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Peter Atkins vs myself on limits of science

One of several videos which together are my debate with Peter Atkins on whether science can answer every question, from THINK week. Richard Dawkins is just out of shot infront of me. He chips in later...

Peter refused to stay in shot, which is annoying...


Mark Jones said…
Very funny and informative discussion, thanks.

The first video in the series is here, incidentally:

The one in the blog is number 3 of 6, I think?
Stephen Law said…
Thanks. Yes the whole series is there. This is third of six, yes.
Stephen Law said…
Interestingly the light falls in such a way as to give me the illusion of a Hitler moustache for much of the time.
Stephen Law said…
4.50 secs at part 4/6 you can hear Richard Dawkins agreeing with me about something, but not very much!
Ryan M said…
I got the impression that Atkins sometimes wanted to shift the question from 'Is there answerable questions that outside the boundaries of science?' to 'Can Philosophy answer any useful questions?'.
Paul P. Mealing said…
HI Stephen,

I thought this was very good. You came across really well I thought. You displayed very good humour in the face of adversity. I ended up watching them out of sequence so I'm not even sure if I saw them all.

Atkins said that science is optimistic and philosophy is pessimistic, but I think what he's really saying is that science can find answers where philosophy can't necessarily. There's a dialectic between philosophy and science which you hinted at and Peter dismisses or ignores.

One becomes aware of the subtle distinction between philosophy and science when you read books by scientists discussing philosophy. Two of the best, in my view, are Why Beliefs Matter by E. Brian Davies (Professor of Mathematics at Kings College London, and Fellow of the Royal Society) and What is Life? by Erwin Schrodinger.

I would've liked you to have elaborated more on why you think there is something wrong with the question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

The fact is that without consciousness there may as well be nothing. The real paradox of the universe is that it managed to create sentient beings who can actually attempt to understand it at all.

Regards, Paul.
Unknown said…
I watched the whole discussion on youtube and found it fascinating.

You said something like "human flourishing is important". Why??

I would have liked more on the "Can an is lead to an ought?" problem. Can science solve moral problems? e.g. is suffering "wrong"?
I went to see this debate and loved every minute of it. It inspired me to write a little something of my own that is my first, but hopefully not last, attempt at blogging. I would love anyone interested to have a look and see whether you think I am making any useful points at all.
Thanks for the inspiration Stephen.
Stephen Law said…
Well thanks for the kind words, Christian.

The only thing I kind of mucked up in this whole series was I didn't reiterate to Dawkins that the conceptual engineering philosophers do is a priori and armchair based, not empirical, so, while he said I was a scientist doing science, that's an odd use of the term.

Also, I should have said at the end about Galileo's balls that the thought experiment showed that it couldn't be a law that heavier things fall faster, but of course that does not allow us to predict what the balls which actually do right now (I cam pretty close at least to saying it did allow that, which was a silly mistake on my part).
crabsallover said…
I was there that night with some fellow friends and colleagues from Humanists4Science and AtheismUK.

Philosophers who think a priori should get together more often with empirical scientists. A great evening! Thanks Stephen.

The discussion reminded me of what another BHA distinguished supporter, Stephen Fry said that 'without testing, reason is akin to superstition'.
Nilou Ataie said…
If, as Sam Harris and others have described, we define morality as increasing with human flourishing and decreasing with suffering, and if we agree that this is something we want, then we can get an ought from an is. I could ask: is it moral to eat my children? The net effect of eating my children would be large amounts of manifest suffering and ill being, which would most obviously include the fact that my three children would die and their human flourishing gauge would hit absolute zero - forever. It is not moral to eat your children, and if I care to live my life by what is moral then I ought not do it. Is that not an ought from an is?
Stephen Law said…
Hi Nilou - no that is an ought from an ought. Once it is granted that human flourishing is what we ought to aim for, then science can play a role in establishing what aids that flourishing. But the ought is still not supplied by science.
Unknown said…
The point was made by a member of the audience that science and the scientific method comes out of a philosophical position that looks to both our senses and our thinking for discovering what we can about the world in a rigorous manner, and yet accepts that this is a tentative philosophical position. Dawkins also pointed out that, given we have got to this point of relying on science, science is the best we can do, and if science can't solve it nothing can. So in that, philosophy has contributed to the position of science.

