Sunday, July 24, 2011

What/Who/Why am I?

Many of my posts start out as random thoughts I have while driving alone. This is just a sneaky way of saying that I talk to myself in the car. As far as I know, asking questions is exclusive to humans (so I assume that answering our own questions is something only we do as well). But I could be wrong about that. In fact, the default position you should hold on anything I say is that I am probably wrong. I work in a grocery store for fucks sake!! I barely graduated from high school and briefly attended the local community college, ONLY so I could earn limited playing time on the school's basketball team. I am a proverbial fountain of misinformation. But like all humans, I have questions. So I try to come up with answers. Answers that can certainly change when better information comes in. They may change five years from now or they may change an hour after I post this and someone makes a more compelling argument. They are not etched into a tablet of stone. They are the best I can do right now with my undersized prefrontal lobes, but they evolve (it's actually the best thing I can say about them).

What am I?

We covered that I work in a grocery store, but that is not the "what" I am asking about here. One thing I know about humans (I am a human...we covered this above also) is that we are a collection of atoms. The average 70 kg human being (that's 154 lbs in the jolly US of A) contains about 7 times 1027 atoms. That's a seven followed by 27 zeroes. But I am much bigger than the "average" human being. In fact, I am almost twice as big as this "average" human. That's 14,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms!! But that number means almost nothing to me. It's just too big. So lets just call it "oodles" of atoms. The most abundant elements in the human body are Oxygen (65%), Carbon (18%), Hydrogen (10%) and Nitrogen (3%). These four elements alone make up 96% of the human body by my math (I double checked it on a calculator). Where did these atoms come from? Well, one of my favorite quotes EVER comes from physicist Lawrence Krauss:

"Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements - the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life - weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

    He mentions evolution. Human beings are certainly the result of evolution (even though 4 in 10 Americans reject it). Anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record 195,000 years ago in Africa. In this sense, we are all Africans (there is a great t-shirt that has that exact line on it, and the quicker everyone accepts it the closer we'd be to making racism go away). And no, we didn't evolve from monkeys!!! We are more closely related to modern apes (gorillas and chimpanzees) than to monkeys, but we didn't evolve from apes either. We share a common ancestor with apes. This common ancestor existed five to eight million years ago. That species diverged into two separate lineages: one of which led to chimps and gorillas, the other which led to hominids and But this isn't a post about evolution. I'm moving on.

    So to sum up...I answer the "what am I" question like this: "I am a human being, the product of millions and millions of years of evolution among primates (not to mention the 3.8 billion years since life began as single cell organisms). I am also a collection of "oodles" of atoms and these atoms came from the explosion and violent death of stars."

    Who am I?

    This question seems tougher. "What" is more of a nuts and bolts question, like "what is a television?" The "who am I?" question seems more like "how do you tell one television from another?" To start with, I am the offspring of my parents. I received half of my genetic code from my Dad, and half of my genetic code from my Mom. They each received half of their genetic code from their mothers and half from their fathers (my grandparents). We could keep going with this, but you're smarter than me and I know you understand it (because I do). In this sense, my parents are my co-creators. They also gave me all the love and encouragement in the world. This means everything to me. This is a good start (in my case, a great start...and it could only go down from there).

    But that's not the whole answer. If everything about me was a result of being my parents' child my favorite musician would be James Taylor (Dad) and I would really dig foreign movies, in particular ones from the Middle East (Mom). I've got nothing against JT (I enjoy his music every now and again), but this doesn't describe me at all. As a human (see above), we have a unique ability to reference ourselves. We are aware of our existence in a way that other animals aren't. If you don't know what I mean by this, put your dog in front of a mirror and see what he does with the reflection. This is not only useful at a fun house, it seems to play a big role in my answer to the "who" question.

    Each and every day we take in massive quantities of information. We see, we hear, we smell, we taste...(once again, you get it). Each one of these data points gets stored away for later use. We then "make" connections between these points. It's these connections that decide what things we like and don't like. They remind us which events in the past have brought us joy and which ones have brought us sadness. And we have been collecting this information since day one. I was first formally exposed to this idea of the self referential brain in Douglas Hofstadter's book "I am a Strange Loop", but I think I kind of viewed it that way before I read it. This is how I come up with my answer to the "who" question. Let me give an example that is fresh in my mind:

    The other day, my family and I were watching the movie Parenthood. It was on one of the premium cable channels, so when it ended they immediately started another flick. The next movie (much to my wife's chagrin) was Purple Rain. Of course, Prince is the star of Purple Rain. As much as she wanted me to turn it off immediately, I lobbied and talked her into watching the very beginning of the movie (he plays Let's Go Crazy at the beginning...more on that in a moment). I don't have any idea what causes my wife's aversion to Prince. Some back story questions are best left unanswered. I do, however, know what goes on in my head when I think of Prince. I remember that my (older) friend Rick snuck the VHS copy of Purple Rain into my house while my parents were at work. They had heard the movie was for a more mature audience and didn't think I should see it yet (I disagreed). I also remember that Prince played a few songs in the first Tim Burton Batman movie in the late 80's. I then think of an interview I read with Prince in TV Guide at the time Batman was being released in theaters. I read the interview while waiting in a checkout line with my mother at Basics & More behind the Harford Mall (long since's a Best Buy now). He was dating one of the stars of the film, Kim Basinger. She cut the interview short by bringing a jar of honey into the room, which prompted Prince to let the interviewer know that it was time for him to leave. I also remember not fully understanding at the time why a woman bringing a jar of honey into the room would make him want to end his interview. For a short time, I delivered frozen food for Schwan's. We were asked to introduce new products to customers...something that was not always easy for me (I wasn't much of a salesman). One of the new products was an ice cream bar called Let's Dough Crazy. As an ice breaker, I would point out to customers that Schwan's, like Prince, was based in Minnesota, and that as a tribute to him they named a product after his second greatest song. Naturally, the customer's curiosity would lead them to ask me, "what's the greatest Prince song?", at which point I would tell them Raspberry Beret and let them know that I also carried Raspberry Swirl bars on my truck if they would rather have them. (For the record...I wasn't lying to them when I said that Raspberry Beret was my favorite Prince song...I meant it, but it was dishonest to suggest that the ice cream bars were a tribute to him). Corny? Yes!! But these are just a few of the things that pop into my head when I think of Prince. I could go on longer, but I'll spare you (just know that I am listening to the two previously mentioned songs on loop as I type this).

