Friday, April 27, 2018


368. A theory of everything


The totality of things: humans, nature, physical objects, and ideas, folds into itself, churns and changes. It would be nice to have a model that explains the whole. Such as in physics Boyle’s law that explains the relation between temperature, volume and pressure of a gas in a tank, without having to take into account the underlying chaotic collisions between molecules with each other and the wall of the tank.


Economics offered the law of supply and demand, where equilibrium arises from the workings of an ‘invisible hand’, without having to go into choice behaviour of individual producers and consumers. It offers principles of economies of scale, diminishing returns, and equilibria in game theory. Sociology offered law-like effects of networks, such as those of density, centrality, and strength of
ties. Psychology offers the principle of parochial altruism, used earlier in this blog.  


Is there a wider, more encompassing model? In earlier items in this blog I discussed ontologies. I used an ‘Object-Oriented Ontology (3O)’ with a wide range, ‘flat’ ontology including objects such as people, plants, and parrots, sticks and stones, but also dreams, drama, and devils. An object is characterized as having inside elements that cohere in a more or less stable structure, and an outside of other objects that affect the internal structure of this object, and are affected by it, and thus change also, including the human phenomenology of intentions, use, experience, and knowledge.

An object then is seen as the difference between what comes in and what goes out. Attractive here, in this perspective, is that it includes science as the analysis of the inside as well as phenomenology on the outside, the subject of scholarship of Man and society. They are both indispensable and part of a whole. Each separately is reductive.  


I tried to add a general account of change in terms of a circular process. That was originally presented as a theory of discovery[i], but it applies more widely, including natural evolution, and it can also, I now find, be positioned in philosophy. The more general formulation now is as follows. In realizing their inner potential, in interaction with their environment (E), objects (Ob) can disappear or survive, in affecting that environment or adapting to it, by developing a new inner structure (I) with a new potential that can be transmitted and can proliferate. The universal principles are: more or less random or guided variation of the inside from interaction with the outside, which in turn changes, with survival of the object or not, and expansion or duplication of success.


The challenge, faced but not solved by Hegel, was how in the realization of potential new potential can be created. My answer was that in moving from one environment to another, one encounters novel challenges of survival that require adaptation and provide insight into opportunities for it. A novel environment offers new variety to interact with, producing novel objects.

This general process includes natural evolution as a special case, except that there the novel environment is not deliberately sought but imposed, and adaptation is random, not guided by inference. In human discovery, there is choice of novel environments, less randomness, with some imaginative insight in potential new directions, based on experience and learning, more co-evolution with the environment, in market making and lobbying, artificial selection in laboratories and trial markets, and imitation of success, with variations.


For a general causality driving this process, I proposed Aristotelian multiple causality,  with the object being the efficient cause, goals the final cause, outside resources the material cause, inside potential the formal cause, environmental conditions, including institutions, the conditional cause, and established models of conduct the exemplary cause.

For natural evolution, the efficient cause is cells, the final cause is the drive to life and survival (Spinoza’s ‘conatus’), the material cause is foods, the formal cause is instinct and DNA, the conditional cause is environmental conditions (climate, rival creatures, availability of foods), and the exemplary cause can be role models (as with chimpansees and bankers).

For humans the causal factors are more complex: with a variety of final causes (profit, entrepreneurship, independence, adventure), a variety of material causes in the form of resources (economic capital), a variety of formal causes in different forms (intellectual, cultural capital), conditional causes in the position an object has in different networks (social capital), institutions (the law, symbolic capital), climate, and geography.

An object can be the efficient cause (a virus, a volcano, an entrepreneur), but also a material cause (tool), formal cause (technology), conditional cause (climate, market, institution), exemplary cause (iconic role model).

The connection between this causality and the circle of discovery is as follows. The efficient cause is a firm, scientist, artist, or politician, the final cause is profit, innovation, power, adventure, the material cause is local practices met in the novel environment, the formal cause is the ability to cross cognitive and cultural distance, imagination, and daring, the conditional cause is local institutions and markets, and the exemplary cause is an iconic pioneer who succeeded.  

What connects all cases and all objects is the constitution, failure and change of what is inside the object, in the dynamic of interaction with its outside and the change of that change.

All this together, I propose, covers much of nature as well as human conduct. Is it a theory of everything? Getting there, perhaps.

A challenge now is to see how, if at all, this may connect with the new wonderworld of quantum physics. I have been studying interaction between people and organizations most of my life, and now, to my delight, I find from the work of Carlo Rovelli[ii] that at the lowest possible level in physics, quanta manifest themselves from one discrete state to another due to interaction with others. Interaction is everywhere. Could I develop my theory further by looking at that? That is the subject for a later item in this blog.    
         


[i] Bart Nooteboom, 2000, Learning and innovation in organizations and economies, Oxford University Press. 
[ii] Carlo Rovelli, 2016, Reality is not what it seems, Penguin.