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Contemplating the end of the world, math, mystery and other things

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I suffer from eschatological obsession. That is, I spend lots of time brooding about ends. So the cover of the September Scientific American—which reads simply "the end."—made me all shivery, like when I hear the spooky sitar opening of The Doors’ apocalyptic rock poem "The End." (I’m never more Freudian than when I hear Morrison’s Oedipal yowl.)

Some issue highlights: Tom Kirkwood’s article on why we shouldn’t expect the end of death soon (someone send this to Ray Kurzweil); Arpad Vass’s description of a corpse’s busy afterlife (which reminds me of one of my favorite novels, Jim Crace’s Being Dead, Picador 2001); George Musser’s riff on whether time can end (which would mean the end of ends—like, grok that, dude!).

The issue inspires me to offer ruminations on some other possible ends:

*Philosophy. Does philosophy have a future? I distinguish between science and philosophy this way: Science takes on questions that can be answered, at least in principle, and philosophy questions that can’t. And as science has grown in power, it has grabbed more and more of philosophers’ turf. Scientists are mounting an assault on the mind-body problem (see below), and they are probing the roots of morality, an endeavor that New York Times columnist David Brooks equates with "the end of philosophy." But scientists, although they can (try to) tell us where our morality came from and how it works, can’t tell us how we should live. There is still a yawning divide between "is" and "ought." Philosophers can stay busy working within the "ought" realm, trying to formulate moral rules. Of course there are no absolute moral rules; moral rules are always provisional, dependent on context, in a way that scientific laws aren’t. We don’t want masochists living by the Golden Rule, for example, and we all too easily find exceptions to the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill." The upside for philosophers is that if you can’t ever answer a question, you can argue about it forever. And that’s precisely what I expect philosophers to do. The late, great anthropologist Clifford Geertz once said that "progress" in anthropology "is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other." That’s even truer of philosophy.

*Neuroscience. In the September issue, the neuroscientist Christof Koch declares that brain research may soon solve one of the oldest philosophical puzzles: the mind-body problem. Learning how a brain, mere matter, makes a mind would arguably represent the culmination—the end!—of neuroscience, in the same sense that a quantum-gravity theory would culminate physics. But Koch’s declaration is far too optimistic. Neuroscientists may indeed learn enough about how the brain encodes information to help us solve enormous practical problems. Cracking the neural code may help us discover more effective treatments for brain disorders such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, blindness and paralysis. But I suspect that the neural code will be so hideously complex that it won’t give us the sort of intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction—the "Aha!"—we crave. I also disagree with Koch’s claim that a theory of consciousness will allow us to determine whether a fetus, a brain-damaged adult, a dog or even the Internet (!) is conscious. Here we are bumping into the problem of solipsism. The basic idea of solipsism is that each of us is trapped in a seamless prison of subjectivity; no one can be absolutely sure that any other human—let alone a sea slug or computer network or right-wing TV pundit like Glenn Beck—is conscious. As I once heard Koch exclaim to David Chalmers, a philosopher who was suggesting that he could solve the solipsism problem, "How do I even know you’re conscious?" One caveat: If neuroscientists can design brain chips that allow direct, broadband, wi-fi mind-to-mind communications, all bets are off.

*Mathematics. Not to open a can of worms, but I’ve always thought of math as less akin to science than to art. Scientists discover, artists invent, and so do mathematicians. Godel’s incompleteness theorem established that any moderately complex system of axioms gives rise to questions that cannot be answered with those axioms. By adding to their base of axioms, mathematicians can keep expanding their realm of possible inventions, posing new conjectures and constructing new proofs, forever, just as musicians and poets can keep inventing new forms constructed of sounds and words. The question is, how comprehensible will future mathematical proofs be? Many proofs are now constructed with the help of computers, which can carry out calculations far beyond the capability of mere mortals. Mathematicians like to wax rhapsodic about the elegance, beauty and depth of proofs, but computer proofs often yield truth without insight or understanding. Mathematics is reduced to a mere engineering exercise. So yes, mathematics can, in principle, continue forever. The problem is that no mere human will be able to understand it. "We’re not very well adapted for thinking about the space-time continuum or the Riemann hypothesis," the mathematician Ronald Graham once told me. "We’re designed for picking berries or avoiding being eaten."

