Saturday, November 24, 2018

Book review: “The End of Science” by John Horgan

The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age
John Horgan
Basic Books; New edition (April 14, 2015)
Addison-Wesley; 1st edition (May 12, 1996)

John Horgan blogs for Scientific American and not everything he writes is terrible. At least that’s what I think. But on Twitter or Facebook, merely mentioning his name attracts hostility. By writing his 1996 book “The End of Science,” it seems, Horgan committed an unforgivable sin. It made him The Enemy of Science. Particle physicists dislike him even more than they dislike me, which is somewhat of an achievement.

I didn’t read “The End of Science,” when it appeared. But I met John last year and, contrary to expectations, he turned out to be nice guy with a big smile. And so, with 22 years delay, I decided to figure out what’s so offensive about his book.

In “The End of Science,” Horgan takes on the question whether scientific exploration has reached an insurmountable barrier, either because all knowledge that can be discovered has been discovered, or because our cognitive abilities are insufficient to make further progress. There is still much to learn from and to do with the knowledge we already have, and we will continue to use science to improve our lives, but the phase of new discoveries was temporary, so Horgan’s claim, and it is coming to an end now.

After an introductionary chapter, Horgan goes through various disciplines: Philosophy, Physics, Cosmology, Evolutionary Biology, Social Science, Neuroscience, Chaoplexity (by which he refers to studies on both chaotic and complex systems), Limitology (his name for studies about the limits of science), and Machine Science. In each case, he draws the same conclusion: Scientists have not made progress for decades, but continue to invent new theories even though those do not offer new explanations. Horgan refers to it as “ironic science”:
“Ironic science, by raising unanswerable questions, reminds us that all our knowledge is half-knowledge; it reminds us of how little we know. But ironic science does not make any significant contributions to knowledge itself.”
The book rests on interviews with key figures in the respective field. I have found those interviews to be equal parts informative and bizarre. John’s conversation partners usually end up admitting that the questions they try to answer may not be answerable. Most of the researchers he speaks with don’t want to consider the possibility that science may be nearing its end.

John does, in all fairness, come across as somewhat of an ass. Here we have a man who has no higher education in any of the disciplines he writes about, but who believes he has insights that scientists themselves fail to see. It does not make him any more likable that the descriptions of his conversation partners in some instances are little flattering. I feel lucky it’s hard to tell the state of my teeth or fingernails by email.

He does an excellent job, however, at getting across the absurdity of what can pass as research these days. I particularly enjoyed his description of workshops that amount to little more than pseudo-intellectual opinion-exchanges which frequently end in declarations of personal beliefs:
“Rössler unburdened himself of a long, tangled soliloquy whose message seemed to be that our brains represent only one solution to the multiple problems posed by the world. Evolution could have created other brains representing other solutions.

Landauer, who was strangely protective of Rössler, gently asked him whether he thought we might be able to alter our brains in order to gain more knowledge. “There is one way,” Rössler replied, staring at an invisible object on the table in front of him. “To become insane.””

The book touches on many topics that I care a lot about and I have found some of Horgan’s criticism hard to read, not because the book is badly written, but because – I guess – it’s not what I like to hear. I may have written a book about the problems in my own field, but the very reason I find the situation so frustrating is that I believe there is more to discover.

The 2015 edition of “The End of Science” has a preface in which Horgan recaps the past 20 years and emphasizes that, true to his predictions, fundamental science hasn’t moved. I got away with the impression the reason he encounters so much hostility is because no one likes people who make bad predictions and end up being right.


[You won’t be surprised to hear that I have several points of disagreement with Horgan’s argument, but want to discuss those in a separate post.]

128 comments:

Matthew Rapaport said...

Sometimes a discipline just goes through slow periods, even a few generations. There has been lots of progress over last 20+ at the intersection of theoretical science and engineering in solid state physics for example.. So really depends on where you draw the line

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Horgan isn't concerned with applications of already existing knowledge, he is asking for fundamentally new laws of nature. Exactly what he means by that remains unclear, as he himself admits in the afterword. As a physicist of course I would argue that you can discover fundamentally new laws only in physics :o)

Zathras said...

I read the book when it first came out, along with Lindley's End of Physics, which is also quite good. I came away from those books convinced that theoretical Physics was at a hard limit to its progress. Since then, I think the limits are soft rather than hard, more a function of how theory is done these days, but I am more convinced than ever that no real progress will be made in my lifetime, given how entrenched the way of doing things is right now.

Fernando said...

Perhaps we are entering a period where a lot of the new technologies, based on the most advanced physics principles, will led to new investigations of deeper physical principles. This is an optimistic view based on the past history of science (the understanding of the principles of electromagnetiism led to many new technologies which in turn led to the discovery of deeper physical principles). Of course, these cyclic developments are superimposed. Furthermore, physics progress includes pure formal developments, such that the formalisms are better understood and re-expressed in more suggestive ways which also led to new discoveries (e. g. variational principles in classical physics).


M_Malenfant said...

Though I share a lot of the critique of problematic trends in physics and science in general I regard such 'end of ... ' claims as defeatist and arrogant.
First it is difficult to agree on a definition of fundamental, and without it everything can be dismissed as not sufficient fundamental.
Second, there is no guaranteed timeline for progress. There may be long periods of slow progress and without obvious major fundamental breakthrough. But this would not hinder later findings.
I regard it as not surprising, that progress measured in new fundamental theories slows down - our world would have to be rather chaotic otherwise.
On the other hand I don't see that this means an absolute end. To me the very idea of a world without any really new insights is depressing - it would be a dead world in some way. And it might be a hopeless world, for the problems not solvable now would stay unsolvable.
While this does not assure further progress, also the absence of progress is not assured.
I also see a relation here to the often targeted final, complete theory of everything, which then would prevent any further fundamental insight. I never understood why achieving this target should be 'the holy grail'.
Or better it is: never really found, only approached, the way and what is achieved following it is the target. Then it is not that frustrating that any progress turns out as modest in hindsight and failing to reach the ultimate target receding into infinity, as long as we proceed.

Matt Grayson said...

Just as Leon Lederman may not have been responsible for the title "The God Particle", Horgan may not have really meant "The End of Science". Nevertheless, they must be judged by their publications, and John will never, to me, mean anything serious again. Nothing he can say can make up for such a ridiculous Thesis Statement. I'm sorry, because he might have had something useful to contribute.

Filippo Salustri said...

The claim is that scientific development is stopping / has stopped. Perhaps part of the reason for the popularity of the claim is a certain relativism in the face of the rapid acceleration of other technological and social changes. That is, the progress of science appears slower because everything else is changing so much faster than it used to.

It may also be that we've just hit a wall that's more based on our own evolution; and that someday we'll evolve enough to "see" beyond the limits we perceive today.

In other words: Never say never.

(Full disclosure: I've always thought Horgan was a schmuck.)

jim_h said...

Maybe in the end it's a matter of what we think of - or accept - as an 'explanation'.

JimV said...

I assumed he must be "asking for fundamentally new laws of nature", since otherwise he has no case at all, but that means his title is deliberately misleading. The new treatments for cancer that we didn't have ten years go aren't science? LIGO isn't science? Discoveries in molecular biology and neuroscience and quantum computing aren't science? Climate studies aren't science? There is more work for scientists right now than ever before in our history.

That anyone could and did make money writing such a thesis for popular consumption and to influence the choices of young students is the worst thing I have read today. (To be fair, I haven't read any Trump or other news stories today.)

Steven Mason said...

Sabine wrote: I got away with the impression the reason he encounters so much hostility is because no one likes people who make bad predictions and end up being right.

You see, another delightful example of Sabine's American sense of humor.

It's been many years since I read "End of Science," but I remember my general reaction: It's way too soon for anyone to claim that we've reached the end of science. It's fine to acknowledge the possibility that we're reaching some kind of limit, but there's no reason to dwell on that possibility. I'm fond of saying that we need to give it another 200 years before we start to worry about lack of progress or limitations. In the meantime, we have plenty of other things to worry about over the next 200 years, namely, our welfare as a species. If we mess things up for ourselves and the planet, the end of science will be a moot point.

Sabine wrote: He does an excellent job, however, at getting across the absurdity of what can pass as research these days.

Comedian Paula Poundstone had an amusing podcast called "The Poundstone Institute," in which she pokes fun at absurd scientific research (something she often did as a guest on the popular game show "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me."

Every year, Ig Nobel prizes are awarded to the most absurd scientific research.

Sabine wrote: You won’t be surprised to hear that I have several points of disagreement with Horgan’s argument, but want to discuss those in a separate post

I don't take Horgan's main premise seriously enough to feel "hostile" to it. If I read the book again, I'm sure I could find specific points of disagreement, but I don't take him seriously enough to bother. I'm curious to see which parts of his argument you want to discuss.

Will Horgan's "bad prediction" turn out to be right? Or will science vindicate itself with a reference to Mark Twain? "The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Rolf said...

> John does, in all fairness, come across as somewhat of an ass.

What?! Are u out of your mind? A journalist who expresses a provocative, over a period of 20+ years successful, thesis, comes across as an "ass(hole)"?!
Please explain why this is.

Steven Kurtz said...

As I commented weeks ago, Horgan is weak on biology-ecology. We learn new stuff there every year it seems, mostly about the negative feedback from a quadrupling of our numbers in one century and the manyfold increase in techno-leverage in harvesting resources we desire. It is a steeper climb than the climate hockey stick graph. He has been techno-optimist about humans coping with biodiversity loss, resource bottlenecks and overloaded waste sinks. Similar optimists include Rosling, Lomborg, and Pinker. They are masters at cherry-picking statistics!

Unknown said...

Some 20 years ago I was editting physical and cosmological chapters of the Polish translation of Horgan's book and I didn't like the job. I have similar impression as Sabine that Horgan is "a man who has no higher education in any of the disciplines he writes about, but who believes he has insights that scientists themselves fail to see". I've met a lot of similar people and I can tell that they are right very rarely.

Michal

Ian Miller said...

I think it is easier to say, "We are at the end," than to say there is more to come, because if you say there ear more paths to pursue, you have to indicate where they are. "We are at the end," is a little lazy.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Matt,

I don't understand why you say it's ridiculous. I don't think it is. Could you please explain your thinking?

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Filippo,

I don't know why you say everything else is changing so much faster than it used to. I think that's not the case. This is a quick summary which basically gets it's right.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

jim_h

There are certainly ways to water down what we mean by "explanation" and that's exactly what we see happening in physics right now. But from an instrumentalist's perspective it's pretty clear what science is about, it's about useful ideas, where useful means describing what we observe. You can't talk your way out of this.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

JimV,

First of all, it's not actually Horgan's thesis, it's a point that has been raised by various other people before and after him. The first time I read about this was actually in another book "Impossibility: The Science of Limits and the Limits of Science" by John Barrow, though this was published after Horgan's book. I reviewed Barrow's book here (sorry for the link rot). I vaguely recall thinking it's not particularly well written.

Second, I don't understand your comment about discouraging students and so on because Horgan addresses this in his book, clearly stating why that is certainly not the intention he has. Did you read the book?

Third, he also comments on the other points you raise with the exception of climate studies. On that account though I don't know what you think is new about this. Gravitational waves, as you probably know, were predicted 80 years ago and indirectly discovered 40 years ago. It's good to measure them directly, but it's hardly a new fundamental insight.

Yes, we've gotten better at curing cancer, and we have developed new vaccines, but it's also clear that the pace of new cures has slowed down (books about this here and here). Personally I think a good case could be made that immunotherapy is a genuinely new idea. Horgan doesn't comment on that.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Rolf,

I did explain it.

