Peter Atkins photograph

Peter Atkins

Chemist

‘Religious knowledge is probably the paradigm of unreliability because it’s based on sentiment, on authority and on wish-fulfillment.'

FULL INTERVIEW 39 min

Does science invalidate all other knowledge?

‘Scientific knowledge is the only way of acquiring reliable knowledge because it’s evidence based and it’s consensus based. Religious knowledge is probably the paradigm of unreliability.’

Transcript

Does science invalidate all other knowledge?

David: We’re talking about what kinds of things count as knowledge. Now, we’ve talked before and I know you have strong feelings about this. What do you think the status of scientific knowledge is as regards to other kinds of knowledge?

PA: Scientific knowledge is the only way of acquiring reliable knowledge, because it’s evidence based and it’s consensus based. It’s universal, it’s trans-cultural and it’s a way where you can be confident that the knowledge that you’re gaining is reliable. I think another feature is that the evidence comes from all the points of the compass. It comes from biology. It comes from physics. It comes, in a funny sort of way, from mathematics. It comes from chemistry, and so on. And these different rivers of knowledge, where they mingle, don’t annihilate: they support. And so, when there is so much information coming from so many disparate sources, you get the sense that, maybe, we’ve got the right way for eliciting understanding of the world.

David: You use the word ‘reliable’. Are there, therefore, in your view, unreliable kinds of knowledge?

PA: Religious knowledge is probably the paradigm of unreliability because it’s based on sentiment, on authority and on wish-fulfilment. I think those three aspects of religious knowledge undermine its reliability totally.

David: What about the arts then?

PA: Yes, I was going to say. Art, literature, music, I think, are revelations of kinds of knowledge. They don’t give you insight, but they provide you with objects of study. So why does, say, the Goldberg Variations have such a profound emotional pull on one’s heart? It doesn’t reveal anything about the nature of the world until you ask the question: why does this pluck the heartstrings? So it’s evidence about the world that a scientist would use as material to study. For a poet to say that they’re providing knowledge about the world is tolerable, up to a point. They’re providing something to study, but they don’t actually: it’s meta-knowledge, it’s not deep understanding knowledge.

Ard: And you spend quite a bit of time popularising your ideas. Why do you do that? Why do you think it’s important?

PA: Because I want people to share in the joy of science.

Ard: Okay.

PA: That is for people to realise that they can understand, and that the world is not just a random collection of entities: that the world is a coherent place; that entities emerge, have their properties. I think it’s the joy of understanding, really.

Ard: You’re trying to share the joy of understanding?

PA: I’m not sure that…

Ard: Don’t you worry that by telling people that religion is nonsense that you’re taking away some of their joys?

PA: I don’t mind. I can see that I’m taking the blanket away from them to expose them to the cold blast of truth. But the cold blast of truth can be enthralling and enjoyable, more enjoyable than being cloaked in the warm blanket of misconception.

Ard: So you’re trying to… You think you’re helping them in this way?

PA: Not always, because sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Ard: Exactly.

PA: That’s the problem. So someone on their deathbed, I wouldn’t say, ‘Come on, snap out of it. This is the truth.’ But someone who is young, who has yet their life before them, I think to imbue them with a sense that the world is understandable is what I, as a teacher, should teach.

Ard: So how about people like me who are religious and scientists? What do you make of that?

PA: Well you’ve got two hemispheres. I would try to build in a kind of corpus callosum to connect your hemispheres!

Ard: Okay. You think I’ve got a split mind? You think I’m like a vegetarian butcher or something?

PA: Exactly!

Ard: Okay.

PA: So you go through life mixing the sentimental and the analytical.

Ard: So do you think my religious sense is the sentimental part of me?

PA: Oh, yes.

Ard: Should I switch that off?

PA: I think you would have a much richer life if you were to switch it off. Then you must ask yourself why you have this sentimental streak in you. I mean, obviously, you’re a much nicer person than I am. I don’t want you to become just a butcher, of course. I want to help sustain the sentimentality, sensitivity rather, of your non-butcher side, but see that the world is simply a wonderful, mechanical place.

Ard: Nothing more?

PA: Nothing more.

Ard: Is that the whole story then?

PA: Yes. Absolutely.

Ard: There’s nothing more than that?

PA: No. Well, what more could there be?

Ard: Would that make us like computers, almost?

PA: Yes.

Ard: Yes?

PA: I see nothing wrong with that. I mean we’re very elaborate computers. We are machines, in a sense, that take in information and transform it. And some of the consequences of that transformation might be the release of a hormone which makes us feel good.

Ard: Okay. So I agree, I think we are chemical computers. But you’re saying that’s the totality? That’s it?

PA: Well, I don’t see what else there could be.

Ard: On scientific grounds?

PA: Well, just on common-sense grounds.

Can science explain morality?

‘We’re on the edge of understanding the scientific basis of morality and ethics, at this point.' Ard: ‘We are?'

Transcript

Can science explain morality?


Ard: Let’s say I want you to work out the value of a human being. So what’s the value of each of us here?

PA: Well you could do that using economics, couldn’t you? If you wanted to, at the crude level.

Ard: I don’t mean just the monetary value.

PA: I’m asking you to try to clarify your question.

Ard: So I think when I say ‘value of a human being’, it’s something along the lines of do I think David has some kind of intrinsic value so that I shouldn’t kill him, for example.

PA: Well we’re on the edge of understanding the scientific basis of morality and ethics at this point.

Ard: We are?

PA: And moral principles, in my view, emerge from two sources. One is our ethological history, our evolutionary history, that we have learned to, if you like, contribute to stable societies through particular patterns of behaviour, and those have now so pervaded our behaviour that we regard them as our moral fibre.

And the second one is that we, with our big brains, can reflect, in quiet moments at least, on the consequences of our actions. So we’re not just automata in terms of our evolutionary history: we are reflective human beings. I’m not going to kill you because you might have similar views about me, so let’s compromise and not kill each other.

Ard: But why is that a scientific explanation?

PA: Well it’s a way of looking for the roots of morality. And if the roots of morality are ultimately the stability of societies, then you have to explore using the scientific method – whatever that quite means – but in terms of evidence, looking at genetics, looking at histories – what ultimately leads to stable societies.

Ard: And that will give us a science of ethics?

PA: Yes.

David: So for you that’s going to be in the genes, ultimately, isn’t it?

PA: Yes, ultimately in the genes, in the sense that we, with particular types of genes for not killing each other...
David: So you think a morality, a scientific morality, is ultimately going to have to look to biology, to evolutionary theories, genetic theories?

PA: Oh, absolutely, yes.

David: It’s going to have to be built from what we know about altruism and the genetics of altruism.

PA: Yes. And morality, if you like, is the ultimate emergent property of the gene.

Ard: So isn’t there a worry there that once I understand that this is the case, then I have this sense that I don’t want to kill David because I feel it would be a bad thing to do? But once I realise that that’s just my genes or my history that’s telling me that, there’s nothing more than that.

PA: But there is more than that, because you know that he might be thinking the same: to kill you.

Ard: That’s right.

PA: Society is a network of compromises, and we know that if we don’t go around randomly killing, then we’re more likely to survive.

