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Peter Atkins vs Mary Midgley on whether science has all the answers

Peter Atkins vs Mary Midgley on whether science has all the answers. Available here for a short while.

Funnily enough I had exactly this debate with Atkins a couple of weeks ago in Oxford over about 2hrs (part of THINK week). Dawkins sat right in front of me and chipped in too. I believe there will be some sort of recording available shortly...

Anyway, Atkins is not the sharpest philosophical pencil in the box, I think (though he's obviously good at chemistry). Strong on assertion but remarkably weak on argument. But Mary Midgley is unfortunately not great either.

Midgeley's is a depressingly weedy and waffly defence of philosophy. Her slide from why there's something rather than nothing to the obscure "meaning of life" question plays right into Atkins's hands.


Anonymous said…
On this matter Atkins has made the claim and therefore has the burden of proof. Mary Midgley did not have to offer an alternative.
I found myself choking quite often listening to Atkins expressing his view seems hes found his own religion
Michael Young said…
I didn't think Midgley was bad, at least in this excerpt. She had a short amount of time in which to get one big point across, and I thought that, more or less, she did get her point across. (The "one big point" being that there are a host of interesting / bothersome questions which are not about causal histories and the details of physical systems; a grasp of that point being all one really needs to find oneself motivated to preserve some space for non-scientific inquiry.)
pikeamus Mike said…
I'm at work so can't view the clip here, though to be honest I might give it a miss. Midgley is my least preferred prominant philosopher, I find her vague and imprecise (a great sin in my eyes) and she has horribly misrepresented several writers that I respect (an even worse sin) in her desire to provide rebuttals to the recent surge of outspoken atheism. It doesn't sound like I'm going to like Atkins much either, judging by the comments so far.
pikeamus Mike said…
I'm at work so can't view the clip here, though to be honest I might give it a miss. Midgley is my least preferred prominant philosopher, I find her vague and imprecise (a great sin in my eyes) and she has horribly misrepresented several writers that I respect (an even worse sin) in her desire to provide rebuttals to the recent surge of outspoken atheism. It doesn't sound like I'm going to like Atkins much either, judging by the comments so far.
Paul P. Mealing said…
I thought Mary Midgley made a very good point up front when she pointed out that Peter Atkins' view is of itself a philosophical viewpoint.

6.5 minutes isn't much time to make an argument let alone work up a meaningful dialogue. I didn't know that Midgley was that old, so I rather admire her for still wanting to engage.

I think finding purpose in one's life is an inherent part of being human, and seeking purpose for the universe itself is not an illogical extension of that. Atkins' view is that it's a non-question because science can't answer it. But I don't agree that, therefore, it should never be pondered or contemplated.

I would certainly be interested, Stephen, if there was a recording of your debate made available.

Regards, Paul.
Timothy Rowe said…
The funny thing about trying to do away with philosophy is that, in doing so, you invariably end up doing it.

Perhaps the charge of 'scientism' would be a just accusation to make here of Atkins. The simple fact is that science can't exist without philosophical foundations - foundations which can't themselves be supplied wholly by science.

Moreover, many scientists have been interested in philosophy, and have done philosophy in the course of doing science (Newton, Einstein, Mach, Feynman). Einstein, for example, credited philosophy as being essential for sharpening his scientific mind, and thought it a great shame that more scientists weren't interested in it.
Roffle said…
"Moreover, many scientists have been interested in philosophy, and have done philosophy in the course of doing science (Newton, Einstein, Mach, Feynman)."

However, if anyone could be labeled with the term "scientism," I think it would be Feynman (second to Atkins). He certainly didn't speak of philosophy in a positive light and took to heart the principle of testing everything: the scientific method. Nowadays, that seems adequate to receive the charge of "scientism".
Unknown said…
There's a misrepresentation going on here. And, Stephen, it starts with your title, "Peter Atkins vs Mary Midgley on whether science has all the answers"

Atkins doesn't claim science has all the answers. Nor does Humphris us 'all'. What Atkins may be claiming is that science is the best way of answering questions - and that seems a far more reasonable claim.

Given the possible infinite amount of stuff we don't know, it would be absurd for any scientists to make the claim that science can know everything - and I don't know any that do. Given that science is performed by scientists, and scientists are human, then it seems pretty obvious that as rigorous as science can be it's still a flawed human endeavour.

The 'science knows everything' charge is a straw man that opponents of science like to claim is the belief of science proponents (a claim mostly made by theologians, but also philosophers on the defensive). This current straw man is called 'scientism'.

