Why I Think Science Is Ending
Over the few months during which I've been following this website, various contributors have said various things about my book The End of Science. These comments reflect some confusion about what it was that I really said. I therefore thought it might be useful for me to present a succinct summary of my end-of-science argument as well as a rebuttal of 10 common counter-arguments. This posting is based both on talks that I've given recently and on an afterword that I wrote for the paperback edition of my book, which is being published in mid-May by Broadway Books.
My claim is that science is a bounded enterprise, limited by social, economic, physical and cognitive factors. Science is being threatened, literally, in some cases, by technophobes like the Unabomber, by animal-rights activists, by creationists and other religious fundamentalists, by post-modern philosophers and, most important of all, by stingy politicians.
Also, as science advances, it keeps imposing limits on its own power. Einstein's theory of special relativity prohibits the transmission of matter or even information at speeds faster than that of light. Quantum mechanics dictates that our knowledge of the microrealm will always be slightly blurred. Chaos theory confirms that even without quantum indeterminacy many phenomena would be impossible to predict. And evolutionary biology keeps reminding us that we are animals, designed by natural selection not for discovering deep truths of nature but for breeding.
All these limits are important. But in my view, by far the greatest barrier to future progress in science÷and especially pure science÷is its past success. Researchers have already created a map of physical reality, ranging from the microrealm of quarks and electrons to the macrorealm of planets, stars and galaxies. Physicists have shown that all matter consists of a few basic particles ruled by a few basic forces.
Scientists have also stitched their knowledge into an impressive, if not terribly detailed, narrative of how we came to be. The universe exploded into existence roughly 15 billion years ago and is still expanding outwards. About 4.5 billion years ago, the debris from an exploding star condensed into our solar system. Sometime during the next few hundred million years, single-celled organisms emerged on the earth. Prodded by natural selection, these microbes evolved into an amazingly diverse array of more complex creatures, including Homo sapiens.
I believe that this map of reality that scientists have constructed, and this narrative of creation, from the big bang through the present, is essentially true. It will thus be as viable 100 or even 1,000 years from now as it is today. I also believe that, given how far science has already come, and given the limits constraining further research, science will be hard-pressed to make any truly profound additions to the knowledge it has already generated. Further research may yield no more great revelations or revolutions but only incremental returns.
The vast majority of scientists are content to fill in details of the great paradigms laid down by their predecessors or to apply that knowledge for practical purposes. They try to show how a new high-temperature superconductor can be understood in quantum terms, or how a mutation in a particular stretch of DNA triggers breast cancer. These are certainly worthy goals.
But some scientists are much too ambitious and creative to settle for filling in details or developing practical applications. They want to transcend the received wisdom, to precipitate revolutions in knowledge analogous to those triggered by Darwin's theory of evolution or by quantum mechanics.
For the most part these over-reachers have only one option: to pursue science in a speculative, non-empirical mode that I call ironic science. Ironic science resembles literature or philosophy or theology in that it offers points of view, opinions, which are, at best, "interesting," which provoke further comment. But it does not converge on the truth.
One of the most spectacular examples of ironic science is superstring theory, which for more than a decade has been the leading contender for a unified theory of physics. Often called a "theory of everything," it posits that all the matter and energy in the universe and even space and time stem from infinitesimal, string-like particles wriggling in a hyperspace consisting of 10 (or more) dimensions. Unfortunately, the microrealm that superstrings allegedly inhabit is completely inaccessible to human experimenters. A superstring is supposedly as small in comparison to a proton as a proton is in comparison to the solar system. Probing this realm directly would require an accelerator 1,000 light years around. Our entire solar system is only one light day around. It is this problem that led the Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow to compare superstring theorists to "medieval theologians." How many superstrings can dance on the head of a pin?
There are many other examples of ironic science that you have probably heard of, in part because science journalists like myself enjoy writing about them so much. Cosmology, for example, has given rise to all kinds of theories involving parallel universes, which are supposedly connected to our universe by aneurysms in space-time called wormholes. In biology, we have the Gaia hypothesis of Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock, which suggests that all organisms somehow cooperate to ensure their self-perpetuation. Then there are the anti-Darwinian proposals of Brian Goodwin and Stuart Kauffman, who think life stems not primarily from natural selection but from some mysterious "laws of complexity" that they have glimpsed in their computer simulations.
Psychology and the social sciences, of course, consist of little BUT ironic science, such as Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism and the more ambitious forms of sociobiology. Some observers say all these untestable, far-fetched theories are signs of science's vitality and boundless possibilities. I see them as signs of science's desperation and terminal illness.
That's my argument, in a nutshell. Now let me go through the most common objections.