Ard: That’s true. So as long as David doesn’t randomly kill, and you don’t randomly kill, I’m fine. But I can do whatever I like.

David: It sounds to me like civilisation is a very large Mexican stand-off!

PA: Well I’m afraid that’s largely true.|

Ard: You were saying that goodness is linked to fitness in evolution, but in evolution things do annihilate one another, so…

PA: Because sometimes they…

Ard: Is that good?

PA: They only have an immediate view of their fitness.

Ard: Okay, so the goodness is much more complicated than evolution?

PA: Yes, and probably more far-sighted than even we are. I mean, we are the most far-sighted of all the creatures that there are, but whether we’re far-sighted enough, who knows?

Ard: But the science of good versus evil will come out of our understanding evolution?

PA: That’s a very deep question I think, because, in a sense, the bigger our brain, the more able it is for us to transcend physical evolution.

Ard: Sure.

PA: We can look to the future and see the consequences of sacrifice now. Well, in principle.

David: It sounds like, for you, what’s good and what’s bad is a human construction. We’ll agree what’s good and what’s bad. Is that right?

PA: And it changes.

David: And it changes. Whereas for you, Ard, some things just have to be good.

Ard: Yeah, I think some things…

David: Transcendently good? Have I used that word?

PA: Like what?

Ard: Like cruelty, I think, is always wrong: generosity is good, whether we agree on it or not. There are societies that think that cruelty is… They advocate cruelty towards certain other groups.

PA: Yes.

Ard: I think they’re wrong. And I think they’re wrong regardless of what…

PA: So inhibition of the aspirations of others is bad? Is wrong?

Ard: I think that, for example…

PA: Whereas encouragement of the aspirations of anyone is good? Even Hitler?

Ard: No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that cruelty towards others can be bad, irrespective of whether the society thinks it is or it isn’t a good thing. So a classic example would be slavery, which is a kind of cruelty towards others. I would say that’s wrong, regardless of whether society itself thinks it’s a good thing.

PA: It depends what you mean by slavery, doesn’t it? We’re all slaves, in a certain sense.

Ard: Yeah.

PA: We are all employed, so we are slaves under the masters: our paymasters.

Is emergence just mumbo-jumbo?

‘I don’t see that there is any real difference between an emergent property like temperature, which I claim can be understood in terms of the behaviour of individual molecules, and the emergent property of being a butterfly.'

Transcript

Is emergence just mumbo-jumbo?


David: Can I ask you…? We’ve been using the word ‘science’: what are the qualities of science? I mean, I’m thinking of reductionism, determinism, those things. When you think of science, is it that kind of reductionistic science, or…?

PA: I think the core of science is imagination in alliance with honesty. Just to be honest without being imaginative means that you’re not doing very good science; being imaginative without being honest means that you’re being a poet.

David: That’s the poets struck off the list!

PA: I think the combination of the two is really the core of being an effective, interesting scientist.

David: Okay.

PA: Then I think you then have the distinction between reductionism and emergence.

David: Yes, what’s…?

PA: I think the easy part of science is reductionism: dismembering the butterfly in order to find its atoms. But the difficult part is reassembling the simple ideas that you’ve developed and creating the butterfly out of the atoms and seeing that an idea of beauty emerges from that.

David: Yes, when you’ve reduced it down to its bits, you understand how all the bits work. But even if you do understand that and you put all those bits back together, if all you understand are the rules for the individual bits, you’ll have left out the emergent rules. Once it becomes the whole system, once it becomes the butterfly, there are new rules which emerge at the level of the butterfly and have very little to do with the level of its atoms. Does that work for you or is that mumbo-jumbo?

PA: That’s mumbo-jumbo. I mean, all defeatism is mumbo-jumbo, basically.

David: Why is it defeatism?

PA: Because it suggests that there’s something beyond your understanding of the entities that make up the butterfly.

David: Why should that be a defeat, though?

PA: Well, because we hope through the scientific method that we will understand absolutely everything. It’s a wonderful challenge that the world is out there in all its complexity. We little humans are tinkering with understanding little bits of it, but we’re gradually migrating towards an understanding of the whole, and that includes understanding how the individual entities collaborate into producing a system. I mean, it’s a real challenge.

David: Yes, and in its own way, a very powerful and beautiful one. I mean, everything we’ve got scientifically is from that method. But I don’t see why it’s a defeat to say in addition to the rules that govern the individual parts there could be entirely scientific rules which operate at the level of the system.

PA: Yes, but we’ve got no need for them at the moment. There are rules that operate only when you have congregations of atoms and molecules for which it would be meaningless to talk about the property of a single atom: temperature. What do you mean by ‘the temperature’ when you’ve got a single atom? It can’t mean anything.

But what you mean by temperature is the distribution of myriad molecules over the available energy levels following a particular form. Now, I can understand that. You might say that temperature, therefore, is an emergent property. And in a sense it is, but I also understand it in terms of what is going on at the level of a collection of individual molecules. So I don’t see that there is any real difference between an emergent property like temperature, which I claim can be understood in terms of the behaviour of individual molecules, and the emergent property of being a butterfly.

Ard: Really? So how about…?

PA: I mean, I’m an optimist. And I can’t stand philosophers because they’re all pessimists! So don’t be defeatist! Be optimistic!

David: When we talked to George Ellis and others who are keen on emergence, one of the reasons they’re keen on it is, they say, ‘Look, with reductionism everything is caused from the lowest level.’ Whereas, with emergence, they say you then get what they call downward causation, so the system itself then has an effect on its parts. Some things in the universe are not caused by just the rules which guide the atoms and the chemicals…

PA: Well, that’s nonsense, isn’t it?

David: Is it?

PA: I think it must be. It’s a mechanical universe. It might be a quantum mechanical universe, but effect follows cause even in a quantum universe.

David: Yes, and they’re saying sometimes the cause is at the higher level and causes an effect lower down; that it’s not all cause coming up from the atoms.

PA: Well, I can see that if I have a particular thought that it might make me sweat through embarrassment, for example.

David: Yes. That’s precisely it.

PA: So there is a kind of downward…

David: Right, so they’re saying an emergent level of the universe is the level of thought.

PA: Yes.

David: And that once it’s in the universe, then a whole new set of rules emerge which have causative power: they cause things to happen. So suddenly it’s not just that the atoms cause a reaction in your kidneys which make you think that you’re thirsty and that you have a thought. You see what I mean? It’s a radical challenge to reductionism, isn’t it? They think it is, and I’m inclined to agree it is.

PA: Science fiction writers often play with ideas like that as well. It’s quite interesting to see the way that writers of fiction think.

David: Yes, but I’m asking you as a scientist whether you think there’s something to it. Because you said, ‘Well, I could see an idea…’ It seemed like you were entertaining this notion might be right.

PA: Only to amuse you!

David: Okay, that’s me put down. But not to amuse me, what do you think of it? Because people like Noble and Ellis and others, they say, ‘Look, this is the future of science. This is a revolution. Yes, there’s causation, reductionist science, but there’s this other kind: the downward causation from emergence.’ They see this as a real scientific endeavour.

PA: Yes. Well, obviously, because it’s a scientific endeavour, you shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. You should explore whether there are consequences, whether it’s testable and whether there is any… what we loosely regard as truth.

