Tag Archives: size of the cosmos

Reality, As Painted By A Five Sense Palette

Are you familiar with NASA’s various Hubble Deep Field observations?  It seems to me an appropriate metaphor for human understanding.  The very short version is that over an extended period of time, NASA pointed the Hubble telescope at an apparently empty and infinitesimal portion of the night sky (below is the amount of sky observed by the eXtreme Deep Field observation):


Repeated exposures to the same area over many years allowed the trickle of photons to accumulate this stunning image:

File:Hubble Extreme Deep Field (full resolution).png

Most of those glowing objects are distant galaxies.  I have read there are an estimated 5000+ galaxies of various ages in that image.  Some date back as far as we have ever observed, approximately 13+ billion years ago.  This is what was observed upon careful and extended observation of an area of space that appeared to be empty to the naked eye.

The naked eye provides a great deal of the information by which we construct our impression of three dimensional space.  As humans, we have little intuitive insight regarding what information we are not perceiving.  Sight – combined with the four other senses of touch, taste, hearing and smell – provide my human perception of reality.  They provide the data on which derivative tools like inductive and deductive reasoning can be employed.  The data provided by my senses is woefully incomplete, limited on two fronts: scope and scale.  The scope of my sensory sensitivity involves just a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum as sight and sound.  We know of animals that perceive various facets of reality that human senses cannot.  Walls and chairs and beds and grass and trees look like what I see, sound like what I hear, feel like what I touch.  But we know from the study of subatomic particles that an atom is well over 99% empty space.  Even time may be an illusion.  Our best cosmological theories require that 96% of the universe be made up of mysterious “dark matter” and “dark energy” that have never been directly observed.

Scale also plays a role.  Maybe an even bigger one (I will write much more on this at some later time).  The diameter of the physical universe is estimated to be over 90 billion light years.  Strikes me as akin to guessing how many marbles are in a bowl, but whatever.  Regardless, the human mind really cannot comprehend the size of the cosmos, nor the infinitesimalness of the quantum scale.  The orders of magnitude are cleverly demonstrated here.  They defy our comprehension.  So we tend to settle for causal coherence, even if it leads to faulty conclusions.  The human brain seems addicted to pattern and predictability, where complexity and chaos may more accurately describe the universe that we inhabit.  Many researchers have shown that the human mind tends to create order, coherence, causality, even where none exists.  It appears to be how we are wired.  And it seems we can’t help but think the “mind” exhibited at our own scale is unique, without properly accounting for evidence of intelligent behavior in clustered matter at orders of magnitude both smaller and larger than us.  There are almost as many bacteria in our body as there are cells with our own DNA.  Yet we seldom recognize these microscopic organisms as individuals, rather we recognize only the collective “me”?   A city exhibits the ordered pattern of an organism, but we view recognize only the individual “me”‘s not the city itself as a “mind.”  Might our particular scale be restricting our appreciation for “mind” at different dimensional scales?

It seems to me that the primary limitation, and one that cannot be avoided within human perception, is the particular nature of human perception.  We cannot know what we do not know.  As Erwin Schrodinger said, “The reason why our sentient, percipient and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as a part of it.”  What I perceive is just one way of experiencing the universe.  It is just one version of the universe, painted using my five sense perceptual palette.  I try to remind myself of that whenever I think I know more.

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