Friday, 17 November 2017

Introspection - 11 : The Illusion of Space

The black hole in the movie Interstellar

One of the questions that is often asked is - it is very clear that time is an illusion produced by the mind but what about the space? It is said that space is also an illusion. But how can we see that it is really so? Lets explore it using our own direct experience.

The Experience of Vision

As usual we can start with a direct experience of the space, which is our subject of investigation today. It is closely related to the sense of vision. So lets check it out. When I open my eyes, I am presented with a field of patterns, which I can break down into parts by attending to specific areas in it. I can scan through this field. The patterns are seen with qualities of colour and shapes. There is nothing more to this experience of sight, it is a pure experience.

Only a field of patterns can be experienced via the sense of sight. Then the mind jumps in, a process starts dividing this field into foregrounds and backgrounds using various criteria like similarities and differences of colours or continuity of shapes or edges etc. Consistent patterns are extracted from the background and are presented as objects. Another process starts matching them with memorized patterns and cognition happens, which is - finding a positive match. Yet another process fetches the connected sounds and words from the memory, and faint perceptions of them are experienced. This is the process of naming. Within a millisecond, the world of forms and names appears in the mind.

It is like magic. To see it for yourself, you will need to sit quietly for some time and slow down your mind. Try closing your eyes to get into a state of doing nothing and thinking nothing, and then with intense awareness open your eyes. Do not do anything or think anything yet, just be. Be aware of the patterns and see that there are only shapes and colours. It is important to stay still and not move the eyes or head. Now let the mind do its job, but very slowly while you pay attention to what is going on. Become aware of divisions, memories and movements of the mind.

Now let the head move a bit to the sideways. You get a perception of depth because of parallax. Things that are nearer move faster and vice versa, the farthest objects, like moon or hills, don't move at all. Mind uses this relative movement, as it impresses on the memory and is compared with the situation when the head was still, to create depth. Having two eyes makes it very convenient, because you get to see the usual flat image of the world from two positions now, and the depth can be computed without moving your head all the time. Having those eyes situated on the face and facing front helps it even more.

You'll still not see the volume an object occupies using parallax, you will need to get up and move around an object, scan it from many angles, rotate it in front of your eyes, to get an idea of its volume. When we do that, when we perceive an object from many points of view, the mind forms a series of projections of it in memory, and a process computes the volume, not in meter cube or liters, it is a relative quality, mostly related to yourself, volume of your own body to be specific. Space is born in this way. So now there are not only edges, backgrounds, patterns, colours, shapes etc, they are also objects with names and they have a size, a volume. In others words, objects are seen as occupying space. If you move an object, its original position is still in memory and now it is seen as empty space. Mind remembers and knows that the same object can be placed back there, because it came from there. However, we do not see the space. Space is a lack of objects, a potential. It is an experience which is not really experienced.

You can conclude some interesting things from this simple exercise or short meditation on space. Firstly, we never perceive space, we only perceive objects. Space is not an object, or an entity of any sorts, it is not even a pattern, not physical, not non-physical, not even metaphysical. It is solely a vacant place in the memory, where there was an object. It is seen as a lack, an absence of something. One must wonder - can we say something exists even when it is always absent? So it cannot be there if objects are not there. Space is an idea in the mind, which points to a potential location for an object in the field of vision. Secondly, we never see a volume, we see flat patterns, the 3D volume is a result of a process that integrates perception of that pattern from many angles. If there is no movement, there is no volume. Another interesting thing you will observe is that we do not receive the whole field of vision at once, we do micro-movements of the eyes to scan around, we shift our attention across this field and we find that only a tiny point in our vision is actually clear and in focus. It appears that even this 2D field is a result of laying out a series of perceptions in the form of a grid. The 3D field is then computed out of it with the help of parallax, movements, multi-angular projections, memorized objects, some guess work based on our previous experience with similar objects, and even things like fog, contrast, perspective shortening and blur of focus.

Fake spaces

Artists use the exact same tricks to convey a space in their artwork. It works. Space can be created in computer games using just data. Space can be created in 3D movies or pictures by using two images at an offset. Space can be created in a mirror, when actually there is none behind it. Mirrors are amazing actually, how do they know how to reflect space? Well, that was a trick question and a silly question too. We know they cannot reflect space, they reflect only objects, because only objects can bounce off light which they bounce back. But, then how does a space appear in mirror? Its a fake space, you cannot move into it. Same for games and movie. A real space is the one you can move into.

