In his book "A Tear at the Edge of Creation", physicist Mario Gleiser argues that results from cosmology and particle physics make it unlikely that we will ever find an elegant unified theory of everything.

He suggests that the current search for a Theory of Everything (TOE) and symmetry in the laws of physics by cosmologists, string theorists and other scientists is really just a hold over from monotheism. That even self identified atheist scientists, who are perfectly happy to abandon the notion of God, still cling to the notion of a single set of fundamental laws governing the universe due to the influence monotheism has had on western thought in general.

I find the argument compelling, even if I don't agree with it (In fact his book has me doubting my own atheism and pondering deism).

My questions are the following:

  • Has this point of view, that the search for TOEs and symmetry in the laws of physics is due to the influence of monontheism, been advanced by anyone else of note?
  • What would this point of view be called? Anti-reductionist atheism ? Extreme atheism?
  • (as a side question) Has anyone argued for a similar point of view, not from results in physics, but from Godel's incompleteness theorem?

Edit: The original question used Grand Unification Theory (GUT) instead of Theory of Everything (TOE). I changed the wording per the first answer's comments and after going back to the book itself.

  • 3
    Ironically, while looking for something else unrelated to this question, I was leafing through Wittgenstein's Tractatus and I came across this "6.372 Thus people today stop at the laws of nature, treating them as something inviolable, just as God and Fate were treated in past ages. And in fact both are right and both wrong: though the view of the ancients is clearer in so far as they have a clear and acknowledged terminus, while the modern system tries to make it look as if everything were explained. " Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 2:44
  • I've come across in quite few different places; I'd also point also to the Pythagoreans and the Milisean Monists. Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 8:42
  • @king: In Platos Phaedrus the interlocutors agree that Nature is something that one not need argue over; one can agree on what it is; the same with a dialogue between Bohm and Krishnamurti; but over justice one can...later Plato suggests it as a Form Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 8:45

5 Answers 5

  • Has this point of view, that the search for TOEs and symmetry in the laws of physics is due to the influence of monontheism, been advanced by anyone else of note?

The closest I've heard is, as James Kingsbery points out, that the scientific methods(s) we use today are a natural outgrowth of trying to "re-think" the rational thoughts of a rational Creator-God by understanding the creation. This general sentiment is common among many of the early "greats" in the Halls of Science - Bacon, Boyle, Newton, etc.

  • What would this point of view be called? Anti-reductionist atheism ? Extreme atheism?

I would call it Scientism (cf. Scientific Naturalism). Carl Sagan is properly called out as a major spokesperson for this POV. You might enjoy is book Contact as the characters in this story interact with the topic of this question from several different directions. As a side-note - I liked the movie better since it updated the science by nearly two decades and was otherwise very well produced and acted.

  • Has anyone argued for a similar point of view, not from results in physics, but from Godel's incompleteness theorem?

"The world is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine" - traditionally attributed to J.B.S. Haldane. However, this way of looking at exceeding large/intractable problems would seem to be quite natural and this general sentiment can be found across many fields; especially among those who research under the "Chaoplexity" umbrella.

John Horgan and George Johnson are two science writers who've covered the topic of your question from many different angles. And has been expressed, in essence, by a number of leading scientists, especially physicists and cosmologists (cf. The Quark and the Jaguar; Dreams of a Final Theory; The Inflationary Universe; etc.).

  • I find the argument compelling, even if I don't agree with it (In fact his book has me doubting my own atheism and pondering deism).

Even among staunch atheists like Steven Weinberg, the wonder and maddening mix of the mathematical accuracy (11 significant digits with QED in describing the sub-atomic behavior of things not directly perceived!) and mathematical obscurity (50 years of climate modeling with super computers still leaves us with uncertain weather 3 days out) in our universe is want to engender some explanation outside ourselves.

As the saying goes; "You don't get something from nothing... except, it seems, everything".

  • Ehm, it's extremely well-understood what kind of mathematical differences there are between, say, planetary motion, radioactive decay, and weather. If anyone is maddened by this, it says little but that brainy savannah apes are bad at intuiting mathematical physics and also bad at intuiting that they should be and not to worry about it too much. (In particular, we don't expect to be able to model short-term weather, once we have a clue about what's involved.)
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 3:28
  • @RexKerr - True enough but I wasn't comparing the two types of accuracy to each other. What is "maddening" about QED is that it is accurate for several orders of magnitude more than anyone might have guessed. Why? Why do our mathematical models, derived from crude experimentation, give us answers decades beyond our ability to test? What makes the Copenhagen Interpretation valid and the Pilot Wave Theory akin to pseudo-science? --- "once we have a clue about what's involved". Indeed, any idea when we'll arrive at that point? :)
    – user23715
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 1:29

You should beware that the term "grand unified theory" (GUT), even if it sounds very general, has a very specific meaning in theoretical high energy physics: it refers very specifically to models that replace the gauge group of the standard model of particle physics by one big simple Lie group (in the technical sense of "simple"). For an excellent technical but expositional discussion of what GUTs really are see Baez-Huerta 09. For an excellent account of why physicists think this is a good idea see Witten 02. I expect that if you read that article (which is notes from a public talk, so should be readable for laymen, to some extent) to the end, you will at least feel an inkling of what makes GUTs fascinating intellectually, and it is not related to any theism.

On the other hand, what I guess you are really thinking of in your message are not so much GUTs in the sense as used in theoretical physics, but rather are what physicists call theories of everything (TOEs). That terminology, too, is usually used in physics with more specific meaning than its natural language meaning would suggest, namely it refers foremost to unifications of the standard model of particle physics with quantum gravity, but it is used more generally than the term "GUT", at least, by physicists.

