Brett Williams's Reviews > On Being: A Scientist's Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence

On Being by Peter   Atkins
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Reason at a cost

Author Peter Atkins wrote perhaps the most amazing science text ever written, a thriller from start to finish: Physical Chemistry 8th Ed. (Which, by that electrified version of the Pony Express, I received pristine from Malaysia for a bargain price!) Writer of over 70 books, it was with great anticipation this little volume would shed some light on ontological questions of growing concern in the creeping sense of meaningless modernity. Atkins put the kibosh to that early: “…as we see no objective evidence for the non-physical, but appreciate that there is a great and forceful sentimental longing for it, we cannot in all intellectual honesty accept its existence…”

But is this intellectual honesty, honest? Could it be that “forceful sentimental longing” is a clue to another reality, of human nature? Quite non-rational as compared to the rational nature of nature and the capacity of science to understand it. As Marcel Gauchet writes in his Disenchantment of the World, “The illogical solution to our illogical condition.” While Atikins (and his pal Dawkins) seethe over religious beliefs, practice, corruption, Intelligent Design, terrorism, etc. as mind closing dogmas (territory I’ve tramped myself through run-ins with Creationists), his prologue also closes the door on that spiritual aspect of humanity. Evidenced from the first temple at 10,000 year old Çatalhöyük, the 24,000 year old Venus of Laussel, or cave paintings at Lascaux 30,000 BC. This is not to say the gods are real, but the human nature they reveal is.

Atkins does provide new perspectives on old things. Creation can be seen as creation of nothing from nothing, given pairs of opposite charge yield a zero net charged universe. Easy. (Really?) Entropy’s disorderly decay is responsible for all that order we see – temporary as it is. He does a nice job with analogies of lifting weights to make things run, like DNA, ultimately with the sun as the heavy lifter. His description of cellular replication is a mind bender that makes a Newton and Einstein guy like me shake my head in wonder. And his description of rigor mortis (I’ve long puzzled over how that happens) made my skin crawl. I salute Atkins for communicating the joy of understanding, even though his comes with the required cost of denying another aspect of human nature.
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Reading Progress

December 14, 2017 – Started Reading
December 14, 2017 – Shelved
December 21, 2017 – Finished Reading

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