The end of science?

Paperback and electronic versions of John Horgan’s 1996 book, The End of Science, have recently been published by Basic Books. Horgan wrote a bit about how the text was received in 1996 on his weekly Scientific American blog. I read the book in 1996 and wrote to Horgan about the impact it had on me. At the time, I was working to better understand my own fascination with mathematics which, while it is the thing that has brought meaning to centuries of empirical efforts, rarely comes up in popular discussion of science in general or cosmology in particular. In my letter to Horgan I said this:

There is, no doubt, a limit to the kind of empiricism we have employed this last century. But, I think we have yet to understand something about what it is that we have accomplished. I agree with David Bohm that science is essentially some extension of perception. But there is a mistake embedded in our notion of objectification and I think I have become involved in wanting to somehow dislodge it.

Studying mathematics, I told him, had had the effect of putting me in my place, making me careful not to believe myself too much or too easily, because I had seen something extraordinary at work. There would always be something just slightly out of my reach.

The role that mathematics plays in scientific thinking is, I believe, still largely underestimated. Horgan doesn’t expect major revisions in our current maps of reality, nor “insights into nature as cataclysmic as heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, relativity…” But mathematics has the potential to produce insights into the nature of science itself, to show us something about how we are extending perception, and what this might mean about what we are able to see.  I often expect that reorienting ourselves within what we seem to know can produce pofound changes in our current maps of reality.

By way of example,  I can point back to my last post which describes Virginia Chaitin’s notion of interdisciplinarity where, she explains, “frameworks, research methods and epistemic goals of individual disciplines are combined and recreated yielding novel and unexpected prospects for knowledge and understanding.”

She uses Gregory Chaitin’s work in metabiology (a mathematical biology) to illustrate the value of this kind of effort and demonstrates along the way how mathematics contributes to the creation of  “a brand-new and more generous conceptual framework for the human being, which now evolves around the idea of a life-form motivated by a non-mechanical, lawless, subjective creativity instead of a life-form driven by a predetermined “winner or loser” survival dichotomy.” This can have major implications for how we view evolution in general and human evolution in particular.

Horgan provides links to some of his earlier pieces for further reading. One of them is an interview with Edward Witten called, Physics Titan Edward Witten Still Thinks String Theory “on the Right Track.” String theory is essentially mathematical in character and has been criticized for its lack of testability. Horgan excerpted from his 1996 publication:

I asked Witten how he responded to the claims of critics that superstring theory is not testable and therefore is not really physics at all. Witten replied that the theory had predicted gravity. “Even though it is, properly speaking, a post-prediction, in the sense that the experiment was made before the theory, the fact that gravity is a consequence of string theory, to me, is one of the greatest theoretical insights ever.”

He acknowledged, even emphasized, that no one has truly fathomed the theory, and that it might be decades before it yielded a precise description of nature. He would not predict, as others had, that string theory might bring about the end of physics. Nevertheless, he was serenely confident that it would eventually yield a profound new understanding of reality. “Good wrong ideas are extremely scarce,” he said, “and good wrong ideas that even remotely rival the majesty of string theory have never been seen.” When I continued to press Witten on the issue of testability, he grew exasperated. “I don’t think I’ve succeeded in conveying to you its wonder, its incredible consistency, remarkable elegance and beauty.” In other words, superstring theory is too beautiful to be wrong.

Then from his more recent interview:

Horgan: When I interviewed you in 1991, you said that “good wrong ideas that even remotely rival the majesty of string theory have never been seen.” Are you still confident that string theory (or its descendant, M theory) will turn out to be “right”?

Witten: I think I will stick with what I said in 1991. Since then, we have lived through the second superstring evolution and many surprising developments in which string theory has been used to get a better understanding of conventional theories in physics (and math). All this makes most sense if one assumes that what we are doing is on the right track.

Another link takes us to his tribute to biologist Lynn Margulis who, Horgan writes,

…challenged what she called “ultra-Darwinian orthodoxy” with several ideas. The first, and most successful, is the concept of symbiosis. Darwin and his heirs had always emphasized the role that competition between individuals and species played in evolution. In the 1960′s, however, Margulis began arguing that symbiosis had been an equally important factor–and perhaps more important–in the evolution of life.

I include this reference only because I enjoyed that Horgan championed someone who also challenged mainstream Darwinian thinking.

I have little doubt that mathematics will break some of our habits of thought by showing us something about how we build conceptual structures, or the nature of what we have come to call empiricism. Perhaps it can even shed some light on the relationship between mind and matter.  I should add that I did thoroughly enjoy The End of Science when I read it.   As was the case then, John Horgan seems to always provide me with the support I need for arguing with him.

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