John Horgan and the End of Science

By Doug

This is my analysis of some links that Tess posted in the discussion for the Higher Powers event. See:

Horgan has a chip on his shoulders about science, and he'll say anything to discredit science, without much regard to the validity of his arguments.

I'm quite capable of explaining why Horgan is full of shit. Unfortunately, it's tedious. He emits a lie, half truth or logical fallacy approximately once per sentence, and it requires at least several paragraphs to explain each problem.

[I would find it more interesting to understand why Horgan hates science, than to point out all the flaws in his attacks against it. There is ultimately an emotional/psychological basis for his stance, which might tie in to the Higher Power discussion.]

Let's consider quantum mechanics, which is the physics of the very small. This is, by some measures, the most successful theory in the history of science. The "standard model" of QM currently explains all experimental results, to an amazing degree of accuracy. All scientific theories have a range of validity, but QM doesn't break down until we reach the incredibly tiny Planck scale, 1.6 x 10^-35 m or about 10^-20 times the size of a proton. Einstein's theory of relativity also breaks down at this scale.

We need a new theory of physics for the Planck scale, which is called Quantum Gravity. We've been working on this for decades, but progress is slow, because we currently don't have a way to run experiments and test these theories.

Horgan's "End of Science" bullshit is entirely based on the fact that progress towards a Quantum Gravity theory has been very slow. He claims we'll never be able to test such a theory, based on the fact that the LHC can't test quantum gravity, and on the unsupported assertion that nobody will ever think of another approach. He also denies that there are any interesting scientific questions outside of Quantum Gravity. Therefore, science is at an end. It is dead.

Well, of course, there are tons of interesting scientific questions outside of quantum gravity. Is there life on other planets? How does human consciousness work? What is the nature of "dark energy" and "dark matter"--these have been measured by cosmologists, but we don't know what they are.

There are lots of different approaches to quantum gravity. The two most popular approaches are called String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity. These are both research programs that haven't produced a complete and viable scientific theory yet.

Unfortunately, the String Theory approach has run into problems. In the beginning, it looked like a very promising approach, but after a few decades of work, we've uncovered problems. The big problem is that they so far haven't produced a single theory, but instead they've produced a huge family of theories, trilions of them. And this makes String Theory impossible to test experimentally, at least in its current form. No matter what experimental results you get back, there's probably some version of string theory among the large family of string theories that match your experimental results.

In a rather desperate attempt to save string theory, some people have suggested that there are a huge number of different universes, each following different physical laws (where the laws are chosen from the large family of different string theories). This assembly of universes is called a multiverse. Most universes have physical laws that don't allow for complex matter to exist, but we obviously live in a universe that supports human life, which constrains what the laws of physics must be for our universe. This is called the Anthropic Principle.

The whole multiverse/anthropic principle thing is just philosophical speculation. It isn't science, because it's not a theory that makes testable predictions. For many scientists, this stuff is just bullshit: intellectual masturbation.

For science deniers like Horgan, the problems with string theory and the multiverse/anthropic bullshit is proof that science is at an end, and that materialism is dead.

For the scientists at the Perimeter Institute, the problems with string theory are a good reason to work on alternative approaches to quantum gravity. A lot of people at PI are working on Loop Quantum Gravity.

As I said, science can't be dead, because there are so many interesting problems to work on. One of my favourites is the explanation of human consciousness. During my lifetime, we've made huge strides towards solving this problem, but we aren't quite there yet. I'm quite excited about this, because it looks like we'll crack this within my lifetime.

For the science deniers, human consciousness is something that can never be explained by science. No convincing argument for this is ever given. Instead, we assume this is true, and then use this result as further proof that science and materialism are dead. To put this into perspective, science deniers were claiming as late as the 1940's that science would never explain the mystery of life. We would never understand how it is possible for living things to reproduce. Then the role of DNA was discovered, and the science deniers had to find new questions to claim that science would never answer.

If I analyzed every false statement in Horgan's article linked above, this would be 10 times longer.

In my opinion, engaging with the arguments of the science deniers is a waste of time. What's interesting is to understand what motivates them in the first place.

Write a comment

Comments: 4
  • #1

    Josh (Friday, 13 November 2015 19:08)

    LOL. Couldn't have posted this before I ordered the book, huh?

    I go blank when the physics discussions start, but consciousness would probably be the one area where I would potentially defend a non-materialist ontology. Of course that sounds exciting, but it depends on a lot of subtle, philosophical meanings of words that no doubt make it less so. I'm curious what the reception to this piece will be, as my "elephant" (to borrow from Haidt) has tilted slightly away from Horgan ever since I began listening to him, for reasons I can't quite articulate. Kudos!

  • #2

    Doug (Friday, 13 November 2015 23:03)

    I didn't read Horgan's book, I saw his lecture on the same subject. He was talking about THE END OF SCIENCE at the PERIMETER INSTITUTE, which is like our temple of science and physics. Naturally, I was in a state of rage for the entire hour. Your mileage may vary. (I guess my post is a bit strident.)

  • #3

    Barry (Tuesday, 17 November 2015 04:29)

    Thank you for your post, Doug. I read all the other resources first, and I'm glad I had the context beforehand. My thinking falls along many of the same lines, but I lack the background knowledge (particularly in Physics) to express my thinking like you have. I see more passion than stridency. Well written!

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