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Atkins vs Midgley: The Limits of Science - part 4

Claims by priests and poets to illuminate the world are vacuous: only science offers us a deep understanding of reality.

Atkins vs Midgley 4 i

This article is part of The Limits of Science: an ongoing debate between scientist Peter Atkins and philosopher Mary Midgley.

Midgley launches the debate by arguing that science does not have the answers to every question. In Science Unlimited, Atkins contends that, in fact, science will explain all of existence. Then, Midgley responds in Knowledge is Not an Empire, by arguing that science is just one field of enquiry among others. Now, Atkins counters that only science offers us a deep understanding of reality.

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I am really sorry that Professor Midgley has such an animus against the role of science in answering the deep, real questions about the nature of reality. What is wrong with asking for evidence? What is wrong for requiring that evidence to be testable by others? What is wrong with requiring that that evidence, and the theories that claim to explain it, be comfortable neighbours in the awesome and splendid reticulation of knowledge that constitutes modern science?

I do not recall stating that science is only physics, chemistry, and biology except insofar as these entwined branches represent its major, traditional components. Of course I admit other rational enterprises into the definition, including economics (especially now that economic models are so powerful). Geography is certainly a scientific discipline, even in its manifestation as economic geography. Have I missed an aspect of it that is pursued by sentiment alone, or sentiment in collusion with written authority? History is an interesting point, and I struggle a little to answer Midgley’s objection. The techniques of history certainly rely, at least ideally, on evidence rather than sentiment and the historical record is a crucial part of global sociology, but I would not claim that history is really a branch of the sciences any more than I consider poetry to be. Yet it does provide evidence for scientists, including anthropologists and sociologists, to analyse and thereby comprehend human interaction. 

But my principal point is that a fundamental understanding of the fabric of reality, the deep structure of the physical world (the only world) and the properties that the world manifests (including consciousness and its attributes) can be achieved only by the procedures adopted by science. Claims by priests and poets to illuminate that fabric are vacuous even though beautifully garbed and presented. They are clothes with no emperor within.

The ultimate question, in this discussion if not for humanity, is whether it is I or Midgley who inhabits the seventeenth century. Should we not move on from old-fashioned, pessimistic ideas about mind and body and breathe the fresh, invigorating air of understanding currently achieved and, optimistically, promised by science?


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This article is part of The Limits of Science: an ongoing debate between scientist Peter Atkins and philosopher Mary Midgley.

Midgley launches the debate by arguing that science does not have the answers to every question. In Science Unlimited, Atkins contends that, in fact, science will explain all of existence. Then, Midgley responds in Knowledge is Not an Empire, by arguing that science is just one field of enquiry among others. Now, Atkins counters that only science offers us a deep understanding of reality.

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J J 3 3 January 2018

My main out-take from this series is that Online Debates are definitely not a good way to reach a profound understanding of reality.

To add to the mess: Godel proved that no-one is going to get a complete picture of reality, and he did it without evidence.

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