Flatland: A Short Post About Understanding Human Limitation

Have you ever heard of a novella known as Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott? It’s a really interesting concept of a world that exists in only two dimensions. It is the story of the inhabitants of a universe that is completely flat where the notion of anything with depth is utterly foreign to them. The story features a square who comes in contact with a strange sphere that exists in three dimension. At first the square thinks the sphere is merely a circle who is pulling tricks on him since the only part of the sphere that square can see is a growing or shrinking circle that exists in two dimensions as seen here:

Despite all his efforts the sphere can neither explain nor convince to the square that the third dimension exists or what the third dimension is. When the sphere moves in and out of the second dimension the square thinks he is a magician doing tricks to make himself grow and shrink. When the sphere rolls across the dimension the square can feel him, but not see him and does not believe. When the sphere looks onto the flat dimension of square’s house he is able to tell square what is in all the rooms before square is able to open the doors:

Eventually, though square cannot even begin to conceive of the third dimension, he comes to believe it exists and wonders what other dimensions exist that he could never imagine.

It’s an interesting concept that was meant to open up people’s minds, but I see it as quite an elaborate and easily understood way to discuss human limitation. We perceive space, depth, and time, but any other dimensions are out of our range of perception. Even in this universe we inhabit we are limited to experience only in five senses (taste, touch, smell, feel, and sound). Just as a blind person is handicapped in perceiving and experiencing the universe, so might we be without knowing it. Had no human being ever tasted could it imagine what it would be like to taste a steak?

So when limited beings like square encounter something beyond our comprehension it seems normal to assume something is amiss. Square rarely questions the notion that something could exist that he cannot see.  How silly we are to stay in the mindset of square, to think that because we cannot sense or understand something it cannot be. Until square met sphere he thought he was the ultimate judge of truth in the universe, but he soon became aware of his own limitations. So too must we become aware of our limitations and not be so hasty to dismiss the impossible.

If God exists he is surely much more complicated and transcendent than sphere, and if he does exist I can guarantee that our ability to grasp the eternal, omniscient, all-powerful, alpha and omega in all his splendor will be much more beyond us than it was for square to understand sphere.  It’s something to think about.


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