EDGE 16 May 6, 1997
"THE END OF HORGAN?"
"Why I Think Science Is Ending"
A Talk by John Horgan
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.
THE REALITY CLUB
John Horgan Responds to Kevin Kelly and George Johnson
Kevin Kelly, George Johnson, Ernest B. Hook, Paul Davies, and
Lee Smolin on Horgan
"THE END OF HORGAN?"
"Why I Think Science Is Ending"
A Talk by John Horgan
In his 1966 book The End of Science , John Horgan contends
that scienceand particularly pure science rather than applied
science, technology and medicineis coming to an end. This
controversial hypothesis, which has received wide attention, has
at once been greeted by consternation by many (but certainly not
all) in the scientific community while giving comfort to those who
want anything to do with science and technology to go away.
In The Third Culture (1995), I write about " scientists
and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work
and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional
intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives,
redefining who and what we are." Horgan would disagree. In addition,
he would take issue with many of the people in my book as well as
other scientists I admire and respect. And yet we get along. What
I particularly like about him is his pugilistic approach to life.
John Horgan is a challenge.
JOHN HORGAN, senior writer for Scientific American, has written
over 400 articles, ranging up to 8,000 words in length, on every
aspect of science. He has also written freelance articles for The
New York Times, The New Republic, Slate, The London Times, Discover,
The Sciences and other publications. He is a two-time winner
of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism
Award, the highest honor for science writing. He has also won the
Science-in-Society Award of the National Association of Science
Writers. The Forbes Media Guide has named him one of the
most influential journalists in the U.S. and has given me a rating
of "excellent." Horgan is the author of The End of Science :
Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific
Age (Helix Books, 1966; paperback: Broadway Books, May, 1997).
"WHY I THINK SCIENCE IS ENDING"
A Talk by John Horgan
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
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 scienceand especially pure scienceis
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
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
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
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 aneurisms in spacetime
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
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
1. That's What They Thought 100 Years Ago.
Nine times out of 10, when I give my end of science spielwhether
to a Nobel laureate in physics or to some poor soul that I'm trapped
at a cocktail partythe response is some variation of, "Oh,
come on, that's what they thought 100 years ago." The reasoning
behind this response goes like this: As the 19th century wound down,
scientists thought they knew everything. But then Einstein and other
physicists discovered relativity and quantum mechanics, opening
up vast new vistas for modern physics and other branches of science.
The moral is that anyone who predicts science is ending will surely
turn out to be as short-sight ed as those 19th-century physicists
were. Another popular anecdote involves the U.S. patent commissioner
who, sometime in the 19th century, supposedly quit his job because
he thought everything had been invented.
First of all, both of these tales are simply not true. No American
patent official ever quit his job because he thought everything
had been invented. And physicists at the end of the last century
were engaged in debating all sorts of profound issues, such as whether
atoms really exist.
What people are really implying when they say "that's what they
thought 100 years ago" is that, because science has advanced so
rapidly over the past century or so, it can and will continue to
do so, possibly forever. This is an inductive argument, and as an
inductive argument it is deeply flawed. Science in the modern sense
has only existed for a few hundred years, and its most spectacular
achievements have occurred within the last century. Because we were
all born and raised in this era of exponential progress, we simply
assume that it is an intrinsic, permanent feature of reality.
But viewed from an historical perspective, the modern era of rapid
scientific and technological progress appears to be not a permanent
feature of reality but an aberration, a fluke, a product of a singular
convergence of social, intellectual and political factors. Ask yourself
this: Is it really more reasonable to assume that this period of
extremely rapid progress will continue forever rather than reaching
its natural limits and coming to an end?
2. Answers Always Raise New Questions.
It is quite true that answers always raise new questions. But
most of the answerable questions raised by our current theories
tend to involve details. For example, when, exactly, did our ancestors
begin walking upright? Was it three million years ago, or four million?
On which chromosome does the gene for cystic fibrosis reside? The
answers to such questions may be fascinating, or have enormous practical
value, but they merely extend the prevailing paradigm rather than
yielding profound new insights into nature
Other questions are profound but unanswerable. The big bang theory,
for example, poses a very obvious and deep question: Why did the
big bang happen in the first place, and what, if anything, preceded
it? The answer is that we don't know, and we will never know, because
the origin of the universe is too distant from us in space and time.
That is an absolute limit of science, one forced on us by our physical
limitations. There are lots of other unanswerable questions. Are
there other dimensions in space and time in addition to our own?
Are there other universes?
Then there is a whole class of what I call inevitability questions.
Just how inevitable was the universe, or the laws of physics, or
life, or life intelligent enough to wonder how inevitable it was?