The real claim that proponents of science should be making is that 'science', in the broader sense of using rigorous methods, is always the better choice; and that if 'science' can't discover facts then we're stuck, because we have nothing else. Faith, for example, doesn't have a particularly good track record, being a means of pretending to know something by a refusal to use our more reliable methodologies.

So, "Does science know the meaning of life?", was the title of the BBC piece. "..philosophers...have been trying to find the answers for thousands of years..." - Quite! And when you consider how much science has told us about the cosmos and the world in general in a short few hundred years, I don't think there's much of a comparison.

Philosophy has told us nothing about the world; it has only asked questions. That's not to denegate philosophy; but is as important to understand philosophy's limits as those of science. Philosophy is a great discipline for opening the eyes. But it's the science that explains what we see. I see science and philosophy as two aspects of our best means of acquiring knowledge - the former doing the work, the latter checking the work is done well, and hinting at where to look.
Stephen Law said…
Peter Atkins does believe science can answer every question. That's what he told me at a recent debate at least. So title is OK I think...
crabsallover said…
I've blogged the interview at Humanists4Science:

But Peter Atkins misses the chance to repeat 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).

In his book 'On Being' p.104 he says "my own faith, my scientific faith, is that there is nothing that the scientific method cannot illuminate or elucidate".
Unknown said…
Hi Stephen,

You've changed another word, from 'has' to 'can'. OK, I'm being picky, but your title does refer to the debate, and does say 'has'. I thought as a philosopher you would be just as picky yourself.

Atkins does generally claim that since there appears to be only the physical world, then science 'can' answer all questions about the physical world. Here's his view.

Atkins - "But the crux of the argument is not wholly the superiority of science as a mode of understanding the physical world: it is whether that physical world is the entire world, and whether there is any aspect of existence that necessarily lies outside the kingdom of science. If there is, then science cannot claim to be anything more than a partial contributor to global understanding. If there is not, then science is at least potentially capable of providing complete understanding of all there is."

This is quite a general statement that doesn't say science 'has' 'all' the answers.

Atkins - "There is of course one big, cosmically big, seemingly real question: Where did it all come from?...Science, in contrast, is steadily and strenuously working toward a comprehensible explanation.... Though difficult, and still incomplete, there is no reason to believe that the great problem, how the universe came into being, and what it is, will not be solved;..."

I don't see anything wrong with this view from a scientific or philosophical perspective, if one accepts that the material world is what we are dealing with. Philosophically it may be interesting to speculate about the non-material world, but there is nothing to lead us to believe it is anything other than an imaginary psychological concept.
Unknown said…
If there is evidence of anything else then it should be detectable, in which case it becomes incorporated into the material explanation. So, in that sense nothing is necessarily outside the reach of science. And, we don't have to be specific about when this might happen, and who in particular discovers various details about the universe. It's only a few short centuries ago the 'universe' consisted of a flat world, or a globe surrounded by a celestial sphere. The last one hundred years alone has introduced galaxies and the wider universe that we now see. It would be a little pessimistic to impose unnecessary limits on what we might come to know. As much as we can't know what we will come to know, we can't know what we won't come to know.

And, anything genuinely beyond the reach of science is also beyond the reach of all humans, and so all we can say about these supposed 'beyonds' is that they are undetectable, and as such, to us, it's as if they don't exist. And on that basis we have no way of distinguishing them as some hidden aspect of reality that we are speculating about, or mere imaginings in our physical brains.

Theist and some philosophers might not like this 'move', of allowing 'science' to encompass whatever we discover, but it seems quite reasonable; especially when compared to religious and philosophical claims made about 'other realms' or 'other ways of knowing' for which there is no evidence. Evidence, the stuff of science, is all we have to distinguish 'reality' from imagination.

Atkins - "...we can safely presume that the solution will be comprehensible to human minds. Moreover, that understanding will be achieved this side of the grave."

Again, nothing too controversial here. We might wonder to what extent it will be comprehensible to current 'human' minds, or discoverable by current 'human' minds, as opposed to any post-human mind; but I don't see how his view is in principle controversial to atheists.
Unknown said…

"On this matter Atkins has made the claim and therefore has the burden of proof" - I think you're mistaking Atkins as making a deductive argument. He certainly has evidence to support his inductive view that this is how the world appears to be.
Unknown said…
Michael Young,

Atkins' point is more significant than this interview would cover; so it's not just Midgley struggling to get a big point across in a short time.