JimV said...

the·sis
noun
1.
a statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved.
synonyms: theory, contention, argument, line of argument, proposal, proposition, idea, claim, premise, assumption, hypothesis, postulation, supposition
"the central thesis of his lecture"

If it is a thesis he presents and argues for in a book he authored, i.e., the thesis of his book, it may not be solely his thesis, but I think it is fair to say it is his thesis. But I don't get to make the semantic rules here, so okay, it is not his thesis.

I also don't see how it could fail to discourage some young students from hoping to accomplish something in a science career to be told that science is ending. Also, lay people who fund science in governments and elsewhere could be given the impression that there is nothing worthwhile to fund, especially nothing of a radically new nature. I have not read the book and don't plan to, but I got a negative impression from the title and from your review. The point of a review is that I don't have to read the book to estimate whether it is worth reading.

For me, science is what scientists do which requires their expertise and increases human knowledge. New things have been learned from LIGO's data (combined with electro-magnetic data from the neutron star event). If he acknowledges the things which I cited but claims they are not science or that there will be no more of them a hundred years from now (assuming our civilization lasts that long, which I don't think it will unless science is given more respect) I feel that he is misleading the public. We are not at the stage where we only need to measure parameters to another decimal point, and in fact are much farther from that point than we thought we were over 100 years ago.

If I were a scientist and had the funding, I would like to do the following experiment to try to get evidence for or against a random element in the decision-making process biological evolution has produced:

Make several identical sandboxes filled with identical sand. Stack them vertically with gaps inbetween to eliminate latitude and longitude as factors. Select several forager ants of the same species and suspend them in padded tweezers a few centimeters above the centers of the sandboxes. Drop them all at the same time and record their paths with overhead cameras. If the paths diverge widely around 360 degrees, I will claim this as evidence of a random factor. If they all have about the same path, I couldn't claim that. Science--it's unending.


Filippo Salustri said...

Sabine,
"Innovation" isn't the same as "change".
Besides things like Moore's Law and so on, between the 50s/60s and today, and given the speed with which information is spread today, and the rate at which attitudes are changing. Women's rights, equity & diversity, etc. have changed (for the better) MUCH more in the last 20 years than in the 20 years before that. Fads and trends come and go faster than they did too. The "news cycle" is (unfortunately) much faster than it used to be too.
At least, that's how I've perceived it.

naivetheorist said...

bee:

"no one likes people who make bad predictions and end up being right.". i don't understand this sentence. if a prediction turns out to be right, then it's a good prediction - unless by bad, you mean a prediction that something bad is going to happen. is that what you meant?


naive theorist

marten said...

Cogito ergo scientia est.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

JimV,

I meant to express that the idea that the discovery of fundamentally new laws may only proceed for a limited time is not originally Horgan's. He is very clear in the book about this.

I also said that he is not quite as clear about what he means by fundamental.

You can always continue to produce and test new knowledge by looking at larger systems and differently composed systems. This you can continue to do basically until you run out of stuff in the universe to combine. This is why certain areas of science will continue to flourish whether or not Horgan is right. Material science is an obvious example. There are loads of materials to make and study. Or bioengineering. Molecular biology. Likewise, it will take a really long time to map out all observable exoplanets. And so on. It's not that there is nothing left to do.

You don't have to read the book to estimate from a review whether it's worth reading, but if you want to criticize the argument that is made in a book, I think you should first find out what the argument is to begin with.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

naive theorist,

bad prediction = prediction of bad things to come (in this case: science ending)

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Fillipo,

What I am saying is that the slow-down is real, regardless of whether or not the pace of the news cycle has increased.

Your remark about women's rights is somewhat odd given that the changes that happened a century ago were much more significant than anything that happened thereafter.

Filippo Salustri said...

Sabine,

I don't deny the slowdown is real. What I was suggesting is that it may not be as rapid as it seems.

As for your women's rights comment - yes the biggest changes happened long ago; before I was born. However, the smaller changes I've seen and read about, especially here in N.Am., have been escalating more quickly. The wage gap arguably continues to exist at least in some sectors/companies. Casual sexism continues to impact many women in a "death by one thousand cuts" way. Indeed, "casual sexism" (per Google Trends) has been a growing term of interest that didn't seem to exist before ~2009.

While the impact of changes like women's suffrage are huge, the changes we're seeing today - at least in my part of the world - thought perhaps not as large are occurring more often.

At least, again, that seems to be the case. I have done no hard research here and am only offering an opinion.

Arun said...

What is the timeline of progress in the theories of gravity after Sir Isaac Newton?

JeanTate said...

Bee, you wrote: "Yes, we've gotten better at curing cancer, and we have developed new vaccines, but it's also clear that the pace of new cures has slowed down"

I have a personal interest in this topic, and I think your gloss is too simplified (I'll limit my comments to just "cancer cures").

First, prevention is, arguably, more important than cures, and here the really hard parts are in the domain of public health ... how do you develop a "cure" for obesity, for example?

Second, cancer is far better understood today than just a decade ago. With that better understanding has come the realization that "cancer" is far from homogeneous; it would not be incorrect to say, for example, that it's over 200 different diseases, not one. Viewed like this, the pace of new cures for some cancers has sped up, dramatically; for others, there's been no change in pace; and yet others, essentially zero progress at all.

Last, for now, the rate of increase of new drugs and treatments for cancer, approved by the FDA here in the US, has in fact grown over the past decade or so (i.e. the opposite of what you said), and shows no sign of slowing down. Yes, some of these new things may turn out to be not much help in reducing mortality and morbidity; equally, some may turn out to have dramatic effects ... for at least some cancers.

Jim Cross said...

Is scientific truth like Zeno's tortoise, something we get closer and closer to but never reach? Horgan seems to be saying we are now close enough to the tortoise that we see the markings on its shell.

You can dispute this in two different ways:

1- We're nowhere near the tortoise even though maybe we've pulled a muscle and don't feel like we're moving so quickly now.
2- Scientific truth isn't like a tortoise and could change radically in the next hundred or two hundred years.

Most disputing Horgan seem to be opting for #1. Does anyone like #2? Are there other options?

If you like option #1, you are implicitly accepting the argument that there will be an end of science and only questioning how close we are to it.

Matt Grayson said...

Bee,
A little hyperbole in a book title is forgivable. I find the level of hyperbole in "The End of Science" offensive. Again, this is a complaint about the title as click-bait. The book's actual thesis requires numerous qualifications, and that makes the title even less palatable. A book titled "The End of Civilization" should not be about the difficulty of parking in San Francisco. (Hyperbole in a blog comment obviously doesn't bother me!)

Steven Kurtz said...

As there is no evidenced boundary to reality, I opt for #2. It is hubris to assume that a TOE is about "everything" as humans are limited in the inputs obtainable with our senses and instruments. Even if a theory seems to cover all that we can perceive and measure, it is a leap of faith to call that "everything."

Steven Mason said...

Sabine wrote: women's rights . . . changes that happened a century ago were much more significant than anything that happened thereafter

That would make an interesting political history discussion. I grew up in the 1950's and 60's, when it wasn't illegal for employers to discriminate against women, when abortion was illegal, when prostitutes were jailed but their customers weren't, and a husband could get away with abusing his wife, up to a point. This was in the United States. Of course, abortion in Ireland changed this year.

I've heard it said, sometimes with humor, that the most significant change for women's freedom was The Pill.

senanindya said...

I read Horgan's book in the early 2000's and found it a welcome antidote to the grandiose blatherings of Stephen Hawking and his copycats.

I think he was spot on about fundamental physics and cosmology - those subjects are and were in deep stagnation.
He also exposed "complexity theory" for the joke it was.

I don't agree with his assessment of biology though. He seems to take the stand that *only* the theory of evolution and discovery of DNA are fundamental breakthroughs.Surely, that is too strict.

But in any case, an enjoyable book and a necessary contrary voice to the "everything is exponentially accelerating" hype we usually hear.

Marco Masi said...

I didn't read the book, but from what I read here I have no problem to accept both perspectives. On one side one can accept that our cognitive abilities are indeed insufficient to understand the ultimate essence of physical reality and that science is not the ultimate tool of knowledge to understand it. On the other side, to conclude from that, that science is coming to an end is a bit too farfetched. Science will continue to make lots of discoveries and also find new principles. But the homo sapiens cognition will always be left with that (more or less unconscious and unwilling to admit) uneasiness that we are only scraping a surface.

Peter Shor said...

After reading Horgan's book, I had the feeling that no matter what the state of a scientific field was, he would be able to come up with justifications for his belief that no more fundamentally new discoveries would be made in it.

And since you can't predict fundamentally new discoveries in advance, he would generally be correct until he was proven wrong.

And searching his blog, it looks like he has either ignored or dismissed one truly remarkable discovery in artificial intelligence which has happened since his book—deep learning. Maybe my Google search abilities have failed, but I don't see any positive comments he has made about it, and the few occasions on which he mentions it, he dismisses it as being overhyped and not all that remarkable. (In my opinion, it is indeed overhyped, but it is also truly remarkable.)

Anton Stampfl said...

Dear Sabine,

I stumbled across your work and this blog just today. I'm getting back into reading the scientific literature now after at least a good 15 years. I've worked as an experimental physicist since 1983 in condensed matter physics mostly using large facilities. I've been put off reading scientific literature because of the grandiose title catching styles much are written in. Over the last decade I do feel that the publication cycle is totally out of control. There is this funny dance that institutions and publication houses do together in order to chase money. Of course science and scientists become just fodder for this truly insane activity. So titles like "the end of the world/science/physics", to other such recycled titles as "deep science through neural pathways" and other idiotic titles that the literature is filled seems to me to be a result of scientists wanting advancement and keeping their jobs than anything else. Content has to some level become totally meaningless.
I don't for one thing that science is dead. I think though that genius only comes once every few hundred years. The genius that perhaps you are alluding to. I also think that the universe is much more strange than we are even capable of imagining. After all we are human and therefore limited. Let's face it we don't understand our world and we are the ones wanting and searching for reasons and answers. I'm not sure whether there should be answers or reasons. Anyway, what I see is the beginnings of a revolt, mainly from younger scientists against the current status of publishing which I think is totally ruining scientific endeavour.

Best wishes, Anton Stampfl

Lawrence Crowell said...

It strikes me as a bit much to say nothing has progressed at all. I agree that it may be that with foundations with quantum field, gravitation and cosmology that progress is dicey. After all we are trying to tie the smallest of physical systems, say the Planck scale, with the largest scale that is the universe. We have some idea about the nature of the cosmos, in particular with inflation. Though inflation strongly suggests the multiverse not much has come of that. We may in the coming decades find that evidence for quantum gravity and cosmology theories is more indirect, and we may be forced to give up the gold standard of 5-sigma.

Limits are all around us, and our world is faced with limits of energy growth and environmental depletion. We are demolishing the natural biological life support system of this planet, and no matter how great our science we can't devise some form of alternative food the planetary biosphere provides. The entire human condition through this century may be framed with increased limits as we become more set in a zero sum game. Even worse, we may be in a growing negative sum game at some point. What ever scientific understanding of the universe, whether that is some grand paradigm supported by at least oblique evidence or just a confusing nest of quibbles, that may be at hand by the middle of this century. Even socially we seem to be entering an age of confusion, where since Kelly Conway on Trump's team declared they had "alternative facts" it appears we are in what some call the "post truth" age. Dark ages happen, and I suspect by the end of this century we may be plunging headlong into one. It will not be a triumph of any ideology or politics, but a time of collapse and disintegration. There will be no more science.

That scenario may be averted of course if the current political and social trends are reversed, and we get people at the helm who know what the hell is going on and what they are doing. I would not hold my breath on that.

Steven Mason said...

Steven Kurtz wrote: Even if a theory seems to cover all that we can perceive and measure, it is a leap of faith to call that "everything."

