This is a copy of a post to the in response to an article by John Horgan in Discover Magazine of September 2006, which challenges the accepted wisdom that human knowledge can expand forever without limit are included below. To the contrary, the article and the post argue that we stand to lose most of the knowledge we have gained over the past few centuries as our society very likely collapses due to the destruction of our natural capital caused by our industrial system.
I don't entirely accept its pessimism. I think that there is a chance that its most grim predictions can be avoided if we can begin to change the direction of our society soon. A necessary first step would be to challenge the predominant ideology of neo-liberalism which has been the rationale for handing across so much power from elected governments to unelected corporations in recent decades, the most striking and disastrous example being the
The latest issue of Discover Magazine contains a very important article by John Horgan's titled, "The Final Frontier: Are we nearing the limits of knowledge? A new investigation seeks the truth behind an old scientific taboo":
Though the article's subject matter generates a lot of heated argument from scientists, John Horgan is merely stating the obvious: Humans are not omniscient, therefore science is limited.
What John Horgan has noticed is diminishing marginal returns for scientific research. The most dramatic example of science's diminishing returns, notmentioned in the article, is seen in NASA's degeneration following the monumental accomplishment of the Apollo project. Technological optimists really did believe that walking on the moon was merely a stepping stone to bigger andbetter things: A lunar base, colonization of Mars and exploration of space. Since Apollo, however, NASA has remained stuck in Earth orbit, and it has done so very poorly with an obsolete and deadly Space Shuttle technology.
There's a distinct possibility that the Peak Human Space Flight occurred back inthe 1970's.
Why is science experiencing diminishing marginal returns? In the article, David Lee or Cornell University is quoted, "Fundamental discoveries are becoming more and more expensive and more difficult to achieve." In other words, human scientific efforts have already obtained nearly all of the cheap and easy knowledge, most of the expensive and difficult knowledge, and is now encountering the prohibitively expensive and hence impossible knowledge.
But the most important observation in the article:
"The 'that's what they thought then' response implies that because science advances rapidly over the past century or so, it must continue to do so, possibly forever. This is faulty inductive reasoning. A broader view of history suggests that the modern era of explosive progress is an anomaly -- the product of a unique convergence of social, economic, and political factors -- that must eventually end. Relativity theory prohibits travel or communication faster thanlight. Quantum mechanics and chaos theory constrain the precision with which we can make predictions. Evolutionary biology reminds us that we are animals, shaped by natural selection not for discovering deep truths of nature but breeding."
Any thinking person should recognize that limits exist. The general public, however, has been fed a steady diet of science-fiction optimistic misconceptions. People really do believe that humans have an infinite capacity to increase knowledge and technology, and also that technological solutions will always materialize just-in-time (seconds before disaster during a television program's climax).
A further illustration of the limits of science:
"The greatest barrier to future progress in science is its past success. Scientific resembles the exploration of the Earth. The more we know about our planet, the less there is to explore. We have mapped out all the continents, oceans, mountain ranges, and rivers. Every now and then we stumble upon a new species of lemur in an obscure jungle or an exotic bacterium in a deep-sea vent, but at this point we are unlikely to discover something truly astonishing, like dinosaurs dwelling in a secluded cavern. In the same way, scientists are unlikely to discover anything surpassing the Big Bang, quantum mechanics, relativity, natural selection, or genetics."
Which is to say: The great era of human exploration is nearing its end. We've explored the entire Earth and filled in every tiny hole of the world's map, and we've explored the Universe intellectually and have filled in almost all of the knowledge which is available to humans by our scientific efforts. In previous generations, the next logical step in exploration involved leaving the Earth and colonizing space, but the harsh reality is that space is not compatible with human life. We're stuck on the Earth and quickly exhausting the Universe's supply of human knowledge.
Which brings up an important question: What happens when human intellectual growth ends? I suppose that humans will begin to forget what we knew, a process which likely has already begun. For example, there's a tremendous amount of information on the Internet, but all of this knowledge is transient and once it is lost, it is often lost forever.
John Horgan is an optimist. He explains his idealistic dream at the end:
"Most exciting to me, scientists might help to find a solution to our most pressing problem, warfare. Many people today view warfare and militarism as inevitable outgrowths of human nature. My hope is that scientists will reject fatalism and help us see warfare as a complex but solvable problem, like AIDS or global warming. War research -- perhaps it should be called peace research -- would seek a way to avoid conflict. The long-term goal would be to explore how humanity can make the transition to permanent disarmament: the elimination of armies and the weapons they use. What could be a grander goal? "In the lastcentury, scientists split the atom, cracked the genetic code, landed space craft on the moon and Mars. I have faith -- yes, that word again -- that scientists could help solve the problem of war. The only question is how, and how soon. Now that would be an ending worth celebrating."
In response, all I can say is: It's about damn time!
After spending the last ten thousand years providing humans with the knowledge and technology necessary to kill each other at an ever-escalating rate which reached its peak with Mutually Assured Destruction threatening to drive the species to nuclear extinction, will scientists now bring peace to humankind?
Scientists are intelligent people, how is it possible that they have failed to notice that humans were busy killing each other? Scientists knew, of course, and they were eager to assist the process. The technology of warfare was not gained by Divine inspiration, the great intellects of humankind have devoted their minds to inventing tools of violence. None of the weapons of mass destruction would exist except by scientific research specifically directed for that purpose, the most famous example of which was the horrendously successful Manhattan Project.
Scientists are still busy today inventing the military's technological toys. These scientists are well aware of the goals of their research. They have become wealthy by virtue of killing plenty of humans. Those cluster bombs are deadly effective because scientists have made them so.
So John Horgan would have science bring peace to the world. This is a futile dream. Human violence is a byproduct of human nature, and therefore beyond the reach of science or any of the other tools of human intellect (philosophy, ethics, religion, etc). Science cannot purge violence from Homo Sapiens any more than science could change the sky from blue to pink.
Humankind's future is not one of glorious ascent from the Earth to the stars. No, humankind has a dismal future of descent from space travel to the depleted, polluted dirt which will fail to feed nine billion+ people and thereby bring about a catastrophe much worse then the Apocalypse. There's lots of suffering coming but no glory. Over the next several centuries humans will forget much of what we have learned and lose nearly all of the technologies made possible throughout the cheap, abundant fossil energy period.
Was it worth it? That's what I would like to know. Did we destroy the Earth and our own future for a worthwhile cause? At this point in which life is so easy(for the prosperous people of the world) it all might seem worth it, butbillions are allowed to suffer. In the future, prosperity will come to an end and the formerly prosperous people will suffer like everyone else. At that point,I suppose, people will begin to realize that we humans are fools, and that wehave doomed our species to Hell on Earth by destroying so much for so little.
Our gains are transient, our losses will endure. A day will come in which humans will really need to have healthy ecosystems to provide their food supplies, but they will find that previous generations have so destroyed the environment that their ecosystem cannot possibly sustain humans. What will they think of us, then?
They are going to hate us. We will represent a physical manifestation of Satan to them. And for good reason, the price of our technological "heaven" will bepaid in their living Hell.
We have destroyed humankind's future and driven our species to the brink of extinction. Human footprints on the moon won't mean much when there are no longer any human footprints on the Earth.