Two spirals — one left-handed, the other right-handed. One, I am told, moves clockwise, while the other moves counterclockwise. Is the one on the left left-handed or right-handed? Does the one on the right move clockwise or counterclockwise?
The answer, which may may trouble you at first, is that they do whichever you want them to. The universe has no absolute left or right. Nor does it know up from down. The North Pole, as we call it, is not found on the top of the Earth, as people assume, it's just one side of a headless coin. The universe itself has no top, no bottom, no north, no south. These are human concepts, based on our limited scope, passed from one to the next, hopelessly entangled in the body's bilateral symmetry and in the fortuitous fact that our eyes are on one side of our head.
Until Michelson and Morley conducted their experiment with light in 1887, it was commonly held that an aether permeated the universe, a sort of rectilinear three-dimensional grid that carried light — a luminiferous aether. But, when light failed to move more quickly in one direction than the other, i.e. faster with the earth's motion than against it, it was apparent, as Einstein would elucidate, that things were and remain hopelessly relative.
And yet, we live in a world of up, down, left and right. Without knowing how or why such things came to be, or came seemingly to be, we maneuver these almost opposites effortlessly. We switch from one grid to another and back again without thinking. In fact, even at an early stage of childhood development, we demonstrate an amazing facility for recognizing and adjusting to an ever shifting, never quite settled left/right grid. My right becomes your left the very instant the context changes, and my other left — always an embarrassment — turns out to be the left I should have used but didn't. The director's left, as he addresses the actors on a stage, becomes stage right, because the actors take priority in determining directions. Of course, the director takes priority in giving them. If the actors rotate 90° so their shoulders, rather than their faces, faced the director, then their individual left and right becomes up stage or down stage, depending on whether they rotated to the left or to the right. At this point, for the actors anyway, stage left and stage right is somewhat ambiguous. Stage directions, as I said, are for the benefit of the actors. Still, in order for the actors to know left from right, not merely their own left from their own right, they must remember where the audience is. Plays, after all, are for the benefit of the audience, and without the audience, the actors would find themselves, adrift without an anchor. The grids by which we navigate are shifting hierarchies of givens and agreed upons fraught with un-thought out understoods.
Here, I think, is where it all begins.
Below. We understand that the ground attracting us is below. Gravity may have waited for Newton to provide it with a system, but we have always known which direction a downward fall would take us. Even if we fail to understand the laws of attracting bodies and the simple fact that the earth attracts us more than we attract it, we still know where down is. We fall toward the earth. We stand upon what is beneath us. The earth is down. When we close our eyes, the heavens and all their contents — sun, moon, stars, clouds, migrating geese, and the occasional Pterodactyl — disappear. But the force of gravity does not. So, the concept of down or below was, in all likelihood, the first agreed upon direction.
In front. We also understand that the limited area before us, the visible, is opposed to a somewhat greater area that is non-visible. Of course, the visible refers to what we see and not to what we could see if we turned our heads or walked down the road a piece. The fact that one becomes the other, the fact that the visible becomes the non-visible as the non-visible simultaneously becomes visible, is the basis for a very powerful opposition. Also, just as below was more basic than above, in front or before turns out to be more basic than its opposite. Thus, from two basic directions we elaborate four: up, down, in front, and behind. Which leaves only left and right to account for.
You might say that left and right are just the directions on either side of in front, and you'd be more or less right. But, how do we exit the absurdity of deciding if left is on the left or on the right? In other words, as I've tried to indicate, down and in front have something basic about them. Is there a solid basis for saying that one particular hand is left and the other right?
There's an answer to this question, a delightful answer, but it requires us to step back a bit and consider the sun. Nothing has been more central, more necessary, more beneficial to human life than the sun. Its daily and seasonal movements, its appearances and disappearances have been feared and worshiped in one way or another, both privately and collectively, since man's appearance upon the earth. In this rational age, the facts relating to that worship, aside from the mumbo jumbo of Hollywood, have been mostly lost, though they persist in our languages, in our customs, in our patterns of belief. The ultimate anchor for left and right turns out to be the sun.
Right. The sun rises in the east. It would be difficult to establish a more basic fact for mankind. East is the basis for north, south and west, and also the basis, as I will indicate, for left and right. East is where the sun rises. It rises only in the east, not hear and there. Most people are surprised to find out that the sun does not rise like a column of smoke on the eastern horizon. It does not rise at right angles to the ground in a manner we would call up. It slides to the right (what we would end up calling right) as it rises. The earth's axis has an almost 23½° tilt. Without that tilt we would have no seasons, and the sun would not rise as it does. Greeting the rising sun is the primary worshipful event in the long pre-history of organized religion. The fact that we ignore or avoid or are unable to observe the sun at the moment of rising through the clutter of buildings makes it difficult for us to appreciate the primacy of this daily event.
At some remote point in time, man observed the rising behavior of the sun and saw that it slid along the ground left to right. Of course, we haven't established left and right. It slid as the sun slides, rising in the process. Slowly, it arced into the sky higher and higher until noon, and then reversed itself into the west. This motion was repeated with seasonal variations each and every morning. If one marked the point of rising, it moved southward toward winter and northward toward summer. The sun stayed low in the winter and rose higher and higher as it approached summer. But the arc of the sun was always toward the south, and that direction (east to south) became right. Buried in our cultures and languages are a thousand indications of this. What is right is associated with light, with enlightenment, with law, goodness, and God. We offer our right hand in greeting, salute with our right hand. Someone dexterous (based on the Latin dexter for right) is someone good with his hands. A sinister person (Latin for left) is someone who has strayed from goodness. Human rights are those inalienable things granted to us by God. The origin of left and right is in the rightward motion of the sun.
The primary directions are down, front and right. The secondary directions are up, behind and left. The first two were almost unavoidable. The third was the product of discovery. The observation of the motions of the sun pulled man up from the elements and placed him on the edge of the universe. It placed him where his awareness and knowledge might spiral outwardly or inwardly to infinity.
The answer to the initial problem is that the two spirals are the same spiral seen from different sides. The spiral is a two-dimensional construct, in this case something created in Adobe Illustrator. It has no sides. It is we who provide the additional dimension, not the spiral. It is we who decide whether to start on the inside or the outside, we who determine which infinity to pursue. The sun leads us in the chase, it warms and readies us, but the decision rests ultimately with us.