Is There a Singular Theory
to Explain All of the Data?

by Jonathan J. Dickau ©'98 - all rights reserved

The most recent issue of Scientific American (a Cosmology feature issue) has got me thinking about a great many questions involving the origin of the universe, and what we now know about it. You see, until fairly recently, scientists thought that we were getting pretty close to understanding the dynamics of how the universe came about, and that refinements of the details would allow us to predict the fate of the universe. Unfortunately, a lot of unexpected variations have shown up in recent data, which none of the current theories would have predicted, or can completely explain. This has taken many bright people by surprise, but it doesn't really surprise me. You see, I believe that the scientific community is badly fragmented, and also has its hands tied, to some extent. Scientists are not able to solve some riddles, but this may be because they are using the wrong tools, or taking the wrong approach to the problem, rather than lacking cleverness.

I feel that this phenomenon is caused, in part, by mainstream Science's insistence on a singular explanation, or theory, which explains everything in a particular field. This is due, to some degree, by the narrow categorization required to obtain funding for research projects. It reminds me of the story of Nasruddin, when he is seeking his keys where the light is better, and not where he lost them. In some ways, it is similar to the Music business, where there are established formats (Jazz, Classical, Rock, etc.), and any new music must be put on one of the shelves, in order to be sold. Unless some new work is so exceptional that it has a broad following, and seems to be indicative of a movement toward a new style, there is little chance of it being heard by the larger community. Sometimes major artists are able to innovate, and to foster new stylistic variations, but even this is rare. Therefore, most successful artists innovate only slightly, and play in a popular style.

In a similar way, scientists have been forced to adhere to a set of guidelines which restricts their purview, often adversely, in terms of the search for real solutions to fundamental problems. I don't remember an exact quote, but Einstein was known to say he believed that the universe is reasonably simple to understand, but a certain irreducible complexity exists, and people are unreasonably simplistic. Even in everyday life, there is seldom only one factor which is the cause of a given circumstance, and it is just as seldom that people choose a particular course of action on the basis of one fact alone, yet we are continually asked for the reason why we have done something, as if there were only a single factor involved. Some people will even ask you to tell them the "real" reason, once you have cited all of the contributory factors. I think that reality is a bit more complex, but simple enough to understand, once you figure in that complexity. Scientists are having a problem reconciling Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and I think that part of the difficulty involves the fact that these two pillars are but two of at least six fundamental sciences required to fully explain the reality we inhabit, in terms of accounting for all the known data, and allowing reasonable predictability of future discoveries.

The articles on Cosmology, in Scientific American, which sparked my imagination, made it clear just how little conventional modern Science knows, with absolute certainty, about the universe we inhabit. The cover of that issue (January, 1999) contains the query "New observations have smashed the old view of the universe. What now?," and this does not convey a sense of confidence in the scientific community, to answer the remaining questions. If nothing else, however, the articles contained in that magazine set forth clearly what is not known, and why the new, and accumulating, data calls established theory into question. There is a lot to question, as well, since it is clear that the universe is a shade more wondrous than had been expected. Those who favor a simplistic view of life may be disappointed, but I see this as a new Renaissance for Science, in general.

There are observable astronomical objects (globular clusters) which appear older than conventional theory purports the universe to be. The universe, however, may be expanding at an accelerating pace, and this may render our universe older than expected, but require some form of energy that fills empty space. Why is this? There appears to be only about half the matter in the present-day universe, necessary to make it flat (balanced between expanding and contracting), but the universe had to be incredibly close to flat, at the first instant of the big bang, for it to evolve into its present form. While one article suggests a Cosmological Constant (energy in space as propounded by Einstein) is required, another suggests that some modified form of Inflation (in bubbles) stretches space in the early universe, but allows for further evolution over time. There is a lot of delightful speculation, but none of the theories put forth answers all the questions raised in those articles. I believe there are answers, but they may be more involved than we imagine.