I agree. What do you think about applying that same logic to justify being an instrumentalist?

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Peter,

I had a similar impression. As I said above, Horgan is vague on what he means by fundamental, so he always has a way to back out unless someone goes and indeed overthrows general relativity or something.

I thought deep learning dates back to the late 80s, early 90s? I seem to recall people discussing it then, just that computers weren't good enough for it to have much of an impact.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Dear Anton,

I certainly hope you are right with the revolt. The tragedy, however, is that while the younger scientists are more likely to be dissatisfied, they are in a far worse position to make any change. It's an issue I've been discussing back and forth with people both up and down the latter. The ones on the top could change the situation, but they have no reason to. The ones on the bottom have all the reason, but they would risk killing their chances of doing any research. It goes in the literature as "collective action problem" and it's notoriously difficult to overcome. Best,

B.

naivetheorist said...

bee:

Peter Schor commented that AI is ignored by John Horgan as a scientific field. That's probably because AI is NOT (as Feynman said of computer science) science at all. it's engineering.

and you tweeted that:

by "foundations" I refer to those fields studying the currently most fundamental laws of nature, that's the structure of elementary matter, space, and time.

this definition would make chemistry less fundamental than physics (and virtually no philosophy of science department or philosophy of science journal includes chemistry amongst the fields it covers which seems quite wrong to me (but i'm a theoretical chemist focused on soft matter so i have my own bias regarding that view).

best regards,

naive theorist.

Fat Man said...

"Personally I think a good case could be made that immunotherapy is a genuinely new idea."

I had a client (I am a lawyer) that was trying to commercialize an immunotherapy product in the early 1990s.

"‘The Breakthrough’ and ‘The Beautiful Cure’ Review: Spurring the Body to Fight Back
Scientists have learned how cancer tricks the immune system—opening up new possibilities for research and, crucially, for treatment. David A. Shaywitz reviews “The Breakthrough” by Charles Graeber and “The Beautiful Cure” by Daniel M. Davis.
https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-breakthrough-and-the-beautiful-cure-review-spurring-the-body-to-fight-back-1542153943

"The idea that we might have within us the ability to fend off cancer can be traced to William Coley, an inquisitive young surgeon who in 1890 had just started his internship at New York Hospital."

Biology has been on a curve that was a couple of generations behind physics. Watson and Crick published their paper in 1953. They were awarded the Nobel prize in 1962. In the 65 years since the original paper, a lot has been learned. But, it seems unlikely that very much of the picture that has emerged will be overturned. It will be elaborated to be sure. And technologies based on it (such as immunotherapy) will be developed.

I read Horgan's book when it was published. I liked it. As I remember it, he was applying the law of diminishing returns to scientific research. The reward for a further investment in research falls with each successive step along the path, and cost of the next step compounds. I believe he said that CERN would be the last particle accelerator. The next one would be insanely expensive and the increasingly insolvent governments of the major countries could not afford it.

And, indeed what fundamental advances have we seen since then. Is there a string theory?

Thomas Larsson said...

There is a quantitative way to describe the end of theoretical physics: for the first time since 1902, there is currently no active physicist with a Nobel prize working on fundamental theory.

This statement requires some definitions; what is fundamental, and who is active. I arbitrarily define active to mean somebody below the normal retirement age of 67. What is fundamental changes of course with time. In the beginning of the 1900's, it was ether theory, then relativity, QM, particle theory, and now perhaps string theory or BSM physics. In 1902, ether theorist H A Lorentz won the Nobel prize, and earlier this year Frank Wilczek, the youngest of the fathers of the SM, turned 67. So no active fundamental theorists with a Nobel prize left.

Steven Kurtz said...



If this means "flying blind," then I'd say it's somewhat of a leap of faith. Applying theories known to work on observables is ok if one assumes reality is the same beyond our perceptive reach. But that caveat needs to be a qualification in my view.

Instrumentalism - Wikipedia
Instrumentalism is an interpretation within the philosophy of science that holds that a successful scientific theory reveals nothing known either true or false about nature's unobservable objects, properties or processes.
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Peter Shor said...

@nativetheorist:

You say "Peter Shor commented that AI is ignored by John Horgan as a scientific field. That's probably because AI is NOT (as Feynman said of computer science) science at all. it's engineering."

In John Horgan's blog post where he talks about his new edition of The End of Science, he says

"I go on to review the status of physics, biology, neuroscience and chaoplexity (my coinage for chaos and complexity, the hype of which has been repackaged under the label "Big Data"). Neither these nor any other fields, I contend, has yielded discoveries that contradict my end-of-science prophecy (although the startling discovery in the late 1990s that the expansion of the cosmos is accelerating comes closest)."

Deep learning certainly belongs to the field of "Big Data", which John Horgan claims to cover in that quote. And the fact that deep learning works is a huge discovery that has overturned the foundations of the field.

Some of the professors I hang out with at MIT are working in fields near deep learning. And what I hear from them is that there are big problems with much of the current research. There is clearly way too much hype. There are an enormous number of papers coming out in the field (way, way too many for any mere mortal to read), the vast majority of which are not very interesting, and many of which are irreproducible. Nobody really understands yet why deep learning works so well, and it behaves in some very counterintuitive ways which show that the hype is overstated.

But is this situation that different from current research in particle physics, where we have hundreds of papers coming out "explaining" every little glitch in the SSC data? One will probably be able write a great book about exactly what happened after the discovery that deep learning worked so well, analyzing what has gone wrong with the scientific method in this modern era of ultracompetitive research; it's probably too soon to do so, though—it will be a better book if you wait until after some of the current confusions have been sorted out.

Plasmoid Anomalies Study Group said...

There is no end to Science.

If for the "simple" Natural numbers there is no complete finite axiomatic system and in any of such finite axiomatic system the set of independent(unexplainable) truths is a lot bigger than the set of probable(explainable) truths, it will be wishful thinking and shortsighted to think that Reality will behave "better" and a finite set of principles or paradigms will be enough to explain any aspect of Reality.

The scientific endeavor is never-ending but dogmatic and detached from Reality approaches always will reach a wall and that is what had been happening for a while now, people thinking that theories had precedence over empirical evidence had been the leaders of organized science and their policies are at the root of all the stagnation and empty speculation in theoretical physics.

In the same way that new ideas and insights in Mathematics will come from a constant "exploration" of mathematical models, fundamentally new discoveries and insights in Science will always come from a constant observation and testing of Reality and nothing can replace this basic fact.

Mighty Drunken said...

Does it matter if we have reached the end of discovery of "fundamental new scientific laws"?.
The "theory" of music, literature and Lego have not changed much recently but people will still build great, amazing new music, books and Lego sculptures. With biology and solid state physics we might understand the fundamental physical laws very well but we still have a huge amount to learn and build on.
Though it would be nice to understand the Universe a bit more. What is this "dark matter" stuff!?

Steven Kurtz said...

Another blog post just appeared which is on topic:

https://quantumfrontiers.com/2018/11/25/theoretical-physics-has-not-gone-to-the-dogs/

John Horgan said...

I'm enjoying this discussion of my book. I'd like to respond to Peter Shor's comments on deep learning. My thesis is that science will not yield any more insights into nature as deep as evolutionary theory, the double helix, quantum mechanics, relativity the big bang and so on. Advances in AI, per se, don't contradict my thesis, any more than advances in, say, telescopes. If AI/Big Data lead to fundamental insights into complex emergent phenomena, notably the brain and mind, THAT would contradict my thesis. This is what the chaos and complexity enthusiasts were saying when I wrote my book. They turned out to be wrong, and I predict that they will continue to be wrong for the foreseeable future. What I find especially silly is the claim, made by Martin Rees and others, that AI will enable machines to pursue science on their own. I discussed this possibility in my book but treated it as a kind of science fiction.

jim_h said...

Maybe physicists could create an image of progress by using AI's marketing strategy: just move the goalposts to the current location of the ball.

Steven Mason said...

Steven Kurtz wrote: Applying theories known to work on observables is ok if one assumes reality is the same beyond our perceptive reach.

In your previous comment you said, "Even if a theory seems to cover all that we can perceive and measure, it is a leap of faith to call that 'everything.'" The same insight can justify instrumentalism: it's a leap of faith to assume theories reveal anything about unobservables (i.e. reality beyond our perceptive reach).

In fact, I've been meaning to see if I can find any difference between instrumentalism and model-dependent realism.

Steven Mason said...

There are three main points in the blog article referenced by Steven Kurtz:

Nicole Halpern wrote: Science requires criticism to progress. So thank goodness that Smolin, Woit, Hossenfelder, and others are criticizing string theory. Thank goodness that the criticized respond. Thank goodness that debate rages, like the occasional wildfire needed to maintain a forest’s health.

In this comment, Halpern is expressing a fundamental principle of science.

Nicole Halpern wrote: John Horgan wrote that “physics, which should serve as the bedrock of science, is in some respects the most troubled field of” science. The evidence presented consists of one neighborhood in the theoretical fraction of the metropolis of physics: string and multiverse models.

So, when talking about the "trouble with physics" or the "end of science," we're talking about "one pot in the greenhouse of theoretical physics" (Nicole Halpern apparently likes to use metaphors).

Nicole Halpern wrote: theoretical physics, on the whole, remains healthy, grounded, and thriving . . . any flaws of string theory do not mar all theoretical physics . . . besmirching theoretical physics can divert students from programs that can benefit the economy and nurture thoughtful citizens

This remark raises three questions. First, who, if anyone, is "besmirching theoretical physics"? Halpern doesn't point any fingers in her article. Second, how can we tell the difference between besmirching and healthy wildfires? Third, is there any evidence that students are being "diverted" from physics?

Steven Mason said...

John Horgan wrote: What I find especially silly is the claim, made by Martin Rees and others, that AI will enable machines to pursue science on their own. I discussed this possibility in my book but treated it as a kind of science fiction.

In two hundred years, we'll probably be capable of things considered science fiction today. I've heard Martin Rees speak about advanced machines in a few hundred years, not anytime soon. Is it this speculation you find especially silly?

John Horgan wrote: If AI/Big Data lead to fundamental insights into complex emergent phenomena, notably the brain and mind, THAT would contradict my thesis. This is what the chaos and complexity enthusiasts were saying when I wrote my book. They turned out to be wrong, and I predict that they will continue to be wrong for the foreseeable future.

How do you define "the foreseeable future"? When we speak in terms of centuries, is the future foreseeable? Did some individuals in the AI/Big Data field claim that we would discover fundamental insights into emergent phenomena like the mind and consciousness in a mere couple of decades? If some individuals make bold and optimistic claims, how seriously should we take them? If we have failed to solve the mysteries of mind and consciousness in the past couple of decades, should we consider that a failure?

As long as your predictions aren't contradicted, you can claim they are "correct." You and I are about the same age, and maybe you will be "correct" for the rest of our lives. But I don't think that proves anything, and that's why I don't take your thesis seriously. We have to give ourselves a reasonable amount of time, not jump to conclusions about the "end" of anything. If we're at the end, only time will tell.

Let me offer a quote from Darwin: "Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject my theory." (This quote is an early precursor to the "God of the Gaps" and "irreducible complexity" arguments often used by Creationists.) As you know, one major problem with Darwin's theory was the age of the Earth. At the time it was put at no more than 100 million years, not enough time for evolution. Another major problem was species similarities on different continents, before we understood continental drift. There were other problems such as fossil gaps, so-called missing links, DNA, etc. Anyone could have "predicted" Darwin's theory was wrong as long as these major problems were unexplained. When there are problems, it's easy to make such predictions.

Someone might point out that the problems with Darwin's theory are being solved while the problems with theoretical physics are not being solved. To that I would point out that different problems get solved at different rates and in different ways. To solve problems with Newtonian mechanics, we had to "overturn" it, so to speak. It's way too early for anyone to "predict" with any certainty that we've reached the end of science or theoretical physics.

