The Chess Game Analogy: Feynman on the Laws of Nature


Feynman interviewed by BBC

One way that’s kind of a fun analogy to try to get some idea of what we’re doing in trying to understand nature is to imagine that the gods are playing some great game like chess. Let’s say a chess game. And you don’t know the rules of the game, but you’re allowed to look at the board at least from time to time and in a little corner, perhaps. And from these observations, you try to figure out what the rules are of the game, what are the rules of the pieces moving.

You might discover after a bit, for example, that when there’s only one bishop around on the board, that the bishop maintains its color. Later on you might discover the law for the bishop is that it moves on a diagonal, which would explain the law that you understood before, that it maintains its color. And that would be analogous to we discover one law and later find a deeper understanding of it.

Then things can happen–everything’s going good, you’ve got all the laws, it looks very good–and then all of a sudden some strange phenomenon occurs in some corner, so you begin to investigate that, to look for it. It’s castling, something you didn’t expect.

We’re always, by the way, in the fundamental physics, always trying to investigate those things in which we don’t understand the conclusions. We’re not trying to check all the time our conclusions; after we’ve checked them enough, they’re okay. The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that’s the most interesting, the part that doesn’t go according to what you’d expect. Also, we can have revolutions in physics. After you’ve noticed that the bishops maintain their color and that they go along the diagonals and so on for such a long time, and everybody knows that that’s true, then you suddenly discover one day in some chess game that the bishop doesn’t maintain its color, it changes its color. Only later do you discover a new possibility, that the bishop is captured and that a pawn went all the way down to the queen’s end to produce a new bishop. That could happen, but you didn’t know it.

So it’s very analogous to the way our laws are: they sometimes look positive, they keep on working, and all of a sudden, some little gimmick shows that they’re wrong, and then we have to investigate the conditions under which this bishop changed colour happened and so forth, and gradually learn the new rule that explains it more deeply.

Unlike the chess game, though, In the case of the chess game, the rules become more complicated as you go along, but in the physics, when you discover new things, it looks more simple. It appears on the whole to be more complicated, because we learn about a greater experience, that is, we learn about more particles and new things, and so the laws look complicated again. But if you realize that all the time what’s kind of wonderful is that, as we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions of experience, every once in a while we have these integrations in which everything is pulled together in a unification, which turns out to be simpler than it looked before.

–Richard Feynman “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”

“The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James

William James anticipated the modern debate on the relationship between science and religion, and provided good reasons to take religion seriously. His personal and common sense approach works particularly well within a pluralistic and consumer culture.

Choosing a Religion For Yourself

First, every human being must face the reality of life, death, suffering, and something beyond ourselves. How do we respond to this reality? James surveys responses from atheists (Voltaire), transcendentalists (Emerson), Stoics and Christians. The atheists’ attitude is the least appealing to his moral and aesthetic sense, and therefore atheism is not an option.

Second, there are many religions in the world, with practitioners earnestly promoting their wares in the Vanity Fair. How do we choose? James didn’t study theology in depth and probably didn’t care to, his pragmatism led him to ask the question: Which religion provides the most benefits with the least risks?

Third, to gauge the benefits and risks associated with each religion, he studies the lives of individuals who exemplify the best and the worst in each, the most famous and infamous. It is the highest and lowest potentials that set things apart one from another, not the qualities that all have in common. The question we need to ask: What is truly special about each religion?

Finally, once we identify the characteristics of religion that are most desirable and beneficial, the question becomes: How do we attain to it?

What about Truth?

For James, a religious experience is “true”, not in the sense that an idea or theory is true, but in the sense that it is a psychological/experiential fact — something actually happened that made the person happy/healthy. As in medicine, what restores a sick person to health is good and useful. So the religious experience is good and useful. “The true is what works well”.

One can build a systematic theory upon these experiential facts, and test the truth of the theory, but the facts themselves cannot be disputed. James is concerned not with theory but with experiential facts, and tries to steer clear of theology — which he terms “over-belief”– as much as possible, not realizing that his psychology and philosophy are also “over-beliefs”, i.e., theories and interpretations derived and distinct from facts.

He relies on an a priori moral and aesthetic sense to determine what is good and useful in religious experiences, and doesn’t take into account their origins. An experience is valid as long as it produces a desirable psychological effect, even if its origin is an undigested bit of beef, or in James’ case, nitrous oxide. In the last analysis, he assigns the origin of religious experience to the activity of the subconscious, though he doesn’t exclude the possibility of the divine working through the subconscious.

