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.