4 thoughts on “Notes: “A Different Kind of Theory of Everything”

  1. Rashomon Effect or the Blind Men and Elephant Effect

    Different types of frameworks about the world can be used to understand a specific scientific phenomena and all turn out to be useful or correct to some degree. The example in the book involved predicting the movements of two objects that are attracted to each other via gravity:

    Feynman identified three approaches, each invoking a different belief about the world. The first approach used Newton’s law of gravity, according to which the objects exert a pull on each other. The second imagined a gravitational field extending through space, which the objects distort. The third applied the principle of least action, which holds that each object moves by following the path that takes the least energy in the least time.

    Using any of the three, as a premise, leads to a correct prediction. The author, Natalie Wolchover, refers to this as a “Rashomon effect,” which makes sense, but I immediately thought of the blind men and the elephant. I believe this India parable is used to explain the existence of multiple religions–namely, different religions exist because each is “feeling” only one aspect of God or the Truth.

    Using this analogy, I wondered if scientific truth that scientists sought after–the truth that would explain everything in the physical universe–was akin to God. If the analogy is apt, scientists should consider what I think is an important principle with regard to their relationship with with the ultimate reality or truth. With regard to God, I believe humans will never fully understand God, as God is so different and beyond human understanding. Therefore, our understanding of God is flawed and inadequate–flawed and inadequate because we need to rely on inadequate and incomplete metaphors, frameworks, and analogies to understand God.

    Extending this further, what if the ultimate truth about reality is actually God or some crucial aspect of God? Here, I should point out that the conception of God isn’t some deity that looks like an old man with a white beard, existing in specific point in space and time. That would be flawed metaphor people use to understand and relate to God. Instead, what if God were something closer to the Being in which everything else derives their being. (And this understanding might–or maybe even probably is–flawed and incomplete.) This to me sounds much closer to what scientists seem to be looking for when they search for the ultimate reality, or a theory that can explain all things in a unified way. (I’m not sure if these two things are different.) What I’m saying might also explain the history of science, how we’ve moved from different theories, how what we’ve understood in the past has changed over time. In the earlier stages, our understanding may have been flat out wrong. (The blind men were touching a tree?) At some point their understanding wasn’t “wrong” so much as based on one of many different possible frameworks or models.

    Later in the piece, Wolchover notes that scientists have discovered that while many different metaphors work, one tends to be better than others.

    Another interesting tidbit is viable multiple explanations occur only if they’re only applying to a true law of nature. That is, if the law is inaccurately described or conceived, only a few viable frameworks will exist. (She doesn’t write more about this, but I would be interested in learning more.)

    I’ll try to write more about these two points later.

  2. (Note: emphasis added)

    It happens again and again that, when there are many possible descriptions of a physical situation—all making equivalent predictions, yet all wildly different in premise—one will turn out to be preferable, because it extends to an underlying reality, seeming to account for more of the universe at once.

    Takeaway: The math, the equations and calculations, depend on the premise, sometimes (always?) expressed as a metaphor. The premise is the key. Changing it leads to different equations and calculations.

    But some of these premises seem closer to the actual reality or truth–they capture more of the truth in a fuller way.

    (I don’t think this idea is novel–I feel like this is something Thomas Kuhn discussed, implicitly or explicitly, in Structures of Scientific Revolutions.

    And yet this new description might, in turn, have multiple formulations—and one of those alternatives may apply even more broadly. It’s as though physicists are playing a modified telephone game in which, with each whisper, the message is translated into a different language. The languages describe different scales or domains of the same reality but aren’t always related etymologically.

    Important point: The premise may describe or pertain to one slice or scale of the reality. That is, it may not apply to the whole of reality. Is such a premise possible? Does one know if a premise to a whole or part of the reality? If so, how does one know this?

    In this modified game, the objective isn’t—or isn’t only—to seek a bedrock equation governing reality’s smallest bits. The existence of this branching, interconnected web of mathematical languages, each with its own associated picture of the world, is what needs to be understood.

    (emphasis added)

    Yes, this seems like a key point of inquiry. But this is like trying to understand the interconnected web between theologies, teaching, and myths of different religions. Can this be done? Has anyone done this? (Joseph Campbell, Jung, etc.?) Could you gain understanding via science, or would this be closer to religion and philosophy? Art?

    The web seems really so complicated that I’m inclined to say it can’t be understood. But that goes too far, at least based on what I know now (which is very little).

    Einstein’s general theory of relativity beautifully weaves space and time together into a four-dimensional fabric, known as space-time, and equates gravity with warps in that fabric. But Einstein’s theory and the space-time concept break down inside black holes and at the moment of the big bang. Space-time, in other words, may be a translation of some other description of reality that, though more abstract or unfamiliar, can have greater explanatory power. Some researchers are attempting to wean physics off of space-time in order to pave the way toward this deeper theory.

    Space-time is the conceptual premise, while gravity as “warps in that fabric” is a metaphor. The physicists above are advocating for changing the premise. And I should note, as Kuhn alludes to (or says explicitly, I can’t remember), this process is not really scientific.

