John Horgan makes a strawman argument against “consilience”

June 27, 2021 • 9:30 am

The science writer John Horgan became well known for his 1996 book The End of Science, in which he claimed that the era of “fundamental science”—the kind of science that yielded big discoveries like the structure of DNA, evolution, and quantum mechanics—was coming to an end. That is, all the paradigm-changing views of the universe had already been made.

Since then, of course, we’ve learned about dark matter, dark energy, the Higgs Boson, gotten indications that quantum mechanics may have fundamental flaws, and so on. String theory, though it may be untestable and thereby die, became a big deal. Now you may say that Horgan’s right—that these discoveries aren’t “fundamental”—but I’d never bet on humanity reaching the end of world-changing scientific discoveries about the universe. Still, in 2015 Horgan defended his earlier conclusion in the pages of Scientific American.   He wasn’t calling for science to stop, of course, but promoting the depressing conclusion that we’d found out pretty much all the “fundamental” truths we’d ever get.

I think he was and is wrong.

Now, also in the pages of Scientific American, Horgan has a new “opinion” piece that is again a bit of science-dissing in that it’s the usual criticism of “scientism”, which he defines as science overstepping its boundaries and impinging on “other ways of knowing”, like religion (!) and the “knowledge” we get from psychedelic visions.

But Horgan’s main target is “consilience,” a term used by E. O. Wilson, who wrote a book by that title proposing a sweeping project: the absorption of all forms of “knowing” and endeavor into science. That would include morality, art, psychology, literature, philosophy, and so on. All knowledge would and should, claimed Wilson, be analyzed using the toolkit of science, leaving no room for the humanities as we know them.

Click on the screenshot to read:

My first response is one I made in my exchange with Adam Gopnik at Letter on “ways of knowing”: religion (see Horgan’s title) is not a “way of knowing”, and neither is ingestion of ayahuasca (which Horgan tried and is regularly used by shamans to derive “visions” that Horgan sees as “ways of knowing”).

Horgan says these mystical  drug-induced visions  are ones “in which we seem to glimpse truths normally hidden behind the surface of things.” I’ve recounted my own LSD-induced vision in which my hidden truth, which I wrote down on a piece of paper because it sounded so profound, turned out to be “the walls are fucking brown.” And if you do glimpse truths when you’re on drugs, they’re either private experiences or other claims that, when you’ve come down, must be verified with the toolkit of science. “The universe is one” is not a truth except in the trivial sense that it’s all made of matter and energy.

Since my views on the ambit of science (construed broadly) have been set out in the exchange with Gopnik, I won’t repeat my arguments here, but I deny Horgan’s claim that there are “ways of knowing” about the cosmos that do not employ the empirical toolkit of science. (See also pp. 185-196 in my book Faith Versus Fact.).

But I do agree with Horgan that the Grand Project to subsume art, literature, philosophy and morality completely into the “harder” sciences is futile. The thing is, hardly any scientist I know agrees with Wilson or with Horgan’s characterization. Yes, Sam Harris does think that science can determine what is right and wrong to do, but few agree with him about that (I dissent as well). And even the most “scientistic” scholar I know, Steve Pinker, doesn’t entertain the notion that full consilience is feasible. As Pinker said in the New Republic:

Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism. But to explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles is not to discard its richness. No sane thinker would try to explain World War I in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology as opposed to the more perspicuous language of the perceptions and goals of leaders in 1914 Europe. At the same time, a curious person can legitimately ask why human minds are apt to have such perceptions and goals, including the tribalism, overconfidence, and sense of honor that fell into a deadly combination at that historical moment.

In the last sentence Pinker raises a point that is the subject of one of the best short pieces he’s written, the one below from The New Republic (click on screenshot; this piece was later attacked by New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier):

You should read this article as a palliative for Horgan’s, as Pinker is calling not for the ingestion of all other disciplines by science, but an expansion of the humanities by using the toolkit of science. Surely science can inform morality, art, analysis of literature, politics and history.  Here’s part of Pinker’s view:

Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

Those ways do deserve respect, and there can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works. But must these be the only paths to understanding? A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding. Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.

