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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Science writer wonders whether telling people about the "end of science" is bad for business

John Horgan is that science writer who got into a whale of trouble with the big Science establishment a while back for thinking that the glory days of science discovery are over.

That's a thought he is not allowed to have, apparently, even if there is good evidence for it. (I don't happen to agree with him, but I belong to a more enlightened tradition where he should feel free to make his case.) Anyway, he has more recently said:

Some critics worry that my predictions might become self-fulfilling by discouraging young people from becoming scientists. To be honest, I worry about this problem too, especially now that I teach at a science-oriented school. I tell my students that, even if I'm right that the era of profound discoveries has ended, there is still much meaningful work to do, especially in applied science.

They can develop better treatments for AIDS or cancer or schizophrenia. They can invent cleaner, cheaper sources of energy, or devise computer models that give us a better understanding of global warming. They can even help us understand why we fight wars and how we can avoid them. I also urge my students to question all big, ambitious theories, including mine. The only way to find out how far science can go is to keep pushing against its limits.

- JOHN HORGAN is a science journalist and Director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey.
His comments in Science and Spirit are an illuminating read. Basically, what he is talking about is the end of materialist science, not the end of science - though I don't think he quite realizes that. For example,

Although neuroscientists have acquired increasingly powerful tools for probing and modeling the brain, they have failed to produce a compelling theory of the mind. Nor have researchers winnowed out pre-existing theories. Theories of the mind never really die. They just go in and out of fashion. Some prominent neuroscientists, such as the Nobel laureates Eric Kandel and Gerald Edelman, still think the best theory of the mind is Freudian psychoanalysis.

Our best hope for a breakthrough is to crack the neural code, the set of rules or algorithms that transforms electrical pulses emitted by brain cells into perceptions, memories, and decisions. But recent research suggests that each brain may operate according to many different neural codes, which keep changing in response to new experiences. Some leading neuroscientists, such as Christof Koch, worry that the neural code might be too complex to fully decipher.
Essentially, if the quest is to reduce the mind to the brain, it will fail because the mind is not the brain, as Mario Beauregard and I explain in The Spiritual Brain. But the quest does not have to be that, unless one is a materialist.

Perhaps the real story is that there is no future for materialists in science? Anyway, read the paper and see what you think.

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