Removing the Head, or Destroying the Brain: Feynman

I have mentioned before that I encountered more valuable philosophy in the writings of non-philosophers — especially in those of scientists — than I ever found in the professionals’.

What follows is an excerpt from a transcript of a speech given by Richard Feynman, collected in The Meaning of It All, entitled “This Unscientific Age”.

I would like to talk about one other thing, and that is, how do you get new ideas? This is for amusement for the students here, mostly. How do you get new ideas? That you do by analogy, mostly, and in working with analogy you often make very great errors. It’s a great game to try to look at the past, at an unscientific era, look at something there, and say have we got the same thing now, and where is it? So I would like to amuse myself with this game.

First, we take witch doctors. The witch doctor says he knows how to cure. There are spirits inside which are trying to get out. You have to blow them out with an egg, and so on. Put a snakeskin on and take quinine from the bark of a tree. The quinine works. He doesn’t know he’s got the wrong theory of what happens. If I’m in the tribe and I’m sick, I go to the witch doctor. He knows more about it than anyone else. But I keep trying to tell him he doesn’t know what he’s doing and that someday when people investigate the thing freely and get free of all his complicated ideas they’ll learn much better ways of doing it.

Who are the witch doctors? Psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, of course. If you look at all the complicated ideas that they have developed in an infinitesimal amount of time, if you compare to any other of the sciences how long it takes to get one idea after the other, if you consider all the structures and inventions and complicated things, the ids and egos, the tensions and the forces, and the pushes and the pulls, I tell you they can’t all be there. It’s too much for one brain or a few brains to have cooked up in such a short time. However, I reminded you that if you’re in the tribe, there’s nobody else to go to.

And now I can have some more fun, and this is especially for the students of this university. I thought, among other people, of the Arabian scholars of science during the Middle Ages. They did a little bit of science themselves, yes, but they wrote commentaries on the great men that came before them. They wrote commentaries on commentaries. They described what each other wrote about each other. They just kept writing these commentaries.

Writing commentaries is some kind of a disease of the intellect. Tradition is very important. And freedom of new ideas, new possibilities, are disregarded on the grounds that the way it was is better than anything I can do. I have no right to change this or to invent anything or to think of anything. Well, those are your English professors. They are steeped in tradition, and they write commentaries.

melendwyr’s commentary: Those are your philosophers, too.


2 Responses to “Removing the Head, or Destroying the Brain: Feynman”

  1. I’m certainly on board with him and Szasz in considering psychiatrists to be quacks, but I think Robin Hanson has a point about medical doctors having less impact on health outcomes than we imagine.

  2. Oh, I think they have an impact. A negative one.

    I should really write a post about why I don’t use doctors.

    But this doesn’t speak to my purpose in quoting this — Feynman’s points apply perfectly to professional philosophers.

    Philosophy, as an academic discipline, is a “disease of the intellect”, or rather the manifestations of such a disease.

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