Monday, January 11, 2016

Ruminations on the Fourth Dimension

The book The Island of Dr. Moreau is a chilling look at what can happen when one man plays God in a world of his own design. As a mad scientist who specializes in genetic alterations, the titular character engineers horrors that would be at home in the LV-223 world of Prometheus. As humans tend to do, he utilizes his creations to control and dominate in a military-like fashion; either you are with him – or you are with the terrorists, as it were.

While Moreau – we think – is fully conscious of the world outside of his island, his engineered minions are not; so much so that it's likely he could tell them that the island IS the world and be believed without a second thought. He could go so far as to say that the ocean surrounding the island is a mere pond surrounded by their island, and those without critical thinking skills wouldn't bat an eye. This is the community that Moreau fosters: An unquestioningly loyal tribe.

This tribe sees only itself and its island as the world; much like ancient people who believed that the sun and the universe revolved around the Earth, Moreau's minions have no concept of “the outside”. This is much like the residents of Flatland (from Edwin Abbott's book Flatland), an entire civilization of beings who unquestioningly believe themselves to be the be-all and end-all in the universe. The difference being that the denizens of Moreau's island believe this because they're told to, while Flatland's residents believe this because they simply can't see anything else.

Flatland is a book that, as I read it, I wondered if it was mocking its audience. I certainly felt a bit mocked. Perhaps it was the tone of the story and the characters within it; perhaps it was the way the writer seemed to know something that we the audience didn't. At the very least, he seems to set out to teach the audience something with his story; maybe this message is simply that we are the flatlanders of our own dimension, requiring enlightenment from a higher being (or in this case, a book, something we need three dimensions to see).

 Moving onto another book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the novel that provided the basis for Blade Runner, one of the more influential movies of the past few decades. It certainly wasn't that influential when it came out in the early 80's; it can best be described as a box office bomb. However, as time went on, more people warmed up to the movie and the brilliance that could be found within its story; it developed a cult following that blossomed into a large fanbase in the modern era. Few movies have followed this kind of trajectory in their popularity. Blade Runner has achieved such fame that a Blade Runner II is currently in development by Ridley Scott. It helps that Harrison Ford can easily slide into reprising his role as Rick Deckard. And perhaps we'll finally find out if he's an android or not.

In the book, Rick seems to be stuck in a relatively bland marriage; he is quick to cheat on his wife with an android at one point. The lack of intimacy seems to be the norm; nearly everyone we meet in the story is practically an island unto themselves, a smartphone-driven loner world turned up to 11.

Their world is a world without color, where living things have largely died off and the land outside of the cities is covered in dust. The cities themselves are neon metropolises filled with bright imagery; perhaps this is designed to distract the residents from how empty and loveless their lives are.

The people of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep live in towering apartment buildings, glued to fake media and saving all of their meager salaries with the hope of buying a living pet – something that is increasingly rare. These people are without hope, without any real dreams for the future. Their sterile, anemic lives plod along until their unceremonious, sometimes merciful ends; to them, the only real dreams are dreams of the past: Green fields where sheep graze, nuclear fallout isn't a threat, and people are healthy and happy. These things no longer exist in this potential vision of our future, and with everything worth dreaming about in the rear-view mirror, hopelessness abounds.

This civilization is easily controlled and manipulated by the powers that be in their world. The government, fully intertwined with corporate entities, focuses on extraneous projects such as the colonization of Mars and the terraforming of distant worlds. Earth is, in and of itself, a lost cause and neglected; this in spite of it being the planetary crown jewel of the human race, and the single solitary world we don't need to terraform. The thick layer of dust that seems so prevalent in the story is a good allegory for the world itself: no one cares enough to keep it tidy any longer.

Never is it particularly questioned why the world is the way it is, how it got that way, or if it's possible to reverse course. On the contrary, acceptance is the order of the day. “This is how things are, and there's nothing we can do about it.” It isn't even worth so much as thought as to what we could be doing differently, ways we could buck the trends and change our lives for the better. The people have, effectively, become sheep: devoid of thought, devoid of aspirations.

