Imagining the Unimaginable
In completing this exercise, you’ve run through the evolution of human awareness and explored our rapidly evolving understanding of what’s around us. Step back through time 300 years and consider what they understood of the Universe. Then back in time 2,000 years. 5,000 years?
What we take for granted and can understand at a basic level, simple things like the knowledge that existence is not confined to the surface of the earth or that our earth circles the sun, were inaccessible for our ancestors. And yet, here we stand today with those concepts not only accessible but completely mundane and boring.
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Now place yourself in the shoes of that ancestor. Consider, without shame, guilt, condescension or frustration that we no doubt are equally ignorant of what might be out there. As astronomically large as the jump from an ant to a planet may be or a planet to a Universe may be the next step, what comes after a universe may be equally surmountable once we have the tools to understand it.
But, don’t stop there. Now, take your mental image of the Universe it probably looks in your mind’s eye a bit like a galaxy, all spots of light, spiraling around a central source point and consider what’s beyond the edge of that universe.
Interestingly, we have the tools and context now to visualize the Universe itself, but the image of what is beyond is something that for most of us can only be imagined in two ways. We are taught to “see” black and to think of that “space” beyond the Universe as void. But, consider. Can you actually picture void in your mind’s eye? Keeping in mind that void here is the concept of not just emptiness, but actually of the absence of everything.
Somehow, as a species, we’ve developed the language to describe a phenomenon that is so far outside how our brains work that it is impossible to visualize or to even fully conceptually understand its existence. Even picturing endless blackness is inaccurate as void is the absence of all. It’s a fascinating quandary because simultaneously you’re picturing and considering what must “exist,” but which at the same time cannot.
Even further, think of it a bit like a sealed room without oxygen. While not a true void that’s perhaps the easiest and closest direct comparison. Then consider what happens when air is introduced. Consider how it disperses and floods to fill the space, consuming and replacing the void. But, now consider that in the context of our Universe, there is no sealed room the two are reversed. That, eventually, no matter how far you scale up eventually there should be a ring of void circling the universe (or collection of universes) that simply is. And consider, if that void is what is beyond “here,” then how is it that it is simultaneously void something that is nothing and at the same time co-exists with existence.
If this all makes your head hurt, you’re not alone. But, it’s a unique opportunity to explore a key aspect of how our brains work and who we are. It’s also a very different way of exploring the core question at the root of religion. The Abrahamic faiths have God creating the Universe. Some scientific circles have the big bang as a spark that ignites the Universe. While both provide a comfortable starting point, what both neglect is a thought exercise on how to explore the presence of void.
Where I find this to be particularly useful, above and beyond exploring concepts of religion or existence, is in helping me to cope with the existence of much more lightweight concepts. It provides a way of relating to, exploring and understanding, what it would be like to be the first person to experience zero gravity. Or an individual who has never heard, or seen, or encountered snow before and then suddenly discovers it on their own.
While it’s impossible to imagine some of the new experiences, or creations, or possibilities likely to evolve in our lifetime, this exercise gives us a framework for preparing for those discoveries and for being open to and embracing them How does one know and imagine the unknowable? By creating comfort with and befriending the essence of how we relate to and accept that unknown when it arrives.
This exercise is ultimately about finding comfort with the uncomfortable. About learning to embrace a perspective and about extending our awareness beyond the confines of our own inner self.