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The End of Science
As Technology Reaches Its Outer Limits, Are We Nearing The End of Science?, 1800 words
by Peter Werbe
Nietzsche uttered the blasphemous words, "God is
dead," near the end of the 19th century, it wasn't
so much an observation from the pen of a half-mad, but
brilliant philosopher, as an announcement of the triumph
of the modern age.
At this point, religion had definitively ceased to be the dominant basis of knowledge and in its place stood the scientific method and rational thought. In the previous era, biblical text had sufficed as an explanation for the great questions of existence and phenomena. Now new paradigms, many of which had been emerging for centuries, claimed ascendance.
The giddy optimism of the era produced new philosophies and disciplines such as Darwinism, Marxism and Freudian psychology which stood previous systems of knowledge on their heads. The modernism these theories affirmed viewed the world and its inhabitants as a great clock whose parts, once enumerated, would fall to human control.
Everything could be measured and understood, from nature and social classes, to the depths of the human psyche. The prophets of the modern epoch assumed they could not only explain the world, but alter it as well. But critics from Henry David Thoreau to Lewis Mumford to the Unabomber have long asserted that a world dominated by science and technology is a devil's pact which ultimately creates more problems than it solves.
Recently, the debate over the role of science and its future has popped up within the sanctity of its own laboratories and universities, involving its most prestigious practitioners and advocates. Has science crossed the line from confidence to arrogance, and from practical application to unverifiable speculation?
Framing the debate is John Horgan's recent book, "The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age," which ignited a storm of controversy over its contention that science as a solver of physical mysteries has run its course.
Horgan, a senior writer at Scientific American magazine, told The Metro Times, "Science is a victim of its own success."
He contends (in perhaps a worse blasphemy than Nietzsche's) that although the Scientific Age has thus far produced a huge foundation of knowledge, in the future, "we'll only be filling in details" rather than making major breakthroughs or revolutionary discoveries.
Horgan says in science's triumphal age, it developed an extensive map of physical reality from the very tiny scale of electrons and quarks all the way out to the galaxies and quasars on the very edge of the universe. He says science has provided some basic answers about existence utilizing ideas such as the Big Bang theory of the universe's origin, Darwin's theory of evolution and Mendel's theory of genetics to explain how life evolved, while physicists have shown that all life consists of a few basic particles.
Horgan spent five years interviewing the major scientists and philosophers of our time, from Paul Feyerabend to Fred Hoyle to Stephen Jay Gould to Stephen Hawkings to Noam Chomsky, posing the question to them, "Can science continue forever?" Response from the scientific world, he says, "has been all over the map," but feels some in the field aren't facing reality.
For instance, many biologists will quickly admit that Darwin's theory of evolution is the discipline's greatest insight and that they are only building on it. Similarly, physicists say the 80-year-old Quantum Mechanics theory is as great a revelation as they expect will be developed and though it has an increasing number of applications, little has been added since its pronouncement.
Still, Horgan says, they deny science is at an impasse.
"Their own work and their own beliefs imply that it is," he says, "but they can't face the consequences of a world without scientific revolutions." Chomsky, best known as a social and media critic, but who also is the foremost authority in linguistics, (a description he raged at Horgan for using), told the author that modern science has stretched the cognitive capacity of humans to the breaking point.
Others, like Prof. Alvin M. Saperstein, a professor of physics at Detroit's Wayne State University, doubts Horgan's contention and says it is "unprovable." He says, "It's defeatist and presumptious to say no new paradigms will be developed. There's a lot of unanswered questions facing us."
Horgan also argues that science cannot and should not address the concerns religion once did. "If you hope science will answer the primordial, spiritual questions people have been asking since the beginning of history, you are going to be disappointed," he says. While some scientists suggest science can answer ultimate questions such as why the universe was created or why intelligent creatures evolved from evolution or what the purpose of the universe is of ultimate questions, science itself tells you that's not the case.
"For example," Horgan points out, "the origins of the universe are just too distant in space and time for us ever to have any data on what happened then. We are left building circumstantial scenarios for what happened, but we'll never really know. That makes this a non-scientific question, although it's often treated like one."
Horgan insists on recognizing the distinction between pure sciencethe philosophical quest to know the universe and our place in itand applied science, which uses knowledge for practical purposes. He feels the perception of what science is capable of often comes from science fiction like Star Trek and Star Wars. "People think science is going to give up great marvels that, so they insist Horgan must be wrong," he says. "How can science be over when we don't have warp drive space ships that can go faster than the speed of light or computer chips that can give us psychic powers or other things we see in the movies?"
