Global Musings XIII: Apotheosis

Below is an extract from the travel-philosophy memoir The Jolly Pilgrim, by Peter Baker, first published by the HotHive. The extract is taken from Part 10 of the book.

 

Before I went on this adventure, I thought myself a pretty progressive bloke. People are the same. That which divides us is a fraction of what unites us. All that kind of stuff. I no longer believe that satisfactorily describes the situation.

The real illusion is the one separating you from me. That’s the thing which, once it has been seen through, means everything makes more sense. The deception exists with good reason. It allows our minds to carry out the tasks they were generated to take. But it isn’t real.

It’s an artefact.

*****

The thing about being a carbon-based life form is that it’s difficult to get around that whole carbon-based-life-form way of looking at the world. Having certain preconceptions, and a built-in conceptual architecture, are boundaries that just come with being a human.

The really interesting thing would be to see ourselves without those boundaries. To glimpse ourselves entirely in context, as something that wasn’t even a carbon-based life form might see us. Technically, that isn’t the sort of thing a carbon-based life form like me can do. But if one was to float in the ocean for a while, at an appropriately stimulating point in one’s life, one could probably take a pop at it.

So then, there’s this six septillion kilogram sphere of iron and rock. It’s rolling around the gravity well of a giant billion-year-old fusion engine. The sphere is wrapped in a film of gas and liquid. Within that film is a dispersed cloud of carbon atoms. The atoms are dancing and, as the aeons pass, their dance becomes more elaborate …

 

*****

 

About one billion years after the genesis of life on Earth, a bacteria-like organism entered the body of a larger such creature. Whether it was trying to parasitize the bigger cell, or the bigger cell was trying to eat it, is unknown. But it turned out that, once inside, the smaller cell could metabolised the larger one’s waste products. The two cells developed a symbiotic relationship, began replicating together, swapped a few genes and became – for all intents and purposes – a single life form.

A billion years after that, a bunch of these symbiotic cells – somehow – got stuck together. That arrangement helped them propagate themselves and they became – for all intents and purposes – a single life form. After some time, individual cells within those symbiotic cell colonies started to specialise, to divide their labour. Out of that specialisation an emergent phenomenon was born.

The way multi-cellular organisms – like humans – work is by growing their bodies out of the sex cells formed at the moment of conception. That body then forms a shell around those sex cells. Its purpose is to get them (technically: the germ line) into the next generation. Every property of that shell is determined by that purpose, including its mortality.

The word for that disposable bit of a multi-cellular organism (every part of it except for the sex cells) is the soma. Everything about the form, characteristics and behaviour of the soma of a multi-cellular organism is defined by what succeeds in getting sex cells across generations. As the biosphere of planet Earth fermented over the aeons, the somas of different lineages evolved into ever more convoluted shapes. Some of them started to look like monkeys.

Talking strictly cause and effect, a chicken is the tool by which an egg creates another egg, and a human is the tool by which the human germ line propagates itself. Every one of our features has been hammered into place by that evolutionary logic, including our brains.

It was once believed that the brain was an instrument for housing the self. We now understand that this isn’t true. Physically changing a person’s brain changes their underlying identity. The brain is, in fact, a mechanism that generates the self.

What, exactly, consciousness is remains a vexed question. But as that cloud of carbon atoms ripened down the years some of the brains in some of those somas (for example the ones that looked like monkeys) developed hyper-advanced augmentations. Those hyper-advanced augmentations have provoked those monkeys into doing some very peculiar things. One of those peculiar things is to divide their labour, to specialise. Out of that specialisation an emergent phenomenon has been born.

That emergent phenomenon has, in turn, had several peculiar side effects. It’s destabilised the rhythms of the cloud of carbon atoms of which it is one element. It’s also destabilised the rhythms of the film of gas and liquid to which that cloud of carbon atoms is symbiotically tied. It’s causing the non-life, non-organic atoms on the planet’s surface (for example the iron and silicon atoms) to be drawn into its dance and – weirdest of all – it has allowed those hyper-advanced augmentations to the brains of somas that look like monkeys to understand that this is what they are. Now it’s on the verge of allowing them to overpower the genetics defining everything about them.

