My last post, “Why There Will Never Be Another Einstein,” has me once again mulling over a thesis of my 1996 book The End of Science (a new edition of which was republished last spring, as The New York Times recently reported). Ambitious modern scientists, I asserted, are engaged in an ultimately futile struggle to surpass the accomplishments of titans such as Darwin and Einstein. Below is a lightly edited excerpt from my book, which lays out the thesis. –John Horgan

It has become a truism by now that scientists are not mere knowledge-acquisition machines; they are guided by emotion and intuition as well as by cold reason and calculation. Scientists are rarely so human, I have found, so at the mercy of their fears and desires, as when they are confronting the limits of knowledge. The greatest scientists want, above all, to discover truths about nature (in addition to acquiring glory, grants, and tenure and improving the lot of humankind); they want to know. They hope, and trust, that the truth is attainable, not merely an ideal or asymptote, which they eternally approach. They also believe, as I do, that the quest for knowledge is by far the noblest and most meaningful of all human activities.

Scientists who harbor this belief are often accused of arrogance. Some are arrogant, supremely so. But many others, I have found, are less arrogant than anxious. These are trying times for truth seekers. The scientific enterprise is threatened by technophobes, animal-rights activists, religious fundamentalists and stingy politicians. Social, political and economic constraints will make it more difficult to practice science, and pure science in particular, in the future.

Moreover, science itself, as it advances, 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 micro-realm will always be uncertain; chaos theory confirms that even without quantum indeterminacy many phenomena would be impossible to predict; Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem denies us the possibility of constructing a complete, consistent mathematical description of reality. And evolutionary biology keeps reminding us that we are animals, designed by natural selection not for discovering deep truths of nature, but for breeding.

Optimists who think they can overcome all these limits must face yet another quandary, perhaps the most disturbing of all. What will scientists do if they succeed in knowing what can be known? What, then, would be the purpose of life? What would be the purpose of humanity?

Given these troubling issues, it is no wonder that many scientists seem gripped by a profound unease. But their malaise has another, much more immediate cause. If one believes in science, one must accept the possibility—even the probability—that the great era of scientific discovery is over. By science I mean not applied science, but science at its purest and grandest, the primordial human quest to understand the universe and our place in it. Further research may yield no more great revelations or revolutions, but only incremental, diminishing returns.

A theory of literary criticism that I learned in college has helped me to understand the mood of modern scientists. In his influential 1973 essay, The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom likened the modern poet to Satan in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Just as Satan fought to assert his individuality by defying the perfection of God, so must the modern poet engage in an Oedipal struggle to define himself or herself in relation to Shakespeare, Dante and other masters. The effort is ultimately futile, Bloom said, because no poet can hope to approach, let alone surpass, the perfection of such forebears. Modern poets are all essentially tragic figures, latecomers.

Modern scientists, too, are latecomers, and their burden is much heavier than that of poets. Scientists must endure not merely Shakespeare’s King Lear, but Newton’s laws of motion, Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. These theories are not merely beautiful; they are also true, empirically true, in a way that no work of art can be.

Most researchers simply concede their inability to supersede what Bloom called “the embarrassments of a tradition grown too wealthy to need anything more.” They try to solve what philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn has patronizingly called “puzzles,” problems whose solution buttresses the prevailing paradigm. They settle for refining and applying the brilliant, pioneering discoveries of their predecessors. They try to measure the mass of quarks more precisely, or to determine how a given stretch of DNA guides the growth of the embryonic brain.

Others become what Bloom derided as a “mere rebel, a childish inverter of conventional moral categories.” The rebels denigrate the dominant theories of science as flimsy social fabrications rather than rigorously tested descriptions of nature.

Bloom’s “strong poets” accept the perfection of their predecessors and yet strive to transcend it through various subterfuges, including a subtle misreading of the predecessors’ work; only by so doing can modern poets break free of the stultifying influence of the past. There are strong scientists, too, those who are seeking to misread and therefore to transcend quantum mechanics or the big bang theory or Darwinian evolution.

For the most part, strong scientists have only one option: to pursue science in a speculative, postempirical mode that I call ironic science. Ironic science resembles literary criticism 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. It cannot achieve empirically verifiable surprises that force scientists to make substantial revisions in their basic description of reality.

The most common strategy of the strong scientist is to point to all the shortcomings of current scientific knowledge, to all the questions left unanswered. But the questions tend to be ones that may never be definitively answered given the limits of human science. How, exactly, was the universe created? Could our universe be just one of an infinite number of universes? Could quarks and electrons be composed of still smaller particles, ad infinitum? What does quantum mechanics really mean? (Most questions concerning meaning can only be answered ironically, as literary critics know.) Biology has its own slew of insoluble riddles. How, exactly, did life begin on earth? Just how inevitable was life’s origin and its subsequent history?

The practitioner of ironic science enjoys one obvious advantage over the strong poet: the appetite of the reading public for scientific “revolutions.” As empirical science ossifies, journalists such as myself, who feed society’s hunger, will come under more pressure to tout theories that supposedly transcend quantum mechanics or the big bang theory or natural selection. Journalists are, after all, largely responsible for the popular impression that fields such as chaos and complexity represent genuinely new sciences superior to the stodgy old reductionist methods of Newton, Einstein and Darwin. Journalists, myself included, have also helped quantum theories of consciousness win an audience much larger than they deserve given their poor standing among professional neuroscientists.

I do not mean to imply that ironic science has no value. Far from it. At its best ironic science, like great art or philosophy or, yes, literary criticism, induces wonder in us; it keeps us in awe before the mystery of the universe. But it cannot achieve its goal of transcending the truth we already have. And it certainly cannot give us—in fact, it protects us from—The Answer, a truth so potent that it quenches our curiosity once and for all time. After all, science itself decrees that we humans must always be content with partial truths.

Further Reading:

The End of Science (2015 edition).

Was I Wrong about The End of Science?

What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific "Truth."

What Is “Ironic Science”?

A Brief, Ironic History of “Ironic Science.”