The Quest for Understanding

By The Institute of Art and Ideas

Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, Peter Atkins is one of the world’s foremost physical chemists, and the author of Galileo’s Finger.

Here, we spoke to Atkins about the problems of religion, the future of the Human Brain Project and why the power of the scientific method has no limits.

It is clear that science is a passion for you. Was there perhaps a theory or an idea that had a particularly profound impact?

No [laughs]. I think science is such a conglomeration of ideas that you immediately become aware of its explanatory power, and through that, the deepening of enjoyment of understanding why the world is the way it is and how it functions. So, it’s appreciating the global strength of the explanations that it gives.

Your work has covered a diverse range of ideas and fields in science. Was this a decision that you made consciously?

No, not at all. But a point I often make is that chemistry is so central that it’s natural for one’s interest to spread into neighbouring regions. Chemistry is quite rightly the so-called “central science”, because it draws from physics for its principles and it finds applications in biology. The whole structure of chemistry is supported by mathematical arguments, which lies right in the heart of the world of science. Unless one is extremely focused on a research career, it’s natural that one drifts around and crosses the borders of what is commonly called chemistry.

You have said previously that science can explain everything and has no limits. Is this more than just a figure of speech?

Let me clarify slightly. By science I mean the scientific method. I see no bounds to the scientific method. That is: going out doing controlled experiments, setting them into a network of grand ideas and then leading to a broader understanding and the revision of ideas, a progression towards full understanding.

I see no reason why that approach cannot be applied throughout human experience. And I can see no valid argument against it. Arguments which are invalid are normally those to do with human sentiment and I see no reason why the scientific method cannot be applied to understanding the origin of human sentiment. Of course, in the end, it all comes down to asking the two principle questions which have to be confronted, to be validated. The first being, “can it explain the origin of everything out of nothing?”, and the second, “can it explain consciousness or the attributes of consciousness?”

People often see the origin of everything as a question that science cannot answer. How would you respond to this?

We cannot say anything reliable about it at this stage. People, including myself, began to speculate about that, but it’s no more than speculation. But for science to provide a full understanding of the nature of the universe, it will one day have to show that it can deal with that question. It is only pessimism that currently says it’s not doable. On what basis can someone assert that something cannot be done? The only basis is, in my view, is pessimism.

History has shown time and time again that science does continue to make progress.

Philosophers set up by asserting barriers that represent pessimism. Scientists bring their tools to bear and find that these walls can be dismantled.

To pick up on the second central question, how do you see the study of consciousness progressing?

Insinuation. By means of constructing one form of computer and performing experiments on it and showing that it has, or at least has the attributes of, consciousness. It mustn’t be a digital computer. It might be a quantum computer, who knows? And the way of understanding consciousness will be the ability to simulate it in a machine that we don’t mind doing experiments on. Or at least we won’t mind doing experiments on until it is conscious, in which case it will give us great ethical concerns.

So do you have great hope for the Human Brain Project?

Sceptical hopes. In the sense that it is such a long process, that to put so much money into it at this stage may be unwise. It will not be so unwise in the future if it allows the understanding of organic consciousness to progress further.

Let’s jump back to some of the false barriers and limits that are often spoken about. For example, that the human mind and the framework of thoughts may be restricted by our biology. Do you think that we are restricted by our biology?

We might be limited by our biology, but whether that limitation simply is manifest in comprehension or the inability to comprehend is still unknown. It certainly is the case that one could look at a slug and think that it simply wouldn’t have the capacity to understand relativity, however slowly and patiently you instructed it. It is conceivable that there are attributes of the universe that we have not developed sufficiently to understand. Slugs, unlike humans, will never comprehend concrete evidence that this is the case.

I think the brain is an extraordinary instrument and, without evidence to the contrary, we must currently suppose that it can achieve full understanding. It may be that it will be co-operations by brains that understand rather than individuals. At the moment, interactions of brains are merely developing through the internet essentially, and it may be that the result of co-operations have sufficient comprehensive power to comprehend. Or, the hope will be that even individuals with patience and time will understand.

