In the PBS television series Cosmos, “Carl Sagan”:www.carlsagan.com attempted to describe how humans are trapped into the way we think about our three-plus-one-dimensional universe. He used the analogy of a two-dimensional creature, a being who exists only in height and width, and has no concept of depth. Tootie, let’s call her, lives very happily in her two dimensions, gliding gracefully along the X and Y axes, until one day a creature from a three-dimensional world picks her up about a foot above her plane of existence and lets her fall gently back.
Now, Tootie experiences this sensation, but has no mechanism to understand what is happening to her. She experiences falling through the third dimension, but once she’s back safely at home, she can’t point to where she was, she can’t describe it to her friends, and she can’t mentally process her adventure. She is built to understand the world in two dimensions only.
If Tootie’s race of two-dimensional beings is anything like our own, they’ve probably developed storytelling, myth, and philosophy to try to make sense of their existence. While someone from our world could look at a 2D world and explain it easily, Tootie and her kind can only hope to approximate such a description.
I think of this example in relation to our own attempts to make sense of the world. “Heinrich Zimmer”:http://www.alibris.com/search/books/author/Zimmer,%20Heinrich said, “The best truths cannot be spoken, and the second best are misunderstood.” And, as “Joseph Campbell”:http://www.jcf.org/ says, the third best are the things we talk about every day – science, sociology, history, and so on. Philosophy, mythology and storytelling try to point the way to that dimension that is beyond our reach and understanding.
A couple of items have put me on this track this morning. For one thing, I just finished watching “Richard Linklater”:http://www.theonionavclub.com/avclub3737/avfeature_3737.html’s “Waking Life”:http://www.foxhome.com/wakinglife/index_frames.html. Linklater’s films are often packed with philosophical musings, and Waking Life is no exception. In fact, this movie reminds me a lot of Linklater’s first film, “Slacker”:http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0102943/, with its meandering style and “real people” casting. The difference in this film is the juxtaposition of objective and subjective camera styles, and the focus on existential themes.
Oh, and it’s animated. Linklater shot and edited the film on digital video. Then, a team of artists used a computer process similar to “rotoscoping”:http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/0,,sid9_gci212923,00.html to animate the film. The result is that the philosophical themes of the movie are discussed in a dreamlike milieu, dancing and darting in and out of the viewer’s conciousness.
The movie is very much about the question of perception. Do we really communicate meaningfully? Are we really here? Are we dreaming, or are we awake? Can we do both at once? Can we control our dreams, our thoughts, our destinies? What are we becoming? Waking Life’s animators, working separately on whole scenes rather than on particular characters or elements, were encouraged to bring their personal styles to the project, and so as an audience our visual understanding of the real world of the movie is constantly shifting, even as the characters are constantly trying to explain the world around them.
To my mind, this is an appropriate metaphor for the real world that I live in. Time moves on, and reality changes, and the rest of us scramble to explain and understand it.
The other thing that got me thinking today was “this article”:http://www.straightdope.com/columns/040312.html on memes at the Straight Dope. In it, Cecil Adams also tackles the idea of free will. The article is a follow-up to “an earlier article”:http://www.straightdope.com/columns/040213.html on the same subject.
Memes are reproducible ideas that leap from person to person, shaping the way we think and respond to the world. As Adams says, a meme is to culture what a gene is to biology. Memes are tiny, bits of cultural/social code that are passed on more-or-less intact from generation to generation. The ultimate result of memes, according to some of the top thinkers in memetics, is that we’re so at the mercy of memes that we have no free will.
Adams finds this extreme position hard to take, and I agree with him. I tend to think that we have free will if we believe we have free will. If we think we’re victims of fate, then we are. As Professor “Robert Solomon”:http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/litlinks/essays/solomon.htm says in Waking Life, existentialism says that you are in control of your life, you are responsible, and your life can be whatever you want it to be.
That said, memes may explain a few things about how we’re influenced by each other. I have this feeling that we’re a lot more like ants than we believe ourselves to be. In the same way that ants can build incredibly complex societies with what must be very few, very simple rules, so we humans have built vast civilizations that are beyond the capacity of any one or any few of us to even comprehend. Fashions, fads, and trends come and go without rhyme or reason. Thoughts or ideas catch fire, urban legends proliferate, stock markets fluctuate, all as if by “Adam Smith”:http://www.lucidcafe.com/library/96jun/smith.html’s Unseen Hand.
As individuals, we’re simply small parts of an incredibly complex chaotic system, yet we are not powerless. We are at the whim of forces beyond our control, yet we also have reason and intellect and can choose our actions. In fact, chaos simultaneously pushes us into action, and responds to our choices. Like a rock, we are shaped by the wind even as we bend the wind around us. And so our actions have an effect, even though we can’t imagine what that effect might be.
Perhaps these forces of chaos press on us from a dimension beyond our understanding. Perhaps, like Tootie, we can navigate our conscious world, but will remain by our very nature forever powerless to describe the unseen dimension. And so, this is the reason for our hunger for philosophy and storytelling. We must constantly invent ways to understand the forces that act on us, to prevent being swept away by them. And we must reassure ourselves that we do matter.