That's a good argument. But if we cannot move into it, it should not be perceived as a space. Lets take time, we cannot have fake time, how is it possible to have fake space which is as convincing as real one? Although it may look childish, you will get great insights about space simply by thinking about the space in the mirror. The simplest questions bring most valuable knowledge.

It is kind of obvious that the space, depth, volume, size, dimensions etc are being created in the mind using the serial information being conveyed by the organ of eye. The only question we need to ask is - isn't the mind trying to tell us how things actually are out there by reconstructing it as faithfully as possible? The answer is coming, it will be very shocking to say the least.

What's the use of space?

Why does the mind do that? Why does it takes this whole trouble of arranging patterns in this very complex format? Again, we return to direct observation. You will find that not all creatures have a sense of vision like we have, some, e.g. plants do not have any, except they can sense light/dark in a rudimentary way. All life depends on sun - the source of light, and hence all creatures respond to light, with the exception of a few. However, only a handful of species arrange light patterns in the way we do. Those whose survival depends on hunting and killing a prey have this peculiar arrangement of eyes. These creatures have a sharp and well developed colour vision which is narrowly focused. They can estimate the distances very well, and so can catch and kill a prey easily. We are one of them. Those who are preyed upon have a wide field of view, they can even see behind their heads with eyes positioned on the sides instead of front, and are very sensitive to motion. This saves them from being hunted, however they lack the acute perception of depth or colours, which, probably is not very useful for them. Birds, who need to maneuver in air, have much more evolved vision, which serves them even while flying at a high speed. One can guess that such a vision has evolutionary roots, it has evolved out of a need to remain alive.

So the perception of depth, and hence of space is something that was shaped during the evolutionary journey of the mind. It is a way of the mind to arrange sensory information in such a way that helps to keep the body alive. Its a solution that works well for finding and getting food and for saving oneself from becoming food. One can suspect that the vision is still being shaped. We humans display a good variety already, especially males have an enhanced sense of depth and distance, which not only makes them good hunters, they are also good drivers. Although not all of them. The sense of space is necessary in order to manipulate things in the world, and must be developed like a skill. The more you do it, better you become in perceiving space, which is not really perceiving, but estimating it. Those who are in sports, go out a lot, are good drivers etc. can judge space much better, and probably survive better. Those who spend more time in closed rooms, staring at screens or books or papers, are found to be poor in judging space, in jumping, climbing trees or repairing machines. Well, this may sound like a gross generalization, so should be taken with some salt. But given our observations, there seems to be a connection between how well an organism survives with how well it can grasp space.

Let us see how well we can judge space. It seems one can easily tell the depth more or less accurately up to say 20m, simply by staring at the view. One can judge space roughly up to say 500m by moving around in that area. So you can tell how far the glass of water or the door is right now without getting up from the chair. You can probably see that your neighbour's house is nearer to you compared to the shop in the distance. But you won't be able to tell how far a hill is without actually going there, and that too, the distance will not be seen as a volume of space, it is more like - it took 20 mins by car, or it is just on the horizon. Now try to gauge the distance to the moon, or sun, or any star. It is impossible, even if you go there, although books would tell you that there is a lot space there. It seems, and actually is well known to sciences, that our perception of space is very limited - to a few meters actually. Not so in case of objects and patterns. Why is that? If space is the reality, like objects are, and if mind wants to see it as it is, it must render it even beyond a few meters, instead of the gradual flattening of the view we actually see.

Again, the answer is evolution, mind does not need to gauge big distances, so it gets away without doing that hard work. The prey, if you can catch it, is very well within a few meters. So no space is created when it is not needed. The eyes are well adapted to keep us alive, they do not tell us more than what we need to know. Even the range of light frequencies it sees, and even the range of sizes our mind can work with is very-very narrow compared to the reality out there. So I guess the answer is - the mind is not at all trying to recreated the stuff that is "out there" exactly and precisely. Perception exists merely as a strategy for survival, not for gaining knowledge of what is out there. Now, that is the shock I was talking about.

Interested readers can find in depth knowledge in various books written on this subject, it is not really a spiritual matter, it is a well known and well researched subject in the concerned branches of science. It is beyond the scope of this article to discussed the mechanisms and peculiarities of our vision. Moreover, why would you want me to type stuff here that is already in the books. I will just say the bottom line - Space is an idea, a concept, a made up thing, that assists the mind in survival. It is not a reality, which is out there.