David: Loosely regard?

PA: And if there is even the hint of evidence for it, then it’s worth pursuing, because science doesn’t dismiss out of hand, or at least shouldn’t dismiss out of hand.

David: What’s your feeling about it as a scientist?

PA: What does my gut say, rather than my brain?

David: Yes.

PA: Worth thinking about, but not worth investing in.

Ard: That’s your investment advice? Sell!

The mathematical universe

‘It is the deep truth about the nature of the universe that it is a mathematical place, and by mathematical I mean logical and ultimately simple.’

Transcript

The mathematical universe


David: Is mathematics… Are there truths which just are true? Are mathematical truths just there? Or is it a human construction, do you think?

PA: There must be truths that are in mathematics that we humans are gradually digging out of all the clutter that shrouds. So I think the ultimate truth is mathematical.

David: So in other words…

Ard: Are we discovering those truths?

PA: We’re discovering, yes.

David: Right. You see, that is really interesting. So in some sense there’s the stuff of the universe which, as a chemist, you understand its rules.

PA: Yes.

David: But then there’s this other kind of truth in the universe. Because those truths… How would they exist? They’re not matter, but you’re saying they’re in the universe: we’re not making them up.

PA: The truth that the angles of a triangle add up to 180o is not really a truth, because there is no triangle that is in absolutely flat space. So what we try to do is to distil from everyday experience models that approximate what we’re really trying to talk about. And try to identify the truths that those models represent.

David: Okay, but there are these Truths, with a capital T, in the universe. Somehow it’s woven into the fabric of the universe in some way?

PA: Yes. 1+1=2 is certainly a universal Truth.

David: With a capital T?

PA: Yes.

David: So it’s not just something that we’re making up, like…?

PA: Well we made it up and it’s found to be true.

David: Ooh.

PA: Ooh, I’m not sure whether that’s true.

David: I can’t help you there and you would know this! But I’m trying to get at whether you think there are some transcendent Truths, and whether they are mathematical. Whether mathematical truths are in some sense a transcendent Truth. It’s not a social construct that we just agreed on.

PA: Well the purest kind of truth is mathematical.

David: Right.

PA: And the purest kind of truth, I suppose, within mathematics is the properties of the integers.

David: Right, okay.

PA: And I think the whole of mathematics has emerged from us forcing on the integers things that they weren’t intended to do: we turn them into fractions; we use them, somehow, to generate irrational numbers. So we take the square root of 2, for example, and suddenly we’ve got funny things that the integers have led us to do. And so it’s really the exploration of integers that has…

David: Right. But you make that sound like this is just something that we’re forcing on the world because we feel like it, and yet the stories that you [Ard] tell, and other mathematicians and physicists tell, is that sometimes you’ll have a scientist who’s just working with abstract numbers and equations and then… What was the fellow you told us about?

Ard: Paul Dirac.

David: Right, the Dirac story, where he’s just dealing with equations and numbers – these peculiar numbers that you’re talking about – and then says, ‘Do you know what. There has to be antimatter.’ And no-one had even heard of antimatter. And he said: ‘And not only that, but I can tell you… We’ll call it the positron and it’ll have these properties and be the opposite of the electron.’

PA: Yes.

David: And then it turns out he was right.

PA: Yes.

David: Out of just, as you said, forcing numbers to do unnatural things, it matched perfectly on to the universe, which suggests that it’s not an arbitrary thing we’re just forcing numbers to do, but somehow it is uncovering the actual…

PA: Or conversely, that the universe is not just a random collection of entities.

David: But more than that, because it could not be random; it might not be a random collection of entities, but how does…? It could be non-random in any number of ways. It turned out to fit perfectly with mathematics.

PA: Yeah.

David: Which is odd, is it not?

PA: Yes, I mean…

David: I mean, really catastrophically odd?

PA: It is the deep truth about the nature of the universe that it is a mathematical place; and by mathematics I mean logical and ultimately simple. And so, I think, the real message that is coming through is that the universe is ultimately, and by ultimately I mean, ultimately ultimately, a very simple place.

David: You think there will be a theory of everything? You know, the fabled Theory of Everything which once you unpack it…?

PA: Yes. The universe, in a sense, is either zero or one, but conglomerated in such an extraordinary way that we can have this conversation.

David: Okay, if we’re willing to entertain the notion that the universe could have certain truths woven into it, mathematical ones, why would it not be possible that there could be other kinds of truths woven into it: aesthetic truths or moral truths? It’s a peculiar question.

PA: I mean, it would be wrong for a scientist to say that any idea is absolute nonsense, so I won’t go that far. You have to leave the door ajar for any possibility.

David: For the feeble-minded!

PA: So the possibility that the universe is not a mathematical place, but is ultimately a moral place, is something to entertain. There is no evidence for it, but it would be improper to deny the possibility of anything.

David: Yes. I mean, I’m not saying I think it is a moral… that there are moral truths. But I can’t in all honesty say if I’m willing to accept that mathematical truths are in the universe, I don't know by what authority I would say other kind of truths can’t be. I don't know how I would justify that.

PA: It depends what you mean by truths, doesn’t it, really?

Ard: Largely very philosophical?

David: Ah, yes!

PA: But I’m talking about truths. You’re talking about different levels of knowledge. I mean, ultimately, you could argue – and this might not be true – you could argue that mathematics is the lowest level of the foundation of all knowledge. You could say that poetry and aesthetic delight is right at the top. And there are all these intermediate steps, some of which are absolutely true. Mathematics is possibly absolutely true. 1+1 is probably absolutely true. And mathematics is simply an elaboration of 1+1=2.

David: And then poetic truth is just going to be largely entertainment?

PA: Just entertainment.

Ard: Not much more?

David: You can’t say that! You cannot say that! Do you really believe that, or are you just doing that to get a…?

PA: I’m prepared to believe it for a few milliseconds.

David: Okay!

How did something come from nothing?

Ard: 'So, where did the universe come from? Do you think science can answer that question?' Peter Atkins: 'Well, nothing else can.'

Transcript

How did something come from nothing?


Ard: I was wanting to jump to something closer to science, which is that the elements in our body – the whole series of elements – where did those come from?

PA: In what we term the Big Bang.

Ard: Okay.

PA: At least the simple elements were, but happily they got roasted in stars.

Ard: Okay.

PA: And once you start roasting things you get tastier meals like carbon and oxygen and nitrogen.

Ard: Okay. And so these elements in our body come from stars.

PA: Yes. We are stardust.

Ard: We are stardust.

PA: You are the child of some distant and now extinct star.

Ard: Which has exploded?

PA: And scattered its ashes. And you are ash.

Ard: I’m ash. That’s a kind of poetic...

PA: I think it’s lovely.

Ard: So do you think that gives us some kind of meaning?

PA: It gives us a certain humility insofar as humility is meaning. I think it’s a fantastic vision, really that through the processes of physical law, we have emerged and are able to have conversations of this kind. I think it’s quite an extraordinary vision of the grandeur of the universe.

Ard: Sure. Philosophers have tried for millennia to solve the problem of the meaning of life. Do you think that problem should be handed on to scientists now?

PA: Well philosophers haven’t made much of a fist of it, have they?

