Being

Three powerful commentaries on the nature of our existence:

The first is a BBC programme called The Secret Life of Waves.  My father, who died earlier this year, was very keen that we should all watch it, and it helped us hugely after his death, to know that this was what he thought, and wanted to share with his children and grandchildren.

The second is a lecture someone introduced me to recently by Alan Watts, It Starts Now.

And the last is a piece by Richard Hoppe, which I just love, and post with his permission:

A common remark I hear from Christians and other religionists is that an atheist must feel very alone, very isolated, very afraid of death. Not a chance.

Late every night, rain or shine, I walk my big dogs, Sherlock and Watson, usually between 1:00 am and 3:00 am. I live out in the country on 3.5 acres, and while there is some light pollution from my neighbor’s yard light, the meadow up on the north end of the place is shielded by trees and there’s a good view of the north and east sky from overhead to the horizon and half-way to the horizon in the south. When it’s clear the stars are bright. The Great Bear circles around its smaller sibling, the one with Polaris at the end of its handle. Depending on the time of year Casseopia swims in the Milky Way or Orion stalks the sky to the south. Thousands of stars are in view, and there’s an occasional meteor, the moon, or a planet or three for variety.

And every night that I see the stars I think — consciously think — that I am made of star stuff, to steal Carl Sagan’s phrase. Every atom in my body heavier than helium (and virtually all the helium, too) was manufactured in stars by the fusion reactions that produce their heat and light. At the end of those stars’ lives the heavy elements — carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, iron and so on — were flung into space when the stars went nova. Later, another star and its planets — our solar system — condensed out of the clouds of elements generated in those earlier stars and in the end, after many millennia of chemical and biological evolution, those elements made me and my dogs.

So I am literally part of the universe: I am made of elements manufactured in stars. And I am aware of that fact every night when I walk my dogs.

And then there are my dogs, Sherlock and Watson. Both are strays — they chose us, coming to the house out in the country without identification. In spite of our best efforts to find them, their previous owners never appeared, and so Sherlock and Watson have stayed with us.

Sherlock is a Doberman/Rottweiler cross, the best-natured dog I’ve ever had. Watson is a setter/something cross and a goofball. Sherlock was in very good shape when he showed up, with a brand-new collar but no ID. Watson was full grown but was near starving to death — though full-grown he weighed just 40 pounds and every bone in his body was visible. Now they’re both around 70 pounds and are sleek and healthy.

And they are my cousins. That’s a fact of biology: My dogs are my cousins. Many times removed, of course, but we are family in more than the pet/master sense: we’re “blood” relatives. So when I walk them up north every night, we’re a genuine family walking together, three cousins, all of us made from the same star stuff. And I am consciously aware of that fact every night.

When I die I’ll be cremated. My ashes will be scattered somewhere, maybe in a bit of virgin forest that still survives about 40 miles south of here. The atoms of which I’m composed will re-enter the earth’s biological and geological cycles, some being incorporated into plants or animals, some sinking into the earth or riding the wind. And then, billions of years hence when the sun bloats up into a red giant to engulf the earth, boiling off its atmosphere and crust, my atoms will be flung back into space, riding the waves of matter and energy that the sun throws out in its spasms.

So I am connected to the universe on both ends, from the creation of my atoms to their final journey to the stars. And I’m connected to my animals and to all life on earth. How much more connected can I get? I am directly linked into the physical universe, made of atoms manufactured in stars, and I am an integral part of the family of all life, cousin to everything that lives. I’m not alone, not isolated, and not afraid of death.

I won’t know that after I die, of course: I won’t know anything. But I know it now, and that’s what counts.

 

38 thoughts on “Being

  1. O can’t believe it. I saw the wave video sometime ago and LOVED IT.
    I loved it because of geomorphology interests in the essence of water. It had great info. I learned from it. It was also well done.
    It had a sad story at the end and made me sad.
    For creationism water power is important as a origin for geology and so a correction on old school geology.
    Well chosen indeed. You gotta love the stuff about the origin of the sounds of the waves.

