THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION? (1): the end of science

In this post and the succeeding ones I wish to discuss Nader Elhefnawy’s new book THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION?, based on a very interesting article originally published online on TTA Press’ science fiction review web site, The Fix, in 2007. In this article, reproduced with only minor corrections and modifications in the book, Elhefnawy argues that

“the (highly qualified) end of science fiction… as a genre (at least the Anglophone branch of it) may not necessarily be upon us, but at the very least in sight”.

He considers five arguments in support of the “bleak” thesis of the end of science fiction. The first three concern the cultural conditions in which science fiction writers work:

1) the end of science
2) our changing expectations about the future
3) the internal dynamics of the genre of science fiction itself

These are all discussed in part one. He further adduces, in part two, two other arguments which deal with the business environment in which science fiction writers work.

1) THE END OF SCIENCE

Citing John Horgan’s book THE END OF SCIENCE Nader Elhefnawy admits to having mixed feelings about the book, not just about its central thesis and arguments, but also about its style and general attitude towards its subjects. Notwithstanding, he considers that

“there might be something to his core idea, namely that the foreseeable future of science includes little possibility of a scientific revolution as radical as the ones we’ve seen in the last century and a half: the theory of evolution, and the development of genetics as we have known it since the discovery of DNA; relativistic and quantum physics; the “Big Bang” theory”.

Elhefnawy advances the hypothesis of a relation between the epistemic stabilisation of science and the increasing lack of originality in science fiction:

“It seems only reasonable that an “end to science” like the one Horgan writes about would impact the speculative fiction written about it, especially the hard, extrapolative kind, by diminishing an important supply of fresh inspiration”.

This epistemic stability and diminishing originality can be seen in the stereotypy of much science fiction:

“Where tropes like time travel and multiple universes are concerned, science fiction is playing with a cosmology that’s now decades old, and looking it”.

Elhefnawy’s emphasis on “cosmology”, or even ontology, is very interesting, in that this perceptible cosmological deficit in much of recent science fiction may be indicating a sensitive point to be scrutinised for signs of continuing invention. For example, the cosmology of Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM is one of its most innovative features.

ANATHEM’s polar opposite, Andy Weir’s novel THE MARTIAN, is a very good illustration of the end of science fiction. THE MARTIAN both tells an enjoyable story and manages to be aesthetically pleasing, but the speculative cosmological dimension is absent.

THE MARTIAN provides us with a positive version of Tom Godwin’s classic short story THE COLD EQUATIONS, in that within the parameters of the problem situation we can become active subjects instead of remaining mere passive victims. Yet we remain passive bearers of capitalist neo-liberal subjectivity. We see much “solidarity” for Mark Watney, but none for the starving masses that reap no reward from the space missions, and none for the planet Earth’s climatic catastrophe.

I think that Elhefnawy’s analysis here is only partially true, and that insofar as it relies on Horgan’s thesis of the”end of science” it is based on a dubious vision of scientific truth as monistic, the ultimate convergence on a single, definitive theory of everything. Yet he is also onto something important.

Elhefnawy’s first argument for the end of science fiction is tied to John Horgan’s thesis of the “end of science”. Horgan’s thesis is itself rather complicated and finally incoherent. It is based on a monist model of science as involving the progressive convergence on a single true account of the World. Despite Horgan’s talk about Kuhnian paradigms, his argument is premised on basically a cumulative vision of discoveries and problem-solving that does not sufficiently take into account radical conceptual change (the speculative dimension of science). Horgan can only validate his thesis by dismissing bold speculative conjectures (such as multiverse theory) as un-empirical, or untestable in principle, when their testing is merely very difficult to implement.

Horgan’s vision of science as problem-solving is very much like that implicit in THE MARTIAN, in that he envisions a finite list of pre-existent problems that only have to be checked off as they are progressively solved. He ignores or depreciates the speculative playing with concepts and equations that can generate new perspectives. For Horgan, the more speculative the physics is the less it is scientific.

Yet Einstein’s Relativity began as just such speculative tinkering, and took many years before receiving empirical confirmation (the Eddington expedition was a bit of a fudge). Galileo was an experimentalist, whereas Einstein was not (he even ironised over those who were preoccupied with the verification “little effects”, instead of being influenced by the beauty of theory). Galileo’s approach was much more speculative than is commonly realised, but he did a lot to hide this speculative component.

Horgan’s argument seems to engage much more with a common ideology of science, promulgated also by scientists themselves, than with the practice of science in its full range from experimental to speculative. He combines an inductivist cumulative vision of progressive discovery of the truths about the world with a Kuhnian vision of overarching paradigms. Both of these views are erroneous, and combining them together does not make them any better.

The inductive vision ignores the speculative creation of problems and the conceptual reorganisations involved in scientific progress. The Kuhnian view of unitary paradigm followed by revolution followed by a new paradigm, etc, ignores the fact that there are multiple rival paradigms competing for favour at any one moment. Both visions fall foul of the actually existing “disunity of science” by projecting and reasoning in terms of an idealisation, treating science and its progress as far more homogeneous than it actually is.

Imre Lakatos’s approach in terms of science as always involving the competition between multiple research programmes provides a good way to see the limitations of Horgan’s arguments. (Note: the premises of Lakatos’s views can be found in Popper’s ideas on “metaphysical research programmes”). Horgan remains a positivist in that he seems to think that the turn to metaphysical speculation in science is a recent phenomenon and that it constitutes a sign of exhaustion.

