Wednesday, 22 February 2012

No point in listening to peasants

From my own point of view, Peter Atkins was the star guest on a panel in the Grove Auditorium of Magdalene (pronounced 'Maudlin') College, Oxford, on 21st February.  He had the general approval of the audience to a greater extent than the other members.

The splendid 'Grove Auditorium'
(complete with a piano that was not visible yesterday).
Stephen Law was the other atheist, being part of 'team philosophy' with the christian Richard Swinburne.  I can't bring myself to comment much on Swinburne's words as they were barely comprehensible "unadulterated professorial claptrap" as Atkins said. "A world without suffering is a world where we would not have choice" and things like that poured from Swinburne's mouth - if I understood him correctly. I was told that Richard Dawkins has previously described Swinburne's work as being 'beyond satire'.  I could hardly disagree with either point of view!  The fourth member of the panel, theoretical physicist Ard Louis, spoke well about science but still seemed to require intervention from god - or particularly the christian God.

Professor Peter Atkins - a 'defunct chemist'
but not a defunct speaker (photo from here)
I'm only going to speak further on Peter Atkins' contribution, because his words delighted me and they are the only ones that I actually want to talk about and paraphrase.  He described himself as "a defunct physical chemist".  He started by saying that there are three ways of learning about the world:
  • Think about it - or 'sit around inventing crazy ideas'
  • Rely on authoritative books  - written by peasants, or
  • Experiment!
There is no point in sitting thinking what the world should be like, and no point listening to peasants. [A little harsh perhaps] It is almost surprising that it took until the 17th century to develop the idea of experimental science. Since then the reticulation of ideas - the complex interactions between the different disciplines of science - has been one of the greatest strengths of science.  Ideas from the different islands of science reinforce each other.  They are mutually supportive, testable and most importantly, public. And science works!

There are questions which can distinguish the wheat from the chaff.  "What is the purpose of . . . " type questions are definitely in the chaff category, as is 'What is the nature of the afterlife?'  Apparently the answer to that is easy.  It will be exactly like it was before you were born, in spite of the rantings of the aforementioned peasants.

There are other questions that have not been answered yet and may never be answered, but they are still in the wheat category.  Where does it all come from?  What is the nature of consciousness, aesthetics and morality?  On topics like this, science illuminates, philosophy does something else, and religion obfuscates.

There was plenty of applause.  After the other panel members had spoken, Atkins professed a 'deep distress at the dismal views of the rest of this panel'.  I'm tempted to ask who could disagree - but there were some in the audience who would say that they would. 

Having made admiring comments about Atkins, I wouldn't say that he was the most approachable person in the room.  Then again, I am just a peasant and my feelings are not very badly hurt.

Aren't people interesting?

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