In some disciplines, this consilience is a fait accompli. Archeology has grown from a branch of art history to a high-tech science. Linguistics and the philosophy of mind shade into cognitive science and neuroscience.

And of course even religion has been altered by science (I wouldn’t use the word “enriched”), at least in terms of science disproving some of the foundational claims of religion, like the existence of a creation event of biological life by God, the existence of Adam and Eve, the Exodus, and so on. In that sense, any morality that gets its force from from religion loses considerable ground.

But on to Horgan.

First, I again deny that there are ways of knowing about the universe (which is, after all, what Horgan means by “fundamental knowledge”) that do not require the empirical toolkit of science: observation, testing, doubting, predicting, and so on.

But Horgan has other points to make. First, he doesn’t think consilience is possible. Here’s he’s probably right, for we simply will never have the knowledge to connect all human endeavors through scientific hypotheses. Some depend on unknowable historical or evolutionary events, others on knowledge inaccessible to us. Even if, in principle, all phenomena reduce to the motions of molecules, we will never be able to scientifically explain why Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina the way he did or why it affects each of us differently. And no scientist I know, save perhaps Ed Wilson, thinks that we should try to do this, though there are Darwinian analysis of parts of literature.

But Horgan goes further, arguing that we haven’t even achieved consilience within scientific disciplines. Physicists are still arguing about quantum mechanics and string theory, we don’t yet have a unification of all fundamental physical forces (gravity stubbornly refuses to consiliate), we don’t understand how physical processes in the brain produce consciousness, and even evolutionary biologists still argue about the importance of group selection.  But the existence of unsolved problems, some of which will never be solved, does not support Horgan’s argument that greater consilience isn’t feasible. We simply can’t imagine what science will find in the next few centuries and, as Pinker notes, consilience is being achieved in archaeology and linguistics.

It turns out that Horgan thinks consilience is unfeasible for this reason:

If consilience entails convergence toward a consensus, science is moving away from consilience.

I’d take issue with that, too. Scientists are a lot more in agreement on matters of truth than they were 200 years ago. We have a consensus about the major features of evolution, about the structures of molecules, about how DNA and metabolism work, about the age of the Universe, about who were the ancestors of humans, and what the fundamental particles were. Of course we’ll never agree on everything, but to say that “science is moving away from consilience” in effect says that we know less than we used to. And that’s not the case. We have a lot more consensus than we used to. When I was young, there was a big argument about whether the continents moved. We now know that they do.

Further, Horgan asserts that besides being unfeasible, consilience is undesirable. He says he once thought it was desirable, but realized that a pluralism of “ways of knowing” is extremely valuable. Horgan’s argument for pluralism comes from his view that it brings to bear more “ways of knowing” on unsolved questions. But his claim here is weak:

But increasingly, I see pluralism as a valuable, even necessary counterweight to our yearning for certitude. Pluralism is especially important when it comes to our ideas about who we are, can be and should be. If we settle on a single self-conception, we risk limiting our freedom to reinvent ourselves, to discover new ways to flourish.

Wilson acknowledges that consilience is a reductionistic enterprise, which will eliminate many ways of seeing the world. Consider how he treats mystical visions, in which we seem to glimpse truths normally hidden behind the surface of things. To my mind, these experiences rub our faces in the unutterable weirdness of existence, which transcends all our knowledge and forms of expression. As William James says in The Varieties of Religious Experience, mystical experiences should “forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”

. . . Wilson is a gracious, courtly man in person as well on the page. But his consilience project stems from excessive faith in science, or scientism. (Both Wilson and Pinker embrace the term scientism, and they no doubt think that the phrase “excessive faith in science” is oxymoronic.) Given the failure to achieve consilience within physics and biology—not to mention the replication crisis and other problems—scientists should stop indulging in fantasies about conquering all human culture and attaining something akin to omniscience. Scientists, in short, should be more humble.

