Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Horgan’s The End of Science, a reconsideration, Part 1: Introduction

Back in the ancient days of 1996 John Horgan published The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age and thereby earned the enmity of scientists and science lovers everywhere. But the book was not, as its title suggests, an exercise in the then fashionable exercise of science bashing. If anything it was born of a love of science, albeit a love disappointed at the current progress of science. Things seemed to be grinding to a halt, perhaps most noticeably in the foundations of physics, where elegant theorizing had far outstripped empirical evidence: What good is a theory if your can’t test it against the observational evidence?

Basic Books issued a new edition in 2015 and Horgan wrote a new preface in which he argued that his argument still holds. Judging from remarks he made on Twitter to Eric Weinstein he’s still skeptical about science’s prospects for future advance. Yes, “our descendants will learn much more about nature, and they will invent gadgets even cooler than smartphones,” but gone are the days of ideas as “cataclysmic as heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, relativity, [and] the big bang.”

I’m not so sure. Back in 1997 I published an essay-review in which I argued:

One can read The End of Science as evidence of the emergence of a new worldview. Those, like Horgan, who believe that science is indeed coming to an end are heirs of standard Western metaphysical assumptions, assumptions which are in a shambles. Those who believe that science has a splendid future are helping to forge an as-yet unnamed worldview, one grounded in different assumptions, though, perhaps more often than not, the people working toward this worldview think of it as but a continuation of the Western worldview they were taught in school.[1]

I still like that argument, but feel the need to acknowledge that years that have passed by saying a bit more.

For one thing, in 2011 economist Tyler Cowen published a book in which he argued that the economy is stagnating after two centuries of accelerating growth that lifted 100s of millions out of poverty into a comfortable middle class existence. Given that that economic growth has been driven by technological innovation, and that technological innovation is (loosely) coupled with scientific progress, Cowen’s argument resonates with Horgan’s. In 2018 Patrick Collison and Michael Nielson published an article in The Atlantic in which they argued that science seemed to slowing down [3]. A year after that Collison and Cowen surveyed the situation and issued a call for Progress Studies [4]. I replied to this work with a working paper where I argued, “What economists have identified as stagnation over the last few decades can also be interpreted as the cost of continuing successful engagement with a complex world that is not set up to serve human interests” [5]. That came from the same line of thinking and investigation I used in my reply to Horgan.

I now wish to add to that argumentation in a series of blog posts, though I’m not sure how many or on what schedule. My current plan is to begin by discussing what seems to me the clearest case for scientific stalemate, the foundations of physics. Then I’ll put on my literary critic’s hat and give Horgan’s words a close reading – e.g. “cataclysmic”? – suggesting that there’s a lot of wiggle-room in it. Then I want to take a personal look at one of Horgan’s big questions: “How, exactly, does a chunk of meat make a mind?” I’ve been tracking that ever since, say, I read a Scientific American article by Karl Pribram about the holographic brain in 1969; I continued on by studying cognitive science and computational semantics in graduate school in the 1970s with David Hays (while pursuing a degree in English Literature); some years later, in the 1990s, I had conversations about neurodynamics with the late Walter Freeman (some of which ended up in my 2001 book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture), and, well, that’s enough for the moment. I’ll conclude by returning to my main line, the one I used in 1997 review of Horgan, used again in my thoughts on economic stagnation, but that actually dates to my graduate school days [6].

More later.

References

[1] William L. Benzon, Pursued by Knowledge in a Fecund Universe, Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 20(1): 93-100, 1997. https://www.academia.edu/8790205/Pursued_by_Knowledge_in_a_Fecund_Universe.

[2] Tyler Cowen, The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better: A Penguin eSpecial from Dutton, Dutton, 2011.

[3] Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen, “Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck”, The Atlantic, Nov 16, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/11/diminishing-returns-science/575665/.

[4] Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen, We Need a New Science of Progress, The Atlantic, July 30, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/hbnd5w8a.

[5] Stagnation and Beyond: Economic growth and the cost of knowledge in a complex world, Version 2, Working Paper, Aug. 2, 2019, 62 pp., https://www.academia.edu/39927897/Stagnation_and_Beyond_Economic_growth_and_the_cost_of_knowledge_in_a_complex_world.

[6] This blog post is a guide to that work, much of which I developed in close conjunction with the late David Hays, Mind-Culture Coevolution: Major Transitions in the Development of Human Culture and Society, New Savanna, July 4, 2020, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2014/08/mind-culture-coevolution-major.html.

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