Friday, February 11, 2011

You are Not the Stuff of Which You are Made

From “Richard Dawkins on Our ‘Queer’ Universe,” TED Talks, Sep. 2006:

"Steve Grand, in his book, Creation: Life and How to Make It, is positively scathing about our preoccupation with matter itself. We have this tendency to think that only solid, material things are really things at all. Waves of electromagnetic fluctuation in a vacuum seem unreal. Victorians thought the waves had to be waves in some material medium -- the ether. But we find real matter comforting only because we've evolved to survive in Middle World, where matter is a useful fiction. A whirlpool, for Steve Grand, is a thing with just as much reality as a rock.

In a desert plain in Tanzania, in the shadow of the volcano Ol Donyo Lengai, there's a dune made of volcanic ash. The  beautiful thing is that it Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valleymoves bodily. It's what's technically known as a barchan, and the entire dune walks across the desert in a westerly direction at a speed of about 17 meters per year. It retains its crescent shape and moves in the direction of the horns. What happens is that the wind blows the sand up the shallow slope on the other side, and then, as each sand grain hits the top of the ridge, it cascades down on the inside of the crescent, and so the whole horn-shaped dune moves.

Steve Grand points out that you and I are, ourselves, more like a wave than a permanent thing. He invites us, the reader, to "think of an experience from your childhood -- something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren't you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: You weren't there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn't make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important."

[Thanks, Pete!]