Navigating the site:





Basic science






CORE acronym











Keeling curve



Methods diagram











Site Map






WEAL acronym




Z-A site contents




Our Journey begins entitled: “The Milestones of Modern Science.”

Overview | weekly focus | First Lecture / discussion | Books read | Questions | Feynman's Meaning of it All

"Cosmos, Life, and Light: three threads of meaning"

Divided into three parts our investigation of the emergent natural order of the material universe builds on the Babylonian, Greek, and Indian conception of an orderly cosmos. It proceeds to a discovery of life and all its complexity within that cosmos only to emerge –paradoxically– in an inward journey of discovery of the universe concealed in a grain of sand. Ultimately, like Dante and Beatrice, we stumble upon light in the quirkiest of surroundings hiding at the material heart of reality.

Thus, cosmos, life and light are three core themes we use to display the evidence for our thesis that the world is sufficiently knowable for us to test our assumptions, discover our errors and reveal the elusive beauty of existence. For such sublime beauty, permitted are we to glimpse in the eternity of all things. With caution we come to comprehend that learners may peer only briefly into this hidden reality before we change from predator into prey eaten by the very dogs with which we once hunted that now dismember and devour us.

Appian WayAny milestone is a marker alerting the traveler of how far they have traversed a highway. If science were a pathway from the ignorance of our past to the errors of the present day, then the milestones would indicate the seminal concepts propelling current research and discovery into mind, matter, energy, time, space and life, itself.

This course asks several questions to reveal how extremely our worldviews change over time. As human understanding of natural existence has changed from the pre-Socratic ideas embedded in Aristotle to the present, serious questions arise about the essence and origins of universal, physical conditions.


Science, is defined as more than a certain kind of knowledge?




I would like tonight to speak to you about the the significant, distinguishing features, or characteristics among: thorough thinking, analogous thought and refutable conceptualizations.

I would like tonight to speak to you about the significant, distinguishing features, or characteristics among: thorough thinking, analogous thought, and refutable conceptualizations. These phrases may all appear to be synonymous; one for the other and all for one.

refutable conceptualizations

analogous thought,

thorough thinking,

Alas, I hope to show that they are not equal or the same in what they mean. What they correspond to is a sort of pyramid of associations. Those associations run from uncertain to less and less rigorous ways to describe what we see. What this means is that thorough thinking may not explain an observation and only some concepts can be relied upon to predict what may occur under those same or similar circumstances.

We distinguish these phrases because certainty is so elusive. Or so I think, we look at these discoveries as a sort of pyramid of knowledge, the apex of which is a rare, predictive, and testable form of knowing. That is the form of knowledge that we will call science and it will be divided into the physical and life sciences. The physical sciences are largely unvarying sciences (once called natural philosophy) –and the life sciences that all possess a temporal variation in that time is a significant component of varying outcomes in the life sciences. Once called natural history, as the term implies, if you reverse time in the life sciences some very strange and impossible situations arise, whereas time reversal in physical science has a very different sort of outcome.

Because Feynman in the Meaning of It All suggests that science is not strictly speaking or merely “ordered” thought, the three phrases “thorough thinking, analogous thought, and refutable conceptualizations” will be considered in reverse order. I do this because I want to interpret the author and make my point that science is not a search for truth or the mastery of authority. According to Feynman, and before him Jacob Bronowski –a famous mathematician and interpreter of science and the arts– science is a quest. Both men see it as an ongoing search for sensible and testable “new ideas” because as Bronowski insists, “science” is a set of disciplines existing always “on the edge of error.” (Ascent of Man)

Or as Feynman argues “The more definite the statement, the more important it is to test.” He believes that because “We have a way of checking whether an idea is correct or not.” By that Feynman says “We simply test it against observation,” which is difficult indeed, despite his use of the word “simply.” But it does establish his factual statement that ”There is no authority who decides what is a good idea.” And it is here that we have the most significant concept with respect to modernity and the history of thought. We live at a time, despite the tide otherwise among a widespread number of divergent groups, when “We have lost the need to go to an authority to find out if an idea is true or not,” as Feynman articulates (p. 22) in his initial lecture.

To be quite clear, we decide certainty by testing a concept for accuracy and determining to what extent it is in error; we do not test “goodness” in the sciences based on the intensity of one’s logic, the “feel" of one’s reason, or the hope of discovering supporting evidence. No one tests by finding exceptions, errors and seeks to account for the ever present uncertainties in our experimental evidence and mathematical accounts or descriptive explanations of those real tests of anyone’s assumptions.

By applying this strict definition of science as a means of determining uncertainty and the degree of error in our reason, Feynman says “”we can try it out; and find out if it is true or not.” (p. 21) That is not because an Einstein or a Faraday said so, but because the evidence we use to test the concept verifies the hypothesis.

