The Delusion of Scientific Omniscience

As time passes, the claim that science can comprehend everything looks increasingly nutty

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

For years I believed this claim, out of deference to scientists propagating it and desire to believe. The vision of a revelation to end all revelations thrilled me. Eventually I had doubts, which I spelled out in The End of Science

and other writings. Lately, I’ve begun to look at the vision of total knowledge as a laughable delusion, a pathological fantasy that should never have been taken seriously, even though brilliant scientists propagated it.

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’ve often suspected that Hawking, who had a wicked sense of humor, was goofing when he talked about an “ultimate theory.” The success of Brief History nonetheless inspired lots of similar 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 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 that 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. “I take the position that there is nothing that cannot be understood,” Peter Atkins, a religion-bashing British chemist, stated in his 1981 book The Creation . “Fundamental science may almost be at an end and might be completed within a generation.” He added, “Complete knowledge is just within our grasp. Comprehension is moving across the face of the Earth, like the sunrise.”

Then there was biologist Richard Dawkins, who declared in his 1986 bestseller The Blind Watchmaker that the mystery of life had already been solved. Our existence “once presented the greatest of mysteries,” Dawkins wrote, but “it is a mystery no longer, because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it, though we shall continue to add footnotes to their solution for a while yet.”

One of those “footnotes” concerns the problem of consciousness. In the late 1980s Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helix (and another hard-core atheist), proposed that consciousness, the subject of interminable philosophical speculation, might be scientifically tractable. Science could “solve” consciousness by finding its “neural correlates,” processes in the brain that correspond to conscious states.

In his 1994 book The Astonishing Hypothesis , Crick declared that “’you,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of neurons.” That statement might have been the high water mark of scientism and its corollaries, materialism and reductionism.

Meanwhile, researchers were claiming that advances in computers and mathematics were illuminating chaotic and complex phenomena that had resisted traditional scientific analysis. These scientists, whom I like to call chaoplexologists , were finding common principles underpinning brains, immune systems, ecologies and nation-states. Economics and other social sciences would soon become as rigorous as chemistry and nuclear physics. Supposedly.

To be charitable, all this hubris wasn’t entirely unjustified. After all, in the 1960s physicists confirmed the big bang theory and took steps toward a unified theory of all of nature’s forces, while biologists deciphered the genetic code. You can see how these and other successes, as well as advances in computers and other tools, might have persuaded optimists that total scientific knowledge was imminent.

But the concept of scientific omniscience always suffered from fatal flaws. Read Brief History and other books carefully and you realize that the quest for an ultimate theory had taken physicists beyond the realm of experiment. String theory and other major candidates for an ultimate theory of physics can be neither experimentally confirmed nor falsified. They are untestable and hence not really scientific.