The title of this essay is a play on the very first post of this blog: “Happiness in the Belly of the Space Whale”, an essay written over a decade ago to convey my thoughts on the nature of existence. This is to some degree an update or addendum to that essay. Though it’s not required that you have read that previous effort, it is interesting to see how my thoughts have developed, as in some ways they both cover similar material.
When cavemen decided the names of your children...
A group of cavemen are sat around a fire. One says rather dramatically: “ug ug megug”. Loosely translated: “and lo, forever our children, and our children’s children shall follow this rule!”. What rule? Well, for the sake of this discussion, it matters very little. But let’s qualify it. Our ancestors here have created a diktat: that they, and all the generations to come must call their first born sons Bugerarder and their first born daughters Takeitlikeapro. Their god has demanded it. All the cavemen agree to follow this rule, and they all agree that future generations must follow this rule too. No ifs. No buts. In a thousand years the first borns will still bear these names.
Let us move forward that thousand years or so. You are a descendent of these cavemen. You hold in your arms your first born child. You now have a choice. Though you bear the name decreed by your forefathers, the time has come for you to decide. Did that choice made in the distant past, of which you were not party to, or signatory of, did that diktat really remove the volitional power that you are able to at this moment enact? Do your long dead ancestors really get to choose the name of your newly born infant?
Take the laws of the Roman Empire. Of course, many of our laws have some basis in the historical past. I live in Britain, and some of our road network can be traced back to the original roads used by the Romans to bring troops and trade into this country. But at some point in the past the laws of a long dead empire were usurped by a different age. A long dead past cannot have a volitional impact on the future, except by appealing to those alive at that moment to continue to aspire to their ideals, beliefs, laws and customs.
So at this point in the proceedings, I expect broad agreement. If a group of cavemen decided to sign away the volitional freedom of the human race in perpetuity, I think we can all agree that very few people today are going to choose to follow that diktat from a prehistoric age. The cavemen had their own volitional freedom, they chose to behave in certain ways, hold certain beliefs and follow certain rules. We did not exist and we could not hope to change their volitional choices. They no longer exist and can not really change our experience too. They had their go. Now is our time.
A quick aside. I am not saying that we should not benefit from the past. London is an ancient city. It would be a severe handicap to any generation if the city was levelled or if books and the knowledge within destroyed. No. Building upon the shared experience of humanity is one of the great strengths of our species. That is not the point I am driving at. Patience.
Pond scum is, as pond scum does...
Let me very quickly deal with the evolution of life. Very quickly. It is some 4 billion years in the past. There is no life on the planet. A large moon hangs heavy in the sky. Asteroids and comets dump various types of matter as they collide with the Earth in the chaos of the early solar system. We stand in front of a small pool of water. The rock is some kind of clay. And floating in the shallow pool is a kind of scum: a mat of organic molecules, the type of which are found in an abundance in comets. The heat of the day and the cold of the night, along with the electrostatic properties of the clay, interact with the organic molecules. Simply put, some of the molecules line up along the clay surface and the first chain of organic molecules is created. This is a random process. Molecules line up, join together and then detach. This is the precursor of life as we know it. These molecules (free floating in the pool) provide a surface upon which other molecules can attach to. Where the original strings had been constructed on the floor of the clay pool (by being attracted by the electrostatic property of the clay), the free floating strings can bump into other molecules free floating in the water. Like DNA today, the molecules attract like for like. And as soon as the molecule is fully constructed (a twin of the original string) it detaches and floats out into the pool. One molecule becomes two. And the first self-replicating molecule has been born.
As soon as we have a small pool of self-replicating molecules, Darwin’s great process, evolution by natural selection, comes into play. Some molecules are more successful than others. Success here means able to make more copies. For example some of the strings survive for longer than others (their bonds are stronger and thus they can withstand the destructive power of things like cosmic radiation). And copies that make more copies, make more copies. In the beginning then, there was a replicating organic molecule, that in the presence of constituent organic components, creates more copies of itself. Slight variations occur within the pool (radiation can change bonds) and that competition between variants is the very basis of evolution. Molecules get “better” because those less “good” are out-competed.
