Four Dimensional Vistas
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Pages (PDF): 84
Publication Date: 1916
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One of the most extraordinary figures of the popular intellectualism of the early 20th century, Claude Bragdon was an architect and designer who turned his mathematically fueled artistic bent toward the metaphysical and anticipated the new quantum physics with a philosophy of existence that bridged the rational and the transcendent. Here, in this lyrical exploration of the expansiveness of human consciousness, Bragdon considers how humanity's ever-changing understanding of the universe results in an ever-growing appreciation for our own powers of thought, feeling, and experience.
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THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
Expectancy of freedom is the dominant note of to-day. Amid the crash of armies and the clash of systems we await some liberating stroke which shall release us from the old dreary thralldoms. As Nietzsche says, "It would seem as though we had before us, as a reward for all our toils, a country still undiscovered, the horizons of which no one has yet seen, a beyond to every country and every refuge of the ideal that man has ever known, a world so overflowing with beauty, strangeness, doubt, terror and divinity, that both our curiosity and our lust of possession are frantic with eagerness."
Should a name be demanded for this home of freedom, there are those who would unhesitatingly call it The Fourth Dimension of Space. For such readers as may be ignorant of the amazing content of this seemingly meaningless phrase, any summary attempt at enlightenment will lead only to deeper mystification. To the question, where and what is the fourth dimension, the answer must be, it is here—in us, and all about us—in a direction toward which we can never point because at right angles to all the directions that we know. Our space cannot contain it, because it contains our space. No walls separate us from this demesne, not even the walls of our fleshly prison; yet we may not enter, even though we are already "there." It is the place of dreams, of living dead men: it is At the Back of the North Wind and Behind the Looking Glass.
So might one go on, piling figure upon figure and paradox upon paradox, to little profit. The effective method is the ordered and deliberate one; therefore the author asks of his reader the endurance of his curiosity pending certain necessary preparations of the mind.
Could one of our aviators have landed in ancient Athens, doubtless he would have been given a place in the Greek Pantheon, for the old idea of a demigod was a man with wings. Why, then, does a flying man so little amaze us? Because we know about engines, and the smell of gasoline has dulled our sense of the sublime. The living voice of a dead man leaves us unterrified if only we can be sure that it comes from a phonograph; but let that voice speak to us out of vacancy and we fall a prey to the same order of alarm that is felt by a savage at the report of a gun that he has never seen.
This illustration very well defines the nature of a miracle: it is a manifestation of power new to experience, and counter to the current thought of the time, Miracles are therefore always in order, they always happen. It is nothing that the sober facts of to-day are more marvellous than the fictions of Baron Munchausen, so long as we understand them: it is everything that phenomena are multiplying, that we are unable to understand. This increasing pressure upon consciousness from a new direction has created a need to found belief on something firmer than a bottomless gullibility of mind. This book is aimed to meet that need by giving the mind the freedom of new spaces; but before it can even begin to do so, the reader must be brought to see the fallacy of attempting to measure the limits of the possible by that faculty known as common sense. And by common sense is meant, not the appeal to abstract reason, but to concrete experience.
THE FAILURE OF COMMON SENSE
Common sense had scarce had its laugh at Bell, and its shout of "I told you so!" at poor Langley, when lo! the telephone became the world's nervous system, and aeroplanes began to multiply like summer flies. To common sense the alchemist's dream of transmuting lead into gold seems preposterous, yet in a hundred laboratories radium is breaking down into helium, and the new chemistry bids fair to turn the time-honored jeer at the alchemists completely upside down. A wife whose mind was oriented in the new direction effectually silenced her husband's ridicule of what he called her credulity by reminding him that when wireless telegraphy was first suggested he had exclaimed, "Ah, that, you know, is one of the things that is not possible!" He was betrayed by his common sense.
The lessons such things teach us are summed up in the reply of Arago, the great savant, to the wife of Daguerre. She asked him if he thought her husband was losing his mind because he was trying to make permanent the image in a mirror. Arago is said to have answered, "He who, outside of pure mathematics, says a thing is impossible, speaks without reason." Common sense neither leads nor lags, but is ever limited to the passing moment: the common knowledge of to-day was the mystery and enchantment of the day before yesterday, and will be the mere commonplace of the day after to-morrow. If common sense can so little anticipate the ordinary and orderly advancement of human knowledge, it is still less able to take that leap into the dark which is demanded of it now. The course of wisdom is therefore to place reliance upon reason and intuition, leaving to common sense the task of guiding the routine affairs of life, and guiding these alone.
THE FUNCTION OF SCIENCE
In enlisting the aid of reason in our quest for freedom, we shall be following in the footsteps of mathematicians and theoretical physicists. In their arduous and unflinching search after truth they have attained to a conception of the background of phenomena of far greater breadth and grandeur than that of the average religionist of to-day. As a mathematician once remarked to a neo-theosophist, "Your idea of the ether is a more material one than the materialist's own." Science has, however, imposed upon itself its own limitations, and in this connection these should be clearly understood.
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