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! :)

29 Comments:

Blogger Melantrys said...

Wow, that's too long and complicated for my illness-riddled brain.

*coughs, whimpers and crawls back to bed*

10/17/2006 1:04 PM  
Blogger David said...

Mel, I'm sorry to hear that you are not feeling well. I hope you will be wellness-riddled soon! :) When you are, I expect an intelligent discourse worthy of an avid Terry Pratchett reader! ;)

10/17/2006 1:45 PM  
Blogger Dr O2 said...

well this is sth new to me but it does make sense to some extent! It also ironically somehow describes what religions tend to express as they believe our souls do not die as our body falls. Maybe atoms are the real souls?

Logic & science will illuminate us step by step :-)

10/18/2006 12:45 AM  
Blogger David said...

Omid, I am intregued by your idea of relating the perpetual existence of atoms to souls. In my way of thinking, the same atoms that are participating within me have also participated in other living things for the past several billion years, at least. I have no doubt that some of my atoms were once part of a Wooly Mammoth, or even farther back in time, a dinosaur. Maybe I have a bit of Tyrannosaurous Rex in me! :) So, in this way, the continuous recycling of atoms is rather like the idea of reincarnation.

What if there was a way for an atom to retain a tiny bit of memory of its previous participatory activities? The science fiction writer Larry Niven has written about the idea of memory RNA in which memories can be transferred from one organism to another simply by giving an injection. Now I am not saying this is possible, but it is a neat idea, at least. Here is another idea (a bit of science fiction of my own ;) ): Is it possible that when we dream of flying it is because we have ingested atoms and molecules that were once part of a flying creature? I guess it all depends on whether or not an atom has a capacity for data storage. If so, maybe they are akin to tiny souls. :)

Logic and science are great things, I just wish that more people agreed with us about that!

10/18/2006 1:35 AM  
Blogger Nyx said...

Great post David!!! I'd like to know what you think about the "logical order" we see in everything.
As you know there is mathematics in everything, but is that only how we define "our world", or is there actually an order that maybe can be considered a conflict to the chance-theory? In that case, what created the "big bang"?

10/18/2006 5:13 PM  
Blogger Nyx said...

...maybe "caused" is a better word.

10/18/2006 5:17 PM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks Nyx! :) I understand what you mean about there being mathematical analogies to nature, but as you said, is math really in nature, or did we invent math to describe what we found in nature? There is certainly elegance in some things like the helical coils of a snail shell, which no doubt can be described by a mathematical formula. Also, plants seem to grow in patterns that can be predicted by fractal geometry. Btw, I really enjoy fractal art! :)

As to whether the universe came into existence as a result of chance or by the conscious action of a highly intelligent being, for me, that is very much an open question. However, I do strongly believe that there was a great deal of chance that lead to the reality of human beings being the dominant species on Earth. I like to ask "what if" questions. For example, what if the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago had missed the Earth? There might very well be an intelligent civilized race of beings on this planet today, but I do not think they would look like us! That particular asteroid caused something like 60% of the species on the Earth to go extinct. Around 200 million years ago, there was another asteroid inpact that killed about 90% of all species. No doubt some people will conclude that God aimed those asteroids as part of his "intelligent design plan". Well, with thousands of near Earth orbiting asteroids currently hurtling through space and occasionally whizzing uncomfortably near to us, it is only a matter of time before the human race is "designed" right out of existence! Of course, there are other folks who say, "The Lord helps those that help themselves". So, maybe we had better get busy and help ourselves out into the solar system where we can sweep up those pesky asteroids and put them somewhere else! Then all we will have to worry about is the Yellowstone super volcano blowing its top! Maybe I have been watching too much Mega-Disaster television. ;)

10/18/2006 10:43 PM  
Blogger Lavinia said...

Its all very Kafkaesque..or was Kafka an existentialist?

I've felt like that a lot myself. Sometimes its the feeling that everything is meaningless and that I only do things because I have assigned a value/significance to them that doesn't make any difference to anyone or anything.

At other times its a feeling that there's something that we're all hurtling towards...not us as humans but those very ancient atoms we're made of and that are in rocks, air and space. At those times I feel insignificant.

After reading Bill Bryson's History Nearly Everything, I started to view things a little differently. His assertion that we are special because only a very particular set of circumstances could have led to our existence as a species and to the formation of this planet, was very comforting. Spiritual even.

The fact that we're so singular, and perhaps even all alone in the universe might mean there's a logical, higher power that wanted us here, not to say that we are the peak of all that lives and breathes. It seems there was/is something moving us.

I don't mean this in the sense of a bearded old man in the clouds...oh David your thoughts have caught me up in this circle. Im on deadline.

Adieu and thank you for making me think in a way I haven't done for some time.

10/20/2006 6:51 AM  
Blogger Tamara said...