No reason not to be optimistic then?

I suppose no reason in the way that perhaps quantum theory says, for example, where people who have been brought up in the classical world simply cannot get our brains around it, because quantum theory is so distant from everyday experience.

16 COMMENTS

  1. @OP – I think science is such a conglomeration of ideas that you immediately become aware of its explanatory power, and through that, the deepening of enjoyment of understanding why the world is the way it is and how it functions. So, it’s appreciating the global strength of the explanations that it gives.

    That is the feature of science. When you put the pieces together and join up the various specialisms, you get a view of working systems which can be observed and tested as working systems in the real world / universe!

  2. Would we know anything of the world or our existence if not through consciousness?
    Isn’t that consciousness subjective?
    So here’s the third question: how can it ever be shown that a machine has the same quality of consciousness as a human – realising that even our belief in each other’s consciousness is ultimately just an assumption?

    • John HH Aug 4, 2014 at 4:11 pm

      So here’s the third question: how can it ever be shown that a machine has the same quality of consciousness as a human – realising that even our belief in each other’s consciousness is ultimately just an assumption?

      I think that depends on how well we can emulate the thinking of a brain, which in turn depends on how well we can understand the working of the brain.

      http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/synapse.html

      http://www.sciencemag.org/content/340/6139/1472
      BigBrain: An Ultrahigh-Resolution 3D Human Brain Model

    • even our belief in each other’s consciousness is ultimately just an assumption?

      This reminds me of something Sam Harris wrote in The Moral Landscape about our assumption that animals possess consciousness. I think the gist of it was that while it’s impossible to provide absolute proof of this, the way animals respond to our presence and interact with us gives us strong clues that this is the case and that in the end, proving that animals don’t have consciousness would turn out to be much harder to prove than to prove its opposite.

      Saying that belief in each other’s consciousness is merely an assumption is a bit solipsistic. Thoughts arise from consciousness. The very fact that I disagree with you strongly suggests that a contrary opinion (therefore a thought) arose from a consciousness other than your own.

      Of course, you could come back and say that this contrary opinion is just a complex dialectic entirely constructed by your imagination… but in order to do that, you would have to make many more assumptions as to what would be required for this to be the case than if you assumed the opposite (that my consciousness is real and not a construct of your imagination).

      I believe Occam’s razor applies in this case.

  3. So here’s the third question: how can it ever be shown that a machine has the same quality of consciousness as a human – realising that even our belief in each other’s consciousness is ultimately just an assumption?

    By the Law of the Duck

  4. Be sure to click to the source page to read the religion rubbishing part. This should become the standard format in all interviews with scientists when science and the scientific method are being being discussed in general.

    It’s the most effective tool to pull the rug out from under those who persist in trying to marginalize Richard and Lawrence by painting them as minority fringe “extremists”, “atheist fundamentalists”, disciples of “scientism” and similar epithets while in fact their position is the one held by nearly all elite scientists. If those would just all come out instead of wimp out.

  5. Very Informative Sir , except there is no Binary Perspective. LIsten up

    “The whole structure of chemistry is supported by mathematical arguments, which lies right in the heart of the world of science.” CHEMISTRY is all the Carbon it took to make ME, My webcam, My Computer, My Network, My Cable Lines, My Phone Lines, The Internet and all it’s equipment to Your Phone Lines, Your Cable Lines, Your Network, Your Computer, Your Webcam and you to get my message to you!
    THE INTERNET = “can it explain the origin of everything out of nothing?”, and the second, “can it explain consciousness or the attributes of consciousness?” NOTE: RE-Read #1

  6. Religion & Science:

    I have seen the video of Richard Dawkins on Al Jazeera TV.

    True the science has many explanation and is right. There are still few issues which science is not able to answer, like – consciousness, manifestation, soul etc.

    However, religions and faiths talk about love, devotion etc.

