unbiased mind is the only way to appreciate it all.

The other point is more general, but more important. Uncertainty itself is not something to be feared or to avoid, but instead, embraced. It forces one to keep questioning, learning, discovering. One doesn’t need answers to everything, and it’s these unsolved mysteries that keep life interesting. Look for the beauty in both the known and the unknown — in it there is comfort and happiness.

Note: It seems the entirety of The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is online is on youtube in five parts (total time of 50min). I highly recommend you check it out
Click here for Part 1


9 responses to “Dr. Feynman or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Uncertainty

  1. Julie December 5, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    I’ve always thought science was a process, not a collection of shit we know. There’s always a possibility that some piece of evidence could be discovered that could change everything we know. That’s why even the most well-accepted, “we’re 99.999% sure of this” ideas are still considered theories.

    Nothing is ever really certain, so people who fear uncertainty waste a lot of time being afraid.

  2. mdr410 December 6, 2009 at 12:01 am

    thank you for sharing this. i agree that science is primarily concerned with exploration. i find it interesting that most people who believe that science is concerned with the “big” questions of life are actually not scientists themselves.
    with regard to being afraid of uncertainty – this is something i don’t really understand, but is apparent in every aspect of life. why aren’t we (in general) ok with saying “i don’t know the answer to that”?

    • Brian Bickerton December 6, 2009 at 3:36 am

      Glad you liked it. Feynman was an extremely man. If you liked his ideas on the world, I would also suggest reading the compilation of Albert Einstein’s work “Ideas and Opinions”. Some of it is on his scientific discoveries, but a good portion are his perspective on life, spirituality, and society.

      With the fear aspect, it’s all about control. When you don’t know the answer, you’re no longer in complete contro over the situation. Your decisions aren’t 100% solid and guaranteed true. People don’t like things out of their control, nor do they like the idea of possibly being wrong.

  3. Robin December 6, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    Uncertainty scares the shit out of me, but I’ve gotten resigned to the fact that there will always be stuff I don’t know in life… I’ll just take whatever comes along!

    On an unrelated note… why is the “related post” some anti-Obama blog?

    • Brian Bickerton December 6, 2009 at 9:10 pm

      We’re also at a time in our lives where things are still changing very rapidly and a lot rides on the decisions we make now (although nothing has to ever be final). As life goes on, you’ll see more and more how things work out and that uncertainty isn’t scary.

      As for the “related posts”, those are done automatically by WordPress. I think it’s done by similar tags.

  4. misplacedboy December 8, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    As a person whose life has taken some very unexpected turns in the last few years, I’ve learned to at least tolerate uncertainty, if not embrace it.

    Also as a Christian, I’m learning that it’s OK – in fact necessary – for me to know how little I know. Someone once called me a Christian Agnostic, I’m not sure that there are absolute answers, but I choose to look for them through the lens of Christianity.

    Christians of the more fundamentalist bent tend to not be very comfortable with science, uncertainty, or anything that challenges their worldview. We had a whole administration of them in the White House until recently.

    I’m learning that life is a roller coaster ride where we don’t know what’s coming around the next turn. It’s scary, but it can also be a helluva lot of fun.

    • Brian Bickerton December 8, 2009 at 5:52 pm

      I’m glad to hear you’ve come to grips with the unknown and are able to maintain the questioning nature along with your faith. I grew up a Roman Catholic before drifting away from the church earlier in college, so I can empathize a bit, although I went further into agnosticism. It’s certainly can be hard maintaining an openness to uncertainty with a religion, and quite scary when questioning the religion itself.

      But whatever path one chooses, as long as one’s eyes are open, you’re right, it’s certainly a lot more fun and rewarding.

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