The End of Science?

 

The scientific field of study dominates academia around the globe. Our education system is increasingly directed towards the maths and sciences as the “most relevant” or even “most important” parts of learning. Our economic systems are overwhelmingly dominated by technological businesses and industries. Simplistic versions of “the scientific method” are indoctrinated into youth from their earliest years. But why is this? What is science, and what is its end?

The end of science? you might ask in amazement. The title of this post is sure to spark controversy if not outright condemnation. But before you get too heated, let me preface it by informing you that no, science is not in fact dead, not from what I can tell, anyways. The word “end” has various different meanings, as we shall come to see. Nor is this post meant to be taken in a derogatory manner towards science, at all. Science is an absolutely wonderful field of study, and is an extremely useful tool for gaining understanding about the astounding universe in which we live. But, as I argued in my last post, Aristotle’s Answer to the Science/Philosophy Debate, science as a branch of thought and knowledge is best understood in its true context, from which it has its roots and in which it can most fully and coherently thrive: philosophy.

This present article was born from the last one about the relationship between science and philosophy. An interesting thought occurred to me while I was writing that last post, and I decided to write more about it here. The title of this article, as I’ll explain below, is a play on words. In a weird coincidence, however, in the course of researching over this past week I happened upon a book with the exact same title as this post, with an interesting and related argument of its own.

But before I get into that, let’s talk about what an “end” is in the first place. For most normal, everyday use, an “end” is just the conclusion of something, its final limit/boundary, termination, etc. The end of life is death, the end of a football game is when the time runs out, a book’s end is its final page. Something ends when it is over, finished. In this sense of the word, the “end” of science would literally be its ceasing to exist, which is, of course, why many people probably began reading this post in indignation or disbelief. With science as prominent in our culture and society as it is, how could it possibly end? How could science die? Even the hint of the idea of this is enough to rouse fury for some total science devotees, because with the rise to power of science as a branch of knowledge came with it scientism, or the belief that science alone is a viable source of knowledge. I addressed this briefly in the last post, and will be writing more fully on it in the future. For now, I’ll just say that in my view, scientism, far from being a natural or good outcome of science, is actually detrimental to science itself.

The other meaning of the word “end,” though, is a goal, purpose, reason, or outcome towards which something is directed; the reason for which something exists. In this sense, the “end” of eating food is to provide our bodies with nutrients. For those familiar with the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical system, the end is the final cause of something. Says Aristotle, a final cause is

“The end, i. e. that for the sake of which a thing is; e. g. health is the cause of walking. For ‘Why does one walk?’ we say; ‘that one may be healthy’; and in speaking thus we think we have given the cause” (Metaphysics 5.2, 1013a32-35) [1].

So which sense of the word is the title of this article meant to use? Well, actually . . . both.

We can think of several different senses in which science could have an end. First, in talking about the “end of science” we could be talking about the purpose of science. Second, we could be talking about the actual finish of science, the cessation of its existence as a field of study conducted in academia. In a third way, we could talk about the end of science as being a combination of both: as scientific study reaching a point where it has achieved its final goals/purposes for existing. This would be like completing a puzzle: you no longer are acting upon the puzzle because the object of doing such has been fulfilled.

That is the argument behind John Horgan’s book The End of Science. Here’s the description of the book:

“In The End of Science, John Horgan makes the case that the era of truly profound scientific revelations about the universe and our place in it is over. Interviewing scientific luminaries such as Stephen Hawking, Francis Crick, and Richard Dawkins, he demonstrates that all the big questions that can be answered have been answered, as science bumps up against fundamental limits. The world cannot give us a “theory of everything,” and modern endeavors such as string theory are “ironic” and “theological” in nature, not scientific, because they are impossible to confirm. Horgan’s argument was controversial in 1996, and it remains so today, still firing up debates in labs and on the internet, not least because—as Horgan details in a lengthy new introduction—ironic science is more prevalent than ever. Still, while Horgan offers his critique, grounded in the thinking of the world’s leading researchers, he offers homage, too. If science is ending, he maintains, it is only because it has done its work so well” [2].

