Saturday, November 12, 2011


     In my last post, I argued that the ultimate source of the human zest for living is the interconnectedness and unrepeatableness of the material All from which we and the rest of the cosmos came.  I stressed the randomness of cosmic evolution and its collision between order and disorder, a collision I infer is in some way basic to the All.  I also pointed out the solace I draw from my own existence, which I consider as valuable and self-justified as any.
     In today's post, I want to highlight terrestrial evolution as the immediate source of our zest for living.  Once Earth had aggregated from planetessimals into a crusted, molten ball and chanced to acquire the size, orbit, tilt, and solar position it has, it became a unique platform for organic life.
     Exactly how this happened is not fully understood.  For example, astronomers have just discovered a nearby star at the center of a sphere of gas with huge amounts of water frozen to near-absolute zero at the sphere's outer fringes.  They theorize that earth's oceans may have resulted from similarly frozen water at the fringes of our own solar system, transported to earth's surface by comets.  The theory contradicts most current assumptions about how the earth's oceans formed.  Rather than filled with rainfall from earth's own clouds, our oceans may have filled with the water of comets from deep solar space.
     What were the odds against human intelligence emerging from such an accidental series of events?  The primordial gasses and dusts of the solar system had to be just massive and moving enough to create a sun of just the right size and heat, with just enough leftover debris to create a planet with just the right orbit and spin for collecting comet-ice (if it did), then warm it for billions of years with sunlight and vulcanism.  Random molecular action in this oceanic hatchery had to produce increasingly complex, self-replicating inorganic compounds, which then had to enclose themselves in membrane sacs and turn into organic cells.
     The odds against all this happening must have been off the charts.  Similarly mind-boggling is that each of these cells was an absolutely new and inimitable object in the cosmos.  It was a perfect singularity, not in the sense of being physically unexplainable but rather of being a unique event in cosmic space-time.  Nothing else did, would, or could ever occupy its slot in the cosmos.  Though organisms on countless other planets in countless other solar systems and galaxies may be constantly evolving from inorganic matter, they're as unique there as ours are here.  The existence of each of these cells and of every other particle of matter in the cosmos cannot and will not be repeated elsewhere.
     Whether such singularity is true of the All as a whole is impossible to know.  If space, time,  mass, and energy before our Big Bang were indistinguishable and interchangeable parts of a featureless soup of infinite heat/density, as the physics of post-Planck Era symmetry-breaking implies, of what precisely did their uniqueness consist?  Furthermore, states of being having more or less than the four dimensions of our space-time, assuming such states exist, may not particularize objects the way our cosmos does.
     Yet by extrapolating from the empirical evidence here, I suspect that the fundamental stuff of the All is infinitely singular and particular.  Since this is a pretty counterintuitive proposition, let me put it another way:  the basic component of ultimate reality -- the core ingredient or material of all existence -- is, like every object in space-time, infinitely divisible.  No matter how many times you halve something in space-time, you can continue dividing it forever.  There is no irreducible particle of stuff or matter anywhere, and when I speak of such basic stuff or matter I think of it as being somehow infinitely divisible.  Since infinite divisibility implies not only endless particularity but endless equality of value among all particulars,  I must be a singularity that is as valuable as anything that exists.  Though obviously speculative, this inference is based not on wishful thinking but on good empirical evidence.
     In other words, even before terrestrial organisms developed sensations of any kind, they were unique singularities within the cosmos and probably unique singularities within the All.  The visceral belief of all human children that they're immortal stems in part from their sense of their own uniqueness as physical objects.  Vastly more important, though, is their gut feeling they cannot die.  So potent is this feeling that most people never outgrow or unlearn it, seduced as they are by magical thinking into seeing something in themselves as immaterial or supernatural.  Against overwhelming natural evidence, they refuse to believe in their own mortality.
     Their uniqueness as material objects has been transformed into a sense of immortality by the two most powerful instincts imbedded in them by natural selection.  The first, of course, is the instinct to survive.  Only organisms that adapt well to their environment through genetic mutation do survive, and every such mutation reinforces both their sense of their own indestructibility and their zest for living.
     The second is the instinct to reproduce.  Superficially, reproduction doesn't seem to be as obviously self-aggrandizing a drive as personal survival.  Sexuality, controlled by more specialized biological triggers than the other three primal f's (feeding, fighting, fleeing), doesn't in the same way affect the individual organism's own quotidian survival.  Yet, absent reproduction, every species will quickly die out, so in every successful species sexuality is as important as outliving famines, predators, or life-and-death battles.
     These two primal instincts, along with countless supporting instincts and sensors, strengthened every organism's sense of individual selfhood to the point of overwhelming its ability to grasp or even intuit the fact of its own death.  Many survival mechanisms, such as herd, flock, or school bonding, evolved to preserve and enhance this feeling of personal indestructibility, though many other instincts like self-sacrifice for the hive or colony, muscular paralysis in the jaws or claws of predators, or white-light visions at death point the other way.
     I'm oversimplifying, of course.  Exactly how each of the countless species that have existed on the earth's surface developed, and how intense their zest for living was, are questions answerable only in a generalized, proof-poor way.  But the basic facts of organic evolution are indisputable.  First, all terrestrial organisms are locked into the mortal cycle of birth, life, and death.  Second, all terrestrial organisms except perhaps certain bacteria sustain themselves by absorbing the nutrients of other organisms, which has made the earth seem to some people a murderous place (others have called it a charnel house or death-kitchen.)  Third and most important, all terrestrial organisms instinctively deny they will die.
     This instinctive denial shows how deeply engrained our zest for living is, saturating every cell, bone, nerve, and muscle of our being.  We love life because we came into existence through a multi-billion-year process of genetic mutation that brought our ancestors from sea to land, to mammalian  reproduction, to bi-podal locomotion, and to extraordinary brain size.  Thoroughly random, the process endowed each new species with an entirely new kind of cosmic reality and each new creature with a singularity unique in cosmic history.
     In my next post, I'll discuss how the emergence of human intelligence both enhanced and challenged our zest for living.