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Steven H Propp
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Peter William Atkins (born 1940) is an English chemist and former Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Lincoln College. He has written many popular chemistry textbooks, as well as books such as The Creation, Creation Revisited, Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, etc.
He wrote in the Prologue to this 2011 book, “In this book… I consider merely the great questions of being, questions that for millennia have been the inspiration of myth, and explore what science can say to illuminate them and dispel their mystery without diminishing their grandeur or reducing our wonder. I consider matters such as beginnings of universes and selves, and the ends of both… I focus instead on the ability of the scientific method to illuminate matters of great human concern and drive out ignorance while retaining wonder.”
He asserts, “I stand by my claim that the scientific method is the only means of discovering the nature of reality, and although its current views are open to revision, the approach, making observations and comparing notes, will forever survive as the only way of acquiring reliable knowledge.” (Pg. xiii) He goes on, “The following pages are all about shedding myths, acquiring understanding, yet retaining, even enhancing, wonder. I am aware that there are many who consider ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ to be as oil and water. I hope, however, that you will come away acknowledging that it is possible to take a near-spiritual you from a solely material perception of the world. I hope that you will also take pride in the majesty of the human ability, working collectively in space and time, to emerge from the chrysalis of myth and travel towards true comprehension.” (Pg. xiv)
He points out, “although science is currently seemingly stumped by the details of cosmogenesis, it is important to distinguish ‘seemingly stumped’ from the actual progress of cautious advance… Very rarely do scientists leap to a revolutionary explanation… As a result of their intrinsic caution, almost every scientist is wisely unwilling to express a view about the events accompanying the inception of the universe. Quite honesty, they haven’t a clue. Their current task is to edge carefully backwards into time… and expecting, perhaps, to arrive at the year dot at an unknown time in the future…” (Pg. 4-5)
He suggests, “our Big Bang is just a local triviality, not a truly cosmic beginning. In fact, that enlargement of our vision and diminution of our significance is possible a colossal underestimate of the problem of identifying the beginning. Time might lost its significance of a grandiose cosmic scale and the concept of a ‘beginning’ be meaningless. It might be the case that any universe can bud into an infinite number of universes, that the current number of universes is already infinite, but increasing, and possibly increasing rapidly at an infinitely accelerating rate, and has been accelerating infinitely rapidly for eternity, so that our Big Bang is an infinitesimal event on a grandly hypercosmic stage.” (Pg. 7)
He contends, “It might turn out to be the case that the budding of an existing universe into daughters is much easier to explain than the origin of an initial universe… for at least when a universe exists there are physical laws that govern its behavior: if we could identify those laws within our universe, then we might find that they entailed its budding into daughters. But even if that can be achieved, there is still the troublesome prospect of identifying the begetting of the Ur-universe. Is God perhaps the begetter of the Ur-universe with His handiwork now irretrievably buried in the myriad descendants that have sprouted since? Without the unreliable assurance of faith, no one knows.” (Pg. 8)
He notes, ”I certainly do not want to give the impression that any scientist thinks that the scenario I have sketched is even remotely supported by any evidence or even theory. I have to stress that all I have sought to show is that it is possible to think constructively about even the most apparently overwhelming problems and thereby undermine the view that our inception must have been an act of God… I don’t want to concede defeat to the religious and surrender my optimism to faith… The task before science in this connection will be to show how something can come from nothing without intervention. No one has the slightest idea whether that can happen and, if so, how it can come about.” (Pg. 11)
He says of Creationists and advocates of Intelligent Design, “who envision God as cosmic manufacturer of every individual type of organism, poring… over the perfection of a smallpox virus, rendering it exquisitely virulent, designing an eye ten times over, and seemingly cutting corners when it same to his principal creation and allowing defects in design that, even if you and your mother survive the rigours of birth, result in cancer, Hodgkinson’s lymphoma, cerebral palsy, and heart disease.” (Pg. 24) He adds, “Creationism is fundamentally dishonest, for… it distorts the evidence to suit its prejudices… Creationism is a return to the time before science emerged as a mode of understanding the world… Creationism is deception at every level… science is the gradual peeling back of veneers that conceal an inner truth.” (Pg. 27)
But he admits about scientific theories of the origin of life, “This is all entirely speculative. It shows, however, that scientists have not run out of ideas about how the prebiotic gap might be bridged. There is difficulty in finding the actual explanation, because we are uncertain about where it actually took place… We are also uncertain about the precise identity of the prebiotic molecules that were first formed and then formed alliances.” (Pg. 42)
He asserts, “There is not one jot of evidence… that gives the merest hint that divine involvement has ever taken place. In fact, the opposite would seem to be true. Natural selection is a nasty, brutish thing, with organism set against organism. Fangs, beaks, claws are the order of the day, not brotherly love… If you are religious, you should at least pause before you venerate a God that devised, or just allowed, such a gore-steeped way of ensuring progress and the emergence of the Image of Himself.” (Pg. 43-44)
He concludes, “My own faith, my scientific faith, is that there is nothing that the scientific method cannot illuminate and elucidate. Its revelations and insights add immeasurably to the pleasure of being alive. My faith respects the powerful ability of the collective human intelligence, which initially groped for understanding through myth but now gives us the capacity to comprehend and, optimistically, and given time and given cooperation between brains, will do so without limit… Unlike myth-making… that illumination is the sound and firm foundation for the joy of true comprehension.” (Pg. 104-105)
Atkins’ scientific atheism is among the most “lyrical” around; it will appeal to many readers who, like him, see no reason to believe in any “outside intervention” in the universe.