Thursday, 14 February 2019

What Are You?

When we are asked who we are, we usually reply with our name, and a couple of suitable references to what we do or how we fit into the group at hand.  When asked further what we are, we normally respond with our occupation, familial relationships, position within the group, perhaps other important affiliations, or interests such as a key hobby.  To most of us, these answers address our personal identities as human beings.  However, in this post I would like to describe some alternative answers from a philosophical, scientific, and perhaps humorous perspective that apply to every one of us.

Consider your body: what is it?  From one perspective it is a community of cells - some 25 trillions of them - each one a complex biochemical factory, working cooperatively to maintain your life and its various supportive processes.  Each cell does its own thing, as it was programmed to do during your development in the womb, but each cell is also connected to and in communication with other cells to build up your organs, as well as their organized whole that together make up your physical self.  This is vaguely like an ant colony, with different ants having different roles, all working together for the greater good in the colony's survival and flourishing.

Notwithstanding this physiological picture of health and well-being, most of the cells in your body are not human!  Your "micro-biome" includes various bacteria, fungi, other microbes, and not a few larger living things, which together populate your gut, your mouth, your skin, and various other locations in and around your person.  Taken together, these cells outnumber those with human DNA. Does that make you grossed-out, mostly alien, or just normal?

Looking deeper, we know that our bodies are mostly - some 70% or so - water.  And the remainder is just a variety of organic molecules made up of mostly a handful of abundant chemical elements.  In the last century chemists estimated that the value of the raw elements in a typical adult body was worth about $0.84 total.  With inflation and resource price changes, that is probably a few dollars today, but still not very much.  How does that affect your self worth?

But you say, surely we are more than raw chemical elements?  Admittedly, all except the hydrogen atoms are indeed stardust from past supernovae explosions in the Milky Way galaxy.  Together those elements form the molecules of life from simple sugars and fats, to more complex hormones and neurotransmitters, and on to complex and interactive enzymes and proteins.  And you may want to add, "I have unique and highly complex DNA!"  Yes, that is true, but from another perspective you are just a haphazard collection of selfish genes trying to propagate themselves.  Moreover, some much simpler organisms have more DNA in each cell than you do.

Even deeper, the atoms making up your body consist of just three types of sub-atomic particles: protons, neutrons and electrons.  How simple is that?  But taken together, these particles take up only a miniscule volume of each atom.  A typical carbon nucleus is just 0.005% of the diameter of a carbon atom, so more than 99.99999999999% of your body is nothing but "empty space"!  Well not quite empty; those atoms are held together by electromagnetic fields and photonic forces that determine their chemical properties.  The same goes for your molecules with their ionic, covalent and other bonds between atoms, governing all of the chemistry going on inside each cell.  When you push your finger against something, the forces are all essentially interacting EM fields resisting the intrusion to maintain the structural integrity among molecules.  Are you then mostly a complex and dynamically interactive EM field?

One could delve further into quarks and gluons, but at human temperatures, those are locked inside your neutrons and protons.  To summarize therefore, what you are is: mostly non-human, largely common water, a bag of cheap elements, many highly-repetitive molecules, and a lot of empty space, held together by electromagnetic glue!  But then, so am I - this is an equal opportunity humiliation!  And when you die, the community of cells that make up your body will cease to function, your molecules will dissipate or break down, returning to simpler materials and their elements via entropy.  Dust to dust, celestial ashes to ashes!  Does that make you feel humble, insignificant, or just weird?

However, I don't want to leave you in that lamentable state.  You are indeed more than all that!  You are a unique and complex living being.  And what you are from a physics and chemistry perspective, is much less important than who you are from a human, social, and spiritual perspective.  You are one of the most complex things in the entire Universe, a unique and valuable individual person with consciousness, abilities, memories, rights, intentions, free-will, etc. That is where the real you exists, not in an assembly molecules, however complicated.  Indeed, beyond all that, you are the very image of God himself, with an eternal soul!  I hope that makes you feel better.