I was recording a couple of interviews for NPR the other day, one on the hand and evolution, the other on mysterianism, and they asked me to do a short piece on an “outrageous idea”. I chose to speak about my opposition to laughter: I propose that it be banned. It is like the shrieking of children, an indecorous and annoying habit best avoided. All that sniggering and giggling and howling–so uncivilized. I’m all in favor of humor and amusement, and I even approve of smiling, but laughing is just so much inarticulate noise. I would like to put up notices saying “No public cachinnation!” Laughter has no part in the properly humorous life. This will go out on public radio in due course and I expect to see a steep drop in incidents of laughter across the nation.
Every weekday night I watch Jeopardy, which I think is a beacon of civilization in a corrupt world. Tonight was the final of the tournament of champions, won by Alex Jacob against two very strong contestants. The final question was about the the death of a a nineteenth century philosopher, which I did not get (nor did the winner). What is amazing to me is that this show has been on the air for decades and still commands a large audience. All is not lost!
I just spent the weekend in New York, mainly to attend the memorial service for Oliver Sacks at the New York Academy of Medicine. There were hundreds of guests, with music, speeches, and film of Oliver. I have been to quite a few memorial services but this one was particularly memorable. He was so unusual, so beyond the norm, that it is impossible to convey his presence without actually interacting with him, or at least seeing him on film. The way he fondled a piece of metal, his gentle enunciation, his shy warmth, his simmering humor–no one quite like him. We had been good friends for many years, and his fundamental decency always impressed me–also the size of his appetite. My only reservation about the service was that some people couldn’t contain the urge to clap, though it was at least subdued. Afterwards the warmth and good feeling in the room were palpable.
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.