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  • What Are We?

    I’m going to assume only humans are reading this. Though, I could be very wrong about that, and in that case, maybe those non-humans have the same questions? Seems like these subjects apply broadly within the confines of our understanding of life.

    When it comes down to it, from a 500,000-lightyear vantage point, we’re a bunch of microbes infesting a fleck of cosmic dust, whose lives begin and end as quickly as a shimmering spark of light that fizzles to black.

    That’s a sufficient and – perhaps for some – depressing answer. But there are other layers we could explore the more closely we zoom in.

    Zoom in far enough and we encounter what we’re made of: cells, which interact with each other in a series of chemical reactions governed by the laws of the universe. But cells themselves aren’t even alive, and millios of your have died from the time you started reading this sentence to now.

    Therefore, what we are, our identities, as both a species and individuals, is not necessarily rooted in the specific physical matter that comprises our bodies.

    1

    So what are we aside from a collection of dead things (cells) that form a “living” thing (human thingamijigs)?

    What seperates one lump of matter from another is how it’s configured, or its pattern. Any child with a LEGO set understands this concept. The only thing that really differentiates the LEGO spaceship from the LEGO castle is the set of instructions that can be followed to transform a pile of plastic into one or another. That’s as good a metaphor as any for our DNA, which governs our personal patterns for cell interaction.

    Except for the fact that the LEGO spaceship isn’t a real spaceship and the LEGO castle couldn’t withstand twelve seconds under siege. It’s a bunch of dead matter, not too different from the dead matter we’re made of.

    Ultimately, what makes our pattern of cells different from other patterns is consciousness. We are fluid conscious patterns, whose every iteration only exists between the moments it changes.

    2

    So where does consciousness even come from? Nobody has a solid answer for that either.

    Most say that what we perceive as consciouness arises from processes between bits of matter (e.g. the firing of neurons in our brains). But exactly how this happens hasn’t quite been pinned down yet. That doesn’t mean it’s not correct though.3

    Many people seek a “better” answer that makes humans seem more divine than they are, including the concept of some ethereal, immortal soul.

    Then there’s the argument too that consciousness, life and death are all artificial delinations. Afterall, the living version of a person and the dead version of a person share 100% of the same cells and DNA. It’s just that the latter can’t shop at Whole Foods anymore and isn’t capable of caring.

    From left field, another concept piqued my interest recently: panpsychism4, which propopses that consciousness in the universe is common and widespread, and perhaps bound together by some kind of “proto-consciousness field.”

    Quantum mechanics can be scary stuff.

    5

    So what exactly are we? Aside from tubes with limbs?

    I have no idea. I just like thinking about it. A lot. More than is healthy, I suppose.

    I guess this is also a roundabout way of speculating what Carl Sagan said years ago6: “we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”

    1. Kurzgesagt. “What Is Life?” YouTube. December 11, 2014. Link 

    2. Kurzgesagt. “What Are You?” YouTube. May 31, 2017. Link 

    3. Herzog, Michael H.. “How The Brain Produces Consciousness in Time Slices” Big Think. April 12, 2016. Link 

    4. Perry, Phillip. “The Universe May Be Conscious, Say Prominent Scientists” Big Think. June 25, 2017. Link 

    5. Penrose, Roger. “The quantum nature of consciousness?” YouTube: 2045 Initiative. March 4, 2017. Link 

    6. Sagan, Carl. “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself” YouTube May 6, 2016. Link 

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Datamancy is the work of Frey Hargarten, a data journalist and artist.

Don't take my word for anything -- do lots of research instead. My work here is offered under the Creative Commons license.

Opinions are mine and don't reflect the stances of my employer.

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