Saturday, April 17, 2021

Horgan’s The End of Science, a reconsideration, Part 3: A close reading of Horgan’s text

Now I want to shift away from examining Horgan’s arguments to examining his language. Why? Let’s hold that question in abeyance and look at the passage that tipped me in this direction. It’s from Horgan’s 2015 preface.

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. That's why I keep writing about my thesis, and why I make my students ponder it—even though I hope I'm wrong, and I'm oddly relieved when my students reject my pessimistic outlook... So far my prediction that there would be no great “revelations or revolutions”— no insights into nature as cataclysmic as heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, relativity, the big bang – has held up just fine.

It’s that word “cataclysmic” that caught my attention. I thought about that awhile, and then looked at the list of (possibly, probably?) unsolvable mysteries in the previous paragraph. Is this a real question – “Where did the universe come from?” Sure, it has the form of a question, and it is a question that people ponder in all seriousness, and I’m not only talking about six year olds. Does it make sense to invoke that question in the course of evaluating the current state of scientific knowledge and prospects for the future? What’s Horgan up to here? What’s the point of, you know, such a cataclysmic standard?

Let’s go to the beginning of the passage. We, that is, our descendants, WILL learn more about nature. Perhaps it will be interesting, maybe deeply interesting, perhaps very significant as well, even of great importance. But it won’t be cataclysmic, will it? What kind of standards are these?

I’m reminded of the widespread belief that Shakespeare is the greatest writer ever (or at any rate, in the Western world). None of the hundreds and thousands of writers since then are as good. Really? What’s the standard?

It’s not that I don’t think Shakespeare is a great writer. Of course he’s great. Nor do I have another candidate for the greatest. Once we get beyond the mere meanings of the words and out into the world, however, I don’t know what the assertion means. By what standard? Sure, people give reasons, lots of reasons, no one more so that the late Harold Bloom [1], who more or less claimed that Shakespeare made us who and what we are. But it is one thing to start with Shakespeare’s greatness, having it handed to when first you read him, and then come up with reasons to justify it.

It is quite something else to first set forth your principles of excellence, then apply them to a suitable body of texts, and then and only then discover that Shakespeare comes out on top, by a mile. That, of course, is more easily said than done. Which, I suppose, is my point.

Let’s consider another assertion from Horgan’s preface: “But we still can’t answer our most urgent question: Are we alone? As I said in The End of Science, I fervently hope extraterrestrial life is detected in my lifetime, because that could blow science wide open.” I wonder.

Such a discovery would certainly fill the news. But I’m not sure what it would do for science itself. Would it have much of an effect on those physicists searching for a Theory of Everything? Of course, not, it’s not a discovery in physics and it is no doubt churlish of me to bring it up. But those physicists do have lives and interests outside of physics and such a discovery might well affect that more general range of concerns. Indeed, it would affect many of us in that way.

But what of biologists? How would it affect them? I’ve heard discussions here and the of the possibility of silicon-based life. If this newly discovered life were silicon-based, then, yes, we’ve got a potential cataclysm on our hands. But if it were life of the ordinary carbon-based kind, albeit new species, not so cataclysmic, not even. After all, a bit later Horgan observes: “Biology’s framework of neo-Darwinian theory plus DNA-based genetics has proven to be remarkably resilient, and my guess is that it will easily absorb any surprises, just as quantum field theory absorbed quarks.”

Moreover, just what kind of question is that, the ‘are we alone?’ question? How would the detection of extraterrestrial life affect it? We’re already surrounded by life. The detection of extraterrestrial life just adds to the plenitude. Now, if we were to detect intelligent life, that’s different. What if we can’t converse with them? Are we still alone?

Perhaps by this point you may be thinking, “Aren’t you getting just a little picky? Give the guy a break.” Perhaps I am, but that’s how I want to play it for the moment.

Let’s continue on with a look at Horgan’s introduction to the original book. He opens with a plane trip to Syracuse where he meets with Roger Penrose to discuss his new book, The Emperor’s New Mind, where Penrose discusses one of Horgan’s favorite topics, consciousness. Penrose picks him up at the airport, they somehow make their way to Penrose’s office at the university, where he’s visiting, and Penrose is skeptical about string theory (a prime candidate for a Theory of Everything):

“It couldn’t be right,” he told me. “It’s just not the way I’d expect the answer to be.” I began to realize, as Penrose spoke, that to him “the answer” was more than a mere theory of physics, a way of organizing data and predicting events. He was talking about The Answer: the secret of life, the solution to the riddle of the universe.

See what he did there? He jumped from a theory about fundamental physics to a theory about The Whole Shebang! as though Douglas Adams hadn’t already told us that it’s 42.

A bit later Penrose throws Horgan another curve ball:

What is so pessimistic, I asked, about a truth seeker thinking that the truth is attainable? “Solving mysteries is a wonderful thing to do,” Penrose replied. “And if they were all solved, somehow, that would be rather boring.” Then he chuckled, as if struck by the oddness of his own words.

Curioser and curioser. That set Horgan to thinking, “Could scientists, in effect, learn everything there is to know?” You can see where this is headed, can’t you?