I’m not here supporting agreement with Horgan’s thesis, I’m merely using his central idea as an example of what the “end” of science could possibly be. Whether or not he’s actually correct is an interesting conversation to be had, and one which I think we’re currently unable to fully answer in a satisfying way. Which may actually be his point, anyways: that our scientific achievements have currently reached the limits of human knowledge. In a similar vein, theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg writes:

“But now we are stuck. The years since the mid-1970s have been the most frustrating in the history of elementary particle physics. We are paying the price of our own success: theory has advanced so far that further progress will require the study of processes at energies beyond the reach of existing experimental facilities” [3].

The description of Horgan’s book above mentions something known as a “theory of everything,” which brings us to another way to understand the “end” of science, and to the crux of my own argument.  Most readers will probably be familiar with the phrase “theory of everything,” but for those who aren’t, it is a concept in contemporary physics of an ultimate explanatory theory for the entire physical universe and all of the laws/particles/events contained therein. Weinberg says:

“Our present theories are of only limited validity, still tentative and incomplete. But behind them now and then we catch glimpses of a final theory, one that would be of unlimited validity and entirely satisfying in its completeness and consistency. We search for universal truths about nature, and, when we find them, we attempt to explain them by showing how they can be deduced from deeper truths. Think of the space of scientific principles as being filled with arrows, pointing toward each principle and away from the others by which it is explained. These arrows of explanation have already revealed a remarkable pattern: they do not form separate disconnected clumps, representing independent sciences, and they do not wander aimlessly — rather they are all connected, and if followed backward they all seem to flow from a common starting point. This starting point, to which all explanations may be traced, is what I mean by a final theory” [4].

For many if not most scientists, this constitutes the end of science; its ultimate goal, that towards which it is directed, is to discover the “theory of everything,” the single principle, equation, or set of equations which acts as an ultimate explanation for all of physical reality. In short, the purpose of science, as many understand it, is to explain absolutely everything about the physical world.

The irony, however, is that this ultimate theory which explains everything would itself be seemingly unexplainable. Think, for instance, of the fundamental particles and forces that we have discovered so far. A common belief amongst physicists are that these fundamental particles are the basic, most elementary building blocks of the universe; there is nothing further down, nothing which these particles themselves consist of. When asked to explain these particles further, one response is that they’re “just there,” just brute facts unable to be explained on a deeper level. String theorists think that string theory might break these fundamental particles down more, but that then just pushes us back a step.

In essence, science aims at finding the explanation of things, but it wants to reach a point where it finds something that cannot be explained. Its end (goal) is literally its own end (finish).

So what is the point of saying this? Am I trying to demean scientific endeavor for desiring to achieve some whimsical, idealistic, impossible dream? Not at all. To know, understand, and explain our world and our existence therein is at the heart of what it is to be human. It is the essence of not just specifically science, but philosophy as well, and really all branches of knowledge. Philosopher W. Norris Clarke, S. J. writes:

“At the root of all intellectual inquiry, including the metaphysical quest, is the radical dynamism of the human mind toward the fullness of being as true . . . Its horizon of inquiry is nothing less than the totality of being, of what truly is. This radical dynamism, both longing and capacity, without which we would never be drawn to know anything, is inborn within us, defining our nature as human and not merely animal . . . my mind is by its nature oriented toward the totality of being as knowable, as its final goal which alone can satisfy its drive to know”[5].

There is so much more that can and should go into this conversation. Issues such as the principle of sufficient reason and the destructive deficiencies of scientism would be greatly beneficial, and will be discussed in later articles. For now, I’ll have to conclude with this: science searches for an ultimate, underlying explanatory theory of everything,  but it at least implicitly limits itself to a physical explanation. By divorcing itself from metaphysics and philosophy generally, science has severely handicapped itself in its own quest. Because there is in fact such an ultimate explanation, but it isn’t physical, and science won’t find it. That ultimate explanation is God (as I’ve argued elsewhere, such as here and here), what the scholastic philosophers called “Subsistent Being Itself,” the First Cause of everything in existence. Science can hint in this direction, but without philosophical/theological tools, it will never enable us to fulfill our human capacity for knowledge of the divine. The end of science is the end of science.

