Peter Atkins continues to be one of the more boisterous and outspoken of the Oxford atheists. His promotion of ‘scientism’ seems as confident as any and clearly has its roots in the logical positivism of a bygone era. Famously, he has said, “There is nothing wrong with arrogance as long as you are right”, which, of course, begs the entire question.

There is no denying the ability of this man who, as Oxford’s Professor of Chemistry, has been a leading figure in his field. His new book, On Being, published earlier this year, deserves our attention, especially as it is short, clear and delightfully written. Being able to write good prose is a worthy achievement for anyone but for a man whose preoccupation has been chemistry, it is somewhat unexpected! So he should certainly win a prize for its readability.

The Biggest Question of All

There are five chapters: Beginning, Progression, Birth, Death and Ending. The beginning concerns the origins of the universe, which he calls “the biggest question of all”. How do we account for the presence of something when previously there was nothing? He elucidates four questions:

• What actually happened at the beginning?
• Could absolutely nothing have the potency to become something?
• Was an agent needed to trigger cosmogenesis? and
• Why is there a universe?

A scientist has to admit, he says, that if at any stage an agent must be invoked to account for what there is, then “science might find it has demonstrated the existence of God”

I don’t think we can fault the questions. Unlike Richard Dawkins, he does not think any of them are “silly”.

He feels that the idea of an uncaused first cause is not “altogether satisfying”, but concedes (surprisingly) that it might, of course, be correct. He then asks whether science has anything better to say. He acknowledges that science could have nothing to say about the situation before the universe actually came into existence. The only options therefore would be to admit either that its origins are beyond human comprehension or to accept the “existence and incomprehensible activity of a creator”.

He goes on to concede that “science is currently seemingly stumped by the details of cosmogenesis” and that almost every scientist is “wisely unwilling” to express a view about the inception of the universe. “Quite honestly, they havent a clue”, he says.

What then of those scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, who are unwisely willing to express such views? Can the origins of the universe be accounted for by the laws of physics and quantum fluctuations? Atkins is forthright:

“Absolutely nothing lacks laws just as it lacks everything else… There are no laws in a universe that does not yet exist, for laws come into existence as the behaviour they summarize emerges with the emerging universe... Nothing has no properties, and thus does not undergo quantum fluctuations.”

He concludes, “The unfolding of absolutely nothing into something is a problem of the profoundest difficulty and currently far beyond the reach of science”

A scientist has to admit, he says, that if at any stage an agent must be invoked to account for what there is, then “science might find it has demonstrated the existence of God”. He concludes:

“The unfolding of absolutely nothing into something is a problem of the profoundest difficulty and currently far beyond the reach of science.”

This refreshing honesty should be greatly welcomed by Christians. And here, of course, is a mystery that humans may well never be able to solve.

Creation Out of Nothing?

This does not stop him from speculating how science might be able to totally explain everything. His key point is that there probably isn’t anything here anyway! “At a deep level there is nothing”, he writes. This greatly simplifies the idea of creation out of nothing. He justifies these extraordinary statements by appealing to the total electric charge of the universe being plausibly zero, with positively charged entities balancing out negatively charged ones. He then appeals to gravity, dark matter and the total energy in the system to assume it all balances out, concluding that God has been “parsimonious on a cosmic scale… Nothing has been separated into opposites to give the appearance of something.”

He doesn’t address the underlying questions that remain. Even if his idea of creation out of nothing makes sense, it still does not address what it was that didn’t exist that could then be separated, nor the need for a separating agency to bring this about. It is like magic without a magician!

When discussing his book on BBC Radio, he said that the universe began “by accident”. His interviewer unfortunately failed to point out to him that a universal feature of accidents is that they have causes.

Life Is a Real Puzzle

His second chapter is about evolution. He observes that, “The argument against the view of God as business angel is of only one kind, the same argument wherever agency is invoked: there is no evidence for it.” The chapter concludes that we should “bask in the illumination of that extraordinarily potent idea that all living things have merely stumbled into their brief interlude of life.”

The chapter on reproduction describes the process, concluding that it is “a near-miracle”. He also says that scientists are still puzzled as to how complexity emerged by natural selection and that the origin of life itself remains “a real puzzle”. The fourth chapter, about dying, is largely descriptive of the biological process.

The last chapter is about eternity and the end of the universe. He says that “eschatological matters are of the highest importance to some, for they illuminate the whole point of being.” The realm of the dead loses its potency completely in the absence of any evidence for it. The soul is nothing but a metaphor for the sense of self, and “all such aspects of consciousness are rooted in the physical brain.”

Meaning Is Beyond Description

Science of course is essentially descriptive – and ‘scientism’ sees that description as being of the essence. Once we ask about what it all means, we move on into philosophy and theology, which are quite beyond the scientist’s sphere.

These chapters are essentially descriptive and he describes the science well. In closing, he writes in purple prose, “We shall have gone the journey of all purposeless stardust, driven unwittingly by chaos, gloriously but aimlessly evolved into sentience, born unchoosingly into the world, unwillingly taken from it and inescapably returned to nothing. Such is life.”

Science of course is essentially descriptive – and ‘scientism’ sees that description as being of the essence. It is all that matters. Once we ask about what it all means, we move on into philosophy and theology, which are quite beyond the scientist’s sphere.

At least he is honest about faith? “My own faith”, he writes, “my scientific faith” (Dawkins take note), “is that there is nothing that the scientific method cannot illuminate and elucidate.” But he warns that there is no comfort here. Science is not about comfort, it is about truth; and joy, he concludes, is found in true comprehension. Well, Christians can at least agree with him about that!

In conclusion, it seems to me that the views he expresses in this latest offering are much more humble than the arrogant bluster that have characterised his performance in debates I have heard. I have to wonder if this is due to his editor, who apparently guided the book through “various transformations” such that “its final form owes much to her”. Either way it will be interesting to see how he argues his case when he debates William Lane Craig for the second time, on 26th October 2011 in Manchester!

© 2011 Peter May
This article was first published in the Newsletter of the European Leadership Forum