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An Interview With John Horgan, Author Of The End Of Science

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

Author: Arpan Dey


Wikipedia.]


John Horgan [1] is an American science journalist and author of the book "The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age." [2] He has written for many publications, including National Geographic, Scientific American, The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and IEEE Spectrum. His awards include two Science Journalism Awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association of Science Writers Science-in-Society Award. His articles have been included in the 2005, 2006 and 2007 editions of The Best American Science and Nature Writing. He graduated from the Columbia University School of Journalism in 1983. Between 1986 and 1997 he was a senior writer at Scientific American. In 2005, he became the Director of the Center for Science Writings (CSW) at Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, NJ, where he also teaches science journalism, history of science and other courses.


When I first heard of the end-of-science argument, it intrigued me a lot. I started reading a lot about the end of science, and mainly John Horgan's arguments about the same. The Edge article "Why I Think Science Is Ending?" [3] is probably the best summary of Horgan's arguments, written by the man himself. And I was awed by the cogency of his arguments. That's when I decided to email him, requesting him to answer a few of my questions. Thankfully, he agreed to take time out of his busy schedule and answer my questions. So first and foremost, I would like to thank him. Anyway, my questions and his answers are as follows. I highly recommend the reader to read the article "Why I Think Science Is Ending?" [3] before reading this interview. My blog titled "Is Science Going To End?" [4] might also be an interesting read. (In this blog, I have argued why Horgan's end-of-science argument might not be true.) And if you are interested to learn more, I believe John Horgan's book "The End Of Science" [2] would be a great read.


1. Einstein once said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." I've read your post on Edge.org titled "Why I Think Science Is Ending?" [3] and I think you would agree that there is a limit to understanding. I too believe, no matter how far science progresses, there will always be some questions that will remain unanswered, the reason (according to me) being we are part of the world, and we can never examine it from a third person perspective. What do you say about this?


That's too abstract a reason. We can step back and analyze ourselves and our minds objectively. It's just very, very difficult, because mind-related phenomena are extremely complex and include subjective components that resist reductionist analysis.

This is perfectly true. The reason I said that we are part of the world, and can never examine it from a third person perspective is that we have certain limitations and psychological biases as humans. However, if it becomes possible for us, someday, to create an artificial consciousness, maybe we can examine consciousness from a third person perspective. But even then, the conclusions we draw will not be free from our psychological biases. As for the universe, I think, and I believe Horgan would agree, that some deep questions about the origin of the universe will probably always remain unanswerable. However, I may be wrong, of course.


2. Do you think, as argued by proponents of weak emergence, complex systems can be explained, at least in theory, by the laws governing much simpler systems (or slight extensions or modifications of these laws) or is it more likely that we need fundamentally new kinds of laws to study complex systems (strong emergence)?


Science has always explained complex systems in terms of relatively simple laws. That's what science does! But some complex systems, notably any related to humans, again, have resisted scientific analysis. Some complexity and chaos folks think we need to find new principles to explain, for example, the emergence of order, in spite of the drift toward entropy. But they show no signs of progress, so I'm skeptical.

Weak and strong emergence (and consciousness) is the topic of a paper I will be presenting in my college next week, with a classmate. The current scenario is summed up beautifully in Horgan's answer. Many physicists believe that complex systems can, in theory, be explained by the laws governing much simpler systems, or slight extensions or modifications of these laws. We don't need radically or fundamentally new kinds of laws to study complex systems. This is weak emergence, and here, the complex systems are strongly dependent on the simple parts it comprises. Some, however, believe that we need fundamentally new kinds of laws to study complex systems (strong emergence). The emergence of order in a universe where entropy (or the measure of disorder) is increasing might seem counterintuitive. However, keep in mind that it is incorrect to define complex, orderly systems like life as a fight against increasing entropy. The overall entropy of the universe always increases. Ordered complexity arises somewhere along the path from low entropy to high entropy. We don't exactly know why. That's an open question. I agree with Horgan that there has so far been no developments in strong emergence, and the same can be said for weak emergence as well. For now, I think it is more likely that complex systems can be explained by the laws governing their simple parts, but we have not been able to do that yet because of the magnitude of complexity. It is possible in theory, but we don't yet have the computational power required to successfully study complex systems in terms of the underlying laws. And even if new laws can be formulated that make the study of complex systems easier, I don't think these laws have to be fundamentally new kinds of laws.


3. Do you regard consciousness as an emergent property of matter or a fundamental property of the universe? I think the view that consciousness is fundamental is not a scientific view and we are better off considering consciousness to be emergent from the arrangement and interaction of the physical matter in the brain. In other words, I consider ordered complexity to be a fortunate product of random processes (rather than there existing a God who brought us into existence). Do you think the same?


The skeptic in me agrees with you. The idea that consciousness is fundamental seems too anthropocentric and religious. It's a throwback to geocentrism, which I denigrate as neo-geocentrism. But sometimes, for example when I'm tripping, consciousness seems almost miraculous, and neo-geocentrism seems appealing.

Yes. The idea that consciousness is fundamental is too anthropocentric. I don't think there is enough evidence to suggest that conscious beings have such a special status in the universe. However, I have not formed a conclusion yet. (For my detailed arguments, read the article "Emergence And Consciousness" [5] on my website. The article was written by myself and my classmate Sanchari Sen for a paper presentation event at our college.)


4. By reading your post on Edge [3], I get the impression that you believe that the kind of ordered complexity that gives rise to life/consciousness is a rare feature of the universe, which is why you think aliens might not exist. I completely agree with this, but I would still like to ask you: What are your current views on the existence of extra terrestrial intelligence? Do you have any other reasons for believing/not believing in the existence of aliens?