James suggests a sort of Darwinian evolution of religion: the “fittest” religion survives while the others become extinct because they are ill-adapted to the moral senses of evolving human beings. He seems to believe in inevitable progress, though Darwinian evolution only asserts change not progress, and envisions a sort of Hegelian synthesis of happiness and sorrow into a higher joy as the ultimate goal of religion.

A Sobering Criticism of Christianity

In the following passage, James gives the most sobering criticism of Christianity:

Were it true that a suddenly converted man as such is, as Edwards says, of an entirely different kind from a natural man, partaking as he does directly of Christ’s substance, there surely ought to be some exquisite class-mark, some distinctive radiance attaching even to the lowliest specimen of this genus, to which no one of us could remain insensible, and which, so far as it went, would prove him more excellent than ever the most highly gifted among mere natural men. But notoriously there is no such radiance. Converted men as a class are indistinguishable from natural men; some natural men even excel some converted men in their fruits; and no one ignorant of doctrinal theology could guess by mere every-day inspection of the “accidents” of the two groups of persons before him, that their substance differed as much as divine differs from human substance.


“A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge” by George Berkeley

The Meaning of Reality

I was taught from a very young age that reality is what exists independently of human perception and knowledge, and we gain knowledge of reality if and only if our ideas correspond to it. Fantasy is that which has no correspondence in reality, and exists only in the mind of an individual — unless he communicates his fantasy, others have no way of knowing it.

George Berkeley, after whom University of California at Berkeley was named, shows a different way of interpreting reality. He reasons that ideas in the mind can only be derived from ideas in the mind, and not what exists independently of the mind. Therefore, our sense perceptions are signs, not of material substances existing outside the mind, instead, they are signs of ideas which subsist in the mind of God and are communicated to us directly and individually, without “nature” as an intermediary. The “laws of nature” are not attributes of material substances, but attributes of the inter-relations of the divine ideas communicated to us, like the rules of syntax and semantics in the study of language.

Descartes and Berkeley

Descartes is known for the dictum, “I think therefore I am”. Berkeley’s philosophy can be simplified as, “I think thereby the world exists”. Both philosophers converge on one point: “I think therefore God is”.

Like Descartes, Berkeley started from meditating within his own mind, and saw that the mind is different in nature from the object it perceives — the former is active and immortal whereas the latter is not. They both inferred the existence of God, by acknowledging the limitation of their mind — they can only effect and perceive a very small portion of reality, of which a far superior Mind must be the Author.

Unlike Descartes, Berkeley denies the reality of matter as an inert substrate with the potential to come into existence by participating in forms. To his mind, matter is inconceivable, and what is inconceivable is non-existent by definition. However, he can’t explain the fact that others can conceive it. In addition, he admits that he doesn’t perceive other minds from the senses, and must infer their existence indirectly by logic. An argument can be made that the existence of matter is inferred indirectly by logic apart from the senses. Personally I think Descartes is the more logically consistent of the two.

Denying Abstract Matter and Abstract Universal

An idea which, considered in itself, is particular, becomes general by being made to represent or stand for all other particular ideas of the same sort. Universality does not consist in the absolute, positive nature or conception of anything, but in the relation it bears to the particulars signified or represented by it.

Besides ideas or objects of knowledge, there is something which knows or perceives them, and exercises divers operations, as willing, imagining, remembering. This perceiving, active being is mind, spirit, soul, or myself, which is entirely distinct from my ideas, wherein they exist, or, whereby they are perceived–for the existence of an idea consists in being perceived.

There are only ideas existing in the mind, and an idea can be like nothing but another idea. Consequently neither ideas nor their archetypes (which supposedly exist outside myself) can exist in an unperceiving substance.

Laws of Nature

Ideas of sensation differ from those of reflection or memory. Whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by Sense have not a like dependence on my will. The ideas of Sense are more strong, lively, and distinct than those of the imagination; they have likewise a steadiness, order, and coherence, and are not excited at random, as those which are the effects of human wills often are, but in a regular train or series, the admirable connexion whereof sufficiently testifies the wisdom and benevolence of its Author. Now the set rules or established methods wherein the mind we depend on excites in us the ideas of sense, are called the laws of nature, and these we learn by experience.

Ideas of Time and Space

The ideas of sight, when we apprehend by them distance and things placed at a distance, do not suggest or mark out to us things actually existing at a distance, but only admonish us what ideas of touch will be imprinted in our minds at such and such distances of time, and in consequence of such or such actions. Visible ideas are the Language whereby the governing Spirit on whom we depend informs us what tangible ideas he is about to imprint upon us.

