Saturday, 2 April 2011

Can Science Alone Answer Our Questions? Peter Atkins talks to Stephen Law

@Think Week, Oxford, Chris Street, David McKnight and Andy Pepperdine from Humanists4Science and Richard Green from AtheistsUK attended this talk on 24th February 2011. And had a great discussion down the pub after the meeting!

Part 1

Peter Atkins
There are 3 ways of acquiring knowledge:-
1) Refer to ancient texts - Religion - theologicians, obfuscate the world
2) Think about what the world should be like - Philosophy - which leads us nowhere, eg the Greeks reflected on what the world should be like
3) Science: do what people like Galileo did - goes out and applies the scientific method - scientists illuminate the world

The scientific method - go out, look at things and then talk about it. But science is not just amiablly wandering through the universe and then chatting to people whoever goes by. Science is about doing controlled experiments, isolating what is there, identifying the deep nature of what is operating, talking about it involves peer review, plus setting your discovering in a network of that which is already known; a network of ideas.

You cannot have an idea clashing in one area of science with another areas of science. The reason for confidence in the scientific endeavour is because ideas arise in many springs and where they mingle they dont conflict eg to understand cosmology you have to draw on knowledge of elementary particles.

Science is not complete, but is developing. Science progresses and understanding deepens.

Can science deal with all the great questions of existence? Science can deal with all the serious questions that have troubled mankind for millenia. My view is that science is without bound. To argue that case you have to distinguish real questions from false questions. Empty questions are invented by theologicians and philosphers eg what is the purpose of the universe. There is no evidence for any purpose of the universe so there is no need to waste time thinking about it. Real questions are the origin of universe and the long term fate of the universe, and what goes on between. Science can answer every one of the real questions. Real questions include:-

  1. how did the universe come into being without intervention - scientist have not cracked this yet but much progress over the last 150 yrs compared to theology/philosophy over last 10,000 years. That is the power of science. How can nothing produce something without intervention. Only a pessimist would think this cannot be answered. 
  2. Origin of biosphere... real results in the last 200 years, evolution and natural selection is the solution. 
  3. the problem of the inception of life remains .. how did the inorganic become organic. Scientists have many ideas - they do not assert what happens. Science cautiously identifies what might have happened.
  4. Nature of consciousness is another problem that science has not solved but is grappling with. Philosopher might say that science cannot illuminate the subjective. Theories of consciousness will be simulations and neuroscientists understand systems using fMRI, computers emulate aspects of consciousness to understand eg to understand why people resort to religious belief.

In summary, scientists are optimists. They attack problems because they are optimistic they will solve the problems. The driving force of science is optimism.

Philosophers are pessimists and say 'you cannot go there!'

Stephen Law

I'm a great admirer of empirical sciences [Empiricism - Wikipedia]. Empirical science is the most important tool, possibly the only tool that really works for understanding the world around us. Even though some questions cannot be answered by science this does not mean that these questions are off limits to science. I suspect a majority of scientists reject scientism - which says that every decent question can be answered by science.

Part 2

Stephen Law
Why is there something rather than nothing. Why was there a Big Bang rather than no Big Bang. When scientists explain things they use laws to explain things eg why did the water freeze in the pipes. Certain deep laws cannot be answered by science necessarily? In principle is it impossible to answer this question?

Can science answer moral questions? Ought or ought not to do something. David Hume says science deals with 'is' questions. Science cannot explain 'ought' questions or facts. eg why is it wrong. You cannot get an  'ought' from an 'is'.

You can answer questions without doing empirical science

  1. 4 sided triangle. Just by thinking about it you know that it doesn't exist - its a conceptual problem.
  2. Why is it that mirrors reverse Left to Right, not Top to Bottom. Its a conceptual problem, thinking things through, not a scientific problem. 
  3. The mind-body problem is a conceptual problem. Philosophers do conceptual engineering and clarification 
Philosophy is good at spotting a bad argument, stop the philosophical flaws in a scientific argument.

Long before the scientific method of Francis Bacon, empirical based observations are useful eg is there a cat up your shirt. This is not the scientific method. Can be very effective. Can science refute what is 'behind the veil' - the supernatural. Claims about god do not need science - there is a conceptual problems of god - non-temporal agency. Look out of the window - a lot of good stuff, Evil God Hypothesis is not true, cannot be true because of all the good things going on. Ain't no good god because too much good stuff. You don't need science to arrive at this conclusion.

Peter Atkins
SL says science cannot approach questions like the origin of the universe - that's a pessimistic view. Well the approach to use is physics, cosmology, maths. For question about morality you can attack this question through ethology, psychology, evolution, anthropology. It is pessimistic to say you cannot attack  the morality question. Philosophers are pessimists.

Part 3

Stephen Law
As David Hume said, you cannot get logically an 'ought' out of an 'is'. (video 3/1:49) Human flourishing is important. The 'is' facts are neutral. QED.
Peter Atkins
Looking at our evolutionary / ethological / social / anthropological history - that is all you need to distinguish an 'is' from an 'ought'. Its survival ultimately. A collection of 'is' facts will ultimately lead to an 'ought' decision (5:22).
Part 4

Part 4
Can something come from nothing? An Interesting Nothing.

Part 5

Part 5
David McKnight: Moral questions are 'aught' questions. Should we be talking about 'aught' questions. Are you trying to tell people what we 'aught' to do. Provide the facts.
Steven Law: 'aught' is not a religious term. Drifting into a incoherent position? Conceptual distinction between authoritarians and liberals (make up your own mind).

Peter Atkins: Consciousness - cannot be modelled or emulated at moment.
Peter Atkins: Moral and Political philosophers are interesting & important - dealing with emergent problems of society. Where philosophy is NOT useful is in exposing the workings of the universe.

Role of mathematics.

Part 6

Richard Dawkins, Vice President BHA was in the audience.

Part 6: Questions from the audience. I asked a question: Here is the verbatim transcription. My emphasis in brackets:-

1'35": Chris Street (anonymously) 'This is a question for both our speakers, Peter Atkins and Steven Law, who are both distinguished supporters of the British Humanist Association (BHA). Has science a role to play in humanistic philosophy and do you agree that the BHA strategy does not include science?
1' 50": Peter Atkins 'Stephen this is your question'.
1' 55": Stephen Law 'Sorry just say the last bit again'
2'00": Chris Street 'Do you agree that the BHA strategy does not include any reference to science?
2'04": Stephen Law (unclearly) 'Strategy? (confused) Would it be right if the strategy did include science? Well give me an example.

2'10": Chris Street ' I have in mind that the BHA strategy claims that reason has a part in understanding the world.
2'21": Stephen Law 'Right. That is (reason) is a big umbrella word'. My guess is that reason is understood to encompass science, that would be how I would read that. If you feel that it (science) really should have its own word in there explicitly, well, I have a little bit of sympathy with that actually, yeh. 

2'40": Chris Street (agrees)

2'42": Stephen Law 'But the suggestion that the BHA is a closet anti-science organisation, um, doesn't rate philosophy and doesn't rate science, I'm absolutely sure that that is not true. I'm sure you don't think that either?

2'56": Chris Street 'I don't' (I don't think BHA is anti-science or anti-philosophy).

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