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John Horgan


Facing the limits of knowledge in the twilight of the scientific age

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

On the face of it, the question posed in the title of this book seems absurd. True, there is hostility to science in some places, fewer young people are coming forward to study it, and there are extreme "post-modernists" who tell us that the scientific world view is no more (and no less) valid than the mythology of the Hopi Indians, but in spite of such sniping the prestige of science in our culture is hardly affected. Popular science books, some of very high quality by the most eminent scientists in their field, sell better than ever. And indeed there is no reason to doubt that applied science—technological progress—will continue for the foreseeable future, at least if our civilization endures. But is the same true of "pure" science—the kind that has fundamentally altered our view of the world and our place in it?

This is the theme of Horgan's book. As he emphatically states, he is no Luddite. He is profoundly moved by science, as indeed he should be, given that he is a senior science journalist on Scientific American. He rightly regards science as the best road to truth that we have and as "the most miraculous and meaningful of all human creations". In suggesting that science may be coming to an end, therefore, he is not guilty of any kind of triumphalism; quite the contrary.

Being a respected science writer has enabled Horgan to interview some of the most eminent scientists in the world, and much of the book is made up of material obtained in this way, together with Horgan's reflections on it. He seeks his subjects' views on the future of science, and finds that many of them, with varying degrees of qualification, agree that there is indeed a question to be asked.

His approach to his subjects, while always respectful, is far from reverential. Their frequent idiosyncracies of appearance and manner are given full rein. At times, indeed, his comments verge on the waspish, and he allows his own emotional reactions to appear. This makes for a thoroughly lively read. Some, for example Edward Witten, receive quite harsh treatment, while others, such as Richard Dawkins, fare better.

At the outset Horgan makes a distinction between empirical or mainstream science and "ironic science", by which he means speculative scientific ideas which may never be capable of being tested empirically. His examples include questions about the ultimate origin of the universe, the existence of multiple universes, and (his own particular bugbear) string theory. In biology he cites the problem of the origin of life. He does not dismiss speculation about such matters as valueless but regards it as more akin to great art or philosophy, capable of stimulating our sense of wonder but not of conclusive proof or disproof.

The book approaches its subject down a number of avenues, all of which converge on the final impasse at the centre. They include philosophy, physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, social science, "chaoplexity", and mathematics ("limitology"). More than one of the luminaries interviewed quoted a remark attributed to Lord Kelvin at the end of the nineteenth century (that the future truths of physics were to be sought in the sixth place of decimals—in other words, physics was at an end). However, it turns out that there is no real evidence that Kelvin ever said this.

Even if we leave Lord Kelvin aside, however, a counter-argument to Horgan's view is to point out the huge revisions in our understanding of physics, cosmology, and biology that have occurred in the past and to ask why there should not be equally revolutionary developments in the future. This sounds intuitively plausible, but Horgan will have none of it. He insists that quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, and Darwinian evolution are fundamental truths that have finally fixed our world outlook for all time, and we shall not witness the discovery of such deep insights again. As for the nature of consciousness, he seems to be a "mysterian". He regards this as insoluble for science, and, rather controversially, suggests that Freud's ideas are about as far as we are likely to go in that direction.

Personally, I find Horgan's conclusion somewhat depressing, so I hope he is wrong. And perhaps he is. Not everyone agrees, for example, that string theory or the existence of other universes will always be impossible to test empirically. It may be that the boundary of the known will always recede before our eyes, permanently just out of reach. But whether we can continue the exploration indefinitely—whether our modified ape brains are capable of forming the concepts that will be required to expand our understanding ever further—is another question. Horgan is one of those who believe that the future of science, if there is one, lies with computers; but we shall almost certainly be unable to understand any theory they may come up with.

8 March 2005

%T The end of science
%S Facing the limits of knowledge in the twilight of the scientific age
%A John Horgan
%I Little, Brown and Company
%C London
%D 1996, 1997
%G ISBN 0-316-64052-2
%P x + 324 pp
%K philosophy of science

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