"Life? Don’t talk to me about life”
“Here I am with a brain the size of a planet and they ask me to pick up a piece of paper. Call that job satisfaction? I don't.”
Marvin the Paranoid Android. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
Now I am no Cosmological Physicist, but I am an ‘inconsummate’ mathematician (ie. I suck at it) but it’s good to know one’s limitations. And indeed that is the point of what I am about to extoll. As someone who ‘dabbles’ in the vagaries of perception I am more qualified to talk about...limitations.
Let’s contemplate Infinity.
Ok that didn’t work. It is just too big to get one’s head around. To steal without remorse from the inestimable Douglas Adams: “You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.”
Life can seem a bit huge and overwhelming at (all of the) times. But here’s the thing. We are bounded by our sensory and perceptual capacity to accommodate this fact. (See my pieces on Wonder, Boundaries for further musing on such subjects, as well as the likes of David Eagleman in various books such as ‘Incognito’ (2011) concerning the ‘umwelt’ or limiting window through which our sensory and perceptual bandwidth can process our surroundings.) In fact, this constraint is something we can employ fittingly to help us tackle life in ‘bite size chunks’. Let me elaborate (with, apologies, a digression into cosmological physics – but bear with as it’s REALLY interesting!!).
To steal further remorselessly I would like to reference another source of literary and scientific inspiration. Brian Greene, in The Hidden Reality (also check out The Elegant Universe as a marvellous primer to Cosmological, and Quantum Physics, including his work on String Theory to really boggle your faculties) expands upon the state of thinking with respect to multiple universes and parallel realms across an infinitely repeating cosmos. To attempt to summarise it concisely it goes something like this (apologies, Brian, I am merely an interested bystander):
The multidimensional ‘reality’ in which we live encompasses an infinite number of possibilities – for location in space, for movement, for ‘states of being’. Mathematics illustrates this – subdivide, say, a metre cube into as many ‘coordinates’ as possible. The decimal places will infinitely regress. Greene uses the analogy of a fly that can buzz at any position (or speed, to an extent) at any moment should it ‘decide’. That may be at 1m above the floor and 1m from the left wall. Or it may be at 90cm above the floor and 1m from the left wall. Or the right wall. Or at 2m, or at 1.99m, or at 1.99999999m. However, the point is, such small variations in positioning (or indeed speed if it/we were to travel at 10km per hour, versus 9.999999-to-infinity km per hour) are not necessarily meaningful at all to the individual doing the positioning (or making the decisions). Ever smaller increments are increasingly less detectable. And this is defined by the individual’s perceptual apparatus. What this means to an infinite universe, then is that infinity is defined by FINITE chunks of incremental units that are detectable to ‘our’ sensory/perceptual (and cognitive) apparatus.
The argument goes on to contend that the universe is (likely) infinite in it’s expansion, further complexified by an inflationary tendency (expanding all around continuously at very high speed since the Big Bang). The mathematics does point towards an infinite magnitude (allegedly). But here’s the thing. (And I am summarising simplistically and paraphrasing Mr Greene...) The limits of a perceivable cosmic horizon are set around 41 billion light years (basically the ‘age’ of the Universe at 13.7 billion years based on speed of light and observable signatures of the Big Bang as espoused in Cosmic Background Microwave Radiation etc. etc., combined with the rate of inflation blah blah. And the argument further continues, that beyond the limits of any given ‘cosmic horizon’ (of 41 billion light years), there is likely a repetition of functions and conditions extending infinitely. Still following??!
Due to the (also) likelihood of there being a finite arrangement of particles in the ‘Universe’ (still obviously a massive number of possible configurations), there is a limit to how far this arrangement of possibilities extends. Then it also follows (take it as read for now), given an infinite extension of the Universal neighbourhood, there being a finite number of particles/configurations/elements (whatever you want to call the stuff of ‘reality’s fabric’), this ‘pattern’ will infinitely repeat...Which does lead itself to all sorts of marvellous speculations about parallel universes, realities, possibilities, being copies spread on for ever and ever (multiple ‘I’s living out endless permutations of ‘my’ life). Right, now that’s established we can come back down to (reality?) earth.
