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Musings on Mergings

I love the sea. Some of my most enjoyable times have been spent on it or alongside it. The sea seems to have a primal connection to us. You can sit in a small boat and watch the dolphins play; you can cast a lure from the rocks and wait in expectation for that jolting shock of a trevally or a mackerel strike; you can cast your net along the bank of the mangrove creek and watch it boil from the frenzied efforts of the prawns to escape; you can watch the sea eagle soaring effortlessly on a summer’s morn; or indeed you can walk along the beach in the moonlight entranced by the simple sound of the water gently lapping on the sand.

You sit and watch the sea interact with the land with the moon reflecting in the water and little bait fish leaving phosphorescent trails on the sea’s surface. You then notice that even the gentlest waves wash some distance up the beach before returning to the main body of water. It is intriguing then to ask yourself the question where does the sea end and the shore begin?

But then you might ponder how flat the sea is tonight. Imagine if there was a fierce storm, a cyclone perhaps. Then the sea would be furious and cast itself angrily on the shore. The waves would be tumultuous and bear down on the sand like little moving mountains and rush high up into the foreshore and the bordering dunes.

You might also, as you sit calmly by the shore in the moonlight, give thought to the fact that the tide is out. In various places the tide can come in many metres. Where you are sitting now would be well and truly submerged at high tide, and depending on the slope of the beach the sea would have advanced up the sand for hundreds of metres.

Perhaps you might also give thought to other historical times. If we were currently experiencing an ice age much of the sea’s water would be locked up in ice-caps such that its volume (in liquid form) was vastly diminished. Under these circumstances the sea would have receded markedly and where you now sit could be many kilometres from the water’s edge.

If you look up you can see light clouds now shrouding the moon. And you ponder that these clouds are also of the sea. The water vapour that comprises them is just the temporary transition from water into the sky from which precipitation will occur that will then flow in the streams and the rivers back into the sea. So you can see how difficult to delineate the sea from the rest of the physical world.

It is edifying to ponder now how we might similarly attempt to delineate a person. Where are our boundaries?

If we begin looking at our physical boundaries, then we will notice that we have as much ambivalence as the sea. Most of us would believe that our skin delineates the boundary between ourselves and the external world. But our skin can’t contain us because it is permeable. When we are hot we perspire and fluids from our body exude onto the skin’s surface to evaporate and cool us. And there are many things benign and otherwise that come into our physical system by permeating our skin. We rely on our skin to absorb vitamin D and we take whatever precautionary measures we can to prevent germs and bacteria from invading our bodies through our permeable skin.

When I breathe, the air from our atmosphere enters my lungs which extract oxygen, and when I exhale the breath is oxygen depleted and carbon dioxide enriched. But the breath I inhale comes from the common atmosphere which I share with all the living things on the earth. The molecules of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide and so on that I draw into my lungs could well have been shared with many organisms, jncluding vast numbers of human beings, over the eons.

We can look back in wonder at the physical phenomena called the “Big Bang” which seems to have been the precursor of our universe. This event prised matter and existence out of the void. In the beginning the physical universe comprised the simplest of all material elements – hydrogen. Then through fusion as the hydrogen gas was drawn together by the force of gravity creating the stars, more complex atoms were formed. In the stellar night stars formed, disintegrated and were extinguished. From the detritus of these transformations the earth was formed, comprising a multitude of substances, aggregating the materials from predecessor bodies that had formed and were subsequently dissipated by the passage of time and eons of decay. Finally, in a miracle of complexification, in defiance of entropy, life was created on earth. Who knows what alchemy was involved to tease life out of the physical elements of the primordial soup that comprised the earth’s surface? From an intermediary of self-replicating molecules a spark was added that allowed carbon based molecules to reproduce themselves and begin the adventure of evolution that has culminated in a human mind of such complexity that it allowed a gate to open for the entry of consciousness.

