Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

The End of Science?

by Rob - November 9th, 2010.
Filed under: Science, Uncategorized.

My novel FlashForward, the basis for the ABC TV series of the same name, is set at CERN, so I’m always interested when scientists associated with CERN speak up about the fundamental nature of reality. And Russell Stannard does that today in the Huffington Post.

I’ve posted a comment there, but here’s a longer version of my thoughts on what he has to say:



Russell Stannard asks, “What justification can there be for claims that this imperfect instrument [the human brain] will be capable of answering all questions?”

Well, the opposite formulation is equally valid: “What justification can there be for thinking that there are questions that can’t be comprehended by the human brain?”

And the answer — assuming we include not just the individual biological brain but the collective wisdom of all our brains and the augmentation of their abilities by computers and artificial intelligence — is none.

Stannard goes on to a tricky bit of legerdemain, saying, “Nevertheless I do get concerned when I hear some of my colleagues making outrageous claims that some day science will have the answer to all questions — that there are no limits to the scientific endeavor, and all other forms of thought and discourse, such as philosophy and theology, are to be discounted. Such misguided arrogance does science a disfavor.”

The first part of the statement he attributes to others is that science (and for “science,” read rational inquiry) can answer all questions; I fervently believe that is true.

The second part, though, is a very slippery slope. Science often embraces philosophy; there’s nothing antithetical about the two. Indeed, I gave a keynote this year at the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson; the other speakers were evenly divided between scientists and philosophers — there’s much mutual respect and synergy between those two disciplines precisely because they really aren’t separate fields: both are attempts at rational investigation.

But then Stannard slips in “theology” — which is the study or contemplation of supernatural processes. So basically, what he’s saying is this: there’s only so much of the creator’s handiwork that brains made by that creator can comprehend. It’s an interesting argument, but a flawed one, and it appears to gain its validity through humility, but it’s actually arrogant, for what he’s really saying is, “How could you be so arrogant is to believe that I’m wrong?”

But Stannard is wrong, as I outline in a book of my own, the Hugo Award-nominated science-fiction novel Calculating God. It is not arrogance to reject the supernatural: it is, in fact, an embracing of one of the core scientific realities — indeed, the principle fruit of the scientific enterprise. Science’s end may be a long way off, but its beginning — the founding principle that the universe is comprehensible and is subject to rational investigation — has stood the test of time, and will stand for all time.

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4 Responses to The End of Science?

  1. I’m out of my depth here, but I’ve always wondered if our ability to investigate the universe scientifically won’t increase indefinitely but never reach the point where we’ve unraveled every last mystery — like a function approaching a limit but never quite getting there. Isn’t that (roughly) what G√∂del’s work might have implied?

  2. There is a point when many an individual is satisfied with all of the answers currently held. Such people should go sit down happy, and stay out of the way of those looking for the next answer.

  3. I find it interesting that only physics seems to be considered science in the Huffington article. Even if we do break down matter and discover the gravity particle and understand quantum theory completely, there is still plenty of science to do. We are just starting to understand the genetic code. There are thousands of variables in biology that determine how an organism develops, survives and behaves. Even understanding the function and inner workings of the human brain is going to take some time. What about anthropology and the evolution of species? Trying to piece together the history of the world with little pieces of evidence will continue. Then there’s planetary exploration, the geology of our world and other worlds. Studying the formation of planets up close and in person. Observing and exploring black holes. Etc. Etc. Modern humans have been around about 30,000 years. If our species lasts as long as the neanderthals (200,000 years or there about) I think there will be plenty of science to keep us busy. We just have to hope that science doesn’t get us before we get science.

  4. I think it’s easy to miss Stannard’s underlying point: There are limits to the phyiscal processes involved in our being, just as there are physical limits to, say, the size of a transistor on a silicon substrate. There may well be, therefore, limits to what we are capable of understanding – even if it takes eons to reach those limits. But this is an unverifiable claim (just as the contrary is), and hence it automatically becomes a topic of philosophical discussion, not of science at all.

    Stannard’s principle flaw is in what appears to be a largely mechanistic notion of the universe. Perhaps not surprising for a particle physicist. But certainly long-outmoded. The universe, in his view, a very complex piece of machinery about which only so much can be discerned, because taking apart the smallest pieces of it for examination is just too hard, thereby ultimately leaving some questions unanswered, just as someone taking apart a transistor radio would have no way of identifying where the signals it receives are coming from.

    If his claim is correct, then why would “applied science” be exempt from these limits? All things should succumb to them.

    When we talk about questions about science, we are talking philosophy. Stannard, like most scientists I know, is woefully uneducated in how to think about thinking, and how to think about thought, and it strikes me as arrogant that his book “is devoted to introducing the lay person to these deep questions, and examining which of them might not be open to an accessible answer.” Arrogantly I respond: Take a first-year philosophy of science course.

    Science arose from philosophy. This is why the two are synergistic. Analyitcal philosophy relies on essentially scientific principals (rational thought) applied to ideas about things, including the nature of God (which, by the way is what theology is – it is not “the study of supernatural processes” – and so is and has always been considered a branch of philosophy). His “slipping in” of theology is a redundancy at worst, and not a slippery slope at all.

    All that being said, humans are incredibly clever and science – and the universe itself – is evolutional, just as people are: new discoveries lead to new techniques of experimentation because new technology is required to test new theories. This is why science always remains staunchly theoretical, constantly open to revision, and why the search for truth (a philosophical pursuit) is never-ending.

    While we are only so good at perceiving things, the tools we build extends our ability to perceive, and therefore test. It is precisely the application of science that constantly leads to opening new cosmological doors of discovery, further feeding the furnace of inquiry.

    The limit comes when we reflect on why we are doing this hypothesizing and experimentation – what value it has, and whether we ought to. Those kinds of questions confont us daily in our lives and loves. That is purely in the domain of philosophy, not science. Perhaps this is where our limit to understanding actually is.

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