There is no intent in the naked replicating molecules. If this thing has a purpose (which it does not), but if it did, it would be to make perfect copies of itself. Nothing more. The fact it makes copies of itself is just a byproduct of the fact it is made from organic molecules, which themselves are wrapped up molecules which can join together (the wrapping is a type of internal join). Bonds don't care if they are joined to internal parts of the molecular structure, or an external molecule. They just bond.
Because the naked replicators are made of organic molecules, there is a surprise twist in the story. Not only can they replicate themselves, but they can also create structure in the world. What do I mean by this? Well the naked replicators are structures already, but the organic molecules can do work too. And to cut a long story short, the first cell originated because a naked replicator evolved that surrounded its organic nucleotide with some kind of protective structure. Where before we had naked replicators competing within a pool, we now have a replicator within a protective environment (a wall surrounding its little part of the shallow pool). And this protection was the basis of a very successful way of doing things.
Life is to rock-pools as thinking is to brains...
So life could not have evolved without those original conditions. We look deep into space and we do not see gazelle running between planets. We do not see any evidence for life at all. Though it is unlikely to be completely barren, the universe doesn't seem very hospitable to life. The Goldilocks conditions found upon this planet (just right), were a rare accident. And today, inside each of us, the cells of our body contain tiny self-replicating molecules, nestled safely within the protective confines of their watery pool. The biological evolution of life on this planet has been a perfunctory affair. Evolution is both a simple and complex process, but in essence the more copies that have been produced the more successful the copy is.
Okay. Life has plodded along pretty steadily for billions of years. Worms. Fish. Dinosaurs. Birds. Mammals. You know the story. Biological evolution has created some pretty crazy creatures. The machines that the replicators have made to spread the copies of themselves are pretty impressive. If we look at evolution, we can see that the more locked in the organism, the less able they are to adapt to changing conditions. Take for example the crustaceans. It seems immensely useful to have your skeleton on the outside of your body. Instant protection from the world. But on the other hand, that skeleton is an impediment to the growth of certain organs and systems that might be advantageous in the fight for survival. An internal skeleton, whilst it does not protect in the same way an external one does, allows us to hang a lot more off it, and there is always the option of making up for the lack of external protection too: behaviourally you could avoid all danger, like a shrew, or perhaps even construct your own armour from the environment (like a bird’s nest or burrow). Not that crustaceans are not a successful family of creatures, but the point is, that the less locked into a system of living you are, the more readily evolutionary solutions can pop up (randomly).
Our ancestors were of the no-armour variety. Small, scared mammals, that lived together in groups. The brain was their strongest asset and over millions of years our ancestors used their brains to out compete other creatures and to survive and reproduce. Brains are very adaptive organs. They can help you fight predators, find food and mates. Solve problems of all sorts. Brains are bloody important for our survival. Not every organism relies on its brain and brains are not a requirement for evolutionary success. But for a pink fleshy creature with no horns, no large teeth, no external skeleton, our brain is like a swiss army knife of behaviour and understanding.
Two major points then: Life did not begin so as to produce organisms. And brains did not evolve to do the kind of thinking that we humans engage in. The blue whale is the largest organism ever to have existed upon this planet. From a single fertilised cell containing the genetic material (the self-replicating molecule) is built a creature bigger even than a dinosaur. We are the cognitive equivalent of the blue whale.
Let us return to the cavemen. Maybe not those cavemen, because they are already talking. Let’s go back a little in time. To an animal that is a type of great ape, a type of human even. They are genetically almost identical to us. But they lack one important element. They do not have spoken language. They are in essence, indistinguishable from a chimpanzee or a gorilla. They make tools. They fuck and kill members of nearby tribes. But they have nothing that approaches language, only a system of grunts, shouts, whistles and other sundry noises that they use to express their bare emotions. Humans as we understand them, these are not
Imagine the beginning of language. Names for each other. Who are you? Points at self, “Ug”. Points at stranger, “Uggette”. (You get the idea). Names for things and objects. The sky. The land. The predators. The prey. Left and right. Up and down. Hungry. Angry. Sad. Hurt. Dead. Think back to the small shallow pool in which life began. The floating scum of organic molecules from which all life evolved. Well the naming words that fill the brain of those early apes are the molecules through which cognition will begin. As more and more words are learnt (or created and shared amongst the apes), the words join together into what some people have described as a memeplex. And just like the evolution that occurs because of competition between the different biological replicators, so to do we get a competition between the cognitive molecules, the memeplexes. Those that spread and are adaptive survive, and out-compete the less successful memeplexes. The brain of the ape is the pool and life is the thoughts that live inside the brain. Thought is a new type of replicator, a non-physical process entirely dependent upon the physical, just as organic life was entirely constituted from the non-organic.