Underlying all these questions is the biggest question of all: Why
is there something rather than nothing? None of these inevitability
questions are answerable. You can't determine the probability of
the universe or of life on earth when you have only one universe
and one history of life to contemplate. Statistics require more
than one data point. So, again, it is true that answers always raise
new questions. But that does not mean that science will never end.
It only means that science can never answer all possible questions,
it can never quench our curiosity, it can never be complete.
Unanswerable questions, by the way, are what give rise to superstring
theory, Gaia, psychoanalysis and other example of ironic science,
as well as all of philosophy.
3. What About Life on Mars?
The day the life on Mars story broke last August, I walked into
my office at Scientific American, and several colleagues immediately
came up to me with big smirks and said, "So, what does Mr. No More
Big Discoveries say now?"
As I said in my book, the discovery of extraterrestrial life would
represent one of the most thrilling findings in the history of science.
I hope to live long enough to witness such an event. But the so-called
evidence presented last summer doesn't even come close. It consists
of some organic chemicals and globule-shaped particles that vaguely
resemble terrestrial microbes but which are subject to many alternative
interpretations. Those scientists who are most knowledgeable about
very old microfossilsthose who are the real experts in the
origin of terrestrial lifeare also the most skeptical of the
life-on-Mars interpretation. That's a very bad sign.
There is only one way we are going to know if there is life on
Mars, and that is if we send a mission there to conduct a thorough
search for it. Our best hope is to have a human crew drill deep
below the surface, where there is thought to be enough liquid water
and heat to sustain microbial life as we know it. It will be decades,
at least, before we can muster the resources and money for such
a project, even if society is willing to pay for it.
Let's say that we do eventually determine that microbial life
existed or still exists on Mars. That would be fantastic, an enormous
boost for origin-of-life studies and biology in general. But would
it mean that science is suddenly liberated from all the limits that
I have described? Hardly. If we find life on Mars, we will know
that life arose in this solar system, and perhaps not even more
than once. It may be that life originated on Mars and then spread
to the earth, or vice versa.
More importantly, we will be just as ignorant about whether life
exists elsewhere in the universe, and we will still be facing huge
obstacles to answering that question. Let's say that engineers come
up with a space transport method that boosts the velocity of spaceships
by a factor of more than 10, to one million miles an hour. That
spaceship would still require 3,000 years to reach the nearest star,
It's possible that one of these days the radio receivers employed
in our Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program, called
SETI, will pick up electromagnetic signalsthe alien equivalent
of Seinfeldcoming from another star. But it's worth noting
that most of the SETI proponents are physicists, who have an extremely
deterministic view of reality. Physicists think that the existence
of a highly technological civilization here on earth makes the existence
of similar civilizations elsewhere highly probable.
The real experts on life, biologists, find this view ludicrous,
because they know how much contingencyjust plain luckis
involved in evolution. Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist,
has said that if the great experiment of life were re-run a million
times over, chances are it would never again give rise to mammals,
let alone mammals intelligent enough to invent television.
For similar reasons Gould's colleague Ernst Mayr, who may be this
century's most eminent evolutionary biologist, has called the search
for extra-terrestrial life a waste of time and money. The U.S. Congress
apparently agrees with Mayr, because they terminated the funding
for the SETI program three years ago. It's now just getting by on
4. The Paradigm Shift Argument.
A surprising number of otherwise hard-nosed scientists, when confronted
with the argument that science might be ending, start sounding like
philosophical relativists, or social constructivists, or other doubters
of scientific truth. They begin to sound, in other words, like the
people who write for the postmodern journal Social Text,
which last June was the victim of a hoax that was perpetrated by
the New York University physicist Alan Sokal and subsequently made
the front page of The New York Times.
According to these skeptics, science is a process not of discovery
but of invention, like art or music or literature. We just think
science can't go any further because we can't see beyond our current
paradigms. In the future, we will submit to new paradigms that cause
the scales to fall from our eyes and open up vast new realms of
inquiry. This kind of thinking can be traced back to the philosopher
Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the extremely influential book Structure
of Scientific Revolutions, and who died last June.
But modern science has been much less revolutionarymuch
less susceptible to dramatic shifts in perspectivethan Kuhn
suggested. Particle physics rests on the firm foundation of quantum
mechanics, and modern genetics, far from undermining the fundamental
paradigm of Darwinian evolution, has bolstered it.
If you view atoms and elements and the double helix and viruses
and stars and galaxies as inventions, projections of our culture,
which future cultures may replace with other convenient illusions,
then you are unlikely to agree with me that science is finite. If
science is as ephemeral as art, of course it can continue forever.
But if you think that science is a process of discovery rather than
merely of invention, if you believe that science is capable of achieving
genuine truth, then you must take seriously the possibility that
all the great, genuine paradigm shifts are behind us.