    Let us come back to science and would like to add following as an engineer:

    The whole universe is nothing but energy.
    The emotions of love, hatred, anger, passion etc. are also energies.
    Human body is like a generator of energies at various frequencies and amplitudes.
    This means, Love, Anger etc. are a kind of energy with certain physical characteristics.
    Now, it is true that if say husband comes home in anger from outside, this energy is felt by other family members as well without any word said.
    This means, the body acts as receiver of energy transmitted by an angry husband by induction or remote receiver.

    Now, what if we generate the energy with same charcateristics as of love and anger in the lab and see the effect of it on any human.

    If this becomes possible (I believe it is), then, we move a step further to explain the truth behind the teachings in religion, faiths and books. This will bring humans more closer to science.

  7. KK Aug 6, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    Religion & Science:

    However, religions and faiths talk about love, devotion etc.

    Which are well known biochemical mechanisms. for interactions.

    The whole universe is nothing but energy.
    The emotions of love, hatred, anger, passion etc. are also energies.
    Human body is like a generator of energies at various frequencies and amplitudes.

    True – basic physics and chemistry.

    This means, Love, Anger etc. are a kind of energy with certain physical characteristics.

    Reactions of organisms generating biochemical signals – internally or externally.

    Now, it is true that if say husband comes home in anger from outside, this energy is felt by other family members as well without any word said.
    This means, the body acts as receiver of energy transmitted by an angry husband by induction or remote receiver.

    It could be hormone, pheromone, or other chemical signal – or just recognising the mood of a close associate in relation to deviation from normal habits.

    Now, what if we generate the energy with same charateristics as of love and anger in the lab and see the effect of it on any human.

    Biologists have already done this in testing mammals, insects etc. The chemical energies are known.

    If this becomes possible (I believe it is), then, we move a step further to explain the truth behind the teachings in religion, faiths and books.

    That’s a bit of a leap of faith! – From lab experiments to bronze-age “truth” mythology!
    Certainly neuroscientists are getting better at mapping the basis of religious thought and the constructions of god images in brains.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120419091223.htm
    We have found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain,” said Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions. “Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain. Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.

    This will bring humans more closer to science.

    Or more likely bring the science into a slightly more detailed understanding of the neurology, psychology and biology of humans.

    • Alan,

      You are right, we both are saying same thing.

      I am only emphasising that currently there is an environment of opposing science & religions.

      Religion does not explain but instructs to do the rituals.

      Science explains and that is exactly science should do and as fast as possible to guide masses for better lives, so that they do not end up with Gurus / Books / Faiths etc.

      It is also important that the spirituals with science background should also practice what they learn either using science or the rituals. Unless one practices and observes the results, one may get stuck in arguments only. While this soul energy has a task to fulfill in this lifetime using the human body. So, do not forget the ultimate purpose of this soul’s existence on this planet.

      Or he will end up in the Karma Cycle (theory of conservation of energy).

  8. KK Aug 7, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    You are right, we both are saying same thing.

    Not quite.

    I am only emphasising that currently there is an environment of opposing science & religions.

    This is true, but it is different factions doing the opposing. Most religions are of course opposing other religions.

    It is also important that the spirituals with science background should also practice what they learn either using science or the rituals.

    Rituals are fine for entertainment, but they are no use for understanding the universe.

    Unless one practices and observes the results, one may get stuck in arguments only.

    Objectivity and unbiased reviewing of results is important for learning.

    While this soul energy has a task to fulfill in this lifetime using the human body.

    “Souls” have been postulated in mythology, but no one has ever credibly explained where in the evolutionary process they are supposed to have arisen.
    LUCA? Pikaia? Tiktaalik? Hylonomus? Synapsida,? Therapsids? Eucynodontia? Euarchonta? Hominina? Australopithecus? Homo habilis? Homo erectus? Homo heidelbergensis?

    Neither is their any evidence of their existence, nor credible accounts of which animal branches of the evolutionary tree are supposed to include such features.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_human_evolution#Chordates

    So, do not forget the ultimate purpose of this soul’s existence on this planet.

    To maintain the delusion of an afterlife and confuse the thinking of those trusting Xtian authority figures??

