I’ve been blabbing even more than usual lately about The End of Science, which was published two decades ago and just reissued with a new preface. I recently chatted about it with Robert Wright on Bloggingheads.tv, and I gave a talk at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, about the book’s humble origins.
Here’s the story. A literary agent called me in the early 1990s, when I was a staff writer for Scientific American, and asked if I would help rewrite a physics book by one of his clients (who went on to become a mega-successful author). I said, I want to write my own book. The agent said, Fine, give me an idea.
My first idea was cosmology, about which I’d recently written a long article, “Universal Truths,” October 1990. I abandoned that idea after reading Denis Overbye’s Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, which was better than any cosmology book I could write.
Then my Scientific American editor made me write “The New Challenges,” an essay on the future of science for the December 1992 issue. I toyed with the notion that science might solve all its problems and come to an end. I dismissed that idea in the conclusion:
“Fortunately, science will be complete only when scientists believe that it is, and their research offers potent counterarguments to that possibility. For example, recent studies of so-called chaotic and complex phenomena--from gushing faucets to stock markets--strike a blow against the facile reductionism underlying many predictions of completion. "As one ascends in levels of complexity from quarks to human societies, one finds properties that cannot be predicted from the properties of the parts," explains Stuart A. Kauffman, a biochemist at the Santa Fe Institute, a center for complexity work. Such studies, he adds, show that there is "no finite way of parsing the world into objects and laws by which they interact."
Mathematics also undermines the concept of completeness, according to the physicist Freeman ]. Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study. In the 1930s, he notes, the mathematician Kurt Godel demonstrated that no finite set of axioms can answer all the questions that it raises; mathematics, in other words, is infinite. Dyson thinks the same is almost certainly true of physics. "It's foolish to imagine anything in the nature of a culmination," he says. "That's a very parochial view."
Another possibility exists. Perhaps the rules governing nature--the knowable rules--are finite in number. Even so, science may remain an infinitely rich, rewarding enterprise. Making this point, [physicist Frank] Wilczek, Dyson's colleague at the Institute for Advanced Study, likens us to pawns on a chessboard. Our first task is to figure out the rules of the game. Once we know the rules, we can transform ourselves from pawns to players.
In a sense, this process has already begun: artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and other technologies may represent our first tentative steps toward becoming players. And if chess permits a virtually infinite variety of games, the rules of nature surely do. Science may be immortal after all.
Notice I’m suggesting applied science—not pure science--is “immortal.” By the time I finished the article, I was brooding obsessively over the possibility that pure science might be bumping into limits.
I told my agent I wanted to write a book called The Ends of Science. Ends, plural, not singular, because I wanted to explore the many ways in which science might end, as well as the many goals of science. Nice double meaning, right?
After I completed the manuscript for Addison Wesley, my editor, Jeff Robbins, sent me a draft cover for the book. It said The End of Science. End, singular. When I pointed out the misprint, Jeff said, Whoops, but End of Science is more dramatic, isn’t it? I said, I guess you’re right. So we went with The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Science in the Twilight of the Scientific Age.
So The End of Science began, you might say, with a mistake. I have no regrets. After all, here is the book’s core thesis: “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.”
There’s lots of room on the end-of-science bandwagon [see Postscript], but I’m not sure how long that will last. As I argued in a post last year, science’s limits have never been more apparent. My recent reporting on integrated information theory and the Bayesian brain hypothesis bolsters my suspicion that our minds might be scientifically intractable.
In a viral new TED Talk, “Have We Reached the End of Physics?”, physicist Harry Cliff warns that “maybe for the first time in the history of science, we could be facing questions that we cannot answer, not because we don't have the brains or technology, but because the laws of physics themselves forbid it.”
It's the ends of science!
Postscript: During my Stevens talk, three so-called friends, all historians of science/technology, gave me pushback. James McClellan, who studied under Thomas Kuhn (and with whom I carried out a Q&A), is a postmodernist, who holds that all our knowledge is to a certain extent “constructed” and hence provisional, subject to change. Hence he disputes my assumption that some scientific claims are permanent because they accurately depict nature; that is, they are true. Jim and I hash out our differences in this quasi-fictional story, “Science, History and Truth at the Faculty Club.”
Lee Vinsel wonders whether my thesis is falsifiable. That is, what can convince me I'm wrong? My response is that my book serves up many mini-arguments—e.g., string theory will never be confirmed, the origin of life will never be fully explained—that could be falsified. But nothing could convince me to retract my book’s meta-argument: science gets things right, it converges on the truth, but it will never give us total, absolute truth.
Alex Wellerstein (whose work I cover here), spells out his concerns—which overlap with and expand upon those of Jim and Lee--in the following email:
My only issue is that you've set things up so that methodologically it will be very hard for you to be wrong, because your goalposts are pretty subjective. Which you can see as an advantage or disadvantage as you see fit! :-)
I think many physicists and cosmologists would call the dark matter/energy thing a massive re-orientation of their view of the universe (e.g., the majority of the universe is matter visible only by its mass signature--that's pretty weird), if the explanation of it ends up being something other than "we fudged our original equations" (as Einstein's cosmological constant sort of was).
I also think your putting of the mind/body/consciousness problem into the category of "unsolvable" is premature. Either it has a paradigm-busting explanation, or it just has a very boring answer (i.e. a product of just increasing the number of synapses or something), but either way, I don't think there's anything special about it, other than the fact that we are not sure of the right questions to ask.
Which gets at the bigger question--what are the odds we've been asking the right questions about the world all of this time? (Or that we asked all of the right ones by the end of the Cold War?) It just seems unlikely on the face of it that we've had a basically correct track record, given how off we know other human beings have been in the past. I am tempted to agree more with Lee and others when they suggest that the appearance of this has more to do with the structure of scientific research and funding in the late-20th and early-21st centuries than any fundamental epistemological difference. (And the fact that your "end of science" coincides with the "end of the Cold War" seems unlikely to be a coincidence to my historian eyes--the amount of money going into fundamental research declined dramatically from the 1970s onward).
These are the sorts of smart, informed objections I hoped my book would provoke. But as I responded to Lee, my faith remains firm.
The End of Science (2015 edition).