While at the level of thorough thinking, true may seem like the opposite of error and thus using analogous thought you insist “science is the search for truth.” You may even say, because Feynman, an authority on light and nuclear forces, said that science is a means of testing “if it is not true….” (Ibid.) that our scientists discover truths. Worse yet, you may –by a judicious, but mistaken use of analogy–tell me that the priests and priestesses of the pagan past are analogous to the men and women scientists today who “seek the truth.” Why quibble you say over how the search for error is qualitatively different from the seeking out of truths?

This thinking – analogical analysis – breaking things down into comparable concepts that make up a bigger whole is after all what serious thinking is all about. Yet in his last lecture, I believe this fallacy of mistaking thorough thinking with scientific search for errors and uncertainty is why Feynman talks about witch doctors and makes the spurious analogy (see he uses analogous thinking) between witch doctors and psychiatrists.

Might I suggest to you that the search for error in any idea, concept or especially in any belief system, is of quite significant difference from searching for truth. In both the means of discovery and the things discovered the necessity for refutable conceptualizations is important to reveal errors in what we know of the world. That is in part why Feynman refers to gravity and the inverse square law as an example of a testable or what I will call a refutable rule. That is to say any concept is precisely accurate because (ironically) you can try to disprove it and in doing so it withstands the test to discredit the idea with observable evidence.

Now thinking and thought involve concepts, or what Richard Feynman calls "new ideas." As he suggests we need words "to express ideas." (116) We need a lot more words than we have to convey accurately the conditions we now understand as universal (everywhere) and predictive (inverse square law).“That it is possible to find a rule, like the inverse square law of gravitation, is some sort of miracle. It is not understood at all but it leads to the possibility of prediction—that means it tells you what you would expect to happen in an experiment you have not done.” (page 23)

Feynman insists, “No. Its nowhere near as good as a proposition that the planets move about the sun under the influence of a central force which varies exactly inversely as the square of the distance from the center.” (p.19) He clarifies his point by saying that “the second theory is better because it is so specific; it is so obviously unlikely to be the result of chance.” Furthermore, Feynman argues that the prediction “is so definite that the barest error in the movement can show that it is wrong.” (p.24)

Inverse square law,

I will return to this significant distinction I am making between accurate, that is to say, less uncertain bodies of knowledge and the “search for truth.” I do so because as he reminds us science is more than just thorough thinking.

Science may also be more than just testing the observable or testing a hypothesis by collecting evidence to refute your assumptions. Nevertheless, why is science not the same as “knowledge of the truth?”

Is it because long ago William of Ockham suggested that we do not needlessly complicate our explanation of events if we are rigorous thinkers? Yes, but also no. It is because an experiment, any experiment, if well constructed to test assumptions and carefully observed to rule out uncertainties has more than a simple outcome.

I hope to convince you that there are not merely affirming or denying results in any experimental test of a “new idea.” Experiments are done to test any authorities’ assumptions. Yes, an experiment may verify a hunch, it may refute the hypothesis we are testing, but what if it does neither?

Truth is not the simple opposite of error, nor is it a state of being error-free, nor even limiting the inherent degrees of error, because experiments can have a third, undecipherable outcome. These unconvincing outcomes of experiments neither support, nor refute the hypothesis, but they remain inconclusive.

Among the more famous of these experiments, conducted at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio by professor’s Michelson and Morley in the 1880s is just such an experiment. Both men hoped to discover the existence of Isaac Newton’s hypothesized fluid called “ether” by measuring the period of light waves moving in the same direction or opposite the earth and those moving at right angles to the Earth’s motion about the sun. Everywhere the men measured light traveled at precisely the same speed. For twenty-five years people argued about the characteristics of the ether. Was the ether expanding ? Was it contracting? So it was until Albert Einstein had a new idea. That was the idea of relativity which replaced the Newtonian arguments for the existence of the undiscoverable ether.

My point here is that thorough thinking, analogous thought and refutable conceptualizations are not the same thing because when experimental evidence is reviewed it may support a “new idea.” The experiment tests and refutes the assumption based on analogous thought or thorough thinking, or the experimental test of an observation may remain inconclusive.

My argument tonight is among one of many reasons why Feynman sees that uncertainty is a valuable asset when searching for errors (or truths). In science, if it is careful, accurate and predictable scientific information, the concept must pass the test. We must be able to make a thesis statement that can be refuted; otherwise, the meaning for science is not limited sufficiently on which to base any reliable observation. As you will see observation alone is insufficient to determine whether Claudius Ptolemy, Tycho Brahe, or Johannes Kepler is the more correct about the cosmic structure of the solar system. But that is next week’s discussion.



A substantial theme of Feynman's text

Definitions of science | means of his inquiry | Writing about uncertainty | related ideas

Science Index | Social sciences | Population Index | Global Warming Index | Nature Index | Genes | Brief

pen book

Galileo Galilei | Albert Einstein | Jacob Bronowski | Stephen Hawking | Ernst Mayr | Ian Tattersall | Charles Darwin