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Should We Expect A Theory Of Everything?

Could North Korea be behind commentator Alva Noë's car problems? Not likely. Just as it's not likely a theory of everything will ever explain human behavior.
Ed Jones
AFP/Getty Images
Could North Korea be behind commentator Alva Noë's car problems? Not likely. Just as it's not likely a theory of everything will ever explain human behavior.

Last week my car broke down on the way to my early morning tai chi class. I sat in the middle of the road in the pre-dawn pondering why my car stopped running.

Among possible explanations for the malfunction, here are two that I did not consider. I did not consider the possibility that North Korean spies had sabotaged my vehicle in the night. Or the possibility that divine spirits disabled the car to protect me from dangers up ahead.

Not that those possibilities are strictly incompatible with what I know to be the case. I didn't consider these possible explanations and then reject them. They didn't even come up.

This is a nice illustration of what you might call the Natural Attitude, or Naturalism, at work in our lives. As I sat there, in my ancient Volvo, wondering what to do, I was quite certain that there was something to do. Cars don't just break down for no reason, and if something went wrong, then it ought to be possible for someone to figure out what went wrong and intervene. Mechanical problems have mechanical explanations and mechanical fixes.

It is sometimes said — for example by the philosopher Alvin Plantinga — that Naturalism is the view that there is no personal god.

But that seems wrong. Why should the Natural Attitude, as exemplified in the problem faced by the roadside breakdown, be committed to the nonexistence of God anymore than it is committed to the nonexistence of North Korean spies?

What the car-breakdown story helps us appreciate is that Naturalism, at most, is committed to the idea that we don't need to bring God into the story. Not because we know there is no God, but because it won't help us fix the car.

Naturalism is not opposed to God, or committed to the nonexistence of God, although it is opposed to something we might call the God Hypothesis, that is, the idea that we need to appeal to God, or other supernatural phenomena, to understand and intervene in the world around us.

Nor is the Natural Attitude, in the sense I am outlining here, committed to Materialism, that is, the idea that everything is physical and that physics describes reality at the truest, most fundamental level. It isn't committed to such a full-blown thesis as this. Particle physics doesn't enter into my automotive difficulties any more than God does, or the North Korean spies. And the idea that it belongs to our Natural Attitude that Reductive Materialism is true is, well, ludicrous.

Reductive Materialism, like certain forms of Theism, is a species of the intellectual genus Natural Order-ism, the idea that there is a single, unified Natural Order, that its essence is intelligible; that there can be a theory of everything that fully encompasses the Natural Order.

It is striking that even atheist critics of Reductive Materialism, like philosopher Thomas Nagel, seem wedded to Natural-Order-ism. They accept the demand for a theory of everything. They despair of a materialist approach providing this needed theory.

Maybe Natural Order-ism is the culprit here. Can we abandon it? Can we rationally forego the impulse to expect a theory of everything? To want to say, of everything that there is, from tickles to empires, from mountains to stars to human beings, that it is all one stuff organized by one set of intelligible and knowable laws?

Given that we are no closer today to having a theory of everything than we have ever been, you might think it is time to break with Natural Order-ism.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.