The Philosophy of Evolution

A Matter of Identity

As an armchair Platonist, I find the philosophy behind Darwinian evolution not only intellectually unsatisfactory, but also self-contradictory. On the one hand, it asserts constant change, that, given enough time and proper conditions, anything can change into anything else; on the other hand, it asserts identity, that there is a “struggle for existence” of the individual and/or group. It is a self-contradiction to state that something changes and yet persists (in the same manner and at the same time).

The law of the conservation of energy ensures that energy remains constant in a closed system. Matter and energy always exist, though in diverse forms. On the material level, the “struggle for existence” is superfluous, if not meaningless.

Evolutionists have attempted to explain away the altruistic acts observed among living beings in terms of survival, that the individual sacrificed himself for the survival of the group, the extended self. But where does this sense or notion of self come from? How is its boundary defined? If it can be extended to a group, why not all the species? After all, we are all nothing but matter, with the same “selective advantage”. From the materialistic perspective, the ideas of “survival”, “individual” or “race” are mere fantasies, and have no more material underpinning than the ideas of justice and morality.

Nature, Good and Evil

From a naturalist perspective, there is no such thing as natural evil. All things come into and pass out of existence according to the laws of nature. Death is no more evil than birth, and pain is no more evil than pleasure. The bacteria and viruses that cause diseases in men have the same rights of existence as men do.

From a philosophical perspective, evil can be defined as a privation of good or falling short of the good. The definition implies a standard of good, without which evil is meaningless.

According to Aristotle, a thing is evil if it falls short of its purpose, i.e., what nature intends it to be. We do not attribute blindness to stones, for they are not meant to see, having no potential for sight. Likewise, if something is not meant to live for a long time, its death is not evil. The Stoics believe that life is not a right of man, but a loan from God, and it is the duty of men to live responsibly. Death is to be preferred if it is impossible to live virtuously any longer, and to extend one’s life by unjust means is evil. An example of the latter in biology is cancer.

From a Christian perspective, God alone is good. Evil is falling short of the glory of God, or, which is the same thing, His manifested will for the created being.

When devastated by the death of his dear friend, Augustine found consolation in contemplating the meaning and coherence of the Creation: “That is the law limiting their being. So much have You given them, namely to be parts of things which do not all have their being at the same moment, but by passing away and by successiveness, they all form the whole of which they are parts. This is the way our speech is constructed by sounds which are significant. What we say would not be complete if one word did not cease to exist when it has sounded its constituent parts, so that it can be succeeded by another…There would be more delight in all the elements than in individual pieces if only one had the capacity to perceive all of them. But far superior to these things is He who made all things, and He is our God. He does not pass away; nothing succeeds Him.”

Related Posts:

Witnessing Creation

Creation in Seven Acts

In my previous post “A Layman’s Interpretation of Genesis”, I made the point that the Days in Genesis 1 are defined, not by any physical entity, but by divine command. The Days, and time itself, are God’s creation.

To give a further illustration, I’d liken the Creation account in Genesis 1 to a seven-act play, and the recurring phrase “there was evening and there was morning, one day” to the fall and rise of a curtain on stage, or fade-out and fade-in on screen. The “Day” is introduced, not to define the length of each act, but to separate the acts from one another as conceptually distinct units.

According to Augustine, God transcends time and space, and all time is present to Him, just as a screenplay is present to the mind of the playwright. How then can man, who is bound by time and space, witness Creation? It is possible that Creation was revealed to the writer of Genesis through visions. Imagine a movie played before the eye of your mind with a voice-over: “Let there be light” and there was light. In this way, a story that spans billions of years can be told in seven days. This is the difference between narrated time and narration time.

The curtain does not fall, so to speak, on the seventh day. Perhaps for two reasons. First, the seventh day signifies eternity. Second, the drawn curtain allows the audience to participate in the play. It brings about the “impossible union” of eternity and temporality, as T.S.Eliot put it, and enables every individual to participate in the grand finale of the Divine Comedy known as the history of the world.

The Day of the Fall

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Genesis 2:16-17

The Bible does not record for how long Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden. It is perhaps because life in the Garden, that is, in the divine presence, is timeless. “With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

Apart from the days of Creation, no day is mentioned in the Genesis account except one, the day of the Fall. Just as the days of Creation are defined by divine acts, the remorseful day of the Fall is also defined by an act, the unfaithful act of Adam, who was made in the image of the Creator. By a choice of will, Adam created a different history for himself and mankind, and the days of his life became numbered as a consequence.