5. End of Science Is Just Semantic Trickery
My book had at least one serious shortcoming. In arguing that
science will never achieve anything as fundamental as quantum mechanics
or the theory of evolution, I should have said what I meant by "fundamental."
I'll take a stab at that now. A fact or theory is fundamental in
proportion to how broadly it applies both in space and in time.
Both quantum mechanics and the theory of general relativity apply,
as far as we know, throughout the entire universe at all times since
its birth. That makes these theories truly fundamental.
Technically, all biological theories are less fundamental than
the cornerstone theories of physics, because biological theories
applyas far as we knowonly to particular arrangements
of matter that have existed on our lonely little planet for the
past 3.5 billion years. But biology has the potential to be more
meaningful than physics because it more directly addresses a phenomenon
we find especially fascinating: ourselves.
In his 1995 book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett
argued persuasively that evolution by natural selection is "the
single best idea anyone has ever had," because it "unifies the realm
of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause
and effect, mechanism and physical law."
I agree. Darwin's achievementespecially when fused with
Mendelian genetics into the new synthesishas rendered all
subsequent biology oddly anticlimactic, at least from a philosophical
perspective. Take developmental biology, which addresses the transformation
of a single fertilized cell into a multicellular creature. In her
review of my book for The New York Times, Natalie Angier
expressed the hope that "unifying insights that illuminate pattern
formation in the developing embryo" would disprove my end-of-science
thesis. But according to the eminent British biologist Lewis Wolpert,
those "unifying insights" may already be behind us. Wolpert was
recently quoted in Science as saying that "the principles of development
are understood and all that remains is to fill in the details."
But this scientific triumph has unfolded virtually unnoticed by
the public. One reason is that developmental biology is excruciatingly
complicated, and most science writers avoid it. Natalie Angier is
one of the few writers talented enough to make the subject fun to
But another reason that developmental biology does not attract
more attention may be that its findings fit so comfortably within
the broader paradigm of evolutionary theory and DNA-based genetics.
It is "normal science," to use the phrase favored by Kuhn. Normal
science solves puzzles that are posed by the prevailing paradigm
but does not challenge the paradigm's basic tenets.
In a way, all biology since Darwin has been normal science. Even
Watson and Crick's discovery of the double helix, although it has
had enormous practical consequences, merely revealed how heredity
works on a molecular level; no significant revision of the new synthesis
6. The Chaoplexity Gambit
Many modern scientists hope that advances in computers and mathematics
will enable them to transcend their current knowledge and create
a powerful new science. This is the faith that sustains the trendy
fields of chaos and complexity. In my book I lump chaos and complexity
together under a single term, chaoplexity, because after reading
dozens of books about chaos and complexity and talking to scores
of people in both fields, I realized that there is no significant
difference between them.
Chaoplexologists have argued that with more powerful computers
and mathematics they can answer age-old questions about the inevitability,
or lack thereof, of life, or even of the entire universe. They can
find new laws of nature analogous to gravity or the second law of
thermodynamics. They can make economics and other social sciences
as rigorous as physics. They can find a cure for AIDS. These are
all claims that have been made by researchers at the Santa Fe Institute.
These claims stem from an overly optimistic interpretation of
certain developments in computer science. Over the past few decades,
researchers have found that various simple rules, when followed
by a computer, can generate patterns that appear to vary randomly
as a function of time or scale. Let's call this illusory randomness
"pseudo-noise." A paradigmatic example of a pseudo-noisy system
is the mother of all fractals, the Mandelbrot set, which is an icon
of the chaoplexity movement.
The fields of both chaos and complexity have held out the hope
that much of the noise that seems to pervade nature is actually
pseudo-noise, the result of some underlying, deterministic algorithm.
But the noise that makes it so difficult to predict earthquakes,
the stock market, the weather and other phenomena is not apparent
but very real. This kind of noisiness will never be reduced to any
simple set of rules, in my view.
Of course, faster computers and advanced mathematical techniques
will improve our ability to predict certain complicated phenomena.
Popular impressions notwithstanding, weather forecasting has become
more accurate over the last few decades, in part because of improvements
in computer modeling. But an even more important factor is improvements
in data-gatherin gnotably satellite imaging. Meteorologists
have a larger, more accurate database upon which to build their
models and against which to test them. Forecasts improve through
this dialectic between simulation and data-gathering.
At some point, we are drifting over the line from science per
se toward engineering. The model either works or doesn't work according
to some standard of effectiveness; "truth" is irrelevant. Moreover,
chaos theory tells us that there is a fundamental limit to forecasting
related to the butterfly effect. One has to know the initial conditions
of a system with infinite precision to be able to predict its course.
This is something that has always puzzled me about chaoplexologists:
according to one of their fundamental tenets, the butterfly effect,
many of their goals may be impossible to achieve.
