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Limited Perceptions and Spiritual Reality: The Story of Flatland

Alex Rassekh | Dec 14, 2019

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Alex Rassekh | Dec 14, 2019

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

We know, scientifically, that human perception and understanding have their limits – but what does that mean for our souls?

Our bodily perceptions, the five senses we humans use to perceive the physical world, have significant shortcomings. People can’t see as well as most raptors; can’t smell as well as most dogs; can’t hear as well as a rabbit. In the world of the senses, we don’t really measure up that well.

Our minds have allowed us to go far beyond those limitations, however. We can comprehend many things in our physical world with the aid of science and technology, from the motions of far-away planets to the discovery of the most infinitesimally small subatomic particles. 

But what about the non-physical, spiritual realities, those not composed of atoms or matter of any kind? Do those other dimensions of reality exist outside of our immediate conscious awareness? If they do, how could we know, and what might the implications look like? 

Flatland: A Strange Two-Dimensional World

Edwin Abbott’s famed satirical novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, poses questions pertaining to the limits of dimensional perception and understanding. The story takes place in the fictional setting of Flatland, compromising of a two-dimensional world, essentially flat like the surface of a sheet of paper. Within Flatland live many different shapes including squares, triangles, and circles. The inhabitants of this two-dimensional world can only move back and forth or side to side along the plane of flatland, but not above or below, as this dimension does not exist to the inhabitants of flatland. They possess no concept or awareness of any third dimension. 

One day something rather remarkable takes place in Flatland – a three-dimensional sphere appears. Although the sphere has three dimensions, it projects a flat circle onto Flatland’s two-dimensional surface. To understand this, imagine placing a ball onto a flat surface and tracing out its shape with a pencil, making a circle rather than a sphere. In that way we can view flat, two-dimensional shapes as projections of higher-order objects that trace themselves out when placed within lower dimensions. Anytime we look at a flat map of the world, we see a perfect example.

In the novel, the sphere encounters one of Flatland’s inhabitants, and selects it as the recipient of his message concerning the hidden truth about the existence of higher dimensions. The sphere strives to explain that another dimension of reality exists beyond Flatland’s two-dimensional world. Furthermore, the sphere emphasizes that this other dimension exists right where they are currently standing, embedded within the same reality that they now occupy. 

As we might expect, difficulties arise. No sufficient language even exists to elevate the Flatlander’s conceptual understanding of what the sphere explains. Furthermore, nothing more can be seen, visualized, or measured beyond whatever is contained within Flatland. As a result, the Flatlanders initially reject the sphere’s claims pertaining to the existence of a third dimension. 

So the sphere offers to provide evidence of its extraordinary claims, and decides to float up above and back down again onto the surface. When that occurs, the trace of the sphere’s circle disappears from Flatland – and rapidly reappears as the sphere lands back onto the surface. 

Flatlanders have never witnessed such a strange phenomenon! The inhabitants, wild with curiosity and awe, try to understand what took place. How could a shape possibly disappear from the surface of Flatland, and then reappear? As far as Flatland residents know, no above-below dimension exists, and they cannot even conceive of one. They can only see the sphere, floating up and down in the form of a two-dimensional circle, as a disappearing act – as magic. 

Eventually, the sphere rises, floats above Flatland and begins to speak, conveying a message that this other dimension exists – a reality above, below and beyond Flatland that its inhabitants cannot perceive due to their own limitations. 

A very brief, incomplete overview of the novel doesn’t tell the entire story, which contains many powerful metaphors to symbolically illustrate the nature of the limitations of human perception and understanding. In particular, Flatland highlights the possible existence of other dimensions of reality that may evade our common everyday awareness, as strange as this may sound. 

The Manifestations of God: Keys to the Understanding of Spiritual Reality

According to the Baha’i writings other dimensions of reality exist. 

We can’t perceive that dimension with our outward senses, but a non-physical, non-material spiritual reality does exist, entirely outside of the order of the physical realm. It does not consist of atoms, mass, or matter of any form or arrangement. The Baha’i teachings have several names for this non-physical, spiritual reality, often referring to it as “the Kingdom of God:” “Know thou that the Kingdom is the real world, and this nether place is only its shadow stretching out.” – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 177.

