Perception and reality: A stubbornly persistent illusion
By Charlotte B. Cerminaro
All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream. – Edgar Allan Poe
For many thousands of years human civilization has sought to grasp the fundamental nature of our universe and more specifically, our unique place and purpose within it. Great minds have pursued a better understanding of our true "reality", the best of them finding only the edge of an ocean too vast to comprehend. Among the more influential works in this regard, Plato's Republic contains an enigmatic and compelling narrative known simply as, "the allegory of the cave." While the allegory is clearly intended to illustrate severe limitations in using the five senses alone to interpret reality, it touches upon a collective awareness of the most profound existential mysteries—which is merely the starting point of our journey. Plato defines a few requisites in order to proceed: relentless curiosity, courage, intuition and reasoning.
Thus the narrative unfolds: In a large subterranean cave far too deep for natural light, people live out their lives shackled together in a tight row facing one wall of the cave. Their chains keep them from moving or looking around so they see only the wall. The sole source of illumination is a small fire kept by other people who stay in the center of the cave. Always out of sight, they move around their fire and cast shadows on the wall; this two-dimensional representation is the only visual evidence of another existence. Occasionally someone in the shackled group simply vanishes–a singular clue to the possibility of some other place that they cannot see or hear.
Invariably, one or two curious people start to work on their shackles, trying to loosen them. The others see this and feel compelled to say, "You're wasting your time." Undeterred, this mighty effort starts paying off; one shackle loosens and gradually an arm is freed. The rest of his shackles easily slide off. Instead of trying to free themselves, the others criticize and even start threatening the one who can now get up and turn around. Seeing the cave, the fire and those who cast shadows, all for the first time, the only notable clues are a few tunnels leading away from the firelight, into the darkness.
What follows is a long and nightmarish journey far from the light of his familiar cave. The darkness in these subterranean tunnels is unnatural–not just a complete absence of light, but rather a presence–heavy and foreboding. Touching the damp cave walls as he slowly moves through a series of tortuous mazes, the curious one knows only what he can feel. Physical exhaustion and growing fear start to take their toll. If an exit is ever to be found, he cannot possibly know how long or what form it will take. And when a tiny, far distant speck of light first appears, he does not know that he's seeing daylight, the visible energy of our own sun.
Plato's narrative goes into detail–how sunlight sears the eyes when emerging from the cave, and only after a time can the fullness of this existence be appreciated. He effectively compares the previous two-dimensional, dichromatic world: A perpetual lack of daylight makes [an awareness of] time virtually non-existent; outside, the vast array of colors both vibrant and subtle were previously unknowable. The allegory is really a metaphor and it's a critical point in the process of reasoning.
It was approximately 900 years ago that a Sephardic Hebrew astronomer, physician and philosopher named Moses Ben Maimonides theorized that there are 10 dimensions–of which only four are directly accessible or within our awareness. He came to this conclusion after decades of research: among the countless natural phenomena and texts he studied were the original Hebrew Genesis scrolls, the Tanakh and Midrash, as well as the writings of renowned Greek and Arabic scholars in astronomy and medicine.
Modern physicists have only recently reached a consensus that there are actually 10 or 11 dimensions in our known universe. During the 11th century Maimonides' scientific theorems were largely considered heretical. However, most of them have stood the test of time and the possibility that these findings are random coincidence is highly unlikely.
We can only hypothesize about the nature and content of these other six dimensions– when, if or how they might intersect our own and what this says about known reality. Some scientists have called our reality a "digital simulation", an indirect reference to the universal substrate known as quanta.
For the realist or pragmatist this isn't merely an oversimplification, it's dishonest and inaccurate. Taking all known facts into consideration, it seems more reasonable to say that we live in a smaller subset of a much greater reality. Each new discovery only deepens the mystery; every question answered raises dozens more.
Contrary to appearances, the more we really know the less certain we are–because we have already learned…reality is a stubbornly persistent illusion.
Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician and recording artist. In her free time she enjoys writing and regularly contributes to Enter Stage Right and she attained a Bachelor's Degree in Molecular Biology.