I feel so honored, David! :-) ... to have inspired such a wonderful blog. As with most people (I imagine), I love being reminded of my ancient (atomic) heritage....

Even though I studied philosophy in college, and I enjoy grappling with ideas especially while writing... paradoxically (perhaps), I believe that all you really need for living sanely are not ideas -- and Existentialism is certainly an "idea" and a very elegant one at that -- but the simple realization of what you've written in the main body of your blog.

To my mind, anyway, there's no need further discussion. There are matters (no pun intended) that must be solemnly marvelled at by every individual soul... quietly... so that perhaps one may hear wisdom from the very source of which we are all made....

10/20/2006 10:06 AM  
Blogger H.N.K said...

Hi Daved,
I like the photos of the animals and I really like the poem you shared us. I enjoy visiting your blog today.
Keep in touch

10/20/2006 12:29 PM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks Lavinia for sending me back to the Wikipedia for another lesson! :) I had heard the name Kafka before, but until now, I did not know anything else. Sounds like an interesting fellow! Perhaps I should read some of his works. Anyway, here is something the Wikipedia said about Kafka: "The apparent hopelessness and the absurdity that seem to permeate his works are considered emblematic of existentialism." Interesting! Perhaps I am not an existentialist afterall, as I always think there is hope. Or at least, there is always the possibility that people will choose to do good in the world.

I don't know if all of our atoms are hurtling toward anything in particular, aside from the far distant eventuality of proton decay and oblivion, but as I said, I have mostly learned how much I do not know! :) However, in the mean time, the Earth orbits the Sun, our Solar System orbits the giant black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, which in turn, is hurtling through the vast emptiness of intergalactic space.

Are we alone? Perhaps, but it seems so unlikely with billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars. So far, with astronomers having detected something like 200 planets orbiting nearby stars, it seems that the odds are increasing of eventually finding a few mirror images of our own lovely blue island in space.

I have a picture in my mind of the bearded man in the clouds from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. :)

10/21/2006 3:23 AM  
Blogger David said...

Welcome Tamara, my guest of honor! I am very pleased that you have enjoyed this post. :)

I think that ideas are rather like the mathematics that Nyx referred to. Both are the attempts of quite fallible human beings to bring order and understanding to the chaos of our subjective perceptions of the universe. Perhaps it would be helpful if we all came to the realization that the universe will go about its business whether or not it has our permission to do so. ;)

I agree with you that there is much to marvel at! Certainly, there are times when some quiet and solitary reflection can be a very positive experience. However, I have found that life is more fun and interesting if one has friends, or a companion, to share in the marvelling. :)

10/21/2006 3:51 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hnk, it is very nice to see you here! I am glad that you enjoyed my poem and zoo pics. :) It will be my pleasure to keep in touch!

10/21/2006 3:57 AM  
Blogger Spooky Witch said...

This post of yours was really complicated for me David,I need some more time to digest what was al this about!I always enjoy reading your blog...You always come up with new things.

10/21/2006 5:26 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Spooky,
Well, it was my intention to give my readers "food for thought". ;) So, please take your time and savor the meal! I'm glad that you enjoy your visits here. :)

10/22/2006 12:45 AM  
Anonymous mariamusic said...

Hi David,
Existentialists haven't come up with a certern answer themselves. the easiest way to understand it is the "I AM" the very being. It's hard to put it in words, but so joyable when acheived.

keep up the great researching!

best,
mariam.

10/22/2006 1:52 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Mariam and welcome to my blog! Well, I suppose you have a good point. I AM, or WE ALL ARE something, even if we do not know exactly what. You know, I think that human beings, regardless of the exact nature of our existence, are at their best when they realize that they are all interconnected and interdependant with this world and with each other. Just as atoms participate to create each of us, we all participate to create Humanity. Thanks for your encouragement! :)

10/23/2006 12:41 AM  
Anonymous mariamusic said...

Hi David,

Yes, people are not isolated individuals, but they are interconnected. As far as I know, many have come up with various theories of energies to explain those connection. How those aspects were/are used? oh well!!!

my pleasure regarding the encouragements, and I hope you continue your research.

best,
mariam.

10/25/2006 11:06 PM  
Blogger David said...

Note: This is a comment for Mariam's Dream post at her blog:

My first degree in college was a major in psychology. I am no expert in the interpretation of dreams, although I did have a seminar course in dream interpretation. It was interesting learning about all the different ideas of the famous dream interpreters like Freud and Jung. We had to keep a dream journal for that class. I often have very wierd dreams, so my professor found some of my dreams interesting!

Here is my advice for you (but remember it is not professional advice! :) ). Somehow, you must learn to find your voice in real life. Maybe blogging is a good start for you. If you can learn to be more powerful in your real life, you will be the same in your dreams. I know this may be much easier said than done, but I think that is the message of your dreams.