Atkins is making his point based on a lot of accepted science. In short, the various implications of thermodynamics, conservation of energy, and so on, imply that there's a very finite amount of activity going on in a 100-Watt 1.5-Kilo brain. There's no evidence to support concepts like dualism, souls and other stuff, or 'other ways of thinking'.

The main objections to all this are: this is a physical view of the universe, that also relies on causality - can we be sure that's how things really are? The response to this is, yes, that is the limitation of this 'scientific' view; but it appears to be a limitation we are all bound by.

Humphrys - "..philosophers...have been trying to find the answers for thousands of years..." - Quite. If those that think there is something else, or, as it is often put, some 'other way of knowing', then they need to show the results.
Unknown said…
Paul Manning said, "I thought Mary Midgley made a very good point ... that Peter Atkins' view is of itself a philosophical viewpoint." - I'm curious as to what the distinction is between a philosophical view and a scientific hypothesis at the boundary of our understanding of the universe.

More from Midgley, "... it's a view about the relation between the different ways of thinking; " - How many ways of thinking do we have? I thought we had only one; and we can do it well, or poorly; we can apply methodologies to improve it or not; we can relate this thinking to what we find in the world or what we invent in our heads.

Midgley's view sounds awfully like the theological alternative 'ways of knowing' that are trotted out occasionally. And it's this that Atkins is opposing - the notion that ancient myths can be acccepted uncritically, or that deciding how the world 'should be' is better than going out and finding out.
Michael Young said…
Hi Ron,

Just now reading your comments.

To Atkins's claim that science in principle has all the answers, Midgley essentially says-- "well, that's odd, because it doesn't in the first place have all the good questions." If you are going to maintain Atkins's view, you must think either that Midgley is wrong about this (i.e., think that there are no non-scientific questions) or else think that some sensible-seeming non-scientific questions must not be properly answerable. Embracing either of those alternatives seems merely dogmatic to me. Of course, any particular inquiry with respect to any particular non-scientific question may go badly, but what grounds could you have for saying that *in general* all such inquiries *must* go badly? Especially, how *could* science itself show that interpretive questions or moral questions or conceptual questions either don't make sense or must be beyond the possible reach of any reasons? It is not enough to say that there is a lot of science here--as if science itself could give an answer to this question--because the question is one of the proper bounds and scope of science itself. Also, facts about brain size are not on point either, unless it is a necessary truth that brains as small as ours can only be trusted to do science. But then you'd need a non-scientific argument for that conclusion, which would get us right back into the same problem again!

Atkins claim is a claim about the proper bounds/boundedness and scope of science itself, and it is difficult to see how the justification for that position could be in scientific terms only. The question of the bounds of scientific inquiry is normative and conceptual, not empirical. (Imagine attempting an experiment to show the bounds of scientific inquiry in general. The thought should be absurd.) To answer another question, the distinction between the merely normative/conceptual and the empirical is (or ought to be) roughly the distinction between science and philosophy even at the limits of our understanding.

Also, one doesn't have to buy into dualism, souls, or other stuff in order to think that science doesn't have all the answers. If your goal is to resist *that* stuff, I don't know of any reason to think that philosophy is actually your enemy. Indeed, I'm inclined to think that, in that case, it is very much your friend. :)
Ron Murphy said…
Hi Michael,

A lot of this seems to depend on there being assumed bounds, between science on the one hand and philosophy on the other. My point is that there are no such bounds. It's just all down to how humans acquire knowledge about the universe, trying to understand what it consists of and how it works.

Given the history of science as natural philosophy I don't see a boundary at all, and so don't see anything out of scope of this broader 'human knowledge acquisition'. My point, which aligns with the view of Atkins, is that what we commonly call science, which includes many tools of philosophy, such as critical thinking, is the most thorough and rigorous general approach we have available. In that respect I do think philosophy is a friend of science, and even brought about the birth of science.

The distinction worth making then is between this broad 'scientific' approach, which does rely on empiricism, on the one hand, and what, on the other hand, can be disparagingly called armchair philosophy, which in many respects approaches theology in its detachment from empirical comparison. The distinction is between a scientific approach, which encompasses good philosophy, and bad philosophy, which attempts to find answers in the mind alone. The distinction is between good knowledge acquisition and poor knowledge acquisition.
Ron Murphy said…
One would have to reject an awful lot of science to think that humans are anything but primarily empirical creatures. We certainly evolved from sensory creatures that didn't have brains, and which on that basis didn't have minds.

