Sunday, March 06, 2005

Thinking Apart From Our Senses

The country of the blind by H.G. wells, is the story of an explorer who accidentally came upon a land where everyone was blind, and have been blind for many generations. Since the explorer could see and the inhabitants could not and have not seen anything for a long time, there were drastic differences in the concepts of space and time, physics, beauty, and use of language.

Since no one in the land of the blind had sight, the explorer appeared to have a mysterious ability to predict and visualize things which they could not, which at the same time frightened them since they did not understand what this mysterious ability was.

This story brought up an interesting point, our concept of reality is wholly determined by our senses, it is how we interpret and formalize our senses that allows us to construct theories of physics.

Imagine trying to learn math if you where blind, how different would our concept of a the derivative, the curve, the fraction, or any other mathematical concept be. How would we manipulate and solve problems?? Obviously we could not visualize, but we could "visualize" with our fingers, or hearing. How could we learn physics?? How could we understand classical mechanics, or electomagnetics?? How about General relativity??

I bring up this point, not to put down blind people, but to help everyone realize that WE are the blind people. We cannot "see" the 4th dimension like we can the usual 3, yet we have general relativity. We cannot "see" or "feel" an atom, or an electron yet we have quantum physics. Many may say that we build scientific instruments to extend our senses, but we still build our intution of these theories from "classical" concepts based on objects on our scale. It took men of genius to "reason" outside of their senses to realize that reality is much different than what our senses tell us.

Imagine how we would appear to the inhabitants of the land of the blind, imagine how difficult it would be for them to understand the exsistence of other planets, or black holes, or electromagnetic phenomena, yet to us it would be relatively easy. The addition of one more sense makes such a radical difference in the ease of understanding certain phenomena.

When it comes to quantum physics and relativity we are "blind" to an intutitive understanding since we lack the senses to detect effects at those scales. We are like the blind trying to understand a 3-D curve, or a machine. It would be a beneficial exercise to understand a mathematical or physics concept without visualization. We should ask ourselves how would a blind person understand netwonian mechanics or a derivative, thereby allowing us to obtain a radically different world view. This could allow us to realize how our senses limit our ability to intuitively understand quantum mechanics and general relativity and how to overcome or compensate for it. We can begin to reason apart from our senses, and grasp the concept intutively in a radically different manner.

John G.


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