THIS IS US

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The fall of 2016 saw a new comedy series, This is Us, added to the NBC line-up. Through a sometimes bewildering sequence of flash-backs and flash-forwards, this sitcom follows the lives of ‘triplets’ (sort of) from birth into middle age.

In Episode 5, “The Game Plan”, one of the triplets, Kevin, ends the episode with a soliloquy on life and death that raises a number of interesting philosophical and cosmological issues. Here it is (in part):

“Life is full of color and we each get to come along and add our own color to the painting…and even though it’s not very big, the picture…you sort of have to think that it goes on forever…to infinity…

“So at first when I was painting I was thinking, you know, maybe up here, that was that guy’s part of the painting and then, you know, down here, that’s my part of the painting. And then I started to think, well, what if we’re all in the painting everywhere?

“And what if we’re in the painting before we’re born? What if we’re in it after we die? And these colors that we keep adding, what if they keep getting added on top of one another, until eventually we’re not even different colors anymore? We’re just one thing, one painting.

“…Just because someone dies, just because you can’t see them or talk to them anymore, it doesn’t mean they’re not still in the painting…There’s no dying, there’s no you or me or them. It’s just us!”

As he speaks, Kevin is showing an abstract he painted to his two young nieces. The painting is small and, of course, finite but he asks his nieces to imagine that the painting “goes on forever…to infinity” (or perhaps to some exceedingly large cosmic bound).

The painting, of course, is Kevin’s metaphor for life, even for being itself. Its colors reflect the fact that “life is full of color”. At first, Kevin imagines that each of us is limited to a certain region of the ‘canvass’ corresponding to the space-time boundaries of our biological lives.

Then he has an insight: What if we’re all painting everywhere on the surface? What if we were in the painting even before we were born and what if we remain on the canvass after we die? If that’s the case, then we must all be painting over one another. The individual contribution of each ‘artist’ must be submerged beneath the evolving holistic image. In that case, “There’s no dying, there’s no you or me or them. It’s just us!”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Consider the notion of an infinite surface. Normally, that would be problematic. On a ‘normal’ infinite surface the probability of any two finite brush strokes intersecting would approach zero.

Kevin overcomes this brilliantly: “What if we’re all in the painting everywhere?” He is describing his picture as a hologram. On a ‘holographic canvass’, the entire image is fully present everywhere. Zoom in, same image but less clarity; zoom out, sharper image, more detail…but the same image.

With this insight Kevin solves the problem of painting on an infinite surface. Every brush stoke appears everywhere so the probability of any two brush strokes intersecting is not zero but 100%.

The idea that our universe is a holographic surface is very popular today among physicists and cosmologists. It is one possible implication of string theory. Plus, if we are living on a 3-dimensional holographic surface, that surface would contain all the information we encounter in ‘normal’ 4-dimensional space-time.

If Kevin’s canvass is a 3-dimensional holographic surface, then we are all everywhere in the painting all of the time. This is a more sophisticated formulation of the old theory of ‘block time’: everything that ever has been, is now, or ever will be exists simultaneously…at least from the perspective of some class of observers.

This is a tricky concept. It doesn’t mean that our act of painting is unreal or illusory. It’s just that from at least one perspective the process of our painting is both instantaneous…and eternal.

Each of us makes a unique contribution to the image but that contribution is limited, not by ‘death’ but by the contributions of others. That ‘limitation’ is what allows our contribution to harmonize with the contributions of everyone else to form a much more interesting whole. Our contributions are unique but they are not isolated; they do not stand alone.

Counterintuitively, it is the limitation of our contributions that ensures the transcendence of those contributions. Our contributions acquire meaning in the context of their subsequent harmonization into the ‘image of the entirety’.

Philosophy, in the context of 4-dimensional scalar space-time, defines limitation as ‘death’ and sees in mortality grounds for nihilism. Consider Macbeth’s final soliloquy:

“…All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death…Life’s but a walking shadow…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

In the context of 3-dimensional holographic space-time, however, limitation is the necessary and perhaps sufficient pre-condition for transcendence and meaningfulness.

