Towards a theory of everything.. absolutely everything.

7 01 2013

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Humanity is drawn to several pervasive elements. Circles (also incorporating oscillations, rhythms, recurring sequences, cycles and vibrations), Unity (oneness, harmony, cooperation, categorisation) and Control (dominion, security, unequal relationships). There might possibly be more but these are very evident in human behaviour, history and societies which flow out of them.

Thus, it must come as no surprise to us that we as conscious, self-aware beings (in contrast to most evidence from other organisms), from time to time crave a unifying theory; one which makes intrinsic sense of the world around us.

It is, in my profoundly humble opinion, likely that we will find such a theory because we, as people need one. Being resourceful is one of the key traits of human beings. Given enough time, we always seem to find what we need, whether that be money, materials, solutions to problems, understanding about the world around us or devising more cruel and unusual ways to satisfy our third pervasion: to create and maintain unequal relationships sometimes by finding more effective ways to kill each other.

So is a theory of everything necessarily linked to the human experience and its pervasions? Perhaps not, though man has rarely eschewed anthropomorphism in developing an understanding of the world. Our ‘rainbow’ is based on the colours visible to the human eye (fair enough), the emotions of animals opined to be analogous to ours, based on their facial expressions (not fair enough, dogs, for example are not ‘laughing’ when they pant, they are removing excess body heat through evaporative cooling).

However, for the sake of the exercise, let’s assume that a theory of the nature of the energy, matter and, perhaps, otherwise, in the universe does intersect with human tendencies to make sense of the world. On what basis do we have a unifying theory?

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It occurred to me in 2002, walking along Statue Square in Hong Kong with a mate of mine, James Milner-Smith in a related conversation that in the beginning was oscillation and coded communication. ‘Life, the universe and everything’ was really, as was becoming apparent, about circles and communication to those who could understand the codes produced.

You see modern Chemistry, of which I am reasonably familiar, was profoundly altered by the consecutive discoveries of the periodic table (Mendeleev), the existence of the electron (John Joseph Thomson), neutron (Rutherford), proton (Chadwick) and the nature of energy and the movement of electrons in the atom ( Planck, Bohr, Schroedinger et alia). This knowledge revealed both cycles/repeating patterns and unity, the concept that the (unique) whole is made of interconnected but fundamentally similar building blocks.

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Likewise, in Biology, it was some time after Darwinian theory that the tidal wave of knowledge on genetics and inheritance erupted. What was found? Uniqueness was the result of repetitive patterns of only four base nucleotides broken by other such patterns to transcribe the complete diversity of millions of organisms on our planet.

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Finally, in Physics, we now realise that the components at the fundamental level that make up the matter and energy in the universe are intrinsically related. Einstein’s most famous of contributions eloquently described one facet of this: Linking, in a profoundly simple manner, the concepts of matter and energy as they appear mathematically to relate to each other.

Contemporary ‘string’ theory, all five of them, describe quite well the nature of the building blocks of matter, as they relate to the (relatively) small set of fundamental forces which exist in the universe we experience. Ironically, as with the genetic code, there are four fundamental, generally agreed upon forces (Electromagnetic, Strong Nuclear, Weak Nuclear and Gravity).

Again, at the most fundamental level, we see that ‘strings’ are oscillations with structure. Energetic stuff you make make other stuff from, basically. Do we understand them? No, not really, not yet. Will we ever? Probably, because, as previously stated, we are intrigued by understanding it, we want to understand it and therefore we either will understand it or have a system of thought that very much appears that we do. I hope that makes sense.

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If it follows other areas of human investigation then we will probably add uncoding to the oscillating patterns that the fundamental particles of the universe are showing us and then we will ‘get’ that just like we do the reason what elements are different or why you have blue eyes and no one else in your family does (or consequently perhaps, why your mum and dad got divorced!).

If you found that last comment funny or interesting, that brings me to the next point about approaching a theory of absolutely everything. Edward De Bono is a prodigious and ground-breaking thinker and he knows it. He also suggested, some decades ago, that understanding the nature of the brain may not be as necessarily complex as we first thought (or, more correctly, as we thought in the middle of the 20th Century). Indeed, he suggests that the brain is more or less a self-organising system where billions of nerve cells are linked to each other in an immense network. 

Not only are many cells linked, but the way we think is very cyclic. We return on familar paths linked to other parts of the brain. Once stimulated, those nerve cells (or neurones) remain more sensitised to further stimulation, thus less stimulus is required thereafter to produce the same ‘action potential’ or likelihood for another response initiated by those same nerves. To put it simply, if you are already scared, most tiny ‘abnormalities’ in your environment will set you off again. Or in a ‘laughing fit’ you will laugh at things that in another setting would not be funny at all. Social pressure or known constructs can even make this reaction worse (like giggling fits by actors in movie ‘takes’ or being lost in the wilderness and needing to stay calm to stay alive more easily to avoid injury).

The very reason why a joke is funny is that your brain tries to predict the ending, the likely thread of the joke and, when jarred by good linguistic skill, timing and non-verbal communication, the outcome is at odds. The brain finds this rewarding and releases L-dopamine (the ‘reward’ drug) and serotonin (the ‘happy’ drug) and the event is likely to be laid down in more permanent memory, possibly even producing the same (or even greater) emotional reaction when recalled, shared or retold.

