When I was a kid, one of the popular riddles went something like this: “How do you capture an elephant, using a pair of tweezers, a jar and binoculars?” The obvious answer, using the selective suspension of logic that makes kid humor fun, is to use the binoculars backwards, and then take the tweezers to drop the elephant (which now looks tiny) into the jar. Makes perfect sense, right? Yet don’t we suspend the ‘elephant in the room’ logic when it comes to our perspective about space and time?
Let’s start with space, since the elephant joke example plays with the dimensions of space and how we project and perceive them. If science teaches us diligent vigilance for distortion and bias, wouldn’t it make sense that the lens of the human eye automatically exaggerates what appears close to us and diminishes what is farther away? Most galaxies – which should seem astronomically huge – seem far away if we can even see them at all, even with strong telescopes. Objects that are in front of our noses appear gigantic to us, yet they become increasingly insignificant to someone in another room, neighborhood, town, province, country, planet or galaxy. Lens distortion is the basis for countless optical illusions. When you add in what modern physics suggests about other dimensions, it becomes obvious that we’re getting only the tiniest bit of data about the physical world by design from any eye. The information these lenses offer is – at best –distorted, abridged, filtered, and hopelessly provincial, biased and limited. In school I learned to approximate terms in an equation that are infinitesimally small (compared with terms larger by orders of magnitude) as zero in many cases. Wouldn’t that mean that anything we perceive on the human scale (or even galactic scale, since galaxies seem tiny across the universe) can safely be discarded in the ‘big equation’? Our senses of hearing, taste, touch and smell also wildly favor inputs that are close to us, giving them unfair advantage over a universe of other sensations. So why do we trust our senses to give us a complete story?
How about time’s distortions? For this dimension, we turn even more to how our mind interprets what we call reality. We’ve learned to picture time – as we know it – on a horizontal axis, with the past stretching infinitely far from the midpoint of now back to antiquity on our left and the future doing a similar stretch infinitely far toward uncertainty on our right. Yet the only moment we ever really have is now. Even when we seem to experience the past or future, we achieve that by dragging our concept of what might have been or what might become into the endless now. We ‘spend’ an enormous amount of our temporal budget on imagined moments that don’t actually exist now. Seen from another angle, what if we could somehow mentally encompass eternity, using our concept of time. Wouldn’t we be giving an outrageously disproportionate amount of emphasis to our current issues, concerns and cares? Our entire lives as physical entities wouldn’t even register as blips on the radar of forever. From the standpoint of eternity, don’t we make elephants out of nothing when we’re obsessed and stressed with what seems important now?
If we are to hold true to the scientific ideal and seek to reduce bias and distortion, shouldn’t we approximate anything delivered for our consideration by space or time as basically nothing (at least to a first approximation)? That doesn’t mean that we should ignore the responsibilities or our lives or become aloof and miss out on the fun this ‘house of mirrors’ (and lenses) world offers us. We can actually be more kind to ourselves and others and enjoy a lot more humor by not taking this world of distortion too seriously. If the veil of space and time seems like a thick and burdensome cloak from our myopic vantage point, why not amuse ourselves by seeing these dimensions as flimsy veils and ultimately emperors clothes where each moment truly is new.