10/27/2006 10:37 PM  
Anonymous mariamusic said...

Thanks for your kind comment David.

I keep in mind your advice is not a professional one,and I agree with your nonprofessional advice.

My major is psychology in school, and I'm going through some trainnings, so bear with me.

mariam.

P.S. I'll try to see if I can copy and paste your comment and my response on my blog,and I trust it is ok with you.
(that's a loud voice!)

10/27/2006 11:21 PM  
Anonymous mariamusic said...

Hi (again) David,

I tried, but I couldn't post the comments on the comment area either. don't know why, so I allocated a posting for them on my blog.

best,
mariam.

10/28/2006 12:02 AM  
Blogger Kyubai said...

Great post bit complicated but great, I agree with u in the point of us being created from the same materials of thousands of years ago and that is pretty much the circle of life cause we (the humans) think that an object can neither be created from nothing nor reduced to nothing, so u may really have some atoms from a Mammoth or a T-Rex but the idea of having some memories inherited from it is pretty far fetched I think so cause I've searched the matter of trans-genetic memory alot and the closest thing I've reached is the possibility of passing some urges and needs that may form the basic instincts in the human or animal but that is according to chemical reaction of what the cell require and since individuals of the same species aquire almost the same capabilities so we may see them act in similar pattern in some situation but for the time being and according to the researchs the Human kind -at least- r uncapable of inheriting the past experience of their ancestors but again what do I know may be in few years some more mysteries of the human body will be dicovered since no one knows all the mysteries of it save it's creater...
P.S: May I link to ur blog?

11/04/2006 9:22 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hello Kyubai, welcome to my blog! I am glad that my post has been so thought provoking for you! :) I agree with you that passing memories from one creature to another is a far fetched idea. I was mainly pointing out that some science fiction authors have proposed that it might be possible. One of my favorite authors is Frank Herbert. He wrote the popular Dune series of SciFi books. He proposed that some of his characters could experience the complete life memories of thousands of their ancestors! Now that is really far fetched!! However, his books are very entertaining. :) Certainly, you may link to my blog if you like.

11/05/2006 2:27 AM  
Blogger aNarki-13 said...

let me confess something:
I am a pilot for the Spicing Guild.
:))

first, before i forget, lemme comment on the frank herbert books:
mr. Herbert was either a paranormal being, or a TRULY learned writer :)
I have almost all the original series in ebook form.. truly a work of genius.
his memory-transfer thingy was induced by an outside agent, the Spice.. (+ you'd have to have the potential for it or it will kill you) i think it wasnt really the memory per se, but rather the ?spirits? of ancestors past.. (as revealed thru Alia, when she is possessed by the ?spirit? of her granddad)

Dune, the original, is unparalleled, except maybe by Dune Messiah.. but still.. the first:
you do know Arrakis bears VERY STRONG resemblence to Iraq?
the language of Dune is strongly related to arabic, the geography, etc etc etc.
one difference tho: Shaddam the IV was exiled, not executed!

one more thing: the novel was written BEFORE anyone knew who Saddam was..

now, this post is great, i say is and not was, cuz great things never age. i will comment on two matters:

one: why do most ppl assume that "other" life-forms have to be carbon-based? i mean, our limited science permits us to believe that, but.. go back only 100 yrs ago, would anyone have believed there would be men walking outside earth?
two: is cellular life related to "general" life? are "animation" and "life-essence" connected?
i mean, cut off an arm, its cells die, but, will part of YOU die? i honestly think they are two seperate things.
still, i dont know less than .01% of what i'd like to know..

btw, i am strongly in favor of stemcell/cloning/genetic research. we have a powerful brain, we should use it for the benefit of mankind, not let it rot (as in my case :) )

again, Great Post!

11/08/2006 11:34 AM  
Blogger aNarki-13 said...

that's Spacing Guild.. sorry!

logic error at 0x6d23acc9 ... memory dump initiated ... restarting.

(also a HUGE fan of RoboCop :D )

11/08/2006 11:37 AM  
Blogger David said...

Anarki, are you a third stage Guild Navigator traveling in a spice gas filled locomotive? ;) That was one of my favorite effects of the original Dune movie! Have you seen the recent SciFi Channel miniseries of the Dune Trilogy? It is really awesome! Much better than the original movie and far more richly detailed.

I agree with you that Herbert was a truely awesome writer! Hmmm, spirits vs. memories? Interesting question. Have you read God Emperor of Dune, Chapter House Dune, or Heritics of Dune? These books are Herberts second trilogy. There is much more discussion of the ancestor "memories" in those books and much, much more! :)

Herbert must have studied a lot of history related to Islam and Arab countries. He certainly did inject a lot of psudo-Islamic ideas into his stories. Are there really sand dunes like Arrakis in Iraq? I guess that I always imagined the Sahara as more of a model for Arrakis.