Popper, Lakatos, and Feyerabend show that the speculative metaphysical component has always been present in science, and that it is not a bad thing but rather is essential to its functioning. They argue on both abstract grounds and in terms of concrete examples from the history of science that sometimes increased accuracy in our knowledge about the world can only be obtained by a speculative leap or paradigm change.

This idea of the end of science figures in Stephenson’s ANATHEM as the doctrine of Saint Lori:

Lorite: A member of an Order founded by Saunt Lora, who believed that all of the ideas that the human mind was capable of coming up with, had already been come up with.

In the novel this idea is regarded as just one hypothesis amongst many, having heuristic value for the efforts it encourages to verify or to refute it. Strictly, it also implies the end of mathematics and the end of philosophy.

Cosmologically, Horgan’s thesis of the end of science could be realised in a finite cosmos, but whether our cosmos is in fact finite or not is an empirical question, not to be answered by naive inductive argument extrapolating from a very limited sample over a short span of time. Horgan gives us no reason to believe that we are living in a finite cosmos, and seems unaware that he is making an empirical, scientific claim.

The discovery that the cosmos has only a finite number of explanatory levels and that we have exhausted them in principle, leaving only details to be discovered, would itself be a major scientific finding (and a very hotly disputed one).

Further, even in an ontologically finite cosmos, Horgan would have to show that it is both epistemically and hermeneutically constrained. That is to say, he would have to show that there exists not only a vertical limit to explanatory depth, a final causal level, but also a horizontal limit to hermeneutic diversity of interpretation.

Horgan’s argument is historicist in the worst sense, that of predictive historicism. It consists in extrapolating the future from a narrowly selected and one-sidedly interpreted scientific past. This strand of Elhefnawy’s argument, concerning the evolution and the possible end of pure science, is thus very weak, and he seems not to accord it much importance.

A counter-example would be the proposed reorganisation of the sciences and humanities around, “geo-history” advocated by Bruno Latour. This would amount to a major revolution in the very categorisation of scientific thought, inducing a major conceptual change without following the scientistic model of modern physics and its pursuit of ever deeper explanatory levels.

This reorganisation would give primacy to an immanent planetary perspective rather than one based on the search for ever more fundamental consttituents and laws. It would lead to the creation of a different sort of science fiction, making the genre less preoccupied by physics and transcendence. An interesting recent example of this perspective can be seen in Kim Stanley Robinson’s AURORA, which contains an explicit critique of such dreams of transcendence.

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2 thoughts on “THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION? (1): the end of science

  1. Again, thanks for noting my article, which you describe quite accurately here. (Thank you for that too.)

    The relationship between epistemic stability and diminishing originality (particularly where it came to cosmology) was a major concern of the piece, one that still seems to me an issue. (This is despite interesting exceptions, like Anathem.)

    Additionally, I have become less satisfied with Horgan’s argument, for a number of reasons, some of which you point to–among them its lack of concern for its own historicity, and the problem of the universe’s finiteness or lack thereof. There are, too, the practical conditions under which scientists work, which seem to me to have been deeply inimical to Big Discoveries–like underemployment among research workers.

    The result is that on rethinking the matter more recently I have been more doubtful about his case. In other words, I still think we’re in a “slow phase,” but that this is a very different thing from an “end to science” (even if the problems for science fiction are much the same). And when I released this year’s edition of After the New Wave, I did indeed abandon it to concentrate on other aspects of the genre’s development.

    As to philo-fiction becoming a successor genre: that depends on where one draws the line between philosophy and science; and therefore between science fiction and fiction which roots speculative possibility in ideas we think of as philosophical rather than as science in the contemporary sense of the term. Personally, I’m inclined to see philosophy in broad enough terms to conceive of philo-fiction as a subset of science fiction. Of course, subsets do sometimes bloom into genres of their own, as alternate history did, and I wouldn’t rule that out. (I think the big deciding factor would be if we saw a broadening and deepening of popular interest in philosophy as a way of approaching the world.)

    Again, thanks for giving me the chance to revisit these matters, and for introducing me to this blog, which I will be following with interest (and not just for your posts on my article, much as I’m looking forward to that).

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  2. I’m not sure I agree with your critique of Kuhn. Still, even taking a Kuhnian view and applying it simplistically to the current situation in science, one would have to recognize that there are anomalies (the still unreconciled quantum mechanics and general relativity in fundamental physics, for instance) in a number of disciplines and field, so that I’m not sure how affirmatively we can exclude future scientific revolutions in some fields.

    The much harder and much more speculative question is whether new paradigms to come would have similar consequences on the economy and ultimately science fiction. The connection between new science, new technology, economic growth, and the dynamism of science fiction is perhaps as great a metaphysical assumption as any in this context.

    With respect to science fiction, I do believe the evolution of its popularity can be historicized in the context not only of economic growth but of science-driven productivity growth in the United States. (I discussed this a bit on my blog, for instance here : http://culturedesfuturs.blogspot.ca/2006/07/le-rsidu-inexpliqu.html , but also at one of the Peyresq meetings.) In the broader context, however, other factors may come into play, including economic redistribution and aspirations for a better future. Even absent economic betterment, it does seem clear that scientifically and technically interesting times can boost the writing of philosophically and scientifically speculative works. For the 18th century, see:
    http://resf.revues.org/419
    and
    http://culturedesfuturs.blogspot.ca/2013/09/cultures-solitaires.html

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