The End of Science or Another Revolution?

The End of Science or Another Revolution?
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The Marxist philosopher and provocateur Slavoj Zizek is said to have quipped: "It is easier for people today to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism." The phrase could be adapted: "It is easier for scientists today to imagine the end of the world than the end of their own research paradigm." We are long overdue for a scientific revolution, if not an apocalypse.

The ongoing controversy about the reproducibility of key scientific experiments has sparked a lively public debate about the epistemology and sociology of science. The problem? Researchers are finding it worryingly difficult to replicate many experimental results central to various fields of science. This prompts one to ask just what scientific results are or are not telling us about the world; or how scientific research is or ought to be conducted. Recent writing on the subject has even breathed life into an old ghost: the End of Science.

The Washington Post's Joel Achenbach refers to John Horgan's claim that science is running out of questions to answer, leaving only details to be filled in. What does this have to do with the reproducibility of scientific experiments? As George Johnson put it in the New York Times: “With the most accessible truths already discovered, what remains are often subtle effects, some so delicate that they can be conjured up only under ideal circumstances, using highly specialized techniques.” So, the argument goes, experimenters go to hypothetical extremes trying to discover something new, or to experimental extremes searching for elusively subtle effects. In so doing, experimentalists court the danger that their findings are partly the product of their having looked for them.

This, in turn, recalls the old but stubbornly unacknowledged idea of the theory-ladenness of observation, even in the most robust of so-called “crucial” experiments. Accordingly, Mr. Johnson’s premises are questionable. Is “inertia” an “accessible” truth? If so, odd that it took so many millennia to discover it. Moreover, would it be pedantic to note that its experimental proof, replicated by all Physics 101 students, assumes “ideal circumstances”? And doesn’t the surprisingly difficult approximation of a frictionless surface partly predetermine the results the students are looking for? As the philosopher of science Émile Meyerson wrote in 1908:

Whoever has worked in a laboratory recalls how difficult it is to carry on the most simple experiments indicated in manuals. In time the habit is formed […] and we begin to believe that the experiments of verification are accomplished all by themselves without our having to coerce nature.

Current worries about reproducibility ought to be framed in terms of these deeper conceptual issues, which have always lurked behind the vaunted scientific method.

Horgan’s two-decades-old end-of-science thesis is in fact a nearly century-and-a-half-old thesis. Einstein is said to have been advised not to enter the field of physics because all the major discoveries had already taken place, leaving only details. A couple of those details, pesky inconsistencies about ultraviolet radiation and a small nagging inability to reconcile electrodynamics with classical mechanics, led to the greatest scientific revolution since the 17th century.

To his credit, the Post’s Achenbach admits that Horgan's claims are "over-stated." But the best he can come up with to suggest that science still has a few important questions left to answer are the following. (1) Why does the universe exist? (2) What is matter made of? (3) How did life originate? (4) How does consciousness emerge from the human brain? (5) Is there intelligent life on other worlds?

We should distinguish between properly philosophical questions and those germane to scientific inquiry, granting that this distinction is never airtight. No scientific theory will ever explain things like why the universe exists. This question has at least as much do to with the idea of purpose as scientific causality.

This is certainly not to say science has no philosophical dimension, nor that it has no extra-scientific, even metaphysical, assumptions. But some questions are clearly relevant for scientific research, others not. Does free will require the ability to choose otherwise? What it is the aim of human life? Is Being one or many? Is a formal distinction in a substance a distinction without a difference? It makes no sense to say that science has a lot of work left to do because these kinds of question remain unanswered. These questions are for the philosophy seminar – or the dustbin of history, if you prefer – but not the laboratory.

The proper way to see if science has “ended” is first of all to see if it has answered its own fundamental questions on its own terms. To that end, there is no need to talk about aliens. Physics has yet to wed, in a satisfactory and experimentally robust way, two of the greatest scientific achievements of the last century: quantum and relativistic physics. String Theory notwithstanding, we lack a generally accepted unified theoretical explanation for gravity. (Is physics in our own time so different from when Einstein was a student, after all?) Can anyone seriously talk about the end of science while such a basic problem remains unresolved in our most exact and arguably most fundamental of sciences?

If contemporary discussions about science in the public sphere are plagued by certain prejudices (such as an unexpressed and vulgar naturalism), here is another candidate. Call “presentism” the myth that present-day science, having supposedly reached its zenith, has also reached its end.

The nature of science partly encourages the myth. As Michel Foucault once pointed out, scientific claims are inherently ahistorical in a way that other claims, such as those of the humanities, are not. Newton’s First Law supercedes Aristotle’s theory of natural place in a way that Kant’s categorical imperative does not supercede Aristotle’s theory of virtues. Galileo, from the scientific point of view, renders Aristotle not simply wrong, but irrelevant. This is why physics 101 students don’t read Aristotle or even Galileo, while philosophy 101 students read Aristotle and sometimes Galileo.

This is a difference in methodology. And it is important, even necessary, for scientific research to advance. But one can go too far: scientific claims are nevertheless, like everything, subject to history. Gravity was once thought to be an invisible force acting at great distances; today it is thought to be the curvature of a four-dimensional space-time manifold. Only a generation ago, there was deep disagreement in the scientific community about something as fundamental as whether the universe came into existence at a particular moment in time (Big Bang theory) or is eternal (the Steady State theory).

Even a cursory glance at the history of science shows that science has never been static. The most cherished of scientific principles are, time and time again, relinquished in light of new data or better theories. To assume that scientific answers have, of a sudden, become definitive is to assume that they have, of a sudden, become dogma, that they have ceased to be scientific.

People tend to respond to this charge by saying: “Just because science always has changed doesn’t prove that it always will!” Granted. For similar reasons one could also argue that just because the sun rose this morning doesn’t mean it will tomorrow. That cannot be proved with necessity, as Hume pointed out. And yet the sun will rise; history is a wise teacher.

In certain places today there may indeed be the appearance of an end of science. Thus Lee Smolin provocatively argued in his The Trouble with Physics that there have been no fundamental advances in the standard model of particle physics in decades – longer than any other period in the history of physics. Perhaps other areas of science are like this; perhaps that is why experimentalists today are left with “minor” effects. Perhaps not.

But if there is such an appearance, it likely signals the end of a particular research paradigm – the end of an era – and not of science. And as Thomas Kuhn pointed out over half a century ago, such stagnation – he called it “normal science” – tends to prefigure revolution. That may indeed be harder for some scientists to accept than the end of science; but I’m betting that science keeps on going with or without them.

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