*The World. I grew up in the duck-and-cover era, when global nuclear war between the United States and Russia seemed not only possible but probable. The detonation of tens of thousands of H-bombs would mean, at the very least, the end of civilization, if not all of humanity and even all of life. Remember Carl Sagan’s prediction of nuclear winter? Then, incredibly, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended with scarcely a shot fired (how many people saw that coming?). Now, I’ve veered from pessimism to optimism. Sure, we’ve still got a few problems, but as David Biello notes, humanity is doing better than ever as measured by health, life expectancy and prosperity. Moreover, in spite of the conflicts raging in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, annual war-related deaths have dropped by two orders of magnitude since the cataclysmic first half of the 20th century. This decline has led scholars such as John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, to assert that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of international war. Now there’s an end worth celebrating.

*Mystery. The British chemist Peter Atkins is an atheist so hard-core that he makes Richard Dawkins look like the Pope. Atkins has called religion "evil" and belief in God "foolish." He once told me that he believed science would one day solve every question that we can pose, including the biggest one of all: Why is there something rather than nothing? Existence will be so totally solved that there will be no mysteries left. None. Our primordial "Hunh?" of bafflement will turn into a triumphant "Aha!" Our scientific knowledge will be so complete and persuasive that no one will cling to their silly religious beliefs anymore. I find this faith in science’s omnipotence almost as weird as Christians’ faith in an omnipotent God. My guess is that the more we learn about the universe, the more mysterious it will become. Which means of course that neither science nor religion will ever end.

Image: A desert in Namibia; credit: iStockphoto

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  1. 1. tbird49er 11:18 am 09/6/2010

    The more we think we know, the larger the pool of what we now think we don’t know. The more "tools" we invent (whether mathematical or philosophical or otherwise) the better we articulate the preceeding observation (your "refinement of debate" comment). We tend to examine our "progress" by comparing orders of magnitude between present and past…rather than attempting to comprehend where we are today as a ratio of "all there is to know, ever" versus the same ratio from yesterday (or the dawn of man’s measured attempts to understand same). Viewed in the ratio format, we clearly know squat! lol The ratio would be minuscule to infinitesimally small. Just might preclude the real end of anything. But, after all, it is the journey that truly engages us. Thanks for the thoughts!

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  2. 2. GreenD 1:56 pm 09/6/2010

    I hate to sound cliche, but we know nothing. I believe solipsism may be about as close as we can come to describing the reality in which we preceive. I personally believe that the universe is, to put it in a child-like term, infinitely complex. There is no full way of ever understanding all. Much like our advances in quantum mechanics, our understandings of what the universe is will hit an impossible Heisenberg’s-like principle. We can never know everything. I really enjoy reading your articles, you show a bit of extreme wonder in each post.

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  3. 3. tharriss 3:07 pm 09/6/2010

    "moral rules are always provisional, dependent on context, in a way that scientific laws aren’t. "

    Is that a fuction of the basic nature of moral rules, or just a function of poor expression of the rules?

    Perhaps if someone came up with properly defined rules, they would be capable of handling the exceptions. I’m not sure it makes sense to make a declaration like "Of course there are no absolute moral rules"… of course? I’m not so sure it is that simple.

    My guess is that if you applied the modern scientific method to the question, and gave it some time to work (as required for pretty much every advance of science), it is possible some fundamental moral laws could be advanced that would be as solid as scientific laws. (sure I know, lots of smart people have done lots of thinking on philosophy for many years, but the current scientific approach to problem solving has not been around all that long, and for much of that time, has not been applied in any rigorous, sustained way to this issue)

    I’m not convinced by the statement "science takes on questions that can be answered, at least in principle, and philosophy questions that can’t" as sufficent. Science often tackles issues that can’t currently be answered, and often is used to get closer and closer approximations of the best answer available, until the absolute answer can be found (if ever). It is quite comforatble handling issues that aren’t black and white, and can yield workable rules, often on incomplete data.

    At any rate, it seems pretty clear to me that philosophy is a much better realm for science that this article gives it credit for.

    Thanks for the good article!

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  4. 4. jim grot 4:58 pm 09/6/2010

    Is is not wonderful that we have so many ways to work on our substance and existence. It would be very boring if knowledge and ways to obtain it were limited. Science and religion and philosophy and art allow us to truly work on our essence. I think all these are just alternative ways to make sense of things.

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  5. 5. itsjustmyview 7:09 pm 09/6/2010

    Everything=Nothing. The End.

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  6. 6. SAJP2000 9:28 pm 09/6/2010

    Horgan – I loved your take on what you titled "The Hominid Fight Club" and your subsequent deconstruction of such a remarkably lopsided premise (as many anthropologists likewise feel). However, most of your articles seem, in summary, to appeal to some sort of inexplicable, divine chaos which will eternally perplex we earth-bound rubes — that the universe, the brain, the human condition, etc., is too much for us all to contemplate, let alone understand. As well, whether intentionally or not, you employ some inaccuracies to further what appears to be your effort to make a point about the pointlessness of things.