Ard: Okay. A classic kind of philosophical question is: why is there something rather than nothing? So, where did the universe come from?

PA: Yes.

Ard: Do you think science can answer that question?

PA: Well, nothing else can.

Ard: Okay. Do you think we’ve…?

PA: Obviously, theology thinks it can, by saying it was the workings of the finger of God which stirred up nothing and out of it came the universe. This is not, to my mind, very satisfying as an explanation.

Ard: And when you say ‘nothing’, what do you mean by ‘nothing’? Do you mean…?

PA: I mean what everyone means by nothing. It means absolutely nothing.

Ard: So it’s not like Lawrence Krauss says the laws of physics out of which…?

PA: No, no, that’s the laws of physics. It’s a meta-nothing.

Ard: Okay. It’s a meta-nothing. So nothing means nothing. There are no laws of physics. There is…

PA: I mean absolutely nothing. Not even a void.

Ard: Not even a void. So where did the voids and the laws of physics come from then?

PA: God knows!

Ard: God knows! Okay.

David: Very good!

Ard: Do you think that’s a deep mystery?

PA: When I say that God knows, I’m using that, of course, allegorically. I must say this.

Ard: There’s no doubt about that!

PA: I think the extraordinary thing is that we humans, we products of the creation, are on the track of giving a real answer to that extraordinary question.

Ard: Do you think we’ve got some ways we could answer that question?

PA: Oh, yes. Science is an extraordinarily powerful instrument of discovery that wherever it touches, the rocks give way.

Ard: Do you think it could be that we’re just the product of an accident? A cosmic accident?

PA: Well, yes, kind of. For an accident to occur, you need a kind of substratum for the accident to occur in. But even though it’s a difficult concept, it may be one that we ultimately find our way to understand. So I think it’s a real challenge for science, but we’re edging towards it. That’s the extraordinary thing. Science is edging towards understanding the deepest possible questions: it’s not rushing in. Sometimes it rushes in and then it gets rebuffed, but it is cautiously edging towards discovering the deep fabric of the universe and the events that took place in its inception.

Ard: But wouldn’t you say that science is based on the rules of physics and chemistry, etc.? But the question of where those rules came from, you think that’s also a scientific question?

PA: Oh, absolutely. I mean the ultimate level of the rules of science must be some kind of intrinsic logic to the universe.

Ard: And where did that logic come from?

PA: It might be that… This is pure speculation, of course.

Ard: Sure.

PA: Many kinds of universes can bubble into existence but immediately evaporate, vaporise, because they don’t have a logical structure that causes them to cohere. But then you get a universe suddenly that, quite at random, bubbles out of absolutely nothing, which by chance has a logical structure that enables it to persist.

Ard: But what makes those universes bubble out of nothing?

PA: Who knows? I mean, it would be unwise… I don’t think it’s the finger of God saying, ‘Bubble, bubble’. But, once we know that these universes have bubbled out of absolutely nothing, then we can start to understand why they did.

Ard: But…

PA: Perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps it’s all an illusion.

Ard: But they would have to be uncaused somehow, right?

PA: Of course.

Ard: Definitely uncaused?

PA: Although even causality might take a knock because it could… The kind of deep causality that we’re talking about might be retrospective causality, because something comes into existence, causality exists, and so it bootstrapped it into existence. Who knows?

David: A bit like time?

PA: Yes.

David: It would be the same? Time wasn’t ticking away waiting for the universe, but once the universe is here, it has time.

PA: But, you know, these very deep questions are extraordinarily important questions. But they are… Such is the plasticity and power of the human brain. I don’t think we should say that they are beyond human ability to elucidate. But it might take time, and we might be astounded by the answer. Who knows? We might have to say, ‘There’s a God!’

David: I take it you would reject out of hand the notion of people who say we should talk about the purpose of the universe?

PA: I dismiss that because there’s no evidence.

David: Right.

PA: It may be true, because with my puny understanding of cosmic history, who knows? There might be a God out there that is completely invisible to me in all his actions. But, you know, who knows? It might be true, in which case there would be a reason for the universe. But because I see no evidence for it, I’ve no reason to accept it. And if I could…

Ard: So because you see no evidence for God, there is therefore no purpose?

PA: I think I think that.

Ard: Okay.

Can science make life meaningful?

David: ‘Do you subscribe to that? That ultimately you should look at the universe and say, “Look, it’s a meaningless accident, and therefore everything that happens in it is a meaningless accident.”’ Peter Atkins: ‘That would be such a barren view.’

Transcript

What is a meaningful life?


David: What kind of things do you find meaningful?

PA: The growth of understanding. I think understanding is an entertainment for getting through life, because it enriches the living experience. Maybe I’m speaking just as an academic now.

David: Well, no, but your house has books in it, but it also has art.

PA: Yes.

David: You collect art and you go on holiday and you learn about Impressionists.

PA: Well, it’s enrichment, isn’t it? And I think we’re given these few decades between one form of dust and another form of dust. And I think it’s such a privilege to be interdust – interdust, not into dust! – that we should make full use of it. And so one is turned on by the joy of understanding, and I, as a scientist, I put that right at the heart of being alive.

David: Some people say ‘Science is always saying that everything is meaningless and that life is meaningless.’ And they balk at this and say that life has to have a meaning.

PA: Life is not meaningless, ultimately, because we are contributing to civilisation and all the joys, and maybe the pains, that that brings.

Ard: So David doesn’t believe in God, but he wants to find purpose in the physical universe.

PA: Purpose is…

David: What is meaning?

PA: Meaning is, I think, deeper enjoyment when you are alive. There’s no point in worrying about what enjoyment you’ll get when you’re dead. There’s no point in worrying about, you know, what enjoyment you missed before you were born.

David: Fair enough.

PA: So what you’re really doing is looking for the joys in these few decades that each of us has of being alive.
David: I’m trying to get something else, I suppose.

PA: And that joy is not just… By joy, I don’t mean selfish joy. I mean there is joy that comes from contribution to other people’s joy.

David: Right. But I suppose it’s… When Boltzmann and Zermelo come along with heat death, with entropy, it’s all ultimately… all the great works of art and all the joys and all the poetry and all the science and all our understanding will eventually end in a big, universe-sized cold soup. And the reaction was, ‘It makes everything meaningless. It’s all ultimately futile and has zero meaning.’

Do you subscribe to that? That ultimately you should look at the universe and say, ‘Look, it’s a meaningless accident, and therefore everything that happens in it is a meaningless accident.’

PA: That would be such a barren view.

David: Yes. But sometimes one gets the feeling that that’s what’s being pushed by some people in science.

PA: Well, if I were a cosmic being and stood back and looked at the lifespan of this universe over a span of a trillion years, I would see it as a mere flea on the cosmic entity. In which case, we’d be totally meaningless. But we’re not that sort of being, and I think that we see life on the scale of millennia, if we think big enough. We can see joy and delight and all those things that contribute to the pleasure of being alive. So grasp the moment. Carpe diem. The diem might be a trillion years, but it’s still there to be grasped.

