A Theory of Everything

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?


30 responses to “A Theory of Everything”

  1. Rick Padua says:

    Is it an assumption here that such a unifying construct might exist a priori?

  2. Rick Padua says:

    In order to qualify as a ToE wouldn’t a candidate theory need to enlighten us in respect of the Hard Problem?

    • Rick Padua says:

      Also computer science has a looser, less classical and Kantian definition of “a priori” which in fact is sort of X-Filesish: the truth is out there. There may “exist” an undiscovered algorithm for this or that, but it’s never been in the mind of Thales or Galileo or any other sentient individual. It might be discovered someday, however, even discovered by pure chance. You’re necessarily right to specify “empirical” although distinguishing between empirical and verificationist might get tricky.

    • Indeed, and everything else.

      • My question can be put in terms of a scope distinction: not “is everything such that there is a theory for it?” but “is there a theory such that it applies to everything?”

        • Rick Padua says:

          I dig that. But if anything specific has no complete theory applicable to it, whether local or global, then, since it’s a unit of everything, no ToE exists (at least not as of the moment in question).

          In line with the above you have to wonder what mathematical and epistemic description(s) should be acceptable in a ToE. There are processes (my fave: protein folding) that can’t be modeled or mathematized in an algorithmic (causal) sense but which are frequently limned statistically to productive effect. Following from that there are pharmaceuticals that obviously work well enough but whose nitty-gritty causality is truthfully not all that well understood and possibly won’t ever be. Sometimes it all goes wrong and people end up calling lawyers. I say a ToE would need to perform a great deal better than that. We should demand a blueprint of reality including a complete causality and total connectivity between the elements. Between drug trials and irreducible randomness and gastroenterology and supernovae. But I suspect we don’t know where to begin putting pencil to paper.

          • I think everything has a true theory associated with it, knowable or not. But I think there can be no theory applicable to everything because theories depend on contrasts between types of things, e.g. living things as opposed to non-living things.

          • Rick Padua says:

            Ah! Today is George Boole’s 200th birthday, which jogged my memory. His Conditions of Possible Experience — plausibly a theory, and conveniently one with succinct mathematical-logical expression — apply or applies to all existents so long as they’re corralled into defined sets, although most often with only trivial consequences (except when the theory’s formulated for and applied to quantum mechanics, when violations arguably occur). Any sets of organized symbols or three-dimensional physical objects or virtual simulations can be analyzed with this (n = quantity of; the parenthesized stuff comprises the objects; and A, B and C are specific characteristics or parameters):

            n(A, B-NOT) + n(B, C-NOT) is greater than or equal to n(A, C-NOT)

            It’s absolutely inviolable under ordinary human circumstances.

          • But is it empirical?

          • Rick Padua says:

            Sure. You can prove it experimentally. For example you can have an enclosed lot with parked vehicles and dogs hanging around and use the vehicles and dogs as your experimental set. Select parameters readily determinable in the case of both kinds of objects (cars generally don’t have gender) … Gray or not, furry or not, heavier than a ton or not, whatever. Vehicles and dogs shouldn’t be able to enter or exit the lot during the experiment of course.

          • It sounds like math, and that applies to everything–but not an explanatory empirical theory.

          • Rick Padua says:

            Its real interest is that it’s unique in connecting formal logic (which is what it is) immediately to the physical world, and that makes it of considerable interest to the embodied cognition school. It’s no longer possible to claim that logic is a pure abstraction: logic is the evolutionary product of mind’s experience in the terrestrial environment from the time when animal life was single-celled and microscopic and navigating its way through rip-currents of molecular Brownian motion. That’s vaguely cool.

          • I think logic is about objects and properties, so quite independent of life and mind. But that’s a big issue.

  3. Paul Naarmann says:

    I’ve come across a book written by Benedikt Goecke, called ‘a theory of the absolute’. Quite interesting, although it does not cover stuff like biology. It seems to me that the purpose of German idealism was to establish a theory of everything.

    • Yes, like British idealism or materialism: a single theory that is supposed to apply to everything. But notice that these are not empirical scientific theories–they are philosophical theories. So they don’t count.

  4. Michael says:

    That sounds like David Chalmers’ project in Constructing the World. Have you had a look at it by any chance? If so, what are your thoughts?

  5. Gordon says:

    I’m not quite sure I understand why it needs to be an empirical scientific theory. Why not a philosophical theory?

    • Because that’s my question: whether there can be a theory that explains everything, as a scientific theory explains some things. Some people appear to think that there can be a theory of everything–as in an integration of quantum theory and relativity. It isn’t difficult to to come up with monistic philosophical theories. But how can we integrate physics with biology, say? Let alone psychology. Laws, explanations, causes.

      • Gordon says:

        Perhaps I’m still somewhat confused. Do you ask the question because empirical scientific theories are supposed to have more explanatory power than philosophical theories, and hence more appealing? Because couldn’t something like materialism or idealism integrate physics with biology?

        • We don’t think materialism would integrate relativity and quantum theory–not in the way physicists want to integrate them. The question is simply whether all scientific knowledge could be integrated into a single scientific theory.

      • Gordon says:

        Furthermore, are there not particular domains for which there could be no empirical theory? (Aesthetics?) Am I simply mistaken about this?

        • We can eliminate the normative from our considerations.

          • Gordon says:

            Well, if you give up on trying to include the normative in your theory of everything because you concede that there can be no empirical theory for it, you have one answer for why there can’t be such a theory.

          • But there can’t be a theory covering all the non-normative either. My point was to pour cold water on the idea of “theory of everything” which is commonly bruited about.

          • Gordon says:

            I see. Also your 11/6 blog entry helps me understand what you’re saying a little more. But a theory that covers all of the non-normative would *not* fail to provide the contrast integral to theories. In principle, there could be a theory of the non-normative of the form: Non-normative things work like this, unlike normative things.

          • Except that the contrast concerns how one thing works in contrast with another (the normative doesn’t “work” at all).

          • Gordon says:

            Not sure what you mean by that, I’m sorry. It seems to me that the normative does work.

            I wonder if what you mean is that the contrast must be between an X and Y that can both be explained by an empirical theory (and since the normative falls outside the scope empirical theories, it wouldn’t qualify as a Y.)

            But perhaps this discussion has gone on longer than you would have liked. If so, please don’t feel obligated to respond. No offense will be taken.

          • I mean the normative is not about laws and causes and why what happens happens.

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