Bowing down to a new god: the scientist
Peter Atkins delights in telling us that humanity came from nothing and that we're returning to nothing, and he assumes anyone who doesn't share his nihilistic beliefs is an idiot.
It seems that certain men of science, like their hymn-sakes the Christian soldiers, are on the march. For these faithless crusaders, science is not simply a method by which we gain understanding and mastery of the physical world. No, it has become a weapon of enlightenment, a cudgel to be wielded against the ‘ignorant’ multitudes, ‘deluded to the point of perversity’ (to quote high priest of The Science, Richard Dawkins) by religious metaphysics and philosophical myth. For these Darwin-obsessed, unblinkingly deterministic culture-warmongers, science has become more than a method. It has become a mission.
Joining Richard Dawkins at the front line in the war against People With Wrong Beliefs, whether Christian or German Idealist, is Peter Atkins, former professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford and author of On Being – A scientist’s exploration of the great questions of existence. It’s an unabashed attempt to show why the scientific method will come closer to answering the big ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions than – to sling Atkins’ mud – all the theological fantasists, political storytellers and philosophical shysters put together. And to be fair to the scientistic Atkins, he certainly knows his onions, albeit from the sub-atomic level upwards.
Starting with the beginning of it all, he looks at and speculates about the beginning of the universe, that instant of creation that thus far lies just beyond the comprehension of contemporary physicists. Having answered, at least as far he’s concerned, why there is something and not nothing – there is in fact still nothing, it’s just been rendered internally antagonistic – he quickly takes us on a red-in-tooth-and-claw tour through Darwin’s ‘dangerous idea’. Natural selection done and dusted, Atkins then offers up a sneaky peep at our individual beginnings in the human reproductive process, before indulging us with a gruesome portrait of our post-death decomposition. Atkins then ends with The End – not just of our universe, but of all universes – as the something reverts once more to nothing: ‘All life, including all the achievements, myths, and fantasies of mankind, if any survive for such a vast length of time, will be gone.’
And that, as they say, is that. This is what science can tell us about being, from beginning to end. If Atkins had just wanted to give a physical account of being, right down to the smallest atom, that might have been interesting. Yet, On Being does not want to be merely interesting; it does not want to simply say what science can (and cannot) tell us about life and death, the universe and the cosmos. It exists, rather, as a reprimand, a rebuke to all those who dare to think differently, who live their lives according to beliefs not derived from the natural sciences. On Being is infused with animus, not pedagogy. And little wonder: asserting that ‘everything is an aspect of the physical, material world’, Atkins believes that everything must be susceptible to a physical, material explanation. To think otherwise, to reckon on there being more to being than the laws of physics, is to commit heresy.
His prose is replete with pejoratives for those exercising their freedom of conscience and not signing up to the dictates of evolutionary biology. They are the willing dupes of ‘mythmakers’ and ‘promoters of the spirit’, their beliefs, like a frog’s entrails on a dissecting board, mere ‘psychological and cultural viscera’ for Atkins to coolly analyse and dismiss as ‘nonsense’. Which he does a lot. At one point, while discussing eschatology and those poor deluded fools who cling to various theological termini – you know, redemption, that type of thing – he even plays the psychotic card: ‘The only chilling thought among all this persiflageous disputation [among millenarians] is the possibility that powerful born-agains, with their fingers close not to swords but to nuclear buttons, will conspire to bring about Armageddon and thereby, at the expense of civilisation, murderously verify their ludicrous but professedly sincerely held beliefs.’ Quite where in the Old Testament it urges people to actively destroy the world is not made clear. Not that this would matter to Atkins: his arrogance renders him oblivious to his ignorance.
His utter contempt for those, religious or otherwise, whose beliefs deviate from the scientific proofs irrefutably outlined in his Big Book of Scientific Facts, is even reflected in the form of On Being. So while discussing the replication and modification of human DNA, Atkins warns the reader that, because of the complexity of what he’s discussing, the typeface will become smaller. We, the cretinous readers, are told that we can skip these sections if we like, that is, if we accept that ‘science has achieved the near-miracle of detailed understanding’. Form speaks louder than content here. Atkins doesn’t want us to understand the science so much as consent to it. The densely-packed passages of complex explication, published in nine-point font, are the scientistic equivalent of shock and awe. Look on science’s works, ye morons, and submit.