And that’s it. (The relevance of the “replication” crisis is obscure, and at any rate isn’t ubiquitous.) It’s all about the “other ways of knowing”. Horgan has a long digression about a shaman’s drug-induced vision of snakes, which, in fact, Wilson says could be genetically ingrained in our psyche. Further, we may learn how drugs like ayahuasca unleash our neurons to produce these visions of evolution-installed fears. A shaman’s vision is not immune to the tools of science.

At any rate, look at Horgan’s last sentence above: “Scientists, in short, should be more humble.”  Where have you heard that before? That’s right—from theologians. Although I believe Horgan is a nonbeliever, here he’s being soft on belief, implying, as he did in the title, that religion has something to say about the nature of truth and scientists should give theologians a break. Well, the nature of religion may tell us why it exists and makes certain claims, but that involves a scientific analysis of religion—an analysis Horgan spurns. You know who needs to be humble? The religionists, because they harbor far less doubt than do scientists!

As Horgan says:

Wilson needn’t have worried. Scientific omniscience looks less likely than ever, and humans are far too diverse, creative and contrary to settle for a single worldview of any kind. Inspired by mysticism and the arts, as well as by science, we will keep arguing about who we are and reinventing ourselves forever.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with much of that: worldviews include subjective issues from outside science, and of course we’ll keep on with these futile arguments about “who we are” (arguments, by the way, that might be partly settled by evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology!). But this is not the point. The point Horgan makes is that there are other ways of knowing what is true about the world beyond science, and science should stop sticking its damn nose into the tent of the humanities. But this is a straw man. Almost nobody claims that literature, music, and art will or should be completely subsumed by science (though they are, at bottom, consistent with it), but on the other hand Pinker is right in claiming that we should not tell scientists to stop impinging on the humanities.

I’ll end with Pinker’s closing of his lovely New Republic article, in which he answers critics who say that the invasion of humanities by scientific practices is “naive and simplistic”:

And the critics should be careful with the adjectives. If anything is naïve and simplistic, it is the conviction that the legacy silos of academia should be fortified and that we should be forever content with current ways of making sense of the world. Surely our conceptions of politics, culture, and morality have much to learn from our best understanding of the physical universe and of our makeup as a species.

Sometimes when I read Horgan, and see his endless criticisms about the limits of science, his concentration on scientific disagreements and ignoring genuine consiliences, and his claim that science is but one of many “ways of knowing”, I wonder if the man—despite being a teacher of science writing—really likes science.

h/t: Hos

52 thoughts on “John Horgan makes a strawman argument against “consilience”

  1. And if you do glimpse truths when you’re on drugs, they’re either private experiences or claims that, when you’ve come down, must be verified with the toolkit of science. “The universe is one” is not a truth except in the trivial sense that it’s made of matter and energy.

    Old joke: a guru-type guy says to the hotdog vendor “Make me one with everything.”

    1. Updated old joke:

      A Zen master visiting New York City goes up to a hot dog vendor and says, “Make me one with everything.”
      The hot dog vendor fixes a hot dog and hands it to the Zen master, who pays with a $20 bill.
      The vendor puts the bill in the cash box and closes it. “Excuse me, but where’s my change?” asks the Zen master.
      The vendor responds, “Change must come from within.”

      I used that one in a presentation of mine – Zen and the Art of Service Mangement.

  2. Everything that Horgan writes is contrarian, that’s his schtick. I don’t take him seriously; gadflies get published more often, and he has learned that.

  3. As for alleged mystical perceptions or revelations:

    “From a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes. Each is in an abnormal physical condition, and therefore has abnormal perceptions. Normal perceptions, since they have to be useful in the struggle for life, must have some correspondence with fact; but in abnormal perceptions there is no reason to expect such correspondence, and their testimony, therefore, cannot outweigh that of normal perception.”

