The Infinite Tablecloth

Imagine a super-stretchy tablecloth that goes on forever in all directions. Or it could be infinitely-stretchy but fixed in a huge wooden frame, for the purposes of this metaphor, both work as well.

Now it starts off perfectly flat. This is the ‘fabric of reality’ and it’s right now both all and nothing: it’s the ‘stuff’ that all is made of and ‘all’ you have to work with, but since it’s perfectly flat, ‘nothing’ exists, there’s no thing which stands out from any other thing.

So you grab a handful of the cloth and bunch it up into randomly and fractally-smaller crinkles and wrinkles. Now there’s ‘something’ there. That’s Existence, the universe, everything that exists, including you, your thoughts, and everything else.

Two points to notice:

  1. ‘Nothing’ never went away when we had ‘Something’ – it’s still there, everywhere, because it’s still little sections of unwrinkled ‘nothing’ between wrinkles. Something is just differentiated Nothing.
  2. This is only a static snapshot of Now. It’s gotta change and be different if it’s going to continue to exist. That means you could change the wrinkles within the wad of tablecloth, or you can ‘roll’ it – unwrinkle a bit at the back while you wrinkle-up a bit at the front – or you can do both at the same time.

But now there are a few necessary rules, one of which is that the whole wad must not ever be the same as it has been at any moment in the past (otherwise there is no difference between past and future, and so the present ceases to exist) and that means absolutely no macro-repetition. But you can repeat wrinkles locally, inside the wad, so long as you do something else, elsewhere within the wad. This gives you plenty of room to be varied and the overall wad doesn’t need to be ‘rolled’ until you’ve exhausted all the permutations possible within the wad.

So the overall wad actually has a fairly long ‘shelf life’ because the inside permutations won’t be exhausted for a long long while. Another thing to notice is that if you ‘bunch-up’ a little more of the un-wrinkled tablecloth, your overall wad is bigger, yes, but you again can have a huge number of permutations possible again, thereby extending the wad’s longevity enormously.

This whole tablecloth analogy serves to explain some of the ‘rules’ of our universe – and why we aren’t in any other kind of reality (like one with unicorns, dragons and wizards) – it just is, which isn’t really an answer, other than the fact that if our universe is to include unicorns and wizards, it’s going to take a really long time to ‘get there’ (imagine trying to ‘roll’ that wad of tablecloth – since you can’t slide it – over to a different area entirely: it’s going to take a lot of ‘bunching-up at the front’ and ‘unwrinkling at the back’ to get there).  So in the absurdity and chaos of ‘anything’s possible’ reality, there’s nevertheless an inherent encumberance to getting where we want to be – that is to say Things have to go through the process of change – and it isn’t the kind of immediate snap-your-fingers change that we’d hoped for.

There’s a necessary continuity in order to ensure the coherence of the overall wad: if you just let go of the whole fistful of tablecloth (let everything vanish into non-existence) and then tried to bunch-up a ‘new’ wad of existence – what’s to say it’s the same existence? What’s to say you made any change whatsoever? If, for the sake of argument, you succeeded in re-creating every exact wrinkle of the previous ‘wad’ – what’s to say you ‘moved’ it at all? Remeber this is the only wad in existence (or should I say ‘of existence’?) so there’s no way of knowing that it’s moved on the infinite tablecloth at all.

The very notion of ‘time’ emerges from the fact that the overall configuration of the wad (all the wrinkles of it at every scale) is absolutely unique at every ‘moment’ and this, moment-to-moment (i.e. at every instant “Past” is “not-Future” and “Future” is “not-Past” where “Present” is the very “not” between them), across its entire history (allowing for the notion of the ‘arrow of time’).

So while it’s not very satisfying to hear that this reality ‘just is what it is’, we also now have a deeper understanding of why it can’t suddenly be some completely different reality. It’ll ‘take time’ – i.e. gradual change – to get there. So again it’s not totally disheartening because everything remains absolutely possible – just a little ‘encumbered’ or weighed-down by the necessity of the process of change.

2 thoughts on “The Infinite Tablecloth

  1. Nice analogy, Thomas, and I was reminded of Heraclitus’ Panta rhei and the Japanese Buddhistic tale of Hōjōki (The Ten Foot Square Hut), both themes being on impermanence, or if you like, existence as change, or better still, change is existence.

    1. Hi Hariod! Thank you! I used this analogy last week when trying to explain how I’d come to understand the nature of reality, and found myself referring to that tablecloth again and again to illustrate so many principles that I thought it’d be worthwhile sharing on the blog.
      Indeed change is existence (ex+stare meaning ‘to stand out’). But the analogy doesn’t immediately convey impermanence. I had to force that one sort of. But if you think about what it means to be ‘difference itself’ (change incarnate?) then yes, originality is vital – you’re always already unoriginal, always already ‘too slow’. Like imagine a real asshole choreographer constantly telling a dancer to “be original” and she barely puts a toe on the floor and the choreographer is already prepped to say it again “BE ORIGINAL!” .. stress made flesh! The trouble is the MOMENT you aren’t different then you vanish because you’re supposed to be ‘difference itself’, but if you haven’t changed already then you’re being the same as yourself and so you aren’t being true to your nature and poof! you disappear into sameness… thr degree of reality’s impermanence can be difficult to convey, but Heraclitus did put it well “No man can step into the same river twice for he is not the same man and it is not the same river”….

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