The idea of “unification” has been part of the human enterprise till as far back as we can possibly think. What do I mean by “unification”? I’d summarize it as follows:
The attempt at unifying ourselves and what we know about the world in tandem with what we do not know. In other words, a model of explanation for everything.
This has explicitly been the case since the scientific renaissance starting in the 15th century where it replaced medieval concepts of the world, and the science of that day. A turning point in our understanding of the universe came about with the Copernican theory of the heliocentric model which showed the Sun to be the center of a body of orbiting planets including earth. This was in stark opposition to the established wisdom of the day championed by the Christian church, where the earth occupied the center of the universe. All of this leading through what’s called the age of enlightenment, we arrive at where we are now where science tries to make the ultimate unification of the theories which describe reality the best so far.
The current scientific attempts at unification however do not stand isolated from the rest of the human experience, it’s rather a continuation of something we may not have overtly thought of. Even the most ancient of religions were exercises in a form of unification; as opposed to scientific theories as we understand them today, these attempts were by virtue of appeals to an extra layer of reality that were either just beyond the clouds, or coexisting alongside us but barred from our vision, or at least some sort of fundamental “life force” that possessed even what we’d call a dumb rock. These attempts took the form of stories, and eventually turned into comprehensive narratives which explained a unified whole consisting of us, the world we perceived, and a world we did not. As a result we have epics of myth, legend, poetry, songs, leading to entire control systems taking root in communities that explained the universe as they knew it.
Depending on the times and regions, particular stories about gods and monsters would dominate. And in a world where the ruling class of a community or an empire had the patronage of a powerful god worshiped by those who were ruled, this type of story had the power to both control and establish a worldview for its people. No matter the politics and power struggles that are apparent in much of these stories we are ever so familiar with, unifying the unseen world of the gods, with the world we experience, right down to our own sense of self has been at the center of the human experience throughout our imaginable past.
The many narratives derived from the texts of the Bible to a large extent explain these three components of the self, the world, and the unknown with particular actors. In essence, I’d argue that fundamentally, the Bible is a portrayal of the historical struggle of Israel grappling with this “other” reality in relation to their own highly religious and politicized lives nuanced by their own context and culture (sometimes intermixed with other cultures), a narrative in which God is an actor as much as Israel was. This story permeated the life of Israel well beyond the personal into describing what their community meant in the larger scale of things in relation to other nations, their ongoing struggles and consequences of their actions as a nation, all the way to a faceted Age to Come envisioned by the prophets. Although from a modern hyper-rational perspective these stories are reduced to arcane nonsense, they were also real in the sense that the stories were lived through the lives of these communities and driven by a subconscious that attempted to unify the different layers of reality. This was further enabled by traditions, rituals, and the gathering of communities in acts of preaching and prayer.
However, the larger story of history dominates the rest, more like a god allegiant to no people. With the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in 70CE, the Jewish story which now included the new sub plot of Christianity went in a different direction. The story that once envisioned and foretold the destruction of the Roman empire ended up in the empire’s conversion in subsequent centuries. This conversion came at a price. It wasn’t just the stories, but the telling of stories itself was at an end. There was no more need for aspirations of a new age. The state backed religion was now at the helm of civilization with both priest and emperor at its head, well on its way to becoming the Holy Roman Empire under the banner of the Christ. Narrative grounded in history was reduced to universalized creeds and doctrines; a framework of belief that either included or excluded people and communities based on their belief. This had both religious and political advantage, but whether it contributed to the progress of civilization and humanity is questionable.
Subsequently the next millennium to follow would be called the “dark ages” by later scholars, a time arguably beset with famine, disease, deterioration of culture, and lack of progress until the renaissance of art and science. The world seemed to come out of an age dominated by feudalism, religio-political conquest, delusional religious superstition, and the established church’s antagonism towards the advancement of science and culture that was once pioneered by the ancient Greeks and Romans. We hear stories of the likes of Giodarno Bruno, Galileo Galilei, martyrs of progress crushed by an all too powerful religious institution that would later have no choice but to catch up and begrudgingly concede some ground to the world’s progress.
This emergence going through multiple eras dubbed the renaissance, revolution, and the age of enlightenment exponentially sped up progress to where we are today. Within just the last few centuries, we have discovered and rediscovered the fundamentals of life and reality over and over again on many levels through the likes of Newton, Maxwell, Darwin, Einstein, etc. Unification is back in the game however, in a different form. What was once narrative story telling has been succeeded by the method of formal scientific inquiry; observation, hypothesis, test, and theory. Metaphysical philosophies of figures such as Thales, Anaximander, Plato, Aristotle, and their later intellectual descendants deserve an honorable mention because they were a result of a scientific method however different from our own times.
As far as current attempts at explaining the universe go, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity (GR) explains the empirical world, the theory of Quantum Mechanics (QM) explains a world we cannot see or directly experience although it’s at the root of reality as we know it. It’s safe to say that one of the great pursuits, if not the greatest in modern theoretical physics and cosmology is to unify these theories so we’d have one coherent theory explaining all of reality at the smallest and largest levels. What this really entails is so much more complex than merely stating it as I have. But being able to understand reality for what it truly is, would enhance and revolutionize our view of life and the universe no matter what our preconceptions might be.
In fact, the present day scientific approach apart from its applications in fields such as physics, cosmology, biology, is even applied to the components that constitute these narratives so as to give us a better understanding of the ancient understandings of the universe.
While the continuation or reinvention of the same narratives of ancient times may still have their place, the scientific method is doubtless at the head of the project of discovering and explaining objective reality. It has proven to be the new unifier of the known and unknown. This does not, and never meant that all predictions and theories pan out, but the whole process is an exercise in making progress. Every disproven theory is a step towards a better theory. The genome, penicillin, electricity, evolution, thermodynamics, GR, QM, discovery of the Higgs Boson, all were a result of this very same process. This list or a subset of it might sound like gibberish to some, and possibly irrelevant. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is a mistake to dismiss science as the domain of the intellectual elite, even by the most scientifically illiterate. Not having the aptitude to comprehend the details of a theory is one matter, but dismissing it as irrelevant is an entirely different matter, unwarranted, and is a typical example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Never throw out the baby!
The religious and philosophical narratives that underlie society and our history have proven to be useful tools in their own right. While these were once used as explanatory tools, one could argue that the purpose of these stories have changed for the modern world. Now however, when it comes to pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and experience, the scientific method of inquiry has and is and deserves to be at the fore and possesses the driving force to do just this. Knowledge from these discoveries of reality can be as cathartic as religion once was. The fundamental component of the narrative called “God” is unchanged, what has changed are the stories we tell about it and our relation to it. The old symbols while helping us stay grounded, are not adequate anymore. There’s that deep seated feeling that what science describes using theories while looking forward to the grand unified theory which explains all of reality, will be a symbol (maybe a better and updated one) pointing to a fundamental reality that used to be, and maybe will continue to be called God by some.