Friday, September 7, 2007

What are we?

From time to time I think about our (that is, human's) place in the world / universe.

I remember being in elementary school, and we were being taught to classify things into "natural" and "man-made." At the time this struck me as an exceptionally stupid way to classify things, because people are as much a part of nature as anything else. Really, despite our manipulation of tools and our invention prowess and communication abilities, we have more in common with squirrels than bacteria living in under-sea volcanic vents do. I'm not really an environmentalist,
but man-made is not a natural classification for me.

Let me get to the point: We are animals. We are made of atoms, just like trees, dirt, rocks, and fuzzy bunnies, and everything else that is not hard vacuum (and even then quantum mechanics makes that a bit iffy, but that's not the point, not yet anyway). We are not special in any universal sense. We are special in a personal sense, possibly, but ultimately we're just a bunch of stuff crawling around on the surface of a rock orbiting a giant fusion reactor. As I heard someone say (quoting someone else, I believe, and I'm not going to track down the original author right now): We're just a bunch of cells that decided to be "us" for a while.

Now, those sorts of thoughts probably freak out the religious among us, who regard humans as exceptionally special. I think it's pretty cool to think of a person as a bunch of single-celled organisms that got together and created a person, but maybe I'm just weird that way.

There's a quote from the TV show Babylon 5 suggesting that we are the universe attempting to understand itself. When I first heard that, I thought it was pseudo-religious garbage - the universe "intentionally" creating people to help understand itself. I realized recently that's not really what it means. We actually are a part of the universe. We're a bunch of supernova remnants. We are just a chunk of the universe. And we are trying to understand the universe. Yes, we literally are a piece of the universe trying to understand the universe (i.e. itself). That doesn't imply intent, creation, or anything else, that's simply a statement of fact.

I'll have to think more about what that means, but it seems a very interesting way to look at things to me.

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