The Measure of All Things

Man is the measure of all things.
-- Protagoras            

In 1903 a desperado with a gun fired in a crowded theater, creating a minor panic.  It was a good bet that few in the audience had ever witnessed someone pointing a pistol at them and pulling the trigger.  It didn't matter that the shooter looked like he had just stepped out of a black-and-white photograph or that the gun made no sound.  To those who had never before seen a life-sized figure moving on a motion picture screen, the train robber who fired on them at point-blank range looked real.  They shrieked in fright as a steam locomotive rushed toward them, having entirely forgotten they were sitting in a darkened theater, not standing on railroad tracks.  Mr. Edison, the wizard who owned the studio that produced this first narrative film called The Great Train Robbery, had worked another marvel.  A series of still photographic images was reproduced on a reel of celluloid film and threaded through a projector at the rate of 16 frames per second (the standard before talking pictures), creating the illusion of movement.  The brain was tricked into believing that a rectangle of light projected onto a flat screen was a window into an exciting world of outlaws and guns and onrushing trains.

When I was young enough not to know better, I experimented with psychedelic drugs and discovered that the brain could be tricked into seeing all sorts of things.   Only a few years before, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert had been bounced from the psychology department at Harvard for experimenting with LSD.  I had heard that people had jumped from windows under the influence of the drug, so I decided to start with something called STP that I believed was less potent.  It was not.  All I noticed at first was that the living room of my college dorm suite was gradually becoming more saturated with color, and I was strangely fascinated by small visual details: the movement of my fingers, the folds in my shirt, the fabric of the carpet.  Soon the whole world dissolved into something resembling a landscape by Salvador Dali.  It was as if a fat lady had removed her corset, her solid contours giving way to a vast expanse of voluptuous pink flesh.  Everything now jiggled and pulsated and breathed, and I laughed uproariously. 

Not for a moment did I believe I was seeing anything other than the effects of a small orange pill. The issue for me was not whether the world as viewed in a funhouse mirror was real.  The question that remained long after the effects of the pill had worn off was whether the world of reality was real -- by which I mean, is an event in the external world actually happening as we see it, or is it merely the brain working a different bag of tricks in the darkened theater of the mind?  Neurologically speaking, the answer is pretty clear.  What we actually see is what is happening on screen, and there is probably no way to determine how closely it corresponds to events in the external world, assuming there is one.  The solid contours of reality we normally see may offer no truer picture than the fat lady without her corset.

We naively assume that the edifice of the world hangs on steel girders of time and space.  However, physicists have long had other ideas.  Time and space for them are as elastic as the objects in any painting by Salvador Dali.  Theirs is a world that jiggles and pulsates and breathes. A few brave souls have even begun to wonder aloud whether time and space are anything more than a beguiling illusion.  A young theorist named Peter Lynds has posited that there are no discrete instants in time, nor does time flow.  According to Lynds, our experience of time has no foundation whatsoever in the physical properties of nature.  Instead, we must look to neurobiological processes, notably the same "persistence of vision" that causes the brain to perceive movement when a series of still images is threaded rapidly through a projector.  In vain do we seek some anchorage in a reality outside ourselves, for it is the mind that causes the clock to tick and the world to spin.

Peter Lynds, Time and Classical and Quantum Mechanics: Indeterminacy vs. Discontinuity        

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