A unifying theory of the Universe


Is alcoholism a disease or is it the result of poor choices and a weak character? That was the question my partner was trying to answer last week in an online Harvard discussion forum on abnormal psychology. She asked me what I thought. It’s an interesting question, and I’m not sure that I had a good answer.

The online debate was split more or less evenly between the ‘weak character’ advocates and the ‘disease’ proponents. After reading their opinions and talking to Sharon something hit me. The best answer to the question is not a “yes–no” kind of response. The real answer has to do with human behaviour. Sure, we make a conscious choice to take that first drink. Some of us may have a bad reaction and choose to never take another drink. Others may like the effects of alcohol. And a percentage of these people may choose to drink frequently.

But at a certain point, alcohol consumption, like drug consumption, ceases to involve choice. It becomes a physical dependency—and it is at that point that alcoholism becomes a disease.

The path to disease is not a linear process. Some people can take relatively few drinks and become alcoholics. Others can drink much more before crossing the threshold into alcoholism. There is no absolute threshold marker that’s common to all people. And that lack of linearity makes it difficult to answer the question.

But if we switch modes of thought, say visualizing instead of verbalizing, we might see the answer more quickly. For example, we might visualize alcoholism as a funnel. The wide end of the funnel is the entry point, the point at which we can choose to take a drink. As the funnel narrows, our risk for physical dependency on alcohol grows. And at some point (which varies from person to person), a threshold is crossed, and we’re hooked. We’ve just dropped down into alcoholism, the disease.

This kind of visualization is exactly what Einstein used to picture how the Universe works. His genius was his ability to “see” beyond the linear reasoning. And that genius is remarkable.

I’m currently reading the newest edition of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and Hawking devotes considerable time to Einstein and post-Einsteinian physics. Our Universe is a place with four dimensions, where time-space and mass are interconnected, and in which high-mass objects such as the sun, stars and black holes bend the fabric of space-time. Planets don’t orbit suns. They actually travel in straight lines around the suns, caught inside the cylinders of bent space—much like the way circus motorcycles race around the walls of big wooden tanks.

Our Universe is also a place where subatomic particles don’t actually stay in one place. They wink in and out of our reality—their counterparts existing perhaps millions of light-years away. You’d have to read Hawking’s book to get a true sense of the wonder of it. But perhaps a greater wonder is how we humans could have possibly envisioned what is going on. A great part of the wonder is in our own consciousness.

And this is where physics and philosophy begin to merge. We might ask, “What is the meaning of the Universe?” and now scientifically answer it with something like, “consciousness”. In the science community it is now widely accepted that the observer shapes the observed. The mere existence of consciousness influences the Universe. Science and religion are becoming one.

Okay. So the Universe is a pretty big and weird place. And in the grand scheme my little corner of Canada is a pretty insignificant notion. But in some way we can link the workings of the Universe into my everyday existence. I’m sure I’m not alone in pursuing this innate human need to find order.

I was thinking about this when I went out for a drive—and a coffee—early Sunday morning. I decided to drive over to the next town, St. Andrews. It's a tiny resort town on the East Coast, and a nice place to visit. It was early, before 7:00 a.m., and the place was deserted except for my friend Joan who was bundled up against the cold and walking her dog.

St. Andrews has a wonderful sense of order in the morning. The rising sun splashes in golden ribbons along all those clapboard walls lining the main street. Rows of tidy shop fronts give way to rows of tidy houses as the streets climb up the hill toward the big hotel. And in its order, there’s a sense of hierarchy, too. Finally the most imposing grand homes oversee everything from the top of the hill. It’s a conscious expression of human order—and power.

Not coincidently, the other book I’m reading is David Rothkoff’s “Superclass”. It’s aptly subtitled, “The Global Elite and the World They are Making”. I was thinking about the book as I drove through the town. St. Andrews was, and still is, a summer getaway for the Canadian elite. But the world is changing, and so too are the elites. The relevance of St. Andrews as a centre of power has faded considerably. And if, in the realm of human activity, access to power is everything, the local access to power has been much reduced, and is likely to reduce even further as the current generation of summer-residents dies out.

Perhaps that’s no big deal. But like large celestial objects in space, persons of influence tend to bend the fabric of space-time around them. Whether we like them or not, their presence often attracts benefits to those of us who live near them.

And there’s a comfort in the predictability of order, too, even if it’s a vertical social order. We prefer order to social chaos. It’s one of the reasons we credentialize our kids. With good credentials, they too can join the social ranking at an acceptable level. Credentialization, like many other social organizing devices, is comforting—like ordering a Big Mac when in Paris, or buying a Mercedes Benz for your driveway.

Yet given the evidence of history, however much we love imposing our own version of order, we’ll always be overwhelmed by the vastly more complicated—and interesting—natural order of the Universe. The point being that we’re not above nature, we’re merely a part of it. And that’s as unified a theory as we might get.


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