Applied art of rationality: Richard Feynman steelmanning his mother's concerns

by shminux 4 min read4th Jun 201326 comments


First, imagine your parents disapproving of your first love. Imagine your mother inventing a whole whack of reasons why you shouldn't marry him/her. Now imagine being rational enough to acknowledge and address all her concerns while remaining a loving and caring son/daughter. If you can imagine, let alone do all that, you are better person than I am. But then I am not Feynman, who did just that in the following excerpt from the book Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track. It is also a great example of Luminosity. Now, if you think that you can be that good, look through your replies on LW to people whose comment irk you in the worst way. How charitable were you? Granted, you probably don't care about anonymous online posters nearly as much as Feynman cared about his mother, but I suspect that caring about someone makes you more emotional, not less in your reply.

Comments by the book's author:

The following letter is in response to one from Lucille, Richard’s mother, in which she lovingly but forcefully outlined her concerns about Richard’s intent to marry Arline. Arline’s illness, she feared, would compromise not only his own health but his career. She was also concerned about the high cost of treatment (for oxygen, specialists, hospitalization, and so on).

Lucille suggested that his desire to marry stemmed from his desire to please someone he loved (“just as you used to occasionally eat spinach to please me”) and recommended that they stay “engaged.”

The letter itself:

With regard to (1) and (2) I went to see Prof. Smyth at Pop’s suggestion and the doctor here at the university.The doctor said I have less chance of getting T.B. in the sanatorium when visiting her than when I am walking around in the street. I think he was exaggerating (all this is in detail in a letter to Pop, so I won’t repeat it all here). He said T.B. is infectious but not contagious—I didn’t understand the distinction he made, however. Ask Dr. Sarrow. He said in sanatoriums the patients take care of their sputum by cups or Kleenex for the purpose, but on the streets people are careless and just spit all around and when it dries the germs float into the air. He said the germs are not floating around in the air in a sanatorium. He said a lot has been found out about this in the last 25, and in particular the last 10, years. I would be no danger to my students. Prof. Smyth didn’t see any objection from his point of view to hiring me if my wife is sick.

(3) If no one can make a budget for illness, how can I ever make enough to pay for it? How much is enough? Some guesses must be made and I guess I have enough. How much would you guess would be necessary?

(4) I wouldn’t be satisfied being engaged any longer. I want the burden and responsibility of being married.

(5) It really wasn’t hard at all.While I was out to lunch while waiting for somebody to come back to the courthouse in Trenton, I found myself singing—and I realized then that I really was very happy arranging things. It was, I suppose, the pleasure of arranging things for our life together—before she was sick we used to talk of the fun it would be going around ringing doorbells looking for a place to live—I guess it was similar to that idea.

I am not afraid of her parents—and if they don’t trust me with their daughter let them say so now. If they get sore at my mistakes later, it’s too late and it won’t bother me.You are right about my lack (4) of experience—I have no answer to that.

(6) The cost here again is a guess. I want to take the chance, however, that it will be sufficient. If it isn’t I’ll be in difficulty as you suggest.

(7) I’ve already been employed at Princeton for the next year. If I must go elsewhere, I’ll go where I’m needed most.

(8) I do want to get married. I also want to give someone I love what she wants—especially because at the same time I will be doing something I want. It is not at all like eating spinach—(also you misunderstood my motives as a small boy—I didn’t want you angry at me)—I didn’t like spinach.

(9) This is the problem we are discussing—I mean whether marriage is worse than engagement.

(10) I’m honestly sorry it makes you feel so bad. I bet it won’t be too heavy.

Why I want go get married;

It is not that I want to be noble. It is not that I think it’s the only right, honest and decent thing to do, under the circumstances. It is not that I made a promise five years ago—(under entirely different circumstances)—and that I don’t want to “back out” of the promise. That stuff is baloney. If anytime during the five years I thought I’d rather not go thru with it—promise or no promise I’d “back out” so fast it would make your head spin. I’m not dopey enough to tie up my whole life in the future because of some promise I made in the past—under different circumstances.

This decision to marry is a decision now and not one made five years ago.

I want to marry Arline because I love her—which means I want to take care of her.That is all there is to it. I want to take care of her.

I am anxious for the responsibilities and uncertainties of taking care of the girl I love.

I have, however, other desires and aims in the world. One of them is to contribute as much as to physics as I can.This is, in my mind, of even more importance than my love for Arline.

It is therefore especially fortunate that, as I can see (guess) my getting married will interfere very slightly, if at all with my main job in life. I am quite sure I can do both at once. (There is even the possibility that the consequent happiness of being married—and the constant encouragement and sympathy of my wife will aid in my endeavor—but actually in the past my love hasn’t affected my physics much, and I don’t really suppose it will be too great an assistance in the future.

Since I feel I can carry on my main job, and still enjoy the luxury of taking care of someone I love—I intend to be married shortly.

Does that explain anything?

Your Son.

R.P.F. PH.D.


P.S. I should have pointed out that I know I am taking chances getting married and may get into all kinds of pickles. I think the chances of major disasters are sufficiently small, and the gain to me and Putzie great enough, that the risk is well worth taking. Of course, this is just the point we are discussing—the magnitude of the risk—so I am saying nothing but simply asserting I think it is small. You think it is large, and therefore I was particularly anxious to have you tell me where you thought the pitfalls were—and you have pointed out a few new ones to me. I still feel the risk is worth taking—and the fact that we differ is due to our difference in background, experience and viewpoint. Please don’t worry that, by explaining your viewpoint, you have in any way pushed us further apart—you haven’t. I only hope that my marrying directly in the face of your disapproval and your better judgment won’t alienate you from me—because honestly, our judgments differ and I think you’re wrong. I honestly believe we (Putzie and I) will be better off married and nobody will be hurt by it.