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!

      Wednesday, 30 March 2011

      Does maths explain religious decline?

      Last week three American academics got widespread publicity for predicting the continued decline of religion. A specific prediction "nearly 70% of the Netherlands will be non-a liated [to religion] by midcentury" was widely quoted.

      So what, you might think. But the paper is more interesting than the press reports suggest.

      The authors show that the decline in religious affiliation (as measured in national censuses) in four European countries follows a single mathematical form. They derive this form by assuming that religion and non-religion are two competing social groups - a view that seems ridiculously simple-minded - and explain the growth in non-religion by a drop in the perceived utility of religion. It seems odd, even offensive, to use the term 'utility' for social groups whose key differences are their opinions about truth. More significantly the authors do not explain why the utility of religion should have declined. They therefore provide no insight into the trends they document.

      The interesting bit comes next.

      The authors extended their mathematical model to cases where there was limited communication between the competing social groups. These models predicted the same processes of change but over a longer period. Even quite small amounts of communication between groups was sufficient to facilitate the decline in religious affiliation IF the utility of affiliation was falling.

      This kind of modeling can contribute to our understanding of secularisation - but it will be essential to understand changes in the 'perceived utility of affiliation'.

      The paper

      A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-afilliation.
      Daniel M. Abrams and Haley A. Yaple of Northwestern University and Richard J. Wiener of the University of Arizona.

      Monday, 28 March 2011

      How Everything was formed from Nothing

      source: - available to view until 4th April 2011.

      crabsallover says 'agentless act = nothing vacuum = virtual particles = anti-matter & matter collide = Big Bang = quantum fluctuations = universe = galaxies = life = us = Everything from Nothing!'

      From the BBC:-

      'Two-part documentary which deals with two of the deepest questions there are - what is everything, and what is nothing?
      In two epic, surreal and mind-expanding films, Professor Jim Al-Khalili searches for an answer to these questions as he explores the true size and shape of the universe and delves into the amazing science behind apparent nothingness.
      The second part, Nothing, explores science at the very limits of human perception, where we now understand the deepest mysteries of the universe lie. Jim sets out to answer one very simple question - what is nothing? His journey ends with perhaps the most profound insight about reality that humanity has ever made. Everything came from nothing. The quantum world of the super-small shaped the vast universe we inhabit today, and Jim can prove it.'

      Wednesday, 23 March 2011

      James Watt and the Making of the Modern World

      You probably know James Watt as the father of the steam engine - and perhaps as the inventor of the concept of 'horsepower'. But Watt and his inventions had a dramatic impact on society, to the extent that even in his lifetime he became a kind of semi-legendary figure.

      In this rather romantic engraving, made some 40 years after his death, Watt is depicted not as an engineer and technologist (which, primarily, he was) but rather as a kind of enlightenment philosopher.

      Adam Hart-Davis
      His attic workshop, preserved after his death and carefully dismantled and removed in 1924, has now been lovingly restored by the National Science Museum.

      Adam Hart-Davis, of 'Local Heroes' fame, was there for the opening, and I caught up with him to ask him about the impact of Watt's inventions on society

      With a bit of luck, you'll be able to hear what he had to say below:

      [or download]

      [Sadly it's unedited, as I don't have the technology to edit .mp4 files. Call it 'edgey' and 'raw' rather than amateurish... he does go on to talk about Watt's invention of the parallel motion, but of course you won't be able to see what he's pointing at!]

      Watt's attic workshop on display at the
      National Science Museum

      I also put a similar question to Ian Blatchford, director of the National Science Museum, who had a lot of interesting things to say about not only the cultural impacts, of Watt's work, but also about what motivated him:

      [or download]

      The thing that struck me most about the exhibition was just how far-ranging Watt's interests ranged - Flute making, pottery, chemistry, as well,of course, steam engines. His workshop is in fact dominated by two contraptions for copying sculptures - as well as piles and piles of all sorts of junk!

      Tuesday, 22 March 2011

      Affiliate CFI becomes a BHA Section

      Ref: BHA e-bulletin, BHA Chief Executive, Andrew Copson, 21 March 2011.

      Read BHA Press Release 17 March 2011; CFI UK Press Release 14 March 2011.

      The mission of the Centre for Inquiry (CFI) internationally is to "foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values". Obviously it's a goal which is rather familiar to us at the British Humanist Association!

      Stephen Law, CFI / BHA
      So last week we were delighted to announce that the affiliate of CFI in the UK, formerly "CFI London", has been incorporated as a section of the BHA. The new CFI UK will, as part of the BHA, enable both organisations to expand the collective events programme, reach new audiences, and together promote the causes of reason, science and human curiosity.

      CFI in the United States was founded by humanist groups merging together, and is led in the UK by philosopher Stephen Law, also a member of the BHA's Humanist Philosophers. Of course, it's not always the case that organisations, even with many shared goals and excellent humanist credentials, can join forces as we are doing here. But with CFI UK our aims overlap perfectly and CFI UK will retain its distinctive focus and image as we begin to work together.

