Outside the Box

 We're all intrinsically of the same substance.  The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies.
--Janna Levin

You may be familiar with a paper-and-pencil exercise designed to get people to think “outside the box.”  The object is to connect all the dots in a simple square grid without retracing any line and without picking the pencil up from the paper.  Those of us who learned at an early age to color inside the lines will have particular difficulty with this exercise.  We will try every which way to connect the dots without moving the pencil outside the perimeter of the grid. As it turns out, of course, the only way to connect all the dots is to extend the pencil lines outside the box. 

Whether people who figure this out are more inclined than the rest of us to think outside the box is anyone’s guess.  It is frankly hard to imagine that an Isaac Newton or Werner Heisenberg would have used such an exercise as a warm-up for more strenuous feats of mental daring-do.  In any event, it is not possible to think entirely outside the box.  We can certainly produce thoughts that don’t fit inside the box.  But sooner or later we discover that we have simply traded the old box for a new one.

Let’s start with the biggest box we can think of, the universe.  The cosmos presumably has changed little since hominids first gazed up at the heavens and wondered what they were looking at. Yet the cosmic box has undergone more or less continual refurbishment ever since, particularly after people began gazing up at the heavens through telescopes.

The ancient Greeks were unencumbered by such devices and were therefore free to develop a model of the universe that was aesthetically pleasing, if not always perfectly congruent with what could be observed even with the naked eye.  Aristotle believed the stars and planets were mounted like jewels in concentric spheres that surrounded the earth.  Each translucent sphere moved on its own axis to account for the slightly eccentric orbits of the heavenly bodies.  Still, astronomers puzzled for a thousand years over why their observations failed to conform to the geometric perfection of Aristotle’s universe.  Copernicus solved part of the puzzle by placing the sun rather than the earth at the center of the cosmos, but he was thrown off by the lingering notion that the heavenly bodies moved in circular orbits.  Kepler eventually figured out that their orbits were elliptical.

Isaac Newton, a secret dabbler in alchemy, cast another sort of spell upon the universe, ensnaring it in a web of dazzling geometric logic.  “I now demonstrate the frame of the System of the World,” he proclaimed in the Principia.  His cosmic box is the one we are most familiar with, in which solid objects moved through three-dimensional space according to fixed laws of motion.  However, as Newton conceived it, the space they moved through was not empty but filled with an invisible medium called aether that he believed was needed to transmit light and gravity.  Another century would pass before aether was finally dispensed with.  A few decades more and Newton’s universe was almost totally dismantled.  His laws of motion survived, but three-dimensional space had given way to a four-dimensional time-space continuum in which time was infinitely elastic and space was curved.  This is hard to picture, unless the landscape of your imagination has been inspired by Salvador Dali.

Notwithstanding the many permutations of the cosmic box, we always tend to view the current version as the culmination of human knowledge.  Inevitably, there are anomalies that become the loose thread that cannot be pulled without unraveling the whole fabric of the universe.  

One feature of the cosmic box has remained constant, although rarely mentioned, perhaps because it is wrongly assumed to lie outside the box.  "Mind has erected the objective world of the natural philosopher out of its own stuff," wrote the quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger.  "Mind could not cope with this gigantic task otherwise than by the simplifying device of excluding itself -- withdrawing from its own conceptual creation."   There will always be a loose thread to the fabric of the universe as long as human beings retain their powers of imagination.  Schrödinger understood better than most that  the universe is cut from whole cloth, and we are woven into its fabric. 

Erwin Schrödinger, Mind and Matter

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