On the day of Adam’s Fall, God, who transcends time, came into time to seek Man. “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, ‘Where are you?'”

The Day of Regeneration

Today, if you will hear His voice:
Do not harden your hearts
Psalm 95:7-8

Potentiality and free choice are a constant theme that runs throughout the Scripture. In a sense, God in His humility has presented Himself as a choice to Man, either follow Him or reject Him. The trees in the Garden, such as the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, symbolize potentialities or possibilities that God has made available to Man, who is free to choose and explore as much as he pleases, even to separate himself from God, like the Prodigal Son from his Father.

Adam was at a crossroad. Before he made his choice, both paths were open, but as soon as he embarked on one, the other was closed. After he had disobeyed God, access to the Tree of life, that is, to God Himself, was denied; Jesus says, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He has come into the world to open for man the way to the Father, which was shut because of Adam, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Just as in the day of Creation, God commanded light to shine out of darkness, so in the day of Regeneration, He has shone in the hearts of men, to give them the light of the knowledge of Him in the face of Christ. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.

Related Posts:

Finding Adam: A Layman’s Interpretation of Genesis

Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”
Genesis 3:9


When I read the Book of Genesis for the first time many years ago, I did it out of scientific curiosity. I was an atheist who believed all religions were superstitions, but I was very curious why many otherwise highly intelligent human beings believed in the existence of God. So I tried to examine faith on the scientific principle of reproducibility: if I can repeat what a normal Christian does that leads him to his belief, and produce the same result, I would consider the belief valid. As an experiment, I not only read the Bible, but also prayed to the Unknown God. (I reasoned that I had nothing to lose. In hindsight, I can only agree with C.S.Lewis, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”)

Because I first read it without any knowledge of existing doctrines in the Church, I tend to interpret the Bible solely based on personal judgment. Consequently, my exegesis lacks the depth, rigor and richness of classical Christian theology, but I hope to avoid preconceived notions that may be indefensible. I welcome anyone who is willing to point out my mistakes in interpretation or any logical errors in thinking.

What’s In a Day?

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.
Genesis 1:3-5

The days in Genesis 1 are created by the word of God. They consist of darkness and light, either co-existing or alternating. The duration and advance of a day are defined not by any physical entity, but by divine command. God speaks, and there is a new day. It may be misleading to say that the Lord created the world in (for lack of a better word) six days, as if He were bound by time, when the days and time itself are His creation.

A day as such is not necessarily the 24-hour period of the earth’s rotation relative to the sun. For in the beginning “the earth was without form, and void”. There was no circular motion. The “two great lights”, commonly understood as the Sun and the Moon, didn’t appear until the fourth day. Without rotation, a day can be indefinitely extended. For instance, a day is literally a year long at the North and South Poles, with six months of darkness followed by six months of light.

God commanded the observance of the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week. “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day”(Ex. 20:11). He also commanded the observance of the Sabbath Year, and seven Sabbaths of years, and the year that follows the forty-nine years, the Jubilee (Ex. 23, Lev. 25). This pattern of expression suggests that what is significant is not the length of each day, but the consummation of days, and the relation of the seventh day to the previous six as a whole.

It is worth noting that Day is also equated with Light in Genesis 1. For six days, there are both darkness and light (evening and morning), but on the seventh day, there is no darkness or night. This suggests that the seventh day signifies a reality different from the preceding six.

The Primacy of Man

Many have cited the apparent contradictions in the accounts of Creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 to argue that they should not be taken literally. I think the two accounts can be harmonized without any loss of their literal and metaphorical meaning.

Firstly, Genesis 1 follows the order of time, Genesis 2 the order of priority. This is why days are clearly enumerated in the former, but not in the latter. In order of time, man is created at the end, as the culmination of Creation; in order of priority, man comes first, and everything else follows, as they are created for the sake of man.

Secondly, Genesis 1 depicts the Creation on a grand cosmic scale, “For He spoke, and it came to be; He commanded, and it stood firm”; Genesis 2 depicts the Creator’s relation to His Creation on an intimate personal level. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”

Thirdly, according to Aristotle, spontaneity and chance are causes of effects which might otherwise result from intelligence and nature. Since what is per se is prior to what is incidental, intelligence and nature are prior to spontaneity and chance. The observable difference between them is that the former invariably or normally produce the same end effect. Viewed from this angle, Genesis 1 is an enactment of the divinely ordained principles of nature in a time series, and Genesis 2 reveals the timeless counsel and intelligence of God. Both accounts of creation are given to show emphatically that Man became a living being by the determined purpose of God, not by chance.

