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Mankind has an urge to explain the natural world, to bring order in what's happening. And we always have tried to bring observed phenomena under one singular umbrella explanation. We can call those explanations "theories of everything". Theories of everything are another form of hierarchism: the need to unify and seek symmetries.
Theories of everything are of all times. One can distinguish a number of different types of theories of everything: creation myths, classical metaphysics, modern physical theories and pseudo- or fringe scientific theories.
Creation stories have been around the longest. Early man devised them to explain how and why the world came into being, how the world should be considered and how we best behave within the order represented by the story of the world. Here is one from the Australian aborigines:
In the Dreamtime, when the world was young and formless, there was a powerful being known as Baiame. Baiame was the creator of all things, and he shaped the land, the plants, the animals, and the people. He was the father of all spirits and the keeper of the natural order.
Baiame lived high in the sky and looked down upon the Earth. He decided to send his spirit children, the Wandjinas, to the world below to create and care for it. The Wandjinas were majestic beings with lightning in their eyes and thunder in their voices.
As the Wandjinas descended from the heavens, they formed the rivers, lakes, and mountains. They painted the rocks and caves with their vibrant colors, leaving their mark on the land. They breathed life into the plants and animals, giving each one a purpose and a place in the world.
One day, the Wandjinas decided to create the first humans. They gathered together and molded clay into the shape of men and women. Baiame breathed his own spirit into them, giving them life and consciousness.
These first humans were taught the laws of the Dreamtime and their responsibilities to the land. They learned to live in harmony with nature and to respect the balance of life. The Wandjinas watched over them and guided them, sharing their wisdom and knowledge.
Over time, the humans spread across the land, each group guided by different Wandjinas who became their ancestral spirits. The stories of the Dreamtime were passed down from generation to generation through songs, dances, and ceremonies. They became the foundation of Aboriginal culture, connecting the people to their land, their ancestors, and the spiritual realm.
According to the Aboriginal belief system, the Dreamtime continues to exist parallel to the present world. It is a timeless and eternal realm where the spirits of the ancestors reside, and it is through their guidance and connection to the Dreamtime that the Aboriginal people maintain their cultural identity and spiritual connection to the land.
The classical theories have started with the ancient Greek philosophers that came before Socrates. These philosophers were looking for the origin and ultimate nature of the world. They sought explanations based on natural laws rather than on the actions of gods or spirits, as was the case in most creation myths. An example is the philosophy of Parmenides, who lived in the 5th century BCE:
Parmenides argued that ultimate reality, or "being", is unchanging, indivisible, and eternal. He claimed that existence is continuous and lacks any beginning or end. According to Parmenides, being is the only genuine reality, and everything else is illusory. He denied the existence of change or motion. He believed that change is an illusion resulting from imperfect human perception. According to him, since being is unchanging, any appearance of change is merely a product of sensory deception.
Parmenides believed in the unity of being. He posited that being is an undifferentiated whole, devoid of any distinctions or plurality. In his view, the apparent diversity and multiplicity of the world are illusory and do not reflect the true nature of reality.
Democritos lived in the same times as Parmenides. He had a vision which is rather opposite to the vision of Parmenides. According to Democritos, atoms are the fundamental building blocks of reality and exist in an infinite void. He believed that atoms are eternal, unchangeable, and indivisible. They are constantly moving and combining with each other to form different substances and objects.
Democritos proposed that atoms have different sizes, shapes, and properties. He argued that the variety of substances in the world arises from the different arrangements and combinations of atoms. For example, he suggested that sweet tastes are produced by smooth atoms, while bitter tastes result from atoms with hook-like shapes.
Democritos also proposed that the properties of atoms determine the properties of macroscopic objects. He believed that atoms are in constant motion, colliding and interacting with each other. These collisions give rise to the macroscopic phenomena we observe in the world. The differences in the size, shape, and arrangement of atoms account for the various qualities of objects, such as color, taste, and texture.
If you replace atoms with molecules in Democritos' story then it becomes almost modern. But of course real science did not exist in these days, so the classics could not prove their ideas.
Before discussing these theories it is important to be aware of a hierarchy of the sciences themselves. Among many scientists it is a fact that physics is the queen of all sciences. Physics includes chemistry. Chemistry includes all of biology and biology encompasses sociology and psychology. Some say that actually Mathematics is the queen, because physics is written in mathematical equations. This is another example of hierarchism of course, just as the quest itself to find a Theory of Everything.
