May 24, 2020

Who Am I?

The extended family members are getting together again tonight, on the usual unwieldy, international Zoom conference with too many people on it. In an effort to make it less cacophonous, we're each being asked to come up with something to share -- a piece of music, a poem, or whatever -- that we liked. We'll each get three minutes.

I like the idea, so I thought I'd write my thoughts on my "thing" beforehand, so that I can make the best of my three minutes.

My show-and-tell -- Richard Dawkins's 2005 Ted Talk on "Why the universe seems so strange." -- is a bit odd. I have, in the past, really disliked Dawkins -- a dogmatic, arrogant man who has lifted the straw man argument to a new art form.

But in this talk, those flaws are less evident. It's a humble exploration of the limits of knowledge, and our ability to understand a universe that we can only glimpse in a narrow, distorted way. He starts by quoting biologist J.B.S. Haldane:

"My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."

The whole thing is about 20 minutes and very well worth a listen. It goes into why we have such a hard time understanding the concepts in the very small (e.g., quantum effects) and very large and fast (the strange quirks of the Theory of Relativity). I've linked to it, below.

The part that stuck with me for years, however, was when he described how we are like a wave, comparing us to dunes that retain their shape as the winds march them across the desert. He summarises Steve Grand:

Think of an experience from your childhood, something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren't you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: You weren't there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made.

The image is extraordinary: atoms, forged in exploding stars over billions of years, temporarily come together to form you, in this moment in time, and then move on. It has stayed with me ever since. I think about it every time I walk along a beach. We're a wave of organised information, moving through time and space, until in the end we crest and crash into some distant shore.

And that image has led me to explore what it means to be me. What is the mind, what makes me unique and how am I connected to everyone else? It's led me back to exploring science and reading about physics, something I failed at emphatically in school. I've been fascinated by the study of our sense of self, the way we think, the limits of our free will and our sense of time.

Perhaps it would irk Dawkins to learn that his talk also led me back to religion after I had mostly fallen away. All major world religions are remarkable similar on this point -- the miraculous nature of us and the present moment. The way we are all connected, literally moving through, breathing and having our being in the fabric of the universe, which they call God.

In the 15 years since I first heard this, I've also reevaluated my thinking on Dawkins. The straw man he knocks down is the concept of a magical being with a flowing beard, up in the sky somewhere. He's smart enough to know that religions really teach nothing of the sort, which has always irked me, but what he's really critiquing is the small-minded concepts that we've made into religions.

If God exists, he is queerer than we suppose, and most definitely queerer than we can suppose. So, in a sense, Dawkins is more truly in touch with that concept than most religious people, and most religions. A modern prophet. Who would have guessed?

Tags: physics reality religion