On Being is the title of a small book by Peter Atkins, an English chemist and former Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, the author of a number of popular science books, including Atkins’ Molecules, Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science and On Being.
He addresses the fundamental “Gauguin Questions” of existence as a humanist and a scientist, eschewing religious and other supernatural attempts to provide answers to what we ask about our origins, our identity and our future. He has written and spoken on issues of humanism, atheism, and the incompatibility of science and religion.
Atkins realizes that many believe that the physical is not all there is, “but as we see no objective evidence for the non-physical . . . we cannot in all intellectual honesty accept its existence as plausible.” He views all supernatural religion as unsound thinking, and maintains that the only means of understanding reality is the scientific method.
The origin of the universe from a space-time singularity is a hypothesis that can account for the formation of galaxies, gravitational condensation into stars, stellar synthesis of atoms, and eventual formation of the solar system including our planet Earth. This is not a creation myth but a plausible account.
This is where we come from.
The biosphere with the appearance of organisms surviving and reproducing using the genetic code leading to evolutionary change by way of natural selection leads to species differentiation and eventually the present organisms that live on the planet.
This is who we are.
But like all organisms we are not immortal, and eventually die. With the end of consciousness we cease to exist and our bodies decay back into their constituent atoms. Atkins describes in detail the process of putrefaction of the body unless it is cremated. “We need to know that we are stardust, and are inescapably destined to decay”.
This is where we are going.
Belief in an “afterlife” is but wishful thinking. The author wonders how otherwise sensible and educated people cannot come to terms with the fact that death is extinction.
Like other stars, the sun too has a “life cycle” understood now in detail by astrophysicists. After the nuclear fuel is spent it will first expand and incinerate the earth, and eventually cool to a dense, black dwarf. What is more, the second law of thermodynamics envisages the eventual “heat death” of the universe, when energy has all been converted into heat and dissipated.
Atkins concludes by referencing his scientific faith, “that there is nothing that the scientific method cannot illuminate and elucidate. Its revelations and insights add immeasurably to the pleasure of being alive. The scientific method is a distillation of common sense in alliance with honesty, and its discoveries illuminate the world.”
I share his views, and believe his answers to the Gauguin Questions to be credible.