Koenraad Van Spaendonck said...

John Horgan said :

"What I find especially silly is the claim, made by Martin Rees and others, that AI will enable machines to pursue science on their own. I discussed this possibility in my book but treated it as a kind of science fiction."

If machines can rewrite their own programming code, then they will do a lot more then that on their own, at some point in the future, no?

Steven Kurtz said...

I think Steven Mason and I agree. He omitted my "caveat" sentence about "assuming" conditions of unobservables.

Thomas Larsson said...

In the 1980's I worked for a startup company selling an AI-related product. The company eventually went bankrupt, but we did have a cool slogan:

Artificial intelligence is better than none.

Peter Shor said...

@John Horgan: First, let me say that I enjoyed your book immensely, and I agree with your fundamental thesis that science is eventually going to "end", in the sense that scientific progress will slow down and drift to a standstill.

However, let me also say that if you let one of the players keep the score, they have an enormous advantage in the game.

I count three revolutions in the fields analyzed by John Horgan.

(a) In evolutionary biology, one of the fundamental tenets of the field has been overthrown. This tenet was that the only way we inherit traits from our parents is through our DNA sequence. Epigenetics shows that this is not true. I assume that this doesn't count because it was only a minor twist on known science, and /or it will probably have only a relatively small impact on medicine and the life sciences.

(b) In Big Data, in a revolution that is still in progress, starting around 2007-2010, we discovered that deep learning brings pattern recognition without understanding. This apparently doesn't count because it's engineering and not science, despite the fact that Horgan in his new introduction scoffed at WIRED Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson's 2008 prophecy that computers would be able to "predict and manipulate phenomena without having to comprehend them." Horgan says, talking about the 2008 Great Recession, "Anderson suggested that Big Data can yield power without comprehension, but Wall Street's computers didn't yield either." A scientific/engineering revolution is a scientific/engineering revolution even if it can't be applied to Wall Street.

(c) In cosmology, we have discovered that the universe is made of 4 percent normal matter, 22 percent dark matter, and 74 percent dark energy. This isn't a revolution because ... it's not quite as revolutionary a discovery as the Big Bang?

And in condensed matter physics, there is a fundamental revolution currently going on associated with topological phases of matter. This has already yielded one Nobel Prize, and I expect it will yield at least one more in the next few years. But this apparently doesn't count as evidence that science hasn't ended because it's not in one of the few fields that Horgan chose to consider at in his book.

Science in many fields is currently alive and kicking.

Michael John Sarnowski said...

I still say that the emphasis on research in masters and doctorate programs needs to be dropped. There are too many people going into these programs. Education for doctorate programs should be more like physicians where they go to medical school for 4 years and then if they want to do research it should be another 3 years after this. There is not nearly enough statistics taught. This is the way research is done, which irritates me to no end. Someone, in a doctorate program, does a study on fish oil. They conclude fish oil does no good for pimples, or whatever. Well there are over 100,000 other human conditions. By coming out with a headline like this, it makes it look like we should abandon fish oil. Basically all we did with this research was got somebody a degree, but overall decreased human knowledge. With so many people getting doctorate degrees we are coming up with a whole bunch of research that is too narrow to do any good, but it is touted to be science, and then all the people who believe in evidence based politics get on a bandwagon, even though the evidence is always from studies that are too narrow to actually improve society.

Marco Masi said...

John Horgan wrote: "If AI/Big Data lead to fundamental insights into complex emergent phenomena, notably the brain and mind, THAT would contradict my thesis." That is one of the points I always make as well, glad to see that I'm not alone and definitely have to read your book. If we look back there are lots of 'big science' projects which did not meet the original expectations made at the time of their inception. But we tend to forget that and continue to pursue it steadfastly. This because we believe to know what the fundamental principles on which these emergent complex phenomena (such as intelligence, consciousness, biological processes, etc.) are based on. Then we extrapolate and build on that superficial understanding huge scientific and technological initiatives, which however fail to deliver what we hoped for because it turns out that something was more complicated than expected. Instead of admitting that we do not understand how, at the bottom, these complex phenomena work and don't admit that it is, therefore, futile to hope to replicate it, we delude ourselves telling us that it is only a matter of time and that another 20-30-50 years of research are needed, and then ... voila'... we will get there. It will not work out that way.

Being perhaps even more radical than Horgan I predict that we won't even have level V self-driving cars anywhere soon either. In 50 years cars will still have steering wheels. We can glorify the advances of neuroscience, AI and deep learning as much as we like, but we still have a much too superficial understanding on what is going on in our heads, even only in performing simple tasks as driving. We simply don't know ourselves.

JeanTate said...

There's an aspect of this "End of Science" idea I find quite troubling.

Science isn't solely about developing radically new foundational theories; look at two new developments in the past few years: FRBs (Fast Radio Bursts) in astronomy, and the dramatic drop in the biomass of insects in a small region of Germany. Without scientists being constantly curious about the world around us, irrespective of developments in the unification of QFT and GR, say, would there be anything for the theorists to work with?

Is there anyone (other than Trump groupies) who thinks, and says, that eliminating observational science is justified? Does anyone working on foundational theories advocate such a thing? Of course not. So how could there possibly an End to Science?

It's not hard to think of examples of possible, nearish future, revolutions in science, as yet barely describable. One example: a discovery of an early (or existing, e.g. Europa, Titan) form of carbon-based life utterly unlike what we know of here on Earth (perhaps earliest might be from analyses of rocks brought back from Mars).

Another part of this End of Science discussion which is, I feel, borderline repulsive. If you have a PhD in physics, it's entirely possible for you to get a very good, science-based, job in a research hospital, as a radiation oncologist, for example. As I see it, there's no end anywhere in sight for the science involved in Medicine and Engineering, even if they're not called Applied Science.

Perhaps a hard-core hep physicist utterly disdains ecology as a science, but maybe their children will look more kindly on it when they cannot eat the shellfish their parents enjoyed (ocean acidification will likely wipe out most salt-water shellfish species).

JeanTate said...

I'd also like to chime in on the "AI" discussion.

For all those who have commented on this aspect, how many of you have actually got your hands dirty with some actual AI/Machine Learning/Deep Learning? From the comments so far, my guess would be almost no one.

If - like me - you have the opportunity to take part in an AI(etc)-based project, in your scientific field (mine? extragalactic astronomy), do take it. I confidently predict that you will be quite surprised ... and in a much better position to evaluate and comment on the hype (including that by John Horgan).

Steven Mason said...

Peter Shor wrote: I agree with [Horgan's] fundamental thesis that science is eventually going to "end"

But Horgan is claiming that it's already ended, not that it's "eventually" going to end. Either way, I don't see how these "predictions" are useful, because they don't change anything. We're still going to do science, including theoretical physics. It makes absolutely no sense to give up, and I'll say it again: It's way too early to conclude we've come to the end, or even that we'll eventually come to the end.

For hundreds of years in Europe, Christians were in a near-perpetual state of expectation for the Final Judgment. Predictions about the End Times were a dime a dozen. It's easy to understand their pessimism, with constant waves of invaders, famines and plagues. Today there are prophets warning us about another kind of End Times, the End of Scientific Revelations. To that I say, "Okay, I hear you, but now let's get back to work."

Every year there are economists who predict that the next recession, depression or financial crisis is right around the corner. They point to all sorts of evidence for their claims. Once in a while some of them are bound to be right.

I remember back in the 1970's, when each year the newspapers published the predictions of psychic/astrologer Jeane Dixon. Of course the newspapers were only publishing the small number of predictions that turned out correct, while ignoring the vast majority of predictions that were erroneous.

I'm not comparing Horgan to Middle Age doom prophets or modern-day psychics. Horgan's predictions are based on his interpretation of facts. However, embedded in his interpretation is extrapolation and speculation. Even if we take Horgan's prediction seriously, what are we supposed to do with it? We're going to keep plugging away at fundamental science.

Horgan reminds me of the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story, The Emperor's New Clothes. Except in this version, Horgan predicts that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes even before he steps into the street. But that ruins the entire moral of the story. The story works only when the boy waits for the emperor to enter the street. Similarly, making claims about the end of science only works when you give it at least another two hundred years. It's not possible for Horgan - or anyone - to foresee what we'll discover in the next two hundred years.

I like to speculate as much as the next person. It's fun to consider all the possibilities. There's a possibility that there won't be any more scientific revelations, a possibility humans will never find evidence for extraterrestrial life, a possibility humans will never colonize other planets outside our solar system, a possibility the human species will become extinct long before our sun begins to die, a possibility that we'll mess things up badly for ourselves and the planet over the next 200 years, a possibility for the End of Wars, Hunger and Disease, a possibility that humans will experience another Renaissance over the next 200 years, and so on. Books have been written about all of these possibilities.

Steven Mason said...

Jean Tate wrote: There's an aspect of this "End of Science" idea I find quite troubling . . . borderline repulsive.

I'm not troubled or repulsed because, as far as I can tell, the notion that we're reaching an end of science, or having trouble with physics, is not having a significant negative impact on science or physics. There's a lot we need to improve, but we'll continue to plug away. Horgan can sell a million copies of the new edition of his book, but it won't make any difference to science.

For me, the "end of science" is just a possibility, and there's no reason to take it seriously. I keep repeating the obvious fact that it's way too early to jump to conclusions. How many people will decide not to pursue scientific research just because Horgan - or anyone else - predicts there won't be any more "truly profound scientific revelations"? When Einstein worked at a patent office, did he expect to find a scientific revelation? Did anyone in 1900 expect that a scientific revelation was required? In 1900, would predictions about revelations, for or against, have made any difference?

jim_h said...

@Steve Mason, yes, people are still going into careers in science - even in physics, despite the recent gloomy news. Maybe that's part of the problem, and it's really about the economics of science - the allocation of resources, and the return on investment.

In recent decades, a huge amount of money and talent has been expended on things hat haven't panned out. You could say that's just how it is with basic scientific research, but it seems like the ratio has gone up to the point that physics looks like an investment bubble; it's attracting too much capital, and invested it in too many highly speculative ventures.

After a bubble comes a crash, and a shakeout.

Anton P.J. Stampfl said...

Dear Sabine,

many thanks for your prompt email response to me directly. I wasn't expecting any. As I can't reply to your email (" ") I do it here, even though this isn't the best place for such a reply.

You replied saying: " ...The tragedy, however, is that while the younger scientists are more likely to be dissatisfied, they are in a far worse position to make any change. It's an issue I've been discussing back and forth with people both up and down the latter. The ones on the top could change the situation, but they have no reason to. The ones on the bottom have all the reason, but they would risk killing their chances of doing any research. It goes in the literature as "collective action problem" and it's notoriously difficult to overcome..",

I think scientists by their very nature are much of the time dissatisfied independent of age or gender.

I think change is already here to some level. Arxiv (as well as other pre/post-print servers) are well patronized and they provide persistent url (handle proxies) that are electronically referable. Many scientists already do cite arxiv work using these digital handles in their own works.

Its really only a small step to reviewing such deposited articles. The potential energy barrier isn't colossal to my mind. Once such steps are taken, and take root, what's the point of publishing in a ridiculously bumped up journal that one has to take years to publish one article in.

best wishes, Anton

Unknown said...

Mr. Horgan refers above, and and in his book "The End of Science," to "emergent phenomena" and cites life, intelligence and consciousness among these. (Dr. H. also uses that term.) I wonder whether "emergent phenomenon" isn't equivalent to "And, then a miracle occurs" in the blackboard calculations of a scientist in the old New Yorker cartoon. If we replace "emergent phenomenon" with "magic" how do we know any less as a result of doing so? The most baffling mysteries, e.g. consciousness,seem "science proof." (The same with, for instance, our perception of beauty.) "Emergent phenomena" often sounds like a pseudo-scientific term palmed off by scientists to disguise their bafflement. Why not use a term more widely available, such as "magic" or "miracle." These seem to offer at least the same explanatory power.