    In any event, the premise behind this strategy is that if we can throw off an existing premise and replacing it with another, eventually we may find the ultimate premise/framework….Or is this wrong? Let’s suppose this is what they’re thinking. My response: My sense is that every framework or theory (e.g., Newtonian, Einsteinian, etc.) has these anomalies–i.e,. phenomena that the overall theory can’t explain. They’re like weird details that prevent the theory from being elegant and limiting it’s explanatory power. What if every framework you switch to has these anomalies. What if this is due to the limitations of our minds–the limits of our being. With regard to the last point, I’m thinking of Abbey’s Flatland. We’re three dimensional beings. What if the true nature of reality involves several dimensions above us. Or to go back to the concept of God. Humans are finite; God is eternal. Humans are one of many things that have being. God is being, the source of all being. Etc. Because of this, humans will always have a flawed understanding of God. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc,–all of these may be like various conceptual frameworks/premises used in science. Within each, there are anomalies, paradoxes, or other features that could be considered flaws. As helpful as religions are, there are still mysteries and puzzles that they don’t or can’t explain. There isn’t a religion that explains all mysteries, that is without logical difficulties–none are perfect, or perfectly elegant and whole….Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Many are whole and elegant–but to the one who wants perfect understanding, who wants the answers to everything, religions will fail. What if the scientific theories are like this as well? What if physicists are like this man who wants all answers, a perfect theory. They may be striving for something impossible. For the devout, humble religious person this isn’t a failing of religion–it’s a humble recognition that man is limited and can’t fully understand God and reality. To think one can do so is a misunderstanding at best, and arrogance and hubris at worst.

    But why should physicists assume that reality can’t be fully understood? This is especially the case if they don’t believe in a entity like God. If the universe is only made of matter, finite substances, why wouldn’t we able to arrive at some perfect understanding. If the nature of reality is has some quality that is beyond us, well that’s another story, but why would physicists believe that’s the case?

    The thing is, if physicists are creating and discarding different frameworks–not through scientific method–why not try out one that assumes the existence of God? By using this framework, physicists could mollify or eliminate the desire to find the “theory for everything.” What would be left is all the wonderful things existing scientific theories and the knowledge and discoveries we’ve learned have allowed us to do. Similarly, religions also provide guidance and meaning to believers, in spite of some limitations. Would a similar approach help physicists?

    Are there any believers seeking a fuller, more complete explanation of God? For example, think of some religious person saying, “The existing world religions don’t provide us with perfect understanding of life and God. We must try to find one that does.” This would be odd, right? My sense is that people who have a decent understanding of God would find this odd, maybe ridiculous. Humans can’t have perfect knowledge of God. If physicists operated from the premise that God is the ultimate reality, they may stop pursuing the theory of everything.


    Whether these researchers are on the right track or not, the web of explanations of reality exists. Perhaps the most striking thing about those explanations is that, even as each draws only a partial picture of reality, they are mathematically perfect. Take general relativity. Physicists know that Einstein’s theory is incomplete. Yet it is a spectacular artifice, with a spare, taut mathematical structure. Fiddle with the equations even a little and you lose all of its beauty and simplicity. It turns out that, if you want to discover a deeper way of explaining the universe, you can’t take the equations of the existing description and subtly deform them. Instead, you must make a jump to a totally different, equally perfect mathematical structure.

    Again, this reminds me of Structure of Scientific Revolutions. And this reiterates the importance of the overall conceptual framework, the assumptions and basic premises about the universe and key phenomena. While critical, the math seems secondary.

    Question: Is there a way to use the scientific method to arrive at conceptual framework? Or do we get there primarily by reason and imagination?

    What’s the point, theorists wonder, of the perfection found at every level, if it’s bound to be superseded?

    I’m confused by this sentence (which is the one that follows the last sentence in the quote above). By “superseded,” is Wolchover referring to a new theory that will be complete (i.e., present a theory of everything), while also being perfect on every level? That’s the only things that comes to mind. I would agree with her–if a complete theory can replace it. But we should be open to the possibility that such a theory is not possible.

  3. Currently, to predict how particles morph and scatter when they collide in space-time, physicists use a complicated diagrammatic scheme invented by Richard Feynman. The so-called Feynman diagrams indicate the probabilities, or “scattering amplitudes,” of different particle-collision outcomes. In 2013, Nima Arkani-Hamed and Jaroslav Trnka discovered a reformulation of scattering amplitudes that makes reference to neither space nor time. They found that the amplitudes of certain particle collisions are encoded in the volume of a jewel-like geometric object, which they dubbed the amplituhedron.

    Question: How can a “geometric object” not refer to either space or time?

  4. It seems inconceivable that this intricate web of perfect mathematical descriptions is random or happenstance. This mystery must have an explanation. But what might such an explanation look like?

    First, I want to review the notion of “an intricate web of perfect mathematical descriptions.” The idea is that several different premises or frameworks, each producing a specific set of equations, could be viable. Each of these frameworks–with their specific equations–let’s call them “systems”–are somehow connected, creating a web.

