Changing How the World Thinks

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Atkins vs Midgley: The Limits of Science - part 1

Science may be the dominant authority in contemporary culture. But it does not have all the answers.

Atkins v Midgley 1

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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Physical science has, for many years now, succeeded to the position of prime authority in our culture which used to be held by religious doctrine. It is regarded as something that has to be believed, and this has a disturbing effect on the way in which science itself is now regarded. Instead of seeing the physical sciences as real, but limited, sources of knowledge about physical facts, we are now called on to revere them as the source of all our wisdom, a terminus for which all other kinds of thought are just provisional sketches.

Thus, Professor Laurence Krauss (cosmologist and Professor of Physics at Arizona State University) tells us that: “Science provides the ultimate account of the nature of reality – the ultimate metaphysics.” For Krauss, science takes over from philosophy, which is therefore no longer needed.

This is scientism, and it sets us something of a puzzle since there are many topics which we really want to understand – for instance, warfare, depression, the importance of sport, obsessiveness, sex, death and destiny – but about which the physical sciences don't tell us anything. Advocates of scientism tell us that this is only a temporary difficulty, because, once research has been completed – once we have “a full neuronal explanation of the human brain”; once learning and creativeness have been “defined as the alteration of specific portions of the cognitive machinery” – all will become clear. “Having cannibalized psychology, the new neurobiology will yield an enduring set of first principles for sociology,” says E.O. Wilson.

This promise has been standing for the last fifty years, but unluckily it seems to get no nearer to fulfilment. In fact, this whole reductive program – this mindless materialism, this belief in something called `matter' as the answer to all questions – is not really science at all. It is, and has always been, just an image, a vision, an enormous act of faith. It is an offer of future explanations, backed by confidence drawn from successes of quite different kinds. Not all questions are actually physical questions or can be provided with physical answers.

The attempt to use physical language everywhere is one of many bad ways out of the problem that was set by dualism. Dualism was the determination to split the world into two provinces – mind and matter – rather than seeing it as a complex whole with two aspects. This conception of a divided world is an outdated muddle. It arose in the 16th century because there were then only two sophisticated ways of thinking – essentially physics on the one hand and theology, with its doctrines about the fate of the human soul, on the other – and there was no obvious way of relating them. Descartes therefore decided to treat them as separate empires, and if he hadn't, then somebody else would have done. As Newton put it, “Nature and Revelation were God's two books, given to us to study”.

Since that time, however, the scene has been totally transformed. The physical sciences themselves have branched out into a galaxy of different methods, quite unlike the highly abstract physics of Renaissance times – methods suited for different types of subject matter. And a whole set of other ways of thinking – historical, social, linguistic and the rest – have developed to deal with every other kind of topic. There is now no need to split the world into two kinds of object and to dragoon our various kinds of study so as to give only one of them the supremacy.


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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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Sridharan Krishnaswami 26 November 2015

Science ultimately rests on quantification. Therefore, it cannot speak about human cognition of non-quantifiable concepts.

karl4 31 October 2015

Not convincing. Setting up straw men and knocking them down. . .