05 Jul 2012

Feynman Bask

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OK you scores of atheist readers, now’s your chance to make up for your hurtful Sunday commentary. I am trying to get my hands on Richard Feynman’s discussion (in one of his pop books, I’m almost certain) of when he was in a South American country, and the president (?) asked him what he, Feynman, thought of their educational system. Feynman said he was sorry to report, but the only promising grad student he had encountered while visiting, was someone who came from a European (?) country. Feynman’s basic point was that this South American country’s culture raised students to be very deferential to the textbooks and established authorities in science, and that that was a recipe for stagnation.

So, can people give me the citation and, if possible, a few paragraphs of the exact text? I made need to actually quote it for something for which I have a tight deadline.

Thanks. (And FYI the atheist references are because of lot of you cite Feynman to make me feel bad on Sundays.)

33 Responses to “Feynman Bask”

  1. Greg says:


    about page 216 ish of Surely you’re joking. I think this is what you are looking for.

  2. Greg says:

    I’m more of an agnostic, than an atheist though…

  3. Dan says:

    Finally, I said that I couldn’t see how anyone could be educated by this self-propagating system in which people pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything. “However,” I said, “I must be wrong. There were two Students in my class who did very well, and one of the physicists I know was educated entirely in Brazil. Thus, it must be possible for some people to work their way through the system, bad as it is.”
    Well, after I gave the talk, the head of the science education department got up and said, “Mr. Feynman has told us some things that are very hard for us to hear, but it appears to be that he really loves science, and is sincere in his criticism. Therefore, I think we should listen to him. I came here knowing we have some sickness in our system of education; what I have learned is that we have a cancer!” – and he sat down.
    That gave other people the freedom to speak out, and there was a big excitement. Everybody was getting up and making suggestions. The students got some committee together to mimeograph the lectures in advance, and they got other committees organized to do this and that.
    Then something happened which was totally unexpected for me. One of the students got up and said, “I’m one of the two students whom Mr. Feynman referred to at the end of his talk. I was not educated in Brazil; I was educated in Germany, and I’ve just come to Brazil this year.”
    The other student who had done well in class had a similar thing to say. And the professor I had mentioned got up and said, “I was educated here in Brazil during the war, when, fortunately, all of the professors had left the university, so I learned everything by reading alone. Therefore I was not really educated under the Brazilian system.”
    I didn’t expect that. I knew the system was bad, but 100 percent – it was terrible!

  4. IDontFeelSorryForYou says:

    Atheists feel terrible by being told by theists that for an eternity they’re going to suffer a pain and torment so horrifying that it cannot even compare to any horror inflicted on their Earthly bodies, and not only that, but they will have deserved it as well. I think atheists are quite justified in making theists feel terrible on the day when theists praise such a belief. Theists kind of bring it on themselves.

    • integral says:

      I think fat people think the same way about people who exercise.

      • IDontFeelSorryForYou says:

        Except exercising atheists are not welcoming fat people’s cosmic enslavement and eternal torment.

        At least from the exercising atheist’s perspective, the fat atheist only suffers for whatever length of time he devotes to making his body unhealthy. You choose to make your body unhealthy over the course of your mortal life, then any suffering you incur from your body being unhealthy will only be over the course of your mortal life.

        The exercising theist on the other hand welcomes the fat atheist to suffer for an infinite multiple of time than the time he devoted to making his Earthly body unhealthy.

        • Ken B says:

          Yeah, one gets the feeling from a lot of believers that they are looking forward to an eternity where they get to be the BMW driver smugly cutting the atheists off — forever.

          • Egoist says:

            As I tend to mention when the subject comes up, believers are unacknowledged egoists.

            They attempt to put their ego in God and exalt it, which is really a gratification of their Earthly egoist desires.

            Some theists do find Earthly pleasure in contemplating the suffering of those disgusting atheists, those smug know it alls who slander and mock the “sacred”. They just don’t get that it is because they have created a sacred object for themselves, that they welcome suffering on anyone who defiles it.