Subjectively, we each paint a limited number of brush strokes and then we are done; but objectively, our strokes harmonize with the brush strokes of every other contributor. In the context of that harmony, they always were, are now, and ever will be; and in that same harmony, the categories known as “you, me, them” are resolved into a single primary category, “us”.

The notion that “us” is the primary unit of being did not originate with Kevin. Sorry, Kevin! 2500 years ago, the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximander, proposed that potential entities did not become actual entities until they gave each other “reck”, i.e. until they harmonized with one another. 500 years later, the idea that being is relationship was captured in the Christian doctrine of Trinity. Finally, less than 100 years ago, the existential theologian, Martin Buber (I and Thou), wrote, “In the beginning is the relation.”

Still, it is not often that we encounter groundbreaking cosmology and challenging philosophy in a TV sit-com; but This is Us, on at least on this one occasion, provides just that. We are invited to re-conceptualize our everyday experience.

We seem to live our lives in 4-dimensional scalar space-time, chiefly characterized by entropy and mortality. We dissect that space-time into infinitesimal regions which we call ‘I/me’ and ‘you/them’.

But what if we actually live in a 3-dimensional hologram? What if order is constantly increasing (“…these colors that we keep adding, what if they keep getting added on top of one another, until eventually we’re not even different colors anymore? We’re just one thing, one painting”)?

What if our so-called mortality is merely a precondition for the harmony that leads to a more complex and meaningful whole? What if ‘I/me’ and ‘you/them’ are just aspects of a more fundamental ‘we/us’?

This is precisely what This is Us is proposing. Proposing…but not proving. So which view of life is right, Kevin’s or ours? And really, how can we ever possibly know?

Now prepare to have your mind blown: It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter which is right or whether we can ever know for sure. In fact, these questions themselves may be meaningless.

The 4-dimensional scalar world we experience everyday may be telling us much more about the operation of our brains (or minds) than it tells us about the ultimate structure of reality. Stephen Hawking has proposed that the ‘arrow of time’, the ‘arrow of entropy’ and the ‘arrow of perception/memory’ may be one and the same arrow. If that’s true, then we can only experience the world the way we do. But that doesn’t mean that that is how the world really is.

So if everyday experience tells us nothing about how the world is deeply structured, how then do we find out what that structure really is? According to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, there may be no such ‘structure’ or, if there is, that structure may simply be unknowable.

According to Copenhagen, we naturally make models of reality (e.g. 4-dmensional scalar space-time, 3-dimensional holographic space-time, etc.) and each is ‘true’ precisely to the degree that it can successfully account for everyday experience. Logical Positivists (e.g. A.J. Ayer) go further: each is true precisely to the degree that it make predictions that could be falsified by experiment but that have not yet been falsified by experiment.

Over the past century, physicists and philosophers have been actively exploring the possibility that there may be ways to describe the world using something other than 4-dimensional space-time. In the course of these explorations, they’ve discovered that the same fundamental physical processes can be accurately modeled in many different space-times.

Conclusion: two (or more) different space-times can both be right, and if so, then we can say that they are ‘mathematically equivalent’ or complementary. For example, you can describe the laws of electromagnetism using 4 dimensions…or 5   (Kaluza-Klein). So which is right? Both are. So which is better? Well, the 5 dimensional model is much simpler and easier to use so, arguably at least, it is the ‘better’ model…even though it seems to conflict with our everyday experience of the world.

So which should we use? Either, but why not pick the model that is most aesthetically pleasing and most computationally useful?

Now apply this logic to our current dilemma. Should we choose a 4-dimensional scalar space-time to model our world? Or would a 3-dimensional holographic space-time work just as well? As long as the two models are mathematically equivalent, as long as they both model the data of everyday experience, the choice is ours: there is no right or wrong answer.

So which model would you prefer? One is based on isolation and entropy and leads us logically in the direction of solipsism and nihilism. The other is based on community and harmony and leads us logically in the direction of transcendence, meaning and eternal life.

You choose! Do you prefer to live in Macbeth’s world…or in Kevin? For at the end of the day, they are the same world.

#thisisus #aletheia #culture