Peter Atkins 

Peter Atkins was professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford until he retired in 2007. A prolific author, he has written over fifty books including the classic Physical Chemistry, the undergraduate textbook used throughout the world, which is now in its tenth edition. He has also written a number of popular science books including: Galileo's Finer: The Ten Great Ideas of Science (2004) and On Being: A Scientist's Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence (2012).

A prominent atheist he speaks and debates regularly about the incompatibility of science and religion.

Quotes from the interview

Religious knowledge is probably the paradigm of unreliability because it’s based on sentiment, on authority and on wish fulfillment. I think those three aspects of religious knowledge undermine its reliability totally.
If I were a cosmic being and stood back and looked at the lifespan of this universe over a span of a trillion years, I would see it as a mere flea on the cosmic entity. In which case, we’d be totally meaningless. But we’re not that sort of being, and I think that we see life on the scale of millennia, if we think big enough. We can see joy and delight and all those things that contribute to the pleasure of being alive. So grasp the moment. Carpe diem. The diem might be a trillion years, but it’s still there to be grasped.
There might be a God out there that is completely invisible to me in all his actions. But, you know, who knows? It might be true, in which case there would be a reason for the universe. But because I see no evidence for it, I’ve no reason to accept it.
We hope through the scientific method that we will understand absolutely everything. It’s a wonderful challenge that the world is out there in all its complexity. We little humans are tinkering with understanding little bits of it, but we’re gradually migrating towards an understanding of the whole, and that includes understanding how the individual entities collaborate into producing a system. It’s a real challenge.

Peter Atkins Full Interview Transcript

Does science invalidate all other knowledge?

David: We’re talking about what kinds of things count as knowledge. Now, we’ve talked before and I know you have strong feelings about this. What do you think the status of scientific knowledge is as regards to other kinds of knowledge?

PA: Scientific knowledge is the only way of acquiring reliable knowledge, because it’s evidence based and it’s consensus based. It’s universal, it’s trans-cultural and it’s a way where you can be confident that the knowledge that you’re gaining is reliable. I think another feature is that the evidence comes from all the points of the compass. It comes from biology. It comes from physics. It comes, in a funny sort of way, from mathematics. It comes from chemistry, and so on. And these different rivers of knowledge, where they mingle, don’t annihilate: they support. And so, when there is so much information coming from so many disparate sources, you get the sense that, maybe, we’ve got the right way for eliciting understanding of the world.

David: You use the word ‘reliable’. Are there, therefore, in your view, unreliable kinds of knowledge?

PA: Religious knowledge is probably the paradigm of unreliability because it’s based on sentiment, on authority and on wish-fulfilment. I think those three aspects of religious knowledge undermine its reliability totally.

David: What about the arts then?

PA: Yes, I was going to say. Art, literature, music, I think, are revelations of kinds of knowledge. They don’t give you insight, but they provide you with objects of study. So why does, say, the Goldberg Variations have such a profound emotional pull on one’s heart? It doesn’t reveal anything about the nature of the world until you ask the question: why does this pluck the heartstrings? So it’s evidence about the world that a scientist would use as material to study. For a poet to say that they’re providing knowledge about the world is tolerable, up to a point. They’re providing something to study, but they don’t actually: it’s meta-knowledge, it’s not deep understanding knowledge.

Ard: And you spend quite a bit of time popularising your ideas. Why do you do that? Why do you think it’s important?

PA: Because I want people to share in the joy of science.

Ard: Okay.

PA: That is for people to realise that they can understand, and that the world is not just a random collection of entities: that the world is a coherent place; that entities emerge, have their properties. I think it’s the joy of understanding, really.

Ard: You’re trying to share the joy of understanding?

PA: I’m not sure that…

Ard: Don’t you worry that by telling people that religion is nonsense that you’re taking away some of their joys?

PA: I don’t mind. I can see that I’m taking the blanket away from them to expose them to the cold blast of truth. But the cold blast of truth can be enthralling and enjoyable, more enjoyable than being cloaked in the warm blanket of misconception.

Ard: So you’re trying to… You think you’re helping them in this way?

PA: Not always, because sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Ard: Exactly.

PA: That’s the problem. So someone on their deathbed, I wouldn’t say, ‘Come on, snap out of it. This is the truth.’ But someone who is young, who has yet their life before them, I think to imbue them with a sense that the world is understandable is what I, as a teacher, should teach.

Ard: So how about people like me who are religious and scientists? What do you make of that?

PA: Well you’ve got two hemispheres. I would try to build in a kind of corpus callosum to connect your hemispheres!

Ard: Okay. You think I’ve got a split mind? You think I’m like a vegetarian butcher or something?

PA: Exactly!

Ard: Okay.

PA: So you go through life mixing the sentimental and the analytical.

Ard: So do you think my religious sense is the sentimental part of me?

PA: Oh, yes.

Ard: Should I switch that off?

PA: I think you would have a much richer life if you were to switch it off. Then you must ask yourself why you have this sentimental streak in you. I mean, obviously, you’re a much nicer person than I am. I don’t want you to become just a butcher, of course. I want to help sustain the sentimentality, sensitivity rather, of your non-butcher side, but see that the world is simply a wonderful, mechanical place.

Ard: Nothing more?

PA: Nothing more.

Ard: Is that the whole story then?

PA: Yes. Absolutely.

Ard: There’s nothing more than that?

PA: No. Well, what more could there be?

Ard: Would that make us like computers, almost?

PA: Yes.

Ard: Yes?

PA: I see nothing wrong with that. I mean we’re very elaborate computers. We are machines, in a sense, that take in information and transform it. And some of the consequences of that transformation might be the release of a hormone which makes us feel good.

Ard: Okay. So I agree, I think we are chemical computers. But you’re saying that’s the totality? That’s it?

PA: Well, I don’t see what else there could be.

Ard: On scientific grounds?

PA: Well, just on common-sense grounds.

6:49 – Can science explain morality?


Ard: Let’s say I want you to work out the value of a human being. So what’s the value of each of us here?

PA: Well you could do that using economics, couldn’t you? If you wanted to, at the crude level.

Ard: I don’t mean just the monetary value.

PA: I’m asking you to try to clarify your question.

Ard: So I think when I say ‘value of a human being’, it’s something along the lines of do I think David has some kind of intrinsic value so that I shouldn’t kill him, for example.

PA: Well we’re on the edge of understanding the scientific basis of morality and ethics at this point.

Ard: We are?

PA: And moral principles, in my view, emerge from two sources. One is our ethological history, our evolutionary history, that we have learned to, if you like, contribute to stable societies through particular patterns of behaviour, and those have now so pervaded our behaviour that we regard them as our moral fibre.

And the second one is that we, with our big brains, can reflect, in quiet moments at least, on the consequences of our actions. So we’re not just automata in terms of our evolutionary history: we are reflective human beings. I’m not going to kill you because you might have similar views about me, so let’s compromise and not kill each other.

Ard: But why is that a scientific explanation?

PA: Well it’s a way of looking for the roots of morality. And if the roots of morality are ultimately the stability of societies, then you have to explore using the scientific method – whatever that quite means – but in terms of evidence, looking at genetics, looking at histories – what ultimately leads to stable societies.

Ard: And that will give us a science of ethics?

PA: Yes.

David: So for you that’s going to be in the genes, ultimately, isn’t it?