7. What About the Human Mind?
The human mind is by far the most wide open frontier for science,
mainly because it is still so profoundly mysterious, in spite of
all the advances of modern neuroscience. In his bestseller "Listening
to Prozac" the psychiatrist Peter Kramer portrayed us as marching
inexorably toward a Brave New World in which we can fine-tune our
moods and personalities with drugs. This vision is a fantasy. What
the scientific literature actually says is that Prozac and other
so called wonder drugs are no more effective for treating depression
and other common emotional disorders, statistically speaking, than
the more primitive antidepressants, such as imipramine, which themselves
are no more effective, statistically speaking, than talk therapy.
Kramer was on firmer ground when he said, at the end of his book,
that our understanding of our own minds is still "laughably primitive."
The question is, when, if ever, will that situation change? Last
June I attended the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association
in New York City, along with almost 20,000 other people. There were
therapists there who still admit to being Freudians. And why not?
No theory or treatment for the mind has been shown to be significantly
better than psychoanalysis. Cheaper, maybe, but that's not a scientific
criterion. The hot, up-and-coming treatment for depression, and
even schizophrenia and other disorders, is electroshock therapy,
which can cause severe memory loss and other side effects. That
does not seem like a sign of progress to me. The science of mind
hasin certain respectsbecome much more empirical and
less speculative since the days of Freud. We have acquired an amazing
ability to probe the brain, with microelectrodes, magnetic resonance
imaging, positron-emission tomography and the like. Maybe all this
work will culminate in a great new unified theory of and treatment
for the mind. But I suspect it won't. What I think neuroscience
can and will accomplish is correlating specific physiological processes
in the brain to specific mental functionssuch as memory, perception
and so forthin ever-finer detail. This kind of nitty-gritty,
empirical research should have profound practical consequences,
such as providing better ways to diagnose and treat mental illness.
But neuroscience will not deliver what so many philosophers and
scientists yearn for. It will not solve all the ancient philosophical
mysteries relating to the mindthe mind-body problem, the problem
of free will, the solipsism paradox, and so on. Nor will neuroscience
demonstrate that consciousness is somehow a necessary component
of existence, which is an idea that is alluring not only to New
Agers but also to scientists and philosophers who should know better.
This is a material world. We have all seen bodies without minds,
but only psychics and psychotics have seen minds without bodies.
The universe existed for billions of years before we came along,
and it will continue to exist for eons after we and our minds are
Psychologists, social scientists, neuroscientists and others seeking
the key to the human psyche will periodically seize upon some "new"
paradigm as the answer to their prayers. One paradigm that proves
perennially alluring is Darwinian theory, which in its latest incarnation
is called evolutionary psychology. But as crucial as it is for understanding
life in general, Darwinian theory does not provide very deep insights
into human nature, as I tried to show in "The New Social Darwinists,"
published in the October 1995 Scientific American.
Darwinians often complain that their views of human nature are
rejected because of the continuing dominance within academia of
left-leaning scientists, who for political reasons insist that humanity
is infinitely malleable. That's just not true. If evolutionary theory
had turned out to be a truly powerful paradigm for explaining human
behavior, it would have been embraced by the scientific community.
Noam Chomsky has said that we will probably always learn more about
human nature from novels than from science. I agree.
8. What About Applied Science?
Some scientists grant that the basic rules governing the physical
and biological realms may be finite, and that we may already have
them more or less in hand. But they insist that we can still explore
the consequences of these rules forever and manipulate them to create
an endless supply of new materials, organisms, technologies and
so forth. Proponents of this positio nmany of whom adhere
to a quasi-scientific cult called nanotechnologyoften compare
science to chess. The rules of chess are quite simple, but the number
of possible games that these rules can give rise to is virtually
There's some validity to this position. Applied science obviously
has much further to go, and it is hard to know precisely where it
might end. That fact was vividly demonstrated by the story of Dolly
the cloned lamb; many scientists had believed that cloning from
adult cells was impossible.
But I still believesurprise, surprisethat the limits
of applied science are also coming into sight. Let me offer several
examples. It once seemed inevitable that physicists' knowledge of
nuclear fusionwhich gave us the hydrogen bombwould culminate
in a cheap, clean, boundless source of energy. But after 50 years
and billions of dollars of research, that dream has now become vanishingly
faint. In the last few years, the U.S. has drastically cut back
on its fusion budget, and plans for next-generation reactors have
been delayed. Now even the most optimistic researchers predict that
it will take at least 50 years before we have economically viable
fusion reactors. Realists acknowledge that fusion energy is a dream
that may never be fulfilled: the technical, economic and political
obstacles are simply too great to overcome.
