Feynman’s Cosmic Onion : The Socjournal

Albert Einstein believed that the universe was created by a rational god; a god who would never presume to play dice with his precious creation. Einstein’s belief in a rational, knowable universe was rooted in a “clockwork” scientific philosophy that comprised the very bedrock of Enlightenment science. This perspective was most famously summed up by Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827):

An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as of the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes (Quoted in Weinert, 2004, p. 197).

Laplace was convinced that, so long as he and his intellectual heirs remained committed to the cause of rational scientific inquiry, their endeavors would ultimately yield a complete and thorough knowledge of the universe. All that had been hidden, would inexorably become “present to the eyes” of rational science. Yet, if scientists have learned anything over the past century it is that the universe is anything but rational: the chief claim of quantum mechanics, perhaps the most extraordinary set of insights ever revealed by modern science, is that it is impossible to know everything about anything. Though Einstein refused to accept this unsettling truth, quantum physicists have demonstrated time and time again that it is impossible to specify the exact properties of even a single quantum particle.

Still, in spite of the epistemological limitations of quantum reality, some scientists still cling to the notion that the universe is knowable and deterministic in a Laplacian sense:

Given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past…The scientific determinism that Laplace formulated is…the basis of all modern science, and a principle that is important throughout this book…Since people live in the universe and interact with other objects in it, scientific determinism must hold for people as well.

Though we feel we can choose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets (Hawking and Mlodinow, 2010, pp. 30-32).

Influential as Hawking may be, there are other equally eminent scientists who take a very different view of the implications of quantum mechanics:

In classical physics it would have been legitimate to specify exactly both the position and the momentum of a given particle at the same time, but in quantum mechanics that is forbidden, as is well known, by the uncertainty, or indeterminacy, principle. The position of a particle can be specified exactly, but its momentum will then be completely undetermined (Gell-Mann, 1994, p. 139, emphasis added).

Another most interesting change in the ideas and philosophy of science brought about by quantum physics is this: it is not possible to predict exactly what will happen in any circumstance…nature, as we understand it today, behaves in such a way that it is fundamentally impossible to make a precise prediction of exactly what will happen in a given experiment (Feynman, et al., 1963, p. 35, emphasis in original)

So where does this leave us? As scientists have expanded the frontiers of knowledge, they have gradually come to realize that the universe is chock full of mysteries that may forever elude even the cleverest and most persistent of truth-seekers:

People say to me, “Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?” No, I’m not, I’m just looking to find out more about the world and if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law which explains everything, so be it. That would be very nice to discover.

If it turns out it’s like an onion with millions of layers and we’re just sick and tired of looking at the layers, then that’s the way it is, but whatever way it comes out it’s nature is there and she is going to come out the way she is, and therefore when we go to investigate it we shouldn’t predecide what it is we’re trying to do except to try to find out more about it (Feynman and Robbins, 1999, p. 23).

Thus, science is nothing if not an intellectual adventure. Will we ever arrive at the final, absolute Laplacian truth? I hope not. Throughout history, the most dangerous and ignorant people have always been those who were convinced that they knew everything. In contrast, real geniuses are never the folks who think they have all the answers. Instead, true geniuses are the people who, by hook or crook, figure out how to ask the right questions.
Sure, there are truths to be revealed. The real beauty of science is that, every time we think we might be getting close to knowing everything, a few nagging “dark” matters succeed in emphasizing how little we truly know.

If it is impossible to know everything about about any individual quantum particle, will humans ever know everything about everything? I won’t even bother to answer such a self-evident and pointless question question. By searching for the ultimate answer to everything, science does nothing but shoot itself in the foot.

One of the ways of stopping science would be only to do experiments in the region where you know the law. But experimenters search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong. In other words, we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress (Feynman, 1965, p. 151).

Scientists do their best work when the humbly own up to to their own ignorance. In spite of Laplace’s insistence to the contrary, no human either can or ever will know everything. Further, any scientist with an ounce of sense would never claim otherwise. Science is an enterprise that succeeds in revealing new truths by taking one plodding step forward—or, as Feynman suggests, by peeling back one layer of a cosmic onion—at a time.

Finally, a word to the wise: if there is a god, he does play dice with the universe. Scientists who don’t wish to crap out would be well advised to wise up to the rules of his game.


Feynman, R. P., R. B. Leighton, and M. Sands. The Feynman Lectures on Physics: Quantum Mechanics: Volume III. Reading: n.p., 1963.

Feynman, Richard P. The Character of Physical Law. Cambridge: M.I.T., 1965.

Feynman, Richard P., and Jeffrey Robbins. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 1999.

Gell-Mann, Murray. The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1994.

Hawking, Stephen, and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2010.

McGettigan, Timothy. God’s Loaded Dice. Kindle Direct Publishing, 2013.

Weinert, Friedel. The Scientist as Philosopher: Philosophical Consequences of Great Scientific Discoveries. Berlin: Springer, 2004.