Steven Mason said...

jim_h wrote: physics looks like an investment bubble; it's attracting too much capital, and invested it in too many highly speculative ventures

I'd need to know more details, starting with Big Picture data. For example, of all the resources being spent in all scientific fields (that's a lot of fields), what percentage is spent on physics research, and what percentage of that is spent on theoretical physics? Diving deeper, what percentage of the resources spent on theoretical physics hasn't "panned out," and what percentage is "highly speculative"? Going further, where is the capital coming from? How much of it is public and private? If we look at public capital, which government agencies are allocating public resources to theoretical physics, and what criteria are they using? What do the world's leading scientific organizations say about public funding for physics?

Besides our natural curiosity to understand matter and energy, I'm guessing there are other reasons we pursue theoretical physics. For example, ever since Einstein's theory led to atomic energy and nuclear weapons, everyone loves and fears theoretical physics. No advanced nation wants to lag behind and miss out on the next big discovery. The next big discovery could affect the global balance of powers, for better or worse.

On the other hand, if there is so much pressure to engage in theoretical physics, and if the stakes are that high, how can any nation tolerate going about it so perversely and inefficiently, as Sabine points out?

The next big discovery wouldn't necessarily have to be as big as Einstein's, nor would it necessarily have to overturn Einstein, as Einstein overturned Newton. I'm just referring to the next big discovery in our understanding of fundamental physics, or even a breakthrough in, say, the physics of battery technologies or fusion power. Horgan says there won't be any more big discoveries. Maybe he's right, but can any advanced nation afford the risk that Horgan might be wrong?

These are questions that all rich, advanced nations have to answer for themselves: What percentage of our resources should we spend on basic scientific research, and how should our investment be allocated?

By the way, in light of all the talk about colonies on the Moon and Mars, I consider those kinds of space programs to be a part of the resources we spend on scientific research. Obviously, such programs need to be part of the discussion. That being said, if one nation colonized the Moon and Mars, it's hard to imagine that other nations wouldn't react to it as a matter of national and global security. Trump has been talking about militarizing space, in response to Russia's and China's militarization, which sort of reminds me of Reagan's Star Wars program in the 1980's. I consider this to be a part of the resources we spend on scientific research. It all counts.

What percentage of our scientific budget are we spending on defending ourselves against military threats? Defense against military threats is important, but even if it's necessary it's hard not to shake one's head at the colossal waste. Why hasn't the human race, or at least the advanced nations, evolved beyond militarization? We really don't deserve the "sapiens" part of homo sapiens. The philosopher John Gray would probably say we should be called homo raptores (John Gray says that humans are a hopelessly rapacious and destructive species).

Yes, I understand that some beneficial technologies come out of weapons research, but the stakes are getting unmanageably high. If we get to the point when small, fanatical nations (or groups) can acquire powerful weapons, it's a whole new game.

So, how does the money we spend - and waste - on theoretical physics figure in all of this?

Lawrence Crowell said...

@Steve Mason,

It is hard to know whether historical experience with science and its impact on society has a strong bearing on the future. It might, but nothing is assured.

Space travel and further ideas of colonizing space have little impact on space science. Observations and measurements in the deepest of space and the universe by space based systems does not require humans. Planetary explorations so far work with robots and rovers.

Humans in space and such programs may only be justified in industrial and economic terms. At this time it appears that maybe solar power satellites at geosynchronous orbit and asteroid mining of NEAs seems plausible. Still no credible argument with a positive return on investments has been presented.

Trump’s “space force” probably will go down in the thick and growing annals of boondoggles. It would be far preferable to prevent aggression in space through treaties and agreed intelligence operations.

scientious said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Mason said...

Lawrence, you make good points and I agree with most of them.

Lawrence wrote: Humans in space and such programs may only be justified in industrial and economic terms.

Speaking of which, NASA likes to point to thousands of technologies they developed. Here are 15 of them:

1. CAT scanner: this cancer-detecting technology was first used to find imperfections in space components.

2. Computer microchip: modern microchips descend from integrated circuits used in the Apollo Guidance Computer.

3. Cordless tools: power drills and vacuum cleaners use technology designed to drill for moon samples.

4. Ear thermometer: a camera-like lens that detects infrared energy we feel as heat was originally used to monitor the birth of stars.

5. Freeze-dried food: this reduces food weight and increases shelf life without sacrificing nutritional value.

6. Insulation: home insulation uses reflective material that protects spacecraft from radiation.

7. Invisible braces: teeth-straightening is less embarrassing thanks to transparent ceramic brace brackets made from spacecraft materials.

8. Joystick: this computer gaming device was first used on the Apollo Lunar Rover.

9. Memory foam: created for aircraft seats to soften landing, this foam, which returns to its original shape, is found in mattresses and shock absorbing helmets.

10. Satellite television: technology used to fix errors in spacecraft signals helps reduce scrambled pictures and sound in satellite television signals.

11. Scratch resistant lenses: astronaut helmet visor coating makes our spectacles ten times more scratch resistant.

12. Shoe insoles: athletic shoe companies adapted space boot designs to lessen impact by adding spring and ventilation.

13. Smoke detector: Nasa invented the first adjustable smoke detector with sensitivity levels to prevent false alarms.

14. Swimsuit: Nasa used the same principles that reduce drag in space to help create the world’s fastest swimsuit for Speedo, rejected by some professionals for giving an unfair advantage.

15. Water filter: domestic versions borrow a technique Nasa pioneered to kill bacteria in water taken into space.

JeanTate said...

Unknown wrote: "I wonder whether "emergent phenomenon" isn't equivalent to "And, then a miracle occurs" in the blackboard calculations of a scientist in the old New Yorker cartoon."

It doesn't. Or perhaps better, maybe you can find some instances where it is, effectively, equivalent to "magic", but they are rare.

But maybe you have some concrete examples that we could look at, if for no other reason than to show that your gloss is wrong?

Unknown said...

@Steve Mason,

You largely consider what are called spin-offs. These are fine, but they were not the major purpose of manned space programs. The Apollo program to the moon was largely a cold war program to demonstrate technological superiority over the Soviet Union. The space shuttle was a middling gap program to keep a federal program going until such time some purpose was found for it. The current ISS space station is a sort of space based diplomatic system appropriate for the post-cold war world, but that world is being ripped apart by President t'Rump. So what's next? Who knows, and we may be at a sort of "peak astronaut" with respect to the future.

Spin offs from these big programs, which include military developments as well, could in principle be developed on their own. Generally this tends not to happen because either you are going to develop these technologies at universities, thus entailing the politically risky choice of much larger spending on education, or you are going to have these developed by corporations. Corporations function to externalize all possible costs, whether that be research and development or disposal of the wastes they generate. So the reason we have commercial technologies developed through military programs, such as large passenger airplanes spun off from WWII, or things such as the space program. Corporations tend to scoop up research at universities or labs and place their patents on them. Pharmaceutical companies are cynically notorious for doing tis. Large programs with military or manned space applications gather support largely because there is some power competition with other nations. Large programs that lack this, such as the US supercollider etc, struggle to get federal dollars.

The future of mtanned space programs would it seem appear to rest upon whether there are technological and industrial results of a direct nature with space. This means there is no other means to achieve them except in space, and where there is some positive return on energy and financial investment.

Unknown said...

To Jean Tate:
Our perception of Beauty is one example. "Beauty" could be defined as an emergent phenomenon of our human neurology. But, that would assume that physical processes we could understand simply create this perception the way, say, winds create "sculptured" formations in the American Southwest. But, we have no good definition of what Beauty is, let alone what causes it. I find Bach tedious but my neighbor finds Bach sublime. Mahler transports me but offends the person next to me. A mathematician is blissful with his numbers while others see scribbling on a white board. Is Beauty an emergent property of the brain? To me, this single instance in and of itself is too complex to ever be understood in terms of known physical processes. So, we might disguise our ignorance by referring to our sense of Beauty as "an emergent phenomenon." I cannot imagine any combination of pure physicality to explain why I find Faulkner's prose beautiful but that of Harper Lee off-putting. It is hard to find an evolutionary advantage in appreciating "The Sound And the Fury" more than "To Kill A Mockingbird." My guess, and it is only that, is we will never understand the origin of Beauty so long as we regard it as an "emergent phenomenon" of chemicals and neurons.

Steven Mason said...

Unknown wrote: Why not use a term more widely available, such as "magic" or "miracle." These seem to offer at least the same explanatory power.

It's not a matter of using terms that are "more widely available." Rather, it's a matter of using the correct term, and "magic" or "miracle" do not mean the same thing as "emergent phenomenon." Specifically, "magic" and "miracle" involve speculations about supernatural factors. When a scientist doesn't know, she'll say she doesn't know. She won't speculate about magic or miracles.

While it's true that "emergent phenomenon" doesn't have any explanatory or predictive power, it signifies that the observable phenomenon appears to be far greater than the sum of its observable parts.

Everyone's heard Arthur Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." But of course that doesn't mean that advanced technology is the same as magic. One is natural and one is supernatural. "Emergent phenomenon" refers to a phenomenon that is "sufficiently advanced" to "baffle" us, at least until our scientific knowledge is sufficiently advanced.

Unknown wrote: The most baffling mysteries, e.g. consciousness, seem "science proof."

I can't imagine how you could support that opinion. After all, we are no longer baffled by many things that baffled us before. I'd much rather admit that I don't know than pretend to know that we can or can't solve the baffling mystery of consciousness. In any case, we're going to keep trying to solve the biggest mysteries, and a bunch of smaller mysteries too. Pointing out that some mysteries seem science proof is not going to change anything. The best tool we've got for understanding phenomena is science. No other approach comes close.

On the other hand, I once knew a physicist who claimed that science could never solve the mystery of consciousness, but meditation could. Meditation would put us in touch with cosmic consciousness. In other words, she believed in panpsychism. Some people might call that the hive mind of the Borg. :-)

Steven Mason said...

Unknown wrote: I find Bach tedious but my neighbor finds Bach sublime.

Beauty is not absolute or universal. Most of it seems to be a matter of conditioning and circumstances. Moreover, conditioning and circumstances can give us a survival disadvantage. Our evolutionary advantage - a programmable brain - can also be a disadvantage.

Even on an individual level, notions of beauty can change with time, conditioning, and circumstances. For example, the first girl I fell in love with was unattractive for the first year I knew her. She became beautiful only after I fell in love. Of course my sisters still thought she was unattractive and often told me so, but once I saw beauty, there was no going back. In fact, her physical attractiveness continued to increase over time as we became closer. For me, the transformation was almost like the famous double image called My Wife and My Mother-in-Law. Suddenly I saw a different person.

And we've all heard how beer goggles can change how people look. :-)

Steven Kurtz said...

To: Unknown

I suggest you are ignoring experiences since conception as factors in your physical development and subsequent evaluative filters. Feedback loops are continuous in living systems. Your tastes are formed by a combination of your heredity and environmental inputs. No mystery!

scientious said...

@Unknown

> Mr. Horgan refers above, and and in his book "The End of Science," to "emergent phenomena" and cites life, intelligence and consciousness among these.

It is common for people who don't have an explanation to use the term "emergence". Apparently, it feels better than just saying "I don't have a clue." To be honest, I've never heard anyone give an actual example of emergence except for trivial examples that can be refuted with 30 seconds worth of thought. I'm not a biologist so I won't address life, but emergence can be disproved in regard to intelligence and consciousness.

