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Facing The End of Science

My gloomy 22-year-old meme has been popping up a lot lately, mainly in discussions of physics. Below I respond to four recent articles that cite The End of Science.

*Physicist David Kordahl writes in Los Angeles Review of Books that it is “hard to imagine today’s popular writing about physics without the existence of two books.” The first is Stephen Hawking’s 1988 bestseller A Brief History of Time, which prophesied that physics would soon discover a unified theory, sometimes called a “theory of everything,” that explains the universe. The second is The End of Science.

Kordahl rightly calls my book a response to Hawking’s. My argument, Kordahl says, is that “scientists, having inherited answers to most of nature’s big questions, are now constrained either to study increasingly insignificant details or to play with abstractions increasingly unlikely to be tested.” That’s a fair summary, with the important stipulation that some “big questions” might be too tough to crack, notably how matter makes a mind (to which I’ll return below).

*On her blog “Back Reaction,” physicist Sabine Hossenfelder considers why I provoke so much hostility in other physicists. She notes that I “come across as somewhat of an ass. Here we have a man who has no higher education in any of the disciplines he writes about, but who believes he has insights that scientists themselves fail to see.”

Yeah, sometimes my gall appalls me. How dare I second-guess scientists like string theorist Edward Witten and describe them in unflattering ways? But the main reason I provoke so much hostility, Hossenfelder concludes, is that “no one likes people who make bad predictions [meaning bad outcomes] and end up being right.”

Hossenfelder, who analyzes the impasse in fundamental physics, and especially the quest for a unified theory, in her new book Lost in Math, isn’t crazy about my message either. “I may have written a book about the problems in my own field, but the very reason I find the situation so frustrating is that I believe there is more to discover.”

In another recent post Hossenfelder says “crisis” is too optimistic a term to describe her field. Crisis “raises the impression that theorists realized the error of their ways, that change is on the way, that they are waking up now and will abandon their flawed methodology. But I see no awakening. The self-reflection in the community is zero, zilch, nada, nichts, null. They just keep doing what they’ve been doing for 40 years.”

*“Way back in 1996,” physicist Peter Woit writes on his blog “Not Even Wrong,” The End of Science “made the argument that various fields of science were running up against obstacles to any further progress of the magnitude they had previously experienced… [For] theoretical high energy physics, Horgan had a good case then, one that has become stronger and stronger as time goes on.”

Horgan cites speculation by cosmologist Martin Rees and others that intelligent machines might replace human physicists. “Biological theorists will be put out to pasture,” Woit explains, “with the machines taking over, performing ever more complex, elaborate and meaningless calculations, for ever and ever.” Woit calls this scenario “something even Horgan couldn’t have imagined.”

Actually I did imagine it, in a chapter called “Scientific Theology, or the End of Machine Science.” The idea of “machine science” was in the air when I was writing my book in the early 1990s. I talked about it with Freeman Dyson, Marvin Minsky and Hans Moravec, among others. Hawking also broached this possibility in his 1980 lecture “Is the End in Sight for Theoretical Physics?” Hawking concluded:

“At present computers are a useful aid in research but they have to be directed by human minds. However, if one extrapolates their current rapid rate of development, it would seem quite possible that they will take over altogether in theoretical physics. So maybe the end is in sight for theoretical physicists, if not for theoretical physics.” This kind of speculation is fun but shouldn’t be taken too seriously, which is why I call it “scientific theology.” See also my review of new books by Hawking and Rees.

*The most substantive recent discussion of the end of science is “Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck” in The Atlantic. The authors are Patrick Collison, a billionaire software entrepreneur, and Michael Nielsen, a computer-scientist/physicist whose book Reinventing Discovery proposes ways to improve science.

Collison and Nielsen assert that we are “investing vastly more merely to sustain (or even see a decline in) the rate of scientific progress.” As evidence they cite a survey of scientists in physics, chemistry and physiology/medicine, the fields for which Nobel Prizes are awarded. Scientists in these fields were asked to rank the importance of Nobel-Prize-winning accomplishments in the last century.

Physics fared the worst. The rankings peak in the 1920s and 1930s, the heyday of quantum mechanics, and after that decline except for an uptick in the 1960s, a good decade for particle physics. Chemistry and physiology/medicine were more or less flat. Collison and Nielsen did not include rankings of prize-winning work since 1990, because the Nobel committees have granted so few prizes for research done since then.

Collison and Nielsen conclude: “Over the past century, we’ve vastly increased the time and money invested in science, but in scientists’ own judgment, we’re producing the most important breakthroughs at a near-constant rate. On a per-dollar or per-person basis, this suggests that science is becoming far less efficient.” This argument extends one I advanced last spring in “Is Science Hitting a Wall?”

“We aren’t the first to suggest that scientific discovery is showing diminishing returns,” Collison and Nielsen acknowledge. They note that biologist Bentley Glass discussed that possibility in an essay in Science in 1971, and I did in 1996 in The End of Science, for which I interviewed Glass.

Science is becoming a victim of its own success, Glass told me in 1994: “It is hard to believe, for me, any way, that anything as comprehensive and earthshaking as Darwin’s view of the evolution of life or Mendel’s understanding of the nature of heredity will be easy to come by again. After all, these have been discovered!”

Collison and Nielsen see two reasons to hope that science will escape its current doldrums. First, research into so-called emergent phenomena, which do not easily yield to conventional scientific reductionism, might produce breakthroughs. Second, scientific institutions can be reformed to boost science’s productivity. Science’s stagnation “should be a major subject in public policy, and at grant agencies and universities. Better understanding the cause of this phenomenon is important, and identifying ways to reverse it is one of the greatest opportunities to improve our future.”

I doubt that institutional reforms will rejuvenate science, but I agree with Collison and Nielsen that emergent phenomena represent science’s best hope for breaking out of its doldrums. The great hole at the center of our knowledge is the mind. How does matter generate consciousness, and how, in turn, does mind affect matter? This is the mind-body problem, the deepest of all mysteries, and neither string theory nor any other current “theory of everything” has anything to say about it.

My views of the mind-body problem have shifted recently. That is why I wrote my new book Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity Who We Really Are, which you can read online for free at mindbodyproblems.com. There isn’t one solution to the mind-body problem, I argue, there are infinite solutions. Barring catastrophe, we can keep exploring ourselves, discovering ourselves, forever. Even if we transform ourselves into a cosmic computer dedicated to figuring itself out, our identity crisis will not end.

Further Reading:

Mind-Body Problems (free online version)

Why the Mind–Body Problem Can’t Have a Single, Objective Solution

Mind–Body Problems: My Meta-Solution to the Mystery of Who We Really Are

The End of Science (revised 2015 edition)

How Physics Lost Its Way

Was I Wrong about The End of Science?

The Twilight of Science’s High Priests

Is Science Hitting a Wall?