Incognito, or how I view the world

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“Imagine for a moment that we are nothing but the product of billions of years of molecules coming together and ratcheting up through natural selection, that we are composed only of highways of fluids and chemicals sliding along roadways within billions of dancing cells, that trillions of synaptic conversations hum in parallel, that this vast egglike fabric of micro-thin circuitry runs algorithms undreamt of in modern science, and that these neural programs give rise to our decision-making, loves, desires, ears, and aspirations. To me, that understanding would be a numinous experience, better than anything ever proposed in anyone’s holy text. Whatever else exists beyond the limits of science is an open question for future generations; but even if strict materialism turned out to be it, it would be enough.

Arthur C. Clarke was fond of pointing out that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I don’t view the dethronement from the center of ourselves as depressing; I view it as magic. We’ve seen in this book that everything contained in the biological bags of fluid we call us is already so far beyond our intuition, beyond our capacity to think about such vast scales of interaction, beyond our introspection that this fairly qualifies as ‘something beyond us.’ The complexity of the system we are is so vast as to be indistinguishable from Clarke’s magical technology. As the quip goes: If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn’t be smart enough to understand them.” -David Eagleman, Incognito

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The past few days I’ve been reading David Eagleman’s Incognito. While it is a popular science book, which may seem daunting to some (he is a neuroscientist, after all), it’s written well enough so you don’t have to have any science background to understand it, but if you do, you will not be bored.

Among the abundance of information, it explores questions that many secularists, agnostics, and atheists (and others), find themselves pondering. Do we actually have free will? Is there a soul, in the sense of a part of you that’s not connected with your brain that makes you inherently… you? What defines consciousness? Is a cow conscious? An insect? A bird? Religious or not, it will send you into a spiral of thought, and give you plenty to explore.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has said, “We are all connected. To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe, atomically.” He has also said, “…when I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up. Many people feel small, cause they’re small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.”

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There’s a plethora of people who don’t like the outside — I mean, there are bugs and humidity and dirt and ew, why would you choose to go out in that?! But when I’m out in the woods, being that I’m a biologist and not an astrophysicist, I get the same feeling as Neil, but on a smaller, more ecological scale.

When I watch the woodpeckers – tap, tap, tapping away at the trunk, trying to get some grub – I know that the instinct to do that is driven by genetics. DNA. Little chemicals inside that bird’s body that tell it that this is how you survive. Tell it your goal is to make more woodpeckers, and have them do this, so they can make more, so they can do this,… It’s astounding. And you know what? We share the same chemicals. A large percentage of your and my DNA is the same as that little bird pecking away.

I look at the trees. Their cells allow moisture and nutrients to get where they need to go. They have chemicals that turn sunlight into chemical energy.  How cool is that?!

People often wonder, well, if you know how things work, doesn’t that take the wonder out of it? Doesn’t that take the fun out of it?

To that, I say absolutely not. Quite the opposite. The more I know about how things work, the more I’m amazed and awe-struck at how fantastic and marvelous we are. People balk at the idea that we may just be walking meat-bags for chemicals, but the idea of that happening is one of the most profound awe-inspiring things I could possibly imagine.

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