Thursday, May 10, 2012

What Is, Is?

Material reality is all that we see and it is therefore compelling. We exist before we know that we do; we’re aware of being very early, but not of being selves. For all of us—I think that everyone experiences it, but I can’t be sure—a moment comes later when self-awareness suddenly erupts.  It happens in childhood. At that moment our human life begins. No sudden memories of having been before accompany our abrupt awakenings.  And by that time we’re so habituated to our bodies and surroundings that self-awareness isn’t felt as anything radical. The last thing we think at that moment is that it’s odd that we are here. The moment, indeed, doesn’t last long. In a minute or two we’re back to doing our usual things—at that age play or exploration.

We come awake in an environment we can’t compare to any other. It appears as an absolute. What is, is, etc. We know the difference between living and dead, but both were always present, so the crucial difference does not exercise us. That sort of thing comes later, with development, and that experience—wondering about life, as life—isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. The What is, is remains an adequate explanation for lots and lots of people.

Some years back now I spent two years writing a book entitled What Does Life Want? I shopped it around, too, but had only a single positive reaction, that from a woman who thought it was great, fascinating, wonderful—but her firm couldn’t take it on, she said, and then came a litany of where that firm was now putting its emphasis. Those experienced in trying to publish books will know that this response was way, way beyond what you can expect in a rejection. I’d reached one reader—not the public. That book had had its origins in the question that arises later, after many years of life, if your curiosity is still alive and standard answers to the question, provided by various traditions, do not satisfy.

Life is as radical a phenomenon as self-awareness—and of course I don’t merely mean human life, I mean the life phenomenon. In its accessible, physical form, it is a chemical mechanism. In its behavior it is something one cannot find anywhere in the inorganic realm. It is end-seeking. It preserves, with enormous tenacity, complex forms generation after generation. But in every individual instance, it comes to an end. Yet it is, and always and only is, individual, whether that entity is a bacterium, a grass plant, or an elephant. This self-perpetuating something exists, so far as our telescopes can tell us, only in one place. Peopling the galaxies with countless life-supporting planets is a projection based on the notion that life is entirely material and arises spontaneously from chemicals “when the conditions are favorable”; thus it is a theory, not an incontrovertible fact multiply demonstrated in laboratories busy nurturing brand new man-made species. The presence of life, therefore, in an enormous wasteland of matter, is a question well worth exploration. A long but useful word is incommensurability. It applies to life when viewed against the backdrop of billions of galaxies each holding billions of suns, some few of which, by statistical extrapolation of the modern mind, will have planets situated just right and with the appropriate chemical composition, atmosphere, plentitude of water, etc., etc. to produce life spontaneously. Life as a whole for one, individual self-aware selves for another, are incommensurable to the inorganic order that seems to dominate the universe.

In making sense of all of this, living on a planet covered with life—but challenged by absence of really good telescopes on the one hand and electron microscopes on the other—the ancients took the weird single sample to be representative of the all. They assumed a chain of existence from matter to plants, to animals, to humans—and extended it upward to living orbs, angels, and God. They hadn’t as yet developed a plethora of machines as intricate as ours and fueled by the residues of life, which is what oil and coal are, or studied bodies and discovered that they’re machines. Nonetheless, minds more intuitive than intellectual and therefore less inclined to engage in intellectual system-building, discerned, already in ancient times, that something wasn’t entirely right in all of this, that something didn’t fit. Hence arose the fascinating religious projections suggesting that What is, is is just illusion, or that the world is the creation of an inferior demiurge, or that a race once living in an exalted paradise was forced from the garden by an angel with a flaming sword and, in consequence, fell, as it were, into another world.

Or into a kind of darkness, a dimension so low that the spirits, as they fell, saw nothing any more, were deprived of virtually all nourishing grace, and, in the great darkness, desperately started exploring that realm and adapting to it. Some glimmers must have been present even in those deepest depth because the ancestors of what we now call life began to notice patterns in the coarse energies they saw down there and nudged an electron here, one over there, to make a new combination. And thus began what I call chemical civilization. A long time ago.

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