I’ve been reading Brian Greene’s new book The Hidden Reality, which deals with various theories in physics about multiple and parallel universes to ours. It’s a fascinating book, though I’d recommend reading his previous piece on modern physics, The Fabric of the Cosmos first. Not only does it provide background information on the science of modern physics that makes The Hidden Reality easier to understand, but it is one of the best lay science books out there. Still, The Hidden Reality is worth reading.
Rather than write about the book and the various theories within, I want to speculate on what it means to think of humanity not only as not the center of the universe, but perhaps part of a multiverse with unseen dimensions that further makes our little planet seem utterly insignificant. Yet perhaps not.
I’ve before made my “ant analogy” — just as an ant’s world seems complete and understandable on an ant’s terms, reflecting the very limited mental activity of such a creature, we may be limited in ways just as profound. Just as the ant can’t comprehend the socio-political dynamics of our world, there may be as much that we can’t comprehend about the world around us. We think we see it fully, can use logic clearly, and make definitive statements about our universe and its laws, but if what is unseen is fundamental to shaping our reality, our view is inherently limited.
Consider dimensions. It’s really hard for us to imagine dimensions beyond the three spatial dimensions we inhabit. We even get headaches thinking about “space/time” as a single unified entity — space just seems to be the world out there, and time the passage of events. We know that’s not the case thanks to relativity and quantum theory, but for every day life it’s not something we can practically comprehend.
Subatomic particles like electrons are considered point particles. That seems one dimensional. Photons and other particles are considered to be without mass — and photons are pure speed, experiencing no passage of time. (And paradoxically light is both a particle and a wave at the same time). So while we can capture, measure and aim photons to use practically, an individual photon will never experience time — it is pure velocity. Mass itself is a problem — why do particles have mass? The current theory is that there is a field (the Higgs field) which creates mass (the particle moving in a field meets resistance, which yields mass — that’s imperfect, but the most easy to understand metaphor), but even the fact mass is so problematic is counter to the common sense of life in the world. Common sense, of course, is often misleading — but when it comes to core aspects of life, that’s a bit spooky!
The paradoxes of quantum mechanics are well documented. Anyone wanting a clear natural deterministic universe that runs on distinct laws has to be disappointed with where science is taking us!
Yet if there are other dimensions then one can imagine a reason why these apparent contradictions and paradoxes exist. If we are seeing only three (or four, if you count time) dimensions then we are seeing only a portion of the world. Particles may exhibit themselves only ‘in part’ in our reality, having some other source or aspect in other dimensions which we can’t fathom. Gravity seems most likely to move within dimensions, while electromagnetism seems at least to have a dynamic contained in what we can experience and measure.
This also makes the nature of life problematic. Life as we define it relies on certain attributes within a 3D environment. It is a biological definition, reflecting how chemicals interact, reproduce and adapt. Notions of consciousness, spirit, or anything other than seeing humans as extremely complex “natural” robots are inherently controversial and untestable. Biological intelligence isn’t that much different from artificial intelligence except for its complexity, speed of adaption and pristine functioning.
However, if life exists here because of processes or attributes of other dimensions — things that impact ours but cannot be seen directly — then what we consider to be life is unclear. Consciousness and spirit may be terms that describe the hidden impact of other realities on our own, while entities that appear “lifeless” in our world may actually be part of a larger ‘conscious’ organism operating beyond our own dimension. While a good down to earth scientist would dismiss this as pure speculation, it’s speculation built on the fact that we have so many unanswerable questions about existence (what is consciousness, why is there something and not nothing, do we have free will). Like the ant unable to see beyond a closed clear insect world, we may simply be unable to see what may be obvious to multi-dimensional entities.
Since Copernicus took us off our pedestal of seeing the earth as the center of everything — God’s one creation, the core of existence — we’ve been falling fast. The sun lost it’s role as the center, then the galaxy, and now there are multiple galaxies, the earth is a tiny planet amongst billions of stars, to the point that there could be an infinite number of alternate universes, and other dimensions that shape our world but can not be seen directly.
Yet all that complexity and our apparent insignificance is itself questionable. We only appear insignificant because our limited 3D space-time mentality cannot interpret the notion of other dimensions or universes in any way but one that seems to create worlds outside ourselves and far distant. Consider a four dimensional equivalent. Rome is a long ways a way. I cannot visit the Pantheon or throw a coin in the Trevi fountain. Two months from now, I’ll be in Rome and those things will be directly accessible to me. The problem is simply the dimension of time. In another dimension, it might be possible to transcend time — we simply don’t have access to that part of reality.
The oddities of modern physics may in fact reaffirm our significance, since the notion of being in the center of a 3D geographic world is meaningful only in this limited world. Expanding that analogy into other dimensions makes no sense. Perhaps it is in fact meaningful to think that the apparent isolation and uncertainty of life in a space time world is an illusion caused by our limited access to reality. We don’t know more, we don’t have an answer key to how to live life, what its purpose is, what we should value, etc., because such an answer key is wholly inaccessible in this world. Uncertainty is a core aspect of this existence.
And that possibility comforts me. I don’t need to figure it out. I don’t need to find the “right” philosophy or the “right” religion — it’s utterly impossible to know if I’ve found it, or if one exists. Instead, I need to make choices and live my life as I truly want to live it. I’m responsible for it, I determine what it means, and I can explore spiritual and philosophical ideas whether through dreams, logical analysis or prayer and meditation as I see fit. Daily problems, injustices small and large, battles over ideology and power, even horrors like torture and genocide need to be seen with that perspective. As bad as it is, we don’t know the true deep meaning and cause, so rather than responding with fear and anger, we simply need to choose how to act ourselves, being true first and foremost to the inner voice it seems each of us possess. Fear, anxiety, stress, anger, greed, hate…all are things driven by our inability to be at peace with our ignorance of the true meaning of reality. Once we embrace that ignorance and recognize it’s just a part of this life, things might become much easier.