    For instance, any child with a bit of defraction grating and a solar spectrograph can easily show that ‘solipsism’ is a delightfully naive, fallacious concept allowed to flourish in part by a simple ignorance of, or denial of, basic science (not to mention, that long-practiced, yet suspiciously simple concept called ‘common sense’). Some philosophers do indeed think too much.

    As well, in your article, ‘The Consciousness Conundrum’, you claim: "The wetware that gives rise to consciousness is far too complex to be replicated in a computer anytime soon." fails to address any range of the ‘types’ of consciousness that abound, may abound, are patently unecessary, while the majority of neuroscientists regard much of the so-called "data" from we humans’ millions of neocorticle columns as mostly just sensory ‘noise’ from billions of skin cells and the uniquely human motor functions such as feedback required for balance, complex language exchange, sophisticated emotions, etc., inducing a necessary state of self-awareness that lasts for so many hours before the brain is overwhelmed with fatigue and requires shutdown time.

    Notwithstanding the evidence, and that science and our simple tools for gathering evidence and satisfactory proofs are the only things we can actually and sensibly count on, we want to *believe* there is, somehow, more or LESS to it — regardless of the solid, in-your-face reality of what we hold in our hands.

    Here you state: "I find this faith in science’s omnipotence almost as weird as Christians’ faith in an omnipotent God.", which I think is an absurd comparison. Firstly, the very core of scientific method prohibits any belief that science, in itself is omnipotent — the evidence and proofs we uncover for various bits of reality, though often hard as nails, are perhaps only steps on a very tall ladder, however, they are steps you can place your foot on without falling off.

    If your eschatological musings have lead you to this conclusion: "My guess is that the more we learn about the universe, the more mysterious it will become. Which means of course that neither science nor religion will ever end.", then you could also be permitted to think that, someday, we may learn as much as we need to know — both being absurd, rather cynical conclusions which share the attribute of being equally pointless and irrelevant to any serious debate.

    John — you’re a good writer with an often provocative line of thought, but I often wonder if science writers like you desire more to entertain via kitchy, whimsical, artificial conundrums rather than to present state-of-the-art knowledge. There can be a danger and a great diservice to science when one tosses about incomplete, frivolous speculation under the guise of ‘informed scientific discourse’ for the purposes of amusement.

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  7. 7. Patricia Berg 10:44 pm 09/6/2010

    Your reference to "brain chips that allow direct, broadband, wi-fi mind-to-mind communications" made me wonder if anyone has directed you to investigate community "interworld" communication like we have in Maplewood, MO. Believe it or not some weird phenomenon is occurring here.
    Let’s see, you might try calling some scientific minds up on a computer chip at Washington University, quite close to where we live, to check out if it is really happening.

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  8. 8. srbeck13 6:21 am 09/7/2010

    The existence of mysteries does not justify religion. If religion could explain everything, that would not be a reason for believing that a big daddy is taking care of us, that the messiah came two thousand years ago, that you should face Mecca or that any religious belief is true. I dismissed religion out of hand when I first heard about it as a little boy because it consists of widely fantastic beliefs that religious people admit they don’t have a shred of evidence for. This was long before I knew what science was. I have read that most children ask atheistic questions when first exposed to religion. Religious people talk to this admittedly imaginary big daddy and claim to hear answers from him. The fact that religion is insane should have been obvious to the cavemen.
    Furthermore, religion has never explained anything. The religious explanation for everything is "God did it" and religious people say that God is completely mysterious and unknowable and moves in mysterious ways and faith is needed for belief. So, the religious explanation for everything is that something, but religious people haven’t the foggiest idea what, did it, but religious people haven’t the foggiest idea how, and they believe this because they don’t have evidence for it.

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  9. 9. Jetsun000 9:36 am 09/7/2010

    Who is this Buffoon? He hasn’t a clue about philosophy. In fact, he deprecates it in the most profoundly ignorant way, then proceeds to attempt to philosophise himself – stringing one bad argument together with another. I don’t know where to begin Mr Hogan! I’ll offer you this much you great Galah: on the apparent problem/question of why there is something rather than nothing, the Buddhism sorted this one out centuries ago. See Hui Neng for example, "From the first, not a thing is". You see, it is a effect of logo-centrism and the naturalistic view you are a prisoner of. There isn’t something rather than nothing. There isn’t nothing rather than something. Neither, is it both. Nor is it something other than these. Beyond your ken I expect.