 

 

Notes

[1]. McKeon, Richard, editor. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. Print.

[2]. Product description from amazon: <https://www.amazon.com/End-Science-Knowledge-Twilight-Scientific/dp/0465065929/ref=mt_paperback?_encoding=UTF8&me=>.

[3]. Weinberg, Steven. Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, Inc, 1992.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Clarke, W. Norris. The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.

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4 thoughts on “The End of Science?

  1. I think that scientists and philosophers both vastly overestimate humanity’s ability to understand “everything.” We are still learning about our own planet, not to mention the phenomena occurring elsewhere in our universe. Scientists make new discoveries every day which change the way they think about their fields of expertise. Every so often, a genius finds a new way to think about things that leads to a revision of the entire scheme of knowledge. There is no end in sight of that voyage of discovery. It is extremely premature even to think that there might be an end. We don’t know that and I doubt that we ever will. If humanity lives millions more years, it is unlikely that we will explore any galaxy other than our own, and there are billions of others. How can anyone dare to think that we can possibly know it all?

    I also think that you are badly mistaken about the ultimate explanation being your god. Your religion is still full of mysteries. Your philosophy is built upon human language and human logic. Without knowing what else is “out there” in our unimaginably vast universe, it is hubris to believe that human science, religion or philosophy has anything remotely approaching ultimate explanations. Humanity’s self regard knows no bounds and that is ultimately tragic.

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    • I agree with a lot of what you say here, so I’ll just respond to a few specific statements. Your first statement is that “scientists and philosophers both vastly overestimate humanity’s ability to understand ‘everything'”, and with that I would partially agree. In contrast, for the past few hundred years, philosophers have been severely skeptical about our ability to even know anything at all, such as that the world around us is even real. On the other hand, you are completely right that scientists by and large have been extremely confident, perhaps overly so, in the ability of human knowledge to conquer the universe.

      You also say “There is no end in sight of that voyage of discovery. It is extremely premature even to think that there might be an end.” Here some scientists, such as a few I quoted above, might disagree with you. Some might say that human knowledge has advanced about as far as it is able. I personally don’t think that to be the case. But, I think we need to draw a distinction between “breadth” vs “depth” of knowledge; or “facts” vs “explanations.” It is very, very true that humans don’t know even close to everything about our own planet, even our own BODIES, let alone our own solar system, our own galaxy, and the billions of other galaxies in our overwhelmingly vast universe. But usually, when scientists talk about finding a “theory of everything,” this isn’t what they’re referring to. Usually a theory of everything is in reference to the most fundamental forces/particles which underly the entirety of physical existence in our universe. So, for example, quarks are considered one of the most fundamental building blocks of matter. By knowing what quarks are, we don’t have to travel to a different galaxy to know that that galaxy will be composed of quarks just like ours. So even though there is an unending amount of actual “facts” of knowledge yet to be discovered in our universe, scientists are searching for a theory of everything that would underly and ultimately explain ALL those facts, such as string theory. Having a theory that explains everything isn’t equivalent to actually knowing all the facts about everything.

      As for whether or not that explanation being God, well, that’s an extended conversation that we’ve been having and hopefully will continue to have. Personally, my thinking and experience has led me to believe that there is a God who is the ultimate explanation of everything, but I perfectly understand that for some people, their thinking and experience has led them in the exact opposite direction; and for others, their thinking and experience has not led them to a definite conclusion at all. I readily admit that my religion is definitely full of many mysteries, as is all of existence. Most of the great theologians throughout history have held that human knowledge is limited, and cannot in principle fully know God until we are in his presence (Catholics call this the “beatific vision”). But I don’t think limited knowledge is equivalent to illegitimate knowledge. I think it is possible to know things without knowing them fully. You say, “your philosophy is built upon human language and human logic”, which is true, but I don’t think that makes it somehow unjustified. After all, the opposite is also true. ANY position that we take is based on human language and logic, even the position that human language and logic are unjustified. This gets into epistemology, the study of knowledge, which I hope to write more about in the future.

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