Coming up with a “theory of everything” for the humanities

It has extensively become considered the “holy grail” of physics to come up with a “theory of everything” unifying the fundamental physical forces and properties in nature ever since Albert Einstein, perhaps the most significant contributor to modern physics, made it his life goal but ultimately failed to find a link between gravity and electromagnetism. Still to this day, such a theory remains elusive. Though there are several candidates, no proposition sufficiently links explanations for why physical objects behave the way they do on a macroscopic scale (through Newtonian gravity) with equivalent ones for subatomic particles on the microscopic level (quantum theory).

Naturally, this is all frustratingly incomprehensible to the average humanities or political sciences academic, for whom physics, notwithstanding a grand unifying theory of everything, means very little. But the struggle to reconcile conflicting frameworks of understanding within the discipline(s) should be tackled with the same level of urgency and vigour as is done for the endeavour within the physics community. Perhaps with even more gusto.

Why? Well, as I explained in my previous post Why are global problems so difficult to solve? human civilisation faces a raft of problems which grow in complexity as we as a species grow in complexity. And herein lies the dilemma. Our ability to understand and solve problems in the world around us grows forever more difficult as components of that world increase in connectivity and interdependency – a feature of an observed phenomenon called rising complexity. As the rifts in our understanding of those connections and interdependencies grow, so does our inability to deal with the problems that arise from them (for instance, terrorism, environmental change, health pandemics, resource instabilities, war, financial woes, energy insecurities, etc) accordingly.

Climate change is a perfect illustration of this. The climosphere is a complex system and we are tangled into the many different elements, both organic and abiotic, which interact within it and contribute to its growing complexity. As we fail to understand the complexity within our own civilisation’s makeup – the correlations between the dynamics of our individual behaviours, of our economic markets, of our polities, of our social structures, of our religious and cultural beliefs and of our worldviews, among other things still – it is simply no surprise that we, on the whole, find it difficult to understand how we relate to the even more complex system that is the climosphere. In other words, if we can’t even deal with the variables in our own backyard (our own world system), how can we be trusted to deal with the variables into which we are embedded in the immediate world around us?

The answer we’re looking for, in this case, lies in the nature of the dilemma – rising complexity. There, I believe, rests the key to a truly unified theory of human culture. The fact that we started off with nothing but a big bang and ended with a universe full of macroscopic and microscopic objects, a planet full of life, and a race of intelligent beings is proof that “complexity” does rise (when allowed to, of course). It is an idea that integrates the natural sciences with the social sciences, and elucidates how human beings operate.

This is an idea I aim to explore in subsequent posts.

For more information on rising complexity, check out this Ted Talk with David Christian:


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