> The most baffling mysteries, e.g. consciousness,seem "science proof."

There has been a lot of progress in the past few years that you wouldn't be aware of. There is a good chance that this will be solved within the next year.

scientious said...

@Steve Mason

> 2. Computer microchip: modern microchips descend from integrated circuits used in the Apollo Guidance Computer.

I'm not sure how you figure that. Modern IC chips were made at Fairchild in 1960. The actual logic used with the NOR gates in the Apollo Guidance Computer was the same as DEC used on its PDP series. The difference was that DEC built flip chips out of individual transistors and resistors because it was cheaper and space and power draw weren't issues. NASA used IC chips because cost wasn't a factor whereas space and power draw were. As the cost of IC's came down everyone used them more. So, although NASA was an early adopter, they did nothing to develop or hasten the use of the technology.

scientious said...

@Steve Mason

> While it's true that "emergent phenomenon" doesn't have any explanatory or predictive power, it signifies that the observable phenomenon appears to be far greater than the sum of its observable parts.

If you truly believe that the term "emergence" has a practical use, perhaps you could name something that is more than the sum of its parts. As I've already mentioned, I've yet to hear an example that couldn't be easily refuted.

Unknown said...

To Steve et. al:

Science does seem to use "emergent property" as magic. For instance, our host, Dr. H., is a reductionist. Any physical phenomenon can be understood by reducing it to its smallest components. But, when confronted with mind, life or beauty, physicists reject reductionism in favor of the rhetorical crutch of "emergence." Well . . who is right here? Emergence does not work elsewhere in life. Would you believe me if I told you "I have a thousand individual dollar bills but when I combine them they become greater than the sum of their parts and thus turn into one million dollars?" I chose Beauty as my example because, so far we we know, no other species perceives beauty -- only utility. If Beauty granted an evolutionary advantage then one would expect it to be perceived by most living things -- and this is not the case. A sense of humor is also a thing that seems impossible to reduce to physical causation. One could just as well argue that because one understands how radio circuitry makes sounds that this fact explains Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. In the middle of the last century I was struck by the writings of J.W.N. Sullivan (the John Horgan of his day!) who wrote "The Limitations of Science" on quantum physics and "Beethoven: His Spiritual Development." This combination of the appreciation of the divide between physicalism and spiritual creativity stayed with me for sixty years. Perhaps that is why I write as I do -- and why I am suspicious of both reductionism AND emergence. Regards and thank you for noting my mite.

Steven Mason said...

Steven Kurtz wrote: I suggest you are ignoring experiences since conception as factors in your physical development and subsequent evaluative filters.

If you're a Scientologist, it begins before conception. :-)

scientious said...

@Unknown

> I chose Beauty as my example because, so far we we know, no other species perceives beauty -- only utility. If Beauty granted an evolutionary advantage then one would expect it to be perceived by most living things -- and this is not the case.

No. I don't think it is universal but you can find examples of this in other species. Wolves and a number of bird species come to mind.

Steven Kurtz said...

To Unknown:

Re:
" I chose Beauty as my example because, so far we we know, no other species perceives beauty -- only utility. If Beauty granted an evolutionary advantage then one would expect it to be perceived by most living things -- and this is not the case. "

Take away language/concept/definitions, and beauty is simply a desirable sense perception! Bees like smells, sights... Female peacocks like showy male fan tails. To say that utility displaces aesthetics is an arbitrary decision on your part. Philosophy is not an agreed upon fixed discipline either!

JeanTate said...

@Unknown: look at how much progress has been made on understanding our perceptions of color, and that of other critters too. Very early days re beauty.

A much more interesting case of "emergent phenomena" - at least from my perspective - is how classical physics "emerges from" quantum physics. Here too a lot of progress has been made in the last ~century, but lots of mystery remains!

jim_h said...

@Unknown said " Would you believe me if I told you "I have a thousand individual dollar bills but when I combine them they become greater than the sum of their parts and thus turn into one million dollars?"

It's more like saying I combined a million dollar bills and suddenly beautiful music filled the room.


Steven Mason said...

Unknown wrote: Science does seem to use "emergent property" as magic.

Repeating the claim that emergence is equivalent or similar to magic or miracles will not persuade anyone. If you're going to persist, could you please address my point about magic and miracles involving the supernatural while emergence falls within the natural realm? Could you address my other point that emergence is not intended to have any explanatory power? I've already explained what it signifies, so please address that.

You can't arbitrarily and unilaterally decide what words mean. Emergence means one thing, magic and miracle mean other things.

Unknown wrote: Would you believe me if I told you "I have a thousand individual dollar bills but when I combine them they become greater than the sum of their parts and thus turn into one million dollars?"

Observing is believing. If I gave you a thousand dollars and you put it inside an empty box, and two seconds later the box contained a million dollars, I would certainly want to study that. Likewise, if you tell me you've got an ordinary box that turns lead into gold, I'd want to study that too. Of course, if you were a professional magician and this was the kind of trick you performed in your shows, there would be no reason for me to study the phenomenon. Obviously it would be an engineered trick. In fact, this is precisely why physicists don't devote their careers to investigating magicians.

Unknown wrote: One could just as well argue that because one understands how radio circuitry makes sounds that this fact explains Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

In your analogy, I assume that Beethoven's Fifth is a metaphor for consciousness and radio circuitry is a metaphor for neurons. Unfortunately for you, your analogy supports my argument, because there are, after all, perfectly natural explanations for radios and music. No magic or miracle is involved.

Not to nitpick, but your analogy is not all that good. There is no dependent relationship between radios and music, while there is a dependent relationship between neurons and consciousness. Unless you're suggesting that consciousness exists outside of the brain, and our brains are like radios that detect and amplify external signals. That reminds me of people who wear tin foil hats to protect against external mind control. Can we construct a hat that will cause us to lose consciousness? :-)

Unknown wrote: Any physical phenomenon can be understood by reducing it to its smallest components.

That's a reductionist oversimplification of scientific reductionism. In the context of understanding phenomena and creating useful models, reductionism refers to our search for fundamentals. You mention the "spiritual." How can that help us understand and model phenomena? If you want to say that science isn't perfect, I won't quibble with you. But science is the best tool we've got for understanding phenomena. If you've got something better, tell us about it.

Steven Mason said...

scientious wrote: If you truly believe that the term "emergence" has a practical use, perhaps you could name something that is more than the sum of its parts.

I didn't say that emergence refers to something that IS more than the sum of its parts. I said emergence "signifies that the observable phenomenon APPEARS TO BE far greater than the sum of its observable parts."

As descriptors go, I think emergence is useful, but if you think it has no descriptive value, why should I try to convince you otherwise? The usefulness of descriptive terms is largely a matter of personal taste.

When I was young I used to mock people who used all sorts of descriptive terms for wine, partly because my grandfather raised me on inexpensive jug wine and it all tasted pretty much the same. It wasn't until middle-age that I began to really appreciate wine, and then it was useful to get familiar with some descriptive terms.

In any case, the main points I was making to Unknown is that emergence is not the same as magic or miracle and it's not intended to have explanatory power. Unknown is presenting straw man arguments.

Steven Mason said...

Jean wrote: A much more interesting case of "emergent phenomena" - at least from my perspective - is how classical physics "emerges from" quantum physics.

In that case I would prefer to say that classical physics can be derived from quantum physics in certain circumstances. But I wouldn't complain to someone who prefers to say it emerges. When it comes to communication, the important thing for me is mutual understanding. It would be boring if everyone always used the same terms. :-)

Also, I suppose I think of emergence as complexity arising from simplicity, while classical physics (simplicity) arises from quantum physics (complexity). But I wouldn't say your usage is incorrect. Vive la difference!

Steven Mason said...

jim_h wrote: It's more like saying I combined a million dollar bills and suddenly beautiful music filled the room.

What was the tune that filled the room?

Was it "We're in the Money" by the Gold Diggers? "Money" by Pink Floyd? "She Works Hard for the Money" by Donna Summer? "Money, Money, Money" by Abba? "Take the Money and Run" by the Steve Miller Band? "Money Changes Everything" by Cyndi Lauper? "What Do You Do For Money Honey" by AC/DC? "Free Money" by Patti Smith? "Did You Steal My Money" by The Who? "Money Money" by Grateful Dead? "If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time" by Willie Nelson? "It's Money That I Love" by Randy Newman? "Money Machine" by James Taylor?

Enquiring minds want to know.

Unknown said...

To Mr. Kurtz, et al.

Thank you,most sincerely, for taking note of what I wrote -- I am astonished at the responses. But . .. no, Beauty is not just "a desirable sense perception." In my (much) younger days I was an avid skier and would spontaneously note, without any desire, how splendid a snowy pine forest looked toward sunset. I did not seek this perception and it did me no possible evolutionary good. Humor is even more baffling -- it exists as irony, burlesque, farce and other genre. (Do peacocks have a sense of irony?) I return to my original point: reductionism is the usual outlook of science until it no longer produces explanation. At that point, science takes refuge in "emergence" -- a word with no better explanatory power than "voodoo." Finally, if, as one commentator noted, we have an explanation within a year or so of how dead matter produces self-awareness then I, for one, will crawl to Stockholm on my hands and knees to see the Nobel prize awarded!

Steven Kurtz said...

Unknown wrote:

But . .. no, Beauty is not just "a desirable sense perception."

SK: I can add "pleasurable" to desirable. Please tell us how your subjective experiences go beyond that! And why do you capitalize beauty? Are you envisioning your emotional responses as Platonic ideals? You seem to be treading close to the current snowflake position which turns feelings into the "end all" of value and ethics.

Unknown said...

I capitalize Beauty because I use the term here as a proper noun.

I am FAR too ancient to be a snowflake!

You have broadened the definition of Beauty to include "Pleasurable" and "Desirable." Must we be quite so Skinnerian? Beauty can also be found, by some, in certain (praiseworthy) ethical conduct. Does this, then, reduce ethics to merely what is pleasurable?

(And, as re the commentator who suggests that Beethoven's music is reducible to "perfectly natural explanations" then why hasn't he used this "naturalism" to produce a similar body of work? Or, for that matter, anyone else?)

I stand by what I said: I only see "emergence" cited in those instances where there is actually no better explanation. What we don't understand we try to de-mystify by calling a name (emergence.) They do the same sort of thing in Haiti.

Steven Kurtz said...

Unknown has created his own definition of "proper noun." There is nothing else I can do to respond other than to quote the old saying: beauty is in the eye of the beholder!

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/proper_noun
https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/proper-noun
https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/proper-noun

Filippo Salustri said...

I'm a bit confused by all this discussion about "emergence." There's a fairly extensive literature on emergence in complex systems that's quite precise regarding how one recognizes emergence properties and behaviour. There are a variety of non-technical and quite brief documents Out There that are sufficient to give one a general overview without investing much time or effort. I'd've thought this would be sufficient to establish a baseline definition of the term that pretty much everyone could at least accept for the sake of discussion.

Steven Mason said...

Unknown wrote: I would spontaneously note, without any desire, how splendid a snowy pine forest looked toward sunset. I did not seek this perception and it did me no possible evolutionary good.

You are describing an instance of pleasure-seeking, and not only is that an evolutionary good, it is an evolutionary necessity. Regardless of whether you're consciously aware of it, you seek pleasure in what you drink, eat, wear, do, the environment you occupy, your sexual partners, etc. When skiing, you are utilizing your pleasure-seeking capacities at a high and healthy level. Skiing is healthy for you, both physically and mentally.

Unknown wrote: I am astonished at the responses

Dude, it's my turn to be astonished. How could you possibly claim, or expect us to believe, that you had "no desire" to ski, when skiing is virtually the poster child of pleasure-seeking? When it comes to skiing, desire for both the activity and the environment is the name of the game. Show me an "avid skier," and I'll show you someone who gets a hell of a lot of pleasure out of skiing and - very likely - a lot of pleasure from other physical activities too. You really can't see the obvious evolutionary advantages?

