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Potentialism or String Theory?

Potentialism or String Theory?

Science – and physics in particular – seeks the Theory of Everything (TOE) in a formula or concept like ‘String Theory.’ To a physicist, a theory like ‘String Theory’ which potentially unifies Einstein’s large-scale physics with small-scale quantum physics would be a ‘theory of everything.’

But, an obvious question comes to mind:  Maybe that is just a ‘Unified Theory of Physics’ and not of the grander cosmos in all its richness and mysteries – beyond the realm of pure physics?

Now, since ancient times, philosophers have been grappling for a theory unifying everything.  The West is familiar with Aristotle and Plato and their buddies. ‘Everything’ is what they grappled with. And ‘everything’ encompassed much more that the mechanistic field of physics, however that field was to morph and evolve over the millennia to come.

Contemporary science uses the shorthand notation TOE for the elusive Theory of Everything. But what happened to the more overarching and iconic field (metaphysics) of those famous Greeks? Gone with the wind? Not fashionable? Not politically correct? Too intractable – so we abandon the inquiry, however noble?

Metaphysics is a corner of philosophy which deals in the fundamental building blocks of the cosmic order. Contemporary metaphysicist David Birnbaum of Manhattan uses the shorthand notation Q4P for his proposed overarching ‘Quest for Potential’ theory (for absolutely everything). Now, metaphysicists shun the term ‘theory of everything’ for their own theories, even though that is quite-precisely what (all) their theories attempt – by definition. Metphysicians are acutely aware of the grandness of their respective quests, and are simultaneously averse to trumpeting that grandness. To date, no metaphysics has ‘withstood the test of time.’ Only very, very brave individuals ‘attempt a dive off of this high board.’  The potential rewards of ‘cracking the cosmic code’ may be great, but the odds of success are quite daunting, to put it mildly. Brave souls involved in metaphysics have enough challenges on-their-hands without trumpeting that they seek the ‘Ultimate Big Idea Eureka Moment Flashing Light Bulb.’          

Let us now go back to the scientific quest for a TOE – a Theory of Everything. From the vantage point of a philosopher or metaphysicist or to a random 7-year-old, reconciling large-scale physics with small-scale-physics is far from a Theory of Everything.  However, that TOE (Theory of Everything) term is widely used in academic circles and I the general vernacular, including our contemporary source for Absolute Truth Wikipedia, which we all know and love.

Now, metaphysics has been somewhat orphaned since the dawn of the European Renaissance in Florence in the 14th century. The Renaissance placed ‘laboratory science’ on the very highest pedestal, and there it has remained. Contemporary ‘theoretical physics’ pegs-off of laboratory science and the two march-in-tandem. However, it turns-out that the Renaissance simply did not solve the ‘very big’ questions – and not for lack of trying. It turns out that the optimal ‘laboratory’ for cracking the cosmic code is one’s brain. And that creative and incisive human brain has been around for many thousands of years, predating any particle accelerator setup in CERN. Indeed, it comes off-the-shelf with all newborns. No National Science Foundation grants needed.

To yeshiva-educated and Harvard-educated contemporary metaphysicist David Birnbaum, among others, the ‘laboratory physics’—only approach,  as opposed to a  grander ‘conceptual approach,’ will always fall short. Metaphysics indeed incorporates ‘laboratory science’ as an integral key component part, but not as the entire deal. Metaphysics points out that unless we take a grander conceptual approach, we will always be left with a series of key classic philosophical/metaphysical questions/issues hanging unresolved.

 Additionally, odds-are that even the so-to-speak ‘unified scientific theory’ will tend to have ‘troublesome’ loose ends. These irritating ‘loose ends’ will all ultimately be resolvable not in a 2014  laboratory – but rather by the bona fide metaphysical construct, when it is discerned and played-out – by the scientific community. As the respective names of the fields, metaphysics and physics, imply, ultimately one cannot separate metaphysics from physics. The two fields are so to speak ‘connected-at-the-hip.’   


