To continue our discussion of continental drift let me add that continental plates didn't spend the last 200 million years swimming randomly on a sea of magma. The movement of a plate is constrained by the presence of adjoining plates. When a plate moves the area behind it has to be filled in with molten rock, while the area ahead of it is either consumed in a neighbouring subduction zone, or takes part in the process of mountain building. In view of the location and axis of mountain ranges on the North and South American plates, it seems likely that these plates moved into their present positions without the slightest deviation, as did the Indian, Australian and Antarctic plates. As for the Eurasian and African plates, they remained more or less stationary relative to these other plates.
This much is without controversy, but because the topographical configuration of the planet is so affected by the movement of continental plates, it begs the pithy questions of how, and why? How is a rocky lithosphere made to resemble flesh and blood? And why was Pangaea broken up in the first place?
To answer the second question first, let me remind you that the British Isles represent an abstraction of the larger global environment. Because of this abstraction, and its further abstraction in the form of an animal, the host model depicts a regression of representative summaries. You will no doubt have gathered this already, but the conceptually inverse case may not have occurred to you. It says that each step in the 'egress' of material space represents an elaboration of the previous step. The Planet is thus an elaboration compared to the British Isles, but remains a summary relative to the Sun and Solar System.
Since Pangaea broke up long after the Triassic dinosaurs had established themselves, and in view of the regression of abstractions, it is reasonable to infer that the supercontinent broke up so that it could elaborate on these creatures' evolutionary development. In this case evolution can be seen to consist of the dialogue between successive abstractions and elaborations. But this startling conclusion only begs the question, how? How could the planet model its topography on the physical shape of one of these dinosaurs? The answer to this question is by observation and by a subsequent modulation in temperatures close to the surface of the planet, but in order to make this assertion clear it is necessary to use the language of feedback control systems.
Feedback controls are found in a variety of automated situations, such as in heating or manufacturing systems, but are also commonly found in a biological setting, such as the human endocrine system. They are so common, in fact, that features of control systems can be found in the context of almost any mechanical process, including plate tectonics and continental drift.
There are five basic components involved in a feedback control system, including the process itself. In the context of continental drift the components are, firstly, the input to the system, called a set point, which specifies the desired result of the process, and in this case consists of the representation of a dinosaur. Next, there is the actuating device which does the work within the system. This device is adjusted by a controller which responds to the circulation of feedback, and then varies surface temperatures accordingly. In the context of continental drift, work is done by tectonic forces which arise from thermal effects beneath the lithosphere. Third, there is the process itself, continental drift, and fourth, the output from the system is represented by the state of planetary topography.
Lastly, there is a sensing element which compares the current state of continental drift to a representation of the desired end result. If there is a difference, the controller makes adjustments to the tectonic forces doing the work, and the cycle of comparison repeats itself until the difference has been eliminated. This explanation of the sensing element implicitly suggests that a visual inspection of both the set point and topographical state is taking place. But, because an inspection depends on the ability to perceive features of the global environment, suggesting that the greater solar presence here on Earth has the ability to see, the process involving feedback between the two components will probably baffle you. I don't know how you can avoid the implication of some kind of intricate planetary dreaming. While this sort of thinking may be new and uncomfortable to you, I believe this conclusion to be both necessary and one which is otherwise inspirational.
If you happen to be among those who are determined to reject the possibility that the solar system possesses this kind of visual consciousness, then I can only hope to persuade you that the present topographical state of the planet is no accident. I believe that it is evidence of a measured representational effect, and is therefore evidence of some kind of controller's existence, presumably one who is as creative as so many of the creatures we are familiar with on Earth. This remains a fairly uncomplicated inference in spite of how obscure this concept may at present be.