Telling us that your enjoyment of skiing offers no evolutionary advantages is like telling us avoiding foods that taste like poison offers no evolutionary advantages. Pleasure-seeking is the reason we prefer not to starve, freeze, or put our hands on hot stoves. So why does it baffle you if the same pleasure-seeking mechanisms extend to skiing?

As for enjoying a sunset, it's never just about the sunset. There are a thousand factors in one's response to a sunset. In fact, with the right kind of conditioning, it is possible to make someone feel a great deal of discomfort and fear about sunsets. For such a person, sunsets might signal the arrival of danger, loss of safety, threats in the dark, etc. Or, for a person like me who lives in California, the spectacularly colorful sunsets we had recently are the result of horribly destructive fires. Most people regard the moon, and moonlight, as a beautiful sight. But not people suffering from selenophobia. For people who fear the night, the "beautiful" line, "She walks in beauty, like the night," is not so beautiful.

Do you scratch your head over why young animals play-fight with each other? Do you ponder over why dogs like to run? How about when young children play active games like tag and jump rope? Does it mystify you why most people prefer living near fresh water rather than in a desert? You can't fathom why spending a weekend skiing among pine trees and snow might be a beneficial break from the concrete, noise, distractions, chair-sitting, dirty air and stress of your daily city life?

Multiple studies have demonstrated that humans are healthier and happier if they have the opportunity to interact directly with nature. Does this surprise anyone? I suppose it's possible that humans could learn to adapt without ever interacting with nature, but I doubt we'd be better off.

Humans have the capacity for abstract thought, so naturally we put abstract labels like "beauty" on the things that give us pleasure. Humans have the capacity to organize things and find patterns, as well as a desire to imbue everything with meaning and purpose, so naturally we create just-so stories about abstract concepts like beauty. If animals - or amoebas - were capable of abstract thought, they'd invent the concept of beauty too. Even amoebas are pleasure-seekers in their own way, without a brain or nervous system.

Since this thread is supposed to be about the end of science, or the trouble with physics, I'm not sure I should continue to participate in this digression, even though it's interesting. In fact, yes, this will be my last post on this topic.

Steven Mason said...

Unknown wrote: science takes refuge in "emergence" -- a word with no better explanatory power than "voodoo."

There you go again. This time it's "voodoo" rather than magic or miracle. Time to pull out the thesaurus. You continue to conflate the supernatural with the natural. You continue to ignore the point that emergence is not intended to have explanatory power.

I suppose you'll keep repeating the same points about emergence and beauty until no one responds to you. Your comments remind me of the definition of a factoid: an assumption or speculation that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact. But you're not convincing anyone and now I've lost interest.

Unknown wrote: What we don't understand we try to de-mystify by calling a name (emergence.) They do the same sort of thing in Haiti.

If I hadn't lost interest, I might have asked what the hell Haiti has to do with anything. Oh, I'm sure you've got something in mind, but please don't de-mystify it for me. :-)

Steven Mason said...

Unknown wrote: Does this, then, reduce ethics to merely what is pleasurable?

Yes. By all means, offer an example of an ethic that has no association with pleasure.

I've stated that I've lost interest in your discussion of emergence and beauty, but I'll allow myself the final pleasure of tearing apart any example you offer on this point. You might feel similarly motivated by the pleasure of proving I'm wrong. Please give it your best effort, because I'll only respond to one example. This isn't baseball so you won't get three strikes. :-)

Steven Mason said...

Steven Kurtz wrote: the current snowflake position which turns feelings into the "end all" of value and ethics.

Please clarify the position you're stating here. When it comes down to the nitty gritty, isn't it the case that feelings - specifically, feelings of pleasure - are the foundation of values, morals, and ethics?

If we acknowledge that feelings affect behavior, not all feelings are created equal or lead to equal outcomes. We make useful distinctions between immature and mature feelings and behaviors. Even when we strive to be objective and logical, we are not eliminating feelings (nor should we). The best we can do is adhere to an external standard even when our feelings are in conflict with that standard.

For example, a judge can't stop a woman from getting an abortion just because he regards abortion as murder. His feelings about abortion are secondary to his feelings about rule of law. We feel good about rule of law because we feel good about safety, stability, liberty and fairness in society.

Abortion is a moral issue, and there are feelings behind both sides. People feel uncomfortable living in societies where murder is condoned, and they feel uncomfortable living in societies where women have no control in the decision to have a child. Finding a balance between these conflicting feelings has been tricky business in the US, and we're still trying to find it.

External moral standards are not necessarily the best standards. The moral standards of Nazi Germany come to mind, as well as German officers claiming they were "just following orders." Indeed, for most people, just mentioning Nazi Germany evokes strong feelings of repulsion and is often used as the best example of the worst kinds of moral standards.

More recently, here in the US there are plenty of people, including a couple of presidents, who think that torture is ethical. Look under the surface and you'll see that torture is justified because people want to feel safe from terrorist attacks. Some of them also feel a desire to make bad guys suffer. As Morris Albert said, it's "feelings, nothing more than feelings."

Mr. Kurtz, if you disagree with my assertion that feelings are at the foundation of all values, morals and ethics, could you offer one good example that demonstrates I'm wrong? If I'm wrong about something as important and fundamental as this, I hope someone will correct me.

By the way, even everything Spock did could be traced back to feelings. The only reason Spock appeared to lack emotion was because everyone else on Star Trek was a drama queen. :-)

Steven Kurtz said...


To S.M.

Re:
"Mr. Kurtz, if you disagree with my assertion that feelings are at the foundation of all values, morals and ethics, could you offer one good example that demonstrates I'm wrong? If I'm wrong about something as important and fundamental as this, I hope someone will correct me. "

In the opinion of evolutionary biology and psychology, social mammals develop group behaviors which best suit the species perpetuation and thriving in the environment they are in. Humans are social mammals. This is the foundation along with the genetic traits at the time in the species. Consciousness and language provide the tools which humans use to rationalize and codify the behavior involved.

My two cents. Others can disagree. But I already explained group responsibility when we discussed free will and "responsibility" (group/tribe/pack/flock...). I've nothing more to add.

Steven Mason said...

Steven Kurtz wrote: But I already explained group responsibility when we discussed free will

Free will is a different topic. In that discussion you didn't say anything about "snowflake positions." It's not reasonable to expect people to guess how your statements on group responsibility somehow explain what you meant by "snowflake position."

Steven Kurtz wrote: I've nothing more to add.

I'm surprised. When someone uses provocative terms like "snowflake position" and "end all," that kind of emotional outburst is a sign that he's got strong views that he wants to talk about. :-)

scientious said...

@Filippo Salustri

> There's a fairly extensive literature on emergence in complex systems that's quite precise regarding how one recognizes emergence properties and behaviour. There are a variety of non-technical and quite brief documents Out There that are sufficient to give one a general overview without investing much time or effort. I'd've thought this would be sufficient to establish a baseline definition of the term that pretty much everyone could at least accept for the sake of discussion.

The problem is that people rely on their personal intuition. If something is not immediately obvious they invoke emergence. This leads to absurdities such as people from one field claiming emergence for something they find mysterious which is well understood by people in a more related field. You claim that 'emergence' is well defined, but that has not been my experience. Either the definitions are so broad as to be useless without endless special pleading, or they are so narrow that they add nothing to a discussion (the stone in Stone Soup). If you have a good example I am fully open to learning something new.

Steven Kurtz said...

S.M. complains about my strong positions. Feelings being the root cause of ethics, morals, values, etc. IS the snowflake position as far as I've been able to grasp. Triggers are all about hurt feelings! I guess he didn't make the connection.

Filippo Salustri said...

@scientious,

Um, "a good example" of what?

Steven Mason said...

Steven Kurtz wrote: S.M. complains about my strong positions.

That's a surprising interpretation of what I wrote. I'm not complaining; I'm encouraging you to have a discussion with me. Strong, emotional language, such as the language you use, is usually a signal that someone wants to talk.

Steven Kurtz wrote: Feelings being the root cause of ethics, morals, values, etc. IS the snowflake position as far as I've been able to grasp.

You're repeating what you said before. I don't know why you think it's a snowflake position and I have no idea what you think is the actual root cause of ethics, morals and values. If it's not feelings, what is it? Please clarify and support your position. And if you think my position is wrong, it would be nice if you told me why. Referring to my position as snowflake doesn't explain anything.

What's the use of "grasping" something as important as this if you aren't willing to clarify, discuss and support it?

Steven Mason said...

Filippo wrote (to scientious): Um, "a good example" of what?

I think he's challenging you to offer a good definition of emergence that he doesn't find useless or absurd. For scientious, emergence is a pretentious synonym for "I don't know."

He doesn't appear to be "fully open to learning something new." If he was interested in learning, he would read up on the literature and then, if he found problems, he would specifically address those problems, citing and quoting the literature. In fact, it seems like he hasn't even bothered reading the Wikipedia article on emergence.

Unknown said...

To: Mason/Scientius

S.'s observations on emergence are exactly what I tried to state.

M. challenged me to state an ethic that is NOT based on pleasure. Very well, since I was in financial services for many years I will state an ethic of that practice:

"(a) Private rights of action based on contemporaneous trading
Any person who violates any provision of this chapter or the rules or regulations thereunder by purchasing or selling a security while in possession of material, nonpublic information shall be liable in an action in any court of competent jurisdiction to any person who, contemporaneously with the purchase or sale of securities that is the subject of such violation, has purchased (where such violation is based on a sale of securities) or sold (where such violation is based on a purchase of securities) securities of the same class."

In short, insider trading is a violation of ethics -- and a crime. Please explain how this ethical requirement appeared via human evolution during the Pleistocene. (The citation is from the U.S. Code)

Filippo Salustri said...

@Steve Mason gave his view of @scientious's comment to me.

Steve, thanks. I agree that's one possible & likely interpretation. However, I would prefer to hear it from him, just to be sure. (Is @scientious "him"? I honestly don't know.)

scientious said...

So, three advocates of emergence but no one can come up with an example. Sadly, I can't say I'm exactly surprised.

Filippo Salustri said...

@scientious, I'm assuming I'm one of the 3.

What's wrong with the examples of natural and systems emergence as described on Wikipedia or any of the other reputable web sites you can find with Google? Also, why should I have to give an example here when literally 30 seconds, tops, on Google will yield plenty of examples?

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

It may be helpful if you distinguish strong emergence from weak emergence. I wrote about this here.

Steven Kurtz said...


OK, I'll try once again, S.M. You claim "feelings" are the root cause of ethics, morals, values. An individual has "feelings." Emotions are not the same thing. see:
http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/difference-between-feelings-and-emotions/

Note that in both above a single individual has the experience. You can't feel my pain, see my color perception, hear sounds exactly as I do, smell exactly as I do, etc.

Ethics and morals are not the same. See:
https://www.differencebetween.com/difference-between-ethics-and-vs-morality/

Note that Ethics is a code created by a group of people, and is a philosophy. That is conceptual. According to Evo-Bio and Evo-Psych it is based upon "average" human wiring combined with the habitat conditions the group is living in. Morals are individual, and degree of adherence. Individual wiring and experiences affects that, with group feedback normally steering it. Sociopaths are exceptions.

The above synopsis shows that individual feelings (you hurt my feelings is the snowflake mantra) are not the base drivers. I omitted values, as they are all over the map, but the basis is still developmental on top of heredity, at least according to the science I value. (pun intended)

You can object, but my effort is done.

Filippo Salustri said...

@Sabine,

I'm the worst sort of scientist: I'm an engineer.