    (Russell, Bertrand. Religion and Science. 1935. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. p. 189)

    “Dismissing philosophers’ warnings against deriving “ought” from “is,” Wilson insists that we can deduce moral principles from science. Science can illuminate our moral impulses and emotions, such as our love for those who share our genes, as well as giving us moral guidance. This linkage of science to ethics…” – J. Horgan

    This linkage doesn’t close the is-ought gap between descriptive moral psychology and normative moral philosophy.

    “No account of scientific facts about the world can by themselves determine what we should do. …Science may be able to tell us what means conduce to what ends, but it cannot tell us what ends to pursue.”

    (Smart, J. J. C. Philosophy and Scientific Realism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963. pp. 154-5)

  4. Inspired by mysticism and the arts, as well as by science, we will keep arguing about who we are and reinventing ourselves forever.

    The second part of that sentence, where “who we are” and “who we can be” is presented as the objects of our striving, reveals one of the underlying connections between mysticism and the arts: self-knowledge. I think that today that’s usually what people mean when they talk about Other Ways of Knowing. They mean that their internal feelings and beliefs are just as, if not more, valid and true as that which can be empirically verified by consensus. Or, when codified into rules, science.

    It’s the age-old struggle between the inner world of thought and feeling and the outer world of object and event. It feels as if the subjective should take precedence over the objective — if, indeed, there even is such a thing. Couple this with a sense of entitlement, a bit of narcissism, and a modicum of victimhood and science’s main crime is its refusal to take MY word for what *I* know to be true about ME. “I had an experience; I have an insight; I accept these intuitions: this knowledge is part of me. Deny it, you deny me.”

    The idea that there are limits to how far we can know for certain who we are, and restrictions on how far we can reinvent ourselves, is part of the humility of science — not its hubris.

    1. “It’s the age-old struggle between the inner world of thought and feeling and the outer world of object and event. It feels as if the subjective should take precedence over the objective — if, indeed, there even is such a thing.”
      It’s strange, isn’t it? We’re in a world where we have people self-reporting contradictory experiences, so at the minimum we have to think that all other people are either mistaken or lying when their private experience contradicts our own. You’d think the variety of experiences that people report would at least provide grounds to be humble when we put forward our own.

      And that’s not even getting into the sciences of mind that have sought to understand the experiences from a psychological / sociological / anatomical / biological level, and have been quite successful. While the sciences can seem abstract and divorced from our experiences and everyday theory of mind, other people are repeatedly showing us that what they hold to be true about the world differs from us.

      My only guess is that when we have a private experience, it’s more powerful than can ever be put into words. It’s more “real” to us than anything anyone else can report. So anyone contradicting it can easily be dismissed as lying or mistaken because their experiences don’t have the same effect as something we do. And as for science, because it seeks to explain the experience in terms that don’t address it, it’s both inadequate and subversive.

      1. I’m just hoping Brown wasn’t the name of Jerry’s roommate. That would be some freaky hallucination.

        No wonder Wavy Gravy warned the crowd at Woodstock that the brown acid is bad.

      2. The last profound discovery I made in the art class was that whatever colours you try to mix into the patella to try to get the shade you want, you end up with brown.
        I am very conservative in decorating. I know how this is going to end up.

  5. I’ve rarely read such verbose, tendentious crap as that piece by Wieseltier. Religions posit the existence of entities for which no convincing evidence exists, and offer explanations that invoke those entities when none are necessary. All the gaseous pomposity in the world doesn’t change that. My own guess is that Wieseltier was a C science student at university, but found he was great at the kind of bullshit that infuses the discourse of the contemporary humanities.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. The New Critics, Cleanth Brooks, R.P. Blackmur and Co. showed by example how to apply the tools of logic and rigor to the explication of literature, and F.S.C. Northrup’s groundbreaking The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities show how essential hard-headed application of logical reasoning across the whole of what comes under the heading of the ‘liberal arts’. But Wieseltier instead trumpets his indignation at a volume that I’m sure he figures concealed the fact that the humanities, in the end, do not and cannot yield what could be called a result. You wind up thinking, migod, couldn’t they have found someone who doesn’t come across as a halfwit to try to argue against Pinker’s position?

