Posted: January 1, 2016 in Culture, Debate, Idealism
Tags: , , ,

I chanced upon a dinner conversation of the type that tends to light me up, full of familiar assertions and brief citations that purport to make sense of the world but instead open up broad inquiries without ever resolving anything. Whereas all the hanging threads might be frustrating to others, I don’t mind that we leapt from subject to subject carelessly. Engagement with another’s intellect is what really fires me.

So in the course of the discussion, I argued (as devil’s advocate) that the discontinuity between various scales and timeframes renders subtle appreciation of the world and/or universe moot. Specifically, fine-grained knowledge that flows from hard sciences such as mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics does not combine to form anything approaching a complete picture of reality in the mind of the average person. Soft sciences such as sociology, psychology, economics, anthropology, and history are as likely to confound and confuse as illuminate, considering their vulnerability to interpretative flexibility. Further, the extensive conjectural and theoretical complexity of cosmology and quantum sciences are so far out of scope for typical beer-swilling Joes as to be invisible. Even the basic distinction between the Euclidian and Ptolemaic models of the solar system is losing currency with no immediately apparent effect in the wider (American) culture of prideful ignorance.

Here’s the rub: even though I believe more nearly the opposite, namely, that refined understandings of the universe developed and held in the minds of a relative few and never achieving the completeness of a union theory yet sufficient to bestow upon us hubris a model for action in the world are eventually (or ultimately) embedded in the deep culture, I found it difficult to argue that point to us fish inside the fishbowl. Indeed, the fellow across the table from me, who possessed far greater scientific wherewithal than do I, could only rebut my assertions with the baldest “is not, is too” type of negation.

I attempted an exploration of a deep-culture effect more than two years ago with this post, but I fear the whole subject was too arcane to make much of an impression. General readers simply do not go in for such analysis. Yet I still believe that the effect is present in, for example, our willingness to trash the world until it’s uninhabitable — at least for us — and our earnest desire to transcend our embodiment and be something other than human (e.g., Transhumanism), which is an expression of our deep self-loathing and self-destructive impulse (explored amply by The Compulsive Explainer — see blogroll). Like my dinner table conversation, these inquiries lead nowhere in particular but are nonetheless fascinating. Perhaps a generous reader out there who can point to a better example that is more accessible and convincing than what I’ve been able to muster.

  1. Clem says:

    Multiple dimensions, abstractions, mathematical models, they’re all well and good. Making concrete connections between higher order dimensions to what we see and experience around us can be pretty challenging. To sooth my little imagination I try to visualize higher order dimensions (beyond the first three readily acknowledged [length, width, height] by accounting for time, and then beyond I have to consider how two different observers consider one four dimensional ‘scene’.

    So to be more concrete, suppose the two of us are having a conversation over beers. A waitress stops at the table to ask if we need another round. We each see her presence, hear her voice, and intuit some sort of thought in response to her question. Now, one can readily map the ordinary three dimensions of space for this scene and toggle in the time dimension. To achieve some notion of a fifth dimension consider how each of our independent cognitions of the event (our own 4 dimensional narratives if you will) are not identical. Why are they not identical? Didn’t just one thing just happen?

    Let a length of time transpire and the two of us come back together to reminisce this particular scene. We have each moved along the same distance on a time dimension, but not in the same physical space and not with the same life experience. At the second meeting we are each different than the two people who witnessed the original event. Now if we each share our impressions of the waitress’ visit to our table these two reminiscences will have other nuanced modifications that would not have been imaginable at the time of the original event. Is this a sixth dimension?

    There were no alphabetic x’s, y’s, z’, or delta t’s in that little story. You can swap them in if you like. What we did have were multiple perspectives of a 4 dimensional scene, previous experiences conditioning those perspectives, follow on experience reconditioning memories of those multiple perspectives…

    Let’s agree the example scene took 10 seconds to transpire. It involved merely three humans in some state of wakefulness. If there are 7 billion people, each with about 16 hours of wakeful time each day (close to one hundred 10 second ‘scenes’ per person per day)… this creates the opportunity for some incredibly enormous number of scenes and interpretations of the same.

    I think it’s time for a second beer.

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