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The End of Discovery

Entry 1231, on 2010-10-08 at 21:23:45 (Rating 3, Science)

I recently listened to a podcast in the Guardian Science Weekly series where Prof Russell Stannard was interviewed about his book "The End of Discovery." The book examines (and rejects) the idea that we might eventually have a "theory of everything" or might "know everything". I presume he doesn't believe the idea literally and maybe the concepts would be better expressed as "a theory which explains all the major phenomena in the universe: forces, particles, interactions, through one set of equations" and "we know all the significant details about all the significant objects and events in the universe" (of course I readily admit that "significant" in this context is very much open to interpretation.

As I listened to the interview I got the feeling that there was something I was missing. He seemed to be hiding something, or being deliberately obscure and imprecise about some things, or taking a deliberately and unjustified negative view towards science. So I Googled him and found - yes, I should have known - he has some sort of wacky religious belief! So the same criticism I have levelled at Francis Collins applies here: he is (presumably) a good scientist and knows his subject well but his religious beliefs warp his judgement when it comes to subjects which are based more on opinion than fact.

Maybe the most ironic thing was when he criticised Stephen Hawking (indirectly) by quoting a theologian's comment about him: When Hawking talks about physics he is a great physicist and when he talks about religion he is a great physicist. In other words: stick to subjects you know something about! I thought that was a clever comment but it could just as easily apply to Stannard himself. His comments in the area of religion and philosophy are just as misplaced as Hawking's, but in the opposite direction (being too supportive of religion instead of being too antagonistic towards it, like Hawking's).

As I said, there was a point when I got the feeling something was wrong. It seems that I can now pick out people with a religious bias even when they are good scientists in their professional life. Actually it's not that hard. All I have to do is wait for the telltale signs of comments concerning "there are things we will never know". Actually, that's not totally fair because I think many non-religious people believe that too. For example, I think we might never understand this question: why is there something rather than nothing?

No one can even begin to answer that question. Even religious people who resort to using god as an explanation only push the subject back one step because they can't explain why that god exists rather than no god, which is really the same problem that the existence of the god was designed to answer.

But the difference is more about being deliberately negative or pessimistic to emphasise the idea that there might be mysteries we will never solve. For example, Stannard rejects the idea that computers can be used to answer these big questions. He suggests computers can only do what we can already do but faster. He completely ignores several possible ideas: something which is sufficiently fast will seem like it has entirely new capabilities, or when computers get smart enough they might be able to design a new type of computer, or as computers get bigger and faster they might develop emergent capabilities that we never expected.

Anther example is the claim (which I often hear) that some theories, such as multiverse theories and string and M theories, cannot be tested. According to some theorists I have heard from this is not true. For example, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, has said there are ways of testing string theory, although I must admit I can't remember exactly what he suggested.

Of course being unrealistically positive is almost as bad and Hawking could possibly be put in that category. According to Stannard (and I haven't confirmed this) Hawking claims that science can eventually answer all questions. I don't think that is necessarily true. Maybe it might be able to answer all specific and well defined questions about the physical universe but the "ultimate question" I mentioned above (why is there something rather than nothing - which seems like a reasonable question) and a few others might never be answered.

So in summary, it would be interesting to hear some genuine and impartial thoughts on these deep and philosophical questions but people with flawed philosophical approaches like Stannard and Collins will never be able to do that.


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