PA: Yes, ultimately in the genes, in the sense that we, with particular types of genes for not killing each other...
David: So you think a morality, a scientific morality, is ultimately going to have to look to biology, to evolutionary theories, genetic theories?

PA: Oh, absolutely, yes.

David: It’s going to have to be built from what we know about altruism and the genetics of altruism.

PA: Yes. And morality, if you like, is the ultimate emergent property of the gene.

Ard: So isn’t there a worry there that once I understand that this is the case, then I have this sense that I don’t want to kill David because I feel it would be a bad thing to do? But once I realise that that’s just my genes or my history that’s telling me that, there’s nothing more than that.

PA: But there is more than that, because you know that he might be thinking the same: to kill you.

Ard: That’s right.

PA: Society is a network of compromises, and we know that if we don’t go around randomly killing, then we’re more likely to survive.

Ard: That’s true. So as long as David doesn’t randomly kill, and you don’t randomly kill, I’m fine. But I can do whatever I like.

David: It sounds to me like civilisation is a very large Mexican stand-off!

PA: Well I’m afraid that’s largely true.|

Ard: You were saying that goodness is linked to fitness in evolution, but in evolution things do annihilate one another, so…

PA: Because sometimes they…

Ard: Is that good?

PA: They only have an immediate view of their fitness.

Ard: Okay, so the goodness is much more complicated than evolution?

PA: Yes, and probably more far-sighted than even we are. I mean, we are the most far-sighted of all the creatures that there are, but whether we’re far-sighted enough, who knows?

Ard: But the science of good versus evil will come out of our understanding evolution?

PA: That’s a very deep question I think, because, in a sense, the bigger our brain, the more able it is for us to transcend physical evolution.

Ard: Sure.

PA: We can look to the future and see the consequences of sacrifice now. Well, in principle.

David: It sounds like, for you, what’s good and what’s bad is a human construction. We’ll agree what’s good and what’s bad. Is that right?

PA: And it changes.

David: And it changes. Whereas for you, Ard, some things just have to be good.

Ard: Yeah, I think some things…

David: Transcendently good? Have I used that word?

PA: Like what?

Ard: Like cruelty, I think, is always wrong: generosity is good, whether we agree on it or not. There are societies that think that cruelty is… They advocate cruelty towards certain other groups.

PA: Yes.

Ard: I think they’re wrong. And I think they’re wrong regardless of what…

PA: So inhibition of the aspirations of others is bad? Is wrong?

Ard: I think that, for example…

PA: Whereas encouragement of the aspirations of anyone is good? Even Hitler?

Ard: No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that cruelty towards others can be bad, irrespective of whether the society thinks it is or it isn’t a good thing. So a classic example would be slavery, which is a kind of cruelty towards others. I would say that’s wrong, regardless of whether society itself thinks it’s a good thing.

PA: It depends what you mean by slavery, doesn’t it? We’re all slaves, in a certain sense.

Ard: Yeah.

PA: We are all employed, so we are slaves under the masters: our paymasters.



12:44 – Is emergence just mumbo-jumbo?


David: Can I ask you…? We’ve been using the word ‘science’: what are the qualities of science? I mean, I’m thinking of reductionism, determinism, those things. When you think of science, is it that kind of reductionistic science, or…?

PA: I think the core of science is imagination in alliance with honesty. Just to be honest without being imaginative means that you’re not doing very good science; being imaginative without being honest means that you’re being a poet.

David: That’s the poets struck off the list!

PA: I think the combination of the two is really the core of being an effective, interesting scientist.

David: Okay.

PA: Then I think you then have the distinction between reductionism and emergence.

David: Yes, what’s…?

PA: I think the easy part of science is reductionism: dismembering the butterfly in order to find its atoms. But the difficult part is reassembling the simple ideas that you’ve developed and creating the butterfly out of the atoms and seeing that an idea of beauty emerges from that.

David: Yes, when you’ve reduced it down to its bits, you understand how all the bits work. But even if you do understand that and you put all those bits back together, if all you understand are the rules for the individual bits, you’ll have left out the emergent rules. Once it becomes the whole system, once it becomes the butterfly, there are new rules which emerge at the level of the butterfly and have very little to do with the level of its atoms. Does that work for you or is that mumbo-jumbo?

PA: That’s mumbo-jumbo. I mean, all defeatism is mumbo-jumbo, basically.

David: Why is it defeatism?

PA: Because it suggests that there’s something beyond your understanding of the entities that make up the butterfly.

David: Why should that be a defeat, though?

PA: Well, because we hope through the scientific method that we will understand absolutely everything. It’s a wonderful challenge that the world is out there in all its complexity. We little humans are tinkering with understanding little bits of it, but we’re gradually migrating towards an understanding of the whole, and that includes understanding how the individual entities collaborate into producing a system. I mean, it’s a real challenge.

David: Yes, and in its own way, a very powerful and beautiful one. I mean, everything we’ve got scientifically is from that method. But I don’t see why it’s a defeat to say in addition to the rules that govern the individual parts there could be entirely scientific rules which operate at the level of the system.

PA: Yes, but we’ve got no need for them at the moment. There are rules that operate only when you have congregations of atoms and molecules for which it would be meaningless to talk about the property of a single atom: temperature. What do you mean by ‘the temperature’ when you’ve got a single atom? It can’t mean anything.

But what you mean by temperature is the distribution of myriad molecules over the available energy levels following a particular form. Now, I can understand that. You might say that temperature, therefore, is an emergent property. And in a sense it is, but I also understand it in terms of what is going on at the level of a collection of individual molecules. So I don’t see that there is any real difference between an emergent property like temperature, which I claim can be understood in terms of the behaviour of individual molecules, and the emergent property of being a butterfly.

Ard: Really? So how about…?

PA: I mean, I’m an optimist. And I can’t stand philosophers because they’re all pessimists! So don’t be defeatist! Be optimistic!

David: When we talked to George Ellis and others who are keen on emergence, one of the reasons they’re keen on it is, they say, ‘Look, with reductionism everything is caused from the lowest level.’ Whereas, with emergence, they say you then get what they call downward causation, so the system itself then has an effect on its parts. Some things in the universe are not caused by just the rules which guide the atoms and the chemicals…

PA: Well, that’s nonsense, isn’t it?

David: Is it?

PA: I think it must be. It’s a mechanical universe. It might be a quantum mechanical universe, but effect follows cause even in a quantum universe.

David: Yes, and they’re saying sometimes the cause is at the higher level and causes an effect lower down; that it’s not all cause coming up from the atoms.

PA: Well, I can see that if I have a particular thought that it might make me sweat through embarrassment, for example.

David: Yes. That’s precisely it.

PA: So there is a kind of downward…

David: Right, so they’re saying an emergent level of the universe is the level of thought.

PA: Yes.

David: And that once it’s in the universe, then a whole new set of rules emerge which have causative power: they cause things to happen. So suddenly it’s not just that the atoms cause a reaction in your kidneys which make you think that you’re thirsty and that you have a thought. You see what I mean? It’s a radical challenge to reductionism, isn’t it? They think it is, and I’m inclined to agree it is.

PA: Science fiction writers often play with ideas like that as well. It’s quite interesting to see the way that writers of fiction think.