In many ways, what we are, is the memeplex. Biological life began in that shallow pool billions of years ago and yet nobody would argue that life IS that shallow pool. The pool facilitated the evolution of life and even today we carry aspects of its nature inside of us. That is a consequence of the physical importance of the pool. I have already said, we do not see gazelle running between the planets in the depths of space. Life needed the pool and it cannot completely divorce itself from it. In the same way, the cave into the brain was cracked open by the beginning of language. In slipped a new type of replicating molecule. One that was not a physical object, but that could still be party to the processes of evolution.
Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man
Babies are apes without a hint of human being about them. They are pushed from the womb, not because they are ready to enter the world, but because if they were to leave any later their skulls would not be able to pass through the pelvis of their mother and both mother and baby would die. Since dead mothers and dead babies leave no progeny, there is a selective pressure there: for the mother to give birth at the very latest moment possible, but not so late that the baby’s brain is too big. So as compared to its other ape relatives, babies are born earlier than they would naturally like. When a baby is born, it has no language. Following the brief discussion above, the cave has yet to crack open (the pool has water, but no organic molecules), and the memeplex worm of human being has yet to find its way inside. That’s okay. Babies have plenty of neuronal development to be getting on with.
We talk to babies and small children. And this process of talking and encouragement is the basis of the beginning of language. When a new volcanic island is formed, it begins barren and sterile. Then the winds bring seeds, insects and birds. The ocean currents bring floating visitors. And very soon, a landscape that was alien and dead can become a rich and vibrant tropical paradise. Such is true for the human mind. Without language, the infant would be something very unhuman. Give a newborn to a chimpanzee, and it will turn into a chimpanzee, with no semblance of humanity bar its lack of hair. But we are not finished yet...
What is a self?
I wake up from anaesthesia. Who am I? What am I? Where am I? I reach into the recesses of my mind. Louie. Patient. Hospital. When we ask and answer these questions what are we actually doing? The cognitive machinery of the mind is reaching into our personal filing system and getting the information. It is important to understand that every human being is essentially a clone of one another. Let me introduce the analogy of the river. Every river is the same. Water flows through a landscape or topography. We name rivers and yet the water that runs through the landscape is continuously changing. It is a truism that you can never stand in the same river twice. The psychological process that is our consciousness is akin to a river. It is continuously changing and never the same in any given moment. Yet it is water. The same H2O that flows through every other river. So let me draw some stands together.
Imagine a topographical plane. It has a slight incline. Down this incline we send a droplet of water. The droplet follows a path down the plane. We send another and another and another. Like a river in the world, the droplet carves a little path through the plane. Each one leaves behind a record of the path it took. Importantly though, the recorded path causes deviations in the flat plane and makes it more likely that the next droplet will follow the same path. Slowly but surely the path of each droplet carves a river bed into the topography of our plane. Now the droplet has no chance to deviate from the established path. When the rains that fall in Ethiopia finally reach Egypt, they cannot choose to follow a different route than that which has been already carved by the mighty Nile. History dictates the present.
Consciousness is the water and habit is the topography. Ever since our biology was cracked open and the words of human being poured in, we have continuously reinforced and perpetuated the identity of the self. We have an almost continual psychological experience. This is the part of the mind that is doing the asking. Who am I? Where am I? It is almost identical between each human. This is the water in the analogy we are developing. Over successive months and years, habit and behaviour carve a topographical channel through the mind, so that every day you are more likely to engage in certain behaviours and thoughts to which you are habituated. The Nile of your mind follows the established route. You ask yourself what you are going to do today. Who you are? What your beliefs and your aspirations are. How you are going to enact your volitional power today.
