A Project For Viewing Objects In The Fourth Dimension

A new menu item has just gone up on this website, at which images will be displayed of objects in the fourth dimension.  Since it is widely agreed that we are by nature incapable of seeing four-dimensional objects, something evidently needs to be said at the outset to justify this new approach.

The Case Against

The case against seeing 4D objects is easy to make, and does sound convincing. We human beings by our very nature belong to a three-dimensional world; we have neither retinas nor brains capable of seeing objects in higher dimensions. We can see projections of such objects as the  4D hypercube, for example, into our 3D world–but we have no power to see the thing  itself. We are like Abbott’s Flatlanders (Edwin Abbott, Flatland (1884), confined in their case to a 2D world, and unable to conceive a world beyond it.  We laugh at them, but Abbott’s initial point is that we are the Flatlands–confined in our case to a world of three dimensions, and unable to envision a world beyond.

But Abbott makes a further point, and his real story is one of courage and release.  The turning-point of Flatland is the breathtaking escape of his hero, A-Square, who is swept out of Flatland and indeed does view, to his amazement, a world beyond his own, as well as his own from a new vantage point–outside. Surely Abbott’s real point is to challenge us, stuck in three dimensions, to break out of our own confinement. That is the experiment we will be undertaking on this website.

The difficulty is not mathematical. In our drawings, we place the viewer’s eye at a definite, fixed position in a four-dimensional coordinate frame, and define simple objects within it. The objects lie before the eye, in relations which can be calculated and depicted. The huge question remains, however: what will such an eye actually see? Not much, we might think–for our limited, 2D retinas would seem to have no power to capture 4D images.

Response to These Objections

But here’s a problem: by the same argument, the same 2D retinas must be inadequate to see the very 3D world in which we live!  Mathematically, it is true, we’ve never actually seen our own, familiar world: we would have to be outside it, to actually view it. But that does not stop us from knowing it intimately, and seeing it in another sense.

Evidently, real vision is not simply a mathematical question: the eye is not a camera. Rather, it is a powerful extension of the brain, actively searching and interpreting, constructing a meaningful and coherent understanding of the world we live in, and love. We “see” objects growing smaller as they recede into the distance; but from infancy, our interpretive visual system has learned the tricks of 3D visual intuition: we know automatically that the objects remain unaltered.  And if this is the case, there would seem to be no obstacle to carrying out our project, exploring the possibilities of a visual experience of four-dimensional space. Maybe our visual intuition is capable of learning new interpretive tricks!

The New Proposal

We propose therefore to look directly at the mathematically defined objects within it, with the aim of building a new structure of visual intuitions appropriate to the fourth dimension. It’s hardly necessary to stress the importance such a capability might have, given the striking ability of the visual cortex to “see”–graphically or otherwise–the relationships among groups of interrelated factors. The ability to visualize complex functions in a four-dimensional coordinate frame might be enough to convince mathematicians and scientists of the practical value of such an augmented power of visual intuition.

For an initial example of the method at work go to my webpage on the fourth dimension. Where you can post any comments which occur to you.

2 thoughts on “A Project For Viewing Objects In The Fourth Dimension

  1. Tom

    Tony —

    Many thanks for your comment!
    The short answer to your query is that for the sake of clarity and simplicity there will be one fixed viewing point, from which figures and their motions can be viewed. The viewer’s eye will be seated securely in the fourth dimension, at a remote distance from the stage on whch figures and their motions can all be viewed. The view from this “Eye in the Sky” will be telescopic: figures will appear at full scalel, but perspective will be sacrificed in the interest of simplicity.

    The aim will be to achieve an intuitive sense of the appearance and behavior of figures in a four-dimensional space. We’ll need to discuss what the term “intuitive sense” means here, it’s an open question–what I will feel like, and to what extent it can be achieved?

    I plan to post a diagram soon showing how this all works.


  2. Tony Hardy

    Tom – –

    I followed with great interest your comments, first, on the groundbreaking perspective Euclid embodies in his Elements, then the illustrations you gave to advance us into 4D vision. The first of these seems to hold so much potential, with meanings in all directions. It’s another piece in your building of a field-oriented view in contrast to Newton’s analytic view, and I would hope you’d put it all together at one point (however much it still needs further expansion and development) in a book!

    I thought the figure you introduced for your 4D figure fascinating. It was like standing before a Picasso and trying to shift one’s perspective again and again – – bringing forth a different set of elements at each shift – – in the attempt to find a single standpoint that will render of it all a coherent unity. I confess I couldn’t find that standpoint; and eventually I got sort of a headache. I wonder – – is there any such standpoint? If there is, is this what gives you 4D? Or is the shifting itself the standpoint? I think there may be individual differences here, as some people are born with a great capacity for visualization and others not. I count myself among the latter (left-brain rather than right) so I may not be a good subject for you.

    I’ll be interested in what experiences others have with this!



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