John Horgan. The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. Basic Books, New York, 2015

John Horgan, in his preface to this new edition of this book, first published in 1996, insists that he was right to assert that significant progress in scientific discovery was coming to an end. Scientists these days are just filling in the details.

The idea for the book began to take shape in 1989, when Horgan interviewed the British physicist Roger Penrose about The Emperor's New Mind, which became a best seller despite Horgan's opinion that it was dense and difficult.

Penrose's ideas about the human mind are discussed in some detail in the chapter on neuroscience, together with those of other scientists, including physicists as well as neurologists. Penrose considers that the mind is too complex to be explained in detail using available theories. He told Horgan that a computer capable of thought would have to rely on mechanisms related to quantum mechanics, not in its present form but on a deeper theory not yet discovered. In The Emperor's New Mind he was arguing against the assumption that the mystery of consciousness, or of reality in general, could be explained by the current laws of physics.

Neuroscientists had been concerned with finding out how the brain worked, but considered consciousness to be not physical, but metaphysical, and thus not a proper subject for scientific investigation. This attitude changed when Francis Crick, who was noted for his work, with James Watson, on discovering the structure of DNA in 1953, proclaimed, in collaboration with Christof Koch, in 1990, in Seminars on the Neurosciences, that consciousness should be made the subject of empirical investigation. Horgan remarks that "they had transformed consciousness from a philosophical mystery to an empirical problem".

One factor which makes the study of consciousness particularly interesting is the clashes which occur between strictly scientific and philosophical approaches to the question. For example, Colin McGinn believes that most major philosophical problems are beyond our cognitive abilities, but Daniel Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained (1992) described consciousness as an illusion. I must comment here that to me the notion of a non-conscious illusion seems self contradictory. This seems to be a problem in that discussions on consciousness tend to be ambiguous or just incomprehensible.

One of the more interesting chapters is on what Horgan calls chaoplexity, by which he means "chaos and its close relative complexity". He traces this as "a full-blown pop-culture phenomenon" to the publication in 1987 of Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick, a former New York Times reporter. One aspect of chaoplexity is that many phenomena are inherently unpredictable because very small influences can eventually lead to unpredictable and enormous consequences. This became popularly known as the butterfly effect.

Computers may, if anything, hasten the end of empirical science

The positive side of chaoplexity is the use of sophisticated mathematical techniques using powerful computers to produce models of complex systems to predict how they are likely to develop. However, Horgan concludes that chaoplexologists "have not told us anything about the world that is both concrete and truly surprising" and that computers "may, if anything, hasten the end of empirical science".

In his epilogue to the book, Horgan, rather surprisingly for one who gives the impression of being a nuts-and-bolts scientific type, tells us of what he says could be called a mystical experience. One day, years before he became a science writer, he was lying on a lawn when he became insensible to his surroundings and felt he was hurtling toward what he was sure was the ultimate secret of life, and became convinced that he was the only conscious being in the universe. For months after this experience, he was convinced he had discovered the secret of existence: "God's fear of his own Godhood, and of his own potential death, underlies everything".

The notion that there will eventually nothing of importance left for scientists to discover is obviously a controversial topic, and the author's interviews about it with various scientists, including details of their appearance and mannerisms, which makes some of them seem almost human, is very informative and entertaining. Most of the arguments presented, though, seem to me to be more philosophical than scientific. -- John Harney

1 comment:

  1. I have the '96 edition, a good book, I appreciate Horgan's writings. And yet it has its philosophical & scientific shortcomings. One of the several problems is that Horgan believes we have comprehended nature's evolution, we just need to fill in the details on her mechanisms. However there are fundamentals there that remain beyond our grasp,controversial eg the revolution in epigenetics, that upsets a few apple-carts. We may be looking at the data all wrong. Or partially so. New discoveries in phylogenetics, paleontology have implications to macroevolution that we are only beginning to get to grips with. This has nothing to do with Creationism. This is just a small smattering of scientific discoveries that upset previously sacrosanct dogma.

    Just one problem - it's impossible for one person to know much about anything in the sciences, because there is too much to know, it spirals exponentially,one can easily get bogged down and not see the real issues/problems otherwise staring us in the face. So there's much that Hogan doesn't have a clue about, and that's not his fault. Nobody has much of a clue about very much in the sciences, pretense and bluff and bluster to the contrary (Dennett and Dawkins are caricatures, explaining everything away). However there is much that he clearly doesn't want to know about. Like the man looking for lost keys under the lamplight because that's where the light is, not on the dark pavement where he actually lost them in the first place.

    Also what of the obvious parallel with physics in the late 19th century, when it was believed that Newtonian mechanics explained it all, we just needed to sort out the few sticky anomalies and everything would be complete?! And then of course along came Einstein, Planck, Born, Bohr, Heisenberg etc. - Relativity and QM... . This precedent, this humbling experience in physics - and it is twentieth-century physics! - appears lost on Horgan. Or he just thinks this time it is complete, this time it's different!

    And there are literally mountains of anomalies today in every discipline one looks. And they are growing. If anything we know less than we ever did. Whether this shows us the limits of science or the limits of human potential within the sciences, is another matter. Perhaps both.

    If we look at ufology alone, ignoring its sorry state today, taking into account that the ET bugaboo is long discredited, none of us can agree on just if it is at least a potential scientific discipline and just how it is scientific. And if there is a physical/quasi-physical aspect to it, how so and to what degree? If anything ufology tells us more about the investigating ufologist (and witnesses) than it does about any objective UFO phenomenon. In no other discipline is the Alice in Wonder looking glass more apparent, and so from a Kuhnian perspective (the sociology of science), ufology is the exhibit A that begs the question, well several questions and we go round in circles. Namely is ufology science, religion, psychology, culture? It depends on the investigator, the tools we use, the way we look at it - but this is as true of so-called objective science as ufology, in the former it is just more subtle, sophisticated. That is the point on which Kuhn's fame rests, and since the publication of his landmark book, it is only more apparent (and more problematic). This is why talk of "more philosophical than scientific" can miss the mark, there is what is called 'the demarcation problem' between science and religion/philosophy. Nobody knows where the demarcation or boundary is, the lines are blurred and overlap. When one may well be wrong about the data or phenomena that one is studying, at least in part, and where it may lead, there is no way one can draw a clear black line or know where to draw it. It's like trying to catch a mist with a butterfly net. Which sums up I suppose ufology, but not only ufology. That's the thing.