The End of Science

John W. Burgeson (
Fri, 11 Jul 1997 14:25:17 -0400

Paul wrote, in part:: "Recently I have been reading John Horgan's
fascinating book, The End of Science
(Broadway Books, 1996, $15 pb). I recommend it to all in ASA, because
you will be familiar enough with the level of the book to enjoy it
without necessarily buying all the arguments. Let's read it and
then plan to discuss it in August, ok?"

Interesting book, Paul.

Here is the draft of a book review I wrote on it:

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 --
capitalized on purpose), 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 a 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 Ecclesiastes; 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

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

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,

Reviewed by John W. Burgeson
IBM Corporation (retired)