The End of Science, by John Horgan (Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1996) 308 pp., cloth $24.00.
Over the millennia countless hours of human time have been spent wondering what stars are. Then something weird happened. Science found out. Now we know what stars are made of, how big they are, how old they are, how far away they are, how they shine, where they came from, how they die, how hot they are inside and out, etc. In short, astronomers know everything about stars the child’s song ever dreamed of asking and a whole lot more. For those of us who find knowledge more exciting than ignorance, “Twinkle, Twinkle” needs to be reworded:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, Now we know just what you are.
But there’s a problem here. Science can only find out what stars are once. Yes, there are still details, even surprises in store. The Hubble telescope recently revealed, for instance, that Betelgeuse, the biggest star in the sky as seen from Earth, has a humongous hot spot inconsistent with current theory. But science will fill in this detail. It is no longer possible that Betelgeuse will turn out to be a diamond in the sky.
The thesis of John Horgan’s book, The End of Science, is that, while science will never run out of details to fill in, the first tier of human curiosity—those questions humanity has wondered and mused over since its beginning—have been or soon will be answered (if they can be answered at all). Not jawboned ad infinitum like philosophers do, but answered definitively by science.
The book is thoroughly delightful reading because Horgan, a writer for many years for Scientific American, uses his own ideas as a fabric against which to display the ideas and personalities of virtually all the great scientists and philosophers of our time. He has traveled the world to interview them for Scientific American and presents their ideas in colorful, personal, terms, giving far more than just the usual quotes from their books. We learn not just what they think about the great questions, but how they feel about them. We learn, for instance, that Stephen Hawking, the great wheelchair-bound cosmologist famous for his line that physics will allow us “to know the mind of God,” is, in fact, an atheist and that his atheism may have been a key factor in his 1990 break up with his fundamentalist wife. (When will scientists learn to stop using the “God” metaphor? The religious public, grasping for confirmation from authority, misreads it every time.)
The End of Science is neatly divided into chapters covering the various fields and key personalities in those fields: “The End of Physics,” “The End of Philosophy,” “The End of Cosmology,” “The End of Social Science,” etc. Non-scientific readers will be surprised to learn that the preponderance of the world’s great scientists agree with Horgan’s thesis that fundamental science is running out of steam, killed by its own success. Some have been expounding the idea for years. The last two chapters, unfortunately, go a little off the deep end, giving credence to such ideas as the “Omega Point” and mysticism.
In the beginning of the book, Horgan devotes considerable space to rebutting the knee-jerk reaction he gets to his thesis, namely: “They said that before.” He shows, to my satisfaction at least, that scientists of the last century actually had an excellent perspective as to where they stood and that they would find today’s situation qualitatively different. In a delightful piece of detective work, Horgan chases down the anecdote we’ve all heard about someone once wanting to close the patent office because everything had been invented. It is a misquote from a nineteenth-century Commissioner of Patents who actually advocated that the Patent Office be expanded. Readers of FREE INQUIRY know how myths get a life of their own.
Prophetically, within weeks of the book’s publication, the existence of the Mars rock, with its probable evidence of Martian life, was announced. The great remaining question in Horgan’s “The End of Biology” chapter, How does life originate and does it occur elsewhere?, wasn’t answered by the rock but certainly received a body blow from the discovery. The question is now on its deathbed.
Because of my own interests, I was fascinated to read that virtually every great scientist in every field, as well as all philosophers, rated “consciousness” as science’s top question. This question, more than any other, produced significant disagreement as to whether a scientific treatment was possible. Question number two was the cosmology question: Why is there something instead of nothing? Most expected great progress but no psychologically satisfying answer. We already have a key part of the answer: “Nothing” is unstable in quantum mechanics. But why does reality obey quantum mechanics instead of nothing mechanics? Horgan’s thesis on questions like this is that we’ll still reach an end-point, a point where we can prove we can’t go any further. Like squaring the circle in geometry, proving it can’t be done also counts as solving the problem.
My biggest beef with The End of Science is Horgan’s secondary thesis, predicting the growth of what he calls “Ironic Science,” by which he means a science degenerating into untestable theories to be judged by essentially poetic criteria. His paradigmatic example is superstring theory, which has stood for nearly two decades now as theoreticians’ favorite “final” theory in physics. While it is indeed a final theory, it requires a particle accelerator thousands of light-years across to test it.
My answer to Ironic Science is, “They said that before.” No less than Albert Einstein confidently predicted that a phenomenon called “gravitational lensing,” mandated by his general theory of relativity, would remain forever beyond practical observation. Not only has gravitational lensing been observed, but a recent Hubble telescope photo (available on the Internet) shows it so dramatically you think you can reach out and touch it. Horgan has no “The End of Mathematics” chapter, although the subject is touched upon, and therein, I submit, is the fallacy of Ironic Science. It is not that superstring theory makes no predictions testable within reasonable engineering constraints, but that we lack the mathematics/com-puter-power combination to make those predictions. It is within our foreseeable engineering capability, for instance, to measure the half-life of radium to the tenth decimal place. Superstring theory, being a proper theory-of-everything, predicts the exact half-life of radium. So therein might be a test of the theory. Just one problem: nobody is smart enough to make the calculation. Yet. But history has proven over-and-over that mathematical and scientific ingenuity can find ways around the brute-force, thousand-light-year accelerator, approaches. Who would have thought important information about life on Mars was sitting under our noses in Antarctica?
Another criticism of the book, particularly the later chapters, is that it blithely assumes that human civilization will advance forever, at least to the best of its ability, eventually doing such things as transforming us from our biological bodies to less vulnerable platforms. There are more ominous possibilities. Over the past few decades, we have made a modest but respectable effort to listen for other civilizations in the cosmos and have come up blank. One obvious possibility this suggests is that perhaps advanced civilizations are unstable and can last only a few hundred years. As humanists, we know humanity is not the purpose of the universe and that there are no guarantees. There is nothing about humanity, absolutely nothing, you can graph over the twentieth century, from population to speed of travel, that looks like the graph of a stable system. We aren’t many years from the time, just to name one scenario, where a computer hacker could design a diabolical virus of the biological kind and put its DNA code on the Internet disk waiting to be (accidentally?) synthesized by a gene-synthesis machine. (Elementary gene synthesis machines already exist.)
These criticisms aside, this book is must reading for humanists or anyone else who considers science the source of human knowledge.