THE END OF SCIENCE, Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the
Scientific Age, by John Horgan. New York, NY; Addison-Wesley Publishing Company,
Inc., 1996. 308 pages, index and footnotes. Hardcover; $24.00.
An American fable, probably apocryphal, tells of an executive in the Patents
Office resigning his job in 1890 because, he said, "nearly everything that can
be invented now has been!" Now comes John Horgan, science writer for the
Scientific American (that journal which has the self-appointed task of telling
us all how to think about Science), interviewing dozens of scientists and
philosophers on a similar issue. Horgan poses the question this way:
1. Have the BIG questions all been answered?
2. Is the age of great discoveries now behind us?
3. Are scientists now reduced to puzzle-solving, just adding details, and
possibly precision, to today's existing theories?
Horgan argues persuasively for "endism," a "yes" answer to all the questions
above, and sees science, as a result, losing its place in the hierarchy of
disciplines, becoming, in time, much like the field of literary criticism (which
he apparently does not admire). His arguments are based, not so much on his own
ideas, but on ideas freely shared by the people he interviews. Most of the "big"
names are included, Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Weinberg, Wheeler, Dawkins (of
course), Chomsky, Eccles, many many others.
This is an frustrating book; one wishes to enter into the interview, to ask the
questions Horgan glosses over, to clarify points. It is also exciting, for it
covers a common topic across many disciplines. It is a depressing book; one
comes away from it with an impression much similar to the writer of
Ecclesiastics; all is vanity. Yet, it is an uplifting book for the Christian; I
see in it the logical end of treating "science" as a faith position.
This may be a short-lived book, for it is very much bound to the "state of the
art" of the early 90s. The subject it covers, however, will continue to be an
issue for decades to come, and I foresee extensive quotations from it for many
years to come.
Horgan writes with insight into the end of progress, philosophy, physics,
cosmology, evolutionary biology, social science, neuroscience, and so on. In an
epilogue, titled "The Terror of God," Horgan speculates what this means. He
writes (page 266), "The ostensible goal of science, philosophy, religion and all
forms of knowledge is to transform the great 'Hunh' of mystical wonder into an
even greater 'Aha' of understanding. But after one arrives at THE ANSWER, what
then? There is a kind of horror in thinking that our sense of wonder might be
extinguished, once and for all time, by our knowledge. What, then, would be the
purpose of existence? There would be none." The book ends with this plaintive
wail, "And now that science -- true, pure, empirical science -- has ended, what
else is there to believe in?"
I recommend this book to all ASA members. It ought to be readable by most
persons at the college level; perhaps even by some advanced high school
students. The issues raised are important, and the views it collects under a
single cover are a unique look at science not found in the textbooks. Much time
and effort went into its research, and the results are well worth our attention.
It is easy to read, controversial and, above all, entertaining.
Reviewed by John W. Burgeson
IBM Corporation (retired)