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A Unified Theory of Everything

Philippe Larochelle

This is another in the “freshmen please stop and think” columns. So don’t say you weren’t warned. My hope is that this column will give you pause for a couple moments of quiet contemplation. The hope of the editors is that it will fill some empty space on the opinion page.

With any luck, at least one of these goals will be accomplished.

Walking through the MIT campus, one inevitably comes upon the sight of our wonderful nondenominational all-purpose MIT Chapel, the brick cylinder with the spike on top. One thought that may arise in the minds of those passing by the chapel is how incongruous it seems to be to the rest of the surroundings. In the middle of one of the foremost scientific institutions in the world, there sits a temple of mysticism.

One of the greatest tales in the history of humanity is the ongoing struggle between science and religion. Here in science’s home turf there sits a testament to the other side of the battle. This is a mystical place where students and faculty are supposed to go to drop reason and analysis and for a short time devote themselves to an exercise in faith. No proofs, no equations, just a show of faith. It is similar to someone placing a cyclotron in a cathedral. Passing by this every day on the way from the Student Center or back to a dorm, one cannot help but question if there is a true incompatibility between religion and science.

With that background note I begin my thought process. During your time here many of you will be so overwhelmed with classes, test tubes, circuit boards, problem sets and Java code that you will not even give a second thought to the nature of institutions such as MIT and their greater purpose in the grand scheme of things. You see, the goal of a place like this isn’t only to puke up the occasional start-up or craft engineers for Boeing. Its greater purpose is not even, as the brass loves to say, to form the leaders of tomorrow. The over-arching purpose of a place like MIT is simple: to understand everything.

Not just a superficial understanding of macroscopic properties and how they can be of use to economic ventures, but a true comprehension of every atom and its structure, every chromosome and its function, every thing, every property and every interaction. It is this quest for ultimate knowledge, in which all of us must partially participate in thanks to the core requirements, in which our tango with science and religion commences.

At the beginning of your time here at MIT it is quite possible that you feel an initial revulsion towards the staple teachings of many religions. The workings of Newtonian mechanics dispel the long-held belief of a geocentric universe. The findings of neurochemistry show the inability of a rat or butterfly brain holding anything close to human thought patterns that discern our characters, throwing reincarnation down the toilet, and evolutionary biology seems to make an Adam and Eve scenario unlikely. If one proceeds no further in scientific endeavors than this, one may be left with a permanent distaste for religion altogether. If one proceeds further, however, it is possible that they may find themselves inclined to embrace religion more than ever.

My last statement stems from the quest for ultimate knowledge that I mentioned before. Imagine what would happen if we ever arrived at the ideal the Institute bases itself on. Imagine if the people in Course VIII gain a complete understanding of the subatomic and its movements and properties. From that, the people in Course V will understand the nature and characteristics of every bond and reaction. Building further, people in Course IX will work out the intricacies of the human brain and neural system, reducing all of our emotions, thoughts and memories to chemical patterns and electric polarizations. The clever people in Course XII will refine their models to where every condition can be accounted for in weather systems -- a hurricane can be forecast a decade in advance -- and planetary behavior will be similarly understood.

When it comes to the point when science provides us the means to understand every interaction in the universe, as well as the tools to perfectly analyze the initial state to the point when chaos theory no longer poses a problem, something even more amazing will happen than the technology derived from the knowledge. There will emerge predictability. Every action you take, from the last meal you had to the words you are reading off this page, are actions that could have been determined when life on Earth was nothing but primordial ooze, the formation of that ooze being pre-determined eons before that. Then you will begin to question whether any action you take is truly of a free-will nature, or whether they simply are the results of predictable reactions that the constituents of your body have with the outside world, a process that you helped to catalogue.

At this point I believe your turn back to the religious may be twofold. I use “may” because you might simply come to the realization that you are incredibly similar to the Athena station you are working in front of and leave it at that. The first way you may turn back to religion is the more wholesome of the two. Your wondrous amazement at the workings of the universe may convince you that something must have crafted the elementary particles and properties of the universe in such a way that they would eventually crank out the wonderful universe we have now. The second would come more from despair: unable to accept the fact that you are just a cog with no more real determination of your actions than a current of wind, you begin to believe that there is something more to you than just the cells and electrical impulses that science can so readily understand. You’ll believe in some abstract concept of a soul, something that science can’t understand, control or, even more importantly, predict.

But, you don’t need to worry about such things. You’re only freshmen.