A Theory of Everything
A “theory of everything” usually refers to a next step theory to unite the two pillars of modern physics: Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity. Together, they (mostly) explain our universe, one (QM), for the very small scale and the other (GR), for the very large. In between we get by pretty well with Newtonian physics, which each of the others reduces to at the scale of our common experience. The problem is that QM and GR are incompatible. Each gives a result in some situations that means the other has to be wrong. Inconveniently, these are situations that are beyond the realm of experiment to decide.
The obvious conclusion is that there is a larger theory that encompasses both and removes the contradictions. Hence, a theory of everything. There are many candidates, but no good way to decide among them.
It seems to me that “everything” is bigger than any two theories, even big ones like these. It’s, well, everything. I don’t think this is just glib. I think the next stage theories need to look outside physics for inspiration and new boundaries of investigation.
Every broadening of our understanding crosses boundaries that we assumed were uncrossable. Aristotle, along with everyone else for hundreds of years before and after him, assumed that things in the sky (stars, moon, planets, etc) were just different from things on Earth. That’s why things in the sky stayed in the sky and things on the Earth stayed on the Earth. Gravity was an earthly phenomenon. There were all kinds of theories about how the stars and planets did their things, but they didn’t have anything to do with what we experience here. It was obvious that if those laws weren’t fundamentally different from ours, the stars would all fall out of the sky. Duh!
When Newton first considered that maybe they weren’t different, I’ll bet he kept that thought to himself for a while. (Talk about having trouble getting grant money!) When he published his laws of motion (based on previous work of Galileo and Kepler among others) and showed how the same laws could account for the earth and the heavens, it was counter-intuitive to say the least.
When Maxwell (following discoveries by Faraday and others) found the exact relationship between electricity, magnetism, and light (spoiler: they’re all the same thing), he shattered all kinds of “but everyone knows...” boundaries.
So the unification of two seemingly incompatible theories seems a reasonable way to get to the next step. I’m not sure that’s the whole story. Today, the dichotomy between Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity feels a little tired. If that tension were going to deliver the next big breakthrough, I think it would have by now.
So what else is there? There’s actually a lot, if you look outside the sciences. What I would consider is any mostly self-consistent theory of action that is used by large numbers of people successfully within certain operating limits. (I get to add these constraints. All partially correct theories, including QM and GR, have the same caveats.) Religions fit this. Many forms of non-religious spirituality do, too. Heck, the world’s medical professions are full of all sorts of treatments that have no more scientific basis than the use of leeches, but they often work. Even western medicine has the placebo effect, which has never been explained.
A true theory of everything ought to explain all of this. So where to start?
What interests me the most is astrology. We know that astrology has no physical basis, yet millions of people have relied on it for centuries. The movement of the planets around the sun can’t possibly affect our immediate daily individual lives. It’s as if you told me the moon is falling constantly toward the earth just like an apple falls from a tree. Oh, wait,...it is. The moon never hits the earth because it’s moving “sideways” with just enough speed to constantly miss us for(almost)ever.
Once you get the full explanation, it’s not so strange after all.
I don’t know what the explanation is that connects astrology to Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity, but it would be something bigger than any of them. It will have to include social and emotional elements, just as astrology does. It will undoubtedly be “fuzzy” scientifically. I think it will include synchronicity as a fundamental concept. The motion of planets doesn’t directly affect our lives. Instead it manifests some fundamental actor that moves the planets in ways that mirror that actor’s affect on us, AND at the same time, obeys all the current laws of physics. As I have said in other essays, I also think there is a feedback loop that has to do with our consciousness and its filtered perception of our world.
Whatever the eventual explanation, scientists need to look outside of science in order to generate the next major breakthrough. Astrology is a tempting place to start.
January 9, 2020