On Being: A Scientist's Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence

John Harris finds perverse enjoyment in a gleefully bleak consideration of the meaning of life

May 19, 2011

This book by Peter Atkins is portentously entitled On Being, but having read and enjoyed it, I seem irresistibly drawn to think that its title is actually "On being Peter Atkins". Atkins tries hard to be cheerful and to convey what he clearly believes are the joys of scientific inquiry and of a rationalism that hasn't a religious cell in its body. As someone who would not admit even to having a spiritual, let alone a religious, cell in my body, I was well disposed to like the book, but I have to say the genuine enjoyment it gave me was of a rather perverse sort.

In a wonderful, and tragically now largely neglected, essay on Homer's Iliad, Simone Weil describes her own and Homer's vision of human life in a memorable passage. She starts with these famous lines from the Iliad:

"She ordered her bright-haired maids in the palace/To place on the fire a large tripod, preparing/A hot bath for Hector, returning from battle./Foolish woman! Already he lay, far from hot baths,/Slain by grey-eyed Athena, who guided Achilles' arm."

Weil comments: "Far from hot baths he was indeed, poor man. And not he alone. Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths. Nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths."

Atkins' book is as far from hot baths as one can get, but Weil's point is not simply to delight in the bleak truth as she sees it but to apply that truth to bettering the human condition in the time in which the wild and wasteful universe affords us conditions that support our sort of life. This is what seems to be missing from Atkins' vision of what science has to offer.

He is of course right that there is, as he says in the last sentence of his book, joy in "true comprehension". However, saying so does not make it so, and Atkins shows definite signs of nervousness in constantly editorialising. The book is full of self-affirming expressions for his own approach, describing it fairly constantly as representing "true understanding" or "true comprehension". Atkins may well be right, but it would be nice to have been left to form our own conclusions.

Another recurrent resort is to an extreme reductionism, as in "that's all there is to natural change, spreading disorder" or "we should be aware that deep down we, like everything, are driven by purposeless decay: that is why we have to eat" or "Evolution is not about the purposeful acquisition of complexity: it is about the random generation of successful junk!"

Now, this is all fine rhetoric but there is more to natural change, to what drives us and to evolution than is dreamt of in Atkins' philosophy, at least as it is presented here. It is not that he is wrong, it is that he is a remorseless and ultimately rather negative reductionist - and, therefore, not right either.

In his chapter on death, Atkins relentlessly describes various scenarios for his own decomposition and gradual return "to dust" or its equivalent. Again, there is loving attention to gory detail, seemingly for its own sake, but Atkins neglects the powerful moral reasons there are for such reminders. Dead bodies are wonderful resources; they provide human tissue for research, for Atkins' beloved science and for therapy, and can deliver organs and tissue for transplantation.

These are the moral reasons to remind people that instead of the pointless insistence on burial or cremation or other "respectful" disposal, we need to take what Atkins might have thought was a "true understanding" of the realities of death and recommended the moral lesson that could deliver prolonged, if not ultimate, survival, if we make free and unfettered use of our dead bodies. It is both wasteful and wicked pointlessly to make a fetish of dead bodies, and it costs hundreds of thousands of lives every year.

Atkins finally gives us a lengthy eschatology, an ending and an epilogue. For the ending, he perhaps goes beyond what is strictly known, predicting ultimate nothingness with hesitant certainty: "Then the worst will happen, matter will probably decompose into radiation." So the worst will happen probably! The epilogue is perhaps more accurate, but again rather too gleefully bleak. We are offered repeated paragraphs in which we are successively invited to "lie back and think of...the creation...the biosphere...reproduction...death", told that this is all our forefathers could do and then treated to a summary of the Atkins diet. The last paragraph of all invites us to contemplate Atkins' "own faith, my scientific faith". The message is clear: we are fucked whatever we do!

On Being: A Scientist's Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence

By Peter Atkins

Oxford University Press 128pp, £10.99

ISBN 9780199603367

Published 17 March 2011

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