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

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.