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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

O'Leary's recent ChristianWeek column : End of science? Or end of materialism? The challenge for Christians today

... what about Dolly the sheep? New vaccines? The chess computer? New antibiotics? Alternative energy sources? Yes, all these discoveries are exciting, but, as Horgan notes, they depend on existing science. They do not forge new frontiers in our understanding of our world.


Science journalist John Horgan created a minor stir a decade ago with his book, The End of Science, arguing that the major science discoveries are all behind us. Now that was hardly a popular thesis. As he recently recalled,

One of my most memorable moments as a journalist occurred in December 1996, when I attended the Nobel Prize festivities in Stockholm. During a 1,300-person white-tie banquet presided over by Sweden's king and queen, David Lee of Cornell University, who shared that year's physics prize, decried the "doomsayers" claiming that science is ending. Reports of science's death "are greatly exaggerated," he said. Lee was alluding to my book More than a dozen Nobel laureates denounced this proposition, mostly in the media but some to my face, as did the White House science advisor, the British science minister, the head of the Human Genome Project, and the editors in chief of the journals Science and Nature.


Nothing like being toast of the town. However, the initial uproar seems to have blown over. Discover Magazine invited Horgan to revisit his thesis in its October 2006 edition. And it has stood up surprisingly well, at least on the surface.

Of course you, gentle reader, must want to interrupt urgently, demanding what about Dolly the sheep? New vaccines? The chess computer? New antibiotics? Alternative energy sources? Yes, all these discoveries are exciting, but, as Horgan notes, they depend on existing science. They do not forge new frontiers in our understanding of our world.

Of course, some dismiss Horgan's thesis outright because many people have prophesied "the end of all things", and they have always been wrong. But, as he rightly points out, such airy dismissal is founded on a fallacy, namely that past experience predicts future experience. If we cannot assume that a natural law governs science discovery, we cannot elevate past experience into a prediction. Whole centuries have passed without significant discoveries, and no natural law was violated. Let's look a little deeper.

Science, like police work, undoubtedly has its cold cases. For example, we may never discover the origin of life for the same reason that we may never discover the identity of Jack the Ripper. We need not assume that in either case God has forbidden us to know. Rather, in our contingent and imperfect world, trails grow cold and evidence gets lost. Similarly, it may never be possible to go behind the Big Bang or travel faster than light. For that matter, if there really are other universes, we may never be able to learn about them.

Think of all the things you would like to know about the life of Jesus and his family. We know everything we need for our salvation, to be sure. And no doubt, God withholds some information for good reasons. But surely he also permits some information to just get lost, as a debt to the nature of things. And why should science be any different?

But all that said, Horgan makes one fundamental assumption that I think is wrong and his error is the main reason why I am more hopeful than he is. He clearly sees science as nothing more or less than applied materialist philosophy. For example, reminding us to temper our expectations of future science, he writes, "Evolutionary biology reminds us that we are animals, shaped by natural selection not for discovering deep truths of nature but for breeding."

Huh? First off, anyone surveying the science-minded Western world's birth rates will certainly not think that Horgan's proposition is self-evidently true. As agnostic Australian philosopher David Stove has shown in Darwinian Fairytales (1995), most societies have encouraged citizens to breed. Where they don't (as ours doesn't), we see little evidence of any inner drive to breed shaped by natural selection. But we always see plenty of evidence of people wanting to discover deep truths, whether these truths are to be found legitimately in science, faith, or public service or illegitimately in drugs, sex, or power.

Yes, there are new frontiers in science. The greatest new frontier is human consciousness. But no materialist hypothesis for consciousness is believable. So the doors to new discoveries are wide open, but a materialist may not want to walk through them.

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.

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