The stories we tell ourselves
As a starting place for this inquiry into what it really is to be a human being, consider the field of cosmology. Physicists who call themselves cosmologists use the word to refer to the study of the evolution of the physical universe as a whole. In subtle contrast, I’m using the word to point to the story we tell ourselves about who we are, about the nature of the world in which we find ourselves, and about how we got to be here and why. When I use the word “cosmology” I’m talking about an explanation. We human beings have explanations for everything. That seems to be part of what it is to be human. However, the specific explanation I’m considering in this work is the one about who we really are and what the world out there really is.
Before I present an alternative explanation, I will first summarize the one all of us already use, the story we tell ourselves, the one into which we live our lives. That story is represented by the water in our fish parable. As I suggested, it’s transparent and invisible. But let’s see if we can get a feel for it anyway.
Consider the notion of a creation “myth”. In Native American cultures, creation myths typically involve the emergence of people from a hole to the underworld. In our culture, there’s an assumption that cultures more primitive than ours have creation myths and we, by contrast, have science. In other words, we consider our world view to be superior to those of cultures that came before us. We believe that ours is more true that theirs.
However, the essential difference between their myths and our explanations may not lie in whether or not they’re true. The difference may instead be in the realm of complexity. In other words, our modern perspective, which we consider more advanced than earlier ones, may simply be more layered, more complicated, and less dependent on primitive symbols. So the first proposition I want to explore is whether we have a creation “myth”, and if so, what it might be.
We are told that a world somehow came into being. How the world might have come into being is told as as various stories. One of these stories has God creating the world. The other story, a more secular one, is that there was a “big bang,” in which some unspecified but unthinkably small and unimaginably energetic “thing” exploded, and what we now see with our eyes, our instruments, and our minds’ eyes is the result of physical processes set in motion by this ancient explosion.
What is common to these stories, whether religious or secular, is that there is a world, it existed before we were around to experience it, and it continues to exist independently of us. In the secular story, that world has existed for a very long time. Once it began, it continued to exist and to evolve. And after an incredibly long period of time, life appeared on at least one planet, the one we consider the Home Planet. Creatures evolved with the mental and sensory apparatus required to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell the world. And finally humans evolved, creatures able to experience the world and possessing the cognitive abilities required to think about it, to plan, to analyze, and even to understand. Even if your particular cosmology has it that God created that world with us in it, your explanation still rests on the assumption that there’s a world out there that we human beings are able to perceive.
More About the Prevailing Cosmology
According to the universally accepted explanation (the water we swim in), who or what we humans are is first and foremost an enormously complex collection of atoms that form molecules that form cells that form tissues, etc. This progression of collections proceeds according to strict rules, rules which allow for variations and new forms. And somehow, according to our story, out of that enormous complexity arose awareness, thoughts, feelings, and emotions, all the strange and wonderful aspects to “being human.”
The story tells us that the nature of the world in which we find ourselves is a combination of matter and energy that scientists tell us has been evolving for some fourteen billion years and has produced planets, stars, galaxies, and finally, life. But why are we humans here? Some folks say we’re here simply because of predictable or accidental manifestations of nature’s laws, leading to our evolution from lesser animals. Others say we’re here to work out karma or to pay off karmic debts. Or that we’re here to “fulfill God’s purpose”. And for some, there’s quite simply a feeling that there may not be any answer to that question.
In this book, I’m arguing for the consideration of a different cosmology. This other explanation, this other story we could tell ourselves, is a completely different story about who we are, why we are here, and the purpose of our lives. A typical rational person would ask, “But is this different story true?” When one argues for or against an explanation from a rational point of view, our most important criterion for evaluating that explanation is whether or not it is true. I will show that the word “true,” while useful in describing a particular fact, event, or situation, takes on a completely different meaning when considering an explanation for the world we experience and for our presence in it.
What is a human being?
With that background, I return to the question, “What is it to be a human being?” In terms of the prevailing cosmology, the phrase “human being” refers to a template handed down by the process of evolution (or if you’re so inclined, created in God’s image). Starting with that template, then, the differences among us are accounted for by appeals to “nature” and “nurture.” These terms, of course, refer to circumstances of birth, in which genetic, societal, and environmental factors give us different combinations of attributes and paths through life. We should, of course, also include the results of decisions we make about what we should have, or do, or become.
Ultimately, according to the prevailing cosmology, we humans are transients here on a planet that happens to be revolving at just the right distance from an ordinary star so as to provide the particular combination of heat and light required to sustain the chemical processes necessary for life as we know it.
We’ve probably all encountered the pseudo-philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear, will it still make a sound?” An equivalent question relevant to our topic is, “If all sentient creatures somehow disappeared, would there still be a planet, revolving through space and time around a star?” According to the prevailing cosmology, there is no need to ask that question, and most people would find it silly. We are certain that there would be a planet if we all disappeared. However, if what we think of as the entire physical universe is actually a description, a set of ideas about the world, then it’s not at all clear that such a description can exist without the human being that’s doing the describing.
Now, if you accept the prevailing cosmology, and for the moment at least you leave a Supreme Being out of it, it seems to me that human awareness and consciousness must somehow be a byproduct of natural forces and processes. If you accept that explanation for the appearance of consciousness in the universe, I think your stance begs a few very interesting questions. Is it just a happy accident, a product of a particularly fortunate assembling of the elements of our physical world, that physics and chemistry should give rise to biology and consciousness? Could molecular biology possibly explain the richness of human experience, the depth of feelings, or the pull of abstract ideas? Could it possibly explain love? And finally, does that explanation really satisfy anyone? It certainly never satisfied me.
How did human consciousness come to be?
There are, of course, many disciplines that have had something to say on the question of how consciousness came to be (and even what it is), and what its relationship to physics and chemistry might be. I have studied a number of these disciplines to some degree, though I’m not an expert on any of them. I’ll just outline and discuss my experiences. I see those investigations as a road map leading me to the development of my understanding of the idea that is the subject of this work. At some level, I always knew I wanted to understand how the universe works. I have felt that desire as a calling for as long as I can remember.
What follows is a brief autobiography. From my current perspective, I see my life story as what showed up as the result of my desire to understand the universe. Again, I generally try to avoid the hubris of thinking that my story is more important or more distinctive that anybody else’s. However, as the raw material of an investigation into what it is to be a human being, it’s all I have. And one human’s life experience turns out to be just what’s required in order to conduct that inquiry.