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Peter Atkins

A Scientist’s Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence

3.3 (68 ratings)
14 mins

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"On Being" by Peter Atkins explores the nature of existence and the scientific principles that govern the universe. It takes a philosophical but evidence-based approach to questions about life, meaning, and the origin of the universe.

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    On Being
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    The scientific method is the only reliable tool for understanding the great questions of existence.

    Have you ever wondered how the universe and life as we know it came to be? Or what comes after death? Usually, these questions are reserved for the realm of religion and mysticism, but wouldn’t it be better to approach them scientifically?

    Indeed, the scientific method is the only real means we have of understanding our physical world. Since the seventeenth century, scientists have found wild success in using the scientific method to develop falsifiable theories and scrutinize their validity through experiments and observations. In fact, as a comparison, science has made more progress within the last 300 years in understanding our existence than religion made in the last 3,000 years.

    Its success rests upon its tendency to challenge authority and demand that we discard outdated ideas. This stands in direct opposition to a religious approach to truth, which claims that there is a single supernatural yet infallible explanation – i.e., God – behind life’s every mystery.

    Moreover, centuries of scientific experimentation have proven that nothing exists beyond the physical world. According to the author, in order to acquire true knowledge we need theories that are continually tested with new evidence. Put simply, theories that rely on the existence of metaphysical phenomena, like God or the human soul, lack objective evidence.

    And yet, in spite of this, religious belief remains popular. The widespread acceptance of the phenomena found in religious texts is the result of a deep longing to understand our place in the universe, and these beliefs offer us an easy answer to the great questions of existence and meaning.

    However, as comforting as these beliefs may be to some, we lack the evidence that would support them, and thus cannot base our knowledge on mere feelings. To gain true knowledge, we have to look for answers using scientific inquiry.

    So, scientists should not shy away from grappling with life’s “big questions,” many of which we will discuss in the following blinks.

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    What is On Being about?

    On Being makes the case for the superiority of the scientific method over religion and mysticism in studying the great questions of existence. Even in those cases where science is not yet able to replace every aspect of religious belief with objective facts, On Being suggests that it’s just a matter of time before they do.

    Best quote from On Being

    My own faith, my scientific faith, is that there is nothing that the scientific method cannot illuminate and elucidate.

    —Peter Atkins
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    Who should read On Being?

    • Religious people who want to understand their ideological rivals in science
    • Anybody interested in the philosophy of science
    • Anybody who likes to contemplate the meaning of life

    About the Author

    Peter Atkins is a British chemist and professor emeritus of Oxford University. In addition to having written a multitude of chemistry textbooks, he has also published numerous pieces of popular science literature. He is also an outspoken atheist and humanist, as well as the first Senior Member of the Oxford University Secular Society.

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