In my opinion, the future of Science is not the mere refinement of details some people expect, but rather a blossoming into whole new areas of discovery. So, where do we look? If we start from the common world-view, there are four quantities, matter, energy, space, and time, manifesting separately, and appearing to be independent. There are distinct conditions where interactions take place in a discrete manner (with fixed numbers of objects and events), and appear to occupy a linear sequence. Observing such interactions begat Classical Mechanics, and led to the mechanistic view of the universe, which appears to be the predominant world-view today. A lot of the assumptions upon which this viewpoint rests, however, have already been overturned by modern Science, and new data suggests that its explanations are still too restrictive. Any singular answer may be a partial one, at best, despite Ockham's razor, which states that, the simplest answer, completely explaining the data, is best. I prefer a far more open approach to the interpretation of things, which favors the inclusion of multiple contributing factors, rather than a single reason, and multiple explanations, all of which offer some advantage in explaining what is observed.

In fact, I contend that contribution by multiple factors and possibilities, that form a rich sea of possible realities to draw from, is what allowed the process of Cosmology to evolve the Universe, as we now know it. Specifically, I am a believer of the idea propounded by Philip Gibbs in his paper Theory of Theories, which suggests that all of what is possible, in terms of having a relevant (and accurate) basis for reality in theory, contributes, in some way, to the actual reality at-large, the world we see around us. In other words, what is possible rests on it's own internal order, and that then creates what is real. The fact that studies in advanced theory of Physics, or of abstract Mathematics, which look for orderly patterns existing of themselves, often reveal an order having further relevance, in another field, is significant. It would imply that even those natural occurrences of orderliness appearing to have no relationship to reality actually have an influence on something, and may contribute to the reality of everything.

I do not mean to suggest that the mere ability to dream that a certain idea is real makes it a self-consistent system, or makes it real for everyone. Some ideas, it would seem, serve only as placekeepers, in the grand scheme of things, where other relations have broad areas of application, in and out of their field of origin. Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2 comes to mind, as an example of an idea with broad applications. It is enticingly tempting to search for yet more relations, whose universality is equally great. On the other hand, trying to find a singular theory, which explains both Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, may belie the underlying complexity of the problem. The very nature of observable reality would suggest that at least two, and probably four distinct areas of inquiry are involved, in any definitive theory which would bridge the gulf between them. Perhaps only the synthesis of two, or more, unrelated theories will give us the right answer.

To illustrate this, I offer the following thought; if coupling space and time, to envision a space/time continuum, and studying the variations in the other quantities, results in Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics results in a similar way, from the assumption that matter and energy are one, or interchangeable, these are only two of six combinations. What about the other possible Sciences, that arise as a result of alternate couplings? What world-view do they describe, and how can that contribute to our understanding? Is this alternative coupling even possible, and is it relevant? Is there an energy/space continuum? How are matter and time connected? What happens if you couple matter and space, or energy and time? Why don't we study all of these things, and why not give them equal emphasis with the other pieces? There are plenty of good reasons why to seek the knowledge of other possible viewpoints, so what prevents that?

To some extent, we do already study these things, we simply haven't elevated some studies to the status of equal disciplines yet. By failing to properly acknowledge these subjects, however, we run the risk of trying to find underlying order where there is none, by looking in the wrong place to find meaningful answers to our questions. We could fail to see what reality means, though the answers have been before us all along, if we don't both coordinate the understanding from different disciplines, and allow for more innovative theory to be explored. Combining results from high-energy physics experiments with astro-physical observations, and comparison with the predictions of various competing theories, is only a start. Synthesis is necessary! The belief that all it takes is an insightful theory of Quantum Gravity, or Inflationary Cosmology, to pin down our knowledge of what is real, may be too simplistic to allow our inquiries to reveal what we wish to know. All manner of new information is coming to light, however, and a lot of it is somewhat iconoclastic, so it seems unlikely that conventional theory will do for much longer.

So what will it take, to come up with definitive answers? Perhaps, to some extent, what is required is seminal ideas from unlikely sources. We should acknowledge the importance of contributions to Science from people who are not attached to the institutions, and organizations, which establish the norms, in Science. Albert Einstein was not a part of the scientific establishment, at the time he propounded his most notable works, and this is highly significant. He was free to think his own thoughts, and we should be too! We tend to believe that the founding fathers (and mothers), of the Sciences, were conventional thinkers. They were not! At least not some of them. Many of those who made significant contributions to our knowledge broke the mold, during their lives.

