Wrong Then, Wronger Now: John Horgan’s “The End of Science”

The End of Science (1996) -by the science journalist John Horgan.

Mr. Horgan, reflecting on his controversial characterization of the state of modern science, 20 years later from its first publication, speaking in Scientific American in 2015 had this to say:

“Our descendants will learn much more about nature, and they will invent gadgets even cooler than smart phones. But their scientific version of reality will resemble ours, for two reasons: First, ours… is in many respects true; most new knowledge will merely extend and fill in our current maps of reality rather than forcing radical revisions. Second, some major remaining mysteries—Where did the universe come from? How did life begin? How, exactly, does a chunk of meat make a mind?–might be unsolvable.That’s my end-of-science argument in a nutshell, and I believe it as much today as I did when I was finishing my book 20 years ago.”

Maybe its just good marketing, and it gets you a bestseller using a title that doesn’t mean what it seems to-or maybe he is as full of shit as so many others think him to be? His subtitle delineates the same two claims he re-states in the Sci Am article linked above:
“Reflecting on the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age”

Let’s take his claims one at a time.
First, I wholeheartedly agree that a great deal of scientific knowledge to be gained from now on is cumulative and “our descendants…scientific version of reality will resemble ours.”
Most of what we already know will most likely not be overturned-particle physics, bio, chem, astronomy, cosmology, etc. What we do know about these fields looks to be foundational in that we will add to that knowledge, not overturn or replace it. No argument there. So much of what we know about how the world works at so many levels will not be supplanted, only augmented.
But how that fact is in any way is an “end of science” is utterly unclear.
The amount of hard-nosed science that has to be done to continue investigation and discovery in those fields is wide-ranging, ever-expanding in scope, and formidable. In addition, the amount of currently unknown new discoveries that occur regularly and will continue to occur as part of every scientific inquiry, that in themselves uncover other new problems in turn, is just staggering, and with no end in sight.
Nothing ended or is about to end when it comes to science. Think dark energy and dark matter, or Neandertal DNA, or CRIPSR technology etc., etc., and the whole avenues of new research such advances open up. What is our reality may not be overturned but the continuing expansion of our reality surely doesn’t signal, presage, or spring from an “end of science,” much less its “twilight”.

(I’m torn between “is this guy is really clever?”, and controversial claims can sell lots of books, or “is he just an asshole?”).

Continual discoveries not being significant enough to “force radical revisions” of our worldview or our “current maps of reality” as Horgan puts it, is open to a lot of interpretation. He feels the past revolutions in science such as the Copernican model of heliocentrism, or the sea-change that evolutionary theory hath wrought wont ever be duplicated. Adding to existing science wont ever be really revolutionary in the way we look at the world.

Maybe, I say.

What if decades mores of scientific inquiry continues to fail to uncover any of the creator gods from our primitive past, or any evidence of intelligent design, and the atheistic, secular science worldview already adopted by most scientists and a couple billion non-believers, eventually takes over from the Bronze Age Mythologies that take the old “invisible almighty agent” view as unquestionable, and the vast majority of humans become secular, scientific humanists. What if the grinding on of science finally relegates religion to the dustbin of history? Wouldn’t that rival the change in perspective wrought by finding out we are not at the center of the solar system or universe, or are not specially created beings, but merely highly evolved pond scum having chimps and other apes for cousins and being a part of all DNA based life on earth? Maybe such a secular worldview triumphing over religious non-sense will take another century or two.
Such a rejection of the religious assumptions worldview has been creeping up steadily over the past century to be embraced by over 1/3 of the world’s population. It took more than few decades for heliocentrism to become unquestioned base knowledge for the average person, and we are still fighting over the mind of Jane Average when it comes to an acceptance of evolution, it being barely 150 years old and is still hotly contested by a good many of the worlds religions. We are still within that evolution-revolution and maybe at the beginning of the secular one. So instead of there being no real revolutions possible in science anymore, maybe evo really isn’t there yet, and a godless scientific worldview is in the works.

