On being philosophical about science

Professor Peter Atkins

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow stirred things up recently with the publication of their book “The Grand Design.” Apparently some of the theologically inclined were offended by the book title and the publicity where Hawking was quoted as saying “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” He also upset some philosophers with his statement in the book “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (see The Grand Design – neither God nor 42 and An unnecessary being?).

Now it looks like Professor Peter Atkins will soon be the centre of a similar controversy. His new book On Being: A Scientist’s Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence in the next few months (17 March 2011 in the UK and May 1 in the USA).

The publishers say:

“In this short book Peter Atkins considers the universal questions to which religions have claimed answers. With economy, wit, and elegance, unswerving before awkward realities, Atkins presents what science has to say. While acknowledging the comfort some find in belief, he declares his own faith in science’s capacity to reveal the deepest truths.”


“Scientist Atkins looks at the deepest questions of philosophy and religion, from a scientific viewpoint. Each chapter explores a grand theme, such as Origins or Death, to show what science has revealed about the topic. Written with wit, irony, elegance and a rigorous exposition of science, with Atkins sets against mythologies old and new. For anyone interested in the deep questions of nature.”

Peter Atkins is a chemist – famous for his textbooks (eg., “Chemical Principles
andPhysical Chemistry“). But he also has also written some very good popular science books (for example Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science and Four Laws That Drive the Universe“). He is a very clear writer and a good debater. He is also uncompromising in his defense of science.

As this year is the International year of Chemistry its probably fitting that Atkins should be taking up this fight now.

During March he will be giving a lecture The limits of science at the Royal Institute of Great Britain. In this he will examine “several of the great questions of existence to see whether science is confronted by a brick wall, and if not, then what it reveals.”

It sounds like he will be quite provocative. He presents some of these ideas in a recent Guardian Science Weekly podcast (see Science Weekly podcast: The birds and the bees (X-rated version).

So I guess in a few months the theologians and philosophers will have forgotten about Stephen Hawking. The will instead be accusing Peter Atkins of “scientism.”

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18 responses to “On being philosophical about science

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  2. Here’s a fun review of Atkins’ Creation Revisited
    There can be few sights sadder than seeing a distinguished professional making a complete fool of himself by trying to do something that he is simply incapable of. Professor Atkins is justly famous and wealthy as a result of his text book on Physical Chemistry but unfortunately he insists on dabbling in matters he does not seem to understand. In fact I am being charitable here because I would hate to doubt his honesty and that would be the only alternative if he really did know what he was talking about in this book.

    Atkins is a militant atheist like his colleague Richard Dawkins and this book is a feeble attempt to delineate an atheist cosmogony – i.e. to explain where the universe came from if there is no God. It is written in a style that is supposed to be poetic but in fact is merely annoying. Although now deservedly out of print and I am reviewing it here because Dawkins foolishly praises it in ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ and Keith Ward debunks it in ‘God, Chance and Necessity’ (still in print).

    The big fallacy is in the first chapter when Atkins tells us that “The only faith that we need… is the belief that everything can be understood and, ultimately, that there is nothing to explain”. So that’s all right then. Needless to say, from such a start point you could get anywhere and Atkins proceeds to demonstrate that the laws of universe can be reduced to mathematics and that the laws of mathematics can be reduced to the laws of logic. This last point really disturbs me because it has been proven by Kurt Godel to be false and Atkins must know this. Such an oversight should, at least, have been picked up by his editors. Indeed, they should have politely but firmly have told Atkins to stick to his chemistry set.

    In 2007, Atkins’s position on religion was described by Colin Tudge in an article in The Guardian as being non-scientific. In the same article, Atkins was also described as being “more hardline than Richard Dawkins”, and of deliberately choosing to ignore Peter Medawar’s famous adage that “Science is the art of the soluble”


  3. Well, ropata, you have got “On Being” sorted out and it hasn’t yet been published.

    Just search for his name in Google and take whatever negative writ5ing you can find from you fellow inmates in the apologetics ghetto!

    One of these days you should try reading one of these books for yourself and making up your own mind. Or would that be too difficult.


  4. Yes I have read some of the new atheists, I’m no professional philosopher but even I can tell that the screeds of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Atkins are unedited polemics of no philosophical worth. They do not engage the serious questions of existence with any insight of existing scholarship ancient and modern. They have faith that the scientific method is adequate for any question, which seems to correspond well with the definition of scientism.


  5. Now you are off at a tangent, ropata. Nothing specific to say about Hawking’s book so try and divert things.

    And whenever the word “scientism” is mentioned you can be sure someone is being devious, can’t you?