To set our situation in fundamental terms ‘we’ (the conscious entities who read and write books) are the hyper-advanced augmentations to complex biological decision-making mechanisms, which are one element of mortal cell colonies generated by an immortal lineage of sex cells, which are really a couple of bacteria that have been merrily replicating together for the last two billion years since they became symbiotically joined in the primordial soup, and are themselves one element of a cloud of carbon atoms dancing around a planet.

If that fountain of über-chemistry wasn’t wacky enough, it has set off an emergent phenomenon – civilisation – which, while apparently an entirely inadvertent consequence of the above train of events, is dynamic, linear and completely open-ended.

Not only is this all completely nuts, if you believe being alive is cool (which I do), it’s also quite remarkably convenient. Suspiciously so. Some might say that proves something they think they already know about the literal truth of an ancient fable. I’m of the view that such assuredness is a mistake.

One of the reasons I believe the human race needs to clear its collective consciousness of clutter, and be honest about what it is and what’s going on, is that I think we’re missing something. I think there are some really fundamental things about this whole situation that we have failed, thus far, to put our fingers on.

 

*****

 

In the sixteenth century, the human race experienced a revelation. The established framework of a geocentric cosmology was overturned. Planet Earth, it transpired, is not, in fact, the centre of the universe. At the time that freaked-out some people.

The nineteenth century brought a further revelation. One that redefined our sense of identity. Charles Darwin’s candle in the darkness. Species come into being via a process that can be deconstructed. Evolution by natural selection. All extant life forms are part of a tree, branching and re-branching. Quite a few people are still freaked-out by this, preferring their campfire tales.

The twentieth century brought more revelations, this time in physics. We learned that time is relative, that we are surrounded by things we neither see nor sense and that there are orders of creation – in both scale and time – beyond the reach of our minds. Those revelations are more unsettling than anything Charles Darwin ever said, but because they’re so esoteric, people aren’t quite so freaked out by them (yet).

That wasn’t the end. As the expansion of our knowledge intensifies, there will be further insights. Some of them – particularly at first – might really freak us out.

 

*****

 

Let me give you an example of the sort of thing I mean.

At the moment, on several fronts, philosophers and neuroanatomists are investigating the nature of consciousness, its relationship to the unconscious, free will and what, exactly, is going on in these heads of ours when we experience reality. Sooner or later, there’s going to be a breakthrough.

When that breakthrough comes, we’ll begin to understand what’s happening with these 100 billion neurons – that we’ve all got – to produce this subjective feeling – that we all feel – of being alive. That’s going to be interesting.

Every system in the universe we’ve ever investigated has turned out to be either deterministic (you flick a switch and a light comes on) or random (you roll a die and there’s a one in six chance of a six). When we start to understand the principles and processes that underlie our own neural circuitry what do we think we might find?

Presumably a process, or set of processes, which are either deterministic or random. What else might it be? Could it be magic? Maybe it is.

We may be about to find out: to begin to understand exactly what it is that we’re talking about when we use terms like ‘consciousness’ and ‘free will’. That could be a moment when everything makes more sense, or a moment when everything gets turned on its head.

It’s not the only such revelation on the horizon. Physicists continue in their project to scrutinize the fabric of reality; to figure-out what it is and how it works. The more we understand, the weirder it gets. It’s already clear that the way we perceive the universe, and the things we regard as real, are a simplified version of a deeper and more complicated picture. But what those physicists really want to achieve is an all-embracing theoretical understanding of everything. The fabled Grand Unified Theory.

That may or may not be possible. It may be that the intellectual paraphernalia we use to model reality is inadequate. It may be that the universe – to paraphrase Sir Arthur Eddington – is simply stranger than we can imagine. However, previous experience would suggest there are conceptual jumps – akin to the realisation time is relative not absolute – yet to be made; pennies waiting to drop.

Comprehending the underlying geometry of space-time is no small thing. It doesn’t just constitute an ingenious piece of mathematics. That’s real ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’ stuff, and if there is a species-wide revelation waiting in the wings that could be it.

Understanding how we and the universe work are implicit questions, given that we and the universe are here. There are other questions, with potentially paradigm-flipping answers, implicit in our being here that – while not quite so fundamental – have a widely recognised talismanic significance.

