A theory of everything

by Neil Rickert

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am currently reading Thomas Nagel’s book, “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.” So I thought I would comment on a section of the book, as appropriate for today’s date.

Nagel leaves no doubt that he is troubled by reductive materialism.  I am not at all sure why.  It is my experience that most scientists are skeptical of reductionism.  And even those who claim to be materialist do not seem to as materialist as Nagel thinks they are.  As far as I can tell, the strongest statements of materialism and reductionism come from philosophers, not from scientists.  And when philosophers express a particularly strong view, one suspects that they are deliberately staking out an extreme position as a way of doing philosophy.

So here’s a statement from Nagel.  It comes from chapter 2, at page 20 of the book (I am reading the Kindle edition):

Everyone acknowledges that there are vast amounts we do not know, and that enormous opportunities for progress in understanding lie before us. But scientific naturalists claim to know what the form of that progress will be, and to know that mentalistic, teleological, or evaluative intelligibility in particular have been left behind for good as fundamental forms of understanding. It is assumed not only that the natural order is intelligible but that its intelligibility has a certain form, being found in the simplest and most unified physical laws, governing the simplest and fewest elements, from which all else follows. That is what scientific optimists mean by a theory of everything.

Notice Nagel’s mention of “a theory of everything” in the last sentence.

When I hear of physicists talking about a theory of everything, I assume that is part of an inside joke.  I find it difficult to imagine that any credible physicist really expects there to ever be an actual theory of everything.  From what Nagel writes, it does seem that he takes such talk as serious.

Perhaps the joke is on me.  Perhaps the physicists really are serious in their talk of a ToE.  But, for now, I shall continue to doubt that.

My own theory of everything

As it happens, I do have my own theory of everything.  It predicts that there never will be a theory of everything.


2 Comments to “A theory of everything”

  1. Even if there were a theory of everything, it might not account for initial conditions, which would be crucial to prediction. And if the theory of everything includes a component that is inherently unpredictable, with true randomness, then predictability goes out the window entirely. I wonder if Nagel understands that.


  2. As far as sociology, psychology, biology, chemistry, etc. go, having a “theory of everything” won’t change anything. We already know the relevant physics that underlies all these fields.

    All a ToE will give us is a single unified theory that accounts for gravity (general relativity) and particle physics (the standard model).

    But obviously knowing the physical dynamics isn’t much help in curing cancer, finding world peace, or what have you. There are lots of different physical processes compatible with fundamental physics. A ToE isnt going to tell you how to figure which of these processes are actual.


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