Scientists now assert that our universe may have upwards of eleven spatial dimensions, yet we still perceive only three. Isn’t it INTERESTING that our minds can’t deal with the very reality we’re immersed in?
And yet this remarkable existential disconnect gets no more than passing mention in today’s popular physics books. A sentence like “Of course our minds can’t really conceive of, or understand these dimensions…” often begins and ends the discussion. This fundamental aspect of human existence has been ignored, as if it were but a quirky artifact of scientific theory.
But is it possible that this disconnect affects everyday human life in ways of which we are not aware? Could it be that human contentiousness itself is largely a product of this dysfunctional relationship with reality?
Science Points the Way
In addition to the notion of extra dimensions, modern science has become a treasure trove of theories and concepts which cannot really be grasped by the mind. They can be clearly elucidated in the language of science and mathematics, and many of them have been experimentally verified to the point of being accepted as valid, but they can’t be “pictured.” What, for example is “curved space?” Or, how can the universe have a “size?”
Consider the Big Bang theory. Though it boggles the mind to think that at some point everything in the cosmos issued forth from an exploding microscopic dot, the concept doesn’t seem to present any logical problem. However, where was this dot? Space itself didn’t yet exist – it was all “inside” the dot. This, of course, makes no sense. My mind surrenders.
To be sure, human beings have always been aware that there are questions reaching beyond our perceptual ability. Looking up at the stars, men have perennially wondered: Where does it end? Does it end? It must end; it can’t end… You know what I’m talking about.
An interesting thing about science is that it often gets useful results even without anyone being able to grasp its concepts experientially. Thus most theoretical scientists quite understandably go about their business without worrying about whether their new ideas are amenable to common sense. If, for example, some important incompatible equations can be “smoothed out” by postulating an eleventh spatial dimension, who cares what this dimension actually is, or looks like?
Also, paradoxes and contradictions are very hard entities on which to concentrate. Think about it – how long can you really ponder the question of whether the universe has an outer limit? For me, about ten seconds.
But again, isn’t it INTERESTING that these contradictions exist at all? Wouldn’t it seem to make sense that this lack of perceptual consonance with empirical reality would have ramifications, and that these ramifications might perhaps be felt in areas of our life outside of science and cosmology?
There’s a curious little nineteenth-century book called Flatland which is a story about life in a 2-dimensional world. Sound boring? It is. But it is mentioned in a surprising number of serious popular physics books today.
The author, a mathematician, spends a great deal of time providing details of what life is like for the geometrically-shaped inhabitants of Flatland. But, as you might expect, the highlight of the story comes when the hero/narrator, himself a square (literally), is visited by an emissary from the 3rd dimension (a sphere), and is given a glimpse of 3-D reality. Needless to say, it blows his flat little mind. His revelation goes way beyond spatial geometry; it’s a spiritual epiphany. He considers the sphere to be a god.
Naturally the author’s point is this: are we, perhaps, in the same boat as the square, unknowingly trapped inside severely limited awareness? What would it be like for us to be able to experience the fourth spatial dimension? What would it be like if our minds were to become inherently capable of grasping those phenomena which now seem paradoxical or contradictory?
Paradoxes in Everyday Life
It is my contention that the increasingly obvious limitations of the twenty-first-century human mind do indeed have ramifications that make a difference in everyday life. Every day. All the time. In fact I believe we currently live in a soupy sea of paradox and unclarity that is so pervasive as to have escaped our notice.
One of the first philosophy courses I took in college was called Great Problems of Philosophy. It was an introductory, survey-type course that explored basic philosophical questions like: What is right, and what is wrong? Does God exist? How do we know something to be true? Stuff like that. Chronologically it began at around the time of Socrates.
The questions examined in this course still persist, unanswered. In thousands of years of bickering about what are essentially simple problems, we haven’t yet solved them!!! And there’s no end in sight. Inside our limited vision we’ve convinced ourselves that such questions are actually quite complex, but really they’re not. It’s just that we’re operating in an incomplete mental framework, a three-dimensional framework within which it seems okay, even inevitable, that certain questions are never resolved. This is an example of living in what I call the soup, and failing to notice.
Let’s look at three everyday paradoxes. Though each is unique you’ll notice that they all involve our rather shadowy relationship with the real world.
