On one of her podcasts, Sabine Hossenfelder mentioned John Horgan’s book “The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age”, ISBN 0-201-62679-9, 308 pages (1996). Because nearly 3 decades have passed since its publication, it seemed worth investigating the views back then to compare with today.
This is a very interesting book indeed! Horgan was a staff writer for Scientific American and interviewed many famous scientists over the years. Inspired by a meeting with Roger Penrose, he started to seek out “other scientists who were butting their heads against the limits of knowledge …”. This book was the result, with fascinating interviews with people like Karl Popper, Thomas Khun, Sheldon Glashow, Fred Hoyle, Steven Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Francis Crick, and many more. Horgan has a wicked pen capable of producing character sketches worthy of Charles Dickens. And he does an excellent job of explaining the views of the scientists with whom he talked. There are jewels in this text, such as his hilarious recounting of a 1994 workshop at the Santa Fe Institute on “The Limits to Scientific Knowledge”.
Horgan was interested in the issue of whether the scientific approach was running out of steam after the great advances of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Are we facing an end to science? Horgan’s journey took him eventually to a very old philosopher at the University of Texas, Prof. Hartshorne, who was a proponent of the once-heretical doctrine of Socinianism – the concept that God Himself evolves & learns and does not know the future. Does that give us hope for future advances in scientific knowledge?
A dispassionate observer would have to conclude there have been great advances in technology in the nearly 30 years since Horgan wrote his book … but not in fundamental scientific understanding.
Looking at the situation from today’s perspective, science seems to have entered a new era of constrained thinking. Today there are scientific received truths which are as unassailable as once was Aristotle’s concept that heavenly bodies move in perfect circles. Scientific research is now largely controlled by massive taxpayer funds doled out by C-student level bureaucrats. Up-and-coming researchers have to publish or perish, in journals biased by peer review against unconventional thinking. Utter nonsense like Algore’s “settled science” characterization of the tenuous hypothesis of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming is not laughed out of the public arena because scientists fear the negative consequences of speaking truth to power, while the scientific travesty of the CovidScam speaks for itself. Plus, in the Era of Woke, the management of scientific research is increasingly handed to individuals selected for their gonads or their skin pigmentation rather than their intellectual capacity.
My personal view is that “Big Science” has largely driven itself into a dead end of excessive over-confidence in possibly-fallible human theories. But just like science eventually threw off Aristotle’s dead hand, so at some future time in a place as unexpected as the Swiss Patent Office, real science will rear its head again. And human progress with have its next lurch forward.