Monday, December 6, 2010

What Are You?

A human being, sure. An animal whose brain somehow produces consciousness. A consciousness so palpable that most humans throughout history have intuitively believed that it is somehow separate from the brain, separate from the animal body. Where did this surprising brain come from? We can trace our ancestry back through the ape family, the mammals, the reptiles, the fish, the microbes. We don't know the details of how life began on Earth, and we may never know, but we find good reasons for assuming that it began spontaneously from simple processes involving common earth materials.
So, what are you?

A piece of the earth, certain parts of which work together to produce consciousness. Where did the earth come from? We can trace its ancestry back through a few generations of stars that ended their lives in massive explosions. All of the earth, all the rocks, all the water, all the trees, all the radio show hosts, all of it, except for some of the lightest elements such as hydrogen and helium, came from exploded stars. We know of no other mechanism for producing almost all of the elements found on earth or anywhere else. We have no reason to suspect that any other mechanism exists.

So, what are you?

Stardust, or nuclear waste, if you prefer, certain parts of which work together to produce consciousness. Where did the stars come from? We can trace their ancestry back to the infancy of the universe. Some 100-odd million years after the beginning, gigantic clouds of hydrogen and helium began to fall inward upon themselves due to gravity. That's all a star is: a blob of matter that is dense enough and massive enough to cause the cores of atoms to stick together. Go further back, before the stars, and we find that basically nothing happened for a really long time. Go back to the first 20 minutes and we find the universe so hot that hydrogen is being converted to helium without the aid of any stars. Go back to the first three minutes and the universe is so hot that even atoms can't exist; nothing but sub-atomic particles everywhere. Go back to the beginning and...well, it seems that we can't go back to the beginning. All we can know is what came after.

So, what are you?

You are the universe, looking at itself, talking to itself. But what are you, really? Why do you exist? What is existence? What is outside of you? Where do you come from? Do these questions have any meaning? Does the word "meaning" have any meaning? Is it even possible to know the answers to these questions? What does it mean to "know"? I find it really sad that you have gained and lost billions of consciousnesses without ever knowing what you are. It's infinitely sadder to imagine that you might never even be able to answer the question: what are you?

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