(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When John Horgan, a journalist who has been called the enfant terrible of modern science, published The End of Science (1996), the book provoked much discussion and controversy. The discussion centered on what Horgan called “ironic science,” speculations about the world that can be neither verified nor falsified by actual experiments. The controversy brewed over his claim that the scientific enterprise was exhausted, that every great scientific discovery that can be made has been made, and the remaining task for scientists is filling in these big pictures with increasingly trivial details. When asked what he thought of Horgan’s arguments, Stephen Hawking, a renowned physicist immobilized by Lou Gehrig’s disease who communicates by spelling his words on a computer, gave the succinct response, “garbage.”

Like Hawking, John Maddox, longtime editor-in-chief of the journal Nature, strongly disagreed with Horgan’s ideas and even published a book, What Remains to Be Discovered (1998), to prove that scientists have a long agenda of achievement ahead of them, including discoveries that will change their ideas as radically as Charles Darwin’s and Albert Einstein’s discoveries changed past ideas. While these criticisms have not made Horgan happy, the critics irritating him the most were certain scientists studying the human brain, “mind-scientists” who felt that they were starting, rather than ending, a period of important scientific discovery. Even though those scientists are involved in what they and Horgan consider humanity’s most significant scientific endeavor, he thinks that they have become lost amid the overwhelmingly complex interconnections of the brain’s ten million synapses. He began investigating the major accomplishments and limitations of neuroscience in The End of Science, but, because the mind is essentially who we are, he sees The Undiscovered Mind as a much more important book than The End of Science.

For both books he interviewed principal researchers and theoreticians, visited university laboratories and research institutes, and attended meetings of relevant professional organizations. He has also read the chief articles and books of his interviewees. However, his methods warrant some criticism. He restricts himself primarily to Western scientists, and even within this limited group, most of the scientists are American. Furthermore, he often characterizes his subjects unfavorably with regard to their appearance, habits, and personalities, which will likely taint the unwary reader’s views of what these talented men and women are trying to say. A cursory reading of the history of science is sufficient to reveal that ugly and cantankerous scientists have made more than their share of great discoveries. Indeed, these unflattering descriptions tell the reader more about Horgan than they do about the scientists.

Horgan’s purpose in The Undiscovered Mind is to give his readers an overview of the important mind-sciences, but this overview is often colored by his negative evaluations. For example, one of his principal themes is the “explanatory gap” between physiological theories of the mind and the psychological phenomena they try to explain. Despite some successes, neuroscientists have failed to unify the data derived from brain research in the way that Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity unified the motion of matter in the universe. However, neuroscientists might legitimately respond that this explanatory gap does not mean that an objective chasm exists between brain and mind. Moreover, gaps have existed in science before, and Newton himself was forced to call upon the world’s creator to account for some of the erratic planetary motions in his theory of the solar system. These and other gaps were not bridged until the discoveries of Einstein.

Also troubling Horgan is the reductionism that he sees as endemic among mind-scientists. He calls their fragmentation of the brain into the functioning of its neurons the “Humpty-Dumpty Dilemma,” because these scientists are adept at breaking the brain into many pieces, but they have no idea about how to reconstruct them. They can picture millions of neurons firing at the same time, but they do not even know which signals are associated with a person moving an arm, much less how the brain integrates the disparate workings of its highly specialized parts to create the unity of perception and thought that constitutes the mind. Even when researchers focused on particular mental functions, Horgan experienced difficulties in...

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