Some of these ‘hanging issues’ which a scientific community TOE would leave unresolved would include the following: (1) Why is there anything at all? (2) Where did the ‘strings’ of String Theory come from? (3) What initially ‘energized’ these so-interesting strings – or whatever physical phenomena/entity is proposed as unifying? (4)  What ‘breathes fire’ into these ‘strings’ today – sustaining their dynamism? (5)  What ignited the Big Bang, the primary initial focus of ‘String Theory’? (6) The ‘Goldilocks Enigma’ question:  Why were the dynamics of ‘the strings’ so finely calibrated such as to produce a universe which would generate life? (7) What was the actual catalyst for life, language and consciousness?
Both conceptual theorist/private scholar David Birnbaum of Manhattan (Summa Metaphysica series 1988, 2005) and quantum physicist Seth Lloyd of MIT (Programming the Universe 2006) deal on a grand macro level: Over the span of cosmic history to-date how is the overall universe operating?  Each thought leader individually proposes a ground breaking solution. Both of their respective solutions are original, but are nevertheless eerily inter-related and parallel.


It turns out that Birnbaum can readily incorporate the Lloyd theory as the ‘mechanistic’ portion of his grander and more overarching metaphysical ‘Potentialism’ theory. Academics are aware of Birnbaum’s option here, but the author has not committed as such to date. Although crafted from radically different perspectives – Birnbaum’s  revolutionary theory is through a  metaphysical lens and Lloyd’s provocative theory is through a quantum mechanics lens – nothing in the Birnbaum theory materially contradicts the Lloyd theory  - and vice versa. 


Both thought leaders specifically propose front-and-center that the equations of physics are marshaled by the cosmic order to iteratively ‘advance’ (the cosmos).  Birnbaum and Lloyd respectively each propose different paradigms, but at the gut core of their proposals they are in-sync.

Both of these theorists posit and publish parallel theories of ‘cosmos-as-a-whole iteration and self-advance.’  In parallel their theories overturn the global academic status quo. To both theorists, the cosmos as-a-whole - via internal and integral dynamics - is constantly iterating and advancing (to the next level).  The two theories step onto the global intellectual stage amazingly in-tandem.   

Lloyd’s (2006) theory was pretty much ignored until the related Birnbaum theory (1988, 2005) as if by spontaneous combustion, exploded onto the global arena in 2013. For context, November 2013 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the November 1988 release of Birnbaum’s Summa Metaphysica I (God and Evil).

We will focus more in-depth now on the Birnbaum approach as it ‘wraps-around’ the Lloyd approach. Meaning, per Birnbaum the Lloyd construct is ‘necessary but not sufficient.’  By this thinking, Lloyd is not necessarily wrong; he is just not fleshing-out the situation as fully as is necessary. Per Birnbaum, Professor of Quantum Mechanics Lloyd is mainly giving the mechanics aspect. Lloyd would
probably agree – as his mantra is that he is “but a mechanic.” Lloyd universe-as-quantum-computer is perhaps not giving the still-fuller necessary conceptual/metaphysical superstructure. So we will focus on the more overarching paradigm which Birnbaum proposes in his seminal treatise.

For context of the overall ‘conceptual chessboard’ one could say that (MIT scientist) Lloyd’s  quantum mechanics construct ‘wraps-around’ the scientific community’s  TOE (Theory of Everything) , and that Birnbaum’s construct, in turn,  wraps-around Lloyd’s construct. Ironically, it turns out that Birnbaum’s overarching construct is, on some level, the ‘simplest’ of all. 

Birnbaum likes proposed grand concepts to be ‘simple, yet infinite.’ According to Birnbaum, only a ‘simple yet infinite’ dynamic could have broken out of the void.  Since  on its face the string in ‘String Theory’ is neither ‘simple’ nor ‘infinite,’ it is  perhaps more suitable for the more ‘limited realm’ of Advanced Physics (however profound that realm is) than for the infinite world of metaphysics.


Birnbaum’s super-wrap construct can be encapsulated in one word: Potential. This is the core of his ‘framing concept’ or what Archimedes would label as his proposed ‘axiom.’ But axiom or not, Birnbaum believes he can posit its eternality via Formal Logic – which, by the way, he studied as an undergraduate.  

As well, Birnbaum makes the following calculation: Find the dynamic which is eternal, and that dynamic should probably ‘solve’ the bulk of the key unresolved metaphysics issues. That metaphysical dynamic, if correct, should de facto unify all fields (including, in the mix, the large and small-scale theories of physics).

