Why the quest for a unified theory may be doomed – and why that’s a good thing

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For decades, physicists have been struggling to reconcile two very different pictures of the world: the classical view, which sees the world as being made up of discrete, well-defined objects; and the quantum view, in which things don’t have sharp boundaries but are blurred in space and time. Now, Professor Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, suggests that the attempt to reconcile the two pictures within a unified theory may be a futile quest. Both pictures of reality, he believes, are true within their own respective domains. There’s an upside to this duality: “The classical universe and the quantum universe could then live together in peaceful coexistence,” writes Dyson, in a short essay entitled, “How Incompatible Worldviews Can Coexist” in the IAS newsletter for spring 2013. Chemist Ashutosh Jogalekar has also written an interesting article about Dyson’s proposal over on his blog, The Curious Wavefunction.

The gist of Professor Dyson’s case is that if there is a unified theory, then there must be an elementary particle that mediates the force of gravitation, within the framework of this theory. Physicists refer to this hypothetical elementary particle as a graviton. Dyson has proposed a daring hypothesis: that single gravitons may be unobservable by any conceivable apparatus. He doesn’t claim to have proof for his hypothesis, but he does claim to have evidence. The evidence relates to a gravitational wave detector called a LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), which is now operating in Louisiana and in Washington State. The picture above, courtesy of Wikipedia, is of the LIGO Control Room at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Washington. Dyson explains why he believes that this kind of apparatus could never, even in principle, observe a graviton:

The way LIGO works is to measure very accurately the distance between two mirrors by bouncing light from one to the other. When a gravitational wave comes by, the distance between the two mirrors will change very slightly. Because of ambient and instrumental noise, the actual LIGO detectors can only detect waves far stronger than a single graviton. But even in a totally quiet universe, I can answer the question, whether an ideal LIGO detector could detect a single graviton. The answer is no. In a quiet universe, the limit to the accuracy of measurement of distance is set by the quantum uncertainties in the positions of the mirrors. To make the quantum uncertainties small, the mirrors must be heavy. A simple calculation, based on the known laws of gravitation and quantum mechanics, leads to a striking result. To detect a single graviton with a LIGO apparatus, the mirrors must be exactly so heavy that they will attract each other with irresistible force and collapse into a black hole. In other words, nature herself forbids us to observe a single graviton with this kind of apparatus.

In his blog article, chemist Ashutosh Jogalekar includes an update on the story:

When I met Dyson last year he told me that he had tried hard to find a flaw in the calculation, to no success. If true this limitation goes much beyond detecting discrete gravitons. It could mean that the world of gravity and the world of subatomic particles will forever stay separate from each other, being disallowed from sampling each other’s domains by a fundamental physical barrier.

In a 2012 physics paper entitled, Is a Graviton Detectable?, Dyson also looked at a different class of gravitational wave detectors, which attempt to observe the interactions of gravitons with individual atoms, and concluded that these too could not possibly detect gravitons “in the environment provided by the real universe.” Finally, he examined a third class of detectors, which attempt to observe coherent transitions between graviton and photon states induced by an extended classical magnetic field. For this class of detectors, he was unable to arrive at any definite conclusion. As he put it: “There is much work still to do.”

Of course, the fact that gravitons are undetectable doesn’t make them unreal, and Professor Dyson acknowledges as much in his 2012 paper, which concludes that we cannot rule out either of the following hypotheses, at the present time:

One hypothesis is that gravity is a quantum field and gravitons exist. A second hypothesis is that the gravitational field is a statistical concept like entropy or temperature, only defined for gravitational effects of matter in bulk and not for effects of individual elementary particles. If the second hypothesis is true, then the gravitational field is not a local field like the electromagnetic field. The second hypothesis implies that the gravitational field at a point in space-time does not exist, either as a classical or as a quantum field…

…If a graviton detector is in principle impossible, then both hypotheses remain open. Even if their existence is not experimentally testable, gravitons may still exist.

The conclusion of our analysis is that we are still a long way from settling the question whether gravitons exist. But the question whether gravitons are in principle detectable is also interesting and may be easier to decide.

If Professor Dyson is correct, then the quest for a unified theory of physics is a fundamentally misguided one, and quantum gravity would then be a gigantic waste of time. If this is the case, then physicists would be better advised to direct their intellectual energy at more sensible research goals.

Has Dyson liberated physics from a decades-long fool’s errand? What do readers think?

5 Replies to “Why the quest for a unified theory may be doomed – and why that’s a good thing

  1. 1
    JDH says:

    What bothers me about this concept is that a lot of physics rests upon the axiom that the gravitational mass m that enters into the formula for the potential energy due to gravity is the same as the inertial mass m that enters into formula for kinetic energy. How does Dyson’s work account for this?

  2. 2
    vanodorf says:

    What is astounding to me is that mathematics has been capable of describing as much as it has. A tremendous gift to humanity is how I see it. It’s not written anywhere, however, that mathematics or science for that matter can describe everything. Only the oversized egos of science can believe that. Some things are just bound to remain hidden perhaps. Curious what “facts” evolution has to present on the subject.

  3. 3
    bornagain77 says:

    as to this comment:

    If Professor Dyson is correct, then the quest for a unified theory of physics is a fundamentally misguided one,,,,

    I would hold that the quest is a fundamentally misguided one, but not for the reasons Professor Dyson listed. The reason why I hold the quest for a unified theory of physics to be fundamentally misguided is because they are looking for the answer towards unification in the all wrong places. But lets back up a little and ask ourselves, “why should we be looking for a ‘unified theory of everything in the first place?”,,,

    In Cambridge, Professor Steve Fuller discusses intelligent design – Video
    At 17:34 minute mark of the video, Dr. Steve Fuller states:
    “So you think of physics in search of a “Grand Unified Theory of Everything”, Why should we even think there is such a thing? Why should we think there is some ultimate level of resolution? Right? It is part, it is a consequence of believing in some kind of design. Right? And there is some sense in which that however multifarious and diverse the phenomena of nature are, they are ultimately unified by the minimal set of laws and principles possible. In so far as science continues to operate with that assumption, there is a presupposition of design that is motivating the scientific process. Because it would be perfectly easy,, to stop the pursuit of science at much lower levels. You know understand a certain range of phenomena in a way that is appropriate to deal with that phenomena and just stop there and not go any deeper or any farther.”,,, You see, there is sense in which there is design at the ultimate level, the ultimate teleology you might say, which provides the ultimate closure,,”

    In fact one could argue very persuasively that design thinking is hardwired into us and this is why we intuitively know that there is a ‘theory of everything’,,,

    Out of the mouths of babes – Do children believe (in God) because they’re told to by adults? The evidence suggests otherwise – Justin Barrett – 2008
    Excerpt: • Children tend to see natural objects as designed or purposeful in ways that go beyond what their parents teach, as Deborah Kelemen has demonstrated. Rivers exist so that we can go fishing on them, and birds are here to look pretty.
    • Children doubt that impersonal processes can create order or purpose. Studies with children show that they expect that someone not something is behind natural order. No wonder that Margaret Evans found that children younger than 10 favoured creationist accounts of the origins of animals over evolutionary accounts even when their parents and teachers endorsed evolution. Authorities’ testimony didn’t carry enough weight to over-ride a natural tendency.
    • Children know humans are not behind the order so the idea of a creating god (or gods) makes sense to them. Children just need adults to specify which one.
    • Experimental evidence, including cross-cultural studies, suggests that three-year-olds attribute super, god-like qualities to lots of different beings. Super-power, super-knowledge and super-perception seem to be default assumptions. Children then have to learn that mother is fallible, and dad is not all powerful, and that people will die. So children may be particularly receptive to the idea of a super creator-god. It fits their predilections.
    • Recent research by Paul Bloom, Jesse Bering, and Emma Cohen suggests that children may also be predisposed to believe in a soul that persists beyond death.

    Design Thinking Is Hardwired in the Human Brain. How Come? – October 17, 2012
    Excerpt: “Even Professional Scientists Are Compelled to See Purpose in Nature, Psychologists Find.” The article describes a test by Boston University’s psychology department, in which researchers found that “despite years of scientific training, even professional chemists, geologists, and physicists from major universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Yale cannot escape a deep-seated belief that natural phenomena exist for a purpose” ,,,
    Most interesting, though, are the questions begged by this research. One is whether it is even possible to purge teleology from explanation.

    In fact it was the ‘design thinking’ of Judeo-Christian cultures which was spark which ignited the modern scientific revolution,,,

    Jerry Coyne on the Scientific Method and Religion – Michael Egnor – June 2011
    Excerpt: The scientific method — the empirical systematic theory-based study of nature — has nothing to so with some religious inspirations — Animism, Paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Islam, and, well, atheism. The scientific method has everything to do with Christian (and Jewish) inspiration. Judeo-Christian culture is the only culture that has given rise to organized theoretical science. Many cultures (e.g. China) have produced excellent technology and engineering, but only Christian culture has given rise to a conceptual understanding of nature.

    Epistemology – Why Should The Human Mind Even Be Able To Comprehend Reality? – Stephen Meyer – video – (Notes in description)

    The very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way.
    ~ Paul Davies

    “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”
    John Lennox

    Moreover, mathematical descriptions, just because they may describe something very accurately and as impressive as they may appear to people as descriptions, do not and cannot have causal power associate to them,, That is just as erroneous as confusing a description of a person, however accurate the description may be, with the person themselves!

    But contrary to what Hawking claims, physical laws can never provide a complete explanation of the universe. Laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions.
    What Hawking appears to have done is to confuse law with agency. – John Lennox

    BRUCE GORDON: Hawking’s irrational arguments – October 2010
    Excerpt: Universes do not “spontaneously create” on the basis of abstract mathematical descriptions, nor does the fantasy of a limitless multiverse trump the explanatory power of transcendent intelligent design. What Mr. Hawking’s contrary assertions show is that mathematical savants can sometimes be metaphysical simpletons. Caveat emptor.

    Moreover, as Godel showed in his incompleteness theorem,,,

    Kurt Gödel – Incompleteness Theorem – video

    ,,there can never be a ‘complete’ mathematical theory of everything,,

    Godel and Physics – John D. Barrow
    Excerpt (page 5-6): “Clearly then no scientific cosmology, which of necessity must be highly mathematical, can have its proof of consistency within itself as far as mathematics go. In absence of such consistency, all mathematical models, all theories of elementary particles, including the theory of quarks and gluons…fall inherently short of being that theory which shows in virtue of its a priori truth that the world can only be what it is and nothing else. This is true even if the theory happened to account for perfect accuracy for all phenomena of the physical world known at a particular time.”
    Stanley Jaki – Cosmos and Creator – 1980, pg. 49

  4. 4
    bornagain77 says:

    Interestingly, at one time, even Stephen Hawking, and even Professor Dyson himself, had realized the deep implications inherent in Godel’s incompleteness theorem,,,

    The nature and significance of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems – Princeton – 2006
    Excerpt: ,,Stephen Hawking and Freeman Dyson, among others, have come to the conclusion that Gödel’s theorem implies that there can’t be a Theory of Everything.,,

    But apparently Hawking forgot the implications he had conceded to Godel’s incompleteness, and Professor Dyson, if I’m reading him right, says we should give up searching for a theory of everything. Yet, I would hold that we should follow the implications of Godel’s incompleteness where they lead, wherever they may lead!

    Taking God Out of the Equation – Biblical Worldview – by Ron Tagliapietra – January 1, 2012
    Excerpt: Kurt Gödel (1906–1978) proved that no logical systems (if they include the counting numbers) can have all three of the following properties.
    1. Validity – all conclusions are reached by valid reasoning.
    2. Consistency – no conclusions contradict any other conclusions.
    3. Completeness – all statements made in the system are either true or false.
    The details filled a book, but the basic concept was simple and elegant. He summed it up this way: “Anything you can draw a circle around cannot explain itself without referring to something outside the circle—something you have to assume but cannot prove.” For this reason, his proof is also called the Incompleteness Theorem.
    Kurt Gödel had dropped a bomb on the foundations of mathematics. Math could not play the role of God as infinite and autonomous. It was shocking, though, that logic could prove that mathematics could not be its own ultimate foundation.
    Christians should not have been surprised. The first two conditions are true about math: it is valid and consistent. But only God fulfills the third condition. Only He is complete and therefore self-dependent (autonomous). God alone is “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28), “the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13). God is the ultimate authority (Hebrews 6:13), and in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3).

    as to this comment:

    “Anything you can draw a circle around cannot explain itself without referring to something outside the circle—something you have to assume but cannot prove.”

    I hold that there are only three candidates to be ‘outside the circle’, to explain why the ‘circle’ of the universe exists.

    The Known Universe by AMNH – video – (please note the ‘centrality’ of the Earth within the ‘circle’ of the universe)

    Proverbs 8:26-27
    While as yet He had not made the earth or the fields, or the primeval dust of the world. When He prepared the heavens, I was there, when He drew a circle on the face of the deep,

    The three candidates for being ‘outside the circle’ of the universe are 1.Nothing, 2.Randomness, or 3.God.

    As to postulating that nothing created the universe, well that is just simply absurd.

    Not Understanding Nothing – A review of A Universe from Nothing – Edward Feser – June 2012
    Excerpt: A critic might reasonably question the arguments for a divine first cause of the cosmos. But to ask “What caused God?” misses the whole reason classical philosophers thought his existence necessary in the first place. So when physicist Lawrence Krauss begins his new book by suggesting that to ask “Who created the creator?” suffices to dispatch traditional philosophical theology, we know it isn’t going to end well. ,,,
    ,,, But Krauss simply can’t see the “difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one.” The difference, as the reader of Aristotle or Aquinas knows, is that the universe changes while the unmoved mover does not, or, as the Neoplatonist can tell you, that the universe is made up of parts while its source is absolutely one; or, as Leibniz could tell you, that the universe is contingent and God absolutely necessary. There is thus a principled reason for regarding God rather than the universe as the terminus of explanation.

    Richard Dawkins gets OWNED by a Catholic Priest on nothing – video

    Second, postulating Randomness as ‘outside the circle’ crashes head on into epistemological failure,,

    GORDON: Hawking irrational arguments
    Theoretical physicist takes leave of his senses – Oct. 2010
    Excerpt: For instance, we find multiverse cosmologists debating the “Boltzmann Brain” problem: In the most “reasonable” models for a multiverse, it is immeasurably more likely that our consciousness is associated with a brain that has spontaneously fluctuated into existence in the quantum vacuum than it is that we have parents and exist in an orderly universe with a 13.7 billion-year history. This is absurd. The multiverse hypothesis is therefore falsified because it renders false what we know to be true about ourselves. Clearly, embracing the multiverse idea entails a nihilistic irrationality that destroys the very possibility of science

    The Absurdity of Inflation, String Theory & The Multiverse – Dr. Bruce Gordon – video

    Last power point of preceding video states:

    The End Of Materialism? – Dr. Bruce Gordon
    * In the multiverse, anything can happen for no reason at all.
    * In other words, the materialist is forced to believe in random miracles as a explanatory principle.
    * In a Theistic universe, nothing happens without a reason. Miracles are therefore intelligently directed deviations from divinely maintained regularities, and are thus expressions of rational purpose.
    * Scientific materialism is (therefore) epistemically self defeating: it makes scientific rationality impossible.

    Thus only God provides a coherent answer for what is ‘outside the circle’ of Godel’s incompleteness theorem. But why in blue blazes should we have ever been misled to think otherwise?

    This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. And if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the light of the sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems: and lest the systems of the fixed stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath placed those systems at immense distances one from another. This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God pantokrator, or Universal Ruler;,,, The Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect;,,, from his true dominion it follows that the true God is a living, intelligent, and powerful Being; and, from his other perfections, that he is supreme, or most perfect. He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done. He is not eternity or infinity, but eternal and infinite; he is not duration or space, but he endures and is present. He endures for ever, and is every where present:
    Sir Isaac Newton – Quoted from what many consider the greatest science masterpiece of all time, his book “Principia”

    But some may ask “what does all the preceding have to do with finding a unification between Gravity and Quantum Mechanics into a theory of everything?” Well I’m glad you asked,, The primary conflict of reconciling General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics appears to arise from the inability of either theory to successfully deal with the Zero/Infinity problem that crops up in different places of each theory:

    Excerpt: The biggest challenge to today’s physicists is how to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics. However, these two pillars of modern science were bound to be incompatible. “The universe of general relativity is a smooth rubber sheet. It is continuous and flowing, never sharp, never pointy. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, describes a jerky and discontinuous universe. What the two theories have in common – and what they clash over – is zero.”,, “The infinite zero of a black hole — mass crammed into zero space, curving space infinitely — punches a hole in the smooth rubber sheet. The equations of general relativity cannot deal with the sharpness of zero. In a black hole, space and time are meaningless.”,, “Quantum mechanics has a similar problem, a problem related to the zero-point energy. The laws of quantum mechanics treat particles such as the electron as points; that is, they take up no space at all. The electron is a zero-dimensional object,,, According to the rules of quantum mechanics, the zero-dimensional electron has infinite mass and infinite charge.

    Quantum Mechanics and Relativity – The Collapse Of Physics? – video

  5. 5
    bornagain77 says:

    In the preceding video towards the end, after lamenting ‘the collapse of physics as we know it’ because of the irreconcilable ‘infinity problem’, one of the physicists states something to the effect.

    “We never know what is going to come out of a singularity”

    As to a unexpected singularity that most people ignore,,

    A Particle Physicist Looks At The Turin Shroud – Video

    THE EVENT HORIZON (Space-Time Singularity) OF THE SHROUD OF TURIN. – Isabel Piczek – Particle Physicist
    Excerpt: We have stated before that the images on the Shroud firmly indicate the total absence of Gravity. Yet they also firmly indicate the presence of the Event Horizon. These two seemingly contradict each other and they necessitate the past presence of something more powerful than Gravity that had the capacity to solve the above paradox.

