God, science and knowledge
A counterblast to Stephen Hawking
The End of Discovery: Are We Approaching the Boundaries of the Knowable? By Russell Stannard. OUP; 228 pages; $24.95 and £14.99.
REPORTS of the death of science have been greatly exaggerated—at least, that has proved to be the case so far. A British physicist, Lord Kelvin, is supposed to have said in 1900, “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, all that remains is more and more precise measurement.” But then along came general relativity and quantum mechanics that proved him wrong. A bestselling book titled “The End of Science” by John Horgan, an American science journalist, was published in 1996, but there are no signs of the stuff abating. In “The End of Discovery”, Russell Stannard once again predicts its demise.
Mr Stannard bases his argument on three ideas. The first is that the human brain—which evolved to survive on the savannah rather than to grapple with the mysteries of string theory—may be inadequate for the task of progressing with science to the point where it explains everything. The second is that it may prove technically impossible to test all the ideas created by human minds. Finally, it may be that the end point so desired by scientists—the explanation of everything—does not actually exist.
Rehearsing the arguments, Mr Stannard examines the problem of consciousness, asks whether it makes sense to demand an explanation of what caused the Big Bang that created the universe, and questions the source of the laws of nature and the status of mathematics. He asks big questions. Why is the universe such that conscious life could evolve in it, and has it done so elsewhere? What is the nature of dark matter and dark energy? Does it make sense to talk about free will in a universe that appears deterministic? What is time?
Although he does not mention religion, Mr Stannard’s tome is carefully timed as a counterblast to the book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that rejects the need for the existence of God. Mr Stannard—a retired professor of physics at the Open University, as well as the author of a series of children’s books on quantum theory—is a believer. His book is a call for scientists to exercise humility when faced with the awe of the mystery of existence.
Unfortunately the evidence he marshals is far from compelling. The lists of scientific mysteries stand as much as a testament to the discipline itself as to its inadequacy to deal with them: science has helped to elucidate where the difficulties lie and, so far, it has also been science that has addressed them. Mr Stannard argues that mankind is living at a special time when it can contemplate the failure of its most successful attempt yet to understand the universe, but this is as unsatisfactory as arguing there is something special about the universe that allows mankind to exist.
Moreover, Mr Stannard—an accomplished writer—has let his standards slip. The book is rushed and lumpy, reminiscent of lectures by a man who skims over the central thesis to concentrate on his pet interests. Attacking the hubris of the most vocal atheists is understandable. Sadly, Mr Stannard hasn’t made a good job of it.