Education and Finality Claims

Stephen Hawking kept saying he wanted to discover the ultimate world-equation. This would be the final “triumph of the rational human mind.”

This would presumably imply that if one had such a world-equation, one could infer or deduce all the formalisms in a university physics book with its thousand pages of equations, puzzles and conundrums, footnotes and names and dates.

While hypothetically imaginable, this seems very unlikely because too many phenomena are included, too many topics, too many rules and laws.

There’s another deep problem with such Hawking-type “final equation” quests. Think of the fact that a Henri Poincaré (died in 1912) suddenly appears and writes hundreds of excellent science papers. Think of Paul Erdős (died in 1996) and his hundreds of number theory papers. Since the appearance of such geniuses and powerhouses is not knowable in advance, the production of new knowledge is unpredictable and would “overwhelm” any move towards some world-equation which was formulated without the new knowledge since it was not known at the time that the world-equation was formalized.

Furthermore, if the universe is mathematical as MIT’s Professor Max Tegmark claims, then a Hawking-type “world-equation” would cover all mathematics without which parts of Tegmark’s universe would be “unaccounted for.”

In other words, history and the historical experience, cast doubt on the Stephen Hawking “finality” project. It’s not just that parts of physics don’t fit together. (General relativity and quantum mechanics, gravity and the other three fundamental forces.) Finality would also imply that there would be no new Stephen Hawking who would refute the world-equation as it stands at a certain point in time. In other words, if you choose, as scientists like Freeman Dyson claim that the universe is a “vast evolutionary” process, then the mathematical thinking about it is also evolving or co-evolving and there’s no end.

There are no final works in poetry, novels, jokes, language, movies or songs and there’s perhaps also no end to science.

Thus a Hawking-type quest for the final world-equation seems enchanting but quixotic.

Essay 100: “The View From Nowhere” Problem

The phrase “view from nowhere” comes from the title of a 1986 classic philosophy book by Professor Thomas Nagel. It tries to wrestle with the paradox that the human ability to take a “detached view” (abstract theory, say) is potentially misleading since the person behind the detachment is a real person embodied and somewhere.

A theoretician like Richard Feynman (the great physicist) has a nervous system, a brain, a body and uses his hand to write equations on the blackboard. One is trained to focus on the equations since that’s the physics. The person, the physicist is a detail, a distraction, an irrelevance. However this can’t be true since the physicistRichard Feynman in this example—represents a human way of looking at things, at a time and place, no matter how heterodox or offbeat the view.

The human “style” of “being-in-the-world” comes into the equations and to the very idea of equating.

Human beings have the unique ability to view the world in a detached way: We can think about the world in terms that transcend our own experience or interest, and consider the world from a vantage point that is, in Nagel’s words, “nowhere in particular.” At the same time, each of us is a particular person in a particular place, each with his own “personal” view of the world, a view that we can recognize as just one aspect of the whole. How do we reconcile these two standpoints—intellectually, morally, and practically?

To what extent are they irreconcilable and to what extent can they be integrated? Thomas Nagel’s ambitious and lively book tackles this fundamental issue, arguing that our divided nature is the root of a whole range of philosophical problems, touching, as it does, every aspect of human life. He deals with its manifestations in such fields of philosophy as: the mind-body problem, personal identity, knowledge and skepticism, thought and reality, free will, ethics, the relation between moral and other values, the meaning of life, and death.

Excessive objectification has been a malady of recent analytic philosophy, claims Nagel, it has led to implausible forms of reductionism in the philosophy of mind and elsewhere.

The solution is not to inhibit the objectifying impulse, but to insist that it learn to live alongside the internal perspectives that cannot be either discarded or objectified. Reconciliation between the two standpoints, in the end, is not always possible.

Table of Contents for The View from Nowhere book:

I. Introduction
II. Mind
III. Mind and Body
IV. The Objective Self
V. Knowledge
VI. Thought and Reality
VII. Freedom
VIII. Value
IX. Ethics
X. Living Right and Living Well
XI. Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life