Thursday, 5 May 2011

'On Being' by Peter Atkins - Prologue (review - part 1)

BHA Distinguished Supporter, Peter Atkins book 'On Being' - 'A scientist's exploration of the great questions of existence', was published in March 2011. View Peter Atkins talking (2 minutes) about his book. Atkins will discuss his book at the BHA Manchester conference 17-19th June 2011.

The 111 page book has 7 sections:

  1. Prologue
    1. the scientific method and its limitations.
    2. the role of maths. 
    3. everything in the universe is physical, nothing is 'spiritual'. 
    4. shedding myths.
    5. near-spiritual joy and wonder about the universe.
  2. Beginning
    1. Where did the Universe come from?
    2. How was something come from nothing, without an agent
    3. Scientific Method
    4. Multiverse
    5. Science v Religion
    6. Why a Universe?
    7. A Universe without a purpose
  3. Progression
  4. Birth
  5. Death
  6. Ending
  7. Epilogue

  • the scientific method and its limitations.
  • the role of maths. 
  • everything in the universe is physical, nothing is 'spiritual'. 
  • shedding myths.
  • near-spiritual joy and wonder about the universe.
The Limitations of the Scientific Method
Peter Atkins says that the scientific method:-
'can shed light on every and any concept', ... 'can elucidate love, hope and charity' and 'can elucidate those great inspirations to human achievement, the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, anger, greed, sloth, gluttony and lust'  (pg. vii).
Atkins focuses on examples of the scientific method that:-
'illuminate matters of great human concern' (pg. viii) and considers that 'there is nothing that the scientific method cannot illuminate. Because the scientific method has not yet encountered a barrier, ... 'the reach of its beam is boundless and in particular that it can replace (or can conceivably confirm) the myths that surround all the great questions of being' whilst 'aware that extrapolation from present success is not a convincing argument'. (pg. x)
Atkins believes there is no reliable evidence for the 'kingdom of the spirit' and asks:-
'why should anything remain obscure?... we see no objective evidence for the non-physical.' Although many people yearn for a spiritual domain, 'reliable knowledge is not secured by majority vote'.
Atkins writes, whilst 'certain matters are private, subjective and internal', neuroscience and psychology can 'reveal aspects of the brain's beliefs and sentiments and why they dwell there' (pg xi). Only the physical world exists; the spiritual world is a delusion of the mind. 'If absolutely and unreservedly everything is an aspect of the physical, material world then I don't see how it [subjective privacy] can be closed to scientific investigation' (pg. xii).
Can science illuminate all the great real questions?
Atkins writes 'In the physical sciences, Aristotle gave way to Galileo, Galileo to Newton, Newton to Einstein, and Einstein to who knows. Much of scientific understanding, it is claimed, is may-fly ephemeral, awaiting further elaboration or even replacement, so how can I justifiably claim that science has power to illuminate the great questions once and for all?' (pg. xii)
He answers this question, explaining that some observations are unlikely to be overthrown.
'I do and I don't. Where my account is a review of observation, as in the organic processes accompanying birth and death, then there is little force in the view that those observations will be overthrown. Of course they will be elaborated, but the general details and broad features of what I describe are objective, eternal observables, not transient theories.'
Some ideas at the edge of physics will be changed out of all recognition.
'Where, however, my account is a review of theoretical understanding at the edge of physics, then I fully accept that the account is likely to be changed out of all recognition as our understanding of physical reality and cosmology is developed and refined. But my review in these cases will make it clear that our current theories are way-points on the road to presumed complete understanding, showing how far we have come from myth, not concealing that we might have far to go, yet hoping not to quench the sense of optimism that the journey will ultimately be triumphant.' 
Some intermediate comprehensions are almost certainly correct but are undergoing elaboration.
'Lying between these extremes of confidence and speculative, extrapolated, and currently unfulfilled optimism, are comprehensions of an intermediate kind, such as my account of the origin of the species. These intermediate comprehensions are almost certainly correct but are undergoing elaboration - with elaboration not to be interpreted as overthrow but enrichment.'
The scientific method is the only means of discovering the nature of reality says Atkins.
'In short, I stand by my claim that the scientific method is the only means of discovering the nature of reality, and although its current views are open to revision, the approach, making observations and comparing notes, will forever survive as the only way acquiring reliable knowledge.'

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