"From Chimps to Einstein
by Alex Escobar
Chimps are pretty intelligent creatures. They, like humans, learn through trial and error. If a chimp jumps on a limb that is too thin to support its weight, it will learn to use thicker limbs. Chimps also use tools and seem to have a rudimentary form of self-awareness that humans acquire only after they reach the age of two.1 Now imagine for a moment that you were a chimp. You might suppose that you understood your environment pretty well. In fact, you might think of yourself as a real mover and a shaker since you knew exactly who to groom to make things happen within your chimp group. The evidence indicates you would be right to be proud of yourself since chimps understand their environment so well that they have survived for millions of years in their native forests.
Yet we humans know, because of our larger brains, that there is much that chimps do not understand. To begin with, it is unlikely chimps know anything about our planet orbiting around the sun, or for that matter, that they are on a planet (our ancestors only figured this out recently). Our larger, more advanced brains allow humans to fathom the universe at a deeper level.
But do we have the capacity to understand everything? The question we need to ask is, given the complexity of the universe, are we as humans all that much different in our degree of comprehension when compared to chimps? Are we so much more advanced past our primate relatives that we should expect the whole universe should be understandable? You may very well see the hubris in this assumption.
Contrary to the belief in our omnipotent intelligence let me suggest that we may not be able to easily understand the universe in some fundamental ways. By this, I don't just mean there are parts of the universe we don't presently understand but will eventually come to fully understand. What I am saying is there are fundamental properties of the cosmos that our type of intelligence may find very hard to grasp or comprehend.
A clear example of this is thinking in higher dimensions. Our minds have evolved to think in terms of three dimensions. As such it is easy for us to think in three or less dimensions, but it is almost impossible for us to think in four dimensions. Our inability to understand higher dimensions, however, does not mean they do not exist in the same way that the chimpanzee's inability to contemplate the solar system does not mean the sun and planets do not exist.
The year 2005 marks the centennial of the publication of Einstein's first five major papers in physics. These papers signaled the beginning of a whole new paradigm or way of thinking about the universe. In 1916, Einstein introduced us to the concept of the space-time continuum in which he envisioned reality as a four-dimensional space-time that included time as the fourth dimension. By treating time as a fourth dimension, he was able to derive a series of equations that led to the general theory of relativity. The general theory of relativity allowed Einstein to make several predictions that have been borne out by experimentation. One of the predictions that arises from this theory is that mass warps space-time. Indeed, this is given as the explanation for gravity since planetary motions are now understood as the straightest pathway through the space-time curved by the sun.
All of this is extremely fascinating, in large part because this understanding is so different from our normal, everyday experience. In fact, I believe it is so different from our common mindset that the truly revolutionary aspects of Einstein's ideas have been sitting in front of us for close to a hundred years, and few have fully embraced them.
You see, Einstein treated time in his equations as he did the three space dimensions. In other words, in Einstein's equations, the dimension of time is very similar to the three space dimensions with which we are familiar.
What do we know of space dimensions? Well, we know that space dimensions exist right now in their entirety. It's not like one part of space was there yesterday, and today another part exists and then tomorrow another part will come into existence. Space dimensions exist as a whole all the time. On the other hand, time (the fourth dimension) is treated exactly like the description given above. Only part of this dimension exists, and that part is always now.
In 1916 Einstein threw the door wide open for us, but in the past century, few if any have stepped through. The big secret is that time is the fourth dimension - not some imaginary dimension, but a dimension that is just as real as the other space dimensions.2 Time does not exist in bits and pieces but rather in its entirety. What this means is that past, present, and future are not separate but parts of a whole that is continuous like any space dimension. We humans are not built to understand four dimensions, and this is why it has taken so long to come to this realization. We can only 'see' three of the four dimensions of the space-time continuum, which is why we understand space-time the way we do. Perhaps if we had a more advanced form of intelligence, it would be easy to comprehend this. Like the chimps, we are also limited in our capacity to understand nature.
Many of the eastern meditative schools hold that this is true. Here we have a group of 'scientists' that have been studying the universe using their minds as the instrument of choice. These studies indicate there is a timeless state in the universe that is accessible through meditation. Accessing this state is often described as expanding awareness, and this follows directly from time being the fourth dimension. In the same way moving from two to three dimensions would seem expansive, moving from our known three to the more inclusive four would also seem liberating.
If it is true that we exist in four-dimensional space-time, it must also be true that we are four-dimensional space-time beings. This means the past you is attached to the present you and all of the future you. You are much more than you perceive yourself to be. Although this may all seem odd, consider that our human intuition is exactly this. If your present is attached to your future, then you should be able to access information from your future-self.
There are other implications of this reasoning. To start, let us focus in on one atom. What would an atom look like if we could see an atom throughout space-time? If we consider the atom to be like a very small marble, the marble would turn into a very long thread. In physics, these types of lines are called world lines. The line would weave its way through stars, interstellar dust, planets, rocks, the ocean, a fish and then perhaps into you. Of course the line would then continue out of you and back into the earth and so on. The line would extend from close to the beginning of the universe to the end, one part of space to a vastly different part.
Now imagine all of the atoms in the universe. That's too much! All of a sudden, space-time becomes a massive jumble of spaghetti. Lines would intertwine and wrap themselves around each other. This spaghetti would be so dense that what we consider to be empty space would appear to be full of strings.
Atoms flow through you constantly. They enter your body through the food you eat, the air you breathe and water you drink. They leave your body through your breath and the wastes you eliminate from your body. Your body in space-time would be like a knot of atom world-lines that would extend out to everything else these atoms had ever been part of or will be part of. You would be connected to everything else in the universe either directly or indirectly. So you see, when we think in four dimensions, everything is connected to everything else in one marvelously complex pattern of energy that goes far beyond our ability to conceptualize.
Once again, the eastern meditative schools provide an interpretation and inform us that we are all part of an inseparable whole. The belief is that our common human perception that we are all independent and separate from each other is an illusion. In Hinduism, this is called maya - the grand illusion caused by our categorizing minds that reflects our ignorance of the true nature of the universe. Many spiritual texts from the East indicate we are One.
As we enter the new millennium, there is so much to be hopeful for. Although there appears to be much angst and strife in our world, we are set to embark on a whole new way of being. We are situated at a nexus that will bring ideas that have been traditionally associated with western science together with eastern traditional beliefs into one overarching understanding of the cosmos.3 For this, we can in part thank our friend Albert Einstein. His insight has set the stage for a transition in thought that is as large as any that has ever taken place.
1. Patterson, F.G. and Cohn, R.H. Self-Awareness in Animals and Humans: Developmental Perspectives, eds. Parker, S.T., Mitchell, R.W. and Boccia, M.L., Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, pp 254-2722.
2. Davies, P. 'That Mysterious Flow' Scientific American, September 2002, vol. 287, p 40-47
3. Escobar, A. Mythology for the New World: A Synthesis of Science and Religion, Lincoln: IUniverse, 2005
Alex Escobar, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer at Emory University and has recently published his book Mythology for the New World."