Scientific prejudice?

This was the last presentation at the recent Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark conference.

Peter Atkins does upset some people. Although he is intentionally provocative (his presentation is entitled “Pride in Prejudice”), I think his science is sound.

Atkins was Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford from 1965 until his retirement in 2007. He is the author of over 60 books including Four Laws That Drive the Universe; Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science; and the world-renowned textbook Physical Chemistry. He is involved in a variety of international activities including chairing the Committee on Chemistry Education of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and organizing the Malta series of conferences.

Atkins contrasts the blind prejudices of religion, which deny the power of human understanding, to “scientific prejudices” which are based on, and change with, evidence. However, he suggest that there may be ideas in science which can be considered as eternally true and lists three possible contenders:

  • Energy is conserved – this underlies causality and hence the comprehensibility of the universe;
  • The quality of energy easily degrades – the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This enables energy to be used constructively for life, evolution, humanity and intelligence. This is his favourite law – he believes it illuminates everything and can’t see how it could ever be replaced;
  • Mathematics works. It is the supreme language for the description and elucidation of the world. He suggests it is closely allied to, and hence powerful in illuminating, truth.

Some other interesting points he discusses are:

  • He questions the validity of any “why question” – if it can’t be reconstructed into “how questions.” This seperates the “wheat from the chaff.”
  • The scientific process sculpts simplicity out of complexity. It is essetnially reductionist but is accompanied by what he calls “assemblism” (science involves both analysis and synthesis – it is holistic);

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4 responses to “Scientific prejudice?

  1. I can also recommend this presentation. I enjoyed this (and the previous years presentation from Peter Atkins) presentation so much that I bought both the Galileos finger book that Ken has mentioned, and the “four laws” book that he has written.

    I am currently hoeing my way through the four laws book. I am finding some bits a little hard going, but it might be because I have gotten a little side tracked into reading Dan Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, which I am enjoying.

    If you read this Damian, how are you enjoying Freedom evolves? I think he does a good job with this, and I am particularly interested in some of the computational based examples, such as the life software and chess programs.


  2. Hi Nick,
    I’m nearing the end of Freedom Evolves and I’ve really enjoyed it. I find reading books like this enormously time-consuming because I’ll read a paragraph or two and drift off into my own thoughts for a while only to return and have to re-read the paragraph for continuity!

    Just prior to this I read Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness, an introduction textbook and it did a fantastic job of laying out many of the various philosopher’s thoughts and ideas on consciousness and free will including Dennett’s (who’s ideas I think she prefers).


  3. Nick, Damian, another book in the same lines you may want to consider is Mark Hauser’s “Moral Minds”. It blends philosophical approaches to morality and scientific evidence in favor of an underlying “moral book”, inaccessible directly to most of us, but guiding our moral judgements.


  4. 50-odd years is a long time to be a full professor. He must have first taken this post when he was quite young. I can remember his text as course material for one of my undergraduate courses! πŸ™‚

    I’d comment that I think that part of the power of mathematics, for me, isn’t that it is complete or not (in the sense that can describe everything or not), but that its very difficult to insert personal biases into sound mathematics without them being self-evident to others. Any “fudge factors” are pretty much instantly obvious as being such.


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