The End of Science? A Review with Commentary

Issue One of DIALOGOS:
An Interactive Journal of the Sciences, Philosophy, and Theology


Editor: Richard W. Kropf


First posted Mid-September, 1996. Revised for cross-indexing, Oct. 30, 1996. Up-dated Jan. 12, 1998.


Editor's remarks:

This issue begins with a review of a controversial book that appeared late this past spring. It will, I hope, start some spirited discussion among our first time readers. RWK

John Horgan of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN magazine seems to have deliberately gone out of his way to cause an uproar with his recently published book The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge In The Twilight of the Scientific Age (HelixBooks, 1996). His thesis is that having solved most of nature's great mysteries, the great age of scientific advancement is rapidly drawing to an end. So well established has become the evolutionary paradigm in explaining the origins and development of life, with physics so close to having reduced matter to its fundamental components, and with a "Big Bang" cosmology remaining just about the only feasible explanation of the universe, Horgan contends that although there are undoubtedly great discoveries yet to be made, still, for all intents and purposes, the greatest discoveries, those which have most changed the course of human thinking, are now in the past. All that scientists can reasonably hope to do in the future is to further confirm the evidence by filling in the gaps.

Such a thesis is sure to rouse a strong reaction, and already has. Lately hobbled by declining research funding and ridiculed by politicians whose constituents can see no useful purpose for super-colliders and sci-fi projects like SETI, scientists feel themselves to be an endangered species, with breakthroughs in genetic research and the spectacular results from the repaired Hubble Space Telescope being among the very few things to crow about. But beyond such fundamental research and the sinking feeling that we are merely busy learning more and more about less and less, Horgan touches an even rawer nerve when he points out that much of what passes for scientific thought today (like theoretical "cosmic strings", "multiple universes", "wormholes in space") are purely fanciful speculations far beyond the possibility of empirical science to either confirm or deny. In other words, while such theories may be interesting, they elude the methodology of science itself. They rightly belong to the realms of speculative philosophy, or even theology, hardly science as the word is now understood.

I would both agree and disagree. Despite the huge gap that still needs to be closed between physics and biology (regarding the origin of life) and the still unsolved mysteries of just how the human brain works, and despite the near-certainty, since the recent COBE satellite discoveries, of an inflationary Big Bang explanation of the universe, I believe that there is still one major discovery yet to be made that will qualify to stand with those others which forever change the course of human knowledge. It has to do with the fate of future of the universe and the implications it will have for human thought and conduct.

Look at it this way. No doubt that the sciences, especially physics and cosmology, have brought us back in startling new ways to the age-old philosophical (some might even say "sophistic") question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" But this last, still unsolved, scientific problem brings humanity to a more threatening question and its implications: what if, after billions of years of something, we end up with nothing?

The evidence of the growing uneasiness with this riddle is all around us. Cosmologists keep insisting that there has to be all that still undiscovered "dark matter" out there. Why this fervent belief in what seems to be still more than 90% undiscovered? It is not to explain the universe that we can see -- less than 10% of the unseen dark matter would do that. The reason is pretty obvious to anyone who cares to think about it. It would be to assure us that the universe, still-expanding towards eventual extinction, will reverse its expansion and collapse (or "close") upon itself and possibly repeat the Big Bang process all over again. On the contrary, an "open" universe points to a fate that suggests that, if there is to be any future at all, that future must be beyond the realm of the physical sciences, or to phrase that literally, towards the "metaphysical"--the realm of philosophy and even theology, both of which were once also understood to be "sciences" in their own right. (Note: a recent issue of Sky & Telescope see "Weekly News Notes" for Jan 9, 1998, reports that no less than five papers were presented at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society that seem to confirm a growing consensus that the universe is "open". For more on this, watch for a future issue of this journal.)

But one need not even go that far. Another discipline, psychology, which also lays claim to the title of "science" today, could well have something to say about all this. A universe with no ultimate future is a universe without meaning, without purpose, without a goal. And without these, human life becomes intolerable. Or as the late paleontologist-philosopher (and some would say "mystic") Pierre Teilhard de Chardin pointed out, a half a century ago: "For what point can there be in living with eyes fixed constantly and laboriously upon the future, if this future...must finally become an absolute zero? Better surely to give up and die at once." (From "Le rebondissement humain d'evolution et ses consequences" in Revue des Questions Scientifiques, September 1947, as translated by Rene' Hague and republished inThe Future of Man, Harper and Row, 1964, pages 196-213.)

Brash words, no doubt. But they do point unerringly to the raw nerve that Horgan's book has again exposed. The empirical sciences are not about to roll over and play dead, nor should they. But it is becoming obvious that they are not equal to the whole challenge that awaits us. RWK 7/27/96

Comments from Readers

The following is from Joe Provenzano, a CalTech physicist working at Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California.

Although there is much that is controversial in Horgan's thesis, I believe that Kropf has correctly pointed out areas where major breakthroughs are possible. Rather than comment further on these areas, I will focus on an implicit assumption that Horgan makes that I feel is at the root of the whole issue. I am talking about "the greatest discoveries, those which have most changed the course of human thinking, are now in the past. "My point is that, it is actually the interpretation of these discoveries, not the discoveries themselves, that changed the course of human thinking. This apparently subtle distinction makes all the difference, and means that "minor" scientific discoveries in the future have the potential to greatly change the course of human thinking. Therefore, we must continue our scientific efforts as strong or stronger than ever, whether or not we expect major discoveries. I will try to justify this statement in the following paragraphs.

