Mar 15, 2010
Flatland is a book written by a British schoolmaster in 1884 about a two-dimensional being who lives in a two-dimensional world and is visited by a three-dimensional being from a three-dimensional world. This may sound like possibly the worst topic for a book in the history of the universe, and I would agree with that premise, except that I read the book a few weeks ago and it kind of blew my mind. It was mentioned on a recent episode of the geeky TV show The Big Bang Theory, and it turned out Wendy's former boss had given her a copy several years ago inscribed with the words, "I hope you like this better than the Bible," which is one of the more ridiculous things I've ever read, both because the book doesn't quite measure up in any significant way to the Bible no matter how you look at it (take, for example the fact that the average human has never even heard of Flatland), and because this was Wendy's boss. The backstory makes a little more sense as Wendy had just started working and one of the few things her boss knew about her was that she read the Bible. Regardless, thanks for the book.
Anyway, the book is essentially about perspective. It was nearly impossible for the two-dimensional being to understand the idea of a third dimension because he wasn't equipped with the ability to comprehend it. He understood "length" and "width" because that's what his two-dimensional world consisted of, but the idea of "height" simply couldn't be explained rationally from the perspective of two dimensions. It was only after visiting a one-dimensional world and having difficulty communicating the idea of two dimensions to the one-dimensional inhabitants that the two-dimensional being could fathom the possibility of a three-dimensional world.
This theme has two main implications, both of which are at least slightly ridiculous, but which I will explore nonetheless. The first is that there could conceivably be more than three spacial dimensions. And while that idea sounds fantastical, our objection to it has the exact same basis as the two-dimensional being's objection to a three-dimensional world: It doesn't fit in with our current understanding of things, therefore it can't possibly be true. And just like the two-dimensional being was proven wrong by a visit from a three-dimensional being, so could we too be proven wrong by a visit from a four-dimensional being, or a five- or six-dimensional being, whatever that even means.
Second, the human concept of "God" could be our interpretation of a visit from a four-dimensional being, which either means (a) our "God" is one of many gods, none of which are more worthy of worship than the next, or (b) we should aspire to learn about this being from another dimension so that we can expand our minds and understand our position in the grand scheme of things.
Personally, I'm sticking with option (b) because it better fits into my current system of understanding, which I fully realize is a perfect example of irony. #entertainment
I'd go with (b) too. I like the idea that this "fourth dimension" can only be fathomed by us too. To fully know it, observe it, etc. just isn't possible while living in a three dimensions.
That inscription is quite interesting too....based on what he says in it, I suppose he isn't a Christian which is ironic considering the book appears to challenge the notion that what we see is not all there is. Perhaps he believes in some fourth dimension?
Regarding a fourth dimension, certain parts of the Bible, namely the ones involving direct interaction between humans and God or angels, often seem like a person trying to describe something that can't really be described by the language and system of understanding of human beings.
Actually Edwin Abbott was a theologian, among other things. Not that "theologian" and "Christian" are the same thing, but he likely wasn't an atheist.
Dave: I was curious about this book after hearing it talked about on Big Bang Theory - my favorite show! Thanks for the insight! MJ