Turning to applied biology, the most dramatic achievement that
I can imagine is immortality. Many scientists are now attempting
to identify the precise causes of aging. It is conceivable that
if they succeed in pinpointing the mechanisms that make us age,
researchers might then learn how to block the aging process and
to design versions of Homo sapiens that can live indefinitely. But
evolutionary biologists suggest that immortality may be impossible
to achieve. Natural selection designed us to live long enough to
breed and raise our children. As a result, senescence does not stem
from any single cause or even a suite of causes; it is woven inextricably
into the fabric of our being.
One might have more confidence in scientists' ability to crack
the riddle of senescence if they had had more success with a presumably
simpler problem: cancer. Since President Richard Nixon officially
declared a Federal "war on cancer" in 1971, the U.S. has spent more
than $30 billion on research. But overall mortality rates have remained
pretty much flat since 1971 and in fact for the last 50 years. Treatments
are also still terribly primitive. Physicians still cut cancer out
with surgery, poison it with chemotherapy and burn it with radiation.
Maybe someday all our research will yield a "cure" that renders
cancer as obsolete as smallpox. Maybe not. Maybe cancerand
by extension mortalityis simply too complex a problem to solve.
Paradoxically, biology's inability to solve certain important
problems may be its greatest hope. Harvey Sapolsky, a professor
of social policy at MIT, touched on this paradox in an article for
Technology Review back in December 1995. He noted that the
major justification for the funding of science since the Second
World War was national securityor, more specifically, the
Cold War. Now that scientists no longer have the Evil Empire to
justify their huge budgets, Sapolsky asked, what other goal can
serve as a substitute? The answer he came up with was immortality.
Most people think living longer, and possibly even forever, is desirable,
he pointed out. But the best thing about making immortality the
primary goal of science, Sapolsky said, is that it is almost certainly
unattainable, so scientists can keep getting funds for more research
9. The End of Science Is Itself an Ironic Hypothesis
I admit that, as a journalist, I'm overly fond of playing gotcha
games. In my book, for example, I describe an interview with the
great philosopher Karl Popper, who argued that scientists can never
prove a theory is true; they can only falsify it, or prove it is
false. Naturally I had to ask Popper, Is your falsifiability hypothesis
falsifiable? Popper was 90 then, but still intellectually armed
and very dangerous. He put his hand on my hand, looked deep into
my eyes, and said, very gently, "I don't want to hurt you, but it
is a silly question."
Given my style of journalism, I guess it's only fair that some
critics have tried to give me a taste of my own medicine, pointing
out triumphantly that my own end-of-science thesis is an example
of ironic theorizing, since it is ultimately untestable and unprovable.
This argument was put forth in the review of my book in The Economist,
American Scientist and elsewhere.
But to paraphrase Karl Popper, "This is a silly objection." Compared
to atoms, or stars, or galaxies, or genes or other objects of genuine
scientific investigation, human culture is ephemeral; an asteroid
could destroy us at any moment and that would bring about the end
not only of science but also of history, politics, artyou
name it. So obviously any prediction about the future of human culture
is an educated guess, at best, at least compared to nuclear physics,
or astronomy, or other disciplines that prove certain facts beyond
a reasonable doubt.
But just because we cannot know with certainty what our future
is does not mean that we cannot make cogent arguments in favor of
one scenario over another. I think my end-of-science scenario is
much more plausible than the ones that I am trying to displace,
in which we keep discovering profound new truths about the universe
forever, or arrive at an end point in which we achieve perfect wisdom
and mastery over nature.
10. The Lack-of-Imagination Argument
Of all the criticisms of my thesis, the one that really gets under
my skin is that it reflects what Newsweek called a "failure
of imagination." Actually, it is all too easy to imagine great discoveries
just over the horizon. Our culture does it for us, with TV shows
like Star Trek and movies like Star Wars and ads and
political rhetoric that promise us tomorrow will be very different
fromand almost certainly better thantoday. Scientists,
and science journalists, too, are forever claiming that a huge revelation
or breakthrough or holy grail awaits us just over the horizon. I
have to admit, I've written my share of such stories.
What I want people to imagine is this: What if there is no big
thing over the horizon? What if what we have is basically what we
are going to have? We are not going to invent warp-drive spaceships
that can take us to other galaxies or even other universes. We are
not going to become infinitely wise or immortal through genetic
engineering. We are not going to discover the mind of God, as the
British physicist Stephen Hawking once put it. We are not going
to know why there is something rather than nothing. We'll be stuck
in a permanent state of wonder before the mystery of existencewhich
may not be such a terrible thing. After all, our sense of wonder
is the wellspring not only of science but also of art, and literature,
and philosophy, and religion.