  2. Robert Byers:
    O can’t believe it. I saw the wave video sometime ago and LOVED IT.
    I loved it because of geomorphology interests in the essence of water. It had great info. I learned from it. It was also well done.
    It had a sad story at the end and made me sad.
    For creationism water power is important as a origin for geology and so a correction on old school geology.
    Well chosen indeed. You gotta love the stuff about the origin of the sounds of the waves.

    So glad you loved it too, Robert! It is one of the best pieces of documentary making I have ever seen.

  3. Yes, I saw the waves one a bit back.

    I too wander about the countryside pondering the clear common-ancestry relationship between my DNA and that of every living thing around me. Common Design my arse!

    And I look at the limestone cliffs, coral fossils neatly stacked right-way-up, and wonder how determined-to-not-see one would have to be to think it all happened at once. I run through millions of years as I chug up the path over The Scar, and look at the breaking wave of the escarpment as it dips to the east, long-gone to the west, a remnant of more life than you could realistically sustain in the sea.

    I’ll certainly be sorry to leave it all, but I consider it a matter of great fortune to have been here at all.

  4. RBH,

    It is genuinely nice to see you. Sorry we were on opposing sides of an issue for the last 12 years. I’m sure we’d have had many good times talking of your days in the space program if we weren’t talking other things.

    Thank you for visiting.

    Happy holidays.

  5. I have just finished watching “Waves”.

    This is why I am not a materialist. As that video points out, waves are not made of water. And, similarly, we are not made of molecules. We are processes, not objects.

    Philosophers cannot understand consciousness because they are obsessed with objects.

    The reason that I am sometimes critical of metaphysics, is because a large part of metaphysics is ontology, and ontology is where that obsession with objects begins.

  6. That’s the sense in which I’m not a “materialist” either, Neil, and why people who make inferences as to what I must think based on the assumption that I am are so wide of the mark.

    “Events dear boy, events” as Harold MacMillan is alleged to have said in a quite different contents.

  7. Neil Rickert: The reason that I am sometimes critical of metaphysics, is because a large part of metaphysics is ontology, and ontology is where that obsession with objects begins.

    Indeed, counting assumes objects, and counting is the foundation of math.

    😉

  8. faded_Glory:

    Careful with the word ‘process’. Someone is going to claim that this proves teleology 🙂

    Lizzie:

    Well some processes are teleological, if by that you mean, are directed by a purposive agent.

    I think fG is referring to Mung and his claim that all processes are teleological.

  9. Elizabeth:
    You can count events. You can even count waves!

    We do count things and events, and waves. They could just be artifacts of perception.

    Don’t fall for integers. It’s a trap!

    🙂

  10. Neil Rickert: We are processes, not objects.

    Philosophers cannot understand consciousness because they are obsessed with objects.

    The reason that I am sometimes critical of metaphysics, is because a large part of metaphysics is ontology, and ontology is where that obsession with objects begins.

    Process ontology is a well-defined area of philosophical inquiry. (The only major process ontologist I’ve studied carefully is Deleuze. One of these days I’ll read Whitehead.)

    I don’t think process ontology ‘solves’ the problem of consciousness, though. Shifting the basic ontology from objects to processes (from ‘being’ to ‘becoming’, if you like) changes the kinds of questions one asks. The real stumbling block to an adequate philosophical understanding of consciousness isn’t the commitment to objects per se but to the separation of mindedness and embodiment.

    But it is true (I believe) that we can get a better grasp of the inseparability of mindedness and embodiment within a process ontology.

  11. Neil Rickert:

    Philosophers cannot understand consciousness because they are obsessed with objects.

    I didn’t see where you explained why neuroscientists and other cognitive scientists have also got it wrong. Did I miss a post?

  12. Elizabeth: Can you explain this to me?

    I think the problem is best explained by saying, I don’t know.

    I’ve related this before, but it really belongs on this thread.

    At age ten (60 years ago) I had some minor surgery under ether. No accompanying drugs, just the undiluted stuff. Ether used to be a recreational drug, an early version of LSD.