Similarly, what if given another 100 years of neuroscience and no evidence of a “mind” separate from the brain emerges, and decades more of no evidence for any part of the intellect or personality surviving the death of the brain takes hold and ends the 3,000 plus year general acceptance of the idea of a “soul” (or ghosts, goblins, other spiritual entities). Wouldn’t such changes rival heliocentrism and evolution as radical revisions of our reality? So maybe big shifts of worldview are still possible. Maybe a couple are already underway. Horgan’s pronouncement smacks of the typical parochial limited observation of those who made similar bold and wrong statements as to science’s limits in the past. As if one had a gods-eye-view, and that the current moment in time was the endpoint of progress or knowledge-and all is known. Really? Like we know so much at the present moment, that anything that comes after will necessarily be trivial in comparison? How the fuck do you know? How nearsighted. How arrogant.

In addition, science didn’t fade, end, or just carry on, since his book was published, in fact it exploded.

For example, the number of PhD’s granted worldwide doubled from 2000 to 2010 and there are estimates of close to 10 million scientists working worldwide now in 2021, up from around 8 million scientists reported by UNESCO already by 2013. Science still growing, and rapidly expanding in the past 20 years, sure doesn’t look like twilight: doesn’t resemble any sort of waning or diminishment. It is a nice metaphor, but it doesn’t work.

His second thesis, another reason no real foundational discoveries will be had, is not merely that we already did them: like heliocentrism, gravity, evolution, all being (to Horgan) finished and established, is that the possible candidates for similarly significant discoveries: the origin of life, the origin of the universe, and that fav bugaboo: consciousness, may all be unsolvable-therefore: the end of science. According to Horgan (and others before him) the problems of the day just must be unsolvable. Describing consciousness in that fashion is all the rage nowadays. Again, how ridiculously nearsighted.

Horgan, like so many before him, makes un-founded pronouncements about science being unable to discover, or possibly understand – “x”. If anything the history of science has taught us, those pronouncement are usually wrong. It was once thought there can only be 7 planets, (by the philosopher Friedrich Hegel), that the composition of the stars would never be known (another philosopher, August Comte), Lord Kelvin assumed the end of physics in late 1800’s, the Milky Way is the only galaxy, we will never know what makes the stars shine, we can never know what life truly is…etc., etc. All discovered within decades of the pronouncements of their utter intractability.

Horgan has no fucking idea, as neither did the esteemed gentleman of previous times, what problems might or might not be solvable or even what problems exist. Science, rather than ending, is engaged in the study of abiogenesis (the origin of life on earth), consciousness, and cosmology like never before. The research in these fields is robust and chunking along happily I might add. Again, what ended? We may one day find out a given problem is intractable, but like the composition and shining of the stars, or that there is an edge to the universe, or that life itself is not some mysterious and unknowable spiritual force beyond the reach of scientific inquiry– are all empirical questions, yet to be determined. Not Horgan, nor any other journalist, philosopher, or scientist knows the answer ahead of time. Merely supposing all these fundamental questions to be unsolvable signifies not the end of science but merely the endpoint of Horgan’s intellect and imagination.

It is true that science is largely cumulative, in that the basic knowledge we have of our world such as heliocentrism, the standard model, DNA/RNA genetics, evolutionary theory, etc., will not be overturned. But consciousness may not be intractable, nor the origin of life or the origin of the universe. In fact, based on the short, less than 200 yr history of modern, institutionalized, science and but a few decades of computer driven data collection and analysis- I’d say we are in the very early stages of the discovery game and a whole lot of unknown breakthroughs, in addition to the voluminous expansion of existing science that will be done in the meantime, leaves one hell of a lot of new science to be done-a staggering amount, hardly an end. What we may discover along the way working on even eventually intractable problems, could lead to all sorts of new research pursuits, un-forseen at the given present time- which has been the norm throughout the history of science.

Horgan does admit that the discovery of the expanding universe in the late 1990’s not long after his book came out, almost qualified as a world-view changer, but not quite.

Dontcha wonder what else might come along that could qualify as altering our “map of reality” that you nor I nor Horgan has the first clue may come about? Wanna bet he didnt predict anything about the expansion of the universe? I wonder if anything would qualify to him as enough of a “reality changer”, just to save his formidable powers of prophecy. Maybe in the humanities, they don’t teach the humility you get from getting your ass-kicked by mother nature in the lab doing long, hard, grinding, full-of-dead-end, science inquiry.

