I'll be exploring in my articles the history of the Theory of Everything from the philosophical point of view.View all articles by Kazimierz Kubat
Since the beginning of humanity, one of the biggest temptations of mankind was the desire to understand: "The universe, its functions, its construction, its beginning and destination, but also, our place in it"
Men tried to explain it in different ways, searching for the answer not only in magic, religion, and the stars but also in philosophy and sciences and nowadays even in UFOs. We would like not only to know how the universe continues to develop and what makes up its ultimate large scale structure. We also want to know why the universe exists, its point of origin, our origin and our place in it.
These kinds of research and endeavors that try to explain the Universe as a whole in one short and understandable way may be called Theories of Everything. (TOE). We can find examples of religious TOE in the Bible, in the Sacred Scriptures of India; (Wedda, Ramayana and Mahabharata) but also in Buddhist and Taoist scriptures in China as well as in every other religion and mythology. The religious answers - although holistic and ultimate - are for some people not adequate because they are not precise. They even seem to avoid the clue of the ultimate questions and finally they do not seem to solve the problem.
For others, convinced of the correctness and exactness of them, these kinds of answers are only a challenge and an invitation to further questions, research and investigations. Although personally, I believe that: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty" (Gen. 1, 1-2), I would like, if possible -following the idea of Saint Augustine "Fides querrens intellectum"- to see how God did it, how the creation was done, how the earth was formless and empty. I don't think that this desire is a negation of the faith or a revolution against the power of God, even if it is a kind of "looking up God's sleeves". Of course, someone could say that I pretend to understand God, but what is wrong with this, as long as I keep in mind that God's thoughts are not my own and God's ways are not mine. It is in order, as long as I am aware of my own limits and of the limitations of my reason, and as long as I don't try to replace the ultimate truths of the faith by the partial -and far from ultimate- truths of my own.
We can find more examples of TOE. For our purposes, we can divide them into three groups:
- religious TOE
- philosophical TOE - trying to explain the Universe as a whole in a philosophical way
- physical TOE - attempting to represent the Universe as a whole in the form of one quite simple mathematical equation using observations and mathematical language.
Let us see, first of all, how the philosophers have been dealing with the problem.
One of the non-religious (but not anti-religious) attempts at answering the above mentioned questions, is certainly the philosophy of nature which tries to create a comprehensive TOE.
Since the time of the first philosophers (seventh and sixth centuries B.C.), people have been trying to find a simple and rational explanation or justification of the Universe as a whole. The first attempt to answer the question "What is the most fundamental principle of everything?" is certainly the Ionian philosophy of nature. This was proposed at the very beginning of philosophical thinking and also at the very beginning of Western Culture and Civilization. I dare say that this is the first attempt of TOE. Thales of Millet (surveyor, mathematician, astronomer and politician) living in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., explained that the water, from which everything emanates and towards which everything will return, is the most fundamental building material of the Universe. In the thinking of Thales, the mythological gods of Oceanos and Thetida were, for the first time, replaced by material bodies and forces. The fantastic explanations were replaced by materialistic and rational ideas.
This was the first non-religious and non-mythological attempt to understand the Universe -- to gather totality in one simple and understandable concept. In this way, the first Theory Of Everything (TOE) was postulated.
There were many other philosophers who followed Thales.
For Anaximander (649-546 B.C.), this fundamental principle and the reason of everything (arche) was. the hard and unchangeable building material - the indefinite (apeiron), limitless and boundless but still material base, out of which "all heavens and the worlds held in them, were created."
For the next philosopher of that time, Anaximenes (585-525 B.C.), the most fundamental principle and the cause of the Universe, which gives insight into the understanding of the whole, was the air. It is interesting to note that these three first philosophers, who attempted the first TOE, came from Millet, the Ionian colony of Greece on the coast of Asia Minor.
The next Greek philosophers tried to give a new kind of explanation and justification of the Universe, but still in the same way. For Heraclites (sixth and fifth centuries B.C.) the most fundamental principle explaining everything was fire, which could change into everything without limits. Moreover, the fire is not only the fundamental principle of everything, but also the cause of the most fundamental fact present in nature- change itself. For Heraclites, the world doesn't exist but it changes, it flows constantly (pantha rei)-it becomes. The change is not random, haphazard or accidental; it is rational, logical and teleological. In order to understand the Universe, we must first find this logical principle included in it. Reason (logos) is not only a human feature but also a cosmic power, the most immanent nature of the world. Thus, fire is not the unchangeable and fixed element of nature and the world, but rather a symbol of its constant change and flux, which is following the principle of reason governed by logos.
Here we have the beginning of something which will be re-born twenty-five centuries later, in another way; i.e. in physical or cosmological theories of the evolution of the Universe or in unification theories. The logos, governing the world, organizing it and leading it, could be rationally understood and known by men. Man should only read it from nature. Let us not hurry but let us recognize that the temptation to unify the image of the Universe--all the attempts at creating TOE--are nothing new. We can already find its traces at the very beginning of the intellectual adventure of humanity known as philosophy.
The answer to the flux and variability in the world of Heraclites was the ontological monism of Parmenides. Once again, in the name of reason and logic, Parmenides ( sixth and fifth centuries B.C. therefore contemporary with Heraclites) tries to prove that the most fundamental principle of the Universe and its element of unification is the Unity of being, or, Being as such. "Being is, nonbeing doesn't exist."
Because each change is the passage from something to something else (which is the opposite to the starting point), the change itself can only be recognized as the passage from being towards nonbeing. If the nonbeing doesn't exist, the passage itself is impossible. Change doesn't exist. Unlike Heraclites, Parmenides acknowledges that the Universe is unchangeable; moreover, there is only one unchangeable and monolithic being, therefore change itself is fiction. This concept of monolithic being is the most fundamental principle explaining everything in Parmenides' philosophy. So we have the next TOE.
For Xenophanes (580-480 B.C.) the fundamental element and the principle of the Universe is the earth.