  9. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding here.

    I will set out the “objective view” of the world we live in and our place in the world. If you have an objection, a counter argument, then please give it.

    Science has a big brother, epistemology, which lays down the laws that science must obey. It deals with logic, scientific method, truth and falsity and the demarcation between science and pseudo-science. It is, of cause, bound by its own rules which are the universal rules of argument.

    Argument is the only game in town. It transcends science and holds epistemology, pure philosophy and practical philosophy within its grasp. It holds every enquiry within its grasp. Every enquiry must measure up to “is it the best argument?”

    The “Big brother” rules for science are that it must be testable (Popper) and it must correspond with the facts (Tarski). If is doesn’t agree with these two rules it is rubbish no matter what bombastic language it may use.

    Even what Kant called Practical Philosophy, morals, is subject to the Big Brother, argument/ epistemological rules. We argue about the truth-likeness of a scientific theory by reference to its correspondence with the facts. We argue about the rights and wrongs of a new moral law in parliament via debate and scrutiny.

    Argument is the universal. Epistemology is the king of man’s enquires. Epistemology tells science what it can and cannot do. It tells us that science cannot leave its boundaries and speak of morals.

    When Plato said “if you have a medical problem, see a doctor” it had a universal truth. It was an argument for totalitarianism and the rule of the guardians but it also told us that there is no point in asking the advice of the greengrocer when you have a medical problem.

    The converse is that there is no point in asking the doctor why your car will not start. There is no point asking leading scientists epistemological questions. It is not their discipline. “If you have a medical problem, see a doctor” is Plato telling our eminent chemist to talk only of his discipline.

    The big discipline, epistemology, also tells us not to ask “what is?” questions but only “why?” and “how?” questions. We don’t ask what is consciousness or energy. You don’t enter the debate unless you take as said that we stand on the shoulders of giants and go forward. Argument is the only game in town. We go forward. You cannot bring up Berkeley or Descartes today.

    • Science has a big brother, epistemology, which lays down the laws that science must obey.

      First mistake. Only in your world. Epistemology is defined as:-

      Epistemology is the investigation into the grounds and nature of knowledge itself. The study of epistemology focuses on our means for acquiring knowledge and how we can differentiate between truth and falsehood.

      It is not the “Knowledge” it is the study of the “Knowledge”.

      Second mistake. Science doesn’t not obey anyone or anything. Science exists, independent humanity, or any other intelligence in the universe. Science doesn’t care what you think or what rules you think you can impose on science. Science exists. E=MC2. Maths, is the DNA of science. The proofs. The evidence does not need humans. The maths is universal throughout the universe. The Casimir effect is the same on earth as it is in the Andromeda galaxy.

      You may assert Epistemology is the overlord of science, but quantum fluctuations couldn’t care less, and will continue to fluctuate regardless of what you think.

      This one is true.

      Every enquiry must measure up to “is it the best argument?”

      And evidence is the decider, not philosophy, Epistemology or god. Evidence. Cold and factual. Evidence that can be reproduced by every intelligence in the universe. Evidence that doesn’t follow philosophical fashions that wax and wane. If your argument is not supported by the evidence, or is outright contradicted by the evidence, then your argument is called “Faith”.

      Argument is the universal. Epistemology is the king of man’s enquires. Epistemology tells science what it can and cannot do. It tells us that science cannot leave its boundaries and speak of morals.

      Argument is a human construct. You attribute values to the act of “Argument” but the evidence still rules. And I am surprised anyone still tries to run this hoary old religious chestnut that science has nothing to say on morals. The ten commandments (Well 5 to 10) fall straight out of evolutionary biology. There is a survival advantage if you can exist in a united tribe, and the commonsense “Thou Shalt nots” fall straight out of that science. You get to pass on your genes if you can get along with Ugg and his wife Grugg. What were the Jews doing for thousands of years before Moses brought down the 10 commandments. Murdering, stealing, raping, coverting. No. They were a tribe that followed commonsense tribal rules. They didn’t collectively say when Moses read out the moral commandments; “OMG. That’s what we’ve been doing wrong. I should have thought of that.” So science can explain universal morality, but religion can’t.