The modern theories are attempts of current physicists to bring all the known physical forcefields, including gravity, under one theory, one formula. The quest of unifying these forcefields is one of the main goals of physics. Unifying here means that under certain circumstances the forces appear indistinguishably as one force.
It started with the unification of magnetism and electricity by James Clerk Maxwell in 1873. Electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force were unified to the electroweak force through the work of Glashow, Salam and Weinberg in the early 1970s.
Unity with the strong nuclear force has not been seen yet, due to the enormous energies that are needed to accomplish this. And there is no agreement about how a theory of this unification, called a "Grand Unified Theory" (or GUT), would look like. Even further away is unification with the force of gravity. The three other forces work on the smallest scale of elementary particles and are described with the equations of quantum mechanics. Gravity works on the biggest scales, like planets, stars and galaxies, and is decribed by the theory of general relativity of Albert Einstein. In this theory mass curves spacetime and it is the curvature of spacetime that is in fact the force of gravity.
Unification of the three quantumforces with gravity would mean that a "deeper" theory that would be more fundamental then both general relativity and quantum mechanics need to be found.
This unified theory would then eventually lead to the supposed Theory of Everything.
There are already candidates for this theory, namely: String theory and M-theory, Quantum Loop Gravity and a bunch of less supported theories.
Besides the "official", peer reviewed theories there are an incredible number of "theories" made by amateurs and crackpots. Popular in certain new age circles is for instance the bullshit "Unified Field Theory" of amateur scientist Nassim Haramein.
A new approach is being formulated whereby gravity is not a fundamental force, but an emergent property (Erik Verlinde). Another possibility could be that gravity is classical, meaning it doesn't conform to quantum-mechanics (Jonathan Oppenheim) and so cannot be united with the other forces which are quantum-mechanic in nature. And why should it?
Until now, physics and cosmology assumed (another belief, in other words) that the Laws of Nature exist independently of and precede the universe in which we live, and thus these laws are also independent of our experience. These Natural Laws are said to have set the universe in motion and shaped it from the beginning. The idea is to finally summarize these same natural laws in a single formula in which all so-called initial conditions also get an explanation and no longer have to be crammed ad hoc into the formulas. However, this "bottom up" approach seems to be a dead end.
Stephen Hawking, along with Belgian physicist Thomas Hertog are turning the "bottom up" approach on its head in what is called "top down cosmology". According to Hawking and Hertog:
"the top-down approach we have described leads to a very different view of cosmology, and of the relationship between cause and effect. Top-down cosmology is a framework in which one essentially follows histories backward, from a spatial surface in the present age. The non-boundary histories of the universe thus depend on what is observed, as opposed to the usual idea that the universe has a unique history independent of the observer."
S.W. Hawking, Thomas Hertog. "Populating the landscape: A top-down approach".
This approach is based on quantum physics and the principle that a quantum state acquires a definite value only because and when that state is measured (= observed) (the so-called "collapse of the wave function"). Before an observation takes place, all possible values of the quantum state are present in some way simultaneously (in "superposition").
Simply put, the beginning of the universe as a quantum system can be seen as a very small and extremely energetic point called a "singularity". This singularity contained all the matter and energy that would eventually expand to form our vast universe. At this incredibly small scale, the laws of quantum mechanics kick in.
Since the universe began as a quantum system, all possible values and configurations are present simultaneously at the beginning. These too only acquire their final value upon observation!
The conclusion then is that it is us here and now who determine how reality, the universe, presents itself to us, since it is us who make the observations. How and what is to be defined as "us" seems to me an open question. "Us" as collective humanity, as biological creatures, or "us" as "consciousness"? Do robots and Artificial Intelligence also count as "us"?
Another conclusion from this approach is that the so-called Laws of Nature do not "live" unmodified in some eternal Platonic realm, but have developed themselves in a Darwinian way from the beginning until they are what they are now.
And of course, even this approach is only a hypothesis, and it remains to be seen whether it can be proven. Until then, this view too is nothing more than a kind of belief.
Still, hopes are pinned on finding one unified theory in which the three quantum forces are somehow united with gravity and the laws of nature are also defined by the theory. I think this hope is in vain. It is impossible to view the universe from the outside, because there is no outside, at least for us. We are part of this universe, of this life. In a sense, we are the universe, and because the hammer cannot strike itself, we will never be able to understand the universe as a whole. We will always find exceptions, things that do not fit entirely in the theory. We will always find anomalies and strange loose ends. What to do...