Re: Scientific pessimism

From: Mark Walker (
Date: Tue Feb 25 2003 - 10:58:57 MST

> I haven't read the book, but as best as I can tell from the reviews I've
> read, he has some sort of religious attitude, and he emotionally likes the
> idea that the mysteries of the universe will remain forever beyond our
> grasp!
I've read the book. It is intellectually sloppy, imho, but it is interesting
to hear what famous scientists and philosopher have to say on the question
of the end of science, so in this sense it is worth the price of admission.
The main problem I have with it is that Horgan fails to clearly distinguish
between the following reasons why science might end: (1) That we (humans)
have made all the (exciting) discoveries, or (2) there are scientific truths
(about our reality) beyond the reach of our human all too human minds, or
(3) there are truths beyond the reach of scientific methodology. (I might
add that Horgan is not alone here. You often see transhumanists talk as if
the universe is ultimately governed by evolutionary forces and game
theoretic considerations that are all too easily comprehended by us and yet
appeal to the possibility of a superintelligence. I'm not saying that these
are inconsistent, only that it relies on often unstated and unargued
assumption that the most basic laws are comprehensible by us and SIs). It
is hard to think of uncontroversial examples of 1, but perhaps cartography
is as a close as any. The really "big" discoveries have been made, there are
probably no more continents to discover for example. There is lots of mop up
work to do, we can get more accurate maps using gps etc. but the big thrills
are probably exhausted. Sometimes Horgan talks like this is what he means by
the end of science. 2 is sometimes mentioned by Horgan and those that he
interviews. This idea is familiar enough around here given talk about SI
that it hardly needs comment--perhaps there is yet hope for cartography. ;)
The third is a possibility that is less often mentioned. This idea can be
told against simplistic versions of the intellectual history of the West
where science supplants metaphysics which in turned supplanted religious
authority as the methodology for arriving at the truth. The induction here
is of course that a SI may use methodology X that usurps scientific
methodology. Of course we have no idea whether X is even possible but, there
is perhaps a dash of irony in the fact that we have to keep this open as an
empirical-scientific hypothesis. I have argued that as a pragmatic matter
science ought to attempt to create SI, because even if we are in a position
like that described by 1, we cannot know that we are (for the usual
transcendental reasons). Only by attempting to create SI can we hope to
decide between 1, 2, and 3.


Mark Walker, PhD
Research Associate, Philosophy, Trinity College
University of Toronto
Room 214 Gerald Larkin Building
15 Devonshire Place
M5S 1H8

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