    Don’t try it at home. You will need an anesthesiologist to help you breathe.

    My ether dream, which I compare to near death experiences, was entirely a visual experience of waves. I perceived I was panning away from earth and the galaxy, and everything was made of oscilloscope style waves, only in many colors.

    This was long before such visualizations were commonplace. But since they are now, I can compare my experience to the visualizations produced by some media players.

    That was a long time ago, but I can still see it in memory and feel the sense of being outside the universe.

  13. petrushka,

    My ether dream, which I compare to near death experiences, was entirely a visual experience of waves. I perceived I was panning away from earth and the galaxy, and everything was made of oscilloscope style waves, only in many colors.

    This was long before such visualizations were commonplace. But since they are now, I can compare my experience to the visualizations produced by some media players.

    That was a long time ago, but I can still see it in memory and feel the sense of being outside the universe.

    Thanks for sharing that. You can get a similar experience from some breath work meditations. Quantum Light Breath is one of my favorites, despite having nothing to do with quantum mechanics.

    Sometimes it’s pleasant and relaxing, sometimes some old stuff, not entirely pleasant, gets dredged up, and sometimes it reminds me of back when I may or may not have followed the Grateful Dead around.

  14. Kantian Naturalist: I don’t think process ontology ‘solves’ the problem of consciousness, though.

    Of course not.

    That amounts to an attempt to objectify processes, so that you can treat them as objects.

    We need to change from the “What?” question to the “How?” question.

  15. petrushka: I think the problem is best explained by saying, I don’t know.

    I’ve related this before, but it really belongs on this thread.

    At age ten (60 years ago) I had some minor surgery under ether. No accompanying drugs, just the undiluted stuff. Ether used to be a recreational drug, an early version of LSD.

    Don’t try it at home. You will need an anesthesiologist to help you breathe.

    My ether dream, which I compare to near death experiences, was entirely a visual experience of waves. I perceived I was panning away from earth and the galaxy, and everything was made of oscilloscope style waves, only in many colors.

    This was long before such visualizations were commonplace. But since they are now, I can compare my experience to the visualizations produced by some media players.

    That was a long time ago, but I can still see it in memory and feel the sense of being outside the universe.

    Oh, me too, except I think it was chloroform. I had a general for a tooth extraction. My father was actually the anaesthetist. A very odd experience.

  16. petrushka: We do count things and events, and waves. They could just be artifacts of perception.

    Don’t fall for integers. It’s a trap!

    :)

    Well, I count waves all the time (well, a lot of the time). Also heartbeats. And we are always digitising stuff.

  17. Elizabeth: A very odd experience.

    It was, for me rather profound. As a result, I identified somewhat with my contemporaries who were trying LSD, but never had any interest in it myself. One trip was enough.

    Now I have vivid dreams.

  18. Elizabeth,

    Oh, me too, except I think it was chloroform.

    You kids and your anesthetics. Why can’t you take hallucinogens like normal people?

  19. Elizabeth: Well, I count waves all the time (well, a lot of the time). Also heartbeats. And we are always digitising stuff.

    Well obviously it’s useful, but I’m not convinced it’s reality.

    It’s transcendentals all the way down. Physics, they say, is not about things, but about relationships, and the relationship constants are transcendental.

    That’s bullshit, but I think it’s a bit classier than Ken Ham’s flood.

  20. petrushka: Well obviously it’s useful, but I’m not convinced it’s reality.

    It isn’t 🙂 We don’t have access to reality, all we have are models. But the models get better all the time.

    But back to the point…

    I love that documentary in so may ways, but I particularly like the emphasis on ocean waves, which really can be said not to consist of material They are not the property of either water or air, but of the interface

    To give Dembski (a little) credit, you could say that they are made of information.

  21. Elizabeth: which really can be said not to consist of material They are not the property of either water or air, but of the interface

    I find that unconvincing. Water is in motion. We call the regularity of the motion waves. I think perhaps the old debate regarding aether (hmmm…) could be relevant.
    Some waves are motion in a carrier.