One final point. I've been accused by some criticssuch as
Phil Andersonof having a hidden anti-science agenda. That's
ridiculous. I became a science writer because I love science. I
think science is the most miraculous and noble and meaningful of
all human creations. My conviction that science is ending is deeply
disturbing to me, because I can't imagine anything better for humanity
to do than to try to figure out what we are, where we came from
and where we are going. I sincerely hope that in my lifetime some
scientistmaybe even someone reading this postingwill
discover something as important as natural selection or quantum
mechanics or the expansion of the universe, something that spawns
a whole new era in pure science and proves me wrong. But I also
sincerely believe that isn't going to happen.
THE REALITY CLUB
John Horgan Responds to George Johnson and Kevin Kelly
From: John Horgan
I just discovered, belatedly, the responses by George Johnson
and Kevin Kelly to my posting here of a few weeks ago (post #8 -
4/2/97).* Lest they think I was ignoring them, I'd like to respond,
as briefly as possible. You know George, it must drive scientists
crazy to hear you and me going at it. One guy thinks science is
all over, and the other thinks it never really got anywhere in the
first place. Some choice! And they work for the New York Times
and Scientific American, no less! No wonder science is having
so much trouble!
As for your characterization of me as a Platonist, well, I don't
think that's quite right. I'd call myself a functionalist, which
I define as follows. If a theory works so well that it does everything
asked of itprediction of new phenomena and extremely accurate
description of old onesyou have to grant that it is true in
a functional if not absolute sense. As it survives test after test,
it becomes increasingly unlikely to be displaced by any better theory,
and therefore it becomes de facto a final theory. That seems to
be the case with quantum mechanics and general relativity, which
are theories that you find implausibly odd, and with good reason.
I don't think these mathematical formalisms are absolute truths,
or "discoveries," in the same way that the existence of galaxies
or cell structures or elements are discoveries, but they come close
just because they work so damn well. In my review of your book (and
thanks for citing that in your note, because I go through all this
in much more depth there) I call them "virtual discoveries."
Kevin, I agree that my style is bumptious, excessively so, no
doubt, at times. But I get frustrated (and I think George Johnson
does too) by the excessively fawning stance of much science writing
these days, and by books and articles that pass off philosophical
speculation as science. If you don't want to take my word that superstring
theory is unverifiable, in the same sense that the standard model
is, read Weinberg's Dreams of a Final Theory or Hawking's
Brief History of Time. They concede that the Planck scale,
where superstrings supposedly dwell, can never be directly accessed
General relativity, although not nearly as well established as
quantum mechanics, has been verified by plenty of different experiments.
In fact, the Global Positioning System makes relativistic corrections
in calculating positions. Relativity is plain old engineering now.
Kevin Kelly, George Johnson, Ernest B. Hook, Paul Davies, and Lee
Smolin on Horgan
From: Kevin Kelly
Re: Horgan Reply
I like the boldness of your argument, John Horgan, but you leave
me behind whenever we arrive at this central issue of your own
certainty that some fashionable science theories are unverifiable.
Ironic science, you call it. When I queried you about why you reject
superstring theory and not relativity both to my mind equally
abstract and out of the realm of ordinary experience you
If you don't want to take my word that superstring theory is
unverifiable, in the same sense that the standard model is, read
Weinberg's Dreams of a Final Theory or Hawking's
Brief History of Time. They concede that the Planck scale,
where superstrings supposedly dwell, can never be directly accessed
Well, I don't take your word, nor theirs, on this, as much
as I respect Weinberg and Hawking. This is where I depart from your
very interesting hypothesis: that you offer only an ironic and not
a scientific means to predict what is "unverifiable" and what is
By what means are we so sure superstring theory is unverifiable?
Before general relativity was verified, how much certainty was there
that is was verifiable? Very little at first, as a fine grained
reading of the history shows. Ditto for the more extreme notions
in quantum theory, which of course even Einstein had doubts about
anyone being able to prove. But now that they have been verified
(and shown to be verifiable) they become "fundamental" in your view,
whereas any far out idea that has not been verified yet becomes
"unverifiable" in your notion. This is what I would call "ironic
science"; Something is ironic until it becomes fundamental. How
can a theory migrate from being "ironic" to "fundamental"? Only
because those terms have no exactness or meaning except in retrospect.
Here is another way to describe the confusion in the way you present
your idea. As far as I can tell the only way you have of determining
that a theory is verifiable is to verify it to prove that
it is "truable" by proving it is true. This is confusing the veracity
of an argument with its verifiability. You need to clarify that
muddlement which pervades your book.
If you want to propose a real scientific theory about science, you'll
have to come up with a way to determine apriori which notions are
inherently and forever untestable, and then make some specific predictions
(and ideally some unexpected predictions) about what theories are
ironic and what are real. Until then, it is hard to take your arguments
seriously, as intriguing as I find them.
