A.N. Whitehead warns in the introduction to Process and Reality, that the “chief error” of Western philosophy is “overstatement.” He states: “the aim at generalization is sound, but the estimate of success is exaggerated” (PR, 1978, 7). Further, Whitehead is quick to point out many instances in the history of science and philosophy in which public opinion was dominated by dogmas of “misplaced concreteness,” that is abstractions or hypothetical ideas mistaken as concrete actual entities. This appears to be the common practice of scientists who believe they are on to a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) or Theory of Everything (TOE), which involves equations of strong and weak nuclear force, gravity, and quantum physics. Unlike Whitehead, they claim to speak for all epochs rather than our “immediate” one.

But this ignores the problem of measurement and the qualifications that guide our observations and data—for Whitehead, the mathematical order full of genuine possibilities is subordinated to the act of measuring. He writes:

all exact measurements concern perceptions in the mode of presentational imme¬diacy [space]; and that such observations purely concern the systematic geometric forms of the environment, forms defined by projectors from the ‘seat’ of the strain and irrespective of the actualities which constitute the environment. The contemporary actualities of the world are irrelevant to these observations. All scientific measurements merely concern the sys¬tematic real potentiality out of which these actualities arise. This is the meaning of the doctrine that physical science is solely concerned with the mathematical relations of the world (PR, 326).

Whitehead has a Theory of Extension (Part IV of PR) which holds space and extension are not the same and, like Plato’s Receptacle in the Timaeus, all temporal and spatial relations depend on the “undivided divisibility” of the “extensive continuum.” The extensive continuum symbolizes the universe as such, without denying the regionalization of our experience.

Any system of measurement presupposes certain regions or “neighborhoods” of relations under the environmental conditions of the dominant nexūs of societies. Measurement is shot through with the perception of “presentational immediacy” which “depends solely on the ‘withness’ of the ‘body,’ and only exhibits the external contemporary world in respect to its systematic geometrical relationship to the ‘body’” (PR, 334). Are GUT and TOE exaggerated instances of using abstractions to explain concrete relatedness? Is Whitehead correct to suggest that “measurement is a systematic procedure dependent on the dominant so¬cieties of the cosmic epoch,” which “depend on the actual occasions which atomize the extensive con¬tinuum” (PR, 332)?

  • See John D. Barrow's New Theories of Everything.
    – labreuer
    Mar 14, 2014 at 15:47
  • What examples does Whitehead himself describe? Does Whitehead means by concrete realtedness something on the par of qualia? Or Quiddity? Feynman, in one of his popular books, said that physics doesn't tell you what energy is, only what one can do with that abstraction. One supposes he would say the same thing about matter. Whitehead might be possibly heading in this direction. Its hard to tell from the extract. But he mentions presentational immediacy on the witness of the body which seems to have some bearing on this. What is your understanding of these terms? Mar 14, 2014 at 23:40
  • If this is partially correct, then Whitehead appears to be attacking the notion of physicalism, and given the expectations that physicists have, of physicalism monism. But I think these as philosophical positions have to be distinguished from these as physical positions. Then one I suppose will have to distinguish Physicalism from materialism - which was a doctrine of the Miletus school. I would think Plato wasn't, but how about Aristotle? Finally, is this neo-materialism a recent doctrine? How far can we trace it back. Newton for example was explicitly Christian in a rather Mar 14, 2014 at 23:49
  • unorthodox manner as was Darwin. Did Nietzsche mark this point? Mar 14, 2014 at 23:50
  • 1
    Whitehead attacked vulgar materialism-everything has a physical (concrete) and mental (abstract) route and to only consider the former is a gross abstraction. He is a non-reductionistic physicalist. Mar 16, 2014 at 16:54

3 Answers 3


It's really much simpler than this. Natural philosophers, and after them natural scientists, noticed that some easily-expressed mathematical relationships held between various measurable quantities. f1 + f2 = 0, for instance--Newton's Third law.