    But then, maybe not, considering what the New Republic has turned into during the past couple of decades…

  6. From someone in the humanities (jazz professor), I agree with PCC(E) in this way: the product of the arts is not about knowledge at first (and to the extent that it is, that knowledge must be scientifically verified). The arts concern aesthetic appreciation, and more broadly, emotion. I don’t listen to music primarily to learn about it, I listen to it because it’s cool how those sounds sound; I like it (a lot). When I do want to know something about music, I use science construed broadly per PCC(E), and I have done that a lot, writing many academic articles using empirical evidence of the music itself.

    1. And one can see a similar pathway in Oliver Sacks’ 2007 book, Musicophilia. One can listen to music for the pure emotional joy but also delve deeper into, in this case, neuroscience. Seems like consilience to me.

      One must wonder if Horgan is being a contrarian (as Lou Jost mentioned above) for the sake of being such, is actually that ignorant, or quite frankly, just an ass.

    1. Paul McCartney was stoned out of his gourd early on in his weed-smoking and rushed to write down a revelation he had. The next morning he looked at what he wrote, and it was, “There are seven levels.”

  7. I have his The End of Science book on my shelf somewhere, but I’ve never read it for some reason.
    As to his main point in it, of course there is the possibility that he will turn out to be correct. His view has never been correct in the past, but reality ought to be finite so maybe there really are no more paradigm shifting discoveries out there. Even the proof of a multiverse will not be exactly paradigm shifting, since that is already well hypothesized.
    I definitely think that I don’t want it to be true.

    1. I am guessing that you are talking about Horgan’s views on paradigm shifts.

      As to his main point in it, of course there is the possibility that he will turn out to be correct.

      The above statement has interesting implications. At any time, the statement that ‘all the paradigm-changing views of the universe’ have already been made is a strong statement about the future. To the extent that ‘paradigm shift’ is well defined, it purports precise knowledge of the evolution of thinking.

      Are you saying that there is a possibility of our eventually proving that there will be no ‘paradigm-changing views’ in the future? Or are you implying the possibility of a finite future? Or something else?

      1. Up to many decades ago, anyone who made the bet that there are no more paradigm shifting discoveries out there would soon enough learn that they have lost that bet. So one should feel like they are venturing out onto a limb by even suggesting that those heady times are over.
        But there is a pretty reasonable argument, I think, that we have arrived that very state. I don’t want this to be true, mind you, but the argument seems reasonable to me.
        By now we have at least a partial handle on the origins of the universe, the nature of matter, and the origins of the earth and life. Of course there are many highly significant things left to discover about all of these areas (I bet a lot of them will be pretty damn significant!) but those welcome contributions are not anticipated to be exactly paradigm shifting in the manner being discussed.

        In the face of this knowledge, one has to ask: ‘What else that is truly paradigm shifting could still remain out there?’ Maybe if we learn of parallel universes in alternate dimensions. That would be a pleasant surprise! But there is about as much need for that as there is a need for angels or gremlins to explain the nature of things.

        Well, that is my limb, and I’ma going to sit on it. I won’t mind if the limb breaks.

      2. Are you saying that there is a possibility of our eventually proving that there will be no ‘paradigm-changing views’ in the future?

        Didn’t Gödel say pretty much that with his Incompleteness theorem. (And why were my weed-dealing friends so keen that I should read that Gödel-Escher-Bach book, despite my regard for Escher’s draughtsmanship.)

        Or are you implying the possibility of a finite future?

