Thursday, February 11, 2010

About Incomplete Models

The models of the world we carry about in our heads may blinker our view of reality, deny us ways to explain certain experiences, and may also encourage inappropriate behavior. An example. Once at a seminar that Brigitte and I attended, the presenter said something like this: “Before people concluded that the earth was spherical, nobody ever thought of sailing around the earth.” The mathematician Charles Howard Hinton (1853-1907) wrote a fiction called An Episode on Flatland: Or How a Plain Folk Discovered the Third Dimension. Hinton’s Flatland has served numerous writers on the fourth dimension to illustrate by analogy how two dimensional people would interpret a three-dimensional intrusion into their world. Imagine a sheet of paper held rigidly enough so that we could cause a sharpened pencil to pierce it and then to slide through it in a vertical direction. To the people on Flatland, the pencil would be the magical appearance of a tiny round creature out of nowhere. It would then grow in size by magic into a large hexagonal creature. That creature would then—again quite magically—transform itself into a large round creature as the eraser finally reached the surface. The creature would finally vanish into nothing. They’d report this event as a miracle. For us, living in three dimension, the pencil doesn’t disappear and has no magical or miraculous aspects. What’s wrong with those people? Their model of reality is incomplete.

I offer this as food for thought when we encounter phenomena that don’t fit our model of reality. A mild case of that is telepathy—mild because we can assume that some kind of super-subtle energy may be the carrier of thoughts and feelings. We have discovered other such energetic fields, i.e., electromagnetism. But what about premonitions that come true? Or people who don’t merely dream but dream the future and see it materialize days, weeks, or months later. (I have a case like that on this blog here.) Such experiences are common enough. Quite a literature of premonitions has been assembled on people who foresaw the 911 disaster. A sampling of these is presented here courtesy of the Boundary Institute. Now I’m encountering reports of premonitions of the Haiti earthquake too. Unlike telepathy, seeing the future in the present is not a mild but rather an incomprehensible violation of our current understanding of reality.

The usual coping mechanisms are three. We can assume that those reporting such things are mentally deranged (not much of an option if we’ve experienced them ourselves). We can deny the experience, even in ourselves. We are incredibly good at that sort of thing if our will is genuinely behind it. Or we can assign the event to sheer coincidence. Close study of the basis for many theories, not least of how life arose, show that chance is an all-purpose explanatory tool. In some cases we must indulge in a tiny bit of intellectual dishonesty to give chance a chance, but a good cause deserves a small assist, and to make omelets, you have to break eggs. The tougher stance is to confess that our model may be defective. To maintain that stance, we have to have a strong mind. We may be thought kooky or labeled a primitive—not by ordinary people; they have an innate intuition that things are not quite what they seem. I’m speaking of ruling elites.

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