Review of ‘The Demon-Haunted World’, ‘Einstein, History, and Other Passions’, ‘The End of Science’

Review of ‘The Demon-Haunted World’, ‘Einstein, History, and Other Passions’, ‘The End of Science’

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The current rebellion has found political as well as philosophical expression, Holton points out. He quotes a widely circulated attack on science by the Czech poet, playwright and anti-Communist hero Vaclav Havel, who sees the troubles of the 20th century as caused by the rise of "depersonalized objectivity." According to Havel, "Communism was the perverse extreme of this trend. . . . The fall of Communism can be regarded as a sign that modern thought -- based on the premise that the world is objectively knowable, and that the knowledge so obtained can be absolutely generalized -- has come to a final crisis."

And in the United States, Holton notes, one of the strongest Congressional advocates of support for science, Rep. George Brown, was influenced by Havel's essay. In a dramatic reversal of his politics, Brown wrote: "Global leadership in science and technology has not translated into leadership in infant health, life expectancy, rates of literacy, equality of opportunity, productivity of workers, or efficiency of resource consumption. Neither has it overcome failing education systems, decaying cities, environmental degradation, unaffordable health care, and the largest debt in history." Not long after, Congress, seeming to follow a trend articulated by Brown, began cutting science budgets.

Holton's book combines essays on the crisis in science with sketches of Albert Einstein as an exemplar of scientific thought. He is trying to show that a life in science is not what its critics contend, but something more imaginative and profoundly human. But Einstein's humanity is not an answer to George Brown's list of complaints; it seems that Holton shares with Sagan a myopia that blurs their vision when they try to look beyond the world of science.

Holton simply casts Havel, Brown and other critics into the camp of irrationality and asserts that those who do not understand science do not understand the world. He writes of "the chilling realization that our intellectuals, for the first time in history, are losing their hold on an adequate understanding of the world. . . . All too many find themselves abandoned in a universe which seems a puzzle on either the factual or the philosophical level. Of all the effects of the separation of culture and scientific knowledge, this feeling of bewilderment and basic homelessness is the most terrifying." Reading this, I thought randomly of Picasso, Baryshnikov, Rostropovich, Lévi-Strauss, William Styron, Thomas Merton, Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama . . . and I could not think of them as bewildered and homeless, or as lacking an adequate understanding of the world. Neither Holton nor Sagan can see the poverty of his own view of the world; it is as if they are blinded by the splendors of what science can accomplish.

John Horgan, as a well-placed science writer, has compiled a remarkable set of interviews with many leading scientists in fields as varied as particle physics and cosmology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience, chaos and artificial intelligence, anthropology and the philosophy of science. Horgan thinks that science has discovered all the basic facts about life and the Universe. He cites Niels Bohr's quip that "science's job is to reduce all mysteries to trivialities" and argues that the job is essentially done; there are no more mysteries. "There will be no great revelations in the future," he writes, "comparable to those bestowed upon us by Darwin or Einstein or Watson and Crick." The surprising thing is that many of the scientists Horgan has interviewed seem to agree. It is for this reason, he suggests, that support and funding for science is falling off; it is simply the law of diminishing returns.

In advancing this idea, Horgan quotes physicist Sheldon Glashow who thinks that debates over superstring theory may one day be conducted "at schools of divinity by future equivalents of medieval theologians." Similarly, ex-physicist David Lindley argues that because new theories can't be validated by experiments, but only by subjective criteria such as elegance and beauty, particle physics is in danger of becoming a branch of esthetics.

We also hear from biologist Bentley Glass, who asserts that biology ends at the molecular level, and from the guru of artificial intelligence, Marvin Minsky. He contends that neurobiologists need no longer worry about the nature of consciousness: consciousness is a trivial issue, he tells Horgan: "I've solved it, and I don't understand why people don't listen." Consciousness, he declares flatly, is simply "a low-grade system for keeping records."

There's an air of unreality about all this. As Horgan shares his interviews and lets us eavesdrop on meetings at scientific think tanks, a reader may feel like an Alice who has wandered into a Wonderland of quarks and nucleotides and bytes, where conversations have no need for common sense. Unfortunately, the unreality stems not from an excess of imagination but from a failure of it. As Horgan buries biology, for example, that discipline is just beginning to explore the uncharted terrain of messenger molecules, replacing our concepts of the nervous, immune and endocrine systems with an as yet undeciphered language of peptides.

As with Sagan and Holton, the questions Horgan raises are more profound than his answers. The idea that science has run out of mysteries only trivializes both nature and the human mind. Darwin, Einstein, and Watson and Crick may embody the genius of science, but it is well to remember the anthropologist Gregory Bateson's definition: a genius is someone who is wrong, but no one knows it for a few hundred years.

Paul Trachtman is a reviewer living in rural New Mexico.


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