I’ve been watching Richard Feynman videos lately, because why not? What really impresses me is that he got it. He definitely understood what is at stake with Christmas. The theoretical physicist and recipient of the Nobel Prize (1965) for his work in quantum electrodynamics believed that the universe is so vast and complicated that the best we can hope for trying to fathom it is to chip away, asking questions and finding answers where and when we can.
Regarding ultimate meaning, he didn’t think there was any apart from randomness, although he was sympathetic to the religious quest to find one. This is why he dismissed religious narratives of existence, calling them “special stories,” but respected and even appreciated certain worldviews. You can find him on YouTube discussing the Mayans and their systematic work charting lunar and solar cycles.
Born and raised in Brooklyn by Jewish parents, Feynman may have been open to the idea of a universal force, a God of the universe, but not a divinity who intervenes in human affairs and communicates directly with his people as occurs throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Not only is there no evidence for this in the modern scientific sense, but it runs contrary to everything physicists have learned about the fundamental laws of the universe. Have not recent pictures from the Hubble telescope confirmed just how inconsequential humanity is? God, if he exists, wouldn’t possibly speak to us.
Christianity takes this a step further by claiming that this omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent God became a human being two thousand years ago through a virgin birth, performed miracles throughout Judea as an itinerant preacher, was executed by the Romans, and rose from the dead. Not only can there be no justification for these claims, but they can’t even be taken seriously. They are far too “provincial,” too “local” as Feynman put it, more folktale than fact.
It is evident that Feynman understood that Christmas–the Incarnation– wasn’t furthering an existing religious worldview. It was fundamentally different. He judged this difference to be predicated upon beliefs for which there was no evidence, maybe even deeply rooted superstition within the human psyche (note the mandala images above). But he came to this conclusion honestly and, as far as I can tell, without bias or partiality.
This argument against a personal God based on our insignificance and the vastness of the universe reminds me Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions” argument for the existence of intelligent life on other planets. Given the near infinite number of galaxies in the universe and solar systems within those galaxies, the reasoning goes, it is mathematically impossible for there not to be intelligent life out there.
The problem is that this disregards the freakish impossibility of our being here at all. So much depends on precisely the right conditions from subatomic particle spin and electromagnetic forces to climactic conditions and gravitational pull. And even though the number of galaxies may be astronomical, that doesn’t mean the number of planets that might sustain life is also astronomical. In fact, it may be infinitesimally small, so small as to be nil. I have a much better chance of pitching opening day for the Yankees this spring. What exists mathematically doesn’t necessarily exist in reality, but even the math doesn’t work out (see David Kipping).
I have to admit I’ve always liked Richard Feynman, from his Brooklyn accent to his stories about goofing around as a young physicist at Los Alamos, his humor in the Cornell lectures, and his barefoot presentations at the Aspen Institute. How could you not like the guy? I appreciate him even more during this Christmas season for his insight into the claim of the Incarnation and his honesty in rejecting it. Whether he realized it or not (or would have cared), he was halfway there. I count that as a glimmer of hope for the New Year.
Image credits: NASA (feature); manger Greyson Joralemon; Andromeda galaxy Bryan Goff; stained glass K. Mitch Hodge; stained glass end Thaï Ch. Hamelin/ChokdiDesign. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” for Christmas (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli.