Thursday, April 16, 2015

The End of Science

Back in 1996 science writer John Horgan, then with Scientific American, released a book that created a major stir in the scientific community. In the book, titled The End of Science, Horgan argued that for the most part science had come to the end of the age of great discoveries and that all that was left was to fill in the details. As might be expected, scientists bristled at the idea that the golden age of their discipline was over, but Horgan remains unrepentant to this day, and his publisher has recently produced a new paperback edition of his book.

He wrote the following for the preface of the new edition defending his thesis:
Here’s what a fanatic I am: When I have a captive audience of innocent youths, I expose them to my evil meme.

Since 2005, I’ve taught history of science to undergraduates at Stevens Institute of Technology, an engineering school perched on the bank of the Hudson River. After we get through ancient Greek “science,” I make my students ponder this question: Will our theories of the cosmos seem as wrong to our descendants as Aristotle’s theories seem to us?

I assure them there is no correct answer, then tell them the answer is “No,” because Aristotle’s theories were wrong and our theories are right. The Earth orbits the Sun, not vice versa, and our world is made not of earth, water, fire and air but of hydrogen, carbon and other elements that are in turn made of quarks and electrons.

Our descendants will learn much more about nature, and they will invent gadgets even cooler than smart phones. But their scientific version of reality will resemble ours, for two reasons: First, ours… is in many respects true; most new knowledge will merely extend and fill in our current maps of reality rather than forcing radical revisions. Second, some major remaining mysteries—Where did the universe come from? How did life begin? How, exactly, does a chunk of meat make a mind?–might be unsolvable.

That’s my end-of-science argument in a nutshell, and I believe it as much today as I did when I was finishing my book 20 years ago. That’s why I keep writing about my thesis, and why I make my students ponder it—even though I hope I’m wrong, and I’m oddly relieved when my students reject my pessimistic outlook… So far my prediction that there would be no great “revelations or revolutions”—no insights into nature as cataclysmic as heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, relativity, the big bang–has held up just fine.

In some ways, science is in even worse shape today than I would have guessed back in the 1990s. In The End of Science, I predicted that scientists, as they struggle to overcome their limitations, would become increasingly desperate and prone to hyperbole. This trend has become more severe and widespread than I anticipated. In my 30-plus years of covering science, the gap between the ideal of science and its messy, all-too-human reality has never been greater than it is today.
Horgan is certainly courageous. The fate of Francis Fukuyama's thesis, published four years before Horgan's book, that with the defeat of communism history had come to an end, should give Horgan pause. After all, the history of science is littered with examples of people who said that we'd never be able to do or know something. In the 1800's, for example, August Comte claimed that we'd never know what the sun was made of. Just a few years after his death in 1857 spectroscopic analysis was invented and revealed that the sun was made mostly of hydrogen.

In our present day there appears to be a revolution brewing in science regarding the fundamental nature of the universe. For a couple hundred years it had been assumed to be fundamentally comprised of material stuff, but a lot of people today are having second thoughts about that. According to some, it looks as if matter is reducible to information which, if so, suggests that mind, not matter, is fundamental. If this idea catches on it would certainly produce a revolution in science comparable to the Copernican revolution, maybe even more revolutionary than that. Perhaps Horgan will be proven wrong after all.