The final theory

The idea that one science might explain everything, or even explain all that we think is significant, alternately fascinates and horrifies us. One school after another sets itself up as the global theory of the physical and/or cognitive world: Pythagoreanism, The Academy, Aristotelianism, Newtonianism, The Vienna schools of Psychoanalysis, gene mapping, cognitive science, or “science” taken as a single method (though it is not clear that there is any such thing). Each one began with a few brilliant pioneers, choked off the competition with a combination of rhetoric and real success, and enjoyed a sunny period of mythological inflation where, intoxicated by the infinite extrapolation of real successes, everyone collectively (though soberly) fantasizes about the day when it will explain everything. The encomium can last centuries.

But theories are all abandoned, if not for falsehoods then at least because we become interested in something else.  The infinity into which we previously extrapolated the theory at some point intoxicates a new generation with the possibility of a new foundation or the possibility of an inquiry into something new. It’s illuminating to compare this desire to the desire to explore or travel around the earth, since the basic fact of exploration is we do it simply because there’s something there to see. But cognitive space is infinite; the ways of abstracting and simplifying experience are infinite; and the possible tools and methods for exploring new possibilities in cognitive space are infinite. It’s therefore pointless to object that we should stop exploring because we’ll never get to the end of things – we aren’t exploring to get to the end but simply because something is there. Even if the inhabited surface of the earth was infinite, we would keep traveling to the next village, city, or uninhabited region. The love of novelty is built into the reward organs of our brain, or, to see it another way, the human soul could not be what it is without a tendency to give rise to the sort of brain that is intoxicated by novelty.  Though we are continually fantasizing about the final theory that exhausts all cognitive space, and though this is a real desire that seeks its satisfaction in something, we are also fundamentally disgusted and horrified by the idea of a final theory. If there were such a thing – and it is impossible, but if there were – the consequence of finding it would be brain atrophy.

And so the desire for a final theory has to be understood by way of negation of the way in which final theories are superfluous (since we explore simply because things are there) repugnant (since we seek novelty as such) and impossible (since the rationes or logoi of even a single thing are infinite).

1 Comment

  1. March 24, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    I’m thinking that modern science might be around for the rest of human history as a valid way of better and better understanding material reality and maybe even mapping the contours of what it cannot examine.

    However, the idea that science could ever explain everything is disproved by the fact that science cannot explain itself! It needs reason in general to validate it.

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