Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The End Of Science

This article--not about Trotskyism--is inspired by thinking about careers in the STEM disciplines. I am posting today a long article on this subject, entitled Future STEM Employment. It doesn't really belong in this blog, but I don't have another blog so this is where it will have to go. Don't worry--we'll get back to Trotskyism soon.

In 1992 Francis Fukuyama published a famous book entitled The End Of History And The Last Man, by which he did not mean the end of events. Instead, he saw history as a Hegelian dialectic (only in a blog like this can one use that term without elaboration), with successive contradictions eventually reaching a resolution. The "contradictions" were the various -isms throughout history--feudalism, fascism, communism, capitalism, etc.

The last big ideological "contradiction" in Fukuyama's view was the conflict between communism and liberal capitalism. With the defeat of communism, the last great -ism has been vanquished, and we're all liberal capitalists now. And that appears to be true. All great powers--USA, China, Japan, Europe--are competing on who can build the most successful capitalist economy. There are no ideological disputes among them. (Islamism may be an exception, but that tendency is so incoherent and derivative that I don't think it offers any ideological contest for capitalism.)

So I mean the End Of Science in something like the same way. It's not that there won't be any further discoveries, or that science becomes irrelevant. It does mean that science will no longer radically change our world view any more. The big issues have (mostly) been decided. There is no huge pool of unexplained data out there.

Francis Bacon, arguably the founder of modern science, was very optimistic. He embarked on a project of empirical observation, against which any theory was to be tested. He admitted that he didn't have theories to predict much of what he saw, but felt that within a generation or two all the problems could be solved. Such hubris! We laugh at him today. By his account science would have ended by around 1700 or so.

Still, even though nature was more subtle than anyone imagined, by the middle of the 19th Century it looked as though the end was in sight. Elegant theories were developed for both electromagnetism and thermodynamics--two subjects that had baffled the best minds for centuries. Bacon's optimism, while premature, seemed justified. A few small questions remained: black body radiation seemed inexplicable, nobody knew if atoms really existed, and the universe was found to be both much older and much bigger than anybody had thought.

We can use the year 1905 as a marker for when the world was turned upside down. That was Albert Einstein's Annus Mirabilis, when he submitted four papers that shook science to it's very core. From those papers evolved the modern theories of quantum mechanics and relativity. These theories used new or hitherto obscure branches of mathematics in their description, which made them seem both very difficult and incredibly esoteric to the lay audience. But familiarity breeds contempt--today both theories are taught in the undergraduate chemistry and physics curricula. I teach quantum mechanics myself.

Since 1905, Baconian optimism has been replaced by what I call the Magic School Bus approach. Far from being a solvable problem, in this view science has become an infinite frontier, one that will never close. Second graders are urged to employ creativity to discover new scientific truths about the world around them. College students are exhorted to study science because, after all, that's where progress will be made. New discoveries are just a matter of additional manpower--investment will inevitably be rewarded.

Horsefeathers. I think Mr. Bacon ultimately was right, and that's why I predict the End of Science.

Certainly physics and chemistry have already ended. There simply is no unexplained data out there--nothing like the pre-1905 list given above. Yes, there are folks who study string theory, but this is so far from being experimentally testable that it's not really physics anymore. And there are people who try to find short range aberrations in the law of gravity--but if they exist at all they're too small to be measured. The rules of quantum chemistry have yielded to computation, and can now be employed by college freshmen. There are no big problems.

Of course there are lots of little problems, some of which have considerable technological importance. Some claim that nanotechnology is the science of the age (though I think it's been over-hyped). But it is more accurately a branch of engineering, not science. The basic rules of chemistry and physics are not challenged--it's just that our technology is now good enough to work at the nanoscale.

Biology still has some big problems left. We don't understand how the brain functions. Our understanding of the genome and proteome is still fairly primitive. Still--the horizon is in sight. The theory of evolution is elaborated down to the molecular scale, and is completely uncontroversial in scientific terms--religious and Marxist objections notwithstanding. Evolutionary psychology has enormous explanatory value, though until we really do know how the brain works it has to remain tentative.

So now the discussion turns. From the relatively simple laws of physics and chemistry, and even evolution, we arrive at unimaginably complex phenomena such as brain function and psychology. Can economics and sociology be far behind? No--and that was precisely the thesis of Edward O. Wilson's 1999 book, Consilience. Wilson claims that all human knowledge will be combined within a single logical framework--the motion of an electron around an atom is intimately connected to emotion surrounding da Vinci's Mona Lisa. There exists a chain of reasoning that connects one phenomenon with the other.

Well, maybe not so directly. There is a discipline known as complexity theory, which holds that complex phenomena are qualitatively different from simpler systems. Terms that arise when discussing complexity include chaos and emergent phenomena.

Chaos refers to systems that are intrinsically unpredictable due to strong, non-linear coupling. These need not even be complex systems; deceptively simple things such as the double pendulum will do. The so-called butterfly effect is an example of chaotic phenomena.

Emergent phenomena is when the whole is clearly more than the sum of the parts. For example, in this video, the behavior of the flock cannot in anyway be described by the flight trajectory of an individual bird. The flight pattern of the flock emerges from the complex interaction between individual birds. An emergent theory for consciousness, for example, is that it arises spontaneously from the complexity of the brain, and that there is no individual area of the brain where consciousness resides.

Complexity theory claims that, while consciousness is indeed a natural phenomena, it remains both unpredictable and indivisible. One will never be able to isolate a thought down to an individual neuron, nor can one ever devise a simple algorithm that will reliably reproduce human behavior. The complex brain, so the theory goes, is both chaotic and emergent.

So the traditional sciences, along with much of biology, are dead. Francis Bacon was right--Ms. Frizzle has it wrong. The human sciences, on the other hand, are very much alive.

Science is dead. Long live science.

Further Reading:

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