The End of Discovery

A review of The End of Discovery by Rob Mason

We have been born into a world where science progresses.

It is generally thought that science, by its very nature, must always progress. But this is not so. One day, fundamental science will come to an end. Not when we have discovered everything, but when we have discovered whatever is open to us to understand - which is not the same thing. Limitations as to what the human brain can comprehend, together with practical considerations to do with the need for ever more elaborate and expensive equipment, are likely to ensure that our knowledge will remain for ever incomplete. A further indication that the world will ultimately retain some of its mystery is suggested by evidence that in certain directions, scientific enquiry might already have come up against the boundaries of the knowable. Author and broadcaster Russell Stannard, himself a high-energy physicist and former Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the Open University, introduces the general reader to the deepest questions facing us today - questions to do with consciousness, free will, the nature of space, time, and matter, the existence of extraterrestrial life, and why there should be a world at all. In doing so, he speculates as to whether some of these questions will never be answered.

"Now for those seeking a cause for the Big Bang this raises a problem – an insuperable problem.   Cause is followed by effect. Boy throws a stone -cause: followed by window breaks – effect. The effect in this case we are considering is the big bang. So, the cause of it must have existed beforehand. But where the Big Bang is concerned, there is no beforehand.  Accordingly, it is not that the singularity we came across prevents us extrapolating through the instant of the Big Bang to what happened earlier. And for that reason, we shall never know the answer to the question “What caused the Big Bang?” The problem appears to go deeper – much deeper.  The question itself certainly has no meaning.  It sounds a perfectly fair question.  But it is not.
So much for the search into the origins of the universe – the mechanics of how the universe came into being. But there is a yet more profound question – one that has taxed the minds of philosophers and theologians for the past three or four thousand years: Why is there a world at all.
If nothing existed, or had ever existed, would that call for an explanation? No. Why should anything exist? But as soon as something exists – a universe then the questions begin. What is responsible for it being in existence? Why is it this kind universe rather than some other? After all, we can all dream up alternative universes.  But these other universes do not exist: they remain imaginary. So, why is this one an exception? Once in existence does it take some kind of agency to keep it continuously in existence? Does it make sense to think in terms of a ground of all being’, as the theologian Paul Tillich put it? Or are such questions meaningless? One thing seems fairly certain science has nothing to say on the subject.  Science takes the existence of the world as a given." It is soley concerned with exploring the nature of the world it confronts. Any enquires as to why there is something to examine in the first place is simply beyond its remit.  Whether this is the point at which other types of thinking - philosophical or religious- take over becomes an open question.

The theory of evolution by natural selection shows that the human body has evolved overtime from more primitive ancestors, and they in turn had evolved from inanimate chemicals – the so called primordial soup.  It all happened of its own accord, it required no conscious thought or goal-orientated planning. It was the result of natural causes. It came about as a result of what is sometimes called the self-ordering nature of matter. This is the ability of the constituents of matter to come together and of their own accord, produce structures, having a wide variety of shapes and properties. Take, for example, the simple case of hydrogen and oxygen.  Together they form a highly flammable mixture, but two atoms of hydrogen when combined with one atom of oxygen produce water-a liquid used for putting out fires.  Or take the case of common salt -sodium chloride.  It results from combining an explosive metal to a poisonous gas.