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The Quest for Ultimate Explanation

by John D. Barrow

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-19-280721-2
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Can any one theory account for everything in the universe?

Barrow (Mathematics/Cambridge; The Infinite Book, 2005, etc.) gets right down to fundamental issues in addressing this central question in modern science. He breaks his subject into eight key areas: laws of Nature, initial conditions, forces and particles, constants, broken symmetries, organizing principles, selection biases and categories of thought. Each of these is given a rigorous examination. For example, in discussing laws of nature, Barrow attempts to look at all possible ways the universe, scientific laws and God might interact, including the possibility that any or all of the three don’t exist at all. One key question is whether our math is adequate to describe the deepest level of reality, especially in view of Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which holds that every mathematical system entails theorems that cannot be proved. The author suggests that Gödel’s insight, while true of abstract math, doesn’t hold for applied math of the sort used in the sciences. The question of whether or not time and space themselves predate the universe gets a careful look, though not a definitive answer. That, of course, is the problem: There are no definitive answers as yet, only more or less promising approaches to the questions. Among the difficulties is the fact that the universe we can observe is only a fraction of what is believed to exist, and we can’t be certain that the observable portion is typical. (Of course, to play the game at all, we need to assume so.) At the end, Barrow concedes that no theory can really account for everything; opinions, emotions and so forth are undeniably realm yet beyond all computation. Yet this philosophic recognition is not a denial of the scientific enterprise, but a recognition that the universe, at bottom, is subtler than our tools for analyzing it.

A fascinating journey.