Horgan takes us back to his undergraduate years, where he was an English major being introduced to the mysteries of postmodern literary criticism while taking science and math courses on the side: “Working on a problem in calculus or physics represented a pleasant change of pace from messy humanities assignments; I found great satisfaction in arriving at the correct answer to a problem.” And so, in due course, he became a science writer.

Back to Penrose:

Before my meeting with Penrose, I had taken it for granted that science was open-ended, even infinite. The possibility that scientists might one day find a truth so potent that it would obviate all further investigations had struck me as wishful thinking at best, or as the kind of hyperbole required to sell science (and science books) to the masses. The earnestness, and ambivalence, with which Penrose contemplated the prospect of a final theory forced me to reassess my own views of science’s future. Over time, I became obsessed with the issue. What are the limits of science, if any? Is science infinite, or is it as mortal as we are?

When I read that first sentence – this time around, I haven’t got the faintest idea what I thought of it when I read it 25 years ago – I said to myself, “yep, that’s what I thought; science is open-ended.” I even recalled the time, back in my undergraduate days at Johns Hopkins, when I went to talk with Earl Wasserman, the great Romanticist, and made some remark – I don’t have any exact memory of who said what, I’m making it up – to the effect that I was making progress (on something or other) and had more questions. He replied something to the effect that perhaps that’s what we’re after, not so much answers, but further questions. I’d scored!

Horgan goes on to say that when he first thought about writing the book he thought it would be a collection of “portraits, warts and all, of the fascinating truth seekers and truth shunners I have been fortunate enough to interview.” He planned to maintain the journalist’s arms-length distance from their words and let readers make up their own minds. He’d come to believe the skeptical side of the argument and that he would present that in the course of the book. “That approach, I felt, would be more in keeping with my conviction that most assertions about the limits of knowledge are, finally, deeply idiosyncratic.”

Horgan continues on about this and that, loops through Harold Bloom’s, The Anxiety of Influence, using it to suggest that science has entered a postempirical phase that he dubbed ironic science. This ironic science

cannot achieve its goal of transcending the truth we already have. And it certainly cannot give us—in fact, it protects us from—The Answer, a truth so potent that it quenches our curiosity once and for all time. After all, science itself decrees that we humans must always be content with partial truths.

There it is again, “The Answer.” Yikes! He’s going to give it to us one more time, this time invoking a science fiction scenario in which “machines transform the entire cosmos into a vast, unified, information-processing network” – little did he know that in just a few years the Wachowskis (The Matrix, 1999), aided by Nick Bostrom[2], would have all the cyber-kids wondering whether or not we’re living in a computer simulation. For Realz!

Horgan ends the introduction by asking what this cosmic computer would be doing:

I can imagine only one possibility. It would try to answer The Question, the one that lurks behind all other questions, like an actor playing all the parts of a play: Why is there something rather than nothing? In its effort to find The Answer to The Question, the universal mind may discover the ultimate limits of knowledge.

Is he serious, THE Question, THE Answer? Yes? No? How about both? He’s being ironic, an ironic framing for a book about ironic science.

Remember that casual assumption that Horgan had, that I had, that many of have had, and who knows? still have – “that science was open-ended, even infinite”? We can be casual about it no more. That’s what Horgan is doing with this slippery language we’ve been looking at, transforming that assumption into a serious question. The question gains much of its heft from the interviews that Horgan has collected. But those alone would not have been sufficient. Horgan was right to force the issue in the way that he has.

For one thing, those physicists are asking us for $20 billion dollars to dig another ditch and fill it with a new machine that most likely won’t repay us with deeper insight. And they aren’t the only ones asking for more money. But money isn’t the only issue. People have to be trained to run these devices and conduct these investigations. Does it make sense to devote all these human resources to intellectual make-work?

Beyond this, I believe the intellectual world is struggling to birth new modes of thinking. That’s the substance of my argument against Horgan’s thesis [3]. I figure that grappling with Horgan’s argument will help in that process.


[1] Bloom’s academic reputation will likely rest on a relatively early book, The Anxiety of Influence (which Horgan, by the way, references in his introduction), but he has written extensively for the general audience, including a book extolling the virtues of The Western Canon, one on Shakespeare, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and one on Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. I’ve read Anxiety, but not the other three, though I once leafed through the Shakespeare book in a bookstore. But here is a passage from an interview that he gave to the Paris Review (“The Art of Criticism, No. 1”) where he talks of Shakespeare:

Western psychology is much more a Shakespearean invention than a Biblical invention, let alone, obviously, a Homeric, or Sophoclean, or even Platonic, never mind a Cartesian or Jungian invention. It’s not just that Shakespeare gives us most of our representations of cognition as such; I’m not so sure he doesn’t largely invent what we think of as cognition. I remember saying something like this to a seminar consisting of professional teachers of Shakespeare and one of them got very indignant and said, You are confusing Shakespeare with God. I don’t see why one shouldn’t, as it were. Most of what we know about how to represent cognition and personality in language was permanently altered by Shakespeare.


[2] Nick Bostrom (2003). “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”. Philosophical Quarterly. 53 (211): 243–255. doi:10.1111/1467-9213.00309. Also,

[3] William L. Benzon, Pursued by Knowledge in a Fecund Universe, Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 20(1): 93-100, 1997.

Note: I am collecting the posts in this series under the label, EndofScience

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