Science is an enterprise to recently kindle in the history of humanity. Despite its infancy, science has made rapid progress. Yet it is precisely because of this rapid progress that science is in its twilight.
Declaring that science is in its twilight seems like an absurd proposition upon first impression. Surely the technology of tomorrow will be drastically different than the technology of today. Furthermore, science has a history of predicting its demise prematurely. Physicists at the end of the 19th century, such as Albert Michelson, declared the basic principles that govern the universe had been unlocked. All that was left for future scientists was filling in the details. These predictions proved to be short lived with the discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics in the 20th century.
There is no doubt that further technological advancements will be made. Yet these technological innovations will be in light, rather than in spite, of scientific principles discovered in the 20th century. Quantum computers are a promising example. Contrary to what the philosopher David Hume might say, the scientific principles of today hold true tomorrow.
Furthermore, the claim that physicists triumphantly declared themselves “masters of the universe” by the end of the 19th century is a myth. At the time of Michelson’s remarks, physicists were vigorously debating fundamental issues in physics, such as whether atoms existed. Yet even if these statements were true, they would have no bearing on whether science is currently approaching its limits.
Unlike scientists of yesteryear, the basic goals of science have been fulfilled. Quantum mechanics makes experimental predictions that are as accurate as predicting the distance of North America to the breadth of a human hair. In addition, molecular genetics and Darwinian evolution will remain central to biology. In short, future scientific discoveries in the 21st century will be based upon scientific principles unlocked in the 20th century.
Take physics for example. The goal of physics was to derive a basic set of laws that govern everything. The Holy Grail of contemporary physics is to discover a Theory of Everything (TOE) that blends the physics of the very small (quantum mechanics) with the physics of the very large (general relativity). Yet even when (if?) physicists discover a TOE, it will merely be a more approximate version of quantum theory that incorporates gravity.
The same reasoning holds true for cosmology. We know from light emitted by the early universe—as fossilized in the cosmic microwave background radiation—that the big bang happened. Although big bang models in the 1970s are different than contemporary big bang models, they are all based upon the same underlying fact: the universe exploded into being a finite time ago.
What about other scientific disciplines, such as biology? The basic goal of biology was to understand the principles of inheritance and the diversity of life. These basic goals have been fulfilled. Charles Darwin tied the diversity of life together with his theory of evolution in the 19th century; and Francis and Watson unlocked the mystery of inheritance by unraveling DNA. Indeed, Richard Dawkins is noted for having said that wherever else life might exist in the universe, it will ultimately be Darwinian life.
The final frontier of science is mind rather than space. Science has deduced the principles of biology from principles of chemistry, and principles of chemistry from principles of physics. Yet consciousness—that irritating experience of subjectivity that is so familiar but much less understood—seems to view the scientific paradigm from the outside-in rather than the inside-out. The epiphenomena causes a gap in the chain of scientific reductionism that cannot be filled.
Or so it seems. Most neuroscientists agree that fundamentally, consciousness is the result of information processing at the level of the brain. To state in slightly denser prose: consciousness consists of simulations of world embodied in the brain. When an internal model of the world becomes so complete, the brain simulates a model of itself. Another term for this is “self-awareness” or “the mind’s I.” Although the mind is a world yet to be fully explored, its map has been sketched.
Some philosophers and neuroscientists argue that the mind is incapable of fully understanding itself. Yet even if this is true, it merely means that some scientific quests are superfluous rather than limitless.
The advances made by science have brought about its own end. Our current understanding of the universe is here to stay. Scientific revolutions of the past were historical episodes that do not repeat themselves. The big bang happened, evolution is real and consciousness is tied to information processing at the level of the brain. These truths shape the bedrock of science and stand the test of time. In short: science is in its twilight.
By Nathan Cranford