Among the various senses which the planet and surrounding solar system may be conscious of their sense of the space which surrounds us is likely to be more extensive than that which we are able to perceive. The planet will probably share a deep emotional affinity with other members of the Solar System, and the stars may even seem quite neighbourly, but surely intergalactic spaces will be inconceivable. Surely it is inevitable, given the infinite nature of space, that there will be a point beyond which the planet is unable to identify with. Certainly our own sense of space is limited to a somewhat two dimensional existence, and this kind of perceptual limitation will likely be a feature common to any creature's sense of this dimension.
I don't know how much you've thought about your perception of space, but in terms of its irreducible logic space must go on and on indefinitely. With the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope late in the 20th century it is now possible to look a staggering 10 billion light years into the inky blackness. This formidable distance, and the volume of space it defines, may seem impressive from our point of view but, compared to what else is out there, it actually encompasses a minuscule region of space. Now, don't get me wrong, you'd be doing well to take in a couple of light seconds of free space, much less the sort of distances which define the edge of the visible universe. But, this is by no means the end of the matter. Space is necessarily continuous a trillion light years from here, and it still goes on forever. So, sooner or later, what seems like an unfathomable depth from our meagre point of view is, from another point of view, an ever diminishing speck, virtually insignificant against the inky darkness.
While the structure of the universe on this scale remains a largely speculative matter, it can be said with confidence that the visible universe is both homogeneous and isotropic. This means that, as far as can be seen, galaxies are distributed more or less uniformly in every direction, and at every distance. It is thus tempting to suggest that quite by chance we happen to be located close to the centre of the universe, but such a coincidence is highly unlikely. What is more likely is that the apparent distribution of galaxies represents an artefact of observation, and that galaxies exist beyond the vision of our telescopes, at distances much greater than those observed so far.
There is, of course, a limit to what can be seen of such distant objects because, as we look out into space, we see these objects as they existed in the past. Quasars, for example, are among the most distant objects to be seen so far. At distances in the vicinity of 10 billion light years from here, we see them much as they were when the universe was only three billion years old. But, at a distance of about 13 billion light years from here we're looking back to a time when the genesis of the universe has only just begun to unfold. The primordial universe cannot, however, be seen at this distance because, for the first million or so years of its existence, matter and energy behaved in such a way that radiation could not escape and begin to fill the void. Were it possible to see even further into space we would still see nothing there because now we're looking back to a time before the universe began. This may seem inconceivable to you but, don't be confused, this doesn't mean that space, or even time itself, is finite at any point you can think of. Your measuring stick terminated at a distance of 13 billion light years from here, but this doesn't mean an end to these dimensions. And it doesn't mean that galaxies don't now exist at such distances, just that they haven't existed long enough for light coming from them to make it all the way across the void.
If you doubt that this is possible then consider the case of quasars located at opposite ends of the sky. Let's say that quasar A is 10 billion light years to my left, and that quasar B is at a similar distance to my right. There's no need to complicate the math. It follows naturally that quasar A is 20 billion light years from quasar B, and that this is simply the diameter of that part of the universe which is visible from our point of view. Well, if stellar objects can be separated by such distances, and if there's no reason to suggest that our location in space is any different from that of either quasars A or B, then stellar objects must also now exist at such distances from us.
While dimensions such as these may seem forbidding from our point of view, it may surprise you to note that the visible universe is not as big as you imagine it to be. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the edge of the visible universe is about 10 billion light years from here. Well, 10 billion light years is only five thousand times the distance to our nearest neighbouring galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy, which is about two million light years from here, and is thus a relatively minor distance compared to the infinity the universe is usually associated with. You can't even say that the Andromeda Galaxy is far away because, with an angular diameter of about three degrees it practically fills the sky; it is six times as wide as either the Sun or the Moon. It is thus fairly likely that the material universe is more extensive than is apparent from the somewhat modest volume visible to us through even the best of terrestrial and space based telescopes.