    (Pause: Is that true? Must these be interconnected like a web? Maybe “web” is the wrong metaphor, or there might be a better one? Is it possible that they’re not really connected? But that would seem strange. I automatically thought of the blind men and the elephant, but maybe that analogy is wrong. The thing is, it’s hard to think of how each of those systems could be so useful and accurate when predicting things in the universe and not be connected at the same time.)

    Second, the blind men and the elephant seems like a good place to start for an explanation to the mystery. Every system is simply touching on one aspect of the universe, coming at it from a different angle.

    Also, in religion, at some point, one realizes that concepts are really complex, sometimes paradoxical. One response is that religions are irrational, illogical. But an alternate response is that reason and logic are limited and inadequate to grasp and convey certain realities. That is, there are certain truths that are ineffable–can’t be grasped by reason and fully captured by human language. The human mind is only capable of a partial, flawed understanding of these concepts. (I think this is prominent idea in Zen Buddhism, but I would be surprised if this notion isn’t a part of all world religions, especially among the most spiritual practitioners.)

    One example that comes to mind are the notions of free will and pres-destination. The two concepts seem totally incompatible, and yet when I read the Bible I get the impression that both might true at the same time. How can this be? One answer is that neither the concept of free will and pre-destination are adequate. Perhaps a third concept, which is closer to the truth is beyond human understanding, so the scripture shifts between using or or the other.

    How does this relate to the article? When we talk about the web of different systems, each system may just be an incomplete, flawed way of understanding the universe. Do we have free will or has God predetermined everything? Each theory contains some facet of truth, but both are inadequate and flawed. One possibility is that we haven’t found the best theory or metaphor. (I wonder if any serious and deeply spiritual folks believe this. I’d be surprised.) ) Another possibility is that some things, critical to understanding the universe, are scientifically and mathematically ineffable–and maybe this is the case due to limitations of human understanding.

    (Pause: Question: Why wouldn’t we be able to find religious explanation that doesn’t have an paradoxes and explains all things in satisfying way. That is, why can’t there be a religious version of the theory of everything?)

    One common conception of physics is that its laws are like a machine that humans are building in order to predict what will happen in the future.

    “Laws like a machine” seems a bit odd to me or hard to grasp. Off the top of my head, I would say a scientific law is a rule or principle that we believe is a universally true, based on repeated experiments or some form of empirical confirmation.

    Also, aren’t scientific laws useful for explaining events–what’s happening and why, in addition to helping make predictions?

    The metaphors of “building” and “machine” are interesting, and I wonder if some scientists would object to this. The metaphors create the impression that a pragmatic impulse drives scientists more than the curiosity to identify what is real and true. Perhaps, most physicists would say they’re one and the same, but thinking of a laws as something people build in order to make predictions moves away from the truth-seeking motive.

    Perhaps this discussion sheds some light on the reason multiple, viable theories/systems can exist. The conceptual/metaphorical framework of each system/theory puts a greater spotlight on some things, while obscuring or de-emphasizing others. The theory of everything would seem to involve a conceptual/metaphorical/analogical framework that avoided this dual process of highlighting and hiding at the same time. In other words, the theory of everything would be conceptual framework/metaphor that was perfect, totally complete and whole–it would illuminate perfectly.

    (Pause: What things can we know completely? Off the top of my head, I would say anything that is highly conceptual and abstract are the type of things we can’t know fully–things that require metaphors, analogies or conceptual constructs in order to grasp. Ideas or things that rely heavily on these things likely can’t be fully grasped because metaphors/analogy are almost never perfect.

    Question: Are there perfect metaphors and analogies, particularly for more complex, abstract ideas? If not, why not?

    Also: Does the real nature of the universe have to depend on something complex, abstract, conceptual? Why couldn’t it be a very simple, concrete idea? Can there be simple metaphysics?)

    The “theory of everything” is like the ultimate prediction machine—a single equation from which everything follows. But this outlook ignores the existence of the many different machines, built in all manner of ingenious ways, that give us equivalent predictions.

    Question: Is it really accurate to say that there are many “machine” that give “equivalent predictions?

    To Arkani-Hamed, the multifariousness of the laws suggests a different conception of what physics is all about. We’re not building a machine that calculates answers, he says; instead, we’re discovering questions. Nature’s shape-shifting laws seem to be the answer to an unknown mathematical question.

    A little later,

    Arkani-Hamed now sees the ultimate goal of physics as figuring out the mathematical question from which all the answers flow. “The ascension to the tenth level of intellectual heaven,” he told me, “would be if we find the question to which the universe is the answer, and the nature of that question in and of itself explains why it was possible to describe it in so many different ways.” It’s as though physics has been turned inside out. It now appears that the answers already surround us. It’s the question we don’t know.

    I wish someone gave an example of the question or describe what the question would be like. It’s hard to understand. But Arkani-Hamed’s idea is an interesting one.

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