David: Yes, but I’m asking you as a scientist whether you think there’s something to it. Because you said, ‘Well, I could see an idea…’ It seemed like you were entertaining this notion might be right.

PA: Only to amuse you!

David: Okay, that’s me put down. But not to amuse me, what do you think of it? Because people like Noble and Ellis and others, they say, ‘Look, this is the future of science. This is a revolution. Yes, there’s causation, reductionist science, but there’s this other kind: the downward causation from emergence.’ They see this as a real scientific endeavour.

PA: Yes. Well, obviously, because it’s a scientific endeavour, you shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. You should explore whether there are consequences, whether it’s testable and whether there is any… what we loosely regard as truth.

David: Loosely regard?

PA: And if there is even the hint of evidence for it, then it’s worth pursuing, because science doesn’t dismiss out of hand, or at least shouldn’t dismiss out of hand.

David: What’s your feeling about it as a scientist?

PA: What does my gut say, rather than my brain?

David: Yes.

PA: Worth thinking about, but not worth investing in.

Ard: That’s your investment advice? Sell!


20:20 – The mathematical universe


David: Is mathematics… Are there truths which just are true? Are mathematical truths just there? Or is it a human construction, do you think?

PA: There must be truths that are in mathematics that we humans are gradually digging out of all the clutter that shrouds. So I think the ultimate truth is mathematical.

David: So in other words…

Ard: Are we discovering those truths?

PA: We’re discovering, yes.

David: Right. You see, that is really interesting. So in some sense there’s the stuff of the universe which, as a chemist, you understand its rules.

PA: Yes.

David: But then there’s this other kind of truth in the universe. Because those truths… How would they exist? They’re not matter, but you’re saying they’re in the universe: we’re not making them up.

PA: The truth that the angles of a triangle add up to 180o is not really a truth, because there is no triangle that is in absolutely flat space. So what we try to do is to distil from everyday experience models that approximate what we’re really trying to talk about. And try to identify the truths that those models represent.

David: Okay, but there are these Truths, with a capital T, in the universe. Somehow it’s woven into the fabric of the universe in some way?

PA: Yes. 1+1=2 is certainly a universal Truth.

David: With a capital T?

PA: Yes.

David: So it’s not just something that we’re making up, like…?

PA: Well we made it up and it’s found to be true.

David: Ooh.

PA: Ooh, I’m not sure whether that’s true.

David: I can’t help you there and you would know this! But I’m trying to get at whether you think there are some transcendent Truths, and whether they are mathematical. Whether mathematical truths are in some sense a transcendent Truth. It’s not a social construct that we just agreed on.

PA: Well the purest kind of truth is mathematical.

David: Right.

PA: And the purest kind of truth, I suppose, within mathematics is the properties of the integers.

David: Right, okay.

PA: And I think the whole of mathematics has emerged from us forcing on the integers things that they weren’t intended to do: we turn them into fractions; we use them, somehow, to generate irrational numbers. So we take the square root of 2, for example, and suddenly we’ve got funny things that the integers have led us to do. And so it’s really the exploration of integers that has…

David: Right. But you make that sound like this is just something that we’re forcing on the world because we feel like it, and yet the stories that you [Ard] tell, and other mathematicians and physicists tell, is that sometimes you’ll have a scientist who’s just working with abstract numbers and equations and then… What was the fellow you told us about?

Ard: Paul Dirac.

David: Right, the Dirac story, where he’s just dealing with equations and numbers – these peculiar numbers that you’re talking about – and then says, ‘Do you know what. There has to be antimatter.’ And no-one had even heard of antimatter. And he said: ‘And not only that, but I can tell you… We’ll call it the positron and it’ll have these properties and be the opposite of the electron.’

PA: Yes.

David: And then it turns out he was right.

PA: Yes.

David: Out of just, as you said, forcing numbers to do unnatural things, it matched perfectly on to the universe, which suggests that it’s not an arbitrary thing we’re just forcing numbers to do, but somehow it is uncovering the actual…

PA: Or conversely, that the universe is not just a random collection of entities.

David: But more than that, because it could not be random; it might not be a random collection of entities, but how does…? It could be non-random in any number of ways. It turned out to fit perfectly with mathematics.

PA: Yeah.

David: Which is odd, is it not?

PA: Yes, I mean…

David: I mean, really catastrophically odd?

PA: It is the deep truth about the nature of the universe that it is a mathematical place; and by mathematics I mean logical and ultimately simple. And so, I think, the real message that is coming through is that the universe is ultimately, and by ultimately I mean, ultimately ultimately, a very simple place.

David: You think there will be a theory of everything? You know, the fabled Theory of Everything which once you unpack it…?

PA: Yes. The universe, in a sense, is either zero or one, but conglomerated in such an extraordinary way that we can have this conversation.

David: Okay, if we’re willing to entertain the notion that the universe could have certain truths woven into it, mathematical ones, why would it not be possible that there could be other kinds of truths woven into it: aesthetic truths or moral truths? It’s a peculiar question.

PA: I mean, it would be wrong for a scientist to say that any idea is absolute nonsense, so I won’t go that far. You have to leave the door ajar for any possibility.

David: For the feeble-minded!

PA: So the possibility that the universe is not a mathematical place, but is ultimately a moral place, is something to entertain. There is no evidence for it, but it would be improper to deny the possibility of anything.

David: Yes. I mean, I’m not saying I think it is a moral… that there are moral truths. But I can’t in all honesty say if I’m willing to accept that mathematical truths are in the universe, I don't know by what authority I would say other kind of truths can’t be. I don't know how I would justify that.

PA: It depends what you mean by truths, doesn’t it, really?

Ard: Largely very philosophical?

David: Ah, yes!

PA: But I’m talking about truths. You’re talking about different levels of knowledge. I mean, ultimately, you could argue – and this might not be true – you could argue that mathematics is the lowest level of the foundation of all knowledge. You could say that poetry and aesthetic delight is right at the top. And there are all these intermediate steps, some of which are absolutely true. Mathematics is possibly absolutely true. 1+1 is probably absolutely true. And mathematics is simply an elaboration of 1+1=2.

David: And then poetic truth is just going to be largely entertainment?

PA: Just entertainment.

Ard: Not much more?

David: You can’t say that! You cannot say that! Do you really believe that, or are you just doing that to get a…?

PA: I’m prepared to believe it for a few milliseconds.

David: Okay!



27:51 – How did something come from nothing?


Ard: I was wanting to jump to something closer to science, which is that the elements in our body – the whole series of elements – where did those come from?

PA: In what we term the Big Bang.

Ard: Okay.

PA: At least the simple elements were, but happily they got roasted in stars.

Ard: Okay.

PA: And once you start roasting things you get tastier meals like carbon and oxygen and nitrogen.

Ard: Okay. And so these elements in our body come from stars.

PA: Yes. We are stardust.

Ard: We are stardust.

PA: You are the child of some distant and now extinct star.

Ard: Which has exploded?

PA: And scattered its ashes. And you are ash.

Ard: I’m ash. That’s a kind of poetic...

PA: I think it’s lovely.

Ard: So do you think that gives us some kind of meaning?