This cloud of carbon atoms wrapping this planet have started exhibiting strange phenomena and doing peculiar things. That begs the question of whether there are other such clouds, wrapping other such planets, exhibiting similar such phenomena.

Questions regarding alien intelligence are ones we’re only just learning to frame and organise our ignorance in respect of: ignorance that’s loaded with assumptions regarding extraterrestrial behaviour and technology (quite a few of which are probably incredibly naïve).

But seeing as the universe is so ancient and vast, and its laws are suited to the emergence of life, it would be paradoxical were they not out there. Given the broad trajectory of human affairs, it appears inevitable that, sooner or later, we’ll come across evidence of them.

Such evidence may have to wait ten thousand years until robot probes reconnoitre the galaxy; a thousand until we build virtual space-based detectors big enough to pick out intergalactic signals; five hundred when we figure-out the decryption algorithms for interstellar communiqués; or a hundred, when we simply point our telescopes in the right direction. That could be the point at which it dawns on us exactly how arbitrary and subjective our way of thinking about the universe has always been – the moment everything makes sense, or the moment it gets even weirder.

 

*****

 

However, here is something I believe: an article of faith. We have nothing to fear. Things that are initially sinister or disconcerting will, in the end, seem beautiful and right, and the truth will set us free.

No doubt the really stunning developments will come from unanticipated directions. We’ve only just worked out basic things about what we are and what’s going on. There’s a long road ahead. The future will be difficult and awkward in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Taming war, disease, famine and poverty is not about creating a utopian dream, it’s about getting our shit together; a staging post. Sorting out our spiritual architecture and our relationship to the rest of the biosphere is not the end of something. It’s the beginning of something.

 

*****

 

Humans have an issue with mortality. We don’t like the idea that the sense of self through which we experience reality won’t survive our deaths. Our cultural heritage has bequeathed an idea called heaven. The alternative – sometimes referred to as oblivion – provokes fear. I think that fear is misplaced.

C. S. Lewis said that heaven is spending an eternity thanking God for not answering our prayers. Ours is a universe on a mission, not one that messes around throwing garden parties for carbon-based life forms. Our individual immortality is enshrined in ways far more complete than those imagined in our ancestor’s fables.

Everything that came before us inspires the nature of what we are. Everything we do sets in motion a chain of events which echoes until the end of time, in immediate ways we casually perceive (the work we do, the objects we craft, and the children we bring into being), inconspicuous ways we perceive less fully (the ideas we propagate, the influence we have, and the butterflies we affect), and via more subtle routes that we do not, and may never, comprehend. Each of us is a manifestation of particles created at the beginning of time, which have danced down one hundred million centuries to come together at this one unique moment, in this one unique way, to play out the stories of our lives.

We’re the momentary state of a continuum stretching back, through ages lost to memory, via people of whom we know nothing but owe everything, through things that were not human, things that were not even nearly human, and beyond, to something that wasn’t even alive. The only meaningful context in which we can, or have ever been able to, exist is as a part of that continuum, and it is, in every sense, immortal.

When we talk of ‘living forever’ what, exactly, are we talking about which might ‘live forever’? These hyper-advanced augmentations to complex biological decision-making mechanisms, which are one element of mortal cell colonies generated by an immortal lineage of sex cells, which are really a couple of bacteria that have been merrily replicating together for the last two billion years since they became symbiotically joined in the primordial soup, and are themselves one element of a cloud of carbon atoms dancing around a planet?

Those things?

Fears about death occur to those things because of a set of boundaries they make inside themselves. The entity which is reading this book, that is seeing these abstract shapes on a page, shapes it’s been trained to make sense of, to assign meaning to, and is assigning meaning to these abstract shapes on this page right now. What is that thing, really?

It’s part of something bigger. Just like this other entity, that is recording these ideas, from across whatever gulf of space and time lies between us. We’re part of the same thing, and this indescribably beautiful planet we’re from is the Garden of Eden. There are much more interesting ways of being immortal than simply living forever. Real immortality – the kind that resonates with how the universe truly is – comes from being part of a greater whole.

 

This is an extract from Part 10 of the travel-philosophy memoir The Jolly Pilgrim, by Peter Baker, first published by the HotHive.

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