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Asking the wrong questions

March 17, 2011

Were all guilty of asking the wrong questions at times.  Questions like ‘what is the point of reality TV?’  There is of course no point to reality TV.  Or to the question.

I read an article on the BBC News website today about the BBC Radio 4 programme, Today.  In this morning’s Today programme there was a discussion of chemist Professor Peter Atkins’ new book, On Being.  The website article was titled ‘Does science have all the answers?’

Prof Atkins tells us in his book that science has discovered all the evidence we need to understand our universe, where it came from and where it is going.  These are the answers to what he calls the real questions.  He believes that only science can answer these questions.  He does not recognise the value of questions like, ‘what is the meaning of life?’  In his view scientific facts have proved that there is no meaning to life.  In essence, according to Prof Atkins, science can tell us all we need to know to live our lives.

“Science is true glory, whereas religion is fabricated glory.” – Prof Peter Atkins

The Today programme brought in Mary Midgley, a philosopher, to provide an alternative viewpoint.  Mary Midgley has consistently stated that science cannot give all the answers to the questions people ask about the universe and humanity’s place in it, particularly in areas like morality.  In response to Prof Atkins Mary Midgley says that science is a ‘tiny part of our view of the world’ and that science has replaced religion as the background source of authority for the big questions about life.  She says that this leads people to pin their hopes on something which can only disappoint.

“[Answering the big questions about life  is simply not] the kind of job science does.” – Mary Midgley

So, what do I think?  Firstly the article itself asks the wrong question.  Science does not have all the answers, nor does it profess to do so.  The title seems deliberately provocative, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I broadly agree with what Prof Atkins has to say.  There can be no facts without evidence.  Evidence, usually provided by the scientific method, is the only way we can really state that a thing is true.  I am, however, not as materialistic (in the philosophical sense) as Prof Atkins seems to be.  I do not totally discount the evidence of people’s thoughts/emotions even though they cannot be replicated.  They are not the best evidence though.

In regard to Mary Midgley, I think that she is confusing what many people want to be true with what is actually true.  I realise that I don’t have her credentials as a philosopher, but I think she has got too involved in the process of philosophy rather than using it for what it is, a tool in the toolbox of understanding.  Philosophy has a place in the drawing of inferences from evidence, but to get bogged down in minutiae is to miss the point.  She talks of abstracts, such as democracy, and says that science cannot explain them.  She is both right and wrong, but leaning more towards wrong.  Science can study the individuals in a democracy and their interactions.  Inferences can then be drawn from the evidence to explain democracy in full.

Simply because people want to believe a thing does not make it so.  Evidence  is what tells us what is so.  Mary Midgley insists that life must have a purpose because people seek a purpose.  This seems to be a circular argument.  The evidence is that life does not have a purpose, in the sense of a purpose imposed by some outside agency.  This is not the same as what Prof Atkins asserts, which is that life has no purpose at all.  The wonderful, semi-conscious brain that resides in human heads as a result of billions of years of evolution is quite capable of creating its own purposes, given the right information.

Based on evidence that tells us how the universe really is and how our species fits into it we can see that life needs no over-arching purpose.  Each life is a potential purpose in and of itself and that truly is awe-inspiring.  No recourse to gods or other myths, no requirement for reward in an after-life or another life after this one, simply a life lived to the full for the benefit of other humans, other life and, ultimately, the universe.  We can achieve all this and probably more by dealing in fact and continuing to strive to understand ourselves and each other.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 22, 2011 13:48

    I find the purpose discussion fascinating, it binds theists of all flavours so tightly to their God of choice, the almost desperate human need for it all to make sense, for it all to have a purpose and reason. It can end up being very egocentric, when we look out at the universe and begin to reason that all 13.7 Billion light years of it is here for our benefit. But it’s cold comfort, it hides the evidence, it disguises the stark but I think ultimately astounding truth.

    My atoms have wandered the universe for 13.7 Billion years, for a brief, immeasurably small moment they have coalesced in a form that can begin to comprehend the universe they inhabit and then all too soon they will begin their unconcious journey again. And what have they discovered when they looked out? That the universe just is, no reason, no purpose, it is all gloriously pointless. How Brilliant is that?

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