Science and the big questions

Chemist Peter Atkins writes that it is only science that can answer real big questions, as opposed to invented ones such as Why are we here? What are the attributes of the soul?.

They are not real questions, because they are not based on evidence. Thus, as there is no evidence for the Universe having a purpose, there is no point in trying to establish its purpose or to explore the consequences of that purported purpose. As there is no evidence for the existence of a soul (except in a metaphorical sense), there is no point in spending time wondering what the properties of that soul might be should the concept ever be substantiated. Most questions of this class are a waste of time; and because they are not open to rational discourse, at worst they are resolved only by resort to the sword, the bomb or the flame.

He then lays out the real big questions that he says only science can answer.

The triple-pronged armoury of science – the observational, the analytic and the computational – is now ready to attack the real big questions. They are, in chronological order: How did the Universe begin? How did matter in the Universe become alive? and How did living matter become self-conscious? When inspected and picked apart, these questions include many others, such as – in the first question – the existence of the fundamental forces and particles and, by extension, the long-term future of the Universe. It includes the not-so-little problem of the union of gravitation and quantum mechanics.

H says that there is no reason to think that science cannot answer these questions, difficult though they may seem to be right now.

The lubricant of the scientific method is optimism, optimism that given patience and effort, often collaborative effort, comprehension will come. It has in the past, and there is no reason to suppose that such optimism is misplaced now. Of course, foothills have given way to mountains, and rapid progress cannot be expected in the final push. Maybe effort will take us, at least temporarily, down blind alleys (string theory perhaps) but then the blindness of that alley might suddenly be opened and there is a surge of achievement.

I consider that there is nothing that the scientific method cannot elucidate. Indeed, we should delight in the journey of the collective human mind in the enterprise we call science.

I make a similar case in my own book The Great Paradox of Science, except that I add another big question which is the origin of morality. I point to research in all those areas and argue that all those four areas are transitioning from being mysteries to puzzles.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    The first quote sounds like circular reasoning to me: A “real” question is one that can be solved using evidence. Therefore, since only science uses evidence to answer questions, real questions can only be answered using science.” A tautology.
    As a literature teacher, I’d say that the arts in general have plenty to say on the question of “What should we do with our lives?”

  2. G21a says

    Actually “soul” just means “animating principle”. Religions often attribute supernatural characteristics to that principle but to merely assert that it exists just means asserting that life is somehow distinguishable from non-life.

  3. Matt G says

    Different traditions have come up with ideas about the “soul,” all of them different. This is obviously because they aren’t looking at evidence (for the simple reason that none exists). If they WERE looking at evidence, they would arrive at the same, or similar, conclusions. This makes the conclusion arbitrary, and I don’t see how this is a tautology or circular reasoning. Calling it a tautology or circular sounds like a great tactic to make it permanently safe from criticism.

  4. says

    Mano@3 To my eye he does not so much address the circularity as to embrace it. Science can address only the Big Questions which science can address, and therefore these are the “real’ Big Questions, and that is the end of it.

  5. consciousness razor says


    I accept that some will criticise me along the lines that I am using a circular argument:

    He “accepts” it, and in this case, that seems to mean simply that he’s okay with using an invalid argument.
    [facepalm] Well okay then. Moving on…..

    that the real big questions are the ones that can be answered scientifically, and therefore only science can in principle elucidate such questions, leaving aside the invented questions as intellectual weeds. That might be so.

    He was actually saying that it is so, not that it “might be” so. Is he not sure? He seems pretty sure.

    Publicly accessible evidence, after all, is surely an excellent sieve for distinguishing the two classes of question,

    Uhhh…. that’s because Atkins is stipulating that this is the distinction he wants to make, thereby creating this classification of his. It’s not as if he found out one day that there are these two (already differentiated) natural kinds of things, which just so happen to have this property, so now he’s going to take advantage of it and use that in some interesting or informative way. Instead, one day, he just waved his hands about and decided to classify “big questions” in this way. Probably because somebody else came up with it before him, and he’s just regurgitating that received wisdom for us.
    But surely, he doesn’t understand this point, because he thinks he needs to reassure the reader about what seems to be completely obvious: that his classification is “surely” his, the one he had already described. If he’s worried about a lack of meaningful content, maybe he should start with his own content.

    and the foundation of science is evidence.