      People often comment about the natural tendency of groups of people to fracture into sub-groups and "denominations". But, as with our relationship with the AHS student federation, this is another example of two organisations already on friendly terms seeing an opportunity to improve their work all round, identifying no obvious downsides, and so taking the decision to unite. It's all very "humanist"! and we're looking forward to working together.

      About CFI

      ref: CFI UK (Accessed 22 March 2011)

      CFI UK's primary aim is education, with the focus on the following three areas:

      (i) the application of science and/or reason to questions regarding religion and the supernatural (e.g. questions about the divine, parapsychological questions, etc.)

      (ii) the application of science and/or reason to pressing contemporary ethical dilemmas and social/political problems (e.g. stem-cell research, global warming)

      (iii) the question of what is, and is not, good science (e.g. is intelligent design, or cold fusion, or magnet therapy, good science?)

      CFI UK is concerned to defend and promote academic freedom, particularly from unjust legal threats, and to promote science-based policy.

      We put on regular talks and events focussing on all of the above - from, say, exposing medical quackery (Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh), to examining the relationship between science and religion (recent debate between Alister McGrath and Stephen Law, and upcoming debate between Rev. John Polkinghorne and David Papineau) to examining the roots causes of the Holocaust and how best to prevent such catastrophes in future (a likely Autumn 2010 fixture). Fascinating, informative and sometimes provocative talks from leading experts and commentators in their fields. Talks take place at Conway Hall, central London, and at The Oxford Literary Festival at Christ Church Oxford, where we contribute several events each year.

      Stephen Law (Provost), Suresh Lalvani (Executive Director and Company Secretary)

      Friday, 18 March 2011

      James Watt's legendary 'magical retreat'

      James Watt, inventor of the condensing steam engine that kick-started the industrial revolution, is about to have a new permanent exhibition at the Science Museum in London created in his honour.

      When Watt retired in 1800, at the age of 64, he spent much of the next 19 year up in the attic (his 'garret  room') tinkering and working on further inventions. After he died in 1819, it remained untouched for many years, almost like a kind of shrine.

      In 1924, when Watt's house was due for demolition, the contents of his garret were presented in their entirety to the Science Museum, which recreated it and put it on display. After a while, that section of the gallery was walled off and neglected. Now the Science Museum has refurbished his 'magical retreat', and is reopening it to the public.

      I'm lucky enough to be attending the Press launch of this reopening. There'll be a few interesting characters there, who will be available for interview:
      • Andrew Nahum and Ben Russell, curators, Science Museum
      • Adam Hart-Davis
      • Mary Anne Galton – a drama character from the James Watt period who can talk about her role in bringing the workshop alive for a family audience.
      So, if you have any burning questions related to the life and time of one of the Industrial revolution's towering genius, let me know in the comments below. I'll see if I can get them answered!

      Monday, 7 March 2011

      Should we challenge 'faith method' with 'scientific method'?

      'scientific method': A topic that is important and fundamental to some members of Humanists4Science.

      Wikipedia has been updating their scientific method page since 2003. As an aside, tt includes an interesting discussion on the definite article 'the'. Should we say 'the scientific method' or 'scientific method'?

      In my view, as expressed in crabsallover comment to an Atheism* article about the views of a Muslim woman, (the) 'scientific method' should be used to challenge (the) 'faith method' of religions. In the comments section of this article I said:-

      I like your term the 'method of faith' but I prefer to shorten it to the 'faith method' and contrast it to the 'scientific method'. A good way to challenge the 'faith method' is with the 'scientific method'.

      The scientific method has been, by and large, spectacularly successful in the last couple of centuries and is the basis on which science, and our knowledge of the world, has progressed.
      On evolution, humans are not animals but created by God.
      Since Darwin, the scientific method has shown that Evolution by Natural Selection is how all life (including man!) has evolved.
      The overwhelming impression I had from our conversation was that there seemed to be no conception of evidence and substantiation required for truth.
      That is why we should be extolling science and the scientific method as the best ways of discovering about the world, whilst exposing the flaws in the 'faith method'.
      The beliefs were held because that is what she had been exposed to, and they were, to her, unquestionably correct and those who had different beliefs were clearly wrong. And here we come to the fundamental flaw in the method of Faith, that it is belief decoupled from reality, which creates an environment where people can believe anything.
      Well said! And faith can be highly emotive, strongly held and people can become offended (or even violent) when there faith is questioned.  Which is one reason why the 'faith method' is a successful strategy to propagate religions. Do ALL 'successfully' propagated religions rely on the 'faith method'?
      Although, some of her beliefs could be regarded as prejudicial, luckily they didn’t seem to be that dangerous. But, and here is the danger of Faith, what happens if people who just accept what they are told, by those who they regard as authorities on the matter, are exposed to beliefs of a more extremist nature? The more people rely on Faith the more likely they are to become fundamentalists, and possibly a threat to others.
      That is why it is vital that we challenge religious beliefs which use the 'faith method', with science which uses the 'scientific method'.

      Atheism is Britain’s only distinctively atheist organization. Atheism challenges religious faith. Atheism’s ultimate goal is the end of faith and of religion, the social manifestation of faith.