Monday, June 6, 2011
"A human being is part of the whole, called by us the "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest--a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." - Albert Einstein
Wild Ideas on the Mysteries of the Universe
Dimensional Linguistics: Art Class for Creator Gods and Aspiring Dr. Frankensteins
Recently, I watched the Ted Talk on the E8 symmetry group by rockstar surfing physicist Garrett Lisi. Mr. Lisi has proposed a unified field theory that uses the E8 lie algebra as a geometric model describing the interactions of elementary particles. I was intrigued by some of the topics he touched on in his video, and felt compelled to write him a letter. I asked him some questions I’ve been mulling over for months that seemed related, at least vaguely, to his research. Is it possible that humans have an innate ability to intuit energy patterns, or recognize geometric structure or symmetry in the universe’s organizing principles? Could this be the reason we see the same archetypal imagery repeated again and again historically across such a wide range of visual cultures? I’d been thinking about this since last year, when I'd read a theory proposing that humans use innate symmetry recognition in their visual/neural perception to differentiate between objects and living organisms.
Mr. Lisi wrote back promptly, and generously delivered a thoughtful, well-considered response to my letter. He said my guess sounded likely, but that since there was no evidence yet to back it up, it could be nothing more than a wild guess. It seemed, to my discomfort, that he’d also picked up on my precarious position as an obsessive back-and-forth tightrope walker between scientific and magical thinking—-two opposed circuses, in my opinion both equally limited in their capacity to describe the universe. He said he wanted to clarify my position before we continued to correspond on the subject of physics. What do I believe happens when a person dies? Could I imagine consciousness ceasing to exist in a mound of decomposing dirt or not?
“People, you see, are terrified of the truth: that they inhabit bodies made out of meat that will inevitably fail and cease to exist. This fact is perhaps the most terrifying truth we have to confront in our lives. It's completely amazing that we exist as conscious and aware beings, and it's absurd that this consciousness exists as the functioning of our meat brains, but it is so. We are delusional animals, not so much better than chimps, but with just a smidgeon more awareness, and a mind that likes to fool us that we're immortal.”
I didn’t return the letter; I had to think about this for a while. I consider myself a logical person, open-minded, but sound in judgment. My typical belief system could be summed up as a Socratic stance of disclosing my ignorance at every opportunity, whilst aggressively attempting to prove that no one else knows anything of merit either. The truth is though, the idea of consciousness as strictly a function of the brain has always frightened me. I felt obligated, when asked directly, to provide a truly honest answer. This involved revisiting and reinvestigating my thoughts on the subject to see if I held any deep-seated secret beliefs.
As I thought about death and the brain and body, I also began to consider human perception in general: inherently unreliable, rooted in the seemingly insurmountable subjectivity of our perceptual apparatus—one that allows us no objective perspective on our place in the universe. Philosophical questions about human life are difficult to approach using a scientific framework for this very reason. It always boils down to the same old problem: how can we purport to objectively determine the laws or principles of something that we can only experience subjectively? How can any inferences on the nature of life and consciousness be considered anything but speculation, when there is still so much we cannot explain about reality and our universe, about time and space, perception, dimensionality, the interaction of forces, or the workings of our own brains?
Until we fully understand these subjects—which I believe will eventually become the same field of research—what do we really have but wild speculation? When dealing with questions of physics, philosophy, biology, and even representation (language or art), it is important to keep the problems of subjectivity and relativity in mind, and to remember that we still do not have a verifiable big picture of our universe. How can we make statements about the mortality of consciousness, when our concepts of time and reality in general are still so young and incomplete?
That being said, and recognizing fully that we are in the realm of guesswork, logic and intuition, I also have some wild yet reasonable speculation about the nature of consciousness.