Moving in space

But wait a minute, you might say, I say that space is created when we move around a bit, check stuff from different angles etc, so what are we moving in if not in space? Wouldn't my description actually end up as a proof of space as existing fundamentally and independently of the mind? Well, I was avoiding that discussion, but I guess the readers of this blog have far more intelligence compared to my puny wits. All I know is a few tricks. So I will ask you to do a silly experiment. Walk with your eyes closed and see what happens to the space, how does it look like or feel like? Anyway, it is risky, so an easier experiment is - move your arm in air with eyes closed. Ensure that it touches nothing and rests on nothing. The trick is to do it very-very slowly. Your eyes are closed, so you cannot see the "space" it is moving in, but surely, you must be moving your arm in space, that's what your mind will tell you. But do it again without any such bias, clear your mind of conditioning this time, you will find that if you do it very slowly, the mind has no way to tell even if it moved. It will feel like a slight tension in muscles, that's all. No movement, no space, no distance. Isn't that amazing? Our sense of distance and movement is purely visual. When other senses tell us something, we project our prior knowledge of movements and space onto them. Makes them more useful. For example, if you hear a lion roar, it is good if you can judge how far that can be based on your previous experiences with lions. Keeps you alive, if nothing else.

Movements are perceived as happening in space. It is an illusion created due to relative change. If there is no sufficient change or no way to know if something changed (like in above experiment), no motion is sensed, no space gets created. You need to first sense movement and for that you need a change in visual field, only then mind can proceed to estimate space [5]. We all know this when we are sitting in a train such that we see nothing but another train on neighbouring track. When that train starts rolling, the mind will tell you that it is your train that is moving. It may even produce a sensation of movement by involuntary contraction of muscles, which it does to prevent you from falling every time stuff moves. The mind cannot judge if you are moving, because all it sees is a change, the motion is created in the mind from this bare-bone information. And, as you must have guessed, it is not so good at it. It gets fooled sometimes.

So lets do another experiment. Walk with eyes open, as you usually must be doing, but this time, clear the conditioning for a while. Pretend that you are not moving, only the scenery is changing in front of your eyes. As your muscles exert push and pull, see the patterns changing in the field of vision. Soon you will find that there is no motion, just change of perception. Nothing is moving, or we can say, it is only the mind that is moving [1].


Another question that arises is - if there is no space, where are objects located? Where is my body or my house? Not only is there a sense of location, there is also a sense of direction. That makes things really complicated. If you observe closely, the location is always relative, and so is a direction. They are relative to a chosen object, not surprisingly, since locations and directions are not in space really. These are convenient ways of describing a movement relative to the reference object. So when I give you directions to my house, what I am actually telling you is how you should move if you wish to experience my house. The house has no location, it is not placed in a particular direction from your house. Its location and direction exist as a mental map of movements through an imaginary space.

The above can seem very far fetched indeed and I don't blame you for laughing at me. Remember, reality is stranger than fiction. Space is stranger than you'd think. Why do we need a reference object? What is its real use, if the location exists in space? Sometimes our own body is the reference object. I can say that the coffee mug is on the left of me and remote control is on the right at such and such distance. But if I move and go to the kitchen, these locations and directions become invalid. The reference has moved. The mind needs something stationary to build a reliable map in the memory. So we usually choose the direction of the sun, or of the stars or a mountain, a river etc, which are less likely to change randomly. If the reference is arbitrary, the location must be arbitrary, which means only one thing - it is made up.

It does serve a useful purpose though, and it is again the survival. It helps to know and map your way to the water hole or wherever the food usually is. It helps to avoid a place where predators hang out. If one can transform the complex series of bodily movements in terms of a location and direction, this task becomes much easier. The mind does that by not only creating space and distances, but also adds extra information like location and direction of objects in it.

What's out there?

Its not objects in space. No objects, no space, they are just illusions. There is surely a relation between the mind, the space, time and motion. Which causes which? It seems that the motion is fundamental and space and time are derived out of it. But motion is just change in the mind, it is because of memory, a comparison of experiences. So change is even more fundamental. There can be no doubt about the experience of change, all experience is nothing but change. There can be doubts about the existence of motion, space and time. The more you research, observe and think about it, the more evidence you will gather ... happy seeking [2].

So we move on to the advanced questions now. What is out there then, if everything is made up in the mind? Unfortunately, we will never know. What is out there is not something that can be known directly. You will need a way to get it impressed on your memory and process it in some way, compare it with what you already know, so on and so forth, and then you can say you know it. Well, that sounds like perception already, which is what we are doing now. So by necessity, all knowledge must come via perception of one or the other kind, it must be arranged in one or the other way and you will be left with nothing but a specific interpretation of what is out there instead of seeing what is actually out there.

