I haven't read the book, so I can't say anything about it, but the article is interesting nevertheless. I don't think the end of science is anywhere near by, so I was already annoyed before I began to read. But after finishing, it turned out that Horgan's perspective is quite reasonable, or you could say scientific. In the last section he writes:
"I could simply be wrong - there, I've said it - that science will never again yield revelations as monumental as evolution or quantum mechanics. A team of neuroscientists may find an elegant solution to the neural code, or physicists may find a way to confirm the existence of extra dimensions."
I on the other hand have to admit that the question whether there are limits to our knowledge is a good one that I've asked myself. Repeatedly. Whenever I sit in a talk scratching my head.
Since there's been some fuss lately about the trouble with zing-zong theory, the fall of a science, and what goes next to the bottom of the ocean (glubglubglub), it is unsurprising that Horgan also comments on things that aren't even wrong:
"But some mysteries are probably unsolvable. The biggest mystery of all is the one cited by Stephen Hawking [...] 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' More specifically, what triggered the Big Bang, and why did the universe take this particular form rather than some other form that might not have allowed our existence?
Scientists' attempts to solve these mysteries often take the form of what I call ironic science - unconfirmable speculation more akin to philosophy or literature than genuine science [...] A prime example of this style of thinking is the anthropic principle, which holds that the universe must have the form we observe it because otherwise we would not be here to observe it. The anthropic principle, championed by leading physicists such as Leonard Susskind of Stanford University, is cosmology's version of creationalism.
Another example if ironic science is string theory, which for more than 20 years has been the leading contender for a 'theory of everything' that explains all of nature's forces. The theory's concepts and jargon have evolved over the past decade [...] but the theory comes in so many versions that it predicts virtually everything - and hence nothing at all [...]. This problem leads Columbia mathematician Peter Woit to call string theory 'not even wrong' in his influential blog of the same title [...]
Although Woit echoes the criticisms of string theory I made in The End of Science, he still hopes that new mathematical techniques may rejuvenate physics. I have my doubts."
(There is no mentioning of Peter Woit's and/or Lee Smolin's books in Horgan's article).
Well, I've extensively commented on the ironies of the anthropic principle elsewhere, so let me focus on the second point, that is the still to be found theory of everything. The fact that there hasn't been much progress in this regard during the last decades isn't necessary an indication for the end of science. To me it indicates instead that:
- a) Science has left the regime in which we strive to explain effects directly accessible to our own, build in, senses. We need particle colliders and telescopes up in the earth's atmosphere to reach the frontiers of our knowledge. This makes research more complicated, takes more time, and slows progress down.
There isn't much you can do about that, unless someone someone comes up with a pill that enables me to IR/UV vision or so. This limit however, indicates the inadequateness of our bodies to our mind's searches, and not a limit to our possible knowledge.
- b) We just aren't doing our research very effectively. There's no doubt that science on the frontiers has become more and more complex, but we're not dealing with it the right way. There's got to be some rethinking about scientific education and selection of research projects. Early specialization into subfields works well when the direction is clear, but likely to result in many dead ends otherwise. Having an overview on present research topics on the other hand is an underestimated value. It is underestimated not only in the educational process, but more importantly in the selection of researchers which (with luck) are also those teaching the next generation.
We should realize that the amount of stuff that can be pushed into the human brain in finite time is limited. It has to be choosen wisely. You might say it's a meta-problem that we have here: the neglect of scientific research on how to do scientific research. It goes hand in hand with the separation between science, sociology and philosophy that has taken place, the latter of which has historically always been close to the Whys and Hows of understanding nature.
- c) Hogan writes: "Just over a century ago, the American historian Henry Adams observed that science accelerates through a positive feedback effect: Knowledge begets more knowledge. This acceleration principle has an intriguing corollary. If science has limits, then it might be moving at maximum speed just before it hits the wall."
Well, all such unlimited growth scenarios only work under the assumption of infinite resources, which brings us back to a) the limits on our perception of nature and b) the finite number of researchers, and - sad but true - our own mortality. But besides this, such a statement is based on a dubious measure on the 'amount of knowledge'. I am actually not so much concerned with the 'amount' of it, but with the content of it.
Since it is in the nature of men to be curious, I don't see any end of science coming, not until we could literally explain everything that happens, will happen, and has happened - and bore ourselves to death. But I find it indeed possible that the human brain is just not capable to ever do this. It will most likely reach its limits before we get even close to the limits of knowledge that are invoven into the fundamental nature of the universe.
On the other hand, it would be sufficient if we were capable of understanding how to improve our own mind (biologically or technically), and thus kickstart evolution.
However, one way or the other, I don't think we have yet reached our limits, I don't even think we are remotely close by. But I think that we have put big obstacles in our way. If we don't succeed in removing them, then it doesn't matter if its a neurological, a sociological, or a financial end to science.
Proclaiming The End Of Science under the present circumstances for fundamental research is like proclaiming The End Of The Internet because you have seen a lot of dead links lately. It's a sign for inefficient organization, and missing maintenance, but there is much room for functionality to be optimized. So, don't sit around and read other people's blogs, but go look for the Theory of Everything, it might be just around the corner (but not on the internet, believe me).
Horgan ends his article with an suggestion that I want to echo here (though slighly off-topic), because it's a suggestion that I have made it myself repeatedly. He points out that "scientists might help find a solution to our most pressing problem, warfare. Many people today view warfare and militarism as inevitable outgrowths of human nature. My hope is that scientists will reject that fatalism and help us see warfare as a complex but solvable problem."
I share this hope. Even though it is in the human nature to defend one's own life and that of friends and family with violence when forced to, there is no way anybody can convince me this evolutionary imprint extends to modern warfare in which most of the battle is no longer face to face. Though war will probably always persist as the last and final option, there ought to be non-violent pre-stages to war that should be undergone prior to retreating to mass destruction.
War and terrorism happen if those who initiate it see no other way to pursue their goals, or defend their lifestyle. Terror is likely to come from countries who feel their interests aren't globally acknowledged, and are pushed into a corner where nobody listens to them. Follow that thought: What we need is a global government. Not some countries imposing their idea of civilization upon others.
TAGS: SCIENCE AND SOCIETY, ZING-ZONG, WAR