  22. OK, let me rephrase: ocean waves are neither a property of the water nor a property of the air, but of the interface between them. In other words, they are an emergent property of the combination of water and air.

  23. Elizabeth: Oh, me too, except I think it was chloroform.

    And me! Mine was morphine. Having had minor surgery to remove shrapnel* from my lower leg, I was kept in overnight at the local hospital. The nurse on duty asked if I needed a painkiller. I said no, I’m fine. She said, oh that’s a shame as the consultant has prescribed a generous shot of morphine if necessary. Slight pause. Me: oh, go on then. I slept well and dreamlessly.

    *industrial accident, I’ve never been under fire!

  24. Elizabeth,

    *sends hug*

    ETA watched the waves video. Sent link to surfer daughter. “Waves are process” πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει

  25. Neil Rickert,

    This is why I am not a materialist.

    I don’t think anyone self-described as such would restrict their definition of ‘materialism’ to physical stuff, and ignore its behaviour. Matter and energy are interconvertible anyway, and have some direct influence on space and time (and vice versa).

  26. Allan Miller: I don’t think anyone self-described as such would restrict their definition of ‘materialism’ to physical stuff, and ignore its behaviour.

    Well, that’s probably true. However, I am more concerned with not confusing the people who do not self-describe as materialist.

  27. And then there’s this, from a 35-year old dying of breast cancer:

    So…I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is, apparently, I’m dead. Good news, if you’re reading this, is that you are most definitely not (unless they have wifi in the afterlife). Yes, this sucks. It sucks beyond words, but I’m just so damn glad I lived a life so full of love, joy and amazing friends. I am lucky to honestly say that I have zero regrets and I spent every ounce of energy I had living life to the fullest. I love you all and thank you for this awesome life.

    Whatever religion brings you comfort, I am happy that you have that. However, respect that we are not religious. Please, please, please do not tell Brianna that I am in heaven. In her mind, that means that I chose to be somewhere else and left her. “

    Read the rest at the link.

  28. Dear RBH,

    I was both moved by your quotation in the OP and by the accounts of the very courageous people you linked to like the woman dying of breast cancer. I will share these accounts with people in my Bible study.

    When I entered the ID debate I was so enthusiastic at the prospect I could be right, but now of late, in light the things you wrote and the links you provided, at some level I wish ID were not true.

    Charles Duke, the man you helped send to the moon, the man who prayed for a blind girl in the name of Jesus and the girl was healed, he gave his life to the Lord Jesus to escape the wrath of the Intelligent Designer. How much I almost wish you were 100% right in your views and I am wrong.

    It’s been an honor knowing you, and I hope you won’t take my comment as something offensive, but my plea is that you might reconsider, there is a remote chance the Gospel I’ve shared with you all these years could be right and that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

    I wish good things for you. If I am wrong, then I know things will be well with you, just as you said in the words quoted in the OP.

    Sal

  29. RBH:

    And then there’s this, from a 35-year old dying of breast cancer:

    So…I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is, apparently, I’m dead. Good news, if you’re reading this, is that you are most definitely not (unless they have wifi in the afterlife). Yes, this sucks. It sucks beyond words, but I’m just so damn glad I lived a life so full of love, joy and amazing friends. I am lucky to honestly say that I have zero regrets and I spent every ounce of energy I had living life to the fullest. I love you all and thank you for this awesome life.

    Whatever religion brings you comfort, I am happy that you have that. However, respect that we are not religious. Please, please, please do not tell Brianna that I am in heaven. In her mind, that means that I chose to be somewhere else and left her. “

    Read the rest at the link.

    That post was on 12/20/15. Maybe this report is late, but it was in the newspapers regarding this lovely lady:

    http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/mothers-message-to-her-young-daughter-lives-on-in-new-memoir-300195511.html

    NAPERVILLE, Ill., Dec. 21, 2015 /PRNewswire/ — Heather McManamy, a Wisconsin mother and terminal cancer patient who first captured headlines this summer for writing dozens of greeting cards for her young daughter’s future life milestones, has died.

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