In Garrett’s video, he uses polyps on coral as an analogy to describe the behavior of quantum particles (he declares that each genetically identical polyp is actually one manifestation of the whole creature, which one could say exists in multiple locations at once). I believe that when viewed in the light of a dimensionally-holistic perspective, this same metaphor could be extrapolated to describe the essence of any living creature regardless of genetic variation: one big entity, simultaneously one and many. But because our perceptual apparatus is divided, it is extremely difficult for us to perceive this. We are stuck in a flawed understanding of the dimensional structure of our universe—one that leads us to believe we are completely separated individuals. This separated individual perspective leads to a flawed understanding of the nature of time, to formidable alienation and suffering, and to gross misconceptions about our own identities and the nature of reality.
In other words, we are all one creature. It is only from a perspective of differentiated observation, one that incorrectly dissects the dimensional geometry of our universe, that we perceive ourselves as separate beings. The idea that we are all fundamentally connected is obviously nothing new, but it should be treated more seriously outside the realms of religion and spirituality. If you think about it logically, it is really not weird or unbelievable.
Consider your DNA.
Your body, your entire physical existence, could be described as a code executed in the raw material of the universe in three spatial dimensions and time.
This code patterns your cells, defines your physical parameters, and propels your growth and movement through your dimensional world.
But you inherited your genes, and they will live on in your children.
If you view your body as one of many hosts of an evolving, self-replicating code—one that evolved in complexity from acids and algae to Ammachi and Einstein--which one is the actual life form?
Is it your body, with its energy metabolism and dying and regenerating cells, or the information that defines and forms the body--a strain of genetic material that existed since the beginning of life on this planet and continues to propagate itself in an ever-increasing population of hosts?
When you have a child you are physically transferring very small parts of yourself, living information that has mass and takes up physical space, into your child. These small bits grow into the physical shape and attributes of the child over time. Where exactly then does your life end and another life begin?
The child separates from you by gaining physical distance over time, but you yourself may have also gained physical distance from your prior self from say, twenty years ago. In fact, you could say the only thing connecting yourself now to your prior self, when your body is growing and moving and changing, occupying different locations in space and time, may be your ability to hold onto memories of lost spacetime events and assemble them to form an imagined chronology. Like a string of pearls, this assemblage of memories gathers to construct a somewhat haphazard strand that is your history and identity. Obviously, you have your own organs, your own body, but do these necessarily define you as a separate creature from others, or just as an aspect?
The thing that makes us so sure that we are completely separate people is that we view the world from our own perspectives and have different sets of memories. The real difference between you and your child is more starkly marked by a difference in observational frames of reference than by a difference in physicality. In the same way that your cells have their own functions and are separated physically, but remain units of the same creature, your brain, heart, lungs, or epidermis would not necessarily define you as a separate creature--except for the fact that this is where we place the linguistic parameters for our definition of a human being. However, this definition may be the result of the very human way that we view reality. It may be a definition based on the need to communicate easily in our native language—which describes the world from the perspective of 3D with a direction. It is an agreed-upon perspective, but not necessarily a valid one, and in no way could we claim it is based on an objectively accurate view.
Because we all share the same genealogical ancestry, on a long enough time axis, when looked at four-dimensionally from the perspective of an outside objective observer (if there were such a perspective), would we not all be the same entity—one that continues to branch off into self-similar parts as time goes on?
What would this entity that began at the start of life, perhaps the start of the universe, and continued to branch out and expand and evolve through an increasing number of hosts look like if you could plot its 3D shape on a linear time line? On an infinitely-long time axis, would its parts not embody every possible three-dimensional shape? If you scaled your graph to a manageable finite length of time and plotted the entire entity three-dimensionally, what would it look like then?
If you were trying to draw accurate conclusions about human consciousness, would it not make sense to question an assumption that you are an independent individual creature in your body, when that assumption has been drawn strictly from observing the world through the lens of your own individual memories and subjective self-ideation? In other words, instead of viewing yourself and others from one point inside this four-dimensional graph or field, would it not make sense to at least attempt to imagine what we might look like from the 'outside'?