    Does this idea of connected memories and self reference answer the question of "Who am I"? It does for me. So since I "summed" up my answer to the last question, I'll do it again here before I move on: "I am my parents offspring and I get half of my genetic code from my Mom and half from my Dad. I am also the collection of memories and experiences that I have stored in my brain that I reference back to and make new connections with each and everyday."

    Why am I?

    This question is a problem for me. I think the question assumes that there is a purpose to our lives that is defined not by us, but by a higher power. A higher power that I don't believe in. I can't answer the question in that way. But I will answer it...albeit, in my own way.

    The answer I gave for the "who am I" question is also true of the answer I would give for, "who are my parents?" Through experiences and memories, they developed a bond to one another that we call love. I don't know how much we humans understand about "love", but I think it has something to do with these memories and experiences. It also has to do with chemical reactions in the brain and a biological imperative that all living beings have to reproduce. When you meet a person you are interested in, you may not be thinking to yourself, "WOW, I really would like to reproduce with them", but your genes are. So it's the balance between "love" and biological imperative that my parents felt in 1973 that is the first part of my answer to the "why" question.

    The second half is one you have to find for yourself. It's what gets you out of bed everyday. Or maybe what keeps you in bed everyday. For me, I am certain that part of my "why" is another biological imperative. The one that wants to care for and raise my son. For some it may be their job or a hobby. Maybe even a loved one. I imagine that to some extent, all of these things would answer each of our "why am I" question. But I don't believe there is any "big picture" or "grander" answer to the question. You beat all the odds and won the genetic lottery by being born. What you decide to do with that, and what purpose you want to assign to your life is up to you.

    So to sum up the "why" question: "I beat the odds and sprung into existence because of "feelings" (emotional and biological) that my parents had that made them decide to reproduce. These same "feelings", some emotional and some biological, define my life's purpose."

    Okay...that's my attempt to answer life's "big questions". I could have saved you some time and just posted this:

    "I am a human being, the product of millions and millions of years of evolution among primates(not to mention the 3.8 billion years since life began as single cell organisms). I am also a collection of "oodles" of atoms and these atoms came from the explosion and violent death of stars."

    "I am my parents offspring and I get half of my genetic code from my Mom and half from my Dad. I am also the collection of memories and experiences that I have stored in my brain that I reference back to and make new connections with each and everyday."

    "I beat the odds and sprung into existence because of "feelings" (emotional and biological) that my parents had that made them decide to reproduce. These same "feelings", some emotional and some biological, define my life's purpose."

    But what's the fun in that. I have been thinking about this all day and I wanted to get it down as quick as I could. But I'm done now...I've more Prince to listen to. I'd like feedback to this one if you are so inclined. If you think I am wrong or even are crazy enough to agree, let me know. Of course, you are under no obligation to respond (you knew that)...but it would be nice if you did. Especially if you disagree. Maybe I'll learn something new. As I said at the beginning, these beliefs aren't etched in stone...they can change when better evidence comes in. (Note: I didn't attempt to answer the when or where am I questions, because they don't seem very interesting and I hoped we could all figure those out on our own...once again, I could be wrong).


    1. Dude, this was amazing. I am pissed you don't consider yourself intelligent. You are brilliant. A degree or level of education does not define you. You know alot more than the average graduate, no doubt. I was just explaining atoms and star dust to a friend last night (who didn't understand it or didn't have the capacity to fathom it). Really, really, enjoyed your blog.

    2. Your comment is too kind. Thank you for reading and commenting. I get asked by Christians often if I experience awe and wonder because I don't believe in god. The star dust quote is always my first answer to that question. Thinking about it gives me goosebumps. I love science and knowledge..I just want more of it.

    3. Fantastic post dude ... loved it. The stardust quote from Krauss has been one of my favourites for some time - it always moves me to think of the astonishing, almost impossible sequence of complex physical events that took place in order for me to be here. Or, as Bill Bailey put it, this "phenomenal piece of cosmic parking" :)

      I don't think I can disagree with any of your answers to the three questions ... previously I could only ever answer the "what am I?" question with the reply that I was a collection of atoms that had the staggering good fortune to be aware that it was a collection of atoms.

      I've never been asked whether I lacking a god belief deprives me of awe or wonder, but I've always known what my answer would be if I were; I think it's the opposite - the universe is an infinitely more beautiful and amazing place without god being in it - if "someone" made all this, rather than it just simply having come about by natural processes, it would utterly cheapen it.

      Great post - keep 'em coming :)

    4. Thanks for reading and commenting Kris. I couldn't agree more that a "god" would cheapen the wonder that is the universe. We move along one day at a time and there is more than enough awe inspiring reality to fill each of those days. A "fine tuner" would certainly take something away from that for me.