Flatland: Reductionists vs. Believers?

Well I’ll be gorramed: two posts in less than a fortnight.  I’ll have you know that I’m giving up my daily regimen of Xbox to write this post.  I’ll have you know!

Since ones of people read this blog, I don’t really attempt to blog about the latest news: hundreds of bloggers do that more regularly and better than I.  So, when I find something interesting, I’ll write about it.

Rob Bell is in the news of late, what with his perhaps-heretical book Love Wins hitting shelves a few weeks ago.  I haven’t read the book, and since I’m not a Christian, the whole debate — while interesting — isn’t one that I really belong in, and that’s not what I’m writing about today.  Instead, I’ll address a Youtube clip of his (which I think was actually posted by a non-affiliated source).  It’s a ten-minute segment from his Everything Is Spiritual tour, which I attended myself a few years ago, back when I was teetering on the edge of Christianity.  At the time, I enjoyed the talk, as it was a bit of a release from the more stringent evangelicalism in which I was raised.  Looking back, I realize that, ironically, Rob was a “gateway” towards my eventual journey to atheism.  I don’t say that haughtily: I won’t pretend that he was so foolish that his own plans worked against him.  (I also say that with the knowledge that his critics would use such a statement as exactly the ammunition they are looking for, and I feel badly about that, because I still have a soft spot in my heart for Rob and his people — I like the guy, I like his church, and I prefer that kind of Christianity to most others.)  He helped me think outside of the small box I was raised in (not so much by my family as by the church) and the consequences are, as they say, what they are.

In any case, I mention all this because I want the reader to know that I’m not out to tear the guy down (as I might be if I were referencing a Kent Hovind lecture), but simply to provide context.

So.  If you have a few minutes, watch the video, or at least the first six-or-so minutes (as that’s all I’ll get to in this entry).  If you don’t, I’ll briefly summarize it as I briefly (in theory) discuss it.

He describes a theoretical world, conceived by Edwin Abbot, called Flatland, in which there are only two dimensions.  From what I understand, the points Rob makes based on the Flatland concept aren’t really the point of the novella, but it provides an interesting basis for analogy.

Essentially, Rob sketches a picture (well, literally sketches it, in the video) of this 2-D world populated by two 2-D actors.  They can only perceive two dimensions because, of course, they are two-dimensional.  He then hypothesizes what these two actors would perceive if a three-dimensional object were to interact with their flat land.  He first envisions a ring passing through their space.  Since they would not have the ability to see the ring in three dimensions, they would first perceive a point (where the very edge of the ring crossed the plane of Flantland), which would broaden to a short line, then diverge into two lines (each the length of the ring’s thickness) that would grow further and further apart until the ring’s full diameter had been reached, at which point the process would reverse until the trailing edge of the ring passed through Flatland, and the last perceived point disappeared.

Rob then wonders how these two actors would process what they just experienced.  The first actor, who we’ll call The Reductionist (or Rationalist, or Skeptic), describes exactly what he saw: a point, a line, two lines further then closer, a single line, a single point, then nothing.  The second actor, who we’ll call The Wonderer (or The Believer) [choosing names is tough here because I don’t want to predispose the reader one way or the other, but I think the titles for either actor encapsulates what Rob is trying to convey here] thinks he saw something more.  “I think it might have been a ring,” he says.  We’ll come back to this later, because it’s important.  But for now, let’s carry on.  The Reductionist asks The Wonderer if he’s ever held a ring, seen a ring, seen a picture of a ring.  No, he hasn’t.  Do you have any evidence or proof of this so-called ‘ring?’ the Reductionist asks.  Can you test it in a lab?  No, says the Wonderer, I sense, feel, trust, have faith.

For the next part, I agree with Rob: this does reveal two divergent worldviews.  The Reductionist says: Flatland is all we have, it’s all we can measure, it’s all we can know.  The Believer, on the other hand, can’t point to evidence, but only “nudges and hints and sense and feelings and beliefs and maybe even have to use words like ‘faith.'”  (Direct quote from the video; 4:05+)

For the next part, he wonders what would happen if instead of passing a ring through Flatland, he simply held his hand very close to Flatland.  On a 3-D scale, he’s very close to them, but because he’s outside of their dimension, he’s effectively unreachable to them.  Here, the Believer/Wonderer intuitively sense the “hand of Rob,” while the Rationalist experiences nothing because, since nothing has passed into either of his dimensions, he has nothing to observe or measure.  At this point he contends that the Rationalist/Reductionist/Skeptic would tell the Wonderer/Believer to “give up the superstitious, mythic stuff” because there’s nothing to observe.