        That’s easy. If the density of the universe is greater than the the critical density for the universe having a positive curvature, then we have a relatively short future. Very definitely finite. If the density is less than the critical density (and the curvature is zero or negative) then the universe will expand forever until the radius of the “observable universe” for each particle is shorter than it’s mean free path. Which is also a finite time (though longer than the the previous case).

        1. No, that’s not what Gödel said.

          Your cosmology neglects the cosmological constant, now known to be positive. We know the values of the cosmological parameters well enough to know that our Universe will expand forever, whether or not it has more than the critical density.

          1. I’m pretty sure that Gödel said that in any set of axiomatic rules, there are some propositions whose truth cannot be decided within the rules of that axiomatic system. Therefore, you have to have input from outside the axiomatic system – for example, by conducting experiments.
            The cosmological constant (“dark energy” interpretation) merely changes the timing of events. If you have a universe where for each and every particle, the edge of the “observable universe” is closer than any other particle, then how is your particle going to interact with any other? Which is what allows us to distinguish “before” and “after. Without “before” and “after”, is there such a thing as “time”?

        2. The Gödel theorems apply to formal systems. I am not saying you are wrong, but I am not convinced about considering them for this case.

          The question about a finite future was not intended to find out if cosmological models were consistent with a finite future. Instead, it was intended to find out if the possibility of Horgan’s statement being true, as stated in comment #9, was related to our having a finite future. For example, one can say that Horgan’s statement would turn out to be true if there is a definite end to our future and there has been no paradigm shift between now and then.
          I was looking for context. Mark Sturtevant explained the reasons for his view. So I think I have my answer.

  8. If this gentleman with the help of Ayahuasca moves his slippers 30 cm on the floor, by the power of his imagination (or makes them levitate) in the real world, well, there is something to talk about.

    Otherwise, it’s just an interesting personal testimony.

  9. We don’t know the nature of the vast majority of the universe (dark matter and dark energy). We have no explanation for the beginning of the universe. We don’t have a physical theory unifying gravity and quantum mechanics. We don’t know how life on Earth got started. We don’t know if life is unique to Earth. We don’t know a lot of things. Claiming The End of Science seems premature at best.

  10. Don’t worry, MS. The is no way to test the multiverse hypothesis; if it were true, we’d never know. There never was any empirical reason for the multiverse, which Peter Woit at Note Even Wrong has, entirely correctly, I think, labeled pseudoscience (for a nice summary of where it came from, check out his blog post https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=9968 and other posts under ‘Multiverse Mania). In nutshell, the idea—which never attained the status of a theory—was sponsored by a few prominent string theorists as their plan B, when it turned out there were not one or two, not even a few thousand or a few billion, but 10^500—yes, a google to the fifth power—solutions to as much of string ‘theory’s’ constraints on the vacuum states admitted by the ‘theory’ as has ever been written down. And it has yet to be demonstrated that the observed universe corresponds to any of these 10^500 possibilities (which have now, as I understand it, ballooned to a much vaster number).

    So string theory, even if it were actually explicitly formulated (which the ST people seem to have given up trying to do, along with abandoning any attempt to unify the strong force and gravitation with the electroweak force, the Holy Grail of the string project in the early days), seems to be able to say nothing about the observable universe, but rather licenses a huge number of unobservable ones. As Woit notes, the multiverse was Leonard Susskind’s and others’ alibi here: yes, all of those universes exist; we just happen to live in one that’s conducive to life. There never was any other serious argument for the multiverse than that (on the over-generous assumption that that amounts to a serious argument).

    So rest easy—you can bet the house against the multiverse and still sleep soundly through the night.

    1. The probability that you will burn up with all your family with all fauna and flora as a result of cyclical cosmic catastrophes is orders of magnitude greater than death from multiverse interactions. Besides, it is certain (we just don’t know the exact time)

      So rest easy—you can bet the house against imaginary problems and still sleep soundly all night long. (Pending for real problems)

      Have a sweet, pleasant life and that your cells always divide in a controlled way.

