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Does science have all the answers?

By Tom Colls
Today programme

Researcher examining a three-dimensional model of a DNA

As scientists discover increasing amounts about life, the universe and everything, are we approaching a point where we can rely on science alone to answer all of life's big questions?

Physicists have measured the speed of light as 299,792,458 metres per second and have figured out that universe is approximately 13 billion years old.

But does this help when it comes to turning on the light and getting out of bed in the morning?

Biologists can plot the DNA codes that make life possible and chemists can describe in detail how bodies decompose. But does that put you at ease when you contemplate your own death?

These questions lie at the heart of the cultural struggle taking place between religion and science.

Entering the fray is a new book, On Being, in which Oxford University chemist Professor Peter Atkins pieces together all that science has discovered on these big questions, and finds the evidence unquestionable.

Physical science is a tiny part of our view of the world
Philosopher Mary Midgley

"Every real question, like, where did the universe come from, where is it going, and how is it getting there - there is nothing of that nature that science cannot illuminate," he says.

Driven by an undimmable optimism, he says, scientists are probing everywhere, leaving no stone unturned. What they find are facts, facts and more facts, with consequences that we cannot ignore.

A partial solar eclipse is seen above a cross of the Life-giving Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow
Does scientific progress pose a threat to religious belief?

Science, he says, has all the evidence it needs that the universe is "entirely without purpose": you are born an intelligent animal with no soul or spirit and there is nothing left alive after the body has died.

"If science comes up with facts that are, let's call it, true… even though they are unsettling, they have to be accepted," he says.

"I think that science exposes the wonder of the world as it is. You don't need fantasies to build that sense of wonder. Science is true glory, whereas religion is fabricated glory."

The religious notions of soul and spirit, of life everlasting and the final judgement, are nothing more, he says, than a "fantasy".

"I'm quite happy for people to take false comfort, but you've got to realize it's false comfort," he says.

Religious science

While Professor Atkins' book will be taken by some as an attack on their beliefs, for many Christians in Britain, it misses the mark.

Last year, for example, the General Synod of the Church of England passed a motion that agreed overwhelmingly that religion and science could peacefully co-exist.

For Anna Thomas-Betts, a geophysicist at Imperial College London who spoke in the General Synod debate, the facts of science are perfectly reconcilable with the Christian way of life.

Sir Isaac Newton
Many scientists, including Sir Isaac Newton, have held religious views

Science, for her, discovers how the god she believes in created the universe, and she welcomes every new detail of that creation.

But at the same time, she says, science does not tell people how they should live their lives. The proof Christianity is not to be found in scientific verification of certain stories in the Bible, but in the kind of life Christians lead.

"You live your life accordingly and this is your experiment," she says.

There are philosophers too who see something missing in Professor Atkins's approach.

Mary Midgley, whose book The Myths We Live By is being re-published as a Routledge Classic this month, thinks Professor Atkins's views demonstrate the "imperialistic" attitude science has developed.

Being bleak is part of the pleasure of being alive
Prof Peter Atkins

Science, she says, has for many people replaced religion as the background source of authority for the big questions about life, leading people to pin their hopes on a subject which can only disappoint.

Answering these questions is simply not "the kind of job that science does". We are, she says, often able to talk about the value and purpose of human life without difficulty, despite our not being able to explain the physical processes involved.

"In history you can't use controlled experiments," she says. "You can't run the French Revolution again and see how it comes out this time."

Likewise, we are happy talking about democracy or morality without help from scientists.

"To say that democracy exists is not to say that there is a funny physical thing somewhere: it is to find a pattern in the life that goes on around us, and that pattern is there," she says.

"All these abstracts, these elements in human life, these shapes in which human life organises itself, are here because they happen."

"People have been philosophising and asking questions about value for a long time, and they quite often come up with quite sensible answers".

Face the facts

It is not, however, only theologians and philosophers who do not accept Professor Atkins's analysis.

BBC SCIENCE AND CULTURE

Sociologist Professor Frank Furedi, who recently attacked the "intolerance" of some scientists in an article for Spiked magazine believes scientists have got their roles mixed up.

Science, says the self-proclaimed rationalist, does find out the facts, but there is still work to be done in deciding what we should do with them.

"Many of the debates in contemporary society emerge from the fact that science assumes that it's got a role to play in telling us how to live our lives," he says.

From what food we should eat, to what god we should worship, scientists, he says, often think that the facts "speak for themselves".

This, he says, destroys what in the end is the most creative element of understanding our lives: that we have to decide, through public debate, what the facts mean, how they should be interpreted.

He welcomes the scientists who, like Professor Atkins, leave the laboratory and join the public debate.

But when they do this, he says, they must realise that they have left science behind and have no more moral authority than anybody else, no more "than a priest, or a nun, or the guy who runs the sweetshop down the road".


Do you think science has the answers to all the questions life throws up? Where do you stand on whether science and religion are compatible? Here are some of your thoughts.

I've yet to hear a scientist even attempt to explain how the universe came into being, how it came to exists. Peter Atkins failed to do so this morning. I've heard the Big Bang theory, I just haven't heard what it was that banged, and what made it do so.
Stephen Smith, Redditch, Worcs.

The majority of cases of depression are due to an inability to find meaning in life. For the growing number of people suffering from depression, being bleak is not a source of pleasure. If scientists could admit that there are questions which cannot be considered from a mechanistic scientific viewpoint, and start to address the growing body of scientific evidence that the mind influences the body in ways which would not be possible if that viewpoint is correct, rather than pretending this evidence does not exist, then we could be on the way to finding an effective cure for depression.
Lucy Flint, Petersfield, England

A great demonstration of the trap that some scientists fall into when they try to be philosophers. He didn't seem to have any idea that he was propagating a non-scientific philosophical viewpoint, even when it was pointed out to him.
Tim Wilkes, Huddersfield

I regard religion and science as the hare and the tortoise in the human quest for understanding and knowledge of the universe. Science, like the tortoise, takes many patient steps and progress is slow. Religion, like art, and much of everyday life, is based on intuition, which is immediate, and enables us to cope with the massive range of choices, large and small, where a scientific approach is simply impracticable. In my view the job of philosophy should be build bridges between the hare of religion and the tortoise of science. I challenge Professor Atkins to show that he lives his personal life by scientific precepts alone. Most of us have at least as much in common with Homer Simpson as we do with Mr Spock!
David Wright, Southwell, UK

I agree that science alone cannot give meaning to life - but I would argue that religion is the source of too much conflict and division to supply the 'antidote' to or complement science in the modern world. Art and philosophy are far more valuable in supplying that sense of wonder that human beings need in order see beyond themselves, than a blind belief in in the 'truth' of some text that was written millennia ago.
Marcus Carding via Facebook

As an undergraduate Biology student, I was taught that science cannot answer 'why' questions - only 'how' questions. I think Dr Atkins should have the humility to recognise this
Frances Follin, Chislehurst, England

Mary Midgley does not understand science. "The Meaning of Life" is just not a concept that science recognises. Life is that's it.
Owen Roberts via Facebook

Ultimately, the polarisation inside the field of science on the question of religion is the same as outside of science, and unfortunately the media doesn't like taking the most rational view points. The media likes stoking a few fires.
Alex Rogers, Cardiff




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