Thursday, 23 September 2010

Have we reached the peak of the scientific model of reality?

Radio 4’s Today programme, today, had a short feature on the thoughts of a physicist named Russell Stannard. In his new book he suggests that we may be coming to a point where science has made the majority of its major advances and that we may not be able to learn a great deal more about the universe.

This is very interesting as this concept is the absolute core of the subject of my first (non fiction) book written back in 1989. In Satanic Viruses I suggested that by observing astrological events I could predict that the Age of Aquarius, that people thought had been a flash in the pan, would really begin to take off in the last decade of the twentieth century and continue to accelerate into the new millennium. People may not remember how the seventies and eighties really were but many of the ideas that have come to be acceptable in our culture simply would not have been given air time or a place in people’s thoughts before the turn of the nineties. We can easily see the flavour of the change in that we have gone from a culture that asks ‘where do we live?’ and ‘how shiny is my Porsche?’, to one that also includes concepts of ‘how are we going to survive as a community, or even as a species?’

Without repeating the whole book my thesis was that we were moving from an age that was characterised by heavily structured modes of thinking into one that would be more fluid. Religion, for two thousand years, has been characterised by hierarchical, top down, structures but those religions would soon be faced with the prospect of people seeking more personal bottom up solutions to their philosophical and theological dilemmas. People would seek answers from within rather than from a god that lies without or above.

Over the same two thousand year period, hence the subtitle of the book ‘The fall of the Roman Empire and how to bring it about’, science has developed hand in hand with the dominant religions of the world. However, science, as we know it, is also greatly dependant on those heavily structured models of thinking. So my thesis was that we might be about to witness the end of science as the dominant world view.

Now it seems some scientists are beginning to say something strikingly similar. Russell Stannard, described in the Observer as a high energy nuclear physicist at the Open University, has written a book titled The End of Discovery. He seems to be suggesting that humanity may soon reach a time when the peak of scientific discovery may be behind us.

Much of what science now investigates, particularly in his field of physics, now requires such massive experiments, such as the Large Hadron Collider, that we will soon no longer be able to investigate the next level down. Apparently Stephen Hawkings cherished M-theory, associated with string theory which few people really understand, would require a collider the size of a galaxy to perform the required experiments. It seems some physicists are so attached to M-theory, despite its lack of an equation to define it, that they are saying it must be right because it is elegant. Elegance is often a feature of that which is described as truth in science but it’s hardly the only test. This is beginning to sound like faith and may be evidence of the change taking place before our eyes.

It strikes me that we have been faced with other apparently insoluble problems in science for some time. One example is complexity theory, where our models have to be so complex that we can no more predict their behaviour than we can that which they model. Weather forecasting improves with the increase in computing power but there may be a scale of diminishing returns as the models become more complex. Another field that may suffer from the complexity problem is the study of consciousness which has been promising results just over the horizon for as long as I can remember. However the brain is so complex that we can’t model it for the same reasons as we can’t model the weather.

Obviously Stannard, and I, may be wrong as this sort of end of science has been predicted before. The Observer article describes how, in the 19th century, it was predicted that science had discovered everything that there was to discover. I remember an old issue of the Fortean Times that quoted a Victorian gentleman who said that transatlantic communication would be impossible because the flag would have to be as big as Ireland. Clearly there are some developments that we can’t predict but this time things may be different. Science has become massive and expensive. Some research can only be performed by nation states or even conglomerates of nation states and many companies are unwilling to fund blue skies research because they want a return within a reasonable period.

It may turn out to be the case that there is research to be done but who will want to fund or perform it? If, as Stannard suggests, new developments start to become less frequent over a longer time scale, people may just decide to do other things with their lives.

However it comes about, either by us feeling we have learned as much as we need, or finding that’s its just too much trouble to learn any more, the result will be the same; a diminishing of the influence of science and, perhaps, a consolidation of the benefits we can glean from what we already know. It seems then, the end of the road might be within sight. Of course with a two thousand year time scale the end may not be any time soon but it looks as though it may be on the way.

Link: Satanic Viruses - The fall of the Roman Empire and how to bring it about 

Link: Observer interview with Russell Stannard on his new book The End of Discovery

Just remember I said this in 1989.

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