So imagine for a moment that you're an artist, a developer, or a god. You have the perspective of an outside observer on our universe. You want to express this entity that is the sum total of life on earth in a spacetime continuum as one three-dimensional shape, so that you can represent it to each little polyp, each separate frame of reference, in a format they can all see and grasp. It has at least four dimensions, but you have to compress it into three-dimensionality. How might you tackle this problem? How would you represent all of the states and positions it could occupy at once? Would you take a mathematic or a poetic approach?
Fundamentally, it is a problem of perspective. It is simple for us—humans--to imagine how something three-dimensional is represented in two dimensions—the way we can paint a barn to represent an actual barn. But how would we accurately represent something that varies spatially over time without actually giving it time? Would it be the sum of its spatial states? Would it be an average shape or location? None of these choices lead to an accurate representation. Like Plato’s cave dwellers who had to exit their cave in order to realize that they were actually living in three-dimensional reality while perceiving two-dimensional reality, in order for us to visualize four-dimensional reality in its entirety in our heads, for us to see its boundaries, we would have to be outside of it. In other words we would have to gain the perspective of one dimension ‘above’ in order for us to visualize time spatially.
Without that perspective, we can only model four-dimensionality abstractly in mathematics; poetically by showing its effects; by animating something two-dimensional and scaling its duration to suit a model; or by breaking it into moments or events (a slice of time chopped from the line and fit inside three spatial dimensions) and examining them separately, or stringing them together to make an assemblage-chronology. But there is always something lost in the representation. Our perception is dimensionally flawed. We cannot holistically describe the original geometry of this entity within the confines of our current perceptual environment. It’s like each of us are seeing the facets of a diamond and failing to see the shape.
Our flawed way of perceiving spacetime could be described conceptually as follows: imagine you are a set of eyes on the end of a tree branch on a growing tree. Movement or growth in some direction is not an option, you are propelled “forward.”
We could fork in several directions, but we make a choice, and when we grow in that direction, all other possibilities are lost to us. We cannot grow backwards to get to them, and we cannot see them. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other branches on the tree, each perceiving out in its own direction from its perspective, each with a set of choices that spring from a prior set of choices. And it also does not mean that the rest of the tree does not exist. Just because you are a tiny little branch, does not mean you aren’t connected to another tiny branch on the other side of the tree. But you cannot go backwards (back in time) down the trunk and through the other branches that connect you to the twig. In fact you don’t even know that the other twig is there--your eyes are on the very tip of your own branch.
Is it valid to assume, just because you are seeing from your own point, that the tree itself as a whole does not also have its own perception? Perhaps its vantage point would be entirely different, inclusive of all the possible perspectives of its branches, and also each possible alternate choice in spatial or temporal direction that each branch did not take. In other words, from the perspective of the tree itself, any x,y,z,w spacetime coordinate grid that would be the movement parameters available to each of its branches from their own vantage points at their normal rates of growth would be a completely useless and ineffective way to describe the dimensions of the universe-matrix available to the tree itself.
As a means for performing a perspective shift and as a way of illustrating this perspective problem, we were trying to imagine how to draw or graph our higher dimensional shape in a lower-dimensional environment. We want to gain a more realistic perspective on our tree, but we cannot move our eyes from our little branch, off the tree entirely, to look at the whole shape from the outside. How could we override this perceptual problem?
Well, let’s say this small branch that is your body very far down a chain of choices, decisions, and movements in spacetime is already the model or the graph of our higher-dimensional selves--our best attempt to reassemble our consciousness in lower-dimensionality, a representation, an aspect, a facet, a branch, a way of organizing information in our flawed native language—3D with a memory and velocity, perceiving a field of time from a directionally-restrictive trajectory through it.
