Sunday, August 23, 2020

Thingness and Nothingness

King Lear fool

The other morning I awoke to a realization: that while my mind, my conscious thought and memory, is a “spirit of the air” and therefore immortal, my body, my brain and the heart, hands, and legs that support it, is still a thing, and like all things it has a finite and ending existence in space and time. This is not, of course, a new thought in the history of human inquiry. But it is usually masked on a personal level by the day-to-say assumptions we all make, that our lives are virtually infinite and that death is far, far away.

As a professed atheist with a predilection for scientific empiricism, I am denied the consolation of belief in any kind of afterlife: transmigration of the soul into another body, translation of the mind into a spirit residing in a heaven or hell, or even transition into some kind of universal all-soul or cosmic consciousness. I have to believe that, like everyone in my parent’s generation and even some in mine, or a once-favored pet, a tree in the forest, or a dead fly on the windowsill, we are creatures of time and space, have existence and activation for a brief period, and then go out. The closest my beliefs come to religion is the Buddha’s description of Nirvana, the end of karma and its oppressive, continuing cycle of rebirths: you go out, like a candle flame. Where do you go? Don’t ask, because it is not defined.

In my view, this “going out” is nothing you have to work for or struggle to obtain, like the Buddha’s Nirvana. Instead, it just comes with the package of a person’s being a thing in time and space.

I have argued elsewhere against this “thingness” aspect of being human. My point was that transporter beaming as in The Fly and the Star Trek series cannot work simply because I—and people in general—are not things but processes. Every cell in our bodies, unlike the fixed materials in a brick or a bowl of potato salad, is in constant motion: absorbing nutrients, processing them, and casting off wastes, as well as transcribing DNA and translating RNA to make proteins, and using those proteins as building blocks and catalysts within the cells, along with chemical messages being sent through the bloodstream, and electrochemical messages sent across a network among 86 billion neurons in the human brain. None of this is static; everything is moving. Even with the fastest supercomputer, you can’t map the position of every atom in each cell, deconstruct it, transmit the information across space, and rebuild the body—and not expect to create a muddle of chemical reactions that got reversed, DNA and RNA replications that got interrupted, nerve impulses that got scrambled in transit, and a resulting accumulation of errors and poisons in each cell, the bloodstream, and the nervous system.

But still, much as I am a process, the machinery that is running that process has a fixed place in space and time. My software is firmly anchored to hardware, a squishy, chemically based machine.

The difference between a brick and a human body is that elusive, self-replicating, self-activating electrochemical thing called “life.” A brick is unchanging, except for the abrasions it suffers from use and weathering, and so it is virtually immortal. A living body is constantly changing, renewing cells and tissues as they wear out—at least up to a point—and adapting to its environment both physically as well as mentally and emotionally. But when the physical errors mount up—to say nothing of the mental and emotional errors—and the healing process fails, then the electrochemical spark dies, and the body becomes not unlike a brick—except that it deteriorates a lot faster. This is the mortality of all living things.1

Eventually, the brick will wear away—or you can smash it first—and then you have its component molecules of silica, alumina, lime, iron, and so on. But it will no longer be a brick. You can chemically unmake those molecules into their component atoms, then smash them down to protons, neutrons, and electrons, and finally break the neutrons down into protons, electrons, and antineutrinos.2 Protons have never been observed to decay, and their theoretical half-life is many times longer than the estimated age of the universe, so they may in fact be immortal—but proton decay still could happen. So, yes, you can unmake a brick or a human body down to the point of dissipated energy and subatomic fragments. And then neither of them will be a recognized thing anymore—nor, in the case of the human being, any kind of a process—and that’s as close to nothingness as you can get.

When my process dies away to mere thingness, and my thingness disintegrates to nothingness. Then nothing will be left. I may hope to be outlived by my children (if any), by my good works, by the love of the family and friends who knew me—all mortal and thing-based processes themselves—and by my books in the form of disintegrating paper and dissipating electrons. But in reality, any whispers of my existence will all have disappeared long before the last molecules of my body have blown away in a dust of subatomic particles.

That’s a grim thought for a weekday morning. I suppose you would call it a depressing thought. But in the long view—and here I’m talking about human history, culture, and many multiples of a human life—we don’t want things to last forever. Yes, I’d like a “lifetime warranty” on my mattress or my refrigerator, maybe not so much on my car, as I tend to enjoy the process and excitement of buying a newer model every couple of years. But we don’t want people, objects, or even stories and ideas to outlive their usefulness, to become meaningless—or worse, a fool’s punchline—for later and later generations. The imagined life of an Elrond or a Dracula, persisting through the ages of men, is indeed a tragic story.

Ozymandias was a warning to all who would yearn for immortality.

1. And yes, literature is filled with virtually immortal creatures such as elves and vampires. But I remind you that these are creations of the human mind and not actually found in nature. Even the Sequoia sempervirens, which can live for up to two millennia, eventually sickens, falls, and decays—if fire doesn’t get to it first.

2. Free neutrons outside an atomic nucleus tend to decay in about fifteen minutes.

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