Atkins is simply incapable of understanding, let alone tolerating, any approach to ‘the great questions of existence’ that is not rooted in the physical sciences. Like Doubting Thomas, Pathological Peter steadfastly refuses to countenance any concept, be it God or Geist, that does not have a material, physically provable existence. There is no ‘physically inaccessible kingdom of the spirit’, he spits. Yes, we may long for ‘the non-physical’, but ‘longing is not itself an adequate proof of the existence of what is longed for’, he writes, condescension inspiring his prose.
Facts are everything, for Atkins, because the only category he works with is that of ‘what is’. This is why he finds any notion of there being anything beyond what is to be anathema. Yet, ‘what is’, if he’d taken a peek outside his scientistic bunker, does not exhaust being; there is also the category of ‘what ought to be’. Atkins is right to assert that this other category, the domain not just of ethics, but of utopian imaginings, of redeemed futures, does not exist. It is not a fact. Rather it is that which humans, through their actions and conduct, strive towards. The idea, be it heaven or Charles Fourier’s phalanstery, is not existent because it is ‘not yet’ – in other words, it is to come.
Such hopes of transcending one’s current state, whether fallen or just plain old deprived, are not the preserve merely of messianic theologians or Kant-inspired idealists. They have been the source of some of humanity’s greatest achievements and have driven some of the most hard-headed political revolutionaries of recent times. Vladamir Lenin, not someone usually associated with idle idealism, quotes the nineteenth century Russian radical Dimitri Pissarev approvingly in What Is To Be Done?: ‘If a person were completely devoid of dreaming… if he were not to hasten ahead now and again to view in his imagination as a unified and completed picture the work which is only now beginning to take shape in his hands, then I find it absolutely impossible to imagine what would motivate the person to tackle and to complete extensive and strenuous pieces of work in the fields of art, science, and political life…’. Indeed. Without that leap of faith, that very human will to attempt to bend reality to some idea of how it ought to be, then one might well be prepared to leave things just the way they are.
But so bewitched are Atkins and his ilk by material laws governing everything since the formation of the universe that they completely ignore the ideas that help shape matter’s development. They’re closer to Stalin than Lenin insofar as there seems to be very little place for the subjective component in their theorising. Instead, everything proceeds with funeral certainty according to immutable, unquestionable physical laws, from the Big Bang to the slow thermo-nuclear ebb of our Sun’s entropic decline. ‘The spreading of matter and energy is the root of all change’, writes Atkins of entropy, his ‘favourite’ law: ‘Wherever it occurs, be it corrosion, corruption, growth, decay, flowering, artistic creation, exquisite creation, understanding, reproduction, cancer, fun, accident… or just simple pointless motion it is an outward manifestation of this inner spring, the purposeless spreading of matter and energy in ever greater disorder.’ On a grand, cosmic scale, Atkins replicates the determinism which Stalin’s dialectical materialism produced on the socio-historic. Our actions might appear to be the product of conscious decisions, themselves little more than neural activity, ‘but we should be aware that deep down we, like everything, are driven by purposeless decay: that is why we have to eat’.
In On Being, humanity, in all its past and future glory, is reduced to utter insignificance. Even the Big Bang that gave rise to our universe is deemed an ‘infinitesimal event on a grandly hypercosmic stage’. The effect of such rhetoric is, ironically given Atkins’ professed atheism, to encourage a deference towards something far, far greater than we could possibly imagine: ‘Although science might seem arrogant in arrogating to itself true understanding, what it discovers is often the foundation of true humility.’ We are encouraged to do little more than wonder at the pointless majesty of the cosmos, a resurrection of deference before a god, but with none of the purpose of religious belief.
Atkins’ faithless, shrunken world of energy and entropy is almost triumphant in its nihilism. ‘We shall have gone the journey of all purposeless stardust’, he concludes, ‘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.’ Nietzsche, so wrong when it came to many things, has it right for Atkins and his crew of scientistic New Atheists. In the absence of a will to something, there is only a will to nothing.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.