Even Isaac Newton, whose published work is now viewed as the very model of conventionality, was an iconoclast in his time. Newton wrote several times as many volumes on Alchemy, and other esoteric studies having little to do with conventional Science, than the sum total of his published work. Lawrence M. Krauss, author of one of the feature articles in Scientific American, also wrote "Beyond Star Trek", where he comments on the level of Science in Science Fiction, in the movies, and on television. It can certainly spark the imagination, to see what is depicted on the screen, or even to read it in a book, but doing some things is another matter. We set a very high standard for our scientists and technologists to live up to indeed, by using fiction as a yardstick. Maybe we need esoteric studies even more today, than Newton did.

If we expect scientists to be inspired in their quest for the answers, or even to find the right answers, we are better off encouraging them to pursue innovative and alternative research, rather than studying only what appears to be justified by conventional theory. Sometimes, alternative approaches are the only way to find the truth! We should encourage people in Science to pursue the source of inspiration itself too, whether the arts and music, dreams and visions, meditation and prayer, perhaps a Science Fiction book, a walk in the woods, or love and friendships are what inspires their flights of fancy. Science is an art that requires a lot of inspiration, as well as profound understanding, and hard work, to do it well. There is a potential for boredom, for many scientists, due to the precision required, and the repetitive nature of some tasks. Nonetheless, many important discoveries have been made by assistants who recognized a significant, but unexpected, result.

Those are the moments that all scientists long for, while hoping the funding holds out long enough to get there. It's very inspiring, to know what great value it can have, just to keep your eyes open, but too often, a significant event does not occur for a long time. Windfall discoveries are a wonderful thing, especially when they're few and far between, and almost everyone (in Science) looks for days when unexpected results give new meaning to things, but what's happening in Cosmology is more like a steady stream of surprises. This has led to the demise of many clever theories, which appeared sound for a long time. In order to cope with this wealth of astounding knowledge, we need to re-qualify our grids, the internal measuring framework by which we gauge the universe. We must start by re-examining the underlying assumptions upon which our basis for understanding things rests, and this is very tough.

How can you know how much is real, and how much imagining, if you take away the means for distinguishing the two? This is exactly the kind of challenge that we face, however. We know that some of our basic assumptions must be changed, but we don't quite know which ones, at least not yet. Perhaps we've spent too much time looking at the edges, to see into the heart of things, or maybe we're just too timid to leave our old ideas behind. We don't know to what extent our world-view will change, so many of us have been reluctant to take the plunge. Sometimes a leap into the unknown is enough to stretch the mind past its old bounds, but we also need a larger vocabulary of ideas. This is coming about, in several ways, as both new ideas and new tools of expression are emerging.

Both theoreticians and experimentalists benefit from being able to look past the edges, and to visualize that which is not yet evident. We need to envision things, in order to create models of reality, and once we render these models, in order to see how they behave, this allows us to compare our models with the real world. Computers are allowing us to model many things, and see past the edges, in a way we never could before. It can be very inspiring. The real inspiration, however, still has to come from us. Even with the best computers, it requires a cooperative effort of people and machines, to make the process of integration and synthesis move forward. Perhaps the best examples of this are yet to come, as we also have more pieces to fit together than ever before. We certainly have a lot to learn, but we only know this because we have so much data. We understand that we don't have the real answers, because we know too much to trust the answers we do have.

The biggest problem facing modern Science is how to use the wealth of its knowledge, rather than gathering more. I trust that the gathering of knowledge will continue as long as we are here, since there will always be more to learn. I suspect, however, that there are equally great strides to be made by combining the outlooks of diverse branches of Science, in order to explore similar elements, or principles. In this way, we can derive additional knowledge from information we already have. The concept of Isomorphism (same form), as championed by Douglas Hofstader, the idea of Self-Similarity, as observed by Benoit Mandelbrot, and the subject of Consilience, as put forward by Edward O. Wilson, all point to the same basic reality. There is a fundamental interrelatedness to things which transcends categories of objects or phenomena. By learning to tap into this wealth of knowledge, we may rise above some of the categories too. The most important step here, however, is the first one. The idea that things must be either one way, or another, has served us well in many things, but it is not a fact in every case, or in every area of inquiry. The law of the excluded middle isn't always an accurate assumption.

