27 August 2008

The First Mystery: Stuff of Life, Part I

Which came first: the hen or the egg? If you consider this question as classic and unanswerable, then your knowledge of science needs brushing up! Of course, the egg is easily proclaimed the winner by half a billion years as the hen has only been here for fifty million years.

This is just one of the lighter gems found in one of the most wonderful books ever written: The Seven Mysteries of Life by Guy Murchie. Here, a look at the first mystery which he calls The Abstract Nature of the Universe. Murchie's writing is so insightful and provocative that any summary or analysis runs the risk of extending beyond the length of an accessible blog post, so I will procure brevity.

"... this is the world where objects, without much plausible reason, shrink with distance, where thrushes pull up worms to turn them into songs, where an acorn becomes a giant oak in a century because it was forgotten by a squirrel. In other words, there is ... something fundamentally and profoundly abstract" about this world which in turn is so importantly mysterious that it almost unavoidably falls into place as the first of the Seven Mysteries of Life.

"Consciousness implies an appreciable awareness (and control) of matter, an interaction involving both the developing body and the emerging mind that is at once abstract and close to the quick of life. Indeed the fact that you can move your legs and walk, or your tongue and talk, makes you alive. And so does the fact that you can control the engine and wings and tail of your airplane when you fly. You may object that the airplane is not really alive because it is not a natural organism but only man-made and artificial. But I reply that so is a bird's nest artificial for it is bird-made and not strictly a part of the bird's body. And so too is coral artificial in the sense that it is made (or excreted) by the coral polyps. And so is the oyster's shell built of calcareous substances out of the sea. And so also are the shells of bird's eggs and a bird's feathers made of things the bird eats. And so are even your teeth and bones and your fingernails and hair, in fact your whole body. There is no definite line, you see, where artificiality begins. And there is no absolute boundary between life and the world. ... Just as your house is your shell and your coat your pelt, in effect, so does your consciousness form your aura of personal life..."

Perhaps the least abstract thing we can imagine is our body for it allows us contact with other material substances. However, "the reason a living body can be made of such everyday stuff" as water, fat, carbon, phosphorus, magnesium, etc... "of course is that it is complex and flowing and the stuff is not really the body but only what passes through it, borrowed in the same sense that an ocean wave borrows the water it sweeps over." In this sense, if we could ignore time then a wave could be considered material, but as we cannot ignore time it can only be considered abstract as "science knows a wave to be made not of matter at all but purely of energy, which is an abstraction."

"...reflecting on it at length and in the full context of time, the body progressively becomes as abstract as a melody - a melody one may with reason call the melody of life. ...although I had intuitively assumed life itself abstract, the physical body had always seemed simply material and I did not see how it could be otherwise. Then I tried to define the physical boundaries of the body and began to realize they are virtually indefinable, for the air around any air-breathing creature from a weed to a whale is obviously a vital part of it even while it is also part of other creatures. The atmosphere in fact binds together all life on Earth, including life in the deep sea, which 'breathes' oxygen (and some air) constantly. And the water of the sea is another of life's common denominators noticeable in the salty flavor of blood, sweat and tears, as are the solid Earth and its molecules present in our protoplasm compounded of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and a dozen lesser elements."

"... practically all of our material selves is replaced within a year" and if we consider even the most stubborn atom of iron in hemoglobin and even the bones which are continually dissolving and reforming, after five years one can presumably consider one's physical body completely new down to the very last atom. "Assuming this is approximately so, then of what does the body really consist? For a while I thought the body's essence might somehow lurk in the nucleus of each cell where the genes physically direct growth and development. ... Essentially no single atom or molecule or combination of them can be indispensable to a body for they are all dispensed by it. It is only the pattern with its message that proves really vital to life. On the ocean one could make the analogy that it is not the saltwater but the abstract energy that shapes and powers the wave. Likewise it is not the atoms in the DNA but their geometric relation that makes the gene. And it is not the paper and ink but the words and meanings that compose the book."

"The point is that it is the pattern of design itself that is the indispensable thing, and not just its representation on paper or in bricks and mortar. Of course the design is not really a thing in the material sense for it is abstract. Indeed it is a kind of intangible essence, something like Lao-tzu's best knot which, as he explained, was tied without rope. ... Thus our very bodies that we always thought were material ... turn out to be essentially only waves of energy, graphs of probability, nodes of melody being mysteriously played in our time."

As logical as this sounds, it is still challenging to grasp and its implications seem way beyond my current understanding. Our bodies are supposed to be material and the mysterious union formed with the soul is the necessary arena in which the soul can be tried, tested and matured. But, if the body is essentially abstract, then exactly what is the "material" context in which the soul progresses? Must this context be, as we seem to have conceived so far, such a concrete thing or is the illusion of tangibility enough to do the trick? Is the illusion of solidity what differentiates this earthly plane from such purely spiritual realms characterized by immortality and similar limitlessness?

Exploring these mysteries even further in this same post would reveal the feebleness of my attempts at brevity and so they will be taken up in Part II of this topic. Stay tuned.

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