Constructive Creativity

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I Think, But I Am Not Sure What I Am!

In a comment to my last post, my friend Tamara introduced me to the concept of existentialist philosophy. Having heard the word, but not really knowing its meaning, I consulted the Wikipedia article on Existentialism. After reading up on it, I decided that I was in pretty general agreement with what I was reading. Indeed, I may very well be an existentialist! In my response to Tamara, I listed this quote from the article that seemed to sum it up pretty well: "Existentialism tends to view human beings as subjects in an indifferent, objective, often ambiguous, and "absurd" universe in which meaning is not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created, however provisionally and unstably, by human beings' actions and interpretations." Considering the content of this statement, I have to wonder if the first existentialist thinkers were burned at the stake!

Ever since I became capable of logical reasoning, probably around the age of 11 or so, I have never been one to blindly follow a particular philosophical (or religious) point of view. I suppose that I have been pretty much a free thinker since that time. I have pondered the nature of existence now for many years, yet I have to admit that mostly what I have discovered is that I am vastly ignorant of the nature of existence! :) Still, there are a few things that I have settled on that just seem to make logical sense to me.

I was a big fan of the TV series Cosmos that Carl Sagan did back in 1980. I guess that really dates me (well, sort of)! ;) One of the things that he taught me in that series is that "we are, all of us, made of star-stuff". Now, that was indeed a profound pronouncement! I remember Carl describing in detail how elements were created in the center of stars by the process of nuclear fusion. Primarily, Hydrogen fuses into Helium in a star's nucleus which releases vast amounts of energy and causes a star to shine brightly for our enjoyment (or indeed, for our very survival in the case of our Sun). However, at some point, very old stars begin to run short of Hydrogen to fuse and they begin to fuse Helium to make Carbon. When the star's Helium is used up, it will begin to "burn" Carbon to make even heavier elements. If you are really interested you can learn more from this article on Stellar Nucleosynthesis (that's quite a mouthful, eh?!), but I am digressing. Going back to Carl Sagan, I learned that the elements that make up our planet Earth, and all living things upon it, were created as a direct byproduct of the life cycle of stars. Now that was an idea that really blew my mind! It gives a whole new meaning to the 60's/New Age concept of the "Starchild"! ;)

Realizing that the atoms in my body were really billions of years old was nothing short of amazing to me! Indeed, I learned that the atoms in my body were even older that our Solar System. How is this possible you might ask? Well, in order for the heavy elements created inside of a star to become a part of you and me, a star older than our Sun had to first explode in order to release them. Not all stars explode in what astronomers call a Super Nova. Indeed, our own rather quiet and mundane Sun is apparently not fated to explode, as it lacks the necessary mass. The current thinking of astronomers and geologists is that the Earth and the Solar System formed about 4.5 billion years ago. But, how old are the atoms in our bodies? Who knows? Perhaps they are billions of years older still!

So, why am I expounding at such length about the atoms that we are all made of? Well, in my way of thinking, I am an assemblage of borrowed units that existed long before I was born and will continue to exist long after I am gone. Further, the substance of my body is constantly changing. I breath in new atoms with every breath. I ingest new atoms with every meal. I breath out atoms and excrete others in various ways (I trust that I don't have to paint that picture for you! ;) ). No doubt I still have some of the atoms that I was born with, but much of what I am has either been added since then or has been exchanged for different atoms. So, it seems to me that a human being is really not the essentially static construction that many people seem to believe. Of course, we grow, we age, and eventually we die. However, how many people pause to think that they are constantly changing without ever knowing it? At any given instant, we are but a temporary assembly of particular atoms that work together to form the whole of who and what we are. I like to think of myself as a "Participation". The atoms that currently make up the creature that is I, me, myself, participate with each other to create something that is possibly more than the sum of its parts (less than the sum, it seems to me, on some days! ;) ).

So, how can I be more than the sum of my parts? I can reach out and extend my being by grasping a tool, for example.
I am not only aware of my own existance, but I exist, however fleetingly, in the minds of other people who know me. I can communicate ideas or knowledge to other people, or physically touch another person (which has the potential of being much more fun, especially if that person happens to be a woman! :) ). An atom by itself in a huge vacuum, has no such potential to be more than the sum of its quarks, at least not that I am aware of. Well, who knows, I could be quite wrong. Perhaps an atom has the potential to be its own universe of sub-atomic particles which may party and carry on with each other and give birth to little quarkettes. Maybe the Big Bang which began our Universe happened when one of these quark parties got out of control! ;)

Well, perhaps I have typed enough of a rambling discourse on the nature of existence to give my curious readers some food for thought (or maybe a multi-course banquet!). So, my friends, the floor is now open for discussion. I would very much enjoy reading your thoughts on this subject! :)