Among other things, physicists noticed that two apparently distinct phenomena, electricity and magnetism, were actually tightly interrelated--unified by Maxwell's Equations to such an extent that it made more sense to think of it as "electromagnetism" than as two separate things.

But there are more fields than electric and magnetic fields. There are strong and weak nuclear forces, also, mediated by their own fields. Maybe they all could be neatly wrapped together in one framework, at least under some limiting condition (e.g. absurdly high energy)?

When scientists go after a Grand Unified Theory, they just mean that they would like to find a nice relationship, if one exists. When they go after the Theory of Everything, they want gravity to be in the mix also.

That's really it. Don't mistake the flowery names for some sort of philsophical overreaching that is doomed to failure. It's just plain old ordinary physics, trying to find relationships between fundamental ways in which the universe behaves.

The abstractions may not work out very well or at all. (There are no highly compelling TOEs, and the GUTs are complex to the point where one wonders whether they are worth the bother especially since they don't seem to produce interesting predictions.) But we can understand the endeavor in analogy to the one with EM perfectly well, without any reference to "dominant societies of the cosmic epoch" or things that "atomize the extensive continuum". This really doesn't provide any insight into what physics will work and what will not. The Standard Model has held up amazingly well, and Maxwell's Equations are beautiful, genius, and astoundingly good descriptions of how the world works. Before they were found, you could have leveled the Whitehead's criticism against them.

But they were found, and they work. I'm not sure how you'd know what else will except by trying.

  • [mod deletes comments] Please take extended discussion to chat.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Mar 17, 2014 at 19:48

Rex Kerr's reply is exactly right. This here just to further amplify some points.

Before I start, two references with actual good information that I recommend anyone really interested in understanding this topic should try to look at.

First, a beautiful review of why physicists are interested in Grand Unified Theories is in Edward Witten's talk notes Quest for Unification from 2002.

Second, for those who actually want to hear the music (which in physics means: understand some math), a good gentle introduction is Baez-Huerta's The Algebra of Grand Unified Theories.

For these and further pointers see also the nLab page GUT.

Now, the main point, as Rex Kerr correctly said, is that despite what the words might make you think, the use of "grand unified theory" and "theory of everything" in physics has a definite technical meaning which does not refer to philosophical ontology but very concretely to the ingredients of the presently available models of fundamental physics.

Fundamental physics as of today is modeled by two "standard models", the standard model of particle physics and the standard model of cosmology. The first describes three fundamental forces: electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force, and the second describes the force of gravity.

There is a precise sense in gauge field theory in which gauge forces may be "unified". This is a technical sense where a simple gauge group -- in the technical sense of simple Lie group! -- is assumed to be fundamentally the gauge group of the model which then by a process of spontaneous symmetry breaking at some high energy -- called the "GUT scale" -- "breaks" to the "non-simple" gauge group, such as that in the standard model of particle physics.

By "grand unified theory" physicists mean a phenomenologically viable example of this technical process which would apply to the standard model. This is what "grand unified" means: it unifies the three fundamental gauge forces 1. electromagnetism, 2. weak nuclear force 3. strong nuclear force in the sense of simple gauge groups spontanously breaking at some energy.

You may find that "grand unified" is an overblown term for this, but back in the 1960s when people were all excited, rightly, about the immense progress they made in understanding fundamental physics, it must have felt just right.

And so analogous comments apply to the term "theory of everything". Since in the standard model of fundamental physics as of today there are four fundamental forces, unifying them or else at least describing all four of them in quantum theory would mean to desribe "everything" in the sense of "everything in the present best understanding of physics". It does not mean "everything" in the sense of philosophical ontology.

Or at least it didn't, before the popularizing books and TV shows took over.


A.N. Whitehead warns in the introduction to Process and Reality, that the “chief error” of Western philosophy is “overstatement.” He states: “the aim at generalization is sound, but the estimate of success is exaggerated”

When physicists or mathematicians talk about 'everything' they mean it in a sense peculiar to physics or mathematics and thus its ontology.