  6. Here’s a fun review…

    Written by somebody or other. Who know? Who really cares?
    Now if YOU had a position on a book that YOU had actually read yourself then that could be interesting.

    Atkins’s position on religion was described by Colin Tudge…

    Colin Tudge? You mean THE Colin Tudge?

    (…hushed awe of silence from the audience…)

    Oh wait…(rechecks name)…sorry.
    Never heard of him.
    Don’t really give a toss what he has to say. Guy could be a total loser for all I care.

    Well, ropata, you have got “On Being” sorted out and it hasn’t yet been published.

    ropata does not need to actually read a book in order to have very strong opinions about it.
    The whole reading part is superfluous. Trust in Tudge…or somebody else picked at random from a google search.

    Yes I have read some of the new atheists…

    But you haven’t actually read the book (and it’s not the first time). You have moved on to a higher plane of understanding. Ah, the time you must save.


  7. I think that perhaps a healthier attitude would be that Scientists aid new philosophy. There is little new truth that can be discovered from the comfort of an armchair, but that is not to discount philosophers. We need a union of the two, scientists who dredge up data from the wells of reality, and philosophers who contemplate the consequences this data has on the human condition. And some, a few amazing minds, that do a healthy amount of both.


  8. I think I agree with you Phantomposter. Atkins does describe philosophers as pessimists (backward looking) while scientists are optimists (forward looking and wanting to find out). Hawking describes philosophers as having lagged behind. But his “philosophy is dead” is really “philosophy is dead, long live philosophy.”

    Philosophy is not uniform. There are forward looking, scientific philosophers as well as backward looking, unscientific, idealist, even theological, philosophers.

    To me it is important for philosophy to incorporate modern scientific epistemology if it is to be relevant.

    The theologically inclined philosophers are of course the most backward looking, always attempting to place artificial limits on science and devouring non-scientific “ways of knowing.” and these are the one’s usually who “defend” “philosophy (in it’s conservative role) against scientific progress.


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  10. Ken,
    The theologically inclined philosophers are of course the most backward looking, …
    I suggest you read a little about Critical Realism and people like John Polkinghorne, Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, and Ernan McMullin. Some people take these things seriously, your comments are simply unfounded rubbish.


  11. Perhaps, ropata, you could explain yourself. Why do you think these guys are forward looking , particular in terms of scientific epistemology? And what is the relevance of critical realism to divisions in philosophy?


  12. Ken’s comments might be rubbish but there’s no reason to just take your word for it.
    “Buy this book” does not help anyone understand why you disagree with Ken.
    By the time anybody reads any book (even assuming that the book is at hand) the conversation has moved on.
    Make an argument yourself and back it up.
    After all, you presumably have read these books yourself so…


  13. I suggest that instead of simply dismissing philosophy out of hand one should learn what it actually says. I have read more than a few of the books in question ..


  14. Ropata, you claim to have read many books and be an expert on philosophy but you seem unable to answer my direct questions!

    Piss and wind?


  15. I suggest that instead of simply dismissing philosophy out of hand one should learn what it actually says.

    That’s the “courtier’s reply”.
    Not good.
    If you’ve read these other books that clearly demonstrate Ken’s position to be rubbish then give us the basic run-down.
    Otherwise there’s nothing to go on.

    (And no-that is NOT a black cheque to just start cutting-and-pasting)

    If you have an opinion and you truly feel that you have a better handle on the philosophy then say something about it. Nobody around here is attacking you or refusing to let you state your opinions. Go for it.
    Get your feet wet.


  16. OK let me just summarise a few decades worth of reading into a few sentences for you… nahh don’t think so.


  17. OK let me just summarise a few decades worth of reading…

    That’s not what you said before.

    I suggest you read a little about Critical Realism…
    I have read more than a few of the books in question .
    …people like John Polkinghorne, Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, and Ernan McMullin.


    Sadly, ropata, you seem to have the supreme advantage.
    You have several decades worth of reading over the rest of us. To you, that might be just a little bit of light reading but most people just don’t have a few spare decades lying around free to catch up with you.
    You have the secret wisdom borne of decades of deep philosophical study that allows you to privately understand just how Ken’s comments are unfounded rubbish.
    The rest of us must stand meekly in awe at your well hidden abilities.

    You are truly a courtier’s courtier.


  18. You are a card, ropata. You have a lot to say (negatively) about a book you haven’t read. Even a book not yet published.

    But when it comes to the thousands of books you have read over decades which show what a brilliant philodoher you are you are lost for words!


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