I’ve been thinking lately about a particularly instructive image, that of a dog walking the aisles of a cathedral during mass. It’s instructive in that one can consider how much of its reality the dog, or more particularly the dog’s brain, can understand. The smartest dog in the world will know that there are people all around it, perhaps that some of them are familiar, that the room is warm and dry, that there are many sounds of different frequencies about and that the people are curiously still… but not much more. The dog can ever understand what is really going on.
Humans have brains, too. Are there truths, perhaps great sweeping truths, about reality that we simply can never hope to understand, even when the evidence is as abundant as it is in that church?
This is by its nature an extremely difficult question to answer. The dog doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, after all. And it doesn’t know that, either. We, of course, have considerable advantages over the canine brain. But these advantages are by no means infinite.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “Middle World” to refer to the sphere of our experience. Our brains evolved in the world of medium-sized objects, medium velocities, and so on. As a result we don’t intuitively understand that rocks and people are made up almost entirely of empty space because, as Dawkins points out, when we punch a rock we experience a very real solidity. And it’s helpful that our brains don’t see objects for what they really are. If they did, we might spend our lives throwing ourselves at walls the way that moths throw themselves at a lightbulb. Moths, of course, evolved in the absence of light bulbs.
It’s humbling to realize that lepidopteran lightbulbs are everywhere for us. Forget that every atom in our body is switched out many times during our lives, so that we are at this moment merely approximate copies of ourselves from even a year ago. Surprise! Or that each of us spent an eternity in a state of non-existance before the incalculably unlikely event of our birth, with the logical implication that we will return to that same “normal” state in a few years. Yay? We can probably grasp those realities. Others are not so easy.
Cosmological distances are notoriously difficult for our minds to comprehend. Many methods have been proposed to help us, but beyond a certain point they lapse into meaninglessness. The distance to the Sun might be easier to contemplate in relation to the distance to a nearer object like the Moon, for instance. The Sun lies at a distance from us roughly 400 times that of the Moon. But the concept of multiplying any great distance by a factor of 400 strains our brains considerably (other than as just a number) and when you couple that with the fact that we are hard-pressed to wrap our heads around even the distance between ourselves and the Moon, a relatively nearby rock that we can easily see, the whole exercise reaches the periphery of usefulness. What about geological time? The Rocky Mountains were formed after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Does that help? I doubt it very much.
But we can see the Sun and the Moon and we can experience the passage of time. These are, at least in some ways, still a part of our “Middle World”. What about the square root of -1? We can use this concept easily by plugging it into an equation. We understand perfectly how it “works”, but what is it? What is Pi? What is mathematical infinity? For that matter, what is the number 8?
The answer to this last query may seem self-evident at first, but consider these troubling questions: Is ‘8’ a construct or is it real? It has no mass or volume and it presumably exists outside of time, if it exists at all. If intelligent life had never evolved, would the concept of ‘8’ have any meaning, or exist? [Probably, since if you take four objects and group them together with four separate objects, you will likely always end up with an additive number equivalent to their sum, whether anyone is around to notice or not] Nonetheless, my assertion is that we can never know for sure because we simply don’t know what ‘8’ is. If you’re still not convinced of the elusive quality of the ostensibly pedestrian concept we call ‘8’, it may be helpful to consider one last question: If the Big Bang had never occurred, if universes had never existed and never were to exist, if matter and time and space had never come into being… where would that leave the number 8? I personally feel that as a non-physical entity outside of time, it would likely still exist. So if that is indeed the case, I ask a final time, WTF IS IT? Discuss.
In anticipation of a barrage of well-meaning and very wound up mathematical theorists rushing to their keyboards to expose my puny understanding of the discipline, I would like to remind my readers that the ‘Waxing Upon the Number Eight’ portion of this little exploration is by no means an element central to it. I merely present it as an example of how complicated even the most familiar and accepted concepts can be when examined closely, and how easily we accept what we don’t really understand at all and move on.
Despite my brash suggestion that its most basic elements are not and probably never can be fully understood, Mathematical Theory itself is, in the academic sense at least. So let’s get weirder. Quantum Theory. String Theory. Quantum Gravity. The Higgs Boson. Spooky Action at a Distance. Quantum Tunnelling. The Uncertainty Principle. Dark Energy. Dark Matter. Eleven dimensions. Some of these are measurable and predictable, some are fairly well understood, many can be used to elicit very consistent results like microwaves and cell phones. But we’re pushing it, and while all of these game-changing concepts were discovered or postulated in just the past hundred years, many of them were unimaginable even a couple of decades ago.
I invite you to extrapolate.
Can our ‘Middle World’ brains ever really understand what it means for a particle to exist not as an object in space but as a probability wave, regardless of how much evidence we amass? How about every particle? Can we wrap our heads around the undeniable fact that in 4 billion years the Andromeda Galaxy will collide and fuse with our own Milky Way? Keep in mind that our Earth has been here longer than that. What will that look like? Something like this.
Can we ever viscerally feel that something as familiar as gravity, the attractive force which keeps you on the ground is likely not a force at all, attractive or otherwise, but results naturally from the fact that space-time curves around massive objects? How about that only a minuscule 4% of the universe is made up of anything we understand as matter (the rest, by the way, is not empty space. It’s something else. Empty space doesn’t exist), and that if you took all of the planets, stars and galaxies away, and just threw them out, the universe would remain essentially unchanged?
in and out of
with the ease and frequency
Or that most of the matter in the universe isn’t matter at all and most of the energy isn’t energy at all as we know them, but that both are far and away the most important factors driving…
All of these are likely true, and fit to wear the crown of “Miss Uncomprehensionality”, or be voted Most Likely to Succeed in Messing You Up. But let’s not forget the very real possibility that other universes, some perhaps where the number 8 does not exist, many perhaps where all of the strange things mentioned above don’t exist either but are replaced by other, stranger things, are all around us. Maybe even woven into our own.
So where am I going with this? Am I just trying to bum everybody out? Partially. But I would like to explore the possibility in Part 2 of this post that these things are only unfathomable to us as creatures whose brains have evolved through natural selection to understand rabbits and what it feels like to be hungry or to fall from a tree. That when the exogenous tools we rely on to bring reality into sharper focus like Hubble Telescopes, Particle Accelerators and Advanced Mathematics bring us to the end of what even the most brilliant among us can actually comprehend, there may indeed be a way for those limits to be exceeded. I will look at whether an intelligence created by a different kind of process can loose the surly bounds of the Middle World and, in the most complete sense possible, touch the face of God.