Unity

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October 10, 2008

4:16 PM

I’ve decided to take a break from the normal science news and rambling advice and post an essay of mine, titled “Unity.”

Last summer I found myself stopped by salmon.

I had been reading some articles online and came across the familiar fish, with its hooked nose, soft pink tones and dumb eyes. It was the eyes that got me. Those eyes remain fixed — expressionless — as the salmon swims up the river and up a waterfall. It will exhaust itself so completely that when it reaches the calm pools at the end of its journey, it has just enough energy to reproduce and die.

And that’s if it is lucky.

There are bears to be caught by, fisherman’s boats to land in. It remains tenacious in its endeavor. But the eyes show no tenacity, no semblance of free will; They are thrown upstream by a force that cannot be seen; They are giving up their lives for the sake of continued life; life that will later make the same sacrifice.

And they have no idea. They are bound to continue life in the same way that life had continued before.

But what are they bound by? Salmon are made of the same things we are. And by “we” I mean you, me, the neighbors, the neighbor’s dog, glucose, carbon, nitrogen, the sun, and so on.

We are all made of atoms, only some of us are a bit more complex than others. As atoms, we are all bound by the laws of physics. These laws govern how we move and how we continue to exist. But do they govern why salmon jump upstream? Do they govern how humans think?

Science, the study of our world through observation, is our way of understanding who we are by observing what we are and how we work. We’ve learned much from science; from building bridges, to making people live longer. But science doesn’t give us certainty about who we are. We can strip everything down to components — into psychology and physics, biology and sociology, chemistry and mathematics. We have a list of parts — an incomplete one — yet we have no idea how to put them all together.

It’s in this space between — this gap in our collective knowledge — where our biggest questions arise. Questions of free will, of God and of morality all arise because we can’t explain why humans act the way we do. We think we can explain the salmon. The salmon jumping upstream is doing so out of instinct; it is running a program that was encoded in its genes and is built into its brain. This program is activated by cues from the environment. Cues like light and temperature changes signal that the time of year is right, the program is activated, and the salmon starts to throw itself upstream.

The problem is that humans are built in the same way that salmon are. We are creatures of genetic coding, we start off as single cells, and we have reflexes and instincts. But humans apparently have something more. We have a conscience, an inner voice that tells us to do things and that tells us what is right and wrong. Is there something different about our brains, or do salmon have an inner monologue too? In order to understand how humans fit into nature we have to fully understand the brain.

The brain — a three pound mass of grey and white stuff in your skull — is a wonder of complexity. The brain is all about communication. It is made of about 100 billion cells called neurons, which are organized into long chains. A neuron will receive a signal, caused by light or sound, and will send a signal to the next cell, which repeats down through the chain. The signals sent are chemicals called neurotransmitters, which either activate or discourage the next neuron to send the message down the chain. It sounds straightforward enough, but that first neuron could send its signal to as many as 7,000 others. And the second neuron could receive signals from another 7,000 neurons. Multiply this by 100 billion for the entire brain, and the problem of complexity is understood.

There is no final destination for this web of neurons signaling neurons, though; there is no specific part of the brain where the signals all meet to make conscious thought.

Instead, the conscience is something elusive, a coherent voice that arises from the buzzing of all the parts. It is like listening to a bee hive and hearing a beautiful song. Or some really bad jokes. Or something about wanting candy.

But the conscience, something intangible and immaterial, still arises from these connections of material neurons. We can figure out the laws that drive these with physics, chemistry, and biology — that’s where the effort of science is today. But it’s only the first step. There are many more levels of understanding we need before these physical laws can make any predictions on how individual conscience works. And it might not turn out to be possible.

There may forever be a gap between science and conscience, either because something immaterial and unknowable exists, or because we run out of time.

Dualists believe that there is not only matter in the universe, but a separate, intangible substance known as mind. This is a departure from science and becomes an issue of philosophy, since we are not able to see mind or research it. We will never be able to reconcile mind with our physical laws, because mind is not subject to them. But if there is no separate mind, and if conscience is indeed dependent on physical laws, then we should be able to figure it out, piece by piece, however slowly.

The question is whether we will even be able to finish our study before the Sun burns out, or before Jesus comes back, or before we inadvertently cause our own extinction.

For now, we have some clues that show that consciousness is subject to physical laws. Mood changes can be caused physiologically. Hormones can modify behavior and attitude. One study showed that the activity patterns of depressed people almost match the activity of isolated neurons.

Depressed people are less active, rest longer, and experience bursts of activity. Isolated neurons show the same pattern. Neurons can be isolated and grown in Petri dishes, separated from the messages of other neurons, separated from neurons to signal. They show random bursts of activity and they will spontaneously send electrical signals. Since isolation produces similar effects on the cellular level and in the whole person, there just might be unity between the cellular and the whole person. But it might be nothing more than a coincidence.

If there ever comes a time when we are able to fully predict our own behavior based on physical laws, I don’t know that I would want to live in it (luckily I won’t have to decide, because it certainly won’t be in my time) I find a thrill in not knowing. Individuality is lost if we find that mind is subject to physical laws, that we are merely the products of what came before us, the circumstances of our environment. But individuality also has a cost. It can lead to isolation, to a depressed individual or a depressed neuron. Individuality is also finite. You as an individual end with you.

Unity means that we are never in it alone, there is solidarity. There is the feeling of belonging to something greater. By this I don’t mean belonging to a larger group of people, like nationalism or ethnicity. It reaches way beyond that. It is the feeling of knowing that you are one with everything. The stars, the grass, everything, from everywhere in the universe, from any time that ever was or ever will be. It’s a part of you.

Poet Mark Doty captured this struggle of collectivity and individuality in his poem “A Display of Mackerel,” where he writes how fish are all alike, and that they are all expressions of what he calls the one, true soul.

“Suppose we could iridesce, like these.
And lose ourselves entirely in the universe of shimmer.
Would you want to be yourself only?
Unduplicatable, doomed to be lost?”

Do you want to be yourself only? That is the question, the reason why salmon occupied my thoughts for the better part of an evening. Do you want to be unique, do you want to feel different and somehow above the masses? Or do you want to be a participant, a timeless part of eternity? Or do we even have a choice?

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