    This and his premise that “only science can in principle elucidate such questions” are just a bad joke.
    Maybe he just should go back to chemistry or whatever it is that he does with his life when he’s not writing this type of bullshit. But that wouldn’t really help…. He should really try visiting any non-scientific department in academia and learn something from them, at least once in his life. I can almost picture him being shocked to find out that they all use publicly accessible evidence all the fucking time, concerning all sorts of shit, because in fact this is not what distinguishes scientific fields from non-scientific ones.
    Almost. But I bet he does know this perfectly well, which means he’s choosing not to be honest about it. That’s much worse than mere ignorance.
    Jumping back to his previous paragraph:

    Thus, Why is there something rather than nothing? (which is coloured by hints of purpose) is actually a disguised form of How is it that something emerged from nothing

    It’s actually not. There’s no assumption that “something emerged from nothing” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) in the original question, nor is it assumed that there was ever a state of nothingness during which (somehow, although this is nonsensical) this presumed emergence took place. The original lacks misguided premises like that, which for no apparent reason Atkins considered an improvement.
    Also, the original question wasn’t actually “coloured by hints of purpose,” if one doesn’t engage in a biased/tendentious reading of it. It’s pretty simple: asking for a reason why X is true isn’t implying that there must be something purposeful or intentional behind it.
    If I ask “why is the square root of two irrational?” I’m looking for a reason of that sort, not the purposeful/intentional kind. It suffices that a clear explanation, as well as a variety of proofs, can be given for that. (And I’ll note that this is done without empirical evidence, the very thing people like Atkins presuppose/insist that we always need.).
    Anyway, you had better not translate my question into “how is it that the irrationality of the square root of two emerged from something else?” Because that’s crazy talk, and I was definitely not asking that at all.
    Regarding “something rather than nothing,” even if you did try to answer his substitute question by means of another thing from which “something” emerged, that thing must not be “nothing.” So that defeats the purpose: whatever Atkins thinks that “science” can offer there, that presumably couldn’t be a genuine attempt to address the question. (Even after being reformulated and dressed for success, it still fails.)
    I’m reminded of the same bullshit marketing tactic that Lawrence Krauss tried to pull with his book several years ago: make your cosmological theories sound a little sexier by alluding to “big” or “deep” questions they couldn’t even pretend to answer. Maybe as a chemist, Atkins just doesn’t realize how full of shit people like Krauss are, when they make claims like that. However, it does seem like he should have some idea of how full of shit he is.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    I came on here this morning ready to dissect Atkins’ argument, but I see consciousness razor beat me to it. Well done!
    What if there is a third class of “big questions,” aside from no-evidence assertions like the existence of the soul on the one hand and cosmology on the other? To save time I’ll quote myself from a discussion we had in these comments back in December:

    “How can I find happiness when I’m surrounded by misery and injustice?”
    “How should I understand my place in the universe given the inevitability of death?”
    “What do concepts like Duty and Honor really mean?”
    “What is the best way to strengthen a marriage and family?”
    “What values should I pass on to my children?”
    “What type of government is best to live under?”
    I would say that the best place to look for the answers to these questions is not in Science, but in the so-called Humanities. Read Shakespeare; read Wordsworth; read Austen; heck, read Tolkien or LeGuin if they float your boat. Listen to Mozart or Led Zeppelin.

    There is also, of course, the whole controversy about the so-called “soft sciences” like psychology and sociology, which also attempt to address this category of Big Questions — are they really science, or just gussied-up storytelling? That debate would seem to be a central part of Atkins’ thesis, but he doesn’t seem to acknowledge its existence in his article.

  7. anat says

    brucegee1962 @9:

    “How can I find happiness when I’m surrounded by misery and injustice?”

    This is actually a question that can be answered with evidence. Maybe not for you specifically, but there is research on how people find happiness. Part of it is unfortunately how happy your individual brain tends to make you, but whatever that is, you can improve on it by having good relationships -- both friendships and long-term intimate relationships (the long-term part is important, we are not talking about ‘puppy love’ but long companionship that has some passion added in), engaging in activities you find meaningful and challenging, avoiding or reducing things known to reduce happiness such as noise or long commutes etc. while increasing exposure to things known to increase positive emotions such as acts of kindness (yours and others’), art, natural beauty. Also learning to manage one’s emotions so as not to get caught up in negativity in ways that are not productive.

    So yes, acknowledge the misery and lack of justice, but don’t let them overwhelm your outlook, and do a little bit to counter them.

