Elephants on Flatworld

We are all familiar with the story of the blind men and the elephant, a story that originated in India and has found its way into many traditions and languages. The blind men are exploring the elephant by touch, and each envisions something different. The man who touches the tail envisions the elephant as a rope, the one who touches its leg envisions a tree, and so forth. Because we see the story from the “outside”, we can see the whole shape and we know that each of the men is correct but they are limited by their particular perspective.

So now let’s take a look at an example from science that makes a similar point. This is the example of Flatworld as described by Albert Einstein in his theory of relativity. He describes a spherical universe of beings living and perceiving only on the surface of that sphere, so they only see in two dimensions. From inside the surface layer, everything would look like lines and dots. If you could float just outside of it but not so far away that you saw the curvature of the sphere, the world would look like a plane stretching out forever, and you could see two dimensional shapes like squares and circles. Now let’s imagine that a sphere floats down through this plane, and what you can see is the intersection of the sphere with the plane of the universe surface. What you would see as the sphere begins the move down through the surface would be a dot that suddenly appeared on the surface, then the dot would become a circle that expanded until it was exactly the diameter of the sphere, then it would shrink again and finally disappear. To the two dimensional inhabitant, it would look like a process of something appearing, growing and shrinking, and finally disappearing again.

Now let’s take the elephant and do the same thing. At first, you would see four circles appear as the legs move down through the universe. The a fifth circle, from the trunk, a sixth from the tail, then an elongate shape from the breastbone of the elephant would appear between the four leg circles. If the trunk was curved, that circle would appear to move around as the elephant sunk down through the surface. Then you’d see two more long shapes from the tusks and another two from the ears. The shapes would begin to merge into each other as we reached the body of the elephant. Then they would split once more as we reached the top of the neck, the elongate form from the body would disappear, and finally we would see only the shape of the top of the head, which would shrink to nothing and disappear.

So from the point of view of the Flatworlders, they would see this very complicated process of many separate shapes emerging, morphing and merging, and finally disappearing. If the elephant hovered in space when only its legs, trunk and tail were showing as separate shapes and the Flatworld researchers poked one of the shapes, the elephant might jerk and all of the shapes they see would move around. The shapes would seem to have some eerie, instantaneous connection even though they were not connected in space.  Who knows what kind of theories they would invoke to explain this phenomenon? And how would they explain the shape shifting, merging and splitting that they observed? Would they invoke some mystical force, some elaborate scientific process, both or neither, to describe what they saw? Would they fight wars to claim the mystical ground where these strange circles appeared? Would believers make pilgrimage to these sites to invoke the magical energy? I suppose if the elephant dropped a few reminders of its journey through their world, there would definitely be some emanations from these sacred sites. After all, even though they are two dimensional, I suppose Flatworlders could still have a sense of smell.

So now we emerge from Flatworld into the world we think we know. In this world, we “know” that waves are different than things. A wave in a pond can move and spread out across the entire pond. It can exist in many places at the same time. Two waves can exist in the same place, combining to form a taller or shorter wave. Not so for the rocks on the shore. If you bang two rocks together you can’t make them merge into one rock. A rock is a particular shape, which doesn’t change unless you break it or physically change it in some way.

Yet scientists have found that in the world of the very small, these distinctions don’t apply. Waves can be particles and particles can be waves. Stuff can exist and many places at once, and more than one thing can occupy the same space. Everything seems to be process – appearing, changing, moving, combining and disappearing. Does this sound familiar? Are we seeing elephants on flatworld? Are we bound to our limited 3 or 4 dimensional viewpoint when Reality itself is 6 or 8 or 100 dimensions, existing in a way that we can never comprehend? Could it be that the phenomena we perceive as being separated in time and space are actually connected to a multidimensional elephant that only makes sense if you exist in some larger Reality so you can see the entire shape of it?

We’ll never know, of course. Or perhaps we will once we aren’t limited by this Reality any more. Until then, we can only see from our limited perspective, respect the perspective of our fellow blind men, listen well and try our best to understand.


One thought on “Elephants on Flatworld

  1. Pingback: Elephants on Flatworld | buddhascience

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