I was watching the season premier of “Getting On”, an excellent tragicomedy on HBO about dying old ladies in a hospital. It featured a professor explaining medical ethics: he said he was about to discuss “utilitarianism versus consequentialism”. It’s nice to see philosophical ethics being mentioned, but is it really necessary to make an elementary error in doing so? Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism.
A Theory of Everything
Can there be a theory of everything? A typical theory is a theory of some things and not others, even when it is very general. The theory of evolution is a theory of living things; it is not a theory of non-living things. Some things evolve and some do not: hence we need a theory of non-evolution as well as a theory of evolution. Even theories of physics are not theories of everything: the two theories of relativity, special and general, are theories of the motion of material things, but they are not theories of the inner workings of the atom. Even if we could reconcile and combine quantum theory and relativity theory into one theory (“the theory of everything”), we would still not have a theory of absolutely everything: we would not have a theory of the mind or even a theory of life, still less a theory of justice or metaphysical necessity.
A theory tells us the nature of a particular class of things, and that involves distinguishing that class from other classes of things—the things to which it does not apply. It is in the nature of a theory that it applies to a limited domain, because a theory tells us what is distinctive of certain entities—living entities, physical entities, psychological entities, ethical entities, mathematical entities. There cannot be a theory of everything because a theory of everything wouldn’t be a theory of anything: it wouldn’t do the job of a theory. It would just be a list or a bland description or a conjunction of more specific theories. It would fail to provide the contrast that is integral to a theory. The form of a theory is: X works like this, unlike Y. Darwin’s theory tells us how living things work, unlike living things. Einstein’s theory tells us how (certain!) material objects work, unlike mental things. We need a different theory for the contrast class.
You might say that some philosophical theories are theories of everything, say idealism or materialism. Such theories say that everything is mental or everything is physical. There are difficulties in interpreting the content of such assertions (what is meant by “mental” and “material”?), and it often turns out that the theory is not really offered as a theory of absolutely everything—including mathematical entities, possibilia, the non-existent. But what is notable is that such (ostensibly) perfectly general theories are not empirical theories—they are philosophical theories. What is impossible is the notion of an empirical theory of everything—a theory like Darwin’s or Einstein’s but applicable to the whole of reality. We certainly have nothing of this kind, and a physicist’s “theory of everything” would not be such a theory; moreover, there seem to be principled reasons why the idea is empty. We have the phrase “a theory of everything”, but it doesn’t denote anything. It is not therefore something to which we should aspire.
Here’s a question I’d like to see discussed: Can there be a theory of everything? I don’t just mean it in the physicist’s sense, where it concerns unifying quantum theory and relativity. I mean a single theory of the physical world, the biological world, the psychological world, and whatever other worlds you might think exist (mathematical, ethical, esthetic, social, and so on). Could all these domains be brought under a unitary empirical theory? The idea sounds very dubious to me. But why exactly?
I went to see the film The Martian yesterday. I think it is the best film I’ve seen as a film about science. It actually is about science: the hero is a botanist who saves himself not with guns but with botanical knowledge, and he escapes Mars by means of a piece of mathematical reasoning (plus some technology). My only misgiving about the film was the overly frequent use of the word “shit”: not because Watney uses his own to grow potatoes on Mars, but because the word is clearly intended to make the science audience-friendly. This was not necessary and detracts from the ethos of the film. It is perfectly possible to be a “cool dude”, if that’s what you want to be, and not say “shit” all the time. Anyway, the science glowed like the sun on Mars’s horizon.
I see my book Inborn Knowledge: The Mystery Within is now advertised on Amazon, as well as the MIT Press website, publication date December 18. I first wrote about the topic as a postgraduate in psychology in 1972 as my MA thesis, but have published nothing on it up till now. It seems to have taken me forty years to sort out my thoughts. I discuss it very much as a philosophical topic rather than one of empirical psychology, though the two are obviously connected. It’s a fascinating subject.
Dawkins likes to think of the genes as getting together to build a survival machine, i.e. the animal body, which acts as their vehicle and protection. A good metaphor for this would be the way humans get together to build a fortified city to enable them to ward off attacks and generally survive against the elements. The city needs walls to defend its citizens and it needs weapons to ward off attack. The body is the gene’s moat, high wall, cannon, etc. And just as no gene could construct such a thing alone, requiring the cooperation of many genes, though each is inherently selfish, so no individual human being could build the right sort of fortified city, and so needs to cooperate with other selfish individuals. The genes make a social contract and then proceed together to defend and arm themselves. Thus “The Citizen Gene”.
I have an idea for a better way to present papers, which I intend to follow myself. Instead of the usual one hour paper followed by a one hour discussion, present two short papers each of which is followed by a shorter discussion period. Thus in the first hour present paper 1 for half an hour or less and then allow half an hour or so for discussion; then in the second hour present paper 2 following the same format. This will make it easier for the audience to listen and punctuate the proceedings with discussion earlier on. It also allows for a wider coverage of topics so that more people will find something to be interested in. I like this idea in part because I have been experimenting with composing short pithy philosophy papers instead of the usual longwinded efforts. One could also go further and present three or four very short papers in the usual couple of hours.
I’ve been reading a lot of Dawkins lately. Here’s an idea for a new paper: “Arms Races Between Extended Selfish Cooperative Memes”. Memes get together in the battle of ideas using extensions of the mind to do so. You just have to put the theoretical pieces together. I invite someone else to write the paper.