When Times Higher Education published Simon Young’s review of Other Worlds it was headlined with the following statement, “He finds much to admire in an attempt to explain the history of a seemingly impossible idea.” Now I haven’t read Young’s review but like him have had to grapple with the idea of a higher state, or not to mince my words, the fourth dimension! Christopher G. White’s book hasn’t actually landed in the fourth dimension but documents all the writers, artists, scientists, philosophers and even TV producers who have literally and metaphorically prepared themselves for a landing. No mean feat. So how far did they all get?
What does constitute a fourth dimension? Is it, employing Albert Einstein as a scientific pioneer, a mathematical idea to do with cubes, lines, formulae and sub-atomic physics? An hallucination of artists to suggest the spiritual power of the transcendent? Or is it simply a deluded product of mental illness? – perhaps it’s all three circulating in a world of speculative ideas. White wants us to believe (in a world where we are suspicious of traditional faiths) in a fourth dimensional reality. But though he offers up the ‘proofs’ of other enquiring minds does he convince me? Well yes: in the sense that human beings are spiritual and they desire, at many levels, to achieve a higher state of consciousness. Yet also no: for does all that ‘other world’ striving ever lead to anything substantial where we might live for longer periods of time? I’m not sure.
In 1884, an odd short fiction called Flatlands by Edwin Abbot was published. Its narrator is a male, square shaped being in a two dimensional world of Flatlanders – lines, triangles, squares, pentagrams, hexagonals and other figures sliding freely on a flat plane. The square narrator encounters a boy who’s experienced a third dimension.
When the narrator himself enters this state or force field he becomes a seer and prophet. Afterwards he deduces that there ought to be a spiritual fourth dimension that author Abbot said might “lead us to vaster views of possible circumstances and expectations.” Throughout Other Worlds White refers back to Flatland as a benchmark for the beginning of an investigation into a higher consciousness.
I was captivated by some of White’s chapter headings. “The Man who Saw the Fourth Dimension”- more cube theory in Charles Howard Hinton’s 1904 book entitled The Fourth Dimension sympathetically reviewed by Bertrand Russell. “The Space Time of Dreams” chapter - from out of the trauma of WWI J.W.Dunne wrote Experiment with Time (1927) that had a considerable influence on writers such as J.B.Priestly and T.S.Eliot. And then intrigued by White’s penultimate chapter “One Step Beyond” which analyses the further dimension aesthetics of such American TV series as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.
That particular chapter was engaging yet despite what scientists and cultural critics once proclaimed about the ‘magic power’ of television I cannot accept White’s conclusion that “Television reclaimed the spiritual imagination in different ways – by receiving invisible transmissions that could be thought of as either spiritual or ‘like’ spiritual forces.” It sounds too much like a Geiger-counter was in the studio recording the ethereal waves!
The ‘problem’ with the argument of Other Worlds is that often Christopher G. White (A professor of religion at Vassar College) assumes we are believers in the existence of the fourth dimension, or are at least aching to know what it is. Therefore although everything is superbly researched, and maintains an admirable critical distance, the tone of the book verges on a comfortable religiosity.
“This ongoing narrative shows that scientific ideas have not just generated doubt and scepticism but have also buttressed enchanted views of a universe that is open, surprisingly complex, and perhaps even layered with fantastic dimensions that exist just beyond the borders of what we can see and know.”
All credit to White for he does employ the word “perhaps” for the fantastic possibilities of human experience. And I’m not in disagreement with power of the open, mysterious and complex universe we both inhabit. White is probably still disturbed about the post-Darwin decline, of a belief in intimations of God, propagated by conventional religions. I’m not.
Yet I can be open to the idea of God in White’s most thoughtful book as he skilfully traces human-kind’s spiritual impulses. It’s all very well written and he asks many pertinent questions in the taking on of such a big concept. Other Worlds is a carefully considered, sincere and often stimulating contribution to the history of ideas. – Alan Price.