Is there anything significant left for scientists to discover? Will there be any more Albert Einsteins, Charles Darwins, or James Clerk Maxwells changing our understanding of the natural world in fundamental ways? Will there be any more scientific revolutions, or will future scientists be reduced to solving trivial puzzles? John Horgan, a staff writer for Scientific American, asks some three dozen scientists and philosophers whether we have reached the limits of empirical scientific research, and if so, what does that ultimately mean for the future of the human race. The scientists he interviews are drawn from a variety of scientific disciplines, including physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, and the social sciences. Among them are some of the best-known names in science, mostly individuals who have made serious efforts to communicate with the general public, including the cosmologist Stephen Hawking; the particle physicist Steven Weinberg; the biologists Stephen Jay Gould, Lynn Margulis, and Francis Crick; and the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson. Included among the philosophers are Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. With few exceptions, his interviewees are the men and women who symbolize science to nonscientific audiences in the English-speaking world.
Not surprisingly, the answers given by these men and women vary. Some are afraid humans may have reached the limits of scientific knowledge; others are confident that those limits have not yet been reached. Some are very optimistic about the future; others are pessimistic. Above all, Horgan detects ambivalence as the dominant emotion.
What the scientists believe, however, is only part of the story of this book. Unlike most books by science journalists based on interviews with scientists, Horgan neither attempts to fade into the background, allowing the scientists to tell readers about their work, nor strives to serve as the spokesperson for the general public, asking the interesting questions that readers would ask these leading researchers if given the chance. He explicitly rejects the strategy of leaving it to readers to discern which scientist made the best argument and the most sense. He also makes no pretension that nonscientists are able to fully comprehend what some of these scientists are really saying in their equations. Instead, the interviews serve as opportunities for Horgan either to expand upon the opinions or conclusions of the interviewees with whom he agrees, whether scientists or philosophers, or to rebut those with whom he disagrees. The interviews are vehicles for the articulation of Horgan’s own beliefs. The words of the scientists are text which Horgan annotates. As the author admits in his introduction, this book is “overtly judgmental, argumentative, and personal.” The interviews are debates, but debates in which the outcome is controlled by one of the debaters, who takes every opportunity to comment on the answers of his opponent.
Horgan is more of a columnist than a reporter, and this book should be viewed more as an opinion piece than a factual report. Horgan claims that he likes scientists, but that is sometimes difficult to believe on the basis of this book. Coloring our perspective are Horgan’s commentaries on the appearance, voice, and gestures of these men and women. Even when Horgan agrees with their views, his word pictures of the scientists are not particularly sympathetic or pleasant.
Horgan is convinced that science, by which he means the ability to create and prove grand theories that explain significant questions—how was the universe created; how did life begin; what is the nature of consciousness—has reached the limit of its power to explain. Either humans already know the answer, or the answer is unknowable using the methods of scientific inquiry. Science is to him not a body of knowledge but the process of discovering knowledge. If we can discover no new knowledge, then we no longer have science.
To provide an organizing principle for his criticism of individual scientists, Horgan identifies a mode of scientific activity he calls “ironic science.” He defines it as a “speculative, postempirical mode” of scientific activity. (Science enters the postmodern age.) To clarify what he means by ironic science, Horgan draws on literary criticism. He uses the word “ironic” in the sense that literary critics speak of texts as ironic: “they have multiple meanings, none of them definitive.” He then draws...
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