Our mental capacities came late to the game, a few million years ago, which on evolutionary and cosmological scales is the blink of an eye. It would seem presumptuous to think we humans are the last word on thinking. But much of philosophy not only seems to think we are the last word on thinking (as opposed to merely the latest) but also that thinking has some primacy in our interaction with the universe such that thinking alone can figure out what's what.

"The question of the bounds of scientific inquiry is normative and conceptual, not empirical. (Imagine attempting an experiment to show the bounds of scientific inquiry in general. The thought should be absurd."

I think your mistake here is to equate empiricism with constructed technical experiments in a lab. That is certainly one aspect of empiricism, but its more general sense is interacting with and observing the world. And empiricism even includes the requirement to think about what you are experiencing in order to make sense of it. Empiricism, and the collective methods of science, the latter being really nothing more than more rigorous empiricism, seems to be what we do.

It's the idea that our normative/conceptual ideas have some primacy that I object to. We arrive at our concepts through interaction with the world: evolutionarily humans have acquired a capacity to think, which without rejecting evolution, must have come about from physical changes to the brain (not that we fully understand all this); individually we interact with the world from being a zygote, a fetus, an infant, a learning child, building up our thinking capabilities experientially, empirically. What would our thinking capacities be if we didn't live an empirical life? The evidence suggests we would have no such capacity.
Ron Murphy said…
"Also, facts about brain size are not on point either..."

It's very much on point. The brain has a limited physical capacity to do stuff. But there are, for example, 'ways of knowing' that suppose the mind can do stuff outside the brain, having out of body experiences, and so on. Now, modern philosophy might not buy into that specifically, but there still seems to be a notion that we are capable of discovering things about the universe just by thinking, as if thinking is a pure, special and reliable mode of processing information that is detached in some way from the physical limitations of the brain and a requirement to interact with the world - and this detachment does not seem to require dualism.

Again, the point isn't that we have science (absent of thinking) on the one hand, and philosophy (absent of empiricism) on the other. Science is empiricisms; it is interaction with the world and thinking about it, the latter performed in physical brains that are in turn formed by interaction with the world. And yes, philosophy (at least the good bits) are part of it, or adjunct to it if you must.

But philosophy, at least the philosophy that Atkins objects to, as do I, is that which thinks it is a stand-alone discipline for figuring out answers to the really tough questions at the limits of our capacity to find things out.

It's as if some modern philosophers have been able to reject dualism, the soul, and have even become all but physicalists, and yet still seem to retain some belief in the primacy of the 'the mind' that is distinct from the brain, and some belief in this mind's capacity to do stuff that is beyond the reach of scientists. Well, scientists have brains made of the same stuff as philosophers, and have the same limitations. We're all stuck with 'the same ways of knowing'.

Basically, I'm not really sure what 'other ways of knowing' exist. Perhaps you could give some examples. How do philosophers come to know things that scientists can't?

While it's true that some scientists don't take seriously enough some philosophical ideas, many have taken on board sufficient to determine that they have reached a point where philosophy has run out of answers. It seems to me that far more scientists than philosophers are prepared to say, okay, we've reached so far, so now we have to say, "I don't know. Where do we look next."

Many philosophers, on the other hand, seem quite prepared to tell us either how things are, or more likely, with regard to science, how things are not, by saying what science can't do.
Ron Murphy said…
" must think either that Midgley is wrong about this (i.e., think that there are no non-scientific questions.."

I do think she's wrong. There are questions that are meaningful to humans that are difficult to answer, not because they are unintelligible to a scientific understanding, but because they encompass too much and need to be broken down. Many questions that are thought to be beyond science are simply just too vague. But that doesn't mean they can't be analysed more critically in order to look for an answer that could be considered scientific.

We seem to have become accustomed to terms like 'morality' and 'aesthetics', and have, in our history, attributed to them something special beyond our capacity to investigate. It seems to me that this is a view acquired in a 'pre-scientific' past, and is also currently related to a romanticism with our 'humanity'. It seems theologians, and many philosophers, and some scientists, fear for the loss of our humanity that might ensue if we start to answer some of these questions pragmatically, 'scientifically'. This fear is evident in any defense of free-will and consciousness against the prying eyes of science.

"Especially, how *could* science itself show that interpretive questions or moral questions or conceptual questions either don't make sense or must be beyond the possible reach of any reasons?"