Most people would think that it is quite obvious why intellectually one is tempted to look for a TOE: given two different theories of nature, the standard model of particle physics on the one hand and Einstein gravity on the other, which describe different aspects of fundamental nature, it seems more natural to wonder how they might be two aspects of one single theory than to be content with having two incompatible theories of fundamental nature.

Therefore on a superficial level I would tend to outright reject the suggestion that questions of theism have the first bit to do with the search for ever more fundamental theories of physics.

On the other hand, on a more subtle level I could agree that there is some relation, but I am not sure if we'd meet on that level. But let's see.

So one thing that is curious about the idea that there could be a TOE is that, at least the way it is usually imagined, it would, by definition of its common meaning, be a piece of theoretical physics hence of mathematics, really, which "in principle" encodes all of tangible reality.

When taken fully seriously, such a state of affairs would be a realization of a strong form of idealism, namely it would mean that "the world" in the end is pure thought, to the extent that it is embodied in a physical theory, which after all is, one imagines, a bunch of mathematical axioms and deduction rules.

The existence of a TOE would hence realize a form of idealism as the statement that the world is intelligible, and intelligible to the very end.

Such a strong form of idealism might remind one of Hegel's system -- as it did remind David Hilbert in a famous public lecture a century ago, who there ponderns theories of everything as Weltgesetze and reflects on whether it might indeed be possible to derive the whole world from pure thought (he ends up being scared away from this though, see the pointers here) . Now in Hegel's system, of course, all is unified, the physical laws of nature, the monotheistic god, the spirit, the spirits, the ideas, the whatnot. If you'd argue that physicist's hope in the existence of a TOE is closely related to a theism as in Hegel's system, than I would actually be inclined to follow you, but probably you don't (?)

What is curious in this respect is that theoretical physicists these days, the more fond they are of the idea of reducing all of reality to physical theory, hence to pure thought, the more dismissive they tend to be of philosophy (links). That's ironic and, I think, a sign of intellectual weakness that in the face of what is looking like a grand unification of physics with (idealistic) philosophy, neither camp recognizes the other. But apparently the world spirit has to still work on this... ;-)


I suppose what interests me about the hypothesis is that I've never heard it before!

A few points:

1) The idea of beauty in science and mathematics, and the need for simplicity within the same, can be found in non-monotheists such as Pythagoras. There is a story I've heard that he thought the idea of an "irrational number" was impossible, even when presented the proof.

2) While theists point to God as the grounding for all reality, most don't think that God himself can be described succinctly, or even at all. It seems to me no coincidence that many famous scientists and mathematicians are famous for their equations (Einstein: "E=mc^2", Newton: "F=Ma", Fermat for the Last Theorem), while most theologians are famous for voluminous works.

3) I have heard one Catholic philosopher and theologian, Robert Barron, put forward a different but related hypothesis: Modern sciences emerged when and where they did because of the legacy of Christianity. Obviously, since he is a Catholic priest one might say he is biased. He points to the modern university system growing out of the late Middle Ages, the world as an intelligible thing, and the logic that thinkers in the Middle Ages received from the Ancient world as reasons for justifying this position.

  • Point 3 can be supported by Newton and many European scientists in the Early Modern period who were either priests or very religious, and they were motivated in their scientific work by the urge "to better understand God".
    – vsz
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 12:29

Temporally, as @MoziburUllah points out in the comments, things went the other way. Polytheistic cultures have still given rise to "Theories of Everything".

Plato was, in the end, a sort of monotheist, as his psalms to 'Pan' (who is clearly an expansion of the god of nature to the God of Nature) demonstrate.

But at least as show in the dialogues, he comes to that deduction as a deduction from his assumption there is a single set of natural laws, and if the deities disagreed about it, there could not be, so there must be a supreme single god over them.

We can suppose the theory of Forms, a Theory of Everything, came before the decision to be a monotheist.

And, if I understand them, the Hindu theories of maya and vibrations are really a sort of early unified field theory from a polythestic culture.

All is One, even when God is not.


There are I think a number of sources: from Greece, the early Milesian cosmologists, the Parmenidian One and the Pythagorean cosmology; also the Forms of Plato; and their synthesis with Christian theology.

There is a question too about what we mean by a theory of everything; in a wide sense, this is cosmology, or weltenschauung ie worldview. In this sense the cosmology that informed the layout of Angkor Wat is a theory of everything.

One could ask of course, is it a true theory of everything. Well, perhaps not; but it is significant and significance is an aspect of truth.

Still, there is a difference between myth and nature empirically understood; and the first comprehensive statement in this direction is that the universe is rationally intelligible; attributed to Thales by Russell.

This is a theory of everything without a great deal of detail; in fact it seems the minimal possible; but it underpins everything else.

Still given this thought; we can further ask is all this order compressible to man, or only part, or in fact none.

Given the success of the special sciences we can rule out none, say definitely part - the question is about all.

It's logically possible for the universe to have infinite detail, so it's out of our powers to grasp its totality; for no matter how long humanity lives; it lives only for a finite amount of time; it's also logically possible for the universe to have parts which are simply inaccessible to human thought in a determinable way; ie causally disconnected parts of the universe, or that there is a high or low cutoff.

But in the usual sense that a physicist uses it it's really about a unification of the break in physics inaugurated by the early 20th C; and in a way it echoes and mirrors the early Greek cosmology between celestial and terrestrial phenomena; except now its GR and QM.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .