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Unifying Theory

If biology’s grand unifying theory has such success, obviously we will all be much better off. Oddly, the same is true if some sciences’ dreams of finding unifying theories fail. The most important science in this class is psychology, specifically, cognitive science. Cognitive scientists have been looking for decades for a unifying theory to explain the entire mind and brain. Their search was modeled on other, better established sciences, like physics (an irony, it turns out, since physics is also in this class). For example, one major contender in this heated race for unification is the computational theory of mind. Large parts of thought and thinking can be explained as the software of a very sophisticated computer (one we are currently unable to even come close to building). The computer is the brain, and the mind is its working software. While this theory has been enormously successful, it now appears as if the goal of using it for a grand unifying theory was wrong-headed.

Eric Dietrich

Looking for a unifying theory of the mind and brain is now being compared to looking for a unifying theory of the entire Amazon rainforest — a theory that explains all of its flora and fauna, their interactions, how they all came to be, the rainforest’s weather and its geology. No such theory is in the cards: The rainforest is simply too complex. The same realization is beginning to be accepted in cognitive science: The mind and the brain that produces it are just too complex for one theory to be able to explain all that needs explaining. The gap between the dynamics of the cytoskeletons of neurons and being able to pass a class in the history of the American novel is so large that completely different sciences are going to be needed to explain the relevant phenomena.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Developing theories of memory, reasoning, learning, perception, action and emotion all look like they will require very different methodologies. These different methodologies, though perhaps not lying in completely different sciences, will definitely lie in quite different subfields of cognitive science.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that there is a paradox within biology’s and cognitive science’s futures. In so far as we think of ourselves as organisms subject to the power of evolution, we can explain some of our deepest beliefs and motivations — one unifying theory has enormous power. In so far as we think of ourselves as thinking things, we can only explain ourselves in a piecemeal way — one unifying theory is a pipe dream. But we are both a kind of African ape, subject to evolution, as well as cognizers best classified as unique in the animal kingdom. Paradoxes like this, which are starting to crop up in other sciences, make it hard to understand what nature is trying to tell us.

Furthermore, we can’t predict which of all the sciences will wind up like cognitive science or like evolutionary biology. And just because a science at one time is closing in on its dream of unification, doesn’t mean that the dream will continue to unfold that way. As mentioned, physics, the Platonic ideal of a science, looks as if it is going to be forced to give up its dream of a grand unifying theory. So, though the situation is puzzling, the message is clear. We humans live in a vastly complex universe, and this complexity is mirrored in our own minds. The furniture of the universe does not fit into neat categories, fixed once and for all. Rather, it lies in categories that sometimes contradict each other, and that often crisscross each other in ways we may never fully understand. All of this is going to play out on the 21st century’s stage. And nowhere will this drama be more important than at universities. The dream of one world, one theory is dead. Even the dream of one world, many theories is dying, for it is far from clear that there is “one world.”

Our students need to be given a new dream. Our students need to be given the dream that humans, the world and the universe are far richer, far more wonderful than any single science can handle, and indeed more wonderful than all the sciences combined. Science is one of the greatest achievements of humankind. But one of the things science reveals is the universe’s inexhaustible supply of surprises.

This new dream might be unsettling. But it is actually far more optimistic than the dream of unification. We need not fear this new dream, for it will reveal a universe of excellent beauty. And, as Francis Bacon taught us, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”

— Eric Dietrich

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