The wave-particle duality is well-proven. All sub-atomic particles have a wave-like aspect, and all energetic emanations have a particle-like aspect (photons), as well. Basically, this means that things are not one way, or the other, but both ways. It may not be possible to measure both, at once, but the existence of one set of properties does not exclude a complementary set of attributes from existing, for the same thing. In fact, it may have to possess elements of both, in order to exist. This principle applies in other areas of life too, but we must be careful to understand how, and when, to apply it. One interesting example of dual nature was cited, in the issue of Scientific American mentioned previously (in an article on Inflation by Martin A. Bucher and David N. Spergel), which involves two views of a bubble universe inflating. From the outside, it appears finite, but from within, it appears to be infinite. Both viewpoints are equally valid! Physicists also believe something similar happens near a Black Hole. There are many more mundane examples of dual appearance, relativity, and complementarity. In fact, there is ample proof many viewpoints that disagree are equally valid, but we don't have to make everything so complex.

Sometimes, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that things are a particular way, and will always be like that. A rock is quite dependable, for example, in terms of having the same nature for a long time, unless acted upon. Our views of what constitutes that rock, on the other hand, have evolved over time. There is, at least, some acknowledgment of its dual nature. We know that, though the rock appears stable and solid, its form is maintained through dynamic processes, which continue throughout its existence. The rock is indeed constructed solely of particles which possess a wave-like nature, but we can count on their solid particle-like nature to predominate, when enough of them are gathered together, and they appear as one object. The arrangement of atoms into an assemblage of molecular form gives rise to properties which the atoms, of themselves, do not possess, and this makes the rock appear solid to the touch. It is as solid as our own bodies. This doesn't change the fact that the rock is actually mostly empty space, and the smallest elements of its solid form are comprised of energy, however. It is only the vibrancy of the active force, and its manifestation as vibrations within the structure of form, which give substance to matter. Still, for most practical purposes, we can consider the rock to be stable, solid, and singular. The fact that there is a duality to its nature does not affect its mundane properties.

Can we be so cavalier about the beginning and end of the universe, however? Can we ever hope to find a singular explanation, to account for the way our universe appears to manifest? Probably not, but the viewpoints of the theories we evolve to explain, or predict, the data we are gathering all add to our understanding of reality. Furthermore, these answers are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I see no reason why one cannot use Inflation to describe how the universe came to be, and still have a Cosmological Constant in a world of Free Energy to describe how the universe is now. Perhaps the determination of which theory is valid depends more on our choice of viewpoint, than on which interpretation of reality is more valid. Since we can only look at the universe from inside it, there is no clear way to distinguish certain possibilities. If we are in an Inflationary bubble, there is no way of seeing outside it, without traveling faster than light. On the other hand, if some electromagnetic effect bending light is what produces the appearance of curved space, or an expanding universe, we can't distinguish that from the real thing.

Optical geometry (the study of how light moves or propagates) determines what is observable, or measurable. It defines the metric of time and space, since light (or any electromagnetic phenomenon in general) follows its own law. We cannot use light to probe the underlying geometry of space, but we can infer from what we see. What we can measure has shown us that our old models were too simplistic, and we have made noble attempts to adjust them, but the information we have may not be explainable by any single theory. It is my belief that the universe we inhabit is wonderfully magical, unpredictable, and unbounded, but at the same time, it is very specific and constant to fixed natures of reality. This paradox can be reconciled, but perhaps only by balancing alternative viewpoints. It may even require a broader, coordinated effort, as I suggested earlier, involving the combination of multiple scientific disciplines. We can't assume that the universe is simple to understand. Perhaps any single viewpoint is too limiting to really capture the flavor of reality. One thing seems certain, however. If there is a singular theory, to explain all we now know, we haven't found it yet.

©'98 - all rights reserved
Jonathan J. Dickau

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First posted on
January 12, 1999

..and updated on
January 19, 1999

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- jd