From time to time a famous scientist allows himself (in my experience it’s always a man) to write nonchalantly about something of which he demonstrably has only a superficial grasp: philosophy. The list of offenders is a long one, and it includes Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Stephen Hawking, among several others. (Fortunately, there are also exceptions, scientists who value a constructive intercourse with the humanities, like Sean Carroll.) The latest entry in this dubious pantheon is Peter Atkins, who recently published a sloppy essay in the otherwise excellent Aeon magazine entitled “Why it’s only science that can answer all the big questions.” Oh boy.
Atkins begins by telling us that there are two fundamental kinds of “big questions”:
“One class consists of invented questions that are often based on unwarranted extrapolations of human experience. They typically include questions of purpose and worries about the annihilation of the self, such as Why are we here? and What are the attributes of the soul? They are not real questions, because they are not based on evidence. … 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. … The second class of big questions concerns features of the Universe for which there is evidence other than wish-fulfilling speculation and the stimulation provided by the study of sacred texts. … These are all real big questions and, in my view, are open to scientific elucidation.”
This is not news, of course, at all. David Hume — one of my favorite philosophers — made essentially the same argument back in the 18th century, in his case rejecting what he saw as the waste of time associated with the Scholastic metaphysics that had prevailed throughout the Middle Ages:
“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)
With all due respect to Hume, it’s a good thing people didn’t follow his advice, or we would have lost his very own Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, since that book doesn’t contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number, nor does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact. And yet, it is — justly — considered to be one of the most important works of modern philosophy.
Atkins apparently realizes that he may come across as a bit too facile, since he acknowledges that he is defining the big questions precisely as those that science can answer, turning then around to “demonstrate” that science is the only discipline equipped to answer such questions. As he drily puts it when considering the obvious charge of circularity: “that might be so.” Which doesn’t stop him from proceeding as if it were not so.
Atkins tells us that science is getting ready to tackle what he considers the next three big questions: How did the Universe begin? How did matter in the Universe become alive? and How did living matter become self-conscious?
I have no doubt, as a scientist, that those are, indeed, scientific questions. I’m slightly more skeptical, as a philosopher, that science will actually be able to come up with answers. Fundamental physics, after more than a century of uninterrupted success, seems to have entered a period of navel gazing where speculation (admittedly mathematically informed speculation) is poised to replace empirical evidence. So we shall see if and when we’ll actually get a “theory of everything,” and whether that theory will in fact be able to tell us how the universe began from “nothing” (there is some doubt that it will).
Regarding the second question, the origin of life, theories have been piling up for several centuries now, and yet we don’t seem to be particularly close to a resolution just yet. I’m certainly not arguing that it isn’t possible, but it’s a very, very difficult problem, for the simple reason that a lot of the historical traces have been lost. No geological strata survive from the time when the primordial earth was home to the first living organisms, meaning that researchers on the origin of life are like detectives who already know the smoking gun isn’t going to be found. At best, they’ll have to rely on circumstantial evidence. Even should we be able to produce life artificially in the laboratory that would not solve the problem, since it wouldn’t mean that life on our planet actually followed anything like that particular causal path.
As for consciousness, I remain convinced that the problem is indeed biological in nature, and that therefore developmental, evolutionary, and neuro-biology are the disciplines best positioned to find a solution. But at the moment nobody seems to have much of a clue, and common talk of the brain being a computer is finally beginning to be understood as the shaky and very likely misleading analogy that is.
So, yes, if any of those three big questions are going to be answered, the answer will be a scientific one. But what about other questions that arguably just as big (or, for most of us, even bigger)? Here Atkins shifts into full scientistic mode:
“I see no reason why the scientific method cannot be used to answer, or at least illuminate, Socrates’ question ‘How should we live?’ by appealing to those currently semi-sciences (the social sciences) including anthropology, ethology, psychology and economics.”
Please notice a number of interesting and revealing things about this sentence. First, Atkins is making the time-honored argument from personal incredulity: “I see no reason why…” Which, of course, is not an argument at all, but an elementary logical fallacy. Second, he is seriously hedging his bets when he immediately qualifies his initial statement: “or at least illuminate…” Ah, well, but philosophers since the Pre-Socratics have understood that empirical evidence (i.e., “science”) can illuminate philosophical questions. However, that’s a far more modest claim than the notion that science can actually answer those questions. Third, Atkins can’t help himself but deliver a contemptuous dig at the “semi-sciences.” This attitude, common among physicists, reflects a naive understanding of the philosophy of science, according to which physics is the (self-professed) “queen” of the sciences, and every other field will achieve full scientific status only when it will finally evolve into something that looks like physics. But an increasingly common view in philosophy is that there actually is a fundamental disunity of science, that “science” is only a loosely defined family resemblance term, reflecting the fact that each science has its own goals, methods, and internal standards, and that there is no universal yardstick to be appealed to in order to make comparative judgments of quality.
Going back to philosophy, the question of “how should I live?” admits of a large number of reasonable (and a lot of unreasonable!) answers, given the very same facts about the universe and human nature. It isn’t so much a question to be answered, as to be explored and clarified. Indeed, this is arguably what most fundamentally distinguishes science from philosophy.
One of my recent morning meditations is pertinent here. It begins with a quote by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who says in Discourses II, 11.13:
“Here you have philosophy’s starting point: we find that people cannot agree among themselves, and we go in search of the source of their disagreement.”
As I argue in the podcast episode, there are two broad sources of disagreement among human beings: factual and conceptual. If you and I disagree about, say, the number of moons orbiting around the planet Saturn, one of us is wrong, possibly both. There is a matter of fact about the issue, and we can find out the answer by asking an astronomer. Or more simply by doing a web search. If disagreement remains after that, then one of us is more than a bit obtuse.
The second kind of disagreement concerns how to think about facts, actions, and values. Here the facts are relevant, but insufficient to settle the dispute. Let’s say we have different opinions about the permissibility of assisted suicide. Certain empirical facts are going to be pertinent to the discussion, like information about how the procedure is going to be implemented, what safeguards there may be to avoid abuses, and so forth. But even if we agree on the facts, we may still disagree on the crucial issue: is assisted suicide morally permissible?
That’s the difference between science and philosophy, and why Epictetus says that philosophy begins with the search for why people disagree on things. Notoriously, philosophy does not necessarily settle such disagreements. The joke in philosophy departments is that our profession’s slogan is: “Philosophy: we have all the questions!” But what philosophy does, by means of careful analysis and reasoned argument, is to help us clarify why, exactly, we disagree. That is of huge help to people of good will who wish to honestly pursue discussions in search of better ways to conduct their lives. Atkins may want to take notice.