The Personhood of Adam

I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Psalm 139:14-15

Some evolutionists argue that Adam cannot be a real person because there was never a time in the history of the Earth when only one person existed. If the origin of species is the result of random mutation and natural selection, it is highly probable that many individuals of a new species have emerged from such a process in the same time period.

From a theistic perspective, however, I believe what causes Adam to come into being is not natural selection, but divine election. What makes Adam first and unique is not his physical or genetic makeup, but his spiritual relation to his Creator. Adam is made of dust, but he also bears the Image of God. It doesn’t matter whether or not there existed many humanoids, what matters is whom God chooses to bear His Image and have fellowship with Him.

One prominent theme throughout the Bible is “Immanuel”, which is translated, “God with us”. God desires to enter into a covenantal relationship with man and dwell among man. For this reason, among many others, I believe Adam is a real person, not a symbolic representation of mankind, although he is also that in an important sense. For only a real person can enter into a relationship, and only a real person can break the covenant of trust, as Adam did in the Garden of Eden.

Related Posts:

Creation: The Value of Man

If the human race passed through the world as a ship through the sea or the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless whim, if an eternal oblivion always lurked angrily for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrest it from its clutches — how empty and devoid of comfort would life be!
–Søren Kierkegaard

The Value of Life

Although Kierkegaard died four years before the publication of Origin of Species, his reflection on the emptiness of temporal life may very well be applied to evolution by natural selection. During the long history of the Earth, countless species have come into existence and then become extinct; during the history of mankind, countless peoples and generations have lived and died out. It would be an enormous waste of life, if all should be gone and forgotten as if they had not lived at all. Many evolutionists have argued against Creation on this ground.

A limerick that explains George Berkeley’s idealism, viz. to be is to be perceived, addresses this issue from a different angle:
There was a young man who said “God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad”.

Dear Sir,
Your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the Quad;
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
Everything in the long history of the universe has intrinsic value, which is given by its Creator. “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these; If then God so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you” (Luke 12:27-28). The adornment of a wild lily is greater than the pomp of a king, because of the greatness of the One who adorns and values it. Even if the lily lives for only a moment in time, its value is not thereby diminished. A human life lasting less than a hundred years is absolutely nothing compared to the universe in length of time, but it is great in value, for his Creator has “crowned him with glory and honor”.

The Pursuit of Immortality

The life of the dead is set in the memory of the living.

It seems to me the most common and noble pursuit among mankind is not the pursuit of happiness, but the pursuit of immortality, in various forms and disguises.

There is in the heart of every man a sense of something that transcends the temporal and material, something worth striving and even dying for. Heroes have sought immortality in noble and glorious deeds, and “each of them individually received that renown which never grows old, and for a sepulchre, not so much that in which their bones have been deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be eternally remembered…For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb”; artists seek immortal fame in their art, as Ovid proclaims at the end of Metamorphoses, “let that day come which has no power save over this mortal frame, and end the span of my uncertain years. Still in my better part I shall be borne immortal far beyond the lofty stars and I shall have an undying name”; scientists also seek immortality in their work, as Einstein is quoted to have said, “Politics is for the moment, but an equation is for eternity.”

We catch a glimpse of eternity when we understand truth and appreciate beauty; we derive a sense of immortality when we cherish the memory of our departed loved ones. Cicero put it best, “The life of the dead is set in the memory of the living.”

The pursuit of immortality is twofold, on the one hand, it seeks to know eternal Truth — the Platonic ideal, on the other hand, it seeks to be known in eternity — the heroic ideal. Immortality as such has its limitation, however. For it only lasts as long as knowledge and remembrance lasts, or as long as there is someone to know and remember. If the human race doesn’t last, all shall be lost.

It is written in the Scripture, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts”. Only in God is the twofold condition of the immortality of man fulfilled. For in knowing the living God, man knows the Eternal Truth, and being known and remembered by God, man is known in eternity.

When asked about the resurrection of the dead, Jesus said, “Have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” The patriarchs, though dead to man in the temporal world, are alive and known to God in eternity. As St. Paul writes of the Perfection to come, “Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known”.


  • Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Cicero: Philippics. Trans. Walter C. A. Ker. London: William Heinemann, 1926.
  • Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Oxford: Clarendon, 1881. Perseus Project.
  • Hawking, Stephen. The Universe in a Nutshell. New York: Bantam Books, 2001.