      Commandments 1 to 4 represent a psychological profile that if they belonged to a human, you would run as fast as you could. Demands for worship. Exclusivity. Jealously. Retribution and eternal damnation if you disobey. This psyche profile has more in common with a psychopath.

      And with the modern era, the commonsense rules have been expanded, not by the religious, but by the secular world. Religion stopped with the “Golden Rule” Do Unto others etc. But as Bertrand Russell said, “What if I don’t like what you are doing unto me.” This Golden Rule has been a license for religious colonialism and the decimation of unbelievers world wide. The secular world has had the commonsense to move on. To go further, and figure out the Platinum Rule. “First, do no harm.” This sits in judgement on the Golden Rule. If your religion commands you do something “unto others” and it does harm, expect the rest of the civilized world to look darkly upon your deeds.

      The big discipline, epistemology, also tells us not to ask “what is?” questions but only “why?” and “how?” questions.

      Science doesn’t care about the “Why” questions. The ‘Why’ question is just left over collateral damage from the religious. The “Why’ question diminishes every time science advances. “Ohhh that’s how things work. It didn’t need a Why.” The “Why” question is just God of the Gaps in philosophical clothing. The only place left for the “Why” to live, is as a cosmic switch flicker, and even that hidy hole is built on sand and fast eroding.

      To argue for a “Why” or a god (Same thing), is to argue in the absence of evidence, or contrary to the evidence. In other words, faith is the only argument you can mount.

      p.s. Is a Religious Philosopher and oxymoron.

    • David Aug 7, 2014 at 7:13 pm

      The converse is that there is no point in asking the doctor why your car will not start. There is no point asking leading scientists epistemological questions. It is not their discipline. “If you have a medical problem, see a doctor” is Plato telling our eminent chemist to talk only of his discipline.

      This is simply a forced analogy. There is in fact no reason why a doctor should not be able to tell you or find out why a car won’t start. Science covers a very wide range of thinking and as was pointed out earlier, it expanded out of “Natural Philosophy” dwarfing the earlier philosophies and taking the useful parts with it.

      The big discipline, epistemology, also tells us not to ask “what is?”questions

      I you seem to be stuck with some theistic redefinition of “epistemology”. Science is not going to be told not to ask or answer questions which expose the inadequacy of theological arguments.

      but only “why?” and “how?” questions.

      Science answers “how?” questions as far as the information is known. “Why?” questions simply lead to “how?” questions and eventually regress to the answer “We do not know, or are uncertain, beyond this point. Science gives that honest answer whereas religions start making magic up gap fillers about the unknown. Science has debunked a long list of these god-did-it-gap-fillers over the centuries.

      We don’t ask what is consciousness or energy.

      Of course we do! Physicists have described matter and energy in great detail, while wooists just make unevidenced mutterings about magic.

      Neuro-psychologists have produced a considerable body of work on consciousness, unconscious conditions, sub-conscious mechanisms, and the effects of the endocrine system, but none of these indicate any forms of energy other than those described by chemistry and physics.

      You don’t enter the debate unless you take as said that we stand on the shoulders of giants and go forward.

      The giants are the scientists who made the breakthroughs establishing testable science, not the would-be philosophers who fumbled around with the fallacies and misconceptions of antiquity.

  10. David R Allen and Alan4discussion,

    I don’t know how to respond. I argue and make a massive case for argument. I don’t do fratching/bickering. I also try to address the general reader by avoiding bumptuousness, name dropping, big words and omniscience. I am after all trying to sell something other than myself. I am trying to sell the scientific method, the value of testing/argument, the law of contradiction etc.

    If I may quote the best line from Peter Atkins above:

    “Let me clarify slightly. By science I mean the scientific method. I see no bounds to the scientific method. That is: going out doing controlled experiments, setting them into a network of grand ideas and then leading to a broader understanding and the revision of ideas, a progression towards full understanding.”