Just as in the two-dimensional world of Flatland, where the inhabitants could not comprehend the existence of another, third dimension, we human beings cannot directly perceive this spiritual dimension or become conscious of it through our own unaided efforts while we exist in this physical, material world. We need an outside source to bring about knowledge and awareness of this spiritual reality – to teach us about its possible implications for both our individual and collective lives: 

Man passes through different phases and when in a lower consciousness he cannot comprehend the consciousness above. When we were in the state of the unborn child we had no knowledge of the world of man. If the vegetable kingdom could speak it would cry out, “Where is the world of man?” We cry out, “Where is the kingdom of the spirit?” – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 118.

The Baha’i teachings call these outside sources of intervention “manifestations of God,” the prophets and messengers seen as universal educators of humanity. Those messengers – the founders of the world’s great Faiths like Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Christ, Muhammad and now Baha’u’llah – come to reveal the knowledge and truth necessary to establish peace, love, and unity on Earth. Their messages transform humankind and enable us to reflect spiritual reality in progressively higher degrees: 

To man, the Essence of God is incomprehensible, so also are the worlds beyond this, and their condition. It is given to man to obtain knowledge, to attain to great spiritual perfection, to discover hidden truths and to manifest even the attributes of God; but still man cannot comprehend the Essence of God. Where the ever-widening circle of man’s knowledge meets the spiritual world a Manifestation of God is sent to mirror forth His splendour. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 66.

Using the Flatland analogy, these great teachers meet “the ever-widening circle of man’s knowledge” with the sphere of the knowledge of a greater spiritual reality: 

He must also impart spiritual education, so that minds may apprehend the metaphysical world, breathe the sanctified breaths of the Holy Spirit, and enter into relationship with the Concourse on high, and that human realities may become the manifestations of divine blessings, that perchance all the names and attributes of God may be reflected in the mirror of the human reality and the meaning of the blessed verse “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” may be realized. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 10-11.

Perhaps one important question still remains. If indeed a spiritual realm exists, what does this mean for our own lives? For if we are somehow embedded within this spiritual realm now and in the afterlife, then it stands to reason that perhaps we also are a part of that same realm and in turn it is a part of us. 

Each human being on planet Earth shares in this noble spiritual heritage and common purpose, in which we strive to develop such virtues as love, truth, justice, and compassion for one another. As we grow to reflect the Divine spiritual reality through our virtues and deeds, we may recognize the dimension of inner nobility within ourselves, within others, and within the world.

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Comments

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  • Allen Warren
    Dec 22, 2019
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    A true believer lives in both worlds.- Muhammad. What is the Common Faculty of Abdu'l-Baha?
  • Jim Weik
    Dec 18, 2019
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    Beautifully written Navid! I may have to add Flatland to my reading list. I appreciate how you have carefully woven concepts from Abbot's book into Abdu'l-Baha's descriptions of spiritual reality. Thought provoking for sure.
  • Grant Hindin Miller
    Dec 14, 2019
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    Excellent, Alex, I love this, and appreciate your time and effort to write and share it with us. [I will look out for Edwin Abbott's novel.] Thank you.
    • Alex Rassekh
      Dec 15, 2019
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      Thank you my dear brother Grant, I am glad to hear you enjoyed it. Words cannot express my gratitude for your music and the depths to which it has moved my soul. The book is quite readily available, and draws on many interesting and in my opinion important themes that are presented in a symbolic story.
  • Georgia J Howardell
    Dec 14, 2019
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    Alex, I was forced to read Flatland in 2015. My issue was with the depiction of static females in juxtaposition to the males who could change over time. I really disliked it.
    • Alex Rassekh
      Dec 15, 2019
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      Yes dear Georgia, I hear your concern and I agree. The book does contain many depictions and examples of gender stereotype and inequality against women, who are viewed as inferior in the world of flatland. As Grant pointed out below, this was written in the context of the 1800's in a very different world than what we know today. Perhaps the author was highlighting the ignorance of the flatlanders by highlighting their prejudices , in addition to their difficulty in recognizing the truth of the higher dimension? Perhaps flatland is a representation , symbolically, of today's world in some ways?
    • Grant Hindin Miller
      Dec 14, 2019
      -
      I see Edwin was born in 1838 - no doubt the time in which he lived would have had coloured his perceptions of gender.
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