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  10. 10. chuckg 10:19 am 09/7/2010

    "We’re designed for picking berries or avoiding being eaten."

    phrases like this make me shudder…designed? really?

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  11. 11. johnmcnellis 10:21 am 09/7/2010

    The Problem of Awareness

    How can we know “Anything”, when we can’t “Know” anything?

    The second part of the above question was posed by David Hume some 200 years. Hume stated that the human was separated from reality by the working of his senses and his mind and that he could never directly know that entity. Since then, many millions of words have been generated and no solution to the problem seems to work
    The human looks around himself and says “wait a minute”. Look at the technical wonders we have produced. Look at the descriptions of the universe and the things in it which we have derived. It would appear that we know a lot of things. Surely common sense indicates that these are not all illusion. We must know some things. If Hume knew of today’s wonders, he would point out that what we think we know of the workings of the brain and nervous system only further supports his supposition. This points up the strength of Hume’s position and the frustration the human faces in reconciling a “reality”, that he believes his experience to represent, but which founders always against Hume’s skepticism and now also against the current human thinking on the workings of the nervous system.
    So is there an answer to Hume’s scepticism. Is there a way to accommodate the human’s belief in a reality he sees and the conclusions of Hume and our modern day knowledge of the nervous system. On the one hand it would appear that Hume must be correct. On the other, “Common Sense” seems to tell us that he cannot be. So what can be the answer? A better question might be “Can there be an answer”? Yet there must be since humans still live and seem to get along.
    After a couple of hundred years of looking for the answer to Hume’s problem , We can conclude that at least part of the answer must grant that Hume is correct. Is there a way of accommodating the human’s belief that what he sees is real and Hume’s conjecture that it cannot be?. Let us embrace Hume’s scepticism and use it as the basis not only in our philosophies but for all areas of human knowledge.
    Goto , The Nature of Awareness

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  12. 12. jstreet 11:39 am 09/7/2010

    There are various elephants in our philosophical rooms that most of us do not even deign to notice, such as popular culture which dominates everything except, perhaps, the space-time of our rooms.

    May Lady Gaga please stand up and sing her philosophy so we can know what to think/feel when walking up and down in public.

    As a corollary and responding to your assertion "But scientists, although they can (try to) tell us where our morality came from and how it works, can’t tell us how we should live," I say, "they can and do tell us how to live but who listens?"

    Most of us listen to the Lady, go to Rod Stewart concerts in Albert Hall if we can afford to and attend to other culture icon/oracles.

    Sometimes we mumble and grumble instructions to these Pretty People, in the safety of our rooms, but they wouldn’t hear us even if they were able to parse our complex sentences into Rapadap .

    Solipsism? "Cultural" autism seems more like it.

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  13. 13. pseudo-nymn 12:36 pm 09/7/2010

    Generally when faced with seemingly deliberate forces of consciousness, I choose the interpretation that its only an abstract representation of the forces involved. Like crediting mother nature to some end, even when you feel/know the natural occurance had nothing to do with a guided hand.

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  14. 14. inCologne 5:38 pm 09/7/2010

    I continue to be surprised at the mis-association of science and religion. Science is a method of enquiry into the observable universe, resulting (presumably) in a better functional understanding. Theories, such as evolution, stand or fall on whether or not they accurately predict what future inquiry will reveal. If they don’t they are abandoned, and if they do they are reinforced. Religion, on the other hand, is a set of beliefs based on faith. Faith is, by definition, belief in a given proposition in the absence of compelling evidence. I was always taught where I went to church as a child that faith was the highest ideal of the true beliver, and that seeking proof was a display of a lack of faith… so whither the intelligent design proponents? Science and religion are apples and oranges.

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  15. 15. robert schmidt 9:05 pm 09/7/2010

    @SAJP2000, well said. I have also found that Hogan seems to desire that humanity be more than a scientifically understandable phenomenon while providing no evidence to support his claim only cynicism regarding the capabilities of science. Strange position for a science writer to take. I’m not sure what he is trying to communicate. Is he saying these problems can never be solved so let’s not try? If so perhaps he should be writing for some fundamentalist religion rather than a science paper. The one thing I do understand about the unknown is that it is NOT KNOWN. So, unless he has some privileged access to the nature of the universe the rest of us don’t his lack of faith in science is meaningless. The only thing that matters is the process and the evidence. Perhaps he should try supporting his writing with those concepts.