 

But we are all the products of this evolutionary process. We are in fact, as Darryl Reanney once observed, made of star-dust. Every element which constitutes part of us that is more complex than hydrogen was formed in the fusion processes of stars. The carbon in our tissues, the calcium in our bones, and the iron in our blood all came to be through this process. Our physical bodies are created from the products of the nuclear reactions stimulated by the condensation of hydrogen through the force of gravity in the nuclei of stars. So then we are comprised of elements recycled from the stars. And some of those elements have been recycled among us as well.

 

Our physical indeterminateness is obvious. But that is less important than our psychic indeterminateness. Why do we believe what we believe? Largely because we have learnt those beliefs from others. Why do we behave the way we behave? Largely because we have learnt those behaviours from others and those that are not learnt have been largely determined by our biological history.

What I have come to know is an aggregation largely of the thoughts of others passed on through what I have read in works created by others or by what I have learnt directly through discussion and debate with others.

The attributes of my particular culture have been instilled in me through the demonstration and instruction of others. For many they also acquire their particular philosophies of life and religious beliefs in a similar fashion.

Sometimes when I think of how indeterminate I am I feel like an electron as viewed by quantum physics smeared probabilistically all over the place and difficult to pin down as a separate distinct entity!

So what are the consequences of this – the fact I can’t really tell where I begin and the rest of the universe starts? Well to begin with I understand that you and all others face this same indeterminacy. It reinforces to me that there is little evidence to suggest that I am in any way unique or special. Even that part of me that seems such a distinctive expression of my uniqueness, my internal world of thoughts and beliefs can hardly be said to be my own special province but rather a concocted amalgam largely comprising the thoughts and beliefs of others.

 

There can be no doubt that like the sea I have my own waves generated by my own particular environment and circumstances. So that even where I might differ from you it is hardly any of my doing, but an accident of fate.

Yet beyond that I overlap physically and mentally with others with others not only in space as we saw above but in time. My genes are derived from my predecessors and passed on to my successors. Even now as I share the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle someone in the future will share them too and who knows (I feel a moment of egotism coming on!) they might even share some of my thoughts.

Perhaps our commonality is even more than this. Listen to the words of Erwin Schroedinger, the Nobel prize winning cofounder of quantum mechanics:

“It is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling and choice which you call your own should have sprung into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather, this knowledge, feeling and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all people …..The conditions for your existence are almost as old as the rocks. For thousands of years men have striven and suffered and begotten and women have brought forth in pain. A hundred years ago [there’s the test], a man sat on this spot; like you he gazed with awe and yearning in his heart at the dying light on the glaciers. Like you he was begotten of man and born of woman. Was he someone else? Was it not you yourself?”

And has it not always been so that those who shared this awareness suffered when others suffered, rejoiced when others found joy and sought to assert their oneness with all of Humankind?

 

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  1. 2 Comment(s)

  2.   By Matt Smith on Aug 13, 2013 | Reply

    This stirs philosophical appetite on Compatibilism and Incompatibilsm in regards to free will because of your implied determinism and the mentioning of “indeterminateness”. Are we caused by prior events or are we random (or something else), or can we be both I wonder. Or should we suspend our faculties and declare the supernatural (religion) the answer and then claim we know the absolute truth? Dennett argues that we have evolved to the point of possessing awareness and that we can employ such (consciousness) to influence what would otherwise be inevitable (see “evitable”). Many argue against this Compatibilist Determinist view. This position appears to me to extend too much credit to consciousness.
    Darwin’s concept of the simple to the complex was acknowledge by Hawking in explaining “A Brief History of Time”. Simple to complex implies a direction. A direction to what? Why? And then questions of meaning and purpose storm in.
    “Absurdism” (Kierkegaard and Camus) come to mind.

  3.   By tedscott on Aug 13, 2013 | Reply

    That is a very interesting response Matt. My first encounter of someone who had postulated that evolution was progressing from simple to complex occurred forty-odd years ago when I read the work of the Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). He coined the word “complexification to describe what evolution was doing. And he (in answer to your other question) believed there was a direction and an endpoint that he called the Omega Point””. All of this was a little too heretical for the Catholic Church which withheld approval for the publication of his works and his seminal work “The Phenomenon of Man” was only published after his death. You might care to read some of his work.

    But thanks again for an intelligent and provocative comment!

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