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Theory of everything

A theory of everything (ToE), final theory, ultimate theory, or master theory is a hypothetical single, all-encompassing, coherent theoretical framework of physics that fully explains and links together all physical aspects of the universe. Finding a ToE is one of the major unsolved problems in physics. Over the past few centuries, two theoretical frameworks have been developed that, as a whole, most closely resemble a ToE. These two theories upon which all modern physics rests are general relativity (GR) and quantum field theory (QFT). GR is a theoretical framework that only focuses on gravity for understanding the universe in regions of both large-scale and high-mass: stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, etc. On the other hand, QFT is a theoretical framework that only focuses on three non-gravitational forces for understanding the universe in regions of both small scale and low mass: sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, etc. QFT successfully implemented the Standard Model and unified the interactions (so-called Grand Unified Theory) between the three non-gravitational forces: weak, strong, and electromagnetic force. Through years of research, physicists have experimentally confirmed with tremendous accuracy virtually every prediction made by these two theories when in their appropriate domains of applicability. In accordance with their findings, scientists also learned that GR and QFT, as they are currently formulated, are mutually incompatible – they cannot both be right. Since the usual domains of applicability of GR and QFT are so different, most situations require that only one of the two theories be used. As it turns out, this incompatibility between GR and QFT is apparently only an issue in regions of extremely small-scale and high-mass, such as those that exist within a black hole or during the beginning stages of the universe (i.e., the moment immediately following the Big Bang). To resolve this conflict, a theoretical framework revealing a deeper underlying reality, unifying gravity with the other three interactions, must be discovered to harmoniously integrate the realms of GR and QFT into a seamless whole: a single theory that, in principle, is capable of describing all phenomena. In pursuit of this goal, quantum gravity has become an area of active research. Eventually a single explanatory framework, called " string theory", emerged that intends to be the ultimate theory of the universe. String theory posits that at the beginning of the universe (up to 10−43 seconds after the Big Bang), the four fundamental forces were once a single fundamental force. According to string theory, every particle in the universe, at its most microscopic level ( Planck length), consists of varying combinations of vibrating strings (or strands) with preferred patterns of vibration. String theory further claims that it is through these specific oscillatory patterns of strings that a particle of unique mass and force charge is created (that is to say, the electron is a type of string that vibrates one way, while the up-quark is a type of string vibrating another way, and so forth). Initially, the term theory of everything was used with an ironic connotation to refer to various overgeneralized theories. For example, a grandfather of Ijon Tichy – a character from a cycle of Stanisław Lem's science fiction stories of the 1960s – was known to work on the " General Theory of Everything". Physicist John Ellis In the late 17th century, Isaac Newton's description of the long-distance force of gravity implied that not all forces in nature result from things coming into contact. Newton's work in his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy dealt with this in a further example of unification, in this case unifying Galileo's work on terrestrial gravity, Kepler's laws of planetary motion and the phenomenon of tides by explaining these apparent actions at a distance under one single law: the law of universal gravitation. In 1814, building on these results, Laplace famously suggested that a sufficiently powerful intellect could, if it knew the position and velocity of every particle at a given time, along with the laws of nature, calculate the position of any particle at any other time: Laplace thus envisaged a combination of gravitation and mechanics as a theory of everything. Modern quantum mechanics implies that uncertainty is inescapable, and thus that Laplace's vision has to be amended: a theory of everything must include gravitation and quantum mechanics. In 1820, Hans Christian Ørsted discovered a connection between electricity and magnetism, triggering decades of work that culminated in 1865, in James Clerk Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, it gradually became apparent that many common examples of forces – contact forces, elasticity, viscosity, friction, and pressure – result from electrical interactions between the smallest particles of matter. In his experiments of 1849–50, Michael Faraday was the first to search for a unification of gravity with electricity and magnetism. In 1900, David Hilbert published a famous list of mathematical problems. In Hilbert's sixth problem, he challenged researchers to find an axiomatic basis to all of physics. In this problem he thus asked for what today would be called a theory of everything. In the late 1920s, the new quantum mechanics showed that the chemical bonds between atoms were examples of (quantum) electrical forces, justifying Dirac's boast that "the underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known". There have been recent claims that loop quantum gravity may be able to reproduce features resembling the Standard Model. So far only the first generation of fermions ( leptons and quarks) with correct parity properties have been modelled by Sundance Bilson-Thompson using preons constituted of braids of spacetime as the building blocks. However, there is no derivation of the Lagrangian that would describe the interactions of such particles, nor is it possible to show that such particles are fermions, nor that the gauge groups or interactions of the Standard Model are realised. Utilization of quantum computing concepts made it possible to demonstrate that the particles are able to survive quantum fluctuations. This model leads to an interpretation of electric and colour charge as topological quantities (electric as number and chirality of twists carried on the individual ribbons and colour as variants of such twisting for fixed electric charge). Bilson-Thompson's original paper suggested that the higher-generation fermions could be represented by more complicated braidings, although explicit constructions of these structures were not given. The electric charge, colour, and parity properties of such fermions would arise in the same way as for the first generation. The model was expressly generalized for an infinite number of generations and for the weak force bosons (but not for photons or gluons) in a 2008 paper by Bilson-Thompson, Hackett, Kauffman and Smolin.