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  16. 16. gesimsek 8:34 am 09/8/2010

    There is no exception to "thou shall not kill". The basic rule is "do not take anything you cannot replace and do not break anything you cannot fix". As long as humans are not able to create life, they are commanded to not to take anybody’s life and also as long as they do not know how to fix it, they are commanded not break hearts (love your neighbor).

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  17. 17. lightmatters 10:22 pm 09/9/2010

    Of course there’s a limit to what we can know! You can’t teach a rat calculus and likewise there is complexity in the universe of knowledge that is beyond man’s puny power of comprehension. But all the wacko theories pumped out by cosmologists, physicists, mathematicians, and philosophers are highly entertaining! Keep at it guys!

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  18. 18. Dr. Strangelove 3:55 am 09/10/2010

    Everything will end when the universe ends: philosophy, neuroscience, mathematics, the world, mystery. And the universe will end in the future unless someone or something can stop it.

    Like morality, scientific laws are also provisional because they are falsifiable. If they are not falsifiable, they wouldn’t be scientific laws. They may change in the future just like Newton’s laws were replaced by relativity theory. Morality is subject to science if you accept that the aim of morality is the survival and continuity of human life, as what evolutionary psychologists think. In this case, science can solve the is-ought problem. Any human behavior and action that promotes survival is ought.

    Consciousness is what the normal, functional human brain does. There’s such thing as mind-body problem. It’s simply the ignorance of philosophers. The brain is part of the body. Mind is just another word for brain function.

    It’s not a problem if, in the future, we can no longer understand mathematics. We don’t understand it now. Some abstract mathematics don’t even exist in the real world, it’s too much to expect that we will understand them. As John von Neumann once said, in mathematics, you don’t understand things, you just get used to them.

    I’m optimistic the world will not end soon despite fear mongers and global warming mania.

    It’s silly to think that we will know everything even in the far future because matter in the universe is finite. There is a limit to the amount of information that can be processed and stored by a gigantic, hyper-intelligent, supercomputer as big as the entire universe. This supercomputer cannot even remember all the possible letter permutations in the SciAm article you wrote, which contains 1,187 words or about 4,400 letters. The no. of possible letter permutations is 26 raised to 4,400. This is much larger than the total no. of subatomic particles in the observable universe – 10 raised to 83.

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  19. 19. brodix 10:34 pm 09/10/2010

    If I may take a stab at threee of these issues; What is morality, time and the mind body duality;

    The assumption is that good and bad are a metaphysical dual between the forces of light and darkness, but they are the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken, yet there is no clear line where the chicken ends and the fox ends. Between black and white are not just shades of gray, but all the colors of the spectrum. Morality is a complex code which groups of individuals develop in order to function as a community. In this regard it is quite similar to language, in that while there is a great deal of variety and adaption, the purpose is the same and while there is a significant commitment to form, it is secondary to function.

    The problem of time is that we think of it as the narrative series of events that comprise our lives and the cause and effect sequences which are the basis of our cognition and rationality. The simple fact though, is that time is going the opposite direction, much like the earth rotates west to east, rather than the sun circling east to west. The earth doesn’t travel the fourth dimension from yesterday to tomorrow. Tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth rotates. Time is a consequence of motion, rather than the basis for it. It is not a dimension along which events exist and the present travels, but is the changing configuration of what is, such that potential becomes residual.

    This also ties into the mind/body duality. If two physical objects hit each other, it creates an event. While the objects go from past events to future ones, these events go from being in the future to being in the past. As a physical entity, our brain goes from past events to future ones, while our rational minds are a record of these events occurring and fading into the past.

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  20. 20. yjacket32 7:55 pm 09/20/2010

    The point that we are not supposed to completely understand math is correct. We were not created to understand all things; we were created to learn and understand principles so that we could become creators ourselves and make the world a place better suited for building relationships and lives.

    On mystery: Neither science or religion will end; religion especially, because it takes just as much faith to believe completely in science as it does in religion. Science will never answer the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” without turning to some sort of philosophy or theology and therefore religion. In fact, the more science tells us about our planet and the universe, the more we are forced to see the evidence of some sort of intelligent being other than ourselves. So the thought that the universe becomes more mysterious, I think is invalid. I believe that it just proves completely the existence of a higher and much more creative, intelligent designer that has a purpose for what He has created. After all, do we, as creators, ever create things without a purpose

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  21. 21. sridattadev 3:03 pm 11/12/2010

    Who am I? I am in this universe as much as it is in I.
    What is I? I is sphere full of love. I is the singularity.
    Everything begins with I and ends with I. Only singularity is uncertain in the relativistic universe and only singularity is certain in the absolute universe.
    If I do not exist, absolutely nothing or singularity does, which means I will always exist.

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