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.”