Where are the aliens? I haven't seen any good evidence of them. But the discovery of thousands of exoplanets gives me hope that we'll find evidence of life elsewhere before I die.

That's true. There's no guarantee that ordered complexity would emerge if, as Horgan says in his Edge article [3], we were to rerun the experiment a thousand times with similar initial conditions. However, it is also true that there are too many galaxies, stars and planets out there. Just because we haven't found evidence that aliens exist yet, doesn't mean aliens don't exist. Anyway, I don't think it is wise to spend too much time and money searching for extra terrestrial intelligence. I don't think they are anywhere nearby, and if they are and they don't want us to know (assuming them to be more advanced than us), I don't see any way of finding out.


5. Modern theories in physics suggest that space and time are not fundamental quantities, but they are emergent from something deeper (although the kind of emergence is different in different theories like string theory and loop quantum gravity). What do you think space and time can be emergent from?


These speculations about space and time are products of extremely tenuous mathematical models, not of empirical observations. They're interesting, creative, but I don't take them very seriously.

True. This is exactly what I've said in the updated edition of my book "Our Physics So Far: A Journey Through Spacetime, Consciousness And The Fundamental Nature Of Reality." [6] The only reason these modern theories, what Horgan calls "extremely tenuous mathematical models," are appealing is that they are mathematically elegant. But you can't deny that they lack experimental support. However, it seems to me that the idea that space and time are emergent from something deeper (we don't know what) might be an idea worth pursuing, since this idea seems to address a lot of questions in fundamental physics.


6. New developments in science usually don’t prove that our older theories are incorrect, rather that they are special cases, applicable under some special circumstances, of a more general theory. The main problem in physics today is unifying general relativity with quantum mechanics, since they are incompatible with each other in extreme conditions (like at the singularity of a black hole, or the Big Bang). Which among superstring theory and loop quantum gravity, according to you, is the more promising theory of quantum gravity (considering background independence, viability etc.)? Or do you think they are "ironic science" and we won't ever discover a theory of everything? Also, what would become of theoretical physics if/after we discover a theory of everything?


I think all these quantum gravity theories are ironic, because they're so disconnected from any conceivable experimental evidence or guidance. I predict that in a few decades we'll look back on this period of belief in unified theories as a kind of mass psychopathology of physics PhDs.

In my book [6], I acknowledged the possibility that there might be no unifying theory. Quantum mechanics works in the microscopic realm, and general relativity works at large scales. What is the evidence that there must be a theory unifying these two theories? Well, it seems to me that two fundamental theories of the universe can't be incompatible. So, while I completely agree with Horgan that current quantum gravity theories are speculative, I disagree with him that "in a few decades we'll look back on this period of belief in unified theories as a kind of mass psychopathology of physics PhDs." I do believe there is a unifying theory. Whether or how soon will we be able to discover it is another matter. I will be ready to accept the fact that there might be no unified theory only if/after we answer the unanswered questions in physics using the current established theories, or prove that they are unanswerable. Also, if your point against these quantum gravity theories is that they lack experimental support, well, I'd say we understand so little about these theories that it's too early to expect experimental support.


7. You describe “ironic science” and philosophy as arising out of our quest to answer unanswerable questions. Do you think philosophy, or more particularly metaphysics, can help us at all in our quest to understand the fundamental nature of reality? Or is it more likely that metaphysics (and also what you call "ironic science") is just speculating about theories that can never be verified? If yes, what is your advice to the upcoming generation of scientists? Should they give up all hope of making any profound discovery and focus on empirical science?


It depends on what the scientists want to do. Do they want to make the world a better place? Then look for better theories of and treatments for cancer or schizophrenia. Or cleaner, cheaper energy sources. If you want to solve the riddle of reality, sure, become a philosopher or theoretical physicist, but you should be aware that you're not really solving. You're exploring, as artists do. Yes, this is an ironic enterprise, but I still love it. It's what I do in much of my writing.

I admit that I used to have a different view on philosophy and metaphysics. However, Horgan's definition of philosophy as arising out of our quest to answer unanswerable questions makes sense. And I've already argued in my book [6] that philosophy will not help us in our quest to understand the true nature of reality (notice the emphasis on the word "true"). Horgan also puts "ironic science" (non-empirical, speculative science, roughly speaking) in this group. So, the next question that arises is whether the upcoming generation of scientists should only focus on empirical science, and give up all hope of making any profound new discovery. Yes, they should, if they want to improve the quality of life, if they want to make the world a better place to live in. If they want to understand the fundamental nature of reality, as Horgan says, they can become philosophers or theoretical physicists and explore the big questions (without really solving them, for they are likely unsolvable). What Horgan says is reasonable, but I think maybe a few more big questions (not all) can be answered by theoretical physics. Theoretical physics is always worth pursuing, and even Horgan says that "this is an ironic enterprise, but I still love it. It's what I do in much of my writing."



References


[1] John Horgan (journalist). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Horgan_(journalist)



[3] Why I Think Science Is Ending? John Horgan. Edge. https://www.edge.org/conversation/john_horgan-why-i-think-science-is-ending


[4] Is Science Going To End? Arpan Dey. https://www.arpandey.net/post/is-science-going-to-end


[5] Is Consciousness Both Fundamental And Emergent? Arpan Dey and Sanchari Sen. https://www.arpandey.net/emergence-and-consciousness


[6] Our Physics So Far. Arpan Dey. Notion Press. https://www.amazon.com/Our-physics-so-far-revised/dp/B0BGC3CPK6/

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