Is progress in science itself winding down? I don’t know, but I think it is possible.
I don’t know of any new scientific theories or discoveries in my adult lifetime that compare to Newton’s theory of gravitation, Darwin’s theory of natural selection or Einstein’s theory of relativity. While I don’t have any basis for ruling out a new scientific revolution, I do have some thoughts about the possible limits of scientific discovery.
There have been two periods of scientific advance, one in ancient Greece and Roman and one in modern European times.
The ancient Greek scientists did some remarkable things. They figured out that the world was round, and made a good informed guess as to how large it was, based on nothing more than the science of geometry and observations that could be made with the naked eye.
What made the ancient Greeks different from other peoples is that they based their thinking on observation, reasoning from evidence and discussion among peers, rather than arguing from authority and hoarding knowledge. And with Euclid’s geometry, they had a powerful new tool of thought.
What brought ancient Greek science to an end was partly that they made all the easy discoveries that could be made with geometric reasoning and naked-eye observation, but also, as Prof. Gilbert Murray wrote in Five Stages of Greek Religion, a failure of nerve.
Murray said the Greeks didn’t like where Greek science was taking them—the idea that the sun and moon were not gods, but that the sun was a ball of fire and the moon was a ball of rock. They turned to the occult and to cults from Asia, much like the New Age philosophies today.
Science revived partly because of a revival of interest in Greek science during the Renaissance. It also was aided by inventions that increased the power of observation. The microscope and the telescope revealed worlds that no human being had seen before. Arabic-Hindu algebra provided a powerful new tool of thought, to which was added the calculus and mathematical logic. The process of testing theories by discussion of evidence became systematized.
It is possible that human powers of observation have, at least for now, reached their limits. Scientists have discovered the structure of the atom, and of sub-atomic particles. Aided by billions of dollars worth of equipment, they have confirmed the existence of sub-sub-atomic particles, such as the Higgs boson. Maybe there are sub-sub-sub atomic particles, but it is hard to see how physicists could learn anything about them.
Astronomers seem to have reached the same limits in knowledge of the cosmos.
Physics is not the only science, of course. Remarkable discoveries are being made in cognitive science and the study of the human brain, and this science is not so capital-intensive as astronomy or particle physics.
But that comes up against the other limitation—the failure of nerve. Science reveals a strange world that is alien to human common sense, and in which human beings are not the center.
This has produced a backlash, reflected in the demand for teaching of creationism and its little brother, intelligent design, neither of which is based on discussion of evidence based on observation.
The backlash is covertly supported by vested interests who are threatened by scientific research—fossil fuel companies by climate research, tobacco companies by epidemiology.
Along with that, there has been a decline in support for curiosity-based science. It does not have an economic benefit that is obvious beforehand. There is an economic incentive to concentrate on research with a predictable payoff.
So even if scientific discovery has not reached its reality-based limits, the fear of scientific reasoning could bring about a cessation of scientific discovery.
I am not a scientist. All this is speculation. Maybe science has reached a natural limit, and all that remains is a filling in of detail. Maybe science is an open-ended endless process. Maybe someday there will be a Grand Theory of Everything. The future progress of science may be represented by the straight line or the upward slope in the chart, and it may be represented by an S-shaped curve or even a bell curve. This is unknowable, at least by me.
Why then do I write about it? I think that whatever the future of scientific discovery, the moral values of science are important. These values are objectivity, curiosity, free discussion and evidence-based reasoning, and they are worth defending against magic, mystery and authority.
Is there a creativity deficit in science? by Ben McNeil for ArsTechnica. (Via Mike the Mad Biologist)
Science, Superstars and Stocks by Paul Kedrosky (2011)