From: George Johnson
Loose Ends of Science
John Horgan's recent position paper is certainly powerful
a rhetorical masterpiece. But on closer inspection I'm not sure
the argument hangs together. Science seems to be ending for so many
different reasons that it's hard to keep track of them all.
Cosmology and biology are coming to an end, we're told, because
their reigning theories the Big Bang and Natural Selection
are all but complete. Particle physics, on the other hand,
is said to be ending largely because Congress cancelled the Superconducting
Supercollider, making it impossible to proceed. The study of complex
systems, John argues, never even got off to a start because it depends
on computer simulations, which he sees as little more than very
complicated video games. (There is something inherently fishy about
computer models, he suggests, that somehow doesn't apply to modeling
with differential equations. I really don't get the distinction.)
Scientific questions that don't fit into the above categories
are declared to be unanswerable for metaphysical reasons. Neuroscience,
for example, is supposed to be coming to an end because the nature
of consciousness is forever unknowable. The deepest biological question
of all whether life is an aberration or something universal
will probably never be answered, John says, because we're
stuck inside the solar system and can only wait, in vain, for someone
out there to contact us.
Is it true that the proposed title of the book was originally
"The Ends of Science"? A different endtime scenario has been
tailored to fit each scientific frontier.
Maybe I'll write a sequel called "The Loose Ends of Science."
Our theory of particle physics, the ingeniously jury-rigged Standard
Model, stops far short of unifying the electroweak and strong nuclear
forces and depends mightily on the existence of a particle, the
Higgs boson, that has never been seen. The Big Bang theory cannot
explain something so basic as how structure arose in the universe
without declaring that most of it is made from a kind of "nonbaryonic"
dark matter not included in the Standard Model. If science is over
it is not because it is complete. The present theories are just
running out of steam.
Because of the insatiable human hunger to find pattern, the search
for better theories will continue. And because no map can ever encompass
all of creation, science can never really end
GEORGE JOHNSON is a writer for The New York Times, working
on contract from Santa Fe, NM. He formerly worked as a staff editor
for "The Week in Review" section of The Times. His books
include Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for
Order (1995); In the Palaces of Memory: How We Build the
Worlds Inside Our Heads (1991); Machinery of the Mind: Inside
the New Science of Artificial Intelligence (1986), and Architects
of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics (1984).
From: Ernest B. Hook
Re: Mr. Horgan's Claims:Useless and Mildly Pernicious
I am not sure why Mr. Horgan's remarks forwarded to me by Norman
Levitt via Alan Sokal seem worthy of consideration by an active
research scientist. Just as the response to the man who pronounced
"an end to history", is that history continues nevertheless, so
any claims that science is limited or ending or has an end, are
refuted by "it" continuing nevertheless.
Certainly Mr. Horgan is correct that each fact known so to speak,
is one less to discover, so the supply of facts, theories, or explanatory
paradigms etc. is presumably drying up. But it is tantamount to
saying that each day the universe is winding down and we humans
are one day closer to extinction. (Or that each poem written is
one less that can be written, although the analogy here is less
exact.) How useful is such an observation? The question is, where
are we now on this huge time scale?? We are operating now on a temporal
microscale. Mr. Horgan is talking about events on a temporal macroscale.
I don't regard Mr. Horgan's claim as a very fruitful area of discussion
unless Mr. Horgan could demonstrate how his thesis directly and
practically had some implications for current research strategies
and programs. As to the argument that scientists are just "filling
in details now", that same argument could have been made after the
periodic table was discovered as well. The point is that yesterday's
dismissed "details" often have had the seeds of tomorrows great
discoveries. So let us not worry if we are only working on what
to Mr. Horgan appear only to be details.
Moreover, Mr. Horgan's claim may well be pernicious in its consequences,
if he can convince aspiring students that since "science" has limits
or is coming to an end, that therefore there is not much point in
individuals pursuing a scientific career. Certainly, some individuals
have retrospectively cited Mr. Horgan's or similar arguments to
justify dropping out of science, and doing something else usually
easier and less challenging once they had tenure at least
but these are often decisions by individuals who didn't enjoy
doing science so much in the first place and whose primary goals
may have been the search for solutions to particular problems that
have been answered since they entered the field. Once answered.
they lost or lacked curiosity to go on in other areas.
The question really is, it seems to me, is the issue really worth
discussing. If for the sake of argument one granted his claim, insofar
as it is correct, what bit of difference would it make to the practice
of science? Or to science policy?
My own view is Mr. Horgan's claims are dangerous to the extent
that anyone might actually be deflected by them to change any practice
or approach to science or science policy.
Ernest B. Hook
ERNEST B. HOOK is Professor, School of Public Health, University
of California, Berkeley.
From: Paul Davies
Re: John Horgan
Bravo John for a robust and entertaining defense of your thesis.