        • integral says:

          No, they are simply welcoming fat people’s higher mortality rate, increased health insurance premiums and generally poorer health.

          Technically, the amount of time you must suffer for your sloth as well as your heresy is the same. You must suffer for the whole of your existence.

  5. Tel says:

    That sort of descent into dogma can easily happen in religion, science, engineering or any system at all really. It is good that we are on our guard against this sort of thing, but knowing one thing that doesn’t work is only a small step toward discovering what does work.

    In the case of Brazil (and maybe China too) there’s some sense toward running the process in reverse. If you are starting out with almost nothing, and you want to bootstrap your education system in a short space of time then getting some books and learning the words is as good a place to start as any. Sort of hoping for an ascent out of dogma I guess.

    Sometimes in these systems there’s a huge survival advantage for individuals who know how to hide their ability to think for themselves, and Feynman was an outsider, but the people he talked to had to go back to that system after he had gone. I get the impression such people might well be cautious about seeming too bright in class — that tends to be the way things work in Australian schools.

  6. George F. Smith says:

    Hi Bob,

    Some of the remarks on your blog left me confused, and I wanted to put in my two cents in an attempt to clarify my own position and perhaps provide clarity to others.

    I am an atheist. I hold this position because I see no reason to believe in the existence of a supernatural being. I do not hold it to make anyone feel bad or feel good.

    “God has always existed,” say the believers, “and He created the world.” Isn’t it more reasonable to assume the world (what we normally call the universe) has always existed? In other words instead of positing the existence of God, why not posit the existence of existence? To say God created everything begs the question of who created God. Why stop with God in the causal chain? Cause and effect are concepts pertaining to the known world. A cause from outside the world is literally a cause from nowhere. Okay, you can say there are different kinds of existence, but the key to religious belief, as I understand it, is that the “existence” God occupies is unknowable. It is not possible to discover this “existence” through human means. It is forever out of our reach, by definition. “Heaven is up there, somewhere.” Okay, but where? We’ll never know. Yet according to Christian teachings we are threatened with eternal damnation if we don’t believe it. (Actually, the threat is not accepting Christ as our Lord and savior, but if you don’t believe in God you’re in the same boat.) I have always suspected a lot of people accept Christianity either unthinkingly or from intimidation, terrified of the possibility of spending eternity in hell. The Christians I’ve argued with assure me they accept Christianity out of a love for the Lord, who is the monotheistic God’s divine son. To me, this is an incomprehensible position and detrimental to rational thought.

    There are believers who would say we come to God only through revelation. He speaks only to those who open their hearts to Him. If you don’t experience God directly, you are lacking an open heart. It reminds me of the expression, “To those who understand, no explanation is necessary. To those who don’t, no explanation is possible.” The “open heart” defense says nothing about the ontological status of God. To say, “God spoke to me today, and I believe,” does not resolve the contradictions. It raises suspicions about who really spoke to you.

    “Atheist” has always been synonymous with something bad or obnoxious. I view atheism as a rational philosophical position. I take it seriously. It’s not a parlor game or chic position to take to get on talk TV. I’ve met atheists I couldn’t stand and I’ve met Christians who were genuine people. And vice versa.

    I can project terrible things happening to people I care for, and try to imagine how I would react. Maybe I would collapse like a weakling. Maybe I’d stand tall. If I embraced beliefs that at root I didn’t respect, I would only be drugging myself to deal with the pain. It would not change the status of the arguments for or against the existence of God.

    We each have a conscience we report to, and I can come clean only by embracing reason, which implies in matters of religion, atheism.

    George Smith

    • Bob Murphy says:

      “Atheist” has always been synonymous with something bad or obnoxious.

      Mr. Smith, sometimes my “cute” blog comments backfire. I was joking with the banter in this one. I used to be an atheist myself, so I know there are strong intellectual reasons for the position.

      Having said that, if you look at a sampling of the “Religious”-tagged posts here, I think you will agree that “atheist” on this blog is largely synonymous with something bad or obnoxious.