Herein lies the paradox, however. Our brains seem to crave new stimulation and engagement (well-established in the literature for healthy brain development in infants) however, it tends to self-organise into recognisable patterns, unifying and overlapping new information until it can be assimilated without drawing attention to it all the time.

We seem to struggle when we can’t ‘package up and store away’ thoughts. We have a need to unify or harmonise experience with that we already have, so that they may become quickly unconscious (completely oblivious to us on a regular basis) or subconscious (deep enough to not affect ordinary Cerebral Cortex stimulation on a level that the individual is aware of).

So where does this lead us with our ‘theory of absolutely everything’? The brain desires ‘order’ (unity), but is stimulated by oscillation (thought processes which connect at neurones where activity was orginally stimulated). In fact, it is the disruption of predictable cycles that can cause neuronal interest, the probability that permanent memories will be laid down and even the growth of new neurones, neuroplasticity.

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Finally, our brains desire control. The world must make sense or the brain can not function properly on day to day tasks. You can see the clear implication for psychological impairment and illness here. If the brain is fixated on meaningless detail that leads to superstitious or ritualistic thought/behaviour then obsessions/compulsions arise. If thoughts lead to irrational fears, that can’t be reconciled with the Cerebral Cortex with the commensurate level of physiological sensitisation then neurosis and phobias are likely. If cognition is fractured and unable to be determined as coming from within the brain or outside the brain, then schizoid disorders are possible. Similarly for mood disorders, when the cognition affects the release, inhibition or reuptake of hormones which will consequently affect emotion (and, cyclicly, the cognition) then mood disorders like Depression are implicated.

So the human mind is concerned with the maintenance of reliable cycles, keeping ideas and experience unified and, above all, under control. Can we, however, extrapolate this to society?

It is perhaps a cheap starting point to suggest that ‘history repeats’ nevertheless to some degree this is the case. What makes certain periods of history exceptional however is usually of two types:

a) Where History has demonstrably shown the very same fundamental problem, error or action that has led to similar consequences in the future. The idea of humanity, for example to build physical walls to separate people at tremendous expense, labour and time only to find them inadequate for the purpose intended. (examples include the Great Wall, Berlin Wall, most prison walls eventually).

b) Where thinking, behaviour or emotion has been so absolutely contrary to what might be expected in the circumstance. For example, Hannibal using Elephants in battle or Christopher Columbus using his knowledge of both eclipses and local Jamaican superstition to continue the provisioning of his crew under threat of ‘blotting out the sun’.

In such cases, there is a certain logical circularity, even a sense of irony. One in the incredible resilience of the cycle, despite opportunities to learn from such experiences. In the other, the incredible departure from the norm.

It was in precisely this way that many ground-breaking discoveries have been made. By refusing to be contrained by apparent patterns in atomic behaviour, Dmitri Mendeleev, the famous Ukrainian Chemist was able to not only map elements in a cohesive (unified) manner but uncover as yet undiscovered elements (to complete the many cycles that exist in the table) and allow mankind to dominate through this knowledge (control).

In politics, we find the same principles at play. Voters swing, we use pendula to represent the behaviour of voters. When there is a dramatic change, we are interested, history is laid down. When the sense of control over our lives is too low, or too high, we feel uncomfortable as citizens, regardless of the system of government.

In economics, we often describe the cycles that occur and theories abound to attempt to unify and make sense of the behaviour of people buying and selling. There is a very real sense that the Holy Grail of economics to find a unifying model or theory which could enable one to take advantage of the market or enable control over it for financial, political or social advantage (the tendency to create or maintain unequal relationships).

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This is a long (typical) and not-remotely-funny post (hopefully atypical!) on this blog. However, I trust that readers might see at least a seed of cohesion about not only the universe but a universe with human thought, mood and behaviour in it and how it might operate. In addition, we can see that the three pervasions that I opened with (again, another oscillation!) are perhaps worked through many fields of human endeavour, society and the universe itself.

We could almost go as far as to say that as the universe grows through cycles, disruption of those cycles, of unity and the disruption of that unity and through periods of control and disruption of that control. Could it be the case that the impact of human beings on their world, each other and even in their own minds follows a similar set of pervasions and disruptions?

Is it possible that matter and energy dances rhythmically and with unpredictable disruption to such patterns? If we learn to read this ‘dance’ to what degree would it change anything? Could Unity, Oscillation and Control be quantified to explain how things happen both at the fundamental scale with matter and energy and in human, global terms?

What role does understanding therefore play? Eventually we work out how to read such pervasions. In doing so it does not make us ‘God’ (after all, we did not initiate such coded communication), it does not ensure permanent enlightenment (we struggle with wisdom possibly more that anything else) and it does not ensure that by manipulating this understanding that we can make any part of the world or universe necessarily better.

What it does do, however is make just a bit more of this universe we experience make a bit more sense. It feels good enough to stash into the subconscious and stop bugging us for a while.

🙂

I trust you enjoyed this, either for the read or the induction of sleep!

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9 01 2013
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