Of the impossibility to train cats
For someone interested in cognitive sciences, I do a lot less observation/experimentation on my cat than I probably should, do be honest. For my defense, all low hanging fruits of deep philosophical insights gained with pets have probably been picked. But lately I’ve had an idea, and I thought it was well worth a little writeup to mashup everything going on in my brain xD.
Like any pet owner, I find myself doing a bit of training (don’t go on that table, don’t fight, don’t meow too loud, etc…), and mostly failing because cats are notoriously resilient to training. But I can’t help wonder what their experience feels like.
It is pretty clear that they have a concept of “what I’m doing is wrong”, judging by they behavior when they notice that they are being watched, or by how sneaky they are acting to bypass these rules. So my conclusion is that they may be incapable of counterfactual reasoning (i.e. “if I don’t do that, I won’t get punished”).
I suspect that, more simply, they cannot do causal reasoning (i.e. “if I do X, Y will happen”). And if that’s the case, I’m wondering if we could reframe it as “they do not perceive time“. If they live in the here and now, they might be completely unable to conceive of such a thing as “the future”. Maybe they don’t see time as a line like we do, maybe all they see is a dot.
Can you tell where I’m going with this? I was wondering if cats live in some kind of version of Flatland, the amazing book about the tribulations of a 2 dimensional square who visits a one dimension space, a zero dimension point, and a third dimension space (highly recommend it, though it does lack in cats). What would the Flatland equivalent of time dimensions be?
Perceiving time is probably the biggest advantage humans have over other animals. I’m low-key fascinated by the ability of humans to make bargain with the future, and to consider future potentialities as actual real factors and act on them. Maybe the “sensory organ” for time dimension is some kind of neural structure in the brain? In any case it does seem like we perceive “something” to be there (which we call future) that the cat might not.
We may be pretty good at living in the 1 dimension line of time. Like Mr Square we can kinda imagine what it would be like to live in lower dimensions and take this imaginary trip to FlatCatLand. But like Mr Square’s adventures, this begs the question: what would it even be like if there were higher dimensions? Can we intuit it in any reasonable way? Is there a TimeCube looking down on us and making fun of our limited sight and how we’re stuck in FlatTimeLine?
How our intuitions distorted our view of time
Maybe the reason it hits me right now is because I have been binge watching the amazing science channel Science4All on YouTube (sorry it’s in french :(() which helped me understand a lot better general relativity. I won’t explain it here because I’d do a much worse job of course. But I do want to talk about the difference between general relativity and more traditional Newtonian physics.
Indeed, Newtonian physics is a pretty great model, and it works really well under a lot of circumstances. I believe it’s even a strict subset of general relativity. The main difference, as far as I see it, lies in the conception of time. Newtonian physics rely on a universal uniform time axis. General relativity showed that this is not how the world actually works. So we should expect Newtonian physics to work fairly well whenever time behaves quite uniformly, and to break down when it fluctuates.
This also explains why we were stuck so long with a Newtonian conception of the world: it’s because of my nemesis, Anthropocentrism. Of course we’d love Newton’s conception, it fits so well what we experience and intuit in our little selves living their daily lives in our FlatTimeLine where time does not fluctuate too much.
But fortunately some genii noticed that this conception didn’t quite fit what we were observing in a few edge cases. They went back to the drawing board. They shut down their anthropocentric intuition, and looked at the bigger picture. And like Mr Square they got to peek at a world where time was a completely different dimension, along which one could have much more complex motion than previously anticipated.
To be perfectly fair it’s not completely like Flatland since time is kinda already a dimension in Newtonian physics, but come on, they were focused on objects moving through a 3D space with a universal clock, not objects in a 4D space.
I don’t know about you, but seeing history stuck for centuries in a 3D conception of a space that was actually 4D because of close-mindedness really makes me wonder: what other dimensions have I overlooked? What if our 4D general relativity is just a simpler case of what’s really going on? After all, it seems that we’re already observing a few edge cases where the model doesn’t quite fit… rings a bell?