Birnbaum vectors onto the dynamic of Potential/Possibility as the only dynamic which we can posit with certitude as being eternal. He then refines the dynamic to be ‘Quest for Potential’ (Q4P).  Birnbaum then layers Q4P across cosmic history – and across the entire series of classic and modern metaphysics questions. It seems to work.  Summa theory has been hailed as a tour de force of conceptual elegance. (See for point-by-point articulation).

Scientist Andrei Alyokhin, Professor of Biology and Ecology at University of Maine - frontally endorsing the power of Summa Theory - wrote In December 2012:  “Summa represents a bold attempt to formulate a unifying concept of the universe…It is reasonable to propose the Quest for Potential as a working hypothesis for explaining the impetus behind the cosmic dynamic...”.  Note that neither Birnbaum nor Alyokhin speak with certitude. Rather, both propose Summa as a ‘working hypothesis.’ (Of course they both happen to believe it to be true.)

Effectively, Birnbaum launches ‘Potentialism.’ The Manhattan conceptual theorist is quick to point out, however, that his ‘potential’ theory is intended as a transcending dynamic fueling (all) other fields, whether physics or biology or spirituality or religion et al.  Meaning, Potentialism is intended as a ‘framing concept’ and not as a stand-alone ‘belief system.’ Of course, what Birnbaum wants with his theory, and what the world actually does with his theory, may or may not turn out to be one-and-the-same.   

Birnbaum assiduously crafts his philosophy works as potentially simpatico to religion in general, and monotheism (and Judaism) in particular. Indeed he subtitles the two volumes of Summa Metaphysica as God and Evil, and God and Good, respectively. And, indeed, his Summa I: God and Evil work offers – via his Quest for Potential theory -  an original and elegant resolution of ‘the problem of evil’ . The shorthand notation for the ‘problem of evil’ is ‘theodicy’, the salient issue which has most vexed religious philosophy over the millennia.

Published in 1988, the Birnbaum theodicy, which deploys ‘potential’ as centerpiece, has resonated globally. World renowned Professor of Jewish History Lawrence Schiffman (previously of NYU, recently at Yeshiva University) wrote in December 1989: “Birnbaum comes as close as possible to solving the dilemma of evil in a world created by a just God.”


But on net balance Birnbaum is universalistic, wary of over-committing conceptually to a religious approach. More in the tradition of Aristotle and Spinoza, he gives full respect to religion, while maintaining a careful emotional and intellectual distance. And it is this ‘universalism’ which may eventually turn out to be a runaway phenomenon. 

Of course in Summa, Birnbaum provides religious adherents with what many have been seeking at least since Sinai – a quite-powerful metaphysical anchor. This ‘metaphysical anchor’ is not to be underestimate in the 5,000 year ongoing feud between the ‘religious’ at one polarity and the ‘hard-line atheistic’ at the other polarity.
Birnbaum’s philosophy works have been used as course texts at universities and seminaries globally for over twenty-five years.  Secular institutions Included in these dozen+ institutions are UCLA, Brandeis and Hebrew University (Jerusalem) among others. Note that the title Summa Metaphysica ‘modestly’ translates as ‘the sum of all metaphysics.’

Birnbaum’s  Potentialism posits a follows:  The true overarching ‘unifying force’ is Potential; Potential is eternal; it brought the equation of physics to the fore; in turn they (acting as agents of Divine Potential?) ached and ache to-this-day for ever-fuller actualization and realization and overall potentiality; to that end they engineered the igniting of the universe as we know it (via the Big Bang) as a platform to reach fuller realization through reality; within that reality, pressing well-beyond survival ( of the fittest), they quest for life, love, consciousness et al.  Elegant and powerful. If one wishes to assert that Potential forms the core of the Divine, so be it. If not, not.  

Note that Birnbaum’s Theory of Potentialism wraps-around Lloyd’s complexifying quantum universe, which in turn wraps-around the ‘string theory’ physicist’s universe (or its latest theory du jour). In plain English Birnbaum’s theory wraps-around Lloyd’s theory, which wraps-around String Theory. Thus, Summa supporters maintain that Q4P is the Real Deal Theory of Everything (that is, the Real Deal TOE).  Accept no substitute.

As noted, at the core of Birnbaum’s Summa theory of potential is Q4P (Quest for Potential).  And this Q4P is posited as the true and sole ‘framing concept’ of the cosmos.  For those who like their concepts super-concise, the shorthand for the proposition would, tongue-in-cheek, consequently be “Q4P is the true TOE.” The rhyming is coincidence.  

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