      • Ken B says:

        @George Smith:
        Bob is quite right. You just need to notice the quotation marks: “atheist”. “Atheist” the word is used as a term of abuse, a synonym for bad or obnoxious, by many on this blog. It is refreshing to see Bob confess to this: admitting you have a problem is the first step to a cure!

        • Bob Murphy says:

          George, just read through Ken B.’s comments in particular. Then you will understand me. Not that you will endorse, but you will understand.

          • Ken B says:

            Start with this one

            • Egoist says:

              So if, “heaven forbid”, Murphy and his entire family are wiped out by a roving gang of murderers, would Murphy be OK with everyone else responding with

              “Jesus said ‘let him who has not sinned cast the first stone’. Since every person in the world is (allegedly) a sinner, nobody can punish these murderers. So we must let the murderers go free and “let God sort them out”!”

              If Murphy is OK with this Jesus recommendation, then Jesus’ dictum would also say not to touch genocidal maniacs either, and just like them destroy the entire human race, since, after all, everyone are allegedly sinners and so everyone cannot cast any stones!

              Hey neat, this sounds like a religion I can use for my advantage. All I need to do is threaten every Christian with death if they don’t become my slave, and none of them can cast any stones at me, since they’re all sinners.

              Oooh boy talk about a self-detonating mythology.

              • Bob Murphy says:

                Egoist, it takes more than one guy to implement a genocide. I actually think the 20th century would have been less bloody if the US government hadn’t fought the Germans twice, and if (after doing so) it hadn’t fought Communists in Asia. Notice that that reduces to your alleged reductio ad absurdum, and yet the position “I don’t think the US should have entered those wars” isn’t so radical, is it? You might even believe it yourself.

              • Ken B says:

                I know accuracy is such a pedantic thing, but the US ‘entered’ WWII by 1) being attacked and 2) Germany declaring war. Italy and too I think. So suggesting the US ‘shouldn’t have entered’ WWII is actually quite radical.

                WWI I grant you is less clear, and I have my own radical ideas there.

              • Bob Murphy says:

                Holy cow! The US was attacked before it declared war formally in the early 1940s?! My libertarian-approved history books never told me such things.

              • Joseph Fetz says:

                Ken, may I suggest that you read Percy Greaves’ book, ‘Pearl Harbor’?

              • Egoist says:


                Egoist, it takes more than one guy to implement a genocide.

                So what? Suppose there were 10,000 genocidal maniacs.

                The same “Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone” still applies.

                I actually think the 20th century would have been less bloody if the US government hadn’t fought the Germans twice, and if (after doing so) it hadn’t fought Communists in Asia. Notice that that reduces to your alleged reductio ad absurdum, and yet the position “I don’t think the US should have entered those wars” isn’t so radical, is it? You might even believe it yourself.

                It would have been less bloody because enough people would have acted non-Christian like and cast stones in defense of Hilter, Stalin and Pol Pot, despite being sinners, because without US involvement, there would have been less indefensible violence and more defensible violence.

                You are implicitly depending on stone casters who sinned limiting the expansion of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.

                For imagine instead that everyone in Europe and Asia, except Hitler and his army, was a Christian. If Hitler wanted, he could have killed everyone one by one, because nobody would be allowed to cast any stones at him, as they were all sinners.

                It is precisely because people cast stones despite them being sinners, that limits genocidal maniacs in the world.

                You cannot stop evil by giving it free reign.

              • Ken B says:

                @Joseph Fetz: “Ken, may I suggest that you read Percy Greaves’ book, ‘Pearl Harbor’?”

                You may. It’s a kinder suggestion than any RPM might make … 🙂

                But I’ll pass thanks. I leave these things to the professional historians, and they are unimpressed. And not just with the book but the whole IHR.


  7. Robert says:

    I think it’s strange to read that passage and think Feynman’s complaint was that “culture raised students to be very deferential to the textbooks and established authorities in science, and that that was a recipe for stagnation.”