    You don’t do science unless you follow the scientific method and all the iterations on the best scientific method, culminating with Popper and his “Logic of Scientific Discovery”, come from the discipline we call epistemology. It is the king of enquiries because it has always been the greatest philosophical question.

    I agree with the dictionary definition of epistemology. On the subject of “science doesn’t ask “what is” questions” you may refer to the long standing nominalism v essentialism debate that has been won by nominalism.

    My post is a good presentation of what makes science good. It is good if it follows the well accepted rules provided by the discipline that has logic, truth and falsity, scientific method, the “Falsification Criteria” and many other tools as its interests. The biggest tool is argument. Whether that be logical argument or non-correspondence with the facts ie. no evidence.

    I have three humble goals, as follows:

    To introduce more scientists to the scientific method, the Falsifiability Demarcation, Tarski’s definition of “truth” (correspondence with the facts) and nominalism.
    To take the scientific method and the fruits of epistemology to every enquiry because they are universal to all problem solving which is nothing more than trial and error.
    To incorporate practical philosophy, moral laws, under the umbrella of the scientific method because argument/testing is the essential ingredient here too. But the argument/testing is done by parliamentary proceedure with a big emphasis on debate and scrutiny.

    From your previous comments on other posts I can see that we are really on the same page.

    If Nitya will allow it, please may I make two appeals as follows:

    A. Would Peter Atkins like to comment?

    B. May I invite young epistemology students to demostrate that philosophy isn’t dead and there is milage in developing 1, 2 and 3 above.

  11. I don’t know how to respond. I argue and make a massive case for argument. I don’t do fratching/bickering.

    I’m not a philosopher. I’ve never studied philosophy. The references and arguments you make go way over my head. I enjoy the occasional snippet from philosophy, like Bertrand Russell, “What if I don’t like what your doing unto me.” That demolished religious evangelism in one stroke. I like the distillation of Hippocrates’ thinking to the oath, “First, do no harm.” A true golden rule. I enjoy A.C. Grayling’s surgical dissection of a religious fundamentalist in debate. But you don’t have to be a philosopher to do that. But I wonder if a lot of what philosophy does is a bit like World Championship Wrestling, only with the mind. This for example.

    you may refer to the long standing nominalism v essentialism debate that has been won by nominalism.

    I ask the question. “So what. Who cares. Is this going to allow my grand children to become grandpa’s in a civilized sustainable world.” It reminds me of a long running cordial debate I had with a rabbinical scholar, who was espousing with great wonder and pride, the studies of the Torah over history resulting in 38 tomes of rabbinical law. He thought this was a great achievement. Something to be admired and marveled over. A worthy goal for future activity. I couldn’t see the point. Especially given the source document was so obviously hand made, man made. It was such a waste of what were probably very intelligent humans, who could have used their talents for a productive greater good. So while I can see little gems that come out of philosophy, you have to mine and wash a lot of sand to find the gems.

    You may enjoy your philosophical musings, but in my world view, we are coming to a crisis. A tipping point. A future that may see my grand children fighting to stay alive, rather than have the luxury of the discussions we participate in. So when considering any idea, I weigh it against those values. That is why I see the whole ongoing debate over the “Twitter Storm” as an entirely wasted exercise, of ego punch and counter ego punch. Folks. We’ve got some important work to do. Lets not get side tracked by human foibles.

    Hence I descend (or should it be ascend?) to evidence based decision making, which is the only thinking system that will secure a future for my grand children. I ask questions like, “Is global warming just the collateral damage of exponential population growth?” “Is every environmental problem on the planet either directly, or indirectly caused by over population?” “Can you have infinite exponential growth forever in a closed system, and if not, doesn’t this destroy free market economics as an ideology”. “What is the sustainable carrying capacity of this planet.”

    So I would suggest you engage with someone like RedDog, who I know can discuss the issues that are important to you.

    p.s. Are you religious? I get hints that you are quietly trying to slip a god into the equations, which may explain why I may have gone for your jugular.

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