Other attempts

A recent development is the theory of causal fermion systems, giving the two current physical theories ( general relativity and quantum field theory) as limiting cases. A recent attempt is called Causal Sets. As some of the approaches mentioned above, its direct goal isn't necessarily to achieve a ToE but primarily a working theory of quantum gravity, which might eventually include the standard model and become a candidate for a ToE. Its founding principle is that spacetime is fundamentally discrete and that the spacetime events are related by a partial order. This partial order has the physical meaning of the causality relations between relative past and future distinguishing spacetime events. Outside the previously mentioned attempts there is Garrett Lisi's E8 proposal. This theory provides an attempt of identifying general relativity and the standard model within the Lie group E8. The theory doesn't provide a novel quantization procedure and the author suggests its quantization might follow the Loop Quantum Gravity approach above mentioned. Causal dynamical triangulation does not assume any pre-existing arena (dimensional space), but rather attempts to show how the spacetime fabric itself evolves. Christoph Schiller's Strand Model attempts to account for the gauge symmetry of the Standard Model of particle physics, U(1)× SU(2)× SU(3), with the three Reidemeister moves of knot theory by equating each elementary particle to a different tangle of one, two, or three strands (selectively a long prime knot or unknotted curve, a rational tangle, or a braided tangle respectively). Another attempt may be related to ER=EPR, a conjecture in physics stating that entangled particles are connected by a wormhole (or Einstein–Rosen bridge).

Present status

At present, there is no candidate theory of everything that includes the standard model of particle physics and general relativity. For example, no candidate theory is able to calculate the fine structure constant or the mass of the electron. Most particle physicists expect that the outcome of the ongoing experiments – the search for new particles at the large particle accelerators and for dark matter – are needed in order to provide further input for a ToE.


The philosophical implications of a physical ToE are frequently debated. For example, if philosophical physicalism is true, a physical ToE will coincide with a philosophical theory of everything. The "system building" style of metaphysics attempts to answer all the important questions in a coherent way, providing a complete picture of the world. Aristotle is the first and most noteworthy philosopher to have attempted such a comprehensive system in his Metaphysics. While Aristotle made important contributions to all the sciences in terms of his method of logic and his first principal of causality, he was later demonized by later modern philosophers of the Enlightenment like Immanuel Kant who criticized him for his idea of God as first cause. Isaac Newton and his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy constituted the most all encompassing attempt at a theory of everything up until the twentieth century and Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. After David Hume's attacks upon the inductive method utilized in all the sciences, the German Idealists such as Kant and G.W.F. Hegel - and the many philosophical reactions they inspired - took a decided turn away from natural philosophy and the physical sciences and focused instead on issues of perception, cognition, consciousness and ultimately language.

Arguments against

In parallel to the intense search for a ToE, various scholars have seriously debated the possibility of its discovery.

Gödel's incompleteness theorem

A number of scholars claim that Gödel's incompleteness theorem suggests that any attempt to construct a ToE is bound to fail. Gödel's theorem, informally stated, asserts that any formal theory expressive enough for elementary arithmetical facts to be expressed and strong enough for them to be proved is either inconsistent (both a statement and its denial can be derived from its axioms) or incomplete, in the sense that there is a true statement that can't be derived in the formal theory. Stanley Jaki, in his 1966 book The Relevance of Physics, pointed out that, because any "theory of everything" will certainly be a consistent non-trivial mathematical theory, it must be incomplete. He claims that this dooms searches for a deterministic theory of everything. Freeman Dyson has stated that "Gödel's theorem implies that pure mathematics is inexhaustible. No matter how many problems we solve, there will always be other problems that cannot be solved within the existing rules. Because of Gödel's theorem, physics is inexhaustible too. The laws of physics are a finite set of rules, and include the rules for doing mathematics, so that Gödel's theorem applies to them."Freeman Dyson, NYRB, May 13, 2004 Stephen Hawking was originally a believer in the Theory of Everything but, after considering Gödel's Theorem, concluded that one was not obtainable: "Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory, that can be formulated as a finite number of principles. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind."Stephen Hawking, Gödel and the end of physics, July 20, 2002 Jürgen Schmidhuber (1997) has argued against this view; he points out that Gödel's theorems are irrelevant for computable physics. Related critique was offered by Solomon Feferman,

