The End of Science (Book Review)

John W. Burgeson (
Mon, 15 Sep 1997 18:23:23 EDT

Book Review -- THE END OF SCIENCE, by John Horgan

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 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 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?" The Christian, of course, can
answer that question.

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.

the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation
Volume 49, Number 3 (Sept 1997)

John W. Burgeson
IBM Corporation (retired)