Then, here comes the big hitter: “And what if I really wanted to mess with them and I jammed my hand right through their world?”  He then goes on to describe how his fingers are of different lengths and widths, and so five circles would appear in Flatland at slightly different times and with slightly different sizes and proportions.  The Believer then asserts that all five circles are related, while the Reductionist points out that they came at different times, they’re different sizes, and so forth; thus, you have to give up this “superstitious, mythic nonsense.”

“And the other one,” Says Rob, “sounds like they’ve completely lost there minds, but in fact, they are dead on right.

There’s a lot more to get in to, of course; we’re only five minutes into a ten minute video that is a part of an hour-plus lecture that is part of a whole system of belief.  Maybe we’ll get into that in later posts, but for now, let’s focus on these points.

We’ll take these from the top, as it were.  Do you remember when I said, “well get back to this later, because it’s important”?  That was in regards to the whole idea that The Believer could hypothesize about the ring in the first place.  I don’t think this idea is totally absurd, that one could imagine things beyond the dimensions they exist in, but it’s interesting that in this scenario The Believer has an a priori and, coincidentally, objectively correct idea about what a ring might be, when he really has no reason to have exceptional insight, except for perhaps in the case of special revelation, the dispensation of which is omitted in this scenario but is nevertheless assumed.  In such a simple example as a ring, it’s easy to look down on the Rationalist for not seeing what is obvious simply because he can’t empirically observe it.  Perhaps Rob set that scenario up in order to express that exact point.  If so, however, he defeats himself with the example of the hand.

When Rob sticks his hand through Flatland, The Believer somehow intuits the existence of the hand despite the lack of evidence for a three-dimensional, physical hand.  The Rationalist/Skeptic is made to seem a fool by refusing to accept the obvious truth that it is, in fact, a hand.

But this scenario is entirely coincidental, and this is the real point that I want to make here.  In this scenario, we, as the outside observer, know that it’s a hand, and when The Believer has faith that it’s a hand, we can objectively see that he is correct.  Thus, credence is given to his nudgings, feelings, sense, and faith.   But what if the five circles that appeared in Flatland were simply five hotdogs shoved through their two-dimensional plane?  What if they were created by five test tubes inserted into a petri dish for experimental purposes?  Or, conversely, what if The Believer felt a nudging that five hotdogs had been crammed into Flatland, when all along it was a hand?  This is where the problem arises.  In Rob’s scenario, The Believer’s hypothesis is confirmed ahead of time, and so we are lead to believe that what we believe to be the cause of seemingly-inexplicable events (i.e. the five circles in Flatland) is, of course, what we thought it would be.  In other words, if a third actor were introduced into Rob’s Flatland scenario who argued that the circles were caused by a quintuple invasion of multi-dimensional butt plugs, he would of course be considered a loon despite the fact that he has precisely as much evidence as Rob’s Believer.

Further, if the hand were an actual, objective thing that reached through Flatland on something that was at least a little more than a completely random, arbitrary basis, The Reductionist/Rationalist/Skeptic could actually study the aberrations in Flatland.  So, he might reason, when one circle is introduced, four other circles appear at such and such a time, grow and recede in such and such a ratio,  and do so consistently.  Thus, he might be able to generate a multi-dimensional model of the hand despite his own confinement to two dimensions.  Such experiments happen now when experimental physicists theorize about, say, eleven-dimensional constructs despite the fact that we can only readily observe four (including time).

In sum, Rob asks us to trust the vague feelings of The Believer, and it’s easy to do so in the context of his lecture because The Believer’s conclusions are already proven, even while Rob is arguing that The Rationalist is missing out on true reality because he can’t prove it.  He doesn’t answer, or even consider, the question that it might be a trans-dimensional spaghetti overflow or a multi-universal octopus or anything else that might be making the holes created by the “hand of Rob.”  Any one of these theories has just as much validity in the Flatland scenario if the actors are unable to step out from their 2-D world and observe reality from a more “objective” point of view.

I need to write more often, because there are ton of other things to get in to here.  I can already hear some of the counterpoints, and I want to address them.  But, instead of making this blog even more unreadable than it already is, I’ll let them go until such time as they’re not addressed by my zeros of readers.

Have a good day, everyone.  And keep thinking.

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