Saturday, February 12, 2011

The (Elusive) Theory of Everything

     In the October 2010 issue of Scientific American, theoretical physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow suggest that the search of a theory that would unify physics, a search that has captivated physicists since Einstein published his first paper on relativity, might actually be in vain (keep in mind that, in science, "theory" refers to a law, something that is always true; ideas that might be true and can be tested, popularly called theories, are actually hypotheses). Why? Because every scientific theory involves its own model of reality and it may not be possible to unify all models of reality. And the point is . . . ? The search for a unified theory is the search for a single model that explains how everything works; that is, that explains every process at work in the physical universe. Here's how the article frames the issue:

     "A few years ago the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved fishbowls. The sponsors of the measure explained that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl because the curved sides give the fish a distorted view of reality. Aside from the measure's significance to the poor goldfish, the story raises an interesting philosophical question: How do we know that the reality we perceive is true? The goldfish is seeing a version of reality that is different from ours, but can we be sure that it is any less real? For all we know, we, too, may spend our entire lives staring out at the world through a distorting lens.
     In physics, the question is not academic. Indeed, physicists and cosmologists are finding themselves in a similar predicament to the goldfish's. For decades we have strived to come up with an ultimate theory of everything--one complete and consistent set of fundamental laws of nature that explain every aspect of reality. It now appears that this quest may yield not a single theory but a family of interconnected theories, each describing its own version of reality, as if it viewed the universe through its own fishbowl." *

     Hawking and Mlodinow then proceed through a brief history of the problem, discussing realism and antirealism (the latter coming, interestingly, from the 1960s), and the conundrums presented by classical and quantum physics. Not being a physicist and not wanting to butcher the thoughts of these remarkably bright men, I refer the reader to the article itself for the particulars of these situations (and, not to worry, Scientific American is a popularized magazine so it's all pretty understandable). They then turn to a new perspective on the subject: rejecting old-school theory-dependent concepts of reality for new-school model-dependent concepts of reality, in which,

"a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If two models agree with observation, neither one can be considered more real than the other." *

     Returning to the goldfish, Hawking and Mlodinow state,

     "The goldfish are in a similar situation. Their view is not the same as ours from outside their curved bowl, but they could still formulate scientific laws . . . from their distorted frame of reference that would always hold true and would enable them to make predictions about the future motion of objects outside the bowl. Their laws would be more complicated than the laws in our frame, but simplicity is a matter of taste. If the goldfish formulated such a theory, we have to admit the goldfish's view as a valid picture of reality."

     Finally, they conclude the article by saying,

"It might be that to describe the universe, we have to employ different theories in different situations. Each theory may have its own version of reality, but, according to model-dependent realism, that diversity is acceptable, and none of the versions can be said to be more real than any other. It is not the physicist's traditional expectation for a theory of nature, nor does it correspond to our everyday idea of reality. But it might be the way of the universe." *

     So, what difference does that make to the rest of us? Plenty, as it turns out. The fact is that, from a Biblical perspective, we are ALL goldfish looking out at the world around us through our own lenses. According to current estimates, that's 6.8 to 6.9 billion human goldfish. We each see, hear, smell, taste, and feel (and think) our way through life differently--I just read an article in the most recent Scientific American that discusses individual differences in smell, and am about to start another one on how language creates perception, and all of us have heard the stories about how many words for "snow" are found among Inuit groups in the Arctic. Those differences create our differing perceptions about the world around us, and they are not limited to the physical world. A quick Google search shows one estimate that there are 19 major religions in the world, subdivided into about 270 major groups, and too many smaller groups to count. They include something like 34,000 Christian groups of one sort or another, ranging from single congregations with no other affiliation to major denominations. And these numbers are based solely on census data in which people are assigned to whatever group with which they claim membership. And I won't get into the impacts of culture on individual and group perceptions.
     Again, the point is . . . ? A unified theory of everything can only be constructed from outside the "universe" of observation points. Living inside that universe makes it impossible to see, much less understand, the incredible variability of observation and perception found within it. No one goldfish, or even a cabal of goldfish, can determine and define all the variability that is possible as fish inside look outside, or look around inside, for that matter.
     So, who has a unified theory of everything? Answer: The God who created everything. Why? Because His existence is independent of His creation. He exists outside time (I think time, for God, might not even exist, but that's another blog topic) and beyond space. Although He interacts with us within our frameworks of time and space, He, unlike us, is not constrained by them. Further, the Bible tells us, God knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:9-10). How can that be? Because He IS the end and the beginning (Revelation 1:8); nothing comes into being unless He decrees, nothing exists unless He decrees, nothing ceases to exist unless He decrees. It follows logically, then, that only God has a unified theory of everything.
     I applaud the efforts of scientists who strive to find patterns in the created world that reveal the ways in which the world operates. As an anthropologist, that's what I do, working with human culture and cultural behavior. All such efforts are, ultimately, in vain, however, if we do not understand that the material universe is not all there is and that human efforts alone cannot identify all there is to know. God IS, and because God IS, only He knows everything. Fortunately for all of us, He has made it possible for us to know Him. That, Drs. Hawking and Mlodinow, is the way of the universe.

*Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, 2010, "The (Elusive) Theory of Everything." Scientific American, vol. 303, no. 4, pp. 68-71. See

1 comment:

  1. Very cool. I can't believe I missed this post back in February. I was just reading "The Universe and the Teacup" by K.C. Cole and the last chapter touches on just this point. btw I highly recommend the book. The subtitle is the mathematics of truth and beauty. It's an incredibly accessible and enjoyable math read.