Horgan fears that so called speculative science can act as escapism. He calls this type of scientism, "ironic science," which "is not experimentally testable or resolvable even in principle and therefore is not science in the strict sense at all. Its primary function is to keep us awestruck before the mystery of the cosmos."
During a 1991 conference on the origins of the universe in northern Sweden, Horgan encountered the paralyzed Stephen Hawkings who gave a speech through a computerized voice enhancer about the possibility of wormholes in the galaxy, naked singularities, and baby universes. Hawkins also conjectured about a "final theory" that "would bequeath us a mystical revelation," one which excluded even the possibility of a God as creator.
"This isn't science any longer," says Horgan; "it's theology." Or perhaps a science which has escaped modernism into post-modernism, that never-never world where anything can mean anything and often does.
At the beginning of February, in an event which easily meets Horgan's criterion for "ironic science," Hawkings was involved in a media-drenched "surrender" on what The New York Times called "a matter of cosmic importance."
The British theorist admitted he had lost a long standing bet with two American professors over the existence of so-called "naked singularities." Singularities, according to cosmologists, defy the rules of relativistic physics and quantum mechanics and are defined as a mathematical point where time and space become infinitely distorted, and matter infinitely dense. Hawkings claimed these could not exist.
According to the American theorists, they exist at the center of black holes whose "event horizons" prevent external observation. Black holes are known only because of the gravitational effects they have on surrounding stars. But, if one of these babies were to become "naked,"escape its black hotethey would be visible.
In fact, the phenomenon is so undefinable the term singularities is used rather than a more descriptive noun. Although singularities are hypothetical, Hawking's adversaries won the bet only on the strength of recent supercomputer calculations showing their possible existence, being created either by collapsing black holes or even a shadowy advanced civilization.
Are you listening, Capt. Kirk?
Other theorists postulate a "cosmic censorship" inhibiting viewing naked singularities although they point to the Big Bang, the cosmic explosion which allegedly created the universe 15 billion years ago, as an illustration of one. Hawking's public admission of defeat took the form of awarding t-shirts to his triumphant colleagues bearing the legend "Nature Abhors a Naked Singularity, implying he still remains unconvinced of their existence.
Oher scientists,who Horgan says are unable to progress in their field, have moved in equally bizarre directions.for example, futurists who advocate downloading personalities into computers and making the entire universe one gigantic computer.
Horgan laughs. "I love talking to these guys that are speculating about the ultimate destiny of the universe and its purpose," Horgan says, "but let's not pretend it's science."
WSU's Saperstein says he agrees that much of what the speculative scientists are involved in is "horseshit," but says, "I encourage them to continue. A new paradigm may have been discovered yesterday, so we have to to be alert and open to what is developing."
But even mainstream science is under scrutiny from a variety of quarters. "Most scientists would agree that science is in the midst of a great crisis," according to Horgan. "Even in terms of funding, science isn't getting the blank check it once did." The unchallenged prestige science previously enjoyed has also diminished and scientists are being challenged by animal rights activists, environmentalists, and philosophers who question whether science's vaunted objectivity really hides a formulaic, self-serving, epoch-bound world view suited to a profit and commodity oriented society.
Even people's love affair with the gadgetry technology has produced is double-edged. Well before it was enunciated in the Unabomber manifesto, social critics have noted that in a world where things dominate humans, a great social and cultural toll is exacted. So widespread is the ambivalence about science and technology's bounty that a Time magazine essayist felt at ease beginning a musing about social alienation with the sentence, "There's a little of the Unabomber in all of us."
Horgan agrees we living in a mechanical age in which we can't have complete confidence. . "Many scientists are circling the wagon trains," he says. As the criticism of science has crept from the margins to the mainstream, there have been conferences of scientists who gather to denounce what they call the "anti-science" camp in which they include every one from creationists to neo-Luddites to journalists like Horgan.
Still, even with his sense that the role of science may be diminished in the future, Horgan thinks it should be supported. Science, he feels, may be necessary to fix some of the problems it has created like environmental damage or eroded immune systems.
However, he says if a young person told him he wanted to go into cosmology to prove the Big Bang theory wrong or to disprove Einstein's General Relativity or Quantum Mechanics, "I'd tell him he'd be better off becoming a lawyer."
Peter Werbe is the Public Affairs Director for Greater Media, Inc. in Detroit.
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