This means I'm extremely selfish, in that the "best" theory is one I can use build models that help me change reality predictably. Weak and strong emergence are both useful to me in this regard: we can design products to have some (weakly) emergent properties, while other (strongly) emergent properties no one can (yet) predict.

We design a car to have an engine as an element. The overall function of a car (to carry loads over distance) emerges predictably for the car as a whole while not existing for the engine (or the rest of the engine-less car) itself.

OTOH, while the Palm Pilot is accurately (I believe) credited with being an ancestor of today's smartphones, it was impossible (in its day) to predict smartphones from the Palm Pilot's success.

I note that sometimes it's hard to distinguish between properties that are strongly emergent because we know they cannot be predicted from their elements, and properties that seem strongly emergent only because we don't know how to determine if they can be predicted yet.

But that doesn't change the utility of emergence as a (component of a) theory of reality. To me, anyways.

Steven Mason said...

Kurtz wrote: An individual has "feelings." Emotions are not the same thing

Everyone knows that there *can* be a difference between feelings and emotion, but they can also be synonyms. If you don't like my use of the word, don't complain to me; take the matter up with the folks who write dictionaries and usage manuals.

I read your article. I'm going to assume that you've known from the beginning how I'm using the term "feelings." After all, I gave several examples. My usage of "feelings" is standard and acceptable usage.

Kurtz wrote: Ethics and morals are not the same.

Tell me something I don't know. Values, ethics and morals are related, and feelings are the foundation for all of them.

Kurtz wrote: The above synopsis shows that individual feelings (you hurt my feelings is the snowflake mantra) are not the base drivers.

In your handy little synopsis, you casually toss out terms like "groups, philosophy, conceptual, Evo-Bio, and Evo-Psych" as if they explain the root cause of values, morals and ethics. That's a tap dance, not an explanation.

Yes, obviously there are groups. Groups are made up of individuals. Individuals have feelings. If a sufficient number of individuals feel the same, they start to make rules that make the entire group feel better. Humans learned that if they are willing to give up some of their selfish feelings and instead follow a group standard, they feel better overall. For example, if you're willing to give up killing someone you're mad at, then you worry less about someone killing you. I'm feeling better already!

Since humans are capable of abstract thought, we put a lot of window dressing on values, morals and ethics. We get all hoity-toity and call it a philosophy. All we're doing is trying to feel better.

I'm still hoping you'll offer an example of any value, moral or ethic that has no association with feelings. That would be the most effective way to show that I'm wrong.

Steven Mason said...

Filippo wrote: Is @scientious "him"? I honestly don't know

For diplomatic reasons, I've learned it's always best to assume that difficult people are men. I get in less trouble when I'm wrong. :-)

Steven Mason said...

Sabine wrote: It may be helpful if you distinguish strong emergence from weak emergence.

I doubt that would be helpful to people who appear to despise the entire concept of emergence. If they had any real interest in emergence, they would already know about strong and weak.

Steven Mason said...

Unknown wrote: Please explain how this ethical requirement appeared via human evolution during the Pleistocene.

This is the best example you could conjure? It's disappointingly easy.

Insider trading is an instance of cheating. Studies have shown that even animals cheat, can recognize cheating, and respond to cheating.

Do yourself a favor and read up on this fascinating topic.

Unknown said...

This thread began, in part, with my observation that "emergence" is simply a code word for "We don't know" and, as such, is misleading. Either identifiable physical processes are at work and these can be understood or we are dealing with magic. I think this is a point that should be clarified for the sake of good science.

What followed was a torrent of ukases such as "According to Evo-Bio and Evo-Psych it is based upon "average" human wiring combined with the habitat conditions the group is living in. Morals are individual, and degree of adherence. Individual wiring and experiences affects that, with group feedback normally steering it." This isn't science -- it is freshman Sociology. You continue this in a similar vein.

"Studies have shown" . . . well, it is common behavior for a a larger predator to "steal" the kill of a weaker. Numerous other examples of such a thing can be cited. Nothing, BTW, is more common in human history than "cheating," i.e. theft. The Homeric epics are one example -- the Illiad is a smash-and-grab raid while the Odysseus was consistently lauded for his craft and powers of deception. "Cheating" is as often practiced and praised in human history as not. Your "studies" are of no value.

There is no science behind a statement like "Humans have the capacity for abstract thought, so naturally we put abstract labels like "beauty" on the things that give us pleasure." That is the stuff of sophomore bull sessions in the dorms.

Do YOURSELF a favor and quit relying on glib generalizations from pop science. In nearly all the social sciences more than half of "studies" cannot be replicated. We are also plagued with pseudo-science such as Evolutionary Psychology and Astro-biology (the subject matter of which is not known to actually exist.)

Another commentator asked you to provide an example of "emergence" that cannot be explained in terms of discrete physical causes. You have, so far, refused the challenge. And, that was my point -- my ONLY point -- that the term itself adds nothing to scientific discourse but gives the impression that something mysterious is at work. For such a petty input I reaped a rich harvest of irrelevancy.

Thank you, Dr. H.



jim_h said...

Weak emergence is noticing something interesting when we look at a larger scale.

Strong emergence is hand-waving when confronted by questions currently outside the scope of science.

Steven Kurtz said...

Unknown should do her/him-self a favor and grasp that living systems are impossible to research without biology. That is not a social science, and evolutionary biology (see Sapolsky) explains human behavior far better than words like emergence.

Steven Mason said...

Unknown wrote: Your "studies" are of no value.

So says the man who hasn't read them.

When I said that even animals cheat, recognize cheating, and respond to cheating, I wasn't talking about stronger animals taking food from weaker animals. It goes way beyond that.

Like I said, do yourself a favor and read up on this fascinating topic. Or, if you prefer, remain ignorant.

Unknown wrote: There is no science behind a statement like "Humans have the capacity for abstract thought"

So now you're claiming that humans don't have the capacity for abstract thought, and beauty isn't an abstract concept? I suppose you'll also want to tell us that insider trading isn't cheating? :-)

Steven Mason said...

jim_h wrote: Strong emergence is hand-waving . . .

"Hand-waving" is not the same as "currently not understood." Both weak and strong emergence are perfectly good descriptive terms. When someone says that life is an emergent property of inanimate matter, it makes absolutely no sense to think it's offered as some kind of explanation. It's only "hand-waving" if you mistakenly think that emergence is intended to explain rather than describe.

Let's try a simple example. Saying "saltiness is a property of sodium chloride" is a perfectly valid statement. Saying "saltiness is an emergent property of sodium chloride" is a perfectly valid statement with additional information. The second statement refers to the fact that saltiness is not a property of sodium or chloride, and the property of saltiness can't be understood or predicted from the properties of sodium and chloride.

Do scientists currently have the ability to model and predict all the properties of molecules based on their understanding of the constituent atoms? It's one thing to say that water is a property of hydrogen and oxygen, and another thing to say that water is an emergent property of hydrogen and oxygen. The first statement says that the constituent parts of water are hydrogen and oxygen. The second statement says the same thing, but additionally points out that the properties of water can't be understood or predicted from the properties of hydrogen and oxygen. In that case, using the term "emergent" spares me from typing fifteen words.

Emergence is a concept, not an explanation. Amazingly, none of the people who object to the term has addressed this simple fact. Even if you have no interest in the concept, it isn't correct to claim that it's "hand-waving." Any interpretation or use of the term as an explanation for phenomena is faulty.

Steven Mason said...

Kurtz wrote: evolutionary biology (see Sapolsky) explains human behavior far better than words like emergence

Can you offer an example of a biologist who has used the word emergence to "explain" human behavior?

By the way, here's something Sapolsky said about emergence, in his brief description of a book he recommended:

"A lot of very smart people who can't come up with rules where you can look at something beforehand, a priori, and know this one's going to survive, this one's going to go extinct, those two are going to turn the same, these two that differ by a slight smidgen are going to turn out to be enormously different, there's no rules for it. [The book's] whole argument is that these show ways in which you can code for a lot of the complexity in the natural world with small numbers of simple rules - this whole business of emergence."

If Sapolsky doesn't have a problem with emergence as a term and a concept, why do you?

Steven Kurtz said...

Re:
"... [The book's] whole argument is that these show ways in which you can code for a lot of the complexity in the natural world with small numbers of simple rules - this whole business of emergence."

He doesn't say "all" of the complexity. Models are rarely if ever a 100% complete equivalent to reality in complex systems. Recall Korzybski "the map is not the territory." And by using the phrase "this whole business of emergence, it sounds like he's not satisfied with it as an end all word!

Using it as a stand in for describing processes we don't fully understand is ok in my view. But, as you say, it is not an explanation. In infinite reality(no boundary yet), what we don't know is infinite. BTW, your implied ad hom re my posts (dorm chat) reflects on the user.

Steven Mason said...

Kurtz wrote: He doesn't say "all" of the complexity.

So what? My point is that Sapolsky doesn't seem to have a problem with emergence as a term and a concept. So why do you have a problem with it? You're the one who gave us Sapolsky.

Kurtz wrote: And by using the phrase "this whole business of emergence, it sounds like he's not satisfied with it as an end all word!

To your biased ear, that's what it sounds like. But aren't you forgetting what I said about Sapolsky recommending the book? How do you fit that into your "unbiased" interpretation of what Sapolsky "sounds like"?

Moreover, let me point out that Sapolsky doesn't have to say that emergence is "an end all word" in order to demonstrate that he doesn't have a problem with the word.

Kurtz wrote: But, as you say, it is not an explanation.

I know what I say. I'm asking about what you say. You (and others) have been saying that emergence is being used as an explanation. I've asked you to offer examples of biologists (or any scientist) doing that. I want someone to show me there is an actual problem.

If you're not interested in the concept of emergence, that's fine. But it's not a useless or empty concept. That's all I'm saying. When I see the word, I don't see an attempt to explain; I see a reference to a concept. I've heard several scientists explain the concept of emergence, and none of them have said it's supposed to explain the phenomenon. So naturally I'm curious about the reasons for your concerns.

Kurtz wrote: your implied ad hom re my posts (dorm chat) reflects on the user.

So says the guy who accuses people of having snowflake positions. That's not "implied" ad hom; that's hardcore ad hom. You don't see me whining about it. Instead, I decided to make lemonade out of your lemons, by taking your ad hom as a sign that you had strong views that you wanted to discuss.

You didn't bother to give an example of my ad hom, so I'm not sure how to respond. I don't know what you mean by "dorm chat," but now that you've got me curious, could you explain? I admit I can be critical, but my criticisms tend to be relevant, specific and detailed. Ad hom is normally employed to dismiss an argument by unfairly attacking a person's character.

Fat Man said...

Sorry to be late to the party, but the following just dawned on me.

Sabine wrote:

"Horgan isn't concerned with applications of already existing knowledge, he is asking for fundamentally new laws of nature. Exactly what he means by that remains unclear,"

I think the work of Thomas Kuhn "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" draws a line between normal science and scientific revolutions where new paradigms are introduced that give new ways of looking at old problems and also of inquiring into new problems. Horgan, I think, is saying that there have been no scientific revolutions and no new paradigms.

Steven Mason said...

Fat Man, what do you think about Horgan's thesis?

Is Fat Man a reference to the atomic bomb, by any chance?

Steven Kurtz said...

To S.M.

I wrote that your *claim* that feelings were the basis of ethics was like the snowflake (victimhood?) position that their feelings were the top priority in deciding good/evil. That is critical of the position. Perhaps when you called my ideas like freshman dorm chat, that was in the same vein. So we're even.
Re:
"You (and others) have been saying that emergence is being used as an explanation"

You are confusing someone else's position with mine. I've never used that concept as explanatory. It is a stand-in for knowledge in my view. Also, back a while, I posted that I agreed with a post of yours!