Fake Plastic Flowers For Algernon

There is a famous satirical science fiction story from the nineteenth century called ‘Flatland’. Aside from being a critical commentary on Victorian culture and the British monarchy, it serves as a primer in understanding the differences between the first three dimensions, before positing on ones we have not yet even discovered. Although quite popular, having even been made into a handful of films, it is utter bollocks.

I am going to let you in on a little secret – there are no such things as dimensions.

Human beings have a habit of creating complicated abstractions in order to explain things, but lack the good sense to know when a thing needs no explanation. Dimensions are an example of this compulsory explanatory behavior. Let’s dissect the sketchy logic that goes into this sort of thinking.

If I were to ask you to illustrate the three different dimensions, like the author/illustrator of Flatland, you would probably draw a dot, a line, a square and a sphere. First of all, the dot is not a single dimension. The graphite or ink on the paper is three dimensional. It has length, width and depth. If it did not it would not be visible. The same problem is obviously true of the line and the square. Interpreted literally it might appear to contain only two dimensions, but that observation doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. The sphere can be shaded to give an appearance of depth, but it is no deeper than the dot or the line or the square. Despite their appearances, all of these representations are fundamentally three dimensional.

That is not to say that reality is three dimensional, because like I said earlier, there are no such things as dimensions. What appears to be three dimensions is really just the only sensible platform for conscious beings to interact within. Try to imagine a thing which exists within one or two dimensions and I guarantee you will only be able to describe or represent them using three dimensional depictions. The same is true of any alleged higher dimensions. We can only conceive of such a possible state in three dimensional terms. This is not because we lack perspective or imagination, but because the entire concept of dimensions is intellectual rubbish.

Don’t even get me started on gravity.

However, before I understood this, I used to spend a lot of time considering the existence of the fourth dimension. What I eventually came up with is that the observer is the fourth dimension. The fourth dimension cannot be seen, it must been looked from. This seemed extraordinarily clever to me for years, before I had to eventually face the fact that observers can be observed. Therefore there is only that one dimension, which is equivalent to there being no such thing as dimensions.

There is one other way to look at it, which is that every observer constitutes a unique dimension. It was working from this theory that I built the empathy bridge.

The empathy bridge is a device which allows two users to enter the mindscape of the other, to view the world from their perspective. While doing this you are unaware that you are doing this. You fully become the other participant’s point of experience. It is not until you return that your experience as them seems different from your experience of being you, but then it is only in your memory, and susceptible to subjective interpretation. Even the most pure form of other people’s worldview is bound to be filtered through your own. There can be no pure experience of the other, but the empathy bridge is probably about as close as we will ever get.

Trust me when I say I understand how confusing this all is. I was the one who recognized the problem and who built the empathy bridge, but even to me it gets complicated and muddled. It is for this reason that I insisted on being the first human being to use the device. Rather than pair with another human I started with mice and worked my way through other lab animals.

The experience of being a mouse is really not that much different from being human. A mouse has the same basic drives and desires as we do, only without all the layers of abstraction. When I first arrived in its dimension (according to later memories) it was intensely odd, but mostly because of the smaller scale of perspective and the objects of desire, like food and sexual partners, being so foreign to my own tastes. Yet the cravings themselves were essentially the same. The strangeness of being a mouse wore off pretty quickly.

That did not seem to be the case for the mouse. After our switch, it began behaving erratically. It would arrange items in the cage, seemingly as some attempt at creating and using language. It appeared desperate to make the other mice understand the symbols it constructed. Eventually it was so obsessed with this behavior that the other mice began shunning it. The obsession got in the way of its normal mouse activities and its physical health began to suffer.

To try to understand what was happening, I did a second switch with it. The second time was far stranger. The mouse had something new which I had not noticed before – anticipation, angst, despair and attachment. It was desperate to connect with the other mice in order to share the abstractions it had discovered in my mind. Its basic needs and desires were being overwhelmed by a fixation to make the contents of its own mind available to others. It longed to understand and be understood, to know and be known, but only through the collection of abstractions it associated its own identity with rather than its shared mouse-ness. It was now driven by the very same drives which had caused me to create the bridge, and caused all of the abstraction humanity participates in, to the detriment of its own happiness and well being.

This turned out to be the case with the other mammals I tested the device with, and it is something I have trouble living with, knowing the frustration and suffering I caused. A mouse or a monkey doesn’t seem so simple and expendable after you have switched places with it, so I eventually felt too guilty to continue using animals.

Human to human experiments were less problematic in these regards. It did blur some lines and confuse the participants to reconsider their existence after having partaken in another’s, but in the end it highlighted the similarities more than the differences. The familiarity of human emotions, drives and desires in others reinforced a sense of empathy between participants. It also illustrated how unimportant and indulgent our abstractions were. It became more difficult to judge other people because they believed in a God or in science or aliens or whatever, since the fundamental humanity was essentially the same. It made the differences of belief appear small in comparison to the sameness of being human.

A year after the first human trials, we have gathered a trove of data from the lives of the participants in the time since the experiment. Across the board they all appear to have an increased proclivity for empathy, understanding, compassion, forgiveness and mercy. Simultaneously they have become markedly less interested in abstractions. There was a sharp decline in ideological certainty among subjects, whether it was based in religion or science or conspiracy theory or whatever else they had formerly been attached to as their foundation of truth.

However, of all the findings, this is the one that tickles me the most. When a non-participant is hooked to an EKG and told that there is no such thing as dimensions, you see a sharp increase in their heart rate, the same as if you told them the sky is green and made of frogs. There is a specific response we have to being told things which we inherently believe to be nonsensical. But when you tell someone who has used the empathy bridge the same thing, there is no response. They just accept it. They are not attached to the belief in dimensions to the extent that they manifest a physical reaction.

So I guess the moral of this story, if there must be one, is that all these abstractions we humans are attached to are a product of our advanced intellect – but since they also lead to division and suffering, we may have severely overestimated the value of intelligence. This conclusion, my colleagues assure me, is why I will never be invited to give a TED Talk.


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