By John W. Burgeson
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.
Published in PERSPECTIVES, the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation Volume 49, Number 3 (Sept 1997)
The ASA web site is
John W. Burgeson IBM Corporation (retired) BURGY@www.burgy.50megs.com
Press Backspace to return