  8. mnb0 says

    @1 Bruce: “As a literature teacher, I’d say that the arts in general have plenty to say on the question of “What should we do with our lives?””
    Unfortunately the arts also in general don’t have a well tested method at all to arrive at reliable answers to such questions. One novel of Dutch author Frederik van Eeden for instance ends with “the main character joins a christian order”. Science is the one and only method that at least sometimes formulates reliable answers. That justifies “only science can answer big questions”. However it would be a non-sequitur to jump to the conclusion all big questions.
    It’s not difficult, which I think Atkins’ essay quite uninteresting. Wake me up as soon as a reliable non-scientific method is developed. Until then I place suggestions like “the arts have plenty to say” in the same category as sucking my big fat thumb. Enjoyable etc. and I wouldn’t want to do without them, but the resulting answers all can be shrugged off.

  9. Matt G says

    Some of these really big questions are actually really bad questions. For example, people ask “why are we here?” as though there must be an answer. There isn’t, aside from the simple “evolution went in this direction” which many find unsatisfying.

  10. says

    To pose a question is not necessarily to assume that there is an answer. This is a western/enlightenment idea. It is, arguably, sheer bigotry to suppose such a thing. It isn’t even science, it’s just a sort of naive lay notion of science, here in the west, in the 21st century.

    Both buddhists and mathematicians know perfectly well that interesting questions can be posed that have no answers. I dare say some chemists and biologists have cottoned on by now as well. Answers are not always the point.

  11. John Morales says

    BTW, Andrew, “The answer is intrinsically unknowable” is also an answer.

    More literally, “To pose a question is not necessarily to assume that there is an answer.” is true, but it is also vacuous.

    What then is the point of asking the question?
    In what sense is it interesting?

    (What is the moulishness of the ygan?)

  12. friedfish2718 says

    Both Mr Atkins and Singham play the role of the fox in the La Fontaine fable “The Fox and the grapes”.

    Neither Mr Atkins nor Mr Singham define what “science” is.

    So any question that “science” cannot address cannot be a Big Question, can only be a Trivial Question or Irrelevant Question.

    The Fox cannot reach the high-hanging grapes and the Fox says such high-hanging grapes are bitter, valueless and irrelevant grapes.

    Mr Atkins admits in engaging in circular argumentation; circular argumentation is inevitable since there is no universal consensus on the definition of “knowledge”.

    Mr Atkins dismisses questions such as “How is it that something emerged from nothing?” and yet embraces questions such as “How did the Universe begin?”; the first question may be connected to the second question (there are no arguments against such a connection).

    Mr Atkins dismisses questions such as “What are the attributes of the soul?” and yet embraces questions such as “How did living matter become self-conscious?”; the first question may be connected to the second question (there are no arguments against such a connection).

    Mr Atkins’ article relies a lot on the “evidence” issue. Not finding evidence is not proof of absence for the search of evidence may not be complete. So far one has not isolated magnetic monopoles: is the search complete? Has one proven that magnetic monopoles do not exist?

    Mr Atkins writes: “… when evidence was mingled with mathematics …”. Answer: not quite correct. Corrected statement:” … when mathematics was added to Natural Philosophy…” This was done by Newton in establishing the basics of calculus for the study of nature (Leibnitz invented calculus for the sakes of mathematics alone). Before Newton, Science was called Natural Philosophy.

    Mr Atkins writes: “… the emergence of computation as a component of the unfolding implications of theories …”. Answer: un-necessary statement, for computation is part of mathematics.

    Mr Atkins writes: “… the detection of patterns in massive data sets …”. Answer: key expression “massive data sets”. Jeffrey-Lindley paradox. Mr Atkins just threw a sop to the member of the church of CACA (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Alteration).

    Mr Atkins writes: “The lubricant of the scientific method is optimism …”. Answer: Incorrect. The driving force of science is DOUBT. Although Mr Atkins mentioned Socrates, he did not realise that Socrates stated:”The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Effective scientists strive to disprove their hypotheses. Effective scientists doubt they have the entire picture. One thing that the religious have in abundance and the atheist have almost in absence: DOUBT.

    Mr Atkins writes: “…optimism that … comprehension will come.” Answer: Really. Complete comprehension? Incomplete comprehension? Earlier in the piece Mr Atkins writes:”… the limitations of consciousness preclude full comprehension of the deep structure of the fabric of reality…”. Soooo…..

    Mr Atkins writes: “I consider that there is nothing that the scientific method cannot elucidate.” Answer: Incorrect. Math/Logic has lead to impossibility theorems, to propositions proven to be undecidable. Math/Logic has proven that one can NEVER get to know all of Math. Since Math/Logic is so tightly tied to contemporary Science, complete knowledge of Matter is impossible.

    Math/Logic alone cannot create matter; or maybe Atkins and Singham believe in witchcraft. Matter appears (keyword: appears) to behave in a logical way; there will always be knowledge gaps in Logic, there is no argument against the eternal knowledge gap of the material world.

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