The point being made here that might have some semblance of relevance to mere mortal concerns, involves the perceptual detectability outlined earlier. We can only take in so much of what we perceive, or speculate on the possibilities available to us. It might seem like life has an overwhelming number of possibilities, pressures, priorities. But in fact we can rest in ‘comfort’ that we cannot accommodate all the variations, we can only really deal with more manageable chunks, so why worry about the infinite variation. The likelihood anyway (mathematically at least) is that the patterns, the chunks repeat endlessly, rather than spiral out into an infinite and therefore unmanageable number of challenges. Be like the fly buzzing round the room. Why worry about being at precise coordinate x,y,z-point-one. The mind will seize upon obsessive scrutiny to detail if given half a chance, and will indeed spiral into it’s own vortex of eternal permutations of what if this, what if that, have I done this, or that, or the other...! But don’t let it. Instead revel in the limitations that are bestowed upon your apparatus.
Limitations are sometimes there to help guide action and make a response more selective. Aldous Huxley (1954) talked about ‘the reducing valve of consciousness’, prefiguring Eagleman’s ‘umwelt’ (which he ‘got’ from some German gentlemen before him) - one must take care not to ‘open’ such a valve and let the overwhelming flood of sensations and ideas in and to drown in the aftermath! Our apparatus, in effect is a manifestation of this idea that we can indeed break life down into manageable perceptual chunks – it's done this already by limiting our available bandwidth. Let us continue this practice conceptually, addressing what may seem to be overwhelming challenges by establishing finite boundaries (and recognising the repeatable, and therefore ‘ignorable’ nature of patterns outwith our immediate control). Suddenly, we can focus on and corrall if you like the ‘problems’ and address there and then, rather than run screaming from them saying they are too much to deal with, encompassing too many variables.
One other point. Again taking the contention that in a universe/multiverse dependent on arrangement of particles, every ‘state’ depends on one or other of these (finite possibility) arrangements, our own ‘mental’ and ‘emotional’ states equally depend on this physical definition. So it follows that there are a finite number of states we can be in at any moment. To push this a little further in order to make personal sense to one’s being, any state is therefore finite, and consequently has an ‘end’. So even where one may find that it’s all too much, in an endless depression or despairing frame of mind, find solace in knowing that it does indeed have an end, and will transition sooner or later. There is light (and mathematical evidence for this) at the end of the tunnel. For what it’s worth. Extending the logic one step further still, we have this extraordinary capacity to call upon our limitations to help determine how we characterise our own immediate sense of reality. So (with a little practice), we can decide to constrain and define a state of being according to the categorical boundaries we feel are most fitting and appropriate to our ‘whim’. Why dwell on a fixated state of despair (‘depression’) with infinitely spiralling associations, ruminations, obsession with detail, when you can take a step back (again with practice) and determine it has far grosser features that preclude drilling down fixatedly into further (negative) associations that overwhelm. Instead, see the ‘state’ as being a broader ‘position’ in life at a given moment, and which one can sidestep into a different state and possibility for action and thought. [The valence-arousal circumplex model of affective states is relevant here (Posner et al., 2005), and I have alluded to it before – a means by which we can ‘tap into’ our core affective bodily signals which are precursors to more elaborated emotional concepts that determine how we eventually ‘feel’ - so in essence we can intercept the core states and decide ultimately how we do feel – with something called ‘interoceptive awareness (Craig, 2002)].
Turn the screw tighter and close the valve off a little so that the extra detail has little room to squeeze through. Find the boundary with that state into a more hopeful and positive state, again at a broader level of categorisation. Again, I have talked previously about brain networks and mechanisms that seem to be accessible to allow us to switch from one ‘state’ to another by virtue of being somewhat mutually exclusive – which like the valve analogy are available to let us divert ‘states’ from one format to another. In short, we have control – if we do a little mental homework and practice to understand how it all works, what our capacities are, and also where our limitations lie, and how importantly this can be used to our own benefit.
So next time you contemplate infinity, or by proxy think that life is just too complex, holds too many variables to deal with, remember you have been bequeathed through evolution a sensory and perceptual arrangement of particles with finite configurations, and that the rest of the ‘world’ likewise is constrained. Suddenly, you may see that daily challenges are reduced into bite size chunks you can start to get your teeth into!!
Craig, A. D. (2002). How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 3, 655–666.
Eagleman, D. (2011). Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Canongate Canons
Greene, B. (2012).The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Penguin. US
Greene, B. (2000). The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Vintage. US
Huxley, A. (1954). The Doors of Perception. Chatto and Windus. UK
Posner, , J, Russell, J.A.,c and Peterson, B.S. (2005) The circumplex model of affect: An integrative approach to affective neuroscience, cognitive development, and psychopathology. Dev Psychopathol. 17(3): 715–734
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.