One more note about Dune: Frank Herbert's son Brian has tremendously extended the franchise with a number of new books based on his fathers historical notes on Dune. I have been reading one of those books recently. The writing style is even darker, as Brian talks about how intelligent machines nearly snuffed out the human race!

Why should all life be carbon-based? Well that is a good question, and I am not enough of a chemist to even begin to make an answer. However, the original Star Trek series had a silicon-based life form. Remember the rock eating Horta? :) Not all life on earth is cellular. Viruses are not much more that a bundle of DNA (or maybe RNA, I forget). I think that what a person is resides in the brain, so I agree, the loss of an arm is not significant for a human being. However, to an animal, the loss of a limb would usually mean death, unless they could regenerate it like a salamander.

I am also in favor of stemcell and genetic research research. Both have tremendous potential to treat various diseases. Limited cloning, like the cloning of a person's tissue to make a new heart, liver, kidney, etc., is fine by me. However, cloning an entire human being? Well, to me there are serious ethical problems there. Maybe enough for a long post! :)

I think RoboCop is pretty cool too, but I don't want to be cyborged!! Did you know that Peter Weller teaches history at Syracuse University in the U.S.? I didn't know that until recently. He is now hosting a very interesting TV series on the technology of various ancient civilizations. I love the History Channel! :)

I am very pleased that this post gave you so much to think about! :) Now recite three litanys against fear and come back again soon! ;)

11/09/2006 1:00 AM  
Blogger aNarki-13 said...

"I shall not fear.... fear is the mind-killer...etc"
(can't remember much more)

whoooowww you certainly made me time-travel at least four years there!

i've read:

Dune,Messiah, Children of .., God Emperor of.., the Butlerian Jihad (the one bout Serena and the Erasmus roboty thingy, but it was nice to see Harkonnen in a different light for once.. i always liked them more!), and another i cant quite remember.. my books are back in Baghdad!

"Heretics of..." i have in ebook form, its queued, i have to finish Robert Howard's Conan first.. (original pulp stories series.. amazing!)

i loved the miniseries, incredible..i bought it last year on dvd, cost me a bundle, but it is worth every penny..true to the books,

and the original movie?
i've seen it too, its nice, BUT,
:( i wish it was made longer.. i mean, a million others said it before me, you cant condense Dune into 3 hours worth of film..
a trilogy ala star wars?

between you and me, i think Muad'dib (which loosely means Educator or Teacher in arabic) got the short end of the stick.. i mean, come on!
but i guess, if he remained as he was, it wouldnt have been such a great story..
ummm.. is there a Dune Forum somewhere? i'll go find out!

i kinda want to be a guild navigator on one of the big deep space freighters.. space is a big dream for me.. :')

about Arrakis, i thought the name was kinda familiar, until i came upon Habbaniya ridge (among others), which is in reality an artificial lake in iraq, and some other familiar names..
we have the western desert, connecting us to jordan, syria and saudi arabia, that is a vast desert in which tribes still move/join/seperate/inter-marry quasi-freely even today..

cloning = partial for me too.. i kinda skipped the word.. i mean, cloning damaged nerve/muscular tissue and the like.. just like you said.. full cloning.. many problems there..

wow, believe me i am impressed by you! (you dont need me saying that, but, i say it anyway!)

i like RoboCop more for his sense of justice.. just sooo.. crisp. oh oh and for the cool (back then) vision interface!
(suffering from weak eyes, so, anything vision-related interests me.. hell, even my major in college was ComputerVision/ImageProcessing)

11/09/2006 2:30 PM  
Blogger David said...

Anarki, thank you for translating Muad'dib! I never knew the real world meaning. Still, I will always think of the little desert mouse of the story. ;) Paul may be a bit unnecessarily tragic, but I think the most tragic figure is Alia. In my reading of the story, I saw no absolute need for Jessica to drink the Water of Life knowing full well that she was pregnant and what it would do to her unborn child. There was some discussion about her needing to find an indespensible purpose among the Fremen, and her succession to Wild Reverend Mother of the tribe certainly made her an important figure. However, her skill at fighting should have been more than enough to ensure her an honored role in the sietch as a combat master and teacher.

If space is really such a big dream for you, perhaps it is within your ability to realize that dream. Come to the U.S. and earn a Ph.D. in something that would qualify you to become a mission specialist and maybe you could be accepted for astronaut training. Perhaps something in the field of robotics? Btw, I am a big Asimov fan. Ever read any of his stories? I think that R. Daniel Olivaw is one awesome positronomotive dude! ;)

I return your respect with a virtual bow. I am impressed by you as well!

11/11/2006 6:25 PM  
Blogger Melantrys said...

Aw, aren't the boys cute? ;)

Ahhhhh, the pizza, er, Horta! *sits back and smiles*

11/12/2006 11:36 AM  

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