All three of these stories, and their settings, pose front and center the inability of a group to see past their established paradigms; to them, no outside world, or higher planes, or better ways to live exist. This two-dimensional thinking prevents them from seeing what is plainly obvious to us: There is a third dimension, life isn't supposed to be sterile, the world is round, and there are far more islands in the world than one. If this is obvious to us, what isn't? And do we have any concrete way to find out?

These stories, in creating sub-worlds with inhabitants that are unwittingly ignorant, serve to challenge some of our own concepts of the universe and its very nature. Flatland in particular challenges us to think outside of the box, literally. The residents of Flatland itself know what a square is, but a cube is incomprehensible. If a cube is comprehensible to us, what is the next step? An inside-out cube? Whatever it is, it is something we can't grasp the true form of. That we are capable of even considering this notion and investigating further means we are already a step above the inhabitants of Moreau's island, or the denizens of Electric Sheep's San Francisco.

If the inhabitants of Lineland (and the solitary inhabitant of Pointland) can be entirely unaware that more dimensions exist, what's stopping us? Flatland's inhabitants seem like a step up in their awareness of space, but in reality they are in the same boat. What they can't see and aren't aware of remains a preposterous idea. How would a third dimension even work, they wonder; it would literally turn them inside-out.

The theory of the fourth dimension, if correct, would turn us third-dimension denizens inside-out if we were to step into it. After reading Flatland, the idea of the fourth dimension certainly seems more plausible to me. It stands to reason that the fourth dimension is only visible to those who can see in a greater spectrum than what we know as “the visible spectrum”. While we can see color, our vision shows only a very, very small fraction of the total spectrum of light.

We can't see rays of ultraviolet light, or even our own infrared glow. While we may someday evolve to where we can, currently we're nowhere near seeing the more intense gamma rays or the slower radio waves and microwaves of the universe with our own eyes. Does this mean they don't exist? No. Waves are all around us, but we can't see or feel them; in a way, they exist in their own dimension. They are outside of our island, our relatively flat land.

There are many things we don't know – many questions about the nature of life – and it is up to us to seek to find our own answers. Perhaps there are other waves of light and energy past the ones we know about, on either end of the spectrum? With our “advanced” technology, we we still only see so many different types of light and matter. Much like the universe itself, there may be no limit to how far we can improve on the technological progression that began with our discovery of fire. We know where the floor is, but there may not be a ceiling at all.

If we could see all of the light waves that are invisible to us, the universe would look very different. If we could see in ultraviolet, terrain would glow a faint purple even in what we now know as pitch darkness. If we could see in infrared, living beings would glow red. If we could see various emitted waves, we'd see beams of light streaking around us at any given time. This light does not follow our physical laws; it would bob and weave through what we percieve as solid walls with impunity. This may well be the fourth dimension; the dimension inhabited by energy that isn't bound by physical laws.

Is it possible for a living being to exist in the fourth dimension? We don't know, because it isn't something easily concieved of, a path we have no way to follow. It is likely that what we think of as “ghosts” exist in this ethereal world, if they are indeed real. Spirits, leftover essences and what have you, unbound by nature and its laws. What about the computer world? What about holograms, AI's, virtual reality worlds? The invisible energy that this data is transmitted on is, in a way, part of this higher wavelength that we can't see. An AI world takes on the same proportions as a dream in that it exists without existing; it has no physical space, yet it has dimension.

If humanity were to continue evolving for several million more years (without killing itself off in the next hundred), it is entirely plausible that it would begin to develop a wider spectrum of vision over time. After all, many naturally evolving animals in nature can see outside of the spectrum that we do, so this evolution of sight is not without precedent. We could also conceivably reach a singularity where we are able to create androids and other machines that can see and measure things on a different wavelength than we do, aiding us in our discoveries and exploration of the universe around us.

What is without precedent, to our knowledge, is the idea that some races out there could theoretically continue evolving to the point that they transcend the physical plane entirely. Is that the highest form of evolution: A fourth-dimensional energy being? We don't know, and we might never know. Given the vastness of the universe, it isn't a stretch to believe that such a being exists somewhere, traveling around at the speed of light by pushing itself through the fabric of space, unbound by any physical substance and “feeding” by consuming other waves as it zips along.