Interpretive questions are not beyond science - in fact most scientific questions are interpretive, since we are essentially interpreting our empirical experiences anyway. Moral questions are just as easily subject to what can be thought of as a scientific understanding - try The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris. Perhaps you have some specific questions you think are beyond science?

And note that such questions should be beyond science in principle.

There is a trivial sense in which many questions are beyond the capacity of science to answer. For example, "What's the 'absolute' distance between London and New York?" First we get rid of the really trivial: we must define centres, or edge points, between which measurements are made; then add in relativistic differences, the ability to measure down to let alone below the Plank length, ... We have no really reliable notion of 'absolute'.

But that's not how science answers questions. Science does, as was implied by some of your points, put bounds on its specific questions. This is testament to the limits of science, sure enough; but also to the limits of all human knowledge. I'm often amazed at how some philosophers can really go to town on what they think are claims about science (and often they are mistaken about what is being claimed anyway) while being particularly woolly in their own thinking.
Michael Young said…
Hi Ron,

You certainly have put a lot on the table. Rather than respond point-by-point, I think I want to say two big things:

1) If within the ambit of "scientific questions" you would mean to include all manner of sensible normative, conceptual, and interpretive questions, and especially if you would just mean to recomment critical thinking and good reasoning with respect to questions of any kind, then: I am for that!- and it turns out that we are largely talking at cross-purposes.

2) But since you take some aim at the armchair particularly (I like to imagine you taking that aim from the comfort of your own arm chair, hopefully), I do feel I have to defend a certain sort of paradigmatically philosophical use of the arm chair. So:

From experience, I can testify that the arm chair is a very good place in which to get clear on the nature of one's own thought as thought, about any of a range of topics. I don't think I mean anything particularly mysterious by "getting clear on thought as thought," although the phrase is a mouthful. I just have in mind a sort of deep introspective reflection and self-assessment that is about knowing ourselves as a thinking subject--that is, about knowing something of the very categories and concepts of our thought itself.

I hope you would agree that real and deep clarity of thought is both important and, often and oddly enough, rare and difficult to achieve. I think that this sort of self-knowledge is important both instrumentally and non-instrumentally. Instrumentally speaking, our projects often go better if we have a more (rather than less) clear idea of our own categories and concepts in that project. Non-instrumentally, knowing oneself in this deep way strikes me as somehow worthwhile for its own sake, perhaps because only in this way can we be sure that we are fully endorsing the principles and ends which order our life. A life lived in which I fully endorse the principles and ends by which I live seems to me somehow more authentic and better, as I hope it does to you.

But it may well be that you don't actually mean to oppose any of this in the final analysis. Perhaps our seeming disagreement is just that you would deploy a couple words -- "science" and "empirical" -- with a bit more freewheeling latitude than I ordinarily would. If that's all it is, then I don't think we actually have much to disagree about. We both oppose bullshit in principle; and we both support critical thinking in principle; and we both allow that there is a range of interesting and sensible questions of the interpretive, normative, and conceptual sort; we both agree that reasons have to do with all of those questions to the extent that they are sensible, I think; and perhaps we can agree further that there is some value in the sort of armchair project I describe. If we are agreed in all these ways, then, happily, perhaps we really are not disagreed at all. Our disagreement may be merely verbal after all: you would call purely conceptual and normative questions "scientific" and I would ordinarily hesitate at that way of labelling things, but the point is not crucial and does not matter much to me; I'll certainly play along for the sake of a conversation. Substantively and in principle, I think we may actually be quite close.
Ron Murphy said…
Hi Michael,

I'm pretty much in agreement with what you've said there.

Pure maths, theoretical physics - yes, thinking has its place, even in an armchair. But what even these two disciplines can't do is tell us that their theories actually do apply to the experienced world, until someone tests those theories against the experienced world.

The use of the derogatory term 'armchair philosophy' is directed at those philosophers who specifically ignore or even actively dismiss science, or claim that their philosophical (or theological) 'way of knowing' is both different, and even superior. So, the question stands: what other 'ways of knowing' are there? If science is based on the combination of thinking and experiencing and then thinking some more, what else do we have available?

"From experience, I can testify..." - Your experience. Precisely. Empiricism. So, again I ask, what's the difference between this and science? Mainly just the extent to which the rigor of specific methodologies is applied?

Even those that might be accused of 'armchair philosophy' can't help but be empirical beings, and do look to their experiences for answers. But it seems to go wrong when they take some experiences, mentally extrapolate from those, theorise, speculate, deduce, without any requirement to come back to the world for verification or falsification.


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