The way we've looked at the universe we seem to inhabit has changed throughout time. Our understanding of the nature of the universe has evolved along a path on which we've left a trail of discarded beliefs and ancient knowledge.
source: Max Pixel
Following this trail of obsolete breadcrumbs we can recognize certain patterns. One of them is that we have less room for faith-based explanations; lightning rods were once believed to be cast by mighty beings in the sky, and the Earth was described as a flat plane, resting on mighty pillars at all four corners of the planet. Even the most fervent of believers will now say that science is a far better method to understand the true nature of reality. "God of the gaps" is the theological perspective in which gaps in scientific knowledge are taken to be evidence or proof of God's existence, and many of these gaps have been filled. Decreased religiosity and increased secularism is one pattern.
Another pattern, the one I want to highlight today, is one of an ever increasing unification of the different realms of our knowledge. There was a time when we believed that the laws that governed the behavior of objects on Earth were separate from the laws that governed the behavior of objects in the heavens. The Earth and the heavens were thought to be two completely separate realms, and in most cultures the heavens were seen as the realm of the Gods, and how could they be beholden to the same laws of nature as the humanity They created? We were literally and figuratively beneath them. We also believed that our planet was special, that we lived in the center of the small universe we were aware of; Galileo Galilei provided observational proof of Nicolaus Copernicus' model of a heliocentric solar system, removing Earth from the center of the universe and place the Sun there instead.
Although Galilei and Copernicus made our position in the universe a bit less special, thereby diminishing the distance between the Earth of the humans and the Godly heavens, it took the ideas of Isaac Newton to really unify the heavens and the Earth, as he proved that the laws that made apples fall from trees to the ground, were the exact same as the laws that held the planets in their orbit around the Sun and the Moon in its orbit around the Earth. Newtons laws were so successful that they were used to predict the existence of the then undiscovered planet Neptune; there were irregularities observed in the orbit of Uranus, which could be explained by hypothesizing another planet in its neighborhood. With Newtons equations a precise location for that planet was calculated, we pointed a telescope to that location and voila, there was Neptune!
Another major unification between two phenomena previously thought to be unrelated was done by James Clerk Maxwell, who showed us that electricity, magnetism and light were actually different manifestations of the same phenomenon; electromagnetism. And then came Einstein who unified time and space, completely changing our understanding of the relation between time, gravity and space. This general pattern of unification, the observation that with increased understanding of what we call reality, come ever more fundamental laws of nature, has sparked the belief that maybe one day we'll discover one set of laws of nature that can explain all aspects of that reality. This is the much coveted Theory of Everything, an all-encompassing, coherent theoretical framework of physics that fully explains and links together all physical aspects of the universe. I personally don't believe we'll ever get there, maybe I even hope we never get there; how boring would life be when we know everything there is to know about everything that exists... Maybe there is a God, and maybe he gave us free will and evil just to be surprised sometimes, just to kill the boredom of being all-knowing... Or how cool would it be if the most fundamental understanding of all there is, is not found in laws or Gods, but in consciousness? Maybe that's the true most fundamental "building block" of our shared reality. I struggle to see how we'll ever fully understand reality as it really exists, as opposed to the reality our senses and consciousness allow us to observe.
One truth I distill out of all of this is that there's strong indications that everything relates to everything. We are an integral part of something grand, something far exceeding our ability to fully comprehend. And I think this is great. It's great we all have that basic instinct that there's more, that we're part of something far greater than just ourselves. In closing I invite you to watch this video about the evolution of the hard sciences and how everything has become more unified throughout the ages; it's really interesting and only lasts 20 minutes :-)
Philosophy of Physics
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