And now we come full circle. At the very beginning of this essay, we agreed that it would be ludicrous for a group of humans in the past to dictate our volitional choices in the present, thus removing any actual power we might have. But every day, we allow us-in-the-past, to dictate the habituated behaviour of us-in-the-present. But what actual connection do we have to the us-in-the-past? We find ourselves with memories that were not constructed by the us-in-the-now. We are faced with the consequences of decisions that were not made by the us-in-the now. So in reality, we seemingly, with very little thought, allow the decisions of the past (of which we were not party to and not signatory of) to dictate how we-in-the-now behave. This is identity or the self. And it is obviously illusory. If we choose to say that those choices made in the past were made by us, and therefore we are obliged to carry them through into the future, I say that obligation is a choice and you are giving up power in the now, out of what, ancestor worship, self-past respect?
When your you-in-the-now, asks the question, “who am I?”, the response he gets is akin to reading a book written by somebody in the past. You are Louie. Says the book. It may be true that the author of the book identifies as Louie, but do I <- whatever that might mean (and in reality the I is the conscious experience of the present) but do I have to continue to identify with that self if I do not want to? Are there other ways of being?
Life did not choose to be created. The universe did not choose to be created. Planets do not choose to orbit stars. Galaxies are born and die. They have no control over this process. Continents raise mountains that are eroded into the sand at the bottom of the sea. There is no volitional control involved in these processes. Power, in terms of volitional power, is seemingly rare. And I would hazard to argue that we human beings are the only things in the universe that we know that have such power.
A man finds himself in a valley. He cannot see into the distance, because all around him the mountains obscure his view. He is trapped. But unlike every other thing in the universe, the man has the power to raise himself out of the valley, to change his vantage and be in a different place. Everyday we find ourselves in the valley of the self. The identity that has been carved by successive cognitive conscious experiences that appears to dictate who and what we are. But as I say, this is illusory. Your past experience is no more your own, can no more dictate your choices now in the present, than the caveman can choose your child’s name. There is no self. Merely a transitory you-in-the-now experience that is forever being lost to the past. And that when the you-in-the-now asks the basic existential questions, it is answered by the past, not by itself. And since we have on the whole, agreed that the past cannot take away our volitional power, we must accept that our past identity is not us, and though we may use that identity in living, we can see that doing so is just part of the habituation.
The truly brave person. The truly powerful person, is not constrained by their past identity. Louie-in-the-past no longer exists. I was not party to his choices. And truly, if I find that identity an impediment to my present and perhaps future happiness, then why can I not be a different identity? The river cannot change its course by thought alone. But we can. And it cannot be a terrible thing that we have this power. Of course, actualising this power is a difficult thing (and the author of this essay does not claim to have fully divorced himself from the habit of the self). But step one must be: recognise the truth.
Everything is pointless. The universe was not made for us. We are not made in god’s image. There is no god. We were made by the random process of evolution. The self is illusory and is a construct that is sometimes adaptive and useful, but can also be detrimental to wellbeing. Show me a planet full of happy and fulfilled beings, for I see not one. Given these conclusions, is it really so difficult to understand that there cannot be any resolution? Any perfect way of being. There is no answer to the meaning of life, because there is no question. It merely is. Existence is absurd! But, we must live. Or at the very least, we live until we no longer exist. And if reality and the truth are of any importance whatsoever, then knowing the truth can allow us to recognise that we are a powerful being, even if the truth is not of a palatable nature. And even if that truth is, that everything we have believed in the past to be true, is in fact make-believe.
If you are unhappy, do you really have an excuse to not change things? To be a different person. To hold different values and aspire to different things? Of course happiness is preferable to misery, but cannot be the meaning of life (for there is no meaning to life). Once we have divorced ourselves from all the delusion, then comes the process of rebuilding. A hard and difficult process for sure, but show me the other parts of the universe that can destroy themselves and build themselves back up again.
Annihilation will come to us all. Powerful and weak. Organic and non-organic. Wise man, greatest of all. Well done.