Just how many unseen galaxies there are out there is anybody's guess. Certainly, if the pattern of distribution already evident is any indication, then one might reasonably expect the pattern to continue out of sight, perhaps as many as several times the distance to the most distant objects seen, and quite likely very much more than this. While it may be difficult to prove in practical terms, it is however virtually certain, given the infinite nature of space, that what we can see is just some small part of a much larger organism. It is tempting to suggest that those seemingly titanic galaxies are not unlike primeval grubs crawling their way across a dark primordial sea.
In any case, in spite of whatever else might exist out there another pattern is evident in this discussion. It says that the appearance of size in a universe of infinite space is far from absolute. It is, in fact, entirely relative to an observer's point of view and, since space proceeds infinitely from atoms just as certainly as it does from galaxies, there's no position privileged above all others. This is because just as there is no limit to how big space can be, there is also no limit to how small it can be made to seem from a point of view even further out there. By the same token, you may think you know about some pretty small things but, compared to what else is in there, whatever size you're talking about can be made to seem astronomical indeed. We've already seen how this could be with respect to shrinking your view of the universe. But, as for your sense of the relatively minuscule, what if you could say that atoms were not the simple components of matter we assume them to be, but were instead comprehensive organisms, every bit as complex in their way, as any human being or galaxy. In this case you could argue that, while atoms and humans differ in terms of magnitude, ultimately this attribute is of only marginal significance. Atoms and galaxies remain every bit spatially equivalent in terms of partaking in the bridge between infinities. And, with this comparison, we encounter another sense of infinity of interest to us here, the arithmetic inverse of infinity; a number which is very close but never quite equal to zero.
Compared to the dimensions of atoms and galaxies humans have a fairly limited perception of scale. At an altitude of ten thousand feet above flat country, for example, the horizon is about two hundred kilometres away, but this distance is already well beyond the human capacity to relate to. We can think in terms of dimensions greater than this, of course, but only in fairly abstract terms. In terms of compulsive raw emotions, however, tall buildings, bridges and canyons may hold us in enthral but these are fairly diminutive by comparison.
At the other end of the scale, our experience of the really small scale structures in space is no more emotionally compelling. For example, you would probably need a magnifying glass to see a small dust mite clearly. Some of these can be as little as a tenth of a millimetre in length, and you may well exclaim how small they are, but such creatures are likely to be at the very threshold of your dimensional perception. Certainly single celled organisms are of a size which we can no longer discriminate with any accuracy, at least not without the use of a powerful magnifying device such as a microscope. And, as for atoms, well we really have no personal sense of how big they are. We can say, somewhat ironically, that they have a radius of about a tenth of a nanometre, but really, who can say how big this is?
Yet, in spite of these rather obvious perceptual limitations, it seems to me that many of us have not yet come to terms with the prospect that ours is not the only point of view. We treat animals as if they were inferior beings incapable of judgement or reason. We dream of planting our seed on the planets of distant suns, but it is comical to compare the abysmal depth of even the nearest of these with the precious few kilometres which define the limit to our depth perception. Even so, we look across 10 billion light years of free space and think that, because we can't see any further, there must be nothing else out there. Or, we think that because some subatomic particles are so small, they must be the absolutely irreducible units of matter.
Well, as it happens we used to think that atoms were fundamentally irreducible. Early in the nineteenth century when the modern atomic theory was developed, the newly discovered particles took their name from the Ancient Greek word 'atomos' which was the word for indivisible. Nuclear fission was not discovered until 1938, and in 1945 the Manhattan Project dramatically demonstrated the divisibility of atoms with the first nuclear detonations. Today we know of more than 200 subatomic particles of various sizes, the smallest of which are so small that their sizes cannot presently be measured. Present estimates put them at having a radius of some unknown value smaller than a thousand trillionth of a millimetre, which is about a hundred millionth of an atomic radius, or about a thousandth of the radius of a single proton or neutron. As you can see, atoms are already looking pretty big by comparison.
