Flatland – Then and Now
by Dale Jeffrey, Windsor, Ontario, Canada
First published in 1884, Edwin Abbott’s geometric fantasy Flatland – a Romance of Many Dimensions unveils a magical world in which the inhabitants, all geometric forms in themselves, must learn to reconnoitre and understand a two dimensional world. In such a world of course a line looks exactly like a circle, or even a cross-section of a sphere, and lacking the third dimension of depth, philosophies and religions are formed, voraciously defended by those two dimensional beings who believe in their own limited perspectives. It is biting satire, a commentary on Abbott’s world and ours. Its ongoing appeal lies in its largely unspoken challenge to our notions of Truth, and is as valid an expression today as that which we find when Einstein’s Relativity and modern String Theory challenge contemporary limitations in perspective.
Prior to the invention of the telescope and microscope, humanity lived in a kind of Flatland. Newtonian physics, Aristotelian biology, and other attempts at Truth were accepted as relevant perspective, and if we asked deeper questions, or challenged accepted descriptions of the atom, the universe, or other mysteries, then symbolically, or literally, we were sent to the back of the class.
Microscopes and telescopes offered new perspective – new ways to find the realities in which we lived. They enabled us finally to see that which was “below” us, as well as “above”. This new knowledge led us to a decreased acceptance of humano-centricity, and stood on its head the notion that we humans were somehow the pinnacle of biological existence, and that all other living things were somehow here exclusively for our benefit. Earth is no longer necessarily the centre stage, and it is perhaps not merely here to challenge, support, and to be stewarded by homo sapiens in our endless search for Truth.
In Holland, an educator of the early twentieth century, Kees Boeke produced a graphical essay on perspective entitled Cosmic View. Within its pages we are taken on a visual journey, initially observing a woman on a park bench, sitting quietly with her cat. By increasing, and then decreasing perspectives by a factor of ten, we then see her as a speck on a map, and then on planet Earth, and then as part of a solar system, a galaxy, and a group of galaxies. We are then returned to the lady with her cat, and then given magnified views of her arm, and a flea on her arm, and then eventually microbes and finally atoms. Boeke’s point is clear, and as he himself notes that “Man, if he is to become really human, must combine in his being the greatest humility with the most careful and considerate use of the cosmic powers that are at his disposal.” As one of his contemporaries observed, “Man, Boeke is asking us to remember, is both very large and very small.” Boeke, it must be noted, still sees us as central – at least in scale.
Facts and discoveries, especially in physics, micro-biology, and astronomy radically challenge this humano-centricity, and as for Earth as a stage for the God-human interaction, while we may accept it as such, we must contend with Charles Darwin’s answer in his debate with Bishop Wilberforce regarding evolution. Darwin said that, if God acts and presents through nature, God must have an inordinate fondness for beetles. There are over 350,000 species at last count! True, some have attributed this quotation to Haldane, but the point I think remains the same.
“What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” asks the scripture. We now know that we, as human beings, are no longer spacially central, as Copernicus, Galileo, and countless others have proved. Neither are we species-central, and we know this through micro and macro biology, despite Boeke. We are thus no longer in Flatland, and the proof is in your eyepiece.
This observation neither negates divinity’s nor humanity’s primacy. It does, however, somewhat change our previous calculations. For some, this new perspective diminishes or even cancels old teachings. These are the people who cherry pick a few stories from the worlds religious scriptures, dismiss them as impossible in the light of current knowledge, and then conclude that only materialistic empiricism can bring us to valid belief. These are the people who confuse religious stories with science and history. For them, if it can (as it has) be shown that a universal flood or a six day creation did not occur, then all revelation must be false. On the other side, there are those who note scientific error (think of Percival Lowell’s Martian canals), find it to be false, and therefore dismiss all scientific endeavours as not trustworthy. As you can see, each side is fundamentalist, literalist, and utterly dismissive of the other.
As Abbott, using the geometric fantasy of Flatland demonstrates, it is possible, dependent on perspective and humble open minds, to see truth, or even Truth, using an admixture of science and the revelation which wisdom listens for, and sometimes, provides. Time at the eyepiece, followed by research, and then concluding with a little time pondering the “why” of that which we have seen, will always be time well spent.
All comments to the author Dale Jeffrey are welcomed.
Microscopy UK Front
Published in the June 2015 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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