I have a couple of points to make:
1. Life on Mars. As I am writing a book on this myself, I have
thought a lot about the significance of the recent NASA "evidence".
You are right that, if the features in the meteorite do turn out
to be evidence for life on Mars, the chances are it came from Earth
or vice versa. Clearly the planets are not isolated. However, it
is possible to discriminate between contamination and an independent
origin. Suppose Mars life was based on left-handed DNA, rather than
right handed as is Earth life. That would be strong circumstantial
evidence that life had happened twice in the solar system. Then
it is a dead cert that it has happened wherever conditions allow,
and that the universe is teeming with life. This would surely be
a major advance in science and a transformation of our world view,
and would also demonstrate that the laws of nature are "rigged"
to make the emergence of life inevitable. I agree that the latter
position is regarded as ludicrous by most biologists (though not
by Christian de Duve), but that is why the discovery of an independently-arising
life form elsewhere would be so iconoclastic.
2. Consciousness. Maybe it is transitory, but we still don't know
how it arises, or what it takes for a system to be conscious, or
why qualia (assuming you believe in them) exist, as they serve no
evolutionary purpose. Even if consciousness is not a fundamental
aspect of our universe, it is still a mystery yet to be solved.
You can't just shrug it aside as of no consequence because it may
be limited to a tiny region of spacetime.
Congratulations on a stimulating essay!
PAUL DAVIES, described by the Washington Times as "the best
science writer on either side of the Atlantic," is a professor of
natural philosophy at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and
author of more than 20 books including The Mind of God, Are
We Alone, The Last Three Minutes (Science Masters
Series) and About Time which was shortlisted for the 1996
British Book Prize. In 1995 Davies was awarded the Templeton Prize
for progress in religion, the world's largest prize for intellectual
From: Lee Smolin
As I've said several times before, John's argument is not silly,
and I don't think he is making it in bad faith. He is also an interesting
person, who I enjoyed meeting some time ago. But I believe he is
wrong, and it is not hard to explain why. The basic reason is that
the "map of reality" and "narrative of creation" that he described,
while enormous achievements, are full of holes, unanswered fundamental
questions and, in some cases, basic inconsistencies. This is because
the scientific revolution that produced these achievements is not
yet finished, but has some way to go. An indication of how much
of this revolution remains unfinished can be gotten by writing down
a list of questions that we cannot yet answer:
How do cells differentiate into different cell types?
How does a single cell develop into a coherent organism?
Why are there procaryotes and eucaryotes, but apparently nothing
What is the exact story of how life began?
How does the brain work?
How did the galaxies form?
What is responsible for the large scale structure of the galaxies?
What keeps the star formation rate of many spiral galaxies constant
Why were the initial conditions in the early universe so symmetric?
What are the reasons for the values of the twenty-odd parameters
standard models of particle physics and cosmology?
Why do those values have the property that they make it possible
galaxies and complex chemistry to form?
How is gravitation consistent with quantum phenomena?
What happens inside of black holes?
What happens at the end point of black hole evaporation?
Each of these questions is the focus of intensive work by thousand
of very bright young and not so young scientists. Among people engaged
in this work there is a strong sense of optimism that the next years
will see dramatic breakthroughs. Each of these will add to the "map
of reality" knowledge as fundamental as anything discovered in the
twentieth century and all will, sooner or later, lead to theories
that are verified by observation and experiment. Even in quantum
gravity and string theory (where there have been dramatic breakthroughs
in the last years) there is a growing list of experimental predictions.
(I wrote a paper some years ago cataloging the experimental predictions
of quantum gravity and string theory, and the list has grown since.)
It is true that these cannot yet be carried out, but I would not
want to be in the position John is of betting against the possibility
that the thousands of bright people working in these areas around
the world will not find a way to carry out these tests.
For more arguments against the "end" of science, please see my
last exchange with John in Edge number ??. (By the way, I notice
that John seems to have stopped defining ironic science as science
that could not even in principle be tested experimentally, given
the ease with which even string theory evades
But in closing, I would like to remark that I find John's stance
disturbingly characteristic of the present moment. We are in a time
of extraordinary change, with positive developments all around us.
In the last years democracy has expanded dramatically and the danger
of war and reach of totalitarianism has receded, the economy is
stable and growing, our nation is being reinvigorated by a new wave
of immigration, amazing things are happening in the arts, theater,
dance, while in science and medicine there have been a slew of breakthroughs,
from effective treatments for AIDS and certain forms of mental illness
to all the new observational data in astronomy and cosmology.
So why are people so pessimistic? Why is there so much talk of
the end of this and that? This for me is the great unanswered question
of the present moment.
LEE SMOLIN is a theoretical physicist; professor of physics and
member of the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at Pennsylvania
State University; author of The Life Of The Cosmos, forthcoming