By Peter Atkins
Deep questions of existence have entertained both sharp and dull minds throughout the history of humanity. Where did it all come from? What is the point of it? What happens after you die? Great mounds of implausible speculation have been tipped on these pressing questions by theologians and philosophers; whole churches have been founded as a result of the institutionalization of the answers. But all those answers were guided by speculation and sentiment and typically expressed in compelling language that captured minds but concealed emptiness. They were emperor’s new clothes with no emperor within.
Then, along came science. It is really very surprising that it took humanity so long to stumble on a technique of investigation that is so obvious: to examine the world to discover what it is really like rather than merely to think about it and then assert what it is like. At first, like a child with its milk teeth, the emerging band of scientists could tackle only the soft pap of questions, such as the swing of a pendulum, the action of a lever, and the motion of a planet. In due course, those milk teeth gave way to fangs of a sharper cut, and the international, interacting, intercultural army of practised scientists began to think about tough questions. Even the grand questions, such as the large-scale structure of the universe became part of their diet, and they began to digest what hitherto had seemed indigestible.
Science can now illuminate the great questions of being. Admittedly not fully, for science is not yet complete and certainly cannot tell us yet how the universe emerged out of absolutely nothing, nor can it tell us all the details of the emergence of the organic from the inorganic and its subsequent flourishing as the biosphere. It does know in considerable detail how life achieves a certain virtual immortality by passing on its embedded information from one generation to the next, and it understands in remarkable detail how Nature has stumbled on a way of interpreting that information as actual organism. It also knows in considerable detail how nature goes about clearing out those organisms once they have had the opportunity to pass on their precious information to the next cart, a clearing out that makes way for the continuation of other lives. Science can even speculate, but now with speculation in the hard grip of theories devised on the basis of observation, what the long-term future of the world and perhaps even the universe will be.
Science is still stumped by some of the great questions of being. It still is unable to provide the answers to perhaps the two greatest questions of all: how something came into being from absolutely nothing, not just empty space, and how that something acquired the ability to reflect on such questions (that is, the emergence and nature of consciousness). But neither great question is outside the grasp of science, and both are becoming open to investigation. As scientists are cautious optimists, there is every hope that these truly great and extraordinarily difficult questions will give way to their mode of investigation.
All of humanity should take pride in the fact that the grasp of the human mind, especially when working collectively and in collaboration across space and time, appears to be capable of boundless comprehension. It is a taste of its achievements, which in my view adds wonder to existence, that I seek to provide in On Being.
Peter Atkins is the author of almost 60 books, including Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, Four Laws that Drive the Universe, and the world-renowned textbook Physical Chemistry. His latest book is On Being, which is a scientist’s exploration of the great questions of existence. You can watch a video of him in conversation about this book here.