Thursday, 31 March 2011

Can science answer 'what is the meaning of life? "On Being" by Peter Atkins


In this 6 minute interview on Today, John Humphrys talks with Mary Midgley to Peter Atkins about his new book 'On Being' (still available May 2014). Its the best 6 minutes Radio 4 I've heard for some time! The discussion includes: the origin of the universe, why philosophy is dead, the scientific method, myths, truth .... & reliable wonder!

But Peter Atkins misses the chance to point out a humanist meme: Whilst the universe has no purpose, we, within it, can decide our own meaning & purpose to life (not relying on a holy book to tell us). Peter Atkins needs to brush up on his Humanism (he is a BHA Distinguished Supporter)

How about this for a strapline for Humanists4Science? 'Is there nothing that the scientific method cannot illuminate and elucidate?'

Reference: Atkins, P., On Being, 2011, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 104 (available from
'My own faith, my scientific faith, is that there is nothing that the scientific method cannot illuminate and elucidate' 

Oxford scientist Prof Peter Atkins and philosopher Mary Midgley discuss whether there is anything more than facts, facts and more facts.

my synopsis of interview by John Humphrys, Today.
All quotes from Peter Atkins, except where indicated. My additions in [ ].
  • philosophers have tried for millennia, to answer the great questions e.g. where did we come from?, why are we here?. Should philosophers bother ... just leave it to the scientists who deal in facts? That's the argument of Peter Atkins book 'On Being'. (JH)
  • 3 ways of getting knowledge about the world: 
  • 1.     refer to holy books [religion]
    2.     think about what it should be [philosophy]
    3.     go out and see what it's like [science] - favoured by Peter Atkins - that's what science is all about
  • Myths that emphasise the importance of these great questions [religion], have given way to truth [revealed by science]
  • Myths such as? (JH)
  • myths about afterlife and creation of universe have given way (but not completely) to scientific investigation, not completely but as an optimist, shows the way to the future understanding of the world
  • As a scientist can you answer: 'why are we here?' (JH)
    • Yes I could. It's just by accident! We just tumbled into being, the universe somehow came into existence. We don't know that, but its not outside the reach of science to consider the grand question: what is the origin of the universe?  Science in due course will come up with verifiable theories about how universe came into being .... it was inevitable that we and our brains would  tumble into existence [evolution by natural selection]
  • this is not a scientific view - a philosophical view - not science! (MM)
  • imperialistic view (MM)
    • can physical science give us knowledge about everything eg 'history'? No! (MM)
      • for a logical or maths question - ask a scientist (MM)
      • most of the questions we ask are about the working of human life not about physical detail (MM)
        • philosophical obfustification!
        • science goes out to answer the really deep questions about existence
        • whereas a philosopher, typically a pessimist, is like a traffic warden...
    • Are you an optimist, as a scientist, with all the dire warnings about how the world & universe could end? (JH)
    • We can have fun before the world expires! Part of the fun is understanding the nature of the world, how it works, how it came into existence!
    • the really deep questions that philosophers try to answer is 'the meaning of human life' and putting together the elements of the human life so they make sense. These are more important than the causal nature of the universe. (MM)
    • science identifies the really deep questions of existence, philosophers typically are pessimists (like traffic wardens), philosophers  obfuscate, philosophers verge on edge of being theologians!
    • Science identifies deep questions
    • there is no meaning of human life (PA) 4m40s
    • Philosophers focus on the non-questions like the meaning of life. What is the meaning of human life? This is a philosophical non-question! There is no meaning to life!
    • And you're an optimist? What a bleak assessment! (JH)
    • Yes, being bleak is part of the pleasure of being alive!
    • MM get us out of that one! (JH)
    • This talk about accident is rubbish! You can talk about a car accident but we can't talk about the whole thing being an accident, it's unintelligible. (MM)
    • it is much more understandable that the universe is an accident, the universe fell into existence somehow, rather than, for example, there being a creator who somehow nudged it into existence.
    • But you said "I think, not I can prove". Surely science should say more? (JH)
      • science does not rush into explanations, it edges towards answers in a very self confident authoritative way
      • humanity should be deeply proud that it stumbled upon a way [the scientific method] of discovering the truth about the universe
    • Mary Midgley, in less than 30 seconds tell us why we are here! (JH)
      • this is a big question but.. (MM)
      • physical science answers small questions (MM)
        • a tiny part of the view of the worldview (MM)
      • science adds wonder to the world
        • ... that was there before (MM)
        • science adds reliable wonder!

      1 comment:

      Alastair Moody said...

      Preserve us from the loud-mouthed learned ignorance of the likes of Professor Atkins.
      He clearly does not take seriously the things he says ("life is meaningless", etc.). There is clearly nothing which inspires wonder in him, except perhaps his own feeling of omniscience.