Paradox #1: Probability
When I say that a certain racehorse has a one in ten chance of winning a particular race, what exactly does that mean? We think we know – but do we?
Does it mean that the horse will lose? No, because one-in-ten shots sometimes win.
Does it mean that the horse will win? Of course not.
Does it mean that if the race were repeated lots of times the horse would win about 10 percent? No, because there isn’t any world where this race will be repeated lots of times. In the real world this particular race will be, and can be, run only once.
So when the race is over, and the horse has won or lost, my statement will not be shown to have been true, and will not be shown to have been false.
So what real-world events or conditions could prove my statement to be true, or false? None!!! Therefore statements of probability say nothing about the real world… But surely they do!?!?
Paradox #2: Being Right
In matters of fact we all know what it is to be right. We’re “right” when our assertions are borne out by reality. I claim that the Yankees will win the game, and they do.
But what about in matters which are not so obviously factual?
Suppose I claim “Count Basie’s music is better than Lawrence Welk’s.” How could I be proven right about this?
You may say that in this case I’m simply stating a preference, about which there can be no question of right or wrong. But that’s not true. Had I said, “I prefer Basie to Welk,” there indeed could be no argument: I like what I like. But what I actually said was “Basie is better than Welk,” and there’s quite a difference. When I say better I’m going beyond my preferences, beyond the waves in my brain, and out into external reality. I’m talking about Basie and Welk, not just about myself.
But how does “Basie is better than Welk” actually manifest itself in external reality? It doesn’t!!! There’s nothing in the real world that can possibly verify my statement and show me to be right. By the same token, nothing can show me to be wrong. So if “Basie is better than Welk” can be neither right nor wrong, what does it mean? Does it mean anything?
Paradox #3: What Would Have Happened if …
What would have happened if JFK hadn’t been assassinated in 1963? We’ll never know.
But wait a minute! JFK was assassinated in 1963. There is no JFK-wasn’t-assassinated world – it doesn’t exist. So it’s not that “we’ll never know” – there’s nothing to know! The “knowledge” we’re talking about is pure fantasy.
Consider a statement like, “If I would have driven a little faster I would have made the light.” This, too, talks about a reality that doesn’t exist. I didn’t drive faster. What’s real is: Here I am, stopped at the red light. The world in which I made the light is nothing but a figment of my imagination.
Thinking about “what would have happened if…” is always an exercise in fiction, playing with mental phantoms that have nothing to do with the empirical world.
But it seems to have more substance than that, doesn’t it?
Those three paradoxes are very similar. They’re extremely common in everyday human interaction, and each involves an attempt to convey information about the empirical world that turns out, in reality, to be no empirical information at all.
Logical positivism, a school of philosophy that arose in the mid-twentieth century, studied statements like this, but had no tolerance for the existence of actual paradox, and thus came to the harsh conclusion that such statements are meaningless. If I profess to communicate real-world information, my assertion should be verifiable in the real world. If it’s not, I’m speaking gibberish. This rigid approach led the logical positivists to dismiss entire areas of human thought and philosophy (e.g. ethics, theology, metaphysics, etc.) as meaningless. As you might expect, this school of thought never became very popular, and didn’t last very long.
But they were onto something. There definitely is something weird about a communication (“This horse has a one in ten chance of winning”) that can never be verified as being either true or false. However, throwing up our hands and rejecting the statement as meaningless is not the way to go. Why? Because it’s obviously not meaningless. We all have a sense of what it means, even though we don’t have the tools to really understand it.
We’re in the soup. So much of our day-to-day human discourse is murky at best. We may think we’re logical, rational beings, but when push comes to shove we can discuss (or argue) the simplest propositions without ever coming to resolution. We often feel ourselves to be “right” without having any clear notion of what it means to actually be right. And we talk about, and base innumerable decisions on, the idea of probability, but don’t really know what it is, or how it actually relates to physical reality. There’s something wrong with this picture, but being so used to living within the confines of the picture frame, we just don’t get it. We are three-dimensional perceptual beings, unaware that our reality is n-dimensional.
I speculate that virtually all human disagreement and animosity arises from the incomplete nature of our mental framework, and that the next great step in man’s evolution will be our developing the ability to experientially perceive the fourth spatial dimension. It will indeed be an epiphany, and countless age-old, incompatible “human equations” will finally be smoothed out.