The Final Frontier: The Limits of Scientific Inquiry are more Visible than Ever

Ten years after the publication of The End of Science, John Horgan says the limits of scientific inquiry are more visible than ever.

Discover Magazine has an interesting article on about John Hogan’s book The End of Science which asserts that we are coming to the end of what he calls reductionist science and entering into an era of scientific applications. That there are limits on what we can know and perceive and that all the great discoveries of pure science have been made.

This is one of those books I have to put on my reading list but in the meantime let’s examine some of the points in the article.

Argument: Reductionist science may be over, but a new kind of emergent science is just beginning. In his new book, A Different Universe, Robert Laughlin, a physicist and Nobel laureate at Stanford, concedes that science may in some ways have reached the “end of reductionism,” which identifies the basic components and forces underpinning the physical realm. Nevertheless, he insists that scientists can discover profound new laws by investigating complex, emergent phenomena, which cannot be understood in terms of their individual components

Horgan launches into something about cellular automation pioneered by Stephan Wolfram. Right, lets just go for the lunatic fringe to show just how few new frontiers there are in science. Come on, do we really believe the Universe is just some big program running on a laptop somewhere in some uber Universe? Seems like a stretch. And how does that really support the argument that reductionist science is over. Did I miss something?

Argument: Science is still confronting huge remaining mysteries, like where the universe came from. Other reporters like to point out that there is “No End of Mysteries,” as a cover story in U.S. News & World Report put it. But some mysteries are probably unsolvable. The biggest mystery of all is the one cited by Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time: Why is there something rather than nothing? More specifically, what triggered the Big Bang, and why did the universe take this particular form rather than some other form that might not have allowed our existence?

Scientists’ attempts to solve these mysteries often take the form of what I call ironic science—unconfirmable speculation more akin to philosophy or literature than genuine science. (The science is ironic in the sense that it should not be considered a literal statement of fact.) A prime example of this style of thinking is the anthropic principle, which holds that the universe must have the form we observe because otherwise we would not be here to observe it. The anthropic principle, championed by leading physicists such as Leonard Susskind of Stanford University, is cosmology’s version of creationism

OK, so we have hit some really hard problems and we don’t have good explanations. Scientists are people to and are given to “invent” explanations for things they don’t fully understand.

I’m not rejecting John Horgan’s view entirely but I think in some sense it really comes down to the glass being half full rather then half empty. Just because we can’t see the next great thing doesn’t mean it’s not there. To Horgan’s credit, he concedes that he could just be wrong. But still, it’s hard to see how science has come to an end. I credit much of this pessimism to what I call technological fatigue. So many discoveries have occurred in the last century that it becomes “expected” that great new discoveries must occur at an ever increasing rate.

Perhaps maybe we have plateaued and we need to “workout” for a bit to break out to the next level. Look at it this way, 1000 years from now will we only understand the Universe, or the human mind, or pure science a little more than we do now? Seems unlikely given our past track record. I think 1000 years from now we’ll look back at the 21st century as a formative but limited time in science.

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