PA: It gives us a certain humility insofar as humility is meaning. I think it’s a fantastic vision, really that through the processes of physical law, we have emerged and are able to have conversations of this kind. I think it’s quite an extraordinary vision of the grandeur of the universe.

Ard: Sure. Philosophers have tried for millennia to solve the problem of the meaning of life. Do you think that problem should be handed on to scientists now?

PA: Well philosophers haven’t made much of a fist of it, have they?

Ard: Okay. A classic kind of philosophical question is: why is there something rather than nothing? So, where did the universe come from?

PA: Yes.

Ard: Do you think science can answer that question?

PA: Well, nothing else can.

Ard: Okay. Do you think we’ve…?

PA: Obviously, theology thinks it can, by saying it was the workings of the finger of God which stirred up nothing and out of it came the universe. This is not, to my mind, very satisfying as an explanation.

Ard: And when you say ‘nothing’, what do you mean by ‘nothing’? Do you mean…?

PA: I mean what everyone means by nothing. It means absolutely nothing.

Ard: So it’s not like Lawrence Krauss says the laws of physics out of which…?

PA: No, no, that’s the laws of physics. It’s a meta-nothing.

Ard: Okay. It’s a meta-nothing. So nothing means nothing. There are no laws of physics. There is…

PA: I mean absolutely nothing. Not even a void.

Ard: Not even a void. So where did the voids and the laws of physics come from then?

PA: God knows!

Ard: God knows! Okay.

David: Very good!

Ard: Do you think that’s a deep mystery?

PA: When I say that God knows, I’m using that, of course, allegorically. I must say this.

Ard: There’s no doubt about that!

PA: I think the extraordinary thing is that we humans, we products of the creation, are on the track of giving a real answer to that extraordinary question.

Ard: Do you think we’ve got some ways we could answer that question?

PA: Oh, yes. Science is an extraordinarily powerful instrument of discovery that wherever it touches, the rocks give way.

Ard: Do you think it could be that we’re just the product of an accident? A cosmic accident?

PA: Well, yes, kind of. For an accident to occur, you need a kind of substratum for the accident to occur in. But even though it’s a difficult concept, it may be one that we ultimately find our way to understand. So I think it’s a real challenge for science, but we’re edging towards it. That’s the extraordinary thing. Science is edging towards understanding the deepest possible questions: it’s not rushing in. Sometimes it rushes in and then it gets rebuffed, but it is cautiously edging towards discovering the deep fabric of the universe and the events that took place in its inception.

Ard: But wouldn’t you say that science is based on the rules of physics and chemistry, etc.? But the question of where those rules came from, you think that’s also a scientific question?

PA: Oh, absolutely. I mean the ultimate level of the rules of science must be some kind of intrinsic logic to the universe.

Ard: And where did that logic come from?

PA: It might be that… This is pure speculation, of course.

Ard: Sure.

PA: Many kinds of universes can bubble into existence but immediately evaporate, vaporise, because they don’t have a logical structure that causes them to cohere. But then you get a universe suddenly that, quite at random, bubbles out of absolutely nothing, which by chance has a logical structure that enables it to persist.

Ard: But what makes those universes bubble out of nothing?

PA: Who knows? I mean, it would be unwise… I don’t think it’s the finger of God saying, ‘Bubble, bubble’. But, once we know that these universes have bubbled out of absolutely nothing, then we can start to understand why they did.

Ard: But…

PA: Perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps it’s all an illusion.

Ard: But they would have to be uncaused somehow, right?

PA: Of course.

Ard: Definitely uncaused?

PA: Although even causality might take a knock because it could… The kind of deep causality that we’re talking about might be retrospective causality, because something comes into existence, causality exists, and so it bootstrapped it into existence. Who knows?

David: A bit like time?

PA: Yes.

David: It would be the same? Time wasn’t ticking away waiting for the universe, but once the universe is here, it has time.

PA: But, you know, these very deep questions are extraordinarily important questions. But they are… Such is the plasticity and power of the human brain. I don’t think we should say that they are beyond human ability to elucidate. But it might take time, and we might be astounded by the answer. Who knows? We might have to say, ‘There’s a God!’

David: I take it you would reject out of hand the notion of people who say we should talk about the purpose of the universe?

PA: I dismiss that because there’s no evidence.

David: Right.

PA: It may be true, because with my puny understanding of cosmic history, who knows? There might be a God out there that is completely invisible to me in all his actions. But, you know, who knows? It might be true, in which case there would be a reason for the universe. But because I see no evidence for it, I’ve no reason to accept it. And if I could…

Ard: So because you see no evidence for God, there is therefore no purpose?

PA: I think I think that.

Ard: Okay.

35:12 – What is a meaningful life?


David: What kind of things do you find meaningful?

PA: The growth of understanding. I think understanding is an entertainment for getting through life, because it enriches the living experience. Maybe I’m speaking just as an academic now.

David: Well, no, but your house has books in it, but it also has art.

PA: Yes.

David: You collect art and you go on holiday and you learn about Impressionists.

PA: Well, it’s enrichment, isn’t it? And I think we’re given these few decades between one form of dust and another form of dust. And I think it’s such a privilege to be interdust – interdust, not into dust! – that we should make full use of it. And so one is turned on by the joy of understanding, and I, as a scientist, I put that right at the heart of being alive.

David: Some people say ‘Science is always saying that everything is meaningless and that life is meaningless.’ And they balk at this and say that life has to have a meaning.

PA: Life is not meaningless, ultimately, because we are contributing to civilisation and all the joys, and maybe the pains, that that brings.

Ard: So David doesn’t believe in God, but he wants to find purpose in the physical universe.

PA: Purpose is…

David: What is meaning?

PA: Meaning is, I think, deeper enjoyment when you are alive. There’s no point in worrying about what enjoyment you’ll get when you’re dead. There’s no point in worrying about, you know, what enjoyment you missed before you were born.

David: Fair enough.

PA: So what you’re really doing is looking for the joys in these few decades that each of us has of being alive.
David: I’m trying to get something else, I suppose.

PA: And that joy is not just… By joy, I don’t mean selfish joy. I mean there is joy that comes from contribution to other people’s joy.

David: Right. But I suppose it’s… When Boltzmann and Zermelo come along with heat death, with entropy, it’s all ultimately… all the great works of art and all the joys and all the poetry and all the science and all our understanding will eventually end in a big, universe-sized cold soup. And the reaction was, ‘It makes everything meaningless. It’s all ultimately futile and has zero meaning.’

Do you subscribe to that? That ultimately you should look at the universe and say, ‘Look, it’s a meaningless accident, and therefore everything that happens in it is a meaningless accident.’

PA: That would be such a barren view.

David: Yes. But sometimes one gets the feeling that that’s what’s being pushed by some people in science.

PA: Well, if I were a cosmic being and stood back and looked at the lifespan of this universe over a span of a trillion years, I would see it as a mere flea on the cosmic entity. In which case, we’d be totally meaningless. But we’re not that sort of being, and I think that we see life on the scale of millennia, if we think big enough. We can see joy and delight and all those things that contribute to the pleasure of being alive. So grasp the moment. Carpe diem. The diem might be a trillion years, but it’s still there to be grasped.

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