    No science was being taught in Brazil because the students were doing rote textbook memorization. Feynman wanted to emphasize that science involved conceptual understanding through doing experiments. I think it’s strange to read that passage and think Feynman’s complaint was that “culture raised students to be very deferential to the textbooks and established authorities in science, and that that was a recipe for stagnation.”

  8. Robert says:

    Ah, and now my unedited post will be there forever.

    • integral says:

      Shame! Shame upon Robert for this eternally monumented mishap!
      Who can overcome a momentary lapse in attention, a minor mistake, a missed click of a button?
      Not I. Not I.

      • Egoist says:

        People are bad so we need a government composed of people are bad so we need a government composed of people are bad so we need a government…

  9. Ken B says:

    ” because [a] lot of you cite Feynman to make me feel bad on Sundays”

    Not so. We cite the Bible to make you feel bad on Sundays.

  10. Jonathan M.F. Catalán says:

    A comment on the discussion on American involvement in the First and Second World Wars. I don’t know much about the First World War, but the impact of American deployment to Europe was probably fairly minimal — it may have accelerated the collapse of the German Army and government, but I’m not sure.

    But, American involvement in the Second World War did not cause the majority of the casualties suffered. Note, Japan invaded China in 1937, over four years before Pearl Harbor, and this is what really induces the United States to adopt a more belligerent approach towards Japan. To argue that Japan was “unfairly” pushed by the US into war, I think, is to ignore much of the political problems of the 1930s. Surely, the United States would not have implemented a steel embargo had Japan not invaded the Korean peninsula, China, et cetera.

    Germany aggression, on the other hand, had very little to do with U.S. involvement. It’s argued that had France and Great Britain intervened faster (i.e. by invading western Germany in late 1939) the war would have ended faster (and, Hitler had given orders to German troops not to resist against a Western invasion, because most of German manpower and firepower was in Poland, at the time). Certainly, the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and Austria was not induced by the United States, and neither was its September 1939 invasion of Poland (these were motivated more by Western inaction than anything else). Neither was the U.S. involved in the Italian invasion of Albania, Greece, and North Africa, as well as Germany’s decision to bomb Great Britain in 1940 or invade the Soviet Union in 1941.

    Did the U.S. need to get involved in the Second World War? I don’t think it had a choice in the Pacific Ocean, because it’s clear that Japanese imperial ambitions were at odds with American and British assets (i.e. owned territories) in the area. I don’t think the U.S. needed to have gotten involved in Europe; I think Germany lost the war when it invaded the Soviet Union. In fact, had the United States not supplied the Soviets with trucks and logistical equipment, the Soviet Union might not have even been able to invade Germany in late 1944 (it’s been a while since I’ve read on the war, but I recall Glantz writing that 70% of Soviet trucks had been provided by the Americans through lend-lease). But, U.S. involvement, I don’t think, made the war any bloodier. If anything, it made the war less bloody, since it saved West Germany from total destruction by hand of the Red Army (just look at what the Red Army did in East Germany, largely out of retribution for what Germany had done in the Soviet Union). But, the bulk of casualties were suffered on the Soviet front and in East Germany, not in the West.

    • Ken B says:

      Of course FDR provoked the Japanese to invade China. The man was puuuuure evil.

      • Joseph Fetz says:

        Well, that was an ignorant comment. I don’t think that anybody is saying that. What I do think is that it was far more complex than just, “Japan invaded us and we had no choice but to declare war” or “we put an embargo on Japan, so they were pushed into attacking”. It’s the same with just about any war, everybody likes to point to one single thing, and say, “aha, that was the cause of the war”, when in fact wars are always caused by a sequence of events of which one cannot point to a single cause.

      • Joseph Fetz says:

        That’s why I recommended Percy Greaves’s book, because he spend 40 years trying to find the answers, and died before he was able to entirely finish. His wife eventually put it together into book form. It essentially contains just about every detail that you could imagine about the lead up to Pearl, and then some.

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