Let's say you are an advanced alien or a deity who is not really concerned about survival anymore, and you decide to know what is actually out there. The said necessity means that you will not be able to do that, doesn't matter how advanced your mind becomes. Probably you can teleport across space or do stuff like that, but knowing a thing is something very different from the ability to manipulate it. Knowledge of a thing arrives via perception of some sort and perception always distorts what is out there. Perception does not actually provide us with "real" knowledge, it is just refined ignorance, and is made up for a specific purpose. Can be for survival of bodies, can be for communication with other minds, anything.

That's why, all that can be known will necessarily be an illusion. It is not that there is nothingness behind that illusion, there is something there. What? Metaphysical patterns of change. Why am I so sure of it? Because that is the minimum that is needed even to have an illusion.

Well, that is mind blowing, at least for me. But what are these unknowable patterns of change? We have discussed them in depth in various article here, so please check it out if you need details. In short, we can think of them as pure information having no substance or reality behind them. They are just change, not a change of anything or in anything. The change is also virtual, it is not really there, there are just possibilities of change. Probabilities of patterns. Naturally, there are infinite number of these patterns. Everything that is possible - is possible. Mind is one of those patterns. Its core being a memory - a pattern that receives copies of other patterns. Why is this there? Because everything is possible, and a memory is possible too. Memory shifts in ways we cannot know, the shift is seen as change. Space, time and objects are a product of these changing patterns.

The good news is, there is a way to understand this seemingly unsolvable puzzle of what is out there, which is as follows - Since we know that everything is one, there are no two, all these changing patterns are happening in that one. I see myself, the core of my being as identical to that one. When I separate it from the illusory change, I see myself as consciousness, - the emptiness that is conscious of, a witness of all illusory change. The change and witness are not two, so I am the change myself. The whole illusion is me, and the witness to that is also me. In other words, there is just Presence, we talked about in older articles. It is the unknowable one. The knowledge resides in duality, where there is the knower and the known, at the level of Presence, the duality disappears, and nothing can be known, nor is there a necessity for knowledge.

Space, time and spacetime

For those who dislike scientific mumbo-jumbo sounding stuff, the bottom line is - they do not exist, except as mathematical models in the mind. The essence and conclusions for this article are as mentioned above, so the following discussion can be skipped if you wish so.

Now this is a matter of theory and maths, but still related to the path of knowledge, as maths and science are nothing but a subset of the path of knowledge. Scientific method is a very good and effective way of gaining knowledge of physical stuff and since space is something "out there" it has been studied in depth. Of course the pun was unintentional. There were some philosophers who tried to disprove the existence of space using strange paradoxes, but that did not deter scientists and engineers from using it in effective ways. The concept of space in science solves many problems, which would have been left unsolved if we had neglected space as merely an imagination of mind.

In scientific theories, you'd find that mostly the objects have a quality called dimensionality, which in simple words means that they have a  length, width and height. Other qualities being position, mass, energy and probably some more like velocity etc. The space is not a thing, but an arrangement to explain things. It exists there as a consequence of dimensionality. It does not matter if we perceive it or not, it is a framework that explains behaviour of object more or less accurately. Time is a companion of space and is useful when objects start moving and changing [3].

Phenomena can be nicely explained using the positions of object in space and time. It works, but not always. It is interesting to read the history of physics and see how space and time were the heroes of physics not so long ago. Cartesian space was the king for a long time, thanks to Newton and all. It had to go due to SR/GR, thanks to Einstein,  who killed both and created a compound monster called spacetime. It explains almost everything, except the tiny stuff. So quantized space and time were invented as mathematical tools to explain away strangeness. It seems it solves everything, but no, there are phenomena that happen without space and time and do not always obey their restrictions. So new dimensions, more dimensions and even more tools are being invented to keep up with the strangeness this physical world is.

It turns out that one can make space into anything that one finds useful. 2D, 3D, 4D, nD, it is flexible enough. Math can twist it, create it and compute it. One can expand it, punch holes in it or deform it using heavy objects. That is strange because space is defined as nothingness. You can have simple orthogonal ones or fancier curved versions. You can transform one space into another, just by math. You can quantized it or make it smoother [4]. If all this sounds like made up mumbo jumbo, then you are right. This is the language of a lay person, not of a scientist. The language of science is math, where things are self explanatory and very clear. In the end, for a scientist, space is just a mathematical construct which can explain a few things. It does not exist "out there".