To deconstruct this representation, you could reverse-engineer the body, study how it unfolds through a series of branching events, and decipher its language, tracing a broken geometrical symmetry state back to its original symmetry. You’d be attempting to understand the principles of information modeling in this universe with exact precision, to decode a lower-dimensional shape so that you could read its referent in a higher dimensionality. If you mastered the fundamentals of modeling in this way, you could “read” matter and what it refers to in its grander manifestation. You could slide any shape back and forth and around in spacetime, predict the forces that would act on it, and predict its shape, state and coordinates at any point in any time or realm of possible time points.
Imagine reading the wrinkles on a human face as they tell an exact story, not just of where one human has been, but of the entire history of our species back to the inception of energy in the universe. Or, imagine using a human face as evidence to project forward and gaze in the faces of mutant versions of ourselves three million years from now --in every possible future. Imagine this not as magic, but as future science.
To isolate the variable that is the body though--from its complex web of causal relationships with compound exterior forces—would be no easy task. First we would have to understand the nature of these environmental forces themselves well enough to accurately negate their influence. We would have to understand something of the formula nature uses in its modeling in order to have any hope to understand ourselves in this manner. Obviously, we are currently leagues away from this kind of mathematic description of life in relation to its environment. We are at such elementary levels in our pursuit of real about the universe that physics, biology, and the study of consciousness or the mind are still completely separate fields. It is conceivable, however, that if we continue to pursue an interdisciplinary path towards knowledge and self-awareness as a species, we might someday connect the dots and discover the exact formula, the exact language of representation (the relationship of information to form) used in nature for modeling in our reality. For now though, this type of deconstruction is not a realistic way to gain knowledge about ourselves.
To gain a holistic perspective on our tree without the ability to move our eyes off the tree entirely, perhaps we could shift our perspective within the tree to move back to the center, back to a symmetric probability state from which we could move in any possible direction. But how would we get there from here?
Is it possible that there are ways to override one's perceptual framework? What if there were keys that could allow us to unlock the brain, to go deeper, to get under the operating system we are currently using, to then restructure the neural / perceptual interface to overhaul the way it organizes information? What if we could rebuild the entire dimensional framework with which we construct our view of reality? If so, where should we begin to look for these keys? What if self-awareness is simply a matter of changing the way we perceive spacetime, or reorganizing the geometric model that we use to categorize information?
The brain is very complex. When we look at the differences in the way a normal adult, a child, a schizophrenic person, an autistic person, or perhaps just people with different interests--say a painter and a musician--process sensory data and use it to construct a perspective of their environment, it becomes obvious that the brain is capable of constructing "reality" in a number of different ways. It is not at all implausible that the default operating system our brains use to manage and organize raw sensory data is not the only one at its disposal. It may simply be the standard one that we've developed over time to best serve our functioning needs. When thinking about why a characteristic evolved one way as opposed to another, we need to remember the purpose for the adaptation. If our neural interface developed in the way it did as a mode of organizing information to serve survival needs, it makes sense that a major part of its function would be to filter out a large portion of "unnecessary" information from conscious awareness.
In order for the whole tree to survive, each little branch only needs to know how to grow towards the light. Each cell in our bodies only needs to be programmed to serve a specific function. It does not need to know the entire purpose for our existence or what we are doing with our lives, it only needs to do its part. But if these aspects are indeed parts of a larger creature, might it be possible for us to change the filters we are using to gather the data with which we construct our perceptual environments, to perhaps gain a greater view, a less-limited perspective on ourselves and our universe?
If our brains were able to use three-dimensional information modeling with a confused/flawed time perspective as a way of filtering out a layer or dimension of reality in which we are all actually connected (perhaps for the purpose of security/survival) our resulting observable reality would be one in which we are not connected at all (unless we could somehow gain access to this hidden layer). But to assume that a general human perspective and a standard view of time are objectively truthful ways to view the universe--simply because they are the models we've adopted--seems like a presumption.
The real question we should be asking is this:
If we want to unlock our brains and perform a perspective shift, where should we look for the keys?