Spinoza, for example. might have been somewhat nonplussed about the mathematicians universe, the universal set, that contained everything. Without waiting around for Russells Paradox to raise its head, he might have asked - does the universal set contain God? In his ontology everything is in God.

The problem here is partly language and partly what we mean by a set.

Physicists when they talk of everything it means something specifically targeted at their theory. For example when Newton talked about Universal gravitation it meant tying together Aristotles Celestial & Terrestial gravitation under one rubric.

Similarly given the history of physics and the way that one sees how certain developments become subsumed in others, in particular electomagnetism integrating both the electric and magnetic force, it has led to the expectation, presently unfulfilled, that there will be a theory in which all forces are manifestations of a single force. One could call this a kind of physical monism.

The GUT & TOE had specific & limited strategies in which they attempted this. One way to picture this, is that each force is associated with a symmetry group - like a circle or a sphere, and this specific strategy is to try to find some group that contains them.

Unfortunately the results weren't particularly impressive. One could say that the name was a little premature.

Further, Whitehead is quick to point out many instances in the history of science and philosophy in which public opinion was dominated by dogmas of “misplaced concreteness,” that is abstractions or hypothetical ideas mistaken as concrete actual entities.

This happens all the time. A particularly insidious one is when the theory of evolution was co-opted into politics and eugenics in the early part of the twentieth century. Another one is turning economics into a mathematical discipline along the lines of physics - with the spectacular results seen recently.

Another one is that Physics doesn't explain qualia, the quiddity or the thisness of the world. Since this is an essential part of being conscious, one supposes that it can't explain consciousness either.

  • Agree on all points except "doesn't explain qualia" implies "can't explain consciousness". There's a big difference between doesn't (yet) and can't. There is no reason to suppose that neuroscience, which eventually works out to physics, can't explain consciousness and qualia well enough. Vitalism and the death thereof is illustrative in this regard; what was actually going on was just too different from what people could intuit for them all to accept that being alive was just a particular epiphenomenon of particular material configurations. These days we should not make the same error.
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 15, 2014 at 0:27
  • @Kerr: Well, this is a point where we disagree. No doubt we'll understand better how the brain works through neuro-science - but I don't see anywhere in physics that one can look for to explain qualia itself. Mar 15, 2014 at 0:38
  • Although it is not logically necessary that qualia be explicable, we're rather ignorant of the behavior of brain-like computational systems. Given that having qualia seems utterly dependent on the physical brain, it seems very likely to me that we're just not imaginative enough to see how the pieces could fit together in such a way that qualia fall out. Something about recurrent processing and internal states and comparison of present activity with past ought to be involved; I have no idea quite how, but I also have no idea how a system with such components should behave.
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 15, 2014 at 0:43
  • 1
    My point is that arguments from ignorance are dangerous. They are especially so when you have historical evidence that they were wrong, and when you can show a strong dependency on things that should eventually allow ignorance to be dispelled. That Feynman had no understanding of it is no more germane than that Aristotle had no understanding of quantum mechanics; that Epicurus took consciousness to be material is no more germane than that Huxley and Loeb were critical of vitalism. We have more perspective now since we are less ignorant of the natural world.
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 15, 2014 at 1:24
  • 1
    Certainly there are very many people who do not subscribe to my position. I'm not making an argument by popularity, however. Anyone who cares to can learn the requisite neuroscience (even popularized accounts by e.g. V.S. Ramachandran) now. There was much less to learn forty years ago, less yet eighty, and uselessly little 2k years ago. Maybe minds haven't been exhaustively demonstrated to be physical, but they have all the signatures of a physically generated phenomenon. Arguing "but, but, but, I can't imagine how it works!" should be, therefore, even less compelling than usual.
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 15, 2014 at 7:39

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