Sadly, even a million dollar lab does not prove its reality. For space to exist, there must be objects that can occupy it, and objects means matter, which unfortunately, cannot be found. In fact, the deeper we go in matter, more we destroy it. So no molecules, no atoms, no subatomic stuff, nothing, we are left with only fields of probabilities of events that depend on the presence of a conscious observer. Sounds familiar, isn't it? A scientist starts sounding like a mystic very quickly.

Why is it that science seems to be stuck with this circus of explaining illusions using the made up abstractions of mathematical relations? There is no doubt that it is useful, it gives us the power of prediction and hence manipulation and invention, but it does not provide real knowledge, it simply adds to the illusions by formation of beliefs. Scientific theories are just assumptions, they are not the truth, whatever that means. All this is because physics leaves out the mind and consciousness from the equation. When you leave out the reality, you will be stuck in an endless loop of illusions forever.

What to do now, I ran out of space?

What does all this tell us? One thing - even science did not find a space "out there", we are puny ordinary folks in comparison. Why do you think people are so sure that space is out there, and is real? Because they have a mind. Minds tells them what it has learnt since millions of years. It cannot simply let go of this very useful tool of space. People are not our concern really, but the job of a seeker is to go in depths of everything, even of nothingness that is space and question the beliefs that are like fossilized dirt on the clear glass of mind.

Does that mean we ignore the space or time or objects? Do we need to behave differently since now they are not really there? Well, I do not recommend that. If you are driving a car and your mind tells you not to drive into the empty space below a cliff, you should take that advice, mind has created that space for some good reason. Do not think it does not exist, that can be bad for health. Since we have a virtual body, and that body is totally adapted to this virtual reality with a virtual space, you have no other option but to use it, unless you want a vacation from this world.

We study these things for only one reason - to free us from beliefs. We want freedom. It does not matter if we do not know the answer, it is enough that we do not cling to false beliefs. That brings us into a space of "I do not know", this space is almost infinite, lot of room to move around here, less constricted than the chamber of beliefs. I admit that the question of space is a tough one, and it took me many years to study it and many weeks to write this article. It is largely an unknown anyway. When we reach the state of not knowing, we are already free from ignorance. The point of this article is not to provide you with ready made knowledge of what space is, I'd just like you to question it, see if there are better ways to know it. To do that, you must let go of old ignorance. Start fresh.


[1] So the question arises - if we do not really move, what is walking? What does it mean when I extend my arm to grab the food? Wouldn't I need to bring the food from the plate to my mouth? Isn't all these actions a movement? The answer is very involved, will make the article huge, so I urge you to find it out, it is very interesting. Those actions are also just change. The change is in the body, which is also a pattern, it is also "outside" and the mind treats it like any other object. However, there are internal senses that assist the mind in performing a change that is effective and gets the job done. It is seen as motion, assisted by the contraction of muscles, which we can feel inside. However it is also change, a change of information coming into the mind. Why does it take effort or manipulation of this thing called muscles to make a change? Its called Energy, you need it in order to effect any change whatsoever. When energy is expended, it is sensed as effort. What is energy? It is a capacity to make change happen. See how it all makes sense? Thinking along these lines will take you to places you have never been before. It reveals new knowledge. Energy is now not something physical, it is also in the mind. What can you do with such a power? What are the possibilities and implications of this?

[2] There are tons of scientific studies to dig into. It is very evident that perception is a process that is more creative than informative. E.g. the colours are created, a way of mind to classify patterns reliably, they are not out there, they are not even a quality of an object, because they are created in the mind "on the fly". The light wavelengths do not always correspond to colours, it is not a product of light. So on and so forth, there is ample material on perception to keep you busy for months.

[3] Please see the article on the illusion of time, which I wrote in past, strangely...

[4] Quantization of space seems to be a direct result of quantization of energy. Energy is nothing but change, again. Why is change quantized? Since change depends on the memory, one cannot have change without there being a memory, however short, to register it, it seems that there is a lower limit to the memory. In other words, the mind is limited fundamentally, which is not a surprise for the seekers.

[5] Watch those babies carefully when they try to grasp a toy that is beyond their reach. They open and close their fist repeatedly, thinking the object is within reach, they have not yet perfected the sense of space as they have not moved much from their crib. Probably the toys look like hovering just in front of their eyes.

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