But from that point on I think we have to accept that some aspects of philosophy, such as armchair philosophy about the world, are no longer adequate and should be relegated to history, as are some older methods of science. That's not to say that thinking alone is no use; theoretical physicists do that. The important point is that if you are going to theorise only, you should base it on the experimental work that has been done by science. Many old philosophical problems have either been explained away or no longer matter; and I think Peter was objecting this type of philosophy.

As was also pointed out, philosophy does not have a monopoly on critical thinking. In this respect then, even though the value of science may have come out of philosophical thinking I think now it is the case that thinking is what philosophers do, and thinking and experimenting is what scientists do, and so all that philosophers do is now a sub-set of what scientists do, and an inadequate sub-set for discovering what reality is about. Thinking alone may have appeared adequate pre-enlightenment; and it has produced all sorts of philosophical and theological nonsense (because both use only thinking as a methodology).
Unknown said…
Stephen asked if basic every day observation is science (e.g. cat-up-shirt), stating that he thinks it isn't. But this is a conceptual barrier that has been constructed by theologians and philosophers of the past, and has associated with it other misconceptions about 'other ways of knowing'. As far as we can tell we sense and we think - that's it. In fact, any materialist who accepts evolution as a representation of how humans came about must recognise that sensing came before thinking. All sorts of sensing capabilities, but basically physical or chemical, where developed first, and rudimentary nervous systems came along later and were able to co-ordinate the senses and motor activity. Only much later still did thinking as we know it come on to the scene.

So we are by nature empirical beings, with thinking as an add-on. And these two methodologies are all we have. The distinction then between science and non-science is only an arbitrary and quite vague one - particularly since the various branches of science use these methodologies to various extents, to the point that it is often debated whether some sciences are in fact sciences.

There is no real barrier between science and non-science. What we have is general 'human knowledge acquisition'(HKA)which consists of empirical interaction with the world, and the conceptual analysis of what we find. Science, as we like to think of it, using the 'scientific method', is merely a more rigorous form of HKA that has developed further sub-methodologies to compensate for the fallibilities we have in our personal sensing and thinking.

One of the consequences of this is that science is still a fallible human activity; though it's usually the non-scientists, particularly theologians, who think this relegates science to some lower form of HKA. But it is the best of all our HKA, and as was said by Dawkins, if science can't do it nothing can.
Unknown said…
Peter [responding to a question in vid 6], "Our perceptual theatre is enormous, and goes far beyond a single human head." This expresses the benefit of 'science' and the scientific method, and how it extends our fallible neurological capacity (as the questioner pointed out), our HKA in the hands of a single person, to use many people repeating tests, with instruments that extend our senses, using rigorous methods. In this sense the methodologies of science give us our best hope of finding out what makes the universe tick.

In this respect I think philosophy is out on a limb (though not as rotten a limb as theology) in that its core sub-methodology is thinking alone. Yes, some philosophers try to match their philosophy to empirical observation - but many have not, and some still do it badly. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to some philosophers is their ignorance of science (the Churchlands have been pointing this out for some time with regard to mind/body). Peter Atkins has a great understanding of the consequences of what science has discovered. Stephen's comment on another post, "Atkins is not the sharpest philosophical pencil in the box" I think is misplaced. He gets plenty of the philosophy, but discards much of it as uninformative.

