“The End of Science”?

The Final Frontier, by John Horgan

This article caught my fancy. Despite a few caricatures of the “postmodern” perspective used to avoid all that troublesome analysis by people who spend their career’s studying how science works (a misreading of Kuhn, followed by “But the postmodern stance is clearly wrong”, accomplishes this nicely), and the always problematic move of a categorical distinction between pure and applied science, Horgan has a keen eye for the big picture of modern science and its place in the trajectory of history.

Actually, from a Kuhnian perspective, the “end of science” phenomenon is something that demands explanation. Although the current pantheon of mid-level and high-level paradigms has not been around for that long in years, many current theories have survived the scrutiny of many more man-years and research dollars than their predecessors. Much of it comes down to a question Horgan alludes to in the article: To what extent is the universe set up in ways we can understand it? As Horgan points out, it takes a measure of faith to believe that the universe is ultimately rational and comprehensible. Up through the middle of the 20th century, scientific progress seemed to justify that faith; deciphering the genetic code and establishing the central dogma of molecular biology are prime examples pointing toward a fundamental unity of knowledge. But contingency has been replacing unity as the theme of scientific progress: increasingly complex (and seemingly arbitrary) theories in physics; increasingly specific and non-universal discoveries in biology and chemistry. The issue of whether we can expect and hope for another round of over-arching theoretical breakthoughs is very tied up in the ideologies of science.

Case in point: Horgan’s discussion of neuroscience was paralleled in the Terry Lecture panel discussion. Plantinga (the philosopher) expressed the same sort of scepticism about a materialist explanation for consciousness that Horgan does, and seemingly for the same reasons (though perhaps with a theological component as well). Krauss and Miller were fully and unreservedly confident that consciousness will eventually be reduced to matter and motion, so to speak.

John Horgan, a science journalist who sometimes calls himself “The Scientific Curmudgeon” (an enviable title), also has a blog: Horganism.