Fundamental limits in accuracy

No physical theory to date is believed to be precisely accurate. Instead, physics has proceeded by a series of "successive approximations" allowing more and more accurate predictions over a wider and wider range of phenomena. Some physicists believe that it is therefore a mistake to confuse theoretical models with the true nature of reality, and hold that the series of approximations will never terminate in the "truth". Einstein himself expressed this view on occasions.Einstein, letter to Felix Klein, 1917. (On determinism and approximations.) Quoted in Pais (1982), Ch. 17. Following this view, we may reasonably hope for a theory of everything which self-consistently incorporates all currently known forces, but we should not expect it to be the final answer. On the other hand, it is often claimed that, despite the apparently ever-increasing complexity of the mathematics of each new theory, in a deep sense associated with their underlying gauge symmetry and the number of dimensionless physical constants, the theories are becoming simpler. If this is the case, the process of simplification cannot continue indefinitely.

Lack of fundamental laws

There is a philosophical debate within the physics community as to whether a theory of everything deserves to be called the fundamental law of the universe.Weinberg (1993), Ch 2. One view is the hard reductionist position that the ToE is the fundamental law and that all other theories that apply within the universe are a consequence of the ToE. Another view is that emergent laws, which govern the behavior of complex systems, should be seen as equally fundamental. Examples of emergent laws are the second law of thermodynamics and the theory of natural selection. The advocates of emergence argue that emergent laws, especially those describing complex or living systems are independent of the low-level, microscopic laws. In this view, emergent laws are as fundamental as a ToE. The debates do not make the point at issue clear. Possibly the only issue at stake is the right to apply the high-status term "fundamental" to the respective subjects of research. A well-known debate over this took place between Steven Weinberg and Philip Anderson

Impossibility of being "of everything"

Although the name "theory of everything" suggests the determinism of Laplace's quotation, this gives a very misleading impression. Determinism is frustrated by the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanical predictions, by the extreme sensitivity to initial conditions that leads to mathematical chaos, by the limitations due to event horizons, and by the extreme mathematical difficulty of applying the theory. Thus, although the current standard model of particle physics "in principle" predicts almost all known non-gravitational phenomena, in practice only a few quantitative results have been derived from the full theory (e.g., the masses of some of the simplest hadrons), and these results (especially the particle masses which are most relevant for low-energy physics) are less accurate than existing experimental measurements. The ToE would almost certainly be even harder to apply for the prediction of experimental results, and thus might be of limited use. A motive for seeking a ToE, apart from the pure intellectual satisfaction of completing a centuries-long quest, is that prior examples of unification have predicted new phenomena, some of which (e.g., electrical generators) have proved of great practical importance. And like in these prior examples of unification, the ToE would probably allow us to confidently define the domain of validity and residual error of low-energy approximations to the full theory.

Infinite number of onion layers

Frank Close regularly argues that the layers of nature may be like the layers of an onion, and that the number of layers might be infinite.https://www.amazon.com/New-Cosmic-Onion-Quarks-Universe/dp/1584887982 This would imply an infinite sequence of physical theories. The argument is not universally accepted, because it is not obvious that infinity is a concept that applies to the foundations of nature.

Impossibility of calculation

WeinbergWeinberg (1993) p. 5 points out that calculating the precise motion of an actual projectile in the Earth's atmosphere is impossible. So how can we know we have an adequate theory for describing the motion of projectiles? Weinberg suggests that we know principles (Newton's laws of motion and gravitation) that work "well enough" for simple examples, like the motion of planets in empty space. These principles have worked so well on simple examples that we can be reasonably confident they will work for more complex examples. For example, although general relativity includes equations that do not have exact solutions, it is widely accepted as a valid theory because all of its equations with exact solutions have been experimentally verified. Likewise, a ToE must work for a wide range of simple examples in such a way that we can be reasonably confident it will work for every situation in physics.

See also




  • Pais, Abraham (1982) Subtle is the Lord...: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (Oxford University Press, Oxford, . Ch. 17,
  • Weinberg, Steven (1993) Dreams of a Final Theory: The Search for the Fundamental Laws of Nature, Hutchinson Radius, London,

External links

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