He is perhaps best known for he world-renowned textbook Atkins’ Physical Chemistry (11th edition, 2017) and Conjuring the Universe (2018). Here, he argues against the universe having a purpose, among other things and identifies the big questions as follows:
The first class of questions, the inventions, commonly but not invariably begin with Why. The second class properly begin with How but, to avoid a lot of clumsy language, are often packaged as Why questions for convenience of discourse. Thus, Why is there something rather than nothing? (which is coloured by hints of purpose) is actually a disguised form of How is it that something emerged from nothing? Such Why questions can always be deconstructed into concatenations of How questions, and are in principle worthy of consideration with an expectation of being answered.
I accept that some will criticise me along the lines that I am using a circular argument: that the real big questions are the ones that can be answered scientifically, and therefore only science can in principle elucidate such questions, leaving aside the invented questions as intellectual weeds. That might be so. Publicly accessible evidence, after all, is surely an excellent sieve for distinguishing the two classes of question, and the foundation of science is evidence…
I consider that there is nothing that the scientific method cannot elucidate. Indeed, we should delight in the journey of the collective human mind in the enterprise we call science.Peter Atkins, “Why it’s only science that can answer all the big questions” at Aeon
Peter Atkins vs Jonathan McLatchie debate: “Is there a God?” A friend writes to comment on Atkins’s “smarmy condescension.” Indeed. In an age when serious scientists wonder whether the universe itself is conscious—because they cannot otherwise account for intelligence in nature— it’s not clear what smarmy condescension would achieve.