Wednesday, October 24, 2012

[PHI 3800] Unification

In Part 1 of The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene talks about unification, i.e., explaining various phenomena by means of one theory.


Watch The Elegant Universe: Part 1 on PBS. See more from NOVA.

For example:
The assumption seems to be that having one theory that explains two phenomena is better than having two theories that explain these phenomena. More explicitly:
  1. Theory 1 explains phenomenon 1 and theory 2 explains phenomenon 2.
  2. Theory 3 explains both phenomenon 1 and phenomenon 2.
Is (2) better than (1)? If so, why? 

2 comments:

  1. Stephanie SfiroudisOctober 30, 2012 at 7:15 PM

    The explanatory power of a theory does not lie in how many phenomena it can explain. Rather, this power that makes it ‘better’ lies in how the theory withstands experimental tests against it as compared to other theories. A theory that consistently holds true after experimental tests carries more weight than its poorly tested counterpart. Just because a theory can only explain one phenomenon, it doesn’t mean that it is worse than a theory that can explain multiple phenomena. It is merely different in its scope. In science, onlookers are predisposed to believe that broader theories are better, but this error is akin to claiming that a color is better than a number (they are truly in two different categories). Even if one theory explains a single phenomenon and another explains that same occurrence plus an additional one, we still have no right to assert that the broader theory is better. They are truly different because if they were on the same playing field (and logically comparable), they would be the same theory and the first one would be capable of explaining this additional phenomenon as well. The argument would end for obvious reasons. The fact of the matter is that theories in science cannot be subjectively preferred because they are each useful in their own right. Thus, the quality of being ‘better’ should not be posited to theories in the first place (unless of course one theory fails to withstand the rigors of experimentation while another prospers).

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  2. Science is constantly trying to break things down into simpler, more elementary parts, and the theories that explain natural phenomena are no exception. Although scientists use both the theory of relativity and quantum theory for their research endeavors, they also search for one theory that unifies everything. Many reductionists believe that a theory of everything is necessary if we want to understand the universe in the simplest terms. They argue that everything can be broken down into one theory, even human emotion and action. Although this may seem appealing, I do not agree with the implications that come with arguing for the stance of the reductionists. Rather, I believe that there is nothing wrong with having multiple theories as long as there is a clear division in their use. It must be distinguishable where one theory applies instead of the other. The only benefit from a theory of everything is that it is easier to apply since it can be used in any situation. However, I do not think that ease of use necessarily makes the theory better, especially when two theories are capable of working harmoniously with one another and are experimentally proven to work. Therefore, unlike the reductionists, I do not think that there is any benefit to having one unified theory.

    -Yevgeniy Romanenko

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