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John Horgan on the Madness of “Scientific Omniscience”

Photo: Steven Weinberg (third from left) with Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, by Croes, Rob C. / Anefo, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL , via Wikimedia Commons.

I only saw physics Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg in person once — at Baylor University, in April 2000, at the big conference on “The Nature of Nature” organized by Bill Dembski and Bruce Gordon before the Polanyi Center ran into problems. Weinberg (third from left in the photo above) had the supreme self-confidence of a scientific Alpha Male, leaning on the speaker’s lectern from the side and dismissing design with ill-concealed contempt, except when he got onto the topic of the mysterious value of the cosmological constant. Then he paced the stage from one end to the other, not looking at the audience, muttering to himself and staring at his feet. The cosmological constant definitely bothered him.

Puzzles and Mysteries

Nonetheless, as science writer John Horgan explains in an article, Weinberg was one of the leading promoters of a “final theory” — the bedrock scientific account which would once and for all drive away all the remaining puzzles and mysteries. From, “The Delusion of Scientific Omniscience”:

Does anyone still think science can explain, well, everything? This belief was ascendant in the 1980s, when my career began. Bigshot scientists proclaimed they were solving the riddle of existence. They would explain why our universe exists and takes the form it does, and why we exist and are what we are. …

Stephen Hawking was the most influential know-it-all. In his 1988 mega-bestseller A Brief History of Time, Hawking predicted that physicists would soon find an “ultimate theory” that would explain how our cosmos came into being. He compared this achievement to knowing “the mind of God.” This statement was ironic. Hawking, an atheist, wanted science to eliminate the need for a divine creator.

I suspect Hawking, who had a wicked sense of humor, was goofing when he riffed on the ultimate theory. The success of Brief History nonetheless inspired copycat books by physicists, including Theories of Everything by John Barrow (1991), The Mind of God by Paul Davies (1992) and Dreams of a Final Theory (1993) by Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg.

Weinberg, a deadly serious man, was definitely not kidding when he envisioned a final theory. He argued that with the help of a new “supercollider” in Texas (which ended up being canceled), physicists might soon “bring to an end a certain kind of science, the ancient search for those principles that cannot be explained in terms of deeper principles.” 

Like Hawking, Weinberg hoped the final theory would crush, once and for all, our superstitious faith in an all-powerful, beneficent deity. “It would be wonderful to find in the laws of nature a plan, prepared by a concerned creator in which human being played some special role,” Weinberg wrote. “I find sadness in doubting that they will.”

Physicists were not the only scientists bewitched by the dream of omniscience.

As examples of “bewitched” scientists, Horgan mentions Peter Atkins, Francis Crick, and Richard Dawkins. Of note, he writes: “As for life, Dawkins’s claim that it is no longer a mystery is absurd. We still don’t have a clue how life began, or whether it exists elsewhere in the cosmos. We don’t know whether our emergence was likely or a once-in-eternity fluke.” Horgan himself bought into the final theory idea, at least for a time. Now he regards the notion as a species of insanity.