My bet is that consciousness will be explained at some point down the road, from the incredibly intricate operation of the brain and its neurons, the complexity and processes of which we have barely begun to explicate. Philosophers, theologians, and folks like Horgan just love to mystify that one, as silly it seems as was the 19th century belief in the vital force, the elan vital that MUST be the spiritual driving essence of life, never to to explained, impossible to a product of mere matter…yeah, right.

In addition, it is so early in the consciousness game, way earlier than inquiries into gravity or the cosmos for example. It took 400 years from Galileo and Newton to Einstein’s General Relativity-and we are not done with gravity yet- a quantum theory of it is as of yet, un-attained. Neuroscience is a very young science, barely 100 some years old, significantly younger by a few centuries than our as yet incomplete inquiry into gravity. Maybe it will take a few centuries of inquiry as well to get close to understanding it. To suppose the intractability of consciousness (or any other scientific problem) from the viewpoint of today is beyond laughable.

Despite not agreeing but a little with his description of science, and being utterly opposed to his two main theses, I had no personal attitude toward Horgan other than him being maybe more than a bit overly smug about his supposed prescience, until I got to the end of the article where Horgan gets particularly snarky about science with the following:

“In some ways, science is in even worse shape today than I would have guessed back in the 1990s. In The End of Science, I predicted that scientists, as they struggle to overcome their limitations, would become increasingly desperate and prone to hyperbole. This trend has become more severe and widespread than I anticipated. In my 30-plus years of covering science, the gap between the ideal of science and its messy, all-too-human reality has never been greater than it is today.”

Out of their “struggle to overcome their limitations”? What the fuck sort of lame denigration is that? Is that what he thinks modern scientists are all about: desperately trying to overcome their limitations? What an asshole. Scientists are too busy trying to solve problems, often seemingly insurmountable problems (like mapping the human genome, detecting gravitational waves, inventing and mass-producing mRNA anti COVID-19 vaccines) to be snidely characterized as “struggling to overcome their limitations.” Id say they are doing pretty well at so many levels, one wonders what Horgan’s real axe to grind is?
And then: “increasingly desperate and more prone to hyperbole”? Has Horgan ever really done any science… painstakingly collected data and attempted to clearly and accurately publish his results? I read science articles daily, from a range of fields. The only hyperbole I read comes from some mainstream media sources with their splashy headlines, I rarely (if ever) recall reading hyperbole within science publications at all.
It is journalists (not all) who come up with the over-the-top headlines that go well beyond the data and conclusions (it is their job to catch your eye), not the scientists themselves. Read the cautious, self-critiquing, circumspect and limited way results are described within any scientific paper and you’ll see it’s Horgan and other journalists that engage in desperate hyperbole.

One of the comments to Horgan’s Sci Am 2015 rehash made me laugh and is more than a bit appropriate here:

“There’s more. Every argument Horgan advances is flawed, plain wrong, or not even wrong. And don’t forget that the End of Science was written by a guy with an English degree.”

Nothing wrong with an English degree, but it strikes me this guy Horgan hasn’t done much science of his own, and if he has, he hasn’t learned the circumspect, reserved, tone I was taught in my research training, and the humility gained in just trying to do science research at all, much less correctly. Designing an experiment that often doesn’t work as a master’s student in any field is the first step in learning that humility. If he had such experience, or if he had the even more demanding doctoral research and dissertation experience-he might not be so sure of himself in his phony, almost snotty characterization of science and scientists.

So we are not at all in a waning twilight of scientific inquiry, it is humming along rather nicely, Horgan or not, and maybe expansion of the universe and the recent discoveries (since his book) of not millions but trillions of other galaxies in the observable universe qualify as enough of a change in our version of reality to satisfy a John Horgan, maybe not. As to the limits of our knowledge, he has no clue, and neither do I. One of us is just honest about it. His supposition that his list of probable unknowables: consciousness, abiogenesis, and the origin of the universe portend an end to science is as hyperbolic and desperate as it gets.

Since he restated his claims so succinctly and summarized his arguments in the Sci Am article, in claiming he is as right about science as he ever was, and just as he explicated 25 years ago in The End of Science, I wont bother to purchase and read the book. He’s already told us all about it and that he still knows where its at. I have too much good science to read in the meantime, to waste my time with any more of his proclamations… and I’ll get a lot of good, hard-won data, clear perspective, and a lot less hubris.





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