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Evolution Quotes: Feyman on religion and science

I do not believe that science can disprove the existence of God; I think that is impossible. And if it is impossible, is not a belief in science and in a God – an ordinary God of religion — a consistent possibility?

Yes, it is consistent. Despite the fact that I said that more than half of the scientists don’t believe in God, many scientists do believe in both science and God, in a perfectly consistent way. But this consistency, although possible, is not easy to attain…

In my opinion, it is not possible for religion to find a set of metaphysical ideas which will be guaranteed not to get into conflicts with an ever?advancing and always?changing science which is going into an unknown. We don’t know how to answer the questions; it is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong. The difficulty arises because science and religion are both trying to answer questions in the same realm here.


This philosophical argument is ironic given that Feynman is supposed also to have said “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” However, I cannot find a source for this one.


  1. J.J.E. J.J.E.

    Sokal suggests an interpretation that would render the quotation (if its attribution is indeed correct) not ironic.

    Whether anyone (including possibly Feynman) who actually uses the ornithologist quip actually believes this to be the case is a different matter. I think most people who use it DO intend it to be dissing philosophy of science.

    Personally, true or not, I think it is a bit of an insult both to philosophers AND scientists. Re: scientists: Clearly, there is at least some philosophy of science is useful and for scientists not to seek that out and apply it would be silly.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Nice. Here’s Sokal’s comment:

      “But going back to the other side, that philosophy is just good for itself and is not necessarily intended to help working scientists, you know the famous quote from Feynman which says ‘philosophy of science is about as useful for scientists as ornithology is for birds.’ Most people would see that as denigration of philosophy of science, but I don’t see it that way at all. Ornithology is not intended to be useful for birds. In principle ornithologists might, by studying the physics of how birds fly, come up with some suggestions to birds about how they could fly more efficiently, except that natural selection has probably beaten them to it anyway. In the same way, philosophy of science could come up with suggestions for working scientists, but that’s not necessarily its major goal. I like that Feynman quote precisely because it’s not, in my view, pejorative towards philosophers of science. It’s saying that the philosophy of science is different. It clarifies what scientists do whether or not it helps scientists.”


  2. MKR MKR

    The version of that quip with which I am familiar concerns a different branch of philosophy: “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.” I am fairly confident that this version is older. The version attributed to Feynman fails to exploit the idiom “for the birds,” which is surely the whole point of invoking ornithology.

  3. I don’t think that philosophy of science is helpful to scientists in doing science (not being a scientist, I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect it is so). But it’s not supposed to be. Philosophy, if done well, should help people better understand better whatever it is philosophy of–philosophy of science, philosophy of art (esthetics), philosophy of ethics, etc.

    The philosophy of ethics, for example, probably doesn’t make people more moral, but it should help them not to get into the terrible trouble they often do when they try to think *about* ethics–“atheists can’t be moral because God tells us what is right,” etc. Some study of the philosophies of science and religion would help the current public discussion of “religion vs. science” a great deal.

  4. Whoops — strike one “better,” of course.

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