For all Stephen claims that philosophy is good at breaking down conceptual barriers I think it has actually constructed many unnecessarily. As Peter pointed out in several responses, philosophy complicates and muddles problems through vagueness and imprecision. Scientists are more adept at dealing with precision than I think philosophers are, particularly those scientists who are more precise in their use of language, in a way that acknowledges some of the difficulties. Many philosophers make problems out of nothing.
Unknown said…
Stephen, your objection to answering questions about what caused the big bang, the appeal to the laws of nature, and so on, I think misses the point. It's quite conceivable that science will 'know' (i.e. have good theories about) what was required for a universe to appear. It's too early to say this is beyond science, simply because science isn't close to either knowing the answer or yet even understanding the problem. This exemplifies the pessimism of philosophy as opposed to the optimism of science. Science isn't prepared to put a limit on what we can come to know, because we can't know what we cannot know. You seem to be claiming that there are things we cannot know simply because we don't currently understand the problem area, because we don't yet know enough to formulate the right questions.

What makes you think science will run out of steam? What is the philosophical reasoning behind this? Is it just a hunch? Granted, there my be some vast amount of information we would like to have about what is 'outside' our universe that drives our universe into existence, and granted, there may not be enough time for humans or post-humans to develop science to the point where this information could be exposed and understood. But it's still too early to say. I find it difficult to conceive the capacity of post-humans to acquire knowledge about the universe, its origins, its exterior. It's roughly 2.5 millenia since the early Greek philosophers; what will we know 2.5 millenia from now? And 25 millenia?
Unknown said…
It seems to me that it's not only pessimism/optimism, but looking to the past/future that distinguishes philosophy and science. I think science does better than philosophy in some respects because it seems prepared to posit ideas that philosophers are reluctant to entertain. Stephen, you grimaced at Peter's suggestion that a better way of considering how (or why) something came from nothing, we should perhaps consider how 'nothing' came to be rearranged so that 'something' became apparent. There's a danger that philosophy is restricted by misconceptions, 'a priori' assumptions that need to be challenged. Seems like scientists are better at philosophy than philosophers in this respect.
Unknown said…
"There's a lot of good stuff and some bad stuff?" - I find this a very weak philosophical position. There is no reason to think that anything at all is either good or bad in any sense other than the psychological perceptual one; the sense that humans make of this stuff. A medium size fish is good stuff for a bigger predator, but bad stuff for smaller prey. There is nothing inherently bad about volcanoes or earthquakes - it's just some particular animals don't like them when they happen nearby; and, in fact, these forces of nature were probably crucial to the formation of life on this planet, and so in that sense they are good for us. Being able to dismantle the religious claims for a good God hasn't been helped by philosophy, but by science that has explained the processes that go on in the accumulation of life on this planet. Left to philosophy alone we'd still be debating the willfulness of the god of volcanoes.

"...I can be pretty sure that isn't behind the screen..." - Empirically we can be pretty sure, because we've come across no evidence. Philosophically we cannot be sure, because, being behind the screen, we don't know all the conditions that pertain that might make the world the way it is. It's quite possible that there is a God and that our parochial psychological perception of him is all wrong, that he did create everything but good and bad are uninteresting terms to him, only being of interest to us, or as theologians often put it, there is good in what we see as bad, we just don't understand why.
Unknown said…
"There are consequences of there being a being like that and the world just wouldn't look like this." - This is a pretty weak philosophical argument that can only be used against the most literal and trivial of religious beliefs.

"If you can show that that belief is false that easily..." - But you haven't. You only show that alternative views can be constructed, which destroys the logical certainty of the main 'good God' belief; it doesn't actually show it to be false.

"It's hardly science, is it." - It's more science than philosophy. Philosophically it's very weak. But the point Peter is making is that philosophy itself is weak here, because we can imagine pretty much any scenario to explain away an opponents argument, whichever side of the fence we are on - and philosophically that's precisely what's been happening for thousands of years with no progress. It's the basic empiricism that you speak of that's allowing us to move away from this impasse and say, well, this is the most concrete evidence we have for non-belief, and there is no evidence for the content of God belief, so we use materialism/naturalism/physicalism as the working model. And it's this mantle that science has taken up, the development of this basic empiricism into the scientific method, that sets science above philosophy or theology as our best route to understanding the world.

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