Rejected, Revoked and Replaced: End to the Idea of a Final Theory

Part of the series, “Thoughts about a Final Theory of the World”

This set of blogs is about the idea held by many that a “theory” is a special piece of guess-work which could also be model for a Final Theory of the World. Such a theory has been used in the past to explain everything. Its origin – to my mind – is rooted in early deism, the idea that the world was made (created) according to a plan which can be accessed or reconstructed.

I take a contrarian position, that claims of this sort are logically faulty and consequently cannot be upheld. One cannot suppose something – that is, create a network of hypotheses — and concurrently claim it is indisputable. To insist that such a supposition is “true” or has passed strong tests of validity is to put forward a system that lifts whatever the theory asserts above any possibility of dispute. It is no longer a theory, but a faith — hence my choice of calling it “deistic”.

In truth, making a supposition is to hypothesize that it could also be incorrect: that could be disputed, and could be proven otherwise than claimed.

The alternative is as follows: to view any account given of an event as itself only an option – perhaps one of several.

One zeros in on an event which effectively marks it off from other events – an act of demarcation. This is accomplished by us using primarily linguistic descriptions. Each successive description draws lines, create a demarcation of an event which separates it from others. It happens in multidimensional space, as when we use “time” as one of the dimensions in describing events.

These are acts of judgement, and should not be construed as final acts. Furthermore, the event is invariably described in terms which are not independent of each other but form part of a contextual web. Thus when we add a new word to a vocabulary, old words are amended. It is a process without end – or so it seems.

The history of some of our most treasured concepts show this to be the case. For example, the concept of an “atom”, or lest we forget, the concept of “mind” (see G. Ryle’s classic book on this topic) or the concept of “memory” (see specifically K. Danziger: Marking the Mind, 2012). Such webs – once isolated – must be evaluate, a process which seems unending and which has kept philosophers and historians of culture continuously busy for the past few hundred years.

I suggest we view any theory as a narrative whose distinct aim is to create an explanation of clearly-defined end-states, and that each theory proceeds – far as we can tell – in the following steps:

  1. Its period of formulation
  2. Its period of application to an ever-wider circle of phenomena – this is the period when it is dressed for display as a potential theory of many things
  3. Its period of contraction when it seem that there are many authenticated events which were not covered by the theory
  4. Its period of rejection, when there is increasing doubt that the theory as an independent event covers even those events for which it was originally developed as an explanation — i.e., it is seen to fail as an explanation
  5. Its period of revocation as one of many theories which defined the brotherhood of operative theories
  6. Its official replacement when those who profess theories about a domain (e.g., the nature and properties of light) adopt a theory which is logically incompatible with its predecessors

Each of the 6 points listed needs amplification. I hope to comment on each in later blogs all of which will be related to the subtitle, “Thoughts about Final Theory of the World.”

2 thoughts on “Rejected, Revoked and Replaced: End to the Idea of a Final Theory

  1. If no theory is ever final, then any theory about the impossibility of finality would prove its own premise.

    The question then becomes, if your supposition about this particular supposition ever reaches #6, what’s the new number #1 that might replace it?

    Or…do the limits of impossibility, with respect to finality, not extend to the conceptual frameworks but rather only to (deistic) empirical ones? What then sets the asymptote for an endless evolution of theory on one hand, and an unchanging static conceptual framework (in which these other theories play and change) on the other?

  2. The question you have raised is whether the term “final theory” is contradictory so that my criticism of previous attempts to develop “final theories” is misplaced. A theory must always be about something, not about everything since “everything” is not a name of a domain or an event. Rather it is analogous to the idea of zero, a member of a class which has no members. Those who claim to have developed a final theory of anything are therefore obliged to tell us what such a theory is about. When this is done it appears that what a theory is about cannot be easily told without introducing terms and descriptions which are themselves “theory infested” descriptions.

    Nevertheless our intellectual history – as told by many eminent thinkers – is replete with attempts by “great thinkers” to provide us with a theory of everything, of those things we already known and those many things we still have to discover ( so everyone concedes that we don’t in fact know everything. This makes it difficult to develop a theory of things unknown?) What I had aimed to do in my blog was to suggest that there is also a flaw in the logic of an argument based on the premise that there are special, reserved areas of knowledge which when elucidated will open the gates to an understanding of all phenomena. It would therefore be better, I thought, to present one’s theories more humbly but without thereby conceding that theories which are currently seriously flawed may yet live to see happier days should these be rehabilitated. The chances of that are zero. The Gods moved out of Valhalla long ago and won’t return. ( With that also died their theory that “eternal youth” was lost through our iniquity, our greed, as Wagner would have it).

    So what I struggled to make clear was that there are both logical and epistemological reasons for modifying our epistemic stance towards any future claims that someone has constructed a theory of theories which can claim to be final . This holds both for those theories which claim that they cover a limited domain – like theories about bird migration – and those which have more grandiose ambitions by claiming to cover all that is known and that will be known.

    Note: a theory involves explanations offered for discovered events only. If one hypothesizes what the facts (data) are likely to be – because one does not have data yet – one constructs a fictive theory. Nothing wrong with that – provided one keep in mind that such theories must be judged by whether the predictions made by them are correct, or reasonably so.

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