While some subatomic particles may seem incomprehensibly small from our point of view, it nevertheless remains the case that they are a whole lot bigger than the point whose volume is zero. Now, you may look at the point at which three perpendicular axes intersect, and think you know all there is to know about zero. After all, you see an example of this point every day when you look into the corner of a room. You even pass by the zero point of one of these axes when you enter or exit through the door. But the truth is that zero is much more subtle than this. In fact, it's tricky talking about this point at all because, strictly speaking, it doesn't really exist. In order for something to exist it has to occupy space, and since zero represents a complete absence of space, its value can never be physically realised. When zero enters our arithmetic calculations a simple numerical convention replaces the vanishing point implied by zero. But this spatial prestidigitation remains the true nature of a point in space, and it therefore follows that just as there is no end to space, strictly speaking, there is no beginning to it either.
The particle whose radius is the reciprocal of infinity in some unit of length, however, is virtually identical to zero except that it actually occupies space and can therefore be said to have a physical existence. Now, these particles are so small that we will never be able to know anything about them. They are infinitely small, which means that they are still infinitely smaller than the smallest particle we will ever have a concrete knowledge of. But, this is not to say that such particles don't exist. Indeed, there is presently no theoretical limit to how small particles can be. The so called elementary particles are merely those which have not yet been resolved into even more fundamental components, as was the case with respect to atoms during much of the nineteenth century.
Compared to particles with dimensions such as these atoms are virtually astronomical. In fact, not only are they big by comparison, but they also consist of mostly empty space. Orbiting at a distance of about a tenth of a nanometre from the nucleus, electrons are among those particles which are too small to measure with any accuracy. Since they occupy such a negligible volume of space we may dismiss them from our account of the occupation of space within an atom. This leaves the nucleus to account for which, in the case of carbon, has a radius of about one part in fifty thousand times an atomic radius, and a volume of about a hundred trillionth of the total space within an atom. To translate this into more familiar terms, it is like saying that atoms are 99.999999999999 percent empty space, which is the same as saying that they consist almost entirely of vacuum.
Contrasting sharply with the desolation within atoms the space around them seems relatively crowded from our point of view. In the case of a molecule of water, for example, two hydrogen atoms each share an electron with an oxygen atom, so that the spaces they occupy actually overlap. It is then a matter of some four atomic radii distance to the nearest neighbouring molecule which can be said to consist of empty space. But water is not a particularly dense material compared to metal or rock. In these materials molecules are not separated by such distances.
From the point of view of particles which are infinitely smaller than we are the space between molecules will likely be beyond the universe knowable from their point of view. Indeed, if there is no limit to how small particles can be, then inevitably there exists a level of organisation for whom atoms seem on a scale equal to what the universe is for us, which is to say, relatively empty and beyond our spatial comprehension. Being surrounded by a lot of empty space is likely to be an experience we have in common with beings on this scale of existence, just as it must also be a common experience among the many stars and galaxies. But when we look out into the emptiness not fully appreciating its magnitude, at least we recognise its existence. We have a tendency, however, to ignore the infinity within the objects with which we deal, even though we may be aware of the scale of their constituent subatomic particles. Our attitude towards these objects is usually a reflection of their usefulness to us, and so we tend not to credit them with having dimensions equal to those of the universe itself. But, the truth is that inner space is every bit as infinite as the darkness is out there.
The appearance of size is therefore relative to an observer's point of view, which may not be a particularly surprising conclusion to draw from this discussion, but it may surprise you to note that the same conclusion can also be drawn with respect to the dimension of time. In this case whether an interval of time seems long to you or not depends on the scale of your existence. What seems, for example, like a short interval from one point of view may seem like eternity from the point of view of a being whose dimensions are much smaller. Conversely, what appears to be a long time from the point of view of observers who are infinitely diminutive may seem like an impossibly brief interval to beings whose dimensions are much bigger.
