Science and the philosophical nature of the world

It may take a scientist to unravel the details of the physical world, but it would seem that philosophers are still required to make sense of all the verbiage. Or at least philosophers of the more materialist type.

Take, for example, the eminent thermodynamicist Peter Atkins, who in an interview with The Browser came out with the following statements…

“In my view, science is the only way of learning about the nature of the world.”


“[t]he scientific method is the only reliable method of achieving knowledge.”

Atkins’ utterances came to my attention via the esteemed Norman Geras, a philosopher of the more materialist type.

As Norm says, Atkins’ claim is either definitionally true but at the same time useless, or false. For Atkins’ statements to be true, his notion of science is either so broad as to encompass almost all human activities, or the physical chemist is regurgitating a logical positivist mantra without properly thinking things through. The latter is something that many scientists of Atkins’ generation have a tendency to do, and that is my interpretation of his comments.

Atkins talks of the nature of the world. Now this term has a multitude of meanings and dictionary definitions, but Atkins is known for being a bit of a pedant, so let us assume that in this context he is referring to the physical laws which underpin the universe. One could assuredly declare that scientific method is the most reliable way of achieving knowledge of the natural world, but the problem is that there is no single scientific method.

Even if one narrows scientific method down to the formulation and testing to destruction of hypotheses, which, if they survive such testing are elevated to the status of scientific theories that may in the future still be overturned, much of the conceptual thinking which results in formulated hypotheses is fundamentally intuitive, and here one sees the link between the creative endeavours that are science and art. This thought would make your average logical positivist cringe in horror, but they would be hard-pressed to challenge it on an intellectual level.