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.