Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Opinion > Socrates, Feynman, and the limits of mutual understanding

Socrates, Feynman, and the limits of mutual understanding

Approaching ‘why’ questions through science and logic provides answers that are both fascinating and useful, but fails to address their emotional core

Theoretical physicists Richard Feynman (left) with Yang Chen Ning.
Theoretical physicists Richard Feynman (left) with Yang Chen Ning. (Photo: Getty Images)

On 15 February 399 BC, the philosopher Socrates was condemned to death by a jury of 500 Athenians. He had been charged with failing to honour the official gods of the state and corrupting Athenian youth. The true reason for his arrest probably had little to do with impiety. Athens had gone through a tough few years, having suffered a humiliating defeat to Sparta in 405 BC in which its navy had been destroyed. Socrates and some of his former pupils were considered sympathetic to the Spartan constitution and culture. In today’s terminology, they were anti-nationals. The 70-year-old philosopher was also linked with a short period of tyranny through prominent leaders who had been his disciples.

The only accounts of the trial and execution that have survived were composed by two of his most prominent students, Plato and Xenophon. In their description, Socrates refused to beg for mercy, and demanded a reward instead of punishment once held guilty, ensuring he would be sentenced to death. When it came to drinking hemlock, he consumed it calmly, chatting with friends till the slow-acting poison took effect. His bravery and defiance have come to symbolize the spirit of free enquiry and the courageous pursuit of truth.

What truth he uncovered, however, is unclear. His method involved asking probing questions until the unproven assumptions behind a particular belief lay exposed. The discussion inevitably ended in aporia, or a state of perplexity, where interlocutors were forced to admit the limitations of their comprehension. In one of Plato’s Dialogues, our primary source for understanding the thought of Socrates, the Oracle at Delphi declares Socrates the wisest man in Athens. Puzzled by this pronouncement, since he does not consider himself knowledgeable or wise, he interrogates the Athenian elite, only to find that they don’t actually know what they claim to know. His own wisdom, Socrates realizes, lies in knowing he does not know.

One of the most compelling analyses of the limits of mutual understanding is found in a television show called Fun To Imagine, aired by the BBC in 1983 and now available on YouTube. It consists of an interview, cut into six segments, with the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman, who died on 15 February 1988, 2,387 years to the day after the trial of Socrates, sits in a large wing chair wearing a button-up in the baggy style of the 1980s and holds forth for a little over an hour in Queens English, by which I mean the broad accent characteristic of New York City’s largest borough. His constant gesturing, often as graceful and precise as a dancer’s, animates the static frame. He employs accessible and down-to-earth imagery throughout, like when he describes the world as “a dynamic mess of jiggling things".

The interviewer’s voice is heard only once in the series, asking, “What is it, the feeling between two magnets?" Feynman responds, “What are you asking when you say there is a ‘feeling’?" The interviewer continues, “What is going on between these two bits of metal?" “They repel each other," the physicist states, matter-of-factly. The interviewer persists, “But what does that mean? Why are they doing it?" This provides Feynman an opening to explore the nature of “why" questions.

He gives the example of a woman who slips and breaks her hip. Why did she slip? Because she was on ice. But why is ice slippery? Because, when you stand on ice, your weight causes a bit of it to melt underfoot, so you are actually creating a liquid surface. But why does this happen to ice and not other solids? Because water expands when frozen, and when pressure undoes that expansion, it returns to liquid form. But why does water expand when it solidifies while other liquids do not?

The questioning, Feynman points out, is endless. Explicating magnetism in the same mode, he concludes that the interviewer will just have to take the electromagnetic force for granted, because “when you explain why, you have to allow something to be true. Otherwise you are perpetually asking why." Perpetually asking why ends in a Socratic aporia.

Approaching “why" questions through science and logic provides answers that are both fascinating and useful, but fails to address their emotional core. This is particularly true in a world where, as Feynman says, we cannot imagine the subatomic world, except through complicated mathematical equations. For example, it is impossible to form a coherent image in our minds of something that is simultaneously a particle and a wave.

The emotional content of “why" questions can only be satisfied by alluding to a deeper or higher purpose in observed phenomena, which is what religion, faith, spirituality and mysticism do. By answering “why" questions in a reassuring manner, they forestall further interrogation from people who only pose those questions in order to receive reassurance.

Scientific enquiry and religious belief can be complementary, occupying two distinct domains. They can be, in the words of the paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould, “non-overlapping magisteria". All too often, however, the magisteria do overlap. This is especially true in the discourse of modern gurus, who borrow from the language of science and technology even as they make unfounded and often clearly false assertions.

The phenomenon of magnetism, which kicked off Feynman’s exploration of “why" questions, is a popular source of superstition.

The late Sathya Sai Baba began one discourse with the words: “The entire earth is permeated by magnetic power. All the living beings and objects that are present on this earth also have this magnetic power." He went on to claim his body had turned magnetic to facilitate the formation of lingams.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar advises against sleeping with the head to the north because, “magnetic currents are flowing in that direction". Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev goes further, claiming that such a posture would cause blood to be pulled into the brain by the earth’s magnetic force. In the worst case, “One could die in one’s sleep because of a haemorrhage."

The iron content of the body is too minimal to be affected so greatly by the earth’s magnetic field. Besides, as an ingenious and hugely popular video on YouTube titled “Monster Magnet Meets Blood" demonstrates, human blood as a whole is mildly diamagnetic, or repelled by magnets. Body alignment is a trivial issue, but when it comes to grave practical matters, the sceptical enquiry of Socrates and Feynman works better than the deep purposefulness offered by any guru.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

Next Story