Monday, October 27, 2008

Bonfires of The Universe

On the surface of the planet Earth, in the 5 billionth year of the existence of its parent star, the Sun, on the edge of a continent near a vast ocean of saltwater, in a little house upon a hill, a man sits in a little room rattling the keys on a computer. In this man's head are trillions of little fibers, little organic wires, that interconnect all the billions of neurons and myriad worker cells. Collectively, these fibers and cells are called the brain. The man does not concern himself so much for this brain, except that it provides for his experience of life.

Inside the computer he clatters upon are thousands of little parts, and within the parts are thousands of other parts, and thousands more within those, until there are billions of little bits of dirty sand which bounce quadrillions of electrons back and forth to create the illusion of mathematical precision required to induce the colored surface before his eyes to display an image. That image is the picture of these very words.

Within the man's brain, somehow encoded by all those trillions of tiny fibers, there is also an illusion upon which the display of imagination is played. That illusion is the same whether the man is asleep or awake, and it is sometimes difficult to know whether the dream is real or reality is real, or if neither is real. The fleeting bits of light in our imagination combine into a picture of the world so realistic as to compete with the actual world itself for the label of reality.

Only a few fleeting lifetimes before his, there was no knowledge of this thing called the brain. Certainly it was known to be connected to life somehow, and in some ways it was thought to be a place where devils might reside, whispering evil deeds to the witless owner. Conversely, it was a place where God might whisper holy commands to counter the evil spells. Yet, more weight was given to the heart as the seat of consciousness, of life, of emotion and thought.

In truth, there can be no life without both the heart and brain. And even with both intact, life can be hard to maintain – there must also be blood and stomachs and all manner of bones and complicated devices, all working in concert to provide for our lives. Life is the unification of all the cells and mineral deposits within our bodies, and all the electrical signals which operate them, and all the conceptualizations we perceive in our spirits. There are only very tiny differences between the body of a healthy conscious man and that of a dying man in a coma.

Although many wish to deny the fact, we are a kind of animal. The concept of animal is often limited to beasts, such as dogs or cows. No one likes to think of themselves as a kind of ape. But there is no denying that we share nearly every aspect of our lives, our bodies and our minds, in one manner or another, with the other animals on this planet. We have blood, we have cells, we have molecules of DNA, we have pains and pleasures, we have hunger and fear. We share all those things and more with the other living creatures, and moreover we share many of them with plants and even microbes.

Then, to dispel the unpleasant concept that we are merely animals, we try to distinguish ourselves by the differences. Primarily, above all else, it is said, we have souls. Animals do not. We alone in the world gathered our souls around bonfires to celebrate and wonder of the mysterious facets of life.

I cannot prove whether or not other living things have souls. But, to avoid needless argument, I will just concede that a soul is unique to mankind. Surely there are qualitatively superior methods to our survival that no other living things seem to master. We can build cities and machines, alter the climate, repair our bodies with medicine and surgery. We certainly are a clever kind of animal, no doubt. The vast complexity inherent in being a human is certainly beyond casual comprehension. We seemed blessed by God, indeed.

But termites and ants can build cities. They, as well as mere microbes and plants, alter the climate. Our bodies and theirs have always been able to repair themselves within limits, or to supplement themselves with herbs and minerals to aid in healing. The main difference is that we can be aware that we are doing those things, rather than just accidentally doing them as a result of the trial and error of cellular evolution over billions of years. Instead, we can pass our observations directly to our children in the form of codes and signals, such as the words in this document.

That mere collisions of quadrillions of quadrillions of atoms accidentally clumped into something like ourselves is difficult for some to grasp. However, we are quick to attribute that effect to bacteria or viruses – mainly because we can watch it happen. It is too slow to watch it happen in more complex creatures. Yet, there is no line which absolutely, neatly divides the continuum from organic molecules to astronauts. The line seems to exist between living things and machines, although machines are merely an extension of our human bodies, like our bones and muscles are extensions of our nerves and organs.

Still, no other animal other than mankind (and whatever little critters hitchhiked with us,) has been able to travel across the deadly radiation and void of space to the moon and back, alive. That is something, certainly, that widely separates us from the other animals and plants of Earth. It is a grand accomplishment that no dinosaur or whale or tree had ever done in the billions of years of ever changing lifeforms before us.

Yet, with all our intelligence and curiosity, perhaps unique amongst the vast expanses of our galaxy, (or perhaps not,) we might be snuffed out in an instant by the random passage of some leftover rock careening about the local star system. Or we might snuff ourselves out in millions of degrees gamma ray bursts with our nuclear weapons. Or we might just starve to death by poisoning the world with garbage. I hope not, of course.

Beyond those possibilities, every day another star snuffs out somewhere amongst the heavens. Perhaps another is born from the vast clouds and ashes of other snuffed out stars to take its place. But whatever lifeforms, similar to ourselves or not, which may have called that dead star their Home, will have been snuffed out as well. All their art and history and cities will have vanished, completely erased from reality, just as mysteriously and completely as before they were ever created.

Unless we can reach into the heavens, and spread our fragile thread of life amongst the galaxies, amongst the life-giving and life-destroying bonfires of the Universe, our future in life is doomed as certainly as the day turns to night. This may be God's will or not, I don't know. Yet so far, though it seems very, very difficult, God has not prevented us from at least trying.