An Illusion of Distance

February 16, 2021

One doesn’t exist.

Does that sound strange, or is it obvious? On the one hand 1, the word ‘one’ means nothing without a reference. For it to have meaning, you must specify. One person? One table? One pencil? One… yeah, you get the idea. So one alone, is meaningless.

On the other hand, there are innumerable examples of one. There is only one me, one of my wife, one of each of my children. There is an infinite supply of examples that we can point to and say: that is only one.

But what is one? What does it mean?

At some level, it’s a foundational aspect of common sense. You don’t need to examine it because it’s so clearly obvious. There’s very little (read: none) ambiguity when a person says: There’s only one apple.

But what is one? What if we decide to question its existence 2? Does such a thing as ‘one’ even exist?

Well, I would argue the definition of one come down to the definition of division or, perhaps, a container. It’s a gestalt configuration of inside (what is), outside (what is not), and clear division between them. It is, in essence, categorical; it’s a collection of smaller definitions that comprise the one, of which the not one does not have, either in whole or in part.

We know me from the air around me by their definitions. I am flesh and blood in a specific, recognizable configuration, and I act in a consistent way that reliably identifies me to others. Air has none of those things.

This idea of a division between things is really important, and not just in our definition of the idea of one, but in the very thought processes of our mind. We cannot in any way think without divisions. We must have categories in order to process the world around us.

If that doesn’t seem obvious, flip it on its head: If everything is everything else, then how can you reason about anything at all? If a tree is a person and a person is a planet, how can you make any deductions about them? Just the idea itself assaults our common sense. We know, instictually, that a person is not a planet. We know we can reason about a person separately from a planet without any real confusion between them. One is clearly different than the other on so many levels that any real confusion between them belongs to the realm of the insane.

What constitutes a division? Where is that point at which I stop and the other begins? We can see me, and we can see not me. But let’s get just a little closer. Where’s the line?

Well, if you’re speaking of a person, then perhaps the outer layer of skin signifies the division between that person and not. Skin, though, isn’t really a good definition. Apple’s have skin, but they’re nothing like our skin, and there’s lots of things that are singular yet have no skin at all. Even a cursory glance will tell us that skin is not a good definition of a boundary.

We need to get closer.

Cells? Better, but we’ll quickly run into the same problem: not all singular things have cells. A fork, for instance, is clearly singular, but had nothing like cells.

So, closer.

Atoms? Yes, here we can see a clear division. Indeed, for a long time we thought atoms were, in fact, a singular thing to which could define boundaries. There seemed to be a clear boundary between what was and what was not an atom. Because of this, we could easily define (or conceive of defining) atoms that were or were not our singular subject.

And then science came in, looked a little closer, and ruined it all. Turns out, atoms are mostly empty space. There’s a core, a whole lot of empty, and something called electrons which, it turns out, are little more than little pockets of energy.

What is that energy? Does it have a boundary?

Not really. It’s more like a wave. Or perhaps we should think of it as a kind of gravity well that holds the energy, much like our sun holds our planets in place. It’s a wave that circles the nucleus like our planets circle the sun.

Not even the nucleus is a single thing. It contains protons and neutrons, which in turn are comprised of quarks, but we haven’t actually seen quarks because they’re just too small to detect. We can however, smash atoms together and tear them apart so thoroughly that we can detect them.

In fact, the closer we look, the stranger it gets. Quantum physics arose from experiments that showed light itself behaved like a wave in all the ways we know waves behave 3 and yet it can only ever be detected as a particle. Further experiments demonstrated that all particles behave in this way all the way up to complex structures such as bucky balls and molecules.

Can you define the edge of a wave?

Before you answer that, I would point out that whatever your definition is, it must depend on distance because it must depend on the point at which you can detect change. Move closer, and that definition will change.

We’ve come to some twisted variation of Zeno’s paradox: you can’t finish the race because you must first pass the half way point, and as soon as you arrive at the half way point, you have yet another half way point to traverse, ad infinitum. It was supposed to be an argument of absurdity, showing how mathematics can prove things to be true we know for a fact are not.

Yet no matter how close we look, we cannot find a boundary we can use to define the existence of one. Perhaps it does exists and we simply haven’t crossed enough “half way points” to discover it.

Or perhaps the very concept of one was always an illusion of distance.

Perhaps our very concept of division, of categories, and of the useful modes of thinking we engage in were only ever that: useful. Our thoughts don’t reflect the world as it is, but instead reflect our ability to shape the world.

In other words, we think the way we do because it works, not because it’s correct.

  1. Badum bum. 

  2. I created this footnote with a sarcastic, witty, comedic comment that would certainly have made you laugh. Then my daughter (who is presently taking a bath) screamed at my youngest son (also taking a bath) and I jumped up to mitigate the danger of either of them drowning because who the hell knows what siblings trapped in in a small container of water are capable of. I certainly don’t, but my eldest son (yes, I have three; don’t judge) jumped out a few minutes earlier under the odd suspicion that it might be dangerous for his health and perhaps he should just go ahead and play with his godzilla-shaped-pressed-plastic-play-toy downstairs, where drowning was not so much a concern. So now you have this weird, admittedly sarcastic story of my kids instead of the sarcastic witty comment that has long since fled my mind. Also, congrats for reading all this. Seriously, you’re a trooper. 

  3. Example: interference patterns. For instance, take a perfectly still pool and drop two pebbles in. They each will create waves in the pool and those waves will either reinforce each other, creating larger/higher/stronger waves, or else cancel each other out. This behavior is called interference for obvious reasons. Light behaves just like that. We can easily design experiments that demonstrate this. Problem is, whenever we actually observe light, it’s a particle. We’ve never seen light as a wave. We’ve only observed it’s behavior. And the freaky thing: if we send a single particle (whatever that means) of light at a time, it will still interfere with itself as if it were a wave travelling down all possible paths, just like a pebble dropped in a pool radiates outward… except that when we detect the light, we detect a single particle and nothing else.