Saturday, September 19, 2015

3-D Truth: A Doctor Who Parable

Guess what, everyone? Doctor Who, my favorite TV show on the air, premieres its ninth series tonight!

Partying aside, I think it's the perfect time for me to write a post I've had stewing in my head for a long time: a blog post about the nature of truth, using an episode from Doctor Who's last season (the one called Flatline) as a metaphor.

Invaders from Flatland

The basic premise of Flatline is that a race of aliens from a two-dimensional universe (think Flatland) has invaded our three-dimensional universe. Though it isn't clear at first, they're pretty nasty, and they mean business.

See that red design on the wall there? The Doctor explains that it's a human nervous system, taken from a human being the 2-D aliens have "sucked" into the floor, "flattened," and dissected. That's not a way I want to go. But ignoring the macabre details of what must have happened, I think that these 2-D aliens have a profound lesson to teach us, and that's because I think they're a metaphor for us.

On 3-D truth

What do I mean? Well, in a way we're two-dimensional beings. When I look at a tree, I can only see a 2-D "snapshot" of one side at a time; I can only ever intuit the tree's 3-D nature by walking around it and looking at all the angles. But here's the thing: that means we never see the tree as it actually is. In fact, we never see anything as it actually is; whether it's a toad, a spoon, or my grandmother, I can only ever see one "face" of a 3-D thing at time, and so its complete nature is hidden from me.

That doesn't stop us, however. Like the aliens in Doctor Who, we stumble into a higher-dimensional world trying to capture it, to dissect it, to "pin it down." Whether in technology, business, or science (especially science), the human protocol for the last few hundred years has been to a) assume that--if we try hard enough--we can know anything, and b) poke, prod, dissect, and disassemble everything in that pursuit. But the whole effort is completely misguided. Like the famous story about blind men examining an elephant, no one perspective of the way things are is ever true. Period. What looks a certain way from one perspective looks completely different from another perspective. So if we try to develop a grand "theory of everything," we're then doing exactly what those 2-D aliens were doing: violently trying to subject three-dimensional reality to our two-dimensional perspective.

What should we do, then? Simply be content to "circumspect" reality, to circle around it enough that you can intuit its nature without ever being able to "say" how it is. And what happens when you do this is amazing--you realize that seemingly contradictory ideas don't have to exclude one another; they can both be true at once. Just as Joseph Smith said, "by proving contraries, truth is made manifest," we can know real truth once we learn to think on both sides of a contradiction, to leap those boundaries with ease.

Anyway, that's it for my epistemological rant. Happy Who-day!

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