Evidence of the validity of this can be seen in the apparent stillness of the galaxy. For hundreds of years astronomers have drawn fairly accurate maps of the sky, yet in all this time only very subtle changes have taken place, the various maps from different ages remain virtually identical. But the galaxy rotates quite furiously completing a revolution in about 200 million years or so, which may not seem furious to us because we exist so briefly, and are so small by comparison. But, in terms of its own experience of duration, the galaxy may rotate several times in what seems like a fairly brief interval; the pace of time from the galaxy's point of view is likely to be every bit as frantic as time has always been for us.
By the same token, the pace of time apparent from the point of view of subatomic particles is likely to be no more frantic than that which we experience even though the slowest of electrons orbit at speeds approaching one percent of the speed of light. At this rate an electron will complete each orbit in about a thousand trillionth of a second, which may not seem very long by our standards, but it may well be a lengthy interval from the point of view of particles whose dimensions are significantly smaller. To beings on this scale of existence orbiting electrons may move very slowly, like planets wandering ponderously across the sky counting time in terms of years much more than hours, minutes or days.
Of course, all of this is highly speculative and practically impossible to prove because we are separated from such creatures by gulfs in both space and time. Yet, in spite of these objections, I'm sure you'll agree that in view of the regression of abstractions the logic is at least correct, and not without a certain aesthetic appeal. It allows that not only is there a sense of infinity within the particles which constitute our being, but there is also a corresponding sense of eternity inherent in anyone's being as well. If an observer's sense of time is relative to the scale of her existence then it has in no sense an absolute value for all observers, and must therefore be as infinite as space is. Since this will be the case at any point in the spatial continuum you don't need to look out into the emptiness for knowledge of Eternity, although there's plenty of it out there. Even an instant can seem like eternity relative to the infinite complexity within the self.
As for the actual perception of Eternity I will deal with this subject a little later in this discussion. I will however say now that it is a whole lot easier to achieve than a perception of spatial infinities. For those of us who take an interest in such matters it is quite naturally associated with the sentiments surrounding birth and death. Indeed we intuitively sense that in such altered states the passage of time is a personal matter which is not necessarily subject to agreement within the group. At other times it is possible to experience a consciousness of Eternity in terms of the totality of the self, which is not an impossible perception to achieve in view of our discussion of the regression of abstractions.
In spite of whether this sort of thing interests you or not, it nevertheless remains the case that there are two ways of looking at the infinities of space and time. On the one hand you can look outside yourself at the world and the vast emptiness beyond the sky. But, on the other hand, the inverse of infinity resides within the objects with which you deal, so that at the centre of anything you care to think of time and space proceed inherently from representations of zero. You may look at a little pebble and see the entire universe portrayed on a relatively diminutive scale. Or perhaps the tip of a pyramid better characterises the drama surrounding a point in space. But even more dramatic, from our point of view, are the representations of zero we find when we look within ourselves. The most obvious of these are the heart, the brain, and I'll bet you can just guess what else. But these can't compare with the fusion between egg and sperm in terms of sheer representational poetry. Since these are of a thoroughly personal nature and an integral part of our lives we can hardly avoid confronting them, but it is only fair to warn you that looking at yourself in this way can be disturbing to say the very least.
As a representation of zero the centre of your brain is probably most sensitive to the point I'm trying to make here, particularly the association between the midbrain and the apex of a pyramid. To think that at the centre of the midbrain there exists a representation of infinite proportions, a sovereign individual who represents the constitution of your being, is somewhat daunting. Since this individual has a virtually godlike status among the many cellular constituents, one can't help feeling just a little self conscious thinking about it. Of course, there are about two trillion other cells within the brain who represent the different constitutional factions and who share the burden of responsibility. But, ultimately it is the representational fidelity of a single neural cell located in the midbrain that promotes confidence among the many cellular constituents, in the brain's ability to relate to individuals who together comprise such phenomenal numbers.
This single neural cell and the atoms of which it is composed may well be godlike with respect to the constitution of the body as a whole but, as we shall see in a moment, it can be by no means God.