Rewinding things a bit, Dr. Moreau could have potentially engineered higher forms of humanity with powers that we don't have as things are now, exploring the limits of human evolutionary growth. However, he couldn't do this without committing some tremendous ethical violations; as well, he was a mere man with an increasingly short lifespan. A few years isn't enough time to engineer a true improvement on humanity. On the contrary, Moreau ended up with a rogue's gallery of freakish creations that were, in most ways, a step down on the evolutionary ladder.

Compare this to, say, the Engineers in the movie Prometheus. Given millions of years to experiment, the Engineers still couldn't perfect their genetic creations; while they were able to create self-sustaining life forms (as opposed to the short-lived hybrids of Moreau's creation), they couldn't control their creations either. In the same movie, David – the android – shows a great deal of curiosity about the universe and a high enough intelligence to decipher nearly everything he encounters. He nearly transcends his own creators in most respects.

Humanity, in the past century or so, has gone out of its way to perfect chemical and biological weapons; they've managed to split the atom itself. It has been proven that humans are adept at making true technical advancement when it has a military application, or is necessitated by an external threat (that posed by Nazis). There are exceptions to this (iPhones), but for the most part it holds true throughout our history. The only reason we have to build androids is if it becomes a necessity for whatever reason – exploration, work we can't manage ourselves – and we only need investigate higher dimensions if it becomes a necessity. As it seems unlikely that it ever will be necessary, chances are it won't be a priority for us.

We humans have our own island. It's a planet, but an island all the same. For most of history we believed that the world ended with our own shores, whether that be the beach nearby or wherever the sky ended. Imagining anything past what we know is difficult; we are also very susceptible to suggestion, and liable to believe what we're told about God or Fate or Time and the bearded man in the sky who put us here. We find it difficult to challenge Mercer, or Buster Friendly, or our own dreary pessimism. In this sense, throughout recent history the church has functioned as a sort of Dr. Moreau for the planet, at least from a leadership history.

With people not quick to question their own evolutionary development, the idea of higher evolutions or further advancements in time and space seem foreign to us. We can't see any higher dimensions, we don't know that they're there, and we can't reach them. Stuck on our island in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of a galaxy, we're nowhere near other stars or other planets with life on them. We can't learn from our neighbors (or get into conflict with them, propelling us along faster on the technological ladder as we work to keep up) because we don't have any.

If we lived in a more populous region of space, like closer to a galactic center, things may be different (if we survived the cosmic turbulence that is inherent in living close to a galactic center). If our local star group were more of an actual cluster, things would most definitely be different. Out here, we're pretty alone. From the looks of things, we are “it” for advanced life-forms within reachable distance. Yet for all we know, whatever else is out there is looking at us right now, seeing us as something we don't see each other as and can't comprehend: four-dimensional shapes.

Either way, we know that the universe is much vaster than our island; the question is whether it's composed entirely of ocean or if there are other inhabited islands. As a community, we are only conscious of what we behold for ourselves; this is the most important thing to rely on, not what self-professed Gods like Moreau would have us believe about the nature of things.
Perhaps some day we will evolve to see the true nature of time and space and how intertwined they are. Or maybe that time has already come and gone in the long loop of the universe consuming itself like the Uuroboros serpent of legend. Maybe our future has already taken place, and we're simply restricted to seeing the present because everything else flows at a higher frequency.

Until we find out for ourselves, we will have to keep taking the word of the Circles among us who don't know that they're really Spheres.


  1. This calls to mind a strip from the greatest comic of all time:

  2. I think it's interesting you got to thinking so much about a literal or physical fourth dimension. For me that kind of plot is more about learning how to look at life differently: that there's so much we should be thinking about but aren't. An emotional fourth dimension is what you made me think about.

    P.S. I know everything from the 80s and 90s is making a comeback now but I don't think it makes sense they're reviving "Blade Runner". It already made a complete statement the first time. Well, hopefully it's good anyway.