    2. Quoting Peter Woit does not a scientific argument make.

      Suffice it to say that the jury is still out, with many top names in cosmology (Martin Rees, George Ellis, etc.) on both sides of the debate.

      Note that there are many multiverse concepts which have nothing at all to do with string theory.

      1. My argument doesn’t consist in quoting Peter Woit; it consists in Peter Woit’s own arguments against the multiverse, among many others. If you’ve a reply to his critique, which is extensively laid out in his blog posts in the ‘Multiverse Mania’ directory for the past 15 years, and in his 2006 book Not Even Wrong, in particular in Chapter 17 on the string landscape—the core points of which is that there is no observable basis whatever for positing multiple causally separate universes, and that, as he documents in his book and in the post I referred to, the only argument for these universes is that it makes sense of a fragmentary theory whose intent was to unify the forces of nature (and whose practitioners have given up on that goal for pretty much the past decade) and which instead wound up being compatible with > google^5 versions of the universe—I, and any number of skeptics, would be fascinated to hear it. And I’d be interested in what ‘multiverse concepts which have nothing at all to do with string theory’ — as vs. the Everett-De Witt many worlds interpretation of QM, which has nothing to do with what people refer to as the multiverse—you’re alluding to.

        And btw, referring to Martin Reese and George Ellis does not a scientific argument make. The burden of proof is on the supporters of the multiverse, Susskind, Rees and others who have promoted the multiverse in the absence of any compelling basis in fact, and so far, they haven’t even begun to meet it. When the best a research community can come up with is, ‘well, it’s time to accept post-empirical science (per Dawid’s oxymoronic coinage in String Theory and the Scientific Method) as the new paradigm in physics’, it’s time to start checking to make sure your wallet is still in your pocket.

        1. Check out the book Multiverse Theories by Simon Friederich, a book written by someone with no personal stake in the matter. Debate, here or elsewhere, is not worth it until you understand the basic concepts and terminology.

          If I have to choose between Peter Woit and Martin Rees, i’ll go with the Astronomer Royal.

        2. Please don’t imply that all of your opponents agree with David’s post-empirical stuff.

          Yes, there are multiverse concepts which have nothing to do with string theory nor anything to do with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. You need to read up. I’ve given you a good reference (published this year by CUP).

          What about that Giordano Bruno guy? Even if you think that he shouldn’t have been burned at the stake, was he wrong for postulating other solar systems (the multiverse of his day)?

            1. References are appreciated. But the version of the multiverse which is currently subject to ongoing debate in the HEP community are those which arise as a consequence of the failures of String Theory to come up with a version of its key idea which makes any contact at all with observable physics. And Bruno is irrelevant here; the problem is not that multiverse hype artists are proposing ideas which seem outlandish but can meet the basic tests of measurement and predictive success or failure, but that the ST landscape multiverse, with its ‘Swampland’ and innumerable escape hatches, makes no predictions even in principle. I’m pretty sure that MS’s post was referring to that one.

              And if I have to choose between Martin Rees (whom you cited and who is definitely advocating the ST multiverse) on the one hand and David Gross and Neil Turok on the other, I’ll go with the Nobel Prize winner and the former director of the Perimeter Institute/current Higgs Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Edinburgh. Sorry, but citing Rees doesn’t make your case any stronger. There’s a burden of proof, and the ST landscape multiverse people, whether they’re Martin Rees or someone else, have not met it even a little bit. If you want to talk about a different multiverse story, well, that’s a different story.

  11. History, well practiced, is a science. It looks at the evidence available to us in the present and tries to use it to understand the human past. Unfortunately, history is often practiced with little concern for even the most basic rules of evidence or with a selective approach to evidence or with no concern for evidence at all. The sooner the field of history is subsumed by science, the better.

  12. The End of Science (1996) and The End of History and the Last Man (1992) probably say more about the pre-millennial attitudes prevalent in the ’90s than they do about the imminent demise of either field of study.

