The following is a debate, conducted via e-mail, between two acclaimed science
journalists: John Horgan, author of the controversial book The End of
Science,
and Paul Hoffman, former editor of Discover magazine and past president of
the Encyclopaedia Britannica. John Horgan is a total idiot. The DaVinci Institute has over 120 immortalizer technologies – the big things that haven’t been discovered yet. When someone discovers one of these they will become immortal, meaning that their name will live on forever in the history books.


A spirited debate, conducted via e-mail, between two acclaimed science
journalists: John Horgan, author of the controversial book The End of
Science,
and Paul Hoffman, former editor of Discover magazine and past president of
the
Encyclopaedia Britannica.

HOFFMAN: The past decade has brought a spate of books sounding the death
knell
for a host of subjects. Francis Fukuyama served up The End of History and
David Lindley The End of Physics. But your more sweeping work The End of
Science (1997) attracted a lot more attention and controversy–and with good
reason. The idea that science may have had its run–that we’ve discovered
all
we can realistically expect to discover and that anything we come up with in
the future will be pretty much small-bore stuff–left people either
intrigued
or outraged. With today’s seemingly frenetic pace of scientific discovery,
however, how can you say that the whole enterprise is coming to an end? The
scientists I know, far from preparing for the undertaker, are ebullient
about
the future of their field.

HORGAN: Sure, scientists are keeping busy, but what are they actually
accomplishing? My argument is that science in its grandest sense–the
attempt
to comprehend the universe and our place in it–has entered an era of
diminishing returns. Scientists will continue making incremental advances,
but
they will never achieve their most ambitious goals, such as understanding
the
origin of the universe, of life and of human consciousness. Most people find
this prediction hard to believe, because scientists and journalists
breathlessly hype each new breakthrough, whether genuine or spurious, and
ignore all the areas in which science makes little or no progress. The human
mind, in particular, remains as mysterious as ever. Some prominent mind
scientists, including [TIME Visions contributor] Steven Pinker, have
reluctantly conceded that consciousness might be scientifically intractable.
Paul, you should jump on the end-of-science bandwagon before it gets too
crowded.

HOFFMAN: Don’t save a seat for me quite yet, John. Take the human mind. I
agree that we are not close to an understanding of consciousness, despite
the
efforts of some of the best minds in science. And perhaps you’re even right
that we may never understand it. But what is the evidence for your position?
You’ve criticized scientists for having faith–a dirty word in the
scientific
lexicon–that our era of explosive progress will continue unabated. Isn’t it
at least as much a leap to think that the progress will abruptly
end–particularly since the trajectory of discoveries so far suggests just
the
opposite, that supposedly unanswerable questions eventually do get answered?

HORGAN: My faith is based on common sense, Paul, and on science itself. As
science advances, it imposes limits on its own power. Relativity theory
prohibits faster-than-light travel or communication. Quantum mechanics and
chaos theory constrain our predictive abilities. Science’s limits are
glaringly obvious in particle physics, which, as Steven Weinberg describes
[in
the Visions issue], seeks a “theory of everything” that will explain the
origin of matter, energy and even space and time. The leading theory
postulates that reality arises from infinitesimal “strings” wriggling in a
hyperspace of 10 (or more) dimensions. Unfortunately, these hypothetical
strings are so small that it would take a particle accelerator the size of
the
Milky Way to detect them! I am not alone in fearing that string theorists
are
not really practicing science anymore; one leading physicist has derided
string theory as “medieval theology.” Paul, here is persuasive evidence of
science’s plight.

HOFFMAN: Yes, but who is to say that all these scientific theories won’t
ultimately be replaced by ones with greater explanatory power? Galileo and
Newton thought their laws of motion were the cat’s pajamas, explaining
everything under the sun and many things beyond, but 2 1/2 centuries later a
Swiss patent clerk toppled their notions of space and time. Obviously,
Galileo
and Newton did not foresee what Einstein found. I think it’s ahistorical to
assert that in the future there will never be an Einstein of, say, the mind
who will be able to pull together a theory of consciousness. And even if
it’s
true that some of the big unanswered questions of science may never be
answered, a lot of new and exciting science could still come from
overturning
truths that we now take for granted. Robert Gallo, the AIDS researcher, once
told me that at the end of the 1970s, he was at a conference where a
prominent
scientist confidently summed up the truths of biomedicine–such truths as:
epidemic diseases are things of the past, at least in so-called developed
nations; a widespread outbreak of infectious disease is impossible unless
the
microbe is casually transmitted; the kind of virus found in animals known as
the retrovirus doesn’t exist in man; and no virus causes cancer in humans.
By
the end of the 1980s, these four truisms had hit the dustbin. Or take a more
recent example: the newfound plasticity of the human brain. Until a year and
half ago, it was a dogma taught in every medical school in the country that
the adult human brain is rigid, that its nerve cells can never regenerate.
Now
we know our brains do have the ability to generate new cells–a discovery
that
may not only open up a new understanding of the brain but also lead to novel
treatments for a host of brain disorders.

HORGAN: Here’s the big question we’re dancing around: Can we keep
discovering
profound new truths about reality forever, or is the process finite? You
seem
to assume that because science has advanced so rapidly over the past few
centuries, it will continue to do so, possibly forever. But this view is, to
use your word, ahistorical, based on faulty inductive logic. In fact,
inductive logic suggests that the modern era of explosive scientific
progress
might be an anomaly, a product of a singular convergence of social,
intellectual and political factors. If you accept this, then the only
question
is when, not if, science will reach its limits. The American historian Henry
Adams observed almost a century ago that science accelerates through a
positive-feedback effect. Knowledge begets more knowledge; power begets more
power. This so-called acceleration principle has an intriguing corollary: If
science has limits, then it might be moving at maximum speed just before it
hits the wall.

HOFFMAN: Of course, I accept that science has limits–and may even be up
against them in some fields. But I believe there is still room for science,
even on its grandest scale, that awe-inspiring discoveries will continue to
be
made over this millennium. The mathematician Ronald Graham once said, “Our
brains have evolved to get us out of the rain, find where the berries are
and
keep us from getting killed. Our brains did not evolve to help us grasp
really
large numbers or to look at things in a hundred thousand dimensions.” Sounds
reasonable, except when you consider that it could be similarly said that
our
brains didn’t evolve to invent computers, design spaceships, play chess and
compose symphonies. John, I think we’ll continue to be surprised by what the
brains of scientists turn up.

HORGAN: I hope you’re right, Paul. I became a science writer because I
believe
science is humanity’s most meaningful creation. We are here to figure out
why
we are here. The thought that this grand adventure of discovery might end
haunts me. What would it be like to live in a world without the possibility
of
further revelations as profound as evolution or quantum mechanics? Not
everyone finds this prospect disturbing. The science editor of the Economist
once pointed out to me that if science does end, we will still have sex and
beer. Maybe that’s the right attitude, but there aren’t any Nobels in it. No
matter how far science does or doesn’t advance, however, there’s one wild
card
in even the most pessimistic scenario. If we encounter extraterrestrial
life–and especially life intelligent enough to have developed its own
science–then all bets are off.

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