In the pre-Newton, pre-Darwin world, philosophy and theology were accepted as providing the explanation of reality -- we lived in a universe that was created by God with a purpose. With the tremendous successes of science, a purely materialistic understanding became accepted. These discoveries could have been interpreted to mean that God created our universe with a purpose, using the evolutionary paradigm. However, this did not happen, and most modern scientists today accept the purely materialistic interpretation.

Starting with Quantum Mechanics, and more recently with a series of discoveries that have come to be known as the Anthropic Principle, a number of new facts have been surfaced. The laws of physics, the basic physical constants, and the initial conditions of our universe seem to be perfectly tuned so as to permit matter, life and consciousness to develop. For example, if the ratio of the mass of the proton to the mass of the electron were only slightly different, then matter as we know it could not have evolved. In my opinion, the implications of these discoveries have not been adequately addressed. Many of the materialistic, atheistic school brush aside these discoveriesas a tautology, or say that we are in only one of "many universes." On the other hand, many from the theological school rush in to say this is proof that God designed the universe.

The point here is that I believe that "the course of human thinking" is at an unstable point at the present time. How are we to interpret the Big Bang, evolution, consciousness, the Anthropic Principle, etc? I believe that a few more minor discoveries about the "coincidences" leading to our existence could cause a complete reinterpretation of the purely materialistic paradigm. Therefore, this is not a time to be announcing "The End of Science."

I really appreciate your comments and analysis, even though I may have trimmed them a bit. But I think I recall at least one place (page ?) in his book where Horgan descibes the anthropic principle as being "notorious" or something like that -- apparently referring to the controversy it has generated. Perhaps in a future issue of DIALOGOS, you could sum up the debate over the AP for all of us. RWK

Additional Comments

Actually, the first response to the Horgan review was from Dave Beckman (a retired NADA engineer) who has also who comments regarding the possibility of the universe ending in a "zero" or "nothing":

This question has drifted through my mind on occasion as well. If we are confined to this planet that is held in captivity by a star that we fully expect will someday destroy the means of sustaining life, what has been accomplished? Or are we too naive in expecting that there is a purpose? (daveb@hal-pc.org)

Editor's Response

Philosophically speaking, this really is the big one. Admittedly,the word "nothing" in my essay (like Teilhard's use of the word "zero") does not need to be taken in an absolute sense. I mean it to be relative to what has gone before as measured by our human scale of values. In other words, I'm assuming some kind of notion of evolutionary "progress" -- let's say the appearance (and survival) of intelligent life. But if one is able to accept that the eventual fate of the whole universe is to end up merely as an infinitude of burned-out dwarf stars (or alternatively, in a "closed" universe scenario, something like one big, final, "black hole" -- this is where we could use some input from the astronomers) and nothing more, then it is pretty hard to see any "purpose" in the universe, other than possibly keeping the gods amused for awhile (something like the Hindu idea of the material universe being nothing but divine lila or "play"). I'm afraid I can't accept that. But neither does the idea that a closed universe just might initiate another Big Bang, or even a whole series of them, satisfy me. How many repeats could we expect? Joseph Silk, in his book on The Big Bang (Revised and Updated Edition, W.H. Freeman,1989, pages 390-91) says that at most there could only be a few. This isn't enough for me, or as Silk admits, probably for most of us. It seems to me that the Book of Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth-- surely the most pessimistic book in the Hebrew Bible) put it well: "He [God] has set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end."(Ecc. 3:11.) So the question remains: is this all a cosmic joke (or even worse, the ultimate shaggy dog story) or is it something else? RWK

Recently (10/16/96), Ray Hoobler (rthcc@cunyvm.cuny.edu), a professor of mathematics at CUNY (City University of New York) sent in this comment:

I haven't read Horgan's book, but I regard his comment about wormholes as highly premature. What do you think a scientifically literate person living in 1910 would have said about the possibility of testing Einstein's General Theory of Relativity? And yet, just seven years later there was a test in Egypt. Current refinements of physical theories are more subtle than Einstein's refinment Newtonian mechanics so it is natural to expect testable consequences to be more subtle also.

It is a good thing Hoobler didn't read Horgan's book or he'd be even more upset. Horgan expends at least three pages deeming the whole theory of wormholes leading out to baby universes as "preposterous". Perhaps, if I had been writing in Horgan's place, I would have toned down his adjective to "implausible". Still, I think he raises a good question. Has anyone ever made a serious suggestion as to just how the existence of such other universes could be scientifically tested? Didn't Einstein predict that his theories, at least in part, could be either verified or falsified? Maybe I've got some of Hawking's ideas confused with speculations about multiple universes, but it seems to me that establishing the existence of such entities would be a lot like trying to prove the existence of heaven or hell. But maybe the same goes for disproving them! RWK


Those who have contributions to make regarding Horgan's book or its thesis, or the comments that have been made so far, can still add their comments to later editions of this issue. Please review our editorial policies and try to restrain your comments to 500 words or less. I also invite your suggestions regarding topics for future issues and encourage you to submit papers or reviews for consideration.

Additional comments and responses


Please e-mail your contributions in to: rwkropf@stellamar.net


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