  13. Also all the good music was already made. And art. And literature. Nothing new under the sun.

    The argument is sound – if by argument, it means an excuse to buy a boat and head to Margaritaville.

  14. Nothing new under the sun.

    See? That you needed to sample Ecclesiastes 1:9 (not to mention Jimmy Buffett) proves your point that it’s all been done before. 🙂

    1. Nothing new under the sun.

      See? That you needed to sample Ecclesiastes 1:9

      I thought that was a line from Babylonian eschatologicy which the “chosen people” picked up from them during one of their exiles and copied (without attribution) into their BuyBull breeding manual.

    2. “Nothing new under the sun”

      Its why creative people burn the midnight oil

      [ comment not really a reply – just an idea ]

  15. and of course we’ll keep on with these futile arguments about “who we are” (arguments, by the way, that might be partly settled by evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology!)

    They’re not futile, but at bottom they’re not scientific either. (Even though, as you mention, parts of them are, and can be settled by evolutionary psychology etc.) But primarily, they’re arguments about who we want to become, which is a decision, not a discovery.

  16. 1996 book The End of Science, in which he claimed that the era of “fundamental science”—[…]—was coming to an end.

    That rather silly claim, attributed IIRC to Lord Kelvin in about 1900, had holes in it at the time, and has developed further holes since.
    At that time, people were starting to get a handle on this new thing called “radioactivity” which appeared to produce energy from nothing – and in turn lead to us learning a lot about the fundamental forces of the universe. We’ve carried on since then, but there are similar hints that there may be other force fields out there than the gravitational and colour-electro-weak ones. Whether that search for other force fields pans out or not we have the continuing problem that the understanding of the gravity field is essentially “classical” (infinitely divisible) while the understanding of the colour-electro-weak field is essentially “quantised” (little atomic [original meaning] levels of field potential) ; it doesn’t seem right that there should be two fundamentally different types of description to the universe.
    That gives two significant areas of pretty fundamental science where, within the structures of science, we’re pretty sure that we’re not at the end of discoveries.
    Then there’s the “stamp collecting” division. In the unlikely event that we finish cataloguing life on Earth, there is always the chance that we discover a second independent origin of life. It is just “stamp collecting”, but it is pretty fundamental too.

  17. I’m not clear where you (Jerry Coyne) stand on the limitations of science and the importance of other research areas (e.g., philosophy) for providing answers to meaningful questions. On the one hand, the article accepts the importance of the humanities; on the other, it denies that “there are ‘ways of knowing’ about the cosmos that do not employ the empirical toolkit of science,” Certainly for e.g. philosophy to be valuable to us, it can’t ignore science; however, the knowledge that philosophy provides is certainly not based exclusively on empirical science. For example, the investigation into the foundations of empirical science is, at least to some extent, outside the purview of empirical science.

    1. I’d suggest reading my conversation with Adam Gopnik about ways of knowing. If philosophy investigates where empirical science comes from, that’s history and history uses the toolkit of science. Otherwise we just have speculation. I’d also recommend your reading my bit about “ways of knowing” from Faith Versus Fact.

      1. Thank you for the prompt reply. Your “Letter 1” to Gopnik did help clarify your position. By “philosophical foundations of empirical science” I was thinking more about questions related to empirical science’s presuppositions rather than it’s historical roots. There are, for example, important questions buried in your assumption that “there’s a universe out there independent of our minds” (which assumes mind-matter dualism as well as universals, particulars, and their relationship, all of which raise difficult questions about the nature of our universe).
        Also in that letter, I found you painting religions with an awfully broad brush. Do you mean to do this? One way to think of religions is as philosophies in practice with their underlying philosophies not being at all equally viable.

        1. “I found you [JAC] painting religions with an awfully broad brush.”

          Does religion require special protection from generalizations?

          Or is only religion allowed to make broad generalizations about everything in life without any support?

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