    Moreover it has been shown that the image on the Shroud requires a ‘quantum explanation’, not a classical explanation:

    The absorbed energy in the Shroud body image formation appears as contributed by discrete values – Giovanni Fazio, Giuseppe Mandaglio – 2008
    Excerpt: This result means that the optical density distribution,, can not be attributed at the absorbed energy described in the framework of the classical physics model. It is, in fact, necessary to hypothesize a absorption by discrete values of the energy where the ‘quantum’ is equal to the one necessary to yellow one fibril.

    Of related note: a couple of interesting statements are made in this following paper in regards to ‘getting rid of infinities’ so as to find a coherent ‘theory of everything’:

    You don’t exist in an infinite number of places, say scientists – January 25, 2013
    Excerpt: But the scientists’ biggest criticism of the idea of infinite repetition in both proposals is the assumption that the universe is infinite.,,, (yet, “All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning.” –
    Cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin)
    Soler Gil and Alfonseca note that, looking back at the history of physics, situations emerged where infinities seemed impossible to avoid, yet improved theories eliminated the infinities. Currently the two basic theories in physics, general relativity and quantum theory, both predict infinities. In relativity, it’s gravity singularities in black holes and the big bang. In quantum theory, it’s vacuum energy and certain parts of quantum field theory. Perhaps both theories are simple approximations of a third more general theory without infinities.
    Soler Gil and Alfonseca also note that, Paul Dirac once stated that the most important challenge in physics was “to get rid of infinity.”
    While Soler Gil and Alfonseca can’t disprove the proposals of infinite repetition, they emphasize that the point of their critique is to show that the idea remains in the realm of philosophy, mythology, and sci-fi tales, not modern cosmology. They call the speculation “ironic science,” a term used by science journalist John Horgan to describe options that do not converge on truth but are at best “interesting.”

    As to finding a “a third more general theory without infinities” that he mentioned in the preceding paper, I would like to point something else out that Godel, author of the incompleteness theorem, said,,

    The God of the Mathematicians – Goldman
    Excerpt: As Gödel told Hao Wang, “Einstein’s religion [was] more abstract, like Spinoza and Indian philosophy. Spinoza’s god is less than a person; mine is more than a person; because God can play the role of a person.
    – Kurt Gödel – (Gödel is considered one of the greatest logicians who ever existed)

    as to ‘God can play the role of a person’, and finding a “a third more general theory without infinities” , I submit this,,,

    The End Of Christianity – Finding a Good God in an Evil World – Pg.31
    William Dembski PhD. Mathematics and Theology
    Excerpt: “In mathematics there are two ways to go to infinity. One is to grow large without measure. The other is to form a fraction in which the denominator goes to zero. The Cross is a path of humility in which the infinite God becomes finite and then contracts to zero, only to resurrect and thereby unite a finite humanity within a newfound infinity.”

    Thus we find a very credible reconciliation between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, into a general theory of everything ‘without infinities’, in the resurrection ‘singularity’ event of Christ. Moreover, if one looks at the overall picture of the universe, it certainly seems as if the entire universe was ‘set up’ for such a singularity event to occur as is witnessed in the resurrection event of Christ that is testified to by the image on the Shroud:

    Centrality of Each Individual Observer In The Universe and Christ’s Very Credible Reconciliation Of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics
    Excerpt: I find it extremely interesting, and strange, that quantum mechanics tells us that instantaneous quantum wave collapse to its ‘uncertain’ 3-D state is centered on each individual conscious observer in the universe, whereas, 4-D space-time cosmology (General Relativity) tells us each 3-D point in the universe is central to the expansion of the universe. These findings of modern science are pretty much exactly what we would expect to see if this universe were indeed created, and sustained, from a higher dimension by a omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal Being who knows everything that is happening everywhere in the universe at the same time. These findings certainly seem to go to the very heart of the age old question asked of many parents by their children, “How can God hear everybody’s prayers at the same time?”,,, i.e. Why should the expansion of the universe, or the quantum wave collapse of the entire universe, even care that you or I, or anyone else, should exist? Only Theism offers a rational explanation as to why you or I, or anyone else, should have such undeserved significance in such a vast universe:

    Verse and music:

    Colossians 1:15-20
    The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

    Mark Schultz – All Things Possible

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