by Brian Bergen-Aurand
If one believes in science, one must accept the possibility–even the probability–that the great era of scientific discovery is over. By science I mean not applied science, but science at its purest and grandest, the primordial human quest to understand the universe and our place in it. Further research may yield no more great revelations or revolutions, but only incremental, diminishing return. (6)
November is dedicated to John Horgan’s The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (Basic Books, 1996/2015). After reading Horgan’s recent blog post on conversations with the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend–a favorite thinker of mine–I have decided to revisit Horgan’s infamous tome using the author’s own question as my guide. In 2015, Horgan asked, “Was I Wrong about ‘The End of Science’?” For the next few weeks, I intend to pursue a similar question, asking where Horgan was right and where Horgan was wrong.
At the start of The End of Science, Horgan recalls how a 1989 meeting with British physicist Roger Penrose set him to wondering about the possibility that pure science might be over, that there might be nothing left to discover, that all the great scientific revelations and revolutions might be in the past, behind us. Horgan does not question the idea that science continues to “advance” but raises the issue that the advances we see today–after the great discoveries of the past and their enormous effects on how we view the world around us–are minuscule in comparison.
After the paradigm changing discoveries of the past, such as Newton’s laws of motion, Darwin’s arguments about the processes of evolution, Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory, what remains? These theories from the past, writes Horgan, “are not merely beautiful; they are also true, empirically true” (6). Furthermore, they are not only true but also limiting in themselves. We cannot exceed the speed of light. We cannot know for certainty what lies at the heart of the atom. We cannot predict outcomes or construct a final mathematical model of the world. Our own previous discoveries teach us these truths. They may also teach us there are no great paradigm shifts yet to be found.
If such a state of affairs is true, asks Horgan, if there is no great revelation left for us to discover, then why are we still here? This is the gist and the tension of Horgan’s book from the outset. Science is the greatest human endeavor, he claims, because it is “the search for knowledge for its own sake…. We are here to figure out why we are here.” (3). If we have already figured out all there is, and if what we have figured out is the limit of what we can discover, Horgan asks, “What, then, would be the purpose of life? What would be the purpose of humanity?” (6).
As I read through Horgan’s book, I hope to join him in pursuing these questions.