Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Nature of My World

So this next part of the Philosophy Thursday series is where we get into the meat of the things that I want to write about. I would caution any reader of this blog series, and this post in particular, that it is actually quite difficult for me to write about this stuff. These are thoughts that I have had for a long time, but barely whispered them to anyone else. So it takes a lot of courage for me to continue with my philosophy series. Here they come: my innermost secrets. So don't judge too harshly.

Not that anyone is. I am pleasantly surprised at the amount of trolls (zero) that do not haunt this particular tiny slice of the interwebs. However, for some reason I am always steeling myself against some imagined eventual attack. Anyways, on with the philosophy.

We are all made of stars


Jostein Gaarder. Photo: Jarle Vines
(Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 3.0
When I was in my early 20s, I discovered and became obsessed with the works of Jostein Gaarder. A Norwegian novelist, his plots always revolve around some aspect of Western Philosophy. My favourite of these is Maya. I don't remember much about the plot other than the fact that the beginning was not promising but that the book delivered big time. But I do remember that one particular idea caught me by surprise with its newness (new to me, that is).

One quotation in particular really struck me. I can vividly remember the time and place when I read it. I was on a commuter bus in Ottawa, on my way to my part-time, after class, data entry job for the government. I read it, and then just had to take the rest of that bus trip to stare out at the Ottawa River as the parkway sped past. This is it:

"Who could have guessed that the first bold amphibian was not only crawling one small step up the shore, but also taking a giant leap on the long road to the point where primates could see a panorama of their proud evolution from the start of that selfsame road? The applause for the Big Bang was heard only fifteen billion years after the explosion." -Jostein Gaarder

It was not just that quotation that gave me pause. It was the culmination of that, combined with other ideas. And soon those ideas would distill into the things that I believe today:

Burgess Shale Opabinia Fossil
In my late 20s, I had that feeling of being struck by a book again when I read Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. Gould discusses the Burgess Shale and the multitudes of Cambrian Fauna that can be found in the form of fossil remains. He writes about how these different types of life could have, had their won out the evolutionary competition they were in, led to very different forms of life than what exists on Earth today (i.e. not humans). At the end of the book, he summarizes by saying that:

"OK, the very first Cambrian fauna included a plethora of alternatives possibilities, all equally sensible and none leading to us." p.316.

He also indicates that this means self-consciousness might not have existed on earth at all, due to the particular structures that evolved in the form of life that won the Cambrian (so to speak) and eventually led to us. Very interesting stuff -- best to read the actual book for a better explanation than I can give.

But the point is that in reading that book, it really struck me just how improbable not only humans are, but how infinitely more improbable I am. Think about it: how many minute tiny daily decisions had to happen not only for the thousands of my preceding generations to have actually coupled and produced something, but how many millions of generations of other species before that would have had to evolve in extremely specific ways for me to come about. It's mind-boggling.

Just a for instance: if my maternal grandparents had immigrated to the United States like they were originally supposed to instead of to Canada, my parents never would have met. And I never would have been at all. Now count down through the generations all the other millions of accidents that would have had to happen in order that I exist.

And your point being...?


Okay, all right. I know. This is all very Carl Sagan and you've probably heard it all before. That theory:

"The eye that surveys the universe is the universe's own eye." -Jostein Gaarder, Maya.

Not only just theory but the fact that once I was star stuff, now I am a human. Improbably. But I think the thing you haven't heard, perhaps, are my personal conclusions about all this.

The first thing I conclude is that there need not be any anthropomorphized god or intentional energy in this equation. (what I mean is that when I hear people say, "the universe wants me to take this job," or "The universe is trying to tell me something" -- that's intentional energy and pretty much just a placeholder for 'deity'). There need not be any fate here. It was not intention that I exist in my current form. It was not destiny that I am alive.

I don't think the universe has intention. I think rather that the universe is a thing that tends towards self-consciousness -- multitudinous and differentiated -- the way a flower will tend towards light: if you turn a flower away from the sun, it will eventually turn back. No matter how many times you turn a flower away from light, it will always turn back. But no one on this planet would ascribe intention to the action of a flower.

So, metaphorically, the universe has always turned towards looking at itself. Again, I'll leave it to Gaarder to explain that:

"The mere experience of being created is as nothing compared to the overwhelming sensation of conjuring oneself out of zilch and standing completely on one's own feet."

If we are star stuff turned conscious, then I am the universe creating itself. And observing itself.

What the heck does this have to do with ethics?

Well, a lot. At least for me.

This line of thought may be already familiar to you: if I am made of stars, and I am the universe who has created itself, then I am everything/everything is me. So I not only have a responsibility to answer to the entire universe for my wrongdoings against itself/myself, but everything in the world: all ethical wrongs and ethical rights, all shitty violent movies and wildly uplifting music, all crime and atrocities and moments of splendour are all my responsibility, right?

But that's a heck of a lot of guilt to take on, isn't it? And give someone else some credit for good in the world, will you?

It's a strange form of solipsism that I've been lead to, isn't it? A kind of cosmic egocentrism that can't be right -- doesn't exactly sit right with me.

There is something missing, something that I need to add to this in order to be an ethical being in this whole of (obviously) other individuals who are also perceiving the universe for itself in their own particular way. And so where do we go from here?

I think you know the answer to that by now! We go to next Thursday!

I promise that once I've finished with my Philosphy Thursday series, this will all make sense and connect: ambition and fortune and ethics and the publishing industry. You'll see! :P