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The End of Science

John Horgan

Published by Addison-Wesley in 1996
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©1998


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This book is about the end of Latin-thinking science which Horgan calls empirical science, and about the only candidate to replace it, etheric-thinking science, which Latin-thinking Horgan labels ironic science. He says on page 31, "But ironic science does not make any significant contributions to knowledge itself." If I may proffer a translation of his sentence to help clarify his meaning: "But ironic science, the process of using etheric-thinking to probe the sensible and supersensible universe, does not make any quantifiable observations that Latin-thinkers may independently verify." One can only guess at the folly of such an endeavor.

Latin-thinking scientists exist on an island off the mainland of sensible and supersensible reality, an island first crafted by that superb Latin-thinker, Francis Bacon. Horgan is saying that these scientists have reached the end of their quest for new territory, all the logical implications residing in one law or another, and all the island's territory basically explored. But the island that they are on was calved from the mainland like a huge iceberg, and more icebergs are calving everyday, but they are not visible from the paradigmatic iceberg of Horgan's empirical scientists. Lacking an aerial view of the landscape, his scientists see only the shrinking realm of their own playground.

One path to etheric-thinking is to explore the mainland of sensible and supersensible phenomena by initiation. This requires that you move voluntarily to the mainland with a personal guide to assist you. What does the average empirical scientist do? Requests that a procedure for independently verifying the existence of some phenomenon be sent from the mainland, so that an esteemed, credentialed panel of empirical scientists may attempt to prove that the phenomenon does NOT exist. If they fail, they will be convinced of its veracity, and a "significant contribution to knowledge will be made." Like my teenage grandson would say, "Give me a break!" Such is the folly of the empirical scientist who attempts to understand the mainland while deeply entrenched on their Baconian island.

Now for a little break for some etheric-thinking — a restatement of the above in poetic form:

Strong scientists,
— those Faustian truth-seekers
— of ironic science,

Quest for knowledge
— outside the nine dots
— of empirical science

Using the most delicate instruments ever devised,
— their human body and soul.

And as they go about their daily prayer,
This wistful lyric fills the air:

Tis not for the strong or meek,
Tis for our Self we seek.

Lucky for us Horgan was not seeking his Self during the research for this book, but was seeking the selves of such famous scientists as Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, John Wheeler, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky, Francis Crick, Gerald Edelman, Stuart Kaufmann, Roger Penrose, Marvin Minsky, Murray Gell-Mann, and Freeman Dyson, to list some of the better known of the forty plus interviews he did. Some of them were interviewed within a year or two of their death, not surprising considering the advanced age of many of these patriarchs of science.

In each interview he posed this question in one form or another, "If the quest for knowledge ended, what would become of us? What would give our existence meaning?" The presupposition of his question is that science is a cul-de-sac, a dead-end street, so what shall we do when we reach the end of the street? If anyone suggested that science is not the only street, that there are freeways nearby, he was promptly dispatched by Horgan with the cute label of ironic scientist. That epithet is enough to cast the interviewee upon the dung heap of literary writers, whose work is not real science.

I felt throughout the book that the more sharply Horgan defined the real scientist, the empirical scientist, the more desolate a picture he painted of the future of such heroic figures. When someone offers me the forced choice of dung heap or desolation, I suspect he's wearing industrial-strength, Latin-thinking blinders.

The wonderful insights of the few etheric-thinkers he interviewed didn't faze Horgan a bit. Karl Popper talked about the calving of icebergs of meaning off the mainland of sensible and supersensible reality thus:

[page 36] A scientific theory, Popper insisted, is an invention, an act of creation as profoundly mysterious as anything in the arts.

How did Popper fare in Horgan's view? He was painted as contradicting himself in several areas of his teachings, and in the revealing last sentence of the section on Popper, Horgan says, "Popper was coming close to blaming the Jews for the Holocaust." Etheric-thinkers are accused of "insisting" whereas the good Latin-thinkers merely say things. They suggest bad things and the real scientists suggest good things. Horgan may have been in search of other selves, but could only write of his Self once the interviews were over.

Horgan's large Self, appearing on every page, is merely subtext to the main show, in which the great scientific minds of the 20th Century are allowed to "strut and fret their hour upon the stage" for the audience consisting of Horgan and his readers. Some strutted, some fretted, and it all made for a great show. If you've read many of the books of these great minds, you might imagine, as I did when Gould and Kaufmann challenged the views of Dawkins, that their books on my library shelves were talking to each other. Not only does Horgan give us his word pictures of the interviewees, warts and all, but he gives us their not always complimentary descriptions of each other. All of which serves to spice up the book and pull the reader through to the last page.

The book ends with Horgan's description of his own God-realization, one that curiously ends in his realization of the terror of God, "God's fear of his own Godhood, and of his potential death." A terror that Horgan claims is "the secret of existence."

He ends the book with these words:

[page 226] Our plight is God's plight. And now that science — true, pure, empirical science — has ended, what else is there to believe in?

Horgan has set up the "what else to believe in" as straw men and systematically demolished them, and now, walking on the empty stage, wonders why he is so alone.

This writer would like to suggest an epitaph for the tombstone of true, pure, empirical science:

Here Lies
Latin-thinking Science
Perished on a
Melting Iceberg
Off the Mainland.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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