So how many dimensions are we living in
I’m not a genius, nor a physicist. I expect that quite a few people had this train of thoughts before me. As far as I can understand, there is open questions about the possibility of extra dimensions (Kaluza–Klein theory??) and this unexplained corner cases (with LKK particles??). Alternatively, this whole process helped me take string theory and its crazy number of dimensions a bit more seriously (even though apparently string theory is more of a family of models than a precise model?).
I am, however, trained in Computer Science. And as such I have to admit that computationally speaking, we’re clearly living in more than 4 dimensions. A given point has a spatial position and a temporal position, but doesn’t it also have a color, a temperature, etc etc… If you program the universe into a computer, you’d have to specify more than 4 pieces of information to describe a given elementary point of the universe.
The hard part is sorting out through everything we can and can’t feel, and see what are elementary dimensions and what are not. Temperature, for instance, is some sort of particle agitation. That happens in time and space, it’s not a new dimension. Electromagnetism, on the other end, AFAIK, doesn’t reduce to the 4 spacetime dimensions. I’d tend to think it’s a pretty good candidate (i.e. a particle has a position in time, in space, and a charge).
It’s a bit related to a question I wonder often about: how many informational pathways are there to transmit a signal around us? Touch (including taste and smell), sound, light, radio, wifi, etc… are all different spectral bands of either particle motion in space or electromagnetic waves (a specter of specters, if you will). What am I missing here? Help me complete this picture and count all the dimensions!
Multiple dimensions in time
Coming back to time, we can try to take a step up and imagine that time is no longer a simple 1D line, but a 2D plan. You’d get our canonical time line, but other possible time lines. In other words, you get some sort of multiverse. Maybe it’s as simple as considering potential futures.
Maybe there are other representations, though. One possible way is what I do to fall asleep: I imagine my consciousness leaving the timeline we’re in and wandering through this imaginary dimension in order to find a way to reach the timeline in which my dream happens (because it seems to happen in a 4D spacetime of its own). I guess you could also use imagination and the suspension of disbelief to travel to fictional timelines.
I’m honestly not sure if imagination should count as an extra dimension. I guess that would be kinda cool, and could be tied to the fact that semantics/information as a whole seems like it may be be a completely other dimension. Not to mention panpsychist conceptions of the universe. But this is getting a bit speculative, I’m really uninformed about the physical basis of information. This was mostly an aside to plug my own short story, none of these strike me as great candidates for elementary dimensions.
The Q word
Another thing missing is of course the other side of contemporary physics, the one looming over this article that I’ve been avoiding since the beginning, the one whose name has been misused so much that it’s sheer mention makes me cringe. Quantum physics.
Like most people, I know even less about it. I assume it’s not completely crazy to think it might help with all the multiverse or information dimension stuff mentioned above. But I just want to briefly touch on why I think it’s less relevant than it appears at first glance.
You’d tend to think that there might be a few dimensions hidden in there. After all, there’s this whole mysterious collapse from potential states (i.e. a dimensional space of possibilities) to a finite observation. All the potential states do seem to form an extra dimension not captured by the 4 canonical ones.
There’s nothing mystical about this, though. I suspect quantum physics is a lot more like normal physics than people think, except instead of manipulating a definite point (i.e. number) you manipulate a distribution (i.e. a line). After all if there was randomness or magic involved, how would we be able to manipulate qbits deterministically?
However, a line is still one dimension above a point. So quantum states need at least one extra dimension, but from the little bit I understand about Richard Feynman’s work, this may well be the same dimension as the electromagnetic dimension mentioned above.
That leaves us with at least 5 dimensions accounted for (3 space, 1 time, 1 quantum/electromagnetic), whatever the hell information may be, and of course everything I missed! I’m counting on you to help me figure out what these may be. I guess I’ll update this list if I ever learn more. In any case, I’d like to make sure that we’ve exerted the full capacity of reflection and perception of our little human brain, before I accidentally jump on the metaphysical table of an extra-dimensional wrathful time-cube god.