International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

New Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanation

by John D. Barrow

Introductory Essay by George Coyne

The best recommendation for this book is the author himself. John Barrow has written extensively and lucidly on the various interpretations of the Theory of Everything. But this is not just a repetition of his previous writings. While he summarizes brilliantly what has gone before, he advances the discussion considerably. He makes a significant contribution to the modern dialogue between science and religious belief. He shows that, while a Theory of Everything, which is a scientific venture, may well be necessary if we are to understand the universe around us and ourselves, it will never be sufficient. Other pursuits of the human being, including religious belief, will be required.

What is a Theory of Everything? It is an attempt to unite all of our scientific understanding of nature into a single statement that reveals all that must have happened, is happening and will happen in the physical world – the emphasis is on “must.” After lengthy discussions, towards the end of the book Barrow says in more technical terms that the Theory of Everything is “a quest for that technique whose application could decode the message of Nature in every circumstance. But we know there must exist circumstances where mere technique will fail” [244]. Here again is an expression of the inadequacy of a Theory of Everything.

In a closely knit series of chapters, Barrow discusses the individual ingredients of a Theory of Everything: laws of nature, initial conditions, forces and particles, constants of nature, broken symmetries, organizing principles, selection biases, and categories of thought. Most of these chapters deal with highly technical topics but Barrow discusses them in a lucid prose that will assist the non-scientist to persevere in an attempt to grasp the essentials.

What is “new”, as the title claims? After all, as the author discusses, the Jesuit priest and scientist, Roger Boscovich, in his 1758 Theory of Natural Philosophy, was the first to propose a unified mathematical theory of all of the forces of nature. Boscovich’s continuous force law was the first scientific Theory of Everything. The claim to newness is based extensively upon the fact that a Theory of Everything is no longer seen as dealing exclusively with the laws of nature. The search for that kind of Theory of Everything was subservient to a Platonic prejudice that timeless universals were more important than the world of particulars which are the stuff of our daily experiences. Furthermore, it may be that the inevitable connection between the laws of nature and the initial conditions of the universe may be a fabrication of our way of thinking. That connection may not actually exist. Furthermore, according to some interpretations of quantum mechanics we cannot tie individual observations to specific causes with the result that we might describe the creation of the universe without requiring a first cause.

Finally, what is “everything”? At the beginning of his book Barrow asks whether it includes the works of Shakespeare, the Taj Mahal, the Mona Lisa. At the end he speaks more technically of the “prospective” features of the world which he defines as “those which we cannot recognize or generate by a series of sequence of logical steps” [245]. Beauty, simplicity, and truth are all “prospective” properties. In the final analysis, should scientists ever find a Theory of Everything, it will certainly not be about everything but only about that which is “algorithmically compressible” [11]. It will be well worth the reader’s effort to come to terms with such expressions as that.